When I was first invited to attend the Bach Choir of Bethlehem’s Christmas Concert in Advent 2014, I had no idea that that and the Bach Festival in May would become annual traditions. I believe that I have missed only one year since then, and now my wife has become as attached to these events as I am. From the gusto with which the people of Bethlehem celebrate the Christmas season, the liturgy celebrated in the local Moravian Church—which includes a prayer for the Holy Roman Emperor, Rudolf II—and the spirit of the Bach Festival, now in its 112th year, one can readily grasp the vitality of tradition in this originally German city—and it’s infectious, I can attest.
To have attended Christoph Denoth’s classical guitar recital at SubCulture on Bleecker Street three nights ago is to have undergone a New York moment very particular to NoHo, the neighborhood where it was performed. Having moved to this swatch of the city three years ago, I’ve come to marvel at its odd but easy mix of strikingly disparate elements—gritty architecture, wildly colorful paintings on the sides or fronts of various buildings mixed into a motley crew of chic clubs, bars, galleries and a cheeky Underground Boxing gym on Bleecker’s easternmost end. SubCulture is a venue for any number of kinds of events and performances, cunningly aligned with the complex gestalt of NoHo for which it could be a symbol. Christoph Denoth’s recital, which is timed to attend the release of his most recent CD “Tanguero”, seemed to me to fit right into Noho and SubCulture’s complex heterogeneity.
Both works here are gorgeously conceived and transparently recorded from top to bottom (and the Seventh Symphony features a convincing velvet-deep organ presence to boot). They make for a wonderful release together and a fitting conclusion to the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic’s well-received Vaughan Williams cycle on Onyx. Spectacular as the Antartica is in Manze’s hands (and it is) it’s his performance of the Ninth Symphony which stands out for me as an even more remarkable accomplishment beyond normal praise.
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.
The first weekend of the 112th Bethlehem Bach Festival is behind us. Fortunately for those of us who weren't there for it the Festival has long adopted the policy of repeating the program over the following weekend, now coming up. Both weekends come close to selling out, but it should still be possible to purchase tickets for all events.
Andris Nelsons and the Boston Symphony are in fine form here, satisfying guides, as always, in their approach to the ironies and tragedies of the Shostakovich symphonies. Indeed, now that we know him well in Boston, it has become clear Nelsons is consistent there in the way he approaches music of this kind. But he illustrates, you might say, along with special romantic insights, the sins of his virtues. Nelsons is what Sir Thomas Beecham would have called a “ritardando” conductor. One notices this not so much in tempo variance as in the tendency to prepare for and draw out a cadence. Nelsons is not slow. But one is nearly always aware of a certain smoothness in transitions from phrase to phrase and a roundedness in the brass sonority he encourages from the BSO.
What a wonderful work is Barber's First Symphony! I will argue in a moment that it is America's greatest. If I review our program a bit backwards this time, it's because we don't hear this piece often enough—or nearly at all in San Francisco. (The last outing here was in 1963 under Howard Mitchell). But it was worth the wait, not the least because of James Gaffigan's white-hot performance. Indeed, Barber's concluding timpanic growl brought the audience to its feet screaming, a fitting wind-up for a concert of bravos, and reaffirmed our sense that James Gaffigan has become a major conductor.
In recent years a great deal of Paula Robison’s energy has gone into training the next generation of flutists. Knowing her approach to music and many other valuable forms of thought and expression, her teaching is a humanistic education in itself. Still, she finds time to perform and record. Most recently she delighted a New York audience with her talents as a narrator—in French, on this occasion. Narration for her is a passion that goes back to her family origins, as the daughter and niece of theater people: her mother was an actress, her father a screenplay writer, and her uncle a playwright.