Something To Listen To: Louis Langree & The Pittsburgh Symphony

Dmitri Shostakovich

Dmitri Shostakovich

When I was in grad school I did a theoretical analysis of the Symphony no. 11 by Dmitri Shostakovich, after being introduced to the piece by my conducting teacher.  I became fascinated with and consumed by the piece because it is as intense as music gets and it has a theatricality (did I just make up that word?) that is unlike anything I have ever heard.  As the cliche goes, a movie simply wouldn’t be as good if there were no music to underline the emotions at work, which is true.  But now imagine music that is so vivid and so dynamic that were you to attempt to actually express the music in the form of a film, you would probably erase the power of the imagery at work in the score.  That is the 11th.

Subtitled ‘The Year 1905’, it tells the story of the “Bloody Sunday” of 9 January 1905, when Russian troops massacred somewhere in the neighborhood of 1000 unarmed, peaceful demonstrators outside the Winter Palace in St. Petersburg.  The first movement, Winter Palace, sets the scene…cold, wintry, still, uneasy, charged.  For 15 minutes, you are held completely gripped in this scene, waiting.  It’s absolutely amazing.  The second movement, 9 January, is a musical depiction of the massacre, complete with some trademark Shostakovich snare drumming, frantic strings and woodwinds, overpowering brass.  It is completely relentless music, never losing intensity for 20 minutes, including a fugato that builds to one of the great climaxes in the repertoire.  The third movement, In Memoriam, is exactly what it sounds like…a memorial to the victims.  It is tremendously tragic, moving, and powerful.  It all builds to the fourth movement, The Alarm, a “look-the-fuck-out” message from the people to the Tsar that is a driving, forceful barrage, only interrupted by an extended, beautiful English Horn solo that precedes one of the coolest endings in all of music, with loud-ass chimes, 5/4 bars, D major chords, and repeated snare drum figures.  If anyone has ever seen the movie “The Limey” you’ll recognize the following line that I always seem to conjure when hearing this movement:

You tell them I’m coming.  Tell them I’m FUCKING COMING!

The menace, the threat, and the promise of this music was indeed fulfilled twelve years and one symphony later, in the 1917 revolution.  The 11th is one of the great masterpieces of the symphonic repertoire…an absolute must-hear.  The performance linked here is one of the best performances of this work I’ve heard…truly inspiring in its energy, scope, and power.  Langree is not someone I was familiar with prior to this concert, but I will be seeking out more of his work based on this performance.  I dare say that it is on a par with the great Russian masters’ readings that I discovered this music through…high praise.  The Pittsburgh Symphony, as per usual, kicks serious ass.

The rest of the concert consisted of Mozart.  The Masonic Funeral Music opened the concert, in another fine performance.  A brief note from Dr. Bernhard Paumgartner, founding member of the Salzburg Festival and eminent Mozart biographer:

  The Masonic Funeral Music holds a place all its own among Mozart’s works, not only for its form and homogeneity, for the ingenious choice of the instruments and their exquisite technical treatment, but also through the unique grouping of a solemn march around the fundamental element of a gregorian chorale. Mozart very accurately penned the Cantus Firmus on a separate leaf in order to avoid errors in the elaboration. According to Heimsoeth the first five bars of this melody (bar 25-29) are identical with the first Psalm tone with the first Difference after the Cologne Antiphonary. What follows is a local compilation of several Psalm tones for the ‘Miserere mei Deus’ — a Penitential psalm such as is frequently used for funerals in several places.

This music reminds me in all the good ways about the dark parts of Don Giovanni and the amazing musical atmospheres Mozart can create.  While I don’t think it’s fair to say this music is neglected, it is fair to say that it should be performed more, because it is a fantastic work.  A great way to set the tone for this concert.


Garrick Ohlsson joined the fray for a nicely crafted performance of the Piano Concerto no. 27.  The music isn’t flashy, it isn’t always bright, but it shows a composer who has completely mastered every single aspect of writing a piano concerto.  Unlike a lot of Mozart’s music, which was popular enough to be premiered on concerts featuring nothing but Mozart’s music, by this time his popularity had waned sufficiently to the point that it was premiered, at least according to legend, by Mozart on a concert featuring clarinettist Joseph Bahr (although it appears that it may actually have been premiered by one of Mozart’s students 3 months earlier).  Regardless, the music stands up to anything else Mozart wrote.  The performance here is worth hearing for Ohlsson’s sensitive playing, particularly the third movement, which sounds nicely (and, dare I say, “correctly”) understated, IMO.


Now, the technical info.  It was recorded from WQED’s stream and converted to three 256K mp3 files and put into one RAR file.  Download available from RapidShare here:

These concerts took place 6 & 8 June 2008 in Heinz Hall, Pittsburgh.  Do enjoy this wonderful concert…it is absolutely worth every second.

10 Best: Concertos

Or concerti to the informed, pedantic wordsmith.

This week I played a concert featuring the Dvorak Cello Concerto, played fabulously by a gentleman named Matt Johnson, a member of the Kansas City Symphony.  Very musical, sweet tone, good approach to the piece…I enjoyed it immensely.  It got me thinking to myself…

What if I were to combine my love for music with my love for ranking things and compiling lists in an entirely subjective fashion?  We needn’t wonder what that would look like any longer, because I intend to start right now with a look at the 10 Best Concertos.

When I was a young, inexperienced horn player, I would often complain that the concert halls were constantly filled with solo appearances by violin, cello, and piano.  My reasoning was simple: they’re flashier instruments than horn, trumpet, oboe, or flute.  It wasn’t very long that I discovered the truth: the music written for the big 3 solo instruments is light years better than most everything else.  There are some exceptions, but overwhelmingly the music is of vastly superior quality.

My ranking system is based on many complicated factors, ranging from how I feel about these works to how I feel about these works in relation to one another to how I feel when I perform or listen to these works.  Bearing that sophisticated criteria in mind:

Honorary #11

Carl Maria von Weber–Concertino for Horn and Orchestra

Because it has to be listed somewhere, I’m making an honorary no. 11.  If you don’t know this piece, look into it.  Terribly difficult for the soloist (IMO much more so than other examples like the Gliere or Strauss 2nd), but genuinely one of the most delightful pieces of music regardless of period, style, or genre.  And as if charm weren’t enough, Weber uses multiphonics in the cadenza, where by the hornist plays a pitch and hums a note at the same time to create chords…only about 120 years ahead of its time.

Recommended recording: Hermann Baumann, Masur/Gewandhausorchester Leipzig


Elgar–Cello Concerto

Purportedly an introspective look at the feelings Elgar was dealing with while confronting the post WWI scene and his own mortality, it certainly is a burdensome work in many respects, but in all good ways.  At times heavy, at times lighter than an insect, at all times filled with Elgar’s mastery of texture and orchestration, and a great solo part.  A glass case of emotions…anybody?

Recommended recording: Jacqueline du Pre, Barbirolli/London Symphony


Robert Schumann–Piano Concerto

It’s hard to imagine a more arresting beginning to a piece of music…huge chord, awesome descending line in the solo piano, gorgeous oboe melody (when is an oboe melody not gorgeous?).  Quite literally a perfectly constructed piece, perfectly paced, and with a perfect balance between solo and orchestra.  Why is it ranked 9th?  I don’t know.

Recommended recording: Sviatoslav Richter, Matacic/Monte Carlo National Orchestra


Samuel Barber–Violin Concerto

The 2nd movement is in the running for best movement on this list (what was that about gorgeous oboe melodies?), but the whole concerto is bad ass.  Like most everyone else, I find the 3rd movement a little disjointed in comparison to everything before it, but it’s also about the most exciting 4 minute moto perpetuo you’ll ever hear.

Recommended recording: Elmar Oliveira, Slatkin/St. Louis Symphony


Alexander Arutiunian–Trumpet Concerto

Insane?  Yes.  But it is my favorite wind concerto, bar none.  Written for the unrivaled king of Russian trumpet players, Timofei Dokschitzer, it has everything you’d want: flash, drama, huge trumpet sound, some really sweet legatos, and an awesome cadenza.  It doesn’t hurt that the beginning grabs you by the throat and holds on for the entire 20 minutes.  Look into this, stat.

Recommended recording: Timofei Dokschitzer, Rozhdestvensky/Bolshoi Theater Orchestra


Pitor Ilyich Tschaikovsky–Violin Concerto

Dismissed as too difficult by a few soloists, Adolph Brodsky (yes, THE Adolph Brodsky) premiered the piece with Hans Richter in 1881.  Eduard Hanslick thought it sucked, but he thought Wagner sucked too, so he’s kind of an idiot on occasion.  Turns out they were right about it being difficult, but it’s also awesome.  A good friend once compared this piece to a blonde porn star with huge, probably fake boobs, and I like that comparison (not so crazy about blondes or huge, fake boobs, but whatever).  Flashy, yes, but popular with good reason.

