Archive for July 2009

No, I’m Not a Musician. Now Shut Up.

July 28, 2009

I went to the Balmer Symphony’s concert at Strathmore on June 6, the one featuring Hilary Hahn playing the concerto Jennifer Higdon wrote for her and Marin Alsop conducting, because J-Higgy’s music consistently moves me, Hahn  always has something interesting to say, Alsop excels as an advocate for contemporary music she likes, and I was able to buy an eighth-row seat to soak it all in. At the end of the violin concerto, with all three women out front taking their bows, emotion moved me sufficiently to stand and applaud.

When I sat back down, to gather my program and whatnot for intermission, the gentleman next to me said, smiling, “You must have some connection with someone up there on stage.”

A little taken aback, I paused and said, “No, I just really like music.” And then, sniffing condescension, I launched into a few compound-complex sentences about Alsop and the advocacy mentioned earlier, which made him shy away and head for the can (or wherever people hide from people who took a conversational cue incorrectly).

This was the most extreme of a type of remark I hear often as a single, young (for a classical fan), male concertgoer, which normally comes out as “Are you a musician?” (Though one other memorable time, I was asked, “Are you a composer?” After my negative response, the asker commented, “There sure are a lot of composers here,” the only response to which I could think of was “Well, I’m not one of them.”) The question my interlocutors actually want to ask is “What the hell are you doing here?” And, based on the forms the question takes, I’m guessing the interlocutors don’t think music itself is enough of a draw.  (Which is sad in and of itself, but that’s another complaint.)

As I typed the last paragraph, I heard the voices of my parents in my head, telling me “Those people are just trying to be pleasant and make conversation with someone who’s alone.” Well, first thing, the fact that I’m alone does not mean that I am starved for conversation. But granting our society’s deep-rooted prejudice against introversion, the fact remains that, most of the time, I would be perfectly happy to have an at-concert conversation about the concert. (For an example, check out the awesome convo I had at the last concert I went to, which reminded me to write about this.) I’m not sure why half of the elderly couple next to me wants my background info instead of talking about what’s in the foreground.

Perhaps I could stop these questions by coming to more concerts with someone else, but the small pool of friends I have who enjoy classical music and the difficulty of convincing non-fans that you really need to hear these specific people play 200-year-old music mean that’s not going to happen. So, people who are thinking about asking single-looking people sitting next to them whether they are musicians, try asking about the concert instead. Unless you happen to be a single young woman, in which case you can ask me whatever you want.

You Millions, I Embrace You: Baltimore Symphony at Strathmore, July 23, 2009

July 25, 2009

The Baltimore Symphony Orchestra’s annual summer performance of Beethoven’s Ninth at Strathmore was sold out well before the concert began at 8 pm. Preshow, the lobby buzzed with activity, as patrons streamed in chattering and hopeful enthusiasts asked “Extras? Any extra tickets?” Off to the side of the patio outside the Music Center’s orchestral level, a family of nine deer munched contentedly on the vegetation, in full view of some delighted humans. Bunnies scampered across other Strathmore hills. Earlier, buckets of rain had fallen as the sun blazed on; the air still hung full of moisture, lending a special brilliance to the waning light. Plus it turned out that my favorite rapper was cohosting on my favorite radio station as I drove over. The evening had a palpable sense of occasion and specialness, is what I’m saying.

Obviously, the Ninth draws its crowds with the most popular tune in classical music history. (Eat that, Pachelbel!) But there’s a whole lot of music before the cellos hum that fourth-movement theme, and the Ode to Joy really only works in the context of all that has come before, which Beethoven even acknowledges by doing a series of “Previously…In Beethoven’s Ninth” episodes before said cello humming.

Conductor Günther Herbig, helming the BSO for this endeavor, understands this in his marrow. He seemed to have thought about every moment in terms of its thematic material, texture, tempo, and volume, judged it against the surrounding music and against the piece as a whole, and calibrated each element so that Beethoven’s overall structure — which can certainly feel ungainly, or even perfunctory, in the wrong hands — led inexorably to the finale’s eruptions.

