Posted tagged ‘mansion at strathmore’

So Long Lives This: Aaron Grad and Augustine Mercante at the Mansion at Strathmore, May 15, 2014

May 17, 2014

Composer Aaron Grad doesn’t feel constrained by conventional models; he fashions his means of expression to suit his end. For example: His cycle of Old-Fashioned Love Songs, written for his wife and commissioned by Strathmore, where it received its DMV premiere on Thursday night.

In the cycle, Alexandria-born Grad sets to music poems by…him, written largely in metrical rhyming verse. He also includes songs by composers as diverse as Henry Purcell and Cyndi Lauper, recontextualizing the tunes to his own ends as necessary. The only instrument Grad calls for is an electric theorbo, which he built and plays, although he said in a post-concert Q&A that he isn’t quite adept at playing it yet. All these songs were sung by Augustine Mercante, a music-school chum of Grad’s, who used his fine countertenor voice in any musical style Grad asked him to.

Aaron Grad. Photo from his website.

Aaron Grad. Photo from his website.

Sounds like a lot of ideas for one opus, but Grad has enough skill to make these disparate elements and novelties coalesce. The electric theorbo has an intimidating array of strings and outputs, but its general sounds are familiar enough: haunting strummed chords, percussive twangs, gently plucked melodies that hung sweetly in the air. (I was momentarily surprised when Grad used a sampler to layer on textures, but then, instruments can do that now.) It’s an old-fashioned instrument refashioned for modern purposes, and Grad made it sound good. It sounded particularly good tracing the close arpeggiated harmonies in Johann Hieronymus Kapsberger’s “Toccata No. 2,” which is the first music in Grad’s cycle and dates all the way from 1604.

The cycle actually opens with a spoken recitation of Grad’s “Preamble,” with the preamble set to music after Kapsberger has his moment. Grad’s poems are pretty sturdily constructed, with some witty turns, particularly in “Music Theory” — “Dissonance for its own sake/Is such a load of hooey!/We don’t needlessly complicate/Our composition, do we?” He is not entirely immune to the lure of a fine cliche, but like any good postmodernist he owns up to them: “A foolish quest this is, to bare my heart/Through tired, worn-out conventions.”

But he doesn’t just acknowledge the dead language; he gives it some new life. Part of this success comes from seeing in the songs by others a through-line across the centuries, particularly with the same vocalist and instrument enlisted to bring them to life. Part comes from how Grad cannily comments on the songs of other authorship; Stephen Foster’s “Kissing in the Dark” gets intro’ed by Grad’s “Risk Management,” a monologue of a nervous lover, in which the theorbo bristles with tension but also propels the music forward into the sweet oasis of the Foster. A reprise confirms that the risk has been successfully managed.

The whole thing wouldn’t work without Mercante. Grad tailored the cycle specifically to his voice, and so Mercante sounded extraordinary, a gorgeous voice that shifted from sparkling William Boyce to swinging George Gershwin without breaking a sweat. The sheer purity and high-ness of his male voice gave a timeless, universal feel Grad’s words as well, suiting a cycle that deals in big thoughts about love rather than specific thoughts about a person.

The closing two songs of the cycle both showed some of Grad’s best moves and scaled the steepest emotional heights. Normally, Norah Jones’ “Come Away With Me” reads as a lovers’ retreat, but Grad prefaced it with “The Poetics of Loss,” which begins, “If we cannot speak of death, Let us simply say: away.” Grad’s arrangement of the accompaniment, spare and clean, reinforced the new interpretation; once the song was done, the music slowly but surely rolled back into the Kapsberger with which the cycle began. All sorts of ideas and juxtapositions informed these moments, but Grad’s singular vision and skilled realization made them matter.

Other People’s Perspectives: Joan Reinthaler. More about the song cycle here.


“How Many of You Have Seen an Opera With the Word ‘Penis’ Before?” UrbanArias at the Mansion at Strathmore, March 22, 2013

March 31, 2013

First of all, I apologize to the world for posting this review nine days after the actual concert took place. Immediately after the concert, I got sucked into the maw of planning for my upcoming nuptials, which are the reason there’s not going to be anything else on this blog until May. But I had to pull myself out of the morass of table assignments and vendor contacts to review the UrbanArias concert from the Friday Night Eclectic series at the Mansion at Strathmore two Friday nights ago, because the world needs to know that it was that rarest of things for a classical music concert: An absolute riot.

Yes, opera can be actually funny, and not “funny for opera” funny! Observe, for example, Melissa Wimbish as Eve in “Adam and Eve,” written in 2008 by Patrick Soluri with a text by Quincy Long. Wimbish had a ball alternately scolding and leering at the somewhat inarticulate Adam (Joshua Baumgardner) and challenging her therapist, Dr. Solomon, all to prevent Adam from eating the apple of knowledge and preserve her enabling fiction in an anonymous mental institution. (In the service of healing, Dr. Solomon, played with appropriate smiling earnestness by Ethan Watermeier, helpfully points out that the apple is actually a Jonathan.)

Melissa Wimbish.

Melissa Wimbish.

Or check out “At the Statue of Venus,” a monologue written by Terrence McNally (yes, that playwright) and Jake Heggie (music) and sung last Friday by Arianna Zukerman. McNally and Heggie tackle here a totally genius subject for an opera: the inner thoughts of a woman waiting to meet a blind date, ranging from wardrobe second-guessing to doubts about whether this is a good idea anyway to hopes and fears that this random unpaired guy approaching the titular statue is actually the blind date in question. Heggie found a musical language that, among other things, enhances the humor of these shifting thoughts, and Zukerman milked it for all it was worth. In my favorite moment, Zukerman’s unnamed character worried about the fact that her friends who suggested the date had mentioned that they both liked ballet. After trying to reassure herself that lots of straight men enjoyed the ballet, Zukerman stopped pacing the stage, stood ramrod straight, looked at the audience, and in high operatic dudgeon reprimanded herself and the world: “Name oooooooooooone!”

Neither of these operas was perfect — the mental institution setting of “Adam and Eve” seems played out at this point in history, and some of the later reveries in “At the Statue of Venus” seemed to exhaust their ideas before they ended. But they engaged with contemporary life and gave the listener a sense that opera can still be a vivid and immediate form, a sense I often lack after my rare forays to opera houses.

Of course, little could be more immediate that improvised opera, a post-intermission lark in which UrbanArias founder Robert Wood handled the piano accompaniment duties otherwise fulfilled last Friday by the skilled, sympathetic R. Timothy McReynolds. Having studied improv comedy myself, I can tell you that improvising an actual musical structure in addition to jokes is pretty difficult, and the modest success that these distinguished classical musicians enjoyed is actually pretty impressive, especially with the handicap of the lame suggestions from the Strathmore audience. (Pretty sure we’ve had enough jokes about George W. Bush and Sarah Palin at this point in history, folks.) Before the festivities began, Wood asked the question that forms the title of this review and received few positive responses, thus showing that UrbanArias is determined to advance the art.

They saved the funniest for last: Gabriel Kahane‘s “Craigslistlieder,” settings of texts that reminded me of the riches to be found in the newspaper-killing website’s “best-of-craigslist” category. Besides coming up with the absolute best name for this work — you can just see “Craigslistlieder” sitting alongside “Schicksalslied” and “Kindertotenlieder” in the Tower Records of my bygone youth — Kahane also sets these texts with close attention to the meaning of each individual word and phrase and with the keenest sense of comic timing since one of those old operamongers who I don’t actually think are particularly funny.

All four of the singers took a turn, and each had a highlight: Baumgartner’s richly unapologetic apology in “I’m Sorry,” Zukerman’s lascivious “Today I Met,” Watermeier’s perfect embodiment of the unrealistic personal-ad aspirations of “Neurotic and Lonely,” and especially Wimbish’s “Hello Potential Roommates.” This last alternately advertises for and warns about a cheap room that comes with several conditions, and Kahane’s setting and Wimbish’s performance made a funny text even funner, with several intervals in which I thought I would not stop laughing.

