When I first thought about a countdown of the best symphonies numbered four, I sort of assumed it would flow roughly as naturally as the countdown of symphonies numbered five. I was wrong. What an unbelievably crowded field. Normally I would be inclined to use the “honorable mention” as an excuse to list something that may not immediately leap to mind (as in the Don Gillis Symphony no. 5 ½ on the previous list). But when I made my little chart, there was no room for half-assed attempts at getting Mozart 40 or Haydn 94 or 104, or The Poem of Ecstasy on the list, which kind of blows my mind. Obviously the pool of possibilities swells with the inclusion of Brahms and Schumann, but wait until this thing is done and you see who got left off altogether. Without further hyperbole… Continue reading
A few years ago, some friends and I devised an NCAA-style bracket tournament to determine the greatest composer of all-time through a rigorous series of discussions. The overwhelming majority of humans would likely declare that arguing over who was better/more important between Ravel and Schoenberg is a pointless waste of time. Just because they’re correct doesn’t mean it still can’t have benefits; talking about music, no matter how unusually, is far from pointless.
It is with that same general spirit in mind that I invite you into my world of randomly ranking things like best symphonies based solely on their number. It probably seems like a ridiculous idea, and it is, but it still gets you thinking about great music, and ultimately that’s good. Read this and think about it. Even better, listen to the music and rate for yourself. Think of me as a cult leader and classical music as the cyanide Kool-Aid. Do it now. Continue reading
We meet Elijah in 1 Kings, chapter 17. We don’t know where he comes from (he’s called “The Tishbite” but there isn’t anywhere called Tishbe anywhere in the Bible). What we do know is that he’s come to call the King of Israel, Ahab, on his bullshit. Ahab and his wife, Jezebel, rejected the God of the Israelites in favor of Baal (worship my Baals!), and with that decision comes consequences, including Elijah looking like a total bad ass while God miracles the shit out of Israel. Elijah ascends to heaven in a fiery chariot. Other notable Elijah facts: he was there at the transfiguration of Jesus; according to Malachi, Elijah will return before the “great and terrible day of the Lord,” which is to the say the First or Second Coming, depending on who’s reading. With that in mind, Jews leave a cup of wine for him during the Passover seder in the hopes that he will:
a) claim his free booze
b) hasten the coming of the Lord’s paradisiacal reign on Earth
c) both of the above
We turn to Mendelssohn, who may have had a hard time deciding on whether that Coming was First or Second, being a Jew who converted to Lutheranism at the age of 7 (his grandfather, Moses, was one of the great Jewish philosophers of all-time). Mendelssohn is widely credited with restoring Bach to his natural place at the top of the musical food chain, and surely there is some truth in that (he did conduct the first performance of the St. Matthew Passion since the death of Bach).
Perhaps more importantly than that, Mendelssohn used the influences of the Baroque masters Bach and Handel to craft two masterful oratorios with many nods to the stylings of his predecessors. Elijah is probably the more famous of the two, for whatever that’s worth, and seems to be the more frequently performed. I was happy to participate in my first performance of the piece.
The chorus was a new group in Kansas City: Musica Vocale. They are a chorus of about 30 who managed to double in size through a complicated system of fusion, mitosis, and getting 30 more people to fill out the sound needed to compete with a Romantic orchestra. Their conductor is Dr. Arnold Epley, who is retiring from teaching at William Jewell College at the end of the year. I told Dr. Epley after the first rehearsal that he is the coolest conductor I have ever worked with, and I stand by that…he’s witty, had a great rapport with everybody in the room, and was organized enough to pull off a massive work like this in 2 rehearsals. The final concert of their inaugural season took place in Temple Beth Shalom on Sunday 10 May 2009.
The solo quartet was comprised of the following: Ida Nicolosi, soprano; Martha Hart, mezzo soprano; Andrew Childs, tenor; and Douglas Williams, baritone in the title role. All the soloists were terrific and brought a lot to the performance. I thought Williams did a hell of a job…it sounded a couple times in the second half like his voice was on the verge of cracking epically, but he kept it together and it never sounded uncontrolled to my ears. I was particularly impressed with Williams during some of Elijah’s angrier, nastier moments…Williams managed to get a little bit of growl in his sound which I dug (it reminded me of that old Bernstein/Ludwig/Berry Des Knaben Wunderhorn on Sony which has some kick-ass angry singing from Berry in Der Tamboursg’sell). Nicolosi was also particularly noteworthy to me on the extended “Hear ye, Israel” aria that begins Part 2.
I thought the chorus was rad. I thought they did a bang-up job throughout. Their was some tremendous dynamic contrast ranging through a story with a lot of ins, lot of outs, and the chorus seemed to relish the angry bits the way I would relish them, which is to say a lot.
I also applaud the diction by everyone involved. The performance was in English, and while the text was in the program, it was almost never needed to my ears. I don’t think I’ve ever been associated with a performance involving chorus that featured cleaner articulating of words…it was refreshing.
The orchestra was a nice collection of freelance players from around town, and we did our part to make it a good performance. On a personal level, I had some tremendous focus problems, particularly in the first half, and I salute the rest of the horn section for playing their parts well to keep me in the right spots.
