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

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

Photo credit: courtesy of Charles Knox

Friday, November 18, 2011

Review: Mozart glistens, Sibelius warms

Mickelthwate steps in to lead, Smith performs an indispensable classic

by Mark Gresham

Thursday's Atlanta Symphony Orchestra concert at Symphony Hall was the second in as many weeks featuring an ASO principal musician as soloist. Principal flute Christina Smith performed Mozart's “Flute Concerto No. 1,” flanked on either side by Beethoven's “Leonore Overture No. 2” and the “Symphony No. 2” of Jean Sibelius. The entire was led by guest conductor Alexander Mickelthwate, a former ASO assistant conductor who is now music director of the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra. Mickelthwate was a late replacement for an ailing Ilan Volkov, thus the Beethoven overture a replacement for a planned pair of works by American composers Carl Ruggles and Ruth Crawford Seeger. (It is worth noting that although his full-time post while in Atlanta was with the ASO, Mickelthwate is possibly best remembered for leading an electrifying performance of John Zorn's "Cobra" with Bent Frequency, a local new music ensemble he co-founded, at the alternative arts venue Eyedrum.)

The Beethoven opened the program. Of the four overtures to Beethoven's sole opera Fidelio, what we know as the Leonore No. 2 was actually the first, written for premiere of the original 1805 version of the opera. The piece started off as a good but somewhat mainstream performance, but about halfway through the Allegro the work became fully engaged and exciting, then caught fire by the time it reached the two auf der Bühne trumpet flourishes played from off stage right by principal Thomas Hooten. From that point, the work was home free, down to the final repeated C major chords.

Mozart's “Flute Concerto No. 1” was the next piece on the docket. The previous evening, I had talked with flutist Christina Smith by phone about performing it.

“I have done much more contemporary works the last several times I've been soloist,” said Smith. “Going back to Mozart is like and ice skater going back to their figure eights. It's that basic core of beauty in our repertoire.” Such a basic part of repertoire it is, she indicates, that almost universally it is the first piece a performer is required to play for a serious audition, and indeed she teaches it to a lot of flute students for that purpose. So for Smith, going back and playing it in concert instead is a particular joy. The last time she performed it with the ASO was in 1998, with Carl Saint Claire conducting.

“[It] is very elegant, very poised, very idiomatic for the flute,” says Smith of Mozart's writing. So she takes a relatively straightforward, simple approach to interpretation. “I think the music absolutely speaks for itself, and you don't have to do anything innovative with interpreting it. It's all about the things about the instrument that are beautiful: the lyricism of the flute, the tone quality, the light, beautiful articulation that the flute can do. Mozart absolutely captures that and that's what I'm really going for when I perform it.”

And indeed, that is the epitome of the “classical mind” of Mozart's day: beauty is something revealed by an artist, rather than forced into bloom by the artist's will. Even if Mickelthwate was not fully in sync with Smith at a few points in the first movement, Smith's performance was blithesome, with a natural virtuosic ease of expression; the second possessed lucid lyricism; and the concluding rondo a cheerful, sprightly tempo di minuetto.

The last time the ASO had performed Sibleius' “Symphony No. 2” was in 2002, with Robert Spano conducting. It happens that this was during the time when Mickelthwate was an assistant conductor with the orchestra, which would have obliged him to be prepared to step in and conduct it if necessary. Sibelius is one of Spano's strong suits, so the understudy work as an assistant surely would have had impact. Nine years later, Mickelthwate has made this Sibelius his own, and he brought to the symphony a warmly confident, sweeping interpretation. He will soon conduct it again back home with the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra, December 2nd and 3rd. □

Photo credits: Jeff Roffman

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Review: Bailey Center hosts ebullient Ying Quartet in music by Moravec and more

by Mark Gresham | 13 Nov 2011, ArtsCriticATL

The Ying String Quartet played an engaging program of music by Arensky, Moravec and Beethoven last night at Kennesaw State University’s Bailey Performance Center. [...] • READ MORE on

Photo credit: Kate L Photography

Friday, November 11, 2011

Mickelthwate replaces indisposed Volkov in Nov. 17/19 Atlanta Symphony concerts

Program adds Beethoven, drops Ruggles and Seeger

by Mark Gresham

Alexander Mickelthwate, music director of the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra will replace an indisposed Ilan Volkov as guest conductor for the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra's upcoming concerts on November 17 and 19. Word is that illness prevents Volkov from traveling.

