That the Chelsea Symphony’s Powerglide tour of the iconic vistas in Dvorak’s New World Symphony Friday night was upstaged by two world premieres speaks to both the quality of those works as well as the orchestra’s commitment to establishing them in the symphonic repertoire. With meticulous attention to detail, conductor Miguel Campos Neto first led the group through Danny Gray’s Summer Mountains, the winning piece from this season’s Chelsea Symphony composition competition.
Although inspired by eleventh century Chinese landscape portraiture, there’s nothing Asian about it: Gray could just as easily have called it Appalachian Spring. As the work built from distant but purposeful impressionism to awestruck brass riffs, it came across as something akin to Copland but without the fussiness. That, and Dvorak.
As it went on, a couple of dreamy, lustrous interludes referenced the night’s most famous work; otherwise, Gray utilized just about every available instrument, section of the orchestra and tonality. It’s a colorful, programmatic piece. A playfully brief interlude from the percussion section, and then towering heights fueled by brass and wind soloists were balanced with a couple of mystical idylls and a surprise nocturne of an outro. Throughout the piece, solos were crystalline and distinct; the same was true of the work’s counterpoint and textural contrasts. The was one muddy moment where a flurry of percussion drowned out the strings, but that wouldn’t have been an issue in a larger venue.
Soloist Sarah Haines’ role in premiering Michael Boyman’s Concerto for Viola and Orchestra had its virtuoso passages, most striking in a coldly enigmatic, slithery chromatic riff and variations. Yet more often than not, she served as anchor while a succession of dark, often Shostakovian melodies rose and fell around her. Boyman is also a violist, which made perfect sense in context. Cumulo-nimbus low brass loomed large against the litheness of the viola, strings and winds, a brooding, recurrent trope. A rather cynical, dancing scherzo gave way to a boisterous neoromantic crescendo and mighty upward swirl in the coda, a succession of nocturnal motives that again referenced Dvorak at his most lustrous. This moody, mighty suite very vividly reflects our current state of unease: it would resonate powerfully with a global audience.
The orchestra’s silkiness in the most low-key passages of Dvorak’s most famous piece gave Campos Neto a high ceiling for some absolutely bellicose heroic melodies along with wary calls across the plains from sentries and scouts. Chariots swung low and hard and Old Man River was foreshadowed mightily from the current, amid homey familiarity. This performance more than did justice to the ongoing New World Initiative instigated by the NY Philharmonic, an apt choice of a piece to be programmed at venues across this city in an era when the descendants of the African-Americans whose melodies Dvorak appropriated are facing perils that for awhile we thought we’d left behind in another century.
For eleven years now, the Chelsea Symphony have been introducing important, relevant new works while lending their signature flair to standard repertoire. Their next concerts are Friday, April 21 at 8:30 PM and then Saturday, April 22 at 7:30 at St. Paul’s German Church, 315 W 22nd St. off of 8th Ave. featuring an Aaron Dai world premiere plus music of Bach, Stravinsky, Carl Busch, Samuel Magrill and Henri Vieuxtemps. Suggested donation is $20.
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.
One of Minnesota-based all-male choir Cantus‘ signature traits is theme programs. As one concertgoer put it, they can get a lot wilder than they were Sunday at Lincoln Center. Then again, this program was part of the spiritually-themed White Light Festival, continuing here through November 11. There are plenty of groups who mine the standard Renaissance repertoire, some who specialize in rediscovering treasures from that era, but Cantus are just as likely to juxtapose the ancient with the most current and make it all flow together seamlessly, and in that respect this was a characteristic performance.
They began with a precise, pulsing, even bouncy take of a twelfth century Perotinus piece, then a more traditional, somberly contemplative one by Josquin Des Prez. With its intricately echoing counterpoint, Randall Tompson’s 1940 Alleluia made a good segue, especially when the group hit an unexpectedly celebratory peak right before the end. In a way, it brought the early part of the concert full circle.
