2017 New York International Music Festival in Review

2017 New York International Music Festival in Review

2017 New York International Music Festival
Gwent Youth Wind Orchestra, Wales, United Kingdom
Sean O’Neill, director
Virginia Tech Wind Ensemble and Combined Choirs, Blacksburg, Virginia
Jonathan Caldwell, Dwight Bigler, conductors
Deborah Lee Gibbs, master of ceremonies
Stern Auditorium at Carnegie Hall, New York, NY
April 11, 2017

 

Carnegie Hall was the venue for a series of concerts of the 2017 New York International Musical Festival. The evening showcase concert featured the Gwent Youth Wind Orchestra from Wales, and the Virginia Tech Wind Ensemble and Combined Choirs. Also featured was world renowned euphonium player David Childs, who was the soloist in two World Premiere works that he commissioned. Master of Ceremonies Deborah Lee Gibbs introduced each group.

Program notes were only provided for the two World Premiere works. While it was nice that the Master of Ceremonies spoke briefly of each work, it was more of a “reading of the menu,” rather than offering much explanation or history of the works. I’m sure this was done to economize on printing costs (there were several concerts using the same program booklet, with only minor changes), but this, coupled with the curious placement of each group’s selection as if it were parenthetical, was vexing. The majority of the works played were not so well-known that they would not need some explanation or context.

The Gwent Youth Wind Orchestra, led by Sean O’Neill, took the stage for the first half. They offered six works (two World Premieres), five by Welsh composers, with the sixth by Arturo Márquez. The Gwent is open by audition to players up to college age. The rough equivalent in the United States would probably be a High School Honor Band. As one might expect, there is often some unevenness in the quality of the players, and this was no exception. That’s not meant to be a criticism, for the overall level of play was generally excellent, but it is just a reality of having a group with constantly changing personnel. The most problematic area was intonation, some of which one could attribute to nerves, but some to inexperience (e.g. the low D – concert C – at the end of Abide With Me is a notoriously sharp note on the B-flat Trumpet, which requires either a third valve slide adjustment or one brought about from embouchure to bring it into tune).

Now that I’ve gotten these issues mentioned it is time to move on to the positive, of which there was much to praise. The opening work, Prismatic Light by Alan Fernie, was boldly played, with precision and a festive feeling. Gareth Wood’s Salome – Rhapsody for Band has a grotesque, heathenish quality that the Gwent played up to the hilt – an impressive performance of a demanding work. Danzón No. 2 by Arturo Márquez, a popular and much-loved work, had the right amount of restraint that lesser groups often fail to maintain, and it showed the Gwent to the maximum advantage.

Now it is time to say a few words about the featured soloist. The story of the violin virtuoso Paganini is well known. Some said he sold his soul to the devil in exchange for his virtuosity. It seems that Paganini was re-born in Wales, but instead of the violin, this new incarnation has taken to the euphonium. Disguised as the mild-mannered David Childs, the wizardry was on full display on the stage of Carnegie Hall. This is only half in jest – Mr. Childs possesses a mind-boggling technique that would be the envy of not only euphonium players, but many a trumpet player as well, especially in the clarity of his high-speed passagework and articulation. Usually with the larger brass, the faster the playing, the muddier the sound, but not so with Mr. Childs. Coupled with this, his extreme upper range tone is bright and clear, without a hint of strain.

Seren Wen (White Star) Euphonium Concerto was the first of the commissioned World Premiere works. The program notes quote composer Bernard Kane as saying: “I’ve used the ‘White Star’ as the title of the work…It was the Line of the Titanic, who’s [sic] distress signal was first heard in the Welsh Village of Pontllanfriath, some 3000 miles away from where Titanic hit that fatal iceberg … It is not a tone poem about the sinking, rather the story being the work’s impetus and the link with Wales.” I found this all puzzling, the relevance tenuous at best, not to mention the highly debatable claim regarding the distress signal (this reviewer is a long-time Titanic enthusiast). In any case, the work is a showcase for Mr. Childs’ virtuosity, with writing emphasizing his strengths (as listed above). It was a dazzling display.

The second World Premiere was the beautiful Welsh Prayer by Paul Mealor. It’s not showy, but requires great control to maintain its lyrical quality. Of course, Mr. Childs has this ability in spades, and I would not be surprised if this work figures into his regular repertoire.

After Abide With Me, as arranged by Karl Jenkins, the audience, which included many from Wales (many carrying the national flag), gave the performers a standing ovation. Da Iawn!

After Intermission the Virginia Wind Ensemble Tech and Combined Choirs took the stage. Before all else, it is notable to mention the great level of preparation and organization from Virginia Tech. Each stage change (and there were several) was accomplished in record time without any fuss at all, something I wish many other concerts would take as an example. What was disappointing was the complete lack of program notes and texts for their selections.

The Wind Ensemble with Combined Choirs led off. Conductor Jonathan Caldwell led a lively performance of Percy Grainger’s charming I’m Seventeen Come Sunday. Dwight Bigler then took the podium to conduct his work I Shall Not Live In Vain, which was moving.

The Chamber Singers, conducted by Mr. Bigler, offered three works. The first, William Byrd’s Sing Joyfullly had good balance, clear diction, and precise intonation. The second, Rivers of Light by Ēriks Ešenvalds (with one of the chorus playing a mouth harp), was hauntingly beautiful. The last, the third and final movement, Strike, of Gene Koshinski’s Concerto for Marimba and Choir with Percussion, is one of the more unusual works this listener has heard. Featuring Assistant Professor of Percussion Annie Stevens, this highly entertaining selection had a tribal, primitive feel. It would have been helpful to know the “back story” for his work to gain more insight.

Jonathan Caldwell then led the Wind Ensemble in Mason Bates’ Mothership, with soloists Jason Crafton (Assistant Professor of Trumpet), and Alan Weinstein (Associate Professor of Cello) playing an electric cello. It’s a scherzo-like work, with 21st-century idioms, such as techno rhythms. It’s a fun work, with electronic atmospheric touches, “visiting soloists to the docked Mothership,” and action-packed writing for all. The Wind Ensemble treated the listener to a ten-minute otherworldly romp.

To close the concert, Mr. Bigler returned to the podium to conduct the Wind Ensemble and Combined Choirs in his work Three Appalachian Songs. The whimsical Cluck Old Hen, the mournful Poor Wayfarin’ Stranger, with soprano soloist Ariana Wyatt (Assistant Professor of Voice), and the exultant Sourwood Mountain brought the night to a rousing close. The audience, which included ensembles that had performed in the earlier afternoon concert, gave the combined forces a loud and long ovation.


Temple University Symphony Orchestra and Jazz Band in Review

Temple University Symphony Orchestra and Jazz Band in Review

Temple University Symphony Orchestra and Jazz Band
Andreas Delfs, conductor; Terell Stafford, director
William Wolfram, piano
Alice Tully Hall at Lincoln Center, New York, NY
April 8, 2017

 

One of the greatest pleasures of being a music reviewer is when one is treated to a night of music by passionate young players giving their utmost in performances that rival those of more seasoned professional groups. In these cases, one can almost “turn off the meter” and sit back and enjoy. On April 8, 2017 at Alice Tully Hall, the Temple University Symphony Orchestra and Jazz Band stepped up and gave a concert that was not only technically polished, but full of vitality. Anyone who bemoans the alleged decline of concert music should take note – this is how you do it!

Conductor Andreas Delfs took the stage to lead the Symphony Orchestra in Orchestral Variations on a Theme by Paganini, Op. 26 (1947) by Boris Blacher (1903-1975). Blacher is among a long list of luminaries (Schumann, Liszt, Brahms, Rachmaninoff, Lutoslawki, and Rochberg) who used Paganini’s 24th Caprice for sets of variations, and his version has sixteen diverse variations, of which many are jazz infused (this listener’s favorite was a stylish pizzicato variation). Other than one moment when one of the string players was a fraction of a second behind in attack, it was an excellent reading in what was a great start to the night.

Maestro Delfs is one of the most involved conductors I have ever seen. He was fully invested in each and every note, as if he was living and breathing the music. His players returned that passion with interest.

After the Blacher, the stage was readied for George Gershwin’s Second Rhapsody for Piano and Orchestra. Written in 1931 for the movie Delicious, the Second Rhapsody in its finished form has been largely neglected until recent times. This fifteen-minute work lacks the appeal of the Rhapsody in Blue and the Concerto in F, which probably accounts for its lesser popularity. That is not to say that it is not filled with Gershwin’s characteristic melodies and rhythmic liveliness, but that its darker nature makes it more difficult to embrace. It certainly helped that one of the finest pianists in the country, William Wolfram, was the featured soloist. Mr. Wolfram is a no-nonsense musician. He took the stage, sat down at the piano, and without any ado launched into the opening notes. There were not any displays or histrionics, for Mr. Wolfram doesn’t need any gimmicks – he lets his playing speak for him. I wonder if the audience really knew how good Mr. Wolfram is, as he made it all look so easy, in what might be an “occupational hazard” of having such a huge technique. It was an outstanding performance that had this listener wanting to hear Mr. Wolfram in one of the “big” works (such as Prokofiev’s 3rd Piano Concerto), where his firepower could be unleashed. The audience gave him a nice ovation.

After intermission, the Jazz Band, led by Terell Stafford, offered Juan Tizol’s 1941 classic Perdido, which has figured in the recorded work of many of the giants of jazz (Charlie Parker, Art Tatum, Ella Fitzgerald, and Sarah Vaughan, to name a few), but was most associated with Duke Ellington and his Orchestra. The Spanish word perdido usually is translated as “lost,” but in this case it refers to a street name in New Orleans. The players took on Gerald Wilson’s supercharged arrangement, which is no walk in the park. What a high-octane performance it was, from the soloist to the ending double High C in the trumpets (I was waiting for it!), which shook the walls of the hall. This highly-opinionated listener found himself highly impressed and just a touch nostalgic for those long ago days when he was a young trumpeter.

Conductor Andreas Delfs spoke to the audience prior to the New York Premiere of UNITED, Symphony for Orchestra and Big Band, by Daniel Schnyder (b. 1961). Descirbed by Maestro Delfs as a concerto grosso, UNITED is a four-movement work that seeks to unite the two worlds of classical and jazz, while giving each “faction” an opportunity to shine not only in its own “style,” but in the style of the other! It’s a powerhouse work, a showstopper par excellence. The huge combined forces, to borrow an expression from Mr. Schnyder’s notes, “rocked the house” in a scintillating performance. The composer was in attendance and was greeted with an ovation as Maestro Delfs held the score in the air.

Gershwin’s Cuban Overture, in a special arrangement by Bill Cunliffe for Orchestra and Big Band, served as a built-in encore, a “victory lap” for everyone to enjoy. The audience was obviously enchanted (three women directly in front of me were dancing in their seats), and when it was over there was a long, loud, and well-deserved standing ovation. I’m sure that everyone in attendance left happy. Congratulations, Temple University Symphony Orchestra and Jazz Band, for a most enjoyable concert, which this listener will remember for a long time.


Clarion presents The Magic Flute in Review

Clarion presents The Magic Flute in Review

Clarion presents The Magic Flute
The Clarion Orchestra, The Clarion Choir
Steven Fox, conductor and artistic director
Alain Gauthier, stage director
El Museo del Barrio, New York, NY
March 11, 2017

 

On a frigid Saturday night, Clarion presented Mozart’s The Magic Flute, or to be more proper, Die Zauberflöte, as it was to be sung in German here. Those intrepid souls who braved the cold were treated to a journey back in time, in what was a most delightful evening of music. Proceeds from the concert were to benefit the youth programs of Christodora, and the performance was given in memory of Beatrice Goelet Manice.

Everything in the making of this production was with the idea of creating a nearly authentic period feel. The theatre at El Museo del Barrio has the look and feel of an intimate 18th/19th century venue, the Clarion Orchestra uses period instruments, and the sets were inspired by those designed by Karl Friedrich Schinkel for the 1816 Berlin performances. In a nod to modern needs, the sets were projected in a screen, and supertitles in English were projected above the stage. This is an approach of which this reviewer highly approves, which makes the music front and center, and not some avant-garde setting that some modern directors seem to feel is necessary (Hint: They are not).


Three-Ladies-Sarah-Brailey-Nola-Richardson-Kate-Maroney-and-Tamino-Robin-Tritschler-Clarion-Die-Zauberflöte-photo-Hope-Lourie-Killcoyne.jpeg

 

The story of The Magic Flute is so well known that it is not necessary to go into any detail here. Those readers who wish to learn more can follow this link: The Magic Flute. It is of interest to note the many Masonic influences that appear throughout the opera- e.g. Three flats in the opening key, three chords that stand alone to begin, the three ladies in The Queen of the Night’s entourage, the three spirit guides, etc. The number three has special significance in Freemasonry, representing the Trinity. Mozart joined the Freemasons on December 17, 1784.

While I am usually not a fan of period instruments, the Clarion Orchestra almost made me a believer in what was a first-rate performance by a first-rate ensemble. Conductor Steven Fox led with confidence, and with skillful attention and sensitivity in blending the vocalists and the orchestra with near perfection.

Queen of the Night (Anna Dennis) and Pamina (Elena Xanthoudakis) – Clarion, Die Zauberflöte

 

With apologies to the large cast, who were all excellent, it is impossible to acknowledge each member individually, so I will limit myself to the main characters. Robin Tritschler has a lyrical tenor voice that is well suited to the idealistic Tamino. The fey Elena Xanthoudakis won hearts as the innocent Pamina. Craig Philips, who played Sarastro, projected a regal bearing worthy of a High Priest, and his strong bass voice filled the hall, even into the subterranean range (those low F’s!).

The stars of the night were John Brancy, who played Papageno, and Anna Dennis, who played The Queen of the Night. Mr. Brancy’s Papageno was not played as a buffoon, but rather as a “blowhard”- one who talks big, but never lives up to that big talk. It was an effective approach that paid off in spades, in what was a winning performance that delighted the audience. Ms. Dennis handled one of opera’s most demanding roles with what seemed ridiculous ease, which of course is a testament to her great ability. Her singing of the two famous arias, O zittre nicht and Der Hölle Rache, both ascending into the stratosphere (those high F’s!) brought shouts of “Brava!” from the audience- they knew that had heard something special!

There were a few anachronisms- a hilarious “kick line” dance led by Monostatos (Mark Bleeke), and a “talk to the hand” gesture to Papageno by one of the three young “spirit” boys, which almost stole the show. The audience roared in laughter at both. It was also nice to see so many young people in the audience, and even better to see them enjoying the show. One must also give kudos to stage director Alain Gauthier for his fine work.

When it ended, the audience responded with an extended standing ovation, with each member of the cast taking turns accepting special recognition. Congratulations to all the performers and the countless numbers of those “behind-the-scenes” people who made this Magic Flute a stunning success.


Distinguished Concerts International New York (DCINY) presents Keys to Romance in Review

Distinguished Concerts International New York (DCINY) presents Keys to Romance in Review

Distinguished Concerts International New York (DCINY) presents Keys to Romance
Christina Kobb, piano
Weill Hall at Carnegie Hall, New York, NY
February 24, 2017

 

As part of their Artist Series concerts, Distinguished Concerts International New York (DCINY) presented Norwegian pianist Christina Kobb in a concert entitled Keys to Romance. Featuring works from Schubert, Grieg, Liszt, and Robert and Clara Schumann, it was a thought-provoking evening, both intellectually and musically.

Christina Kobb is currently working toward a PhD degree at the Norwegian Academy of Music. The focus of her study is the reconstruction of 19th century piano technique from the exploration of treatises and manuals of that time. The goal is to create performances that would sound to us today as they sounded originally. Kobb has lectured about her research, most notably at Harvard in 2016. She was also the focus of an 2015 article in the New York Times that one can read by following this link- New York Times 7/21/15 article. Ms. Kobb has even re-tooled her playing technique to mirror that of her research.

I’m not going to spend a lot of time delving into Ms. Kobb’s thesis – this is a matter that can be left to the academics and performance practice enthusiasts. I could not help wondering, though, whether, if the goal is more authentic performances by using the prevailing technique, it would not also be proper to use the same instrument that was in use at that time, rather than a modern Steinway grand. Perhaps the venue would not allow it.

Ms. Kobb’s program notes were among the best this reviewer has seen. Her style is that of the storyteller, and while she presents musical analysis, it is nothing beyond the grasp of most, regardless of their level of music education. Even though the love story of Robert and Clara is well known, Ms. Kobb recounts the events of their courtship (and roadblocks, courtesy of Clara’s father) with the skill of a novelist that had this listener eagerly awaiting the musical depiction.

The one thing that is immediately apparent about Ms. Kobb is her no-nonsense approach. If one wants extravagant gestures, flashy dress, and indulgent readings, they need to look elsewhere. Ms. Kobb is all about the music. Taking the stage, she sat down at the piano and launched right into Liszt’s transcription of Robert Schumann’s Widmung, which was a clever opening of the love story – present the “happy ending” first (that is, the marriage of Robert and Clara). Ms. Kobb played this much-loved work with a measured passion, of which much may be attributed to the adopted technique. It was a promising opening. Moving on, we heard the A minor Sonata, D. 537, by Schubert, a composer whom Robert Schumann greatly admired (even “discovering” and subsequently enabling the publishing of Schubert’s 9th Symphony). Ms. Kobb offered a well thought out and precise reading.

After the Schubert, Ms. Kobb offered three early works of Edvard Grieg, Drei Fantasiestücke (a Mazurka was added later, and the set published at his Opus 1). Composed in 1861 when the composer was eighteen, these works are heavily influenced by Schumann, a sort of “Grieg before he was Grieg.” I’m not sure what the connection to Robert and Clara was, but it is understandable that a Norwegian would wish to honor Norway’s greatest composer. In any case, Ms. Kobb treated the audience to a reverent performance that in this listener’s opinion exceeded the musical value of the pieces. She ended the first half with two selections from Clara’s Opus 5, the charming Romance, and the Berlioz-like Scene Fantastique: Le Ballet des Revenants. Written in Clara’s early teens, these works make one wonder what Clara’s trajectory as a composer would have been if she had lived in a different time. We can be grateful for her guiding hand in Robert’s works. Ms. Kobb again came fully prepared in an accurate reading.

After intermission, Ms. Kobb offered Robert Schumann’s Sonata No. 1 in F-sharp minor, Op. 11. This work is a musical love letter to Clara. Schumann takes two themes from Clara’s Op. 5 and combines them into a single melody in the first movement – which Clara could have not missed as she played this work. Some couples spoke to each other in letters, but Robert and Clara spoke to each other in music. This was the highlight of the evening for this listener, as Ms. Kobb played this love story with passion while maintaining complete control.

If one wanted to make a suggestion, it would be that Ms. Kobb might play with more spontaneity, even despite the rigors of her special technique. It seems counterintuitive that such romantic works are played with such a cerebral quality. This quibble aside, Ms. Kobb is first and foremost a scholar who does not seem to present herself as a typical touring virtuoso. It is clear to this reviewer that she should excel in lecture recitals, particularly to audiences of academics even more than to lay audiences. She believes wholeheartedly in her mission, and that belief will take her far.

The filled hall gave Ms. Kobb a standing ovation at the end.


Distinguished Concerts International New York (DCINY) presents The Music of Dinos Constantinides in Review

Distinguished Concerts International New York (DCINY) presents The Music of Dinos Constantinides in Review

Distinguished Concerts International New York (DCINY) presents The Music of Dinos Constantinides
Featured Artists: Yova Milanova, Mariana Todorova, violins; Sandra Moon, soprano; Maria Asteriadou, piano; Athanasios Zervas, Jeremy Justeson, saxophones
Weill Hall at Carnegie Hall, New York, NY
February 21, 2017

 

Greek-born Dinos Constantinides is the head of Composition and Music Director of the Louisiana Sinfonietta at Louisiana State University. He is presently Boyd Professor, the highest academic rank at LSU.   Mr. Constantinides has composed over 300 works, including six symphonies, two operas, and music for a wide variety of instruments and voices, and has a long list of prizes won and excellent reviews worldwide. His writing style is all-encompassing, from the simplest of forms to the ultra-complex, and from the strictly tonal to the acerbically atonal and serial. He is especially adept in his use of Greek influences, such as Greek poetry from both ancient and modern sources, and Greek modal harmony. With the help of six exceptionally talented colleagues, his audience was privy to a broad survey of his varied style, in nine works. This concert was the ninth occasion that Distinguished Concerts International New York (DCINY) has presented the music of Mr. Constantinides.

Let’s get the negatives out of the way. Very often, concerts of this type (survey of a composer with a long career), try to offer as many works as possible to cover all periods, etc. The net effect is a concert that is overly long, an unfortunate thing, as those persons without the stamina to endure often miss out on works they probably would have enjoyed. In today’s world, with people’s shortened attention spans, it is imperative to consider this in programming works.

Now, let’s move on to positive things. Mr. Constantinides is a master of form, and I am sure his composition students benefit greatly from his expertise. In particular, it is his Greek-influenced works that stand above the rest, as if they are a natural extension of his being. It was those works that took from Greek themes that this listener found to be the most compelling.

The six featured artists were all superb interpreters of Mr. Constantinides’s compositions. We heard violinists Yova Milanova and Mariana Todorova, soprano Sandra Moon, pianist Maria Asteriadou, and saxophonists Athanasios Zervas and Jeremy Justeson. While it would be beyond the scope of this review to speak of each piece, I would like to offer highlights of each performer. Ms. Milanova offered a nuanced reading of Four Interludes for Violin Alone, LRC 136. Lazy Jack and His Fiddle, LRC 199, with its virtuosic demands, was tossed off by Ms. Todorova with panache. Ms. Milanova and Ms. Todorova joined together in a light-hearted reading of the charming Family Triptych for Two Violins, LRC 182I. Ms. Moon was a force in Listenings and Silences for Voice Alone, LRC111, with text from the prominent African-American poet Pinkie Gordon Lane (1923-2008). Ms. Asteriadou played the 2016 arrangement of Dreams, Earth, and Heaven, LRC101, with great understanding, bringing out the various Greek influences, ancient and modern, with devotion. The clever interplay of Music for Two Saxophones, LRC 173d was realized with consummate skill by Mr. Zervas (soprano sax) and Mr. Justeson (tenor sax), in what was a fun end to the concert.

 

At the end, Mr. Constantinides joined his colleagues on the stage to offer them his congratulations. He spoke in a humble fashion to the audience, thanking all, including LSU officials, for their support. It was quite touching to witness. It was then announced by one of the LSU officials in attendance that the composer and his wife had endowed a Dinos Constantinides New Music Ensemble, a continuing legacy of his fifty-three years (and counting- he’s still going strong at age 87!) at LSU. Congratulations, Mr. Constantinides, and may you have another fifty-three years of music making!

 


Distinguished Concerts International New York (DCINY) presents Mercer University at Carnegie Hall in Review

Distinguished Concerts International New York (DCINY) presents Mercer University at Carnegie Hall in Review

Distinguished Concerts International New York (DCINY) presents Mercer University at Carnegie Hall
Mercer Singers
Stanley L. Roberts, conductor; Carol S. Goff, accompanist
McDuffie Center String Ensemble
Amy Schwartz Moretti, director and violin
Olivia McMillan, soprano
Stern Auditorium at Carnegie Hall, New York, NY
February 19, 2017

 

The nightcap of the President’s Day weekend concert doubleheader presented by Distinguished Concerts International New York (DCINY) featured the talents of musicians from Mercer University, located in Macon, Georgia. William Underwood, President of Mercer University, came to the stage to “throw out the first pitch” by welcoming the audience, talking briefly about Mercer, and expressing his pride in the Mercer music department. He thanked all for coming, asked all to enjoy the concerts, and then left the stage.

