Friday, October 28, 2011

Leapfrogging Genius

A few weeks ago I blogged that Beethoven represented a singularity in as much as the composers before and since were merely prelude and postscript. Yet I'm doing a huge injustice to many other great composers. By leapfrogging Haydn and Mozart, both with a wealth of not just pleasant, but uniquely genius compositions in their own right, I've forgotten two of the best in the classical form. Tonight I was able to hear them both.

Before the concert in the lobby I recognized a musician that I thought I saw playing the violin several weeks before. I introduced myself, and found out that I was wasn't imagining, she was a 'sub' and had played during the Gala. How is it that we as humans can often recognize faces, or to transcribe the metaphor, music? Remembering the name is not quite as easy as remembering the selection I'm listening to, or to the face of a person I know I've seen before - she said her name is Rachel if I remember correctly - I hope she's able to sub again soon. I was told I was the first to recognize her in public.

In the concert hall, Leonard Slatkin enters, bows, and immediately begins the Haydn Symphony 67. Haydn's music is joyful, playful, tuneful, creative, dramatic, melodic, subtle and forceful without overpowering. In the first movement the double bass adds harmony. The second movement pushes deep timbers with the strings, and then we're treated to a two part counterpoint with the strings, left and right, then backdrop with the woodwinds. The bass and cello join in to complement a phrase. A slow ending exhibits a bit of murmur and mirth -- the entire string section is directed to play col legno dell'arco (tapping the strings with the back of the bow). The effect is quite creative - I enjoyed the sound it produced.

The 3rd movement embeds a zingy interlude where the principle string player left and right of the conductor play enchanting melody back and forth and together. Conductor Slatkin, in a move hardly seen in a classical concert, exits the podium, turns, and tips both violin soloists with a bill while they are playing, to great laughter and applause from the audience. The final movement again has the 1st violin solo and the 2nd violin accompany, but it's a trio, the 1st cello joins in.

The next selection by American composer Alan Hovhaness, his Symphony No. 2, "Mysterious Mountain," was the new piece for me this evening. Having never heard this before, I came with great anticipation and an open mind. Leonard Slatkin, who often conducts American music, introduced the music by indicating some of the elements, including a form of dissonance not usual for the harp, double bass and celesta (The sound of the celesta is similar to that of the glockenspiel, but with a much softer and more subtle timbre).Leapfrogging Genius From the start this music did not disappoint. It began with a gentle yet profound kind of resonance, probably due to the celesta, with bass playing pizzicati. From there the movement developed into a grand uplifting experience with surreal sounds seemingly always rising. The harmonies would buoyantly build a line, and just before that line would let up, the dissonant sounds we were told to listen for would chime in, adding the kind of rhythmic effect we might encounter in any walk with nature. The second movement began with a faster flowing pace. Soon it was rapid, racing with various sections, as if a multitude of leaves had just fallen from a tree, and were curried by the wind, then abating, curling with repetitions to and fro. The gale intensifies with the horns enraging and then the movement comes to an abrupt halt. The 3rd brought a slow struggle, much more dramatic with tension building. A final adagio could represent the final ascent to the top of the mysterious mountain - somewhat reminiscent of the 1st with the strings then woodwinds following with voices recanting the vivid view along the way, looking out and ever upwards, and now as we ascend the entire orchestra joins to embellish a grand finale as we have arrived at the peak - "the meeting place between the mundane and the spiritual worlds."

All week I've been looking forward to listen to James Galway play Mozart's Flute Concerto No. 2 this weekend at Heinz Hall. But what was a surprise to me was that he also performs with the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra in Bizet's Carmen Fantasy.

After intermission Sir James Galway enters the stage, bows humbly, and with the direction of Leonard Slatkin, conductor, begins. He's wearing a marvelous jacket of gold and black with red handkerchief and tie with a beige vest - he looks great. How can I adequately describe his playing? What I especially like is the trilling/lilting quality of the tones from his flute especially with the low notes, when held for a time. It's entertaining to watch him with finger movements darting up and down the scale with racing notes, then back to the sublime low frequencies as the orchestra accents. I've heard this concerto by Mozart many times, but here live with solos by Galway, it's like never before. Tte slow movement now absorbs special ebullient quality like I've never realized before. The 3rd is instantly recognizable - a spirited and sprightly razzle dazzle to conclude.

Next up: Bizet Carmen Fantasy with solo flute. Now this is the Pièce de résistance. What an interesting beginning - and on this journey we've probably encountered before, we hear a beautiful rendition with James Galway and the PSO.

Finally we are treated to three encore pieces which might be expected, and Galway calls them 3 Lollipops (after Thomas_Beecham).

  • Brian Boru's March - a beautiful tune!
  • Danny Boy
  • Badinerie by Johann Sebastian Bach (Galway said "Johann Sebastian..." and the audience answered "Bach", then he said "Who?", again "Bach", then he said "You're definitely not at a football match" meaning the audience wasn't loud or enthusiastic enough)

Then we were treated to one more encore - the Bach Badinerie one more time, only really fast - in fact, Slatkin exclaimed "See who can play this Bach piece faster!" - applause!
James Galway signing autographs in the lobby of Heinz Hall

Flute Academy Flute Chorus - pre-concert music in the lobby.
Flute Academy Flute Chorus - pre-concert music in the lobby.

Saturday, October 22, 2011

From the depths of deeply vibrant strings to an arduously congruous ascent toward the light

From the depths of deeply vibrant strings to an arduously congruous ascent toward the light, the three pieces of music presented by the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra with Conductor Xian Zhang and solo violinist Xiang Yu were a surprising and breathtaking journey to say the least.

The PSO program began Friday evening with Steven Stucky, entering stage right, to discuss 'Radical Light' a 17 minute composition. In his words (paraphrasing): "I'm responsible for what's about to happen to you. The genre of this composition would be called a tone poem - it sounds hopelessly old fashioned, but that's the best way to describe it. It's a journey, not a symphony or something else, it has a kind of emotional journey, climax or feeling of rise and fall, not technical, theoretical or about skill, but the feelings - the string sound, a sparkly sphere, a marvelous slow movement, and finally reaching for the light. By the time we get to the end of the journey we will have reached as far as we can for the light."

The journey begin with the strings, in a high pitched form of dissonance that seemed harsh or discordant, and I couldn't discern the form of harmony. The sound was incomplete until the woodwinds joined to try to resolve the situation. I heard horns, then succeeding woodwinds juxtaposed in somewhat improper chord progression, one following another so that, each voice in turn sounded right, but their progressions seemed incongruous. Even so, the whole of the orchestration of these elements developed in an interesting, yet deceptive cadence. I also observed the xylophone and horns, and at one point a bell rang, then again the strings and next the orchestra making a sound as if an alien spacecraft were darting back and forth across the atmosphere. Then slow deep strings followed again by the high discordant strings, as if to drown out an increasing melodic tune like a marvel - it was a melodic ascension of 4 notes, then 5, reaching for the ultimate height.

Next we were treated to a marvelous performance of Prokofiev's violin concerto with soloist Xiang Yu. The timber of Mr Yu's violin was amazing - this I could hear from the outset, in fact, throughout the first movement I was struck by the use of the two lower strings of the violin in this concerto. Many concertos by other famous composers seem to stick to the higher frequencies of the upper two strings, but Sassafras leaf in autumnProkofiev surprised me with his use of the deeper and richer notes that I often long for. I also observed some interesting changes in tempo and accented rhythm throughout. The slow movement was my favorite, seemingly in 3/4 time with flutes pushing a melody as the violin builds. At one point I couldn't help but envision a death-star intruding on a butterfly. The final movement was a bouncing scraping fast metronome, with flourishes and flair, like a syncopated rain dance.

The encore was the best part of all coming from Mr. Yu, I believe it was Bach or based on a theme by Bach, but it was exquisite! Here we heard the lush deep tones of this marvelous violin, with amazing ability on display in a simple yet elegant solo.

After intermission came the truly magnificent Symphony No. 4 by Schumann with an orchestration by Mahler. Here the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra truly shines. Conductor Zhang was really good with this composition, she had no score before her, but knew every cadence, every part, every placement of accent and highlight, and she adroitly directed the orchestra with succinct movements of hands, showing clarity to the sections or individual voices. The third movement was loud and vivacious, melodic with plenty of orchestration. Three pounding notes interspersed by a softer intermezzo, with contrast between the two like the difference between a brusque baritone and a sweet soprano singing operatic counterpoint. The final movement brought a fitting conclusion to this wonderful symphony.

Saturday, October 1, 2011

A singularity of brilliance!

Unconventional in his brilliance - shining like a singularity - an individual prone to capriciousness - developing outstanding works of classical music - unorthodox in his quest for the perfect composition - the exact sequence and progression of notes - this would be Beethoven. In any other person his nonconformity might seem eccentric, but in Beethoven the method of development, his chosen seclusion when writing, his individuality, produced more masterpieces then any other. The human spirit,The title page to Beethoven's copy of the score from which he struck his original dedication to Bonaparte
free from foible, is expressed in classical music better through Beethoven's compositions than in any other.
The culmination of this singularity, the exact pinpoint in time which marks the one composition that shines the brightest - that in my opinion is Beethoven's third symphony - called Sinfonia eroica [Heroic Symphony] (from Italian).

This link contains the Classical Notes description of the Eroica, a wealth of information, containing even a list of the best performances.Burning desire

What about this evening's performance with Manfred Honeck and the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra? Well let's just reiterate the slogan they've adopted - Hear why the world cheers - it is because they continually produce the best performances of the greatest compositions. Tonight was a tour de force, one exceptional achievement by the orchestra and conductor Manfred Honeck, seemingly unequaled by any before or unlikely to be equaled again - a singularity of brilliance.

Before the Eroica we were treated to two other composition by Beethoven before intermission. First was the Consecration of the House overture. Interestingly, in the lobby was a TV monitor playing a film from 1971 of William Steinberg rehearsing with the PSO for the opening of Heinz Hall, and they were playing the same overture. So I had an opportunity to listen to that version, then minutes later to the 2011 PSO play it again. My thoughts were that they had similarities and differences. The Steinberg version seemed more striking on each note, as if to accentuate more heavily. the Honeck version seemed to flow more naturally without the accentuation. Now which is better, well that's hard to say, but this simple comparison was a great exercise, but not exactly scientific.

Next we were treated to the Beethoven Triple Concerto, performed by the PSO and the "Eroica Trio" with Erika Nickrenz - piano, Susie Park - violin and Sara Sant'Ambrogio - Cello. Having heard this fantastic composition for the first time tonight, I have to say I've been missing a gem that I'd really like to hear again. The balance between the trio and the orchestra was just right and the exquisite sounds by these three soloists was a unique experience. Each player had such a delicate touch, with pleasing sounds that interplay with excellent combination

After intermission came the Eroica. The Human Spirit was smiling - first 3 then 5 notes and I had goosebumps that continued throughout the first movement. The Kettledrum brought 4 beats that continued to reverberate through my soul. Pounding then flowing, soft then loud, fast then slow, alternating then simultaneous, surreal then palpable, building then descending, accenting then natural, and often coming to an eventual crescendo without actually ending, the first movement was presented as an inconceivable exercise in classical development with jaw dropping effect.

The second movement starts in the depths of melancholy, accented by an oboe, and carries forward with full strings. The drum beats a soft foreboding metronome, as cellos segway to the strings. Then a shuffle of the rhythm - a new aspect soon appears, as if an apparition sent to dispel the trance of the sad tenor. With the woodwinds comes a masterful mix-up, eventually sidling into another countenance by the bass. The drums beat more loudly - suddenly the melody becomes supplanted by a surprisingly optimistic demeanor flexing its new found vigor, with bold brass and drums. But are we done with the ancient lament - not yet - its back and soft - holding then transitioning into a march. But the tempo is uplifting and with feld drum beats the optimism is back. The whole world of concentration is focused on a distant light coming nearer, and at the same time melancholy returns, but it is broken. Bass and Brass sustain the new temperament. Now co-joined, the old and new tones mix to maximize the joyous developing flavor - human spirit cannot be defeated when we've got the proper outlook. The music pauses, takes a breath, regroups, plans, makes ready and ambles into the next movement with a charge.

The third movement seems like a musical joke, but after a bit it becomes more triumphant than anything else. It marches right along until we get the the 4th movement. Four notes and we finally see that point of creation. God created the universe out of the 6 subatomic types of quark, and yet Beethoven created the 4th movement of his 3rd symphony out of 4 notes. Those 4 notes are the elementary constituents out of which he combined variations and themes to develop the whole movement.