Posted tagged ‘baltimore symphony’

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.

FORGOT ABOUT DRE?

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!

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.

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!

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.

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.

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

March 19, 2012

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

The man in action. From the Prague Philharmonia website.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ain’t That America: William Sharp and the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra under Marin Alsop at the Music Center at Strathmore, November 11, 2011

November 12, 2011

Marin Alsop loves Aaron Copland’s music, and on Friday, the audience at the Music Center at Strathmore could tell just how much. She called him “the quintessential voice of American orchestral music” at the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra’s latest “Off the Cuff” concert, before they played Copland’s most famous work, the orchestral suite from his ballet “Appalachian Spring.” Alsop followed her usual “Off the Cuff” model for pre-performance talks: an introductory bio of the composer, sprinkled with telling anecdotes and effective jokes, then a discussion of musical landmarks in the work at hand. She had the orchestra illustrate the open, limitless effect the so-called perfect intervals can have by playing the first few notes of Copland’s “Fanfare for the Common Man,” and she brought out baritone William Sharp to sing “Simple Gifts,” in Copland’s arrangement, just so the tune would be in our heads for the finale.

Copland composing by candlelight at the Berkshires in 1946. What, no electricity? From the Library of Congress

Though Alsop’s presentation always held my interest, at times I wondered whether it might be overkill for “Appalachian Spring,” which holds its place in popular esteem (and the Music Center was packed to the gills for this one) by being so immediately approachable. There’s certainly value in understanding it a bit more, as with the intervallic discussion, but I think anyone could pick out when (for example) Copland introduces a fiddlin’ tune. I could be wrong.

The performance itself had a common weakness of Alsop-led readings — a sometimes indistinct rhythmic pulse. Copland wants these rhythms to snap and crackle; sometimes the BSO wouldn’t quite hit a beat all at once, or hit a beat as sharply as they should’ve. But Alsop’s strengths also came through. When playing the hushed, almost devotional music that begins and ends the suite, the BSO managed to play as if whispering, with the clarinet at the beginning sounding like daybreak. In louder, faster moments, the BSO sounded bright and piquant, and one could feel the enthusiasm from conductor and orchestra that ultimately carried this performance along. It would have been hard to resist, and no one in the hall on Friday appeared inclined to try.

“Appalachian Spring” is not quite long enough to fill even a short program like this one, so Sharp provided bonus content: six more of the “Old American Songs” that Copland arranged for voice and orchestra. Yes, there was a singalong, in which the audience got to make all the barnyard-animal noises of “I Bought Me a Cat,” and yes, I thought it was the highlight of this portion of the concert, mainly because I got to make a horrible honk of a goose noise many, many times in the context of a supposedly respectable orchestral concert. Sharp seemed to enjoy making such noises even more than I do, and that zest showed up in the rest of these songs as well. Obviously, he can make a beautiful noise, as songs like “At the River” showed, but it’s even more impressive to hear a voice stay beautiful when packing lots of words into lines and inflecting them in a natural manner, as in “The Dodger,” where he explained with jaunty glee how we are all corrupt liars. Sharp made a giant lyrical flub in “Ching-a-Ring Chaw” that necessitated a restart, but the good humor of the evening had been established so thoroughly that it would have seemed churlish not to forgive him immediately.

Plus, how can you be mad at this guy? From Sharp's management's website.

Sharp, of course, was at Strathmore last week for these Post-Classical Ensemble concerts, singing songs of Charles Ives. Since Sharp teaches at Peabody, it was probably a matter of commuting rather than staying in MoCo for a week, but the connection between last week and this week nevertheless invites one to contrast — the small tweaks in Copland’s songs communicating his essential affection for his source material, Ives not loving his sources any less but feeling freer to distort or transform them.

