Tag Archives: Bach

Arts

Scene&Heard: Four Seasons, Many Moods

The first sight that greets you when entering the Lyric Theatre is a wall of local art. Immediately, this wall serves to situate you: you are not here for only a show, or a concert, or an exhibition or a community gathering. Instead, this wall seems to emphasize that every single piece of art that takes place inside this building is part of a larger context of local artistry and engagement between artists and what political theorists call civic society—those people and organizations that go out of their way to build a sense of community.

The Lexington Chamber Orchestra, which performed in a matinee at the Lyric, is exactly that sort of organization, They are, first and foremost, a community ensemble, drawing their onstage talent from the Lexington community. And in return, that community supports them. Though admittance to the Chamber Orchestra’s performances is free, most everyone I entered with donated to support the orchestra.

The program, mostly lighter fare, was titled Four Seasons, and seemed to welcome back audience for the first performance of the New Year. While Jan Pellant, the Music Director of the Chamber Orchestra, had only programmed three pieces, each contained an internal variety that allowed the ensemble to move through a wider range of moods than a quick glance at the program might suggest.

Maestro Jan Pallent | Courtesy Lexington Chamber Orchestra

The concert began with 4 selections from J. S. Bach’s Die Kunst der Fuge. Translated, the title simply means ‘The Art of the Fugue,’ and Bach had under this title written an entire course’s worth of demonstration and model of the fugue form.

From a compositional perspective, a proper fugue is a difficult thing to do well—a fugue is a series of rhythmically and harmonically interlocking musical phrases in which each phrase could, in theory, function as a predominant melody. Holding together that level of complexity is a tricky task for any composer, but Bach was the undisputed master of the form. He wrote Die Kunst der Fuge towards the end of his life, and left no indication of what instruments were to perform the piece, how fast or how loudly they were to play it, or even whether he even considered the piece to be properly finished.

All of this ambiguity could be considered a challenging task for any conductor. But, as Pellant points out in his program notes, “these points give the artists opportunities to create uniqueness based on personal creativity” as well.

In performance, Pellant gave the score a respectable shakedown, imbuing variety to the orchestration and performance choices. The first movement, light and quick, was an excellent demonstration that the Chamber Orchestra knows how to balance a technically complicated piece to both demonstrate each individual element and create a unified whole— not an easy thing to accomplish with Bach, who can sometimes feel like a lecture from your math professor on the numerical properties of pi. The second movement elaborated on the technical distinction of the first.

The third movement was a real highlight that emphasized the ensemble’s harmonic balance, and the low voices thrummed away at the base of chords that are passed through the upper three voices in a rhythmically steady pulse that unwinds through the ensemble.

The final movement continued this rhythmic development, rolling through the ensemble like a well-built clock.

The most fascinating aspect of a good Bach performance is that it’s both utterly predictable, in that you can usually make a pretty good guess as to where he’s headed in terms of rhythm, melody, harmony, and the overall structure of the piece, but the craftsmanship of each individual element is such that you don’t find yourself minding it all that much. Often, the best way to enjoy Bach is to let yourself sit back and enjoy the music as it presents yourself to you. This is especially true of his fugues, which unfold with an exacting mathematical precision. The real talent of the Chamber Orchestra lay in the clarity with which Pellant held each part strong to its own voice, maintaining the counterpoint without allowing it to dissolve into a multi-part mush of predictable harmonies.

The second piece was an excerpt of Mahler’s Symphony No. 5; the Chamber Orchestra performed the Adagietto section, which is one of Mahler’s most excerpted pieces. However, the Adagietto was nonetheless an interesting choice for such a tiny ensemble. The rich, almost overdeveloped late romantic chords of Mahler’s symphonies can tax even the large string sections of full-size orchestras, and for a smaller group, especially the intense layering of chords can be a challenge.

Here Pellant had to toss about his hands, one after the other, to each section, making a thousand tiny adjustments on the fly. His long, stentorian frame remained firmly planted in front of his score, but his left hand would flicker and shudder, always coaxing out more vibrato, more emotion, from the scraping bows.

The lights remained up in the audience throughout the performance, giving it a participatory feel for the listeners. The boxy design of the Lyric’s theater, in which the stage sits bluntly in front of the audience,  helped to collapse the distance between orchestra and audience, which diffused a great deal of the stuffiness that often invests classical performances.

The final piece came from the Argentine composer Astor Piazzolla. Taking his inspiration from Vivaldi’s famous (and famously overrated) Four Seasons Suite, Piazzolla wrote a set of four pieces for strings ensemble and solo violin that described the seasons of his native Buenos Aires. Mixing high-minded classicism with the rolling and rumbling rhythms of Latin dance music, Piazzolla wrote incredibly technically complicated pieces for string performers.

For the final piece, the Chamber Orchestra was joined by soloist Kyung Sun Lee, a violinist who has held teaching and performance positions at Oberlin College, the University of Houston, and Seoul National University (all schools with music departments of the highest order).

Kyung Sun Lee | Photo courtesy of the Lexington Chamber Orchestra

That training was pushed to a dramatic degree, as Piazzolla wrote a violin part that approached the technical complexity of Sibelius’ legendary Violin Concerto. Lee played with expressive sensitivity at the very highest end of her violin’s range, and her fingers danced through a score that included double stops, glissandi, and portamento demands far beyond even that normally asked of internationally acclaimed soloists.

The Chamber Orchestra kept up admirably with this furious pace. The rhythmic impulse was, throughout each movement, absolutely wonderful. Pellant kept the orchestra driving, clearly articulating complex syncopations that both held the beat aloft for a moment in midair but nonetheless returned it to the ground with a cadence even more propulsive than before.

The result was a powerful but lighthearted end to a concert that brought a feeling of generosity and welcome to the audience.

The Lexington Chamber Orchestra rang in their new year with a smile and a cheery wave of the hand, and Lexington’s 2018 is the better for it.

Arts

Scene&Heard: Elias Gross Keeps in Touch

The Friends Meeting House in Lexington is a simple, beautiful space; a quiet A-frame housing a room of sparse furnishings and amazing acoustics.  Elias Gross chose this space for a viola recital he created as a farewell before he leaves the musical community of Lexington to pursue a Master’s Degree in viola at the University of Delaware.  His friends and fellow musical colleagues gathered together in the peaceful space to celebrate the nine years Elias Gross has helped mold the musical community of Lexington.

Receiving his Bachelor’s in Arts Administration in Music at the University of Kentucky, Elias was denied the recital performance music majors usually have when they graduate.  So, he held his own. 

Each song in the program was prefaced with an explanation of its selection for this final Lexington recital, placing the music in a more personal context.

He began with Bach’s Prelude, Cello Suite No. 5 in C Minor, a sorrowful, mournful tune that conveyed the deep resonance only the viola can create.  His fingers moving deftly like hitting keys on a piano, the song filled that serene room with music that seemed quite fitting for the space.

Elias prefaced the second selection, Spell No. 7 by Alexsandra Vrevalov, with “It’s real weird, you’re gonna love it.” It was certainly weird, with intentional movement of the bow up and down the neck of the viola.  Elias creates a full, physical emoting as he plays, making even breathing seem so relevant for a piece played on strings.  His bow performs acrobatics as he moves between simple strokes to finger picking and to deep double string strokes that resonate around the room.

He then eased into a duet with Melissa Snow-Groves on piano, Meditation by Paul Hindemith, a short sweet harmony that they blended beautifully.  From there he added Richard Young on the upright bass. Together they played and sang Leonard Cohen’s Chelsea Hotel. This was followed by Tom Waits’ Ol ‘55 which Elias played and sang as a piano solo.

