Friday, April 22, 2011

More romance

The ASO, conducted by guest Julian Kuerti, presented a program including:

RACHMANINOV: Piano Concerto No. 4

MENDELSSOHN: Calm Sea & Prosperous Voyage

BEETHOVEN: Symphony No. 8 in F

WAGNER: Overture to The Flying Dutchman
The soloist in the Rachmaninov was Simon Trpceski. 

For reasons that I can only guess, the ASO has had a string of not-so-well-known guest conductors of late.  Not that that is inherently bad and everyone has to start somewhere.  But where are the Tilson-Thomases, the Janssons, etc.  Probably the first tier from Europe don’t treasure the trip to the States, and probably too expensive.  While travel might not be the issue for the top tier of American conductors, travel might still be a deterrent.  May the best are also very, very expensive.  Again, nothing wrong with having the newbies and sometimes they can really pay off.
Mr. Kuerti seemed capable enough.  He did not hesitate to give orders to the musicians and his conducting style was a bit reminiscent of Ormandy.  But I will stop there. 

The Mendelssohn was competently played.  It is not an exciting piece probably because it’s representing a calm sea.  Maybe the program would have been better without it, and maybe the Wagner would have been a bit more exciting for a starter. 

The Rachmaninov, composed in 1926 and revised in 1941, was the most contemporaneous piece played, but the heart of the music is definitely rooted in the late 1800s.  To my ear, this piece doesn’t seem to break new ground, in comparison for example, to his early concertos but many say otherwise.  They talk of the jazz influences in the music and the apparent influence of Scriabin.  All of that may be true, but it wasn’t such a break with the composer’s style that it sounds particularly modern or inventive.  Trpceski played admirably as did the ASO.  In fact, there is a portion of the score where the first violins play a solo line.  They sounded shimmery and precise.  They seemed to have been well-rehearsed to carry this off so effectively.  Rachmaninov usually includes quite a bit of percussion in his music.  They sounded great in the acoustics of symphony hall.   Rachmaninov was closely associated with The Philadelphia Orchestra under Stokowski and Ormandy.  There is some unintended irony in this piece being played on the heels of that great Orchestra’s request for Chapter 11 protection.

The Beethoven is a splendid piece.  It is happy, melodic, and rather short piece.  It does not receive the attention that the great Seventh or Ninth Symphonies do, but all three are powerful works.  Kuerti acquitted himself well in this piece.  But he seemed to pay too much attention to the violins, and maybe not enough to the brass.  To my ear, the trumpets were occasionally a bit too loud.  For my vantage point, I was able to focus a bit of my attention on the bass section.  These are certainly an ignored group in most orchestras, but watching them bow some the fast notes in the Beethoven was enjoyable to watch.  Those people really had to work!  Because everything is so much larger on a bass, the movements of the players must also be larger in comparison to the violins or violas.  I was impressed with their industriousness and skill. Beethoven makes use of the tympani quite a lot in this work.  There is something about the acoustics in Symphony Hall that makes they tympani sound muddy and unfocused. 

The Eight has some nicely syncopated rhythms.  It was fun to see Principal Clarinetist Laura Ardan’s bounce in time to the music even while she was not playing.
The Wagner seemed sort of tacked on at the end of the program, maybe in part to make up for the short Eighth.  I was very surprised to see that the last time The Flying Dutchman was played by the ASO was in 1966!    And, come to think of it, Wagner does not seem to be a staple in the orchestra’s repertoire.  If that is indeed the case, I am surprised.  It’s not as though it is cutting-edge music.  This performance provided an opportunity for the low brass to shine, if you will pardon the pun.  The trombones and the single tuba were razor sharp in their attacks and they had great ensemble.  It was good to hear them spotlighted. 
In typical Atlanta fashion, there was a standing O after the Rachmaninov and the Beethoven.  Really, folks, the performers won’t mind being called back if you remain in your seats while applauding.  Save the standing for something really spectacular as was heard last week in the Tchaikovsky Violin concerto. 

