Archive for December 2010

Strike the Drum and Join the Chorus: Washington Bach Consort, December 19, 2010

December 20, 2010

Most Christmas concerts present ultra-familiar repertoire, seeking to distinguish themselves in presentation. At most, they’ll throw in a few lesser-known hymns or songs to pique the audience’s interest. For the Washington Bach Consort’s Christmas concert, on Sunday at the National Presbyterian Church, founder and music director J. Reilly Lewis did not choose this path.

Instead, Lewis led a 16-voice choir in an exquisitely sung concert of Christmas-inspired music from classical’s early years, all of it fascinating and most of it little-known. Apart from organist Scott Detra’s performance of a Bach prelude on “Von Himmel hoch” (BWV 738), in which the melody is just occasionally recognizable, the first familiar tune came in the second piece after intermission, in a series of insanely florid settings of verses “In dulci jublio” by Hieronymous Praetorius. (Also, I am not sure that “Von Himmel hoch” counts as a “familiar tune” for anyone not raised Lutheran, as I was. Adjust accordingly.)

The concert thus put one in mind not of celebrations of Christmas but of the miracle of Christ’s birth as perceived way back in the day. Most Christmas music tugs at the heartstrings in part because it was playing during heartstring-tugging moments in our lives. Without those associations, this music provided a total focus on the Nativity, and the WBC’s precise, joyful performances served as a reminder of what a strange and awe-inspiring story it is.

It’s too bad that the program did not list the names of the 16 choristers, since they put on a clinic on Sunday. Felicitous details abounded. In Giovanni Gabrieli’s “Beata es, Virgo Maria,” the melody for the words “intercede pro nobis” — “intercede for us,” i.e., with God — slides downward on “nobis.” The WBC singers articulated this so clearly that you could almost see a penitent sinner bowing down before the altar. Rafaella Aleotti’s “Angelus ad pastores alt,” setting the “tidings of great joy” verses of the Bible in high Renaissance style, ends on a slightly dissonant modal Alleluia that the WBC made searing in its intensity — a manifestation of the idea of joy so complete it’s almost painful. The choir showed their range in Jan Pieterszoon Sweelink’s “Gaudete omnes,” which began in a major-key, dance-y mood before dipping briefly into a seemingly bottomless well of yearning on the words “expectatio nostra” (“our hope”). Such singing consistently made vivid the emotional world of each piece, even when the pieces were so short it seemed they were over before they began.

A couple of the pieces Lewis and the WBC performed should probably be added to the collective Christmas playlist. Martin Peerson’s “Upon my lap my Sov’reign sits” has a refrain of “Sing lullaby, my little Boy/Sing lullaby, mine only joy!” In this performance, the song actually sounded lullabyish with a palpable hush and precisely formed, warm harmonies. And the piece by Hieronymous Praetorius (no relation to Michael) mentioned earlier, a Magnificat incorporating “Joseph Lieber, Joseph mein” as well as “In dulci jublio,” contrasted the hymns with energetic declarations of God’s might and mercy while sending sopranos soaring above the melodic lines of said hymns; the result consistently defied expectations, always a challenge for 400-year-old music. (The passing moments of strain in the sopranos here seemed designed to highlight just how impressive the rest of the singing was.)

The concert also featured a Latin tinge, by which I mean not Latin texts but music from Spain and Latin America. Not coincidentally, the two most fun pieces featured a drum: Lewis actually led the choir into the sanctuary while beating the skins in Juan Pérez Bocanegra’s “Hanacpachap cussicuinin,” coming to us from Peru and the 17th century; the surprise of hearing percussion was matched by the fierceness of Bocanegra’s harmonies, not to mention the fearsome ancient consonantal combinations. Besides the return of the drum, Spanish composer Geronimo Gonzalez’s “Serenissima una noche” featured also a really bouncy, catchy melody you immediately wanted to hear again.

Organ interludes found Dettra delivering an agile, cunningly paced performance of a Domenico Scarlatti fugue, besides blazing through a couple pieces by the usual suspect with the initials “JSB.” The interludes showed off Nat Pres’ wonderful organ and gave both singers and audience the opportunity to rest from the imaginative act of perceiving Christ’s birth as it was perceived in the 16th and 17th centuries. Lewis and the Washington Bach Consort gave a concert that was truly transporting, but ultimately, few people want to spend all of Christmastime away from home.

