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

Posted June 9, 2013 by Andrew Lindemann Malone
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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

Posted May 26, 2013 by Andrew Lindemann Malone
Categories: Concert review

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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.

THAT WAS RANDOM

  • 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

Posted May 7, 2013 by Andrew Lindemann Malone
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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.

A THING I LIKED AND A THING I DIDN’T LIKE

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.

“How Many of You Have Seen an Opera With the Word ‘Penis’ Before?” UrbanArias at the Mansion at Strathmore, March 22, 2013

Posted March 31, 2013 by Andrew Lindemann Malone
Categories: Concert review

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First of all, I apologize to the world for posting this review nine days after the actual concert took place. Immediately after the concert, I got sucked into the maw of planning for my upcoming nuptials, which are the reason there’s not going to be anything else on this blog until May. But I had to pull myself out of the morass of table assignments and vendor contacts to review the UrbanArias concert from the Friday Night Eclectic series at the Mansion at Strathmore two Friday nights ago, because the world needs to know that it was that rarest of things for a classical music concert: An absolute riot.

Yes, opera can be actually funny, and not “funny for opera” funny! Observe, for example, Melissa Wimbish as Eve in “Adam and Eve,” written in 2008 by Patrick Soluri with a text by Quincy Long. Wimbish had a ball alternately scolding and leering at the somewhat inarticulate Adam (Joshua Baumgardner) and challenging her therapist, Dr. Solomon, all to prevent Adam from eating the apple of knowledge and preserve her enabling fiction in an anonymous mental institution. (In the service of healing, Dr. Solomon, played with appropriate smiling earnestness by Ethan Watermeier, helpfully points out that the apple is actually a Jonathan.)

Melissa Wimbish.

Melissa Wimbish.

Or check out “At the Statue of Venus,” a monologue written by Terrence McNally (yes, that playwright) and Jake Heggie (music) and sung last Friday by Arianna Zukerman. McNally and Heggie tackle here a totally genius subject for an opera: the inner thoughts of a woman waiting to meet a blind date, ranging from wardrobe second-guessing to doubts about whether this is a good idea anyway to hopes and fears that this random unpaired guy approaching the titular statue is actually the blind date in question. Heggie found a musical language that, among other things, enhances the humor of these shifting thoughts, and Zukerman milked it for all it was worth. In my favorite moment, Zukerman’s unnamed character worried about the fact that her friends who suggested the date had mentioned that they both liked ballet. After trying to reassure herself that lots of straight men enjoyed the ballet, Zukerman stopped pacing the stage, stood ramrod straight, looked at the audience, and in high operatic dudgeon reprimanded herself and the world: “Name oooooooooooone!”

Neither of these operas was perfect — the mental institution setting of “Adam and Eve” seems played out at this point in history, and some of the later reveries in “At the Statue of Venus” seemed to exhaust their ideas before they ended. But they engaged with contemporary life and gave the listener a sense that opera can still be a vivid and immediate form, a sense I often lack after my rare forays to opera houses.

Of course, little could be more immediate that improvised opera, a post-intermission lark in which UrbanArias founder Robert Wood handled the piano accompaniment duties otherwise fulfilled last Friday by the skilled, sympathetic R. Timothy McReynolds. Having studied improv comedy myself, I can tell you that improvising an actual musical structure in addition to jokes is pretty difficult, and the modest success that these distinguished classical musicians enjoyed is actually pretty impressive, especially with the handicap of the lame suggestions from the Strathmore audience. (Pretty sure we’ve had enough jokes about George W. Bush and Sarah Palin at this point in history, folks.) Before the festivities began, Wood asked the question that forms the title of this review and received few positive responses, thus showing that UrbanArias is determined to advance the art.

They saved the funniest for last: Gabriel Kahane‘s “Craigslistlieder,” settings of texts that reminded me of the riches to be found in the newspaper-killing website’s “best-of-craigslist” category. Besides coming up with the absolute best name for this work — you can just see “Craigslistlieder” sitting alongside “Schicksalslied” and “Kindertotenlieder” in the Tower Records of my bygone youth — Kahane also sets these texts with close attention to the meaning of each individual word and phrase and with the keenest sense of comic timing since one of those old operamongers who I don’t actually think are particularly funny.

All four of the singers took a turn, and each had a highlight: Baumgartner’s richly unapologetic apology in “I’m Sorry,” Zukerman’s lascivious “Today I Met,” Watermeier’s perfect embodiment of the unrealistic personal-ad aspirations of “Neurotic and Lonely,” and especially Wimbish’s “Hello Potential Roommates.” This last alternately advertises for and warns about a cheap room that comes with several conditions, and Kahane’s setting and Wimbish’s performance made a funny text even funner, with several intervals in which I thought I would not stop laughing.

