Filed under: Reviews | Tags: Amanda Balestrieri, Bach, Barber, Colorado Symphony Orchestra, Henry Zhang, Mendelssohn, Mozart, Rachmaninoff, Ravel, Rimsky-Korsakov, Scott O'Neil, Yumi Hwang-Williams
Saturday evening, July 20, the Colorado Symphony Orchestra performed a delightful program, all of which were “old standards,” with perhaps one exception: Samuel Barber’s elegant and exceptional Knoxville: Summer of 1915. This piece, and my way of thinking, is under performed, and it is an excellent example of why Samuel Barber is one of the most important composers of the twentieth century.
The CSO, under the direction of Maestro Scott O’Neil, opened the program with Mendelssohn’s Overture to A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Opus 21. Do not confuse this overture with the actual incidental music to Shakespeare’s play. The incidental music carries the title A Midsummer Night’s Dream as well as the opus number 61. The incidental music was written sixteen years after the overture, and when Mendelssohn wrote the overture, he had just finished reading Shakespeare’s play. He had no idea, at that time, that he would write incidental music to the entire play. I also point out that when Mendelssohn wrote the overture he was only seventeen years old. As I have written before, one of the greatest pieces of chamber music ever written was Mendelssohn’s gigantic Octet for Strings, Op. 20, which he had written as a birthday gift for his violin teacher. At that time, Mendelssohn was only sixteen years old. Understand, that here we have a young composer, who at the young age of sixteen and seventeen, writes two of the most impressive pieces in music history.
The Colorado Symphony Orchestra certainly did justice to this piece, but I was astounded at the very opening which is scored for woodwinds and horn. It has been years, quite literally, since I have heard a section of this orchestra play out of tune. However, the horns were out of tune with the woodwinds in the opening measures of this piece. I assure you that every time this opening theme returned, they were perfectly in tune, and keep in mind that even superb orchestras can occasionally make mistakes. The rest of the performance was wonderful: it was full of vivacity and some wonderful articulation from the violins. I have often thought that the violins had some incredibly difficult writing, and that Mendelssohn’s own ability on the violin (he was a virtuoso) gave him the frame of mind that “if he could do it, so must they.” Of course, the CSO has some wonderful performers in the violins, and everyone performed the piece as if this were the first time they had ever done it. I must say, as well, that the orchestra sometimes appeared to be on their own, for there were occasions where Maestro O’Neil’s beats were late.
Following the Mendelssohn, the CSO performed just the finale to the Bach Brandenburg Concerto Nr. 3, with Maestro O’Neil performing the continuo on the harpsichord, and conducting from the bench. The CSO was splendid as well in this work, as they were in the Mendelssohn, but had I been in charge of the performance, I would have trimmed the orchestra size down to a more authentic number of musicians, indicative of what Bach had available when he wrote the piece. I remain a little puzzled as to why Maestro O’Neil programmed only the finale to the Brandenburg, rather than perform the entire work. It was almost as if he thought that a summer concert did not need to be complete because the audience was only looking for a summer pastime.
Following the Bach, sixteen-year-old pianist, Henry Zhang from Longmont, performed the first movement of the Rachmaninoff Piano Concerto Op. 18, Nr. 2 in C minor. Mr. Zhang is a student of Boulder teacher, Crystal Lee. He has won numerous competitions, and is clearly on his way to establishing himself as a first-rate artist. I am not sure how many times he has performed with an orchestra, but his playing is marked by incredible reliability. By that I mean that in one so young, he knows how to keep an overall steady beat while still conveying nuance and excitement in his performance. His discipline kept him from exaggerating phrase endings, for example, which would have resulted in confusing the conductor and the orchestra. His interpretation of this difficult concerto was spot on, and it was full of genuine musicianship, without relying on his ability to simply play fast and startle the audience with pyrotechnics. He truly seems to be a musician first, and a pianist second, and that is precisely what will take him far in his pursuit of a career, because it is the music that is the reason for being a pianist in the first place. But, make no mistake about it: he has the fingers as well.
Next on the program, the CSO performed the last movement of Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade. Again, I was a little puzzled by the performance of only one movement of this work. Rimsky-Korsakov was one of the great orchestrators of all time. One who “orchestrates” is one who assigns the instruments of the orchestra to certain themes so as to give the themes the emphasis that the composer wishes. Debussy was a great admirer of Rimsky-Korsakov’s work, and even used a theme from the second movement of Scheherazade in his work La mer. Rimsky-Korsakov wrote a two-volume work on orchestration: the first volume text, and the second volume, musical examples. It has been translated to English by Edward Agate, and is not terribly difficult to find, as it has the reputation of being one of the books on orchestration.
The Colorado Symphony was spectacular in the performance of this work, and produced a stunning richness of tone. Every section of the orchestra has something to contribute in this last movement, and they again demonstrated why they are one of the finest orchestras in the United States. Concertmaster Yumi Hwang-Williams was truly wonderful in her solo at the end of the movement. Her sound was rich and full, and absolutely always on pitch, even when the difficulties of phrasing and range surely made playing the violin difficult. Of course, playing difficult pieces is part of the price of admission. However, she always excels, and she does so with complete effortlessness.
Following the intermission, the CSO opened with Mozart’s infectious Overture to The Marriage of Figaro. The violins in the performance of this work were incredibly accurate in their entrances and exits as well as their phrasing. Of course, they are supposed to be, but their meticulousness, again, demonstrates the quality of the CSO. This overture is always fascinating, because it so clearly predicts the humor that the opera exemplifies, and it also seems to be such a perfect picture of Mozart’s own sense of humor.
Amanda Balestrieri then joined the Colorado Symphony in the performance of Samuel Barber’s magnificent Knoxville: Summer of 1915. There were times when it seemed that Samuel Barber was the only twentieth century American composer who still believed in lyricism, but this work, plus his Violin Concerto, his Piano Concerto, Adagio for Strings, and his Piano Sonata, will forever stand the test of time. Knoxville: Summer of 1915 is the setting of James Agee’s work, and reflects the unerring taste in Barber’s literary interest. Both Samuel Barber and James Agee were five years old in 1915, and both became good friends after they met.
This is a work that needs to be heard far more often than it is, and Amanda Balestrieri easily made that abundantly clear to the audience Saturday night. Her voice quality is wonderful, and her expressiveness was so reflective of both Barber and Agee, that it made me wonder at the times of 1915. World War I was raging, but families still sat on their front porches. Balestrieri brought out a kind of intimacy of that period of time when most families had time to relax together with their neighbors, and even cool off on warm front-porch-evenings, without the rush to the future. Her sense of pitch is always amazing, and she always imbues her singing with a wonderful sense of musicianship whether she is singing Bach or Barber.
The final work on the program was Boléro by Maurice Ravel. This is a work that repeats the only theme over and over again. It is also famous for its fifteen minutes of crescendo, from an almost inaudible pianissimo to a good, solid fortissimo. This piece is a miniature ballet which was commissioned by the dancer Ida Rubenstein; however, Ravel seemed to also consider this as a demonstration of his technical ability at composition. He never suspected that it would become such an outstandingly famous piece. The Colorado Symphony performed this piece with an enthusiasm which, again, seemed to belie the fact that they had played this piece several times. It was a breathtaking performance that brought the audience to its feet.
Throughout the evening, Maestro O’Neil spoke to the audience concerning each work on the program. Most conductors make sure that these explanations are instructive, and, I do point out, that all of these short descriptions did have information in them. However, for the most part they seemed to be filled with the kind of frivolous banter, such as his comments on Ravel’s Boléro. He seemed to take pains to point out that what genuinely made this work famous was the Hollywood movie, “10,” which starred Bo Derek and Dudley Moore. In reality this work had become famous long before the movie, and was so well received at its premiere given by Ida Rubenstein and her dance troupe, that the audience demanded they do it again. All of O’Neil’s comments contained humor (there is nothing wrong with that, for there is occasionally much humor concerning the background in certain pieces of serious music) that seemed quite inane, as if he felt the necessity to make learning about an art “fun.” It reminded me of the denigration that music as an art suffers at the hands of a certain female disc jockey on the local serious music radio station, when she makes such inane comments as, “As a young composer, François Couperin was so well respected by his family that none of them would have considered calling him “Little Frankie”.” What is the point of making such an uninformed statement as that? How does that kind of inanity add to the listener’s knowledge? Does that help to make music “fun” so that it will sell better? If that is the case, then we must figure out ways to make Rembrandt, Jasper Johns, and Monet fun.
All season long, the Colorado Symphony Orchestra has performed as if they had new breath. Saturday’s performance was no exception, for it was truly outstanding. Everyone in that orchestra from the percussion section through the bass is an outstanding musician, and, once again, with unabashed enthusiasm, I emphasize that we in Denver are so lucky to have this group of musicians here.
Filed under: Reviews | Tags: Bach, Beethoven, Cynthia Katsarelis, Larry Graham, Pro Musica Coloardo Chamber Orchestra, Ravel
Saturday evening, April 14, the Pro Musica Colorado Chamber Orchestra held a soirée at the magnificent home of Stanley and Elissa Guralnick in Boulder. The featured artist for the evening was none other than the inimitable Larry Graham who performed a benefit recital for the Pro Musica Colorado Chamber Orchestra. For those of you who have not made the acquaintance of the Pro Musica Colorado Chamber Orchestra, you are in for a treat. It is a relatively new chamber group in Boulder, but they have quickly established themselves as a superb organization of true musicians which was formed under the leadership of Maestra Cynthia Katsarelis.
“Ms. Katsarelis was Conducting Assistant with the Cincinnati Symphony and Pops, and held positions as Associate Conductor with the Greensboro Symphony Orchestra (North Carolina) and Music Director of the Greensboro Symphony Youth Orchestra. She made her international debut leading the Bourgas Philharmonic in Bourgas, Bulgaria. In Colorado, Cynthia was recently invited to assist the Colorado Music Festival by conducting the offstage brass in Mahler’s Symphony No. 2, the “Resurrection.”
“Ms. Katsarelis’ commitment to working with young musicians took her to Haiti in the Spring of 2004 to guest conduct the Haiti Philharmonic at the Holy Trinity School of Music in Port-au-Prince. She has also conducted clinics and sectionals at numerous Colorado high schools, including Fairview in Boulder, Thompson Valley and Loveland high schools, as well as Rocky Mountain high school. In February of 2006, Ms. Katsarelis guest conducted the University of Nebraska (Omaha) Honors Orchestra. Under Cynthia’s leadership, the Youth Orchestra of the Rockies has grown from a program of 40 students to more than 80.
“Ms. Katsarelis studied Violin and Conducting at the Peabody Conservatory of Music of the Johns Hopkins University, earning her Bachelors and Masters of Music degrees. At the College-Conservatory of Music in Cincinnati, she pursued doctoral studies in Orchestral and Opera Conducting. She studied with Frederik Prausnitz, Charles Bruck, and Kenneth Kiesler, and has also participated in master classes led by Neema Jarvi, Michael Tilson Thomas, Yoel Levi, Marin Alsop, and Helmuth Rilling.”
Even though this organization is comparatively new in relationship with other chamber groups in Boulder and the state of Colorado, they have established a reputation for excellence and musicianship.
Larry Graham is well-known to everyone in Colorado, and in the fall of 2011, performed with the Pro Musica Colorado Chamber Players. Nonetheless, I will include a short bio statement below.
“Pianist Larry Graham has twice scored major successes as the top-ranking American in both the Queen Elizabeth Concours in Brussels (1975), and the Artur Rubinstein Competition in Tel-Aviv (1977). The Brussels competition brought Mr. Graham into the public spotlight. His brilliant performances won for him the coveted “Prize of the Public” by an overwhelming vote of the audience that witnessed the finals. Le Soir of Brussels hailed Graham’s popularity as “significant and encouraging. It shows that the popular audience preferred music to virtuosity, charm to velocity, and sentiment to frenzy.” A recording contract with Decca records and professional management followed. As the favorite of the public, he has been invited back numerous times for concerts.
“Graham is a native of Oklahoma and received his training at the Juilliard School in New York City, as a scholarship student of Rosina Lhevinne and Martin Canin. Early successes in such piano competitions as the Kosciuszko, Bloch, and G.B. Dealey resulted in his debut with the Dallas Symphony Orchestra in 1965. In 1969, Mr. Graham won the Concert Artists Guild auditions which led to his New York debut at Carnegie Recital Hall. His mastery of the piano repertoire encompasses works of Bach through Stravinsky. Since the Queen Elizabeth success in 1975, Larry Graham has performed over 30 different concerti with orchestras in the United States and abroad as well as numerous solo engagements. Larry Graham lives in Boulder, Colorado, where he continues to teach gifted young piano students. For 25 years he was a member of the piano faculty at College of Music at the University of Colorado in Boulder.”
Saturday evening, Mr. Graham performed three of Bach’s Preludes and Fugues from Book I of his well-known Well Tempered Clavier. In addition, he performed Beethoven’s Piano Sonata Opus 27, Nr. 2, otherwise known as the “Moonlight Sonata,” (a sobriquet given to the sonata by the music critic, Ludwig Rellstab, a contemporary of Beethoven’s [I have often wondered if Beethoven didn’t cringe at this sub-title]). Following the Beethoven, Mr. Graham performed movements three and four from Maurice Ravel’s Le Tombeau de Couperin.
In the first paragraph of this article I referred to Larry Graham as the “inimitable Larry Graham.” The reason I did so is because it is so refreshing to hear a pianist these days who is a musician first and a pianist second. There are so many new pianists on the scene who rely on absolutely incredible facility (which Larry Graham has) without the prerequisite and necessary musicianship. They are under the impression that if they can play truly fast, that is enough to secure success. Of course, nothing could be further from the truth: one must be a musician, and certainly Larry Graham is that.
The Bach was unbelievably clean and clear. It was certainly stylistically correct, but at the same time, it was wonderfully expressive. In the fugues, every entrance of the subject was marked without being pedantic and obtrusive. It was done with great ease and sureness. Keep in mind that this was a soirée, and I was sitting about 10 feet away from the piano – which, I might add, had been beautifully prepared, and was in perfect tune. The ornaments which are indicated in the Preludes and Fugues are in the German style, but Mr. Graham’s ornaments, upon this hearing, seemed almost French, so I am curious about which edition he used. But understand, that is simply a curiosity, and not a criticism of Larry Graham’s playing.
The Beethoven, which followed, was absolutely perfect, and again, the tempo of the last movement, which is marked Presto, was perfect. Some of the young lions of today play this much too fast, without a thought to the fact that piano technique in Beethoven’s time had not progressed to the point where pianists played blindingly fast as they do today. The piano, as we know it, had not truly been invented until 1821, and that piano was built by Broadwood of England. They presented that piano to Beethoven, and it was the first piano to have an iron frame. So, you must understand, that the piano is a relatively new instrument as compared to other instruments. Beethoven’s piano for which he wrote the sonata, was known as a forte piano (not piano forte) and it had no iron frame, and the action was considerably slower in its response to the pianist. Therefore, it was comparatively difficult to play blindingly fast the way pianists do today.
Following the Beethoven, Larry Graham performed the third and fourth movements – Forlane and Rigaudon – from Maurice Ravel’s well-known Le Tombeau de Couperin. Once again, Graham displayed his musicianship by taking absolutely perfect tempos for these two movements. The tempos allowed everything that Ravel wrote to be exposed. The importance of that seems to be secondary among many of today’s younger pianists. Graham’s performance reminded me very much of those of Vlado Perlemuter’s, who was on the faculty at the School of Music at Indiana University (now known as the Jacobs School of Music) when I was an undergraduate there. Those performances were startlingly clean, and once again, every single note that Ravel wrote could be heard. That was the case with Larry Graham’s performance on Saturday evening. It was truly exhilarating.
I might add that the entire evening at this soirée was exhilarating. The company was wonderful; the conversation was delightful, as were the refreshments. The host and hostess were indeed gracious to offer their home for this performance. It was perfect.
And, for those of you who have not heard the Pro Musica Colorado Chamber Orchestra, you will have a chance on May 5, at the first United Methodist Church in Boulder. For details, go to their website at http://www.promusicacolorado.org/.
This is another group in Boulder that deserves your attention.
Filed under: Reviews | Tags: Benjamin Hochman, Boulder Philharmonic Orchestra, Debussy, Eric Satie, Howard Hanson, Jean Sibleius, Michael Butterman, Ravel
Saturday, January 14, was a most unusual day. I was able to attend two outstanding concerts: the Boulder Philharmonic Orchestra with Benjamin Hochman, piano, and the Peak Performances Chamber Series. It was also unusual when I considered how many truly remarkable performances I have been able to attend this concert season. I don’t recall any particular year where there have been so many fine performances by so many fine organizations.
The Boulder Philharmonic Orchestra concert was simply beyond compare from at least two standpoints: 1) the programming was absolutely brilliant: Satie, Hanson, Ravel, and Gershwin. 2) The performance itself, the ability of the orchestra, and the brilliant performance of Benjamin Hochman, were magnificent.
The Boulder Phil began their program with two of the Gymnopédies, Nr. 1 and Nr. 3, by the French composer, Eric Satie (1866-1925). Eric Satie was born into a good family, but in spite of his wealth, he embraced poverty as the price of admission into artistic freedom. There is a wonderful portrait of Satie which was painted in 1891 by Santiago Rusiñol. It shows the young composer in his apartment in the Montmartre section of Paris, sitting before his fireplace, lost in thought. To me, it seems to show his loneliness, in spite of his friendship with so many artists, and especially that of Claude Debussy. In fact, it was Debussy who orchestrated the two Gymnopédies performed on the evening’s program, and he did so with the full approval of Eric Satie. However, many of his friends described Satie as being rather odd, and even inaccessible. As stated in the program notes, this oddness of personality was manifested by the directions that he would give in his scores, for example, “like a nightingale with a toothache.” That may seem unusual to us today, but isn’t it only a tiny bit more extreme than Robert Schumann’s instructions for the performer known as “eye music,” where he wrote accents over a series of tied notes, or wrote, “The sound of the carnival fades into the distance?”
The Boulder Philharmonic performed Satie’s two Gymnopédies beautifully. Maestro Butterman certainly allowed the music to express itself in its simplicity and remarkable melodic lines. It was limpid and fluid and it also demonstrated Debussy’s skill at orchestration. It reflected Satie’s adherence to the aesthetics of Les Six, the group of French composers who aspired to more “simple” music when compared to that of Richard Wagner.
The second work on the program was by the American composer Howard Hanson (1896-1981). Hanson was born in Wahoo, Nebraska of Nordic parents, and never really absorbed the American-influenced sounds that typified other American composers of the 20th century. In fact, he often admitted that he was strongly affected by the music of Sibelius. After obtaining a degree from Northwestern University in 1916, he became the first American composer to win the Prix de Rome, which gave him the opportunity to study with the Italian composer, Ottorino Respighi. When he returned to the United States, he was appointed head of the Eastman School of Music, which he had helped found.
Hanson’s Symphony Nr. 2, is without a doubt, Hanson’s best known work. There is no question that in this work, there is much influence, as Hanson himself admitted, from the Fifth Symphony by Jean Sibelius. It contains a great deal of dramatic tension and orchestral weight. In addition, this symphony is, as the program notes point out, cyclical. The same theme occurs in each of the symphony’s movements, and this adds to the remarkable accessibility of this work, aside from the incredible lyricism with its long and arching shapes.
The opening of this work is really quite dark in mood, and there is enough dissonance, that one has the feeling of listening to something that is both new and old. The woodwind section throughout this entire work was absolutely excellent, but I must say that as Butterman swept the first movement along on its path, it was very clear that there is not one weak section in this entire orchestra. The Boulder Philharmonic Orchestras is so successful because they are so well-balanced in ability. This was the second concert I had heard on this day, and it almost seems miraculous that both performances, one a chamber group and the other a full orchestra, were so well conceived and shaped. There is much brass work in all three movements of the Symphony, but in the second movement, they were exceptional. Maestro Butterman was very committed to achieving the rich and full sound that Hanson demands from the orchestra. Before the performance of this work began, Butterman said that in some respects, this Symphony was similar to a movie theme waiting for the movie to come along, and compared it to the writing of John Williams, who has written so many movie scores. While I can certainly understand Maestro Butterman’s point, I do think that Howard Hanson is a better musician and composer, and I assure you, I do not wish to take anything away from John Williams’ ability.
The third movement of this symphony seems to have a few references to Stravinsky in it, with its ostinato and strong percussion. The lush melody, which makes this symphony cyclical, returns and ends the symphony by refreshing everyone’s ear. The string section, the cellos in particular, were most noticeable in their warm tone and provided a genuine sense of reconciliation at the end of the work. The performance of Howard Hanson’s Symphony Nr. 2 on this program was a genuine surprise, and provided a wonderful contrast with the other works on the program. Hanson may not be ensconced on Mount Parnassus at the same level as Beethoven or Mahler or Bruckner, but he is a composer that deserves a position there, and also deserves to be heard on a more regular basis.
After the intermission, the pianist, Benjamin Hochman, joined the orchestra and performed Ravel’s Piano Concerto in G Major.
I will quote from the bio statement on his website:
“Born in Jerusalem, Benjamin Hochman began his studies with Esther Narkiss at the Conservatory of the Rubin Academy in Jerusalem and Emanuel Krasovsky in Tel Aviv. He is a graduate of the Curtis Institute of Music and the Mannes College of Music where his principal teachers were Claude Frank and Richard Goode. Mr. Hochman’s studies were supported by the America-Israel Cultural Foundation and he is an Associate Professor of Piano at East Carolina University. Benjamin Hochman is a Steinway Artist and lives in New York City with his wife, violinist Jennifer Koh.
“Winner of 2011’s prestigious Avery Fisher Career Grant, Pianist Benjamin Hochman has achieved widespread acclaim for his effortless and thoughtful performances as an accomplished orchestral soloist, recitalist and chamber musician. After his successful recital debut at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, he became a strong musical presence in New York through his concerts with the New York Philharmonic and the American Symphony Orchestra, his Carnegie Hall debut with the Israel Philharmonic and appearances at the 92nd Street Y. Mr. Hochman has performed with the Chicago, Pittsburgh, American, Cincinnati. Houston Symphony and Istanbul State Orchestras, the Seattle, San Francisco, Vancouver, New Jersey and Portland Symphonies, the New York String Orchestra, Prague Philharmonia and the National Arts Centre Orchestra in Canada under eminent conductors such as Kazuyoshi Akiyama, Leon Botstein, Nir Kabaretti, Jaime Laredo, Jun Märkl, Daniel Meyer, Arthur Post, Lucas Richman, Bramwell Tovey, Kaspar Zehnder and Pinchas Zukerman. He has appeared in his native Israel with the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra, Tel Aviv Soloists, the Raanana and Jerusalem Symphonies, and has joined conductor Pinchas Zukerman and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in a Mozart Piano Concerto project with Hubbard Street Dance Chicago.
“Past festival highlights include Ravinia, Caramoor, Marlboro, Santa Fe, Bard, Bridgehampton, Gilmore, Vail, An Appalachian Summer and Vancouver in North America, as well as international festivals such as Lucerne, Spoleto, Verbier, Ruhr, and Prussia Cove. Mr. Hochman has performed internationally at such major halls as the Concertgebouw, the Louvre, Tivoli Theatre, l’Auditori de Barcelona, Suntory Hall in Tokyo and Kumho Art Hall in Seoul. A masterful collaborator, Benjamin Hochman has worked with the Tokyo, Mendelssohn, Casals, Prazak and Daedalus Quartets, the Zukerman ChamberPlayers, members of the Guarneri and Orion Quartets, Miklós Perényi, Ralph Kirshbaum, Jaime Laredo, Sharon Robinson, Cho-Liang Lin and Ani Kavafian. As a dedicated advocate for contemporary music, he has performed works by Kurtág, Carter, Lutoslowski, and Andriessen, and has worked closely with such notable composers as Krzysztof Penderecki, Philippe Hurel, Osvaldo Golijov and Tania Leon, among others.”
After hearing Benjamin Hochman perform the Ravel, it should be obvious to anyone in the audience that all of us heard a world-class pianist. What was so startling about his performance was the ease with which he played. In order to be accurate, which he was, and in order to shape the phrases the way the composer wishes at the tempo the composer demands, one has to be totally relaxed physically and mentally. Every performer, whether a violinist, a singer, or a pianist, becomes nervous immediately before they enter the stage. But, after they begin to perform, and after the first few measures of the piece, they must know it so well mentally, and be so competent physically, that they can relax and enjoy making the music. You must understand, that the reason one becomes a performing artist, is because there is joy in it, and so many people who are not performing musicians seem to miss this point. Benjamin Hochman is one of the most relaxed pianists that I have seen in several years. He was totally at ease and able to concentrate totally on the job that he enjoys so much. He plays so unbelievably well, there is no need to make the extravagant motions that some pianists make, as if they are saying, “Look how I lifted my hand from the keyboard. Isn’t that terribly expressive and indicative of my great sensitivity?” Hochman simply sits down at the piano, and through the music, shows us what a remarkable artist he is and how remarkable the music is.
His reliable musicianship (And even that seems silly to say. If he was not reliable, he wouldn’t be where he is) obviously made it much easier for Maestro Butterman to make music as well, and I was under the distinct impression that they truly enjoyed working together. And of course every performance is much easier if there is mutual respect.
The tempos taken were absolutely perfect: full of energy and drive. Ravel often said that the piano was his favorite instrument and it certainly shows in this composition, for he uses the piano’s expressive ability to the fullest potential. In addition, the orchestration of the piece, which is remarkable, supports everything that the piano executes. But it was Hochman’s relaxation that made his performance look so easy and sound so absolutely marvelous. His hands and arms never once became rigid or tense, and mentally, he was absolutely beyond compare.
I hope there were some aspiring pianists in the audience who could recognize why his playing is so artistically perfect. It will certainly give them something to strive for, and at the same time, give them the awareness that their goal is entirely realistic.
Following the Ravel, the Boulder Philharmonic Orchestra performed George Gershwin’s American in Paris. For whatever reason, when I was an undergraduate student (and that was in the late 50s and early 60s), no one seemed to understand that Ravel and Gershwin knew each other, even though it was admitted that they influenced each other a great deal. Everyone expressed the knowledge that they had their pictures taken together, but scholars always said that they never really met. I studied with a man, Walter Bricht, who was a close friend of Ravel’s, and he told me that he saw Gershwin at Ravel’s house. I wrote about that and posted the article on April 6, 2011. If you just go to the archives listed the left-hand side of this page and click on April 2011, you can find the article. At any rate, it was a great relief to hear Maestro Butterman state that they certainly did know each other, and that they compared each other’s scores, for there is much more in their compositions than just casual influence.
American in Paris needs no introduction whatsoever, and really, George Gershwin doesn’t either. But I will say that George Gershwin still remains a remarkably underrated composer. The performance of this remarkable tone poem, and it is a tone poem because it was inspired by extra-musical considerations, was absolutely marvelous. Yes, there is much American jazz influence in this work as well, with its 9th, 11th, and 13th chords, but Gershwin also said, that aside from the Ravel influence, that he was also inspired by Claude Debussy. But I must say, that if Paris is known by its nickname, The City of Lights, then this performance certainly reflected that image.
The performance of the Boulder Philharmonic Orchestra, and the performance of Benjamin Hochman, plus the ability of the Boulder Phil to invite such an artist, underscores a fact that needs to be clearly stated: the State of Colorado has two major orchestras: the Colorado Symphony Orchestra in Denver, and the Boulder Philharmonic Orchestra.
Filed under: Reviews | Tags: César Franck, Christina Jennings, Debussy, Erica Eckert, frank bridge, Lina Bahn, Margaret Soper Gutierrez, Matthew Dane, Mozart, Peak Performances Chamber Series, Ravel, Silver Ainomäe, Thomas Heinrich
Saturday evening, January 14, the Peak Performances Chamber Series performed again at the Saint Andrews Episcopal Church on Glenarm Place. As I have said before, this is an absolutely marvelous venue for chamber music – it is large enough for a decent sized audience, and yet, the surroundings are quite intimate, and the acoustics are excellent.
Matthew Dane and Christina Jennings founded the Peak Performances Chamber Series, and in this, their second performance, the ensemble performed two string sextets. Because of that, we did not get to hear Christina Jennings, who is a flautist, but she will perform next weekend, Saturday, January 21, at Augustana Lutheran Church with guitarist Jonathan Leathwood.
The musicians in Saturday’s performance were founder and violist, Matthew Dane; Lina Bahn, violin; Margaret Soper Gutierrez, violin; Erica Eckert, viola; Silver Ainomäe, cello; and Thomas Heinrich, cello. Of the two sextets that were performed, the first was an arrangement of Mozart’s Sinfonia Concertante, K. 364, and the second was the Sextet in E flat Major, by English composer Frank Bridge.
The Mozart was first on the program, and I wish that the German–American musicologist, Alfred Einstein, could have heard it. He often said that he thought the most perfect work ever written was Mozart’s Eine kleine Nachtmusik. I think he would have been amazed if he could have heard the performance Saturday evening. Yes, it was an arrangement, but it was enormously well done, and had I not known it was an arrangement, it would have been very easy to believe that that was the original form of the work. Alfred Einstein was certainly aware, I’m sure, that there was an arrangement of Mozart’s Sinfonia Concertante. Please do not confuse Alfred Einstein with the physicist, Albert Einstein, which is done quite often. As a matter of fact, if you Google Alfred Einstein, you will get pictures of Albert Einstein with Alfred’s name above them. At any rate, Alfred Einstein was a Mozart scholar, and in 1936, published the first major revision of the Köchel Thematic Catalogue of Mozart’s Works. Aside from that monumental task, and writing several books on the history of music, he did spend part of his life demonstrating that he was not related to the physicist Albert Einstein.
As stated above, the individual who arranged the Mozart for string sextet is unknown, but it certainly preserves the expansiveness and the warmness of the original version. It was also quite wonderful watching the performance Saturday night, because once again, Dane and Jennings have put together an ensemble that was matched in ability and in enthusiasm. It was a spellbinding performance that began with an absolutely enormous sound and was very authoritative, and I assure you that this arrangement was full and rich. There was some marvelous divisi writing between each of the cellos and each of the violas that produced the most remarkable textures. I am sure that those in the audience who were familiar with the original K. 364, had a moment of epiphany when the B theme of the first movement was played. As the (well-written) program notes stated, it is quite easy to have the feeling as this piece is performed, that one is hearing something new, and yet, something very familiar.
The second movement was sheer bliss. Lina Bahn obtains an incredibly sweet sound from her violin, and it was complemented by the full richness of the two cellos. The second movement was technically perfect by all six members of the sextet: their dynamics were absolutely superb individually, and as a group. Again, I was struck by the ability of Matthew Dane and putting together such a remarkable ensemble.
The musicians gave the third movement the typical Mozart ambiance of playfulness. This work was written on the cusp of a period of time where the Viennese public was beginning to think that Mozart’s music was too dense and difficult to understand. Yes, there are some dense textures in the third movement, but it is not quite as dense as the first movement, particularly when one takes into consideration that Mozart almost always provided music theorists with two hundred years’ worth of problems upon which to write dissertations. This is a beautiful piece, and these musicians gave it an absolutely wonderful performance. They played with great enthusiasm for what they were doing, and they were so astoundingly skilled at playing their instruments, and so musical, that they actually had time to acknowledge the joy they felt by smiling to each other.
It is always refreshing, I think, when a group of musicians performs a composer that is not heard frequently. And, I might add, frequently enough. I also admit that even though I am familiar with the composer, this was the first time I have ever heard this particular work. I am speaking about the Sextet in E flat Major by English composer, Frank Bridge, which the Peak Performances Chamber Series performed Saturday afternoon.
Frank Bridge (1878-1941) was from Brighton, England, and he won a scholarship to the Royal College of Music where he proceeded to lead an almost Renaissance in the composition of English music. And, likewise with his fellow students Ralph Vaughn Williams, John Ireland, and Gustav Holst. He also became a prominent violist and conductor, even though composition remained his major interest. Throughout the course of his life, his works changed from almost Brahms-ian romanticism to works which embraced the world of Alban Berg, Webern, and Schoenberg. Certainly, these three composers from the Second Viennese School proved to be quite radical for the English audience, and I don’t know if it was because of that, but, after he died in 1941, his works received few performances.
The sextet that was performed was written between 1906 and 1912. It is a remarkably lush piece, and shows far more influence than the above mentioned Brahms-ian style romanticism. It shows much influence, harmonically, from the French Impressionists, Debussy and Ravel, in addition to influence from Debussy’s teacher, César Franck. Truly, it was much more French than English. It was full of deceptive resolutions, and made much use of common tones in order to affect the resolution. For example, a G sharp might be rewritten as an A flat, thus changing the destination of the chord. The opening movement was incredibly lush and full of tension, and its darkness reminded me very much of the first movement of Franck’s formidable Piano Quintet in F minor in that respect. But there were many instances where the influence of Debussy and Ravel were unmistakable. This led me to wonder why scholars don’t refer to Bridge as an Impressionist composer, rather than, simply, a romantic composer.
Of course, the really important consideration about Saturday’s performance is the performance itself. And, it was lush, it was passionate, and it was full of tension. This was such a successful performance of such a beautiful piece, that I am puzzled about the lack of performances, not only of this piece, but of the music of Frank Bridge. I am absolutely convinced that if the public at large was aware of this composer, he would be performed considerably more often.
I can assure you with all enthusiasm and confidence, that the Peak Performances Chamber Series is composed, not just of consummate musicians, but of consummate artists, and I mean that with all sincerity. These performers (and performances) are absolutely stellar. They’re the kind of performers that one would hear in any major venue in the world. It gives me great pleasure to encourage all of you readers to attend these performances. I also encourage you to go back to the first three paragraphs of this article. Read the names of these musicians and remember them.
I know that you will run across their names again and again, for they represent what music is all about.