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May 2011

Spring For Music

DSC07498What is a symphony, anyway? 

That was the question posed last night by the Montreal Symphony Orchestra, who were in town last night to close the inaugural Spring For Music festival at Carnegie Hall. The festival was built on the model of City Center's successful Fall For Dance festival, where all seats are sold for $10 on a first-come, first-served basis. Spring For Music's ticket price was a bit steeper ($25), but included a parade of first class orchestras from around North America, many of whom were appearing at Carnegie for the first time.

The other stated goal of this new festival was to present thoughtful, innovative programs that break the standard concert mold of Overture-Concerto-Symphony, or refuse to present the same old warhorses. Prior festival concerts featured re-imagined spirituals (Albany Symphony), a modern take on the Oratorio (Steven Stucky's August 4, 1964, performed by the Dallas Symphony) and a program devoted entirely to music inspired by War (Oregon Symphony). All of these concerts have been archived and can be heard on Q2

211026-D 023-R(Photo: © Steve J. Sherman)
Last night's OSM concert, led by Music Director Kent Nagano, purported to chart the evolution of the symphony over the past four centuries. "Symphony" here had a broad definition: not just the standard four-movement work for orchestra, but any arrangement of sounds written for a group of instruments. ("Symphony" is derived from the Greek for "Sounding together.") 

The first half of the program was performed attacca (without pause), allowing the audience to experience the flow of the music without interruption. (Apparently, noone told the ushers, who continued to let latecomers in throughout.) The OSM opened with a pair of canzoni (songs) from Gabrieli's Symphoniae Sacrae: short motets originally written for vocal choir, but here replaced by brass, which alternated and intertwined with regal sonority.  

Next were two 20th century works from after the so-called "death of the symphony." Anton Webern's Symphony, Op. 21 (1929), was less a symphony than a two-movement manifesto of the 12-tone method: harsh and dissonant, with an awkward, abrupt ending. Stravinsky's Symphonies of Wind Instruments (1919) had elements of folk music and revolutionary primitivism of Rite of Spring, as well as his budding neo-classicism.

DSC07496But, it was a bit of a stretch to also include Bach's Sinfonias for solo keyboard, played here by the Canadian Bach specialist Angela Hewitt. These sinfonias - which alternated with the other pieces - are irrefutably grand, and were played with deep emotion and feeling by Hewitt. But, they aren't symphonies, and contributed nothing to the evolution of the symphony. 

After intermission, the program ended with that most consipicuous entry to the symphonic repertoire: Beethoven's 5th. By now, it would seem that everything's been said that could possibly be said about this most-performed of Beethoven's immortal nine symphonies. And, I was especially surprised that Nagano - a new music specialist who, among other achievements, assisted in the world premiere of Messiaen's Saint Francois d'Assise - would include this chestnut in one of his programs.

211026-D 297(Photo: © Steve J. Sherman)
But, instead of sitting back and conducting on autopilot, Nagano brought a bold new interpretation to the 5th, as fresh and radical as I've heard. At times, Nagano was a bit eccentric with his phrasing and tempi - the Andante was packed with crescendos and decrescendos - but it was all done with utter conviction. And, in the end, it paid off: the transition from the 3rd movement Allegro to the Finale was triumphant to the point of chills.   

I did find it strange that this orchestra, which built it's rep on French music during Charles Dutoit's 25-year tenure, didn't include any on this program. Until the encores, that is, when they played the gentle Sicilienne from Faure's Pelleas et Melisande and Berlioz' rousing Le Corsaire overture, sending the standing O crowd out into the jubilant New York night.

Spring for Music will be back next season, and has already announced it's lineup of orchestras, including Alabama, Edmonton, Houston, Milwaukee and Nashville. More details on the Spring for Music website.

DSC07505More pics on Flickr.

Die Walküre Live Now

DSC02287For those who haven't yet seen the new Robert LePage production of Wagner's Die Walküre at the Met, today's your last chance to hear it this season. The house itself has been sold out for months, but you can still experience it right now on the radio or in the HD broadcast at movie theaters around the world. Today's performance got off to a late start thanks to a problem with The Machine, but everything has been flying since then.

This is also the last chance any of us will be seeing James Levine this season who, under doctors' orders, has pulled out of all Met and BSO performances until the fall. There's been some speculation that today's Walküre might in fact be his final performance, but after hearing Jimmy on a pre-broadcast interview with Margaret Juntwait, he sounds as vital and energetic as ever. Not to mention it'll take a legion of Valkyries to keep him off the podium for Siegfried and Götterdämmerung next season.

Sorry, Fabio: you'll just have to wait your turn. (Act II is on now.)

MATA 2011

DSC02615Due to other commitments this week, I regrettably missed nearly all of this year's MATA Festival, which wrapped up last night at LPR. (Fortunately, the performances were recorded for future broadcast on Q2; Wednesday's performance is posted below.)

I did manage to catch the tail-end of Tuesday's performance by ACME and l'Aresnale, who flew here all the way from Treviso, Italy. I heard the world premiere of London-based Canadian composer Christopher Mayo's Of Trees & Fields & Men, a MATA commission. A bit repetitive and astringent, but something about it got under my skin.

Sorry, David. I'll catch you at the next MATA Interval show. Or, maybe at VOX tomorrow.

Q2 Broadcast of MATA Festival, 5/11/11: