Saturday, September 19, 2009

Thiele Mandolin Concerto

A few days ago I went to an open rehearsal of the Colorado Symphony for their performance of the new Chris Thiele Mandolin Concerto. I was going to write a review based on the rehearsal, but decided to wait in case I went to a performance over the weekend. I'm glad I waited, and I'm glad I went to the performance, as it was much better than the rehearsal.

I do have a bit of a problem with the whole concept, though. The mandolin is an incredibly intimate instrument, and a large orchestra in a large hall, especially Boettcher, seems like a match made in hell. It certainly seemed that way in rehearsal. You could only hear the highest, sharpest notes on the soloist, and almost everything else was lost. The orchestra seemed to overpower, even without brass. It seemed that a chamber piece would be more appropriate, performed in a smaller hall. And, based on comments I heard about Thursday's performance, the problem was still there.

Tonight sounded different, although my seats were in a different place. I has high on the side, directly in front of the side-facing speakers. It seems like they solved the problem by over-amplifying the mandolin to the point where it was very unnatural. However, the piece itself, except for the over-orchestration, was fascinating. The composer/performer is essentially untrained as a composer, and played his instrument for a decade before learning to read music. He's a very popular bluegrass musician who took a big chance writing this piece.

He's also a marvelous performer, very engaging on stage, and an absolute virtuoso on the instrument. He's the kind of person who was meant to be on stage, he's an absolute natural who makes the virtuosic look simple.

The piece was essentially atonal, and very complex, not at all what you would expect based on his background. He also did three encores, one by Bach, one with fiddle, and one with piano (presumably Kahane playing, but they performed under our seats, so we couldn't see).

This was a long concert, perhaps the longest I've been to at the hall. For me it started with a backstage tour for some of my students, which was fascinating, as they are recording the concert in surround for their archives.

The concert itself began with a big piece, the Aaron Copland piece Suite from Billy the Kid. Copland is one of my favorite composers, but I do not know this piece that well. The rehearsal had some problems with the percussion section staying together, but tonight's performance went very well (although from our seats, the timpani and brass were very muddy).

One has to wonder about the programming of the night. In addition to being a very long concert (plus encores), it seems that such a big work would have been better later in the program. The second half opened with a nice piece by the orchestra's principal percussionist, William Hill's Four Moments Musical. This seems like it would have been a better opener for the concert; in addition to being a fanfare (literally) it is brief, features brass and percussion, and would have made a nice transition into the Copland. I liked this piece a lot, especially the third movement, featuring a beautiful melody for trombone, and the rhythmic nature of the second and fourth movements.

The first half concluded with the Gershwin Rhapsody in Blue in the original small orchestration for jazz band. To me, this was the highlight of the evening. Last year I raved about Kahane's performance of the Concerto in F, and this year I was just as happy to hear another of my favorite composer's pieces performed. This is the first time I've heard this version live. It was very interesting. I'd love to hear someone do a new orchestration for contemporary jazz band - there are a few dated elements in this version (banjo that is inaudible) but otherwise it's more interesting that the more famous orchestral version. Kahane's playing was a tiny bit sloppier on the runs than I expected - he sounded better in rehearsal, technically. And the piano was very bright where we were sitting, probably due to the necessary amplification in the hall. Kahane is a phenomenal interpreter; it was exciting to hear someone play sections of this piece differently than anyone else (although some tempi did seem rushed).

The clarinetist was amazing, and Kahane very graciously invited him to encore in the Preludes, re-arranged for clarinet and piano. I've always liked these pieces, and the idea to put them on clarinet was quite brilliant.

Overall it was a great concert, although long. But I sure got my money's worth!
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