Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

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.

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

The Greenwich Village Orchestra Go Behind the Iron Curtain 2/21/10

Is it because the Greenwich Village Orchestra has a shorter season, with more rehearsals per concert, that they get everything so right, time after time? Or is it just a fortuitous match of inspired players with a conductor who is such a passionate advocate for the music on the bill? Whatever the case, our roughly weeklong tour of under-the-radar New York orchestras, beginning with the New York Scandia Symphony, then the Chelsea Symphony ended with the GVO on Sunday afternoon playing a characteristically rich, intense program that actually could have been staged somewhere in the Soviet Union during the 1930s.

First on the bill was the Sailor’s Dance from Russian Romantic composer Reinhold Gliere’s nationalistic 1927 ballet The Red Flower (f.k.a The Red Poppy). Far from being opiated, it’s essentially orchestrated Soviet surf music, such that there could have been thirty years before the Ventures at least. On the podium, Maestro Barbara Yahr led the ensemble matter-of-factly, without the hint of a grin – that was left to the audience. It’s something of a shock that a surf rock band hasn’t discovered this yet. The theme is a two-minute hit just waiting to happen.

Prokofiev’s First Violin Concerto was next. Around the time the piece debuted, a critic called it “Mendelssohnian.” He meant that as a slur, but ironically that description is spot-on. There’s considerable unease in the work, a Modern-versus-Romantic push-pull of astringency versus warm melodicism, but there’s also a dreamy, ethereal beauty to it, most notably in the concluding moderato movement where the line back to Mendelssohn is straight and true. Whether slipping so seamlessly from 3/4 to 4/4 time that it was practically unnoticeable, bringing the wash of atmospherics to a suspenseful pianissimo or guiding a vivid oboe melody casually out of the glimmering, nocturnal strings below, Yahr, guest violinist Joseph Puglia and the ensemble worked themselves into what seemed a trance and brought the crowd into the ether with them.

The piece de resistance was Shoshakovich’s Fifth Symphony. You know this one even if you don’t think you do, most likely either the big, Beethovenesque diptych of an opening theme, or the creepy waltz of a second movement that’s been featured in a thousand horror films. Shostakovich was thirty when he wrote it: he’d just been taken to task by the Soviet censors for being too western, too bright and by extension too dangerous. This was his response: by contrast to the Fourth Symphony and its cerebral, rigorously acidic architecture, the Fifth is all big hooks, a slap back at the Stalinists as if to say, be careful what you ask for. It established Shostakovich as one of the alltime great musical satirists, yet as Yahr took care to explain before the orchestra played it, parts of it are also extraordinarily beautiful. Essentially, it’s love under an occupation, a requiem for those murdered in the purges as well as an attempt to maintain a sense of normalcy while the outside world collapses.

What made this performance so utterly unique and such a perfectly lucid portrayal of the circumstances in which it was written was how integrally it was played, a unified whole torn but never completely ripped apart. Others have oversimplified it, exaggerating the tension between highs and lows, melody and atmospherics or between strings and horns: not this orchestra. Rather than highlighting one particular phrase over another, Yahr held it together with a steeliness that mightily enhanced Shostakovich’s clenched-teeth exasperation, irony and bitterness. The KGB is everywhere here, the horns, winds, or a single horn or woodwind voice signaling the alarm before the drums start up and the secret police pound at the door, whether as the bufoonishness of the waltz gives way to unfettered, sadistic menace, the gestapo interrupt the calm of a requiem by literally stepping on the melody (as they do in the wrenchingly beautiful third movement), or in the big boisterous finale where even as the party is winding up, seemingly on a triumphant note, the fascists are about to break down the door again. Shostakovich’s pal Mstislav Rostopovich was cited in the program notes as having said that if this symphony hadn’t met with such thunderous public approval, the composer would have paid for it with his life. Happily, he would go on to even greater heights of satire and savagery with his Tenth Symphony and its unsparingly brutal dismissal of Stalin (played with equally intuitive sensitivity by the GVO a couple of years ago). There was a reception afterward, a visceral sense of both triumph and relief in the air, which made perfect sense on so many levels. The Greenwich Village Orchestra’s next concert is vastly different yet equally ambitious, Samuel Barber’s Knoxville: Summer of 1914 and Mahler’s Fourth Symphony, to be performed at 3 PM on April 11.

February 23, 2010 Posted by | classical music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment