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."