Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

The New York Philharmonic Premiere David Lang’s Chillingly Relevant New Opera

David Lang has more contempt for a police state than he does for capital letters. That’s a lot. A sold-out audience last night were treated to the New York Philharmonic‘s world premiere of his sometimes allusively haunting, sometimes horrifyingly realistic new opera “enemy of the state” [all lowercase, as is the style throughout his catalog]. It’s easy to read Lang’s new take on the theme Beethoven followed in his lone opera, Fidelio, as a Julian Assange parable. Although with the iconic Wikileaks founder reportedly near death from mysterious causes in a British prison, he doesn’t seem to have anyone as willing amd able to spring him as the central prisoner’s wife is in Lang’s new magnum opus. It’s an important work for our time: $34 tickets are still available for tonight and tomorrow night’s 8 PM performances. You should see it.

Lang has always been an anomaly, a brilliant tunesmith in a field too often dominated by both pigheaded obscurantism and twee amateurishness. The music of this new work (Lang also wrote the lyrics) resembles the Hindustani-influenced art-rock of singer Peter Gabriel, the late 70s recordings of the rock band King Crimson at their most purposeful, and the anthemic, artsy side of 80s new wave, more than it recalls Beethoven. Strings and percussion dominate throughout. Late in the narrative, a trumpeter perched on one of the balconies will sound a particularly sardonic variation on an already cynical fanfare. The sheer gorgeousness of the vocal overlays and harmonies of singers Julie Mathevet, Eric Owens and Alan Oke offer cruelly sarcastic contrast with a relentlessly grim, profoundly philosophical narrative that quotes Arendt and Macchiavelli and coldly references Bentham on what the ideal prison should be.

How did maestro Jaap van Zweden tackle the music? Bouncing on his heels as he pulled subtle variations on Lang’s tersely expanding, cellular, Glass-ine themes from the orchestra, he validated every claim about his dedication to new music. Lang’s metrics are challenging, to say the least, and the conductor had those rhythms in his pocket. He was having as much fun as anyone can have leading an orchestra, choir and soloists through the story of a potentially averted execution (you will not find out here how it ends).

The acting is as strong as the singing. Mathevet’s tantalizingly brief flights upward are matched by a resolute presence (as in Fidelio, we are expected to believe that in costume she can pass for a boy, a real stretch). Owens is almost as imperturbable as a would-be Eichmann, just doing his job, but not 100% completely devoid of humanity. Oke, as prison honcho, exudes pure evil as coldblooded sociopath and executioner.

We never even get to see the titular Prisoner, played with depleted, almost-out-of-gas determination by Jarrett Ott, until the third movement. Nor do we ever learn why he’s behind bars – although, as the Jailer avers, he probably has powerful enemies. The difference between life behind bars and outside, as the Prisoner puts it, is that inside, you can see the bars. In this Hobbesian terror state, ruled by greed, corruption and (allusively) Instagram, the jailers are as much prisoners as those they watch over. And somebody’s always watching.

Behind the scenes, Donald Nally matched van Zweden for mastery of uncanny rhythms, leading the orange-clad prisoner choir personfiied by the many men of the Concert Chorale of New York. Elkhannah Pulitzer’s direction sets the stage aptly, with imaginative use of projections and a Guantanamo-like set. When van Zweden emerged from an unexpected entry point, he set off the lone flicker of laughter in this otherwise chillingly relevant retelling of an all-too-familiar story.;

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June 7, 2019 Posted by | avant garde music, classical music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, opera, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Shimmering and Shattering Mozart This Week From the New York Philharmonic

Last night the New York Philharmonic went from a whisper to a scream in a performance of two iconic Mozart works that even by this orchestra’s standards were revelatory. The Philharmonic are pairing the Requiem with Mozart’s final piano concerto, No. 27 in B Flat, featuring soloist Richard Goode tomorrow night, March 15 at 8 PM, as well as March 16 at 8 and March 19 at 7:30 PM. If you’ve never seen these pieces before, go – this is a rare chance to get a foundational understanding. If you have, these performances may reorient you, profoundly.

This was not a particularly loud Requiem. Notwithstanding that harrowing jolt where Mozart realizes that things are not going to end well – “Rex! Rex!” the choir implores – and that several later passages are as grand as guignol gets, the orchestra didn’t play them that way. In the early going, conductor Manfred Honeck put his hand to his ear, an admonition to remain hushed, and both the orchestra and the Westminster Symphonic Choir standing against the back wall stayed as sotto-voce and dead serious as they possibly could have been. Many ensembles can’t resist the temptation to make Halloween out of it, but this Requiem fulfilled its function as elegy and also as liturgical music, true to the commission Mozart accepted. Employing his motet Ave Verum Corpus as a solemn summation to this uncompleted version was a respectful acknowledgment that we’ll never know how the composer wanted it to end.

As David Bernard has astutely observed, eighty percent of the Requiem is either repetition or Mozart understudy Franz Sussmayr. How do you save repetition from being redundant? Change the dynamics. What a difference Honeck’s choice made when the introductory theme came around again, this time closer to pine box than velvet. Contrasts between mens’ and women’s voices were striking and distinct, other than in the two bewildering series of quasi-operatic, Handelian eighth note volleys that are so out of place that one assumes it was Sussmayr, not Mozart, who came up with them.

Among the four vocal soloists, soprano Joelle Harvey’s forceful delivery was particularly impactful, as was mezzo-soprano Megan Mikhailovna Samarin’s more understated, moody approach, in her Philharmonic debut. Tenor Ben Bliss and bass Matthew Rose exchanged roles as voices of doom and hope against hope. Snippets of somber Mozart Masonic funeral music made an apt introduction and brought everything full circle.

Much as the Requiem was played through a stained glass window, darkly, the Piano Concerto sparkled with coy humor. Goode’s floating articulacy on the keys, through jaunty, fleeting crescendos, jeweled cascades and some jousting with the orchestra, was unselfconsciously joyous. Likewise, the orchestra were seamless unless a particular moment called for some goofy peek-a-boo from an individual voice – Mozart uses the flute a lot for that. There were a few slight transitory glitches early on, but things like that typically get ironed out after opening night.

March 14, 2019 Posted by | classical music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The New York Philharmonic Bring Epic Relevance to a Grim, Pivotal Moment in New York History

Has there ever been such a massive, grimly determined crowd of musicians onstage – and in the aisles – as there were at Lincoln Center last night for the New York Philharmonic’s performance of Julia Wolfe’s Fire in My Mouth? For an especially lavish production of Beethoven’s Ninth, conceivably. But even in that case maestro Jaap van Zweden wouldn’t have had to signal four separate choirs behind his back while facing the orchestra and choirs in front of him.

That he and the ensembles could keep the composer’s maze of insistent counterpoint so steady and seamless speaks to a genuinely epic commitment to do justice to Wolfe’s theme: the 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist Fire and its 146 victims. The title of the piece is actually a quote from labor organizer Clara Lemlich, referring to her passion for battling factory owners’ private gestapos in her early days as an advocate for worker’s rights. In an era where working people around the world are facing Industrial Revolution conditions, and amazon.com employees in the UK forego bathroom breaks for fear of being fired, the legacy of the most deadly calamity on New York soil prior to 9/11 has more relevance than ever.

Wolfe has made a career of writing impactful, historically rich work. To be clear, this isn’t her most harrowing composition: that would probably be her utterly macabre string orchestra piece, Cruel Sister. This latest extravaganza follows the insistently rhythmic, towering, Pulitzer Prize-winning intensity of her oratorio Anthracite Fields. Both are unflinching and relentless: the lives of early 1900s New York sweatshop employees and Pennsylvania coal miners are cruelly similar.

As theatre, this performance was immersively effective: there’s no escaping the angst of these exploited women, in their matching smocks, when they’re singing in unison right next to you. Choral ensemble the Crossing remained onstage while several subsets of the Young People’s Chorus of New York City migrated matter-of-factly from station to station. Dead center amid the maelstrom, van Zweden remained a calm guide through what was often a hailstorm of beats. One of Wolfe’s favorite tropes is to shake up the music with all sorts of rhythmic complexity when a melody is more or less horizontal, and she does that a lot here. The result, tight as a drum, was impressive to say the least.

The introduction took awhile, requiring some patience from the audience before the massed groups gathered steam. “Crushing poverty” became a vivid motif amid a constant, flitting interchange of voices as a transatlantic immigrant’s tale finally offered foreshadowing of the tragedy to come. The interpolation of a plaintive Yiddish song and a phantasmagorical tarantella – most of the fire victims were either Eastern European Jewish or Italian immigrants – was stunningly executed.

Sharply menacing sheet metal shears are a new addition to the world’s symphonic instruments: the choirs were choreographed to employ them to snap out a rhythm attesting to the dangers and mind-numbing repetition inherent to sweatshop labor. Likewise, the way the singers hammered on the word “want” over and over again, a bit later on, resonated on every conceivable level. The coda to this all-too-familiar tale turned out to be more dynamic, and longer, than expected, ending with a kaleidoscopically arranged incantation of the victims’ names.

The first half of the program underscored the difference between decent music direction and genuine brilliance. Maybe it was just a stroke of fate van Zweden had been on the podium for the world premiere of Steven Stucky’s oratorio, August 4, 1964, but making a segue with Copland’s Concerto for Clarinet and String Orchestra was as perfect as it was counterintuitive. The instrumental Elegy from Stucky’s suite, and the first part of Copland’s would-be diptych share eerie Twin Peaks vamps and variations, and also jazz influences: crepuscular Gil Evans-like lustre in the former, jaunty faux dixieland in the latter. Clarinetist Anthony McGill matched coyness to muscle while van Zweden couldn’t resist shaking a tail feather, a chance to blow off steam before reality returned with a vengeance in the second half of the program.

There’s a final performance tonight, Jan 26 at 8 PM. Although last night appeared to be pretty much sold out, tickets are available as of this writing (Saturday, 11 AM); at yesterday’s show, the box office was doing brisk business right up til curtain time. This is an important moment in New York history: you should see it.

