Archive for the ‘In concert’ Category

In concert: Sonata for Cello and Piano, op. 40; Hamilton Cheifetz and Janet Guggenheim, March 3, 2011

March 4, 2011

I hadn’t previously been to any of the Portland State University music department’s performances, but fortunately I work only a few blocks from Lincoln Hall and was able to walk up there for a free afternoon recital yesterday, which turned out to be a really agreeable way to spend a long lunch break.  The performers were cellist Hamilton Cheifetz, on faculty at PSU, and pianist Janet Guggenheim, a longtime collaborator with him in the Florestan Trio.  Together they put on a great show, first a short and relatively earthy Haydn divertimento (assembled and arranged from the composer’s baryton works by the cellist Gregor Piatigorsky) and then Shostakovich’s 1934 sonata.  The audience, besides a good number of chamber music-loving citizens, mostly senior, included many PSU music students, there under varying degrees of academic compulsion (the back of the single-sheet program was in fact a question-and-answer comment sheet for the schools Performance Attendance course — “Tardiness and/or early leave will affect your grade”) and filled Lincoln Hall’s basement recital space just about to capacity, a casual but engaged crowd.

The Shostakovich sonata, along with The Golden Age, is a work that I’m happy to have become newly aware of during this blogging process, and Cheifetz and Guggenheim gave a lovely and focused account of it.  Cheifetz drew out the romance of the first movement, especially the sweeping second theme, but also followed it into the dark, brooding space at the center of the movement, an atmosphere later reproduced in the somber third movement; in contrast, he bit off the second movement’s biting staccato rhythms and fast pizzicato runs with force.  Guggenheim played a well balanced piano part, falling into an accompanyist’s role when needed and springing into the musical foreground with a clean and dry sound perfect both for Shostakovich’s pellucid melodies and for his impish theater-piano outbursts.  The last movement came off here as a genuinely lighthearted finale, the energy less jangly than gymnastic and the music pointing back to the piano concerto, taking pleasure in its own humor and movement.

It was just really fine music-making, with a pleasantly loose recital atmosphere.  The elderly woman sitting next to me offered me a piece of jicama from a zip-lock baggie; Guggenheim’s page turner, presumably a student, grinned to herself at the piano’s explosive entries in the fast movements; Cheifetz, receiving his applause at the end, briefly holding up his cello as though to acknowledge his instrument, or perhaps cellos in general.

On a weekend trip to New York City a couple of weekends ago my girlfriend and I absolutely scoured the hall of dinosaurs at the American Museum of Natural History, and since then my metaphorical thinking has been completely dominated by evolutionary biology.  Thus I inevitably compared the sonata, as I was listening to it, to a coelacanth, a musical specimen that suggests the body plan of later-developing works while retaining a number of “primitive” features.  (As museum placards and Wikipedia entries tend to disclaim, “primitive” is not really a fair word to use here; like the fish, the sonata survives, if somewhat obscurely, on its own merits.)  The pattern of the sonata’s central movements — the fleet-footed but anxious and grim dance, followed by a dark, slowly building movement that form’s the work’s emotional center — repeats itself many times in Shostakovich’s later chamber and orchestral works.  Also, the sonata’s more straightforwardly presented melodies and harmonies set up Shostakovich’s more conventional, abruptly adopted style in the fifth symphony (when I wrote up the Pushkin romances earlier this week I failed to mention the sonata’s place in this development, at least as a precedent).  But the sonata obviously belongs to the style of the works, especially the piano works, that came before it, too; Shostakovich’s passages of musical development, while engaging, feel comparatively shallow, without the clarified intensity that comes later in his output, and the punchy piano part sounds for stretches like it’s been lifted from the 24 Preludes or the piano concerto, rather than carried forward along with the cello part.  It’s a noteworthy link within Shostakovich’s stylistic history, and more importantly it’s a deeply enjoyable piece of music outside of the context of the composer’s many better-known works.

