Andrew Patner, the Chicago arts journalist and broadcaster, is now blogging at The View from Here. There's probably no better introduction to his historically inclined work than the eulogy for his friend and mentor Izaak Wirszup, a concentration camp survivor who eventually joined the University of Chicago's mathematics faculty. And you should hunt down a copy of Patner's book on I.F. Stone, I.F. Stone: A Portrait. The aging journalist is irascible as ever, and Patner recorded every word. It's the best $15 I ever paid Alibris.
On a lighter note, the Reverberate Hills picked apart the San Francisco Opera's 2008-2009 season, weighed it in the balance, and found it wanting. (h/t Josh Kosman)
"Considering all the useless or dangerous junk that marketing types
convince Americans they need (vitamin water? the Republican Party?),
why can’t they convince people to sample something they really do need,
like more productions of Janacek?
I've no idea, but I'll probably go to New York for Patrice Chereau's production of From the House of the Dead at the Metropolitan Opera in 2009.
"Some people are in search only of a home, a few molecules of happiness, a daily conversation about the weather; they're content with a little chamber music and a bit of social status, but definitely not too much, for that only produces unrest, and unrest is the enemy of the family. For them the world is the size of their home, including front and back yards, supplemented perhaps by a swivel chair. As long as the world doesn't interfere with them, they won't interfere with the world. Perhaps they will vote now and again, but that is not really interfering with the world, it's more like an innocent ritual. And then you have people in whom there dwells a burning ambition. The chamber music of happiness means little to them; they're out to make their mark in the world, rearrange that world, and are willing to pay a high price to do so."—Arnon Grunberg, The Jewish Messiah, 2008. Translated by Sam Garrett.
Is there another pianist whose control over the instrument, top to bottom, soft to loud, slow to fast, matches Yefim Bronfman's? Other players may go deeper into a Beethoven sonata, or isolate the voices of Ravel's Gaspard de la nuit more felicitously, or seek out ever more composers to commission and collaborate with, but for sheer physical force and mastery over the instrument, it's possible to think that Bronfman's got them all beat.
How else can you explain his performance of Prokofiev's Second Piano Concerto with the Atlanta Symphony last night? What other player can pound through the rapid-fire fusillades of that piece at a dynamic level that still cuts through an orchestra, and without letting his tone turn harsh? He turned the massive cadenzas into volcanic islands in the middle of the opening and closing movements, and the the manic second movement, which is essentially a hectoring race to the end, flew by with so much attention to detail that it was nearly impossible to process it all.
Bronfman also brought out the ruminative Slavic character of the finale. Maybe it helps to be Russian to notice a detail like that; neither Yuja Wang nor John Browning seem to have picked up on it. But it was just one of many telling details Bronfman brought out, and shaped. That willingness to wrap his playing around a melody was something conductor Robert Spano would have done well to communicate to his players. Spano contented himself with playing traffic cop, mostly, cuing entrances precisely but not turning the concerto into a contest among equals.
The Prokofiev was bracketed by Tchaikovsky's Romeo and Juliet Overture and Rachmaninoff's 45-minute First Symphony. Tchaikovsky's rapturous overture was played with appropriate rapture, with strings swelling cinematically, and horns doing that sighing thing way up high.
But why in the world Rachmaninoff's First Symphony? Rachmaninoff's return to composing after its disastrous premiere is one of the great comeback stories in music history, all the more so since the big melodies are straight out of Composition 101 and they aren't worked out with much more skill. The finale begins with a overlong patch of brass fanfares that turns dull about the time Sergei should have moved on, and Rachmaninoff's well-nigh signature inability to compose a transition between contrasting material is noticeable in ways he concealed a little better in the piano concertos.
Maybe it would have worked better to end the first half with this, and put the half-hour Prokofiev in the second half. Sheherazade, another Rimsky-Korsakov work, or a Tchaikovksy symphony could have kept the concert's focus firmly in the 19th century, without forcing the musicians to learn the piece. (This was its first performance on the ASO's subscription concerts.)
The standard of playing today is so high that it's distinguishing between the "major" American orchestras and the "Top 5" American orchestras gets harder with the hiring of each new musician. This group plays with a greatly unified string sound, with players who dig in even if they're on the last stands, and a woodwind section that's coming together. They recently hired a new principal oboist, and Elizabeth Koch is blessed with astonishing breath control and a bright, jewel-like tone. If they don't blend as evenly as they could, they probably will in time. The brass, well, the brass lays out those big Russian themes as if they're a semi bearing down on a sedan, the driver finishing a 25-hour run and with enough speed and caffeine in his veins to notice the tiny car only when he looks out his side-view mirrors, and watches the car recede into the distance.
Team DecSimp heads to the airport to run across the tarmac, Beatles-style, this weekend en route to Atlanta. While there, we'll hear the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra do its Telarc-tastic thing to Rachmaninoff's First Symphony, Tchaikovsky's Romeo and Juliet Overture, and check out Yefim Bronfman's take on Prokofiev's Second Piano Concerto. Robert Spano conducts. This will be another notch on Team DecSimp's belt, leaving the Boston Symphony Orchestra and the Seattle Symphony as the only American majors we have not heard live.
The Chicago Symphony gave a knockout performance of Petrouchka last night, led by a Pierre Boulez so involved and conducting with such conviction that you would have thought he was coming to the piece fresh, and not after an entire career. One detail: He balanced the final Grand Carnival scene exquisitely, which often seems like a chance for everyone, at long last, to play as loudly as possible. The strings' countermelody fought for its place against the assertive brass with neither overpowering the other, and the entire ballet had a spirited athleticism in its playing which the orchestra hasn't displayed much of, lately. This was daring music-making. I'll try to write more about this later, including Susan Graham's effortlessly sumptuous singing of Berlioz's Les Nuits d'ete and the sonic cataclysms of Luciano Berio's Quatre Dedicaces. Rebellious composers led by a kindred spirit, who shares in their striving.