Filed under: Reviews | Tags: Ars Nova Singers, Claude Debussy, Edward Elgar, Emilyn Inglis, Frederick Delius, J. S. Bach, John Heins, Knut Nystedt, Paul Fowler, Sergei Rachmaninoff, Stephen Hatfield, Tana Cochran, Thomas Jennefelt, Thomas Morgan
The Ars Nova Singers, under the direction of Maestro Thomas Morgan, presented their final concert of the season at Our Father Lutheran Church, in Centennial, Saturday, June 1. This concert carried the title, Music Beyond Words. Its main thrust, as one might suspect coming from this a cappella vocal ensemble, was that music can be exceptional without text, as well as without accompaniment. Maestro Morgan wished to explore, in this performance, the sounds of the human voice and its expressiveness relying solely on the sounds of “people singing together” without those sounds being interrupted by text. As he pointed out before the concert, when music is sung with a text, we can certainly hear the music, but often, comprehending the text in our heads while we hear that music, can be a distraction that keeps us from concentrating fully on just the sound of the human voice.
The Ars Nova Singers opened the program with a composition by Knut Nystedt based upon J.S. Bach’s famous chorale, Komm, süßer Tod, (Come, sweet death). Originally, this is a work for solo voice from the 69 Sacred Songs and Arias that Johann Sebastian Bach contributed to Georg Christian Schemelli’s Musicalisches Gesangbuch.
I will quote briefly from Nystedt’s bio statement:
“Knut Nystedt (b. 1915), is a Norwegian orchestral and choral composer. He grew up in a Christian home where hymns and classical music were an important part of everyday life. He studied composition with Bjarne Brustad and Aaron Copland, organ with Arild Sandvold and Ernest White, and conducting with Øivin Fjeldstad.
”Knut Nystedt was organist in Torshov kirke (Torshov Church) in Oslo from 1946 to 1982 and was teaching choir conducting at the Universitetet i Oslo from 1964 to 1985. He founded and conducted Det Norske Solistkor in 1950-1990. He also founded and conducted Schola Cantorum in 1964-1985. The choir Ensemble 96 has published Immortal Nystedt (2005). This CD has been nominated in two categories in the Grammy Awards 2007. This is the first Norwegian CD nominated in two categories. Also the first CD with a Norwegian composer nominated to Grammy. In 2005 he was honoured by several concerts around the world, celebrating his 90th birthday.”
This work by Nystedt was perfect for the opening, because it clearly displayed the aesthetic that the Ars Nova Singers was looking for in the concept of this concert. The piece begins with a short and simple statement from Bach’s composition, and then comes Nystedt’s composition, celebrating just the sound of the voices. He uses Bach’s melodic line as a cantus firmus underneath, and sometimes in the middle, of his own harmonic treatment of Bach’s work. Thus, it becomes almost a clausula (motet?). Bach’s melodic line could be heard surrounded by a very thick texture of almost-microtonal harmonies cascading all around the familiar melody. This kind of singing, which some might consider “off key” because of its microtonal aspects, is incredibly difficult. For at least 500 years, our ears have been accustomed to hearing music that is “on pitch,” and that is one concept that has made it difficult for some individuals to listen to music of the avant-garde, which does not make use of major or minor, but is atonal. This work was beautifully done, and once again, the attention given to the extreme detail by Morgan and the Ars Nova Singers concerning dynamic range and phrasing, were absolutely stunning.
After the Nystedt, the Ars Nova Singers emphasized the impact of the sound of voices without text by performing a portion of Thomas Jennefelt’s Villarosa Sequences, which was a Colorado Premiere.
Again I will quote from a bio statement on the web:
“Thomas Jennefelt, born 1954, studied composition at the Royal College of Music in Stockholm from 1974 to 1980 for Gunnar Bucht and Arne Mellnäs, amongst other teachers. The attention to vocalisation is salient in his works, which extend from choral music to opera. Warning to the rich is an early and successful example of the former, and has been played the world over since its inception in 1977. Other acclaimed choral pieces include O Domine and Dichterliebe (I-X), composed to the same poems by H. Heine that Robert Schumann used, and the original a cappella suite Villarosa sequences sung to a self-created, Latinesque language.”
I said above that the Ars Nova Singers only did a portion of the Villarosa Sequences. The entire work is almost an hour and a half long, and consists of seven sections. However, I think we should all thank our lucky stars for being able to hear four sections of this magnificent work. Those four sections are entitled Aleidi Floriasti, Saoveri Indamflavi, Strimoni Volio, and Villarosa Sarialdi. In this composition, the key is the last sentence from the above quoted bio statement. Jennefelt has invented his own Latinesque language. As the excellent program notes stated, “Jennefelt has taken the radical step of creating vocal music in the whole sense of the word: he has even turned language into music.” He did this because he did not want the words to be a “cognitive event” that would distract the listener from the music itself. Thus, his language becomes a series of syllables used to accentuate pitch, and, particularly, accentuate rhythm of the music.
In this performance, I was absolutely amazed at the ability of the Ars Nova Singers to literally slide from one pitch to the next. However, the word “slide” almost implies a fairly long distance, and I assure you that the choir was sliding across a microtone or two. As I have stated before, that is incredibly difficult to sing because our ear forces us to sing in tune. The result of this kind of harmonic writing is one of tonal softness (that is the best way I can describe it), which provides an ethereal sound, and lengthy harmonic deceptive movements that eventually resolve to a harmonic point that our ears expect. What truly amazed me about this composition was that it required the choir to be divided into many different sections: there were some “chords” that sounded as though they were made up of at least ten different tones. This is the first time I have heard this composition, and I have never had a chance to look at the score. But, I do have a decent ear, and I have been blessed or cursed, depending upon how I look at it occasionally, with perfect pitch. Again, the detail work that the Ars Nova Singers and Maestro Morgan exemplify is startling. It was clear that they approached this work with the same aesthetic ideal that motivated Thomas Jennefelt.
