Play to the Finnish: National Festival Orchestra at the Universiry of Maryland, June 25, 2016

Posted June 28, 2016 by Andrew Lindemann Malone
Categories: Concert review

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The National Orchestral Institute and Festival provides conductors with the opportunity to lead and teach talented young musicians, and talented maestros have always come to the University of Maryland’s College Park campus to do just that. But never have I seen a bigger name in the conducting biz come to the Dekelboum Concert Hall as part of the NOI+F than the guy who showed up Saturday night: Osmo Vänskä, who came from Finland to music-direct the Minnesota Orchestra into the first rank among American bands, and who has won accolades up to and including Grammys for conducting the music of his countryman Jean Sibelius.

Osmo Vanska by Geoff Sheil

Vanska leading his NOI+F troops. Photo by Geoff Shell.

If you’ve been to a few concerts by the yearly iterations of the somewhat eponymous National Festival Orchestra, you know that sometimes they sound like an ensemble of extremely talented students learning their trade, and sometimes that talent and the musicians’ youthful enthusiasm create something beyond what a professional orchestra can do. Happily for my decision to pay a babysitter so I could go hear it, this was one of the latter concerts.

Carl Nielsen’s overture to Maskarade started things off by unspooling smoothly, but Vänskä and the orchestra didn’t quite make it fizz with fun. The orchestra seemed to enjoy itself more in Witold Lutoslawski’s Concerto for Orchestra, which, like Bela Bartok’s genre-originating essay in this form, combines folk tunes, classical structures, and unusual but exciting textures and sounds. (My favorite unexpected combo on Saturday was the back-and-forth between the double basses and a solo timpani.)

Here Vänskä kept a firm rein on tempos and made sure the overall shape of the score emerged, while the orchestra sounded really, really good on all desks — brass swaggered and murmured, woodwinds delivered both succulent and piquant tones, strings sounded smooth playing super-fast or sustaining slow melodies with their bows up on the bridge, and a vast array of percussion colored it all. This was a true showcase of the colors and affects an orchestra can deliver, and it would have been the most memorable performance on any number of concert programs.

But this particular concert was billed as “Vänskä Conducts Sibelius” for a reason, and after intermission conductor and orchestra delivered a shatteringly intense performance of the composer’s Symphony no. 2. It hooked you from the beginning — the opening repeated chords murmured soft and lush from the strings, looking for a resolution, and Vänskä allowed them to fade into the distance just a little before bringing in the first melodic building block. Vänskä took his time throughout, separating the score into paragraphs with pregnant pauses and gradually building to irresistible climaxes that then took unexpected detours. The second, slow movement of the symphony, in particular, sounded like Vänskä and the orchestra were constructing it before our eyes using granite blocks of melody: it felt both personal and monumental, stark and desperately affecting.

I’ve been listening to Sibelius’s second since the summer after I graduated from high school. Vänskä and the National Festival Orchestra made me feel like I was hearing it for the first time again — those chords that give you some of the emotional resolution you want but not quite all, the unique twists and turns of Sibelius’ musical rhetoric, the shock of the downshift to the pastoral trio section in the third movement, the thrilling transition between the third and fourth movements followed by the biggest tune of the work, here shining like a sun from the strings. It was all vivid and new, just as it must have been for most of the National Festival Orchestra’s musicians, just as Vänskä must try to make it every time he conducts this music he knows so well. This was a performance everyone in the hall will remember for a long time.

J. Reilly Lewis: An Appreciation

Posted June 25, 2016 by Andrew Lindemann Malone
Categories: Regular life

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J. Reilly Lewis passed away on June 9, from a massive heart attack. The news shocked me because he exuded vitality every time I saw him perform. A little over two years ago, I took a job that happens to be across the street from the Church of the Epiphany on G Street, where Lewis and the Washington Bach Consort occasionally performed a Bach cantata as part of the church’s Tuesday noontime concert series. When my work schedule would permit (stupid 1 pm meetings), I always snuck out to hear Lewis do his thing.

You can’t be interested in Baroque and early music in the DMV and not have heard Lewis perform, conducting the WBC or the Cathedral Choral Society, playing keyboards in chamber settings, getting an organ to sing and thunder. I reviewed him accompanying Jennifer Ellis Kampani in Bach (a really transporting concert), with the WBC completing their Bach cycle and celebrating Christmas, and with the Cathedral Choral Society. You’ll notice that those are pretty warm reviews. The man was a giant ’round here, what can I say?

But I had never gotten to attend the Tuesday cantata concerts before, and they were a new revelation, where Lewis had all the time he wanted to talk about things he found interesting in the cantatas, introduce an organist of whom he was fond to play a prelude, get WBC members to discuss their instruments, or welcome the numerous school groups that also attended these performances. He had such a genuine joy both in the music and in performing it, and he had the further gift of being able to communicate that clearly to whoever happened to come into the church on a Tuesday afternoon (yes, including the homeless dudes).

I never reviewed any of those performances in part because they felt more like gifts than concerts; reviewing them would have been like reviewing a dinner a friend served you. Maybe I would have preferred certain things to be slightly different, but I walked out of all of those performances feeling grateful that the music of Bach existed and that we had such a warm, eloquent, and talented advocate of it to bring it to us, in the form of J. Reilly Lewis. And he brought that warmth, eloquentce, and talent to all the music he performed. I’ll always be grateful to have sat in the audience, especially for those noontime concerts, and heard and felt music through and with him. R.I.P.

Other notes: Anne Midgette, Charles Downey.

Half a Good Concert is Better Than None: The National Festival Orchestra at the University of Maryland, June 13, 2015

Posted June 15, 2015 by Andrew Lindemann Malone
Categories: Concert review

Tags: ,

The National Orchestral Institute‘s National Festival Orchestra, housed every summer at the University of Maryland, often presents concerts that exceed reasonable expectations for an orchestra composed of outstanding students: technically accomplished, yet also full of a wonder and joy that elude many professional ensembles. (For more background, you can check out this story, which if nothing else proves that linking to myself is fun for me.)

The record label Naxos got wind of this, and their sound engineers festooned the Dekelbaum Concert Hall with microphones for the NFO’s concert on Saturday night, the first recording in what will be an annual series of recording dates, with each successive iteration of the NFO playing an all-American program for digital immortality.

The NFO’s performance of John Corigliano’s Symphony No. 1 surely merited repeated hearings. This is a big-canvas work for a huge orchestra that tackles a great enormity, the plague of AIDS during the 1980s, through the most personal means possible: memorials for friends the composer lost to the disease. Ironically, hearing this work live made it make much more sense to me than the recording by which I had previously known it: An offstage piano, playing a tango that was a favorite of one of Corigliano’s friends, now sounded and appeared decisively separated from the main orchestra’s attempts to make sense of the death, and the waves of brass in the epilogue, spread across the stage, felt like real ocean currents with the proper sense of sonic separation.

The musicians made both these special orchestral effects and the more conventional passages sound incredibly vivid. Guest conductor David Alan Miller, music director of the Albany Symphony and a noted champion of American composers, gave his young charges clear direction and urged them to expression while fitting individual moments into the overarching structure of the symphony.

David Alan Miller. Photo from the Albany Symphony website.

David Alan Miller. Photo from the Albany Symphony website.

Much of this music is supposed to sound brutal — the first movement is subtitled “Of Rage and Rememberance,” and the second depicts an acceleration into madness. But in this performance, each brutal moment had its own unique sonic character that drove the narrative forward, with the whopping six percussionists variegating their playing nicely in particular. The strings played everywhere in the emotional and musical spectrum with aplomb, seething on an A to open the work and serving as a balm elsewhere, with notably eloquent solo cello work from the principal in the third movement, when Corigliano eulogizes a player of that instrument. The winds matched their counterparts in eloquence and virtuosity. Most professional orchestras would be quite proud of an effort like this.

