Review: Louisville Orchestra Highlights Russian Masterworks

robert thies

Review: Louisville Orchestra Highlights Russian Masterworks

Thursday morning, on the eve of his 80th birthday, Jorge Mester conducted his penultimate concert of the 2014-2015 Louisville Orchestra season with two major Russian works.

To open the concert, the orchestra played Berlioz’s Roman Carnival with vigor and excitement, with some beautiful moments from the violas, and a tender English horn solo from Trevor Johnson. Ultimately, against the Prokofiev concerto and the Tchaikovsky symphony, the overture felt more like a necessary formality in the orchestra-concert formula than a genuine statement.

The third piano concerto of Sergei Prokofiev balances witty humor and profound rhetoric, and Prokofiev establishes this M.O. in the initial five minutes of the concerto. Pianist Robert Thies and the orchestra play equal roles, moving gracefully through sometimes quirky, sometimes elegant tunes. There is always something interesting to hear because Prokofiev is always saying something interesting. Even in the transitions — when the music is leading us to an important moment — we find curiosities and gems.

Thies brought an unassuming stage presence to Whitney Hall; lacking all the glitz, body and facial contortions common in soloists. Instead, he allowed Prokofiev’s music to exude personality and affectation. His enthusiasm for this third concerto was belied only by the tiniest grin during his first bow.

Soloist and orchestra were effortless and fluid, with a sparkling urgency throughout. But it was the middle movement, a set of theme and variations, that felt surreal. Here is a composer who is improvising, inviting the orchestra to interject and punctuate, and Thies’ ability to be unobtrusive allowed Prokofiev to be present, as though he had opened a portal to the moment of creation.

Pytor Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s final Symphony No. 6, “Pathétique,” premiered just nine days before his death, is the masterpiece we hope to hear again and again. Mester and orchestra, returning to a work they’ve performed many times, didn’t let their comfort with the notes impair a clear understanding and delivery of the music. Even at its most brooding, Mester didn’t hesitate to move the music forward. The strings were rich and resonant, and woodwind principals Marilyn Nije and Matthew Karr each gave poetic solos in the first movement.

The second movement, a sort of peg-leg waltz, was charming. Only in the final minutes did the waltz unhinge slightly. The stately third movement was peppy and cheerful, slightly reminiscent of The Nutcracker (a score the LO becomes intimately familiar with each holiday season). The fatalistic last movement, more tenebrous than the first, points to the inevitable and leaves us with questions without answers. Regardless of the Pathétique’s actual meaning or message, Tchaikovsky’s final symphony continues to speak profoundly and personally, and fresh performances like Thursday morning’s allow for that introspection.

As evidenced in this concert, and recent performances of Brahms and Elgar, this is a romantic orchestra, with a penchant for emotionally robust works. Ideally, an orchestra can play any period (baroque, classical, contemporary, etc) with equal authority, but the true colors of this band are showing.

The Louisville Orchestra presents this concert again on Friday evening at 8pm in Whitney Hall.

Nancy Zeltsman at SIUE

Nancy with Perc Studio

Nancy Zeltsman with the SIUE Percussion Ensemble

Internationally acclaimed marimbist Nancy Zeltsman was recently a guest artist at my school, Southern Illinois University Edwardsville, on March 23rd and 24th. I made the trek back to my university to be a part of the experience.

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Nancy Zeltsman performing “Sotto Voce”

Nancy provided private lessons for students, two public master classes, and performed her program Sotto Voce for solo marimba accompanied by a slide show of photographs that her mother took and recordings of her reciting poetry. Sotto Voce means ‘under voice’ or ‘under the breath.’ She explores a softer dynamic range, and performs some of the music that she holds dearest. This program was featured at the Percussive Arts Society International Convention (PASIC) in 2014 and includes works from Daniel Levitan, Aaron J. Kernis, Paul Simon, and more. The master classes allowed students to perform their works for her and the audience, and Nancy openly critiqued their playing and worked with them on concepts such as phrasing, technique, and sound production. The knowledge she shared in the master classes had a deep effect on everyone involved.

You can keep up with the SIUE Percussion Ensemble on Facebook.

Thanks to Emilie Curry at Curry Creations for capturing the events, and to SIUE Percussion Instructor Daniel Smithiger, members of the SIUE Percussion Studio, and SIUE Student Government for making it all possible.

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Sean Schuchman with Nancy Zeltsman

Nancy is the artistic director of the Zeltsman Marimba Festival which is happening this June 28th to July 11th, a full two weeks in New Brunswick, New Jersey. In it’s 13th season, this festival brings together marimbists, performers and educators, from all around the world. There are 8 marimba-focused concerts, 9 master classes, 14 open lessons, composer guest talks, and much more. Participants receive two private lessons from faculty of their choice and early registration will assure teacher selection. This festival is all about people coming together to celebrate and share their love of marimba. It is a chance to work with outstanding faculty including Pius Cheung, Emmanuel Sejourne, Julie Spencer, Gordon Stout, Mike Truesdell, Jack Van Geem, and of course Nancy Zeltsman herself. May 1st is the deadline for registrations and deposits. If you cannot join in for the full two weeks, you can register for three days instead. Can’t make it this year? Make plans to attend next year!

Nanae Mimura, one of my favorite marimbists, was a guest artist at last year’s festival. Here is a video of WLUK-TV Fox 11 talking with Nancy while Nanae performs.

Campbellsville University’s Percussion Ensemble Festival

Campbellsville University Percussion

Campbellsville University’s Percussion Ensemble

On Saturday April 18th, Campbellsville University is presenting their 4th annual Percussion Ensemble Festival in the Gosser Fine Arts Center. This is an all-day event open to everyone. It will start off with a clinic on auxiliary FUNdamentals presented by M. Jordan Williams at 10:15 am. Throughout the day there will be various clinics and master classes, several performances from high school percussion ensembles, and host performances from the Campbellsville University Percussion Ensemble and Steel Band. If you have never heard a live steel band before, here is your chance!

The featured clinician is the Assistant Professor and Associate Director of Bands at California University of Pennsylvania Dr. Marty Sharer. He previously taught at Campbellsville University where he was the assistant professor of music, director of percussion studies, director of the jazz ensemble and assistant director of the marching band. He is versatile as a performer, teacher, clinician, and conductor in percussion, jazz, and band. He will present his clinic at 3:45 pm and will be performing with the CU Percussion Ensemble at 8:00 pm.

There will be drawings for door prizes throughout the entire event. Prizes will be anything percussion related, such as sticks, mallets, method books, and practice pads.

Here is the Campbellsville University’s Percussion Ensemble performing To Brandon by Anders Astrand.

Here is the Campbellsville University’s Steel Band performing Samba el Gato by Shelly Irvine.

Admission is $5 and includes all-day access to the activities. The Campbellsville University Percussion Ensemble Festival is supported by the Kentucky Chapter of the Percussive Arts Society.

Featured Album: Cypress String Quartet’s Beethoven: The Middle String Quartets

Cypress

Cypress String Quartet

Cypress String Quartet from San Francisco, California has released their newest album, Beethoven: The Middle String Quartets, which features five quartets from Opp. 59, 74, and 95. Beethoven began writing these in 1806, just after he finished premiering his Eroica Symphony. These works are challenging and hard to understand. During this time period music for string quartet was a genre that was enjoyed privately among die hard music lovers, so these quartets are almost experimental in a sense. Cypress takes on these string quartets with ease, performing them beautifully.

Cypress recently stopped by our performance studio at Classical 90.5 to talk with Daniel Gilliam about their journey to record and perform all of the Beethoven String Quartets. They also treated us to a special performance of Erwin Schulhoff’s Cavatine from Divertimento for String Quartet. Members Jennifer Kloetzel and Tom Stone discussed their recordings of Beethoven’s middle and late string quartets, and their plans to record his early quartets this June. They also described their Call and Response program, which pairs a newly commissioned work from a living composer with a standard masterpiece. This program reaches out to students all over the San Francisco Bay Area, creating new classical music lovers of all ages. Members of Cypress include Cecily Ward and Tom Stone on violin, Ethan Filner on viola, and Jennifer Kloetzel on cello.

You can purchase Cypress String Quartet’s newest album Beethoven: The Middle String Quartets on iTunes, and you can also purchase their first release of the quartets, Beethoven: The Late String Quartets on iTunes. Stay tuned for their release of Beethoven’s early string quartets.

Here is a video of Cypress String Quartet performing the second movement of Beethoven’s String Quartet in Bb Major, Opus 130: II. Presto.

A Sibelius Celebration

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2015 marks the 150th anniversary of the birth of composer Jean Sibelius (1865-1957). There are many events planned to mark the occasion, including the first-ever Sibelius Composition Competition.

While there will undoubtedly be new recordings of his famous symphonies and violin concerto released this year, this celebration would best be used to discover his lesser-known works. The Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir has just released an album featuring the complete works for mixed choir by Sibelius. The compositions show a deft hand by the composer with subtle harmonies and engaging melodies.

Violinist Kathrin Ten Hagen is featured in a 2015 release of the almost completely unknown Suite for Violin and Strings in D minor, Op. 117. The work is one of Sibelius’s most light-hearted pieces and reveals many tendencies toward folk-like melodic lines.

Works for solo piano including transcriptions of Valse triste and Finlandia are included in a 2015 CD by pianist Cassandra Wyss. She also plays the six Impromptus, Op. 5 and the Romance Op. 24, No. 9.

Classical 90.5 will celebrate Sibelius’s birth anniversary all year with recordings of both the famous and little-heard compositions. In the meantime enjoy this performance of Op. 117 Suite by Jean Sibelius.