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A Legend Returns

Joseph Silverstein is a truly legendary violinist, and his recital on Sunday afternoon, November 22, at Seully Hall of the Boston Conservatory was a special event.  The pianist Max Levinson proved to be an ideal partner in the Sonata for Violin and Piano in d minor, op. 108 of Johannes Brahms, making it seem as though he and Silverstein had played together for years. Although perhaps not as “historically informed” as might now be customary, his playing of Sonata for Solo Violin in a minor, BWV 1003 by J.S. Bach conveyed a sophisticated understanding in its attention to the contrapuntal writing that ordinarily makes it so difficult to perform Bach’s solo sonatas. Kol Nidre and V’hakohanim from Yehudi Wyner’s Dances of Atonement (1976) received a passionate performance by both performers. And now the real fun began — six virtuoso violin works by Fritz Kreisler, masterpieces that gave Silverstein further opportunity to show off his unique bow-arm: from Kreisler’s Allegretto in the Style of Boccherini to his transcription of Dvorak’s Slavonic Dance, Silverstein’s flying, up-bow staccato was breathtaking. [Click title for full review.] [continued]
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Trio Medieval Not So Medieval after All

The Trio Medieval, founded in Oslo in 1997, were last heard here in 2007 with a concert of 13th-century French and Italian music. On Sunday afternoon (Nov. 22), at the Gardner Museum, the group presented Scandinavian traditional songs and anonymous 13th- and 14th-century Latin motets from England. The Trio prefers to “re-contextualize” this music into the 21st century. Their chosen context is subsumed in the atmosphere they create for Scandinavian traditional music, including composed introductions and reprises. All this is a bit unsettling for the Boston of early music fame, but leaving all that aside nevertheless resulted in a charming afternoon in the Tapestry Room. The women’s voices are incredibly matched in both range and texture, to the point where they often switch parts with each other. Their singing ranges from loud, nasal, calling songs (greetings or sheep) to lullabies and songs of longing with the softest pianissimos that miraculously whispered their resolutions. Sometimes those resolutions deliberately ended on a dissonance and then tuned up with breathtaking daring and effect, and at others (at least once) purposefully did not. The character of most of the songs was quietly contemplative. So the singers used dramatic effects to provide both visual and sonic variety. They moved to the back of the room to sing the calling song; they dispersed to the sides of the room or used three aisles to surround the audience with their ringing vocal timbres; they used melody chimes in the motets to elaborate those timbres (and, I suppose, to suggest church bells—if so, a bit over the top). [Click title for full review.] [continued]
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Spectrum Singers in Joyous Program of Baroque Christmas Music

The Spectrum Singers, directed by John W. Ehrlich, presented a program at First Church Congregational, Cambridge, on Saturday, November 21, of Baroque Christmas choral repertoire featuring familiar though not over-performed works that proceeded chronologically. The chorus sang the a cappella Sweelinck Hodie Christus Natus Est and Schütz Cantate Domino and Deutsches Magnificat with vigor and joy and admirable attention to the give-and-take of the frequent imitative counterpoint. The Spectrum Singers and Mr. Ehrlich gave a satisfying performance, dramatic and forceful on the one hand, tender and comforting on the other. Bach’s Magnificat is one of his most demanding choral pieces. There was noticeably less eye-contact between chorus and conductor than in the previous pieces, leading regrettably to occasionally varying ideas of tempo. Ensemble issues aside, though, the orchestra played with beautiful tone and elegant Baroque style without fetishizing the latter. The trumpeters deserve particular kudos. Soprano Kendra Colton spun out a lovely legato line with elegant flourishes in her famous aria. Mezzo-soprano Thea Lobo used her limpidly beautiful tone as a means to an expressive end. Tenor Charles Blandy, whose voice is especially well suited to Bach, provided a lesson in the use of consonants to enhance the power of musical accents. The bass aria is notable for its large jumps from one vocal register to another; Donald Wilkinson is to be commended for making the quite awkward seem thoroughly natural. The two cantatas chosen were No. 3, Third Day of Christmas, and No. 6, Feast of the Epiphany, from Bach’s Christmas Oratorio are less demanding than the Magnificat, and the chorus seemed to have a greater comfort level with them. The same quartet of soloists was featured here, displaying the same virtues heard before intermission. [Click title for full review.] [continued]
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Boston Conservatory String Orchestra and Udagawa: Intriguing Repertoire Played with Verve

