in: Reviews

March 20, 2012

Insight, Understanding from Cortese with LSO


Music without cultural context is a meaningless exercise, especially when the music on the program cries for contextual description. The Longwood Symphony Orchestra made that abundantly clear at Jordan Hall on March 17th with its multifaceted presentation that combined music, philanthropy, and social consciousness. I would be remiss not to applaud the several aspects of this concert, at least briefly.

The LSO, first and foremost, is made up of musicians who are dedicated to their medical profession while keeping alive the musical fire within. I feel confident to say that both benefit enormously from their dual involvement. Not content to simply satisfy their personal needs, the group embarked on a special program in 1991, Healing Art of Music, to “use every concert to raise awareness and funds for nonprofit organizations that aid the medically underserved” in the greater Boston community. Since the inception of the program, nearly one million dollars have been raised.

This concert, however, was special; to mark the one-year anniversary of the earthquake and tsunami that laid waste to a major portion of the northeast Japanese coast, the LSO dedicated funds from this concert to the Japanese Disaster Relief Fund-Boston. To emphasize the importance of this aid, two young high school students were present to tell briefly of their family losses and to thank the LSO. Masahide Chiba and Sayaka Sugaware, speaking in English, were fine representatives, not only of Japan, but also for the resilience of the human community. One cannot help but be touched by such pre-concert proceedings.

Tsunenori “Lee” Abe, a now locally situated composer, was commissioned to write something special for the event. He was impressed with a poem by one of Japan’s most revered poets, Kenji Miyazawa, found following his death in 1933. Be Not Defeated by the Rain is estimated to be one of the most memorized modern poems in Japan.

Abe’s approximately nine-minute piece for string orchestra reflected the intensity of the poetry. Beginning with a Gregorian chant-like opening in the violins, it gathered momentum and intensity to the end, finally combining the opening material with a Japanese folk song. A new work needs more than one hearing to better appreciate its value. While I admire the effort, particularly the fine string writing, I remain unsure about the musical content. The intensity was its principal value and certainly held one’s attention. Perhaps unfairly, but compared to Barber’s Adagio for Strings, it is not quite up to that standard. The orchestra strings showed their finest legato qualities and was well balanced throughout the range.

There was much made of a controversy about Osvaldo Golijov’s Sidereus (relating to the stars), but I will take the composer’s words, as quoted in the Boston Globe, and simply to listen to the music. I found the nine-minute work interesting in several respects, although a second hearing might be beneficial after this performance as well. Golijov understands the orchestra thoroughly, and the use of color to enhance the composition’s expression was one of its strong points. The musical material was attractive at best and presented in different guise on at least four prominent occasions, although I felt the ending was rather abrupt. The woodwinds and brass sparkled in this selection, flutes, horns and trombones playing a prominent role. Several orchestras jointly commissioned Golijov in honor of Henry Fogel for his devotion to symphonies in America; this performance was one of the required presentations. The composer should be pleased with the LSO handling of his interesting and somewhat flashy work.

The showpiece of the evening came with guest pianist Gleb Ivanov, a Russian-trained musician, multiple prizewinner and protégé of Mstislav Rostropovich. Ivanov showed immense strength and agility in typical Lisztian pianistic demands of this composer’s Piano Concerto No. 1 in E-flat Major. It is in many ways a flamboyant bit of compositional dexterity, initially conceived by Liszt at the young age of 19 to showcase his performing talents. Revised some years later, it remains a showpiece, but a very enjoyable one at that.

Federico Cortese, guest conductor and one of those auditioning for the permanent position, held the orchestra under tight rein, keeping a unified demonstration of soloist and orchestra, which kept faith with the prodigious Ivanov and offered vibrant and exciting accompaniment.

After intermission, the concert closed with Beethoven’s Eroica, Symphony No. 3 in E-flat Major. The orchestra went all-out to show their artistry and agility and Cortese did his best to control the proceedings. The orchestra frequently played a bit behind his beat. He opted for faster tempos than I thought wise with this orchestra and that resulted in a lack of clarity in some passages. Intonation problems were minimal but occasionally marred passages. There were  a couple of clams in the brass as well as some balance problems between the winds and strings. In the context of judging orchestral capabilities, I am not being condescending when I say that the group cannot measure up to a fully professional standard, but their rehearsal time is also limited by comparison. Had many of these players chosen music careers instead of medicine, they no doubt would have qualified; the players were far above the average amateur group status. Their intensity was a valid approach to the program of markedly varied repertoire.

Having to adapt to a different conductor for each concert this season also provided a challenge to the group. Nevertheless, Cortese has a command of the symphonic medium and was able to offer an exciting evening of musical insight and understanding.

Anthony J. Palmer, presently a Visiting Scholar at Boston University, has a BA in vocal/choral studies and MA in composition from California State University, Los Angeles, and a Ph.D. from UCLA. He retired from college teaching in 1998.

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