Sometimes he had to sacrifice to achieve this effect. He took the first two movements at something close to Beethoven’s metronomic markings, in the modern period-influenced manner, and kept his textures light, so that the climaxes of the first movement perhaps did not have the same sheer weight they do in other performances. Yet said climaxes still whipped up plenty of excitement, as the Balmer strings played the open fifths of the main theme in enough of a whisper to provide the necessary contrast.

The scherzo, which has to be the second most-reused movement of this symphony, zipped forward at an athletic pace, but without enough rhythmic spring to find that hint of a dance. Yet even going fast, the BSO provided well-detailed playing, with fine gradations of dynamics and smooth handoffs of the melodic material between strings and woodwinds, to usher the listener smoothly along.

These last virtues became especially prominent in the slow movement, which proceeded slightly faster than usual but with plenty of dramatic ritards, so the big moments piled up drama before smoothly returning to tempo. Here the BSO’s strings, which typically excel in heart-on-your-sleeve melodies, shone at their brightest, the woodwinds and brass continued to play splendidly, and Herbig relentlessly followed the line of argument through Beethoven’s ecstatic meditation, thus heightening the temporary suspension of reality.

One moment can speak for many: after one climax, Beethoven picks up a little three-note motive (first two notes repeated, the third a step up) and moves it around the scale, groping for the next direction. On one repetition, Herbig really brought out the dissonance the basses play under the third note as it’s sounded in the violins, underscoring the uncertainty that little bit more. I’ve never heard that detail so clearly before, and I am deeply grateful to Herbig for bringing it to my attention.

The Millionen sold out the hall, of course, for the finale, and as you may have guessed by now, Herbig and the BSO did a splendid job building up to this theme that has featured in so many commercials and TV shows and movies and ringtones and electronic keyboard demo tracks and seriously everything you can think of, making it sound new once more and expanding their sound to a new, previously unheared level to fill the hall in the purely orchestral first climax (giving me goosebumps in the process). Then baritone Stephen Powell came in and, stentorian, rich, and ringing, took it that one step further with a knock-’em-flat solo.

From there the performance got just a teeny bit messier. Soprano Heidi Stober and mezzo Kelley O’Connor possess fine voices but had some trouble balancing them. Tenor Gordon Gietz got a case of the behinds in his big solo (“Froh, wie seine Sonnen”), which normally one would excuse except that a military march like this one requires on-beat swagger.

The Baltimore Choral Arts Society, being composed of mortals, at times failed to make Beethoven’s ridiculous choral writing sound completely natural, although none would dare quarrel with the power of their full-throated climax on the big theme or the stern remonstration of “Seid umschlungen, Millionen” that followed it. The choristers’ sturdy German pronunciation can no doubt be traced to their director, Tom Hall, and they responded well to Herbig’s architectural conception of the double fugue right before the part that leads up to the coda (or is that just one huge coda? One can never tell with Beethoven).

It was a satisfying conclusion to a performance that, minor quibbles aside, gripped the listener the whole way through. Even with the crowd, the deer, and the sunny rain, the evening’s sense of occasion ultimately came from Herbig, the BSO, the soloists, the chorus, and (not least) Beethoven.

STUFF THAT IS TOO IRRELEVANT TO INCLUDE IN A REVIEW EVEN OF THIS LENGTH

  • Herbig’s bio in the program says that he “left the challenging political environment of East Germany and moved to the United States in 1984.” Is it too forward (or something) to just say “totalitarian government”? Or “Soviet satellite state “? I’m not sure what’s gained by the ellipticism.
  • I ended up giving my second ticket to one of the hopeful enthusiasts mentioned above, and it was a good deal because she had gone to the rehearsal at the Meyerhoff the night before and had inside info (Herbig had really demanded a lot of the woodwinds, for example). She also mentioned that Stephen Powell is “easy to look at,” which I am just throwing out there for you. After the concert, she said that Herbig needed UnderArmor, which was true, in that his formerly severe collared black shirt was clinging to his body, completely drenched in sweat. I wonder if a performance/compression garment could be made for conductors? And if so, who would wear it?

Number Nine…Number Nine…Number Nine…

July 24, 2009

I just heard the Baltimore Symphony perform Beethoven’s Ninth at Strathmore. They’re doing it again tomorrow at the Meyerhoff in Baltimore. If you are reading this and have the opportunity to go to that show, I really suggest that you do so. Günther Herbig has a really well-judged, compelling intepretation, the BSO, on the whole, plays extremely well for him, and most of the singing is top-notch.

I’ll have a review up tomorrow or Saturday (depending on how the social ramble plays out), but just wanted to get that out there for all my B-more homies.

Doin’ It Better and Better: University of Maryland Summer Chorus, July 18, 2009

July 19, 2009

Tucked inconspicuously away in the DMV’s Concert Dead Zone of mid-July through August, the University of Maryland Summer Chorus concert on Saturday night at the university’s Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center nonetheless served a number of purposes. The orchestra and soloists, mostly composed of students and recent grads, used the concert as what my workplace would term a “developmental assignment.” The chorus, composed of enthusiasts from the campus community and beyond, wanted to conclude three intense weeks of rehearsals with some bonafide singing. The audience came to support someone on stage or (in my case) divert itself without paying any money to do so. Missions accomplished!

I have been going to University of Maryland concerts with pickup student orchestras for a long time — I even participated in one, with the late/lamented UM Chorus — and the students always sound awful for the first five minutes of the concert before taking an additional minute to transition into sounding like they have played together all their lives. It is a constant and inspiring miracle, doubtless abetted in this case by Terp choral conductor Timothy Reno. Here, the strings and continuo made a joyless morass of the orchestral music that opens Henry Purcell’s first Ode for St. Cecelia’s Day before suddenly arighting themselves in the first aria, “Welcome to all the pleasures.” (Cellist Elizaeth Meszaros didn’t need the live warmup; she had taken the stage a half-hour before the concert and played her continuo line over and over again, and she was right on point every time, even when exposed in support of solo arias. Got-r-done!)

This Ode calls for two sopranos and a chorus but barely uses them, meaning most of the work fell to countertenor Christopher Newcomer, tenor David Travis, and bass Aram Mann. Newcomer fared the best, giving especially sweet voice to “Here the Deities approve” while pronouncing clearly enough that the lack of a text in the program was slightly less annoying than it usually is. The Dekelboum Concert Hall occasionally swallowed up his voice, but then it’ll do that. Travis and Mann had pitch and timing problems that made their contributions less well-developed.

Mozart’s “Exultate, jubilate,” next on the program, showcased one of the sopranos, Katelyn Aungst. Here, it was fun to watch this particular youngster improve dramatically from moment to moment, befitting her status as an undergraduate music education major with a concentration in voice. In the first aria, Aungst sang mostly into her book and swallowed the ends of lines, but she became visibly more engaged in the following recitative, moving her shoulders and even smiling a bit as the text (again, not printed in the program; boooo) started jumping out into the hall. This allowed us to hear her lovely voice, sweet and round yet not lacking agility; this last quality happily informed the “Alleluia” that closes this piece, which she made into a vivacious tour de force.

After intermission, Mozart’s Coronation Mass provided the long-awaited opportunity for the choristers and Reno to show the results of three weeks of nearly-every-day rehearsal. They apparently made the most of their time, because the chorus’ sound rang out clean and jubilant, yet with Mozartean grace in the phrasing. The forte-piano accents in the opening “Kyrie eleison” had appropriate drama, the “Credo” sounded fortified with belief, and Mozart’s jokey insertions of “Osanna in excelsis” into the Benedictus were even funnier when they were so immodestly robust.

The chorus’ fine diction helped one hear that this performance was sung with the Latin pronunciations prevalent in Mozart’s Vienna, which apparently involve taking every vaguely Italianate sound and converting it to German. For example, the “pa-chem” in “Dona nobis pacem” became “pa-tsem,” as if the C were a German S. Not earth-shattering, but neat to hear.

Soprano Courtney Ruckman and mezzo Joanna Rostowsky joined Travis and Mann to form the solo quartet; here, Ruckman stood out, with a voice slightly less plush than Aungst’s but used with much more assurance (befitting her additional experience, having graduated already); she projected her piano moments so they didn’t get lost in the hall and expertly balanced the melodic line in what little solo material she had.

So, in the end, everyone got what they wanted from this concert: The youngsters got some additional experience under their belts, the enthusiasts sounded both enthusiastic and polished, and I got to hear them for free, making for an evening more fun than (say) watching the Nats lose to the Cubs again.

