The oeuvre of the each of the greatest, most familiar composers can be imagined as a personal cosmos, a collection of works of great power and quality, spanning a wide range of style and expression. Mention of their names is almost enough to arouse expectations of music belonging on the A-List. Other significant but less ubiquitous composers can be known to concert audiences through small numbers of repeatedly performed works that possess an identifiable sound, style, and mood. Less familiar but important works by two such composers, Ralph Vaughan-Williams and Serge Prokofiev, received fine performances by the Boston Symphony in late March, along with an A-List favorite by Rimsky-Korsakoff. These works gave audiences a chance to savor some less familiar, even surprising sides of their composers’ artistic personalities, and to provoke curiosity about what other works by these composers might be lurking in the shadows of the B-List.
If nothing else had been performed this week at the San Francisco Symphony, the Scherzo from Erwin Schulhoff's Fifth Symphony would have been worth the ticket. James Conlon has become an authority in recent years on the subject of "Entartete Musik,” which is to say, music forbidden performance by the Nazis. And he had the daring to program just what he thought the audience would enjoy. I made a point after the concert of listening to several complete symphonies by Schulhoff and concluded Conlon was right to include just the Scherzo from the Fifth Symphony in his program, at least this time around. The music was both remarkably exciting (about which more in a moment), not too long and utterly hilarious, due to the brilliant and edgy talk Conlon gave from the podium before performing it.
Valentina Kozlova was born in Moscow and trained at the Bolshoi Ballet School where she danced all the major classical roles. In 1979, on tour in the U.S with the Bolshoi, she defected and began her career anew, performing leading roles at the New York City Ballet; appearing at Spoleto, La Scala, Teatro Colon in Buenos Aires and also on video. In 2003, she opened her ballet school, a pre-professional training program that has been a launching pad for many students.
John Douglas Thompson's brilliant performance as Louis Armstrong in Terry Teachout's Satchmo at the Waldorf was one of the great moments of Shakespeare and Company's 2012 season. As we rose from our seats after the performance, my companions and I were emotionally drained, that is, deeply moved, and we agreed that the play and its message were important. With John Douglas Thompson on stage the whole experience seemed overwhelming and beyond criticism. Yet shortly after the performance, an encounter with some of those responsible brought me down to earth and forced me to enunciate the flaws I'd noticed in as succinct and helpful a way as possible. The lighting needed polishing, mostly simplification, as did the play itself. Satchmo just got a little too busy with his tape recorders at points, symptomatic of a deeper problem in the narrative process of this extended monologue and the protagonist's relation to the audience. There were and are other problems, which I'll discuss later. Thompson's acting was so powerful that one had to dig beyond it to get at these. There were only a few moments when it was tangible on stage.
This is a piece about coming of age, so I suppose I should start with Tonu Kalam's cat, always more vocal than musical, but who has approached gravitas since kittenhood two years ago with remarkably matured powers of persuasion! "Dolce" belongs to Kalam and his fiancée, Karyn Ostrom. And his progress towards getting what he wants with supreme efficiency seems to match the improvements I hear in the UNC Symphony Orchestra, which Kalam directs and manages, and where Karyn plays violin among the firsts. In his maturity, "Dolce" has nearly mastered the front doorknob to go outside and roll all over the concrete path and collect pollen, which he unaccountably enjoys. In the past, the expression of his wishes might have seemed less coherent. Today it is focused and not to be trifled with.
Words like "Lively," "energetic," and "idiosyncratic" are understatements when it comes to the fiery interpretations of Baroque ensemble music—above all Vivaldi's—Fabio Biondi has achieved with his virtuoso string orchestra, Europa Galante. In this capacity he comfortably alternates, in true Baroque fashion, between his role as leader and, when called for, as soloist. Last February 20, he appeared as a soloist with Kenneth Weiss, great New York-based harpsichordist, for a program consisting mostly of Bach, with one work by an Italian native, the Bergamasque Pietro Antonio Locatelli. Once one heard a movement or two of Bach's Violin Sonata in G Major, it became clear that the program was founded on an argument—that Bach's Violin Sonatas, which he wrote around 1725-6 at Cöthen, are essentially Italianate in character—no surprise, in fact. Mr. Biondi's brilliance and warm Sicilian temperament blazed out in every bar, with strongly inflected phrases and dramatic pauses between them. Not everyone appreciates Biondi's intense musicianship. For my part, I admire it and very much enjoy his performances of Vivaldi and other Italians. In this concert, however, I found his playing mannered and distracting. Of course we all know that Bach looked to Italian models in his instrumental music, above all Vivaldi, of whom Förkel said that his music "taught him to think musically."