Opera (and UrbanArias) can do lots of things, but making people laugh is just as demanding and worthy a business as making them cry, and it was wonderful to be reminded of that. If there are any composers looking for topics for contemporary comedies, may I suggest wedding planning? I can give you lots and lots of texts…

From the Shores of Bohemia, ‘Cross the Shining Big Sea Water: The PostClassical Ensemble, “Dvorak in America,” Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center, March 1, 2013

Posted March 3, 2013 by Andrew Lindemann Malone
Categories: Concert review

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On the night of March the first
At the big Clarice Smith Center
The PostClassical Ensemble
Gave us a new “Hiawatha.”

Yes, the entire review is going to go like this. Photo of conductor Angel Gil-Ordonez by Tom Wolff.

Yes, the entire review is going to go like this. Photo of conductor Angel Gil-Ordonez by Tom Wolff.

Based on research by Beckerman
(First name Michael, studies music)
They determined that Dvořák,
Antonin if you’re his buddy,
Had a mighty burning passion
For this poem of Longfellow
(Henry Wadsworth, dontcha reckon)
Depicting the love and wedding
And of course the tribulations
Of th’ eponymous Hiawatha.
With no operatic outlet
(The libretto was a failure)
They say Antonin Dvořák,
Czech composer in America,
Put some intriguing parallels
To the tale of Hiawatha
In his New World Symphony,
No. 9, in dark E minor.
Come now Joseph Horowitz,
PCE’s artistic honcho,
Who had earlier arranged
A “Hiawatha” melodrama
But that one was just nine minutes.
This new one that was premiered
On the night of March the First
At the big Clarice Smith Center
In the hall of Dekelboum
Took a sturdy half an hour
And set many episodes
From “The Song of Hiawatha”
To the music of Dvořák.
Kevin Deas read the poem,
Baritone, with voice of thunder,
While the PCE orchestra
Led by Angel Gil-Ordonez
Played the excerpts so arranged
By bright Horowitz and Beckman,
Cunning users of the music
Of this Antonin Dvořák.
The arrangement was effective,
And at times exhilirating—
It turns out that the last movement
Of the New World Symphony,
So beloved and adored
By the nation that inspired it,
Indeed parallels quite closely
The slaying of Pau-Puk-Keewis
With only just a little
Sleight of hand from the arranger.
And Dvořák’s other music
From his great New World Symphony
Effectively dramatizes
Many tales of Hiawatha,
Mostly the second and third movements
(The first doesn’t get much airtime).
The symphony got some assistance
From other Dvořák pieces,
Notably the Sonatina
For the violin and piano
And the American Suite,
Which was performed with style and gusto
Before the program’s intermission
(Along with the early Serenade;
For strings only it was written).
Here, the two principal lessons
I obtained from Friday’s program:
Though the PCE did well with
Hiawatha’s melodrama,
I’m not sure I really ever
Will desire to re-hear it,
Since it mostly made me want to
Hear the Ninth of Dvořák,
Which I will play on my stereo
When this review has been completed.
Secondly, after I listened
To “The Song of Hiawatha”
Its insistent, catchy meter
Kind of invaded my headspace
And made me think that all my writings
Should be set forth in its image.
That notion’s probably not correct,
But I have ne’ertheless explored it,
And so I present to you
My review of “Hiawatha,”
As developed and performed
By the PostClassical Ensemble
On the night of March the First
In the big Clarice Smith Center.
Peace.

Other People’s Perspectives: Stephen Brookes

I AM GOING TO TALK NORMALLY NOW

Like all PostClassical Ensemble concerts, this one was preceded by other activities, in this case a bunch of cool concerts I wish I had been able to go to except that I have wedding planning and work and it’s just hard to do. But as always I commend them for providing an immersive experience to those who can take advantage of it. It’s been too long since I heard the “American” quartet live, and it’ll have to be a little longer.

Kevin Deas also did an amazing job singing “Goin’ Home,” the spiritual formed from the melody of the slow movement of the “New World” Symphony. For some reason I didn’t think I could fit that into the “poem” above.

