14 March 2011

Review of an ASO concert

This past weekend, I attended another concert at the Allentown Symphony Orchestra. You can read another writer's review on the music blog of The Morning Call. This was a fascinating "lecture recital" style event, part music history lesson, part symphony concert. The conductor, Diane Wittry, prefaced each piece with a brief talk about its composition history, instrumentation, form, and notable musical moments. She did this for several reasons. First, as you can read in her interview, she is an active educator of her audience, young people, and the wider public. Second, because the audience for Classical music is aging, and music directors (and others) need to find new ways to make their concerts more exciting and interesting to young people. Third, because there were complicated stage changes for each piece, so Diane talked to help cover the time the stage crew needed to reset the instrumentation!

What I found most educational in the overall arrangement of this concert, as well as in Ms. Wittry's comments, was the visual presentation of the evolution of the orchestra. With the exception of Doug Oven's fanfare (see below), the pieces were presented in chronological order, so we got to watch the orchestra grow from just strings (and soloists) for the Bach piece, through the addition of brass, winds, and finally percussion. What a *dynamic* way to experience music history! There were other interesting, unconventional aspects to this concert that illustrate Ms. Wittry's innovative approach to programming classical music. The audience, for instance, clapped between many of the movements -- and why not? If we are moved by the music, why restrain our appreciative response?

The first piece was Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto No. 2, a lovely and profound work with a clear contrapuntal texture. The soloists, as for several other pieces on the program, were members of the orchestra. The piece got off to a rather rough start; the violist had to be much more vigorous in getting the ensemble off the ground than a conductor or more experienced soloist would. Indeed, the evening was something of a commentary on the difference between highly experienced soloists -- whose talent, training, and personalities enable them to dominate the stage, elucidate the piece, and share deep passions with the audience -- and ensemble members playing solos -- who usually get the right notes out, but often do little more, hampered as they are by shyness, odd mannerisms, and a diffidence not suited to front-and-center. So it was here: the performance was a little plodding, but the interaction among the soloists was lively and interesting. A quite tolerable performance on the whole.

Three of the six works on this program really stood out and lifted the concert above the mediocre. Tchaikovsky’s Variations on a Rococo Theme, with 2010 Schadt Competition Winner Jacqueline Choi as soloist, was truly amazing. This is a gorgeous piece that plays with a range of emotions across an almost Gothic gamut. And Ms. Choi is stunning. She stood out in sharp contrast to the amateur solos in the other pieces: she controlled the performance by face, gesture, head. Her playing was virtuosic, flashy, dramatic, and expressive. Her technique is marvelous -- and this is a piece to show off all the strengths of a cellist, or to expose any weaknesses. It exploits the instrument's range, timbres, and tones to their extremes, and Ms. Choi mastered them all, playing with our emotional response as surely as with her instrument.

After intermission, the program began again with a world premiere: A fanfare entitled "Endless Possibilities" by local composer Doug Ovens. This rich, lush, exciting piece sounded just like a sci-fi film score: I kept waiting for the scenes to start and the hero to enter. It was very vivid and even visual in nature, full of suspense and tension, suggesting dramatic episodes and death-defying adventures. As Doug mentioned in our interview, he likes to write for each instrument so that the players enjoy the lines he gives them, and he did that here. He used each instrument well and fully, sometimes employing musical cliches (the most common techniques, gestures, etc) for each. I really loved this piece and think it will be taken up by other orchestras and played frequently.

The next piece on the program is yet another example of Ms. Wittry's brave, creative programming: the gorgeous but under-performed "Swan of Tuonela" by Sibelius. This piece is a "tone poem," meaning that its particular beauty is not in virtuosity, not in story-telling, not even in narrative-style musical development, but in long, sustained, gorgeous shimmery layers of sound. This was very well played indeed! The orchestra held the sound at just the right level, sustained, deliberate, and softly intense. The solo instrument here is the mis-named English horn, which may just have the single most beautiful sound of all wind instruments: it is rich, mellow, mysterious, dark, and gorgeous: perfectly matched with the rest of this piece of musical fantasy. The soloist, Nancy Gaspari from the orchestra, played well, but again, did not have the stage presence or personal dynamism for really a memorable solo performance.

Now, the last two piece made a kind of set and also were yet another little music history lesson. First, there was a tiny little trio that may or may not be by Pergolesi -- and then Stravinsky's Pulcinella Suite, which is a set of variations on the "Pergolesi" tune. The trio was cute, and the Stravinsky was ambitious. While this piece is fun and varied, I thought it was a little too much at the end of such a widely diverse program. It seemed that the orchestra and audience were both losing energy and focus by this point in the evening, as if we had tried to cover too much ground in a short time. But if this is the case, it is a valuable and even "successful failure" -- because those who do not reach far will never fall short. And Ms. Wittry and her orchestra reach very far indeed.

My biggest concern is not with the fact that this concert was somewhat non-traditional -- I think that is brave and admirable -- but that the current climate requires conductors to try out various gimmicks just to attempt to bring in the audience. There is nothing wrong with clapping, talking, and otherwise engaging performers with audience between pieces and between movements, but it's unfortunate that it should be necessary. The music should speak for itself, and does to a culture that is educated and attentive enough to listen. It's too bad that Ms. Wittry has to turn somersaults to get people to pay attention, but as long as she has to, she's doing a great job of it.

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