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Note x Note: Musical Musings & Cultural Observations
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One might be forgiven for feeling that programming two concertos on one concert program might be a tad overkill. And ordinarily I’d be chief among the tongue-cluckers, but last night the ever-versatile musicians of the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra happily proved me wrong. The orchestra’s 44thseason opened with an extremely well-received concert at Glendale’s art deco Alex Theatre, one of the ensemble’s two principal venues. The program offered was an imaginative sandwich of two contemporary works bookended by two popular and increasingly performed concertos.
Conductor and pianist Jeffrey Kahane, now in his 16thseason as LACO’s music director, began the evening with a colourful reading of Ravel’s lush Piano Concerto in G major, which he conducted from the keyboard. The concerto, one of my favourite for piano, is one of the benchmarks of 20thcentury musical impressionism, rich with suggestively tumescent phrases and partly shaped both by the Classical concertos that long-preceded it as well as the jazz music which informed so much of the more adventuresome compositions of the 1920s and ‘30s. While there are many conductor/pianists who can admirably lead a performance from the keyboard, I can imagine very few who would have the chops to do so with the Ravel.  A bit of initial lag between the brass and strings at the top of the first movement notwithstanding, both Kahane and his musicians acquitted themselves beautifully. This is an orchestra of virtuosi, and we were reminded of that in their superb performance of a unique and virtuosic work.

Andrew Norman’s The Great Swiftness, originally commissioned by the Grand Rapids Symphony, received its West Coast premiere on this program. The work is inspired by a massive, 40’ x 54’ public sculpture by Alexander Calder. With this programmatic model, Norman sculpted a seductive aural tableau whose sinuous, undulating musical lines are evocative of the lines of Calder’s sculpture. Some interesting instrumental colours and relatively light textures reminded me a bit of Copland’s Inscape. “My piece is a bit like taking a walk around the Calder,” says Norman in the program notes to the work. “The same melodic shapes happen over and over, but with each repetition their relationship to each other shifts slightly, as if one is looking at a stationary sculpture from an ever-changing point of view.” The Great Swiftness, all four minutes of it, is an intriguing sonic etude which gives considerable insight into the musical aesthetic of a fast-rising star among contemporary composers.
Alexander Calder's La Grande Vitesse

I first met the young Mr. Norman last summer when he came to Aspen for the world premiere by the Aspen Chamber Symphony of his piece Time’s Fool, based on Shakespeare’s sonnet no. 116. This season marks the first of a Norman’s three-season tenure as LACO’s composer-in-residence. Later this season will see the world premiere of yet another Norman work, a product of LACO’s Sound Investment commissioning program. According to the composer, it’s “going to be huge”.
The incredible sonic feast of the first half of the program was rounded out by yet another West Coast premiere, this one of James Matheson’s True South. The piece was commissioned in 2010 by the New York Philharmonic. Says the composer, “I use harmonies and sounds that have a familiar aspect to them…but I try to use them in ways that are unusual and not expected. I love, for instance, to create an expectation only to go around it, to subvert it.” The sound-world of this piece is truly remarkable, with deeply reverberant, hard-charging strings set against percussion and vivid, dancing melodic figures from the woodwinds. Matheson’s work calls for, and indeed received, some wonderful sonorities. This chamber orchestra plays with the depth of an ensemble twice its size and the strings especially can dig in in a way that is almost gasp-inducing.
Augustin Hadelich
The fantastic Italian-born German violinist Augustin Hadelichis another of those young artists whose star is currently burning brightly in the musical firmament. He burst on to the scene in 2009 when he won the Avery Fisher Career Grant. Just two seasons ago he made his U.S. orchestra debut with the New York Philharmonic at Vail and has spent past season making the usual orchestral rounds. Last summer I also had the chance to hear Hadelich for the first time when he joined Julia Fischer in a performance of Schnitke’s ConcertoGrosso No. 1 for Two Violins, Harpsichord, and Prepared Piano at Aspen. He closed last night’s L.A. Chamber Orchestra program with Beethoven’s Violin Concerto, one of the biggest and most demanding, both technically and musically, of the major violin concerti. Hadelich’s performance brought out the contrasting quiet sensitivity and defiant nobility that pervades the work. The orchestra provided unobtrusive well balanced accompaniment but also was quick to establish its own equally defiant presence in the tutti sections. Hadelich opted to perform the cadenzas written by Fritz Kreisler, which was a surprising treat given Kreisler is a composer better known for miniatures and Viennese schmaltz than for sober, full-bodied Romanticism.  
LACO repeats this program tonight at UCLA’s Royce Hall. For more about the orchestra’s eclectic and richly varied 2012-13 concert season visit their website and be sure to follow them on Twitter @LACOTweets.
5 years ago |
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In a metropolis as culturally and musically vibrant as Los Angeles it takes an event of profound depth and scope to catch the attention of the entire City. Sunday evening's recital of the complete Bach Cello Suites, part of the Piatigorsky International Cello Festival, was one such event. Rarely does a musical performance generate such a sense of occasion and approach something rivaling a holy pilgrimage: the closest we seem to come to these experiences are performances of works such as Handel's Messiah or the Mendelssohn Octet.