Wind Power: University of Maryland Wind Orchestra, December 9, 2010

December 11, 2010

Two tarantellas by John Corigliano opened the University of Maryland Wind Orchestra’s fall-semester-closing concert on Thursday night. The first, from “Gazebo Dances,” evoked summer breezes and outdoor concerts. UMWO director Michael Votta Jr. kept the rhythms light and crisp, the orchestra’s sections merrily traded the melody around, and all was sweetly, solidly pleasant in the Dekelboum Concert Hall at the Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center.

That was the last time Thursday night that you could say that: The following tarantella, excerpted from the composer’s first symphony, twisted and deformed the gazebo melody, slowing it down, making it sound ugly, and blasting it with piercing high dissonances, brusque outbursts, and general mayhem suitable to a depiction of a man gradually dying from AIDS-related dementia. Here the playing achieved just as high a standard, but to more arresting ends. It set the tone for the concert.

Titles of classical concerts (like “Wunder/Kinder,” the title of the next night’s UMWO performance, in association with the Terp symphony) always seem glib and reductive to me, similar to using for a production of “Hamlet” the tagline “Something’s rotten in the state of Denmark, and Hamlet’s taking out the trash.” But the title “Wild Rides” fit this concert’s repertoire — four pieces all written within the last hundred years, the oldest (from 1914) a lurid depiction of an orgy, the newest a percussion concerto, whose very genre may intimidate the faint-hearted.

Said percussion concerto was written by Jennifer Higdon, though, one of the few contemporary composers who seem to be able to touch the hearts of orchestral audiences weaned on Beethoven and Brahms. Joining the UMWO for the endeavor was Christopher Rose, a percussionist with “The President’s Own” Marine Band who gave the world premiere of the band version of the concerto. (See page 5 of this PDF for some more Rosiana.) From Rose’s opening rumbles from the bottom of his marimba and the crackling silence that followed, this performance stayed taut and focused, most notably when Rose delivered unbelievably clean and focused sound from a set of wood blocks in a cadenza and the UMWO percussionists almost matched him. The orchestra sometimes sounded a little imprecise in the busier ensemble passages, but the comparison to Rose can’t have helped.

Higdon shines especially bright in the slow sections of her concerti, and this was a doozy: Rose both bowing and using his mallets on the vibraphone, with soft, charged wind chords behind him describing a simple but heart-grabbing melody. It’s probably the time of year more than anything else, but I felt it sounded like what a real Christ-mass should sound like: ruminative, modest, maybe even a little awed. Rose sounded just as intense here as he did in (for example) his later drum-kit solo, which had such an irresistible propulsive force that I found myself bobbing my head way more than I would normally let myself at a classical concert.

The instrumentation of the Higdon and Corigliano was such that the UMWO barely fit on the stage; after intermission, they downsized to a mere incredibly large wind orchestra, with giant masses of winds to play Carlos Surinach’s “Paeans and Dances of Heathen Iberia.” The suite is chock-full of phrases that both stick in your head and sound almost ugly with dissonance and strong off-beats. Surinach then repeats these phrases, without a scrap of additional adornment, until just before I got sick of any of them, then switches to contrasting phrases. The UMWO made some of the earthiest tones I have ever heard a wind orchestra make on purpose, with Votta gesturing so hard for them to dig into the rhythms that he had to shake his hands out in between the six pieces.

And then it was the orgy we were all waiting for! In the form of Florent Schmitt’s “Dionysiaques,” also written for a truly giant group of winds, making equally earthy noises to less terpsichorean ends. Votta’s well-written program notes outlined a vague program for the Schmitt, but given the low fumbling-around chords at the beginning, followed by stabs at coordination with continued awkward interruptions, progressing ultimately to a loud climax almost immediately succeeded by utter collapse, I felt I knew exactly what Schmitt had in mind. The UMWO rendered it with appropriate gusto; given the fearsome complexity of the piece, the ensemble was pretty damn good, and perhaps a little messiness made it more vivid.

Lamentably few people showed up Thursday night — perhaps due to some combo of the cold, the approach of exams, and the recentness of the repertoire. Still, the UMWO played a little in the Smith Center lobby before the concert to serenade early-comers (I got there just as they were dispersing), and they left posterboards in the lobby with photocopies of pages from the scores they would play that evening and reflections from the musicians themselves (taken from the orchestra’s blog). Some wrote in high-flown ways about the artistic merits of the works, some pronounced themselves up for the challenges these works presented, and some just talked about how much fun the concert was going to be. They were all right.

DID YOU SEE WHAT I DID THERE?

Terpsichorean? And it was at the University of Maryland? M-A-R-Y-L-A-N-D, Maryland will win!!!!!!


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