Commentary: What We Do

Raymond Tuttle of Fanfare raised some seldom addressed questions recently about the subjectivity of music criticism. Those questions lead to even greater mysteries, I find. It isn’t often asked, for instance, why music exists at all, but that’s surely where one has to begin, if it is to matter what we say about it. 

Alan Gilbert conducting TMC Orchestra in Masterclass. Photo Hilary Scott.

B-list Works Take Center Stage (Again): Fauré, Still, and Sibelius

The A-list contains works that are already familiar to most concertgoers either through live performances or recordings. Their presence on programs means that audiences can anticipate their experience and compare their expectations with what they actually hear, for better or worse. The B-list, however, consists of works by composers which may be familiar, but which are less often performed, and therefore may offer listeners a first-time concert experience. Such was the case with the program offered by the TMC Monday night at Tanglewood. Membership in the B-list does not imply second-rate quality; it simply means that those responsible for programming (orchestra managers, conductors, commissioning bodies) have less faith in such works to attract audiences who like to know what to expect.

Yo-Yo Ma, Leonidas Kavakos, and Emanuel Ax. Photo Hilary Scott.

Not Quite Lost in Space: Kavakos-Ax-Ma play Beethoven

Yo-Yo Ma pointed out that the trio arrangement that Beethoven made of his Symphony no. 2 allowed musical amateurs to experience this work at home in lieu of the (rare) opportunity of hearing it in a live performance. The arrangement was published many years before the orchestral original was performed outside of Vienna. It was meant to be played and heard in a domestic space in which scale of its gestures would present themselves in the correct proportions, filling the salon with what, for its time, was its larger-than-life energy and personality. 

A Crop of Recordings XXXV: Bernstein, Barber, Crawford, Schuman, Rachmaninoff, Sibelius, Scriabin

I’m always intrigued when European orchestras take up the cause of American music, a simple enough notion to understand semantically but difficult at the stylistic level for continentals to adopt idiomatically. Our music’s frequent combination of seemingly naive musical prayerfulness with ungoverned explosive energy has typically left European musicians a bit puzzled, and the Teutonic world at times more than a little stiff and earnest. So I wondered about this release. Could the Swiss sashay down Broadway with that long-legged swagger and impudence implicit in so much of American life? Could Lucerne really let go?

Baiba Skride

Birds and Dvořák Sing to Each Other: we get to listen

It seemed that concert life had returned to normal, even though the audience was clumped into socially distanced groups separated by empty seats and the intermission was replaced by a short pause. The crowd before and after the music milled about without much presence of masks, and the musicians on-stage sat in their normal configuration. Even the lawn looked well-occupied, despite the steady drizzle, with groups on blankets sitting under umbrellas. The concert began without much ado, Andris Nelsons and the musicians launching enthusiastically into Carlos Simon’s brief and rousing opener, “Fate Now Conquers,” bringing the chatter and bustle of the audience to a halt. 

Matt Haimovitz

Springtime and Jazz Provide the Caffeine: an Evening of Modern and Contemporary Music at PS 21, Chatham

Matt Haimovitz is a one-man contemporary music impresario, as well as a virtuosic and versatile cellist. Unlike older-school virtuosos, he is thoroughly attuned to current trends in both composition and historical performance practice, as attested to by his Zoom webinar master-classes during this past strange year. The pandemic has not put a damper on his musical activities; if anything, it has had the opposite effect. Monday night’s concert included a demonstration of some of the outcomes of his on-going activism on behalf of new music. 

A Crop of Recordings XXXIV: British Harvest—Britten, Bridge, Berkeley, Bliss, Walton, Vaughan Williams

It’s rare that a recording for strings alone wows listeners as a sonic blockbuster, but I celebrate this one from its first plucked, throbbing, filigree-laced chords. John Wilson has effectively reconstituted the Sinfonia of London, known to many in fond memory for Sir John Barbirolli’s unsurpassed 1962 LP of Vaughan Williams and Elgar. Wilson has set himself up for recording purposes in St. Augustine’s Church, Kilburn with stunning results. I don’t think I have ever heard an acoustic more flattering to strings. He also exercises tact in not trying to reproduce the magic of Barbirolli’s program, bringing us instead string works by four of the major “B’s” of twentieth century English music. Only Bax is missing.

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