Archive for June 2010

With a Love That Will Echo Through the Ages: Armonia Nova, Washington Early Music Festival, June 25, 2010

June 29, 2010

Armonia Nova‘s performance of French love songs from the thirteenth through fifteenth centuries (with special guest performer Jacqueline Horner-Kwiatek) at St. Mark’s on Capitol Hill on Friday night, the penultimate concert in the Washington Early Music Festival, bridged the gap between medieval times and ours, sounding strikingly immediate and real.

Constance Whiteside, historical harpist, artistic director of Armonia Nova, and co-founder and director of the WEMF, compared the songs’ rhythmic complexity to that of jazz, even going so far as to say “I kind of like to think of [Guillaume de] Machaut as the Cab Calloway of the 14th century.” The relentless juxtaposition of duple and triple rhythms in Machaut’s songs (particularly the “Chanson balladee” that opened the concert) showed where she was coming from, and the medieval scales, with their intervals of differing sweetness and “crunch,” gave a blue feel to some of the harmonies.

Whiteside also improvised solos before many of the songs, playing deftly in and around the song’s harmonies and melodies in ways any jazz accompanist would recognize. And when she and early violinist Craig Resta (here fiddlin’ the vielle) essayed instrumental numbers, they threw in a little sparkle; Resta’s “La seste estampie real,” from the Paris Bibliotheque, had an intense rhythmic spring, and in “Hont paur,” from the Faenza codex, Whiteside suspended the melody in the air like a string of jewels, with the perfect distance between them to just barely hint at a dance.

Still, when you’re listening to songs, you’re mostly listening to the singers. In her remarks, Whiteside also correctly noted that the matters of the heart with which these songs concern themselves — bliss, lamentation, jealousy, yearning, et alia — continue to bedevil Homo sapiens to this day. Horner-Kwiatek and Armonia Nova’s soprano Allison Mondel, mezzo/alto Marjorie Bunday, and countertenor Jay White made sure that the emotions came to us across the centuries.

We got a comic battle-of-the-sexes duet, just like Ludacris, only with more melodic refinement: Horner-Kwiatek and White sparred in an oldie from the 1200s called “Dites, seignur,” with Horner-Kwiatek holding the upper hand, not only dramatically but also because the song showed White’s vocal production to be a little strained and pinched on Friday night.

Some songs featured the lyrically indecipherable feat of two artists singing completely different words at the same time; in such cases, one could simply sit back and enjoy the melodies, particularly in “En non Dieu — Quant voi,” where Mondel and Horner-Kwiatek delivered haunting twin laments. Others took momentary, welcome looks at the upbeat side of love, with Bunday delivering a jaunty “Contre dolour” that indeed struck a distinct blow against sadness. And we got a couple fun numbers for the whole ensemble, with a particularly infectious “Chanson de rencontre,” with interpolated passages from an instrumental dance in the same estampie, to close the show.

A few of the songs sounded genuinely weird, like when Whiteside and Resta played accompaniments whose melodies barely intersected with the vocal line; in a song like “Beaute parfaite,” by Antonello da Caserta, this intensified the separation between two lovers described in the lyrics. The generally dislocating feel of such accompaniment also made it an effective intensifier of laments, like in Guillaume Dufay’s “Je me complains piteusement.” (The French language was, helpfully, pretty recognizable to modern readers at this point in history.)

But the sad songs stick out in the memory most, particularly those sung by Horner-Kwiatek. A member of Anonymous 4, which is the early-music group you know if you know only one early-music group, she showed throughout the concert why someone might consider it a coup to bring her in as a guest artist, excelling Mondel and Bunday just a little in purity of tone, clarity of diction, and imaginative phrasing. Her melisma in Dufay’s “Belle, vueilles vostre mercy donner” (“Fair one, please be merciful to me”) coruscated effortlessly, and she navigated the complexity of the melody with such grace that the performance seemed an embodiment of the song’s longing. Her “Onqes n’amai” (“Never did I love”) had a similar century-spanning effect, where the surroundings in St. Mark’s seemed to melt away, leaving only the longing in her voice behind.

