Lucid Culture


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

From a Smile to a Scream: the Greenwich Village Orchestra Plays Brahms and Shostakovich

There were microphones placed prominently in front of the stage for the Greenwich Village Orchestra’s concert this past Sunday at the Washington Irving High School auditorium. The room appears to date from the late 1800s, complete with organ pipes in the walls (who knows if it still works or if the console is even there anymore), and the acoustics are outstanding for orchestral music. They picked the right program to record: the Brahms Violin Concerto seemed to play itself, and Shostakovich’s Tenth Symphony was as riveting and disquieting as its composer intended.

Although somewhat controversial in its day – Brahms’ contemporary, the violinist Pablo de Sarasate refused to play it because he didn’t want to “stand around while the oboe played the only melody in the piece” – the big tripartite concerto is part of the standard repertoire, something that Duncan Pirney probably played to death on WQXR thirty years ago. But hidden in plain sight within the piece’s utterly predictable, stately, cozily nocturnal Teutonic architecture are some delightfully uncharacteristic treats, each of which the orchestra seized on as they appeared. It was like watching an elaborately staged treasure hunt. Among them are the first violin solo, a very difficult and exciting series of runs down the scale, punctuated with lightning-fast double stops, which guest violinist Yosuke Kawasaki played as if he’d been looking forward to the challenge. A close listen – which is what you get in this venue – also reveals plenty of playful rhythmic devices, such as one early on in the first of the concerto’s three moments where the woodwinds provide striking, warmly chordal counterpoint to a frenetic violin melody. The oboe tune that de Sarasate coveted appears in the opening of the second movement; it’s a pretty, nostalgic little melody, but nothing to match the complexity that Kawasaki had to deal with.

Toward the end, Kawasaki suddenly changed up his attack. He’d been playing with great precision, which is pretty much the only way to tackle this piece, but for one reason or another he suddenly dug in and let his phrasing blaze with a relaxed legato. At one point, he turned to conductor Barbara Yahr and smiled, as if to say, “Maestro, let’s drive this thing home.” Which they did. You can see the end coming a mile away, and the unbridled passion of the closing crescendo brought them in for a perfect landing.

At their most recent performance, the orchestra brought a remarkable joy and abandon to Richard Strauss’ Death and Transfiguration. There’s a great deal of sturm und drang in Dmitri Shostakovich’s Tenth Symphony, and considering that it’s ultimately about revenge, it must be tempting to go for broke and crank it up. But Yahr didn’t, reining in the piece, emphasizing every subtlety in this brutally powerful, deeply personal and political masterpiece. Shostakovich waited almost a decade between his Ninth and this symphony, waiting for Stalin to die. When the tyrant finally gave up the ghost, the composer had this ready shortly thereafter. It’s both a requiem for the dead and a call to action, and contains a surprisingly brief musical portrait of Stalin. Considering that Shostakovich saw many of his contemporaries murdered or imprisoned under the Soviet regime, he certainly would have been within his rights to write up Stalin for every crime against humanity he ever committed. But Shostakovich doesn’t torture the audience with it: the tyrant is summarily dismissed as a tinpot dictator. The composer recognized the banality of evil when he saw it, several years before Hannah Arendt codified it. He was more concerned with the six million plus souls murdered during the reign of terror, screaming in unison through the violins in the first movement, over and over again, as the piece builds to a thundering swell.

Shostakovich didn’t spare the regime’s ridiculous pageantry, though: in addition to the Stalin portrait, the second movement is full of twisted, macabre martial themes. But there’s hope, a recurrent French horn motif that eventually takes center stage as the sketchy hustling and bustling of the army and the party apparat retreat to the outskirts of the melody. He could have easily made the final movement gleeful: it’s a celebration of Stalin’s death, with an encoded message, the horns emphasizing a D-E flat-C-B progression that in a combination of Italian and German musical notation spells out Shostakovich’s initials. The phrase repeats again and again, but not joyously: glad though Shostakovich was to be rid of his nemesis, he remained horror-stricken. Memo to dictators and other censorious types: never mess with a composer. They always get even in the end. May the regime in this country today never need a Shostakovich to document such grotesque inhumanity.

The Greenwich Village Orchestra likes theme programs. This one was “Triumphant.” The next is “Enduring,” on March 30 at 3 PM here featuring Sibelius’ famous Valse Triste in addition to pieces by Hindemith and Nielsen.

February 12, 2008 Posted by | classical music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Adrenaline for the Soul: The Greenwich Village Orchestra in Concert 11/18/07

It’s hard to believe that this world-class orchestra has somehow managed to fly so far below the radar. For a $15 donation, classical music fans can see reliably good, frequently exhilarating performances of both popular and obscure works, discover new composers and watch some of the best up-and-coming talent at the top of their game. Shows as good as this afternoon’s spiritually-themed program by the Greenwich Village Orchestra usually cost a hundred dollars or more at the Midtown concert halls. Plainly and simply, there is no better music value in New York.

While the afternoon’s theme (this orchestra LOVES theme programs) was spirituality, it would have been better put as a celebration of everything that makes life worth living, a frequently riveting, exuberant, passionate performance. They began slowly with two orchestral arrangements of Bruckner motets, the first a pretty generic, post-baroque melody, the second slightly more interesting but ultimately nothing more than a standard pre-Romantic Northern European piece, nothing Mendelssohn didn’t do a hundred times better.

But they brought out every bit of drama in the next piece, Rimsky-Korsakov’s Easter Overture. It’s a celebration of the Resurrection, opening all quiet and suspenseful but building quickly to a fiery, galloping, gypsyish folk dance in three movements. On the podium, Barbara Yahr spurred the orchestra to play with wild abandon, and they delivered.

In keeping with the spiritual theme, three representatives of New York spiritual communities each delivered a short introduction to a particular piece of music. Rabbi Ayelet S. Cohen of Congregation Beth Simchat Torah impressed the most by quoting influential civil rights crusader Rabbi Abraham Heschel on how prayer is by definition transgressive, that one’s spiritual life necessarily works against the status quo in seeking higher ground. It was an apt way to kick off Max Bruch’s heart-tugging Kol Nidrei, based on the prayer invoked the night before the Jewish day of atonement, Yom Kippur. Guest soloist Eric Jacobsen played his part on the cello from memory with an intensity that made it look as if he was about to break strings. He’s a rising star, and for good reason, with a seemingly effortless vibrato and a sense of dynamics that doesn’t stop at fortissimo. His blazing interpretation burned away any trace of sentimentality that could have insinuated itself into this highly emotional composition.

The following work was a world premiere, young Hong Kong-born Angel Lam’s Her Thousand Year Dance. If this piece is typical of her other material, it instantly establishes her as a first-rate composer, blending the windswept, pastoral beauty of traditional Chinese classical music with western tonalities. Beginning abruptly with a few bursts from special guest Kojiro Umezaki’s shakuhachi (an oversize Japanese wood flute), it rose to an ethereal, atmospheric yet rhythmically difficult altitude and pretty much stayed there for the duration, aside from a couple of breaks with light percussion. That the afternoon’s final piece, Richard Strauss’ Death and Transfiguration, would be anticlimactic speaks volumes about what preceded it. Yahr led the ensemble through a highly idiosyncratic yet extremely successful reading. Although there are no breaks written in the music, Strauss wrote this ultimately triumphant chronicle of struggle and redemption in four distinct parts. While the piece is frequently played with an emphasis on overall ambience, Yahr spelled out the dynamics in capital letters, putting teeth in both the ebbs and swells, an unexpected thrill ride to close what had to be the most exciting classical bill anywhere in town this week.

The media typically holds classical musicians to a higher standard than rock or jazz players (which is grossly unfair: everybody, even the greatest virtuosos, make mistakes). If there were any technical flaws in this afternoon’s performance, it would be the sluggishness of the horns early on in the Bruckner and some general weirdness (tuning issues?) in the violins early during the Lam. Otherwise, Yahr steered this careening unit directly into high winds and stormy seas and then brought everyone back into port unscathed, the crowd (on the docks, if you want to bring the metaphor full circle) all on their feet, roaring their approval. The GVO’s next concert is December 16, billed as a kid-friendly show featuring Saint-Saens’ witty, interesting, multi-part Carnival of the Animals (which gets pegged as a children’s piece even though it’s quite sophisticated), along with pieces by Mozart and Mendelssohn.The GVO’s best deal is their series subscription, especially considering what lies in store: in addition to the December 16, the remainder of the season features works by Shostakovich, Bach, Brahms and others. The concerts continue to be held at Washington Irving High School auditorium as they’ve been for several years, considering the room’s excellent sonics (it seems to date from the 19th century and at one time even housed a concert organ, whose pipes still stand to the left and right of the stage).

November 19, 2007 Posted by | classical music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment