Posted tagged ‘university of maryland’

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.

Blowin’ on the Winds: Sue Heineman and Paul Cigan at the Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center, February 27, 2012

March 1, 2012

On Monday, the University of Maryland School of Music presented a wind faculty concert featuring bassoonist/Artist-in-Residence Sue Heineman and faculty member/clarinetist Paul Cigan, whose day jobs are with the National Symphony, accompanied by redoubtable pianist Audrey Andrist in the Gildenhorn Recital Hall of the university’s Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center for the price of zero dollars. A free concert in which high-caliber symphonic instrumentalists play solo in a cozy space? That recommends itself. This year’s edition of this long-running series, while not quite my favorite, had enough novel repertoire and delectable playing to make it well worthy anyone’s time.

Sue Heineman, from the U-Md website

Heineman and Cigan split duties right down the middle, with each taking two solo turns and joining forces in two works. Cigan had my favorite new discovery of the evening, Witold Lutoslawski’s five “Dance Preludes” for clarinet and piano. The odd-numbered preludes all sprang forward at near-breathless tempi; Cigan and Andrist handled them with style, enjoying Lutoslawski’s decisive rhythms and witty turns of phrase, including some deliciously witty endings. The even-numbered preludes proceeded at slower tempi and in a more serious mien. Here, Cigan reveled in the coloristic opportunities and phrased his melodies sensitively, while he and Andrist continued to convey the dance pulse beneath it all. The fourth prelude in particular had a haunting intensity, a poised melody with a heartbeat of a rhythm beneath.

Cigan also got to show his timbral chops in the third movement of Olivier Messiaen’s well-known Quartet for the End of Time, “Abime des oiseaux” (“Abyss of the Birds”), in which he made his solo clarinet sing, twitter, echo, and softly swoon as necessary.

Paul Cigan, from the U-Md website

Cigan’s repertoire demanded the full capacities of the clarinet, and he responded; by contrast, Heineman played transcriptions of violin works, putting her own reedy stamp on them. She sounded most idiomatic in Sergei Prokofiev’s second violin sonata (in D, op. 94), playing with the various colors of the instrument as it moves up and down in pitch, stentorian low notes and creamy middles contrasting with astringent highs. Her phrasing, too, sounded entirely bassoonish, with scales well articulated and capped with a little extra breath; I missed the violin only in the fastest runs, which didn’t sound quite as fluent when keyed. My concertgoing companion, who didn’t know the original, could barely believe the sonata had been written for the violin. (And of course, as EvB points out below, it had not been; it was written for the flute. I knew this somewhere in my brain and am embarrassed that this error made it to the blog. My apologies. The preceding was an accurate representation of my thoughts as I listened to the performance, since I didn’t think of that info during the concert either.) Andrist had the full measure of Prokofiev’s spiky accompaniment as well.

A combo of two pieces by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart for violin and orchestra (Adagio in E Major, K. 261, and Rondo in C Major, K. 373), demanded less in terms of extremes of expression and pitch, and while Heineman and Andrist played with Mozartean style and balance, here I did miss the sweetness and brightness of the violin.

Audrey Andrist, from her website. Photo by Stan Barouh

The only work on the whole program actually written for the bassoon was Mikhail Glinka’s “Trio pathetique” for clarinet, bassoon, and piano, and the only problem with Glinka’s trio is that it is terrible, a mix of thundering Romantic gestures that didn’t cohere into themes, much less structures. Although Heineman had to play the role of the cello in American composer Robert Muczynski’s Fantasy Trio, it provided a lot more to savor, with rhythmically pointed yet lyrical themes that stuck in my head, particularly a questing, decisive theme in the finale that sounded like it belonged in some higher-quality “Indiana Jones” sequel. Cigan, Heineman, and Andrist played like they were enjoying the adventure.