Return of the Bach: Jennifer Koh, “Bach and Beyond Part 2,” Mansion at Strathmore, February 28, 2013

Posted March 2, 2013 by Andrew Lindemann Malone
Categories: Concert review

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Jennifer Koh‘s second “Bach and Beyond” concert of solo violin music this season at the Mansion at Strathmore on Thursday night featured performances of Johann Sebastian Bach’s Sonata no. 1 in G minor and Partita no. 1 that beat out any other performances of those works I’ve heard live. From the opening Adagio of the sonata, Koh gave her lines breath and gravity, shaping the melody with aching intensity yet never losing touch with the rhythm. The next movement, a fast fugue, featured some insanely treacherous multiple stops that Koh made into part of the overall thrust of the music. Her low notes, resonant and woody, anchored the counterpoint and seemed to expand to fill the intimate Mansion at Strathmore; the fugal theme first felt like a whisper and then a scream as the emotional intensity built to a shattering climax. A sweet slow Siciliana got ambushed by a Presto finale that came so fast you could barely hold onto the melody, yet sounded perfectly controlled; the effect was like taking a corner at high speed in a race car, except for several minutes consecutively.

bachandbeyond

If this concert sounds intriguing, you should check out the CD! Or “MP3 download” for those of you born after 1985 or so

Koh’s Partita no. 1 might have been even better. The opening Allemanda came flowing from her bow in a gentle stream, and she seemed to let the last note hang in the air for just a second and then catch and transform it to start the subsequent Double variation, which sounded just as facile with twice the notes. The Double of the Corrente again had that race-car feeling of perfectly controlled speed, and the Sarabande sounded perfectly balanced, never too slow yet always intense. The big thwacking chords of the “Tempo di Borea” finale here are my favorite part of this partita, and Koh gave them a satisfying bite while maintaining the dance rhythm, which is hard to do. With Koh’s overall feeling for rhythm unifying the disparate dances, the partita became greater than the sum of its parts, and those parts were pretty fine themselves.

But Koh enriches the “Bach and Beyond” concerts by going, well, beyond, to more recent solo works. Koh even commissioned Phil Kline’s partita, “Dead Reckoning,” which separated the two Bach words on the first half of Thursday’s program. “Dead Reckoning”’s position helped to cleanse the palate and prevent Bach from sounding too familiar; Kline’s work echoed Bach in certain ways, like the motoric rhythms in some of the faster sections, and differed entirely in others, like how the harmonies stayed relatively static or moved by half-steps rather than round and round the circle of fifths. Koh’s conviction and sense of narrative gave shape to what could well sound like an episodic work, with its various tentative stabs, lyrical swerves, and essays at speed eventually collapsing and yielding to an exhausted kind of grace at the end.

In her previous B&B concert at Strathmore, the non-Bachiana was all contemporary, but she had a ringer in store for the second half: Béla Bartók, with his Sonata for solo violin, written for Yehudi Menhuin almost 70 years ago. For me, this work is to Bach’s solo sonatas as Dmitri Shostakovich’s Op. 78 preludes and fugues for piano are to Bach’s Well-Tempered Klavier: a modern master taking a perfected form and daring to make it his own.

Bartók marked the first movement “Tempo di ciaccona,” leading me to wonder: What is the tempo of a chaconne, anyway? It begins with commanding rhetoric that soon finds itself refracted in folk-inflected harmonies. The subject of the ensuring fugue is more a loud rhythmic pattern that beats up the tentative attempts at counterpoint. Things get a bit more serious in the Melodia third movement, which provides the promised melody in a kaleidoscopic array of registers and tone qualities: high harmonics, whispered muted tones, full-on fortes. Koh made it spellbinding after delivering the rough jokes of the fugue. Though Bartók’s Presto finale was not quite as blistering as the same-tempo finale of the Bach sonata and featured frequent switches to place the mute on and off the bridge, Koh dazzled here anyway. (The Mansion’s music room is small enough that you could actually hear the mute being placed as Koh’s left hand pizzicatoed some cover material.)

Deliberately constructing a program to place newer material in the context of older classics so that each is further illuminated is challenging enough that not a lot of people do it and rewarding enough that I wish everyone would do it. Here’s to Koh for both making the attempt and succeeding in a spectacular way.

MARGINALIA, INCLUDING RANKING THE ALL-TIME CLASSICS

Some folks applauded a bit after the Presto Double in the partita. They were right to do so! It’s a spontaneous expression of admiration at that point. It wasn’t a lot of clapping, just you had to do something to get the energy out.