Mickelthwate is a former assistant conductor of the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra, having made his ASO debut in 2001. His most recent appearance with the orchestra was in 2005. While in Atlanta, Mickelthwate was also one of the co-founders of new music group Bent Frequency. The 2011-'12 season is Mickelthwate's fifth with Winnipeg Symphony.

With the change of conductor comes a programming change: Beethoven’s "Leonore Overture No. 2" replaces two previously planned, rarely-heard American works: Carl Ruggles’s "Angels" and Ruth Crawford Seeger’s "Andante For Strings," adapted from one of the movements of her sole String Quartet.

The rest of the program remains as planned. ASO principal flute Christina Smith performs Mozart’s "Flute Concerto No. 1," and the concert concludes with the "Symphony No. 2" of Jean Sibelius. Conveniently, Mickelthwate was already scheduled to lead the Winnipeg Symphony in a performance of the Sibelius on December 2 & 3.

More information about concert details and tickets may be found here. □

Photo of Alexander Mickelthwate courtesy of Atlanta Symphony Orchestra

Monday, November 7, 2011

Conducting “Lucia di Lammermoor,” Arthur Fagen takes key role as Atlanta Opera music director

by Mark Gresham | 7 Nov 2011, ArtsCriticATL

“I discovered opera very early,” says Arthur Fagen, music director of the Atlanta Opera. “My grandfather used to take me to weekend matinee performances at both the Met and City Opera.” [...] • READ MORE on

Photo courtesy of Arthur Fagen and Chronos Artists

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Atlanta Symphony soloists come from within for concertos by Brahms and Mozart

by Mark Gresham | 6 Nov 2011, ArtsCriticATL

There’s a paradox to an orchestral musician’s career, and mind-set. Music thrives on individuality, demanding that musicians express something unique to their inner expressive voice. Yet, in an orchestra, individuals must take a largely anonymous role [...]

Photo credit: Jeff Roffman

Monday, October 31, 2011

Recital review: A rising star, cellist Joshua Roman makes Atlanta debut with Bach

by Mark Gresham | 31 Oct 2011, ArtsCriticATL

Freakish winter snowstorms in the Northeast almost canceled Joshua Roman’s first performance in Atlanta. The 20-something cellist’s flight was delayed twice. He finally landed without much time to spare, and less than an hour before the start of his recital Sunday afternoon at First Presbyterian Church, [...] • READ MORE on

Photo credit: Tina Su

Friday, October 28, 2011

Encores Galore

Hilary Hahn serves up a bevy of newly commissioned short works for violin and piano

by Mark Gresham

Last night at the Schwartz Center's Emerson Concert Hall, violinist Hilary Hahn and pianist Valentina Lisitsa performed thirteen of the twenty-six "encores" Hahn had recently commissioned for violin and piano as part of her “27 Pieces: the Hilary Hahn Encores” project. (There is one encore piece left to commission, to be chosen through an online “blind submission” process beginning November 15.) All have all received premieres within the past few weeks as part of a multi-city tour Hahn began October 13 in Cincinnati, just after the release of a new CD she recorded with Lisitsa, featuring the four violin sonatas of Charles Ives.

Unfortunately Hahn and Lisitsa did not include any of the the Ives in the main body of the program, though they did perform the “Largo” movement of the Second Sonata as an encore, with the new CDs available for purchase afterward in the lobby. Instead, the printed program offered in balance some traditional fare: J.S. Bach's “Sonata No. 1” for unaccompanied violin, Beethoven's “Violin Sonata No. 2” from his youthful Op. 12 group, and the nearly-as-youthful “Sonatensatz” scherzo by Brahms (published only after his death as WoO 2).

The playbill did state that that “program order is subject to change” and indeed that proved an understatement—thus more an à la carte list of selections. Rather than a piled up at the end as printed, the encores were dispersed throughout the evening, with Hahn announcing from the stage what would be performed next, and when it was time for intermission.

They opened the concert with “Bifu” a lovely, gentle and lyrical piece by Japanese composer Somei Satoh. The word “bifu” translates as “breeze.” The composer writes of the piece: “Wind is also blowing in our body. The wind in out body is called emotion. It also sometimes becomes a storm. I wish for the wind traveling in my body to remain a breeze.”

This piece bode well for the encores. Of the thirteen she played, I will only mention a few others here which most attracted my attention.

My favorite of the evening was “Memory Games” by Israeli composer Avner Dorman, inspired by the digital toy “Simon.” First introduced in 1978 and popular during the 1980s, Simon challenges the player to repeat a random sequence of tones by pressing the right sequence of buttons, adding a new tone to the end of the sequence with each successful iteration. “Several rounds of the game are played throughout the piece, so to speak,” writes the composer in his description, “making it resemble the form of a Passacaglia.” It's an energetic, engaging composition which would be welcomed on many a new music concert.

Jennifer Higdon's “Echo Dash” is also a kind of “follow me” piece, likewise energetic, but also especially sunny in disposition, with the leader of the musical chase changing throughout between the violin and each hand of the piano.

Paul Moravec's complex, dialectic “Blue Fiddle,” for all its brevity, seemed better suited for the main body of a concert than feeling like an “encore” per se, packing a rich array of music into four minutes.

The elder statesman of the group, Finnish composer Einojuhani Rautavaara, was represented by a piece entitled “Whispering.” In his notes, Rautavaara spelled what he though an encore to be—then deliberately countered those characteristics with his piece. Writes the composer: “It is possible to be virtuosic without being noisy!”

Max Richter, in describing his plaintive piece, “Mercy,” recalled hearing pianist Maurizio Pollini pay simple Schubert pieces after heavy-duty 20th-century programs. Additionally, he writes: “I felt like the solo violin and piano formation was so revealing and intimate by nature that it really called for a very direct, simple kind of music in an encore setting, a kind of story-telling material that speaks very plainly.”

All of that said, much of the rest of the music was good, but most of the rest did not feel to me so much like “encores” as the kind of works one often finds in a collective new music concert, not really calling for an “I really want to hear that again!” response from the listener, or the hope of cajoling the performer back on stage one more time. I'm not speaking negatively of this remaining works' musical value; rather to say that not everything short is an “encore.” Even then, an encore can take on its greatest importance over time as the performer lives with it, and becomes closely identified with it in the public mind—perhaps more so than a major work. Most pieces chosen by a performer for the purpose will not reach that level of symbiotic, shared public identity recognized instantly by the public.

Hahn is entirely right, though: It's an important genre, however currently-ignored by composers (vs. its ubiquitous presence in the days of Kreisler and Heifitz). And it's thoroughly delightful that she is taking the time, effort and musical risks necessary to bring it back to the fore with newly commissioned 21st-century repertoire. □

Credits: Photo of Hilary Hahn by Peter Miller.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Atlanta Opera premieres “Rabbit Tales,” a children’s opera based on world folk stories

by Mark Gresham | 27 Oct 2011, ArtsCriticATL

Folk tales have a natural way of transforming, passing orally across generations and cultures. When recorded on paper, they can ignite popular and intellectual interest in those oral traditions, while transforming the path of literature itself. [...] • READ MORE on

Image courtesy of Atlanta Opera

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Refreshing the classical experience: Cellist Matt Haimovitz bucks convention in free concerts at Emory

by Mark Gresham | 25 Oct 2011, ArtsCriticATL

Cellist Matt Haimovitz has either slipped off the grid of the classical music business or is defining its vibrant future. Perhaps both. He returns to Atlanta next week, offering music for solo cello that he calls “a human conversation with divine beauty.” The Israeli-born, American-raised Haimovitz has come a long way since his Atlanta debut [...] • READ MORE on

Photo courtesy Le Poisson Rouge

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Alcides Rodriguez is a product of the system

The ASO clarinetist praises el Sistema for giving him a life beyond Venezuela

by Mark Gresham | 7 Jun 2011, Creative Loafing

Alcides Rodriguez arrives exactly on time — to the minute. Neatly attired in a solid soft-blue dress shirt and slacks, his stride exudes relaxed confidence. A 34-year-old bass clarinetist for the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra since 2005, Rodriguez has instrument case in hand, ready for a rehearsal that begins in an hour and a half on the Symphony Hall stage. • READ MORE in Creative Loafing

photo credit: Nick Arroyo

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Robert Spano gives 'Lecture on Nothing' the silent treatment

by Mark Gresham | 29 Mar 2011, Creative Loafing

“I am here and there is nothing to say,” begins John Cage's Lecture on Nothing, which was performed Friday night by Atlanta Symphony Orchestra music director Robert Spano at Emerson Concert Hall in Emory University's Schwartz Center for Performing Arts. • READ MORE in Creative Loafing

Photo: Robert Spano performs John Cage's Lecture on Nothing
Photo credit: Mark Gresham