Archive for March 2012

The Sign, the Note, and the World: What Art Form Speaks Most Clearly in a Cacophonous Time?

March 31, 2012

Welcome to thrilling Round 2 of the Spring For Music Great Arts Blogger Challenge! I am excited to have made it to the round of 16 and to check out the engaging company in this rarefied air. In DMV news, though I am happy to have discovered Cultural Tourism DC through this contest, we must all pour out a little liquor for Ionarts, which went down in the first round. I’m sure the crew over there can console themselves with the awesomeness of their blog, though.

The e-mail informing me of my advancement posed the following question, the answer to which will constitute my entry into the next round:

We live in an aggressively visual age; images dominate the popular culture. But which art form has the most to say about contemporary culture, and why?

Since I received this e-mail while I was drafting another e-mail to let its recipient know that I had texted a third person, a task that in turn was distracting me from my daily dose of document review, I do not know exactly how much our lived experience is dominated by images, rather than the endless roaring gusher of text that threatens to drown all of us, even when it is parceled out in tinier and tinier chunks.

But it is true that our popular culture relentlessly proffers visual images at us, because they can be taken in so quickly — a mere glance on the subway and we understand that Svedka is the vodka for you, if you are a robot, or would like to have sex with one. And just as we take them in, they can take us in — we understand that Svedka is also the vodka for me if I enjoy turning over in my head the idea of being a robot or having sex with one, which makes a slightly larger pool of potential drinkers of colorless, tasteless liquor.

Baby got plastic back!

I do enjoy visual arts, along with the other art forms that I will callously dismiss in answering this question. But with only images at their disposal, the visual arts can only go so far in making sense of popular culture’s onslaught of images. This is particularly true considering that visual art is presented in a distraction-free environment, giving it an unfair advantage over hardworking images like LOLcats and Beyonce publicity photos, which must compete with a plethora of other images to snap our eyeballs to attention.

No, we need something outside the realm of the purely visual to say something about, rather than to or instead of, popular culture. We need: popular music.

Why pop? Perhaps it will be easier for our image-addled brains to apprehend the reasons if I format them in a bulleted list:

  • Unlike images, which we typically try to avoid by averting our gaze (or using ad blockers), pop is something people seek out to avoid or enhance everyday experiences. People plug in white earbuds to shut out subway chatter or slip a mix into their beater’s CD player to make the open road more enjoyable. We millions, we embrace it, rather than shying away.
  • Pop songs have lyrical content, which definitely allows for something to be said. However, songs that “say something” typically are not very popular, because people don’t like to be scolded in musical form any more than they like being scolded in any other context.
  • Yet even when nothing of any great import is being said, the manner in which it is said often provides a window into the contemporary mood. The renewed-strength Top 40 is machine-tooled, AutoTuned, and relentlessly danceable — intricately structured to get you to surrender conscious thought for physical release. That’s certainly saying something about what’s going on now, with our appreciation for the little-understood miracles of technology and our emphasis on the perfectability of the body. Or take T-Pain, of whom I am a fan; the conscious choice to make his own voice blatantly false, through the miracle of pitch-correction software, and the way it shades all his narratives of poor decision-making and failed courtship, as if he’s ashamed of his own sincerity.
  • Over the past decade or so, pop music has been radically democratized. Anyone can make music for the cost of a decent mike and a few pieces of software, and get a worldwide audience in minutes by uploading to YouTube. This allows for reg’lar folks to participate in the pop music conversation, and sometimes to drive it. They can be in dialogue with the mainstream or outside it, and sometimes they move from outside to inside.
  • Nowadays people have taken to using these tools not only to create but also to break down and build up other music according to their own plan; in other words, to remix. Anything can be claimed as material by anyone; for example, rap songs that white people may be slightly embarrassed to enjoy get slathered with layers of ironic appreciation through the medium of the acoustic cover. Or a remix can be a response, or a lesson. And it can all be done within hours, and apprehended fully within minutes. Popular music is joyously responsive.

