Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Music for Tourists

Allan Krantz, Robyn Novello and Steve Kramer
perform Handel's Cantata Spagnuola Sunday in Norristown.
The cellist Steve Kramer and friends presented a program in Norristown Sunday titled, somewhat misleadingly, “Sounds of the Symphony."  There was nothing symphonic about it. It was, rather, an eclectic afternoon of short chamber and vocal pieces and Latin dance music. (I wrote the preview a few weeks back, which may be seen here.)  

The first half was more or less classical, starting with Steve playing a single Sarabande from Bach’s Suites for Unaccompanied Cello, and ending with Handel’s Cantata Spagnuola and Villa Lobos’ Bachiana Brasilero No. 5, sung by the lovely, soft-voiced young soprano Robyn Novello. (Steve and guitarist Allan Krantz provided the understated accompaniment.)

In between, we heard bass-baritone Alan Rosenbaum, whom I remember from Delaware Valley Opera Company production of “La Traviata,” in a Ladino folksong and a Donizetti aria, and, in the company of tenor Adam Gilbert, two Hebrew songs by Benjamin Steinberg.  Steve also joined violinist Elina Kalendarova of the Philadelphia Orchestra and her father, pianist and composer Edward Kalendar, in Kalendar’s slight but attractive Elegie and Scherzo, followed by “A Little Jewish Life,” also by Kalendar, for violin and piano. Kalendar received a standing ovation for a piano medley, titled “A Musical Journey Around the World,” that mashed up Gershwin, Tchaikovsky and Beethoven with jazz and pop tunes.  Impressively played, and quickly forgotten.

The mood shifted seismically after intermission, when the group Latin Fiesta took the stage for an extroverted set of music from (or about) Mexico, Brazil, Cuba and Spain. Some of it was strictly for tourists ―the set included “La Bamba,” “Guantanamera,” and Sergio Mendes’ “Mas que Nada ” ― but the accommodations were first-rate, and vocalist Vania Taylor-Watson made a congenial guide. This was music for dancing, rather than listening, and indeed, at one point, the group’s resident dancer, Liliana Ruiz, invited the audience up to the stage for a samba. After a costume change, she ended the set with a stunning demonstration of flamenco, pitting her heels in a duel against the percussion of Cuco Aponte. (He finally left the stage in mock defeat.) 

I should mention the young flutist, Elijah Thomas, and the drummer Tom Lowery, who were all but invisible behind the speakers and the grand piano, but who nonetheless managed to make themselves indispensable. A bravo, too, to 8-year-old Aaron Liu, one of Steve’s pupils, who was brave enough to tackle the Courante from Bach’s Suite No. in G in front of a room full of strangers.

Performances were consistently good , but Steve had the session recorded, and the stage was a tangle of wires constantly got in the performers’ way. Allan Rosenbaum kicked one off his foot as he was trying to sing, and Edward Kalendar bumped his head on a boom mic more than once.  The equipment became a bigger issue in the second half, when the Latin set was marred by over-amplification and, at one point, a dead microphone. 

Tuesday, June 9, 2015

The Nielsen Sesquicentenial

Today, June 9, is Carl Nielsen's 150th birthday, an important anniversary, to my mind, that is going unnoticed in this country. (I wonder if there's anything planned at Tivoli.) Nielsen is an underrated composer -- Bernard Holland of the Times once described him as something like "north of good, but south of great," but we all know what a wheezy old mossback Bernard Holland was -- and he tends to get overlooked in favor of Sibelius, as if one great composer from Scandinavia is all the traffic will bear. (And Finland isn't even really technically Scandinavia.)

Be that as it may, his music has meant a great deal to me ever since I first caught his Fourth Symphony, "The Inextinguishable," on the radio when I was in high school.

Nielsen is best known for his six symphonies and his three concertos, of course, but he wrote much else, including two full-length operas -- Hey, Philadelphia Opera Company, how about staging Maskarade? -- a beautiful Wind Quintet, and some extraordinary piano music. His memoir, My Childhood, is vivid, delightful, touching, and very hard to find. I stumbled across a copy once at a chain bookstore in White Oak, Maryland. It was much too expensive, but I snapped it up nonetheless. I haven't seen another copy since.

Today is a major musical occasion, and in a just world, it would be worth a day off from work.

Monday, June 8, 2015

'Any jackass can see that'

Sometimes, late on Sunday nights when I can't sleep, I tune in The Outer Limits on This TV (broadcast channel 17.3 in Philadelphia. Last night I caught the tail end of "Demon With a Glass Hand," the classic episode written by Harlan Ellison and starring Robert Culp and Arlene Martel (who would later appear as Spock's betrothed in the Star Trek episode "Amok Time"). Sitting through the end credits, I had a small realization. The series' second season theme, composed by Harry Lubin, is really the third movement, Poco Allegretto, of Brahms' Third Symphony, which I also listened to yesterday. Lubin disguises it well, and of course, Brahms didn't use that high electronic whine until the Clarinet Quintet, but you could play the two pieces simultaneously, and they would fit together seamlessly.

Judge for yourself here and here.

This is the kind of thing that occurs to you at one in the morning.

Monday, June 1, 2015

Great young musicians

Composer Sheridan Seyfried, right, with conductor
Louis  Scaglione at the Kimmel Center after Sunday's 
concert by the Philadelphia Youth Orchestra.
Yesterday I caught the train downtown for a concert by the Philadelphia Youth Orchestra, an extraordinary ensemble of close to one hundred high school–age musicians. The program began with Across the Sky, an eight-minute overture by the 31-year-old composer Sheridan Seyfried for the orchestra’s 75th anniversary.  Sheridan grew up in Oreland, Pa. I interviewed back in the early aughts when he was 19 and had just been accepted to Curtis. I was there at Verizon Hall yesterday at his invitation.

Across the Sky was written, as Sheridan told me after the performance, with one foot firmly in the 19th century. It’s an open-hearted, colorfully scored holiday for orchestra time that could, I thought, have been penned by Dvorak. The second subject sounded, to my ear, somewhat Slavic. (Sheridan described it as a Turkish march, though we might not have been talking about the same thing.) The title and what there is of a program ― “a ride across the sky (perhaps on a chariot, or perhaps a magic carpet)” ― came after the piece was completed and were suggested by the principal rhythm, a sort of gallop in 12/8.  The young musicians, conducted by Louis Scaglione, gave it a polished, energetic reading. It was a fun few minutes.

The program ended ― astonishingly ― with Mahler’s Fifth Symphony. Astonishing that they would attempt such a long, sprawling work, and even more astonishing that they would come through with such a memorable performance. The level of playing was consistently high in every section, and if the climaxes in the second and third movements lacked the punch I have come to expect, my overall impression was one of well-balanced, well-integrated, well-rehearsed professionalism. Congratulations to everyone involved.

The middle of the program was occupied by Tchaikovsky’s shameless, flamboyant Violin Concerto, performed with the requisite shameless flamboyance by Michael Ludwig. It’s hard to assess the orchestra’s accompaniment, since the orchestra isn’t asked to do anything very interesting in this piece. There is not a single beautiful moment in it. Of course, it got a standing ovation.

One small mercy: The opening bars always bring a smile to my face, because they appear in Monty Python’s “Royal Festival Hall” bit.