From the Top


Israel Philharmonic Orchestra
All French Program
Virginia Arts Festival
Sandler Center for the Performing Arts
April 2, 2014
Review by John Campbell

The Israel Philharmonic Orchestra came to Virginia Beach, one of its fourteen-city American tour destinations. The IPO was founded in 1936 in opposition to Fascism and is today Israel’s premier cultural ambassador throughout the world. For a history of the orchestra visit Pilot Online and search for Teresa Annas’ article Israel Philharmonic Orchestra, "Philharmonic, a haven for musicians in need of a home,” published March 31, 2014. To open there was a rousing performance of Star Spangled Banner followed by the Israeli national anthem, Hatikvah. Their sound filled the hall gloriously.

The all-French program began with Gabriel Fauré (1845-1924) Pelléas et Mélisande: Suite, Op.80 (1898). Written as incidental music for Maurice Maeterlinck’s play, the same play later used for Debussy’s opera, the suite has four movements, played by an orchestra of some sixty players led by Principal Guest Conductor Gianandrea Noseda.

The “Prélude” depicts the forest in which Pelléas’ brother Golaud discovers a fragile, frightened Mélisande. The sound is sweet and ends with Golaud’s hunting horn receding into the distance. Entr’acte: Fileuse (The Spinner) featured oboe and horn solos amid gently whirring strings. Mélisande at the spinning wheel has Pelléas’ rapt attention. “Sicilienne” depicts the gentle beauty of Mélisande and was written in 1893 for another play, but not used. Later Fauré made it into a piece for cello with piano, Op.78. Orchestrated, this most well-known tune was added and published as part of a 1909 edition of Pelléas et Mélisande. “Le Mort de Mélisande” accompanied her cortege in the play’s final act with its muted, poignant music. The same music was played at Fauré’s funeral in 1924.

Three additional percussionists and several woodwinds players were added for Maurice Ravel’s (1875-1937) Ma Mère l’Oye (Mother Goose) . Originally the piece was written as a duo piano suite depicting fairy tales of Charles Perrault and others. Later Ravel orchestrated it, adding a prelude and four interludes for a children’s ballet (Paris 1912). After a gentle fanfare the scintillating strings dominate the “Prelude.” A crescendo led into “Spinning Wheel Dance and Scene” where an old woman spins and Sleeping Beauty pricks her finger and falls asleep. An air of mystery is created by woodwind solos. Along the way there was playful whimsy as other scenes unfolded. Especially impressive was the tuned percussion evocative of Oriental settings (“Laideronette, Empress of the Pagodas”) and “The Enchanted Garden” that begins quietly and builds into a long crescendo with bells (wedding bells, perhaps?) in a most powerful climax.

The full orchestra was on stage for Daphnis et Chloé: Suite No.2, considered by many as Ravel’s greatest orchestral work. It is a ballet (symphonie choréographique) in three movements with a scenario by Mikhail Fokine who choreographed it for Serge Diaghilev’s Ballet Russes in Paris, 1912. Ravel made two orchestral suites from it (1911, 1913). There was overwhelming beauty expressed with restraint. The glorious richness of sound, in great waves, washed over our senses as the orchestra played.

From the beginning this experience is achieved by lush figurations in flutes, clarinets, harp and celesta above the strings’ majestic melody. The melody, first played by cellos and basses, grows until it is taken over by violas and violins. The embrace of Daphnis and Chloé is celebrated by an orchestral climax as violins reach their highest register. The music winds down as an oboe representing the old shepherd tells his story.

Next comes a trio of two oboes and an English horn playing a variant on the first pentatonic melody. The scene between Pan and the nymph brings alternating woodwind solos. When Pan created a flute from reed-stalks we heard a most enchanting “impressionistic” flute solo. Hovering at a certain pitch, the music moves on and returns, once again hovering. There seems to be a predetermined direction for this melody. Gradually the music intensified, tempos sped-up and there were excited tremolos and arpeggios in the strings. The final section has an asymmetrical meter of 5/4 with rhythmic and harmonic ostinatos used throughout the ecstatic ending. (From notes by Peter Laki ).

After intermission we heard Hector Berlioz (1803-1869) Symphonie Fantastique, Op.14 that plunged us deeply into, often overwrought, romantic program music. The full orchestra created an array of colorations to tell a musical tale of passion, a ball, a scene in the country, a march to the scaffold and dreams of a Sabbath night. Clocking in at a little under an hour, it seemed overly long. The playing was excellent throughout and the music’s easy flowing tunes of pushy sentimentality and naïveté was fine at first but fast/slow and loud/soft contrasts revisited again and again did not add up to an engaging experience. No direction or focused thrust developed. Even so, it was good to finally hear a live performance of this work I’ve known from recordings for so long. The audience greeted the conclusion with loud, enthusiastic applause for the Israel Philharmonic’s visit to Virginia Beach but several friends we discussed the program with shared our reservations about the Berlioz. The high point was the Daphnis et Chloé.

