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