Archive for January 2010

Wind Me Up, Antoine: Circa 1800, Saturday, January 23, 2010

January 25, 2010

Paul Hopkins, showing off his period horn to conclude an instrument demo/lecture before the second half of the wind quintet Circa 1800‘s program at the Takoma Part/Silver Spring Performing Arts Center at Montgomery College on Saturday night, said that modern instruments will play any note you want as loud as you want, but they sound “monochromatic” to his ears. He and the other four-fifths of Circa 1800 — Colin St. Martin, flute; Meg Owens, oboe; Richard Spece, clarinet; and Anna Marsh, bassoon — gave the audience the period-instrument color it had been missing, in a program of three works designed to trace the genesis of the wind quintet. The Bach Sinfonia presented the concert, and even though Saturday’s repertoire strayed from the Baroque into the Classical and early Romantic eras, the easy-to-enjoy educational mission and high-quality musicianship made the concert fit right in with the Sinfonia’s ethos.

The demonstrations helped the audience understand how the quintet’s composite sound, so rich with shades and savory with unique tangs and aftertastes, came from the five individual instruments. St. Martin’s flute could produce the weak, floaty sound we associated with the baroque flute, but perked up with the application of a key. Hopkins gave a virtuoso demonstration of how to make the natural horn play all the pitches in a scale by putting his hand in the bell of the horn and manipulating the sound. The other instrumentalists gave valuable background on their instruments; even if their demos were not quite as thorough, the instruments sounded vivid when playing.

Circa 1800 expertly blended its members’ sounds, and each instrumentalist played about as well as you can expect on a period instrument in a live concert. (There’s a reason keys were eventually added to the horn; they allow for more accurate and reliable note production, even if the sound itself takes on an overexposed quality.) The enjoyment factor of the performances thus hinged on the quality of the compositions.

Francesco Antonio Rosetti wrote the very first wind quintet, around 1780, and like a lot of first efforts it doesn’t do more than scratch the surface of the possibilities of the form. True, its slow movement has an entertaining false ending in the wrong key, which Circa 1800 brought off with extreme understatement, and Spece had to do some fancy fast clarinetting in the finale, but otherwise not much in the quartet delivered the goods entertainment-wise. The Rosetti did provide a fine opportunity to dip into C1800’s range of tone colors, though, with Owens’ oboe particularly winsome in the first movement.

Proceeding in chronological order, the quintet next played Giuseppe Maria Gioacchino Cambini’s 1802 effort in D minor. This opus opened a few new compositional doors, with the key’s dark harmonies adding a new lustrous quality to the quintet’s sound. The Larghetto established patterns in which one player would drop out as the others carried on, with the instruments changing each time; the regular changes, mated with the unpredictable coloris, had a hypnotic effect. The finale featured some lively rhythms and challenging parts, which Circa 1800 navigated stylishly.

But Antoine Joseph Reicha provided the evening’s main event with his Quintet in E-Flat Major, Op 88 No. 2, written sometime between 1811 and 1820. (The program notes, which at Bach Sinfonia concerts are normally lively and informative without being pedantic, were a little thin on Saturday.) This quintet, part of a set of five that I plan to purchase sometime soon in recorded format for further enjoyment, provided a stiff test for Circa 1800’s virtuosity, and they had the chops to meet it. Marsh’s bassoon gave a stentorian tone to the theme that opened the first movement, but the air of seriousness soon dispersed in some fun variations. Owens got to lead the charge in a catchy, toe-tapping Menuetto that balanced adventuresome development with a well-sprung dance rhythm.

We really got to hear Reicha’s mastery in the last two movements, though. The opening section of the epic “Poco andante” featured no flute at all, rich and impressive, but in the next section St. Martin’s flute had the melody with Hopkins playing soft hunting calls in accompaniment — an ear-tickling juxtaposition, with explorations almost as appealing to follow. The closing rondo had unexpected twists nearly worthy of Reicha’s buddies Beethoven and Haydn, and the zest with which Circa 1800 met the challenge  (and the Reicha in general) elevated the concert from merely pleasant to invigorating. The new sensations from old tone-colors are all well and good, but they shine best when a composer knows how to use that palette.

Semper Hi Fidelity: The Marine Chamber Ensembles, Sunday, January 17, 2010

January 21, 2010

Tired of paying top dollar for chamber music concerts that sound promising on paper but come across as undifferentiated slabs of same-y colors and dusty repertoire? Send in the Marines! The Marine Chamber Ensembles, which performed in the John Philip Sousa Band Hall on Sunday afternoon, draws their members from the “President’s Own” United States Marine Band, which you may remember as the ensemble that actually played live at President Obama’s inauguration. (Take that, Yo-Yo Ma!) They displayed a similarly intrepid spirit in programming Sunday’s concert, featuring three works by living composers, two intriguing arrangements, and one Romantic rarity, all for the low, low price of zero dollars.

