by Paul Robinson
Concerto No. 2 in C minor Op. 18
No. 3 Op. 27 “Espansiva”
Austin Symphony Orchestra
Long Center for the Performing Arts
Carl Nielsen’s Third Symphony, which premiered in Copenhagen (Denmark) just over 100 years ago, had its first-ever performance in Austin this month. Long over due? Absolutely. This is a great
symphony by one of the major composers of the Twentieth Century; “kudos” to Maestro
Peter Bay and the Austin Symphony, not only for finally bringing this music to
Central Texas, but also for the quality of the performance.
With the Third Symphony, Nielsen (photo: left) really
began to find his own voice as a composer. His first two symphonies each have
moments of beauty and excitement, but it is in the Third that Nielsen first
demonstrates the individuality that was to characterize his mature works. As
one might expect from a composer who spent many years playing in an orchestra,
the Third Symphony often looks backwards. Its bracing opening chords recall the
beginning of Beethoven’s Eroica Symphony; the entire first movement recalls the
¾ metre, the rhythms and the energy of the first movement of Schumann’s Rhenish
Symphony; and the symphony’s blend of folkloric tunes and predilection for
massive climaxes is reminiscent of Bruckner. While drawing inspiration from his
predecessors, however, Nielsen went beyond them in his sense of drama and the
juxtaposition of wildly contrasting elements. In this respect he brings to mind
Mahler, one of his most illustrious contemporaries.
Glorious Rendition of Neglected Masterpiece
Peter Bay brought plenty of driving
energy to the first movement of the symphony. I don’t think I have ever heard
the Austin Symphony play with such a powerful weight of sound. As with any
great symphonic work it takes a master conductor to let the brass and
percussion have its head without rendering the strings irrelevant or even
inaudible; Maestro Bay managed this feat with authority in the Nielsen, and in
so doing let the audience hear a neglected masterpiece in all its glory. The
strings played heroically, with the brass and timpani shaking the building in
the big moments, just as the composer intended.
Nielsen the innovator comes to the fore
again in the slow movement in which he introduces a soprano and a baritone to
the score. These are wordless voices simply adding different colors to the
orchestral texture; unfortunately, the soprano was so loud and sang with such
an unpleasant vibrato that Nielsen’s conception was ruined. What a shame when
the winds and strings were playing so beautifully!
The finale of the Third Symphony begins
with a tune that could have been written by Elgar or Holst – there is something
positively British about it – which Nielsen then proceeds to manipulate in
weird ways, ending the movement in a blaze of brass and timpani riffs.
It must have been gratifying for Maestro
Bay and his players to receive such a rousing ovation at the end of their performance.
Perhaps Nielsen’s time in Austin has finally come.
The concert opened with a fun piece by
Zack Stanton, a 29-year-old faculty member at the University of Texas. Triple Venti Latte dates from his
student days while he was working at – you guessed it – Starbuck’s. According
to the composer, he needed the money and the caffeine to cope with graduate
school and a new baby in the house. The piece is very accessible in style and
might even have a future in pops programs.
I suspect that most people came to this
concert not to hear Nielsen or Stanton, but to hear Rachmaninov’s Piano
Concerto No. 2. In all honesty, I can’t say that I myself was looking forward
to yet another run around the track by this popular warhorse, but it’s always exciting
to contemplate what talented performers might do with familiar music.
Jon Nakamatsu (photo: right) came to prominence as a
prizewinner at the Cliburn Competition in 1997 and has since established
himself as an important artist. On this night there were no theatrics and there
was no personal indulgence of any sort; instead, we had a very high level of technical
competence and unfailing musicality. Just as importantly, soloist, conductor
and orchestra were perfectly attuned to one another. As in the Nielsen, Maestro
Bay had the orchestra playing with precision and power. This was an outstanding
For an encore, Nakamatsu gave the
audience another crowd-pleaser – Chopin’s Fantasie- Impromptu – and again, he played beautifully and the crowd was, well,
This was the last concert in the Austin
Symphony’s 2011-2012 season “main series.” An important premiere, the Symphony
No. 4 by Edward Burlingame Hill (1872-1960), is in the works for the 2012-2013
season. Hill, perhaps best known today for having been one of Leonard Bernstein’s
teachers at Harvard, was a serious if neglected, composer. He was one of the
first Americans to study composition in Paris. Many of his orchestral works
were played by Koussevitsky and the Boston Symphony. The Fourth Symphony dates
from the years 1940-41. The work will be recorded live for later CD release next May.
Photo of Maestro Peter Bay with Paul E. Robinson by Marita
Labels: Austin Symphony Orchestra, classical music blog, Concert_Review, Jon Nakamatsu, nielsen, Peter Bay, शास्त्रीय संगीत, クラシック音ジョン·中松, 古典音乐