Sunday, December 4, 2016

Pittsburgh Symphony Musicians Return to Stridently Enthusiastic Audience

As the lights strategically dimmed and before music director Manfred Honeck appeared on the empty stage the audience arose in gleeful anticipation and began a strident applause. Conductor Honeck then walked out and addressed the audience: "We thank you for your loyalty, your commitment to this institution and your unwavering support. We will have a night that I am sure will be unforgettable. The music has returned."

The musicians of the Pittsburgh Symphony began to enter the stage, reversing the usual order of arrival where conductor comes last. The applause became even more loud and sustained.  No need to sit down, the applause blended into The Star Spangled Banner, the traditional start of the concert season and it sounded like almost everyone sang the lyrics, even me. Click here to see it for yourself, but make sure the volume is down.

The Overture to "Ruslan and Ludmila" by Mikhail Glinka was a fitting beginning to classical music, a rousing orchestral jaunt joined vociferously by every member of the orchestra. Instantly I realize how much I missed the live music in a large hall, with the ability to single out each instrument. And now here it is again, what a treat.

Next, soloist Cynthia Koledo DeAlmeida enters the stage to play "Gabriel's Oboe" by Ennio Morricone. Before they start we hear an infant babbling in the audience. The audience laughs when she says "I feel the same way." Soft and smooth sounds roll from her oboe as she seamlessly guides the rest of the orchestra. The selection is not long, but is beautiful. Another audience member tells me the oboe is very difficult and her performance is amazing.

Noah Bendix-Balgley returns to Pittsburgh for the violin solo of the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto. His style I find distinctive, and with the slower tempo we have a greater chance to savour the sounds of the strings especially during the segments where he plays alone. With the orchestra I hear the double bass to it's fullest. Soft pizzicati augment the give and take between orchestra and soloist. The second slow movement brings subtlety sweet sound almost surreal. The final movement interleaves various sections of the orchestra in well positioned conversation back and forth using full development. Mr Bendix-Balgley has certainly blossomed as a soloist.

At intermission I reflect on the nature of life. To me much of life involves movement. To get to the symphony this evening involves transportation. Leaving my seat to walk to the lobby requires movement.

Music is irrevocably wrapped in all kinds of movement. The composer creates music in his mind by moving thoughts through synapses and neurons. Those thoughts become practices on the piano, and then are scribed as notes on the manuscript to form the musical score. That score is copied countless times and place before the musicians, who, using their minds, bodies, muscles, lips, arms and fingers move their instruments in beauteous professional harmony based on the reading of the score. All this movement is led by the conductor, who with his baton, synchronizes the unanimity of the amalgamation, and with gently sweeping movements ushers forth the sounds from the musicians through their instruments into the very air with brilliant vibrations of molecules which reach out to our eardrums producing signals which move to our brains. And we move our lips - we smile :)  The circle is complete, but the movement never ends.


After moving back to my seat the second half begins. Several days ago I heard Dvorak's Symphony 9 From the New World several times on the radio. At the time I thought to myself (not knowing what was to be played this evening): wouldn't it be great if they were playing this wonderful symphony Friday. Well it turns out they were. Coincidence I'm sure. I've heard this played by the PSO at Heinz Hall before. But tonight it's alive and fresh, in fact, it could never grow old.

Everything about this music is Big! It was written when the composer visited America: A big country indeed. The music itself is big, bold, and loud, but not so that you want to reduce the volume, but rather appreciate it's very vivid character just as it is. The second movement: Largo, I like to think of as a lazy river. The English Horn just screams rustic charm like a steamboat moving down a lazy river. And then there are the sections where we hear all the voices of the string section play in unison, it's the original connotation of good vibrations that transcend my very soul.

The third movement brings genuine goose bumps and reminds me at times of a fugue like that of Bach, but there's plenty of drama as if two parts of the orchestra are having a melodic conversation. In between is a waltz intermezzo which pleases the sweet tooth, but the fugue and drama return. The forth movement proves there's something new around every turn. Here again we feel the aspects of bigness: This Is A Big Country. The movement screams to a stunning and loud conclusion and all the while Manfred Honeck is playing the orchestra like an instrument. It becomes most evident at the end.

Based on complement of instruments not used I knew there would be an orchestral encore. I was right, but this was a premier of "Fanfare for Pittsburgh" by James MacMillen which had been delayed because of the unfortunate strike which had thankfully been resolved. This piece was for full orchestra with lots of percussion. Like a chase scene in any movie with boats screaming down the rivers, and cogs of machinery constantly turning, the music and tones move up and down, and then twice we hear a gong near the end. A xylophone leads a transition to the ending, and then it's over. A fanfare which you probably won't hear again soon unless you come on Sunday for the second show or hear on WQED next week.


One blogger gets his 15 seconds of fame!

Saturday, July 23, 2016

PSO Classical Mixer

The Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra hosted a summer event called 'Classical Mixer' this last weekend. Since I haven't heard live orchestral music much lately since the conclusion of the regular season, I made sure to attend. I'm glad I did, it was a treat.

