These people look too thin to be from Cleveland!,” growled a reptilian voice behind me. A pretty safe comment to make about almost any American city these days—but as the Cleveland musicians took the stage last Sunday, I couldn’t help thinking there was something inherently unified, lean and reserved about their demeanor.
The chamber music fairy can touch any group anywhere, it seems, whether or not they have masses of recordings with prestigious labels, or a ‘high profile’ (in fact I don’t think she even reads the newspaper or listens to recordings). Even so, the Tinalley String Quartet knows their music backward and forward, as if there were no phrase or note they hadn’t rehearsed, discussed or thought about, or just intuitively understood on the moment. They are a very tight group, the sum total of their sound shows care and understanding, as if their feel for and ideas of the music span it vertically, horizontally and diagonally on any diagonal the composer cares to involve, particularly so in the Bach Art of Fugue pieces and the fugal last movement of the Haydn quartet. The close acoustic of the room only reveals the nuanced detail in their ensemble sound and the unique colors and textures of their group’s voice, very sonorous and woody, rounded and well seasoned, rich, but one where all the instruments are clear and yet combine into something greater than the sum of its parts. The favorable acoustic of the smallish room helps, and I suspect chamber music, especially the string quartet, often comes across more strident in tone than the ideal intentions of the artists when played in a larger concert hall shared with orchestras, but a small room like the Utzon Room would only reveal flaws or empty spaces in an inferior group or a less thoughtful and personal interpretation. Here the room was merely complementary, as if just subtly lifting something already there. It was a remarkable mature performance for any group, let alone one so young (founded in 2003 at the University of Melbourne) with musicians as young as they are (all in their late 20s or 30s), but one isn’t really aware of such mundane temporal qualities when they play.
Hats off, ladies and Gentlemen! A conductor! And a great symphony!
Vasily Petrenko’s recent electrifying week with the San Francisco Symphony reminds the listener that Gustavo Dudamel is not the sole “conducting animal” to be found on the musical circuit these days. Esa-Pekka Salonen coined the term a while back, with the impassioned Venezuelan in mind. And indeed, Dudamel is the sort of refreshing performer who has the winds jumping to their feet like jazz musicians and bass players twirling their instruments. He is all about emotion as vitality. But physically, apart from the energy with which he beats time, his manner is unremarkable.
The fascination of Petrenko, by contrast, is his ability to reflect every quivering moment of the music somewhere on his face or body, as though he were a disembodied hologram. We joke about people who are “double-jointed.” But Vasily Petrenko might as well be quadruple-sprung and then some…this is a man who’d have no trouble tapping three heads, rubbing five tummies and signalling with numerous eyebrows at the same time!
This recital was part of New Marlborough’s enterprising “Music and More” series, directed by Harold F. Lewin and now in its twentieth year, which has certainly succeeded in its stated intention of “bringing a diverse and distinguished group of authors, actors, musicians and films to the Berkshires.”
Beethoven completed the Variations, Op. 44 in 1792, long before he undertook the task of setting the world to rights. It is remarkable that a year after Mozart’s death and while Haydn was regaling London with a succession of masterpieces, this young man of twenty-two could write music that sounds like Beethoven and could not be mistaken for a product of either of the two older masters. The variations are by turns elegant, soulful, sparkling and exuberant, and the performance characterized them beautifully.
Marlboro Music—once again—is celebrating its 60th anniversary, which I have already celebrated in an extensive retrospective article last year. The revered summer music school and festival has a peculiar double anniversary, because its inaugural year was very small indeed, and rather precarious. In the second year, everything was more organized, both in scheduling and financially, and the cherished summer event took off, to become what it is today—which, miraculously, is not terribly different from what it was sixty years ago. It is larger and more professionalized, but it still retains its original feeling of intimacy. The younger participants—they are not called students—still have the same extensive rehearsal time with their mentors. And the public can still look forward to concerts of the highest quality, in which seasoned masters and their less-experienced colleagues make splendid music together.
In this production, though, a Metropolitan Opera premiere conducted by Valery Gergiev, the main attraction is the design by South African artist William Kentridge. It is a vibrant environment of projected stop-motion animation, graphic odds and ends, charcoal sketches, streaks of red and black, snippets of vintage newspaper and encyclopedia, agitprop slogans in a kitschy font. The dynamic projections, evoking the modernist, avant-garde style of Soviet artists of the 1920s and 30s, take on a mischievous life of their own. At their busiest, eye-candy elements shift and dissemble and transform in mesmerizing ways.
Russian sorrows. Valery Gergiev took a risk programming two works about grief in one concert. He was counting on the cumulative effect of a large choral piece, Schnittke’s Nagasaki, and a massive symphony, the Shostakovich Eighth. Or perhaps the unquenchable Russian penchant for melancholy was at work. The Proms audience expected to take their medicine from Schnittke, whose mature style is often assaultive, while glorying in the London Symphony’s virtuosic display in the Shostakovich. As it happened, Gergiev’s risk paid off with a complete triumph.
Half a loaf. In my hobby as a conductor maven I’ve long been interested in Semyon Bychkov since he popped to international notice when the ageing von Karajan mentioned the then thirty-something as his successor in Berlin. Semyon who? Considering that Bychkov’s principal jobs through the Eighties had been in Grand Rapids, Michigan. and Buffalo, New York, he was definitely a rabbit being pulled from the hat. Berlin didn’t award him the magic phone call, but the Leningrad-born conductor, who fled the Soviet Union for political reasons and became an American citizen, was rising quickly. He spent the Nineties as principal conductor of the Orchestre de Paris and made some high-profile recordings for Philips with no less than the Berlin Philharmonic. They weren’t ready to hire him, but they knew a star in the making.