Jumping ahead sixty years to a lush, ambered take of Eric Whitacre’s aptly titled Lux Aurumque, they followed that with a bucolic 1942 nocturne by Swedish composer Hugo Alfven. Negotiating the tricky metrics, sudden dynamic shifts and otherworldly close harmonies of a diptych by Estonian composer Veljo Tormis was no easy task, but the group made it look almost easy. In a choir, the individuals on the low and the top end always end up standing out, and this group was no exception, basses Chris Foss and Samuel Green paired against tenors Paul John Rudoi, Shahzore Shah, Aaron Humble and Blake Morgan. But the midrange benefited especially from the efforts of tenor Zachary Colby and baritone Matthew Goinz; Matthew Tintes, in particular, showed off an unexpectedly far-reaching range for a baritone.
From there they moved through brief works celebrating the comfort of home, or home country, via works by Sibelius, Dvorak, Janacek and Kodaly – the latter being the Hungarian national song, more or less, awash in a warmly consonant harmony that hardly seemed possible, from someone with such a thorny repertoire. It was music to get lost in. The group closed on a much more acerbic note, maybe as to draw the crowd out of their dream state, with a 2006 diptych by Edie Hill and encored by going deep into the 19th century hymnal. Cantus’ current tour continues onward: the next stop along the way is November 13 at 7 PM at Central Christian Center, 5th & Virginia in Joplin, Missouri.
The big story at the Park Avenue Chamber Symphony‘s performance at Carnegie Hall this past Sunday was pianist Daniela Liebman‘s debut. But the orchestra did their best to pre-empt that. They exploded with their introductory piece, Dvorak’s Carnival Overture, more curtain-burner than curtain-lifter. Maestro David Bernard conducted from memory, as he did with all but one of the works on the program. He’s a lot of fun to watch, a very kinetic presence, big smile stretched across his face, bouncing on the balls of his feet. The work has the same romping energy as the composer’s Slavonic Dances, but with considerably more dynamics, done plushly, with pinpoint precision and an unexpectedly delicate balance between the brass and strings for such a robust piece of music.
If the thought of an eleven-year-old tackling Shostakovich in front of a sold-out house makes you wince, you’re not alone. What’s the likelihood that a young middle-schooler, with her limited life experience, slight build and small hands, would have the stamina and technique, let alone the emotional depth, to deliver anything more than a rote version of the composer’s Piano Concerto No. 2, Op. 102? This isn’t Shostakovich the outraged witness; this is the 20th century’s greatest musical ironist at the peak of his sardonic, puckish, satirical power. Shostakovich wrote it in 1957 as a showcase for his pianist son Maxim, obviously something of a parody of the sturm und drang of the traditional High Romantic concerto form. But the simple fact that Daniela Liebman would choose this darkly amusing piece, with its seething anti-fascist subtext, over, say, something more straightforward by Beethoven or Brahms or Mozart, says a lot. And she seemed to intuitively grasp it, playing with a deadpan intensity and just the hint of a wink, whether adding a touch of evil when the dancing first movement morphed into a coldly marionettish mockery, or with a coolly singleminded focus as the piece playfully slid into 7/8 time in the final movement. Shostakovich himself had a hard time getting his own hands around several of the rising unison passages that occur about midway through, but Liebman pulled them off with aplomb. Depth is not a quality that only older people can access, and Liebman left no doubt that she is a deep soul. She also loves the spotlight, treating the crowd to rapidfire, triumphant solo versions of Vitaly Fillipenko’s cruelly difficult, staccato Toccata as well as a Chopin etude, earning more than one standing ovation in the process.
The closing work on the bill was Tschaikovsky’s Romeo and Juliet Fantasy-Overture, which Bernard and the ensemble immersed in a dreamy unease that never quite relented, an apt illustration of the doomed lovers, through long crescendos to a stormy dance, an absolutely lustrous brass interlude and a series of big Beethovenesque endings. This was a world-class, majestic performance.
