Here is the full version of my Saturday, October 25, 2008 Chicago Sun-Times and suntimes.com review of the Thursday, October 23, 2008 Chicago Symphony Orchestra concert conducted by Miguel Harth-Bedoya with Jennifer Warren-Acosta and Kenneth Olsen as soloists.
Baffling 'Inca Trail' veers off course
A graduate student in this area could have a field day with this week's Chicago Symphony Orchestra program. Assembled and led by the young Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra music director Miguel Harth-Bedoya, Music from the Inca Trail/Caminos del Inka starts with Harth-Bedoya's native Peru and moves around several other South American countries, mostly those on the Pacific coast.
Harth-Bedoya (left) is clearly inspired by Yo-Yo Ma's massive Silk Road Project and has assembled audiovisual artists, soloists, and composers to help him build up his vision. But as with Ma's concept, which had a lengthy residence in Chicago last season, The Inca Trail is often confusing and confused.
Are we looking for musical influences here between Europe and South America, Western and native peoples? Are we trying to see how South American composers of various and variously mixed ancestries worked and work in the idiom of Western art music? Are we hearing music that has been selected for reasons of quality or geography? And why must we be distracted by film and video images when we are trying to listen?
As muddled as the agenda is here, and as schlocky and tasteless as some of the arrangements of historic compositions are, the program does showcase two talented soloists, one a member of the CSO, and introduces us to another promising young composer.
Jessica Warren-Acosta's work on Andean flutes in Peruvian-American Gabriela Lena Frank's 2004 tone poem Illapa (named after the Andean weather god) was striking, but the music sounded like something you would hear in the waiting room of a day spa, as did Ecuadorian composer Diego Luzuriaga's 2000 Responsorio.
In just three years and in his very first job, CSO assistant principal cello Kenneth Olsen (left) has become a linchpin of the orchestra and the local chamber music scene. In the Chicago premiere of Osvaldo Golijov's new orchestral reworking of his 1999 cello and marimba piece Mariel, Olsen's remarkable singing tone in all registers and his deep interpretive skill showed him to be one of the best cellists out there. He made the music, with its sappy, second-rate Disney film-style orchestral accompaniment, sound like something for the 10 minutes of his solo.
Even the program notes suggested that Enrique Soro's 1942 Three Chilean Airs was on the level of movie music. They were generous. Three pieces of popular music collected by 18th-century Peruvian bishop Baltasar Martínez y Compañón were fascinating if too-heavily orchestrated.
Fortunately, Peruvian composer Jimmy López (right), a Harth-Bedoya protege, just 30 and with an intriguing seven years of study at the Sibelius Academy in Finland, displayed a real sense of making music from disparate sources in his ill-titled Fiesta! (2007). The intriguing blend of trance, techno, Latin rhythms, and a keen understanding of orchestral instruments made the 10-minute piece a highlight of the evening.
Here's a transcript of my "Critic's Choice" radio commentary from this last week.
Thanks to WFMT's Mindy J. Williams for taking the time to transcribe from my ad libbed broadcast!
If Elected, I’ll Listen to WFMT
Andrew Patner, “Critic’s Choice” -- 98.7WFMT Radio Chicago and wfmt.com
Week of October 15 to 19, 2008
Audio available here.
OK, the moment you’ve all been fearing: I’m going to say something about the Presidential election.
No, I’m not going to say something in favor of one candidate or against another. No, I’m not going to be political in that sense, so save your e-mail fingers for another time. I’m wanting instead to say some things about the role, if any, that arts and culture have been playing in the campaign, and the posture, if any, that the candidates have taken -- not in position papers, not in comments made by underlings about this or that appointment that might be made, or funding issues down the line -- but the way the candidates have presented themselves as cultured or not-cultured people and what that all means.
And part of my thinking about this developed when it came into my head that a candidate for President probably could not admit that he or she listens to WFMT. Because if a Presidential candidate said that he or she listened to WFMT, then that person would be admitting that he or she was an “egghead,” an “elitist,” “old fashioned,” and none of these things are seen as good things in the world today, be you radical, liberal, conservative, reactionary.
How did we get to this point? How did we get to a point where a party that says that it is conservative, that says that it is for old values, plays rock music and country music at its conventions and rallies? How did we get to the point where a party that says that it is liberal and inclusive and for building up opportunity, and for letting everybody shine, plays bad rock music, bad country music at its rallies? How did we get to a point where Presidents of the United States boast that they like the Oak Ridge Boys or that they like second-tier rock or soul-pop bands, rather than the days when Pablo Casals (above) was invited to the Kennedy White House and that was seen as a good thing?
I get a sense in this election that one of the many rebellions that’s going on among many voters relates to their being tired of the fake folksiness. Their being tired of all of the research that determines what every commercial is like, what every statement is like, what every repeated line in the so-called “debates” is like. I get a sense that if we don’t go into total meltdown in these last weeks before the election, and we certainly could, that one of the things that is a part of people asking for the candidates to be more direct, to be more clear, to take stands and positions, is that people would also like the candidates to be unafraid to express themselves artistically, intellectually, culturally.
There was a very good interview with Barack Obama a few months ago in Rolling Stone magazine [June 25, 2008] by Jann Wenner, the founder and editor of that publication, in which he got Obama to talk about music in his life and music of all kinds. I heard later that there was concern that Obama had said he liked too many white musical artists for some of his voters and too many Black musical artists for some of his voters, but at least he talked about music and what music of various kinds meant to him.
I also read recently that both Barack Obama and John McCain claimed to like Ernest Hemingway and to like the character and to identify with the character of Robert Jordan (left, OK, that's Gary Cooper as Robert Jordan) in For Whom the Bell Tolls, so perhaps Hemingway is seen as sufficiently popular and sufficiently “American” for them to admit to having read a book or two.
Each of these gentlemen of course is a part of an elite. In the case of one, he reached that point through opportunity and education at elite institutions, in the case of the other, he was a third generation in an elitely educated and elitely serving military family. Even our current President -- who did admit a couple of years ago that his summer reading was Albert Camus’s L’Etranger, The Stranger, has made sure that our NEA and our NEH, our National Endowments for the Arts and Humanities, have remained funded, perhaps because of the First Lady, Laura Bush, and have excellent people, Dana Gioia and Bruce Cole, leading them.
Wouldn’t it be great if both of the candidates would say, “You know, when the campaign is over, and one of us wins, we are going to have art and music in the White House and we’re not going to be ashamed of it. And it will range -- it will include country, but we’ll make sure that its good country. It will include pop and rock, but it will be good pop and rock. And yes, it will include jazz -- America’s contribution to world music, art, and culture -- and yes, it will even include the dreaded ‘elitist’ classical music.”
It would be great if they would make a joint pledge that they would invite Stevie Wonder and Yo-Yo Ma and Lang Lang and Barbra Streisand -- all together -- to the White House to perform, perhaps before everyone listened to the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.
If all else fails they could invite the composer John Adams to come by with some of his music. At least they could say that they had seen the TV miniseries about him.
I’m Andrew Patner.
Here is the full version of my Saturday, October 18, 2008 Chicago Sun-Times and suntimes.com review of the Thursday, October 16, 2008 Chicago Symphony Orchestra concert conducted by Neeme Järvi with Yefim Bronfman as soloist.
Bronfman thrills in Rachmaninoff, Järvi introduces lesser-known Russian symphonist
Repeated Saturday at 8 p.m. and Tuesday, October 21, at 7:30 p.m.
BY ANDREW PATNER
Rachmaninoff concerto: HIGHLY RECOMMENDED
Taneyev Symphony No, 4: RECOMMENDED
No one denied that the man Stravinsky called the "six-and-a-half-foot-tall scowl" had been one of the greatest pianists of all time, and other Russian émigrés often told terrific stories of seeing him on his concert tours earlier in the century.
But Rachmaninoff -- who died in his unhappy Beverly Hills exile just before his 70th birthday in 1943 -- as a composer? As far as the cognoscenti were concerned, he was little more than a purveyor of movie music, cornball, and gymnastic exercises for piano students.
Today it is less a matter of the swinging pendulums that lead to such extreme views than of a widening of the ears to embrace great music of many styles and periods. There is no reason that audiences today cannot listen -- and performers cannot play -- Bach and Brahms, Schoenberg and Beethoven, even Boulez and "the walking scowl" himself. And since the early 1990s, I've found myself one of the many under the spell of Rachmaninoff's shamelessly Romantic Piano Concerto No. 3, Op. 30, the so-called "Rach 3."
Since then, I've heard literally dozens of live performances by a varied array of soloists from great names to amateurs. And, yes, I've seen the 1996 film Shine, which tries to claim that the fiendishly difficult, 45-minute work can even drive its players to madness.
The performance that pianist Yefim Bronfman (left) gave Thursday night with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra ranks with the very best of them. A greatly serious artist who has carried this music and its style with him from his childhood in the former Soviet Union (he was born in Tashkent) through his years in Israel and his studies in the United States, Bronfman at 50 does what he wants, and he does it astonishingly well.
He also is serious about defying stereotypes. Classified as a "Russian pianist," he only learned another staple, the Tchaikovsky B-flat minor concerto, five years ago. Reviews too often speak of his "force" and "power," yet he can play with an almost lace-like delicacy. So it was here as he traveled every scalar tangle and poignant mood shift as if he had only the most important things to tell his audience, and he would tell you in either a whisper or a shout as necessary. The audience was on its feet, cheering, at the work's end, and the players' were shaking their heads in happy disbelief. An exquisitely spun Schumann C Major Arabesque followed the ovations as a rare concerto encore.
Veteran Estonian conductor Neeme Järvi was Bronfman's more than able accompanist leading the CSO. After intermission, Järvi produced a work rarer than the Rachmaninoff is familiar, the 1896-1898 Fourth Symphony in C minor, Op. 12, by Sergei Taneyev (1856-1915), who had been Tchaikovsky's student and Rachmaninoff's teacher.
Taneyev (left) was known more for his textbooks and his pupils than his compositions, and this highly sympathetic and technically assured performance showed you why. Symphonic composers need to hear their works, and shape and develop them over time. As a busy teacher who composed chiefly for the desk drawer, Taneyev didn't have these opportunities.
So what we heard often had the sound of 40 minutes of brilliant assignments -- i.e., write in counterpoint beautifully, write a finale, write for every instrument playing at once and playing all the time -- than a work of creative originality.
Here is my Tuesday October 14, 2008 suntimes.com piece on the piano programs of The University of Chicago Messiaen Festival and Maurizio Pollini's October 12, 2008 recital at Chicago's Orchestra Hall.
A movable pianistic feast with Pollini, Taylor, and Hill
BY ANDREW PATNER
There are composers who were drawn to the keyboard to create melodies they hoped would become timeless. Others who used its five to eight octaves to work out harmonic, rhythmic, or mathematical puzzles or patterns. And there are those who saw the piano as a means to pour out the contents of the heart and the soul, whether in the cause of love or worship or to express general passions that could not be contained by words.
This weekend offered overflowing showcases of composers who used the piano to reach ecstatic heights. Three quite different keyboard masters -- the young American Christopher Taylor, the celebrated Italian Maurizio Pollini, and the British scholar-pianist Peter Hill --- gave can't-miss recitals at Roosevelt University's Ganz Hall, Mandel Hall in Hyde Park, and Orchestra Hall downtown. It was a movable pianistic feast.
The University of Chicago's superb 10-day Olivier Messiaen Festival presented two of the programs as it drew to a close: Taylor's ever-astonishing performance -- from memory -- of the composer's 1944 two-hour, 10-minute solo work Vingt regards sur l'enfant-Jésus ("Twenty Contemplations on the Infant Jesus") on Friday night, and Hill's equally expert and spellbinding hourlong recital-discussion Saturday evening of Messiaen's use of birdsong in his compositions throughout his long life.
Sunday afternoon brought Pollini, now 66, back to Orchestra Hall for a chronological survey of early and middle period Beethoven, Schumann, and Chopin works ending in a lengthy set of three Chopin encores.
What a listener brought away from all three programs was not excess, though, but the role that care, detail, and attention play in building up lengthy works or combinations of work. It was as if, through seeing the sculptor's work, we appreciated the sculptures even more.
All three gentlemen are fearsome intellects with strong interest in mathematics and language as well as -- or perhaps related to -- music. But their personal presentations could not be more different. Taylor (left) comes across initially as the earnest young professor (he is one, of piano performance, at the University of Wisconsin at Madison) who starts off demonstrating his smarts -- without ego -- and then loses himself physically in the work.
A Chicago musician friend says that he does not consider a performance of the Vingt regards to be a success if the piano is still standing at the end of the program. Taylor certainly did his part to give the Steinway a Glenn Gould-like workout, but it was his total identification with Messiaen's various and ever interconnected means of expressing religious ecstasy that carried and held the day. Pounding chords, eerie tritones, and tinkling celestial "voices" always came across as a captivating argument for faith, fantasy, and reason.
Hill (left) is more the shy British don who agrees to sit down at the piano only "if you insist." But once there, the tall white-haired Briton erased his sheepish smile and seemed to cast himself into a trance, one that very soon had the audience in its spell as well. Here, from the man who literally wrote the book on Messiaen and birdsong (as well as, with Nigel Simeone, the first major biography of the composer based on full access to Messiaen's own papers) was a survey from the self-styled ornithologist's first depiction of a bird in music, "La Colombe" ("The Dove"), from his Préludes of 1928-29, through his great Catalogue of Birds from 1956-58 to his late Little Sketches of Birds of 1985.
Hill has demonstrated that, despite Messiaen's claims, the composer's compositions were not literal transcriptions. But as he both talks about and plays the pieces, he shows that they were in fact more real artistically than a recording, just as a great poem exceeds a word-for-word re-creation of a lover's stuttering declaration. Along the way, Hill also gave us a rare demonstration of the only remaining example (1934) of Messiaen's fiendishly difficult but so expressive and powerful piano sight-reading exercises devised for students at the Paris Conservatory.
Pollini (left) will always divide his audiences between those who are touched by his ice and those who seek out more fire. Moving across the stage like a Milanese banker or businessman, he made perhaps his strongest case for musician as X-ray technician by showing just how moving Beethoven's "Tempest" (No. 17 in D Minor, Op. 31, No. 2) and "Appassionata" (No. 23 in F Minor, Op. 57) sonatas can be if they are treated with a selfless precision that allows them to make their own musical arguments.
After intermission, Pollini brought his modernist sensibility to those seemingly untamed and untamable Romantics, Schumann and Chopin. Schumann's great C Major Fantasy and Chopin's blistering Second Scherzo saw rare memory slips from this titan, but even their occurrence, and his means of rescuing himself, seemed a part of the point here; these are works that take a man-made instrument and try to push it as far as possible while still being able to communicate the composer's intention. The Four Mazurkas, Op. 33, were both gems and shards of philosophy.
In the last few years, Pollini has started to revel in encores. He's not as extreme as Evgeny Kissin, of course, but he's not at all parsimonious, either. Sunday's were Chopin's E-Flat Major Nocturne, Op. 9, No. 2, the C-sharp Minor Etude, Op. 10, No. 24 and the First Ballade, G Minor, Op. 23, any of which would take an honorable place on any announced program. Like Taylor and Hill, like Messiaen, perhaps Pollini was saying that there was just no way to let go.
Here, with cuts from the print version restored, is my Saturday, October 11, 2008 Chicago Sun-Times and sun-times.com review of Jaap Van Zweden conducting the Chicago Symphony Orchestra on Thursday, October 9, 2008.
Van Zweden makes most of CSO coming-out party
MUSIC REVIEW | A flawless Bruckner's Fifth
Chicago Symphony Orchestra
with Jaap Van Zweden
Repeated Oct. 11 at 8 p.m. and Oct. 14 at 7:30 p.m.
BY ANDREW PATNER
Cancellations are a double-edged sword in the armory of symphony orchestras and opera companies. A major conductor or soloist is announced, promoted, and expected by tickets buyers to appear. These being human enterprises though, things happen, and disappointment among the anticipators sets in.
The other edge of the blade, though, is the opportunity to hear or see an unanticipated debut or a similar heroic act of rescue.
Such is the case this week at Orchestra Hall where genuine sadness and concern followed Riccardo Chailly’s withdrawal for health reasons from his long-awaited two-week return to conduct the Chicago Symphony Orchestra this month. The buoyant Italian maestro’s performances of the so-called Mahler Tenth Symphony had to be scrapped altogether to widespread chagrin. Fortunately, CSO management found a worthy if little-known substitute leader for Chailly’s planned 1875-78 Bruckner Fifth Symphony.
Dutchman Jaap Van Zweden (left), now 47, was named music director of the Dallas Symphony Orchestra last year despite his having almost no U.S. exposure. Reviews from Dallas by both local and visiting critics and Thursday night’s CSO concert confirm that this was a brilliant move by the Texans.
A pure musician (he was concertmaster of the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra for 15 years starting the violin post at the astonishing age of 19), Van Zweden does not require hype or engage in theatrical gestures on or off the podium. To take on the Bruckner in his first engagement by a “Big Five” American orchestra demonstrated confidence, but never cockiness. Clearly this is a man who has focused himself since his teenage years at Juilliard on understanding orchestral music and leadership from both sides of the podium. He stands at the beginning of a major career with far more going for him than many names with heavier p.r. and record label buzz.
Bruckner took a lifetime to find his compositional voice and conductors often need a similar span to understand and present his symphonies in their fullness. Van Zweden may be a relative newcomer to conducting but he has already absorbed these works as a player. He manages to present what Olivier Messiaen called Bruckner’s “so many bridges” with a clear understanding of their architecture. His understanding is modernist as opposed to romantic and his skills and rapport with the Bruckner-steeped orchestra were such that the 80-minute B-flat Major symphony was clearly etched, balanced, and gripping from beginning to end.
On the strength of this remarkable debut, I would go to hear Van Zweden conduct anything, anywhere.
Here's my Wednesday, October 8, 2008 Chicago Sun-Times and suntimes.com review of Lyric Opera of Chicago's opening night performance of Bizet's Les pêcheurs de perles on Monday, October 6, 2008.
Bizet's 'Pearl' not his finest gem
Pleasant treats are saving grace of rare staging
BY ANDREW PATNER
Lyric Opera of Chicago
Through November 4
What exactly do we get from a staging today of Bizet's second produced opera, The Pearl Fishers?
Is it all the wrapping around one of the most popular duets in opera? The rare opportunity to hear a great "B-side" tenor aria? An exercise in music history letting us examine an 1863 work written when the French composer was just 24, 12 years before he capped his brief life with Carmen? A chance to inhale "exotic" opera of the type that inspired many a 1930s RKO island movie? Or the latest showcase for barihunk Nathan Gunn to strut and flex without a shirt?
All of the above, I suppose, and certainly that's what we got when Lyric Opera of Chicago opened its revival Monday night of the stage rarity (the Metropolitan Opera has not presented the work since Enrico Caruso was in its cast in 1916).
Although I'm a Bizet fan, and there are many pleasant surprises here, I'm not sure that they add up to a worthwhile project for Lyric, just 11 seasons since it first put on the scholarly edition of Bizet's sophomore effort.
The kind word for the plot and libretto here is clunky. And spread out over three acts and two intermissions, this tale of two old pearl-diving friends in Ceylon in love with the same Hindu priestess goes from the predictable to the unintentionally comic.
Still, designer Scott Marr has replaced the original Hubert Monloup sets and costumes with a look that's more colorful and handsome. And director Herbert Kellner turns the heat up on Nicolas Joël's 1997-98 production.
The cast is young and all-American. The great duet "Au fond du temple saint" (as with most of the opera, translation into English only makes things worse) comes 15 minutes into the first act. Gunn was steady in the baritone half, but tenor Eric Cutler was both ardent and believable in his devotion to romantic and fraternal love. Cutler also delivered the goods sweetly in his romance, "Je crois entendre encore."
As the veiled priestess/ love-object, soprano Nicole Cabell tried to strike a balance between her pleasing singing and the King Kong-style acting demanded of her. Another Lyric training program alum, bass-baritone Christian Van Horn, was a solid, quick-to-anger priest Nourabad.
Conductor John Mauceri sits on Lyric's orchestra and Bizet's score to the point that the beautiful melodies and harmonies become sluggish and repetitious. Given the superb work Lyric is presenting with another 19th century French work, Massenet's Manon, it remains a mystery why management keeps asking Mauceri back.
For the record, Gunn has his top off within the first few minutes and again for the entire slow stretch of the third act. It's not music, but he gives you something to focus on.
GRIFFIN TO DIRECT 'MERRY WIDOW'
Broadway baby (The Color Purple and The Apple Tree) and local theatre stalwart Gary Griffin (left) will make his Lyric Opera directorial debut next season with Franz Lehar's The Merry Widow, Lyric general director William Mason announced Tuesday.
Griffin will direct a new production of the operetta, which will star Lyric training program alums American soprano Elizabeth Futral and Canadian tenor Roger Honeywell who sang together in Lyric’s 2003/2004 season production of Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Pirates of Penzance. Emmanuel Villaume, now leading the superb Lyric Manon, will conduct.