Monday, March 2, 2009

The Cleveland Orchestra - February 12, 2009

Conductor: Pinchas Steinberg
Barber: Overture to The School for Scandal
Brahms: Violin Concerto
Nikolaj Znaider, violin
Tchaikovsky: Symphony No. 4

Well this concert was my first live Cleveland Orchestra experience, and I’m so glad I went! The hall they play in is incredible, and very very different than the Pittsburgh Symphony venue I’ve gotten used to. Where Heinz Hall (PSO) is very romantic, very lavish, with marble and sculpture and gold leaf and red velvet everywhere, Severance Hall (Cleveland) is smaller, a sort of metallic post- decco feeling room. The ceiling and walls are covered in muted shades of silver and gold, and it keeps the eye busy. The ante-room before the hall itself, on the other hand, is painted in a faux-Greek/Egyptian-hieroglyphic motif with a lot of texture between the panels. The art and architecture of the halls of different orchestras are always interesting to me - as an audience member, the weight and feel of a room can have an enormous impact on the concert-going experience. I sometimes wonder what would draw non-musicians to a classical music concert, what they would think, what would interest them, and in that sense I think that simply the grandeur and immensity of a venue can make an orchestra concert into a memorable experience before the music even begins. It’s not often in the day-to-day life of most people that one is exposed to the visual opulence found in many performance spaces. Clearly many halls are works of art in their own right, and I continue to be struck by that at my concert experiences both as a performer and an audience member.

My friend and I drove up to the concert from Akron and were running a little late (finding parking was harder than we thought it would be), and arrived in the hall just as the Barber was beginning. So while we listened to this one standing in the back behind some glass, it was obvious even from there that this ensemble is a machine. I’m really not sure what recording production for them could involve, because this concert was like listening to an expertly-mastered cd on the world‘s Most Awesome Speakers. J Surely someone who’s used to listening to this level of ensemble perform live might disagree, but to a Cleveland Orchestra newbie like me, the balance and blend and precision of sound was just amazing.

After the first piece was over, we were herded frantically by the ushers to our seats which were up against the edge of the stage so that we were looking up at the basses. I had never heard of Nikolaj Znaider before, but his Brahms D-Major Violin Concerto was just breathtaking. I wish I had been able to see him better (Maestro Steinberg was blocking my view - the nerve!), but I can’t imagine it would have mattered much. Absolutely amazing. Ethereal but at the same time passionate. Need I gush more? I may need to invest in some recordings of his . . .

Ditto most of the above gushing for Tchaik 4. Powerful, expressive, vast and also chamber-like in moments. I did notice the piccolo crack a note in the notorious third-movement solo, which was actually nice in a way - it was the most humanizing thing about the whole concert.

As for my overall impression, let me say this: for years I’ve heard people talk about the differences in orchestras - Chicago is all about brass, Cleveland is very “European,” etc etc. But honestly I’d never really been acutely aware of the differences listening to recordings. But having really gotten used to the Pittsburgh sound and then going to a Cleveland concert . . . it was truly surprising (although I suppose it shouldn’t have been) how different they were. I mean, I had known that orchestras sounded different from each other in theory, but have never really experienced such a stark difference myself. Perhaps all this concert-going is making my ears better, after all.

If I may nerd-out as a flutist for a moment (I try to avoid that generally), I am somewhat embarrassed to admit that I had no idea that half of the Cleveland Orchestra flute section (Joshua Smith and Saeran St. Christopher) play on wooden headjoints! What instruments people in the top orchestral flutists are using has never come up in conversation with my colleagues and teachers before (though I know brass players talk about it all the time!) . . . but still, it just seemed like something I should have known. Also, if I can comment on the woodwinds as a whole, they have a very open, light sound that I liked once my ears adjusted to it (perhaps this explains the use of wooden headjoints on the flutes). At times they sounded almost like woodwind-stops on an organ. I wonder if this is somewhat unique to their orchestra, if it’s part of their “European” sound that I’ve heard about, or if I’ll encounter it as I venture to other orchestras. I hope to see Cleveland again before the season is up, and come fall I’ll be moving to Philadelphia to listen to that orchestra for a season, so expect lots of Philly/Baltimore/National/NYC blogs to come next season!

Pittsburgh Symphony - February 7, 2009

Conductor: Rafael Frühbeck de Burgos
Ludwig van Beethoven: Symphony No. 8
Édouard Lalo: Symphonie espagnole
Mr. Cárdenes, violin
Maurice Ravel: Bolero

If one were to publish instructions for “How to Sell Out a Symphony Orchestra Concert,” they would read like this:

1) Play Beethoven
2) Have your concertmaster play a concerto
3) Play Bolero

Needless to say, there was a large, excited crowd for this show. For me, however, it seemed like the concert of Things I Should Have Known but Didn’t.

Let’s being with the Beethoven. Even though I played this piece years ago, I can’t say I remembered it at all. So it was even more surprising to me when we got to the end and I realized that there hadn’t been a slow movement! No slow introduction to the first movement, sure . . . but no slow movement at all? No Adagio, no Andante . . . not even a Moderato! Instead Beethoven gives us this: Allegro vivace, Allegretto scherzando, Tempo di menuetto, and another Allegro vivace. A Beethoven symphony without a slow movement - where was I in orchestral literature class? I was hoping that the program notes would mention this unusual feature, but no luck there. There is an interesting anecdote in the program, though, that may (if we stretch it a little) speak to this. From Mark Rohr’s notes:
It is clear that the abortive romance with Antonie had a profound effect on Beethoven: he would never again become so close to a woman. He might have used the Eighth Symphony to vent his mighty frustrations but instead he seems to have brewed it up as a tonic. After all, sometimes things get so bad that all you can do is laugh. Out of the darkness Beethoven gives us light - and a warning to armchair psychologists.
If it is indeed the case that Beethoven was writing music that was purposefully cheerful as a remedy for his own sadness, perhaps that would explain the lack of a slow movement. Pure speculation of course, but who knows.

Then came the Lalo. I’d never heard of the composer or the piece, but really loved it. Mr. Cardenes is an amazing player, and piece itself manages to be flashy and playful and yet also exquisite and deep. Imagine my surprise when a violinist-friend of mine filled me in that the piece is actually pretty standard for them. Another friend of mine played it for a competition last year. And here I had been thinking that it was something obscure - oops! Glad I heard it, though - better late than never. J

Then there was Bolero . . . Who doesn’t love Bolero? I know it’s kind of cliché, but it really is one of my favorites. However, as many times as I’ve listened to it, I never really put it together that it’s one giant crescendo. (Duh, right?) When I read that in the program notes, I felt so clueless for never having recognized that in an articulated fashion. I also never knew that it was originally music for a ballet. (For anybody else who may have missed that bit of trivia, the scene is this: a female dances on a table in a tavern while the male patrons stare, transfixed. At the key change to E-major, the men start to brawl. The end.) It was kind of a fun new perspective to listen to it for the first time knowing the story. Ah, will the list of things I don’t know about music never cease to grow! It’s so daunting, the sheer amount of music and stuff about music there is to know . . . But anyway, back to Bolero: I would love to see it with dance sometime - I wonder if anybody ever does it that way anymore? The PSO did a great job with this one - even from my so-so seat I could see some of the string players really getting into it. And at the end, just when I thought they couldn’t get any louder, they pulled out all the stops and gave a little more. Way to rock it out, PSO!

Pittsburgh Symphony - January 30, 2009

Conductor: Yan Pascal Tortelier
Jean Sibelius: The Swan of Tuonela
Edvard Grieg: Piano Concerto
Orion Weiss
Maurice Ravel: Trio (orch. Tortelier)
Paul Dukas: The Sorcerer's Apprentice

The Sibelius was a brand new work for me, and I didn’t really know what to expect out of it. I have to say that it grew on me more and more as it went on. It was relatively brief, but deceptively simple - though there’s not much movement in the orchestra on a large scale, the very divided string parts allow for all sorts of ebbing and motion to take place under the surface. It’s a masterful depiction of the swan sailing smoothly over the dangerous, mysterious water. The English horn solo was gorgeous - warm, full, and lyrical, with none of the honking or cracking that I have so often heard out of that instrument. I was very aware of Maestro Tortelier’s movements during the piece - they were surprisingly large, especially in the very soft beginning. I suspect that it was to some degree necessitated by motion in the inner parts that I didn’t catch on a first hearing, but still, the pattern looked huge for the sound that was coming out. In any case, the work is gorgeous, and I look forward to the next time I get to hear it.

The Grieg was fantastic. It had so much character and was just fun to listen to. The pianist, Orion Weiss, is only 26 years old! 26!!!!! Being 25 myself, I find his resume both amazing and disgusting (all in jealously, of course!).

The Ravel was by far the highlight of the evening. For about 15 minutes before the piece began, Maestro Tortelier gave a mini lecture-recital on his orchestration, and his enthusiasm and love for the piece was absolutely contagious. He is a charming and genuine speaker, and he truly made this concert one that I will remember for a long time. He began by talking about his history with the Trio - how he would play it with his father and sister “as often as possible and wherever possible.” I was particularly touched by a story he told about his father, who asked him one day how the arrangement was coming along. Tortelier replied that it was coming, but slowly. His father commented that that was the usual reply, and retorted that he hoped to hear the finished product before he died. Tortelier laughed and joked that this was the reason he was taking so long. Sadly, his father died several months later and never did hear the arrangement of their beloved trio. Tonight’s performance was dedicated to him.

The Maestro displayed an almost childlike excitement as he illustrated many aspects of his orchestration for the audience by having passages played first in the original context and then in orchestral form. His explanations often seemed gleeful (for example, after hearing the trio perform a section from the fourth movement, Tortelier told the audience that Ravel is said to have commented that the passage never sounded “trumpet-y enough.” He then laughed as he shrugged that he simply “corrected” the problem, cueing the brass for a vibrant fanfare.) He noted that while many might question the need for an arrangement of one of the most-loved staples of the trio repertoire (and the audacity of attempting to orchestrate the great RAVEL!), any pianist would tell you that more than 10 fingers are needed to truly do the work justice.

The orchestration of the work was sweeping, delicate, and varied, and was clearly true to Ravel’s intent. It will be an absolute deprivation if this work fails to find its way into the symphonic repertoire.

The evening closed with Dukas. In the program, Mark Rohr writes: “Yes - it’s difficult, if not impossible, to listen to Paul Dukas’ The Sorcerer’s Apprentice without visualizing Mickey Mouse in the title role. You are forgiven.” The same spirited levity of those notes seemed to permeate the orchestra as they gave a performance that was full of vitality. It really was the icing on a most delicious cake. :)

Saturday, January 24, 2009

Pittsburgh Symphony - January 23, 2009

Greetings! After taking some time off from concert-going to save up some Christmas money (and avoid cheesy holiday concerts!), I am resuming my quest to hear lots and lots and lots of good music. :)

Last night's program was:
Conductor - Andres Cardenes

Barber - Symphony No. 1 (In One Movement)
Gershwin (arr. Ferde Grofe) - Rhapsody in Blue with Gabriela Montero, piano
Mendelssohn - Symphony No. 5 in D major, Op. 107, "Reformation"

First off, it was interesting to see Cardenes, usually the concertmaster, in the role of conductor. Though his conducting seemed a little academic at times, it was for the most part well-done. The most striking thing to me, though, was that he clearly had such an awareness of the score (a necessity for a conductor, obviously, but stick with me here) - which led me to wonder just how good an orchestra could be if everyone - not just the concertmaster - had that depth of knowledge about a piece. I mean, sure, good musicians know the score and are familiar with a piece . . . but what if everybody knew it well enough that they could get up and conduct it if they had to. Would that affect the sound of the ensemble, do you think? Would it affect the way they played? It would surely affect the way that I listen to a piece to know it that well. I've got no answers, just musings.

The Barber symphony was brand new for me, and I think I would have benefited from some pre-concert listening on this one. I wasn't really into it at the beginning, but in the middle of the Andante tranquillo section I suddenly noticed that I was completely sucked in, and stayed that way until the end. I think I was just unprepared for the beginning. I have a friend who always finds recordings of the pieces he will hear at a concert, so that he'll know the piece before he gets there. I, on the other hand, like to be surprised. :) In this case, however, I think I would have enjoyed the first half of the piece more if I had been familiar with it already. The themes and structure just went by too fast to really appreciate on a first listening.

The Gershwin was fun, of course. Ms. Montero had a relaxed presence and the orchestra did a great job - esp. the clarinets and brass, of course. :) I read in the program that the work was originally for piano and big band - news to me! I was curious about the wind seating, though - there was only one flute and one oboe instead of the usual pairs, while the rest of the sections were full. Neither have particularly exposed passages in the piece, so I didn't really hear a difference, but it was odd nonetheless.

Now, THIS is the part that made the night:
Ms. Montero has developed a somewhat unique reputation as an improviser. As part of her performances, she likes to take suggestions of themes from the audience and improvise upon them. So she came out for an encore, and said she would do an improvisation for us tonight. She asked for audience suggestions of themes, and a handful of people shouted out ideas.

Not so fast, though - there was a catch. She quiets the audience down, and says no - you have to SING the melody.

People laugh shyly, and she so she mentions that maybe there's something unique to Pittsburgh that somebody would sing. At which point some idiot behind me starts chanting "Here we go Steelers, here we go! *clap, clap*" You know the tune, right? People laugh and cheer, and I expect that most of the symphony hall will roll their eyes and we'll get on with the real suggestions . . .

Not in Pittsburgh!

In a few seconds most of the hall is singing the chant, and Ms. Montero is looking at us with a sort of amused disbelief. She walks back to the piano, stares at it for a second. Plays the melody once. Stops. Looks at the audience, who laugh and cheer her on. She plays it again once. Then once again, with a chord underneath. Looks at the audience again, who cheer like crazy. She sits in silence for a few minutes, plays the little motive a few more times, then starts to play . . .

At first it seemed like something you'd hear from the electric organ at the ball park . . . but then it morphed through style after style - Baroque, Classical, Romantic, Jazz, Latin - she must have played for a good five minutes or more. All manner of accompaniments and developments and countermelodies and harmonic changes, she would play melodies with the motive thrown in at the beginning, middle, or end - it was nothing short of amazing to hear her create that much music from such a stupid little thing. I mean, I know a lot of large works start as small motives, but to hear it unfold like that was an experience I can't adequately describe. In the beginning of the improvisation, the audience would laugh and clap a little when the motive would get thrown in, but by the end the music was so developed and we were so caught up in her playing that it hardly seemed to matter where it came from.

Only. In. Pittsburgh.

After intermission, we got another treat: Ms. Montero had just played a quartet at President Obama's inauguration with Itzhak Perlman, Yo-yo Ma, and Anthony McGill of the Metropoliton Opera Orchestra on clarinet. Last night she performed the piece again with members of the PSO. It is a work by John Williams called "Air and Simple Gifts" that elaborates on the well-known folk tune. It was a lovely piece, and well-done (especially considering that the players had only recieved the score the day before!), but most memorable were Ms. Montero's comments about playing at the inauguration.

She said that it had been one of the highlights of her life, that having the president so close was thrilling, but then she said this:
"I have never played in temperatures like that before, and I hope to God I never will again! It was torture! I mean, playing the piano can sometimes be torture . . . but this was horrible!"

She's too cute, it was endearing.

Then we were on to the Mendelssohn, which was also brand new to me. It . . . well, didn't sound like Mendelssohn! He was clearly channeling his inner Bach for this church-inspired symphony. It was absolutely gorgeous, though - the soul and texture of Bach but somehow with the lightness and spirit of Mendelssohn . . . really a unique work, and I'm glad I got to hear it.