Recommended recording: David Oistrakh, Rozhdestvensky/Moscow Radio Symphony (DVD)


Dmitri Shostakovich–Piano Concerto no. 1

Written early in his career, before his friends all got killed and Stalin was mean to him (as a wise man once told me).  Which only proves that he could write heart-wrenching and satirical music regardless of the political circumstances.  ALMOST a double concerto, but at any rate featuring a prominent trumpet part.  The last movement quotes Haydn, marking a meeting of two of the all-time satirists in music history.  This piece is gold.

Recommended recording: Mikhail Rudy, Jansons/Berlin Philharmonic/Ole Edvard Antonsen


Sergei Rachmaninov–Piano Concerto no. 2

Popular with Hollywood, appearing in almost a dozen films, including the dreaful Spider-Man 3. Written after Rachmaninov had overcome writer’s block and a little bit of clincial depression for good measure.  The 1st movement might belie that a little bit, but the 3rd movement is quite simply one of the most alluring movements in all of music, with a theme as eminently whistlable as the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto, the standard for classical whistling.

Recommended recording: Jeno Jando, Lehel/Budapest Symphony


Johannes Brahms–Violin Concerto

On the subject of pieces being perfect…  Like so much of what Brahms wrote, this is perfect.  Great orchestral introduction, the greatest solo entrance in the repertoire, and a huge movement constructed with a complete mastery of form.  Beautiful 2nd movement (with a gorgeous oboe melody!), and a gypsy-ish 3rd movement which I almost always associate with There Will Be Blood now (I’M FINISHED!).  I feel guilty not ranking this #1, and I’m not entirely sure I’m comfortable not doing so, but my gut is huge and tells me otherwise…

Recommended recording: Nathan Milstein, Steinberg/Pittsburgh Symphony


Antonin Dvorak–Cello Concerto

A piece to be admired for a variety of reasons, not the least of which is conviction.  Written for the composer’s cello-playing friend Hanus Wihan (with some input from Victor Herbert, the Babes in Toyland dude!), Dvorak emphatically rejected the suggestions made by his friend after the premiere (most notably for a cadenza in the 3rd movement).  Good call, because it’s an amazing piece as is.  Tuneful, grand, folksy, everything you love about Dvorak.

Recommended recording: Mstislav Rostropovich, Karajan/Berlin Philharmonic


Jean Sibelius–Violin Concerto

An incredible journey.  The 1st movement sounds absolutely 1000% like what I imagine Finland to look like…desolate, peaceful, turbulent, icy.  It’s a really haunting movement all around, and yet it has that borderline cartoonish 2nd section with the bouncy flute melody.  But that’s why we love Sibelius.  Beautiful 2nd movement.  The 3rd movement has more energy in 7 minutes than some composers mustered in their entire careers.  And the last 2 minutes of the concerto are almost certainly the music that will usher in the return of Jesus, assuming he takes the form of Lemminkäinen somehow.  They sound brutally unplayable, and yet also the baddest ass shit ever in the hands of a master.

Recommended recording: Jascha Heifetz, Hendl/Chicago Symphony

Let the record show that I acknowledge: the Haydn Cello Concerti, the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto, the Beethoven Violin Concerto and, frankly, all 5 piano concerti, 2 dozen Mozart concerti for various instruments, the Grieg Piano Concerto, the rest of the Rachmaninov piano concerti, the Berg Violin Concerto, the Shostakovich and Prokofiev violin and cello concerti (or Sinfonia Concertante in Prokofiev’s case), a lot of Bach and Vivaldi, the Brahms Double, and the Ravel G major.  Also let the record show that Schelomo isn’t a concerto, which is how I’ll be able to sleep tonight.

See you next time I randomly list 10 things I the order of my choosing!

I Was At A Concert: The Pendleton Mahler 5–A Diseased Report



I just returned home from traveling to my old stomping grounds, hanging out with my old roommates, doing the job I did in my old life.  I flew to Portland, got to see my family for about 4 hours (which was both terrific and terrible in how little time there was), and then met up with my good friends James and Rebekah to crash on their boat for the night.  The geese that swam up as we came near the dock were always there to hiss at us, which was adorable.  We rolled out to Pendleton to ready the preparations for the Mahler 5 with the Oregon East Symphony Thursday.

It was nice to be back in Pendleton…it had been a couple years since I’d been there, and there were some familiar faces there, although they become less familiar when you’re no longer an active member of the musical circle, through no one’s fault.  At any rate, I had the Rainbow’s Pressure Fried Chicken, so my trip proved fruitful whether I played a note or not, and I didn’t eat it like a pansy, either…no forks and knives.  You could literally burn a hole in your lips from the juices, but such is the price one must pay to maintain any semblance of cowboy spirit, lest he be called out mercilessly, almost without end, by the townspeople.  I’m afraid a friend and colleague walked down this path and ended up with a stern talking-to.

One other thing to note before actually talking about the music…I was sick as a dog that is sick within 6 hours of arriving in Pendleton.  I don’t know what hit me, but I’m still not over it, and am in fact typing this while not working today, the very definition of a blessing in disguise.  Suffice it to say that while the large majority of the orchestra was cavorting together about town and enjoying one another’s company, I was enjoying the company of the heater on the bathroom floor of our homestay with the good doctors, who celebrated their anniversary on the day of the performance, by the way.  I battled wicked chills all weekend, lots of congestion, headaches, etc. but still enjoyed myself on the whole.

The performance itself turned out to be rather good.  I’ve had the good fortune of participating in other parts of the OES Mahler cycle (although I foolishly skipped the Mahler 2, which I forever kick myself for), and I personally think the performance of the 5th was the high water mark in the series.  There was a pretty stellar crowd there, and they seemed to dig the show a lot.

On a personal horn level, we fucking rocked the shit.  The principal/obbligatoist was Lydia van Dreel from the University of Oregon, and I officially declare her a bad ass.  Real easy to play with, too, which is key, because there’s an awful lot of teamwork as a section.  I’m not even going to bother mentioning specific examples of our collective shit-rocking, but perhaps when Maestro Woods finishes the recording I’ll toss the link up here for peeps to listen to and confirm what I’m saying.  We weren’t alone…

The trumpets were also rad, as was the percussion.  The bass drum, played by a sweet woman whose name is totally escaping me right now because I’m a forgetful dumbass, was off-the-charts good.  The four-measure solo at the end of the Scherzo was one of the most musical things I’ve ever heard…precise, menacing, crisp, soft, driving…not bad for a piano teacher.  The best string section I’d ever heard in Pendleton was there, too…terrific Adagietto, and a good job all around.  It’s notey music.

Maestro’s take on the symphony was in many respects different from my perceptions and feelings on it, but it still worked tremendously.  It’s easy to enjoy, accept, and understand an interpretation that may be vastly different from your own ideas when you know the amount of preparation, thought, and work that goes into it.  I don’t know the preparation, thought, and work levels of everybody, but I’ve decided for myself now more than ever that THAT is the great divider between good and bad conducting.  Technique is important, communication is important, rapport with orchestra, audience, board, etc. is important, but nothing trumps the very basic, although probably often overlooked, concept of just being uber-fucking-prepared.  Knowing Ken well enough to know what he puts into it makes it far easier to understand his decisions.  I only hope when my opportunity arises to conduct this piece my preparation will be sufficient to make my interpretation as understandable as his.  I salute him on a top-notch show.

That was more than likely my last ever go-round with the OES as a horn player, and what a way to go.  I will have several nice memories from that performance with me for years.  I’m keeping my fingers crossed as many times as my knuckles will allow that I’ll get an opportunity to audition for the conducting gig there, although having heard about some of the other applicants for the position, I’m readying a prominent spot on the roof of my fort made of rejection letters…it’s warm in here.  But that’s for another time.

In the meantime, thanks to Ken, Christina, Pendleton, James and Rebekah, the Doctors, Mahler, Southwest Airlines, my family, the bartender at Hamley’s who made two very nice Caucasians, Fran from The Health Nuts who when asked if she would be coming to the concert on Sunday said matter-of-factly, “I like country-and-western music,” Lydia, Michelle, Steve, Nathan, my new facebook amigo Roy, who is a chilled out awesome dude, Kenny for being enthusiastic about horn and for being enthusiastic about having jumper cables to start James’ car, the Mullers for letting the rest of the world as we knew it that evening that tri-tip is the greatest cut of meat in existence, and everyone else who helped make it a kick-ass run.  I hope to see you down the road sometime, Pendle-Vegas.  And even though I had a contractual obligation to be there, it was my pleasure, as an active participant, to be at a concert.