Thursday, October 25, 2012

Organ Recital Dr Richard Elliott

Thankfully the wonderful Casavant Frères op 3875 organ does not sit grandly idle as some concert hall organs do. Last evening, a very full Helzberg Hall audience was treated to the first in a series of four organ recital concerts featuring prominent organists from around the country. Each concert is hosted by Michael Barone, host of Public Radio's long running “Pipedreams” program. The organist was Dr. Richard Elliott, Principal Organist of the Mormon Tabernacle in Salt Lake City.

The concerts begin with an informal fireside chat between Barone and the organist, discussing the organist's training and experience and then progressing to a demonstration of some of the organ's voices and timbres. While the experienced organists might find this a bit uninteresting, for the layman, it was a fascinating glimpse into the world of the King Of Instruments.

The program was well designed to show off the capabilities of Opus 3875. Its French genes were highlighted by the majestic Louis Couperin Chaconne from 1658. The organ's characteristic sec French reeds were in full show in this grand arrangement by Joseph Bonnet.

The magnificent Bach Toccata and Fugue in F displayed Elliott's talent on the pedals and his ability to keep the drama of the toccata and the entrances in the Fugue flowing through Bach's torrent of notes. Elliott was aided by the organ's clear and precise pedals. A piece titled “Cantelena”by former Tabernacle Organist John Longhurst let the dulcet flutes have their fine, yet ephemeral moment. The piece was lovely, but did not make a long lasting impression. Composed for a Tabernacle radio broadcast, perhaps that was its intention.

Elliott's arrangement of “Every time I feel the Spirit” was a fine and amusing arrangement, capturing the improvisational style of African-American spirituals. But no matter how agile the organist, music like this just comes out a bit clunky when played on a concert organ; a rousing “Amen” coda made things all right however!

The main course was an arrangement for organ of Mussorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition. I had heard orchestra, piano and brass ensemble live and even on rock band, synthesizer and guitar through recordings. But never on an organ.

While Elliott's technique was formidable, to me this arrangement sounded like it was arranged by Charles Addams instead of Jean Guillou/Keith John, emphasizing the spooky and otherworldly voices of the organ. This fit the music well in the strange “Gnomus”, “Catacombs” and “Baba Yaga” sections and to some extent the “Old Castle”. The “Ballet of the Chicks in their Shells” was fleet and light, marred by the unnecessary bird chirping sound effect. But Elliott and Op 3875 made the grand “Great Gate at Kiev” the highlight of the evening. Grand and glorious but not over-the-top, the might of the pipes could easily force the audience back in their seats. Elliott even negotiated the unforgiving runs and finger work in this mighty movement, which really fit the organ the best of all.

The encore of “I got Rhythm” simply blew me away. Much more idiomatically arranged for the organ than the earlier spiritual.

Thus a new concert series for the Kansas City Symphony and Op 3875 is off to a fine start. A most enjoyable and enlightening evening.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

KCS Brahms and Barber

Three works, filled with unrelenting high drama comprised this weekend's Kansas City Symphony program, Michael Stern, Music Director Conducting. Samuel Barber's gripping Symphony #1 in One Movement, that monument of Romantic concerti the Grieg Piano Concerto and one of Brahms' most forward looking and satisfying works, the Symphony # 4.

The Barber Symphony in One Movement has a prominent place in the list of modern symphonies in one movement along with the Sibelius 7th, Myaskovski 21st (a suggestion for a future concert) and the Roy Harris 3rd. Unlike these more organic symphonies, the Barber is really in four classically defined movements albeit played without a hint of pause.

The Barber's 20 minute span seemed to fly by; the performance was intense, tightly wound, focused and detailed, yet never fussy. There may be more polished performances around, but Stern captured the turbulent emotions and the aforementioned high drama as well as anyone has. He also took care to bring out the underlying classical form of the symphony, which helps to clarify and bring order to the frequent torrent of notes and themes thrown at us in a short time. Among many fine moments in this richly rewarding performance; the collapse of the first movement into the fidgety scherzo, the poignant and aching oboe (underpinned by some incredibly rich string chords and glittering harp) and cello solos in the slow movement and finally that movement's utterly shattering climax.

As an aside, I so agree with the program guide's recommended recording of this work, something I often do not do. The Zinman/Baltimore recording, originally an Argo release now on Decca, is a must hear that includes a fine Adagio for Strings devoid of all syrup, allowing us to hear a work Toscanini described as “simple and beautiful”.

