La Scena Musicale

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Austin Symphony and Salerno-Sonnenberg Celebrate Barber Centenary

A centenary celebration is in order for one of the greatest of American composers, Samuel Barber (b. March 9, 1910), and yet the scheduled tributes in the country of his birth are few and far between: the Philadelphia Orchestra, for example, which premiered many of Barber’s compositions, has programmed just a handful of works, scattered over the course of their 2009-2010 season.

The Austin Symphony Orchestra (ASO), notably an exception, last week presented an all-Barber program under its imaginative music director, Peter Bay. As Maestro Bay correctly stated in his opening remarks, the ASO is very likely the only professional orchestra in the entire United States offering such a concert this season. What’s more, tickets sold very briskly for the two concerts and the audience seemed to enjoy what they heard. It probably didn’t hurt that the dynamic and flamboyant Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg was the featured soloist.

Barber Out of Sync with Contemporaries

Barber is by no means a ‘difficult’ composer and never was. In fact, he was often accused of being old-fashioned and too conservative to be taken seriously as a composer of contemporary music. While much of his music does indeed have recognizable melody, it is often complex in its musical argument, and there is frequently a deep sadness in his music that can be unsettling.

The Adagio for Strings, by far Barber’s best-known composition, has become one of the staples of string orchestra repertoire and is often performed at funerals and occasions of public lament. It is a richly beautiful piece, shot through with anguish, expressing at its climax, a kind of primordial scream. Peter Bay and the ASO played the work with the utmost sensitivity and gave full value to the eloquent rests which are so integral to the work.

The concert opened with Medea’s Meditation and Dance of Vengeance Op. 23a, taken from a ballet score written for Martha Graham in 1946. I must confess that I have never really warmed to this piece – it always sounds to me like a second-rate version of the "Dance of the Seven Veils" from Richard Strauss’ opera Salome – but Bay and the ASO played it very well indeed.

Flashy Organ Concerto Suits Occasion

The Toccata Festiva Op. 36 closed the first half of the concert. Barber composed this piece in 1960 to inaugurate the new organ installed at the Academy of Music in Philadelphia, which, at the time, was the home of the Philadelphia Orchestra. The Toccata remains a largely ceremonial piece to be trotted out on special occasions, such as this. Christoph Eschenbach (with organist Olivier Latry) performed and recorded (Ondine ODE 1094-5) the work at the inauguration of the new organ in Verizon Hall in Philadelphia in 2006.

The audience at the Long Center was utterly fascinated watching the stagehands bring on the portable organ console piece by piece and then assemble it onstage. One of the highlights of the Toccata Festiva – apart from the setting up of the organ – is undoubtedly the remarkable cadenza which is almost entirely played on the pedals. This is exciting to watch, especially if the keyboards and pedals are facing the audience, as they were in Austin. The organ soloist was Stephen Hamilton, Minister of Music at the Church of the Holy Trinity in New York City.

Nadja-Salerno Sonnenberg “owns” this Concerto!

After intermission came the two works which stand for me as among Barber’s greatest achievements: the Violin Concerto (1936) and the Symphony No. 1 (1939).

The soloist in the Violin Concerto was Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg, who has been playing this piece with love and virtuosity for decades. She doesn’t just play this piece; she enters into the soul of it. From the almost inaudible opening bars she seems to be improvising, slowly bringing the music to life before weaving an engrossing tale of beauty and emotion.

The first melody at the opening of the concerto is exquisite. The tune first played by the oboist (Ian Davidson) at the beginning of the second movement is even more beguiling.

For all its beauty, the last movement of this concerto is problematic for some listeners – especially critics – in that it seems too short and too different from what has come before. But in Salerno-Sonnenberg’s hands it is, as Duke Ellington liked to say, simply “beyond category.” This is a perpetual motion movement in which the soloist’s fingers and bow are a blur from beginning to end. Unique to Salerno-Sonnenberg’s performance is the way in which she so perfectly catches the infectious ‘swing’ of the music. Bay and the ASO were right there for her in all the passionate moments and in the lightning fast and metrically complex finale.

And After Intermission…a Performance Worth the Wait!

I expected that there would be a rush for the exits after the concerto. In cities famous and not so famous all over the world, listeners tend to head for home after the celebrity guest artist has done his or her thing. As far as I could tell, not a single person left the hall on this occasion. There are some serious music-lovers in Austin and they are not all on Sixth Street!