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In concert: String Quartet No. 8, op. 110; Pacifica Quartet, January 11, 2011

January 12, 2011

The Pacifica Quartet’s second of two Portland concerts last night was laid out similarly to the first, with a Shostakovich quartet sandwiched between one by Beethoven and another by one of the great German romantics, and the Pacificas executed it with the same flair.  Last night’s program was actually the more enjoyable of the two:  Beethoven’s F-major quartet, op. 18, no. 1 took the evening off to a spirited start, alternately jaunty and somber; there and in Shostakovich’s eighth quartet, the group played with a particularly clean and well-balanced sound.  For Robert Schumann’s op. 41, no. 1 quartet in the second half they played with a slightly richer texture well suited to that work’s high emotional saturation and tinge of Schumannesque weirdness.  Schumann is one of those composers whose work I don’t know particularly well and should get to know better, since most of what I hear makes an impression.  (This project will actually touch on Schumann directly, eventually, as Shostakovich reorchestrated his cello concerto late in life.)  Their encore tonight was the Cavatina from Beethoven’s thirteenth string quartet, which lowered the energy level after the wide-open Schumann but didn’t cut the audience’s enthusiasm.

When I reach it in sequence I’ll try to unpack all of Shostakovich’s musical self quotations in the eighth, once I can point back to each of the works he references, but at a high level the eighth quartet is a five-movement meditation on the composer’s signature “DSCH” motto theme shot through with recollections of his earlier milestone works.  Prior to their performance, violinist Sibbi Bernhardsson stood up to introduce the work and, with a few examples played by his fellows, gave a concise explanation of the DSCH theme — the notes D, E flat, C, and B, which in traditional German notation are rendered D – Es – C – H, thus forming the initials D. Sch. for (in German transliteration) Dmitri Schostakowitsch — which the mostly unfamiliar audience seemed to appreciate.  He also described the circumstances of Shostakovich’s anguished composition of the work (as was the case last night and happens often enough, the context of Shostakovich’s life merited a pre-performance mention), albeit without the history, verging on mythology, that Shostakovich had just been bullied into joining the Communist Party.

The eighth, then, as Shostakovich wrote to his friend Isaak Glikman soon after composing it in 1960, is a memorial for himself; I hear shades of self-recrimination mixed in with its self-pity.  In a way it is a supremely self-involved work, yet its emotional directness and simple musical development make it Shostakovich’s easiest quartet to relate to, and one of its most popular.  The Pacifica’s clean, almost sleek performance brought the motion of the quartet’s voices to the fore and gave it a medium weight that didn’t bog down in its own sense of tragedy, an especially good approach in the funeral outer movements.  The fast, panicky second movement came off with claustrophobic intensity, and all the blood-boiling excitement I remember from first listening to the work on CD as an eighteen-year-old.  They brought a bit of theatrical showiness to the brittle, ironic third movement; in contrast, they moved briskly through the fourth movement’s long, dramatic crescendos, serving in both cases to open up the work’s interiority a bit.  Brandon Vamos’ playing was exceptionally plaintive in two key cello solos and the ensemble managed a seemingly impossible dying-away at the work’s end.

For Monday’s concert I brought my girlfriend along and made a date out of it but last night I simply strolled in by myself after a late day at work, which needless to say diminishes the concert-going experience; it makes me more susceptible to being put off by the inorganic atmosphere of professional chamber series or the shallow, sentimentalizing “ooh”ing and “ahh”ing from the crowd at this or that terrible detail of the composer’s life.  (A distracting, probably electronic chirping sound of some kind throughout the Shostakovich’s fourth movement pushed me toward the grumpier end of the spectrum too.)  But the audience, including myself, responds in a completely engaged and authentic way — more so with chamber or solo performers, I think, than most of the bigger symphony orchestra shows — so the concert atmosphere, as much as I can bemoan this or that detail, is doing its job after all.  And certainly the musicians, deeply committed and so exquisitely well-trained that the paying listener such as myself can take the works’ technical challenges entirely for granted, are beyond reproach here.

In concert: String Quartet No. 10, op. 118; Pacifica Quartet, January 10, 2011

January 11, 2011

I’m getting off to a decidedly slow start to 2011, Shostakovich-wise, but before picking up where I left off I’ll fast-forward to the 1960s for a pair of string quartets that the Pacifica Quartet is performing in Portland this week.  The first of their two concerts was last night, featuring Shostakovich’s Quartet No. 10, op. 118 of 1964, bookended by Mendelssohn’s opus 12 quartet and Beethoven’s “Hero” quartet in C Major, op. 59, no. 3.

I like the Pacifica Quartet’s sound:  They have a romantic warmth and richness, at the other end of a spectrum from (for instance) the razor-edged modernistic style of the Emerson Quartet, whom I’ve also heard perform a good amount of Shostakovich.  They were at their best in medium-loud, noodly, slightly mysterious passages, which they played with a light touch in the sly canzonetta movement of the Mendelssohn as well as the outer movements of the Shostakovich.  The Hero quartet making up the second half of the show (and undoubtedly its center of gravity) brought out a tighter sound and cleaner lines, at least in part because of the piece’s sense of scale and space, which easily exceeds Shostakovich’s quartet writing easily at its most expansive.

The tenth is one of Shostakovich’s more expansive string quartets — I think it at least has the most symphonic structure out of his fifteen.  The quartet’s body plan is very similar to that of the composer’s first violin concerto (a symphonically broad work) of 1948:  A searching first movement gives way to a furiously fast second; a slow passacaglia forms the work’s emotional center, then gives way to a nominally lighter final movement that climbs to a height of anxiety, with the passacaglia theme breaking through at a key moment.  It’s the last quartet Shostakovich wrote before entering his cryptic, more modernist-leaning late period and it is, measured against the psychological depth of his chamber works, relatively outward-facing.  Yet the Pacifica’s violist, Masumi Per Rostad, made an insightful point in some prefatory remarks about the quartet:  In contrast to the Mendelssohn and Beethoven works on the program, Shostakovich’s first and last movements are less driving and purposeful than the inner ones, creating a sense of mystery.  Indeed, the quartet opens with a quizzical, almost affectless, downward-stepping figure, which the work ultimately circles back to in its final bars, creating less of a conclusion than a sense of a passing, ruminative mood.

I was musing on the drive home from the hall that the tenth may be my least favorite quartet out of Shostakovich’s cycle, which mainly speaks to the consistent quality of the set, as I feel overwhelmingly positive about the tenth.  It does feel like stylistically familiar territory and it lacks the emotional heft of many of his similar works, particularly in the passacaglia — the return of its theme in the final movement, too, feels academic, an imitation of the psychological crisis point that the same move marks in the violin concerto — but it’s a strong work in its own right.  The Pacifica Quartet’s style works well for it.  They sounded great in the blithe, wandering, slightly stunned music of the final movement; their warmth became effectively huskier for the intense music of the fast movements.  A highlight was the end of the second movement, with pairs of instruments trading off strident, squeezebox-like drones while the remaining two worked through a fidgety theme (similar to one at the conclusion of Shostakovich’s then-recent thirteenth symphony) with increasing insistence.

It was a fun show, attended by the usual sea of gray heads but, assuredly, no committed fans of the University of Oregon’s football team, which was in the middle of its national championship game.  (In one of those moments of quiet, situational, chamber-music-concert hilarity, one of the Friends of Chamber Music organizers read out the score as of the show’s opening and, in her bright arts-administrator voice, delivered one of the great sports cliches:  “The score is Oregon 11, Auburn 16.  It’s halftime; a lot can still happen…”)  As a somewhat unlikely but extremely likable encore, the Pacificas played the all-pizzicato movement from Bela Bartok’s fourth quartet, offering a taste of that other great cycle of 20th-century string quartets.  Their second show is tonight at 7:30, also at Portland State University’s Lincoln Performance Hall, featuring Shostakovich’s eighth and by far most popular quartet — it should be a good one.

In concert: Symphony No. 12, “The Year 1917″, op. 112

November 2, 2010

In concert:  Symphony No. 12, “The Year 1917”, op. 112
San Francisco Symphony, Pablo Heras-Casado, Oct. 28, 2010

San Francisco’s baked-in weirdness really comes to the fore if you visit while Halloween, an election, and the Giants playing a World Series (they just won the championship minutes ago, as of this writing) are all happening at once.  Compared to all that, and more so compared to a long weekend spent visiting with various friends of mine and the girlfriend’s in the Bay Area, a solo visit to a San Francisco Symphony matinee recedes somewhat into the background.  I’m happy I finally heard them live, though — despite an awful lot of classical-music tourism over the past decade and my more recent West Coast transplantation, I hadn’t managed that yet — and, auspiciously, they closed out their long weekend’s program with Shostakovich’s twelfth symphony of 1962.

I don’t know why I expected the hall not to be merely three-quarters full, or the audience even more comprised of senior citizens than in the usual big-orchestra show — maybe because I know the San Francisco Conservatory is nearby and I expected a few students, or maybe just because I forgot not to apply my own enthusiasm to the world at large.  At any rate, it was a thin, mellow, and rather old crowd, which was all the more noticeable in contrast with the featured peformers:  Pianist Alice Sara Ott is twenty-two and conductor Pablo Heras-Casado, more strikingly, is just shy of thirty-three.  Being thirty myself, I felt this twinge of what-have-you-done-with-your-own-life in the face of this youth movement, which was only heightened by the World Series happening across town at the time, in which, by the looks of Tim Lincecum and Buster Posey, the average age of a San Franscisco Giants star is roughly fourteen.  I started to think of it as a “quarter-life crisis” before calculating that such a crisis would assume I’ll live to be 120.  But I let it all pass.

The concert instantly reminded me of listening to the Baltimore Symphony, both in the ensemble’s effortlessly rich sound and the hall’s eighties-era modernity.  (The balcony pods in Baltimore’s Meyerhoff are more alienating than Davies’ and its brick-walled interior corridors feel more like a school libary, but the halls’ shape, sound, and civic-performance-space vibe are all similar.)  The Shostakovich, being a gigantic symphony, closed the program; the preceding selections all had a sonic bigness in common with it, each in their own way.  Heras-Casado opened with with a robust but not very detailed take on Mendelssohn’s Fingal’s Cave Overture.  Ott followed with Liszt’s first piano concerto, and she and the band made a good show out of its crashing solo passages in octaves and its moments of cool, overwrought romanticism.  György Kurtág’s odd 1989 elegy Grabstein für Stephan opened the second half to a predictably but unfairly disdainful audience reaction, with the usual persistant coughing and isolated instances of low murmuring.  The Kurtág was a little musty in its loud moments, upswellings of grinding, midcentury-modernist tone color, but its quieter effects — most especially the haunting, strummed guitar arpeggios that run through it like spider silk — make it a weird, mysterious kin to the Eastern European minimalism of Henryk Górecki or Arvo Pärt.  It’s not a major piece but it was by far the most interesting part of the program.

