Miranda Cuckson and Conrad Tao held the stage at PS 21 on two successive Friday nights as part of a series of mostly contemporary music concerts at the semi-open stage in Chatham NY, on August 28 and September 4. Both performers captivated their audiences with superb focus and transcendent technique, conveying a fierce commitment to contemporary repertory that gained force by virtue of the context of the pandemic. Played to masked listeners seated in a distanced pattern, the intense performances knitted musician, audience, and composers together into a powerful matrix of expressive power and imaginative adventure.
On Sunday February 16, Ronald Gorevic and I will complete our year-long project of performing all ten of the Beethoven Violin Sonatas, which we began last March. It has been a great journey, letting us discover new perspectives on familiar works and familiarize ourselves with works that we had not played before.
It was wonderful to realize that there are no “lesser” works in this canon; the ones that are infrequently played are actually unjustly neglected, but every sonata is great Beethoven, full of his power, intensity, gravity, tenderness, and humor (actually, a surprising amount of humor!).
After attending the fully staged performance of Korngold’s opera Das Wunder des Heliane and the concerts of the second weekend of the Bard Korngold Festival, I arrived a distinct sense of the shape of the composer’s career trajectory and of the development of his unique musical sensibility, one which I suspect the festival programmers might not have hoped to suggest. To the extent that Korngold’s name is familiar, it is owing to his powerful, compelling, and influential Hollywood film scores. The unique, invaluable Bard Music Festivals usually aim to take us beyond and behind the headlines associated with its central figures and to give us a means to re-evaluate them in a more nuanced way, in the context of their less familiar works as well as those of their contemporaries. In the case of my encounter with Korngold, however, the result was a strengthening of the general view that this composer was born to compose film scores.Up to now, Korngold’s non-film music has not been completely neglected.
A graph showing the reputation of Sibelius’s symphonies in the 20th century would look like a fever chart. When he wrote his first symphony at the very end of the 19th century, the composer was still struggling for recognition, and it took another decade for his work to receive international attention. Once that happened, his reputation rose to that of a composer whose music held the greatest interest for orchestras and audiences during a period when the early modernists were generating more polarized responses.
Imaginative programming matched by imaginative performances marked a surprising and satisfying evening of solo piano music at Tannery Pond Concerts. There is a mini-vogue for Rameau’s keyboard music, originally written for harpsichord, but currently being performed on piano, offering virtuosi surprising opportunities to show off their chops. There are You Tube video performances by Grigory Sokolov, Alexandre Tharaud, Clément Lefebvre, and Kyu Yeon Kim. Playing harpsichord music on the piano is a long-standing practice, but with increased awareness of the originally intended instrument and its unpianistic characteristics (including razor-sharp attack, lack of graduated dynamics, ultra-transparent textures and absence of sustaining pedal) pianists have had to make strategic choices whether to emulate some of these traits or to ignore them and use the full resources of the modern piano to interpret the music in ways that would have been unimaginable to the composers. An interesting debate hinges on the question of whether this latter choice would have been unacceptable to the composers, or on the contrary, delightful.
As complex as they are on the page, Ives’s violin sonatas need powerfully imaginative interpretations to come fully alive, ones finely attuned to the composer’s unique sensibility, background, and musical idiom, ready to embody a spirit of exploration, experimentation, and even improvisation. Performances can err on the side of a traditional, European (i.e. Brahmsian) approach, such as the recording by Rafael Druian and John Simms, made in the ‘50’s, a streamlined modernist approach e.g. Paul Zukovsky and Gilbert Kalish, from the ‘60’s, a showy, virtuosic approach, like that of Hilary Hahn and Valentina Lisitsa from 2011; or they can find a balance among these that incorporates American vernacular fiddling traditions, like Gregory Fulkerson and Robert Shannon from 1989. All of this is required if these works are to cohere and succeed in communicating their emotional contents to an audience.
After the sparkling performance of George Gershwin’s little gem of variations on one of his most popular songs, an audience member asked her husband “Do you want to stay after intermission?” Certainly the atmosphere had been more that of a Pops concert with hearty applause after the first movement of the concerto as well as an ovation at the end; but at that moment it struck me that the ears that savored the pleasures of Gershwin might not relish the kaleidoscopic astringencies of Stravinsky. The much less enthusiastic audience reception for the ballet score affirmed this, despite a performance that capably revealed the colors and shapes of this astonishing breakthrough work.
The job of a critic has two elements: the first is to report the facts of a performance: what was played, by whom, and what the music and performance were like in objective terms, as far as possible (never fully successful); and the second is to offer some judgments about the quality of both music and performance. This second part is fraught with difficulties: judgments are necessarily subjective, and yet in order for them to be useful to the reader, they need to be justified in terms of the values upon which they are based, especially since the critic is fully aware that his/her long-held prejudices (euphemistically called convictions) are not necessarily shared by readers.