The disappointing Glinka ended the concert, the last in a series of minor concert-presentation missteps, most prominent of which was a program that listed the works out of order, without any kind of descriptive notes. The latter would have been fine except that, even in the very relaxed concert atmosphere, Heineman and Cigan didn’t talk at all about the works. A few words from Heineman on why she selected these transcriptions in particular would have been welcome, for example. Still, a lot to enjoy, especially the Lutoslawski and Muczynski. I’ll keep a look out for next year’s show, and if you like excellent free shows, you should do the same.

Spectacle and Serenity: The University of Maryland Wind Orchestra, December 8, 2011

December 9, 2011

It’s not often that one gets a chance to hear a large-scale contemporary work twice — most of the time you’re lucky to hear it once. (Balmer Symphony, if you don’t encore James Lee III’s Harriet Tubman piece next season, you’re missing out.) So when the University of Maryland Wind Orchestra‘s Thursday concert at the Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center presented the opportunity to deepen my knowledge of John Corigliano’s Symphony no. 3 for band, “Circus Maximus,” I jumped at the chance.

The last time I heard “Circus Maximus” was five years ago, when the Marine Band played it under Leonard Slatkin at Strathmore, and I felt steamrolled by something large whose outlines were forbidding and whose insides were murky. I wanted to see whether the murkiness was due to lack of familiarity or lack of clarity in the music. Thankfully, “Circus Maximus” sounds better the better you get to know it.

Corigliano has various band members spread out through whatever coliseum in which the symphony is being played, surrounding the audience in an experience even the finest 7.1-channel sound cannot duplicate at home (another reason to cherish live performances of the work). The band spends much of that time playing very loud, creating a solid wall of sound that seals you in. A recurring motif of horns whooping, with drums banging implacably behind them, sounds like a call to attention and a judgment at once. At one point, musicians march down the aisles, bringing the noise to wherever you are. You get the idea: This is a work that’s coming at you.

A bunch of students playing in the warm acoustic of the Dekelboum Concert Hall is not going to make the same amount of noise the President’s Own can in the super-live acoustic of the Music Center at Strathmore, and indeed I was able to hear myself think during this performance, which five years ago sometimes was a struggle. But the UMWO met the challenges Corigliano poses from a logistical perspective — just coordinating all these musicians scattered about the hall demands a lot of effort both from the players and the conductor. Michael Votta, Jr., the music director of the wind orchestra, had one white glove on his left hand just like another famous Michael, but he used the glove so that his finger-cues would be more readily visible in the rafters, and it seemed to work: almost all the time, the disorder in the hall was purposeful, and not an artifact of disordered playing.

In his introductory remarks, Votta also did a good job explaining the symphony, giving a concise hook for each of its movements that the audience could keep in mind as it listened. For example, Votta spotlit the “Night Music I” movement’s evocations of nature, and in the UMWO’s performance you could indeed hear the distant howls of wolves and the noises of other beasts and fowl over a constant quiet nocturnal murmur. “Night Music I” gradually segues into “Night Music II,” a urban scene with nightlife of a different sort, and it was extremely canny of the UMWO to project the changing movement titles on a large screen above the stage so no one in the audience had to wonder which movement we were in. Votta also correctly pointed out that the penultimate “Prayer” movement is full of hymn-like sounds and melodies full of hope, which the UMWO winds and brass threw themselves into just as they had earlier thrown themselves into battering the audience. The subtleties of the work, in other words, did not escape the UMWO any more than the non-subtleties did. I came away from the performance both impressed with Votta and the UMWO and wanting to hear “Circus Maximus” yet again. Let’s make it happen!

The UMWO deserves credit for choosing, as a concert opener, the maximum possible contrast to the Corigliano: Johannes Brahms’ sunny, sedate Serenade no. 2, for low strings, winds, and brass. Votta made sure the rhythms didn’t drag and the melodies unspooled gracefully, and after some initial infelicities (including two flutes playing a powerfully dissonant unison) the orchestra and its guest strings made pleasing noises. First among the frequent soloists was oboist Emily Tsai, who had a consistently lovely tone and took her melodic twists and turns with stylish assurance, but the whole thing was just the ticket to lull you into a satisfying complacence before the punch of the Corigliano after intermission.