Then, Shostakovich’s twelfth.  The work is essentially the musical equivalent of one of those big statues of Lenin that the USSR used to erect, and it stands in heavy contrast to all the brash, lively, inventive works of the early 1930s that I’ve been listening to in recent weeks.  Uniquely among Shostakovich’s symphonies — including the second, third, and eleventh, all with similar revolutionary programs — the twelfth completely lacks any spark of inner life.  It expresses only a continuous, blank sternness.  I don’t entirely know what to make of it and some degree of confusion reigns among Shostakovich’s better informed commentators and acolytes.  The composer’s friend Lev Lebedinsky notably claimed to Elizabeth Wilson that Shostakovich had written an original twelfth as a too-obvious satire of Lenin and then, panicked, threw together the present symphony as a last-minute replacement; Laurel Fay coolly disassembles that claim, noting that the lead time needed both for rehearsals and for the official review process would prevent any such swap; Wilson, in her more recent edition of Shostakovich: A Life Remembered, hedges by saying that “the story becomes more plausible if we date the rewriting to August 1961”.  Wilson also cites Gennady Rozhdestvensky, who describes the symphony as a sardonic portrait of the cult of Lenin, with parodistically over-the-top movement titles.  Ian MacDonald’s risible The New Shostakovich chases that line of thinking up to the book’s giddy height of ridiculousness, at which the author claims that the symphony satirizes the terrible ideal of Soviet music via the act of being terrible music itself.  For my own part, I don’t believe the composer put anything into opus 112 like what he put into the rest of his mature symphonies, even the most publicly-minded ones among them — given the twelfth’s psychological emptiness I simply can’t hear it otherwise.  But whatever Shostakovich’s motivations or his feelings on the work, at or after the time of composition, it remains a socialist-realist monument.  Occam’s Razor, if you dare to take it as vigorously to the context of Shostakovich’s output as you should, tells you that he produced, whatever his exact reasons, the uncomplicated symphonic paean to Lenin that the regime wanted of him.

In Dmitri Shostakovich: A Life in Film, John Riley describes a trend in the Soviet film industry in late 1940s and early 1950s towards making biopics whose famous subjects were portrayed without any private or individual life; Shostakovich’s twelfth, composed a decade after that, is a symphony built on the same principle.  Within its conventional four-movement structure it works mainly as a rhapsody on two themes — the first a grave, ascending-descending motto; the second a slightly more effusive figure quoted from the second symphony — that never betrays any emotional content deeper than a stiff seriousness or an equally serious gaze fixed on the bright future ahead.  What’s more surprising is that the musical material is so dire:  The main themes are too thin to stretch out over forty minutes and the rest of the work’s melodic and harmonic content is uninteresting to the point of being nearly impossible to remember, even in a work that I’ve been familiar enough with on disc for several years.  When I wrote up the third symphony I noted that Shostakovich echoes the style of his previous compositions but often reduces it to a flurry of stereotyped gestures; the twelfth takes that approach to the nth degree, as though it’s a blustery signifier of a Shostakovich symphony rather than the thing itself.

Heras-Casado got the gestural nature of the symphony right, especially in the first movement, “Revolutionary Petrograd”:  A brisk pace kept the piece from bogging down and his whiplike take on the music’s higher-energy figures, along with the orchestra’s tightness, drew out their shape and direction over their uninteresting melodic content.  The challenge of the work is to whip up a musical drama out of a series of exquisitely boring individual moments but Heras-Casado, by focusing on its broad strokes, did build up what genuine excitement he could.

The performers had no such luck with the second movement, though, and I doubt that anyone could — it’s a wasteland of musical ideas, the single worst symphonic movement that Shostakovich ever wrote.  Titled “The Rising” (or, transliterated instead of translated, “Razliv”, after Lenin’s hiding place during the summer of 1917) it nominally aims for a mood of austere contemplation but, as actual introspection would be inimical to Lenin’s personality cult, it ends up as a cold wash of profoundly hollow woodwind figures and sluggish repetition of the two main themes.  It lets out into the third movement, “Aurora”, which tries more or less literally to shell the audience, insofar as that’s possible with a symphony orchestra; the movement climaxes with the depiction of the titular battleship’s big guns and I think Heras-Casado would have done better to be louder and more excessive here, balance be damned.  There’s simply nothing else in the music to hold the audience’s attention, other than those pyrotechnics.

The third movement proceeds straight into the fourth, “The Dawn of Humanity”, built mainly on a series of grandly windy restatements of the second-symphony theme.  By this point the pacing and tightness seemed to have slacked somewhat, as though the performers’ endurance had worn down, though this may just as well have been my own flagging patience with the work.  The last movement does abruptly break off its celebratory mood and return to something like the tone of the second movement in a couple of key places, which feels slightly inscrutable but mostly comes off like a rote attempt to keep the music fresh.

The conclusion closely echoes the finales of the fifth and seventh symphonies — very deliberately so, I’m sure, those being at the time his two most popular and officially best-loved symphonies.  I had a peculiar reaction to the finale, though, something verging on outright sadness, which I find hard to define or explain.  Ultimately I think it’s because that musical rhetoric — the brassy, grinding dissonances, the beating of the bass drum and timpani — is totally bound up for me with the tragedy and defiance of the end of the fifth, and since the preceding three quarters of an hour of music is wholly bleached of expressive content the only emotional note I’m left with is the reflected ambivalence of the earlier work.  Too, I felt a sad, almost embarrassed, “so it’s come to this” sort of sense, that Shostakovich applied himself to such a musically poor work in the first place.  The two impressions aren’t really compatible, and in my head I just want to run with the cleaner, intellectually more defensible reaction that the composer is simply, maybe cynically, borrowing from his past triumphs to add some crunch to the end of his Lenin symphony.  It’s all in there in my head, though.  The end of the concert drew a few happy whoops from the crowd and had a great many more people making a beeline for the exits; I sat clapping, not able to bring myself to do so very enthusiastically, thinking that the artists onstage deserved better — they performed the symphony ably, and the show’s problems were the score’s, not their own.

In concert: Symphony No. 5, op. 47, Allegretto; Portland Youth Philharmonic

September 2, 2010

Although I’m flying to the East Coast tonight (in fact, I’m in an airport Bier Stube right now) I’d seen that the Portland Youth Philharmonic was opening a free concert at 5:00 with the scherzo from Shostakovich’s fifth symphony, and it seemed appropriate to stop in for the time that I could.  I’ll note here that I’m going try to catch what performances of Shostakovich’s music I can, regardless of chronological order, and write them up here.

The PYP (conducted by David Hattner) played at the Tom McCall Waterfront Park downtown, a convenient minutes-long bike ride from my office — they were the opening act for the Oregon Symphony’s free outdoor season kickoff concert, the kind that ends with the 1812 Overture.  It’s a scenic performance space, as far as big white tents go, with the Willamette River and the angular Hawthorne Bridge looming right behind it.  A good crowd had already staked out their spaces with blankets and lawn chairs.

I’d wondered whether the second movement of the fifth made sense as a concert opener but without the darker material of the rest of the symphony around it it’s an amiable piece of music, well suited to casual, chatty environments.  (Most of the piece was accompanied for me by a group of folks in front of me arriving piecemeal, exchanging hugs and hellos, unfolding chairs, occluding my view.)  In fact, I recall, in the Soviet anniversary release of The Battleship Potemkin, scored with symphonic Shostakovich excerpts, the allegretto underscores the moments right before the famous Odessa Steps sequence, as the civilians mill about right before the czarist soldiers mow them down.  No such ominous implications this evening.  The allegretto came off as loamy and heavy-footed, somehow more obviously a throwback to Gustav Mahler in isolation than in its place within the whole, only mildly ominous around the edges.

I heard the orchestra through loudspeakers a good distance from the stage but they sounded tight and, under the circumstances, well balanced.  The amplification sounded great by public park standards but still shortchanged the strings and put a pretty coarse burr onto the brass sound, with the woodwinds holding their own in between.  The solo woodwinds, so important to the movement’s bitey charm, sounded particularly strong (just a couple of excusable bassoon missteps).  All in all it was well performed and I appreciate more than I did yesterday that it’s a robust six minutes of music, able to communicate its musical essence through a bunch of external distractions.

After it ended, at risk of seeming overly narrow in my musical interests, I walked back over to the bike racks.  I did get to hear an impressive young violinist (Natally Okhovat, the program tells me) cut through the introductory half of Saint-Saens’ Introduction and Rondo Capriccioso, her solo line nicely audible over the Naito Parkway traffic, before I pedaled over the bridge and home.  A nice detour for a Thursday afternoon that felt like a Friday.