Archive for the ‘Classical music’ Category

Christmas Night: Carols of the Nativity

2011/12/17

Gerald Finley, baritone
Ruth Holton, soprano
Nicholas Sears, baritone
The Cambridge Singers, City of London Sinfonia / John Rutter CBE

Collegium COLCD 106
63 min 35 sec, DDD  (Full libretto provided)

Five stars

This is what Christmas music really is:  Beautifully worshipful compositions reflecting upon the birth of Christ, and nothing less.  And because some of John Rutter’s own music is here, it also serves as a unique, tangible profession of his faith.  If you don’t have any of John Rutter’s other CDs, buy thiChristmas Night: Carols of the Nativitys one and let it be your springboard to purchasing his other recordings.

The highly-respected John Rutter (b. 1945, London) is primarily a composer and conductor, known for writing choral music on both small and grand scales.  In the mid-1970s, he was Director of Music at Clare College, where he had been a student and whose choir he directed in broadcasts and recordings.  He gave up his post there to compose his own music and to form the Cambridge Singers as a professional chamber choir primarily dedicated to recording.  Likewise, he started Collegium Records to present his recordings.  This one, like his others, contains the text, composition and arrangement credits for and excellent historical notes about each track.

The Cambridge Singers’ performance here is somewhere between flawless and outstanding, faithfully captured by engineer Campbell Hughes and producer Jillian White.  The reduced number of musicians here is entirely appropriate; there is no loud fanfare or bombast, and therein lies one of the endearing qualities of this disc, because Rutter programmed so thoughtfully and carefully.  Fifteen a capella pieces are punctuated by seven with orchestral accompaniment, more than ably provided here by Rutter’s frequent collaborators, the City of London Sinfonia.

Among the a capella highlights on this disc are the two opening tracks, beginning with the familiar German carol in dulci jubilo, arranged here by Robert Lucas Pearsall.  The 15th century Adam lay ybounden has been set to music several times; Rutter chose the one by legendary English choirmaster and organist Boris Ord.  Herbert Howells’ setting of A spotless rose is a fine example of the wonderful British flavor on this disc, echoed by the two Charles Wood arrangements, Once as I remember and A virgin most pure.  There is also a particularly beautiful J.S. Bach arrangement of Samuel Scheidt’s carol O little one sweet.  Rutter’s setting of There is a flower features soprano soloist Ruth Holton, who delivers a very enjoyable balance between the boy-chorister characteristic and her own feminine voice.

There are four particularly beautiful collaborations between choir and strings here:  Dr. Harold Darke’s In the bleak mid-winter has remained very popular in Great Britain over the last few decades in part because of the gentle arrangement and because Christina Rossetti’s text considers Christ’s birth with a child-like simplicity.  Sir Richard R. Terry’s lovely and dignified Myn lyking is a Tudor-flavored setting of a 15th century text.  The segue from the violins to the women choristers entering the first verse evidences Terry’s thoughtful string scoring, duplicated later by the celli and the men.  John Rutter adapted a melody from Thoinot Arbeau’s late-16th century Orchésographie and wrote lyrics and a new score, nicely resulting in this disc’s title track.

Especially deserving of your attention is Patrick Hadley’s quietly sparkling I sing of a maiden; Hadley’s brilliant vocal scoring and gorgeous supporting orchestration remind of Mozart’s Ave Verum Corpus, flowing beautifully and seamlessly between phrases.  Given a superlative performance here by the Singers and Sinfonia, this might be the best track on the disc.

Two other notable Rutter works are here too, reminiscent of both a “contemporary” style and that which sounds at least a hundred years older – testimony to Rutter’s compositional abilities.  Among the former is his 1984 Candlelight carol, and representing the latter is the final track on the CD, his 1963 Nativity carol, both accompanied by the City of London Sinfonia.  As with the Patrick Hadley, Nativity carol epitomizes the celebration of Christmas:  Quiet, worshipful and eloquently simple reflection upon the birth of Christ, beautifully enough to bring tears to your eyes.

My recommendation here is awfully simple:  Buy this CD.  Five stars, and “desert island” status for this recording.

Contents:

  1. In dulci Jubilo  (3:12)
    14th century German carol
    transl. and arr. R.L. Pearsall (1795-1856)
  2. Adam lay ybounden  (1:07)
    text, 15th century
    Boris Ord (1897-1961)
  3. Christmas Night  (4:00)
    Thoinot Arbeau (16th cent)
    text and arr, John Rutter (1945-)
  4. Once, as I remember  (2:28)
    text, G.R. Woodward (1848-1934)
    music, Italian 17th cent
    arr. Charles Wood (1866-1926)
  5. A spotless Rose  (2:45)
    text, 14th century
    music, Herbert Howells (1892-1983)
  6. In the bleak mid-winter  (4:32)
    text, Christina Rosetti (1830-1894)
    music, Dr. Harold Darke (1888-1976)
  7. There is a flower
    text, John Audelay (15th cent)
    music, John Rutter (1945-)
  8. The cherry tree carol  (4:04)
    English traditional carol
    arr. Sir David Willcocks
  9. I wonder as I wander  (2:52)
    Appalachian carol
    coll. John Jacob Niles
    arr. John Rutter (1945-)
  10. Candlelight carol  (4:06)
    John Rutter (1945-)
  11. O Tannenbaum  (1:58)
    text, Ernst Anschutz (1824)
    German traditional melody
    arr. John Rutter (1945-)
  12. Tomorrow shall be my dancing day  (1:55)
    English traditional carol
    arr. Sir David Willcocks
  13. A virgin most pure  (2:38)
    English traditional carol
    arr. Charles Wood (1866-1926)
  14. I sing of a maiden  (2:54)
    text, 15th century
    music, Patrick Hadley (1899-1973)
  15. Lute-book lullaby  (2:05)
    William Ballet (17th cent)
    arr. Geoffrey Shaw
  16. The three kings  (2:16)
    Peter Cornelius (1824-1874)
    arr. Ivor Atkins (1869-1953)
  17. Myn lyking  (2:35)
    text, 15th century
    music, Sir Richard R. Terry (1865-1938)
  18. O little one sweet  (3:15)
    Samuel Scheidt (1587-1654)
    arr. J.S. Bach (1685-1750)
  19. All my heart this night rejoices  (2:12)
    text, Paul Gerhardt (1607-1676)
    transl, Catherine Winkworth (1827-1878)
    music, Johann Georg Ebeling (1637-1676)
  20. I saw a maiden  (2:52)
    text, 15th century
    Basque Noël
    arr. Edgar Pettman (1865-1943)
  21. Away in a manger  (2:12)
    text, published 1865
    music, W.I. Kirkpatrick (1832-1921)
    arr. John Rutter (1945-)
  22. Nativity carol  (4:20)
    John Rutter (1945-)
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Bringing down the house

2011/12/03

Minnesota Sinfonia / Jay Fishman
Brandon Duffy, violin
Evelyn Nelson, soprano

December 2, 2011
Founders Hall Auditorium
Metropolitan State University
Saint Paul, Minnesota
_______________

It seems amazing to this writer that despite the holiday-flavored selections and the short (one hour, twenty minutes) duration, there was enough time on Friday evening for the real attractions, delivered by two soloists, one young composer, and by the Sinfonia themselves.

After whetting the audience’s appetite with a Johann Strauss Jr. waltz, the orchestra and Fishman got down to serious business.  Fishman first explained to his audience how Johannes Brahms had spoken unkindly about Max Bruch’s Violin Concerto No. 1, Op. 26.  The delicious irony is that without question, this is now among the most popular concerti in the violin repertoire — arguably more popular than Brahms’s own.

The soloist here was 13-year-old violinist Brandon Duffy, who won the junior division of the Sinfonia’s concerto competition earlier this year.  Duffy handled the Bruch with finesse and taut playing, especially with solid intonation on the more difficult double- and triple-stops.  Young Mr. Duffy clearly possesses the technique necessary to tackle much of this repertoire, as well as a strong hint of the bowing technique and dynamics required to really deliver the Bruch.  It will be interesting to hear Duffy in the coming years, as he develops the maturity and “emotional knowledge” necessary to deliver the angst and passion this violin concerto demands, as well as the rich flavor of things like Bruch’s Scottish Fantasy, Op. 46.  But Duffy showed us Friday evening that he has it within himself to deliver the goods — this was a fine performance with no qualifications.

A composition by 18-year-old Max Shin was next on the menu.  Chicago! is a jazzy number containing a throwback swing style with some enjoyably lush orchestration, delivered with rather full effect by the Sinfonia despite their relatively small size (25).  The slight dissonances Shin worked into the music also work very charmingly into the bustling but swiftly moving rhythms, which echo George Gershwin’s An American In Paris in places.

And in an intelligent piece of programming, Fishman followed with another genuinely fun and interesting excursion, a Divertimento by the late Canadian composer Srul Irving Glick.  While a great deal of Jewish-flavored classical and orchestral music can be serious and solemn, Fishman knows the most joyful and accessible gems as well — The Glick Divertimento brings forth some rather tricky rhythmic passages that make tough rhythmic and musical demands on the celli and double bass in particular.  But Fishman and the Sinfonia consistently shine with Judaic chamber music; the Divertimento is one of the two best that I have heard in concert.  The other is Fishman’s own Jewish Sketches, which he and the Sinfonia debuted earlier this year on February 11.  In this musician-writer’s opinion, Fishman and the Sinfonia are so good and so comfortable with this music that the time seems right for them to commit these works to compact disc; hopefully the funding and logistics for such a recording project will happen sooner rather than later.