Dr. Epley seemed like he knew the score inside and out, had a clear idea of what he wanted, and made it happen in simple terms. As someone who wishes he was a conductor, it was a great lesson in efficiency and management. It was, seemingly due to budget restraints, slightly under-rehearsed; there were a couple moments (fermatas for example) that I don’t recall getting much of a look at and it led to some mixed results on the show (from myself as well). But overwhelmingly it was a terrific interpretation with terrific results.
One last bit of effusiveness goes to Trilla Carter, who played principal cello and served as the orchestra ”contractor” which I put in quotes because I don’t know if it’s exactly the right term to use. I’ve worked with dozens and dozens of personnel people with orchestras over the years, and many of them have been top notch. Trilla Carter fits right in that lofty space for me. Everything was handled smoothly, communication was great, the whole deal. It’s always a great work enviornment when those responsible for coordinating things handle their business professionally and efficiently.
It’s always fun to perform works with chorus and orchestra because they almost always have one thing in common: they’re epic. Beethoven 9, Mahler 2, The Messiah, Gurrelieder, etc. all bring with them a sense of dramatic scope that simply doesn’t exist in even the grandest of purely orchestral compositions (which isn’t to say it’s better or worse…Bruckner 9 certainly has a dramatic scope all its own, for example). Elijah fits right in there in the grand tradition. Which is one of the many reasons why I was pleased, if not slightly exhausted by the end, to have been at the concert.
If anyone has ever had the pleasure of hearing a great boy soprano, or treble if you don’t like colloquialisms, you’ll understand the tone of this post, because its unlike anything in the music world, which is why I felt compelled to write about it.
The origin of the boy soprano goes back to Pre-Christian times, when boys were used to sing chants in Jewish services, and continued through the rise of Christianity. Bach was considered a great boy soprano, which frankly should only serve to depress us even more considering he towers over us musicians anyway.
There are but a small handful of works calling for boy soprano in the repertoire. The most famous is probably either Felix Mendelssohn’s “Hear My Prayer” or “O For The Wings Of A Dove” or the “Miserere” of Gregorio Allegri, but there are a couple other examples that hold a special place in my heart.
One is the Symphony no. 4 of Mahler. The soprano solo in the finale was originally conceived for boy soprano (as it is supposed to be a child’s view of heaven), however it is virtually never performed this way. To the best of my recollection, there are only two recordings of the piece that use boy soprano. One is Leonard Bernstein’s DG recording with the Vienna Philharmonic with soloist Helmut Wittek, and the other is the woefully underrated Anton Nanut’s performance with the Ljubljana Symphony and soloist Max-Emanuel Cencic. It’s worth hearing both performances for a variety of reasons, but to hear the music sung by a true boy soprano is reason #1 to me.
My perception is that the music is simply too difficult to pull off for such a young soloist, which is probably why you don’t hear it very often. Both of these now-no-longer-boys certainly sing the part well, but it lacks the refinement that the music warrants, child’s view or not. They simply cannot bring the nuance and color to the music that the Dawn Upshaws of the world can, and, ironically, cannot convey the childlike innocence of the movement to the same degree, at least in my opinion.
However, there is a work in which a boy soprano is preferable to their grownup counterpart, and it’s the Faure Requiem. One of my favorite pieces of music, made even better when sung with a boys chorus and boy soloist on the Pie Jesu. Perhaps it associates itself better with the old St. Paul approach of mulieres in ecclesiis taceant (which is to say silence from the women) when choirs were almost exclusively male, but whatever it is, it works like magic. The Pie Jesu goes from being a beautiful creation to a life-changing experience, IMO. There is a great recording with George Guest conducting the Choir of St. John’s College, Cambridge on Decca that everyone owes it to themselves to hear. Do it.
Now, this has been a poorly written, kind of generic post, but there’s a reason for it. I’ve been listening recently to a fine Naxos recording of a Jewish First S’lihot service with celebrated cantor Benzion Miller. And in this recording is a boy soprano who absolutely makes my hair stand on end, and I mean in the good way. I’ve pieced together a little sample of what he sounds like for those that care to take a listen (about 2 1/2 minutes).
I wish I could tell you his name, but he goes uncredited on the recording. But what a haunting sound. It’s no exaggeration to tell you that this has been stuck with me for over a year, and I still can’t shake it. Nor do I want to.
Tonight Sandy and I took a trip downtown to attend a Kansas City Symphony performance featuring Mahler Symphony no. 1, which is enough to draw me out into bitter arctic winds. Michael Stern, son of some violinist named Isaac and principal conductor of the orchestra, was apparently “pleased to be back in town.” I’m not sure why with the weather being what it was, but to each his own.
The concert began with the Nielsen Helios Overture, which is a fantastic piece. In general. Not necessarily tonight. As a horn player, I appreciate the general terror associated with playing this, and octave slurs are no piece of cake for any horn player at any time, but the section as a whole had more clams than either some reference to soup or a much dirtier reference to a house of ill repute. It didn’t destroy the performance, but it didn’t feel like the sun was really all that committed to getting out that day. What did destroy the performance was the sloppiness of most of it. Entrances were askew, the trumpets and trombones were behind, and the strings in the fugato were not together. I guess this performance as it relates to the brilliance of the sun fits in rather snugly with the sub-freezing temperatures and snow.
