Posted tagged ‘national symphony orchestra’

Scaling the Timpanist’s Heights: Jauvon Gilliam in the NSO’s New Moves Festival

May 8, 2014

Jauvon  Gilliam is the National Symphony Orchestra’s principal timpani. Michael Lodico at Ionarts calls him “superb,” and his boss Christoph Eschenbach describes his technique as “supreme.” I agree, although I’m biased, because I’m also his cousin. And since I now tend to be more of a rooter and less of a critic when I go to NSO shows, I haven’t been writing much about them lately. For Jauvon’s upcoming solo timpani concerto, though, I had to take advantage of my connection and find out more. The results are below.

Each of the three programs in the National Symphony Orchestra’s “New Moves” festival, running from yesterday to May 17, features a new dance set to the strains of a vibrant American work. But when Jauvon Gilliam, the NSO’s principal timpani, picks up his sticks to perform James Oliverio’s Timpani Concerto No. 1, he’ll be performing a dance of his own, albeit one hidden from public view by the eight timpani that’ll be surrounding him.


Jauvon will not be surrounded by quite this many timpani, but it’ll be a lot. Photo by Scott Suchman.

Not everyone who attends orchestral concerts knows that the timpani is not a fixed-pitch instrument; drummers tune them through the use of a foot pedal. So to play the right notes, you have to have both your hands and your feet in the right spot. With the typical orchestral complement of four timpani, this is challenging enough; as Gilliam says, “it’s like a choreographed dance. You can overshoot it, you can undershoot it, it’s just like if you do a pirouette.” To really master the instrument, “you almost have to have four different brains or have your brain in four different compartments.”

Twice as many timpani involves more than twice as much difficulty: “Where my feet go on the floor, where my feet go on this drum, which one goes on which one — I have to write all of it down so I can practice it, because the idea is to play it perfect the first time. So I’m actually practicing those type of choreographed moves just as much as I practice the notes.”

The result is physically taxing — Gilliam says he works up a sweat just in practice — but he’s determined to hide his efforts from the crowd. In composing the concerto, Gilliam says, “James uses the visual aspect of playing the outer drums and shifting your body weight, and the challenge is to make it look graceful. To make it look easy. Which is really hard, because my body doesn’t bend that way.”

Gilliam knows the composer’s intentions because he worked with Oliverio to prepare the piece. It’s well known among students of the timpani, and in fact Gilliam’s teacher Paul Yanich premiered the work 24 years to the day before Gilliam will play it with the NSO. So when the NSO reached out to Gilliam to ask about performing an American concerto for the “New Moves” festival, the timpanist got in touch with the composer, who gave him valuable ideas about the concerto but understood that Gilliam would put his own stamp on the piece as well. “He’s a cool cat,” Gilliam says.

Playing eight timpani not only makes for a challenge but also allows Gilliam to explore the melodic potential of the instrument. “With four drums, you could only play two notes of melody, two notes of harmony, or one note of harmony, three notes of melody. It’s not very many,” he says. “With eight timpani, it allows me to have five notes of melody and basically a two-note ostinato in my right hand, in some of the more challenging parts.” And indeed, the timpanist is the melodic protagonist in this concerto, leading dialogues with orchestral instruments and even a cadenza towards the end.

It’s an unusual role for an instrument that normally sits in the back and makes everything sound fuller and more forceful, but Gilliam doesn’t mind the change. “My job is to support people. I really enjoy that, that’s what I love about my job,” he says, but performing a solo is a “different way of doing things, and it allows me to expand my talent. It allows me to be a better musician.”

The concerto is also, he says, “the hardest thing I’ve ever played” — a challenge worthy of the title “The Olympian,” and a summit only scalable for a man who’s sure on his feet.

If you also want to have the experience of hearing Jauvon talk about this concerto, you can listen here. And he even wrote a blog entry about the concerto, which I recommend.

I also recommend the other concerts in the New Moves series. One has Sue Heineman, the NSO’s principal bassoon, playing a concerto, and you know I like her playing based on this, this, and this. And the other is Leila Josefowicz playing John Adams’ violin concerto, which I liked a ton when she did it with the Balmer Symphony. Looks like a strong week ahead for the NSO.

Get With the Program

September 20, 2011

Once again, marathon training and travel have been preventing me from attending the number of classical music concerts I’d like to. This month and the next, if I’m in town, it’ll take something special to get me to go out for a show. But since I can write a blog entry about why the National Symphony Orchestra’s first three programs this season make no sense and still be in bed by 9, I’m going to do that now.

Here are said programs. Note that the “season opening ball concert” does not count because I shrink from anything characterized as a “gala event.” Plus, if it’s a ball, where’s the dancing? (Edit: A commenter points out that there was a ball after the concert at which people danced. I feel kind of dense for not realizing that.) Anyway:

Sept. 29–Oct. 1
Beethoven: Symphony no. 8
Orff: Carmina Burana

Oct. 6–9
Mussorgsky: “Night on Bald Mountain”
Sibelius: Violin concerto
Liadov: “The Enchanted Lake”
Nielsen: Symphony no. 5

Oct. 27-29
Berlioz: Overture to “Benvenuto Cellini”
Grieg: Piano concerto
Mussorgsky/Ravel: Pictures at an Exhibition

In the first program, I guess you could be drawing a parallel between the relative rhythmic rumbustiousness of Beeth 8 and the bursting-out-all-over-ness of Carmina, except…I can’t really endorse that. Carmina is a meal in itself, and Beeth 8 makes a curious appetizer.

Carl Orff asking "Why is this Beethoven symphony, great as it is, sitting like a big awkward lump before my Carmina on that program?"

What inspired this blog post were the second and third programs, which obviously got scrambled up somewhere in the development process. Each features Russian nationalist music and a big Scandinavian work or works. The juxtaposition of Sibelius/Nielsen and Mussorgsky/Liadov in the first program isn’t telling any obvious story, though, and neither is Grieg vs. Mussorgsky in the second program. If you just switch some stuff around and add a couple standard-rep works, though, you get:

Program 1
[add Sibelius: Suite from "Karelia"]
Grieg: Piano concerto
Nielsen: Symphony no. 5

Program 2
Mussorgsky: “Night on Bald Mountain”
Liadov: “The Enchanted Lake”
[add Rimsky-Korsakov: Russian Easter Festival Overture]
Mussorgsky/Ravel: Pictures at an Exhibition

The Sibelius violin concerto and the Berlioz got dropped, the former because it is not exactly underheard around here, the latter because it didn’t fit.

Now you have two programs with distinct identities, i.e., the Scandinavian one and the Russian one. The composers hail from a common(ish) heritage yet use their inheritance and materials differently. The works are talking to each other along an easy-to-spot axis, and attendees can usefully compare and contrast throughout.

In addition, you may have noticed that the last day of the Oct. 27-29 program is the Saturday before Halloween. Hmmm, what sort of promo effort could you get together for a program with “Night on Bald Mountain” and some other vaguely enchanted music at that time of year? Since you’re not paying a soloist, maybe the orchestra could surprise the audience with a semi-mandatory encore of Saint-Saens’ “Danse macabre”? Cheesy, sure, but I’d enjoy it. More to the point, it would be easy to enjoy. The existing NSO programs, on the other hand, offer no obvious story or argument and thus no reason to attend the concerts, unless you like one or another of the performers. (I suppose I could make an exception from Sibelius violin concerto fatigue for Gidon Kremer in the first program, if I wasn’t going to be out of town.) They may end up being arresting concerts, but they’re not really commending themselves to the casual observer.

Meanwhile, the Baltimore Symphony has one of this year’s MacArthur Genius Grant recipients playing Dvorak’s cello concerto at Strathmore on Saturday. I am going to bestir myself to attend that one.

Representing Where You’re From: National Symphony Orchestra and Chuck Brown on the West Lawn of the U.S. Capitol, September 4, 2011

September 5, 2011

The National Symphony Orchestra is, without a doubt, the finest orchestra in Washington, D.C., but its very name points to ambitions larger than, and perhaps distant from, the citizens of the District, Maryland, and Virginia. In the past, the NSO has even wandered to other states to bring them classical music, as though the job had been completely done in D.C. But recently Anne Midgette reported that the NSO has turned its focus for 2012 to Columbia Heights rather than some far-afield land, and for its traditional Labor Day concert this year the NSO brought to the West Lawn of the U.S. Capitol a feast of music by D.C. legends: John Philip Sousa, Duke Ellington, and Chuck Brown.

Chuck Brown is D.C., period. From

One of those musicians is not like the others, in that he recently celebrated his 75th birthday. I speak, of course, of the Godfather of Go-Go, the man who first fused Latin percussion to a hard funk beat and had the genius and stamina to ensure that the beat never stops. Chuck draws a crowd wherever he goes in the DMV, which resulted in an interesting mix on Sunday night of Chuck Brown fans, largely black, and picnic-on-the-lawn-on-a-nice-evening-with-some-music-after patrons, largely white. (Hardcore classical music fans should know not to look for sustenance in nonticketed concerts held outdoors and conducted by the NSO’s principal pops conductor, Steven Reineke.)

It is a truth universally acknowledged among DMV cognoscenti that if you are not a go-go band, and you are on the same bill as a go-go band, you had better play first, because if the go-go band plays first the entire audience will leave when the band does. Reineke and the NSO thus opened with their Sousa and Ellington. Nonetheless, the cries of “Wind me up, Chuck!” started long before the Sousa set was finished. Also, during the Ellington set the smell of marijuana wafted faintly but distinctly through the air, a first for me at an NSO concert. (This was after the people behind me had an extensive discussion about whether any of their number planned to smoke during the concert, although the smell was not coming from them.) So the NSO got itself in front of a new audience on Sunday, is what I’m saying.

Within the limits of outdoor symphonic concerts — the subtleties of tone that distinguish truly fine symphonic playing rarely make it though huge speaker banks — the NSO acquitted itself pretty well. Reineke made a dandy MC, with a voice deep and resonant like Don LaFontaine and an interesting anecdote for everything he played. He and the orchestra let the rhythm drag in a polonaise written to keep receiving lines moving at the White House, but made up for it with a blistering “Circus Galop” that earned a “Niiiice!” from the Chuck fans behind me and a thoroughly rousing “Stars and Stripes Forever.” Plus it was hard not to choke up a little when the NSO played Sousa’s symphonic arrangement of the national anthem, the audience turned around and gazing at the American flag flying proud in front of the Capitol, lit up brilliant white against the dark sky.

Mercedes Ellington, the Duke’s granddaughter and an accomplished dancer and choreographer herself, joined the NSO to provide a little Ellingtoniana as the orchestra essayed some of his most famous tunes. These were some pretty engaging arrangements — Ellington’s stuff, detailed and harmonically adventurous, lends itself to orchestral amplification —  and some of the NSO players showed off not-inconsiderable chops therein, earning a couple more “Niiiice!”s in the process. Mercedes’ anecdotes could have done with a little editing, but her warm presence helped continue the genial mood of the evening.

And then there was Chuck. Or, specifically, first there was an orchestral arrangement by Tim Berens of three of Chuck’s most famous tunes: “2001 (That’ll Work)” (itself an arrangement of “Dawn” from Richard Strauss’ “Also sprach Zarathustra,” and thus a natural for orchestral readaptation), “Harlem Nocturne,” and the first go-go classic, “Bustin’ Loose.” (This video provides a taste of what happened Sunday.) I am proud of the NSO for its attempt to actually play a go-go pocket rhythm, but it did not quite work; the percussion described it accurately, but did not crank it like it should be cranked. Also, Chuck’s voice, low, rich, and layered, is an instrument in and of itself, and brass can’t fill that hole.

Still, the crowd had arisen the moment the NSO essayed the pocket beat, and their anticipation had been thoroughly whetted by the time Chuck joined the NSO for an arrangement of “Run Joe” by Sam Shoup. This was pretty fun, as the NSO’s massive forces bolstered the call-and-response and, well, Chuck was singing.

That was it for the NSO on Sunday, as after a short break Chuck’s band took over for an hourlong set that I thoroughly enjoyed but which is beyond the scope of this blog. (Except to note that Doug E. Fresh absolutely killed it as a special guest.) Still, I was pleased to see on Chuck’s Facebook page the next day the following comment:

Happy Birthday, Chuck! Loved the concert and loved the symphony orchestra intro. You all need to do an album together. Chuck Brown & The Soul Searchers horn section & percussive Go-Go meets the string section of the NSO. Do it, Mon! lol!

Sunday’s audience probably is not going to buy tickets for Bruckner’s 6th or whatever, but goodwill in the place where you play is valuable goodwill indeed, and I hope the NSO will cultivate more of it.

Balls in the Air: National Symphony Orchestra, June 9, 2011

June 12, 2011

“Juggler in Paradise” is not the story of the time Jimmy Buffet joined the circus, but rather the subtitle of Augusta Read ThomasViolin Concerto no. 3, which received its U.S. premiere Thursday night from soloist Jennifer Koh and the National Symphony Orchestra under its music director, Christoph Eschenbach. The NSO, in fact, co-commissioned the concerto in 2007. Despite the subtitle, which I cannot quite bring myself to take seriously, the orchestra made a good investment.

Picture of Jennifer Koh

Jennifer Koh, by Janette Beckman, from

The work unfolds over one continuous span, the violinist playing nearly the whole time. The orchestra provides mostly spare accompaniment, especially from a vast array of tuned percussion instruments, which on Thursday spanned the rear of the Kennedy Center Concert Hall’s stage. The concerto journeyed from a quiet, slow opening, where high harmonics in Koh’s solo part were matched by delicate harps and percussion and then by ethereal strings, through various surges and scrambles on the part of both violinist and orchestra to a higher pitch of activity, then returning to the sublimated mood of the beginning.

From start to finish, Thomas made no effort to provide memorable melodies or get any rhythms going for more than a few bars; instead, the process of transformation, of the soloist-juggler playing with and against the paradisiacal orchestra, was the product.

No violinist could have tackled the challenge of putting across such a work better than Jennifer Koh. Whenever you hear Koh play, you know you are going to hear a performance in which the relation of every note to every other note in the piece has been deeply considered, in an effort to create a paradoxically spontaneous-sounding whole. Here, she made her violin line into a guidepath through the work, achieving Thomas’ goal of personification. The most memorable passages came when Koh meditated about a phrase or note and got confirmed or knocked around by an interjection from the tuned percussion; you could hear Koh making her violin line react to the changed circumstances and find its way. Eschenbach and the NSO timed their interjections precisely for maximum impact, yet restrained their volume to give the violin the dominant voice.

Koh also took on Thomas’ challenge of providing an optional cadenza within a work the composer described as “a continuous rhapsodic cadenza” in a program note; Koh’s effort, which seemed to be inspired by a pizzicato orchestral passage earlier in the piece, seemed both a profound inversion of the arc of the piece and exactly the right music to transition into a slow coda, during which I counted two possible satisfying endings before Koh’s bow arm finally fell slack. That overlong close is my only real reservation about a work that I’d gladly hear again tomorrow, provided that Koh was playing it.

On Thursday’s program, the Thomas concerto was sandwiched between Schumann opuses, ensuring that at least two of the three works played that evening would be related somehow. (If you haven’t picked up the June 6 issue of the New Yorker to read Alex Ross’ thoughts on orchestral programming, by the way, you need to do so. It’s what I would write if I were smarter and had time to write!) In the event, the NSO made a virtue of this program design by playing both of Bobby S.’s works really well.

The Overture to “Die Braut von Messina” got its first NSO performance on Thursday, and the opening arpeggio felt like a punch to the face, a blast of energy soon submerged in gloomy ruminating that maintained a doomful air. Eschenbach and the orchestra created a sound that bristled with dark menace and milked the tragic thrust of the narrative for all it was worth — this was far from a perfunctory curtain-raiser.

Different delights came after intermission, as Schumann’s second symphony got a performance whose good humor and crackling playing frequently made me smile from ear to ear. Eschenbach’s control of the music never wavered — each repetition of the scherzo in the second movement sounded just as fresh as the initial iteration, with the NSO’s violins bustling in extremely merry fashion — but his deep spontaneity in the long melodic paragraphs of the Adagio espressivo third movement almost made me feel that I had never heard the symphony before.

The finale burst with energy and imagination as well, leading naturally to a standing O that marked not only Eschenbach’s last subscription concert of the season but also trumpeter Adel Sanchez’ retirement, after 42 years of blowing in D.C. A satisfying way to go out for all concerned.

Other People’s Perspectives: Anne Midgette.

Quickie: National Symphony Orchestra, June 9, 2011

June 9, 2011

It’s the usual deal: I attended the National Symphony Orchestra concert tonight, conducted by music director Christoph Eschenbach, but won’t get to write the review now due to my need to sleep before going to work tomorrow. Boo! I will attempt to become independently wealthy, but in the meantime I can assure you that this is a program worth hearing tomorrow night or Saturday. You get a sandwich of Schumann overture (Die Braut von Messina, a new one for the NSO) and symphony (number 2) around the U.S. premiere of Augusta Read Thomas’ third violin concerto, an intriguing work played with rapturous intensity by Jennifer Koh. The NSO sounds super under Eschenbach’s direction, and everything burst with commitment and sympathy; in particular, the symphony had me smiling from ear-to-ear. Go have a listen if you’re free. And I will provide more details soon.

With a Twist of Orchestra: Pink Martini and the NSO Pops at the Kennedy Center, April 14, 2011

April 19, 2011

Pink Martini put on a good show Thursday night in the Kennedy Center Concert Hall. The group was without regular lead vocalist China Forbes, whose doctor had advised her not to further strain damaged vocal chords by performing, and some ragged episodes resulted. But Storm Large (yes, that is a performer’s name and not a Weather Channel alert) subbed in with an imperious diva approach, a big, powerful voice, and total commitment to every song she sang. That went well with the showy sound leader/pianist Thomas Lauderdale and the rest the band adopted for its ritzy surroundings; swinging hard from a solid rhythmic base, songs in Croatian, French, Spanish, and even our native tongue were tough to resist.

Somewhere behind the band sat the National Symphony Orchestra, under the direction of next season’s NSO Pops principal conductor Steven Reineke, playing at near-constant volume to accommodate their guests’ amplification, providing a certain sweep to a sound that did not actually need it. That’s the thing about pops concerts: They take place in halls mostly devoted to classical music, and they involve musicians who mostly play classical music, but they treat the orchestra as anonymous color, not as an equal partner.

The Pink Martini show actually involved more classical music than most such concerts do. It began with a samba take on Ravel’s “Bolero,” mostly led by the band but expanded usefully with the NSO’s strings and brass, and the song “Splendor in the Grass” had a long interlude of the main theme from Tchaikovsky’s first piano concerto, played by the NSO brass, standing up and spotlit for once. (Lauderdale praised the NSO and Reineke lavishly throughout.)

Most notably, Lauderdale teamed with guest pianist Grace Fong to play a lengthy excerpt from Schubert’s Fantasy in F Minor for two pianos, before segueing into two songs based on the Fantasy’s principal theme: a Latinified excoriation of an inconstant man, “And Then You’re Gone,” sung with the intense offense that seems comes naturally to Storm Large (using only one of those names seems to miss something), followed by the guy’s brassy perspective, “But Now I’m Back.”

This last was sung by Ari Shapiro, who may be familiar as National Public Radio’s White House correspondent, and who has a lovely voice but uses it a bit blandly for my tastes (at least when singing). NPR’s Scott Simon also made a stage appearance, dragged out of the crowd to intone Turkish phrases during another song, which he proved unwilling to do, although he enjoyed the stage. These two features showed the band’s interest in what I think of as “federal Washington,” along with frequent nods to budget work and Congress that eventually culminated in Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-Portland, Ore, same as the band) and his staff appearing on stage for the grand finale, Blumenauer gamely shaking his maracas. I depend on federal Washington for a living, and I realize the band’s aesthetic is rooted in the 40s and 50s, but it would have warmed my heart to hear a go-go rhythm tapped out on their well-used conga set as well, although I was likely the only person in the audience to think of that.

A while ago, Anne Midgette asked whether pops concerts are a resource for developing new audiences or presentng different kinds of concerts. Concerts like Thursday’s are not going to do that; the NSO got love, but very little chance to show what it, and the music it plays, can really do. It would be fun if there were an occasional pops concert devoted entirely to ear candy like Borodin’s Overture and Polovtsian Dances (when was the last time you saw that on an orchestra program?), and that might develop an audience for the harder stuff.  But when the NSO plays in a show like this, all it does is show Pink Martini’s audience a group that’s really good at playing second fiddle. That’s still a fun night out with a good band, just not the one whose name is at the top of the Playbill.

Note: I apologize for how late this review is. I ended up having a root canal yesterday.

Love, Death, and Volume: National Symphony Orchestra, March 10, 2011

March 12, 2011

The National Symphony Orchestra’s performance of Olivier Messiaen’s Turangalîla-Symphonie on Thursday night, with music director Christoph Eschenbach on the podium, Cédric Tiberghien on the piano, and Tristan Murali on the ondes martenot, took me back to when I fell in love with Turangalîla as a teenager — it was that heartfelt and intense, a statement of ambition and a respect-worthy achievement at once, and hopefully a harbinger of similar programming to come in upcoming seasons.

The symphony's name is pronounced exactly the same as this character's. Yes, I am a nerd.

What made me love Turangalîla so much as a young person? Thanks for asking!

  • The Sanskrit title, which Messian says “means all at once love song, hymn to joy, time, movement, rhythm, life and death.” I appreciated the comprehensiveness.
  • It’s a massive (ten-movement, 80-minute) work that you can get lost in from moment to moment, but there’s always eventually a signpost to guide you back to the larger structure.
  • It uses heart-on-sleeve melodies, atonal clusters, and purely percussive interludes, embracing all modes of expression, big enough to sound like the world.
  • The constant play of rhythm, standing aloof of the main goings-on, creating giant structures in back of the music, or both at once. Messiaen’s preoccupation with rhythm even exceeded my own.
  • Turangalîla gets really loud really quickly and stays that way for a good portion of the symphonie. If you’d just spent a bunch of your hard-earned teenage savings on speakers, you’d want something worthy to pump through ‘em too.
  • Most of all, though it offered all these things to a listener, Messiaen seemed to be working out his own logic in Turangalîla, yet his principles came across clearly and passionately. You had to make an effort to understand it, but once you did, understanding came a-thundering down.

The liner notes to the recording I had were 100 percent uncut Messiaen discussing the work, and the discussion mostly baffled 15-year-old me, which ultimately posed no barrier to my appreciation. The NSO apparently decided Turangalîla warranted a little more help, so they brought in Joseph Horowitz to lead some context-giving for a half-hour before intermission.

This time provided an opportunity to hear actual music: Tiberghien played a pair of Messiaen piano preludes, Murali gave an explication/demo of the ondes martenot (it doesn’t just make noises that sound like UFOs landing—it’s got feelings too), and Tiberghien and Murali unexpectedly played the “Louange a l’éternité de Jésus” from the Quartet for the End of Time, after which words seemed kind of pointless. The talking itself mostly rehashed the program notes, a practice I will never understand. Anyway, if Eschenbach, Tiberghien, Murali, and the NSO did anything in this performance, it was communicate.

You heard this immediately when what Messiaen refers to as the “statue theme,” a series of brass chords on which you could break a two-by-four, first appeared; the NSO played it loud, with a massive wall of sound projecting out into the Concert Hall and pinning me back in my seat. That physical thrill kept returning whenever Messiaen called for it, a purely sonic reminder of the ambition of his concept, and the only time I didn’t enjoy it was when Murali’s ondes was on the verge of blowing out the right speaker above the stage in the last movement.

Eschenbach and the percussionists got almost all the rhythmic detailing right, with accents as slightly off place and surprising as Messiaen wanted them. The massive superimposition of rhythmically independent themes in the second “Love Song” movement came off without a hitch and sounded great. Eschenbach showed a particular affinity for codas, shaping the end of the same second “Love Song” into a tender lullaby with Tiberghien’s piano and a vibraphone spilling diamond-like notes onto a bed of quiet trombones. (Indeed, the NSO’s brass played admirably even when doing things other than blasting.)

Only in two of the ten movements did focus seem to wander: the fifth, “Joy of the Blood of the Stars,” and the following “Garden of Love’s Sleep.” In the former, the repetitions of the main theme, rather than renewing themselves to a new exhausting joy through dance, felt effortful. In the latter, Eschenbach adopted a pace so slow that it was hard to hear the transformation of the “love theme”—I had to make an effort to remember the previous notes in the phrases, which usually means something’s wrong.

In the “Garden of Love’s Sleep,” I ended up mostly listening to Tiberghien playing birdsong on his piano as the strings unwound their melody. The piano part in Turangalîla demands a lot of the pianist, who must perform linking cadenzas, support the orchestra at its most frenetic, serve with the vibraphone plus a glockenspiel and celeste as a kind of gamelan-ish ensemble, and embroider melodies atmospherically, and Tiberghien had the stamina and chops to do it all. Murali, for his part, did a splendid job modulating his tone and volume on the ondes martenot; from my seat, it enriched the string melodies without overshadowing the older instruments’ tone, and when he figured more prominently in the mix, Murali made deft, thoughtful contributions.

After the over-stasis of the Garden, Eschenbach, the soloists, and the NSO barreled through to the finish, with two “Turangalîla” movements lush with orchestral color and implacable in their rhythms, the “Development of Love” movement that separates them full of momentum and drama as well, and the Finale providing the revelation Messiaen promised in those liner notes, that “Glory and Joy are without end.”

The constant trickle of people leaving the Concert Hall during these proceedings was a reminder that such a work as Turangalîla will not be to everyone’s taste. I hope everyone who is vaguely intrigued by such a thing will check it out, though—it’s not like Turangalîla comes along often (the last NSO performance was in 2001), it’s unlike anything else you’ll hear in the DMV this year, and this performance had enough sincerity and skill to make me feel like a kid again.


The concert was presented as part of the KenCen’s “maximum INDIA” festival because Messiaen sometimes used Indian rhythmic concepts. I really hope Eschenbach wanted to do Turangalîla anyway and was just looking for an excuse, because that ain’t much of one.

Close reading of the program notes indicated that, in addition to the lighting effects on the Concert Hall stage walls that changed with each movement of the symphony, we were supposed to get super-titles of some kind, but the latter did not show up on Thursday. The idea seemed unnecessary, but who knows.

I find it kind of bizarre that on Thursday I heard Joseph Horowitz discuss Western music that sounds like a gamelan for the second time in six days. I live a little over a mile from my parents, and I saw Joseph Horowitz more during that time than either of them. Obviously, that’s not his fault, though.

Other People’s Perspectives: Robert Battey, Charles T. Downey, Terry Ponick.

Quickie: National Symphony Orchestra, March 10, 2011

March 11, 2011

It appears I am not going to be able to write a full review of the National Symphony Orchestra’s concert of Olivier Messiaen’s Turangalila-Symphonie until tomorrow. But in the meantime, I urge you to go see the repeats of the program tonight or tomorrow. It is seriously unlike anything else you will hear at an orchestral concert in the DMV this year—a sprawling, purposeful work that embraces multitudes of musicians, sonorities, harmonies, and approaches, addresses the big looming topics that define our existence, and is a complete blast to listen to. The intensity Christoph Eschenbach and the NSO brought to the performance met the demands of the work. It’s a major achievement for the NSO to put it on this well, and you won’t get to hear it again for a long time if you miss it now.

As noted, more fully developed thoughts coming Saturday. (Or, at least, more thoughts, at greater length.)

From the Core of the Earth: National Symphony Orchestra, June 12, 2010

June 13, 2010

Guest conductor Kristjan Järvi showed some huge strengths and some glaring weaknesses in his leadership of the National Symphony Orchestra on Saturday night. His sensitive shaping of phrases and skill at eliciting sonorities from the orchestra made the first part of the program passionate, intriguing, and occasionally brilliant, but his extremely imprecise approach to rhythm made a hash of two jazzy works after intermission.

Järvi had help with the rhythms in the meatiest piece on the program, the Symphony no. 4 (“Magma”) of his Estonian countryman Erkki-Sven Tüür, written for solo percussionist and orchestra. Judging on his bio and his fourth symphony, Tüür seems a bit like Baltimore’s own Christopher Rouse. Both love rock as well as classical — Tüür even led his own Estonian prog-rock group in the “chamber rock” vein — and show it in their orchestral work. (Tüür also shows it by having the largest possible number of rockin’ umlauts in his name.) The Fourth, though shot through with icy sonorities that we associate with Tüür’s part of the world, could fit without too much trouble into Rouse’s oeuvre, with rock rhythms sparring with essentially tonal harmonies in inventive, string-heavy orchestral scoring that occasionally breaks into unapologetic lyricism. (Tüür breaks into it a little less often than Rouse does.)

“Magma” was written for and dedicated to percussionist Dame Evelyn Glennie, also the dedicatee of Rouse’s “Der gerettete Alberich” (I will stop belaboring this now), and Järvi and the NSO were lucky to secure her services to perform the work for the series of three concerts that ended Saturday. Sometimes Glennie attacked her instruments a little harder than necessary, but “Magma” requires her to play continuously for over a half-hour, and she never missed a beat. (The guns she was showing in her one-armed black top suggested one source of her stamina.)

The “Magma” erupted immediately in the form of a series of loud chords that forced their way from low rumbles to high crashes in the orchestra, spiked by cold, glimmering sounds from the first of three batteries of percussion among which Glennie circulated, especially from the vibraphone. The orchestra then began exploring a long series of slow, grinding harmonic modulations, with Glennie’s vibraphone probing the orchestra’s sound, sometimes suggesting a freeze, sometimes starting to crumble a series of notes. The effect, as this suggests, was pretty cool, but there is only so much of this one can take before the sheer imperturbability of the process stops being impressive and starts feeling stagnant. A lack of dynamic variation, here and elsewhere, also posed a problem; the quieter moments held the most drama here, as there was a general sense of unrelenting medium-loudness.

The music eventually segued into a cadenza for Glennie and a rock drum kit, and soon it became apparent that “Magma” has the standard four symphonic movements hiding it its continuous span. Sure enough, a slow, lyrical section succeeded Glennie’s sparky, shifty solo spot, highlighted by the strings spinning out a melody that Järvi shaped into generous, impassioned paragraphs and that Glennie expertly accented and occasionally undermined with detailed, precise conga playing. The fourth section gathered steam (ha-ha) in an impressivly implacable but also repetitive way, so that the climax felt only marginally more thundering than what had come before. Still, I’d love to hear more of Tüür’s work, and kudos are due to the NSO for putting it on and to the orchestra, Järvi, and Glennie for stepping right up to its challenges.

The other works on the program had more immediate appeal for the amateur listener, at least on paper. Some sloppy playing marred Edward Grieg’s Lyric Suite, especially the “Nocturne,” in which Järvi and the NSO blurred the fast running melody more often than not. But more memorable than those missteps was Järvi’s wonderful feel for phrasing Grieg’s melodies — the “Shepherd’s Boy” in particular had intense swells of strings punctuating well-formed melodic sentences in a non-histrionic but nonetheless riveting manner — and the memorable sonorities that came from the NSO. In particular, the wonderfully balanced, hushed sound of the bassoons blending with the low strings in the “Norwegian Rustic March” evoked wet leaves on an autumn evening, a sound that felt almost tangible in its intensity.

The big bass-drum blowout in “Bell-Ringing,” the finale of the Lyric Suite, foreshadowed the two incredibly loud pieces that came after intermission, the Overture and Suite from Leonard Bernstein’s Candide and Duke Ellington’s “Harlem.” The Candide Overture came in the original orchestral garb in which it has become a favorite concert piece, and Järvi and the NSO could not deliver it precisely enough to make it fizz. This problem continued in Charlie Harmon’s suite from the opera(-ish thing), where rhythmic precision left the building; Bernstein became generically genial rather than wittily pointed.

Even worse things happened in “Harlem,” heard in a transcription from big band to full orchestra by Luther Henderson (with edits from John Mauceri). Here the NSO had the benefit of its own rock-solid rhythm section to help it stay on rhythm, but Järvi and the rest of the orchestra seemed unable to use this helper. The final section of “Harlem” was probably the loudest thing I’ve ever heard in the Kennedy Center’s Concert Hall, a stage full of musicians playing just that bit out of time with each other, a sludgy soup topped by blown-out brass and served messy. Listening to it was actively unpleasant, and a far cry from the Grieg and Tüür that made this concert worthwhile.


Charles T. Downey reviewed Thursday’s performance of this program for the Post. In the comments thread on the link to his review on The Classical Beat, an interesting discussion has broken out about whether the review should have discussed an especially appreciative audience reaction to the Ellington on Friday night, followed by what was apparently a well-received encore.

The audience appeared to be just as happy with the Ellington on Saturday, which is sad, because if you listen to Ellington’s own recordings of his compositions you hear precision and sensitivity to tone and color that were not present in Saturday’s performance. My guess is that any hint of jazz gets folks excited, although why this one in particular worked I don’t know. For my part, I didn’t stay for whatever encore ensued after “Harlem,” because I didn’t want to hear any more from the NSO at that point.


I have a lot of respect for Järvi and Glennie as artists, which is why I am about to make fun of their artistic bios in the Playbill program, because said bios need to be edited to remove some laughable sentences.

Kristjan Järvi’s name has become synonymous with artistic and cultural diversity

That’s true! Just the other day I heard the following conversation:

Hipster 1: I couldn’t imagine living in the suburbs — no Kristjan Järvi at all.
Hipster 2: So true. The city is where all the Kristjan Järvi is.

Evelyn’s 12th solo CD, Shadow Behind the Iron Sun, was based on a radical improvisational concept and has once again questioned people’s expectations.

Once again? Is her 12th CD a rerelease of an earlier CD? And the CD itself is questioning my expectations? That’s some interactive content!

Outside of actual performance, the Evelyn Glennie brand is constantly exploring other areas of creativity.

Wait a minute — the Glennie brand? You’re Oprah now? Who’s exploring these areas besides Evelyn Glennie? But I’m eager to hear about these new areas — tell me more!

…to regularly appearing on television across the world, including the Late Show with David Letterman…

Wow! It sure does take a lot of creativity to play one’s instrument on TV!

After 20 years in the music business she had begun teaching privately, which allows her to explore the art of teaching

So teaching allows you to explore the art of teaching? Well, if you give me some of that brand money, I’d be happy to explore the art of editing your bio.

Nonstop Ivory-Tinkling: National Symphony Orchestra at the Kennedy Center, December 3, 2009

December 5, 2009

19,615. That’s how many notes are in the solo part of Jennifer Higdon’s piano concerto, as the composer told conductor Andrew Litton in a brief, fun onstage interview just before the concerto’s world premiere at Thursday’s National Symphony Orchestra concert. What does 19,615 (a number known only through the magic of computers) mean? Well, later, Higdon said she would be pulling for the pianist, 22-year-old Yuja Wang, because “I realize this is like an Olympic sport.” Even the dense (me) in the Kennedy Center’s Concert Hall eventually got the idea: This concerto has more notes in it than most.

It certainly seemed like you could hear every one of them on Thursday. Wang, who possesses both formidable technical address and a musically inquisitive mind, played as cleanly and with as much brio several thousand notes into the concerto as she did at the outset, and Litton expertly integrated the piano’s sound with the orchestra, crucial to Higdon’s conception of the concerto. If this were indeed an Olympic event, the musicians would have medals around their necks right now. Unfortunately, it was a musical event, and Higdon’s writing in this work won’t win any prizes.

Admittedly, a lot of people did stand up and cheer the concerto on Thursday, but the warm reception mystified me. Here’s what Higdon has in the concerto, from this first listen:

1.    A few passages of slow, pure tonal chords, out of which melodies blossom. This music sounded almost exactly like piano-bar jazz, with banal harmonization. During these passages, I kept looking for the cup on Wang’s Steinway into which I could deposit my tip. The melodic materials here informed the

2.    Endless, endless skeins of quick flowing notes, runs up and down the keyboard, rippling, cresting, cascading, rising, falling, hither, yon, etc. (19,615!) These made the piano sound like the person in the cubicle next to yours who never, ever shuts up, causing you to tune out said neighbor even on topics of interest; similarly, interesting textural and harmonic moves Higdon made during these passages washed away quickly from the mind, lost in the showers. During these piano passages, I looked to the orchestra for melodic material or some kind of spectacular timbral flourish of the kind for which Higdon is justly celebrated, and only rarely did she provide any of either. I’m still not sure what was supposed to be happening during most of the first and second movements — whether anything was supposed to be happening, in fact, other than the pallidly pretty stasis-in-motion Wang so expertly conjured.

Frankly, these parts seemed inspired by a single-voice instrument (Higdon started as a flutist) rather than something with the manifold capabilities of the piano; you don’t wish for other notes when it’s a violin rhapsodizing above chords, but somehow a pianist touching all 88 keys but only one or (at most) two at a time sounds thin.

3.    The piano acting as a percussive instrument. There needed to be a lot of this to balance #2, but Higdon rarely went to it. Thinking of Liszt afterward (as I did), you remember how a real piano composer balances the ornament and filigree of the runs with distinct, authoritative (even if reserved) melodic statements or at the very least different kinds of virtuoso doings. That mostly didn’t happen here.

The third movement held the most interest; Higdon knows how to write socko finales, and here she deployed some pointillistic solo percussion as a texture for the piano to infiltrate and then dominate. Heck, she even broke up some of Wang’s runs with percussive statements in the non-running hand, thus further emphasizing just how fast (and clean) these runs were and making them exciting rather than soporific. That was fun. Higdon needed to do more of that.

I am still 100 percent behind Higdon, most of whose works I really enjoy. Let’s hope this is the Dvorák piano concerto (do not let anyone convince you the Dvorák piano concerto is good) in what ends up being her Dvorák-quality (or better!) career.

Somewhat oddly, Litton and the NSO bracketed this 21st-century American premiere with two 19th-century Russian works having something to do with winter. (Thanks for reminding us, guys!) Nikolai Andreyevich Rimsky-Korsakov’s little-heard suite from the opera The Snow Maiden started us off, and if you think I wasn’t excited about that, you don’t know how obsessed I am with Rimsky-Korsakov’s orchestral music. Indeed, hearing the suite in live performance illuminated many lovely facets of R-K’s always-intoxicating orchestration. Unfortunately, Litton and the NSO had evidently not rehearsed the music enough to perform it properly, with super-mushy ensemble from the strings and really bad tempo desynchronizations between brass and strings especially marring the performance. Perhaps this will be fixed tonight and Litton and the NSO will do justice to some really neat music.

Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 1 in G minor, “Winter Daydreams,” which came after intermission, makes some of the more clichéd moves in the whole symphonic literature, complete with a repeated fugato in the overstuffed finale. In Litton’s hands, though, Tchaikovsky’s predictable manipulations nevertheless delivered rousing entertainment, sort of the musical equivalent of watching Arnold Schwarzenegger’s “Commando” and both laughing at and thoroughly enjoying the tropes of the genre.

Litton also got some fine playing from the NSO; the big themes sang out marvelously, particularly when the bassoon and oboe floated the slow movement’s melancholy melody over a bed of strings, with a flute providing ornaments. Litton had a good feel for how to approach the Scherzo’s occasionally square development, and if you didn’t like the explosion of brass at the end, you probably don’t like minor-key Romantic symphonies at all. If you do, though, you’ll like Litton and the NSO performing this one.


You know how Yuja Wang’s publicity photos all look super-cute? Well, maybe you don’t spend as much time as I do looking at Yuja Wang’s publicity photos. But from my seat she appeared to be just as cute in person. So yay. Interestingly, Google’s first search suggestion when you search on “yuja wang” is “yuja wang boyfriend.” (Apparently she has one.) So I’m definitely not the only person who has noticed this.

As the audience settled into its seats for the Tchaik, there arose in the Concert Hall the sulfurous aroma of struck matches. That was pretty mysterious. Was someone trying to clutch close a little heat before the onslaught of additional cold in the “Winter Daydreams”? It subsided about when Litton picked up the baton again.

Other reviews: Anne Midgette, Robert R. Reilly, Tim SmithI really enjoyed reading everyone else’s perspectives on this one. I’m a bit shocked that I was the only one to really dislike a Jennifer Higdon piece, but that’s why they perform the concerts; if you knew what you were going to like at every concert, you’d just stay home and imagine it. Or at least I would. There’s very little marginal utility for me in taking the Metro to Foggy Bottom-GWU and walking to the big white box unless I don’t quite know what’s going to happen.

Edited to add a couple more reviews: Charles T. Downey, T.L. Ponick. Downey adds some interesting background info on the concerto that I had not known, so that’s definitely worth a look for the curious.


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