Bach, Mahler, Murail, Eastman

Alex Ross recently posted a list of concerts and operas he attended during a recent European trip. I haven’t been to Europe lately, but I did get to a memorable and varied series of concerts in Philadelphia recently. Here are some brief comments.

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I was delighted to see the Church of the Holy Trinity filled for a program of Bach cantatas – it seats about 1100! Very fine performances, with the singers and obbligato players ably commanding Bach’s long lines. The second aria in BWV 170 is a contender for the strangest Bach aria ever, with the organ playing the obbligato while the violins in unison play the bass!

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My favorite pieces here were the Murail works and the Messiaen. The latter was written on the death of his mother, while the former on the death of his teacher Messiaen; good to hear those in succession. The big hall at the Barnes is not ideal for every concert situation, but it worked for the spectralist pieces with their emphasis on resonance, sculpted in sensuous layers in Marilyn’s virtuosic performance. Here’s how the piano was set up, followed by a shot from the Q and A with Marilyn and Robert Whalen, co-artistic director, along with Katharine Skovira, of the concerts at the Barnes.

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  • The Philadelphia Orchestra offered the Mahler 3rd in its last subscription set of the season. I was there for the May 19 performance.

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This was a magnificent performance of a staggering piece. Certainly hearing the orchestra in full cry was thrilling, but I was constantly struck by the intensely eloquent solo playing – trombone in the first movement, offstage “posthorn” (I assume played on trumpet?) in the third, to name just two of many. Karen Cargill’s voice was richly sonorous, and the choirs were splendid. Am I the only person who hears an echo of “I’ll be seeing you in all the old familiar places” in the cello tune of the finale?

  • The last event in my recent bout of concert going was the final concert of the Julius Eastman retrospective presented by Bowerbird at The Rotunda.

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The ensemble pieces were intriguing, but the highlight for me was the a cappella solo performance of Eastman’s Prelude to the Holy Presence of Joan D’Arc by Davóne Tines. He was positioned at the lectern pictured above. His powerful bass-baritone cast an incantatory spell as he repeated the work’s few short musical phrases, a setting of this text:

Saint Michael said
Saint Margaret said
Saint Catherine said
They said
He said
She said
Joan
Speak Boldly
When they question you

The piece served as an invocation, and I sensed an unusual concentration in the audience; it was exceptionally quiet during the pauses between phrases, giving us a chance to attend to the reverberation The Rotunda offers.

Hear Davóne singing music of Caroline Shaw here, and Jerome Kern here.

Leaf Raking Miscellany

It’s a good day to rake leaves, but I want to take a break to say:

  • I’m sorry to be missing the Christopher Rouse Organ Concerto with the Philadelphia Orchestra this week. There is one more performance tonight (November 19) at 8. Read program notes for the concert here.
  • It’s a pleasure to see my colleague Eric Moe‘s picture in the NY Times Arts and Leisure section today in connection with a counter)induction program at National Sawdust featuring him as both composer and pianist – this at a moment when it seems especially difficult for some composers of our generation to get the attention of the media.
  • On Monday, Nov. 21, I’ll be doing a pre-concert lecture for the Philadelphia Chamber Music Society’s concert featuring pianists Lydia Artymiw, Charles Abramovic, Cynthia Raim and Natalie Zhu, plus Philadelphia Orchestra percussionists Don Liuzzi and Chris Deviney. My talk will be at 6:45 before the 8:00 pm concert at Philadelphia’s Kimmel Center. The program includes the Bartok Sonata for Two Pianos and Percussion, the Mozart two-piano Sonata, and two works by Smetana for two pianos, eight hands – a one-movement Sonata and a Rondo. No, I haven’t heard the Smetana works before either! And yet I found this video of both pieces with Martha Argerich and colleagues performing:
  • I’ve been pondering Mario Davidovsky‘s work after hearing his masterful Flashbacks in two brilliant performances by the New York New Music Ensemble recently. I hope to post here about his work soon; for now, here is the NYNME recording, from a Bridge CD:

Monday Miscellany

– It was a fantastic performance by The Crossing last Saturday. I thought my new Levertov Mass went very well, and the audience was warmly appreciative. I’m deeply grateful to every member of the group, especially those who performed the demanding “schola” parts – a quartet of singers positioned behind the audience – as well as the several singers who took on brief solos in the main choir, in front of the audience. Donald Nally prepared the performance with meticulous care, and the level of musicianship of all involved was quite dazzling.