Though they provide many satisfactions, other arts don’t measure up along the Spring for Music-prescribed axis of appreciation. (Warning: Absurd overgeneralizations approaching!) Most films speak authentically only regarding what an executive thinks someone else wants to see in a film; for films that go beyond that standard, the industry builds copyright and commercial walls against anyone responding in the same medium. Theater is hampered by the small number of people who can actually see any given play, due to cost and scale. Though I have enjoyed the small number of dance shows I have attended, I have never found them to be saying anything other than “look how good this dancing is.”

And then there is classical music, the reason I write this blog. As noted earlier, if I had to choose to listen to only one genre of music for the rest of my life, I’d pick classical. But for the most part it’s walled off from contemporary culture: It doesn’t reflect things that are happening in the world, its presenters don’t draw connections from the music to anything current, and its consumers are largely preoccupied with escape rather than engagement, shunning even the most anodyne contemporary works for Best-Loved Classics on repeat.

Right now, the music is on an island, full of time-tested, indisputably great art that’s survived the increasingly furious flow around it of our dynamic modern culture. Nevertheless, the music’s position in the common mind has been eroded. I don’t know whether the erosion can continue indefinitely, but part of the point of this blog is to help build a bridge. I’ll keep trying.

We Found Order in an Empty Place: Daniel Bernard Roumain with the University of Maryland Wind Orchestra and the University of Maryland Symphony Orchestra, Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center, March 29, 2011

March 30, 2012

It would be hard to describe everything that happens in Daniel Bernard Roumain‘s “The Order of an Empty Place,” a new work for amplified violin, wind orchestra, and rabbi (really) that Roumain (universally known as DBR) premiered with the University of Maryland Wind Orchestra on Thursday night. So perhaps we can start at the beginning.

In the beginning, there was DBR. By Leslie Lyons, from his website.

The first two people to come onto the stage were DBR himself and a gentleman who sat at an electronic keyboard; DBR took up his violin and played a four-note motive, serene yet flowing, with the keyboard making synth washes of sound in support. The lights dimmed and a video played on a screen suspended above the Dekelboum Concert Hall’s stage. Over the speakers we heard DBR reading his program note for “The Order of an Empty Place.” The video picked out significant phrases to emphasize, while the four-note motive wandered around a bit but maintained its shape. Meanwhile, in the darkened hall, the members of the wind orchestra filed in from the back to the stage, taking their places. When the video ended, the lights came up, and Rabbi Joy Levitt spoke the words “I want to remind everyone that seder means order,” summoning the music to start and opening a recitation about the larger meaning of seder in Jewish lives. And, now seated, the wind orchestra began playing as she talked. It got only slightly less complicated from there.

“The Order of an Empty Place” draws on many wellsprings of inspiration: the story of Passover, the ritual with which it is celebrated, the way its celebrations mark transitions and new beginnings, and the meaning of it for DBR and his son, born to him of a Jewish mother whom DBR has since divorced. Yet its musical materials are relatively simple, mostly melodic and rhythmic patterns established at the beginning of a passage and gradually elaborated, like flowers unfolding. The initial simplicity and fervent repetition in the music quite often captured the feeling of a ritual celebration, both static and endlessly evolving as it recurs.

But some parts of the work didn’t even have music. At one point Levitt would speak and the orchestra would speak back, as antiphon. For the actual story of Passover, Levitt led the audience in a communal reading of the libretto, with interjections from the orchestra. The form was of a religious ritual (I could hear everyone using their church-recitation voices) but the interjections changed up the rhythm slightly and gave it a musical feel as well.

After the concert, DBR said the UMWO players had “a certain audacity, a certain courage, a certain confidence,” which if anything understates the case. DBR didn’t write down to these students; some passages posed brutal difficulties, like a long exposed passage for horns intertwining on and around a melody, and the UMWO mostly handled them quite well. (The full wind orchestra playing together occasionally sounded smudgy and clotted, but I am inclined to blame this on DBR’s orchestration rather than the players.) They walked and yelled with aplomb when called for, too.

Playing against the wind orchestra, DBR’s violin always came through clearly. “The Order of an Empty Place” called on him to deploy his intricate knowledge of the unique colors of his instruments, sometimes playing with a high-pitched sheen echoing the ringing tones of the metallophone percussion instruments at the back of the stage, sometimes hinting at feedback during impassioned moments without ever making his tone ugly. My favorite DBR moment, though, was an extended pizzicato passage, clicks in decorous support of the melody in the orchestra: the amplification making small pops a little larger, DBR carrying his bow in his mouth, knees slightly bent, grooving on the rhythm. “The Order of an Empty Place” is not pop, but some moments have a pop inflection, and it all felt of a piece.