On my drive home, I heard the New York Philharmonic play Tchaikovsky’s “Little Russian” Symphony No. 2. It is wonderful to hear their precise where everything seems so together.  But I digress.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

The Georgian Chamber Players

The Georgian Chamber Players presented a concert at Clayton States’ Spivey Hall.  The program, somewhat altered from the printed version, included a Beethoven Violin and Piano sonata (sorry, I don’t remember which), Grieg’s Suite for Two Violins and Piano, and Brahms Quartet No. 3 in C minor for Piano, Violin, Viola, and Cello, Op. 60.  The Beethoven and Grieg were played by ASO concertmaster David Coucheron and his sister, Julie.  David seems to have brought a new elegance to the violin section at the ASO.  He is a brilliant musician and the youngest concertmaster of any US symphony orchestra.  He is 26-years old.  He has concertized internationally as has his sister, who is two years his senior.  The rapport between these two performers is wonderful.  She carefully watches him to follow his lead, but she does so with a slight smile.  She obviously enjoys performing with him.  I can only imagine the kind of support that these two artists received from their families and communities to achieve as they have
The Grieg piece is beautifully romantic, full of what seem to be fold melodies and musical impressions.  In the second movement there is a theme that to me is very reminiscent of a waterfall.  The theme begins on a high note and cascades down into a deep bass.  It is a charming effect.  David’s playing is always technically brilliant and he has a big tone and broad vibrato.  Julie is very attentive to volume and dynamics. 
The Brahms was simply brilliant.  He is my favorite composer and this piece was seemingly over in an instant.  It includes the wonderful melodies and grand development that is present in most of his music.  The Coucheron’s were joined by ASO principals, Reid Harris (viola) and Christopher Rex (cello) in the Brahms.  At his best, Harris can have a broad tone that reminds me of what a great instrument the viola is.  Rex is always a treat to hear- he is both technically and musically talented.  I look forward to the next ASO season to hear Rex and Coucheron in Brahms Double Concerto. 

The Georgian Chamber players are a wonderful group.  They are musicians of great skill and musicality.  The guest appearance by Julie Coucheron was icing on a wonderful cake.  I was disappointed to see that the rather small Spivey Hall was less than half full for the performance.   

I have one final superficial note.  Ms. Coucheron is stunning.  Pictures of her on the internet simply do not do her justice.  She is tall and thin and looked red-carpet ready in a lavender strapless number.  She just looked wonderful!

A brilliant Violinist

The Atlanta Symphony, guest conducted by Arild Remmereit (, presented a concert including Verdi’s “La forza del destino,” Tchaikovsky’s Concerto in D major for Violin and Orchestra, and Schuman’s Symphony No. 4 in D minor.  The violin soloist was Sergej Krylov  9   Remmereit was a last-minute substitution for Nicola Luisotti. 
The Verdi was competently played by the ASO in what I thought was a fairly routine presentation.  I did notice that Remmereit was very involved in the dynamics of the piece, giving frequent direction to the sections of the orchestra about their volume or lack thereof. 

I admit that the Tchaikovsky is not my favorite concerto.  I have heard it too many times for it to provide much satisfaction for me.  I think that Tchaikovsky’s chamber music and first three symphonies are some of his best works, and seem to reflect a less white-hot emotionality.  However, I must admit that this performance of the D Major concerto was quite remarkable.  Krylov was absolutely intense in his playing and showed incredible technical skill.  His tone was full and he never had to struggle against the orchestra to be heard.  This, in part, is also a tribute to Remmereit’s attention to the dynamics of the a piece.  In fact, I hear some of the most pianissimo sounds I have ever heard from the ASO.  To me, this is equally an important skill for an orchestra as being able to blast accurately a grand finale.  Krylov’s tone was warm and he could add an edge when needed.  The Atlanta crowd is usually very responsive to guest soloists and often gives stand ovations even when not required (maybe it’s that southern politeness).  Well, the audience went wild for Krylov- calling him back to the stage at least four times, accompanied by extended loud applause and cat calls!  Krylov responded by priding an encore of the Bach Toccata and Fugue in D Minor.  This warhorse is usually heard on an organ and there is debate in the literature about whether, in fact, this piece may have been written for another instrument.  Krylov demonstrated that its fits the violin very well.  The pieces inner voices and stunning counterpoint showed up very well in this performance.  The only time when the transcription ran out of steam was in the thunderous finale.  On the organ it is awesome but the violin doesn’t have the thunderous bass to rattle the chest.  But Krylov’s performance was nothing short of awesome. 

The final piece was Schumann’s Forth Symphony.  The piece, in four sections, is played without break.  It is a sunny piece, full of pleasant melodies, and wonderful thematic development.  Again the ASO performed admirably, with sometimes silken strings and substantial brass.  Remmereit continued to prompt the orchestra regarding orchestral balances and dynamics and it paid off.  It was a wonderful performance.
Now I will quibble a bit.  I found that this program, incorporating pieces from the late Romantic period, to be rather uninspiring.  All of the pieces were composed between 1851 and 1878.  There were no risks taken by choosing this music.  I admire Music Director Spano’s support for contemporary composers (albeit very “listenable” contemporary composers), but this program showed none of that edge.  The audience loved this music, but even at that, the house was not full.  Maybe we kid ourselves to think that we need the old music to draw the crowds.  Including something written even in the last century might have been just the spark needed to make this Tchaikovsky and Schumann all the more thrilling. 

I felt this even more strongly when I was driving home.  The New York Philharmonic weekly broadcast was on the locale NPR station.  The program included Bartok’s First Piano concerto, his suite from the Miraculous Mandarin and Ligeti’s “Clouds and Clocks” (  I appreciate that I was hearing music programmed for a very sophisticated audience, but how I would love to hear such a challenging program in Atlanta.  I admit that Symphony would be even less crowded than with the late-Romantic concert I just attended, but it would have been a noble failure, at least from an attendance view point.    I grant also that the ASO has given us Bartok this season and for that I am grateful.  The orchestra was also supposed to do a Ligeti piece, but it was dropped from the schedule. 

Programming issues must be a constant headache for music directors.  They must program to pull in the audience while balancing the need to support new music.  But when the tried and true repertoire fails to bring out the crowds, we may be heading for the kind of trouble that recently befell The Philadelphia Orchestra.  Let’s hope not- we don’t need another orchestra suffering from falling receipts and budget deficits.  

Monday, April 11, 2011


16" X 20"
Ink on Canvas

Brief reviews

Brief reviews:

“The Tourist”- Now all together:  Angelina is gorgeous; Angelina is sexy; Angelina is elegant.  Now having gotten that out of the way, the tourist reminds me of one of the Audrey Hepburn caper movies, e.g., “Charade.”  In spite of her many strengths, Angelina has a bit less of the elegant but a lot more of the sexy that Hepburn. Those who say there was no chemistry between Angelina and Johnny Depp don’t seem to understand there was to be no chemistry until the very end.  Nevertheless, there is on kiss fairly early on in the movie that was very hot, including some tongue action.  That meets my criterion for “chemistry”, as opposed to the Matt Damon and Emily Blunt kiss in “The Adjustment Bureau.”  I do not regret spending two-hours on “The Tourist.” 

“Insidious”- This spook-movie was good for the first half.  It was creepy and unnerving at times.  The second half was pretty bad because it was so derivative.  Patrick Wilson played the same character he played in “Little Children.”  He is getting type-cast as a slacker kind of guy.  The creepiest part of the movie was in the séance where the medium put on a strange gas mask-like contraption.  This movie would have been so much better if the writers did not feel compelled to explain everything (as silly as the explanation was turned out to be).  I’ve read that American audiences do not like lose ends in a movie so maybe that is why we have so many silly endings.  There are two examples of a movie with an inconclusive end that are quite good.  The first is “Picnic at Hanging Rock,” an Australian import from the early 1970’s.  The second is “The Entity” starring Barbara Hershey (who is also in “Insidious”).  The latter is in the horror genre and involves a woman being molested by an unseen spirit.  We don’t know why, but we do see the how.  We also know that the attacks continued after she left town.  For me, that was a anxiety-filled, ambiguous, ending.  Martin Scorsese includes “The Entity” on his list of the eleven scariest movies ever made.

“Love and Other Drugs”- To be clear, I just do not get the whole Anne Hathaway craze, but apparently I may be alone in that.  This film can’t decide if it’s an indictment of the pharmaceutical industry, a romantic comedy, a disease-of-the week movie, or a film about a man child growing up.  Jake Gyllenhaal was good, and he has the most manscaped eyebrows and chest hair I have ever seen.  The movie was made in Pittsburgh so I enjoyed that part.  This is a badly focused story that is just passable. 

“The Borgias”is a new period piece from Showtime.  It stars Jeremy Irons as the patriarch of this family of ambition and moral laxness.  Irons is wonderful and revels in his character.  This series is worth watching just to see him act.  I did not know much about the Borgias but look forward to learn more about their family-based crime syndicate. 

