Tuesday, July 31, 2007

No dog days of summer at CMNW - part II

Review of Classical Masterpieces - Friday, July 17 at Catlin Gabel School

The music for this concert featured a conservative line-up, because the program consisted of works by Haydn, Mozart, and Mendelssohn. Interestingly enough, Haydn's Passacaglia for violin and viola (arranged by John Halvorsen), which was first up in the concert order, proved to be a challenging and unusual piece. Violinist Elmar Oliveira and cellist Ronald Thomas exchanged the repeating chord pattern with agility and elan. The pizzicati section was very impressive as well. I think that Oliveira landed a little wobbly on the highest note, which was very atypical for him, but that was a very minor flaw in an otherwise impressive performance.

Next on the program came Mozart's Quintet in E-Flat Major for piano and winds, K. 452. Pianist Anne-Marie McDermott, oboist Allan Vogel, clarinetist Jose Franch-Ballester, bassoonist Julie Feves, and hornist William Purvis gave this three-movement piece an excellent turn. Their playing was smooth and elegant throughout. Everyone balanced the sound very well, and a highlight was McDermott's hushed sound at the end of the first movement and the winds pushing the music forward on the second movement, encouraging the audience to anticipate the third movement with all of its delightful inventions.

The concert closed with a magnificent performance of Mendelssohn's Trio No. 2 in C Minor for piano, violin, and cello, Op. 66. McDermott, Oliveria, and Thomas just got into a zone with this music.

But before they began playing, a bit of informality ensued. McDermott thought that her colleagues were positioned too far away; so she motioned them to come closer to her. As Oliveira and Tomas scooted closer, Thomas loudly commented "We usually like to make music while we are sitting in the same time zone." That drew lots of chuckles, and Thomas' witty banter might have made the performers loosen up a bit, because the threesome made Mendelssohn sound downright magical. The second movement was achingly lyrical. The fast passages in the third raced by with fingers flying. The audience reacted with pure glee. There were shouts for an encore, but McDermott, Oliveira, and Thomas called it a night. They had left everything on the stage.

Review of Three Serenades, 1782 to 2007 - Saturday, July 28 at Reed College

This concert marked the season finale of Chamber Music Northwest's 37th summer festival, and a near sell-out audience keenly anticipated a new piece by one of classical music's most popular instrumentalists, bassist Edgar Meyer. One of the neat things about Chamber Music Northwest, is that the final concert usually offers a gaggle of musicians. Upholding this tradition, this program featured nine players in the Mozart and Meyer serenades and twelve in the Dvorak. Everyone was ready for a grand time, and everyone delivered.

Mozart's Serenade in C Minor for winds, K. 388 received a masterful rendition by an ensemble that consisted of oboists Allan Vogel and Stephen Taylor, clarinetists Jose Franch-Ballester and David Shifrin, bassoonists Milan Turkovic and Julie Feves, hornists David Jolley and William Purvis, and double bassist Meyer. With veteran virtuoso Vogel in the lead, the ensemble hit a good stride from the get go in the first movement. Of course, part of the success in such a small group is for the musicians to read the eyes and gestures of the leader. Vogel strikes me as someone who might present a problem in that respect, because he tends to squint while he plays - like a fellow who is having problems with his contact lenses. Vogel can maintain a squint while he arches his eyebrows -which he does quite often. In any case, the ensemble had no problem whatsoever in following his directions, because they played impeccably. The burnished sound from the horns was glorious. The light, dance, almost baroque feel of the third movement was superb, and in the fourth movement, Vogel and company played con brio and with gusto, too.

Meyer's Serenade for Double Bass and Wind Octet followed. This four movement piece came across as an enigmatic work that was filled with intriguing jazz-like riffs for the bass. From the outset, the meter constantly seemed to change, and, well, it looked like it might have been a real headache for any player who thought that he was going to come in and coast through some fluffy little number. The wind ensemble consisted of oboies Taylor and Vogel, clarinetists Shifrin and Franch-Ballester, bassoonists Turkovic and Peter Kolkay, and hornists Jolley and Purvis. They all had a real workout.

Meyer can play the bass fiddle like a virtuoso on a violin. He was all over the place, plucking one moment and then noodling around like a crazy man. He seemed to be making a statement that was then commented upon by the wind octet (not necessarily all at once). In the third movement, everyone started out together, but then the sound became strident as if the conversation became an argument. The fourth movement was more uptempo with four heavily accented beats every now and then. The music had lots of tricky stuff throughout; for example, everyone had to play off the beat a lot of the time. Fortunately for Meyer and his music, he played with a veteran group likes a challenge. Meyer did receive a standing ovation. I'm not sure if anyone in the audience got the hang of the piece, but I'm sure that most of us would like to hear it again.

After intermission, a dozen players came out to play Dvorak's Serenade in D Minor for winds, cello, and double bass, Op. 44. The Oregon Symphony's principal hornist, John Cox, joined Taylor, Vogel, Shifrin, Franch-Ballester, Turkovic, Feves, Jolley, Purvis, Thomas, and Meyer to make a splash with this wonderful piece. The playing of Vogel and Shifrin in this number was particularly outstanding. They had a memorable way of trickling down a cascade of scales and diminishing the volume at the same time. Also outstanding was the very expressive playing of Franch-Ballester throughout the piece. He looks like he is in his early 20s, but he plays like someone who has had much, much more experience. At the end, the music lifted the audience to its feet for a rousing ovation.

Sunday, July 29, 2007

No dog days of summer at Chamber Music Northwest - Part I

I attended four Chamber Music Northwest concerts and have scribbled the following thoughts - the first two of four reviews:

Review of German and Slavic Melodies - Tuesday, July 17th at Catlin Gabel School

Flutist Tara Helen O'Connor teamed up with cellist Ronald Thomas, and pianist Shai Wosner to begin the concert with Haydn's Trio No. 30 in D Major. The piece seemed to be a polite conversation between friends. The talk was light and playful, especially in the first and third movements with poignant pauses that created the sense of suspension, but at the same time added to the forward momentum of the piece. All of the artists deserve credit for keeping their composure and focus while someone's hearing added a persistent high pitch to the mix at the end of the first movement and for most of the second. The sound also undoubtedly spoiled the recording that was going on.

Next on the program came Prokofiev's Sonata in C Major for two violins, Op. 56. This rare gem received a terrific interpretation by Robert McDuffie and Amy Schwartz Moretti. The music contains all sorts of emotional mood swings that take you all over a large soundscape and the performers need to have a sort of mind meld to pull if off. McDuffie and Schwartz Moretti played brilliantly to master the difficult hurdles with meter, tempo, and volume. Sometimes they seemed to dance together on a hire wire, then jump into a kayak and plunge down some rapids, then pause in a meadow to admire a sweeping view. They made the music exciting and intriguing and worth looking for a recording of it during intermission, which followed right after they received tumultous applause from a wowed audience.

In the second half of the program, the audience got a healty dose of comfort food with the playing of Dvorak's Quintet in A Major for piano and Strings, Op. 81. Violist Scott Lee joined McDuffie, Schwartz Moretti, Wosner, and Thomas to make a dynamic performance of this beloved work. Everyone played outstandingly, but Wosner's wonderful playing of the piano part added a extra dash of magic. The audience practically jumped to their feet at the end to give a standing ovation.

