Sept. 22, University of Richmond
The new-music sextet eighth blackbird has presented some formidable challenges to ears and sensibilities in its decade in residence at the University of Richmond. “Pattycake,” the program launching its 11th UR season, proved to be not exactly easy listening, but a good deal easier than usual for the non-specialist to absorb.
The program was anchored by two pieces about rhythm, freed from overlays of melody and harmony. Sean Griffin’s “Pattycake” (2007) tasks four performers with a physically complex take on the children’s hand-clapping game. Tom Johnson’s “Counting Duets” play numbers games, garnished with some tricks of dynamism and a bit of ballroom dance. Both were great fun to watch and hear. I suspect they were exhausting for the artists to prepare, but they seemed spontaneous and almost effortless in performance.
Johnson’s pieces kept unlikely company, being interspersed with four études by György Ligeti in arrangements by two members of the ’birds, flutist Tim Munro and pianist Lisa Kaplan. Kaplan’s treatments of the rhythmically driven “Fanfares” and “Entrelacs” (études Nos. 4 and 12, respectively) fit more comfortably alongside the Johnson duets. Munro’s enlargements of the intricately colored and deeply moody “En Suspens” and “Automne à Varsovie” (études Nos. 11 and 6), ingenious as they are, departed too far in tone and mood from Johnson’s droll rhythmic exercises.
An even less likely combination of pieces, which the ’birds call “Songs of Love and Loss,” combine “Duo for Heart and Breath” (2012) by Richard Reed Parry of the Montreal rock band Arcade Fire and Kaplan’s arrangement of Bon Iver’s “Babys” with Munro’s instrumental arrangements of 17th-century vocal pieces by Claudio Monteverdi and Carlo Gesualdo.
Parry’s duo, whose tempo is determined by pianist Kaplan’s heartbeat (she wore a stethoscope) and violinist Yvonne Lam’s breath rate, was in this performance a mellow and deliberately paced minimalist prelude. Lam played her violin with no vibrato; in the following Monteverdi, she played viola with ample vibrato – a reversal of historical and modern performance practices.
An even more radical reversal in this set: The early music is “hard” and the contemporary music is “easy” (relatively, anyway).
The Gesualdo arrangement underlined the eccentricity of this composer with bell-like and sliding/winding-down effects. Kaplan’s “Babys” arrangement – building on the insistent and gnarly groove of Bon Iver’s instrumental introduction to the song – returned to the steady state of Parry’s piece, with an intense, lyrical climax from cellist Nicholas Photinos.
Photinos also took on David Little’s “and the sky was still there” (2010) for cello and electronics, written for the violinist and electronica artist Todd Reynolds. The piece sets sections of an account by Amber Ferenz of her experiences as a closeted lesbian in the “don’t ask/don’t tell”-vintage U.S. Army to a sonically eventful and complex soundtrack. In this performance, amplified electronics overbalanced the cello (amplification is frequently troublesome in UR’s acoustically bright Camp Concert Hall), and parts of the narration were lost in the mix.
Rounding out the program, another chamber work with pop origins: “Number Nine” (2013) by Gabriella Smith, a thickly textured tone poem that rises out of, and eventually returns to, an instrumentalization of the rhythms and pitches of “number nine,” as it was vocalized and repeated before the song “Revolution 9” on The Beatles’ “White Album” of 1968.
“I also incorporated many other ‘Revolution 9’ references, weaving their collage fragments into ‘Number Nine’s’ continuously evolving arc,” the composer writes in a program note. The collage is so dense and the fragments so fragmentary that few listeners would feel able to hum along.
On first hearing, “Number Nine” struck me as a Platonic shadow (as in Plato’s allegory of the cave: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Allegory_of_the_Cave) of the high-concept progressive rock song, complete with drum solo (which Matt Duvall mercifully dispatched in much less than a period-authentic 20 minutes). A pretty accurate shadow, I’d say – maybe even preferable to the real thing, at least for those of us who overdosed on the real thing 40 years ago.
Tuesday, September 23, 2014
Sept. 22, University of Richmond
As popular music has become “more a nostalgic, preservative practice rather than one anticipating and demanding change, classical music comes to fresh, forward-looking life,” longtime British rock critic Paul Morley writes in an essay for The Observer. Morley describes his migration to the classics as “a move to where the provocative, thrilling and transformative ideas are, mainly because modern pop and rock has become the status quo” . . .
