Category Archives: Orchestra

Xian Zhang’s fresh Beethoven Ninth at Mann

Philadelphia Orchestra, Xian Zhang, conducting, Beethoven: Symphony No. 9 in D Minor, the Choral) Othalie Graham, soprano, Margaret Mezzacappa, mezzo-soprano, Zach Borichevsky, tenor, Luis Ledesma, baritone, The Philadelphia Singers Chorale, David Hayes, music director. J.S. Bach. Concerto for Two Violins & String Orchestra , Juliette Kang, violin, Kimberly Fisher, violin.  Mann Music Center, June 27, 2012, Review for WRTI, 90.1 fm

Beethoven’s Ninth (Symphony No. 9 in D Minor, Op. 125, “Choral)”, is so familiar we almost don’t hear the notes – waiting for the singers!  Chinese-American conductor Xian Zhang used the Choral Symphony as her calling card with the Philadelphia Orchestra Wednesday night.  Her program of Beethoven and J.S. Bach opened the orchestra’s six- concert series at the Mann in Fairmount Park. Her Beethoven was fresh and focused. As focused as the unidentified bird that chirped through a stretch of the Scherzo, like a scat singer doing syncopation. Zhang, born in 1973, is the music director of Milan’s Gisueppe Verdi Symphony.  She led from memory.

Zhang’s leadership was dynamic no push- pull theatrics with the famous score. She’s got discernment. One mentor was Lorin Maazel. The strings that play so large a part had clarity in every register, violin themes and murmurs, the cellos and basses’ dark alacrity. The Scherzo’s stops and starts compelled; assertions not aggressiveness: when the theme returned it was the better for not being simply louder. There was more instrumental delight from horns and winds and Peter Smith’s oboe. The slow movement came like a breeze. By now the soloists had walked on stage.  Now it gets real, someone in the audience said.  Wrong.

Wednesday’s soloists were quality, Tenor Luis Ledesma began with a confidence and tone he didn’t quite sustain; baritone Zach Borischevsky and mezzo-soprano Margaret Mazzecappa were good choices. Othalie Graham’s soprano had pitch problems. All of the quartet sounded under-rehearsed. The  backup was the thriller – Philadelphia Singers Chorale could sing the finale to the Ninth upside down. Wednesday squeezed on stage behind the instrumentalists their joy thrilling. That inspiration was oddly lacking from all concerned when excellent principals Juliette Kang and Kimberly Fisher opened with J.S. Bach’s Concerto For Two Violins and String Orchestra in D Minor.  An auto pilot version of music that could have been so much more. Clearly the maestra’s attention had been on Beethoven.

Symphony in C for Camden

Symphony in C, Rossen Milanov, conducting, Agustin Hadelich, violin; Gordon Hall, Rutgers University, Camden, May 5, 2012, Review for WRTI, 90. 1 fm

Patco, Center City to Camden is an easy ride. I could have driven over the Ben Franklin  but riding the rails with a friend to hear the Symphony in C at Camden Rutgers Performing Arts is a trip I’ll venture again after Saturday night’s safe, well-lit 10 minute walk.  Gordon Theatre has good acoustics, maestro Rossen Milanov’s proven his worth,  and his Symphony excels. Hard to believe it’s completing its 59th season.  A packed house Saturday night saluted the  challenging program. Gyorgy Ligeti’s Violin Concerto. German artist Agustin Hadelich was the soloist. A scaled down orchestra supporting the solo violin, which has a haunting pairing with viola. Hadelich’s musicianship was at a fevered pitch. Milanov’s control was equal to it. Over five movements, ferocious intensity  was conveyed — and inwardness. Strange music, strangely satisfying.

Symphony “From the New World,” Dvorak’s No. 9 in E Minor came after intermission: The canonic warhorse needed more care. Not the opening movement which was fine. Not the famous Largo which began stiffly but as things warmed up, the English horn solo went nicely. There was so much bark and bluster to the  final movements – Scherzo and that fiery Allegro – all that asking for attention, well, they lost mine.

More flair and refinement to the Symphony in C’s performance  of Roger Zare’s Green Flash which opened. The title is a scientific term for what happens in the sky as  sunset ends. Zare,  who won this year’s Young Composers Competition. has multiple awards and credentials. Some of his teachers are Michael Daughterty and Bright Sheng. The idiom is neo-romantic. The piece for large orchestra shimmers and  flows. It blazes. The strings in high registers have a sheen. Zare knows his instruments and how to combine them. The packed house liked it. So did I.

47 (mostly) Blown Instruments

Pennsylvania Symphonic Winds, Philip Evans, director; Themes from the Titanic,  University & Whist Club, April 14, 2012, Review for WRTI, 90.1 fm

A new band wants attention. Pennsylvania Symphonic Winds, founded  four years ago by Briton Philip Evans, plays original  classics, marches, hymns, transcriptions, from Sousa to Vaughan-Williams. Evans, from Portsmouth, and her Majesty’s Royal Marines, is bandmaster at Valley Forge Military Academy. His chamber group  47 players, professional and amateur, is culled from older, larger groups like the Upper Darby Sousa Band, and the Chester County Concert Band.

