Posts Tagged ‘Minnesota Sinfonia’

Artymiw’s awesome artistry


This review was originally published in the March 2009 issue of The Metropolitan.

Lydia Artymiw gets a standing ovation

If you haven’t yet attended a Minnesota Sinfonia concert at Metropolitan State’s Founders Hall Auditorium, you should, but I have some helpful advice: Get there early.

On Friday evening, Feb. 13, 2009, hundreds of people—including kids—did, resulting in an overflow crowd for a thoughtfully programmed concert (especially for Valentine’s Day) by the Sinfonia, conducted by their Artistic Director, Jay Fishman.

An appetizer from Aaron
True to the orchestra’s mission of making classical and orchestral music accessible to kids (and adults who otherwise cannot afford tickets to Orchestra Hall or the Ordway), Fishman and the Sinfonia opened their Feb. 13 concert with a bit of Americana—the famous “Hoedown” from Aaron Copland’s ballet Rodeo.  While the slower tempo seemed a little unusual, the benefit to the audience was obvious: they could better hear the intricate rhythms and interplay between the strings. (This was especially nice for the Founders Hall audience, as they are closer to the stage than in other venues.)

And while the strings, winds and brass players were plenty competent with their parts, percussionist Kory Andry was the real star. Doing the work of several percussionists, Andry played the necessary parts on five instruments: bass drum, snare, wood block, concert marimba and cymbals ingeniously configured on a hi-hat stand.

Moved by Mozart
Sandwiched between the audience and the stage was the grand piano on which Lydia Artymiw fairly dazzled the gathered music lovers with a sublime reading of Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 21 (K.467). A  distinguished professor of piano at the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities, Artymiw was firm and noble where the first movement demanded, and then gave a thoroughly graceful and penetrating account of the famous second movement. Lest anyone think this was a relaxed ‘Muzak’ tour of Mozart, her technical command of the piano was manifest in her handling of cascades of pianissimo notes.

And here is where Artymiw stands apart from other concert musicians—a talented and masterful pianist, she was also a “sympathetic” soloist for the Sinfonia; not once did she overwhelm the orchestra accompanying her almost otherworldly grasp of Mozart.

In addition to her critically acclaimed recordings, Artymiw lately has been a juror for several international piano and chamber music competitions, a logical outgrowth of her appearances with major orchestras and in important venues all over the world. Surely the audience and the musicians of the Minnesota Sinfonia hope this is not the last time Lydia Artymiw performs for (and with) them.

And while the Sinfonia musicians did a creditable job containing their glee at their good fortune, the audience could not—they burst into a lengthy standing ovation, one Artymiw, Fishman and the Sinfonia musicians richly deserved.

Icing on the cake
Amazingly, some audience members left at the intermission, consequently missing two stunningly romantic and evocative pieces of music quite appropriate for Valentine’s Day. And, as well as the Sinfonia played the Mozart, they were just getting warmed up.

The non-choral version of Gabriel Fauré’s Pavane, Op. 50, is one of his most famous pieces of music, where the melody is woven back-and-forth between the winds and strings. Here, Sinfonia flautist JoAnne Bartlett shined by carrying the melody with a clear-yet-breathy timbre later echoed by the violins. The supporting musicians in the Pavane, the violists, cellists and bassist Susan Allard were the rhythmic glue holding this performance together, delivering the under footing very precisely under Fishman’s conducting.

However, the most emotional and evocative piece of the evening was Sir Edward Elgar’s Introduction and Allegro, Op. 47. This composition is something of a well-kept secret and not widely known or played, so it was new to virtually the entire Founders Hall audience, who saw the Sinfonia semi-circle the string section principals in a visually unconventional manner. Elgar’s scoring for a quartet with string orchestra reminds of Ralph Vaughan Williams’ Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis, but on a smaller scale. The difference is that Elgar demands much more emotional playing from the strings, not just in dynamics but also in style, and the Sinfonia strings held true on all of the contemplative, plaintive and declarative passages.

Fishman and the Minnesota Sinfonia proved to any skeptics present that romantic and evocative classical music is often anything but milquetoast.


High-level Haydn


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

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.