Over the past week I've enjoyed several really terrific concerts that I will briefly mention here.
On Saturday night, April 21, I attended the last performance of the Miller Theatre Early Music Series for this concert season. The British group Stile Antico, a vocal ensemble of six women and six men who perform primarily Renaissance polyphony without a conductor, presented a survey of 16th and early 17th century music at the Church of St. Mary and Virgin in Times Square. Ranging from Nicolas Gombert through Hieronymus Praetorius, they sang with wonderful precision and beauty, filling the resonant church with a large sound, perhaps less precise at times than the conductor-led Tallis Scholars, a group of similar size, but with greater warmth. (The Tallis Scholars, who sing the same repertory, tend to focus more on precision and clarity. Stile Antico strives more for warmth and color.) After hearing the concert, I pulled out their latest Harmonia Mundi recording, which I had purchased recently but hadn't yet heard, and was delighted to have this permanent souvenir of a great performance, although the repertory differed somewhat.
On Friday evening, April 27, I went to the Church of St. Ann and the Holy Trinity, on Montague Street in Brooklyn, for a Five Boroughs Music Festival concert commemorating the 400th anniversary of the death of Giovanni Gabrieli, the great Italian Renaissance master. The concert was a collaboration of three ensembles: New York Polyphony, a four-man choir; TENET, a vocal ensemble with theorbo accompaniment; and Dark Horse Consort, a wind group featuring cornetto and three sackbuts (Renaissance trombones). When they all performed together, they made quite an overwhelming effect in the slightly dry acoustic of the church. (Unlike St. Mary the Virgin, which is very resonant, St. Ann has a more focused acoustic, just right for Gabrieli.) The various ensembles performed separately and in combinations, and they made use of the side balconies for as well as the central performing space, the movement of forces adding variety to the program. After a large-scale Gabrieli motet, they performed selections by Gabrieli's uncle and teacher, Andrea, and his master Orlando di Lasso, to set the stage for an interesting survey of music by Giovanni, culminating is his splendid Magnificat for 12 Parts, which engaged all the players. A unifying force for much of the program was the expert theorbo playing of Hank Heijink. I've managed to hear all these musicians at various times, and admire them all. New York Polyphony is a regular participant in the Miller Theatre Early Music Series, and TENET has a splendid series at St. Ignatius on the Upper West Side (where the entire group repeated the Gabrieli program the next night).
The following evening, Saturday, April 28, I had a change of pace with Orpheus Chamber Orchestra at Carnegie Hall, the program featuring a world premiere of a commissioned piece by Alex Mincek, "Pendulum IX: 'Machina/Humana'", and violin soloist Viviane Hagner in Henri Vieuxtemps' Concerto No. 5 and Beethoven's Romance No. 2. They began with a novelty – Franz Schreker's Scherzo for String Orchestra, composed shortly after the composer's graduation from the Vienna Conservatory around 1900. This was a light confection that provided a welcome introduction to the evening. Hagner was a gracious soloist in Beethoven, and fiery in Vieuxtemps. We rarely hear Vieuxtemps' music, which has lost out in the repertory battle to Bruch No. 1 and St.-Saens No. 3, but it is worth an occasional hearing. The man came up with good tunes – just not quite as memorable or interestingly-worked-out as the aforementioned. Mincek's piece was unusually engaging for something that did not aspire to tunes at all; it was more an essay in rhythm and sonority without fixed tonality, but listener-friendly all the same, with jazzy flourishes and nice accents from a variety of odd percussion instruments. At the end, Orpheus gave a vigorous reading to Mozart's Symphony in G Minor, K. 550. This was the only performance where I felt the lack of a conductor; they really needed somebody to balance the winds and the small string body, especially since they played the revised version with added clarinets. Many times, especially in tutti passages, I felt that the winds should have been restrained a bit and the violins – especially the first violins – to play out more as their important lines were overcome, at least from my Row A dress circle vantage point. Perhaps whatever balancing they did in rehearsal in an empty hall just didn't translate well into Carnegie with an audience. I could not fault them on tempi, ensemble, or expressiveness. (My one regret about the use of the revised version is that much of the oboe part gets transferred to the clarinets, and Mozart wrote so beautifully for the oboes in the original version….)
On Sunday afternoon, April 29, it was the season's final installment of Classics Declassified, the American Symphony Orchestra's lecture/concert series on major repertory works, this time Bela Bartok's Concerto for Orchestra. This is held at Symphony Space on the Upper West Side, a congenial auditorium for this kind of program with, unfortunately, less than competent ushering and management at times. (The refreshment vendor noisily closing up after intermission during the music, ushers seating late-comers during the lecture, etc. I shouldn't really single out Symphony Space on this – the ushering at Carnegie Hall is frequently just as incompetent.) On this occasion, I was less impressed than usual with Leon Botstein's lecture. It seemed to jump around back and forth between biographical and musical points without much discernible organization, and I thought there were many interesting things one could say about this piece that were omitted. Much was redeemed by the performance, however. The ASO is not the kind of super-virtuoso ensemble that can play this piece without any signs of strain – they were pushed at times – but they got through it with plenty of spirit and it was fun to hear. Next year, Classics Declassified will focus on Richard Wagner and his influence on other composers, beginning with Richard Strauss's Alpine Symphony, continuing with Bruckner's 8th Symphony, and concluding with a program of what Bernard Shaw used to call "Bleeding Chunks," orchestral excerpts from some of Wagner's operas. It should be fun, and is definitely worth subscribing to the three-Sundays series.
Finally, on Monday night, I was happy to accept an invitation from the New York Philharmonic to attend a special chamber music evening for donors to the orchestra. We were blessed with the presence of one of the great virtuosi of the Philharmonic, principal oboist Liang Wang, who performed the Six Metamorphoses after Ovid for Oboe solo (unaccompanied) by Benjamin Britten. He provided introductory comments to the piece and then a few remarks prior to each of the six variations depicting various characters who play a role in Ovid's narrative. Next we heard a Duo in G, K. 423, for violin and viola by Mozart, skillfully rendered by NY Philharmonic members Lisa Kim and Robert Rinehart. Finally, Wang, Kim and Rinehart were joined by NY Philharmonic cellist Eileen Moon for a thrilling performance of Mozart's Quartet for Oboe and Strings, K. 370, a super workout for the oboe soloist that was played with great brilliance and warmth. A memorable way to conclude this string of great performances spread over more than a week.