Tuesday, February 21, 2012

In Times of Transition: A Conversation with Stanley Romanstein

by Mark Gresham

Read this article on EarRelevant's new location on WordPress.

Unless I change my mind later, new articles and links will be posted there.

~Mark Gresham
m EarRelevant

Monday, January 16, 2012

Review: Alabama Symphony program honors memory of civil rights leaders King and Shuttlesworth

by Mark Gresham

Like many other institutions have done over the past few days, the Alabama Symphony Orchestra presented its annual tribute to civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr. yesterday at Jamison Concert Hall on the University of Alabama-Birmingham Campus. The orchestra's assistant conductor, Fawzi Haimor, led the assembled forces in the modest-length, intermissionless program.

The concert opened with the heralding notes of “An American Fanfare” by Adolphus Hailstork, a four-and-a-half minute Coplandesque showpiece for brass and percussion, written in 1985.

Birmingham Mayor William A. Bell stepped up to narrate “Let Freedom Ring” by Alexander Miller, a setting of MLK's “I Have A Dream” speech. Its essence is what one might call a familiar and serious “civic-minded” musical style which audiences might easily associate with patriotic holidays.

Jonathan Bailey Holland's “House of Dreams” followed. It was written in 1997 for the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra in memory of developer James Rouse, a legendary urban visionary whose non-profit Enterprise Foundation was founded to build affordable housing for the poor. The work is a celebratory rather than somber memorial, with often dense, sweeping sonic gestures impelling it forward.

The combined choirs of the Alabama School of Fine Arts and Jacksonville State University joined the orchestra to perform “PraiseMaker” by Atlanta-based composer Alvin Singleton, with a text by Susan Kouguell, a poet with whom he had collaborated previously. Commissioned for the 125th anniversary of the Cincinnati May Festival in 1998, where it was premiered by James Conlon and the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra, Singleton and Kouguell explicitly went about creating it as a “universal, secular and celebratory” work honoring the past and collective memory, inspired by the traditional African griots—oral historians and celebrants also known as “praise singers.”

Ranging from high school through college ages, the youthful singers were well-prepared and focused in pitch. Their collective sound more translucent than a chorus of older singers, nevertheless that worked very well with Singleton's mostly sparse and hauntingly ethereal orchestration, punctuated at points by pitched percussion and occasionally interrupted by flustered figures in brass and woodwinds.

The JSU chorus then delivered a joyful a cappella performance of the spiritual, “Ride On King Jesus,” as arranged by Edward Boatner.

The evening's only work not by a 20th or 21st-century composer, Beethoven's “Leonore Overture No. 3” closed the concert. Like the “Fidelio Overture” which ultimately took its place at the beginning of Fidelio, Beethoven's sole opera, the “Leonore No. 3” has become iconic in its use in themed concerts to represent the struggle for freedom and justice, while falling safely within the canon of standard symphonic repertoire.

In addition to serving as a tribute to Martin Luther King, Jr., this year's concert also honored the Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth, pastor of Birmingham's Bethel Baptist Church from 1953 to 1961 and one of King's notable compatriots, who died late last year. A poignant, heartfelt speech in the middle of the concert, followed by a moment of silence, commemorated Shuttlesworth's friendship with King and his own significant leadership of the civil rights movement in Birmingham. □

Friday, January 13, 2012

Review: Atlanta Symphony's "A King Celebration" turns 20

by Mark Gresham

The Atlanta Symphony Orchestra presented its annual “A King Celebration” last night, celebrating its 20th anniversary honoring the memory of Atlanta civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr.

Traditionally held at the Martin Luther King Jr. International Chapel on the Morehouse College campus, the event was moved to Symphony Hall due to anticipated size of audience wanting to hear superstar guest cellist Yo-Yo Ma.

Robert Spano and the orchestra opened the program with Beethoven's “Overture to Fidelio,” a tightly constructed, spirited six-minute work which has come to represent the opera's theme of heroism and eventual triumph of freedom and justice.

Immediately following, Kevin Johnson, choral director at Spelman College, took the podium to lead the combined Spelman and Morehouse College Glee Clubs in the traditional spiritual “Elijah Rock” in an a cappella arrangement by the late Moses Hogan, a performance that brought the audience to its feet.

Spano then returned to conduct “How Lovely is Thy Dwelling Place” from Johannes Brahms' “A German Requiem.” Sung in English translation, the performance was credible, if somewhat blunt-edged Brahms.

Pulitzer Prize-winner Joseph Schwantner's “New Morning for the World,” for narrator and orchestra, concluded the first half of the program. Based on King's words, it was written in 1982 for David Effron and the Rochester Philharmonic, with Pittsburgh Pirates baseball great Willie Stargell as narrator.

Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed narrated this performance. Reed did not try to imitate the oratorical powers of King. Instead, he let King's words speak for themselves, understated in inflection, as if reading King's words to family gathered at home. Although florid swirls and bold statements from percussion and brass threatened to emotionally upstage that approach early on, it was most effective in quieter, more contemplative music from the words “Now is the time...” onward.

After the intermission, a standing ovation took place as cellist Yo-Yo Ma took the stage for Antonin Dvořák's “Cello Concerto.”


Ma has become iconic to contemporary audiences as representing “everything cello.” His relationship with his instrument is symbiotic. Certainly in the Dvořák, Ma's splendid sense of rubato is informed by commitment to each musical phrase, insightfully revealing the composer's passions as expressed in the score, rather than a mere grandstand for a performer's ego. Ma observably listens intently to the orchestra as if playing with large chamber ensemble: whether the famous horn solo prior to the solo cello's initial entrance, the brief measures of “Molto sostenuto” duet with flute in the first movement, the winds which open the “Adagio” second movement, or during 32 bars in the Finale, turning his eyes toward concertmaster David Coucheron when the solo first violin plays an octave above the section of seconds in effective duet with the solo cello.

The multiple ovations were tumultuous, but the program was hardly done. Ma made his way to the back of the cello section, from which he played the intimate “Sarabande” from J.S. Bach's “Suite No. 5 in C minor” for solo unaccompanied cello.

Ma continued to play as part of the cello section as the final note of the “Sarabande” quietly transitioned into the orchestral introduction to Uzee Brown, Jr.'s arrangement of “We Shall Overcome,” which built up in slow contrapuntal crescendo to the entrance of the chorus singing the first verse.

Brown, an Atlanta-based opera singer, composer and alumnus of Morehouse who currently chairs its music department, created the arrangement especially for the Atlanta Symphony's 1999 King Celebration concert.

What was unusual this year is the fact that the audience did not stand and join in singing “We Shall Overcome”—a long-held tradition. Was it the due to the concert being held in Symphony Hall rather than the King Chapel? Perhaps due to a larger percentage of audience that was not of African heritage than typical at King Chapel? Or perhaps had a number purchased their tickets less to celebrate King than to see Yo-Yo Ma?

A man to my immediate left, who had not been there before intermission, was trying to take pictures of Yo-Yo Ma during the Dvořák concerto, and I worried whether we would experience an “Alan Gilbert moment” that evening. A sincerely polite gentleman on my right, who did hear the first half, admitted it was “my chance to see Ma play,” and, although not an ASO subscriber, is an avid listener of classical music via NPR. I did get the impression that he is now more likely to attend another live ASO performance.

We can hope that perhaps some of those who showed up only to see Ma, but experienced the entire concert, took away with them something of the message and intent of “A King Celebration,” and that in such a coming together of the city's often disparate communities we might sense, if only briefly, that our unalienable individual freedoms are, as King himself said, inextricably bound to the freedoms of others.

Speaking of public radio: “A King Celebration” was simulcast live on NPR stations nationwide, and selections will be rebroadcast nationwide on Monday, January 16, on American Public Media’s “Performance Today.” For local stations and broadcast times, see this list on the “Performance Today” website. □

Photo credit: all photos by J.D. Scott

Monday, January 9, 2012

Review: Percussionists Chix With Stix return like a phoenix in first concert in two years

by Mark Gresham | 21 Nov 2011, ArtsCriticATL

An enthusiastic audience showed up Sunday afternoon to hear a performance by the Atlanta-based all-female percussion group Chix With Stix. Despite rain, a depressed arts economy and the distraction of an Atlanta Falcons football game, [...] • READ MORE on ArtsCriticATL.com

Monday, January 2, 2012

Review: Chamber Cartel debuts with Morton Feldman’s well-woven "Crippled Symmetry"

by Mark Gresham | 9 Jan 2012, ArtsCriticATL

Less than 24 hours after ringing in the new year, Atlanta’s newest contemporary music ensemble, Chamber Cartel, made its debut. [...] • READ MORE on ArtsCriticATL.com

photo credit: Mark Gresham

Monday, November 21, 2011

Review: Riverside Chamber Players shine in performing music of Dallow and Smetana

by Mark Gresham | 21 Nov 2011, ArtsCriticATL

Riverside Chamber Players performed a matinee concert on Sunday featuring two highly programmatic works: Bedřich Smetana’s String Quartet No. 1 (subtitled “From My Life”) and the world premiere of “I’ve Been to the Ocean” by Brian Dallow. The program took place at the Bridge to Grace Church in Roswell. Violinists Kenn Wagner and David Dillard, [...] • READ MORE on ArtsCriticATL.com

Photo credit: Rena Fruchter

Memorial Drive: Atlanta’s forgotten classical music history

by Mark Gresham | 21 Nov 2011, ArtsCriticATL

“Atlanta has no collective memory” is a common refrain among local artists and musicians. It’s a sentiment recently expressed by Atlanta-born composer Nikitas Demos, one of the most active members of the local classical scene. When he joined the Georgia State University faculty in the early 1990s, Demos recently told me, “There was no memory of [...] • READ MORE on ArtsCriticATL.com

Photo credit: courtesy of Charles Knox