This was one of those incredibly busy weekends, mixing culture and work, that left me with no time to blog about events individually, so here's a quick summary:
Friday night, I attended a concert at Symphony Space on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, presented as part of the Guitar Plus series organized by guitarist-composer David Leisner. The title of the program was "Bach, Shakespeare and Elephants." I had been drawn to attend by the participation of baritone Thomas Meglioranza, one of my favorite singers, anticipating that he would be featured through-out the program. In the event, however, in terms of time proportion of the program he sang in about half of the event. The program was framed with purely instrumental music: an arrangement for guitar and string trio of Joseph Haydn's String Quartet in D, Op. 2, No. 2, as the opener, and Luigi Boccherini's famous fandango quintet, for guitar and string quartet, G. 448, as the closer. (Mr. Meglioranza made an unbilled guest appearance for the fandango finale, playing percussion instruments). Mr. Leisner was joined by members of the ENSO String Quartet for these pieces.
The centerpiece of the program was the world premiere of Mr. Leisner's composition for baritone and string quartet, "A Timeless Procession," setting a lengthy narrative poem by Rosemary Thomas about the parade of elephants past Carngie Hall when the circus came to town. This provided a nice balance of drama and humor, with the kind of text that Meglioranza is expert at animating for an audience. Before performing this number, Meglioranza and some ENSO quartet members joined Leisner in his arrangement of a selection from Bach's St. John Passion, "Betrachte, meine Seel."
After intermission, Meglioranza and Leisner performed several songs based on Shakespeare texts: one each by Elliott Carter, Daniel Pinkham, and Jean Sibelius, and a three-song cycle by Peter Sculthorpe. Leisner's notes said that the Carter, Pinkham and Sibelius songs were originally set for guitar, while Leisner arranged the Sculthorpe set with the composer's permission from the original piano accompaniments. This was a very effective sequence, and I was disappointed in my subsequent on-line search to find that the Sculthorpe songs are not currently available on recordings.
Altogether it was a most entertaining evening.
On Saturday morning, I participated as a judge in the first round of a negotiation competition at New York Law School (in-house), a different sort of experience. Then I headed to midtown – City Center – for the Encores Series' presentation of "Where's Charley?", an early musical by Frank Loesser. This had earned a rave review from the Times, which I thought was only partly merited. The show itself is a weak vessel, providing a hackneyed mistaken identity plot set at the time of an English college graduation in 1892. The humor inheres in one of the leading male characters impersonating his aunt to provide a missing chaperone for a meeting between the male leads and their girlfriends, with complications ensuing (not least in the problem that Charley and his aunt can't be simultaneously in the same place at the same time). It was all stuff and nonsense, but the performers were truly excellent, Rob Berman conducted the fine orchestra enthusiastically, and the production team did a great job of mounting this semi-staged brief revival of a show that in its first Broadway incarnation did not even enjoy a cast recording.
Perhaps somehere the money could be found to generate a cast recording from these performances to make up for the loss? There are certainly some fine songs here, well rendered by a talented cast led by Rob McClure and Sebastian Arcelus as college chums Charley and Jack, Jill Paice and Lauren Worsham as their beaus Kitty and Amy, and "adult" leads Howard McGillin (as Jack's father), Dakin Matthews (as the uncle and ward of the two girls), and Rebecca Luker (as the real aunt).
For the evening, I ventured to Carnegie Hall for the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra concert. For the first time, I felt rather strongly that Orpheus could have benefited from a conductor, at least for some of the program. The menu was heavy with Mozart (Piano Concerto No. 20 with Rudolf Buchbinder; Symphony No. 39), each half prefaced by a contrasting modern work (Albert Roussel's Concerto for Small Orchestra to open the program, Fred Lerdahl's "Waves" to open the second half).
For me, the big discovery of the night was "Waves," which Orpheus jointly commissioned back in the 1980s with two other chamber orchestras, presented in its 1989 concert season, and subsequently recorded for a DG album of several "modern" pieces. As the composer explained in the program book, "Waves" followed his epiphany about writing listener-friendly music, and it is certainly listener-friendly, presenting a perpetuum mobile of 16th notes churning through the orchestra for a quarter hour with all kinds of contrasting material presented above and below. The churning notes surge like waves of energy, thus the title (which the composer said in a brief on-stage interview after the intermission was affixed after the piece was composed to reflect is character, rather than the germinating idea for writing it). I thought this was really swell, and upon returning home discovered that I had that old recording (heard and catalogued at the time, but not since), so it quickly went on the ipod and I've enjoyed listening to it again.
The Roussel seemed an apt complement, as it is also characterized – at least in the outer fast movements – by lots of churning. This was a first performance of the piece by Orpheus, and I don't think they've fully discovered the music in the piece yet. It seemed like lots of pointless activity to me. Roussel was not a great melodist most of the time, and this piece could have used the kind of shaping that an imaginative conductor could have provided. Left to their own devices, the core group produced a rather neutral sounding reading, polished to a high gloss of technique but not particularly engaging.
On to the Mozart – I've heard Buchbinder before. He strikes me as a very middle-of-the-road interpreter of Mozart in the modern style – no attempts to simulate the fortepiano, everything very smoothed out and technically impeccable. The result was a performance that I thought lacked some of the drama that Mozart wrote into this music. Orpheus is a great collaborator with soloists, but the soloist has to provide more of an individual spark than this to make a piece really sing. Again, perhaps a conductor would have improved matters. As to the 39th Symphony, this kind of piece is central to Orpheus's repertory – they play the final Mozart symphonies with some regularity, and have a good corporate sense of how these pieces should go. On this occasion I found the last two movements the strongest. The slow movement of K. 543 can be a bit of a trudge, with considerable repetition, and here I again felt the lack of a conductor.
Usually, the Orpheus approach of true chamber music – a group of highly accomplished musicians forming their group interpretation through discussion and rehearsal – works well for me. This time, it worked a bit less well. But I counted the overall program a plus due to the rediscovery of the Lerdahl piece. I'll certainly seek out more of his works.
[PS – Added after the NY Times review of the concert appeared in the 3/22 paper – Zachary Woolf and I seemed to agree about much of the Orpheus concert. His review reminded me that they performed Faur