Saturday, July 28, 2007

National Symphony Orchestra / National Trustees' Summer Music Institute Orchestra, free concert


On Saturday July 28, 2007 the Kennedy Center / National Symphony Orchestra (http://www.kennedy-center.org/nso/ ) presented the last free concert of the National Trustees’ Summer Music Institute Orchestra. This is a four week music festival sponsored by the Orchestra for music students aged 14 to 20 form 28 states and a few countries overseas. I saw up front and it was pretty easy to watch the synchronicity of fingering and bowing in the string sections, especially in the Tchaikovsky (below).

The program, conducted by Elizabeth Schulze, consisted of:

(1) Franz Von Suppe: Light Calvary Overture – a martial overture that starts out impressively but simplifies into a spirited romp.

(2) Nicolai Paganini: Violin Concerto #1 in D Major, first movement. The violinist was Cao Qi from Singapore; she played a violin made in France in 1805. Sometimes the second movement and finale of this rather rhetorical and virtuositic concerto are not performed. The playbill notes that the orchestral part was scored in E-flat major with the violin tuned up, to add brilliance, but the piece is usually performed in D. Yet there has always been confusion between “concert pitch” and “international pitch.” Sources give a range of frequencies for Middle C from 256 to 278. Keys have personalities, and to someone with recognition perfect pitch, the 256 calibration sounds right. (Brahm’s Third Symphony really needs to sound like F Major, not F-sharp or G. Mozart piano concertos really sound wrong if mistuned.)

(3) Tchaikovsky. Symphony #4 in f minor. This is always a crowd pleaser with the pizzicato (that tests a student orchestra) and frenzied finale, but it is the first movement, with the brass motto that plays games with the f minor tonality, and then the compound 9/8 rhythms for the themes, the very thorough exposition and development (although Wikipedia finds Tchaikovsky's concept and implementation of "development sections" to be episodic), and then explosive coda, crashing down on fortissimo F's, that drew an applause just for this movement. The orchestra played it with the passion that would befit a youthful work, but Tchaikovsky was 34 when he wrote it. Smallville sometimes draws on Tchaikovsky, a composer whose music dramatizes the struggle of being open about who he really is.

It would be good to see a student orchestra play some large scale early works of romantic composers. One suggestion would be Richard Strauss, many of whose tone poems are early, by the Symphony in F minor, written at 19, with a powerful (somewhat Mendelssohn-like) hymn-like conclusion that will sound familiar despite the work's obscurity. One could try the first piano concerto of Eugene d'Albert, written at 19, a long Liszt-like opus with a stunning fugal cadenza and smashing coda, again with themes that will sound familiar from the movies. Or try the first piano concerto of Ernst von Dohanyi, again with a climactic close that anticipates Rachmaninoff.

One could cart out the g minor "American Youth Concerto" by Marion Bauer, which I learned in the mid 1950s, but I have never seen performed. My favorite piano concerto by a female composer is Amy Beach 's Piano Concerto in c-sharp minor, and unusual key for a concerto (Prokofiev used D-flat major). Sorry, Clara Schumann's a minor concerto sounds perfunctory.

Wednesday, July 04, 2007

A Capitol Fourth on the Mall fights off the thunderstorms



Practically every year for the past ten years or so, I have gone to the Mall in Washington on July 4 for the Capitol Fourth. A couple of exceptions: in 1999, and again in 2002, I watched the celebration from the East Bank of the Mississippi River in Minneapolis. In 2000, I started filtering to the South Capitol Metro as Tchaikovsky’s 1812 overture crashed to a close, because the next morning I would get up to fly back to Minneapolis.

Today I went in to town, and after a burger dinner of 17th Street, I heard rumors that they had cleared the Mall because severe thunderstorms and maybe tornados were coming. So I went back home and watched this years on PBS. It was similar to the celebration of previous years.

Tony Danza (who starred in the Best Film “Crash”) was the MC, and he rather stumbled a couple times, once clutching his chest as if he could have a coronary. But the rest of the evening went off beautifully. Little Richard (wasn’t he at “The Boys’” Di concert in London?) got everybody going – his wig is obvious, but I remember “Long Tall Sally” and “Oh Baby” in the 50s. Driks Bentley sung some country and western. Elliott Yamin (American Idol) actually started things off. Hayden Panettiere sung “Try” from “Bridge to Terabithia”.

Erich Kunzel conducted the National Symphony Orchestra. The main classic was a medley from Leonard Bernstein’s West Side Story (aka “Romeo and Juliet” between NYC street gangs). There is a concert dance suite, which, I believe, ends loudly as did this medley. The actual “opera” ends ambiguously, with the nearly dodecaphonic “Maria” theme dying away in a cartwheel, leading to a final tritone (an ending that reminds one of Mahler’s “Das Lied von der Erde”).. Bernstein combined popular theater with the extreme postromanticism of Mahler (and Strauss, Zemlinsky) leading into the atonal expressionism of Schoenberg and Berg, as comes out in some of his more formal symphonic and choral works like the “Kaddish” Symphony and “Age of Anxiety” symphony-concerto for piano and orchestra. Bernstein reworked his light sattirical opera “Candide” (Voltaire) in a version with the London Symphony in which the final choral is drawn out to Mahlerian effect.

These concerts used to play the entire 1812 Overture by Tchaikovsky, but no more. The pick up with the recapitulation, as this time the fireworks over the Washington Monument had already started. Of course, the guns (near the Reflecting Pool, I think) go off as the final chorus plays, but, with the singing of the Choral Arts Society of Washington, the effect is rather like that of the movie “Reds.”

I worked a few weeks at the end of 2003 selling subscriptions for the National Symphony, for a Canadian intermediary company called Arts Marketing. I could sell the music, but it was difficult to sell entire subscriptions (when they can be bought on the Internet) and (with complaints about our calling after 9 PM) I quit. (The company brought in a music school graduate from Toronto to help us sell; but it seems odd for a conservatory graduate -- an artist and performer -- to make a living by selling other people's work (without performing it, that is).) But in Minnesota I had worked for the Minnesota Orchestra for fourteen months from 2002-2003, calling for contributions to the Guaranty Fund and Young Peoples Concerts, and that worked out fairly well. Although non-profits were largely exempted from the “crackdown” on telemarketing, the mood was certainly negative, even for "telefunding." (There is a discussion here.)