Review of Lyrical Contrasts - Thursday, July 19 at Reed College

Opening with Tomas Svoboda's "Prayer," this concert made an intense, intimate, and sharply focused statement that earned the rapt attention of the audience. Written for string quartet and clarinent, Svoboda's music did sculpt a prayer. The piece started out very quietly, with two violins (played by Theodore Arm and Amy Schwartz Moretti) playing a sustained tone that grew slowly in a sort of cluster as the viola (Toby Appel) and cello (Fred Sherry) joined in. Above this blur of sound, clarinetist David Shifrin became sort of a free spirit. It was like a bird flying about on a windy day or perhaps like a series of hopes expressed when one launches a prayer. At any rate this first part of the piece came to a thoughtful end when the clarinet and the first violin ended on the same note. In the next section, the strings became more active, establishing a barnyard thrumming that the cello accented. Now and then the cello made more of an individual statement, and the clarinet would penetrate the layered soundscape with a tone that pierced through and went over the top of everyone. Then the music became more dissonant and the pitch climbed higher and higher, creating tension, but it all stopped and was followed by a complete, gradual meltdown. In the third section, the strings returned to another closely hued tone cluster and the clarinet took the lead with another free spirited foray until the music died back down to the quietness and solitude in which it began.

Although the music ended on a subdued note, the audience didn't leap to its feet, but everyone did give the performance a standing ovation that was heartfelt. All of the players brought passion to this music. I don't know where the beat was during all the sustained chords (at the beginning and end of the piece), so it was amazing that everyone played in sync. This music calls for a superb clarinetist of Shifrin's caliber who has impeccable control and artistry wrapped into one. I think that this piece has legs. It's terrific, and I would like to hear it again.

Kuhlau's Quintet in D Major for flute and strings, Op. 51, No 1, followed Svoboda's gem, and although it was delightfully played by flutist Tara Helen O'Connor, violinist Daniel Phillips, violists Appel and Scot Lee, and cellist Thomas, this music just sounded pedestrian next to the intimate beauty of Svoboda's. All of the musicians played the Kuhlau number elegantly, and they easily commanded the changes in tempo and volume, but the piece was just too charming. Every time Kuhlau worked up the nerve to light a fire for the musicians, he'd throw water on it, keeping the music tame and somewhat predictable.

Fortunately, after intermission, we got a full-body experience with Mendelssohn's Octet in E-Flat Major for strings, Op. 20. In the hands of violinists Elmar Oliveira, Phillips, Schwartz Moretti, and Arm were joined by violists Appel and Lee, and cellists Thomas and Sherry, this octet was a pure pleasure to hear and see. With one quartet next to the other the music making sometimes resembled a volleyball game. Cellist Thomas could post a note for one of his teammates who would smash it across to the other side. That side would the dig out the note and send it back over. Then it seemed that all of the players would mix up things and play with a different foursome. Thomas and Sherry played some wickedly fast passages perfectly together in the third movement. Then in the fourth movement Oliveira in a take no prisoners mood, kicked the tempo up another notch, and at the very end everyone in the audience just jumped out of their seats. It was thrilling!

Thursday, July 26, 2007

Two more opera reviews

Some of my reviews of Portland Opera productions recently appeared in two magazines. My review of Norma appeared in the June issue of Opera magazine and my review of The Flying Dutchman was published in the August issue.

I also published a review of The Magic Flute in the summer issue of Opera Canada.

Unfortunately, you can't read either magazine online, although both have web sites. The Portland Central Library does carry Opera.

Friday, July 20, 2007

Need a stick?

Alan Pierce, who recently retired after playing 45 years in the brass section of the Oregon Symphony, makes terrific custom-made batons. (I just purchased one as a gift for a friend of mine.) Some of the conductors who have wielded Pierce's sticks are Bernard Haitink, Riccardo Muti, Itzak Pearlman, James DePreist, Carlos Kalmar, Murry Sidlin, and James Paul. Check out the Pierce Batons web site for more information.

Sunday, July 15, 2007

Bobble-headed conductor

While attending the Oregon Bach Festival, I purchased a bobble head version of Helmuth Rilling, music director of the festival. It looks like this:

Rilling and the the festival leadership must have a good sense of humor. He has a baton in one hand and a cigar in the other!

On the serious side, the OBF just reported a gross sales of $420,000 at the box office, which represents a growth of 16% over the previous year. Overall, the festival goers added an estimated $6 million to Eugene's economy through sightseeing, hotels, meals, and shopping (including sales of the bobble-headed Rilling). This report is not yet posted in the press release area of the OBF's web site, but it should be soon.

A couple of recently published reviews

My review of concert by Wu Man and the Daedalus Quartet (part of Chamber Music Northwest's spring concert season) appeared in the July/August edition of the American Record Guide. This issue includes a light assessment of 13 American orchestras (the Oregon Symphony is not in this group), a variety of symphony and opera reviews, and a cornucopia of CD reviews.

I also published a review of the Oregon Bach Festival's Honegger "King David" production in today's edition of the Eugene Register Guard. You can read the review here.

Friday, July 13, 2007

Portland Opera on KBPS

KBPS (89.9 FM) will broadcast Portland Opera's productions from last season. Here is the schedule:

July 21 Faust (Gounod)
July 28 Norma (Bellini)
August 4 The Return of Ulysses (Monteverdi)
August 11 The Flying Dutchman (Wagner)
August 18 The Magic Flute (Mozart)

These broadcasts will be followed by CD recordings in preparation of the upcoming season:

August 25 Carmen (Bizet)
September 1 Cinderella (La Cenerentola) (Rossini)
September 8 Rodelinda (Handel)
September 15 Albert Herring (Britten)
September 22 Aida (Verdi)

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Portland Piano International offers 2 for 1 bargain!

Portland Piano International is offering a 2 for 1 special for its Monday night series for new subscribers only. New subscribers can get two tickets for a half series (3 concerts) or a full series (6 concerts). This offer is not mentioned on the PPI web site, but Lori Fitch, PPI's operations manager, told me that you just have to call and mention the offer, or print out the order form from the web site and write 2 for 1 on it. The folks at PPI will take care of the rest.

PPI is offering a stellar lineup with Andre Watts, Rachel Cheung, Jon Kimura Parker, Michael Roll, Angela Hewitt, and Marc-Andre Hamelin.

Note that the Angela Hewitt concert is on a Tuesday rather than a Monday. This is because she will be giving a lecture and a master class on Monday evening.

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Article about the Oregon Bach Festival

I've published an article about the Oregon Bach Festival in Crosscut, a new online newspaper that covers issues pertaining to the Pacific Northwest. The article describes the festival, some of the major players, and contains a couple concert reviews.

Monday, July 9, 2007

Summer Sings! - your summer vocal challenge

For the nominal price of 5 bucks, you can flex your vocal chords with some the the best singers in the metropolitan area. The Portland Symphonic Choir is inviting all singers to join in their annual Summer Sings event. For a nominal price $5 per person or $15 per family (for each rehearsal), you can brush up your Handel (Messiah), Haydn (Creation), Brahms (Requiem), and/or Mendelssohn (Elijah). You don't have to bring a score with you, because the PSC will provide a copy.

Here are the particulars:

July 11 Handel's Messiah conductor: Steven Zopfi
First Congregational Church 1126 SW Park

July 18 Haydn's Creation conductor: Sharon Paul
Southminster Presbyterian 12250 SW Denney Rd. Bvtn

July 25 Brahms Requiem (English) conductor: Stephen Coker
St.Andrew Catholic Church 806 NE Alberta St.

Aug. 1 Mendelssohn's Elijah conductor: Bruce Browne
First Congregational Church 1126 SW Park

Since its inception two years ago, Summer Sings! has been a real hit. Apparently, there are a lot of singers who want to get into the action and improve or maintain their skills.

For more information, see http://www.pschoir.org/summer.html.

Thursday, July 5, 2007

Midori at Oregon Bach Festival

I wrote a review of the Oregon Bach Festival's all-Mendelssohn concert for the Eugene Register-Guard. Violin virtuoso Midori performed the violin concerto and Jeffrey Kahane conducted the Symphony No. 5. Both pieces were interpreted terrifically. But the orchestra's performance of the Overture to A Midsummer Night's Dream was not up to par.