Tag Archives: Festival Orchestra

EMF Finales Deliver a Double Dose of Strauss and Fun

Review: Eastern Music Festival

By Perry Tannenbaum

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Head over to Greensboro for the Eastern Music Festival and you’ll find multiple orchestras and multiple concert series sprinkled across the annual five-week celebration. Peep in on the last nights of EMF and you can expect multiple symphonic finales, the Young Artists Orchestras offering their valedictories followed by the professionals of the Festival Orchestra on closing night. Of course, among the primary reasons for making the journey, both for students who populate the youth orchestras and for audiences who come to see them, are the bold programming choices by EMF music director Gerard Schwarz, who marked his 15th year with the festival in 2019.

Led by José-Luis Novo and Grant Cooper, the Young Artists performed Richard Strauss’s Tod und Verklärung (Death and Transfiguration) and Maurice Ravel’s Daphnis and Chloé Suites, not the longest concert that I’ve heard on the bosky Guilford College campus at Dana Auditorium. Schwarz took over the Dana stage the following night last Saturday, conducting a program that was epic in length, culminating in a memorable performance of Strauss’s Alpine Symphony. Before reaching that summit, Schwarz premiered his own orchestration of Anton Webern’s Langsamer Satz (or Adagio) and guest artist Horacio Gutiérrez played the Brahms Piano Concerto No. 2.

Cue up a recording of either of the Strauss tone poems presented at the EMF finales and you’ll quickly hear why it’s essential to hear them in live performance. Even with headphones, you hardly hear anything, let alone the rich low textures that Strauss swaddles us in so softly before he builds. Nor is either one of these pieces heard even infrequently in the concert hall, so the jolt of discovery doesn’t stop at the lip of the stage when a performance is offered, especially when played by an orchestra with musicians aged 13-23. Cooper and his ensemble admirably brought out all the instrumental voices and textures in the introductory section of Death and Transfiguration, where Strauss depicts his protagonist on the verge of death. The tingle of revelation onstage and in the hall was nearly palpable.

Almost two minutes passed before a faint oboe and a glimmering flute emerged over the strings with a pair of harps, just before the clarinet asserted itself. In bolder relief, the principal oboe and flute shone before we heard the concertmaster’s eloquence. At the first tumultuous life-death struggle – where I hurriedly turn the volume knob back from 2 o’clock to 10:30 on the acclaimed Karajan recording – the violins vied stirringly with the mean trombones. Through the quiescent respite granted to the dying man and into the fourth and final section where the heavens open up to him, sounds of glowing nostalgia and immanent death gave way to exquisite sunlit violins and waves of serene luminescence, the stately linearity of the winds and brass contrasting effectively with the gilded haze of the strings.

Intermission saw a mass exodus of musicians, instruments, and instrument cases as Cooper’s orchestra – likely 80 or more strong – gave way to Novo’s equally large ensemble. Some of the same thrill of discovery for the Strauss carried over to the Suite No. 1 from Daphnis and Chloé, so rarely performed live and far less captured on recordings than Suite No. 2. Where that ballet originally sets a nocturnal pastoral scene with Nymphs dancing and Daphnis competing against a rival for Chloé’s kiss, the music was as delicate and impressionistic as we expect from this composer, so the “Danse Guerrière” – the onset of pirates – was likely doubly startling for listeners who haven’t delved deeply into Ravel. Sometimes, it’s more accurate to link Ravel with Saint-Saëns than with Debussy. Suite No. 2 delivered the same kind of duality, its “Lever du jour” dappled with birdlike flutes and the concluding “Danse Générale,” heralded by harps and swirling flutes, unleashing a powerful Bacchante fury, with Novo’s orchestra undaunted by the invigorating 5/4 metre.

With the world premiere of Adagio, Schwarz was revisiting a Webern piece that he had already orchestrated in the early 1980s, some 20 years after its rediscovery. Then he had retained its original title, keeping and enlarging on the parts written for string quartet while adding a bass part. Modestly modified though it was, Schwarz’s version, released on his 1994 recording with the Seattle Symphony, was at least three minutes longer than any string quartet version that I’ve tracked down, an expansion of more than 30 percent. In a sense, that was chiefly what Schwarz was aiming for, according to the helpful notes in EMF’s program book, for the maestro felt that a full orchestral version was necessary to bring out its Mahler-esque poignancy – and to play the piece as slowly as needed for maximum impact.

The new orchestration builds handsomely and colorfully upon Schwarz’s previous enhancements, adding significant parts for wind and percussion along with notable highlights for flute, clarinet, piccolos, and timpani. No less audaciously, Schwarz modified his string writing, giving the principal violist, cellist and the concertmaster moments to shine. The result was noticeably livelier and more dramatic with a far wider dynamic range, delivering a larger dose of Mahler majesty. Even the cymbals’ clash during the final swell meshed seamlessly with the overall concept.

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My first exposure to Horacio Gutiérrez was 20 years ago, when he performed the Prokofiev No. 2 with the Charlotte Symphony under Peter McCoppin, emphatically demonstrating that his artistry and power were tough to follow. At Dana with the EMF Festival Orchestra, Gutiérrez somewhat upstaged Schwarz even before he appeared. Or at least his piano did, awaiting his arrival. Inside the auditorium’s acoustic shell, the musicians filled the stage beyond the proscenium, so bringing a piano in from the wings would have required an intermission rather than a discreet break.

Gutiérrez’ musical entrance came quickly enough in the opening Allegro non troppo, charming us in the little exchanges with the French horn before spasms of febrile keyboard eruptions summoned the full orchestra. While the acoustic shell at Dana kept the sound moving out toward us instead of partially evaporating into the wings and backstage, the effect on Brahms’s more linear sound wasn’t as flattering as it was for Strauss’s tone poem or Ravel’s impressionistic blends. Bass and treble weren’t as separated coming from the piano as I have experienced in other halls, but the lack of definition had a more telling effect on the orchestral parts. It was gratifying to hear more crispness from Gutiérrez and the ensemble as the movement climaxed.

The ensuing Allegro appassionato was more receptive to the natural pedal effect of the Dana acoustics on the piano, and Gutiérrez’ virility contrasted effectively with the Festival Orchestra’s delicacy. Against a finely becalmed backdrop, the soloist became livelier and more rhythmic, yet together orchestra and soloist crested in grandeur as the movement ended. The slow Andante movement was even more ideally suited to the hall as a skein of cellos, settling over a mist of violins, added introductory magic. Before we heard from the pianist here, violins and winds deliciously ratcheted our anticipation upwards. Gutiérrez did not disappoint, surpassing himself with his lyrical outpourings, two dreamy perorations sandwiched around a reminder of his thunder. In the concluding Allegretto grazioso, he played with a geniality that suggested all difficulties had already been overcome. Rhythmic aspects of Gutiérrez’ keyboard work were more merrily emphasized than before, with a treble that truly gleamed.

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Never having seen a live performance of Eine Alpensinfonie before, I’ll have to admit that a glance at the program booklet filled me with dread. There are no fewer than 22 parts to this mountain journey with no pauses, and apart from unmistakable signposts, how could I be sure where we were? Maybe that disorientation explains why this epic symphony is so rarely given a live hearing! Well, I needn’t have worried. Supertitles to the rescue! After the nearly self-explanatory “Night” to “Sunrise” sequence, with a starburst nearly as glorious as the famed Also Sprach Zarathustra opening, navigation was effortless across forest, stream, waterfall, and meadow as titles projected over the proscenium marked the beginning of each new stage of our Alpine tour.

Offstage horns were now contextualized as we began “The Ascent,” and we could be surer that the lonely oboe or English horn signaled our arrival at “The Alpine Pasture,” speckled soon afterwards with birdlike twitterings of a flute. Reaching the “Summit,” “Sunset,” and the final onset of “Night” were predictable glories lying ahead, but a large aluminum sheet hanging down over the percussion section upstage was a sure forecast of stormy weather. Looking at the adult musicians playing during the “Thunder and Storm” section of Alpine Symphony, I felt like they were having as much fun as the students had the night before as they revealed the mysteries of Death and Transfiguration.

I found over 80 faculty artist biographies for members of the Festival Orchestra – most of them printed in the rear of the festival’s 156-page program book and most of them without photos. So it was pretty much by accident that, thumbing through the book and surveying previous concerts, I was able to match principal percussionist John Shaw with his picture. Shaw had been the featured soloist on the previous Friday, a week before the Youth Orchestra Finale, playing Joseph Schwantner’s Concerto for Percussion and Orchestra with Cooper and his youngsters. Now in the heat of “Thunder and Storm,” he may have been exerting himself even more strenuously, cranking a wind machine that vied in volume with the clamor of that large thundering aluminum sheet. Shaw hadn’t bothered to take off his formal white jacket to execute his mighty cranking labors, yet there was a big wide smile all across his face. He was the kid this time.