Homecoming Weekend: The Takács Quartet at the University of Maryland, November 12, 2011

November 14, 2011

The Takács Quartet returned to the University of Maryland Saturday night! That warranted an exclamation point because the Takács played for Terp Nation many times at the Inn and Conference Center and in the old halls in Tawes, but they had not previously set foot in the Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center, which opened in 2001. I began going to classical concerts with my parents at the University of Maryland when the Takács were coming twice a year, and I’m guessing many of those present Saturday night remembered those concerts too.

The personnel of the quartet have changed. Early concerts brought the first, all-Hungarian lineup to UMCP, but now the only original members are second violinist Károly Schranz and cellist András Fejér; Edward Dusinberre, who joined in 1993, mans the first violin spot, while Geraldine Walther, a 2005 addition, womans the viola position. Yet the Takács approach has remained consistent: They’re four musicians having a dialogue and exploring a work, rather than a monolithic organ of unified super-precision sound. Sometimes on Saturday their tones aren’t perfectly matched, and there were a few slipups of ensemble, sloppy phrase endings, and the like. But the musical conversation led to some penetrating readings that reaffirmed the Takács’ status as one of the most interesting quartets of our time.

TQ, chillin. Photo copyright Ellen Appel.

Some quartets that play Leoš Janáček’s Quartet no. 1, the “Kreutzer Sonata,” focus on creating a cinematic, sweeping feel to the proceedings, which depict a wife’s seduction and her husband’s vengeful murder; that strategy sometimes lends a glossy quality to a raw work. In the Takács’ hands, the drama felt uncomfortably intimate, with Janáček’s contrasting gestures in the first movement seeming to undercut each other and create additional unease. The seduction theme of the second movement strutted awkwardly, like the hiccup of a blustery drunk, yet its forward progress felt inexorable as well, making this a bluntly effective suitor.

Dusinberre gave a quick talk before the Janáček, with musical examples and funny jokes, in which he explained why the Takács have decided that the murder is actually depicted in the third movement, rather than the fourth as our program notes had it. They played it with conviction, making it vivid and violent but also teasing out the uncertainty and remorse, then provided further perspective on the goings-on in the finale. Throughout, the music felt slippery and surprising, but also devastatingly powerful.

Benjamin Britten’s first quartet, which followed the Janáček, was the least musically interesting of the three quartets on the program and got the weakest performance. Britten’s first and second movements don’t have much to engage the ear other than rough shifts in texture, and the supposed-to-be-ethereal high harmonics of the first movement, underpinned by plucks of the cello, go on for too long and were rendered somewhat unevenly by the Takács. The third movement, though, carved out an affecting lyrical path from stony monoliths of sound, the Takács showing they can make a big unison noise when desired, and the finale threw off the seriousness of the preceding movement and scampered around cheerfully.

After intermission, the Takács began Maurice Ravel’s string quartet at a little quicker tempo than normal, eschewing French langour for a gentle flow forward; their playing seemed to smile gently and affectionately at the wit of Ravel’s writing, which has rarely seemed so tangible to me in this quartet. They emphasized the tempo shifts in the second movement, teasing out a sense of play here as well. The third movement had a classical poise, flickering between light and shadow without being dominated by either, and the Takács had plenty of well-mannered fun in the finale, yet remained poised and coolly commanding. Though the Takács have visited other venues in the DMV in the interim, Saturday’s concert felt like a homecoming, at least to me. Let’s hope they return soon.

Other People’s Perspectives: Robert Battey. Well, he reviewed this concert, but I cannot find the link to his review on the Washington Post’s horrible redesigned site. When I can find it, I will link to it. (Spoiler alert: He wasn’t as impressed as I was.)

OCCUPY THE PROGRAM NOTE

Taking a title from Jeremy Denk’s blog, I would like to call your attention to this paragraph of the previously mentioned program note describing the Janáček quartet:

In Janáček’s quartet, the first movement may be interpreted as an introduction to the unhappy woman, while the second movement can be seen as a description of the seduction of her by the violinist. A brief quotation from Beethoven’s “Kreutzer” Sonata in the third movement points to the performance of the work in Tolstoy’s story, and the torture and murder of the woman may be found in the agitated passages of the fourth movement.

Extreme emotional distance can be created in the audience through the use of the passive voice by the program note writer. Still, you have to forgive when the program notes also reproduce Britten’s correspondence upon getting the commission for his first quartet from DMV classical music hero Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge:

Mrs. Coolidge came over to see us in the afternoon—and has definitely commissioned me to do a quartet for her—to be played next September over here! Short notice and a bit of a sweat to do it so quickly, but I’ll do it as the cash will be useful!

Exclamation points warranted indeed! Get that money, B-Squared.

ORIGIN STORIES

The macro reason I enjoy classical music is because my parents do – for a while, I didn’t realize that not every family had a policy regarding whether Bruckner will ever be played in the house (answer: no). But the micro reason is two concerts by the Takács Quartet that I heard when I was about 12. Back in that day, student tickets to concerts at UMCP were $3, meaning my parents were happy to bring me along when they had a subscription concert, and the Takács were coming to campus twice a year for some reason unknown to me. I would sit in my random seat in the back of the auditorium before intermission, then move up to sit with one of my parents for the finale. They had been subscribing for a while and were thus in the third row, so if a good performance was occurring, I was right there hearing it.

One concert featured Haydn’s Rider quartet, a Bartok opus lost to the recesses of my mind, and Brahms’ first piano quartet. The whole concert was pretty amazing, but I remember specifically feeling like the “Hungarian” finale of the Brahms had the energy of a freight train and was coming straight for me. The rondo episodes felt like oases in which I could relax before the storm started again. It was an intensity I had not heard in music up to that point, and I wanted to feel more of it.

The concert that made me want to understand music more, though, came later. The program-closer this time was Beethoven’s Op. 59, no. 2,  whose finale famously begins in the “wrong” key of C major before modulating with a cruel inexorability into E minor. When the quartet began blasting away at Beethoven’s choppy finale-opening theme in C, I felt deep in the pit of my stomach that something was wrong – it was a physical feeling, not an intellectual one – and when the movement closed with its emphatic E minor it was a surprise I could nevertheless hear coming. Figuring out why that happened was my first step on the road to classical music, and I’ll always be thankful to Schranz, Fejer, and the other two original members of the Takács (Gabor Takács-Nagy and Gabor Ormai) for giving me the emotional jolt necessary to stimulate that intellectual investigation.

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.

Harmonies from the Close of Two Centuries Ago: The University of Maryland Symphony Orchestra, March 17, 2011

March 19, 2011

James Ross presents thought-provoking programs as music director of the University of Maryland Symphony Orchestra, finding relationships and championing repertoire that should interest even people who don’t live and work near the university’s Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center. Being so geographically lucky, I checked out Thursday night’s concert (which the students likely think of as “the midterm”).

Ross and the UMSO presented two big works by Johannes Brahms (his Symphony no. 3) and John Adams (Harmonielehre), respectively, in the Dekelboum Concert Hall, letting the listener compare and contrast, which stimulated the intellect. The UMSO’s playing, much of the time, stimulated the pleasure centers directly.

James Ross

"WE MUST PROTECT THIS PERFORMING ARTS CENTER!" James Ross takes a cue from other legendary Maryland team leaders.

Brahms’ Third, like his other works, cleaves to a harmonically conservative language, even in the face of “advances” (yeah, I scare-quoted that) from Wagner. Adams, meanwhile, named Harmonielehre after Arnold Schoenberg’s textbook on harmony while rejecting Schoenberg’s twelve-tone methods; Adams’ harmonies sound more, well, Wagnerian than anything else. Both works had some major-minor tension, constant in the Adams and, in the Brahms, found in the first movement, which spends a good amount of time flickering in and out of its nominal F major. A completely nonsubstantive link between the two is that they are separated by almost exactly a century; Brahms completed his Third in 1883, while Adams began work on Harmonielehre in 1984.

Brahms came first on Thursday’s program as well. From Ross’ treatment of the second theme, which had a just-perceptible touch of swing on it, he made it clear that he wanted his Brahms light on its feet and transparent. He also maxed out the drama where appropriate, trusting that the autumnal quality of the score would be indomitable even in a livelier interpretation than usual. And indeed, the second and third movements glimmered in echt-Brahmsian pastoral fashion, but all of Brahms’ counterpoint came through as well, giving a richly layered, nuanced effect. The finale, on the other hand, rocked pretty hard, with a big solid noise from the orchestra at climaxes and dynamic rhythms thrusting the score forward.

Brahms’ Third also showed that the UMSO is sounding good lately. The woodwinds provide a lot of the rich coloring of Brahms’ second and third movements, and they sounded awesome throughout Thursday night, giving their solos a personal quality, as if they felt Brahms had written for them. The strings were not far behind, with good ensemble playing for a student orchestra and lovely tone for anyone, shaping their melodies with keen feeling. The cellos and basses, especially, sounded rock-solid and expressive underneath the middle- and upper-range complexity. The horns did not quite reach the level of their colleagues, as messy entrances and imprecise notes kept cropping up, although the trumpeter took a well-deserved bow after Harmonielehre. Numerous members of the orchestra were dressed in green in recognition of the day, and the entrance of certain players onto the stage was met with raucous cheers from the gallery, but these accoutrements did not distract or detract from an involving performance.

I didn’t pay quite as much attention to the individual musicians and their playing during Harmonielehre, as the hall was dimmed so the projections of Tim McLoraine could be seen above the orchestra, against the chorister seats and the back wall of the Dekelboum.

I spent a while after the concert thinking about why Ross had decided to ask McLoraine to create projections for this concert (he’s worked with Ross and the UMSO before). Here’s my theory: Brahms works solidly within the symphonic tradition, with all the sonata and ternary forms that implies, while Adams shaped the three movements of Harmonielehre based on dreams and myths, with melodies, rhythms, and moods shifting according to their own logic. So McLoraine’s interpreation of/play with Harmonielehre would show one way to interpret its ambiguous narrative and give the audience, lacking its usual structural anchors, a way to stick with the music better.

Geometric shapes (notably small circles and line-drawn cubes) shared the space with clip art, occasional semi-legible cursive, and blurry, distorted landscapes; their movements and morphing resonated deeply with the music, as McLoraine kept his visuals in sync with the music from his seat in the balcony. At first, I watched the projections breathlessly awaiting the next transformation of a bunch of little circles and a shimmering water texture, but eventually the sheer power of the UMSO’s performance drew my eyes back to the stage, to see how they were doing it. Still, when the rainbow-colored headdress-looking thing (these were mostly not representational images) began unfolding itself from the inside out, then blew up into giant size and appeared to fly up out of the hall, I was definitely paying attention.

The collaboration pumped up the UMSO, which gave a performance worthy of the scale (45 minutes!) and expressive power of the work. Ross had a great feel for pacing and incidents, and the UMSO followed him everywhere he went, keeping the busy textures clear and sticking with the tricky rhythms. Apart from continued brass faults, the playing remained at a high level, and with even more players on stage than in the Brahms, the sound could grow truly gigantic — the second time in a week I’ve been pinned back in my seat at an orchestral concert. Not a bad feeling at all, in my book, and a great way to finish off a UMSO concert that was even more stimulating than usual.

Wind Power: University of Maryland Wind Orchestra, December 9, 2010

December 11, 2010

Two tarantellas by John Corigliano opened the University of Maryland Wind Orchestra’s fall-semester-closing concert on Thursday night. The first, from “Gazebo Dances,” evoked summer breezes and outdoor concerts. UMWO director Michael Votta Jr. kept the rhythms light and crisp, the orchestra’s sections merrily traded the melody around, and all was sweetly, solidly pleasant in the Dekelboum Concert Hall at the Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center.

That was the last time Thursday night that you could say that: The following tarantella, excerpted from the composer’s first symphony, twisted and deformed the gazebo melody, slowing it down, making it sound ugly, and blasting it with piercing high dissonances, brusque outbursts, and general mayhem suitable to a depiction of a man gradually dying from AIDS-related dementia. Here the playing achieved just as high a standard, but to more arresting ends. It set the tone for the concert.

Titles of classical concerts (like “Wunder/Kinder,” the title of the next night’s UMWO performance, in association with the Terp symphony) always seem glib and reductive to me, similar to using for a production of “Hamlet” the tagline “Something’s rotten in the state of Denmark, and Hamlet’s taking out the trash.” But the title “Wild Rides” fit this concert’s repertoire — four pieces all written within the last hundred years, the oldest (from 1914) a lurid depiction of an orgy, the newest a percussion concerto, whose very genre may intimidate the faint-hearted.

Said percussion concerto was written by Jennifer Higdon, though, one of the few contemporary composers who seem to be able to touch the hearts of orchestral audiences weaned on Beethoven and Brahms. Joining the UMWO for the endeavor was Christopher Rose, a percussionist with “The President’s Own” Marine Band who gave the world premiere of the band version of the concerto. (See page 5 of this PDF for some more Rosiana.) From Rose’s opening rumbles from the bottom of his marimba and the crackling silence that followed, this performance stayed taut and focused, most notably when Rose delivered unbelievably clean and focused sound from a set of wood blocks in a cadenza and the UMWO percussionists almost matched him. The orchestra sometimes sounded a little imprecise in the busier ensemble passages, but the comparison to Rose can’t have helped.

Higdon shines especially bright in the slow sections of her concerti, and this was a doozy: Rose both bowing and using his mallets on the vibraphone, with soft, charged wind chords behind him describing a simple but heart-grabbing melody. It’s probably the time of year more than anything else, but I felt it sounded like what a real Christ-mass should sound like: ruminative, modest, maybe even a little awed. Rose sounded just as intense here as he did in (for example) his later drum-kit solo, which had such an irresistible propulsive force that I found myself bobbing my head way more than I would normally let myself at a classical concert.

The instrumentation of the Higdon and Corigliano was such that the UMWO barely fit on the stage; after intermission, they downsized to a mere incredibly large wind orchestra, with giant masses of winds to play Carlos Surinach’s “Paeans and Dances of Heathen Iberia.” The suite is chock-full of phrases that both stick in your head and sound almost ugly with dissonance and strong off-beats. Surinach then repeats these phrases, without a scrap of additional adornment, until just before I got sick of any of them, then switches to contrasting phrases. The UMWO made some of the earthiest tones I have ever heard a wind orchestra make on purpose, with Votta gesturing so hard for them to dig into the rhythms that he had to shake his hands out in between the six pieces.

And then it was the orgy we were all waiting for! In the form of Florent Schmitt’s “Dionysiaques,” also written for a truly giant group of winds, making equally earthy noises to less terpsichorean ends. Votta’s well-written program notes outlined a vague program for the Schmitt, but given the low fumbling-around chords at the beginning, followed by stabs at coordination with continued awkward interruptions, progressing ultimately to a loud climax almost immediately succeeded by utter collapse, I felt I knew exactly what Schmitt had in mind. The UMWO rendered it with appropriate gusto; given the fearsome complexity of the piece, the ensemble was pretty damn good, and perhaps a little messiness made it more vivid.

Lamentably few people showed up Thursday night — perhaps due to some combo of the cold, the approach of exams, and the recentness of the repertoire. Still, the UMWO played a little in the Smith Center lobby before the concert to serenade early-comers (I got there just as they were dispersing), and they left posterboards in the lobby with photocopies of pages from the scores they would play that evening and reflections from the musicians themselves (taken from the orchestra’s blog). Some wrote in high-flown ways about the artistic merits of the works, some pronounced themselves up for the challenges these works presented, and some just talked about how much fun the concert was going to be. They were all right.

DID YOU SEE WHAT I DID THERE?

Terpsichorean? And it was at the University of Maryland? M-A-R-Y-L-A-N-D, Maryland will win!!!!!!

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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