From the Top, Virginia Arts Festival
Attucks Theater, Norfolk, May 13, 2014
Review by M.D. Ridge

There was good music and good fun on stage at the historic Attucks Theatre May 13, when pianist and host Christopher O’Riley and the crew of NPR’s From the Top introduced a lively group of young musicians to an appreciative full house.

First on the program were the brothers Elliott, from Newport News: violinist Brendon, 19, currently studying at the prestigious Curtis Institute, and his 14-year-old brother Sterling, the cellist. Natty in dark suits and red shirts, they gave a nice, airy feel to the challenging theme-and-variations of the Passacaglia in G minor on a Theme of Handel, by Johann Halvorsen, negotiating the mood and dynamic changes with ease, including the variation with high harmonics taken at blinding speed. (Talk about rocking the house!)

This particular performance was recorded for broadcast on public radio the week of June 23—but the radio audience won’t get to see the faces of the performers, or how they interacted with the audience (or didn’t), or the smooth but unhurried way in which the youngsters were led to their mics and guided off afterwards. The program began with a short, lighthearted video about the From the Top show, and a glimpse of backstage antics. (These are kids, remember—talented kids, but still, normal kids.)

Eleven-year-old pianist Kyle Hu, from Yorktown, was next. He looked solemnly terrified—until he sat down at the piano and attacked the third movement of Mozart’s Sonata No. 12 in F major, K. 332. Its cascades of notes rippled under his authoritative fingers at brilliant speed in perpetual motion. When he stood up, to thunderous applause, a brief smile flickered over his face before he bowed and ducked into the wings.

O’Riley asked, “What do you do when both of your parents are professional musicians?” which led to a brief taped interview with the New York Philharmonic’s conductor Alan Gilbert, both of whose parents play for him in that orchestra. Gilbert said, “If you have to ask, ‘Should I be a musician?’ the answer is no.” Violinist Alissa Mori’s parents are professional musicians, too. The engaging youngster from the Bronx played the second movement of the Saint-Saëns Sonata for Violin and Piano, No. 1, in D minor, with O’Riley’s beautifully supportive accompaniment. Afterwards, the 15-year-old with the radiant smile and perky ponytail told how she wound up acting on the TV show Believe: “They were looking for a teenage violinist.”—she struck a jaunty pose—“Looky here!”

O’Riley, during a station identification break, played a lovely little interlude called "At Dawn,” by Cyril Scott.

Emily Pogorelc, 17, a soprano from Whitefish Bay, Wisconsin, sang “Kommt ein schlanker Bursch gegangen” (When a slim youth walks by) from von Weber’s opera, Der Freischütz (The Marksman), with vivacity and charm, in character even before her solo began.

One doesn’t often see women playing double bass, so 16-year-old Lena Goodson, from York Pennsylvania, was a surprise. Articulate and straightforward, she made it clear that she was a fangirl of Serge Koussevitzky, longtime director of the Boston Symphony—and a bassist himself. She played the very melodic Intermezzo, Opus 9, No. 1, by Reinhold Glière. O’Riley’s supportive, un-intrusive accompaniment allowed the bass’s singing melodies to come through with clarity and sweetness.

In addition to his gentle interviews drawing out the sometimes nervous young musicians, O’Riley at the piano was always behind the soloists, taking his cue from them, not leading them. It’s a small thing, but nothing could have said more clearly, “It’s about them.” His iPad contained both his script—and the music he was playing.

The program concluded with a performance by the local percussion group, the Rhythm Project All-Stars, who played an interesting arrangement of the Overture from Rossini’s The Barber of Seville, arranged by their director David Longfellow. Rossini and steel drums is not the first combination that comes to mind, but it was fun. The soloists returned to the stage for a curtain call and wild applause. By the time the ON THE AIR sign had gone off, the Rhythm Project had swung into what was obviously one of their Greatest Hits, and they were grooving—with the audience, unbidden, clapping along on the back beat.

I grew up watching my dad on radio shows, so watching From the Top was both a trip down memory lane—and a glimpse of classical music’s bright future. The kids are way more than all right!

This review was originally broadcast on WHRO 90.3 FM’s “From the other side of the Footlights.”

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