I am really not sure who won the “Battle of the Grieg Concerto”; the soloist Spanish pianist Jorge Federico Osorio (who I only know through his recording of the Rodrigo Piano Concerto) or Stern and the orchestra. A wonderfully dramatic, clear and fanfare-like reading of the famous opening flourish promised a muscular, winged performance free of “Song of Norway” sentimentality. But as the concerto progressed, attentive listeners worried. Sometimes Osorio had to slow his runs and passages to keep up with the orchestra...and just as often the orchestra slowed to align with the solo. The movement never fell apart and Osorio's technique was riveting, but one could see and hear the tension between the solo and the orchestra as they struggled to stay on the same page. Redeeming the movement was Osorio's thunderous cadenza that also whispered with chime-like runs.

The short-ish central adagio could have been just a bit more languid, offering more of a contrast to the outer two movements. Osorio's prodigious technique allowed him to float the piano's gorgeous central theme over the gently pulsing strings. The orchestra's winds and especially the horns contributed some fine solo and ensemble work in this tender intermezzo.

The launch into the dancing, folk melody laced finale threatened to resume the first movement's battle but this time everyone took a deep breath and drove the concerto to a brilliant but slightly heavy handed conclusion. Special mention here to Principal flute Michael Gordon's expressive (as always) solo.

Never a work that will inspire foot tapping and finger snapping, the Brahms 4th Symphony works well when it does not over stay its welcome. The 4th is the work most often cited as proof of Brahms' progressive nature with the unusual variation-finale, tightly controlled relationships between motives and exploration of remote key signatures. Stern recognized this as well as Brahms' indebtedness to Beethoven in a well detailed performance that also pulsed with Beethoven-esque power. Some fans may have wished for more warmth and autumnal glow from the work, but for me, a brisk reading that also manages to catch the overall architecture of the work is the most satisfying and impressive.

The first movement began a little shaky and the horns were a touch off center in some of their exposed passages but all progressed to the grand climax of this majestic movement. Stern's attention to detail and the fine playing of the strings and winds allowed us to clearly hear how Brahms takes the little motive at the beginning and uses it to create an expansive sonata movement.

The 4th is overall a tragic symphony and no where is that more apparent in the slow movement. Here, oddly enough, Stern backed the drama off a bit, bringing out the mood of resignation and reflection instead of doom and catastrophe. The opening horn call was spot on, where some of their other entrances were not this evening. The always fine winds shown brilliantly as well as did the rich strings when called upon.

Stern avoided the tendency in some performances to turn the scherzo into a thumping romp, bringing to mind Sir Thomas Beecham's comment about Beethoven's 7th Symphony: "What can you do with it? It's like a lot of yaks jumping about." Stern's reading was bereft of all traces of yak, but had just enough rustic character to liven things up a bit.

The finale, an orchestral passacaglia, was grand, imposing and yes dramatic while at the same time energetic. Stern negotiated the ebb and flow of the many tempo fluctuations in this complex and unusual movement, while milking the climaxes for their power and relationship to the music in general.

Many more wonderful concerts coming up this season including free chamber concerts, a Thursday series and an organ series. At a time when many orchestras are floundering and mired in financial crisis, we are truly privileged to have our Kansas City Symphony to enjoy. See you at Helzberg Hall soon!

Wednesday, October 03, 2012

Must Hear Music in Kansas City, 2012-2013 Edition

The marquees, ads, banners, and such will be trumpeting major works that the Kansas City Symphony will be featuring this coming season; the second in the literally world renowned Helzberg Hall. Mahler 6th, Beethoven Eroica, Carmina Burana and Schubert 9th will be featured, for example. But tucked in among these incredible jewels are some lesser known gems that a serious concert goer should not miss. Here are two, with more to follow.

Berg Violin Concerto “To the Memory of an Angel” (1935)
May 31-June 2 2013 Gil Shaham Violin, Michael Stern Conducting.

If any work can convince a skeptic that the twelve-tone school of composers did not always write “ugly music” it would be this exquisite concerto from 1935. A touching and glowing instrumental requiem for Manon Gropius, daughter of Architect Walter Gropius and Mahler's widow Alma, the Violin Concerto has emerged as Alban Berg's most popular work. It was also his last completed work.

In contrast to the craggy but colorful Schoenberg and the minimalist Webern, Berg carefully chose the notes of his tone row; teeters on the edge of tonality. He also incorporated fragments from an Austrian folk song and a Bach chorale that springs almost naturally from his chosen sequence of tone.

Berg conceived his Concerto in two movements, each then subdivided into two parts. The opening Andante presents the twelve-tone row on which the concerto is based, immediately establishing a tonal and contemplative mood. The more animated second half, marked Allegretto, serves as a scherzo with two trios and was described by the composer as a portrait of Manon Gropius. In this section, we hear music associated with the vivacious young actress including folk dances, waltzes, and even a section that is to be played “Wienerisch” or Viennese. With the entrance of the folk song, the movement quickly becomes bitter and colder; death is approaching.

From this nostalgic and wistful movement, we plunge into the more dramatic and funereal second. The allegro first section, which the composer designated “Catastrophe,” serves as the concerto's dramatic cadenza, building to the work’s climax. After the shattering climax, the work relaxes in a mood of resignation. Berg quotes a Bach chorale “Es ist genug,” (It is Enough) from his cantata O Ewigkeit, du Donnerwort ( Eternity, you thundering word), a cantata of farewell and acceptance of death.

The conclusion, marked “Deliverance,” develops the chorale theme into a rhapsodic “Requiem for Manon”. Themes from earlier sections are quoted, reflecting times past. Few other twelve-tone works have a section such as the final measures of the concerto, which quietly radiates bittersweet resignation.

As a bonus, Maestro Stern has selected American composer Carl Ruggles’ brief yet haunting and “Angels” for muted brass to open the evening. This strange, ephemeral work blends brilliantly with the mood and tone of the Berg. A fine piece of programming.

Mahler "Blumine"  (1889)
May 17-19, 2013, Asher Fisch Conducting.

Mahler’s first symphonic essay took a circuitous route in both form and content before emerging as the familiar and popular Symphony # 1 in D major.“Blumine” was once a part of this symphony but was discarded by Mahler after a few performances. After its rediscovery in 1966, it has occasionally been performed as a part of the Symphony but more frequently as a separate piece, as in this case. A little history lesson is in order so as to understand how this movement disappeared for 70 years.

Mahler first conceived of this work as “A Symphonic Poem in Two Parts” when it was premiered in Budapest in 1889. “Blumine” (although not yet labeled as such) was the second movement of this early form which is recognizable as the First Symphony but with many differences in orchestration and form. This performance was not well received so Mahler made some extensive revisions for a second performance in Hamburg in 1893. Now entitled “Titan, a Tone Poem in Symphonic Form”, the movement gained the title “Blumine” (Flowers) and remained as the second movement.

Only a couple of performances were given of this version before a  fouth performance in Berlin in 1896 where Blumine was formally struck from the score. All traces of the program and the name “Titan” were removed. The work was published in its current form in 1899 titled Symphony # 1 in D Major.

Blumine remained unperformed and lost until it was discovered in a copy of an early manuscript donated to Yale University. Benjamin Britten performed it soon after and the enterprising New Haven Symphony under conductor Frank Brieff performed and recorded it, interpolated into the definitive score as the second movement. Since then, several performances have been given and recorded of the early Budapest and Hamburg versions.

So what of the music? Mahler biographer Henry-Louis de La Grange was not too kind:

“There can be no doubt as to the authorship of ‘Blumine,’ and yet few other arguments can be stated in its favor. It is the music of a late-nineteenth-century Mendelssohn, pretty, charming, lightweight, urbane, and repetitious, just what Mahler’s music never is.”

Frankly, I kind of like the early versions with Blumine If one enjoys the lovely Adagietto of the 5th Symphony, the short interlude will also come as a quiet, simple respite among the otherwise emotionally charged atmosphere of the symphony. I do agree with de La Grange that it is a bit like Mendelssohn scored it with a decidedly late century palate. However. it looks forward to Mahler’s grander creations such as the aforementioned 5th and the 3rd’s posthorn serenade.

Several fine recordings of the Symphony with Blumine are available, most including Blumine as an appendix, notably Zinman/Zurich Tonhalle on RCA and Neeme Jarvi/Royal Scottish Orchestra on Chandos. Haydn House, an LP to CD reissue source, has the original Frank Brieff/New Haven recording, for the most curious.