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.


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.

Langrée Conducts Mozart


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.

The Cincinnati Symphony Season Begins

CSO  What a magnificent orchestra!

I attended the first three CSO concerts of the season.  Each featured a concerto: Lang Lang playing Beethoven’s Piano Concerto #1, Martin Frost playing Mozart’s clarinet concerto, and Emanuel Ax playing Chopin’s Piano Concerto #2.

langlang Emanuael Ax

The rock star of the bunch was clearly Lang Lang, who played to a packed house for this all Beethoven affair.  He was also the biggest showboat: for example, leaning back away from the keyboard to admire the elegance of his right hand as it beautifully executed an intricately ornamented passage.  Since he did indeed play it with charm and grace, I am willing to indulge him.  He deserves his notoriety, and the enthusiastic applause he received.

This was in contrast to the understated, charming performance of the Chopin by Emanuel Ax.  Being fully engaged in the music making, Ax had no time for grand, superfluous gestures.  Whenever the piano was by itself, we had the divine intimacy of Chopin, whose writing for piano is unsurpassed. Unfortunately, Chopin’s orchestration is not so masterful.  I like the description by Berlioz quoted in the program notes: “[when they] play tutti, they cannot be heard, and one is tempted to say to them ‘Why don’t you play, for heavens sake!’  And when they accompany the piano, they only interfere with it so that the listener wants to cry out to them: ‘Be quiet, you bunglers, you are in the way!’.” Regardless, Emanuel Ax gave a beautiful performance, faithful to the spirit of composer.

Both pianists played, for encores, pieces that I had learned at one time.  Lang Lang played the “Alla Turca” finale of Mozart’s A Major Sonata, at a blazing speed.  He transformed this delightful, innocent rondo it into a technical showpiece, which I suppose is appropriate for an encore after a concerto.  It struck me as incredibly fast. Emanuel Ax played a Chopin waltz in A minor (Op. 34 no 2).  It was very understated for an encore, not technically brilliant at all, merely intimate and sublime. It struck me as incredibly beautiful.

Martin_Frost_Photo_Mats_Backer_06The soloist that I enjoyed the most was Martin Frost. He played the Mozart concerto very elegantly, fully expressing the character of the music.  We could see the influence of his ballet training in his demeanor on stage, but he never drew attention to himself at expense of the music.  For an encore, he played a showpiece, “Let’s Be Happy”, written for him by his brother.  It featured an improvised introduction which included some quotations from Stravinsky, some extended techniques, some traditional Klezmer, and lots of really fast notes.  Though lightly scored, each section of the strings got to share the spotlight, with extended passages where they were the ones playing really fast. I usually don’t enjoy listening to people show off their dazzling technique, but this piece was pure fun.  What a delight!

Louis Langree All three concerts were directed by Louis Langrée.  The first included the Beethoven Seventh Symphony,  which I had heard him direct before he was named Music Director.  His tempi are consistently brisk,  but the orchestra is good enough to play with expression and elegance even at that speed.  He takes the second movement too fast for my taste, but it is marked Allegretto, so his tempo is certainly justified. Langrée’s Beethoven does not have the weighty, Germanic scowl of some the famous portraits; this Beethoven is lively, alternately graceful or thrilling, but never stodgy.

The second concert featured John Adams’s Harmonielehre (Harmony Lesson), a large, complex showcase for the orchestra.  I am a fan of Adams, and the orchestra played this difficult work magnificently.  The intricate masses of sound were beautifully balanced, and I was swept away by the large scale momentum of the piece.

Though this concert was not so well attended, the audience contained a number of people who were unfamiliar with the protocol: they clapped between movements.  This is a good thing: Langrée is succeeding in reaching out to a new audience.

The third concert ended with Debussy’s La Mer.  You might expect Langrée to be most at home with this French masterpiece, but  here, I was a little disappointed, especially with the first movement.  It just didn’t seem to flow.  The second movement, “Play of the Waves”, was better.  Langrée seems more comfortable with light and fast. However,  Debussy’s sea is sometimes menacing, and this sense of foreboding was missing.