The Musica Sacra Series presented a program titled “Opposites Attract” at Atlanta’s First Presbyterian Church.  The program included Stravinsky’s “Symphony of Psalms” and Faure’s “Requiem.  The church’s acoustics were terrible.  The chamber quality of the “Symphony” was totally lost in the sound blur of the hall.  Even worse, Faure’s delicate and elegant “Requiem” sounded leaden.  The organ was about the only instrument that benefited from the acoustics.  I left with a headache. 

Emory presented the Serafin String Quartet as part of its noontime concert series.  The program was a pastiche of movements from various quartets.  One was the Allegro from Dvorak’s String Quartet in F Major.  This is a melodic and beautifully shaped movement and helped to remind me of what a good composer Dvorak really was.  There were two pieces by Jennifer Higdon ( who is currently en vogue in the classical music world.  Her pieces were introduced by the ASO’s music director Robert Spano.  Higdon’s music is melodic and tonal.  The first piece was her “Amazing Grace for String Quartet.”  I have a deed for a piece of land Wasila if you can guess what theme it is based on.  The second Higdon work was two movements from her “Sky Quartet.”  These pieces were pleasant enough but didn’t seem to warrant the awe that she seems to inspire.  I need to hear more of her music.  The Serafin group was good, and substitute viola player Luke Fleming was particularly good.  His playing was strong and it reminded me of what a wonderful tone the viola has. 

Sunday, April 3, 2011

Oh, to have lunch with Brahms

This weekend’s Atlanta Symphony concert was conducted by Roberto Abbado, who has been a frequent guest conductor over the last few years.
The concert began with a piece by Michael Kurth, an ASO bass player.  This fanfare is title “May Cause Dizziness” which had less to do with the actual music itself and more to do with Mr. Kurth’s prescription label.  When I noticed that the kick drum, Hi-hat, and other pop-music percussion were on stage, I was a bit wary.  These mash ups of symphonic music and pop music often results in bad classical music and bad pop music.  It can be the worst of both worlds.  I can’t say that my mind was changed by Kurth’s piece, although I did like his symphonic writing.  It was a nice addition to the fanfare parade done this year to honor Maestro Spano’s 10-years with the ASO.

The next piece was Franz Joseph Hayden’s Symphony No. 93 in D Major (  This piece is notable for its musical “fart” joke played by the bassoon.  Hilarity ensued, just not for me.
Next was Bela Bartok’s Concerto No. 3 for Piano and Orchestra (, with Peter Serkin as soloist.  I am an admirer of Bartok’s music, particularly “The Miraculous Mandarin,” “Concerto for Orchestra, and “Music for Strings, etc.”  His orchestration is brilliant and his music is innovative and challenging.  “Music” has influenced more TV shows and movies than can be counted on several sets of fingers and toes.  I previously reviewed a performance by the Ehnes Quartet of his Forth String Quartet, which also contains aggressive and colorful music and instrumental effects.  His third piano concerto is mild in comparison.  It is lyrical and almost romantic.  There is only an occasional hint of his earlier brashness.  Nevertheless, it is a pleasant piece that was very well played by Serkin and the ASO.  And, ture to form, after it was over, the audience gave its obligatory standing O. 

The final piece was Johannes Brahms Symphony No. 1 in C minor.  I make no secret that Brahms is my favorite composer.  I think he was unparalleled in writing beautiful melodies and developing them with great mastery.  I had actually not hears the first symphony is some time because I had become overly familiar with it.  I remember hearing the masterful William Steinberg conducting the Pittsburgh Symphony in an iconic performance of this piece.  So, to some extent, I was hearing this Brahms First “with new ears.”  Well- the wait was worth it.  From the breathtakingly strong introduction, with a great contrabassoon part, to the beautiful melody in the final movement, the symphony is replete with wonderful sounds.  I like so much that neither Brahms nor his publishers attempted to add a story or title to his symphonies.  They are simply great music that needs nothing other than a good orchestra and conductor to make them soar.  And his music received just that this weekend.  Abbado seemed to enjoy the music while conducting and the ASO may not have sounded better than in this performance.  The strings had a wonderful sheen- I suspect that David Coucheron is having quite an influence on this.  Laura Ardan, the principal clarinetist, and Elizabeth Koc, the principal oboist were particular standouts in the wind section.  Juan de Gomar always manages to have is contra-bassoon, be heard but never distracting.  The horns were also quite good.  Brahms frequently orchestrated portions of his music to blend together the horns and woodwinds.  A misstep in either section can be awful, but the ASO handled it beautifully.    This was a great performance of a great symphony.  Mr. Abbado and the orchestra received four curtain calls and a standing ovation, this time, it was truly deserved.  

Rite in all ways

Atlanta Ballet presented a program titled “Fusion” at the Cobb Energy Center.  The works included “Petal”, choreographed by Helen Pickett, with music by Thomas Newman and Philip Glass.  The music was recorded, which always give me pause, but the sound system at Cobb is fairly good.  The Newman music was from the film “The Little Children” and the Glass piece was from his music for “L’Enfants Terrible”.  The program failed to list who the musicians on the recorded pieces were, which seems like a big oversight.  “Petals” was performed by eight dancers, all of whom were quite good.  The tallest of the male dancers was outstanding, but I can’t determine who he is based on the photos provided in the program.  I liked “Petals” a great deal, in part, because Glass’ music is beautiful with great lyrical themes embedded inside of the minimalist hypnotic runs.  I also liked “Petals” because it had no discernable program.  I am partial to contemporary dance because it can be like music made physical.  Dancers dance to the music that has been transformed from the ephemeral to the physical by the choreographer. 

The second piece on the program was a reimagining of Stravinsky’s “Rite of Spring.” The choreography was by Christopher Hampson.  Stravinksy’s music was a milestone in the history of music.  It is full of complex rhythms, dissonances, and surprises.  For me, it is thoroughly enjoyable but I know to others it is too far afield from melody and ¾ time that it is grinding for them to sit through.  I think there was more than a bit of this when I attended.  Two women in front of me said that they had never heard the music before and they didn’t like it.  This resistance to the new (even though it is over 100-years old) may have contributed to the tepid reception for the piece by the audience.  Atlanta audiences are so prone to standing ovations that I was surprised that this wonderful dance piece received no curtain calls and no standing O. 

For me this is a very difficult piece to write about because my reaction to it was so personal.  The brotherly love, conflict and growth in the first half of the piece can’t be too far away from the experience of many male siblings.  The only scenic feature on the stage was a wall which slanted from the floor and rose to a height of maybe 10 feet.  It reminded of the Warped Wall on the TV show “Ninja Warrior,” only without the top overhang.  The dancers used this wall in aborted efforts to escape their situation, but to no avail.  The Older Brother was danced by John Welker and the Younger brother was portrayed by Jared Tan.  Toward the end of the first section a young woman (danced by Christine Walker) appears at the top of the wall, first showing only her head then rising to full height.  She represented Faith and how it touched the lives of the brothers. 
The second half of the piece began with Mr. Tan sitting in front of a scrim upon which were projected grotesque images, including a pyramid seemingly made of human skulls.  When the scrim lifted, it was clear that Mr. Tan was a prisoner, being guarded by a soldier (John Welker again), dressed in camouflage pants.  As the scene progresses Tan is stripped to his underwear and become increasingly brutalized by the soldier. For me, this was almost painful piece to watch.  The horror, fear, and dread of someone in that situation were brought to life so vividly by Hampson’s choreography.  Tan’s physicality, and vulnerability made this scene palpable for me.  This is just about the only performance that brought a tear to my eye.  It was so dark and so sad.  Again, appearing on top of the wall, Ms. Winkler now appeared as Death.  Increasingly she became engaged with Tan, almost in a flirtatious dance, until she seemed like a welcome friend to the Younger Brother.  In the end, in fact, she took care of his longing. 

The savagery of Stravinsky’s music underlined the hard-edged message of this piece.  Tan, Welker, and Walker all deserve great praise for their work.  Tan, who is in his first year with the ballet, brought the required strength and vulnerability to his part.  Both he and Welker handled the wall- scaling skillfully.  For me, this was a powerful and haunting piece.  This made the lackluster reception by the audience all the more perplexing to me, but it is not, of course, the first time that a premiere of a great work is met with indifference or even hostility. 

The last piece of the program was titled “Lambarena” choreographed by Val Caniparoli.  The music is a mash up of classical ballet, African dance, and the music of J. S. Bach.  This piece has received widespread acclaim and was danced with energy and skill by the performers.  I am not a big fan of such mash-ups because one is left with something less the best of the pieces components.  I must also say that I was still lost in “The Rite” and had a difficult time focusing on “Lambarena.” 

As I mention the Cobb sound system was quite good.  In fact, the recording of the Rite had some wonderful woodwind playing that was superbly recorded.  The recording itself did deserve some mention.