The orchestra also played a steady, Teutonically matter-of-fact version of the Brahms Violin Concerto. Featured violinist Jourdan Urbach got an old-fashioned standing ovation after the first movement, but to be fair, the solos from the oboe and then Alix Raspe’s harp a bit later on were every bit as compelling. The Park Avenue Chamber Symphony’s next concert is February 22, 2014 at 8 PM at All Saints Church, 230 E 60th St (between 2nd and 3rd Aves) featuring Beethoven’s Symphony No. 2, Samuel Barber’s Knoxville Summer 1915 and Dvorak’s Dance Suite for Orchestra.
You might think that the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center would have played the summer concert series at the Naumburg Bandshell in Central Park at some point in the past 44 years, but it actually never happened until Thursday night. Which, when you think about it, isn’t so surprising. Lincoln Center being their home, the logical destination for them for summer concerts is out back in Damrosch Park. This was like the Mets making a visit to Yankee Stadium. How did they fare off their home turf? It would be nice to say they came to conquer; a more fair assessment would be that they met the situation halfway, through no fault of their own or the organizers of the Naumburg concerts, who do a fantastic job. The sound was amplified and mixed well and many people in the crowd got to take home a free t-shirt. What possibly could have gone wrong?
In the year 2013 it has become more than obvious that outdoor concerts in New York in the summer may soon become a thing of the past: combine budget cuts in every conceivable area with the effects of global warming and then do the math. Cellist David Finckel, violinist Sean Lee, violist Daniel Phillips and flutist Tara Helen O’Connor typically play the comfortable, sonically excellent, air-conditioned Alice Tully Hall when they’re not on the road. This time out, they had nasty humidity and heat to make their job difficult and impact their ability to stay in tune. They opened with Mozart’s Quartet in D for Flute, Violin, Viola and Cello, K285 and then followed with Beethoven’s Serenade in D for Flute, Violin and Viola, Op. 25. Both pieces, the Mozart especially, are the kind of works that composers of their era wrote to pay the bills: if not for the applause between the two, it would have been hard to tell when the former ended and the latter began. Whether the endless volleys of call-and-response, or simply the heat, lent an air of sluggishness, is open to debate: the concert will air in its entirety on WQXR on September 2; you can listen at ciento y cinco punto nueve (105.9 FM used to be the salsa romantica station) or at WQXR.org and be the judge.
But serendipitously, the Beethoven picked up with a lively folk dance just as the sun set and a cool calm settled over Central Park, and suddenly the musicians seemed at home, through the dynamically shifting three final movements, ending on a drolly energetic, teasing note with a series of classic Beethovenesque endings. Then pianist Wu Han joined the full ensemble and they played Dvorak’s Quintet in A Major, B. 155, Op. 81. You probably know this piece even if you don’t think you do: it’s a staple of film scores from the 40s and 50s, especially the sad, slow second movement, and Han went deep into lingering cavatina mode for that. As the piece went on, helicopters circled and circled – you would have thought that Osama Bin Laden and Dick Cheney were canoodling in a nearby gully. Whatever the copters were looking for, they didn’t find, in many, many passes overhead. When the music was audible, it was excellent, particularly Dvorak’s long, expansively cinematic first movement, the robust scherzo of the third and the bittersweet romp out with the fourth. Anyone who thinks that Dvorak is all about lush optimism should hear what this crew did with it. This was it for the Naumburg concerts for 2013. The CMSLC will be back at Alice Tully Hall with all kinds of enticing programs in the weeks ahead.
Is this a golden age for string quartets? The program for this season’s opening night at Music Mondays quoted the New Yorker as saying that. Whatever the case, it’s definitely true at this upper westside free chamber music hotspot. The monthly series at Advent Church at 93rd and Broadway has pretty much reached critical mass, both in terms of audience and programming. On the bill this season: the Claremont Trio next month; the Calder Quartet in December; the Horszowski Trio in January, all the way through to New York’s premier gamelan orchestra, Gamelan Dharma Swara collaborating with NOW Ensemble.
