Posts Tagged ‘Dvorak’

2010 in the rearview: what’s to love in music, part 2

December 31, 2010

The year-end survey continues – a few more of my favorite recordings from 2010:

Stile Antico: “Media vita” – This is the fourth recording from the young choir Stile Antico. They’re 14 members strong with a singular strong artistic vision that’s wasting no time establishing them in good company with groups like Anonymous 4. “Media vita” features choral music by the Tudor composer John Sheppard, a oft-overlooked contemporary of higher profile composers Thomas Tallis and (the somewhat younger) William Byrd. The real appeal of Sheppard’s outwardly austere harmonies reveals itself in washes (rather than flashes) of color, and the occasional dissonance and disharmony created with passing tones. The pure performance aesthetic of Stile Antico assures you hear every complexity and nuance in the various layers of music. This is one of two recordings from Stile Antico this year, the other is “Puer natus est” for Christmastime. I enjoyed both but prefer “Media vita” for its handling of the unusual repertoire.

Luisa Maita: “Lero-Lero” and “Maita Remixed” – This is actually two-in-one. Luisa Maíta’s debut album “Lero-Lero” was released in July, and it almost immediately spawned (in November) a remix treatment from notables like Maga Bo, Seiji, and DJ/rupture. Whether your tastes run to traditional Brazilian samba and bossa sounds (on “Lero-Lero”), or to the contemporized versions of the same material on the “Remixed” album, Maíta delivers her original songs with understated sultry flair. There is consistency of quality from track to track on these recordings, but not at the sacrifice of variety in tone and flavor. The message is clear: this is Brazil NOW.

Vijay Iyer: “Solo” – For an artist with a decade and a half experience it’s a little surprising it’s taken Vijay Iyer this long to offer the world a solo recording. I wasn’t sure what to expect with “Solo”, given Iyer’s artistic involvement with everything from hip-hop to improvisational collaborations and larger ensemble (orchestral) work. It’s worth the wait, and the question about all of those previous influences is answered by the fact that Iyer’s solo work is a rich blend of all of them. There’s the recording’s simple introduction with “Human Nature”, a song that digs deep into Iyer’s emotional abilities and reminds me of the supreme sensitivity and awareness heard with pianists like Bill Evans (always) and Keith Jarrett (in his best playing). And then you can hear Iyer’s spirited homage to Duke Ellington with “Black and Tan”, and his moving take on Monk’s “Epistrophy”. There is nothing about “Solo” that doesn’t ring true, from the standards (and not-so standard “standards”) to Iyer’s own forward-looking compositions. Look for more great things from this evolving young pianist.

Roland Tchakounté: “Blues Menessen” – What if John Lee Hooker had called his home West Africa? Cameroon’s Roland Tchakounté offers an answer to that thought – at least in part – with his searing bluesy guitar and deep, affecting vocals. And, he’s cool. But the John Lee Hooker comparison can’t be carried too far, Tchakounté is very much his own artist. He recorded two albums in Douala before he left Africa to live in France a few years ago. “Blues Menessen” was released this past May as his latest, most commercial recording. It is blues, but it’s not the West African/Sahara Touareg (think: Tinariwen) blues we’ve become familar with in recent years. This is fairly straightahead American Delta-style blues with an African accent, sung in Tchakounté’s native West Cameroonian language bamileke. It’s both unusual and familiar at the same time. The songs run a wide range of styles, from consistently rhythmic to more free-ranging and moodily interpretive. I love this recording.

Lobi Traoré: “Rainy Season Blues” – I couldn’t mention Roland Tchakounté without also talking about fellow Malian blues man Lobi Traoré. It was quite a shock this year to learn of his June 1st death. The circumstances aren’t completely clear (and of course, not especially important anyway). We do know that Traoré was 49 years old and had enjoyed great success in recent years. A year prior in the summer of 2009, he had met with producer Chris Eckman to lay down tracks for a new recording  featuring just his voice and guitar. What an ideal opportunity for an artist. The result is the new posthumous collection “Rainy Season Blues” – a quietly personal insight into Traoré’s art, featuring exclusively original material.  Traoré sings in Bambara on themes of peace, politics, and family. “Rainy Season Blues” is something like the ‘unplugged’ counterpart to the earlier “Mali Blues” album, and its rewards are equally sweet. Make that bittersweet, since this is also Traoré’s final musical statement. He will be greatly missed.