Horner-Kwiatek’s performances did a wonderful service to this repertoire; her presence alongside the hometown Armonia Nova confirmed once again that the Washington Early Music Festival reliably provides committed, engaging performances of under-heard music. I can’t believe we have to wait two years now for another festival.

Other People’s Perspectives: Joe Banno.


Are You Ready to Rock? National Orchestral Institute and Festival’s “New Lights” Chamber Concert, University of Maryland, June 24, 2010

June 28, 2010

You know what they say: Those who can, do; those who can’t, pay money to watch those who can. Well, we who attended the “New Lights” concert of chamber music in the Kay Theatre of the University of Maryland’s Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center on Thursday paid nothing to get in, plus we received complimentary toys and rocks to allow us to help perform two chamber works. Though the student musicians attending the National Orchestral Institute and Festival did the bulk of the playing, getting to join in fostered a rare engagement with us normally idle spectators.

The young musicians used the dramatic apparti of the Kay Theatre in Sandovian fashion to heighten the dramatic feel; the curtain rose first on a quartet of double basses, tastefully lit. They played a bristly motivic study called “Soundings” (by Robert Gibson, double bassist and director of U-Md’s School of Music) with appropriate brawn, followed by a transcription of a popular song that they did not name, played with some uncertain intonation but also with a lot of real feeling for the melody. (The concert’s attendees appeared to consist mainly of young NOI sympathizers and elderly folk bussed in from Riderwood; both groups displayed splendid enthusiasm, but the latter group probably had even less of a chance of getting the pop reference than I do.)

Then we civilians got to play in Frederic Rzewski’s “Les Moutons de Panurge,” inspired by “Pantagruel.” (One of the musicians read the quotation at that link before the performance.) The strings-and-percussion ensemble plays a note-repeating melody in strict unison, except that Rzewski instructs them, “If you get lost, stay lost.” After the melody ends, they begin an improvisation of indefinite length. Meanwhile, however, Rzewski instructs the “nonmusicians” to “make sound, any sound, preferable [sic] very loud,” and we got to do so using whistles, party horns, and other inexpensive, high-volume instruments that the musicians distributed to us before the concert. Here are the ones my concertgoing companion and I snagged:

Cheap plastic whistle and horn

I had tremendous fun honking away on my horn, shouting “WOO-HAH!!” at the top of my lungs, and whistling tuneless sirens. I also enjoyed sitting still and listening to the chaos around me, as Rzewski’s skeletal instructions proved to be a perfect plan for sonically representing sheep stampeding to their death. The musicians appeared ready to improvise all night, but eventually the audience wore down, and the resulting gradual diminuendo created an unlikely catharsis. (A Riderwood representative a row behind me did not have quite the same reaction, telling her concertgoing companion, “Hopefully, that was a once-in-a-lifetime experience.” But I think she was a little amused too.)

It was tought to put away the plastic horn, but it would have been inappropriate to tootle through the high harmonics and soft, tense chords of Osvaldo Golijov’s Yiddishbbuk, for string quartet. Violinist Alexander Yin read this description of the piece and then described how he and violinist Erik Malmquist, violist DJ Cheek, and cellist Jason Mooney had approached learning to perform it, trying to find the poetry in what seemed initially like harsh notes on the page. The idea of the talk was great, but Yin rushed through it and stumbled frequently (also, someone should have told him how to pronounce “Terezin”). The performance lacked the coordination and beauty of tone than you’d hear in a really good recording like this one, but it did indeed conjure a tentative poetry from Golijov’s abstract gestures.

“This piece is entirely for you guys,” one of the NOIers said after intermission, and Jon Gibson’s “After ‘Ambient Densities'” asked for no great skill other than the ability to bang two rocks together. In my case, these two:

Two small rocks

Specifically, we banged out rocks together a specific number of times during each of eight minute-long intervals. The first minute, we struck ’em 108 times (easier than it sounds), the second 98, and down by irregular intervals to 3 in the final minute. Hilariously, percussionist Karlyn Mason kept time by sweeping her arms to represent the second hand on a watch. The smartasses in the balcony enjoyed pounding 7 times in quick succession during the penultimate minute; other people created their own oddball rhythms, first overshooting the mark in the dense minutes, then cautiously tapping as the piece went on. Together, we did indeed create a shifting, amorphous density of sound in the Kay that, like the Rzewski if not as affectingly, gradually winked out. Plus if you’ve lost the ability to enjoy banging rocks together, you’ve basically lost the ability to enjoy life.

The jazz inflections of Derek Bermel’s “Three Rivers,” for jazz band instrumentation with violin and cello to augment, appeared to lie beyond the current compass of these musicians; they made big, rich noises but couldn’t quite track Bermel’s rhythms or play with that added dose of swagger necessary to sell them. However, keyboarder Tessa Hartle, percussionist Mason on the vibraphone, and Izumi Miyahara on the flute and piccolo had some memorable trio passages of fast notes high in their respective registers, like snow falling on the muddy rivers the rest of the ensemble created.

The NOIers who participated in Thursday’s concert prepared these works, and devised the theatrical means to showcase them, on top of an already demanding schedule in which they played their fourth concert in four weeks on Saturday. Yet the high spirits of the musicians, their committed playing, the care they took with the presentation, and their generosity in giving the audience some time for fun made the concert feel like a gift. It wasn’t the most technically polished concert I’ve ever attended, but its generous spirit will linger in my memory for a long time.


When we returned from intermission, the female half of the couple sitting to our right told me, “You were very good.” When I demurred by saying that I have always enjoyed making loud noises, she said “You make good loud noises.”

What occasioned this was a little call-and-response I had been doing with someone in the balcony who had a similar instrument. I now consider myself to be a great virtuoso of the cheap plastic horn, and I feel I demolished this individual.

Aux Champs-Elysées: La Ménéstrandise, Washington Early Music Festival, June 16, 2010

June 17, 2010

Though I didn’t manage to get to a Washington Early Music Festival concert this year until Wednesday night, a little over halfway through the month-long celebration (this year’s theme: music of France), the concert I attended at Capitol Hill United Methodist Church reminded me why I love this festival. The performers, a group called La Ménéstrandise, provided all the usual WEMF accoutrements: Repertoire handpicked from the dustier corners of history, performances with enthusiasm and care enough to make them shine anew, and a casual atmosphere befitting early summer, including info about the compositions coming from the performers rather than from program notes.

The concert, titled “Springtime in Paris,” presented a variety of music written and performed in the City of Lights in the early 1700s. La Ménéstrandise can handle variety, with David Brundage playing both oboe and recorder as necessary, Michael Holmes on recorder, Douglas Wolter packing multiple violas da gamba, Millie Martin handling the bass, and Vera Kochanowsky on harpsichord. This lineup provides the personnel necessary for your standard solo and duo wind sonatas, and La Ménéstrandise found some fun ones to perform.

Admittedly, Joseph Bodin de Boismortier’s Trio in B flat major (Op. 41, no. 3) and Jean Baptiste Loeillet de Gant’s Oboe sonata in E minor (Op. 5, no. 1) did not receive the most polished playing of the evening, particularly from Brundage and Holmes; some notes were ill-sounded, some off-beat. Yet the bubbly quality of the Boismortier made it the perfect springtime apertif, with a nicely flowing opening Allegro and an Affetuoso in which Brundage (on oboe) and Holmes spooned just the right amount of sentiment on the melody.