The third section of this suite, Strimoni Volio, was for solo soprano, and was sung by Tana Cochran who has performed with the Ars Nova Singers for seven years, and is now pursuing her Doctor of Musical Arts degree at CU-Boulder. She has a wonderful voice, and incredible vocal production, allowing her to accomplish the difficult pitch requirements that are required by Jennefelt. Think of this: early in the 20th Century, it was often considered very expressive for instrumentalists, particularly violinists, to scoop their pitches. For example, if any of you recall the violin playing of the legendary Fritz Kreisler, scooping pitches is occasionally what he did. Mind you, I am not criticizing Kreisler (his recordings performing with Rachmaninoff are magnificent), that was the style of the period. When Ms. Cochran sang, she did not always slide to the next pitch; she often arrived at the microtone pitch spot on. I was dazzled by her control and her sense of pitch.
The final section of Jennefelt’s work was Villarosa Sarialdi. It emphasized the rhythm that can be produced with just emphasis of syllables. This is a remarkable composition, and I sincerely hope that the Ars Nova Singers performs the entire piece at one of their future concerts. It is incredibly difficult to be sure, but, not only would it demonstrate the very latest in avant-garde vocal composition, it would give the audience an experience they would remember for a lifetime, and the Ars Nova Singers is just the group to do it in spectacular fashion.
Following the Jennefelt, and after the intermission, the Ars Nova Singers performed eight small pieces for the second half of the program. They began with a work by Thomas Morgan, entitled The Hollow Mansions. This was a beautiful piece with very subtle syllabification which resulted in some very startling changes in sound. This is another work that needs to be heard again, and its length would be perfect for an encore. Paul Fowler sang a tenor solo in this work that was outstanding. I knew that he was an excellent composer, but, somehow, it escaped me that his major instrument is voice. He is a very lyrical, light tenor, and his voice quality matches the Ars Nova Singers beautifully.
There followed a work by Debussy, Syrinx, which was performed on a Strathmann flute by John Heins. (I will talk more about that later.) This was a surprising piece on this program because it is for an instrument and not for voice. However, because of the manner in which the Ars Nova Singers was performing, it was a perfect addition to the program, and it was certainly not out of character. This work is very important because it is the first piece for solo flute (it was written in 1913) since C.P.E. Bach, and it is considered a mandatory work in flute literature. It tells the tale of the god, Pan, who falls in love with the nymph Syrinx. In order to hide from Pan, syrinx disguises herself as a reed on the river’s edge. When Pan goes to a clump of reeds to cut some for his pipes, he accidentally kills Syrinx without knowing it. Heins performed this piece quite well, and his phrasing and dynamics, and breath control were excellent.
Following the Debussy was a piece written by Emilyn Inglis , entitled Chanson des Fleurs. This was a World Premiere, which was inspired by flowers in a garden. Ms. Inglis said that, “as I was photographing flowers at a garden in Fort Collins, Colorado, I became strongly aware of vibration coming from the flowers. If there is a vibration, I reasoned, there must be a sound; so I sat down to listen. This piece is my effort to transcribe the amazing vibrating harmonies that I heard.” How many of you remember that the late John Cage attached contact microphones to the many plants that he had in his apartment in Champaign-Urbana? He recorded those sounds as the plants grew, and then used the sounds in compositions. This was a very attractive piece of music that allowed the audience to become lost in the intricate sounds that the Ars Nova Singers produce.
The next work was a World Premiere as well: Nocturne, by composer and flautist John Heins. It was composed for choir and Strathmann flute. The Strathmann flute is a new instrument, and I will quote from the web:
“A patent for a fully keyed recorder was taken out in 1988 by the saxophonist Rudolf Strathmann who adapted the elaborate keywork and fingerings of the saxophone to the recorder. With his co-worker Klein, in Kiel, a series of ‘Strathmann flutes’ has been developed with many modern features. The body is made of wood or durable plastic, the block height is adjustable with a simple thumbscrew, and the thumbhole is replaced by a key which opens two small holes high up in the head piece which raises any fingering of the lower register to the octave above. The volume of sound for all notes is stronger than on conventional recorders, and the timbre is said to be between that of a recorder and flute. Strathmann flutes have been made in both soprano and alto models.”
Heins’ work, Nocturne, is a very Debussy-like piece that often uses the choir as a harmonic platform for the flute. However, the flute does not have any great length of melodic line, nor, upon this first hearing, did I detect any counterpoint. It is a work that seems to concentrate on texture and tone, as well as a general three-part form. It fits perfectly as an addition to this program. The future of the Strathmann flute is the only thing that gives me concern. While it produces a very nice sound, one wonders what kind of future it has, and I bring this up only because this is the first time I have heard one. I am quite sure that one could substitute a regular flute for the Strathmann flute, but it could be that the composer’s intention would be lost. It does bring to mind the instruments that avant-garde composer Harry Partch so carefully invented and constructed. If one wants to perform his music, one has to rent the instruments from the Partch Foundation. I doubt very seriously that the Strathmann flute will fall into that predicament because, while a substitution in instruments would produce a different sound, at least the substitution would be available.
The Ars Nova Singers then performed for compositions: La Lluvia by Stephen Hatfield; Sergei Rachmaninoff’s famous Vocalise, Opus 34, Nr. 14; To Be Sung of a Summer Night on the Water, by Frederick Delius; and Sir Edward Elgar’s Lux Aeterna, perhaps better known as the “Nimrod” Variation. As Maestro Morgan pointed out to the audience, the Nimrod Variation is to the English as Samuel Barber’s Adagio for Strings is to Americans. I must say that the performance of these last four works made it very difficult to keep a dry eye. They were beautifully done with intense emotion.
The Ars Nova Singers finished their performance with an encore, known to most as Danny Boy. Percy Grainger arranged the version that was sung by the Ars Nova Singers, and he did so many arrangements of this tune (which was originally published in a collection in 1855, and attributed to Jane Ross) that one wonders if he had any particular text in mind. Nonetheless, this was a wonderfully warm and tender performance of this piece.
When I write reviews of performances such as this one, it always seems as if I am exaggerating when I call them “world-class.” But there are perhaps six or eight organizations in the state of Colorado that are consistently world-class. I assure you that I base my comments on seventy years of experience being a performing musician, and not just on a whim to popularize a group that I happen to like this particular week. The Ars Nova Singers and Maestro Thomas Edward Morgan are consistent in their excellence, which means they are consistent in their love for music, and in their work ethic. This was a remarkable performance, and I promise you that it was truly world-class.
