Frida at the Cincinnati Opera

fridaOh the whole, I enjoyed the Cincinnati Opera’s production of Frida, based on the life of painter, Frida Kahlo. However, I left with decidedly mixed feelings, which is part of the reason this post was so long delayed.

Frida Kahlo is a character well suited to the operatic stage: her life was full of grand passion, physical pain, and high art. However, this opera often felt like a docudrama trying to give a complete view of the life of this remarkable woman.  The result often felt cluttered.  This was especially true in the beginning, which depicts Kahlo as a teenager.  As a dramatization, fewer scenes would have been better.

With its combination of modern classical and authentic folk music, its small orchestra, its informal sections of spoken word, and even its Communist politics, this opera by Robert Xavier Rodríguez is much in the tradition of Kurt Weil (before he migrated to Broadway).  The reference to Mexican folk music started with the very first sound in the overture, a solo chord from the accordion, and  permeated the much of the score.  In general, I thought the music was often effective, but, much like the plot, frequently seemed to lack focus.

The leads, Catalina Cuervo in the title role and Ricardo Herrera as her famous husband Diego Rivera, sang with power and expression.  They were completely believable in their characters.  Among the rest of the cast, the beautiful high voice of Jennifer Cherest, as Frida’s sister Christina, stood out.

the-broken-columnAfter the opera, my wife commented that she welcomed the woman’s touch in the libretto (book by Hilary Blecher, lyrics and monologues by Migdalia Cruzby), especially in the perspective on sex. Indeed, there is scene which earned production an “R” rating, with Frida in the bathtub, wearing an outfit which I later learned was from “The Broken Column”, surrounded by lovers of both sexes.  Sitting in the back of the auditorium, my eyes (still recovering from surgery) were not good enough to see what was really going on, so I don’t really have much to say about this scene.

Otherwise, I found the staging very effective.  The set was on two levels, but the bones of it were quite simple.  When they were apart, Diego, the more famous painter of huge murals, was above, and Frida, the painter of more intimate self portraits, below.   Paintings of both artists were projected onto the set, which connected the action on stage to the art that is the reason we remember these people.

Musically, my favorite scene was the quintet in the second half.  Diego Rivera, who has had women parading through his bedroom for years, is accusing Frida of being unfaithful to him, with Leon Trotsky.  Frida is unapologetic  and emphasizes the intellectual aspect of her relationship with Trotsky.  Trotsky himself seems to be proclaiming innocence, but his rather dowdy wife is having none of that.  Meanwhile, above it all, Christina confesses to having betrayed her own sister.  Whereas I found the composition for much of the opera too cluttered, here all of the contrasting parts were integrated beautifully.  Rather than clutter, it felt like masterful counterpoint.

death2Another section that I thought memorable was the dance around Frida’s death bed.  Death was personified by three masked dancers who had appeared throughout the opera.  Unfortunately, the dramatic effect of this was eviscerated by the satiric dance of the monkeys which followed.  I thought the musical transition was lame, and the antics of the dancers were just not that funny.  Rather than providing comic relief after the intensity of what had just occurred, the monkeys, which do appear in many of Kahlo’s paintings, just added to my general feeling about the entire opera: it was trying to make sure to include everything, to the detriment of the drama.

This opera was in English, with occasional outbursts in Spanish.  This struck me as wrong.  An opera about a woman who was so defiantly Mexican, with so much Mexican folk music mixed in, cries out for Spanish.

Though I admire the staging and the singing, I left the opera with serious reservations. I thought the libretto and much of the music lacked focus.  However, I also left with a deep appreciation for the fierce intensity of this great artist, Frida Kahlo.  So, from that point of view, the opera has to be judged a success.

 

 

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The Magic Flute at the Cincinnati Opera

Magic FluteIf you expect reverence for the score written by this great composer at the height of his powers, you will find the  Cincinnati Opera’s production of the Magic Flute galling.  Not only do they make massive cuts, but they add interludes, excerpts from totally unrelated Mozart piano works.  However, I don’t think Mozart would have been bothered by this cavalier attitude.  He was, after all, just creating a bit of entertainment.  And much of this production was delightful.

The set consisted of a giant wall that served as a projection screen for the animation. The singers appeared on the floor in front of it, or in doors cut cut out of the middle or high up near the top.  Sometimes, the singer provided merely the face of the animated character: the Queen of the Night was a giant spider whose legs filled the entire screen.  Other times, the characters interacted with what was happening in the animation.

dragonThe approach was particularly effective in the opening scene: Tamino is chased by a dragon;  he is miraculously saved by a trio of magical creatures, who then turn out to be three silly girls, admiring the handsome young Tamino passed out from his encounter with the dragon. Obviously, this is a good plot for a cartoon. Several times, the music was covered by the laughter of the audience reacting to the sight gags.

