Archive for March 2010

Mo’ Better Motets: The Bach Sinfonia at Montgomery College Takoma Park/Silver Spring, March 6, 2010

March 8, 2010

Some people make art more freely and spontaneously when they’ve considered each and every possibility of how to make the art before finally setting on their path. On the evidence of many Bach Sinfonia concerts, but particularly Saturday’s performance of the complete motets of Johann Sebastian Bach at Montgomery College’s Takoma Park/Silver Spring Performing Arts Center, the Sinfonia’s music and artistic director Daniel Abraham is one of those people. Here, careful consideration of all the questions about and facets of those works led directly to some really astonishing performances.

Talking to the audience both before and during the concert, Abraham broke down in detail the impetuses behind the performance choices he’d made: the use of oboes da caccia rather than regular oboes as accompaniment for certain motets, the scholarship indicating that the chorales that traditionally close certain motets were added much later to the scores, the number of voices Bach had at his disposal versus the number he would have liked, even the gaps in our knowledge of why the motets were written. (Daniel R. Melamed‘s program notes provided even more fascinating detail about the motets.)

The performances showed the evidence of Abraham’s great care, plus his good choices in freelance performers. The Sinfonia Voci, on Saturday a sixteen-voice chorus, enunciated super-clearly (you didn’t need to look at the program at all to follow the German text) yet easily filled the hall when called upon to do so.  Most of the motets call for two choruses, which on Saturday stood facing each other in a big V so that, from the center of the hall, you really felt the drama of Bach’s antiphonal distribution of the music, with each chorus driving the music forward in turn. The effect worked especially dramatically in the more homophonic motets like “Fürchte dich nicht, ich bein bei dir” (“Fear have none, I am with thee”) and “Ich lasse dich nicht” (“I won’t let you go”), thought to be from relatively early in Bach’s career. And the Voci stayed fresh and lively throughout the concert, a feat considering that nothing happens in the motets without someone singing; as the instrumental accompaniment merely doubles the vocal lines.

As ever, Abraham conducted with an eye towards lively rhythms, almost dancing as he lifted the beat for his ensemble; the Voci took his directions into their bodies, with frequent sympathetic head-bobbing. The rhythmic vitality gave Bach’s counterpoint a special lift, particularly in the fugue on “Alles, was Oden hat, lobe den Herrn” (“All things that breathe, praise the Lord”) in “Singet dem Herrn ein neues Lied” (“Sing to the Lord a new song”), which became a glorious cathedral made of fast-moving yet clear strands of melody. The final section of “Fürchte dich nicht,” in which soprano text is laid over a chorale in the other voices, sounded impossibly rich for 16 people, yet never became soggy due to its steady pulse.

The five soloists took on a special burden, singing with the massed Voci as well as exposing their single voices to scrutiny, yet when called upon they made their music special. The longest and darkest of Bach’s motets, “Jesu, meine Freude” (“Jesus, my true pleasure”), features the most solo work as well, and the contrast of the lone voices with the fuller vocal sweep of the chorus was heartwrenching; in “Gute Nacht, o Wesen” (“Good night, O creature”), in which sopranos Laura Heimes and Abigail H. Lennox, alto Anne Marieke Evers, and tenor Scott Mello kept Bach’s counterpoint aloft like a feather on a breath, floating between the soloists, gorgeous and sad. (Though bass Steven Combs was not involved in this most outstanding solo effort, rest assured he sang well too.)

In addition to vocal-part doubling from strings and winds (smartly played on Saturday), Abraham and Melamed argue strongly for continuo playing to accompany these motets, and violone player Robbie Link and organist Adam Pearl made that a treat too. Apart from a couple minor live-performance slipups, there was no weak link in this performance — at times I lost track of the fact that the music was being performed, because the Bach Sinfonia and Voci laid it out with such effortless joy. Instead, the music seemed to be hanging in the hall for me to glide through and explore. (A rare effect for a performance to have on a critic, to be sure.)

You wouldn’t think anyone would need to argue for the wonderfulness of vocal music of Bach, and yet at least in my recollection the motets aren’t professionally performed in the DMV nearly as often as the Mass or the two big Passions, while they sit a little bit above the capacity of the typical Lutheran church’s choir. Given the demands placed on the vocalists, you wouldn’t expect to hear a group try to do all six motets that are generally accepted as authentic in an evening. But Abraham and the Sinfonia Voci even tossed in a bonus seventh motet just because they like the “Alleluja” as a way to close a concert. And reliable attribution of authorship be damned, it was worth it, particularly in this memorable performance.

Other People’s Perspectives: Joan Reinthaler.

Updated March 17, 2010, to correct several minor but embarrassing errors.


Classical For When You’re Gassed: Yes, More Running Talk

March 3, 2010

Just thought I’d run down some classical pieces I tried to play in my head as I blasted through my 21-mile training run on Saturday:

  • Handel, Royal Fireworks Music. This is fast becoming go-to music to get through 2 tough miles, wherever in the run they happen to fall. The whole thing has a nice stately pace, rhythmic and cheery, and you can repeat the repeated parts for however long you need them to help you get around the next curve.
  • Beethoven Symphony no. 8. The first movement of this is cunningly dense and playful, and of course I got lost trying to remember all its twists and turns. The tick-tock metronome second movement, the minuet, and the finale all served as fine propellant, though.
  • Mozart, Piano concerto no. 21. I got really lost in the middle of the first movement and the middle of the second movement. Didn’t try to remember the finale.
  • Bach, Brandenburg concerto no. 1. This is just dynamite. Don’t know why I haven’t ridden it more or harder. It turns out that you can just select your favorite ritornello and play it in your head over and over, and it just keeps coming up fresh. I think the opening movement took about 15 minutes in my playback.

