Archive for June 2012

High Fasch-in': Fasch and Friends at All Souls Memorial Episcopal Church, Washington Early Music Festival, June 19, 2012

June 20, 2012

For me, a complete Washington Early Music Festival experience includes a midweek concert at which I don’t know what to expect. The concert by Fasch and Friends on Tuesday at the All Souls Memorial Episcopal Church fit that bill: Johann Friederich Fasch is a fairly obscure German Baroque composer, and potentially his friends would be even more obscure. Plus the program had a unifying and alliterative theme, “The Many Moods of the Minor Mode,” in which the Fasch-ists (too much?) would refute the modern idea that minor key => sad by exploring the different characters of the minor mode in the Baroque. Sold!

I sent Fasch a friend request when I got home. He has not yet responded.

On Tuesday, the super Friends did best championing Fasch and (as hoped) two little-known contemporaries. The group’s namesake was represented by one of his quartet sonatas, which as you might guess had one more melodic part than a trio sonata. In this case, two oboes, played by Sarah Weiner and guest Meg Owens, and William Sherfey’s bassoon joined the continuo, composed of Thomas MacCracken on harpsichord  and Yayoi Barrack on viola da gamba. In this D minor quartet, Fasch played around with the distribution of the melodic material among the three soloists; sometimes the bassoon would dialogue with the oboes playing in unison, and sometimes the oboes would chatter between themselves as the bassoon provided support. With Sherfey sitting across from Weiner and Owens, the dialogic effect came across nicely, and the melodies sounded fresh as a consequence.

A trio in G minor by Georg Philip Telemann for two recorders (Weiner and Sherfey, in another of their many roles on Tuesday) and continuo received another affectionate, stylish performance. But when Weiner took up the oboe for another Telemann trio (this one in A minor) that also featured Sherfey’s recorder, Weiner had trouble compassing the more virtuosic flourishes, starting slightly late and then rushing through to keep up. Barrack had trouble getting her melodies lined up correctly and intoned properly in her solo number, which came in a reconstruction of a trio in E minor by some guy named Johann Sebastian Bach, though as a continuo player she provided strong support in the rest of the concert.

Passing through all the common Baroque minor keys, one could draw few broad conclusions about their various characters; as MacCracken noted, a single minor key can sound very different even within a work. But the various ways a minor key can sound — melancholy, energetic, stately, tranquil — certainly came across, and the minor mode never became monotonous. The diversity of instrumentation helped, and the most notable diversity came in a trio for three recorders and nothin’ else by the Baroque composer and theorist Johann Mattheson. (For those of us who enjoy attempting to pronounce German names in an exaggerated fashion, this concert was pure gold.) Here Weiner, Sherfey, and MacCracken teamed up without the support of basso continuo and kept the music aloft with sparkling interplay, especially in a Gigue finale that induced my foot to tap.

All Souls Church is a handsome space but not the best concert venue; a bird chirped from somewhere in the rafters for the entire evening (though the winds of the Fascians were louder, thank goodness), and the HVAC system apparently would have drowned out the performers, meaning we did not have air conditioning on Tuesday night, which made the church as stifling as you would imagine. Still, a quartet by Johann Gottlieb Janitsch, featuring the most interesting of all the instrumental combinations on Tuesday’s program — flute, oboe, viola, and basso continuo — made it worthwhile to sweat it out until the end of the concert. (The WEMF program makes a very handy fan.)

To play it, Sherfey switched to the harpsichord, MacCracken manned the baroque flute, guest Leslie Nero handled the viola, and Weiner stayed fast on the oboe. After a concertful of sturdy harpsichording, MacCracken made the flute dance nimbly with the other instruments, Nero tossed off her lines with her usual élan, Weiner helped the unusual texture come together, and Sherfey and Barrack anchored the whole thing. I can’t say I had ever heard the name Johann Gottlieb Janitsch before Fasch and Friends introduced his music to me, but I’ll remember this performance — just what you’re looking for when you don’t know what to expect.

I AM NOT MATURE

This is what I thought of when I first read the group name “Fasch and Friends.”

Also, when MacCracken announced that he was grateful for Sherfey agreeing to play the concert even though it was his birthday, I was hoping that the other instrumentalists would play “Happy Birthday” and MacCracken would get us all to sing. Either that or 50’s “In Da Club.” Maybe Sherfey was sad because he apparently does not have a decent bio page on the Internet that I can link to in this review.