There are a LOT of other recordings I could mention…here’s a short list:

Mayte Martin: “Cantar a Manuel” – gorgeous flamenco singing from Spain.

Galactic: “Ya-ka-may” – down home SUPER funky sassy, brassy soul grooves from New Orleans…in fact, New Orleans gave the world several other hot releases this year too, including albums from Trombone Shorty (“Backatown”), Kermit Ruffins (“Happy Talk”), and Dr. Michael White (“Blue Crescent”).

Antonin Dvořák’s complete Symphonic Poems, with Charles Mackerras & the Czech Philharmonic (on Supraphon) – this is the contemporary recording of the Poems we’ve been waiting for.

Gil Scott-Heron: “‘I’m New Here” – gritty, original, real, with all the usual great observations about life and our society. Scott-Heron’s first recording in 15 years, and WHAT a return.

Joan Soriano: “El Duque de la Bachata” – singing, blistering guitar-driven melodies from the Dominican Republic.

Frederic Chopin’s late masterpieces with pianist Stephen Hough (on Hyperion) – a perfectly crafted recording to celebrate Chopin’s 200th anniversary year.

Oswin Chin Behilia: “Liber” – politically-infused, lyrically Caribbean songs from a soulful guitar master.

I guess it has to end somewhere, so that’s it for this year’s wrap-up. Cheers to another year of good listening in 2011!

vyo fall concert

September 26, 2010

Geese flew over downtown Burlington late this afternoon. The season’s traditional “V”s and “half-Vs” were pushed along by the lone stragglers, flying behind and honking an impatient “wait up!” to their more prescient mates.

With autumn comes the start of the concert season…I guess. That’s a qualified statement because in Vermont, it doesn’t seem like there’s ever a NON-concert season. Summers are filled with festivals and intimate outdoor gatherings while the other three quarters of the year hold their own with recitals and informal get-togethers along with the regular season concert series at all of the area venues.

This fall’s two opening concerts with the Vermont Youth Orchestra were especially anticipated events as they also marked the debut of the Orchestra’s new conductor, Ronald Braunstein.

He’s offered a vision that includes a focus on core orchestral repertoire, and self-empowerment of the Orchestra’s young musicians through dedicated coaching and personalized training sessions. The approach seems to be working so far.

While the maestro stuck strictly to the music in today’s concert and didn’t offer any words of introduction to his new audience, the Orchestra spoke volumes in Dvořák’s colorful Op. 46 Slavonic Dance #8, Bach’s stately Air on the G String, Bernstein’s brilliant Overture from Westside Story, and – occupying the entire second half of the program – Beethoven’s regal Symphony #5.

I’ve never heard the VYO’s brass and winds sound better than they did today in the Bernstein and Beethoven (the final movement of the 5th was outstanding!). Principal cellist Joshua Morris’s solo pizzicato passage in the Westside Story Overture showed supreme musicianship, as did the clarinet/bassoon tradeoffs in the 2nd movement of Beethoven’s 5th, and many percussion moments throughout the entire concert. Bach’s familiar Air was glassy and serene (if not memorably interesting), while Dvořák’s potent Slavonic Dance delivered satisfying syncopation of  joyful abandon and metered precision.

This “concert season” is off to a great start!


September 25, 2010

Ronald Braunstein and me

I wasn’t sure what to expect this past Thursday morning.

Ronald Braunstein, the new permanent conductor of the Vermont Youth Orchestra, was due in the VPR Classical studio at 9 to talk with me on the air about his new job with the Orchestra. In the conversation we’d had a week earlier in his sunny office at the VYO building, I couldn’t get a good read on him at all. When I arrived that day I found him standing in the office lobby, in conversation with a young man who may have been an Orchestra member. Ronald greeted me, but he seemed distracted. Had I interrupted his conversation? Did he need to get back to that before the two of us talked? I said, “I hope I haven’t interrupted – do you have time?”  He glanced at his wrist, and still with a very serious face he looked me in the eye: “yes, it’s 2 o’clock!” Good news, he has a sense of humor!

And our time together that afternoon ended as it had begun. After an hour or so of intense discussion that ranged from conducting technique to contemporary music and art, and Braunstein’s personal history – I was on the way out of his office when he said “that’ll be 50 cents.” I must have looked puzzled. “For the pomegranate juice,” he explained, deadpan, pointing at the now empty glass he had brought to me earlier. (Um, OK…)  I gave him my best ‘indignant diva’ voice: “I don’t PAY for interviews!” and we both had a good laugh.

This Thursday morning, we were scheduled to bring that conversation to the air on VPR Classical. Would his understated sense of humor come through in an interview setting? Would mine? And how could we get at those personal details that make his life such an interesting story, without making this private, quiet man audibly uncomfortable on the air? Or worse yet, make him want to discontinue the discussion. No need to worry, I soon found out. The conversation we’d had a week earlier had apparently gone some way to break the ice and he was ready to talk when he got to the studio.

Braunstein is 55, he came to Vermont from (most recently) New York City after a career that included studies at Juilliard, teaching at the Mannes School of Music, and studies with some big names in 20th century music: Herbert Von Karajan, Leonard Bernstein, Elliot Carter and Milton Babbitt. So, why Vermont? And with credentials like that, why take a position with a Youth Orchestra? “Well first of all it was the Orchestra’s incredible reputation, I’d heard about them for years. And I always wanted to go somewhere beautiful, to be the music director. It never quite worked out, I was always in places like Houston or other places that were not so green or not so nice to live.  And the other thing that was really interesting to me was that it was not connected, it was free-standing. It didn’t have any connections to any other institutions, and therefore to be the music director there I could really use my creative opinions, my philosophies and  what not to shape and guide the organization.”

Here’s something you didn’t hear if you listened in to our conversation on Thursday morning: the recording I chose to fill out the rest of the hour was the electrifying 1962 classic of Beethoven’s 5th, with Herbert von Karajan and the Berlin Philharmonic. At the downbeat of the first iconic opening notes, Ronald asked off-air, “wait – which recording IS this?” I said, “there IS only one,” and handed him the CD jewel case. For the next half hour we listened to that magnificent recording together, Ronald occasionally sharing von Karajan anecdotes and leaning in excitedly and pausing to say “listen to that!”. I’d turn up the volume, and then he would go on to point out some masterly nuance: von Karajan’s omission of the repeat in the first movement; the bassoon sixteenth notes that quietly act as the engine in the third movement; the dotted eighth notes of the celli that support the second movement; and the heroic horn entrance in the fourth. I had never listened to a piece of music before with a conductor. And I will never be able to hear to Beethoven’s 5th again now that I’ve had that special experience.

One of the best stories Ronald told was a recollection of Herbert Von Karajan’s reaction to the first time he observed the younger conductor in a performance of Beethoven’s 5th. (Imagine Ronald speaking in the elder master’s thick German accent here –) “”I have one thing to tell you,” von Karajan said, “you don’t know this piece.” I just shook my head, trying to imagine what it would be like to have a comment like that aimed my way as a young musician. It could be devastating. For Ronald it was a challenge. He smiled, “Yah, well I do NOW! And I’m younger than he was!”

Maestro Braunstein makes his debut with the Vermont Youth Orchestra in two concerts this weekend. The first took place last night in St. Albans, and the next one is tomorrow at 3 at Burlington’s Flynn Center for the Arts. Keep a close eye on his conducting gestures, Braunstein often talks about “elasticity” being one of the guiding principles of his journey through music. I wonder how that will translate to his time on the podium, and his interpretation of the classics they’ll be playing like Beethoven’s 5th Symphony, and Bach’s Air on the G String?

Oh – and don’t look for a score on his music stand, he doesn’t use one. In fact there won’t be a music stand at all. The reason why goes a long way toward giving some insight on the relationship he plans to have with this motivated, exceedingly talented group of young musicians:  “I don’t want anything between me and the Orchestra.”

riding the gravy train

March 11, 2010

Some time ago here I mentioned the viability difficulties of some kinds of music in today’s plug-n-play, single download kind of world.

Like, Pink Floyd’s landmark album Dark Side of the Moon.

Yes, you can listen to Money or Us and Them and still enjoy them apart from the larger work. On most radio stations you’d never hear Floyd at all if they didn’t break it up into the separate songs. But you listen differently, knowing the experience is something akin to listening to an isolated movement of a symphony, or concerto, outside of their greater musical context. That’s fine, sometimes the only thing that really hits the spot is the middle movement of a Mozart Piano Concerto, a good Mahler Adagio (and they’re ALL good), or the sublime Largo from Dvorak’s ‘New World’ Symphony. With classical music especially there’s a long history of concerts where single movements were played over and over, repeated spontaneously as a sort of in-concert encore in immediate response to audience enthusiasm.

It’s one thing when you, as a music consumer, make the choice to excerpt your recording of – whatever. It’s another when a recording company willfully convolutes contractual reality (the same contract to which they fiercely adhere, when the financial advantage is to their benefit) in the name of profit.

Today Pink Floyd scored a victory against EMI in an effort to preserve the artistic integrity of their recordings. The dispute centers around whether or not the original contract, prohibiting EMI from selling records other than as complete albums without written consent, still holds in a world where individual mp3 downloads are the standard. Pink Floyd says it does. EMI contends that the existing contract only applies to the physical product, not to online distribution.

So why did it take this litigation to bring that to light? iTunes has been around for TEN YEARS now, if EMI felt their standing contract didn’t cover new distribution methods comprehensively enough, they’ve had a decade to renegotiate the contractual terms.

EMI didn’t do that, because – “valid” or not – the existing contract was financially beneficial to them until now. With today’s ruling, both EMI and Pink Floyd will likely have less revenue rolling in from downloads. The musicians (millionaires, yes, but artists nonethelss) don’t seem bothered by that. 

Artistic integrity: 1

Corporate greed: 0

Oh, by the way, which one’s “Pink”?

vyo winter concert

January 24, 2010

This afternoon’s winter concert with the Vermont Youth Orchestra featured a melodic mix of an overture, a concerto, a symphony, and a concertpiece…the performance beginning and ending with the dancing Bohemian sounds of Smetana and Dvořák, respectively.

I’m always impressed with the VYO’s exceedingly high level of musicianship, from the delicate viola pizzicatti and lovely flute and clarinet passages at the start of 8th symphony to the heroic timpani, cellos, low brass and third violins in the last movement.

I’m very much looking forward to hearing how the VYO’s relationship continues to unfold with Music Alive composer-in-residence Robert Paterson. While I didn’t personally love today’s Paterson original, Enlightened City, that doesn’t mean there was anything “wrong” with it. Music is like that: it hits you or it doesn’t. And I can honestly say I don’t think Paterson would find much to enjoy about my composing either. (I don’t write music. I admire the talent of those who do.)

Next event in the VYO’s busy calendar is coming up on Friday, Feb. 12th. That evening they’re hosting a live recording session with From the Top, the nationally-broadcast radio program featuring young musicians. (Ticket info at

trading fours: hear this – not that!

September 5, 2009
perfect 'za

perfect 'za

Today I came across one of those articles that offered a comparison of the nutritional values of pizzas at national chain restaurants. Take just a moment to ingest that basic premise, if you will…

You’ve seen this kind of thing.

As a serious pizza fanatic I couldn’t resist finding out which fared best (and, of course, worst) – and, on the morbidly curious side – how many of these nefarious bad-boy pies I have personally consumed.

Not that many, it turns out. I admit the discovery leaves me with a mix of gratefulness and some measure of disappointment. For every sodium-laden, fat-drenched unearned calorie saturating the ones that ranked (BAD, very bad. Bad. Right?),  I envisioned an equally sumptuous, completely cheesy and delicious piece of pizza perfection (mmmmmm).

I dwelled for a while on the path (artery?) not taken, and ultimately decided my longevity was probably better off for the missed experience. I guess.

Articles like this pop up fairly frequently. Part of the larger nutritional awareness movement underway now, popularized with books like Eat This, Not That! Thousands of Simple Food Swaps that Can Save You 10, 20, 30 Pounds–or More!

Since I couldn’t spend the next half hour wading in melted pizza bliss I refocused (much more healthful) to consider what my choices would be for a recorded music equivalent: “Hear This, Not That! Simple Sound Swaps that Can Save You 10, 20, 30 Wasted Hours–or More!”

If you had to choose – I hope you don’t – between the Istvan Kertesz/London Symphony or Kubelik/Berlin Philharmonic recordings of the Dvořák 9th symphony – which would you pick? Very difficult to say, or even make a compelling case for recommending one over the other. They’re both benchmark performances of the work.

Same idea with Coltrane’s My Favorite Things, in the 1961 studio version vs. some of the live ones, like the 1963 Newport recording. You have to hear both. In personnel alone, the tune takes on very different colors with the Newport group, where bassist Jimmy Garrison and drummer Roy Haynes replace Steve Davis and Elvin Jones from the original studio ensemble. Add to that the live dynamic and there’s really no comparison here.

But sometimes these choices are more clear, and that’s the launching point for this edition of Trading Fours. Save yourself the empty calories and wasted time wading through disappointing, unfulfilling listening. Check these out.

Von Karajan's landmark 1963 Beethoven set

#1 – Beethoven’s complete symphony cycle (Herbert Von Karajan) – The infamous, narcissistic, perfectionist, genius – choose your adjective – German conductor Herbert Von Karajan recorded four complete Beethoven cycles in his long career. The first set was recorded from 1953-56 (w/The Philharmonia Orchestra); the next from 1961-2 (with his favorite orchestra, the Berlin Philharmonic); a third came along from 1975-77 (Berlin Phil.); and the last was recorded from 1982-85 (yet again with Berlin). Assuming you’ll want to get one of these (only one) and save the rest of your budget for the next three recommendations here – which Beethoven set to pick? You want the second set, released in 1963, for how it so completely embodies one single word: firepower. These recordings reveal a young Von Karajan as a powerful leader capable of getting the very most from his orchestra. There is a rawness and urgency present here that gives each symphony a thrilling edginess. The longer he worked with Berlin the smoother and more synthesized their sound became, until you get to the 1980s (recordings his like two “Adagio” CDs come to mind) and it’s so rich and refined it’s beautiful, but very nearly drained of the personality that makes the 1963 set so special. Don’t be misled by the ‘newer (recent) is better’ perception when it comes to choosing recordings. This outstanding 1960s set is how you want to hear Beethoven.

TradingFours4-GoodNews#2 – “Good News” – 100 Gospel Greats – Need the Word? Sure you do. Every good music collection needs some great gospel. Choosing one recording isn’t easy, there are a lot of artist collections and anthologies available. I’ve chosen Good News for its variety, its depth and range, and – honestly – its disproportionate value for the modest price. Let me back up just a minute: the UK’s Proper Records is a terrific company, the self-described “home for roots music on the net”. A quick A-Z review of their roster reveals everything from Gene Autry and Chet Atkins, to Thelonious Monk and the Mills Brothers to “Zah, Zuh, Zaz: an Introduction to Cab Calloway”. They license music from the artist archives, and reissue it in nicely packaged, highly curated, very affordable collections. I don’t think I’ve ever seen one of their boxes going for more than $25-30 retail, and even if you don’t find a cheaper used or discount copy, it’s still worth every bit of that. Think of it this way: when you spend $25 for this set, if you follow the iTunes model of .99 cents per tune, you’re getting 100 songs here for roughly .25 cents apiece. Can’t beat it.

Good News is a 4-CD, 100-song set that works its way chronologically from the earliest material (1926: the Birmingham Jubilee Singers) to the most recent on disc 4 (1951: Five Blind Boys of Mississippi) and makes a lot of important stops along the way with artist like Sister Rosetta Tharpe, Mahalia Jackson, the Five Blind Boys of Alabama, and many earlier groups in the Southern gospel ‘jubilee’ and ‘harmony’ traditions. It’s fun. It rocks. And if it’s the only gospel you have in your collection I’m convinced you’ll be completely happy with it.

TradingFours4-CityOfDreams#3 – City of Dreams: A Collection of New Orleans Music – One of the big labels for New Orleans artists is Rounder Records. Since the very beginning in 1970, their focus has been the sound of America: blues, bluegrass, folk, jazz, Cajun, and various other (African, Caribbean) world genres. Don’t all of those styles, together, also describe the unique confluence that informs the sound of the Big Easy? They sure do. You’ll hear all of those influences in the label’s recent City of Dreams anthology, with favorites like Marcia Ball, Irma Thomas, Ruth Brown and the Professor Longhair to the deeper cuts that really inform the heart of the collection. Like Eddie Bo’s soulful Hard Times, Bo Dollis’ Shoo-fly, and highlights from New Orleans piano legends James Booker and Tuts Washington, whose touching Do You Know What It Means? closes out the collection as the last track on the last disc. You’ll find that Dreams holds a good sampling of second-line brass band music, Delta blues, r & b, funk, and a whole lotta soul. There’s no way one single anthology – any anthology –  could wrap its arms comprehensively around all of the complex cultural influences at play in the music of a city like New Orleans. (Not that there are any other cities like that.) But this collection goes a long way to offer more than the usual superficial “best of” hit parade, it satisfyingly digs deeper to reveal much of the underlying artistry of the N.O. ‘sound’.

TradingFours4-Vivaldi4Seasons#4 – Vivaldi’s Four Seasons (Rinaldo Alessandrini/Concerto Italiano) – This an interesting one, with some surprisingly divisive opinions to consider and navigate in choosing the recording that’s right for your collection. The most popular music Vivaldi wrote, it’s lovely and lyrical and there’s probably no part of it you wouldn’t recognize, even out of context. That speaks to the music itself. But, for performances of the Seasons, take a look at ArkivMusic where there are more than 200 recordings currently available. Which one of those 200+ is the right one for you? That’s where the controversy enters the picture. Ongoing academic research and discovery in the area of  ‘period’ performance practices has led to the divided house that now exists in regard to how this music is actually played. With vibrato (for many years the standard for Western classical music) or without (as it would have been performed and experienced in the pre-Baroque and Baroque eras, when this music was written)? With a big, full-bodied modern orchestra, or with the smaller chamber ensemble that would have been the standard in Vivaldi’s day? Tuned to the “440” pitch standard of the contemporary concert orchestra, or, to the “415-419” of the Baroque era? On modern instruments, or with the actual instruments (and faithful replicas thereof) from the Baroque?

You just wanted a nice recording of the Four Seasons. You didn’t know there would be so many decisions involved to find one. OK, well, before I recommend this one for you I will mention that I tend to prefer the ‘period’ performances, with their lighter touch, transparent textures, and often slightly faster tempi. There are wonderful recordings of the Seasons that find something of a balance, featuring modern instruments and orchestras with a soft ear toward the ‘authentic performance’ sensibilities: recordings with violinists Gil Shaham, Gidon Kremer, Joshua Bell, Julia Fischer are very nice and meet that standard to my ear. There are period ensembles that offer very nice, if not wildly adventurous performances: the English Concert, the Academy of Ancient Music, and the Raglan Baroque Players are of this variety. Then there are “the Italians”; groups that follow the ‘period’ performance path and offer raw, viscerally exciting readings that strip away the accumulated years of varnish and offer the music in a bracing, fresh context. (Which is kind of funny, really, when you consider the ‘fresh’ context is a style hundreds of years old!) Ensembles like Europa Galante, La Stravaganza, Il Giardino Armonico, Accademia Bizantina, and the Venice Baroque Orchestra fall into this second camp. So do Concerto Italiano, with their director Rinaldo Alessandrini.

At the great risk of planting my flag irreversibly in the ‘period’ music camp, it is this last recording I am recommending. Unapologetically. There is much color, nuance, and capacity for a new listening experience, even in pieces like these you’ve already heard many times. It takes the right recording to make that point. I’m offering this one as my choice because it gave me that experience the first time I heard it (and, in repeated listening). I heard – actually heard – Vivaldi anew again in this lively, articulate, passionate recording with the Concerto Italiano. That doesn’t happen very often.

I can’t offer this suggestion as THE definitive, one-and-only Four Seasons recording, because that would presume I had heard them all (not the case). And, there’s so much diversity in the different performance styles among the many groups who have recorded these concertos. But it’s sure a good place to start, and if you like it, and you decide you really only need one Four Seasons in your archive, it would be an equally fine place to stop.

(By the way, for a concise history of tuning practices, take a look at this article.)

That’s it for this edition of Trading Fours. We started with pizza and ended with Vivaldi (so it goes!), and what I hope will be some very satisfying listening experiences for you. Happy Labor Day weekend!

Trading Fours is an occasional series here designed to build your music library and share ideas about favorite recordings, in the long tradition of learning about music from friends. If you have picks to share leave a comment here. Send me your four choices along with a quick explanation of the theme that holds them together. I’ll do the rest and get them posted here to share with everyone else.

vermont mozart festival: ying quartet

July 22, 2009
the Ying Quartet at Bolton Valley

the Ying Quartet at Bolton Valley

Second concert of the season for this year’s Vermont Mozart Festival was last night, with the Ying Quartet visiting the newly built “Ponds” at Bolton Valley.

As the (mostly – keep reading) sibling quartet moves into their second decade together now, they’re doing it with some big changes.

Or, at least one big one: this past April it was announced that first violinist Timothy Ying was leaving the ensemble for more time with family and new business ventures in Canada. Replacing his role meant finding just the right player to fill the musical void and complement the sound of the group. Given the intimate nature of quartets, it’s always a challenging situation for an ensemble to endure. Add to this particular situation the fact that it wasn’t just a first violinist who had to be replaced, but one of the four original members of the group…who also happened to be a brother to the remaining three members.

Big shoes? Sure. And Violinist Frank Huang is just the person to fill them – quickly! His first public appearance with the Ying Quartet was a mere three weeks ago, at the Bowdoin International Music Festival in Maine. Last night he fit in seamlessly in a diverse program of Haydn, Dvorak  and a delightful set of short Chinese classics.

It was just right that the rain began as the program’s first half  closed. The last sounds of Chen Yi’s Shuo were accompanied by the soft pattering of raindrops on the deck just beyond the room’s open doors. It felt like a recital taking place in the artfully designed acoustic of a Zen water garden.

Going into the night’s concert, I was most looking forward to the Dvorak “American” Quartet. David Ying’s gorgeous cello solo was a highlight of the second movement, luxurious and roundly warm. A little less satisfying, but still thrilling, was the exceptionally peppy finale. The vivace non troppo of Dvorak’s score was instead more of a prestissimo, as the famous steam engine ‘locomotive’ rhythm at the opening of the 4th movement came across a lot more like the Eurorail breaknecking through the countryside. Sleek, all the moving parts working together, but a little fast for comfort.

Coming out of the concert, I had to give the best of show to the perfectly crafted, delicate yet sumptuously substantial collection of Chinese classics.

At last I understand why the Ying’s newest recording of these little self-contained treasures is called Dim Sum.


Performances with the Vemont Mozart Festival continue through August 9th at various locations in the region.


The program:

HAYDN Quartet in B-Flat, Op. 33/#4

TAN DUN: Drum and Gong; Cloudiness; Red Sona

ZHOU LONG: Song of the Ch’in



DVORAK: “American” Quartet in F, Op. 96

easter extremes

April 11, 2009

It’s poetic that eggs are a symbol of Easter, with so much potential for life represented in such a small package. Like springtime itself!

2009-apr07-eggses011Here in New England as the season flies by in a messy blur of everything from mud and slushy snow to songbirds, and Key West breezes – it’s less a season, really, than it is a feeling. Sure, there are snowdrops, crocus and daffodils. They bravely stick their necks out in mid-April, breaking through the icy crust of composting leaves just in time to have their blooming tops wilted when late-season snow blankets the garden at night.

But for every frozen flower, thwarted garden, and snow-covered BBQ grill..signs of life are busting through everywhere. Irrepressible, and irreversible. How else would we be able to harvest maple syrup, one of the changing season’s first harbingers? Sunlight returns, coaxing the life blood of the sugar maples to surge skyward, feed the veins of the tree, and spawn new leaves. We syphon it off midway and boil it down to its sweet, sticky life essence. Demi-glace of maple sap consommé – mmmmm. An exquisite reduction.

All of this can only happen when the conditions are just right, usually starting somewhere around mid-February, as warm days are paired with below-freezing nights.

Some of the best classical music was written for this time of the year too, in its concentrated power it beautifully echoes both the season’s vibrant lifeforce, and tendency toward extremes. Think of the ferocious thunder and pounding hailstones, in Handel’s Passover oratorio Israel in Egypt – the same composer whose Messiah offers a remarkable contrast with lovely, pastoral melodies like “Ev’ry Valley Shall Be Exalted” and “Worthy is the Lamb”.

Good Friday is my favorite day of the year to be on the air. No exceptions.

Yesterday’s show included the austerely sublime Miserere, Gregorio Allegri’s precious gift to the Sistine Chapel choir – and all of humanity.

(detail from Michelangelo's Sistine Chapel ceiling fresco)

(detail from Michelangelo's Sistine Chapel ceiling fresco)

An elegant work that defines ‘a capella’ (“of the chapel”) – pure human voices sing out, unaccompanied except for the silent witness of all of creation in Michelangelo’s surrounding frescoes.

When the male soprano hits that exquisite high ‘C’ (you know the note I’m talking about) it’s very nearly divine enough to bridge that crucial, meaningful space between God and Adam’s index fingers, as both reach out but can never quite connect.

Nearly, but not quite. Like the tallest Cathedral domes and spires and minarets, reaching heavenward: the Miserere is divinely inspired but still, ultimately, the creation of a man. It can never actually touch heaven or rise to a level higher than its humble human origins. (That doesn’t mean it’s not a masterpiece: it is.)

4/11/09-sunshine on my early spring garden

4/11/09-sunshine on my early spring garden

Dvorak’s monumental Stabat Mater is another work of singular inspiration: not only perfect for Good Friday but perfect in its deep humanity as a personal expression of parental grief.

Dvorak knew too well what it felt like to lose a child, he began work on the Stabat Mater in the aftermath of the death of his infant daughter. He got as far as beginning to orchestrate the work when he set it aside, maybe trying to move away from the pain of its association with his loss.

Two years later Dvorak’s second daughter died unexpectedly following a household accident, and then, only three weeks after that, Dvorak’s young son succumbed to smallpox. With the loss of all three children in as many years, the unimaginable tragedy left the composer and his wife childless.

That’s exactly when Dvorak revisited the sketches for his Stabat Mater.

Within a month he had finished the work, complete with fullblown choir and several soloists and orchestra. The result is huge, and profound. Musically, it resounds with the weight of emotional loss felt by a parent at a child’s death: Dvorak’s own, and Mary’s – head bent, weeping, the living embodiment of the ‘stabat mater’ (“grieving mother”) herself, at the foot of the crucifixion. Dvorak’s experience infuses his Stabat Mater with incomparable compassion and empathy. It’s his first musical setting of a religious text, and by far his most effective and meaningful.

You don’t have to suffer loss like that to write powerful music. But the effects are undeniable.

No matter your traditions of faith or observance at this time of the year, the very special music of this season transcends and speaks to open ears on a broader, human level: it’s music of redemption, hope, new life and renewal.

May your springtime be filled with all of that. Happy Easter!


Recommended recordings:

Dvorak: Stabat Mater

Allegri: Miserere mei

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