Archive for July 2011

I Found My Thrill on Capitol Hill: Capitol Hill Chamber Music Festival at St. Mark’s, July 10, 2011

July 11, 2011

“The idea is to pretend we’re in Elizabethan England,” said Renaissance flautist Jeffrey Cohan on Sunday night, but of course we were all actually in St. Mark’s Episcopal Church for this year’s first Capitol Hill Chamber Music Festival concert. Cohan and his transverse flutes formed one-third of a “broken consort” (i.e., one composed of different instruments) that also featured local period standout Tina Chancey on Renaissance violin and viola da gamba and accomplished harpsichordist Joseph Gascho. Together, they traversed various periods and nationalities of music, giving the flavor of each in repertoire that would be unknown even to most hard-core classical music fans. (I certainly didn’t know any of these works before entering St. Mark’s, and I only knew a few of the composers.)

Jeffrey Cohan, ready to flauticize

Once these musicians got past the introductory bars of each piece — more than a few times, someone entered late or not at all, and the trio had to restart — Cohan, Yancey, and Gascho breathed fresh life into the music they played. If one was of a scholarly bent (i.e., me), they made it easy to hear the differences between the various sections of the program. If not, there was simply a lot of fun music to enjoy.

The relentless ornamentation of the cantus firmus melodic line in early Renaissance music came across most strongly a welcome novelty, a stiflingly busy take on the tune “Taunder naken” written by obscure composer Henry VIII. The flute Cohan used for this and the other earlier music played incredibly softly, making the distance between then and now even more audible than normal; Gascho, taking a turn on the viol for this section, and Yancey audibly restrained their volume, and Cohan’s playing grabbed plenty of attention.

One could hardly wish for a more vivid contrast than early Baroque composer Bartolomeo De Selma e Salaverde’s “Canzon Prima à Due. Soprano e Basso,” in which, in Yancey’s words, she and Cohan “traded fours,” each daring the other to new levels of solo virtuosity over Gascho’s minimal (yet smartly phrased) harpsichord accompaniment. The openness of the texture, the move towards the major mode and more structured harmonies, the cleanness of the melodic lines — it was a world away.

Joseph Gascho, harpsichordist

Italy, France, and England each got a chance to shine as well, and the melodic fluency of the Italian selections, particularly Cohan’s spirited melodic corcuscations in Girolamo Dalla Casa’s “Petite fleur coincte et jolye,” contrasted strongly with the more rhythmic French works; two trios by Pierre Clereau elicited particularly emphatic and rousing playing. Italy, however, also brought Chancey improvising over “La Bergamasca,” which showed off her rhythmic boldness and a facility for bubbly ornamentation.

Tina Chancey, doin' it to death

Cohan described the final, English-music section of the program, after the Baroque excursion, as returning “to the present time,” which Yancey amended to “the present time then.” If a national character was not as discernible here, the performances still sparkled, particularly the eccentric “Coockow as I me walked” by John Baldwyn and the vigorous dance of “Hugh Ashton’s Maske,” written, appropriately enough, by Hugh Ashton.

Between Cohan’s efforts on Capitol Hill, the biannual Washington Early Music Festival, and concerts by groups like Armonia Nova, the Bach Sinfonia, and others, the DMV has a surplus of intimate concerts by local musicians where the musicians select interesting, little-known music, discuss it conversationally with the audience (including details about instrumentation and musical forms), and play it with enough enthusiasm and skill to make you like it as much as they do. I almost always enjoy these concerts, and Sunday’s was one of the better ones. The Capitol Hill Chamber Music Festival now goes silent for a few months, but it deserves your attention when it returns.

Other People’s Perpsectives: Joe Banno.


After the first time the ensemble had a false start, I wanted to signal after every subsequent one, just like if I was watching the Redskins offensive line. It was strange to me that such fun performances could start so haltingly.

It’s All in the Interpretation: National Orchestral Institute Philharmonic at the University of Maryland, July 2, 2011

July 3, 2011

For the past few years, my annual visit to the National Orchestral Institute has come at the beginning of the month these young musicians spend at the University of Maryland, learning their orchestral craft from distinguished faculty and showing their skills in a series of weekly concerts. This year, I thought I’d catch ’em later on, to hear the finished product in the Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center’s Dekelboum Hall. Saturday’s concert, the last by this year’s NOI Philharmonic, featured two purely orchestral showpieces under the direction of Carlo Rizzi — Brahms’ Symphony no. 2 and Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring.

Carlo Rizzi, the man who led the NOIers on Saturday

Whether limning autumnal harmonies in the former or stamping out irregular peasant rhythms in the latter, the NOI musicians sounded great. This year’s chief strength appears to have been the violins, which could both make a melody sing with splendid tone and ensemble and play with great delicacy in accompaniment; their quiet trills in the opening of the Rite startled with their intensity and concentration. The horns could hit tricky melodic passages and, when called for, let loose with full-on blasts of sound. The winds did not sound quite as secure, but there were still many lovely solos from that quarter, and the percussion was on point the whole night, integrated and effective in the Brahms, relentless in the Stravinsky. And they played with infectious enthusiasm, which counts for a whole lot.

Rizzi (who is not the guy from “The Godfather,” so put that out of your mind) obviously deserves a lot of credit for coaching the musicians to make such satisfying sounds, including balancing the orchestra so well that all this fine playing could be heard clearly even in busy ensemble passages. Never was this more obvious than in the first movement of Brahms’ second symphony, in which various supporting phrases contrast with broad melodies, ensuring that the movement’s pacific mood does not become somnolescent. At least normally. For Rizzi seemed obsessed with playing every single melody and melodic fragment in this movement with as much legato as possible, always connecting notes into little arcs and curves to the point that it sounded fussy and monotonous, and kind of like watching someone else use a Spirograph.

The middle movements came off best. In the second, Rizzi shaped the melodies more conventionally, allowing the listener to simply enjoy the burnished sounds from the NOIers, with the horns, winds, and strings making shifts in harmonic patterns sound as natural as breathing or as dramatic as anything you’ve heard. In the third movement, Rizzi’s measured pace and sprightly rhythms let Brahms’ occasional witticisms sound their funniest, and the orchestra played with both energy and delicacy to make the movement bustle merrily along.

Rizzi took the fourth movement much faster than normal, faster than this talented group could actually play it. I have never conducted an orchestra, but the obvious solution there would have been to dial it back a bit. Nevertheless, their scrambling after Rizzi’s baton was endearing, like watching the Coyote in a high-speed, slightly destructive chase with the Road Runner. (Meep meep!)

The Rite of Spring, following intermission, also moved fast; Rizzi pushed some sections so hard that their melodies were almost unrecognizable. But this time the orchestra had the full measure of the tempi. The problem here was that somewhere between conductor and orchestra the earthiness of the score went missing. You rarely got the sense of a ritual to be both respected and feared, or the frenzy that resulted from the ritual’s enactment; the performance was precise and high-impact but bloodless, like watching a boxer work a speed bag or a wide receiver run a cone drill.  Only in the final Sacrificial Dance (The Chosen One) section did something primal start to emerge. I never thought the Rite could sound like this, especially from an orchestra full of young people, whose access to their baser emotions is typically more direct than that of their elders, but there you go.

So it turned out I wished I had gone to a different NOI concert, but that doesn’t change the fact that the NOI is the best orchestral deal in town (every ticket is $27) each year for the month of June. Hope to see you there next year.

Updated to add Other Person’s Perspective: Anne Midgette. She and I heard many of the same things but interpreted them differently, which is why it’s good to have multiple critics criticking (cricketing?) at concerts.