During the mixer portion, in the outdoor garden, Carolyn Edwards introduced herself and asked if I'd fill out a form to possibly win a chance to sit with the orchestra for one of the selections. It was very kind of her and the other musicians of the PSO who hosted the events before the concert. The ultimate winner indeed got to sit for the 1812 Overture. In fact, PSO Cellist Mikhail Istomin joked that the winner might need earplugs, or she might go deaf, that's how loud the horns are for the ending.

In the lobby three more members of the Cello section of the PSO played as a trio. The part I like best was the overture to Magic Flute by Mozart. These were Charlie Powers, Alexandra Thompson and Michael DeBruyn. I spoke to Michael after they played and he gave me the name of a few of the selections. All of the musicians are very friendly and gracious.

Jennifer Orchard and Craig Knox came out between selections to announce one of winners of the evening. It was entertaining and funny. The winning selection was inside Craig's Tuba which at one point he joked weighed 75 pounds as he held it over his head. See the photos I took below...

Ludwig Van Beethoven - Overture to Egmont

Leading off with Beethoven is always a grand idea in my opinion, and usually the audience is very receptive.

Wolfgang Mozart - Symphony No. 38 (Prague), 3rd mov. Presto

Mozart's Prague Symphony is one of his best! The third movement is very rhythmic. Even if you've never experienced this, the first time hearing this charming music brings an instant smile.

Johannes Brahms - Symphony No. 3, 3rd mov. Poco allegretto

This movement elicits moderate tempo and uniquely Brahms style. I like Brahms, but my favorites are the classical styles of Mozart and Beethoven.

Sergei Prokofiev - Classical Symphony (No. 1) 3rd and 4th mov.

We were told that this symphony was composed in an attempt to emulate the style of Joseph Haydn. After this Prokofiev selection, Conductor Andres Franco asked the audience if they have a favorite so far. Not too many responded, but for me, this is it. In fact, I wished they had played they entire symphony. This is the first time I heard it played live by a symphony orchestra. I'll be looking forward to an upcoming performance of the Prokofiev Classical Symphony soon!

Leonard Bernstein - Overture to Candide

Another crowd favorite. American composer Bernstein was at his very best with this Overture. So many elements and wrapped together in a brisk package which seems almost too short, we want more.

James Macmillan - One

Conductor Andres Franco indicated that this composition is a single line of music that is transferred between sections of the orchestra until the end. I liked it very much.

Edward Elgar - Enigma Variations E.D.U. Finale

Elgar Enigma Variations contain themes from two variations are echoed: 'Nimrod' and 'C.A.E.' The one part has a very distinctive and recognizable melody. All in all a very enjoyable selection.

Piotr Tchaikovsky - 1812 Overture solennelle

Mikhail Istomin, Cello, introduced this piece. He's from Russia, and apparently he never played this piece over there, yet he joked that it's always played here on the 4th of July and that this piece seemingly has nothing to to with our Independence Day. The beginning is a slow and quiet section of Cellos which is what I like best. But I'm certain the ending with the fireworks and verve might be the crows favorite. I like the begging so much, I use it as an alarm. I hear it every day and never grow tired. But to be sure, to hear this music in person at Heinz Hall with the world famous Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra is treat that should never be missed!

As an encore, the PSO played music from  Jacques Offenbach's Orpheus in the Underworld

The "Infernal Galop" from Act 2, Scene 2, is famous outside classical circles as the music for the "can-can" (to the extent that the tune is widely, but erroneously, called "can-can")

Cello trio PSO Classical Mixer
Cello trio PSO Classical Mixer
Cello trio PSO Classical Mixer
Cello trio PSO Classical Mixer
PSO Classical Mixer
PSO Classical Mixer
PSO Classical Mixer
PSO Classical Mixer
PSO Classical Mixer
PSO Classical Mixer
PSO Classical Mixer

Tuesday, April 19, 2016

Stepping out of the Silver Screen: Alec Baldwin with the PSO

Entering Heinz Hall last Saturday, I was immediately struck by the array of speakers cascaded around the back of the stage, in captivating contrast of spotless white and black. I realized it was indeed to be used by the organ for Cameron Carpenter's selection to be heard later in the evening. But I had forgotten the effect of deep bases that can be projected along with the symphony in Richard Strauss's "Also Sprach Zarathustra." Indeed, when Maestro Manfred Honeck unleashed the theme upon the audience, there was no mistaking the magnificence and expansiveness the sound can achieve, especially at Heinz Hall. To say that the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra 'nailed it' is an understatement, but with the addition of the deep base played by the speakers it was breathtaking.

After the peak of the music, it ends with much applause from the audience. Alec Baldwin appears onto the stage, his presence seemingly larger than life because of all his silver screen roles, yet in person, friendly and affable. With a smile, he jokingly said he asked for this piece to be played as his introduction. It was almost like a Hollywood entrance as if he were stepping out of the silver screen in style.

One of my favorite movies of late is by Woody Allen "To Rome with Love" where Alec Baldwin interacts with several young people he meets on the streets of Rome. He's there, but he's not, as if he is the conscience of one of the others in the movie. It's intriguing in it's appeal. It sort of reminded me of Alec at this concert, as a character to introduce the pieces, as a conscience of the audience, there but not really there, but in his charm and as an addition to the entire evening, he is invaluable.

Mr. Baldwin spoke of his chance to see the PSO perform Beethoven in 2014 while filming a movie in Pittsburgh, and that led to him hosting this concert. As he put it, the advent of his love for classical music came in the 1980s while driving in his car listening on the radio. He spoke of a car-phone and kidded that he actually had to look for paper and pen to write down the selection played or hit the speed dial on his car phone to the station to ask what was played at a certain time. Coincidentally I myself remember doing that myself. With Mr. Baldwin it was Mahler 9. I remember calling in the 1990s to WQED to find out about Mozart's oboe concerto.

He kidded young folks about CDs - "you see it's this round plastic thing you actually put in something to play the music," while discussing his collection of classical music. He spoke of listening to the music in the concert hall - "here nothing can compare the seeing and listening of a performance done live." He said he's never had a bad experience at the symphony.

He went on to say that a few film directors borrow from the classical repertoire, and such was the case with the main title music of "The Shining" based on the Dream of the Witches Sabbath, by Hector Berlioz. After this awe inspiring performance by the PSO Mr Baldwin returned to the stage with a "wowie wow." He asked the audience if we liked the bells. Yes. "I brought those with me on the plane. I did it for you actually."

He spoke of his first role on a soap opera. Apparently his character was killed off by two separate people at the same time, neither knew the other was there; a very funny story the way Mr. Baldwin described it.

He next introduced Tchaikovsky's "Pas de Deux", holiday music beautifully written, that he would never tire of hearing.

Immediately following, Manfred Honeck dove into the Beethoven finale of Symphony no. 7. Alegro con brio. Fast, lively and marvelous, one of my personal favorites.

Next Baldwin introduced one of his favorites, the adagio from Mahler's symphony no. 5. But before that he asked Honeck: "How's it going so far Maestro?" "What do you mean" was the response -- smiles all around. Apparently the Mahler composition was intended as a love poem to his wife Alma. Listening to those deep rich strings - it was a beautiful poem indeed.

Next was Prokofiev "The Death of Tybalt". To me it seemed more a comedy than tragedy.

Fascinating Rhythm by Gershwin was played on the organ by Cameron Carpenter with those large array of speakers and the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra. There was a screen where they projected a close up of the organist's hands on the keyboard with 4 rows of keys. It was amazing the dexterity and adroitness he was able to continually maintain.

There are so many things about this music that I've said before in the blog, because many of the selections are one's that have been played here before, only not just snippets but the full selections. I enjoyed the music very much, although sometimes it was a bit loud. I do miss the entire pieces and not just the excerpts.

Monday, February 15, 2016

Singularly Intimate Ardor Flirtingly Revealed

I start at the end of Friday's concert with the composition freshest on my mind, the Carmen melodies I'm humming outside the concert hall, and all the way home. With the Bizet Carmen Suite we see and hear the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra at their very best. They shine in this setting and excel in the undistilled triumphant symphonic form. To me Carmen is a succinct set of voices that reach out and grab the listener, distinctly and clearly telling a story. 

Juraj Valčuha, with his softly waving baton, lead the orchestra seamlessly, and yet I could experience his distinct style, with the way he would single out Balcony single sets of musicians to enunciate a selection, or how he congealed the whole orchestra as a robust amalgamation, it was an enthusiastic highlight to the proceeding. I experienced the complete dynamic extent of the talented orchestra.

The live concert venue reaches more deeply the fidelity of the music. My ears extend their listening capacity, I experience no signal loss, no degradation. Heart, soul, full body - these things no electronic speakers can ever achieve, these are the multiple dimensional aspects I fully hear, see and feel at Heinz Hall with the PSO. 

I also contemplate a certain fascination in the reincarnation of the animate karma of these notes, printed as a score on paper a century before. These talented symphony musicians and conductor simply dust off the old manuscript, imbibe their magic and voilà, the music comes alive. The Carmen was a perfect ending to this fantastic evening. 

Backing up a notch, I consider the Tchaikovsky Romeo & Juliet Suite: The title says it all to anyone familiar with Shakespeare's play, but isn't it a tragedy? Oh that I could forget the programmatic context and re-hear this beautiful composition in a vacuum, but not literally. Like rewinding the clock to the first time, and playing again, without the title, without the intro, without words, only sounds, hearing again for the first time. Then perhaps the emotions could quickly stir, and creativity would spark - further onrushing impressions would be forged without bias or foreknowledge. And I could describe my thoughts in that incubator, with only the pure music to hear. Then, if it were possible, rewind and do it all over again, if only to compare, to heuristically compare notes with myself.

But alas, it cannot be so, I cannot forget all that prior knowledge, yet I allude my impressions in a bottle, a suspension of foreknowledge for only a moment. The sounds are incredible, yet inexorably Tchaikovsky-like, with bits and pieces of 1812 and some Symphonies thrown in for good measure. The melody is amazing. Then the orchestra goes wild as if some tempest is let loose in order to menace the simple melody. And even after recapitulation the tawdry storm takes stronger hold and will not be denied. 

Diverging paths and the masks that we wear
But in the intermezzo a softer part briefly emerges. My favorite part. Its not a melody nor cacophony of storm. Instead, a quiet storm to stir my soul. Whispered oboe sounds juxtaposed to harp, all wrapped in softly speaking strings. The proverbial eye of the storm. Exiting that eye we come full circle; eventually the tempest concludes. I am not sure the extent of devastation. Yet now begins a new aspect, a final tribute unlike the rest. A conclusion of sorts to assure us all of our destined happy ending.

My moment has passed and my suspension of prior programmatic knowledge is over. I suppose the tragic end to the love story of Romeo and Juliet was rewritten in the ending provided by Tchaikovsky. This time maybe it deserves a happy ending.

Now I backup to the beginning of the evening and the opening notes of the first selection. Lush rolling waves of gentle soul, as if breaking in my dreams, enunciate a perfect transference upon my eardrums, eliciting vibrating waves that ramble aimfully through my mind, developing a purely profound union of meaning. Thus begins the Tristin und Istolde Prelude und Liebestod by Richard Wagner.

It is a sturdy cacophony replete with  waving baton, or else a measured gravitational series of waves that roll ceaselessly over my senses, caressing the very depths of my being. Either or, it makes no difference, it is anxiously perceived.

In my minds eye I imagine a subtle smile detected, with long flowingHallelujah hair flung opulently as if to obscure my concentrated view, but not in a direct line of flight to the ensemble, but rather a subtle diversion reaching from within the orchestra's core competency, softly mixing harmonic elegy to show an ardor flirtingly revealed.

A temporal dilemma arises, hitherto redacted prose replete with singularly intimate imbalance replenishes softly my consummate repose. Already scribed with abundance, the text remains. Hearing quiet sounds, the concert continues, no need to amplify, my conscience returns in ample abundance.

The love story is still building, ever longing, building, longing the way it was intended in the opera, the way it has always been. Is it a splendid tragedy? No, it's ever my immortal hearing of a beautiful love told in music which never fails to send shivers through my soul

Next,Guest Artist RoomI find that Dvořák's cello concerto as an interesting juxtaposition.  Exchanges traded between soloist and orchestra act as a subtle diversion to the music. Pausing between phrases, Joshua Roman looks back from his cello in recognition of the well-done part of the players, his head shaking with the rhythm. I perceive the voice as cello, cello voice, as a woman, full bodied, desirable. Rolling, ambling with the flute, loudly vibrating strings, swift and pure, and Interplay with horns accentuate my appreciation for orchestra and soloist.

 The encore by Joshua Roman is excellent in its clarity and harmonic form. I believe the composer is J. S. Bach based on the sound and form. Searching youtube, I notice that Mr. Roman likes to perform on rooftops in big cities or in front of a koi pond or similar unique venues. It's a distinguishing characteristic. After searching a bit more I believe his encore may have been Bach Cello Suite no. 1.




Monday, December 21, 2015

The Legacy of Stradivarius

Found this in my inbox. Looks rather cool!


 The Legacy of Stradivarius comes to life as never before at the Musical Instrument Museum
On display for the first and only time in the US

PHOENIX (Dec. 8, 2015) – Opening January 16, as part of its five-year anniversary celebration, the Musical Instrument Museum (MIM) will bring to Arizona Stradivarius: Origins and Legacy of the Greatest Violin Maker. Violins, an internationally beloved instrument, will be the star of this new exhibition, which showcases 10 exceptional historic and modern examples from the string family, including a 1728 Stradivarius violin on public display for the first time in the United States.

On view only at MIM, this one-of-a-kind exhibition introduces the story of how early violin makers from the modest Italian city of Cremona shaped music from the 16th century onward. These timeless masterpieces were handcrafted by master luthiers, including Andrea Amati, the founding father of the violin; the rogue genius Guarneri del Gesù; and the master himself—Antonio Stradivari. The exhibition includes several modern-day masterworks that demonstrate the continuing influence of early masters.

Stradivarius: Origins and Legacy of the Greatest Violin Maker is presented in partnership with Cremona-based institutions Museo del Violino and the Friends of Stradivari. “Since its inception, MIM has collaborated with prestigious national and international institutions that share a similar vision,” said April Salomon, executive director of MIM. “Now for the first time, MIM has the great privilege to bring this extraordinary exhibition to Arizona, allowing us to share these remarkable instruments with guests from around the world.”

The exhibition, featured in MIM’s Target Gallery, will allow guests to hear and see the instruments on display using audio and video technology that will bring the violin to life as never before. “We have transformed the exhibition space into a multi-sensory experience complete with compelling sound and visuals,” says Kathleen Wiens, PhD, MIM’s curator for Europe. Wiens continues, “When visitors walk into the gallery, they will be taken on a journey from the Fiemme Valley forest, where the early masters sourced their wood, through violin maker’s workshops, European royal courts, science labs and finally to the thrilling concert stage. It will be an experience like no other.”

Visitors to this exhibition will have the rare opportunity to see firsthand the fine craftsmanship of these extraordinary treasures. Similar violins have garnered increased attention on the collectors’ market and most recently the “Lady Blunt” Stradivarius was purchased for more than $15 million US dollars. In addition to appreciating their value, visitors will discover what makes these prized instruments unique, both in design and tone.

Stradivarius: Origins and Legacy of the Greatest Violin Maker will be on display through June 5, 2016, with special opening weekend activities taking place January 16 and 17. To commemorate the exhibition, MIM will host concerts featuring some of the world’s most talented violinists—compelling virtuosa Rachel Barton Pine, foremost jazz violinist of her generation Regina Carter, champion of American music Mark O’Connor, and the incomparable Midori. The concert series will conclude with treasured instruments of the Valley brought to life by members of the exceptionally talented ASU Strings Faculty. As a finale to this special exhibition, MIM will have an “Experience Italy” weekend June 4 and 5 to celebrate Italian music and culture.

Admission
$10 for Stradivarius: Origins and Legacy of the Greatest Violin Maker exhibition only
$7 when purchased with general museum admission

The Musical Instrument Museum is located at 4725 E. Mayo Boulevard in Phoenix (corner of Tatum and Mayo Boulevards, just south of Loop 101). For general museum information and a full schedule of events, visit MIM.org or call 480.478.6000.

***
About MIM
The Musical Instrument Museum (MIM) enriches our world by collecting, preserving and making accessible an astonishing variety of musical instruments and performance videos from every country in the world. MIM offers guests a welcoming and fun experience, incomparable interactive technology, dynamic programming and exceptional musical performances. MIM fosters appreciation of the world’s diverse cultures by showing how we innovate, adapt and learn from each other to create music—the language of the soul.

Find MIM on Facebook: Facebook.com/MIMphx
Follow MIM on Twitter: @MIMphx #MadForStrad
Subscribe to MIM on YouTube: YouTube.com/MIMphx

Monday, November 2, 2015

Igudesman and Joo: Scary Concert at Heinz Hall

Saturday evening we were treated by the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra to a highly entertaining concert led by violinist Aleksey Igudesman and pianist Hyung-Ki Joo. A Scary Halloween it was, with music ranging from Dance Macabre by Saint-Saens to the hillarious Decomposing Composers by Michael Palin.

It's with out a doubt that they are funny and engaging, yet what really intrigues me is how talented they are in their own right as musicians. Several solo performances by each were mesmerizing and brilliant in the showcase of their abilities. I especially liked "Tango del Diabolo" by Igudesman and "Celebration Polka" by Joo, both pieces they composed are extremely difficult to perform but perform they did to great effect!

The musicians of the PSO were dressed in outfits as well, I noted: Horse Head, Hillbilly, The Incredibles, Pocahontas, A Big Chicken, Race Car Driver, Skeleton with face half Skeleton, Pirate, Taco Bell Taco, Black Cat, Motorcycle Cop, Mummy, Harpo Marx, Dracula, Annie Oakley, Bride of Frankenstein, Stay Puff Marshmallow Man, Howard Stern, Ghost, Toy Soldier, Impaled bloody Horn Player, and various other assorted ghouls and gargoyles.

One of the things they do best are pieces where they mix and match classical music selections with their own flair. At first they took a popular ringtone and mixed it into may selections from composers like Mozart, Beethoven, Tchaikovsky, Dvorak and Ravel, while pushing each other off the conductor's podium in order to serve up their own particular flavor of hybrid composition.

At intermission they invited members of the audience who were dressed in Halloween costumes to come up on stage for an impromptu judging of the best costume. The audience applauded most for the declared winners: Riding Hood and the Big Bad Wolf.

The PSO also took part in the hijinks and festivities throughout the evening. Kelsey Blumenthal dressed as a skeleton danced and bowed with Igudesman at the same time, very impressive. At the end many of the costumed members of the orchestra were up from their seats dancing in ho-down style in the "Zorba the Greek" final selection.

I've seen this talented duo before, and am glad I caught their Halloween special, and such a treat it was done here in Pittsburgh, thanks!. I'll be looking for them to return to Heinz Hall again. And I have to say - undoubtedly this is the best Halloween party I've every attended.

Monday, October 19, 2015

The Rite of Dance

'The Rite of Spring' is the name of the third piecewe heard at Heinz Hall with the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra this last weekend. Yet I coin the phrase 'The Rite of Dance', because the first two pieces were rather related to different forms of Dance. Indeed, Maestro Yan Pascal Tortelier moved his body with much dance-like motion while conducting the two pieces before intermission. Swaying back and forth and a full spin as a conductor leading the orchestra is not often seen on the podium, and was a welcome addition which made me smile.

The first piece by Edú Lobo: Suite Popular Brasileira was very much dance-like. This compose 4 years ago and was very pleasing to the ear.

Next was the Harp Concerto by Ginastera.  In the pre-concert talk we found out that this made use of rhythm and folk tunes. Specifically it was called a Malambo Dance Rhythm from Argentina, sort of a Cowboy Tap Dance, the South American style of cowboy. Male dancers would challenge each other.

Gretchen Van Hoesen was fantastic on the harp. Her performance was amazing in that I never expected the range and agility she was able to muster, almost making it look seamless in her execution, yet brilliant in the timing and sounds produced despite the difficulty with some of the solo parts.

After intermission came the Rite of Spring. You've probably seen it with as the segment with the Dinosaurs in Disney's Fantasia, yet the sound is nothing compared to the actual concert experience at Heinz Hall. I was at the back of the hall and it blew me away.

Monday, June 8, 2015

Dovetail the Immortal Beethoven, Stepping Outside the Box

I wear my passion for classical music on my sleeve, and in the audience it's not often I see the same, with the notable exception being the applause when everyone is enthusiastic. So it was a pleasure to observe two members of the audience one row in front of me even more spirited than myself. One of the two was obviously a musician. The first half of the program during the Beethoven violin concerto I noticed mannerisms that suggested a depth of knowledge for music.

At intermission they couldn't contain themselves, and we spoke right after the applause, comparing notes on the the performance. One of the two, a flautist, was visiting from Alabama. She was in Pittsburgh for the week to visit her sister -- a perfect opportunity to see the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra. During our pleasant conversation I learned a few items of note, for instance, apparently a conductor ought to stay inside his space, or box. Apparently Manfred Honeck does this well, perhaps because the PSO is quite adept at being led. I found out that what I was calling 'improvisation' actually is called 'cadenza' -- an elaborate flourish or showy solo passage, sometimes improvised. Additionally, she indicated that the PSO executed what she described as 'dovetails' or transitions between instruments or sections harmoniously.

Christian Tetzlaff lent emphatic emphasis to the solo violin with his physical movements, often rotating his upper torso in tempo to the beat. To me, his sound seemed bitter and sweet, with pure tones sometimes accompanied by rough edges, yet his prowess and technique ruled the day and drew me in to the composition in a compelling way.

Pizzicato on the strings formed concentric circles as the tempo began to slow down. The drums began a march like progression of notes along with an alternative cadenza with which I was unfamiliar. Yet I was pleased to hear this concerto in a new light, as I've heard it the traditional way many times on CD. This was the beauty of the cadenza.

If one were to say the conductor or musician should stand inside their predetermined 'box', like the area above the podium, and from that vantage point boldly go forth with the music, adding sound and soul to the ensemble, building consensus in the well balanced orchestra, then one would prescribe the tradition of the form. But sometimes the music or the musician is stepping outside the box, wildly yielding flourishes somewhat beyond their boundary, building enthusiasm and vigor.

I think of a juxtaposition like this with the placement of Beethoven's violin concerto next to his symphony number 9, the Ode to Joy. The former stayed somewhat inside the box, except for the cadenzas, but the Ode to Joy launched itself outwards, with the help of Manfred Honeck, the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra, the four vocal soloists and the Mendelssohn Choir of Pittsburgh. The music went well beyond the bounds that bind, encircling Heinz Hall and visiting the ears of every patron with the utmost joy this symphony could possibly dispel.

During the third movement I improvised a few poetic words that immediately came to mind:

Cantankerous bellows drum their accord below the din
of flautist lines weaving gently beyond the bows
drawn in tandem along vibrant vibrating dashes.
Horns enunciate gently below the brow of dark waving chords,
trilling, trembling tremolo excite the bend of flesh,
fingers pluck pizzicato in rhythm to the tempo.
Trumpets rudely interject temporal disharmony,
yet robust fullness returns undaunted by the blunt phrase,
again the brass sounds the alarm as if to announce a premonition.
Drums and strings insist their harmony: they will not be undone,
flowing, meandering, forever transforming, sometimes flirting,
and eventually pausing, making ready- building one last time,
level, the music subsides, all words and notes are done.

Monday, June 1, 2015

Pictures from the Floating World

I find it quite exciting to experience new classical pieces for the first time, especially a new composition like the one by David Ludwig: "Pictures from the Floating World, for Bassoon and Orchestra." This was classical in the old style, akin to the Debussy romantic music from which the composer's gained inspiration. Other works like "Pictures at an Exhibition" demonstrate how listening to a composition more than once can profoundly expand the underlying meaning of the music. I feel that "Pictures from the Floating World" would have that same depth of meaning if heard again. Yet I liked it the first time, this first experience was to me a profound exhibition.

Before the piece the composer David Ludwig spoke to the audience. "It is a delight to be here with this unbelievable Orchestra." He indicated that each of the movements "leaps off from a piece by Debussy." "The music lives in melodies, music that brings forward beautiful flowing bassoon lines." It also is based on the Japanese art tradition of Ukiyo-e print making (the 'floating world' of our every day life). Mr Ludwig indicated that the composer should not talk longer than the piece is."

Nancy Goeres did a fantastic job with the solo part, especially the long drawn out notes that seemed impossible to sustain, but she did so beautifully. The first movement seemingly had the notes always flowing down the scale, yet somehow sneaking back up. In the second movement I enjoyed the interplay between the Bassoon and the two lead Cellos. The 3rd brought forth grand sweeping melodic uplifting orchestra harmony, and an intermezzo with some carefully placed dissonant or discordant sounds, and returning again to the grander feel, more typical of a close of a piece. The next movement seemed more like a Scherzo with lots and lots of quickly spaced notes and finally with a bassoon melody line that suggested to me the possible lyric "Once under a Moon River."

The Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra under the baton of guest conductor Juanjo Mena began the evening with Debussy: ”Ibéria,” No. 2 . This is a typical Debussy composition, with abstract harmonies and melodies with a romantic flavor. I fully enjoyed the whole piece, with only the last movement being familiar.