Phase 2 of the program was the Mendelssohn Piano Concerto no. 2 with a young soloist by the name of Kuok-Wai Lio. I didn’t know this piece going in (I dig the 1st concerto), and came away feeling like Mendelssohn should look into pursuing this composition thing full-time if he hasn’t already. Mr. Lio was pretty good all told, although it never felt like he really got delicate in the 2nd movement when the music was clearly treading down that path. The sloppiness of the orchestra continued here, and if it’s bad in Nielsen, it’s worse in Mendelssohn, who begs for clarity and crispness more than most, IMO. It was a decent performance, and the soloist will presumably be heard from again, but I was fairly underwhelmed with everyone not named Felix associated with this.
After intermission, Mahler. I confess to being pretty impressed with the large majority of the performance, even if I disagree with many interpretive aspects. The first movement began pretty well, with good balance on the A, but the woodwind calls and the descending half note line were both…you guessed it…sloppy. The offstage trumpet fanfares were cleaner, but they were not nearly distant enough…they could just as well have played on stage into the stand and gotten the same sound, which is bad as far as I can tell. The “Ging heut morgen ubers feld” unfolded pretty nicely, although it felt rushed by the end of the exposition (both times), which doesn’t bode well for the end of the movement. The movement’s climax was pretty stellar, and I thought my head was going to explode from the cymbals and bass drum…more from them later. As I suspected, the end of the movement was frenzied, but not quite in the best possible way. They made it, though, and 27 people clapped for a second, so folks took to it.
The 2nd movement was easily the fastest I’ve ever heard it. I didn’t time it, but I would be surprised if it took much more than 6 1/2 minutes. That kind of tempo works well in the Scherzo, but the Trio needs a little time to breathe, IMO, and it didn’t here. There wasn’t nearly as much insanity as I would like on the trills preceding the last note of the Scherzo statements, which was a drag, but the ensemble finally started to pick up in this movement, and the ending was very crisp.
The 3rd movement was problematic tempo-wise. Maestro started it off VERRRRRRRY slow, and I was getting pretty interested to see how this would go throughout. Of course, that tempo didn’t last, and it got noticeably quicker as time passed. That didn’t stop him from trying again after the B section (which was very nicely balanced and clear), with the exact same results. The tempo it actually ended up being was fine, but it would have been interesting as hell to hear just what might have been. The bass solo was very good, IMO…which is to say not so good that it doesn’t sound strained in a good way.
The 4th movement was absolutely spectacular. The percussion were as good a section as I’ve heard in this movement…extremely tight and distinctive. Terrific excitement in the opening section, and an awfully good transition into the first slower section. I thought this section was very good. Often times, it can be affected way too much, but Stern just let the music happen naturally to its betterment. The second big/loud section was pretty good all told, although there were again some prominent flubs in the horns on the D major half note theme that eventually carries the piece home. The second slower section was not quite as well manicured as the first, but still very good, and better than countless recordings I’ve heard over time…still great balance, and warmth in the string sound despite pretty nippy acoustics in general. The viola “announcement” to begin wrapping it up was very engaging, and the music leading up to the final apotheosis (to use the word apotheosis) was handled expertly.
And then the expertness went flying out the window. The final tempo was rather brisk at the beginning, but I figured with the “Pesante” coming up it would be fine. Except there was no “Pesante.” There wasn’t anything. There was just a guns blazing, balls to the wall, Steve McQueen style race to the finsh line, which no one won. It was better than the Sinopolis and Dudamels of the world who ride the tempo all over the place like fucking Zorro, but still…it felt like you had overcome all these great obstacles and climbed to the highest of peaks only to throw a pie in someone’s face and make balloon animals for the children. Furthermore, it leaves you little room for a stringendo in the last 20 bars or so, which we can all support. There was an attempt at one, but it didn’t really pan out. A terribly disappointing end to an otherwise VERY stellar reading of the movement, and a pretty strong reading of the entire symphony. Special Gold Star to principal horn Albert Suarez, though…that guy is officially on my “you, sir or madam, are a bad ass” list.
Two other quick notes: the Lyric Theater, while surely possessing Old World charm that I don’t know about, feels like sitting in a 7th grade science class…probably the worst seating I’ve ever sat in, not just in the history of concerts, but in the history of seating. They’re moving to a new hall in a few years, maybe even deservedly, but in the meantime, I guess I don’t have to wonder what it’s like to hear a Mahler symphony in the basement of a Pizza Hut anymore. Also, if you happen to be in Kansas City and like Italian food, check out Garrozzo’s. Tremendous food, dim lights, good wine, family pictures on the wall, bizarre location in the middle of a nowhere 5 blocks…it has it all.
I’ll wait until next season to give them another crack…Alban Gerhardt playing the Dvorak Cello Concerto along with Kodaly (Dances of Galanta) and Rachmaninov (Symphonic Dances) will force open the wallet. Until then, believe me…I was at a concert.