The string quartet literature is notable for throwing super-complex challenges at the players; after all, this is the most cohesive medium for ensemble playing, and quartets play together for years or decades and can polish their communication and coordination skills to the highest degree. For that reason, composers have striven their utmost to present path-breaking difficulties and daring quartets to conquer them. One sub-history of 20th/21st century music has been the interplay between quartet composers and the groups performing their music. The avatar of all of this is late Beethoven, whose Große Fuge pushed the boundaries of playability in its day, and whose late quartets were composed with the skills of the Schuppanzigh Quartet in mind.
Articles by Larry Wallach
Two large-scale vocal works were presented at BEMF on successive nights (Wednesday and Thursday, June 14 and 15), one a work of music theater, merging opera and ballet; the other devotional but in the musical language of opera absent the staging. Composed within nine years of each other, they offer contrasting perspectives of Italian music and culture from the points of view of a French and a German composer. Both were clearly besotted with Italy, one responding to the carnival spirit of Venice with its light-hearted approach to life, love, and entertainment; and the other situated at the center of the sober religious and devotional culture of Rome. Experiencing these two works back-to-back and interpreted by many of the same performers provided a wonderfully condensed testament to the multidimensional attractions and influences that Italian opera radiated at the turn of the 18th century.
The perfect word to describe Andris Nelsons’ conducting is “exciting.” He elicits spectacular playing from the Boston Symphony and knows how to mold the sound of the orchestra to his taste. The strings now sound rich, deep, and solid rather than airy, transparent and elegant, as was their traditional, French–flavored style. This works well in a German-Russian program; I am curious to hear what they (Nelsons and the orchestra) will do with canonical French material such as the orchestral works of Ravel.
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.
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.
A portion of the rich but sometimes neglected trove of American symphonies was given a welcome exposure during the valuable Spring for Music Festival at Carnegie Hall in early May, thanks to the ongoing commitment to this repertory of music directors David Alan Miller and Leonard Slatkin. The beneficiary composers, Morton Gould and Charles Ives, both stand apart from the mid-century symphonic mainstream, also neglected, of Piston, Sessions, Schuman, Harris, Diamond, et al. It was a fascinating juxtaposition, particularly since Gould’s symphony has been largely absent since its premier in 1947, and most of Ives’s works had to wait lengthy intervals before receiving their first performances.
In order to be great, a musician or musical institution needs a defining trait or sense of purpose.[1. The L. A. Phil. Website clearly gets this. About their tour of which these were the concluding concerts, it states “Led by our Music Director, we took a typically audacious set of programs on the road. We played programs that said, ‘This is who we are and this is what we think is important.’”] But the Los Angeles Philharmonic, it seems to me, is currently a work in progress. Its leader, the immensely talented Gustavo Dudamel, has already (and almost automatically) placed a unique stamp on the orchestra’s repertory by introducing or elevating the status of hitherto underrepresented music by Latin American composers, much of it brilliantly attractive and original. But in its pair of concerts in New York, such repertory was absent.
Elliott Carter, who died on November 5 a little over a month before his 104th birthday, wrote music that is tough to love: it can be thorny, knotty, dense, complex, brainy, abstract, atonal, harsh, jagged, and sometimes genuinely off-putting. It …