Thursday, April 26, 2012

The Demise and Resurgence(?) of a Great Orchestra

When the governing board of the Philadelphia Orchestra, one of this country's great cultural institutions, voted to file for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection on April 16, 2011, the shock waves were felt far beyond Philadelphia. The city could hardly imagine that the Orchestra, ranking with the Art Institute, City Hall, and the Phillies, as defining Philadelphia, had fallen on such hard times. While other orchestras of lesser acclaim have endured financial woes and, in some cases, become defunct, that fate could hardly be imagined for one of the great orchestras of the world. With its legendary music director Eugene Ormandy at the helm, the Philadelphia Orchestra has a recorded legacy that is unsurpassed by any other American orchestra.

Bankruptcy has set the Orchestra's management and its musicians against each other. While the orchestra has pared its annual operating expenses by about $6 million, most of those savings have come from reducing pay and pension benefits from the musicians union's contract. Meanwhile, the administrative and litigation expenses of the bankruptcy proceeding have soared well beyond the projected $2.9 million, in part because of litigation that is the result of the Orchestra's withdrawal from the American Federation of Musicians Pension Fund, which administers the musicians' pension benefit fund. Meanwhile, there have been some notable defections among principal chair and other players from the Orchestra to other orchestras, collateral moves that would have been unthinkable in years past. While music schools and conservatories turn out excellent instrumentalists every year, the fund of experience represented by the Orchestra's key players cannot be easily replaced.

Like other orchestras, the Philadelphia Orchestra's subscriber base has declined by more than 40% in recent years. Revenues are down; costs are up. A new lease has been negotiated with the Kimmel Center, the Orchestra's home, and ticket sales are up this season over last season, but the Orchestra is still far from closing its budget deficit. American orchestras, unlike their European counterparts, cannot look to state support, and the present political climate, which is hostile to public subsidies of "elitist" arts institutions, is unlikely to change anytime soon. The Orchestra should be energized by the arrival this fall of its new music director, Yannick Nézet-Séguin, but it remains to be seen whether the Orchestra can return to its rightful place at the center of Philadelphia's cultural life.

Classical music in general, and orchestral performance in particular, has never played the central role in the life of a community that is typical of most European cities. Certainly the repertoire needs to be energized with exciting new works, but orchestras are faced with whether the cost of commissioning new works is justified, when subscribers stay away in droves from concerts featuring new works. Orchestra management has sometimes failed to keep a sharp eye on the bottom line, continuing touring, for example, when all the costs cannot be underwritten. Almost no orchestras have recording contracts so there never again will be the legacy of the Philadelphia with Ormandy, or Chicago with Reiner, or Cleveland with Szell. Some orchestras (including Philadelphia) have started their own labels, but they lack the promotional muscle that the major classical labels possessed in past years. None of the American orchestras have had anything remotely like the success that the London Symphony Orchestra has enjoyed with its label.

It remains to be seen if the Philadelphia Orchestra (or any other American orchestra, for that matter) can survive and even thrive as in years past. While radio stations have the benefit of a vast recorded legacy to enrich their programming, the great orchestras must struggle to renew themselves. For the sake of our cultural life, let's hope they succeed.

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Helvacioglu: Eleven Short Stories - Prepared Piano Goes to the Movies

Eleven Short Stories 
Erdem Helvacioglu 

Turkish composer Erdem Helvacioglu embarks on a fascinating project with this recording. He writes in the liner notes, “Eleven Short Stories is inspired by the works of film directors Kim Ki-Duk, David Lynch, Krzystof Kielowski, Theodoros Angelopoulos, Jan Campion, Anthony Minthella, Ang Lee, Atom Egoyan, Darren Aronofsky, Alejandro Gonzales Inarritu and Steven Soderbergh.”

Using a prepared piano, Helvacioglu conjures up sonic impressions of various types of movies – as they might be interpreted by these directors. That’s not to say that Helvacioglu’s arranging soundtrack themes. Rather, he creates soundscapes that convey the emotions he’s after.

And there’s not a one-to-one correspondence between a certain director and an individual track. Part of the listener’s task is to listen to make sense of the sounds not only in terms of the stories they’re telling, but also what director’s style (or styles) it might be told in.

Helvacioglu’s tonal palette is wide-open, and imaginative. Some of the sound are distinctively pianistic, while others seem otherworldly. Throughout it all, though, there’s a clear underlying structure that gives each story its own internal logic.

Eleven Short Stories is an engaging release for anyone interested in the sound of the new – and the more you’re familiar with the directors that inspired these works, the deeper your appreciation of Helvacioglu’s accomplishment.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Ethereal orchestral works by Saariaho

Saariaho: Works for Orchestra
Various Artists

The nice thing about listening to a bunch of works by the same composer in quick succession is that I get a glimpse of the broader picture.