In fact, fleeing patrons would have missed a fine musical experience; the performance of Barber’s Symphony No. 1 nearly topped what had preceded it. The Austin Symphony played superbly and Peter Bay conducted with total mastery of this complex score. There is an achingly beautiful oboe solo in this work too and once again Ian Davidson rose to the occasion.

Samuel Barber Then and Now

All the music on this concert except for the Toccata Festiva dates from 1936-46. Looking back, this was Barber’s golden period and a gradual decline in productivity and quality set in after that. Depression, alcoholism and a break with his life-long partner Gian Carlo Menotti all contributed to an apparent loss of confidence and energy.

Many people admire Barber’s opera Vanessa (1958); I am not one of them. It has always seemed to me somewhat ‘precious’ and lacking in drama. In 1966, Barber wrote another opera, Antony and Cleopatra, on a commission from the Metropolitan Opera. At the time, the consensus was that this was a fiasco and Barber was deeply hurt by the experience. Many of his admirers blamed the excessively grand staging by Zeffirelli for the opera’s failure and it has since been produced elsewhere with some success. This coming March Curtis Opera Theatre will mount a new production at the Kimmel Centre in Philadelphia as part of its year-long celebration of the Barber Centenary. Barber studied at Curtis as a young man and later returned to teach there.

For all his ups and downs, Barber created a substantial body of work. Along with Ives, Gershwin, Copland and Bernstein, he has earned the right to be considered one of the major American composers of the Twentieth Century. As we begin to make our way through the second decade of a new century, Peter Bay and the Austin Symphony reminded us of Barber’s stature in a very positive way.

And For Those Who Want More…

Some years ago Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg made a recording of the Barber Violin Concerto (EMI 54313). She currently leads her own orchestra, the New Century Chamber Orchestra in the Bay Area and with this ensemble she has released an album called Together. For more on NSS visit her website.

For more on Samuel Barber, the biography by Barbara Heyman is essential reading: Samuel Barber: the Composer and his Music (Oxford University Press). I recommend also the fine appreciation of Barber in a long essay by Paul Wittke.

Barber’s songs are at the heart of his compositional output and it will be a long time before his music finds a better interpreter than Thomas Hampson. The distinguished American baritone has recorded all of Barber’s songs (DG 435 8672) along with soprano Cheryl Studer, pianist John Browning and the Emerson Quartet in a 2-CD set.

Paul E. Robinson is the author of Herbert von Karajan: the Maestro as Superstar, and Sir Georg Solti: His Life and Music, both available at

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Thursday, January 7, 2010

The "Duke" Gets His Due in Austin - the "Live Music Capital of the World"!

"In jazz he was a giant among giants. And in twentieth-century music, he may yet one day be recognized as one of the half-dozen greatest masters of our time." – Gunther Schuller (1989)

Jazz legend Duke Ellington died in 1974, but his music lives on. The Duke Ellington Orchestra appeared with the Austin Symphony on New Year’s Eve at the Palmer Events Center in Austin, Texas and sent a large audience home with smiles on their faces.

I must confess that I went to this concert with one big question on my mind: "Is it possible to have a Duke Ellington Orchestra without the Duke himself at the piano, and without those legendary soloists who were the very heart and soul of the Ellington sound?"

Unlike most other bandleaders from the big band era (1935-1946), Ellington was a composer first and a performer second. And he didn’t compose in the abstract; he wrote for the men in his band and the way they played. Anyone familiar with the history of jazz knows all the great names in the Ellington orchestra: Johnny Hodges, Harry Carney, Jimmy Hamilton, Cootie Williams, Cat Anderson, Paul Gonsalves and so many more.

Some years ago the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra, led by Wynton Marsalis, no less, released an Ellington CD – Live in Swing City (Columbia CK 69898) – and it was a huge disappointment. The orchestra was terrific, but it didn’t put out anything resembling the Ellington sound.

So, did I get an answer to my question at the Austin New Year’s concert? Maybe. At least, I found myself reconsidering the question.

Ellington by the 'Book' Keeps Legacy Alive!
After Duke passed away, his orchestra was taken over by his son Mercer. When Mercer died in 1996, the leadership passed to Paul Ellington, Duke’s grandson. Over the years, the orchestra has kept the Duke’s legacy alive with tours here and abroad, but the personnel has been constantly changing.

If the truth be told, even when Duke was alive, his orchestra came together from a large pool of players who knew his ‘book’ and who could shift in and out without affecting the overall sound. At least that was the theory, and it had to be this way; even Ellington couldn’t guarantee full-time employment when the big band era came to an end after the war. Musicians went where the money was, and that meant that the best were sometimes unavailable when Duke called.

The situation today is much the same. The Duke Ellington Orchestra is not a full-time job. When it tours, it gets the best musicians it can, but they are not always the same personnel who went on the previous tour.

Trumpeter Barry Lee Hall Sets the Tone
The Duke Ellington Orchestra that appeared in Austin was led, not by Paul Ellington, but by Barry Lee Hall. A fine trumpet player, Hall goes back a long way with the Ellington orchestra and knows the ‘book’ like the back of his hand.

No list of personnel was made available at the concert, nor have I been able to get my hands on one; nevertheless, I would suspect that nearly all the musicians had many years of jazz experience. One of them I knew from previous encounters: the drummer Marty Morell. He played for years (1968-75) with the Bill Evans Trio and I knew him in Toronto for his work with Rob McConnell’s Boss Brass and other groups.

Soloist Freda Payne (photo: right) was featured with the orchestra in several songs. Miss Payne was born in Detroit and developed a major career as a jazz singer and actress in the 1970s. At an age when most singers of her generation have long since retired, she is still going strong. Although she had no particular association with Ellington, in the Austin concert she proved to be a fine exponent of the style.

The evening's entertainment began with Ellington’s ‘theme song’,
Take the “A” Train – actually written by his close associate Billy Strayhorn - and continued with other Ellington classics such as In a Sentimental Mood, The Mooche featuring five clarinets in close harmony, Chelsea Bridge (also written by Strayhorn), It Don’t Mean a Thing If It Ain’t Got That Swing, Caravan, and Black and Tan Fantasy.

One of the highlights of the evening was undoubtedly the spectacular performance of Cottontail, in a version featuring two dueling tenor saxophones tossing virtuoso licks back and forth.

Austin Symphony More than Back-up in Three Black Kings
The Austin Symphony conducted by Peter Bay acted as a back-up band on several songs and sat out many of the others. The ASO had much more to do in the final selection, for which Barry Lee Hall chose music inspired by Ellington’s visit to a cathedral in Barcelona. Ellington was struck by a depiction of the three wise men on a stained glass window and wrote a suite in three movements titled The Three Black Kings, with the last movement named for Martin Luther King.

Ellington died before he was able to complete
The Three Black Kings. After his death, the suite was completed by Mercer Ellington and Luther Henderson. Given the serious nature of the piece, it was indeed a strange choice for a Pops concert, especially as the final work on the program. But as part of a tribute to a great composer, it was an appropriate selection.

Concert Reveals a Spiritual Side of Ellington Rarely Considered
Ellington composed hundreds of pieces for jazz orchestra. As he grew older, he became more spiritual and began to spend more of his time writing music with religious content, culminating in the Concert of Sacred Music, which the Ellington orchestra performed in cities in the United States and in Europe.

Duke Ellington never stopped composing and never stopped searching for new ways to express himself through music. It was a long journey for a struggling bandleader-composer from the Cotton Club in Harlem in the 1930s, to the celebrity status he enjoyed in his later years. He never forgot who he was and where he had come from. He lived long enough to see the life and death of the great Martin Luther King - one of the three black kings indeed. His music had travelled far, but his soul had traveled even further, through the depths of the Depression and the hateful days of segregation, to emerge free at last and thankful to be alive.

With this new Year’s Eve concert, The Duke Ellington Orchestra gave a fully-rounded portrait of one of the most original figures in American music, and as 2009 drew to a close, gave a Texas audience plenty to think about.

Further listening and reading:
To hear Duke Ellington in his prime, with one of the greatest jazz orchestras ever assembled don’t miss
Duke Ellington: the Blanton-Webster Band (RCA 5659-2-RB). There are no fewer than sixty-six songs in this boxed set including a legendary Cottontail featuring tenor saxophonist Ben Webster. If the music is not enough, check out a couple of books - Early Jazz and The Swing Era - in which Maestro Gunther Schuller tries to put the Duke's magic into words - and nearly pulls it off!

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Sunday, November 22, 2009

Ratcliff's Uncommon "Ode to Common Things" Superb Marriage of Words and Music!

Classical Travels
This Week in Texas

Like many institutions in the state of Texas, the Austin Symphony Orchestra (ASO) is more than a little to the right of center - it takes few risks in matters of programming; nonetheless, music director Peter Bay keeps finding ways to energize his concerts and challenge his listeners. The latest example of this irrepressible spirit was a performance of Cary Ratcliff's (
photo: above) Ode to Common Things, a major work for soloists, chorus and orchestra based on poems by the Chilean master poet, Pablo Neruda.

Comfort Food: Words by Shakespeare, Music by Mendelssohn

The concert began with Mendelssohn's Incidental Music to Shakespeare's play A Midsummer Nights Dream (MND), programmed as part of the ASO's ongoing celebration of the 200th anniversary of the composer's birth. In this performance, the ASO was joined by the Conspirare Symphonic Choir.

From the Incidental Music that he had composed for Shakespeare's play, Mendelssohn later extracted a purely orchestral suite comprised of some of his best-loved music, including the glorious 'Wedding March' which has ushered millions of happy couples out the door of a church into a life of 'wedded bliss'.

Maestro Bay chose to add to Mendelssohn's orchestral suite some other bits and pieces from Mendelssohn's MND Incidental Music. The problem is that these bits are ,well - incidental, and don't make a lot of sense on their own without some of the text they were meant to support.

For me, the best options are, either 1) to play the suite of stand-alone orchestral pieces, or 2) to add some linking text comprised of narration and/or spoken excerpts from the play.

Be that as it may, Bay and his musicians played the music very well indeed. The horn and flute solos were not impeccable, but the style of playing was impressive. I particularly liked Bay's tempo for the scherzo, which is marked Allegro vivace and not Presto, as too many conductors seem to think. Bay's comfortable tempo adeptly brought out the charm of the piece.

The brief vocal solos were a little shaky and the chorus occasionally lacked clarity and rhythmic precision, but overall this was a good night for Mendelssohn.

Eclectic Traditional: Words by Neruda, Music by Ratcliff

What made the evening a spectacular triumph for me was the opportunity to hear a wonderful recent work by American composer Cary Ratcliff.

Cary Ratcliff has lived in Rochester, NY for many years and plays keyboards with the Rochester Philharmonic. He has produced a large body of work which includes, among other things, songs for Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream.

The Ode to Common Things, composed in 1995, is a very ambitious piece lasting nearly an hour. Its quality more than justifies its length.

The poetry Ratcliff chose to set to music in Ode to Common Things is by Nobel Laureate Pablo Neruda, and dates from the years 1954-59.

Some years ago I became interested in Neruda and that interest deepened considerably after a visit to Chile in 2008. Then - as it happens - just this last week, during an ocean voyage, I read a fine biography of Neruda by Adam Feinstein.

Neruda is perhaps most widely known and admired for his love poetry, but during much of his life, he was a political activist and diplomat. An ardent communist, he got into all kinds of trouble with friends and opponents alike. At one stage, when the Chilean government sought to arrest him, Neruda was forced into hiding. He later escaped on horseback over the Andes into Argentina. In another period, he alienated friends by stubbornly continuing to support Stalin even after the dictator's monstrous crimes came to light.

Neruda died of prostate cancer in 1973, just after the heartbreak of seeing his friend Salvator Allende overthrown and probably murdered in a coup led by General Pinochet. Neruda's funeral procession became one of the first public protests against the Pinochet government.

Neruda wrote numerous odes, but the Ode to Common Things is perhaps exceptional. An analysis and celebration of everything we take for granted in our lives, Neruda's poetry in this piece is perceptive, surprising, beautiful, sad and funny - often all at the same time. And so too is Ratcliff's music. In fact, when the poetry and the music are combined, there is almost too much sound and information to comprehend - at least at first hearing.

Fortunately, for this performance, Neruda's poetry was made available to the audience as an addition to the printed program. Unfortunately, when words are set to music they are often elongated to the point of being unrecognizable, especially when the tempo is quick, and so the tiny font size (7-8pt?) used in the program accentuated the difficulty of digesting large blocks of text in time to appreciate its particular musical expression.

These are problems, however, that will likely disappear with repeated hearings as one becomes more familiar with this complex piece. And let me be clear about this: Ratcliff's Ode to Common Things deserves repeated hearings.

Ratcliff composes in a style that I would describe as 'eclectic traditional'. The harmonies are traditional but the ways in which voices and instruments are used and combined are decidedly original.

In a choral work based on Chilean poetry, most composers would go all out with Latin rhythms. The orchestration would include a good deal of Latin percussion and bits of tango and samba would be everywhere. Ratcliff's composition is more subtle; its Latin elements are never predominant.

Ratcliff pays Neruda the compliment of respecting him as not only Chile's greatest poet, but also as a man whose thoughts and words have universal significance.

Power and Poetry: Chorus, Orchestra and Soloists Deliver!

Singing in the original Spanish, the Conspirare Symphonic Chorus, prepared by Craig Hella Johnson, was wonderful. The nearly 100 voices handled the tricky rhythms and textures with both finesse and enthusiasm.

Soprano Ava Pine, mezzo-soprano Dana Beth Miller and tenor Bryan Griffin were all excellent. Miller was particularly impressive in her duet with acoustic guitar in 'Ode to the Guitar'.

Maestro Peter Bay is to be commended not only for introducing Ratcliff's Ode to Common Things to Austin, but also for conducting it with extraordinary technical command and acute sensitivity to the myriad expressive demands of the piece.

A good night for Mendelssohn! A great night for Pablo Neruda, Cary Ratcliff and Peter Bay.

As you Like it!

After hearing a work like Ode to Common Things, listeners may want to read more poetry by Pablo Neruda and listen to other pieces composed by Cary Ratcliff. They may also want to watch a beautiful film about Neruda during a period of exile when he lived in Italy, and make the acquaintance of some Neruda songs by another composer, Peter Lieberson.

The Essential Neruda (ed. Mark Eisner). City Lights Press, 2004
Cary Ratcliff: Songs. Kathryn Lewek, sop., Cary Ratcliff, piano. Albany Records, 2008
Il Postino. Philippe Noiret. Dir: Michael Radford. Miramax DVD, 1995
Peter Lieberson: Neruda Songs. Lorraine Hunt Lieberson/Boston Symphony/James Levine.Trumpet Swan Records, 2006.

Paul E. Robinson is the author of Herbert von Karajan: the Maestro as Superstar, and Sir Georg Solti: His Life and Music, both available at

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Sunday, October 11, 2009

Bay and ASO Bring Bruckner Back to Austin!

By Paul E. Robinson

Classical Travels
This Week in Texas

Anton Bruckner’s music has always been pretty popular in Europe, but in North America not so much. Perhaps Bruckner’s time has come. Yannick Nézet-Séguin is performing and recording all the Bruckner symphonies with his Orchestre Métropolitain in Montreal and the Dallas Symphony’s conductor Jaap van Zweden is also recording the cycle, albeit with his Dutch orchestra.

Last night, at the Long Center, the city’s new concert hall, Peter Bay and the Austin Symphony Orchestra (ASO) gave the capitol of Texas its first Bruckner performance in thirteen years – the Fourth Symphony, a work last heard here thirty-five years ago.

Fortunately for all Bruckner aficionados present, Maestro Bay and his players gave a terrific performance of the Bruckner Fourth and listeners plainly liked what they heard! Perhaps the positive reception will encourage the Austin Symphony to program more Bruckner – and soon.

Stops, Starts and Wagnerian Climaxes Challenge Orchestra and Audience
The problem with Bruckner for many listeners has always been sheer length, and a tendency on the composer’s part to stop and start with alarming regularity. Just when he gets a good thing going, they complain, he brings everything to a halt and after an interval of silence or dithering, sets off again with something completely different.

On the plus side, most listeners acknowledge that Bruckner wrote some lovely melodies, and even better, that every one of his symphonies has at least half a dozen massive and brassy Wagnerian climaxes. The ultimate challenge for many audiences is whether they can stay engaged long enough to relish those big moments when they come.

In my opinion, Bruckner’s symphonies are unique and profoundly moving essentials in orchestral literature. For all their imperfections, they remain remarkable achievements of the composer’s art and whether or not one shares Bruckner’s deeply-felt Catholic faith -this was a man who kept a daily record of the number of his prayers – they are ultimately incomparable spiritual journeys.

As do most Bruckner symphonies, the Fourth starts with a tremolo in the strings which sets up a horn solo a few bars later. Peter Bay made sure that the tremolo was not only soft, but ppp as the composer intended. Principal horn Thomas (Tom) Hale nailed his solo with complete assurance, and the performance was off to a great start.

