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Category: What I heard



Music fans in search of surprises should generally avoid Erie Philharmonic subscription concerts. Transcendent or mediocre, they usually come as advertised.

So, it’s refreshing to report that several wonders were on offer Saturday evening–and no, I don’t mean the inclusion of a work by a living composer (remember “V2 Schneider” last season?). Not that I’m gainsaying the appearance of Christopher Theofanides’ rapt, shimmering “Rainbow Body,” which opened the program.

What was so unexpected was the reception by a Philharmonic audience that treats anything composed after the Brahms Fourth Symphony with deep suspicion. No, there wasn’t a spontaneously hooting wave of approval, but there was none of the tentative hand-patting more suited for the 17th green at Augusta, either.

For this, we must thank music director Daniel Meyer, who not only led a committed and startlingly well-played performance, but had the savvy to tell his audience beforehand what they would hear. This is important, I think, because some audiences need the reassurance of hearing familiar signposts, even in music that is not familiar to them: regular rhythms, a signal return to the tonic, big climaxes that tell you when a piece is over. But more about that last point later.

Now, Theofanides is not Xenakis. His music is tonal and full of ravishing color (my daughter remarked that the music “sounded like Disney music” and I know what she meant). But it’s not made like a Beethoven sonata-allegro, and this, I think, makes some audience members uneasy. Not knowing what to listen for, they feel at sea.

Meyer cleverly and persuasively gave them some direction by briefly explaining the piece’s inspiration: an esoteric bit of Tibetan Buddhist metaphysics (brevity was important here). He then introduced the plainchant, by 12th Century German nun and mystic Hildegard of Bingen, that Theofanides wove into his score. Meyer played the whole thing, and in its own way, Hildegard’s haunting choral work sounded as alien to ears steeped in the Viennese canon as “Rainbow Body” did. But it gave people something to hang on to and to listen for, if only as a sort of musical “Where’s Waldo?” parlor game.

In any case, it worked, and so did the performance. The proof: my daughter, who attended the concert under duress (from me), closed her cell phone and sat up attentively. No greater praise could Meyer and the Phil receive.

The second surprise came when the IATSE guys lugged a small amplifier to the stage for the Rodrigo “Concierto de Aranjuez.” Ana Vidovic is not the first classical guitarist to use an amplifier, and let’s face it, we’ve all heard the Warner’s acoustics swallow up powerful violin soloists. The whispery, intimate classical guitar doesn’t have a chance in there.

Still, the electronics were not expected, though on balance, the sound coming from the amp was modest and not grotesque. It rendered Vidovic’s very clean playing faithfully, though a broad range of colors was not apparent, maybe a function of the sound reinforcement.

This was a performance that was perhaps short of duende, though the cool, somewhat detached aesthetic shared by conductor and soloist had the salutary effect of minimizing the kitsch potential in this now over-familiar music. The famous second movement had a cool, moonlit quality that was a bit jarring at first, but had its own logic. Vidovic’s careful playing and eschewing of splashy emotion drew the ear to her. This might have been a guitar concerto by Stravinsky in his driest neoclassical mode, and even though Meyer used a full complement of strings (another surprise), balances were nicely controlled in all but the biggest tuttis.

Friends of mine, attentive listeners and lovers of Spanish culture, were appalled. I was rather pleased. And may I say that Vidovic looked really sensational in a dramatic, jungle-print gown?

Meyer carried some of his cool into the Tchaikovsky “Pathetique” Symphony that ended the evening. Again, the playing was quite good. And while we’re on that, exactly when did the strings, long the sick man of the Phil’s sections, become the orchestra’s MVPs? Exhibit A: the genuine pianissimo in the opening Adagio that I haven’t heard since . . . well, I don’t recall ever hearing this at a Phil concert. And they achieved the feat more than once, along with being notably unified and (a shaky moment by the celli in the Adagio lamentoso aside) well-tuned.

Big ups, also, to new principal bassoonist Laura Koepke for her sorrowing, eloquent concertante turns. And another surprise: the Phil’s usually off-the-leash brass were relatively under control, though this may not be a virtue in Tchaikovsky (full disclosure: all week I had been listening to Mravinsky’s classic, but highly idiosyncratic recording where the brass snarl, bray and sob with over-the-top emotion).

This was a very purposeful, unsentimental–I’m tempted to say a very Germanic–reading. Those who prefer eye-rolling, bodice-ripping, dark-nights-of-the-Slavic-soul drama would have left unsatisfied. And this is what makes Tchaikovsky such a difficult composer to bring off, despite the arena-rock appeal of all those juicy melodies and danceable rhythms: the emotion is written into the music. How much sauce do you put on a dish such as this before you ruin it?

In the end, Meyer wielded a teaspoon, not a ladle, but the performance was tightly argued and very well-played. He knew exactly what he was doing. Too bad the audience didn’t.

Look, complaining about between-movements applause makes as much sense in Erie as complaining about the weather or the quality of our political leadership, and Lord knows the swaggering march that is the Allegro molto vivace verily screams for a standing-O, but I think Meyer intended to plunge directly into the following Adagio lamentoso. It would have been a neat effect, but the interstitial applause foiled that plan.

Even worse was the moment in the finale when the brass rises to a proclamatory fervor before the main theme returns. Meyer took a bit of a pause there. The audience read this as a customary, all-hands-on-deck climax, and a smattering of premature hand claps were heard. Three minutes later, when the final heavy sighs from the low strings (played with rather chilling control at low volume) came, Meyer dropped his hands and . . . nothing. Even in a piece as familiar as the “Pathetique,” the audience had no idea where the ending was.

See what I mean about those signposts?

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Last week, I took a position with Gannon University. It’s a significant step in many ways, but that is a subject for another day (and perhaps another venue).

Two days into my tenure there, I attended a concert dedicated to the memory of Bruce Morton Wright, who passed into the next world this summer. As a concert, it was a hit or miss affair; Gannon has no music school, and the student players were there not because they wanted professional careers, and not because they were technically advanced, but because they loved the music. Look up the etymology of the word amateur. These kids were its very embodiment.

Bruce, of course, was a pro. Trained at the Vienna Conservatory, he was a tributary of the mainstream of Central European musical tradition, albeit an unlikely one. Bruce’s qualities as a musician were manifold. I told him once that he seemed to be an avatar of one of that tradition’s standard bearers, the conductor Bruno Walter. Walter was genial and warm, beloved of his players, and a musician of great heart. The comparison was not hard to arrive at.

But it is Bruce the man whose memory will remain after the last echoes of his performances have faded. He was, quite simply, the finest man I have ever known. His good humor, decency, utter absence of ego and love of his fellows were without peer in my limited experience. Did he ever have a bad word for anybody? I never heard it.

He didn’t even have a bad word for the multiple myeloma that felled him. He gave me the diagnosis – characteristically, almost as an aside – during a telephone interview I did with him for a ShowCase preview. He cheerily described the wonders of the experimental treatment he was to undergo in Pittsburgh and regarded the disease as no more of an obstacle than learning a particularly knotty new score might have been. As he did this, I wept as I read a Web page stating that for African-American males, the disease had a mortality rate of 85% within two years.

In Tibetan Buddhism, there is a category of being called a bodhisattva, a person whose life was dedicated to the generation of loving-kindness for all beings. So great are this person’s benevolent aspirations that she or he attains a sort of immortality. Bruce was that sort of person. My new office at Gannon is directly behind Bruce’s old band room, and I can feel him there, telling his stories, charming his musicians into playing exactly the way he wants them to play and laughing. Always laughing.

It’s ironic, isn’t it, that I arrived just as he left.

Or did he?

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Air Force


I’m a baseball fan, but there was a time when I almost deserted my natural pastime. It was the annis horribilis of 1994 when a work stoppage canceled the World Series. It was the culmination of many years of labor strife fundamentally caused by a deep mistrust between the owners and the Players Association, the union that represented the players. Frightened by the damage that this enmity had created, both to the owners’ gate receipts and to the players incomes and endorsement deals, the two sides have worked together, warily at times, to ensure the health of the game.

And everyone has won. Baseball’s revenue numbers are at historic highs, as are player contracts.

I’m reminded of this by the recent announcement that WQLN-FM will broadcast portions of Erie Philharmonic on the second Wednesday of each month during the 11:00 hour of the “Classics with Wally Faas” program.

At one time, the Philharmonic was a staple of the WQLN schedule. But labor strife intervened. I wasn’t party to it, of course, but it probably went something like this:

MUSICIANS: Our contract treats radio broadcasts as a performance for which we should get paid.

MANAGEMENT: We don’t make any money on the broadcasts. Where will we get the money to pay you?

Both sides were right, but like the baseball example, neither side trusted the other enough to compromise. The Phil lost a valuable marketing vehicle, the players lost some extra income (to which they were contractually entitled), WQLN lost a piece of prestige programming and local music lovers . . . well, we just lost. Period.

So it’s heartening that some agreement was finally reached, and the proof is in the listening.

The inaugural broadcast on March 3 featured a performance of Grieg’s Piano Concerto with soloist Antonio Pompa-Baldi from the concert that opened the Phil’s 2008 season. Listening to the broadcast, my first thought was, “Gee, why can’t we have an orchestra like that in Erie?” That’s how solid this performance sounded. Overexposure has worn away what affection I might have had for the Grieg, but I have to say that the old warhorse sounded fit and frisky in the hands of Pompa-Baldi, Daniel Meyer and the Phil. What possible harm could come from hearing this?

And it was a nice touch to include an interview with the Warner Theatre recording team of Tom McLaren and Dan Sullivan (my old program director and engineer from the “All That Jazz” days at the Q) telling war stories about capturing the Phil live in the old house.

Future broadcasts will include Turina’s “Oración del torero,” Op. 34 on April 14 (a performance I recall as being short and effective), the deathless “Carmina Burana” on May 12 a “Carmen Suite” to end the season on June 9.

Will listeners on the air translate into fannies in the seats? That is the million-dollar question, and we won’t know the answer for a while. Still, like the chicken soup remedy for a cold, it may not help, but it can’t hurt either.

Moreover, it tastes good.

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Judgment Day


In the entertainment business, a tentpole is a blockbuster that is big enough to support all of the creative product that surrounds it. “Seinfeld” used to do that on Thursday nights for NBC, and one could argue that the Verdi Requiem was the tentpole for this Philharmonic season. It’s a big work by a brand name composer with an irresistable and universal program (nothing more fundamental than death, redemption and eternity, is there?). Because it’s by Verdi, drama comes as standard equipment.

But it’s also a complicated machine calling for four vocal soloists, double chorus and augmented orchestra. So, when the downbeat is given, the Requiem is about Judgment Day in more ways than one. Last evening’s Erie Philharmonic performance didn’t exactly reach heaven, but neither should it be consigned to musical hell.

That’s where most Phil performances with chorus have headed, but not last night. Fortified by the Grove City College Touring Choir, the Erie Philharmonic Chorus was strong and often precise (the double fugue of the Sanctus were wonderfully clear). Hats off to Jason Bishop (Erie) and Douglas Browne (Grove City).

The vocal soloists, resident artists from the Pittsburgh Opera were up and down all night. Mezzo Lindsay Ammann cracked her entrance note in the Liber scriptus then sang strongly the rest of the evening. She got better as the music got higher and louder. Liam Moran had the hangdog look of a younger, rangier Ringo Starr. His mournful face reflected the lamenting music Verdi gives the bass, which he dispatched in a soft-grained way. Because this is Verdi, the big moments are given to the tenor and soprano. Noel Baetge’s Ingemisco was sweet-toned and small-scaled. Soprano Danielle Pastin had a real sense of Verdi’s storm-and-truth style, and her Libera me was frequently touching if also a bit rough-and-ready.

Perhaps the Phil needed the risers for the chorus, but keeping the winds on floor level made them inaudible from my seat (Row T, center of the house). It’s a shame, because there is much characterful wind writing here. Big ups, though, to Daniel Meyer for stationing four trumpets in the balcony for a shivery Tuba mirum.

Meyer seemed at his best in the score’s reflective moments. The Kyrie was nicely shaped and the Offertorio was lovely, but why, oh why did it come after an intermission? The interval following the Dies Irae sequence completely destroyed the sense of passage from darkness to light, damnation to devotion, that Verdi surely intended. Meyer’s reading clocked in at a fairly brisk 65 minutes. Does the Philharmonic management really think that music lovers can’t sit that long for a work about eternity without a potty break?

Whoever programmed the intermission deserves a Day of Anger all his own.

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The Big Game

Boulez at Severance

It seemed appropriate on this weekend when thousands of fans are making the hajj to the Big Game that I would be in Severance Hall on Saturday night. Was there any concert hall in the world that on that night offered a proposition as compelling as Boulez and Aimard in an all-French program with the Cleveland Orchestra? Hey, London, Berlin, Vienna! Whaddya got? New York? Don’t even ask.

Like most Super Bowls, this failed to live up to the (self-generated) hype, but hell yeah, I’m still glad I was there.

On the plus side, I heard a staggering Ravel D-major Piano Concerto and a very charming G-major Concerto, too. I witnessed Le Maitre, six weeks short of his 85th birthday, bouncing onto the podium with his no-nonsense, lets-make-some-music éclat. He looks like he could go on forever, and let’s pray he does.

But this was not an ideal evening for music-making. The audience seemed fidgety. There was a fair amount of coughing (February on the Great Lakes), and when Boulez gave the downbeat to Messiaen’s L’Ascension, the Cleveland brass broke wobbly from the gate. It was the musical equivalent to a shaky exchange on the snap on the first play of the game. It didn’t help that as the Cleveland brass struggled to find their footing, a cell phone breeped loudly in the balcony. We couldn’t see his face, of course, but Coach could not have been pleased.

Look, L’Ascension isn’t the ideal way to ease into a program, but whether it was Seasonal Affective Disorder or the recent labor troubles, the great orchestra’s playing was insecure all night. Unsteady entrances and less-than-elegant (by Cleveland’s admittedly Olympian standards) ensemble work dotted the evening, and that’s a shame, because L’Ascension is a work I had wanted to hear. Boulez has not recorded it commercially (though this series of concerts is being taped by DG for autumn release).

The ork rallied, led by limpid and eloquent work from the World’s Greatest Viola Section and from the winds (english hornist Robert Walters came up big all night). This was not the big organ sound that some conductors bring to Messiaen’s orchestral works. Boulez was characteristically clear and there was none of the near vulgarity other conductors can find in this composer. There was no ecstatic religious mysticism, either, only echoes of Ravel and Debussy, the composer who would follow on the program.

Clarity was the essence of the Ravel G-major Concerto, which was played with a reduced orchestra and a mercurial lightness of touch. This went as much for Pierre-Laurent Aimard as it did for Boulez and the orchestra. The pianist played the adagio simply with almost no pedal, but with an emotional directness that caught one off guard. The closing Presto had a thumb-in-the-eye insousiance that was impossible to resist.

Still, it seemed just a bit lightweight, and I think that is exactly what Boulez and Aimard had in mind, because intermission was followed by a D-Major concerto that was startlingly consequential. It started early, opening with contrabassoon, low strings and bass drum setting a spooky midnight scene. Boulez got a very dark sound from the by-now fully engaged orchestra; it was almost Holstian at times. Aimard matched it with a ferocious concentration. But he was never monochromatic. Hammered march figures followed dreamy, heavily pedaled fantasy. Boulez is the most objective of musicians, and he would scoff at me saying this, but he turned this showpiece for a pianist who lost his right hand in World War I into most simultaneously martial and militantly anti-war performance imaginable. It was completely unexpected and knee-bucklingly moving. And it was recorded.

Concluding the concert with Debussy’s Iberia could seem like ending a meal with the appetizer when it had begun with the main course, but I think Boulez knew exactly what he was doing. The alto saxophonist Lee Konitz is fond of beginning tunes with the improvisation and not playing the melody until the end. The evening could be read as a mini-seminar on French music in the first half of the 20th century, moving from flower (Messiaen) to root.

So Boulez’s sequence made a certain amount of sense, and for all it’s surface glitter and pictorialism, Iberia is as serious a piece of music as L’Anscension is. But it didn’t sound that way last night. Sure, Boulez played the piece as he would Mozart, with clear, light-filled textures. There was little perfume in Les parfums de la nuit but plenty of fresh air surrounding each line. Still, listening to the 1993 recording of the work with these same forces revealed that something else was lacking — a little tension, maybe. A sense of purpose. Iberia builds to what promises to be a big ending and stops suddenly just a bit short of it. This ending inexplicably took the audience by surprise and a few tentative claps melted back into silence, as though waiting for the real, slam-bam ending to come. Boulez looking graciously perplexed, turned to the audience and opened his arms, as if to say, “That’s it. Please feel free to applaud now.”

It was an appropriately equivocal ending to a concert that was less monolithically overwhelming than other Boulez visits to Severance have been. Still, there was no place else on earth where I would rather have been.

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