This concert was great in part because it had two of my favorite of the six unaccompanied solo violin sonatas and partitas. The previous concert only had one. Here is the ranked list:

  • Partita no. 3. This has the best dance feel of all of them, and I cannot get over the middle two movement, the Gavotte en Rondeau and the Menuets. The Menuets sound like a beam of sunlight coming through a cloud to me, every time I hear them.
  • Sonata no. 1. The fugue! It’s the best one.
  • Partita no. 1. The way Bach makes everything have twice as many notes is so slick. It’s like how you go to Five Guys and they give you two patties as the default option. Bach gives it to you and then he gives it to you double.
  • Partita no. 2. I realize this has the most famous single movement in the six works in question, but the Chaconne always works better extracted from the partita for me. The other partitas are better as balanced suites of works; this one is all back-heavy. The first few movements feel like something you’re rushing through to get to Big Bad Quarter-Hour Chaconne. Maybe this is just me. Probably.
  • Sonata no. 3. Mostly for the first movement.
  • Sonata no. 2. Of these six universally acclaimed masterworks, this is my least favorite. I realize that it is better than almost everything anyone else ever composed. I calls ‘em like I sees ‘em.

Those Are Some Small Worlds After All: Brian Ganz at the Music Center at Strathmore, January 19, 2013

Posted January 23, 2013 by Andrew Lindemann Malone
Categories: Concert review

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Brian Ganz talks about Frederic Chopin’s music as well as he plays it, and that’s saying something. On Saturday night, in the third concert in his National Philharmonic-sponsored effort to present all of Chopin’s piano music, he once again showed how to use a microphone to reach out to a full Music Center at Strathmore and connect with every member of the audience, by telling stories, offering theories, and getting into the details of how to play this music. Classical concerts often sound like a wash of abstraction, where nothing feels particularly different than anything else; Ganz gave the audience some guidance on how to find its way through the program.

Brian Ganz, looking as sincere as his playing.

Brian Ganz, looking as sincere as his playing.

He also gave the audience playing worth listening to. Ganz titled this recital “Small Worlds,” reflecting its focus on Chopin’s miniatures, and his careful attention to the shifts and shades of this music shone in the program-opening Op. 7 set of five mazurkas. When a few bars of content music suddenly yielded to darker currents, Ganz managed the transition deftly, keeping both moods in the same world. When the music sang more straightforwardly, Ganz calibrated his articulation, saving his most sparkle for the twittering finale, where, as Ganz told us, Chopin indicates the dance music spins on indefinitely. (He presented three practical solutions pianists have proposed for this problem, including his own – a generous touch.)

Presenting a couple of Chopin’s ballades for program balance, Ganz demonstrated his command of these larger-form works as well; harmonic incidents evolved into longer passages, and, just as he did in the miniatures, Ganz took pauses and hesitated or rushed forward in seemingly spontaneous ways that also contributed to the overall narrative feeling. Ganz told a story (also recounted in Anne Midgette’s excellent preview of this concert) about his experience listening to a recording of the first ballade, in G minor, as a young man and wondering “How can this be so beautiful that it hurts?” His rendition ran the gamut, with the final chords returning to G minor and ringing out from the bottom of the keyboard like cannon fire, shattering the tenuous peace that had obtained earlier. This inspired a standing O from the audience – common enough at the end of a program, or even at intermission, but less so when there’s still music to be played, and a testament to both Ganz’s discussion and his performance.

After intermission came the Op. 28 Preludes, the summa of Chopin’s miniature art, presented as one continuous string of 24 pieces, with no pauses for applause. Before sitting to play, Ganz spoke about the challenges and possibilities concision presented to Chopin – editing his fertile imagination to gestures and thoughts that provide a glimpse of a world, leaving the mind to contemplate what’s left unsaid. Ganz’s playing captured that sense of wonder: I got images of a limpid brook rippling, but faintly disturbed; a storm sweeping by at a distance; a sunny field; a cool marble temple, quiet and implacable. But Chopin’s careful counterbalancing of the preludes, with contrasts propelling the sequence, gave an extra dimension; Ganz wove the overall tapestry of Op. 28 with just as much attention to the overall sweep of the music as he did the individual preludes. A world made of small worlds can have a large impact indeed, and it did on Saturday night. I’m already saving February 22, 2014, for the next installment.

Other People’s Perspectives: Grace Jean.

I TOTALLY SAW BRIAN GANZ AT THE SILVER DINER AFTER THIS CONCERT

Well, not really; my fiancée had to point him out to me. I cannot recognize anyone. But in case you are wondering where to get your paparazzi photos after next year’s concert, I’d try Silver Diner. Rockville Pike baby! How many high-school nights I idled away at that business’ previous location on Mid-Pike Plaza. Of course, now their menu is so high-falutin’ that high-school me could never have afforded to eat there, but such is the ever-downward march of gustatory luxury. What were we talking about again?

I don’t know how many classical concerts I’m going to get to review over the upcoming months, given my impending nuptials and various job-related things. But I’m glad I got to go to this one.


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