Posted tagged ‘music center at strathmore’

Banding Together: “The President’s Own” United States Marine Band at Strathmore, March 12, 2012

March 14, 2012

A world-class ensemble that calls the DMV home played under a renowned guest conductor on Monday night and filled the Music Center at Strathmore. The group played nothing but works composed after 1900 and ended the evening having earned a raucous standing ovation.

Unless you read the title to this post, you’re probably saying “Wait—we have a world-class ensemble that plays Monday night concerts somehow?” But if you did read the title, you know that the group is “The President’s Own” United States Marine Band, which played under Gerard Schwarz, builder of the Seattle Symphony and tireless advocate for American music. He met his match on Monday.

I am trying not to make any military-related puns in this review. Photo from the Marine Band's website.

For sheer quality of playing, “The President’s Own” ranks first among ensembles that call the DMV home. In sustained notes and chords, as in the opening section of Paul Creston’s “Celebration Overture” or the quotation of “Amazing Grace” in Aaron Copland’s “Emblems,” the massed woodwinds blend so well and make such an even sound that you could mistake them for a uniquely rich and seductive organ. Later in the Creston, oboist Master Sergeant Leslye Barrett took her solo melody with the utmost assurance, sustaining a smooth line while remaining expressive, traits shared by all of Monday’s soloists.

The horns never put a foot astray in even the thorniest passages, like the spikier harmonies of “Emblems,” and the brass section matched what seemed to be dozens of distinct colors perfectly to each moment of music. Throughout the concert, the percussion came in right on point and with just as much volume as it needed to; when no percussion is playing, the musicians played in robust but flexible rhythm. And though they saved it for the biggest moments, the Marine Band can fill a hall with more sheer thrilling volume than anyone else. Can a band be as refined a pleasure as a top-flight symphony orchestra? When it’s this good, yes.

At times, conductor Schwarz seemed like a kid in a candy store, picking from each section the specific delights he wanted at any given moment. This was never more true than in the work Schwarz composed for and premiered at this concert, “Above and Beyond.” It began with a trumpet fanfare that bore more than a passing resemblance to the one Copland wrote for the common man, but soon Schwarz called for a slower section that pulsed with wind color. Before the piece, Schwarz told us it described an unspecified journey (he went into excessive detail about all the different types of journey it could be), so obviously the calm mood had to become complicated by thornier music, and the initial fanfare that set off the work had to come back and remind everyone of the motivating impulse for said journey. So not the most original work in the world, but the melodies had a certain felicity, and Schwarz made canny use of the vast capabilities of the band.

Marine Band concerts feature a lot of new-to-me repertoire, and Monday’s edition under Schwarz was no exception, as the audience got familiar with the “Ceremonial” of English composer Bernard Rands. This work sounds like Maurice Ravel’s “Bolero” in a funhouse mirror: both rely solely on repetition of similar-sounding main themes that are initially played by a solo wind instrument (bassoon for Rands) over insistent snare drum accompaniment, then developed with more and more elaborate orchestration. But Rands works in a predominantly minor mode, and between each iteration of his theme ambiguous harmonies tried to throw the monotheme machine out of whack. Rands also elaborates the rhythm as the theme repeats, making it more and more complex, giving the piece another source of internal momentum to fight and evolve against the interruptions. I found myself waiting impatiently to hear what would happen next.

“Lincolnshire Posy,” by Rands’ countryman Percy Grainger, could hardly have been more different — the posy comprises six jaunty arrangements for band of Grainger’s own transcriptions of English folksongs. Here Schwarz led with lilting rhythms and the Marines followed merrily along, enjoying Grainger’s rich colors and occasional flagrant wrong-note interjections. It was a pure crowd-pleaser, unlike “Um Mitternacht” from Gustav Mahler’s Rückert-Lieder, which really was written for only winds and percussion and thus sat in the Marine Band’s wheelhouse. Mahler contrasts the ripeness of his melodies with strange snaps and slides in the accompaniment, and Staff Sergeant Sara Dell’Omo sang with a riveting purity and assurance, especially in the cathartic final stanza when sunlight seems finally to break out over the song.

