Archive for September 2011

Hearts on Sleeves: Baltimore Symphony Orchestra at the Music Center at Strathmore, September 24, 2011

September 26, 2011

Under music director Marin Alsop, the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra swung for the fences on Saturday night at Strathmore, playing three intense, complex, sonically rich works so forcefully that hearing the first two left me too drained to properly appreciate the third. The fact that the first of these — “Chuphshah! Harriet’s Drive to Canaan” —received its world premiere in the BSO’s concerts that weekend only heightened the sense of occasion.

As part of this BSO season’s focus on revolutionary women, Alsop approached James Lee III, a noted composer and a professor at Morgan State, with a request for a composition celebrating the life of Harriet Tubman. Lee was present Saturday to join Alsop onstage in giving a little introduction to his work, the BSO supplying musical excerpts to illustrate his discussion. This is exactly what orchestras should be doing if they have discussions before playing new music: Give the audience some markers they can use to orient themselves in unfamiliar surroundings. Don’t just stand up there talkin’!

James Lee, from his website

In the event, though, “Chuphshah!” didn’t need much explicating. An opening brass outburst followed by a churning, breathless marimba solo conveyed Lee’s vision of a slave breaking his or her bonds and running off, as fast as possible, to an uncertain destination. The slower passages that followed featured the English horn, representing Tubman herself, ruminating on a wistful melody over a bed of absurdly rich string accompaniment. This accompaniment had no tonal center, but sounded purposefully ambiguous rather than murky or dissonant; it seemed to create webs of conflicting feelings around the English horn’s thoughts, an effect magnified by Lee’s quotation and reharmonization of songs like “Go Down Moses” and “Battle Hymn of the Republic.” This was the point in the composition at which I noted that the BSO should check Strathmore’s HVAC system, because I had something in my eye.

“Chuphshah!” did become sharply dissonant in another episode, depicting one specific liberation in which Tubman participated. After some more heartbreaking lyrical passages, the piece ended with bitterly dissonant trumpet fanfares depicting Tubman’s military funeral but seeming to ask whether any celebration of her life can mitigate the evil of the circumstances that called forth her heroism. I would like to hear this piece again immediately, preferably from the BSO with Alsop conducting; this performance felt totally committed and featured eloquent playing from every desk.

And there were two standard-rep works yet to come! Alsop obviously loves Dvorák, or she wouldn’t program and record so much of his music, so hearing her conduct his cello concerto was a draw in and of itself. Soloist Alisa Weilerstein, meanwhile, won a MacArthur Foundation “genius” grant last week, meaning she’s smarter than you or I (unless you won one too). Sad to say that these two passionate performers did not start out with their approaches totally in sync. During their introduction, Alsop and the orchetra enjoyed every little detail of Dvorák’s colorful orchestration, like they were on a leisurely stroll along a babbling brook in a Bohemian grove. When Weilerstein entered, however, she attacked her opening like a romantic hero struggling against some oppressive force. Though I am loath to question certified genius, my conception of Dvorák lines up more with Alsop’s than Weilerstein’s. However, both conductor and soloist seemed to sense something needing fixing, and by the middle of the first movement they had found a productive middle ground.

You can't stay mad at a genius grant recipient, right? From her Opus3 Artists website.

From there, Weilerstein’s absurdly good cello playing carried the day. She plays gracefully, yet with a hypnotically clean and focused tone; you get the impression that nothing holds any technical challenges for her, so she can concentrate on higher musical things. As commandingly as she can bark out an aggressive phrase, her quiet playing lingers longest in the memory. She gave a hypnotic rendition of the first movement’s principal theme in the development section, intertwining her tone gorgeously with the solo flute. When she settled into a remarkably warm and even-toned whisper of a trill at the close of the second movement and the orchestra cast a brief minor-chord shadow over the proceedings, I actually felt a chill. The finale was just plain fun, with Weilerstein seeming a little looser, enjoying the jauntiness of the main theme and dialing up another magical trill towards the end.

After those two fired-up performances, Tchaikovsky’s “Pathétique” symphony may not have been the best possible post-intermission closer. I wondered whether a Classical-era symphony would have fit better there: something with heft that still demands less emotional engagement from the audience, like a late Haydn symphony. Anyway, Alsop and the BSO certainly seemed to be playing well, but I was completely emotionally disengaged — a victim of the BSO’s first-half success. Wish I could give a more informative review, but it’s better to be honest than to make something up…right?


Most post-concert Q&As are kind of terrible, with people asking irrelevant questions or attempting to show off their massive erudition for all present, but I always stay for Alsop’s. Why is she so consistently entertaining?

