Saturday, February 5, 2011

Music roundup: A powerful premiere at Lynn; evocative Ravel at PB Symphony

Composer Chiayu Hsu.

Lynn Philharmonia/Gunther Schuller‭ ‬(Jan.‭ ‬29,‭ ‬Wold Performing Arts Center,‭ ‬Boca Raton‭)

“I am Chiayu‭!”‬ the small woman wearing‭ ‬a‭ ‬red‭ ‬dress‭ ‬jacket‭ ‬almost shouted to the audience at the Wold Performing Arts Center as she took the stage at Lynn University in Boca Raton to introduce her new composition.

Chiayu Hsu,‭ ‬a Taiwan-born composer who earned her doctorate at Duke University,‭ ‬was the winner of the call for scores offered by the fifth New Music Festival at Lynn.‭ ‬Her short orchestral work,‭ ‬Shan Ko‭ (‬Mountain Song‭)‬,‭ ‬is the middle section of a trilogy that evokes the natural world of her native island off the coast of China.

The Lynn Philharmonia,‭ ‬under guest conductor Gunther Schuller,‭ ‬gave the first public performance of the work at the Jan.‭ ‬29‭ ‬concert,‭ ‬and it‭ ‬showed us a composer well-versed in the late Romantic tradition even if the language was considerably more modern.‭ ‬As a descriptive piece about a walk in the mountains,‭ ‬buttressed with a regional folksong to add color and building material,‭ ‬it had the kind of atmospheric writing you would expect.

It evoked Richard Strauss‭’‬ Ein Alpensinfonie and the Mahler Sixth Symphony,‭ ‬especially in the waves of glistening celesta in the middle,‭ ‬and in its general structure overall.‭ ‬It has clear,‭ ‬strong motifs that rise out of mysterious percussion in the beginning,‭ ‬and then break out in colorfully orchestrated sections amid very evocative sound-painting that makes wide and canny use of instrumental potentialities.‭ ‬Most of it is quite tonal,‭ ‬and its vivid scoring and muscular structure help it make a strong,‭ ‬almost epic impression.‭

It‭’‬s not particularly original,‭ ‬but it is well-crafted and effective,‭ ‬and it has an attractive bigness that is well-suited for its purpose as a piece of descriptive nature music.

The premiere was followed by a performance of the Piano Concerto No.‭ ‬1‭ (‬in C minor,‭ ‬Op.‭ ‬35‭) ‬of Dmitri Shostakovich,‭ ‬with New Music Festival founder Lisa Leonard as the piano soloist and her husband,‭ ‬Lynn brass chairman Marc Reese,‭ ‬as the trumpet soloist.‭

Leonard demonstrated again with this strong,‭ ‬technically immaculate performance why she is one of the area‭’‬s most rewarding pianists to listen to.‭ ‬She brings to this music equal parts steel,‭ ‬flash,‭ ‬and poetry,‭ ‬and you can hear clearly that she has thought about how she wants to interpret every bar.‭ ‬It is satisfying music-making in the best sense,‭ ‬and from the slowly unfolding,‭ ‬gradually warming-up way that she played the first‭ ‬notes she had the audience lured in for the duration.

Reese also played quite well,‭ ‬with a forceful,‭ ‬powerful sound that fulfilled the composer‭’‬s use of it as a foil to the piano and to the string orchestra behind it.‭ ‬The Lynn Philharmonia strings had intonation difficulties in the early going,‭ ‬but by the finale were much more on point,‭ ‬and the conclusion of the concerto was suitably athletic and joyous.

The concert,‭ ‬which opened with a very shaky,‭ ‬out-of-tune reading of the‭ ‬Representation of Chaos prelude from Haydn‭’‬s‭ ‬The Creation,‭ ‬closed with a relatively decent version of the Third Symphony‭ (‬in F,‭ ‬Op.‭ ‬90‭) ‬of Brahms.

Schuller led the Brahms in a no-nonsense manner of rather swift tempi and very little rubato,‭ ‬so that the contrasting wind theme in the first movement simply moved forward‭ (‬with good attention to dynamics‭)‬,‭ ‬and the traditional hesitations at its end,‭ ‬leading into a flexible,‭ ‬warm reply from the strings,‭ ‬were not there.‭ ‬And the second theme of the finale,‭ ‬where many conductors take advantage of the quarter-note triplets to broaden the tempo a little bit,‭ ‬also charged ahead in steady,‭ ‬unsentimental fashion.‭

Here,‭ ‬too,‭ ‬intonation was an issue in the first two movements,‭ ‬with some weak brass playing‭ ‬in the slow movement especially.‭ ‬But the cello theme of the third movement was a different story,‭ ‬and the solo horn played this theme ably when the time came,‭ ‬with accuracy if not notably beautiful sound.‭ ‬– G.‭ ‬Stepanich

Conductor Ramon Tebar.

Palm Beach Symphony‭ (‬Jan.‭ ‬24,‭ ‬Bethesda-by-the-Sea Episcopal Church,‭ ‬Boca Raton‭)

“It isn‭’‬t fair,‭”‬ said the sweet elderly lady next to me.‭ “‬I‭’‬m from Cleveland,‭ ‬and the Cleveland‭ [‬Orchestra‭] ‬begins on time.‭”

The Jan.‭ ‬24‭ ‬concert by the Palm Beach Symphony at Bethesda-by-the Sea Episcopal Church got under way at‭ ‬7:25‭ ‬p.m.,‭ ‬some‭ ‬25‭ ‬minutes after it was supposed to start.‭ ‬With‭ ‬80‭ ‬percent of the audience present,‭ ‬late diners from a dinner organized by the symphony strolled in, perhaps unaware‭ ‬they'd kept everybody waiting.

Once the music began,‭ ‬it opened with Beethoven‭’‬s‭ ‬Coriolan Overture‭ (‬Op.‭ ‬62‭)‬,‭ ‬written for a friend‭’‬s play of the same name.‭ ‬Smooth string playing,‭ ‬especially in the throbbing surge at the start,‭ ‬said that conductor Ramon Tebar meant business.‭ ‬As a concert warmer,‭ ‬though,‭ ‬it was wholly out of place with the rest of the program of‭ ‬two Ravel pieces and a light Schubert symphony.

In this church chancel setting,‭ ‬the full orchestra sounded muddy,‭ ‬and‭ ‬the brass section almost vulgar.‭ ‬It‭’‬s a very Germanic composition,‭ ‬and something by Debussy‭ ‬would have been a better choice in view of what was to follow.‭

After considerable chair shifting,‭ ‬nicely handled by two caring gentlemen,‭ ‬Ravel‭’‬s Introduction and Allegro for‭ ‬harp,‭ ‬string quartet,‭ ‬flute and clarinet set the tone for the rest of the evening. ‭ ‬Kay Kemper sat front and center with her harp and played beautifully‭; ‬the other six players behind her,‭ ‬no conductor.‭ ‬It was a magnificent‭ ‬10‭ ‬minutes of lush and magical music-making,‭ ‬with glissandos and crescendos tumbling from the harp and the sextet providing‭ ‬gorgeous moments of rapturous Impressionistic sounds.‭

‬A second Ravel piece,‭ ‬the four-movement‭ ‬Le Tombeau de Couperin,‭ ‬followed.‭ ‬What a‭ ‬contrast to Beethoven‭’‬s writing.‭ ‬In the fugal section,‭ ‬the brass sounded infinitely more gentle than they had done in the harshness of the‭ ‬Coriolan.‭ ‬The woodwinds‭ ‬sounded wonderful,‭ ‬almost piano-like on occasion:‭ ‬Ravel‭’‬s nod to‭ ‬Couperin‭’‬s‭ ‬keyboard‭ ‬skill,‭ ‬no doubt.‭ ‬The fast-paced Rigaudon,‭ ‬the last movement,‭ ‬was taken at breakneck speed,‭ ‬and the orchestra kept pace for a thrilling performance.

The second half of the program was given over to the Symphony No.‭ ‬6‭ (‬in C,‭ ‬D.‭ ‬589‭) ‬of Schubert.‭ ‬Written when the composer was‭ ‬21,‭ ‬the symphony is scored for an orchestra of the size of‭ ‬the‭ ‬Palm Beach Symphony.‭ ‬The work evokes the‭ “‬Rossini craze‭”‬ of the early‭ ‬19th century,‭ ‬with much Italianate writing in the woodwind ornamental figures.‭

Yet it also is unmistakably‭ ‬the work of the master of the‭ ‬Lied.‭ ‬Tebar coaxed some lovely playing from the orchestra in the tuneful first movement,‭ ‬and the second-movement Andante was like a minuet,‭ ‬quiet and stately with beautiful woodwind chords ending in pure serenity.

The lively Scherzo with its familiar-sounding tunes plugged along with reminders of‭ ‬Beethoven and his brassy chords‭ (‬Coriolan again‭!)‬.‭ ‬The finale had many graceful melodies unfolding one after another,‭ ‬all of which were tightly played by a very talented group of professional instrumentalists.‭ ‬– Rex Hearn

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