Gaillard Grandeur and Dock Street Informality Shape a New Spoleto

Review: Spoleto Festival USA – 2017

By Perry Tannenbaum

For the past two years at Spoleto Festival USA, opera has been the bellwether of how this massive festiv

al of the performing arts – including theatre, jazz, dance, symphonic and chamber music – has been changing and evolving. In 2015, opera programming untethered itself from its customary balance of new works with outré offerings from recognized masters. The tandem of Paradise Interrupted in its world premiere and Veremonda in its American debut underscored the transformation of Spoleto into the world’s leading showcase for new and/or different classical music.

Last year, what seemed like a move toward more populist programming, with Porgy and Bess as the marquee opera and an increased presence of American jazz artists, did not affect a continuing drift toward more modernist music. What the Porgy and Bess celebration of the festival’s 40th season really signaled was that, with the radical facelift to the reopened Gaillard Center, truly grand productions of grand operas were now possible in Charleston, SC.

Even before the Gaillard closed down for its makeover after the 2012 season, it was clear that, from a technical standpoint, only lackluster stagings could be expected there. Gustave Charpentier’s Louise had been the last operatic attempt in 2009. During the renovations, you could be charmed by Spoleto’s productions of Kát’a Kabanová and Le Villi at Sottile Theatre, but you could hardly pretend they were on a grand scale.

With this year’s presentation of Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin, grand lyric opera was emphatically enthroned at the festival, although I suspect there were budgetary constraints in the wake of last year’s anniversary extravagances. Now that might not explain why there was no bed, no window, and no writing desk – all mentioned in the libretto – for Tatyana’s famed letter scene. Why would stage director Chen Shi-Zheng’s austerity extend to depriving the poor woman of pen and paper until after she has finished writing?

Suspicions came unbidden when, after a snowbound video of a Russian forest ran over the overture, spindly trunks of wintry trees descended from the fly lofts and haunted nearly the entire production. The concept didn’t jibe with arrival of the family estate’s peasants heralding their completion of the harvest. More puzzling, the lovely trees were whisked to the wings prior to the scene where they might make the most sense, the duel between Onegin and the hotheaded poet Lensky.

Projections that replaced the trees for the duel and for the ultimate denouement, where he receives his richly deserved rejection from Tatyana, were actually darkly effective. But the best use of set designer Christopher Barreca’s trees came when, half-lifted into the flies and colorfully illuminated, they simulated chandeliers at the regal ball in Prince Gremin’s palace, where Onegin is thunderstruck by the transformation of Tatyana into a poised and polished aristocrat.

Whatever toll austerity might have taken on the scenery, it was not a factor in the singing. Taxed with delivering the letter scene with no props except a chair (those lingering tree trunks did fill up momentarily with projections of Tatyana’s handwriting), soprano Natalia Pavolova glowed with youthful longing in her American debut. She was hardly less impressive as a mature princess, bearing herself imperially in the ballroom, and her creamy voice thickened pleasingly with emotion in the final tête-à-tête with Onegin. Lacking the hauteur I saw from Dmitri Hvorostovsky when I saw him in the role opposite Renee Fleming, baritone Franco Pomponi was less of a cold-hearted jerk when Onegin rejected Tatyana and killed Lensky – and more pitiable when he comprehended his mistakes.

Solid as he was vocally, Pomponi was thoroughly upstaged by tenor Jamez McCorkle as Lensky. The pride and pathos that McCorkle brought to Lensky’s final pre-duel meditations were shattering. Nearly as touching – and as vocally powerful – baritone Peter Volpe’s weighty, twilit confessions to Onegin as Prince Gremin were the perfect prelude to the cad’s comeuppance.

Acoustics at the new 1,800-seat facility helped to keep the front-liners relaxed, unless they had the misfortune of singing from the rear half of the stage, which introduced a noticeable echo effect. Clarity and presence improve markedly for the Spoleto Festival USA Orchestra when it ascends from the pit to the stage, where it is wrapped in a tall, wood-grained shell and covered by a sloped and sculpted acoustic ceiling.

