Friday, July 25, 2014

Bartok and Reich

Donovan Pavilion, Vail
Today is the first anniversary of the death of my stepmother, Pat. I was informed of her death last year while we were in Vail for the music festival, and that day I walked across the street to listen to a performance of the Barber Adagio for Strings. The first concert we went to this year with NY Phil also played the piece, in honor of Lorin Maazel. My wife also lost her grandmother this year, and the same day the NY Phil played the Adagio would have been her 101st Birthday. Sunday is also the anniversary of our move to Denver, so it has been an emotional week for us.

This concert was Monday night. It featured two pieces for keyboards and percussion by 20th century composers, Béla Bartók and Steven Reich. The venue is beautiful, but they need to turn off the air conditioning during a quiet performance; most of the Bartok was overwhelmed by the fan noise. I had not heard the Sonata for Two Pianos and Percussion before, But I have always liked Bartók's approach to composition, and this piece was quite nice. Both pianists, Anne-Marie McDermott (who is also music director for the Bravo Vail series), Gilles Vonsattel had their hands full and played quite well. Third Coast Percussion was featured on both pieces.

The Reich piece was very well received, his Sextet for two keyboards and percussion. The piece made use of four percussionists, playing vibraphones, marimbas, crotales and various other percussion. Perhaps the most interesting orchestration in the piece was the use of bowed vibraphone, which gave a very eerie sound to the piece. (The player could have used more rosin, though, it lost volume as the piece progressed.)

I've always felt that Reich is everything that most people wish Philip Glass could be. His music is much more coherent and has a better overall arch to it, and his orchestration is at least interesting, which is more than I can say for Glass. The only thing I did not care for in this piece was the use of synthesizers, which seemed to wish that they were a horn and a tuba. (Why not just get the real thing?) Other than that, it was a very interesting piece from start to finish, and the crowd enjoyed it.

The whole concert was under an hour long (excluding an insanely long break between the two pieces). It might have been nice to open with some short fanfare so that people feel like they got a full concert out of the program. Otherwise, this was a nice way for us to finish our stay in Vail, and I look forward to next year.

Monday, July 21, 2014

NY Phil in Vail

Photo from earlier this year with the Dallas Symphony

Rachel and I made our annual trip to Vail to see the NY Phil at the Bravo Vail music festival. This year is a little more difficult for me as it brings up some memories. Last year while we were at the festival, I awoke one morning to find a message that my stepmother Pat had died. (We are now only a few days shy or the anniversary.) I decided to go to the chamber concert that was playing across the street from where we were staying, and they happened to be playing the Barber Adagio for Strings. (Review here.)

This year our first concert was the first that the NY Phil had played since the death of their previous conductor Lorin Maazel. Conductor Alan Gilbert opened the concert (after the "Star-Spangled Banner") with an unscheduled memorial reading of the Barber Adagio, which brought back a lot of memories.

That concert was on the 18th. In addition to being my sister's birthday, the 18th was usually a day we would plan on being in Michigan for my wife's grandmother's birthday. Last year she celebrated her 100th birthday, but she then passed away in January. So the date, and the Adagio, brought back memories of two loved ones that we have lost over the last year.

We had planned on being in Vail on the 18th because we really wanted to see the NY Phil, and in years past it has been difficult to get here with the travel to Michigan. This year we wanted to be sure to be here to see the concert with Midori which had been scheduled for the 18th. Unfortunately, she is pregnant and her doctors advised against late-term travel for her. This required a program change. Instead of the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto, we got Beethoven's Third Piano Concerto played by Yefim Bronfman. A bit of a letdown, but a good concert nonetheless. Bronfman played well, but a little more sloppily than one might expect from him. He had already agreed to play the First and Fifth Concerti the next night, so I'm sure he had his hands full rehearsing.

The highlight of the Friday concert was an excellent read of Grieg's Peer Gynt Suite. I've never seen Gilbert conduct in person before, but I really liked him. He is not as flamboyant as some conductors at his level, but he gets a great performance out of the orchestra.

Saturday's concert was all Beethoven. The Overture to Fidelio opened the concert. As a trumpet player, I'm more fond of the other Leonore Overtures.  This was followed by the two piano concerti. The First Concerto is not the most interesting work by Beethoven, with the exception of the lengthy cadenza. Finishing the concert with the Emperor Concerto was a smart move, yet at the same time, the orchestra looked a bit bored playing so much Beethoven over two nights. They looked a lot more alive on Sunday night. Bronfman really brought it for the Fifth, though, and it was a nice finish to the evening.

Sunday the orchestra played one of the most difficult concerts I have ever seen and it reminded me why the NY Phil is the NY Phil. Very few conductors would have opened a concert with not one but TWO of the most difficult orchestral showpieces in the repertoire, Strauss's Don Juan followed immediately by Till Eulenspiegel. The horn section must hate Gilbert for putting these two back to back. The orchestra played extremely well, especially on Till Eulenspiegel.

This was followed by the Oboe Concerto of Christopher Rouse. I was extremely impressed with this work. It is very modern, but it is also much more listenable than a lot of contemporary works. There seemed to be jazz influence not only in the orchestration (harmon mutes featured in the trumpets) but also in the harmonic structure of the opening chord, which is a recurring harmonic structure in the piece. I liked it a lot. The soloist, Liang Wang, had a beautiful tone quality, and certainly knew how to make it look like a difficult piece. Phrases were all very long, and I had wondered if he were using circular breathing to complete some of them, but it was difficult to tell. He did look close to passing out a couple of times.

Sunday's program ended with a fantastic reading of Tchaikovsky's Romeo and Juliet Overture. This performance reminded me of why we come to their concerts. They were fantastic, and it was obvious that the orchestra was having a great time playing the piece. As an encore, they performed Glinka's Russlan and Ludmilla Overture, another orchestral showpiece, resulting in one hell of a program for the night!

We will be seeing one more concert at the Bravo Vail festival, but not the NY Phil, it will be a chamber concert featuring works by Bartok and S. Reich, both of which I am excited to see.