Friday, January 23, 2009

Paul (minus Dee) on Thursday night's concert

Hi folks. This is Paul and I’m afraid I’ll be your sole host for this blog installment, as Dee was sick last night and couldn’t come to the Orchestra of the Age of the Enlightenment and the SPCO’s performances at Temple Israel. Instead, I went with my friend Matt, who was roughly in the position I was in a little more than a year ago, having never seen a classical music concert, but game to try it out.

I have to admit that the OAE is the orchestra I’ve most been anticipating, because it is a chance to see one of the original “period instrument” organizations. Before we began, I explained to Matt as best I could the differences between period instrument ensembles and the more traditional modern ensembles, like historically informed tunings, scores etc. I tried not to make too much of these differences though, since they seem to have lessened over the years as the most eminently sensible insights of the historically informed music advocates have taken hold. Matt said it reminded him of debates on the Supreme Court between the strict constructionists and the interpretationists (sorry—did I just coin a startling ugly neologism?). I thought this comment nicely thought-provoking, because of course, Matt’s right: this debate about history and its recoverability has been staged and restaged many times in many places.

But the music, the music: a wonderfully exuberant Mozart to begin with, the cellists smooth and high, then buzzing low, the violins and violas lively and joyous. Having not heard Mozart live in a while, I had unaccountably forgotten the sprightly freshness, the skipping good-to-be-alive-and-be-here quality of his music. The OAE’s playing couldn’t have been more perfect in capturing this characteristically Mozartian quality. Then the second movement, which reminded me (just as I was asking, “is that all there is?”), of the sublimity in Mozart, brought out by the OAE’s slightly astringent, plaintive violins, seeking and finding, if not answers, at least the right questions. Finally, a presto movement to bring it all together, sublimely sprightly.

The Haydn violin concerto was a stunner. Podger was tremendous, jaw-droppingly in control of her tone. Lovely, lovely, lovely. I wrote, on the little piece of paper I carry with me for notes on life, “words fail me.” And they do. By this time, Matt was looking star-struck, like me, but perhaps more so, since it was his first time and it was a very good time indeed. I asked him what he thought of the concerto (he having just learned what a concerto was) and he said, “It was beautiful.” Perfect. I really have nothing to add. Thanks, Matt.

For the last act of the program, we got to see my beloved SPCO perform Shostakovich, who I’ve read about, but about whose music I am almost entirely ignorant. In retrospect, I can see what a smart choice this 1946 piece was, with its apparently traditionalist modernity, to close a show opened by the OAE’s original instrument Baroque. The piece and the performance seemed designed to elicit and even comment upon what was distinctive and distinguished about the SPCO as a performing ensemble. Their distinction is certainly clear (if one had any doubts, which as an unabashed partisan, I do not) by the fourth movement, an ominous lamentation, almost a warning dirge. At the climax of the movement, unearthly violins cry out as a chorus, echoed by a bassoon’s soberer, yet even more unnerving barely held-in-check hysteria (unnerving in part because somehow we don’t expect the lower wind instruments to be hysterical; must be a cultural thing). Shamefully, Matt and I had not read the program notes (which by the way, have been very good this year in my and Dee’s opinion—genuinely informative and stylistically tops), but when we compared notes right after the piece ended, it turned out we had both been thinking of Stalinism’s through the looking glass world—perhaps incapable of really acknowledging head-on the tragedy of the 20 million Russians killed in the war.

So, sadly, the concert ended. Clapping and back to real life. But live classical music has won another convert—when Dee and I see the OAE again on Sunday at Ted Mann, we’re going to try and snag tickets for Matt and his wife. Like Matt, I too had thought live classical music, while no doubt improving, would be boring (although I planned to keep that a secret). This concert reminded me how wrong I had been, as I keep discovering over and over again, to my delighted surprise.


  1. You are in for a real treat when you see the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment on Sunday at Ted Mann. I saw the same program on Friday night at Wooddale Church in Eden Prairie, and I was blown away. In my years of listening to classical music, only a handful of performances have been unforgettable. Friday's OAE performance was one of them.

    My first impression was the unique appearance of some of the instruments. The oboes were shaped differently than modern instruments -- rather exotic looking. The flutes were fat and made with dark wood. The landscape at the back of the stage was filled by the image of a theorbo, a large lute with a very long neck, a bundle of very long strings, and two peg boxes. My next impression was that the musicians of the OAE played magnificently.

    At its best, chamber music is a performance of individual soloists playing together in perfect synchronicity as an ensemble. There is no conductor to guide them -- just the violinist concertmaster -- so staying in sync perfectly and with the correct dynamics can be challenging. The OAE played to the highest standards.

    The opening piece by Telemann was pleasant and flawless. but the second piece by Vivaldi was fantastic. The toe-tapping piece features several difficult solos and several "handoffs" between the players, especially in the first and third movements. It would be easy to momentarily drift, yet the player of the OAE played to absolute perfection. The tones coaxed by violinists Rachel Podger (especially) and Margaret Faultless in the slow second movement were arresting. This is how chamber music should be played.

    Anyone who saw the Friday performance witnessed chamber music played to the absolute highest standard. To be sure, the excellence I am describing was subtle. It was the execution of all the little things.

    Perhaps the highlight of the show, judging by the cheering from the audience, came during the cantata performance of Jauchzet Gott in allen Landen by soprano Rachel Nicholls. Again, the ensemble was in perfect sync and played to perfection, but Nicholls was unforgettable. You could tell by the look on her face that she knew she was "on" and that the crowd was loving it as she belted out runs of short, difficult notes over her vocal range. Wow! The trumpet player and the other soloists musically dancing with Nicholls were flawless. That was memorable.

    This Bach cantata struck me as the consummate example of what a piece like that should be, although I do not know enough about cantatas to say for sure.

    When Nicholls came back for her second cantata, she told the audience that the OAE really appreciated the audience because they really like it when the audience is enthusiastic for the music -- or something like that. Then she seemed at ease as she perfectly ripped through very difficult runs of short notes over wide ranges, slightly rocking with the fast rhythm of the notes. Perfect! The words were also thought provoking.

    The show concluded with a Bach piece featuring three violin soloists and a whirlwind climax of notes by all the talented players of the OAE.

    On Thursday night at Temple Israel, I saw the other OAE and SPCO performance and enjoyed that program. I thought the SPCO played flawlessly under the direction of Ruggero Allifranchini from his concertmaster chair. However, the Friday performance by OAE was memorable.

  2. I saw both concerts Friday (cheaper than going to London!) and I echo the above comments. I also enjoyed the pre-program talks, as it gave me perspective regarding pitch, sound, instruments, and so forth. What a treat to see these people playing with such passion, especially during the last piece when the bowing among the three violinists was making my arm tired just watching them! I hope the warm welcome made up for the cold weather.