Fishman then followed this gem with another, two movements from the Symphony in E-flat, Op.14 No. 2 by Carl Abel (1723-1787).  This gorgeous music elegantly straddles the lines between late Baroque, early classical, and even the early Romantic era.  In terms of symphonic chamber music, one could say that Carl Abel was Franz Schubert (1797-1828) before Franz Schubert was Franz Schubert.  If Fishman and the Sinfonia manage to get that recording date, they would be foolish to not include this somewhat obscure treasure on the resulting CD.

Since this was advertised as a “holiday favorites” concerto, the Sinfonia then inserted a nice reading of Adeste Fideles (the music for the hymn O Come, All Ye Faithful), which was composed by John Francis Wade (1711-1786).

After that interjection followed the Abel symphony, the orchestra scored again with Johannes Brahms’ lovely Intermezzo, Op. 118 no. 2.  It is one thing that Fishman has a deep understanding of the graceful movement of this composition; it is another that he pulls this out of his talented musicians with such panache, particularly from the violins and horns in this case.

To this point, the Sinfonia would have already garnered a nice review from this musician-writer, but the pièce de résistance was yet to come.  Minnesota-born soprano Evelyn Nelson delivered a bright, clear, and refreshingly non-weighty reading of “O mio babbino caro” from Puccini’s opera Gianni Schicchi.  Nelson gave us a lovely and touching performance with spot-on intonation.  She has rather amazing control of her voice; her mezzo-piano to forte high A-flat was flat-out impressive and lovely, without being excessively showy.  At this point, we knew that she is an excellent soprano.

But it was Nelson’s second selection that brought down the house; her voice and stage presence radiated during her enthusiastic reading of the “Je veux vivre” from Roméo et Juliette, the Charles Gounod opera.  Nelson’s dynamics in the closing section were *extremely* impressive and reached the audience with a palpable kinetic energy.  I am still shaking my head over Nelson’s magnificent performance, which was even better those of other sopranos I have heard perform with the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra.

Nelson delivered again with Adele’s Laughing Song from Die Fledermaus, and here is where the Sinfonia again demonstrated one of their niches:  This orchestra and conductor really are complementary to their soloists; the violins in particular matched Nelson stride-for-stride with nearly perfect pacing, while hanging back just enough that they did not sonically overwhelm her.  Nelson probably should have performed the Strauss before blowing us away with the Gounod, but at least she received her well-deserved standing ovation at this point.

A number of works were listed as possible selections this night, I would have loved to hear Nelson sing Mozart’s Exsultate, jubilate, K. 165, but alas, this was a holiday concert, so Nelson and the Sinfonia gave us a nice but otherwise unremarkable O Holy Night (Cantique de Noël) by Adolphe Adam instead.  (At least they lived up to the advertising!)  Fishman and the Sinfonia finished the concert with two more Christmastime selections,Victor Herbert’s “March of the Toys” from Babes in Toyland and the “Trepak” from Tchaikovsky’s The Nutcracker.

Violinist Brandon Duffy and composer Max Shin (through Chicago!) gave fine accounts of themselves this evening.  But Evelyn Nelson is another one of those far-above-average and truly excellent soloists that I want to see and hear again soon.  If/when she next performs with the Sinfonia, they at least owe us what I am sure will be a lovely Mozart Exsultate, jubilate.  Evelyn Nelson is a star.  And in this writer’s opinion, far too few Minnesotans are aware of this chamber orchestra and *especially* how thoughtfully and intelligently Jay Fishman programs a concert.  Also head-shaking is the level of talented guest performers Fishman brings in for these concerts; we have had truly memorable recent concerts from pianist Lydia Artymiw, cellist Dmitry Kouzov, and now Evelyn Nelson.  The Minnesota Sinfonia are, unquestionably, a 501(C)(3) non-profit organization worth serious financial support.

High-level Haydn

2011/02/18

Minnesota Sinfonia / Jay Fishman
Dmitry Kouzov, cello soloist

February 11, 2011
Founders Hall Auditorium
Metropolitan State University
Saint Paul, Minnesota

Some people may think the words “free concert” equals “cut-rate” or lesser-quality entertainment, but the Minnesota Sinfonia and guest cellist Dmitry Kouzov (b. Saint Petersburg, Russia) firmly disproved this on February 11 at Founders Hall on Metropolitan State’s main campus.  In fact, I suspect that some members of the audience that night still don’t grasp Kouzov’s sheer virtuosity, but as a cellist myself, I absolutely will remember this performance for a long time to come.

