Saturday, March 28, 2015

Additional Concerts over WCRB on March 29, 2015

In addition to the Boston Symphony concert broadcast/webstream of March 28, which I strongly recommend, WCRB is giving us a chance to hear two other masterpieces in performance this weekend. On Sunday they're giving us the two surviving Passions by J. S. Bach. First, at 3:00 p.m., we get a live broadcast of a performance of the St. Matthew Passion by the Handel and Haydn Society. I have a ticket, so I expect to be hearing it in the hall while you can listen on radio or the web. Here's how WCRB describes it:
WCRB takes you live to Symphony Hall for one of the signature events of the bicentennial season of the Handel and Haydn Society. Artistic Director Harry Christophers leads this pinnacle of Bach's musical achievement, a piece performed for the first time in the U.S. by the Handel and Haydn Society in 1879. Tenor Joshua Ellicott sings the role of the Evangelist, with baritone Roderick Williams in the role of Jesus. Additional soloists include
  • soprano Joélle Harvey,
  • mezzo-soprano Anna Stéphany,
  • tenor Matthew Long, and
  • baritone Sumner Thompson, with
  • the VAP Young Women's and Young Men's Choruses.

Then at 7:00 p. m. they broadcast and stream the recording they made of a recent performance of the St. John Passion by Emmanuel Music, reviewed here in the Boston Musical Intelligencer. Here's WCRB's description:
Ryan Turner leads the chorus and orchestra of Emmanuel Music in Bach's St. John Passion, with tenor Matthew Anderson in the role of the Evangelist and baritone Dana Whiteside in the role of Jesus. Additional soloists include
  • sopranos Roberta Anderson and Brenna Wells,
  • altos Deborah Rentz-Moore and Krista River,
  • tenors Jonas Budris and Frank Kelley, and
  • bass soloists Bradford Gleim, Mark McSweeney, and Paul Max Tipton.

If you're familiar with both, you know how you'd prioritize. If not, there are a couple of perspectives I'd offer. The St. Matthew is generally regarded as one of the summits of Western music. It is monumental and profound. In my personal opinion, it can also be overwhelming and seem ponderous. The St. John is maybe not quite so highly esteemed by the professionals, but I find it livelier and a bit more accessible.

To help you decide if you'd like to listen to either or both of these pieces which are so appropriate for Holy Week, there are links to interviews with the directors of each performance on the page WCRB dedicates to them.

If you plan to listen to either, I strongly recommend having a copy of the text in German and English so you can follow along. I'm sure you can readily find both online.

BSO — 2015/03/26-31

This week the Boston Symphony is giving another world premiere. It's a wonderful work for organ and orchestra titled Ascending Light, by Michael Gandolfi. The BSO commissioned it to honor their long-time organist Berj Zamkochian and to commemorate the Armenian Genocide, which began in 1915. Music Director Andris Nelsons will conduct and Olivier Latry will be the organ soloist. After intermission, we'll hear Mahler's Symphony No. 6. In addition to the usual links to program notes, audio previews, and performer bios, the orchestra's performance detail page gives the following background information on the concert:
Andris Nelsons returns for the final three of his ten enormously wide-ranging 2014-15 programs. Here he conducts the BSO's second world premiere of the season, a concerto written by Boston-based composer Michael Gandolfi for Symphony Hall's remarkable, recently restored Aeolian-Skinner organ. Gandolfi's dynamic, pattern-infused, colorful works include the earlier BSO commissions The Garden of Cosmic Speculation (premiered by the Tanglewood Music Center Orchestra) and Night Train to Perugia (premiered by the BSO in 2012). Gandolfi's new work shares a program with Gustav Mahler's powerful Symphony No. 6, arguably Mahler's most heartfelt symphonic statement-his wife Alma called it "the most completely personal of his works."

The Boston Musical Intelligencer published an interview with the composer which is a good preview, like the official program notes. As for the reviews, the Globe was unimpressed, while the Boston Musical Intelligencer finds it "a distinguished addition to that rara avis, the organ concerto." As for the Mahler, BMInt noted many details of the performance and had no complaints, while the Globe gave a mixed review.

