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concert recaps

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Summer lite

For those of you who missed the BSO’s Michael Jackson tribute concert:

This somewhat ties into a question I have for all you professional musicians out there. How do you feel about playing these kinds of pop concerts? My brother’s viola teacher was talking about how during one such concert he essentially played one chord the entire time – not exactly challenging, and some might consider this sort of music “beneath” them. The same can even be said for audience members, as some BSO Facebook followers expressed dismay regarding the poppy, fun nature of the summer season. I myself could be rightfully accussed of being a music snob, but personally I think there’s nothing wrong with something a little lighter now and again. Any thoughts on your end?


A German Requiem, but not for me personally

It’s just one exciting thing after another here at Strathmore! Today I am late in posting because I just spent the past 4+ hours in Tessitura/TMS hell (don’t ask). But I’m here now, and ever so eager to tell you all about the BSO concert I attended last Thursday.

It was the “Brahms’ A German Requiem” concert that I mentioned last week, the last concert of the regular 2009-2010 season. The program was very simple – Barber’s Knoxville: Summer of 1915 and Brahms’ A German Requiem. Here’s what I thought!

The Barber: I really enjoyed this piece. It was everything promised – mellow, gentle, unerringly Southern. Janice Chandler-Eteme, the soprano performing, had a beautiful, easy voice; she didn’t sound like she was straining to show off, and her tones were pleasant and simple and befitting such a piece. I must say, though, girlfriend needs to work on her diction. I could only understand one in maybe seven words.

The Brahms: I actually have very little to say about Brahms. I’m going to post two quotes about him instead. Please keep in mind that I did not say them. I just posted them. This makes me an innocent intermediary, right? Oh, Brahms is okay. I guess.

The real Brahms is nothing more than a sentimental voluptuary… He is the most wanton of composers… Only his wantonness is not vicious; it is that of a great baby… rather tiresomely addicted to dressing himself up as Handel or Beethoven and making a prolonged and intolerable noise. (George Bernard Shaw)

I have played over the music of that scoundrel Brahms. What a giftless bastard! (Tchaikovsky)

On the evils of overreaching

And now for an unpopular opinion! This one could bring all you music directors down on my head (I almost typed “heads;” who do I think I am, Zaphod Beeblebrox?). Nevertheless, it is a pet peeve of mine, and as I recently bore witness to horrific example I’m getting up on my soap box for a bit.

Okay, here it is: I think some music directors don’t recognize the limitations of their musicians and overreach when selecting concert pieces.

I’ve seen it: a couple weeks ago I attended a school concert. I won’t say what school (since, um, I won’t be complimentary), but I will say it was above high school level. The chamber music ensemble came on and began to play a piece by Haydn, and I’m SORRY but it was so bad I almost burst out laughing. I had to hide behind my program and silently convulse until I had composed myself. I know! I know! Unprofessional and downright mean! But it was a visceral reaction!

Their next selection was almost as terrible, but the last two were palatable. They weren’t great, but they were palatable. And I thought to myself, if the music director had chosen four pieces on that level, things wouldn’t have been nearly as embarrassing.

I’ve lived it: in undergrad I had a string ensemble director so heinous he drove me right out of the program. Was it because he looked almost exactly like Richard Simmons? … Okay, maybe a little. But mostly it was because he turned our little orchestra into the M****l S****s Orchestral Vehicle For Self Promotion.

A violist, he had us play a Hindemith viola concerto so that he could do the solo. The strings program at my college was not robust, and the Hindemith was so far out of our league that we weren’t even playing the same sport. There was one other cellist besides me, and I remember us in rehearsal being on two completely different measures. Our exchange went something like this:

Me: Where are you?

Her: I don’t know. Where are you?

Me: I don’t know!

THAT SHOULD NOT HAPPEN. Honestly, it makes me so mad that we were even playing it in the first place I still want to find the man and strangle him. His solution was to bring in his own string quartet to lead the sections in the concert. Don’t even get me started on that one.