I will not attend all the concerts in the season, and I certainly don’t expect to write about all the ones I manage to hear.  There are only so many ways that I can rhapsodize about the magnificent brass, the nimble winds, the precise percussion or the sumptuous strings.  Occasionally I will notice an imperfection, such as a clam from the horns, but when surrounded by so much spectacular beauty, it just reminds me that these are humans.  I enjoy being fully engaged in the live experience, listening to these masters of their craft.  It a privilege to be have such a fine orchestra in our town.


Silent Night at the Cincinnati Opera


I heard the music of Kevin Puts for the first time in May at a concert of the Vocal Arts Ensemble. I liked what I heard, and was looking forward to more as the Cincinnati Opera presented his opera Silent Night. I was not disappointed.

The story is based on the amazing impromptu Christmas truce that occurred along the western front in 1914. The opera follows three groups of soldiers,  German, Scottish, and French. After a brief instrumental introduction, characters from each of the three groups are introduced, as they learn about the war. The main focus among the Germans is an opera star, who is onstage performing a duet that gets interrupted by an announcement from the Kaiser. A pair of brothers in Scotland hear about the war, and one dreams of glory. A young French couple is expecting their first child, and the expectant mother complains that her husband is going away at such an important time.

Couple   Being opera, there has to be a love story. The soprano singing in the duet manages to re-unite with her lover, bringing the German away from the front to sing with her in a concert for the prince, and then returning with him to the front. Musically, this is a wonderful device. The shallowness of the rich nobility is depicted by the chamber ensemble accompanying an imitation of music from the early nineteenth century, contrasting starkly with the dark reality from the front.  At the front, after the truce has taken hold, the soprano has a lovely, unaccompanied aria “Dona Nobis Pacem” just at the end of the first act. Erin Wall‘s lush soprano was a beautiful contrast to all of the male voices, though the aria gets a little showy toward the end for my taste. Later, the socialist ideology implicit all along takes hold of the couple: after a short, somewhat implausible speech about the greedy capitalists hiding behind a veneer of patriotism, they walk to the other side to surrender, escaping the fate that awaits many of those remaining. All in all, not very believable, but well within the operatic tradition.

Silent-Night-Cease-Fire-cred.-Opera-Philadelphia-Kelly-Massa The dramatic high point of the opera is the moment where peace breaks through. It begins with a solo bagpipe, imperfectly played, accompanying a Scottish baritone, safely in their bunker. Then, the German opera singer, stands up and sings a carol, while the French complain about both. The music and the libretto combine to give a sense of the danger as the German emerges from the safety of the trench, and though I knew how it was going to turn out, I was fully engaged at that moment.

ac_onstage_silent night _credit- philip groshong-cincinnati opera.widea   In the second act, the truce continues. There is a delightful trio among the three lieutenants, mostly in English, but with the German translating for the Frenchman whose English is weak. I generally find collections of so many male operatic voices thick and dull, but not this time. The setting felt quite natural, and the translation gave the composer a chance to imitate the previous line, sometimes sequentially, sometimes overlapping, all  quite inventive. Carrying it off as naturally as these performers did required both musicianship and acting ability; this was typical of the excellence displayed by the cast of soloists throughout the opera.

Kevin Puts’s Kevin Puts  musical style works with operatic voices. Sometimes, there is a sustained triad with an angular melodic line, though the harmony is usually much more complex. Except in the prologue, I seldom had trouble hearing the soloists over the orchestra, despite frequent thickness in the harmony. Under the able direction of David Charles Abell, the scoring worked.

“Better than the Carmen”, which is what my partner said after leaving Music Hall, would normally be impossibly high praise for a new opera; however, she was comparing it to a rather lame performance that we had seen to begin this summer season. In truth, she found some parts of this opera rather long. Silent Night is never going to be as beloved as Carmen, with its the sexy heroine, overwhelming passion, and abundance of catchy tunes,. However, I have no reservations about the Pulitzer Prize for classical music being granted to such a fine opera.  I am pleased to live in a city where such excellent new works are performed.