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: " 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!