Monday, August 10, 2015

Salzburg lite

I've been trying for some time now to get to the bottom of why most current classical music criticism really rubs me the wrong way. Is it the superficial focus on personality and popularity, the seen-it-all tone of negativity, the lack of meaningful insights? I don't see the same paucity of inspiration nearly as much in coverage of popular music forms and visual art (though I don't read it as much, either).  In an effort to illustrate my irritability, I thought I would try summarizing my takeaway from a randomly selected review gleaned from today's New York Times- in this case an overview of the six-week long Salzburg Festival:

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The Salzburg Festival is very, very busy.
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The critic heard two concerts in one evening. He almost didn't make it to the second one!
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The first concert was really good. Who knows why? That's not what reviews are for. However, everything was vibrant, colorful, scintillating, brilliant and radiant.
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The day before, the critic heard two major pianists- and they were surprisingly different! The first one was quite friendly but somewhat boring, and the second one was really boring and also pretty unfriendly- which explains why he doesn't play much in America. However, everyone loved everything, and many, many encores were played, always a good sign.
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Behind the scenes, things are in utter turmoil. Something is fishy...foreign artistic directors keep leaving for other jobs. The darned board of directors keeps claiming that new operas and commissions are too expensive. Fortunately, there is an Austrian pianist stepping into the job, (which carries a sentence of 5-10 years). By the way, he played in a really cool multimedia concert in New York last year, so he is definitely the man for the job.
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Of course, new music and opera are the only things that are truly interesting anymore, but Bellini's "Norma" was great. Thank goodness it was updated and had a huge star in the title role. New things were revealed- but remember, those are things we don't talk about in music reviews.
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Austrians hate standing up, but they did so, twice. Amazingly, orchestra players also stood up and sang (however, they were from Budapest). Now, THAT'S music. Why can't it be like this in New York?

Is there any room at all for actual substance or depth in arts coverage nowadays?
Please help me out in my quest for understanding.
Comments welcome.

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Review: Bowdoin Int'l Music Festival/Ying Quartet

Monday, July 13
Studzinski Hall, Bowdoin College
Brunswick, Maine

In their first season as co-artistic directors of the Bowdoin Festival, brothers Phillip and David Ying took the stage on Monday along with Ying Quartet first violinist Ayano Ninomiya and second violinist Susie Park (sitting in for an ailing Janet Ying) in Tchaikovsky's first string quartet and John Novacek's Rag Set for String Quartet. In the second half of the program the quartet was joined by Michelle LaCourse and Keiko Ying for a performance of Brahms' second string sextet.

With the weighty Brahms occupying the second half of the program, the ensemble wisely kept the rest of the program on the lighter side. Tchaikovsky's youthful first quartet is best known for its folk-song inspired andante cantabile for muted strings, highlighting Ms. Ninomiya's lovely, restrained lyricism. The rest of the work is neither the composer's best nor worst creation, but it never failed to charm and excite in this enthusiastic and committed performance. The final movement especially found this quartet at its thrilling, virtuosic best.

The Ying Quartet is to be commended for their prolific commissioning of new music for the medium, and the Rag Set by pianist/composer John Novacek is one such work. But rather than advance the repertoire, this three movement crowd-pleaser from 2009 piles cliché upon cliché to form a dense morass of overworked ragtime gestures. Rather than providing contrast or interest, constant interjections of jagged, dissonant rhythmic interplay seem intended to give the work a more "serious music" quality, but fail to add any substance to the proceedings. Unfortunately, the Ying's rather heavy-handed approach to the work didn't utilize the sort of coolness that just might have rescued the piece somewhat from the realm of vaudeville entertainment.

Johannes Brahms' G Major string sextet is usually framed as a commemoration of his obsessive love for two women, Clara Schumann and Agathe von Siebold; its four extensive movements do indeed tell a sort of epic love story. In any case, the experience for the listener is one of a long journey into the heart of the romantic soul, and any performance of the work requires an utmost authenticity of expression to succeed. Happily, Monday's performance was definitely one such as this, with uniformly fine work from the quartet, violist Michelle LaCourse and cellist Keiko Ying.

Review: Bowdoin Int'l Music Festival/Beethoven, Chen Yi, Schumann

Friday, July 10
Crooker Auditorium
Bowdoin International Music Festival, Brunswick, Maine

This festival's Friday evening concert series accommodates the occasional large ensemble and a bigger weekend audience, so the action moves off campus from Bowdoin's excellent Studzinski Recital Hall to Brunswick High School's Crooker Auditorium. It turns out to be a problematic relocation sonically, and must surely be as challenging to the performing artists as it is disappointing to the audience. Though relatively new and well appointed, Crooker is simply not suited to acoustic music presentation. A battery of band shells upstage seem to help little with sound projection. One hopes that the new artistic leadership of the festival (brothers Phillip and David Ying of the Ying Quartet) will make it a top priority to explore possible fixes for the hall's sound quality, or seek alternate venues. This being said, it is difficult to give a fair appraisal of the July 10th concert. As a performer myself, I know all too well how a flat acoustic can defeat even the most dynamic music-making. If you choose to ignore the situation and simply play as rehearsed, you risk an ineffectual performance. If you push harder to fill the void, you may abandon the musical subtleties that make art music artful.

This (very large) caveat aside, the evening's works were all extremely well-executed. Clarinetist Jon Manasse brought his faultless tone and inspired musicianship to the Beethoven clarinet trio, ably matched by cellist David Ying and pianist Elinor Freer. More flexibility of tempo in the first movement might have better served Beethoven's sudden contrasts of dynamic and mood, and allowed time for a more communicative, oratorical style. The virtuoso pianist in Beethoven is especially on display in the finale's jolly set of variations, and Freer handled them with ease and style. Again, contrasts of mood and key (such as in the mournful minor-key variation) could have been more broadly drawn to speak in this hall. If one didn't walk away with a smile completely, I would chalk it up to the venue, and to the fact that Beethoven's chamber music was never really intended to be performed anyplace much larger than a living room.

The renowned composer Chen Yi was in residence this week at the festival, and after a stunning performance of her Fiddle Suite on Wednesday, faculty artists returned to the stage in her ambitious 1997 work Qi. Using a mixture of western instruments, the composer seeks to "translate my general feeling of the qi, the element of nature, into my musical language...I try to sound the inner voices and spirit of human beings, to experience this eternal power." The work demands complete virtuosity and rhythmic accuracy from its four players, and they were on hand for an impressively spirited and evocative performance of this challenging score: Beomjae Kim, flute; Amir Eldan, cello; Tao Lin, piano; and Luke Rinderknecht, percussion. Entirely abstract in design, the piece uses both Chinese instruments (such as Beijing opera gongs) and western instruments to mimic eastern styles: slides in the cello, wide vibrato from the flute, swipes on the piano strings. Tension is constantly built and released, eventually revealing a yin/yang duality that lingers in the air as the piece evaporates inconclusively.

Robert Schumann's piano quartet completed the program, in a performance by violinist Ilya Kaler, violist Carol Rodland, cellist Paul Katz and Boris Slutsky at the piano. This again was a strong showing technically by all involved that nonetheless suffered from the uncooperative sonics of the hall. Schumann's fantastical, rapid staccatos and surging repeated chords in the first movement often lacked enough transparency for the work's strident four-note theme to emerge clear and triumphant. The players were more successful in balancing the fiendishly difficult scherzo, but again a certain sameness of dynamic and gesture kept the action earthbound. Unfortunately, the beloved and heart-breaking andante cantabile movement did not ever find its balance point; the accompanying piano chords were a bit too loud throughout, with the various solo turns by the strings somewhat overplayed (see paragraph one!) for the delicacy of emotion being expressed. The same first movement issues returned in the exhilarating Mendelssohn-like finale, where the rapid-fire passagework tossed amongst the players tended to overwhelm the melodic line at times. But setting aside these balance issues, the quartet played with great sensitivity and exuberance, and would surely have shone much brighter in a more ingratiating environment.

It is of course impossible for musicians to be in two places at once; given the extreme challenge this hall presents, it would seem prudent to have someone trusted on hand at rehearsals to advise on balance issues. If the festival continues to present at Crooker, I hope that every effort will be made to improve sound quality for the benefit of both artist and patron.

Review: Bowdoin Int'l Music Festival/Chen Yi, Prokofiev, Brahms

Wednesday, July 8
Studzinski Recital Hall/Bowdoin College
Bowdoin International Music Festival, Brunswick, Maine

This concert by BIMF faculty and visiting artists began with Prokofiev's Sonata for Solo Violin, op. 115, written by the composer in 1947 as a pedagogical work to be performed by multiple students together. That being said, the sonata clearly stands on its own as a pleasing solo conception, and violinist Ani Schnarch played it with beauty, humor and clarity.

Visiting composer Chen Yi was on hand to introduce her 1997 Fiddle Suite, written for the traditional Chinese erhu accompanied by string quartet. The three movements entitled Singing, Reciting and Dancing featured the instrument in three different tunings, played here with stunning virtuosity by the renowned erhu soloist Wang Guowei. Chen Yi is well-known for her uncanny ability to synthesize Eastern and Western music, and she is at her best here- not a single note sounds contrived or typical, yet the essence of each tradition is fully honored and explored with true innovation. Especially fine work was displayed in solo cadenzas by Mr. Wang at the end of the first movement and cellist Kenny Lee in the second. The excellent ensemble was rounded out by Olga Kaler and Yefim Romanov, violins, and Phillip Ying, viola (a Bowdoin festival co-director along with brother David Ying, cellist).

The program concluded with an impeccable performance of Johannes Brahms' Quintet for Clarinet and Strings, with visiting artist Jon Manasse, clarinet, Susie Park and Kurt Sassmannshaus, violins, Carol Rodland, viola and Keiko Ying, cello. Feeling as I do that the difficult but crowd-pleasing chamber works of Brahms are opportunistically over-represented at summer festivals, I approached this performance with some trepidation, but I needn't have worried. Mr. Manasse brought lovely, melting tone, compelling and sensitive phrasing and complete fluency to the performance, while the faculty quartet demonstrated an utter mastery of the work's often convoluted phrasing and subtle interchanges. All are to be commended for their peerless ensemble playing, so difficult to achieve within the short rehearsal period typical at such festivals.

Review: Bowdoin Int'l Music Festival/Dover Quartet

Monday, July 6
Dover Quartet
Studzinski Recital Hall/Bowdoin College
Bowdoin International Music Festival, Brunswick, Maine

The best playing of the evening from this acclaimed young string quartet came first, in a confident reading of Robert Schumann's A minor quartet from opus 41. Impeccable tuning, flawless ensemble and an easy virtuosity have doubtless earned them their current popularity. They seemed most stylistically at ease in the highly-charged outer movements where Schumann's characteristically quirky and folksy motives were handled with finesse and care, if not always with a quality of spontaneity one hopes to hear in such well-worn literature. The challenges of the more diffuse adagio movement found them a bit adrift, with the intricate exchanges of thematic material between the players failing to stand out in convincing relief. As a quartet, they seem unwilling as yet to sacrifice the comfort of a uniformly blended sound to achieve clear delineation of solo lines when needed. The overall effect is energetic and accomplished, yet somewhat monotonous in texture.

The same sorts of issues dogged their performance of Viktor Ullman's haunting third quartet, opus 46, written while the composer was imprisoned in Theresienstadt concentration camp. The work calls for an almost cinematic approach to changes in mood and color and a highly-charged emotionalism, and the Dover, though technically superb, was not quite up to the story-telling task. One continually wished for an extra degree of pianissimo, an extra gasp of breath, that extra shard of light breaking through the gloom. This is the crucial chance-taking that illuminates architecture for an audience and reveals the mysterious rooms within. Written as it was under such unimaginably horrific circumstances, this quartet demands its performers to plumb the depths. Can such a young quartet do this? I remain hopeful but as yet unconvinced.

The excellent acoustic of Bowdoin's intimate Studzinski Hall could not rescue the final work on the program, César Franck's piano quintet. With the Dover  joined here by pianist Julian Martin, this seething, ravishing masterpiece was rendered almost unrecognizable through maddeningly slow tempos, long, uninterrupted swaths of mezzo-forte playing and a strangely directionless approach to phrasing. The quartet lacked the requisite French transparency and shimmer, as if they had never entirely disengaged from the concert's Germanic repertoire, while Mr. Martin failed to play with the kind of incisiveness that could both lead and rise above the strings when required.

Undoubtedly, the Dover is an ensemble with a future, but one hopes they will begin to take the kinds of chances musically and dynamically that can turn merely appealing performances into memorable ones.

Monday, June 15, 2015

Limited Partnership airs on PBS in June

Don't miss this heart-rending chronicle of a gay couple's 40-year love story and struggle against anti-gay marriage and immigration laws:
Limited Partnership | Independent Lens | PBS

Absolutely brilliant, bittersweet and inspiring. Bravo.

Sunday, June 14, 2015

Pickled hearing at the Chelsea Music Festival

Lucky patrons of the 2015 Chelsea Music Festival featuring the music of Finland and Hungary, are not going hungry or thirsty. With Hear/Taste/See as the festival rallying cry, almost all of the concerts in this 10-day series are advertised to include (in bold italic) "reception and open bar" along with a smattering of "curated" (?) food presentations by celebrity-ish chefs. Apparently worried about those pesky two remaining senses, there was last evening the unveiling of the "2015 Chelsea Music Festival Scent by perfumer Christophe Laudamiel." No sign as yet of a touch-themed event, but perhaps things might heat up if they move the Finnish Fiddle-Off to a sauna with goulash-tasting afterwards. But I'm ONLY going if it's curated.

Saturday, June 13, 2015

The curious incident of the Leipzig dawg

The mysterious circumstances surrounding the recent arrest of Leipzig String Quartet first violin Stefan Arzberger for attempted murder continue to confound everyone not familiar with the hothouse world of chamber music. It seems perfectly obvious to me that this whole drug-in-the-cocktail-my-hooker-gave-me scheme was cooked up by the second violinist. 

JUST as I was learning to trust string players again...