Crème de la Crème

Carolina Performing Arts presented the Vienna Philharmonic orchestra last night in Memorial Hall, with Franz Welser-Möst conducting. The music was sublime.

They played Arnold Schoenberg’s Verklärte Nacht (Transfigured Night), op. 4, as arranged for string orchestra (it was originally for a sextet), which is very beautiful and deeply consoling. The Vienna Philharmonic painted the strong feelings from the inspiring poem about forgiving love (by Richard Dehmel, 1896) in saturated complex hues that streamed and flowed and blended. The liquidity of the music, the total integration of all the types and planes of sound, the pure elegance of its expression put the listener in thrall as it told the poem without recourse to mere words.

The Schubert Symphony No. 9 in C Major, D.944, “The Great,” was similar in terms of flow, if quite a lot more sprightly. What a delightful piece of music, light-infused,  buoyant with life, with lots of switchbacks and swirls, and fast-changing colors, tones and tempi. In the first and fourth movements there are charming references to Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy” that seem like both homages and the preening of a young artist; in this performance, they sparkled on the surface of the river of sounds before moving into the past as other notes seized their days.

Hearing one of the greatest orchestras in the world was as marvelous as expected, but the added benefit of seeing an orchestra is seeing the conductor (each one so different)–and watching Maestro Welser-Möst at work was also wonderful. He’s slim and compact, except for his hair, and wears a well-cut tailcoat. (In fact, all the men in the orchestra wear tailcoats–and there are very few women–I could see only five or six last night.) He also stands on a podium without a rail between him and the audience, so that the elegant line is unmarred (just as in the music). Rarely raising his arms above shoulder level, he has a complete language for the left hand and another for the right, in which he holds a short baton. He turns this way and that, gathering in the sounds, often making smoothing motions. He didn’t tap his feet, or keep a rhythm by shifting his body, but as “The Great” grew in intensity, he began to vibrate all over–you could see it in his crown of silver hair. So much passion under the reserve.

What a night of transportive music.

The sense of reaching a cultural summit was also very powerful. To become cultured (a desirable goal), I learned in childhood, not only must one read, but look at art and listen to music and go to plays in person. Ideally one would travel, and listen to music in its many homes: a person steeped in the great traditions of European classical music would naturally have Vienna’s Musikverein among her desired destinations, in order to hear the Vienna Philharmonic in its Golden Room.

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Not at Memorial Hall. The Vienna Philharmonic with Franz Welser-Möst at the Musikverein. Photo © Richard Schuster.

 

I will probably never make it to the Musikverein, but at last I have heard the superb playing of the Vienna Philharmonic, hearing for myself the standard-setting integrated sounds, fluid dynamics, and emotional clarity of this orchestra. Without leaving home! I’m struggling to express how grateful and enriched I feel to have been one of the 1200 reverent listeners packed into the hall. And that it was the same hall in which I heard my first live symphony orchestra (the NC Symphony, under Benjamin Swalin) 55 years ago only increases my sense of having been on a long strange trip among the thorny hierarchies of quality and value in music and art, and of having come out onto a cliff with a wide view of glory.

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Crème de la Crème with whipped cream on top: The encore in Memorial Hall 2/27/17. Backstage phone photo courtesy Carolina Performing Arts.

What I didn’t expect, but received, from this concert was a sense of cultural validation, of personal connection with some of what’s best in the European musical tradition, and, most powerfully, of belonging to that culture–that rarefied culture at the pinnacle of refinement. CPA brings many fine orchestras to Memorial, but no matter how great the music, none has had the same impact on my sense of identity.

Suddenly, the fantastic multi-cultural work being done by CPA and the other area university presenters takes on a new look. I go to all these events because I want to know about all these people and places–I’m a traveller–but at each one, there will be people who feel like they have come home, or that home has come to back them, acknowledging and validating them. (I know, I know, if it weren’t for Eurocentric White Privilege, I would have thought of that years ago.)

We are living in a thoroughly frightening time. It becomes more vital every day to visit each others’ homes, with curiosity and open hearts. Aside from bringing the aesthetic bliss, this is what cultural arts programs do–invite us in to all the houses so that our neighbors are no longer strangers and increasingly, we can all be at home in the world.