Opera (and UrbanArias) can do lots of things, but making people laugh is just as demanding and worthy a business as making them cry, and it was wonderful to be reminded of that. If there are any composers looking for topics for contemporary comedies, may I suggest wedding planning? I can give you lots and lots of texts…

Return of the Bach: Jennifer Koh, “Bach and Beyond Part 2,” Mansion at Strathmore, February 28, 2013

March 2, 2013

Jennifer Koh‘s second “Bach and Beyond” concert of solo violin music this season at the Mansion at Strathmore on Thursday night featured performances of Johann Sebastian Bach’s Sonata no. 1 in G minor and Partita no. 1 that beat out any other performances of those works I’ve heard live. From the opening Adagio of the sonata, Koh gave her lines breath and gravity, shaping the melody with aching intensity yet never losing touch with the rhythm. The next movement, a fast fugue, featured some insanely treacherous multiple stops that Koh made into part of the overall thrust of the music. Her low notes, resonant and woody, anchored the counterpoint and seemed to expand to fill the intimate Mansion at Strathmore; the fugal theme first felt like a whisper and then a scream as the emotional intensity built to a shattering climax. A sweet slow Siciliana got ambushed by a Presto finale that came so fast you could barely hold onto the melody, yet sounded perfectly controlled; the effect was like taking a corner at high speed in a race car, except for several minutes consecutively.


If this concert sounds intriguing, you should check out the CD! Or “MP3 download” for those of you born after 1985 or so

Koh’s Partita no. 1 might have been even better. The opening Allemanda came flowing from her bow in a gentle stream, and she seemed to let the last note hang in the air for just a second and then catch and transform it to start the subsequent Double variation, which sounded just as facile with twice the notes. The Double of the Corrente again had that race-car feeling of perfectly controlled speed, and the Sarabande sounded perfectly balanced, never too slow yet always intense. The big thwacking chords of the “Tempo di Borea” finale here are my favorite part of this partita, and Koh gave them a satisfying bite while maintaining the dance rhythm, which is hard to do. With Koh’s overall feeling for rhythm unifying the disparate dances, the partita became greater than the sum of its parts, and those parts were pretty fine themselves.

But Koh enriches the “Bach and Beyond” concerts by going, well, beyond, to more recent solo works. Koh even commissioned Phil Kline’s partita, “Dead Reckoning,” which separated the two Bach words on the first half of Thursday’s program. “Dead Reckoning”’s position helped to cleanse the palate and prevent Bach from sounding too familiar; Kline’s work echoed Bach in certain ways, like the motoric rhythms in some of the faster sections, and differed entirely in others, like how the harmonies stayed relatively static or moved by half-steps rather than round and round the circle of fifths. Koh’s conviction and sense of narrative gave shape to what could well sound like an episodic work, with its various tentative stabs, lyrical swerves, and essays at speed eventually collapsing and yielding to an exhausted kind of grace at the end.

In her previous B&B concert at Strathmore, the non-Bachiana was all contemporary, but she had a ringer in store for the second half: Béla Bartók, with his Sonata for solo violin, written for Yehudi Menhuin almost 70 years ago. For me, this work is to Bach’s solo sonatas as Dmitri Shostakovich’s Op. 78 preludes and fugues for piano are to Bach’s Well-Tempered Klavier: a modern master taking a perfected form and daring to make it his own.

Bartók marked the first movement “Tempo di ciaccona,” leading me to wonder: What is the tempo of a chaconne, anyway? It begins with commanding rhetoric that soon finds itself refracted in folk-inflected harmonies. The subject of the ensuring fugue is more a loud rhythmic pattern that beats up the tentative attempts at counterpoint. Things get a bit more serious in the Melodia third movement, which provides the promised melody in a kaleidoscopic array of registers and tone qualities: high harmonics, whispered muted tones, full-on fortes. Koh made it spellbinding after delivering the rough jokes of the fugue. Though Bartók’s Presto finale was not quite as blistering as the same-tempo finale of the Bach sonata and featured frequent switches to place the mute on and off the bridge, Koh dazzled here anyway. (The Mansion’s music room is small enough that you could actually hear the mute being placed as Koh’s left hand pizzicatoed some cover material.)

Deliberately constructing a program to place newer material in the context of older classics so that each is further illuminated is challenging enough that not a lot of people do it and rewarding enough that I wish everyone would do it. Here’s to Koh for both making the attempt and succeeding in a spectacular way.


Some folks applauded a bit after the Presto Double in the partita. They were right to do so! It’s a spontaneous expression of admiration at that point. It wasn’t a lot of clapping, just you had to do something to get the energy out.

This concert was great in part because it had two of my favorite of the six unaccompanied solo violin sonatas and partitas. The previous concert only had one. Here is the ranked list:

  • Partita no. 3. This has the best dance feel of all of them, and I cannot get over the middle two movement, the Gavotte en Rondeau and the Menuets. The Menuets sound like a beam of sunlight coming through a cloud to me, every time I hear them.
  • Sonata no. 1. The fugue! It’s the best one.
  • Partita no. 1. The way Bach makes everything have twice as many notes is so slick. It’s like how you go to Five Guys and they give you two patties as the default option. Bach gives it to you and then he gives it to you double.
  • Partita no. 2. I realize this has the most famous single movement in the six works in question, but the Chaconne always works better extracted from the partita for me. The other partitas are better as balanced suites of works; this one is all back-heavy. The first few movements feel like something you’re rushing through to get to Big Bad Quarter-Hour Chaconne. Maybe this is just me. Probably.
  • Sonata no. 3. Mostly for the first movement.
  • Sonata no. 2. Of these six universally acclaimed masterworks, this is my least favorite. I realize that it is better than almost everything anyone else ever composed. I calls ‘em like I sees ‘em.

We’re Going Bach…to the Future: Jennifer Koh at the Mansion at Strathmore, November 14, 2012

November 15, 2012

Jennifer Koh stumbled a bit at the beginning of her concert Wednesday night at the Mansion at Strathmore, playing Bach’s Partita no. 3 for solo violin. Some repeated notes in the opening “Preludio” lacked focus, and the quick-paced counterpoint felt careful rather than nimble. Her sound in high notes was uncomfortably piercing in the small room. The overall sweep of the music occasionally receded under the weight of the myriad details to which Koh had to attend.

That kind of performance is the last thing one would expect from Koh. Her appearances with local orchestras have revealed a player who imagines each note, measure, and melody intensely to create a series of dramatic moments and to link them into a story.

Photo by Fran Kaufman, borrowed from Koh’s Facebook page.

On Thursday, Koh’s storytelling ambition extended to the whole evening. In her “Bach and Beyond” programs, Koh returns to the lodestones of the solo violin repertory, Bach’s three sonatas and three partitas, but also connects them to other works, some of which she has effectively championed before (see this CD for evidence thereof). Later in the concert, Koh said that she had built the program as a journey from light to darkness and, eventually, back into light.

Fortunately, her journey through the third partita got back onto the right path quickly. Given a chance to let a melodic line breathe in the second movement, Koh’s tone became warmer, and her imaginative phrasing and concentration came to the fore. The apex came in the Minuet, where the music seemed to be aloft, particularly when she sustained a double-stop as a tender murmur of sound, a measured but distinct pulse ushering the melody along.

After the bubbly Gigue that closes the partita, Koh began replaying the Preludio, just to hear it again. No, wait – that was actually the beginning of Eugene Ysaye’s sonata for solo violin, Op. 27 No. 2, as I was reminded when the Preludio shattered into a huge dissonance from which emerged everyone’s favorite Romantic obsession, the plainchant Dies Irae. The attacca sequence produced some confusion among the audience, though I think we all eventually figured out that this was not some recently discovered Bach appendix. The constant invocation of the Dies Irae in this sonata, along with the completely relentless minor mode, makes it a major broodfest, but Koh’s ability to make music sound like it’s being created on the spot made for gripping psychological drama even within the grim confines.

The Ysaye, quite forward-looking in its harmonic language, made for a natural transition into three modern pieces. Kaija Saariaho put more kinetic and sensory experiences in her “Nocturne,” in memory of the Polish composer Witold Lutoslawski, than she did melodic ones, and Koh marshaled the swoops and scrapes into a narrative of exploration, at first tentative, then bolder. Elliott Carter’s “Fantasy — Remembering Roger,” written regarding the composer whose last name was Sessions, was a good way to remember the recently deceased Elliott, a complex, dynamic web of textures and rhythms interrupted occasionally by quiet moments of plain feeling. In “Lachen verlent” (“Laughing Unlearned,” a phrase from Schoenberg’s “Pierrot Lunaire”), Esa-Pekka Salonen takes an angular ground bass and works up a passionate chaconne; Koh gave a powerful sense of the music itself finding a connection, with the feeling overflowing in the final variations before a tentative coda called into question the earlier resolution.

The chaconne form echoed the last movement of the last piece on the program, the return to Bach in the form of his second partita. Here Koh’s playing was clean and commanding throughout, with the Sarabande flowing like a stream before a fierce Gigue led to the famous Chaconne finale. The Chaconne’s turn toward the light, the unexpected, seemingly miraculous move into the major mode, had to compete on Thursday with a helicopter that kept circling Strathmore as if it was looking for someone who had managed to escape Georgetown Prep just up 355.

Koh appeared unfazed. When the initial tentative major variations turned into something blazing with strength, she showed she had kept some power in reserve for just this moment, and made it a culmination of the program. The final turn back to D minor, normally so cruel, here felt cleansing, a resolution of tension. Only someone with the forethought to design and play an entire program with a journey in mind could have pulled that off, and Jennifer Koh is such a musician. She brings part 2 of “Bach and Beyond” to the Mansion next February 28; put it in your calendars now.

Updated to add Other People’s Perspectives: Joan Reinthaler and Noah Mlotek.

You’re No Clara Schumann: Sharona Joshua at Strathmore, May 12, 2011

May 16, 2011

Sharona Joshua began her recital at the Mansion at Strathmore Thursday night with Beethoven’s piano sonata Op. 31, no. 3, the “Hunt” sonata, and it soon proved that Joshua was unequal to capturing her quarry. Frequent spasms of missed notes marred the performance, and transitions between musical paragraphs foundered on awkward, momentum-draining pauses, like a car encountering a pothole; at one point, she even paused to reach up and push her hair back from her forehead, mid-phrase. It was not hard to infer that Joshua was actually having trouble remembering the notes in the sonata; this was confirmed when she pulled out the score after the second movement and set it on the piano, and even then, she could barely string the melodies together.

The pianist in happier times

Joshua’s conceit for this performance was to re-create a recital program given by Clara Schumann, the brilliant pianist and able composer who, from posterity’s standpoint, had the misfortune of choosing an even more historically significant husband, namely the composer Robert. In between works, Joshua read quotes about and by Clara, from a volume on her life. Yet these too were uncertain, full of similar hair-in-hand moments and the phrase “Um…OK.”

After the first of these interstitial interjections, she went backstage, and returned with a young woman in tow to turn her pages. She spent the rest of the recital on a musical journey that, at isolated points, touched the heights of mediocrity. The importance of this journey did not deter Joshua from giving her page-turner glares and at least one hand-swat when an apparent disagreement occurred, and at one point Joshua opened up the floor for questions in the middle of her recital, which is not cool on a work night. Q&As come after the concert, when people can easily leave!

