Saturday, October 23, 2010

Know Your London Orchestras! A (B)ig (B)irthday (C)ake (S)urprise...

Considering the shocking (to an American at least) number of orchestras in London, one would think that the public professional orchestra has had a long and storied tradition here.  Well that's not really the case, especially considering that for an English cultural institution to have a long and storied tradition, it has to have been around for hundreds of years like Shakespeare's Globe or the University of Oxford.  And while across the pond the New York Philharmonic is pushing 160 years old, the oldest permanent professional orchestra in London had a birthday yesterday and is a whipper-snapper of 80 in comparison.

So to which orchestra should you send your warmest wishes?  Well from the obvious titular hint, it is none other than the BBC Symphony!

But wait a minute!  Wasn't the London Symphony Orchestra founded in 1904, making it a good 26 years older than the BBC?  Well, the LSO unfortunately was one of the many casualties of the Great War and really didn't exist from 1916 through 1919.  The BBC Symphony has exploited this loophole for marketing purposes because just like in the US, inflating one's relative age in Britain also inflates one's prestige (just ask the Universities of Pennsylvania and Delaware; I promise they're not really older than Princeton). 

But either way, it took a while for British orchestras to leave the Royal chambers and churches, and yesterday was indeed a special day for the flagship orchestra of the British Broadcasting Corporation.






David Robertson, who wore that same shirt last night
And what better way to celebrate this momentous occasion than with a concert highlighting both the BBC's storied past and its present vitality.   Led (slightly ironically) by its American principal guest conductor David Robertson, the orchestra presented two new concertos book-ended by past staples at the Barbican Center (the LSO's home ballpark, just to further the irony).

The concert began with one of those staples, Wagner's Overture to the Flying Dutchman, a piece that was performed during the BBC's inaugural concert on October 22, 1930.  Considering my distaste for historical fetishization, it was somehow appropriate I arrived minutes late to the concert and only heard the overture through the tiny lobby speakers.  But from talking with percussionist Alex Neal earlier in the week (my teach at Royal College), the piece was really just to get the blue-haired ladies in the door and not something the orchestra was really excited about.  In the end, no big loss.

So my evening with the BBC instead began with the brand-spankin' new ConcertO-Duo, a percussion concerto for the young men of, you guessed it, O Duo (Owen Gunnel and Oli Cox, RCM grads!) written by Stephen McNeff.  The piece began with a gargantuan percussion setup strung across the front of the stage, but no percussionists.  As the orchestra played on, it seemed to be a bit of a dadaist joke until the duo ran up from the auditorium's side doors, reaching their posts just in time to deliver an ear-numbing thwack.  However, the setup continued to serve a dadaist purpose as the next portion of the concerto featured the percussionists' formidable polyrhythmic clapping technique and the beautiful sounds they can coax from a wooden stage with little drumsticks.

O Duo took to their setup bit by bit, adding groovy tom-tom runs to the orchestra's vaguely bluesy backings, then some woodblocks and cowbells for spice.  As the players switched to marimba and xylophone, their parts were assimilated into the orchestra's.  It wasn't a concerto where the heroic soloist(s) was pitted against an orchestral onslaught, but one where the two worked as a team, using their varieties of instrumental textures to create an intoxicating sound world.  Until orchestra percussionist Alex Neal interrupted everything with a ferocious seizure for two flexatones.

See, even O Duo's press kit photos are silly
But of course there had to be some show of percussive virtuosity, and that came near the end of the piece during the extended cadenza.  Oliver Cox started a descending run at the high end of the marimba.  Then Owen Gunnell followed him (literally) step for step down the instrument.  When Cox reached the bottom 5 octaves later, he scampered back to the top for another ride.  Then Gunnell did the same.  Cox liked the run so much he went back again, this time faster.  So did Gunnell.  By this point the crowd was snickering, which was obviously a cue to go on to the groovy Latin section.  It was nearly danceable, but there is no dancing at British classical concerts, only gentle swaying at the last of the Proms.

Alright, so the cadenza ended, followed shortly by the piece itself in a final flash of loudness.  The crowd gave many ovations.  They seemed to enjoy all of the silliness that had ensued.  But unfortunately, that silliness seemed to overshadow some seriously beautiful moments scattered throughout the piece, like the part when the xylophone and marimba traded surprisingly lyrical melodies despite the brilliant attack of hard rubber mallets.  Considering that percussionists always seem to want everyone to take them more seriously, another percussion piece that emphasizes show-man choreography and a massed array of bells and whistles isn't what percussionists need right now.  The instruments become the stars rather than the players.  In the end, all of the wonderfully musical things O Duo did throughout the piece were pushed out of the audience's memory by the mad-cap marimba run.

The second half began in a darkened hall with Finnish composer Kaija Saariaho's recent clarinet concerto D’om Le Vrai Sens, which I think roughly translates to "On the True Meaning Of."  The open-ended title is quite apt for the wonderfully abstract piece, performed last night by another Finn, Kari Kriikku.  The music lit up the darkness with eerily lush string chords that perk up the spine and tense muscles.  It was so powerfully transporting that when I heard a cellphone beep, I mumbled a serious "fuck you" for disturbing my reverie.  And then out of nowhere came a sound like a rocket, a growling clarinet from an unseeable source.  The line continued, as the clarinet didn't just play notes, but notes between the notes, sounds beyond the notes.  Sometimes the clarinet would melt into the orchestra and suddenly reappear.  It was hard to know where each sound was coming from, especially with the extensive use of amplification and the fact that I still couldn't actually see the clarinetist.  No matter, as it was interesting enough to watch David Robertson's careful gestures and the percussion section's muted entrances.  I was adrift on a cool, gray sea and wasn't hoping to leave any time soon.

Peter Sellars, renowned opera director and Belo Knock, renowned clown
By the beginning of the second movement (though I hesitate to break the seamlessly flowing piece up in this way), the clarinetist was on stage, wading through the orchestra, making wide gesticulations to emphasize the color of each sound.  The choreography and lighting for this performance, conceived by famed opera director Peter Sellars (who has yet to change his clown-like hair style), added to the otherworldly quality of the music.  After moving across all of the stage during the second and third parts, the clarinetist became a pied piper, taking most of the violin section with him back into the audience.  Although I couldn't see much of this development from my balcony seat, I'm was pleased to hear from my stalls-seated friend that the string players were as into this final set of choreography as the impassioned clarinetist.

When the piece finally let the atmosphere dissipate, four concert-goers to my left bolted for the door as much of the audience gave a rousing ovation with many a curtain call for the composer, director, and performers.  And in that way, the piece was fantastically successful.  It wasn't one of those "oh, that was nice" kind of pieces, but one that made you actually feel something.  Whether or not you liked that feeling was another question, but these kinds of affecting pieces are the ones that have the most staying power.  The classics of today were generally met with some sort of hostility at their premieres, a perfect example being Igor Stravinsky's riot-inducing "Rite of Spring."  Which of course was appropriately programmed to finish the concert.

As I was listening to "Rite," it became clear just how much my mind's ear of the piece has been affected the Philadelphia Orchestra's version from "Fantasia" conducted by Leopold Stokowski.  The Philadelphians have always featured a loud string section, which gave those famous string accents at the beginning of the piece so much impact.  Even in a loud and resonant hall like the Barbican, the BBC's smaller string section couldn't match the Philadelphian's force.  But what they lacked in shear volume, they more than made up for in clarity and groove.  Especially with Robertson on the podium, a master of navigating such rhythmically complex works, the piece had a razor sharp edge and a fleetness that most orchestras even struggle to get in a studio.  And because the string section was not as loud as to what I was accustomed, I was able to hear all of the neat inner wind and brass parts that almost always get lost.

As the piece went on, the orchestra showed that it could rear back and smash the audience's faces with sound when it wanted to, especially when the brass section went full throttle.  After the emphatic final chord,  the audience gave yet another hearty ovation, a testament to both the energy and precision of the orchestra. In an audacious program that spanned centuries and traditions, the BBC showed that they are a chameleon of an orchestra.  At one moment they can be a schmaltzy Romantic philharmonic, and the next, a hip new music ensemble.  The group's commitment to music of all stripes is particularly noteworthy in a time when falling ticket sales are pushing many orchestras toward programming nothing more than radio FM classics and video game scores.  Because they perform challenging and disorienting new music with such verve, it's hard not for the audience to grab onto something cool in the piece.  In the end, it's a win for all involved.  The composers love the BBC because they will play their new and weird stuff.  The players love the BBC because they get to play new and weird stuff that poses interesting musical challenges.  The audience loves it because they may come for the Wagner, but it's the world premiere that they remember.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Know Your London Orchestras! The Orchestra of the Age of the Enlightenment and the London Sinfonietta

After profiling the musically-varied London Philharmonic, I bring you stories of not one but two specialist orchestras, in one post!

This Saturday, the Orchestra of the Age of the Enlightenment (oof, that's a bit of a mouthful, let's stick to OAE for short) and the London Sinfonietta joined together for night of courtly mashup. With their forces united on one stage, their numbers were a staggering... third of what the LPO has on a normal night. Ok, so both groups are small. But hey, bigger isn't always better. The real interest here is the fact that the musical specialties of the respective ensembles are polar opposites. The OAE is London's top early (like pre 1750 or so) music ensemble that doesn't play in a church while the Sinfonietta restricts its repertoire to the past hundred years. One would think that the ornaments of high Baroque and the abrasive harmonies of modernism don't have anything in common. But in their performance, the groups revealed that the very new subconsciously plunders quite a bit from the very old.

The centerpiece of the concert was Stravinsky's suite from the ballet "Pulcinella," based on the beak├ęd stock character of Italian comedia and music traditionally ascribed to Giovanni Pergolesi (though it could have been written by Domenico Gallo, Carlo Ignazio Monza, or the Count Unico Wilhelm van Wassenauer). Like a good art show, the OAE contextualized the Stravinsky by pairing it with other music by the possible "Pulcinella" composers. All of this music was filled with the familiar tropes of the galant style - those pesky "Pachabel's Canon" bass lines, the extended dominant pedal points - but there were also a few pleasingly weird moments. In Gallo's Trio Sonata for two violins, 'cello and continuo (fancy-shmanzy for accompanying harpsichord) there was a series of rapid modulations that moved the piece into a surprisingly far-away key. And although the Count Wassenauer was more known for his skills at diplomacy than music, the opening section of one of his "Concerti Armonici" featured rich dissonances among the florid counterpoint.

Many of Stravinsky's pieces are musical provocateurs and while "Pulcinella" certainly fits into this category, it is certainly not for the same reasons as the visceral and riotous (literally) "Rite of Spring." What is shocking about "Pulcinella" is how effortlessly Stravinsky-isms blend with the dated source material. For the most part, he doesn't stray far from the original Pergolessi (or Monza, whatever); there are no double-stacked bitonal chords here. When Stravinsky does throw in one of his trademarks, like a whirring flute texture straight out of Petrouchka or a jazzy trombone gliss, it's appropriately funny. These interruptions draw attention to themselves, yet they don't interrupt the flow of the music. Everything still hangs together, but how?

Jean Baptiste Lully, the reason why conductors today use small sticks
It really comes down to the rhythm, or the groove if you will. In the time of Pergolessi through Haydn or so, the orchestra was only about 30 men strong (as was the case in this performance, except that a majority of the men here were female), and rarely featured a conductor. The French composer Jean-Baptiste Lully from around the same period sought to popularize the technique of beating a staff on the ground to keep the orchestra together. However, Lully's death in a staff-related accident (he struck it through his foot and so contracted blood poisoning) prevented this from catching on. So, in order for the musicians to have any hope of staying together without the help of a beating staff, the music needed to have a strong regular pulse and the musicians needed to feel that pulse in a uniform way, hence the rhythmic verve common to almost all 18th century music. While 19th century composers came to emphasize harmony, gesture and just pure massive sound over tight rhythm, modernists like Stravinsky and Bartok rebelled against the pulseless excess, though usually by interpolating folk music. When Stravinsky began studying galant music to prepare for "Pulcinella," he said it was like looking in a mirror as much as looking to the past. The primacy of pulse is what links Scarlatti and Stravinsky, Rameau and Reich, Locatelli and Louis Andriessen.

So despite their contrasting specialties, the OAE and London Sinfonietta proved quite compatible partners. The music they play demands a strict interpretation of pulse, and so their reliable senses of time led to a wonderfully transparent and energetic performance. Dare I say Gallo grooves?

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Know Your London Orchestras! The London Philharmonic

Note: this is the first in a series of undetermined length.

The city of London has an obscene amount of orchestras. While big US cities like Detroit and Philadelphia are having trouble supporting their 1 orchestra, London boasts 5 major orchestras, not to mention the smaller specialty ensembles that play only really new music or really old music, and all those orchestras at the conservatories. So there's the London Symphony, the London Philharmonic, the Royal Philharmonic, the Philharmonia, and (to break up the naming pattern) the BBC Symphony.

A few Saturdays ago, I checked out the London Philharmonic, led by their principal conductor, the young and wiry Vladimir Jurowski. Dressed in racing stripe black from hair to foot, Jurowski can look a bit intimidating on the podium, his high cheekbones and piercing eyes reminiscent of one of those Soviet spies from Cold War action films. But his conducting style is both efficient and animated, eliciting a performance that engages the audience both intellectually and viscerally.

Jurowski also has a flair for unpredictable and mind-tickling programs, where the relationship between the pieces isn't obvious at first blush. At this concert, the Philarhmonic began with Haydn's Symphony no. 63 (out of 106 no less!), surprisingly played with period instruments: pedal-less timpani, valve-less horns and trumpets. This is something of anomaly for a romance-sized orchestra like the LPO and like all anomalies had consequences both good and bad. Good: the group's sound was clean and intimate, making the large Royal Festival Hall seem more like Prince Leopold's sitting room. Bad: natural horns are really hard to play. There were many a flubbed noted, and of course, Haydn does love his repeats. This gave the horn players another crack at those notes, but it was particularly disheartening when they'd screw it up the second time around. Luckily, the orchestra overall played with a comfortable and insistent groove. Jurowski at points would stop beating time, trusting his players to sit in the pocket while he shaped the larger phrases.

The second piece, the world premiere of "Flight from Byzantium" by the Italian composer Matteo D'Amico, was just about as sonically different as you can get from Haydn at an orchestra concert. For this piece, the orchestra increased the string section by 50%, tripled its brass, and constructed wall of percussion instruments in the back, not to mention the addition of some middle eastern lute-y and flute-y instruments, a Renaissance vocal quartet, and an amplified narrator. Oof. That's a lot of sound-producing things in one place.

D'Amico's piece was based on texts by the Nobel Prize-winning author Joseph Brodsky, including an article about the Roman emperor Constantine, autocracy, and his founding of Constantinople, declaimed by the narrator, and a selection of his Nativity poems, sung by the Hilliard Ensemble in their ethereal Renaissance tone.

The piece was filled with conflict. The rational tone of the narrator versus the contemplative spirituality of the singers. The exotic sounds of middle eastern instruments versus the western orchestra. All of this was to underscore the conflicts of east and west, Christian and Muslim, and autocracy and democracy that were dealt with in the texts. While D'Amico filled his work with bold harmonies, rich string pads, and sprightly percussion textures, the whole thing felt a bit like the score to a picture-less documentary. The music certainly was effective at setting moods, but not as good at getting inside your head, drawing attention to itself. He let the texts tell the story, which is all well and good if you're composing a soundtrack, but maybe not so good if the piece stands alone in a concert hall.

After the interval, the Hilliard Ensemble returned for a little solo set featuring the 15th century music of Guillaume Dufay, including a piece that also had Constantinople in the title. Hmm, looks like a pattern. Or maybe it's just that since the LPO hired the Hilliard Ensemble, it would let them do their Renaissance thing for a bit. The austere harmonies and tight canons in the music were very revealing, not of the singer's intonation but rather of the dryness of the hall. This kind of music was written by guys who had only heard music inside stone Gothic cathedrals and much of its beauty is stripped when the notes decay too quickly, as was the case in this dry hall.

But the orchestra was back on before too long to play Bela Bartok's ballet, "The Miraculous Mandarin," with full chorus but sans dancers (the stage isn't that big). The ballet tells the story of a miraculous Chinese man that pursues a winsome young woman, is beat up and killed by a group of goons, recovers and continues to pursue said woman, and then finally dies when the woman embraces him. A little absurd, yes, but the score brims with energy, shows off the orchestra's virtuosity (crazy, crazy piano part), and even manages to swing a bit (I was head bobbing). Jurowski deftly handled the many moving parts without sapping the forward motion in a performance that confirmed Bartok's status as a total baller.

As I left the hall (and passed by an old lady congratulating Mr. D'Amico, who I didn't realize was sitting just a couple of rows away), I still was a bit confused at the rationale of the program. I definitely loved the fact that the four pieces were from four different centuries and there wasn't one overplayed romantic work in there. Someone walking out seemed to think it was about storytelling, but to me the Dufay didn't seem to have much a story (but what do I know, I don't know Latin, just going off a hunch). I ended up having to do a bit of snooping after getting back and found out that the Haydn symphony was really just a collection of incidental music for a play called "La Roxalane," about one of the wives of the Ottoman emperor Suleiman the Magnificent.

Aye, there's the rub. It's all about the West's fear of the East. Certainly, that was an obvious theme in the D'Amico premiere, but more subtle in the Haydn - there weren't the cymbals and triangle that scream "I'm making Turkish music!" But certainly, a play in Vienna (where Haydn worked) about the Turks (who not that long before laid siege to the city) would play on the audience's fear of the eastern exotic. Dufay - there's the Constantinople connection, I think I get it, enough at least. And though the Bartok refers to a place farther east than the others, it is about fear of the other, a lack of understanding. The woman continually rebuffs the Mandarin, who comes off as a bit creepy, and the goons would rather beat him up than ask questions.

So although the London Philharmonic is not known as the top London orchestra, it certainly puts on both a thoughtful and varied program, one that can be enjoyed by the elderly patron, the over-analytical student, and the performer alike.