Two Orchestral Concerts at Chapel Hill: Tonu Kalam conducts the UNC Symphony Orchestra; Vladimir Ashkenazy conducts the European Union Youth Orchestra

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Tonu Kalam
Tonu Kalam

The University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill
Memorial Hall

Wednesday, April 11, 2012
UNC Symphony Orchestra
Tonu Kalam, conductor

Higdon – “Light”
Hovhaness – Symphony No. 2, “Mysterious Mountain,” Op. 132
Dvorak – Symphony No. 5 in F major, Op. 76

Friday, April 13, 2012
The European Union Youth Orchestra
Vladimir Ashkenazy, conductor
The Carolina Choir, Susan Klebanow, director
Louise Toppin, Andrea Moore, Terry Rhodes (sop)
Maurio Hines (replacing Anthony Dean Griffey), Tim Sparks (ten)
Richard Banks, (bar)
Clara Yang, (pn)

Copland – An Outdoor Overture
Beethoven – Fantasy in C minor for Piano, Chorus and Orchestra, Op.80
R. Strauss – An Alpine Symphony, Op. 64

Every so often it does an “armchair musician” good to step away from being a critic in life—to abandon an unforgivingly abstract, digital and lofty perfectionism—and look instead into the world of young musicians in love with music and personally engaged in its making. That was my motive and mindset in visiting the UNC campus last month. It did not hurt that my oldest school friend, Tonu Kalam, has been conductor of the UNC orchestra for many years and that he, his fiancée, Karyn Ostrom (who plays violin in the ensemble), and their “attack-cat” “Dolce” were my generous and expansive hosts in idyllic surroundings.

Prof. Kalam supervises an orchestra which has the advantage of being immense, but whose refinements over the many years invariably disappear with the awarding of a diploma. At least 65 of its members are not even music majors. And yet the quality of execution is astonishingly high. (Indeed, there were moments during his concert when one might have been forgiven for thinking oneself in the presence of Ashkenazy’s fully professional-sounding European Union Youth Orchestra.) Indeed, several members of Kalam’s orchestra were invited to play sitting in with the EUYO for its concert.

Over the years, it has become apparent that Kalam’s musicianship combines inspiration with firm but affable efficiency, and an increasingly accomplished cadre of students has been drawn to the university as a result of his way with the music program. I had the opportunity of sitting with Kalam’s youthful Assistant Conductor, Ian Passmore, during the orchestra’s final rehearsal touch-up, and came away with a sense that the admiration which brought him to UNC for study with Kalam had in no way diminished. Passmore’s prior experience has been primarily with brass bands, and he has found expanding his repertory and technique at UNC worthwhile under Kalam’s direction. I did not get to see him work, but given that he rehearses Tonu Kalam’s orchestra at times, some of the credit for its fine performance is surely his.

Indeed, spontaneous comments from several of the musicians pointed to Kalam’s being the best rehearsal conductor they’d ever experienced. They were grateful, in particular, to note that he doesn’t stop the orchestra unless there is a specific musical change he wants to make. It is the curse of some fairly high level conductors not to know exactly what they want—and hence simply to say, “Let’s try it again.” Edo DeWaart was like that when he was Music Director in San Francisco. It drove the orchestra crazy.

No surprise, then, to say that the UNC concert was a beauty. Jennifer Higdon’s “Light” was a perfect, symmetrical and indeed very lucid piece for an opening. I made the mistake of telling Kalam that it sounded in places “like sad Benjamin Britten.” “It sounds like Higdon,” he said. So much for an armchair listener with one ear tilted towards the past!

The Hovhaness was simply stunning—better than either of the two Gerard Schwarz recordings, and a joy to hear live in concert. For those unfamiliar with it, imagine an American “Thomas Tallis” Fantasia in three movements filled with otherworldly sounds from the celesta and featuring a wildly exciting fugue. Its big climax at the end of the second movement can sometimes seem abrupt. Kalam found a way of making it appear cumulative, without a massive ritard not indicated in the score. His timpanist and brasses were superb at the critical moment for this. To introduce the music (in lieu of a printed program), Kalam had spoken briefly but amusingly about the commissioning of the Hovhaness in 1955. It had only been named “Mysterious Mountain” because it had to be named something. And because Leopold Stokowski had insisted it have an Opus number, Hovhaness made one up! So don’t go hunting for Opus 131 or 133. They probably don’t exist!

I was even more impressed to hear the UNC account of Dvorak’s Fifth Symphony. There’s a very good Riccardo Muti performance of it on YouTube with the Bavarian Radio Orchestra. But this was better. Muti’s Dvorak can sound slightly too Italian in places. Tonu Kalam had the full measure of the piece. The great leap forward in Dvorak’s symphonic canon has to do with learning to compose in a long line. The first four symphonies are only fitfully successful at this and tend to revolve around small jerky motifs. But with the Fifth, Dvorak enters his full maturity. I happen to know that Kalam admires suppleness in the Vienna Philharmonic strings, and it was just this sort of warm and fluid playing the UNC audience had the privilege of hearing. The applause could not have been more enthusiastic!

Two nights and much good fellowship later, Memorial Hall was lit up again, this time for Vladimir Ashkenazy’s eager European Union Youth Orchestra. The program began with Copland’s Outoor Overture—music which once would have sounded stilted and wooden under the fingers of European musicians. Not this time. If you are looking for signs of globalization, surely one of them is the ability to adopt the music of others with complete idiomatic security. And these musicians had a perfect feel for the “Broadway snap” which characterizes so much American music of its era. They might as well have been the New York Philharmonic under Bernstein.

The “Choral Fantasy” of Beethoven, which followed, featured UNC faculty member Clara Yang in the fiendishly difficult piano solo which opens the piece. Back in his student days at Curtis, Tonu Kalam used to conduct this work for Rudolf Serkin every year at Marlboro. Serkin, he told me, would drop whole cascades of wrong notes. So if the piece sounded slightly effortful to these ears, that is no criticism. Yang, the Chorus and the soloists were excellent, and the whole “dry run” for the finale of the Beethoven Ninth was warmly appreciated.

The Alpensinfonie, which followed intermission, was as good as any performance of it I’ve ever heard, and better than some. Strauss knew what he was doing, and there is no opportunity for eccentric tempo changes, or the sort of start and stop drama conductors routinely undertake in a composer like Bruckner. What the piece requires is an ability to get the right musical thread “lined-up” in front of the listener’s ears—in music where a lot is always happening at once. “At last I have learned to orchestrate,” wrote Strauss in 1914, after the premiere. No kidding!

Vladimir Ashkenazy conducts the European Union Youth Orchestra with Janine Janson, in Mozart, Violin Concerto No. 5 in A Major, K. 219, at the Proms, 2006

The difficulty of the music is of some interest, because Vladimir Ashkenazy has become a renowned conductor without any real training as such, and a certain awkwardness in his motions has made his technique or lack of same an item for some discussion among critics. There is no question his manner is proprietary! Ashkenazy beats time with his right elbow tucked into his hip, as if he were holding an umbrella under his arm and trying not to drop it while fumbling with his keys. Because he is fairly short and can’t (or won’t) extend his right arm, Ashkenazy has to reach way up with his left to cue the orchestra and shove his pelvis to the left in order to do it. The net effect is of a man doing a rain dance with his hips, while repeatedly hailing a taxi!

And like the actress Natalie Wood, who New York movie critic John Simon once explained was a bad actress, because she gave “too many false cues” with her facial expressions, Ashkenazy has a tendency to conduct individual notes, rather than entrance cues. A number of the European Youth Orchestra members were easily found at Kalam’s concert two nights earlier—smoking at intermission—I’m sad to report. But it gave me the opportunity to ask how they liked Ashkenazy. “Oh, he’s wonderful, we like him, etc.” was the usual reply. But when I asked, “Is he easy to follow?,” the answer was always a hesitant “No”!

Even so, the program brought down the house, and when the Europeans launched into “Coming to America” from West Side Story for an encore, they might as well have been the LA Phil, minus Dudamel and the twirling double-basses!

The good fellowship of the evening carried over into an enjoyable after-party reception, where the star of the evening was clearly Joy Bryer, the American-born Londoner who is the force behind the EUYO. This remarkable powerhouse of a woman, in her late eighties, I was told, was a fabulous master of ceremonies, upstaging everyone with charm and praise, including the UNC Chancellor and Vladimir Ashkenazy himself, who hid his face behind his hands at the fulsomeness of her words. But the high point of the party surely took place when Bryer called to the front of the room and individually thanked the UNC orchestra student players who had sat in with the Youth Orchestra, awarding them each a small token. One rather beautiful and curvy young woman was called forward and congratulated. As she was handed her award, Joy Bryer’s voice boomed out with the sort of brazen daring only the English can manage: “Wear it on your wonderful chest!” If the ceiling could have blushed, it would have!

But these words, like so many of the sounds heard over these several days, were a delight. There is something to be said, in this cool and digital Ipod era of detached MP3 sounds, for the presence of actual musicians in one’s life. And it is rejuvenating to view in the eyes of the young one’s own love affair with music—passed on down the generations.

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