The pre-intermission performances came up short of that standard. In Michael Torke’s “Bright Blue Music” (another work I have been waiting for a long time to hear in a concert hall), the orchestra’s various sections every so slightly out of sync with each other, making a work that should both shine brightly (hence the name!) and bustle with activity instead sound blurry and fall flat.

The same large orchestra that played “Bright Blue Music” more or less stayed on to play the suite from Aaron Copland’s “Appalachian Spring,” which for pedagogical purposes is entirely understandable — no one came to the NOI not to play in the orchestra. However, textures that sound crystalline in chamber-orchestra renditions sounded big and boxy on Saturday night, creating some emotional distance from the melodies. It was interesting to hear the Copland after the Torke, however, as the Torke seemed to be made up almost entirely of the little interstitial bits Copland uses to get from melody to melody. In the right hands, Torke’s super-tonal harmonies and refusal to engage melodically makes for a oddly uplifting and meditative experience. I’m going to have to wait for a while to hear that performance live, I suspect.

Still, this was the NFO’s first full concert with a guest conductor, and the playing in the Corigliano symphony was well worth the $25 that the Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center asked folks to pony up to hear it. The last two programs this year (here and here) seem like potential winners as well. Go see ’em.

Other People’s Perspectives: Charles T. Downey.

BEING RECORDED

To accommodate Naxos’ efforts, the audience was asked to avoid making any unnecessary noise, like applause between movements and loud coughing, and you could have heard a pin drop in the hall throughout. I confess I spent a few seconds during the concert angrily remonstrating my nose for even thinking about letting loose a sneeze. I made it without spoiling anything.

The opening bars of the Corigliano, which aren’t even that hardcore in terms of dissonance compared to what would arrive just a few moments later, chased a couple elderly audience members seated to my left out of the hall. They walked very softly, though, and I am sure the record-buying public will be none the wiser. I don’t really understand buying a ticket to a concert and then not actually listening to the all the music to which your ticket entitles you, but then again I actually like this stuff.

A Marvelous Strangeness: Brian Ganz at the Music Center at Strathmore, February 7, 2015

Posted February 9, 2015 by Andrew Lindemann Malone
Categories: Concert review

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Brian Ganz thought a lot about how to showcase the mazurka in the fifth concert of his effort to perform all the works of Frederic Chopin. As Ganz noted, Chopin’s mazurkas are based on the Polish folk dance but transcend those roots; their constant rhythmic and harmonic shifts give them, in Ganz’s words, a “marvelous strangeness” that makes them less accessible than some of Freddy’s other stuff but emotionally intense and endlessly fascinating. So on Saturday night at the Music Center at Strathmore, he leavened the program with more straightforward pieces; he discussed the rhythms and harmonies to help the audience put words on the sensations the mazurkas create; and, most importantly, he played every note as a thing of beauty in and of itself and as part of a spontaneous yet controlled musical line, as he has in every concert in this series that I’ve attended. (See 2012, 2013, and 2014.)

Onstage discussion is not for everyone, but a performer who is really good at it can add a conceptual framework to guide the audience through the pretty notes coming from the stage. Ganz’s talks are the best I’ve ever heard. He talks fluently without notes, comes prepared, makes both his hymns to Chopin’s greatness and his jokes about performing sound completely sincere, and chooses concise yet apt musical excerpts to illustrate his points. He’s also a pithy quote machine, on Saturday describing the “mystery of time and memory” that the mazurkas evoke, which is better that anything I would have come up with by myself. (You can get a very small idea of what his talks were like here.)

Brian Ganz, going mazurk(a) at Saturday's concert. Photo by Jay Mallin.

Brian Ganz, going mazurk(a) at Saturday’s concert. Photo by Jay Mallin.

His actual piano playing rewarded the interest that his discussions piqued. Perhaps Ganz doesn’t have that International Virtuoso Firepower that could make the D-flat major “Minute” Waltz into a hyper-smooth cascade of notes that would actually take somewhere close to a minute (“Don’t get out your stopwatches!” he cautioned the audience). Rather, Ganz is the type of player to note that the waltz was inspired by Chopin seeing a dog chase its own tail and then perform the waltz with the same kind of merry, scampering obsessiveness. In the meatier fare of the mazurkas, he seemed to lay down each unexpected modulation or rhythmic hiccup as both a musical and philosophical event, creating a world and inviting us into it. (The B-flat minor mazurka, Op. 24/4, stood out particularly for me in this regard, with many of the key changes seeming both like recriminations and attempts to find a way forward.) I find this kind of playing much more exciting than sewing-machine facility. Plus, Ganz can definitely deliver thrills for their own sake when called for; witness the low-bass rumbles in the F-sharp minor Polonaise, Op. 44, or the tossed-off brilliance of the Rondo a la Mazur, a juvenile work that Ganz showed to be well worth a hearing on Saturday.

The National Philharmonic has promised to keep sponsoring these concerts until Ganz has completed his Chopin cycle, which is projected to take another five years at the current one-concert-a-year pace.  On a personal note, this was the first concert I have tried to review since my wife and I had our first child in October. It turns out that as difficult as it is to find childcare to attend a concert, it is also difficult to find time in the day to write a review of said concert when the little one needs to be fed every three hours. So this blog will probably be going silent again for a while. But it was worth it to keep the string of concert attendance unbroken, to learn a few new things about great music, and to get another keen appreciation of Chopin from Brian Ganz.

Taking a Break

Posted November 3, 2014 by Andrew Lindemann Malone
Categories: Uncategorized

Not that there have been too many posts on here lately, but I’m definitely not going to be posting for a while. It’s for a good reason! My wife and I welcomed our son into the world on October 22, a little ahead of schedule. He’s doing well and so is Mom, but I am not going to be attending classical concerts for a while. (And if I do, it will be in listening/enjoyment mode and not critical mode.)

For some time I have been wanting to do more classical lifestyle-ish posts on here, but the press of daily life and my inability to sit down for long enough to clarify my thoughts through writing has prevented it. Maybe, after the initial flurry of baby-care duties, this will be the spur to my ambitions! We’ll see.

Wrong From the Top: Me on Justin Moyer on Jazz

Posted August 9, 2014 by Andrew Lindemann Malone
Categories: Miscellaneous

Tags: , ,

Yesterday, The Washington Post’s Justin Moyer posted a spectacularly ill-argued and misguided screed against jazz, which I will herewith proceed to expose for the drivel it is. I would not do this here except that (a) this happened in the Post, meaning it is central to the DMV musical experience (maybe); (b) I used to freelance for Jazz Times, and still listen to jazz a good amount; and (c) the article is just that bad. Now let’s proceed.

Although he begins by baldly stating “Jazz is boring. Jazz is overrated. Jazz is washed up,” Moyer does not pose an argument that actually synthesizes various strains of thought to support these statements; instead, he makes five points that build on each other in no way. While the listiclish format will not endear him to ancient scholars of rhetoric, it does make it easy to set ’em up and knock ’em down.

Moyer’s first knock on jazz is as follows: “Jazz takes great songs — and abandons the lyrics that help make them great.”

When I was in high school, I told someone that classical was my favorite type of music, and she replied with scorn that classical was the easiest music to compose because it had no words. I never thought I would encounter an argument quite like this again, but Moyer brought it back!

The obvious error is of intention. If you want to hear songs with words, you can go to a show with a vocalist — even a jazz show, as there are many vocal jazz concerts. If you want to hear talented musicians exploring the basic harmonic possibilities associated with that song while weaving in fragments of melody and occasionally arriving at serendipitous moments of synthesis, you should go to a jazz show. It appears Moyer prefers the former type of show, but this does not invalidate the existence of the latter.

