Sunday, March 12, 2017

Review: THE METROPOLITAN ORCHESTRA PRESENTS A MUSICAL PANORAMA



Sunday, March 5, 2017

A kaleidoscope of diverse and talented soloists and a broad-ranging program, led by two conductors, combined to produce a spirited and intriguing concert by the Metropolitan Orchestra of Saint Louis this weekend in their home venue at First Presbyterian Church in Kirkwood.  

In his remarks to the audience, Conductor Laureate Allen Carl Larson explained the uniqueness of several of the featured works, as well as the characteristics and challenges of the solo instruments involved. Today it is more important than ever to provide education and background to listeners, which is one of the most important and attractive components of MOSL’s concept and mission. Not only does the orchestra provide background and knowledge, but it also offers a “Share the Music Stand” program in which gifted students are paired with orchestra members at rehearsals and concerts. This is music education at its very finest:  veteran performers in the orchestra teaching by example, and students learning by doing.

Harpist Megan Stout opened the program as soloist in the “Danses sacree et profane” (Sacred and Secular Dances) by Claude Debussy, a beautiful work showcasing the strength, agility and sheer beauty of the instrument, for which Stout was amply suited. Benjamin Britten’s remarkable “Serenade for Tenor, Horn and Strings”, featuring Peter Ulffers, horn, and tenor Keith Boyer.  Drawing upon verses from major British poets, the cycle of songs requires performers with a wide range and warmth of tone. Ulffers and Boyer melded a beautiful lyrical counterpoint together; without such smoothness and rich sonority, this work would be cold and lifeless. But that was certainly not the case. Britten’s score calls for both a field horn (no valves) as well as the modern concert horn.  The opening and closing sections of the work are played offstage by the field horn, creating a roving and dreamlike effect that provides a tonal backdrop to the poetry proclaimed by the tenor.

The program continued—without intermission, which seemed entirely appropriate for such a musical showcase—with clarinetist Jeanine York-Garesche performing the “Five Bagatelles for Clarinet and Strings” by the 20th century composer Gerald Finzi, arranged by Lawrence Ashmore.  The descendant of Italian Jews who settled in England, Finzi is well known for his numerous choral and vocal works. The Five Bagatelles are a beautiful set of short capricious works, full of melodic ingenuity and expressing various moods.  Along with all the featured soloists on the program, York-Garesche performed not only with a flowing, liquid tone, but also consummate technical skill. All musical instruments, and all human voices, must “sing,” meaning they must perform with expression, dynamics, proper phrasing, rich tone and must be able to give the music wings to take flight on its own. All the featured soloists at this concert were able to successfully embody these characteristics.

The first three works on the program were conducted by Conductor Laureate Allen Carl Larson, perhaps the single guiding force behind the establishment of the Metropolitan Orchestra, ably assisted by Music Director Wendy Lea. In addition to his musical leadership that molds the entire ensemble into a cohesive, dynamically balanced whole, Larson also functions as an educator and commentator to the audience. Added to that is his deep commitment to nurturing young musicians. These traits combine to create an impressive mission statement for the orchestra.

Assistant Conductor Andrew Peters concluded the concert with Franz Schubert’s Symphony No. 5 in B-flat Major, completed in 1916 when the composer was only nineteen. Since Schubert died at 31, somehow his inner spirit knew that he needed an early start. This symphony displays Schubert’s uncanny ability to produce tuneful and soulful melodies, easily recognizable yet always original. The task of the conductor is to make sure that each melody must ring out clearly and sail into the listener’s ears. Peters projected a solid understanding of Schubert’s ideas and how they intermingle, making this work an excellent send-off for the enthusiastic audience.  

The winning combination for this program was its mixture of varied instrumental and vocal soloists, a wide historical range of musical styles, inclusion of works that appealed to audiences yet here and their gave just a bit of harmonic and melodic challenge, an affordable admission price, a hall that is large enough to accommodate yet still provides an intimate setting, and careful yet brief explanations and introductions of the pieces. This is what symphony orchestras were meant to be, and why they are critical to the cultural life of every community.

Wednesday, December 14, 2016

ANCIENT STYLE RINGS OUT WITH STILE ANTICO



November 30, Cathedral Concerts at the Saint Louis Basilica


Early music forces us to recondition our ears and our entire approach to listening. The system of tonality that we take for granted today was not yet fully established when this music was written, so the melodies and harmonies may sound strange to us--and, ironically, totally new rather than old. Particularly in the contrapuntal music of the Renaissance, there is no single melody. Rather, a virtual shower of melody, with its resulting harmony, cascades upon listeners' ears. But for those listeners who dive into the ocean of sound, the effect can be mesmerizing. The British a cappella group, Stile Antico (Ancient Style), has devoted itself to recapturing the essence of what music sounded like centuries ago to the awakening minds of the European Renaissance, garnering numerous awards and critical acclaim.

The effect of hearing multiple lines of music simultaneously produces a state remarkably similar to that of the Eastern meditation technique of clearing the mind. Finding oneself unable to focus on single lines of music leaves only the alternative of focusing on the void of the broad canvas that the music creates, or perhaps focusing on nothing at all, thereby allowing the music to work its magic on the soul. The listener becomes much more aware of the overall mood and texture of the music.

