Monday, April 26, 2010

Jack Everly, the PSO and Cirque de la Symphonie

In a world full of politics, business, sports, and other competitive endeavors, it's nice to take a step back from that world and occasionally experience a new artistic performance meant simply for entertainment, and based upon the incredible skills of eight talented individuals accompanied by the lush symphonic sounds of the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Jack Everly, that repose was achieved.

Saturday afternoon I had the pleasure to take my mom, my daughter and her friend to the Cirque de la Symphonie - truly an exciting new concept, and a fabulous way to listen to the beautiful classical music being performed while watching the amazing performances and adept skills of these extremely capable aerial flyers, acrobats, contortionists, dancers, jugglers, balancers and strong men. The stage at Heinz Hall took on some very distinctive purple, blue and red hues for this particular performance.

My three companions overwhelmingly voted their favorite as Jaroslaw Marciniak and Dariusz Wronski, former Polish national hand-balancing champions. Their act was an artistic performance that was almost like a ballet in that their motions were very slow and deliberate, and the stunning effect captivated everyone, with the PSO playing Also Sprach Zarathustra and The Pines of Rome in the background. My daughter remarked that the Symphony is much better, for her, when they have something like this program to make it more entertaining. Of the music, she liked George Bizet' "Les Toreadors" from Carmen, especially because they had recently studied that in her school's music appreciation class, and well, because it has such a great melody.

Personally for me, it's hard to vote for a favorite, since every act was spectacular, and as a whole the entire program gets my vote as a favorite, but if I had to pick I'd say the acrobatics of Christine Van Loowere so, inspiring. The act consisted of two stage-height ribbons that she adroitly handled to perform amazing aerials making it seem so effortless as she ascended with spell-binding trapeze - it was like poetry in motion. The lighting was very effective, shadows of the performers would miraculously fly along the large walls out into the audience, the combination gave such a wonderful effect.

Then there was Vladimir Tsarkov, the juggler, performing the 'Red Harlequin' act - funny and very entertaining. Being a juggler myself (purely just for fun), it was amazing to see how many balls, batons and rings he could juggle at one time.

Jack Everly, the conductor for the evening, also gets a nod of approval -- he was funny and very entertaining. I'd like to see the PSO bring him back again and again. One act had the juggler bring him forth, and along with Elena Tsarkova, they would do a magic act where Jack and Elena are put into a cloth tube - Elena is tied securely with a rope - and in 20 seconds the tube is removed to reveal Jack's coat on Elena, the ropes securely tied on top. We all wondered - how did they do that..? Jack's joke was to come back to see the midnight performance - with a quick 'Whoops' when he acknowledged the kids in the audience.

And of course the PSO itself did a great job with the music. Many of these selections I know very well, having heard them may times. The PSO played them with great aplomb, and the sound came through marvelously. I wondered how they could play with all that was going on around them, especially the juggler, who was so funny.

Saturday, April 17, 2010

Vast oceans of harmonic bliss

Vast oceans of written words are scribed with kindled passions running through the veins of inquisitive souls -- vivid passages glisten with the sweet love revolving in one's sphere of influence whence the thoughts and senses acquire a greater dimension of fluency. When I strive to extol vast hemispheres of new worlds yet to be experienced, I feel the exhilarating essence of induced feelings of gleeful anxiety. And I, the lowly observer, listening to passages of music made bare before my ears, often find instances of interlude yet to be savored, sometimes conjuring before my mind's eye an adventure to taste and to grip in ones own two hands, an affair to remember and a new encounter to thrill the heart in barely veiled anticipation. Yes, these are the events that drive fresh adrenaline to stir my interests, and as the senses stir, progressively the concert becomes my intimate and the venture is complete.

As luck would have it this weekend, I asked a friend at work to attend the concert on a 'guest blogger' pass (no really, I just invented that term), and she accepted. Neither of my guests
had experienced a classical symphony concert before, although they both told me they had been to performances at the Benedum previously. So it was my idea to let others experience the beauty of classical music.

I myself grew to love this form of music over many years, sort of a gradual transition which led me to somehow become such a fan that it's almost exclusively the only kind I listen to now. Sure, I'll still occasionally play The Moody Blues, one my favorites, or listen in to some of my daughter's music, including one of my new favorites: Sara Bareilles. So it's always fascinating to find out what kinds of music others enjoy. Paula, on the left in the photo, must be a fan of The Temptations because she mentioned that they would be playing at Heinz Hall on Sunday night. Tara, her daughter, didn't commit to a favorite form, so I was hoping she'd be open minded to the symphonic music. One comment she did make was that she enjoyed watching the conductor, Juraj Valcuha, a guest conductor born in Slovakia and who now spends much of his career in European cities including Paris, based on the program notes. Indeed, Mr. Valcuha was very animated, and was using his baton all over the podium, in ways that seemed to inspire the orchestra into seamless synchronization and fluent harmony.

