Monday, January 12, 2009

Paul and Dee on this weekend's concerts

Here is our first blog entry by SPCO patrons Paul and Dee (for an introduction about them, click here.)

Douglas Boyd (conductor) — The Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra — Chamber Orchestra of Europe

Our first evening of the International Chamber Orchestra Festival…it felt good to be back at the Ordway after the winter break. We’re always struck by how warm it feels, for a large hall. People chattering excitedly, the air filled with expectation and (at least for us) a little nervousness: will they be good tonight? How will it work, to have 2 orchestras who don’t routinely play with one another onstage?

Wow, the musicians stride out onto the stage! Everyone looks stunning; the ladies elegant and glittering, the gentlemen in white tie and tails. Douglas Boyd enters, stage left, and we begin with Tippett’s Concerto for Double String Orchestra.

The stage is charged. Violins perched on their players’ shoulders. Basses, cellos, and violas at attention. A thrust of Boyd’s hand: the music soars. The first movement is dazzling. Paul feels relief and Dee feels joy (which illustrate our respective temperaments nicely!). The strings sound like they’re negotiating with one another, with the COE’s violas seeming especially brisk and stern, but the whole string section is rising and falling.

Then we’re into the second movement, the two orchestras adeptly performing the movement’s languid English romanticism. For Dee, the stately progress of dark, solemn notes conjures up visions of deep forests pierced by the subdued sunlight of the first violin (COE artist).

No time to waste: right on to the third movement. Dee’s thoughts: “With a wave of his baton, Boyd transported us straight on into joy!”

“Was there a pause, a weightlessness, at a moment one-third of the way through the third movement?” Paul wondered. “Perhaps by design or accidentally made by two orchestras not completely in tune with one another for a moment?” Since we are relative neophytes in this world, we are not always sure whether what we are hearing is intended by the score! In this case, whether by accident or design, Paul thought that it was a wonderful moment of chaos, a stuttering dying fall, the strings lurching and flailing for one tiny instant and then roaring back, seeming to hold at bay (sadly, only while we listened) the anarchy of the world.

Then we were on to Ralph Vaughan Williams’ Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis, written for double chamber orchestra.

Warm. Rich. Romantic. The pastoral English romanticism referenced in the Tippett piece is brought to full life here, but we found it just a touch dull after the brilliant dynamics of the Tippett. Given the standing ovation that the piece received, we seem to be in the minority.

On returning from intermission, the woman next to us wondered out loud, “Say—what is a fugue, exactly?” Paul tried to explain in technical terms (Paul: “That just means I used numbers in a clumsy attempt to illustrate the principle!”). “Huh?” In the row in front of us, another woman clarified, “It’s like an expanded ‘round.’ “Ah,” Dee’s neighbor smiled, “The Bartok has two of them: one in the second and one in the fourth movements.”

We love the SPCO audience.

Then, finally, the Bartók piece we’ve both been excited about hearing, his Music for Strings, Percussion, and Celesta. We both love the demands Bartók can place on us. Indeed, one of the things we discovered by beginning to attend classical concerts is that, just as in the case of bebop and other post-war jazz forms, complex modernist music is much more easily understood in a live performance than listening to a recording.

It’s always a thrill when the copper kettle drums are wheeled out for a piece. A harp! And of course (for this piece) a celesta.

Paul felt that all four movements were modernist triumphs, with the third movement displaying a modernism within romanticism, thus tying the whole program together. We’ve both always loved what is so creative yet uncompromising about Bartók: “coiled power and beauty,” Paul calls it. Thanks to our concert neighbor, Dee recognized the musical meanderings in the first and fourth movements as fugues. The celesta pitched its pure little fits between times, signaling our heroes to sway and swing in the musical breeze. We felt both orchestras really loved this piece and understood it, as did the conductor, of course. It was wonderful to watch Boyd again and again launch himself furiously into the music.

After the concert was over, we were in the elevator at the Lawson parking ramp, talking to another couple who had attended about how great the show had been. The man said, “the last piece sounded like soundtrack music,” something we also had discussed in relation to Bartók and to the Second Vienna School. We had never realized that there was no reason to be afraid of this music; we already knew it from exemplary film scores, like those Bernard Herrmann composed for Hitchcock.

We had a great time at this concert and thought it augured well for the rest of the festival. We’ll see you there!

1 comment:

  1. I'll be honest - I know very little about 20th century music, and currently I find it lacking in comparison to, say, the 18th century. But I am learning! And I found at Friday's concert that seeing the music being played, and not just hearing it, added greatly to my enjoyment and appreciation. My favorite was the Vaughan Williams (like most of the audience, it seems). I listened very carefully during the Bartok for "folk themes", as I have read that the composer incorporated those. A little knowledge can be a good thing.