posted by James Reel
Members of the Tucson Symphony Orchestra used to require some settling-in after their long summer break, but they and music director George Hanson were already in top form for last night’s season-opening concert. It was a program packed with flashy, colorful music, which is exactly the sort of thing the TSO does best.
The potential disappointment on the program was the loss of a piece by contemporary composer Roberto Sierra; TSO officials, slamming their heads against the door of their depleted bank vault, were dazed enough to believe they could improve anything by jettisoning all the high-rental scores (meaning the most interesting pieces) and replacing them with safer material from the library. But for this week’s concerts, at least, Hanson did something smart: He revived Wondrous Night, which Tucson composer Dan Coleman wrote for the orchestra a couple of years ago. New music rarely gets a second outing, so a repeat of Coleman’s little six-minute opener was most welcome. It’s an attractive item; Coleman’s use of light percussion, high woodwinds and trumpets creates a starry sparkle. The work’s ecstatic throb and shimmer calls to mind portions of John Adams’ Harmonielehre, and the orchestra played with apparent relish.
Pianist Christopher O’Riley made his long-overdue return to the TSO. In 1991, his last engagement with the orchestra, he was embedded in Beethoven’s Triple Concerto. This time he had the spotlight to himself in Prokofiev’s more challenging Piano Concerto No. 3. Both O’Riley and Hanson presented this as an essentially lyrical rather than percussive work, from clarinetist Jeremy Reynolds’ liquid solo at the beginning through O’Riley’s frequent cascades of nimble passagework. Again, the word “sparkle” comes to mind in a work that too many soloists treat as an opportunity to hammer the klavier, and O’Riley’s light touch cast into strong relief the passages of truly beefy chordal writing.
O’Riley brought a slightly boozy swing to the theme of the second, variation movement, and he gave the last movement real impetus through his clear articulation and rhythmic definition. Hanson and the orchestra provided completely sympathetic partnership, except that, as frequently happens here, the the strings often vanished into the tutti passages.
As an encore, O’Riley offered one of his transcriptions of Radiohead songs; most of these items don’t have a strong enough melodic profile to hold up without their lyrics, but this one at least featured enough odd modulations to sustain attention. Even so, its main interest lay in its elements of technical display; O’Riley almost made this trifle seem a flashier piece than the whole Prokofiev concerto.
For the concert’s second half, Hanson trotted out the Berlioz Symphonie fantastique for the second time in four years. This is way too soon for an orchestra with a limited schedule; why not the same composer’s Harold in Italy or the orchestra-only half of Roméo et Juliette instead? In consolation, Hanson and company did make the opium-crazed symphony worth hearing again.
The first two movements really belong to the strings, and the TSO players and Hanson beautifully brought out the music’s surging lyricism. Through sensitive use of rubato and little dynamic swells, the musicians neatly conveyed the first movement’s lovesick sighs, and the violins beautifully sang out the idée fixe, the theme that threads through the entire symphony. (Hanson, by the way, wisely kept the musical action moving by ignoring the exposition repeat.) In the second movement, if the violins lacked the last measure of mercurial ballroom grace, they came close enough. Principal trumpeter Ed Reid took the cornet option in this waltz movement, and blended the instrument’s sweet tone well with the rest of the ensemble rather than sailing out over it all.
The third movement featured some especially fine offstage solos by oboist Lindabeth Binkley and English hornist Sara Kramer. (The oboe section’s William Balentine left the stage for a while, so he may have been involved in this, too; the players were out of sight, but at least it’s obvious they weren’t clarinetists, as falsely reported by the Arizona Daily Star’s nonspecialist critic.)
The “March to the Scaffold” came off with all the necessary fiendish pomp. The final “Dream of a Witches’ Sabbath” got off to a grab-you-by-the-throat start, but the performance then lost a bit of momentum coming out of the intoning of the sinister Dies Irae theme. Still, Hanson whipped up plenty of energy for the final bars.
