Review: Emerson String Quartet at Comstock Hall

Emerson String Quartet credit Lisa Mazzucco

(Photo credit: Lisa Mazzucco)

The celebrated Emerson String Quartet returned to Louisville on Sunday for their second performance in as many years, this time as part of the Chamber Music Society of Louisville’s concert series at Comstock Hall (their last performance was with the Louisville Orchestra).

The first two movements of Mozart’s Quartet in G major, K. 387, provided a lukewarm first impression, with intonation issues between the violins playing unison or an octave apart. The off-beat accents in the Menuetto were a bit forced and too punctuated. Mozart’s operatic third movement gave Philip Setzer a chance to shape sublime phrases with elegance. A vigorous final movement gave the composer the last laugh with a fake ending causing fairly hefty applause too early, requiring Mr. Setzer to tell the audience that the music was not over, after which the final few bars were played. You could almost hear Tom Hulce’s Amadeus cackling.

Central to the program in structure and length was the challenging and engrossing Lyric Suite by Alban Berg. As one of the second-Viennese composers mentored by Arnold Schoenberg, Berg’s use of the often clinical twelve-tone system is generally more melodic and approachable. Here in this dense and mystical score, Emerson was most comfortable with each player afforded textures rich and sparse, sparkling and gritty.

Beethoven’s Quartet in E-flat, Op. 74, from 1809 sits squarely among some of his most lauded works, including the third and fifth symphonies, the violin concerto, Fidelio and the “Waldstein” piano sonata. But unlike these emotionally weighty companions, the “Harp” quartet is, generally, lighter. Emerson’s delivery was passionate, if a little heavy. Violinist Eugene Drucker’s dexterity through a flurry of notes during the coda of the first movement was brilliant. Violist Lawrence Dutton and cellist Paul Watkins found moments to make their sound bloom in the final set of variations.

For an encore, Emerson played a Fantasia by Henry Purcell originally for a viol consort. Their playing wasn’t imitative of viols, but just sensitive enough for clarity. In some ways the Purcell sounded more like the Beethoven than the Beethoven.

If the concert seemed plodding, it wasn’t from the musicians performance, but the long pauses between every movement. Most seemed necessary for tuning – the hall was warm and stuffy, which could have been the culprit – but there was little connective tissue between movements. Unfortunately, these breaks added up making for a first half that had little momentum and energy.

The final concert of the Chamber Music Society of Louisville is Thursday at 7:30pm featuring Brooklyn Rider at the Clifton Center.

Classical 90.5 Presents: Lara Downes at Decca

lara downes

Commemorating the 100th anniversary of Billie Holiday, acclaimed pianist Lara Downes will play a show highlighting her new album A Billie Holiday Songbook, on April 15th, 9pm at Decca Restaurant.

Downes grew up listening to Holiday’s recordings with her father, who was born and raised in Harlem only blocks from the iconic jazz clubs where Lady Day was a star presence in the 1930s and ’40s. Downes acknowledges that Holiday’s singing has been a lifelong influence. “As a musician, I learned from Billie Holiday to make something completely personal when you make music,” she says. “To make something that is completely your own – maybe something unexpected, something indefinable, perhaps complicated, but beautiful. To take a chance. To quote this album’s final song: “But beautiful to take a chance, and if you fall, you fall. And I’m thinking I wouldn’t mind at all.”

Check out this preview of the concert. And also join her for Lunchtime Classics on April 15th at noon.

Louisville Ballet Closes Season With “A New World”

Robert Curran candid Kateryna Sellers creditRenata Pavam

(Robert Curran with Kateryna Sellers. Photo credit Renata Pavam)

The Louisville Ballet presents the closing production of its 2014-15 season, a mixed program entitled “A New World,” Friday and Saturday evening at the Brown Theatre.

It’s the first time that Louisville audiences will see work selected by artistic director Robert Curran, who took over from longtime artistic director Bruce Simpson last summer.

The program is comprised of three separate works, each noteworthy in their own way. The first, Serge Lifar’s “Suite en Blanc,” with music by French composer Edouard Lalo, will be performed for only the third time in the U.S. since its creation in 1943.

George Balanchine’s “Square Dance,” with music by Antonio Vivaldi and Arcangelo Corelli, will be performed with new scenic design by Louisville artist Letitia Quesenberry and new costumes from New York-based designers Reid Bartelme and Harriet Jung. Louisville Ballet received special permission from the Balanchine Trust, which oversees all performances of Balanchine’s work, to update the visual aspects of the piece.

The third piece is a world premiere by Australian choreographer Lucas Jervies, “What Light is to Our Eyes,” with music by American composer Sebastian Chang. Curran is a former dancer with Australian Ballet and has previously collaborated with Jervies.

Text by Tara Anderson

Here’s a preview of Quesenberry’s new art for “Square Dance”

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.

Bourbon Baroque’s Dido and Aeneas

Bourbon Baroque

Louisville’s period instrument ensemble Bourbon Baroque will be presenting Henry Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas at the Kentucky Center’s Bomhard Theater on Saturday, March 14 at 8:00pm.

Co-artistic directors of Bourbon Baroque, Austin Clark and Nicolas Fortin sat down with Daniel Gilliam to discuss their upcoming production.

How this production of Dido and Aeneas is different from the rest

“This production of Dido and Aeneas is the quintessential example of what our mission is for Bourbon Baroque. We have gathered together a group of a variety of disciplines to create a visual concept for this production that includes contemporary dance, pantomime actors on mask, as well as of course the orchestra, the chorus, and minimalist costume and scenic design.”

How Bourbon Baroque puts on an opera without being an opera company

“I am a big fan of surrounding yourself with smarter people. I think it makes it so that you don’t feel like you have everything on your shoulders. Obviously with the opera form that is a whole contingency of collaboration…. Through my own personal musical work and musical theater direction, I have met many people in the theater community and through those projects and introductions I have formulated this wonderful Baroque dream team, a local group that is going to help us make this happen.”

On Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas

“It is based on the Aeneid by Virgil and retells the story of the sad and unfortunate fate of Dido getting betrayed by her lover Aeneas… It’s beautiful music, very intricate fast paced one hour opera with dance music. The characters are making the story in front our eyes, but always with short and compelling interjections of 24 piece chorus in our production.”

On working with the Youth Performing Arts School

“This program is great for us because the YPAS students are able to dedicate the time needed to make the music really speak. When I’m coaching young musicians, particularly singers, I’m like, well it’s one thing to learn the notes but it’s quite another to then add on that extra layer, all the gestures and the Baroque styling, which I am often equating to musical theater. Musical theater has their own little bitty ways of doing things and if you can understand that then you can understand that the Baroque music has it’s own toolbox of vocal techniques that makes things really sell.”

On the short orchestral suite to begin the evening

“There is a short 20 minuet orchestral suite that we’ve actually performed a handful of times before. It’a a piece that we really hold true to what we do with Bourbon Baroque and that’s of course the central component of collaboration. We are performing Georg Philipp Telemann’s La Putain.”

You can purchase your tickets to see Bourbon Baroque’s Dido and Aeneas here.