The CSO Performs the Berg Violin Concerto

CSO playing BergFriday, I went to the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra morning concert. With a clear understanding of their audience, the marketers had advertised the Blue Danube Waltz and Brahms’ “sunny” Second Symphony, but I was there for the Berg Violin Concerto.

I got bored during the long string of beautifully turned tunes in the Strauss waltz.  Langrée had some lovely expressive touches, though sometimes they felt a bit forced.  Overall, the orchestra convinced me that they weren’t really Viennese.

The Brahms, though also Viennese, is in the orchestra’s wheelhouse. It was spectacular! They followed that with a delightfully energetic Brahms Hungarian Dance as an encore.

For me, the highlight of the concert was the Berg Concerto, which I had not heard for years. It is a virtuoso ensemble piece for the entire orchestra, with the soloist taking a leading, but certainly not always dominant role. The violinist Augustin Hadelich, Louis Langrée, and the orchestra delivered a magnificent performance. Hadelich played with emotion and grace; nothing coming from his violin sounded difficult or awkward. The orchestra handled the intricacies of the ensemble with mastery, and the complex, often sweet, harmonies were well tuned and never muddy. I found myself swept up in the music, alternately delighted and terrified, but ultimately uplifted.

I heard the orchestra play this same work in 2007, with violinist Isabelle van Keulen and Paavo Järvi conducting. Then, I wrote an essay about the piece, and more generally, about the style, publishing it on my wife’s web site. Now that I have this biog, I thought I would use this occasion to re-post this old essay.

The question arises as to which performance I liked better. Of course, with so many years between them, it is impossible to judge fairly. However, there is one detail mentioned in my essay on the performance by Järvi which came out quite differently under Langrée. In the Järvi performance, the final, lustrous chord was incredibly soft, and over it, I could easily hear the melodic line rise from the solo bass viol, through the solo parts in the other strings, ending with the lead soloist in the stratosphere. Under Langrée, this chord was simply too loud, and I could not hear the line until the high solo entered. The chord was still heavenly beautiful, but symbolic rise into heaven in the solo parts was obscured. In this detail, the performance under Järvi was better.

This orchestra is among the best in world. If you haven’t heard it recently, now would be a good time. The concert repeats Saturday and Sunday.

Alban Berg, Violin Concerto

January 12, 2007
Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra

Conductor                          Paavo Järvi
Violin                                   Isabelle van Keulen

Program

Sibelius                               Symphony Number 4 in A minor, Opus 63
Berg                                    Concerto for Violin and Orchestra
                                            “To the Memory of an Angel”
Tchaikovsky                       Romeo and Juliet Overture-Fantasy

[This is a re-posting of an essay I wrote in 2007, after this concert.]

Some time ago, during a chorus rehearsal where we were learning Bach, someone asked whether atonal music would ever catch on. Upon hearing this music in concert, I thought I should have an answer to the question.

The Second Viennese School

The mature music of Schoenberg, Webern, and Berg was not widely appreciated in their lifetimes. Even today, when you do hear their music, it is often the early pieces, the ones written before they went over the edge, when they were still grounded in the tonality of previous centuries. However, once they took the plunge into the uncharted territory of Atonality, they left their public behind. More importantly, they also left behind the vast majority of the great performers of their day: the early twentieth century was blessed by a number of spectacular virtuosi, none of whom showed any interest in these pioneer composers.

By the time I was in college and graduate school (late 60s, early 70s), these composers were referred to collectively as the Second Viennese School. This implicitly compares them with the first Viennese School: Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven (perhaps also Schubert), the composers that laid the foundation for the symphonic tradition.

The music of this second school was well established in academic circles, where it had a number of advantages. While the concert hall had gradually become a museum devoted to the old masters, living composers retreated to the colleges and universities, which offered them not only financial security but also a platform to evangelize to a young public receptive to new ideas. In an environment where published work had importance, composers had a certain credibility, regardless of whether or not their music was worth hearing. Just as scholars wrote in journals that nobody else read, composers could write music that nobody else listened to. For music theorists, atonality, particularly in the systematic form of the 12 tone row, provided a whole new fascinating branch of music theory to study, to teach, and to write about in journals. Finally, it was music that the uneducated, the hoi polloi, the bourgeoisie did not understand. Atonal music served as a kind of initiation into a fraternity; its obscurity kept out those who did not belong. Given all of these social forces, the embrace of the academic music community does not, in and of itself, prove the intrinsic value of the music. Academia is quite capable of sustaining a pointless activity for many years.

