La Scena Musicale

Thursday, 14 June 2012

Nielsen Third a First for Austin, Texas

by Paul Robinson

Stanton: Triple Venti Latte
Rachmaninov: Piano Concerto No. 2 in C minor Op. 18
Nielsen: Symphony No. 3 Op. 27 “Espansiva”

Jon Nakamatsu, piano
Austin Symphony Orchestra
Peter Bay, conductor

Long Center for the Performing Arts
Austin, Texas
June 2, 2012

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.

Back to Beginnings
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 performance.

For an encore, Nakamatsu gave the audience another crowd-pleaser – Chopin’s Fantasie- Impromptu – and again, he played beautifully and the crowd was, well, pleased.

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.

Paul E. Robinson is the author of Herbert von Karajan: The Maestro as Superstar, and Sir Georg Solti: His Life and Music. For friends: The Art of the Conductor podcastClassical Airs.

Photo of Maestro Peter Bay with Paul E. Robinson by Marita

Labels: , , , , , , , ,

Monday, 11 June 2012

Un weekend Brahms haut en couleur!

Par Philippe Michaud

C’est cette fin de semaine que Yannick Nézet-Séguin et l’Orchestre Métropolitain ont donné l’intégrale des quatre symphonies de Brahms ainsi que son concerto pour violon. Même si ces chefs-d’œuvre sont parmi les plus connus du répertoire, le maestro a voulu nous présenter sa vision unique des œuvres de son compositeur préféré.

Au retour de l’entracte, lors de la première soirée, le directeur musical de l’OM a ainsi expliqué qu’il avait voulu donner plus de liberté à l’orchestre. Cela était plutôt visible chez les cordes, où les coups d’archet étaient différents. Il a aussi reconfiguré la disposition de l’orchestre. Les contrebasses, au lieu d’être à notre droite, ont été disposées en arrière.

C’est toujours un plaisir de voir diriger Yannick Nézet-Séguin. Il était impressionnant de le voir se tenir devant l’orchestre sans partition, y allant de mémoire. Le public de la Maison symphonique s’est vite rendu compte qu’il connaissait par cœur les symphonies du maître allemand.

Les cordes, et particulièrement le violon solo, ont joué avec subtilité, surtout dans la deuxième symphonie, beaucoup plus douce que les trois autres. Le jeu du violon solo pendant la première symphonie était également exemplaire. Les cuivres sonnaient très bien tout au long des deux soirées; un vrai plaisir pour les oreilles. Remercions l’acoustique de la Maison symphonique qui est, doit-on le rappeler, sans reproche.

Certains se plaindront d'un tempo un peu plus rapide que d’habitude, surtout dans les derniers mouvements. Ils n'ont pas tort, mais ça n’a pas trop dérangé. L'interprétation de l'OM demeure de haut niveau et a su garder le public concentré jusqu'à la dernière seconde de la deuxième soirée Brahms.

J'avais déjà eu la chance d'entendre Benjamin Beilman lors du dernier Concours musical international de Montréal. À l'époque, j'avais été impressionné par la justesse de son jeu. Deux ans plus tard, le jeune homme est toujours aussi doué. Il a toutefois gagné en assurance, pour le plus grand plaisir des mélomanes. Yannick Nézet-Séguin a été à l'écoute du soliste du début à la fin. Le tout était spectaculaire, surtout lors du dernier mouvement, une véritable danse.

Bref, l'OM et son chef ont rempli leur mission et nous ont présenté cinq œuvres phares de la musique classique avec un dynamisme et une précision dignes des plus grands orchestres.

Labels: , , , ,

This Week in Toronto (June 11 - 17)

Gustav Mahler (July 7 1860 - May 18 1911)

The Luminato Festival of Art and Creativity continues this week.  The Festival opened with an extraordinary production of Glass' Einstein On The Beach.  I know his music and Robert Wilson's mis-en-scene aren't to everyone's taste, but personally I found it fascinating.  I saw opening night on June 8, and for four full hours, I did not leave my seat once....deliberately holding back on fluid consumption the hours preceding helped!  Honestly it felt a lot shorter than four hours. I went in accepting the work on its own terms. I actually found it endlessly fascinating. No, I didn't liked everything, but it certainly left an indelible impression on me.  I also saw the delightful new Canadian children's opera, Laura's Cow.  It was absolutely charming and bursting with melodies.  There was also the TSO Late Nite Shostakovich Symphony 11 that I had to pass up because of Stewart Goodyear's Beethoven Marathon. This week of Luminato has less classical music content, but we can look forward to Symphonic Finale on the Festival Closing Night June 17 at 7 p.m. at David Pecaut Square, right next to Roy Thomson Hall. The Toronto Symphony Orchestra under the baton of its Music Director Peter Oundjian is playing a program of "classical greatest hits" that includes Copland's Fanfare for the Common Man, a movement from Dvorak's Symphony No. 9 "From the New World", the 1812 Overture plus music from Lord of the Rings etc.  It is sure to be a rousing finish to this year's Festival.

In addition to its Luminato participation, the Toronto Symphony Orchestra is presenting a blockbuster this week, Mahler's Symphony No. 8, the so-called Symphony Of A Thousand.  It has an (almost) all Canadian cast - sopranos Erin Wall, Twyla Robinson (replacing an indisposed Adrianne Pieczonka), Andriana Chuchman, mezzos Anita Krause and Susan Platts, tenor Richard Margison, baritone Tyler Duncan and bass Robert Pomakov. Peter Oundjian conducts the Toronto Symphony Orchestra and the Mendelssohn Choir, the Amadeus Choir, the Elmer Iseler Singers and the Toronto Children's Choir.  Any performance of Mahler 8, with its gargantuan forces - ok, not quite a thousand but several hundred - is an occasion, so this will be an exciting event.  I understand it's always sold out, so do move fast.

Tapestry New Opera Works, known for its cutting edge - and often experimental - productions, is presenting two workshop performances of The Enslavement and Liberation of Oksana G., composed by Aaron Gervais with libretto by Colleen Murphy. From the composer's own website comes the following description:

I wrote this cham­ber opera for three singers and six instru­men­tal­ists in con­junc­tion with Colleen Murphy for Tapestry’s Opera To Go series. It tells the story of a young East­ern Euro­pean woman (Oksana) who has found her­self in the safe­house of an Ital­ian priest (Alessan­dro). She has escaped from a pimp (Kon­stan­tin), who tricked her into pros­ti­tu­tion, and now finds that she is falling in love with Alessan­dro. He in turn, despite his priestly call­ing, finds him­self tempted by Oksana. During this scene, they dance around the com­pli­ca­tions of their sit­u­a­tion, each one afraid to reveal him- or her- self to the other. In addi­tion, another prob­lem presents itself at the end of the scene.

Gervais is a SOCAN award winning composer and Murphy a Governor General's Award-winning playwright. The performances take place on June 11 and 12 8 p.m. at the Ernest Balmer Studio in the Distillery District of downtown Toronto.

Labels: ,