Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

The New York Scandia Symphony Sell Out Symphony Space

Many years – maybe decades – before Alan Gilbert and the New York Philharmonic were thrilling audiences with the sweep and majesty and blustery fun of Carl Nielsen’s symphony cycle, maestro Dorrit Matson was doing the same thing and more with the New York Scandia Symphony. She and the orchestra specialize in both classical repertoire and new music from the Nordic countries. Much of what they play is rare and relatively obscure, at least south of where the aurora borealis is flickering. Which makes them a unique and important part of this city’s cultural fabric.

And they’re not such a secret anymore: from the looks of it (a few empty seats in the balconies), their Thursday night concert at Symphony Space was sold out. The orchestra rewarded the crowd with rousing, dynamic versions of material that for the most part is not typical for them. This time out, the program wasn’t about discovery as much as it was revisiting some of Scandinavia’s greatest global classical hits via a joint 150th birthday salute to both Nielsen and Jean Sibelius.

The one lesser-known piece on the bill was Nielsen’s quirky, strikingly modernist Flute Concerto, quite a departure from the late Romantic material he’s best known for, but characteristically flush with subtle (and sometimes not-so-subtle) good humor. Soloist Lisa Hansen held the center with minute command of dynamics while jaunty motives made their way through a characteristically labyrinthine arrangement that was closer to a series of funhouse mirrors than the often stormy intensity of Nielsen’s earlier works. One of those on the program, the Overture from the opera Maskarade, balanced stiletto precision from the strings against the goodnatured rambunctiousness of the brass section (this orchestra’s brass has a visible camaraderie and chemistry, and will sometimes perform as a separate ensemble).

Drama, suspense and foreshadowing permeated the lushness of Sibelius’ At the Castle Gate (from his Pelease et Melisande suite). Matson brought the drama up several notches further with a roller-coaster ride through his Karelia suite, unleashing the triumph of the first movement, dipping to a long, enveloping sweep upward and then a graceful balletesque pulse that alternated with mighty stadium bombast. The orchestra closed with a similarly triumphant yet warily colorful take of Finlandia, leaving no doubt that this was written not as a piece of nationalistic pageantry but as a slap upside the head of Russian Tsarist aggression.

In addition to performing in concert halls, The New York Scandia Symphony puts on an annual free summer series at Fort Tryon Park, typically on Sunday afternoons in June: check back at their site for details.

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April 12, 2015 Posted by | classical music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

An Exhilarating, Insightful Program from the Park Avenue Chamber Symphony

It obviously wasn’t conductor David Bernard’s intention to write his own review of the Park Avenue Chamber Symphony’s concert this past Sunday on the Upper East Side. But he was in a particularly good mood to share some insights about how he and the ensemble were going to approach the program – and what might be useful from a listener’s perspective. And those insights were right on the money – thanks for your help, maestro! He joked that the bill was”essentially a tribute to the New York Philharmonic,” being that their recently retired principal clarinetist Stanley Drucker would be featured on the Mozart Clarinet Concerto, followed by Dvorak’s New World Symphony, which the NY Phil famously premiered.

Bernard explained the dramatic opening piece, Carl Nielsen’s Helios Overture as a “postcard,” which it is, since the Danish composer wrote it on holiday in Greece. But as Bernard took care to mention, it’s no ordinary postcard, and the orchestra did justice to its sheer, majestic magnificence, from an almost impeceptible intro, a long climb upward, bright beams bursting through and then dancing clouds voiced by high strings amidst a bright brass-fueled fugue. It’s more Classical than Romantic when it comes to the interchange of voices that make Nielsen’s music so much fun to conduct – and witness close up.

Bernard introduced some controversy, voicing the opinion that the Mozart Clarinet Concerto, being the composer’s final finished work, is more of a self-penned obituary than the famous Requiem. Since so much of the Requiem is either repetition, or wasn’t even written by Mozart himself, that’s plausible, and as the group played it, Bernard’s contention was hard to argue against. Drucker – who’s played this as much or more than any symphony orchestra clarinetist alive – brought a wise, woody tone and a bubbly but measured joie de vivre to the more animated sections over a lush backdrop. Bernard described it as wistful rather than morose, and the orchestra nailed that emotion, especially when the dancing cascades in the third movement interchanged with a pensive expansiveness, as if to say, you mean we have to stop here? But we’re having so much fun!

