Friday, October 22, 2010

Some recent musical events

The Atlanta Opera.  I went to see and hear Puccini’s La Boheme ( at the Cobb Energy Center in Atlanta.  I have never been a big opera fan and I still am not.  The occasional “show stopping” aria is not worth wading through the other stuff.  I find the librettos sort of silly.  They are grand productions and I admire the wonderful singing technique, but this art form just doesn’t do it for me.  But…I do like more modern works, such as “Dr. Atomic” and “Einstein on the Beach.”  Maybe I am really not a romantic at heart.  The Cobb Energy Center is beautiful on the outside.  The inside- not so much.  The auditorium looks like latter day Rockefeller Center, only not as nice.  The grand lobby has a huge window, but the building skeleton behind the window looks like the Nashville Airport. 

Atlanta Symphony Orchestra, October 1, 2010.  The program began with a fanfare called “Up!” by Adam Schoenberg in celebration of Robert Spano’s 10 years with the Symphony.  Aside from the title which sounds suspiciously like a movie, the piece was unremarkable.  I forgot it as soon as it was played.  Emanuel Ax was the soloist in Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 4.   He is a master and the orchestra provided an appropriate supporting role.  Balances were right on target.  I was able to hear a bit of Ax rehearsing for the performance.  Wow!  The program ended with Mahler’s Symphony No. 1.  The ASO seems to be a very good Mahler orchestra.  Mahler’s music seems to emphasize the various sections of the orchestra individually rather than the orchestra as an integrated whole.  This suits the ASO’s style and the acoustic of Symphony Hall.  Overall the concert was a winner.

Atlanta Symphony Orchestra, October 15. This concert featured the Blue Danube Waltz by Strauss. During the performance, I thought of two things:  “2001: A Space Odyssey” and the fact that maybe it should be re-titled “The Red Danube.”   This was followed by a 15-minute discussion of the Berg Violin Concerto, especially its use of music from a Bach Chorale.  Julian Rachlin, the violin soloist, also participated.  This little lecture did not make the Berg any more likeable.  It is 12-tone or serial music that seems only designed for those who are in on the joke.  I had hoped that I would finally find this music enjoyable, but it was not to be.  It seems random to me- without melody and without rhythm.  That is probably just what the composer intended, and if so, he succeeded wildly.  The concert finished with Brahms Symphony No. 2.  This may be one of the greatest of all symphonic works, in my opinion.  Brahms took the symphonic form to its pinnacle, not only regarding form and development, but also melody.  Unfortunately this performance was not outstanding.  Guest Conductor Donald Runnicles did not seem able to obtain the smooth integration of the orchestra’s various sections that this music requires.  For example, Brahms frequently uses the wood winds and French horn together.  The horns should wrap around the winds and the sounds should be as though the two sections are one.  I did not hear this sublimely warm integration with this performance.   Maybe it’s Symphony Hall again. 

Atlanta Symphony Orchestra, October 21.  This performance, under Spano’s direction, was to begin with Ligeti’s “Atmospheres”- again used in Kubrick’s 2001.  However, a last minute change resulted in the substitution of Arvo Part’s “Fratres.”  This music is wonderfully rich and warm, like most of Part’s compositions (  They are immediately accessible, but undeniably modern.  This piece featured a drone bass figure throughout.  It provided a buzzing quality that could be both irritating and beautiful.  The ASO strings performed the piece flawlessly.  This was followed by Bartok’s “The Miraculous Mandarin.”  For me, Bartok is a greatly underappreciated composer who has influenced many a film composer, but in spite of that, he is great.  “Mandarin” is loud, grimy, aggressive, dirty music.  I love it.  It is gut- grabbing sound uses the resources of the full orchestra, from the bass drum to the celesta to the organ.  This music is loaded with eroticism and danger.  The dry acoustics of Symphony Hall were perfect for this performance.  The program ended with Janacek’s “Glagolitic Mass.” Janacek ( is another wonderful composer of the twentieth century.  His music is full of brass flourishes and woodwind runs.  It is frequently loud and not always subtle.  The Mass is unlike any that most of us will hear.  It is bold, masculine, and rapturous.  The piece incorporates a large orchestra, including organ, four soloists, and a full chorus.    I really liked the performance except regarding balances.   The tenor, John Mac Master, struggled to be heard above the orchestra and chorus.  He is a large man and he looked like he might blow a vein trying to be heard.  The chorus was entirely too loud.  At points, the sound level became uncomfortable.  It is a skilled chorus, that sings with precision, and in this case, great volume.  Again, maybe it’s Symphony Hall, but cutting back the chorus by about 30 percent of its members might have helped.  But the Mass is great and satisfying music.  I heard one patron say that she never heard a mass performed in a church like that- I say “indeed”- that’s part of the reason it was so good.  

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