Monday, November 25, 2013

More live music

Between one thing and another, I have fallen far behind on my blogging, but I didn’t want too much time to go by without mentioning a pair of memorable concerts I attended in the weeks before the Carter tribute at Carnegie Hall. The concerts took place on consecutive Sundays. On November 3, I drove out to Swarthmore (may the builders of I-95 roast in eternal perdition) to hear Orchestra 2001 and the Daedalus Quartet perform music by Walton, Joan Tower, and Schoenberg. The quartet played Joan Tower’s String Quartet No. 5, titled White Water, and, with baritone Randall Scarlata and pianist Charles Abramovic, Arnold Schoenberg’s 1942 “Ode to Napoleon Buonaparte.” The afternoon began and ended with orchestra itself, dressed in red and black, playing William Walton’s early, sprawling “Fa├žade,” split into two big sections, with Scarlata and the sublime Suzanne DuPlantis as narrators. Performances were uniformly excellent. The Tower was easy to follow, with broad lines and open textures, but it seemed to me more well-crafted than inspired, somewhat like the music of Walter Piston.

The greatest piece on the program was the Schoenberg, but for its sheer playfulness, the Walton made the strongest impression. It’s an eclectic piece, a sort of mixture of Pierrot Lunaire and A Soldier’s Tale, with a bit of Three-Penny Opera thrown in. Like The Rite of Spring ten years earlier, it caused a scandal at its premiere. Before the performance, James Freeman, 2001’s conductor, said the poet Edith Sitwell, who provided texts, had to sneak out of the theater, because, it was warned, she might come to some harm. Freeman said he had always envied Walton and Stravinsky for the violence and passion of those first responses, and he encouraged us to boo, if we felt like it. A few of us did, just to be polite, but we were all in much too good a mood to make a serious show of it. The performance was great fun. I told both James and Suzanne I wished the group would record it.

A week later, I had a lovely afternoon in the genial company of Mozart and Beethoven, courtesy of the Independence Sinfonia, which is fast becoming the best of Philadelphia’s small suburban orchestras. The concert was held at Or Hadash synagogue in Whitemarsh, in a boxy, wood-paneled sanctuary that conductor Jerome Rosen said was built as a music hall. The orchestra has about forty musicians, more enough to create a thrilling, knockout sound in such intimate surroundings. There was a tangibility to the music, a sense of envelopment you don’t get in the big halls,. Even with the biggest and best orchestras.

Charles Salinger was the Apollonian soloist in Mozart’s Clarinet Concerto in A. Rosen told me afterward he was especially proud of the job the musicians did in this piece, but after the concert, my head remained full of Beethoven, if only because his music is less subtle. The concert began with the Overture to “the “Creatures of Prometheus” and ended with the Fourth Symphony. The group was tight and fluent in both. Special mention should be made of bassoonist Judy Frank, who nailed the little cadenza in the last movement of the symphony. (The conductor gave her a congratulatory OK sign from the podium.) The passage is as challenging as a fifty-two yard field goal, Rosen said. Even the most experienced player can muff it, but when it works, it’s a beautiful thing to behold.

There. I am now caught up. It is cold tonight. Time to curl up under the covers with tea and Updike’s Couples.

Monday, November 18, 2013

All Carter, all the time

Yesterday I took the Jersey Transit to New York for the 2 p.m. all-Elliott Carter program at Carnegie Hall. Leon Botstein conducted the American Symphony Orchestra with guest artists Anthony McGill, clarinet; Mary MacKenzie, soprano; and Teresa Buchholz, mezzo. The hall was less than half full. Up in the dress circle, where I was sitting, everyone would have fit into one of the five searing sections. As with all Carter concerts, however, the crowd, such as it was, was knowledgeable and enthusiastic. It was rewarded with a good concert that fell several steps short of great.

The bad news first: The program ended with the extraordinary Concerto for Orchestra from 1969, the piece I was most eager to hear, and the afternoon’s big disappointment. The reading was note perfect, but it lacked definition. The climactic moments didn’t stand out, and individual incidents did not emerge from the surrounding texture so much as they sat on top of it. In short, the music didn’t flow. The pieces were all there, but they did not come together. I missed the energy, the grandeur and the spaciousness I find in my several recordings of the work. A friend said afterwards that if he were feeling generous, he would describe the performance as subdued and lyrical. I’ll forego generosity and call it weak. The musicians found it rough going, I suspect, but the failure was ultimately Botstein’s. Back in 2008, Oliver Knussen proved just how exciting the piece can be when he led a pickup orchestra of young musicians in a well-shaped, thrilling performance at the Tanglewood Music Festival. (Anyone curious about why I love this music should watch the performance video on YouTube.)

On the plus side (and it was a big plus), Anthony McGill was dazzling in the 1996 Clarinet Concerto, and Botstein was wise enough not to stand in his way. His tempos were brisk, and if he wasn’t especially nuanced, he was exciting. From the very opening riffs, he swung. It was the most memorable performance of the day.

The concert opened with a solid reading of Pocahontas, Carter attractive and underplayed ballet from the late 1930s (though the Suite was composed 1960). This is early Carter, written in the rangy, relatively populist style he was devoted to at the time, and while it has been described as derivative of several other composers, it has a feeling of its own, marked by the composer’s way with counterpoint and a love of percussion that became increasingly important in his later work. It was a pleasure to hear.

In the second half, just before the Concerto for Orchestra, MacKenzie and Buchholz joined Botstein and the crew for two early songs. MacKenzie was touching in “A Warble for Lilac Time,” though from where I was sitting, it was hard to judge Buchholz’s handling of “Voyage,” since she was swamped several times by the orchestra.

The program also included an oddly energetic performance of the supposedly contemplative “Sound Fields” for strings.