However, this music also had influence on the great composers of the era, composers who had established reputations outside of any association with this particular movement. Of these, the most important was Stravinsky, arguably the greatest composer of his generation. After the death of Schoenberg, Stravinsky underwent a major stylistic shift, and all of his late works are atonal, very much following in the footsteps of these pioneers. Tellingly, unlike several of his earlier works, none of these late works are frequently performed. However, for the discussion here, the judgment Stravinsky and many other great musicians can be taken as solid evidence: this is great music, worthy of a place in the repertoire.

If this music is really good, why hasn’t it reached the public? After all, the visual arts went through a similar transformation, where perspective and representational drawing was distorted or abandoned altogether, and the even most radical of the early experimenters are now integrated into contemporary culture.

One major difference is in how we perceive these two art forms. We experience paintings from the outside: no matter how disorienting the content of the canvas, we are still standing outside of it. Our visual space is organized by the room, by the experience of gravity, and the painting or sculpture exists within that secure, well grounded space. Music we experience in time, from the inside. The source of the sound is external, but in our heads, the music happens in the same time as our other experience. This is part of why the medium has such power.

Especially in 18th and 19th century European music, there is a grammar that organizes the whole experience in relation to a point of reference, the tonality. This gives the music a sense of direction, of perspective, almost a sense of gravity. With atonal music, this framework dissolves. This can be very unsettling. However, many listeners do not experience a new orientation: they simply do not connect to the music at all. They hear a jumble of noises that make no sense. These listeners experience no emotion other than confusion, bewilderment, and, perhaps, annoyance.

The rhythm and meter of the music presents a similar problem. 18th and 19th Century European music is dominated by simple, regular meters. Stravinsky, especially in pieces like the Rite of Spring, which is wildly popular, wrote in strong, irregular, constantly changing meters, but the underlying pulse, the unit, is constant and very strongly felt. In the music of Schoenberg and his followers, the rhythms are complex, expressions of the musical gestures, but the underlying pulse is obscured. Just as the pitches have no single reference point, the sense of time is freed as well. Given the direction that popular music has taken in this century, this metric obscurity, perhaps even more than the harmony, is an obstacle to the acceptance of the music by the general public.

Another impediment to the public’s acceptance is in the emotional content: this is German Expressionism at its most disturbing. The music is full of anxiety, heightened emotions and exaggerated gestures. Although “scary” music such as Mussorgsky’s Night on Bald Mountain and various mad scenes in operas are very popular, this music doesn’t really frighten anybody. The music of Schoenberg and his followers is often truly disturbing. It does not have the barbaric excitement of the Rite of Spring; it expresses the angst of living in Vienna at the end of an era, and it is not very comfortable.

Thus, the music of the Second Viennese School is here to stay. It will be studied in schools, and it will occasionally be performed in concert. However, among a certain, large segment of the classical music public, it will remain strange and unpopular for a long time, even if it is too old to be considered modern.

The Berg Violin Concerto

Berg, Alban: portrait by Schoenberg, 1910

Berg, Alban: portrait by Schoenberg, 1910

Of the three leading composers of the Second Viennese School, Berg would seem to be the most approachable. His music is more grounded in the traditional sound. For example, the violin concerto uses a tone row that is full of perfect fifths and whole steps: this gives the work a sonority that is more familiar, even if the musical syntax is not.

