Archive for October 2009

Color My World: Baltimore Symphony at Meyerhoff, October 29, 2009

October 31, 2009

Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, Igor Stravinsky, and John Adams: The teacher, the pupil, and the other guy. The Baltimore Symphony’s program Thursday night intrigued me enough to drag my behind up to Meyerhoff (it won’t be offered at Strathmore), but I thought that the BSO had missed a chance to program three related composers when they were already almost there.

It turns out that Scheherazade, the Firebird Suite, and Adams’ violin concerto do share something striking: They all drench the listener in novel instrumental colors, seducing and surprising by turns. And on Thursday, they shared something else: guest conductor Robert Spano led the BSO in bringing all those colors to extremely vivid life, in performances to remind you that sometimes you need to turn off the CD player and get to the concert hall, ’cause ain’t nothing like hearing the real thing, baby.

Spano has served as the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra’s music director for nine years and has brought notable new repertoire to the ATL; I’ve just about worn out the bits on the Spano/ASO CD of Jennifer Higdon’s Concerto for Orchestra and CityScape. In Scheherazade, one of the more excruciatingly familiar of all the symphonic blockbusters, he showed his chops early, as the BSO violins perfectly articulated the rocking of the sea at a steady tempo, building the tension to build to an initial climax that genuinely surprised me, much as I knew it was coming. The woodwindy aftermath seemed to float up in the air, establishing the hallmarks of Thursday’s performance: excellent BSO playing, rock-solid rhythms, well-controlled tempos, and super-detailed attention to orchestral textures that let Rimsky’s colors glow and singe like you always wish they would.

Felicitous details abounded throughout. In the “Kalendar Prince” second movement, the wind solos effortlessly channeled the Middle Eastern instruments that inspired R-K. The strings rustled sensuously, plucked precisely, and made a rough, commanding noise when called for too. (Remember when I was complaining about Marin Alsop not getting really precise playing from the BSO strings? Thursday is Exhibit A that they can do it.) The brass snarled and cooed, the percussion came right on time, and all the various players sounded like a unit in service to Rimsky’s coloristic inspiration; notably, they and Spano found myriad purposeful gradations of “loud,” saving the biggest and baddest for the final movement’s depiction of a shipwreck.

If you wanted to nitpick, the playing was not 100 percent gold-plated note-perfect. Also, concertmaster Jonathan Carney approached his solo Scheherazading as more of a 19th-century virtuoso than as a desperate storytelling seductress talking through the violin. Not to say he didn’t play seductively; his high, lonely whisper in the work’s final pages made an appropriately gorgeous ending to a truly memorable performance.

Violinist Leila Josefowicz joined Spano and the BSO for Adams’ violin concerto after intermission. Josefowicz, according to the extremely helpful program note, has been the concerto’s primary advocate in concert halls. I, on the other hand, had never heard this concerto before, and while listening I wished I’d picked up a recording before coming to the concert hall, as I kept understanding what had happened without being able to predict what was going to happen.

Adams works in his minimalist vein, with cells of notes evolving slowly over time, but in his concerto the violin has a complex, sometimes problematic relationship with said cells and their evolution. In the first movement, which Adams, in an extremely awesome move, titled “First Movement,” Josefowicz even goes to war with the orchestra over what rhythm to play (4/4 vs. 3/4, respectively). That part sounds pretty brutal, with the violin gradually reduced to insistent stabs, but the music leading up to the climax sounds like a cloud gathering into a storm. Adams uses two synthesizers in the orchestra, and they spend all their time making blurry, gauzy sounds, removing whatever edge remained on already very gentle orchestration and allowing the sharp sound of Josefowicz’s solo violin to stand out, rhapsodizing above. It need hardly be said at this point that Spano and the BSO rendered said accompaniment with attention to detail and minute gradations of color.

Adams has fun with the idea of a chaconne in the second movement, titled “Body through which the dream flows,” starting with a repeated bass figure in traditional chaconne style but eventually moving it around and tweaking it ever so slightly in the minimalist manner. The violin (the dream) weaves and soars in and out of the softest possible textures (the body), which are punctuated only in the gentlest possible manner. I became obsessed with a bell that occasionally rang, waiting for it to ring, then forgetting about it for a few seconds during which it would invariably ring, then feeling that of course the bell rang there, because look what happened. A game of the most beautiful kind. Josefowicz got her virtuoso on in the third movement, a blowout Toccata that rocked appropriately hard and featured a violin-drum duel with a hilarious surprise ending.

A bunch of audience members left the Meyerhoff after Josefowicz left the stage; the Stravinsky didn’t start until 9:50. As your intrepid critic, I stayed, but I have to admit that after two really intense listening experiences, I didn’t have enough steam left for a third. I could hear Spano and the BSO doing neat stuff — a mesmerizing hush in the Firebird’s Dance and Variations, raucous offbeat thrusts in the Infernal Dance — but didn’t feel them psychologically. Still, better than not hearing Stravinsky at all, and what an evening overall. The best BSO concert I’ve been to in a long time.

HELL IS OTHER DRIVERS

I realize there is absolutely nothing the BSO can do about this, but everyone in the Cathedral Street Garage after the concert either drove like a giant jerk (cutting in line, trying to make two lanes where one is clearly intended, sending pedestrians scurrying like mice into corners for safety) or had to deal with the inconvenience posed by the giant jerks. Not much takes the shine off the ending of Firebird quicker, I found, than having some jackass in a Jaguar back, tires screeching, across your path when he sees a nanometer of daylight open up between cars. Reason #237 why I prefer public transportation, although there is of course no way I am going to take Amtrak and associated additional trains to and from Meyerhoff on a work night, thus getting home at 12:30 am if I got home at all.

I LIKE SCHEHERAZADE

As a composition of which I became enamored in high school, Scheherazade is extremely close to my heart. In fact, my main problem with hearing Scheherazade in the concert hall is that I want to punch the air repeatedly and jump around like a meth-addicted frog during the fourth movement, which is what I do when I am listening at home (to the Fritz Reiner recording; I’ve tried others). My secondary problem is that I want performances of Scheherazade to be nearly perfect or I walk out disproportionately dissatisfied, because no one can be disappointed as hard as high-schoolers can, and I totally revert whenever I listen to Scheherazade. It is my considered opinion that Thursday’s performance was nearly perfect.

O.P.P.: Tim Smith agreed with me. He even did a quickie review like I did earlier. (His full review is not up yet as I write this.)

You can still go see all these works, although you have to do two shifts on Saturday: AM and PM.

Quickie: Baltimore Symphony Orchestra at Meyerhoff, October 29, 2009

October 30, 2009

There’s a performance of this tomorrow night, and I’m not going to get to write a full review until tomorrow night due to having to go to work tomorrow. So just read this and know: This concert, which was led by Robert Spano, the Atlanta Symphony’s music director, and featured Scheherazade, the Firebird Suite, and John Adams’ violin concerto with Leila Josefowicz, reminded me of why it’s not only necessary but fun to turn off the CD player and listen to a concert every once in a while. The three pieces have in common a seemingly inexhaustible wealth of novel and intoxicating tone color, and Spano and the BSO (and Josefowicz, where appropriate) render those colors incredibly well, in a way you can only really appreciate in live performances. If you had any inkling of desire to go to the performances on Friday or Saturday (the latter divided into AM and PM shows), I urge you to go.

I reserve the right to borrow liberally from the above when writing my full review.

A Gross (Or So) Of Concerti: Bach Sinfonia at Montgomery College Performing Arts Center, October 24, 2009

October 27, 2009

So many programs juxtapose essentially unrelated works and leave it to the audience to figure out why they’re being played together that the program artistic director Daniel Abraham developed for the Bach Sinfonia’s first concert of the 2009-10 season (not to mention the first concert in the Montgomery College Performing Arts Center in beautiful downtown Silver Spring) qualifies as something of a blockbuster. Titled “The Story of the Baroque Concerto Grosso,” it told just that, with works representative and vivid enough that the listener could easily imagine them in conversation.

Arcangelo Corelli’s Op. 6 No. 7 concerto grosso seemed to be discussing with Georg Muffat’s Concerto IV from Armonico Tributo exactly who stole what ideas about juxtaposing a smaller solo group with the full orchestra. Alessandro Scarlatti took their innovations and complexified them with two fugues in three movements; Pietro Antonio Locatelli brought bustle and virtuoso fireworks and a sunny temperment to the party.

Abraham closed with the two heaviest hitters: Georg Friederic Handel’s sixth concerto from the greatest set of 12 of all, his Op. 6, with a shudderingly lyrical Musette anchoring gracefully complex invention; and Antonio Vivaldi’s third from his Op. 10, L’estro armonico, featuring four solo violins stepping out from the concertino group, set in relief against a larger orchestra.

Unfortunately, Saturday’s edition of the Sinfonia (it’s a pickup group with a number of mainstays) and music director Abraham had uneven success in realizing Abraham’s program. Both violin soloists Annie Loud and Wendy Harton Benner and the orchestra sounded pallid and tenative in the Corelli, with Loud’s violin too quiet to be easily heard over her cohort. (I can’t bring myself to make the joke.)

Near-chaos erupted in the Locatelli as the backing violins couldn’t coordinate their bracing runs with violinists Leslie Nero and Benner and viola soloist Henry Valoris. More generally, the exceptionally humid day seemed to be wreaking havoc on everyone’s tuning, and it showed up most in the violin section, which of course had the most players to coordinate; unison passages occasionally soured throughout the evening.

Yet violinist Marlisa del Cid Woods made poetry in Moffat’s occasionally square concerto, unspooling her melancholic Sarabande and Aria with a degree of rhythmic freedom that made Muffat’s melody pulse and sigh, with Nero an effective contrapuntal foil. Though Loud and Woods didn’t sparkle in the Scarlatti, they and the orchestra clearly presented its two contrasting fugues, lightening up with the Minuet finale. (Abraham referred to this as the “sorbet.”)

Both Handel and Vivaldi received performances that made their voices heard loudest in this compositional conversation. Benner dispatched Handel’s lead role with elegant authority and made his invention soar; the Musette became an emotional core, as Abraham got a plush tone from the strings and a hard push on its rhythms to build and release tension. The Vivaldi gave each of the four violinists time to shine; the diverse approaches of Benner, Loud, Woods, and Nero, which had caused occasional blending problems earlier, here made for a delicious stylistic buffet.

Throughout, Abraham asked for crisp tempos and vigorous rhythms from the orchestra, particularly its lower end. Douglas Poplin, who played ‘cello in all the concertante groups, threw himself into his music with gusto and assurance, most vividly so in the demanding Vivaldi. Harpsichordist Elena Tsai did not attack the beat or conjure inventive voicings in the way to which fans of the Sinfonia’s longtime harpischordist Michelle Roy are accustomed, but William Simms’ did both of those things in spades on the guitar and theoboro.

The Montgomery College Performing Arts Center has a pretty good hall, but it does not have quite the one-two punch of acoustic clarity and warmth of the Sinfonia’s former venue, the Woodside United Methodist Church. In its favor: It’s a nice-looking hall, with a combo of natural wood and cinderblock that’s attractive without being too plush, and it does have seats with padding rather than pews, bathrooms convenient to the actual stage, ample parking, etc. Probably a trade-up for all but the iron-buttocked. And though the concert had some flaws, it also showed the strengths — inventive programming, strong rhythms, and talented soloists — that make the Bach Sinfonia a worthy ornament to the hall, and vice versa.