From the New World: Baltimore Symphony Orchestra’s “Star-Spangled Symphony” at Meyerhoff, June 17, 2012

June 18, 2012

Tchaikovsky’s “1812 Overture” has bellowed out from every Fourth of July concert an American symphony orchestra has ever given (give or take), despite the fact that it depicts events that did not involve us in any way, specifically the Russian campaign against the man so complex he had a complex named after him. Perhaps our collective embrace of this overlong, hamfisted hodgepodge of themes designed to fire up Russians — who, despite their many virtues, are not Americans ­— is a testament to our national melting pot, in which distinctive characteristics of other people can become part of our common heritage if we say so. Or perhaps, in this age of small arms and laser-guided bombs, we just really like our cannon fire and will take it any way we can get it.

For years I have wished that an enterprising American composer who enjoys royalty checks would write an anthem as rousing, and perhaps of higher quality (Note: not essential), that would specifically celebrate the U.S. of A. and thus supplant “1812” in the national imagination. Was I ever surprised to learn that none other than Philip Glass, master of darkly murmuring ostinatos, had taken up his pen in response to a co-commission by the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra and the Toronto Symphony Orchestra to write an “Overture for 2012″ to commemorate this continent’s War of 1812. Could the B-more native marshal his resources and knock Tchaikovsky from his unlikely perch atop the patriotic pops?

Philip Philip Philip Glass Glass Glass. Photo from his website.

The BSO premiered “Overture for 2012,” under its music director (and Glass devotee) Marin Alsop, on Sunday night in Meyerhoff Symphony Hall. (The Torontonians premiered it simultaneously in wherever they play.) In Baltimore, the “Sailabration” was in full swing, featuring not only tall ships docked in the deep waters of Baltimore’s harbor but also an air show from the Blue Angels. My concertgoing companion and I wandered around the Inner Harbor for most of the afternoon, boarding foreign vessels and occasionally, cued by a sky-rending roar, looking up to glimpse a plane buzzing the skyline. The concert-opening Star-Spangled Banner, which inspired large chunks of the audience to actually sing, further primed the pump for patriotism.

“Overture for 2012″ opens with brass fanfare and percussion, martial in timbre and dense with notes, but both repeat until you notice they aren’t really going anywhere, at least how you’d expect them to in (say) Tchaikovsky. The basic materials of patriotic music, it turns out, fit into Glass’ compositional schema pretty well — both the fanfare and the rhythmic pattern are memorable and full enough of import that you’re willing to listen as they undergo subtle changes, like the image in a kaleidoscope changing as you slowly twist the dial. At one point the music pulses in a kind of Wagnerian bitonality, flashing major and minor without committing to either. Glass introduces another fanfare to push the music to a close, falling and then rising to come back to start, either an ironic comment on the “Up and at ‘em!” character of most fanfares or just something that sounded cool and could further develop the material. Yes, for this occasion Philip Glass composed a work that sounded like about 20 percent John Philip Sousa and 80 percent Glass.

When it was over, I told my concertgoing companion through the din of applause, “Again! I want to hear it again right now!” Still, it’ll take something more blatantly pander-y to supplant Tchaikovsky — the “Bald Eagle Overture” on patriotic themes, featuring lots and lots of cannons, perhaps. But to commemorate a war that the United States only sort of won, a spot of bitonality and some ambivalent fanfares seem exactly the way to go.

The remainder of the program provided a mix of Maryland-centric and United States-centric music that I personally enjoyed even as I noted its flaws. In its non-Glass orchestral selections, the BSO sounded woefully under-rehearsed, making a particularly notable hash of the “Hoe-Down” from Aaron Copland’s score for “Rodeo.” The U.S. Navy Sea Chanters Chorus, as always, looked sparkling and sang characterfully, but they needed microphones to be heard in the hall, and there was a lot of trouble getting the mix right, especially when they sang with the orchestra. Maryland’s governor Martin O’Malley showed up with his band, O’Malley’s March, to sing three songs lauding Baltimore, a noble agenda marred in execution by ear-splittingly loud amplification; the violins of BSO, playing behind the band, might as well have been miming. The concert was apparently being taped for Maryland Public Television, and I assume they’ll fix the mix in post-production.