On Saturday evening, Nov. 21, the Boston Conservatory’s able String Orchestra presented a thoroughly prepared quartet of works. In six Rumanian Folk Dances by Béla Bartók, each of the five string sections acquitted itself most honorably in solo statements, clearly relishing the fine state polish to which conductor Yoichi Udagawa had brought them. Concertmaster Thomas Hoffmann brought off his sunlit solo with a centered and wonderfully dark tone, never succumbing to the nervous vibrato that squeezes the beauty out of such orchestral writing, even in professional bands. The best playing of the evening was Franz Schreker’s haunting Intermezzo, Op. 8 (1900). The evening’s première is one of 38 or so orchestral sketches currently being written by Boston Conservatory faculty member Andy Vores in comfortable tonality, its pleasant few dissonances dabbing mustard onto the neatly browned surface of this string lagniappe. The string students played Respighi’s Third Suite of Ancient Airs and Dances whimsically and tastefully with tempi, voicing, and some nicely judged dynamic contrasts. Northeastern University’s Fenway Center, a defrocked Protestant church a block from Symphony and Jordan Halls, is a pleasing venue for large ensemble music. The room flatters chamber music with piano nicely, as well. There were no program notes, a real shame. [Click title for full review.] [continued]
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Boston Music Viva: Remarkable Variety, Abundant Cleverness

For Boston Musica Viva, the Pierrot-ensemble format has never been a limitation, and certainly not a compromise. On Friday, November 20, at the Tsai Performance Center, conductor Richard Pittman offered a remarkable variety, with many reference points and abundant cleverness. Joseph Schwantner’s Elixir, from 1974, is lovely; the focus of the piece is the flute, played beautifully by Ann Bobo. Mikronomicon, a new David Rakowski work written for Geoffrey Burleson on commission from BMV, takes a left turn into jazzy funky noir; both Rakowski and Burleson bring to bear abundant vocabulary from Piazzola and Prokofiev that flies by with great effect. For the Ives songs, Pittman devised clever and evocative instrumentation: the Circus Band entered raucously from the lobby, but Down East wore the delicate cotton dress of a Stephen Foster heroine. Pamela Dellal sang beautifully. At times, the band’s kazoos and chorus were lively but perhaps too polite: Ives himself singing and crashing through “They Are There” in 1943 set a high standard for rowdiness. Chris Arrell’s Narcissus/echo from 2006, receiving its first Boston performance, is a sonic prism, the piece steadily drains itself of color. “Blues” from Bernard Hoffer’s A Boston Cinderella, written as well for BMV, rounded out the evening with familiar music. [Click title for full review.] [continued]
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BSO Musicians Excel in Haitink Program

Two birthdays, the 80th of Conductor Emeritus Bernard Haitink and the 70th of flutist Sir James Galway, were celebrated by the Boston Symphony on Friday, November 21, with colorful and evocative performances of Debussy’s Nocturnes, Ibert’s Flute Concerto, and Brahms’ Symphony No. 1. The Debussy opened with the dark, haunting voice of the English horn, played so beautifully by Robert Sheena. Other orchestral voices were the nuanced, velvet viola solo of Steven Ansell and the eerie harp and flute (Elizabeth Rowe and Jessica Zhou), so perfectly entwined they sounded like one never-before-imagined instrument. The final movement, “Sirenes,” seemed a little out of balance because the women’s chorus was off-stage and sometimes covered by the orchestra. The Ibert flute concerto followed, a piece of great virtuosity, humor and energy. Sir James Galway delivered all these qualities with unflappable aplomb. The orchestra seemed to have a hard time keeping up at certain points, and clearly what was virtuosic for the flute was heroic when attempted by the strings. In the first movement of the Brahms 1st Symphony, there seemed to be a different orchestra playing entirely, one that didn’t bend phrases, but instead brought out the massive contrapuntal building blocks of the music. There was wonderful solo playing, the beautiful, rich sonority and expressivity of the oboe (John Ferrillo); Malcolm Lowe’s splendid violin solos; the whole horn section; the achingly pure flute in the beginning of the last movement (Elizabeth Rowe)…. [Click title for full review.] [continued]
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Soprano de la Guardia’s First Dirty Paloma

The inaugural concert on November 19 of Dirty Paloma, the brainchild of soprano and actor Aliana de la Guardia, certainly lived up to the mission. Ranging from Handel, Brahms, to Barber and Berg, the program at St. Paul’s Church, Brookline included three world premieres from composers who were in the audience: Masaki Hasebi’s Mi-da-re-ga-mi, drawn from a set of Tanka poems with uniform syllabification by Akiko Yosano; Rudolph Rojahn’s Dodo as Avian Christ, based on five eyewitness accounts of the slaughter of the Dodo; and John Murphee’s setting of Emily Dickinson’s Her Final Summer. Marti Epstein’s Lenz, based on three poems by the painter Wassily Kandinsky, was also on the program. Baritone Jonathan Nussman began with four Brahms songs, and De la Guardia gave a fine rendition of Alban Berg’s “Seven Early Songs.” After intermission, Nussman returned with a stunning Handel opera aria, Sibilar gli angui d’Aletto from Rinaldo. Navigating the baroque treacheries with aplomb, he varied the da capo repeat while underlining the affect of “hissing serpents.” [Click title for full review.] [continued]
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The North Shore’s Symphony by the Sea presents Beethoven

One of the North Shore’s treasures was highlighted on Saturday, November 14, 2009, at First Universalist Church of Salem with an all-Beethoven program presented by Symphony by the Sea. Under the baton of Donald Palma, the group (about 35 players) was just right for the music. Immediately, the entrance of the horns in the 12 Contradances signaled some fine music-making, to the clarinet solos in the graceful, on-your-toes dance of the final piece. At the close of the five pieces from The Creatures of Prometheus, the trumpets and brass, and percussion really came into their own. The passing of fragments back and forth between the horns and clarinets was simply delicious. The dissonances in the Third Symphony were stunningly wrought. The addition of a third bass in the symphony produced a richer and deeper weight that exemplified the ear that Palma brings to his work. The program was also carefully constructed; one kept hearing fragments and gestures that seemed familiar, but from a different piece by Beethoven. This listener left the concert contemplating Beethoven’s inventiveness and willingness to try things out first this way and then that. [Click title for full review.] [continued]
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NEC Chamber Orchestra Heads South

No, the organization is not in financial trouble (that I’m aware of);  this is a bit more literal sense of the phrase. At their concert on November 16 at Jordan Hall, the conductorless New England Conservatory Chamber Orchestra (a small string ensemble) put its focus on two contrasting Argentine composers: Alberto Ginastera and Astor Piazzolla. The first movement of the Ginastera was a concertante set of variations for each section’s principal, violinists Alexander Chaleff and Hyejin Yune, violist Rachel Ku, cellist Han Bin Yoon, and bass Luke Sutherland. The ensemble playing in the rest of the work was dynamite, earning the group several curtain calls. Each movement of the Piazzola also featured a different soloist, each of whom exchanged orchestral collegiality and decorum for a walk on the wild side, exploding with vivacity and personality. The four — Sandy Cameron, Dami Kim, Xiang Yu, and Robin Scott—had distinct musical and stage personalities, adding further variety to the composer’s treatment of the seasons, which the music suggests are not quite as disparate as they are in New England. [Click title for full review.] [continued]
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If you hear something, write something! Boston Musical Intelligencer is One Year Old

Last October with my colleagues, Lee Eiseman (publisher) and Bettina A. Norton (executive editor), I participated in the launch of the Boston Musical Intelligencer. Though it was clear enough to … [continued] [continued]
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Boston’s Professional Musicians Turn Out in Force for Rattle and Berlin Philharmonic

The Berlin Philharmonic under conductor Simon Rattle presented two war horses, Brahms Symphonies No. 3 and No. 4, and a seldom-heard piece by Arnold Schoenberg, Accompaniment to a Cinematographic Scene — written, ironically, for a film that existed only in his imagination. For this sold-out, eagerly anticipated event, there were more professional musicians in the audience than were on stage. The performances of the Brahms Symphonies  No. 3 and 4 were no less than thrilling. The strings move together the way the winds breathe together — as one. They take their cues not just from the conductor but from each other. In the Third symphony, this reviewer was mesmerized by the sound of the pianissimo strings in support of the expressive woodwind solos throughout. In the e minor symphony, the horn call opening the “Andante moderato,” played by the third and fourth horns, reminded us that it is an entire section of virtuosi. [Click title for full review.] [continued]
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Beyond a Recital – a Piece of Art from Chin, Rostad

Wayman Chin, dean of the Conservatory at the Longy School of Music, joined forces with Masumi Per Rostad for his faculty recital on Sunday, November 15 at Longy School of Music. The concert started with a sometimes awkward Sonata in c minor written by Mendelssohn at the age of 15, in 1824. Rostad described it as a piano sonata with viola obbligato. The Schubert’s Sonata for Arpeggione and Piano, D. 821 that followed was written the same year, by a mature composer at the height of his power. Chin and Rostad firmly demonstrated the bond that continued through the rest of the evening. The second half started with a minimalist piece, mu “for prepared viola,” by Keeril Makan, composed in 2007. The viola – prepared with two paperclips between the strings – made the sound of wind, of air, but with distant pitches. It was serene, peaceful, quite successful. In the Shostakovich Viola Sonata opus 147, viola and piano share the weight of Russian sadness, but not without some wonderful melodies, and even a peasant dance. This recital was great, but not only for Rostad’s viola playing. One expects to hear the piano in an accompanying role, but Chin’s playing went way beyond that. [Click title for full review.] [continued]
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Shofar Highlights Concert with Coro Allegro at Sanders

Coro Allegro, under the direction of David Hodgkins,  presented a program on Sunday, November 15, at Sanders Theater, Harvard University, in their tradition of diverse repertoire and exceptional quality of performance. Donald Wilkinson, scheduled to sing in Shofar, substituted for an ill Sanford Sylvan in Five Mystical Songs of Ralph Vaughan Williams. The long choral lines of Cantique de Jean Racine of Gabriel Fauré made one admire the pleasing balance the chorus achieved between warmth (i.e., vibrato) and purity of blend; and dynamics throughout were impressively nuanced. The main event was the premiere performance of the expanded oratorio Shofar by Robert Stern with libretto by Catherine Madsen. The first section ( “Whole”) opens with the chaos of creation which resolves into wholeness and leads into an exquisite love duet (“I am my beloved’s and my beloved is mine”) between the tenor, Jason McStoots, and the soprano, Teresa Wakim. Unfortunately, her radiant lyric soprano was swallowed up by the chorus and orchestra at several climaxes of the hearty celebration. The second section (“Broken”) calls for musical hedonism which Mr. Stern ably provides. The celebration of the golden calf is led by Ms. Wakim, in one of the most delicious passages of the score. Moses is sung with authority by Donald Wilkinson. The section ends with God’s brokenhearted lament: “The misery of love as a father weeps [for] a child he cannot love ,” which David Kravitz sang with beauty and pathos. The final section shows the return to wholeness through a renegotiated covenant between Moses and God, which culminates in a duet, first in Hebrew, then in English: “God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, full of kindness and truth …” [Click title for full review.] [continued]
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Prize-Winner Ripka Offers Magic on Sumptuous Taylor & Boody Organ

Many a face from Boston and elsewhere equally distant from Worcester glowed gently in the reflected light in St. Joseph Chapel, Holy Cross, Worcester, on Sunday afternoon, November 15, for the Chapel Artists Series. Multiple prize-winner Joseph Ripka has no trouble transcending the organist’s accustomed invisibility as his young career continues to unfold. He opened with a pair of extravagantly expressive secular works by ever-surprising Dieterich Buxtehude, Präludia in C & a, then redefined the very same idiom theme with Georg Böhm’s restless, terse Präludium in a. Three preludes in a row made for gripping listening, not monotony. Mr. Ripka’s poignant unfolding of Bach’s Allein Gott in der Höh’ sei Ehr, BWV 662, made his subsequent forthright leap into our era the recital’s turning point, with one of Marcel Dupré’s Trois préludes et fugues, Op. 7. Ripka concluded with five brash, extrovert, clash-permeated broadsword iterations of the Victimæa Paschali by contemporary Parisian composer Thierry Escaich. The exquisitely voiced Taylor & Boody organ (Op. 9, 1985) is widely known as one of the great instruments of our land. Its elaborate stop list is a fully kitted-out child of the flourishing, opulent organ-building era of the late-17th/early-18th-century Netherlands and neighboring North Germany. [Click title for full review.] [continued]
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Brisk Night With Slowind

The only Boston-area performance by the Slovenia-based Slowind Wind Quintet on November 14 was in the Concord Public Library. The program comprised three standards of the wind quintet repertoire (of Hindemith’s “Kleine Kammermusik,” Ligeti’s early “Five Bagatelles,” and Milhaud’s “La Cheminée du Roi René”) and two very recent pieces. Of the new works, the most substantial was “Kontrasti” by 26-year-old Nina Šenk, commissioned by Slowind. Without any direct allusions this listener could detect to Bartók’s clarinet trio of similar name, this work exploited oppositions in texture, timbre, rhythm, and playing style, including unpitched blowing, various gurgling noises of a somewhat alimentary cast, and so on. More importantly, it established an intelligible set of ideas and patterns whose elaboration was quite satisfying compositionally. It seemed that the Slowinds were taking a very gutsy gamble by ending with “Avguštin, dober je vin” (Augustine, good is the wine) by Vinko Globokar, a veteran of Europe’s avant-garde. However, it was all played for laughs. Nothing against lighthearted music, but truth to tell, if the quintet had sat in place and played this piece “straight,” its inherent interest would have a very short half-life indeed. Again, kudos to Slowind’s chops, but in this case they were deployed in service of a work unequal to the effort. [Click title for full review.] [continued]
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Cosmic Exhilaration from Chi, Madžar in Stockhausen’s Mantra

Pianists Katherine Chi and Leksandar Madžar certainly pulled off one the best concerts of this young season, a concert that may very well come in as one of the top 10 concerts of the entire year at the Gardner Museum on Sunday afternoon, November 15. A high-speed passage in perpetual motion lasting for an extended length of time headed Mantra to an inevitable close astonishing ever as much as gratifying. The dueling pianists kept absolute track of every quiet twist, slipped in here and there, as well as every one of the many crashing syncopations pounced back and forth between the two. They made Stockhausen’s oftentimes hard-to-take music a magnetizing event, splitting notes as though they were coming apart at the seams, dialing around their electronic devices creating sonic wobbles, buzzes, slides, rumbles, and a myriad of phantom sounds resembling bells, gongs, chimes and the like: all cosmic rays in this enormous, vast space. [Click title for full review.] [continued]
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Hallelujah! Jordan Hall’s Scaffolding is Coming Down

Just in time for the seasonal “Hallelujah Chorus” from Boston Baroque, patrons of concerts at Jordan Hall can offer their own “Hallelujahs.” The scaffolding and protective fabric screens, which have obstructed the entire façade for almost a year, are coming down. NEC personnel are assuredly offering their own Hallelujahs — the project was ahead of schedule and under budget. The ceremonial unveiling, to be presided over by NEC President Tony Woodcock, will take place on Wednesday, November 18, at noon. NEC is also offering “festive music and refreshments.”
<p>New terracotta cornice and mable panel.</p>
Terra cotta cornice and marble panel above Jordan Hall entrance. (BMInt Staff )
All four of New England Conservatory’s buildings have been undergoing $20 million in deferred  maintenance work for the last year, but Jordan Hall is the one that has impacted concert-goers. While scaffolding was up, patrons found it difficult to drop off concert-goers and newcomers were baffled about where to find the entrance. The original signage put up by the contractors was “inadequate,” explained Public Relations Manager Ellen Pfeifer, so NEC staff attempted to improve upon it — with limited success, if one eavesdropped to other concert-goers on the way in. “But it is almost a moot point now,” laughed  Ms. Pfeifer. Built in 1903, the building has been known from the beginning simply as “Jordan Hall” — and not “The Eben Jordan Memorial Building” or some such, which some observers think more appropriate, since it was paid for by Eben Jordan II of Jordan, Marsh Department Store. Jordan Hall was designed by Edmund Wheelwright, architect for the Massachusetts Historical Society, built four years earlier, and the nearby much more elaborately detailed Horticultural Hall, completed in 1901.  He was also architect for one of Boston’s most beloved bridges, the Longfellow, more familiarly, the “Salt-and-Pepper” Bridge, and the understandably idiosyncratic Harvard Lampoon (Wheelwright was a founder.). He is often credited with being the designer of the Anderson Memorial Bridge (1913-15), but it was probably the work of his successor firm; he had been institutionalized with mental illness for two years prior to his death in 1912. Although the façade of Jordan Hall is less ornate that either of its neighbors, it does have nice neo-classical detailing, such as the cornice and dentate molding under the roof. And it sports a wrought-iron balcony running along one-third of the facade at the second-story level. Like Massachusetts Historical Society’s building, however, Jordan Hall’s brick is yellow, and not red, brick. [continued]
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With Hammer and Feather BMOP Goes Percussive

