Sunday, December 16, 2012

The Sinfonia, Rondo and Scherzo in Winter

In winter there is no need to hibernate, no need to even slow down, get out and enjoy the warm music at Heinz Hall with the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra. This evening we were treated to a Sinfonia, a Rondo and a Scherzo.

George Walker's Sinfonia No. 4, "Strands" begins with one fell swoop, one grand note followed by various forms of 'dah da da' as the movement fully commences. A quickly paced, suspenseful and pulsating march proceeds throughout various measures, continuing as if through the fray. A metronomic beat pulses the syncopated rhythm, woven intricately within the harmonious and sometimes dissonant orchestral drama. At various moments I visualize steps, as if quickly approaching. The rhythm and beat are memorable, and I relish in a bit of momentary cello which is fleeting as the orchestra quickly returns to the selection. When it ends there is a standing ovation for the conductor, the PSO and especially for the composer, who is introduced on stage. I am truly impressed with Mr Walker's composition.

Gil Shaham, Violin. Wow, not only is Mr. Shaham great with the Mozart "Turkish" concerto, but he performed a most amazing encore along with the PSO, the most magnificent display of dexterity I can honestly say I've ever seen. The bow moved so fast on the strings I couldn't even imagine what it takes to accomplish such a feat of skill. During his playing he would occasionally step in toward the conductor. At that moment the acoustics and volume of his violin would change because of the different angle, it was an interesting phenomena to witness.

During intermission Mr. Shaham signed autographs. I asked about the encore. He told me it was called "Nihavent Longa" - his arrangement of Turkish folk music which he said dates back to the eleventh century.

Arild Remmereit's conducting exhibits a subtle approach, seemingly never imposing, yet effective in keeping the orchestra in perfect synchronicity. With Symphony No. 1 "Winter Dreams", his conducting style seems apropos, because this symphony is elegant in it's simple melodies, yet not without the 'Allegro' sound that a Tchaikovsky symphony is known for. I think of this composition as a cross between a symphony and his Nutcracker Suites. One can definitely tell it's a symphony, not unlike his others; yet I hear in the simple melodies sounds that are reminiscent of the Nutcracker. At times it is also complex; in the second movement I hear 3 different threads of music intermingle at the same time, not just melody and harmony, but more. The third is a Scherzo, one of my favorite styles, and this is in 3/4 time. Anyone found snoozing will find the final movement as an eye-opener with a magnificent conclusion.

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

One Basset Clarinet to rule them all

Friday's concert with the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra began with Composer of the Year Mason Bates’ Mothership, commissioned and premiered by the YouTube Symphony at the Sydney Opera House. Bates told the audience that his “fast-paced opener imagines the orchestra as a mothership that is 'docked' by several virtuosic soloists.”

My friend Robert was pleasantly surprised. He liked this new music that neither of us had heard before. It was somewhat fast paced, like an action sequence from a film, and of course I could perhaps imagine that the music would indeed be the perfect accompaniment to some science fiction movie with the same programmatic theme, a mothership landing, then taking off again.

Mr Bates himself introduced the piece. Then, and I didn't expect this, he joined the orchestra himself, and operating with an Apple Laptop as his instrument, performed a sort of techno that blended in with the rest of the PSO. To see him tapping on whatever key or input device which gave the beat as if the heart of the mothership as it hovered, was interesting indeed.

PSO Principal Clarinet Michael Rusinek was the featured soloist this past weekend, performing Wolfgang Mozart’s Concerto for Clarinet and Orchestra. Listening to WQED-FM radio a few days before, I heard an interview with PSO Music Director Manfred Honeck, and he explained that the original composition by Mozart was actually for that new instrument (at the time), the Basset Clarinet. When Mr Rusinek entered the stage, I finally got a look at the Basset Clarinet. It was larger than the regular clarinet, and contained notes that tended to be lower toward a deeper base end of the scale. I didn't know what to expect, having never heard this instrument before, and I was amazed at the quality of the notes, the pure tones, and the range that Mr Rusinek was able to obtain. The deep base notes were warm and wonderful. My almost immediate reaction was: Why isn't this original version always performed, to me it was much better than with the regular clarinet.

Manfred Honeck explained in the radio interview that the Basset Clarinet was championed by Mozart’s contemporary, virtuoso clarinetist Anton Stadler, that he actually convinced Herr Mozart to write a concerto for this instrument.

One funny thing happened between the first and second movement. Conductor Honeck paused to allow Mr Rusinek to clean his instrument. He hands half the dismantled part to the conductor, who seems slightly befuddled. So as Mr Rusinek cleans with a large handkerchief, Mr Honeck begins to seemingly do the same with his baton. The audience laughs. He then puts it to his ear and points it toward the orchestra as if to listen, and finally uses it as telescope toward the audience. More laughter. It was one of those genuine moments.

It is without hesitation that I wholeheartedly endorse and describe Mr Rusinek's performance as superb. As it is with the best of classical music, when it is at it's best, it is pure, and it is beautiful, and that describes his performance perfectly, the beauty of classical music was brought forth splendidly. Along with a great performance by the orchestra, was one of the best concerto performances that I've heard.

