Archive for December 2009

Grab Bag #1

December 29, 2009

A bunch of stuff with something or other to do with classical music: a Korean car, an Atlanta rapper, a blockbuster movie, a couple text messages. The “#1” reflects my earnest hope to do this a few more times.

• I rode home from Detroit on December 20 in the backseat of a Hyundai Sonata, a car whose name has always puzzled me, since in its form one can detect no exposition, development, or recapitulation. Recommending it as a car name is that the word “sonata” sounds foreign in a nonthreatening way, unlike the word “Hyundai,” for better or worse. (Note: I drive a 2007 Elantra and really like it.) Also, to the extent that consumers associate classical music with the automobile in question, the associations are likely to be positive, connoting smoothness and luxury, unlike the potential associations for the “Hyundai Webern’s 5 Pieces for Orchestra.” Nonetheless, it was a spacious backseat in which to ride, and certainly classical fans who are in the market for a midsize family sedan could do worse.

• Here is a song called “Classical,” by ATL rapper Gucci Mane, that will show you what people who know very little about classical music think classical music sounds like. You only need to listen to the first 30 seconds or so to get the idea:

As a fan of both classical music and hip-hop, I am a little embarrassed.

• James Horner wrote the score for James Cameron’s supermegablockbuster “Avatar,” which I saw on Sunday. As expected from this composer, he has pastiched together a bunch of musical elements that have little to do with each other and neglected the opportunity to do anything in terms of establishing a structure. During the parts exploring the life of the native inhabitants of the moon Pandora, he lays on the “world music” percussion and singing so thickly and indiscriminately that it threatened (for me) to snuff out the life of the film. (At one point, he even has a chorus singing “Eywa,” the name of the deity that is spoken approximately 50 million other times during the film. I get it, Hornyboy.)

Horner does make one curious decision, which is to pay homage to Rachmaninov’s First Symphony by stealing its four-note opening motive, orchestrating it identically, and playing it at various grim martial moments during the film. (Chatter on the Internets indicates that this is a Horner signature; I am unwilling to systematically listen to Horner scores to verify.) After leaving the theater, I expounded on this to my moviegoing companion, who asked whether Rachmaninov’s work was in fact also inspired by nine-foot-tall blue aliens, because then the re-use would totally make sense here. Since no such inspiration has been documented, one is left to wonder whether Horner thought almost no one would notice (as has been the case in the past) or was trying to express an esoteric but profound connection between Rach 1 and the subject matter in question. I’m guessing Door #1.

• If you want to get a feel for the possibly fabricated yet totally hilarious adventures of America’s youthful dipsomaniacs, libertines, and narcotics abusers, texts from last night is your go-to resource. Given the vast scope of the site, classical music is touched on occasionally, or at least twice. This one:

Only you could turn Mozart into a stripper song

made me wonder: What Mozart “song” specifically was being employed in this unexpected yet appealing manner? One has to balance the impulse to select music that seems suited for such an endeavor (“La ci darem la mano,” anyone?) with the fact that the most common example of Mozart’s music close at hand for most people is probably “Eine Kleine Nachtmusik,” which who knows how you use that. (Readers: Which Mozart piece do you think was being used? Suggest in the comments below!)

This other one, which I will not quote here for reasons of taste, inspires less speculation, with one exception: Were the implications of this text followed to their logical end, the blind auditions for string-player positions in symphonies would be totally different.

Go-Go Handel! (Who Did You Call?) Go-Go Handel! (What’s His Name?)

December 16, 2009

When I am not listening to classical music, often I am instead listening to go-go, the dance music native to, and unique to, the DMV. (I will allow Wikipedia to introduce the music to the curious.) “Okay,” you are thinking, “but your blog is called DMV Classical, so why should your readers care about go-go?” Well, the large institutions of classical music seem all aflutter about what to do to increase audience engagement, and I would venture that no audience excels the go-go audience in its engagement with its chosen music.

Despite near-zero levels of corporate investment, and despite advertising so marginal that even the best listings of go-go concerts are in part compilations of flyers posted hither and yon in the DMV, go-go bands pack houses seven nights a week. Though commercial recordings of go-go have never taken off, bootlegs of live shows (aka PA tapes, even when in CD or .zip form) circulate like beneficial viruses. Partisans eagerly debate go-go issues on the Internet and around town. (Just a week ago, on the Red Line, I heard two young women discussing which of their two high schools had the realest go-go concerts.)

Even nonparticipating residents of the DMV are never far from the go-go swing: Driving, biking, or walking around the city (especially south of Florida Ave./U Street and east of 16th), you will hear go-go music coming out of car stereos, cranked-up headphones, apartment windows, and even (further east and south) at backyard barbeques during the summertime, wafting into the breeze. Palaces of culture like the Kennedy Center, I am guessing, desperately seek such ubiquity in the minds of their target audience.

In addition, since go-go has survived without the commercial recording industry, it is exceptionally well-positioned to survive the precipitous decline of the commercial recording industry (which has, of course, affected classical music more than most genres).

Why go-go? In part, because go-go is amazing music. (If you think I’m wrong, please click on this link. How else can Richard Strauss sound so funky?) But classical music is amazing too (each in its own way, people). So we look further, and we quickly find a clue: The go-go concert experience, the rock of go-go’s continued vitality and viability, encourages and demands — indeed, could not survive without — the enthusiastic participation of the audience. This contrasts strongly with classical concerts, in which the audience often seems to be superfluous to the music-making.

Admittedly, often one will read quotes from classical musicians indicating that the crowd response shapes their performances. Here’s one from Hilary Hahn that I’m including just because I knew where to find it, not because it mentions Twitter and I’m courting Internet memes:

The problem [with tweeting during performances] is that acoustic performers rely on the audience’s attention and focus and can tell when the audience isn’t mentally present. Your listening is part of our interpretive process. If you’re not really listening, we’re not getting the feedback of energy from the hall, and then we might as well be practicing for a bunch of people peering in the window. It’s just not as interesting when the cycle of interpretation is broken.

I believe her, but how the hell can I, as an audience member, tell how the quality and intensity of our attention shapes Hahn’s interpretation? If I stare at her really hard and wish for it, will she use just a little more portamento? Contrast that with, say, a Chuck Brown concert, in which he always takes the time to sing the following, over a beat, to the audience:

Thank you so much for coming out tonight
Tell you nothin’ but the truth, you’re lookin’ outta sight
Show the world what you got, this is your spot
Do it how you wanna because we love you a lot

I’ve been to Hilary Hahn concerts, and I’m pretty sure she doesn’t love me a lot! And such love is shown to go-go audiences because it must be given in return — if the audience does not participate in the call-and-response, the whole show sounds totally stupid, like a one-sided dialogue. In fact, engaging in popular calls-and-responses (like “Hold up!” “WAIT A MINUTE!”) is a surefire way to goose a lackluster show, because the audience knows and loves these chants and expects to participate in them.

But there’s more! If being loved and chanting does not meet your need for audience interaction, you can pass to the stage a slip of paper with the names of people in the audience who are celebrating a birthday. The talker will read these names and wish them a happy birthday. You can also make requests through said slips of paper. If you are a frequent attendee at a certain group’s shows, the talker will likely single you out for recognition during a percussion break (“14th Street Crew!”). Here’s a video in which a crankin’ go-go band stops the concert to warn someone that his Impala is illegally parked and will be towed. This is a kind of concern for the customer that classical performers rarely, if ever, show.

You are probably saying to yourself: “But Andrew, no classical concert could ever bring the audience into the music-making experience the way go-go does, with everyone knowing the words and hitting their cues!” And every December, classical music proves you wrong, because this is the one time of year that audiences get to help perform the most popular choral masterpiece known to English-speaking humans: the Messiah.

At the Kennedy Center’s annual Messiah sing-along, for example, people begin forming lines hours before the event, eager to pile into the Concert Hall and join a couple thousand others in singing their hearts out. Past participants have told me of people being turned away at the door. If it’s not the single most popular thing the Kennedy Center does all year, it’s certainly a strong candidate.