The Boston Modern Orchestra Project has been all over the news for the promise of hearing the Boston premiere of the near-original version of George Antheil’s Ballet mécanique, which it delivered under the direction of Gil Rose at Jordan Hall on Friday the Thirteenth. Edgard Varèse’s pioneering Ionisation in 1931, which opened the program, has passed the test of time by dint of its vivacity and compositional integrity; Rose and his ensemble kept everything clear, moving, directed and handsomely shaped. On the soft side of percussion was Lou Harrison’s 1973 La Koro Sutra for chorus and “American” gamelan, an assortment of homespun assemblages of pipes, planks, vibes, drums and sawed-off oxygen tanks that bears a close relation to the tinkering of Harry Partch, without the microtonal tunings. Special praise is due to the chorus, the Providence Singers under Andrew Clark. George Antheil earned his self-bestowed sobriquet of “the bad boy of music” with his 1924 Ballet mécanique, originally conceived for forces including 16 player pianos, airplane propellors, sirens, many and varied things to bash, and pretty literally all the bells and whistles. So what, apart from the frisson and the noise, can be said of this work as music? For one thing, this is music. Rose and his team, abetted by Prof. Lehrman controlling the sirens with a Wii remote, brought it all off with precision, panache and a glorious flourish. [Click title for full review.] [continued]
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Guest Conductor Fabio Luisi, Pianist Lise de la Salle Shine at BSO Last Evening

Guest conductor Fabio Luisi opened his BSO program last night, November 12, with Honegger’s symphonic poem Pastorale d’été, that shimmered and was well played. Lise de la Salle, born in Cherbourg, delivered a virtuoso rendition of St. Saëns’s Second Piano Concerto. Slightly overheated tempi in the Allegro scherzando and Presto eventually calmed to more natural effervescence. Stravinsky’s Petrushka (1947) closed the program in a blaring, blazing blowout. Maestro Luisi could have been the incarnation of the eponymous puppet. Pianist Vytas Baksys played his devilish licks with dazzling panache.  [Click title for full review.] [continued]
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Fine Vocalizations, Some Mediocre Works with Chameleon

Chameleon Arts Ensemble presented their second program of the season, tagged “wordless wondrous things,” at the Goethe-Institut on Saturday evening, November 7. The unifying component of the works performed was that each of the instrumental pieces was, in some way, vocally conceived. Sebastien Currier’s Whispers was by far a more intriguing work and without doubt the most engaging performance of the evening. The piece, scored for flute, cello, piano, and percussion, constantly toyed with the instrumental expression of typically non-musical vocal sounds. Chameleon Arts Ensemble delivered performances of the highest caliber, though the final effect of the concert was that of great performers weighed down by mediocre works. [Click title for full review.] [continued]
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Musica Sacra’s 50th Anniversary Concert Offers Brahms Requiem with The Boston Cecilia

To begin its 50th season, at Jordan Hall on November 8, Musica Sacra chose one of the best-loved works of the romantic choral repertory, Johannes Brahms’s German Requiem. The opening piece was a special touch:  A setting of the same text that Brahms set in the last movement of the German Requiem in an a cappella version by one of his greatest forebears, Heinrich Schütz, performed elegantly by the Musica Sacra singers with a fine balance of voices and a clear, expressive presentation of the text. They were joined by The Boston Cecilia singers for a modern choral work sung unaccompanied, Sleep, set by Eric Whitacre. The extraordinary blend of the voices gave luminous expression to Whitacre’s harmonic colors. The pièce de résistance of the afternoon was marked by the same qualities of clarity, balance, and expression. Baritone Dana Whiteside was suitably urgent in the tense anticipation of death and the last judgement, while Emily Hindrichs floated the long-breathed, high soprano lines of the movement that Brahms added in memory of his own mother with superb (and welcome) diction. [Click title for full review.] [continued]
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Maazel Steps In to Lead BSO Beethoven’s Eighth and Ninth

The Boston Symphony Orchestra was fortunate to secure maestro Lorin Maazel’s services on such short notice for performances of Beethoven’s Symphonies Eight and Nine, and those onstage seemed grateful to have been placed in his capable hands. Beethoven’s restlessness is best heard when Eighth is left to unfurl in a completely naturalistic manner. Fussy phrasings and changes of tempi often intruded and impeded the symphony’s elemental flow. As a result, the performance, while well played, seemed to lurch a bit too much, and there is already much lurching purposefully written into this music. The Ninth Symphony was beautifully played by the orchestra throughout and rousingly sung by the Tanglewood Festival Chorus in the finale, yet this challengingly disjunctive work often failed to cohere, and there were niggling vocal issues with the quartet of soloists. Michael Polanzani, who should know better, in his solo repeatedly singularized the German word for “brothers” by ignoring the pluralizing umlaut above the u in Brüder, and at times the entire quartet seemed to be over-reaching, even applying an unfortunate and inappropriate crescendo to their final fermata. Yet, the Ninth has the power and virtue of its extraordinary breadth of human emotions and its still sadly unrealized plea for universal loving brotherhood among humankind. [Click title for full review.] [continued]
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Duruflé Requiem Well Served by Chorus Pro Musica, Old South’s Organ

Chorus Pro Musica presented an auspicious season opener on Sunday, November 8 at Old South Church in a program highlighting the church’s Aeolian-Skinner’ organ, silenced last year because of the MBTA’s nearby construction. The Duruflé Requiem was well served by mezzo-soprano Laurie Szablewski, baritone Marc DeMille, cellist Nora Karakousglou, and especially organist Ross Wood, who excels in how to use an orchestral organ like this. Dr. Betsy Burleigh, the new director, wants to return this venerable chorus to its “roots.” Was it always so abundant in the treble department? [Click title for full review.] [continued]
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Early, Merciful Visit To St. Nicholas

Masterworks Chorale presented a program of mostly British works in honor of St. Nicholas on Sunday, November 8 in Sanders Theater in Cambridge, though mercifully none of these works had to do with Father Christmas. Conductor Steven Karidoyanes’s “Nicholas, Holy Hierarch,” was mellifluous, prosodically apt. “Apolytikion for Saint Nicholas” by Sir John Tavener, begins with a high drone for women against a continuous melody beginning in unison and ending in a shimmering, rich harmonization. “Hymn to Saint Nicholas,” an a cappella work by Ivan Moody written for the KotorArt Festival in Kotor, Montenegro, builds an almost Ligeti-like density of polyphonic strands and demonstrates a great gift for choral writing. The main course at this particular feast of St. Nicholas was the dramatic cantata “Saint Nicolas” by Britten. Karidoyanes led his forces with precision and panache. The orchestral forces, all top-flight Boston freelancers, were also in fine voice and responsive to the music and Karidoyanes’s lead. [Click title for full review.] [continued]
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Camerata, Harvard Choir Honor Calvin with Symphony of Psalms

Anne Azema showed her skills in a concert at Memorial Church on Sunday, November 8, with singers and musicians of the Boston Camerata and the Choral Fellows of Harvard University Choir. The concert started with a Hebrew Cantilation (Psalm 25) performed by voice and harp, followed by Ms. Azema singing from the audience. Gradually voices and instruments were added until the whole audience participated in Dowland’s setting of Psalm 100, a glorious hymn of praise. “Lobet den Herrn” (Psalm 130) by Schutz, with the marriage of vernacular text, melody and harmony, uplifts the soul – even of this hardened non-believer. [Click title for full review.] [continued]
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Five Musicians from Marlboro in Amazing Mozart and Messiaen

Musicians from Marlboro were at the Gardner Museum on Sunday, November 7. Flutist Joshua Smith, violinist Soovin Kim, violist Beth Guterman and cellist Michal Korman gave a spunky, teasing performance of the Mozart Flute Quartet in C Major. Amazing sounds came from the flute and cello in Mirrors by Kaija Saariaho. Shades of Debussy, Messiaen and nature appeared in A Bird Came Down the Walk by Takemitsu. Beth Guterman’s viola and Renana Gutman’s piano avoided poetic images heard in other performances. The performance of the Messiaen Louange à l’Immortalité de Jésus was out of this world. A rigid interpretation lacking emotion and expression was all I could sense in Piano Quartet in C minor by Brahms. [Click title for full review.] [continued]
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“What Makes it Great” with Borromeo and Ariel Quartets was Absolutely Great

A large gathering at New England Conservatory’s Jordan Hall was on hand Saturday evening, November 7, as Robert Kapilow joined forces with the Borromeo and Ariel String Quartets in an installment of his What Makes It Great? series, now in its thirteenth season. Following our hour-long “class,” we were treated to an uninterrupted performance of the Mendelssohn Octet in E-flat Major, op. 20. I heard the different themes! I heard the inversions! I heard the dissonance…! And on and on. Quite a bit of Kapilow’s analysis actually sunk in. In combination with the brilliant Borromeo-Ariel realization, I found his high-octane, highly entertaining, eminently quotable, erudite-yet-accessible analysis to be invaluable. [Click title for full review.] [continued]
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Disklaviers, Propellors, and Electric Bells: BMOP Offers Antheil Program

BMInt interviewed Paul D. Lehrman, composer, author, consultant, educator, one of the world’s leading experts on MIDI, computer music and expert on George Antheil, whose “Ballet mécanique” will be performed by Boston Modern Orchestra Project on November 13th at Jordan Hall.

George Antheil is infamous as a “bad boy” composer. Is his Ballet mécanique music? Should we bring ear plugs? Ballet mécanique is most definitely music. It is not a “noise” piece, although it presages that genre, along with many other genres, in its use of cacophony, silence, sound effects, and a huge amount of repetition. You can hear many musical influences within the piece: ragtime, Stravinsky, the Italian Futurists, jazz, and there’s even a snippet of Rimsky-Korsakov. So at the time it took the definition of “music” in new directions, but within a context that was recognizable, and today is fairly common. When we did the premiere in Lowell in 1999 we gave out earplugs, but they turned out to be unnecessary, since the hall was fairly dead, and we were  conservative in deciding how hard to push the Disklavier player pianos. Jordan Hall is much brighter acoustically, and we now know more about how loud the pianos can go without suffering some sort of damage, so even though we are only using eight Disklaviers, it’s going to be quite loud. The players will all be wearing earplugs; it might not be a bad idea for the audience to be prepared as well. Antheil’s score calls for some unusual “instruments” such as airplane propellers and weird bells. Can you tell our readers how you solved these problems?Antheil_caricature300 Antheil used electric fans with sticks or leather straps stuck in them — the “baseball card in a bicycle wheel” effect — at his performances, and some modern performances have used similar devices. But they are very hard to set up, and we don’t have much time in the hall. So we will be using digital samples of small airplane engines that were made in 1999 for the premiere. The bells are a collection of seven different-sized electric bells that I gathered over the years, which are triggered according to the score using MIDI-controlled relays. The siren is a real siren, which varies in pitch and volume according to the amount of voltage applied to it. How does your version of the score differ from those circulating previously? Antheil wrote two versions of Ballet mécanique. Before the revival of this version, the one that most people had heard of was written in 1952. It is for a fairly conventional percussion orchestra, with the notable addition of two airplane propellers, and it uses four pianos but no player pianos. It’s performed often and has been recorded about a half-dozen times. But Antheil’s first version, which is the one we’re playing, was written in 1924 and is a totally different piece. It has four player-piano parts, each to be played on four instruments, for a total of 16, and the parts are much more complicated and raucous than the human-played parts in the later version. It also has three airplane propellers and a siren. It is much longer and more drawn out than the later version, with a huge amount of relentless, driving repetition and a blocky structure that is not at all audience-friendly. It also includes 20 silences towards the end, each one getting longer than the one before it, which can really drive audiences nuts — and this was almost 30 years before John Cage’s 4’33”. The 1952 Ballet mécanique is a great piece, but it doesn’t have the scope, the power, or the sheer audacity of the early version. Before 1999, the 1924 version had been played only with a single player piano, since technology to synchronize multiple player pianos didn’t actually exist. Antheil performed the piece a few times in Paris and once in New York. It wasn’t heard again until Maurice Peress conducted a performance in 1989, and never since then. But I just found out a group is performing it with a single player piano at Anglia Ruskin University in Cambridge, England, on November 22. I would love to hear that performance, but unfortunately I can’t get away. [continued]
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“Returns and Farewells” at the H&H

For the Handel & Haydn Society concert at Symphony Hall on Friday, November  6, Jane Glover chose to conduct four of the orchestral interludes from Mozart’s Thamos, King of Egypt, his only incidental music. Her tempi were sprightly, the music clear and crisp, the orchestra following all the double-fortes and pianissimos and verbal cues written into the score to reflect the melodrama of the play — the overall feeling very much in the spirit of a Handelian overture.

Robert Levin returned, as he has several times since 1990, to play Mozart’s Piano Concerto no. 21 (K. 467). As he remarked in the session that followed the concert, about 45% of his performance was improvised. He played during all the tutti sections and contributed his own exceedingly florid cadenzas that rumbled in the fortepiano’s bass. His rapid scale passages were played with an emphatically legato touch that made real arias rise and fall. In the Andante second movement these phrases were particularly stretched out and melodic, using a rubato that was almost over the top, but in the end, just right.

The program ended with Haydn’s “Farewell” Symphony. Combine the intimacy of this group, among whom are some of Boston’s finest soloists, with direction by Ms. Glover, and the music-making is guaranteed to be not only satisfying, but memorable. [Click title for full review.]

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Efficient production of Carmen at the Shubert

The attraction of Bizet’s Carmen to generations is the almost non-stop singable melodies, bellowed in enjoyable recollection by even the most amateur chanteurs. The production put on by Boston Lyric Opera at the Shubert Theatre last night (and continuing through Nov. 17) is a good show. The singing roles were well cast, and the orchestra, under Keith Lockhart, did an admirable job. Another good aspect of this production was the choice and unity of setting and costumes. It is a shame that the Card Trio was cut. Is four hours really too long for a humdinger of an opera? [Click title for full review.] [continued]