Wednesday, September 10, 2014

A Review of "Horn Discoveries" by Sarah Willis


Sarah Willis, Kotowa Machida, and Philip Mayers 

A new recording by Sarah Willis is a welcome occasion. Willis has developed a powerful presence on the classical music scene for her innovative and charismatic interviews, commentaries, live chats, and other televisionary productions. But she is a musician first, and her new recording called “Horn Discoveries,” is a worthy addition to her discography.

It is no simple matter to program newly written works. One has little ability to predict the final shape, complexity, quirks, or ultimately the personality of the music one requests. How can one be certain of the way they will share space on a recording? Willis worked with close colleagues and friends and was comfortable enough with each person to make very specific requests and/or alterations. The end result is a recording that has a pleasing shape, centered on the horn trio medium but spiced with works for horn and piano, and for two horns.  

The most exciting work was saved for last. Mason Bates is a composer on the rise. His works, often featuring electronica and unusual percussion parts, are beginning to making the rounds. I reviewed his work “Alternative Energy” as performed by the Hartford Symphony last spring.

The opening movement of the Bates work on this recording, called “Mainframe Topics,” was woven from colorful rhythmic threads pulled tight in ideas that develop fluently into refreshing and often surprising directions. The first movement connects directly into a lyrical interlude called “Marine Snow” in which the interplay of lyrical lines is entrancing and the high horn writing (and playing) is quite lovely. The transformation of ideas in the final movement is successful and entertaining. This is a significant work, like others by this composer, and is a solid addition to the horn trio literature.

I was also fond of the five short works written for two horns by Klaus Wallendorf. Wallendorf is a longtime member of the horn section of the Berliner Philharmoniker, and a gifted composer and arranger. He speaks numerous languages and is clever and funny in all of them. Like his verbal virtuosity, these five short pieces for horn duet move in and out of idioms fluently. Behind the references and puns is an almost hidden planning and sophistication. They are each built well. To listen carefully is to smile.

The recording includes six arrangements of famous short works, each rethought for horn trio by David Riniker. Riniker is a Swiss cellist who been a member of the cello section of the Berlin Philharmonic since 1995.

Often the most familiar tunes are taken for granted. So are arrangements of them. But Riniker has arranged each with imagination. The famous “Melodie” by Tchaikovsky is the final movement of his Souvenir d'un lieu cher (Memory of a place beloved), written during a two-week stay at a residence of his patroness Nadezhda von Meck. She was not there. The two loved the dance of suggestion and anticipation. They never met.

The transcription is set in the same key as the original for violin and piano. The horn sings the opening melodic phrase, then the violin takes over, but the interplay between the original and the adaptation is effective.

Tchaikovsky’s Nocturne, Op.19 No. 4 that follows is transposed to D minor. There is a short cadenza prior to the tempo I, and the closing moments are thinned. Listen for the piano line, it sounds fresh and surprising because the role of the piano was submerged to give the horn room.

The Dvořák “Humoreske” Op. 101 No. 7, was transposed up a half-step to G major.  The interlude is rich and lovely in arrangement, and the performance is joyful. The horn solo at the più lento is strong and bold. The final presentation of the famous tune is tasty.

The arrangement of the “Romance de Nadir” from the Bizet’s opera “Les pêcheurs des perles” is an opportunity to hear how the horn can produce long lyrical lines filled with vocal expression. Willis plays the line simply and allows its energy to unfold slowly the way the best singers would.

The arrangement of “Clair de lune” by Debussy is a great example of how the piece should be performed in its original piano solo version. Debussy notated stretched time into the score, so very little needs to be stretched beyond it. Listen and learn.

In the final arrangement of L'Abeille (The Bee) from the Op. 13 collection for violin and piano by François (not Franz!!) Schubert. Willis proves that the horn can “bee” with the best of them.

The recording opens with “Song of a New World” by Richard Bissill, who was Principal Horn of the London Philharmonic Orchestra from 1984-2009 and is now Principal Horn of the Orchestra of the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden.

The construction of the work seems flawed. The music returns too predictably to a motive that is over exposed. The music emerges out of extended soliloquy, but then only a few minutes later a second extended soliloquy stops the unfolding. But there are effective moments, and the final section is supercharged and worth the wait.

This is a recording that holds up to repeated listenings. It has a nice recorded presence. The placements and balances were logical. Cheers to pianist Philip Mayers who supports much more than it might appear on first listening. Mayers can make the background sing, then effortlessly glide into the spotlight, disappearing again before you realize how great he sounded. Violinist Kotowa Machida brought the virtuosity of blending into perfect focus.

Willis has harmonized a recording of diverse ensembles, composers and musicians. This is a recording that would be a welcome gift for a good friend.

Monday, August 4, 2014

La bohème by Opera Theater of Connecticut in Clinton

Maksim Ivanov as Marcello, Lisa Williamson as Musetta, 
Shannon Kessler Dooley as Mimi, and Joshua Kohl as Rodolfo
photo by Alan Casavant 

Nothing is more refreshing than snow in August--even when that snow is made by machine during Act III of La bohème. The opportunity to hear this ever-popular Puccini masterpiece given by a trustworthy local opera company is at hand for all within commuting distance of Clinton, Connecticut this week. The opera will be given on Tuesday, August 5, Thursday, August 7 and Saturday, August 9 at 7:30pm and Sunday, August 10 at 6pm at the Andrews Memorial Theater on 54 East Main Street.

I had the opportunity to hear the dress rehearsal on Sunday evening. It was a pleasure to attend this event, where so much came together and where refinements were made on the fly. One cannot review a dress rehearsal because there is still time for changes prior to opening night. But a few words will serve in anticipation.  

General Director Kate Ford, and Opera Theater of Connecticut’s artistic team of Production Director Alan Mann and Music Director Kyle Swann have put together a very effective cast ensemble, and they are on display in an extremely fluid second act. The chorus and children's chorus were both impressive and well-balanced, and the stage action was detailed and entertaining throughout the entire act. 

Lisa Williamson impressed as Musetta. She delivered lines with rhythmically precise diction and created a wide range of expression within the part. Shannon Kessler Dooley as Mimì, and Joshua Kohl as Rodolfo both had big voices that could soar over the orchestra and were at their best when they were able to plant and let their sound resonate. Their duet at the close of Act I was amazing.

The cast also featured Maksìm Ivanov as Marcello, Ryan Burns as Schaunard, and Aaron Sorensen as Colline who sang a darkly warm "Vecchia zimarra." Laurentiu Rotaru was clever and entertaining in both roles he covered: Benoît the landlord and Alcindoro the unfortunate lover of Musetta who gets stuck with the bill for act II.

Conductor Kyle Swann had the orchestra sounding quite good, and this production is sure to please on opening night.

Monday, June 23, 2014

Oboist Albrecht Mayer appears on Prelude & Food

 Sarah Willis, Albrecht Mayer, and Markus Becker playing Herzogenberg

The latest episode of "Prelude & Food" hosted by Sarah Willis has just been released for viewing on the finkernagel & lück medienproduktion website. This episode is centered on oboist Albrecht Mayer who teaches the way toward a delicious looking Lamb ragôut while also giving us fascinating, and at times quite powerful insights, into this musician who contributes so much to the sound of the modern Berliner Philharmoniker. 

The concept of this series is clever. Standard interview contexts often produce standard interview dialog. Cooking with a small group of friends is a chamber music of its own, and Willis can listen, interact, and respond with great spontaneity while never losing focus on the larger progressions.

As you watch this episode (which lasts about an hour) notice how the pacing shifts, and how the feeling of relaxed intimacy develops. Mayer has a complex high-energy personality, and its richness opens throughout the episode.

While the food appeared to be good, the musical selections were particularly tasty. At [40:00] listen for the excerpt from the second movement presto of the Horn Trio in D major, Op. 61 written in 1889 by Heinrich von Herzogenberg. Herzogenberg was connected to Brahms, but was better known as a champion of the music of Bach.

At [52:50] Mayer and Becker play the "Liebesruf eines Faun" for English horn & Piano by Hans Steinmetz (1901-1975). Both musical works appear on Mayer's 2012 Decca CD called "Song of the Reeds."

But the most touching moment is Mayer's confession that he considers himself an "insecure person." If you watch the scene unfold from [42:00] you will discover how the conversation developed. As a child he stuttered [45:37] and found that by channeling his energy through the oboe that he was able to overcome this significant challenge. His ability to communicate, both verbally and musical, is so fluent that one would never imagine that he had these particular challenges. That he felt comfortable enough to share this kind of information reveals inner strength and its own kind of confidence.

Of the four episodes currently available for viewing this one is my favorite. Please share information about this series and let's hope that there are many more episodes to follow!

Sunday, June 8, 2014

Variations on Knightly Character with Bychkov in the Digital Concert Hall

Delepelaire taking cue from Bychkov

"Fantastic Variation on a Theme of Knightly Character." This elaborate subtitle was a way for Richard Strauss to indicate that there was more going on in his tone poem called Don Quixote than an ear-movie based on Cervantes.

He could have subtitled the work "a really challenging piece for cello soloist." But that would not seem to hold true for the amazing young cellist Bruno Delepelaire, who joined the Berliner Philharmoniker as a resident cello soloist last November. Delepelaire made it look easy. But more importantly made the music sound graceful, charming, and believable. In a part filled with color and interaction with all corners of the orchestra, Delepelaire sought and found a meditative element in this depiction of a doomed idealist. Máté Szűcs impressed with the viola solo which he played while also leading the viola section. Szűcs resonated the wit and humor of his lines and blazed with the fluidity of his passagework. 

Commentators often talk about plot concept in this work, but the personality of motives and lines as they combine and transform are even more vivid. In the Berliner Philharmoniker, the musical personality of each soloist is so distinct that when Albrect Mayer play the G major "Dulcinea" line, or when Andreas Ottensamer leaned on the highest notes of the cadential gesture led by the clarinet, it sounded as authentic personality articulating authentic personality.

Conductor Semyon Bychkov inspired a "concerto for orchestra" concept.The interplay between chamber music intimacy and large ensemble sound was effective and insightful in this performance. A great place to study this elaborate layering was the music in F-sharp major in variation 3, where the orchestral weight suddenly leaned to reveal entwined  lines played by solo cello and oboe. During this variation there was also a carefully placed camera angle that caught the tambourine trill.

There are many colorful nuances in this score: places where only two desks of violins play divided. We could have used some additional wide-angle camera shots to help us contextualize these moments. The wide-angle camera views during Variation 7 and 10 were effective in this regard.

If you are new to this work, you cannot do better than to listen to the interval talk with Sarah Willis interviewing Delepelaire and Szűcs. Willis focused important details of the work while keeping things relaxed. In this work about personality we learned something of the personality of these musicians.

Don Quixote has one of the great quiet endings in the orchestral literature. Bychkov held onto the silence after the final notes had dimmed. The Don dies at the close of the work, and the peaceful sense of the music should make us wonder. Bychkov is great at articulating strangeness in music, and he caught this one perfectly.

It was a sense of strangeness that most stood out in this performance of Schubert's Great Symphony in C major. The terrifying moment when the second movement comes unhinged was also given a long pause by Bychkov. The pause made the cello line that followed seem like a Don Quixote moment of realization in Schubert.

Bychkov framed this central crisis by emphasizing the final gesture of the second theme group on either side of it. The hovering quality of these passages resonated and connected.

To listen for when this performance comes into the archive: Bychkov chose very clever tempo relationships not only within the first movement in the shift from the andante into the allegro non troppo, but also between movements. The entire symphony seemed made from variations developed from a root tempo.
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