Posting is about to get super-sparse for a couple weeks, so I’m going to take this opportunity to wish everyone a happy holiday season, including those of you who are already celebrating your specific holiday and those of you who (like me) are mainly celebrating the extra paid holidays coming up. Your attention is my gift (really! I mean it!). Thanks for reading.

Oh, That We Were There…For This Entire Month: The Folger Consort, December 12, 2009

December 13, 2009

Michael Praetorius composed in Lutheran Germany in the 16th and 17th centuries, way before the modern notion of the “holiday” season and its ideal of cozy, reflexive happiness. His music celebrating the birth of Jesus Christ thus has a tone unfamiliar to us: awestruck, ruminative, severe, filled with wonder. His setting of the words “Mein Herzenskindlein, mein liebstes Freundlein” (“My heart’s child, my dearest little friend”), a vernacular (for Praetorius) refrain for the “Puer natus” text, echoes with emotional abandon and desperation for salvation; his “Magnificat” sounds thrilled and a little scared at the majesty of God and His gift to Mary. Even Praetorius’ famous arrangements and compositions, like “In dulci jublio” or “Es ist ein Ros entsprungen” (“Lo, e’er a rose is blooming”), arrest modern listeners in part because their sublimated emotional world is so alien to our modern holiday-season Weltanschauung.

This year’s Folger Consort Christmas program, which I attended Saturday night, focuses on Praetorius’ music, and these concerts, well-planned and admirably performed, would make an excellent tonic for anyone sick of the constant drip of treacle that permeates our Decembers.

The consort teams up with the Cantate Chamber Singers and their music director Gisele Becker for this program, and their general approach (as evidenced in other Cantate concerts (1, 2) I’ve heard) suits Praetorius to a T: Rather than reaching out to the audience to overwhelm them with projected sound and emotion, they concentrate on precision and clarity, trusting that such virtues will draw the audience in. In the close quarters of the Folger Shakespeare Library’s Elizabethan Theatre, this works great; the harmonies of “Es ist ein Ros” flickered like a candle’s flame, but the complex double-choir writing in “Gelobet seist du, Jesu Christ” (“Praised be you, Jesus Christ”) achieved a natural grandeur.

The artistic directors of the Consort, Robert Eisenstein and Christopher Kendall, had to make some decisions about how to integrate instruments into the production; some of Praetorius’ hymn settings call for instruments in addition to voices, and some can be played on instruments in lieu of voices. Here instruments were used to vary textures as much as possible, ensuring that harmonies that can sound bare to modern ears did not become monotonous.

Eisenstein played viol, violin, and recorder during the concert, and several of the other musicians switched instruments frequently as well. Perhaps most impressive among these was Tom Zajac, whose rounded trombone tone gave a special lift to Praetorius’ extravagant setting of “Wachet auf” (“Wake, awake”), which opened the program. In this showcase, Eisenstein and David Douglass played the Italian-inspired violin lines, zooming up and down and around the chorus’ harmonies. The Cantate folks relished Praetorius’ word painting, making a bustle for “Sie wachet und steht eilend auf” (“She wakes and quickly gets up”) and a proclamation from “mächtig” (“mighty”), while ensuring that the underlying hymn tune shone through all the activity.

Wisely, instrumental works by contemporaries were used to give the audience a chance to breathe between Praetorius’ intense compositions. Zajac gave a cool, stylish solo on the Baroque flute in selections from Johann Hermann Schein’s “Banchetto Musicale,” and Samuel Scheidt’s “Canzon super Intradam Aechiopicam” got peppy recorder playing from Zajac, Stillman, and Eisenstein. Though there were some occasional ensemble snafus and moments of insecurity among the other players on Saturday night, generally the assembled players gave an appealing, subtle spring to their rhythms, and it’s always a treat to hear so many different period instruments in a room small enough that you can appreciate their unique sonorities.