The only transcription on the program was a doozy: Frank M. Hudson’s resourceful rendering of “Medea’s Dance of Vengeance,” itself adapted by Samuel Barber from his ballet. With the flutes whooping Medea on to greater feats of vengeance and the brass crackling in fury, the orchestral strings were completely forgotten in favor of the icy hand of terror that seemed to be gripping the back of my neck.

My only disappointment with this concert was that, while we did get the Marine Hymn as an encore, we did not get “The Stars and Stripes Forever,” as both a tribute to the U.S.A. and to John Philip Sousa, the Washingtonian who made the band great. Just another reason to check out the Marine Band’s full slate of free concerts, presented almost every Sunday at various DMV locations. They can’t all be as spectacular as Monday’s concert, but in my experience every one has something wonderful to offer, and you’ll be hearing a D.C. institution continuing to do its thing after two-plus centuries of excellence. And perhaps a rousing march in among the masterworks, too.


  • The program notes were exceptionally good.
  • The band’s director, Colonel Michael J. Colburn, gave an articulate, engaging encomium to Schwarz before yielding the stage to the guest conductor. Somehow it did not feel rote like most of these classical-music encomia do, possibly because of the use of jokes and specifics.
  • The freeness and military-ness of the concert attracted a different crowd than usual. It was nice to see kids in flip-flops in the splendor of Strathmore, listening attentively.

Say It and Play It: Brian Ganz at the Music Center at Strathmore, February 11, 2012

February 12, 2012

Saturday night brought the second concert in Brian Ganz‘s ten-year Chopin Project, in which he will play all the piano works of Frédéric Chopin at the Music Center at Strathmore, with assists from the National Philharmonic, the project’s co-presenter. Annapolis resident Ganz opened with the two polonaises of Chopin’s Op. 40. I’ve never much liked the first, the A major “Military,” which seems to be composed primarily of ringing gestures with little music in between, and Ganz romped through the chords that makes the piece, admittedly, a good concert opener without seeming to solve the boredom problem. It would turn out to be the only less-than-stellar performance Ganz gave in a truly satisfying evening.

In the second, C-minor polonaise, Ganz made the ruminative opening motif sound like a riddle and spent the rest of the polonaise methodically teasing out an answer, all while the dance rhythm pulsed clearly under the rest of Chopin’s invention. Quiet passages shimmered with color; more forceful passages rang out and filled the Music Center. Ganz didn’t use a lot of rubato, but he picked his spots well; he seemed primarily concerned with realizing his conception of the music rather than imposing an idea upon it. His judgment and precision gave the whole thing an irresistible musical momentum.

Brian Ganz, playin' it. From his website.

Then Ganz picked up a microphone, welcomed the (large) crowd, and told us what he’s up to with the Chopin Project. Without notes, he discussed eloquently the “mysterious soulfulness in Chopin’s music.” Sometimes he adopted the cadences and impassioned tone of a preacher, and as people who had just heard him testify at the piano we were ready to hear it.

The occasional discussions helped the audience understand what the piece meant to Ganz, making the subsequent performances more vivid for the understanding. After the discussion of “mysterious soulfulness,” Ganz brought out just those qualities in the Fantasie in F minor, which ended with a ravishing, suspended-in-midair coda that, in Ganz’s hands, seemed to hint at some redemption from the turbulence that had preceded it without necessarily promising anything. Before the Waltz in A-flat major, he took the time to explain to the audience the joke of the two-beat rhythm in the right hand against the waltz rhythm in the left hand, and how Chopin embroiders them together with additional melodic filigree; Ganz then made it all sound smooth, with the wit clearly audible but balanced with the other delightful aspects of the music.

The program as a whole was balanced nicely as well, with big serious pieces like the polonaises and the Fantasie spelled by smaller works that were at least less demanding for the audience. These produced some highlights too. Ganz showed a facility for navigating the finger-twisting runs Chopin so often demands, especially in the Fantasie-Impromptu in C minor, where the notes cascaded cleanly as a brook in springtime. Four mazurkas from Chopin’s Op. 6 received strongly rhythmic performances, in which melodies sounded forceful even when they weren’t loud thanks to their emphatic phrasing.

The Polonaise-Fantasie, Op. 61 and the Andante Spianato and Grande Polonaise Brilliante sandwiched the mazurkas on the program’s second half. Giving the audience a chance to trickle in from intermission, Ganz introduced the Polonaise-Fantasie by musing on the idea of the word “fantasy,” likening it to “dreaming along with Chopin,” and then revealed that the P-F once had little appeal for him before discussing how he had come to esteem it highly. This little lecture gave the audience an out in case they didn’t quite get the work and a frame within which to apprehend it; Ganz’s performance embodied the idea of “dreaming along with Chopin,” in which the snatches of dance rhythms became ideas for rumination and reflection before transforming into something more.

For the Andante Spianato and Grande Polonaise Brilliante, Ganz disclosed the traditional music-school reduction of its name, “Al Dente Spaghetti and Bland Mayonnaise,” and prefaced his discussion of the Polonaise by saying, “The word ‘fun’ is underrated in classical music.” After a magical, liquid Andante, he proved his point with a Grande Polonaise that swaggered, crashed, boasted, and generally made a ruckus. At times, Ganz seemed to have fun pushing until the music was barely in control, like a driver accelerating hard into a turn and holding onto the grab bar, but of course we were never actually in any danger, just having a ball. First Ganz told us, then he showed us. I look forward to hearing him do it again in the next Chopin Project concert on January 19, 2013.


The crowd whooped it up when Ganz first came onto the stage, and applauded after the “Military” Polonaise even when they were listed without a gap in the program, which is cool. But then Ganz took a pregnant-pause moment during a transition between sections in the Fantasie — never removing his hands from the keyboard — and applause broke out that took way too long to silence. Credit to Ganz for maintaining his equanimity and continuing a brilliant performance.

Ganz would not have been affected, presumably, by the extremely ripe-smelling person who was sitting near me, but I got strong whiffs at various points throughout the concert. In case you are wondering, I definitely suggest that people shower on concert days.

Finally, the garage at the Grosvenor-Strathmore Metro Station, which serves as a place to park for the Music Center, was a total nightmare to get into and out of on Saturday night. Just saying. I’m guessing the problem with exiting was related to people emerging from the garage, seeing our in-progress dusting of snow, thinking “Oh [expletive]!” and being momentarily unable to drive as they contemplated the terrible, terrible sins that must have brought a fate such as late-nite wintry precipitation upon them.

Ain’t That America: William Sharp and the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra under Marin Alsop at the Music Center at Strathmore, November 11, 2011

November 12, 2011

Marin Alsop loves Aaron Copland’s music, and on Friday, the audience at the Music Center at Strathmore could tell just how much. She called him “the quintessential voice of American orchestral music” at the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra’s latest “Off the Cuff” concert, before they played Copland’s most famous work, the orchestral suite from his ballet “Appalachian Spring.” Alsop followed her usual “Off the Cuff” model for pre-performance talks: an introductory bio of the composer, sprinkled with telling anecdotes and effective jokes, then a discussion of musical landmarks in the work at hand. She had the orchestra illustrate the open, limitless effect the so-called perfect intervals can have by playing the first few notes of Copland’s “Fanfare for the Common Man,” and she brought out baritone William Sharp to sing “Simple Gifts,” in Copland’s arrangement, just so the tune would be in our heads for the finale.

Copland composing by candlelight at the Berkshires in 1946. What, no electricity? From the Library of Congress

Though Alsop’s presentation always held my interest, at times I wondered whether it might be overkill for “Appalachian Spring,” which holds its place in popular esteem (and the Music Center was packed to the gills for this one) by being so immediately approachable. There’s certainly value in understanding it a bit more, as with the intervallic discussion, but I think anyone could pick out when (for example) Copland introduces a fiddlin’ tune. I could be wrong.