I remember hearing the Cincinnati Symphony playing this Berg concerto before: from the program notes that this must have been in 1990. My memory of that performance (or perhaps from earlier ones) was that this piece had a nice sound, but that it did not really work convincingly. The fiddle went on and on, without enough shape. The orchestration was muddy, and much too heavy. The Bach Chorale that appears toward the end of the work struck me as out of place, and just bizarre. In the program notes and other writings about the work, there are references to a weird numerology that suggest the piece is full of esoteric, secret messages that make no sense to those of us who experience music directly. In short, I felt that the piece was interesting historically, but not really worthy of being added to the repertoire.

After hearing this performance, my opinion has changed: this piece is gorgeous.

One big difference in this performance was the handling of the solo violin. Frequently, the soloist in this piece is simply one of the voices of the contrapuntal texture: you can hear it, but it is not always the most important voice. In this performance, when the heavy brass had a line, it came out louder than the violin. In performances that try to keep the violin in the forefront at all times, this scoring just sounds clumsy; but such is simply a misunderstanding of the composer’s intention.

The role is of the soloist is perhaps best illustrated with the final large gesture of the piece, the ascent into heaven: the line starts in the solo bass viol, rises through solo parts in the other strings (including a violin that is not the soloist), ending with a line by the soloist that comes to rest high in the ether. Here, the soloist’s role is akin to that of the first violinist in a string quartet. People who are looking for a celebrity vehicle like, for example, the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto, will not be satisfied with this.

In the pre-concert lecture, Isabelle van Keulen said something to the effect that she did not have to always be the star. Only by adopting this attitude can anyone hope to play the Berg Concerto well. The score offers a few places for the soloist to shine, and she did. However, more impressive was the large ensemble, which handled the complexity of the writing gracefully. The sound was transparent, luminous; the various voices could all be heard.

And it was in tune! I think my impression of the piece before was colored by performances where the orchestral players did not really get what was being asked of them. They played the notes on the page, but, not understanding the harmony, they could not make the little, continuous corrections that are necessary to keep the instruments in tune.   The result was muddy and obscure.

I learned that the harmonies make sense. The Bach Chorale was not an anachronism stuck in the middle of an atonal piece, but something congruent with the sound of the work. The chorale is still surprising, but it is not out of place. It fits not just the emotional program, but into the overall sonority of the piece.

The program for the evening was thoughtfully constructed. This concerto was preceded by the Sibelius Fourth Symphony and followed by a familiar warhorse to send the masses home satisfied. (Yes, I too like the Tchaikovsky, and this piece was very well played.) The Fourth was an experimental work for Sibelius: it has a very weak sense of tonality throughout. In fact, when it came to the final chord, I was surprised, even though I had heard this symphony before and was prepared for it by the program notes: Oh, it is in A Minor! It is ending! The point of pairing it with the Berg concerto, I think, is that it is a relatively small step from the murky tonality of this Sibelius symphony to the harmonic language of the Berg concerto, despite Berg’s use of the tone row. In fact, the final chord of the Berg, though more complex than the A minor of the Sibelius, provides the more satisfying conclusion to a large work.

One major impediment to the acceptance of pieces like the Berg Violin Concerto has been overcome: the music was presented with both mastery and deep sympathy. I am not sure how common it is for an orchestra these days to play this music so well, but I do not expect to hear it better. I am confident that the CSO can stand beside any orchestra in the world. This was not the case when I moved to town 25 years ago. I am not sure that Cincinnati knows how fine this group has become.

After the final chord of the Berg, I and several others stood enthusiastically, while most sat in polite applause, reserving their enthusiasm for the Tchaikovsky.

© 2007 J.P. Lund

Music Now 2015: Coda

Louis & Bryce

This year’s Music Now Festival was bigger and better than ever.  I did not make it to everything, nor did I love everything that I heard, but much of what I did hear was spectacular.  On Thursday, Jeffrey Ziggler blew me away.  At the symphony concerts on Friday and Saturday, I heard world premiers of works that I think will be played for years to come.  Personally, I am not so  excited by the The National that I would go out of my way to hear them in front of an orchestra, but I need to step outside of my comfort zone sometimes, and I am thrilled to see their fans at Music Hall, listening to the music I love.

Of course, the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra under Louis Langrée plays with incredible technical virtuosity, beauty, and energy.

Last year, I was happy with the festival, but in truth, I thought the best thing on the two symphony programs was the nearly 100 year old Prokofiev that served as a finale. This year, the symphony concerts ended with an even better known iconoclastic favorite from Varèse, but I think I heard music from living composers was every bit as good.  This festival is rising to a new level. I commend Bryce Dessner, curator of the festival, for building this up over the years, and Louis Langrée for seizing the opportunity to incorporate this into the orchestra season.

Did I tell you how much I liked Caroline Shaw’s sweet “Lo”, or the power the Bjarnason’s giant “Collider”?

Music Now 2015: Saturday 3/14

Daniel Bjarnason  Saturday’s Music Now concert featured the world premiere of “Collider” by the Icelandic composer Daniel Bjarnason.  Inspired by the the Large Hadron Collider based at the CERN laboratory, this work uses a gigantic orchestra.  It starts in the deep basement, with the low instruments giving a real sense of the huge scale of this machine. This sense of space was maintained throughout, supported by large masses of instruments, enhanced by lightly scored delicate moments.  This music flows in a way that can be easily followed on first hearing, though I am convinced that there are riches here that would reward hearing it again.  I enjoyed hearing this piece immensely: the only disappointment was that it ended so soon.

Janelle Gelfand, in her review of the concert for the Cincinnati Enquirer, said, “It was the kind of well-crafted and imaginative piece that could see life beyond this performance.”  This praise is too faint-hearted.  Though Bjarnason is not nearly as iconoclastic as Varèse, (After all, what icons are left to smash these days?), Collider sat comfortably beside Amériques on this program, and deserves a place along side it in the orchestral repertoire.  I look forward to hearing it again.

The evening began with a pre-concert performance by the innovative quartet SŌ Percussion.  They played  instruments hey had assembled themselves. These seemed to resemble electrified hammer dulcimers, though some of the strings were very low, and the raucous booming bass during the loud passages did not sound at all like the delicate sweet tones of a hammer dulcimer.  These instruments were bowed or struck with various sizes sticks, the smallest of which looked like they might be pencils. Generally, each person played relatively simple part very precisely coordinated with the others, occasionally to build something that resembled a melody, but more often a complex, coherent texture.  The piece moved from one soundscape to another, often with the players changing implements, exploring the sonic possibilities of the instruments that they had created.  At one point, I began wondering whether they would ever let loose, and soon they did.  The raucous sound prompted  a few to leave the hall, but I was delighted.

So Percussion CSOThe SŌ Percussion was also featured on the first piece of the symphony concert: “Man Made”, a concerto for percussion quartet written by David Lang.  This piece has several sections, each with a different ensemble of percussion instruments.  The work begins with the percussionists snapping sticks to make the sound, dropping the broken implements on the floor. Later they moved to pitched instruments.   In the program notes, Lang describes the difficulties in marrying the approach of these inventive percussionists with the traditional orchestra. These problems he solves successfully: sometimes, the full orchestra plays a short note simultaneously, like one giant drum.  Unfortunately, Lang did not supply much inspiration.  SŌ Percussion did much better on their own, unencumbered by the orchestra or David Lang’s clever composition.

Also before the concert, Timo Andres gave a piano recital in the Cobett Tower.  I went upstairs after the SŌ Percussion piece ended, catching the end of a Schubert piece.  I was immediately struck by the beauty of the playing.  Andres followed this with an étude by Steve Reich, which was again very nicely played.  Andres ended with a piece of his own, which I found less engaging.

In the intermission, Lanzendorf played in the lobby.  Their style worked better for this purpose than Mina Tindle the previous night because their music (at least what I heard) is more atmospheric and ambient, with fewer details to get lost in the crowd noise and echo of the lobby.

Trio with CSO  For some in the audience, the main event was after intermission: the set of five songs from the series called “The Planets”, a collaboration by Sufjan Stevens on vocals, Bryce Dessner on guitar, and Nico Muhly on keyboard, accompanied by the orchestra.  I thought it was dull.

Far from dull was the concert finale: Amériques by Edgard Varèse. This modernist monument from the post World War I era is full of Varèse’s enthusiasm for the vitality of his newly adopted country and his fascination with machines.  I have heard it in concert several times before.  In one performance, the siren was frequently allowed to dominate, transforming the piece into a concerto for annoying siren and orchestra.  Although the siren was certainly prominent in some passages, Langrée is too refined to let it take over.  Under his direction, the orchestra was both well balanced and energetic. It was a thrilling conclusion to this fine concert.

Music Now 2015: Friday 3/13

National Onstage   On Friday, the Music Now festival returned to Music Hall.

The evening began with a small recital in the Corbett Tower featuring works by composers present at the festival and by John Sebastian Bach.  Yuki Numata Resnick played a couple of unaccompanied violin pieces by Bryce Dessner.  I particularly enjoyed the second one, written in the tradition of the Bach preludes: Resnick was able to transcend the busyness of the arpeggios and attain remarkably meditative quality.  This was followed by a Bach Saraband, with double, in which Reshnick she was joined by her husband, who is trumpeter for The National. Nico Muhly joined her on the piano for his “Drones & Violin”, a piece where the instruments trade off being the drone accompaniment.   The concert ended with a piano soloist James McVinnie playing a Bach Partita.

When I looked around, I noticed that the room was packed, with people standing around the back.  It was not the usual bunch of grand parents: the crowd was mostly young.

The orchestra concert began with a CSO premiere of a piece by Edgard Varèse:  “Tuning Up”.  Actually, Varèse never finished this work: it was put together by his pupil and curator Chou Wen-chung from fragmentary notes that were discovered after the composer’s death. Though Varèse is famous for his definition of music as “organized sound”, this particular work shows hardly any sign of organization: it is a complete mess.

Varèse was better represented indirectly, through the influence he had on other works on the concert: “The Infernal Machine” by Christopher Rouse and “Short Ride in a Fast Machine” by John Adams.  These are both orchestral show pieces from well established composers, full of rhythm, energy, and the clashing sounds of the late twentieth century, well chosen to appeal to an audience more at home with rock than with the 19th century classics.  The orchestra gave both pieces thrilling performances.

In between these were two pieces from young composers featured in the festival. “Lachrimae” for string orchestra was written by Bryce Dessner, the festival organizer.  The other work was a world premier commissioned for the festival: “Lo” by Caroline Shaw, for violin and orchestra, with the composer on the violin.

pulitzer-Carolyn Shaw Violin Though there are occasional technical passages for the soloist, “Lo” is not a flashy virtuoso concerto in the Romantic tradition but a lovely orchestra piece with a prominent violin solo.  It features simple tunes, sometimes pared down to a bare scale, while other times with emotionally laden arcs.  The orchestration is colorful.  The harmony is often sweet, without being predictable. There are occasional quotations, references to familiar pieces, but I never found it derivative.  Her style shows the influence of modernistic complexity, but the music has a simple core, which is both easy to follow and emotionally engaging.  She is clearly one to follow in the future.  It is not just me who thinks so: she is the youngest composer to ever be awarded the Pulitzer Prize.

The festival seems to want to pack as much music in as possible.  During intermission, Mina Tindle payed in the lobby.  For me intermission at Music Hall is often spent in the lobby enjoying the echo of an enthusiastic crowd in happy conversation.  This time, the crowd was larger and louder than usual.  Adding music to this lovely noise is pointless.  Details, such as the words of a folk singer, what language she might have been singing in, or sometimes even the chord changes, are lost.  Towards the end of the set as the crowd thinned out, I recognized a tune as a folksy variant of a familiar chorale I know as “Ye watchers and ye holy ones”.  Mina Tindle, seems to have a pretty voice, but I cannot tell much about her music from this event.

National at CSOAfter intermission, the concert was taken over by The National, with the orchestra playing accompaniment.  Regardless of what I think of the National, this is largely a waste of a world class orchestra: they added sweet chords and a little background color, but the interest was in the band.  Only on one song, “Vanderlyle Crybaby Geeks”, did I find the orchestra doing anything interesting, and indeed, this was my favorite piece in the set.