The last time the Six Suites for Unaccompanied Cello of J.S. Bach were performed on such a scale in Los Angeles was back in 2004, when Dutch cellist Pieter Wispelwey blew our collective socks off with his marathon evening of all six Suites. Sunday's three hour-long recital, the third concert of the 10-day Festival, presented each of the Suites performed by a different cellist.

Critic and professor Tim Page explores the history
and meaning of the Bach Cello Suites
Prior to the performance my friend Tim Page, Pulitzer Prize-winning music critic and USC professor, delivered an excellent overview of the Bach Cello Suites. The history of the Suites is fairly well known. Musicologists seem increasingly agreed that their composition occurred sometime between 1717 and 1723, ahead of the Sonatas and Partitas for Solo Violin (BWV 1001-06), during Bach's tenure as Kapellmeister for Prince Leopold of Anhalt-Cothen. Bach's motivation in writing the Suites was likely due to his acquaintance with two other musicians of the Cothen court, the virtuoso cellists Bernard Christian Linigke and Christian Ferdinand Abel. Curiously, as was the fate of so much of Bach's compositional output, the Cello Suites seemingly lapsed into obsucrity in the decades following their composition. One day in 1890, a thirteen year-old Catlaonian cellist named Pau Casals--later known as Pablo Casals--happened upon a rare printed edition (by Friedrich Grutzmacher) of Bach's Cello Suites that had sat languishing on the shelf of a second-hand music shot in Barcelona. With no model on which to base his own interpretation available, it took Casals twelve years of deliberate, painstaking study of the Suites before he felt confident enough to perform them publicly, and it was another thirty years after that before Casals would make his now-famous commercial recording of the complete Suites. The Suites are far more than mere etudes; they are a richly varied collection of musically-enriching explorations of the sonorities and capabilities of an instrument which was at the time still fairly new. Each of the six Suites is in a different key, and each is progressively more demanding than the one preceding. While no two Suites are identical, they do share the same basic structural outline. Each begins with a sort of quasi-improvisatory opening movement (Prelude) followed by standard movements of a Baroque suite: an Allemande (densely textured, duple-meter dance of German origin full of implied harmonies), a Courante (a sprightly, triple-meter dance), a Sarabande (a slow, stately dance of Spanish origin with heavy emphasis on the second beat), and a Gigue (a faster, typically frolicsome finale). In between the Sarabande and Gigue, Bach introduced additional dance movements; the first Suite employs a pair of Minuets. Even while working well within the confines of old, established musical forms, such as the Baroque suite, Bach manages to hint at a new kind of European musical aesthetic, one that employed strong rhythmic patters, dense textures, and cleverly inventive harmonies.
Anna Magdalena Bach's manuscript
of the Prelude from Suite No. 1

For Sunday's concert, the Suites were not performed in what is thought to be the chronological order of their composition. Instead, the First, Fourth, and Fifth Suites came in the first half and the Second, Third, and Sixth Suites after intermission. Former Los Angeles Philharmonic principal cello and current USC and Colburn School faculty member Ron Leonard began the evening with an assured and well conceived performance of the Suite No. 1 (G major). Swiss cellist Thomas Demenga, whose wild double cello concerto received its American premiere Friday night, performed Suite No. 4 (Eb major). As much as I like Demenga, I have to say I found his Bach overly idiosyncratic and rhythmically uneven in several places. His Prelude lacked any real dynamic range or contrast between the primary and secondary voices, which is crucial in that movement. His performance of the Sarabande was lovely, measured, and elegant, though Bourees 1 & 2 were taken at an excessively fast clip. Hungarian cellist Miklós Perényi , who studied with a student of David Popper and was himself a student of Pablo Casals, rounded out the first half of the program with an unbelievably, mind-blowingly thrilling performance of Suite No. 5 (C minor). The opening of the Prelude was very measured and deliberate, and the fugue which follows was very beautifully and cogently stated. The Sarabande, in its understated, unaffected plaintive simplicity, was one of the most hauntingly beautiful I have ever heard, so much so that the audience held its collective breath until it was over! Perenyi's Bach was utterly astounding and received the only ovation of the first half of the program.

