Tag Archive: Bach

BEMF 2013: Review: Feeling the Elephant’s Ear

The BEMF Orchestra.

No one can review the Boston Early Music Festival. Critics must select what time, physical energy and mental attention allow from the one hundred and forty plus musical events, exhibition offerings, lectures, etc, that are encompassed by the official festival and its very prolific offspring on the “fringe,” whose events are included in the official program book. (Schlepping the 300 + page book to events gets to be another physical challenge.) This assessment of the scope, size, and character of the event is based on random selection and personal bias. As a keyboard player, I favored keyboard events to the point of taking in a series of concerts rather than running from one venue another. In a few cases, I wanted to see performances by people I know. I also seem to have listened to a lot of Bach. From this random sampling, I hope to convey something of the range of performers’ skills, repertory, ideas, and innovations attached to the concept of “Early Music” in this year’s festival. But this report is only the elephant’s ear; others will have to deal with the rest of the creature’s anatomy.

The Thinking Virtuoso Pianists play in New York, Part I: Hamelin and Hough

Marc-André Hamelin. Photo Fran Kaufman.

There was a time when the virtuosity of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries seemed on the wane. Vladimir Horowitz was perhaps the one who ushered it out slowly, over more than one temporary withdrawal from performing and growing criticism of his magisterial approach, as it fell out of fashion. On the other hand, pianists of his generation, like Louis Kentner, and younger pianists like Alfred Brendel and Leon Fleisher, who were technically the equals of Horowitz, chose to focus on purely musical values, using their powerful techniques to bring difficult, but less pyrotechnic works to audiences, for example, the more serious Liszt, Schubert’s late sonatas, and Beethoven’s Op. 106, the “Hammerklavier,”

Minsoo Sohn in a Masterful Recital of Webern, Brahms, and Bach Variations at Carnegie Hall

Minsoo Sohn

This simple, but finely crafted program of variations for keyboard instrument by the brilliant young pianist Minsoo Sohn, whose work I have followed for several years, was an important concert. It was not Mr. Sohn’s New York debut, but it…
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Emanuel Ax Plays Bach and Schoenberg with the New York Philharmonic and Alan Gilbert…and Mozart’s “Linz” Symphony

Alan Gilbert and Emanuel Ax presenting the Schoenberg Piano Concerto. Photo Chris Lee.

I was so delighted by Emanuel Ax’s performance of Schoenberg’s Piano Concerto with the Tanglewood Music Center Orchestra under Ken-David Masur that I didn’t want to miss an opportunity to hear him play it again. They created a crystalline texture with their alert interactions, with all the incisiveness of the best chamber music playing. Not exactly what one associates with the New York Philharmonic, as excellent an orchestra as they have been, since Kurt Masur’s t years, but, in my experience, Alan Gilbert is strong with twentieth century Music, and it seemed like a promising combination to say the least…and it did work, although in a way quite different from the Tanglewood performance.

Osmo Vänskä and Alisa Weilerstein Collaborate with the Sydney Symphony — Tchaikovsky, Prokofiev and Beethoven

Inviting guest musicians Osmo Vänskä and Alisa Weilerstein to the Sydney Symphony makes an artistic match the muses approved of, not to mention the heavens. They only came for three performances in Sydney, and how they found time to rehearse this dense program thoroughly is a mystery to me, though a shared musical spirit and understanding seemed to be on their side in this performance. It was a rare conjunction of various uncontrollable elements. The program too is very interesting. The Sydney Symphony has found a ‘new’ Tchaikovsky piece, apparently never having played Voyevoda before, and has not played the Prokofiev sinfonia concertante for 40 years. Beethoven is always interesting (at the very least), but here we have a unique interpreter of his symphonies in Vänskä, who seemed even to find in Beethoven hitherto unheard connections to Prokofiev.

