Monday, February 13, 2012

Orpheus Chamber Orchestra with Jean-Yves Thibaudet, Piano. February 11, 2012.

Stern Auditorium at Carnegie Hall, Section Parquet Right (Seat Y14, $25).

Divertimento on "Sellinger's Round" (1954) by Michael Tippett (1905-98).
Piano Concerto No. 1 in C minor, Op. 35 (1933) by Shostakovich (1906-75).
   Louis Hanzuk, Trumpet
Pastorale d'ete (1920) by Arthur Honegger (1892-1955).
Serenade for Strings in C major, Op. 48 (1880) by Tchaikovsky (1840-1893).

Today’s concert had a somewhat unusual start time of 7 pm.  We left at around 5 pm, and got to the parking garage in less than an hour.  We actually had time to walk around a bit after a quick dinner at Lilies 57.

In general I don’t understand how a concert program is put together, and in today’s case it is even more puzzling.  Inclusion of the two pieces by Russian masters is obvious enough, but how the pieces by Tippett and Honegger fit in escapes me.

Not that there is anything wrong with either of them.  To celebrate the coronation of Queen Elizabeth, Benjamin Britten asked six composers to contribute to the Variations on an Elizabethan Theme, with the theme a famous tune (Sellinger’s Round) from the time of QEI.  Tippett wrote the second variation, A Lament.  He then went on to write additional movements to generate a complete piece.  Each movement quotes another British composer: (i) Orlando Gibbons (1583-1625): Fantasia for Strings; (ii) Henry Purcell (1659-95): “Dido’s Lament” from Dido and Aeneas (this is the movement in the QEII tribute); (iii) Thomas Arne (1710-78): “Preach me not your musty rules” from Comus; (iv) John Field (1782-1837): Nocturne in D minor; and (v) Arthur Sullivan (1842-1900): “I have a song to sing, O!” from The Yeoman of the Guard.  Since I do not know any of the quoted pieces, I cannot say how direct the quotes are.  The music is interesting, but not awe-inspiring.

The inclusion of the Honegger piece is even more puzzling.  Honegger, whom I also had never heard of before, was anointed as a member of “Les six” in 1920, the year he wrote this “Summer Pastoral,” by a French music critic Henri Collet.  At seven minutes it is a short piece.  It is generally quite slow, with the composer trying to paint a picture of a lazy, relaxed summer morning.  Nothing wrong with that, but again not awe-inspiring.

One would expect a full orchestra (say 12 first violins) to accompany a solo work of one of the modern masters such as Shostakovich.  For tonight’s performance we have a total of 25 of so musicians, five first violins.  With a large orchestra I often complain about the piano being overwhelmed, with a small one the opposite result would be expected.  Indeed that turned out to be the case, although the overall effect was okay.  Compared to the Brahms violin concerto I heard them play last, the group was much more together, even though the music can be characterized as being more chaotic.  Go figure.  The concerto itself is quite short at an advertised 21 minutes, and consists of four movements: Allegro moderato, Lento, Moderato – Allegro con brio.  The third movement was very short and continued as the fourth without pause.  As the Program Notes says, the piece contains a plethora of ideas and does not follow a standard concerto form.  I find it quite interesting, although I wonder how it would come across if it had a larger development section to it.  In any case, the overall effect was more traditional than I expected.  Even though he needed the music in front of him, Thibaudet turned in a delightful performance.

Another interesting aspect of the concerto is the quotations from Beethoven.  I could hear the one form the Appassionata Sonata well enough , but have to defer to Anne when she said she recognized the one from The Rage over a Lost Penny.  There is also a significant trumpet part in the concerto, though no so much to warrant an equal billing with the piano.

After the intermission a WQXR announcer (Elliott Forrest? I am not sure) came on the stage and interviewed a couple of the musicians about the Tchaikovsky piece.  One relayed that they did a spontaneous performance at Chicago O’Hare when they were snowed in at that airport; the other said he had played at every chair for this piece, and how things were always a bit different every time. (Turns out he led this performance.)  I know this piece very well, having played a movement of it as member of my high school orchestra at a competition (which we won, hands down: my school has dominated the orchestra category for at least 40 years.) The four movements are (i) Pezzo I forma di Sonatina; Andante non troppo – Allegro moderato; (ii) Valse: Moderato (Tempo di Valse); (iii) Elegia: Larghetto elegiaco; and (iv) Finale (Tema Russo): Andante – Allegro con spirit.  The piece is easy to listen to, and evokes the spontaneity with which Tchaikovsky composed it.  The performance was enjoyable, but I am not sure it was that much better than when our school orchestra played it.

The concert was reasonably well attended.  Interestingly, quite a few people left after the first half, and more did after the first piece of the second half.  I can understand leaving after Thibaudet’s performance, but continue to scratch my head why they didn’t stay for the Tchaikovsky piece.

After the concert we drove to Jersey City to visit Ellie and Kuau in their new apartment overlooking the Hudson and Manhattan.

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