WHEN YOUR BODY STARTS TO MOVE, IT JUST PUTS US ALL IN THE GROOVE

Marlisa del Cid Woods has a very expressive face, and she had an empathic facial expression during her sad music in the Moffat. Wendy Harton Benner has a less expressive face (at least when she plays), and stands regally erect on stage, with her violin almost perpendicular to her body, and the first word that comes to mind when I think of her playing is “commanding.” I wondered during the concert: Am I using my eyes to hear them play? Probably a little. And yet I can hear in my mind now Woods’ gentle rhythmic pulse imparting a casual grace to her line, and Benner’s crisp yet sensitive phrasing giving Handel a lift. But was my aural memory corrupted by my visual sensation? Ah, who knows.

In appearance-related notes, Elena Tsai’s glasses are extremely fashionable. They almost made me want to have a vision defect so I could correct it with similarly fashionable glasses.

THE BACH SINFONIA IS STALKING ME

Woodside United Methodist Church was about a four-minute walk from my old apartment. Then I moved. Now the Bach Sinfonia has moved into a new venue that is, if anything, even closer to my apartment. I hope they’ll have a chamber concert in my living room sometime! I’ve got…let’s see…12 chairs! C’mon!

Islands are Surrounded by Water, After All (UPDATED 10/26/09)

October 19, 2009

Today, north on Route 29 from the Silver Spring metro, a guy was playing Handel’s Water Music on a set of steel drums. Specifically, the Menuet from the first suite in F major, in an understandably sparse arrangement. I passed on my way to do an errand, but dropped a buck in his bucket because of his inventive repertoire choice and the fact that he was making it fun. He nodded, and we both continued, him segueing into the Bourrée. Came back about seven minutes later and he was still plugging away at the 300-year-old music.

The point of this post is that this guy is pretty cool (if I owned an iPhone, I would have taken some video), but if you want to take a larger point, it could be: Classical music still holds a lot of appeal, so much so that street musicians will transcribe it to make money, and those who fret for the future of classical music should remember that in some ways we’re dealing from a position of strength.

UPDATE: I have been informed that this guy also plays Water Music at the Bethesda metro station. Also, I heard him from the platform on Sunday, and after he did some aqua tunes he launched into the first movement of Eine Kleine Nachtmusik. So if you want to hear the Best-Loved Classics done on steel drums, go to Silver Spring or Bethesda. And give the guy some money.

Venue-Neutral: The Chiara Quartet at the Mansion at Strathmore, October 16, 2009

October 19, 2009

As noted in Anne Midgette’s recent article surveying “alt-classical” (and more on that later), the Chiara Quartet plays “chamber music in any chamber,” including bars, clubs, and galleries. On Friday night, however, they found themselves in a common quartet venue (the Mansion at Strathmore), playing more-or-less standard repertoire, quartets by Prokofiev, Beethoven, and Debussy.

Yet they departed from script by putting Beethoven in the second slot, one usually reserved on programs by enterprising quartets for some less-than-universally beloved modern work, and by having violist Jonah Sirota say a few words about the Beethoven before they played it. “You don’t have to advocate for the Beethoven!” I wanted to say. “That’s why people are here!” But that may not be true when the quartet is performing in its “Beethoven in Bars” initiative — there, they’d need to say what the music meant to them, and perform it with enough conviction and intensity to make it stand out among the background clatter of people ordering Yuenglings and trying to find the restroom. And that’s exactly what they did.

In another oddity for standard quartet practice, they began with the program’s sole 20th-century work, Prokofiev’s first string quartet. In this work especially, Prokofiev reminds me of a pitcher with a devastating curveball who refuses to throw it, as he roughly gestures in ornery harmonies and hard-treading folk rhythms and lets his melodic gift peek out only occasionally. The Chiarans enjoyed said folk rhythms (Sirota and cellist Gregory “Eager” Beaver supplemented them with foot-stomping) and played up the main themes enough so that Prokofiev’s underlying structure became apparent. In the Andante that closes the work (another typical Prokofiev gesture), they finally got a few longer melodies to play, and they showed a great deal of sensitivity, but when Prokofiev turned up the volume the quartet didn’t do much to differentiate the various passages and show a progression (which, admittedly, is partly the composer’s fault). Still, they were able to make the unconventional ending feel satisfying.