I can see the value of a challenge. Sometimes if you ask your musicians to rise to the occasion they will pleasantly surprise you; sometimes it will inspire them to work harder and bust it out against the odds. Twelfth grade orchestra, one week before Music in the Parks at my one true love Walt Disney World, O’Bryan pulls out an arrangement of Rimsky-Korsakov’s Capriccio Espagnol and says hey, let’s just give this a shot. No pressure. We tried it, we practiced the heck out of it in the next four days, and we played it that weekend for a jury. But, see… we sounded pretty good. If we had sounded crappy, WE WOULD HAVE PLAYED SOMETHING ELSE. (Incidentally, that strings program was also pretty anemic. Small numbers is not an excuse.)

I know what every music director tells you before the concert: “Don’t worry if you make a mistake! Nobody out there knows the difference!” All my conductors certainly have, every time. And I would think to myself: Ha! My mother is in the audience AND SHE KNOWS AND SHE WILL TELL ME. Which didn’t bother me, because if it sucked it sucked and we’re honest about music in my family. But I guess it makes me… maybe a little hypercritical?

But still! How can you go out there on stage and smile and conduct when your ensemble isn’t just a little pitchy but downright bad? Is there something I’m not getting?

(Disclaimer: I recognize that not all music directors are guilty of these sins. Don’t feel like just because you’re a music director I’m automatically lumping you into this group. I’ve just noticed it an awful lot of this sort of thing.)

Remember how I said I conduct like I’m having a grand mal seizure?


I would love to tell you all about the BSO’s performance in the U. S. premiere of Rautavaara’s Incantations last Thursday. Unfortunately, I was so distracted by Lintu’s antics I barely noticed. The man conducts like one of those puppets jointed with strings that when you press the base they collapse. At several points he was conducting with naught but fingers bent into an eagle’s claw. The man is a nutter butter.

I liked his Finlandia, though. And he did the first and third movements of my beloved Beethoven’s Symphony No. 7 well. The holy second movement was a smidge speedy and disjointed, but had settled into greater smoothness by the end. I kept my eyes closed the whole time. Perfect music for rain.

The fourth movement, though. Lord, the fourth movement. I wish I could hum it to you twice – once at the speed I am accustomed to and enjoy (conducted by Berstein, so you know it’s good), and once Lintu-style. Let’s see if onomatopoeia can do this thing justice:

Bernstein: DUH duh duh duh duh duh duh DUH duh duh duh duh duh duh DUH duh duh duh duh duh duh DUH DAH DAH!

Lintu: DUHdhdhdhdhdhdhDUHdhdhdhdhdhdhdhDUHdhdhdhdhdhdhdhDAHDAH

In other words: SLOW DOWN, dude. Take a breath now and again. I know it’s allegro con brio but that’s not the same as presto et mort. Chill. To reiterate what is becoming a motif of this blog, fast is not necessarily equal to good!

In other news, Colin Currie actually appears to be the same age as his promotional pictures, which is a novelty indeed.


Bits, bites, notes, items, and things to ponder about life, the universe, and everything.

– This week’s BSO concert is “Cirque de la Symphonie,” March 11-14, and features Poulenc, Bartok (woo!), Satie, and Copland. Oh, and crazy Soleil-esque circus performers in feats of derring-do that will be, and I quote, “on and above the stage.” I can only imagine what that entails, but if the pictures are any indication, there will be acrobatics, incredible strength, and hula hoops. Good times. Click here for Meyerhoff performances and here for the Strathmore one.

– College Nights are no more for this season, but there’s still a student discount being offered for remaining BSO Under the Big Top concerts. Click here to learn more.

– Two potential discounts for the BSO Academy: Rusty Musicians can get $450 off, or if you refer a friend you and the friend both get $250 off. If you didn’t get those emails, contact academy@bsomusic.org for more info.

