Reviews

REPEATS 5/6: Greensboro Symphony Caps Season with Superlative Elgar and Dvořák

 

 

May 4, 2017 - Greensboro, NC:

 

 

Greensboro Symphony Orchestra music director Dmitri Sitkovetsky chose an ideal pairing of masterworks for the finale of the 2016-17 season – his fourteenth at the helm. The orchestra filled the stage of Dana Auditorium on the campus of Guilford College – acoustically one of the city's finest.

The opening appetizer was a solid performance of the original Dresden edition of the overture to the opera Tannhäuser (1845) by Richard Wagner (1813-83). Sitkovetsky paced the piece, carefully building and releasing tension over long phrases. The solemn "Pilgrim's Chorus" theme was beautifully spun by the five French horns before being taken up by the deep, rich sound of the cellos, to be followed by the full support of the orchestra. This theme of chaste, spiritual asceticism was quickly juxtaposed against a feverish, voluptuous Venusberg theme. A wide dynamic range made fora  fine, dramatic impression. Brief, effective solos were had from concertmaster Marjorie Bagley and principal clarinetist Kelly Burke.

The roster of great concertos for the cello are slim. There is the glorious Dvořák at the top followed closely by introspective Cello Concert in E minor, Op. 85 (1919), the last major composition of Sir Edward Elgar (1857-1934). The bloodshed of hundreds on Flanders Fields in World War I wreaked social havoc and the loss of confidence in civilization itself. It is reflected in this concerto's deep melancholy. Elgar's orchestration is exquisitely balanced so as to never cover the soloist. Most of the four movements are slow. A typical Elgarian nobilmente flourish opens the concerto before quickly giving way to a long world-weary theme in the violas, then taken up by the soloist and finally the full orchestra. A livelier section, introduced by the clarinet, is followed by the cello's dark meditation. The second movement is joined by the cello playing a guitar-like pizzicato version of the introductory embellishment before using the bow and calling upon a plethora of virtuoso techniques while rushing in perpetual motion. The short Adagio is a "song without words" for the cello. The cello's recitative, combining the themes of the first movement, opens the finale. It opens with a typical Elgarian pre-WWI short episode of swagger before a return of the wistful mood. A brilliant cello cadenza leads a brief spirited finish.

Zuill Bailey, a frequent and welcomed guest throughout our state, was the dazzling soloist. What richness of tone and what a wide palette of color! The multiple types of pizzicatos came off breathtakingly. How perfectly did he evoke the unique Elgarian melancholy! Sitkovetsky balanced and phrased with his soloist ideally, not least in creating a special orchestral translucency in the opening movement. Every section of the orchestra was responsive to the challenges.

It is too bad the popularity of the "New World Symphony" of Antonín Dvořák (1841-1904) has crowded off his finest, Symphony No. 7 in D minor, Op. 70, from our concert halls. It was commissioned by the London Philharmonic Society and was premiered in 1885 with the composer leading their orchestra. Dvořák had firmly decided to stick with his nationalist ideals at the time, resisting pressure to compose a German opera. This work is set in the standard four movements.

The brooding opening Allegro maestoso pairs a sometimes dark, sometimes triumphant theme against a second theme that is dance-like and gentle. Folk-like melodies and beats are in every movement. The Poco Adagio is rich in counterpoint and dissonances. The lovely Scherzo: Vivace is based upon the alternating dance rhythms the Czech dance – the furiant. The Finale: Allegro reflects the varying moods of the first three movements before resolving in triumph.

Sitkovetsky led an idiomatic and vital interpretation with every section of the orchestra responding enthusiastically and skillfully. The horn section, led by Robert Campbell, was in resplendent form. Low strings produced rich, full sounds. Sitkovetsky's antiphonal seating of the strings, with the first and second violin sections on opposite sides of the stage, helped bring independent lines into relief. Burke contributed significant clarinet solos. A delicate pairing of a pair of flutes, led by Debra Reuter-Pivetta, and the first stand of violas led by Scott Rawls, was a memorable episode between the dynamic, stormy portions.

A brief taste of one of the GSO's community outreach, its partnership annually with three local high schools, was given before the hall opened for the formal concert. A concert band from Southeastern Guilford played a medley of movie theme music before an audience of proud parents and early arrivers. Vouchers for the concert tickets were given to the student players and their families. GSO musicians spend an intensive two weeks with the students.

This concert repeats on Saturday night. For details see the side bar.

On Friday night, Sitkovetsky, violin, was joined by Zuill Bailey, cello, Scott Rawls, viola, and other members of the GSO, for a chamber concert in the UNCG School of Music Recital Hall.

Cellist Zuill Bailey has a charismatic approach that’s hard to ignore. His sheer technicality heightens his artistry beyond the realm of just passable influence. He adores the cello because it’s the only instrument that you play rested against your heart. Tonight he joins the National Philharmonic Orchestra for a night of virtuosity.

 

The program included Koi Nidrei Op. 47 by Max Bruch, Schelomo: Rhapsodie Hébraïque by Ernest Bloch and Pictures at an Exhibition by Modest Mussorgsky, the orchestral Maurice Ravel version.

Zuill Bailey opened for the two pieces for cello and orchestra, Bruch and Bloch. Rhapsodie Hébraïque by Ernest Bloch was particularly enjoyable. The heart felt patterns resonated beautifully throughout the Music Center. Zuill Bailey plays with a passion unparalleled to almost any performer I’ve even seen. It’s as if he cradles his cello whispering to it sweet nothings with his eyes closed. That might sound boring except for the fact that his technical execution is so masterful it will leave you amazed.

It was the compositional philosophy of Bloch to write music that in his words encapsulates the Jewish soul “the complex glowing agitated soul that I feel vibrating throughout the Bible.” This performance was a superb example of that expression.

Post intermission bought on the all so resounding Pictures at an Exhibition by Mussorgsky. As revered as the original piano piece has become it is the Maurice Ravel translation that has become my preferred listening method. It was originally intended as a piano accompaniment for an art exhibition with Russian folklore being a prominent theme. Movements included: The Gnome, The Old Castle, The Ox Cart, The Ballet of Unhatched Chicks in Their Shells, The Market at Limoges, The Catacombs, The Hut of Bab-Yaga on Chicken’s legs, and the Great gate of Kiev.

The Baba-Yaga or The Hut of Baba-Yaga on Chicken’s Legs is a personal favorite. The Baba-Yaga is a cannibal witch that dwells deep in the forest in a hut standing on chicken legs. This tableau paints a picture of a wicked scene shrouded in fear and mystery. The performance was astonishing! It gave you goose bumps! The monstrous tones erupted gloriously. Booing brass roars like an agitated beast. Violins wisp at a frantic pace alerting us of the presence of danger. It’s an action packed adventure that will hold your attention. I routinely listen to Gustavo Dudamel’s performance of the Baba Yaga on YouTube from Salzburg 2008.

This was a fantastic concert executed masterfully. It was passionate, adventurous and fun.

 

Backward Looks, Compelling Play: Bailey and Zander

by

Zuill Baliey (file photo)

Zuill Baliey (file photo)

A broken cello string well into Dutilleux’s cello concerto occasioned a quick instrument substitution provided by the second chair cellist. After the restart, for some reason, another move came. Quickly, returning her cello, soloist Zuill Bailey left the stage for a new string. Meanwhile, Benjamin Zander entertained with stories of bows flying and strings popping, lending welcome levity to the Saturday evening concert.

On the intended side, Zander led the Boston Philharmonic at Jordan Hall in French and English music dating back a century or so. Claude Debussy’s Prélude à L’aprés-midi d’un faune and Henri Dutilleux’s Tout un Monde Lointain…found artistic shine, while William Walton’s Scapino Overture and Edward Elgar’s Enigma Variations bathed in symphonic lore.

Filling the stage in formal black attire, the Boston Philharmonic, under the baton grandeur of Zander, would prompt thoughts of yesteryear and a tradition of music making still alive, but not necessarily thriving. Noticeably visible were many seats left unoccupied—conjecture, though, might have it that other reasons would be at play. It should be pointed out that the same concert was given the previous Thursday evening and that another would be given the following Sunday.

Certainly, it is difficult at best to try and guess an audience’s real feel for a program, a performance, or a piece. Yet one wonders why so little applause followed the Debussy and, it seemed, even less for the Walton. Have we heard the Frenchman’s Faun masterpiece too often by now? Has the Englishman’s comedic Scapino lost something over time?

Yet, for the newest piece on the block, the Dutilleux, there was. in fact, a standing ovation. Was it for standout cellist Zuill Bailey who miraculously conjured a whole world away, one that an experienced yet perplexed concert goer grasped only as “extraterrestrial?” In his program note—itself demanding some kind of standing O—David St. George reveals, “On the title page of the score the composer gives a slightly fuller quote: ‘Tout un Monde Lointain, absent, Presque defunt’ (‘A whole world away, distant, almost dead’).”

For me, privileged as a young student in Paris to attend several of his Saturday morning composition seminars at the École Normale Supérieure, this Dutilleux is a transitional work. While its timbral and harmonic language illumine, tinges of Viennese Expressionism coupled with metric rhythm darken, if not slightly contradict.

Cello soloist Bailey drew the best out of this work, creating ethereal poignancy, purifying rapture, and sustaining compelling intrigue.

The Philharmonic flourished with the many plush, complex orchestral textures inhabiting the near half-hour score.

Debussy on the whole expounded on architecture rather than summoning French atmospheric dreaming. Wafting through, though, wind solos felt like soft embracing streamers in a spring dreamscape.

On the English side came Sir Walton’s Scapino Overture, a wakeup call, as it were, after intermission. The high speed, high volume, big orchestra piece blazed away. While the Boston Philharmonic once again displayed elevated rituals of artistry appropriate for the overture, very little came of all of it. Why? Walton’s “I-am-one-move-ahead-of-you” wound up being more fatiguing, if not unsurprising, once the listener caught up and caught on.

Elgar’s Enigma Variations fit right into that look back in time—and for the best. Approaching the final destination of those 14 variations which inevitably evoke graduation time, those sonic shadows made for genuine poetry, a glowing and warm. Once again with the orchestra shining in symphonic affect, there was specter of overdoing it. Relaxation and reflection—relief in a word—almost went missing, and when hushed passages were delivered by the Philharmonic, how relished they were.

David Patterson, Professor of Music and former Chairman of the Performing Arts Department at UMass Boston, was recipient of a Fulbright Scholar Award and the Chancellor’s Distinction in Teaching Award. He studied with Nadia Boulanger and Olivier Messiaen in Paris and holds a PhD from Harvard University.  He is the author of 20 Little Piano Pieces from Around the World (G. Schirmer). www.notescape.net


 

Zuill Bailey had always wanted to play the Dutilleux cello concerto.  

 

The popular cellist has performed some of the grandest concertos in the repertoire as well as a host of new music. But the Dutilleux piece, known for its extreme difficulty, was off limits for him as most conductors refused to program it.

 

That changed this season when Benjamin Zander offered Bailey to chance to perform the concerto with the Boston Philharmonic. Thursday night at Sanders Theatre. Bailey and the ensemble delivered a commanding performance of this infrequently performed  work.

The concerto, titled Tout un monde lointain, reflects five poems by Charles Baudelaire. It comprises a world of shimmering sounds. The music changes shape on a dime, pulsing with energy in some places and weeping in others. The harmonic writing is colorful but occasionally bristly, falling somewhere between Debussyian elegance and the Boulezian avant-garde. But there’s a warmth and humanity to Dutilleux’s style. At one point the orchestra sounds a chord built from all twelve pitches of the chromatic scale; the resulting music shimmers like light on water.

The concerto places unusual demands on the solo instrument, likely why Bailey broke a string in the middle of the first movement. After a quick fix, Bailey, Zander, and the orchestra picked up where they left off and gave a reading of fierce commitment that made the most out of Dutilleux’s occasionally sparse orchestration.  

Bailey conjured a host of sounds from the cello. His playing ranged from glassy harmonics and ghostly slides to percussive pizzicatos. Yet the cellist performed with a remarkable sense of the melodic line. His tone was cool yet singing, like a voice in the wilderness. In response, Zander coaxed playing of delicate colors. The orchestra responded sensitively to make a strong case for a work that deserves to be heard more often


New CD

Zuill Bailey