My own feeling is that the new piece by Gandolfi is a masterpiece, almost overwhelming. It is true music throughout (not like way too much recent "music" which lacks coherence, recognizable melody, or harmony — this has all three in abundance), with plenty of the life force which gives the first movement its title, and lyricism when it comes to the ascending light section. The audience gave a prolonged standing ovation for conductor, organist, and composer, and I think it was fully deserved. I'm far from alone in my opinion: there are favorable comments on the BMInt's interview with Michael Gandolfi, and the following comment on their review:
Great review. Thursday evening’s concert was superb. The Gandolfi work was powerful, expressive, and moving. I’ve never seen a BSO audience roar with such a sustained standing ovation to any new work being performed. Yes, it was tonal and accessible, but more than that, it was *really good.* It’s a work I want to hear again. When was the last time any of us said that at the premiere of any new work here in Boston? 
BSO management, please take note. I think if there is a distaste for new music in Boston, it’s more a distaste for atonal, inaccessible music that virtually no one except for 3-4 academicians can remotely enjoy or take any pleasure in. Thankfully we are done hearing the Elliott Carters and Milton Babbitts of the world here in Boston now that what’s-his-name is gone. There have to be other compositional voices out there besides Michael Gandolfi who write new music that is meaningful, expressive, and engaging. 
Kudos to Michael Gandolfi for writing a tremendous, powerful, and deeply affecting new piece of music. I have to believe this is a work that will be played for many years to come.

So I'm urging you to listen to the broadcast/webstream over WCRB on Saturday evening and again on Monday, April 6, both at 8:00 Boston (Daylight Saving/Summer) Time. If you don't like Mahler, you can "leave" at intermission.  The station's BSO page also offers a link to an interview with the composer and the organist. It's not about the music itself so much as about how it got composed and about organs and organ playing in general.

Edited to add: Here's a link to a video of brief excerpts from the BSO. It gives some idea, but of course it can't match the impact of hearing the whole thing.

Friday, March 20, 2015

BSO — 2015/03/19-21

An all-Mozart concert is in store this week. Christoph von Dohnányi, who led last week's Mozart and Strauss program, returns to conduct the Boston Symphony in Mozart's last three symphonies, Nos. 39, 40, and 40, the last of which has acquired the nickname "Jupiter." The orchestra's performance detail page has links to program notes and an extensive set of audio previews, including a chat with Maestro von Dohnányi, as well as a bio of the maestro available by clicking on the thumbnail picture. The description there is a bit more extensive and informative than usual:
Any opportunity to hear the final three symphonies of Mozart played by the BSO in a single program-in this instance under the distinguished baton of Christoph von Dohnányi-is a special event. Virtually defining their genre at the peak of the Classical era, the composer's last three symphonies were written within the span of a few weeks in the summer of 1787. Scholars have never pinpointed what may have triggered their composition-perhaps a projected concert series that never took place-but Mozart covered an enormous amount of expressive and technical ground, elevating the symphony (along with Haydn) far beyond the glorified, serenade-like status it had previously held. For Viennese audiences who came of age immediately after Mozart's early death in 1791-i.e., Beethoven's generation-these three works and just a handful of others kept Mozart's name and spirit alive, inspiring composers like Beethoven and Schubert to greater heights. They remain Mozart's most frequently performed symphonies, by far.

I exchanged my ticket for this concert for the "King Roger" a couple of weeks ago, so I can't tell you anything specific, but of course the symphonies are great pieces, and so it should be a very fine concert. Jeremy Eichler, reviewing for the Globe, was very pleased with what he heard. The Boston Musical Intelligencer gives an essay on Mozart and the symphonies, concluding with strong praise for the performance. So I think this is a concert not to be missed. As always, it can be heard live at 8:00 Boston (Daylight Saving) Time on March 21, and repeated on March 30, over radio and internet from WCRB. There is an extensive interview with Maestro von Dohnányi on the station's BSO page, where you can also see the remaining broadcast/webstream schedule for this season and other links.

Don't miss it.

Saturday, March 14, 2015

BSO — 2015/03/12-17

This week, the BSO gives us "easy listening" with music of Mozart and Richard Strauss. Christoph von Dohnányi conducts — except the first piece, which is a string sextet played without a conductor; and Emanuel Ax is soloist in two pieces. The orchestra's performance detail page gives additional specifics:
Revered German conductor Christoph von Dohnányi leads the BSO in two consecutive weeks of programs this season. The first features beloved pianist Emanuel Ax in two works-Mozart's Piano Concerto No. 14 in E-flat, composed in early 1784 as the first of the dozen piano concertos dating from the height of his popularity in Vienna; and Richard Strauss's Burleske, a sparkling, classically stylish early work composed when he was twenty-one. The program opens with the lovely Sextet for strings from Strauss's final opera, Capriccio, and ends with Mozart's Haffner Symphony, which began life as a serenade composed for the Haffner family in 1782, then was turned by Mozart into a symphony introduced in Vienna the following year.
(Some emphasis added.)
You can also get the usual audio previews, program notes, and performer bios there, But unfortunately they don't list the players — all BSO members — in the opening sextet. They are Malcolm Lowe (concertmaster) and Haldan Martinson (principal second violin); violins, Steven Ansell and Cathy Basrak (principal and assistant principal), violas; and Jules Eskin (principal) and Sato Knudsen, cellos.

I found the Thursday performance enjoyable. The Mozart was typical Mozaert. As for the Strauss, the sextet was mostly gentle, while the "Burleske" was vigorous, with plenty of virtuoso piano playing. The Globe reviewer was pleased. There's also a link to a story from 18 months ago about the conductor's father, who was part of the resistance against Hitler and was killed by the Nazis in April 1945. The Boston Musical Intelligencer has a mixed review.

As always, you can listen for yourself on radio or the web over WCRB at 8:00 p.m., Boston Time (which is Daylight Saving Time), this evening or Monday, March 23. The station's BSO page has an interview with the conductor, the BSO concert broadcast schedule, and other links and information.


Saturday, March 7, 2015

BSO — 2015/03/05-07

This week the concert is the opera "King Roger," by Karol Szymanowski. Since Thursday's performance was the BSO and Boston premiere of the work I was happy to be in the hall for it. Charles Dutoit conducted with choruses and soloists listed on the performance detail page, which also gives links to program notes, audio previews, and performer bios. It includes this description:
For his second week of concerts, Charles Dutoit leads the BSO in what is sure to be one of the season's most important events-the first BSO performances of Polish composer Karol Szymanowski's moving opera King Roger. Set in 12th-century Sicily and loosely based on Euripides'The BacchaeKing Roger has long been championed by Maestro Dutoit, who led the Paris, New York, Japanese, and Canadian premieres of this rarely heard work, which, even beyond the conflict between Christianity and paganism built into the libretto, more broadly addresses the universal struggles between paganism and intellect, intellect and wisdom, darkness and light. Featuring an internationally heralded cast headed by star Polish baritone Mariusz Kwiecien, who makes his BSO subscription series debut in the title role, these performances will be sung in Polish with English supertitles.
(Some emphasis added.)

The music is not tough to take. It's similar to other late Romantic opera in a way. There are no immediately obvious "tunes" but there are soaring lines. It's more like Strauss than Verdi, or even Wagner or Puccini. I'm not sure how it will work without the text, but if you take it just as music, I think it can be enjoyable. For an idea of what's going on, you can read the program notes and listen to the audio previews — not only those on the BSO's own page, but also the one on the WCRB page. After attending the concert, I found some video excerpts from staged performances. In one case, seeing the action rounded out the experience, making the music and words more meaningful when linked to the action. In the other case, the director brought in a lot of business which isn't called for in the score — regietheater, they call it in German — and it was not so useful.

The reviews were favorable, but since it isn't a familiar work, they couldn't really judge how well it was done. We'll have to accept that, given the quality of the performers, it was good. The review in the Globe gives a good sense of what the music is like as well as what it depicts. It helps perhaps, that there is only one work to review, and the reviewer may have been given a little extra space. The Boston Musical Intelligencer gives further insight into Szymanowski's musical style and has more to say about the performers. I know that Mariusz Kwiecien has sung a number of staged performances, and basically owns the role of King Roger, so with him you certainly get  the "real deal."

My own reaction to the whole thing has to include my feelings about the message of the opera — and I think it clearly has a message. Basically, I think the distinction between reason and order, on the one hand, and feeling and pleasure, on the other, is a false one. I mean that to choose one and exclude the other would be a mistake. Both should be present, and in balance. The Shepherd sings "My God is beautiful, as I am." Christianity would say the same. Beauty is a divine attribute. Truth is another. Catholicism in particular — perhaps along with other strains of Christianity — has at times succumbed to a sort of "Puritanism," an emphasis on avoiding sin, which left little room for joy, for spontaneous feelings, for appreciation of beauty. So there is justification in actual experience for Szymanowski's setting Church and beauty in opposition. But I don't think they need to be opposed, and in Dutoit's reading, at least, it seems that King Roger, and therefore Szymanowski, achieve a healthy synthesis.

So, you can listen at 8:00 p.m. this evening March 7, and again on March 16, to the broadcast or web stream over WCRB, and see what you think. If you like the music of Richard Strauss, you'll probably like this.