Antonín Dvořák (1841-1904)
Slavonic Dance in A-flat Major, Opus 46, no. 3 (1878)
arr. Jay Fishman (1947- )

The Sinfonia’s music director, Jay Fishman had a direct hand in two of the compositions in Friday’s program. Antonín Dvořák composed his Slavonic Dances for large orchestra, but Fishman’s rather deft-but-demanding arrangement of the third dance in A-flat Major for his 26-piece group turned out quite well without losing much of the sonic power.  Part of the success of this arrangement was due to talented percussionist Kory Andry successfully doing the work of two or three of his large-orchestra counterparts — something Andry has done in the past for the Sinfonia.

Dmitry KouzovFranz Joseph Haydn (1732-1809)
Cello Concerto No. 2
in D Major, Hob. VIIb, no. 2
(1783)

I have heard quite a few recordings of Franz Joseph Haydn’s D Major cello concerto, but the most memorable point of reference is the late, great Jacqueline du Pré’s December 1967 EMI recording with the London Symphony Orchestra and Sir John Barbirolli.

Not since that du Pré CD have I heard Haydn played with as much engaging enthusiasm, sensitivity, or authority as Dmitry Kouzov did on Friday evening.  Kouzov’s ability to intellectually and emotionally ‘get inside’ the music, plus his ability to convey this to the audience, genuinely outshines performances from some famous cellists we see described as ‘virtuoso.’  Part of Kouzov’s thoughtful approach is to think of his solo part as being one of the characters in an opera, using Haydn’s melodic lines to tell a story — and varying his use of vibrato to emphasize the moods.

This reflected in Kouzov’s opening solo; he played with authority, particularly in the A Major section — he complemented the violins with seamless dynamics, rather than competing with them.  His intonation was almost criminally proficient in Haydn’s technically challenging double-stops both in the lower registers and the F#7 chord high on the fingerboard, while making them seem so effortless.  His left hand is so strong that in one instance it was actually a little too strong; the percussive effect of some of his fingering on the A-string was hard to miss.

Kouzov’s cadenza in the first movement was a lovely little detour into D minor, as charming as was his second-movement cadenza in which he started from low E on his C-string and escalated it to serene heights.  Setting aside an interruption by one impatient little kid in the audience, it was a moment to hold your breath — tantalizingly drawn out slightly when coming out of the cadenza.

The third movement was fast and firm, pleasant to hear but still challenging for the soloist, which of course is tremendously fun for us cellists to watch being played well.  Credit where credit is due: Fishman’s pacing nicely reflected the elegance of Kouzov’s phrasing and the Sinfonia were noticeably above average and spot-on in their accompaniment.

Kouzov modestly claims that the cadenzas are “95% Haydn” with some re-working on his part; viewed in one way we could assume he is being truthful, but Kouzov so thoughtfully composed and presented that I can only assume that he has closely studied much of Haydn’s other compositions, perhaps also channeling a bit of the lyricism of Haydn’s close friend, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.

Hearing Kouzov’s reading of Haydn was pure joy; I eagerly await his return to Minnesota — hopefully sooner than later.  I also envy the cellists who are Kouzov’s students at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, those monumentally lucky so-and-so’s…

Domenico Scarlatti (1685-1757)
Concerto Grosso in D minor
orch. Charles Avison (1709-1770)

When attending a recording session by the Academy of St Martin in the Fields in the 1970s, Jay Fishman got his hands on the scores of two of the Scarlatti keyboard concerti grossi that Charles Avison arranged for chamber orchestra.  We were the happy recipients of that work on Friday as the Sinfonia played conductor-less (and quite well), much as orchestras of the 17th and early 18th centuries would, although they played with vibrato and in modern tuning for the Sinfonia’s convenience.

Jay Fishman (1947- )
Jewish Sketches

Composing is quite personal to Fishman; Jewish Sketches is a suite dedicated to Fishman’s mother and given its premiere by the Sinfonia on Friday evening. Trumpeter Chris Volpe was fittingly forceful (but not overbearing) while emulating the ram’s horn in the opening “Song of the Shofar” — a reference to the famous story of Abraham and Isaac from Genesis, chapter 22.

In the deeply evocative “Kaddish” movement (perhaps the best in the suite), Fishman wove  the music between the strings and winds so seamlessly that the strings’ pizzacato section sneaks up on the listener, concluding with several dramatic, deftly-scored and ear-catching chords.  As a ‘quiet Lutheran’ who has never actually heard a Kaddish prayed in synagogue, Fishman has given me some idea of how solemn and moving it must be — perhaps making up for the feeling some claim is missing from Max Bruch’s Kol Nidrei.

The final movement, “L’Chaim,” is something Fishman describes as a ‘Jewish rondo’ in which he made considerable and satisfying demands equally among his string and wind players, peppered with colorful auxiliary percussion ably delivered (as usual) by Andry.  Fishman’s composition is so enjoyable and memorable that I feel it deserves to be committed to CD; we’ll have to see if Fishman and the Sinfonia get that chance someday.

Kalinnikov: Symphonies 1 & 2

2010/04/22

Kalinnikov: Symphonies 1 & 2Royal Scottish National Orchestra / Neeme Järvi
Chandos CHAN 9546, DDD
Symphony No. 1  (37:37)
Symphony No. 2  (37:33)


This writer feels that had Vasily Sergeyevich Kalinnikov not died of tuberculosis two days before his thirty-fifth birthday, we would be mentioning him alongside people like Rachmaninov, Lyadov, and the mighty “Russian Five” (Rimsky-Korsakov, Moussorgsky, Borodin, Balakirev and Cui).  His two symphonies can be very favorably compared to those from the aforementioned, especially when you consider that Kalinnikov got his music education on the cheap.

Kalinnikov was born January 13, 1866 in Voina, in Russia’s Oryol District, to a very poor family.  From this village, Kalinnikov received a scholarship to Moscow’s Philharmonic Society School, but his family’s poverty forced him to leave school and make a living playing violin, bassoon and timpani in theatre orchestras.  Semyon Kruglikov is possibly even more obscure than Kalinnikov, but scholars of Russian music rightfully point out the significance of this important music critic and teacher.  Kruglikov took notice of Kalinnikov, taught him harmony, and introduced him to other musicians.  Tchaikovsky found for Kalinnikov the conductor’s job at the Maly Theatre in Moscow and later a similar job at the Moscow Italian Theatre, but it was in 1899 that Kalinnikov contracted tuberculosis and had no choice but to resign and move to the warmer climate in the Crimea.  This is where Kalinnikov wrote most of his music before he died at Yalta in January of 1901.

Kalinnikov’s symphonies — especially his first — are as full of Russian character as the music of his contemporaries, especially The Five, in that they follow very much the same structure and flavor and also suggest Brahms’ and Rachmaninov’s use of dynamics and thematic development, and Tchaikovsky’s use of rhythm.  The distinguishing feature in both works is Kalinnikov’s creative changes and modulation, since they wind up in unexpected – but entirely listenable – keys.  Kalinnikov was especially effective in weaving various themes together without consuming excessive amounts of time.

Kalinnikov’s beautiful sense of melody is evident in the slow movements of both symphonies, particularly the serene Andante commodamente in the first symphony, where the supporting orchestration is sublime and never out-of-character.  A lovely passage occurs toward the end of the andante cantabile in the second symphony when the celli take the melody, then hand off to the violins, winds and harp during a descending pattern, closing the movement in a fashion that echoes the melancholy of Rachmaninov and reeks wonderfully of Russian flavor.  This is as enjoyable for musicians as it is for listeners, and here Järvi and the RSNO treat this beautifully and flawlessly.  The Andante commodamente might be the best part of the disc; the music will probably stay in your head long after you turn off your CD player.

The third movements in both works feature strongly-flavored folk dances, punctuated by several fortissimo bursts from the orchestra and winding up with forceful flourishes, played here to the proper effect by the RSNO.  Dvořák probably would have been very pleased.

The final movement of Kalinnikov’s first symphony is more towering and creative than its counterpart from #2; the oboe melody from the second movement gets new life in the concluding theme, back-loaded not only with strong brass parts but with flavorful use of percussion.  It is as majestic as the Finale of Rachmaninov’s second symphony, but is perhaps more memorable because Kalinnikov weaves his themes and makes his points without consuming nearly as much time and effort as does Mr. “Six-Feet-of-Gloom.”

The RSNO have produced many fine recordings, and this one is no exception.  It’s not totally perfect; the first symphony includes wonderful E-flat and G-Major sequences in the Finale where the violins play 16th-notes underneath powerful chords from the brass, and while they stay together, the entire violin section gets slightly disjointed from the brass.  This may be a result of the acoustics in Glasgow’s Henry Wood Hall, however.  In this writer’s opinion, Neeme Järvi should have taken a slightly slower tempo here.  One of the RSNO cellists also let slip a stray A-string during the third movement of that same work.

Don’t let any of these quibbles turn you away; this is really a solid compilation that will likely send you searching for recordings of Kalinnikov’s other works.  This disc is a result of Chandos taking the first symphony from their CHAN 8611 release and the second from CHAN 8805.  If you can manage to find these two CDs still available, you’ll also obtain recordings of Kalinnikov’s last-ever composition, the lovely symphonic picture The Cedar and the Palm and his Overture to Tsar Boris, as well as two tone poems by Alexander Glazunov.  The two discs may still be available from Chandos and/or other on-line sources and are well-worth the trouble of looking.  Nevertheless, the RSNO’s performance here is very enjoyable – a CD definitely worth the purchase.

Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra, February 26, 2010

2010/03/04

Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra / Paul Goodwin
Ordway Center, Saint Paul MN, February 26, 2010

HENRY PURCELL: Suite from King Arthur or The British Worthy, Z.628
BENJAMIN BRITTEN:  Suite on English Folk tunes, A Time There Was…, op.90
WILLIAM BOYCE:  Symphony No. 5 in D, op. 2d
ARCANGELO CORELLI:  Concerto Grosso in F, op 6. no. 2

SIR MICHAEL TIPPETT: Fantasia concertante on the Theme of Corelli for Strings
SIR EDWARD ELGAR:  Nursery Suite

The British conductor Paul Goodwin was in town to lead the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra in a nicely-programmed set of English music spanning three centuries that was thoroughly enjoyable, except one coughing spell and one nebulous, murky, post-modern bender.

The Purcell started off a bit jaunty and occasionally disconnected, but emerged with the musical and rhythmic charm we’ve become used to hearing from his music, and was a fine way–stylistically and musically–to open this concert.

It’s hard to say whether Benjamin Britten’s A Time There Was… or William Boyce’s fifth symphony was the highlight of the evening; both were beautifully played by the SPCO.  Britten’s ‘Bitter Withy’ movement is a lovely mix of old-world themes and modern orchestration, and the “Hunt The Squirrel” rings true with some vivid color and pacing.  ‘Lord Melbourne’ represents Britten in an elegaic and gorgeous British setting, although the later sections gather a more austere mood.  Sadly, just as Goodwin was gently threading the orchestra to the breathtaking conclusion, one concert-goer ruined it not only with a coughing spell, but noisily climbed out of her chair, saying “sorry, sorry…”  It’s tough attending concerts in Minnesota in January because too many people don’t know when they are so sick that they should just stay home.  Having said that, I’ll buy this work on CD, not only to avoid hearing coughing spells but also because the Britten was so flat-out enjoyable that it made me want to drop everything, go home and pick up my own cello for a couple of hours.

The William Boyce symphony was also a gem; the scoring reflects the influence of the more-dominant George Friedrich Handel, who lived in England at the same time, but in Boyce’s own voice a more authentic British flavor underpins the orchestration.  Goodwin coaxed some excellent dynamics from the orchestra, particularly at the end of the first movement.

The opening movement of the short, F major Corelli concerto grosso was nothing short of lovely, and the second movement was quite sublime.  The final movement was missing a little bit of the magic but was nonetheless nicely led by Goodwin and helpfully served as a preview of the Tippett fantasia that followed.

In his Fantasia concertante, the late Sir Michael Tippett not only blurred the supporting orchestration with the obstreperous post-modern material we’ve become used to enduring, but also placed a tall order on the separate sections of celli and bassist Christopher Brown with some rather demanding passages.  These jarring sections contain skewed harmonics and poly-rhythmic structure that must be played cleanly — and the SPCO did, particularly the violins, who were called upon to keep the rhythm that helped keep the audience from otherwise being totally lost.  Some distinctly English-flavored passages emerged, harmonically modern but rhythmically discernible.  Unfortunately, Corelli’s motif is mostly lost here as Tippett essentially used it as a convenient platform on which he fabricated the fantasia.  There are a few precious moments in which the Baroque flavor emerges, with some 20th century English romanticism clearly embedded, but Tippett consumes most of the time leading us into some sort of musically drug-addled haze, bringing listeners back to Corelli’s flavor only in the very end.

In the Elgar the SPCO, under Goodwin’s excellent conducting, did quite a skillful job taking us from one mood to another in the opening ‘Aubade.’  And unlike Tippett, Elgar charms us with palpable waves and ripples of dynamic changes, even giving us some con sordini (playing with muted strings) in places.  In the Aubede’s closing chord, Goodwin thankfully let the SPCO’s closing pizzicato G major chord ring and decay purely and naturally.  The next movement is a busy one, colored by some extra percussion and flavorful horns, giving a short-but-pleasant musical outburst.  The ‘Sad Doll’ and ‘Merry Doll’ movements are pretty much as advertised, with the final movement punctuated with some demanding (but not overwhelming) bass drum, concert cymbals, snare drum, and xylophone — not exactly staples of chamber music, but well-written by Elgar and well-played on this evening by the SPCO.

It is possible that the Elgar Nursery Suite would have been good material for the children’s concert the SPCO performed back on Saturday morning, February 13.  And in the program notes, the orchestra admits that the program necessarily had to bypass a few other composers (Vaughan Williams especially) due to time constraints, but they clearly made their point on this evening that, Tippett’s crepuscular composition notwithstanding, a tremendous amount of British music more than 300 years across is wonderfully accessible and full of thickly-tinged, but not stuffy, essence.

Stravinsky festival, January 23, 2010

2010/02/02

Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra(1), Minnesota Orchestra(2) / Roberto Abbado
Saturday, January 23, 2010

Igor Stravinsky: Pulcinella(1), Firebird(2)

The Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra concluded their month-long series of concerts featuring the work of Igor Stravinsky with a rare double-bill by the SPCO and the Minnesota Orchestra, both conducted by Roberto Abbado.

Stravinsky: Pulcinella (ballet music, 1920 edition)
The Russian impresario Sergei Diaghilev wanted to stage a ballet based on eighteenth-century Italian “Commedia dell’arte” music, which was originally attributed to the composer Giovanni Pergolesi but has since proved spurious.  Stravinsky is said to have disliked the idea until after he saw the music in question.  What followed—and what was charmingly and capably delivered by the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra—are melodies and themes liberally spiced with rhythms and orchestration that echo the original Italian flavor but mirror a sort of early 20th century neo-Classical style of composition.  Tenor Joseph Kaiser may have been the most impressive of the three excellent soloists, having to deliver Stravinsky’s difficult text with aplomb.

But the big draw on this evening was one of Stravinsky’s greatest orchestral showpieces.

Stravinsky: The Firebird (ballet music, complete 1910 edition)
A stage change pushed the Minnesota Orchestra back to the front edge of the orchestra shell, leaving a good 30 feet between Abbado and the front row of the center section seating, which was unavoidable given the sheer number of musicians on-stage.  (The Ordway’s new, narrow ‘thrust’ stage puts the much smaller SPCO closer to the audience.)

The Orchestra did magnificent justice to Stravinsky’s musical genius on Saturday evening and proved that an excellently-recorded CD is still no match for attending live concerts, especially with as much air as the Minnesota’s double basses, percussion, and brass were moving.  In particular, the orchestra handled beautifully Stravinsky’s difficult rhythms and colorfully orchestrated segments, elements that later became more evident in The Rite of Spring in 1913.

The Firebird offers a gorgeous and deeply colorful mixture of Russian and French impressionism that was not often equaled by other early 20th-century composers; Maurice Ravel’s 1922 orchestration of Modest Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition is probably the closest comparison, especially considering how Stravinsky and Ravel flavored their respective pieces not just with extra percussion but also with multiple harps and celesta.  Perhaps not coincidentally, Stravinsky had declared Ravel’s 1909 Daphnis et Chloe suite “one of the most beautiful products of all French music.”  Not at all coincidentally, both The Firebird and Daphnis were composed for productions by the impresario Diaghilev.

As can happen with live performances, a few minor glitches occurred on Saturday; twice principal cellist Anthony Ross played his solo in the “Princesses’ khorovod” (a round) with excessive glissando and rubbery phrasing that clashed with the mood and with the bassoon part that follows.  The only other unexpected event was an accidental extra blast from the bass drum during the “Infernal Dance.”

Otherwise, the orchestra “told” the entire Firebird story with rapturous effect in part because Abbado programmed the complete 1910 ballet music instead of Stravinsky’s abridged and stripped-down Firebird Suite from 1919; the incidental and passing music between the major sections is essential to conveying the color and mood of the story.

Three trumpets (including Chuck Lazarus) played through open doors from just off-stage during the “Magic carillon,” giving it a deliciously spooky effect.  And just as the Minnesota played the “Infernal Dance” to wonderfully vicious and spasmodic effect, they were positively sublime in the “Berceuse”—the violins, playing con sordini (with muted strings), absolutely shimmered during the final portion of the “Cradle song.” Abbado ably coaxed the necessary galloping from the winds and brass in “Kaschei’s Awakening” and, perhaps to help us savor the moment, slowed down the “deep shadows” leading to principal horn Michael Gast’s gorgeously gentle solo that touched off the majestic conclusion. The final seven chords were spine-tingling.

The Ordway audience knew exactly what they got on this Saturday evening—an exhilarating, swirling-and-diving flight through one of the very best 20th century orchestral works—and called Abbado back to the stage for four rounds of applause during their standing ovation.  This was a magnificent delivery of musicianship, one we might possibly remember as fondly as Osmo Vänskä’s special Orchestra Hall concert with Finland’s Lahti Symphony Orchestra on January 25, 2005.

Minnesota Orchestra – June 7, 2009

2009/06/10

Orchestra Hall, Minneapolis MN
Sunday, June 7, 2009

Michael GatonskaIn autumn woods a traveler
Pyotr Ilyich TchaikovskyPiano Concerto No. 3, Op. 75
Felix MendelssohnPiano Concerto No. 1, Op. 25
Modest MussorgskyPictures at an Exhibition (orch. Maurice Ravel, 1922)

Stephen Hough (piano), Minnesota Orchestra / Osmo Vӓnskӓ

On this unseasonably cool, gray, drizzly, fluorescent Sunday afternoon, the Minnesota Orchestra and music director Osmo Vӓnskӓ made their home venue bright and inviting with two romantic-era piano concerti, book-ended by two tone poems.

The concert (the last of four on the weekend) opened with In autumn woods a traveler by the American composer Michael Gatonska, and while there is no real music here, it does contain some lush orchestration and colorful use of percussion to vividly convey what the composer calls a “ramble through the woods.”  Gatonska even calls on the percussion section for radio static, which very nicely provides the sound of a nearby stream.

Nothing here is really out-of-place; the orchestration occasionally reminds of Virgil Thomson and Aaron Copland, and demands precise timing, which the Minnesota Orchestra very ably delivered.  Unlike quite a bit of modern orchestral ‘music,’ this is an enjoyable curiosity of impressionism. However, like many other modern compositions, this contains precious little discernable music, save for two or three lovely melodies from the woodwinds, but music really isn’t part of Gatonska’s premise here.  A friend of mine (who graciously scored the concert tickets) suggested that In autumn woods… could make for a really good film soundtrack.  While this is true, it stands very nicely by itself as an accessible piece of modern impressionism.  Believe it or not, it actually makes me want to look for recordings of some of his other work, to see what other sounds and atmospheres Gatonska can draw out of an orchestra.

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British-Australian pianist Stephen Hough then came onstage for a live recording of Tchaikovsky’s single-movement Piano Concerto No. 3 with the Minnesota Orchestra. (Hough is recording the cycle of all three Tchaikovsky piano concerti with the Minnesota for Britain’s Hyperion label.)  As with some of Tchaikovsky’s other orchestral works, his signature rhythms and style aren’t quite apparent and distinct until after the first few bars, after which he hands off his themes and melodies from the piano to the orchestra. The composer was fond of rapid, busy, demanding lines on the basses and lower brass, which the Minnesota Orchestra handled with aplomb, although the closing was slightly disjointed. Since the orchestra had four chances to get it right over the course of the weekend, this performance is probably not the one that will make it to CD.  Tchaikovsky’s third piano concerto certainly isn’t his finest, but was well-played by Stephen Hough on this afternoon.

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It’s a shame that Hough and the Minnesota were recording the Tchaikovsky piano concerto, because after the intermission they delivered a thoroughly enjoyable reading of Felix Mendelssohn’s Piano Concerto No. 1, one that I would choose to hear over the Tchaikovsky.  Hough was brilliant with Mendelssohn’s dramatic opening lines, playing adroitly rather than manhandling them with too much fortissimo. Likewise, the celli and basses handled Mendelssohn’s rolling movement with precision, and it is also here that a few echoes of Mozart are evident in Mendelssohn’s composition.  Orchestra Hall’s outstanding acoustics spotlighted Hough’s very artistic and precise cadenza, particularly the quiet, breathtaking passage in which he was delicately joined by the woodwinds.

(Minus 10,000 points to the audience members who had a simultaneous coughing spell just then!  Argh!  Haven’t you people heard of cough drops??!!)

The lovely E-Major section gave the Orchestra’s basses a chance to demonstrate some remarkably fine intonation, while Hough was wonderfully colorful in the conclusion, particularly in the D7 passages with delicate string underpinning.  I hope that since the microphones were already set up that they recorded this performance, because Hough and the orchestra were excellent here.

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The Orchestra closed the concert with a famous tone poem, the 1922 Maurice Ravel orchestration of Modest Mussorgsky’s Pictures At An Exhibition. Ravel’s scoring demands that the Minnesota Orchestra were augmented by additional musicians, including an extra harpist and percussionists. Principal trumpeter Manny Laureano was an excellent soloist (as usual) in the opening “Promenade” and especially later in the “Catacombae” section.  Osmo Vӓnskӓ took an unusually slow pace through Pictures, but the trade-off is that the audience got extra time to appreciate Ravel’s colorful orchestration and challenging rhythms, particularly in the “Ballet of Chicks in Their Shells” and “Limoges (the Marketplace).”  The brass were particularly excellent in “Catacombae,” with a strong, powerful, stark delivery, followed by an excellent (and almost frightening!) reading of “Baba-Yaga – The Hut on Fowl’s Legs.”  Aside from my quibbles with Vӓnskӓ‘s slower pacing, he and the orchestra were wonderful in the concluding movement, “The Great Gate of Kiev,” and the percussionists, led by Brian Mount and Jason Arkis, were especially magnificent.

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Most American audiences tend to begin their applause immediately after the final note of a performance has finished, but they would do well to emulate audiences at the Royal Concertgebouw in Amsterdam.

When concert-goers there know that a concert in the Concertgebouw is being recorded, they graciously wait four or five seconds for the last echoes of music to dissipate, so that recording engineers can have a clean cut-off. Once that happens, Concertgebouw audiences spend plenty of time and energy showering the musicians with applause.  I wish people here in the United States would do the same, out of consideration for people who buy recordings of these performances later on.