– Remember when we all pondered how Robert Levin was going to improvise? Anne Midgette of the Washington Post explained how it… Well, I’m more confused now, actually.

And on Thursday, Levin, who has done pioneering work in establishing the way that Mozart’s and Beethoven’s music actually sounded in their day, not only improvised all of the cadenzas (“Pray for me,” he told the audience), but offered, after the intermission, a Fantasy in Beethoven’s style, based on four snippets of music submitted to him by the audience. Given fears that musical illiteracy is rampant among the general population, it was heartening to see that enough audience members were able to write out a few measures of musical notation to partly fill a wicker basket, though one of the snippets Levin chose on Thursday came from the conductor, Nicholas McGegan.

To seek further clarity, read the rest of the article here.

– I’d like to do a roundup post of quirky classical music blogs. If you have one or know of one I should include, let me know.

– Don’t forget to respond to the poll! And visit my Twitter page! And subscribe to Ain’t Baroque by email!

If you missed College Night…

You missed serious bannerage…

The actual performance, which I couldn’t photograph but some highlights included Jack Everly as Ryan Stiles as Carol Channing, the greatest magician’s assistant to ever samba across the stage, and a painfully obvious plant that answered the age-old question: what would Judy Garland sound like if she sang with a head cold?…

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“Our society is changing dramatically to become more participatory”

And here I thought I wouldn’t have cause to post about the whole Rusty Musicians thing anymore. My mistake. The Washington Post had an article in the Thursday Style section all about it.

The discussion board on Violinist.com has been abuzz with the debate of just how fast Alsop’s tempo would be at the start of the Tchaikovsky movement, which is a knuckle-bender even for professional string players. (Alsop finally called up her label and asked them to make a download of her performance of the piece available to participants.) Ellen Pendleton Troyer, a violinist with the BSO, was impressed with the results. “My stand partner was nailing everything,” she said.

Y’know, for accomplished artistes, that’s high praise. You can read the entire article here, although you’ll have to sign up for an account. I’m pretty sure they’re free.

Oh, and here’s a video:


Marin Alsop is funny! Who knew?

Okay, maybe you did, but I didn’t until last night’s concert during her opening spiel about the use of the dies irae in all three of the night’s pieces. “If you’re unable to sleep tonight because of the dies irae… well, don’t call me, but I’m sorry.” And she made a crack about Superman.

Speaking of Superman, Daugherty’s “Red Cape Tango” was surprisingly good. It was a trifle repetitive, as the dies irae melody was pretty much the only melody through the whole ten or so minutes, but its reimagining with the traditional tango rhythm in the bass section was deliciously wry.

As for Liszt’s Totentanz, I can’t say I was particularly drawn in, but Thibaudet’s mastery of the wickedly hard runs (anything Liszt for piano is going to be wickedly hard) was mind boggling. As my friend Bekah said, “If I could play even one of those phrases I’d be insanely proud of myself.” Was it Liszt who supposedly sold his soul to the devil for instrumental prowess? No, wait, that was Paganini, I think. But Liszt might as well have too.

I was saddened when Benevolent Dictator Jamie informed me that we’d be setting up for college night during Symphonie fantastique, but cheered up considerably when I discovered that the acoustics are so bloody good in the concert hall that you can hear everything even when you’re outside of it. Certainly it’s not the same as being right there inside the swell of music, but good enough to hear the funny little high bits on the oboe during “The Witches’ Sabbath” I like so much.

College night itself… well, the weather killed us. It was so rainy and dreary and generally blah that everyone just wanted to go home and be depressed over their homework. But we coerced a decent crowd into staying, and some musicians were there too, which helped liven things up; one violinist especially was the life of the party, so he needs to come every time.

Also there were mozarella and tomato sandwiches on focaccia, which frankly were a reason to live. If for no other cause than those, you should be sorry if you weren’t there. Don’t worry, I’ll let you know when the next one is coming up.