Truth To Power II: Angelo Yu plays Prokofiev

This was the performance at the Symphony Hall concert by Hugh Wolff and the NEC Philharmonia (which happened to take place on Sergei Prokofiev’s birthday) that got the rock’n’rollers in the control all excited — this no-holds-barred performance by NEC Artist Diploma candidate Xiang “Angelo” Yu of the Violin Concerto No. 1.  A piece that Prokofiev wrote around the time of the Russian Revolution (e.g., 1917), but not premiered until several years later in Paris.

The story goes that Prokofiev’s concerto took a while to catch on, particularly because despite the fact that the Paris premiere was led by no less a figure than Serge Koussevitsky, the soloist was not one of the major virtuosi of the day. As the late Michael Steinberg put it in his invariably-excellent program notes:

Marcel Darrieux, Koussevitzky’s Paris concertmaster, was a solid musician and an able violinist, but he lacked the spark to make a convincing case for the piece, 

Might’ve been a different story if Angelo had played it!

Check out his thoughtful comments at the start of the piece, too, skillfully brought out by my co-conspirator James David Jacobs….

Green Mountains

 

GMCFA very nice 24 hours in Vermont, first having the honor of being the inaugural speaker in the Green Mountain Chamber Music Festival’s Perspectives and Contexts series, and then joining morning host (and freshly-minted Managinr Producer) Kari Anderson on the air the next morning at Vermont Public Radio‘s classical service.

The GMCF is run by old friend Kevin Lawrence of the UNC School for the Arts in Winston-Salem, whom I’ve gotten to know through his participation in the “Music and Museum” series I program at the Bechtler Museum in Charlotte. Kevin and his wife Barbara are now steering the Festival – which takes place on the UVM campus in Burlington – through its 10th anniversary season.  It’s an intensive program for string students (generally ranging in age from 15 to 25), led by some first-rate faculty who also concertize a couple of times a week.

I didn’t have the chance to hear much music-making (except for the cheerful cacophony of walking past the all the practice rooms), but I was truly impressed by the smart, engaged students attending my talk, who peppered me with questions about classical music, media, and technology, which was the subject of the presentation. Truly a stimulating evening.  Very nice to visit in person one of the places we featured on one of our New England Summer Festivals programs as well.  You can check it out here.

 

 

Up bright and early the next morning to spin some platters with Kari, and talk up some bright young lights in the classical biz. In no particular order: Anderson & Roe (I’m already on record as being a big fan) with their own arrangement of Bizet’s Il Pergolese (“where jazz meets opera”),  the stunning Montreal period-instrument band Ensemble Caprice, with one of the zippiest recordings I know of Bach’s Brandenburg concertos.  As well as a new discovery: the Atlanta-based choral group called the Skylark Vocal Ensemble.

 

 

Meanwhile, there are some changes in the wind in classical radio in Vermont, as WVCT, the state’s sole remaining commercial-classical station (an increasingly endangered species), is due to format-flip on July 1.

 

Rage Against the Machine

LaraStJohn

Lara St. John and her favorite non-furry friend

SonosLogos

The ever-interesting violinist, blogger, and musical entrepreneur Lara St. John on Wagner and Madison Avenue’s idea of what constitutes “classical” music. Okay, I admit I ranted to her about it, but i’m grateful to her for the research and the writing. C’mon Rick Rubin, you can do better than that!
Rage Against the Machine

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.

Ever Wished That Calvin and Hobbes Creator Bill Watterson Would Return to the Comics Page? Well, He Just Did.

Wow. just Wow.

Ever Wished That Calvin and Hobbes Creator Bill Watterson Would Return to the Comics Page? Well, He Just Did.