Entertaining the Troops with Yip Yip Yaphank


Well into a lucrative songwriting career, Irving Berlin was drafted at the age of 29 to fight in World War I. In exchange for being able to sleep through reveille at boot camp, he promised his commander that he would write songs for a revue to be performed by enlisted men. Yip! Yip! Yaphank! was premiered on August 19, 1918. This past weekend, American Classics produced the first revival performance, on April 18 at Longy’s Pickman Hall.

Yaphank! has no story, or even recurring characters. It’s a series of songs (mostly) connected by the theme of war. They’re sung by a chorus with occasional soloists.

The subject matter of the songs was incredibly broad.: love songs to the ladies, mock-tributes to alcohol, drag-parodies of the Ziegfield Follies, requests to President Wilson to send jazz bands overseas to entertain the troops, autobiography on army life, jingoistic attacks on the Germans … “God Bless America” — originally written for the show, but kept in the proverbial drawer for 20 years — was added as an encore.

The tone is consistently light and flippant. There are abundant references to contemporary culture, which gives the show a throwaway feel (which is fair, as it was only intended to be performed the one time). The cast was full of very fine singers, but they seemed too self-aware to embrace the ridiculousness that makes early Broadway what it is.Remember that the original performers were enlisted men? When they finished, they marched off-stage, out of the theater, to a truck which brought them to Hoboken, and from there on a boat to France.    [Click title for full review.] [continued]

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Brilliant Offerings by Francesco Cera on Wellesley’s “Sweelinck” Organ


A substantial audience in the Houghton Chapel at Wellesley College on April 17 was in for a real treat: Francesco Cera, an outstanding artist of early keyboard music, performing on Wellesley’s “Sweelinck” Organ. Although not exactly a household name here, in his native Italy Cera is well known for his extensive experience as organist and harpsichordist specializing in “early, early music,” particularly of the early 17th century, and as a conductor of vocal ensembles. He also is Honorary Inspector of Early Organs for Rome and the Lazio region. Cera was ably assisted as registrant by the Handel & Haydn Society’s John Finney, who knows this particular instrument well.

This was the last organ that Charles B. Fisk himself finish-voiced before his death in 1983. The organ is tuned in 1/4 comma mean-tone, which means that the thirds, fifths, and octaves are tuned in a smaller ratio than the current (“just intonation”) norm. Music written after the time of Jan Pieterzoon Sweelinck (1562–1621) can sound pretty terrible on this organ unless carefully selected.

“The Golden Age of the Organ from Venice to North Germany” included works by Julio Segni, Andrea and Giovanni Gabrieli, Claudio Merulo, Heinrich Scheidemann, and Melchior Schildt.

Francesco Cera is a most gifted and informed interpreter of this music, starting with his choices for the program. But these factors would be merely academic without his artistry, his fluency of ornamentation, and his extraordinary ability to shape the music itself through clear articulations and registrations, where every inner voice is heard as part of its own contrapuntal line.   [Click title for full review.] [continued]

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Kuss String Quartet: Ensemble with Style- Just One


A single, high-concept style was imposed by the Kuss String Quartet on music of Mozart, Berg and Brahms at the Goethe-Institut Boston on April 17. In the opening work, Mozart’s Quartet in B-flat major, K. 458, “Hunt”, that approach seemed at first refreshing. There was very little rubato and absolutely no vibrato or portamento. Already by the menuetto second movement, however, one was yearning for a bit of relaxation and gemütlichkeit, but none was to be had. The general impression was of an early music group on steroids.

Alban Berg’s Quartet, op. 3 was the piece most amenable to the Kuss’s approach. Here one had a sense that the group was succeeding in building a massive architecture from bold gestures, even though here as well, especially in the Langsam first movement, one would have welcomed  a bit of saftig lyricism as a leavening contrast.

Brahms’s Quartet op. 67 in B-flat major was the major casualty of the evening. Here one heard more of the Kuss’s misguided attempt at cutting edge. And their digging into the strings, over-rosined, vibrato-less approach here also failed to ameliorate some queasy intonation from the upper strings. This was the least idiomatic Brahms playing this listener has ever heard from a German foursome.

In the second encore, an arrangement of an Armenian folksong, the Kuss allowed itself a brief departure from its polemic. Finally some songfullness, breathing and juicy slides were permissible. The Goethe-Institut Boston was primed for hip-hop just as the quartet made its departure.     [Click title for full review.] [continued]

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Berlin Dynamos: Kuss Quartet at the Goethe-Institut, Boston


The Berlin-based Kuss Quartett gave a refreshing and dynamic performance at the Goethe Institut on April 17 of an all German-Austrian program in preparation for its performance at Carnegie Hall next week. Its members are first violinist Jana Kuss and violinist Oliver Wille, the founders, and violist William Coleman and cellist Mikayel Hakhnazaryan.

The evening began with a surprising rendition of Mozart’s String Quartet in B-flat major, K 458. Kuss played without vibrato, making this fourth of Mozart’s quartets dedicated to Haydn sound raw, immediate, unpolished, unsweet. The allegro vivace assai showcased right away one the quartet’s greatest strength: absolute precision of timing that produces an uncanny togetherness.

Perfection of ensemble playing while granting free reign to dynamic musicality made the quartet’s performance of Alban Berg’s String Quartet op. 3 of 1910 (revised in 1924) the highlight of the evening. The Kuss quartet’s astounding precision, energy, technical perfection, and cool analytic approach presented a Berg composition that was as emotionally explosive and draining (the allusions to Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde in the middle of the second movement stood out clearly) as it was intellectually rewarding.

The evening finished almost conventionally with Johannes Brahms’ 1876 String Quartet in B-flat major, op 67.  Kuss was playing romantically and musically with full vibrato, allowing her instrument to sing; while in the aptly named “agitato” of the third movement, the gorgeously smooth violist William Coleman grasped his opportunity to shine, producing a chocolaty, rich tone echoed by the cello and finally soothing even the antsy violins.

It was an extraordinary evening and for the sustained applause, the Kuss quartet thanked the audience with two lovely Armenian folksongs.            [Click title for full review.] [continued]


Transcendent Evening With Boston Cecilia


“When Britten Met Haydn,” the concert by Boston Cecilia on April 16 at All Saints’ Church, Brookline, was splendid. In an opulent evening, Britten’s Serenade was the standout. Tenor Aaron Sheehan, joined by BSO principal horn James Sommerville and an orchestra of some of Boston’s finest-free lance players, all under Donald Teeters’s baton, delivered a performance of transcendent beauty. Sommerville’s secure handling of the demands of the valve-less horn in Britten’s score was perfection, highlighted by “hand-stopping.” Sheehan negotiated both the linear and acrobatic elements of the tenor line with complete confidence and penetrating artistry.

Leading off the evening was the brief and lovely Haydn’s “Little Organ Mass.” Barbara Bruns’ clear and subtle playing on the sweet positive organ spun a web through the orchestra and chorus, and Haydn’s music soared. Teresa Wakim’s soprano was luminous, and the three other soloists, alto Mary Gerbi, tenor Matthew Anderson, and baritone Ron Williams sounded as though they’d been singing together for years.

Although originally written for soloists only, the conductor took the liberty of redistributing some of the material in Haydn’s Salve Regina to the chorus, which worked beautifully.

Britten’s Cantata Misericordium is a curious, penetrating piece on the Good Samaritan. Williams brought stunning, even shocking power and depth to the role of the traveler, and Aaron Sheehan again got it exactly right with every phrase. The Cecilia chorus, so sweet-voiced in the Haydn pieces, morphed into a crowd of angry power here and kind compassion there, reflecting the events at hand. This is demanding music, but at every moment the confidence of chorus, soloists and orchestra made this the “art that conceals art.”          [Click title for full review.] [continued]


More “Volatile” than Not: Composer’s Memory for Dinosaur Annex


Dinosaur Annex’s concert at Goethe-Institut on April 11 was titled, “Non-Volatile Memory Storage.” At least the “memory” part made sense; all music deals implicitly with memory, but most of this concert’s works did so explicitly, either in their extra-musical associations or in their reworking of other music. “Non-volatile” was a less convincing descriptor, as more of the music was volatile than not, allowing the Dinosaur players to demonstrate their virtuosity and sensitivity in complex ensemble interplay.

There were three premieres: Shih-Hui Chen’s Returnings, with Sue-Ellen Hershman-Tcherepnin (flute), Michael Curry (cello) and Robert Shulz (percussion) melted away beautifully into a prolonged consonant harmony that seemed to embrace all that had come before. Peter Homans based his Reliquaire on musical ideas derived from Charles Wuorinen’s Reliquary, itself based on some of Igor Stravinsky’s last sketches. The Dinosaur players (with violinists Cyrus Stevens and Lena Wong, violist Anne Black, Curry, and pianist Donald Berman), led by conductor David Hoose, took the virtuosic complexity in stride and projected a clear collective understanding of the musical expression behind the notes. In The Crows Return, a “duet” by Forrest Larson for solo flute and recorded sound, most of the musical development was carried by pre-recorded lightly altered sounds: the inside of a piano and crows.

Black and Berman played with dramatic flair and precise ensemble coordination in Arthur Levering’s Tesserae, which featured very rich sonorities and a surprisingly unified blend between the dissimilar sounds of viola and piano.

Each of the six movements of Stephen Hartke’s The King of the Sun, a piano quartet, was titled after paintings by Joán Miró, and some material derived from Le ray au soleyl, a late medieval canon.                       [Click title for full review.] [continued]

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B.U.’s Susannah Hits Bright Spots in Dark Musical Drama


Boston University Opera Institute and Chamber Orchestra’s production of Carlisle Floyd’s Susannah, a mostly dark musical drama of Christian zealots in the rural, opened Thursday night, April 15, at that institution’s Huntington Theater.

