Sunday, October 26, 2014

Bartok Third Piano Concerto and Anton Bruckner's Apocalyptic Eighth Symphony fill Avery Fisher Hall

The New York Philharmonic has performed a major Bartok and Bruckner work in a concert this weekend that has performances Thursday, Friday, Saturday and Tuesday.  Alan Gilbert conducted and Yefim Bronfman was the piano soloist.

The NYPhil put out a warning that there would be no late seating, and the concert was sold out.  The Bartok (below), does have separate movements so seating might have been permissible. The concert was very nearly sold out.

The concert opened with the Piano Concerto #3 by Bela Bartok.  This was his last work, composed in the summer of 1945 when he was dying of leukemia while living in New York State.  His pupil Tibor Serly composed the final seventeen measures, but there is evidence he had evidence from Bartok the last night of Bartok’s life in a hospital.  The 25 minute work has always seemed a bit playful, yet sometimes lush, even Brahmsian in spots.  The opening Allegretto is somewhat light in tone, with a second subject in the unusual mediant key (that is A relative to the home “courtly” key of E).  That’s rather unusual in sonata structures.  The second movement (Adagio religioso, misprinted as Allegro religioso in the program notes) has a quiet theme in the strings and Bartok’s typical “night music”.  

The finale is almost a perpetual motion, somewhat fugal.  The very end comes with a rush of loud chords.  I sat on the right side, and the orchestra tended to drown the piano.

The Anton Bruckner work was the 84-minute Symphony #8 in C Minor, originally 1887, with an official edition with minimal corrections by Schalk published in 1955, used here. The work has been called “The Apocalyptic.”  I recall in those horrible William and Mary days, that a chum said he had a Westminster recording that took five sides.  I guess the nearly half-hour slow movement was itself split onto two sides?

The opening movement is a clear sonata form, but with two subjects somewhat interconnected.  One of the advantages of sonata form in the 19th century was that it made the music easier for the ear to learn, since, in pre-tech days, people had to depend on live concerts to hear and become familiar with music.  The movement is harmonically rich and dour, and reminds me of the concentration camps as portrayed in the media.  It is the only opening movement in a Bruckner symphony to end quietly.   Many of Bruckner’s symphonies were not popular at first, until the Seventh.  Compared to other major romantic composers, Bruckner leaves the impression of composing the same work many times on some people. 

The first movement dies away in a straightforward manner, leading to a famous if somewhat lumbering scherzo, still in C Minor.  Again, Bruckner nearly hypnotizes us with repetition, making sure we learn the music.  The trio has a slow theme to anticipate the slow movement. The theme, in 3/4, is the "Deutscher Michel" theme (Wiki reference with some of the themes in score; try playing them).  Notice that if the same notes were played as 6/8 it would not be as effective.    

The half-hour slow movement in D-flat is viewed as the crown of the work.  In a pre-concert talk, Mark Travis pointed out a similarity in material to the slow movement of Beethoven’s emperor concerto (just as he noted a similarity in an opening movement theme to one in the Beethoven ninth).  Travis also noted that Bruckner simply takes his time playing out an idea with modulations, expanding the sense of space-time.  The slow movement piles on one passionate climax after another, leading to what sounds like a restatement from Wagner (“Parsifal?”) at the apex.  The slow movement inspires a similar slow movement in the same key in the Shostakovich Fifth. 

The Finale, back in C Minor, combines all the material from the first three movements (common in Bruckner) in a new sonata structure, but the development is fugal, almost Bach-like.  It opens with a "call to arms", as if nothing short of The Second Coming were in the offing. In the brazen coda now in C Major, Bruckner re-uses the scherzo theme, now with a Wagnerian effect that Furtwangler would use at the end of his own Second Symphony.  Finally three octaves, on the notes E, D, C, in fortissimo, conclude the work.

The double bass section of the orchestra was large, with one of the players smirking!  The audience tended to be young, with one person telling me he came to hear the Bruckner because he played trumpet and trombone himself.

My own feeling is that the “completed” Ninth (reviewed March 8, 2011) is more compelling than the Eighth.   

You can check a colorful review of the music in the New York Times by Corinna da Fonseca-Wollheim here.

Update: Dec. 27, 2015

Here's a video by Deryck Cooke analyzing the 1887 version shared on Facebook by Sebastien Letocart. 

Friday, October 17, 2014

"Balance Problems", "Safe Travels", "Music in Circles", "Bladed Stance", "Everness", "The Bear and the Squirrel", and "The Human Plague": new from the Y Music Ensemble

I picked up (through Amazon) the new audio CD “Balance Problems” with music from the “young New Yorkers” for lack of a formal name. Well, OK, I now see it is "Y Music Ensemble".  The cover art contains mountain pictures that appear to be taken in the Berkshires (Massachusetts), in an old mill, and in a recording studio that looks like a renovated “risen” country barn.

The performers are as follows: Rob Moose (violin and guitars), Nadia Sirota (viola), Claroce Jensen (cello0, Hideaki Aomori (Clarinet), Alex Sopp (flutes), CJ Camerieri (trumpet/horn).

The first piece is “Balance Problems” (the album title) by Nico Mukly.  There are lots of high registers.  Second is “Bladed Stance” by Marcos Walter.  Then comes a two-movement “Music in Circles” by Andrew Norman. 
The fourth item is the most accessible: It is “The Bear and the Squirrel” by Jeremy Turner, which centers around an Adagio string quartet theme that resembles one of the late Beethoven quartet slow movements.  The fifth is “Safe Travels” by Timo Andres, which is eclectic, and reminds me of people praying for “travel mercies” in church, which sounds like an overuse of prayer.  There follows “Everness” by Mark Daneigers, which has a circular repeating figure that sounds like it could come from the Monroe Institute.  The last piece is “The Human Plague” by Sufjan Stevens.  There is a repeated-note chordal theme that again sounds Monroe-like and hypnotic.  The piece certainly sounds prescient given the news coverage of the past few weeks. Actually, in a posting Jan. 8. 2013, I cover another piece from 1961 where a friend tried to depict illness in a concerto slow movement.   
The CD is New Amdsterdam (MWAM059), site for Y Music Ensemble here

Thursday, October 09, 2014

NSO gives a tutorial in Arnold Schoenberg, Richard Strauss ("Zarathustra") with Mozart in the middle

Tonight I attended another NSO concert at the Kennedy Center, mainly attracted to modernism and controversy.

I did catch the pre-show on the Millennium Stage (It’s free!), by the French-American Jazz Exchange. The performers were Emilie Lesbros, soprano, Darius Jones, saxophone, Ches Smith, drums, Pascal Niggenkemper, double bass, and Aruan Ortiz, piano.  The music, while improvised jazz, sounded atonal and expressionistic, especially with the vocal parts, rather like the music of Pierre Boulez.  There was an attitude to the music, like it was a commentary on the rest of the world (like Gerard Grisey, Dec. 9, 2010). 

The concert proper  (David Zinman conducting) started with the “appetizer”, or antipasto, the Five Pieces for Orchestra. Op. 16. 1909 and revised in 1949) by Arnold Schoenberg.  That was my reason to come.  Is this a “five movement” 16-minute post-Mahler symphony (or Sinfonietta)?  Alban Berg’s comparable “Three Pieces for Orchestra” would come closer.  There really are five separate sound pieces.  The first, “Premonitions” (“Vorgefuhle”) rather snarls at us from a large orchestra, and seems to achieve atonality without the full discipline of the twelve-tone method to come.  (And there is “a-toe-nality’).  The second, “Things Past” (“Vergamgemes”), creates more of the late-Mahler mood (like the first movement of the ninth) and sometimes has some tonal centers in its hyperchromaticism.  There is a wistfulness in the gentler tempo, the idea that even as a young man you already have memories and losses.  The third piece, “Summer Morning by a Lake: Chord Colors” (“Farben”) is impressionistic, but is not Debussy, or even French, but a bit static.  The fourth, “Peripeteia”, which means reversal of fortune or circumstances (or loss), but also connotes randomness, uncertainty and luck.  The piece is lively, but borders on terror, like for a horror film.  The last, “The Obbligato Recitative”, is pretty much a commentary on all that was before, as the name suggests, ending quietly.  But in my own manuscript for “The Proles” I referred to it as “the Obligatory Recitative”, incorrectly, in a scene after a nuclear holocaust, as if to suggest someone is required to stand up and convert in faith publicly, mainly at gunpoint (as happens now in Syria and Iraq), even as he feels naked, exposed, aging, and even disfigured.  And my 1988 manuscript “Tribunal and Rapture” names the first part, “Peripetia” (the extra “e” is optional) where there is a reversal (the protagonist gets laid off but is invited to a re-education camp), although there was a lot of compulsive activity going on all around him.
The “main course” (or perhaps, in Emily Post’s old world,  the “fish course”, although it wasn’t “free”) was the Mozart Piano Concerto #22 in E-flat, K. 482 (1785).  The soloist was Canadian-British pianist Angela Hewitt.  I sat up front and noticed some odd facial expressions, and in the first movement, early, she missed one high C.  Her performance was lightweight and deft, but that seems to be particularly the result of this concerto.  The program notes point out that Mozart performed many of his concerti for quick income, while he waited for bigger commissions.  This concerto is one of the longest, at 34 minutes (I think I have it on a Vox-Turnabout record downstairs, one on side, and maybe in a CD set), but also is one of the most conventional and measured – with one caveat.  The first movement has a kind of false maestoso: the opening march theme sounds grand enough but then dissipates.  The second movement is in C minor, and is familiar, but the pathos is less striking than in some other movements, or is that this performance?  The Rondo has an innovation, a slow courtly and graceful middle section.  By luck, I sat by a piano teacher, who came to hear this specific work.  I showed her the links to the “recomposition” of the 26th on my smartphone.  I guess I can spread the word.  The 22nd concerto might benefit even more from some polytonality.
After the intermission, came the real main course, the tone poem (the Sixth) “Thus Spake Zarathustra” (“Also sprach Zarathustra”), Op. 30, by Richard Strauss, composed in 1896.  The notes point out that Zarathustra, or Zoroaster, had inspired the character Sarastro in Mozart’s “The Magic Flute”(May 3). 

The famous opening, with the organ and the C-G-C motive became the famous “Sunrise in space” in the movie “2001: A Space Odyssey”.  The rest of the tone poem comprises many sections, following the progress of man through tribal and religious society, based on faith dictated by others (and a hope for the afterlife) to man’s being able to master his own environment, first through science – a section with a massive fugue that comes to a massive conclusion that seems to mark the first half of the piece. The remaining sections head toward a waltz-like section with the solo violin, which oddly represents the apotheosis of Nietzsche’s “Ubermench”, as expressed through dance (maybe on a modern disco floor, even with “dirty dancing”).  Finally, the music retreats, with gongs, into “The Night Wanderer’s Song”, finally ending in a whisper, with the tonalities of B and C simultaneously.  “C” finally wins out, and this isn’t necessarily Love.

Nietzsche, by the way, also authored “The Gay Science”, well known to philosophy majors.  My own attitude of “upward affiliation” led the psychiatrist to mention Nietzsche in their notes about me at NIH in 1962.  Is the “superman” synonymous with John Galt in Ayn Rand’s “Atlas Shrugged”?  I think this is more about a spiritual progression, to use science to really learn how to join the cosmos.  

Thursday, October 02, 2014

NSO concert offers Mendelssohn "Lobgesang", a curious symphony-oratorio, along with Bach and Poulenc

The National Symphony Orchestra took up the organ tonight in an early fall concert.
Organist Paul Jacobs (raised near Pittsburgh) and British conductor Matthew Halls opened the concert with Francis Poulenc’s playful Organ Concerto in G Minor (for organ, timpani and strings).  The playful work is a potpourri of styles, from the opening loud chords, mixing Bach with French cuisine, almost.  The slow and fast sections alternate a lot.  Poulenc composed the work with little organ training, on commission, when he needed the income in the 1930s. 
Then Jacobs played a solo work, the Prelude and Fugue in A Minor, MWV 543 by JS Bach, a virtuoso work with a lot of pedal stuff, and a fugue that is less rigorous than some.
But the main course, after intermission, was the Symphony #2 in B-flat by Felix Mendelssohn, the “Lobgesang” or “Hymn of Praise”.  The work starts with three brief orchestral movements, as if for a conventional early romantic symphony. The opening motive is a well known Lutheran chorale, before the Allegro settles in, which leads without pause into a little waltz-scherzo, and then a slow movement that has the effect of a song without words.  The “Finale”, which lasts about 45 minutes, is a full-sized cantata in ten sections, rather sounding like oratorio.  Mendelssohn compiled this piece (or “link-edited” it) from earlier work, not wanting it to come across as an imitation of Beethoven’s Ninth.  The occasion was a celebration of the 400th anniversary of the invention of the printing press—which reduced the hold that the old Catholic Church had on what could be said about religion—a prelude to today’s battles on Internet freedom. There is a curious mixture of classical styles (Haydn as well as Bach) with early romanticism.  There’s an epsidoe setting of “Now Thank We All” before the concluding vocal fugue on the opening motive.

The program notes gave the key as “B-flat Minor” but it should say Major.  I can remember my first piano teacher characterizing Mendelssohn as “happy”. 

After the concert, NSO Director of Artistic Planning Nigel Boon held a panel discussion (“After Words”) and QA with Matthew Halls and Paul Jacobs.