Saturday, April 8, 2017

The Magic of Gustavo Dudamel with the Pittsburgh Symphony

It's Thursday and it's raining. Raining, never-ending raindrops pounding the pavement and my umbrella. Inside it's dull. So I go back to walk in the rain. At least the birds seem to appreciate with their songs, they are prepping for spring and summer mating season. Inside again I play Chopin's Raindrop Prelude, a version that plays over and over for over an hour. It distills and promulgates my mood, distinctly trickling piano keys pour down on my senses, my spirit is changing. I know I'm going to do research on Beethoven's uplifting Fifth Symphony or anything Wagner, I enjoy it all. Strauss, it's like a landscape far away, and Don Juan is a legendary character with a fitting score.

Yet I'm still brooding. I've already read some of the current events of guest conductor Gustavo Dudamel. I was intrigued to find out that he was the inspiration for the role of the conductor in the show Mozart in the Jungle, for which I've seen all the episodes at least 3 times, they are just that good. It's the music that keeps taking me back. I re-watch the episode with Dudamel's cameo, he's backstage at the Hollywood Bowl as the stage manager. Ironically, he tells guest conductor Rodrigo: "..you are coming here to conduct. You have to come here. Save us please. We hate our conductor." "Really." "Ugh." And in real life Dudamel is the conductor of the L.A. Philharmonic. I didn't get that the first time I saw the scene. :)

Now it's Friday and I'm at Heinz Hall. Guest Conductor Gustavo Dudamel enters the stage at Heinz Hall to great applause. With raised arms he gestures three curly motions of both hands to signal the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra to rise. All throughout the evening we see the same response from Dudamel, he seems less inclined to take the spotlight alone, always immediately bringing the players to their feet. After each piece, he dives deep into the rows of the members to pay tribute to individual players and whole sections. After the Beethoven, he even separates the cellos and violas from the violins, they rise first, right next to the conductor, then the violins last. He steadfastly remains back with the musicians, they all face the audience for their applause together. This seems to be his style. After the final Brahms Hungarian Dance encore, flowers are brought out for Mr. Dudamel. He accepts them, but takes out individual roses and gives them to the female members of the orchestra closest and all the way back to the woodwinds. He even gives a green flower to a male member to great smiles.

At intermission and before the concert I tweet my thoughts: Conductor @GustavoDudamel is exciting, his smile is infectious, and the music, @PSOMusicians play the heck out of Tannhäuser. Awe struck!


Shall we characterize the music of Beethoven as old? Gustavo Dudamel insists that misses the point. "It is new and creative every time we play it," Dudamel says. "Art is alive all of the time."

That gave me an idea. To listen to Ludwig Beethoven's Symphony no 5 played by the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra at Heinz Hall intently searching for those alive variations and enhancements that differ from other performances I've heard and will hear as I try to search for those creative nuances alluded to by the conductor. Whether it be tempo, rhythm or any other colorful accents or artifact that enhance or differentiate, I'd like to glom onto this distinction and bring it to this blog. As I listened, it seemed to me to be distinct from any other Beethoven 5 in that the rhythm seemed different. Parts or sections of instruments seemed to run into each other, as if scurrying around like chipmunks after acorns. But the structure was there, it was intact, the new aspect could be my imagination, but it felt newer, better, brighter somehow.

On the way home I listened to the Pittsburgh Symphony and Manfred Honeck CD I got about a year ago to try to compare. I found it difficult to listen to after hearing it live. The same orchestra, yet in a car the dynamic range either blasts my ears, or is too quiet to hear. At Heinz Hall those range and sound differences are welcomed by my ears and my mind. Bottom line: listen to it live. And while you are listening, be thankful for your sense of hearing.

Today it is Saturday and it is sunny and warm. The music really does make all the difference in the world!

Rodrigo: "I'm about the magic. I'm about the magic, okay?" "Just don't tell me I'm about the glory."

Saturday, April 1, 2017

Deftly Extrapolating the Magic of the Exhibition

Sometimes it seems like musicians, or experts in any field, are riding on the spur of the moment. In reality it is us, the audience, who canter into the orchestra hall with high expectations and are riding toward an emotional crescendo when the concert begins. Many of us are not even musicians by training. We do not spend the countless hours relentlessly practicing and painstakingly mastering the music, the instrument and the art.

Yet certainly we do appreciate their tenacious efforts, and it shows with the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra. For myself, the spur of the moment translates into my fullest undertaking to be at Heinz Hall and to experience the music, to staunchly record for posterity the encounter with words and pictures and perhaps deftly extrapolate the magic of the exhibition.

Before the concert my friend Robert and I were discussing the Pittsburgh Symphony in the lobby. On the wall, a portrait of William Steinberg reminded Robert of attending as a young child and remembering the performances led by this legendary conductor. We went on to discuss composers like Mussorgsky and Ravel, and the knowledge that he gained from his readings on classical composers. Later, after the performance he reflected on the mastery of Ravel, that he does full symphonic works as well as any composer.

Robert now lives in New York. He asked if I've heard the New York Philharmonic and I confessed that I had not. I should remedy that. The last time I visited him a few months back we went to museums to see the art. Yes, the Pictures at an Exhibition. One of my favorite artists is Vasily Kandinsky, some his works are currently on display at the Guggenheim Museum in New York. I've scattered a few of those works in this post.

With the first gesture of his baton, guest conductor Lionel Bringuier began to unravel the enchantment of Ravel. Mother Goose, a 'ravishing orchestral transcription' of pieces he had written for his friend's young children. Here they come alive, programmatically portraying fairy tales in music.

In my mind I immediately hear the sounds of birds with the woodwinds. It spreads out with the cellos and sweetens with the violins, lazily ambling then all take flight using the full orchestra to great effect. There comes buzzing, twirling and spinning. Many of the sounds seem ethereal, and the pizzicato over the woodwinds is simplicity yet brilliant. Bows drum the strings and other non standard techniques are scattered throughout.

In the Conversations of Beauty and the Beast, the contrast between the deep notes of the horns versus high sounds from flutes and other woodwinds is stirringly dramatic. In fact there is drama all around in this piece, woodwinds versus strings, xylophone versus pizzicato, solo versus orchestra, left hand versus baton, pureness versus dissonance and blending versus striking out.

And that's just what I could think of while on the edge of my seat anxiously awaiting every creatively developed nuance. The Enchanted Garden ending is a recognizable and fitting ending blending ornate natural richness with mellow serenity.

After a few chairs on stage are shuffled to make room for Principle Viola Randolph Kelly, the next piece was about to begin. Before this evening I had never heard the Paganini Sonate per la Grand Viola. Mr. Kelly's Viola instantly came alive in his solo, which began after a few clever introduction bars from the orchestra filled with pizzicato. The sonata reminded me of a symphonic poem form, yet the movements are each distinct and loosely held together.

The sounds from the viola were amazing, crisp, clear and filled with reverb and stunning dynamic range. My favorite were the very low notes, a sound that could only come from a viola. Mr. Kelly received a robust standing ovation, and he turned to applaud the orchestra, sharing the spotlight, and he even pointed to his viola as if to say: hey, don't forget to applaud for the viola as well.

After intermission came the highlight of the evening, Mussorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition, orchestrated by Ravel. My friend told me that it had been orchestrated by many others, but this is the most popular version and that which is most often heard.

He described to me the brusque nature of Mussorgsky, and contrasted that to the perhaps gentle nature of Ravel. I could almost picture it in my mind, extrapolating from the music itself. Just imagine who would win; Mussorgsky's Night on Bald Mountain or Ravel's Daphnis et Chloé. But tonight we've got both and they both win!

The encore for the evening, presented by Lionel Bringuier is the Farandole from Bizet's L'Arlésienne Suite. I never tire of the full Pittsburgh Symphony, all 101 orchestra members in unison belting out a large amalgamation of sound to bring a smile to my face!

Sunday, March 12, 2017

Mozart in Pittsburgh with Valcua and Piemontesi

I begin with a poem written while intently listening to The Moldau from Ma Vlast by Smetana. I was surprised that my friend had not heard this composition before. He listens to Classical Music (perhaps not enough), and his father was born in Hungary, close to Czech Republic.

Slowly dancing, sprightly dime,
riddled humored tones unwind.
If left for them to reason,
  pervasive rhyme,
neither amble, losing shame,
  nor winning shine.
Body full unwinding sentiment,
  your time is now,
melodic perforation, exhibition,
  Bohemian brow.
String punctuating tempo,
Horns budding relentlessly,
Harps fluctuate divine.
Beauteous ambling,
weaving surreptitious phrases,
bastion sublime.
Nothing subtle in his ambient clime.
She enthusiastically reaches,
crescendo rolling over.
Harmonics drum laden
  metaphoric cacophony
Climaxing mixed theme,
tempestuously culminating,
pausing as if seeing.
Seeing a serendipitous view,
a view that seems to extend
  beyond space and time
My temporal coefficients procure sight,
  and it's mine.
Light spectral ranging,
redirected heraldic pride,
march and theme, never chide, ever plied.
Blessed as I was, a straight view,
 perfect through and through.

The Dvorak Piano Concerto begins with a very dramatic introduction. Stings, playing in total unison, sidle up to my ears as notes fly from the piano in crisp succinct adhesion to my expectant mind. Francesco Piemontesi masters the eclectic cerebral first movement with preeminent vitality. My ears are attentive to hearing the individual parts. The composition seems somewhat like a pernicious child, as if the piano part wants to do the opposite of the orchestra. Yet they seem to form a more cohesive interplay toward the end with a ranging and articulate conclusion.

The slow second movement is more concise and less complicated, adding a romantic flavor. A recurring three notes seems to compel the development. I like the playful back and forth between the orchestra and the piano, as if the soloist is asking the question: 'Can we talk?' and the answer from the orchestra is an emphatic yes.

The final movement seems more in line with the typical piano concerto that we are most often presented, like a romp or playful jaunt down the line. I hear a succession of first two notes, then four, and Mr. Piemontesi develops that phrase over and over, handing it subsequently back and forth to the orchestra. This entertaining composition aught to be played more often.

Mozart's Symphony No. 38 "Prague" is one of my favorites, especially the first movement wit it's mischievous interplay. It's no coincidence tonight's concert was titled "Mozart in Prague", the genius of this composition seems to overshadow even the hometown composers. The introduction is slow and elaborate, different from the quickly paced Allegro to follow. Live it takes on a more full bodied facet encircling and encompassing my orbit in breathtaking urgency, a force of nature.

Dvorak's Carnival Overture is a fitting conclusion to the schedule selections. It's quickly paced and fluent with rapid strings and pure horn sounds throughout. I vaguely hear some themes I also recall from his New World symphony. Everything is alive and bright, I hear tone transitions and beautiful simultaneous strings so pure as to bring new found delight.

The symphonic encore is Dvorák - Slavonic Dance No. 2. This is the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra led by guest conductor Juraj Valcuha at their best!

Saturday, February 11, 2017

I Know You, We've Met Before

Meet the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra. 100+ of the finest musicians with skills beyond compare. Tonight they are assembled before us, getting ready to play three selections old and new. They amble in one by one, and begin to warm up.

As I approach my seat I see Charles Lirette, Co-Principal Trumpet, again in the audience showing off what appears to my untrained eye to be a very fine looking fanfare horn. He plays a riff for the folks nearby. Then he graciously poses for a picture. You can see his formal attire, donned as always with tuxedo and bow tie. Even under the poor illumination below the stage he could have been taken as a dignitary or politician, but to me the part he plays here is much more important. His profession being a musician and purveyor of great music. He and the other musicians return to the stage as soon as it becomes time to begin; the lights dim, and hushed sounds come over the hall.

Conductor Manfred Honeck abruptly appears; he strides energetically to the center stage and bows before us. He dons his trademark lighthearted smile and with one purpose instantly ascends the podium, raises his baton, the very apotheosis of his art, and begins. We hear the first few notes of Prokofiev's Classical Symphony.

At this point I must confess, I really like Prokofiev's Classical Symphony. So is this perhaps my favorite symphony? We shall see. So let me try to express this with a mathematical metaphor of sorts.

It seems to me that if one were to divide fervour (how much one likes the music), by duration (how long is the symphony), one would be given a 'measure' of one's favorite symphony.  I call this new measure the 'Fervour Quotient' (TM).

Beethoven's Choral, Brahm's First, Mahler's Titan - all symphonies I love, their fervour is great, but when divided by their duration, the Fervour Quotient isn't  exactly meteoric. 

Many  of Mozart's symphonies, Hyden too, I attribute a splendid fervour divided by a unary duration, ('unary' because I've normalized the duration to theirs) and thus one gets a Fervour Quotient exceedingly cosmic.

But now we get to Prokofiev's Classical Symphony, It too begins with a glorious fervour-numerator, and further dividing it by such a small denominator where the duration is so very minuscule, we find that this four movement masterpiece becomes a celestial supernova, burning so bright, and extinguishing so young, almost before it has begun.

The favorite symphony by this measure would perhaps be this one, based on the newly coined 'Fervour Quotient' (patent-pending). And don't forget, quoting Shakespeare: "Brevity is the soul of wit." Prokofiev wins on that too, with his concise notes and delivery.

If I could transport back in time, with a time mechanism that someone from the future may lend to me today (or tomorrow), then I'd listen to these pieces at their onset, and perhaps I'd adjust my formula, giving more credence to the temporal quandrums existent in dreams imagined back then, but yet to be shepherded into universal reality today.

With all these words perhaps I've conveyed the idea that I like this symphony, and perhaps, at the very least, I've even convinced myself that it's my favorite. But moving on.

The 'new' piece comes next. It's unique, I've never heard a Percussion concerto before. James MacMillan's creation, called "Veni, Veni, Emmanuel" was explained to us in great detail in the pre-concert talk by the composer himself, along with soloist Colin Currie. Both are originally from Scotland. It was interesting and fun listening to their accents. In a short introductory film before the concert, Lorna McGhee said it was a great relief to hear someone speaking 'normally', so I guess to them we are the ones with the accents.

The pre-concert talk one hour before the concert was descriptive and illuminating. For instance, the Gregorian chant from which the melody was used as the base for his creative development was characterized as a didactic rhythm, a heart beat or a pulse of life in a sense. And his inspiration became sort of a humanity of the divine in music as it were. I took so many notes, so quickly, It's hard to piece them together, but what I can say is, based on what they were saying, I only got an overall sense of the concert, and when I actually heard it, I experienced something seemingly bigger, broader, with much more modernity and definitely much more alive. I can say it was much different than I expected. What I liked most was the drums, Colin's ability was astounding. You can see in the picture the setup, there were so many percussion pieces, it was hard to take it all in. Mr. Currie was moving briskly back and forth to the sets of instruments, drums on the left and xylophones and others on the right.

What would be really cool would be to hear the concert several more times. Once with just the percussion, another time with just the orchestra, and then finally bring it all together again. That way I could get a better sense of the pieces. As it was they seem to fight each other, and occasionally they came together in unison, but it wasn't easy to partition in my mind. Perhaps more familiarity with the concert would give resolution to my conundrum. But all in all I enjoyed this new (to me) concert very much (first written in 1992).

Ah, now to the 'magic' portion of our show. After intermission we were treated to Tchaikovsky's Sleeping Beauty suite. I'm familiar with most of the parts, but there were some played here tonight I've only now heard for the first time. It's another confession of sorts to say that I remember this best in the Disney movie of the same name when I grew up. And even more so when my daughter grew up, we had it on VHS tape, and later I got a version on DVD. We watched it together so many times, I know the music almost by heart, and it definitely brings back great memories. So I just sat back, listened intently, and let the memories roll on.

Most of the music of Sleeping Beauty is just as magical as I recall, and more so, here in a live setting. But there's one scene/movement in particular that I really like, I don't know the name in French, but in the movie soundtrack it is called 'Aurora'a Return/Maleficent's Evil Spell'. I recall it being more syncopated in development and longer in duration. Don't get me wrong, it's got that certain feel, but I guess my memory has expanded it in scope somewhat. I wonder if composers, when they first hear the music in their minds, perhaps envision something far better than what they actually create in concrete musical terms...?

Finally another encore announced by Manfred Honeck. This time another piece by Prokofiev: Romeo and Juliet, Death of Tybalt. Now what a wonderful selection! It was full of power with a rapid tempo and plenty of those sumptuous strings I'm always craving.

