Category Archives: programming

is a far cry the ensemble of the future?


a far cry chamber orchestra

a far cry chamber orchestra


I’m not a professional writer of concert reviews, or much of anything, for that matter. I have written some program notes for the Oregon Symphony on occasion, but my skill set has more to do with performing music than with critically listening to others performing music (unless I’m giving a lesson or a coaching, that is). But sometimes there is a concert that just cries (sorry, no pun intended) out for a response, and so, without any sort of agenda on my part, here is my response.

If I were to characterize this concert in one sentence, I would do so as follows:

A Far Cry’s Sunday afternoon concert demonstrated that the future of classical music does not necessarily lie only in what music is performed, but also in how it is performed.

Here is what I mean by that statement. The concert was fairly conventional in terms of how its program was laid out. Active, fun, curtain-raiser piece (in this case Ljova’s Vjola Suite) which took various and sundry middle- and Eastern European folk idioms for a quick, and largely delightful, run around the park. Followed by a concerto (the Concerto for Violin, Double Bass, and String Orchestra by Kip Jones, who was also the violin soloist) which featured an unusual pairing of solo instruments, a tutti orchestra who sang while simultaneously playing, and some extended jamming by the two soloists. After the intermission, there was a short, meditative, work by Charles Ives (Largo cantabile: Hymn from A Set of Three Short Pieces), which was followed by a major work from the 19th century canon, an arrangement for string orchestra of Dvorak’s massive Quintet in E-flat major, Op. 97 “American”. So there was the very standard arrangement of light/short opener, concerto, short filler piece, major work that most chamber groups and symphony orchestras deploy on a regular basis as their template for a standard concert program.

The program was entitled “Melting Pot”, and in reflecting that theme, it was entirely successful. It was a program that worked beautifully on the page – music that reflects both immigrant and native influences on American music, and how these influences cross-pollinate to produce a sound and point of view that is uniquely ‘American’. If only the pieces had been strong enough to provide the emotional and intellectual underpinning that such a program really depends upon to provide an experience that is not only enjoyable, but is vital, vibrant, and life affirming.

The first half of the program was admirable in what it attempted to do, but, at least for myself, it did not quite succeed. Two pieces by living composers – young living composers, no less – is a boon, and I am of the belief that every major classical music presenter should include at least one contemporary piece of music on every program of their season, especially if they take public money as part of their funding. But I wished for pieces that were edited a bit more carefully – these two, especially the concerto, seemed to out stay their welcome by a good third of their length, to my ears. However, they were played with refreshing verve and virtuosity by both the orchestra and the two soloists, and they made as compelling a case as could be made for these two pieces, and I hope that their collaboration with Ljova and Kip Jones continues to bear fruit with music that both deepens and expands its sophistication.

The second half was another matter, as these were two masterpieces in their respective genres. The Ives was a new piece to me, and I would have loved to have heard the other two movements of the set on the program. The beautiful solo cello work of Karen Ouzounian was a highlight. The Dvorak quintet arrangement which closed the concert had me of two minds. While I enjoyed very much – as with the entire concert – the extremely high quality of the playing: full of musicality and focus, energy and contemplation – I must confess that I am rarely pleased with the expansion of chamber works into versions for string orchestra. The only example that I think truly works is Schoenberg’s own orchestration of his Transfigured Night, originally for string sextet, into a version for large string orchestra. There was a moment towards the close of the sublime Larghetto movement where the forces were pared down to the original five instruments, and I found myself relaxing and relishing the sound of the ensemble as originally intended by the composer.

So, back to my one sentence statement. What was revelatory about this performance? It wasn’t the repertoire, though that was interesting, and admirable in its intent. What I loved, and saw as vital in this performance to the future of classical music, was the energy and joy expressed in the music making. Here was an ensemble that was fully as fun and engaging to watch as any of the great chamber ensembles (and admittedly, not all of them – there are some great ensembles of the past and present that are a decided yawn to watch perform). They made use of the different levels of the stage platform at First Unitarian Church during the exuberant encore, making a moving tapestry of active performance, in stark contrast so many static performances that one is likely to encounter. Performers smiled as they played, exchanged knowing glances with one another, played off each others impulses, reacting with split-second timing with that instinctual musical impulse that cannot be taught or learned, but is the essence of the ‘gift’ of talent. There really is nothing worse that going to a concert and seeing people looking as though they are digging a ditch or asking if you’d ‘like fries with that’. Live performance is as much a visual experience as an aural one, and the Criers, who clearly have everything needed to produce the musical goods, also brought the joie de vivre that is essential to build and sustain classical music audiences long into the future.

orchestral real estate

I was talking with a friend and riding partner today who is now one of the top residential real estate photographers in the country. He has broken many records for earning in his regions of coverage (Portland, Oregon and the East Bay Area) by looking at the old paradigms in his field and seeing new ways of looking at them. Consequently, he does very well, because, in the words of Apple, he “Thinks Different”. He said that he was asked to give a talk after he posted the single largest jump in earnings for the Portland region after he took it over. The gist of his message to the realtors who hire him:

“You aren’t hiring me to sell this house. You’re hiring me so you get more future listings.”

This has ramifications in the orchestral world, especially as regards fund raising and increasing both donor and earned income. Think about it. We often put on concerts that will ‘sell’ so that we can improve our bottom line. And sometimes these concerts do, in fact, sell. But how many of these concerts (many of which are specials that attract very little in the way of crossover audiences) actually end up bringing more repeat customers into the concert hall? It seems like the paradigm needs to be upended a bit, in the orchestral arena:

“You aren’t programming just to sell tickets/fundraising just to survive. You’re programming/building intimate relationships to engage people in a life-long journey with your organization.”


wherefore art thou, symphony orchestra?

What is going on with the symphony orchestra in America? Is it dying? There have been several high-profile bankruptcies in recent years, some resulting in the complete shutting down of operations. But there is the conviction that something has to be done. There is talk of a business model that is broken, but not many constructive ideas for what this supposedly broken model should morph into. A recent article by Phillip Kennicott blames the diffusion of the orchestra’s primary mission by educational initiatives and navel-gazing searching for a supposedly lost cultural relevancy. But perhaps the real problem is two opposing constituencies so thoroughly entrenched in their well-meaning but ultimately self-destructive ideologies that they have lost sight of the fact that they are two halves of a whole (or two thirds of a whole) that desperately need each other in order to succeed. Continue reading

Is there a glass ceiling for orchestral musicians?

Just a couple days ago, local classical music critic Brett Campbell wrote an omnibus review of classical music events from the latter months of 2012. Among the concerts reviewed was the opening concert of 45th Parallel’s 2012-2013 concert season, entitled “Octetlandia”. It paired two little-heard works for the string octet with the great octet of Felix Mendelssohn. The audience response was exceptional (as was the attendance). I’ve continued to hear positive comments about the concert from patrons that I’ve run into around town in the months since. Continue reading

britten’s sea, sibelius’ last symphony, and more

Monday morning the OSO begins its rehearsals for next weekend’s penultimate classical series of the 2011-2012 season. Yes, then end of our season is just over two weeks away. It’s hard to believe, often, it seems to stretch into infinity around January or February, and then May is here, and with the close of the month comes the close of our season.

This concert, which is advertised as being all about pianist Arnaldo Cohen and Tchaikovsky’s First Piano Concerto, really centers around two of my favorite pieces: Benjamin Britten’s Four Sea Interludes & Passacaglia from Peter Grimes, and Sibelius’ Seventh Symphony. I have written before that I have yet to encounter a work by Britten that I didn’t almost immediately like, and I must say that the Four Sea Interludes were the first pieces of Britten’s that I had ever performed, and most likely ever heard. They were written to transition between sections of the opera – hiding the noise of set changes and the like – but they are awesomely beautiful, and exquisitely crafted. These are not throwaway scraps by any means. The Passacaglia (another instrumental interlude from the opera) is notable both for its use of the ancient passacaglia form which relies upon a repeating bass line upon which the rest of the structure is built, and for its lonely and haunting solos for the principal violist – which will be expertly played by my long-time stand partner Joël Belgique this week.

The Sibelius is a fascinating end to his line of seven symphonies (almost eight, but for the loss of that manuscript at the hands of the composer), it begins with a simple C major scale in the entire string section, and then goes on to produce some of the most deeply emotional and beautiful music of all of his symphonic output. It features one of the crowning trombone solos in all of the symphonic literature – it will be a treat to hear Aaron LaVere play this music again.

More after the rehearsal period begins…

short, seasons, and saint-saens

This week’s classical series program is quite an interesting one, at least to me. It begins with a symphony of Aaron Copland that is still seldom performed, the Second Symphony (also known as the Short Symphony). It’s a slight, three movement work, which could be compared to neoclassical works of Igor Stravinsky such as his Dumbarton Oaks or Symphony in Three Movements. It is instantly recognizable as Copland, but it predates the so-called Americana pieces (Billy the Kid, Appalachian Spring, etc.), so there is not the folk music influence that one might expect. It is rhythmically complex, with the time signatures changing often in the course of the outer movements. This rhythmic complexity, along with the transparent orchestration, led to some cancelled premieres by Stokowski’s Philadelphia Orchestra and Koussevitsky’s Boston Symphony due to a lack of adequate rehearsal time. Copland wrote this about the piece:

In [this work] I continued the effort, begun with the Piano Variations, to expand my style, both harmonically and rhythmically. The Short Symphony’s preoccupation is with complex rhythms, combined with clear textures. Sonority-wise, the most rhythmically complex moments have a certain lightness and clarity. The work is in three movements (fast, slow, fast) played without pause. The first movement is scherzo-like in character. The second movement is in three brief sections—the first rises to a dissonant climax, is sharply contrasted with a songlike middle part, and returns to the beginning. The finale is once again bright in color and rhythmically intricate.

Click here to listen to a 1980 NPR interview with Copland followed by a performance of the work by the San Francisco Symphony under Michael Tilson Thomas.

The next piece on the program is Astor Piazzolla’s Four Seasons of Buenos Aires (Estanciones Porteñas), which was originally written (between 1965-70) for Piazzolla’s own ensemble, a quintet of violin (doubling viola), piano, electric guitar, double bass, and bandoneón. In 1991 it was arranged by Jaques Morlenbaum for the ensemble of woodwind quintet, three cellos, and double bass. Finally, around 1999, the Russian composer Leonid Desyatnikov made an ingenious arrangement featuring solo violin with string orchestra which combined the forms and gestures of Vivaldi’s original with Piazzolla’s South American seasons. The soloist for these concerts is an audience favorite, Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg. Click here to listen to a performance by violinist Steven Copes with the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra.

Finally, we come to one of the enduring warhorses of the symphonic repertoire, Camille Saint-Saëns’ Third Symphony “Organ”. It will feature a huge electronic organ that actually does a fair job of imitating a pipe organ (if you’ve heard the work at the Schnitz before, then you’ve heard this same organ used). I actually like this piece quite a lot. It gives our winds and brass a chance to really shine, and the big organ chord that opens the finale is always fun to hear (and to watch the audience react to).

The last interesting feature of this concert? It marks the first classical guest conducting appearance of former PYP music director (and now music director of the Memphis Symphony) Mei Ann Chen. It will be great to see how she’s grown in her years since being in Portland, and should be a nice homecoming for both her and the orchestra.

more about that may concert

I just posted about Jun Iwasaki’s return to play guest concertmaster for our last concert of the season on May 20/21. I also finished my last set of program notes for the season, which just happen to be for these very concerts. I must say, after immersing myself in the music featured on this program, that this may be one of the strongest concerts we’ve ever done since the Music for a Time of War program we brought to Carnegie last spring. Get your tickets soon…