Saturday, September 24, 2011

Bychkov wins in the Digital Concert Hall

Conductor Semyon Bychkov returned to lead the Berliner Philharmoniker in a tasty program transmitted through the Digital Concert Hall. This is the fourth event that Bychkov has conducted that will enter the permanent archives of the orchestra, making Bychkov and Bernard Haitink the most frequently represented guest conductors in the collection of over 100 concerts.

Bychkov gets a remarkable sound from the orchestra. What is it about the way that Bychkov conducts that makes this sound? Perhaps the combination of practical gestures and transparent sincerity in his visual contact with the orchestra. Whatever it is, he won the day.

The program opened with "Rendering" by Luciano Berio. The work is a meditation on the fragments of a tenth symphony that Schubert left behind at his death. Schubert's ghost couldn't have orchestrated these fragments any better than Berio. And Berio left the fragments as they were without trying to finish them.

During the gaps Berio composed and inserted whimsical music that sounds the whispered celestial distances from our world to Schubert's. It was these passages that made the deepest impression in this performance. Led by Bychkov, the Berliner Philharmoniker explored the riches within these interludes and focused many shifting and intricate streams of sound.

It is common to hear orchestras phase out during these passages and simply present a single quiet tableau of undifferentiated sound. When that happens the differences between the Schubert style and the interlude style sounds inorganic and false.

Too much has been made of any similarity between the opening tune of the second movement in "Rendering" and the distorted music of the third movement of Mahler I. There is more difference than similarity. And oboist Albrecht Mayer played the lyrical tune from Berio/Schubert with a rich and full sounding lyricism that made this distinction clear.

The contrast between the broken fragility of the second movement and the playful joy of the third movement was something that Bychkov was great at communicating. The shift of attitudes was powerful.

Mayer returned to the stage by himself after intermission to perform Berio's Sequenza VII for solo oboe. This performance used a live (instead of recorded) drone on the pitch [B] which was played from the wings above the stage. Normally one only hears this work on chamber concerts and it was refreshing to hear it performed by an orchestral specialist in a huge space. Mayer successfully moved between the fixed and improvisatory sections that are woven into the music fabric of this work and produced richly colored multiphonics. Mayer is so musical he makes you wonder why everyone doesn't choose to play the oboe.

The performance concluded with William Walton's Symphony No. 1. During the interlude Sarah Willis talked with Bychkov about the differences between playing this work with an English orchestra and a German orchestra, many members of which had never played the work. Bychkov said that there were different kinds of challenges with all orchestras.

What he meant by that became more obvious when he started conducting the work. Bychkov has a very distinct sonic conception of this symphony--it does not sound like an unknown symphony by Sibelius in his hands. Bychkov seemed to inspire the musicians to rely on the lyrical qualities in the work, and to allow them to make the same rich but clear textures that won the day in Berio/Schubert. Surprisingly the rhythmic vitality of the work did not need to be compromised, but we often made progress through great spans of music in ways that almost seemed unfamiliar and new. Bychkov certainly knows where all the hallways lead in the haunted mansion that is the Walton first symphony.

 I can see why the Berliner Philharmoniker loves Bychkov. Bring him back soon!

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Mahler 8 in the Digital Concert Hall

The Berliner Philharmoniker took on Mahler's Symphony No. 8, for only the seventh time in its history, in a performance that was transmitted live in the Digital Concert Hall. It was an event of significant magnitude that brought together a bewildering confluence of forces and efforts both in performance and in transmition.

Conductor Simon Rattle prefaced the symphony with two choral works, the Crucifixus by Antonio Lotti, and the infamous 40-part motet "Spem in alium" by Thomas Tallis. While these works felt a little elbowed-out of place by the massive opening movement of the Mahler Symphony, they served two important functions. First, their 15 minute combined duration made an intermission in between movements of the Mahler symphony seem workable. Secondly, they represented texts from the sacred tradition set within a sacred context.

This context was important. In Mahler 8, the first movement explores the secular implications of personal creativity within a sacred text, and the second movement treats a secular text with sacred implications.

Rattle produced a performance with clear goals. The lift into E major in the opening section "Accende lumen sensibus" had the energy and had the optimism of encoded aesthetic realization. Rattle prolonged the intensity of this section with terrific authority, through the marches, the double fugue, the parenthetical interlude of soloists in D-flat major, and landed back with perfect force back in E-flat major. This kind of lift and subsequent directional goals made the second movement feel increasingly operatic.

The combined forces of the MDR Rundfunkchor Leipzig and the Rundfunkchor Berlin sounded great. They were particularly impressive during the awakening chorus & echoes of their second movement entrance. Often one hears only staccato sound from singers during this passage, but these choirs created a resonant, ringing sound that made the text seem divine rather than spooky.

The soloists blended effectively in ensemble. Of the soloists, Bass John Relyea gave a vibrant and carefully conceived performance as Pater Profundus. He made us both consider, and luxuriate in, music that can sound transitional.

There were moments where the special chamber music qualities of this work came through. Examples include the music for solo strings in both movements, and that wonderful passage in E major where the harps and sectional violins take us to a different realm (just before the choir sings Dir, der Unberührbaren). But there were also moments, as with the passages for mandolin, where the sound did not carry over the wires as one would have hoped.

The chorus mysticus gave me chills. "Alles Vergängliche," whispered the choir, "ist nur ein Gleichnis." The digital age has given us new possibilities for permanence. The combined effort and spirit of this performance might well teach us to think in new ways.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Program Notes, October 2011

by Jeffrey Johnson

Throughout 2011-2012 we celebrate Maestro Gustav Meier’s 40 years as our Music Director. We open our season with a near reprise of the very first program that conductor Gustav Meier performed with the Greater Bridgeport Symphony in 1971.

For this concert, three of the four pieces are identical. The 1971 program also included a newly composed work. Because Maestro Meier is known for his commitment to high-quality new music, this program will also feature a recently composed work; a symphony by Robert Sirota called “212.”

This program is organized in sonic symmetry—a single movement work followed by a symphony, then after intermission a symphony followed by a single movement work. It is a design built without the use of chorus, without soloists, and without a concerto.

The Debussy Prelude and the Tchaikovsky Fantasie-Overture on Romeo & Juliet launched their young and still unknown composers into international acclaim. The symphonies at the center of the program feature composers who were well known within the musical community at the time the works were written. Both symphonies contemplate memory. The Schumann Symphony No. 4 is saturated with self-memory. It is the testament of a composer who was beginning to drown in a complex inner-state. “212” is a work that contemplates the memory of a place (Manhattan), and of a person who made that place come alive.

Claude Debussy (1862–1918)
Prélude à l'après-midi d'un faune
(Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun)

World Premiere: December 22, 1894 in Paris
Most Recent Performance by GBS: April 25, 1998

This “faune” was no fawn. The mythological faune that inspired this work was a forest spirit, a human head with goat horns—all goat from the waist down to the feet. The faune inhabits a poem written by Stéphane Mallarmé (1842-1898) from which the work derives its title.

The poem is a monolog spoken directly by the faune to himself. It speaks in a language of hazy symbols, and there is never a plot without the presence of contradiction.

This faune was a musician. Like Pan, he cut reeds from a marsh to play upon the pipes. The poem describes how the Faune’s breath passed through the instrument to produce music that became part of nature itself: “Le visible et serein souffle artificiel / De l’inspiration, qui regagne le ciel (the visible and serene artificial breath / which regains the sky.)” This imagery helps explain the distinctive sound world of Debussy’s orchestration.

Debussy loved this poem. He transformed its musical qualities into one of the most iconic openings ever written—a single flute playing an elusive chromatic tune “doux et expressif (quietly and espressively),” while outlining a tritone; the most dissonant, yet symmetrical, interval.

Listen as four settings of this opening tune are played by the flute, each shaded differently. The fluid, almost improvisational quality of the music comes from notation that is detailed and complex. The challenge for any orchestra is to make its elusiveness sound effortless.

A richly contoured transition lasting several minutes escalates the intensity of expression, and then subsides as the music locks into D-flat major. A lyrical tune unfolds in winds, then full strings, and finally on solo violin.

Four new settings of the opening tune follow to close the work. We find our home in E major during the third statement of the theme (which is marked by the first use of antique cymbals). We are greeted there by the solo violin; an old friend.

Debussy began writing this Prelude in 1892 at the age of thirty, and put the finishing touches on it two years later. It was music that made him famous.