Saturday night, I heard the Pennsylvania Symphonic Winds in ‘Themes from the Titanic,’ a program of light classics and nautical works at the University and Whist Club in Wilmington. The program, if not entirely successful, showcased the young group’s energy and their leader’s brio.  Die Fledermaus, the first transcription,  waltzed along nicely. The hymn, “Nearer My God to Thee,” came off the best, tender and flowing and with a  segue into Dixieland to stave off sentiment. Evans has a nice way of shaping a hymn tune and he packs a wallop with closes.

The feat now is to pull absolute precision from these instrumental families.  Henry J. Wood’s Fantasisa On British Sea Songs  and John Ansell’s Plymouth Hoe are rousing numbers with sufficient challenges. Things can get messy and sometimes did. A certain bluster invaded the playing despite the prevalence of some sensitive first chairs, including flute, trumpet and percussion. Also a lone string bass, who acts as mellifluous anchor.

During the energetic second half, there was prevalence of  sharp accents and loud volumes. Missing were dynamic range and finesse. The perils in  “Eternal Father, Strong to Save,” a fascinating navy hymn, were contrapuntal.

“At Kitty O’Shea’s, ” Johan de Meij’s arrangement of Irish jigs and reels, ended the tribute evening on a jaunty note. James Horner’s soundtrack for Titanic was also programmed. Understandable, perhaps, but gratuitous, though the transcription started well. Soon enough it became distracting to expect all those clarinets to pretend to be violins in music we knew wasn’t written for them. Quibbles aside, the Pennsylvania Symphonic Winds have promise.

Yannick, Yaja, Jen Higdon

  • Philadelphia Orchestra, Yannick Nezet-Seguin, cond., Yaja Wang, piano
  • Verizon Hall, Kimmel Center
  • Dec. 8-11, 2011, Review of Dec. 8 on WRTI, 90.1 fm

The program that music-director -in-waiting Yannick Nezet-Seguin chose this week was energy from the get-go. Jen Higdon’s Concerto for Orchestra opened, its five movements challenging the Philadelphians and its audience to attention. Higdon’s exciting work was more rambunctious than I remember in  Nezet-Seguin’s reading; more extrovert than even the extrovert composer herself but the orchestra’s centennial commission  remains  a score of glow and substance.  Higdon tailored the concerto to the Philadelphians’ many gifts, the second movement highlights strings; the third, woodwinds; during Thursday night’s performance, I was partial to the  jam session for keyed percussion created by the final movements.   Piano, celesta, wood blocks, xlyophone, vibraphone – and more – are mysteriously evoked in this slowly escalating chiming music.

When Yaja Wang came out, her red dress warmed us. The 24- year- old pianist has warmed considerably on stage. She smiles now, looks friendlier than she did onstage a season ago. The virtuosity is unquestioned! Thursday night Wang lit into the Rhapsody on a Theme by Paganini.  The ivories glittered.  Rachmaninoff’s chords thundered. There were elastic pauses.  The Curtis graduate, from Beijing plays like she’s hungry – for the keys.  When she’d gobbled the variations – except the popular slow theme –  the house roared its approval.

Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No 2 in C Minor, Opus 17 was the second half. The “Little Russian.” It opens with the brass proving wonderfully stalwart. The strings take things down a notch or two for a gentle march. There’s a graciousness to the young work. And optimism. As they had during the Higdon,  the families of the orchestra showed their prowess. When it was over, the house was electric. After the bows, Yannick led a bit of The Nutcracker. Perfect.

Jurowski’s Leningrad

Philadelphia Orchestra, Vladimir Jurowski, cond., Shostakovich Symphony No. 7 in C Major, Op. 60 (Leningrad), Nov. 17-19, 2011, Verizon Hall, Kimmel Center, Review of Nov. 20 on WRTI, 90. 1 FM.

Conducting the Shostakovich Seventh (Symphony No. 7 in C Major, Op. 60), the so-called “Leningrad,” is like steering an oil rig across enemy waters. It’s unwieldy. It will blow up, sometimes well before it should. Saturday night at Verizon Hall,  Vladimir Jurowski was a splendor of restraint as well as triumph in the 1941 behemoth dedicated to the seige of Leningrad. The Philadelphia Orchestra – enlarged with subs and retirees – stretched across the stage for the mammoth symphony that fills a program. Strings were divided European fashion as the Russian maestro summoned the most elegant music- making heard since the season opened and the playing has been at an extremely high level since the season began.

The quality of treble to the violins, rising higher, higher; the sonorities matching the woodwinds,  these Philadelphia sounds we recognize and their beauty has no rival.

Twelve times the recurring pastiche popularly called the invasion theme was arresting as it fell in and out, Bolero-style, the sticks upon the snare drum snapping. By the time the march had subsided, Daniel Matsukawa’s bassoon arrived to haunt us. It was only the long first movement!

Succeeding movements did not let up for beauty or excitement. Associate David Cramer taking principal flute proved magical, Dick Woodhams’s oboe as ever never let us down. By the final movement’s last stretch those 21 brass had their explosions, the kind of exit the planet should have when it goes out. As for the young, intense, much favored Jurowski: let him return again and often. His  refinement, balance,  his gravity ignites the Philadelphia Orchestra. His gifts and  designate Yannick Nezet-Seguin’s are powerful complements.