The performance itself had a common weakness of Alsop-led readings — a sometimes indistinct rhythmic pulse. Copland wants these rhythms to snap and crackle; sometimes the BSO wouldn’t quite hit a beat all at once, or hit a beat as sharply as they should’ve. But Alsop’s strengths also came through. When playing the hushed, almost devotional music that begins and ends the suite, the BSO managed to play as if whispering, with the clarinet at the beginning sounding like daybreak. In louder, faster moments, the BSO sounded bright and piquant, and one could feel the enthusiasm from conductor and orchestra that ultimately carried this performance along. It would have been hard to resist, and no one in the hall on Friday appeared inclined to try.

“Appalachian Spring” is not quite long enough to fill even a short program like this one, so Sharp provided bonus content: six more of the “Old American Songs” that Copland arranged for voice and orchestra. Yes, there was a singalong, in which the audience got to make all the barnyard-animal noises of “I Bought Me a Cat,” and yes, I thought it was the highlight of this portion of the concert, mainly because I got to make a horrible honk of a goose noise many, many times in the context of a supposedly respectable orchestral concert. Sharp seemed to enjoy making such noises even more than I do, and that zest showed up in the rest of these songs as well. Obviously, he can make a beautiful noise, as songs like “At the River” showed, but it’s even more impressive to hear a voice stay beautiful when packing lots of words into lines and inflecting them in a natural manner, as in “The Dodger,” where he explained with jaunty glee how we are all corrupt liars. Sharp made a giant lyrical flub in “Ching-a-Ring Chaw” that necessitated a restart, but the good humor of the evening had been established so thoroughly that it would have seemed churlish not to forgive him immediately.

Plus, how can you be mad at this guy? From Sharp's management's website.

Sharp, of course, was at Strathmore last week for these Post-Classical Ensemble concerts, singing songs of Charles Ives. Since Sharp teaches at Peabody, it was probably a matter of commuting rather than staying in MoCo for a week, but the connection between last week and this week nevertheless invites one to contrast — the small tweaks in Copland’s songs communicating his essential affection for his source material, Ives not loving his sources any less but feeling freer to distort or transform them.

As Alsop noted in her intro, Copland’s America was “the America of his imagination and his dreams,” as he never strayed much from his native Brooklyn except to hit France to learn how to compose. Ives trod his New England path doggedly, finding endless variations and surprises in what was familiar to him. Copland, a socialist, wanted to compose for the masses; Ives, a real-life insurance exec, had the means and inclination to compose for himself. Copland recognized Ives’ genius and advocated for his work, and it’s not like we have to determine which one is more quintissentially American than the other, but they certainly show two different paths to American greatness. Kudos to the P-CE, the BSO, and Strathmore for making the juxtaposition possible — always a nice way to leave a concert, with one’s mind full of unresolved, excited thoughts.


Besides being very large, Friday’s audience was also very old, more than normal even for symphony orchestra concerts. (Indicating that some stereotypes are true, the garage at Strathmore was nearly unnavigable before and after the concert due to tentative driving of large cars.) In the post-concert Q&A, for which Sharp joined Alsop, one person actually asked, “We’re, some of us, getting older…Is this a concern to you?” Alsop speculated that people tend to come to classical music later in life, at least if they’ve had childhood exposure to the stuff. Coming from a family that went to classical concerts pretty much from when my sister and I were old enough to be babysat, I have no idea whether that’s true.

But, as a young person who is periodically asked why young people don’t attend classical concerts, I offer the following:

  • As Alsop noted, “Young people don’t want to go to places where there aren’t a lot of young people.”
  • Tickets are expensive. If I wasn’t getting press tix, I would probably go to the symphony two or three times a year, for specific programs or performers. I’d concentrate my concertgoing at venues with free or cheap tickets (Library of Congress, Freer/Sackler Galleries, etc.) and at chamber music in general, where tix tend to be cheaper. For someone with a casual interest in classical music, $65 for a non-nosebleed seat is a steep hill to climb.
  • Sometimes, what is happening is kind of boring. This is true at any type of event, of course, but at classical concerts such a reaction is looked upon as reflecting a lack of education rather than a justifiable judgment.
  • Other people’s post-concert questions. One person asked “whether there are American musicians today reaching down to indigenous music from the classical sphere.” Note the telling preposition! Another guy asked whether Alsop and Sharp had heard the new Tony Bennett album, and what they thought of it. Fortunately, Sharp had an actual opinion on this, so the questioner was not left hanging, but it could have been quite awkward in addition to being kind of a bizarre choice of question.

Ives from All Sides: William Sharp, Jeremy Denk, and The Post-Classical Ensemble at Strathmore, November 3 and 4, 2011

November 6, 2011

Charles Ives cheerfully ignored boundaries and received wisdom, writing music primarily to satisfy his own enthusiasms, and still pushed music forward in the process. It takes a group like the Post-Classical Ensemble, equally committed to ignoring boundaries and received wisdom, to fully embrace and encompass his achievements.

Charles Ives, in all his splendor. Photo by W. Eugene Smith from the Charles Ives Papers at Yale

Specifically, in the P-CE’s “Ives Project,” it took three days of concerts, lectures, and a masterclass, plus guest appearances from pianist Jeremy Denk and baritone William Sharp. Due to work and other demands, I was not able to show as much commitment to the Ives Project as the P-CE did, but I caught both Thursday and Friday’s concerts at the Music Center at Strathmore.

At most P-CE concerts, artistic director Joseph Horowitz strides on stage at some point to explain to the audience what they will hear or have just heard. Thursday’s program, “Charles Ives: A Life in Music,” obviated such discourse by presenting contextual information from Ives’ own writings or other contemporary sources. Actors Carolyn Goelzer and the redoubtable Floyd King helped make the words come alive, so that Ives discussing his childhood enthusiasm for the circus naturally prepared us for his song “The Circus Band.” There were no gaps in the program where people got themselves ready to read or play; everything snapped into place, making a two-hour concert fly by.

Baritone Sharp had the lion’s share of the musical duties on Thursday, and he used his flexible, rich voice with keen intelligence to make his songs into vivid stories in themselves. He sang naturally and directly, without distorting vowels or other classical-vocalist cheats, which Ives surely would have appreciated. He burst with childlike enthusiasm in “The Circus Band,” but sounded just as natural navigating the landscape of Ives’ setting of “The Housatonic at Stockbridge,” negotiating tricky intervals to express both aesthetic pleasures and awe, or hectoring his listeners with the broad, brutal satire of “General William Booth Enters Into Heaven.”

For most of the first half, Denk accompanied Sharp on piano. Two settings of Herman Almers’ “Feldeinsamkeit,” first that of Johannes Brahms and then that of the young Ives, came off especially well, with the second providing convincing evidence for the assertion King read us that the 24-year-old Ives’ effort merited consideration alongside that of the German master. Denk’s enthusiasm for both Brahms and Ives came across in his sensitive phrasing and limpid tone, and Sharp’s voice sounded its most honeyed and gorgeous.

Sharp also had some help from the PostClassical Ensemble, conducted by the P-CE’s music director Angel Gil-Ordonez. Five songs whose accompaniment John Adams has transcribed for orchestra got intimate sounds from Sharp and the ensemble, especially when Sharp read the introduction to “Thoreau” as woodwinds and strings described a strange but rapt pastoral. The ensemble got some time alone to play a couple of Ives’ lesser-known short orchestral pieces, “In the Inn” and “Over the Pavements,” digging deep into Ives’ rough invention and, especially atop the pavements, his gleefully contrasting rhythms.

