Monday, January 16, 2012

Brief Reviews

Music at Emory presented a recital by Timothy Albrecht playing the Schwartz Center’s Daniel Jaeckel Opus 45 pipe organ with fifty-four stops and 3,605 pipes in a cherry-wood case. Albrecht is Emory’s University organist.  The program included works ranging from Bach to Keith Chapman.  The highlight was Bach’s Prelude and Fugue in E Minor.  This piece demonstrated the power of the organ in a warm acoustical environment.  Liszt’ Hexameron also was a showpiece, especially for the bells and birds of the organ.  Albrecht is talented and the program was satisfying.  Given the quality of the playing, I can forgive Albrecht’s red tie and matching red socks. 

“Music on the Hill” at Atlanta’s Northside Drive Baptist Church is a hidden gem.  The most recent concert included the Piano Trios of Beethoven, Turina and Schumann, play by Olga Shpitko, Violin; Sarah Kapps, Cello; and Peter Marshall, Piano.  The Beethoven was wonderful.  The second movement is dark and cloudy, giving rise to the Trio’s subtitle “Ghost.”  The surprise of the program was the Trio No. 2 in B Minor of Turina.  He is an unappreciated and underrepresented composer who lived until the middle of the last century.  His music is colorful and rather impressionistic.  The Trio bears a resemblance to Debussy’s music, but that comparison diminishes the inventiveness of Turina. The Schumann was also skillfully played.  The Trio No. I in D minor is a good example of the composer’s romanticism.  The chapel at the Northside Drive Baptist Church is perfect for chamber music.  The sound is strong, yet warm and reverberant. 

Saturday, January 14, 2012

A Wonderful Celebration.....

The Atlanta Symphony Orchestra, under music director Robert Spano, presented its annual “A King Celebration Concert” to honor the work of Martin Luther King.  The program included:
Beethoven- Overture to Fidelio
Traditional:  “Elijah Rock”
Brahms: “How Lovely is Thy Dwelling Place” from “A German Requiem”
Schwanterner: “New Morning for the World,” with Narrator Mayor Kasim Reed
Dvorak: Concerto in B minor for Cello and Orchestra
The Spellman College Glee Club and Morehouse College Glee Club were featured in the Elijah and Brahms.  Yo Yo Ma was the cello soloist. 

This concert was sold out and broadcast nationwide.  It was nothing less than spectacular. 

The “Elijah Rock” piece was a show case of the strength of the two Glee Clubs.  The agony, outrage, and triumph of the African American experience were portrayed powerfully in this piece.  The scream of sopranos was potent and heartfelt.  Special kudos goes to Dr. Kevin Johnson for preparing and conducting this piece.
The Brahms German Requiem is a magnificent piece, although some call it old fashioned, I find it spiritually moving and beautiful.  It focuses on the sadness of coming to grips with someone’s death and it attempts to provide comfort for those left behind.   It does not rely on Christian views of death and the afterlife, but rather Brahms’ own spiritual journey.   The performance use a Robert Shaw- developed English translation of Brahms’ lyrics.  I found this version to be a bit distracting; I like the mystery provided by hearing it sung in German.  The combined Glee Clubs sang without much subtlety, but what they lost in finesse, they made up in strength. 

I am not familiar with the work of Pulitzer Prize winning composer Joseph Schwantner.  His website describes him as …”one of the most prominent American composers today…” and I will take his word for it.  “New Morning” is an orchestral piece with interspersed spoken quotes from Dr. King.  The work began with a focus on the xylophone and marimba.  I was wary that this would be just one more not-so-memorable composition of modern composers that rely on these two instruments in combination with the tympani.  But, the piece was effective and immediately accessible.  It is not particularly melodic, but it uses the color of the orchestra to great and powerful effect.  Narrating Dr. King’s words was Atlanta’s Mayor Kasim Reed.  After each carefully timed (and  Spano-cued) quote, the score provided a musical reaction of sorts.  The only downside of the performance was the bugaboo of Symphony Hall’s acoustics and their inhospitality to the amplified voice.  The magnificent King words were difficult to understand, which blunted their effect.  Reed’s somewhat thing voice did not seem to enhance the solemnity of the presentation.  But “New Morning” is a great work of tribute to Dr. King.

The second half of the concert was dedicated to Dvorak and YoYo Ma.  It is difficult to describe the experience of seeing and hearing Mr. Ma perform.  There is no doubt that he is a master, a genius, and a gentleman.  I knew that I was hearing a performance that was electric and ecstatic.  Ma plays with such deeply felt emotion that his face becomes transformed with ecstasy. I was transfixed by watching and listening to him.  He has a proper mix of aggressiveness and lyricism, which is a difficult balance to maintain (one need only refer back to the performance of the Brahms’ Double concerto earlier in the ASO season to realize how a work suffers when a soloist does not achieve this balance).  Ma was gracious at the end of the work, in a style that only the most accomplished and assured can pull off.  He thanked Maestro Spano, and each of the members of the orchestra who contributed significantly to the performance.  He actually walked around the orchestra and individually shook the hands of key performers.  He gave special recognition to concertmaster David Coucheron, who played a wonderful duet with Ma during the final movement of the concerto.  At the end of the performance, the audience leapt to its collective feet and shouted cheers of thanks.  All 1700 patrons knew that they had just witnessed a performance by one of America’s great musicians.  It was thrilling.  Mr. Ma then took a seat at the rear of the orchestra’s cello section.  He joined in the orchestra in playing a magnificent version of “We Shall Overcome,” along with the two Glee Clubs.  This version of the protest song began with a plaintive solo by Ma which was eventually joined by the combined forces of the singers and orchestra.  More applause followed in honor of the ASO, the singers, and Mr. Ma.  This was a concert to be remembered. 

It is unfortunate that Symphony Hall does not adequately support the sound of this great orchestra.  I noticed that when soloists perform on the portion of the stage where a pit orchestra would play, the sound of their instruments become unfocused and almost “smeared.”  In fact, Mr. Ma’s wonderful cello sounded more focused when he sat in the cello section.  Here the sound board of his instrument faced the side of the orchestra shell and not directly toward the audience.  Its puzzling how this would make it sound better, but from where I was seated, it definitely did.  On my drive home, I heard an ASO recording of the Rachmaninoff Symphonic Dances.  The recording sounded so much better than an actual ASO concert.  My guess is that the recording engineers have found a “sweet spot” for the microphones that picks up a magic combination of direct and reflected sound. This adds warmth to the ASO sound and makes the recordings sound rich. It was a nice reminder of how great this orchestra is.

Sunday, January 8, 2012

Polish and Schmaltz

The Atlanta Symphony Orchestra, under Music director Robert Spano, presented the Beethoven Piano concerto No. 5 in E-flat Major (the Emperor) and Edward Elgar’s Symphony No. 1 in A-flat Major. Pianist Dejan Lazic was the soloist. 

The Beethoven is a cornerstone of the classical music repertory.  It is a stirring yet very lyrical piece, particularly in the second movement adagio.  Lazic is a most talented pianist.  His slightly awkward demeanor when walking on stage might mislead one into thinking that his playing might be equally awkward, but indeed that was not the case.   Here is a pianist who knows how to play equally well a pianissimo and a grand forte.  Too often, pianists boost the small sounds while toning down the big ones.  In contrast, Lazic understands that part of the drama of this piece lies in the contrast.  This also gives the orchestra a challenge, that is, how to not overwhelm the quiet and to not use its brute strength to overwhelm the piano at it’s loudest.   Maestro Spano navigated the orchestra through this musical slalom with great skill.  It is astounding that the sound of Symphony Hall’s air handling equipment was louder than a pianissimo played by the soloist and orchestra combined.  The string section was also remarkable in the Adagio.  They were warm, in control, and had great ensemble.  This section of the orchestra is evolving and improving to a great degree.  Even their involvement in their playing seems to be increasing over time. 

The Elgar is a long (55 minutes or so) work that was once described as “the greatest symphony of modern times.”  Unfortunately, the person passing that judgment was the same person to whom the symphony is dedicated, that is, Hans Richter.  When a symphony is dedicated to me, I am certain that I too will believe it to be the greatest ever.  This is not to say it isn’t a grand work is, but great it is not.  If a work is going to require the listener to dedicate nearly an hour to it, then it ought to say something important and compelling.  Like some of Bruckner’s symphonies, the Elgar seems to me to be in need of some editing.  If it were a bit shorter, many of the patron’s who were snoozing through it might have been energized to actually attend to it.  This aside, the work is a schmaltzy, inflated pastiche of late Romantic music.  Elgar was not a major creative force like Mahler, or the great developer like Brahms.  His music is the musical equivalent of the “stiff upper lip.”  Elgar, best known for the “Pomp and Circumstance” marches, teeters very close to including similar march-like themes into his symphony, particularly in the first and second movements.  While most composers reuse material that they composed elsewhere (e.g., Tchaikovsky often did this), Elgar’s borrowing might be due to a lack of inventiveness rather than to redeploying a worthy idea.  Spano, conducting from the score, keep a forward momentum to the music, in spite of its interminable length.  This is where a great conductor can show his or her mettle, while lesser talents can lose their way and only provide a beat (which was the case with the ASO’s recent performance of the Sibelius First symphony under a guest conductor who was a last minute substitution).  Elgar’s music has a sometimes dark quality that emphasizes the low brass and violas.  These sections of the ASO were stellar.  The violas played with a rich tone, and the low brasses were precise and warm.   Spano never seems to let the brass drive a piece, and he showed that skill here also.    
The ASO has a grueling schedule- it performs nearly weekly, where other major orchestras perform maybe only two times a month.  I admire the ASO’s hard work, as well as the vision of the orchestra’s management in adding weekly to the rich cultural life of Atlanta.
Finally, I have noted Mr. Lazic’s brilliance.  I do wish, however, that he would have his biography edited by someone whose primary language is English.  It currently reads like a bad Google translation!