Monday, December 3, 2012

Musicians in cars blaring Tchaikovsky

I've long ago completely wrapped my arms around Symphony No. 4 in F minor by Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky. Something about this music sends chills each time I hear the music. I've several copies on CD that I listen to quite often, especially in my car. Now I'm quite certain that the composer never intended for anyone to listen to his symphonies in the enclosed compartment of a cab, or car or anything of the sort, perhaps never anywhere other than a concert hall. He probably never would have dreamed of such possibilities.

I would listen and when I got to the third movement, as is possible with a stereo system, I would turn up the volume all the way to hear the intricacies (you can't do that with an actual live symphony). Now this is fraught with some degree of subtle danger, as when that movement ends, it does so gradually and softly, and then the fourth and final movement begins quite abruptly. So if you don't remember to turn that volume nob back down again, you are blasted with 137 decibels of Tchaikovsky's grand symphonic version of the Russian folk song: "In the Meadow Stood a Little Birch Tree". I startled myself on several occasions when I first obtained the CD. And of course, being the practical joker that I am, I played that little trick on others, driving in cars getting decibels with musicians.

137 decibels (dB) is the typical Symphonic music peak volume level. I suspect that listening to this symphony over and over hasn't been too good for my ears, but I have to say it's worth it, the power and the energy just get me going and in a great mood every time. There are plenty of other aspects to symphony no. 4 that are also amazing. The second movement is a masterpiece of intricate melodies interwoven with individual instruments spinning webs of glistening intonations set against dramatic pitch.

As Tchaikovsky himself put it: "Thus we see that life is only an everlasting alternation of somber reality and fugitive dreams of happiness." This was in reference to the first movement, with blaring brasses, and a "syncopated shadow-waltz." A beautifully hopeful romantic theme builds, and it is taken over again by this so-called 'fate' with the again blaring brasses. Fate is slowly and methodically drumming in the background. Themes intermingle. Romantic Dreams dwell, again brasses blare above the din. Who wins Tchaikovsky's furtive struggle? Surreptitiously or by stealth, it is Fate that wins. But ultimately, for myself, I am the winner, as I deliriously float in a sea of beautiful symphonic music.

Located in front of a large Christmas tree in the grand lobby several groups of young musicians performed prior to the concert...

Sunday, November 25, 2012

Coyly trickling over the keys

Arriving early to Heinz Hall for a Grand Classics concert has its advantages. Two young gentlemen perform solo piano in the grand lobby before the show; their recital of various selections, like Grieg's 'Wedding Day at Troldhaugen', played by Jonah Berger, and Ernesto LeCuona's 'Malaguena' played by Nathan Pallotta, were truly amazing.

After the concert I spoke to Helen, a very friendly patron with a very cheerful disposition. Being another Pittsburgh Symphony subscriber who sits near me, we speak often. She told me that before each concert she goes to youtube and listens to some of the particular selections to be played that evening, in order to familiarize herself to the music and to get a feel for what's about to be played. I've done that myself, and since I blog, I find I do so even more so after the concert, to remind myself of what I've heard, and to give a degree of inspiration and recollection while I'm writing.

Tonight for the program, we are treated to Yefim Bronfman performing Beethoven's Piano Concerto No. 5, "Emperor". Mr. Bronfman never missed a note, every inflection was perfect. Some of the softer sections of the 1st movement are uniquely 'heavenly' in their effect upon my being. For instance, about 6 minutes from the start the fingers on the keyboard do a mad rush from left to right, and spurred on by pizzicato and cellos in the background, slow down and begin a soft and gently flowing vibe, coyly trickling over the keys like a slowly meandering stream in the midst of a demure forest. This is followed by the strings transitioning again to the dramatic in a metamorphosis only Beethoven can fluidly achieve as if no alteration had occurred at all. It happens again at about 15 minutes into this selection.

I prefer the softer, more subtle sections when every key harmonic of the piano can be perceived. During the second movement, we here a much more prolonged and deliriously prescient melody rapturously rendering tones that evoke the following words to me:

There's a place for us,
a perfect space for us,
Where love grows,
my heart shows,
yet she knows,
where our blossom grows.

The transition from the second to third movement of this concerto shows Beethoven's more playful nature. He playfully hints at the sequence to follow, as if a practice or warm up, and then brings it forth in it's totality. This movement, like the first, shows the 'Allegro' full bodied feature of the piano and the orchestra as an amalgamation.

During the second half of the program, Manfred Honeck tells us: "Happy Thanksgiving, it's great to be back, from our fantastic tour of Europe." He introduced the 'Ice Skating' polka and led 4 of the PSO kids along the stage with their skates. Honeck: "What wonderful joy in peoples' faces; we'll catch up with the kids later.'

Mr. Honeck spent much time introducing 'On the Beautiful Blue Danube' which must have been a personal favorite of his: "This waltz is so perfectly Vienese, a romance, ideal for dancing" and spoke to to Jim Cunningham in the audience: "you will play it too? on WQED? I will call you."

I'm a big fan of the Austrian waltz program presented by the PSO every year. On the program this year are many selections with which I am not familiar. It's fortunate that Manfred Honeck and the PSO bring new material all the time. I particularly liked 'Eine Nacht in Venedig', 'Moulinet', 'Telefon-Polka' in which the actual cell-phones were ringing near the end, in true comedic form, and 'Unter Donner und Blitz' with umbrellas revealed, selections composed by Johann Strauss, Jr., Josef Strauss and Eduard Strauss.

Baritone Gregg Baker seemingly stole the second half of the show with his wonderful renditions of a few Franz Lehar songs, and 'Moon River' by Henry Mancini. However, it was his encore of 'Old Man River' that almost literally brought down the house with a standing ovation and thunderous applause. What a voice!

Sunday, November 18, 2012

The hues and voice of 4 mystics, with lavish sound

On this clear and chilly Light-Up-Night in Pittsburgh, with the celebrated Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra, freshly back from a triumphant tour of Europe, we anxiously partake of a different kind of fare, harmoniously set against the backdrop of Heinz Hall, a decor augmented with psychedelic colours gleaned from the Magical Mystery Tour and Sgt. Pepper's theme. And what a decor - indented pillars of purplish pink lights garishly garnish the otherwise traditional texture. Large speakers, left and right, greatly amplify the music, seemingly out of place for classical music, and indeed does not fit the symphonies delicately sonorous arrangement of individual sounds. The PSO began with a 'Beatles Overture' arranged by George Martin, the one individual who held The Beatles together like Semolina Pilchard. Yet when the band began to play, I knew the speakers were there for them specifically.

The tempo of some of the songs was slightly slower than prerecorded tracks I remember well from my youth. However I was amazed at the ability of these 4 individuals from America, Jim Owen as John Lennon, Tony Kishman as Paul McCartney, David John as George Harrison and Chris Camilleri as Ringo Starr, to adroitly mimic both the look (they were very good look-alikes for their respective characters) and the vocal sounds of the fab four. And their playing of the instruments was equally impressive. But most impressive of all were the incredibly beautiful vocals.

I've been a lifelong fan of The Beatles (I've got all their albums on LP), so it is without hesitation that I would attend this concert. And as a tribute to their unique style of word lyrics, I present my own rendition of one of their songs, with the theme of my attendance at the show, don't be late!

(sung to the music of 'Being For the Benefit of Mr. Kite')

Juxtaposed with Light-Up-Night
We went to Heinz Hall tonight on histamine.
My friends and I will all be there
late of proper tennis fare, 40 love.
Over balls and rackets, nets and laurels
and lastly nothing gainsaid did transpire.
In this way nothing betrays our vitamin swirl.

The celebrated new fab four
performs their classical mystery tour at half past eight.
My friends and I will twist and shout
as Beatles faux will sing about - their cornflake.
Messrs. John and Paul enthrall their fans,
their resemblance will be second to none.
And of course the terrible towel is said once for all.

The band begins a show betwixt 
the hues and voice of 4 mystics, with lavish sound.
The PSO will undertake
ten groups of bars they perpetuate with great redound.
Having woken to the sounds of music
the Beatles tone is celebrated by all.
And tonight we come together on Strawberry Hill.

Sunday, October 7, 2012

after America I’ll be able to buy myself that automobile

The first two items on the program were new music to me, and very enjoyable, especially the new piece by Scott Eyerly "Arlington Sons" with David Pittsinger, bass-baritone and his son Richard Pittsinger, boy soprano.

Rachmaninoff: "after America I’ll be able to buy myself that automobile" - puts things into perspective I'd say.

I was finally able to meet Olga Kern, and get her autograph as well as a fitting tribute to the PSO. Her performance with the PSO was extremely entertaining. I asked if she would be back to perform Rachmaninoff Piano Co. #2 - I hope so!

"To PSO! Thank you for great music making! Every time is such a joy to work with you!" - Olga Kern in my music program.

Saturday, September 22, 2012

A resounding WOW!

Riding A pale day of youthmy bike and photographing nature are two of my favorite hobbies, another is playing Ultimate Frisbee, and of course listening to Classical Music ranks right up there with the best. Today I made this photo composition of a bunch of youthful looking mushrooms, small and delicate, reaching for the green canopy as warm summer transitions into autumn on this very colorful day. What was soon to await my journey was a trip to Heinz Hall to attend a concert with Manfred Honeck and the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra.

Wandering into the lobby, I couldn't help but contemplate the wonders I'd see and hear this season; someone I recognize asks: "How was your summer;" just fine, and yours?. Outside the water flows through shadowy blue light as patrons amble in the still warm night. Soon we were all inside the hall, seated and ready.

First up, an introduction by members of the orchestra who have contributed another $100,000 to the Annual Fund. Then Manfred Honeck enters and conducts the Star-Spangled Banner, and I and the audience sing the lyrics (was I one of only a few with their hands over their heart?).

Two different compositions by Richard Strauss are presented one after the other. They couldn't be more different. The first, a horn concerto, perhaps written because his father, Franz Strauss, was a fabulous horn player of the Munich Court Orchestra. William Caballero, of the PSO, played this sublime composition with the utmost ability. I particularly liked this piece because it was of a classical style, and because this music does not overwhelm my hearing with decibels more volume than I typically prefer - indeed the music was exquisite in it's beauty, simplicity and subtlety. The tones were pure, wrapped by a symphonic harmony - all in all this seldom heard concerto is something worth hearing, more than once.

The second selection by Strauss was a set of 4 orchestral songs sung by baritone Thomas Hampson. Mr. Hampson's voice and manner combined to provide a very entertaining genre - his facial expressions and arm movements gave the performance a very heart-felt appeal. The composition itself, set to texts by prolific German poets and writers was backed by the typical music of Strauss that one would expect, especially with the orchestration provided by Honeck and the PSO.

While listening, my mind thought more deeply about the contrast between these two compositions. The first,  written while at home with his father Franz in 1887, has a distinctly classical style. The second was written 9 years later while on his own, and has a significant romantic feel, a signature Richard Strauss sound.  I can only imagine what his father, if he was still around, would have thought.

After intermission came the Dvorak Symphony No. 9, "From the New World." Instant energy is what I perceive, a plethora of abundant sound yet with a beat to make you tap your toes. After the completion of the first movement, with sudden complete silence, we hear only a single patron with a definite sense of 'awe' exclaim "WOW!" No other sound for milliseconds is heard, then spurrious laughing from the audience, and Manfred Honeck turns with a smile and shakes his head up and down "YES!" in total agreement. The audience applauds. Wow, was and is an understatement.

Perhaps this audience member has never heard this New World Symphony before, or perhaps it is this live PSO performance that stirred his acclimation between movements. I've heard it perhaps 40 times, and I still say wow! 

All during the composition I observe Manfred Honeck and his conducting style: baton and left hand do most of the direction, with an occasional bump from his hips, a smile and a head-wave and then abundant sweeping of arms. Two fingers grip and his body does a revers bow, leaning backward preparing to renew his glance and nod toward the appropriate section of the orchestra. A motion of his arm, like a frisbee throw, then broadly level sweeping baton all across the orchestra sections as if to start a wave in motion, cause the gushing of notes and sound rippling across the concert hall. His finger and thumb gripped together, shaking and then brought forward, followed by his hands held low with flat hands palm up perhaps to indicate a change in volume or to commence and upward movement of crescendo. Now his arms roll together as if he is constructing an imaginary sphere which he magically encircles the stage with ebullient sounds, he raises his shoulders and slowly brings the tempo back down bending his knees. Pointing directly to individual musicians, he brings the trumpets to bear, and then finally, leans grandly back, readying for the final raising of his clenched fists to signal the grand finale of the first movement. Again - WOW!

Should I be embarrassed by the beauty of this composition - a resounding no. After the final note was fell, and all the beauty was done, the entire audience got to their feet for a resounding standing ovation.

Tuesday, July 31, 2012

The Incontrovertible Legend of Zelda with subtle and infrequent references to Link

I blog because to me it is important to share the beauty of classical music with as many people as I can reach. In this instance I expect most of the concert goers were in their teens or twenties, yet I was there.

I've had many great experiences listening to the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra at Heinz Hall - all of the concerts are fascinating and fun. The Legend of Zelda: Symphony of the Goddesses is no exception - in fact the 'fun factor' is significantly heightened by the programatic format of the video game theme. The symphony itself is really amazing - I believe it can stand on it's own as a piece of the classical repertoire without the need to add the 'fun' aspect of video screens and commentary, yet I don't deny that this program as it was presented offered a lot.

Many of the Legend of Zelda/Link games are familiar to me because my daughter plays the videos all the time on her somewhat ancient GameCube and before that on the GameBoy DS. I've watched her play, and have always liked the music in the game especially some of the very familiar melodies. In symphonic form the music really stands out.

Irish conductor Eímear Noone lead the PSO. Ms. Noone was very good - always with a smile which simply made me smile as well. Before the second movement she interrupted to change batons, this time it was a very special baton: The Wind Waker or baton of Wind in which the main character named 'Link' (for those of you who don't know) used it to conduct in that game of the same name. Here it was made real as the Ms. Noone used it to conduct the movement dedicated to that particular version of the Legend of Zelda.

This begs the question: Why is it called 'Legend of Zelda' and not 'Legend of Link'? Which I ask my daughter all the time because you see Link all the time in the game, and hardly ever see Zelda.

There were four movements, and three encores, every one a treat.
“Zelda: Symphony of the Goddesses,” is a musical tribute to the history of Zelda and the great scores composed by Koji Kondo. The concert, directed by Irish conductor Eímear Noone, works with local musicians in each town to put together an entire orchestra to play the show.

Some good reviews:

The printed program offered at Heinz Hall was rather slim with respect to information on the symphony. What I was looking for was information not only on Koji Kondo, but on perhaps who else might have aided in orchestrating the music from the games into this fabulous symphony, or was it totally attributable to Koji Kondo? I searched the internet in vain, not able to glean the information I desired. If anyone knows more please leave a comment.

Here's a video review that's very revealing:
"If this is coming to your city you have to see it -- it's incredible"

With this I agree!

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Hammerschlag and Heinz Hall's 40th

When I went to Carnegie Mellon I spent much of my time in Hammerschlag Hall, which was the place to be to study Electrical and Computer Engineering, my major. I always felt the name had a sort of romantic feel to it, and now I find out all these years later that Hammerschlag from German means Hammer Blow. Not quite as romantic, but in the sense it was used tonight with the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra, playing Mahler, it is indeed again romantic. 'In 1965 Machinery Hall was renamed Hamerschlag Hall in honor of the first president of Carnegie Institute of Technology, Arthur Arton Hamerschlag'

Manfred Honeck discusses the famous ‘Hammerschlag’ in the 4th movement of Mahler’s Sixth Symphony... "Mahler asked for a short powerful but dull sound almost like the fall of an ax on a tree. He didn't think the bass drum would capture the sense of what he was trying to create. Here at Heinz Hall we have built a big wooden box that will be placed on a riser in the percussion section. You will not only hear but also see principle percussionist Andrew Reamer strike it with a big hammer at 3 dramatic points in the final movement."

