Archive for September 2009

Time and Tchaik: Baltimore Symphony Orchestra at Meyerhoff, September 24, 2009

September 29, 2009

You know how on “Charlie Parker With Strings,” Bird and his group played standards with the titular accompaniment serving as ornament and sonic carpet but never driving the musical argument? Well, Jennifer Higdon’s “Concerto 4-3” for the string trio Time for Three, which received its world premiere with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra under music director Marin Alsop on Thursday night, should really be called “Time for Three With Strings.” Mind, J-Higgy wrote some interesting music in this concerto, but precious little of it ever leaves the hands of those three musicians.

Backing up: Tf3 (the group’s abbreviation, not mine!) consists of bassist Ranaan Meyer and two violinists: Zach De Pue and suburban Maryland’s own Nick Kendall. While studying at the Curtis Institute of Music up in Philly, they discovered that they loved to use their instruments to fiddle in the bluegrass mode, improvise like jazzmen, and shred like rockers as well as saw their way through the Classical Canon. Higdon, for her part, hails from Tennessee (cue Arrested Development) and retains affection for the bluegrass that filled the house in her youth. A composer-performer match made in heaven, right?

Well, you lose some things in the move from Tf3’s originals and covers to the “21st-century” idiom in which Higdon composed the work — specifically, you lose high-profile melody and a sense of play. The outer movements of “Concerto 4-3” sizzle and burn, but they don’t break into something recognizable and followable; they’re sensation above all, delivered by three entertaining musicians. In these movements, the orchestra souned thoroughly inessential to the musical argument; worse, only very occasionally did Higdon deliver the timbral felicities fans of her work have come to expect, and most of those came from deployment of percussion to underscore rhythms already explicit in the Tf3 music. (To ensure that Tf3 could be heard above the large orchestra, the trio was amplified, and the resulting imbalance put the orchestra further into the background; one hopes this will be corrected at future concerts.) Tf3 took an optional cadenza after the first movement, which in this context felt like more of the same. One remembered the Higdon violin concerto in which Alsop led the orchestra and Hilary Hahn last June and felt the absence of the robust interplay between soloists and orchestra here.

The middle movement, “Little River,” had more of the good stuff, especially a vein of hymnlike melody that flowed throughout (just like the title!). Higdon had the Tf3ers play glassy high harmonics eerily mimicked by tinkling bells in the orchestra, and the BSO’s winds came together with a fine choir sound over which to hear the long violin lines De Pue and Kendall essayed with sensitivity. But for crowd-pleasing value, nothing in Higdon’s concerto could touch Tf3’s encore, “Orange Blossom Special,” which borrowed unashamedly from the vernacular, playfully quoted other songs, buzzed with showoff virtuosity, and generally showed why Tf3 had a concerto written for them. Would that Higdon had given them less abstract music to play and got more from the backing band.

While Tf3’s violin lines coruscated and turned on dimes, the BSO strings played with the vagueness to which Alsop’s audiences must by now be accustomed. I have heard the BSO strings play with a degree of precision that Alsop simply seems disinclined to demand, preferring a warmer, more rounded sound, but she does not show enough flexibility in her preferences to make changes when warranted. “Time For Three With Strings” didn’t suffer too much simply because the strings weren’t doing anything interesting, but the three Brahms Hungarian Dances that opened the program simply didn’t have enough point to make a listener think of moving his or her body, and in Tchakovsky’s Fourth Symphony, which followed intermission, the third movement, which pips along mostly in pizzicato, foundered on indistinct plucking. I just don’t understand why Alsop doesn’t want that extra degree of precision (and I’m sure she has some reason for not wanting it).

That said, the rest of the Tchaikovsky Fourth hit pretty hard in terms of dramatic impact, from the massed horns intoning the stern Fate theme at the beginning of the work (and how absurd those horns would have sounded if there had not been an intermission after “Orange Blossom Special”!) to the even more massive outbursts of the finale. Alsop really had her Leonard Bernstein podium-jumpin’ mojo working on Thursday, and the BSO responded with just as much athleticism; even the most sentimental of the melodies (and those are pretty damn sentimental, in this work) had a kinetic quality that rescued them from becoming pure sap. (I loved the on-point, nicely present drumming punctuating the big melody of the first movement.) Alsop shaped the arguments and climaxes with attention to the whole span of the work, a task at which she has sometimes faltered in the past. Sometimes the symphonies following Alsop’s presentations of exciting modern works feel anticlimactic, but such was not the case here. If the orchestra had gotten to show these kind of chops when backing up Tf3, it might have been the concert of the year.