Joshua has an international career as a harpsichordist and fortepianist (she played Strathmore’s 1850s Broadwood piano on Thursday), and so she clearly has had a lot of performances that went much better than this one did. (Listen here for examples of Joshua on her game.) I suspect that this was just a one-time thing and that future performances will show a more confident, assured artist. Unfortunately, what us Strathmore patrons got from Joshua was some of the worst piano playing I’ve ever heard.

Queso Fundido: Great Noise Ensemble f/Paranoid Cheese at the Mansion at Strathmore, January 28, 2011

January 30, 2011

The Great Noise Ensemble‘s music director, Armando Bayolo, introduced their concert Friday night at the Mansion at Strathmore with a quote from Homer — not the blind poet, but the preeminent bard of our modern times. Appearing as part of Strathmore’s aptly named Friday Night Eclectic series meant that folks could imbibe spiritous beverages as they listened to the Great Noise. Bayolo, noting the Great Noisers’ mission to make contemporary music less scary and more fun, saluted said beverages with Homer J.’s toast: “To alcohol — the cause of, and solution to, all of life’s problems!” If the bar itself didn’t give a clue, this confirmed it: This was not going to be your usual super-serious classical concert.

The Great Noise Ensemble was joined for the evening by Paranoid Cheese, the nom de performance of Baltimore’s own Marc Mellits, who played keyboards and led four musicians from the ensemble in eleven pieces he composed. Before each piece, he spoke a few, typically funny words about its background, and generally continued to encourage the audience to have fun by his charming presence. He never announced the names of the other performers, however, a big faux pas and also a roadblock to acknolwedging their contributions. From the GNE website, I am guessing Mark Sylvester was on electric guitar, Chris DeChiara on percussion, and Andrea Vercoe on violin and electric violin. I honestly cannot tell who the cellist was; I’ll update later. (Update: She was Natalee Spehar; my other guesses were correct.) Whoever they were, they all seemed extremely pleased to be playing with Mellits.

His music is minimalist, with tonal harmonies and regular rhythms, albeit with plenty of spice in the formula. Mellits’ faster pieces, like “Dreadlocked” or “The Misadventures of Soup,” typically start with one instrument drilling out a quick running figure with off-beat accents; others quickly add new melodic layers with contrasting rhythmic accents. (Sometimes, in his “Machine” pieces, everything seems to start at once, and the rhythms rarely vary, bracingly imperturbable.) Lots of times the newer melodies are slower, so you get the effect of something soaring over a churning landscape; typically, these melodies were in the violin. Such soaring melodies also drove Mellits’ slower music, like the lovely nocturne “Mara’s Lullaby” or the somber “Lefty’s Elegy,” but the accompaniment left pauses and sighs enough to create tension as the melody soared above, even as the harmonic and rhythmic language remained basically the same.

Broadly, it wasn’t anything a person with a casual interest in contemporary music hasn’t heard before, but Mellits has a sure ear for how to combine melodic and rhythmic elements for complementarity and contrast, and his ear for timbre is even better. Closely miked, the two string players got to project not only their melodic side but also their guttural scrapes on hard attacks (especially when the electric violin was in use), nicely dovetailing with Sylvester’s flashes of well-calculated roughness. It was also cool to be able to feel the pizzicato pluck of a cello in one’s body thanks to the miracle of amplification. DeChiara spent most of his time on a marimba, giving him the ability both to plonk out discombobulating rhythmic accents with aplomb and to shade and trill when quieter moments came. Sylvester began some of the faster pieces, like the straightforwardly titled first number, “Opening,” with synth timbres fat and sticky enough to work in Headhunters songs, but Herbie Hancock never would have tried the rhythmic twists and turns that Mellits does. Trying to shake one’s body to Mellits’ music would have involved a few acts of faith or a rock-solid internal metronome, but my toe kept tapping in interesting ways throughout. I bought Mellits’ “Paranoid Cheese” CD at intermission, which features almost all the music performed at this concert; that should give you an idea of how much I enjoyed listening to it.