Filed under: Reviews | Tags: Andrew Cooperstock, Arthur Foote, Bahman Saless, Boulder Chamber Orchestra, Ernest Bloch, J. S. Bach, Samuel Barber
The Boulder Chamber Orchestra presented a very interesting concert at the Broomfield Auditorium Saturday evening. Of the four works presented, the BCO performed two works, one by the American composer Arthur Foote (1853–1937), and the other by Ernest Bloch (1880–1959). Bloch, of course, is much better known than Arthur Foote, but both of these works deserve to be heard today, and these two works contributed to making this concert truly rewarding.
Foote has been overshadowed by other American composers who were more aggressive harmonically, while Foote is often ranked with composers such as Edward McDowell and Amy Beach. To my way of thinking, Foote is considerably better than either of those composers, even though much has been made by a supposed influence of Robert Schumann and Johannes Brahms, and, even Wagner. Comparisons to those three composers are all irrelevant, and the comparison seems to have been made simply because Foote used traditional harmonies, and, therefore, the comparison would seem to be easy. There is absolutely no relationship in his music to Wagner, and precious little to Schumann and Brahms, because his melodic lines are beginning to show an angularity with melodic leaps that, if exaggerated, might presage Copland or Roy Harris, or perhaps, Ferde Grofé. While there is absolutely no evidence that Arthur Foote was influenced by traditional American themes as Copland was, there is an element in his music that is distinctly American.
The work performed Saturday evening was the Suite for Strings in E Major, Opus 63. It is in three movements, Praeludium, Pizzicato and Adagietto, and Fugue. At first glance, the second movement, Pizzicato and Adagietto, would seem to be a two section movement; however, the Pizzicato is repeated after the Adagietto so that it becomes three sections. Originally, there was a fourth movement, a Theme and Variations, but, for whatever reason, Foote decided against that addition.
As the Boulder Chamber Orchestra began the performance of this work, it was apparent that it could easily be identified as written by an American composer because of the shape of the melodic line. It was also apparent that since Arthur Foote was educated completely in the United States, that he was very isolated from all the European trends that had such an impact on music at the turn of the twentieth century. This is an excellent piece, and it is very attractive. It is apparent that Foote is a skilled and artistic composer, but the “spiritual” isolation from composers such as Stravinsky, and even Debussy, are evident.
The performance itself was excellent, but I felt that in this first work on the program, the BCO did not experience its accustomed performance “excitement” that usually fills everything when they are on stage. In the first movement, the first violins have the melodic line with some syncopation in the accompaniment played by the second violins and violas. The syncopation seemed a little on the mushy side, but please understand that I am criticizing at a very high level. The pizzicato in the second movement was not always precisely together which makes this movement difficult (how many of you can name the Tchaikovsky Symphony that has a movement entirely pizzicato?). Even if one violin, or viola, or cello, is not with the rest of the orchestra when pizzicato is being played, it is noticeable. The third movement, which is an enormous fugue, was the best movement of the three. The BCO seemed to be uniformly thinking, “Okay, this is a hard movement, so we had best be on our toes.” It was exciting, and it certainly demonstrated that Arthur Foote was a very fine craftsman. The concert going public truly needs to hear rare music such as this. While this particular work may be among the very best that Arthur Foote wrote it certainly raised my curiosity concerning the remainder of his output.
Following the Suite for Strings, Andrew Cooperstock joined the Boulder Chamber Orchestra and performance of J. S. Bach’s Keyboard Concerto Nr. 5 in F minor, BWV 1056. Cooperstock is so well-known as a fine pianist, that I don’t think he needs any introduction here. He has performed throughout the United States and Europe, and, fortunately for us, with many orchestras and chamber groups in Denver.
This Concerto is made up of three movements, all of them in ritornello form, which is typical of the Baroque Period, and certainly of the concerto grosso style. The ritornello form is a term that is usually applied to the first and last movement of the Baroque Concerto. These movements consist of an alternation of tutti (full orchestra) and solo sections. The tutti sections are based on identical material while the solo sections vary. The full orchestra sections are what give the ritornello its form. In the first movement, there is a solo section which is an almost sonata-like development, full of triplets that were stated in the opening tutti. It was exciting to listen to, and Cooperstock’s playing is always very clean and very articulate. He was, by the way, conducting from the bench, and his movements in doing so were extremely subtle. Of course, they would almost have to be subtle, because Cooperstock is playing almost all of the time. A Baroque Concerto, at least in the first and third movements, never gives the soloist much opportunity to sit and relax, as he is constantly playing. If he is conducting from the bench, he can only nod his head or raise his eyebrows in expectation. The orchestra performance in the Bach, finally hit its stride: it was excited and full of life, and it seemed to gain a lot by following the obvious energy given to it by Cooperstock.
In addition, I must say that the Sauter piano that Cooperstock performed on sounded absolutely perfect. It was in tune and it sounded as though the technician that services it knew what he was about. Sauter, of course, is one of the five or six best pianos in the world, and one would expect it to sound good. The Broomfield Auditorium is very fortunate to have such a piano.
The performance of the Boulder Chamber Orchestra, Andrew Cooperstock’s fine performance, and the excellent piano, would surely have pleased Bach. It was full of vivacity and vigor.
The audience demanded an encore, and Cooperstock responded by playing a Nocturne by Samuel Barber. It was a beautiful performance of Samuel Barber’s tribute to Irish composer John Field, who was the originator of the nocturne form which Chopin borrowed and made famous.
After the intermission, the Boulder Chamber Orchestra performed Samuel Barber’s well-known Adagio for Strings. This work, which was originally the slow movement from Samuel Barber’s String Quartet Nr. 1, Opus 11, has to be one of the best-known pieces of American music. It has been used for many funeral ceremonies, but it was not originally intended as a work of great sorrow, but one of intense meditation by the composer. Its arch form, slow buildup and then release of tension, and its deep, profound emotion, always surpassed the other movements of the original string quartet from whence it came.
Performing a piece such as the Adagio for Strings can sometimes be fraught with danger because it is such a familiar piece with such power that it must be done perfectly. And, the Boulder Chamber Orchestra and Maestro Saless did it perfectly. The music was allowed to work its magic on the audience without any kind of exaggerated dynamics or phrasing. In spite of its profound expression, it possesses a certain amount of simplicity, and, above all, a sense of great dignity. It may be that is what has helped this work become so successful. Dignity is the one aspect of this work that the Boulder Chamber Orchestra never lost sight of.
The last work on the program was the Concerto Grosso Nr. 1 by Ernest Bloch, (1880-1959). Straight away, I will warn you readers not to confuse this Ernest Bloch with his contemporary, Ernest Bloch (1885-1977), who was a German philosopher and music lover. The Ernest Bloch that we are concerned with was born in Switzerland, immigrated to the United States, became Director of the San Francisco Conservatory, and eventually Professor at the University of California in Berkeley. He still seems more European to me than American, particularly when one considers his knowledge of all that was being done in Europe. His music was strongly influenced by chants from Jewish worship, as well as twelve-tone serial technique.
The work that the Boulder Chamber Orchestra and Andrew Cooperstock performed Saturday evening was Bloch’s Concerto Grosso, which was written, as the program notes correctly stated, to demonstrate to his students at the Cleveland Institute of Music (which he founded) that one could write a Baroque concerto grosso using traditional techniques, but modern sounds. The piano, which is the concerto instrument in this composition, is placed at the rear of the orchestra, because even though it is the major instrument, it serves an almost dual role as soloist, and as a very prominent continuo, in that, it supports the orchestra.
The first movement, which is marked Allegro energico e pesante, begins with some very powerful chords. It is invigorating and exciting to hear because of its drive. The slow movement is lyric and beautiful, but, unlike the suggested mood from its title, Dirge, it did not strike me as being overly poignant or sad. The BCO and Cooperstock played it very expressively. The third movement is entitled Pastorale and Rustic Dances. I think it may have been a surprise to many people in the audience who were not expecting a 20th Century work to so easily portray a pastorale. But, it is a tribute to Bloch’s compositional ability that it does just that so easily. And, in truth, its overall sound is not as “avant-garde” as one might hear from Webern or Berg. The last movement is quite a remarkable fugue that uses every fugal technique invented by J.S. Bach: retrograde, inversion, and augmentation.
The performance of the Bloch was truly exceptional. The piano was used in the same way that Bartók used the orchestral instruments in his Concerto for Orchestra: it was considerably more important than an orchestral instrument, but only slightly less than a true concerto instrument. The size of the Boulder Chamber Orchestra, and the ear of Maestro Saless, was perfect to allow the piano to be heard, placed as it was, at the rear of the orchestra.
Again, the audience demanded an encore, and Maestro Saless chose one of the Romanian Dances by Béla Bartók.
In spite of the slow start, this was another fine performance by the Boulder Chamber Orchestra, because they were able to gather themselves together, and truly get down to business. In addition, it was an absolutely fascinating program because of the works performed. How many of the audience members have ever heard of Arthur Foote, let alone his wonderful Suite for Strings in E Major? And, why is it that the fickleness regarding “new music” has relegated Ernest Bloch’s music to silence, rather than the frequent performance that it deserves? There was absolutely no question that the audience appreciated this performance by Andrew Cooperstock, Maestro Saless, and the BCO, and well they should have, because it is another example of instruction in rare music beautifully performed. I guarantee you that all of us need that.
Filed under: Reviews | Tags: Adam Levin, Eduardo Morales-Caso, Eugène Ysaÿe, International Guitar Festival, J. S. Bach, Joaquin Turina, Leonardo Balada, Ricardo Llorca, University of Colorado at Boulder
Saturday afternoon, the 16th of February, I attended a solo guitar recital presented by Adam Levin, who was at the University of Colorado International Guitar Festival at Boulder. This was the university’s first International Guitar Festival, and Mr. Levin was there to present guitar masterclasses and judge the guitar competition. I will briefly quote from Adam Levin’s biography statement:
“Adam Levin has been praised by renowned American guitarist Eliot Fisk as a ‘virtuoso guitarist and a true 21st century renaissance man with the élan, intelligence, charm, tenacity and conviction to change the world.’ Levin’s debut album, In the Beginning, was praised as ‘absolutely thrilling…will dazzle and entertain at every possible opportunity’ by Minor 7th Acoustic Guitar Music Reviews.
“Levin has embarked on expanding the guitar’s repertoire through collaborations with thirty renowned contemporary Spanish composers. His second album, Music from Out of Time featured world premiere recordings by contemporary Spanish composers Eduardo Morales-Caso, Leonardo Balada, Mario Gosalvez-Blanco, David Del Puerto, and José María Sánchez Verdú. His most recent solo recording on Verso Records, Fuego de la Luna, showcased the complete guitar works of Eduardo Morales-Caso. In September 2012, production begins on a four-volume solo CD series on the Naxos label and a companion publication with Brotons y Mercadal Edicions Musicals, presenting the thirty Spanish works commissioned while in residency in Spain from 2008-2011.
“Levin has performed across the United States and Europe at renowned venues such as Chicago’s Pick Staiger and Mayne Stage concert halls, at the Palazzo Chigi Saracini in Italy, Boston’s Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum and Jordan Hall, the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, the Berlin Universität für Musik und darstellende Künst, the Barcelona Auditorio Axa, and in Madrid at the Palacio de Godoy, BBVA Palacio del Marqués de Salamanca, and Sala Manuel de Falla.
“The recipient of numerous top prizes, Adam Levin has been recognized by the Society of American Musicians, the Lake Forest Concerto Competition, Minnesota’s Schubert Competition, Boston GuitarFest, Concurso Internacional de les Corts para Jóvenes Intérpretes in Barcelona, Concurso Internazionale Di Gargnano, and Certamen Internacional Luys Milan de Guitarra in Valencia. Levin has been guest artist on a variety of music series, including Madrid’s Sociedad Española de Guitarra, Conciertos en Palacios and Festival Clásicos en Verano, Valencia’s Amigos de la Guitarra, Boston GuitarFest, L’Accademia Musicale Chigiana in Siena, and Festival Pro Música e Cultura in St. Moritz.”
Adam Levin’s biography statement is much more extensive than the preceding quote, as well it should be: he has been awarded many prizes, and among them, was a Fulbright Scholarship to research contemporary Spanish guitar repertoire in Madrid, Spain. He was one of only three guitarists in the world selected for the Trujamán Prize for his promotion, interpretation, and performances in Spanish music. The awards and fellowships go on and on. He is a native of Chicago’s North Shore, and has degrees from Northwestern University and the New England Conservatory in Boston.
Mr. Levin opened his program with the Preludio: “Obsession,” from the Sonata Nr. 2, Opus 27 in a minor, by Eugène Ysaÿe. This Sonata, Opus 27, was originally written for violin, as Eugène Ysaÿe was one of the late Romantic/early 20th Century period’s finest violinists. It was transcribed for guitar by Adam Levin. The original work, written in 1927, is a sonata in four movements which belongs to a group of six sonatas which Ysaÿe wrote for six of his violinist friends. This particular one was dedicated by Ysaÿe to Jacques Thibaud.
As Levin explained before he began performing the work, Ysaÿe makes use of two important themes: one from J. S. Bach’s Suite Nr. 3 in E Major for Unaccompanied Violin, BWV 1006, and the Dies Irae theme from the Latin Requiem Mass of the thirteenth century, which is a rhymed sequence attributed to Thomas of Celano. Both of these themes are readily identifiable.
The moment that Levin began to perform, I was struck by several things at once. First, his skill at transcribing works for the guitar is undeniable; second, he has good-sized hands that have an amazing stretch when he opens them all the way. Third, I cannot recall watching a guitarist perform who is able to relax his hands the way Adam Levin does. His wrists are completely flexible, and there is absolutely no tension in his fingers whatsoever. I know many of you readers will say, “Yes, but that is what guitarists are supposed to do,” but I assure you that I have never seen a guitarist play so freely and without tension. That lack of tension goes a long way to explain his remarkable technical ability. Ysaÿe’s composition is very much like a toccata interrupted by twentieth century counterpoint and chord structure. I have never heard this work performed on a violin, but I can tell you that is a very impressive piece when played on the guitar. This was a wonderful piece to open with, because its difficulty, and the familiarity of the themes, coupled with Levin’s technical ability captures one’s attention immediately.
Following the work by Ysaÿe, Levin performed the Suite No. 3 in E major BWV 1006 by Johann Sebastian Bach for Solo Violin. It was transcribed by Bach for the lute, thus becoming BWV 1006a, and, like the first work on the program, was transcribed for guitar by Adam Levin. This suite begins with a prelude, or Preludio, and continues with a Loure, a Gavotte en Rondeau, two Menuets (I and II), a Bourrée, and finally, a Giga.
The separate pieces in this suite are all dance forms from the French Baroque period; however, Bach chose the Italian version of the gigue, rather than the French, because it goes at a faster pace. This work is very difficult for the violinist because of all the bowing difficulties in particular, and it is certainly a very difficult piece for a guitarist. The tempo that Levin took in this marvelous work was very quick indeed. I had heard it performed on the lute several years ago, and the lutanist took a very stately tempo in the opening prelude. No violinist would dare take such a slow tempo, and neither did Adam Levin. However, I would like to point out that his musicianship showed through the tempos in the fast movements. In the last three years or so, I have heard some guitar concerts, but I have not heard a guitarist who is capable of such an incredible dynamic range.
The Chapel in Old Main on the CU campus is a wonderful place to have this kind of concert. It does have a proscenium stage which may have been constructed after the room fell out of use as a Chapel. I was seated in the fourth row center, and I had to listen very carefully when Levin played at his softest. However, I had the feeling that the sounds were carrying to the back wall of this hall, which may have had twelve rows are so. There was a good sized audience, and during the intermission, I heard no one complain about being unable to hear. Even playing so softly, Levin’s technique never lagged. I once heard a transcription of this work for harpsichord (Rachmaninoff even transcribed a few of the dances from this suite for piano in 1933, I believe it was) and Levin’s transcription reminded me very much of the harpsichord transcription because it was so clean, and the counterpoint was so obvious. I, frankly, have never heard a guitarist be so articulate
The next work on the program was by the Spanish avant-garde composer Ricardo Llorca. Llorca now teaches at Juilliard, and he is also the composer-in-residence of the New York City Opera Society as well as composer-in-residence for the Sensedance dance company. Entitled Handeliana, it is a work using a theme by G. F. Handel from his Opera Xerxes. This work was dedicated to Adam Levin, and was the second performance given of this work since it had been composed. Handel’s theme was quite obvious, but then came variations built upon it using many major seventh and minor second intervals. It also contained some idiomatic work for Spanish guitar – a strumming affect. This was a very attractive piece, and I would like very much to hear it again.
Levin also performed two short pieces that were not listed on the program, and I did not catch the titles of the works as he announced them, but I am sure both works were written by Eduardo Morales-Caso. The performance was breathtaking because of its musicality and remarkable technical requirements.
After the intermission, Levin performed another suite, but this one was a 20th-century suite, and was indeed written by Eduardo Morales-Caso. He is a Spanish composer, born in Havana in 1969. He studied composition at the Instituto Superior de Arte de Cuba, principally under the guidance of the composer Carlos Fariñas, and continued his compositional and humanistic evolution at the Real Conservatorio Superior de Música de Madrid, under the guidance of the composer, and friend, Antón García Abril. I would like to point out that his biographical statement on the web reveals the fact that Eduardo Morales–Caso has enjoyed being performed by exceptional guitarists such as Adam Levin.
The Witch in Dreams is the name of this suite, which had its United States premiere at this concert on Saturday. It has four movements but, unlike Baroque suites, the movements are descriptive. This suite, and particularly the first work entitled Ninnananna, seemed to be based upon serial technique. This is the first time I’ve ever heard this work since it was the US premiere, but I’m quite sure of some retrograde of the thematic material. And certainly in the third piece of the suite, entitled L’anima Sola, I am sure that I heard some counterpoint based on serial technique. Levin was quite capable of giving this suite a great sense of mystery, and again, his ability to do so was aided by his remarkable dynamic range. To me, technical ability encompasses everything from memory, concentration, tonal variation, and dynamics, in addition to accuracy of playing. It was quite obvious that Adam Levin possesses all of these qualities. I have never attended a guitar concert where the music was so pronounced that I felt myself being drawn into it.
The next work on the program was entitled Caprichos Nr. 8: Abstracciones de Albeniz, and as the composer, Leonardo Balada explains, “These five short pieces for guitar [are] performed on a free reinterpretation of some of the piano works of Albéniz. References to this composer are barely noticeable and often combine modernist ideas and atonal in symbiosis with the ideas of the material on which the work is based.” This set of pieces was, in some ways, quite remarkable because one could hear the references to Spanish folklore that Albéniz used in his music in spite of the fact that Balada states that they are obscure. Those references marked the style of Albéniz rather than specific melodies. Adam Levin’s playing in this set of pieces was absolutely spectacular because of its sensitivity, and his absolute mastery of musicianship, and ability to pull the audience into what he was playing. Whether he was playing very softly, as he did in the second piece of this suite, or whether he was playing the toccata-like bravado style as in the third piece of this suite, he simply left the audience spellbound.
The two works remaining on the program were Fandanguillo and Sevillana (Fantasia) by Joaquín Turina. This work clearly showed its derivations from Spanish folk music, and the rhythms were never distant from flamenco. A Fandango is a dance for two people in triple meter, and relies heavily on castanets and clapping. It also makes use of the percussive sound drawn from the guitar strings.
This piece has a somewhat slower center section that was played in a very mellow and relaxed way by Adam Levin. Sevilliana was a short Fantasia that was written to remind one of the scenery and character in the city of Seville. Both of these pieces were a fantastic way to end this program. The sensitivity with which they were played, and the style of the pieces, allowed me to recall everything that was on this program.
Mr. Levin got a standing ovation and closed the recital with an encore by Eduardo Morales-Caso.
As I stated above, there was a good sized audience at this concert. I found myself wondering how many of these individuals were enthusiasts of guitar music, and how many love music in general. When I was sixteen, I attended a concert by Andres Segovia, but unfortunately that was so long ago that I don’t remember too much about it, except to say, that I could not begin to figure out how he played. Since then, I have heard several guitar performances, but I was not so startled by the musicianship and technical ability as I was upon hearing Adam Levin. As a pianist, I would make a serious comparison between Adam Levin and Jean-Yves Thibaudet or John Browning or Claudio Arrau. Adam Levin is that good, and he is still quite young. He has performed throughout Europe, and it is my hope that he performs throughout the United States, for I would like to hear him again. His playing is such that he makes unknown composers – unknown at least to me – such as Llorca, Morales-Caso, and Leonardo Balada, immediately accessible and beautiful.
Filed under: Reviews | Tags: Amanda Balestrieri, Christmas Oratorio, Cynthia Katsarelis, Daniel Hutshings, J. S. Bach, Jacob Sentgeorge, Marjorie Bunday, Pro Musica Coloardo Chamber Orchestra, Robert W. Tudor, St. Martin's Chamber Choir, Timothy Krueger
The concert going public is truly indebted to Cynthia Katsarelis and Timothy Krueger (Which one do I name first?) for having the imagination and the artistic skill and the organizations – St. Martin’s Chamber Choir and the Pro Musica Colorado Chamber Orchestra – to program and perform J.S. Bach’s Christmas Oratorio. In the program notes, they state that it is been at least 10 years, and perhaps longer, since this work has been performed in the Denver Metro area. I think it is been much longer. In fact this magnificent Oratorio does not seem to be performed much at all in the United States. I know it has been at least forty years since I have heard it performed.
I was unable to hear the performance Friday evening in Denver, so I drove to Boulder Saturday evening to hear their performance, which was done at the First United Methodist Church on Spruce Street. As the program notes explain, this work is divided into six sections which were intended to be performed on the six major feast days over a thirteen day period from December 25th through January 6th. The six sections of this oratorio are really cantatas, and thus form a cycle of cantatas.
A cantata is a composition that uses soloists and chorus, and, depending upon the facilities available to the composer at the time, it can also use an orchestra or an organ. There are two kinds of cantatas. Almost all of Bach’s cantatas were liturgical and intended to be sung at specific church services during the Lutheran year. These are known as cantata da chiesa. There are also secular cantatas. Bach wrote two well-known secular cantatas: the Coffee Cantata and the Hunting Cantata. Secular cantatas are known as cantata da camera, or chamber cantata.
It was a common practice for Bach to re-use music from past compositions – in other words, self-plagiarism – and the Christmas Oratorio is no exception. He uses themes from three previous cantatas as well as his lost work, the St. Mark Passion (and I point out that the full name of this work, and that of any Passion that Bach wrote is “The Passion of Our Lord Jesus Christ Upon the Cross According to St. Mark”). However, as is also usual in Bach, the adaptation of these themes is so skillful that many of the themes go unrecognized, and certainly it does not cause any kind of disturbance.
At Saturday night’s performance, an intermission was placed between the first three sections in the last three, with Maestra Katsarelis conducting the first half of the oratorio, and the Maestro Timothy Krueger conducting the second half. As you might imagine, the six sections tell the complete Christmas story beginning with the birth of Jesus, and ending with the Epiphany.
This entire performance was bathed in joy and remarkable detail work from the musicians and both conductors. I thought that in the opening four or five measures the timpani was a little too loud because it covered everything. But after those opening measures, he seemed to get his enthusiasm under control. One of the most important aspects of this entire performance was that it was so well done that it was exultant where it should have been exultant, and it was introspective without being maudlin.
The musicians performed with such great care, attention, warmth, and belief in what they were doing, that this work was revealed as a very personal statement by J.S. Bach. How often do we hear a program where that intangible, yet identifiable aesthetic, is manifest?
Amanda Balestrieri, soprano; Marjorie Bunday, mezzo; Daniel Hutchings, tenor (in the role of Evangelist); Jacob Sentgeorge, tenor; and Robert W. Tudor, bass, were all quite remarkable and excellent. I was struck by the balance of the singers with the orchestra. That can sometimes be a very difficult thing to bring off, especially when one does not get a chance to perform often in the hall. Nonetheless, performance experience pays off quite nicely, and it was clear that the soloists had an abundance of that. Yes, of course, they were singing arias and recitatives (An aria is a vocal solo where the soloist must sing to the rhythm that the composer has written. A recitative is a vocal solo wherein the soloist is governed only by the rhythm of the prose text, with occasional chords from the orchestra or organ, as the case may be, to help the soloists stay on pitch, and provide the audience with a sense of tonality), but they had a sense of musicianship that is sometimes rare. Using a broad brush, realize that there are some singers who seem motivated by the desire to be the most important person on stage. In Bach, there are moments when this is perfectly proper; however, there are times when it is not. Why? Because Bach wrote counterpoint, and he often treats the voice as a member of the contrapuntal line. All of these soloists had the musicianship to realize when to be an “instrument,” and when to be a soloist.
Not only was the balance with the acoustics of the church excellent, but the balance between the musicians in the orchestra and choir and the soloists was well-nigh perfect. The result of this balance made it possible to hear some of the harmonic changes that Bach used in this oratorio. Why is that important? Because there were deceptive resolutions of the harmony that I have never heard in the music of Bach. In the Chorale Nr. 10 of Part III, I heard an augmented sixth chord, known among musicians as a German V 6-5 chord. This chord was not used freely until the 1820’s or so. I apologize for being so technical, but the V is a Roman numeral indicating that the chord is built upon the 5th degree of the scale (do you young people see why it is important to learn scales?); however, in the case of the V 6-5 chord, the root, or base (foundation) of the chord is lowered by a half step. That, in turn, governs how it can resolve or go to the next chord. I have never heard this chord used in Bach. I am sure that if he used it in this Oratorio, he must have used it in other compositions as well, but I must say that it added to the aura that his work is a very personal statement. I certainly have not read of any of Bach’s contemporaries criticizing him for using such harmonies, which would have been considered “avante garde,” in the same way that Beethoven was ridiculed for his advanced rhythms in his Symphony Nr. 7, or his addition of the trombone in his compositions. As I say, I have not heard the Christmas Oratorio for many years, so I sat in the audience relishing all of the “new” sounds.
I would also like to point out that in the Recitative Nr. 9 of the Part II, the cello had a flowing triplet pattern that was reminiscent (but only that) of a Barcarolle rhythm. It gave a very distinct swaying motion that was underscored by the wonderful bass solo.
The orchestra musicians were superb. The woodwinds, Michelle Stanley, Olga Shylayeva, Monica Hanulik, Gina Johnson, Jason Lichtenwalter, and Max Soto were delightful. The trumpets – Bruce Barrie, Andrew Bishop, and Steven Marx – gave me the impression that they had played nothing but Bach for their entire lives. Ditto the French horns – Fritz Foss and Michael Yopp – whose trills in Part VI were astounding. That has to be hard to do on an instrument with such a tiny mouth piece. I would also like to point out the seemingly easy continuo part performed by Frank Nowell was not so “easy,” but it was done with great aplomb.
In Part IV, there is an “Echo” aria for the soprano soloist and the lead soprano in the choir. Both Amanda Balestrieri and the lead soprano in the choir, who was Cindy Henning, were incredible in their grace, and while one could recognize its seriousness in relation to the Oratorio, it was done in such a way as to emphasize that Bach must have been very pleased with his idea, and continually thinking, “Yes, this idea will work.” If you think that my thoughts on this sound corny, or “unscholarly,” you should have heard this concert.
As I drove home, there were two thoughts that stood out in my mind. One, how fortunate we in the metro area are to have these two musicians, Timothy Krueger and Cynthia Katsarelis, who are so capable of pulling together so many outstanding colleagues and, two, the ability of all of these musicians involved to shed new light on Bach, and expose the beauty of one of his rarely performed compositions.
Filed under: Reviews | Tags: BWV 1052, Gustav Mahler, Hsing-ay Hsu, J. S. Bach, Michael Butterman, Symphony Nr. 1
There was a sold-out house Saturday evening, September 17, at Mackey Auditorium on the CU campus in Boulder. The Boulder Philharmonic Orchestra performed two very important pieces from music literature: the first, was the keyboard Concerto in D minor, BWV 1052, by Johann Sebastian Bach, and the second was Mahler’s Symphony Nr. 1 in D Major, which has been called the “Titan.” Both the Bach and the Mahler received well-deserved standing ovations, and the performance of both works has to be classified as some of the Boulder Phil’s best.
The soloist for the Bach concerto was Hsing-ay Hsu who is on the faculty at CU in Boulder. In case any of you readers are not aware of who she is, please make a sincere attempt to hear her performances because she is absolutely amazing, not only for her technique, but for her impeccable musicianship. To really be a good pianist, one must have sound technique of course, but to really excel, one has to be a musician first. Believe me, Hsing-ay Hsu is a truly fine musician.
I will quote from her bio statement: “Since making her stage debut at age four, Chinese pianist Hsing-ay Hsu (Sing-I Shoo) has performed at such notable venues as Carnegie Hall, the Kennedy Center, Alice Tully Hall at Lincoln Center, and abroad in China, Japan, Taiwan, the Czech Republic, Denmark, and France. Upon reaching the age of eligibility in her freshman year at Juilliard, Hsu captured the 1996 William Kapell International Piano Competition Second Prize. She is also winner of the prestigious Juilliard William Petschek Recital Award in 2000, a 2003 McCrane Foundation Artist Grant, a 1999-2001 Paul & Daisy Sows Graduate Fellowship, and a 1997 Gilmore Young Artist Award.
“She has served as visiting piano faculty at Ohio University and University of Colorado, given residencies at the University of Missouri at Kansas City and Xiamen University, and regularly teaches masterclasses. Ms. Hsu is currently the Artistic Administrator of the Pendulum New Music Series at the University of Colorado in Boulder, where she resides with her husband, composer Daniel Kellogg.”
