Monday, November 2, 2015

Igudesman and Joo: Scary Concert at Heinz Hall

Saturday evening we were treated by the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra to a highly entertaining concert led by violinist Aleksey Igudesman and pianist Hyung-Ki Joo. A Scary Halloween it was, with music ranging from Dance Macabre by Saint-Saens to the hillarious Decomposing Composers by Michael Palin.

It's with out a doubt that they are funny and engaging, yet what really intrigues me is how talented they are in their own right as musicians. Several solo performances by each were mesmerizing and brilliant in the showcase of their abilities. I especially liked "Tango del Diabolo" by Igudesman and "Celebration Polka" by Joo, both pieces they composed are extremely difficult to perform but perform they did to great effect!

The musicians of the PSO were dressed in outfits as well, I noted: Horse Head, Hillbilly, The Incredibles, Pocahontas, A Big Chicken, Race Car Driver, Skeleton with face half Skeleton, Pirate, Taco Bell Taco, Black Cat, Motorcycle Cop, Mummy, Harpo Marx, Dracula, Annie Oakley, Bride of Frankenstein, Stay Puff Marshmallow Man, Howard Stern, Ghost, Toy Soldier, Impaled bloody Horn Player, and various other assorted ghouls and gargoyles.

One of the things they do best are pieces where they mix and match classical music selections with their own flair. At first they took a popular ringtone and mixed it into may selections from composers like Mozart, Beethoven, Tchaikovsky, Dvorak and Ravel, while pushing each other off the conductor's podium in order to serve up their own particular flavor of hybrid composition.

At intermission they invited members of the audience who were dressed in Halloween costumes to come up on stage for an impromptu judging of the best costume. The audience applauded most for the declared winners: Riding Hood and the Big Bad Wolf.

The PSO also took part in the hijinks and festivities throughout the evening. Kelsey Blumenthal dressed as a skeleton danced and bowed with Igudesman at the same time, very impressive. At the end many of the costumed members of the orchestra were up from their seats dancing in ho-down style in the "Zorba the Greek" final selection.

I've seen this talented duo before, and am glad I caught their Halloween special, and such a treat it was done here in Pittsburgh, thanks!. I'll be looking for them to return to Heinz Hall again. And I have to say - undoubtedly this is the best Halloween party I've every attended.

Monday, October 19, 2015

The Rite of Dance

'The Rite of Spring' is the name of the third piecewe heard at Heinz Hall with the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra this last weekend. Yet I coin the phrase 'The Rite of Dance', because the first two pieces were rather related to different forms of Dance. Indeed, Maestro Yan Pascal Tortelier moved his body with much dance-like motion while conducting the two pieces before intermission. Swaying back and forth and a full spin as a conductor leading the orchestra is not often seen on the podium, and was a welcome addition which made me smile.

The first piece by Edú Lobo: Suite Popular Brasileira was very much dance-like. This compose 4 years ago and was very pleasing to the ear.

Next was the Harp Concerto by Ginastera.  In the pre-concert talk we found out that this made use of rhythm and folk tunes. Specifically it was called a Malambo Dance Rhythm from Argentina, sort of a Cowboy Tap Dance, the South American style of cowboy. Male dancers would challenge each other.

Gretchen Van Hoesen was fantastic on the harp. Her performance was amazing in that I never expected the range and agility she was able to muster, almost making it look seamless in her execution, yet brilliant in the timing and sounds produced despite the difficulty with some of the solo parts.

After intermission came the Rite of Spring. You've probably seen it with as the segment with the Dinosaurs in Disney's Fantasia, yet the sound is nothing compared to the actual concert experience at Heinz Hall. I was at the back of the hall and it blew me away.

Monday, June 8, 2015

Dovetail the Immortal Beethoven, Stepping Outside the Box

I wear my passion for classical music on my sleeve, and in the audience it's not often I see the same, with the notable exception being the applause when everyone is enthusiastic. So it was a pleasure to observe two members of the audience one row in front of me even more spirited than myself. One of the two was obviously a musician. The first half of the program during the Beethoven violin concerto I noticed mannerisms that suggested a depth of knowledge for music.

At intermission they couldn't contain themselves, and we spoke right after the applause, comparing notes on the the performance. One of the two, a flautist, was visiting from Alabama. She was in Pittsburgh for the week to visit her sister -- a perfect opportunity to see the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra. During our pleasant conversation I learned a few items of note, for instance, apparently a conductor ought to stay inside his space, or box. Apparently Manfred Honeck does this well, perhaps because the PSO is quite adept at being led. I found out that what I was calling 'improvisation' actually is called 'cadenza' -- an elaborate flourish or showy solo passage, sometimes improvised. Additionally, she indicated that the PSO executed what she described as 'dovetails' or transitions between instruments or sections harmoniously.

Christian Tetzlaff lent emphatic emphasis to the solo violin with his physical movements, often rotating his upper torso in tempo to the beat. To me, his sound seemed bitter and sweet, with pure tones sometimes accompanied by rough edges, yet his prowess and technique ruled the day and drew me in to the composition in a compelling way.

Pizzicato on the strings formed concentric circles as the tempo began to slow down. The drums began a march like progression of notes along with an alternative cadenza with which I was unfamiliar. Yet I was pleased to hear this concerto in a new light, as I've heard it the traditional way many times on CD. This was the beauty of the cadenza.

If one were to say the conductor or musician should stand inside their predetermined 'box', like the area above the podium, and from that vantage point boldly go forth with the music, adding sound and soul to the ensemble, building consensus in the well balanced orchestra, then one would prescribe the tradition of the form. But sometimes the music or the musician is stepping outside the box, wildly yielding flourishes somewhat beyond their boundary, building enthusiasm and vigor.

I think of a juxtaposition like this with the placement of Beethoven's violin concerto next to his symphony number 9, the Ode to Joy. The former stayed somewhat inside the box, except for the cadenzas, but the Ode to Joy launched itself outwards, with the help of Manfred Honeck, the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra, the four vocal soloists and the Mendelssohn Choir of Pittsburgh. The music went well beyond the bounds that bind, encircling Heinz Hall and visiting the ears of every patron with the utmost joy this symphony could possibly dispel.

During the third movement I improvised a few poetic words that immediately came to mind:

Cantankerous bellows drum their accord below the din
of flautist lines weaving gently beyond the bows
drawn in tandem along vibrant vibrating dashes.
Horns enunciate gently below the brow of dark waving chords,
trilling, trembling tremolo excite the bend of flesh,
fingers pluck pizzicato in rhythm to the tempo.
Trumpets rudely interject temporal disharmony,
yet robust fullness returns undaunted by the blunt phrase,
again the brass sounds the alarm as if to announce a premonition.
Drums and strings insist their harmony: they will not be undone,
flowing, meandering, forever transforming, sometimes flirting,
and eventually pausing, making ready- building one last time,
level, the music subsides, all words and notes are done.

Monday, June 1, 2015

Pictures from the Floating World

I find it quite exciting to experience new classical pieces for the first time, especially a new composition like the one by David Ludwig: "Pictures from the Floating World, for Bassoon and Orchestra." This was classical in the old style, akin to the Debussy romantic music from which the composer's gained inspiration. Other works like "Pictures at an Exhibition" demonstrate how listening to a composition more than once can profoundly expand the underlying meaning of the music. I feel that "Pictures from the Floating World" would have that same depth of meaning if heard again. Yet I liked it the first time, this first experience was to me a profound exhibition.

Before the piece the composer David Ludwig spoke to the audience. "It is a delight to be here with this unbelievable Orchestra." He indicated that each of the movements "leaps off from a piece by Debussy." "The music lives in melodies, music that brings forward beautiful flowing bassoon lines." It also is based on the Japanese art tradition of Ukiyo-e print making (the 'floating world' of our every day life). Mr Ludwig indicated that the composer should not talk longer than the piece is."

Nancy Goeres did a fantastic job with the solo part, especially the long drawn out notes that seemed impossible to sustain, but she did so beautifully. The first movement seemingly had the notes always flowing down the scale, yet somehow sneaking back up. In the second movement I enjoyed the interplay between the Bassoon and the two lead Cellos. The 3rd brought forth grand sweeping melodic uplifting orchestra harmony, and an intermezzo with some carefully placed dissonant or discordant sounds, and returning again to the grander feel, more typical of a close of a piece. The next movement seemed more like a Scherzo with lots and lots of quickly spaced notes and finally with a bassoon melody line that suggested to me the possible lyric "Once under a Moon River."

The Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra under the baton of guest conductor Juanjo Mena began the evening with Debussy: ”Ibéria,” No. 2 . This is a typical Debussy composition, with abstract harmonies and melodies with a romantic flavor. I fully enjoyed the whole piece, with only the last movement being familiar.

Drumset on display at Heinz Hall for "Alternative Energy"

During Concerts On May 15-17, 2015, the Pittsburgh Symphony performed Alternative Energy by Composer of the Year Mason Bates. The first movement, "Ford's Farm, 1896", evokes a rustic Midwestern junkyard in the late 19th Century by using a bluesy fiddle and a 'drumset' made of car parts. With the help of the Pittsburgh Symphony stagehands and a few junkyard connections, Principal Percussionist Andrew Reamer sourced and assembled this drumset, which includes a tailgate, bumper, battery bracket, glove box door, and various handmade wind chimes. Please feel free to touch, but be careful -- it's made of car parts!

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

A Temporal Walk Through the Spirit of Volition

Spirit is energy, and energy a kind of lifeblood. For me Classical Music is this same kind of lifeblood, a form of energy. Volition is a an act of making a choice or decision, an alternate choice perhaps. Alternative Energy in this sense is a form, and in my understanding it is a form of music.