(l to r) Jian Wang, Miklos Pereny, Jean-Guihen Queyras, Frans Helmerson,
Thomas Demenga, Ronald Leonard take a well deserved bow
The palpable energy left hanging in the air during the intermission was promptly reignited by Swedish cellist Frans Helmerson who began the second half by delivering a performance of Suite No. 2 (D minor) that could very well be called definitive. Jian Wang, who offered a lavishly Romantic interpretation of the Haydn D major Concerto during Friday's opening concert, performed Suite No. 3 (C major). While I found his big, boomy, expressive sound perfectly suited to the Haydn D, I was a little taken aback by how forced and slightly coarse his tonal production came across in a solo context (think Jacqueline du Pre). Wang's sound may be big with an incredibly huge bass, but at times it isn't particularly focused which in solo Bach can become something of a distraction. Even so, the former child prodigy provided one of the most exciting performances of the evening and received an equally exciting ovation afterward. Canadian-French cellist Jean-Guihen Queyras, who also performed during Friday's opening concert, brought the program to a close with a near-flawless reading of Suite No. 6 (D major). Arguably the most technically impossible of the six Suites, it is widely believed that Bach originally composed the D major Suite for a relative of the cello, the violoncello piccolo, which is smaller and includes a fifth string tuned a perfect fifth above the cello's highest string, A. On a standard cello and without the benefit of an extra string, Jean-Guihen delivered a beautiful Prelude full of rich detail and wonderfully contrasting secondary voices. The Allemande, which is by far the longest and most expansive of any of the Allemandes from the other Suites, was well played. Bourees 1 & 2 were wonderfully spirited with slightly impish, humourous accents. I think Bach would have approved.

Sunday's audience was one of the most exceptional I have witnessed in a very long time. I have never seen an L.A. audience so rapt, so attentive, and so quiet! And in the audience were some of the great and the good from the local and national arts scene, as well as several of the Festival's featured artists. I was delighted to bump into blogger Brian Holt (read his fabulous blog Out West Arts), and I was very surprised to bump into Sir Clive Gillinson, artistic director of  Carnegie Hall, cellist, and former managing director of the London Symphony. (I first met Sir Clive in January when I was in New York for an orchestra management course and our group was invited to tour Carnegie Hall).

The Festival runs until Sunday, 18 March and will feature several more master classes, recitals, and concertos, including three performances with the Los Angeles Philharmonic featuring Ralph Kirsbaum, Mischa Maisky, and Alisa Weilerstein. The final concert will take place the evening of the 18th at Walt Disney Concert Hall and will feature a mass cello choir of over 100 cellists in a performance of Christopher Rouse's Rapturedux. Visit the Festival website for further information.
6 years ago |
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As with the sheep of New Zealand, one might be forgiven for thinking that there are more blogs lurking about the internet than there are people. While a great many of them run the gamut from boring to incomprehensibly weird, for those with a penchant for historical arcana the blog Lists of Note is actually pretty good. I discovered this blog quite by accident (via a friend's Facebook post) and find it rather interesting. Lists of Note is authored by the same creative mind behind Letters of Note, a blog of even greater interest to history wonks!

The post that grabbed my attention is dated 19 January and is entitled "Things to Worry About". It is a retelling of F. Scott Fitzgerald's 1933 letter to his 11 year-old daughter Scottie advising him of all the things he should and should not worry about. Pithy and practical. I've copied it here, but please do visit Lists of Note and read some of their other amazing posts!

