Saturday, November 12, 2011

A curmudgeon at work....

Often after attending a concert, I am asked “What did I think?’, “How did you like it?” etc.   When I have reservations about the program, or the performance, I try to honestly express my opinion.   I am not one of those people who say “I tell it like it is.”  For me that means the person is giving him- or her- self permission to be rude.  Rather, I try to tell it as I see it- who really knows how it really was.  When others give glowing comments, and I have reservations, I sometimes seem like a curmudgeon.  So, I will be clear- when I review a concert I am sharing my perceptions, which doesn’t make them right or wrong, nor should another assume that their opinions are any more than that. 

So that brings me to this week’s Atlanta Symphony Orchestra concert.   The program included:
Britten- The Building of the House Overture
Brahms- Concerto in A minor for Violin, Cello and Orchestra
Knussen- Symphony in One Movement
Britten- Variations and Fugue on a Theme of Purcell

The conductor was Oliver Knussen.  I had not heard of Knussen before, although I understand he has appeared with the ASO before. 

The Britten overture was well played and again the ASO showed off its increasing virtuosity. The Brahms featured concertmaster David Coucheron and principal cellist Christopher Rex as soloists.  The double concerto is one of my favorite pieces of music and it demonstrates Brahms’ gift for creating wonderful melodies and skilled theme development.  The opening melody in the second movement is one of his most beautiful. Both Coucheron and Rex are talented virtuosi and can be expected to perform wonderfully.  I have great respect for the skills of both.  Now here is where I feel like a curmudgeon.  I am very familiar with performances of the double concerto and I believe that this performance fell a bit short.  It certainly was not bad but it lacked a certain cohesiveness that made it less that truly outstanding, at least for me.  The problem was that there did not seem to be agreement between the soloists about how they should approach the music.  Coucheron has a big tone and great control over his instrument.  He plays with maximum drama, accentuating the passion in the work.  Rex, however, seemed meek in comparison.   Maybe it was due to Coucheron’s sound board beings perfectly aligned with my ear, where Rex’s cello was aimed directly at the audience.  Maybe it is the tricky acoustics of symphony hall.  But, the result was two distinctly different approaches to the music.  In addition, it seemed that Rex was a bit shaky in the introduction to the first movement.  Once, he warmed up, that disappeared.  Singly they played admirably, but together, it was a bit unsatisfying.  

Knussen’s Symphony is One Movement is a revision of an earlier Concerto for Orchestra written by the composer/conductor.  There were several nods to jazz-like themes, especially in the trumpets and piano.  I am not a fan of what is an essentially improvisational musical style being written so as to limit improvisation by the players.  This symphony is not unpleasant and maybe with a few hearings I might actually like it.  I was surprised that the composer conducted from a score.   The ASO violin section was particularly strong in this performance.  They played together precisely. 

The final piece by Britten, usually know as the “Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra” was well played by the ASO.  But I wonder why this piece is scheduled for a concert audience.  It is simplistic music that is designed to show off the orchestra, but it seems like preaching to the choir when played in concert format.  Fortunately we were spared having to listen to a spoken narrative abut each instrument or section of the orchestra.  The brass and percussion sections of the ASO were standouts in this performance.
Knussen’s right hand is like a rapier when counting the beat.  He was in control of the orchestra and they performed very well under his direction. 

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