Clayton Hilley, who is Sam Polk, looked, played, and sang like real country folk. Vowels not usually found in the high art of singing found their way here to most refreshing effect. Only a few potentially lovely notes are scored in the drama for Susannah, sung by Ashley Logan, and she made the most of most of them. She performs again on Saturday; Chelsea Basler will assume that role for the Friday and Sunday dates. Logan’s singing about the starry sky from up on her porch roof would have had more of an impact had many more of the words been understood. Omar Najmi shaped his character, Little Bat McLean, into a somewhat quixotic personality through unusual quirky tautness and quickness that became more and more appealing.

The performances of both cast and chorus, whose country costumes injected down-to-earth feeling, spiked to excellent effect in the hymn singing and baptism scene, and then, again, in a most powerful way, in the finale. Sharon Daniels was stage director. The orchestra of 37 players under William Lumpkin produced a veritable brand of threatening sound which served no small role in moving Floyd’s dark music forward. Balance should not have surfaced as a concern as often as it did; instruments not only eclipsed voices, they intruded on the action.             [Click title for full review.] [continued]

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Honoring the Scores: H&H and Norrington in Beethoven 4th and 6th Symphonies


On April 9, at Symphony Hall, venerable Handel and Haydn gave the first of two identical Beethoven orchestral concerts over the weekend.

It was evident from the opening Adagio, so crucial and oft-times treacherous a passage for establishing pace and emotional balance, that we were to have a wonderfully clear-eyed and loving Symphony No. 4 in Bb, Op. 60. Norrington’s overarching schema was logical and rhetorically concise. Wind and brass lines emerged as a trimmed-down continuance of what the ensemble as a whole was declaiming. The fourth movement was not a familiar Beethoven (or Mozart) summation, but a new soundscape with simple, sometimes downright straightforward lines by smaller forces building toward great drama and those wonderfully-hued fortes.

Though beloved and usually comfortingly familiar in live performance, the Symphony No. 6 in F, Op. 68 “Pastorale” (1807-08) presents conductor and colleagues with interesting hurdles of organization and inflection. Mr. Norrington’s entire lack of self-important gesture or willfulness was yet more convincing in the Pastorale Symphony than in the Fourth. From the composer’s opening chapter in his unusual rustic tone painting, the conductor unified the considerable number of solo instrumental commentaries with the greater orchestral passages, making more of the travelogue character of the piece with fine success.

If we are favored with more Beethoven (and Schubert, and Schumann, and so on) of the caliber heard on this evening, Boston will continue to have excellent grounds to so broaden the city’s taste for variety and informed rethinking of chestnuts and partitions inédites that drab or unimpassioned music-making will be darned hard to sell.          [Click title for full review.] [continued]

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Intimate Mahler-Schoenberg Project by Zander Fellow at Emmanuel Church


On April 13, roughly 150 people crowded into the Parish Hall in Emmanuel Church on Newbury Street for the Mahler-Schoenberg Project, a program of two works written on the brink of the modern era conceived and conducted by Levi Hammer, Zander Fellow at the Boston Philharmonic.

Hammer’s precise direction balanced a Romantic articulation of the structure with a modernist’s adherence to rhythm and color in Schoenberg’s Chamber Symphony No. 1, a difficult piece. The lack of textural clarity in the “development” (that the composer himself attempted to remedy in 1936) was compensated for by Hammer’s nuanced rendering of the thematic recapitulation and coda.

Mahler’s Fourth faced an uphill battle from the start. If the intimate setting was appropriate for the Schoenberg, it worked to undermine the Mahler by confining to a chamber an expansive work for the concert hall. Hammer’s conducting, revealing the influence of Boston Philharmonic’s Music Director Benjamin Zander, was both spacious and warm without neglecting the underlying cynicism of Mahler’s nostalgia.

Angela Mortellaro’s youthful soprano and polished technique in the fourth movement’s Das Himmlische Leben was perfect for the part, a child’s vision of Christian heaven. Mahler, forced to convert to Roman Catholicism in order to obtain a position directing the Vienna Opera, directed that the vision be given “absolutely without parody!” The dark irony of the movement capped off a concert that succeeded in epitomizing “the elegance, sophistication, angst and decadence of fin-de-siècle Vienna.”          [Click title for full review.] [continued]

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Kuerti Interprets Eastern Europeans with the BSO


The Boston Symphony Orchestra began the current series of concerts this week unusually on Tuesday (April 13) instead of Thursday under its much-praised assistant conductor, the Canadian Julian Kuerti, The four movements of György Ligeti’s Concert Românesc flow into each other and are quite tonal, and brief—the whole Concerto lasts only about twelve minutes. But spell-binding minutes they are, in the hands of Kuerti and the BSO’s legendary strings. For me the third movement (“Adagio ma non troppo”) was nearly the highlight of the concert, with its unbelievable double sense of spareness and yet lushness, achieved with minimal means. The Orchestra’s pianissimos are ravishing.

Marc-André Hamelin was the incredibly virtuosic pianist in Shostakovich’s Piano Concerto No. 1 in C minor. He opened the first movement brilliantly with the nearly unaccompanied theme, and continued to exhibit sure control over mostly rapid and difficult passage work. The introspective slow movement (“Lento”) was absolutely magical: true interplay among the soloists and the strings, listening attentively and responding to each other. The final and vigorous Allegro con brio includes a cadenza based on the theme of Beethoven’s Rondo a capriccio, op. 129 (“Rage over a Lost Penny”).

The performance of Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 2, in C minor seemed almost in-your-face after the wonders of the preceding: loud + fast = too often muddy.                [Click title for full review.] [continued]


Chanticleer Reigns Supreme


The glorious weather on Sunday afternoon, April 11, might have given pause to an audience headed to Jordan Hall for a lesser group, but Chanticleer’s superb reputation and long history with Boston audiences prevailed, and it is doubtful anyone felt it less sunny inside. The music led off with Orlando Gibbons, then Sethus Calvisius, Palestrina,  plainchant, and the astounding brouhaha of Jannequin’s La Guerre. With a group of this level, a few quibbles seem almost unnecessary or inappropriate, but at least for this listener, it seemed that the Gibbons would have benefited from less soprano vibrato. Perhaps the voices were warming up, but one expects at least a “pure,” if not absolutely “straight” tone from this ensemble, the more so because it appears that it can be turned on or off as desired. Never mind. The brilliant tuning, especially of the final chord of several pieces, the breathtaking dynamics, the choreography of the choir which seems perfectly suited to sonic, visual and even spiritual considerations, the glory of unison singing in the plainsong, and much more—all lead to a transcendent experience of music-making which should never be taken for granted, nor was it with the audience on Sunday.

Chanticleer has carved its own significant and distinguished niche in the canon of world-class singing groups. If one word of caution were in order, it would be to avoid falling in the “gimmickry” trap, something we came close to on Sunday: with such skill and vocal virtuosity it can be a fine line between means and ends.  But, who wants to quibble with singing as glorious as this?         [Click title for full review.] [continued]

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Community Music Center’s Beethoven Cycle Culminates with the Mighty Ninth


with contributions from Peter Van Zandt Lane

The cycle of Beethoven symphonies in piano transcriptions in a series of free concerts that form part of CMCB’s centennial celebration concluded on Thursday, April 8 in CMCB’s Allen Hall, with the colossal Ninth Symphony in an arrangement by Otto singer for two pianos, soloists and chorus. The pianists were CMCB faculty members Stephen Yenger and Shoko Hino; the chorus was the CMCB’s resident adult community choir Una Voce, under the leadership of Samuel Martinborough. The other singers comprised a quartet of soloists and a quintet, both largely drawn from members of the Tanglewood Festival Chorus (and who are mostly also active freelancers in the region). The soloists were Pamela Wolfe, soprano, Cindy Vredeveld, mezzo, Martin Thomson, tenor, and Michael Pritchard, bass-baritone. The quintet consisted of Christine Pacheco Duquette and Susan Cavalieri, sopranos, Louse-Marie Mennier, alto, Martin Mulligan, tenor, and Tim Wilfong, baritone. The musical part of the program was preceded by a brief lecture by Mary Greer, a New York-based choral director and musicologist.

The duo pianists in this performance were well coordinated with each other, and they plainly have the chops to get through this big piece. It’s a bit unfortunate that they didn’t take the exposition repeat in the first movement, which most orchestral performances nowadays do, and their tempo in the outer sections of the scherzo was a bit on the slow side. On the other hand(s), they were very effective in conveying and clarifying the contrapuntal play throughout the work. What one really missed, though, was the poetry of the piece: the collaborators did not come to an understanding of the expressive arc of the symphony, most vividly observable in the slow movement, whose “cantabile” heading seems to have gotten lost in translation. [Click title for full review.] [continued]

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Dorchester Symphony, Violinist Park, in Ashmont


William Shoucair, conductor of the relatively new Dorchester Symphony Orchestra, chose not to perform the easy path of “pops” or crossover programming, but instead went with substantial works from the standard symphonic repertoire at the concert on April 11 at All Saints Church, Ashmont.

The audience, in one of Boston’s great architectural gems, was only middling in number—which calls out for more attention from the community to familiarize itself with the institutions dedicated to serve it, especially ones of this quality and scarcity.

Shoucair and the DSO gave a performance of Beethoven’s overture to Fidelio that, while not to be confused with one of our top professional ensembles, showed commendable dynamic contrast and held our attention with fine dramatic pacing and a rousing finish.

Our tolerance for the merely competent performance of the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto has thinned. Luckily, our tolerance levels were not tested on this occasion. Yoojin Park, a graduate student at NEC, has a solid, focused, forceful sound and a commanding approach. Her vibrato is commendably narrow, her cadenza in the first movement a marvel of dynamic control. The orchestra was no shrinking violet, either: Mr. Shoucair made it a fully active participant and foil to the soloist, rather than just her accompanist. On the whole, the DSO could be justly proud.

The first two movements of the Mozart Symphony No. 39, seemed under-rehearsed and a little ragged. The Minuet and finale were much better, with some lovely playing by the flute and clarinets in the former’s (literal) trio. This was our first hearing of the DSO (we live basically around the corner from the venue), and on current evidence we will be following its career with great interest.      [Click title for full review.] [continued]


Sherman Returns to Emmanuel


Pianist Russell Sherman presented his second concert of three in Emmanuel Music’s “Haydn and Schoenberg: Fathers of Invention” Spring chamber music series on Sunday afternoon, April 11 at Emmanuel Church. Sherman’s former student, Katherine Chi, appeared as a guest artist, playing the first two pieces on the program.

Chi’s approach to both the brilliant and sensitive offering of Haydn’s Sonata in b minor and Schoenberg’s Fünf Klavierstücke, op. 23 was similar — always showing delicate restraint in the beginning in order to allow the music to blossom.

Perhaps it was Katherine Chi’s mediation, or maybe Sherman’s 20-minute exposition, but I found myself more sympathetic to his interpretive choices than during prior performances. He gave jazz-like fluidity to the opening movement of Haydn’s Sonata in A-flat Major and contrasted this with an Adagio I found too meditative, but sensitively conceived. Sherman’s lack of harmonic pressure brought out the finish of Haydn’s Sonata in C Major, leading toward an achingly beautiful final cadence. In the Rondo, however, Sherman’s phrasing seemed too rushed in an attempt to capture Haydn’s gregarious energy, dismissing some of the more melodic qualities of the theme.

Sherman’s playing of the Schoenberg Klavierstücke, op. 33 and op. 33b had some positively Romantic moments of introspection, but never lost a sense of horizontal phrasing in order to bring out Schoenberg’s melodies.

Sherman ensured that every statement of the main theme in  Haydn’s Sonata in E-flat Major was fresh and vital. While he may not have convinced me with the A-flat Major Adagio, the slow movement here was wondrous. The closing minuet-finale was tuneful and joyous, bringing forth the innate laughter in Haydn’s music.           [Click title for full review.] [continued]


Fragment of Frazin’s Oratorio-in-Progress, with Ives, Copland, and Schoenfield at Wellesley


Triple Helix performed at Houghton Memorial Chapel of Wellesley College on April 10. Aaron Copland’s Twelve Poems of Emily Dickinson (1950) explore a lean, spare style with thin, widely-spaced piano textures in some songs and a thicker, more Romantic sound in others. Sarah Pelletier had a rich, strong sound throughout; Lois Shapiro’s accompaniment was always precise and clear, as vigorous or discreet as need be but never subdued.

The full trio and Pelletier gave a good first account of Simple Grace, with text by Joan of Arc as cited by Mark Twain, part of an oratorio-in-progress by Howard Frazin. This attractive excerpt makes this listener look forward to the complete work — perhaps in a staged version?

Charles Ives’s Trio has flashes of blazing inspiration side by side with episodes of internal contradiction. The first movement is short, with long stretches of C pedal points in the piano and thickly dissonant harmony above. In the second movement, TSIAJ (This Scherzo Is A Joke), everything seems to be slung together: “Jingle Bells,” “My Old Kentucky Home,” football songs that I couldn’t recognize, snatches (maybe) from Ives’s “Concord” Sonata, whole-tone thirds from the Fourth Symphony, and (more definitely) ostinati from his Over the Pavements. I’ve heard this movement played much faster, and was grateful to hear it this way, when I could discern more of what was going on.

Paul Schoenfield’s Café Music (1987), a boisterous escapade in three movements, in which a klezmer band is reborn without its wind instruments, concluded the concert. I had expected to hear William Bolcom’s Second Violin Sonata, a personal favorite of mine, but the Schoenfield was certainly an acceptable trade, and the audience loved it.                  [Click title for full review.] [continued]

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“Salon d’un Refusé’, deux,” Self-Described Title of Concert by Composer Tony Schemmer


An Appreciation:

Tony Schemmer provided an audience of many of Boston’s most avid melomanes with a diverse, entertaining, and edifying evening of his works at the Longy School of Music on Saturday evening, April 10, 2010.  Entitled by him “Salon d’un Refusé, deux,” the program treated the audience to a good American melting pot (without, thank heavens, the obsessive open fifths and fourths that some have defined as “American Music”).

Presented with flawless and enthusiastic virtuosity by some of the region’s most accomplished young musicians, the program gave proof that New Music can be original and creative without sounding like jackhammers tearing down Filenes or the Green Line rounding the bend at Government Center.          [Click title for full review.] [continued]

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Boston Premiere of Adams and Voltage Control from St. Lawrence String Quartet


Kudos goes to the Celebrity Series of Boston for presenting this youngish Canadian outfit, St. Lawrence String Quartet in concert on April 9 in Jordan Hall. What this quartet can do is quite remarkable.

Their highly charged and disciplined approach to Haydn’s String Quartet in E-flat Major, Opus 9, No. 2 right away was a clear indicator of why America’s leading light, John Adams, would so take to them.

The same would go for their Dvorák, the String Quartet No. 13 in G Major, Opus 106. Then, while everyone knew there would be no electronics, voltage control was, however, in order. It was an evening of staggering performances, artful in all but one way. Most apparent, the pianos, pianissimos and even mezzo fortes in Dvorák’s String Quartet No. 13 in G Major score mostly went unobserved.

Adams said: “It’s perfectly OK if you leave this experience not really having an idea what you’ve heard! I recently heard a performance of the Bartók First Quartet for the first time… It took me about ten hearings to get a rough feel for the shape of it—and I’m a composer!” Adams’s honesty cutting right through into the matter was ever-present in his string quartet. Naturalness in his crafting every rhythm and every color brings genuineness to an unmistakable voice. However, I did not hear “Haight-Ashbury and rock” which the St. Lawrence String Quartet pointed out for us to hear. Whereas Shaker Loops, El Niño, and Dr. Atomic remain for me his very best from the very first time I heard them, I will need to listen to his string quartet again.

The St. Lawrence String Quartet’s encore of country-to-concert hall fiddling in Adams’ Pavan” from Alleged Dances was exhilarating and fun right down to the final, humble bow. [Click title for full review.] [continued]

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Concord Chamber Music Society Puts on Little Gem from Sirocco Winds for Little Folk


Saturday morning, April 10, a musical portrayal of a young penguin’s incredible journey, played to an attentive audience of young children and grown-ups alike. Onstage at the Emerson Umbrella in Concord sat a young woodwind quintet who calls itself the Sirocco Winds. For the better part of 20 minutes, they took turns telling a story and playing their instruments.

Stanley’s Flight, a special children’s program presented by the Concord Chamber Music Society, enchanted. Both story and movie-like score were written by Michael Glicksman. The music was inviting with its child-like tone painting of the story, and a gentle sense of wonder pervaded his piece.

Next came a bubbling wind quintet rendition of Rigaudon from Le Tombeau de Couperin by Maurice Ravel that fit perfectly into the program. And after that, children and grown-ups alike gathered on the stage with the young, welcoming musicians to get a closer look at the instruments and pose some more questions.           [Click title for full review.] [continued]

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Wolff Leads NEC Philharmonia, Cellist Hakhnazarian, at Symphony Hall


On April 7 the NEC Philharmonia under Hugh Wolff played at Symphony Hall, to a nearly full house, in a public concert co-sponsored by Celebrity Series of Boston.

Wolff used Barber’s Adagio for Strings as a warm-up by showing off the Philharmonia’s ability to hold a quiet intensity, which it did admirably. What was less good was his excessively long pause at the searing climax, as if he did not trust Barber to achieve the necessary relief on purely instrumental grounds, which it really does quite well without the unduly theatrical intervention.

The Schumann Cello Concerto in A minor, op. 129, is not the most-often played of cello concertos, nor can one say that it is woefully neglected. None of this would matter if the orchestra and soloist put forward a cogent argument for its lyrical and poetic virtues. On this occasion, Wolff did not close the sale. Armenian cellist and NEC Artist Diploma candidate Narek Hakhnazarian, a supremely gifted young man, appeared quite committed to this work, but his passion wanted to make of it something it is not. Wolff and the orchestra assumed the deferential position one expects of a traditional early-19th-century bravura concerto. From where we sat, this appeared to be a serious miscalculation. Oh well, live and learn; it certainly did nothing to curb the audience’s enthusiasm or keep them seated during the great ovation that followed.

The Shostakovich Tenth Symphony was very well played: although the string section, as always, carries the flame, this work places heavy demands on winds and brass. Important solos were noticeably well done by principal clarinet Alexis Lanz, flute Pamela Daniels (in the dusky lower range), bassoon Luke Olaf Varland, and oboe Mary Lynch.

As an encore, Mr. Hakhnazarian tossed off with enormous agility and aplomb a Georgian folk dance entirely in pizzicato with strumming and perfectly crystalline bell-like pizzicato harmonics.     [Click title for full review.] [continued]

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Kalmar Outstanding Guide in BSO’s Harbison, Mahler


Harbison’s new concerto Double Concerto for violin, cello and orchestra received a fine performance on April 8 with the Boston Symphony with excellent soloists, Mira Wang, violin, and Jan Vogler, cello, a married couple. It begins with a dialogue between major and minor thirds played against each other in the solo instruments. Such cross-relations are “unnecessarily pejorative in implication [but] … often beautiful,” as the composer’s program note reads. I couldn’t agree more. Harbison spoke before the concert of his search for the “blue third” that “isn’t on the keyboard but it’s the common ground of folk music” around the world and remarked about the “thickened melodic line, fanned out to six lines” from a single voice. This texture may have been elusive in the second movement of the concerto, but it was certainly apparent in the bright finale.

Mahler’s Seventh is one of his most refractory symphonies. There are extraordinary sounds, dominated by the imperious and imperial Tenorhorn. Mahler’s counterpoint becomes dissonant to the point of grotesque; but this is one of his outstanding characteristics even from his First Symphony. The three middle movements of the Seventh are the most appealing and the most successful. Both the second and fourth movements are shorter than the first and fifth but still they are quite long; the third movement is shorter still. To those not well acquainted with Mahler’s other works, the Rondo finale of the Seventh must seem close to madness. Not even the Burleske movement of the Ninth has such a wild assortment of seemingly inconsistent orchestral styles. Carlos Kalmar made a point of exaggerating the differences in tempo, which is the more problematic because Mahler never left metronome indications for a guide.

Carlos Kalmar, visiting from Oregon, had to learn Harbison’s score in a hurry when he took over from an ailing James Levine, and he can be congratulated for his good work. Kalmar’s conducting is precise and elegant; a large gesture got a large response, his small gestures were carefully followed, his left hand was fully independent, and his accents were clean every time. Like most younger conductors, he bends his knees too much, but this is a small complaint; I have seen too many guests at the BSO relying on histrionics far more egregious than this. There was no doubt about the fine playing by the Boston Symphony, and Carlos Kalmar was an outstanding guide along a treacherous emotional pathway. Last night’s performance of the Seventh, no matter how psychically disturbing, is another trophy on the distinguished shelf. [Click title for full review.] [continued]


Chuang Shines in Boston Conservatory Piano Master Series


Ya-Fei Chuang, who joined the music faculty of Boston Conservatory three years ago, performed on April 6 as part of its Piano Masters Series. Many years ago I had the fortune to record Ya-Fei Chuang playing selections from Chopin’s Opus 28. Her playing was conventional in its rhythmic freedom, but stunning in its technical virtuosity and with feeling that touched the heart and soul. Last night I was captured and fascinated by how much her playing has grown — in rubato, the independence of the left and right hands, and in dynamic range. Phrasing was more gesture than line. The timing of the notes was all over the place – what the French call “inegal” but played with such authority that one knew that they were exactly where they belonged.

Chuang’s style in Ravel’s La Valse was furious and modern, her upper hand portraying the dancers a frenzy of notes and glissandos. Chuang’s style was furious and modern, fittingly quite different from the Chopin.

She did her best to make the Scarlatti Sonata in F Major K. 518 and Sonata in F Minor, K 519 fit with a modern piano. For the Rachmaninoff Sonata No. 2 in B-flat minor, op. 36, she played with excitement and power.
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Ursula Oppens Stars in “Music of the 21st Century”


Every one of the 88 notes of the piano came into play in what seemed a gazillion different ways in a judiciously planned program on April 1 at Paine Hall, Harvard, by Ursula Oppens, one of the long-time reigning stars of contemporary music. “Music of the 21st Century” presented American music composed between 2004 and 2009.  John Corigliano with his movie scores, William Bolcom with his boundary-jumping over into ragtime and jazz, and even Tobias Picker with his reachable operas, here, in their solo piano pieces composed for Oppens, showed up in garb more often befitting the mid-20th-century European triumvirate of the serialists Boulez, Berio, and Stockhausen. Charles Wuorinen, especially, took on the sound of over a half century past, doing so once again with intellectualism in a long and tedious one-movement work, Oros, which Oppens performed for the first time. Elliot Carter showed up as the brightest, most intelligent of the refashioned bunch. Another American composer, Amy Williams, took other paths in “a diverse trio of pieces.”

At 65, Ursula Oppens, who has devoted her life to new music, is still going strong as ever, making treacherous compositions for her instrument seem easy play while breathing life into each and every one them. Unflinching sureness, a hallmark of her playing, combined with an unassuming nature that can be deceptive; her total attention is given to the composer’s work. All of this, in turn, rubs off on her audience who cannot help but pay full attention — no easy accomplishment when dealing with the extraordinary demands of New Music imposed on both performer and listener.     [Click title for full review.] [continued]


Frühbeck de Burgos Provides Thrilling Elijah on Short Notice


Boston Symphony audiences were fortunate in having two excellent artists available to be last-minute substitutions for indisposed Music Director James Levine and tenor soloist Aleksandrs Antonenko, who was to have made his BSO debut for these concerts in the first week of April. (I attended Thursday, April 1.) Rafael Frühbeck de Burgos has not only been an especially popular guest conductor with the BSO, but also made one of the definitive recordings of Elijah in 1968. And the internationally renowned American tenor Anthony Dean Griffey took over the tenor solos.

The orchestra began the fugal overture with a whisper in the low strings and steadily gathered power in a well-judged build-up to an orchestral climax before the electrifying chorus entry, “Help, Lord! Wilt Thou quite destroy us?” This first chorus is followed by another unusual feature: choral recitative in which each section of the chorus has a phrase to itself. These were elegantly, poignantly shaped.

The Elijah, Shenyang, a young Chinese bass-baritone, has a fine, firm medium-sized voice with a good cutting edge that helps it carry over the large orchestra. He effectively set the ominous mood with the assistance of the wind instruments, particularly the blatant fortissimo tritone in the brass, although he basically was too understated as Elijah. The soprano and mezzo soloists, Christine Brewer and Stephanie Blythe, listening intently to each other, seemed like a beautiful voice singing in harmony with itself.

The Tanglewood Festival Chorus, which by and large has the most exciting music, generated great excitement and contrasting subtlety when appropriate. The TFC’s performing from memory, as is their custom, allowed Maestro Frühbeck de Burgos to take rubato where he chose, resulting in a feeling of natural spontaneity.     [Click title for full review.] [continued]


Refurbishment of First Church Harpsichord Celebrated with Cienniwa Recital


The Sunday afternoon March 28 recital at First Church Boston’s Hale Chapel by Music Director Paul Cienniwa featured the deuxième performance of Larry Thomas Bell’s Partita No. 1, Op. 97 for Harpsichord in its Boston premiere. Cienniwa, to whom the Partita is dedicated, gave it a stirring performance, choosing the registers as the composer intended. The final “Toccata,” full of cascading scales and chords reminiscent of the overture, ends on a single high note. The other movements were equally deft, from the pauses and scales of the “Overture” to the “Courante,” which featured the 8′ and 4′ registers, to the plaintive theme of the “Air” and the beautiful “Sarabande” with its alternating 8′ keyboards.

Cienniwa opened his recital with a majestic performance of the Huitième Ordre of François Couperin. With its unusual chords and alternating “Vivement” and “Gravement” sections, it’s one of Couperin’s most inspired creations. The use of the buff stop for the tantalizing “Morinéte” last movement was exactly the right decision. Not everyone can capture the Baroque French style as Cienniwa does.

Three Sonatas in D Major (K. 490-492) by Domenico Scarlatti followed intermission. Bach’s Fifth Partita in G Major (BWV 829) was the final piece in this fine program. The full harpsichord was employed for the “Praeludium.”

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None Dare Call It Juvenilia: BCMS at Sanders


The Boston Chamber Music Society performed on March 28 at Sanders Theater an intriguing survey of early works by composers whose mature —or at least most familiar—idioms were in most cases quite different from these efforts.

The BCMS members and guests, Lucy Chapman, violin, Marcus Thompson, viola, Astrid Schween (of the Lark Quartet), cello, and Randall Hodgkinson, piano, gave the quite familiar Mahler Piano Quartet in A minor a fine, characterful, reading imbued with the Romantic, adolescent Weltschmerz it requires. We were especially impressed with Ms. Schween, who really dug in.

Thomas Hill is among the very best clarinetists anywhere, demonstrated in his rich tone, mind-bending breath and volume control, and intelligence and conviction in Alban Berg’s challenging Four Pieces for Clarinet and Piano, op. 5, a clarinetist’s tour de force of subdued, smoldering fire. Harumi Rhodes, violin, made a fabulous entrance ex nihilo in the Webern Four Pieces for Violin and Piano. We were sitting up close, so could just hear it — pity those in the balcony; but it proves that visuals of a live performance are critically important. Ms. Schween’s tone was luscious in the Webern Two Pieces for Cello and Piano, Mr. Hodgkinson, as ever, the perfect foil. The Piano Quintet of 1907 more clearly shows Webern developing some of his own tics, such as the condensation, and some of his standard memes, like sul ponticello tremolo playing. This is a piece worth keeping in repertory.

The biggest work on the program, the Strauss C minor Piano Quartet, op. 13, is harmonically more advanced than his friend Mahler’s earlier work and contains many felicities of development. The BCMS players took the elfin “Scherzo,” rather more diabolically than the music suggests; the robust and tempestuous finale makes much of a little opening motif and its inversion. The performance, by Rhodes, Thompson, Schween and Hodgkinson, was full-blooded yet sensitive, and amply justifies repeated hearings.            [Click title for full review.] [continued]

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