Steven Stucky (1949-2016). Photo Hoebermann.

Trans-Atlantic Sympathies: opening night at the Festival for Contemporary Music, 2016

The director of this year’s Festival of Contemporary Music, Steven Stucky, was a fine composer whose music occupies a centrist position in the American musical landscape, not only in his prominence, but equally due to his traditionally-oriented style. Stucky’s premature death last February at the age of sixty-six deprived this year’s festival of a director and the music world of a distinguished voice, but in the FCM programming his musical personality is apparent. Imaginative and resourceful, his music has an appealing surface, a familiarity of materials, and a clear and direct emotional appeal, speaking to the influence of mainstream American composers like Aaron Copland.

Vasily Petrenko and Joshua Bell in a Russo-English Program with the SF Symphony: Shostakovich, Tchaikovsky, Glazunov, and Elgar

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!

The Boston Symphony Orchestra’s 2011-12 Season Schedule and Preview

Mark Volpe and his organization pulled off an impressive feat in creating this season at such short notice. Former Music Director James Levine submitted his resignation only after most symphony orchestras, including the BSO, have established their programming for the next season and published it to waiting subscribers. Add to that the need to corral a feasible number of potential candidates for the open position of Music Director. The Boston Symphony’s 2011-12 is not only solid and nutritious, it is even rather exciting—apart from the added piquancy of the search. The fall will be mainly given over to guest conductors who have worked with the BSO for many years, or at least a few times in the past. The serious contenders for the permanent position will begin later on.

Béla Bartók

Esa-Pekka Salonen and Christian Tetzlaff in Bartók with the Philharmonia at the Royal Festival Hall

The saint of Bleaker Street. Morose, manic, and methodical. They all alliterate with Magyar, the Hungarian spirit that ran through Bartók, and each term applies to his music. But the saddest match would be martyr. In God’s calculus of gifts, to those who suffer most, the most is given. Bartók’s soul must have believed in that formula. Like the other two titans of modernism, Schoenberg and Stravinsky, he was triply alienated, being a genius, an expatriate, and a logician of the abstruse. All three composers were forced to deal with their complex fates, yet Bartók made of his a via dolorosa.

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