So, two clear winners, both from the Baroque period, when composers routinely drew on dance idioms and rhythm reigned supreme. Not really surprising. I hope to break out Beethoven’s Symphony no. 7 on the next long run, although since it’s only 12 miles I don’t know whether I’ll need it.

Making It New: Robert Levin and the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, Music Center at Strathmore, February 27, 2010

March 1, 2010

How do you get people excited about hearing works they’ve already heard dozens of times? Tell people you’re not going to play those works like you normally do. Heck, even take some risks — make something up on the spot. It’ll draw a crowd, for the same reason that the high-wire act draws a crowd while watching cars drive over a bridge remains a lackluster spectator sport. (And people did indeed pack the houses where Bach, Mozart, and Beethoven improvised, those flights of fancy now surviving only in contemporary accounts of the blown minds left in their wake.)

On Saturday night at the Music Center at Strathmore, the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra brought in guest conductor Nicholas McGegan and pianist Robert Levin to flip the script, calling the program “Beethoven & Mozart With a Twist.”

Other pianists approach a performance as a perfectible endeavor, hewing closer and closer to an inviolable score; Levin approaches his performances first as creative endeavors, getting into the spirit of the music by improvising in and around it, as his forbears did. Levin made his name in period performance, but on Saturday night in Beethoven’s first piano concerto, he used a Steinway to whip up a spirit that felt Beethovenian to these modern ears.

Levin noodled along with the orchestral tutti parts in the same manner Beethoven is reported to have done, playing the bassline like a classical-period continuo or underscoring a forte unison with a little pounding. He threw in some tasteful ornamentation, giving passagework a little extra spice. He improvised his own cadenzas in the first and third movements, taking enough risks in the latter to run off the rails with some overpercussive keyboard-storming and then regaining his balance with quiet noodling on a tiny little figure to lead into the tutti. He was more surefooted in the first-movement cadenza, whipping together an effective blend of the movement’s principal motives in stormy Beethovenian style, but the fact that he was willing to take enough risks to screw up the third-movement solo separates him from almost every other classical performer out there.

Of course, Levin commands more conventional pianistic virtues too. He and McGegan adopted quick tempos, with the Rondo finale just this side of breathless in its exuberance, yet kept a head-nodding lilt in the main melody. Even while speeding along, Levin’s articulation of Beethoven’s virtuoso figurations (and his own additions) remained clean and bright. He spun out some lovely melodic playing in the slow movement, at times looking directly at principal clarinet Steven Barta as they traded melodic phrases, not relying on McGegan to mediate. Levin threw in a touch of rubato at times, caressing the melodic contour without manhandling it. Levin has the chops to do a compelling conventional performance of Beethoven 1, but he also wants to take it someplace new each time he plays, and more power to him for that — it’s what made me excited about attending this concert.

Levin’s love for risk-taking manifested itself most strongly in his improvisations in the style of Beethoven, based on some rather boring themes suggested by Saturday’s audience. (To be fair, Beethoven set that bar pretty high.) Though he couldn’t make a silk purse out of those four sow’s ears, Levin showed his Beethovenian chops here too, fleshing them out with flashy rhetoric and some surprising transformations. The willingness to try something and potentially fall flat made for a tension and excitement you just don’t feel at many symphonic concerts.

McGegan contributed to the twisting of Beethoven and Mozart by getting the Balmer Symphony to play with minimal vibrato and a smaller, more clear sound than usual, a period-performance style on modern instruments. The leaner BSO still produced enough volume to fill the Music Center, especially in Mozart’s “Jupiter” Symphony, which closed the program. McGegan’s fast tempos hustled the Mozart forward without robbing it of the grandeur this symphony’s nickname suggests. (The strings did occasionally have trouble keeping up in the faster passagework.) The slow-movement melody still sighed with poignant rests, even if the silences were a little shorter than usual; the minuet, at a tempo fast enough to (theoretically) dance to, sounded like music of the spheres in the “Blue Danube”/”2001” mold.  The clarity of the BSO’s sound made the finale’s counterpoint extra thrilling; what normally sounds like warm bustling in modern-instrument performances here revealed the myriad gears that power this irresistible locomotive. My only regret is that McGegan did not take the repeat of the finale’s development and recapitulation, which (when taken) allows the audience to nearly double its listening pleasure in the last movement.

I admit that hearing Levin and McGegan take on ultra-familiar classix made their efforts at defamiliarizing more dramatic. Still, given all the unconventionality in the rest of the concert, you’d think the BSO could have programmed some curtain-raiser besides the overture to “The Marriage of Figaro,” in which MeGegan secured vigorous rhythmic playing but not the ensemble string articulation needed to make the overture sizzle. I can’t imagine that anyone decided to come to this concert because this overture was on the program; why not try an overture to a different Mozart opera? Or an overture by a different classical-period composer? Perhaps that would have been a risk too far, but in context, it would have been fitting to take it.


This may be a good time to note that Levin was the piano soloist with the Berlin Philharmonic when I saw them in Berlin. I was 15, and the concert remains lodged in my memory as the best one I’ve ever heard. I kept a travel diary in which I discussed this concert (among the other highlights of my family’s Berlin trip), and at some point I thought I was going to quote extensively from that diary, but it appears I am too embarrassed by my youthful ignorance and stylistic infelicities to do that. Still, this quote continues to apply 17 years later:

I have never heard anyone have that much fun with a piece. “Fun,” though, has too many connotations; how about “He was the quintessence of the direction con brio“?

Yes, writing improves with practice, but memories like that get better with age.

Other People’s Perspectives on Thursday’s performance of this program: Anne Midgettte, Tim Smith.