Sunday, November 29, 2009

Romance and Waltz

Tchaikovsky is one of my favorite composers. I especially like his symphonies, and his first piano concerto is equally a favorite, it is without a doubt a sublimely romantic composition. Therefore I was eminently pleased to experience this concerto with the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra and pianist Sa Chen. The PSO has invited several new and upcoming soloists this year, and they have all given such wonderful performances.

Sa Chen was simply amazing. She sat before the grand piano, her hands delicately arrayed upon the keyboard, with a glint of anticipation in her eyes. Soon conductor Manfred Honeck began with a sweeping arc of his arms and baton, and the orchestra commenced, bringing the first four descending notes from the English Horns, da dat dat da, leading into the a flourish of similar notes from the whole orchestra, and finally to the full hands and fingers of the pianist thundering their harmonic knell strokes upon the keys three times from the very lowest octaves, to the middle tones, and all the way to the right with the high notes, as the orchestra played one of the most recognizable of all romantic themes in unison.

Then it was time for Sa Chen to play a solo with the aid of some well place pizzicato, and her fantastic abilities were immediately seen and heard. Throughout the performance she had an amazing capability to effortlessly play the keys, loud or softly as appropriate, and make it look so natural. My recommendation to anyone attending a piano concerto: sit left of center as I did, so that you may see the hands on the keyboard, and where I was I was able to see the reflection as well.

This piece is memorable not only for the momentous introduction to the first movement, and the romantic theme that is prevalent throughout, but for many unforgettable melodies that are fabulously interwoven throughout the whole of the concerto.

If I am not mistaken, and correct me if I am wrong, but many of the solo parts traditionally ascribed to the oboe were this evening marvelously played by a solo piccolo, to marvelous affect. This soloist wasn't listed on the web page, but she did fantastic, I was impressed (there were actually two piccolo, the other being the principle, Rhian Kenny, who did a great job herself). In fact, Maestro Honeck singled out the piccolo player for applause at the conclusion, after the main applause went to Sa Chen, of course. Sa Chen then went on to play an encore, which was very beautiful. I did not hear the name of the composition; if anyone knows, please comment.

After intermission, the theme was Johann Strauss, Jr.: Music by the Strauss Family. Honeck structured the first part of the Strauss evening as a tribute to the women in Strauss family life, including Josef Strauss: Frauenherz (A Woman's Heart) and Johann Strauss: Wein, Weib, und Gesang (Wine, Women, and Song). According to Honeck: "I'm not sure what Johann Strauss thought of this song, but he probably thought that wine, woman and song made for a great combination." All of waltzes and scores played this evening were wonderful, and I'm glad that some of the more obscure pieces were played. Somehow it felt like New Year's Eve at the conclusion of the evening, especially after two 'encore' pieces were played, ending with the Radetzky Marsch by Johann Strauss Sr.

Friday, November 13, 2009

Sees but one

Riddle me this --
What's soft yet subtle, delicate yet fine, fragile yet tender, and gently sensitive through every bar?

zart -> found in all 3 pieces this weekend, in one form or other...
1. Zoroastrian
2. Mozart
3. Zarathustra

zart, in German can be translated to English in any of these ways...
  1. soft
  2. tender
  3. delicate
  4. fragile
  5. subtle
  6. fine
  7. gentle
  8. sensitive

The first piece this evening conjured for me the following elements -- Driving, stark, bold, dramatic, charismatic, chordal, hyperbolic, harmonic, melodious: all these words came to mind while listening to the first two movements of the Concerto for Orchestra (Zoroastrian Riddles) by Richard Danielpour. His music was certainly a joy for me to hear, for all the kinds of elements described by my adjectives, and for all the musical ideas that were some how conjured up while I listened. But to be sure, there were only a few moments of gentle tenderness in this particular composition, at least in the two movements that were performed so well by the PSO this night. The two soft moments came during the second movement, and were indeed finely woven feathery fixtures delicately wrapped between the driving rhythmic undertone which sustained the piece so well.

Before the work began, Mr. Danielpour himself introduced his composition, written in 1995, by indicating we would be hearing a series of voices, like a giant forum or committee, and by the end, it would be as if humanity would all be saying the same thing and become one.

Next came one of my favorites, Mozart's Violin Concerto No. 5, with the solo being performed by Stefan Jackiw. Mr Jackiw's performance seem only slightly hesitant, yet technically sound during the first movement. But then came the second movement, and the passion was instantly set loose. Now we see the true tenderness and gentle heart that brought to mind my opening riddle (zart). Mr. Jackiw and the PSO instantly flowed together as a sweet amalgamation. Now we finally know the answer to my riddle... What's soft yet subtle, delicate yet fine, fragile yet tender, and gently sensitive through every bar? The PSO with Stefan Jackiw playing Mozart's Concerto No. 5. The third and final movement was again another form of riddle, or a kind of wrapping, which began sweetly and vividly, then suddenly transformed into a kind of driving waltz, a kind of mini-scherzo, embedded withing the main parts of this movement, finally to return to the sound which was as before, to provide a fine ending with a gentle smile. Was this Mozart's riddle, written in music?

