Sunday, July 26, 2009

NSO's Summer Music Institute Orchestra - Wagner, Ibert, Prokofiev and Brahms - 07/26/09

Conductor: Elizabeth Schulze
Wagner: Overture to Tannhäuser
Ibert: Concerto for Flute and Orchestra (Third movement) - Christine Murphy
Prokofiev: Violin Concerto No 2 in G Minor, Op. 63 (First movement) - Charlotte Nicholas
Brahms: Symphony No 2 in D Major, Op. 73

This year again promising young musicians from all around the world converged to Washington to learn all about being part of an orchestra at the NSO's Summer Institute in the course of three and a half weeks, and concluded their training this evening with a bona fide concert in the concert hall of the Kennedy Center as part of the daily Millennium Stage. As usual, the program was not available until people were ready to take their seats, but it is generally a crowd-pleaser and this year again, it was attractive and eclectic. A dedicated supporter of music education, maestra Schulze was conducting this temporary orchestra for the ninth year in a row with her trademark communicative energy and good humor.

Wagner's grand Romantic opera, Tannhäuser is based on two unrelated German legends and revolves around the story of a doomed man who can only be redeemed by the self-sacrificing love of a woman. The overture is a whole journey in itself, from the somber pilgrims' hymn to the Bacchanalian celebration of sensual love by the goddess Venus, before dawn comes and brings back good over evil with the return of the pilgrims. Playing with unbridled enthusiasm but still managing to bring out most of the composition's subtleties, the budding musicians grabbed the audience's attention from the very start and did not let go.
My lack of interest in the sound of the flute did not bode well for the second piece of the program, but even I could appreciate the impressive skills of Christine Murphy as she was negotiating the treacherous third movement of Ibert's notoriously difficult flute concerto, never mind that now and then the orchestra got carried away and covered her most delicate passages.
Next on the stage was fast-rising Charlotte Nicholas, who had to master the no less challenging first movement of Prokofiev's second violin concerto. Here again, the young soloist took firm command of the work from its graceful unaccompanied introduction and easily sailed through the minefield it is, displaying plenty of technique and musicality in the process.
To end the program with beauty and élan, there's nothing like a sweepingly lyrical treat such as Brahms' Symphony No 2. Although its first movement is rather stormy, the general mood of the whole piece is unabashedly light and cheerful. This was the perfect vehicle for all the youngsters on stage to revel in it with unstoppable momentum, which more than made up for the occasional lack of sophistication or reflectiveness. They let the sun shine in, and we were all mostly grateful for it.

Friday, July 24, 2009

BSO - All-Beethoven - 07/23/09

Conductor: Günther Herbig
Beethoven: Symphony No 9 in D Minor, Op. 125, "Choral"
Kelley O'Connor: Mezzo-soprano
Heidi Stober: Soprano
Gordon Gietz: Tenor
Stephen Powell: Baritone
After a couple of very slow weeks in terms of musical enjoyment, yesterday evening I was back at Strathmore for the last concert of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra’s "Summer Nights" series, the by now traditional Symphony No 9 by Beethoven. Amazingly written when the composer was completely deaf, it is by all accounts a remarkable work of universal dimensions and certainly has the track record to prove so. Among its numerous claims to fame are a performance conducted by Wilhelm Furtwängler at the reopening of Bayreuth’s Festpsiel in 1951, a concert led by Leonard Bernstein in Berlin right after the tearing down of the wall in 1989, not to mention Seiji Ozawa conducting the Nagano Winter Orchestra as well as seven choirs in six countries (New York City, Berlin, Cape Point, Sydney, and Beijing and Nagano, where two choruses were at hand) for the 1998 Winter Olympic Games during the finale of the opening ceremony. Its grand fourth movement has become no less than the anthem of the European Union, and the list goes on and on. That was the only piece on the program, but, really, what else could have stood next to Beethoven's crowning achievement?
So it was in a packed Strathmore auditorium that the symphony took a straightforward but constantly improving flight under the well-experienced baton of eminent guest conductor Günther Herbig. The first movement was all gripping harmonies and the scherzo's rhythms were kept consistently propulsive and infectious. After a delicately meditative adagio came the truly grand finale with its majestic choral passages and a stirring rendition of Schiller’s beautiful “Ode to Joy” courtesy of the Baltimore Choral Arts Society and the four dedicated soloists. Rejecting the main themes of the three preceding movements with a resounding "Oh Freunde, nicht diese Töne!" ("Oh friends, not these sounds!") baritone Stephen Powell decisively started singing the words of Schiller to the new melody, soon to be joined by an unstoppable, hair-raising chorus. Together with the fully engaged orchestra, they brilliantly brought out the joyful exuberance of Schiller's prose and the unabashed radiance of Beethoven's elated score, all in glorious praise of the human spirit. Overplayed as this symphony may be, it was still as good as the first time.

Friday, July 10, 2009

BSO - Bernard Herrmann (Psycho) - 07/09/09

Conductor: Constantine Kitsopoulos
Psycho by Alfred Hitchcock

Just because summer's here and the regular musical season is over does not mean I have to stay home and brood, or face the unpredictable weather and predictable traffic associated with going all the way to Wolf Trap. Luckily, our neighbor to the North, the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, is having its "Summer Nights" series at Strathmore in July, and is kicking it off with a very neat idea: watching Hitchcock's classic Psycho while the orchestra is playing the musical score live. Although I've been to quite a few similar events, those were silent movies accompanied by a few musicians in the more intimate setting of the National Gallery of Art. Therefore, this was going to be a new adventure.

Although the unusually gorgeous weather we've been having was keeping a lot of people outside, the concert hall was still about two thirds full. It is probably a safe bet to assume that most of the audience had some kind of familiarity with the film and its famed screeching violins, and was eager to take the experience to a higher ground. Hitchcock was notoriously finicky about every single aspect of his productions, and the attention he brought to the soundtracks sure paid off as they routinely became as important as any character in his films.
This was particularly obvious in Psycho where emotions and plot twists were unmistakably enhanced by a reduced, all-string BSO. Even if the spectators knew what was going to happen next, and they obviously did in the shower scene or when mother was revealed, the level of intensity was compellingly heightened by the live orchestra and the unusual live music drastically increased the impact of the images. I regret they inserted an intermission (but the musicians may have needed it), and while after all these years some of the special effects appeared rather archaic and the concluding pop psychology bit quite simplistic, it was still a fun experience, perfect to unwind on a beautiful summer night.