Tag Archives: Beethoven

Arts

Scene&Heard: LexPhil’s “Simplicity”

Live performance in any genre is a daunting challenge; for music, it may be particularly so, given the small idiosyncrasies of a hundred different categories that can produce massive differences in the audio quality of a performance. In their latest concert, titled Simplicity, the Lexington Philharmonic demonstrated their dedication to their craft, a dedication that is substantially devoted to executing each moment of music so precisely that small idiosyncrasies are banished from the concert hall. The result was an enjoyable, if not ecstatic, evening of music.

Maestro Scott Terrell made the somewhat unorthodox decision to start the evening with Beethoven’s Fourth Symphony (Beethoven is usually held in reserve for the final piece of most concerts, the idea being that the audience will be suitably wowed by the greatest of the composers just as they leave). Terrell, in his pre-concert talkback, noted that the Fourth Symphony is often overlooked, sandwiched as it is between the legendary Third and Fifth Symphonies (the Third being the Eroica, and the Fifth–well, the Fifth has that opening theme, “da-da-da-dum”). Terrell notes that it shows off a lighter side of Beethoven the composer.

As the symphony went on, I found myself focusing on individual performers: the violinist with a bright blue chin cloth, contrasting with the black and white uniform of the orchestra. There was the timpanist, highlighted standing against a deep red rear curtain. I noticed a violinist whose feet never touched the ground when she played. I was drawn back to the characteristic touch of the maestro, who likes to accentuate big strings hits with a magisterial point down in his left hand, arm fully extended like a steel beam, tilted forty-five degrees towards the floor from the shoulder.

There were without question some excellent moments throughout the performance. The moody opening, a low and rumbling B flat that left me looking around the stage in some wonder and not a little bit of anxiety. Immediately following was the first violin entrance, where the high strings give a direction and a sense of purpose to the moody ambiance. Towards the middle of the piece, the orchestra dropped away for the entrance of a solo clarinet, presaged by a rolling horn that stops and sustains a note; the clarinet entered on the same note, and the horn faded away, leaving a woody sound, in turn giving way to a clarinet melody floated over pizzicato strings towards the ears of the audience.

My favorite flourish, though, was an exchange between the violins and the timpani. The strings marked out a quick one-two pattern, answered by the timpani, uncharacteristically for the instrument but delightful nonetheless, rattling and rasping a reply.

Though less performed, the Fourth is certainly Beethoven, wide-ranging and expressive, and at times lyrical; Terrell is right that this is a lighter Beethoven than the brooding image conveyed by the Fifth Symphony or Appassionata Piano Sonata. The Philharmonic was finely tuned and gave a demonstration of the craft that’s required to even attempt a major symphony. But for this performance, though professional and enjoyable, the Philharmonic didn’t quite break above the clouds and reach the mountainous peaks of the truly memorable.

Following a brief intermission, the Philharmonic returned with their soloist for the evening. Mezzo-soprano Sofia Selowsky, a young and upcoming talent in the opera world, was to give her premiere performance of a modern American work, Dominick Argento’s song cycle Casa Guidi.

Sofia Selowsky | Photo by Simon Pauly Photography

Argento, who spent a good deal of time in Florence, where Elizabeth Barrett Browning spent most of her married life, wrote this song cycle to express his deep connection to the city, and to the poet.

The composer, now 90, explained this connection to Maestro Terrell in an email, excerpts of which Terrel, in turn, read to the audience before the performance. Argento, whom Terrell calls “extremely sincere in his music-making,” taught Terrell, and the two were later colleagues at the Minnesota Orchestra.

Maestro Terrell chose Ms. Selowsky,  a “consummate artist,” in his view, to perform with the Lexington Philharmonic after working with her at the Aspen festival.

Ms. Selowsky is obviously a dedicated professional as well as an empathetic artist. Speaking of Argento’s composing technique, she was quick to note that the music “fits the voice and fits the language in a really beautiful way.” She has an obvious affection for the piece, despite the fact that she had only recently learned it.

Ms. Selowsky, unfortunately, struggled somewhat in working with the orchestra. Throughout the cycle, but in the first two songs especially, the orchestra tended to overwhelm her voice. This made the whole form of the piece somewhat indistinct.

The third movement, however, with a quieter orchestra, permitted Selowsky to shine. She had a clear affinity for the quieter moments in the piece; as she told me in a pre-concert interview, the quality that drew her to this piece is that “the poetry is so intimate, even when you have a whole orchestra behind you.”

That expressive feeling eventually came through, as Ms. Selowsky leaned on some clearly well-developed dramatic chops, as well as an open and clear mezzo voice.

The fourth song was expressive and moving— a high and scratchy scoring in the violins lent a haunting and disquieting air about it, appropriate to a text that dealt with the pain of Barrett Browning’s estrangement from her father.

Sadly, the fifth and final song suffered from the same balance problem as the first two songs— when the orchestra shone, it easily eclipsed the soloist, whose voice couldn’t soar over the instrumentalists.

Sofia Selowsky in rehearsal with the Lexington Philharmonic

After a mixed performance of a modern piece, the concert ended on its strongest note, with a delectable performance of the Prokofiev Classical Symphony. The Philharmonic delivered it like a cupcake: perfectly fun, light and airy, with lots of sugary frosting on the top. Prokofiev has written some challenging and complex music— his Classical Symphony is neither. An example: the end of the third movement includes a cheeky button that elicited a soft chuckle from the audience. Prokofiev wrote a straightforward homage to the by-then bygone era of Haydn and Mozart, and it demands a disciplined touch to create the pleasant effect.

The Philharmonic’s craft and clarity of playing were remarkably well-served by the final piece. The opening movement was a light romp, a perfect palate-cleanser to start off the final piece of the evening. The slow second movement was a chance for the orchestra to display its lyricism and soulful spirit, and an easygoing melodious feeling filled the hall. A gavotte, a kind of moderately quick two-step, gradually turned up the heat in the third movement. With a breakneck dash to the finish line in the fourth movement, resting almost entirely on the nonstop violins, the Philharmonic finished the evening with a lovely send off for the audience.

The evening was not an unequivocal triumph. Throughout the performance, however, the Philharmonic played with a consistently high standard of quality, and there were plenty of moments where every element congealed into a flash of euphoria.

Even with its flaws, the Philharmonic remains an excellent orchestra always worth a 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.

Arts

Phyne Art: UnderMain’s Sebastian chats with Brian Greene

Physicist Brian Greene

Physicist Brian Greene

The Lexington Philharmonic recently presented Heroes: Eroica and Icarus in the orchestra’s Lexington Opera House debut. UnderMain music writer Charles Sebastian chatted with renowned physicist Brian Greene who conceived this modern retelling of the Greek myth of Icarus, replacing the sun of the original with a black hole in space.

First, some background: Eroica or Heroic Symphony was composed in 1804 and originally dedicated to Napoleon Bonaparte, though Beethoven later changed his mind. Longer and more richly textured than contemporary symphonic works of its day, the Eroica stands as a breakaway from the classical forms that preceded it. LexPhil conductor Scott Terrell contends that it is for this reason the symphony makes good sense adjacent to the Philip Glass score for Icarus on the Edge of Time.

The novella of Icarus was published in 2008 and sets the well-known story in space with images from the Hubble Space Telescope. The Philip Glass score was commissioned by the World Science Festival in New York, the brainchild of Greene. It has developed a great deal of momentum since its inaugural year in 2008. The film accompanying Icarus was created by surrealist filmmakers Al and Al, with a narrative by Brian Greene and playwright David Henry Hwang, who is perhaps best known for his award-winning play, M. Butterfly. In the Lexington performance, Kentucky Poet Laureate Frank X Walker will provide the narrative.

Here’s Sebastian’s conversation with Dr. Greene, speaking from his office in New York City:

What was the germ of Icarus? The one thing that let you know this was the story?

“The Greek myth had fascinated me since childhood, but the deeper piece is about being willing to go against the norm. Being willing to break out of the box with science or with anything is essential to progress and these are the things that create a whole new world. Science is a great story of adventure.”

Why use the media of film and music for science?

“Melding film and music with these scientific ideas I feel teaches science in a deeper way. The recognition of how science affects our daily lives is essential to the quality of our lives and our knowledge of the world around us and ourselves.”

You’re known mainly for your scientific writings. Are you still teaching?

“Oh yes! I maintain my position at Columbia University as a professor of mathematics and physics and I have my graduate students. Writing was a hobby that took off. It makes for a busy schedule. Then there is the World Science Festival, started by me and my wife.”

What role, if any, does education play in Icarus?

“Icarus fits with the general perspective in all my books, which is that they must make science penetrating. The language of science is math and many people have to have it translated. The ideas of science can be big and hard to fathom, and no one wants to feel stupid. By educating through the arts, these ideas are more accessible to most people.”

Was this your first time working with Philip Glass?

“Yes. I didn’t know what to expect. We met on a panel some time ago, he probably doesn’t remember it, but I do, because it happened to be where I met my wife. I sent him a story after the discussion. That was ten years ago.”

That sounds memorable. What was the collaboration with Glass like?

“Highly collaborative. He really wanted to understand the science behind Icarus. He asked me down to his studio one night around 11 o’clock. He was trying to understand how a black hole functions; he was very thorough with his questions and stayed open to my thoughts. Fortunately, we live in the same city, so it was a quick trip to his place.”

Whose decision was it to bring David Henry Hwang into the project?

“Glass’s. He had used Hwang on many previous projects as a librettist and felt it would add to the overall impact if he had a role in the writing.

How many times has Icarus been performed at this point?

“The Lexington performance is around 25. It’s been around the world in places as exotic as Malta.”

Had you delved into theatre or film prior to this?

“Yes. I developed another show that ran for three performances called Spooky Action, which deals with the concept of quantum entanglement. It premiered at the World Science Festival here in New York.”

What is the main ingredient for Icarus that you feel has made it a popular piece?

“I believe it works on so many different levels. Boys and men like it because it is a hero adventure, but then there is the science that goes along with it, that makes it different than the myth from which it’s borrowed.”

It’s obvious in this case that science is affecting the arts. Do you feel your piece somehow affects science, in reverse order?

“It’s a two-way street. Icarus may open up more avenues in art and it might dovetail back into science and somehow affect processes within it. It’s hard to say, but I would like to think that would be the case.”

How do you find working in collaboration?

“It’s one of the things that most excites me: working in new forms with others. I can spread my own wings in ways that are challenging and new.”

Will we hear more about Icarus?

“A sequel is planned, hopefully to coincide with the 100th anniversary of General Relativity.”

Arts, Entertainment, Music

Thinking outside of the chamber

Richard Young was in the thick of it, hunched over a cellphone at the bar in Natasha’s. The news was challenging.

With only three weeks until “showtime,” the director of the Chamber Music Festival of Lexington had suddenly found himself not only in search of an essential Steinway Concert Grand piano, but after getting word of complications with the original plan, also attempting to find accommodations for the festival’s five-member Ensemble-in-Residence

As it turns out, each dilemma has been resolved. More on that a bit further down the page.

But these crises did serve to remind that the business of organizing and overseeing a ten-day music festival not of the rock, folk or country variety, but instead focused on chamber music in 2014 is not for the faint at heart and certainly requires a tolerance for change.

“This is about something that is quite old,” Young observed. “I mean – it’s about chamber music. While it can be and often is a very progressive art form, most people know it as Mozart, Haydn or Beethoven quartets, that sort of thing.”

Now in its eighth year, Young’s fourth as director, the festival gets underway on the evening of Thursday, August 14 with a free public concert by WindSync – the aforementioned Ensemble-in-Residence – with beer and barbecue on the lawn of Loudon House, home of the Lexington Art League.

And you can read plenty into the selection of this particular group and that particular opening night format. The message? You don’t necessarily have to be a classical music aficionado to find something interesting, perhaps amazing in the performances slated for locations in and around Lexington between the 14th and 24th of August.

While the young, energetic Houston-based ensemble will offer its own performances in various more casual settings around town, the group also will integrate with the festival’s traditional concerts in the formal setting of the Fasig-Tipton Pavilion.

“After we brought Richard Young aboard as festival director, we had numerous board discussions about bringing our product—chamber music—to the community in a casual manner. And we did so with the enthusiastic endorsement of our board,” said Charles Stone, founding chairman of the festival board. “What sets our festival apart in our mind is our cutting edge presentation and programming. And what we look to do soon after we finish one year’s series is imagine how we can make it newer, bolder the next time,” Stone continued, describing a governing body willing to take risks by supporting new approaches to presenting chamber music to a Lexington audience “We are comfortable to embrace a room full of new ideas.”

Under the direction of Young, a 2011 graduate of the Cincinnati College Conservatory of Music (Double bass), programming has steadily progressed and expanded.

In 2012, two years into his tenure as director, he experimented with staging surprise chamber music performances around the city several weeks prior to the opening of the festival.

These “pop-up” performances are now a staple. And there is method in this madness.

“Chamber music is such a niche thing. You like it, you hate it, or you don’t know about it. I think one of the main reasons it doesn’t have a broad audience is its exposure,” Young said. “You say ‘classical music’ and people think of either opera or symphonies. I don’t think a lot of people think of chamber music because it just doesn’t have a lot of exposure. It’s very hard to passively gain a new audience. The pop-ups are very intentional, targeted, focused. We see pop-ups as our way to do that.”

The street-performances have given the festival something of a gritty edge. Young recalled one pop-up concert in 2013 at the corner of North Limestone and Loudon. “People brought out old couches; everyone just sitting out on the street corner listening to chamber music and drinking beer in the middle of the afternoon. Cars going by, people walking up asking ‘what’re you doing?’ Experiments like that have left us with this Yin and Yang – weird, pop-up, gritty non-traditional things and then very formal, super high quality innovative programmed concerts in a hall that is perfect for chamber music.”

Innovation has been a consistent thread since the festival’s founding in 2007 by Stone and Lexington native Nathan Cole, now first associate concertmaster with the Los Angeles Philharmonic and artistic director of the Lexington festival. For example, Lexington’s is the only chamber music festival that commissions a new piece of music every year, according to Young.

“This year’s programming is more new music than old music,” Young said. “It’s very progressive.” In addition to a menu of compositions by lesser-known artists, “We’re playing a piece by Jeff Beal, composer of the themes of the Netflix series House of Cards and HBO’s Carnivale and Rome.”

Guest Artists for 2014 include Composer-in-Residence Adam Schoenberg, harpist Allegra Lilly, and soprano Karen Slack. Returning artists include pianist Alessio Bax, violinist Akiko Tarumoto, cellist Priscilla Lee and Burchard Tang, viola.

Plans call for the more casual events to include the free WindSync concert at Loudon House, a limited-seating brunch at Greentree Tearoom featuring WindSync, and a “laid back” concert by various festival artists at Natasha’s Bar & Bistro.

You can see evidence of this merger of traditional and progressive in a revised festival schedule. “Instead of this being just Friday, Saturday and Sunday concerts out at Fasig-Tipton, we’re doing Wednesday, Friday, Sunday – really pulling it apart so if you come to Lexington to come to the festival, no matter when you come there is something going on,” Young said. “We’ll have a public event every day.”

A first this year will be a lunchtime coffeehouse conversation at Common Grounds on High Street in downtown Lexington featuring composer-in-residence Schoenberg as well as other festival artists.

And there is a place for visual art in the scope of the event’s offerings. The “automata” sculpture of Lexington artist Steve Armstrong was commissioned to be auctioned in support of the festival’s future.

“That the board is so bought-in to trying new things, whether it be commissioning new music every year, commissioning a piece of visual art every year, to doing these very odd programming decisions like playing on the corner of Lime and Loudon, a spot that most people would not associate with chamber music, is incredibly helpful,” Young said. “They have been very open to letting artistic director Nathan Cole, board president Charlie Stone and me try and do something really new and exciting. If something goes wrong, it’s not going to destroy the organization. We just won’t do that next year.”

There have been a few clunkers. Master classes were not well-attended. Open rehearsals were tried. But while perhaps interesting in concept, in practice it just didn’t work. “They’re trying to rehearse, and you can’t hear them talking, so it was sort of awkward,” Young observed.

The open rehearsals have evolved into the Cabaret Concert scheduled for August 21 at Natasha’s. “It’s not as formal. You can sit and have drinks, eat and listen to some amazing music. If I were going to pick my ideal setting for listening to chamber music,” Young said, “that would be it.”

A new addition to the program is an Ensemble-in-Residence retreat with the North Limestone MusicWorks program.

Shaping programming – extending it beyond the formal and inherently rigid confines of the concert hall – to a younger, more casual audience in more accessible, less costly venues is, in Young’s view, essential to the survival of a genre that he believes is afflicted by “self-image crises.”

“I mean, the Philadelphia Orchestra went bankrupt. The Philadelphia Orchestra went bankrupt,” he repeated for emphasis. “That should be a wake up call to anyone that you need to think about what you’re doing.”

In arguing that interest in classical music is, in fact, not in decline where new things are tried, Young cited steady annual growth in audiences turning out for Lexington Philharmonic concerts and the Chamber Music Festival. “I think quite the opposite. I think it’s growing. More people are getting interested. Cincinnati Symphony, for example, does this great show, Lumenosity in the middle of the park right in front of Music Hall and if you saw a picture of it you would be flabbergasted. It’s a sea of probably 5,000 people. I think audiences diminish only if you become complacent.”

I asked Richard Young to talk to me about the music itself, in the context of the unstable, troubled world in which we live today. An opportunity to escape for a little while? Or to better connect with reality?

“Chamber music has a very strong ability to allow you to escape, but also to focus on some of these things that are happening. There is a great piece, Quartet for the End of Time (Oliver Messiaen, 1941) that we played two years ago that was written in a WW II prisoner of war camp. It doesn’t get more powerful than that. There is another, On the Transmigration of Souls (John Adams 2002) composed in tribute to those who died in the 9/11 terrorist attacks. So yes, it has the power to distract, but I think it also has the power to take those issues, embrace them, look at them and give people a new way to experience and to think about them.”

Chamber music pokes at the emotions, Young said. “If you dig down and listen to it, it ranges all the way from really, really funny to really, really depressing. I think you can experience chamber music on multiple levels.”

Watching music performed on a more intimate scale can be as entertaining as listening, he noted. “If you have a great chamber music group, just watching them interacting with each other is something you’re less likely to get in the symphony hall.”

Ensemble-in-Residence WindSync, he noted, plays completely without music. “It’s engaging to watch a two-hour program played from memory by people who have played it a thousand times and know what to expect from each other and when to interact. And when you watch them communicate with each other without talking you can really see the power of chamber music.”

Oh, and as promised: Transylvania University stepped forward to provide accommodations for the five members of WindSync. And a 9-foot Steinway Concert Grand was secured from a generous Cincinnatian.

All is well as August 14th approaches.

Photo courtesy of Mary Rezny