Speaking of which: According to the Facebook invite to this concert, Strathmore was originally going to make available only limited seating, but it turned out everyone except one weirdo wanted to sit down for the duration of the concert, and the house staff kept bringing in seating until the demand was satisfied. I was that one weirdo, and I was glad of it: this music would be tough to dance to, but Mellits still seems to mean for you to feel it in your body, and being able to feel my body, tap my toe, shift my weight when a phrase began or ended, etc., made the music feel all that much more impressive.

Not all the pieces were as successful as the ones named in this review, and some hiccups did occur in the performances, but Friday Night Eclectic, Great Noise Ensemble, and the Paranoid Cheesemonger combined to give me an experience I couldn’t get unless I trucked up on Peter Pan to hit (Le) Poisson Rouge: the experience of being free to appreciate unfamiliar, highly rhythmic music with my body as well as my mind, instead of sitting completely slack and forgoing the former. Also I got to appreciate with a PBR in my hand, which, as noted at the top of the show, goes a long way.


Tell me I’m wrong, but is calling yourself the Great Noise Ensemble kind of like calling yourself the Excellent String Quartet or what? I get what they’re going for, but I feel like the name makes it too easy for reviewers who don’t like them to say “On Saturday they proved to be the Mediocre Noise Ensemble at best” or something. Of course, if we all selected names based on whether it would be easy to make fun of them, our Speaker of the House would not be named “John Boehner,” so what do I know.

As Real as it Gets: Malcom Bilson at the Mansion at Strathmore, November 19, 2009

November 21, 2009

Think of a Ferrari rolling down I-95, speed limited by traffic to 85 miles per hour or so, able to express its inner Ferrari-hood only by changing lanes and spurting into gaps wherever it can, mostly sitting implacably at the modest speeds it can attain. That’s what a lot of pianists sound like when playing the Kings of Klassical, Franz Joseph Haydn and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, on a Steinway in a big hall. They have to scale down the howitzer sound of the piano to avoid inflating the music’s rhetoric to Romantic levels, thus muting everything about the performance, especially if the sound is dissipating across hundreds and hundreds of people. Audiences may wonder at the pianist’s skill and the general form of the music, but there’s no thrill.

Now think of an Alfa Romeo roadster winding down a mountain road, the convertible top down, lush vistas popping up around every turn. The car doesn’t boast as much power, but it hugs the road and responds immediately to input from the gas or wheel; particularly with a skilled driver, ’round every corner is a thrill and a sight to see at once. That’s what Malcom Bilson sounded like playing Haydn and Mozart on a fortepiano modeled on an 18th-century Viennese instrument in the Mansion at Strathmore on Thursday.

Rather than just play the notes, Bilson attempts to perform music in the way its composers would have, an approach variously referred to as period performance, historically informed performance, authentic performance, and probably a couple other things I don’t know. On Thursday, not only did he have at his disposal an instrument in the style of those Haydn and Mozart might have played, he also had Strathmore’s English Broadwood piano, of an 1850s vintage, to play Schumann and Chopin. As a bonus, the Music Room of the Mansion seats just over a hundred people, so Bilson didn’t need to worry about whether his sound would reach the far corners of some vast hall; he could just play the instruments and go for broke.

Which he did. The lighter, more immediate action of the Viennese fortepiano, and the quicker decay of sound than on your classic Steinway, both allowed and demanded faster-than-usual tempi, and Bilson obliged with gusto, especially in the outer movements of Haydn’s Sonata in E minor, Hob. 34. (Note to readers: This is where the car analogy above breaks down, since M-Billy sped along faster than most of the Ferrari playas.) The sense of an instrument being pushed to its limit helped Bilson make the swings and jumps in the first movement’s development section as surprising as they must have been in the 18th century. Bilson’s easy flow in the Adagio slow movement brought out Haydn’s playful habit of doing something harmonically outré and immediately veering back to normal — I imagined a cheeky “Did I do that?” smile on his face. The finale simply sparkled, a cheery conclusion.

After a pure-fun, palate-cleansing set of variations on a theme from the Magic Flute by Johann Baptist Kramer, Mozart’s Sonata no. 12 in F, K. 332, sounded positively lush. The first movement showed that Bilson was determined to continue going fast, so that runs and turns that sound delicate on a Steinway felt fueled by adrenaline. Bilson took the long, winding melody of the Adagio at a brisk pace and kept it up even as Mozart added ornaments and accoutrements to it, resulting in hold-your-breath chains of notes held together by the composer and performer’s awareness of the melody. In the keyboard-spanning runs and ever-shifting harmonies of the finale, Bilson explored all of the colors of the fortepiano, built by Thomas and Barbara Wolf of The Plains, Virginia, from delicate papery notes up top to a tangy, guttural sound from the bass notes; the diversity of sound, lacking in the modern Steinway, made the movement feel more expansive than usual.

After intermission, Bilson switched seats to the Broadwood, which was rebuilt by Sam Powell of Piano Craft in Gaithersburg. Powell contributed an entertaining program note about the rebuilding process indicating that its dampers “really did not damp very well.” (The note also included the sentence “It is my firm belief that contrary to some well maintained myths, there was no great secret varnish used on old piano soundboards.” I want to hear a rebuttal from the maintainers of this myth now.) Regardless of its insufficiencies, the piano worked beautifully in the works by Robert Schumann and Frederic Chopin that Bilson essayed.

The Waldszenen (Forest Scenes) don’t get the same recital love as some of Schumann’s other themed sets of short pieces (Carnaval, Kinderszenen, et alia), which seemed mystifying after Bilson’s performance. Waldszenen has the same Eusebius-vs.-Florestan action, the same careful balance, the same feeling of a narrative progression in the right hands, with perhaps some surface brilliance traded for contemplativeness. Bilson showed that he enjoys this work, even reciting the thanatophilic poem by Friedrich Hebbel that precedes “Verrufene Stelle” (“Accursed Spot”) in the score; that piece chilled, but Bilson made “Freundliche Landschaft” (Friendly Landscape) just as vivid in its cheerfulness. “Vogel als Prophet” (“The Bird as Prophet”) came off especially well, the poor damping leaving the fragmented melodies reaching in sound for their completion, Bilson working the sound to achieve the maximum possible effect.

Unlike the rest of the program, Bilson’s concert-closing readings of three miscellaneous Chopin pieces did not leave me with renewed amazement at the achievements of the composer, which I hope the reader realizes is praise by faint damnation. They were fine performances that let the pianist be more of a modern-style virtuoso, reminding us all that, while historically informed performance scholarship provides invaluable insights and enlivens concerts, skills are what pay the bills, son.


I’m tired of there being several numbering systems for Haydn’s piano sonatas. Having one numbering system is essential to making Haydn’s piano sonatas as popular as they should properly be, since people need to be able to, you know, talk about the same piece in casual conversation. As it is, I have trouble communicating which one I mean—”You know, that big C major one? I think it’s 60 in the Landon numbering, 50 in the Hoboken?” This is insupportable. If anyone has a good argument for why I shouldn’t use the Hoboken numbering, let me know.


Did you see what I did there in the last line of the review? Did you? Yeah. Also, I would like to note that I do not endorse driving 85 on I-95. I was just going for an illustrative image there.

It took me 1 hour and 10 minutes to get from College Park to Rockville on Thursday. After Bilson started playing Haydn, I didn’t think about that trip again for the rest of the night. That’s how you know a good concert: It makes you forget about the vagaries of the Beltway.

The Strathmore program listed Chopin’s dates as (1810-1049), which makes him -761 years old upon his death. I had not previously heard of the curious case of Frederic Chopin, but I will investigate further.

Edited: Due to ambiguity in the program note, this review originally attributed the rebuilding of Strathmore’s Broadwood to the Wolfs. The actual rebuilder was Sam Powell of Piano Craft in Gaithersburg, as is now reflected above.