The group that designed the production calls itself 1927, named for the year of the first talkie.  They create a unique combination of animation, live action and music in a style that harkens back to the movies of the 1920s.  The costumes and the characterizations were often straight out of the silent pictures.  Papageno is modeled on Buster Keaton, the evil Monostatos, on Nosferatu, the vampire.

The most direct reference to the silent cinema came in the interludes, played on a tinny, slightly de-tuned, piano forte.  It felt very much like an old  silent movie, where the piano player is improvising an accompaniment, setting the mood for whatever was happening in the movie.  They even used 1920s style titles to catch you up on the action.  In this case, the pianist was playing excerpts from Mozart’s D minor Fantasy.  The quick changes of mood in the piece were timed perfectly with the film, so that it seemed that the pianist was reacting to the screen, not the other way around.   Once I got over the fact that it was not The Magic Flute, I enjoyed it.  It felt intimate, quaint, and quite funny.

In the second act, for the most part, they let the music carry the moment.  By this time, their tricks were no longer so fresh and there was much less laughter from the audience.  However, there is a scene, the Trial by Fire and Water, where Mozart has written background music for what was clearly some spectacular stage trick in the original production.  Here, I was expecting our animators to pull out all the stops.  However, I thought this result was rather lame.  Perhaps I was simply no longer enthralled by the spectacle.

There was another problem with all of their cuts.  It is difficult to imagine that you could make the plot of the Magic Flute any more incoherent, but these guys managed it.  One of my favorite pieces is the duet of Papageno and his love, Papagena, near the end of the  opera, called “Pa-pa-pa” after the opening line (I like very simple ideas).  However, in this performance, I realized that part of the beauty and humor of the moment lies in how it has been set up.  Poor Papagena had been almost entirely cut out of the previous action, and her appearance at the end felt tacked on, not emotionally connected to the rest of the drama. Moreover, the production didn’t make nearly as effective use of the Papageno character, usually the source of the comedy, as you would expect; it is as if their imagination was not sparked when the jokes were handed to them by the libretto.

Did I mention that there was music in this opera?  The problem with the whole approach is that the show tended become a movie with live accompaniment.  Occasionally, my wife found it so distracting, she closed her eyes so she could listen better,

Chistopher AllenThe evening began with an overture, done straight, no visuals except the that you could watch the conductor and the musicians.  I have heard this work many times; never have I heard it done better.  So many conductors take “Allegro” as an opportunity to see how fast his players can go; the result is impressive, exciting, but rushed.  This performance was energetic and  lively, but the details were given enough room to sparkle. The orchestra, under the direction of Christopher Allen, played with the intensity that I have come to expect from this world class ensemble.  Here was Mozart the way it should be played. I look forward to hearing Christopher Allen lead them again.

The singing that followed was up to the standard that had set in the overture.  With all that was going on on stage, it was quite a while before I realized how good the tenor, Aaron Blake, was in the role of Tamino.  He has a nice clear voice, and sings with expression.  Similarly, Kim-Lillian Strebel, in the role of Pamina, sang beautifully.

Queen of Night SpiderThe Magic Flute features two roles with extreme ranges; the Queen of the Night is impossibly high, while Sarastro is impossibly low.  Both are written to convey super human mastery: the Queen of the Night’s sinister magic, and Sarastro’s profound understanding of unfathomable mysteries.  Tom McNichols covered the low part with enough power to be heard, which is impressive, but the sound was more annoying than profound.  On the other hand, Jeni Houser not only managed, she blew me away.  Her high notes sounded like a baroque trumpet (except they are higher).  It was acrobatic, powerful, and beautiful.

Among the rest of the cast, the three spirits stood out.  This trio is written for young boys, that is relatively light voices with excellent musicianship and enough power to be heard in an opera house.   Ashley Fabian, Abigail Hoyt, and Paulina Villarreal are not exactly boys, but their voices, in the context of the outsized world of opera, were  perfect for the part. Their singing was delightful. I particularly enjoyed the aria where they interact with the heroine Pamina.  The singing was expressive, and the contrast in the quality of the trio with the soloist worked perfectly.

In sum, the plot was even more of a mess than usual.  The staging was inventive and delightful, and certainly worth seeing. And the music was just great, Mozart at his finest.

Come see it you can

 

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.