13 Miles and Running, or, Give Me Body

July 18, 2009

Today I did a 13-miler in Sligo Creek Park and lands northward and decided to double-check on the post below by whipping out Schubert’s Ninth once I got into Wheaton Regional Park. Yes — it is wonderful running music! And once again I got the ridiculous high that comes from endorphins coursing through my veins, a forest, lambent in the morning, cocooning me in green, and the memory of an orchestra busily pushing the listener’s spirits heavenwards. It’s like an all-consuming ache that contains its own fulfillment. I never get bored or tired of it.

After I completed the finale, still running, I reflected on how, at this point in my life, the park seems like the natural habitat for D. 944 — hearing it in a concert hall, as fun as it would be, would also be something of a letdown, as the concert would lack the additional accoutrements with which I normally experience the symphony. Schumann spoke of the symphony’s “heavenly lengths,” and what’s more heavenly, as lengths go, than 13 miles on a gorgeous day running on a trail alongside a rippling creek?

The best Schubert 9 I’ve ever heard, no contest, was when the Berlin Phil and Simon Rattle came to town six years ago — lean, light, and precise, yet deriving a terrific cumulative force from those virtues, such that the Allegro vivace finale (especially) seemed to lift you out of your seat. If someone told me they were planning a similar performance in New York next week, I’d do my damndest to go, even if it were in a gas station somewhere. But getting to hear and see it, through some dimension-distorting reproduction device, while running in the park would really be the best thing. As will be frequently stated in various forms on this blog, music can engage both the mind and the body, and I love music most when it’s doing both.

26 Miles and Running

July 15, 2009

If you’re running the Marine Corps Marathon, the standard four-month training plan begins about now, and you’re probably looking at all those 18- and 20-mile runs you’re slated to complete and thinking “How the hell am I going to do those? I get bored at movies that take substantially less time than those runs will.” I trained for and then ran the MCM last year, in the thoroughly mediocre time of 4:56:57, and one thing I can attest to is that classical music is way underrated as running music.

Consistent with its place in the overall musical marketplace, classical music has not made an apparent dent in the running community’s consciousness. Apart from the “I’m a Runner” interview with Carter Brey, I’ve never seen Brahms or Mendelssohn mentioned in Runner’s World — more like Eminem, Coldplay, and even the classical music world’s favorite bogeyperson, Britney Spears. Yet the canon provides works with enough imagination and thrust to sustain interest for an hour, or even longer. Surely such music has a role to play when you know you’ll be out for three hours on that run.

If you’re treading with an iPod, you’d have to download 11 songs of standard length to match the duration of (say) “Eroica.” Classical music: What a bargain! If your mind, like mine, is equipped such that you can play back music in your head without recourse to recordings, that’s even better — you can isolate your favorite four-minute stretches of classical works, then repeat them endlessly until it feels as though your limbs and Schumann operate as one.

The key is not to mess around with works that will make you feel logy or alienated — you want your classical running soundtrack informed by the dynamism of the dance, to entertain both mind and body and to mesh effortlessly with the runner’s high I sincerely hope you also get at some point while running 20 miles. Here are my Top 5 works to run by:

5. Franz Joseph Haydn, Symphony no. 100 (“Military”). Big Papa Haydn makes the first of what will undoubtedly be a wildly disproportionate number of appearances on this blog with the “Military,” which I distinguish from the other London symphonies by its bouncy Allegretto slow movement, featuring emphatic “Turkish” percussion that keeps those knees up. I have vivid memories of pulling myself through a punishingly humid 15-miler in Sligo Creek Park with its crashes of cymbal.

4. Felix Mendelssohn, Symphony no. 4 (“Italian”). If you are trying to make a good time in a race, some plans advise that you turn up the pace for the last part of training runs, to simulate leaving it all on the course. No better way to do that than to trot at a brisk clip for the first three movements of this sunny opus and then get smacked in the face by the first minor-key chords of the Saltarello finale. No matter how many times I play this one in my mind, that opening always makes me push the throttle. The first and third movements, too, provide unfailingly buoyant music, with the third being pretty endlessly repeatable if you so desire.

3. Antonin Dvorak, Symphony no. 9 (“From the New World”). The trio section of the Scherzo of this one, also endlessly repeated, did me the great honor of getting me around the dead zone of Hains Point during the marathon. So many miles with so few people to cheer you on! In another symphony with a dynamite opening to a rousing finale, Dvorak also obliges the struggling runner by including an extremely memorable slow-movement theme that nevertheless has a usefully distinct and pace-able rhythm. This probably would be higher on my list if, unaccountably, it had not been such a late addition to my running rep — I didn’t think of using it for this purpose until a month before the race. I was too busy with the top two.

2. Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Symphony no. 41 (“Jupiter”). I am not going to lie to you: The opening of the slow movement here is pretty rough for our purposes. Too many sighing pauses! But Lil’ Wolfie eventually fills in those gaps with helpful filigree. Plus, if you can get through that slow movement, you get so much else: the first movement’s grand harrumphing opening measures to push you on and little slinky second theme to keep your feet feeling light; a nice steady pulse in the minuet supporting catchy melodies; and that finale, a riotous burst of heavens-storming activity that allows you to repeat not only the exposition but also the development and recapitulation. It’s right in the score! Though you are probably not supposed to repeat the development and recap for three miles (a.k.a over 30 minutes), as I did one fine July morning last summer. This would be an easy choice for best all-time were it not for

1. Franz Schubert, Symphony no. 9 (“Great”). It’s an hour long even if you’re not embellishing it, making it the perfect iPod companion. Remember how propulsive all the moving parts in the “Jupiter” finale were? Schubert extends that for almost the entire symphony here. (Its endless churning has earned it the nickname of the “Bursitis Symphony” from string players, a fact I know from Charles T. Downey; you can make it your iliotibial band syndrome symphony! Though I’d recommend not.) And Schubert’s slow movement is marked Andante con moto, thoroughly grateful emphasis mine.

Some of my happiest memories of running are of waking up just after the crack of dawn (to enjoy a semblance of cool weather during the summer), getting it rolling in Montgomery County’s portion of Rock Creek Park, and then letting Schubert’s finest play in my head; the scherzo, indomitable and athletic without being ponderous, and the cries for joy and accumulations of notes in the finale of the finale resonated in my mind with the glowing-green trees and the occasional shafts of early morning light filtering down through them onto the trail. And, thanks to the miracle of numerous repeats, I have a whole lot of memories like this.

I was originally going to provide some additional works with features to like, but we’re already way over anything that could be considered a conscionable length for this post, so I’ll save that for another day. If you have a suggestion for Classical Music to Run By, though, be sure to leave it in the comments below — I’m still doing a 12- to 16-mile long run every weekend, and while that’s way easier than 20, there’s still plenty of time in which the support of suitable masterworks would be much appreciated.

Night of Wrath: Philly Orchestra at the Kennedy Center, June 3, 2009

July 12, 2009

I realize this review is not “timely,” but I thought it might give an idea of what style you can expect from this blog. Plus it’s just sitting there on my hard drive, content waiting to be placed into the chamber and fired onto the Internet.

The year is 1995, I just got my driver’s license, and I need to make tapes to rock in my car. About nine months later, I had a few, well-chosen 90-minute cassettes to roll with. One featured Rachmaninov’s Symphonic Dances, with Beethoven’s Hammerklavier Sonata on the B-side. Another was mainly devoted to Ol’ Dirty Bastard’s Return to the 36 Chambers, but used Franz Liszt’s “Totentanz” — the only classical music I knew that could thump as hard as the Wu — to fill the tape up.

I rocked those tapes driving to school, to comedy shows, to landscape jobs — particularly the Rachmaninov, whose third-movement slow section provided solace one time when I crossed Memorial Bridge into Virginia and meant to go south on Route 1 but ended up floundering about in D.C. after crossing the Key, whose thrilling apocalyptic joyful climax made me envision the tall buildings of Bethesda falling. So when the Philadelphia Orchestra decided to come to town under the direction of Charles Dutoit to play both “Totentanz” and the Symphonic Dances, I had to be there. Blast from the past, baybee!

