Tuesday, November 16, 2010

BOAC All-Stars at Strathmore

Had the novel experience of falling close to, if not slightly above, the median age of a Strathmore audience last Thursday, on the occasion of an all-Steve Reich program performed by the venerable Bang on a Can All Stars.

I was in the penalty box for the first selection, Music for Pieces of Wood, which was lame (not the piece, but my missing of it -- and even moreso because it turned out I had my pick of seats in the basically empty sides of the promenade level). The first half was rounded out by the wonderful "New York Counterpoint" for solo clarinet and prerecorded tracks by the soloist. Then the premeire - 2x5 - an appealing piece for rock quintet plus prerecorded tracks. Sounding like a sort of jam session with obsessive compulsive disorder, Reich offers many unexpected and fascinating textures here, from the slow movements hypnotic, bell like electric guitar plucks, to the good times California flavors that emerge and recede through the finale. The amplification had some issues though--the mic'd piano sounded nasty.

The introduction to the electric guitar's less familiar but perhaps more appealing possibilities continued after the half in Reich's "Electric Counterpoint", also for solo instrument and prerecorded tracks--the neat sonic bursts of the guitar bouncing lithely across a crackling landscape. The closer was the well-knownish Double Sextet, which presented the richest, most intricate writing of the evening. I wish I could hear this piece with the full live band, however--while the prerecorded elements of the other works added information and depth, here it seemed to muddy and detract from the more delicate textures of the standard ensemble.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Emanuel Ax at Strathmore

Pardon the radio silence, one gets discouraged from writing things about nice orchestra concerts when brooding over stupid no-good politics. And yet I suppose I really should thank the Dresden Staatskapelle and NSO from saving me from spending last Wednesday and Thursday evenings reading endless conservative takeover horror porn (articles). So good job orchestras, particularly the great, fluid Brahms 2nd from the Staatskapelle and that knockout creepshow Bartok piece from the NSO and guest conductor Xian Zhang (who is a dynamo to watch, PS).

But no use dwelling on the future, the concert season goes on! Last night was Emanuel Ax at Strathmore--who, I missed, I believe, in his last WPAS outing--in a program of Schubert and Chopin. It was a lovely show, and I wouldn't think of complaining, but I'm curious about what drives the staid programming for big time piano recital series. We know that so many of these artists are big champions of the piano literature of contemporary composers and overlooked 20th century composers, and yet year after year its the greatest hits without even the little bit of spinach major orchestras are able to work into the pre-intermission slot in their subscription series. What gives? Do presenters demand the vanilla repertoire for their flagship series? Is the elusive recital subscriber that much more fickle than your symphony subscriber? Do the artists just not feel this is the venue for all this work they are otherwise working diligently to champion through...I dunno...their late nite TV gigs? It's weird.

Oh, but I suppose we'll take Schubert and Chopin if we must. The Schubert half kicked off with the four impromptus of Op. 142. These pieces are such a perfect showcase for the rounded, ringing tones Ax elicits from his piano--to say there are no "rough edges" makes it sound as though the effect is boring or too pretty, but his exacting attention to the beauty of each sound makes the music more real, more present--the spell is never broken. I particularly enjoyed the faster tempo in the opening and closing sections of No.2 (perhaps my favorite of the bunch), which lent a playful, familiar air to what often comes off somber, though the exquisite middle section may not have had a chance to blossom as much at that speed. The real treat of the first half was the Sonata in A Major (Op. 120)--the endless melody of the first movement seemed to sing from somewhere several feet above the keyboard.

For the Chopin half, Ax offered a winning Baccarolle (op. 60), followed by three Mazurkas (Nos. 1, 2, and 3 of op. 59). The Mazurkas are primordial piano music for me, so its sort of hard to be objective, but Ax's readings have a welcome plainspoken earthiness--always excited to get to the dance break and never degenerating into the kind of self-conscious prettiness better meant for other Chopin. Of the two Nocturnes he played, the D-flat Major (C-sharp minor was the other) achieved a particularly stunning suspended-in-time feeling. The last piece was the Scherzo No.2 Op. 31--I'm afraid I find this piece a bit tedious, and not especially exciting as a showpiece (tho it is obviously HARD). Ax brought out a lot of color, but it still felt a bit disjointed. Not sure how you solve that problem. Encores were the "Valse brilliante" and something else ChopinSchumann...