Bach constantly borrowed from himself, as well as revising previous works for new instruments, when he composed. Many scholars are now convinced that this particular keyboard concerto is a revised work that was originally for violin which has since been lost. This concerto was written for a harpsichord with two manuals, but nonetheless when it is performed today, it is almost imperative that it be performed on a piano rather than the harpsichord. If it is done on harpsichord then the hall has to be quite small and the ensemble has to be quite small as well, for the harpsichord can be a very difficult instrument to hear. Ferruccio Busoni, a student of Franz Liszt’s, arranged this concerto for a larger ensemble and a modern solo instrument. Purists should not be alarmed at this as it has certainly increased the popularity of this work and increased its chances of being performed. In addition, Busoni was a very fine musician himself.
I was pleasantly surprised at the very outset of this performance, because the tempo that was taken by Maestro Butterman, and without question asked for by Ms. Hsu, was a little faster than I am accustomed to hearing, but it is a tempo that I have longed to hear. It was spirited, it was quick, and it had the kind of rhythmic drive – or pulse, if you will – that is so necessary when one performs Bach. That drive is often missing from other performers and orchestras. There was so much joy given by both the soloist and the orchestra that one simply had to smile while listening. The first movement was amazingly articulate, and each phrase was perfectly executed and shaped. The first movement also contains some very difficult fingerwork, but every single note could be heard. Her pedaling was absolutely flawless. It is also a wonderful thing to see and hear the confidence with which Hsing-ay Hsu performs. There were no extraneous and unnecessary motions; she simply gets down to the business of concentrating and presenting the audience a wonderful and accurate picture of the composer.
It was also very clear that Maestro Butterman and Ms. Hsu had a great deal of confidence in each other. There was some eye to eye contact, but in some ways, surprisingly little. They both knew what each other wanted and they did it with great ease. I must say that it has been a long time since I have heard the second movement of this concerto done so mysteriously and with so much darkness of tone. It really was quite a surprise. It sounded as if Bach was suddenly recalling some great tragedy. Mind you, it was still superb Bach, but the first movement was so full of joy, that the “musical description” of the second movement was quite a surprise.
The third movement returned the listener to the jovial character of the first movement. I know that it is a terrible cliché to say that this movement “dazzled with its sparkling quality,” but that’s exactly the way it was. I also point out that the third movement is just as difficult as the first. All of the non-musicians in the audience must surely be aware that because every single note can be heard, and because the soloist is not visibly working hard or “shaken,” does not mean that the piece is easy. It simply means that Hsing-ay Hsu is an exceptional pianist and musician.
This was a delightful performance, and the audience called Ms. Hsu back at least three times, as I recall, for an encore. Unfortunately, no encore was played, which only makes me yearn for her next performance.
An intermission separated the Bach with the only other work on the night’s program: the Mahler First Symphony. This symphony gets its name, “Titan,” because it was originally conceived as a tone poem loosely based on a novel of the same name by Jean Paul. Jean Paul’s novel describes a youth who is full of artistic desire, but whom the world has no use for. He finds no outlet for his artistic ability, and, because he has such difficulty adapting, his only way out is to commit suicide. Much has been made of Mahler’s preoccupation with death, and I will not go into it here. It is certain that Mahler had to have been one of the most troubled composers in all of music history, save, perhaps, for Tchaikovsky.
The first two movements, as the program notes explained, express the joys of youth, while the last two movements examine death. This morbid outlook is typical of Mahler, but to my way of thinking it is sometimes overstated in the same way that so many doctoral dissertations were written about Schoenberg’s and Webern’s 12 tone compositions. In the 1950s and early 1960s, as far as these two composers were concerned, there was analysis, and analysis, and analysis. Scientificism was rampant. Concerning Mahler: as he grew older, I do think that his preoccupation with the morbid grew stronger, but it is sometimes overdone.
The first movement of this “Titan” Symphony is really a pastorale setting, and exhibits bird calls and distant fanfares. The main theme comes from the song “I Went Out This Morning Through the Fields.” The second movement is a rather rousing Austrian Ländler, which is a dance in ¾ meter, usually with a dotted rhythm on the third beat. Beethoven, Schubert, Bruckner, and Mahler used it often. Now for the unusual feature of this Symphony: the third movement is a funeral march which is based on a woodcut by Jacques Callot. The woodcut depicts a procession of forest animals carrying the body of a hunter to his final resting place. This movement is in three sections, wherein the center trio section is almost similar to some kind of rowdy dancehall music. The opening and closing sections are the French folk tune, “Frère Jacques” played in a minor key. This is so full of irony, that it has often struck me – at the risk of annoying all Mahler lovers – as humorous. As far as I know, there is no evidence that Mahler was concerned with humor at this point in this symphony. In fact, his whole life often seems to be devoid of humor. But to me, this movement, because of its irony, is humorous. Every time I hear it performed live, I watch the audience very carefully, and everyone is sitting staring straight at the orchestra, uttering no sound whatsoever, and with a very serious look on their faces. It is if they are all thinking, “Listen to this. This cannot be funny because it is Mahler, and everyone knows Mahler is always serious, and may not have smiled his entire life.” The last movement of this symphony begins without a break, and really, the only word that describes this last movement is triumphant.
The Boulder Philharmonic, with Maestro Butterman leading the way, was absolutely sensational in the performance of this work. The outstanding sections in the performance of this symphony, to my way of thinking, were the cellos and the violas. There was also some wonderful playing from the clarinet and the oboe. Before the performance, Mr. Butterman explained that this symphony has a reputation of being one of the two best “first” symphonies ever written, the other one being Symphony Nr.1 by Brahms. I am in complete agreement. The fact that I think the third movement is full of ironic humor certainly does not detract from the genius this symphony exhibits. It is also very clear that Maestro Butterman understands how this Mahler Symphony should be performed. The tempos were perfect, and the entire orchestra performed with enthusiasm and sincerity under his direction.
In spite of this symphony’s emotional turbulence, and even taking into account the artistry that it displays, it is still a good “first” work to initiate those who are unfamiliar with Mahler. I hope that the Boulder Phil will perform another Mahler symphony soon. And I think that says a great deal about the performance ability of this orchestra. They are excellent.