This new four-disc set of Kaija Saariaho presents the Finnish composer's orchestral works spanning the past  25 years. The pieces are arranged in chronological order, and Ondine's assigned a theme to each disc, which helps the listener make sense of Saariaho's development.

Disc One: From  outer space to crystal and smoke
Saariaho's earliest orchestral works show her slowly breaking away from the rigidity of atonal composition and into a more emotional world of sound clouds and atmospheric orchestration. Lichtbogen (Northern Lights) points the way to the works to follow in the set.

Disc Two: The enchantment of the human voice
Some composers treat the human voice as something unique -- others as just another instrument. Saariaho seems to use it as a way to more fully articulate the emotional content of her music. The works on this disc don't have any melodies you can whistle along to, but they still command attention. The expressiveness of the vocal lines leave no doubt as to the emotions driving the music.

Disc Three: Organic unity and new versions
It's not unusual for composers to revisit earlier material. The works on this disc all started out as something different. Cinq reflets de "L'Amour de loin,"  for example, is a song cycle based on material from the opera of the same name. But only based on -- Saariaho changed the voices around and composed new material that takes the original material in an entirely new direction.

Disc Four: New sounds of the 2000s
These works, all written after 2001 show a composer in full command of her talent. Saariaho's latest works have more of tonal feel to them, but only up to a point. Saariaho is still primarily concerned with communicating emotion, and if the most effective way to do it is with a more traditional sound (at least temporarily), then so be it.

As I listened to this compilation, the words I kept jotting down were "mysterious," "atmospheric," and "ethereal." Those terms, I think, apply to the entire collection. Saariaho: Works for Orchestra is a great way to become acquainted with a major voice of contemporary music.

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Non-dogmatic American music from do.gma

American Stringbook
do.gma Chamber Orchestra
Berthold Records

For their sophomore album, the do.gma chamber orchestra stretches their repertory wings a bit, and come up with an interesting and artistically strong release. American Stringbook features 20th Century chamber orchestra works that, if not quite standard repertoire, certainly should be.

It's one thing for Americans to try to persuade the classical world to pay attention to American composers -- for a European ensemble to take up the cause is refreshing, indeed.

In the liner notes, concertmaster and artistic director Mikhail Gurewitsch writes;

We  dedicate our new production to the rise and development of the American Classical movement. We focus not just on famous composers such as Samuel Barber, but also on the composition of less well-known master,s whom we wish to introduce to a wider audience.
Those lesser-know composers include Arthur Foote, David Diamond, and William Schuman.

The do.gma chamber orchestra performs these works with authority and conviction. Arthur Foote's late-romantic Suite in E is particularly effective -- perhaps because the ensemble seems to have an affinity for the style (their first release was all-Tchaikovsky).

The mid-century works of William Schuman (Symphony No. 5) and David Diamond (Rounds for String Orchestra) also fare well. Diamond's work is, as the name suggests, a series of rounds, and the ensemble brings out every nuance of the independent lines as they interweave.

Samuel Barber's Serenade for String Orchestra is beautifully performed. The orchestra lingers lovingly over the rich  harmonies and evocative melodic turns of the piece.

The least successful work on the album is, surprisingly, the most famous. Barber's Adagio for Strings gets a sedate reading here. For some reason, the upper registers of the strings sounded a little harsh, and the emotive qualities of the rising melodic lines seems to have been dialed back a bit too much.

Still, all in all, American Stringbook is an impressive release. The quality of the music chosen and the overall performance of the do.gma chamber orchestra make a powerful combination. American Stringbook is an excellent introduction to American classical music.

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Shelley makes the case for Kalkbrenner

Romantic Piano Concerto Vol. 56: Kalkbrenner 
Piano Concerto No 2, Op. 85 
Piano Concerto No.3, Op. 107 
Adagio & Allegro di Bravura, Op. 102 
Howard Shelly, piano 
Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra 

I’m a big fan of Hyperion’s Romantic Piano Concerto series. This latest installment – Volume 56 – maintains the same high standards of recording and performance quality as the previous volumes.

Howard Shelley turns in committed performances of Friedrich Kalkbrenner's compositions. Shelley's interpretations seem to fully realize the potential of this neglected music.

 And this is music that needs a little help.

Audiences of the mid-19th century thought Friedrich Kalkbrenner one of the best pianists of his day – an opinion he shared himself. When Chopin arrived in Paris, he performed for Kalkbrenner. – who suggested that after three years of study with him, Chopin just might make a decent pianist! That inflated opinion of himself was the subject of satire during his lifetime, and part of the reason why his music fell into disrepute after his death. It's good to have it represented (especially by a sympathetic performer), so we can judge the merits of Kalkbrenner's music for ourselves.

Kalkbrenner, like many virtuosos of the day, composed music primarily for his own use. The works on this recording were all written for various concert tours, and so were created to do two things: appeal to audiences with their tunefulness, and impress audiences with their brilliant piano technique. They achieve both goals admirably.

The two concertos on this CD are written in a glittering, gallante style, The musical language is a little conservative – think Mendelssohn rather than Liszt – which keeps them from being truly great compositions. While there are plenty of grand gestures and crashing climaxes Kalkbrenner’s romanticism has a certain polite reserve.

This is music that’s meant to entertain. And on that level, it succeeds. Kalkbrenner may have thought highly of his talent, but if the piano solos in these works are any indication of what he could do, it’s an opinion not without merit. Shelley’s hands cascade down with complex arpeggiated patterns. They undulate up and down the keyboard, riding waves of scale patterns that are both pretty and pretty impressive.

Shelley performed the first and last of Kalkbrenner’s four piano concertos in volume 41 of the series (Kalkbrenner: Piano Concertos Nos. 1 & 4). With this installment, he fills out the cycle with the two middle concertos. Kalkbrenner’s music may be somewhat simple (in structure, if not in execution), but that’s part of its appeal. I, for one, thoroughly enjoyed it.

Monday, April 2, 2012

Verdi's Shakespeare

 Verdi's Shakespeare
Men of the Theater
Garry Willis
Viking Press

Historian Garry Wills' new book, Verdi’s Shakespeare, is a fascinating study of the Italian maestro’s lifelong love of the works of the great English playwright. Even though Verdi neither spoke nor read English (although his wife, the singer Giuseppina Strepponi knew English), he read the plays and poetry in Italian translation for pleasure throughout his long life (1813-1901).

The scholar and Verdi friend Italo Pizzi recounted that in 1883 Verdi told him that "Shakespeare . . . analyses the human mind so acutely and penetrates it so profoundly, that the words he puts into his characters' mouths are essentially human, essentially true, as they should be."

As a result of his study of Shakespeare’s plays, Verdi created three works of genius, Macbeth, Otello, and Falstaff, the last two among the greatest of all operatic works, and ushered in a new standard of truth and realism to the lyric stage.

It is Wills' central thesis that both Shakespeare and Verdi were men of the stage, who created their works for their own time, adapting them where necessary to the talents of the performers who were available to them. Verdi made this central fact of his artistic life explicit. After the triumph of Otello at its premiere (La Scala, Feb. 5, 1887), Verdi expressed his sadness to his friend and sometime collaborator Giuseppe Giacosa (as recounted in Marcello Conati, Encounters with Verdi (1984)). "How painful to have finished it! I shall now suffer such loneliness. Till now I used to wake each morning and return to the love, anger, jealousy, deceit of my characters. And I would say to myself: today I have this scene to compose, and if it did not proceed according to my wishes, I would arm myself for the struggle, confident of victory. . . I would arrive home, still excited by the glorious life of the theatre, happy at the goals I ad reached, thinking about those I intended reaching tomorrow, and I was not conscious of fatigue and I did not feel my age. But now? Since Otello now belongs to the public, it has ceased to be mine . . . I now feel an enormous void, which I think I shall never be able to fill."

Shakespeare needed to be mindful of the economics of his theater, so many of his players were expected to play more than one part to economize on actors' fees. So he carefully arranged their exits and entrances, providing ample opportunity for costume and scene changes. By the time of Otello Verdi was world famous and could command the resources he required. But at the time of Macbeth’s premiere in 1847, Verdi was limited by the resources of the commissioning theater, the Teatro alla Pergola in Florence.

He did not have available a first-class tenor, so the only major tenor role, Macduff, has only one aria, Ah, la paterno mano, although being Verdi, it is very fine. He did have available the finest baritone in Italy, Felice Varesi, for his Macbetto. He wanted the excellent soprano Sophia Löwe, but she was unavailable, recovering from an abortion. Instead Marianna Barbieri-Ninni, a fine singer, was cast as his Lady. She had the virtue (for Verdi) of being spectacularly unattractive visually, but she could sing Lady Macbeth's music with the kind of menace and coarseness that Verdi wanted in the role.

Verdi’s Shakespeare is written in Wills’ typically graceful style. Reading it will reward lovers of the works of both great artists and casual opera fans as well. Although the book reflects considerable scholarship on Wills' part, it is no turgid work of academic prose. Instead it can be read for pleasure and can only enhance our enjoyment of Verdi’s great operas, even as we regret that Verdi never accomplished the one unfulfilled dream of his career–Il re Lear.