The evening included a few brief extras, some worthwhile and others decidedly not. Before the Berlioz, Hanson gave a superb, succinct introduction that linked the music’s storyline to its structure. After came a rousing encore, melding “When the Saints Go Marching In” with fragments of Handel’s “Hallelujah” Chorus, meant to inspire the audience to contribute to the Gulf Coast Orchestra Relief Fund.
But the evening began with an unnecessary little speech by the orchestra’s president that didn’t do anything that couldn’t be accomplished by a line of type in the printed program; at least she didn’t hawk raffle tickets. Then came a pompous arrangement of “To Anacreon in Heaven,” an English drinking song whose vocal range can be negotiated only by drunkards. We know it as the national anthem, a dreadful ditty poorly fit with dated, bellicose lyrics. Patriotism is not noble; it’s a combination of xenophobia and overweening pride, barely one step above brute tribalism. As Samuel Johnson might have noted, this is bad music pandering to scoundrels who shouldn't be taking refuge in the concert hall.
posted by James Reel
One former director of a major local arts organization used to grumble around town that I couldn’t find anything nice to say in my reviews. Well, the guy didn’t give me anything nice to say; once he was eased out and the company offered more professional, intelligent productions, there was plenty to praise, although by that time I’d gotten out of the music criticism racket and become an Evil Editor.
Anyway, I am certainly capable of offering praise when it’s due, and I have almost nothing but nice things to say in the latest Tucson Weekly about two recently opened plays.
First, there’s Criminal Hearts by the pseudonymous Jane Martin:
Part hip, pop-psych farce, part social critique, part theater of the absurd, part screwball revenge fantasy, part con-artist caper (one way or another, almost every character is conning at least one of the others), Criminal Hearts can't quite decide what sort of play it wants to be, but its indecision creates a more interesting, less-clichéd work than it would have been had it settled into a single genre.
You’ll find the complete review here
Next, Invisible Theatre launches its season with a well-acted, neat little English thriller:
While the identity of the author of Criminal Hearts, now at Beowulf Alley, is in question, I have no doubt that Dead Certain, which opened last week at Invisible Theatre, was also written pseudonymously. This mystery thriller is credited to an Englishman named Marcus Lloyd, but surely the true author is M.C. Escher, the artist whose prints toy with symmetry and perspective, manipulating our quirks of perception and causing us to believe in infinite loops of impossible objects.
You can sort all that out here
posted by James Reel
Broadcasts of last season’s Arizona Friends of Chamber Music concerts begin this Sunday at 1 p.m. Since I’m the host of that series, I have chamber music on mind a lot these days. One of the best appreciations of chamber music I’ve found in print comes from Andrea Lamoreaux, music director of Chicago’s WFMT-FM. Here’s the key paragraph from her notes for the recent Cedille release of Mendelssohn’s string quartets by the Pacifica Quartet:
Chamber music was originally an amateur musical occupation, but as the 18th century became the 19th and music of all types became more complex, the string quartet in particular evolved into a genre reserved for skilled professionals performing before an audience. This situation could be perceived as an active-passive division of responsibility: the musicians play, the listners sit back and enjoy. If all they do is sit back, however, they’re missing a great opportunity. Chamber music offers an inviation to sit up, not back; to sharpen your ears, extend your musical antennae, and become involved in what’s going on. Following the progress of a theme through various voices, listening to its transformations and its returns, is quite a different proposition when you’re faced with four players instead of dozens of symphony musicians. You can appreciate the slightest variation in tone color, hear the tiniest variation between a theme’s initial statement and its recapitulation. Even without the score, even without knowing the intricacies of formal procedures, you can hear with the greatest clarity the progression from opening statement through key changes and development to the final restatement that brings the music to a satisfying resolution. And when you are listening to a string quartet, you are often listening to a composer’s highest effort, his contribution to a rarified realm, but one that offers enjoyment for everyone involved.
I don’t entirely buy that notion of chamber music being a composer’s “highest effort,” which is a cliché in classical-music circles (Lamoreaux wisely qualifies it with the word “often”). I think it’s true in the cases of Haydn, Beethoven, Brahms, Bartók, maybe Shostakovich. Not true, though, in the cases of Bach, Mozart, Nielsen, Stravinsky or Prokofiev. I won’t cheat by bringing up composers who wrote very little chamber music, like Verdi, Wagner and Liszt. There are times, however, when I’d gladly trade all nine Bruckner symphonies in on his sole string quintet.
posted by James Reel
There’s been a lot of yelping about public broadcasting’s perceived political bias, despite the fact that neither the liberal nor the conservative CPB ombudsman has found any. But it looks like we ain’t seen nothin’ yet.
posted by James Reel
From time to time the contributors to Quizilla.com will come up with a personality test that allows me to pretend to be doing something intellectual while I’m completely wasting my time. One favorite is “What Key Signature Are You?” My current result, which is happier and sappier than the last time I took this, is “E-flat major—you are warm and kind, always there for your friends, who are in turn there for you. You are content with your comfortable life and what you are currently achieving; if you keep in this state you will go far.” This seems contradictory; how can one who is content with present achievements make any further progress?
Another is “Which New York Times Columnist Are You?” Somewhat to my distress, and that of a good friend of mine who gets the same response when she takes the quiz, “You are Maureen Dowd! You like to give people silly nicknames and write in really short, non sequitur paragraphs. You’re the most playful of the columnists and a rock-ribbed liberal, but are often accused of being too flamboyant and frivolous. You tend to focus on style over substance, personality over politics. But your heart is in the right place. Plus, you are a total fox.”
The New Yorker’s Alex Ross points the way to a quiz I hadn’t encountered before: “What Major Work of Alban Berg Are You?” My result: “You are Berg’s ridiculously complicated Chamber Concerto. No one will ever figure you out and when they do, it probably won’t be right.”
Does that mean I’m not really Maureen Dowd in E-flat major? Or, worse, does this call into question the words “total fox”?
posted by James Reel
Several weeks ago, my wife and I were treated to lunch by Carroll Rinehart, the man who goes into elementary schools to help students—not necessarily music students—write and perform original operas. He’s worked on at least 1,500 kid-created operas, and even though the man is now past 80 years old, I wouldn’t be surprised if he works on another 1,500 before he’s through.
Carroll Rinehart is an evangelist for arts education and creativity in general, and like any evangelist he is well practiced in the delivery of his message. At lunch, he handed us a printout he may well give everyone he meets; it’s a sheet titled See Everything, Do Everything, Feel Nothing, displaying three quotes relating to Carroll’s interests. There’s a striking line uttered in 1959 by children’s lit specialist Leland Jacobs: “We must develop critics and creators rather than regurgitators and imitators.” You need only look at the lit programs in American universities to see that Jacobs’ remark has had zero impact during the past 46 years; the academy is infested with enough cultural parasites feeding on and degrading the creativity of othres to warrant immediate quarantine.
Even more apropos to contemporary society is the text block occupying the top half of Carroll’s handout. It’s from a Norman Cousins editorial in the Jan. 23, 1971 issue of the long-defunct and much lamented Saturday Review:
The highest expression of civilization is not its art but the supreme tenderness that people are strong enough to feel and show toward one another. Art proceeds out of an exquisite awareness of life. The creative spirit and the compassionate spirit are not things apart but kindred manifestations of response to life. If our civilization is breaking down, as it appears to be, it is not because we lack the brainpower to meet its demands but because our feelings are being dulled.
What our society needs is a massive and pervasive experience in re-sensitization. The first aim of education should not be to prepare young people for careers but to enable them to develop respect for life. Related lessons would be concerned with the reality of human sensitivity and the need to make it ever finer and more responsive; the naturalness of loving and the circumstances that enhance it or enfeeble it; the right to privacy as an essential condition of life; and the need to avoid the callousness that leads to brutalization. Finally, there is the need to endow government with the kind of sensitivity that makes life and all its wondrous possibilities government’s most insistent concern.
No further comment necessary.