Levitt obviously knows how to speak in public, and although she seemed a little uncomfortable at the beginning of this world premiere performance, she warmed up to her task. When she led us in the Passover story, however, she frequently strayed from the libretto text, which was unfortunate for the people in the audience who were game for adventure and actually trying to read along with her. (Levitt did an unambiguously better job speaking than DBR did in his video voiceover, where the microphone picked up squeaks and inhalations and DBR often seemed to be rushing through his own words without regard for their sense.) Her narration, and playwright Margaret Lynch‘s libretto, produced some moments of great eloquence, as when Levitt repeated the line “We will build a life together” four times, each with a different emphasis, the music behind her paralleled her divergent readings. The final words, “Listen and say: here I am,” with a benediction of soft chords in the orchestra, felt truly powerful, a summing up of all that had come before.

I am often wary of multimedia works because every additional medium increases the chances that something is going to go wrong. In this one, despite some frayed edges, the disparate elements came together to create a complete artwork. DBR, Levitt, and the UMWO will perform “The Order of an Empty Place” tomorrow at the Jewish Community Center in Manhattan (Levitt’s home base), and if you happen to be in New York and up for something new on a Saturday night, you should head over there and give it a listen.

So that was after intermission. Go have a break if you want before reading the rest of this review. Ready? Because there’s some more concert-presentation stuff to discuss, and you know how I like discussing it!

Before intermission, the University of Maryland Symphony Orchestra handled the musical duties, playing a curious program of Claude Debussy’s “Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun” and the second and third movements of Gustav Mahler’s “Resurrection” symphony. The UMSO put together a video featuring the three graduate conductors who led the orchestra discussing their pieces, but no one explained: Why the symphonic excerpts, and why these three pieces of music? Seemed worth addressing. In addition, two of the conductors mostly repeated their program notes in describing the piece, making the video something of a waste of time if you did actually bother to read the notes. (For the record, I quite enjoyed the video’s newsreel-style graphics.)

In his segment, conductor Jason Ethridge correctly noted that a major challenge of the Debussy is to let its languors play out while maintaining some kind of forward pulse, and he and the UMSO rose to this challenge. The UMSO also sounded great here, with luxuriant solo flute playing and gorgeous shimmering strings, making this the most satisfying of the three performances.

One of my biggest concert-hall regrets is napping during the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra’s performance of the second and third movements of the “Resurrection” Symphony during Yuri Temirkanov’s last concert as music director (note: I was not reviewing), but I made sure to drink some Coke Zero and maintain an open mind on Thursday. Michael Jacko spoke in the video of navigating the second movement’s folk-ish rhythms with style, and unfortunately his performance felt a bit leaden, with overcareful rubato and not much of a rhythmic lift. John Devlin had an easier movement to conduct, as the third is full of activity and grotesqueries that sort of characterize themselves, and the UMSO sounded lively and engaged, the strings buzzed with their sixteenth notes, and the orchestra delivered a brutal shriek of a big dissonant chord towards the end. Even with my avowed distaste for Mahler, these little tastes me kind of want to hear the whole symphony again. I promise not to fall asleep next time.

New York, New York, It’s a Helluva Town…As Far As That Goes

March 23, 2012

With this blog post I am entering the Spring for Music Arts Blogger Challenge. Spring for Music is a cool series presented at Carnegie Hall wherein various orchestras from around the United States (and, this year, one from Canada, the 51st state) show up and strut their stuff in front of an audience of presumably jaded New Yorkers, who have been enticed to attend by tickets priced at $25, even for the good seats. I would totally go, and the prize offered by the Challenge (free tix and $2500) would totally enable me to go, so here we go.

Spring For Music - Carlos Kalmar conducts the Oregon Symphony at Carnegie Hall, 5/12/11. From their website.

It must be acknowledged that I am not likely to win. There are more frequently updated blogs, blogs with more influential readership and commenters, blogs by greater eminences than me. But Spring for Music has cannily chosen a first blogging topic that I cannot resist!

