Archive for the ‘Concert review’ category

Narrative through Notes: Brian Ganz at the Music Center at Strathmore, February 22, 2014

February 25, 2014

The fourth in Brian Ganz‘s series of concerts at the Music Center at Strathmore traversing the piano works of Frederic Chopin was titled “Chopin, the Storyteller,” but Ganz has always been telling stories through Chopin’s music, stories that help to animate everything from the earliest mazurka to the most celebrated ballade. The 2014 installment of the series just put it in the title.

Ganz addressing the Strathmore crowd on Saturday. Photo from his Facebook page.

Ganz addressing the Strathmore crowd on Saturday. Photo from his Facebook page.

As always, Ganz provided some remarks from the stage that were stimulating if you knew Chopin’s music well and helpful to focus your attention if you were exploring the repertoire through this concert. Ganz found evidence of Chopin’s narrative gift in his music’s immediacy (especially as Chopin worked with shorter forms), pacing, and his courage to explore the darker places. Fair assessments all!

Yet I was struck anew at this concert by the tension Chopin gets from ambiguity: the same phrase recast with a slight flicker in harmony that calls into question what’s come before, or a melody proceeding tentatively, doubling back on itself, unsure of where to take its next step. Ganz draws out these details, and it’s what makes his performances of works like the Mazurka in A minor, Op. 17 no. 4, so remarkable. I’ve rarely wanted to both sit in stillness for a minute and stand up and cheer like I did after Ganz played this music on Saturday.

Ganz also keeps a sure rhythmic sense through all his careful explorations, which helped animate performances of the two Op. 65 waltzes that were somewhat slower than you often hear, and which made the Variationes brilliantes and the concert-closing Scherzo No. 4 as dazzling as the composer intended. It’s of a piece with his overall approach, which balances in-the-moment concentration and spontaneity with a keen feeling for the overall shape of the work.

The most dramatic test of Ganz’s concentration and hold over the audience came in his performance of the Ballade no. 4 in F minor. As he wound up to a grand climax of fortissimo chords, he leaned back just a little, milking a pause. During the silence, someone in the chorister seats shouted “All right!”, sounding like Otto the bus driver from “The Simpsons.” The audience tittered, and suddenly the spell cast by the performance seemed fragile. Yet Ganz trusted himself and the music, playing five soft chords slowly, with a ringing tone, to bring everything back to Chopin.

The National Philharmonic of Montgomery County, which sponsors Ganz’s series, will host Ganz on March 8 and 9 to play some more Chopin, specifically the first piano concerto. If you missed last Saturday’s concert, it’s another opportunity to hear an outstanding Chopin interpreter doing what he does best.


The National Philharmonic has a commendable “All Kids Free, All the Time” policy that allows those from ages 7 to 17 to attend without paying. This has undoubtedly exposed many youths to inspiring music. On Saturday, it exposed the 7-year-old-looking boy in front of me to what seemed to be his worst nightmare, as incredibly antsy boredom in the concert’s first half yielded to desperate appeals for sleep in the second half, appeals only answered when he took it upon himself to go to sleep on the floor, to much murmuring from the adults who had dragged him to the concert. He remained asleep after the concert ended and he was picked up from the floor. The whole thing was remarkably distracting. I am not sure whether there are any larger lessons to be drawn from it, but it seemed worth mentioning.

A Place of Greater Safety: 18th Street Singers at First Trinity Lutheran Church, January 24, 2014

January 27, 2014

Unlike the other 18th Street Singers concerts I’ve heard, there was zero pop music in this year’s winter program (which I caught on Friday; it was repeated on Saturday). Instead, artistic director Benjamin Olinksy and the chorus presented a program entitled “Beauty in the Cathedral” (although they sang in their usual winter-concert spot, First Trinity Lutheran Church). The program juxtaposed ancient polyphony by the likes of Josquin Desprez and Tomás Luis de Victoria with modern works influenced by the old styles from composers like Sergei Rachmaninov, Maurice Duruflé, and Herbert Howells.

The music played well to the 18th Streeters’ strengths: With Olinsky conducting, their sound blossoms warmly even in dissonances or tight contrapuntal spaces (although the sopranos sometimes became screechy at the top of their range on Friday, with the altos occasionally disappearing). Just as important as their sound, they make sure you can hear the words they are singing, so you can actually follow the effects the composers used to illuminate the texts.

As if to prove the point, a couple of pairs of settings presented the thoughts of ancients versus moderns, with versions of “Exsultate Deo” by Palestrina and Francis Poulenc providing an especially piquant contrast: smooth Renaissance homophony and rhythmic oddities and dissonances, the same words filtered through different musical notions of joy and exaltation.

