Category Archives: music

Minmalism and Post-minimalism at Boston Conservatory’s New Music Festival

Whoops. I meant to post about Boston Conservatory’s New Music Festival in advance, but the first concert was tonight. You can find details here about the rest of the concerts, and I’ve included a copy of the schedule below. A range of selections including some classic stuff, so should be fun for newbies and long-time fans of the genre alike.

new music festival 2009
minimalism / post-minimalism

concert 1
thursday, november 12 seully hall 8:00pm
michael nyman string quartet no.2
michael torke chalk
nico muhly stride
ingram marshall entrada

concert 2
friday, november 13 seully hall 8:00pm
terry riley in c
steve reich new york counterpoint
evan ziporyn hive
steve reich eight lines

concert 3
saturday, november 14 seully hall 8:00pm
marcus balter torus
john adams gnarly buttons
steve reich tehillim

concert 4
sunday, november 15 seully hall 6:00pm
john adams hallelujah junction

concert 5
sunday, november 15 seully hall 8:00pm
john luther adams qilyuan
ramon humet mantra II
joseph celli snare drum for camus
steve reich music for mallet instruments, voices, and organ
louis andriessen workers’ union

Opera Boston’s Tancredi

Even though it was rainy and cold and a weekday I made it out to the last performance of Opera Boston’s production of Rossini’s melodrama Tancredi last Tuesday. The opera, his first serious opera and written at the ripe old age of 19, isn’t one of his greatest works: the plot is extremely far-fetched even by opera standards and the music oftentimes has an oratorio-like stiffness. The main draw for me and I’m sure many others was the Polish contralto Ewa Podles in the title “pants” role as an exiled soldier. Tancredi has become a signature role for Podles for good reason: her immediately distinctive, rich voice enables her to give the character a convincingly masculine portrayal, yet her voice is pliable enough to tackle Rossini’s coloratura with ease. I was familiar with her recording of the opera on Naxos (with the great Sumi Jo, who I’m a big fan of but who alas doesn’t perform in the US much), so I was looking forward to her live performance.

From her first appearance Podles commands the stage. She has a stage presence that no one else in the cast quite matched, and showed off not only her extensive vocal range (which, annoyingly, prompted the two men in front of me to wink and nudge at each other every time she hit a high or a low note) but her acting as well: her opening aria “Oh, patria” had a touching tenderness and her death scene was also surprisingly moving. At times her performance was more subtle than the orchestra’s (conducted by Gil Rose), although in general both were in full Rossini mode where little subtlety is required and instead in Tancredi we get a full dose of pageantry to substitute.

As you’d expect the various news rags around town disagreed about the performances of the singers. I agree with Jeremy Eichler’s opinion in The Globe that “Amanda Forsythe was a lovely, agile, and affecting Amenaide, even if her featherweight soprano naturally made for a lopsided pairing with Podles’s vast contralto.” Although Forsythe wasn’t able to keep the interactions between the two leads completely balanced, for the most part she did an admirable job and her prison scene was also affecting.

Although he sang well, I agree with Heidi Waleson at The Wall Street Journal and the reviewer for the MIT Tech that the tenor Yeghishe Manucharyan as Argirio, Amenaide’s father, had a nasal, pinched sound that was off-putting. Everyone seemed to agree that the baritone DongWon Kim, in the thankless role of Tancredi’s rival, was fantastic, and no one seemed to care for the production much, which was directed by Kristine McIntyre and featured a mostly bare set. I agree with Mark Kroll at the The Boston Musical Intelligencer, that the direction was too static and there was too much “park and bark” staging. Despite the dull production, two fine leads and two strong supporting singers made this one well worth seeing.

Another season, and more conflicting concert dates!: BMOP and BMV’s season openers

The new season has crept up on me. I just realized that BMOP’s “Voices of America” festival, which includes Florestan’s BarberFest, is next weekend, at Tufts’ Distler Performance Hall (just a short walk from Davis Square ). For more info on the festival check out this preview at and for a complete schedule see BMOP’s website.

I’m a big fan of Barber’s songs, and Florestan has tracked down “more than a dozen” of his unpublished songs, including what appear to be nursery song settings from when the composer was 10-13 years old. Many of the unpublished works seems to be scheduled for the second of their three concerts. Lest anyone fear this is purely an academic exercise, no, they are not performing Barber’s songs in chronological order. And also, although the majority of the unpublished songs are juvenilia, one just has to listen to his other early works that have been recorded, such as “With rue my heart is laden” (opus 2, from 1927 when the composer was only 17), to immediately realize that Barber was an assured composer at an extremely early age.

One of the connective threads between the two groups’ concert series (aside from the obvious fact that each BMOP concert is preceded by a Florestan recital) is that two of Barber’s greatest vocal works, Dover Beach and the much-beloved Knoxville, Summer of 1915 will be performed at BMOP’s third concert. Now the only problem is deciding which of the three pairs of concerts to attend. Too bad they didn’t offer weekend passes!

In reference to the title of this post, the first conflict of the season is unfortunately BMV’s first concert of the season, also this Friday. Alas, such is life.The concert includes the Boston premiere of John Harbison’s song cycle The Seven Ages.

Cantata Singers at Jordan Hall: Britten and Vores, plus The Boston Musical Intelligencer

In lieu of a review of the Cantata Singers concert from this past Friday I thought I’d just put up a quick post linking to The Boston Globe’s rather perfunctory review and a more in-depth review on a site I just came across called The Boston Musical Intelligencer.

The latter is well worth exploring. Along with in-depth reviews, they also have an exhaustive calendar of upcoming events and news items and features including a 50-page scan of a work called “History of Music In Boston” written by a John Sullivan Dwight in 1881. According to Wikipedia, Dwight was “America’s first influential classical music critic” and founded Dwight’s Journal of Music which “became the most influential musical publication of 19th century America”. Conceived by Lee Eiseman, program chair of Harvard Musical Association, The Boston Musical Intelligencer has taken Dwight’s journal as its inspiration, and it looks like it’s been up since around last August. With the ongoing slashing of local arts coverage by local publications, particularly classical music, it’s encouraging that enthusiasts are helping fill the void.

Upcoming for May

I’ve been trying to manage my outings a bit better. Not sure if I’m succeeding or not, but here’s what I’ve got on my calendar for May:

  • Friday, May 8 at 7:30 p.m. at Jordan Hall: Cantata Singers’ final concert concluding their Benjamin Britten season. Featuring songs written by 4th grade classes at a local elementary school and the same songs worked into Andy Vores’ “Natural Selection”. The full program is as follows:

      Britten: The Company of Heaven
      4th Grade Classes, Neighborhood House Charter School: 2 songs
      Andy Vores: Natural Selection (premiere)
      Benjamin Britten: Psalm 150
      J.S. Bach: Cantata BWV 50, “Nun ist das Heil und die Kraft”
  • Was going to catch Junior Boys and Max Tundra at The Middle East Downstairs, but it’s this Friday and so it conflicts with the Cantata Singers concert. Drat. And now it looks like Certainly, Sir is opening for them. Ah well.
  • May 11-17: Boston Ballet’s Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes. Their description says: “This year marks the 100th anniversary of the Ballets Russes, established in 1909 by the Russian impresario Serge Diaghilev. Boston Ballet celebrates with classic works by Balanchine, Nijinsky and Fokine. Resident Choreographer Jorma Elo will premiere a new work, his sixth for Boston Ballet, to Igor Stravinsky’s ‘Le Sacre du Printemps'”. I’ll probably try to get 1/2-off tix through Goldstar.
  • May 27-June 1: Guerilla Opera premieres Boston composer Marti Epstein’s Rumpelstiltskin.
  • Bernadette Peters at Symphony Hall

    Just a short review. It annoys me that critics in such publications as The Boston Globe are so rarely critical about anything, but in the case of Bernadette Peters it seems ungrateful to say anything bad about such a legend, one of the few true Broadway stars of all time. As a long-time fan I’d been looking forward to seeing Bernadette Peters in concert for some time, and although The Globe’s review of her performance last Saturday at Symphony Hall does mention that the concert was on the short side at 80 minutes, it neglects to mention the overly loud amplification and the unimaginative setlist, which was extremely similar to her performances from 10 (yes, 10) years ago (archived on two separate CDs Sondheim, Etc. and Sondheim, Etc. Etc. and on DVD), as well as some problems with pitch on a couple of the earlier songs of the evening.

