Saturday, February 26, 2011

When depression pays off....

The ASO presented a concert combining great new music and wonderful classic music.  The conductor was Rossen Milanov (, who is associate conductor of the Philadelphia Orchestra, and the violin soloist was Nadja Solerno-Sonnenberg (

The first piece of music was Golijov’s 1996 last “Round, for string ensemble.” The ASO strings were standing in a semi-circle facing Mr. Milanov.  The music reminded me that not all contemporary compositions need to sound like a soundtrack to a movie with a dystopian view of the world.  This was lyrical music that also had some surprises.  It began with snippets or strings of a theme that were passed almost randomly between the string sections.  The snippets strings gradually became integrated into a main theme.  The second half of the piece was beautiful and the ASO strings played well and sounded wonderful.  I think the string section may be the best that the ASO has to offer.  Mr. Milanov conducted with a baton and a score. 

Ms. Salerno-Sonnenburg was the soloist for Piazzolla’s (  “The Four Season of Buenos Aires”.   This piece was composed between 1965 and 1970.   The music is always rooted in Piazzolla’s love for the tango and his respect for Vivaldi’s Four Seasons.  In fact, Piazzola refers to Vivaldi’s work throughout the four sections of his work.  Salerno-Sonnenburg is a well known and technically superior violinist.  Of late she has become a music director of her own ensemble.  She played this music with such enthusiasm that her foot tapped the rhythm so loudly that it added percussive effects!  It was not distracting for me and added a certain flair to her playing.  The music is thoroughly enjoyable and difficult, but rewarding, even if one doesn’t like the tango, which I do.  Again, Milanov conducted with a baton and a score. 

The finale of the concert was Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 4.  For me this is an overly familiar work and has not worn well.  But, the ASO presentation changed that.  Everything was right, save a few French horn burbles.  The program notes, written by Ken Meltzer, used Tchaikovsky’s own writings to explain how depressing and fatalistic the composer was.  He was depressed and he translated it to the music.  Of course, even more depressing and despairing will be his later Symphony No.  6. In the end, this was a memorable performance for me.  Milanov conducted without a score, and it was apparent that he loves this music.  He long slender hands seem to wrap themselves around the themes.   He gave dynamic signals to the orchestral even while he was caught up in the music.  I haven’t seen such heart-felt conducting in some time.  Milanov received several curtain calls from the orchestra dn they were well deserved. 

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

My tour of Atlanta churches continues.....

To show that I am ecumenical, I attended an organ concert at The All Saints’ Episcopal Church ( by Lynne Davis (  All Saints’ is a beautiful church and it argues against God only liking white walls.  The church building is neo-gothic in design and is full of warm oak decorations and pews.  Ms. Davis played on the Kenan Memorial Organ (, which is a mighty instrument with main console and antiphonal organ in the rear of the sanctuary.  The church is actually a fairly small space so localization of sound between the main and rear pipes is fairly easy, in comparison to large and reverberant cathedrals, where the sound appears to come from no particular point.  I enjoyed the three- dimensional effects.

The program included works by Langlais, Clerambault, Franck, Vierne, Alain, and Dupre.   The Langlais is a real blockbuster.  Ms. Davis did not hesitate to turn up the volume.  It was great. The Clerambault piece is a long suite with each of the sections demonstrating the organist’s skills.  The “Basse de Cromorne” section  had impressive pedal notes and the Flutes section, well, sounded like flutes.  The Franck Pastorale, opus 19 had some wonderful pedal-drone notes.  The Dupre “Variations sur un Vieux Noel” is a great demonstration of theme and variation development.  The Finale, loud and bombastic, was a rousing way to end the concert. 

For me, the organ can be a thrilling instrument or a deadly bore in the hands of an inept organist.  Ms. Davis’ playing was definitely on the thrilling side. 

Monday, February 21, 2011

Sublime Music Making

The Georgian Chamber players performed at the Trinity Presbyterian Church in Atlanta.  I have been in two Presbyterian Churches in as many weeks.  Both are beautiful and god must prefer white walls. 

The group includes several of the first chairs of the ASO, including concertmaster David Coucheron (  The first piece was a Beethoven Trio, played by Coucheron, Harris and Rex.  It was an elegant performance and the acoustics of the church were perfect for the performance.   It’s enlightening to hear how much volume three musicians can make with stringed instruments.  It was a wonderful performance. 

After the intermission, Moretti, Rex, and Pridgen played the Tchaikovsky Trio in A minor for Violin, Cello and Piano ( .  This is a deeply felt and sorrowful piece of music, written by the depressive Tchaikovsky, upon hearing of the death of his friend and mentor Nikolai Rubinstein.  The piece is long, but worth every minute invested in hearing it.  It provides ample time for reflection about life’s travails and losses.  The Georgian’s played with intensity and with great sympathy for the music.  Especially strong was Ms. Moretti who managed to summon both volume and subtlety from her violin.  I will never listen to this music again without thinking about this grand performance.  

Now I know why the Dutch always have two As in their names......

The ASO performed a concert with works by Wagenaar, Liszt and Beethoven.  The conductor was Jaap van Zweden (  The concert began with Johann Wagenaar’s Cyrano de Bergerac overture, Opus 23.  This piece reminded me a bit of movie music, which is not Wagenaar’s fault, since he wrote it before music was scored specifically for the cinema.  The truly wonderful part of this performance, however, was the ASO itself.  Never did I hear the strings play with such strength and with such cohesion.  If this venerable institution could play like this all of the time, it would be wonderful.  I attribute this to van Zeden, who really took control of the ASO.

Jean-Yves Thibaudet  (  was the soloist in the Liszt’s first piano concerto.  We are getting blitzed this year with Liszt because it is the 200th anniversary of his birth.  Thibaudet is in the first-tier of concert pianists.  He has technical skill, strength, and musical moxie.  The concerto is played without break between its four movements, so the soloist has to have some stamina.  There appeared to be good rapport between van Zweden and Thibaudet, with the latter frequently paying attention to the conductor, whom some soloists tend to ignore. 

The concert finished with Beethoven’s Symphony No 7.  The ASO again performed brilliantly.  The piece is exuberant and maybe Beethoven’s happiest.  It has catchy melodies and, of course, wonderful thematic development.  Van Zweden showed wonderful control over the dynamics of the symphony, coaxing true pianissimos out of the players, while also getting some attention-grabbing volume from the clarinets.  The conductor continually gave instruction to the players about what he wanted and it showed in the ASO’s performance.  The only glitch is an otherwise flawless performance was a burble in the French horns in the first movement.

The Dallas Symphony is fortunate to have such a strong conductor as van Zweden.  It does certainly demonstrate that a conductor can really influence the playing of an orchestra.  

Young Artists

The Emory Young Artists annual performance included pieces played by students (mostly freshman), including works by Schubert, Wolf, Strauss, Puccini, Mozart and Prokofiev.  If I would have known that it was a performance by students I probably would not have attended because I always keep in mind what George Bernard Shaw said “Hell is full of musical amateurs”.  In this case, however, it was worth it.  Particularly impressive was the Puccini work, Chrysanthemums, elegy for string quartet.   The four players were technically good and they played this deeply melancholic piece with aplomb.  Particular standouts were the two violinists, Benito Thompson and Dallas Albritton.  The final piece was a Toccata played by Hao Feng.   This is a devilishly difficult piece and Mr. Feng had the chops to play it.  What he lacked in finesse he more than made up with technical skill and strength.  

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Holy Tavener!

To see my photos, click here:

The Atlanta Baroque Orchestra presented “Music Then, Music Now” at the Roswell Presbyterian Church.  The venue is beautiful in its simplicity and it has wonderful acoustics.  I have not been in an auditorium that so suited the musical performance in some time.  The program featured works by Telemann, Handel and Tavener (  The Telemann featured two wood flute solos that were warm and calming.  These flutes have a mellowness that is generally not heard with metal flutes, except in the hands of an exceptional flautist.  I really appreciated the wonderful clarity of the continuo in these pieces.  I really appreciated that way in which the acoustics enabled me to separate the strings from the continuo.  The latter made sense to me, which in the past I have not really appreciated.  As I have noted before, the harpsichord (which is part of the continuo) is subtle and elegant.  In recordings it is harsh and loud, making it seem like it is driving the music rather than supporting it. 

The Tavener was ecstatically beautiful.  Tavener has been called a “holy minimalist” composer, which is a complement in my book.  The Chandos Anthem was sung by soprano Judith Overcash accompanied by Julie Andrijeski, the music director of the ABO.  The lyrics simple- repeated singing of the word “Alleluia.”  The music requires the soprano to soar to her upper ranges, while the cellos and bass play a stunning drone note.  This was a glorious piece of music, sung by a talented soprano in a gorgeous venue.  Who could ask for more?

The ABO is a talented group.  Its players are very sympathetic to the music, which is sometimes lacking, for example, in the ASO. 

I look forward to their next concert. 

Sunday, February 13, 2011

The Netherlands

 To see my photos:

I spent 3 great days in Holland.  Here are my impressions:

& At first view, the old city of Amsterdam is charming and beautiful.  The canal system is extensive and creates the need for over 1000 bridges.  The old buildings lining the canals, with a combination of original homes and warehouse that have been converted to homes, are pretty. On a short cruise at night on the canals gave me the opportunity to peer into the houses.  The chandeliers are large, but the inhabitants tend to like contemporary styles.  Suits me fine.

A  Amsterdam has restricted automobile traffic in its historic city.  Bicycle traffic is everywhere.  The bicyclists are prone to ride fast with little regard to pedestrians.  It is important to be alert everywhere about crossing a street.  I liked the idea of using human-power for transportation, but over my brief visit I began to appreciate that I saw very few elderly and other persons with mobility impairments.  Maybe Amsterdam has created a city that is even more youth-oriented that what we have in the US.  However, the city would be at a standstill if autos were allowed everywhere.  Everything is a trade of

A  Amsterdam has so many cultural activities that it rivals cities much larger.  Its 800,000 population is treated to music by the great orchestra in the world, the Concertgebouw Orchestra, and a myriad of other performing artists from the full range of musical styles.  I would love to have access to all that they have in such a small city. 

& At first I was really impressed with the old city- the beautiful walkways, canals, and shops.  By the third day I was aware that I had not really focused on the kind of shops that are available.  Many (too many for my taste) are sex- or marijuana-oriented.  In fact, I thought a lot of the city was given over to sleaze.  But, others may find it the right mix.

&The infamous red-light district, while built along a charming canal, is certainly not classy.  While interesting from a tourist point-of-view, it was off-putting to me.  The vacant stare of the women in the windows, who look at you but without focusing on you, is a symbol for the sex they provide.  It may be with you, but my guess, their heads are somewhere else.  People justify the legalized prostitution as taking the profession out of the hands of pimps and putting it directly in the woman’s hand.  It is said that this results in less victimization.  This may be true, but it doesn’t address the psychological impact of selling sex for money.  Again, trade-offs.

T The canals are full of detritus, which really impacts their beauty- and not in a good way.
& We ask of a bar server if the citizens were allowed to own guns.  She said “no” and then said, “What would we do with them?”  Holland rates 52 in murder rates, while the US ranks 24 (see out of 62 nations.  Of course, such data may be tenuous, but I am not surprised that they have far fewer killings. 

& The marijuana-coffee houses are filled with what look to me like throw-backs to the 1960’s.  The smell of weed hangs heavy in many neighborhoods.  With drugs comes sex.  Where there are many coffee houses, there are many sex shops.  Holland also is a large center for drug importation and associated crimes.  I am not surprised.

&We asked the  bar server how her health care was provided.  She said she is required to purchase health insurance at the rate of about $130 per month.   Seems like a lot to me.  Holland’s system of required private system and government supports are not unlike that to take effect in the US, except they may have better cost-control mechanisms. 

 AAll of the railway stations in Holland are being rebuilt to accommodate the nation’s new high-speed rail system (  And here we sit in our automobiles with neighborhood-destroying roads and highways everywhere.  If the present administration and congress had any guts, we would have used the stimulus money to build such a system, but we only are providing planning grants to states, some of whom are returning the money to the federal government.  Also, somehow we think that giving grants to Universities will stimulate employment.  It only stimulates for the life of the grant, but a high speed rail system would provide continuing employment for years to come, unless unions push the price of operating the system to unsustainable heights.

     Rotterdam ( was nearly totally destroyed with Hitler’s invasion.  In its place has grown a modern city that, at some points, is daring and challenging, but at others is a dreadful amalgam of endless rows of apartments in nondescript buildings that must be soul-draining to its inhabitants.  At many places, Rotterdam is stunning, but in others it is modernism gone terribly wrong.  Where it is daring it is wonderful, but where it is high density, it is really ugly. 

& The Hague, the de facto capital of Holland is a stunning city (  It has preserved the past, and impressively built to address the future.  The Queen’s palace is located in The Hague.  It is not as ostentatious as that of the English royalty.  The Hague has the second highest concentration of United Nations-buildings in the world, after New York.  I would have liked to have spent more time in The Hague. 

    Delft ( ) is a small town best known for the hand-painted china that bears its name.  That business has come on hard times and it located in small building, where the china is fired and decorated.  When I was there only tow artisans were at work painting the porcelain. 

    The Aalsmeer flower auction ( is held in one of the largest buildings in the world.  It is an impressive sight to see cart on top of cart filled with flowers and leaves from all over the world being prepared for distribution.  As they say, Aalsmeer in the morning, New York in the afternoon. 

    Meduradam ( is an interesting park outside of Amsterdam.  It features miniature versions of key attractions in Holland.  While very well done, it struck me as a bit odd.  It’s like the California Dreaming section of Disneyland in California.  Why look at copies when you can see the real thing?

    Holland does not have grand gothic cathedrals made of limestone and marble.  They are red-brick affairs that have been around long enough to collect a lot of grime.  In fact, some have been closed in Amsterdam and have become galleries and museums.  In Delft, the old church charged three Euros admission.  I didn’t go since I think god should be free. 

    The weather is depressing, much like in Ireland.  It is often overcast, rainy and foggy.  I supposed to get used to it. 

    Schipol Airport is a study in efficiency.  It is about 4 meters below sea level, making it the lowest airport in the world.  It is built on a reclaimed lake.  The Amsterdam central station is built on a man-made island.  The Dutch did before the people of Dubai.  Who knew?

I t   I think I could live in Holland, but there are things I sure don’t like.  The oppressiveness of the suburban apartments and the weather would be hard to take.  The misfires of modern architecture would also be a drawback.  I did not like the sex and drug oriented culture, but the main stream cultural activities are sure appealing.  If I could live in the central part of Amsterdam adjacent to canal, it would be very appealing.  My hunt for the ideal place to live is still underway!

Monday, February 7, 2011

Thanks Emory

Music at Emory presented “The Bach Bowl!” yesterday.  The program consisted of 8 small pieces by Bach, including six sections from the Well-Tempered Clavier II from 1741.  These were played by Timothy Albrecht on a harpsichord, whose sound was treated admirably in the Emerson Concert Hall.  There were several organ pieces played by Tamara Albrecht.  The first was an arrangement of the Overture in C Major for Organ and Harpsichord by May Reger.  This was a very odd piece.  I realize that the Bach overtures have odd (at least to me) rhythms, but the two instruments did not jell and it seemed as if the two instrumentalists were playing different pieces with different rhythms.  But the other organ works were magnificent and give me new respect for the Emerson organ.  It is simply a wonderful sounding instrument. 

One especially intriguing piece was the Two-Mirrors Fugues for Two Keyboardists from the Art of Fugue.  Here Bach takes a melody and gives it to the first harpsichord and then hands it off to the second in a typical fugue development.   After full presentation of the original theme, the music briefly stops.  The second harpsichord then presents a seemingly new theme.  It is, however, the same theme as the first, only inverted!  What a genius of composition the master was. 

The final piece was for eight hands.  There were two pianos and two harpsichords.  The piece was a transcription of the Concerto in D Minor for Three Keyboards and Orchestra, although one harpsichord played the orchestral part.  This too was a spotlight for the composer’s genius and also for the talents of the Albrechts and Keiko Yamashita and William Ransom. 

Emory’s recital series provides a great service to the Atlanta community and provides an opportunity to hear music that is slightly off the beaten path. 

What? No ovation?

The Atlanta Symphony Orchestra programmed an all-Mozart concert featuring the Overture to Le nozze di Figaro, the Concerto No 5 for Violin and Orchestra, the Serenade No 12 in C minor, and the Symphony No. 38 in D major.  There was one minor exception to the Mozartedness of the concert, to wit, a fanfare titled Miaka Kumi by Alvin Singleton.  This was one more in the series of fanfares celebrating Robert Spano’s tenth anniversary as music director of the ASO.  Like all of the other fanfares played so far, this was just as forgettable.  I am probably expecting too much- like Copland’s fanfare or Dukas La Peri fanfare. 

The Figaro overture was very solid and well-played.  Everything seemed to be going right for the ASO and Mozart.  The soloist for the Violin Concerto was David Coucheron ( the ASO’s concertmaster.  Mr. Coucheron is a commanding stage presence and plays elegantly.  He uses the full bow and makes a grand sound.  When playing, Coucheron really seems as one with the music, in contrast to the first chair of the viola section who recently soloed with the ASO.  The latter sawed like an earnest student while the former commands our attention with his intensity.  The concerto was elegant and the ASO performed admirably, except….yes, the French horns.  In the first movement of the piece the horns enter with a sustained note.  The players were not together and someone was out of tune.  As I have said in another review, the French horns are the ASO’s weakest link.  I was aware that in an earlier performance Coucheron received a standing ovation and in return, he provided an encore.  No such luck the night I attended.  The reception for this fine performance was tepid and few stood.  Atlantans will stand for mediocrity, but not for a really well-done piece.  No encore for us!

The Serenade followed the intermission.  The eight performers were seated in a semi-circle at the front of the stage.  In fact, I could not see but three from my vantage point in the balcony. The Serenade is beautiful and easily accessible music.  But the forward location of the ensemble combined with the acoustics of symphony hall lead to some unanticipated consequences.  When the horns played without mutes, their sound echoed off the rear of the orchestra shell and then finally off the rear of the hall.  Not only was it a distraction, but it diminished the elegance of the performance.  For me, it reduced my aural satisfaction. 

The Symphony No 38 was performed beautifully By the ASO under Spano’s direction. 

One final note- part of Coucheron’s job as the ASO’s concertmaster will be to shape the sound of the violin sections of the orchestra.  One thing that I have noticed over the last three years is that the majority of the string players play, but don’t seem to perform.  I had the privilege of seeing and hearing the Philadelphia Orchestra during the days when its strings were the envy of orchestra’s everywhere (i.e., it was known as “The Philadelphia Sound”).  I have also seen many concerts by the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra (which some say is the finest orchestra in this country at present).  In both cases the string players move together as if choreographed, accentuating and highlighting the music with their bodies and bows.  I suspect that this performing style does indeed improve the concert-going experience, and likely the actual quality of the performance.  I hope that Mr. Coucheron helps improve the sound and sophistication of the ASO violins.  If he does, it will add gilding to the lilly. 

By the way, I have included a photo of Coucheron and his sister from an album cover.  This is a case of Photoshop gone wild.   

Bruckner is not fast food

The ASO presented a concert showcasing Mozart’s Concerto No. 20 in D Minor and Anton Bruckner’s Symphony No. 8 in C minor.  The soloist in the Mozart was the ASO Music Director Robert Spano and the performance was conducted by Principal Guest Conductor Donald Runnicles.   Spano is a compact gentleman who plays the piano without great histrionics.  He is a no nonsense and capable pianist.  The Mozart 20th is the piano concerto we all studied in music appreciation.  It is filled with rocket themes and is in traditional concerto form.  The romance is quite nice.  In this period of Mozart’s life, he began to develop more melodic content rather than themes based on rapid-fire bowings.  This is the Mozart that speaks to me more than some of his earlier work that seemed to be elegant but based on a formula that Mozart knew perhaps better than others, but which to me is predictable and not particularly intriguing.  I enjoyed Spano’s take on the music and the ASO was a competent partner. 

The Bruckner ( work is in four movements that take about one hour and 15 minutes to perform.  I find the music at times powerful, sometimes perplexing and at other times boring.  I personally think the symphony would have been better had it be pared down to about 50 minutes so that themes and their development would be less repetitive.  Bruckner’s music reflects his background as on organist because it frequently employs sounds similar to organ pedal notes.  Again, for me, Bruckner’s music is a series of pianissimo periods played by strings and winds to be followed by a grand forte coming from the brass.  And it happens over and over again.  The good news is that this music fits well the ASO strengths.  Its strings are dark and not shimmery.  The brass are, for the most part, strong and the wood winds are also very capable. The harsh Symphony Hall acoustical environment can make the fortes ear splitting, however.  Bruckner requires the addition of four Wagner tubas ( to supplement the horns.  I have never felt that the French horn section in the ASO was the equal of the orchestra’s other sections.  It frequently has intonation problems as well as ensemble problems.  But the Wagner tubas played very well together, as did the French horn section.  Maybe they really like Bruckner.  The ASO seems well-suited to playing this long and dense music.  It requires physical stamina and the orchestra acquitted itself well.  Runnicles and the ASO received a standing ovation, which is fairly common in Atlanta, even when undeserved.  It was deserved, however, in this case.