Shit that makes me cry, Volume 1: Nielsen: Symphony no. 1

As a grown man with a job who occasionally pays bills, society tells me that generally speaking I ought not cry. Normally, I take society up on that, encasing my emotions in enough metaphorical lucite to protect that Honus Wagner baseball card. Every so often, though, something comes along and moves me to tears, bringing me untold joy and disappointing 65% of fathers in America. This is one of those somethings…

Years ago, my dear friend Dave McIntire and I listened to all the Nielsen symphonies in one night and wrote retro diaries about them. At that time I was fairly unfamiliar with Nielsen’s symphonies. I knew the famous 4th OK, and I was familiar with the nutso 5th, but the rest were varying degrees of murky. Fast forward four years and I’m a little less murky on some, a little more murky on the 4th and 5th, and desperately in love with the 1st.

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The complete symphonies of Carl Nielsen: a Retro Diary

Look everyone, it's Greg Kinnear with better and hair! And compositional technique!

I’m just sayin’ that if Greg Kinnear and William H. Macy could have a baby in Denmark in the 1860’s…

UPDATE: Here is the link to Dave’s thoughts on the Nielsen Extravaganza.

Last night the great Dave McIntire and I met to listen to the symphonies of the Greatest Dane, Carl Nielsen, eat fine foods, and consume alcoholic beverages of the highest quality. Are we nerds? Perhaps. Do we have excellent taste in food, beverage, and music? Fucking right. What follows is my thoughts on the proceedings as they were happening. As soon as he is ready, I’ll put a link to Dave’s take on the evening, but for now here’s a link to his blog so you can get a taste of the man’s writing, which is somewhere between 10 and 50 times better than what you’ll read here. As with the Sibelius symphonies live blog, we tried to use different conductors, orchestras, formats, etc. Did we succeed? Is there such a thing as success in this endeavor? I would argue that there is, and the success is that we listened to a shitload of Carl Nielsen music. Let’s go to the recap!

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The forgotten man?

Sir Alexander Gibson

Beam me up, Sir Alexander Gibson

Anyone who knows my personal tastes in conductors knows that my favorites are a bit of an obscure lot.  I honestly don’t consider myself a contrarian by nature, nor do I think there’s any sort of cachet in appreciating some hidden gems.  I love the big dogs, too.  Early on in my classical music life, I was drawn in by Leonard Bernstein, then I hated him because I thought he deviated from the score too much, and now I love him again because he reaches musical and emotional peaks no one else has been able to.  I love Gustavo Dudamel’s enthusiasm and charisma if not his music-making (he has PLENTY of time to get there, though).  But there are some really wonderful musicians who spent their entire careers in the shadows of more famous contemporaries (as my boy Otmar Suitner did with Karajan), and their legacies have become obscured. Continue reading

10 Best: Symphonies no. 4

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

I Was At A Concert: Stern/Kansas City Symphony

Kansas City

Kansas City

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.