Posted tagged ‘national orchestral institute’

Carrying On Tradition: The National Festival Orchestra at the University of Maryland, June 21, 2014

June 23, 2014

I’ve been attending National Orchestral Institute and Festival concerts at the University of Maryland since I was in high school, when the happening was just the National Orchestral Institute and its students performed collectively as the NOI Philharmonic. Though the musicians at NOI change every year, Saturday’s National Festival Orchestra concert, in which the assembled young people performed under the baton of Rochester Philharmonic conductor laureate Christopher Seaman, evinced the same virtues that drew me to the festival when I was young: Top-notch orchestral playing, crackling with excitement one hears only sometimes at professional symphony concerts, for rock-bottom prices – $25 for any seat in Dekelbaum Hall, in the Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center.

Christopher Seaman.

Christopher Seaman.

Saturday night’s program of music by Richard Strauss, Benjamin Britten, and Gustav Holst provided a lot of opportunities for Seaman and the orchestra to wallow in sound or emotion. Skipping most of those, Seaman set flowing tempi and rarely slowed things down, even noticeably abbreviating the typical pauses between movements. Yet these were full-hearted readings nonetheless, thanks to the gorgeous sounds the orchestra made and the excitement that informed the playing.

The antics of Strauss’s “Till Eulenspiegel’s Merry Pranks” have always been lost on me, I confess; I listen to hear that the fiendish horn solo comes off well and then, despite my best efforts, zone out. Here said solo did come off well (as did the woodwind pratfalls that accompany it), but Seaman’s brisk tempi allowed me to actually hear the humor of the various episodes. Britten’s “Four Sea Interludes,” drawn from the opera “Peter Grimes,” demand more atmospheric playing, which they received: you could almost hear the waves lapping on the shore in the string figures and smell the salt tang in the thin air, limned by the winds, during the “Dawn” interlude, while the storm interlude crashed all the more powerfully for holding something in reserve until a big climax.

The Baltimore Symphony Orchestra put on quite a fine performance of Holst’s suite “The Planets” a few months ago, and if you sat me down with recordings of the National Festival Orchestra’s rendition and the BSO’s, I’m not sure I could pick out the professional versus the nonprofessional orchestra. The Natty Festivians had a few moments where the percussion got out of sync with the rest of the orchestra, and a couple times one member of the brass hit the wrong repeated note for a couple measures, but that was it for the demerits. In the students’ favor: Massive, snarling low brass, lower strings that made an impenetrable shelf of sound when called for, sweet-toned upper strings, and all-around excellent wind playing. The 5/4 tread of “Mars” felt impersonal and relentless as it should, quick and steady on Saturday, and the “Sorcerer’s Apprentice”-esque climax of “Uranus” felt inevitable thanks to similar rhythmic intensity. “Mercury,” where the melody flits among sections of the orchestra, sounded like a continuous thought thanks to the careful coordination of Seaman and his players. The heart of the work for me, though, was the noble theme in the middle of “Jupiter,” played by the National Festival Orchestra with a simplicity and eloquence that conveyed deep emotion without digging for it. A tough trick to pull off, but Seaman and the orchestra did it.

There’s one more National Festival Orchestra show this month, next Saturday at 8 pm, in which Leonard Slatkin will conduct Dmitri Shostakovich’s Fifth Symphony and some other stuff. Twenty-five bucks!

Other People’s Perspectives: Robert Battey

WHEN I WAS YOUNG…

I certainly would not have thought of conductorly restraint as something to which one should aspire. I wanted everything to be all emphasis all the time. It appears that after having eagerly sought out such approaches, I am now ready for balance and restraint to have the fore. I was feeling so nostalgic driving home from the concert and thinking about piloting my parents’ Ford Taurus station wagon to the terrible acoustics at Tawes Hall to hear a bunch of kids who were actually a bit older than me play orchestral instruments better than I could do anything, and it really gave me some perspective. It’s time to pur away childish things, For example, in this review…

I DIDN’T EVEN MAKE THE OBVIOUS JOKES ABOUT THE CONDUCTOR’S NAME

You know what jokes I’m talking about. Don’t lie. (I can put away childish things but cannot pretend that they don’t exist, apparently.)

A Collegial Chamber: National Orchestral Institute Faculty Artists at the University of Maryland, June 5, 2014

June 8, 2014

For years, I’ve attended the orchestral concerts at the University of Maryland’s National Orchestral Institute and Festival, because a bunch of talented young people living, learning, and making music together often results in exciting concert-going. However, to teach those students, the NOI also gathers together various orchestral luminaries, and said luminaries put on a concert or two as well.

I always thought the orchestral faculty would probably play music for difficult-to-assemble instrumental combos, show the whippersnappers how to communicate through music, and generally have a good time. But I never went. On Thursday night, I finally tried actually attending one in the Gildenhorn Recital Hall, and it was exactly as I expected.

The first half of the program featured three medium-length combos of one wind or brass instrument and a few strings — how often do you get to hear textural variety like that? Oboist Mark Hill, violinist James Stern, violist Katherine Murdock, and cellist Julia Lichten had just the right touch in Bejnamin Britten’s Phantasy, phollowing Britten’s phree invention where it led but phinding a relationship of the parts to the whole. Phun! The high caliber of playing helped too; Lichten was particularly notable in the opening and closing notes, quiet and mysterious.

Gorgeous playing didn’t make Alan Hovanhess’ “Haroutiun (Resurrection)” enjoyable, though. Trumpeter Chris Gekker moderated his tone beautifully to fit with his string-playing colleagues, but Hovanhess’ theme dripped with sap, and the music never strayed too far from the theme and its modal harmonies even in the nominally fugal second section.

Along with violinist Sally McLain, violist Edward Gazouleas, and cellist Peter Stumpf, Frank Morelli and his bassoon brought back the fun in Carl Maria von Weber’s “Andante e Rondo ungarese.” All of the musicians enjoyed the poise of the Andante theme and the infectious rhythms of the rondo, but the star was Morelli (day job: Orpheus Chamber Orchestra), who played virtuoso runs up and down the scale with scintillating style and wit.

Frank Morelli. Photo from Orpheus' website.

Frank Morelli. Photo from Orpheus’ website.

Johannes Brahms’ second string sextet made up the second half of the program: a meaty piece full of the harmonic shading, motivic complexity, and general wistful mood that we think of as echt-Brahmsian. Though a Romantic-era piece, it benefitted on Thursday from the assembled stringsters’ Classical-style emphasis on lightness and transparent textures. You could hear everything that was going on with the internal voices and follow the motives around, or you could let the emotions of the music carry you away, and I did both. The only hiccup was that David Salness and Stern, taking first and second violin, respectively, seemed slightly out of tune with each other at times. Otherwise, top-shelf stuff; Murdock and Gazouleas were exemplary middle voices, and it was a treat to hear Stumpf and Lichten make their big melodies sing.

Did I mention this concert was free? You can check out the other stuff in the NOI Festival here. There are a couple chamber concerts by the students today, which I have also always thought would be fun to check out. Maybe next year.

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

June 9, 2013

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

45-Minute Workout: National Orchestral Institute and Festival’s “New Lights” Chamber Concert, University of Maryland, June 28, 2012

July 1, 2012

On Thursday, the National Orchestral Institute‘s New Lights chamber concert started before the music itself did. Just as the student-musicians on stage had finished tuning, other young folk (later revealed to be fellow NOIers) streamed into the Gildenhorn Recital Hall, sorting themselves into pairs that each clapped in a different rhythm and encouraged the audience to join in. The program revealed that these rhythms came from Bach’s second Brandenburg Concerto, the first movement of which we were about to hear, but even with foreknowledge the clapping struck a spark: Yes, this is really happening at a classical music concert.

The New Lights concerts have always sought to surprise, with modern repertoire played with committment and skill and presented in ways that are unusual but perhaps shouldn’t be. On Thursday, we heard music without pause for three-quarters of an hour, textures and idioms varied widely around a focal point, Paul Moravec‘s Brandenburg Gate, a chamber concerto commissioned by the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra as a response to the very same Brandenburg No. 2 of Johann Sebastian.

Paul Moravec watched the whole concert from a box and said at the end that this concert was “one of the coolest things I’ve ever been involved in.” Photo from his website.

From a vigorous performance of the Baroque selection, the concert slid — literally, via glissando — into a movement from a John Cage string quartet, played by students in the upstairs box seats, with the lights dimmed. Cage’s strategically noncommittal scrapes, extra-tentative here, yielded to the similarly spare but more expressive “Spiegel im Spiegel” (“Mirror in Mirror”) of Arvo Pärt, where those musicians still on the stage traded off with those in the boxes. A piano in a box close to the stage played relentless triadic arpeggios in the Pärtian bell-like style and served as a kind of fulcrum between the two groups.

Everyone got to join in on a chanting improvisation, which started with a NOIers singing whatever notes they wanted. The program encouraged us to chime in with whatever tones sounded good to us and hold them until you felt like dropping them. I sang at a low voice so I could hear the outlines of the massive chord shift and pulse, which was totally fascinating. I would do this again in virtually any group I could get to to do it. (Staff meeting ahoy!)

The cloud of sound started breaking when the NOIers began playing motives from the Moravec, eventually launching into its onrushing, clarifying energy and relentless minor seconds (in the form of “B-A-C-H”). The ripenio group of flute Mark Huskey, clarinet Jen Augello, trumpet Anthony DiMauro, and violin Kenneth Liao commanded attention at the center, playing with assurance and brio. The orchestra played a dense score with remarkably unanimity of expression, earning post-concert plaudits from the composer himself.

The Cage and Pärt performances didn’t quite get to that level, and while the program traced a clear path from piece to piece, it remains unclear to me exactly what the non-Bach works actually had to do with the Moravec. (Also still baffling is the program’s description of the substitution of a vibraphone for the trumpet in the Bach as “clever,” when clearly a trumpet was available and when the orchestra frequently had to drop its volume so the vibraphone could be, you know, heard. In general, another read-through on the program would have been a good idea.) But the format of the program kept the sense of adventure alive throughout — never a slack moment in which quotidian thoughts could intrude — and the modest length left me hungry for more.

The University of Maryland brings all these young people to the NOI because it’s just fun to have talented youths hanging out with each other, but also to help them shape their careers, meaning that they may just represent the Future of Music. If it means more concerts where musicians actively engage the audience, think of novel ways to present music, and tread boldly into modern repertoire with instant appeal, bring on the future.

Other People’s Perspectives: Anne Midgette. (No, the concert did not take place at Strathmore. Blasted headline writers. I still cringe when remembering this doozy.) Updated to add: Charles T. Downey.

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

June 18, 2012

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Other People’s Perspectives: Robert Battey.

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

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

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.

It’s All in the Interpretation: National Orchestral Institute Philharmonic at the University of Maryland, July 2, 2011

July 3, 2011

For the past few years, my annual visit to the National Orchestral Institute has come at the beginning of the month these young musicians spend at the University of Maryland, learning their orchestral craft from distinguished faculty and showing their skills in a series of weekly concerts. This year, I thought I’d catch ‘em later on, to hear the finished product in the Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center’s Dekelboum Hall. Saturday’s concert, the last by this year’s NOI Philharmonic, featured two purely orchestral showpieces under the direction of Carlo Rizzi — Brahms’ Symphony no. 2 and Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring.

Carlo Rizzi, the man who led the NOIers on Saturday

Whether limning autumnal harmonies in the former or stamping out irregular peasant rhythms in the latter, the NOI musicians sounded great. This year’s chief strength appears to have been the violins, which could both make a melody sing with splendid tone and ensemble and play with great delicacy in accompaniment; their quiet trills in the opening of the Rite startled with their intensity and concentration. The horns could hit tricky melodic passages and, when called for, let loose with full-on blasts of sound. The winds did not sound quite as secure, but there were still many lovely solos from that quarter, and the percussion was on point the whole night, integrated and effective in the Brahms, relentless in the Stravinsky. And they played with infectious enthusiasm, which counts for a whole lot.

Rizzi (who is not the guy from “The Godfather,” so put that out of your mind) obviously deserves a lot of credit for coaching the musicians to make such satisfying sounds, including balancing the orchestra so well that all this fine playing could be heard clearly even in busy ensemble passages. Never was this more obvious than in the first movement of Brahms’ second symphony, in which various supporting phrases contrast with broad melodies, ensuring that the movement’s pacific mood does not become somnolescent. At least normally. For Rizzi seemed obsessed with playing every single melody and melodic fragment in this movement with as much legato as possible, always connecting notes into little arcs and curves to the point that it sounded fussy and monotonous, and kind of like watching someone else use a Spirograph.

The middle movements came off best. In the second, Rizzi shaped the melodies more conventionally, allowing the listener to simply enjoy the burnished sounds from the NOIers, with the horns, winds, and strings making shifts in harmonic patterns sound as natural as breathing or as dramatic as anything you’ve heard. In the third movement, Rizzi’s measured pace and sprightly rhythms let Brahms’ occasional witticisms sound their funniest, and the orchestra played with both energy and delicacy to make the movement bustle merrily along.

Rizzi took the fourth movement much faster than normal, faster than this talented group could actually play it. I have never conducted an orchestra, but the obvious solution there would have been to dial it back a bit. Nevertheless, their scrambling after Rizzi’s baton was endearing, like watching the Coyote in a high-speed, slightly destructive chase with the Road Runner. (Meep meep!)

The Rite of Spring, following intermission, also moved fast; Rizzi pushed some sections so hard that their melodies were almost unrecognizable. But this time the orchestra had the full measure of the tempi. The problem here was that somewhere between conductor and orchestra the earthiness of the score went missing. You rarely got the sense of a ritual to be both respected and feared, or the frenzy that resulted from the ritual’s enactment; the performance was precise and high-impact but bloodless, like watching a boxer work a speed bag or a wide receiver run a cone drill.  Only in the final Sacrificial Dance (The Chosen One) section did something primal start to emerge. I never thought the Rite could sound like this, especially from an orchestra full of young people, whose access to their baser emotions is typically more direct than that of their elders, but there you go.

So it turned out I wished I had gone to a different NOI concert, but that doesn’t change the fact that the NOI is the best orchestral deal in town (every ticket is $27) each year for the month of June. Hope to see you there next year.

Updated to add Other Person’s Perspective: Anne Midgette. She and I heard many of the same things but interpreted them differently, which is why it’s good to have multiple critics criticking (cricketing?) at concerts.

Are You Ready to Rock? National Orchestral Institute and Festival’s “New Lights” Chamber Concert, University of Maryland, June 24, 2010

June 28, 2010

You know what they say: Those who can, do; those who can’t, pay money to watch those who can. Well, we who attended the “New Lights” concert of chamber music in the Kay Theatre of the University of Maryland’s Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center on Thursday paid nothing to get in, plus we received complimentary toys and rocks to allow us to help perform two chamber works. Though the student musicians attending the National Orchestral Institute and Festival did the bulk of the playing, getting to join in fostered a rare engagement with us normally idle spectators.

The young musicians used the dramatic apparti of the Kay Theatre in Sandovian fashion to heighten the dramatic feel; the curtain rose first on a quartet of double basses, tastefully lit. They played a bristly motivic study called “Soundings” (by Robert Gibson, double bassist and director of U-Md’s School of Music) with appropriate brawn, followed by a transcription of a popular song that they did not name, played with some uncertain intonation but also with a lot of real feeling for the melody. (The concert’s attendees appeared to consist mainly of young NOI sympathizers and elderly folk bussed in from Riderwood; both groups displayed splendid enthusiasm, but the latter group probably had even less of a chance of getting the pop reference than I do.)

Then we civilians got to play in Frederic Rzewski’s “Les Moutons de Panurge,” inspired by “Pantagruel.” (One of the musicians read the quotation at that link before the performance.) The strings-and-percussion ensemble plays a note-repeating melody in strict unison, except that Rzewski instructs them, “If you get lost, stay lost.” After the melody ends, they begin an improvisation of indefinite length. Meanwhile, however, Rzewski instructs the “nonmusicians” to “make sound, any sound, preferable [sic] very loud,” and we got to do so using whistles, party horns, and other inexpensive, high-volume instruments that the musicians distributed to us before the concert. Here are the ones my concertgoing companion and I snagged:

Cheap plastic whistle and horn

I had tremendous fun honking away on my horn, shouting “WOO-HAH!!” at the top of my lungs, and whistling tuneless sirens. I also enjoyed sitting still and listening to the chaos around me, as Rzewski’s skeletal instructions proved to be a perfect plan for sonically representing sheep stampeding to their death. The musicians appeared ready to improvise all night, but eventually the audience wore down, and the resulting gradual diminuendo created an unlikely catharsis. (A Riderwood representative a row behind me did not have quite the same reaction, telling her concertgoing companion, “Hopefully, that was a once-in-a-lifetime experience.” But I think she was a little amused too.)

It was tought to put away the plastic horn, but it would have been inappropriate to tootle through the high harmonics and soft, tense chords of Osvaldo Golijov’s Yiddishbbuk, for string quartet. Violinist Alexander Yin read this description of the piece and then described how he and violinist Erik Malmquist, violist DJ Cheek, and cellist Jason Mooney had approached learning to perform it, trying to find the poetry in what seemed initially like harsh notes on the page. The idea of the talk was great, but Yin rushed through it and stumbled frequently (also, someone should have told him how to pronounce “Terezin”). The performance lacked the coordination and beauty of tone than you’d hear in a really good recording like this one, but it did indeed conjure a tentative poetry from Golijov’s abstract gestures.

“This piece is entirely for you guys,” one of the NOIers said after intermission, and Jon Gibson’s “After ‘Ambient Densities'” asked for no great skill other than the ability to bang two rocks together. In my case, these two:

Two small rocks

Specifically, we banged out rocks together a specific number of times during each of eight minute-long intervals. The first minute, we struck ‘em 108 times (easier than it sounds), the second 98, and down by irregular intervals to 3 in the final minute. Hilariously, percussionist Karlyn Mason kept time by sweeping her arms to represent the second hand on a watch. The smartasses in the balcony enjoyed pounding 7 times in quick succession during the penultimate minute; other people created their own oddball rhythms, first overshooting the mark in the dense minutes, then cautiously tapping as the piece went on. Together, we did indeed create a shifting, amorphous density of sound in the Kay that, like the Rzewski if not as affectingly, gradually winked out. Plus if you’ve lost the ability to enjoy banging rocks together, you’ve basically lost the ability to enjoy life.

The jazz inflections of Derek Bermel’s “Three Rivers,” for jazz band instrumentation with violin and cello to augment, appeared to lie beyond the current compass of these musicians; they made big, rich noises but couldn’t quite track Bermel’s rhythms or play with that added dose of swagger necessary to sell them. However, keyboarder Tessa Hartle, percussionist Mason on the vibraphone, and Izumi Miyahara on the flute and piccolo had some memorable trio passages of fast notes high in their respective registers, like snow falling on the muddy rivers the rest of the ensemble created.

The NOIers who participated in Thursday’s concert prepared these works, and devised the theatrical means to showcase them, on top of an already demanding schedule in which they played their fourth concert in four weeks on Saturday. Yet the high spirits of the musicians, their committed playing, the care they took with the presentation, and their generosity in giving the audience some time for fun made the concert feel like a gift. It wasn’t the most technically polished concert I’ve ever attended, but its generous spirit will linger in my memory for a long time.

IN WHICH I GET A COMPLIMENT

When we returned from intermission, the female half of the couple sitting to our right told me, “You were very good.” When I demurred by saying that I have always enjoyed making loud noises, she said “You make good loud noises.”

What occasioned this was a little call-and-response I had been doing with someone in the balcony who had a similar instrument. I now consider myself to be a great virtuoso of the cheap plastic horn, and I feel I demolished this individual.

The Kids Are (Eventually) All Right: National Orchestral Institute at the University of Maryland, June 5, 2010

June 7, 2010

It’s a heck of a thing to bring together a bunch of young orchestra-minded musicians, no matter how talented, and ask them to play a public concert without a conductor a week after they’ve met. Yet this is what artistic director James Ross asked of his charges as part of the National Orchestral Institute, which runs every June at my alma mater, the University of Maryland. Given the challenge of playing in tempo, in balance, and with some kind of artistic goal in mind sans maestro, all while learning each other’s names and getting familiar with the Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center’s Dekelboum Concert Hall, this year’s crop did quite well on Saturday night.

The most disappointing playing came in the first full-orchestra piece on the program, in which a subset of the 90 young folks in NOI had to deal not only with the above challenges but also with collectively responding to a soloist in Mozart’s Piano concerto no. 20, in D minor (K. 466). This set the concert off on a bad footing, particularly in the opening exposition, where balances were all over the place: the repeated notes in the violins subsumed the lower strings, and the winds and brass continually adjusted their volume in unflattering fashion. More importantly, the playing felt tentative, with indistinct rhythms and sometimes-smeary entrances and exits a half-beat behind.

Pianist Sara Daneshpour then entered and became the orchestra’s de facto leader. D.C. native Daneshpour has survived a summer in College Park with distinction, winning second prize in the university’s Kapell International Piano Competition. (Full disclosure: After writing that review, I met Sara socially one time. She is a very pleasant person.) Back then, one of the few faults I found with her playing was occasional disconnect with the orchestra; here there was zero chance of that, as the NOIers hung on her every tinkle of the ivories. When the piano played along with the winds in the central section of the slow movement and got a rhythm cooking, many members of the strings nodded their heads with the beat.

Daneshpour played with the sternness D minor demands, yet never became histrionic; the classical ideals of balance and proportion informed her phrasing and temperament, all the more pleasing given her impeccably lovely tone. The only time she stepped out of the Classical character was when playing cadenzas written by Beethoven. Here familiar music renewed its grip, with daring rhythmic freedom and unpredictable phrasing evoking (for the listener) the tradition of an improvised cadenza. At times I actually held my breath wondering what was coming next, even though I knew damn well what it was. And the contrast between the cadenza in the first movement, which constitutes her last notes in that movement, and the unstudied wistful grace of the main theme of the Romance slow movement made me gasp too.

A second platoon of NOIers came out after intermission to try their hands at Richard Wagner’s “Siegfried Idyll” while standing up, doubtless in deference to the conditions of the premiere, which was held on the staircase of Ricky Rick and Cosima Wagner’s house. It is dangerous to impute too much to posture, because we have no control performance to guide our discussion, but the playing certainly seemed quite alert, with tighter ensemble and greater timbral coordination than before the break. One of the clarinets, locked in a duo with a horn, even wriggled his body sympathetically with his melodic line, a nice visual for the audience. Still, even this very fine performance of this work felt like all the other performances of it that I’ve ever heard: A slip into a warm bath that makes you drowsy. I think the problem is me.

Besides setting daunting challenges for talented young musicians, Ross also uses NOI to explore various facets of concert presentation. Along with the standup act in Wagner, we also had two percussion-only pieces, neither of which were mentioned in any advertisements for the concert or were discussed in the program notes beyond giving their title and composer.

This does not seem to be the best way to present the audience with a surprise. Indeed, a distraught (elderly) audience member was heard to utter “This is horrible!” when the concert opened not with the elegance of Mozart but the rhythmic fury of Dave Hollinden’s “Whole Toy Laid Down,” which did indeed sound analogous to a wind-up toy, with rhythmic patterns layering and changing until they reached climaxes that resolved only with fermatas, followed by more winding up.

Aurél Holló’s bizarrely titled “José/beFORE John5 played exuberantly with timbres, both your standard drums and rattling things and with a shawm-esque reed instrument and a pedal steel guitar-looking thing. (Program notes, please.) In a triumph of project planning, the performers ensured that every instrument was at hand at precisely the right time, sometimes for only a short stint before moving on to the next one. Open chords and the drumsticks strumming the guitarish thing foreshadowed Alberto Ginastera’s Variaciones concertantes, which closed the program.

The Ginastera solves many of the problems of conductorlessness by relying mostly on big, brazen solos with relatively simple accompaniment, thus making the third group of NOIers the luckiest of all. Everyone who soloed did so with swagger: Poised, lovely cello and double bass solos gave the theme and its reprise, respectively; a gorgeous-toned, effectively wild clarinet solo stole the show; appropriately dramatic viola soliloquies brought the gravitas; and the group came together for a high-spirited finale. If these young people can play this well on their own, just think how well they’ll do with guidance on the next three Saturdays!

A NOTE ABOUT THE NOTES

The program notes for the three non-percussion pieces featured one detailed, lengthy, scholarly note for each one, plus a two-paragraph summary of that note in larger font. I had trouble reading through the long notes to find stuff I didn’t already know (I had to rely on my concertgoing companion to unearth that interesting tidbit about Wagner’s staircase) and found myself actually preferring to read the shorties. An interesting idea, worth trying some more.


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