I've experienced several of the compositions by and with Mason Bates and the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra. So when it came time to see and hear 'Alternative Energy' which was a premier for the PSO, I sort of knew what to expect. To say that some folks may not have known what to expect might be true, and might lead me to believe that some might not have enjoyed or appreciated the composition as much as I did. But at the end of the piece the applause was wild with enthusiasm, so perhaps my impression was wrong.

It's a different piece to say the least. It is programmatic in that it represents four different places in four completely different time periods. Of the four parts, the first was to me the one I like the most: "Ford’s Farm, 1896". It starts out with a slow, laid back, affable, breezy, devil-may-care, happy-go-lucky sort of character, then slowly saws the bow into a somewhat faster tempo and eventually into a dance-like hoedown. Then it proceeded to the second movement, "Chicago, 2012". This seemed like a walking procession, a scenic stroll with rhythmic jazz like impressions. Movement 3, "Xinjiang Province, 2112" begins the futuristic trail. Then comes No. 4, or "Reykjavik, 2222", a walk so far into the future it's not ours yet to envision, yet I can imagine what it might be like, and it seems to come almost full circle.

What's best about this piece is that Mason Bates performs along with the Symphony. When it first begins he sits on a stool and wait, his part isn't up just yet. Yet you can see in his demeanor and body motions that he's entirely 'into' the composition. He is appreciating the music, moving with it in syncopated fashion. Half way through he attends his station and begins to play his instrument: A synthesizer and a computer. His energy as he plays is evident, and his enthusiasm is contagious.

Monday, May 11, 2015

Fantasia PSO

Fantasia, the name itself is a musical enigma. The original 1940 version I saw when I was a kid, and I saw it again with my daughter. Fantasia 2000 was one of the first DVDs that we owned, before that it was VHS tapes. We were thrilled with both movies, seeing them again and again. Welling up with nostalgia I relived these emotional memories with the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra and guest conductor Ward Stare at Heinz Hall on Saturday evening.

The large screen above the orchestra was the programmatic element that enhanced the experience to amalgamate the senses beyond mere musical. Perhaps Walt Disney understood this when he began and sustained this experiment with Fantasia. The creativity of the animators to invent entertaining animation stories based on the music composed perhaps a century or move before was the impressive chord struck as I watched and listened. I also noticed the 4:3 aspect ratio of the original movie, and realized that the wide screen aspect we have today really does paint a more interesting picture. Instead of wishing that the original was wider, I rather realized I should be glad because what I was watching and hearing was divine.

Centaurs frolic as Beethoven's sixth symphony almost literally comes to life. This time with the PSO I realize it's much better than any concert experience with the original score sound track could ever be, even with sixteen surround sound speakers throughout. With shooting stars and live music, you won't hear these compositions played any better than right here with the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra. Ultimately having the musicians perform produces an infinitely better viewing experience.

Thunderstorm: Allegro, as movement four proceeds I literally can't take my eyes away from the screen, even though I want to view the orchestra as well.

Fire pink my native child Happy Grateful Feelings after the Storm, yet I have those same feelings just being here for the full experience.

As I listen to then ending of the Beethoven Pastoral Symphony, I'm thinking of a native wildflower I observe every Spring in May: Firepink my native child, briskly waving free and wild, return again to me. My fervent though of thee, flying down the lane so wild on my bike to see.

Next comes a famous composition that most people have heard and seen in one form or another: Tchaikovsky's Nutcracker Suite. Here the creativity of the animation is spectacular, each segment getting a new flavor with the name of the movement being preeminent to the form. Each selection sees nature come alive as a spell of fantasy spreads magic throughout the natural world with dancing Sugar Plum Fairies, Mushrooms doing their best Three Stooges impression in song, and the final Waltz of the Flowers, in this instance Summer becomes golden Autumn, and eventually the fairies ice skate their way into Winter. In the music I'm fascinated that I hear nuances never heard in the original film, subtle parts I want to hear again.

Micky Mouse was the inspiration for Disney's Fantasia, and he comes to life with Paul Dukas "The Sorcerer's Apprentice." I'm left wondering: which came first, the composition or the film? I know the answer, yet it's amazing how well the music fits the animation and vice-verse. Even down the the final part where the sorcerer pats Micky on the behind with the broom as he sheepishly walks away, as if the thud provided by the orchestra was written specifically for that ending scene.

After intermission comes the fun Ponchielli piece "Dance of the Hours" with dancing animals including Ostriches, Hippos, Elephants and Alligators, the villain being the Alligators. This makes me smile as I sit back and enjoy the music.

Debussy's "Clair de lune" was cut from the original movie, yet the PSO brought this beautiful pastoral piece to us with a lush live rendition of this slow music, this being a treat in that I don't believe I've ever seen it before. This time it was with two egrets elegantly souring above the swamps, and together on into the distance.

Finally, two pieces from Fantasia 2000, Elgar's Military March and Stravinsky's The Firebird brought this spectacular evening to a roaring conclusion, two of the best animations from that film. The Elgar with Donald Duck being separated from Daisy Duck while filling the Arc with the animals, and then being reunited at the end. This was emotional and well thought out.