The playing improved for two works by Jacques Martin Hotteterre. In the Trio Sonata in G minor (Op. 3, no. 4), Brundage switched to recorder, in what he said was an attempt to emulate the composer, who was also a noted multi-instrumentalist in his time. (Brundage could have another career as a professional announcer; that guy’s smooth, deep voice must have its own in-throat resonance chamber to make it extra golden.) Holmes and Brundage combined to make some delightful noises, particularly in the Fugue, which whipped itself up into some real momentum. As Martin sat out this one, Wolter’s viola da gamba playing became more prominent, and he smoothly drove the counterpoint along, with fine support from Kochanowsky. Hotteterre’s concert-closing Trio sonata in D major featured Brundage back on oboe and everyone having a ton of fun, especially with the hard snaps in the rhythm of the otherwise buoyant Courante. I’d love to hear some more Hotteterre sometime, even if I do have to look really hard at his name in order to spell it properly.

Happily, in among the windy outbursts, the group also gave some solo time to what I call the Baroque rhythm section (aka basso continuo) of viola da gamba, bass, and harpsichord. Martin gave us the novelty of early Baroque solo bass pieces, by a composer who, she explained, no one knows much about (the name “Dubuisson” under which the pieces were published was probably a pseudonym). Just the sound of the solo bass doing virtuoso stuff was a treat, although Martin had to wrestle double-stopped chords from her instrument and occasionally had trouble pinning them down. Kochanowsky got to show off both her playing and her harpsichord in two pieces by Francois Couperin, one of which, “Le Tic-Toc-Choc ou les Maillotins,” required the use of both her instrument’s manuals (a pièce croisée). Kochanowsky got all kinds of zesty color from her harpsichord, while playing with an infectious rhythmic spring that had my toes a-tapping.

Wolter switched to a seven-string instrument for his solo spot, a Suite in D major by Marin Marais, whose music never fails to interest. Wolter gave a little disquisition on the unique features of the viola da gamba, which was fun. Then he and Coriolana Simon, who played viola da gamba with Kochanowsky to form the basso continuo, embarked on a marathon tuning session, which was not fun, although Wednesday’s oppressive humidity probably deserves primary blame. Once that was over, Wolter showed some really thrilling virtuosity. His instrument sounded terrific, especially with that seventh low string creating fat smears of bass sound for which Kochanowsky’s big chords made robust accompaniment. Wolter also has a bit of the swagger about him, and it served him well in the melodic outburst of a “Prelude” that opens the suite and the dazzlingly inventive extended “Rondeau” that closes it, as well as in the vigorous shorter dance pieces that made up most of the suite.

So almost everything was really fun, and in a chilled-out, personable way. (Another example of the latter attribute: After intermission, Brundage told the story of Handel’s appointment as Kappelmeister to George, Elector of Hanover, which Handel skipped out on by going to England, for no obvious reason other than the appointment was 400 years ago Wednesday. It was a nice touch, and wittily presented.) I wish I could go to all the WEMF concerts, but the only other one I’m actually going to attend is June 25. (Here’s the schedule for your planning purposes.) All the programs have been hand-selected for your pleasure, and you’ll probably discover something new that you like a lot, in a perfect atmosphere for trying things out.


When I was searching for info on the Couperin, I kept coming up with Ke$ha search results. As nauseating as I find her music, I have to admit that if there was a remix to “Tik Tok” featuring a “Tic-Toc-Choc” sample, I would be compelled to listen to it a lot. Enterprising producers: Make it happen! It’s like the “Grey Album” but with Baroque music!

From the Core of the Earth: National Symphony Orchestra, June 12, 2010

June 13, 2010

Guest conductor Kristjan Järvi showed some huge strengths and some glaring weaknesses in his leadership of the National Symphony Orchestra on Saturday night. His sensitive shaping of phrases and skill at eliciting sonorities from the orchestra made the first part of the program passionate, intriguing, and occasionally brilliant, but his extremely imprecise approach to rhythm made a hash of two jazzy works after intermission.

Järvi had help with the rhythms in the meatiest piece on the program, the Symphony no. 4 (“Magma”) of his Estonian countryman Erkki-Sven Tüür, written for solo percussionist and orchestra. Judging on his bio and his fourth symphony, Tüür seems a bit like Baltimore’s own Christopher Rouse. Both love rock as well as classical — Tüür even led his own Estonian prog-rock group in the “chamber rock” vein — and show it in their orchestral work. (Tüür also shows it by having the largest possible number of rockin’ umlauts in his name.) The Fourth, though shot through with icy sonorities that we associate with Tüür’s part of the world, could fit without too much trouble into Rouse’s oeuvre, with rock rhythms sparring with essentially tonal harmonies in inventive, string-heavy orchestral scoring that occasionally breaks into unapologetic lyricism. (Tüür breaks into it a little less often than Rouse does.)

“Magma” was written for and dedicated to percussionist Dame Evelyn Glennie, also the dedicatee of Rouse’s “Der gerettete Alberich” (I will stop belaboring this now), and Järvi and the NSO were lucky to secure her services to perform the work for the series of three concerts that ended Saturday. Sometimes Glennie attacked her instruments a little harder than necessary, but “Magma” requires her to play continuously for over a half-hour, and she never missed a beat. (The guns she was showing in her one-armed black top suggested one source of her stamina.)

The “Magma” erupted immediately in the form of a series of loud chords that forced their way from low rumbles to high crashes in the orchestra, spiked by cold, glimmering sounds from the first of three batteries of percussion among which Glennie circulated, especially from the vibraphone. The orchestra then began exploring a long series of slow, grinding harmonic modulations, with Glennie’s vibraphone probing the orchestra’s sound, sometimes suggesting a freeze, sometimes starting to crumble a series of notes. The effect, as this suggests, was pretty cool, but there is only so much of this one can take before the sheer imperturbability of the process stops being impressive and starts feeling stagnant. A lack of dynamic variation, here and elsewhere, also posed a problem; the quieter moments held the most drama here, as there was a general sense of unrelenting medium-loudness.

The music eventually segued into a cadenza for Glennie and a rock drum kit, and soon it became apparent that “Magma” has the standard four symphonic movements hiding it its continuous span. Sure enough, a slow, lyrical section succeeded Glennie’s sparky, shifty solo spot, highlighted by the strings spinning out a melody that Järvi shaped into generous, impassioned paragraphs and that Glennie expertly accented and occasionally undermined with detailed, precise conga playing. The fourth section gathered steam (ha-ha) in an impressivly implacable but also repetitive way, so that the climax felt only marginally more thundering than what had come before. Still, I’d love to hear more of Tüür’s work, and kudos are due to the NSO for putting it on and to the orchestra, Järvi, and Glennie for stepping right up to its challenges.

The other works on the program had more immediate appeal for the amateur listener, at least on paper. Some sloppy playing marred Edward Grieg’s Lyric Suite, especially the “Nocturne,” in which Järvi and the NSO blurred the fast running melody more often than not. But more memorable than those missteps was Järvi’s wonderful feel for phrasing Grieg’s melodies — the “Shepherd’s Boy” in particular had intense swells of strings punctuating well-formed melodic sentences in a non-histrionic but nonetheless riveting manner — and the memorable sonorities that came from the NSO. In particular, the wonderfully balanced, hushed sound of the bassoons blending with the low strings in the “Norwegian Rustic March” evoked wet leaves on an autumn evening, a sound that felt almost tangible in its intensity.

The big bass-drum blowout in “Bell-Ringing,” the finale of the Lyric Suite, foreshadowed the two incredibly loud pieces that came after intermission, the Overture and Suite from Leonard Bernstein’s Candide and Duke Ellington’s “Harlem.” The Candide Overture came in the original orchestral garb in which it has become a favorite concert piece, and Järvi and the NSO could not deliver it precisely enough to make it fizz. This problem continued in Charlie Harmon’s suite from the opera(-ish thing), where rhythmic precision left the building; Bernstein became generically genial rather than wittily pointed.

Even worse things happened in “Harlem,” heard in a transcription from big band to full orchestra by Luther Henderson (with edits from John Mauceri). Here the NSO had the benefit of its own rock-solid rhythm section to help it stay on rhythm, but Järvi and the rest of the orchestra seemed unable to use this helper. The final section of “Harlem” was probably the loudest thing I’ve ever heard in the Kennedy Center’s Concert Hall, a stage full of musicians playing just that bit out of time with each other, a sludgy soup topped by blown-out brass and served messy. Listening to it was actively unpleasant, and a far cry from the Grieg and Tüür that made this concert worthwhile.


Charles T. Downey reviewed Thursday’s performance of this program for the Post. In the comments thread on the link to his review on The Classical Beat, an interesting discussion has broken out about whether the review should have discussed an especially appreciative audience reaction to the Ellington on Friday night, followed by what was apparently a well-received encore.

The audience appeared to be just as happy with the Ellington on Saturday, which is sad, because if you listen to Ellington’s own recordings of his compositions you hear precision and sensitivity to tone and color that were not present in Saturday’s performance. My guess is that any hint of jazz gets folks excited, although why this one in particular worked I don’t know. For my part, I didn’t stay for whatever encore ensued after “Harlem,” because I didn’t want to hear any more from the NSO at that point.


I have a lot of respect for Järvi and Glennie as artists, which is why I am about to make fun of their artistic bios in the Playbill program, because said bios need to be edited to remove some laughable sentences.

Kristjan Järvi’s name has become synonymous with artistic and cultural diversity

That’s true! Just the other day I heard the following conversation:

Hipster 1: I couldn’t imagine living in the suburbs — no Kristjan Järvi at all.
Hipster 2: So true. The city is where all the Kristjan Järvi is.

Evelyn’s 12th solo CD, Shadow Behind the Iron Sun, was based on a radical improvisational concept and has once again questioned people’s expectations.

Once again? Is her 12th CD a rerelease of an earlier CD? And the CD itself is questioning my expectations? That’s some interactive content!

Outside of actual performance, the Evelyn Glennie brand is constantly exploring other areas of creativity.

Wait a minute — the Glennie brand? You’re Oprah now? Who’s exploring these areas besides Evelyn Glennie? But I’m eager to hear about these new areas — tell me more!

…to regularly appearing on television across the world, including the Late Show with David Letterman…

Wow! It sure does take a lot of creativity to play one’s instrument on TV!

After 20 years in the music business she had begun teaching privately, which allows her to explore the art of teaching

So teaching allows you to explore the art of teaching? Well, if you give me some of that brand money, I’d be happy to explore the art of editing your bio.

The Kids Are (Eventually) All Right: National Orchestral Institute at the University of Maryland, June 5, 2010

June 7, 2010

It’s a heck of a thing to bring together a bunch of young orchestra-minded musicians, no matter how talented, and ask them to play a public concert without a conductor a week after they’ve met. Yet this is what artistic director James Ross asked of his charges as part of the National Orchestral Institute, which runs every June at my alma mater, the University of Maryland. Given the challenge of playing in tempo, in balance, and with some kind of artistic goal in mind sans maestro, all while learning each other’s names and getting familiar with the Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center’s Dekelboum Concert Hall, this year’s crop did quite well on Saturday night.

The most disappointing playing came in the first full-orchestra piece on the program, in which a subset of the 90 young folks in NOI had to deal not only with the above challenges but also with collectively responding to a soloist in Mozart’s Piano concerto no. 20, in D minor (K. 466). This set the concert off on a bad footing, particularly in the opening exposition, where balances were all over the place: the repeated notes in the violins subsumed the lower strings, and the winds and brass continually adjusted their volume in unflattering fashion. More importantly, the playing felt tentative, with indistinct rhythms and sometimes-smeary entrances and exits a half-beat behind.