    Still, there’s no doubt that Bernadette is Broadway royalty, and her voice is amazingly still in prime form and sounds great. The songlist was heavy on the ballads, which she clearly excels at, highlights being “No One is Alone” from Sondheim and Lapine’s Into the Woods and the old-chestnut-given-a-vibrant-performance “Some Enchanted Evening”, as well as the entire closing section of Sondheim songs. And although her more uptempo songs often seem a bit unfocused in concert (which is puzzling considering how well she performs in shows) it would’ve been nice to have seen more variety and more risks. The two surprises of the evening, the folksong “Shenandoah” and a smoking, sultry version of “Fever”, were quite welcome, though, and the pairing of the Disney classics “When You Wish Upon a Star” and “A Dream Is a Wish Your Heart Makes” was also a nice change of pace.

    All in all, this is a case where the overly harsh critic in me can’t help being won over. But it would certainly be a dream to get to put together a setlist for her. Just imagining her take on anything ranging from Sondheim classics like “The Worst Pies in London” to more modern fare like the songs from Disney’s Enchanted is enough to make me salivate … Ha ha ha. Oh, and it was also a nice surprise that members of Boston Musica Viva provided musical support. Speaking of which, I should put their last concert of the season, featuring works by Schwantner, Gandolfi, and Schoenberg, on my calendar for May.

    Scarce, Back at The Plough and Stars, with Mary Lou Lord

    I’d really enjoyed Scarce when I saw them in duo form a few months ago at The Plough and Stars. So when my concert buddy M told me they’d be back last Wednesday I was psyched to go. The P&S site said the show was starting at 10:30, but apparently Scarce started more like around 10. I was bummed that I’d only caught the end of their set, but luckily after Mary Lou Lord‘s set they went back up for a few more songs, and then MLL finished up with a few more as well (although I didn’t stick around for her second set).

    I’m not really into folk chicks with guitars, so I can’t really judge MLL that objectively, although like many folk musicians she draws from the well that is Bob Dylan a bit too often and too deeply. As is her wont she also included a fair number of covers, although none with a whole lot of distinction. During the majority of her first set she was accompanied by Dave Fischer on lead guitar who also provided lead vocals on the somewhat-out-of-place-given-the-otherwise-fairly-chill-ambience-of-the-intimate-venue cover of The Who’s “Substitute”. But when she went solo for a few songs at the end it became clear that she really doesn’t benefit from the beefier sound: the unique qualities of her voice and her playing become much more apparent, and for me much more enjoyable, when she’s on her own. The song “The Wind Blew All Around Me” stood out in particular, although there were a few others I liked as well.

    Not a whole lot to add about Scarce other than what I said in my previous post about them. There are some people that I don’t really feel the need to see multiple times (e.g. Cut Copy who are hitting the new House of Blues on Sunday), particularly within the span of just a few months, but there’s something about the vibe of the duo and in this venue that would make me more than happy to see them again soon. Their music is unassuming, musically interesting, and evocative, and their performance is both committed and playful; they’re clearly people wholly enjoying themselves and each moment onstage. If you haven’t already checked out their MySpace page you should. And now I’m really looking forward to their new album, whenever that may be.

    Sibelius, Rachmaninoff, and Ives at the BSO

    It’s funny how chance piles things on. For reasons unknown my list of things to check out for March has been top heavy, so suddenly I find myself backlogged once again. But hopefully I’ll catch up soon. And speaking of chance, after having ignored the BSO for years I somehow ended up at two concerts in two weeks. I reviewed the first concert already, and the second concert, featuring Sibelius’s Night Ride and Sunrise, Rachmaninoff’s Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, and Ives’ Symphony No. 4 and conducted by Alan Gilbert, soon-to-be head of the New York Philharmonic, was enjoyable although a similarly mixed bag.

    First off, the Sibelius. Eichler only gave it a passing mention, in his review for The Globe, and in his review for The Phoenix Schwartz says, “Gilbert didn’t suggest much mystery, and the journey seemed longer than it should have.” I like Sibelius in general, and the strings maintained a tight focus for the surprisingly minimalistic writing of the “Night Ride” segment that I found suitably hypnotic. The “Sunrise” section went on a bit, though, although not through any glaring fault of the performance or interpretation.