Also sprach Zarathustra, Op. 30. What's there to say... the opening says it all, a huge sweeping sound. We've all heard it in 2001, A Space Odyssy. Now I hear it live, along with the rest of the composition. I have to say, other than the opening, I really only liked the quieter parts of this music (zart). There was one part in particular where the bases started off low, in grand fashion, not something you hear every day, or even every year. Then it gradually transitioned from right to left until the whole orchestra was playing. That was genius! It was definitely Richard Strauss, the sound I could instantly recognize, but on the whole it wasn't as good, in my mind, as his other compostions, especially the one I really like which was the Alpine Symphony as performed last November by the PSO.

And then there was the conductor, Maestro Andris Nelsons, who I really like very much. This is the second time I've seen him conduct the PSO. His style was stunning, with a perfect mix of aspects -- Effervescent yet not overpowering - demanding yet cordial - And his enthusiasm and smile seemed to sweep across the orchestra. His body movements were very animated, but not too much so as to take away from the soloist int he violin concerto. It was as if he was carving a beautiful sculpture, and then molding form from clay, next swimming as a swan in a lake, then walking a tightrope, and various other graceful gestures which with his body and hands formed the very texture of the music.

And finally this poem, while it begins with the advent of autumn, it also sums up the diverse forms of music experienced this evening:

Shifting shapes are formed by wafting breezes
as hue, saturation, and brightness - they adorn the ardent eye.
Subtle desires burn as yellow and orange conflagrations
indebted to the loss of green whence envy makes me sigh.

Riddles are curious forms of words and modes of thoughts
transformed to fit analogy and context quickly on the fly.
Curiosity has a hundred heads, our visage sees but one,
enhance mind's eye to fit the sky and let your mind comply.
maple leaf rag

Saturday, November 7, 2009

Chee-Yun at Heinz Hall

Such an effusive smile, much like the way she plays the violin, pouring out such vivid passages of stylistic soul, overflowing with spirit, sparkle and pizazz!

After the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto she signed autographs. For once I decided to get an autograph as well, I was taken by her charm.

Sunday, November 1, 2009

A Sound, Perfectly Balanced

Words cannot fully say, but notes can -- notes beautifully transcribed by conductor and musician into music played on the finest of instruments, and music transduced into space and time which circles and surrounds throughout the atmosphere of the concert hall with its final destination: my ears, my heart and my soul. Those lovely sounds written hundreds of years ago by composers such as Saint-Saëns with his Piano Concerto No. 2 and Hector Berlioz, with his Symphonie Fantastique.

And what a sound, perfectly balanced and matched for each section of the orchestra with power to reverberate down to the very core. This particular selection, this piano concert by Saint-Saëns, I had not heard before this last weekend's performance. What a flavorful mix of piano and orchestra. As it said in the program notes:
"Acclaimed French pianist Jean-Yves Thibaudet makes a rare PSO appearance in Saint-Saens Piano Concerto No.2, a concerto the composer remarked was a reflection of a sea voyage."

And a voyage it was, especially with the acoustics of Heinz Hall. Watching the hands of Mr. Thibaudet was fascinating, and amazing; his ability took us all on a journey through breezes and storms and smooth sailing beyond what my imagination could conceive, without the inspiration of notes provided by Saint-Saëns.

After intermission, Conductor Marek Janowski took us on another form of journey, this time one that was strictly fashioned from words to a story, a story outlined by the composer Hector Berlioz himself. The Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra followed the direction and put forth an overwhelmingly robust performance, but as an individual in the audience, I was not required to interpret the score strictly as portrayed. Instead, I listened hoping to feel an abstract flavor, but it was too late, my mind kept running back to the words I'd previously read in the program, and it somehow fit too well, very well, and marvelously well. So I accepted it in turn and went with the flow.

I want to make a special note that the Tubas and Harps were my favorite aspects of this piece. The harps, in that there were 4 of them, and they were easy to hear and accented several of the movements. It was fun to watch these four musicians perform with such synchronization. The tubas were fabulous, and stole the the last movement because they drove the special melody which so fantastically forms the foundation of this music. A melody that many would instantly recognize.

Afterwards, a friend commented amidst the loud applause: "Now that would overpower any stereo system, no matter how big."

Symphonie Fantastique - an abstract flavor, by me...

Hello, hurrah, herald garish hooray,
Heed Halloween with Hector Berlioz;

Heard hectic haunting ghoulish dismay,
amidst half notes wholly grandiose

Hell hath no fury, quotations oft do say,
Quell quaff nor stray, elation cannot bray.

Delinquent syncopation inverted contra-play,
rhythm under reason, sanctioned as ballet.