Well I must say, my two guests were a delight to host for this evening. When they found out I got the tickets they said they were 'super excited' in the email response - well it wasn't just hyperbole, they really were. They enjoyed the music and the performance, at least, that was the impression I got based on their eagerness to discuss the aspects of the performance, the instruments, piano versus strings, and alas, perhaps the 'scary' nature of the brass during the performance of "The Mermaid" composed by Alexander Zemlinsky.

Personally, I really enjoyed the Beethoven 3rd Piano Concerto, and Yefim Bronfman was amazing with the piano. He seemed to have a form of 'scope', sort of in a space inside himself when he played the piano passages. I could see him occasionally move his lips as if reciting words that would go with the melody. The PSO played as his counterpart marvelously. As Beethoven is one of my favorite composers, this piece was one of his masterpieces that I could easily hear again and again.

The Mermaid was also a nice piece of music, although at times I didn't quite understand the programmatic context. I'd have to say that I'd prefer to hear it again, as I said before, this music grows on me, and the more I hear it, the more I like it.

One more note: Bronfman's encore was a fun, seemingly impossible, and certainly amazing piece, I hear it was Paganini's 24th Caprice (IMPOSSIBLE solo violin work).

Saturday, April 10, 2010

Pittsburgh nights with a Russian theme

It was a cold and windy day in the Burgh, juxtaposed between warmth prevailing the Spring season and hearty musical interludes that affectionately melt my soul. I was on my way to yet another Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra concert. Earlier in the day I had forgotten the selections to be played this evening. It was one of those moments, when asked, one can't quite recall, and when I was asked what was on the slate for tonight, my thoughts were a week from tonight towards the next program, and it took me by surprise. Yet I really did know that Yan Pascal Tortelier would be conducting the PSO for Prokofiev's Symphony No. 5, and that piano soloist Stephen Hough would be playing along with the PSO in Tchaikovsky's Concerto No. 2, and yet I could not recall on the spot - and me the supposed expert - a bit embarrassing to say the least. I had even listened to an internet interview with Mr. Hough that morning discussing the lesser know Tchaikovsky Concerto. It's funny how the mind works.

In addition to being a blogger I'm also a subscriber to the PSO's season, and I try to attend as many concerts as I can. This evening began when I entered the lobby. I was fortunate to listen to Katherine M Zhou, the Steinway Society Young Artist Winner play many selections in the lobby. She was wonderful on the piano, and when the last selection came, I knew I could recognize that tune. I told myself that it sounded like Edvard Grieg, even though I didn't know for sure. And when I found the program notes, it was indeed Grieg's "March of the Dwarfs" - a selection full of gratifying melody that one could remember for hours, yet I wouldn't have that luxury, because the PSO concert would begin shortly.

Maestro Tortelier, as is his wont, began the concerto as soon as Mr Hough was seated at the piano - there was not laborious introduction - and we all delved right into the music. Right away we could hear Mr. Hough's style of playing, his mastery and his romanticism.

His debut with the PSO was nothing less than superb. The concerto seemed to begin as a march, but soon went off into certain furious passages on the piano, then intermixed with simpler tones and notes, somehow mixed into a suitable opening. Some of the piano parts were so technically challenging, my mind could not begin to try to assimilate the kind of skill necessary. The audience applauded after the first movement, and it was a joy to see Mr. Hough's smile and a lip synched 'thank you'.
Piano Trio - Stephen Hough, piano; David Premo, Associate Principal Cello; Mark Huggins, Associate Concertmaster, Violin
The second movement was more my style, a trio with the cello, violin and piano with orchestra as the backdrop keeping time. the final movement was a tuneful spirited fare with lots of melody and songs arrayed as items along a musical path, racing with joyful fun. At it's conclusion the whole of the audience immediately rose to raucous applause.

For an encore Stephen Hough played the selection "Moscow Nights," except it seemed to begin with the a Rachmaninov theme, and for a moment I thought he would play a Rachmaninov concerto as an encore, but then it immediately moved into the Moscow Nights music. At intermission a very congenial man named Fred introduced himself while observing me taking photographs of Mr. Hough. He struck up a conversation, and told me the story set in 1987, Van Cliburn was invited to perform at the White House for President Ronald Reagan and Soviet president Mikhail Gorbachev, and that it was Gorbachev's wife who asked for Mr. Cliburn to perform Moscow Nights. I knew the melody, but had never heard the name of the Russian song, originally composed in 1955.

After intermission came another delightful performance by Maestro Tortelier and the PSO with the Prokofiev symphony! My favorite parts were the 2nd - reminding me of dance - perhaps a rumba or tango - and we saw conductor Tortelier dancing with the orchestra (it takes two), then the deep tones of the 3rd followed by the 4th and final movement; it seemed to get better and better as the symphony progressed. This was no classical symphony like his first symphony, which is delightful in it's own beautiful style. This symphony was full of new and romantic themes. One of my favorite aspects was the impression I had that the tempos were like a metronome or perhaps like a clock keeping time, sometimes pushed by the basses or brass, and it kept progressing and eventually moved through and into the stirring finale, another robust conclusion which did bring warmth to my heart.