Review: Louisville Orchestra with Guest Soloist Julian Schwarz

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For those weary of the cold and ice, the Brown Theater was a respite for shovel-worn backs on Saturday evening. Jorge Mester, very aware of the light crowd, was grateful for the “intrepid” audience and musicians in attendance. Perhaps as intrepid was his choice, and command, of three contrasting works: William Schuman’s New England Triptych, Dmitri Shostakovich’s Cello Concerto No. 1 and Edward Elgar’s Variations on an Original Theme “Enigma.”

Aaron Copland is largely credited for creating the “American” sound, much to the exclusion of his contemporaries like Roy Harris, Virgil Thomson and William Schuman. Saturday’s performance was a reminder of Schuman’s qualities as a craftsman and an artist, and that his New England Triptych is as perfectly American as Copland’s ballet scores or the ubiquitous Fanfare for the Common Man. Mester, who recorded some of Schuman’s music during the First Edition days of the orchestra, was at home in this score.

Schuman pays homage one to one of the earliest American composers in his New England Triptych, based on hymns of the revolutionary era composer (and tanner) William Billings. The jaunty first movement was finely articulate, bouncing through Schuman’s abrupt rhythmic shifts. The second movement felt ragged and out of sync, but was redeemed by a blistering third movement that earned a few hearty yelps from the crowd. It’s rare for the timpani to take the first bow after the maestro, but Jim Rago earned it with his sharp and commanding playing. His appreciation for the applause was gracious and nonchalant.

Guest soloist Julian Schwarz believes in an introspective approach to Shostakovich’s first cello concerto. It’s a work that can easily be raucous — Schwarz opted for the melancholic. This is still a work of immense power, and Schwarz’s playing was equally so, but Saturday’s performance was less about the soloist and more about the music. This inward approach worked, mostly. Its only weakness was felt in the first movement through an overly square tempo.

Principal horn Jon Gustely, the only brass instrument in the concerto, gets what amounts to a sub-concerto. Shostakovich was generous, giving the horn melodic lines similar the solo cello and, in some cases, just as prominent. Gustely’s color was warm and complementary to Schwarz, particularly in the gut-wrenching slow movement. The cadenza that follows, a usual break in the orchestral action that gives the soloist (through dazzling virtuosity) some alone time with the audience, is really a five-minute soliloquy. Schwarz once again showed us his understanding of the music with confidence and took a sensitive, patient pace. The final movement was captivating, and while not technically flawless, showed more of Schwarz’s musicality. His on-stage demeanor was especially warm and humble, and further proven when he joined his fellow cellists for Elgar’s Enigma Variations after intermission. It’s extremely rare for a guest soloist to play with the hosting orchestra after they’ve played a concerto (he must have been exhausted).

Edward Elgar purposely encoded a secret in his Variations on an Original Theme “Enigma,” that still have us chasing for meaning and explanation. Thankfully, the music stands on its own, and ultimately provides a touching portrait of Elgar’s personal life through musical portrayals of his friends. The orchestra shifted nimbly between each character study, capturing the playfulness, tenderness or energy of Elgar’s loved ones. Fast string passages in the second variation were problematic and sloppy. Long, lingering phrases were always inviting, with especially lovely solo moments from principals Jack Griffin (viola), Nicholas Finch (cello) and Andrea Levine (clarinet), in order of appearance.

Nimrod, the ninth and most well-known variation, is expected to be the crowning achievement. It builds from a very soft, string chorale to a full orchestra statement of the same, and the Louisville Orchestra brass unleashed every ounce of sound, carrying the orchestra upward as Nimrod reached its summit. The last variation, and Elgar’s self-portrait, reprises a similar exuberance and gave the orchestra one final burst of life.

 

 

Julian Schwarz Debut with Louisville Orchestra

Photo credit: Steve Sherman
Cellist Julian Schwarz performs the first cello concerto by Shostakovich with Jorge Mester and the Louisville Orchestra on February 21, 2015. He stopped by Classical 90.5 to talk with Daniel Gilliam about the concerto, and also played Schumann’s Adagio and Allegro, Op. 70, with Marika Bournaki.

Steve Reich’s Radio Rewrite

Radio Rewrite

Composer Steve Reich drew concepts for his piece Radio Rewrite from Composer Perotin’s Proverb, composed in 1995. He also allowed Radiohead songs Jigsaw Falling into Place and Everything in Its Right Place influence the piece as well. This is the third track on his 2014 album titled after the piece itself, Radio Rewrite. The piece is in five movements, alternating in Reich’s typical fashion: Fast, Slow, Fast, Slow and Fast. Longtime friends of Reich ensemble Alarm Will Sound recorded this work under direction of Alan Pierson. The work calls for flute, clarinet, two vibraphones, two pianos, electric bass, and string quartet.

Electric Counterpoint and Piano Counterpoint are also featured on this album. Electric Counterpoint was composed in 1987 and originally performed and recorded by Pat Metheny. On this album it is recorded by Radiohead’s guitarist Jonny Greenwood. Reich heard Greenwood perform his work live and enjoyed the performance and then became interested in Radiohead’s music.

Piano Counterpoint is an arrangement of Reich’s Six Pianos by Vincent Corver in 2011. It is recorded by Pianist Vicky Chow. In this arrangement, four of the six piano voices are played as a recording while the performer plays the two remaining piano voices live.

You can purchase Reich’s Radio Rewrite on iTunes or Amazon.

Music eX with Dror Biran and Paul York

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Paul York, professor of cello and Dror Biran, professor of piano at University of Louisville joined Daniel Gilliam in the studio to talk about their upcoming concert on Sunday February 22nd at 3:00pm. The concert will take place in Comstock Concert Hall on UofL’s campus as part of The Music eX Series. They will perform Johann Sebastian Bach’s Cello Suite No. 2 in D Minor BWV 1008 and Felix Mendelssohn’s Sonata for Cello & Piano in D Major, Op. 58, No. 2.

Kuniko Kato’s Cantus

Kuniko-Kato

Percussionist Kuniko Kato’s album Cantus brings two of my passions together: Percussion and minimalism. This album follows her album Kuniko Plays Reich which was released in 2011. After receiving much praise for that album, she “wanted to make minimalist music more accessible.” She achieves this spectacularly in Cantus which was released in 2013.

The album opens with Für Alina by Estonian Composer Arvo Pärt. This piece is normally about 11 minutes in length, but Kato opts out of repeating phrases and shortens it to 4 minutes. She recorded the piece in a small ancient church, which is a perfect environment for the resonate tones of the vibraphone and crotales to sing at this slow and contemplative tempo.

New York Counterpoint by Steve Reich is one of his most popular compositions. It is a piece originally scored for amplified clarinet and tape. She utilizes the entire range of the five octave marimba and various types of mallets and methods of striking in order to mimic the clarinet perfectly.

Pärt’s Cantus in Memory of Benjamin Britten It is a threnody written to mourn the death of Composer Benjamin Britten, who Pärt admired dearly. It is originally scored for string orchestra and bell. This work translates to marimba very clearly. Kato rolls the notes on the marimba throughout the whole piece, creating a giant resonate sound.

Purl Ground by Hywel Davies is the only piece on the album that is originally scored for marimba. The piece stays very quiet and has a humming quality, never surpassing the half-way point of the marimba. Kato calls this piece “deeply evocative.”

Fratres and Spiegel im Spiegel are two more compositions from Pärt featured on the album. Fratres was written in 1977 and many versions exist today, from piano and cello to string orchestra and percussion. Her arrangement for marimba uses soft mallets on the low end of the marimba, harder mallets on the mid and high range, and bowing of the marimba keys throughout. The bowing is quiet, you have to listen closely. Spigel im Spigel was originally scored for piano and violin. It is repetitive and played at a slow walking pace. Kato rolls the melody notes on the marimba while the repetitive tonic triads are played on the high end of the marimba. Bells chime in brightly throughout the piece.

You can purchase your own copy of Cantus from Kuniko Kato on iTunes, Amazon, or from the record label Linn Records.