    The Rachmaninoff was much rockier, however. The orchestra was clearly out of sync at the very beginning, and the entire first section lacked any of the crispness or capriciousness the work calls for. Gilbert’s conducting felt lethargic and was quite a disservice to British pianist Stephen Hough‘s wonderfully nimble performance, although things smoothed out eventually. The rest of the orchestra’s performance in the piece as it wended its way through its various moods (among them, militaristic, diabolical, Arabian) was more controlled, although there were two excruciatingly sloppy trumpet entrances in a row. I can join in with Eichler and Schwartz’s praise for Hough, though, whose playing was elegant but also had character, despite the piece’s relative lack of depth. And like Schwartz I also appreciated Hough’s “playing [of] the composer’s most famous — and most gorgeous — piano theme with unschmaltzy restraint and delicacy and also passion and wit.”

    The Ives was clearly the most ambitious work on the programme, so perhaps it’s not surprising that it was the work the orchestra seemed the most prepared for. The work calls for a jumble of extras, including chorus, theremin, organ, piano, and small ensemble offstage (in this case, in the first balcony), and Gilbert was ably aided by assistant conductor Andrew Grams. I enjoy Ives in general as well (perhaps because he makes me feel like a chest-thumping patriot), although his works have a tendency to do the same sort of thing. But Gilbert made the most of all the crunchy “traffic jam” cacophonies, while also bringing out the more lyric moments such as in the third movement. The balance of the massive forces was not always lucid, even given the fact it was Ives, but all in all it was certainly an admirable performance of a rare work.

    Oh, and as chance would have it, the night I went happened to have another post-concert reception, the second of the Symphony+ series of events I’ve attended. Unlike last time, the soloist, Hough, made a prompter appearance, although the conductor hadn’t appeared by the time I left (granted, I didn’t stick around for that long). I still don’t personally quite see the point of forcing the performers to mingle, although from a marketing perspective it’s certainly an obvious ploy. Regardless, the attendees seemed to be enjoying Hough’s company, although I feel for the man myself. Hopefully Bostonians gave him less to roll his eyes about than the average audience. 😉 The nibbles were a bit more focused as well, and there definitely seemed to be a better turn out.

    If you’re looking for more info on Hough, his official site looks pretty comprehensive. Apparently he’s also been maintaining a blog at The Telegraph’s website, and incidentally included a post about the popular local classical musicians’ haunt Brasserie Jo. (Although I’ve been leery of the place ever since I had a ridiculously watery crêpe there.)

    Although this is ostensibly a Boston arts blog, now seems an opportune time to post a few peripherally related links. In terms of classical musicians’ blogs, I’ve had Hilary Hahn’s blog bookmarked for a while now. It doesn’t update all that regularly, but her YouTube channel is more active and an admirable endeavor; a good source of workday time wastage, but you didn’t hear that from me. 😉

    The second, and rather more relevant, link is just to highlight Hyperion Records’ Romantic Piano, Violin, and more recently Cello Concerto series. It’s always nice to see lesser-known works being spotlighted instead of the same old, same old, and Hough appears on several volumes, including the Saint-Saëns Complete Works for Piano & Orchestra. The CDs are only available as imports, however. Incidentally (although perhaps not coincidentally), Hough’s newest recital disc was released this month. Amazon’s tracklisting in incomplete, but you can find more details about the disc on Hyperion’s site.

    Well, it remains to be seen what my next BSO concert will be. As I mentioned previously, the $20 tix for people under 40 program is continuing through the rest of the current season (and from my survey of the audience at this past concert it seems to be succeeding in drawing a younger demographic). So hopefully I’ll be taking advantage of it at least a couple of times while it lasts.

    Ravel, Liszt, and Dvořák at the BSO

    For classical music I have a strong preference for chamber and contemporary music, so it’s not surprising that I don’t make it out to the BSO that often. But their $20 tix for people under 40 program, which is continuing through the rest of the current season, has definitely rekindled my interest.

