Monday, May 12, 2014

Out With a Bang: How to End a Season

The last Masterworks concert of the season is this weekend – Saturday at 8 and Sunday at 3 with Stuart Malina offering the pre-concert talk an hour before each concert (as if he doesn't have enough to do before a concert – and don't forget to hang around for the traditional post-concert Talk-Back Q&A, too).

Chris Rose - offstage (waaay offstage)
On the program, Jennifer Higdon's Percussion Concerto is back for a repeat performance: since principal percussionist Chris Rose played with the orchestra in 2008, Stuart says this has been the "the single most requested work for a second performance I've ever had -- a compelling piece.”

You can hear an interview Ms. Higdon recorded with John Clare when she was here in 2008, an episode of “Composing Thoughts: Live” in which she talks about her music in general and the concerto specifically – there are questions from the audience, recorded musical samples and a live performance of two movements from a beautifully evocative work for violin and piano called “String Poetic.”

In this post, I write about having heard the Percussion Concerto at its world premiere in Philadelphia in 2005, including a lot of comments about the piece she'd made in a pre-concert talk.

The symphony on the second half is Tchaikovsky's 5th Symphony, one of the most popular in the standard repertoire. You can read about the music, going behind the scenes during the composer's life when he wrote it – and hear a complete live-concert performance with Herbert von Karajan conducting the Vienna Philharmonic.

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For a concert called – for obvious reasons from these two works – “Out with a Bang!”, the program opens with a whisper – a nocturne of sorts by Aaron Copland called Quiet City.

Back in September, 2013, Stuart Malina gave a “pre-season preview” at the Midtown Scholar Bookstore, introducing the music on each of the Masterworks programs. Here's the episode for the May concert this weekend, joined eventually by Chris Rose who's the orchestra's principal percussionist and the soloist for this concert:
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Copland in 1940
Aaron Copland may be associated with that "wide-open American sound" we've become familiar with in Western ballets like Billy the Kid and Rodeo, but he's really a Brooklyn boy, as he called himself.

Probably anyone who's ever lived in New York City – or just visited friends who lived there – probably spent some time standing on the rooftop of an apartment building enjoying the view over one of the most amazing cities on earth. That's the image behind the first piece on the program, initially composed for a small ensemble as incidental music in 1940: a young, lonely man standing on the rooftop of his New York apartment building, listening to the sounds of the city at night (trust me, it's not always this quiet) and playing his trumpet – and answered by a distant voice, almost an echo, in this case played by an English horn (composers have, for some reason, occasionally used the “alto oboe” to suggest an off-stage trumpet).

At least, that's the story as I normally read it in liner notes – and it certainly works for the piece, here, by itself. In the original context, the lonely man “abandoned his Jewishness and his poetic aspirations in order to pursue material success by Anglicizing his name, marrying a rich socialite, and becoming the president of a department store. The man, however, was continually recalled to his conscience by the haunting sound of his brother's trumpet playing.”

Either way, here is the recording of Erich Kunzel and the Cincinnati Pops posted on YouTube with, somewhat incongruously, pictures of Los Angeles but another busy city seen as you've probably never seen it – empty! And, therefore, quiet.
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As for Jennifer Higdon's Percussion Concerto, you can read her own program notes for the piece here, in addition to reading the other posts I linked to (above) – though I highly recommend the “Composing Thoughts: Live” with John Clare (or at least Parts 4, 5 and 6 of the 10 short clips). After all, how often do you get to hear Beethoven or Tchaikovsky talk about their own music before you go hear it on a concert?

By the way, she'll be here for the Saturday night performance – her schedule doesn't allow her to hang around for Sunday's, unfortunately, but in addition to writing lots and lots of music – her biggest project so far is the recently completed opera based on Charles Frazier's novel Cold Mountain which will premiere in Santa Fe in 2015 and then be performed in Philadelphia in February of 2016 – she's put in a lot of traveling miles attending performances around the globe. 2010, for instance, was a great year for her: not only did her Percussion Concerto win a Grammy for Best New Contemporary Composition,, the Violin Concerto she composed for Hilary Hahn, premiered in 2009, won her the Pulitzer Prize in Music. And that's all since she was here the last time!

Now, there are always problems trying to find decent performances and recordings of classical music on YouTube. That said, the Percussion Concerto, performed here by the University of British Columbia Orchestra with soloist Jeremy Lawi who'd won the school's concerto competition in 2012 (the orchestra is conducted by Raffi Armenian), is unfortunately recorded at such a low volume level, I'm not sure you'll get a good overall idea of the piece which is based so much on colors and dynamic contrasts (it's frustrating: I keep trying to crank my computer up higher...). It will, of course, be much more vibrant hearing it live.

However, you'll at least get an idea of what the percussionist will be doing all over that stage. There are “four stations” of different types of percussion instruments – between 22 and 26, depending on who's counting (including what the members of the percussion section are playing, that's about 60 instruments on stage). Small wonder that the original performer – Colin Currie, for whom it was composed – wore black sneakers instead of the more traditional dress shoes for the performance!

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For a performance of the Tchaikovsky, please check out the next post, Tchaikovsky's Triumphant Fate Symphony to watch a video with Herbert von Karajan conducting the Vienna Philharmonic.

If you don't have time for the whole symphony (or find Karajan a bit old-fashioned and stodgy), here's the ending of the ending of Tchaikovsky's 5th - anything but stodgy - with Gustavo Dudamel and Venezuela's Simon Bolivar Youth Orchestra recorded about 5 1/2 years ago.
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While Stuart's interpretation may well be different (the hair, at least), this is the kind of energy you can expect in the Forum this weekend as we go "out with a bang!"

So, join us this weekend – Saturday at 8pm and Sunday at 3pm at the Forum – for the final concert of the Masterworks Season. And don't forget Stuart Malina's pre-concert talk an hour before each performance. And don't forget one of the composers on the program will be there for the Saturday night concert – hint: it won't be Tchaikovsky or Copland.

- Dick Strawser

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