Several of these works held particular appeal for me, which is the main reason why I was so eager to brave the clammy rain and chilly temps to get into the Sousa Band Hall on Sunday. For example, most of Richard Strauss’ music impresses me more than it moves me. The sheer sumptuousness of the orchestration deadens my emotional response, and as far as I’m concerned, almost all of his tone poems are half again as long as they need to be in order to get his point across.

Enter Franz Hasenöhrl’s arrangement of Strauss’ “Till Eulenspiegel’s lustige Strieche” (“Till Eulenspiegel’s Merry Pranks”), which shortens the work, reduces it to chamber proportions — clarinet, bassoon, horn, violin, double bass — and retitles it “Till Eulenspiegel…einmal anders!” (“another way!” I am not sure the exclamation point is necessary!). On Sunday, Staff Sgt. Douglas Quinzl nailed the famous horn solo that opens the work and played admirably throughout in extremely exposed conditions. Gunnery Sgt. Eric Sabo got a huge fat tone from his double bass, crucial to Hasenöhrl’s conception, in which most of the lavishness of the original orchestration devolves onto the big boy of the string section. This version ain’t gonna displace Strauss’ original in the canon, but it was fun to hear, even if (in the final analysis) I must admit to missing some of the death scene that Hasenöhrl omitted.

Jennifer Higdon‘s “Steeley Pause” gave the flutes of Gunnery Sgt. Elisabeth Plunk, Master Gunnery Sgt. Betsy Hill, and Staff Sgts. Heather Zenobia and Kara Santos a hell of a workout, with their cool tones whirling about like dervishes and piling up in close harmonies. It is to the credit of all four flautists that their various tones were precisely rendered, as the audiences would have experienced excruciating aural pain had they not been; instead, “Pause” felt literally like a blast of fresh air, not surprising from the mind of flautist Higdon. The piece also worked as an engaging palate-cleanser between the two bigger, more Romantic works preceding and following; it was a canny decision by bassoonist Master Gunnery Sgt. Roger Kantner, who coordinated the programming.

It may seem odd to have just called something by Peter Schickele “Romantic” — yes, he is that dude who dresses up as Bach’s fictional long-lost son; no, not everything he writes has humorous intent — and yet the autumnal tone and big, passionate melodies of the first movement of his quartet for violin, cello, clarinet and piano certainly put one in mind of Brahms. Gunnery Sgt. AnnaMaria Mottola maintained a lovely, bell-like tone in numerous extended passages at the top of her piano, creating a lullabyish sound as the other instruments murmured warmly. The second movement (marked “Fast, driving”) recalled the American populist sound of Copland, and Mottola in particular shone again, with her more percussive instrument pointing the rhythms. Master Sgt. John Norton’s clarinet got to shine in the “Slow, elegiac” third movement, which had an appropriately aching quality and lots of lovely melodies, before a blistering finale in which Schickele (and violinist Master Gunnery Sgt. Peter Wilson) balanced hoedown influences with his own invention to delightful effect.

The quartet was my favorite discovery of the afternoon, an immediately likable work written after I was born; unfortunately, not a lot of groups can deploy this combo of instruments, but you can buy a recording here.

Two missteps followed intermission. Camille Saint-Saëns’ late wind sonatas fit right in with the French tradition of urbane, charming, deceptively emotive music for winds, and his bassoon sonata is no exception, but Kantner in his role as bassoonist struggled audibly to navigate its high notes and runs. Master Sgt. Audrey Kupples next presented three transcriptions of Romantic pieces for her alto saxophone, with Master Sgt. Karen Grimsey accompanying on harp; the tonal combo delighted the ear, but unfortunately Kenny G has spoiled sax transcriptions of vocal works (for my ears, anyway), and playing Schumann’s “Traumerei” as a legato melody robbed it of some of its heartbreaking suspended quality.

In many of its concerts, the Marine Band sends ’em out clapping with “The Stars and Stripes Forever.” On Sunday, the chamber ensembles did the next best thing, putting together a brass quintet to play Eric Ewazen‘s “Colchester Fantasy.” Enterprisingly, Ewazen named each of the four movements after a favorite pub in Colchester, England, and his writing recalled both the antique heritage of said pubs and the modern-day fun that can still be had in them. The quintet filled the hall with Ewazen’s bright invention, especially in the first movement, “The Rose and the Crown,” where the musicians rambunctiously tossed motives and chords around, and the finale, “The Red Lion,” a high-powered, high-spirited fugue.

Although they never stop performing publicly for long, January is a particularly excellent month to go see the Marines play music; this Sunday and the next one feature the Marine Band and the Marine Chamber Orchestra, both playing similarly intriguing repertoire and varied instrumentation, both concerts just as free (and recommendable) as last Sunday’s. It’s good to know that we can rely on our men and women in uniform to triumph in exotic musical realms where civilian ensembles fear to tread.

I apologize for this review being so late, but at least it’s been late enough that I’m sure this is a DMV Classical exclusive. Yeah, baby!