This past Monday’s piece de resistance was George Perle’s 1988 Quartet No. 8, “Windows of Order,” played by the Daedalus Quartet. Cellist Thomas Kraines explained that the composer, while a “total 12-tone guy,” wrote the piece on a theme of order out of chaos. It would be reductionistic to describe it as modernist tonalities arranged in a classical architecture, but that’s part of it. The vibrantly dancing, distinct quality of the melody line gets subsumed in a harshness that absolutely refuses to resolve with any kind of traditional western consonance as it alternates among a series of movements that are interspersed among each other rather than following sequentially. And the ensemble had a ball with them, through the bracing rises and falls early on, violinists Min-Young Kim and Matilda Kaul and violist Jessica Thompson joining Kraines in livening the languid midsection with a raw, timbrally edgy bite and then romping through the cruel hints of a big Beethovesque finale.
They finally got to deliver a long one of those as they triumphantly wound up Dvorak’s Quartet No. 14 in A-flat Major, Op. 105. Their approach was to dig into its warm, courtly opening dance and give it some needed oomph, which hit the spot and worked well to set up the rich anthemics of the classic four-chord progression that drives the third movement: it’s a wonder no rock band has stolen it yet. Likewise, their performance of Mendelsssohn’s Quartet in E-flat Major, Op. 12 underscored both its ebullient power as well as its shift into darkness: after the lush, pillowy first movement, the piece follows a trajectory away from comfort that’s never regained. In this group’s hands, even the pageantry of the waltz that follows the opening had a restless tinge. All of this made an auspicious kickoff to what promises to be a tremendously entertaining season. The Claremont Trio is next up here, on October 15 at 7:30 PM, reception to follow.
As the Knights’ previous album Live from New York affirmed, the orchestra transcend any kind of “indie classical” label – they’re as much at home with Shostakovich as they are with Jimi Hendrix. Their first studio recording, New Worlds, artfully takes a characteristically diverse and ambitious selection of works from the Romantic era through the present day and casts them as a suite: the tracks basically segue into each other. As dissimilar as these compositions are, that the idea works at all is an achievement: that it works so well is a triumph worth celebrating. Conductor Eric Jacobsen (who’s also the cellist in another first-rate new music ensemble, the celebrated string quartet Brooklyn Rider) leads this adventurous crew with flair and gusto yet with an almost obsessive focus on minutiae: dynamics are everything here, and they are everywhere. For example, the apprehension of the trumpet motif rising out of Charles Ives’ The Unanswered Question, the opening track here – and its single, fleeting, cinematic cadenza that rises up and disappears like a ghost. Or the second movement of Latin Grammy winner Gabriela Lena Frank’s Leyendas – An Andean Walkabout. It’s a game of hide-and-seek, pizzicato string accents amid stillness like woodland sprites. And then a spritely dance, with distant echoes of The Rites of Spring. It’s supposed to be evocative of native Andean instruments, but the Knights give them personalities.
And they breathe new life into an old chestnut. Dvorak’s Silent Woods swings and sways, with cellist Jan Vogler the soloist. These woods are very robustly alive – it’s a romp all the way through the trick ending. So the segue into Osvaldo Golijov’s Last Round, a memorably bristling, staccato string homage to Piazzolla, works like a charm. Credit Golijov, as well for the counterintuitivity of the funereal second movement, whose counterpoint could almost pass for Brahms.
And that’s when the album ends, for us at least. The ensemble have a special fondness for Aaron Copland’s Appalachian Spring, as they were playing it throughout the Obama campaign’s ascendancy up to the historic 2008 election. We’ll leave it to fans of that piece to contemplate where the Knights’ version stands alongside other recordings. The Knights’ next New York performance is on August 3 at the Naumburg Bandshell in Central Park – take the 72nd St. entrance on the east side, circle round the south side of Summerstage, go down the steps and it’ll be on your right.