Four Evenings in Finney Chapel
By Daniel Hathaway
In order to provide raw material for the first Rubin Institute for Musical Criticism, Oberlin College compressed four of its Artists Recital Series concerts onto four adjacent evenings, creating what could truly be called a Critical Mass. Everybody got to be a music critic last week — from the ten Rubin Fellows selected from a fall term Introduction of Musical Criticism class to the all-star panel of national critics, to the audience members who submitted overnight critiques for consideration by the teaching panel for the Public Prize. Taken together, the four concerts amounted to a celebration of the Oberlin Conservatory's impressive impact on the world of music. Here's our take on the four performances. To read what others thought, the Fellows' reviews and the eighteen top public reviews can be found on the Rubin Institute website, and another overview appears on Oberlin English professor (and CC.com correspondent) Nicholas Jones' blog.
The Cleveland Orchestra took the first slot on Wednesday evening, January 18, pride of place for an ensemble that has played annually on the 133-year-old Artist Recital Series since 1919 — just half a year after the orchestra was founded. Music Director Franz Welser-Möst led the ensemble in the first three movements of Smetana's My Vlast, Kaija Saariaho's Orion and Shostakovich's Symphony No. 6. From my rather unfortunate listening post in the 3rd row right of center, I had an excellent read on the viola section but a distorted sense of overall balance and ensemble. General observations will have to suffice.
FWM and the orchestra seemed not to have adjusted comfortably to the acoustics of Finney Chapel — odd when you consider how frequently they have played this sonically excellent venue. What the readings of the Smetana pieces lacked in nuance they made up for in sheer volume of fulsome tone. Shostakovich was generally loud and FWM pushed the orchestra to deafening levels of sound toward the end. The only moments of sonic repose came in parts of the Saariaho — which calls for an immense orchestra of quadruple winds and gobs of percussion — surely the most varied soundscape on the evening's menu, and the orchestra played it exquisitely. This ensemble can play down to a whisper when asked to, but there were many missed opportunities to explore the whole range of dynamics on Wednesday.
Pianist Jeremy Denk graduated from Oberlin in 1990 with a double degree in piano performance and chemistry, and has gone on to become one of the more fascinating figures on the concert circuit. A complete musician who seamlessly combines intellect, emotion and physical prowess into a single musical persona, Denk also fit right into the Rubin proceedings because of his own dynamic writings about music (see his blog, “Think Denk”).
He's also fearless, having not so long ago played both books of Ligeti Etudes in the first half of a Carnegie Hall recital and chased it with Bach's Goldberg Variations in the second. His Oberlin program on Thursday evening was not quite so much of a marathon, but still presented major challenges both for performer and audience: Two Bach Toccatas, Beethoven's Eroica Variations, Ligeti's first book of Etudes and the last Beethoven Sonata, Op. 111.
The Bach Toccatas (BWV 912 in D and BWV 910 in f-sharp) were models of introspection and sounded genuinely improvisatory. The Beethoven variations were both playful and profound, dryly witty and quietly virtuosic. Mr. Denk brought out a score and a page turner for Ligeti and prefaced his performance with pithy remarks and brief demonstrations of each of the six pieces, which he went on to play with assured fluency and crystalline clarity. Beethoven's 32nd and final Sonata showed his unusual ability to make sense out of sprawly forms. The Arietta (hardly the diminuitive movement its title suggests) has often run aground in other pianist's hands, but under Mr. Denk's command, the ship sailed gracefully and safely into port. What to offer for an encore after that monumental work? Charles Ives was Mr. Denk's sensible and imaginative choice. The Alcotts from the Concord Sonata provided just the right balance of profundity and cheeky wit to close out the evening.
Apollo's Fire, founded and directed by Oberlin graduate Jeannette Sorrell, revived one of its standard programs for its Friday evening performance (as well as for two Cleveland area shows and a forthcoming tour). “Earth, Wind & Fire: Rameau and Vivaldi Do Battle With Nature” brought baroque takes on phenomena of the natural world inside the walls of Finney Chapel. Thirteen string players, two flutists, a guitarist and a theorboist joined Sorrell and second harpsichordist Peter Bennett in striking concertos and representational works by Jean-Féry Rebel, Antonio Vivaldi, and Jean-Philippe Rameau.
The concert began and ended with anachronisms: Conrad Kocher's For the beauty of the earth and René Schiffer's Pachelbel Canon-like La Beauté de la Terre (credited under his nom de plume, “R. Duchiffre”), sung first from the balcony, later from the stage by the teenaged trebles of Apollo's Musettes with a bit of support from adult members of Apollo's Singers. A Sunday School staple, the tune seems only to have served the purpose of creating calm before the jarring initial chord of Rebel's representation of chaos (Les Elémens).
Apollo's Fire played with its customary flair but seemed underpowered for the performing space. Best were René Schiffer & Steuart Pincombe's spirited duel in Vivaldi's Concerto in g for two cellos and Sorrell's orchestral arrangement of his energetic, La Follia, played from memory with rather more restraint than I remember from earlier, more unbridled performances. Flutes added a lovely flavor to two movements from Rameau's Les Boréades. Sorrell's arrangement of Vivaldi's Tempo impetuoso d'Estate for harpsichord vs. orchestra was an interesting idea that didn't come off. Concertmaster Olivier Brault exuded Gallic temperament in Vivaldi's La Tempesta di Mare but lost control of too many pitches and phrases. A touching addition to the program was Sorrell's playing of a Froberger Lament in memory of her teacher, Gustav Leonhardt, who died last week.
As one might have predicted, the International Contemporary Ensemble drew a less than capacity crowd on Saturday evening. Even though ICE was founded at the Oberlin Conservatory, fear of contemporary music probably kept a lot of Artist Recital Series regulars away.
Four pieces by Iannis Zenakis ranging from 1979 to 1997, two works by Oberlin composer in residence David Lang including a first performance, and a group improvisation work by Scottish composer George E. Lewis comprised Saturday evening's program. All were played with complete assurance and command by the Chicago and New York-based, mixed ensemble of winds, strings, brass and percussion (only soloists were named in the program). Steven Schick, who also conducted the later works, led off with a dynamic solo work, Lang's 1991 Anvil Chorus, scored for junkyard instruments of the performer's choice which included brake drums, metal pipes and a variety of kick drums.
Cory Smythe was the accomplished piano soloist in Xenakis's 1979 Palimpsest, and Joshua Rubin the resonant bass clarinet soloist in Xenakis's Échange from 1989. Both works inspired a variety of fascinating conversations between soloists and ensemble. Later in the program, Xenakis's Thallein (1984) conjured memories of Hitchcock's Psycho, and O-Mega (a little over three minutes long and the last thing Xenakis wrote) was touchingly valedictory. Lang's new work, my international, which required the players to sing a version of the old Soviet anthem, The International, was dirgelike despite an overlay of swirling woodwind garlands.
Lewis's Artificial Life will be different every time it's played because it leaves many decisions up to the players. On this occasion, they had great fun with its improvisational possibilities, including cuckoo sounds, musical giggles and some amusingly rude brass commentary.
Four evening of such varied fare provided a lot to write about. But as a concluding thought: does every classical music concert need to start at 8 pm, last two hours and include an intermission? A lot of the programming for these four evenings suffered from that seemingly immutable format, either having been padded with unnecessary repertory to fill out a full-length program, or by interrupting a musical mood merely for the sake of taking a 20 to 30 minute break. The ICE concert was particularly striking: here is an ensemble committed to contemporary art forced (or forcing itself) to fit its material into the strictures of a 19th century format. On Saturday night, it took some time to put one's ears inside the sound world of Iannis Xenakis, a connection that was broken by the intermission. How much more thematically compelling might it have been had these four concerts each been planned to run from 75 to 90 uninterrupted minutes with, in the case of ensembles, well-planned stage resets (ICE had that part of giving a good show neatly figured out).
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Published on ClevelandClassical.com January 26, 2012
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