    Ended up at the concert featuring guest conductor Yannick Nézet-Séguin in his BSO debut (he apparently just began his first season at the Rotterdam Philharmonic). The program consisted of Ravel’s Valses nobles et sentimentales, Liszt’s Piano Concerto #2, and Dvořák’s Symphony #6. I’m not a fan of overly athletic conductors, so I found Nézet-Séguin’s style generally distracting, although Eichler didn’t, in his review for The Globe. I agreed with his review in general, although in the Dvořák, Eichler thought Nézet-Séguin “daringly pushed the tempo to the limits”, whereas I felt in those cases the tempo reached speeds that edged a bit too close to the boundary between an exciting performance and a train wreck just waiting to happen. I can certainly see how others would enjoy the by-the-seat-of-your-pants breathlessness, though, and his performance was very well received. But I did agree that Thibaudet successfully threw off any Gallic reserve in tackling the Liszt, giving a performance that, while not overly muscular, still felt sinewy and athletic. The orchestra, as always, sounded great, and it was nice to hear Dvořák’s Symphony #6, which according to Marc Mandel, Director of Program Publications, in his pre-concert talk was last performed by the BSO ten years ago.

    It’s not often that anyone mentions the thankless job of doing the pre-concert talk, but my companion wanted to hear it and Mandel did a nice job of presenting the history of each piece in context, although without many specifcs about the construction of the music itself, no doubt due to his target audience. His love of the Dvořák #6 was clearly evident, and his talk was certainly successful in setting the stage.

    Afterwards the BSO held a signing with Thibaudet, and actually also had a post-concert reception, part of their new Symphony+ series of events. According to their website, Symphony+ is “a series of pre- and Post-Concert events that enhance the overall concert experience. Symphony+ connects food, literature, and the performing and visual arts to the BSO concerts at Symphony Hall and adds an exciting new element to the concerts.” I’m all in favor of such efforts by arts organizations, and although the reception was well organized, it didn’t seem to have much point. The conductor and pianist were supposed to be present, but they weren’t, presumably because the latter was still signing CDs. I, and I’m sure many others, only waited around for a bit and left because it didn’t seem like anything was going to happen anytime soon. I like the idea of post-concert mingling, although I’m not sure how natural it is to include the performers anyway, but regardless you’d think that the people organizing these things would come up with a better plan to foster interaction between strangers than just “a pass for a free drink, coffee and tea, snacks, tables and chairs”. But maybe that wasn’t the intention at all; in any case, maybe they’ll come up with some better ideas in the future, and at the very least the reception provided a nice coda to an enjoyable evening. Hopefully I’ll be able to make it to at least another concert before the end of the season.

    The Pains of Being Pure at Heart, Pants Yell!, and The Depreciation Guild, Upstairs at The Middle East

    [The preview for this review can be found here.]

    Ech, I know this is late, but I’m still catching up on the uphill backlog. So, I did make it out to the The Pains of Being Pure at Heart concert Upstairs at The Middle East a couple of weeks ago. I caught two of the other bands, The Depreciation Guild and Pants Yell!. The one I had been looking forward to was The Depreciation Guild and, as often happens, they eschewed the dreamier, layered electronics of their recordings for a more typical guitar-centric live set. The newer songs they played seemed to bring out this kind of blander U2-ish poppy side which I really wasn’t into, and their background projection, comprised of flashing squares of color, quickly grew tedious. But I still want to go back and listen to their album, which they have as a free download on their website.

    And, as seems to also be happening often, the band that I hadn’t particularly cared for before the show was the one of the two openers I saw that I liked better live. Pants Yell! are from Cambridge and their songs are fairly light-hearted explorations in angst, a la Morrissey. The songs and hooks were catchy, although they did have a tendency to repeat their hooks verbatim a bit too often. But this may have just been due to the lack of supporting instruments, e.g. trumpet, that appear on the recordings. A laid-back and enjoyable set, despite what I believe on American Idol they call “pitchy” vocals, not to mention a guitar that could’ve been a bit more carefully tuned. Although I suppose both did add to the group’s charm, not unlike that charming man Morrissey’s perpetually sharp vocals. 😉

    Similarly, The Pains of Being Pure at Heart also suffered from obviously uncentered vocals, although the boyish enthusiasm of the lead singer was also charming, and somewhat refreshing compared to the aloof moroseness one often encounters with too-cool-for-school indie bands. Their set was high energy, nice and new wave-y, and overall as enjoyable as their recordings. Speaking of which, they just put out their first album this month, and it looks like a good buzz has been developing. You can download a couple of mp3s from their official site and a couple other tracks on their MySpace page. And if you’re interested, here’s an interview from last December on Oh, and BrooklynVegan has some pics from a show in November if you need something to post over your bed. 😉