January 26, 2019 Posted by | avant garde music, classical music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Practical Strategies For Introducing Audiences to New Composers of Serious Music

The panel discussion this past evening at Lincoln Center was less a skull session about how to fix the crisis of diminishing audiences at concerts of serious music and more about how two of the most colorful individuals in the business are tackling it. The New York Philharmonic‘s Isaac Thompson, who moderated, wisely picked the orchestra’s first-ever Creative Partner, Nadia Sirota, along with her International Contemporary Ensemble bassoonist pal Rebekah Heller, then let the two of them chew the scenery. The result was refreshingly optimistic, all the more so for being grounded in the grim reality of experience and history.

Both approach the situation from a programming rather than audience perspective – one that goes completely against the grain of conventional corporate strategy. These days we’re told to mine data to the nth degree, then bombard those attached to that data with lures and incentives to buy more and more of what the numbers say they already like. In so doing, you take absolutely no chances.

But as Heller put it, “Sometimes the riskiest thing you can do is also the safest.” She was referring to Ashley Fure’s Filament, which the Philharmonic chose to open their season this year. Heller played that piece from a position in the audience. Unorthodox spatial configurations of musicians are old hat in the avant garde, and there’s plenty of mainstream precedent – Fiddler on the Roof, anyone? – yet have been quite the exception in this particular milieu. Was this a one-off? Far from it, Heller vigorously asserted.

“I didn’t get called by the New York Philharmonic because I’m an amazing bassoonist,” she demurred. “I got the call because I’m part of this community with Ashley. This is a generation of community-building, with and for each other, and giving back to the field,” she explained. What Heller could have said but didn’t is that she’s actually a very dynamic bassoonist, a disciple of  Pauline Oliveros with a flair for the unusual. Her Dark and Stormy project with Adrian Morejon might be the only group in history to have played the entire extant repertoire for bassoon duo.

Sirota enthusiastically affirmed Heller’s communitarian philosophy. “New York is this incredible farm team of nineteen and twenty-year-old musicians just dying to play new music. It wasn’t always that way,” she reminded soberly. “In twenty or thirty years I hope that audiences for this will have octupled,” she enthused.

The Juilliard-trained violist and founder of indie classical chamber ensemble yMusic speaks from experience. You can see the wheels turning at the Phiilharmonic: it’s impossible to think of a more likable ambassador for new composers. With her rapidfire wit and livewire enthusiasm, she earned the position after three years running arguably the best new music podcast out there, Meet the Composer. Her agenda: to bring that passion – along with a considerable following – to a new series of Sunday afternoon concerts in the comfortable amphitheatre sonics of the Allen Room at Jazz at Lincoln Center. There’s also the late-night Kaplan Penthouse Nightcap series of intimate performances featuring composers whose work is on the bill in the hall downstairs – and where you can actually meet them.

She’s also booked her first Young People’s Concert for March 2 of next year, pairing Beethoven with Andrew Norman. She took her cue for the afternoon’s video game theme from a comment by Norman comparing motivic development in Beethoven with the challenges of increasingly complex gaming levels.

Heller is one of several ICE musicians do double duty as administrator and programmer. The group’s ICE Lab program, a workshop for emerging composers, springboarded her connection to Fure. And the long-running, free OpeniCE series – the latest of which are happening this week through Nov 8 at the New York Library for the Performing Arts – continues to offer exciting, eclectic programming accessible to everyone.

The elephant not in the room was the Philharmonic’s new Music Director, Jaap van Zweden. “He is so game!” Heller asserted. “He made his name on these big Germanic pieces but that’ s not the only thing he likes or is good at,” pointing to his advocacy for new composers with the Dallas Symphony. “So with this orchestra, he gets to be this amazing explorer with them.” It will be interesting to see how far the can take that: Alan Gilbert’s adventurous and often absolutely delightful Contact! series, dedicated to emerging composers, got off to a smashingly good start but stalled out as the venues got smaller and smaller while ticket prices went up.

In the Q&A afterward, one audience member asked why the Philharmonic doesn’t open every performance with a new work. Neither SIrota nor Heller acknowledged that they used to do that all the time. Half the audience would leave at the intermission, dejected, while the other half would show up then for the big Germanic piece. Instead, the two women simply acknowledged that new music belongs on the program wherever it makes sense to put it: in the middle of the bill wouldn’t be a bad idea. As musicians, Sirota and Heller know that better than anyone. We’ve come a long way since the days when, as Heller explained it, the twelve-tone camp and the neoromantics were duking out over which was preferable: ”Music that was intelligent but emotionally lacking, or emotional but stupid.”

The Philharmonic’s next performances are Nov 7-8 at 7:30 PM and Nov 9 at 8 PM with Beethoven’s Fourth Symphony plus two works by Schubert: the Fifth Symphony and a “joyous, charming mini-cantata,” featuring Principal Clarinet Anthony McGill and soprano Miah Persson. You can get in for $34. 

November 5, 2018 Posted by | avant garde music, Music, music, concert | , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Defiance, Relevance and Transcendence With the New York Philharmonic in Prospect Park

So many inspiring conclusions to take away from the New York Philharmonic’s phantasmagorically majestic performance this past evening in Prospect Park. In the year of the Metoo movement, that the orchestra would choose a centerpiece celebrating a mythic heroine who disarms a psychotic dictator using only her wits spoke volumes.

As does the organization’s long-running Very Young Composers mentorship and advocacy program. Two of those individuals were represented on the bill, each a young African-American woman and a native Brooklynite. And in what’s been a challengingly transitional interregnum between music directors, the choice of James Gaffigan to lead the ensemble through some stunningly fresh, meticulously articulated, relevatory interpretations of material they’ve probably played dozens of times before paid mighty dividends.

At a concert pitched to pull a family audience, local city council representative Brad Lander’s commentary on the ongoing anguish of families being broken up by the ongoing extremist clampdown on immigrants was the night’s most overtly political moment. A polyglot crowd echoed their fervent, familial solidarity, then the orchestra spoke to how triumphantly this scenario could actually play out.

They foreshadowed the suspense and splendor of their romp through Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherezade with an arguably even more carnivalesque stampede through the Bacchanale from Saint-Saens’ opera Samson and Delilah. Even if its creepy chromatics aren’t much more than Hollywood hijaz, those Arabic inflections were another crushingly relevant reference point.

If the program’s two brief, kinetic works by young composers Jordan Millar and Camryn Cowan are any indication, the blues are as much alive in Brooklyn as they were during the Harlem Renaissance, a most welcome meme throughout the New York City public schools this year and a vivid theme for these two gradeschoolers. Each composer’s piece put simple, emphatic blues hooks front and center in lieu of expansive harmony or flourishes, the former with a neat, cold stop midway through and some unexpected, Mozartean lustre afterward.

The orchestra made it to the concert’s midway point with three jaunty, frequently coy excerpts from Leonard Bernstein’s score to On the Town. The Philharmonic’s pretty-much-annual tour of the New York City parks system, from the Bronx to Staten Island, always features a little bit of everything, including what in another century would have been called “pops” material from outside the classical canon. But as with the rest of the program, Gaffigan didn’t deviate from the game plan or phone these in, airing out the composer’s exchanges of voicings with a painterly charm.

And as much as the park programming is standard repertoire, the Philharmonic never picks tired or cheesy material. Over the last few years, we’ve been treated to plenty of Stravinsky – notably a conflagration of The Firebird in Central Park a couple years back – as well as a similarly colorful tour of Respighi’s Pines of Rome a little before then. Considering both the political subtext and the stunning attention to detail from both Gaffigan and the orchestra, this could have been the best of all of them since the turn of the decade.

Getting to witness it from the best seat in the house – about the equivalent of row L at their Lincoln Center home – no doubt colored this perception. Looking out into the wide swath of greenery in front of them, it must be tempting for everyone onstage to want to play loud, but Gaffigan mined the entirety of the sonic spectrum in keeping with the composer’s top-to-bottom orchestration. When there was suspense, it was relentless; when there was menace, it was a carnival of potentially dead souls; when there were dreamy interludes, they had a celestial vastness.

And the solos, tantalizingly brief as they were, were mesmerizing. Concertmaster Frank Huang spun joyously expert filigrees and flickers, up to an almost shocking cadenza in the final movement where he dug in so hard it seemed that he might break a violin string. Similar effects – especially bassoonist Judith LeClair’s silken, mutedly bittersweet solo – further underscored a triumphant narrative mirroring both the angst and transgressive victories in so many of the world’s ongoing struggles and rebellions.

The Philharmonic’s 2018 tour of the boroughs concludes on Sunday, June 17 indoors at 3 PM at the Snug Harbor Cultural Center in Staten Island.

June 15, 2018 Posted by | classical music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Friday Night’s Edition of the NY Phil’s CONTACT: Their Best Ever?

Twice a year, the New York Philharmonic treats adventurous listeners to its bravest program of the season, CONTACT, featuring all sorts of premieres that run the gamut from the transcendent to the mystifying. In conversation with WNYC’s John Schaefer before this year’s initial performance last night at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, maestro Alan Gilbert held nothing back in letting the crowd know the reason he’d programmed this particular quartet of works was because they were “pieces we really wanted to play.”And hearing them, who wouldn’t jump at such an opportunity? It was a dark carnival of sonic treats, embraced with verve and pinpoint precision by a rotating cast of Philharmonic players usually numbering in the high teens, heavy on percussion and strings.

Gilbert’s description of Anders Hillborg’s Vaporised Tivoli (the single New York premiere on the bill) as an “exquisite corpse” was right on the money in every conceivable way. Inspired by Ray Bradbury’s Something Wicked This Way Comes, it began as an illustration of youthful vigor and carefree exuberance, elephantine snorts from the brass and dancing voices intertwined boisterously throughout the orchestra, Katchaturian’s Sabre Dance gone to the midway. Then the shadows fell and  a creepy, carnivalesque crescendo straight out of Bernard Herrmann took over, surreal stereo percussive effects bouncing all over the stage. The strings let its death linger with a macabre, crespuscular shimmer.

Poul Ruders‘ Oboe Concerto, the first of three US premieres, was written on the heels of Ruders finishing his opera The Handmaid’s Tale. The composer related that the four-part suite, a rather spectral series of moonscapes with the exception of the animatedly, timbrally rich second movement, were inspired architecturally if not thematically by a Joyce Carol Oates novel. A brief dark carnival in outer space returned to stillness and desolation, a depiction brought into high definition by oboeist Liang Wang’s long,  mesmerizingly pristine sostenuto tones, often standing alone when not blending with the otherworldly close harmonies of the high strings. Like Hilllborg’s piece, it ended with a deathly calm.

The second US premiere, Yann Robin‘s Backdraft, took its impetus from a mechanical theme that the composer essentially admitted was so annoying that he had to get it out of his head. Watching pianist Eric Huebner chop his way through it with a stilletto jackhammer staccato – he really got a workout! – it wasn’t hard to understand why (and also wonder why the composer felt obliged to subject others, pianists included, to it in the first place). But then the scene shifted to a long, incessantly fluctuating series of doppler effects, boomy lows versus high resonance, hints of humanity as traffic raced by on both sides. Not the most profound piece on the bill, perhaps, but great fun to watch.

The concert came full circle with Unsuk Chin’s gleefully macabre Scenes from a Street Theatre. Inspired by the tradition of low-rent traveling puppet shows in the composer’s native Korea, it’s a six-part suite of sometimes droll but more often menacing, jarringly rhythmic tableaux. The Dramatic Opening of the Curtain was both a mockery and self-parody, followed by the Lament of the Bald Singer – an Ionesco reference? – with its memorably twisted, morose sliding string elisions. Cans and bottles – real ones! – played with deadpan vigor introduced The Grinning Fortune Teller with the False Teeth and her surreal accompanists, a faux brass band. The piano got involved, murky and spacious, in an Episode Between Bottles and Cans, followed by the sirening, circularly sarcastic Circulus Vitiosus – Dance Around the Shacks. The concert ended The Hunt for the Quack’s Plait [of hair], part Spike Jones vaudeville, part bludgeoningly orchestrated Simpsons Halloween episode. A triumphant smile broke through the sweat on Gilbert’s face as he signaled for a final cruel, sardonic “awww” from the timpani. Given material of this caliber, what this orchestra and conductor can do with is it genuine magic. The concert will be broadcast in the near future on WNYC.

April 6, 2013 Posted by | avant garde music, classical music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Some Insights from Awardwinning Conductor David Bernard of the Park Avenue Chamber Symphony

Most cities are lucky to have a single symphony orchestra. Here in New York, classical music audiences have a far greater number of ensembles to choose from. Not only do we have the flagship New York Philharmonic, we’ve got several other first-rate orchestras, some of them simmering just under the radar. One of the finest of these ensembles is the Park Avenue Chamber Symphony, a full-size symphony orchestra led by charismatic maestro David Bernard. Their 2012-13 season begins this October 27 at 8 PM with a performance of Schubert’s Symphony No. 8, “Unfinished;” Richard Strauss’ Till Eulenspeigel’s Merry Pranks and the Beethoven Piano Concerto No. 5, “Emperor” with Terry Eder on piano, at All Saints Church, 230 E 60th St, between Second and Third Avenues. Maestro Bernard took some time away from his schedule to shed some light on what he and the Chamber Symphony have in store for this season:

Lucid Culture’s Correspondent: First of all, congratulations for winning a First Prize in the Orchestral Conducting Competition of the American Prize. Was there a winning performance, and what was the victorious piece?

David Bernard: Thanks. I am very proud, not only of this, but also for being awarded a First Prize in Orchestral Performance together with the orchestra. Both awards are great recognition. The primary work in the Conducting Competition submission was the performance of Strauss’ Tod und Verklärung – Death and Transfiguration – from October 2011 – which I believe you attended.

LCC: Yes, I was there. That’s a piece that’s very close to my heart, which explains why I’ve seen it performed several times. In fact, I was transfixed by your version: the dynamic range and attention to detail surpassed any performance of that piece that I’ve witnessed. Needless to say, I never expected that a “chamber symphony” would deliver my alltime favorite version of Tod und Verklarung! Which leads me to the next question: as anyone who’s seen the Park Avenue Chamber Symphony in concert will attest, your orchestra is a mighty beast. But one hears the term “chamber symphony” and thinks of maybe a twelve-piece string orchestra. Is that how the group originated? Do you think the name fits at this point?

DB: Yes, our name is a frequent point of discussion, especially when we program larger repertoire. Certainly an orchestra that performs Mahler with a complement of eighty is not a “chamber orchestra.” When we started thirteen years ago, we were an orchestra of twenty-two. When it came time to choose a name, we had a feeling we would grow, so rather than use the name “chamber orchestra” we chose “chamber symphony,” which suggests a larger complement of musicians. We were, in fact, a little small to be a “chamber symphony” at the time, but when we did grow larger, it suited us. Currently, with seventy to eighty members depending on the repertoire, we are not so large yet as to call ourselves a “philharmonic” of say a hundred performers. I see “chamber symphony” as descriptive of that upper middle ground, which is quite versatile, as we can effectively deliver performances of a wide range of repertoire, from Bach to Mahler, in our intimate venue. But I am sure this will be an ongoing discussion, and perhaps sometime down the road we will change our name to reflect our growth.

LCC: You founded the Park Avenue Chamber Symphony thirteen years ago. What are your favorite, most memorable experiences?

DB: There are so many. Our many performances at New York’s major venues – Carnegie Hall, Avery Fisher Hall and Alice Tully Hall. Our performance of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9 with a chorus of more than 200 singers at Riverside Church. Working with Whoopi Goldberg as the narrator in our performance of Prokofiev’s “Peter and the Wolf”. And of course our tour of China this past Winter.

LCC: Tell me about that tour of China. I imagine you have a lot of stories. How did the invitation to play there originate? How do the concert halls and audiences in China compare to what we have over here? Did you have to leave your phone with customs and pick it up on the way out?

DB: The Chinese were very gracious and attentive, and they didn’t have an interest in my cell phone – which is a good thing, for it came in very handy dealing with the many logistical hurdles that typically accompany a nine-city tour like ours! We were invited to perform a series of holiday concerts in China after a representative of China attended one of our performances in New York City. It was an extraordinary experience for the entire orchestra. Our performance itinerary of nine cities in fifteen days – Beijing, Qingdao, Dalian, Jinzhou, Chaoyang, Shenzhen, Guangzhou, Shenyang and Xi’an – was a bit of a whirlwind, but it was very exciting and through the experience, the orchestra bonded on a more personal level. The concerts were held in the major concert halls in each city, some of which were absolutely spectacular. I would certainly put Beijing Concert Hall, Qingdao Grand Theater, Shenzhen Symphony Hall, Xi’an Concert Hall and Xinghai Symphony Hall in Guangzhou in the same class as the best American concert halls in terms of acoustics and overall quality. Since these concerts were billed as holiday concerts, our repertoire was mostly light classical – Strauss’ Die Fledermaus Overture, Rossini’s William Tell Overture, Ponchielli’s Dance of the Hours, etcetera, as well as two Chinese works: Dance of the Yao Tribe, which is a gorgeous work by Liu Tieshan and Mao Yuan, and In Praise of the Red Flag, by Lü Qiming. Audiences were very enthusiastic, especially when we performed the Chinese works. An interesting tidbit is the special affinity the Chinese have for Strauss’ Radetzky March, which must be played as the last of many encores. The custom is that when the Radetzky March is performed, the political leaders exit the hall first while the audience claps its hands to the beat of the march – and we had some very enthusiastic clappers, I must say! We also performed some American music. Copland’s Hoe Down from Rodeo was a big hit – again the audience couldn’t help but clap along – as was an arrangement of Bernstein’s West Side Story, and music from John Williams’ Star Wars. In some concerts, I did a quick change into a Darth Vader costume and conducted the Star Wars music with a light saber. The Chinese loved it – Star Wars is very popular there.

LCC: That’s a great idea, I think more conductors should consider using a light saber – at least the kind that doesn’t go “mmmmmmmm.” Now in my estimation, the Park Avenue Chamber Symphony ranks among New York’s best orchestras – and by that I mean the New York Phil, obviously; the Greenwich Village Orchestra, who never disappoint; the imaginative, theatrically-inclined Chelsea Symphony; the Brooklyn Phil, who do everything from Beethoven to hip-hop; and the Knights, who always seem to be having fun as they jump from century to century. How do you differentiate yourselves? Would you say that there’s a defining characteristic to the Park Avenue Chamber Symphony?

DB: I am really excited about the overall concert experience we offer our audiences. We combine very high quality music making, eclectic and interesting repertoire, first-rate soloists and an intimate venue into a compelling and inexpensive package that our audiences love. Concertgoers are ecstatic about all of this, but especially the intimacy. They say that we make the concert experience come alive through experiencing not only themusic, but the musicians in a much more personal way than a traditional concert—they feel almost as though they are IN the orchestra. This is a big difference to traditional concert venues, which tend to put the audience at a distance. Also, we perform regularly on the Upper East Side. The East Side of Manhattan hasn’t traditionally been the hub for the arts, so through our concert series at All Saints Church – located around the corner from Bloomingdales – we serve as a key cultural resource to this community.

Our mission does not end with our concert season. We work very hard to support music education organizations through fundraising and benefit concerts. Arts institutions are facing difficult times and if you believe in the arts as a cornerstone of society, we need now more than ever, communities that are both arts aware and arts involved. A great way to achieve this goal is to help arts education programs thrive in our schools so we can develop well-rounded people who attend concerts and maybe even donate to their local arts organizations. Through the Park Avenue Chamber Symphony’s fundraising efforts, we have helped establish a new Scholarship Fund for students at the Juilliard School’s Pre-College Division and have raised money for the Lucy Moses Community Music School’s Suzuki Scholarship Program. We have established a particularly longstanding relationship with The Harmony Program—a New York City organization that provides music lessons to economically disadvantaged children and is modeled after Venezuela’s world-famous model of music education, “El Sistema”

LCC: That intimacy between orchestra and audience, I think, really defines the concert experience that the Park Avenue Chamber Symphony has to offer – the atmosphere at All Saints Church really is like being a part of the orchestra. How did you end up there?

DB: Although we have had the privilege of performing in New York’s major concert halls throughout the years, our home has usually been in a New York City church. In 2005, we began an exhaustive search for a new home and found All Saints Church. It has wonderful acoustics, and while being intimate, can also handle performances of large works such as Strauss and Mahler. Over the years we have developed a very strong partnership with All Saints Church. But even early on in our relationship, the church relocated their front set of pews to make room for our string section! We are fortunate to have such a great partner.

LCC: This season’s concluding concerts on May 4 and 5 of 2013 feature the absolutely brilliant pianist Kariné Poghosyan joining the orchestra for the Mozart Concerto for Piano No. 23 in A major, a piece that it seems would be effortless for her. I’m always interested in how musical connections are made. How did this one come about?

DB: We had our eye on Kariné for several years, and finally engaged her to perform Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1 at our February 2011 concert series. We had a fantastic collaboration. She was superb and both the audience and the orchestra loved her. This season, as I was looking for a concerto to complement the Kraft work with Tchaikovsky’s rich and passionate Fifth Symphony, this particular Mozart piano concerto – and Ms. Poghosyan – instantly came to mind. It turned out she was eager to play that work, so it was kismet! She is a brilliant and sensitive artist, and we look forward to working with her again.

LCC: Like the New York Phil, the Park Avenue Chamber Symphony has a lot of recordings, which can all be heard or at least sampled on your music page – everything from the Rachmaninoff Symphony No. 2, to Dvorak, Stravinsky, Vaughan Williams, Gershwin, the Four Seasons and the Barber Adagio. Which are all probably the best advertising you could ever get. Do you record every concert you play? Do you have a favorite among them?

DB: The most exciting thing about our catalog of recordings is that it represents a portal to a whole new international audience. We record many of our concerts, which you cansample on our website or download/stream in full using a wide range of sources: iTunes, Amazon.com, Google Play, Spotify and MOG, to name a few. And as you point out, it is great for marketing and brand-building. Looking at our logs, we have regular streamers from around the globe! Picking a favorite is difficult. I love them all, as they are the result of great music making experiences with the Park Avenue Chamber Symphony.

LCC: I’m always curious about how conductors come up with a choice of repertoire for their concert seasons. For example, this season’s opening concert series, on October 27th and 28th is rather eclectic: Schubert’s Unfinished Symphony, Strauss’ Till Eulenspeigel and Beethoven’s Emperor Concerto with soloist Terry Eder. You’ve got plenty of gravitas, but also quirky frivolity. What is your programming game plan?

DB: Programming a season is similar to solving a Rubik’s Cube: there are many dimensions that must be solved for simultaneously. One must balance the variety and selection of works throughout the season with the adjacencies of works within each program, audience preferences, the introduction of new repertoire, inclusion of the familiar and recency of past performances. I have a few longer- term initiatives as well—completing our cycles of Beethoven and Brahms Symphonies as well as cycle of Strauss’ Tone Poems. So each season our audiences are treated to at least one Beethoven Symphony – this season we have programmed two, the First and the Seventh. We will complete the Beethoven cycle next Fall with the Second Symphony and the Strauss Cycle next Fall with Don Juan. The Brahms Cycle will be completed in 2014.

I also love to premiere new works and expand the repertoire. The Park Avenue Chamber Symphony has a rich history of programming premieres, including works by Bruce Adolphe, Chris Caswell and John Mackey. Last season we premiered a jazz piano concerto written and performed by Ted Rosenthal, which was especially satisfying as Ted is an extraordinary musician, composer and performer: we subsequently released a recording of this work which is available on iTunes and Amazon.com. And in May we will be giving the New York Premiere of Leo Kraft’s Variations for Orchestra. We have a deep and ongoing commitment to the music of our time.

Within a single program, I often enjoy programming works of similar lineage that also represent great variety. Our October program of Schubert, Strauss and Beethoven is an example, representing the finest Germanic symphonic music, yet each work offers a distinctly unique experience. Despite its popularity, Schubert’s Unfinished Symphony refuses to become stale with sublime, timeless and unforgettable phrases. You can feel Schubert’s soul in every note as he guides you through a wild ride that ends with a spiritual ascent. In Till Eulenspeigel, Strauss offers a highly programmatic and exciting account of the antics of a 14th-century prankster that is masterfully crafted and scored. It offers great contrast to the Schubert and I think it’s a marvelous way to close the first half of the program. Beethoven’s Emperor Concerto is in many ways a synthesis of both the Schubert and the Strauss across the stream of movements, we get heroism, deeply felt melancholy and a frolicking romp to a triumphant conclusion that ties the evening together. I hope that by the end of the program our audience will be energized, enlightened and entertained in a way that only classical music can offer.

September 15, 2012 Posted by | classical music, interview, Music, music, concert | , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

A Magical Night in Central Park with the NY Phil

A gentle rain fell, delivering a welcome respite from the heat as maestro Alan Gilbert led the NY Philharmonic up from pianissimo to a velvety nocturne in Central Park last night. The big lawn in the middle of the park may not be the quietest place during the day, but the vast crowd was pretty much rapt as the lush beauty of the dawning movement of Respighi’s Fountains of Rome slowly unwound. Gilbert conducted it from memory: he had it in his fingers, and so did the orchestra. The magical moments were too numerous to count. As if on cue, the music diverted a couple of expected interruptions, the first when a plane crossed the sky just as the strings exploded with a bustling fury as Respighi’s suite reached morning rush hour: it isn’t often that an orchestra beats a jet engine, but this time it did. Then during a particularly incisive passage in Respighi’s Pines of Rome, which followed, a siren moving through the park added accidental harmonies which worked far more effectively, and interestingly, than one would have expected. The rest of the Fountains, from balletesque, to boomy, to practically silent, then stormy and and intense, then back again, was cinematic in the purest sense of the word, a tour of Rome a hundred years ago by a particularly insightful guide. As Gilbert led the orchestra on a blissful, silken glide out, it was transcendent, the kind of good-to-be-alive moment that can be savored in this city and this city alone.

The Pines were just as good, and made the fireworks display afterward seem redundant. From the swirling, Christmasy introduction, the richly misterioso outside-the-catacombs theme, artfully shifting motifs from the woodwinds leading the orchestra up and the final, lengthy crescendo (which begs the question, did Respighi know of Gustav Holst’s The Planets when he wrote this?), it was a triumphant conclusion to a sonic art-house double feature. The Philharmonic is playing both suites for their opening gala on September 27 at 7:30 PM: they couldn’t have chosen better. Avery Fisher Hall may need a new roof after they’re done.

What about Tschaikovsky’s Symphony No. 4, which opened the bill? The audience responded somewhat restlessly, particularly toward the end of the second movement. If a piece drags, is it the fault of the orchestra? Hardly, if they play it as the composer dictated, which is exactly what they did. Gilbert set up the pyrotechnics of the finale so it could resound in the park’s lower valley by keeping the quieter parts especially low key: by the end, he was practically jumping out of his shoes in a storm of blazing minor-key riffage and so was the ensemble. But there were points where the melody lagged, and during the incessant pizzicato introduction to the third movement, didn’t leave much hope that there would be many more interesting things to come for those with the patience to wait through the 1877 equivalent of a song by Rush. The NY Phil is back in Central Park this coming Monday the 16th at 8 PM, program still TBA: as always, early arrival (six isn’t too early) is a must.

July 14, 2012 Posted by | classical music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The NY Philharmonic’s 9/11 Memorial Concert: A Class Act

A genuinely classy move: for their September 10, 7:30 PM performance of Mahler’s Symphony #2, the NY Philharmonic is offering priority ticket access to the families of 9/11 victims, first responders and survivors. Members of this community may request a pair of free tickets in advance by e-mailing concertfornewyork@nyphil.org by September 1, so hurry if you qualify and you like Mahler. If there are any remaining tickets, they’ll be distributed for free, first-come, first-serve, one pair per person at 4 PM on the plaza at Lincoln Center the day of the show.

There will also be seating on the plaza for those who prefer to watch a live projection outdoors. The concert will be conducted by Alan Gilbert and telecast in the U.S. on PBS’s Great Performances at 9 PM on Sept 11 (check local listings), and webcast at nyphil.org at 9 PM EDT on Sept 11 as well. A live concert DVD will follow in October.

August 29, 2011 Posted by | classical music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City | , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Let the Brooklyn Philharmonic Take Over New York City Parks Concerts in 2011!

[Repost from the Brooklyn Philharmonic. Since the NY Philharmonic won’t be doing its series of summer orchestral concerts in public parks this year, the Brooklyn Phil is offering to step in and fill the breach. And why not? By the way – let’s not rush to judgment concerning the reasons behind this summer’s cancellations: word on the street is that the decision to pull the plug did not originate with the orchestra]

Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg
City Hall
New York, NY 10007

June 14, 2011

Dear Mr. Mayor:

Since our cousin, the New York Philharmonic, has other activities that don’t allow them to continue the tradition of free concerts in the parks this summer, we’d be happy to step in and play for free for the people of New York City in their place. We’d very much like to help New Yorkers properly celebrate this summer’s warm evenings.

Having served New York City in both music performance and education for over 150 years, the Brooklyn Phil can certainly manage some rousing Sousa in Central Park and deliver terrific Prokofiev to Prospect Park. Even more, we’d love to get the people of New York City involved in picking what they’d like to hear – so we could easily set up an informal poll on our website (bphil.org) to let the listeners choose their favorites.

Of course, our players (like the New York Philharmonic’s) are union musicians, so we’ll need to work out a way to pay them fairly. But other than covering the actual cost of the performances, we’re not looking to make any profit. Perhaps Target or the MetLife Foundation would be willing to sponsor these concerts for us as they had been planning to do for the New York Philharmonic? Or maybe someone else would help out? We’re eager to discuss possibilities with you.

We love the idea of New Yorkers sitting on blankets, enjoying food and wine while listening to great music under the stars, and we’d be thrilled to give our City the gift of music this summer. I think we could do this if we put our heads together quickly.

Yours truly,

Alan Pierson
Artistic Director
Brooklyn Philharmonic

June 19, 2011 Posted by | classical music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City | , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment