Truth To Power I: Beethoven Egmont Overture

 

Now all of the evidence is finally out – a collection of videos from the final concert in the New England Conservatory’s ambitious season-long series of thematic presentations called Truth to Power. Some absolutely cracking performances by Hugh Wolff and the NEC Philharmonia at Symphony Hall, with Yr Hmbl Srvnt as the video director/producer struggling to catch up.

We produced – and I’ve posted – the videos in reverse order from the actual concert.  But now you can see how it began: With this blast of Beethoven.  Enjoy!

 

Truth To Power IIIa: Exploring the Shostakovich “Year 1905” Symphony

Following the post about the Shostakovich Symphony No. 11, here’s the “guided tour” to the symphony, from the perspective of conductor Hugh Wolff and some of the brilliant young NEC Philharmonia performers. I really enjoyed putting this together with Andrew Hurlbut and the NEC video folks, with invaluable help from James David Jacobs.

 

Truth To Power III: Shostakovich’s “Year 1905” Symphony

So what is the Symphony No. 11?  Shostakovich’s most Russian/ Mussorgskian work?  A piece of cinematic agit-prop?  A commentary on the crushed Hungarian uprising? A deeply reflective “Requiem for a Generation,” as Shostakovich claimed, according to [Solomon] Volkov’s controversial memoir?  The work of a washed-up genius who, after 20 years of suppression, has succumbed to the political juggernaut? A beautifully organized work that speaks tragically to the inevitable recurrence of despotism?

NEC website, April 2014

 

I have to be honest with you: After living with this symphony for the last two months, I still can’t make up my mind.  Parts of it are searingly, heartrendingly poignant; others definitely veer towards the kitsch.

What I do know is that conductor Hugh Wolff and the NEC Philharmonia certainly rose to the challenge of performing this sprawling, hour-long symphony at Boston’s Symphony Hall. Regardless of the decidedly mixed critical opinion, it strikes me as a really hard piece to play, with a huge number of forces (celeste, two harps, bass clarinet, contrabassoon, full battery of percussion) being asked to play both with tremendous, brutish force as well as precise, controlled delicacy.  Not to mention those moments of extreme, naked exposure – just ask the trumpets, horns, flutes, or bassoons!  Or for that matter, just check out the achingly long lines of the English horn solo in the final movement.

Above all, it strikes me as a symphony requiring enormous concentration both to conduct and to perform. The symphony clocks in at just over an hour, after all.  And from a producer’s perspective, I certainly was exhausted at the end! But all in a day’s work for Hugh Wolff, who did a masterful job of keeping all the forces together, and sculpting a shape and arc out of the sprawl.

Not to mention calming the NEC student’s nerves – playing in Symphony Hall for the first time in four years.  Playing a piece that I was surprised to discover had never been performed by the hall’s “house band.” (Neither Seiji Ozawa nor James Levine were fans of DSCH, but…not even any guest conductors?).

This was the biggest and hardest of the three pieces on the program, (the others being the Beethoven “Egmont” Overture and the Prokofiev Violin Concerto No. 1), and we’re going to produce them in reverse order. It’s all part of NEC’s season-long series of thematic presentations called Truth to Power, and I had the great pleasure of directing the shoot at Symphony Hall.  Today’s post contains the whole symphony; the story behind it will come next.

 

 

 

Frühbeck the Magician…

My first introduction to the work of the legendary Spanish conductor, Rafael Frühbeck de Burgos (1933-2014) was a scratchy old recording of Carmina Burana – which was, and remains, one of the great interpretations of the Carl Orff megahit.

CarminaBurana

The Original 1966 release of Carmina Burana from Fruhbeck de Burgos and the New Philharmonia Orchestra

Coming back to Boston decades later, I quickly came to understand – and even witness first hand – the special relationship between Frühbeck and the Boston Symphony Orchestra. He guest-conducted the orchestra at both Symphony Hall and at Tanglewood every year from 2000 until just last November, and his performances tended to be Big Momentous Events – like conducting the Mahler Symphony No. 2 on Tanglewood’s Opening Night in 2002, opening the Symphony Hall season with the Verdi Requiem that same year, last summer’s All-Tchaikovsky Opening Night at Tanglewood with violinist Joshua Bell.  But if I had to pick the most memorable performance of his during my time overseeing the BSO broadcasts, it would have to be his utterly idiomatic and captivating concert performance of Manuel De Falla’s La Vida Breve, with an outstanding mostly-Spanish cast that even included cantaor (Spanish folk singer) Pedro Sanz; flamenco guitarist Antonio Reyes, and the show-stopping flamenco dancer Núria Pomares Rojas

Nuria Pomares Rojas

Flamenco dancer Nuria Pomares Rojas

Oh, and on the first half of the program?  The Suite Española by Isaac Albeniz, a piece that was originally a suite for solo piano that Frühbeck himself orchestrated half a century ago!  And to top it off, the next night he was back on the podium to close out the Tanglewood season with the traditional performance of Beethoven’s 9th.

Part of the Frühbeck de Burgos mystique with the BSO was the fact that he apparently held the record for the longest stint BETWEEN appearances with the orchestra:  He made one brief guest appearance with the orchestra in 1971, and wasn’t on the podium again until almost 30 years later!  But what a difference a few decades make: legend has it that at the traditional end-of-season poll of the BSO players at Tanglewood, Frühbeck received the highest rating ever of guest conductors after his “return engagement” in 2000.  No wonder he was asked back every year after that!

Unfortunately, no video of Frühbeck to share with the BSO, but plenty of audio, including last summer’s Tanglewood Opening Night performance with Joshua Bell, as well as another gem: the following night’s reading of Mahler’s epic Symphony No. 3, with Anne-Sofie von Otter as the shimmering soprano soloist, the PALS Children’s Chorus joining the Tanglewood Festival Chorus, and BSO Principal Trumpet Thomas Rolfs “pulling out the old Posthorn” for an incredible sound on a sweltering summer night.

And thanks to YouTube, you can see a clip of Núria Pomares Rojas together with Frühbeck and the Mariinsky Orchestra in the 2nd act flamenco from La Vida Breve.  

And there’s lots of terrific video evidence of Frühbeck’s work with the Danish Radio Symphony Orchestra, where he was chief conductor for the past two and a half seasons….including his own arrangement of Granada from the Suite Espanola

RIP, Frühbeck.

May 23 Birthdays: Alicia de Larrocha and Jean Françaix

For your Friday enjoyment: A fabulous performance from 1997 of the seemingly-ageless Alicia de Larrocha (74 at the time) playing the Ravel Piano Concerto in G with Jesus Lopez-Cobos and the Cincinnati Symphony. As someone learning the ropes in the television world, I’m coming to appreciate really great camera work in shooting orchestras – far easier said than done! After a little rooting around on the Interwebs I discovered it was the handiwork of Brandenburg Productions, in tandem with Cincinnati’s PTV Station WCET 48.  (Turns out it was the CSO’s national television debut.)   For an example of the terrific camerawork, check out the beautiful harp close-up at about 5 minutes in.

Then there’s De Laroccha. Her usual ferocious technique, but at her age it’s also economical and elegant. No wasted movements or theatrics from this stately Queen…but utterly faithful to the energy and verve embedded in Ravel’s music!


nicolenarboniAs for Jean Françaix (1912-1997). I had always admired the froth and effervescence in his music (and he wrote for virtually every combination of instruments known to man), as well as the man’s craft, wit, and unpretentiousness. Then I got to know it a lot better when I got involved executive-producing a CD devoted to his complete piano works with pianist Nicole Narboni.  (You can also check out her video about the project here.) Like his Cinq Bis (Five Encores”)  – wherein the composer offers a tongue-in-cheek Chinese Menu of choices for pianists to play, depending on the success of the recital.   As Nicole explains in her liner notes:

Perhaps the most comical of all the works contained on this disc are the Cinq Bis, or Five Encores, from 1965.   In the preface, Françaix  quotes the 18th-century French author Nicolas de Chamfort …Quand vous êtes sur une scène, si vous n’êtes pas un peu charlatan, l’assemblée vous jette des pierres… (“When on the stage if you are not a little of a charlatan, the crowd will stone you.”)
These pieces have all the elements of great encores.  Pour Allecher l’auditoire (“To entice the audience”) is a sarcastic warm-up; Pour les dames sentimentales (“For romantic ladies”) is a wonderful combination of silly and serious.  The last three Bis are best saved for a third or fourth curtain call:  En Cas de succès  and En cas de triomphe  – no translation required!.  The fifth and final of the Bis, En cas de délire (“In case of delirium”)  suggests a scene from a Victor Borge concert…

Besides Nicole, the only pianist I know who plays these “Cinq Bis” with any regularity is the excellent Aussie pianist Simon Tedeschi…the acclaimed “stunt double” for actor Geoffrey Rush in the David Helfgott biopic Shine.  (Those were Simon’s hands you saw tickling the ivories in the close-ups!)  Here you can watch his fingers fly through all five of the Françaix encores!

 

 

 

 

“A Pianist Who Bucks The Trend”

Marc-Andr Hamelin c. Nina Large6.jpg
Nice story/podcast from my friends at WQXR today lamenting the current state of the encore in classical music.  “It’s a failure of imagination and it’s a failure of artistic expression” huffs the critic from The Telegraph.

Chopin’s Nocturne in D flat, Op 27 N. 2, is wheeled out so often it’s a wonder the audience don’t sing along like the crowd at a rugby match. Traumerai, from Schumann’s Kinderszenen, I’ve heard so often it now has no more significance than elevator muzak. And as for [Liszt’s] La Campanella, if I never hear those bells again it will be too soon.

Then’s there’s this “cake-smasher” of Percy Grainger’s arrangement (kinda sorta) of “In Dahomey…”  If you can read music, follow along…if you dare!

 

 

 

C.P.E. Bach V: The Essential C.P.E. Bach

Checking back in on the C.P.E. Bach Tricentennial, thought I’d share what the folks putting together the new Complete Works edition have deemed The Essential C.P.E. Bach : “a selection of the composer’s 25 ‘greatest hits’ of solo keyboard, chamber, and orchestral music.”

 
Contents of The Essential C.P.E. Bach

 

It’s a fascinating (and to my mind, rather obscure) list, containing several works which are utterly new to me, and will take a little further investigation. There are also a few “usual suspects,” like the Magnificat (previously discussed in this space), and some of the symphonies that get frequent spins in classical-radio-land.  Like the first of the so-called “Hamburg” Symphonies, played below in terrific recording by Andrew Manze and the English Concert.

Want to know more about the symphony?  You can read the Musical Musings entry here.