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Live Review: Brute and Beautiful – Petrenko & Shostakovich @ the BSO (2009.01.31)

vasily_petrenkoWith supple force, sometimes delicate, sometimes with iron fist, conductor Vasily Petrenko (pictured left) gave the BSO players room to conquer.

Riffs mounting to tensions that a lesser composer, say John Williams, would have to barter his soul for. And that was just the Shostakovich. “O a steep, stiff drink,” we all cried.  For after the Shostakovich #8, our souls were burning amber embers. Smoldering under a brute glory from Russia’s darkest days: 1943. Think Guernica in five movements.

But first, let me say I am proud to live in a city where on one Saturday night, I had to choose between hearing Shosta’s #8 at the Meyerhoff, Shosta’s #10 at Peabody, or avant-garde jazz at An Die Musik. ‘Tis the season. Don’t miss the glut of live music going on now.

I don’t regret my decision at all. One musician (who shall remain nameless and sectionless) prayed that Mr. Petrenko would come again, saying: “Sometimes this symphony is all dressed up with nowhere to go.” But the places they went that night! Read the rest…

Live Review: Breathless Whirl of the Baltimore Waltz – Ravel @ the BSO (2009.01.15)

Atypical Romantic

Atypical Romantic

The BSO, under the baton of visiting French conductor, Stéphane Denève, harnessed this whirling beast with great aplomb, taking us for a lovely hurl towards the edge of Viennese culture — as seen by the French composer. I’ve never heard a more genuinely- paced rendition.

“The impression of fantastic and fatal whirling” — this is what Maurice Ravel had to say of composing La Valse in 1919. That’s all that remained after he’d first envisioned La Valse — the tone poem — back in 1906. What intervened? Only the cataclysm of World War I.

Imagine yourself, asking a lovely partner of the opposite sex to waltz, to step — while turning — with a leg directly between your own. Chances are, you’d get drunk first. Just like you do before you go out to bump and grind. Denève offered a most drunkenly-divine slowness to start this unholy ballroom dervish. There’s a flash of percussion promise, a swish of skirt riot from the woodwinds before the strings take up. Best of all, as this turbine cranked up to full devilry, the cellos were raw and randy. There was almost a Latin-like squaring off with the two string sections as things got steamy.

Read the rest…

2008 Wrap-Up (Alex) – Live Performances

Luckily, my editor is on in-between semester break. Otherwise, I’m sure he would be in T.A. mode and grade my late post accordingly…

However, I dragged my feet somewhat deliberately. What’s the point of a 2008 summation if you don’t have at least a little critical distance between current time, and the past year? One doesn’t write a book report until the book is actually finished. A conclusion about a hypothesis can’t be reached until the experiment is actually completed. You don’t say, “Wow, baby…that was some good sex,” until the deal is sealed–unless you’re an ego-tripping moron with a teenager’s maturity level.

January 29, 2008 was my emergence from the world of sub-par print music journalism into the realm of much more serious online music writing. I don’t take credit for the upgrade; that goes solely to Greg Szeto, the music editor at my former publication, and the founder and managing editor of Aural States. I know good coat tails when I seem them, and I was really excited to jump into this venture with Greg. 

The results have been unthinkable, really. Much of the work I’ve felt the best about, and been the most proud of in the past several years has been for Aural States.
For me, 2008 has been a year of amazing music–recorded, live, and starting recently, making it again. To be accurate this journey’s proper beginnings are in the fall of 2007, but isn’t it weird how events usually arise from prior events in sequential order? Event chains, I think they are called.  I have been into music all my life, but 2008 is unique in the fact that I actually, in some small way, took a spot in a broader network of music, and culture-of-music people. I began blogging, and people were actually reading what I wrote.

This status of blogger doesn’t feel quite like it fits yet. Around Baltimore, indie/hipsters types (definitely loaded words, which are commonly mistaken for being synonymous with “music types”) don such close-fitting clothes. Perhaps, feeling as though this is a role I need to grow into is a healthier stance, than having skin-tight clothing restricting, and inhibiting movement (read: critical movement, and development).

Also, clothes being the signifiers that they are designate people into one group. I personally don’t fit into one single group musically, and probably not socially, either. From my understanding (and I think it’s an accurate understanding) the same goes for Aural States. To be clear, this does not mean AS has to be everything musically to fulfill our eclectic mission statement, but we simply need to be who we are, and only who we are.

And who are we? Music geeks: pure, unabashed, genuine music geeks.

My (Highly Subjective) Most Memorable Live Performances of 2008 (in no order, and it’s more than 10)
Read the rest…

BSO plays weekend of Gershwin

This weeekend, the Baltimore Symphony pays tribute to the celebrated American composer George Gershwin.

Marin Alsop will lead the programs with guest pianist Jean-Yves Thibaudet.  On Thursday and Friday, the program consists of Gershwin’s first major classical work, Rhapsody in Blue, along with his Concerto in F and Ravel’s Le Tombeau de Couperin.  “The most famous jazz group of the 1920s, the Paul Whiteman Band originally commissioned Rhapsody in Blue,“according to Janet Bedell.  The BSO will be performing with the original jazz-orchestration written for the Paul Whiteman Band.  The Saturday program is all Gershwin, sans Ravel.

Rhapsody is distinctive as it is one of the first pieces (premiered in 1924) to truly bring a distinctly American sound to the classical concert hall, bearing the stamp of New York rhythms, American jazz and pop, and Broadway musicals.  It is also a great showcase for Gershwin’s romantic, highly expressive and virtuosic style as a pianist.

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Geroge Gershwin – Rhapsody in Blue

Yuja Wang & the BSO Review (26.04.2008)

Yuja Wang & the BSO’s performance program of Yardumian, Prokofiev and Berlioz was hands down the best performance I’ve seen this season, equaling if not surpassing opening weekend, and maintaining consistently high-quality performance throughout.

The first piece was Yardumian’s Armenian Suite. Immediately apparent was French guest-conductor Yan Pascal Tortelier’s conducting style. Clearly an aggressive micro-manager, Tortelier cues most if not all entrances and is direct and deliberate with how he wants each passage styled. While his style exerts a little more aggressive control than I prefer, there is no arguing with the product. Tortelier drew a spectacular performance from the BSO. His style enabled lots of small touches like accentuating dynamic contrasts, particularly with his direct, expressive conducting. Armenian Suite was pulled off with great vitality and a lush sound, but the piece is largely uninteresting, conjuring some vaguely ethnic imagery through brass fanfares.

From the beginning of Prokofiev’s piano concerto, it was clear that Armenian Suite was only the appetizer for the rest of the program. Read the rest…

Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique and the BSO

As a brass and tuba player, it is hard to find composers that really know how to utilize your instrument in a dynamic way that sounds great and feels great to play. I present to you, Hector Berlioz (pictured right). French composer whose pieces Symphonie fantastique and Damnation of Faust are an absolute joy to play and hear performed.

Berlioz had a great knack for composing expressive bass lines and arranging for powerful brass instrumentation.

The fourth movement is a propulsive march with a progressively more turbulent, unstable feel due to abrupt changes between passages, juxtaposing extreme dynamics and opposing string and brass lines in its final minute. Its melodies are longer, more drawn out phrases than typically seen, but consistent with the big sweep-and-swell motif established from the start of the first movement and really giving the march a more epic feel. Whet your appetite with this performance of the fourth movement by Herbert von Karajan and the Berlin Philharmonic, recorded for Deutsch Grammophon.

Hector Berlioz – Symphonie Fantastique – IV. Marche au Supplice (March to the Scaffold)

Marin Alsop and the BSO tackle Symphonie Fantastique as well as Prokofiev’s first piano concerto, featuring 20-year-old rising star Yuja Wang (Wiki) on piano. Performances at the Meyerhoff April 25-27, opening April 24 at the Strathmore in Bethesda. Tickets start at a low $15. Highly recommended.

BSO 2008-09 schedule: yawn.

When Marin Alsop took over from Yuri Temirkanov as music director of the BSO this past season, there was a huge ruckus. She was bringing in huge names in modern classical like John Adams, Tan Dun, and fairly renowned fiddler/composer Mark O’Connor (who delivered a hell of a performance for the America program a few weeks ago).

It seemed like Alsop had a very clear vision for programming which has been lauded in some circles, and vilified in others. They played some titans of the genre like Mahler’s Symphony No. 10, and Beethoven’s Fifth while also embracing more modern classics like the Americana classic Copland’s Appalachian Spring. Nonetheless, I had faith in her strategy. But with the 2008-2009 season, I wonder if the Alsop engine has lost some of its steam.

In my opinion, classical has reached a critical stage. Overall, aging audiences call for canon while younger listeners yearn for wider exposure to modern works; but you gotta go where the money is, and that’s in canon. There is a stifling pall of stagnation that hangs over the genre, and the schism between the two camps of listeners is huge. Classical needs to reassert its relevance and vitality. The perfect way to do this is to pair works of past giants with those of modern composers, showcasing both classical’s impressive past and its vibrant present/future.

The press release for the 2008-09 season hit my inbox, I was giddy. Then I started reading. Yo-yo Ma. OK, big name, opening weekend, I get it even if I don’t like it. Holst’s Planets. Quality, nothing edgy, but good stuff. Mahler’s Titan follows. Not my favorite by far, but Mahler is Mahler…

Mozart Violin Conc. No. 11 and Schubert No. 4…OK. Maybe an off week.

Bernstein’s Mass…ummm…OK, I love Bernstein as a conductor, but compositions not so much. Then a pattern emerges. Unfortunately, it is one of predictability.

The season degenerates into a sea of many less notable compositions from standard names: Dukas, Dvorak, Mozart, Mahler, Tchaikovsky and Brahms. Compared to her inaugural season, the upcoming one is a let-down, with few, if any, modern names represented. In fact, with the appearance of multiple Mahler pieces, the Copland Americana focus and multiple Messiahs on the calendar, things feel really similar to the current season.

Don’t get me wrong…there are some interesting spots such as the return of Yuri Temirkanov, Leonard Slatkin‘s guest conducting for a weekend and the relative rarity in current times of a professional brass ensemble performance (from the Canadian Brass). But this season lacks any punch for my classical palate.

And now, I wonder, what exactly is Alsop aiming for? Or if there are other influences impacting the season’s direction. Hopefully, we’ll be getting some time to sit down and talk about next season’s programming. In the meantime, view the season here.

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