Other People’s Perspectives (hereinafter O.P.P.): Joe Banno, Charles T. Downey, Tim Smith, T.L. Ponick, Mike Unger


As Charles T. Downey noted in the review linked to above, Thursday was also Blogger Night at the BSO. This was a fun exercise in which we learned:

  • Blogging involves a lot of writing
  • It doesn’t pay
  • It sure is fun sometimes

That’s basically why I’m here. Thanks to Downey, Anne Midgette, and Tim Smith (who did not remember giving me pointers on writing reviews back in 2002, but he did anyway) for giving us their thoughts, and thanks to the BSO for providing the venue and free wine and munchies.


Unearned Intimacy: Calder Quartet at the University of Maryland, September 20, 2009

September 22, 2009

Score one for providing audiences with a chance to talk to artists after the concert is over: After the Calder Quartet played works by Stravinsky, Janacek, and Schubert at the University of Maryland’s Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center, the quartet told a fair-sized group of curious stragglers in the ensuing “Talk Back” session not only that had they never played this particular program before, but that Sunday afternoon was their first time playing the Stravinsky and the Schubert in public.

Talking back, I asked whether the quartet had intended playing Janacek’s second quartet, titled “Intimate Letters,” before Schubert’s massive, enigmatic last (15th) quartet to allow the former to shed light on the latter. Andrew Bulbrook, the second violinist, said (paraphrasing) that it had seemed like an interesting idea to them and that it must have an effect for the audience. The sequencing did have an effect, but not quite enough of one to overcome a vagueness in the Schubert.

The Calderians didn’t do much of interest with Stravinsky’s Three Pieces, and actually rumbled past some of their most felicitous details. The players found firmer footing in the Janacek, written as a depiction of the elderly composer’s love letters to a much younger woman. The quartet enjoyed the frequent opportunities to lurch into various amorous extremes while still expressing the Czech flavor of the quartet’s melodies, keeping what could be abstract depictions of emotion grounded in human reality. Although they could have changed up their timbres more often, to characterize those extremes even better and to give some additional texture to Janacek’s frequent histrionics, they played with a power that would have been difficult to resist if anyone had been trying. (People who forsake a sunny, 80-degree Sunday afternoon for two windowless hours in the Gildenhorn Recital Hall have a vested interest in that concert being good.)

At intermission, I went a-wandering outside and thought about the upcoming Schubert. The 15th has always simultaneously seduced and eluded me, like trying to find a picture in the flames of a hearth fire; the flames flicker in G major, the shadows curl and vanish in G minor, neither dominating enough to establish a pervasive mood, both fragile and tremendously lovely and prone to unexpected flights. More than any other Schubert work (even the later piano sonatas), the 15th quartet’s modulations and wanderings regularly disrupt its classical equipoise, so that when it returns to its more modest thematic statements, the music feels estranged from itself. With my blood up from the Janacek, though, I expected the Calder’s Schubert 15 to give us blood and thunder, providing another window onto this work, maybe giving me a clearer view of it.

No such luck. True, the Calder performance took a capital-R Romantic view of the quartet, with the various eruptions emphasized, and in this the Schubert shared something with the Janacek heard before intermission. (In his review, Robert Battey disputes the idea that some of these eruptions are in the score as such, and I certainly would yield to his expertise on that one.) But the transitions between minor and major felt no less inscrutable than usual, and the Calder couldn’t sustain the tension generated by those eruptions over the rambling lengths of the quartet in any coherent way. A lot of it felt under-considered and half-baked — not what I would have expected after hearing the Janacek. Only the Scherzo caught fire.

In other “Talk Back”-imparted news, the Calder planned to go straight to the airport after the concert and then to prepare for several other concerts featuring entirely new repertoire, so the relentless churn will continue. Nevertheless, juxtaposing the Janacek and Schubert could illuminate both works, and I hope they’ll try it again, but they’ll need to think harder about the Schubert in order for it to work in the way they (and I) hoped it would.


Robert Battey certainly knows a lot more about string quartet playing and repertoire than I do, but I’m pretty sure I know a lot more about West Coast rap than he does, so I am going to take issue with this statement in his review:

[The Calder Quartet’s] members still exude a callow hipness; their MySpace page lists “tupac, bob dylan, sun tzu, john milton, marvin gaye, sam cooke, frank sinatra, bill evans, snoop dogg, dr dre” as among their influences.

From where I sit, that’s a pretty strong list of influences. Not a dog (apart from Snoop) among them. (I suppose the quartet’s USC birthplace explains why there is no love for the East Coast.) Battey also did not note that listed first among the quartet’s influences are the following:

budapest, amadeus, alban berg, emerson, kronos, guarneri, takacs, tokyo, juilliard string quartets.
schubert, beethoven, mozart, haydn, ravel, debussy, bartok, shostakovich, terry riley, philip glass, fred frith, thomas ades……

After that illustrious and unimpeachable list, we happen upon the list of pop musicians. Does it really exude “callow hipness” to acknowledge that one listens to/enjoys/learns something from pop music? I will consider this question while playing Raekwon’s “Only Built 4 Cuban Linx…” really loud, and I invite readers to do the same.

No, I don’t think so. But at the very least, readers can go to the MySpace page and draw their own conclusions. (I have to admit to being intrigued about whatever it is they’re going to do with Andrew W.K…)

Shave and a Haircut: “The Barber of Seville,” Washington National Opera, September 17, 2009

September 20, 2009

“The Barber of Seville” is iconic for a reason: It’s a splendid machine for entertainment, as long as you wind the gears right and put fuel of a high-enough octane into the tank. Whatever else you want to say about the Washington National Opera’s current production of “Barber” gets that machine humming — despite occasional misfires and stalls, it puts a smile on your face with not-inconsiderable frequency.

Of course, I approach the task of reviewing this opera as someone ignorant even of this cornerstone of the repertoire, although I feel familiar enough with many of the tunes from Bugs Bunny or uses as “we’re at the opera now” signifiers in other media. But even after the overture’s delicious figurations stop their iconic whirling and whipping, and after Figaro stops shouting his own name like Mike Jones, Rossini hides yet another catchy tune around every corner, and conductor Joseph Mechavich kept the pace up — so much so that, on Thursday, some of the singers had trouble keeping up with their accompaniment, most notably baritone Keith Phares, this performance’s Figaro, in the aforementioned “Largo al factotum.”

Apart from those struggles, Phares sang bright and vividly, as did soprano Ketevan Kemoklizde as Rosina and bass Valeriano Lanchas as Doctor Bartolo. But although the music itself remained fresh, one felt an absence of dramatic intensity at points. None of those singers characterized their roles with any distinction; Kemoklizde in particular, seemed to have assembled a sly coquette from various generally accepted coquettish gestures. It wasn’t unpleasant — she was fun to look at, hit her comedic marks, and sang well — just intermittently dull. (In this way, her performance bettered that of Grigory Soloviov as Don Basilio; he held his arms out from his body like Frankenstein for completely unexplained reasons, frequently looked lost on stage, and didn’t sing all that well either.)

Director David Gately didn’t help the singers much, giving them silly bits of business to keep them moving during the less action-packed arias. Sometimes these scored laughs — anything involving Alberghini’s Figaro looking at money like a hungry dog seeing a T-bone, in particular — and some just felt corny. It is my considered opinion that, in this century, you have to earn the right to include a spit-take in any dramatic work, but Doctor Bartolo’s rendition added nothing. Similarly, the “Matrix”-like slo-mo ensemble/fight that closed Act I was funny for the first couple minutes, but soon it was just absurd, and yet it went on and on after that.

One singer did put some drama into his role: tenor Lawrence Brownlee as Count Almaviva. At first, his voice doesn’t seem to have any obvious splendor beyond that required to be a professional singer, but there’s a hard core to it and a little glow around that. More than that, he sang with the crispness, style, and swagger that one associates with stars in any genre of music; concentrating on his vocal line because of his approach, you start to appreciate the beauty of his instrument. In the opening aria, Almaviva sings a plea for Rosina to come to her window when, in this production, she was already there, missed only because Almaviva faced the audience the whole time. My annoyance at this opera-staging absurdity vanished seconds after Brownlee’s committment and command of the aria became apparent. The much-anticipated “Cessa di più resistere” topped everything else in the opera, but even his earlier solo arias seemed to stop all other action on the stage. Nice to be reminded that a well-tuned comedic machine can, with the right operator, produce a little magic too.

