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.

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.


May Festival 2014 Opens

mayfestivalchorus   This year’s May Festival opened with a program featuring two major works by American composers: one by John Adams, the leading composer of his generation (my generation), and an oratorio by Nathaniel Dett, premiered at the May Festival in 1937, and largely forgotten since.  This kind of adventurous programming is just what should be expected for a world class event, balanced, of course, by the old favorite, Beethoven’s Ninth, scheduled later in the festival.

James Conlon conducting

May Festival Chorus, Robert Porco, Director
Latonia Moore, soprano
Ronnita Nicole Miller, mezzo-soprano
Rodrick Dixon, tenor
Donnie Ray Albert, bass
Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra

JOHN ADAMS Harmonium

john-adams-composer-at-work      What a lustrous sound!  Harmonium starts with a single note and gradually builds to a glowing diatonic cluster.  It features huge harmonic spaces, always enlivened with an ever evolving, often complex rhythmic surface, and almost disembodied melodic fragments.  Particularly effective (and easy to describe) is the connection between the last two movements: the low, dark burial ending the second movement becomes gradually more and more agitated until it burst into the “Wild Nights!” of the finale.

The texts that Adams chose for this are profound: poems by John Donne (“Negative Love”) and Emily Dickinson (“Because I could not stop for Death” and “Wild Nights”).  I find the Donne fascinating, intriguing, but far too complicated and intellectual for a musical setting, even one as complex as this.  Music works much better with Dickinson’s  evocative images than with the tortured reasoning in this particular poem of Donne.

This music emphasizes the collective effect.  Though the work is full of technically demanding passages, it is the energy and intonation of the ensemble that is important. Consequently, James Conlon conducted this piece with unusual restraint.  There were no romantic flourishes: he focused on keeping time, and keeping the group together.

And such a spectacular group it is.  The chorus, as always, was well prepared.  When there was homophony, the diction was crystal clear, amazingly clear for such a large chorus.  The orchestra managed complexities of the score with grace and power.  Together, they were awe inspiring.

Robert_Nathaniel_Dett_r   Robert Nathaniel Dett  The Ordering of Moses

Cincinnati, like most other cities, loves to celebrate its heritage.  One part of that heritage is its role in the Underground Railroad.  Consistent with that tradition, in 1937, the Cincinnati May Festival premiered an oratorio by a Negro composer, R. Nathaniel Dett.

This piece of history was emphasized in the concert.    Preceding the music, they played a recording of the radio announcer’s introduction to the live broadcast of the 1937 performance.  Later, before the large finale, they again played a recording of the radio announcer, this time saying that “because of previous commitments”, they would have to cease broadcasting the concert.  If I had been bored by the music, I would have welcomed an interruption reminding me of this ugly piece of American history.  However, by that time I was not interested in the history of that 1937 radio broadcast, I was engaged listening to a live concert in 2014.  I found the interruption disturbing.  It is possible that the performers were also disturbed by it, or that the following section of the music was not up to the standard of the rest; in any case, it took a while for me to get back into the music.  If this oratorio is worthy a performance today, as I think it is, the place for the history lesson is in the program notes.

Mining material from that rich vein of folk music and using a story that had particular meaning to his enslaved forefathers, Dett wrote an oratorio in the grand European tradition, conservative enough to appeal to a Cincinnati audience of the 1930s, but original enough to still be relevant.   You hear the influence not of the modernists of his day, or of the jazz that was sweeping across popular culture, but of Dvorak, who had advised American composers to look to their folk heritage for the foundation of their music.  Like any good follower, his music is influenced by, not derivative of, the master.

Predictably, Dett makes use of that old favorite, “Go Down Moses”.  Sometimes, his use of the theme is straightforward and obvious, but even then, the direction that he takes is fresh.  More often, he uses themes that are not obviously derived from the material in this tune, but are related to it in a more subtle way.  The harmony is more chromatic certainly than Dvorak, but clear in it’s direction, traditional without being totally familiar.

I  find it difficult to judge the quality of a performance when I am unfamiliar with the a work.  There were places when the orchestra hands off the focus from one instrument to the next: if it does not go as smoothly as I thought it should, was that because of the orchestra or the orchestration?  Regardless, I found the work engaging.  This orchestra and chorus consistently amaze me.  Among the soloists, I particularly enjoyed the clear tenor of Rodrick Dixon, who, even when the melody twisted, landing on an unexpected note, always conveyed the composer’s intentions with conviction.

This work certainly deserves its place on the program, seventy years after the premiere.


The concert is being repeated at Carnegie Hall.  It will be broadcast on NPR.  I am confident it will be a major success.