As Alsop noted in her intro, Copland’s America was “the America of his imagination and his dreams,” as he never strayed much from his native Brooklyn except to hit France to learn how to compose. Ives trod his New England path doggedly, finding endless variations and surprises in what was familiar to him. Copland, a socialist, wanted to compose for the masses; Ives, a real-life insurance exec, had the means and inclination to compose for himself. Copland recognized Ives’ genius and advocated for his work, and it’s not like we have to determine which one is more quintissentially American than the other, but they certainly show two different paths to American greatness. Kudos to the P-CE, the BSO, and Strathmore for making the juxtaposition possible — always a nice way to leave a concert, with one’s mind full of unresolved, excited thoughts.

TOPICS THAT HAVE LITTLE TO DO WITH THE BALTIMORE SYMPHONY ORCHESTRA’S PERFORMANCE

Besides being very large, Friday’s audience was also very old, more than normal even for symphony orchestra concerts. (Indicating that some stereotypes are true, the garage at Strathmore was nearly unnavigable before and after the concert due to tentative driving of large cars.) In the post-concert Q&A, for which Sharp joined Alsop, one person actually asked, “We’re, some of us, getting older…Is this a concern to you?” Alsop speculated that people tend to come to classical music later in life, at least if they’ve had childhood exposure to the stuff. Coming from a family that went to classical concerts pretty much from when my sister and I were old enough to be babysat, I have no idea whether that’s true.

But, as a young person who is periodically asked why young people don’t attend classical concerts, I offer the following:

  • As Alsop noted, “Young people don’t want to go to places where there aren’t a lot of young people.”
  • Tickets are expensive. If I wasn’t getting press tix, I would probably go to the symphony two or three times a year, for specific programs or performers. I’d concentrate my concertgoing at venues with free or cheap tickets (Library of Congress, Freer/Sackler Galleries, etc.) and at chamber music in general, where tix tend to be cheaper. For someone with a casual interest in classical music, $65 for a non-nosebleed seat is a steep hill to climb.
  • Sometimes, what is happening is kind of boring. This is true at any type of event, of course, but at classical concerts such a reaction is looked upon as reflecting a lack of education rather than a justifiable judgment.
  • Other people’s post-concert questions. One person asked “whether there are American musicians today reaching down to indigenous music from the classical sphere.” Note the telling preposition! Another guy asked whether Alsop and Sharp had heard the new Tony Bennett album, and what they thought of it. Fortunately, Sharp had an actual opinion on this, so the questioner was not left hanging, but it could have been quite awkward in addition to being kind of a bizarre choice of question.

Hearts on Sleeves: Baltimore Symphony Orchestra at the Music Center at Strathmore, September 24, 2011

September 26, 2011

Under music director Marin Alsop, the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra swung for the fences on Saturday night at Strathmore, playing three intense, complex, sonically rich works so forcefully that hearing the first two left me too drained to properly appreciate the third. The fact that the first of these — “Chuphshah! Harriet’s Drive to Canaan” —received its world premiere in the BSO’s concerts that weekend only heightened the sense of occasion.

As part of this BSO season’s focus on revolutionary women, Alsop approached James Lee III, a noted composer and a professor at Morgan State, with a request for a composition celebrating the life of Harriet Tubman. Lee was present Saturday to join Alsop onstage in giving a little introduction to his work, the BSO supplying musical excerpts to illustrate his discussion. This is exactly what orchestras should be doing if they have discussions before playing new music: Give the audience some markers they can use to orient themselves in unfamiliar surroundings. Don’t just stand up there talkin’!

James Lee, from his website

In the event, though, “Chuphshah!” didn’t need much explicating. An opening brass outburst followed by a churning, breathless marimba solo conveyed Lee’s vision of a slave breaking his or her bonds and running off, as fast as possible, to an uncertain destination. The slower passages that followed featured the English horn, representing Tubman herself, ruminating on a wistful melody over a bed of absurdly rich string accompaniment. This accompaniment had no tonal center, but sounded purposefully ambiguous rather than murky or dissonant; it seemed to create webs of conflicting feelings around the English horn’s thoughts, an effect magnified by Lee’s quotation and reharmonization of songs like “Go Down Moses” and “Battle Hymn of the Republic.” This was the point in the composition at which I noted that the BSO should check Strathmore’s HVAC system, because I had something in my eye.

“Chuphshah!” did become sharply dissonant in another episode, depicting one specific liberation in which Tubman participated. After some more heartbreaking lyrical passages, the piece ended with bitterly dissonant trumpet fanfares depicting Tubman’s military funeral but seeming to ask whether any celebration of her life can mitigate the evil of the circumstances that called forth her heroism. I would like to hear this piece again immediately, preferably from the BSO with Alsop conducting; this performance felt totally committed and featured eloquent playing from every desk.

And there were two standard-rep works yet to come! Alsop obviously loves Dvorák, or she wouldn’t program and record so much of his music, so hearing her conduct his cello concerto was a draw in and of itself. Soloist Alisa Weilerstein, meanwhile, won a MacArthur Foundation “genius” grant last week, meaning she’s smarter than you or I (unless you won one too). Sad to say that these two passionate performers did not start out with their approaches totally in sync. During their introduction, Alsop and the orchetra enjoyed every little detail of Dvorák’s colorful orchestration, like they were on a leisurely stroll along a babbling brook in a Bohemian grove. When Weilerstein entered, however, she attacked her opening like a romantic hero struggling against some oppressive force. Though I am loath to question certified genius, my conception of Dvorák lines up more with Alsop’s than Weilerstein’s. However, both conductor and soloist seemed to sense something needing fixing, and by the middle of the first movement they had found a productive middle ground.

You can't stay mad at a genius grant recipient, right? From her Opus3 Artists website.

From there, Weilerstein’s absurdly good cello playing carried the day. She plays gracefully, yet with a hypnotically clean and focused tone; you get the impression that nothing holds any technical challenges for her, so she can concentrate on higher musical things. As commandingly as she can bark out an aggressive phrase, her quiet playing lingers longest in the memory. She gave a hypnotic rendition of the first movement’s principal theme in the development section, intertwining her tone gorgeously with the solo flute. When she settled into a remarkably warm and even-toned whisper of a trill at the close of the second movement and the orchestra cast a brief minor-chord shadow over the proceedings, I actually felt a chill. The finale was just plain fun, with Weilerstein seeming a little looser, enjoying the jauntiness of the main theme and dialing up another magical trill towards the end.

After those two fired-up performances, Tchaikovsky’s “Pathétique” symphony may not have been the best possible post-intermission closer. I wondered whether a Classical-era symphony would have fit better there: something with heft that still demands less emotional engagement from the audience, like a late Haydn symphony. Anyway, Alsop and the BSO certainly seemed to be playing well, but I was completely emotionally disengaged — a victim of the BSO’s first-half success. Wish I could give a more informative review, but it’s better to be honest than to make something up…right?

MARIN ALSOP IS THE QUEEN OF THE POST-CONCERT Q&A

Most post-concert Q&As are kind of terrible, with people asking irrelevant questions or attempting to show off their massive erudition for all present, but I always stay for Alsop’s. Why is she so consistently entertaining?

  • She’s funny. First and foremost. She never passes up an opportunity for a chuckle, and it makes the audience feel at ease.
  • She knows how to take a bad question and turn it into something worth answering: by repeating the question and talking until she lands on a better topic.
  • She knows how to draw whatever guests she has onstage (James Lee, in this case) into the discussion without being obvious or ostentatious about it.
  • She seems to actually enjoy it.

Four simple ingredients, but they go a long way.

Prokofiev and Prose: Baltimore Symphony Orchestra at the Music Center at Strathmore, April 1, 2011

April 3, 2011

This year, the Baltimore Symphony and music director Marin Alsop scheduled four “Off the Cuff” concerts, which experiment with mixing music and words to create something with more context than the usual program notes can provide. Friday’s concert at the Music Center at Strathmore had Sergei Prokofiev’s Cinderella Suite as its centerpiece. Alsop gave about 15 minutes of biography and musical examples before ceding the microphone to four undergrads from Johns Hopkins University, who took turns reciting parts of their own retellings of the Cinderella story. Alsop and the BSO then traded selections with the writers as the evening progressed.

