in: Reviews

August 27, 2017

Starless Starless Night

by

Maurice Ravel (file photo)

Schenectady SO music director (and Glimmerglass Opera founding conductor) Charles Schneider answered the phone and stepped up for a trip to Woodstock last Saturday when Maverick Concerts music director Alexander Platt suddenly fell ill. Schneider went from cutting his grass to leading a concert of arrangements of Ravel and Mussorgsky and songs by Argento and Rorem.

Platt has recently become artistic director for music at the Westport Arts Center in Connecticut, but his main activity has been conducting. For a decade or so he has shown this talent every year at Maverick (chamber orchestra), but right after Friday night rehearsal he became sick, and the event was thrown into crisis. Frantic phone calls finally located a qualified conductor who was free. Schneider got to Woodstock in time to lead a 40-minute rehearsal, and the show went on.

The first item was an arrangement of Ravel’s Le Tombeau de Couperin by Wolfgang Renz, who made this arrangement and many others for a group from the Berlin Philharmonic. The Maverick ensemble of about a dozen essayed this without a formal conductor, although it was taking cues from the first violinist. (Alas, the program listed no personnel, so I can’t credit her brave work by name.)

Ravel himself arranged for orchestra four of the original six movements of this piano suite; Renz added the final Toccata, which Ravel obviously thought unarrangeable. The arrangement struck me as similar to the woodwind quintet version by Mason Jones (hornist of the Philadelphia Orchestra), which has been heard at Maverick in the distant past. Renz is fonder of the sound of the piccolo than I am. The added strings didn’t wind up adding much because, aside from the double bass, they were usually inaudible, perhaps a fault of the arrangement or lack of conductor. The ensemble played well under the circumstances. The bizarre idea of taking a couple of episodes of the Toccata at reduced tempo must have been Platt’s; I can’t imagine the players would have come up with it on their own. Anyway, it was  surprisingly successful. One discordant moment in “Rigaudon” was quickly corrected.

Soprano Maria Jette came all the way from Minnesota to sing its composer Dominick Argento’s Six Elizabethan Songs. With only a quintet of instrumentalists who coordinated well on their own, the set didn’t require a conductor either. Argento turns 90 this year and is noted as a vocal composer. He wrote these songs in 1958, but they could just as well have been written a half-century earlier. Yet they’re actually quite entertaining, even in the setting of the doggerel by Thomas Nashe. “Sleep,” setting of a poem by Samuel Daniel, was particularly lovely, but I enjoyed the entire set thoroughly. Argento has written lovely music here and even added a few Elizabethan-sounding melodic twists. Jette’s small, pretty voice was very well-suited to this music, and the hall, and the instrumentalists played beautifully.

Platt had decided to pay tribute to another American lyric master in this program, Ned Rorem, who turns 93 this year. I have been skeptical of Rorem’s music since I heard his setting of Theodore Roethke’s “My Papa’s Waltz” many years ago. It’s a poem about a little boy being terrorized by a drunken father, but Rorem set it as a little waltz, the most uncomprehending setting of a poem I’ve ever heard. When Rorem wrote his “After Reading Shakespeare” for Sharon Robinson, I bought her recording because I am such an admirer of her playing. But I found the music tedious and way overlong—26 minutes. So when I saw that the excellent cellist Emmanuel Feldman was going to play it, I wasn’t much looking forward. This is, of course, a clever way of extending the length of the concert without having to do more orchestral rehearsal.

Maria Jette (file photo)

Well, I tried. To appreciate it I listened closely enough that I was able to notice how cleverly Rorem has turned to his purpose many techniques and gestures from Kodály’s Sonata for Unaccompanied Cello without actual plagiarism. (Disclosure: the Kodály was made famous by my cousin Janos Starker.) But I still found the music tedious and uninspiring and full of repetition and I hope I never have to hear it again, not even with players as good as Feldman or Robinson.

I don’t think Mussorgsky’s monumental Pictures at an Exhibition ever had to be arranged for anything. In the hands of a great pianist like Sviatoslav Richter, the music makes its maximum impact. I credit Ravel’s orchestral version for making the suite well-known. Several seasons ago Maverick presented an arrangement for piano trio, entirely superfluous. Wolfgang Renz’s arrangement features clever touches and effective moments, but  also smooths out some of Mussorgsky’s dissonances, a grievous sin, and employs too much piccolo.

Under Schneider’s experienced hand, this excellent band of a dozen gave Mussorgsky-Renz their all. Imperfections in the playing were almost nonexistent, and when I did notice something it was trivial, not worth mentioning. Disregard that last observation and let’s give tribute to Charles Schneider and the Maverick Chamber Players for making the best of a difficult situation.

Leslie Gerber, who lives in Woodstock, New York, has been reviewing professionally since 1966, for such venues as Performance Today, Fanfare, and Amazon.com. He also publishes the Parnassus Records label.

2 Comments

  1. Leslie, it makes the heart sad to read your faint praise of Saturday night’s concert at the Maverick, which, as is often the case, demeans my work as conductor — even here, in absentia — and contains several basic factual errors. First of all, the Mason Jones arrangement of excerpts from “Le Tombeau de Couperin” was not heard at the Maverick “in the distant past” but in fact last year on a Sunday concert, courtesy of the Imani Winds. Further you state that “The bizarre idea of taking a couple of episodes in the Toccata at reduced tempo must have been Platt’s; I can’t imagine that the players would have come up with it on their own.” Actually, if you had listened to the Ensemble Berlin’s recording of Dr. Renz’s arrangement of the Toccata, which is easily accessible via youtube, or had looked at the original score of Ravel’s piano version published by the Paris firm of Durand, also now easily obtainable online, you would have known that this was not my “bizarre idea” at all, but simply a carrying out of the wishes of the arranger, and indeed of the composer himself. The opening tempo is marked “Vif”; bar 57 then clearly states “Un peu moins vif”; bar 63 then states “soutenu”, or “sostenuto” in standard musical Italian, which any musician could reasonably interpret as a further slowing down; bar 67-69 is marked “Revenez…au 1er Mouvement”; bar 96 is once again marked “soutenu”; and bar 122 is marked “Tempo I”, at which point common sense would dictate that the previous measures are indeed to have been played a little slower. Secondly, you state that the performance of Dominick Argento’s “Six Elizabethan Songs” “didn’t require a conductor either”. For your information, the soloist, Maria Jette, a personal friend and colleague of Professor Argento who has performed this work on a great many occasions, openly stated that this music should indeed have a conductor (despite my suggestion that I should like nothing more than to simply coach it for the performance), and was not afraid to say it at the rehearsal; furthermore, on the classic LP recording of the Argento songs on New World Records, which I assumed you already knew, the music is played by some of the very finest New York City free-lancers of their era (such as the oboist Melvin Kaplan) and there is indeed a conductor, the revered Arthur Weisberg. But again, this is a continuation of a pattern in which you have attacked me for conducting small ensembles that you believe should not have a conductor, when in fact all I am trying to accomplish is not to glory, but rather to help create a first-rate performance for our audience on limited rehearsal time. Finally, in your castigation of “After Reading Shakespeare” by Ned Rorem — who, as he was born on 23rd October 1923, turns 94 this year, not 93 — you stated that my programming it was “of course, a clever way of extending the length of the concert without having to do more orchestral rehearsal”. I’m scratching my head as to how you seem to know my inner compulsions for programming this piece, but I can assure you that the concert would have been of adequate length without it, and I frankly chose to present it for the simple reasons that I happen to think that it’s one of Rorem’s finest works — apparently the world-famous cellist Matt Haimovitz would agree, as evidenced by his recent recording — and that I very much wanted to hear it played by our own wonderful Boston cellist Emmanuel Feldman, who’s graced our stage as a soloist several times. Indeed, I know this because I heard him play it in the Maverick Hall late Friday night, exactly five hours before I came down with a severe bout of food poisoning, and had planned to recite, from a corner of the stage the next evening, the little lines from Shakespeare that were the inspiration for each of the movements. But I doubt that would have changed your opinion.
    Alexander Platt

    Comment by Alexander Platt — August 29, 2017 at 1:51 am

  2. Very poorly written article. Weird and waddles like a penguin. Unfortunately not at all cute.

    Comment by Jon Lawrence — August 29, 2017 at 2:11 pm

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