In researching the National for this little post, I ran across this: “The National makes me feel that rock music, like much of American literature and visual art before it, has died and gone to graduate school.”  Whatever the effect on rock, which is, after all, anti-intellectual, it is very healthy for the young, classical composers of today to be engaged so successfully in the vernacular music of their generation.

In our culture, recorded music is often used as backdrop for other activities, and the popular genres are clearly better suited for this purpose than classical music. In this concert setting, I found The National rather boring.  However, I was in the minority. It was obvious that The National had many fans in the audience: they started clapping (meaning “I know this one”) at the instrumental introduction of particular favorites. With both originality and serious musicianship, this band has earned the “ridiculous honor”, as singer Matt Berninger called it, of playing on stage with this world class orchestra.  The proof is in the packed house, an audience that Louis Langrée, director of the CSO, clearly hopes will come back for more.

Music Now 2015: Thursday 3/12

logo  On Thursday, I attended the concert at the Woodward Theater in Over The Rhein.  The concert was a collaboration between concert:nova and the Music Now festival, now in its 10th year here in Cincinnati.

The featured performer was Jeffrey Ziegler, former cellist with the Kronos Quartet, who played pieces from his solo album, “Something of Life”.  The pieces were all for cello solo, almost all accompanied by electronic sounds derived from the recorded sound of the instrument.   He opened his set with Glaub by Felipe Perez Santiago.  It blew me away.  I bought the CD, primarily to have a recording of this piece. Jeffrey Zeigler-22  His set also included pieces by John Zorn, Derek Charke, and Paolo Prestini.  Of these, I liked the deeply expressive “Mourning” by Pristini best.  “Tangled in Plastic Currents” by Charkel was less engaging.  “Babel: The Confusion of Tongues” was similar to other random collections of effects that I had heard from John Zorn, but in this case, the effects, generated acoustically as far as I could tell, were held together by a persistent energetic sawing away on the low C string,  an ostinato abandoned only at the very end of the piece.  I am still not a Zorn fan, but this piece was more enjoyable than most, and Ziegler’s performance was thrilling.

The concert opened with “Quintet for Trumpet and Electronics” by Per Bloland. It is an improvisational piece that makes use of a recording and looping device that feeds through electronic modifications, including a pitch shifter.  I like the idea of working with electronic manipulation that happens live.  The texture is built up from the sound produced at the moment.  In one section, the trumpet held long notes.  With the looping and pitch shifting, the tone clusters built up.  Then, the soloist came in on top of this a sparse staccato line, which gradually took over the texture. However, much of the piece was not so effective, and, in comparison to the Santiago which came later, this piece sounded hackneyed.

Daniel Bjarnason‘s trio, “Five Possibilities” was described in the program notes (quoting George Grella) as a “combination of Weberian brevity an Varian density.”  This piece had enough interest that I am looking forward to hearing more this composer on Saturday, when the CSO will be premiering “Collider”.

It was particularly in the this piece that I was upset by the acoustics of the room.  The Woodward Theater is a small venue.  I was in the balcony, but should have had no problem hearing the soft passages from the trio on stage.  However, much of this delicate music was masked by the white noise generated by the fan in the air ventilation system.  During intermission, I spoke with someone sitting downstairs very near the stage, and she shared my complaint.  I understand that the venue is usually used for electronically amplified music that can cope with whatever ambient noise is around.  However, not all of the pieces on this concert fit that description.  In particular, the Bjarnason piece had some soft delicate passages that might have been beautiful, but were frustrating to listen to from my seat.

CarolineShaw  I enjoyed the set of songs written and sung by Caroline Shaw.  Though she clearly has classical music training, her voice is close to that of a folk singer.  The tunes were simple diatonic melodies using the lyrics from old Gospel and Blue Grass standards.  She was accompanied by  a string quartet.  In each song, the quartet used a different set of effects.  The pizzicato  in “Will There Be Any Stars in My Crown?” felt like points of light; sometimes they coalesced into constellations, forming triads that supported the tonality of the melody.  Less effective, in my opinion, were the “on the fingerboard” effects that accompanied “Angel Band”.  Rather than etherial, I found the background simply incongruous, and weird.

Richard Reed Parry’s “Interruptions” was written for a nonet of strings, guitars, 2 clarinets and pianissimo trumpet.  These pieces featured a gimmick: each player had a stethoscope, and was playing to the beat of his own heart or breath.  This device seemed to work best with collective effects where the players were coordinated on the level of the larger gesture, but scattered in detail.

Bryce Dessner, the organizer of the Music Now festival, plays in a rock band, the Nationals.  In “Little Blue Something”, you can hear the influence of popular music.

Dating from 2000, the Nonetto II by Olli Mustonen, a double string quartet with added double bass, was the oldest composition on the program, and indeed, it sounded a bit out of place. It was as if the ghost of Mendelssohn suddenly appeared. It is not that the piece is derivative, but the Romantic sensibility was immediately apparent in the context of all this modernity.  Most effective was the final movement, Vivaccissimo, where the power of all these strings sawing away seemed to recall the bubbly energy of Mendelssohn’s Octet without feeling anachronistic.

All of the pieces were worth hearing, but the concert ran a bit long, almost three hours with intermission.  Indeed, Bryce Dessner seemed to offer an implicit apology when he used the phrase “marathon concert” in introducing his own piece.  However, I left satisfied, looking forward to more with the CSO the next evenings.

Langrée Conducts Mozart

LouisConductsMozart800x800

As a student of counterpoint, I am in awe of the last movement of Mozart’s Jupiter Symphony.  It is not just that it ends with a fugue combining all the motifs from earlier in the movement; there are lots of amazing fugues in the repertoire.  But this fugue is so effortless!  To the casual listener, it is simply a delightful, lively finale.  The detail, though there in plain sight for anyone who cares to notice, is woven into the texture so naturally that it doesn’t sound complex at all, and the whole movement seems to spring forth effervescently.

However, Langrée takes it a such a breathtaking speed that there is no opportunity to savor this detail.  True, it is marked Molto Allegro, and the orchestra can play it at this incredible tempo, and do so with grace. The effervescence was there, but the detail that I find so marvelous was so crammed together that it became clutter, lost in the large scale sweep and technical virtuosity of the performance.

They played two Mozart symphonies in C major; the great (Jupiter, no. 41) and the little (no. 34).  Though I complain only about the final finale, I found all of the tempi on the fast side. To be honest, most top conductors today would side with Langrée’s tempi: it is as if the mark of a really fine orchestra were how quickly they can run through the well known classics.  In this performance, occasionally, the charm of Mozart came through .  For example, in the trio of the minuet in the Jupiter Symphony, there was a delightful little pause in the beat, not too much to spoil the dance, as the oboe and strings began their little melody.  However, too often, such delights were lost in the full head of steam, as Langrée barreled through.  The technical brilliance of the orchestra notwithstanding, I would have enjoyed the evening more if Langrée had given us more time to luxuriate in the elegance and grace of Mozart.

If you really want to go that fast, I suggest Rossini.

Andre Previn Conducting  Loredo Robinson

Between the symphonies, they featured a world premiere by André Previn, a double concerto for violin and cello, played by Jaime Laredo and Sharon Robinson.   I am pleased that this orchestra has participated in commissioning a new work, and I think that composers who have served the movie business also have something to offer the classical concert literature.  Previn’s varied career certainly qualifies him to receive such a commission.  However, I do not expect this particular piece to enter the repertoire.   Previn’s writing for the soloists, though romantic in tone, seemed strained and a bit awkward, especially in the first movement.  He is more comfortable with the full orchestra, where his writing was colorful and imaginative.  Previn’s skill at sketching a mood was well displayed, but the mood kept changing, and I did not get much of a sense of direction or inspiration.

If you want to commission a movie composer, I suggest John Williams.

CSO Violins  I have on occasion been worried that my reviews would become boring variations on “Oh, what a marvelous orchestra!”.  So I am grateful to have something to complain about.

It is still a marvelous orchestra.