With the addition of the Westminster Choir conducted by Joe Miller, the worthy heir to Joseph Flummerfelt, orchestral concerts have also grown grander in recent years. Ramping up to the return of the Gaillard, Miller and the Westminsters presented the St. Matthew Passion at the Sottile in 2015 before helping to break in the new hall last year with Beethoven’s Mass in C and his Choral Fantasy. Once again mixing the sacred with the secular at the Gaillard, Miller programmed Mozart’s unfinished “Great” Mass in C Minor, preceded by two Ralph Vaughan Williams settings, one for Psalm 90 (“Lord, Thou Hast Been Our Refuge” and the other from the moonlit Act 5 love scene that punctuates the hurly-burly of Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice (“Serenade to Music”).

Augmented by the Charleston Symphony Orchestra, the Westminster Choir sounded massive and sure, and the Festival Orchestra, culled from advanced conservatory students and young professionals through nationwide auditions, still strikes me as the best American orchestra of its kind. The bigger sound of the choir made the “Lord, Thou Hast Been Our Refuge” more soothing and cosmic, building to a majestic finish. An exquisite dialogue between orchestra and vocalists followed in the Shakespeare setting, as six of the Westminster choristers then came downstage and formed a mini-choir, joining the four guest artists who would sing in the Mozart.

It was gratifying to see McCorkle again after his fine Lensky, but once again, he didn’t draw a leading role in the Mass after shining briefly in the “Serenade.” Mozart began this liturgical piece as a showcase for his wife, Constanza, and soprano Sherezade Panthaki shone in much of the coloratura spotlight that he managed to finish, especially when powering the climax of the Credo. Soprano Clara Rottsolk ably complemented Panthaki in the Gloria, and bass André Courville rounded out the quartet of soloists in the concluding Benedictus.

Of course, there was nothing miniscule about the other orchestral concert, beginning with Anna Thorvaldsdottir’s icily atmospheric Dreaming and climaxing with Mahler’s Symphony No. 4. Following up brilliantly on her lustrous 2013 debut in the title role of Matsukaze, soprano Pureum Jo filled the folksy jollity of the Sehr behaglich (“Very comfortable”) finale with a heavenly purity.

Yet I found myself even more encouraged and excited by what’s happening in the chamber music sector of the festival. For the first time since taking over the reins of the daily chamber music series in 2010, violinist Geoff Nuttall had to acknowledge the absence of his mentor and predecessor, Charles Wadsworth, on the mend up in New York. As host and programmer of the lunchtime Dock Street Theatre concerts, Nuttall has come into his own, greatly increasing the amount of modern and contemporary music that is played while chipping away at the barrier that previously distinguished the genial, comical, and witty introductions to the music from the formality of the performances that followed.

There’s likely a connection between the two developments. When a percussionist provides the entire audience with pairs of rocks to bang together during a performance of new music, or a composer triggers video and sound cues with an iPhone, formality begins to break down. The effect spread to more antique music when countertenor Anthony Roth Costanzo called attention to the kinship between a Vivaldi aria and Elvis Presley’s “Don’t Be Cruel.”

Performances have sprouted a jocular dimension here and there, thanks to the deployment of clarinetist Todd Palmer as comedian-in-chief. After Nuttall spoke vividly of Giovanni Bottesini’s virtuosic displays on double bass during operas that he conducted in the mid-1800’s, appearing mid-performance to dazzle with improvised fantasias on tunes from that evening’s opera, Palmer joined double bassist Anthony Manzo and pianist Gilles Vonsattel in Bottesini’s Duetto for Clarinet and Double Bass with Piano. Between two of the fantasias, Palmer did a riff of his own on the diva aspects of the spoken intro, flashing some leg and modeling a sock that was more flamboyant than any I’ve seen on even Nuttall’s feet.

There was more later as Nuttall and his St. Lawrence String Quartet joined Manzo, flutist Tara Helen O’Connor, and pianist Pedja Muzijevic in a cunning reduction of Symphony No. 100 by Haydn, our host’s favorite composer. As Nuttall explained how this “Military” Symphony came by its nickname, you had to wonder where the hellish percussive roar would come from when the second movement started. The answer came during the interval between the opening Adagio-Allegro and the signature Allegretto: emerging from the wings, Palmer marched onstage – literally marched, mind you – harnessed into a big bass marching drum and brandishing two mallets.

It was actually a military parade, since cellist Joshua Roman with a pair of cymbals and violinist Benjamin Bellman with a wee triangle marched in right behind Palmer. Earlier in the concert, right after the Bottesini, these two accomplices had given an absolutely delicious account of Ravel’s Sonata for Violin and Cello. If anything, the exit after Haydn’s second movement, led again by Palmer, was even more ceremonial. Yet there were more surprises to come. Violinist Daniel Phillips (flutist O’Connor’s husband) heralded the opening passages of the Presto finale from the balcony, and Palmer’s percussion trio resurfaced at the rear of the hall to pound, clang, and clink the final measures.

Musically, Palmer’s shining moments came three programs earlier when he played the Beethoven Clarinet Trio with Muzijevic and Roman, while the best of Nuttall came when he led an inspired performance of the Mendelssohn Octet. Some of the inspiration no doubt came from the meet-up between Nuttall’s St. Lawrence Quartet and his newest Spoleto recruits, the Rolston String Quartet. They won the Banff International String Quartet Competition 24 years after the elder Canadian quartet won the same prize in 1992. There were moments when Rolston cellist Jonathan Lo and violist Hezekiah Leung gazed upon Nuttall’s rapt antics – his back-and-forth swaying on the first chair and his spasmodic knee-lifts – with undisguised, wide-eyed wonder, apparently unaware that he played with the same abandon, eccentricity, and charisma when he first came to Spoleto in 1995. Except that his hair was longer then.

Effects of Nuttall’s stewardship now extend beyond the Dock Street Theatre. Two of the chamber music pianists had concerts booked at other venues. Muzijevic, who also traveled to Hamburg to select the new Steinway for the Dock Street series, fashioned a set of “Haydn Dialogues” at the Simons Center Recital Hall – four Papa pieces interspersed with works by Jonathan Berger, Morton Feldman, and (with an alternate prepared piano) John Cage. Stephen Prutsman put on his composing hat at Woolfe Street Playhouse, plucking a string quartet from the Festival Orchestra to score three silent films, “Suspense,” “The Cameraman’s Revenge,” and “Mighty Like a Moose.”

For the past two years, Nuttall has performed at Gaillard Center in chamber music segments of Spoleto Celebration Concerts, further extending his presence. He and his spouse, violinist spouse Livia Sohn formed half of a quartet, including Muzijevic and St. Lawrence cellist Christopher Costanza, in a reduced adaptation from Vivaldi’s L’estro armonico concertos. Until 2013, when oboist James Austin Smith joined his chamber music stable, Nuttall was no more likely to program Vivaldi’s music than Wadsworth was, let alone play it.

What really brought Vivaldi to centerstage at Spoleto was the sensation that countertenor Anthony Roth Costanzo created last season in his first three programs at Dock Street. Costanzo didn’t sing Vivaldi then, ranging instead from Handel to Gershwin to Osvaldo Golijov, but it was obvious to he could sing the Red Priest’s rep with a vengeance. Having Costanzo on board to play the title role made it easy to green-light the American premiere of Vivaldi’s Farnace, the most popular of the composer’s operas during his lifetime.

You had to be able to accept the old-timey ethos of death before dishonor to the point of absurdity if you were to reach the end of Antonio Lucchini’s 1727 libretto without guffaws or derisive laughter. Dethroned from the kingdom of Pontus by invaders from Rome, Farnace orders his queen Tamiri to kill their son and herself to avoid the disgrace of captivity. Meanwhile Farnace and his captive sister Selinda separately plot to bring down their conquerors, Roman general Pompeo and his merciless ally, Queen Berenice of Cappadocia, a gargoyle who turns out to be Tamiri’s mom.

Somehow everything sorted out happily. More amazingly, Costanzo managed to bring down the house just before intermission – bemoaning the death of the angelic little son whom he himself condemned to death!

With Costanzo singing two additional Vivaldi arias at the lunchtime concerts and Smith fronting an oboe concerto, the Red Priest explosion was major theme in Spoleto’s 2017 classical music lineup. But the countertenor continued to show his wide range. What I most regretted about skipping the final weekend in Charleston was seeing Costanzo introduce and deliver Roy Orbison’s deathless “Crying!” An 11-piece ensemble, including Palmer and Nuttall, was weeping behind him. Or maybe not.