Four Seasons Chamber Music Festival 2015

GSA Orchestra: Ravel, Saint-Saëns & Shostakovich 10


Governor’s School for the Arts Orchestra
Hosts East Carolina University Symphony Orchestra
Sandler Center, Virginia Beach, November 20, 2014
Review by John Campbell

Building on the successful collaboration of last season, the GSA Orchestra, led by Jeffrey Phelps, Chair of Instrumental Music and Stephen Coxe, Artistic Director of Instrumental Music with Guest Conductor Jorge Richter of the ECU Orchestra, offered an evening of intriguing music by Penderecki, Philip Glass and Alexander Scriabin, including two Tidewater premieres.

Opening the program, Stephen Coxe led the GSA’s 75 players in Polish composer Kryzsztof Penderecki (b. 1933) Anaklasis (1960). Penderecki is one of the most popular composers of late 20th century music, especially in Europe. His early style offered astringent, often anguished scores. I remember the recording of his Passion According to St. Luke (1965) which I found so compelling and shocking that I ordered the LP and replaced it with a CD in 1994. He stretched tonal language and his later music has embraced pre-serialist notions of melody and harmony.

Anaklasis (1960), from Penderecki’s early period, offers a number of spectacular instrumental effects that evoke powerful emotional reactions: microtonal glissandi, unconventional bowing and striking the soundboard with fingers. The orchestra players were divided into groups and assigned a range of pitches. String players repeated fragments by turn with dramatic use of periods of quiet and stunning percussion outbursts. At one point a carpet of harmonizing strings allowed basses, woodwinds or harp fragments to emerge quietly. It was a breathtaking experience. YouTube offers several performances of Anaklasis so if you missed the concert you can hear it for yourself. I do not remember hearing a live performance of anything by Penderecki before!

Next, another first for the audience was the second movement of the Philip Glass (b.1939) Symphony No. 9 (2011) with Jeffrey Phelps on the podium. The GSA performance was the third ever, anywhere, of this music by Glass—the fourth was at ECU in North Carolina three days later; the first was on New Year’s Day, 2012 in Linz, Austria; the second was at Carnegie Hall on Glass’ 75th birthday on January 31, 2014. A recording is available for download on iTunes. In a New Yorker Magazine review, Alex Ross says, of the middle movement of the three-movement symphony that “…it encloses a tumultuous dance.”

The lyrical, slow-paced opening had just a hint of Glass’ formulaic churning repetition lurking under the singing, sweet sound.

The orchestras of ECU and GSA joined together to perform Alexander Scriabin (1872-1915) Symphony No. 4, Op. 54 (1908) “Le Poèm de l’extase." Why Scriabin’s 4th? Because they could. It requires a large orchestra—twice the classical number of winds and brass. The work has been described by Blair Johnson: “At the opening the flute gesture searches longingly, the clarinet dreams and the trumpet foretells a still-distant victory. An equestrian stride commences, only to be abruptly halted to make room for an ardent violin solo.” After 1905 when Scriabin came under the influence of Mme. Blavatsky’s Theosophy he saw his compositions as a “supreme ecstatic mystery” that would accompany a final “Cataclysm” (Oxford Dictionary of Music).

Not to be distracted by his philosophy, his music was rich, growing richer and eventually huge. Using atonality he develops emotional urgency. Repeating figures emerge only to be overwhelmed by percussion outbursts. There were abrupt pauses in the music’s intensity as the composer reaches for a state of ecstasy in a boundless, grand musical universe. Conductor Richter did a marvelous job of taking us there. And as Stephen Coxe has said of me: “You certainly do like new music.”

East Carolina’s Four Seasons Chamber Music Festival Comes to GSA
Robin Hixon Theater, Norfolk, Virginia, February 5, 2015
Review by John Campbell

Artistic Director Ara Gregorian (violinist and conductor) of East Carolina University explained that the Four Seasons Chamber Music Festival is designed to give student players and ECU alumni (and when they’re here in Norfolk – GSA students) real life performance experience. Students play side-by-side with professional performers in a chamber music evening concert as the culmination of several days of master classes, chamber coaching and a single rehearsal to prepare for the evening concert.

As part of this outreach initiative, the evening opened with Suite for two Violins and Piano, Op. 71 by Moritz Moszkowski (1854-1925). Moszkowski, a German-born, Polish-Jewish pianist and composer, was very popular in the era of salon pianism, earning a handsome income. ECU student violinist Mary Katherine Cox joined Ara Gregorian with Keiko Sakino, a fellow faculty member, at the piano. In a Romantic style the violin phrases repeated by the second player became a glitzy chase that became duets while the piano held the great, passionate fun together.

The format was repeated in the Piano Quintet in A Major, D 667 “Trout” by Franz Schubert, movement V, Allegro giusto, which is familiar to PBS-TV fans as the theme music of the British sit com “Waiting for God.” Two ECU students, Ms. Sekino and faculty members—cellist Emanual Gruber and violinist Hye-Jin Kim—gave a bracing performance. I especially enjoyed watching the long, slender and flexible fingers shape the music.

Guest artist violinist Xiao-Dong Wang with Ms. Sekino and Ms. Kim were joined by two ECU students for the very intense movement 1, allegro, of Ernst von Dohnányi’s (1823-1898) Piano Quintet in C minor, No. 1 Op.1. Sarah Cox’s precise violin and cellist Logan Dailey’s lyrical playing gave us rich, moody music. Overwrought passion written as busy passages often turned gentle and lyrical. The ending was an all-out fireworks display.

In the Brahms String Quintet in G Major, Op. 111 Mr. Wang switched to viola, Mr. Gregorian, violin and three Four Season alumni artists rounded out the group. With a meditative beauty that gives way to stirring interplay in fully engaging expression, the two violas (Elizabeth Upson, second) made a memorable impact.

This was followed by movement 1, Allegro con moto, from the String Quintet No. 1 in A Major, Op. 18 by Mendelssohn. The emotional impact of this sweet music felt somber and troubled. An ECU student, Andrew Collins, joined Mr. Gregorian on viola. Faculty, alumni and students from ECU followed with a second Mendelssohn piece, Octet in E-flat Major, Op. 20, movement 1, Allegro moderato ma con fuoco, which took us to intermission. The symphonic richness of the colors created by expanding the string quartet to eight strings offered an overwhelming beauty in slow, tender sections.

After a brief intermission, some 38 GSA players (13 violins, 9 violas, 12 cellos, 4 basses) joined the 28 ECU students (15 violins, 7 violas, 4 cellos, 2 basses), 4 alumni artists, 6 faculty and guest Xiao-Dong Wang in two pieces by Grieg. The first, an arrangement for string orchestra of Grieg’s String Quaratet No. 1, Op. 27. The logistics of the setup of the room made the intermission necessary. The glorious richness of all these instruments heard in the small room in this exceedingly attractive and untroubled work highlighted the melodic spirit of Grieg’s best songs and piano miniatures. There was overall a sense of mystery. Later, skittering violins set up a sound space in which the cello raises questions, emphatically answered as it ends.

The entire group stayed in place for Holberg Suite, Op. 40, written by Grieg for string orchestra in five movements recalling the dances that might have been popular when poet, playwright and philosopher Baron Ludwig Holberg was alive (1684-1754). Holberg was born in Bergen, Norway as was Grieg. The piece was written to celebrate the unveiling of a statue of Holberg who lived in the late Baroque period. Conductor Ara Gregorian commented that this was the largest group of strings ever for the Holberg Suite. Indeed, sitting at the edge of these wonderful, young performers was thrilling. Guest Artist Xiao-Dong Wang played viola. The Praeludium had a simple radiance in a gently skipping motif. By contrast the Sarabande is soberly reflective but always elegant. We were cradled and cherished in a lush fullness of strings. The Gavotte was built on a Bach-like structure with a repeated cello phrase. This gives way to Aria, like a long breath inhaled, held, then exhaled, exquisitely reenergized by the coordinated singing tone of the many cellos. The finale, Rigaudon, was a bright, lively country dance, pure and natural in feeling.

What marvelous, real-life experience for developing, young musicians!

Governor’s School for the Arts Orchestra Moves from Strength to Strength
Playing Ravel, Saint-Saëns and Shostakovich
Solo Cellist Yann Chemali, Conductor Jeffrey Phelps
Roper Performing Arts Center, June 2, 2015
Review by John Campbell

There was a sparkle in Jeffrey Phelps' eye as he took his opening bow, indicating his delight in what he was ready to offer his audience. The first selection was the Maurice Ravel (1875-1937) Rapsodie espagnole (1908). In four movements, this 20 minutes of music is lavishly scored and offers a kaleidoscope of sound featuring winds, brass and lots of percussion.

In the Prelude the violins and violas play a descending 4-note motif that repeats over and over, but never louder than mezzo-forte. A short theme for clarinets and later, bassoons, interrupts before the music evanesces on a chord in the high strings. Ravel describes the sound as “voluptuously drowsy and ecstatic.” The Malagueña, originally a Spanish courting dance, has a trumpet playing the main theme accompanied by tambourine. A new melody of Moorish cast is sung plaintively by the English horn. The Habanera movement is subtitled “In the fragrant land that the sun caresses.” Flutes, glamorous explosions of sound and a repeated, almost tiny, eerie animal-like cry all add to the exotic feeling. The Feria, fourth movement, is a high-spirited holiday scene interrupted by a languorous interval, soft as suede, played by English horn and solo clarinet, before the merriment returns even more brilliantly.

Only 36 years separate the composition of the Ravel piece from the earlier Camille Saint-Saëns (1835-1921) Cello Concerto No. 1 in A minor, Op 33 (1872) but the contrast in musical language is striking. Here thematic transformations are important to the musical structure. It was a fine vehicle to display the accomplishment of Yann Chémali, a second year GSA student cellist who played with sweet tone and calm confidence. We learned in conversation that Yann had begun learning the cello part eighteen months ago. Playing from memory like a seasoned professional, the piece began with an aggressive melody stated by solo cello. The lyrical, meditative theme is accompanied by a triple figure in the orchestra. Later, faster tempos lead into another theme. The second movement is a delicate minuet with a narrow range and a stately melody. The triplet theme from the first movement played by the orchestra begins the final, third movement. Forward movement is through syncopation. The rhythm is Sarabande-like until the cello takes off with a flurry of 16th notes. The impression that is left is of the warm sound that was full and engaging produced by a handsome, slight, young man backed by an orchestra of his peers equally engaged in their joint music-making.

After intermission the orchestra, led by Conductor Phelps, who as usual, worked from memory—without a score—led the orchestra in Dimitri Shostakovich (1906-1975) Symphony No. 10 in E minor, Op. 93 (1953). Following Shostakovich’s 1945 Ninth Symphony he was denounced by the Communist Party and only after the death of Stalin eight years later did he write his Tenth. The first, Moderato, movement does not unfold with a steady creation and release of tension. The musical language is post-Mahler but here all is ambivalence and ambiguity; melodic lines progress in anxious, groping, step-wise movements. We are held in a constant, unsettled tension. Unison, plucked strings offer a moment that seems light and airy, almost joyful but it is soon wiped away. New tensions arise as the violins scream, frantic in their warning. My visceral response was fear as ominous brass overwhelmed my senses. The furious pace and intensity of the full orchestra with intense percussion remained relentless in this long, 30-minute movement.

The second, Allegro, movement is a four-minute long feeling of being sucked into a black hole of savage, threatening sound. This biting, sinister music leads to the feeling of exhaustion after years of terror. In Shostakovich’s memoirs, as recounted by Solomon Volkov, he says “The second part, the scherzo is a musical portrait of Stalin, roughly speaking. Of course, there are other things in it, but that’s the basis.”

The Allegretto, third movement has a Russian flavor and the mood brightens though even the attempt at whimsy is heavy. The tentative feeling in the horns and the rich strings cannot completely banish the sense of unease. The edges of the sound unravel in a disturbing way. Even the Russian theme feels lonely. The final, Andante, movement is mired in a slow start and continues in a slow-motion haze. Later there are rollicking, big moments and a cheerful march. One description I read of the finale was “an ecstatic blaze of joy.” Not so; at best it was an ending offering relief after a most ominous, emotional journey.

The playing was energetic and accurate. The students, GSA alumni, faculty and a few guest artists came together in a mighty way. Steve Brockman rates this performance as the most unforgettable of the entire spring season. High praise but well deserved for this risky, ambitious undertaking.

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