The second movement Andante was taken at the comfortable walking tempo it ought to have and the viola and cello sections played their extended melodies with the utmost sensitivity and expression. The brass fanfares in the scherzo were fearless and thrilling. In the finale the horn playing was magnificent. Peter Bay got the best out of his players and showed great insight into how a Bruckner symphony works. All in all a great night for Bruckner.

Which of Bruckner’s Many Revisions is a Maestro to Choose?
In any discussion of Bruckner, one is inevitably compelled to deal with the question of all the different versions of the scores. Bruckner was an obsessive revisionist. He often allowed his colleagues Josef Schalk and Ferdinand Löwe to make revisions too, with the result that scholars and conductors today must wade through as many as twenty-five different published and unpublished versions of the symphonies and then decide which ones are the most authentic.

In the case of the Fourth Symphony, there are five different versions.

The Fourth symphony provides a good example of what Bruckner’s well-meaning colleagues did on his behalf. In the recapitulation of the first movement, the horn plays its melody once again over tremolo strings, but this time there is a beautiful arabesque around the melody played by the flute. It is a magical moment in the symphony. In the Schalk-Löwe revision, that flute is doubled by muted first violins. This version is lovely too, but quite without the simplicity and intimacy of Bruckner’s original conception.

Bay and ASO Score with Bruckner Society Edition
David Mead’s notes in the ASO program book state that Maestro Peter Bay opted for the Bruckner Society’s edition, and that he is using editor Leopold “Nowak’s version of the (Bruckner) version of 1878-80″, but that is not quite accurate. Bruckner revised this 1878-80 version in 1886 for a performance conducted by Seidl in New York, and it is this later version that Nowak used for the Bruckner Society’s edition of the work.

This 1886 revision, with one notable exception, is not radically different from Bruckner’s first definitive version of 1880. Notwithstanding the many minor changes in orchestration in the later version, there is one alteration of major significance.

The horn melody which opens the first movement, returns in the final bars of the symphony played by trombone and tuba. Unfortunately, this melody in the final bars is not heard in some versions, because it is drowned out by the other brass instruments. In the 1886 version, Bruckner reinforced trombone and tuba with the third and fourth horns, to help the melody come through more clearly.

Obviously, this change is key to understanding the compositional unity of the symphony. The composer was evidently concerned that the melody be heard; consequently, the conductor must strive to realize his intent. Kudos to Maestro Bay for his choice of this edition, and for his execution of Bruckner’s intentions in this performance.

Readers interested in learning more about the problems of the various Bruckner editions are referred to the following: Hans-Hubert Schönzeler: “Bruckner.” New York: Vienna House, 1978; Deryck Cooke: ‘The Bruckner Problem Simplified’ in “Vindications.” Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1982.

Chee-Yun Opens Concert with Mendelssohn Violin Concerto
The concert began with a performance of the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto featuring Korean-born violinist Chee-Yun who is now Professor of Violin at Southern Methodist University (SMU) in Dallas.

Although Chee-Yun played the familiar Violin Concerto with technical ease and beautiful tone, it was a soft-edged performance, somewhat lacking in personality. The ASO’s accompaniment was, to my mind, excessively deferential.

It’s all very well and admirable to keep the orchestra soft enough to enable the soloist to be heard, but there are times when the interplay between soloist and orchestra requires the orchestra to be more assertive. The melody in the slow movement, for example, is lovely but what is needed here is a ‘chamber music’, rather than an ‘accompanied solo’ texture.

This year is the 200th anniversary of Mendelssohn’s birth and next month (Nov. 20/21) the ASO will continue their tribute to the composer with the incidental music for Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

> Recommended Listen: Bruckner's Fourth Symphony, Klaus Tennstedt, London Phil (Naxos Music Library, available free to La SCENA Card members)

Paul E. Robinson is the author of Herbert von Karajan: the Maestro as Superstar, and Sir Georg Solti: His Life and Music, both available at

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Sunday, May 17, 2009

Mahler Brings Austin Symphony Season to Triumphant Finale!

Classical Travels

The stage at the Long Center in Austin was jammed to capacity this week for performances of Mahler’s Resurrection (Symphony No, 2 in C minor). Peter Bay led the Austin Symphony and the Conspirare Symphonic Choir in a well-prepared and exciting performance. In fact, it was easily the best concert I have seen Maestro Bay conduct in Austin.

The Austin Symphony has not been ignoring Mahler. Under Peter Bay, they played the Mahler First in 1999, the Fourth in 2001 and the Fifth in 2004. The Second, however, is the most challenging of the group.

Mahler’s Second Symphony was composed over 100 years ago (1895), and remains extraordinarily difficult for conductors and orchestras to perform. The notes themselves can be demanding enough, but Mahler has made the challenge even greater by writing in hundreds of subtle tempo markings.

In matters of dynamics, Mahler routinely puts in different markings for each instrument in the same passage. This can be a nightmare for a conductor and requires hours of careful rehearsal to approximate Mahler’s conception. Peter Bay did a remarkable job in balancing the greatly enlarged Austin Symphony. From where I sat - row L on the ground floor - every instrument came through with remarkable clarity.

More to the point, Bay had gone beyond the letter of the score to conduct with passion and poetry. One small quibble; as a matter of personal preference, I wish he had treated Mahler’s glissando markings less apologetically.

The musicians too, had clearly done their homework. The basses and cellos get a workout right from the opening bars – a kind of continuation of the recitative passage from the beginning of the last movement of the Beethoven Ninth. The players rose to the task with both enthusiasm and careful attention to detail. The brass playing, both onstage and off, was just as fine and even in the loudest passages, always musical.

Scott Cantrell, in a Dallas Morning News review of this concert, mentions that the organ was “inaudible at the end.” This was not my experience. The organ makes its entrance very near the end of the last movement and its role is simply to reinforce the orchestra and chorus. It sounded fine where I sat. Mr. Cantrell’s seat was in the balcony; therein may lie the reason for our differing opinions.

In matters of acoustics, it is difficult to pinpoint what is right or wrong with a concert hall. In most halls, circumstances affecting how one hears the music differ from one concert to another; one may be sitting in a different location; the repertoire is different; the size of the orchestra may be different.

My experience at the Friday night performance of the Mahler was definitely favorable. The fact remains, however, that the Dell Hall in the Long Center is simply not in the same class with the Myerson or several other great halls one could mention. In spite of the best efforts of the ASO musicians and their conductor, as Mr. Cantrell put it “the hall lends little warmth, or richness or blend.”

This general observation notwithstanding, on this occasion, we should be celebrating the quality of this particular performance.

The Conspirare Symphonic Choir – about 100 members strong – was at a distinct disadvantage in being positioned at the very back of the shell, but sang with strength and joy. Mahler struggled with faith in God all his life, but in this symphony he wholeheartedly affirmed his belief in life after death and expressed that belief in some of the most inspiring music ever written. The members of the chorus captured this spirit.

I was less captivated by the soloists. Mezzo-soprano Susan Platts' beautiful voice seemed a little lightweight for what she had to tell us in the Urlicht movement and soprano Linda Mabbs lacked the ethereal purity her part requires.

Overall, this was Peter Bay’s night and his triumph. After ten seasons in Austin, Bay has consistently demonstrated an ability to efficiently prepare a ‘per service’ orchestra in interesting and difficult programs. He knows how to rehearse and how to get the best out of his musicians in limited rehearsal time. Even for a work as complicated as the Mahler Second Symphony, he had only the usual five rehearsals.

On the basis of this week’s Mahler performance, it is clear that in music that challenges him, Maestro Bay can also be forceful and involved.

More good news; Bay has programmed Mahler’s Symphony No. 1 for next season.

Paul E. Robinson is the author of Herbert von Karajan: the Maestro as Superstar, and Sir Georg Solti: His Life and Music, both available at

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Thursday, January 15, 2009

Flawless Touch & Temperament: Ohlsson Triumphs in Dvorak Rarity!

Classical Travels with Paul E. Robinson


There is nothing quite like the thrill of seeing a great piano virtuoso in action with a big orchestra. Hands a blur at the keyboard, showers of notes played at blinding speed, the Steinway grand all but demolished under the onslaught while the conductor whips the orchestra into a frenzy. Wonderful!

Most of the great virtuoso vehicles – by Liszt, Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninov - were composed in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries and have been exciting audiences ever since. There are, however, other piano concertos from this period that are less flashy, but well worth a hearing. Dvořák’s piano concerto of 1876 is just such a piece. I have had a special affection for this fine work for many years and I was delighted that pianist Garrick Ohlsson and conductor Peter Bay decided to present it this season with the Austin Symphony at the Long Center.

Ohlsson Brings Flawless Touch & Temperament to Rare Masterpiece

As a young man, Ohlsson won the prestigious Chopin International Piano Competition in Warsaw in 1970. He went on to establish himself as one of the foremost Chopin players of his generation. With this kind of musical pedigree, he was just the man to do justice to Dvořák’s Piano Concerto in G minor, Op. 33.

Op. 33 is a piece for consummate musicians. It calls for beauty of sound and the most natural sense of rubato. In other words, it is Chopinesque in its piano writing. Any pianist who approaches it with hammer and tongs will make a hash of it, and might better leave it alone. There is drama in the score, and deep romantic temperament; but again, its special beauty is apt to be destroyed if the passion is overdone.

One of the great moments for me is the opening of the slow movement – a solo horn with soft string accompaniment, playing a haunting melody then picked up by the piano. Nothing much to it, except the totally unexpected B major chord that intrudes in the key of D major. It reminds me also of the inspired harmonic chemistry to be found in the great soprano aria “O silver moon” from Dvořák’s opera Rusalka. The piano concerto has several moments of this quality, and if you like Dvořák’s Slavonic Dances, you’ll find more of the same here, especially in the last movement.

Ohlsson gave one of the finest performances I ever expect to hear of this lovely work and Peter Bay and the ASO provided stellar accompaniment. At the height of the applause came a special treat – as an encore - Chopin’s familiar Grand Valse Brillante, played by Ohlsson with such effortless mastery that one hoped it would never end.

Dell Hall Sound Fails Conductor & Orchestra in Epic Rachmaninov!

The major orchestral offering of the evening, Rachmaninov’s epic Symphony No. 2, (1907), came after intermission. Interestingly, Dvořák and Rachmaninov were close to the same age – Dvořák was 36 and Rachmaninov 34 – when they wrote these two pieces; in short, they were both young men but well-established as important composers.

In the case of Rachmaninov, his first symphony was received so badly that it practically ended his career. The Second Symphony, however, was another matter. It is full of soaring melody, and structurally it hangs together far better than the First Symphony. It is, nonetheless, a massive, sprawling score and much of the music is dark and melancholy. Unlike the Dvořák Piano Concerto, it calls for a large orchestra and the biggest possible sound.

Unfortunately, while Peter Bay had added a few extra double basses and had the full complement of brass and percussion that the score requires, the Michael and Susan Dell Hall at the Long Center simply refused to cooperate.

Rachmaninov’s Symphony No. 2 requires a depth of sound that sets the floor shaking and gives you the feeling of being punched in the gut. Nothing like that sound reached me in my seat about two-thirds of the way back on the ground floor. I don’t doubt for a moment that the ASO is capable of producing a full rich sound, but I am concerned that we may never hear it in this hall.

It so happens that the very next night I was sitting in a similar location in the Myerson Symphony Center in Dallas. The orchestral sound I heard there was exactly what was missing in Austin. It wasn’t the fault of the conductor or the orchestra in Austin; it was the hall. The Myerson happens to be one of the world’s great concert halls and what a difference it makes to the sound of an orchestra and to the sound of the music.

Let me emphasize that Peter Bay and the ASO musicians had obviously worked hard to get this difficult music under control and the hard work paid off. This was an extremely well-organized and well-executed performance. There was fine playing from principal clarinet and horn, and the trumpets threw off their brilliant flourishes in the last movement with great panache. Even the best performance, however, suffers when given on a poor instrument, and the Dell Hall may just be such an instrument. Let us hope not.

Finding the Right Mix No Easy Matter

It might be worthwhile for Bay and the ASO – if they have not already done so - to experiment with different orchestral seating arrangements, various types of risers and baffles, or moving at least some of the musicians out in front of the proscenium to see if any of these changes improve the sound.

There is another way of looking at the problem. The ASO might think about what repertoire avoids the hall’s deficiencies, and instead plays to its strengths. In my experience, the hall does not deal well with big, romantic repertoire. There is not enough resonance and not enough of the sound projects into the hall. On the other hand, the hall is generally flattering to soft music and to music with a lighter texture. Mozart symphonies and concertos, for example, might work very well.

Unfortunately, the heart of the repertoire and the music that appeals to a wider audience is – you guessed it – the big, romantic stuff.

Paul E. Robinson is the author of Herbert von Karajan: the Maestro as Superstar; Sir Georg Solti: his Life and Music, and Stokowski (Spring 2009), all available at For more about Paul E. Robinson please visit his website.

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