January 31, 2013

The RPO Exceeds Goals, Optimistic About Future

We wanted to share the following essay by Elizabeth Rice and Charles Owens, published in the Democrat and Chronicle on January 27, 2013.

The RPO Exceeds Goals, Optimistic About Future

By Elizabeth Rice, Board Chair
Charles Owens, President and CEO

The core purpose of the Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra is to inspire, educate, and engage our community through the art of music, and central to achieving that purpose is the dedicated work of our most valued asset, the musicians. We are proud to report that, despite the turmoil of the past several months, the musicians and our RPO staff have stayed the course and maintained their focus on meeting—even exceeding—the goals that are central to the core purpose. We are confident that the future of the RPO is a bright one as we strive to bring joy and beauty, solace and spirited entertainment into the lives of thousands of concertgoers in the Rochester region every year.

There are a number of factors that support our confidence. First, and most important, the RPO and the orchestra’s musicians have agreed on a new, four-year, agreement. To their great credit, the musicians have agreed to make significant sacrifices in the first two years of the contract. We thank them for that support, which will permit the RPO to address our financial challenges successfully. While we experienced a substantial deficit in 2011–2012, we are planning for a balanced budget in fiscal 2012–2013.

Thanks to the support of our subscribers, donors, and single-ticket buyers, more than 180,000 people experienced the RPO in concert last season. That includes nearly 14,000 young people who attended our education concerts in Eastman Theatre at Kodak Hall, offered at low cost to young people from throughout the area. For our 14 holiday concerts, single-ticket revenue ranged from 101% to 116% of goal, producing revenue just under $590,000. Over 27,000 enthusiastic patrons enjoyed those performances.

Also, we are encouraged that the RPO’s annual campaign for the 2012–2013 fiscal year already stands at $1.6 million as of January 11—over $201,000 ahead of the 2011–2012 campaign at the same time last year. Yet another reason for optimism.

We are proud and excited by this week’s announcement that an RPO concert will be a part of the 2014 Spring for Music Festival at Carnegie Hall in New York City. The program will showcase both the RPO and the Eastman School of Music, making a bold statement for music in the Rochester area. Funding for that performance is secure.

Additionally, we have appointed a search committee to seek a new music director for RPO, and the work of that committee has begun.

In short, we have good reason to be optimistic about our future. We hope you will continue to support the dedicated and talented musicians in our orchestra.

January 29, 2013

Recommended Recordings for Phils 8 by Gil French, Concert Editor for American Record Guide

Still: Symphony No. 1 (“Afro-American”)
Neemi Jarvi, Detroit Symphony
Chandos 9154

So it turns out after all that Jessie Jackson didn’t single-handedly invent the term “Afro-American” in 1988; William Grant Still used it 57 years earlier as the sub-title for his Symphony No. 1. In describing the music, Howard Hanson, who led the world premiere with the RPO in 1931, said, “Still’s music speaks of the common man. Listeners need no analytical table, seismographic chart, nor digital computer to understand it, only a sensitive ear, a mind, and a heart.”

Neemi Jarvi’s gorgeously engineered recording confirms that. True, the work is shy on counterpoint and “involution”, but it’s rich in melody, styles (plural), and superb orchestration. Still has a special gift for playing the woodwinds against the strings. Whether the style is jazz, spiritual, jig (with banjo!), or heat-withered laconic, Jarvi makes the music flow so naturally you’ll be humming, tapping a foot, or pausing in a contemplative, melancholic mood.

The other work on the album, by the way, is a suite from “The River” by Duke Ellington.

Lowry, Douglas: Commissioned Work
No recordings available.

Hindemith: Mathis der Maler Symphony
Eugene Ormandy, Philadelphia Orchestra
Sony 53258

To this day, 33 years after Ormandy ended his 44-year reign with the Philadelphia Orchestra, even when tuning the car radio into the middle of a piece, I can quickly exclaim “That’s Ormandy’s Philadelphia Orchestra” just by the sound.  Their recordings in the 1950s and 1960s were sometimes headed with the slogan, “The World’s Greatest Orchestra,” a nickname given by none other than Sergei Rachmaninoff.  This is one of their recordings that tells you why.

By 1962, when this recording was made, Ormandy had been music director for 24 years. Having hand-picked most of the players by that time, and having conducted between 100 and 180 concerts each year, he did indeed create his own sound. The string sound that the violin-trained conductor created is sumptuously rich and deep.  In fact, it’s awesome, unlike any other!  But so is the rich, firm, highly nuanced, richly lyrical playing of each of the principal woodwinds.  And so is the distinctively bright, firmly supported, deep sound of the amassed brass section, all enhanced on this recording by superb full-range engineering.

But it’s more than that.  Interpretation is what counts the most, and here Ormandy is at his best.  He balances all those amassed sounds by going primarily for the lyrical line and for phrasing that sustains long arches of sound; he gives the melody line primacy, while the chords and instrumental colors give it context.  Ormandy also conveys Hindemith’s strong characterizations here—the differing textures in “The Angels’ Concert”; the longing, yearning, surging of emotions, and almost “trying to hold on to a memory” in “The Entombment”. And in “The Temptation of St. Anthony” Ormandy makes the motifs worm their way into our psyche, like kernels of temptation screwing themselves into St. Anthony’s inner core. Even if Hindemith isn’t normally your cup of tea, this recording is enough to make you addicted to at least this one work.

The other works on this album are Hindemith’s most accessible one, “Symphonic Metamorphases on Themes of Weber” and William Walton’s “Variations on a Theme of Hindemith”, both with George Szell and the Cleveland Orchestra.  The Walton too is a classic recording.

Gershwin: Rhapsody in Blue
Earl Wild; Arthur Fiedler, Boston Pops

Michael Tilson Thomas, Los Angeles Philharmonic
CBS 39699

Andrew Litton, Dallas Symphony
Delos 3216

“Rhapsody in Blue” comes in three versions, all orchestrated by Ferde Grofe: the original one for jazz band (with eight violins, reeds, brass, piano, percussion, banjo, and a string bass player who also played the tuba), one for a pit-sized ensemble, and the famous one for full symphony orchestra arranged after Gershwin died.

In the full symphonic version, no one compares with the Earl Wild-Arthur Fiedler recording, made way back in 1959.  Here the Rhapsody is no chunky, loosely organized pops piece. Boy, does Earl Wild always know precisely where he’s going, and so does Fiedler in one of his moments of pure panache! Amidst the supreme musicality and style, listen to Wild’s phenomenal technique—how he accents, prioritizes, and articulates even subsidiary notes amidst thickets of notes. Fiedler too is on fire—the orchestra is crazy, riotious. This is not just high energy; it’s a portrayal of wild 1920s NYC. As one critic wrote at the time, “Gershwin expresses us. He is the present, with all its audacity, impertinence, its feverish delight in its motion, its lapses into rhythmically exotic melancholy.” What a treat—to have lived at a time when impertinence was king instead of the bland pertinence so in style today.

This recording is available on two CDs. The older one includes the Piano Concerto in F (another over-the-top performance), “An American in Paris”, and “I Got Rhythm Variations”; the later “Living Stereo” release also includes the “Cuban Overture”. 

The other two recordings use Ferde Grofe’s original instrumentation for jazz band. Michael Tilson Thomas as both pianist and conductor is hot too—really hot. In fact, his pacing pretty much matches that of Wild and Fiedler, that is, the piece comes across as a unified whole. But crisp, taut, and rhythmically dazzling as both piano and orchestra are, for me the performance lacks that final touch of panache; others will find it perfect.

Panache is what Andrew Litton conveys as conductor; whenever the orchestra enters after the many piano solo passages, it’s as if you know exactly where Litton as soloist has been aiming. And what panache the players have—rhythms, balanced colors, accents so pungent they even made me jump a few times. They’re as riotous as the Boston Pops.

What’s different here is that Litton as pianist has far looser tempos in the solo passages; he treats them as cadenzas, virtuoso opportunities where one can be spontaneous. That’s why his recording is 75 seconds longer than Thomas’. But I feel that he too always knows where he’s headed, though his approach may not be to every listener’s taste. Also, good as the engineering is on the other two recordings, the sound on this album is truly exceptional, right down to the piano’s rich bass notes and the orchestral impact.

Both Tilson Thomas’ and Litton’s recordings contain world premieres of works each artist discovered combing the Library of Congress’ Gershwin archives (MTT with Ira Gershwin himself).   

Note: MTT has three recordings that use the original jazz band instrumentation; the other two are with the New World Symphony and Columbia Jazz Band. The cover of the Los Angeles Philharmonic one has MTT at a grand piano against a backdrop of NYC at night—not to be confused with the Sony “Classic Gershwin” album with the Columbia Jazz Band (it has a black cover).

January 1, 2013

Recommended Recordings for Phils 7 by Gil French, Concert Editor for American Record Guide

Higdon, Jennifer: Machine
No recordings available.

Beethoven: Symphony No. 1
David Zinman, Zurich Tonhalle Orchestra
Arte Nova 63645

Right from the 12-bar introduction to the first movement, Zinman makes us hear everything—every marked articulation, even instrument (even the bassoon line).  Yet everything is perfectly blended, balanced, so wide-eyed and expectant.  In fact, I’m even aware how he doesn’t elide notes that everyone else does.  Why?  Because they’re not in the score! 

So why is this important?  First, these are all the elements out of which Zinman creates such infectious rhythms, the life blood of this symphony.  Once past the introduction, the strings’ strokes are buoyant with quick lifts at the end of notes.  The rapid-fire 1/16th notes in the lower strings make for a really tight pulse. And because Zinman creates such transparent textures, he makes us hear two and three levels of activity simultaneously.  I never before realized what a “classical era” work Beethoven’s first symphony is.  To really have its effect, it must be played as cleanly and precisely as Mozart or Haydn.

After the can’t-sit-still first movement, Zinman makes the second a genuine “Singing Andante with Motion” (as Beethoven calls it).  Does he ever!  It’s easily paced, lyrical, and, baby, does it flow—all three elements.  Same for the third-movement Minuet: not forced, but what flow and life it has, and what pungent timpani!  Where Zinman’s articulation at quick tempos really pays off is in the Finale—what bounce, rhythm, and infectiousness, all abetted by transparent, warm, resonant engineering.

The other work on this album is Beethoven’s Symphony No. 2, given an equally stirring performance (recommended last season).  Bonus: Arte Nova is a super-budget label.

Larsson, Lars-Erik: Concertino for Trombone
Christian Lindberg; Okku Kamu, New Stockholm Chamber Orchestra
BIS 348 or BIS (2-CD) 473

No one can match Lindberg as soloist in this work. It’s not just his ultra-velvet Tommy Dorsey tone quality with a lovely vibrato touch, but his supreme lyricism, depth of expression, and musicality that set him apart.  In the Aria (second movement) just listen to the degree of legato he gets, remarkable given the slide nature of the instrument and the need to take breaths.  Then listen the way he captures the quick snap and pinpoint rhythms of the Finale.  It’s a pity Okku Kamu makes the strings of the orchestra (new in 1987) sound so flatlined, monotone, and unarticulated. Still, this is the best recording of the few available. 

If you still want it, BIS 348 is called “The Winter Trombone” with Lindberg as soloist in ‘Winter’ from Vivaldi’s “Four Seasons”, Milhaud’s “Winter Concertino”, the Larsson, and a Telemann concerto originally for oboe.  BIS 473 contains all 12 Concertinos that Larsson wrote between 1953 and 1957 for 12 different solo instruments with string orchestra.

Mozart: Symphony No. 40
Marc Minkowski, Les Musiciens du Louvre
Deutsche Grammphon Archiv 6506

This is probably the most beautiful and most perfect Mozart recording I own (yes, beauty and perfection do go together when appreciating Mozart, don’t they).

Not only is this period-instrument orchestra brightly tuned and in tune (early instrument tuning can easily come up sour), but the timbre of the strings and winds is warm, mellow, and smooth.  What an invigorating contrast then are Minkowski’s snappy tempos and sparkling articulation in the first and last movements, let alone the contrasts between double forte and pianissimo, between strings and winds, and even between different woodwinds such as the velvet bassoons and resonant wood flutes.

The slow second movement is utterly serene, the most beautiful performance of it I’ve ever heard.  To Minkowski it’s love music, as three different lines intertwine around each other.  And when he repeats the opening exposition section, he does so “sotto voce”—so hushed its beauty veritably makes one ache with longing.  And the third movement Minuet is simply the most exquisite on record.

Each movement flows perfectly with an alert but unforced pace.  As a result, Minkowski turns four perfect wholes into one overall whole, an esthetic experience of abstract beauty.  It’s the closest I’ve ever come to understanding what mathematicians mean when they describe the beauty of working out a perfect formula.  Warm, balanced, utterly transparent sound enables us to hear everything.  The other works on the album are Mozart’s Symphony No. 41 and the final ballet from “Idomeneo”.