His playlist: Mozart’s “Masonic Funeral Music,” Debussy’s Cello Sonata, Luciano Berio’s “Sequenza V,” Shostakovich’s Tenth Symphony, Webern’s “Slow Movement” and Earle Brown’s “Times Five.” The earliest of them, the Mozart, dates from 1785; the latest, the Berio, from 1966; and there’s nothing from the 19th century.
Plenty of thrills and transformations yet to come, it seems.
Sunday, September 21, 2014
Sept. 21, St. Matthias’ Episcopal Church
The Atlantic Chamber Ensemble, the collective composed of musicians from the Richmond Symphony, Virginia Commonwealth University, the University of Richmond and the College of William and Mary, likes to build its programs on themes. In this case, it chose a fruitful one: “Metamorphosis.”
Oboist Shawn Welk, the chief discusser of this program, noted that music is full of examples of one thing – a tune, figuration, rhythm or other element – evolving into something else. The 11-member ensemble chose several of the most obvious vehicles for musical metamorphosis, the theme and variations, garnished with a variety of other forms in which the process literally or figuratively occurs.
The most familiar of the T&Vs was the slow movement of Schubert’s Piano Quintet in A major, nicknamed the “Trout” after the art-song whose tune is the subject of variations in the movement. Soprano Antonio FD Vassar and pianist Maria Yefimova began with the song, after which Yefimova, violinist Alana Carithers, violist Stephen Schmidt, cellist Jason McComb and double-bassist Kelly Ali gave a graceful and sonorous performance of the movement.
It reinforced the point of the program, but it also whetted the appetite for the rest of the quintet. The same was true of the T&V andante from Jean Françaix’s Wind Quintet No. 1. That’s the risk you run when playing excerpts.
Usually, anyway: The piece that Welk chose to open the program, “Pan” from Benjamin Britten’s “Six Metamorphoses after Ovid” for solo oboe, stood nicely on its own. Yefimova’s surprisingly lyrical treatment of Philip Glass’ “Metamorphosis One,” from a full work that goes on for something like three hours (!), probably did not make many listeners yearn to hear the rest. (It did make me wonder whether the pianist might be a fan of “Downtown Abbey,” whose main theme is strikingly similar to this bit of Glass.)
Ravel’s “Le Tombeau de Couperin,” which metamorphosed in the composer’s hands from a six-movement work for solo piano to a four-movement orchestration, was played in a further variant, the orchestrated four movements arranged for wind quintet by Mason Jones, principal French horn player of the Philadelphia Orchestra during the Eugene Ormandy era.
Not suprisingly, Jones’ arrangement has an unusually prominent horn part, played here to strong effect by James Ferree. He and his colleagues – flutist Jennifer Lawson, oboist Welk, clarinetist Jared Davis and bassoonist Martin Gordon – paced Ravel’s fast movements a little too briskly for my taste; but their treatment of the central fugue and minuet sections of the Ravel, as well as the earlier Françaix, resonated nicely.
Cellist McComb and pianist Yefimova proved highly sensitized to the idioms of Anton Webern in his Mahleresque “Langsam” (slow) movement, written at the turn of the 20th century, and his “Drei kleine Stücke” (“Three Little Pieces”) of 1914, couched in his austere and telegraphic mature style. McComb directed the audience’s attention to the role of silence in Webern’s later music, but that element may not have registered as coughs and other extra-musical noises broke the silences.
The program ended on more upbeat and tuneful notes, as pianist Yefimova, flutist Lawson, oboist Welk and clarinetist Davis played Camille Saint-Saëns’ “Caprice on Danish and Russian Airs,” a blending of musical source matter that sounds more complementary than cultural geographers might expect.
Steven Smith conducting
with Joshua Bell, violin
Sept. 20, Richmond CenterStage
If Joshua Bell has kept count of the number of times he has played Max Bruch’s Violin Concerto No. 1 in G minor, he hasn’t shared the tally. A lot, for sure – enough for the Bruch to be widely known as his signature concert piece.
Bell played it again with Steven Smith and the Richmond Symphony to open the orchestra’s 2014-15 season. The violinist played with evident affection for this music, and with a seeming inclination toward what musicians of the 18th century called affectus – a calculated projection of mood and emotion.
