Sunday, November 18, 2007

World Premiere Energizes Syracuse Symphony

Blame it on the weather. With the first major snowfall of the season outside, the Syracuse Symphony performed before a smaller-than-usual crowd on Friday night at the Civic Center. And for the first half of the program, it seemed to affect them, as the orchestra turned in an uneventful, nondescript reading of the Brahms Third Symphony.

These are professional musicians; they are paid to bring their best stuff every night--to play like it's their first, and perhaps last, time on stage. At least that's the idea. Musicians, however, are only human. They have bad days like the rest of us, and playing before a small audience can be disheartening. As intensity wanes, they slip into a going-through-the-motions approach to the music.

Of course, music director Daniel Hege didn't help matters through his tempo choices. I've heard very slow renditions of the the 1st movement of Brahms 3, particularly from Otto Klemperer. But his ensemble--the elite Philharmonia Orchestra--could pull it off. The Syracuse Symphony, however, does not possess enough weight or depth in their sound to sustain a slow tempo. While the cellos and basses are surprisingly strong, the violins produce nothing more than mezzo forte. Drama and shape cannot build when the dynamic ceiling is so low. And if the symphony was boring, I guarantee it wasn't Brahms's fault.

Yet in the second half of the program, the SSO sounded like a completely different orchestra. It began with the world premiere of Andrew Waggoner's Stretched on the Beauty, a concerto for for cellos and orchestra. Unlike Michael Daugherty's piano concerto Deus ex machina, which the SSO premiered in October and blatantly pandered to the audience through countless musical cliches, Stretched on the Beauty walks a fine line between obscurity and accessibility. The work challenged the audience with diverse colors, timbres, and harmonies, yet never felt overwhelming or too radical to appreciate. Dissonant moments were balanced by sections of gorgeous sonorities. The soloists--the CELLO quartet--and the orchestra were responsive to the score and each other, bringing energy and clarity to Waggoner's complex work.

Ottorino Respighi's The Pines of Rome closed the evening with the same passion. Hege drew inspired playing from the winds, particularly principal clarinetist Allan Kolsky. The finale, "The Pines of the Appian Way," features a stunning climax for the brass, and the SSO's didn't disappoint. Including an offstage brass choir, they molded an exhilarating conclusion.

Yet after the finale notes had died away and the audience filed from the hall, the concert seemed to be a missed opportunity. The Waggoner and Respighi performances succeeded resoundingly; it's too bad the orchestra used Brahms as a warm up.

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Welser-Möst, Cleveland Orchestra Speed through Beethoven

Will audiences ever tire of the “Ode to Joy?” It appears unlikely, as orchestras worldwide continue to perform Beethoven’s crowning achievement. For any significant celebratory event—like the opening of a new concert hall—Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony occupies the top spot on a very short list of suitably grand works, and it will remain popular in the foreseeable future. At least that’s the hope of Franz Welser-Möst and the Cleveland Orchestra.

Welser-Möst makes his recording debut with the Cleveland Orchestra in a performance of the Ninth Symphony, released in October by Deutsche Grammophon. The disc is a compilation of live concerts recorded live in Cleveland’s famed Severance Hall in January 2007. It features soprano Measha Brueggergosman, mezzo-soprano Kelley O’Connor, tenor Frank Lopardo, bass Rene Pape and the Cleveland Orchestra Chorus.

For over 50 years, the Cleveland Orchestra’s reputation in the United States has been practically unmatched. Former music director George Szell drilled the group relentlessly, building a world-class ensemble by instilling the principles of musical structure and clarity. Subsequent conductors preserved these traditions, and the orchestra remains one of the finest in the country. Welser-Möst, now in his fifth season as the orchestra’s music director, is also head of the Zurich Opera and, beginning in 2010, he’ll run the prestigious Vienna State Opera. But with such a formidable past for both orchestra and conductor, the current recording is a disappointment.

Welser-Möst glosses over much of the Ninth in a pointless tidal wave of sound. This is one of the fastest performances on record, which in itself is not a bad thing; many conductors favor a brisk pace. But he shows little flexibility or regard for phrasing, allowing small details to pass without notice. He sets a tempo, and he is unwavering.