The trio came together once more and blended a variation on Pachabel’s Canon into Bob Dylan’s Don’t Think Twice.  They sang together with the tight harmony of a chorale, and Melissa kicked it up a beat to a near-rockabilly sound.

Elias then launched into his final solo, Keep in Touch by Nico Muhly – “another weird one,” he joked.  It was a very surreal song, and included electronic elements of a mostly tribal type beat that was played through a laptop and speaker supporting Elias on his viola. The experience was quite intense and transcendental, and seemed to take over his whole person as he played, as if he were channeling the composer in that moment.

According to the program notes, “Keep in Touch is a lament, a sort of chaconne divided up into sections by more freely-composed cadenzas for the viola. But the chaconne, a musical form based around a repeated cycle of chords, is not only the domain of composers like Bach and Purcell, one is as likely to hear the form on a Nina Simone record. And Antony Hegarty, the bluesily androgynous vocalist we hear in the electronic component of this piece, is a performer from the Simone school.”

Elias’ passion is to make the viola, and classical music more accessible to the community; to benefit everyone around him with all that classical music has to offer, and to make sure the music is always played. That came through clearly as the notes resonated around that wooden room with its asymmetrical window. 

In his recital program Elias quoted Zoë Madonna of Q2 Radio as noting: “Cast into the larger world, the viola is as a wanderer in an intimidatingly loud and large landscape, humming sometimes in concordance with the current, sometimes fighting against it.”

The viola is often overlooked for the flash and glory of the violins in an orchestra, or the commanding depths of the cello.  The pieces written for a viola solo take the deeper resonance of the instrument and put it out front, and often the result exemplifies the hidden space where the viola resides, and perhaps those who play it. It is a different path, often fighting for its own place in the quartet, or the orchestra.

Elias allowed himself to channel that message to his audience.  The overall effect in that tranquil space on Price Avenue was quite mesmerizing.

Elias has spent the last nine years in Lexington, not just receiving his Bachelor’s Degree in Arts Administration from UK, but also helping to expand the Central Music Academy as well as the Chamber Music Festival.  Central Music Academy provides free music lessons for children of low income, and has given over 20,000 free music lessons in its existence.

Elias taught viola and violin to kids, keeping a studio of five to seven students for several years. “I definitely could have benefitted from CMA as a kid”. He said teaching music to students is what helped him find his passion again, having let his playing of music “suffer” during his pursuit of an administrative degree. “Teaching was really what kind of got me to get my priorities back together…seeing what they demand of me…I can’t just be one thing, that’s just not who I am, but if I was able to spend a lot of my time teaching I would be really happy.”

He explains that he is drawn to teaching because he truly believes in the beauty and lessons that Classical music has to share with the world. 

Elias also is executive director of the Chamber Music Festival of Lexington which is about to share classical music with the city of Lexington for ten days.  Having expanded from one weekend to ten days, the Festival presents classical music in a variety venues to make it more accessible to the public.  Elias’ favorite piece of the whole, while he loves it all, is the Concert series that he moved to Al’s Bar after Natasha’s Bistro closed.

He believes that the world of Classical music has got to undo some of “these rules we’ve made ourselves” in order to bring the music out into the world and keep it alive. Different venues mean different crowds and a greater “marketing” of the music he loves, says the arts admin grad. “If we figure out how we can tear down our concert walls a little bit, and figure out who can be our allies in the music community that we could really tie it all together…I think that the stage is really important, but I think if the music is being heard and loved, then it really doesn’t matter where it is.”

Listen:

Arts

In Louisville, Abrams Challenges, Delights

If we’re relying on the younger generation to help boost interest in classical music, look no further than Teddy Abrams. The 28-year-old pianist, clarinetist, conductor and composer has just begun his second season as music director of the Louisville Orchestra and he’s brimming with ideas on what to do with Bach, Beethoven and music made today.

Click here for more of Abrams’ NPR Tiny Desk interview by Tom Huizenga.