UPDATE: go here for the Philadelphia Inquirer review of the concert by David Patrick Stearns.

– You can read an article here about the Westminster Choir College CoOPERAtive program, which will include a reprise of this spring’s Lyric Fest concert that includes my Waltzing the Spheres. Laura Ward will again be the pianist, while Kelly Bixby will be the soprano.

– There are eight Philadelphia Orchestra concerts at the Mann Center this summer – but five of them are either movie play-alongs or pop concerts, and a sixth is mostly given over to spirituals. The latter does have a premiere by Uri Caine, nice to see some new music being done. But only two entirely classical programs?

I grew up going to Cleveland Orchestra summer concerts at the Blossom Music Center – the first time it was the late Rafael Frühbeck de Burgos conducting Brahms #1 with Gina Bachauer, followed by The Rite of Spring. I also remember hearing Mahler #3 (Maureen Forrester, soloist), Mahler #8 with Leinsdorf, and Issac Stern playing Brahms. But that was then, and this is now…

UPDATE: a brochure just came in today’s mail for two July programs with the Philadelphia Orchestra – “Pixar in Concert” and “Classical Mystery Tour: A Tribute to the Beatles”. By the way, on the days that Philly will present “Pixar in Concert”, the Mostly Mozart Festival will present a John Luther Adams premiere.

Elektra at the Philadelphia Orchestra

I just came from the Kimmel Center – good lord, to hear this orchestra play that piece, a piece that remains flabbergasting over a century after the premiere – there’s one more performance, this Saturday – you should go. Yes, the surtitles were a mess, and yes, one of the singers went sharp every time she crescendoed – but there were some jaw-dropping performances as well – don’t miss it.

When the curtain fell after two hours of demonic intensity the audience sat for some seconds in stupefied silence until the “Straussianer” recovered and began to applaud…

– Barbara Tuchman describing the Elektra premiere in her book The Proud Tower.

 

James Gaffigan in Philadelphia

James Gaffigan led this week’s Philadelphia Orchestra concert of Bernstein, Gershwin and Tchaikovsky with sweep and style. There were strikingly crisp rhythms in the On the Waterfront suite, and in Rhapsody in Blue (with the fine Stewart Goodyear as soloist), and James had command of both the grand and intimate gestures of excerpts from Swan Lake.

The Bernstein is relatively unfamiliar, at least compared to its companions on this program. I was struck by two things: how literally the opening theme is repeated as it returns several times in the piece (is this a plus or a minus?) and how Bernstein is able to create an affirmative ending for the piece while still using a dissonant harmonic palette.

I first met James when he led the preview performance of excerpts from my Songs for Adam with the Chicago Civic Orchestra in 2009. He did a fantastic job of bringing the piece to life. I recall that I didn’t have to make many comments about his interpretation – James had already internalized the piece. And he’s got the chops to convey the music he has made his own to the orchestra and thence to the audience.

When I first saw the listing of repertoire for this program I was a bit disappointed, wishing James had a chance to shine in music that digs a little deeper. But not every concert has to be earth-shakingly profound – at least not when it is performed this well.

(photo: Gaffigan, Goodyear and the Philadelphia in rehearsal, from the Orchestra’s Twitpic feed.)

Revisiting New Music at the Philadelphia Orchestra

First, a correction: in this post, I listed works by Higdon, Torke, and Salonen as the only pieces by living composers during next year’s Philadelphia Orchestra season. I omitted a work by Lorenzo Palomo, whose Nocturnos de Andalucia will be performed. Apologies to the Philadelphia and Mr. Palomo.

Second, by way of comparison: The New York Philharmonic will perform seven works by living composers during subscription concerts next season, plus six more on special “Contact” new music concerts. In addition, although he is technically deceased and therefore not a living composer (at least not on this planet), the Philharmonic will also play Stockhausen’s Gruppen as a special event. The San Francisco Symphony will also play seven pieces by living composers on regular concerts – but they will additionally do a good bit more as part of next year’s iteration of the “American Mavericks” festival, which will also tour. Visiting orchestras to Davies Hall in SF seem to play a lot of new music as well, including the Philadelphia Orchestra’s presentation of a work by Behzad Ranjbaran.

