|Maestro Peter Bay|
Robert Paterson: Dark
Mozart: Piano Concerto
No. 20 in d minor K. 466*
Richard Strauss: Also
Sprach Zarathustra Op. 30
Austin Symphony/Peter Bay
Long Center for the Performing Arts
With the possible
exception of organists, the art of improvisation is practically a lost art
amongst classical musicians today. “Playing what the composer wrote” is the
current mantra for so-called “serious” musicians, but this approach to a performance is often more of a
hindrance than a key to illumination of a piece. We had a good example of exactly this in
Austin last weekend.
Gabriela Montero (photo: right) is renowned for her ability to improvise and with the Austin Symphony (ASO), she showed just how liberating that art can be. Mozart himself was
undoubtedly one of the greatest improvisers of all time and in his piano
concertos, he provided myriad opportunities for soloists to strut their stuff! For
example, Mozart composed no cadenzas for the d minor concerto. Cadenzas for the
piece, written by Beethoven and Brahms, among others, do exist, but the spirit
of the music calls out for a soloist who can – on the spot – concoct his or her
own cadenza from the concerto’s themes.
Gabriela Montero did
just that, with flair and imagination. This evening’s concert was performed twice
in Austin and I am told that Montero’s improvisations for the Mozart d minor
concerto were quite different – and equally brilliant - each night.
Inspiring Collaboration and Brilliant Improvization
That said, it was not
only Montero’s improvisations that made this Mozart performance memorable; in
fact, just about everything about this performance was superlative. Montero’s
tempi were on the quick side, providing an edge to the performance that was
totally compelling. Peter Bay and his orchestra were clearly inspired by
Montero to give their very best and delivered a collaboration that was both
crisp and intense.
The audience knew
immediately that it had witnessed a great performance and demanded more from
Montero, who gladly obliged and swung into her patented encore routine. She
grabbed a microphone and asked the audience to give her a tune to use for
improvisation, and she asked that it have a local character. Apparently, the
audience responded both nights with the same request: “The Eyes of Texas,” a
song associated with the University of Texas in Austin and its football team,
the Longhorns. On this night, Montero turned the tune upside down and inside out
and ended with a tango version that brought the audience to its feet once
again. Gabriela Montero made her Austin debut with these concerts, but I suspect
it won’t be long before she is back again.
Celebrating Richard Strauss
came the ASO’s recognition of the 150th anniversary of
the birth of Richard Strauss. The orchestra more than doubled in size and
delivered a powerful and exciting performance of Also Sprach Zarathustra. The Long Center has no organ, but
an electronic substitute proved more than adequate. Brass and percussion played
the opening “Sunrise” section – C major chords in Technicolor - with full force,
and the hall resounded.
Some of the most
memorable moments in this performance were in the quieter parts - for example,
the double basses at the beginning of the fugal section titled “Von der
Wissenschaft” (“Of science”); extraordinarily difficult to play
in tune, the ASO basses (and cellos) showed that they had put
in the time to get it right.
Some audience members
may have wondered what several of the bass players were doing in the middle of
the “Wissenschaft” passage when they appeared to be tuning their instruments.
The explanation is that American bass players use four-stringed instruments or
which the lowest note on the lowest string is “E,” yet many composers often
wrote bass parts that went lower, down to “C”. In many European orchestras,
this is no problem because they use 5-string instruments and the lowest string
covers these lower notes. Then, some years back, a clever American player came
up with a solution – i.e., to attach a mechanism to the instrument that enables
the player to lengthen his E string when the music requires it, thus enabling
him/her to play the lower “C”, for example. In fact, what some of the ASO players were doing when they seemed to be tuning their instruments was
exactly that - activating or de-activating these C-extensions.
Richard Strauss’ Also Sprach Zarathustra may not make
much sense as an interpretation of Nietzsche, but it is nevertheless one of the
most glorious examples of romantic orchestral music. Apart from some minor and
perhaps inevitable mishaps in this demanding work, the expanded ASO delivered the goods; the string players really dug into the strings and the
brass and percussion were encouraged to go all out in the climaxes.
inspiring finale to another fine season by the Austin Symphony and music
director Peter Bay!
Dark Mountains of Vermont
Earlier in the
concert, Maestro Bay had introduced us to Dark Mountains by American composer Robert Paterson. Written for
and premiered by the Vermont Symphony in 2011, the piece attempts to depict
various aspects of the green mountains of Vermont. In spite of the composer’s
rock music background, the music sounded patently old school classical –
pleasant, if not fresh and illuminating. If Paterson has something original to
say, one didn’t find it in Dark Mountains,
but perhaps one will in his upcoming trilogy of “R-rated” (his own words)
operas for the Fort Worth Opera.
For this ASO concert,
I sat in the Balcony - the top tier of the Dell Hall of the Long Center. I had
never sat there before and I was amazed at the presence and clarity of the
sound, not only of the enlarged orchestra for the Strauss, but also of the
Mozart chamber orchestra. This phenomenon, of course, is true in halls all over
the world. In Massey Hall (Toronto, Canada), for example, although the
orchestra appears a long way away off to those sitting in the top tier
(Gallery), the sound is magnificent. From this perspective the “cheap seats”
are often the best seats.
The ASO is still trying to figure out how best to work the acoustics in the still
fairly new Dell Hall. It takes time to figure these things out, a difficult
task for a conductor when limited rehearsal time deprives him of the luxury of sitting
in the hall periodically to hear what the audience hears. With its limited budget,
the ASO has very few guest conductors, allowing Peter Bay even fewer
opportunities to hear what his orchestra sounds like out front.
Maestro Bay was
obviously deeply impressed by what he heard when the Cleveland Orchestra made a
rare appearance recently in Austin’s Dell Hall. The Cleveland Orchestra would
probably make a fantastic sound regardless of how they are seated on the stage,
but their seating arrangement did give Bay some food for thought. For this
performance, Bay switched to the Cleveland Orchestra configuration for his violas
and cellos – placing the violas to his right on the outside with the cellos
still on his right, but inside the violas. Bay also did away with risers, placing nearly all the musicians’ chairs
directly on the floor of the stage – another Cleveland
My recollection is
that the Cleveland Orchestra has used this configuration as far back as the
George Szell era (1946-1970) and it may, at least in part, explain the
near-perfect balance this ensemble achieves so often.
Labels: Austin Symphony, Concert_Review, Gabriela Montero, klassische Musik, musica classica, musique classique, Peter Bay, 고전 음악, 古典音乐, 古典音樂