Review: Louisville Orchestra’s Ravel and Shostakovich, and Mozart with Chu-Fang Huang

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All good art has a superficial layer that is adequate for enjoyment. What appears beneath the surface, however, is detail, revelation and honesty. The Louisville Orchestra’s first concert in 2015, conducted by Music Director Emeritus Jorge Mester, featured Ravel’s Mother Goose Suite, Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 18 and Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 6 — each capable of revealing a hidden truth.

Ravel’s Mother Goose Suite was originally written as a set of piano pieces for two children: Mimi and Jean Godebski. That the music was written for children (and their small hands) belies the inventiveness and genius of this work, especially in its most performed version for orchestra. Anything Ravel touches with his orchestration turns to gold: Mussorgky’s Pictures at an Exhibition, Debussy’s Sarabande and Danse, his own Tombeau de Couperin and this suite.

To only listen to this as music about fairy tales is missing the point that Ravel’s score is perfect. It is delicate and balanced, and the orchestra obliged the composer’s vision with a colorful and nuanced performance. Maestro Mester provided minimal coaxing, instead letting the orchestra be an ensemble. Of note was principal clarinetist Andrea Levine’s tender and velvety solo in the fourth movement. And nitpicking, a few exposed violin passages, both in Ravel and Shostakovich, lacked cohesion and focus.

Ms. Huang’s debut in Louisville also means her debut with this Mozart Piano Concerto No. 18, but the newness of the work to her was mostly unnoticeable. Overall it was a safe and comfortable performance, but dismissing Mozart’s eighteenth concerto as enjoyable, like Ravel’s Mother Goose Suite, misses the point. Its depth lies in the details beneath the surface.

In the first and last movements we saw Ms. Huang the consummate technician, showing brilliant skill and elegance with her craft. But dazzling as it was, the middle movement showed us her artistry and depth. Mozart was an opera composer and his dramatic tendencies are often found in his concertos. The orchestra’s introduction sets up the piano’s “aria” and Ms. Huang gave her Steinway the most cantabile treatment.

After intermission, Jorge Mester and the Louisville Orchestra concluded with the dark and perplexing Symphony No. 6 by Dmitri Shostakovich — one that Leonard Bernstein called “a body without a head.” Formally, yes, there isn’t an allegro (fast) first movement. But it also may mean that the first movement (the torso in this metaphor) is all heart. For an unbroken twenty minutes, Shostakovich is brutally honest. Yes, this is a sorrowful time and, yes, there is little hope. the orchestra stayed attentive and energized through this desolation, giving us a clear picture of Shostakovich’s psyche. The closing movements (loud and fast) were ferocious, but in light of this context — beneath the surface — they are less about hope or triumph, and more about irony.

The Louisville Orchestra’s first concert in 2015 featured Music Director Emeritus Jorge Mester with pianist Chu-Fang Huang, making her Louisville debut. The second performance is Friday, January 16th at 8pm in Whitney Hall. Classical 90.5’s Alan Brandt will be joined by Jorge Mester for the pre-concert talk starting at 7pm.

REVIEW: An Orchestra, Almost, In Your Living Room

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The Louisville Orchestra continued its Neighborhood Series “Music Without Borders” last night, with about an hour of music, to a full house at St. Francis in the Fields Episcopal Church in Prospect. Billed as a casual concert, the orchestra played a mix of light stage music paired with a couple weightier movements from concertos and symphonies.

Rossini’s overture to La gazza ladra (The Thieving Magpie) made a strong first impression, and for about 7 minutes we were listening in a 19th-century opera house, not a church.

Incidental music to A Midsummer Night’s Dream is the calling card of a genius named Felix Mendelssohn, a fact underscored by Teddy Abrams in his address to the audience. Mendelssohn’s music is often confused with that of an older composer, not one who died at the age of 38. The fact remains that Mendelssohn, like Mozart, was an anomaly in human achievement. Though Mendelssohn, unlike Mozart, still rests on a second tier in our musical pantheon, coming from that period still reeling from someone named Ludwig van Beethoven.

The brilliant overture, both in intellect and luster, opens with four shimmering chords in the woodwinds, a reference to the four days and “Four nights that will quickly dream away the time,” spoken by Hippolyta. What follows is a blistering forty seconds for the violins, at their most exposed, flittering lightly on their strings. Last night the violins held together, never out of control, but lacking the precision needed for this difficult passage, and similar ones that followed, to sound crisp. Its Scherzo, a jaunty interlude that precedes the entrance of Puck and the Fairies in Act II, bounced and danced, ending with a long, unbroken phrase gracefully played by principal flutist, Kathy Karr.

Spencer Sharp, winner of the 2014 Association of the Louisville Orchestra Concerto Competition, played the first movement of the Dvořák violin concerto with assuredness. Abrams’ account of the first movement of Schubert’s “Unfinished” was impassioned and brooding. Like Mendelssohn, we may never come to terms with Schubert’s short, prolific life.

Beethoven, known for his anguish, showed us a playful and cheeky side with the Turkish March from The Ruins of Athens and the King Stephen Overture. The latter is Beethoven as a caricature of himself: grandiose statements, perky tunes and rousing anthems.

“Music Without Borders” implies a boundary exists, namely in Whitney Hall or the Brown Theater, and between an audience and the orchestra. The audience last night looked no different than the audience at Whitney Hall. The concept is right, but maybe next season will include concerts in Shawnee, Portland or Pleasure Ridge Park.

Music Without Borders continues tonight at 7:30pm, Ogle Center IUS, and tomorrow at 3:00pm at Congregation Adath Jeshrun.

Behind Carmina Burana

Remember, back in October, the hundreds of singers performing Carl Orff’s Carmina Burana with the Louisville Orchestra? Here’s a fun behind-the-scenes video, from the good folks at Music Makes a City, about what it takes to pull off a performance on this scale.

O Fortuna: Louisville Orchestra Broadcast

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Our next broadcast of the Louisville Orchestra is coming up Thursday at 8pm, and features the monumental cantata Carmina Burana by Carl Orff, Spem in Alium by Thomas Tallis and more music for choir and orchestra. This concert put over 380 voices on stage, made up of singers from choirs across Louisville. Here’s the program from the concert and here’s Erin Keane’s review. The concert also showcased violinist Jeremy Kittel, with guest cellist Ben Sollee.
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Caroline Shaw‘s Oculi Mei, received only its second performance with the Louisville Chamber Choir and Louisville Orchestra on this concert. Check out this episode of Meet the Composer and learn all about Caroline and her music.

Louisville Orchestra with Storm Large and Kevin Cole

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Tune in for the concert broadcast of the Louisville Orchestra, Saturday at 6pm, with guests Storm Large, Hudson Shad and Kevin Cole. Teddy Abrams led a concert with Richard Rodgers’ overture to Oklahoma, Weill’s Seven Deadly Sins, Gershwin’s New York Rhapsody and Copland’s Rodeo.

Listen to Kevin Cole’s Lunchtime Classics performance here: