Atlanta's Shakespeare Tavern Playhouse (STP) is a wonderful venue for chamber music. It is resonant, the musicians are on seated on a raised stage so sight lines are quite good. And for attendees, having the chance to purchase a meal is an added benefit. Last evening, the Atlanta Chamber Players(ACPs) returned to the STP with guest Andres Cardenes. It was a night of sublime music making.
The first two works on the program were by Sergei Prokofiev, a great Russian composer whose works have seen a recent resurgence because of the 125th anniversary of his birth. Anyone growing up in the 1950's and whose parents had a television likely would have heard his music; it was frequently used in the live dramas (e.g., "Studio One") that made up the new medium's "First Golden Age." The composer's ballets, symphonies, and movie scores are most familiar and it was a good choice of the ACP to program his lesser known "Five Melodies" and "Quintet for Oboe, Clarinet, Violin and Double Bass." The "Melodies" is a piano-violin duet, here featuring Elizabeth Pridgen and guest violinist Andres Cardenes. The music is beautiful, but more boldly modern than Prokofiev's works for larger ensembles. There are passages where it is almost as if the two parts are playing different pieces- but somehow the music is still very appealing. Cardenes is a master of the violin and his instrument was one of the sweetest sounding in recent memory. His playing style is very fluid as if the violin was an extension of his left hand and the bow of his right arm. Pridgen, a strong and intense player, was a great match for Cardenes. The25-minute long "Quintet" was originally written for a post World War I chamber ballet. Its six movements contain some jazz-like sections, but it not to the degree that can be heard in Stravinsky's chamber ballet L'Histoire du Soldat, from roughly the same time period. The addition of the oboe (played ably by Elizabeth Koch Tiscone) and the clarinet (played beautifully by Alcides Rodriguez) added to the jazz-like sound.
The final work was Schumann's stunning "Piano Quintet in E-flat major" featuring Cardenes, Helen Hwaya Kim (violin), Catherine Lynn (viola), Brad Ritchie (cello), and Pridgen. This music is so lushly beautiful and full of wonderful melody that only a curmudgeon would dislike it. Here again, Cardenes' playing soared; everything that made his performance so strong in the "Melodies" was even more evident here.
This was a great evening of fine music making by the ACP. The program was nicely balanced and the venue is great. The next concert of the ACP at the STP is April 17, 2018. It will be titled "Octets at the Tavern." For information, go here: atlantachamberplayers.com
Wednesday, November 8, 2017
Tuesday, November 7, 2017
Monday, November 6, 2017
There are many variables that can affect the enjoyment of a symphonic performance, at the head of which is the relationship between the musicians and the conductor. If it is strong and productive, it can take a performance to new musical level. The Atlanta Symphony Orchestra and guest conductor Jun Märkl seem to have that kind of sympathetic relationship and it resulted in some fine music-making in this program. For the complete review go here: https://bachtrack.com/review-markl-cuervo-chamayou-atlanta-symphony-november-2017
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Monday, October 23, 2017
A few years ago, Ludovic Morlot, Music Director of the Seattle Symphony, guest conducted the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra in a concert that was best described as unremarkable. But, as is said, “second time is a charm” and so it was with Maestro Morlot and the ASO this week. Marketing for the concert said that the program represented composers who are “cheeky, irrepressible, brazen and poetic”. In spite of the hyperbole, the program was a great opportunity to hear some of the better music of the 20th century. Click here for the full review: https://bachtrack.com/review-morlot-chen-prokofiev-atlanta-october-2017
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Monday, October 9, 2017
In the United States, there is a saying: “Go big, or go home.” This week’s concert by the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra was an example of “Going big and almost not going home.” As it has done over the several past seasons, the ASO artistic leadership decided to stage an opera in a concert setting with no props, no scenery, no costumes and almost no acting. Instead, there is simply chorus, soloists, and orchestra. For the complete review click here: https://bachtrack.com/review-otello-spano-thomas-williams-ford-atlanta-symphony-october-2017
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Tuesday, September 19, 2017
The Atlanta Chamber Players (ACP), the premier chamber group in the city, returned for their 2017/2018 season, with a program titled "A Celebration of Beethoven!" The concert was held at St. Dunstan's Episcopal Church, the acoustics of which seemed to color the sound of the performance, at least from my seat. The ceiling of the sanctuary contains many odd angle wooden planes, l held up by large wooden beams. To my ears, many of the wonderful overtones that give musical instruments their warmth and timbre were swallowed by the wooden surfaces and reflective angles. Thus, David Coucheron's wonderful Stradivarius violin sounded a bit brash, with the midrange sounds emphasized at the expense of the warmth-giving harmonics. I suspect that other locations in the church may have had very different sound characteristics because of the differing reflections of the many-planed ceiling.
The program began with Beethoven's Sonata for Violin and Piano No 1 in D major, Op 12 No.1. This early work by the master definitely reflects the influence of his teachers Haydn and Salieri. It is bright, pleasant, and a lifetime away from his later works. The performance started with the piano dominating, played by Elizabeth Pridgen, but after the first few minutes, a nice balance was achieved between the violin and piano. Both Coucheron and Pridgen command their instruments and both produce intense performances with grand volume. Nevertheless, their attention to dynamics was noticeable, in spite of the energy of their performance.
The next work as Beethoven's Trio in B-Flat major, Op 11. This Trio was composed in the same time frame as the Sonata and it also reflects the influence of Haydn and Salieri on their student, so it tends toward the elegant and melodic, with no foretaste of the "Sturm and Drang" to come in Beethoven's later works. The Trio is full of beautiful music, with a charming second-movement Adagio, and a wonderful third-movement featuring a set of variations on an operatic theme by Wiegl. Alcides Rodriguez, clarinet, joined Pridgen, and Brad Ritchie, cello in this great performance, which was slightly marred by the ending of the first movement, Allegro con brio, where the performers seemed not quite together.
The final work on the program was Tchaikovsky's Souvenir de Florence, for String Sextet in D major. Coucheron and Ritchie were joined by Helen Hwaya Kim, violin, Julianne Lee, and Catherine Lynn, viola, and Christopher Rex, cello. The insightful program notes to the performance by Edmund Trafford note that Tchaikovsky was best when focusing on lyrical content, and less so when trying to deal with structural design. Souvenir is a wonderful case in point in the composer's relative strengths and weaknesses. It is full of lush melodies and harmonies, but never quite succeeds in fully developing his material to intrigue the listener's intellect as well as their emotion. But the ACP gave its considerable musical heft to a thrilling rendition, that began large and ended the same way. The good news about the work that it showcases each instrument at some point, which highlighted the skill of the individual musicians. Kudos particularly to Christopher Rex for some wonderful and big cello passages. Similarly, newcomer Julianne Lee demonstrated some robust viola playing. Tchaikovsky's big melodies received a big performance with considerable subtlety from the ACP.
The next ACP concert is on November 7, 2017, at the Shakespeare Tavern Playhouse with guest violinist Andres Cardenes. For more information, go to atlantachamberplayers.com or call 404 594 3445.
Wednesday, July 26, 2017
The Pittsburgh New Music Ensemble (PNME) summer season is a wonderful mashup of new music combined with theatrical flourishes. PNME programs pieces usually played without break. The concerts are held at Pittsburgh's City Theater near the gritty (and getting grittier all the time) Carson Street corridor. The auditorium is in black box style, with 254-seats. Noe takes full advantage of the theater's lighting to add to the character of the music and PNME uses a fine sound system that is used to amplify the sound of the ensemble and to perform electronic compositions or accompaniment.
AMC attended a July 19 program titled "Got Reeds." The soloist featured was Eric Jacobs, the Clarinet and Bass Clarinet of the Seattle Symphony, who is also a member of PNME. The program began with a world premiere of a work by Gabriella Smith. It featured Jacobs playing in an alcove that is about 10 to 15 feet above the stage. This was followed by Anna Clyne's "Rapture," a clarinet solo accompanied by a pre-recorded electronic soundtrack of deep growls, swells and percussive effects. Next was the premiere of Andrew Tholl's "takes all of the breath out of me." In this piece not only did Jacobs play his clarinets, he also sang the work's wonderfully sensual lyrics. He has a mighty fine voice that demonstrated his interest and training as a singer. There was also an electronic soundtrack that added to the drama. This is a heartfelt work played with great passion by Jacobs. The final work was David Lang's 1991 "Press Release" for bass clarinet. It’s a work where the soloist plays both main themes and accent notes, almost as if the soloist is accompanying himself. Jacobs is a wonderful musician and he demonstrated both his musical and technical skills in this challenging program.
On July 21, the PNME concert was title "Eyes and Ears." It featured works by three composers (David Biedenbender, Jung Yoon Wie, and Rufus Reid) who, in conjunction with the American Composer's Forum, have been commissioned to develop pieces for PNME for the 2018 season. All works featured spotlighted art works by artists Scott Hunter (www.scothunterfineart.com; see especially the non-representational tab) and Val M. Cox (www.valmcox.com). Cox had previously been commissioned to create a work in memory of David Stock, the founder of PNME. The program began with Biedenbender's "Red Vesper;" a trippy homage to the setting sun in National Parks of the Western US. Rufus Reid's jazzy "Pangea" was next, featuring Reid himself on the bass. Next was Wie's "Jindo Blues,"- a sort of jazzy piano nocturne. Biedenbender's "Cold Hard Steel," another eminently likeable piece with outstanding surround sound effects, followed. The next piece was the world premiere of "Almanac" from composer Thomas Osborne, written for PNME Bass-Baritone Timothy Jones. The work has the soloist singing somewhat anachronistic lyrics above a contemporary musical accompaniment. The final work was David Garner's "Glasz" for Flute, Violin Piano, and Percussion. It is a wispy yet energetic piece that's easy to like. Then It is a startlingly good piece of music.
PNME and its Music Director Keven Noe never fail to present a compelling evening of music and theater. Everything is enhanced by the lighting design of Andrew David Ostrowski and the sound design of Christopher McClumphy. The City Theater setting also enhances the program; it is comfortable, just the right size, and flexible. Apparently Pittsburgh appreciates PNME, given the size of the audience. The house was nearly full. Often with new music groups there is a self-conscious need to be hip- a cool (but uncomfortable venue), really "out there" music, and taking start times as mere suggestions rather than commitments. Much like all of Pittsburgh, PNME is hip and cool, but it is done effortlessly, almost invisibly. It doesn't need to be world class, it just is.
Pittsburgh City Theater exterior
The PNME stage setting