Filed under: Reviews | Tags: Ace Edwards, Adam Flatt, Cecil Effinger, Denver Philharmonic Orchestra, Katie Mahan, Larry Worster, Zoltán Kodály
Among the many reasons that the Denver Philharmonic Orchestra is fortunate to have Adam Flatt as their conductor, is the fact that the programming is excellent, and truly, quite eclectic. In addition, the violin section continues to improve, and Friday evening, November 11, was no exception.
It has been a very long time since I have heard any orchestra perform a work by the Hungarian composer, Zoltán Kodály. This is really unfortunate because he is a fine composer, and his work Psalmus Hungaricus, swept the world in 1923, and that remarkable work was followed by his opera Háry János.
They also performed a marvelous work by Colorado’s own Cecil Effinger. It is so refreshing to hear works that are seldom performed. In Denver, live concerts provide an opportunity such as this, and these concerts easily take the place of the local radio station which plays the same thing over and over.
In addition to the regular programming Friday evening, Ace Edwards, who is a conductor, gave an interesting and informative pre-concert lecture.
The program opened with Kodály’s Dances of Galánta, a one movement suite of Hungarian dances which reflect Kodály’s interest in ethnomusicology (Kodály was truly an all-around musician: a composer, an ethnomusicologist, and a music educator). The work opens with a series of dances, and really quite a flourish, before giving way to a very rich texture. It is an excellent piece, with rich and almost sultry sounds from the strings. There is a great deal of clarinet work, which was done superbly by the principal clarinetist, Shaun Burley. The violins were just a little shaky in the opening, but acquired their footing as the piece progressed. Maestro Flatt made it seem quite easy to pull the energy that Kodály requires from the orchestra, and the entire orchestra positively glowed.
Cecil Effinger (1914-1990) is another composer that is seldom heard today, and everyone in the audience owes Maestro Flatt for programming Effinger’s delightful Little Symphony Nr. 1(Effinger composed two Little Symphonies). Before the orchestra performed this work, Larry Worster, the biographer of Cecil Effinger, spoke to the audience about Effinger and his work. Understand that Effinger was a very prolific Colorado composer. Among his works are many choral works, five symphonies, two little symphonies, and five string quartets. The quality of his work is quite excellent, though, perhaps, the reason he never it achieved national prominence is due to the fact that he did not embrace harmonies and styles of composition that were catching the attention of the musical public while he was alive.
As Larry Worster pointed out, Effinger’s work seems to reflect his Colorado residency, but not to the extent that other American composers, Roy Harris, Howard Hanson, or even Aaron Copland compositions seem to reflect their American heritage. To me, Effinger has a completely different identity from these composers because of the marvelous harmony, which is enormously sophisticated, and yet, not revolutionary. It has amazing clarity.
This work is in the traditional four movement symphonic form, and as Larry Worster’s program notes state, it evokes the atmosphere of a “Mozart Divertimento.” Maestro Flatt and the Denver Philharmonic Orchestra performed the Effinger beautifully. The opening movement shows Effinger’s very fluent compositional style. While it is not by any stretch “modern,” this Colorado composer was very good at his craft. The long flowing melodies of the first movement were beautifully performed by the orchestra, and they brought to life the pastorale quality which surrounds the whole symphony. One of the differences in the Denver Philharmonic Orchestra this year seems to be their ability to make what they play very personal. That is new, and I think that it is very important. They create the impression that they have taken ownership of what they performed. This is one of the points of inspiration that Maestro Adam Flatt has given this orchestra, and while it is perhaps subjective, it is still truthful, and it has made a profound difference in the way this orchestra performs. There are some outstanding musicians in the orchestra. I have already mentioned Shaun Burley, but also worthy of mention is the entire woodwind section. There is simply not enough space to mention all the names. The DPO is also very fortunate to have Manny Araujo as principal trumpet. In the Effinger last movement, Araujo, as always, was superb.
Immediately before the intermission, the DPO saluted Veterans Day by performing the five well-known songs of the five branches of service. They were introduced by a young man who is currently serving in the Navy as an electrician’s mate. He had a chest full of medals, and I am very sorry to say that I did not get his name. But as each of the five service songs, the Caisson Song, Semper Paratus, The Marines Hymn, The Air Force Song, and Anchors Aweigh, were performed, members of the audience and the orchestra who were veterans, were invited to stand and receive the applause and appreciation of the audience.
Following the intermission, the Denver Philharmonic Orchestra and guest pianist, Katie Mahan, performed the Brahms Piano Concerto Nr. 2 in B flat, Opus 83. This work is well-known to every concert audience, so I don’t feel that it is necessary to go into great detail about the work itself. It is in the traditional four movement form that Brahms used in many of his chamber works and his concertos. It is a little unusual, in that the first movement opens with a horn solo playing the first theme, followed by a cadenza for piano which leads to the exposition section. This work contains some of the most lyrical writing that can be found in Brahms’ output.
The soloist, Katie Mahan, began her piano studies at the age of four with her mother, Bobette Mahan, and gave her first solo recital at the age of six. She made her orchestral debut in the summer of 1999 with the Breckenridge Symphony performing Gershwin’s Concerto in F. Ms. Mahan received her Bachelor of Music in Piano Performance from the University of Colorado at Boulder where she was a student of Robert Spillman, graduating with highest honors. Ms. Mahan was also a protégé of the late Howard Waltz, himself a pupil of the legendary French pianist, Robert Casadesus. She has also studied with the renowned French pianist Michel Béroff.
This is the second time that Ms. Mahan has performed with the Denver Philharmonic Orchestra. On March 27, 2010, she performed Chopin’s Concerto in E minor, Opus 11, with Brendan Matthews conducting that performance, as the DPO was still searching for a new conductor, following the departure of Maestro Horst Buchholz.
I have written about Ms. Mahan’s performances in past articles, and as I have stated before, there is absolutely no question that Katie Mahan has fine technique and a near-perfect memory. She plays difficult repertoire with ease, and she has performed with orchestras many times. However, her performance on Friday evening was marred by her changes in tempo which resulted in phrase endings which were not with the orchestra. And I must say, that often, she seems to be a little preoccupied with theatrical motions while playing, rather than keeping her eyes on the conductor. She has a habit of throwing her arms behind herself, or lifting her hand, flutteringly, from the keyboard. I sincerely believe these motions interfere with her playing. It is almost as if she is of the opinion that they add to her performance, rather than her ability to make music. She played the Brahms with truly wonderful dynamic contrast, but she changed tempo often making it difficult for Maestro Flatt and the orchestra to stay with her.
In the second movement, she consistently changed the tempo when she was playing by herself without the orchestra, and when the orchestra entered she consistently rushed. The same difficulties occurred in the third movement, and I found myself wondering why she did not make the music as “poetic” as she did her movements at the keyboard. And in the fourth movement, I found myself wondering how many times she could end the phrase and never communicate her rubato to Maestro Flatt. She can do that easily by making eye contact and leaning in toward the keyboard, or a myriad of other subtle movements.
Katie Mahan has a marvelous ability, and she has the unmistakable “spark” of a person who truly loves music, and as I have said, she has wonderful fingers, and can produce wonderful tone. But when she performs with an orchestra, she must learn to listen to others as well as to herself. And, she needs to concentrate on communicating with the conductor. Performing with an orchestra is not an easy task, but when one wants to be a performer of concertos, and music in general, honesty, whether brutal or not, is the price of admission when one performs. It is not enough to simply do your best; you must first know precisely what to do, and then do your best.
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