This approach is most damaging in the final two movements. While the opening movements are mostly rhythmic and propulsive, the Adagio is a lyrical outpouring that contains some of Beethoven’s greatest themes—models of simplicity and beauty. Yet a metronome could be set by Welser-Möst’s beat. Melodies are stifled, unable to sing. The finale, including the celebrated “Ode to Joy,” also races past at tremendous speed. This is some of the greatest music ever written, and Welser-Möst seems uninterested in savoring it.

The Cleveland Orchestra, however, is committed to Welser-Möst’s interpretation. They deliver a virtuoso performance, one of power and warmth; every instrument can be heard, and the music has rarely sounded better. Beethoven’s vocal writing is notoriously difficult, and the chorus and soloists sing with energy and clarity, particularly the resonant, commanding Pape.

With scores of Ninths preserved on disc, the decision to record another version—particularly in a conductor’s commercial debut with his orchestra—is curious. To serious collectors, who likely already own many performances, this release may be unappealing; to those looking for their first versions, Welser-Möst faces serious competition from numerous monumental recordings, primarily the transcendent beauty of Herbert von Karajan and the intense spirituality of Wilhelm Furtwängler.

Yet the Ninth Symphony may be the nearest classical music comes to a sure thing. In nearly two centuries, audiences have never tired of it. And why should we? Its appeal is universal, stretching across generations and uplifting us still today. Beethoven composed an undeniable affirmation of life, and we return to this work because no performance, despite its flaws, can rob the music of this fundamental principle. The world has evolved since the symphony’s 1824 premiere, but we continue to be inspired by Beethoven’s testament to joy and brotherhood.

Tuesday, November 6, 2007

Syracuse Symphony, Brentano Quartet Give Contrasting Performances

It's not wise to make assumptions, especially when it comes to classical music. Big names and big halls do not guarantee memorable concerts.

Last weekend, the Syracuse Symphony Orchestra and guest conductor Andre Raphel Smith--in the accommodating Civic Center--and the Brentano Quartet--in the cramped, dated Lincoln Middle School Auditorium--gave two profoundly different performances.

Though technically accurate, the orchestra's playing was bland and lifeless. Inexplicably, this was most obvious in Copland's Ballet Music from Rodeo. This music is a lot of things, but reserved is not one of them. Yet the orchestra seemed to be going through the motions, completely devoid of energy. "Hoedown" is inherently thrilling, but the orchestra tried their hardest to blunt its affect with a moderate tempo and poorly defined rhythms.

The orchestra also played Barber's First Symphony and Poulenc's Gloria, both of which suffered a similar demise.

The Brentano Quartet, on the other hand, was spectacular, adapting their sound and style to the music's demands. And the demands were varied, ranging from dry, sparse Renaissance motets to lush, soul-searching Romanticism. They took the audience through an emotional journey, particularly in Beethoven's Quartet No. 12, Op. 127, one of his last compositions. It was at times muscular and angular and tender. But the Adagio was most memorable.

In his final works--the Ninth Symphony, the Missa Solemnis, the last three piano sonatas--Beethoven seems to have found a higher calling, elevating his music far beyond his already unparalleled achievements. The Adagio professes a breathtaking reverence and spirituality that could convert the most staunch atheist, even for a brief moment, into a believer. The Quartet's performance was almost indescribable. They hit all the right notes, played in tune, and phrased beautifully. But more importantly, they played with tonal richness and weight, and with a purpose and unanimity that can't be categorized by musical terminology.

Sometimes we get too preoccupied by technicalities: Was the balance right? Were the rhythms all together? Was that really the most appropriate articulation? The list goes on. That's the easy stuff, at least for a trained ear, and it's all necessary for a good performance. Yet when a group--big or small--unites behind a single vision, it's magic.

Maybe such performances can't be fully described. Maybe they shouldn't be. But when heard, they are undeniable, touching something deep within us all, something fundamental. And we never know when these moments will occur.