Prokofiev Shines in Louisville orchestra broadcast

robert thies

Jorge Mester conducts and Robert Thies is the pianist in our next broadcast of the Louisville Orchestra on Classical 90.5, Thursday at 8 pm. Thies, who will perform Sergei Prokofiev’s Piano Concerto No. 3, is the first American pianist to win a Russian piano competition since Van Cliburn’s famed triumph in Moscow in 1958. Jorge Mester hails Robert “a genius.”

Peter Illych Tchaikovsky’s emotional Symphony No. 6 is also on the program. Mester conducts the work on the heels of his last appearance which included Dmitri Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 6. The maestro says the latter work was influenced by Tchaikovsky’s masterpiece.

Hector Berlioz’s Roman Carnival Overture begins the broadcast. Read Daniel Gilliam’s review of this Louisville Orchestra performance here.

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.

Review: Louisville Orchestra Offers Discovery in the Old and New


Teddy Abrams continues to show that orchestra concerts don’t have to be formulaic, and that discovery manifest in different ways. This past Friday and Saturday evening, we discovered, for example, that a conductor doesn’t have to wear a tuxedo or black socks. We discovered that hearing a 5-7 minute harpsichord improvisation could be interesting and fun, if not a little too long. We discovered the 2014 Grawemeyer winner. Ultimately no one was harmed by these discoveries, that I’m aware of, and we are all the better for them.

First of the evening were selections from Jean-Baptiste Lully’s Le Bourgeois gentilhomme (The Bourgeois Gentleman), a comédie-ballet from the early Baroque. Teddy Abrams led from the harpsichord (not as Lully would have done, but as most of his contemporaries would have) and the orchestra moved through the score like a jazz band reading through charts. It felt informal, welcoming, unpretentious and fun.

Lack of rehearsal, due to last week’s snow storms, meant no Ravel. It also might explain a handful of messy entrances in the Lully and Vivaldi. Just starting a piece can be the hardest and most nerve-racking part of leading an ensemble. Add the layer of conducting almost entirely from the harpsichord and things get messy sometimes; though messy isn’t necessarily bad.

A welcome addition to this Louisville Orchestra season is a recent Grawemeyer winner, the 2014 awarded On the Guarding of the Heart by Djuro Zivkovich, a Serbian composer living in Sweden. He describes the work as an “instrumental cantata,” paying homage to Bach. Zivkovich’s 20-minute score is an exploration of sound and timbre; the fourteen musicians are frequently required to play outside their traditional sounds, including singing along with their instrument. Overall, the work is a delicate layering of harmony, shifting imperceptibly, showing off an inner beauty.

Though Abrams explained before the piece that structure in this new work is important and clear, to a new listener form and musical architecture are largely inaudible. We are naturally drawn to phrases and ideas that return. Here Zivkovich gives some ideas too little time to settle, while others are afforded too much time, including several insurmountable piano drones. While the Brown Theater was a better venue than Whitney Hall for On the Guarding of the Heart, an even smaller, more resonant hall would have better suited Zivkovich’s (and Lully and Vivaldi’s) music.

For the second half, Teddy Abrams brought in four student violinists from his alma mater, The Curtis Institute of Music, through “Curtis on Tour,” a program that puts students in professional settings around the world.

Each violinist took on one of the Four Seasons by Antonio Vivaldi, a set of concertos written in 1720 and part of a set of 12 concertos (op. 8). The fact that “Spring” (and all the seasons) are ubiquitous is all the more incredible when you consider that Vivaldi was virtually unknown until the early Twentieth century. Despite their over abundance in playlists and “Best Of” compilations, these seasonal vignettes are inventive and imaginative. The two cheerful seasons, “Spring” and “Autumn,” are contrasted with the more tumultuous “Summer” and “Winter.”

Eunice Kim played a light and fluid “Spring,” delicately bouncing through the score, and smiling the entire time. Dayna Anderson drew on the earthiness of “Summer,” giving her bow a rustic growl here and there. The most flamboyant soloist was Luosha Fang, mostly interested in a dialogue with the orchestra and the audience, moving around the stage like an actor. The “iceman” Nikki Chooi was calculated — each gesture focused and transparent. Chooi found every timbre available in “Winter,” from dark and guttural to airy and shimmering.

The orchestra, playing no small part in these finely crafted concertos, was colorful and sensitive to the score: never plodding and always attuned to the nuance of Vivaldi’s music. Seeing the conductor equally involved in the playing of music changes our level of involvement. We are drawn in closer. The implied barrier between us and them is no longer present, and the music is about all of us.

Review: Louisville Orchestra with Guest Soloist Julian Schwarz


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.