The Singers did an especially good thing in presenting Howells’ Requiem, a work underheard in concert. Howells juxtaposes impassioned settings of brief fragments of the requiem text with settings of answering psalms that begin as monody but blossom into more. The whole thing is not a note longer than it needs to be and more powerful for it, as Howells perfectly integrates his Tudor influences into a personal style and structure. Olinsky led a performance that met Howells’ passion with equal fervor from the singers.

Howells would probably have enjoyed this performance. From the Howells Trust.

Howells would probably have enjoyed this performance. From the Howells Trust.

Howells’ Requiem was the only large-scale work on the program; otherwise, shorter works in which rhythm typically took a back seat to harmony dominated. Individually, they expressed the theme of “sanctuary” that Olinsky outlined in remarks during the concert; collectively, they sometimes felt like a series of applications of balm to already well-moisturized skin, especially in the nice warm acoustic of First Trinity. “Tomorrow shall be my dancing-day,” a Christmas carol a little late, got the pulse up before intermission. Johann Sebastian Bach’s “Komm, Jesu, komm,” should have done the same to end the concert, but the choir didn’t bring out rhythmic vigor of the motet’s fugal section.

Still, this concert was an achievement for Olinsky and the 18th Street Singers, who continue to present concerts largely composed of semi-obscure music that becomes fresh and vital in their performances. Plus, they filled a church with people to hear it! As the strains of “Shenandoah,” an obligatory song for this group, echoed in an encore, you could feel the community in the room – the music had become a personal offering from the singers to the audience. In this sense too, the group created a space of sanctuary on Friday night.

I’ll Be Baroque For Christmas: Bach Sinfonia at Montgomery College Cultural Arts Center, December 14, 2013

December 15, 2013

The annually recurring problem for Christmas-concert presenters: Do you gently tweak the standard Holiday Classix and risk boredom among your more inquisitive types? Or do you bring in something completely novel, skirting the edge of that indefinable quality of “Christmassy”?

The Bach Sinfonia, in its first holiday concert, probably had a little more room to operate than most, since people coming to the Sinfonia expect to hear something unfamiliar, or something they know in an unfamiliar way. Saturday’s concert offered both and, despite occasional hiccups, succeeded in both teaching a few things and celebrating the season.

Conductor and artistic director Daniel Abraham told the audience that this was one of the few local concerts to emphasize instrumental Christmas music, and the Sinfonia delivered a sparkling performance of Arcangelo Corelli’s Op. 6 no. 8 concerto grosso, designated as a “Christmas concerto,” with textures clear in the small ensemble and vibrant rhythms driven by the indefatigable Douglas Poplin on violoncello. The performance of Giuseppe Torelli’s Op. 8 no. 6, with its ending pastorale specifically designated for Christmas, had the same virtues but also a few spectacular violin flubs.

Most of the highlights came when Nola Richardson was singing. She has an agile, pretty soprano voice that worked extremely well in Bach’s challenging  cantata “Jauchzet Gott in allen Landen.” Richardson confidently traversed its many, many, many runs while pronouncing all those unruly German diphthongs and remembering/managing to ornament the repeats. In the slower aria, with a chance to catch her breath, her voice really shone, with just a little vibrato and expressive tone that captured the anticipation of Advent effectively.


Photo of Nola Richardson from her website, taken by Joan Pedersen in 2009.

Richardson also sang a wonderful “Let the bright seraphim” from Handel’s “Samson,” with trumpeter Stanley Curtis proving a more effective foil here than he did in the cantata. The “Domine Deus” from Vivaldi’s “Gloria” was an unexpected repertoire choice, but I’d listen to Richardson sing it in almost any context, and the music tied into Abraham’s theme of Christmas as expressed through the pastorale. The “Pifa” pastorale from Handel’s “Messiah” accomplished the triple win of fitting in with the rest of the program, actually being from the Christmas part of that seldom-heard oratorio, and allowing us to hear Richardson sing a really brisk “Rejoice greatly,” which was a good idea.

Richardson was also by far the best singer during the audience sing-alongs. Lacking in significant familial duties and needing pocket money, I reviewed an absolute ton of holiday concerts during my time at the Post, and the single most challenging sing-along in which I have ever participated was on Saturday: Trying to navigate the original rhythm of the “Coventry Carol,” which apparently mixed and matched duple and triple rhythms within the bars of the refrain. It was kind of bewildering, but also strange and beautiful, and I learned something new about the carol while still being plunged into the Christmas spirit.

Other People’s Perspectives: Joan Reinthaler.

