Tuesday, September 30, 2014
Oregon Symphony and Solerno-Sonnenberg excel in edgy season opener
"Contemporary music is cold and calculated!" So said my music-major girlfriend long ago when I expressed my love for so-called "modern music." For me, that meant, in descending order of affection, the music of Vaughan Williams, Benjamin Britten, and a dormitory friend's recordings of the Louisville Symphony. I was on the verge of un-loving her for her crass comment, but what did I know then? We're talking about 1960 here, the year before I abandoned an English major to become a music major myself. I'd show her that not all new music was what she said it was!
Anyone familiar with Robert Whitney, conductor of the Louisville Symphony, will immediately remember what "modern music" sounded like. It was pioneering work, promoting the music of many unknown contemporary composers in the nineteen-fifties and beyond. This kind of stuff was "edgy," you might say: "Hard to listen to," someone else would opine. "Can't take it!" "Give me the Three B's any old day!" still others would pontificate.
If subscribers and ticket-holders to the Oregon Symphony September 27-29 had done their homework, they would have been prepared to hear an evening of "edgy/modern" music. Four works were presented, and only one, Beethoven's lovely little gem of a First Symphony, would qualify for the category of "Sweet Melodies." That was what a late friend said she preferred as she willed us an LP record of the organ music of Messiaen someone had given her: "I like sweet melodies!" The other three pieces on the program may well have "pushed the envelope" for many attendees. But it would be nice to think that, judging from the enthusiastic reaction to violinist's Nadja Solerno-Sonnenberg's reading of the fiery Shostakovich's Concerto in A Minor, even those who were skeptical about the program initially were thrilled and perhaps even converted to liking "modern" music. "Edgy"? I was on the edge of my seat during Solerno-Sonnenberg's performance.
Solerno-Sonnenberg, who, according to the program notes is something of a phenomenon in our day, having come from Italy at the age of eight to study at the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia, is a visual, as well as aural, modern icon. Resplendent on Sunday evening in a striking black top with hot-red pants and heels, moving about the stage as though in a trance when she wasn't playing, very much "with" this complicated and difficult music at all times, involved athletically, she gave a performance that truly "wowed" us. That's exactly what I said - Wow! - as I immediately stood up to applaud at the conclusion of this wild work.
I remarked on our exit from the hall to head for home, "Gosh, she's not here signing CDs!" My wife, an excellent critic in her own right, but refusing to write this review for me, then said, "I think Nadja has probably gone to her hotel room, taken a nice, long, warm bath and gone to bed after that!"
Conductor Kalmar gave some introductory comments about the Shostakovich concerto: "The opening movement is dark, like solitary confinement, but contrasts come after." Yes, contrasts: they were plentiful, from sotto voce to bombastic! The concerto is in four (not the usual three) movements and contained a truly edgy, even gritty, scherzo; a beautiful, enchanting passacaglia (with the tuba and basses providing the theme much of the time); some dialogues between the solo violin and English horn and French horn; a masterfully-played enormous cadenza; and the finale, "Burlesca: Allegro--Presto," over-the-top in every respect. By that I mean both the music itself and its performers were unified as a whole unit, yet the solo artist was able to bring us to the "top" in no time at all in that movement. Right down to little human r Kalmar gave some introductory comments about the Shostakovich concerto: "The opening movement is dark, like solitary confinement, but contrasts come after." Yes, contrasts: they were plentiful, from sotto voce to bombastic! The concerto is in four (not the usual three) movements and contained a truly edgy, even gritty, scherzo; a beautiful, enchanting passacaglia (with the tuba and basses providing the theme much of the time); some dialogues between the solo violin and English horn and French horn; a masterfully-played enormous cadenza; and the finale, "Burlesca: Allegro--Presto," over-the-top in every respect. By that I mean both the music itself and its performers were unified as a whole unit, yet the solo artist was able to bring us to the "top" in no time at all in that movement. Right down to little human touches, such as a brief, humorous dialogue with an audience member (inaudible to me), and adjusting the extraneous parts of her bowstrings, Salerno-Sonnenberg was at the heart of this performance.
I was not present at this artist's performance of this very same work that she gave with the OSO in 1993, with conductor James DePriest. Twenty-one years ago? The skeptic might say she was ten then! Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg will, we hope, return here again and again to "wow" and stun us with her stellar playing and presence.
Another contemporary work on the program was Michael Torke's Charcoal from Black and White ballet, a brief work that opened the concert, not at all "edgy" but very melodic and, some would no doubt say, after hearing the Shostakovich and Barber works, "listenable." This was its first performance by the Oregon Symphony. The Beethoven followed, with many sweet, delicate passages, well and accurately played by the ensemble. The unconventional opening to the symphony, with a seventh chord moving immediately to a tonic resolution, held our interest for the rest of this delightful work. Interesting it was to read in the notes that Beethoven studied briefly with Franz Josef Haydn but the relationship was strained and Beethoven claimed to have learned nothing. Nevertheless, the piece reveals the composer's study of Haydn's music.
The evening closed with Samuel Barber's "Medea's Meditation and Dance of Vengeance" from a ballet composed in 1946 on a commission from Martha Graham. What we heard was a reconception of a longer suite that Barber made ten years earlier. The complex and tragic tale of adultery and murder is portrayed in this truly edgy and riveting music. We were sent on our way with a bang and not a whimper! No "sweet melodies" here, although the "tender Barber" could be discerned now and then.
It was a memorable evening and a superb start to a new season of the OSO classical subscription series. Oh … my former girlfriend, a fine organist, later became enamored - and studied with - Jean Langlais, the blind French organist and composer. While not necessarily "cold and calculated," he could, on more than one occasion, be "edgy" though!