Tag Archives: microreview

Microreview: Minnesota Orchestra in Griffes, Rachmaninoff, and Stravinsky

Not a single professional reviewer discussed the concert this week, so I’ll throw out my word count limit.

***

This week the Minnesota Orchestra’s program featured three pieces I’ve never sat down to listen to in their entirety: The Pleasure Dome of Kubla-Kahn by Charles Griffes, Rachmaninoff third concerto, and…the Rite of Spring. I know. You’re allowed to crucify me. It’s probably the single most unforgivable blind spot I have.

Conductor Michael Stern was on the podium. I have to transcribe what he said in his brief pre-performance address because I don’t want his words vanishing into the Mists of Time. He was talking about how the works on the program had the force of tradition behind them, yet all three struck out on new paths of their own…

And ladies and gentlemen, I must say publicly, this is the way I see the Minnesota Orchestra: with its long tradition, with its great history, yet now they are on the precipice of inventing something new. And there is a very good reason for that. They have great leadership. You have a great music director. You have a community that believes in music. But you also have these incredible musicians who, despite the recent past, exhibit a kind of bonding solidarity and a commitment to craft and art and a devotion to making great music happen for this city and for the entire region which I know, from my personal experience, and from all my colleagues, is nothing short of inspiring. And you are lucky to have them in your city.

[applause] [applause] [applause]

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Microreview: Minnesota Orchestra in Nazaykinskaya, Mozart, Prokofiev

For those new to SOTL, Microreviews are my thoughts on the Minnesota Orchestra subscription concerts broadcast live on MPR. I take the word count of the “official” newspaper reviews of the week’s concerts and use that as a guideline. (This week I’m using Rob Hubbard’s Pioneer Press review, which clocked in at 379 words.) You can join in the Microreviewing fun by catching the MPR broadcast along with me and then writing about it, whether on your own blog or on Facebook or in the comment section here. My mantra is: the more people talking about and dissecting Minnesota Orchestra concerts, the healthier our cultural habitat will be! (It’s a long mantra.)

So here are my thoughts on what the concert sounded like via MPR last night.

***

The concert began with Polina Nazaykinskaya’s Winter Bells. Nazaykinskaya is the only woman composer in the Minnesota Orchestra’s sizable 2014-2015 subscription season, and also my Facebook followers are tired of hearing me complain about this.

bitching3

“Yeah, Emily, I know. The lack of female composers definitely sucks.”

 

bitching2

“Yep, Emily, we get the message, the lack of women composers is hugely unfortunate and a downside of an otherwise brilliant 14-15 season. Agreed.”

"OH MY GOD, EMILY, JUST SHUT UP ABOUT THIS ALREADY THIS IS THE THIRD TIME YOU'VE POSTED ABOUT IT LET IT REST OMG"

“OH MY GOD, EMILY, JUST SHUT UP ABOUT THIS ALREADY; THIS IS THE THIRD TIME YOU’VE POSTED ABOUT IT; LET IT REST; OMG”

Ah well. If women could only make one contribution to programming this year, Winter Bells was definitely a fabulous choice. How often does a work by a 22-year-old hold up against Prokofiev and Mozart? The orchestra’s treatment of the gorgeous score felt hugely confident; the lower brass blasted away with spectacular abandon. And the way the sound evaporated away at the end? Pure magic.

Soloist Jonathan Biss was a polite presence at the piano in Mozart 20. Perfectly lovely and unobjectionable. Which isn’t to say the performance wasn’t enjoyable. But it wasn’t gripping. It felt a bit like filler. And I wonder if I’m the only one idly curious how Mozart ended up in an Art of Russia program. Orchestra advertising justified it by saying that Mozart was “a Russian at heart.” O-kay. That being said, I’m not sure how well live Mozart transfers over Internet radio, so your mileage may vary if you saw it live. And the audience reaction sounded wild, so this one might be on me.

Prokofiev 5 was the meat of the program. Gleaming propulsive meat, with an earnestly, sometimes nostalgically, beating heart…and a dash of insanity. The intensity of the last few notes of the first movement was simply shattering. Said intensity carried over into the maniacally metronomic second movement. I love this music; it sounds like sarcastic skeletons dancing. (Somehow.) The spitting runs in the strings and winds were genuinely creepy, both because of the sound produced and because I didn’t know it was humanly possible. The third movement was balletic: graceful, luscious, very Russian. But still slightly odd, as if the skeletons had put on tutus. (Somehow.) These sounds are strange, maybe even slightly dangerous, but they’re so seductive, and in the hands of these players Friday night, so committed and so heartfelt. The finale began with a quiet wild-eyed mania, seizing one idea after another, before going completely batshit crazy with agitated caffeinated palpitations. Perfection.

Definitely my favorite radio broadcast so far this season.

***

369 words. *dusts hands*

I know I say it every week, but this week I really mean it. Buy tickets for tonight at minnesotaorchestra.org. Seriously. I’m incredibly depressed I won’t see it live.

Can’t guarantee a Microreview for next week, as I’m aiming to catch Tchaikovsky 5 in-person! So keep an eye out for an entry on that, as well as some others that are cooking on the back burner.

***

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Microreview: Minnesota Orchestra in Tchaikovsky, Shostakovich, Prokofiev, Stravinsky

The Minnesota Orchestra launched its Russian festival this week with concerts devoted to the works of Tchaikovsky, Shostakovich, Prokofiev, and Stravinsky, led by Courtney Lewis. Both local papers were impressed. The Pioneer Press wrote 340 words of praise, the Strib 465.

***

The performance began on a somber note with the addition of Stephen Paulus’s “Veil of Tears” from To Be Certain of the Dawn. Paulus passed away on October 19 at the heartbreaking age of 65. Words don’t suffice, and I hope this moving musical tribute brought a measure of peace to the family and friends who have lost so much.

After the moment of reverent silence, excerpts from Tchaikovsky’s The Snow Maiden began. This music sounds as if it belongs in a snow globe: the Nutcracker minus the “oh no not again” baggage of the omnipotent warhorse. Warm horn calls, silvery woodwinds, rich and shapely lines in the strings… I craved a bit more forward motion at certain points earlier in the piece, but the Dance of the Tumblers finale more than made up for that with a truly dizzying propulsion. I’d never heard The Snow Maiden before, but it’s going on my playlist of winter favorites for sure.

Pianist Kirill Gerstein took the stage for Shostakovich second concerto and Prokofiev first, performing with clarity, nuance, and sensitive, exciting musicality. Moments in the interior of the first movement of the Shostakovich were absolutely explosive, and the songfulness of the andante was almost vocal. He brought similar intensity to the spiky Prokofiev first. What manic, electric repertoire, and what manic, electric playing!

The program officially closed with Stravinsky’s Symphonic Suite from The Fairy Kiss. Tchaikovsky practically deserves a co-writing credit here, as Stravinsky used bits and pieces of Tchaikovsky as subjects. To put it in bloggy terms, this is Stravinsky writing fanfiction in Tchaikovsky’s universe. My relationship with Igor is one based in ambivalence, and that’s likely why I wasn’t particularly grabbed by this piece or performance as a whole. That being said, there was some brilliant orchestral playing going on (as there always is): some beautifully blended contributions from the woodwinds, and strings full of power and character. But I do agree with the Pioneer Press that the program order would have worked better with the Stravinsky and Tchaikovsky reversed.

The encore was the finale from the Firebird: a piece that will forever have a place in the heart of Twin Cities audiences as one of the anthems of the lockout. Good news: the phoenix has risen from the ashes, and you can hear it sing this program once more tonight at 8pm at Orchestra Hall.

***

And I came right in the middle between the two newspaper reviews, at 397 words. Were you at the concert? Leave your thoughts below and contribute a microreview of your own! The more people talking about the Minnesota Orchestra, the better.

Tickets for tonight here. Be sure to check out the collection of Russian art on display in the lobby, on loan from the Museum of Russian Art.

***

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Microreview: Minnesota Orchestra, Alpine Symphony

The end of Straussfest ’14 is upon us, and accordingly, here is the last SOTL microreview of October.

The Pioneer Press covered the performance with a 366-word rave; ironically, the Minneapolis Star Tribune was apparently over in St. Paul for this week’s SPCO show. An embarrassment of riches, I guess.

As always, if you went to the performance, or listened online, please leave your thoughts in the comment section!

***

Like last week, the concert began with a piece of chamber music – in this case, Strauss’s Sextet from the opera Capriccio. I love chamber music, and it drives me crazy that orchestra tickets are so much easier to sell. Maybe this format of chamber music in the first half, with a big piece after intermission, gives a taste of the magic, simultaneously introducing the orchestra’s individual players to the audience. I worry a bit about the big shoebox auditorium swallowing the performers, but maybe if you have personalities big enough, you can fill it. Every string player sounded divine, and they all have musical personalities that could fill the entire Minneapolis metro, so no worries there. What warmth, charm, delicious informality.

The slender Serenade for Winds was just as delightful. During last week’s wind piece, I wondered if the hall acoustic and lack of conductor was an impediment. But tonight Edo de Waart was on the podium and there was a tremendous sense of direction and crispness.

The big attraction, though, was of course the Alpine Symphony. To introduce it, horn player Ellen Dinwiddie Smith gave a short verbal preface, unveiled an alphorn, and played a short duet with Bruce Hudson. The informality of this feels like we’re visiting in the musicians’ living room. Can any other major orchestra pull this off?

And what a performance of the Alpine Symphony. The ascent had swagger and jovialty in equal measure. Different sections – so many sections! – darted in and out of the intricate texture, suggesting birds and babbling brooks. The sense of luxuriant relief and awe at the summit was palpable…and it’s hard not to tie those emotions to where the orchestra is today. The storm was fricking terrifying in its swirl of volume and intensity, and I know hearing it on the radio shaved off about ninety-five percent of its impact.

Clearly this is one of those pieces you have to hear live to really experience, and I feel terrible I couldn’t make it.

But maybe you can…

***

338 words. There’s one more performance tonight. Tickets available, as always, at minnesotaorchestra.org.

***

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Microreview: Minnesota Orchestra, Richard Strauss, Death and Transfiguration

This week’s appreciative Minnesota Orchestra concert reviews came courtesy of the Strib and the Pioneer Press, clocking in at 422 and 378 words, respectively. The program at Orchestra Hall was all Richard Strauss: the Suite for Winds, Metamorphosen, Burleske, and Death and Transfiguration. Read on to hear what they sounded like over the radio. And if you were at the concert or listened at home, be sure to leave your thoughts, too!

***

Strauss’s early Suite for Winds sounded light and lovely. Over the radio, certain attacks came across as less than crisp. Whether that was because of the relatively reverberant acoustic, the lack of conductor, or another reason entirely was impossible to tell. It was such a joy to hear our maestro stretching his clarinet muscle with his first-rate wind colleagues: more of this, please!

The Metamorphosen had a more overt sense of direction than the Suite did, perhaps because Osmo was back on the podium. What a haunting late Romantic lament, tipping from bittersweet exultation to luxuriant despair, often in the space of a single winding phrase. Everyone onstage was spilling their heart’s blood; various passages sounded like string screams. I appreciated violist Ken Freed’s heartfelt introduction to the piece. Between the instrumentation and the informal remarks, the first half almost felt like a chamber music pre-concert to the second half. I loved that eclectic vibe. More of this, please!

The mood lightened and broadened after intermission once the full orchestra came onstage. Pianist and Minnesota native Andrew Staupe exploded onto the keyboard in the Burleske, and he navigated the piece’s manifold challenges – from cascading keyboard-smashing passages to delicate dance-like themes – with energy, spunk, and good old-fashioned Minnesotan humility. Despite the piece’s hushed ending, the audience response was wild, with appreciative whoops and hollers galore, all so very well-deserved. More Andrew Staupe, please!

But without a doubt, Death and Transfiguration was the highlight of the program. First came the heaviness of the opening’s labored breathing, each carefully notated dynamic meticulously observed, ironically making the music feel that much more improvisatory and new. Then came a manic frenzied rebellion, musicians and maestro railing wildly together against death. (For some reason, this orchestra is hugely effective railing against death…) The ultimate transfiguration seemed to float, buoyant with the ecstasy of artistic accomplishment. And as the piece whispered its conclusion, even over the radio, you could hear the sound ring – then evaporate into the hall, testament to a breathless performance and rapt audience.

More of…well, everything, please!

***

344 words.

Normally this is the space in the microreview where I tell you, go buy tickets for tonight’s performance!, but unfortunately there are no more performances; if you missed it, you missed it.

However, there’s still one more opportunity to join in the Straussfest fun, so buy your tickets here. There are still a handful left, and wouldn’t it be nice to close the festival out with a sold-out hall? I highly doubt you’re going to be disappointed.

***

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Microreview: Minnesota Orchestra, Richard Strauss, Don Quixote

I need a coat nowadays when I go outside, and we all know what that means:

The Minnesota Orchestra subscription series has begun.

Therefore: it’s Microreview Time!

For those of you who are new (and quite a lot of you are, so hey!), a Microreview is a type of entry I write on Saturday morning after listening to the MPR broadcast of the previous night’s Minnesota Orchestra’s subscription concert, with a word count equal to or lesser than that week’s newspaper review. Microreviews are meant to hone my short writing skills, provide an alternative perspective to the official critics, promote the official critics, and frankly to provide filler when I’m too busy to write my traditionally novel-length articles on other topics. *thumbs up* Readers are welcome to contribute their own thoughts or Microreviews.

This week’s program was the opening to the Strauss Oktoberfest. Tony Ross the Boss starred in Don Quixote, with the Dance of the Seven Veils and the Suite from Der Rosenkavalier after intermission; the only review in the metro this week came from Rob Hubbard over at the Pioneer Press, and clocked in at 355 words.

***

The beating heart of the Minnesota Orchestra’s program this week was Don Quixote, the story of the original tilt-er-at-windmills. This orchestra excels at conveying narrative, and that strength was put to fabulous use here. DQ felt less like a tone poem and more like a one-act instrumental opera. At the Adventure of the Windmills, you could practically see Don Quixote lunging about with his lance. “The victorious struggle against the army of the great emperor Alifanfaron) [actually a flock of sheep]” variation cracked me up with its juxtaposition of heroic theme with rambling brass bleating. Tom Turner portrayed to perfection the earnest squire Sancho Panza, especially in his recurring and-that’s-that up-and-down arpeggio. The Ride in the Air was fricking airborne. The death scene was genuinely haunting, even after all the comedy that preceded it. And through it all, Tony navigated the multitude of mood changes with honesty and aplomb. Given that this is less a cello concerto than an orchestral showpiece, I wonder if the best performances might come not from traveling soloists, but rather from principals who know their band. This performance bore out the hypothesis; it was certainly one of the best I’ve ever heard.

Tom and Tony

Tom and Tony

After the heart of Don Quixote, the delicious corny schmaltz of Dance of the Seven Veils and Der Rosenkavalier felt…odd. I might have tweaked the program order. Salome’s dance was masterfully done. There was one marvelously performed skittering pianissimo string passage in particular that just made my violin-loving heart marvel. The Suite from Der Rosenkavalier started off with a few dance-heralding blasts in a tempo brisker than I’ve heard before; I loved it. Since the Mahler performance, I’ve been thinking about sarcasm in performance. I heard a bit of it here. Not in the slow tender heartbreaking moments, but in the more…decadent portions. The snarky vibe might have come partly from the fabulously flexible tempos; Andrew Litton and his players milked those for all they were worth, and to glorious effect.

In conclusion, I hadn’t realized how badly my life needed Erin Keefe playing vaguely snarky waltz solos.

***

347 words!

There’s still one more performance left tonight at eight, and I recommend you take advantage of it. As always, tickets at minnesotaorchestra.org.

Edit at 3:30pm: And if you’re interested, here’s the Strib review, which was published after mine.

***

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Microreview: Minnesota Orchestra and Chorale, Heitzeg, Stravinsky, Orff

Time for the last Microreview of the season! *gets weepy*

Catch this fabulous program tonight at 8pm and tomorrow at 2pm at Orchestra Hall; tickets at minnesotaorchestra.org. SOTL Microreviews will return this fall as we all embark on the Best Season Evar! Feel free to contribute a Microreview of your own, too.

My word count comes from this week’s enjoyable Rob Hubbard Pi-Press review: 429. I think it’s best for everyone if we forget the Strib’s review of weirdness ever existed, so 429 words it is. Here goes!

***

This week the sacred and the sexual mix unabashedly in a program of Stravinsky, Orff, and Minnesota composer Steve Heitzeg.

I’m not so familiar with Heitzeg, although I love his soundtrack for Death of the Dream, the TPT documentary about abandoned Midwestern farmsteads. It was sparse and devastatingly effective. So it was interesting to hear his voice in this new context. “Now We Start The Great Round” has the flavor of movie music written for a Copland biopic, and it serves as a sweeping curtain raiser. But it finished before it started, especially when the stage change took half as long as the piece itself.

After the Stage Change of Interminability came Stravinsky’s Symphony of Psalms. Way too late I realized: maybe it’s irresponsible to write about a performance of this piece, especially when

  1. I’ve never heard it before,
  2. I don’t know anything about choirs, and
  3. my two instruments have left the stage (violins! violas! come back!).

So I put the critiquing ears away and just soaked in the ambiance. From that perspective, the Symphony was all melancholy angularity, lit by the glow of the sound of the Chorale. It sounded like candlelight flickering in an Escher cathedral. Lush, sacred…and very odd. Last night I didn’t grasp the narrative. It was all very lovely, but meh. Then again, I don’t find much Stravinsky seductive, so…

Oh, you're the bad boy of music alright.

Oh, you’re the bad boy of music alright

The narrative for Carmina Burana, on the other hand, hit like an anvil to the head. From the first notes it felt like straight-line winds were blowing over the radio. O FOR-TUN-A, indeed. I think the Minnesota Chorale put every single emotion of being locked out of Orchestra Hall for sixteen months into that opening phrase. The bitter sneer of those consonants! My takeaway? Do not get on the wrong side of the Minnesota Chorale. Damn.

It was immediately clear that members of the Chorale could not only sing Carmina in their sleep, but under general anesthetic. That familiarity could easily lead to a bored performance, but of course they’re above that. Their effervescent joy at being back on that stage was contagious, and so deeply satisfying to hear. The Orchestra supported them all the way, but – dare I say it? – it was the Chorale’s show last night. And deservedly so.

As for the baritone in Ego Sum Abbas, I wish I sang that well drunk.

To sum up the 2014 season:

Away with sadness!
summer returns,
and now departs
cruel winter…

wretched is the person
who neither lives,
nor lusts
under summer’s spell.

***

Addendum: An earlier version of this review misspelled composer Steve Heitzeg’s name. Awkward, and my apologies.

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Microreview: Minnesota Orchestra, Mozart

This week’s Microreview is of the Minnesota’s Orchestra Mozart 39 – 40 – 41 concerts. Apparently the Strib was too exhausted from kissing Richard Davis’s tap shoes to send a critic to this week’s Minnesota Orchestra concert, so my word count standard for this week will come from Rob Hubbard’s Pioneer Press review, which clocked in at 359 words. As per usual for Microreviews, I wasn’t in the hall: I was on my couch listening to MPR. So the suspected disclaimers apply.

***

I like Mozart. I respect him. I don’t love him.

But if more people played Mozart like the Minnesota Orchestra did last night, my heart would reassess.

Every section shined, but to me, this was the strings’ night. Rob Hubbard mused in his review that the string complement might have been too large, and I can understand the concern, because the string sound was certainly big. But strings are my things, so I didn’t mind one whit.

Endless tiny moments to savor, all night long. The ringing of the open strings at the end of descending scales in 39. The unfussy phrasing of the opening of 40. The batsh*t crazy tempo of the finale of 41 (how did the back of the firsts and back of the seconds stay in synch at this tempo from across the stage?).

And this ascending line in 40. What the hell kind of magic is this? It’s a simple ascending line, for God’s sake. It shouldn’t make me want to squeal in bliss like some kind of Mozart-loving pig.

ascending line

And the breathlessly gorgeous phrases just kept coming. One phrase would end, and an equally luscious one would spin in to take its place.

This is a strange analogy, but I’ll make it anyway. The Minnesota Orchestra sounds like a splendid grande dame. She has the wisdom of decades combined with all the mischief of youth. She may be impeccably dressed, but fashion is only important to her within the context of self-expression: her motivations are pure, always. She knows when to be bold and brassy and when she can underplay her hand. Her sense of humor is sharp and biting and more than a little black and snarky. She can stay out later and party as hard as any twentysomething. She has been through more triumph and tragedy than anybody, and accordingly, she won’t stand for bull. She is an amazing 111-year-old lady.

And I love her.

There’s no doubt in my mind: this was the best played concert since the lockout ended.

***

341 words. Ha. I’ll cure you yet, wordiness.

If you don’t have your tickets for tonight, go! Buy them at minnesotaorchestra.org.

***

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Microreview: Minnesota Orchestra, Mendelssohn, Wagner

We all know I can write long. Even Alex Ross knows this.

rosstweet

I remember when this happened… *dreamy sigh*

But can I write short? Uh… Not really.

So to practice, I’m going to take the Strib’s review word count and work within that limit. This week’s Minnesota Orchestra Strib review belonged to Michael Anthony and clocked in at 456 words, so I’ll try to stay under 450. I do like to go long when I’m actually in the hall – in-person, I always see and hear a lot I want to write about – but when I’m just listening over the radio, I don’t see any harm in going short. I’m calling these micro-reviews. For lack of a better term.

If anyone wants to join in on the micro-review fun, do. The more the merrier when it comes to discussing concerts.

***

You know the best way to listen to a Minnesota Orchestra concert?

Livestreaming on a laptop!

/sarcasm

Well, it’s better than nothing. After a fashion report from Brian Newhouse (apparently Erin Keefe was wearing a “beautiful dark blue sleeveless gown”), Friday’s concert began with the Mendelssohn violin concerto. It was disorienting to jump into a concerto without an overture, but there was a 70-minute ~WAGNER EXTRAVAGANZA~ after intermission to consider.

The orchestra played with fine, elegant understatement. And I’m not sure I cared for that. I usually like my Mendelssohn with icy aristocratic soloists and wild-eyed accompaniment. It was the opposite dynamic here: Erin was providing all the fire, and the orchestra the cool restraint. Maestro Wigglesworth was completely justified musically, historically, and philosophically in taking this approach, but I need more time to decide if I liked it or not.

Lest you think I’m bitching, I thought the orchestra played beautifully, and the wind section in particular made some of the most stunning contributions I’ve heard in any Mendelssohn, ever. The single bassoon note linking the first and second movements startled me with its character.

And need I say that Erin Keefe played flawlessly? Silver tone, searing vibrato, character to burn… She’s perfection.

Next came the Wagner adaptation and its attendant harps and horns. Also, horns.

I admit that when it comes to opera, I’m a philistine. I find it hard to take this music seriously. Any story that goes remotely like this…

…has me skeptical before a single note is played.

But of course the performance was first-rate. The wild, Romantic, edge-of-your-seat quality I was missing in the Mendelssohn was here in spades. (Possibly because there were a lot of players literally on the edges of their seats. Don’t think I haven’t seen those string parts. What kind of sadist writes four nights of that?)

This guy

This guy

There were times when the arrangement was successful. The Ride of the Valkyries, for instance, took on a whole new meaning inserted into a larger narrative. Here the character of the strings almost stole the show from the brass. (Almost.)

But after a while, it all turned into a bit of a…blur. Albeit a heavy, horn-y, supremely well-played blur. I had two antithetical impressions: certain ideas seemed truncated, yet everything was so long. Call this the “Paradox of the Orchestral Adventure.”

Hey, did I mention there was brass? There was, and they played gorgeously, majestically, with a rich, plummy sound.

But one detail made it tough for me to truly enjoy this piece: namely, it was by Wagner. Apparently the Minnesota Orchestra has played this extravaganza every ten years since 1994. Maybe in 2024 I’ll go see the next performance.

Or….maybe not.

***

453 words. *dusts off hands*

Just because I’m wary of Wagner doesn’t mean you should be. You can still buy tickets for tonight at minnesotaorchestra.org. Erin’s Mendelssohn is worth more than the price of admission. If I was in Minnesota this weekend, I’d be going in a heartbeat. Enjoy yourself!

***

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