In Their Orbits: Baltimore Symphony Orchestra at the Music Center at Strathmore, November 8, 2013

November 10, 2013

The Baltimore Symphony Orchestra gave Gustav Holst’s “The Planets”  the “Off the Cuff” treatment on Friday at the Music Center at Strathmore. In this series, music director Marin Alsop prefaces the full performance of the lucky opus with a discussion, as the BSO plays little illustrative snippets of the work as well as related music.

Because I am going to complain a bit about the pre-concert discussion, now is the time to state very clearly that the main point of going to a concert is to hear great music, and Alsop and the BSO delivered just about everything you want to hear in a performance of “The Planets” on Friday. The performance burst with color and energy of nearly (wait for it) astronomical proportions. (Joke sold!)

None of those little rocks gets its own movement because no one on Earth believed they had any influence on our personalities. Photo from National Geographic.

None of those little rocks gets its own movement because no one on Earth believed they had any influence on our personalities. Photo from National Geographic.

The horns, in particular, turned it loose, giving their dissonances an almost physcial force in “Mars,” bumping along merrily with a round, rich sound in “Jupiter,” pounding home the rhythm in “Neptune.” The basses, so often playing without cellos over them in Holst’s suite, made a solid shelf of sound even when quietly underpinning the rest of the ensemble. First among its excellent efforts, the BSO’s percussion section gave us some perfectly on-point glockenspiel playing, and I kept being reminded on Friday how important that is in “The Planets.” The offstage chorus in “Neptune,” the women of the Baltimore Choral Arts Society, sat way up in the top tier of the hall so no one could tell where they were, giving additional effectiveness to their otherworldly ostinatos. The only quibble I can come up with is that sometimes the internal machinations of the orchestra in fast passages didn’t come off completely clearly, but Alsop did a great job guiding the orchestra through Holst’s complex rhythms and hemiolas while keeping up forceful momentum throughout.

Before the concert, Alsop discussed Holst’s conception of the planets, largely drawn from astrology, and she brought in astrophysicist Dr. Mario Livio, of the Hubble Space Telescope Science Institute, to discuss the real planets. No attempt was made to bridge the discussions, and it wasn’t clear which discussion was supposed to be more illuminating for the concert. The gorgeous photos of the real planets shown while the music was being played heightened the confusion, as we saw Venus’ clouds of sulfuric acid and remembered Dr. Livio’s discussion of Venus’ typical high temperatures in the 800s while listening to the winds and (dynamite) glockenspiel paint a peaceful picture.

Alsop also kept pronouncing Holst’s name “Holts,” and in general sounded a little more detatched than she has in some of her discussions, rattling off an evidently prewritten discussion of the life of the composer at hyperspeed. She did a good job highlighting the tritone interval but then almost apologized for having done so, apparently deciding that the info was too technical for a general audience. The “Off the Cuff” people are here to learn — bring on the intervallic discussion!

On the plus side, Alsop made some good jokes, and heaven knows classical music can stand a few more laffs. Dr. Livio brought a similar sense of humor and a genial stage presence worthy of a man who’s made a second professional success in the realm of popularizing science. And the turn of the images onscreen from Neptune to evocations of Voyager leaving the solar system, as the Choral Arts Society folks sang us out, added an extra sensation to the already transcendent fade-out, capping a tremendously satisfying performance. Just a little more care with the “Off the Cuff” elements, specifically the exposition and how to juxtapose astronomy and astrology, would have made for an evening that was (I’m going to do it again) out of this world.


Well, I haven’t. It’s been three years and still no competition for Big Gustav in the realm of instrumental planets-themed suites from the legendary hip-hop producer, meaning I cannot make a playlist juxtaposing G. Holst and A. Young side-by-side, which would pretty much be the highlight of my music-fan life. Oddisee, step into the breach for the DMV!

The Trumpets Shall Sound: Bach Sinfonia at Montgomery College Cultural Arts Center, October 5, 2013

October 6, 2013

Any discussion of a concert of Baroque-period trumpets must keep in mind that the instruments themselves can barely be played. They don’t have valves to help find the sound; you have to find the note yourself and pray that it’s the right one. The mouthpiece gives no mercy if you’re not properly squared up — nothing will happen at all. Hearing these instruments live is like watching a NASCAR race; even if all the drivers are performing to the peak of their capabilities, you know someone’s probably going to crash. It’s hard to find people who can play them at all, much less play them well.

So when seven Baroque trumpeters (plus a trombone player, a timpanist, and an organist) took the stage at Montgomery College’s Cultural Arts Center in Silver Spring under the auspices of the Bach Sinfonia, it was a rare occasion indeed. And in a program that challenged the players with early trumpet repertoire, Barry Baugess, Joshua Cohen, Stanley Curtis, Joelle Monroe, Rick Murrell, Elisa Koehler, and Douglas Wilson showed that they can tussle with this beast of an instrument and get it to make a rousing and accurate noise. Most of the time.

Barry Bauguess, clutching the cutest lil' trumpet used all night. Photo from his website.

Barry Bauguess, clutching the cutest lil’ trumpet used all night. Photo from his website.

Of course, even when played well, the instruments are limited to one key and don’t give composers many timbral variations to work with either. They do make some dynamite entrance music, as monarchs throughout the ages have realized, but two hours of fanfares or music that constantly threatens to become a fanfare occasionally became a little tedious, even with the sheer force of the sonorities pealing out from the stage.

Some composers managed to find novel ways of working with these instruments. Heinrich Ignaz Franz Biber’s music never fails to be interesting, and his “Sonata A7″ for six of the trumpets and Barry Bocaner‘s trombone had a bright, well-articulated antiphonal style (realized somewhat sloppily on Saturday), while the “Sonata Sancti Polycarpi A9″ exploited the trumpets’ lower registers to fine effect. Giovanni Buonaventura Viviani actually tried to write an Adagio for solo trumpet in his second sonata for solo trumpet and organ, which Murrell did a fine job caressing into expressiveness. John Stanley’s Suite no. 1 of trumpet voluntaries had tripping rhythms and peppy melodies, which Cohen rendered in style. And the trumpeters traded bars from the balconies in duets by Biber and Romanus Weichlein, giving an additional element of spatial interest to already-interesting close harmonies and chromatics.

Solo pieces for the timpani and organ served as welcome aural breaks from the brass brightness: Michelle Humphreys played Jacques Danican Philidor’s “March for the Kettledrums” with the warm tone and rhythmic vitality that characterized her playing all evening long, and Joseph Gascho dashed off Stanley’s organ voluntary in E minor with ease and flair.

Still, if there are seven trumpeters in attendance, you probably came to hear ‘em all a-blazing at once. The concerto for all seven trumpets and timpani that closed the evening has been attributed to Johann Ernst Altenburg, although no one knows its true author. Anyone would want to be associated with its splendorous, expansive writing as it was rendered on Saturday: seven brilliant-sounding trumpets in a small space, textures of the shimmering bright sound shifting harmonically and spatially between banks of trumpets, the timpani driving the action. It was exactly what you want to hear when you come to a concert titled “100 Feet of Brass.”


Normally I am not too fond of the idea of going to a pre-concert lecture, especially on weekdays when attendance would prevent me from eating dinner betwixt work and music. But the Bach Sinfonia concerts are on Saturdays, meaning there’s time to attend such things with careful planning. So I always try to get there for at least some of the pre-concert discussion, where music director Daniel Abraham engages the performers in discussion of the broader historic context of the works being performed, the instruments being used to perform them, and anything else a body might need to know. Because so much of the Sinfonia’s repertoire is rare or underheard, and because the instruments are so different from the modern ones, I generally learn something that deepens my understanding of the music to come. And that’s part of what period-instrument concerts are about – the opportunity to understand, as best we can from our modern vantage point, what was going on back then. For example, on Sunday I got to hear a story about how trumpet guilds used to beat the tar out of anyone who played the trumpet without the proper authorization.

The Royal Treatment: Jeffrey Cohan and the Capitol Hill Chamber Music Festival, July 19, 2013

July 21, 2013

Louis XIV knew how to live. The Sun King, a devotee of music, did not have access to an iPod to play his favorite tunes, so he had the royal music librarian, Andre Danican Philidor, compile from the works of court composer Jean-Baptiste Lully several suites that mix movements from operas and more abstract works just as we would assemble playlists. Then, of course, Louis had an orchestra of royal musicians who essayed these suites every night — these were not considered grand events but rather “les petits Concerts.” It’s good to be the king.

All of that (except the first and last sentences) I learned on Friday at the second and final concert of this year’s Capitol Hill Chamber Music Festival, once again masterminded by flutist and tireless repertoire-diver Jeffrey Cohan. It was Cohan who found the manuscript of Philidor’s work in the Bibliotheque Nationale in Paris, as he engagingly described in pre-concert remarks. For Friday’s concert he brought together veterans of the DMV period-instrument scene to make us all feel like kings for an evening: violinist Risa Browder, violist Leslie Nero, and John Moran on the viola da gamba.

Jeffrey Cohan, from his website.

Jeffrey Cohan, from his website.

I declare it to have been cool simply on a historic level to hear six of the sixty-seven suites Philidor prepared for Louis le Grand: if you closed your eyes, perhaps you were no longer in St. Mark’s Episcopal Church on Capitol Hill but chillin’ at Versailles after a long day of worrrying about the War of Spanish Succession. However, as the preceding sentence may have implied, from a musical perspective these specific Lully selections had a certain serenity that may have soothed the royal nerves one suite at a time but that was less compelling over the span of a two-hour concert.

Still, Lully wrote a lot of characterful music, and the king could hardly have avoided picking some of it: an aggressive repetition of close notes to suggest a hunting party bearing down on its prey, strutting fanfares for “La Descente de Mars,” a ringing “Chaconne de Cadmus” to close out the evening. And the more sedate music had its own eloquence; I found myself getting more and more into Lully as the evening went on and I became accustomed to his style, seeing the endless variations within patterns that must have delighted the king.

The assembled musicians had some trouble entering and exiting at the appropriate spots, perhaps inevitable given the completely unfamiliar program; “Les Zephirs” had to be restarted after a quiet word from Browder on where exactly everyone was supposed to come in.

But when the musicians alinged, they showed an easy and winning familiarity with French Baroque style that no doubt comes with playing it for about a million hours. (They also managed to keep their instruments in tune throughout, astonishing considering the tropical heatwave conditions outside.) The single most dramatic moment of the concert featured Cohan duetting with Moran, Cohan springing and swaying about as he sustained a poignant melodic line, Moran closely watching him to make sure they landed in the same place. It came off beautifully.

Even with its flaws, this was the best kind of period performance: the one that allows you to imagine yourself in the period, to forget about the nonsense outside and explore a different world. Once again, Cohan’s festival provided an oasis in the midst of summer.

Other People’s Perspectives: Grace Jean.

Keeping it Light: The U.S. Marine Band on the West Terrace of the U.S. Capitol, June 19, 2013

June 20, 2013

It may be banal to start with talk of the weather, but Wednesday was a beautiful night in our nation’s capital: sunny, warm but not hot, drier than normal, a light breeze to waft away one’s cares. In such weather, it seems a shame to spend an evening indoors, even for classical fans. What to do?

Go to a free band concert, of course. No groups play music outdoors better than bands, which were originally designed for that purpose, and no band I’ve heard surpasses “The President’s Own” U.S. Marine Band, not only in sheer quality of playing but also in imaginative selection of repertoire and audience-friendly presentation. The weather may have boosted the pleasurability of Wednesday’s concert, but it would have been a lovely listen even in the stinking heat more common to DMV summers. (Note to stinking heat: Please do not take this as an invitation to arrive.)

A not-unpleasant vista on a summer's eve. Photo by the author.

A not-unpleasant vista on a summer’s eve. Photo by the author.

The concert began and ended with marches: Karl L. King’s “The Mystic Call,” with effervescent flutes swirling above jolly tromping bass, and Louis Saverino’s “March of the Women Marines,” more straightforwardly ebullient. But much of the remaining repertoire showed off the band’s ability to play at a more relaxed tempo. John Mackey’s “Hymn to a Blue Hour” fit the twilight time perfectly, with the sky just beginning to darken after the sun set over Pennsylvania Avenue. The Marine Band made its harmonies glisten and shimmer, while Captain Michelle A. Rakers guided them effectively to a stirring climax and heart-rending denouement. The opening “night prayer” tune in the overture to Engelbert Humperdinck’s “Hansel and Gretel” sounded similarly luminous, like a candle flame with hands cupped to protect it against the wind.

GySgt Sara Dell’Omo, moderating the concert, did a great job of introducing these works, which doubtless were unfamiliar to an audience including many children and at least one faultlessly quiet dog. She narrated some history about the works, but she also took care to associate a particular image with each piece – Mackey at his upright piano with the sounds of the city swirling around him, Hansel and Gretel huddling in the forest, the swirling river in Ron Nelson’s “Savannah River Holiday Overture” contrasted with the quiet on its banks. This is an extremely helpful way to bring in people who might feel adrift in music with an obvious narrative thrust but no words to go by.

Sara Dell'Omo, courtesy Marine Band (though her hair was different on Wednesday).

Sara Dell’Omo, courtesy Marine Band (though her hair was different on Wednesday).

Those people got a double bonus when Dell’Omo picked up another microphone to sing two tunes with lyrics by Johnny Mercer, the poppiest part of a pretty meaty program for something outside. She had the brassy “Pardon My Southern Accent” down pat but occasionally was drowned out by the band’s otherwise-discreet amplification. No such problems arose in her “Moon River,” which had many members of the audience quietly murmuring along, in a way people can really only do outside without other people getting mad.

The showstopper on Wednesday, though, was James Barnes’ “Duo Concertante,” a brief concerto for trumpeter MSgt Christian Ferrari and euphonium soloist SSgt Hiram Diaz, both of whom played with astonishing precision while never making a sour noise on their temperamental instruments. The fast outer movements bristled with activity, and the dueling cadenzas had me on the edge of my seat, but the heart of this work is the slow middle movement, where Barnes spins soaring melodic lines from a five-note motive. The Marine Band once again excelled in making gorgeous hushed tones, and the two soloists effortlessly spun out their elaborations of the central motive, intertwining with each other, the band and, it sometimes seemed, the gently darkening evening around them. I’m going to try to hit all the other military bands’ Capitol concerts this summer, and I expect a lot of fun, but it’ll be hard to top this one.

“The President’s Own” U.S. Marine Band appears each Wednesday night on the West Terrace of the Capitol and each Thursday night at Yards Park, weather permitting. July 10 and 11 are the 215th anniversary concerts, which will feature a new work written for the occasion by John Williams.

Come Together: National Orchestral Institute at the University of Maryland, June 8, 2013

June 9, 2013

Every year, the National Orchestral Institute brings talented young musicians from across the country to the University of Maryland to make music together and otherwise deepen their craft. The NOI Festival challenges its charges right off the bat, with each player assigned to a chamber orchestra that has one week to prepare a piece and play it without a conductor. In the past, the students have met this impossible challenge surprisingly well. On Saturday night, the results were a little more mixed.

Young, talented people hard at work. Courtesy Alison Harbaugh.

Young, talented people hard at work. Courtesy Alison Harbaugh.

Conveniently for your reviewer, this program repeated three pieces from this similar concert in 2010′s NOI Festival. (The young persons likely had no idea, of course, and I confess I forgot until I looked back at the earlier review in writing this one.) The first repeat on the program engaged the services of the young percussionists gathered in College Park, as nothing on the rest of the program demanded anything but timpani.

In the above-linked 2010 review, I begged for a program note for Hungarian composer Aurél Holló’s “José/beFORe JOHN5,” and yes I typed that name correctly, thanks. In 2013, my wish was fulfilled with a spectacular note, mostly taken up with Holló’s explanations of the basis of the “beFORe JOHN” series, which is based on the number 153. Said explanation in turn contained a diagram, a quote from the Apostle John, numerological analysis of the many fascinating properties of the number in question, and an explanation that “José” is fifth in the series (thus the exponent to the fifth power…I guess) and an attempt to capture a Spanish influence.

The four percussionists tasked with realizing this vision did so with verve, looking confident as they moved from clapping their hands to face-to-face duet marimba to banging an acoustic guitar with sticks. I didn’t count beats to find the 153, but they kept the work locked in a groove with very few wobbles, and as the work progressed its structure became clear and gained power. It reminded me of my constant wish for more all-percussion concerts — the timbres are more varied than folks think (as you can hear by listening to that YouTube link above), and there are so many interesting things contemporary composers are doing for these ensembles.

So that was the first five minutes. Alberto Ginastera’s “Variacones concertantes” then kept the Latin tinge going and gave each section of the first chamber orchestra an opportunity to strut its stuff. This piece featured the best playing of the evening, including lovely cello-and-harp and double bass-and-harp duets to limn the evocative theme, lush strings in the first variation and to accompany ripe horns in the horn-focused variation, and eloquent wind playing in solos (though busier passages sometimes got messy). Most of all, they played with a rhythmic energy that served Ginastera well, especially in the rousing finale.

After intermission, we had Richard Wagner’s “Siegfried Idyll” and the only non-repeat from 2010, the suite from Igor Stravinsky’s “Pulcinella.” The “Idyll” passed pleasantly but somewhat fuzzily, with strings not quite together for stretches and the horns not as bright and secure as those who had played in the Ginastera.

“Pulcinella,” though, made it clear why orchestras normally use conductors, starting in the opening measures with the worst attempt at a unison trill that I have ever heard. In this ballet, someone really needs to decide how everyone is going to handle Baroque phrasing as refracted through Stravinsky’s piquant orchestration, but everyone on Saturday had a slightly different idea from his or her fellows. The strings felt each other out and became more unanimous as the suite progressed, but it wasn’t quite enough to make “Pulcinella” come to life.

These kids’ll have a conductor (specifically, Rossen Milanov) next week and for the two Saturdays after that, and they’ll develop over the month they spend at the NOI. Were I available to attend them, I’d still go to the upcoming concerts — I’ve heard enough of the NOI over the years to know that bringing musicians this talented together often makes magic in music, even though it mostly didn’t happen on Saturday night.

The NOI’s Saturday-night shindigs continue through June 29, but there are also free chamber concerts and a performance of “Peter and the Wolf” for the kids. See here for details. 

Saint-Saëns Sings: Jean-Philippe Collard and the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra at the Music Center at Strathmore, May 25, 2013

May 26, 2013

Camille Saint-Saëns wrote five piano concertos, all of which give hearty Romantic piano-concerto satisfaction upon even a casual listen, but only the second has achieved much of a foothold in the repertory. The Baltimore Symphony Orchestra showed enterprise in programming the third concerto for their concerts last weekend, including Saturday’s edition at the Music Center at Strathmore. They also showed wisdom in getting Jean-Philippe Collard to do the solo work and Carlos Kalmar to guest-wield the baton.

Jean-Philippe Collard

Jean-Philippe Collard

Collard knows as much about Camille Saint-Saens’ piano concertos as anyone, having recorded a well-regarded set of all five with André Previn back in the late ’80s. (It’s nine bucks now and well worth it.) On Saturday night, he seemed to have the overall map of the third concerto in his head as well as the tiny details of articulation. (He actually played with a score, but he turned the pages himself and didn’t look at it a whole lot.)

The concerto begins with a murmuring figure from the piano, over which the horns and winds loft the first statement of the main theme; in Collard’s hands, this figure held portents, with a golden tone suggesting treasures to come. The BSO solosists responded with equally sensitive playing. When Saint-Saëns called upon the pianist to quicken the pulse, Collard brought the theme out clearly from the thicket of forbiddingly difficult chords the composer wrote for himself to play.

Throughout, Collard showed ample facility at virtuoso pyrotechnics, but whenever possible he preferred to caress his notes, creating anticipation and moments of poetic stillness without losing forward momentum. Yet when playing with the orchestra, he stayed at tempo, and Kalmar and the orchestra did a great job playing with Collard. The Andante second movement felt like one sustained breath, the BSO and Collard taking turns safeguarding the hushed atmosphere until it felt disappointing that the catchy finale theme had to come in. Collard made the most of his statements of that theme, pausing for that delicious split-second to really swing the melody hard. He got called back three times by an applauding audience, and he deserved it.

Kalmar, music director of the Oregon Symphony and no stranger to the Baltimorean podium, has become known for (among other things) idea-driven, inventive programming. Saturday’s concert surrounded the Saint-Saëns with two works that subtly resonated with each other. Narong Prangcharoen’s “Phenomenon” led off the program with blasting brass and drums tattooing a relentless rhythm, succeeded immediately by eerie, melting string glissandi. The glissandi represent the Naga Fireballs, which appear at the bottom of the Mekong River, ride to the surface, and disappear into the sky. Wikipedia, the wet blanket of the Internet, refers to said phenomenon as “unconfirmed,” but as for Prangcharoen, he believes: The rest of this piece celebrates the fireballs, the legend behind them, and the general festive atmosphere that such fireballs would obviously create through their general awesomeness. Brass and drums still drive the celebration, but occasionally accompanying figures in the violins or winds get promoted to lead melody, straddling the pulsing beat to emphasize how fast everything else is going. Kalmar knew just how to bring out the melodic elements while thrusting the music forward, and the BSO’s brass (especially) leapt to the challenge.

After intermission, the opening of a Kalmar-selected suite from Prokofiev’s “Romeo and Juliet” echoed that of “Phenomenon,” with crashing dissonant brass and percussion, and one could find a more subtle echo in the subsequent dance rhythms, driving the narrative along perhaps a little less insistently. (I enjoy such echoes, anyway.) Unlike the Prangcharoen and Saint-Saëns, this music and its parade of ear-catching tunes require no special pleading; here one could simply enjoy the BSO playing at an extremely high level under Kalmar’s baton. Dance rhythms felt fleet and light, and trickier rhythms like those of “Masks” came off without a hitch. The strings bustled effortlessly through faster music yet launched the “Romeo and Juliet” pas de deux on a soft cloud of sound. The brass made handsomely somber noises during “Tybalt’s Death,” and the winds sounded piquant in the “Folk Dance” but eloquent and ripe by turns elsewhere. A delight from beginning to end — just like the rest of this concert.

Other People’s Perspectives: Tim Smith and Charles T. Downey.