Fortunately, Alsop, the Navy singers, and the BSO had a trick up their sleeves for the program’s close: a drastically abbreviated version of the “1812 Overture,” using the version prepared by Igor Buketoff in which the hymns that Tchaikovsky outlined orchestrally are actually sung, so everyone can tell that the music is straight outta Russia. Then, as the final prerecorded cannon sound effects fired through the speakers, a pop from above, and confetti fluttered down from the ceiling of the Meyerhoff. It was still raining paper as Alsop and the orchestra took their bows, and as she left the stage, Alsop took a couple quick steps and stooped to grab a piece of confetti, smiling all the while. Apart from the Glass, which as noted I would like to hear again, this concert could well be summed up by that gesture: messy, but fun.

Other People’s Perspectives: Tim Smith. And some more thoughts from Tim Smith on the Glass here. Anne Midgette had a nice preview of the Glass in Sunday’s Post.

Playing with Fire: National Festival Orchestra at the University of Maryland, June 16, 2012

June 18, 2012

From the opening bars of Leopold Stokowski’s transcription of Bach’s Passacaglia and Fugue in C minor for organ, it was clear: Leonard Slatkin had the National Orchestral Institute‘s National Festival Orchestra playing extremely well. As noted previously on this blog appliance, the NOI brings talented young musicians to the University of Maryland’s Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center for a month of high-level instrumental tutelage, leading to four Saturdays of orchestral concerts and some other fun sprinkled throughout the month of June. In years past, the students came together to form the NOI Philharmonic, which is now called the National Festival Orchestra for some reason.

In years past, imperfect string ensemble has been a reliable telltale that they do not play together all the time. Under Slatkin’s baton, though, the lower strings united impressively to state the passacaglia theme, and more impressively they maintained their concentration as they played it over and over and over again until Stokowski’s transcription finally handed it to the brass. Especially in this transcription, the passacaglia and fugue burns slow, and Slatkin kept it on a long trajectory, the violin figurations steadily becoming busier and then approaching a frenzy, until the final moments of the fugue, when the French horns came in blasting the subject like a howitzer.

Leonard Slatkin conducting some other kids, at Interlochen. From his website.

Only the winds failed to impress in the Bach/Stokowski, sounding a bit lost in the counterpoint, but they sounded great in Cindy McTee‘s “Double Play,” next on the program and (exciting!) a DMV premiere. As was his custom when leading new works as music director of the National Symphony Orchestra a few Metro stops south, Slatkin said a few words before the piece but disclosed little that wasn’t already in the program notes. My considered opinion is that if you think a preconcert talk is necessary, you should prepare some excerpts so the audience has some idea what you’re talking about when you discuss the music. To do otherwise accomplishes little.

This lack of new info frustrated especially given that Slatkin and McTee are married, though he did note that “royalties stay in the family.” The performance put his wife’s work in a good light. (Slatkin also led the work’s world premiere with his new band, the Detroit Symphony Orchestra, in 2010.) McTee packed the piece full of gorgeous textures, like in the opening section, “The Unquestioned Answer,” where percussion dappled the sweet, quiet chords in the strings and winds like stars reflected in the lapping tides, pulsing with quiet energy. The “Tempus Fugit” second section, tinged with jazzy harmonies; skittered and wheeled about with great nervous energy that often expressed itself in dueling rhythms. Even though McTee says the two sections can be performed separately, my favorite thing in the whole piece was the transition, with the percussion striking a rhythm against indifferent strings, like a match trying to ignite. Slatkin kept it all humming along. Though McTee did not approach the cosmic wonder of Charles Ives’ “The Unanswered Question,” whose title and musical materials the first section messed around with, the work was still a ton of fun.

I am sure it was just a coincidence that Slatkin led Tchaikovsky’s fifth symphony with the NFO of the NOI a week after his old band played it under their new music director, Christoph Eschenbach. (No, really, I am. Why is my lack of sarcasm not coming across in type?) Anyway, the NFO sounded least professional in this warhorse of a symphony, in both bad and good ways. The orchestra got out of sync in some busy passages, climaxes occasionally sounded more loud than clear, and some of the soloists had trouble keeping their lines going, most notably the horn’s heartbreaking hiccup in the gorgeous melody that begins this symphony’s slow movement.

But a shocking enthusiasm also animated this performance; nothing about it sounded jaded. Those cacophonous climaxes erupted from the music, pinning me back in my seat, especially when contrasting with the more tender music in the slow movement. Desperation and triumph alternated and shot through the finale, the NFO keenly feeling the impact of each different riff on the speedy journey. And there was some fine orchestral playing, particularly when Slatkin and his charges successfully executed some tricky tempo changes, as in a stop-you-dead brusque acceleration during the first movement’s coda.

That moment felt like a rebuke to any hope that had been offered by previous modulations to the major mode, and at that point in the performance I wasn’t thinking about how well Slatkin or the orchestra were doing; I just felt a keen disappointment, straight from the drama of the music. That kind of immediacy, born of freshness and passion, distinguishes NOI performances year after year. It was great to hear it again on Saturday night.

Other People’s Perspectives: Robert Battey.

BREAKFAST AT THE SLATKIN/MCTEE HOUSEHOLD (an imagined dialogue)

“Honey, did you really have to start the diminuendo so early last night?”
“That’s how it is in the score.”
“But you know the score is only a guide for the realization of a performance. In the moment, I didn’t want the diminuendo to begin then.”
“You should probably revise the score. I’ll make a note.”
“But maybe tomorrow the diminuendo will need to begin then. The hall might feel more intimate. You have to feel it and see when it’s going to begin.”
“I have a limited amount of control over these musicians anyway. If they want to play softer they’re going to play softer. If I want them to play some way outside the score, I need to tell them to do that before we perform.”
“Fine.”
<pause>
“Could you go take the trash out?”

Equal to the Task: Les Inégales at St. George’s Episcopal Church, Washington Early Music Festival, June 9, 2012

June 11, 2012

Two members of Les Inégales came down from the Northeast to the Washington Early Music Festival on Saturday night, bringing along contralto Imelda Franklin Bogue and viola da gamba player Anne Legêne for a program titled “Lover’s Quarrels” at St. George’s Episcopal Church in Arlington. The ensemble selected movements from instrumental works to introduce four vocal laments of tempestuous love, thus ensuring that one’s ears did not tire of any one combination of sounds or compositional style, and packed a whole lot of musical incident into 75 intermissionless minutes.

Les Inégales, trading notes. From their Facebook page.

Both of the Inégalistes shone Saturday. Christine Gevert had the advantage of a fantastic harpsichord, sonorous yet tangy with overtones; the church’s diffuse acoustic blunted its twang a bit but could not disguise the incisiveness of her playing. Gevert drove Giovanni Felice Sances’ cantata “Usupator tiranno” forward at an implacable rhythm, mimicking the lover’s thought process and emphasizing the arresting dramatic turn when the rhythm suddenly shifted on the phrase “If you didn’t love me I wouldn’t adore you.” Gevert had the measure of more subtle accompaniment as well, imaginatively voicing her chords and keeping the rhythms light and springy. In her one solo piece, Michelangelo Rossi’s “Settima Toccata,” Gevert relished the free rhythms and the daring harmonies, piling up dissonances and chromatic runs towards the end of the piece like waves crashing on a shore.

St. George’s made Rodrigo Tarraza’s Baroque traverse flutes sound even cooler than normal; in quiet moments, the sound hung in the air like a spectre, making his playing in Francois Couperin’s “The Nightingale of Love” even more evocative. Tarraza carefully shaped the bird-inspired melodies, sounding completely different from the guy who so aggressively ornamented the Preludio movement from Arcangelo Corelli’s Sonata in E minor (Op. 5, No. 8) that it earned him an appreciative, raised eyebrow from Legêne. Throughout the concert, he seemed to relish whatever style he was asked to essay; my favorite was his rendition of Pietro Antonio Locatelli’s Sonata IV in G Major, Op. 2, full of daredevil runs yet always graceful in the melodies.

While Legêne held down her end of the continuo with a nice firm tone, she didn’t show quite as much individuality as Gevert and Tarraza. When she had the spotlight in Marin Marais’ Suite in A minor, the melodies never quite took flight, and in Jean-Marie Leclair’s Trio Sonata Op. 2, No. 8, which gives the gamba and flute equal melodic prominence, Tarraza’s flute made the gamba recede from the picture a little.

Bogue’s first couple songs sounded like a stream of vowels, as the church swallowed up her consonant sounds. It is a tribute to the songs themselves and Bogue’s sharp characterizations thereof that these performances still commanded attention. Bogue corrected the problem in her performance of “Dolce pur d’amor l’affanno,” an Italian cantata by George Frideric Handel (the most famous composer on the program by far), setting the stage for Handel’s “Mi palpita il cor”: the concert’s finale, its longest work, and the first piece on Saturday to feature all four musicians at once.