The Mercer Singers, led by Stanley L. Roberts took the stage to open the concert. They offered six works in a wide range of styles, highlighting their versatility. Things got off to a good start with the Kenyan folk song Wana Baraka. Complete with the singers swaying to the music, it was moving in its simplicity. Eric Whitacre’s Lux Aurumque followed. This work is deceptively simple, but it requires extreme precision in ensemble balance and intonation, or else the overall effect is ruined. There was no danger of that here, as the balance was superb, with the close intervals precisely rendered. It was an excellent performance. Special mention goes to the soprano soloist, whose voice soared in a way I have not encountered in this work. After this, the Mercer Singers delivered an “adrenaline shot” in the form of Brent Pierce’s Hosanna in excelsis, a two-minute jazz influenced, rhythmically power-packed piece. Faire is the Heaven, by William Henry Harrison, followed with refinement, and Dan Forrest’s setting of Lead, Kindly Light, was the highlight of their selections to this listener. Ending with Moses Hogan’s show-stopping The Battle of Jericho, the Mercer Singers brought the audience to their feet with a rollicking performance.

After intermission, the McDuffie Center String Ensemble took the stage. Led by Amy Schwartz Moretti, who also plays violin in the ensemble, the Mc Duffie Center String Ensemble is composed of twenty-four full scholarship students of the Robert McDuffie Center for Strings, and five faculty mentors. This gives the young players the opportunity to play with and learn from experienced veterans who play with some top-notch ensembles. They offered two selections, Edward Elgar’s Serenade for String Orchestra, Op. 20, and the fourth movement finale from Felix Mendelssohn’s Octet.

The conductor-less ensemble, with the violins and violas playing standing, proved to be a exceptional group. The benefits of playing with accomplished mentors lent wings to the younger players in what were inspired performances. The Elgar was played with polish throughout, but I must give preference to the second movement Larghetto, which was simply sublime. The Presto of the Octet followed – the finale of a masterpiece from one of the greatest prodigies in the history of music, Mendelssohn having written this work at age sixteen! It was played with considerable brio. It was not perfect, to be sure, but the bold approach was something this listener always appreciates, and was worthy of the work. I would in fact like to hear this ensemble play the entire Octet. The audience gave the players a richly rewarded standing ovation.

After a short break, the Mercer Singers joined the String Ensemble (both with the help of some “Friends and Alums”) for the finale work of the night, John Rutter’s Requiem. This seven-movement work was inspired in a large part by Rutter’s editing of a new edition Fauré’s Requiem in 1983. It can be said that Rutter’s study of Fauré led to the creation of an equally serene and beautiful work. Rutter used texts from the Latin Requiem Mass, the 1611 Bible, and the 1662 Book of Common Prayer.

There was much to commend in this performance, but I will mention above all the heavenly Pie Jesu, highlighted by the sheer radiance of the voice of soprano soloist Olivia McMillan. The audience, who broke convention with applause after each movement, gave a prolonged standing ovation at the end. Congratulations to all for a fine evening of music.

 


Distinguished Concerts International New York (DCINY) presents The Glory to Freedom: A Concert to Honor Our Veterans in Review

Distinguished Concerts International New York (DCINY) presents The Glory to Freedom: A Concert to Honor Our Veterans in Review

Distinguished Concerts International New York (DCINY) presents The Glory to Freedom: A Concert to Honor Our Veterans
Rochester Philharmonic Youth Orchestra
Distinguished Concerts Orchestra, Distinguished Concerts Singers International
Erin Freeman, DCINY debut conductor, Lee Nelson, guest conductor
Suzanne Karpov, soprano
Stern Auditorium at Carnegie Hall, New York, NY
February 19, 2017

 

On an unusually warm February day, with temperatures in the mid-60’s, and pitchers and catchers reporting to Spring Training to kick off the baseball season, I was reminded of the legendary Ernie Banks. “Mr. Cub” never lost his zest for the game. “Let’s play two,” was his motto. So why not have two concerts on the same day? Distinguished Concerts International New York (DCINY) served up just such a doubleheader. The first (and the subject of this review) was entitled The Glory of Freedom: A Concert to Honor Our Veterans. It featured the talents of the Rochester Philharmonic Youth Orchestra and the Distinguished Concerts Orchestra and Singers International. Chorus members were from Connecticut, Florida, Georgia, Iowa, Michigan, Minnesota, Montana, North Dakota, Virginia, the United Kingdom, and individual singers from around the globe.

The Rochester Philharmonic Youth Orchestra, led by Dr. James Mick, took the stage to open the afternoon. Established in 1970, this group offers talented young players the opportunity to come together both to further their development and to enjoy the enriching experience of making music. I was immediately intrigued by their unusual seating scheme, a double-pyramid, with the upper pyramid inverted, with the brass players and double reeds on risers that are normally used for singing ensembles. I’m sure that Dr. Mick had a specific purpose in mind, but I can’t say that it enhanced or detracted from the overall sound.

Opening with Wagner’s Prelude to Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, the young players had a slightly nervous start, with some “push-pull” tempo issues at the onset, but the attentive Dr. Mick got things back on track without any difficulty. I would like to see a more consistent approach, especially in the brass sections. When they were good, they were very good, but at other moments, the playing was tentative, with the expected results. Boldness, especially in this work, is always called for, regardless of the dynamic marking. To be fair, these issues are quite common for the developing players, and should not be considered a stinging criticism. All in all, these issues aside, the playing was commendable. It was bright and cleanly articulated, with good intonation throughout.

The all-around good start had me anticipating an upward arc of excellence, and I was not disappointed. The third movement of Gustav Mahler’s 1st Symphony (often referred to as the “Funeral March”) was played with a maturity beyond the ages of the players. Too often, Mahler’s sometimes ironic approach is rendered with exaggerated effects that can become almost cartoonish. There was none of that in this performance. It was far and away the highlight of their selections to this listener. Closing with Danzón No. 2 by Arturo Marquez (made popular by the early advocacy of Gustavo Dudamel and the Simón Bolivar Youth Orchestra of Venezuela), the ensemble offered a vibrant reading of this work. The watchword was “fun.” I particularly admired the principled restraint and build-up, which I have missed in other performances of this piece. The audience loved it and rewarded the players with a nice ovation.

After intermission, DCINY debut conductor Erin Freeman took the podium to lead Francis Poulenc’s Gloria. As Ms. Freeman writes in her excellent program notes, Gloria is a twenty-five minute, six-movement work that is a musical depiction of the composer’s life story. Complete with tribute to Stravinsky, reminiscences of Les Six, and his religious feelings, Gloria is the culmination of Poulenc’s mastery.

Ms. Freeman was well-prepared and energetic in her conducting. She led the large forces with meticulous detail to the many challenges of this work. The chorus sang with excellent balance and clear diction, not always a given with such large forces. The star of the performance was soprano Suzanne Karpov, whose angelic voice filled the hall. The audience was so moved that they broke convention and applauded enthusiastically between each movement, offering a standing ovation at the end.

After a brief pause, guest conductor Lee Nelson took the stage to conduct Randall Thompson’s choral work, The Testament of Freedom. Written in 1943 to celebrate the bicentennial of Thomas Jefferson’s birth, The Testament of Freedom uses text from Jefferson’s writing. With its dramatic setting of Jefferson’s powerful prose, this work has become a staple of the male chorus repertoire. Regardless of contemporary assessments of Jefferson the man, the power of his words is undeniable, and the truths he stated in 1775 are every bit as powerful in 2017. Some cynics have dismissed this work as jingoistic and musically reactionary, pronouncements for which this listener has no patience. I am always pleased to hear this work, and today’s performance was especially fine. The all-male chorus, with forces so large as to spill out onto the sides of the stage, was first-rate, and Mr. Nelson proved to be an able leader. The audience gave the performers a long, enthusiastic standing ovation.

Congratulations to all. Stay tuned for part two of this doubleheader of music!

 


Distinguished Concerts International New York (DCINY) presents Reflections of Peace in Review

Distinguished Concerts International New York (DCINY) presents Reflections of Peace in Review

Distinguished Concerts International New York (DCINY) presents Reflections of Peace
Flutopia Wind Ensemble, Jennifer Lapple, director
Catherine Sailer, guest conductor
Angela Mannino, soprano; Kirsten Allegri, mezzo-soprano; Jeremy Little, tenor; Steven Taylor, bass
James M. Meaders, DCINY Associate Artistic Director and conductor
Kim André Arnesen, visiting composer
Viola Dacus, mezzo-soprano; Aria Manning, youth soprano soloist
Distinguished Concerts Orchestra; Distinguished Concerts Singers International
Stern Auditorium, Carnegie Hall, New York, NY
January 16, 2017

 

In a second concert this past weekend to commemorate Martin Luther King Jr. Day, Distinguished Concerts International New York (DCINY) presented a concert entitled Reflections of Peace. It centered on two large works, the Missa In Angustiis of Haydn and the New York City premiere of Kim André Arnesen’s Requiem. The talented youth wind ensemble Flutopia was also featured.

The Flutopia Wind Ensemble took to the stage for the first half. Led by Jennifer Lapple, Flutopia is comprised of high school wind players from the Washington, D.C., and Northern Virginia areas. This was their third appearance in a DCINY event and the second time this reviewer has had the pleasure of hearing them. The name suggests a “flute-centric” ensemble, but this was less the case on this occasion (the number of clarinets being only one fewer than the flutes). I was intrigued by the bottom-to -top tuning approach (tubas first, then rising until reaching the high woodwinds), which was to pay off handsomely.

Opening with the finale of Tchaikovsky’s 4th Symphony, things got off to a slightly rough start, as the brass attacks were tentative, which led to some cracked notes. I cannot emphasize enough to young players to that “playing it safe” is anything but safe. Be bold and confident! Happily, these were isolated occurrences and the growing confidence took over in what was a solid performance. Following with an arrangement of Debussy’s L’isle joyeuse, the young players did the maximum that this arrangement allows. There is a certain sensuousness in the original piano version that is difficult to bring to a wind arrangement on a level appropriate for a young ensemble. Eric Whitacre’s Lux Aurumque followed the Debussy, and proved to be the highlight of Flutopia’s offerings. Intonation and balance were perfect, in a way that I have seldom heard from such a young ensemble. Whitacre’s characteristic textures, with very close intervals, radiated with real beauty. Armenian Dances, based on folk songs from the works of Gomidas Vartabed (also commonly known as Komitas) was the final selection. In a very effective arrangement by Alfred Reed, Flutopia played with brio and polish. Their many supporters gave them a standing ovation, and it was especially delightful to see the beaming smiles on the faces of the young performers. Well done!

After intermission, Catherine Sailer took the podium to lead Haydn’s Missa In Angustiis (Mass in Time of Anxiety), also called the “Lord Nelson Mass”. There does not seem to be any definitive agreement about how the name of Horatio Nelson became attached to this work; a possible explanation, however, was that Nelson visited the house of Esterhazy in 1800 and heard a performance of the work. All this speculation about titles aside, this work, written in 1798, is Haydn at his greatest – the master at work.

Maestra Sailer led with confidence. It was readily apparent that she was prepared with a clear-cut plan of what she wanted and how to get it. Haydn’s large conception was well rendered, but the small details were not overlooked. It might sound trite, but this was a first-rate musician leading a first-rate performance.

The soloists all earned their stars as well. Their parts are not trifles to be dashed off; they are demanding and a challenge for any singer. Kudos to soprano Angela Mannino, mezzo-soprano Kirsten Allegri, tenor Jeremy Little, and bass Steven Taylor for their outstanding singing. Congratulations to the chorus and orchestra are in order as well.

After a brief pause, James M. Meaders took the podium to conduct the New York City premiere of the Requiem by Kim André Arnesen (b. 1980). Mr. Arnesen’s work is in eight movements – six from the traditional mass and the remaining two using texts from Emily Dickinson (Not in Vain), and a slightly modified We Remember Them from the Jewish Book of Prayer.

Mr. Arnesen writes in the program notes of his “fascination with Requiems…I discovered the Requiems by Fauré, Duruflé, Lloyd-Webber, Schnittke, and many others,” and his desire to compose his own Requiem. This admission is telling, for while I cannot point to a definitive example, I had the feeling that the composer was trying to emulate the best of his many famous predecessors. This is not saying that his work is completely derivative, as it is not, as Mr. Arnesen ‘s effective use of the full battery of percussion is a welcome addition to the form. He also has a strong melodic gift, which was especially apparent in the trumpet solos in Not in Vain, Lacrimosa, and Rex Tremendae movements.

The chorus gets high marks for the clarity of diction in the Dies Irae in some high-speed passages. Coupled with the pulsing percussion, it was the highlight of the work for this listener. Just after that, DCINY favorite, mezzo-soprano Viola Dacus, used her vocal gifts to express the poignancy of Dickinson’s text in the Not in Vain movement. She sang with a simple grace that was very moving to this listener. Young soloist Aria Manning has a lovely voice that shows the promise of bright future.

After the quiet ending of the We Remember movement, the audience rewarded the performers with a standing ovation. Mr. Arnesen came to the stage to accept well-deserved congratulations.


Distinguished Concerts International New York (DCINY) presents The Music of Sir Karl Jenkins in Review

Distinguished Concerts International New York (DCINY) presents The Music of Sir Karl Jenkins in Review

Distinguished Concerts International New York (DCINY) presents The Music of Sir Karl Jenkins
Jonathan Griffith, DCINY Artist Director/Principal Conductor
Sir Karl Jenkins, DCINY Compose-in-Residence
Joanie Brittingham, soprano; Holly Sorensen, mezzo-soprano; James Nyoraku Schlefer, shakuhachi; Catrin Finch, harp; Mark Walters, baritone; Jorge Ávila, violin; David Childs, euphonium
Distinguished Concerts Orchestra
Distinguished Concerts Singers International
Stern Auditorium at Carnegie Hall, New York, NY
January 15, 2017

 

On what has become an annual event, Distinguished Concerts International New York (DCINY) presented a concert featuring the music of Karl Jenkins in commemoration of Martin Luther King Jr. Day. In a January 15, 2017 concert entitled simply “The Music of Sir Karl Jenkins” (as he is styled after his 2015 knighting), two works were offered, the Requiem, and the North American premiere (and only 2nd performance anywhere) of Cantata Memoria: For the Children. Both works also featured a film to go along with the music. Fans of Sir Karl had the opportunity to meet and greet him after the concert and to have the recent CD of Cantata Memoria signed.

The hall was abuzz long before the concert began, even more so than usual for a DCINY event. Friends and family in the audience shouted out to their stars and one could feel the electricity in the air. With singers from Mississippi, New Jersey, New York, Washington, Australia, Finland Germany, New Zealand, Spain, Switzerland, United Kingdom, and “individual singers around the globe,” the stage was set for a memorable night.

The concert opened with the Requiem. Dedicated to the composer’s late father, the Requiem combines elements of the traditional mass with five Japanese haiku “death” poems. The shakuhachi, an ancient wind instrument, figured prominently in the haiku sections.

Before anything else, I want to express my feelings regarding the accompanying film for this work. Usually I would expect some strong correlation to the text/music, but this was not the case. Furthermore, in some sections, the same montage recycled several times (at least three in the Dies Irae) to the point where one felt exasperated. As the film adds nothing, I would strongly suggest removing it from any future performance. The music is strong enough and meaningful enough to stand on its own without any artificial support.

Now that I have dispensed with that quibble, it is time to commend all for a wonderful performance of a moving work. Highlights for this listener were the Dies Irae (film notwithstanding), and the Lux aeterna. Special mention to harpist Catrin Finch, James Nyoraku Schlefer for his fine playing of the shakuhachi, and the lovely voices of soprano Joanie Brittingham and mezzo-soprano Holly Sorensen. The large chorus was well-prepared, with some very strong bass singers especially rising to the occasion. The audience rewarded all with the standing ovation that one usually hears at the end of a concert. It was a testament to a very successful first half.

Before the second half began, in what is also becoming a tradition, conductor Jonathan Griffith joined Karl Jenkins on stage for an impromptu conversation about the Cantata Memoria. Mr. Jenkins talked about of the history of the October 21, 1966 tragedy in Aberfan, Wales, when the collapse of a coal spoil tip killed 116 children and 28 adults. Mr. Jenkins said the memory as a Welshman was like “knowing where you were when President Kennedy was assassinated” to an American (and Maestro Griffith mentioned the Twin Towers as a reference point for younger persons). It was made clear that this tragedy is deeply entrenched in the hearts and minds of Welsh people. On a more upbeat note, Maestro Griffith mentioned that DCINY has commissioned Mr. Jenkins to write a new work commemorating the 10th anniversary of DCINY for a performance in January 2018.

Going into detail about the Aberfan tragedy is well beyond the scope of this review, but I highly recommend the well-written and comprehensive article on Wikipedia. Click the following link to access – Wikipedia- Aberfan Tragedy

Quoting the composer- “The work is in two distinct sections but performed continuously. The first deals with the tragedy and the immediate aftermath, and the second moves from darkness to light, reliving memories and celebrating childhood, ending with the Lux aeterna.” He also states that it “is not a documentary, nor even a dramatization, but it does include ideas and facts that were relevant and by now part of the legacy.”

This reviewer had seen the broadcast of the World Premiere in Wales, and also has the recording recently released by Deutsche Grammophon, so I was especially interested to see how an actual live performance would compare. It exceeded all my expectations.

The accompanying film, in this case, lent additional meaning and deepened the effect of the music, especially in the actual footage of the immediate aftermath of the tragedy. While the music certainly does not require the film, the film itself does not in any way distract or lessen the meaning or power of the music itself.

The music may not be a dramatization (as per the composer), but there are musical “suggestions” of events, i.e. the rumbling in the opening movement Pitran, patran foreshadowing the collapse of the coal spoil tip.

The names of all the victims were recited in the third movement Cortège (in a chant-like manner on a B-flat throughout), with those same names appearing on the film until the screen was literally filled with names. It was a reminder that this tragedy was not just about the numbers lost, but the very real lives snuffed out, the majority of them just beginning. Combined with the footage of the funerals, with countless tiny coffins, it was heartbreaking (and even though I knew the content and what was coming, it still had me in tears). Cortège ended with the baritone soloist Mark Walters quoting the denunciation by a victim’s father, “Buried alive by the National Coal Board.”

Lament to the Valley which followed was hauntingly beautiful. I suspect it will have many a performance independent of the entire work. DCINY concertmaster Jorge Ávila was superb as he played the lyrical sections with emotion without ever making them maudlin, and he handled the virtuosic sections with an understated flair that was perfect. The Lament was the highlight of the Cantata for this listener.

The bird-like singing of soprano Joanie Brittingham in Did I hear a bird? was delightful – the highlight of her outstanding solo work. Baritone Mark Walters was a force as well, with his powerful voice projecting well into the auditorium.

Of the remaining sections, I would like to single out And-a half as a favorite, with the child-like “one-upmanship” the theme which only could make one laugh and smile.

The final movement, Lux aeterna, is “borrowed” from the Requiem. Ending with the soprano soloist singing the word “Light,” the circle from darkness to light was closed.

Maestro Griffith led the large forces with his customary steady hand, maintaining complete control in a way that always appears to be effortless, which it is certainly not! The chorus is to be congratulated on a very polished performance which suggested a high level of preparation. This review would not be complete without the mention of harpist Catrin Finch and euphonium virtuoso David Childs, both of whom were featured in the world premiere and lent their unmatched talents to this performance.

 Cantata Memoria is a work that takes the listener to the depths of despair and heartache, then lifts them back out with a message of hope and light. It was an incredibly moving experience.

Audience members sprung to their feet with a standing ovation that became a roar when Mr. Jenkins came to the stage. I am already looking forward to January 2018. Bravo to all!

 

 


Distinguished Concerts International New York (DCINY) presents Go Sing it on the Mountain in Review

Distinguished Concerts International New York (DCINY) presents Go Sing it on the Mountain in Review

Distinguished Concerts International New York (DCINY) presents Go Sing it on the Mountain
Distinguished Concerts Orchestra, Distinguished Concert Singers International, Pennsbury High School Concert Choir
James D. Moyer, director; Pepper Choplin, composer/conductor
Julianna Massielo, soprano; Ethan Barr, baritone; James T. Moyer, baritone; David Enlow, organist; Emily Drennan, soprano
Alice Tully Hall, Lincoln Center, New York, NY
November 28, 2016

‘Tis the season! With throngs of eager shoppers being coaxed into action by the myriad sales and specials that many stores are offering, it is a time of frantic activity that can try the hardiest of souls. As an antidote to this, Distinguished Concerts International New York (DCINY) offered a concert entitled Go Sing it on the Mountain, on November 28, 2016 at Alice Tully Hall. Consisting of two works, the much-loved Requiem from Gabriel Fauré, and the New York premiere of Go Sing it on the Mountain by DCINY favorite Pepper Choplin. With singers from North Carolina, Connecticut, Indiana, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Washington, it was a concert to re-charge the weary soul.

James D. Moyer took the podium to conduct the Fauré Requiem. As I wrote in an earlier performance (June 7, 2015) about the Requiem: “Fauré began writing the Requiem in 1877, but did not complete it in its final orchestration until 1900. One of the best-loved works in this form, Fauré’s vision of death as a ‘happy deliverance…rather than a mournful passing,’ did not find favor with his employers at La Madeleine, one of the largest churches in Paris. One of the clerics there tartly remarked, “Monsieur Fauré, we do not need these novelties. The Madeleine’s repertoire is quite rich enough.” No doubt his omission of the fearful Dies Irae, the core of the Latin requiem mass, had something to do with this remark. One can say that Fauré won in the end, as this serene work continues to enchant listeners with its beauty.”

Tonight’s performance was a version for organ and chorus, with the excellent David Enlow at the Tully Hall organ, and the talented Pennsbury High School Choir from Pennsylvania. I was curious to see how these sixty-eight young singers were going to fare, due to what I (and many others) believe is a less than ideal hall acoustically (even after renovations to address this issue). It does appeared that the Tully Hall organ fared well, with what seemed increased heft in the lower register.

The three soloists (baritones Ethan Barr and James T. Moyer, and soprano Julianna Massielo) all delivered commendable performances, with kudos for Mr. Barr for keeping his focus when his solo became a “duet” with a toddler, whose screaming nearly drowned out everything. Kudos also to Mr. Moyer and Ms. Massielo, whose voices projected quite well. Mr. Enlow gave an outstanding performance.

While there were some minor issues with intonation and ensemble, the chorus was up to the challenge, and captured the essence of the work, saving the best for the last in the sublime In Paradisum. The audience was filled with supporters, and they gave their stars a loud and long ovation, that continued even as the stage was nearly empty. It was something that this sometimes jaded reviewer found touching. Well done, Pennsbury High School Choir and Mr. Moyer!

After intermission, the ebullient Pepper Choplin took the podium to conduct his work Go Sing it on the Mountain. Following the mountain theme, Go Sing it on the Mountain is a nine-movement work that uses folk tunes to tell the Christmas story (for the texts click here: Program Notes ). Some of the tunes use new texts devised by Mr. Choplin, while others use varying techniques (multi-layering of voices, combining melodies, etc.) to great effect. Each movement is preceded by a narrative written by the composer. Mr. Choplin is a man of deep faith, and his work is a natural expression of this. This reviewer has the utmost admiration for Mr. Choplin’s strength of mission, especially in a world today that often scorns or is outright hostile to such a stance.

One must also acknowledge the narrators, who were uncredited in the program notes, for their passionate readings. While these readings add luster, they could be set aside for non-secular sensitivities without any loss of the glory of the music.

Soprano soloist Emily Drennan, whom I had the pleasure of hearing in an earlier performance of Mr. Choplin’s song Circle of Love (A DCINY concert entitled Bluegrass57@7 on February 18, 2013), was delightful with her passionate delivery throughout. Her voice is ideal for these pieces, from the child-like innocence of A Child is Gonna Come, to the unbridled joy of Go Sing it on the Mountain, but she saved her best for Star Eternal, which soared to the heavens.

Highlights for this listener included the rousing opening movement Rise, O People and Bring Good News, the simple beauty of Call His Name Jesus, and the Appalachian-tinged Angel Band. Go Sing it on the Mountain is a welcome addition to the Christmas repertoire.

After the jubilant last words of the final movement Joyous Nowell to the World rang out with “The Lord has come!” the large audience rose to give Mr. Choplin a well-earned standing ovation. It was a fitting end to the evening.