Robert Schumann (1810–1856)
Symphony No. 4

World Premiere: December 6, 1841, in Leipzig.
Revised version March 3, 1853, in Dusseldorf
Most Recent Performance by GBS: January 25, 1997

From 1830 to 1843 Robert Schumann wrote music with an almost single-minded approach to timbre. His first 23 published works were all for solo piano and they occupied him occupied him until the onset of his marriage to the internationally successful pianist Clara Wieck in 1840. During the first year of his marriage, often called the “Liederjahr (song-year)” he completed 168 songs in 365 days.

1841 was a year of symphonies. Having somehow completed his “Overture, Scherzo & Finale” during the Liederjahr, Schumann turned to the symphonic form by writing his first symphony (nicknamed the “Spring Symphony”), and then writing the first version of the symphony that would become known as his fourth.

On a Saturday evening, May 29, 1841, Schumann noted in his personal diary that he had received inspiration in a sudden flash and was ready to write this symphony. He completed the work in 103 days, finishing in early September. Parts were copied and the work was premiered in December. But Schumann delayed publication of the work for ten years and gave it a complete overhaul before publishing it as op. 120. In the interim the second and third symphonies had been published, so op. 120 became known as the Symphony No. 4.

The most significant changes involved a thickening of textures. Schumann sought a burdened sound. The music also explored the premise that any particular musical idea need not reside in only one movement, but that ideas could resurface in unexpected locations throughout the symphony. It is this technique that gives the work its sense of remembering; of exploring thoughts whose significance changes with new contexts.

All four movements of this symphony are directly connected. But in spite of the lack of breaks between movements, the symphony has the prototypical symphonic shape, where an expansive opening movement gives way to a slow movement, a dance, and then a finale.

Remember the music you hear in the introduction to the opening movement, it will reappear in the central section of the slow movement beneath arabesques played by the solo violin. It will also appear again, twice, in the third movement where it acts as a trio.

You would be correct to expect the galloping theme that opens that exposition of the first movement to return in a recapitulation, but it does not. Instead Schumann explores the dramatic potentials of lyrical melodies set against restlessness music, and ends the movement without a complete resolution of his materials. There are many other tricks, and many other connections, listen for places where things seem strangely familiar. This is a symphony of déjà vu.

Robert Sirota  (October 13, 1949)
212: Symphony No. 1

World Premiere: January 2008, Manhattan School of Music
This is the first performance of the work by the GBS

Internationally recognized composer Robert Sirota was born in New York City and has been the President of Manhattan School of Music since 2005. His portfolio includes six other works for orchestra including In the Fullness of Time, for organ and orchestra, which has been played with increasing frequency, and three concertos. He has written numerous works for chorus and symphonic band, three short operas, a full-length music theatre piece, and a varied assortment of chamber works.

“212” is the classic telephone area code for Manhattan. The numbers were assigned in 1947. Manhattan was intentionally given preferential treatment—it was the quickest possible number for an area code that could be dialed using the old rotary phones. The influx of cell-phones made 917 and even 646 resident on the island.

There is no sense of 917 or 646 in this “212,” which evokes images of classic Manhattan and was dedicated by the composer to the memory of his father who was, according to Sirota, “a truly great New Yorker.”

Sirota’s work opens with a movement called “Approaches” that invokes the massive skyscrapers encountered when approaching the island from almost any of its bridges. The raw intensity of the opening focuses into an ethereal “shimmering” central section where distilled solos pass from solo trumpet, to clarinet, and finally to solo violin before the passage begins to retrace its steps, finding once again the intensity of the opening.

“The end of the first movement,” wrote Sirota, “is interrupted by a subway train (specifically, the Number 2 express rumbling through the 59th Street station) which dissolves, without pause, into the second movement, “Do Not Hold Doors.”

Sirota based the musical scoring of the second movement on an unexpected feature of this common piece of subway advice. “I liked the fact that its four words contain, consecutively, two, three, four, and five letters, wrote Sirota. “The primary theme, introduced by a quartet of saxophones, is a syncopated four-chord tune in which the chords consist, respectively, of two, three, four, and five notes.” The second movement may begin in the subway, but there is a jazz club right above it; and we are going in!

The third movement is an invocation of Ground Zero. Sirota crafted this music from the central movement of his string quartet called “Triptych,” which was originally composed in 2002.

The finale, called “O Manhattan” is set around a big tune played for the first time by offstage horns. “This finale is a hymn to our Manhattan,” wrote Sirota, “more precious and hopeful than ever.”

Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky  (1840–1893)
Overture-Fantasy on Romeo and Juliet

World Premiere: March 16, 1870, in Moscow.
Final Version: May 1, 1886, in Tbilisi, Georgia.
Most Recent Performance by GBS: November 4, 2006

In the spring of 1868 the twenty-eight year old Tchaikovsky met, and developed a collegial relationship with, the composer Mily Balakirev who was conductor of the Russian Musical Society Orchestra in Saint Petersburg. Balakirev suggested the idea of writing a work for the RMS based on Romeo and Juliet and even brainstormed various structural strategies with Tchaikovsky.

The work was completed, dedicated to Balakirev, and premiered in the spring of 1870. Because of the particular way in which this music encoded a dramatic arc into classical sonata form, it needed two cycles of revision before it found its final form in 1886. As a result of this extended genesis the work never received an opus number.

Prior to reaching its final form in 1886 the work was slow to catch fire with the public, but since then it has become of the most frequently performed of all Tchaikovsky’s works. It is famous for the unforgettable sweep of its love music, a passage that maintains its impressivenss in spite of being used in advertisements, cartoons, and parodies since the advent of modern media.

This love music is set against fighting music that represents the clash of families and outbreak of violence in the original play. But it was the introduction and coda that encase this conflict that gave Tchaikovsky the most trouble. He needed a way to set the atmosphere for this story, and an effective way to comment on the significance of the action after it had taken place.

The solution for the introduction centered on two parallel panels of music, the second echoed a half-step lower than the first. The music has a narrative quality that feels confessional, quietly singing to us, and focusing our attention and preparing for an imaginary rise of the curtain.

The coda is recognizable in the pulsing of the timpani as the cellos unfold a minor-key version of music that sounds like a hymn. Soon the strings voice a transformation of the love theme with the harp strumming in the background in a texture that suggests a heavenly context. Perhaps Tchaikovsky meant to suggest that the love of Romeo and Juliet transcended mortality and survived in an eternal plane of reality.

A loud roll on the timpani and several short fanfare articulations from the orchestra shake us from this dream world back into the present.

For additional information,
contact the Greater Bridgeport Symphony.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Digital Morgenkonzerte on the East Coast; Nelsons Conducts the Berliner Philharmoniker

Around 1772 Mozart started a series of early morning concerts in the Garden Hall of the Palais Augarten in Vienna. Later this series was taken over by the great violinist Ignaz Schuppanzigh, who premiered many late Beethoven string quartets.

It is rare to have the opportunity to review live music that begins at 5:00 am on the east coast, but this event transmitted over the Digital Concert Hall was actually an afternoon concert in Berlin. Over here it was dark when Andris Nelsons took the podium to conduct Pfitzner and Kaminski, but after intermission the sun rose during a work by Wolfgang Rihm, which gave that work an extra dimension. The concert ended with the Rosenkavalier Suite.

Andris Nelsons is best known in the US for his Met performances. He conducted Turandot in a run from October through January 2010, and most recently he conducted Queen of Spades last March. But he has also conducted at the Royal Opera House Covent Garden, the Wiener Staatsoper, and he conducted Lohengrin at the Bayreuth Festival in the summer of 2010.

Nelsons bubbles with smiles. He has the most cheerful countenance of any conductor I recall having seen. His spirit is good for an orchestra with the intensity of the Berliner Philharmoniker, and this joyfulness came across most clearly in the Rosenkavalier Suite that closed the program.

We know that the waltz sequence in Rosenkavalier is a parody; that the waltzes represent the use of refinement as a weapon to control people's actions and life trajectories. They are dances that reflect the crumbling of the waltz idiom. Nelsons nevertheless smiled all the way through them, accenting their charm, and the wit and humor of their parody. Unlike the opera, the suite ends with a boisterous coda that gives us once last chance to roast Baron Ochs. Nelsons made the sound itself laugh.

The program began with the second act prelude to the opera Palestrina by Pfitzner. Nelsons took a quick tempo and angled the energy of the opening toward the ominous and grand music in G minor marked "Rhythmus von je 3 Takten" in the score. The work had a convincing sweep, though the concert ending, with its explicit reference to the music at the opening was a disappointment. It would have been better to end the prelude as it ends in the opera; slightly off-balance and unresolved. The prelude represents a moment in the opera Palestrina where things could have gone in any direction.

The centerpiece of this event presented two tasty works.

We seldom get to hear music by Heinrich Kaminski (1886-1946) in the States, so his Dorian Music was welcome. Cast in three movements, Dorian Music is guided by a curious logic that is a mixture of styles and compositional attitudes. The work has a concerto grosso feel and was built around a string trio. The trio, and especially violist Amihai Grosz, played with rich inflections and quiet elegance. Nelsons was able to integrate the complex banding in this work to produce a coherent whole.

After intermission we heard the concerto for trumpet and percussionist called Marsyas by Wolfgang Rihm, who was in attendance. Marsyas was the figure in Greek Mythology who challenged Apollo to a musical contest. He lost both the contest and his life. Hmmm. Just goes to show ya.

Trumpeter Gábor Tarkövi and percussionist Jan Schlichte joined the orchestra as soloists. Rihm's work requires amazing endurance from the trumpet soloist who remains almost constantly engaged throughout the 15-minute concerto.

The music is filled with ghosts and echos. Its textures often sounds as if eternal return had thickened the events of the myth into a sounding shadow that followed the events even as they first happened. Schlichte shifted from marimba to 7 side drums as the music progressed into the sounding of the competition itself. The closing of the work shifts suddenly into a parody of jazz that quickly dissolves into a questioning ending.

This morgenkonzerte was refreshing. I can see why the original Mozart series was such a success--it is a great time of day to hear great music.

Saturday, September 3, 2011

"Sedaka's Back" into Classical Music

If you hear "laughter in the rain, walking hand-in-hand," with the one you love it is probably residue from the winter of 1974 when Neil Sedaka's impossibly catchy tune was all over the radio. The song was recorded on an album marking his return to the world of pop music called "Sedaka's Back."

But in 2009 Sedaka really went back...all the way his roots, which were in classical music. That year, Sedaka began writing an extended work for piano and orchestra called "Manhattan Intermezzo," which he played with the Cincinnati and St. Louis Pops earlier this year.

Born in Brooklyn in 1939, Sedaka began playing piano in second grade and by age eight had successfully entered Juilliard Prep. He studied with Edgar Roberts at the Julliard Precollege and then became a student of Adele Marcus when he entered the upper division.

"This guy is a legend," said pianist Jeffrey Biegel, "he comes from the classics, and the GUY was GOOD!" According to Biegel, Marcus related stories about Arthur Rubinstein having heard Sedaka play the Chopin G minor Ballade and reported that Sedaka was one of the most talented high-school pianists in New York City at that time.

Biegel also studied with Adele Marcus, and has reworked the figuration of the Sedaka Intermezzo. Biegel will present this newly adapted version of the work on September 12 with Orchestra Kentucky in Bowling Green, conducted by Jeffrey Reed.

"In addition to composing a piece," wrote Sedaka in his program notes, "it takes a great artist's interpretation to bring it to musical fruition." Sedaka believes that Biegel's adaptation is an "enhancement" that shows a deep understanding of the work and of their shared musical roots. I have seen both the original score and the adaptation by Biegel and agree that there is a significant improvement in the modified version.

The work is not a piano concerto, and Sedaka is aware of the distinctions involved (it is, after all, called an Intermezzo). The music is cast in eleven distinct sections with the last two being a modified reprise of the first two in reverse order. The eighteen minute work might be best compared to a walk through nine different blocks of a Manhattan neighborhood that finally loop around to get home again. The individual sections are a medley of diverse styles, and while there is some development of keys and musical ideas, the charm of the work is in the amalgam of musical personalities and influences reflected in this musical tour.

One obstructive aspect of the original work is that at the end of each "block" we often need to wait for the light to change in order to continue walking: the seams show, and transitions between sections are often strongly stated which makes the music overly segmented. Biegel's adaptation has given us crossing guards and right-of-way. The flow through sections is significantly improved. Biegel's new figuration also greatly enhances the fluidity of the music, and helps stretch the register in which melodic presentation occurs.

But the most exciting part of the collaboration between Biegel and Sedaka is the fact that it took place at all. Biegel, unlike many classical musicians, seeks innovative situations, be they technological or interpersonal. He was able to recognize potential in a work that others might have dismissed as "pops," and created an elaborate adaptation that does not crush the appeal of the original.

Sedaka seemed open and supportive of this collaboration. It is a significant challenge in itself for successful musicians in one medium to collaborate and take advice, and it has often proved a stumbling block for popular musicians who seek to enter, or re-enter, the world of classical music.

I like the idea that Sedaka was welcomed "back" into classical music, and hope he continues to write music for us.
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