New York has long been considered the cultural capital of America. Is it still? If not, where?

That’s some high-quality trolling! Especially with the grammatically ambiguous second question. I will answer the question SfM was not asking first: Yes, New York is still considered the cultural capital of America, at least by New Yorkers who move to the DMV for jobs, or because the DMV has multiple-room apartments at relatively affordable prices, or because they came down to attend college and stayed from sheer inertia. These people will extemporize on the superiority of New York in any arena, including the cultural one, given the slightest opportunity to do so.

For example, mention that you took in a cultural event over the past weekend, and the ex-NYCers will wax nostalgic for a parallel Gotham institution rather than asking “How was it?” Their two other complaints are:

  • The DMV’s pizza is inadequate, although it’s not like there isn’t a whole bunch of terrible pizza in NYC, and there’s some quite high-quality pie here; and
  • The subway provides subpar service, which is true enough, except that last time I was in New York I spent about ten minutes on one subway platform reading service-disruption placards before figuring out that none of them applied to me. Then I watched a rat attempt to wrestle an apple core into a hole next to the tracks for ten minutes. All subways are subpar somehow.

You could average the typical NYC-to-DMVer’s portrayal of the Big Apple with the vignette presented in Stevie Wonder’s “Living for the City” and still end up with an inflated sense of the wonders of the former New Amsterdam. So it is with a jaundiced tone that I must answer this question.

Now, is New York the cultural capital of America? Was it ever? There have always been outstanding cultural efforts in other cities: museums, musical ensembles, writers, critics, the whole nine. New York has had far less of a cultural hold over the masses than Los Angeles, which mastered the whole moving picture thing, and most significant innovations in pop music originated outside its orbit, especially jazz, which, as a former writer for Jazz Times, I am obligated to note is America’s classical music.

But there has always been an expectation in many artistic professions that, having proven oneself in other burgs and cities, the final yardstick for one’s talents is New York. Whether this expectation ever existed outside the minds of New Yorkers and people who want to live there is difficult to judge, but there are certainly a few earwormy songs that testify to it.

Does this expectation currently exist? To my mind, New York’s role of “national stage” has long since been replaced by YouTube, which by the present definition makes YouTube the cultural capital of the world, which is funny because it’s dominated by videos of cats and teenagers discussing what they just bought at Forever 21. Prominent performers almost always do end up hitting New York at some point, but I submit that this is due less to New York’s role as cultural capital and more to its big rolls of capital. If there is money for the arts, the artists will come.

So the answer to the questions SfM meant to ask are (1) no and (2) the place where good culture is happening and uploadable to YouTube. As a great New Yorker once said, “It ain’t where you’re from, it’s where you’re at.”

And now to return to the title of this blog, here’s a Trouble Funk song introduced by a passage from “In the Hall of the Mountain King”:

DMV classic, spiced with classical.

Czechs and Balances: Baltimore Symphony Orchestra under Jiri Belohavek, March 17, 2012

March 19, 2012

Jiři Bélohávek conducting Czech music! It’s self-recommending, both when he conducted the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra on Saturday at the Music Center at Strathmore and when he conducts his own Prague Philharmonia at the Kennedy Center on Tuesday. (I will be skipping the latter because I am apparently too lame to go to a concert on a Tuesday night, but you should check it out.)

The man in action. From the Prague Philharmonia website.

The man grew up on and came to worldwide prominence for his skill with Czech music. Along with his Prague Philharmonia duties, he’ll take the reins once again of the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra in September. (He had previously been music director from 1990 through 1992, during which various events in world history were transpiring.) He’s made lots of records and earned tons of renown. Even if you didn’t make your parents spend a bunch of time during your family’s Prague vacation in record stores looking for Supraphon releases that hadn’t made it to Tower Records, as I did, this concert was a potential Event.

Happily, Bélohávek led with Antonín Dvořák’s ebullient Carnival Overture, and the very opening bars gave me goosebumps with their sheer energy and unity, everyone perfectly in step in the celebration. The Balmer ladies and gentlemen took the rhythmic snaps of the opening theme like true Bohemians (as opposed to Baltimore’s National Bohemians, which are not bad in and of themselves). Later, in a slower section, the oboe and flute lofted solos that layered like colors of a sunset as the strings fairly glistened beneath. In the full-orchestra passages, sometimes the strings and brass swamped the winds, but that blemish couldn’t spoil this performance, capped by superlatively enthusiastic tambourine playing that delighted both me and my concertgoing companion.

