Monday, March 12, 2018

Mulligan again!

For Stephen Mulligan, the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra’s assistant conductor, metaphoric lightning has struck twice this year. About a month ago he had to step in for ailing music director Robert Spano, and this week he had to take up the baton again as a replacement for the similarly indisposed guest conductor, Henrik Nanasi. In the latter instance, Mulligan conducted the already scheduled program; this week, the ASO altered the program to accommodate the young assistant.  For the complete review, click here:
Photos:  Jeff Roman

Monday, March 5, 2018

De Waart and Hadelich are first-rate...

Each year, the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra attracts a bevy of top-tiered solo performers, but it rarely manages to schedule the world’s top-tier of conductors, or the top-tier of those based in the US. But his week’s pair of concerts featured one of the top names of the conducting world, maestro Edo de Waart. With a career that began in the early 1960s, de Waart has been music director of about 12 different orchestras and opera companies worldwide. He has also been a guest conductor to nearly every major international orchestra and opera company. He has been described as “tetchy” and outspoken by journalists, yet he continues to garner new appointments, with the most recent being a contract to be the music director of the New Zealand Symphony. Given that some guest conductors have brought out the best in the ASO, de Waart’s visit has been highly anticipated. For the complete review, click here:

Photos by Jeff Roffman: 

Tuesday, February 27, 2018

The Berlin Piano Quartet....

The Berlin Piano Quartet Andrea Buschatz, violin; Matthew Hunter, viola; Knut Weber, cello and Markus Groh, piano, presented a concert at the Lied Center on February 21, 2018.  If ever there was a definition of the perfectly integrated sound of piano and strings, this was it. This quartet seems to concentrate on making a homogenous sound, where one instrument doesn’t dominate (unless required by the music) a performance.  Too often, one hears chamber groups where the piano or first violin is too prominent.  That is never an issue with the BPQ.  The concert began with Schubert’s 1816- “Adagio e Rondo Concertante” D487.  This early work of composer is firmly in the classical style and does not yet show the strong gift for melody that eventually became his hallmark.  It was designed as a display piece for the piano soloist. Two movements without break comprise the work; the first is an adagio and the second a rondo.  The BPQ played with gorgeous tone, and Mr. Weber’s cello was especially noticeable for its rich and warm sound.  Pianist Groh was marvelous, never exploiting the spotlight provided by the composer; he also avoids histrionics while playing. 

The second work was the 1891- Piano Quartet, Opus 1 in A minor by Josef Suk.  While we do not hear much from this composer in the US, he was a student of Dvorak, who is, of course, very frequently heard here.  The Piano Quartet is an immensely romantic work that can trace its sound back to both Dvorak and the thick, dense harmonies of Brahms. The work has three movements, beginning with an Allegro appassionato, followed by a middle slow movement, and ending with an Allegro con fuoco finale.  THE BPQ managed to wring every bit of drama out of the music so that its intensity was magnified by their combined power.

Composer Danny Elfman was present at the Lied Center for the world premiere of his Piano Quartet, which was commissioned by the Center and the BPQ.  Elfman is particularly known for his film music, and also for his two-decade-long affiliation as lead singer/songwriter for the band Oingo Boingo.   He has won some 35 awards for his music, especially for films.  The Piano Quartet has five sections.  The first, “Ein Ding,” requires some really rapid fingering in the strings, and in its mid-section, it was apparent that Mr. Elfman has been influenced by composer Philip Glass.  The second movement, “Kindersport,” has many references to songs familiar to children on a playground.  It was full of energy and spirit.  The third movement, also with references to Glass, is titled “Duett fur Vier.”  The fourth and fifth sections (“Ruhig” and “Die Wolfsjungen”) continue to demonstrate Elfman’s creativity, as well as the astounding virtuosity of the Berlin players.  Elfman’s work is listenable and likely will find an audience quickly.  Elfman graciously accepted the audience’s prolonged applause.  It’s interesting to note that the relationship between the BPQ and Elfman began out of an invitation to hear the Berlin Philharmonic from concertmaster Noah Bendix-Balgley, formerly of the Pittsburgh Symphony.  Bendix-Balgley has developed an impressive international presence and his introduction of Elfman to the BPQ was indeed fortuitous.

The final work was the Brahms Piano Quartet No. 1 in G minor.  This, like the Suk, is an intensely Romantic piece with thick, rich, and dark harmonies that characterized much of the composer’s work.  The third movement is an Andante that is lyrical and touching.  This is Brahms at his most personal and vibrant.  The BPQ played masterfully, leaving no musical stone unturned in this dramatic work. 

In response to the audience applause, the BPQ played an excerpt from Schumann’s Piano Quartet, Op. 47. 

This was a grand chamber concert played in the 2400- seat Lied auditorium.  Because of the Lied acoustics, and possibly the panels used to shrink the size of the stage, the sound was still intimate and chamber-like.  The audience seemed to number around 800 patrons- not bad for a cold winter Wednesday in Nebraska.  

A Pleasant Sunday Afternoon Concert...

The Omaha Symphony (OS) presented a concert at the Witherspoon Concert Hall of the Joslyn Museum.  The Witherspoon has a seating capacity of about 1000 and it is a well-maintained Art Deco space that is both simple and classic.  Its light fixtures alone are worth at least a glance.

Actually, the OS was configured as a chamber orchestra, in order to fit onto the smallish Witherspoon stage.  The conductor was Courtney Lewis, the music director of the Jacksonville Symphony. 

The concert began with a spirited performance of Mozart’s “Overture to Don Giovanni.”  This was followed by Tartini’s “Concerto in A Major for Violoncello and Orchestra,” with soloist Paul Ledwon, who also happens to be the principal cello of the OS. Ledwon played with a rich tone, although he seemed a bit unsteady in the first movement.

Stravinsky’s 1938 neo-classical “Concerto in E-flat, “Dumbarton Oaks” was next on the program.  The OS strings were nicely coordinated and had a sweet sound, even given the somewhat dry acoustics of the hall.  The woodwinds were impressive for their accuracy and the French horn was masterfully played.  It is rewarding to hear the horn played with assurance, accuracy, and without hesitation.  Stravinsky’s music is spare and pleasant and was afforded a very good performance, under Maestro Lewis. 
The final work was Haydn’s 1782- “Symphony No. 73 in D major “La chasse”.”  The final movement features hunting calls, a popular trope in the composer’s day.  A harpsichord was located in the middle of the orchestra and was well-integrated with the orchestra. The four-movement symphony is pleasant and it was perfect for the OS chamber setting. 

Monday, February 26, 2018

ABT and STLSO- a great pairing...

The Lied Center for Performing Arts is located on the campus of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln campus.  It is host to a wide-range of performing groups, including a recent pairing of the American Ballet Theater (ABT) and the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra STLSO) in a varied ballet program. 

The Lied Center has an auditorium that can seat up to 2400 people.  It is designed as a multi-purpose arts center, so the seats are arranged in theater style.  It was built in the early 1990’s and it shows its age, mostly in the lobby areas.  Its architecture appears to be almost late-Brutalist, but it fits nicely on the campus, adjacent to the Philip Johnson-designed Sheldon Art Gallery.  The Lied auditorium is painted in a warm terra cotta color, and the proscenium arch is in gold.  The seats are bright red velvet, as is the main curtain.  The stage shell, when in place, matches the terra cotta of the walls.  The Lied Center is one of the largest university-related performing arts centers in the US (go here for a discussion of 25 such centers across the US:  

But most important, its acoustics are remarkable; the hall is warm and reverberant and seems to work well for soloists as well as for full symphony orchestra.   

The joint performance of the ABT and the STLSO was the only such pairing of these two groups in the US.  In fact, this was the first time that the symphony was actually accompanying a ballet performance, at least according to a radio interview with one of the dancers.  (It is of note that the Nebraska Public Radio Network continues to program classical music throughout the day, while still providing National Public Radio new shows.  The locally curated playlist does vary from the “top 40” format of many public radio stations; on Friday afternoon there is a playlist created by request from listeners and many of the requests are for concert warhorses or movie soundtracks). 

The ABT program began with Bernstein’s 1954-“Serenade after Plato’s Symposium,” a work that sounds not unlike some of Stravinsky’s Oedipus Rex and Apollon Musagete. Plato is not often heard, but it is a nice alternative to Bernstein’s Broadway-infused music.   (Note:  The Omaha Symphony Orchestra has programmed the work for performance at the Holland Center in mid-April) The composer described it as a dialogue in praise of love; it has five sections of the work feature a violin soloist, here played by Kobi Malkin, in a nearly faultless performance. Mr. Malkin played in the pit, accompanied by the STLSO strings, percussion, and harp, with the balance between orchestra and soloist being quite refined.  Credit is due Music Director Ormsby Wilkins for making it all work together.  The ABT premiered the ballet in 2016, with choreography by Artist-in-Residence Alexei Ratmansky.  The eight male dancers were strong, with seemingly boundless energy, and their form was elegant and assured. Their lines were impeccable.  The stand-out, and audience favorite, was Daniil Simkim, one of the Principal dancers.  His jumps and turns defied gravity and his athleticism was thoroughly enjoyable.

Next was the Act II Pas de Deux from Swan Lake (choreography by Lev Ivanov), performed by Misty Copeland and Herman Cornejo.   If one wanted to see a ballet performance that was flawless, this was it.  Copeland, who started ballet dancing relatively late at age 13, was elegant and confident.  Ivanov was a perfect partner who brought his own strength and energy to the performance. David LaMarche conducted the STLSO in a beautifully sensitive performance. 

The Act III Pas de Deux followed, danced by Cory Stearns and Devon Teuscher.  Again this was an intense and but beautifully danced performance.  LeMarche again conducted.

The main work of the evening was Alexei Ratmansky’s choreography for Stravinsky’s “Firebird.”  The title character was danced by the brilliant Christine Shevchenko and Ivan was danced by Thomas Forster.  Unfortunately, Forster did not quite have the stage-presence and style to make his a stand-out performance.  At times he appeared sluggish, and he lacked the long, graceful lines of some of his colleagues.   The firebird was one of a flock of firebirds, so why this particular firebird captures Ivan’s attention, and further, why she just didn’t fly away, was a mystery never addressed in this version of the folktale. Mr. Ratmansky’s conception of the maidens also seemed jarring. They looked and acted like leprechauns dressed in green dresses and green wigs- all giggly and immature.  How Ivan could pick any of them for his love interest seemed beyond this conception of the ballet.  The costumes, especially the firebirds, were beautifully done in bright red.  The scenery was clever, with lightning to add to the drama and red highlights on the forest trees.  When the evil Kaschei enters, he is preceded by his huge shadow lurking in the trees. From time to time, his hands emit magic black smoke that intensified his ominous qualities.  But these effects could not make up for the difficulty of believing that Ivan would become infatuated with any of the silly maidens, let alone the one he actually chose.  All in all, it was a disappointing performance, mostly because of Ratmansky’s conception of the story.  The STLSO performed Stravinsky’s music as one would expect from a virtuosic organization.  Ormsby Wilkins conducted. 

In spite of the slight disappointment of the Firebird choreography, it was a great night of top-flight ballet and symphonic performance.  The Lied Center acoustics added to the evening’s success.

Monday, February 12, 2018

Abbado and Ososrio make good music...

For the last several weeks, the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra concerts have been a sell-out. Featuring all of the piano concertos of Beethoven, the popular series of concerts has also benefited from the residency of soloist Jorge Federico Osorio, who has shown both a prodigious talent and memory for the music. This weekend’s three concerts also feature the very popular Mozart Requiem. The locally well-liked Roberto Abbado, a frequent ASO guest-conductor, returned to lead this program.  For the complete review, go here:

Monday, January 29, 2018

Possibly a star is born...

The Atlanta Symphony Orchestra has sold out several concerts in past weeks and is expected to do the same in the next. At the same time, the orchestra is experiencing several major personnel changes, including the announced departure of Music Director Robert Spano in 2021. Part of what is driving the ASO’s current success has been some shrewd programming, some outstanding guest conductors and great soloists. This weekend’s concerts stayed on the same trajectory. However, after intermission at Saturday’s Symphony Hall concert, Assistant Conductor Stephen Mulligan had to step in for the ailing Spano, and he also led Sunday’s entire program at the ASO’s University of Georgia concert. For the complete review, go here: