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...