Having begun the first half with a kinetic, colorful crowd-pleaser, Bélohávek decided to do it again after intermission with Zoltán Kodály’s “Dances of Galánta.” Kodály is technically Hungarian rather than Czech, but Bélohávek led the dances as fluently as he had Dvořák’s celebration, and here the conductor had solved the balance problem so that the opening slow introduction sounded properly rich with oboe color before the folktunes began snapping and darting and generally making the most possible merriment. Both the Kodály and the Dvořák performances had moments where I felt like I was on a roller coaster, just barely following the twists and turns, a physically exhilarating experience.

Of course, an entire program of such pieces would leave you as winded as riding Superman: Ride of Steel five times in a row without stopping, so more serious works were performed as well. Proving that seriousness does not equal quality, Shai Wosner joined the orchestra to perform one of the more colorless versions of Ludwig van Beethoven’s fourth piano concerto that I’ve ever heard. After his quiet chords opened the concerto, he fidgeted nonstop during the orchestral exposition, brushing the keys with his fingertips, adjusting his position, and generally calling unnecessary attention to himself. His actual playing remained quiet and inward, so much so that the orchestra frequently drowned him out despite not playing particularly loudly. Wosner pumped up the volume a bit after the cadenza late in the first movement, but even then nothing in the performance felt particularly meaningful; little in his tone, phrasing, musical line, or anything else conveyed imaginative engagement with the music. Bélohávek and the BSO continued to play with great intensity, holding our attention in the passages in the slow movement in which the piano (in the classic analogy) plays lyrically in the manner of Orpheus trying to escape the stormy chords of the underworld. Here, the underworld sounded like a formidable opponent, plus it’s pretty hard for those passages not to command some attention.

Leos Janacek’s “Taras Bulba” put Bélohávek and the BSO on Czechier ground to close the concert. Here Janacek manipulates motives to spin a tale, in this case three moments in the life of the titular hero; as in many Janacek works, it’s hard to tell exactly how much emphasis to put on the narration versus the music. Bélohávek made the various characters and situations easy to hear but also ensured that the music had an independent logic as thorny, tragic and passionate as the stories on which it was based. The BSO once again played splendidly, vividly bringing out the contrasts and sudden sharp turns in the music, and the closing music showing the ultimate triumph of Taras’ people made me a little misty-eyed — a fitting ending to this concert of Beethoven’s fourth piano concerto and three highly memorable performances.

Other People’s Perspectives: Cecilia Porter. So someone (besides the bunch of people who stood to applaud) enjoyed Wosner’s performance!

Banding Together: “The President’s Own” United States Marine Band at Strathmore, March 12, 2012

March 14, 2012

A world-class ensemble that calls the DMV home played under a renowned guest conductor on Monday night and filled the Music Center at Strathmore. The group played nothing but works composed after 1900 and ended the evening having earned a raucous standing ovation.

Unless you read the title to this post, you’re probably saying “Wait—we have a world-class ensemble that plays Monday night concerts somehow?” But if you did read the title, you know that the group is “The President’s Own” United States Marine Band, which played under Gerard Schwarz, builder of the Seattle Symphony and tireless advocate for American music. He met his match on Monday.

I am trying not to make any military-related puns in this review. Photo from the Marine Band's website.

For sheer quality of playing, “The President’s Own” ranks first among ensembles that call the DMV home. In sustained notes and chords, as in the opening section of Paul Creston’s “Celebration Overture” or the quotation of “Amazing Grace” in Aaron Copland’s “Emblems,” the massed woodwinds blend so well and make such an even sound that you could mistake them for a uniquely rich and seductive organ. Later in the Creston, oboist Master Sergeant Leslye Barrett took her solo melody with the utmost assurance, sustaining a smooth line while remaining expressive, traits shared by all of Monday’s soloists.

The horns never put a foot astray in even the thorniest passages, like the spikier harmonies of “Emblems,” and the brass section matched what seemed to be dozens of distinct colors perfectly to each moment of music. Throughout the concert, the percussion came in right on point and with just as much volume as it needed to; when no percussion is playing, the musicians played in robust but flexible rhythm. And though they saved it for the biggest moments, the Marine Band can fill a hall with more sheer thrilling volume than anyone else. Can a band be as refined a pleasure as a top-flight symphony orchestra? When it’s this good, yes.

At times, conductor Schwarz seemed like a kid in a candy store, picking from each section the specific delights he wanted at any given moment. This was never more true than in the work Schwarz composed for and premiered at this concert, “Above and Beyond.” It began with a trumpet fanfare that bore more than a passing resemblance to the one Copland wrote for the common man, but soon Schwarz called for a slower section that pulsed with wind color. Before the piece, Schwarz told us it described an unspecified journey (he went into excessive detail about all the different types of journey it could be), so obviously the calm mood had to become complicated by thornier music, and the initial fanfare that set off the work had to come back and remind everyone of the motivating impulse for said journey. So not the most original work in the world, but the melodies had a certain felicity, and Schwarz made canny use of the vast capabilities of the band.

Marine Band concerts feature a lot of new-to-me repertoire, and Monday’s edition under Schwarz was no exception, as the audience got familiar with the “Ceremonial” of English composer Bernard Rands. This work sounds like Maurice Ravel’s “Bolero” in a funhouse mirror: both rely solely on repetition of similar-sounding main themes that are initially played by a solo wind instrument (bassoon for Rands) over insistent snare drum accompaniment, then developed with more and more elaborate orchestration. But Rands works in a predominantly minor mode, and between each iteration of his theme ambiguous harmonies tried to throw the monotheme machine out of whack. Rands also elaborates the rhythm as the theme repeats, making it more and more complex, giving the piece another source of internal momentum to fight and evolve against the interruptions. I found myself waiting impatiently to hear what would happen next.

“Lincolnshire Posy,” by Rands’ countryman Percy Grainger, could hardly have been more different — the posy comprises six jaunty arrangements for band of Grainger’s own transcriptions of English folksongs. Here Schwarz led with lilting rhythms and the Marines followed merrily along, enjoying Grainger’s rich colors and occasional flagrant wrong-note interjections. It was a pure crowd-pleaser, unlike “Um Mitternacht” from Gustav Mahler’s Rückert-Lieder, which really was written for only winds and percussion and thus sat in the Marine Band’s wheelhouse. Mahler contrasts the ripeness of his melodies with strange snaps and slides in the accompaniment, and Staff Sergeant Sara Dell’Omo sang with a riveting purity and assurance, especially in the cathartic final stanza when sunlight seems finally to break out over the song.

The only transcription on the program was a doozy: Frank M. Hudson’s resourceful rendering of “Medea’s Dance of Vengeance,” itself adapted by Samuel Barber from his ballet. With the flutes whooping Medea on to greater feats of vengeance and the brass crackling in fury, the orchestral strings were completely forgotten in favor of the icy hand of terror that seemed to be gripping the back of my neck.

My only disappointment with this concert was that, while we did get the Marine Hymn as an encore, we did not get “The Stars and Stripes Forever,” as both a tribute to the U.S.A. and to John Philip Sousa, the Washingtonian who made the band great. Just another reason to check out the Marine Band’s full slate of free concerts, presented almost every Sunday at various DMV locations. They can’t all be as spectacular as Monday’s concert, but in my experience every one has something wonderful to offer, and you’ll be hearing a D.C. institution continuing to do its thing after two-plus centuries of excellence. And perhaps a rousing march in among the masterworks, too.

OTHER THINGS I LIKED ABOUT THIS CONCERT

  • The program notes were exceptionally good.
  • The band’s director, Colonel Michael J. Colburn, gave an articulate, engaging encomium to Schwarz before yielding the stage to the guest conductor. Somehow it did not feel rote like most of these classical-music encomia do, possibly because of the use of jokes and specifics.
  • The freeness and military-ness of the concert attracted a different crowd than usual. It was nice to see kids in flip-flops in the splendor of Strathmore, listening attentively.