  • She’s funny. First and foremost. She never passes up an opportunity for a chuckle, and it makes the audience feel at ease.
  • She knows how to take a bad question and turn it into something worth answering: by repeating the question and talking until she lands on a better topic.
  • She knows how to draw whatever guests she has onstage (James Lee, in this case) into the discussion without being obvious or ostentatious about it.
  • She seems to actually enjoy it.

Four simple ingredients, but they go a long way.

Get With the Program

September 20, 2011

Once again, marathon training and travel have been preventing me from attending the number of classical music concerts I’d like to. This month and the next, if I’m in town, it’ll take something special to get me to go out for a show. But since I can write a blog entry about why the National Symphony Orchestra’s first three programs this season make no sense and still be in bed by 9, I’m going to do that now.

Here are said programs. Note that the “season opening ball concert” does not count because I shrink from anything characterized as a “gala event.” Plus, if it’s a ball, where’s the dancing? (Edit: A commenter points out that there was a ball after the concert at which people danced. I feel kind of dense for not realizing that.) Anyway:

Sept. 29–Oct. 1
Beethoven: Symphony no. 8
Orff: Carmina Burana

Oct. 6–9
Mussorgsky: “Night on Bald Mountain”
Sibelius: Violin concerto
Liadov: “The Enchanted Lake”
Nielsen: Symphony no. 5

Oct. 27-29
Berlioz: Overture to “Benvenuto Cellini”
Grieg: Piano concerto
Mussorgsky/Ravel: Pictures at an Exhibition

In the first program, I guess you could be drawing a parallel between the relative rhythmic rumbustiousness of Beeth 8 and the bursting-out-all-over-ness of Carmina, except…I can’t really endorse that. Carmina is a meal in itself, and Beeth 8 makes a curious appetizer.

Carl Orff asking "Why is this Beethoven symphony, great as it is, sitting like a big awkward lump before my Carmina on that program?"

What inspired this blog post were the second and third programs, which obviously got scrambled up somewhere in the development process. Each features Russian nationalist music and a big Scandinavian work or works. The juxtaposition of Sibelius/Nielsen and Mussorgsky/Liadov in the first program isn’t telling any obvious story, though, and neither is Grieg vs. Mussorgsky in the second program. If you just switch some stuff around and add a couple standard-rep works, though, you get:

Program 1
[add Sibelius: Suite from “Karelia”]
Grieg: Piano concerto
Nielsen: Symphony no. 5

Program 2
Mussorgsky: “Night on Bald Mountain”
Liadov: “The Enchanted Lake”
[add Rimsky-Korsakov: Russian Easter Festival Overture]
Mussorgsky/Ravel: Pictures at an Exhibition

The Sibelius violin concerto and the Berlioz got dropped, the former because it is not exactly underheard around here, the latter because it didn’t fit.

Now you have two programs with distinct identities, i.e., the Scandinavian one and the Russian one. The composers hail from a common(ish) heritage yet use their inheritance and materials differently. The works are talking to each other along an easy-to-spot axis, and attendees can usefully compare and contrast throughout.

In addition, you may have noticed that the last day of the Oct. 27-29 program is the Saturday before Halloween. Hmmm, what sort of promo effort could you get together for a program with “Night on Bald Mountain” and some other vaguely enchanted music at that time of year? Since you’re not paying a soloist, maybe the orchestra could surprise the audience with a semi-mandatory encore of Saint-Saens’ “Danse macabre”? Cheesy, sure, but I’d enjoy it. More to the point, it would be easy to enjoy. The existing NSO programs, on the other hand, offer no obvious story or argument and thus no reason to attend the concerts, unless you like one or another of the performers. (I suppose I could make an exception from Sibelius violin concerto fatigue for Gidon Kremer in the first program, if I wasn’t going to be out of town.) They may end up being arresting concerts, but they’re not really commending themselves to the casual observer.

Meanwhile, the Baltimore Symphony has one of this year’s MacArthur Genius Grant recipients playing Dvorak’s cello concerto at Strathmore on Saturday. I am going to bestir myself to attend that one.

Representing Where You’re From: National Symphony Orchestra and Chuck Brown on the West Lawn of the U.S. Capitol, September 4, 2011

September 5, 2011

The National Symphony Orchestra is, without a doubt, the finest orchestra in Washington, D.C., but its very name points to ambitions larger than, and perhaps distant from, the citizens of the District, Maryland, and Virginia. In the past, the NSO has even wandered to other states to bring them classical music, as though the job had been completely done in D.C. But recently Anne Midgette reported that the NSO has turned its focus for 2012 to Columbia Heights rather than some far-afield land, and for its traditional Labor Day concert this year the NSO brought to the West Lawn of the U.S. Capitol a feast of music by D.C. legends: John Philip Sousa, Duke Ellington, and Chuck Brown.

Chuck Brown is D.C., period. From

One of those musicians is not like the others, in that he recently celebrated his 75th birthday. I speak, of course, of the Godfather of Go-Go, the man who first fused Latin percussion to a hard funk beat and had the genius and stamina to ensure that the beat never stops. Chuck draws a crowd wherever he goes in the DMV, which resulted in an interesting mix on Sunday night of Chuck Brown fans, largely black, and picnic-on-the-lawn-on-a-nice-evening-with-some-music-after patrons, largely white. (Hardcore classical music fans should know not to look for sustenance in nonticketed concerts held outdoors and conducted by the NSO’s principal pops conductor, Steven Reineke.)

It is a truth universally acknowledged among DMV cognoscenti that if you are not a go-go band, and you are on the same bill as a go-go band, you had better play first, because if the go-go band plays first the entire audience will leave when the band does. Reineke and the NSO thus opened with their Sousa and Ellington. Nonetheless, the cries of “Wind me up, Chuck!” started long before the Sousa set was finished. Also, during the Ellington set the smell of marijuana wafted faintly but distinctly through the air, a first for me at an NSO concert. (This was after the people behind me had an extensive discussion about whether any of their number planned to smoke during the concert, although the smell was not coming from them.) So the NSO got itself in front of a new audience on Sunday, is what I’m saying.

Within the limits of outdoor symphonic concerts — the subtleties of tone that distinguish truly fine symphonic playing rarely make it though huge speaker banks — the NSO acquitted itself pretty well. Reineke made a dandy MC, with a voice deep and resonant like Don LaFontaine and an interesting anecdote for everything he played. He and the orchestra let the rhythm drag in a polonaise written to keep receiving lines moving at the White House, but made up for it with a blistering “Circus Galop” that earned a “Niiiice!” from the Chuck fans behind me and a thoroughly rousing “Stars and Stripes Forever.” Plus it was hard not to choke up a little when the NSO played Sousa’s symphonic arrangement of the national anthem, the audience turned around and gazing at the American flag flying proud in front of the Capitol, lit up brilliant white against the dark sky.

Mercedes Ellington, the Duke’s granddaughter and an accomplished dancer and choreographer herself, joined the NSO to provide a little Ellingtoniana as the orchestra essayed some of his most famous tunes. These were some pretty engaging arrangements — Ellington’s stuff, detailed and harmonically adventurous, lends itself to orchestral amplification —  and some of the NSO players showed off not-inconsiderable chops therein, earning a couple more “Niiiice!”s in the process. Mercedes’ anecdotes could have done with a little editing, but her warm presence helped continue the genial mood of the evening.

And then there was Chuck. Or, specifically, first there was an orchestral arrangement by Tim Berens of three of Chuck’s most famous tunes: “2001 (That’ll Work)” (itself an arrangement of “Dawn” from Richard Strauss’ “Also sprach Zarathustra,” and thus a natural for orchestral readaptation), “Harlem Nocturne,” and the first go-go classic, “Bustin’ Loose.” (This video provides a taste of what happened Sunday.) I am proud of the NSO for its attempt to actually play a go-go pocket rhythm, but it did not quite work; the percussion described it accurately, but did not crank it like it should be cranked. Also, Chuck’s voice, low, rich, and layered, is an instrument in and of itself, and brass can’t fill that hole.

Still, the crowd had arisen the moment the NSO essayed the pocket beat, and their anticipation had been thoroughly whetted by the time Chuck joined the NSO for an arrangement of “Run Joe” by Sam Shoup. This was pretty fun, as the NSO’s massive forces bolstered the call-and-response and, well, Chuck was singing.

That was it for the NSO on Sunday, as after a short break Chuck’s band took over for an hourlong set that I thoroughly enjoyed but which is beyond the scope of this blog. (Except to note that Doug E. Fresh absolutely killed it as a special guest.) Still, I was pleased to see on Chuck’s Facebook page the next day the following comment:

Happy Birthday, Chuck! Loved the concert and loved the symphony orchestra intro. You all need to do an album together. Chuck Brown & The Soul Searchers horn section & percussive Go-Go meets the string section of the NSO. Do it, Mon! lol!

Sunday’s audience probably is not going to buy tickets for Bruckner’s 6th or whatever, but goodwill in the place where you play is valuable goodwill indeed, and I hope the NSO will cultivate more of it.