  • During one of Collard’s solo moments, he paused just long enough that everyone could hear someone’s iPhone ringing with a piano-based ringtone. It was weird.
  • This is the first review I’ve ever written where I carefully typed two composers’ names and then copied and pasted wherever I needed to say their names. Darn diaeresis!

Fiesta! Bach Sinfonia at Montgomery College’s Cultural Arts Center in Silver Spring, May 5, 2013

May 7, 2013

On Cinco de Mayo, the always-enterprising Bach Sinfonia was the only source in town for Mexican classical music, presented as part of a fun program spanning Ye Olde Latin America and titled “¡Nuevo Mundo Barocco!”

It turns out that not only did Latin Americans write a lot of music during the colonial period, much of it has gone undiscovered until quite recently. Intrepid scholars have plumbed the archives of the churches and abbeys established throughout the Spanish New World, and they’ve come up with some gems that mix the musical language of the old church with (as one might expect from a group of proselytizers) the vernacular forms and rhythms of the locals.

Under conductor and artistic director Daniel Abraham, the Bach Sinfonia always has a sure feel for rhythm: how it underpins a slow melodic line, organizes a fast allegro, establishes a kind of loom on which fantastic counterpoint can be woven. In this music, where such an understanding is even more important than in the European Baroque, that ability made for some really fun performances, where difficult rhythms came off with flair and difficult singing always felt exuberant.

The latter virtue shone in the first pieces the program, two pieces by Francisco López Capillas in a high-Renaissance style but with just the slightest hint of additional rhythmic impetus, sounding silky as sung by the eight-voice choir. They kept the fine sound in “Vayan unas especies,” a piece by Cuban composer Esteban Salas, whose rowdy rhythms made a joyful noise unto the newborn Christ. Abraham sounded taken with Salas, saying the Sinfonia was ready to read through his other works, and no wonder; Salas seemed to find new ways to make melodies within the Baroque context, and his harmonic invention matched his rhythmic drive. He’s a find.

Guest guitarist Richard Savino normally rolls with (among others) his own Latin America-focused chamber group, El Mundo. On Sunday he joined the stalwart Sinfonia continuo — Joseph Gascho, harpsichord; Douglas Poplin, ‘cello; and Robbie Link, violone — and added color and depth with his several strings, plus a deep understanding of this repertoire. (Not for nothing did he participate with Abraham in the pre-concert discussion!) He also played a couple pieces in the improvisatory tradition to begin the second half of the program, demonstrating the range of color his guitar could produce when solo.

Richard Savino, looking like a million bucks with Joyce DiDonato. Obviously this was the best picture of him on the Internet.

Richard Savino, looking like a million bucks with Joyce DiDonato. Obviously this was the best picture of him on the Internet.

Unlike Savino, soprano soloist Jennifer Ellis Kampani‘s contributions were front and center whenenver she was on stage. I am on record with my admiration for her singing, which combines thrilling sustained notes, pure and accurate, with vocal agility all the way up and down the scale and admirable diction. Here she got to be a little more demonstrative than in (say) a Bach cantata, and she enjoyed the opportunity, tweaking the chorus of Juan de Araujo’s “Los coflades de la estleya” subtly each time she sang it to wring out a new dimension of excitement and joy, or snapping her neck back and forth to emphasize the rhythms of Antonio de Salazar’s “Tarara tarara qui yo soy Antonyio.”

Jennifer Ellis Kampani, from her website. By Kenny Trice.

Jennifer Ellis Kampani, from her website. By Kenny Trice.

You always get the sense that Kampani has a tremendous amount of fun when she sings, and never was that impression stronger than the finale of this concert, when we got another Christmas song, this one by Mexican composer Juan García de Zespedes and packed with ecstatic exclamations and hard-driving rhythms. Michelle Humphreys, who did excellent work all afternoon on percussion, played a commanding solo with every resource available to her (including bells strapped to her ankle), Kampani and the chorus threw themselves into all the “Ay!”s, and the instrumentalists matched them in exuberance and precision. Let’s hope scholars can give the Bach Sinfonia lots more of this stuff to perform, even if they have to do it on a day other than May 5th.


Liked: As someone who has attended (for example) a concert of Estonian choral music on St. Patrick’s Day, I found it refreshing that this concert, although it featured music around 300 years old, actually referred to something happening in the world today.

Didn’t Like: The translations of these texts in the program made me wonder why they bothered to have translations at all. Here’s one stanza from Salas’ piece:

If that is the tinted Carnation
that gives new giving magic:
ours is to make disciplined a
foreign offence.

It’s like someone put the texts into Google Translate and cut and pasted the results directly into the program.


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