Archive for May 2013

Saint-Saëns Sings: Jean-Philippe Collard and the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra at the Music Center at Strathmore, May 25, 2013

May 26, 2013

Camille Saint-Saëns wrote five piano concertos, all of which give hearty Romantic piano-concerto satisfaction upon even a casual listen, but only the second has achieved much of a foothold in the repertory. The Baltimore Symphony Orchestra showed enterprise in programming the third concerto for their concerts last weekend, including Saturday’s edition at the Music Center at Strathmore. They also showed wisdom in getting Jean-Philippe Collard to do the solo work and Carlos Kalmar to guest-wield the baton.

Jean-Philippe Collard

Jean-Philippe Collard

Collard knows as much about Camille Saint-Saens’ piano concertos as anyone, having recorded a well-regarded set of all five with André Previn back in the late ’80s. (It’s nine bucks now and well worth it.) On Saturday night, he seemed to have the overall map of the third concerto in his head as well as the tiny details of articulation. (He actually played with a score, but he turned the pages himself and didn’t look at it a whole lot.)

The concerto begins with a murmuring figure from the piano, over which the horns and winds loft the first statement of the main theme; in Collard’s hands, this figure held portents, with a golden tone suggesting treasures to come. The BSO solosists responded with equally sensitive playing. When Saint-Saëns called upon the pianist to quicken the pulse, Collard brought the theme out clearly from the thicket of forbiddingly difficult chords the composer wrote for himself to play.

Throughout, Collard showed ample facility at virtuoso pyrotechnics, but whenever possible he preferred to caress his notes, creating anticipation and moments of poetic stillness without losing forward momentum. Yet when playing with the orchestra, he stayed at tempo, and Kalmar and the orchestra did a great job playing with Collard. The Andante second movement felt like one sustained breath, the BSO and Collard taking turns safeguarding the hushed atmosphere until it felt disappointing that the catchy finale theme had to come in. Collard made the most of his statements of that theme, pausing for that delicious split-second to really swing the melody hard. He got called back three times by an applauding audience, and he deserved it.

Kalmar, music director of the Oregon Symphony and no stranger to the Baltimorean podium, has become known for (among other things) idea-driven, inventive programming. Saturday’s concert surrounded the Saint-Saëns with two works that subtly resonated with each other. Narong Prangcharoen’s “Phenomenon” led off the program with blasting brass and drums tattooing a relentless rhythm, succeeded immediately by eerie, melting string glissandi. The glissandi represent the Naga Fireballs, which appear at the bottom of the Mekong River, ride to the surface, and disappear into the sky. Wikipedia, the wet blanket of the Internet, refers to said phenomenon as “unconfirmed,” but as for Prangcharoen, he believes: The rest of this piece celebrates the fireballs, the legend behind them, and the general festive atmosphere that such fireballs would obviously create through their general awesomeness. Brass and drums still drive the celebration, but occasionally accompanying figures in the violins or winds get promoted to lead melody, straddling the pulsing beat to emphasize how fast everything else is going. Kalmar knew just how to bring out the melodic elements while thrusting the music forward, and the BSO’s brass (especially) leapt to the challenge.

After intermission, the opening of a Kalmar-selected suite from Prokofiev’s “Romeo and Juliet” echoed that of “Phenomenon,” with crashing dissonant brass and percussion, and one could find a more subtle echo in the subsequent dance rhythms, driving the narrative along perhaps a little less insistently. (I enjoy such echoes, anyway.) Unlike the Prangcharoen and Saint-Saëns, this music and its parade of ear-catching tunes require no special pleading; here one could simply enjoy the BSO playing at an extremely high level under Kalmar’s baton. Dance rhythms felt fleet and light, and trickier rhythms like those of “Masks” came off without a hitch. The strings bustled effortlessly through faster music yet launched the “Romeo and Juliet” pas de deux on a soft cloud of sound. The brass made handsomely somber noises during “Tybalt’s Death,” and the winds sounded piquant in the “Folk Dance” but eloquent and ripe by turns elsewhere. A delight from beginning to end — just like the rest of this concert.

Other People’s Perspectives: Tim Smith and Charles T. Downey.


  • During one of Collard’s solo moments, he paused just long enough that everyone could hear someone’s iPhone ringing with a piano-based ringtone. It was weird.
  • This is the first review I’ve ever written where I carefully typed two composers’ names and then copied and pasted wherever I needed to say their names. Darn diaeresis!

Fiesta! Bach Sinfonia at Montgomery College’s Cultural Arts Center in Silver Spring, May 5, 2013

May 7, 2013

On Cinco de Mayo, the always-enterprising Bach Sinfonia was the only source in town for Mexican classical music, presented as part of a fun program spanning Ye Olde Latin America and titled “¡Nuevo Mundo Barocco!”

It turns out that not only did Latin Americans write a lot of music during the colonial period, much of it has gone undiscovered until quite recently. Intrepid scholars have plumbed the archives of the churches and abbeys established throughout the Spanish New World, and they’ve come up with some gems that mix the musical language of the old church with (as one might expect from a group of proselytizers) the vernacular forms and rhythms of the locals.

Under conductor and artistic director Daniel Abraham, the Bach Sinfonia always has a sure feel for rhythm: how it underpins a slow melodic line, organizes a fast allegro, establishes a kind of loom on which fantastic counterpoint can be woven. In this music, where such an understanding is even more important than in the European Baroque, that ability made for some really fun performances, where difficult rhythms came off with flair and difficult singing always felt exuberant.

The latter virtue shone in the first pieces the program, two pieces by Francisco López Capillas in a high-Renaissance style but with just the slightest hint of additional rhythmic impetus, sounding silky as sung by the eight-voice choir. They kept the fine sound in “Vayan unas especies,” a piece by Cuban composer Esteban Salas, whose rowdy rhythms made a joyful noise unto the newborn Christ. Abraham sounded taken with Salas, saying the Sinfonia was ready to read through his other works, and no wonder; Salas seemed to find new ways to make melodies within the Baroque context, and his harmonic invention matched his rhythmic drive. He’s a find.

Guest guitarist Richard Savino normally rolls with (among others) his own Latin America-focused chamber group, El Mundo. On Sunday he joined the stalwart Sinfonia continuo — Joseph Gascho, harpsichord; Douglas Poplin, ‘cello; and Robbie Link, violone — and added color and depth with his several strings, plus a deep understanding of this repertoire. (Not for nothing did he participate with Abraham in the pre-concert discussion!) He also played a couple pieces in the improvisatory tradition to begin the second half of the program, demonstrating the range of color his guitar could produce when solo.

Richard Savino, looking like a million bucks with Joyce DiDonato. Obviously this was the best picture of him on the Internet.

Richard Savino, looking like a million bucks with Joyce DiDonato. Obviously this was the best picture of him on the Internet.

Unlike Savino, soprano soloist Jennifer Ellis Kampani‘s contributions were front and center whenenver she was on stage. I am on record with my admiration for her singing, which combines thrilling sustained notes, pure and accurate, with vocal agility all the way up and down the scale and admirable diction. Here she got to be a little more demonstrative than in (say) a Bach cantata, and she enjoyed the opportunity, tweaking the chorus of Juan de Araujo’s “Los coflades de la estleya” subtly each time she sang it to wring out a new dimension of excitement and joy, or snapping her neck back and forth to emphasize the rhythms of Antonio de Salazar’s “Tarara tarara qui yo soy Antonyio.”

Jennifer Ellis Kampani, from her website. By Kenny Trice.

Jennifer Ellis Kampani, from her website. By Kenny Trice.

You always get the sense that Kampani has a tremendous amount of fun when she sings, and never was that impression stronger than the finale of this concert, when we got another Christmas song, this one by Mexican composer Juan García de Zespedes and packed with ecstatic exclamations and hard-driving rhythms. Michelle Humphreys, who did excellent work all afternoon on percussion, played a commanding solo with every resource available to her (including bells strapped to her ankle), Kampani and the chorus threw themselves into all the “Ay!”s, and the instrumentalists matched them in exuberance and precision. Let’s hope scholars can give the Bach Sinfonia lots more of this stuff to perform, even if they have to do it on a day other than May 5th.


Liked: As someone who has attended (for example) a concert of Estonian choral music on St. Patrick’s Day, I found it refreshing that this concert, although it featured music around 300 years old, actually referred to something happening in the world today.

Didn’t Like: The translations of these texts in the program made me wonder why they bothered to have translations at all. Here’s one stanza from Salas’ piece:

If that is the tinted Carnation
that gives new giving magic:
ours is to make disciplined a
foreign offence.

It’s like someone put the texts into Google Translate and cut and pasted the results directly into the program.