Now, four pieces by living composers is about four more than a great many orchestras in this country will play next season, and as a composer and a concertgoer I am grateful for these four. Yet, I do hope the Philadelphia will increase its presentations of new music as Yannick settles in.

Rouse Oboe Concerto in Philly

I went to hear Chris Rouse’s Oboe Concerto tonight with the Philadelphia Orchestra, Alan Gilbert conducting, and the superb Richard Woodhams as soloist. The piece is in what the composer calls his “genial” mode – as opposed to a demonic piece like his Pulitzer Prize winning Trombone Concerto. I was most taken with the slow music – exquisite colors, both in the sense of harmony and of orchestral timbre. The contrasting fast playful sections are brilliant, but it was the ecstatic stillness supporting the intensely lyrical Woodhams oboe that was most striking.

Gilbert opened the program with the piece Magnus Lindberg wrote for Gilbert’s inaugural concert as music director of the NY Phil – it is called EXPO (not sure why the all-caps). The piece works with a rather French sounding harmonic language, something it shared with the Rouse. Beethoven 6 closed the program in a performance memorable for some moments of remarkably soft but rich string playing and the characterful wind solos – it was a great night for wind playing all around. Bravo to Alan Gilbert for programming not one but two new pieces.

Yannick Nézet-Séguin

I was pleased to see Yannick Nézet-Séguin’s picture on the cover of the Philadelphia Inquirer this morning, not just because of the news that he is becoming the Philadelphia orchestra’s new music director, but because of the prominent and extensive coverage the news received. In addition to his picture on the front page above the fold, there is more than a full page inside the first section. You can read Inquirer coverage here, with comment by Inquirer critics Peter Dobrin and David Patrick Stearns.

I haven’t heard Maestro Nézet-Séguin conduct, but the buzz seems mostly positive, and I am just relieved to know that there will be a new director in place.

I haven’t had a chance to research this, but on the basis of past performances, how much new music can we expect the new director to program? has he ever conducted a piece by a living American? He did a Vivier piece in Philly not so long ago, which is a good sign, but does his repertoire – described as wide-ranging in the Inquirer – include music by living composers? More on this later.

Update: view the Nézet-Séguin discography here. While the repertoire there is not so interesting (two Nino Rota recordings?), his concert repertoire is, of course, more broad, with a wide range of standard repertoire and a bit of new music: pieces by Kurtag, Gubaidulina, Messiaen, Theo Verbey, as well as some other composers whose names I did not recognize. It is worth remembering that Riccardo Muti came to Philadelphia without much experience of doing new music, or new American music – but that changed when he got here.

Update #2: more from David Patrick Stearns, and from Tim Smith (includes video), and Anne Midgette.

Update #3 – a discussion of the appointment on WHYY’s Radio Times, with critics from Philadelphia and Montreal as well as the chair of the Orchestra’s board of directors.

Nobilimente

Sorry to not have been posting for a bit, will try to catch up in the next few days with some posts about CDs to which I have been listening.

For now, let me briefly note that despite the potentially morale-sapping news coming out of the Philadelphia Orchestra these days, they sounded superb at last night’s concert. I attended so I could hear Sir Andrew Davis, who conducted the premiere of my Songs for Adam with the Chicago Symphony last fall. The program was Mozart and Elgar – Clemanza di Tito overture, 4th violin concerto with Stefan Jackiw, and Elgar 1. Avery Fisher Grant winner Jackiw was very impressive: a slightly cold edge to the sound of his first entrance was quickly replaced by warmth and brilliance. He offered an encore, a remarkably languorous Bach largo.

Elgar is not my favorite composer, but last night’s symphony sounded more like chamber music than movie music. Davis and the Philadelphia traded richness and sheer beauty of sound for the more usual bombast associated with this piece, and formally it hung together better than it usually does.  The subtlety of Elgar’s orchestration was emphasized. Listening from the front of the 3rd tier in Verizon Hall was better than what I have experienced in seats lower down, where the orchestra can sound like it is playing from a greater distance than is actually the case. The program made me more appreciative than ever of how fortunate I was to work with Maestro Davis on Adam.