The Firebird kindled a vivid journey through nature's regeneration after a volcano, well done again and well appreciated, the melody ran strong in my head well after the concert. Just as with the movie, being there made me feel as though I was standing at the podium with the conductor. "Again"-"Again", I want to see and hear it again and again.

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Too Few To Mention

It seemed like any other Saturday evening on my way to Heinz Hall to attend a concert with the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra. The traffic Heinz Hallwas not bad and I arrived almost an hour ahead of the performance.

Yet this time it was different - there were quite a few people walking along the streets of the cultural district, many were in costume. It's spring, yet I somehow it seemed more like Halloween.

I don't know exactly what was  the cause all of these young members of the millennial generation to be dressed up as they were, but I realized that between the numerous concerts, the Penguins playoff game, and whatever else was going on in Pittsburgh that it was going to be difficult to find a parking space.

I was right - I tried many different parking garages including the convention center, and they were all full. After about 45 minutes of looking and driving around the congested streets I decided I was not going to be able to make the concert, and unfortunately I left to go back home. Regrettably I didn't get there earlier, but I had no idea that this was going to be this situation.

I was looking forward to seeing this concert. Several days earlier I listened to an interview with Jim Cunningham with Music Director Manfred Honeck and his brother Rainer Honeck who debuted at Heinz Hall with the Britten Concerto for Violin and Orchestra. Rainer Honeck was last in Pittsburgh with Leonard Bernstein with the Vienna Philharmonic (Wiener Philharmoniker) 30 years ago, he has been the concert master for them since 1992 (Manfred also was part of the Philharmonic ). In the interview they said there was no rivalry between them at the time. Manfred said he was always impressed with the insights that Rainer gave him on how to play Mozart in the really Viennese style.

Manfred indicated that the program was designed for 'new elements' including the first time he performed with his brother Rainer in America. There was to be a world premier of Dvorak: Suite from Rusalka, a Concept by Manfred Honeck Arranged by Tomáš Ille, the first performance by the PSO of the Britten concerto. And the first time the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra would record the Tchaikovsky Symphony 6: one of my favorite selections.

One bright note for me:  On Monday morning Jim Cunningham did an instant replay of the third movement, a March: Allegro molto vivace, so I was able to hear part of the concert.  Apparently the last movement was very tragic.  I'll make sure I buy a copy of the CD once it is release so that I can hear the entire symphony.

Monday, April 13, 2015

Exhilaration of Notes

Conductor Manfred Honeck walked out onto the stage and announced that earlier in the week he received a text from Helene Grimaud, indicating that she was quite ill. She would not be able to come to Pittsburgh to play the Schumann Concerto in A minor for Piano and Orchestra. He said that she is a fan of the Pittsburgh Symphony and especially asked to extend her best greetings. Imagine, one day before rehearsals, going over the whole list of possible replacements.

Manfred Honeck indicated that Joyce Yang was able to fly in and begin to rehearse. An excellent choice, she offered more than just an admirable performance, it was profoundly brilliant! I was quite impressed at her ability to quickly re-familiarize herself with this quixotic composition. Strictly by memory, she exquisitely and adroitly played the challenging composition along with the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra and conductor Manfred Honeck. The result was deliciously stunning!

The first movement began with sweeping flow of boldly stated passages with give and take between the soloist and the orchestra. Tumultuous chords interrupted by a brief intermezzo, and the parts played by Yang alone seemed flawless, enough to bring a tingle to the sumptuous exhibition.

As the first movement drew to a close, there was a pause, then suddenly the audience began to applaud. Manfred Honeck turned, and with a quick thumbs-up, smiled, and turned to commence the second movement.

With this new, slower movement I tried to conjure in my imagination a soft parade of notes, marching along a temporal measure of strings, with various sounds appearing and re-appearing in dramatic succession, like an elliptical dance with repetition and harmonic development, a recapitulation to passages heard before, yet savored for one more flavor. The whimsical scherzo fraught with folly gave goose-bumps, and moved quickly into the finale with no pause or trepidation. A tempestuous sound romantically mixed and the familiar ending was the perfect way to conclude a stunning performance. A standing ovation was well deserved.

Thursday, April 9, 2015

Never Meaning To Send

Here I am at Heinz Hall awaiting the upcoming Moody Blues concert. At my seat I look below at the stage and I see a smoky aura wafting upwards - I realize they are using dry ice to emulate a smoky concert feel.

The orchestra pit is filled with people and at first I believe that those are orchestra musicians from the Pittsburgh Symphony ready to play along with the Moody Blues, but then I realize instead that those are other patrons who have been seated there to watch the concert just like myself.

My impression that the orchestra would be playing
along with the band perhaps originated from a concert many years ago that was billed as having the PSO play along with the Moody Blues. I assumed that the same thing would be on tap for this evening but to my slight disappointment that was not to be.