The first selection this evening was the Eugene Goossens Concert piece for Oboe/English Horn and Two Harps with the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra with James Gorton, Getchen Van Hoesen and Heidi Van Hoesen Gorton. Manfred Honeck delicately conducted the subtle drama between the orchestra and the soloists, who did a great job. Many of the phrases were tentative and hesitant, as if music dancing on a string. Subject lines would question, as an introspective retrospective. I fully enjoyed this concerto, the volume was perfect for my ears. Later, although I did fully enjoy Mahler's 6th, it was quite loud, perhaps too loud for my ears.

Before the concert Henry Hillman and Teresa Heinz spoke as a tribute to Heinz Hall's 40th anniversary. Heinz spoke metaphorically of those who would plant trees, even though they know they will never sit under the branches of that tree once grown. She described her father in law, Jack Heinz, who referred to those along with himself as his "band of dreamers" for they were aspiring to fulfill the dream to realize a vibrant cultural district, and that began with Heinz Hall.

Saturday, June 9, 2012

Inexorably Persuasive and Stunningly Radiant

This evening at Heinz Hall the audience was delightfully treated to three chiefly different compositions by Richard Strauss conducted by Manfred Honeck and passionately played by members of the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra. Not only that, but the inexorably persuasive and stunningly radiant rendition given by Joshua Bell of the Brahms Violin Concerto left no patron without a smile. This was a really enjoyable concert!

One of my favorite authors passed away this week. In his book "Fahrenheit 451," Ray Bradbury wrote: "Everyone must leave something behind when he dies. Something your hand touched some way so your soul has somewhere to go when you die, and when people look at that tree or that flower you planted, you're there. It doesn't matter what you do so long as you change something from the way it was before you touched it into something that's like you after you take your hands away." These words are touching. I thought of this theme while listening to the selections this evening. The book is set in a futuristic society where people don't read books, but watch TV. But the main character is an individualist who escapes this controlled society into the country, where books are memorized to be preserved for the future revival of civilization.

While listening I think of the gift of freedom and the rights against censorship that we all enjoy. I'm grateful to past generations for these gifts, and maintain that we should all fight to preserve them. I also think not only of books and words, but of notes. Richard Strauss composed all three of these works in the late nineteenth century, yet he lived many more years and died in 1949 in Garmisch-Partenkirchen, Germany. He lived through two world wars, and saw the advent and fall of national socialism. In his eyes, ears and thoughts there must have been the tensions and drama that government can bring upon the individual. His early music of the roaring 90s sounds youthful, even the composition Death and Transfiguration has a very youthful feel to it, as if the whole piece represents the 'transfiguration', or 'Verklärung' in German. Yet his early music also seems to hold a certain connection to these themes, perhaps I imagine so based on my line of thought.

Certainly Strauss and Brahms have changed something, they've forever changed music with their wonderful compositions. Their time period would have had contemporaries in Jules Verne and H. G. Wells. Bradbury himself has left something behind in his writings. Each of these composers and writers I feel I have a connection based on what they've left behind. And I wonder, in my life, what will I leave behind.

Before the concert I visited the Pittsburgh Arts Festival. I rode my bicycle from the garage where I parked down to Point State Park, and walked around to see and experience the art and festivities. This musician was playing a 'Didgeridoo'. The photo was taken with the camera on the ground for effect. The sounds from this are amazing, especially with the audio reflections under the bridge at the point. Here is a sampling of the sound that I recorded when he played: Box audio of Didgeridoo at Point State Park by Douglas Bauman

Monday, May 14, 2012

An American tasked to hear Parisian Musical Joy

It seems an almost insurmountable task to record every idea experienced attending a concert, especially when the goal is to transcribe the impressions and later fully bring them to written fruition. Several hurdles have to be overcome including timeliness and precision. Hearing, seeing and experiencing the music must be recorded in real time, yet writing with pen and paper is a rather slow process. I take notes, but they are never very verbose; it becomes necessary to try to discern exactly what was meant at the time those few words were scribed in the margins of the program. An abstract quality which is difficult to relate at the time of hearing is sometimes obscure. A musical expert may find the task less daunting, but for me it is often difficult to relay thoughts in precise musical terms. When I'm taking the time afterwards to hop, skip or jump beyond these hurdles I've described, I often fill in the gaps with new impressions.

During the performance this evening I noticed a photographer in suit and tie holding an impressive professional-looking camera taking photos of the orchestra. To do this one would need special permission. Often I have wondered what it would be like to be able to photograph Music Director Manfred Honeck as he adroitly conducts the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra. It would be a treat to first see the majestic movements and then to capture in photographs the ethereal elliptical pirouettes inscribed in mid-air by his baton as he renders moments of pure musical joy exhibited by his one and only exuberance for the music reflected by his smile, or at other times in his serious attention to detail, manifestly pinpointing with succinct motions to the orchestra indicating specific direction.