"I will tell you a magical tale from your childhood": Sergei Prokofiev

Alsop and the BSO typically do really well when the music they play calls for color and fantasy, as the suite’s Introduction showed, full of lively and well-shaped melodies and luxuriant sounds. But then each of the writers read the first several sentences of his or her take on Cinderella, enough to get an idea of the setting and character’s names, and by the time the BSO came back for the Pas de Châle the mood created in the Introduction had dissipated completely.

It didn’t help that the writers did not interpret the Cinderella story as eloquently as Prokofiev did. Each has a different background and drew on it to re-imagine the story: Doyeun Kim set her tale in 1800s Korea, Sophi Glazycheva in 1890s Russia, Ana Giraldo-Wingler in modern-day Bogota, and Akif Saifi in an unnamed Middle Eastern city that sounded an awful lot like Dubai. The students clearly have some talent, but they have not yet learned to discipline it; I found myself mentally deleting unnecessary words and correcting usage errors while they read. (One example of a sentence in need of editing: “Thinly veiled Communism seized his company.” Quick! Someone arrest that ideology! I hope we can still pick it out of the lineup while it’s wearing that veil! Another described two sisters eating the best meal “their bellies had ever had the pleasure of enjoying.” Most of the words in that sentence are unnecessary.) Saifi read his text confidently, but the others spent some time stumbling over their own words, which didn’t help.

So not all the ingredients in this concert were up to snuff. I also question the recipe. Prokofiev’s score is extremely European, right down the middle of Western Tradition Road, and no sidebar commentary is going to change the images it evokes in listeners’ heads, although the pauses did prevent those images from cohering into their own musical narrative. (Although the concert was advertised as providing a multicultural perspective on the Cinderella tale, the audience Friday night was the normal Caucasian monoculture.) The other narratives were fractured too — we didn’t hear all of anyone’s tale, just the beginning and end, plus a selection of interstitial plot development, presumably to ensure that the concert ended at a reasonable hour. It all led to confusion, not illumination.

If orchestras don’t explore new ideas for presenting their concerts, as the BSO is doing with these “Off the Cuff” concerts, they’re never going to figure out how to get audiences packed into the hall and buzzing with anticipation, which happens all too infrequently. A part of this process is trying ideas that don’t work, and so I’m fine with the BSO having tried this. I do wish I could hear Alsop and the BSO perform the Cinderella Suite straight through, though, because that could be part of an excellent night at the symphony.

Romantic and Romantic-er: Baltimore Symphony Orchestra at Strathmore, February 10, 2011

February 13, 2011

Sergei Rachmaninov’s second piano concerto opened the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra’s Thursday night concert, with Yuja Wang on the keys and Juanjo Mena on the podium. I would speculate that the audience heard its opening notes with much more excitement than it brought for Anton Bruckner’s Symphony No. 6, which rounded out the program post-intermission. The Rach 2 has achieved its popularity on the basis of its big tunes, in between which there is also some music. Pianists sometimes rumble through this non-big-tune music with a kind of carelessness pretending to be imperiousness, attempting to make the audience as impressed with the pianists as they themselves are; other times, the non-big-tune music serves as a kind of atmospheric Romantic haze from which the big tunes emerge like ships approaching shore through a fog. Either way, everything slows down when the tunes arrive, like how Neo in The Matrix reaches a heightened plane of fighting ability and can stop time as he beats people up. I enjoy Rachmaninov’s music a lot, but the second of his piano concertos (as well as the second of his symphonies) inspires some frustrating performances.

On Thursday, though, Wang and Mena attended closely to every bar of music, both in shaping the melodic lines and producing variegated and intoxicating colors, and while the big tunes got their due, their prominence flowed naturally from the score. For example, the solo-piano opening, with a gradual crescendo of chords eventually climaxing and crashing, typically provides an occasion for dude pianists to thrash the keyboard mercilessly towards the end of the crescendo and show you what exceptional badasses they are. Wang instead increased the volume scrupulously and excruciatingly slowly, so the opening felt genuinely menacing; I confess I was waiting for a little Star Time but instead got walloped by the music. Later in that first movement, as the BSO’s lower strings accompanied melodic figuration, Mena got a spine-tingingly chilly sound from them, evoking a sere landscape in winter and reminding me (at least) that Rachmaninov is a more Russian composer than is sometimes supposed.

