Thursday, September 29, 2011

2011 Charlottesville Chamber Music Festival

I was quite excited to be able to attend 3 out of the 6 concerts for the 2011 Charlottesville Chamber Music Festival. The first two of those were at UVA's Old Cabell Hall, and the last at The Paramount Theater.

There was much pleasure to be had with the first group of performers, which included Matthew Hunt and Alasdair Beatson. The piece by Peteris Vasks, Episodi e Canto perpetuo was quite athletic, for both performers and audience. In his opening remarks Mr. Beatson seemed to want to "caution" the audience as to its intensity, but it left me breathless and intrigued, and in a good way. The piece, in eight movements performed attacca (that is, without pause), was not difficult for difficulty's sake, as some modern music can seem to be. Certainly the performers were challenged, but the music held it's arc, and appealed with portions of beautiful legato to balance the more stark moments.

Mr. Hunt featured prominently in Weber's Duo Concertant and Brahms' Clarinet Quintet, Op. 115. A technically exciting performer, there were times his breathy lead-ins to pianissimo were distracting, but they diminished as the concert moved along. At times unashamedly flamboyant visually, Mr. Hunt shone brightly in the Weber, but could hold a languid line in the more moody Brahms.

The next concert, also at Old Cabell Hall, began with Mozart's delicate Duo for Violin and Viola in G major, K. 423. Steven Copes and Timothy Summers were careful not to over-dramatize the piece, lest it become sentimental. Instead, each proved the simple task of listening to the other player is a critical component in mature performance of art. The music stood on its own.

Aki Sauliere, Alasdair Beatson, and Raphael Bell joined the performers in the Shostakovich Piano Quintet in G minor. One of the chamber pieces from Shostakovich's middle, less turbulent years, it has moments of pure acidity, but also humor, which the performers conveyed beautifully.

The last piece, Mendelssohn's Piano Trio No. 2, written during the composer's travel to England, was, at once, poignant and crystalline.

The final concert I was to attend was on September 22 at The Paramount Theater. Joan Tower's Island Prelude was a fitting start to the performance, but I felt strangely disconnected from the performers, but it wasn't until later in the evening that I realized why.

Soprano Roberta Alexander set out on an American Song expedition, bringing out some charmers (Samuel Barber, Alec Wilder, Charles Ives), along with the tried and true of Copland and Gershwin. The pieces were of medium difficulty, but there were quite a few moments of vocal instability, particularly in the middle register. Andre Previn'sVocalise was marked by some rather unfortunate sounds from Ms. Alexander, and compared to Mr. Bell's sensual performance, they bordered on ugly.

The intermission was moved around so that the American pieces were concluded in the first half, and the French in the second, beginning with two of Satie's Gymnopedies (as per the composer's request), haltingly lovely in their string form. Chausson's carefully woven Chanson perpetuelle followed, and again, I felt a distinct separation from the performers. Several times I could not hear the cellist, and the pianist's notes were lost. It only became clear to me during the Faure that it was the venue itself that was the difference.

While The Paramount Theater is a lovely hall, it did not do service to the chamber music. Old Cabell Hall provided a much more intimate setting, cordial to the music itself. The Paramount sucked the intimacy away, and I missed it very much.

Please do not mistake my meaning: The Paramount has had some lovely performances for which I have been in attendance, but it cannot match Old Cabell Hall for warmth and nurturing of small ensembles.

I do hope that the Charlottesville Chamber Music Festival continues on a long and prosperous life here in Central Virginia. Hearing chamber music, well-played, from modern composers, along with the more traditional pieces, is a great boon to Charlottesville.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Letter From Salzburg

The 2011 Salzburg Festival, July 27-Aug. 30, was the usual combination of outstanding musical performances and high society. This writer attended performances from Aug. 20-28. The project to reroof the Felsenreitschule has been concluded, and the hall is an acoustic and visual wonder. Few performance halls in the world have such an impressive entrance area. Verdi's Macbeth was the featured event in an attractive, if conventional production conducted by Riccardo Muti.

Among the highlights from performances of about a week were Janacek's The Makropoulos Case, starring Angela Denoke, who just about owns the role of Emilia Marty. Anna Netrebko has become a Salzburg favorite, and she did not disappoint in a concert performance of Tchaikovsky's Iolanta, which was paired with Stravinsky's Le Rossignol. Netrebko and Polish star tenor Pyotr Beczala had the Grosses Festspielhaus audience in a frenzy after their passionate performance of the love duet that is the highlight of Iolanta.

One of the guest orchestras this year was the Chicago Symphony Orchestra conducted by its recently designated music director, Riccardo Muti. In two concerts the highlights were Parts I and II of Prokofiev's suite from Romeo et Juliette and Shostakovich's Fifth Symphony. It is always interesting to compare and contrast the guest orchestras to the plush, warm string sound of the Vienna Philharmonic, which summers at the Salzburg Festival as the pit orchestra for most operas.

Muti's performances with Chicago were razor-sharp, every detail in place, and no nuance left unexplored. The legendary Chicago brass has lost none of the brilliance for which it has been justly renowned since Fritz Reiner's time. Muti's Shostakovich was in the triumphant mode, as contrasted with Valery Gergiev's angry, bitter, bleak rendition of the work heard three years ago in Salzburg with his Mariinsky Orchestra.

No praise is too high for the stupendous playing of the Vienna Philharmonic and inspired conducting of Christian Thielemann in Richard Strauss's Die Frau ohne Schatten, which overcame even the odd staging by Christof Loy. Anne Schwanewilms was not a particularly inspired Empress, but the stage was dominated by the heroic voice of Evelyn Herlitzius as the Dyer's Wife. Michaela Schuster as the Nurse, Wolfgang Koch as a sympathetic Barak, and Stephen Gould as the Emperor all sang capably. Surely the score could not be better played or conducted.

Another Salzburg favorite is Maurizio Pollini, who is programming and recording the Beethoven sonatas. In the Grosses Festspielhaus he played the sonatas Op. 54, 53, 78, and 57. His playing still has the pristine clarity, dignified phrasing, and immaculate musicianship that make his performances legendary. The passage work was flawless, the pedaling was subtle, and his conception of the works was logical and inspired. The performance of the Appassionata in particular bore comparison to any other heard by this writer.

Overall, it was a great Festival. I can hardly wait until 2012.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Contemporary classics from Cincinnati

American Portraits
Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra  
Paavo Jarvi, conductor  
CSO Media

The Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra used to be one of the crown jewels of the Telarc label -- back in the day. Now they join an increasing number of orchestras who are self-releasing their material. And like their former label mates the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra, they're starting off with a strong release of interesting and compelling repertoire.

American Portraits showcases works by living (and relatively young) American composers. Several of these pieces received their premier with the CSO. All are well-crafted compositions that bear up to repeated listening.

Charles Coleman has two works on the album. "Streetscape" opens the program. It's reminiscent of Bernstein's "West Side Story" overture, but with a higher level of energy. "Deep Woods" is a very different piece. It opens in a frantic and disjointed manner that, ( to me anyway) conveys a feeling of unease and disorientation of being lost in the woods.

Jennifer Higdon's "Fanfare Ritmico" wasn't premiered by the CSO, but they turn in a rousing performance nevertheless. This is short, festive occasional work that, as the tile suggest, has a good beat. The fun continues with "Slalom" by Carter Pann. It starts out with a quick quote from Beethoven, then makes a light-hearted run through the orchestra at break-neck speed. Slalom, indeed!

"Halcyon Sun" is an amazing example of orchestral mastery. Jonathan Bailey Holland creates a work that shimmers as light through a prism. The last work, "Network," by Kevin Puts is a short, good-natured composition that ends the program on a high note. American Portraits is impeccably recorded. Even though these are live performances the sound has a good amount of detail, and the audience (with one exception) unusually quiet.

Paavo Jarvi conducts with authority and conviction, making the case for all of these works by leading the orchestra in lively and energetic performances.American Portraits makes the case that music in this country is not just alive, but full of life as well. Highly recommended.

You can hear selections from this CD on WTJU -- we'll be airing them over the next month or so. Keep listening!

Monday, September 12, 2011

Review: Cello concertos that show what might have been

Martinu, Hindemith, Honegger
Cello Concertos
Johannes Moser, cello
Deutsche Radio Philharmonie
Christoph Poppen, conductor
Hanssler Classic, 93.276

What if classical music had taken a different turn in the mid-Twentieth century. Cellist Johannes Moser gives us a hint with his latest release of concertos. He presents three works by composers who all wrote in a somewhat tonal style.

Paul Hindemith wrote music that he believed to be the logical extension of the works of the great masters. His 1940 cello concerto is a brawny, intense work, meticulously constructed to work out its musical arguments. And yet there's nothing stiff or academic about the piece. The concerto present its musical arguments in a forthright and natural manner.

Swiss composer Arthur Honegger was more concerned about melody. From the sweeping lyricism of the opening movements to the crashing chords of the finale, the cello sings its song accompanied by the orchestra. This 1930 work occasionally betrays a hint of jazz, but it never degenerates to cliche.

Boheslav Martinu's music sounds like no one else's. His chords shimmer, his harmonies slide about, always consonant, yet never quite settling on a particular key. The music is often propelled forward with engaging folk-based rhythms that help keep things slightly off-balance. Martinu's first cello concerto, finished in 1930 isn't a landmark composition, but it provides a solid introduction to the composer's style. 

Johannes Moser moves effortlessly through all three works, adapting his playing to the composer's styles. Regardless of the technical challenges, his playing never sounds forced, and at times his cello seems to positively sing. The Deutsche Radio Philharmonie led by Christoph Poppen gives these works a spirited reading, nicely complementing Moser's playing.

This is a new addition to the WTJU library, so listen for it on air.

Recommended to anyone interested in unusual repertoire. And if you *hate* 20th Century music, you really should get a copy of this disc!

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Robert Moran's Trinity Requiem for 9/11

Trinity Requiem: 
The Choral Music of Robert Moran
Trinity Youth Chorus; The Esoterics; 
Musica Sacra
Innova 224

To mark the tenth anniversary of 11 September 2001, the Trinity Church Wall Street (Ground Zero) commissioned Philadelphia-based composer Robert Moran to compose a requiem for the Trinity youth choir. The Trinity Requiem is a marvelous and moving work; the piece is scored for harps, cellos, and organ, and the youth chorus is joined by only a few adult members of the Trinity Choir.

The "Introit" begins the piece with two long chords that, to me, appear as a summons or calling forth to witness the tragic events of our time. The youth chorus then begins with the Kyrie, reminding me very much of the purity of one of my favorite choral pieces, the Faure Requiem, but with something more modern added, an other-worldly sense that I hear in the music of Arvo Part. The offertory in the middle of the Requiem consists of a beautiful, yet somewhat melancholy, interlude that allows more space for reflection than does the music set to text.

On the recording, a siren is heard passing the church at the beginning of the offertory. This was not planned, of course, and Mr. Moran explains in the liner notes that they decided that the "alarm" was worth preserving as a reminder that the World Trade Center had been just behind Trinity Church ten years ago. The simplicity of the "In Paradisium" section, which closes the piece, while tinged with melancholy, also leaves one with a sense of serenity and peace.

I'll be playing the Trinity Requiem some time during my show, Classical Sunrise (6 AM to 9 AM) on WTJU 91.1 FM, Sunday, 11 September, as part of my own effort to commemorate this tenth anniversary of 9/11. Please tune in. I think that you'll be moved by what you hear.

NOTE: This program is available in the WTJU Tape Vault through September 25, 2011 if you miss the live broadcast.