Pétroushka, by Igor Stravinsky, received this vigorous yet nuanced attention from our venerable music director. Notes gushed forth like an irruption of migrating birds upon the warming spring grounds in search of a singular niche to call their own. Despite the unrelenting swift tempo, I was enthusiastically taken by the performance. Knowing that Pétroushka was a puppet: "the immortal and unhappy hero of every fair" was to aid my hearing of the programmatic music. My expectations were in this case enhanced by reading the program prior to listening to the music. Musically, what I appreciated most was the optimal balance of the strings to the rest of the orchestra -- the brass didn't overwhelm. Here are a few of the notes I took at the time:
  • quick start; drum and trombone accent;
  • sawing - a Stravinsky trademark; melody familiar; 
  • fragmented & programmatic; English horn - sounding sour notes; one brief interlude;
  • take flight (last movement, The Fair, towards evening); strings jovial; effervescent ending, yet more 
There you have it -- now what did I mean by that :)

Next up was the Cello Concerto by Arthur Honegger with expert solo by Anne Martindale Williams in blue dress and beaming smile. It was impressive to watch her play, and amazing the way she would use vibrato to accentuate the notes in the first part of the movement. Often the notes would go all the way down the scale to the very lowest frequency tone that can be achieved by a cello: the last string with no fingers, and this would end a phrase. This piece seemed to have a sort of rhythm and blues sound. The middle and end section seemed to suggest first a march, then a final chase, a fitting conclusion. The audience of the packed Heinz Hall offered Ms. Williams a grand standing ovation, richly deserved.

And last (but not least, there was to be one more selection), George Gershwin: "An American in Paris" with a very large compliment of musicians arrayed upon the stage.  Luscious is the first word that comes to mind in trying to describe this sweeping and melodic score. Conductor and orchestra were in complete synchronicity, as they swept me away with the sounds I've heard countless times before, but never like this, for the reasons I've often tried to describe. Sounds never heard were now heard; counterpoint revealed; harmony unhinged; it becomes evident that the symphony is an experience that simply cannot truly ever be experienced with 2, 4, 5 or even a dozen speakers, at home or at a movie theater. It simply must be experienced with 100 musicians and a singular conductor at the concert hall.

Tonight was offered an extra intermission and one final selection, this time with the Pittsburgh Youth Symphony Orchestra in place of the PSO, conducted by Lawrence Loh performing a piece by Darius Milhaud "La Creation duMonde" with ballet by Attack Theatre. Very well done, both musically, and the dance!

Saturday, May 5, 2012

Deconstructing Claude

It was 'The Pursuit of Beauty' that directed my path to the steps of Heinz Hall on my quest to discover that emotion in the form of music, though nobody ever knew exactly how many forms of beauty really exist, nor how many I was in pursuit thereof. I took a few friends for they also desired to hear the best the form has ever offered, by the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra. In the garden outside I met fellow blogger Jennifer Pizzuto and her friend, and we discussed the upcoming concert.

In deconstructing Claude Debussy's "Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun," I'm going directly against my covenant with Jenifer. She indicated that it would be interesting to describe the emotions felt while listening to and experiencing this beautiful piece of abstract music. Yet I can't help myself. Certainly she's right that the emotions are what grab most patrons who enjoy hearing the compositions by Debussy, especially when played so very well by the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra conducted by Manfred Honeck. Yet even when I try to focus on these so-called emotions, I always fall back into my usual mode of listening, trying to pick out individual aspects of the whole, and trying to see how the pieces of this complex puzzle fit together in such an intriguing fashion. At the concert hall this is possible; with prerecorded music, or radio, it is not. In the upper sections of Heinz Hall, I'm able to view each part of the orchestra as the music plays and match their part to the pinpointed sounds made by their instrument.

And what did I discover? I realized that too much introspection can somehow take away from the overall magic of the piece as a whole. Deconstructing Claude was a fun exercise in discerning different aspects of the music, sort of like reverse engineering a piece of software or technical innovation, but in the process I've lost my view of the overall composition, the beauty of the piece was somehow diminished. I do, however, still have a great appreciation for the complexities of the composition.

What emotions was I feeling... I really didn't explore that question, beyond the mere wonderment at the ability of Debussy to construct a visionary entity out of all these individual components, in complex creative ways that I don't suppose I would have ever thought of myself.

The next piece was Lili Boulanger: Psalm 130 with Stephanie Lauricella, mezzo-soprano, Juan José de León, tenor and the Mendelssohn Choir of Pittsburgh. There was so much this composition had to offer. The singing lent a wonderful aspect to the music as a whole. Yet what I liked most was the orchestration.

After intermission Lise de la Salle played the piano solo with the PSO for the concerto by Ravel. Her premier this evening was truly a treat. This concerto began with music that to me sounded like Gershwin. Who knows, perhaps it's just coincidence. The technique used by Lise de la Salle on the piano was fascinating to watch. The way she would attack the keyboard was enthusiastic, and after a phrase she would move her head in a way that suggested a sort of implied Vibrato. First hearing this piece this evening, it became to me an instant hit, something I'd like to hear again.

Ravel traveled to the U.S. in 1928. In a way it must have been his desire to compose the piano concerto in order to play in the U.S; from the program notes: "With a view toward having a vehicle for himself as a pianist on the return visit (to the US), he started work on a concerto in 1929." With that in mind, perhaps it is fitting we are hearing Ravel's concerto in Pittsburgh, performed by Lise de la Salle, piano.

Last but not least was everyone's favorite Bolero, with fantastic lighting effects which highly enhanced the experience. All the lights were dimmed, and a spotlight shone on Manfred Honeck. The audience laughed when he turned with a wry grin. Then as the drummer commenced, and each individual instrument played, the spotlight would highlight their solo as part of the composition. This progressed and then large sheer curtains lowered behind the players, with lights illuminating with interesting patterns.

After the concert Manfred Honeck and Lise de la Salle were introduced by Jim Cunningham for the Wqed night at the orchestra. I was able to meet Manfred Honeck and discuss the variety in the different compositions this evening. For instance, the Lili Boulanger: "Psalm 130" to me had a very somber tone, and reminded me of Mozart's Requium, to which Mr. Honeck indicated that it will be returning next season. He seemed glad to hear that we were happy with the program, including favorites along with music that is not often heard, a nice mix of classical music.

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Magic of Paris Dons a Three Cornered Hat

In my last post I forgot to mention how much I really enjoyed the PSO's rendition of Three-Cornered Hat Suites Nos. 1 & 2 by Manuel de Falla. One of my favorite suites, and to hear it live was a personal treat! I also wanted to post a few more photos I took at Heinz Hall for the 'Magic of Paris' festival, including the post concert "L'Amour, La Vie: Daphne Sings Piaf" in the Grand Lobby. "Daphne Alderson celebrates the life and times of Edith Piaf, one of the most mercurial artists of all time. Experience the poignant, passionate chansons in their original versions as toured by Piaf and her contemporaries following the PSO concert in the Grand Lobby."

Sunday, April 29, 2012

City of lights hewn before my ears

Conductor Gianandrea Noseda introduced the Respighi "La Boutique Fantasque" this evening with his usual flair. Some conductors don't take the opportunity to talk to the audience, yet it's often a very entertaining way to connect the music with the audience. His assertion was that perhaps this piece was 50% by Respighi and 50% by Rossini, who came to Paris at the 'ripe old age of 37', and for a while didn't write a note. Eventually, according to Noseda, he did write some piano pieces, which were eventually orchestrated by Respighi for the 8 movements fantastically presented this evening by the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra.

This composition, which I'm hearing for the first time tonight, except for a few melodies which I do recognize, seems amazing to me. Each piece, each section, and as a whole, this music is much to amazing to be so obscure. The overture begins with a great melody, playful and enticing, and when it's done, I wish to hear more. Yet no fear, each and every movement to follow has the same quality, enduring and melodic. With this music as a backdrop, I begin to write the following, even turning into poetry...

In the beginning there were sounds. Sounds, branching into myriad amalgamations of sonorous tendrils bundled algorithmically into packets of temporal relations, juxtaposed behind alternating selections thematically grouped in musical forms intended to smack the listener with the greatest melodic impact.

Then there were words, but just what words can accurately, concisely and vigorously capture the fullest splendor of the music?

Words can be beautiful. Words can be bright.
Say the thing you mean, but do words have the right?
Can they usurp the reality of the tender music,
That we would hear throughout the night.

A vain attempt these words do make
to model reality and meaning take;
losing in the transcription the larger part
between harmonious reality and what's in my heart.

My noble attempt to say the words, now past
has led me here to the threshold, magic at last.

The city of lights this night is hewn before my ears,
release the hidden subtlety as comprehension nears;
the music, as with the light, unleashed to shed our fears.

Sunday, April 22, 2012

Meandering Contemplative Juxtapositions

A misunderstanding or perhaps simply my misplaced accounting of the movements that comprise Berlioz' Romeo and Juliet led my confused mind wandering down several wrong-way paths of meandering contemplative juxtapositions whereby I was questioning the composer's dubious choice of musical content meant to picturesquely represent the various scenes from Shakespeare's play.
My eventual state of bewildered confusion was only temporary; somehow I was off by two movements. The programmatic music had the titles of the movements listed in the program, and since I've never heard Berlioz' suite before (Suite from Roméo et Juliette, Dramatic Symphony, Opus 17, 1839), and because these are only excerpts (we don't get to hear the choral finale), I miscalculated where I was along the way.

'Love Scene', I confused for part of 'Romeo Alone'.  'Queen Mab Scherzo' I substituted for 'Festival at the Capulets' followed by erroneously thinking the true 'Love Scene' was 'Romeo at the Tomb of the Capulets' -- a mistake which had me all mixed up, wondering: what was Berlioz thinking? As the music sequenced further beyond what was published, I realized my mistake, feeling somewhat embarrassed and realizing that instead of misguided, Berlioz was a genius composing such luscious, broad, delicate and sweeping sounds gloriously representing the love of Romeo and Juliet. The real scherzo (not the one I imagined from before) is creative and vibrant and with beating drums and dramatic tempos first fast then slow then fast again.

