Tuesday, February 19, 2019

A Conversation with Jeremy Renner, Classical Music Critic and Reporter

Jeremy Reynolds is the classical music critic and reporter for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.  He is one of the new breed of influencers straddling the newsprint world and the digital world.  His reviews are erudite and insightful.  His views on the challenges facing reviewing and performing are thought-provoking.  His reviews can be found at www.post-gazette.com. 


Sunday, February 17, 2019

A Stunning Perfromance of Grand Romantic Music...

A few seasons ago, the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra, with Music Director Robert Spano programmed two Sibelius Symphonies back-to-back on one program.  By the end of the evening, the bleak Finnish winters and cold landscapes were on overload.  But this weekend, the ASO performed the composer’s Symphony No 1 in E minor, written in 1899.  Here, ASO assistant Conductor Stephen Mulligan was on the podium, and it was like hearing Sibelius for the first time. Hearing one Sibelius symphony by itself reminds one that this was a very polished romantic composer who had the melodic inspiration of a Brahms, yet with more orchestral color; and the emotional inspiration of a Tchaikovsky, yet with greater discipline and structural skill.  The First Symphony is full of gorgeous sounds and inspired passages that reach great and soaring heights, and it does so sparely; one never have a sense that the music of Sibelius could have used an edit.  It also has rhythmic vitality and clever orchestration, for example, the use of the tympani in the final movement to repeat the theme first introduced by the various sections of the orchestra.  It is an emotionally powerful work, but something special happened to it under Mulligan, who has developed quite a reputation locally after his stepping-in at the last minute for an ailing Maestro Spano during last season.  He managed to create a taut and supercharged performance that was neither excessive nor over-the-top, but fully building toward the finale; that is, he never lost the long arc of the music.  Each passage artfully led to the next, so that in the end, all the pieces fell masterfully in place to create a grand superstructure of sound.  This may have been the best performance of the season.  It seemed that whatever Mulligan wanted from the ASO musicians, he received and they were spirited and inspired.  Mulligan has an elegant style of conducting beating clearly with the right hand, and cueing introductions and shaping the music with his right.  Given that he is slightly ahead of the music being played, one can almost anticipate what will happen next just by watching him.   He was first-rate in this glorious piece of music. 

The second work on the program was Rachmaninov’s Piano Concerto No 3 in D minor, written in 1909.  The soloist was Russian-born Nikolai Lugansky, whose elegance at the piano matched perfectly the elegance of conductor Mulligan.  Lugansky is not prone to histrionics while playing, although on occasion he did jump up a few inches from the bench when extra emphasis was needed.  This piano concerto demands much from a soloist, in part, because it requires spanning many keys at once.  It may not have been a challenge for the large-handed composer, but sometimes it is a stretch (pardon the pun) for other pianists.  No so for Lugansky, who seems also to have been blessed with large hands.  The music itself is a crowd pleaser (Symphony Hall was once again sold out) because it is romantic tuneful, and occasionally dreamy, as in the second movement Intermezzo.  Lugansky played with a great deal of confidence and he has the technical skill and musicality to create a virtuosic performance.  At times, the balance between the orchestra and soloist were a bit off, so that the some of the extended piano passages, as in the first movement, could not be heard over the orchestra.  In all, though, this was a powerful performance of one of the most popular piano concertos in the classical canon. 


Monday, February 4, 2019

Powerful...

It’s Super Bowl weekend in Atlanta and there are parties galore to draw everyone’s attention. Yet somehow, one opera drew a substantial audience of patrons to watch a gut-wrenching story of redemption. Dead Man Walking is an opera based on a book by Sister Helen Prejean, a well-known anti-death penalty advocate, with music by Jake Heggie and libretto by Terrence McNally. Prejean and Heggie were in the audience for this opening night. For the complete review, go here: https://bachtrack.com/review-dead-man-walking-atlanta-opera-february-2019

Sunday, January 27, 2019

Fantastic...

Clever? Check.  Innovative?  Check.  Listenable? Check.  Thrilling?  Check.  Adjectives that come to mind when reflecting on last evening’s Atlanta Symphony Orchestra concert, conducted by Music Director Robert Spano.  The program was an inspiration and it presented works that showcased Spano’s support of new composers, and his ability to achieve great results with a large-scale Romantic-era Symphony. 

The concert began with the Atlanta premiere of “City of Ghosts,” by Australian composer Alex Turley (b. 1995).  It’s an eerie work, containing layers of sound, with familiar instruments playing in ways not usually heard. As performed by a chamber-sized orchestra, Spano brought a clarity to the sound that served the music perfectly.  Turley says his music is about a city devoid of people in a supernatural way.  He captures that scenario beautifully- there is no disconnect between what one hears and what Turley’s program is.  The finale of the piece contains colorful passages for the brass, and Maestro Spano kept them restrained so as not to disturb the ethereal spirit of the music. Turley is sophisticated in his use of percussion; it is not just used for punctuation, but rather it is integral to the overall sound.  It does not hover above the music and seems not to be included just for the sake of inclusion, as can be the case with some contemporary music.  There is an excerpt of “City” here: https://soundcloud.com/alexturley.  It is the premiere performance by the Melbourne symphony with Spano conducting.  The performance last evening was more atmospheric and technically proficient, but it does give a sense of the power of Turley’s music.

Roberto Diaz then performed Jennifer Higdon’s 2015 Viola Concerto, which is a stunning neo-Romantic work that is accessible, listenable, and approachable, yet with enough power to pack some punch.  Higdon was one of the initial members of Spano’s “Atlanta School,” which has fostered the development of composers who write music that is evolutionary, with clear references to the Romantic and Impressionistic, rather revolutionary. Some have argued that Higdon’s concerto is deeply rooted in American music.  It is a rich and gorgeous work that shows a great understanding of the viola’s sound, so that the accompaniment is also complimentary to the instrument, rather than antagonistic.  And in the performance, Spano and the ASO provided as subtle and sophisticated support as one could ask.  Never once, did the balance between the darkness of the solo viola collide with a too-loud orchestra.  Diaz’s playing was miraculous, technically and musically.  He is not a showman when he plays, and because he was playing from the score, he rarely interacted with the audience, but he connected where it really mattered- in the music.  Of course, Diaz has been the principal violists in four major American Symphony Orchestras, so he seems to intuitively understand what it takes to have a successful partnership with an orchestra while playing as a soloist.  It is notable that Diaz is the President and CEO of the renowned Philadelphia- based Curtis Institute of Music.  There was applause between movements of the concerto, which seemed at the time to be in recognition of the ASO and Diaz, so it wasn’t as distracting as it might have been. But it did set a precedent for the final work on the program.

Berlioz’s 1830 “Symphony fantastique” is a masterpiece of the Romantic period, a role that is a bit unusual for a French composer.  It is frankly programmatic and its five movements tell the tale of love, love-lost, torment, and maybe a touch of madness. The first movement resembles an operatic overture, giving the backstory to the phantasmagorical journey.  Unfortunately, this performance was marred by a very unsteady start, as though the ASO was caught off-guard by the downbeat. But after the initial rockiness, the ASO musicians regained their footing and everything came together.  The second movement (A Ball) has a dreamy waltz-like theme that builds on the contemplation of the first movement.  The second and third movement (Scene is the Country) provided an opportunity for the ASO winds to again to demonstrate their beautiful sound.  The performance of the fourth (March to the Execution) and fifth (Dream of a Witches’ Sabbath) movements were ferocious. Berlioz took full advantage of the orchestra’s sound possibilities and utilized them to the utmost.  The rumbling bass drum, the ominous tympani, and the off-stage bell were impressive.  The low strings were as growlingly forceful as one could want.  The finale is a harrowing richly orchestrated chorale-like meditation on the “Dies Irae.” In spite of being highlighted at the end, the brass section was well controlled and never overwhelmed the rest of the orchestra.  The ASO and Spano were at the top of their performing game here and it was a thrilling ride. The full-house (third week in a row at Symphony Hall) again erupted in applause between movements, save for the final two.  One can disagree with the need to show appreciation so often, but it was difficult to ignore the grand performances in this program. 


Wednesday, January 23, 2019

Two Favorite Sons...

As symphony orchestras struggle for survival in today’s world of financial insecurity and culture wars, filling seats with paying patrons is a holy grail of management. The Atlanta Symphony Orchestra (ASO) has discovered the golden ticket by scheduling works of Leonard Bernstein, resulting in several sold-out concerts. Of course, symphony orchestras across the US have been busy scheduling and presenting the works of this near-mythic all-American composer in celebration of the centenary of his birth. Yet, in spite of his larger-than-life significance in the popular culture, Bernstein’s compositional body of work has not been frequently performed in concert halls over the decades since his passing. Maybe we find the myth more engaging than his actual music.   For the complete review, click here:  https://bachtrack.com/review-bernstein-shostakovich-spano-moser-aso-atlanta-january-2019

Wednesday, October 31, 2018

Perfection...

From time-to-time, almost every measuring system needs to be recalibrated to ensure accuracy. Last evening's concert at the Lied Center in Lincoln (NE) will prompt a recalibration of my quality rating scales for symphonic performances. The concert began about half an hour late as a result of the late arrival of the Mariinsky Theatre Orchestra into Lincoln.  The orchestra tuned backstage and the players entered together, in the European manner. It also spared the audience from having to hear the cacophonous tuning and practicing that occurs on stage before American concerts.For the complete review, go here:  https://bachtrack.com/review-gergiev-abduraimov-mariinsky-lincoln-nebraska-october-2018