Mark Gresham | 5 MAR 2021
This was the concert I really needed to hear last night.
After a day of government paperwork and social media intrusions, I was not really in the mood to review a concert. However, Thursday evening’s concert itself, presented online by the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra, changed that mood completely.
The strings of the orchestra, directed by music director Robert Spano, opened the program with Delights & Dances by Michael Abels (b. 1962), a much admired contemporary African-American composer.
Scored for string quartet and orchestra, Delights & Dances is a “witty, soulful, and infectiously rhythmic” work by Abels. who draws upon jazz, blues, bluegrass and Latin dance elements.
The string quartet, in this instance, was violinists David Coucheron and Sou-Chun Su, violist Paul Murphy and cellist Rainer Eudeikis
If you are someone who looks at the musicians’ clothing, you’d have noticed that Spano and the orchestra were all dressed in rehearsal gear. the video gives explanation (as if a warning) in advance:
One might guess that was so certain patrons would not be offended, or something like that. But the accidental attire actually fit well with the music’s vernacular elements of style.
Abel’s piece and the performance by Spano and the ASO were definite winners, setting the positive, optimistic tone of the evening.
The Merian Ensemble is a unique group. Not even so much that its musicians are all women (that is becoming more common) as much as its combination of instruments. Most mixed contemporary groups tend to be “Pierrot ensembles” (flute, clarinet, violin, cello, piano, percussion and occasionally voice). While Merian ensemble focuses upon the music of women composers from any era, the majority of repertoire options are naturally going to be on the modern and contemporary side for the complete ensemble or even a majority, because of their unusual instrumentation: flute, oboe, clarinet, viola and harp. (Christina Smith, Emily Brebach, Marci Gurnow, Jessica Oudin, and Elisabeth Remy Johnson, respectively). While music for various subsets of that are readily available, repertoire for the entire group are surely to depend upon either transcription or upon commissioning new pieces for that combination.
Upon hearing some music by Venezuelan Clarice Assad (b. 1978), the Merian Ensemble decided to commission a new work from her. The result was The Book of Spells. This performance was the world premiere.
Assad goes beyond the instruments at hand, however, calling the players to also play various exotic devices usually left to percussionists: some water-tuned crystal glasses, for example both struck and stroked to produce the desired sounds, for just one example.
These are sounds which imply some mystery (as the witchcraft-themed title does as well) but the work ends with a cheerful, upbeat dance. A delectable piece for an unusual combination of instruments.
Benjamin Britten’s Sinfonietta, Op. 1 was composed in 1932, when he was 18 years old and a student at the Royal College of Music, London.
Although it requires a conductor, Sinfonietta is scored for only 10 instruments, five winds and five strings: flute, oboe, clarinet, bassoon, horn, two violins, viola, cello and double bass.
Britten had already established a mature and personal voice and an assured, sophisticated command of musical structure. The sonata-form opening movement (“Poco presto ed agitato”) hints strongly at Schoenberg’s Chamber Symphony No.1 while harmonies and orchestration hearken to Stravinsky, but given those, is decidedly Britten. The second movement is a set of variations and the finale a Tarantella (both forms appear conspicuously in Britten’s later music).
There are strong suggestions of Schoenberg’s Chamber Symphony no.1 in the opening, with its bold horn call, and in the form, for the three movements more or less fuse together. Meanwhile the harmonies and scoring make reference to Hindemith and Stravinsky.
It is a colorful work, making use of all the combinations ten solo instruments afford, and painting attractive pictures with its use of flute, clarinet and oboe in particular, but adding subtle effects such as pizzicato strings. The seeds of Britten’s incredibly descriptive musical mind are shown here, in a way that was to become ever more relevant in his writing for stage and screen.
Despite the concentration on form there is emotion to be found, too. In the Tarantella there are brief but poignant asides, but when left unchecked the music gains impressive momentum, as it does leading up to the affirmative end. The second movement Variations are a different story, subtly deployed and beautifully scored so that one instrument’s line often runs into the next, culminating in a luminous duet for two violins.]
Pianist Yfrim Bronfman recorded Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 3 and No. 4 with the Tonhalle Orchestra Zurich, David Zinman, conductor, on a 2005 CD released on the Arte Nova Classics label.
In this concert with Spano and the ASO, Bronfman performed No. 3 (in C minor, Op. 37). Although he appeared much more disheveled than his promotional photos would have you expect, what we got was a thoroughly assured and elegant Beethoven, neither over-wrought nor risk-taking, but very attractive and comfortably engaging, marked more by smooth hand movements and well-shaped phrasing than by fireworks. Bronfman made the virtuosic elements feel easy and fluid.
Inclining more to the Classical style that was Beethoven’s in 1800 when No. 3 was presumed to have been composed, rather than his more Romantic “heroic” period that would already be in swing by the time of the concerto’s first performance in 1803, this was a happily satisfying, confident performance, well within the comfort zone.