I Am Sitting In A Room

Commentary and thoughts on (mostly) classical music.

Monday, May 23, 2005

Review: Houston Symphony

Like in the old joke, Jean-Yves Thibaudet and the Houston Symphony played Tchaikovsky Saturday night. Tchaikovsky lost in a battle of conductor vs. soloist reminiscent of the Bernstein/Glenn Gould Brahms 1st Concerto that prompted Lenny to give a pre-performance disclaimer to the audience.

Trying the unsentimentalized, bat out of hell approach to that old warhorse, the First Piano Concerto, the performance started out refreshingly bracing. Unfortunately, the lyrical phrases that could have used some Romantic rubato were also taken at breakneck pace. It didn’t take long for Hans Graf’s discomfort with the situation to become apparent, either. He frequently had to push the orchestra to keep up with Thibaudet*, and more than one orchestral passage took a more sedate tempo that was immediately canceled out with the reentry of the soloist.

By the third movement, the tug of war had turned into comedy (this is Tchaik 1 – there’s no need to invoke “travesty” on such an oft-maligned composition). I laughed out loud more than once and exchanged several bemused glances with EKB (the better half). She’s now comparing the performance to Yosemite Sam cartoons. I’m wondering how much of this caricature was Jean-Yves being petulant after disagreeing with Graf in rehearsals. (A backstage report informed us that the musicians were highly agitated over unresolved issues before curtain.)

The fight with the orchestra over interpretation wasn’t the only battle to watch. Thibaudet was also struggling with the instrument he had on stage. The piano (apparently a replacement since the flooding from Tropical Storm Allison ravaged the Symphony’s offices in 2001) did not project well in its upper registers, and when it did sound with any volume, the tone was thin. Thibaudet’s execution also had some sloppy stretches at such high speed, though I got the impression this was more a function of attitude than of any strain on his formidable technique.

The audience lapped the performance up, of course. I’m conflicted about this. On the one hand, it’s great to see people strong attendance and enthusiasm at the symphony. And who am I to say “Wise up, folks. That was the most tasteless Tchaikovsky Concerto I’ve ever heard!” But on the other, how can I not? This was like a sci-fi B-movie; so bad it was funny. Thibaudet sure as hell didn’t deserve the extended ovation that followed.

Opening the program, the performance of Jennifer Higdon’s blue cathedral was handicapped by the tension thrumming through the orchestra. After intermission, the Symphony rallied with The Firebird – a little too long in its complete form, but it was nice to settle down after the preceding madness. Original costume designs were projected as a welcome visual accompaniment. (The picture here is not one of them. It’s a storybook illustration by Ivan Bilibin.)

See also: Houston Chronicle

* The picture at right should have a caption along the lines of 'Jean-Yves should be locked away after Saturday's concert,' but I quit fighting with HTML after awhile.

Sunday, May 22, 2005

Cliburn Online

[from The Well-Tempered Blog] The Van Cliburn Competition* is being shown via live webcast (yes, it's video! - and yes, the connection can be dodgy). Ah, the wonders of the Internet Age.

* For the record: I enjoy the idea of competitions, though politics always find their way into the judging. The Van Cliburn does tend to promote mediocrity over truly interesting musicians (at least as near as I can gather from the Cliburn documentaries I've seen). But I just can't pass up a good piano orgy, so I'll be streaming whenever it's available.

Wednesday, May 18, 2005

In Brief: HGO's Falstaff

I had meant to elaborate on Houston Grand Opera’s production of Verdi’s Falstaff,* but this graphic from LA Opera sums it up perfectly.

The supporting cast ranged from excellent (Patricia Racette as Alice Ford) to not quite there (Jesus Garcia’s Fenton). The acting was superb all around. The production by Olivier Tambosi and stage direction sparkled with great comic timing. Conductor Patrick Summers did a fine job with the score, etc., etc.

But Bryn Terfel is the story of this production (starting next weekend in LA). He’s hilarious – whether buffooning, pitiable, or unrepentant – and always the center of attention. I have never had more fun at the opera and any other night out is going to have to go a long way to top this Falstaff.

See also: Houston Press, Houston Chronicle & Dallas Morning News (via a Terfel fan site).

* To be headed with the awful pun “Bryn there, done that.” It was too groan-inducing to not share.

Review: Houston Symphony

This weekend saw the world premiere of a Clarinet Concerto by Richard Lavenda, the fourth of six concerti commissioned by the Houston Symphony for several of its instrumental principals. (Next year John Harbison contributes a new Doublebass Concerto.) Clarinetist David Peck played the solo in the Lavenda and Weber’s Concertino.

Lavenda’s work is in three movements, conservatively atonal, and largely rhapsodic in its construction. The brief first movement lives up to its billing as “Tempestuous.” There are vigorous exchanges of a main angular theme between the soloist and orchestra, many knotty solo runs, and continuous thread of momentum throughout.

The second movement is the Concerto’s center of gravity. It opens with a too-lengthy, rambling episode featuring some interesting instrumental combinations (a passage for harp, low marimba, and muted bass drum was particularly ear-catching) and requires great control from the clarinet. Soloist David Peck was at his strongest in these haunting moments softly suspended in the instrument’s upper register. A contrasting section is ushered in by an explosive crescendo in the bass drum and introduces some wild percussion outbursts before calming down again.

The finale returns to a faster tempo, but is not as assertive in its manner as the opening. The orchestra takes the driver’s seat to the detriment of the solo part, sometimes overshadowing its role.

The Concerto is generally effective in its own right, but the performances lacked spark. After attending two nights, I was left with the feeling that a great deal of energy had been left untapped. David Peck is a solid and able player, but by his own admission is much more comfortable as a member of the full orchestra. His stage manner was very reserved; he stood back from the spotlight, nearly level with the conductor’s music stand. As the orchestra played the final bars of the Weber Concertino, he nonchalantly stuck a hand in his pocket. A little more flash and tension would have been appreciated.

Mozart’s Symphony No. 34 in C and the Bizet Symphony in C rounded out the program. Mozart is one of Hans Graf’s specialties, and Saturday’s performance was crisp and brilliant. The Symphony’s strings sounded better than I’ve heard them all season, precise, focused, and warm. (Monday night’s performance didn’t fare quite as well. The dynamics had flattened out, and the tempo was slack in the slow movement – a fellow attendee later called it “an excess of moderation.”)

See also: Houston Chronicle Music Critic Charles Ward's review.

Wednesday, May 11, 2005


A recent review in the Houston Chronicle was pointed out to me so that I could note the slightly personal edge taken by the local music critic against a local group’s artistic director and pianist.* Having not been at the concert, I can’t really judge the aptness of the article’s criticism. What bugged me, though, was this opening:

Gypsies and Bohemians, the final Da Camera program of the season, swirled with a rambunctious energy too intense for the stylized musical representations of outcast life.

And the title had an element of cuteness.

First off, I’d (more often than not) rather have a concert full of rambunctious energy than tamely rendered interpretations.**

There’s something pleasantly oxymoronic about “stylized representations of outcast life.” The concept seems to leave a lot of interpretive wiggle room; does one harness the implicit wildness of the original source, try to attain a “stylistic authenticity” appropriate to the composer, or stress the irony of recontextualizing the Other in classical form? (Can you tell I’m getting ready to go back to grad school?) Clearly, Da Camera took a different road than Charles Ward would prefer.

What I mostly object to is the dig against the title. It’s unduly belittling, particularly on its own as a newspaper-sized paragraph, and not particularly warranted. Ward never explains what he means by “cuteness.” What else would you propose calling a concert featuring Smetana, Dvořák, Janáček (Moravian, I know), and more than one work with “Gypsy” in the title? “Symphonies in C”? (Sorry, wrong rant.)

Da Camera’s entire season has been called “Rebels and Visionaries.” It’s been an engaging theme around which to build a season featuring some of the more challenging and enjoyably adventurous programming in town. (Examples of the “Rebels and Visionaries” encountered were Beethoven, Crumb, Nancarrow, Zorn, Gesualdo, Shostakovich, Gidon Kremer, Peter Wispelwey, FLUX Quartet.) Calling this last concert – which featured some of the season’s most traditional programming (Janáček was the only maverick on the bill) – “Gypsies and Bohemians” brought it nicely into the thematic fold. And it sure beats the heck out of the pedestrian titles we usually see in concert brochures.

* That’s the curse of community: the more you hang around a place the more you pick up on its politics.
** A reason I have always found listening to András Schiff recordings to be less than inspiring.

Tuesday, May 03, 2005

Streaming Orgies

vilaine fille blogs about - and provides a handy outline of - Spring Orgy season at Harvard’s WHRB. Their main page gives live streaming options & links to the detailed schedule. Usually I find out about the orgies after they happen, so it's been nice to catch this one near the beginning. Upcoming highlights include a Mighty Handful orgy (even Cui gets some airplay), Left Hand Piano Orgy and the Charlie Parker Orgy. 84 hours of Bird – Stream & Enjoy.

NB: When I get around to expanding my blogroll, vilaine fille will be one of the first additions.* It's a first-rate blog - well written, beautifully and tastefully illustrated and with copious linkage. Highly recommended.

* along with twang twang twang, Sieglinde's Diaries, and the individual blogs and Composers Forum at Sequenza 21. As for Trrill, they recently shocked the classical blogosphere with an announced retirement. But recently the archives were put back up, and those are worth perusal.

Review: Musiqa

The concert we meant to be at on the 30th was Musiqa’s performance of Pierrot lunaire and new(er) works by mostly Houston composers.

This was my first live Pierrot, and it was a darn good one. Soprano
Karol Bennett was dressed for the part in Pagliacci-like attire, the stage was dramatically lit, and a spectral tree was projected on the backdrop. My only issue was that there could’ve been a little more flutter-tongue from Pierrot where it’s called for, but Bennett’s performance was still highly enjoyable. She even made getting a water glass refilled during a pause entertaining. The ensemble, led by conductor Carlos Miguel Prieto, was beautifully lithe and mercurial, hitting their marks with grace and apparent ease.

The second half started with a literal bang –
Rob Smith’s athletic showpiece Essential Torque for piano and tape. The piece opened with quiet impressionisms interrupted by huge forearm clusters. With the clusters came the introduction of electronic creakings that sounded like the strained turning of already tight bolts, as if the piano was being held together by the will of its groaning tuning pins. Timothy Hester then ramped up for a virtuoso duo with the tape part in an aggressive, jazzy style that often required bass lines in the piano and tape to stay in perfect lockstep. Hester was nearly flawless and the display was breathlessly exciting.

Pierre Jalbert’s The Invention of the Saxophone took a poem by Billy Collins of the same name as its basis. Picking up on evocative phrases from the narrated poem, the alto saxophone takes its first smoky breaths in an imagined nocturnal Paris “waiting for the invention of jazz.” Saxophonist Valerie Vidal brought a beautifully dusky tone to the piece and was supported nicely by Hester and narrator Rob Bundy.

The remaining two pieces accompanied choreography – a slight, but enjoyable work by Australian
Ross Edwards (Ecstatic Dances in an arrangement for violin and alto ‘cello) and the world premiere of Karim Al-Zand’s The Waiting Game. Ecstatic Dances was full of delightful* interplay between the two voices, and a pair of dancers twisted gracefully along, often mirroring or in canon with each other.

The Waiting Game seemed clearly designed in tandem with the dance and drew on illustrative effects and borrowings from Debussy and Ravel. The choreographed scene was slight and a little silly – in one story line, boy meets girl, boy is awkward and ungraceful, they part a little unsatisfied; in the other, girl searches for ideal clothing accessory from a pile, is disappointed, find mystery box, takes great joy in red wig found within. Why these were framed with Blair Witch/X-Files hunting scenes featuring day-glo water pistols is beyond me.

Musiqa has put on some excellent concerts this season. Their roster of composers and performers is largely drawn from the outstanding artist faculty of
Rice Univ. and the Univ. of Houston. Each program balances old and new 20th/21st century music and features a non-musical contribution from the Houston arts scene. They finish the 05/06 season May 20th with an educational program revolving around folk music from throughout the world.

*not a word I like to use much, but appropriate here

Making Lemonade with Gounod

Friday night we headed downtown for a concert scheduled on the 30th. I had the right date in mind, but Friday was the 29th. Imagine our surprise when my slippery grasp of the present was uncovered. D’oh!

At a loose end the better half and I wandered toward the opera house. To our great delight, the evening’s performance was about to be
PlazaCast on giant monitors for the free enjoyment of all. On the bill: Gounod’s Roméo & Juliette.

The weather was beautiful (a touch warm, a slight breeze) and a good crowd of about 300 had turned up with lawn chairs and coolers. A number of other people revolved on and off the plaza, but most stayed for at least 10 minutes worth of the show. Concessions were set up offering pizza, ice cream, and drinks. We skipped the lemonade in favor of a White Russian-coffee mix at intermission.

The performance itself was unexceptional – mostly solid, but not fantastic – dramatically a little slack and with a dull stage production. [I should note here that we missed Act II, iii – including Stephano’s aria – when most of the action happens while getting coffee.] Anyway, I’ll defer to local critic
Charles Ward for details.

The neatest part of the evening came after the opera when an announcement asked those of us enjoying the show on the plaza to stay put for a curtain call. Sure enough, a golf cart appeared from around the corner carrying the vocal principals and conductor.* The plaza-sitters crowded around and gave lusty rounds of applause. It was great of HGO to acknowledge the open-air audience as contributing significantly to the success of the evening, even if we didn’t shell out for tickets.

(To be honest, I had wanted to see the production more out of a sense of duty to HGO [we’ve only made one other opera this season] and idle curiosity than any great love for Gounod’s R&J which has to be one of the worst offenders in the opera-as-bad-drama camp. Lucking into it for free and in an atmosphere where we could openly laugh at the contrived death scene was an optimal way to go.)

Joshua Kosman of the San Francisco Chronicle was visiting to check out David Gockley, on his way to run SF Opera.
ArtsJournal links to his article on HGO’s weekend.

*I wonder if they’ve gotten away with carting established stars out to the plaza…I suppose we should’ve showed up for the Gala the next night to find out.