Drumset on display at Heinz Hall for "Alternative Energy"

During Concerts On May 15-17, 2015, the Pittsburgh Symphony performed Alternative Energy by Composer of the Year Mason Bates. The first movement, "Ford's Farm, 1896", evokes a rustic Midwestern junkyard in the late 19th Century by using a bluesy fiddle and a 'drumset' made of car parts. With the help of the Pittsburgh Symphony stagehands and a few junkyard connections, Principal Percussionist Andrew Reamer sourced and assembled this drumset, which includes a tailgate, bumper, battery bracket, glove box door, and various handmade wind chimes. Please feel free to touch, but be careful -- it's made of car parts!

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

A Temporal Walk Through the Spirit of Volition

Spirit is energy, and energy a kind of lifeblood. For me Classical Music is this same kind of lifeblood, a form of energy. Volition is a an act of making a choice or decision, an alternate choice perhaps. Alternative Energy in this sense is a form, and in my understanding it is a form of music.

I've experienced several of the compositions by and with Mason Bates and the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra. So when it came time to see and hear 'Alternative Energy' which was a premier for the PSO, I sort of knew what to expect. To say that some folks may not have known what to expect might be true, and might lead me to believe that some might not have enjoyed or appreciated the composition as much as I did. But at the end of the piece the applause was wild with enthusiasm, so perhaps my impression was wrong.

It's a different piece to say the least. It is programmatic in that it represents four different places in four completely different time periods. Of the four parts, the first was to me the one I like the most: "Ford’s Farm, 1896". It starts out with a slow, laid back, affable, breezy, devil-may-care, happy-go-lucky sort of character, then slowly saws the bow into a somewhat faster tempo and eventually into a dance-like hoedown. Then it proceeded to the second movement, "Chicago, 2012". This seemed like a walking procession, a scenic stroll with rhythmic jazz like impressions. Movement 3, "Xinjiang Province, 2112" begins the futuristic trail. Then comes No. 4, or "Reykjavik, 2222", a walk so far into the future it's not ours yet to envision, yet I can imagine what it might be like, and it seems to come almost full circle.

What's best about this piece is that Mason Bates performs along with the Symphony. When it first begins he sits on a stool and wait, his part isn't up just yet. Yet you can see in his demeanor and body motions that he's entirely 'into' the composition. He is appreciating the music, moving with it in syncopated fashion. Half way through he attends his station and begins to play his instrument: A synthesizer and a computer. His energy as he plays is evident, and his enthusiasm is contagious.

Monday, May 11, 2015

Fantasia PSO

Fantasia, the name itself is a musical enigma. The original 1940 version I saw when I was a kid, and I saw it again with my daughter. Fantasia 2000 was one of the first DVDs that we owned, before that it was VHS tapes. We were thrilled with both movies, seeing them again and again. Welling up with nostalgia I relived these emotional memories with the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra and guest conductor Ward Stare at Heinz Hall on Saturday evening.

The large screen above the orchestra was the programmatic element that enhanced the experience to amalgamate the senses beyond mere musical. Perhaps Walt Disney understood this when he began and sustained this experiment with Fantasia. The creativity of the animators to invent entertaining animation stories based on the music composed perhaps a century or move before was the impressive chord struck as I watched and listened. I also noticed the 4:3 aspect ratio of the original movie, and realized that the wide screen aspect we have today really does paint a more interesting picture. Instead of wishing that the original was wider, I rather realized I should be glad because what I was watching and hearing was divine.

Centaurs frolic as Beethoven's sixth symphony almost literally comes to life. This time with the PSO I realize it's much better than any concert experience with the original score sound track could ever be, even with sixteen surround sound speakers throughout. With shooting stars and live music, you won't hear these compositions played any better than right here with the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra. Ultimately having the musicians perform produces an infinitely better viewing experience.

Thunderstorm: Allegro, as movement four proceeds I literally can't take my eyes away from the screen, even though I want to view the orchestra as well.

Fire pink my native child Happy Grateful Feelings after the Storm, yet I have those same feelings just being here for the full experience.

As I listen to then ending of the Beethoven Pastoral Symphony, I'm thinking of a native wildflower I observe every Spring in May: Firepink my native child, briskly waving free and wild, return again to me. My fervent though of thee, flying down the lane so wild on my bike to see.

Next comes a famous composition that most people have heard and seen in one form or another: Tchaikovsky's Nutcracker Suite. Here the creativity of the animation is spectacular, each segment getting a new flavor with the name of the movement being preeminent to the form. Each selection sees nature come alive as a spell of fantasy spreads magic throughout the natural world with dancing Sugar Plum Fairies, Mushrooms doing their best Three Stooges impression in song, and the final Waltz of the Flowers, in this instance Summer becomes golden Autumn, and eventually the fairies ice skate their way into Winter. In the music I'm fascinated that I hear nuances never heard in the original film, subtle parts I want to hear again.