Solid-Gold Carmen Hits: The National Philharmonic at Strathmore, Saturday, January 9, 2010

January 11, 2010

Mezzo Kendall Gladen single-handedly elevated the National Philharmonic‘s concert performance of Georges Bizet’s “Carmen” at the Music Center at Strathmore on Saturday night from pleasant to compelling by playing the title character with her entire body. She commanded the stage physically, standing almost as tall as both her suitors, Daniel Snyder as the officer Don José and Dean Elzinga as the toreador Escamillo, and moving with force, confidence, and purpose at every moment. Not to put too fine a point on it, Gladen is pretty hot as well, and she embodied opera’s most celebrated seductress with flashing eyes, swiveling hips, languorous lounging, and a couple moments when her dress seemed about to malfunction in an attention-grabbing manner.

Happily, Gladen can really sing the part too, with a voice that rises to a clear top, falls to a thrillingly husky low register, and moves lithely in between. Occasionally, she dropped a note or lagged behind the orchestra in a diva moment, but she made lovely noises the whole time, and any temporary slip of control contributed to the overall conception of her character, as deep as it was.

For this was, as noted, a concert performance, and furthermore one that featured only the biggest “Carmen” hits, with Strathmore’s president and CEO Eliot Pfanstiehl providing narration to connect the story’s dots. (The intro text he read referred to presenting only the “best of the best” and described recitatives as making an opera “last until the wee hours of the morning,” which seemed overstatements of the case.) The selections highlighted only the broadest motivations of the characters: Carmen the sexpot, Don José the wavering weakling, Micaëla the innocent peasant, etc., allowing for little subtlety in characterization. It also had the effect of getting the audience in and out in a little under two-and-a-half hours, which I must admit has some appeal for me, even on a Saturday night. (I am getting older, and lamer, every day.)

The stage direction of Chia Patiño helped make the Carmen All-Stars (the Habanera, the Seguidilla, the Flower Song, et al.) as big and compelling as they could possibly be. Patiño, whose other work I have really enjoyed (1, 2), did a whole lot with just some generic costumes (Gladen in flattering dresses, Don Jose in formalwear when with his regiment, etc.), a strip of stage at the front, and some risers onto which the characters could climb (or lounge, in Carmen’s case). Though Gladen, appropriately, had the most arresting moves on Saturday (particularly in the Gypsy Song, where she was shaking it like a Polaroid picture), Snyder wandered around and turned about to emphasize Don José’s indecision, Theresa Santiago moved slowly to make Micaëla’s pleas more plaintive, and Elzinga stood ramrod-straight to make him an object around which the endlessly flittering Carmen could orbit. The interlude in which Carmen sang for Don José was (again, not to put too fine a point on it) damn sexy, making it a shock when the Don heeds the call to return to his precious regiment, with Gladen pouring on some remarkably vivid scorn. (The lack of supertitles did not in any way prevent Gladen from being in constant communication with the audience.)

No one else quite matched the vividness of Gladen’s singing on Saturday either. Still, Snyder has a fine voice and spun out his lines with style, while Santiago ably embodied her character with her pure soprano; both shone brightest in their Act I duet, “Parle-moi de ma mère,” their last renewal of tenderness before the Carmen explosion. Elzinga sounded a little strained at times but belted out “Toreador” with panache, and baritone James Shaffran did solid work took a couple minor characters.

The Nat Phil’s music director Piotr Gajewski kept it all running smoothly, shaping these well-known tunes with few surprises but with affectionate sensitivity. He got a typical pretty-good performance from his orchestra, with occasional lapses in ensemble balanced with moments of eloquence, particularly among the winds. The Nat Phil Chorale was weaker, frequently drowned out by the orchestra and singing without much body or precision when it wasn’t.

Still, one has to be grateful to the National Philharmonic for giving us Gladen; she’s done Carmen a bunch of other places, but not D.C. until Saturday night (as best I can tell). If someone wants to put Gladen in a full-scale production ’round these parts, I’d sure go see it, particularly if Patiño directed. I’d even sit through all those pesky recitatives!


“Joe, you just gotta love the adjustments these guys made at halftime, to really pull back on the percussion when they realized it’s just not going to work in this hall, this hall is too live for them to play the percussion like that. Those percussionists have a lot of heart and they want to contribute to the team, and they went out there and played more soft so the balance of the team could be better. And Joe, you just gotta love how those guys want to play as a team and really work to make this performance successful. Joe.”


I need to get this out there. I am from Silver Spring, which is in Montgomery County. I am proud of this. The National Philharmonic is a local-level orchestra located in Montgomery County, but rather than take a name reflecting that fact (like the Annapolis Symphony, or the Arlington Symphony, or the Prince George’s Philharmonic), they have for some reason chosen a name reflecting an ambition that is beyond their grasp. There is absolutely nothing wrong with being a fine local orchestra, as the Nat Phil is, and even less wrong with being from Montgomery County. Call it the Montgomery Symphony and rep where you’re from.

O.P.P.: Joe Banno for the Post. Mr. Banno knows a lot more about opera than I do.