Archive for December 2011

Spectacle and Serenity: The University of Maryland Wind Orchestra, December 8, 2011

December 9, 2011

It’s not often that one gets a chance to hear a large-scale contemporary work twice — most of the time you’re lucky to hear it once. (Balmer Symphony, if you don’t encore James Lee III’s Harriet Tubman piece next season, you’re missing out.) So when the University of Maryland Wind Orchestra‘s Thursday concert at the Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center presented the opportunity to deepen my knowledge of John Corigliano’s Symphony no. 3 for band, “Circus Maximus,” I jumped at the chance.

The last time I heard “Circus Maximus” was five years ago, when the Marine Band played it under Leonard Slatkin at Strathmore, and I felt steamrolled by something large whose outlines were forbidding and whose insides were murky. I wanted to see whether the murkiness was due to lack of familiarity or lack of clarity in the music. Thankfully, “Circus Maximus” sounds better the better you get to know it.

Corigliano has various band members spread out through whatever coliseum in which the symphony is being played, surrounding the audience in an experience even the finest 7.1-channel sound cannot duplicate at home (another reason to cherish live performances of the work). The band spends much of that time playing very loud, creating a solid wall of sound that seals you in. A recurring motif of horns whooping, with drums banging implacably behind them, sounds like a call to attention and a judgment at once. At one point, musicians march down the aisles, bringing the noise to wherever you are. You get the idea: This is a work that’s coming at you.

A bunch of students playing in the warm acoustic of the Dekelboum Concert Hall is not going to make the same amount of noise the President’s Own can in the super-live acoustic of the Music Center at Strathmore, and indeed I was able to hear myself think during this performance, which five years ago sometimes was a struggle. But the UMWO met the challenges Corigliano poses from a logistical perspective — just coordinating all these musicians scattered about the hall demands a lot of effort both from the players and the conductor. Michael Votta, Jr., the music director of the wind orchestra, had one white glove on his left hand just like another famous Michael, but he used the glove so that his finger-cues would be more readily visible in the rafters, and it seemed to work: almost all the time, the disorder in the hall was purposeful, and not an artifact of disordered playing.

In his introductory remarks, Votta also did a good job explaining the symphony, giving a concise hook for each of its movements that the audience could keep in mind as it listened. For example, Votta spotlit the “Night Music I” movement’s evocations of nature, and in the UMWO’s performance you could indeed hear the distant howls of wolves and the noises of other beasts and fowl over a constant quiet nocturnal murmur. “Night Music I” gradually segues into “Night Music II,” a urban scene with nightlife of a different sort, and it was extremely canny of the UMWO to project the changing movement titles on a large screen above the stage so no one in the audience had to wonder which movement we were in. Votta also correctly pointed out that the penultimate “Prayer” movement is full of hymn-like sounds and melodies full of hope, which the UMWO winds and brass threw themselves into just as they had earlier thrown themselves into battering the audience. The subtleties of the work, in other words, did not escape the UMWO any more than the non-subtleties did. I came away from the performance both impressed with Votta and the UMWO and wanting to hear “Circus Maximus” yet again. Let’s make it happen!

The UMWO deserves credit for choosing, as a concert opener, the maximum possible contrast to the Corigliano: Johannes Brahms’ sunny, sedate Serenade no. 2, for low strings, winds, and brass. Votta made sure the rhythms didn’t drag and the melodies unspooled gracefully, and after some initial infelicities (including two flutes playing a powerfully dissonant unison) the orchestra and its guest strings made pleasing noises. First among the frequent soloists was oboist Emily Tsai, who had a consistently lovely tone and took her melodic twists and turns with stylish assurance, but the whole thing was just the ticket to lull you into a satisfying complacence before the punch of the Corigliano after intermission.

The Solider and the Magician: Esperanza Fernandez and the PostClassical Ensemble at Georgetown University, December 4, 2011

December 7, 2011

In its double bill of Igor Stravinsky’s “A Soldier’s Tale” and Manuel de Falla’s “El amor brujo,” presented in three shows last weekend at Georgetown University (I caught the Sunday matinee), the PostClassical Ensemble did justice to two sometimes-neglected scores, playing the hell out of the works and taking seriously their theatrical origins.

