Sayonara Amerika, Sayonara Nippon

Woodwinds Rule!

Posted in Classical,Music by bourdaghs on the June 16th, 2010

Bernard Haitink is stepping down later this month as principal conductor of the Chicago Symphony, and he’s going out with a bang: he’s leading the orchestra through the full cycle of Beethoven symphonies in a special series of concerts this summer. Satoko and I headed downtown to Symphony Center last night to catch the penultimate program in the series: it closes out this weekend with, of course, the Ninth.

They opened last night with Symphony #1 in C Major, Opus 21, a work in which Beethoven doesn’t realize yet that he is Beethoven. It’s a pleasant combination of Mozart and Haydn, and the orchestra played it smoothly: at times, I found myself imagining an accordion winding its way through a Viennese waltz as I floated down the Danube River. We noted that concertmaster Robert Chen, one of our favorites, was absent from the stage, his place ably filled by assistant concertmaster Yuan-Qing Yu.

The first half closed out with the more Beethoven-like Leonore Overture No. 3. Here, the real stars of the evening began to emerge: the woodwind section, especially principal flutist Mathieu Dufour, who played with such aching beauty that the audience exploded in cheers when Haitink acknowledged him during the ovation. On the haunting trumpet call from the distance that occurs twice in the piece, it seemed to me that none of the visible members of the brass section were playing, and I wondered if they were using an extra trumpeter in the back corridors behind the stage (we saw the orchestra use this trick with the chimes-from-hell in Berlioz’ Symphonie fantastique a year or two ago). But no one emerged from backstage during the ovation, so now I’m not so sure….

After the intermission, the orchestra played my favorite of the symphonies, No. 7 in A Major, Opus 92. The last time I saw this rendered live was about fifteen years ago in a wretched, underrehearsed summer gig by the Minnesota Orchestra, but last night was simply brilliant. The cellos and basses at the beginning of the second movement played with such warmth as to be physiologically chilling. The woodwinds again played spectacularly well (the cheers they received were even louder than those following the Leonore overture). Robert Chen was in his usual seat for the piece, and the violins played wonderfully. Haitink took things fast, especially in the third and fourth movements: I cut my teeth on the Seventh with George Szell’s impatient recording with the Cleveland Orchestra, but last night Haitink left even Szell in the dust. But it all worked magnificently well, and the audience lept to its feet for an enthusiastic standing ovation at the conclusion.

For the first time all evening, as he slowly shuffled off and then back onto the stage to acknowledge the applause, Haitink looked his age (81). He had conducted with great energy and fire, and it was clear now that he had given his all during the performance–just as he has given his all during his four-tenure here in Chicago. Godspeed, Mr. Haitink, and thanks for a magnificent 7th. And here’s hoping the woodwind section sticks around for a few more years: it will be fun to see what Riccardo Muti, the incoming Music Director, does with their talents.

In the Dark and in the Light

Posted in Classical,Music by bourdaghs on the April 23rd, 2010

Mark Swed of the LA Times writes of an interesting recent experiment in classical music performance: a string quartet performed in a pitch black space. Composer Georg Friedrich Haas’ Third String Quartet instructs the performers to play in utter darkness, and the JACK Quartet did its best to comply this past Monday, mobilizing ushers with night-vision goggles and fire marshals for safety. They even required all audience members to sign a release form prior to the concert.

How did it go? Swed’s description:

I found that the quartet profoundly dismantled my sense of linear time. Time seemed so slow at points that I could space out without missing anything. When the JACK got a bit rambunctious – the score calls for players to invite each other to join in or reject certain musical strategies and there is even room for competition – a listener could feel part of the exciting action. Ultimately, though, each of us, in this pitch-black, was alone, in our personal experiences yet acutely conscious of neighbors. I heard no coughs and only minimal shuffling.

I neglected to mention it here previously, but a week ago I attended the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra’s final concert of the year at the University of Chicago’s Mandel Hall. The evening opened with a fierce rendition of Beethoven’s Violin Concerto, Thomas Zehemair on violin and conducting. One reviewer describes Zehemair’s performance as “audacious”; my companion thought it mostly annoying. I found it striking and dramatic: I’ve never seen a violinist perform a cadenza, for example, as a kind of funereal dialogue with the timpanist.

The second half of the program opened with Ernst Krenek’s Symphonic Elegy for Strings, op. 105, which Zehemair announced from the stage was created while the composer was temporarily on the faculty of Hamline University in St. Paul. The Krenek piece was written as an elegy for Anton Webern, whose Symphony, Op. 21, came next. The evening closed out with a rather perfunctory performance of Schubert’s Unfinished Symphony, not bad but lacking the passion that had fired up the Beethoven.

All in all, it was a good, if not spectacular, evening at the symphony. Perhaps they should have tried killing the lights.

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Symphony, Sumo, Symphony

Posted in Classical,Music,Sumo by bourdaghs on the January 24th, 2010

The weekend began Friday afternoon at Symphony Center for a matinee performance, Pierre Boulez leading the Chicago Symphony as part of the celebrations for his 85th birthday. I’d never seen the great man conduct before and was struck with his economy of motion: no over-emoting for him. Whatever the style, it worked: the orchestra played as well as I have heard it. The program opened with the latest incarnation of Boulez’ own Livre pour cordes, a particularly warm instance of serialism. They moved on from there to take on the tricky twists and turns of Bartok’s Concerto for Two Pianos, Percussion and Orchestra, played brilliantly by Pierre-Laurent Aimard and Tamara Stefanovich as the keyboard soloists. It’s a work in which Bartok explores the percussive nature of the piano, setting the keyboards in complex dialogues with drums, xylophones, and other struck instruments. The program closed with a thrilling rendition of Stravinsky’s The Firebird played in the full ballet version. John von Rhein, the Chicago Tribune’s classical music critic, was similarly enthusiastic in his review of the Thursday evening performance.

In the meanwhile, on the other side of the world, yokozuna Asashoryu, the bad boy from Mongolia, took charge of the New Year Sumo tournament. He wrapped up the title on Day 14. It was his 25th career championship, putting him in third place in the record book. The victory came in the final tournament for Uchidate Makiko, Asashoryu’s long-time nemesis on the Yokozuna Deliberation Council, making it all the more satisfying. Moreover, Asashoryu gave us yet another spectacular example of his trademark misbehavior during the tournament, coming close to getting himself arrested in a drunken brawl late at night after Day 6. The tournament, as expected, also saw the retirement of the great ozeki Chiyotaikai. Yokozuna Hakuho managed to defeat Asashoryu in their direct meeting on the final day, but that victory was purely moral, as Asashoryu was simply killing time until the trophy ceremony.

Friday night ended with another classical concert: Europa Galante led by violinist Fabio Biondi at Mandel Hall. A period instruments ensemble, they opened with two lovely pieces by Telemann. Guest flutist Frank Theuns could easily be the model for a new muppet character. They closed with an edgy version of Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons, the schmaltz factor reduced to almost zero, reminding us in the process that a terrific piece of music lies buried beneath all the abuse that mass culture has heaped on to it. Two short encore pieces by Corelli and Gluck (the latter had the violinists plucking their way through) brought the evening to an airy close. The Chicago Classical Review website liked the performance, as the did the critic for the New York Times, who caught much of the same program last week at Carnegie Hall (where, no doubt, the acoustics were better….).

LA versus Chicago

Posted in Classical by bourdaghs on the January 11th, 2010

It turns out I’m not the only person who has had to make the Los Angeles vs. Chicago decision in recent years. Flutist Matheiu Dufour has switched from the Chicago Symphony to the Los Angeles Philharmonic and back again, and now there’s a bit of a kerfuffle in the press about what it all means. Check out the passionate rebuttals from readers in the comments section, too.

Who says classical music is boring? I have a ticket for one of the Chicago Symphony’s concerts next week celebrating the 85th birthday of Pierre Boulez (a man who has stirred a ruckus or two in his day, now that I think about it). I’ll keep my eyes and ears peeled for hints of sabotage and smoldering passions among the musicians….

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