Posted tagged ‘music center at strathmore’

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 KIDS WERE KIND OF ANNOYING, THOUGH

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.

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!

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

January 23, 2013

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.

The Underserved Viola: Victoria Chiang, Nurit Bar-Josef, and the National Philharmonic at the Music Center at Strathmore, January 5, 2013

January 7, 2013

On a good day, the National Philharmonic, Montgomery County’s most aspirationally named symphony orchestra, can sound worthy of the National Symphony-esque prices it charges for its concerts in the Music Center at Strathmore. On a bad day, the Nat Phil sounds like it did on Saturday, in its “Voice of the Viola” concert.

Under Music Director Piotr Gajewski, the Philharmonians sounded best in Felix Mendelssohn’s String Symphony No. 9 (the “Swiss,” although it does not sound particularly neutral or watch-like). This work dates from the composer’s  prodigy years, and, like many young people throughout history, the teenager overestimated the interest of certain elements of his material, particularly in the far-too-lengthy finale. Yet mostly this is a tune machine that never stops producing, and Mendelssohn treats those tunes inventively to boot. Here the National Philharmonic’s strings had a glossy, rich tone and showed a clear enthusiasm for the material, though the performance overall lacked the zippy quality that comes with more precise ensemble.

Victoria Chiang, viola master. From her website. 2012 by Rachel Boer Photography.

Victoria Chiang, viola master. From her website. 2012 by Rachel Boer Photography.

The Mendelssohn showed its devotion to the viola mainly through having two viola desks. (Much credit to Gajewski for explaining the furniture rearranging before it happened so the audience would know why everything sounded different.) Victoria Chiang, coordinator of the viola department at the Peabody School, served as the soloist in two concerti that bookended the Mendelssohn. She played the concert opener, Georg Philip Telemann’s Concerto in G major (famous from classical drive-time morning radio), with elan and imagination. The orchestra behind her sounded plodding, lacking her sharp attack and burdened by pedestrian continuo work.

Nurit Bar-Josef, concertmaster of the National Symphony and a last-minute replacement for the ailing violinist Stefan Jackiw, joined Chiang for Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s Sinfonia concertante. Throughout, Bar-Josef and Chiang balanced their intertwining lines, playing with sweet tone and Classical grace; among many high points, their closing passage in the second movement was a particular treat, as it could hardly fail to be in such sensitive hands. Meanwhile, the orchestra bleated out most of what it was doing. The contrast was stark, and the result was unsatisfying.

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

March 19, 2012

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

The man in action. From the Prague Philharmonia website.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

March 14, 2012

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

OTHER THINGS I LIKED ABOUT THIS CONCERT

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

Say It and Play It: Brian Ganz at the Music Center at Strathmore, February 11, 2012

February 12, 2012

Saturday night brought the second concert in Brian Ganz‘s ten-year Chopin Project, in which he will play all the piano works of Frédéric Chopin at the Music Center at Strathmore, with assists from the National Philharmonic, the project’s co-presenter. Annapolis resident Ganz opened with the two polonaises of Chopin’s Op. 40. I’ve never much liked the first, the A major “Military,” which seems to be composed primarily of ringing gestures with little music in between, and Ganz romped through the chords that makes the piece, admittedly, a good concert opener without seeming to solve the boredom problem. It would turn out to be the only less-than-stellar performance Ganz gave in a truly satisfying evening.

In the second, C-minor polonaise, Ganz made the ruminative opening motif sound like a riddle and spent the rest of the polonaise methodically teasing out an answer, all while the dance rhythm pulsed clearly under the rest of Chopin’s invention. Quiet passages shimmered with color; more forceful passages rang out and filled the Music Center. Ganz didn’t use a lot of rubato, but he picked his spots well; he seemed primarily concerned with realizing his conception of the music rather than imposing an idea upon it. His judgment and precision gave the whole thing an irresistible musical momentum.

Brian Ganz, playin' it. From his website.

Then Ganz picked up a microphone, welcomed the (large) crowd, and told us what he’s up to with the Chopin Project. Without notes, he discussed eloquently the “mysterious soulfulness in Chopin’s music.” Sometimes he adopted the cadences and impassioned tone of a preacher, and as people who had just heard him testify at the piano we were ready to hear it.

The occasional discussions helped the audience understand what the piece meant to Ganz, making the subsequent performances more vivid for the understanding. After the discussion of “mysterious soulfulness,” Ganz brought out just those qualities in the Fantasie in F minor, which ended with a ravishing, suspended-in-midair coda that, in Ganz’s hands, seemed to hint at some redemption from the turbulence that had preceded it without necessarily promising anything. Before the Waltz in A-flat major, he took the time to explain to the audience the joke of the two-beat rhythm in the right hand against the waltz rhythm in the left hand, and how Chopin embroiders them together with additional melodic filigree; Ganz then made it all sound smooth, with the wit clearly audible but balanced with the other delightful aspects of the music.

The program as a whole was balanced nicely as well, with big serious pieces like the polonaises and the Fantasie spelled by smaller works that were at least less demanding for the audience. These produced some highlights too. Ganz showed a facility for navigating the finger-twisting runs Chopin so often demands, especially in the Fantasie-Impromptu in C minor, where the notes cascaded cleanly as a brook in springtime. Four mazurkas from Chopin’s Op. 6 received strongly rhythmic performances, in which melodies sounded forceful even when they weren’t loud thanks to their emphatic phrasing.

The Polonaise-Fantasie, Op. 61 and the Andante Spianato and Grande Polonaise Brilliante sandwiched the mazurkas on the program’s second half. Giving the audience a chance to trickle in from intermission, Ganz introduced the Polonaise-Fantasie by musing on the idea of the word “fantasy,” likening it to “dreaming along with Chopin,” and then revealed that the P-F once had little appeal for him before discussing how he had come to esteem it highly. This little lecture gave the audience an out in case they didn’t quite get the work and a frame within which to apprehend it; Ganz’s performance embodied the idea of “dreaming along with Chopin,” in which the snatches of dance rhythms became ideas for rumination and reflection before transforming into something more.

For the Andante Spianato and Grande Polonaise Brilliante, Ganz disclosed the traditional music-school reduction of its name, “Al Dente Spaghetti and Bland Mayonnaise,” and prefaced his discussion of the Polonaise by saying, “The word ‘fun’ is underrated in classical music.” After a magical, liquid Andante, he proved his point with a Grande Polonaise that swaggered, crashed, boasted, and generally made a ruckus. At times, Ganz seemed to have fun pushing until the music was barely in control, like a driver accelerating hard into a turn and holding onto the grab bar, but of course we were never actually in any danger, just having a ball. First Ganz told us, then he showed us. I look forward to hearing him do it again in the next Chopin Project concert on January 19, 2013.

THINGS THAT HAPPENED AT THIS CONCERT THAT BRIAN GANZ WAS NOT PERSONALLY RESPONSIBLE FOR

The crowd whooped it up when Ganz first came onto the stage, and applauded after the “Military” Polonaise even when they were listed without a gap in the program, which is cool. But then Ganz took a pregnant-pause moment during a transition between sections in the Fantasie — never removing his hands from the keyboard — and applause broke out that took way too long to silence. Credit to Ganz for maintaining his equanimity and continuing a brilliant performance.

Ganz would not have been affected, presumably, by the extremely ripe-smelling person who was sitting near me, but I got strong whiffs at various points throughout the concert. In case you are wondering, I definitely suggest that people shower on concert days.

Finally, the garage at the Grosvenor-Strathmore Metro Station, which serves as a place to park for the Music Center, was a total nightmare to get into and out of on Saturday night. Just saying. I’m guessing the problem with exiting was related to people emerging from the garage, seeing our in-progress dusting of snow, thinking “Oh [expletive]!” and being momentarily unable to drive as they contemplated the terrible, terrible sins that must have brought a fate such as late-nite wintry precipitation upon them.

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.

Ives from All Sides: William Sharp, Jeremy Denk, and The Post-Classical Ensemble at Strathmore, November 3 and 4, 2011

November 6, 2011

Charles Ives cheerfully ignored boundaries and received wisdom, writing music primarily to satisfy his own enthusiasms, and still pushed music forward in the process. It takes a group like the Post-Classical Ensemble, equally committed to ignoring boundaries and received wisdom, to fully embrace and encompass his achievements.

Charles Ives, in all his splendor. Photo by W. Eugene Smith from the Charles Ives Papers at Yale

Specifically, in the P-CE’s “Ives Project,” it took three days of concerts, lectures, and a masterclass, plus guest appearances from pianist Jeremy Denk and baritone William Sharp. Due to work and other demands, I was not able to show as much commitment to the Ives Project as the P-CE did, but I caught both Thursday and Friday’s concerts at the Music Center at Strathmore.

At most P-CE concerts, artistic director Joseph Horowitz strides on stage at some point to explain to the audience what they will hear or have just heard. Thursday’s program, “Charles Ives: A Life in Music,” obviated such discourse by presenting contextual information from Ives’ own writings or other contemporary sources. Actors Carolyn Goelzer and the redoubtable Floyd King helped make the words come alive, so that Ives discussing his childhood enthusiasm for the circus naturally prepared us for his song “The Circus Band.” There were no gaps in the program where people got themselves ready to read or play; everything snapped into place, making a two-hour concert fly by.

Baritone Sharp had the lion’s share of the musical duties on Thursday, and he used his flexible, rich voice with keen intelligence to make his songs into vivid stories in themselves. He sang naturally and directly, without distorting vowels or other classical-vocalist cheats, which Ives surely would have appreciated. He burst with childlike enthusiasm in “The Circus Band,” but sounded just as natural navigating the landscape of Ives’ setting of “The Housatonic at Stockbridge,” negotiating tricky intervals to express both aesthetic pleasures and awe, or hectoring his listeners with the broad, brutal satire of “General William Booth Enters Into Heaven.”

For most of the first half, Denk accompanied Sharp on piano. Two settings of Herman Almers’ “Feldeinsamkeit,” first that of Johannes Brahms and then that of the young Ives, came off especially well, with the second providing convincing evidence for the assertion King read us that the 24-year-old Ives’ effort merited consideration alongside that of the German master. Denk’s enthusiasm for both Brahms and Ives came across in his sensitive phrasing and limpid tone, and Sharp’s voice sounded its most honeyed and gorgeous.

Sharp also had some help from the PostClassical Ensemble, conducted by the P-CE’s music director Angel Gil-Ordonez. Five songs whose accompaniment John Adams has transcribed for orchestra got intimate sounds from Sharp and the ensemble, especially when Sharp read the introduction to “Thoreau” as woodwinds and strings described a strange but rapt pastoral. The ensemble got some time alone to play a couple of Ives’ lesser-known short orchestral pieces, “In the Inn” and “Over the Pavements,” digging deep into Ives’ rough invention and, especially atop the pavements, his gleefully contrasting rhythms.

The concert opened and closed with “The Unanswered Question,” with its querent harmonies in the strings, offstage woodwind murmurs and outbursts, and the implacable five-note solo trumpet utterance, here played with serene eloquence by Chris Gekker. Emerging from silence and a low-lit hall, it focused the attention immediately; as a closer, reflecting and reflected in all that had come before, I couldn’t stop thinking about it. Another canny trick of programming in an evening full of them.

Friday’s program put Denk in the spotlight, playing Ives’ second piano sonata (subtitled “Concord, Mass., 1840-60″) and the “Hammerklavier,” the bangingest of the piano sonatas by Ives’ beloved Beethoven, back to back. This is a hell of a difficult program, but one Denk evidently finds rewarding, given that he toured with it a couple years ago (including a stop in the DMV) and still wanted to do it again.

Jeremy Denk, always thinking about music even in the presence of ripe tomatoes

The P-CE dressed it up a bit. Sharp came back to read from Ives, Emerson, and Thoreau before each of the sonata’s four depictions of leading lights of Concord. These put one in a properly Transcendental mood before Denk’s performances. His program notes for the sonata (excerpted from his notes for his Ives CD, which is worth a purchase) outlined his thoughts on its major landmarks and threads, and his performance made you understand why he, artistic director Horowitz, and other iconoclastic souls love this sonata so much.

Ives wrote the sonata on a broad canvas, and its forms are all generated from his ideas: the rhetoric of “Emerson,” building itself up from pronouncements and gestures; the wildness of “Hawthorne,” from spooky to out-of-control; the heaven-seeking purity of the main theme of “The Alcotts”; a hazy dawn and subsequent day at Walden Pond in “Thoreau.”  The sonata’s quotations — the first few notes of Beethoven’s Fifth most prominent among them — make it sound like Ives is trying to gather into the sonata everything in the world, particularly in the Alcotts, which reminded me of spending hours messing around on a keyboard seeing what kinds of sounds can be made and occasionally finding something extraordinary. Denk expertly balanced narrative elements against each other; he coaxed myriad colors from his piano (which had to be retuned at intermission from the stress); most of all, he found fascinating moments each movement and showed us how one can connect them.

Beethoven’s “Hammerklavier” should be a perfect analogue from the previous century: ambitious, lengthy, fearsomely difficult, and ultimately lowercase-T transcendent. Unfortunately, on Friday, Denk didn’t really have it under his fingers. It would be almost impossible not to drop or mis-hit a note or two during a performance of “Hammerklavier,” but Denk was doing it so much that the beginnings of favorite passages became occasions for anxiety: is he going to get through this? He also took the slow movement, marked “Adagio sostenuto” (“slow and sustained”), at a brisk walk that crossed the line from idiosyncrasy into incorrectness, particularly when Denk himself occasionally slowed down during variations only to return to the faster tempo.

Still, I’ll remember that Concord Sonata for a long time, and it added to Thursday’s picture of Ives, here working in a longer form and accumulating power over that span. (I wish I could have attended Saturday’s concert, in which the JACK Quartet essayed Ives along with contemporary composers, to see the additional light such a juxtaposition would throw on Ives’ music.) The frustrating thing about Ives’ infrequent appearances in American concert halls is that it’s not difficult to understand what he’s up to; you just have to be open to hearing it. Denk, Sharp, and the P-CE made it easy to love Ives this weekend, and I hope some people in the audience felt it too.

IN CASE YOU DON’T KNOW

Jeremy Denk’s blog is always worth a read. Better than this one!

Charles Ives was quite a fine writer too, which is part of why Thursday’s concert worked so well. If you’re getting into the Concord Sonata, Ives’ Essays Before a Sonata are worth reading. And they’re free, here.

Updated to add Other People’s Perspectives: Cecilia Porter on Thursday’s concert, and Charles T. Downey on Saturday’s. I knew the latter was going to be good!

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.


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