The concert opened and closed with “The Unanswered Question,” with its querent harmonies in the strings, offstage woodwind murmurs and outbursts, and the implacable five-note solo trumpet utterance, here played with serene eloquence by Chris Gekker. Emerging from silence and a low-lit hall, it focused the attention immediately; as a closer, reflecting and reflected in all that had come before, I couldn’t stop thinking about it. Another canny trick of programming in an evening full of them.

Friday’s program put Denk in the spotlight, playing Ives’ second piano sonata (subtitled “Concord, Mass., 1840-60”) and the “Hammerklavier,” the bangingest of the piano sonatas by Ives’ beloved Beethoven, back to back. This is a hell of a difficult program, but one Denk evidently finds rewarding, given that he toured with it a couple years ago (including a stop in the DMV) and still wanted to do it again.

Jeremy Denk, always thinking about music even in the presence of ripe tomatoes

The P-CE dressed it up a bit. Sharp came back to read from Ives, Emerson, and Thoreau before each of the sonata’s four depictions of leading lights of Concord. These put one in a properly Transcendental mood before Denk’s performances. His program notes for the sonata (excerpted from his notes for his Ives CD, which is worth a purchase) outlined his thoughts on its major landmarks and threads, and his performance made you understand why he, artistic director Horowitz, and other iconoclastic souls love this sonata so much.

Ives wrote the sonata on a broad canvas, and its forms are all generated from his ideas: the rhetoric of “Emerson,” building itself up from pronouncements and gestures; the wildness of “Hawthorne,” from spooky to out-of-control; the heaven-seeking purity of the main theme of “The Alcotts”; a hazy dawn and subsequent day at Walden Pond in “Thoreau.”  The sonata’s quotations — the first few notes of Beethoven’s Fifth most prominent among them — make it sound like Ives is trying to gather into the sonata everything in the world, particularly in the Alcotts, which reminded me of spending hours messing around on a keyboard seeing what kinds of sounds can be made and occasionally finding something extraordinary. Denk expertly balanced narrative elements against each other; he coaxed myriad colors from his piano (which had to be retuned at intermission from the stress); most of all, he found fascinating moments each movement and showed us how one can connect them.

Beethoven’s “Hammerklavier” should be a perfect analogue from the previous century: ambitious, lengthy, fearsomely difficult, and ultimately lowercase-T transcendent. Unfortunately, on Friday, Denk didn’t really have it under his fingers. It would be almost impossible not to drop or mis-hit a note or two during a performance of “Hammerklavier,” but Denk was doing it so much that the beginnings of favorite passages became occasions for anxiety: is he going to get through this? He also took the slow movement, marked “Adagio sostenuto” (“slow and sustained”), at a brisk walk that crossed the line from idiosyncrasy into incorrectness, particularly when Denk himself occasionally slowed down during variations only to return to the faster tempo.

Still, I’ll remember that Concord Sonata for a long time, and it added to Thursday’s picture of Ives, here working in a longer form and accumulating power over that span. (I wish I could have attended Saturday’s concert, in which the JACK Quartet essayed Ives along with contemporary composers, to see the additional light such a juxtaposition would throw on Ives’ music.) The frustrating thing about Ives’ infrequent appearances in American concert halls is that it’s not difficult to understand what he’s up to; you just have to be open to hearing it. Denk, Sharp, and the P-CE made it easy to love Ives this weekend, and I hope some people in the audience felt it too.


Jeremy Denk’s blog is always worth a read. Better than this one!

Charles Ives was quite a fine writer too, which is part of why Thursday’s concert worked so well. If you’re getting into the Concord Sonata, Ives’ Essays Before a Sonata are worth reading. And they’re free, here.

Updated to add Other People’s Perspectives: Cecilia Porter on Thursday’s concert, and Charles T. Downey on Saturday’s. I knew the latter was going to be good!

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.