Pianist Sara Daneshpour then entered and became the orchestra’s de facto leader. D.C. native Daneshpour has survived a summer in College Park with distinction, winning second prize in the university’s Kapell International Piano Competition. (Full disclosure: After writing that review, I met Sara socially one time. She is a very pleasant person.) Back then, one of the few faults I found with her playing was occasional disconnect with the orchestra; here there was zero chance of that, as the NOIers hung on her every tinkle of the ivories. When the piano played along with the winds in the central section of the slow movement and got a rhythm cooking, many members of the strings nodded their heads with the beat.

Daneshpour played with the sternness D minor demands, yet never became histrionic; the classical ideals of balance and proportion informed her phrasing and temperament, all the more pleasing given her impeccably lovely tone. The only time she stepped out of the Classical character was when playing cadenzas written by Beethoven. Here familiar music renewed its grip, with daring rhythmic freedom and unpredictable phrasing evoking (for the listener) the tradition of an improvised cadenza. At times I actually held my breath wondering what was coming next, even though I knew damn well what it was. And the contrast between the cadenza in the first movement, which constitutes her last notes in that movement, and the unstudied wistful grace of the main theme of the Romance slow movement made me gasp too.

A second platoon of NOIers came out after intermission to try their hands at Richard Wagner’s “Siegfried Idyll” while standing up, doubtless in deference to the conditions of the premiere, which was held on the staircase of Ricky Rick and Cosima Wagner’s house. It is dangerous to impute too much to posture, because we have no control performance to guide our discussion, but the playing certainly seemed quite alert, with tighter ensemble and greater timbral coordination than before the break. One of the clarinets, locked in a duo with a horn, even wriggled his body sympathetically with his melodic line, a nice visual for the audience. Still, even this very fine performance of this work felt like all the other performances of it that I’ve ever heard: A slip into a warm bath that makes you drowsy. I think the problem is me.

Besides setting daunting challenges for talented young musicians, Ross also uses NOI to explore various facets of concert presentation. Along with the standup act in Wagner, we also had two percussion-only pieces, neither of which were mentioned in any advertisements for the concert or were discussed in the program notes beyond giving their title and composer.

This does not seem to be the best way to present the audience with a surprise. Indeed, a distraught (elderly) audience member was heard to utter “This is horrible!” when the concert opened not with the elegance of Mozart but the rhythmic fury of Dave Hollinden’s “Whole Toy Laid Down,” which did indeed sound analogous to a wind-up toy, with rhythmic patterns layering and changing until they reached climaxes that resolved only with fermatas, followed by more winding up.

Aurél Holló’s bizarrely titled “José/beFORE John5 played exuberantly with timbres, both your standard drums and rattling things and with a shawm-esque reed instrument and a pedal steel guitar-looking thing. (Program notes, please.) In a triumph of project planning, the performers ensured that every instrument was at hand at precisely the right time, sometimes for only a short stint before moving on to the next one. Open chords and the drumsticks strumming the guitarish thing foreshadowed Alberto Ginastera’s Variaciones concertantes, which closed the program.

The Ginastera solves many of the problems of conductorlessness by relying mostly on big, brazen solos with relatively simple accompaniment, thus making the third group of NOIers the luckiest of all. Everyone who soloed did so with swagger: Poised, lovely cello and double bass solos gave the theme and its reprise, respectively; a gorgeous-toned, effectively wild clarinet solo stole the show; appropriately dramatic viola soliloquies brought the gravitas; and the group came together for a high-spirited finale. If these young people can play this well on their own, just think how well they’ll do with guidance on the next three Saturdays!


The program notes for the three non-percussion pieces featured one detailed, lengthy, scholarly note for each one, plus a two-paragraph summary of that note in larger font. I had trouble reading through the long notes to find stuff I didn’t already know (I had to rely on my concertgoing companion to unearth that interesting tidbit about Wagner’s staircase) and found myself actually preferring to read the shorties. An interesting idea, worth trying some more.