 

 

Glass #2: Study This

That the creation of a performing arts series is an art in itself was demonstrated last night during the performance of the complete set of piano études by Philip Glass, part of the Glass at 80 Festival, ongoing at Carolina Performing Arts. The 20 études were performed by 10 fine pianists, starting with Glass himself, in the beautifully renovated 450-seat Moeser Auditorium in Hill Hall, for which this event constituted a kind of grand opening (although it had been previously blessed by a dance–more on that later). As the audience filled the hall, we saw the gleaming grand piano center front, with bench–and nine more benches in a line upstage. Each bench had already been adjusted for the pianist who would use it. It was a wonderful visual.

Composed over a period of years (1991-2012) during which Glass made many larger pieces of music, the études in a way comprise a sketchbook of the composer’s thinking, and–although the analogy is not exact–the performance resembled a well-chosen art exhibition of artistically related meditations on a single subject by a master.

Music is, obviously, different from visual art in that it is not copied or referred to, but interpreted when taken up by a musician not the composer. Each player’s unique touch, style and essential personality makes something subtly different from a score. It would’ve been no fun to have 10 people play the precisely the same music, but having them each play a segment of the series worked beautifully to show how much interpretation can range, even in the performance of music by a living composer who is right there in the room. But hearing the entire sequence in one concert played by such different personalities (their biographies tell of their work and passion and achievements–on the website) was fantastic also because it made so many of Glass’s concerns clear–not just the crystalline patterns within the modules, or the patterns grown like crystals from the modules, or the emotional tone of particular chords and notes and melodic lines, or the effect of tempi, or color and texture in sound, but issues of oppositional balance; density and space; mass and ethereality; opacity and sheerness, and the layers in between.

What can I say? Hearing mature Glass play younger Glass was very wonderful. Everything else fell away, even the handsome room with great warm acoustics, and the other 449 extremely quiet and attentive listeners. Following him, for études numbers 3 and 4, came the youngest pianist in the program, Margaret Lynch, a junior at UNC-CH (a student of Clara Yang, who opened the program’s second half), who has taken every opportunity to work with the great pianists who have come to Carolina during her time there. Whereas numbers one and two had seemed composed of a play of complementary colors (chartreuse and burgundy), Lynch’s pair seemed made of shards of light changing places at a fast tempo. She performed beautifully, if with a high degree of tension beneath the polish and aplomb.

Mick Rossi, in a zippered black leather jacket, came next, and he had all the time in the world, drawing out the spaces between the dense, laden notes. Jenny Lin played numbers 7 and 8, leading us underground to caverns sparkling with mineral growths. Michael Riesman seemed to take us on an adventure with matter and anti-matter. That was just the first half.

After an intermission during which all were served with birthday cake and coffee, Clara Yang resumed the program with numbers 11 and 12, which struck me as very physical, with the music alternately wrestling and dancing and running wild with a sparkler and Yang keeping up without turning a hair. Aaron Diehl didn’t have any hair to turn, or it would have been jumping as he gave numbers 13 and 14 an almost stride blues interpretation. I was looking for him to kick over the bench any second. Timo Andres played the romantic daylights out of 15 and 16, so passionate and heart-stirring. This was the third time I’ve heard Andres, who is also a composer, and I find him very affecting–and not just because he’s tall and thin with barely controlled curls and wears neat-fitting suits and good leather shoes. He seems filled with longing and determination, which get out through his long fingers.

Anton Batagov had a regal and relaxed way with numbers 17 and 18, then Maki Namekawa swept on wearing hot pink pants and sandals under a gorgeous patterned robe, and finished off the series with a magisterial clarity. Her recording of the complete piano études went home with me from the merchandise table.

This was a very special event, brilliant in conception and beautifully carried out. I appreciated the true diversity of the cast, and the complete lack of cant about diversity. Complete in itself, the étude program also formed a vital facet of the entire Glass festival, which has been put together to serve a marvelous combination of artistic, pedagogic and liberal arts objectives while offering all sorts of excitement and enjoyment.

This kind of thing could give elitism a good name. It certainly puts a mighty glow on the oldest state university in the nation.

Tonight: the recreation of Lucinda Childs/Philip Glass/Sol LeWitt DANCE. Check the website for info on talks with Glass and the remaining performances.

 

 

1st Glass

Wow. Wow to the nth degree. The Bruckner Orchester Linz, under Dennis Russell Davies, performed three Philip Glass works last night, Feb.1, in Memorial Auditorium as the kick-off for Carolina Performing Arts‘ 10-day  Glass at 80 festival. Davies and Glass are old friends, and Davies is considered to be one of the foremost interpreters of Glass’s music. Indeed, Davies initiated the commission for the first work the orchestra played, Days and and Nights in Rocinha (1997), which Glass had dedicated to the conductor.

Awash as we are in a fetid swamp of ugliness, I’m craving beauty like a smoker craves a cigarette, and beauty I got–full-blown beauty that for its glorious 20 minutes, obliterated all the pain. Somehow (out of Glass’s prodigious output) I had never heard Days and Nights in Rocinha. Um, not sure how I had been living. When music gets me on its wavelength, I get tapestries of color–more like the Northern Lights, evanescent–but sometimes, as with Glass, I also get a tactile sensory experience, and occasionally even scents. In Rocinha I saw every shade of green, rough browns, sapphire blues, blue-black, chrome golds and phosphorescent sparkles, all tossing like tall trees and lapping like calm waves. I could hear the palm fronds clacking, muted traffic, the laughter of dancers, tree frogs and bright birds. And always, the heartbeat of the ocean, steady under the the swooping joy. When the room came back, I felt as if I’d been caressed with flowers, rubbed down with sugar and wrapped in thick velvet–cares sloughed off, bitter barriers dissolved, skin all alive to the wonders of earthly life. What a gift.

I rushed right out to the merchandise table at intermission, but they did not have that recording. It is available, however, on the CD Orchestral Music (vol. II) with other pieces, and on iTunes (find out more on Glass’s supremely well-organized website).

The rest of the concert was nearly as soul-stirring. One reason I like Glass’s music is that the beats, no matter how complex, feel to me like the heartbeat of–well, everything alive, and of the fluid rock beneath the earthy crust. During the Violin Concerto No. 1 (1987) I was struck by a memory of lying on the ground in the front yard when I was about five, ear to the earth and eye on the tiny blue flowers pushing up through a patch of moss. In the concerto, that vital force burgeons into tall forests of sound, thick with fleeting textures. It was all I could do to stay in my seat throughout the torrent. Soloist Robert McDuffie’s violin darted through the forest, and danced with the pixies, and snuck around the trees to surprise from behind. It was fantastic. At the end, after several long breaths, Davies put down his baton and clasped McDuffie in a beaming hug, while the whole orchestra glowed and smiled.

The concerto has a normal concerto structure, fast-slow-fast, but the new Symphony No. 11 (which has premiered the night before, Glass’s actual 80th birthday, in Carnegie Hall), also in three movements, felt not just bigger, but much much freer, running off to explore all sorts of tangents. But always, there’s that underlying beat, so reassuring, and all the forays into the bright world come home to it. The percussion in this piece is particularly great. I’d go back tonight if they were playing it again, and stand in back so I could dance instead of driving my neighbor crazy swaying and bobbing in my seat.

No. 11 has in spades the other thing I find so powerful in Glass’s work: the sense that the music has completed itself emotionally as well as mathematically, that it is not a collection of fragments waiting for the listener to give it meaning. I can’t begin to say how he does it, but from the beginning you feel the inevitability of the music circling back, like you feel the inevitability of an arc closing into a circle, with all the colorful patterns coalescing into white light, white heat, as if being put through a reverse prism. But Glass, when he brings it all around, leaves one infinitesimal point open for the energy to arc across–he keeps it alive and sizzling. Complete, but not moribund.

Some of the remaining of the festival is sold out (!), but there are still a very few tickets available for DANCE, and some for the Heroes concert this Friday, for Dracula with the Kronos Quartet, and amazingly, for Glass together with Laurie Anderson. Don’t miss out.

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