BSO Chamber Players: Winds and Strings and Some Odd Things

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Among the standard instrumental combinations the woodwind quintet is an oddball. Although all the members technically belong to the same family, it is a rather dysfunctional one. Each instrument has more characteristics that differ from the others than not, and creating a convincing musical blend of the five is a test of skill for any composer. [Click title for full review.]    [continued]

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Commentary on a Concert: Reflections on Our Musical Wealth

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The musical scene in Boston is well served by our superb Boston Symphony Orchestra. But it is not the only game in town, the sole chance to hear estimable classical music played well. The Big Question has been, does Boston have a community to support these groups? The answer is a resounding “YES” — when they are given adequate publicity. This point has been lost on the main print media in recent years but was evident at the concert put on by the Music Committee of the Friends of the Weston Public Library on January 6. [Click title for full review.]    [continued]

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Boston Baroque Shines

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Boston Baroque rang in the New Year with music by two great stars of that era, namely Bach and Handel. Performing now for over thirty years, BB is well practiced at the art of recreating the splendor and affect of that time. Through the playing of young, gifted Canadian violinist Martinson and accomplished Boston Baroque musicians, the countless notes of the Bach Violin Concerto in E Major found a kind of extraterrestrial life. Young and upcoming soprano star Kristen Watson, from perhaps lesser spoiled skies over Kansas, made it up there, too, with a sparkling interpretation of Handel’s Agrippina condotta a morire. [Click title for full review.]    [continued]

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Beethoven at the Gardner: Uncorked at the Fuga

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On Sunday, December 12, 2008, Paavali Jumppanen wrapped up his version of the complete Beethoven sonatas-32 in all-over a two-year, eight-concert cycle at Boston’s prized Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum. Even when the going became a bit “abstract” for this listener, there was still the promise of much more to come from this devoutly searching and inviting pianism this newcomer has shown us. [Click title for full review.]    [continued]

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Christmas in (New) England from Old England

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Indescribably ethereal sounds came from a multitude of human voices at the Church of the Advent, where on Friday, December 12, Donald Teeters, The Boston Cecilia and special guests, Exultemus, presented “Christmas in England: Ancient & Modern.” As with winter in New England, so did these many Christmas songs finally begin to take their toll. That feeling of cabin fever and of wanting a change kept creeping in. Not that there were not beautiful sounds everywhere, but that there were not enough colors in the singing, not enough drama, or life, in a word. [Click title for full review.]    [continued]

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Carter’s Recent Horn Concerto
with What Inspired Him, 85 Years Ago

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The Boston Symphony Orchestra’s tribute to Elliott Carter upon his centenary concluded on December 9 with Principal Horn James Sommerville’s performance of Carter’s Horn Concerto. The soloist has to fight hard to maintain equal standing with the orchestra, even though there are no orchestral horns. At the end of the work, after hanging on seemingly in desperation to a high F, the soloist stared at the sideways-leaning conductor face to face – like a moment of arm-wrestling to see who would give in – and then abruptly the ten-minute concerto was over. The performance we heard of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 7 was rousing and at high emotional pitch. Only a world-class orchestra and conductor can maintain this kind of energy throughout, but there was no doubt at all on Tuesday night. The concert ended with a mighty performance of The Rite of Spring, and once again I think of what a pleasure it was to hear this masterpiece twice in one week. [Click title for full review.]    [continued]

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Celebrating Well: Three Generations of British Composers

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There is plenty of good 20th-century and later music for wind ensemble, and it was amply on display at MIT last Saturday night (December 6). One doesn’t expect to find technical skill uniformly on the level of, say, the New England Conservatory, where the instrumental majors are practicing many hours every day; but one heard some really excellent playing and very good ensemble nevertheless in this group, ably directed by Frederick Harris, Jr. Peter Child’s new piece, Triptych, a commission honoring NEC’s retired director Frank Battisti. is a natural for acceptance by other groups. Other Britons celebrated on this multinational program were Ralph Vaughan Williams, on the semi-centenary of his death, and his friend Holst, both masters of writing for the wind band. [Click title for full review.]    [continued]

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When Does 4=1? When The Emerson Quartet Plays.

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There are many fine quartets performing today, more in fact than in any other period of music history, but few have achieved the ideal in quartet playing: a perfect blend of sound, technique and interpretation. The Emerson String Quartet belongs to this select group. The program, presented by the Celebrity Series of Boston at Jordan Hall on December 5, consisted of two lush, late romantic quartets by Antonin Dvorák, No. 10 in E-flat major, op. 51 and No. 14 in A-flat major, op. 105; Maurice Ravel’s magnificent Quartet in F major; and Anton Webern’s microscopic ,Six Bagatelles, op. 9. Each work was played in exactly the style it required, and with a command of rubato and voicing that a solo performer might envy. [Click title for full review.]    [continued]

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Three Standing Ovations: Boston Symphony Orchestra Provides an Outstanding Event

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This concert on Thursday, December 4, was one of the outstanding events of the entire Boston Symphony season. Indeed, few occasions in Boston within the past decade were so memorable—a world premiere by one of America’s best composers, and fine performances by two of the best conductor-pianists, Daniel Barenboim and James Levine. I imagine the title of Elliott Carter’s new work, Interventions, as rather suggesting inter-inventions, in that the solo piano and the orchestra are several times well set off from each other—inventions between, solo intervening, not to say interjecting or even interfering, in the orchestra and vice versa. An invigorating performance of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring followed the Carter premiere. [Click on title for full review.]    [continued]

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Elliott Carter at 100: New England Conservatory’s Retrospective

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The performances of Elliott Carter’s chamber music at New England Conservatory on December 3rd stands out in the recent explosion of performances of his works as he approaches his 100th birthday. Though this performance will likely be overshadowed by the excitement surrounding the Boston Symphony Orchestra world premiere of Carter’s Interventions on Friday, what the BSO cannot offer is the full scope of the entire career of one of the most prominent composers of the 20th century. The program at Jordan Hall juxtaposed Carter’s early neoclassical pieces with some of his more familiar atonal works.
The performance of the NEC chamber orchestra was commendable, especially for a student ensemble. [Click title for full review.]

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Rapture and Despair at BSO

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On Saturday, November 29th, the Boston Symphony Orchestra under the direction of Seiji Ozawa delivered two French masterpieces of orchestral sound-color. Olivier Messiaen’s Trois Petites Liturgies (1944) for women’s choir, strings, percussion, and assorted keyboards is a three-part sonic realization of cosmic time inhabited by divine joy and brilliantly speckled with crystalline birdsong. Pianist Peter Serkin’s intensely tactile command of the part created a palpable energy, allowing him to almost literally take flight. Hector Berlioz conceived a very detailed narrative for his Symphonie Fantastique (1832). In this piece for large orchestra, sound-color plays an important role. The dreamy waltz was a bit hobbled, the rustling trees a little damp, and the nimble witches a tad overweight. Still, the conductor’s energy was high and the orchestra played solidly—especially the brass, which delivered a powerful, perfectly balanced sound that shook the hall and resonated to the core of one’s body. [Click on title for full review.]    [continued]

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BU’s Excellent Orchestra Assures Future of Classical Music

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The Boston University Symphony Orchestra, appearing on November 24 in Symphony Hall under the direction of David Hoose, gave one of the best performances I have ever heard from a student orchestra, well worthy of comparison with any of the semi-professional orchestras in the Boston area, and a fair challenge for America’s most renowned ensembles. John Adams’s Fearful Symmetries — the title is from William Blake’s “Tiger, tiger!” — was a work entirely new to me. Adams has regularly revealed a greater interest in harmony than either Steve Reich or Philip Glass, and this work from 1988 is a brilliant example of harmony that evolves by unconventional but clearly perceptible connection from one sonority to the next. Ravel’s Daphnis et Chloé, the complete ballet of 1912, made up the second half of the program. In all the really excellent playing that was constantly and seemingly effortlessly demonstrated, there were some particularly outstanding examples. But the flawless string sound, with even tone over the entire divisi range, was just as impressive throughout the work, including all the numerous solos. [Click title for full review.]    [continued]

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Spectrum Singers Offers Tribute to St. Cecilia

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The Spectrum Singers, under the direction of John Ehrlich, delivered an outstanding performance at the First Congregational Church in Cambridge on Saturday, November 22. The program, entitled “A Christmas Prelude Celebrating St. Cecilia” offered a wide range of music from the late Renaissance and the 20th Century. The true highlight of the evening was Benjamin Britten’s Hymn to St. Cecilia, an extremely difficult piece sung with the utmost regard for contrast, shifting with seamless control from the most delicate to powerful passages. Multiple soloists were featured, but soprano Robyn Sanderson and bass Dana Whiteside truly stood out. Two pieces by Daniel Pinkham were featured on the second half. The first, A Song for St. Cecilia’s Day, was a bit disorienting. Though sung with accuracy and sensitivity, the piece shifted between a generally modern sounding form of extended-tonality supported by the organ, and a completely different idiom of more “choir-friendly” music. The result was much like listening to a conversation in two different languages. Norman Dello Joio’s To Saint Cecilia, was largely a setting of the same text as the first (and later composed) Daniel Pinkham piece A Song for St. Cecilia’s Day. The Dello Joio, both intriguing and impressive, closed the concert with pertinent and powerful lines: “The dead shall live, the living die, And Music shall untune the sky.” [click on title for full review.]    [continued]

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Standards Bookended Anachronisms

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Too rarely are true oddities mixed into the standard fare that characterize a “classical orchestra.” In the case of the Boston Classical Orchestra’s latest offering, on November 23, the mix was impressively odd —starting with the serpent. Gordon Bowie ‘s Old Dances in New Shoes for serpent and strings was billed as a neo-Baroque suite, but had more often the flavor of a set from the 1930s Dance-band Era. Anachronism continued after the intermission when Yeo returned to show off an early 19th-century brass instrument called the ophicleide in an aria from G.F. Handel’s early 18th-century masque Acis and Galatea. The concert opened with the three-movement Symphony No. 10 by F.J. Haydn. It seemed, however, that music director Steven Lipsitt decided to smooth out most of the musical dips and turns in favor of a general “gallantness” that at times sold the music short. This issue became even more apparent in the work that closed the concert, W.A. Mozart’s Symphony No. 29. In addition to the programmed works, the audience was treated to two unexpected gems: a cleverly written fugue by Lipsitt on the initials H.E.D. (for BCO founder Harry Ellis Dickson); and an arrangement of “Brother, Can you Spare a Dime?” for clarinet (played by Lipsitt) and strings, offered as the most convincing fundraising appeal I’ve ever encountered. [Click on title for full review.]    [continued]

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A Participant’s Reflections on a Recent Percussion Concert

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How often does one hear a percussion ensemble in concert? Not very often. The NEC Percussion Ensemble, directed by Frank Epstein, first percussionist of the Boston Symphony, gave a fine demonstration of rich possibilities on Sunday night, November 16. Sunday’s program led off with the slow movement of Saint-Saëns’s Third (“Organ”) Symphony – abbreviated by about two-thirds – played on five marimbas, alto, tenor and bass, by eight players. All that warbling tremolo aside, the sound achieved some fine depth,… My own contribution was of the third piece from Debussy’s En blanc et noir for two pianos, which I arranged for six mallet instruments – glockenspiel, xylophone, vibraphone, marimba, bass marimba, and tubular bells. I was delighted with the performance but after hearing it would want to make some changes, which shows at least how this composer has more to learn about percussion. A new piece by Joan Huang followed, Orphan San Mao, composed last year for solo violin with four percussionists variously playing mallet instruments and drums, augmented by toys and sound effects. A palette of unorthodox objects is employed, such as chopsticks, porcelain plates, steel bowls, bottles, automobile horns and police whistle.” Fred Lerdahl’s The First Voices, a recent commission, was the heavyweight piece on the program, one in which different kinds of drums — bongos, conga drums, tenor drums, tomtoms, tambourines, bass drums — were most prominently featured. [Click on title for full review]    [continued]