I have been in a lifelong fan of the Moody Blues going all the way back to the early albums of the sixties and seventies. I've got most of those on long playing 33 1/3 vinyl records and I've listened to them over and over for many years. Their music is somewhat of an enigma just like their name. Moody as in 'moody' or not quite upbeat and Blues as in 'blue' or perhaps sad. Yet the amalgamation of the two names moody and blues becomes upbeat and happy in my estimation. Now they are a legendary trademark, just the "Moody Blues."

Each hearing of their music is a temporal masterpiece painted upon my visceral brow bringing lush pinpricks of joy and deep feelings of poetic harmony. The sound is symphonic, melodic and spectacular. It's hard to separate them from the rock band genre, and the symphonic element interlaced with that sound.

Almost indescribable sounds emanate to penetrate the either, providing lyrical passages which the listener can often identify with, like "nights in white satin" or "letters I've written never meaning to send," "beauty I've always missed with these eyes before."

Poetry in motion always flowing always fresh never growing old and now I'm glad I am finally seeing them live in concert. It's hard for me to believe that it has taken me all these years to do so and I'm glad that I did because being here in person is a genuine treat.

The lighting on the stage and even projected into the audience is something I have not seen since many years ago - the last time I had gone to a rock concert - its been that long because I've pretty much been into classical music. Oh what a difference between this kind of concert and the classical here at Heinz Hall. This concert is so very loud, but I have to admit that I used ear protection to prevent ringing in my ears. The decibels are so loud I can easily detect clipping of the amplified audio making for unnatural distortions. If they had only turned it down a bit the sound would have been so much better. Yet I forgive them, as I am so excited to be here.

The music of the Moody Blues has always seemed to me to be very close to orchestra type music. It almost sounds as if there is an orchestra in many of their songs and I suppose that's why I also felt like an orchestra ought to be playing along with them, but the lack of the orchestra did not matter because I was so thrilled to see the band that I love.

Justin Hayward's voice is amazing. In fact John Lodge and Graeme Edge - all of their voices are really good especially considering their age. I wonder how they are able to keep their voices so fresh after all these years especially considering that they perform in concert every year.

"Tuesday Afternoon" and "The Question" are two songs in which Hayward must maintain a note that goes up and down for a very long period of time, presumably taking a very deep breath. He is still able to do a pretty good job of it - it's amazing.

If one would envy another, would it be for their appearance, or perhaps for their youth, or maybe for their wealth? I can admit in my case it's none of those but that I envy the voice of Justin Hayward - The Voice - Voices In The Sky - still amazing after all these years.

I made a list of the songs they played for the concert:
  1. Gemini Dream
  2. The Voice
  3. Steppin' in a Slide Zone
  4. You and Me
  5. Gypsy
  6. Nervous
  7. Say It With Love
  8. Peak Hour
  9. I Know You're Out There Somewhere
  10. Story In Your Eyes
  11. Your Wildest Dreams
  12. Isn't Life Strange
  13. Higher and Higher
  14. Tuesday Afternoon
  15. I'm Just a Singer (In a Rock and Roll Band)
  16. Late Lament
  17. Nights in White Satin
  18. Question
  19. Ride My See-Saw
Check out this segment of Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous
Interview on CNN 1986 

Monday, March 9, 2015

Firebird's newer splendor, uncovered here again

When perusing the program notes for the concert I just attended last Saturday at Heinz Hall with Manfred Honeck conducting the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra, I discovered to my delight that two of the selections were All About Birds, in a sense. Birding is a hobby of mine, not as adamantly as some, but in a fun way whenever I get a chance. So here I was ready to listen to and discover for myself a new work which integrates actual bird calls with music.

If you want information All About Birds, try The Cornell Lab of Ornithology. Locally there is the Carnegie Museum and the National Aviary. In my backyard there a many migrants that pass through every Spring and Autumn and of course the many residents of Summer and Winter are easily identified. What I like most is listening to and being able to recognize each bird's song or call, often without even seeing the bird. I learned to recognize many species when I helped with the Second Pennsylvania Breading Bird Atlas a number of years ago.

I've never been able to visit or hear the sounds of birds from the Arctic. Are you my Mom? That's why it was a thrill to experience this concert which highlights these sounds. Finnish composer Einojuhani Rautavaara recorded the songs of Arctic birds, which are integrated into his Concerto for Birds and Orchestra, Cantus Arcticus. The birds I did not recognize, and some of their calls were hauntingly eerily alien, not like anything I've heard before. The fascinating way which the composer interwove the birds with the orchestra peaked my interest, yet I found myself trying to discern just the orchestral music, and I found it to be quite interesting all by itself, as if it didn't even need the birds to support the body of work, but the amalgamation was as beautiful as either of the parts.

But I have to return the the beginning of the concert: Mozart's Sinfonia concertante in E-flat major for Violin, Viola, and Orchestra with Noah Bendix-Balgley and Randolph Kelly. I often ask myself what it would have been like to have been there centuries ago to experience this music when it was new. Then I realize that it was probably uncommon for anyone to hear these concerts, as only the rich or well-connected would be able to do so. So my answer is that today we have the best opportunity through prerecorded music, and concerts such as the ones at Heinz Hall to really hear, for all of us, the best of classical music. And this performance was breathtaking, both soloists blended well together and with the rest of the orchestra, lead by conductor Honeck. This morning on WQED-FM I heard an instant replay of the 3rd movement recorded Sunday, and I could sense the difference between hearing it live at the concert hall versus on the radio. Live I could hear the sounds coming from each of the sections of the orchestra, it wasn't stereo, but an experience whereby each point, each source of sound can be instantly tasted, and my attention can be quickly placed precisely where I desire, both seeing and hearing together to savor the essence. This did not happen with hearing on the radio, yet it does have it's own advantages, like being able to instantly adjust the sound at will with the volume control. Or to listen over and over if it's a CD or recording.

The final performance of the evening was another selection All About Birds, so to speak, only this time it was one big bird: The Firebird. There was a short movie before the concert began with Manfred Honeck and some of the members of the orchestra describing their ideas of the upcoming performance. For instance, Principal Harpist Gretchen Van Hoesen showed us literally how much time and how often it takes her to tune up the harp before a performance, and the beauty of its sound when done just right, and as a contrast, the dissonant sounds that could come if not tuned correctly.  It was fascinating for me to hear from Kelsey Blumenthal, member of the PSO first violin section that timing is an import aspect for the musicians, so that, for example, when they are resting, it's not quite as restful as it might seem because they are counting to make sure the join back in at precisely the right instant.

Stravinsky: Suite from The Firebird (1919 revision) was the main attraction to say the least. This music is captivating to me, a walk through nature in so many ways, harmonious to all the aspects of nature and melodic in its formulation. I listen to this music whenever I can, and to hear it with the Pittsburgh Symphony is one of my all time treats that I've savored and hope to do again.

I saw this on a building that I photographed in Rothenburg ob der Tauber a few years ago, and it reminds me of Classical music:
Der Alten kunst gar lang versteckt, hab ich hier wieder aufgedeckt. Das sie nun lacht in neuer Pracht, Und mir und andern Freude macht.
Long ago the art the ancients hid, I've uncovered here again. She now laughs in newer splendor, and makes for me and others joy.

Sunday, February 1, 2015

Romance: Softly Rejoined Melody

Romance: It happens here: A Night in Russia, That's how the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra has billed this evening's concert.

It's always my pleasure to enter Heinz Hall seating area, meandering through multitudes of patrons mingling or searching for their seats, each of us as anxious as the other to experience the upcoming performance. After a prolonged period of cacophonous warm-up, the first selection was about to begin.

Appearing on stage were conductor Krzysztof Urbański and Noah Bendix-Balgley and immediately they commence the first selection: Khachaturian: Concerto for Violin and Orchestra. I noticed the first movement had frequent changes in tempo. Mr. Bendix-Balgley was impressive, this is an excellent concerto for him to show off his extensive artistry.

The first movement I noticed an orchestra melody solo and another counterpoint. Then followed a exuberant intermezzo solo.  Mr. Bendix-Balgley was seemingly able to achieve robust, stirring sounds of harmony with only his violin. As the movement progressed, at times there was allegro and others softly rejoined melody. I noticed a vigorous descent from the orchestra, then tentative uplifting contemplative passages replete with the aforementioned romance.

After taking some time to re-tune his violin (the first movement was a complete workout for him and this instrument), the second movement began. I could hear the clear soft solo tones from his violin, yet later there were a few hints of slight dissonance, perhaps built into the composition, but the full tones that followed, accompanied by a flirting flute ruled the texture. Orchestra up tempo brought loud momentary volume followed by a passage with low-pitched violas only, a Russian sound deeply textured.

Soon the recognizable third movement came with robust melodic form demanding bravado. All together an extremely well present concerto, which I fully enjoyed. After a standing ovation, for encore he played a little tune he called Yismekhu. I hadn't heard of it before, so I asked him how to spell it at intermission where he was signing autographs. I'm glad he is still around with the Pittsburgh Symphony for now, after recently being appointed 1st Concertmaster of the Berlin Philharmonic, I wasn't sure.

After intermission came one of my favorite symphonic creations of all time - Pictures at an Exhibition orchestrated by Ravel and written for piano originally by Mussorgsky. First, though, was a presentation with WQED-FM’s Jim Cunningham and conductor Krzysztof Urbański, describing differences between the original piano versus the Ravel orchestrated versions. This included small demonstrations so that we could actually hear the differences. I had never heard the piano version before, and it was amazing in two respects. First, the piano rendition was amazing.  Second, the way that Ravel could transform each part, ascribing different instruments to just the right parts and components, bringing it all together into an amazing congruous whole, now that was impressive exhibition!

As for the pictures, these photos were taken by my friend Miki Sarkozi before the concert and after intermission. The string ensemble appeared prior to the concert, they were students or alumni of Grove City College and played quite well.

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Ladies and Gentlemen: Yankee Doodle Mozart

At Heinz Hall on Friday the program included Aleksey Igudesman(violin) and Hyung-ki Joo(piano) along with Manfred Honeck conducting the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra. I was anxious to attend, and I really didn't know what was in the program, yet I knew it would be genuinely entertaining.

The first selection was the always entertaining Bernstein Candide Overture, stunningly familiar, and much better in concert then I've ever heard pre-recorded.

Then the pair of entertainers walked on stage, ready to go. I could see it was going to be tongue-in-cheek humor to adorn the broadly classical program for the evening. Mr Joo seemed to take the lead with a zany form of comedy, followed by Mr Igudesman in more of a straight-man role, although both were funny.

I noticed that Conductor Honeck was very much into the comedy throughout the evening, often turning with broad smile to await their completion to continue with the music, which mixed very well with their routines.

I'm calling this post: "Ladies and Gentlemen: Yankee Doodle Mozart." Often Mr Igudesman would introduce the next piece with "Ladies and Gentlemen: Mozart." The first time Mr Joo asked the audience if they'd rather hear James Bond music, and Mr Igudesman asked for Mozart - both received applause. Eventually he'd play Mozart on the violin and it would transition into the James Bond theme with the orchestra.

Another inventive amalgamation included music from Rachmaninov and Eric Carmen (All By Myself) which included singing and lots of humor.

Mr Igudesman did a fantastic job singing a wonderfully orchestrated version of Uruguay.

After intermission came one of my favorite parts, a world premier PSO commission called "An Austrian in America" introduced by Honeck: "Can you guess who it is about?" There were 5 parts including 1). Overture, with Strauss interspersed with Copland, 2). Schubert Loves America (America the Beautiful with Schubert), 3). Yanky Doodle Mozart, 4). Oh My Darling Johann Strauss and 5). Stars and Radetzky Forever.

Another of my favorites was the Ennio Morricone "Fistful of Dollars" done by the pair in their own unique way. That's something not often hear live in a concert hall.

Another very funny part was with Rachmaninov's Prelude which according to Mr Joo, requires big hands, which he did not have (but only hands). So their solution? Mr. Igudesman  handed Mr Joo wood planks with fingers positioned in just the right places so that when Mr Joo placed them on the keyboard, it would play the notes for him.

The orchestra also got into the music, several times rising to the comedic occasion with some players joining the pair on stage for dancing.

I congratulate Manfred Honeck, as Music Director, and the rest of the Pittsburgh Orchestra for bringing a program filled with both classical music and broadly entertaining humor.

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Valčuha and Benedetti with the PSO

Saturday's performance with the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra was the second time I've had the pleasure to experience the beautiful sounds of the violin played by Nicola Benedetti at Heinz Hall. In March 2011 she performed Poeme for Violin and Orchestra by Ernest Chausson and the Tzigane for Violin and Orchestra by Maurice Ravel. If those seem somewhat obscure, then Saturday's performance of Szymanowski: Concerto No. 1 for Violin and Orchestra was perhaps as much or more. Benedetti, at least in Pittsburgh, does not seem to play only the well known repertoire, and has knack for bringing these lesser known works to the audience here, and I admit that I'd never heard any of them before. The beauty of her technique was even more developed than the last time. Her ability to bring perfect pitch to really high notes, and yet expand the dynamic range of the entire instrument was a delight.

At intermission I stopped to get an autograph from Ms. Benedetti, and I asked her the name of the piece she played for an encore. It was slow, sublime and melodic. She said it is on her CD 'Homecoming', called Auld Lang Syne Variations arranged by Petr Limonov.

The conductor I've seen here several times before. He's young and energetic, yet subtle and seamless. In 2012 he lead the PSO in "The Utmost Embodiment and Rhythm of Nature" with Ravel's Mother Goose Suite. In 2010 I first saw him conducting a performance of "The Mermaid" composed by Alexander Zemlinsky described in my post "Vast oceans of harmonic bliss". This Saturday's was just as thrilling. Rachmaninoff's The Isle of the Dead is a journey with many interesting aspects.

As I said, it was a thrilling evening, if you missed it you should make a note not do so the next time. Did I mention the beautiful emerald evening gown she wore for the performance and the contrast to her beautiful long hair?

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

What is the greatest?

What is the greatest? When it comes to classical music, which composition should be considered the greatest? Would it be one that you would say is better than all the rest? How fine a line should we draw when we determine what is the greatest? Who's symphony was the greatest? What concerto, classified by violin, piano or any other kind instrument? We could even draw finer lines and say perhaps we'll only compare movements.

Some have said that Brahms 4th symphony slow movement is the greatest of that kind of genre, but what about the slow movement of Mozart's Piano Concerto number 21?  Would one say that the greatest finale should be Beethoven's Symphony number 5 with that fantastic ending which never seems to end -- it continues on and on with even more uplifting notes to the point where you don't want it to end, but it does.

What is the greatest symphonic poem? Could it be perhaps Franz Liszt's Les Preludes? If you've never heard it please do. Strauss waltzes are perhaps the greatest, yet this all must be subjective according to our individual taste. Our tastes are temporal for we find that over time what we deem to be the greatest will likely change.

An individual might not like what the collective group picks in the aggregate to be the greatest, yet must we accept that there is some validity in that group think? When we view the outcome of the vote we see that those are typically amongst the greatest, and that probably influences our perception as well. When we view in a vacuum the choices, it may come out differently.

To me all of classical music is the greatest. I've grown to like it more and more. And even though I'm biased, I think that the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra under the leadership of Manfred Honeck is the greatest. 

The other night I heard three compositions. I took detailed notes for the first composition by James MacMillan: Woman of the Apocalypse 

Since I've trained myself to be attuned to a new composition over the many years I've been coming to Heinz Hall, I was able to direct my attention to the details of the all the elements, the individual sections of the orchestra, that made up that new piece. Here I wrote my thoughts just as I recorded them, in raw form.

I did that because as I read through the thoughts, I can envision in my own mind those memories that were formed when I heard each part. I can recollect the vague yet concrete thoughts I had at the time, and I can almost re-hear some of the parts again. No matter how eloquent and how many words, it would be difficult to describe music to another. Yet if that other has also heard it before, then we could use the words as a baseline to remember and communicate the musical thoughts.

The night was just beginning because I was looking forward to the Beethoven Romances as played by Noah Bendix-Balgley and the orchestra. I've got all these on CD and listen to them often. I wasn't disappointed. Bendix-Balgley's rendition was beautiful. The tones were so pure and sublime, I can listen to it anytime.

Finally the Brahm's Symphony No. 4. What can I say, it's the greatest, but not THE greatest, all the music was.

Sunday, June 8, 2014

Hear the Pittsburgh Symphony Live at Heinz Hall just one more time

James MacMillen "Woman of the Apocalypse"
Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra
Manfred Honeck, conductor

Naked Strings commence
Percussion joins
Dissonant Horns fledglings hatch
Piano transcends
Drums ravage common tempo
Trombone segway her entrance
Cello stumbles
Bells ascend
Bass girds
String screech like an owl
Trumpets enunciate
Big O notes from Trombones emancipate
Drums roll thunder
Slowness descends
Piano and woodwinds ripple
Xylophones harmonize
Trumpets Sustain
Violas Scarily announce
Trepidatiosly drumming
Cellos grind
Horns accent
Percussion train has arrived
Revelry ground
Fluttery sounds underground
Grand scale top
Wood Xylophone promenade
Brass Dominates
Conductor yields ascending lines
Magical variations as the wand waves
Culminating Revelry like bees swarming
Darting hither and thither, pouncing, gone
Principle Mastery in unison
Yet dissonant sounds unavoidable
Shifting gears
Shattered grandeur
Strings enunciate
Flying heights
Woodwinds enjoin
Final Ascent
Hectic Hay-day
Resolving to naught
again Naked Strings
as in the beginning, so it is again
Monotone metronome drum
Heart beat methodically
volume, fullness
Louder, ready to Burst

Before I die...

Conduct a Mahler Symphony,
Be Happy,
Make a Difference,
Make a Better World for Everyone,
Fight a Lion,
See Alaska,
Go To Hawaii,
Run in The Boston Marathon,
Marry My Love,
Go To Outer Space,
Form a Band,
Sky Dive,
Be Rich,
Make My Parents Proud,
Live in Africa,
Be My Own Boss,
Be a Millionaire,
Fall In Love,
Just Succeed,
Carpe Diem,
Be Free,
Be the Best Dad Ever,
Become a Runner,
Save a Life,
Write on a Giant Outdoor Chalkboard,
Live Life to the Fullest,
Own a Ferrari,
Climb Mount Everest,
Goto Med. School,
Make the World a Better Place,
Marry Prince Charming,
John 3:16,
See Brewers Win,
Be a Kid,
Get Super Powers,
Become Immortal,
Dance the Cha Cha,
Find a Cure For Breast Cancer,
Be a Pokemon Trainer,
Be a Robotics Scientist,
Visit all 50 States,
Change The World,
Find Narnia,

How about:
Hear the Pittsburgh Symphony Live at Heinz Hall just one more time

Sunday, June 1, 2014

Drumroll please: Vivaldi's Four Seasons


Nicholas McGegan, conductor
Ye-Eun Choi, violin


Vivaldi: The Four Seasons for Violin and Orchestra, Opus 8, Nos. 1-4
Mozart: Chaconne from Idomeneo, Rè di Creta, K. 366
Haydn: Symphony No. 103 in E-flat major, "Drumroll"

A great concert! The Four Seasons was particularly good and Ye-Eun Choi was marvelous on violin!