Here the group exploded into the opening section, whose one line of text translates as “My heart throbs, and I do not understand why,” with Gevert and Legêne attacking hard and Bogue soaring and swooping in a musical statement all the more powerful for its concision. When Handel gave them a whole aria and allowed Tarraza to join the fun, the passion became less concentrated but more richly detailed and expressive, Bogue lamenting in luminous voice above keen playing from the three instrumentalists. A fierce following recitative led to an even more expressive closing aria, contrasting the hope of contentment in love with the turmoil that had preceded it.

This climactic performance, not to mention all the well-chosen, expertly sequenced music that preceded it, fit perfectly this year’s WEMF theme, “Vices & Virtues — Passionate Music of Early Europe.” It also led to an unusual amount of applause from a grateful audience, one of whose members was moved to stand up and urge his cohort to bring someone folks half their age to the next festival concert they attended, to ensure the future of classical music. (Or something like that; I didn’t write it down.) I don’t know whether mere exposure can produce an affinity for this music, but a concert like the one Les Inégales presented Saturday would be the thing to do it.

GO TO SOME MORE WASHINGTON EARLY MUSIC FESTIVAL CONCERTS

It’s a nice laid-back atmosphere, in a neighborhood church somewhere near a Metro station, with people who really enjoy music both onstage and in the audience. You don’t have to dress up or know much about what you’re hearing — most of the audience hasn’t heard anything in these concerts before. Actually, they would be pretty awesome concerts to drag young people to, although I was probably half that dude’s age so who knows. Anyway, I cannot stress enough how much I look forward to WEMF concerts.

Dear Summer: Washington Early Music Festival and National Orchestral Institute

June 4, 2012

Just wanted to write a quick note about the onrushing plethora of interesting concerts in D.C. Anne Midgette had a fuller breakdown in Sunday’s Post, but my upcoming highlights are the Washington Early Music Festival and the National Orchestral Institute and Festival.

The biannual WEMF presents mostly local groups specializing in Baroque and before, though this year as in the past some outstanding out-of-towners are sprinkled in. Everything in the following paragraph from the WEMF’s “About” page is correct:

The Festival demographics include a younger and more diverse audience than is often seen at many music events. The audiences include students, families, and young couples as well as the more mature audience support base typical of early music events. It also draws a highly educated and sophisticated group of business and government people. Our audiences are enthusiastic. We have an established and loyal audience base. It is also common for us to see new people attending one concert, becoming excited about the Festival program, and returning to attend several more concerts.

For example, I will be attempting to cajole my fiancee into attending three WEMF concerts this month — the Les Inegales performance on June 9, “Fasch and Friends” exploring the doctrine of affects on June 19, and Hesperus scoring “The Hunchback” on June 30. Typically the performers talk about why they like the music they’re playing and play like they’re really enjoying it, and the churches in which they play run small enough to allow them to connect with the audience. At WEMF shows, it’s not uncommon for me to hear something I’ve never heard before and love it immediately, which is one of the great pleasures of concertgoing.

The only thing stopping me from attending more WEMF shows, besides my employment, is the NOI. For a quarter of a century the NOI has been bringing student musicians to College Park to teach them the ways of the orchestral trade, and oh yeah to also put on some inspiring concerts, played with all the passionate conviction that has not yet been stripped from them by post-graduation disappointment and consequent cynicism. I felt strongly enough about NOI’s awesomeness to write a feature about it a while back, and everything there remains true. I’m going to hear Leonard Slatkin conduct the youths on June 16, and of course I’ll be there for this year’s edition of the “New Lights” chamber music concert, since it so dazzled me in 2010.

The NOI is full of young people. This is last year’s NOI, but it’s always the same. Photo by Stan Barouth.

Those aren’t all the concerts I am attending in June — I am so there for the Philip Glass world premiere that the Baltimore Symphony is presenting as part of its War of 1812 bicentennial, assuming I can figure out how to fit it in with the Nats game I may be attending earlier that day. If kind weather and a free evening present themselves simultaneously, our various military bands always offer an attractive pops program and scenic prospect. I may also add another group or two if I can. (I am supposedly planning a wedding now, too.) But I wanted to call the greater Internet’s attention to WEMF and NOI, two stalwarts of early summer and great places to plop you butt down in air conditioning and hear some personal, joyful, inspired music-making.


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