The program’s summit came at its close, with five settings of “In dulci jublio.” In the first, Zajac and Daniel Stillman, who was playing some sort of reed instrument not listed in the program, played a duet that seemed magically suspended in midair, with the tang of Stillman’s instrument balanced against Zajac’s trombone and the two instruments’ lines weaving around each other in mutual support. The succeeding choral settings were arranged in order of increasing complexity, moving quickly beyond the harmonization most familiar in modern times to ever more ear-catching elaborations. (I would have lapped up about five more settings…)

Yet the encore, J.S. Bach’s chorale on the “Wachet auf” hymn tune whose Praetorius setting opened the concert, sounded shockingly modern by contrast in its harmonic warmth, even though Bach was only writing 100 years or so after Praetorius. It only emphasized how distant Praetorius’ music is to us, and how fascinating (and refreshing) a committed exploration of something far away can be.

More performances Wednesday through Sunday! See the Folger website for times.


I was raised Lutheran, and a lot of this concert was like hearing my childhood in a 2-hour program. For example, before the concert I was bothering my seatmate by singing the Lutheran Book of Worship version of “Wachet auf,” which for some reason is not the translation used in the Folger program, probably because it is in no way a literal translation with which you could follow the German text. So I may be a little biased.

Among other interesting tidbits, the excellent program notes provided the information that Michael Praetorius was a son of a Michael and for his entire life thus signed himself M.P.C., for Michael Praetorius of Creuzberg. If he were a rapper, MPC would be his MC name, and he would record a song called “Creuzberg State of Mind,” perhaps with Alicia Keys on the hook. I just like thinking about these things.

Sizzling: Baltimore Symphony Orchestra at Strathmore, December 10, 2009

December 12, 2009

You might be excused for being a little skeptical about the potential artistic and entertainment value of “Too Hot to Handel,” which brings the indelible melodies of “The Messiah” into the realm of black vernacular music, when you see advertisements like this:

Handel wearing sunglasses

A grabby image, but also emblematic of many of these ventures: A patina of soul sitting uneasily atop an essentially unchanged base of classical, the latter sounding all the more dusty for the contrast. But “Too Hot to Handel,” conceived by the mind of Baltimore Symphony Orchestra music director Marin Alsop and born of arrangers Bob Christianson and Gary Anderson, gets into the bones of “The Messiah.” In line with current scholarship, Christianson and Anderson found plenty of room for solo showoffs, imaginative harmonic recasting, and on-the-spot inspiration. The resulting work sits in the sweet spot of sacred inspiration where Baroque and gospel intersect, with tinges of jazz, blues, and funk on the side.

On Thursday night, Alsop brought the Baltimore Symphony together with the Baltimore City College High School Choir and with pop musicians skilled enough to find that sweet spot as well, and they tore the roof off the Music Center at Strathmore. To every valley should this performance be exalted.

How did Christianson and Anderson marry these styles so convincingly? A hint came in the opening Sinfonia, when the original instrumentation dropped out after the opening flourishes — drummer Clint de Ganon began spanking out a hard backbeat over which the BSO’s brass section unfurled the fugue in swaggering fashion. Though the counterpoint remained pointed, the music focused more on rhythm and how melody played within and against it. The other clear sign came next, in “Comfort ye my people,” where tenor/Broadway veteran Lawrence Clayton sang in true gospel fashion, with freedom to embellish and extend at his whim: The arias in “Too Hot to Handel” belong to the soloists, as they would have in Handel’s day, where vocal superstars drew crowds and operas and oratorios served to some extent as canvases upon which they could make their improvisational mark.

If you make the recitatives and arias into star vehicles, it helps to have stars who can drive them hard, and Clayton certainly did; he gave a rousing swing to “Ev’ry valley shall be exalted,” and, in “Surely he hath borne our griefs,” turned “Surely” from a throwaway assurance into a mantra with his increasingly fevered repetitions. Yet he was joined by equally fine ladies of song. Mezzo-soprano Vaneese Thomas (daughter of Rufus Thomas!) gave me goosebumps with her throaty low note, daringly extended and whipped into a passion, at the end of  the phrase “Thus saith the Lord, the Lord of hosts.” Cynthia Renée Saffron took her goosebump-giving turn with her ecstasy over the words “Wonderful, Counselor” in “For unto us a child is born,” and her turn on a bebop-style arrangement of “Rejoice greatly” had a rhythmic sharpness and command that made the already-swinging melody feel almost dangerously exuberant.

The only weaker numbers smoothed out edges in the original; making “O Thou that tellest good tidings to Zion” into a midtempo ballad removed the preinstalled Handelian swing for no obvious reason, and “But who may abide,” in a similar reconfiguration, lacked a scouring edge, though Thomas made it fairly convincing anyway. Mezzo Kimberly Michaels, who made her BSO debut Thursday after impressing at an open audition, had a little trouble opening up the melodic line at the beginning of “He shall feed his flock,” but that only made it all the more satisfying when she really got cooking at the end.

In the regular “Messiah,” Handel’s counterpoint makes his choruses lift off; in Christianson and Anderson’s hands, an equivalent lift comes from gospel rhythms, which sound perfectly natural when allied to these Biblical texts, and especially when sung by the Baltimore City College High School Choir. They made a warm, clear sound that reached to the rafters in “Glory to God,” but they also could sound incisive and tough; they made you hear the meaning behind the words “an offering of righteousness” in “And he shall purify,” and “He trusted in God that He would deliver Him” had all the sternness it needed.

Emboldened by the addition of a jazz quartet, Christianson and Anderson added some material to show it off; pianist Clifford Carter got to noodle out an evocative solo before “There were shepherds abiding in the field,” establishing the miraculous mood, and Christianson himself laid down some rich, moody solos on his Hammond B3 organ when not playing a traditional continuo role with alert bassist Mike Pope. Alsop ensured that everyone else sounded equally spontaneous while keeping things together and moving; the vocalists showed awareness of how many bars they had to work with, but Alsop encouraged them to keep going when they found something good. (The only complaint about how it all fit together is that the strings were so low in the mix as to be intermittently inaudible, a problem worsened by Strathmore’s super-live acoustics.)

And because Christianson and Anderson simply skipped Part 3, as everyone who has ever sat through the complete Messiah in the concert hall has thought about doing at some point, we ended with the almost universally agreed-upon climax, your favorite and mine, ladies and gentlemen: the Hallelujah Chorus. With the City College high schoolers singing out and swinging hard, the soloists moved to even more impressive feats of melisma than before, and the jazz combo cooking alongside the Baltimoreans under Alsop’s baton, it no longer mattered where this music came from: It was, as Trendy Sunglasses Handel would doubtless tell us, where it’s at.


Cynthia Renée Saffron is good-looking.

Best name from the Balmer City College high schoolers: Imhotep McClain.

Quickie: Baltimore Symphony Orchestra at Strathmore, December 10, 2009

December 10, 2009

We all have heard mixes of genres that start with the best of intentions and end with horribly awkward music. I have heard several dozen of them, as I used to be Jazz Times’ go-to reviewer for anything mixing jazz with classical, and trust me: I know all the ways it can go wrong. So it is my pleasure to report that rarely does a piece take classical materials and slide them into the black vernacular (gospel, jazz, blues, and a hint o’ funk) as adeptly as “Too Hot to Handel,” the “Messiah” transfiguration Marin Alsop, the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, and a whole lot of pop-music ringers performed at Strathmore on Thursday. Those forces will perform again at the Meyerhoff (yes, in Baltimore) on Friday, December 11 (at 8 pm) and Saturday, December 12 (selections, at 11 am). If you love the “Messiah” but can’t bear the thought of hearing it again this year in straight-up fashion, or if you love both classical and gospel, you should go and see “Too Hot to Handel.” As someone who fits both of those categories, I guarantee* you will not be disappointed.

Fuller review tomorrow as per usual with performances with repeats. Sleep to rest up for a full workday (not writing about classical music) right now.

*Guarantee has no monetary value, but I wouldn’t say it if I didn’t mean it.

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

December 5, 2009

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

Quickie: National Symphony Orchestra at the Kennedy Center, December 3, 2009

December 3, 2009

I went to the National Symphony Orchestra’s concert under guest conductor Andrew Litton tonight, but because I need to go to my job that is not writing about classical music tomorrow, I cannot review it in full right now. Meanwhile, you may be wondering whether to skip work on Friday to go to the afternoon show, or whether to wander over to the KenCen Saturday eve for the final rendition of this program. So here’s a quick summary:

  1. Rimsky-Korsakov’s Snow Maiden Suite: Piquant but direly under-rehearsed. If they can fix it for Friday and Saturday, it is fun music to listen to.
  2. Jennifer Higdon’s world-premiere piano concerto with Yuja Wang as soloist: Repetitive, unidiomatic for the instrument, harmonically banal. A major disappointment from a major American composer.
  3. Tchaikovsky’s Symphony no. 1 (“Winter Daydreams”): Well-played, big-boned Romantic fun. Not great music but extremely entertaining in this performance.

More complete thoughts coming tomorrow.

We’re Just Incompatible: Me and the National Gallery

December 1, 2009

The concert of music by Fred Lehrdal, John Corigliano, and James (not Troy) Aikman at the National Gallery of Art on Sunday was probably every bit as good listening as Anne Midgette made it sound in the Post Magazine. And it’s free, so no excuse not to attend, in theory. And yet I wrote this blog entry instead of being at the concert. (Then I had to find time to edit it, which explains why it’s only being posted today.) Why?

For me, the National Gallery’s presentation of its admirable series of free concerts makes them virtually unattendable in reality. Here’s why:

  • The time is unmanageable. The concerts are held at 6:30 pm on Sunday nights, and you normally need to get there at least an hour early to get a reasonable seat, since no tickets are provided. So you can either eat dinner at 4:30 pm or 8:30 pm. Neither of those are times I normally eat dinner. 8:30 seems more reasonable, except that after intermission all I would be able to think about would be dinner, plus it’s Sunday night so you would pretty much have to go to bed immediately after dinner to get up for the work week. My normal solution is to head to Gallery Place and have a burrito at Chipotle first, which shaves a few minutes, but what if you wanted to have a civilized sit-down dinner with another individual? Probably not everyone else has to eat on a schedule like I do, but if you do, it’s really hard to make the NGOA concerts fit that schedule.
  • The West Garden Court’s acoustics are terrible. Tonight’s concert is being held as I type this in the East Gallery Auditorium, which fulfills the normal classical concert space expectations of being rectangular and enclosed with a big bank of seats in front of a stage. Normally, NGOA concerts are held in the West Garden Court, a beautiful space and a horrible place in which to listen to a concert. The marble from which the space is constructed naturally produces the most profound resonant effect you could ever dream of, and the high ceilings make sure that any echoing noise will travel a good long while before coming back down to audience level, resulting in a great blurring effect that has zapped many a concert of its sharpness and general poise.
  • Also the West Garden Court provides remarkably few good seats. A big fountain takes up the center of the space, ringed by a walkway, with some garden areas (truth in advertising!) surrounding the walkway while allowing pedestrian passage to the fountain. Beyond the garden areas is a final rectangular margin of unobstructed marble. On one of these last rectangular sections sit the performers, facing…the fountain. So the best possible seats acoustically (at least in a normal hall) would actually be in the drink. But you might want to mitigate the resonant effects by sitting up close, in which case you would have to get in front of the stampede to the remarkably few seats in the walkway leading from the rectangular margin to the fountain. All the other seats obstruct one’s view of at least half of the stage, not to mention obstructing the hearing of at least half the notes. The seats are also of the temporary folding plastic kind and not especially kind to those with posterior amplitude.

One of the themes of my various ponderings about classical music is that, on the whole, presenters and performers ignore the body to pitch things solely to the mind. The NGOA’s selection of performers and repertoire have frequently impressed me, not to mention the generally top-notch program notes; I just can’t figure out how to enjoy it while sitting, either prematurely full of food or direly empty of food, in one of the narrow, mislocated seats in the place where the concerts are most often held. I’m sure that there are all sorts of constraints on the NGOA experience of which I am unaware and that they are doing the best they can within those constraints. But it is a shame.

Am I completely full of it, or is this concert series as annoying to others as it is to me? Or are there other concert series with which you find yourselves incompatible?