Things to worry about:

Worry about courage
Worry about cleanliness
Worry about efficiency
Worry about horsemanship

Things not to worry about: 

Don’t worry about popular opinion
Don’t worry about dolls
Don’t worry about the past
Don’t worry about the future
Don’t worry about growing up
Don’t worry about anybody getting ahead of you
Don’t worry about triumph
Don’t worry about failure unless it comes through your own fault
Don’t worry about mosquitoes
Don’t worry about flies
Don’t worry about insects in general
Don’t worry about parents
Don’t worry about boys
Don’t worry about disappointments
Don’t worry about pleasures
Don’t worry about satisfactions

Things to think about: 

What am I really aiming at? 
How good am I really in comparison to my contemporaries in regard to: 

(a) Scholarship
(b) Do I really understand about people and am I able to get along with them? 
(c) Am I trying to make my body a useful instrument or am I neglecting it? 

With dearest love,

Tags: Anthony McAlister (Cello) ; Cello ;
6 years ago |
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I have just returned from spending two weeks in New York, the greatest city in the world. My fourth time to the state, but my first time to the City. And what a city! I adored lobby, bar, and diner, every cab and horse-drawn carriage, every pushy vendor, every piss-soaked subway car, every sight, sound, and smell, some clearly less salubrious than others. My apologies to Tony Bennett, but I've left my heart in Manhattan. And now to indulge in a bit of musical nostalgia... Below are a few of my favourite songs about New York City. Enjoy.

Manhattan  |  Ella Fitzgerald

New York State of Mind  |  Billy Joel

Autumn in New York  |  Ella Fitzgerald & Louis Armstrong

Empire State of Mind  |  Jay-Z & Alicia Keys

Take the 'A' Train  |  Ella Fitzgerald & Duke Ellington

Chelsea Morning  |  Joni Mitchell

The 59th Street Bridge Song  |  Simon & Garfunkel

New York, New York  |  Frank Sinatra
6 years ago |
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My friend and colleague Tim Page, the former Pulitzer Prize-winning music critic of the Washington Post, has just written an article (more accurately a review) of the 11 year-old singer Jackie Evancho who instantly shot to fame last year thanks to her appearance on America's Got Talent (see video below). Judging from some of the truly idiotic and mindlessly sycophantic comments being left on the Post's website by Miss Evancho's fiercely loyal fans, the article has clearly touched a nerve.

Reading it with an open mind leads one to see immediately the simple wisdom of what Tim is saying: talent, however prodigious, is no substitute for artistry. The crux of Tim's thesis is summed up rather nicely:
A sweet-faced child with a naturally pretty voice is being primed, packaged and promoted as though she were a finished artist. And she isn’t — not yet anyway. Right now she reminds me a lot more of JonBenet Ramsey than she does of Maria Callas.
I remember watching this girl's performance on television and being really very creeped out. NOT that the performance was necessarily bad. It was just, well, creepy... The exaggerated mannerisms, the weird, almost forced colour, shape, and timbre of her voice. There seemed nothing natural or organic about her tonal production at all.

This poor young thing, who it must be said seems to enjoy performing, is making someone very rich and is receiving the sorts of plaudits, praise, and acclaim that most performing artists struggle to attain for much of their performing careers. And at what cost? As the article points out, we all know the world of woe and tabloid scandal that awaited Charlotte Church, who was similarly thrust upon the international stage in part thanks to a very slick marketing machine. As Tim points out, there is a huge risk that unless this talented little girl receives proper vocal training, she runs the risk of not having much of a voice at all by the time she reaches full maturation as an adult.

Surely the world of classical music should be free of this kind of horrid forced maturation of promising young children, the kind that makes Toddlers & Tiaras so sickening to watch or even contemplate. Those savaging Tim Page for what was an honest, if uncomfortably accurate analysis, need to take a breath and perhaps step away from the keyboard.
6 years ago |
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Baron Lloyd Webber of Sydmonton (Andrew Lloyd Webber to the rest of us) has predicted that 2012 will be a "bloodbath" for London's theatres. The 63year-old composer best known for Cats, The Phantom of the Opera, and Evita, has forecast a rather dire summer for London's famous theatres as they will have to compete with the 2012 Olympics for, among other things, hotel rooms for their respective patrons. He may be right. Let's not forget 2012 will also large-scale celebrations of Queen Elizabeth II's  Diamond Jubilee. London will be positively awash with people this summer! Read more here...
6 years ago |
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© George S. Zimbel
Today marks what would have been the 93rd birthday of celebrated composer, pianist, conductor, and educator Leonard Bernstein. To celebrate, below is a clip of Bernstein leading the London Philharmonic Orchestra and Chorus in the last few moments of Mahler's Symphony No. 2 ("Resurrection"). I have Mahler on my mind given that his powerful Resurrection Symphony was recently performed during the final concert of the Aspen Music Festival and School, where I have been working since June. Incidentally, you can read a feature I wrote for the Week 7-8 edition of the AMFS program book entitled "Leonard Bernstein As Educator" via this link.
7 years ago |
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Sunday, 21 August 2011: There's a remarkable feeling abounding in the air - one of exhilaration tempered by exhaustion. It feels very like the morning of graduation. We did this. We put on this highly improbable, richly eclectic season of concerts. With our sweat, tears, and blood (I'm thinking paper cuts), we created beauty and shared that beauty with the rest of the world. It's a pretty heady thing to look back and see this wonderful thing one has had the chance to contribute to. This was truly a transformative summer for many of us and transformative in ways many of us I doubt yet fully appreciate. I am so grateful for this experience.

But, this is not a time for maudlin reflection. There is still one last, amazing concert left: Mahler's Resurrection Symphony. Then the goodbyes.
7 years ago |
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Thursday, 11 August: Just returned a short time ago from a wonderful chamber concert at Harris Concert Hall. The program for this sold-out concert included the Janácek Violin Sonata (with violinist David Halen and pianist Orli Shaham), Argento's uproariously funny Miss Manners on Music, and a concert performance of Copland's Appalachian Spring. Despite having to hear most of it from the lobby, the Janácek was exquisite. I was first introduced to that work at Meadowmount back in 2002 and was immediately struck by its poignancy and austerity. David Halen, concertmaster of the Saint Louis Symphony, acquitted himself admirably.

Dominick Argento's Miss Manners on Music is a work to behold (read the program notes here). If the title sounds familiar it's likely because "Miss Manners" was the nom de plume of Judith Martin, the well known author, columnist, and etiquette expert. The twenty-minute work is Argento's rather clever setting of excerpts of some of Martin's columns dealing with correct etiquette at concert venues. Mezzo-soprano Kiri Parker, a recent graduate of Mannes College of Music and a former choral scholar at The Queen's College, Oxford, brilliantly captured wit, sarcasm, and thoughtfulness of Miss Manners' replies to her "gentle readers".

The final work on the program was likely the reason for high turnout. Aaron Copland's Appalachian Spring is familiar to most of us by way of performances employing large orchestral forces. The original score, however, calls for just thirteen instruments. It's this intimately-sized chamber orchestra that conductor David Robertson led in a rapturous and spell-binding performance of Copland's most famous composition. A lovely evening indeed.
7 years ago |
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Thursday, 14 July: I live for days like this! This evening's concert by the Emerson String Quartet was--it goes without saying--superb. They delivered an exquisitely turned and thoroughly compelling performance of Haydn's D minor Quartet (op. 103), Bartok's String Quartet No. 6, and Schubert's G major Quartet (op. posth. 161), the last quartet he wrote prior to his death. It was a well-chosen program which allowed them to showcase their expressive range and matchless ensemble. It is with good reason the Emerson are considered America's premier string quartet.

Click for larger image
But the best part of the evening came just after the concert when I joined some of my senior colleagues in venturing backstage to greet the artists. The backstage area was soon flooded with students and other adoring fans. I was soon amidst a rather boisterous throng of autograph-seekers and well-wishers, myself hoping for a quick word and, fingers crossed, a photo. While waiting for the rest of his colleagues to emerge from their dressing rooms, I struck up a conversation with violinist Philip Setzer. He's quite an affable fellow! We chatted about the Quartet, about Aspen, and, most interestingly, about the Emerson's memorable 2005 recording of the Mendelssohn Octet, which saw the Quartet essentially double itself in order to record all eight parts of the Octet. Read more about their fascinating project here.

I was bold enough to ask, and Mr. Setzer was kind enough to acquiesce and help round up his colleagues so we could have our group photo! One would think, given the fact I am pushing 30, that my days of behaving like a gushing, starstruck fanboy are well behind me. Think again. I hope to never become so jaded or cynical about the world of classical music and musicians as to lose interest in great artists and the great art they create.

Below is a the first of a two-part video chronicling the Emerson's Mendelssohn Octet project.
7 years ago |
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