Blowin’ on the Winds: Sue Heineman and Paul Cigan at the Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center, February 27, 2012

March 1, 2012

On Monday, the University of Maryland School of Music presented a wind faculty concert featuring bassoonist/Artist-in-Residence Sue Heineman and faculty member/clarinetist Paul Cigan, whose day jobs are with the National Symphony, accompanied by redoubtable pianist Audrey Andrist in the Gildenhorn Recital Hall of the university’s Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center for the price of zero dollars. A free concert in which high-caliber symphonic instrumentalists play solo in a cozy space? That recommends itself. This year’s edition of this long-running series, while not quite my favorite, had enough novel repertoire and delectable playing to make it well worthy anyone’s time.

Sue Heineman, from the U-Md website

Heineman and Cigan split duties right down the middle, with each taking two solo turns and joining forces in two works. Cigan had my favorite new discovery of the evening, Witold Lutoslawski’s five “Dance Preludes” for clarinet and piano. The odd-numbered preludes all sprang forward at near-breathless tempi; Cigan and Andrist handled them with style, enjoying Lutoslawski’s decisive rhythms and witty turns of phrase, including some deliciously witty endings. The even-numbered preludes proceeded at slower tempi and in a more serious mien. Here, Cigan reveled in the coloristic opportunities and phrased his melodies sensitively, while he and Andrist continued to convey the dance pulse beneath it all. The fourth prelude in particular had a haunting intensity, a poised melody with a heartbeat of a rhythm beneath.

Cigan also got to show his timbral chops in the third movement of Olivier Messiaen’s well-known Quartet for the End of Time, “Abime des oiseaux” (“Abyss of the Birds”), in which he made his solo clarinet sing, twitter, echo, and softly swoon as necessary.

Paul Cigan, from the U-Md website

Cigan’s repertoire demanded the full capacities of the clarinet, and he responded; by contrast, Heineman played transcriptions of violin works, putting her own reedy stamp on them. She sounded most idiomatic in Sergei Prokofiev’s second violin sonata (in D, op. 94), playing with the various colors of the instrument as it moves up and down in pitch, stentorian low notes and creamy middles contrasting with astringent highs. Her phrasing, too, sounded entirely bassoonish, with scales well articulated and capped with a little extra breath; I missed the violin only in the fastest runs, which didn’t sound quite as fluent when keyed. My concertgoing companion, who didn’t know the original, could barely believe the sonata had been written for the violin. (And of course, as EvB points out below, it had not been; it was written for the flute. I knew this somewhere in my brain and am embarrassed that this error made it to the blog. My apologies. The preceding was an accurate representation of my thoughts as I listened to the performance, since I didn’t think of that info during the concert either.) Andrist had the full measure of Prokofiev’s spiky accompaniment as well.

A combo of two pieces by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart for violin and orchestra (Adagio in E Major, K. 261, and Rondo in C Major, K. 373), demanded less in terms of extremes of expression and pitch, and while Heineman and Andrist played with Mozartean style and balance, here I did miss the sweetness and brightness of the violin.

Audrey Andrist, from her website. Photo by Stan Barouh

The only work on the whole program actually written for the bassoon was Mikhail Glinka’s “Trio pathetique” for clarinet, bassoon, and piano, and the only problem with Glinka’s trio is that it is terrible, a mix of thundering Romantic gestures that didn’t cohere into themes, much less structures. Although Heineman had to play the role of the cello in American composer Robert Muczynski’s Fantasy Trio, it provided a lot more to savor, with rhythmically pointed yet lyrical themes that stuck in my head, particularly a questing, decisive theme in the finale that sounded like it belonged in some higher-quality “Indiana Jones” sequel. Cigan, Heineman, and Andrist played like they were enjoying the adventure.

The disappointing Glinka ended the concert, the last in a series of minor concert-presentation missteps, most prominent of which was a program that listed the works out of order, without any kind of descriptive notes. The latter would have been fine except that, even in the very relaxed concert atmosphere, Heineman and Cigan didn’t talk at all about the works. A few words from Heineman on why she selected these transcriptions in particular would have been welcome, for example. Still, a lot to enjoy, especially the Lutoslawski and Muczynski. I’ll keep a look out for next year’s show, and if you like excellent free shows, you should do the same.


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