Stile Antico consists of twelve singers, male and female. The group does not rely on a conductor; instead, each vocalist is responsible for the careful execution of his or her own part. Singing contrapuntally requires strict independence and complete accuracy. Fortunately, neither was lacking. The group performs with precision and careful balance and blend. Although the acoustics inside the Cathedral Basilica can cloud the sound produced by performers, in this case any blurriness of the sound only added a sheen of mysticism to the group's timbre and further unified their vocal blend.  

Although at first it might seem that an ensemble specializing in music of the Renaissance would have a very narrow focus, on further examination such is not the case. It is important to remember that Europe was--and remains--a very diverse continent, multilingual and multi-ethnic. Perhaps even more significantly, we must bear in mind that the Reformation was still in its infancy, and so Christians of the era (and now also) were markedly split in their allegiances. Moreover, Jewish and Moorish influences, particularly in the music of southern Europe, can also be felt.

That being said, the theme of Stile Antico's performance at the Basilica, "A Wondrous Mystery," revolved primarily around northern European compositions by Lutheran and Catholic composers, set to both German and Latin texts. One of the few compositions from the era that remains rooted in our hymnals today, "Lo, How a Rose Ere Blooming," by Michael Praetorius, opened the program, proving that early music is not forgotten. (In fact, many melodies from the Renaissance remain with us today, such as "A Mighty Fortress.") Selections from a mass by Jacob Clemens non Papa (whose nickname tacked on at the end affirms that he was NOT a Pope Clement) were interspersed throughout the program. That may seem like an odd way to perform a mass setting, but it also afforded an opportunity to contrast the composer's style against that of his contemporaries. Works by such composers as Orlando di Lasso (Orlandus Lassus) and Leo Hassler were also featured on the program. When we consider that Orlando was allegedly kidnapped three times as a boy by rival choirs in order to capture his beautiful voice for their own, we gain an insight into the significance of music to the peoples of this period. 

Following the intermission, the group performed Jacob Handl's "Mirabile misterium" (Miraculous Mystery) in a side aisle of the Basilica. This created a remarkable new effect, demonstrating that the direction of sound does indeed affect the listener. Although that was the only selection performed off the altar area, hopefully the singers will experiment further with such techniques. 

By inviting performers of the caliber of Stile Antico, the Cathedral Basilica continues its longstanding tradition of serving the musical needs of our entire community. Kudos to Scott Kennebeck, the Director of the series, and the leadership of the Basilica, particularly Music Director Horst Buchholz, for providing such a far-reaching and broadly-based array of world class performers.

Thursday, December 1, 2016

African Musical Arts in the Heartland




The growing contributions of African-American artists to classical music, both on the community level and on the national and international scene, continue to expand their sphere of influence and leadership. It would be impossible to name every great artist, but in recent decades such names as the Marsalis brothers, pianist Andre Watts and opera star Jessye Norman spring to mind, along with legions of others. Here in St. Louis we are blessed with the presence of such leaders as violinist Darwyn Apple and composer Robert Ray
.

Another dominant force in our region is Fred Onovwerosuoke, whose African Musical Arts organization continues to highlight the African heritage and presence in serious music. In its short history, African Musical Arts has presented a wide variety of performances showcasing music of diverse backgrounds and cultures. On November 6, Darwyn Apple headlined a concert showcasing works by composers of African descent.  

The featured composers embodied a rich variety of musical styles, reminding us that composers of African origin cannot be confined to a single tradition. Partly because of the African diaspora and partly because of the diversity of cultures within Africa, no single style or stream of creativity speaks for all. The “Five Folksongs for String Quartet” by Florence Beatrice Price breathed an almost Impressionistic sheen to a group of spirituals; somewhat differently, the energy and introspection of the African Dances by Samuel Coleridge-Taylor—hailed as “the African Mahler”—contrasted with the lyricism and jazz-peppered adventurous style of William Grant Still. Like Gershwin—but perhaps even more boldly—Still bridged the gap between jazz and mainstream classical music, aiding the establishment of a uniquely American style. 

The “Kreutzer” Sonata of Beethoven was also highlighted on the program. Increasingly, it is believed that Beethoven’s family tree included a branch from Africa. Research has yet to confirm this; however, at the very least we know that there was some Spanish influence in Beethoven’s ancestry, which could easily have included African heritage as well. Many people believe that the sheer vibrancy and rhythmic vitality of Beethoven’s music were the product of a cultural heritage that perhaps cannot be confined to a single source. If Beethoven is indeed part African, he joins a group of remarkable Europeans that includes Alexandre Dumas, Alexander Pushkin and other notables.
Darwyn Apple has long been a figure of note on the St. Louis concert stage, binging an inspiring intensity and seriousness to the art of the violin. For the solo and duo portions of the program, Apple was joined by pianist Sunghee Hinners for the solo and duo portions of the program. The two performed with a fine balance of dynamics and sense of partnership, and both performed with the solid technical skills we have come to expect. Violist Anna Lackschewitz and cellist Jake Brookman added their talents to the first movement of Beethoven’s Trio for Violin, Viola and Cello in G Major, which opened the second half of the program. The three were joined by violinist Joseph Kaminsky for the concluding work of the program, the finale from the String Quartet in D Major, Op. 76, no. 5, by Franz Joseph Haydn. To our knowledge, Haydn did not possess African ancestry, but his work provided an interesting comparison to the other featured works on the program and provided an upbeat conclusion. Again, these performers likewise performed with consummate and well-honed skills.

Even those who feel already well-versed in music history and the contributions of composers of African descent would find much to learn and ponder on this program. Perhaps the greatest lesson to be learned is a renewed awareness that creativity can never be stifled, whether it springs from the grip of slavery, the fires of the Holocaust, or the onslaught of war and terrorism.  As human beings, creativity is our shared resource. Moreover, we see that creativity by its very nature can never be confined to a single template. 

Special recognition must also go to Fred Onovwerosuoke, who has long labored to build bridges between cultures. Fred has demonstrated time again that honoring one tradition does not diminish any other, and his work has shown that we are all part of the whole. This concert not only honored composers of African descent, but it also honored all musicians and composers who have strived to enrich their art. Ultimately, this was a concert that honored the very soul of music.

Tuesday, September 27, 2016

Metropolitan Orchestra Scores Again



Beethoven, Italian bel canto and jazz fusion launched what promises to be a bold and diverse fifth season of the Metropolitan Orchestra of St. Louis (MOSL) on September 18 at the orchestra's primary venue at First Presbyterian in Kirkwood.  Few ensembles have carved out such a niche for themselves so quickly as has MOSL, and much of the credit must go to its founder and Conductor Laureate, Allen Larson.

In an era where orchestras are struggling to maintain themselves and prove their "relevance" in contemporary society, MOSL seems to do the job almost effortlessly. Some of the older mainline orchestras have sought validation by commissioning new works of dubious merit; the results in some cases have been disastrous as audiences have voted with their feet.  MOSL's repertoire on their opening night captured both the genius of the classical world while keeping an eye to the future.

Opening night for any serious orchestra must be a celebratory occasion.  Accordingly, Larson chose to kick off the program with Gioacchino Rossini's sparkling and engaging overture to "L'Italiana in Algeri" (An Italian Girl in Algiers).  The music is happy and playful to the ears, full of twists and turns.  Since its inception, the orchestra has steadily increased its overall skill level to where brisk tempos and rapid contrasts are easily handled.  Within minutes the near-capacity audience was already enjoying themselves and clamoring for much more.

Pianist Dominic Cheli joined the orchestra for a brilliant performance of Beethoven's Concerto No. 4 in G Major.  Although still in his early twenties, Cheli is already a home town hero.  Having gotten his start under the tutelage of Zena Ilyashov and other local pedagogues, he went on to win the Young Artist Competition held at St. Ambrose on the Hill and other local honors.  After graduating from the Manhattan School of Music, he earned his master's degree at the Yale School of Music with the highest honors, made recordings under the Naxos label and is currently pursuing an Artist Diploma at the Colburn Conservatory in Los Angeles.

Although the fourth concerto is filled with virtuoso challenges and musical fireworks, it is also a work of deep lyricism and introspection.  It is hard to believe that someone as young as Cheli is able to play with the insight and tenderness that we would expect from a much older and more experienced performer.  Cheli transformed the piano into a mini-orchestra of its own, echoing the agility of a violin, the singing of a flute or the deep responsive voice of a double bass.  His touch was resonant and rich, with unerring accuracy.  The excellent balance maintained between the solo piano and the orchestra made the entire performance particularly gratifying and easy on the ears.

The second half of the program featured the 442s, the classical/jazz fusion group founded by Adam Maness and St. Louis Symphony musicians Shawn Weil, violin, and Bjorn Ranheim, cello, with Syd Rodway on bass.  Named after the favored tuning frequency in general use today (442 cycles per second for the A above Middle C--trending upward from 415 in the Baroque period), this group forms a perfect bridge uniting the old with the new.  After hearing the group's take on such traditional forms as an Irish reel, Latin rhythms and traditional soaring melodies, one begins to realize that Beethoven, Rossini and every creative genius from the past continue to inspire our present-day idioms.   Adam Maness is a composer, arranger, keyboardist (and accordionist, percussionist, vocalist and more) for the group.  Each of the performers, in fact, wears more than one hat, depending on the needs of each piece.  Hearing the group merge with the orchestra makes it easy to see how symphony orchestras remain a potent force as the backbone of both our classical and popular traditions. 

Combining a jazz ensemble with a symphony orchestra is not necessarily unique anymore, but to do so on an opening program as a herald of the season to come is a wonderful means of demonstrating versatility, relevance and a commitment to the new as well as to the old.  Anyone who attended MOSL's opening night will surely be eager for more.  We are blessed with many great ensembles in the St. Louis region.  The great thing about institutions such as the Metropolitan Orchestra is that its presence helps fully establish and maintain the foundations on which our musical life is founded.