Perhaps Moyer was conscious of this flaw in his argument when he followed Point No. 1 with “Improvisation isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.” States Moyer, “The knowledge that great music is improvised makes it more remarkable. But the fact that music is improvised doesn’t make it great.” This would be a devastating argument if only everyone who loves jazz didn’t already agree with it.

You see, most people acknowledge that there exists both great jazz and bad jazz. In great jazz, the musicians achieve the full possibilities of the improvisational form, the eye-opening combination of exploration and synthesis mentioned earlier. In bad jazz, they’re just noodling around and they don’t do any of that stuff.

Later, Moyer says he doesn’t like Wes Montgomery’s music. That’s fine! It further appears that many people disagree about what constitutes great jazz and bad jazz. Montgomery is not some people’s cup of tea; others appreciate what they perceive as elegant and deft musicianship that doesn’t call attention to itself but repays the attention you give it. But nobody is saying it’s great because it’s improvised, except the straw man Moyer created.

“Jazz stopped evolving,” complains Moyer in Point No. 3. He then discusses artists who have continued exploring the boundaries of jazz (leaving out about a million other people) and then says they don’t count because he doesn’t like them. So there, modern jazz artists! (Also, don’t front like back in the day you weren’t bumping “Rebirth of Slick,” which of course featured rapper Ladybug Mecca, a native of Silver Spring. See, this post relates to the rest of this blog somehow!)

He also says that “jazz is being kept alive by nostalgic Americans” who have the temerity to continue enjoying the music of their youth. One day, Justin Moyer, you too will be old, floundering in a world of new music that sounds like noises and trash to your different-era ears, and on that day you will take solace in a recording of music in a style traditional to you, and Justin Moyer III will laugh his head off at your grandpa music. But Justin Moyer III might still be listening to jazz, because jazz artists continue to evolve the genre in ways Justin Moyer doesn’t like.

Ready for the next devastating indictment of a musical genre? “Jazz is mushy.” It turns out that there are a bunch of artists playing jazz and they do it differently! Moyer quotes famed jazz traditionalist Wynton Marsalis as saying that “too often, what is represented as jazz isn’t jazz at all,” and then complains that Louis Armstrong, Kenny G, Charlie Parker, and John Zorn don’t sound like each other. This is right after he complained that jazz stopped evolving 50 years ago, folks. I can’t even figure out what wrongheaded piffle I’m supposed to be rebutting here.

Moyer also complains that people use the word “jazz” to refer to things that are definitely not jazz, like President Obama’s speaking style or Ralph Ellison’s prose. While I find this annoying as well, it has zero to do with jazz being boring, overrated, or washed up, which the lede lead me to believe this listicle was going to prove.

Here comes the clincher: “Jazz let itselt be co-opted.” For Moyer, the sign of a dying art form is that some of its practitioners (he doesn’t say how many, or what percentage thereof) have been able to secure academic positions rather than languishing in glamorous artistic poverty like all the respectable musicians. White people have begun to study this music in school like it’s worthy of further analysis or something. And look at people memorialising musicians they enjoy! Why, the horror.

In conclusion, Moyer failed in every conceivable way to prove the statements with which he led off his meandering, content-free musings. However, he did inspire me to read his article twice: Once so I could get mad about it and the second time so I could write this response. And thus, Moyer was likely successful in his overall objective. Sigh.

Here’s some good jazz to wash all that bad feeling away:

Yeah, no evolving happening there!

Summertime, and the Listening is Easy: The “President’s Own” U.S. Marine Band on the West Steps of the U.S. Capitol, July 17, 2014

Posted July 19, 2014 by Andrew Lindemann Malone
Categories: Uncategorized

Tags: ,

The weather this week smiled upon First Lieutenant Ryan J. Nowlin as he made his debut as assistant director of the U.S. Marine Band, “The President’s Own.” (The previous assistant, Lt. Col. Jason K. Fettig, took over the director spot when Col. Michael J. Colburn retired last week.) Outdoor concerts happen at the mercy of D.C.’s summer weather, but stormy Monday and Tuesday yielded to balminess for his first two concerts leading the band on the west steps of the U.S. Capitol. I heard the second performance of the program, on Thursday night.

If I ever get tired of this view of the band and the Mall, I guess it's time to move away from the DMV. Not yet, though.

If I ever get tired of this view of the band and the Mall, I guess it’s time to move away from the DMV. Not yet, though!

Gustav Holst contributed the most substantial work on the program, his Suite in F for Military Band, four short fantasies on English folk tunes filled with wonderful sounds from the master orchestrator. As concert moderator GySgt Sara Dell’Omo noted, the Marine Band really likes marches, but they refrained from pressing ahead too fast in Holst’s, allowing the tune to blossom. The setting of “I’ll love my love” swelled with emotion, and the “Hammersmith” movement had a great charge from the actual blacksmith-y hammer used in the percussion. Nowlin and the band couldn’t quite synchronize the superimposition of two folk themes in the finale, though, and the result sounded a little tentative.

Normally, the band handles any challenge thrown at it with ease, as proved in other selections on the program. In both Joseph Wilcox Jenkins’ “American Overture” and Henry Fillmore’s “The Circus Bee,” the band played like a single instrument: tossing off brass riffs in the former with a rhythmic energy and emphasis that induced excited dancing from the five-year-old in front of me, carefully grading the accelerando in the latter while maintaining maximum exuberance. John Philip Sousa’s “The National Game” marks another entry in that composer’s roll of catchy toe-tappers, and how is it that we don’t hear this march, written in honor of the National League by a D.C.-born composer, at Nationals games? It even has pratfall noises that one could sync with video of errors by opposing teams!

The program cannily interspersed solos to vary texture, too. GySgt Frank Crawford played his tuba in Jean-Baptiste Arban’s set of variations, “Carnival of Venice,” which normally calls for the more nimble trumpet. The challenge did not faze Crawford. As the difficulty of the variations gradually increased to ludicrous levels, with the tuba seemingly puting nary a note astray, the crowd started applauding out of a combination of astonishment and relief like that for a tightrope walker who has made another safe traversal.

Dell’Omo, for her part, stepped out of the concert-moderation role and into the soloist spot for two songs, showing a brassy mezzo and bringing out the breezy delight of “The Trolley Song” from “Meet Me in St. Louis” and taking a lovely wallow in the (mawkish) sentiment of “For Good” from “Wicked.”

By the end of the concert, more than a few passersby had been caught by the music; they made a ring of people behind the band, looking up at the Capitol Dome. The sun had set to the west down Pennsylvania Avenue, and the dusk had brought a touch of coolness to the air. Kids who had managed to sit mostly still for an hour of music had some more attention left to pay as the band roared through a transcription of Dmitri Shostakovich’s “Festive Overture.” To close, Nowlin and the band performed a stirring arrangement of “America the Beautiful,” followed by the Marines’ Hymn, which together had everyone on their feet.  It was a perfect ending to an evening of light music in the shadow of our nation’s Capitol.

BAND-HEARING OPPORTUNITIES

The Marine Band switches to Wednesdays at the Capitol and Thursdays at the Sylvan Theater next to the Washington Monument next week. You gotta catch them if you like a nice light-music concert in the summer; nobody does it better, at least within the city limits. (The National Symphony used to do some lovely concerts at Carter Barron, but sequestration has put an end to that.)

The Army Band takes over Thursday nights at the Capitol next week for its excellent light-music performances, to add to its Friday night shows; I’m going to get over there before the summer ends.

The Air Force Band and Navy Band seem to have mostly gotten out of the light-classical business, but you should go see concerts by them anyway.

In the wintertime, you can hear these ensembles indoors, typically playing more substantial fare (here’s an example). Did I mention all these concerts are free?

Pretty sure DMV Classical is the only outlet to cover this concert, but Anne Midgette coincidentally has written a piece on military bands in general, which I commend to your attention.


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