Wang used just a touch of rubato on her slower melodies, and Mena and the BSO followed her closely, with handoffs between piano and orchestra 99 percent seamless. When the big tunes came, she made the big tunes memorable not with agogic hesitation but by her incredible attention to the dynamics within phrases; one could almost hear the melodies breathing. As noted, she also knows how to modulate her tone colors; much the first movement came across with a chilly tone, but the rising joy of the third movement brought with it brighter sounds from the keyboard. Mena and the BSO matched her in their attentiveness, tracking her well and playing with authority; one of the joys of hearing Mena conduct the BSO is how gorgeous and focused the orchestra sounds, and Thursday’s concert was no exception to that rule.

Yuja Wang in a hot red dress

Approximately what we were seeing Thursday. By Xavier Antonnet, from Yuja's site, linked earlier

Wang also won the crowd over by wearing a bright red dress similar to the one she wears on the cover of her latest CD, what looked to be four-inch heels, and a shag haircut that reinforced how attractive she is by still looking good on her somehow. (Person behind me at intermission, to her husband: “I didn’t realize the pianist would be so beautiful!” I’m not sure whether she would have urged them to attend another concert with that info in hand.) She did not play an encore, which meant that we launched straight into Bruckner post-bathroom break.

I’m on record as not enjoying Bruckner’s music, but before Thursday, the last time I had heard a Bruckner symphony live was in 1997 (I counted), and I thought it would be a good idea to try again. I was ready to indulge him his longeurs, his habit of unhurried ruminating, and find the profundity in the unique journey his music provides.

Yet I found that, even with hope in my heart and acceptance in my head, something in my constitution is repelled by Bruckner’s music. None of his tunes is memorable in any way, and then he almost immediately abandons them anyway for passagework that takes us on harmonic journeys so extended and far-ranging that their ultimate purpose is lost.

I’m all for more super-serious Romantic music in the concert hall, but before we trot out Bruckner again, let’s give some time to Max Reger. At least he knew that he had difficulty writing a tune, so he had the sense to steal one in his very listenable Variations and Fugue on a Theme by Mozart. Ripe textures? Check. Improbable harmonic journeys? Check. Plus you get an enjoyable fugue at the end whose subject just so happens to fit into perfect counterpoint with the theme. I’m rambling a bit here, but Bruckner rambled at me for an hour on Thursday, and frankly I still don’t think we’re even.

Other People’s Perspectives: Joan Reinthaler in the Post.

BRUCKNER IS NOT DATE MUSIC

I took my girlfriend to this concert, and I cannot imagine a worse ending to a date-night concert than that symphony. I know there are some smart folks out there who are also committed Brucknerians, but this music — low on memorable tunes and distinct rhythms, high on leisurely paced explorations, at lengths that defeat attempts to intuit a structure — strikes me as a solo pursuit, something in which one might immerse oneself and, after long, ardent study, eventually come up for air. Nothing in there seems easy to share — how would you even talk about something so devoid of milestones? Plus I think my girlfriend was feeling actively malevolent towards Bruckner around the time the Scherzo music repeated, and since Bruckner was not nearby, the malevolence downgraded to annoyance and spilled on everything present, including me.

I’m reconsidering taking her to Turangalîla next month.

All Talk, All Action: Baltimore Symphony Orchestra at Strathmore, January 21, 2011

January 24, 2011

For the second of its “Off the Cuff” programs this season, the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra presented its music director, Marin Alsop, talking about and leading the orchestra in illustrative examples from Dmitri Shostakovich’s Fifth Symphony for twenty-five minutes before an attentive Friday-night audience at the Music Center at Strathmore, followed immediately by a full performance of the work. This programming idea worked well. Shostakovich’s Fifth creates a musical world that does not need to be augmented with an overture and concerto in order to feel like a full evening’s worth of music, and there’s certainly plenty to say about the symphony, especially when you’ve got the personable Alsop doing the talking.