Prokofiev and Prose: Baltimore Symphony Orchestra at the Music Center at Strathmore, April 1, 2011

April 3, 2011

This year, the Baltimore Symphony and music director Marin Alsop scheduled four “Off the Cuff” concerts, which experiment with mixing music and words to create something with more context than the usual program notes can provide. Friday’s concert at the Music Center at Strathmore had Sergei Prokofiev’s Cinderella Suite as its centerpiece. Alsop gave about 15 minutes of biography and musical examples before ceding the microphone to four undergrads from Johns Hopkins University, who took turns reciting parts of their own retellings of the Cinderella story. Alsop and the BSO then traded selections with the writers as the evening progressed.

"I will tell you a magical tale from your childhood": Sergei Prokofiev

Alsop and the BSO typically do really well when the music they play calls for color and fantasy, as the suite’s Introduction showed, full of lively and well-shaped melodies and luxuriant sounds. But then each of the writers read the first several sentences of his or her take on Cinderella, enough to get an idea of the setting and character’s names, and by the time the BSO came back for the Pas de Châle the mood created in the Introduction had dissipated completely.

It didn’t help that the writers did not interpret the Cinderella story as eloquently as Prokofiev did. Each has a different background and drew on it to re-imagine the story: Doyeun Kim set her tale in 1800s Korea, Sophi Glazycheva in 1890s Russia, Ana Giraldo-Wingler in modern-day Bogota, and Akif Saifi in an unnamed Middle Eastern city that sounded an awful lot like Dubai. The students clearly have some talent, but they have not yet learned to discipline it; I found myself mentally deleting unnecessary words and correcting usage errors while they read. (One example of a sentence in need of editing: “Thinly veiled Communism seized his company.” Quick! Someone arrest that ideology! I hope we can still pick it out of the lineup while it’s wearing that veil! Another described two sisters eating the best meal “their bellies had ever had the pleasure of enjoying.” Most of the words in that sentence are unnecessary.) Saifi read his text confidently, but the others spent some time stumbling over their own words, which didn’t help.

So not all the ingredients in this concert were up to snuff. I also question the recipe. Prokofiev’s score is extremely European, right down the middle of Western Tradition Road, and no sidebar commentary is going to change the images it evokes in listeners’ heads, although the pauses did prevent those images from cohering into their own musical narrative. (Although the concert was advertised as providing a multicultural perspective on the Cinderella tale, the audience Friday night was the normal Caucasian monoculture.) The other narratives were fractured too — we didn’t hear all of anyone’s tale, just the beginning and end, plus a selection of interstitial plot development, presumably to ensure that the concert ended at a reasonable hour. It all led to confusion, not illumination.

If orchestras don’t explore new ideas for presenting their concerts, as the BSO is doing with these “Off the Cuff” concerts, they’re never going to figure out how to get audiences packed into the hall and buzzing with anticipation, which happens all too infrequently. A part of this process is trying ideas that don’t work, and so I’m fine with the BSO having tried this. I do wish I could hear Alsop and the BSO perform the Cinderella Suite straight through, though, because that could be part of an excellent night at the symphony.

Romantic and Romantic-er: Baltimore Symphony Orchestra at Strathmore, February 10, 2011

February 13, 2011

Sergei Rachmaninov’s second piano concerto opened the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra’s Thursday night concert, with Yuja Wang on the keys and Juanjo Mena on the podium. I would speculate that the audience heard its opening notes with much more excitement than it brought for Anton Bruckner’s Symphony No. 6, which rounded out the program post-intermission. The Rach 2 has achieved its popularity on the basis of its big tunes, in between which there is also some music. Pianists sometimes rumble through this non-big-tune music with a kind of carelessness pretending to be imperiousness, attempting to make the audience as impressed with the pianists as they themselves are; other times, the non-big-tune music serves as a kind of atmospheric Romantic haze from which the big tunes emerge like ships approaching shore through a fog. Either way, everything slows down when the tunes arrive, like how Neo in The Matrix reaches a heightened plane of fighting ability and can stop time as he beats people up. I enjoy Rachmaninov’s music a lot, but the second of his piano concertos (as well as the second of his symphonies) inspires some frustrating performances.

