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.
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.
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.