Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

Knights at Night in Central Park

With all the great new music out there, and the Knights – one of the most adventurous, new-music-inclined orchestras in the world – on the Naumburg Bandshell in Central Park last night, why did they play so much old stuff? Maybe because they knew they could bring so much joy to it – and counterintuitivity, too. Conventional wisdom is that name-brand orchestras surpass the smaller or lesser-known outfits, but all too often the big ensembles are basically sightreading and not much more. One of the benefits of a less strenuous season than what the Philharmonics of the world have to tackle is that there’s enough time for everyone to really get their repertoire in their fingers, discover it on an individual level and let its nuances fly rather than trampling them in a quest to simply get the job done. Conductor Eric Jacobsen (who doubles as the cellist in celebrated string quartet Brooklyn Rider) offered a prime example during the second movement of Beethoven’s Romance for Violin and Orchestra in F Major. It’s a series of swooping arabesques on the strings, followed by variations that the entire ensemble picks up and tosses around. Jacobsen turned them into a mystery theme, then shifted gears with the tempo, a couple of times, with a wink and a grin as the melody split and shifted kaleidoscopically on the wings of the winds. Likewise, he led the Knights through two waltzes by Shostakovich (newly arranged with jazzy Kurt Weill verve by Ljova Zhurbin) with a jaunty cabaret swing, taking a brooding Russian folk theme and then a more Weimar-inflected tune and making something approaching real dance music out of them, guest violinist Vera Beths clearly enjoying herself as much as she had during the devious swoops and slides of the Beethoven.

The rest of the program was more traditional. They’d opened with Rossini’s Barber of Seville Overture, something akin to the Simpsons Theme from another time and place. As with the Simpsons Theme, less is more with this one, and that’s how the Knights played it. Debussy’s Children’s Corner Suite was written for a favorite niece, said WQXR’s Bill McLaughlin, standing in as MC in place of a honeymooning Midge Woolsey (congratulations, Midge!). The two miniatures weren’t Fur Elise but they weren’t bad either. The orchestra wound up the program with a warmly cantabile performance of Haydn’s Symphony No. 101, commonly known as The Clock (from the metronomic sway of a prominent pizzicato passage). All counterpoint and comfortably familiar chord resolutions, to New Yorkers of a certain stripe it made a perfect soundtrack for wine and quiet conviviality on Central Park grass. This was the final Naumburg Bandshell classical concert for 2010; watch this space early next summer for information on next year’s schedule.

August 4, 2010 Posted by | classical music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The NY Phil Shows Their Mettle

Last night’s concert was a tough gig. The New York Philharmonic have played tougher ones, but this was no walk in the park (pardon the awful pun). And guest conductor Andrey Boreyko pushed them about as far as he could, on a Central Park evening where the air still hung heavy and muggy, helicopters sputtering overhead and, early on, the PA backfiring a little. During the sixth segment of a suite from Prokofiev’s ballet Romeo and Juliet (the section where the two lovers finally get together), the strings led a long flurry of sixteenth notes and it was only there that any trace of fatigue could be heard. That they got through it with as much aplomb as they did – and then had enough in reserve to triumphantly pull off the roaring swells of the ominous concluding march – speaks for itself. The Russian conductor’s careful attention to minutiae is matched by a robust (some might say relentless) rhythmic drive. The Phil responded just as robustly, resulting in a mutually confident performance that often reached joyous proportions.

This wasn’t your typical outdoor bill of moldy oldies with a thousand forks stuck in them, either. The ensemble opened with fairly obscure Russian Romantic composer Anatoly Lyadov’s Baba-Yaga, a witch’s tale. With a bit of a battle theme, an elven dance, suspenseful lull and something of a trick ending, it could be the Skirmish of Marston Moor (did Roy Wood know of it when he wrote that piece? It’s not inconceivable).

Branford Marsalis joined them for Glazunov’s Concerto in E Flat for Alto Saxophone and String Orchestra, Op. 109. The textural contrast between his austere, oboe-like clarity against the lush, rich atmospherics of the strings was nothing short of exquisite, through the majestic ambience of the opening section, a couple of perfectly precise solo passages and the comfortable little dance that winds it up. He got the opportunity to vary that tone, shifting matter-of-factly through bluesier tinges on twentieth century Czech composer Ervin Schulhoff’s Hot Sonate. A smaller-ensemble arrangement, the suite ran from genial, Kurt Weill-inflected bounce to more complex permutations that could have easily been contemporary big band jazz (imagine an orchestrated Dred Scott piece).

The big hit of the night, unsurprisingly, was the Prokofiev. The ballet could be summed up as unease within opulence, a tone that resonated powerfully from the opening fortissimo fireball and the bitter, doomed martial theme that follows it, through its stately but apprehensive portrayal of Juliet as dancing girl, a richly dynamic take on the masked ball theme, the cantabile sweep of the two lovers parting, Friar Lawrence’s bittersweetly crescendoing scene, and the irony-charged intensity at the end. There were fireworks afterward, none of which could compare with what had just happened onstage – and which provided a welcome opportunity to beat the crowd exiting the park, and the storm that had threatened all evening but never arrived.

July 15, 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

The Lucid Culture Interview: Maestro Dorrit Matson of the New York Scandia Symphony

Dorrit Matson conducts one of New York’s most pioneering and exciting symphony orchestras, the New York Scandia Symphony. Maestro Matson managed to find the time during a whirlwind of rehearsals for their upcoming May 28 performance at Trinity Church to shed some light on the orchestra’s adventurous history and bold mission:

Lucid Culture:  Does the orchestra have a specific mission?

Dorrit Matson: The New York Scandia Symphony was founded by me, in 1988, after I had been working for some years as a free lance conductor in New York. It appeared to me that among all the wonderful concert programs offered in New York City, there were almost none representing Scandinavian composers. When I was able to program music from Northern Europe it was so well received by the musicians. We started the programs in Symphony Space, St. John’s Cathedral, then in Merkin Hall for 3 years. And when it was time to move to a larger space, Alice Tully Hall was economically not within reach. We were then invited to Trinity Church, based on one previous performance in St. Paul’s Chapel.

We have never missed out on presenting a concert season, not even in 2001-2002 after 9/11, when not much else was going on in the downtown area. The Scandia Symphony therefore has a valuable mission: to showcase the music of Scandinavian composers, thereby educating the American public with enlightening and creative programs, and also preserving our own heritage and culture.

LC: You’re from Denmark originally. What differences have you encountered in the world of music here, by comparison to the scene in your native country?

DM: The American orchestras are wonderful to work with. In general, I think they are more efficient and positive compared to European orchestras – especially the freelance scene in New York is amazing. Even with an ensemble that does not play together more than 3 to 6 times a year it is possible to achieve an excellent sense of ensemble among the players, and the sound is often more clear and brilliant than many of the orchestras in Europe. Here the musicians are trained to play in orchestras whereas in Denmark it is often something to do if a solo career is not possible. This changes the attitude and work ethic.

LC:  From your point of view, what are the pros and cons of playing so much material that’s virtually unknown to American audiences?

DM: The musicians find it challenging to work on repertoire that they have not played so many times before. They often express delight and passion for the Nordic music, hearing and imagining the landscapes, colors and culture of these countries as they work on it. The audience is also attracted by the beauty of Scandinavian music, so that is why our venue is most often filled to capacity.  I feel that there is still so much music that needs to be heard, much of it over 200 years old and never performed the US, so there is not a problem finding sufficient quality music to fill the programs.

LC: It seems to me – please correct me if I’m wrong here – that the conventional wisdom is that if an orchestra isn’t at Lincoln Center, or Carnegie Hall, or the 92nd St. Y, you know, the old-guard sheds, that the performance is necessarily second-rate. However, as you know from experience with this orchestra, there are other equally outstanding ensembles playing the most unlikely places. How do we counter that kind of old-fashioned thinking?

DM: It is really very difficult to counter the conventional idea that if you are not at Lincoln Center or Carnegie Hall then it must not be the very pinnacle of performance.  Scandia has, for example, never been reviewed at Trinity Church in The New York Times; other critics have been difficult to attract to Lower Manhattan. However, once our publicist has managed to have them come in once, they seem to come back. Trinity Church does not pay for advertising in newspapers, so that may make a difference as well. I think it takes a long time and much effort in terms of marketing and PR to change the assumption that a concert that has no admission fee could be worthwhile attending.

LC: You have an all-star cast to rival any other orchestra in town. Where do you get your performers?  

DM: Most of our woodwind and brass players have been with us for almost 20 years, since the orchestra’s inception. At the time most of them were newly graduated from Juilliard and now they are, of course in prominent positions like the Met and others. The string section has changed over time and is now settled. I have had very good advice from the principal string players when making selections or calls for contracting. It is a very complicated issue to build a string section.  I am pleased that Scandia has for some reason turned out to have a “all-star cast,” I believe this is why the musicians like to come here and are so committed to perform at their best every time they go on stage. It is the kind of untold and unwritten agreement among musicians that they perform excellently that forms much of the identity of an ensemble. And then, as a conductor, you naturally trust every one of them and this then reflects on them and the performance as well.

LC: Your home at least for the moment is Trinity Church, downtown, where you frequently play free Thursday lunchtime concerts.

DM: Yes, it has been a long time in Trinity Church. It took a few performances before we all adjusted to the venue. There are so many obstacles in the room since it is a very challenging acoustic environment. It takes a very well articulated group of musicians to play there or otherwise the clarity is nonexistent. Our musicians are so experienced that they make a sound judgment in terms of both distance and balance, often at the first rehearsal. Over time, I believe we have all found ways to turn the obstacles into assets and I think that the church room in the end has contributed to form Scandia’s unique sound and therefore its identity.

So there had been a value and growth in process during all this time. We have also been able to record 4 compact discs, all regularly heard on many radio stations. The CD’s are really the ultimate means of preserving Scandinavian music and cultural heritage. They do not perish with time.

LC: Was part of your decision to play to an audience who might not, either due to unfamiliarity or lack of income, be a crowd who frequent the big, expensive concert halls?

DM: I am actually proud of being able to serve all audiences and offer a full size symphony to explore and enjoy, also for people who otherwise would not be able to afford the experience. Our entire purpose is to reach people and we never know what the music may bring to an individual at that certain time. But humans have at all times needed and sought the message of music in their lives, so this will be true of the future as well. So I believe, even in these challenged times that we have a mission as musicians.

LC:   I know you play frequently around the New York area. Any plans to expand beyond the immediate vicinity?

DM: Scandia has been ready for some time to move to a midtown hall and I hope that we will soon be sharing our programs with audiences in midtown in one of those prestigious and expensive places. That is in the plans. More immediately, the Scandinavian Music Festival in Fort Tryon Park, Billings Lawn starts on June 7th and continues on Sundays in June at 2 PM.

LC: While marketing research puts the age of the average Lincoln Center concertgoer in his or her sixties, your orchestra’s fan base seems to draw from pretty much all age groups. Does it surprise you to see so many young people at your concerts? To what can you attribute this?

DM: I am not sure but that is good. Maybe many of these young people come from jobs at Wall Street? I know, however, that Scandia’s programs have always attracted a very diverse audience.

LC: Of all the pieces your orchestra has played, I understand that a staggering ninety percent are US premieres. Do you intend to continue to premiere new works here, or is there any plan to popularize certain favorites?

DM: It just so happens that many of these Scandinavian compositions, fine masterworks, have never been performed in the US – or in New York. I believe that one of the compositions on Thursday’s program, C.E.F Weyse’s Symphony No. 6 is an example of a US premiere of a 200 year old composition. I must say that the Scandinavians themselves have not done such a profound job of promoting their own music, among other treasures, so that has something to do with the fact that so much of the repertoire in unknown.

LC:  Much has been written about the difficulties of women in music in general, and in conducting as well – in particular I’m thinking of Marin Alsop’s well-publicized struggles with the Baltimore Symphony. Are there special challenges that you’ve encountered, and how can a woman in your position overcome them?

DM: Unfortunately, a number of women conductors involve themselves and the fact that they are women in a traditionally male dominated field when they are afforded the opportunity for promotion and good public relations.  Instead, we should mostly focus on the job itself and the symphony orchestra, as fascinating as it is. If we are sufficiently involved in our performance there is really not any need to be consumed with whether we are a minority or to focus on trying to overcome the barriers. Not to say that those do not exist, and that it will still take some time before there are as many women as men in the field of conducting, including with major orchestras.  Anyway, how would I know if a desired position or opportunity is not made available to me because I am a woman, of foreign descent – or maybe I did not know enough influential people, or had sufficient connection to the money that too often seem to determine how issues are handled and decisions are made?  By the way, I often hear that the musicians feel that it is refreshing to have a woman on the podium…

LC:  What do we have to look forward to at your next concert, May 28, 1 PM at Trinity Church? I see that you have Friedrich Kuhlau’s The Robbers Castle Overture, the US premiere of Gunnar Berg’s Hymnos, Johan Halvorsen’s Suite Ancienne and C.E.F. Weyse’s Symphony #6 on the program…

DM: The concert on May 28th will feature music from the Danish Golden Age, meaning the classical, early Romantic music that was based much on the Vienna School of composers. Also Johan Halvorsen, a Norwegian composer who is not heard too much, but deserves to be presented as one of the masters of the classical era in Norway.

LC:  Of all of these, do you have a particular favorite, or favorites? If you could conduct the work of one or two (or a handful) of composers, who would that be and why?

DM: I have many favorites: Carl Nielsen is one of them – and I love Jean Sibelius.  I have a passion for Gustav Mahler and would like to conduct especially his Symphony No. 2, “The Resurrection”.

LC:  How about you personally? Plenty of conductors are composers as well. Are you one of them? What is your instrument, or instruments?  

DM: My instrument is piano. To prepare myself to become a conductor, I was fortunate to receive solo lessons each week for one year in one instrument from each section of the orchestra. This was part of our training at the Royal Danish Academy of Music.  The strings were the most complicated, of course, but all were very necessary in order to communicate with the orchestra.  The voice studies – and singing – is also really important, especially to improve the breathing with the winds. To adapt to this way of producing – sustaining – the tone and the sound – as in the string instrument as well – was so important, especially for a pianist, or percussionist. Sooner or later, the vertical as well as horizontal movements are applied to our conducting gestures and our perception of the entire concept.

The New York Scandia Symphony plays next at Trinity Church, downtown on May 28 at 1 PM. The concert is free; early arrival is advised.

May 27, 2009 Posted by | Culture, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City | , , , , , , , , , , , , | 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