A few quibbles to get out of the way: Her discussion came a little top-heavy with biographical details and history that would have been familiar to anyone who read the note in the program for Friday’s concert. Presumably the “Off the Cuff” series is designed to educate people who know less than carping-prone music critics, but it would have made the talk more special if Alsop had dropped some semi-novel knowledge on us, other than the good-to-know fact that Shostakovich’s first composition, at age 11, was titled “Funeral March for the Victims of the Revolution.” (Also, the microphone into which Alsop spoke should have been placed below her face, not in front of it, and Alsop could have cut back on the “um”s a bit during this exposition-y section.)

Alsop’s discussion of the work itself, however, and her selection of choice moments for the orchestra to play foreshadowed the reading that was to come: muscular but essentially lyrical, sensitive to color, rhythmically vigorous. For example, Alsop named a different bit of the opening of the first movement as its melodic seed than did the program notes, selecting not the severe opening canon but a melodic fragment coming after it. Showing a personal enthusiasm, Alsop led the BSO in the opening of the Scherzo from Mahler’s First Symphony and then the opening of the Scherzo from the Fifth, which she called “Mahler with more attitude”; it was easy to see the likeness.

In other places, the excerpts Alsop chose proved a pretty accurate guide to where she and the BSO would find climaxes in the actual performance: an impassioned melodic outburst in unison strings in the first movement, another anguished passage for strings in the Largo slow movement with punctuating chords from the double basses that Alsop likened to stabs, a descent from rah-rah marches into bleakness in the finale. Hearing those moments isolated before the performance itself likely helped newcomers to the work locate themselves as Shostakovich’s vast canvas spread itself out before them. On my part, I noticed that Alsop’s extract of the first-movement unison strings passage omitted the cacophonous two-chord outbursts that immediately follows, and the omission showed where Alsop wanted to take the symphony.

Not that the cacophony, when it eventually came, lacked impact. Just before turning from the mic to drop the downbeat, Alsop gave one last word of praise for the BSO’s playing, and every desk of the orchestra put every ounce of effort and emotion into this performance. During the performance, my thoughts occasionally turned to just how much the BSO now seems to like playing under Alsop; they shape melodies in her style with no apparent effort, they follow her pacing closely, they balance the sections so well that you only realize how good the balance was after the performance. In the live acoustic of the Music Center, every string-driven lament sang out clearly, every brassy march seethed with menace, the celesta twinkled with magnetically quiet notes, every flute solo floated tangible and poignant into the hall. (There seemed to be a lot of memorable flute solos in this performance.)

In her introductory remarks, Alsop referred to the Fifth’s finale as a “march of suffocation,” in keeping with the belief that Shostakovich’s Fifth secretly ridicules the desires of the Soviet authorities for lotsa patriotic rousing stuff. Being a contrarian, I have always pointed out in such discussions that the finale of the Fifth is, in fact, rousing, and if you don’t respond at some purely physical level to its dynamic energy you pretty much don’t have a pulse. Still, hearing Alsop explain and illustrate her view made it come over even more forcefully in this performance, and though my pulse quickened with pure excitement, the sheer wall of sound from the massed brass clenching its martial fist stopped me short as well. It was a fitting conclusion to an evening that showed just how illuminating musicians like Alsop can be when they let the audience get a peek at their craft.

HOLDING MY ATTENTION

I am becoming increasingly convinced that a lot of concerts would be better if they just featured about an hour of music and concentrated on playing it really, really intensely, which (whatever the intention) was what happened on Friday. You don’t have to spend intermission deciding whether to get a drink or some Junior Mints and forgetting whatever happened beforehand and immersing yourself in another emotional world. You have a memorable experience and then get to wander around committing it to memory. Of course, immediately after this concert I went to the Mansion at Strathmore for Friday Night Eclectic (X.O., baby!), so I may not be the one to talk.


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