“Totentanz” gets its thump mostly from its piano soloist, and Philly brought Jean-Yves Thibaudet to do the honors. The critics generally lauded Thibaudet’s performance of Liszt’s second piano concerto with the National Symphony, which I did not attend; the writeups raised my expectations, though, and the Frenchman did not disappoint. Though he lacks the swagger that you can imagine Liszt himself bringing to the party, he made a formidable force starting with the demonic tread of his low chords underneath brass snarling out the “Dies Irae” theme. The 13 variations that followed were sharply characterized, with Thibaudet capable of playing the outlines of a single chord underneath a ripe clarinet melody and making it sound even more magical, then turning around the next moment and unleashing artillery blasts of notes up and down the keyboard. Although sometimes the orchestra swamped the piano completely (at least from where I was sitting), Dutoit never let his accompaniment sag or outrun Thibaudet, and when he called on the brass to match Thibaudet’s intensity, they responded in full. Most importantly, both Thibaudet and Dutoit seemed to sense a dramatic thread connecting these disparate episodes, and the gusto with which they attacked the work made me sense it too. A riveting performance.

My obsession with the Symphonic Dances has only grown since my youth, yet Dutoit found things in the score that had eluded me thus far in my experience of with the piece. The waltz of the second movement staggers and hiccups just a little bit, and Dutoit pushed and pulled the rhythms so that you could really feel in your spine where Rachmaninov leads the beat astray, including litle ornamental sprays of notes that one could almost imagine as the small spills of a too-enthusiastic happy hour participant. This marked an improvement over the first movement, which had many felicities but never quite seemed to find the dance in the work’s title. The opening doodles in the winds didn’t have their usual coiled energy, from which the big thrusting chords that outline the first theme did not mark as dramatic a departure as they normally do. The alto saxophone came at his sighing, sorrowful melody too freely, forgetting that even when a dance rhythm is not being outlined in the accompaniment, it should still be felt in the melody. The followup essay of that melody by the string section over bare piano chords, though, displayed the Philly strings at their finest, rich and seductive without being glossy, and thus sounding all the chillier as Rachmaninov denied this big tune its normal Rachmaninovian harmonic accoutrements. They sounded lovely in the warm coda, too, establishing the relaxed mood that Dutoit so cannily jerked around in the second movement.

Dutoit paused for just a breath between the second and third movements, making the screech at the latter’s opening shock the audience, and from there it was off to the races, as well it should be. The rhythmic pulse beat hard throughout this movement, unifying its many episodes, and Dutoit played up every single time the Rachman flirts with the “Dies Irae” before its triumphal shattering brass invocation near the end of the work. Details were sharp, textures clear, Rachmaninov’s astonishing orchestration vivid, and what I now think of as the “Key Bridge big tune” got another extra boost from those Philly violins, beautifully molding the melody while keeping its rhythmic pulse clearly in mind. After we finally hit the “Dies Irae,” Dutoit kept up the interest through the grim march episode that succeeds it and the wild coda ending in four big chords and a gongstroke that echoed for precisely the measure it is supposed to. Ka-pow!

These works were framed oddly on the program by two Ravel pieces, neither of which I am terrifically fond of: the piano concerto for the left hand and “La Valse.” I am willing to admit that the lefty concerto is probably good and I am unable to apprehend it, but this is about the fourth time I’ve heard it live and it still doesn’t make any sense to me. Thibaudet played his part with no mean eloquence, and the bassoons introduced the work with hypnotic low rumblings, but from there I’m lost. “La Valse,” on the other hand, seems to me to be clearly a useless piece, about twice as long as it needs to be and not half as entertaining as it thinks it is. (Yes, we get it, dude: There can never be another carefree waltz after World War I. I heard you the first time. Do you have anything else to say?) Coming after Rachmaninov’s dramatic power and clear, sustained musical argument, “La Valse” had little chance of being anything other than an anticlimax, and that was precisely what it was.

Nevertheless, I got what I came for: Memorable performances of two of my favorite works in the whole classical canon. Philly, I hate your sports teams, but I love your cheesesteaks and I’m becoming very fond of your orchestra.

Let Me Clear My Throat

July 11, 2009

I’m Andrew Lindemann Malone and this is DMV Classical, a new blog that will explore various aspects of life as a fan of classical music in the Washington, DC metropolitan area. We’ll have some reviews, some arguments, some rants, and probably way too much discussion of the music of Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov.

There are some ideas animating the creation of this site, but better to show what kind of content you’ll be getting than to tell you up front. Especially since it might change.

The infrastructure of the blog will get built up over time. Don’t worry – those aren’t all the links I know.


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