As originally conceived by Stravinsky and an all-star cast of Swiss artists, four people acted out “A Soldier’s Tale” with a minimal set; the septet of violin, double bass, clarinet, bassoon, cornet, trombone, and percussion played onstage as a fifth actor. For the Falla, PCE artistic director Joseph Horowitz and music director Angel Gil-Ordonez brought in choreographer Igal Perry, to provide a new interpretation of a work Falla originally intended to accompany some acting and dancing.

Both of these scores played to the strengths of Gil-Ordonez and the musicians he assembled last weekend. In “A Soldier’s Tale” (also known by its original French title, “L’histoire du soldat”), the performers brought out the military-band cast of the scoring, with David Taylor‘s trombone snarling and Chris Gekker’s cornet chirping. A beat-up violin symbolized the soldier’s soul in the narrative, and David Salness roughed up his much more refined instrument to match. The score changes time signatures like some composers change keys and throws in constant allusions and subtle changes of tone throughout, but Gil-Ordonez led them in a tight, twisty performance that created a drama of its own.

Sadly, the actual tale in “A Soldier’s Tale” failed to convince me on Sunday. In its favor were the commitment of the Georgetown students who performed (particularly Allie Villareal, throwing herself headlong into everything she did) and resourceful direction from Georgetown prof Anna Harwell Celenza. Still, the story is an old one, about a man who sells his soul for material things proffered by Satan Himself, and it turns out that if a person is greedy, sometimes that person ends up with nothing at all. (I trust Fox Business Channel is going after the PCE once they’re done with the Muppets.) The translation used here featured nursery-rhymish couplets seemingly designed to emphasize the story’s familiarity, but they also trivialized it a bit. I frequently found myself waiting for the music to begin again.

That wasn’t a problem after intermission, since the PCE used the continuous version of “El amor brujo” Falla prepared as an orchestral suite as a base for Perry’s choreography, which in turn reflected the plot of the original version. (It turns out the best way to get the spirit of a dead lover to leave you alone so you can pursue new romantic possibilities is a ritual fire dance. Ladies, take note!)

Smokin! From Fernandez's website

The orchestra expanded to about a score of musicians, hidden behind a sometimes-translucent scrim — still less than a full orchestra, but the volume was not missed, and the stripped-down forces gave the music a raw power more than appropriate to the score. In the latter respect, they almost matched special musical guest Esperanza Fernandez, a flamenco cantatora, who sang the lyrics Falla originally intended for live flamenco performance. Fernandez might not measure up on the traditional classical evaluation scale, since she needed a mic and her high notes could get a little pinched, but on the scale of rocking it she excelled, taking over in the midst of a mad swirl of music and immediately drawing all attention to her impassioned singing. Nothing was out of place, everything flowed from the score, and yet she made Falla’s songs utterly her own.

She also seemed to bend light towards her whenever Perry’s choreography moved about the stage, such was her charisma. Fortunately, Perry realized this and gave her a counterpart among the dancers, with Nikki Holck dancing the character of Candela vividly, if not as fiercely as Fernandez sang it. At this point, I should note that I am definitely not a dance critic, and from my music-critic perspective I wanted to see more of the orchestra doing its thing and Fernandez unencumbered by people dancing around her. In addition, four dancers represented Falla’s original characters, and four others represented nothing, which made me wonder why the latter four were onstage, although all eight were fun to watch. There may be a whole terpsichorean grammar I am failing to understand, though.

Both in the program notes and in a post-concert Q&A, PCE artistic director Joseph Horowitz mentioned the ensemble’s intention to take the show on the road, although he seemed to be referring to other people presenting the staging and choreography rather than the PCE going on tour. Anyone who attends this program, even if the PCE isn’t playing, will be seeing two great pieces of music presented fresh, and that’s the experience of the PCE straight to the core.

Other People’s Perspectives: Paula Durbin. Edited to add: Charles T. Downey, Marie Gullard.