From the first long, low note on the fiddle to the brilliant conclusion, Bell’s performance was highly expressive. Hardly a phrase went by without some touch-up, usually but not always rendered subtly. His signature tone, combining richness and brilliance, was present in abundance, especially in the central adagio of the concerto. His instrument, a 1713 Stradivarius formerly owned by Bronislaw Huberman, is one of the finest violins in existence, and its owner knows how to get the most out of it.
Bell nowadays is both a solo violinist and conductor, in his third year as music director of Britain’s Academy of St. Martin in the Fields; so it was interesting to see how he interacted with the orchestra in this performance. Attentively – he often faced the accompanying musicians when he wasn’t playing – but without any overt moves toward directing them. Their conductor, Steven Smith, had the performance well in hand, and shared Bell’s emphasis on expressivity.
Smith anticipated it, in fact, in the music that preceded Bell’s appearance, “Vltava” (“The Moldau”), the best-known piece from Bedrich Smetana’s symphonic cycle “Ma Vlast” (“My Fatherland”) and perhaps the most evocative “water music” of the romantic era. Smith and the symphony’s strings and winds expertly navigated Smetana’s swells and eddies, with the orchestra’s French horns adding richly atmospheric touches.
The concert, which drew a capacity crowd, concluded with two popular orchestral showpieces by Ottorino Respighi, “The Fountains of Rome” and “The Pines of Rome.” Respighi is one of the figures without whom the Hollywood film score as we know it simply wouldn’t exist; many of the splashier coloristic effects of film music are inherited directly from these two pieces.
Smith and the symphony splashed spectacularly – the raucous “Triton Fountain at Morn” and the militant conclusion of “The Pines of the Appian Way” were some of the loudest performances the orchestra has delivered in years; but they also handled atmospherics and representational touches with sensitivity as well as vividness.
The brass players and percussionists audibly relished their showcases, playing with great sonority as well as impact. Wind players, including flutist Mary Boodell, clarinetist Jared Davis and oboist Shawn Welk, contributed excellent solos, as did trumpeter Rolla Durham in an offstage passage.
Stationing trumpeters and trombonists at three points in the balcony enhanced the room-filling sound of the "Appian Way" finale.
Tuesday, September 16, 2014
noon-2 p.m. EDT
WDCE, University of Richmond
Sarasate: “Serenata andaluza”
Julia Fischer, violin; Milana Chernyavska, piano (Decca)
Suk: Serenade for strings
Appassionata/Daniel Myssyk (Fidelio)
Beethoven: Sonata in C minor, Op. 10, No. 1
Ronald Brautigam, fortepiano (Bis)
Debussy: Sonata for flute, viola and harp
Philippe Bernold, flute; Gérard Caussé, viola; Isabelle Moretti, harp
(Harmonia Mundi France)
Mozart: Piano Concerto No. 15 in B flat major,
Pierre-Laurent Aimard, piano & director
Chamber Orchestra of Europe (Warner Classics)
Richard Strauss: “Till Eulenspiegel’s Merry Pranks”
Cleveland Orchestra/George Szell (Sony Classical)
Monday, September 15, 2014
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s Howard Pousner gets to the nub of the dispute between management and musicians in the Atlanta Symphony lockout: Whether an ensemble smaller than the current complement of 88 – down from 95 in the 2011-12 season – crosses a threshold that “must not be crossed” if a “full, robust and world-class symphony orchestra” is to be maintained, as the orchestra’s chief conductors, Robert Spano and Donald Runnicles, wrote in a letter to management before the Sept. 7 lockout:
The Atlanta Symphony has been running in the red for 12 consecutive seasons. If the orchestra cannot increase its revenue through fund-raising and ticket sales – not impossible: a $37 million budget is not excessive in a metro area of 5.5 million people (the Baltimore Symphony maintains a $27 million budget in a metro area with half the population of Atlanta’s) – then, clearly, something has to give.
Size matters in a lot of symphonic music, especially in Mahler, Richard Strauss, the big Stravinsky ballet scores and other late-romantic and early modern repertory. It is possible to give credible performances of such works with reduced strings – when orchestras shrink, most of the shrinkage is absorbed by string sections – but rarely possible to achieve great performances.
I’ve heard the Richmond Symphony and Virginia Symphony play big opuses of Mahler, Bruckner, Sibelius and Nielsen with understrength string sections. They were readings of high intensity and deep musicality, but with unavoidable imbalances between strings and winds and a marked loss of sonic punch, especially when performed in full-size concert halls.
