Saturday, October 16, 2010

Night of American Music

The Oct. 9 concert titled Rhapsody in Blue included two pieces from Samual Barber, the "Overture to Candide" by Bernstein and the title piece featuring guest pianist Jon Kimura Parker who apparently has been guesting with the TSO for 25 years.  The evening began with a great pre-concert chat by Rick Philips where we found out how Gershwin came to write "Rhapsody in Blue" as well as some stories about Barber and Bernstein.

"Overture to Candide" was a rousing start to the evening.  From the choir loft seats it's great fun to watch the conductor.  I'd never seen the string players have to pull stray hairs off their bows before, but there were a few who did after this piece.  There was also a guest concertmaster, Jonathan Carney.  He's the regular concertmaster of the Baltimore Symphony.  An interesting note, the BSO's Pops season opened Oct. 7, and why anyone would want to miss Maestro Everly and Gotta Dance is beyond me, but then I'm not a trained musician, mearly a fun loving amateur.  Mr. Carney's style seemed a little flamboyent to me, at least more than I usually recall seeing from the other TSO associate and assistant concertmasters.

Next up was "Symphony #1" by Barber.  Maestro Oundjian introduced this piece (I do love how there's talking in casual concerts!) and mentioned it's rarely performed because people don't quite know how to program it.  After hearing it, I've decided I'm not a fan.  It's interesting I suppose, but it didn't really resonate with me.  The evening's concert was dedicated to a cousin of the Oundjian family, making the very famous Barber piece, "Adagio for Strings" especially poignant.  No one could ever accuse Mr. Oundjian of being stoic on the podium, he feels what he's conducting, and while I often have trouble finding a downbeat, the orchestra produces beautiful music with his leading.  At one point he made a gesture that looked as if he was drawing a bow across a violin.  It's not hard to tell that is his instrument.  There's one very pregnant pause in the piece and the audience was told that in a previous concert some people had thought the piece was over and started clapping, however he felt sure that wouldn't happen tonight.  And indeed, with that reminder, it didn't.

The program concluded with the much more upbeat "Rhapsody in Blue" by George Gershwin.  This piece was named by Ira and originally was going to be "American Rhapsody", however with other names around like "Study in Gray", it became "Rhapsody in Blue".  Gershwin was asked to compose the piece by Paul Whiteman for a concert called An Experiment in Modern Music in 1924.  He hadn't been working on it and with 5 weeks left, on a trip to Boston for out of town tryouts for a musical, he developed the piece.  Gershwin wrote a piece for 2 pianos.  The second piano part became the orchestration.  Apparently Gershwin was mostly self taught and asked Ravel and Stravinsky if he could study music with them.  Ravel's response was "why would you want to be a B class Ravel when you can be an A Class Gershwin?". Stravinsky asked how much money he made, and when Gershwin laid out a 6 digit figure, Stravinsky said "I should be studying with you".

Now back to the actual performance of the piece.  Peter Oundjian introduced Jon Kimura Parker and explained they attended Julliard at the same time, but only met at their graduation ceremony (their guest speaker was Aaron Copland and neither were really paying attention) since they were seated beside each other.  Not a lot of names come between "Ou" and "Pa" so the alphabet brought them together.  They joked around a bit, mentioned the glissando in the clarinet at the start of the piece and how when the clarinetist slid it for the first time (it wasn't originally written that way) it was liked and since then the clarinet player pretty much does what he likes that sounds good.  At this the oboe player looked like he was laughing and the clarinetist gave a quick shake of his head.  However, it sounded really cool, and is something I'm going to have to read about how to do, this may make runs a lot easier ;)

There was an instant standing ovation at the conclusion of the piece.  For an encore Mr. Parker took the microphone and said "when you play with an orchestra you've got to have...", sat down and started playing "I've Got Rhythm".  After being presented with flowers, and there still being a standing ovation, he went back in time, but stayed in the same country, concluding the evening with "Solace" by Scott Joplin.

Saturday, October 9, 2010

New TSO Season

The Toronto Symphony Orchestra opened their 2010-2011 season with a bang--Mahler's "Resurrection Symphony".  Since 2011 is the 100th anniversary of Gustav Mahler's death, his works are showing up on the schedules for a lot of orchestras I follow.  For example, Baltimore opened with Symphony 7 and has 4 other pieces planned for the season.   The NAC Orchestra is doing Mahler's 4th Symphony near the end of the season, but it's still there.  Indianapolis has Mahler's 5th in a few weeks, and if I kept looking maybe I could find all 10 of the symphonies somewhere.

Prior to Sept. 25 when I attended the TSO concert, I'd heard OF Mahler, but never actually HEARD Mahler.  I don't know why I waited so long!  As usual if I'm attending something new I look for it on Youtube. I found a version conducted by Leonard Bernstein, a famous conductor, so I figured it was a pretty good rendition.   Once the symphony started (the orchestra began with "O Canada", both verses, I didn't know it had 2 verses!  Must be a season opening thing because I've never seen them play that before) I quickly discovered Youtube does not do Mahler justice, well it probably doesn't do a lot justice, but definitely not Mahler!  

From the opening notes I was entranced.  I think my mouth was hanging open for parts of it and there was so much to take in visually. There was no getting drowsy in this program.  The melody passed to various instruments and never got lost for me, the balance between everything was incredible even with a huge orchestra.  Symphony 2 is scored for a lot of what I'd consider extras to a typical orchestra complement (such as 4 clarinets, 2 E-flat clarinets, 4 oboes, 4 bassoons, 2 harps, etc. and 10 HORNS - which was incredible).  At a few points the clarinets and horns even pointed their bells up.  Is that a Mahler thing?  Did he write to do that in the music?

The offstage playing of horns and percussion in the fifth movement was interesting.  According to the program notes by Don Anderson, "The first part of the concluding movement is emotionally uncertain, haunted by the evocative echoes of off-stage horns and whispered, fragmentary allusions to the Dies irae (Day of Wrath)".  I'd agree with the haunting aspect for sure, especially since it follows this touching mezzo-soprano solo "Urlicht" (Primeval Light), which I liked more than the vocal parts in the final movement.

The local library is now hunting for their recording of Mahler 2 since it's not on the shelf and I'm anxious to hear it again.  If only I had free flights anywhere in North America, I would make that list of which orchestras were doing what and maybe hear all 10 symphonies in a season.  Alas, some dreams don't come true.  

But attending more TSO concerts does.  Tonight is a much lighter subject with "Rhapsody in Blue".  I can't wait.  More soon.