Better-informed reviews: Anne Midgette, Charles T. Downey

Finally, Something Inspiring on that Giant HD Screen at Nats Park

September 12, 2009

I got an awesome press release from the Washington National Opera about the “Opera in the Outfield” simulcast of The Barber of Seville at Nats Park, which as you may know is happening this evening. I personally cannot go due to my desire to set a P.R. in the half-marathon I am running tomorrow, but others are apparently bound by no such constraints, as 20,000 people have completed optional reservations to sit in the pastures normally patrolled by Josh Willingham and Willie Harris and watch a 19th-century comedy.

The press release noted that the following things are scheduled to occur at the simulcast:

  • The Armed Forces Color Guard and 42 members of the Air Force Band will present and retire the National Colors
  • 42 members of the Air Force Band will play the Armed Forces Medley
  • Pre-game activities will include a screening of Warner Brothers’ “The Rabbit of Seville”
  • The Nat Pack [but not Clint! If you don’t warn people about Clint, you don’t get to use Clint! I think that’s in the Geneva Convention somewhere -ALM] will bring out the T-shirt cannon for T-shirt tosses
  • Raffles will include a $100 Mars gift certificate and a $500 shopping spree to Target
  • Special guests will include Miss D.C. Jennifer Corey, D.C. City Council Chairman Vincent Gray, and the ever-popular [their compound modifier] Red M&M

So basically it’s a Nats game, but with more talented players. (Sorry, Ryan Z.!) Here are some things WNO could do to help Nats fans make the transition to opera even more seamlessly:

  • The chorus should consist of a bunch of elderly gentlemen with scoring notebooks and transistor radios
  • Everyone should refer to Placido Domingo as “P. Dingo” (although we should all be doing that anyway)
  • There should be one singer with an incredibly powerful voice who is extraordinarily clumsy
  • Every so often, one of the singers should pick up a prop and fling it wildly across the stage for no apparent reason
  • After an exceptionally well-sung aria, the sound system should play “Bustin’ Loose,” and the singer should do a slow lap around the stage to soak in the love from the audience
  • Kiss Cam at intermission
  • After intermission, the opera should feature a bunch of new singers, one named “Saul,” none of whom are as good as the singers they replaced
  • A bunch of fans of the Metropolitan Opera and the Opera Company of Philadelphia should come to the game and cheer whenever the WNO’s production falters
  • An orchestral version of “Three Little Birds” after the final curtain to accompany the mass exodus from the stadium

Of course, that’s if the production wants to be Nats-like. If the production wants to succeed, I guess they should do everything differently.

Tell the Truth, But Tell It Slant

September 7, 2009

Objective criticism is a myth, but every worthwhile critic strives to be objective in his or her criticism. It’s a worthy effort even if you’ll never succeed. Being open to things outside one’s favorites and familiars, whether it’s electronically enhanced scrapes and dings cohering into a soundscape or a soprano employing wide vibrato in a Bach cantata, makes one’s brain and, consequently, one’s writing more complicated and more interesting.

Nonetheless, it’s impossible to come at the task of writing about whether a concert was good without some sort of measuring stick, except that the measurements on that stick are shaped by experience and not by something cool like how far light travels in 1/299,792,458 of a second. Since all of us have different experiences, our measurements differ.

In anticipation of DMV classical concertizing (and thus my classical reviewing) once again beginning in earnest this month, I list here some of my more noteworthy biases. Being on the “favored” side of a bias is no guarantee of a good review, but I probably start out more likely to give one in that case. I’m not happy about it, but the alternative is blanking out all my concertgoing experience through a memory-wiper service, which (although key to a good movie) does not appear to actually be available. (Plus what would Nietzsche say?)

