First published: November 12, 2006 on Berkshire Fine Arts
I’ve been harping on acoustics in my past few reviews, not only as a personal crotchet (which I must own), but because the issue has been cropping up of its own accord. It’s particularly frustrating that Chapin Hall at Williams is so fine to look at, while its sound it is so dismal, but to be fair, it was built for academic pomp, not music. What’s more the acoustically outstanding auditorium at the Clark is not often used for music. However, Berkshire County people are lucky to be in easy reach of several halls which are among the best in the worldÃ‚Â—I mean not only Symphony Hall in Boston, or the wonderful Seiji Ozawa Hall at Tanglewood, but Mechanics Hall in Worcester (1857, sadly underused for music), the Sosnoff Theater at Bard’s Fisher Center (2003), which I’ve already discussed on several occasions, and the Troy Savings Bank Music Hall, also on the Hudson, built between 1871 and 1875 to the designs of George B. Post. It’s not the only concert hall to have been constructed as a multipurpose building, but its vaulted roof and Greek temple which dominate the rooftops and steeples of this once grand commercial city is unusual. Its acoustics are legendary, and I’ve wanted to hear music there for some time. I’m grateful that my responsibilities to BFA have allowed me to give it a priority, and I’ll most certainly come back regularly to hear this great hall, the excellent Albany Symphony, and as many as possible of the other compelling events it hosts.
However, this wasn’t my only discovery of the evening: the ASO is a joy to hear; guest conductor David Lockington is first-rate; we heard the premiere of a fine new work by British composer Philip Sawyers; but above all there was an all-too-rare performance by a superb violinist who has been scarce in recent years, Dylana Jenson.
As you enter the Music Hall, you’re likely to encounter a friendly doorman, who clearly knows some of the patrons. He reassured one prosperous-looking gentleman, “Tonight’s going to be a good one, a really great one!” As you enter the rather cramped vestibule (The original grand entrance disappeared in a 1923 renovation.), you see an elevator shaft sheathed in black marble, and behind it the bank, decorated with a genteel panorama of nineteenth century commercial life on the Hudson. To the left and right are stairs leading up to the Music Hall on the third story. The auditorium itself, which seats about 1250, would seem intimate, if it were not so tall. With two balconies and triple tiers of boxes and russet walls, it would recall the cortile of a Roman palazzo, if it weren’t for Post’s unmistakeably American ornament. The stage has no proscenium, only a curved lip about eighteen feet over the floor to reflect sound, and is broad and shallow, not quite fifteen feet deep excluding the apron, which wasn’t used. This means the orchestra was spread out in an extremely narrow space. Either Mr. Lockington or the orchestra’s custom placed first and second violins together at the left with cellos at front right with the double basses behind them. I was delighted when American orchestras began to abandon this seating in favor of the older tradition of split violins, but in this hall clarity is no problem, and besides, all the music on the program was well suited to this arrangement: Sawyers, Goldmark, and Sibelius all made use of bunched string passages with first and second violins developing particular harmonies and textures together.
Before the first work on the program, Philip Sawyers’ “The Gale of Life,” began, Mr. Lockington brought the composer on stage to introduce it. Responding to the request for a fast, energetic curtain raiser, he said, he looked to Berlioz as a model, particularly his brilliant overtures. For a program, he took a passage from Houseman’s “On Wenlock Edge.” We need the context to make sense of it.
Then, ’twas before my time, the Roman
At yonder heaving hill would stare:
The blood that warms an English yeoman,
The thoughts that hurt him, they were there.
There, like the wind through woods in riot,
Through him the gale of life blew high;
The tree of man was never quiet:
Then ’twas the Roman, now ’tis I.
If Vaughn Williams’ vocal setting of the entire poem and others from “A Shropshire Lad” is famous, it doesn’t matter. Sawyers’ orchestral approach is entirely his own. He translates Houseman’s image of the stormy wind into a thoroughly convincing rhapsody for a large orchestra, just as he transmutates Berlioz’ orchestral idiom into modern musical language. By modern I mean a period reaching back to the Great War. If I were to hear the piece blind, and someone told me that it was composed in 1935 or 1955, I should probably believe him. This is not a criticism in any way. It is an extremely well-wrought and effective piece, and I enjoyed every bar. If it is old-fashioned, it is old-fashioned in the best sense. Recently, during the Liszt Festival, it occurred to me how Brahms was accused of being old-fashioned in his lifetime, but considered advanced a generation after his death. In any case, the audience loved it. Also, it was refreshing to hear a recent work with such a full-blooded title and subject as this after having heard in recent months music based on Sydney Harbour cruises, Sesame Street tunes, and a bat on saoko.* “The Gales of Life” was full of complex textures for full orchestra and rapid tempi, which were always under control and clean, thanks to the considerable skills of Mr. Lockington and the ASO, as well as the transparent acoustics of the hall. There is nothing lush about the sound. It is extremely clear and balanced, and the ASO’s considerable range of color and texture always came through intact. Goldmark and Sibelius benefitted equally from this sober but comely sonic environment.
The late romantic First Violin Concerto in a minor (1877) of Karl Goldmark (1830-1915), while regaded as something of a staple by violin enthusiasts, doesn’t appear all that often on concert programs, and perhaps it’s best appreciated as a rare treat. With its fluent unfolding of moody romantic melodies contrasting with diligent contrapuntal sections and march-like outbursts, the concerto remains an attractive piece, in which some of the greatest violinists have not only displayed their technique, but their taste and musicianship as well. A few months ago I was surprised to hear a direct connection to Mendelssohn in a piece composed by Joachim Raff in 1872, and here it is five years later, seen through Wagnerian spectacles with highlights of folk-like tunes from various parts of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Goldmark’s handling of the dialogue between soloist and orchestra is not without its peculiarities, if not some clumsiness. The violin enters early with the principal theme of the first movement and rambles on with countertheme and lengthy passagework only to cease abruptly at an aggressive interjection from the orchestra, like a loquacious guest at a dinner party who suddenly notices glazed eyes and decides to stop talking. In the development of the first movement the violin ceases and allows the orchestra to indulge in a lengthy fugal passage as a sort of orchestral cadenza, leading directly into the violin cadenza, which in turn leads to the recapitulationÃ‚Â—a little clunky, but not ineffective.
In the Music Hall’s crystalline acoustics every detail of the orchestral parts came through. Nothing was hidden, and it made Goldmark’s orchestral writing actually seem more interesting than it does when masked by reverberation. Mr. Lockington and the orchestra showed impeccable control. He showed particular sensitivity in his interaction with the soloistÃ‚Â—which is not surprising, since he is her husband. Ms. Jenson’s playing was of the highest order in every way. With a silvery tone, which was not inflated with undue vibrato, she played Goldmark’s tunes with elegant phrasing which was both expressive and poised, and the passagework with absolute control, always maintaining a modest balance with the orchestral accompaniment and avoiding any hint of showiness. This is musicianship of the highest integrity, which shows deep respect for the music, whether it is Bach or BrahmsÃ‚Â—or, well, Goldmark. Above all, her playing was marked by a sense of the long, overarching line, which made one theme or idea to flow directly from the last, as if it were a continuous stream of melody. This poise and flowing line reminded me of a great violinist, whom I couldn’t remember at once. It came to me soon enough, Nathan Milstein. When I read Ms. Jenson’s biography during the break, I wasn’t surprised to read that she had studied with Milstein, and that he was the primary influence on her playing. In her tone there is also a hint of David Oistrakh, another master she particularly admires. There is absolutely nothing imitative about her style. She has fully absorbed these lessons and made them part of her own mature musical personality. Her serious and undemonstrative approach was not lost on the audience, who gave her a long, loud standing ovation, joined by the members of the orchestra.
Dylana Jenson, so named after the Welsh poet, lives in Grand Rapids, Michigan, where Mr. Lockington is music director of the symphony orchestra and she is established as a respected teacher at Grand Valley State University. While it is wonderful to learn that Grand Rapids has cultural resources other than the renowned twenty-four foot high cast of a horse designed by Leonardo, it is a sad misfortune that Dylana Jenson’s playing has not been heard by a wider audience. She became quite well-known as a child prodigy and played with major orchestras at an early age, winning the silver medal at the Tchaikovsky Competition at the age of seventeen. In 1972 she made her Carnegie Hall debut playing the Sibelius Violin Concerto with the Philadelphia Orchestra and Eugene Ormandy. They then made a recording of the work for RCA Victor, the first fruit of a ten-year recording contract. However, the career was suddenly blocked by an event which may seem odd to us today. She had been playing a magnificent Guarneri instrument on loan from a collector, on which her dusky tone was much admired. As soon as she announced her marriage to Mr. Lockington, the collector demanded it back, claiming that if she could see herself as any man’s wife, she couldn’t possibly be serious about her career. Her path to the Zygmuntowicz instrument she now owns was long and arduous and inevitably interrupted her career. For more I’ll refer the reader to a fascinating online interview with her, in which she makes many wise comments on music and musicians.
Dylana Jenson’s next public performance will be the Brahms concerto, which she will play with the Indian Hill Orchestra in Littleton, Massachusetts on April 28, 2007 at 7.30. No one who loves the violin should miss it.
Mr. Lockington’s Sibelius Second was right on the mark. The textures were spare and clear, as all music seems to be in the Music Hall, with poignant nuances of instrumental color giving expressive contour to Sibelius’ hardy sonorities, which he made no attempt to soften. He kept up the flow from the very beginning, avoiding any exaggeration of the intense fragments of the first subject. His focus in the extended development and the ASO’s playing were splendid, and I can’t think of a better measure of an orchestra’s playing and hall acoustics than that passage. The pacing and phrasing in the slow movement were ideal. Again the refusal to soften the sound or to indulge in clichÃƒÂ©d romantic gestures was particularly welcome. In the scherzo the rapid figures in the string became a little muddled, a fault which would probably have gone unnoticed in Symphony Hall. The Music Hall sound is not oversized or overloud, and he didn’t try to press it, although it did grow quite massive towards in the final climax of the last movement. The affinity between his musicianship and Ms. Jenson’s became quite apparent, as he spun out magnificent arching lines, and in the last movement his understanding of Sibelius’ slow, subtle series of build-ups (first revealing themselves as early as F in the score) in combination with his long phrases was truly powerful. The ASO seemed to enjoy him as much as he them, and again they joined in with the enthusiastic audience.
Afterwards, I found myself daydreaming about what David Lockington would do with Brahms. I’d love to hear his Fourth.
But this is not the end of my story. In great spirits and enjoying the unseasonably warm night air outside the Music Hall, I found I was not yet ready to leave Troy. I decided a pint of one of Brown’s excellent beers was in order, so I tentatively rolled through the maze of one-way streets to the brew pub by the Hudson, not far from the Church of St. Peter and Paul, where Mass is celebrated in Latin every Sunday (once a month with pretty decent music). With Sibelius still ringing in my ears, however, the last thing I wanted to hear was bad bar music, and I thought it just warm enough to slip out on Brown’s terrace if things weren’t musically right inside. As soon as a got through the door, I heard a raspy baritone over an interesting rock accompaniment, which grew more intriguing as I listened. “What drums!” I thought. As I filed through the crowd, rounded a corner and got close enough, I saw a burly singer with a shaven head, a guitar player who looked like Donatello’s Baptist, and an gentle giant of a drummer, sporting a mane of white hair and a flowing beard on his massive jaw. It doesn’t take long to recognize good music, and, fascinated, I made slow progress to the bar, where I ordered a porter. I stayed much longer than I planned, well into the second set, wrapped up in their particular biting and joyous take on blues/rock.
The name of the group is Folding Sky. The lead singer is Mark Emanatian, and the drummer is Al Kash, who began his career in Australia, with Garry Piambino guitar and Tom Dolan bass. They will be back at Brown’s on Friday, December 15 at 8.00 pm. Mr. Cash also plays with the Rumdummies, another regular at Brown’s, performing there on Friday November 17th at 9.00 pm.
*a potent Cuban drink, composed of cocoa and rum. To be honest, I did hear Liszt’s “Les Péludes” at Bard, which is as high-minded as anyone could wish.