Micky Mouse was the inspiration for Disney's Fantasia, and he comes to life with Paul Dukas "The Sorcerer's Apprentice." I'm left wondering: which came first, the composition or the film? I know the answer, yet it's amazing how well the music fits the animation and vice-verse. Even down the the final part where the sorcerer pats Micky on the behind with the broom as he sheepishly walks away, as if the thud provided by the orchestra was written specifically for that ending scene.



After intermission comes the fun Ponchielli piece "Dance of the Hours" with dancing animals including Ostriches, Hippos, Elephants and Alligators, the villain being the Alligators. This makes me smile as I sit back and enjoy the music.

Debussy's "Clair de lune" was cut from the original movie, yet the PSO brought this beautiful pastoral piece to us with a lush live rendition of this slow music, this being a treat in that I don't believe I've ever seen it before. This time it was with two egrets elegantly souring above the swamps, and together on into the distance.

Finally, two pieces from Fantasia 2000, Elgar's Military March and Stravinsky's The Firebird brought this spectacular evening to a roaring conclusion, two of the best animations from that film. The Elgar with Donald Duck being separated from Daisy Duck while filling the Arc with the animals, and then being reunited at the end. This was emotional and well thought out.

The Firebird kindled a vivid journey through nature's regeneration after a volcano, well done again and well appreciated, the melody ran strong in my head well after the concert. Just as with the movie, being there made me feel as though I was standing at the podium with the conductor. "Again"-"Again", I want to see and hear it again and again.

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Too Few To Mention

It seemed like any other Saturday evening on my way to Heinz Hall to attend a concert with the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra. The traffic Heinz Hallwas not bad and I arrived almost an hour ahead of the performance.

Yet this time it was different - there were quite a few people walking along the streets of the cultural district, many were in costume. It's spring, yet I somehow it seemed more like Halloween.

I don't know exactly what was  the cause all of these young members of the millennial generation to be dressed up as they were, but I realized that between the numerous concerts, the Penguins playoff game, and whatever else was going on in Pittsburgh that it was going to be difficult to find a parking space.

I was right - I tried many different parking garages including the convention center, and they were all full. After about 45 minutes of looking and driving around the congested streets I decided I was not going to be able to make the concert, and unfortunately I left to go back home. Regrettably I didn't get there earlier, but I had no idea that this was going to be this situation.

I was looking forward to seeing this concert. Several days earlier I listened to an interview with Jim Cunningham with Music Director Manfred Honeck and his brother Rainer Honeck who debuted at Heinz Hall with the Britten Concerto for Violin and Orchestra. Rainer Honeck was last in Pittsburgh with Leonard Bernstein with the Vienna Philharmonic (Wiener Philharmoniker) 30 years ago, he has been the concert master for them since 1992 (Manfred also was part of the Philharmonic ). In the interview they said there was no rivalry between them at the time. Manfred said he was always impressed with the insights that Rainer gave him on how to play Mozart in the really Viennese style.

Manfred indicated that the program was designed for 'new elements' including the first time he performed with his brother Rainer in America. There was to be a world premier of Dvorak: Suite from Rusalka, a Concept by Manfred Honeck Arranged by Tomáš Ille, the first performance by the PSO of the Britten concerto. And the first time the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra would record the Tchaikovsky Symphony 6: one of my favorite selections.

One bright note for me:  On Monday morning Jim Cunningham did an instant replay of the third movement, a March: Allegro molto vivace, so I was able to hear part of the concert.  Apparently the last movement was very tragic.  I'll make sure I buy a copy of the CD once it is release so that I can hear the entire symphony.

Monday, April 13, 2015

Exhilaration of Notes

Conductor Manfred Honeck walked out onto the stage and announced that earlier in the week he received a text from Helene Grimaud, indicating that she was quite ill. She would not be able to come to Pittsburgh to play the Schumann Concerto in A minor for Piano and Orchestra. He said that she is a fan of the Pittsburgh Symphony and especially asked to extend her best greetings. Imagine, one day before rehearsals, going over the whole list of possible replacements.

Manfred Honeck indicated that Joyce Yang was able to fly in and begin to rehearse. An excellent choice, she offered more than just an admirable performance, it was profoundly brilliant! I was quite impressed at her ability to quickly re-familiarize herself with this quixotic composition. Strictly by memory, she exquisitely and adroitly played the challenging composition along with the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra and conductor Manfred Honeck. The result was deliciously stunning!

The first movement began with sweeping flow of boldly stated passages with give and take between the soloist and the orchestra. Tumultuous chords interrupted by a brief intermezzo, and the parts played by Yang alone seemed flawless, enough to bring a tingle to the sumptuous exhibition.

As the first movement drew to a close, there was a pause, then suddenly the audience began to applaud. Manfred Honeck turned, and with a quick thumbs-up, smiled, and turned to commence the second movement.

With this new, slower movement I tried to conjure in my imagination a soft parade of notes, marching along a temporal measure of strings, with various sounds appearing and re-appearing in dramatic succession, like an elliptical dance with repetition and harmonic development, a recapitulation to passages heard before, yet savored for one more flavor. The whimsical scherzo fraught with folly gave goose-bumps, and moved quickly into the finale with no pause or trepidation. A tempestuous sound romantically mixed and the familiar ending was the perfect way to conclude a stunning performance. A standing ovation was well deserved.