The Australian Brandenburg Orchestra Led by Riccardo Minasi Plays Vivaldi, Zelenka, Sardelli, Fasch on Period Instruments

The Australian Brandenburg Orchestra specializes in playing Baroque music on period instruments, though they often include earlier 16th and later 18th century music too, but for this program they have taken a cross section of late Baroque Italy and Germany selecting pieces all from the 1720’s and 1730’s (or in a similar style). They have also invited Roman violinist Riccardo Minasi to direct and conduct the orchestra with a program of interesting Vivaldi concerti as well as the much more obscure Jan Dismas Zelenka, who was only rediscovered around the middle of the last century, though his 300th birthday in 1979 passed without any celebration from the recording industry (according to Early Music). A Bohemian originally, Zelenka played double bass for the Dresden court orchestra, later composing for the royal chapel, then for a short while acting as Kapellmeister. The ABO plans to play a bit more of his music next year, a sample of his church music. They have also announced for their 2012 season Monteverdi’s L’Orfeo in concert, which is wonderful news for Sydney operaphiles who now at least have three operas to look forward to next year — L’Orfeo, Tchaikovsky’s Queen of Spades with Ashkenazy and the Sydney Symphony and the Pinchgut company’s production in December. Baroque music, especially in the serious and exuberant way the ABO plays it, is lively, vigorous and sanguine but without violence or forcefulness. In this way Baroque music has much to teach humanity of the 21st Century.

Alice Tully Hall Opening Nights: Coming Home – Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center

Starr Theater, Alice Tully Hall. Photo Iwan Baan.

Any one who did not experience the Upper West Side in the late 1960s, when Lincoln Center was nearing completion, or who has forgotten, might read Saul Bellow’s Mr. Sammler’s Planet. There was an apocalyptic feeling in the air—more palpable than anything the Bush administration tried to conjure up— as one negotiated panhandlers, muggers, hippies, and refuse, as one made one’s way up and down Broadway. These public phenomena have not vanished, but New York had reached a peak of dysfunctionality, and western civilization seemed to be self-destructing at a fierce boil: cities were decaying around the country, reading and writing seemed doomed to obsolescence, tv was king, and a lot of people were worried about the cultural partnership of drugs and music. In a few sentences, Bellow conjures up what all this felt like on the street. Exposed glass walls seemed no more than an invitation to vandals, and check points were beginning to appear in the seedy lobbies of public buildings.

The public part of Lincoln Center, which was already finished, tried all too hard to emulate Rockefeller Center as an urban landmark, and in design the Palazzo della Civilta Italiana in the EUR, but it seemed frigid, ugly, and vulgar. The fountain in the piazza between the New York State Theater, the Metropolitan Opera, and Philharmonic Hall invited minor mischief—the sort of thing drunken Americans do in Rome—but it failed to humanize the exposed space, which was especially dire as cold winds whipped through it in January. New Yorkers weren’t ready for open urban spaces yet, but, as bigger and even less hospitable spaces were opened up around the World Trade Center, they began to colonize them. The more business-like parts of Lincoln Center, still under construction, were by nature and function private spaces, and hard, brutalist façades seemed an entirely appropriate gesture. Juilliard was among those private spaces, and, if one attended a public event (They were also many private ones.) in Alice Tully Hall,the approach was an entirely different experience from, say, going to hear the New York Philharmonic. One entered the old Alice Tully Hall rather ignominiously through a squat entrance lobby, which was buried under a platform, itself dwarfed by a mountain of classrooms, practice rooms, and offices. Raised up by gallows-like piers, the Juilliard School was totally divorced from the street and the hall—a monolith of heavy, brutalistic forms—the work of Pietro Belluschi, a distinguished Italian-born architect who emigrated to America at a young age and was trained here.

In Praise of Herbert von Karajan, with a Selective Critical Discography

My immediate reaction to Michael Miller’s commentary on the Karajan centenary [Oh no! He’s not back again, is he? – May 2, 2008] was rather choleric, but I’ve settled down a bit since then and can write this from a relatively balanced perspective.

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