Debussy’s string quartet demands a different skill set, which the Chiara supplied after intermission. No foot-stomping here! The quartet instead drew attention with felicitous details, producing delicate pizzicatos in the second movement and transparent, luminous textures as Debussy’s wistful melodies lapped and sighed in the third. The outer movements of this quartet annoy me, as this early work in Debussy’s career seems prone to landing on the conventional solution to a problem, but the Chiara seemed to enjoy the conventional moments as much as they did the surprises, and thus made the quartet significantly less annoying than usual.

And what of the Beethoven? Sirota’s remarks emphasized the drama in the fourth of the Op. 18 quartets, the only one in a minor key, and went so far as to name this the best of the six, about which proposition Op. 18 no. 1 in F major would like to have a word. That said, the Chiara certainly played this quartet as if they believed that the C-minor drama here led directly to Fate knocking at the door in Beethoven’s same-key Fifth, emphasizing the first movement’s sharp turns from minor to major and back again with such gusto I thought I was going to get whiplash (and with plenty o’ foot-stomping too). In the second movement, an island of gentle humor in the midst of turmoil, the quartet sounded like they were looking for some giant bear to kill, trampling the scenery in the process. But the succeeding Menuetto and the Allegro finale gave them some more dramatic material to chew on. They didn’t need to project this strongly in a small, silent hall like the Mansion, but they did, and while you might not want to hear Op. 18 no. 4 like this every time, after they bullrushed the Prestissimo coda of the finale and stabbed the major-key final chord, I took a breath and realized that my heart was, quite literally, racing. That’ll play well in any venue.

O.P.P.: Didn’t we hear them do most of this program two days earlier? Yes, and Joe Banno reviewed it.

NOTE: I bet the Chiara will not play in the 36 chambers, because they likely respect the Wu-Tang’s dominion over said chambers. But any other chamber I’m sure is theirs.

Reeding is Fundamental: Sue Heineman, Mark Hill, and Friends at the University of Maryland, October 14, 2009

October 16, 2009

Most people shy away from concerts that feature unfamiliar repertoire, unless the performer’s star wattage alone draws crowds. This gives short shrift to many distinguished players who also have a good ear for music that should be heard more often.

Sue Heineman and Mark Hill and have certainly distinguished themselves as performers — she’s principal bassoonist of the National Symphony, he’s principal oboe of the National Philharmonic (aka the Montgomery County Philharmonic), both are faculty members at the University of Maryland — but they ain’t superstars. Thus, their annual free concerts featuring repertoire for their instruments (plus those of whatever friends they invite to the party) seem mostly to draw enthusiastic wind students. I’ve now been to the last four of these concerts, most recently Wednesday evening’s show at the Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center, and I can tell you that they deserve to be heard by a broader audience.

This year, Heineman and Hill brought in clarinetist David Jones, principal clarinet of the Kennedy Center Opera House Orchestra, and pianist Audrey Andrist, a local treasure and a veteran of these concerts. The nicely balanced program features two works for the three winds alone and a solo with Andrist accompaniment for each.

Heineman played Robert Schumann’s Fantasiestücke, the Op. 73 ones originally written for clarinet and piano. As wonderful a bassoonist as Heineman is, she could not make her mellow tone pop out over the piano sound behind her in quite the way a clarinet does, which leached some of the music’s impact. On the other hand, her amazing facility on the bassoon enabled her to ride the surges and ebbs of Schumann’s melodies like a surfer on a wave, hanging out just a bit at the top of the drama to enjoy the excitement and catch the view, rolling refreshed into Schumann’s earthier sentiments. And Heineman’s ardent, woody tone did emphasize the wistful side of Schumann’s melodies, giving another perspective on either the most or second-most familiar work on the progrm.

Battling it out for that honor was Francis Poulenc’s clarinet sonata, commissioned by Benny Goodman, which combines jazz inflection and phrasing with that wonderful urbanity that saturates Gallic wind music. Both Jones and Andrist know how to play in many styles (Jones’ program bio lists Rod Stewart, Aretha Franklin, and Tony Bennett among his collaborators), and their performance nimbly danced among the two idioms, especially in the energetic yet bluesy first movement. Jones showed off magnetically cool and lovely tone in the “Romanza” slow movement, with Andrist matching him in restrained ardor, though both seemed happy to dance off again in the finale.

Hill, sadly, played a bit of a clunker, Eugène Bozza’s “Fantasie Pastorale,” which whips big gestures from Andrist’s piano and virtuoso riffs from Hill’s oboe into not much of musical consequence. As a vehicle for Hill to make sparkly showers of notes and caress slower melodies, it did the job, but the Bozza was the only piece from this concert I would be perfectly happy never hearing again.

It sounded especially disappointing coming right after Léon Jongen’s trio for the three reeds, which fulfilled its ambitions in a way Bozza’s number didn’t, perhaps because Jongen made his entertainment from less grandiose stuff, developing it with wit and fluency. Heineman, Hill, and Jones had no worries about negotiating the sometimes-tricky handoffs among their instruments; indeed, their assurance allowed them to find that wit in the music, and to buff Jongen’s melodies so that they shone bright and inviting. They tracked the first movement’s angular main theme in all its guises, including its not entirely surprising reappearance in the trio’s closing pages, made lively play of the Vivace second movement, and gave grace without undue gravitas to his more overtly lyrical statements.

The last skill was rarely demanded in the last work on the program, a departure from the prevailing aesthetic: Heitor Villa-Lobos’ trio. With its folk rhythms juxtaposed and overlaid, its independent treatment of the instruments in setting forth those rhythms, and its enthusiasm for the earthiest, nay, dirtiest sounds the bassoon, clarinet, and oboe can make, Villa-Lobos’ work recalls the sound of the reedy intro to Stravinsky’s “Rite of Spring,” Brazilified and explored at length. What’s not to like there?

Heineman made her bassoon rut and shout just as she made it sing in the Schumann, while Hill and Jones showed that their instruments can shout out a rhythm just as hard and precise as a bassoon can, thanks very much. While at times the sharp disjuncts and raucous discourse in the music sounded chaotic, the structure and purpose of Villa-Lobos’ writing became clearer upon further thought after the performance — a sure sign that both composer and performers knew exactly what they were doing.

With music and playing of this caliber presented for free, the Gildenhorn Recital Hall should be packed to the gills when these folks play. Y’all should look for them next time.

My other reviews of these concerts: 2006, 2007. I went to 2008 and somehow did not write a review of it, but it was also excellent.

WHY I GO TO A LOT OF CONCERTS AT THE UNIVERSITY OF MARYLAND

1. It is close to both my office and my home.
2. Them’s often some good concerts.
3. I have been going to concerts there since I was 12; not about to stop now.
4. Alumnus bias.
Not sure what proportion those are in, but that’s why you’ll see a lot of reviews from there.

Dwarf Star: University of Maryland Symphony Orchestra, October 2, 2009

October 5, 2009

I have often maintained that the University of Maryland Symphony Orchestra is the best student symphony in the DMV, even if we correct for my bias as a U-MD alumnus. (Excuse me for a minute: M-A-R-Y-L-A-N-D, Maryland will win! OK, that’s better.) James Ross, the UMSO’s music director, certainly programs for a collection of students playing at a professional level; the first program of the 2009-10 school year (I mean, season) featured three works that would tax any ensemble, one of which doesn’t come before audiences much and is big fun whenever it does.

Actually, let’s start with that work: Christopher Rouse’s “Der gerettete Alberich,” for percussion and orchestra, which involved so many instruments the stage of the Dekelboum Concert Hall could barely hold them. I wrote this about “Alberich” in 2004, and I’ll be damned if I’m going to think of a new way to introduce the piece:

What happens to Alberich? After all, Richard Wagner never reveals the fate of the dwarf whose offense at the beginning of “The Ring of the Nibelungen” leads to 15 hours of opera and the eventual death of the gods.

Christopher Rouse has filled this dramatic hole with a fantasy for solo percussion and orchestra, “Der gerettete Alberich” (“Alberich Saved”), in which the dwarf, represented by a vast array of percussion instruments, contends with motives derived (or deformed) from Wagner’s music.

In most performances, one person with superhuman recall and endurance plays all the percussion; in this one, three men, Tim McKay, Lee Hinkle and Daniel Villanueva, split the duties. It didn’t result in any dramatic discontinuities, as Alberich’s early skulking and scurrying on an array of scrapers and drums came off well, although said percussing occasionally outbalanced the orchestra in this performance. Bare string chords, hanging serene and static until Rouse finds their unpredictable successors, make up the middle section of the work, and the UMSO strings responded with clean, clear, lovely playing; they made a hypnotic bed for the xylophone plinks that, one fancies, find Alberich in a dark, warm cave, scurrying among stalactites and finding occasional rivulets. Ross shaped the couple of climaxes in this section well before Rouse broke it open with some riotous skins-thumping on a rock drum kit, after which orchestra and percussionists rode hard to an exciting finish (plus Rouse’s funny little pendant at the end). This piece demands a lot from everyone involved, and the UMSO met all its challenges.

Music director Ross also spends a lot of time thinking about how to present symphonic music, and he tried some tricks when opening this program, presenting only two movements from Mozart’s “Linz” symphony (No. 36, C major) and having everyone except the cellists stand, both of which orchestras did routinely back in Mozart’s day. The symphony’s first movement reminded one of how hard it is to play Mozart really well; the strings sloshed around the melodic line just a little bit in Mozart’s grand statements, enough to make their sound blustery rather than massive. The tauter music of the finale inspired tauter playing from the strings, and the winds and horns matched it. Throughout, the orchestra played with a great deal of energy and a sense that this was anything but a routine performance, which means Ross got what he wanted.

I brought a classical music novice to this concert and, just after intermission, told her that the Bartók Concerto for Orchestra that was soon to follow would be tremendous fun. Afterward, she agreed with my prediction, because at some level it is impossible not to enjoy the Concerto for Orchestra, particularly when Ross kept the rhythms snapping and the energy level high. Meanwhile, I had mentally catalogued a lengthy list of flaws in the performance (off-beat trumpets, squawking horns, winds not playing their second-movement duets tightly, brass playing notes not in the score, strings screeching, messy unisons on big downbeats, etc.) and had lost my personal feeling of momentum every time something infelicitous happened. I am not sure who was being the better listener here. But Ross and the orchestra have the entire school year left to work it out.

We Fly High, No Lie, You Know This…BONIN’! Post-Classical Ensemble with David Taylor, October 1, 2009

October 4, 2009

If you are a solo bass trombonist making your way in the classical world, your repertoire will consist exclusively of transcriptions and new music, because no one is going to dig up the long-lost Beethoven trombone sonata. David Taylor, who plies this trade, has made it artistically rewarding by bringing real depth of imagination in his transcriptions and being lucky in finding simpatico composers. He amply demonstrated both of his advantages in one of the Post-Classical Ensemble’s “Encounters” on Thursday night at the Harman Center.

One of Taylor’s transcription specialties (suggested to him by the P-CE’s artistic director, Joseph Horowitz) is songs from late in Franz Schubert’s life, apparently the more wracked with pain, the better. In the first half of Thursday’s Encounter, the P-CE presented the baritone William Sharp singing three Taylor-transcribed tunes, “Der Doppelganger,” “Die Nebensonnen,” and “Der Leiermann,” thus recognizing that audiences need to know the original in order to understand how Taylor’s transcriptions create additional facets of meaning.

Sharp’s able performances, with accompaniment by pianist Seth Knopp, did justice to Schubert’s depth of emotion, but Taylor’s “Der Doppelganger” gasped and brayed where Sharp had essayed a continuous line, giving it a more visceral desperation. A pickup orchestra led by the P-CE’s music director Angel Gil-Ordonez played the accompaniment, transformed by Taylor into something more angular and less direct, heightening the alienation. (The plethora of winds balanced against a just a few strings in Taylor’s transcription recalled Schoenberg’s chamber arrangements of works for orchestra — just strange enough to achieve new insight.)

Taylor actually did not work the bone in his “Die Nebensonnen” (“The Mock Suns”), instead singing a free English translation in a flickering voice amplified by a microphone, eschewing clear enunciation and occasionally lapsing into pure vowel sounds. The voice came from a place of both shadows and hard, unblinking sun, and Taylor made it central over another spiky arrangement. For “Der Leiermann” (“The Organ-Grinder”), Taylor transferred the piano part to an accordion, sensitively pumped Thursday by Zoltan Racz, and the accompaniment’s open chords felt even bleaker as Racz sustained them longer than the piano could. Taylor combined another free English translation, here dropping a few lines, with trombone outbursts and pleas, again intensifying an already forbiddingly intense gasp of a song.

As fascinating as Taylor’s Schubert songs are, an entire program of that would have had the audience slitting their wrists by evening’s end. Fortunately, the second half featured Taylor in the much different music of his good friend Daniel Schnyder.

Schnyder’s concerto for bass trombone and orchestra bustles with activity, violin lines skating over complex rhythms, winds chirping along, all of it more vivid on Thursday due to the bright, transparent quality Gil-Ordonez drew from the orchestra. Taylor and Schnyder also perform jazz together in various combos, with Schnyder on the sax, so it sounded completely natural in the concerto’s first movement when melodies in Schnyder’s concerto for bass trombone and orchestra suddenly took on a jazz arc. When the orchestra stopped to allow brief solos, Taylor made them sound improvisational, yet integrated them into the musical structure. The second movement used a Sufi rhythm from Syria called sama’l thaqil, which made Schnyder’s more gentle music pulse like waves lapping at a shore, as Taylor got to show off the crooning side of his instrument. When Schnyder overlaid a Cuban son rhythm atop the earlier beat, the music pulsed more intensely, yet the meditative mood was sustained.  Schnyder broke the spell with a great gust of big-bandish activity from the orchestra, Taylor coming over the top with equally furious melodic activity, sweeping to a whoop of a finish.

In the concerto and in the Latin-flavored “roTor” (not my capitalization scheme), Schnyder showed he can assimilate influences without becoming a slave to them, as his rhythmic and genre borrowings enhanced what seems to be a natural gift for writing really fun music — a gift that should be encouraged all the more when many composers lard orchestral works with over-the-top lavish instrumentation and bottomless self-seriousness.

From Schubert’s psychological turmoil to the sheer playfulness of his encore duets with Schnyder, the encounter with Taylor and his trombone always sparked interest. Chalk up another victory for the always-enterprising spirit of the P-CE, which, with its programming and orchestral support, gave Taylor the most congenial stage possible on which to shine.

SO I LEFT SOMETHING OUT

The P-CE orchestra, pickup as always, also played under Gil-Ordonez the Mahler transcription of the second movement of Schubert’s “Death and the Maiden” string quartet and three numbers from Stravinsky’s “A Soldier’s Tale.” Sharp also sang “Der Tod und das Madchen,” the song on which Schubert based said string quartet movement. All the performances were fine, and showed how the ideas of transcription (in the first half) and jazz plus classical (in the second half) have been taken up by other composers, but they did not seem central to the Encounter, and I don’t think the reader misses anything from me not spending another 50 words to get that info in there. Or does the reader? You tell me! I’m obviously not completely convinced that I’m right, since I’m writing this.

I also skipped the post-concert Q&A with Taylor and Schnyder, even though in my last review I talked about how interesting these can sometimes be. The difference was that I had to go to work the next morning. ‘Cause bloggin’ don’t pay no billz.

The rap song to which the title of this post refers can be found here. Warning: It is extremely offensive.


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