Sunday, February 5, 2017

Midori with the Pittsburgh Symphony

Traveling to Pittsburgh to attend a concert filled with classical music is always like a journey through a magical world filled with spellbinding musical concoctions vividly unwinding before my ears. This evening was no exception, my rendezvous with the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra conducted by Manfred Honeck inevitably radiated waves of sanguine optimism reinforced by harmonious orchestral tunes lilting through my soul. My odyssey was just about to begin.

In the lobby, just after I arrived I saw Maestro Honeck himself, coming through the front door just like any other patron, with a beaming smile he spoke to the staff and shook hands with a fan. His enthusiasm for the event and the music acted as bookends to the evening. Hint: there would be an encore the the Brahms.

Mozart's Haffner Symphony is light and airy and always a treat for me to hear. Writing afterwards, it was the first thing I put on when writing for the blog. I particularly like the quickly placed ascending notes. The tempo is fast and the whole orchestra blends seamlessly with the classical style adroitly exhibiting my favorite genre gleaning nothing from chance.

The final movement is very fast with slight slow parts, but it drives the tempo to a vigorous conclusion. I'm sitting on the edge of my seat. The only downside - it's a short symphony, it seems to be over in a flash, and I'm yearning for more. But not to worry, the next selection is just up.

Midori looked fantastic in her dark gray gown with green flora and pink flowers, but I came to hear her play, and when she started right into the concerto it was immediately evident that the sound and style were stunning. My seat was close to the stage on the left, the perfect location to hear her violin, the exquisite stunning tones were unforgettable.

At the beginning she seemed intense in aspect with bent knees and a focused absorption with the music, as if there were no audience at all, just her and the music. Her facial expressions revealed that singular bearing of concentration and expression that confessed an almost flawless exposition where the most obvious form of interpretation was in her movements and the angle with which her violin was facing the audience. Less obvious was the rhythm and concordance with the orchestra, but it was there, hidden in plain sight, but expertly blended with the amalgamation to form a succinct beautiful whole. The galloping march toward the end of the first movement was bridged sonorously by a french horn with one breathlessly held note melding directly into the slow movement.

The ethereal second movement showed the orchestra and soloist forming various techniques which exhibited forlorn dissonance in an odd sort of harmony, as I've always heard it in recordings, attributed to the composition, but this time up close and personal in the hearing and enjoying. When the orchestra would pause and let her play her solo you could fully hear and appreciate the sublime tones, and see her fingering on the strings. I was like a sponge, hoping to soak up the notes in endless succession.

The final movement started with a sweet introduction, and a flair on the violin, then marched with quick tempo onward with building excitement. Now we see the flair, the interplay between Midori and the orchestra, both parts intertwined to form the whole. The ending was extremely vigorous and afterward the audience quickly rose to applause. We wouldn't let her go without several trips back to the stage in recognition, but alas, there was to be no encore.

After intermission came Brahms Symphony no. 1. The conductor took quite a long time to write his first symphony, and the orchestra, dramatically led by conductor Manfred Honeck, brought the dramatic and magnificent music to our ears for the next 45 minutes. Striking, other than the beautiful music of course, was the way Honeck led the orchestra, The sweeping of his arms and the way he compelled sections in his direction was as if he were part of the whole. Through him I could see the music.

The other part of the bookend arrived, the encore the the Brahms. Manfred Honeck introduced it himself with a broad smile and fervor: "I like Hungarian music, which is surprising because I am from Austria!" They played a vigorous rendition of Brahms Hungarian Dance No. 5 and the audience participated eagerly with clapping in tune to the music.



Friday, February 3, 2017

Midori with the Pittsburgh Symphony

Midori with the Pittsburgh Symphony at Heinz Hall - playing the solo of Mendelssohn’s poetic and lyrical Violin Concerto

Monday, January 16, 2017

Conducts with the blood

I wanted to be prepared for my evening at the symphony. Heinz Hall First I listened to several versions of the Sibelius 5. Then I went to the official website for the Finnish conductor Jukka-Pekka Saraste, Chief Conductor of the WDR Sinfonieorchester, and guest conductor for this evening's concert with the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra. I also watched a video of him conducting the Sibelius Symphony no. 5 with the Oslo Philharmonic on his own youtube channel. His version was by far better than all the other recordings. Perhaps it was the tempo, or the evenness of the sound, but It was much more appealing to my ears. So I knew I was in for a treat. As Rodrigo would say, he conducts with the blood.

I also listened to Beethoven's 7th symphony in my car on my way to downtown Pittsburgh, a CD I had purchased only about a year ago, featuring Manfred Honeck conducting the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra. This way I could compare the PSO to themselves :).

But of course live music is always better than recorded, so it wouldn't be a fair comparison, except that I had seen and heard that performance at Heinz Hall a few years ago with all the microphones placed above and inside the stage. Tonight however, there were only 4 slim microphones, those used by WQED-FM to record the PSO for rebroadcast on their station. The winner was this recent performance, I believe the musicians were more relaxed because this performance wasn't going to be released on CD. Also a performance for CD might be changed in subtle ways to maximize it's sound on the CD, as opposed to making the sound better for the audience. But of course that's just my opinion.

In the lobby various musicians, dressed in black tuxedos, cordially introduced themselves to patrons entering Heinz Hall. Co-Principle Trumpet Charles Lirette was in the audience before the concert started. He was playing 'name that tune' for audience members with his trumpet. Heard were tunes like Flinstones and Raiders of the Lost Arc theme tunes. What was amazing was how softly he could play the trumpet compared to how loudly it is played during the performance, quite a dynamic volume range.

My seat was very close, I'd be able to hear all the intricacies of the music from each of the individual instruments.P1030702 I'm usually way up above so the sound seems to come directly at me and it's not as easy to distinguish, but is more of an even sound. However being close this evening turned out to be quite interesting in that I hear, then see the sound coming from different instruments, I could almost pick out select musicians and hear just what they were playing. So, for instance, the second violin section and the violas would sometimes play a different line not at all like the melody portrayed by the first violins and the cellos. This was fascinating because it was quite new, I heard different parts I wouldn't hear on a CD or even way up in the gallery.

Jukka-Pekka Saraste, conducting the Oslo Philharmonic with Sibelius 5 was a wonderful performance, yet the live music with this conductor and the PSO beats it. It just doesn't seem like the same composition when heard live, it's multitudes better. The maestro maintained a nice tempo, but what was truly amazing was that he had no score, he must have know these two selections by heart. Of course without a stand to support the score, he had more room on the podium to move about.

With his conducting style I could feel compelled, as if I were a musician and needed to play, and even felt compunction for not contributing. His hand gestures, reaching out, necessitated and quietly urged participation. Hands and bow would move in unison, then separately, directing different sections at the same time. Then multi-tasking, the left hand embracing the cellos and his right keep tempo with his baton. His whole body became the baton, well balanced dancing multifaceted movement became the norm.

Stepping forward then back, waving, pivoting to face a section of instruments and coming to straight-backed attention to address the musicians was his particular blend of direction. Occasionally, with his left hand he would be 'playing' pretend piano, then waving, as if to bring in a section or augment a style, perhaps pizzicato. Then wildly moving like a tempest in a teapot (the podium), he would bring it home, the wildly exotic and inevitable transitions to the conclusion of a movement.

Comparing Beethoven's 7th of the CD to the live,Red carpet stairway I realized instantly that it is much better now in person. The strings remind me of a certain subtle sound that surrounds my listening, vibrations with meaning. The first movement glides with much alacrity and ends with three quick notes, foreshadowing the ending of the Sibelius 5 which ends with 5 quick notes. We move to the second, that intense but simple slow movement with a soul of feeling and plenty of pizzicato, goose bumps all around. In the third I relish the sustained violin. And just when you think its over, there is the final movement which gallops beyond the rest to the eventual ending. All the audience rises to applaud!

At then end of the evening conductor Saraste comes back on stage with a microphone to announce an encore. "It's a pleasure to be in Pittsburgh conducting this wonderful orchestra." He presents "Valse Triste" by Sibelius, and to that they play this wonderful short piece filled with sumptuous strings. On my way to the car, instead of the inventive notes of the Sibelius 5, I'm humming the melody of the Valse Triste.