Ensemble cohesion matters as much as size. I’ve heard many orchestral performances in which substantial numbers of free-lance substitutes filled out string and wind sections. Better balances and more punch inevitably were offset by less refinement, expressivity and stylistic fluency.
If the plan in Atlanta is to shrink to a fulltime “core” needing the addition of several dozen substitutes to play large-scale works, then the conductors and locked-out musicians are correct in anticipating that the Atlanta Symphony would be an entirely different orchestra. From week to week, even.
Would it remain a “world-class” orchestra? Doubtful, even if one were to grant that it has been a top-tier ensemble. (Not many critics would rate it that highly.)
With intelligent artistic guidance, a downsized Atlanta Symphony might be remade into a estimable classical-scale orchestra, comparable to such ensembles as the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields or the Chamber Orchestra of Europe, capable of playing first-rate Mozart, Beethoven, Mendelssohn, Schumann, even Brahms and Dvořák, and of accompanying most of the standard concerto repertory and the great Atlanta Symphony Chorus that Robert Shaw built.
Would such an orchestra project properly in the Woodruff Arts Center’s 1,762-seat Atlanta Symphony Hall? Or would it need to move to a smaller venue? Since the orchestra currently operates as part of the Woodruff Center, a move presumably would entail a new corporate arrangement. Assuming that could be managed, would playing in a smaller hall generate enough ticket revenue?
Affecting cost savings by paying fewer musicians is a more complex proposition than the usual kind of corporate downsizing.
* * *
UPDATE (Sept. 18): A reader points out other pertinent numbers, in an article by Jenny Jarvie on the website www.artsatl.com: Musicians’ earnings “represent about 25 percent of the total [Atlanta Symphony] budget. According to the International Conference of Symphony and Opera Musicians, that is substantially lower than top orchestras around the country, which average about 40 percent.”
The full article:
Sunday, September 14, 2014
Sept. 13, Virginia Commonwealth University
You don’t hear many programs in which Joseph Haydn is the second-wittiest composer. The Pacifica Quartet managed that programming feat in its return engagement at Virginia Commonwealth University, opening the new season of Rennolds Chamber Concerts.
The top wit? György Ligeti, the Hungarian-born late-20th century master whose String Quartet No. 1 (“Métamorphoses nocturnes”) is part-homage to Béla Bartók, part-funhouse mirror-in-sound manipulation of a four-note motif into numerous shapes, shades and styles.
What could be a jarringly schizophrenic exercise – evocations of Bartók’s “night music” up against skittishly jazzy numbers and a woozy waltz – is instead a wide-ranging, technically dazzling, sometimes hilarious tonal essay, and a surprisingly compact one whose 12 interlocking movements zip along eventfully and with a coherence that testifies eloquently to Ligeti’s ingenuity.
The Pacifica – violinists Simon Ganatra and Sibbi Bernhardsson, violist Masumi Per Rostad and cellist Brandon Vamos – played the Ligeti with deep engagement and audible affection. The piece plays to several of the ensemble’s greatest strengths, a collective ear for the finest sonic nuance and a knack for highly transparent rendition of parts.
The foursome emphasized the same qualities in Haydn’s Quartet in B flat major, Op. 76, No. 4 (“Sunrise”); and three of the four, Bernhardsson, Rostad and Vamos, also captured the woodsy, rustic quality of Haydn’s string writing, to which few musicians outside historically informed circles are attuned. First violinist Ganatra, however, played against that grain with a bright, penetrating tone that leaped out of the ensemble.
This contrast of voicings – producing, in effect, music for violin and string trio – proved more effective in Felix Mendelssohn’s Quartet in F minor, Op. 80, the composer’s last substantial work, produced in the wake of the death of his sister, Fanny Mendelssohn Henselt (its adagio is an elegy to Fanny), and completed a few months before Felix himself died.
The piece is, stylistically and expressively, quite unlike the more familiar Mendelssohn, even at his most dramatic or turbulent. This music is darker, more intense and with an introspective quality more characteristic of later romantics such as Brahms or Tchaikovsky.
The Pacifica, which has recorded all the Mendelssohn quartets, effectively highlighted the differences in this last one, playing with go-for-broke energy and taut expressivity.
The group rewarded the following ovation with an encore: the taxing allegretto pizzicato from Bartók’s Quartet No. 4.