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The Pacifica Quartet takes on Beethoven, Carter, and Crumb

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How often does one hear a percussion ensemble in concert? Not very often. The NEC Percussion Ensemble, directed by Frank Epstein, first percussionist of the Boston Symphony, gave a fine demonstration of rich possibilities on Sunday night, November 16. Sunday’s program led off with the slow movement of Saint-Saëns’s Third (“Organ”) Symphony – abbreviated by about two-thirds – played on five marimbas, alto, tenor and bass, by eight players. All that warbling tremolo aside, the sound achieved some fine depth,… My own contribution was of the third piece from Debussy’s En blanc et noir for two pianos, which I arranged for six mallet instruments – glockenspiel, xylophone, vibraphone, marimba, bass marimba, and tubular bells. I was delighted with the performance but after hearing it would want to make some changes, which shows at least how this composer has more to learn about percussion. A new piece by Joan Huang followed, Orphan San Mao, composed last year for solo violin with four percussionists variously playing mallet instruments and drums, augmented by toys and sound effects. A palette of unorthodox objects is employed, such as chopsticks, porcelain plates, steel bowls, bottles, automobile horns and police whistle.” Fred Lerdahl’s The First Voices, a recent commission, was the heavyweight piece on the program, one in which different kinds of drums — bongos, conga drums, tenor drums, tomtoms, tambourines, bass drums — were most prominently featured. [Click on title for full review]    [continued]

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Inspired Music Lesson from Takács Quartet and Muzsikás

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The experience with Takács Quartet, Muzsikás, Sebestyén, and Bartók was long overdue. Not a graduate seminar by any means, their program led to summits of discovery through the act of showing rather than telling—as Bartók well might have had it. One of the earliest folk music archivists as well as one of the most original composers of the 20th century, Béla Bartók considered the folk melodies of his country’s villages as equal to the greatest works of music coming out of the tradition of Bach and Beethoven. For Bartók, folk music is not merely dressed up in art music; rather, the two breeds bond in a new, distinct voice to capture, on a very real and personal level, the feelings, atmospheres, and rituals of Hungarian life, those of the peasant in particular, the pure, which so appealed to him. [Click on title for full review]    [continued]

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Mixing of Timbres, Fantastical Variations, and Mozart Gem

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The scheduled reviewer for the Radius Ensemble concert on Nov. 15 was unable to attend, at the last minute, but the concert was too good to leave unmentioned. So your editor, who was there, is tackling it. The program, which seems to be standard for Radius Ensemble, contained both earlier (18th- to 20th-century) and contemporary pieces. Listening to a performance of this quality testifies to the wisdom of a site like The Boston Musical Intelligencer. With it, the classical-music public can learn more about the superb musician pool we have in greater Boston and, it is hoped, be inspired to attend future concerts by them. [Click on title for full review]    [continued]

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Ueno’s Memorable Talus, Boykan’s Engaging Concerto, Erikson’s Eclectic Fantasy, and Schwartz’s Chamber Concerto

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Elliot Schwartz’s Chamber Concerto VI: Mr. Jefferson was filled with quotes of Revolutionary War marches and classical pieces from Jefferson’s personal collection. Most of these references, however, were too overt to be effective, so the result was less like creative integration and more like a game of “name that tune.” And then there was a blood-curdling scream. Ken Ueno’s Talus, featuring violist Wendy Richman, received a few laughs after its over-the-top, horror-flick beginning but quickly demanded complete silence as the piece slowly unfolded from pitch-less textures to rich atmospheres of complex and beautiful sounds. It would be safe to assume Erickson would have been nothing short of thrilled with Popper-Keizer’s performance of Robert Erikson’s Fantasy for Cello and Orchestra. Boykan’s Concerto remained engaging from beginning to end. But the Shoenberg Concerto for String Quartet and Orchestra was generally disappointing. [Click on title for full review.]    [continued]

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Stimulating Presentation of Underplayed Repertoire

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Despite a dubious use of the word “contemporary” (the newest piece dated from 1972), the recent program at the Goethe-Institut on November 13 was a stimulating presentation of underplayed repertoire. Surprising as it may sound, Floyd’s piece was the truly the most peculiar on the program. The passage of time has placed us in a world where Webern sounds like Schubert and avant-garde shock tactics are met with delight. Who in their right mind today would set out to write an extended soliloquy on the hardships of being Queen? [Click on title for full review]    [continued]

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BLO’s Tales of Hoffman: Offenbach would have been pleased

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The voices were glorious, the sets and costumes sumptuous, the choreography in perfect step with the action and the music, and the stage direction finely balanced between the comic and the serious. The opera has undergone a number of transformations. Stage director and choreographer Renaud Doucet, set and costume designer André Barbe, and conductor Keith Lockhart freely based their current production on the fine edition of Michael Kaye and Jean-Christophe Keck, with the goal of remaining as faithful as possible to Offenbach’s original intentions. [Click on title for full review]    [continued]

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Camerata’s “American Program”

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Camerata’s most recent concert, “Land of Pure Delight: In Search of the American Soul” plumbed the depths of repertoire rarely heard in a full concert. Consistency was a hallmark of the program, and if it was sometimes difficult to follow the program and text, the charm, simplicity and excellent contrasts made it more than interesting and engaging at every moment. [Click on title for full review]    [continued]

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A welcome visitor to Boston: Tokyo String Quartet has lost none of its clarity, precision

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We were fortunate to hear some of Haydn’s best movements for string quartet, as well as equally good ones by Beethoven and Mendelssohn, performed by the Tokyo String Quartet at Jordan Hall on November 1. In opus 76, no. 1, we find Haydn in full command of his genius and abilities, and the Tokyo String Quartet rose to the occasion. The quartet’s performance of the Beethoven was energetic and powerful, although a bit too straight-ahead for my tastes. The program concluded with a spirited performance of Mendelssohn’s String Quartet in D major, op. 44, no. 1, written in 1838. [Click on title for full review]    [continued]

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Musical Diaspora and Exile: The Convulsion of Two World Wars. HMA Commission among Musical Presentations at CrossCurrrents.

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A three-day conference at Harvard on any subject is bound to be a fruitful occasion, unless, perhaps, the subject is economics. The one just concluded, CrossCurrents: American and European Music in Interaction, 1900-2000, Part 1 (1900-1950), on October 30 through November 1, was one of the best within recent memory. The exilic theme carried over into the two evening concerts. Thursday evening featured a fine saturation of two pianos, with a special premiere, Teletalks by American-French composer Betsy Jolas, who was jointly commissioned by the Crosscurrents conference and the Harvard Musical Association. The final event of Crosscurrents was a piano recital by Bruce Brubaker, head of the Piano Department at the New England Conservatory; he was assisted by two Harvard undergraduates, Konrad Binienda and Kenric Tam. [Click on title for full review]    [continued]

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An Evening of the French Avant-Garde at Symphony Hall

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Once the diabolus in musica (the devil in music) during the late Middle Ages, the “tritone” takes on an entirely different meaning for the devout Catholic mystic, Messiaen. For him, it is the musical equivalent of the luminous multi-colored stained-glass windows in the great French churches. [Click on title for full review.]    [continued]

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