MusicNOW 2014: Intro

This year the MusicNOW Festival made a major step up: to Music Hall with the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra.

Program Cover

Program Cover

I found that I had too much to say to fit conveniently into one post, so I have broken this up into several parts.  To summarize quickly: I liked it, a lot.  Come next year and hear for yourself!

Continue reading

MusicNOW 2014: Friday, 3/21

Opening Act: Little Lights

The group describes themselves: “Dreampop soundscapes, lush guitar washes, and vintage beats accompany softly sung melodies”.

Bryce Dessner: Murder Ballades            (eighth blackbird)

Bryce Dessner: St. Carolyn by the Sea   (featuring Bryce and Aaron Dessner on electric guitar)

Dessner wrote the Murder Ballades for the eighth blackbird, and the piece has entered their regular repertoire. At this point, the group has a lot of music to choose from, so the work’s frequent presence on their programs says much more about its quality than anything I can say here. The pieces have also been choreographed by Justin Peck, and I think they would work well with dancers. Based on Appalachian tunes, the work has diatonic harmonies, and, except for the slow sections, strong rhythms.

St. Carolyn by the Sea is a landscape that “features” electric guitars, which meant they were put in the front of the orchestra. Though the guitars were occasionally prominent, this is not a concerto. These electronic instruments were simply added to the orchestra, the way a saxophone was in some works written 100 years ago.

I enjoyed hearing Dessner’s music. I find his “classical” music much more engaging than anything I have heard (which I confess is not much) from the band he plays in. His style is might be described post-minimalist, and you can hear the rock influence.

Nico Muhly:   Pleasure Ground   (featuring baritone Nathan Wyatt)

World Premiere

I was introduced to the music of Nico Muhly at the MusicNow festival two years ago, when the eighth blackbird premiered Double Speak. That concert featured many devotees of Phillip Glass in addition to Muhly. However, Muhly’s music stood out: in a concert filled with pieces that were too long for my taste, Muhly’s, though no shorter by the clock, ended too soon for the amount of material he had. I wanted to hear more.

Of the composers in the festival, I thought Muhly’s orchestral writing was the most intriguing. Unfortunately, it was also a setting of a text. With almost no instrumental support for the vocal melody, the combination of complex harmonies and colorful orchestration overwhelmed the soloist. Nathan Wyatt’s voice was large enough for the hall, and in those few passages where the orchestra was quiet, he seemed expressive. But much of the melody was simply lost, and the text was completely unintelligible. (Earth to Nico: Give the poor baritone a mike! John Adams does this with success.)

Alexander Scriabin: The Poem of Ecstasy

The first night ended with the Scriabin’s Symphony No. 4, opus 54, entitled Poem of Ecstasy. The orchestra handled this showpiece from the end of the Romantic Era with the expansive, expressive playing that the composer envisioned.

This is perhaps the time to mention the use of lights during the performance. The backdrop was lit, with changing colors according to the mood of the piece. I don’t think I noticed when they were first being manipulated, though during the Scriabin, it became increasingly obvious. For the final, gigantic C chord, they pulled out all the stops, bringing the lights suddenly way down and then filling the entire hall with light as the chord opened up. For some pieces, I would have found such an approach annoying, but for Scriabin, especially in this work, over the top is the entirely appropriate. I heard nothing but delight from anyone with this use of the lights.

<Saturday’s concert>

MusicNOW 2014: Saturday 3/22

Opening Act: Olga Bell

This was in the lobby.  During intermissions at symphony concerts, I like to come to the balcony of the lobby and listen to the roar of the crowd, especially when it is large and happy: imagine the sound of Penderecki smiling.  However, this room is too resonant to hear music, especially when the crowd is talking.  I listened to the mush of sound briefly, but soon retreated to the Corbet Tower to hear the nano-concert.

Nano Concert: Nico Muhly and Lisa Kaplan, piano

After the “classical conversation”, Nico Muhly and Lisa Kaplan played a short set of piano pieces.

I had hoped that they would play something of Nico’s.  Instead, Nico disappointed me by playing an étude by Phillip Glass.

Lisa Kaplan, the pianist for eighth blackbird, followed this a piece by David Lang entitled Wed.  I liked it well enough to order the score. I think it might be within reach of my limited skills.

They ended with a set of pieces for four hands by Lisa Kaplan.  Apparently, Nico had persuaded her to write something for them to play together, with the advice to avoid a contrasting slow middle section.  She wrote a set of three pieces.  I liked the slow middle piece the best.

Bonnie “Prince” Billy:   Selections

The main event began with Will Oldham, singer, song writer, who goes by Bonnie “Prince” Billy. His set lasted about 20 minutes, including “I see a Darkness” (without as much production as on the album.) I was not familiar with him, though I had heard some of his work on NPR. Having paid attention to his music in the live concert, I am not surprised to learn that he has a cult following. I enjoyed the set.

Krzysztof Penderecki:  Polymorphia

Johnny Greenwood:    48 Responses to Polymorphia

The orchestra opened with Krzysztof Penderecki. I will be forever grateful to this man for the shocking sounds that begin of the Threnody for the Victims of Hiroshima. Polymorphia is from the same period. Though much quieter, it is similar series of collective effects for string orchestra. The last of these effects is a plain C major chord, bowed in the traditional manner. This is a joke, like, for example, some of the passages in Haydn.  In the program notes and in Langree’s remarks preceding the piece, they did their best to explain the it, but only convinced me that they don’t get it. (Spoiler Alert: it turns out that this noise is in C major).

The orchestra followed this with Johnny Greenwood’s 48 Responses to Polymorphia, which uses the same sonic material. This opens with a chorale in F minor that dissolves into the collective noise of the Penderecki model.  The C major chord appears, in several of the “responses”, but, in part because of the F minor reference, and in part because of Greenwood’s integration of the chord into the other textures, it is always more active than the bald chord that Penderecki uses to end his piece.

Penderecki is one of the great sound prospectors of the post World War II era. Greenwood’s work, as his title implies, is not so ground breaking. However, if you are wanting someone to organize the sound into a meaningful human experience, look to Greenwood. I think this is a clear example of the pupil surpassing the teacher.

David Lang    mountain   World Premiere

After the intermission, the orchestra premiered mountain by David Lang, a Pulitzer Prize winning composer.  After hearing his small piano piece in the nano concert, I was looking forward to hearing what he would do with a full orchestra. However, I was a bit disappointed. Though I liked the sonorities of mountain, it did not engage me for the full ten minutes.

The music successfully portrays the large, immovable mountain David described in his introduction. It starts with a big bass drum and timpani stroke, supported by the low strings, followed by several after strokes in the in the treble strings playing a minor triad. Then silence. Then it repeats. Then silence. Then repeats again, with the silence. As the pattern repeats, changes occur in the chord, but it always comes back home.  Later, the silences are spanned by long held notes in the winds. I found the opening quite effective for a while, and I think there is material here for a wonderful work.  However, instead of diving deeper into the moment, my attention wandered. I began looking at the outer row of first violins, who had been playing these simple after beats, sometimes in groups of three, sometimes more, for several minutes. Timothy Lees, the Concertmaster, was playing with consistent energy, showing the leadership that you would hope for, but those guys in the back were beginning to look pretty bored. I sympathized.

Sergei Prokofiev: Scythian Suite

The concert ended with the Scythian Suite, written by a wild, young Prokofiev.

This orchestra is fantastic.  When I moved to town over 30 years ago, it was not so fantastic, but the orchestra improved steadily, until, the last few years of Paavo Järvi‘s tenure, I think it was playing at the highest level, comparable to the best in the world.  The new director,  Louis Langrée, has a much more outgoing personality, which might help boost the position of the orchestra in the community.  More importantly to me, the orchestra continues to play with the spontaneity, sensitivity, and passion under his leadership.  He is going to work out just fine.

This was my favorite piece of the festival.


MusicNOW 2014: Coda

So, how exited can I be about this new music festival, given that my favorite work is about 100 years old and that I was less than thrilled with either of premiered pieces? Let me be clear: it was wonderful.  I would be happy to hear the music of any of these composers again.  I am particularly looking forward to finding out what these younger guys do in the future.

The reality is that our culture is blossoming, absorbing influences from around the world.  For me, the classical music tradition, grounded in the music of western Europe but now spread across the globe, is the most important.  However, there are many wonderful manifestations of the human spirit outside of the confines of this tradition, and as this festival makes clear, the boundaries between the styles are fluid.   I anticipate that in the future, there will be more from non-western traditions, but I cannot  complain that this year’s two day festival needed more variety.  I am grateful to have the benefit of a curator like Bryce Dessner, who is able to gather from the current scene so much that is significant.  I also want to credit Bryce for the vision: he saw what might be possible in the town where he grew up, and he made it real.

This festival is also an example of the positive direction that the orchestra is taking under the new Music Director, Louis Langrée.  Combining forces with this festival is just one of the ways that the orchestra is moving into the community, connecting with new audiences.  And they play great!

Echoing the sentiments David Lang expressed in remarks before his piece, I am so glad that this wonderful festival and this magnificent orchestra have found each other. I am looking forward to next year.

Two Conductors at the CSO

Recently, I have heard the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra twice under visiting conductors: on Feb. 7, with the young David Afkham conducting Beethoven and Wagner, and on March 1, with the aging Rafael Frühbeck de Burgos conducting the Verdi Requiem with the May Festival Chorus.  I sat in the gallery, a great place to listen, but a little far from the action.  Nevertheless, even from there, I could see a stark difference in their styles.


David Afkham is young and limber.  He conducts with a well trained, almost choreographed elegance.  Under his direction, the orchestra played gracefully, but with caution.  The Beethoven fourth symphony was nice, but lacked the immediacy that you hope for from a live performance.  The Beethoven third piano concerto begins with a long orchestral exposition ending with a full cadence.  When we got to the end of it, I thought the piece didn’t have any energy left, and the soloist hadn’t even started. The soloist was Radu Lupu, a Romanian renowned for his interpretation of the great German masters.   He played well, but it was not the scintillating performance that built this reputation. The orchestra played with nuance, but it was simply too polite.  A friend, having read the glowing review in the local paper (How could the local paper ever give such a wonderful orchestra a bad review?) and, wondering whether he had been to the same concert, asked me the following week,  “Where was the passion?”  The grace and elegance of the conducting simply seem did not inspire the orchestra.


The eighty year old Rafael Fruhbeck do Burgos moves with less elegance. He walked to the podium stiffly.  However, from the opening pianissimo (one elderly patron behind me loudly commented “I can’t hear a thing!”), I knew I was in for a treat.  No holding back here.  This man has led this orchestra many times before, and he knows what they are capable of.

I enjoyed watching him conduct.  At one point, it was quite evident that he wanted the pizzicato attack from the double basses to be prominent: he gave them a huge, clearly defined beat, and even from my vantage point in the rafters, I could tell where his attention was directed.  Other times, he would point to a section to get them to play louder, or, in anther case, to pipe down and listen to the melody over there.  There were moments when he seemed to do nothing at all, at least nothing that I could see, leaving the well rehearsed chorus largely on their own.  In the fugue, he clearly marked each entry of the subject, making sure it dominated the texture.   After the first large movement, he paused, allowing time for latecomers to get settled; then he raised his baton, and, with almost no preparation, quickly launched into an absolutely frightening Dies Irae.  Never did his motions seem choreographed; he was always attuned to what was happening at the moment.  The orchestra, chorus, and soloists responded, giving a deeply moving performance, ranging from the hushed reverence of the Requiem Aeternam to the violent fury of the Dies Iraereview

Of course, It is not really fair to compare someone leading orchestra for the first time with someone whom the orchestra knows and loves.  Even Paavo Järvi took years in front of the orchestra before they reached the extraordinary heights that characterized the end of his tenure as Music Director.  So I should not be too disappointed with David Afkham; under his direction, the orchestra produced a lovely performance.  However, under Rafael Fruhbeck do Burgos, this world class symphony orchestra, chorus, and soloits showed what they could really do.