Introducing the Dvorak, the conductor implored the audience to listen with fresh ears: “We’ve all heard this before,” he admitted, “But it is a masterpiece.” And the performance reaffirmed that: the PACS record and release a lot of their concerts on itunes and at Spotify and on cd, and this one deserves to be one of them. Individual voices, whether from the bass section, Brett Bakalar’s crystalline English horn solos, and the rest of the group were precise and distinct, the strings cohesive and pillowy – and sometimes blustery – and the suspense nonstop, for those in the crowd with the ability to defamiliarize from previous experiences with it. Here’s one possible interpretation: the two most recurrent themes are a cowboy tune and a minor-key blues riff, right? So, with all the aggressively circling battle scenes and fervent marches, could this be a coded history of American imperialism: cowboys versus Indians? Slavers and slaves? Or something more Slavic, maybe? After all, Dvorak knew how often his own turf in what’s now the Czech Republic had been overrun by invaders, so could this ostensibly American symphony have a subtext that’s much closer to home?

The Park Avenue Chamber Symphony’s next concert is an auspicious one, on February 22, 2015 at 3 PM at Rose Theatre in the Jazz at Lincoln Center complex, where they’ll be playing Lorin Maazel’s Wagner arrangement, The Ring Without Words, as well as Stravinsky’s Le Sacre du Printemps.

And coming up at the Czech Center (321 E 73rd St.) in the upstairs gallery, Dvorak’s original score for the New World Symphony will be on display daily from Nov 17 to 21 from 1 to 8 PM. It’ll be the first time in decades that the manuscript has been outside of Czech territory.

November 13, 2014 Posted by | classical music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The New York Scandia Symphony Play Carl Nielsen and Others at Trinity Church, NYC 3/9/10

The New York Scandia Symphony’s marathon concert yesterday at Trinity Church was exhausting yet exhilarating for musicians and audience alike, reaching a level of intensity envied by most players and rarely experienced by the average concertgoer. On one level, the members of the ensemble are spoiled rotten. While other orchestras roll out the same tired warhorses night after night, the Scandia dedicate themselves to obscure and rarely heard masterpieces by Scandinavian composers. Which means at least one premiere of some sort at every concert. The price of such riches? Hard work, but this one was well worth being out of breath for (as several in the orchestra literally were by the end).

The concert had a clear trajectory. They started with just a string orchestra playing a selection by late Romantic Danish composer Poul Schierbeck that sounded like a cheery organ prelude rearranged for strings (which it well could have been – Schierbeck was an organist). They then brought up guest cellist Jonathan Aasgaard for the Prayer by Ernest Block from his suite From Jewish Life. Broodingly cinematic in its Rachmaninovian sweep, it gave Aasgaard a chance to show off a strongly sostenuto, almost hornlike attack. There’s a movement afoot among cellists to hold notes as strongly as possible – the decay on a cello string is almost instantaneous, after all – and whether or not that trend might be part of his agenda or just his usual M.O., it resonated powerfully. It was even more notable as he swooped and dove over the full orchestra on the U.S. premiere of Hungarian/Danish Romantic composer Franz Neruda’s Cello Concerto, a somewhat martial dance theme taking on more of an apprehensive tone as it grew.

Another work from the Danish Romantic school, Emil Hartman’s Cello Concerto moved through an understatedly heroic theme with echoes of Cesar Franck, to quieter, more introverted, hypnotic territory, to a surprisingly upbeat dance of a conclusion. With considerably more solo parts for cello, it was more of a showcase for Aasgaard than the previous two pieces and he met the challenge head-on, climbing to a ferociously slithery, chromatic solo cadenza toward the end of the first movement.