I really did enjoy this version by Berlioz, yet it's difficult not to compare the version by Tchaikovsky which is really spectacular, so it's not fair to pit the two against each other in a hypothetical match-up. Certainly I want to hear the Berlioz version again, I find that listening to selections repeatedly reenforces my like for the music.

After intermission we were treated to Brahms: Piano Concerto No. 2, music with which I am very familiar. Nicholas Angelich took complete control with his mastery of the piano. His technique wasn't subtle, his tumultuous approach at the beginning was enough to wake the sleepiest of patrons, simultaneously usurping the role of the orchestra, at least for movements 1 and 2. I really do like the music, but for some reason the first two movements seemed too loud for my liking, somehow saturating my senses, like clipping for speakers (when the peaks and troughs of a sinusoidal waveform hit the maximum permissible value, it indicates a signal has been 'clipped.'). However, the 3rd and 4th movements were just right, the perfect volume, and very well played by the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra. Note to self: get seats further back next time.

I always enjoy seeing guest conductor Gianandrea Noseda with the PSO, he did a great job as always, very animated with adroit clarity - I hope he returns often.

Saturday, March 31, 2012

Like an Egyptian

First up; Steven Stucky: Son et Lumière; a glistening journey in one movement with rapid change-ups and lots of percussion -- something I always enjoy. Mr Stucky gave a very nice introduction: "entertaining, super entertaining, does handstands, constantly in motion..." Did I mention that he said it would be entertaining? Indeed it was.

Next up; Stephen Hough performing the solo on Camille Saint-Saëns: Piano Concerto No. 5, 'Egyptian'. Not sure why it is called Egyptian, it doesn't really sound Egyptian, but perhaps that was what was intended. However it did sound simply fabulous - and since this is the first time I've ever listened to this concerto, I was completely mesmerized by the creative ideas, as if the composer's attempts to journey to the 'East' gave him an outlet for fascinating new aspects of music which stretched the limits. Mr Hough plays a beautiful encore after much applause.

Finally, the glowing Cinderella Suite by Sergei Prokofiev. This one you must experience in person, preferably with the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra. Leonard Slatkin conducted a wonderful performance this evening, one I'll never forget.

Stephen Hough stands to sign autographs at Heinz Hall following his performance with the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra, Camille Saint-Saëns: Piano Concerto No. 5, 'Egyptian'

Saturday, March 24, 2012

Rekindled Phase with the Universe

When this day began, no notes plunged tentacles deep within my heart, no songs ran feathers up and down my goose-bumped skin, eliciting magical feelings. No music heretofore evoked rapt emotional sentiment, no sounds crept upon abstracted mind, preoccupied with superficial daily diversion. Yet the symphony concert was about to begin, and I had not yet made myself ready to absorb the abstracted musical foray into glistening heights I usually achieve quite easily with only one felled note.

I listened eagerly, my furrowed eyebrows throwing daggers at my gloomy outlook, attempting to disrupt my present departure from optimism. Somehow I felt out of phase with the universe -- surely a world without the beauty of classical music could not bound my horizon for long -- certainly the orchestral sounds would unravel the chord that tied my mind.

All around my seat other patrons sat on the edges of their red velvet chairs, engrossed in the brewing cauldron of ephemeral sounds, waiting with collective bated breaths for greater astonishments with each successive cadence. For some, expectations were crystallized in wide eyes and gentle smiles. I sat with rapt attention, still out of phase, and I envied them.

Seeing their apt linkage with the dynamic intonations stirred within me a growing contagion of congenial spirit, and increased excitement in my own appreciation of the piece. Shifting colors slowly filled my soul, now searching for melodic phrases to latch upon, familiarize myself with, and to absorb the form and counterpart fitting the rhythm to my out of synch mind and finally finding a rekindled phase with the universe.

Conductor Yan Pascal Tortelier and soloist Sarah Chang were no less responsible for coalescing the former dichotomy between my formerly handcuffed state of mind and my desire to thoroughly enjoy the resonant sounds. Tortelier introduced the concert with his unique style of merry musings on the advent of the inclusion of Morton Gould's "Spirituals" with Bernstein's "West Side Story Suite" arranged by Newman, and Jean Sibelius' Symphony No. 1. It turns out it was simply luck that he played a CD that had sat on his shelf, and upon listening to the 'Spirituals' decided this would be the perfect piece to go with the other two. His choice was a good one in my opinion, I thoroughly enjoyed Gould's composition, played well by the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra, and wonder why I've never heard it before.

Sarah Chang's range of performance salvaged what I felt was a rapid meandering frolic on the West Side Story Sweet by Bernstein. If it had progressed somewhat slower, like the original, I might have enjoyed it more. Nevertheless Chang's rendition of the melodies, especially in the second half of the piece, delivered a magnetic exhibition.

Sibelius' Symphony No. 1 began. With the slow raising of his hand Tortelier commenced a flute and soft drum roll, then stood perfectly still, waiting for this atypical opening to progress on its own. He points to the violins and they rapidly saw their transitioning portion to the rest of the strings which build a fullness that lends its way to the horns, then to the woodwinds as they sidle up to the whole orchestra, rapidly ascending as if to the very top of a mountain peak, which is followed by a sweet interlude, accelerating to greater rhythms and journeys throughout. Absorbed in the composition, I finally realize I have not changed at all, the universe has realigned itself to me.