Month: March 2015

Concerts Attended Recently

October: Boston Symphony Orchestra

Program: Bach’s cantata Ich habe genug, BWV 82; Brahms’s Ein Deutsches Requiem

I have no idea how the Bach sounded. In the row ahead of me were several teenage girls who laughed at the singer’s entrance and spent the rest of the piece knitting, fidgeting, whispering, casting dramatic glances at each other, drinking soda, and eating from a bag of candy that rustled horrendously.

For the Brahms, I was able to find another seat and actually listen to the music. The orchestra played well, but unfortunately this was one of the first times I had heard the piece. I always enjoy a piece best when I know it well. Though “Denn alles fleisch es ist wie gras” is an incredible moment, even on the first listen.

December: Chicago Symphony Orchestra

Program: Manfred Honeck conducting Haydn’s Symphony No. 93; Strauss’s Don Juan; Beethoven’s Symphony No. 7

I was relieved, upon entering the concert hall, to see ushers telling people to stop taking pictures and turn off phones. It gave me confidence that I would actually be able to enjoy the music.

I didn’t have high expectations for the Haydn. Many big symphonies treat classical-era music in the same way that they treat Mahler. Either that, or they play it like it’s the most boring music ever.

I was pleasantly surprised. The CSO performed Haydn with a light, joyous touch. They even switched out their modern timpani for instruments with a more period-appropriate timbre. Their tempi didn’t drag, and they actually seemed to enjoy Haydn’s musical jokes. It was wonderful.

Don Juan was thrilling. The brass section excelled. I was able to hear lower voices that are often not especially audible, especially in the second and fourth horn. The horn solis were magnificent. The trombones and trumpets delivered crisp passages as well. And that oboe solo–what is there to even say about it? Incredible.

Beethoven 7 is such a common concert staple that I almost expected to be bored. But the CSO played with vigor and energy that I haven’t heard brought to this piece in a long time. They made it new again. Particularly impressive was the intensity of their fourth movement. It’s a tiring symphony to perform, but you’d never know it from the drive and tension the CSO delivered.*

All in all, it was quite an impressive concert. Although I found some sections lacking (bassoon and particularly flute–I found myself pining for the sterling perfection of Elizabeth Rowe), others (clarinets, the brass) were excellent enough to make up for it. And the musical energy, the sheer excitement, made me realize I have often missed these qualities at the BSO. The CSO is amazing. I will be back.

*I’m pretty sure the violins were doubling the octave in the trio of the third movement. I’ve heard of certain conductors re-orchestrating this movement and wondered if they were playing one of these versions, but nothing was mentioned in the program notes.

January: Spektral Quartet

I had not heard of this quartet, but decided to go because usually string quartets are pretty decent.

This was a mistake. The quartet struggled with intonation and even basic execution. They didn’t seem to understand their roles within the ensemble. The first violinist was buried in her music and didn’t lead anything. The cellist played like the lowest voice has no special importance. The others played thickly. It is hard to describe exactly what this is like, but it happens when the instrumentalists aren’t listening to each other and as a result you can’t hear the inner voices, just an auditory smear.

During a Stravinsky piece, it was obvious that intonation and rhythm were major challenges. Dissonant intervals, especially sevenths and seconds, were not performed precisely, and just sounded wrong. The second piece on the program was a generic-sounding, forgettable quartet by Philip Glass. (I say this as someone who often enjoys Glass.)

Also performed was a premiere that required the players to both play and sing. A novel idea, perhaps an intriguing one, but one that fell flat when it quickly became apparent that the quartet could neither play nor sing.

Finally, a Beethoven quartet was slaughtered, probably as a matter of ritual. A non-musical friend who attended the concert with me was upset and concerned, saying, “I didn’t know it was possible for Beethoven to sound bad.”

January: Lyric Opera of Chicago

Donizetti’s Anna Bolena

Perhaps unfortunately, my musical life has been mainly confined to the instrumental, and my knowledge of opera is lacking. I feel unable to judge the singers’ abilities, though they all seemed at least competent. I was impressed by tenor Bryan Hymel, who sang Lord Percy. Early in the opera, he struggled to hit one of his highest notes, but recovered quickly and later on hit the same note repeatedly, with confidence. That is the mark of a true performer: having the technical skill, resilience, and basic guts to sing wonderfully even after a misstep.

This review seems to cover specific observations about the singers that I cannot provide.

What struck me most was the banality of Donizetti’s composition. With the perfect hindsight of two centuries’ distance, twenty-first century listeners are often exposed only to the best-of-the-best of classical and early romantic era composers. We get used to Mozart, Beethoven, and company and accept them as standard, to be expected. It is a perverse side effect that, by not listening to their contemporaries–or even to their own second-rate compositions–it can be easy to forget how excellent their masterpieces really are in comparison.

Listening to this opera was a pleasant ear-opener. The music was competent but uninspired, formulaic and mostly forgettable. Not a single melody presented itself as particularly well-crafted or inventive; not a single harmony surprised. Although it was less than thrilling, I appreciated the experience. It reminded me how rare it is for a person to create something truly great, and how remarkable and beautiful it is when that happens.

February: Boston Baroque

Bach, Saint John Passion

I have never been disappointed by the Boston Baroque. Their musicianship is the sort that lets you forget about the real-life difficulties of playing instruments and, like neurons giving rise to consciousness, allows the mysterious phenomenon of true art to emerge.

What else is there to say, really? The chorus was unusually precise, which was a pleasure to hear. The double reeds and flutes struck me as especially strong sections of the orchestra. I could have listened to the recitative all day.  This is the sort of excellence you hope for when you go to a concert.