On Thursday, though, Wang and Mena attended closely to every bar of music, both in shaping the melodic lines and producing variegated and intoxicating colors, and while the big tunes got their due, their prominence flowed naturally from the score. For example, the solo-piano opening, with a gradual crescendo of chords eventually climaxing and crashing, typically provides an occasion for dude pianists to thrash the keyboard mercilessly towards the end of the crescendo and show you what exceptional badasses they are. Wang instead increased the volume scrupulously and excruciatingly slowly, so the opening felt genuinely menacing; I confess I was waiting for a little Star Time but instead got walloped by the music. Later in that first movement, as the BSO’s lower strings accompanied melodic figuration, Mena got a spine-tingingly chilly sound from them, evoking a sere landscape in winter and reminding me (at least) that Rachmaninov is a more Russian composer than is sometimes supposed.

Wang used just a touch of rubato on her slower melodies, and Mena and the BSO followed her closely, with handoffs between piano and orchestra 99 percent seamless. When the big tunes came, she made the big tunes memorable not with agogic hesitation but by her incredible attention to the dynamics within phrases; one could almost hear the melodies breathing. As noted, she also knows how to modulate her tone colors; much the first movement came across with a chilly tone, but the rising joy of the third movement brought with it brighter sounds from the keyboard. Mena and the BSO matched her in their attentiveness, tracking her well and playing with authority; one of the joys of hearing Mena conduct the BSO is how gorgeous and focused the orchestra sounds, and Thursday’s concert was no exception to that rule.

Yuja Wang in a hot red dress

Approximately what we were seeing Thursday. By Xavier Antonnet, from Yuja's site, linked earlier

Wang also won the crowd over by wearing a bright red dress similar to the one she wears on the cover of her latest CD, what looked to be four-inch heels, and a shag haircut that reinforced how attractive she is by still looking good on her somehow. (Person behind me at intermission, to her husband: “I didn’t realize the pianist would be so beautiful!” I’m not sure whether she would have urged them to attend another concert with that info in hand.) She did not play an encore, which meant that we launched straight into Bruckner post-bathroom break.

I’m on record as not enjoying Bruckner’s music, but before Thursday, the last time I had heard a Bruckner symphony live was in 1997 (I counted), and I thought it would be a good idea to try again. I was ready to indulge him his longeurs, his habit of unhurried ruminating, and find the profundity in the unique journey his music provides.

Yet I found that, even with hope in my heart and acceptance in my head, something in my constitution is repelled by Bruckner’s music. None of his tunes is memorable in any way, and then he almost immediately abandons them anyway for passagework that takes us on harmonic journeys so extended and far-ranging that their ultimate purpose is lost.

I’m all for more super-serious Romantic music in the concert hall, but before we trot out Bruckner again, let’s give some time to Max Reger. At least he knew that he had difficulty writing a tune, so he had the sense to steal one in his very listenable Variations and Fugue on a Theme by Mozart. Ripe textures? Check. Improbable harmonic journeys? Check. Plus you get an enjoyable fugue at the end whose subject just so happens to fit into perfect counterpoint with the theme. I’m rambling a bit here, but Bruckner rambled at me for an hour on Thursday, and frankly I still don’t think we’re even.

Other People’s Perspectives: Joan Reinthaler in the Post.


I took my girlfriend to this concert, and I cannot imagine a worse ending to a date-night concert than that symphony. I know there are some smart folks out there who are also committed Brucknerians, but this music — low on memorable tunes and distinct rhythms, high on leisurely paced explorations, at lengths that defeat attempts to intuit a structure — strikes me as a solo pursuit, something in which one might immerse oneself and, after long, ardent study, eventually come up for air. Nothing in there seems easy to share — how would you even talk about something so devoid of milestones? Plus I think my girlfriend was feeling actively malevolent towards Bruckner around the time the Scherzo music repeated, and since Bruckner was not nearby, the malevolence downgraded to annoyance and spilled on everything present, including me.

I’m reconsidering taking her to Turangalîla next month.