Archive for March 2011

Harmonies from the Close of Two Centuries Ago: The University of Maryland Symphony Orchestra, March 17, 2011

March 19, 2011

James Ross presents thought-provoking programs as music director of the University of Maryland Symphony Orchestra, finding relationships and championing repertoire that should interest even people who don’t live and work near the university’s Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center. Being so geographically lucky, I checked out Thursday night’s concert (which the students likely think of as “the midterm”).

Ross and the UMSO presented two big works by Johannes Brahms (his Symphony no. 3) and John Adams (Harmonielehre), respectively, in the Dekelboum Concert Hall, letting the listener compare and contrast, which stimulated the intellect. The UMSO’s playing, much of the time, stimulated the pleasure centers directly.

James Ross

"WE MUST PROTECT THIS PERFORMING ARTS CENTER!" James Ross takes a cue from other legendary Maryland team leaders.

Brahms’ Third, like his other works, cleaves to a harmonically conservative language, even in the face of “advances” (yeah, I scare-quoted that) from Wagner. Adams, meanwhile, named Harmonielehre after Arnold Schoenberg’s textbook on harmony while rejecting Schoenberg’s twelve-tone methods; Adams’ harmonies sound more, well, Wagnerian than anything else. Both works had some major-minor tension, constant in the Adams and, in the Brahms, found in the first movement, which spends a good amount of time flickering in and out of its nominal F major. A completely nonsubstantive link between the two is that they are separated by almost exactly a century; Brahms completed his Third in 1883, while Adams began work on Harmonielehre in 1984.

Brahms came first on Thursday’s program as well. From Ross’ treatment of the second theme, which had a just-perceptible touch of swing on it, he made it clear that he wanted his Brahms light on its feet and transparent. He also maxed out the drama where appropriate, trusting that the autumnal quality of the score would be indomitable even in a livelier interpretation than usual. And indeed, the second and third movements glimmered in echt-Brahmsian pastoral fashion, but all of Brahms’ counterpoint came through as well, giving a richly layered, nuanced effect. The finale, on the other hand, rocked pretty hard, with a big solid noise from the orchestra at climaxes and dynamic rhythms thrusting the score forward.

Brahms’ Third also showed that the UMSO is sounding good lately. The woodwinds provide a lot of the rich coloring of Brahms’ second and third movements, and they sounded awesome throughout Thursday night, giving their solos a personal quality, as if they felt Brahms had written for them. The strings were not far behind, with good ensemble playing for a student orchestra and lovely tone for anyone, shaping their melodies with keen feeling. The cellos and basses, especially, sounded rock-solid and expressive underneath the middle- and upper-range complexity. The horns did not quite reach the level of their colleagues, as messy entrances and imprecise notes kept cropping up, although the trumpeter took a well-deserved bow after Harmonielehre. Numerous members of the orchestra were dressed in green in recognition of the day, and the entrance of certain players onto the stage was met with raucous cheers from the gallery, but these accoutrements did not distract or detract from an involving performance.

I didn’t pay quite as much attention to the individual musicians and their playing during Harmonielehre, as the hall was dimmed so the projections of Tim McLoraine could be seen above the orchestra, against the chorister seats and the back wall of the Dekelboum.

I spent a while after the concert thinking about why Ross had decided to ask McLoraine to create projections for this concert (he’s worked with Ross and the UMSO before). Here’s my theory: Brahms works solidly within the symphonic tradition, with all the sonata and ternary forms that implies, while Adams shaped the three movements of Harmonielehre based on dreams and myths, with melodies, rhythms, and moods shifting according to their own logic. So McLoraine’s interpreation of/play with Harmonielehre would show one way to interpret its ambiguous narrative and give the audience, lacking its usual structural anchors, a way to stick with the music better.

Geometric shapes (notably small circles and line-drawn cubes) shared the space with clip art, occasional semi-legible cursive, and blurry, distorted landscapes; their movements and morphing resonated deeply with the music, as McLoraine kept his visuals in sync with the music from his seat in the balcony. At first, I watched the projections breathlessly awaiting the next transformation of a bunch of little circles and a shimmering water texture, but eventually the sheer power of the UMSO’s performance drew my eyes back to the stage, to see how they were doing it. Still, when the rainbow-colored headdress-looking thing (these were mostly not representational images) began unfolding itself from the inside out, then blew up into giant size and appeared to fly up out of the hall, I was definitely paying attention.

The collaboration pumped up the UMSO, which gave a performance worthy of the scale (45 minutes!) and expressive power of the work. Ross had a great feel for pacing and incidents, and the UMSO followed him everywhere he went, keeping the busy textures clear and sticking with the tricky rhythms. Apart from continued brass faults, the playing remained at a high level, and with even more players on stage than in the Brahms, the sound could grow truly gigantic — the second time in a week I’ve been pinned back in my seat at an orchestral concert. Not a bad feeling at all, in my book, and a great way to finish off a UMSO concert that was even more stimulating than usual.

Love, Death, and Volume: National Symphony Orchestra, March 10, 2011

March 12, 2011

The National Symphony Orchestra’s performance of Olivier Messiaen’s Turangalîla-Symphonie on Thursday night, with music director Christoph Eschenbach on the podium, Cédric Tiberghien on the piano, and Tristan Murali on the ondes martenot, took me back to when I fell in love with Turangalîla as a teenager — it was that heartfelt and intense, a statement of ambition and a respect-worthy achievement at once, and hopefully a harbinger of similar programming to come in upcoming seasons.

The symphony's name is pronounced exactly the same as this character's. Yes, I am a nerd.

What made me love Turangalîla so much as a young person? Thanks for asking!

  • The Sanskrit title, which Messian says “means all at once love song, hymn to joy, time, movement, rhythm, life and death.” I appreciated the comprehensiveness.
  • It’s a massive (ten-movement, 80-minute) work that you can get lost in from moment to moment, but there’s always eventually a signpost to guide you back to the larger structure.
  • It uses heart-on-sleeve melodies, atonal clusters, and purely percussive interludes, embracing all modes of expression, big enough to sound like the world.
  • The constant play of rhythm, standing aloof of the main goings-on, creating giant structures in back of the music, or both at once. Messiaen’s preoccupation with rhythm even exceeded my own.
  • Turangalîla gets really loud really quickly and stays that way for a good portion of the symphonie. If you’d just spent a bunch of your hard-earned teenage savings on speakers, you’d want something worthy to pump through ’em too.
  • Most of all, though it offered all these things to a listener, Messiaen seemed to be working out his own logic in Turangalîla, yet his principles came across clearly and passionately. You had to make an effort to understand it, but once you did, understanding came a-thundering down.

The liner notes to the recording I had were 100 percent uncut Messiaen discussing the work, and the discussion mostly baffled 15-year-old me, which ultimately posed no barrier to my appreciation. The NSO apparently decided Turangalîla warranted a little more help, so they brought in Joseph Horowitz to lead some context-giving for a half-hour before intermission.

This time provided an opportunity to hear actual music: Tiberghien played a pair of Messiaen piano preludes, Murali gave an explication/demo of the ondes martenot (it doesn’t just make noises that sound like UFOs landing—it’s got feelings too), and Tiberghien and Murali unexpectedly played the “Louange a l’éternité de Jésus” from the Quartet for the End of Time, after which words seemed kind of pointless. The talking itself mostly rehashed the program notes, a practice I will never understand. Anyway, if Eschenbach, Tiberghien, Murali, and the NSO did anything in this performance, it was communicate.

You heard this immediately when what Messiaen refers to as the “statue theme,” a series of brass chords on which you could break a two-by-four, first appeared; the NSO played it loud, with a massive wall of sound projecting out into the Concert Hall and pinning me back in my seat. That physical thrill kept returning whenever Messiaen called for it, a purely sonic reminder of the ambition of his concept, and the only time I didn’t enjoy it was when Murali’s ondes was on the verge of blowing out the right speaker above the stage in the last movement.

Eschenbach and the percussionists got almost all the rhythmic detailing right, with accents as slightly off place and surprising as Messiaen wanted them. The massive superimposition of rhythmically independent themes in the second “Love Song” movement came off without a hitch and sounded great. Eschenbach showed a particular affinity for codas, shaping the end of the same second “Love Song” into a tender lullaby with Tiberghien’s piano and a vibraphone spilling diamond-like notes onto a bed of quiet trombones. (Indeed, the NSO’s brass played admirably even when doing things other than blasting.)

Only in two of the ten movements did focus seem to wander: the fifth, “Joy of the Blood of the Stars,” and the following “Garden of Love’s Sleep.” In the former, the repetitions of the main theme, rather than renewing themselves to a new exhausting joy through dance, felt effortful. In the latter, Eschenbach adopted a pace so slow that it was hard to hear the transformation of the “love theme”—I had to make an effort to remember the previous notes in the phrases, which usually means something’s wrong.

In the “Garden of Love’s Sleep,” I ended up mostly listening to Tiberghien playing birdsong on his piano as the strings unwound their melody. The piano part in Turangalîla demands a lot of the pianist, who must perform linking cadenzas, support the orchestra at its most frenetic, serve with the vibraphone plus a glockenspiel and celeste as a kind of gamelan-ish ensemble, and embroider melodies atmospherically, and Tiberghien had the stamina and chops to do it all. Murali, for his part, did a splendid job modulating his tone and volume on the ondes martenot; from my seat, it enriched the string melodies without overshadowing the older instruments’ tone, and when he figured more prominently in the mix, Murali made deft, thoughtful contributions.

After the over-stasis of the Garden, Eschenbach, the soloists, and the NSO barreled through to the finish, with two “Turangalîla” movements lush with orchestral color and implacable in their rhythms, the “Development of Love” movement that separates them full of momentum and drama as well, and the Finale providing the revelation Messiaen promised in those liner notes, that “Glory and Joy are without end.”

The constant trickle of people leaving the Concert Hall during these proceedings was a reminder that such a work as Turangalîla will not be to everyone’s taste. I hope everyone who is vaguely intrigued by such a thing will check it out, though—it’s not like Turangalîla comes along often (the last NSO performance was in 2001), it’s unlike anything else you’ll hear in the DMV this year, and this performance had enough sincerity and skill to make me feel like a kid again.


The concert was presented as part of the KenCen’s “maximum INDIA” festival because Messiaen sometimes used Indian rhythmic concepts. I really hope Eschenbach wanted to do Turangalîla anyway and was just looking for an excuse, because that ain’t much of one.

Close reading of the program notes indicated that, in addition to the lighting effects on the Concert Hall stage walls that changed with each movement of the symphony, we were supposed to get super-titles of some kind, but the latter did not show up on Thursday. The idea seemed unnecessary, but who knows.

I find it kind of bizarre that on Thursday I heard Joseph Horowitz discuss Western music that sounds like a gamelan for the second time in six days. I live a little over a mile from my parents, and I saw Joseph Horowitz more during that time than either of them. Obviously, that’s not his fault, though.

Other People’s Perspectives: Robert Battey, Charles T. Downey, Terry Ponick.

Quickie: National Symphony Orchestra, March 10, 2011

March 11, 2011

It appears I am not going to be able to write a full review of the National Symphony Orchestra’s concert of Olivier Messiaen’s Turangalila-Symphonie until tomorrow. But in the meantime, I urge you to go see the repeats of the program tonight or tomorrow. It is seriously unlike anything else you will hear at an orchestral concert in the DMV this year—a sprawling, purposeful work that embraces multitudes of musicians, sonorities, harmonies, and approaches, addresses the big looming topics that define our existence, and is a complete blast to listen to. The intensity Christoph Eschenbach and the NSO brought to the performance met the demands of the work. It’s a major achievement for the NSO to put it on this well, and you won’t get to hear it again for a long time if you miss it now.

As noted, more fully developed thoughts coming Saturday. (Or, at least, more thoughts, at greater length.)

Tuning In: Post-Classical Ensemble at Lisner Auditorium, March 5, 2011

March 9, 2011

According to Bill Alves, for Lou Harrison, “the most pure form of musical expression—the ‘take-home pay,’ as he used to say—was in melody.” Alves, a composer who’s writing a biography of Harrison, was one of several people whose discussion enriched the evening of Harrison’s music that the Post-Classical Ensemble and George Washington University presented at Lisner Auditorium on Saturday night.


He also looked the most like a Munchkin of all the great American composers

Harrison’s influences range widely; the P-CE concentrated on his explorations of and writing for gamelan, the Javanese orchestra of percussion instruments and metallophones. In the gamelan, melody serves as the foundation of the music, developing slowly, through repetition, accretion, and ever-shifting rhythms. In addition, gamelan music uses a five-note scale at different intervals than your standard Western opus, and each gamelan (the literal meaning of the word is basically “orchestra”) is tuned differently to produce those intervals, thus having a unique sound.

Gamelan music fascinated Harrison, who made his own American gamelan, the first of which I learned from the program notes was called “Old Granddad,” just like the bourbon, which I thought was worth noting. But he didn’t simply ape the ancient Javanese traditions; he merrily mashed them up with Western forms and instruments. The resulting music is unique yet feels immediately approachable, thanks to that fount of melody.

It’s also difficult to marshal the resources to perform the music. For example, Harrison’s concerto for piano and orchestra, the centerpiece of Saturday’s concert and, according to P-CE artistic director Joseph Horowitz, “the most formidable concerto for any instrument by any American composer,” requires a piano in a different tuning than normal and an orchestra stripped down to instruments that can match that tuning, i.e., strings, trombones, and percussion.

The word “formidable” might not spring immediately to mind when considering this concerto; after a thunderous opening, the music suddenly turns lush with melody, and though Harrison sets the first movement in perfect sonata form, his presentation and development has little of the struggle or deliberate surprise you find in previous Western exemplars of this form. As he discussed in illuminating post-concert remarks, soloist Benjamin Pasternack found inspiration for his playing in the sound of the gamelan, giving even loud notes a bell-like tone and evenly accenting his melodies, letting them flower naturally. His improvised cadenza, which came right where it does in Beethoven and Mozart’s concertos, seemed designed to show just how ruminative and searching his playing could be, and was more impressive in context than a virtuoso showpiece would have been.

Virtuosity instead reigned in the second movement, titled “Stampede” and bursting with rhythmic energy—only the piano and a drummer play for the first few moments, the piano relentless and percussive, the drummer bouncing him forward with odd accents. Pasternack dispatched all of it with brio and amazing stamina, while P-CE music director Angel Gil-Ordonez led the P-CE orchestra in equally vigorous rhythmic accompaniment.

In the third movement, the retuned strings gave Harrison’s hushed music an unearthly quality, the unequal intervals stacking to create chords of rare sweetness. Pasternack matched the orchestra’s intensity; the sublimity of the atmosphere recalled, as Horowitz suggested in pre-performance remarks, the slow movement of Brahms’ first piano concerto, but the world was Harrison’s own. Continuing Harrison’s play with the idea of the piano concerto, the finale loosely draws from the North Indian technique of the Jalas, yet it sounded  like a jaunty, whistleable rondo in this performance—Harrison extending the tradition idiosyncratically, irresistibly.

Unfortunately, the “Four Strict Songs” for chorus and orchestra that followed could easily be resisted. These also had a retuned orchestra and repeating melodies, but somehow the textures felt thin and bare. The strictness of the melodic settings (each phrase a certain number of notes, etc.) meant that words like “the” received an awful lot of incongruous melisma. And Harrison himself wrote the poems, with sort-of evocative nature images that the GWU Chamber Singers had trouble enunciating and projecting over the orchestra.

Before the concert, folks taking their seats heard the Wesleyan University Gamelan Ensemble under its music director Sumarsam playing traditional gamelan music, both a pleasant accompaniment to the audience introitus and a way to acclimate to the sound of the gamelan in advance of two of Harrison’s works that involved the ensemble.

We heard only the first movement of the Concerto for Piano and Javanese Gamelan, which proved to be enough in this performance; the gamelan sounded lovely, but pianist Lisa Moore took a thoroughly Western approach to her part, with attack and phrasing far more aggressive than what we heard from the Wesleyanites. I’d chalk it up as an interpretive choice with which I don’t agree, but her piano’s volume swamped the gamelan’s as well. Trumpeter Chris Gekker, on the other hand, managed to pipe three iterations of a melody over the gamelan without obscuring the orchestra’s music in “Bubaran Robert.” His clear, bright tone sounded as clean as the struck metallophones in the orchestra, yet coolly removed as well. The latter quality was emphasized as Gekker delivered his melody (unaltered otherwise) from three different places in the hall before exiting out the back door as the band played on.

One hopes bands will keep playing Harrison, even with the difficulties some of his music poses, and particularly the piano concerto, a work to convince skeptics of the fitness of modern music if ever there was one. The P-CE has done another fine service to the DMV in putting this concert on; let’s have another local orchestra take their example soon.


The dedicated P-CE concertgoer could have attended not only this concert but also watched a documentary on Harrison a week earlier and hit the Indonesian Embassy the night before for some gamelan time. Although few people’s schedules are likely to allow full immersion in such a schedule, I do like how the P-CE always gives you the option of nerding out even more, should that appeal to you.

There were not a lot of people at Lisner on Saturday night; the auditorium looked about half full from where I was sitting. People sometimes ask me what should be done to attract young people to classical concerts, under the misapprehension that (a) I’m young and (b) I would know—after all, I already go to classical concerts. But this is something young, open-minded culturephiles should have really enjoyed, in my blinkered opinion. I guess we’re all just going to have to keep working. But, if any culturephiles happen to be reading this: P-CE concerts are reliably intelligent and fun.

Other People’s Perspectives: Anne Midgette and Tim Smith…from two days ago. Sorry this is so late. I got sick. Fortunately we seem to have enjoyed entirely different things about the performance.