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.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Previn and the Pittsburgh, Recapitulated

I've always wanted to attend a concert with André Previn conducting the PSO, and this past weekend was my perfect opportunity. Mr Previn walks on stage assisted by a staff member, he turns, smiles and bows graciously before the audience, then is seated on a chair on the conductor's podium. He starts the music instantly, not hesitating for the applause to subside, as the marvelous symphony number 102 of Franz Joseph Haydn begins. His arms are long and reaching, and his hands expressive as he conducts with flair.

Next comes a world premier of Previn's own composition, his own Triple Concerto for Trumpet, Horn and Tuba featuring George Vosburgh, trumpet, William Caballero, horn and Craig Knox, tuba. It begins with a jaunt, or journey, as if music from an action movie score. The second movement begins with deep tones, soft and slow, then builds. At times I hear what I perceive as a bit of dissonance almost verging on vertigo. The third movement starts with descending notes of the strings, then the brass takes the notes back down the scale. All throughout the trumpet, horn and tuba are well balanced with the orchestra, but I am most partial to the tuba, something not often heard in a role of soloist. Again I detect dissonance, but then beautiful rich sounds of the strings take over again.

Finally the Mendelssohn Symphony No. 4, "Italian". I'm almost at a loss for words, the beauty of this performance is simply too difficult to describe. I want to hear it again. André Previn bows to the audience to lots of applause, and he even applauds the PSO for their performance, as seen in the photo.

Saturday, March 3, 2012

PSO's Enigmatic Passion frame Ax's lively performance

As the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra, led by conductor Nikolaj Znaider, begin Richard Wagner's Prelude and Liebestod from Tristan und Isolde, I see Cellos, Flutes, Piccolo, Violins then Horns as the Prelude portion builds. Then I realize that Mr Znaider has no score, and I'm amazed at his ability to remember all the parts and transitions for the entire orchestra. Also consider all the knowledge he has as a soloist on the violin, and add to that the symphonic repertoire of his conducting -- that's quite a feat of memory.

Wagner must be very difficult to remember. I've listened to "Tristan und Istolde" perhaps dozens of times, and I would be quite challenged to remember which parts of the orchestra must play at what times, the sequence of events, yet Znaider has it perfect and without a score. He points to the violins, and they play, he gestures to the horns, and they play, time after time he knows exactly where to go next. Sweeping back and forth, also succinct with his waving baton, he brings each musician, each section to the proper place at just the right time. The second part, the 'Liebestod' has always given me goosebumps, every single time I hear it. Tonight it's even better, with the beautiful live sounds coming directly from the PSO at Heinz Hall - here it produces a deeper warm glow, built upon the tender passion that comes directly from the music.

Four opening notes begin Mozart's Piano Concerto No. 22 with the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra, but piano soloist Emanuel Ax doesn't commence for several more bars. Later, the same 4 opening notes are again repeated by the orchestra -- this time I see conductor Znaider mouth those notes in a natural pantomime "Buh Buh Bum Buh." I feel the urge to hum along myself, but I keep my notes to myself, until sometime after the concert.

As violin soloist a few weeks ago, Znaider was sublime; tonight as maestro and conductor, he is supreme; his long reach extends almost into each of the sections of musicians urging the music to come forth irresistibly. Between passages the orchestra grows still as Mr Ax rips through another beautiful sequence of seemingly never-ending rapid notes meandering up and down the length of the keyboard, and conductor Znaider turns toward the pianist and smiles approvingly, as the music continues.

The second moment enlightens my mind with metaphoric images of an artists pallet, arrayed with colors; ready for the musicians to spread abstract amalgamations of melody woven with the hues of harmony into a masterpiece of adroit development. At one point the piccolo and bassoon are performing a two part rhythm which then melds into a tender dance like the sounds of a gentle brook, culminating with the final falling of a leaf gently to a forest floor.

With the third and final movement, the artistic pallet of the last movement is completely changed back to the typical spark of recognizable Mozart counterpoint I am used to. The acumen of the flourishes burst forth, then flirt as if hiding behind various sections of the orchestra. I wonder if some of the piano sections could sound the same if played backwards or forwards, the hands literally go up and down the scale. The killer melody of the piano is surrounded by the harmony of the orchestra, surrounding each other and eventually giving way to a short intermezzo, slowing the tempo, before returning to the original fast paced theme. The sheer volume of notes are distinctly heard, yet build the sound into a full bodied exuberance. The Piccolo and Bassoon interplay near the end, bringing a smile to my face.

Mr Ax, after a standing ovation, beautifully plays Debussy's "Pagodas" as his encore, striking almost every black key on the keyboard.

Until this evening, I've never heard the complete set of Edward Elgar's Enigma Variations. The finale is recognizable. While each variation has it's own glorious sound, together they don't necessarily seem like unified elements sequentially placed in a principal theme, but perhaps enigmatic parts in a hybrid wheel. Taken together the sections combine into one beautiful whole, but I can't help but wonder if the sections could be played in different orders, and still produce the same interesting result - the "Enigma Variations." The only exception would be the finale, which seems perfectly suited as only applicable as the ending part in this turning wheel, and the part which is most memorable.