  • If there is one thing that turns me off in classical music, it is the grandiose style. We look to Bruckner for a wonderful example of this. I absolutely cannot stand Bruckner, although I try out his music every so often just to make sure. Mahler is another one; I have actually begun to like certain Mahler works, particularly the songs, which seem to be more human-scale due to the voice, but the symphonies continue to speak not much to me. Ravel’s La Valse, as already discussed.
  • This extends to my surroundings at the classical concert, as well. The Kennedy Center, for reasons that I’ll write more about in another post, turns me off before I even walk in the door (although the performers therein routinely turn me back on). The Music Center at Strathmore, which is less concerned with shoving in your face how impressive it is, feels much more welcoming for that reason. My ideal is a chamber music concert in a small hall or a church, up close, with players wearing the classical business-casual outfits (nice, but not stiltedly so).
  • Also, I tend to think of opera as the most self-serious, self-impressed, and ostentatiously massive sector of classical music, an impression of which I am going to try to disabuse myself this year. I’ll write more about this later also.
  • Composers I like more than anyone else I know: Haydn (I would take Haydn over Mozart if forced to choose…this probably has to do with the opera thing), Dvorak, Rimsky-Korsakov (if I ever get a dog, it will be named after Rimsky-Korsakov. “Here, Rimsky!” I will say. “Who’s a good dog?”), Rachmaninov, Reger.
  • Composers whose output I tend to dislike more than most people do: The aforementioned Mahler and Bruckner, Wagner, Chopin, Ravel (though this varies widely by the work), Debussy (though I am getting into some of his stuff).
  • If a piece has a sense of fun, I tend to like it, even if it is lacking in some other areas. It is easy to make me think a piece is fun: include a dance rhythm somewhere in there, quote something familiar in a new context, include snatches of some musical genre other than classical, make virtually any humorous-type gesture. (For the last, it doesn’t matter all that much whether it’s actually funny; you get points for trying. I am a sucker.)
  • Programs: I like programs that have an idea driving the music played and its sequence; balanced programs; programs developed with the idea that there is an audience, of varying attention spans, levels of knowledge, and interests, that will be sitting there listening to the music. I don’t like most programs that are called something like “Romantic Spectacular.” I once went to a very fine concert at which string quartets by Brahms, Mendelssohn, and Schumann were played, and I left feeling as bloated as if I had eaten an entire pound cake. An example of a program I really like is the one on the Daedalus Quartet’s CD. (Disclosure regarding the Daedalus: I am friends with the violist and on a first-name basis with the rest of them. I maintain that I would still think they are awesome even if that wasn’t true. But, then, how would I know?)
  • Performances: I tend to focus most on how the performer tells some sort of story through the music. I have a much higher tolerance for technical mistakes, occasional infelicities of tone, and general sloppiness than most other critics I’ve known, as long as the narrative arc of the performance has grabbed me somehow. It does not necessarily have to be a narrative, I suppose; it could be an exploration of tones, or even an improvisation. But, in general, if I’m “in” the performance, I don’t much care what else is happening. I’ve only done a couple reviews in which I really criticized the technical capacity of the performer(s), and in those performances the technical problems had blurred the overall argument of the music beyond recognition.
  • Fun can also crop up in performances, and I tend to go all googly-eyed with delight when it does. The iconic image for me is a string quartet whose members smile when Haydn does something witty in a minuet — showing that they’re also enjoying what I’m enjoying. Lang Lang leaning back and beseeching the heavens to impart the last measure of poetry in his Chopin playing is not fun (though some other stuff he does is kind of fun, I must admit). Playing rhythms with the proper amount of emphasis tends to be fun; I don’t think I’ve ever criticized a performer for overemphasizing rhythms, although I’ve criticized many for soft-pedaling them or wandering about rhythmically. This must be the pop fan in me.
  • I enjoy it when a performer says a few words before a piece or pieces on the program, describing what it does or why it means something to the performer. Emphasis on “a few.” It helps if the info provided is not in the program notes, which I read. I don’t typically attend pre-performance lectures because I go to work during the day and need to eat dinner before I go to a performance. (You do not want to read my review of a show during which I am hungry. I strategize to make sure my stomach won’t distract me during concerts with calls for food.) I sigh and check my watch during interminable pre-performance. announcements about how great everyone on stage is and which sponsor we should thank. (I give about a three-minute grace period on these, because I know they are necessary, but still.) I stay after the performance for discussions with the performers if I can.

That’s most of them. I’ll try to be up front as more come up.