Archive for October 2010

A Young Man’s Game: Baltimore Symphony at Strathmore, October 16, 2010

October 17, 2010

In July the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra presented two 15-year-old concerto soloists. Attaining such heights at such a young age requires ungodly talent and work, but others have achieved the feat — you see such youngsters pass through center stage orchestra every so often, and rarely see them again when they’re old enough to drink (legally).

On Saturday night at the Music Center at Strathmore, the Baltimoreans played under the leadership of a 17-year-old conductor, Ilyich Rivas, from the great young-conductor-producing nation of Venezuela. This seems a rarer thing, because the prodigy conductor not only has to master every aspect of a score in order to create a unified whole (and, hopefully, take an interesting point of view on the frequently performed works he leads), but also must convince, cajole, assuage, and inspire a hundred or so musicians who excel him in both experience and just plain age. I can conceive of being ready to play a concerto with a major symphony at the age of 15, if I was talented and had enough support. It baffles my mind that a 17-year-old could lead an orchestra, though one must keep in mind that I was an exceptionally immature 17-year-old.

Saturday’s program featured three works by Composers as Young Men. Johannes Brahms’ “Academic Festival Overture,” which led off the evening, was the only exception, although JoBra learned the musical material for his pomp-and-circumstantial orchestration of university drinking songs when he was 20. In my opinion, the three top things needed to successfully perform the AcFest are rhythmic vitality, rhythmic vitality, and rhythmic vitality, perhaps with a side of burnished Brahmsian tone-colors. Rivas and the BSO proved more than capable, with Rivas keeping a steady, lively beat and the BSO making a clear yet luminous sound for him (after some early muddiness in the lower brass). They missed some of the over-the-top exuberance of the closing pages, but so far, so good.

Markus Groh (warning: autoplaying audio at link) joined Rivas and the BSO for Ludwig van Beethoven’s second piano concerto, whose first draft started pouring from his pen when Ludwig was a teenager. This ain’t the archetypal tortured-heroic soul Beethoven from the middle period, and both Rivas and Groh seemed unsure how to approach the unassuming first movement; it sounded prosaic rather than graceful, and nary a hint of Beethoven’s cheeky youthful humor surfaced. That is, until the cadenza, when Groh suddenly seemed to wake up and engage the music, playing with more and more intensity as it moved further and further afield. And lo, Rivas led the BSO in an appropriately intense reading of the slow movement, a little anachronistically Romantic in outlook but highly involving, with Groh taking the spur and meeting the BSO’s intensity. The finale’s skipping 6/8 rhythm gave it a little more pickup, and both Rivas and Groh seemed to enjoy letting their hair down a bit and navigating its quick twists.

In “Blumine,” a typical piece of Gustav Mahler liquor-soaked pound cake excised from his first symphony for unknown reasons, Rivas and the BSO produced a bunch of pretty noises: violins isolated above the stave sounding sweet and longing, swells and details in the winds, and of course the ever-present trumpet intoning the opening melody with gentle grace. But these sounds did not cohere into a performance of any ardor or passion; this was time-passing Mahler. (Not that I am a huge Mahler fan in any circumstance, so some redeeming aspect of this performance may have eluded me.)

Dmitri Shostakovich’s first symphony, though, showed Rivas and the BSO at the top of their game. The 18-year-old composer always liked to play provocateur, and he showed himself to be a prodigy in that right with this symphony, which has a fierce, sardonic Scherzo worthy of, well, mature Shostakovich, plus numerous grotesqueries in the melodies and wild screeches into halts that seem both gross and entirely necessary in the scheme of things. Here Rivas showed an ability to keep a potentially confusing welter of elements together and moving toward a goal, and that crisp, lively beat proved extremely helpful both in digging into the riotous finale and keeping aloft the slower melodies, particularly those played solo by associate principal cello Chang Woo Lee.

The BSO, for its part, seems especially comfortable with hard-driving modern scores where a lot is going on every second, and they gave Rivas some admirable playing. Shosti’s first isn’t a young man’s game exactly, but it was good to hear a young man’s take on it. I both greatly enjoyed this and the Brahms and look forward to hearing Rivas in the future as he gets a better handle on certain aspects of his chosen profession. He’s got a lot of time to learn.


Groh played an encore after the Beethoven concerto, announcing that it was his “wedding day” (I assume he meant anniversary, given that he was working Saturday night) and that his wife was in the audience, and proceeding to play Brahms’ Intermezzo Op. 117 no. 1 for her, kindly allowing the rest of us to listen in. This immediately made all attached males in the audience into unromantic slackers, in their mates’ eyes. We need a new Man Law #117.1: No giving life partners unrealistic ideas about what to expect when anniversaries roll around. Play your Brahms for your lady in private.

Other People’s Perspectives: Tim Smith (reviewing Thursday’s performance at Meyerhoff). Updated to add Alfred Thigpen (reviewing Saturday’s performance).

Do It, England: The English Concert at the Library of Congress, October 15, 2010

October 16, 2010

The English Concert led off its concert Thursday night at the Library of Congress with Antonio Vivaldi’s trio sonata for two violins and continuo, Op. 1, no. 12 — yes, the same set of variations on “La follia” that Ensemble 415 played in the same space six days earlier. Only the English Concert’s performance didn’t even begin with the violins. Instead, the lingering chatter of the crowd ceased at the quiet plucking of William Carter’s Baroque guitar, as Carter constructed a brief, evocative fantasia on the well-known theme in the manner of a jazz soloist leading into the head.

Once the sonata proper began, the English Concert fully deployed its five (!) continuo players, with artistic director Harry Bicket on harpsichord leading Carter plus a theoboro, a cello, and a double bass that doubled as a percussion instrument through the magic of open-hand slaps and knuckle raps. This setup allowed for much more diverse and luxuriant noises than Ensemble 415’s comparatively Spartan two-person continuo, and Bicket and co. made use of it, subtly varying the textures and colors between variations to underscore the drama happening in the violins.

And violinist Rachel Podger made the trio sonata sound like a solo concerto, so magnetic was her playing. Previously I only knew Podger through her awesome recordings, but in a live concert she’s just as much a force of nature as on CD. Where Ensemble 415 played beautifully but with little drama, Podger played roughly when the music demanded it, phrased freely, and commanded about twenty times more interest. You could imagine the Red Priest himself giving a performance that felt like this, even if we’ll never know exactly what kind of performances he gave.

The other works on the program also showcased soloists. Mezzo-soprano Alice Coote got the lion’s share of the shine with three works: Claudio Montiverdi’s “Lamento d’Arianna,” four songs by John Dowland, and Georg Friederic Handel’s solo cantata “La Lucrezia.” The first few bars in all three performances found Coote’s voice sounding like plain yogurt, if you’re used to raspberry; I wanted just a little more sweetness or richness. Yet she sang with great attention to drama, varying her dynamics from full-throated roar (a big noise in the Coolidge Auditorium) to a hissing pitched whisper, sometimes within the same phrase, and managing her phrasing to wring just that little extra out of the melody at well-timed points.

She also clenched her fists when the words she sang were angry, made emotion-appropriate facial expressions, twisted and wrenched her body about, and generally made the sadness and anger that dominated these pieces come across as much as she could while spending a not-inconsiderable amount of time singing into her music stand. Combined, her efforts made me hyper-aware of how the words plus the music made its impact; in the Handel, in particular, she gave us a formidable, occasionally bloodcurdling portrait of an extremely vengeance-minded woman. Her voice also blossomed a bit during each piece, making the last few lines of the Handel (in which she offs herself) even more memorable.

William Carter, playing the lute, got to accompany Coote on the Dowland songs, making a sure-footed partner as Coote presented Dowland’s cavalcade of melancholy. He also soloed on “Lacrimae Pavan,” which is about as depressing a piece as you’re going to come by for the lute, and played it with restraint and sureness, thus sealing the bringdown.

The Dowland made an inward respite in a burly program; in between the Dowland and Handel on the second half of the program, cellist Jonathan Manson played Vivaldi’s Concerto in C Minor for cello and strings, RV 401, showing a composer who placed heavy demands on his soloists and a soloist who could meet them with aplomb, even in a slow movement in which Manson spun a thoroughly unpredictable melody. Still, all this post-intermission bad-mood intensity made me long for the extroverted fireworks that ended the program’s first half, another Vivaldi concerto, RV 208 (“Il Grosso Mogul”), this one in D major and with Podger and her violin taking the lead.

Besides playing with exceptional imagination and freshness, Podger’s got that star quality that makes it easy for her to pull off something like the concerto’s slow movement, which consists solely of the violin rhapsodizing over tremolos from the orchestra; Podger made it feel like a journey, punctuated with pauses and sighs, always searching for the next landing place and unable to find it. The finale was so electrifying that the stage lights flickered for a moment (Podger did not miss a beat, bearing the disruption with a smile), and that came before her ridiculously long and entertaining cadenza. My head, analyzing her solo afterward, knows that the cadenza consisted of a bunch of arpeggios describing gradually moving chords, nothing too terribly shocking. But she played it with such freedom, such coruscating tone colors, hunching over for pianissimos and then taking a few steps for modulations, as if physically searching for the upcoming notes. For a while there, I genuinely had absolutely no idea what was going to happen next — a neat trick for 300-year-old music, and an indication of the special things the English Concert made happen on Friday.

Other People’s Perspectives: Charles T. Downey and Alex Baker.  Updated to add Joe Banno.

Baroque on an Even Keel: Ensemble 415 at the Library of Congress, October 8, 2010

October 10, 2010

Though respected and famous when they were written, the concertos and sonatas of Tomaso Albinoni now serve primarily as Baroque wallpaper when a classical radio DJ needs something to fill the ten minutes between the end of the last piece and the next traffic and weather update. Thus, I hoped that Ensemble 415‘s concert at the Library of Congress on Friday night, featuring three Albinoni pieces among its seven works, would shed new light on this composer.

The six members who made the trip for the concert, the ensemble’s U.S. debut, entered the stage to warm applause confidently began the second of his 12 Op. 2 sonatas à cinque (in five parts), which turned out to be…really boring. Unmemorable melodies, textures you’ve heard a hundred times, harmonies verging on banal, and little effort by Ensemble 415 to do anything but simply render this pretty music with extreme prettiness.

And this they did, one must admit. Leader and violinist Chiara Banchini, violinist Eva Borhi, violin/viola switch-hitter Peter Barczi, violist Patricia Gagnon, cellist Gaetano Naisllo, and harpsichord player Michele Barchi all displayed the utmost mastery of their instruments. Throughout the concert, they intoned their notes with a precision that eludes all but the finest period groups. Even more impressively, they all can boast wonderful instruments that they used Friday to make gorgeous sounds, sounds that made me wonder how often anyone in the actual Baroque era ever got to hear playing like that. (The acoustics of the Lib o’ Cong’s Coolidge Auditorium, helpful to all who toil therein, seemed to bestow a particularly golden glow on these players.)

Yet throughout the concert, the 415ers’ phrasing, attack, and tempos seemed to belong to another era of period-style Baroque playing. Lots of Baroque-playin’ groups nowadays emphasize rhythmic vigor and free phrasing (with plenty of ornaments) to give a feeling of creating the music anew on the spot. That wasn’t happening Friday night; the group, under Banchini’s direction, consistently declined to dig into the occasional virtuoso flights in the music.

Indeed, when Banchini herself took a solo turn in Bach’s concerto for violin and strings (this one realized from the harpsichord concerto BWV 1056), she didn’t swagger like a soloist until halfway through the Presto third movement, where she finally got a little rough and wild with her double-stops. Banchini seemed happiest playing with the tutti than putting her own playing on display; while there is merit in that approach, it does not make for an especially invigorating concerto performance.

The 415ers did program some music that excited in and of itself. Georg Muffat’s Sonata no. 2 in G minor from Armonico Tributo throws curves at listeners, with stops and starts in its initial Allegro that the ensemble played with discipline but without urgency, and adventurous harmonies in the penultimate Grave section that sounded about as good on Friday as they’re ever going to sound. Henricus Albicastro’s Concerto à 4 (Op. 7, No. 2) featured grinding dissonances in its slow sections and some (relatively) explosive outbursts in the fast ones. Here, one had to admire the 415ers’ approach, as the dissonances seemed to well up from nowhere and felt strongest and most disturbing a couple seconds after they left, and the fast sections sounded the more bracing in the aftermath of such oddness.

And Banchini and Borhi, along with the rhythm section of Nasillo and Barchi, rose to the technical demands of the most difficult (not to mention the most display-oriented) work on the program, Vivaldi’s Trio sonata no. 12 from his Op. 1, the variations on the “La follia” theme. The cascades of notes in the faster variations sounded thrillingly clean and clear with Banchini and Borhi as formidable partners, and Nasillo dispatched his continuo duties with incisive, hesitation-free, faultless playing, Barchi providing a firm harmonic foundation. Yet Banchini and Borhi never went to that last risky degree of desperation to try to get the blood boiling, and the lyrical variations, though impeccably played, didn’t have the extra impact that could have come from an even more dramatic contrast with the other material.

The “La Follia” variations provide enough drama in and of themselves to be thoroughly satisfying in a performance such as Ensemble 415 gave on Friday, but the sonatas of Albinoni, as evidenced in the two other works the ensemble played from the composer’s Op. 2, do not. It’s too bad; I had really been hoping for a reason to rethink Albinoni.

Other People’s Perspectives (added belatedly): Charles T. Downey and Joe Banno. In these other reviews you can see how other people are more sensitive to occasional missed or ugly notes than I am. I swear I noticed a lot of that but didn’t really remember it when it came time to write the review.