They closed with Carl Nielsen’s Sixth Symphony. With its constant, tidal tempo shifts, motifs that make their way around the orchestra and its distant sense of dread, it’s mightily difficult to play, but conductor Dorrit Matson kept a mighty hand on the tiller, maintaining as much ease as there can be while directing such an uneasy composition. In their hands, it took on the shape of cautionary tale about the perils of complacency: snooze and you lose. It opened with a seemingly carefree splash of bells, orchestra playing a rather mundane series of permutations until suddenly the violins gave off a muffled scream. And suddenly those silly bells made sense: they were an alarm, and nobody was paying attention! That violin motif returned again, and again, if never quite as fully horrified as the first time around – horror becomes less horrifying the more you get used to it.

The second movement, dubbed a “humoresk” by Nielsen, has been called a parody of modernism, and that could be true (it also could be a portrait of a clueless, selfish narcissist, or a political statement – it dates from 1926, you figure it out). Scored for just horns and percussion, the drums were clearly having fun stepping all over the melody, whenever they were needed least. As random as the time seemed, Mattson swung it to make sure it was not so that there wasn’t a millisecond lost when some rhythm reemerged. So the juxtaposition of the strikingly astringent, modernist third movement made quite a contrast, cellos somber, violins aflutter over the horns’ atmospherics. The concluding movement took on the feel of a Mediterranean aria filtered through the lens of Debussy, a careening, out-of-focus, dizzyingly rhythmic series of frozen-rain motifs, from a nail-biting waltz to almost a parody of a march to the sarcastic honk that ended it all cold. The audience didn’t know what hit them: the orchestra knew exactly what had.

The Scandia roll out their string quartet for their next concert, 5 PM on April 18 at Our Savior of Atonement, 189th St. and Bennett Ave. in the Bronx for an intriguing bill of Grieg, Frank Foerster, Zack Patten, C.E.F. Weyse, Langgaard and Nielsen. Admission is free.

March 10, 2010 Posted by | classical music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

CD Review: Orchestral Works of Carl Nielsen – The New York Scandia Symphony, Dorrit Mattson, Conductor

Discovery is invariably fun, whether getting a scoop or stumbling onto something that slipped under the radar the first time out. This definitely falls into the latter camp, having appeared on the market a couple of years ago, but it screams out to become part of the canon, a masterfully recorded, emotionally rich collection of the Nielsen orchestral pieces that you’ve most likely never heard and quite possibly never heard of. The New York Scandia Symphony is simply one of the nation’s most adventurous orchestras, devoting a staggering ninety percent of their repertoire to either United States or New York premieres of works by Scandinavian composers. This cd is characteristic. Nielsen’s most familiar symphony is the widely played Fourth, “The Inextinguishable,” along with the fascinatingly voiced, call-and-response-laden Fifth. Yet the Danish composer wrote several other first-class works for full orchestra, collected here for the first time under the inspired direction of Dorrit Matson (revealingly interviewed here recently). It’s early 20th century romanticism, soaring, bright or lushly atmospheric, occasionally tinged with Eastern and Middle Eastern motifs.

The first three pieces, the Symphonic Rhapsody, An Evening at Giske and the Helios Overture share a robust melodicism that compares with anything Cesar Franck ever wrote. Also included are the crescendoing, darkly stately partita An Imaginary Journey to the Faroe Islands and the subtly uneasy, balletesque Amor and the Poet Overture, written a year before the composer died and inspired by Hans Christian Andersen’s doomed infatuation with the popular singer Jenny Lind. But the centerpiece is the Aladdin Suite, based on the iconic Adam Oehlenschlager novel that sought to appropriate the myth as a reaffirmation of early 19th century Danish identity. The Oriental Festival March, the blazing overture that opens it, works off one of the alltime great catchy hooks, right up there with the Peer Gynt themes and the 1812 Overture. South Asian and Arab influences are alluded to if not directly in the suspenseful Aladdin’s Dream and Hindu Dance which follow, the pace picking up with Prokofiev-esque deviousness in the Chinese Dance – like his protagonist, Nielsen gets around a lot here. The high point is the haunting, vertiginous Market Place in Ispahan, soprano vocalese whirling in counterrotation with booming timpani against a shrill choir of high woodwinds. After that, the explosive arabesques of the Prisoner’s Dance are almost anticlimactic. The suite ends in a crashing, demonic blaze of voice and orchestra with the Blackamoor’s Dance. That the ensemble was able to complete a recording-quality performance of such a dramatic work within the boomy confines of New York’s Trinity Church speaks volumes.

In addition to this cd, the New York Scandia Symphony has also released three previous cds: a warm collection of Nielsen concertos; a collection of sometimes generic, sometimes fascinating suites by Lars-Erik Larsson and an album of concertos by pioneering early Romanticist Bernhard Henrik Crusell, whose post-Viennese School adventures are on par with pretty much anything Schubert ever did. The New York Scandia’s summer 2009 season includes an ongoing series of Sunday afternoon quartet and quintet shows in Ft. Tryon Park in Washington Heights.

June 10, 2009 Posted by | Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Concert Review: The New York Scandia Symphony Plays Nielsen and Svendsen at Trinity Church, 3/12/09

The New York Scandia Symphony dedicates itself to popularizing the work of Scandianavian composers here in the US. That a staggering ninety percent of their repertoire is American premieres is reason alone to put them on your calendar. The other, obviously is that they rank with any other orchestra in New York in terms of talent. Who would have thought that one of the the year’s most stunning moments in classical music so far would have taken place in the middle of the day at a landmark, downtown church?

 

On the podium, Dorrit Matson calmly and assuredly led the ensemble through a seamless yet thrilling Romantic program rich with feeling and melody. They opened with Carl Nielsen’s warmly dreamy Prelude from Maskarade, Mattson vigorously bringing out the striking accents in the horns behind the lush, sweeping strings. Norwegian composer Johan Svendsen’s Cello Concerto, from 1870, was next, a wrenchingly beautiful work that deserves iconic status alongside the best of Brahms or Rachmaninoff. Built around a six-note theme extraordinary both in its simplicity and evocation of longing, it has both a slightly subdued, elegaic feel and something of a noir sensibility. It’s a shock that a rock band or two haven’t nicked one or more of the variations. Leaping into it with abandon, the orchestra only backed off when soloist Lawrence Zoernig joined them. Displaying a warm vibrato and a seemingly effortless familiarity with a relentless series of rapidly cascading arpeggios, he worked his role as an ensemble member rather than showboating, which fit the piece perfectly.

 

Nielsen’s Fifth Symphony closed the program. It’s somewhat odd, stark in places, with a persistent, recurrent feel of unease, notably whenever everything finally seems as if it’s ok. It has an almost mathematical symmetry, not only as the themes change but also in the interior of those themes, whether the melody is being passed from strings to winds (as happens more than once) or during one of its many crescendoing, increasingly complex fugal passages. It frequently reminds of Shostakovich, a constant tug-of-war, peace versus aggression and instability.

 

The first movement evolves from a slow, hypnotic trill on the viola, echoed and eventually returned by the rest of the orchestra. Then, the first of a series of disquieting, martial passages is introduced by the percussion, the first a sarcastic march. From there it builds methodically to a bell-like choir of violins followed by a loudly resigned, almost funereal crescendo, horns bubbling behind the lushness of the strings. The second movement begins as a stormy waltz, horns sounding the alarm once again, then fading into a big, full-steam procession where everything seems to be fine. And then the strings are scurrying once again, crisis admist what once was calm, again and again until it all ends on an unresolved note. To hear this on an ipod is inspiring; to watch this orchestra make their way through it with such intensity and command of its emotional sensibilities was far more satisfying than anything a recording could possibly deliver.   

 

The New York Scandia Symphony’s next performance is at their usual home, Trinity Church on May 28, with pieces by Kuhlau, Larsson and Weyse on the bill along with US premieres by Gunnar Berg and Vagn Holmboe. Classical music fans who are able to make it to the church around lunchtime would be crazy to miss it.

March 13, 2009 Posted by | Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments