As one goes through life, one realizes that there are certain events that should be expected to take a long time. Examples include dental surgery, trips to the department of motor vehicles and any conversation that incorporates the word “problematic” as a noun. If Friday night’s marathon concert in Chapin Hall was any indication, we can now add the annual Berkshire Symphony Student Soloists’ performance to that list. The inordinate concert length should have come as no surprise to conductor Ronald Feldman (or whomever it is that makes these decisions), seeing as seven works were programmed, of which four involved multiple bows, flowers and hurrahs from the audience.
While I hate to let such a seemingly trivial point overshadow the actual musical performances of the evening, it is important to note the great extent to which such a point can distract a listener from the music itself. By the end of the program, all I wanted to do was leave, and many of the comments I’ve heard from those in attendance at the concert have had to do with its length.
But let no one accuse me of not listening to the music. I have been excited about this concert for about a year now, dating back to the point when I learned that my good friend and esteemed colleague Andrea Mazzariello ’00 was going to write a work for the BSO to perform. Beyond the excitement surrounding the piece itself, Andrea managed to construct a giant publicity machine (often using his well-placed connections in this paper), the role of which was simply to hype this concert. While the Student Soloist concert is always the best attended of the year, the 2000 version had a carnival atmosphere to it, as Chapin was filled to the brim and bubbling with energy.
The show started off with a Tchaikovsky work, the Polonaise from Eugene Onegin. At this point in the evening, nothing was lost in the performance of this work. In fact, it was as good a piece as any to introduce the ears of the audience to the sound of the orchestra, a little bauble to whet the appetite. I really despise most Tchaikovsky, and this piece is no exception. It did nothing for me, though the orchestra did come through as enthusiastic and ready to play. Perhaps this was because they knew that half the program would be spent in a backup role, or because they really love Tchaikovsky. I’d like to say I can’t imagine that being the case, but not everyone shares my somewhat obscure tastes.
Following the obligatory warmup, Jessica Robbins ’01 brought her shiny new flute to the front of the stage, playing the Concertino for Flute and Orchestra by Cecile Chaminade. This work is little more than a showpiece for a solo flautist, and Robbins certainly rose to the occassion, whipping around the various registers of her instrument with grace and beauty. I have heard Robbins tackle more sophisticated repertoire, and it was too bad that she chose a piece that could not show off that side of her playing. Chaminade is a better composer than this piece indicates, and Robbins, while impressive in this context, is also a better flautist than what she showed on Friday.
Next on the soloist parade came Jennifer Lee ’02, playing the ubiquitous Kol Nidrei by Max Bruch. Over the years, I have grown to detest this piece. It’s one of those works that cellists love to perform – every instrument has its share of these works, and most of them are awful. This one is notable for two reasons: first, it’s not a fast flashy piece, and second, it’s a piece that many listeners enjoy quite a bit. To me, it always comes across as a string player’s fantasy – the soloist gets to wail on the juicy notes of the cello while the orchestra plops down big romantic chords in the background. Listening to someone play Kol Nidrei is like listening to someone play one of those records of the orchestral accompaniment to a concerto. While I may see it as a self-indulgent piece of garbage, I get the sense that I am in the minority on this one.
I can’t rightly fault Lee for playing this work, and it was clear that she felt very passionately about it, despite some mishaps in the middle of the performance. Her lines were mostly quite beautiful, if occasionally a bit out of tune, and her heart was clearly in the music. Like Robbins, I wish she would have picked a better piece. It’s hard to feel comfortable with criticizing a player when you dislike the work she played – if you’re not into the performance because of the piece, it reflects badly on the player, and that’s not entirely fair.
The first half came to an end with Alberto Ginastera’s Variaciones Concertantes, a sort of half-baked concerto for orchestra, featuring soloists and small ensembles in featured roles throughout all the many variations. I’m a big fan of Ginastera’s piano music, and so I was very excited to hear a large orchestral work of his live for the first time. But the many slow variations were unbearably dull, consisting of languid solos (with a “Hispanic” flavor) backed up by orchestral accompaniments that sorely lacked creativity. The faster variations sounded mostly like poor reworkings of Stravinsky, again with a “Latin American” twist. While these were occasionally exciting, they certainly did not justify the motionless slow movements, nor were they consistently successful on their own.
Following the intermission, Joo-Hee Suh ’03 performed the Saint-Saens Piano Concerto No. 5 with the orchestra. Her playing was exceptional, and appropriate to the piece. I can never decide how I feel about Saint-Saens as a composer, and this concerto fits into that mixed characterization. At times, I found myself enchanted by the delicate yet rich French sound. Some might draw a parallel at this point between music and pastry, but why? At other times, I felt more or less uninterested in what was taking place on stage. The pastry analogy here falls somewhat flat. But Suh’s playing carried the performance, and that, at least, was certainly worth hearing.
Finally, after about an hour and 45 minutes of buildup, Mazzariello’s premiere began. Much of the audience was in Chapin for the sole purpose of hearing this work, either because of their friendship with Andrea or because of their curiosity about this massive advertising campaign. In a way, Mazzariello had already succeeded in sending a message even before the piece began. What that message is, I’m in no position to say, but people were certainly willing and ready to hear his piece. And I doubt that anyone was disappointed with the payoff. Music to Accompany Revolution was, by far, the most interesting, compelling and satisfying work on the program.
This is not my claim alone, either. There’s been a real buzz about this concert, with people actually discussing symphonic music in dining halls, dorms and on the street. I’ve heard the buzz, and the buzz is in favor of Andrea’s piece. As I told him today, even if some people may criticize the work, it did more than hold its own on a program full of established, big-name composers who are all quite dead. In fact, it blew them away in the ears of most listeners, and that’s an achievement in of itself.
I should comment briefly on the composition itself, though one hearing is not enough for this sort of dirty work. Mazzariello has matured as a composer over the last two years, finding a sense of subtlety that was lacking from his earlier works. Music to Accompany Revolution is not, on its surface, a subtle work. Rather, it’s extremely over the top, with huge tutti passages throughout, massive ritardandos and accelerandos, crescendos and decrescendos, and all the other words that denote total dramatic motion.
However, this work shows a very careful attention to the actual sounds that the printed notes call upon the orchestra to make; as much as this piece is about gesture, Andrea seems to have recognized the fact that any gesture is made up of a series of smaller component parts. Those parts are rarely taken for granted in Music to Accompany Revolution, and the result is a work which still screams at you, demanding your attention in the same way that earlier Mazzariello works may have done, but which also manages to keep your attention when the screaming is over.
As for my criticisms, I would have liked to have heard fewer jumps from section to section; stopping the orchestra can be extremely effective, but it’s an easy tool and wears thin with overuse. The sound effects behind the violins’ bridges at the beginning of the work and the “strumming” at the end seemed to be connected to each other, but with nothing else in the work. These are criticisms, to be sure, but I found the overall product to be a fantastic work, well worth Andrea’s virtual disappearance for a few months. One wonders whether his success with this work and departure for more professional grounds in Michigan will change his approach to the trappings of composition, such as publicity and program notes. Either way, this piece served as a great capstone to his musical work at Williams and as a kickoff to the next stage in his compositional career.
Following Mazzariello’s work, the audience was both fired up and satisfied with the show. Unfortunately, the excerpt from Tchaikovsky’s Suite No. 3, another drawn-out set of theme and variations, took the fire out of the room. Placing a big Romantic work right after Music to Accompany Revolution rubbed me the wrong way for a variety of reasons. While you all know by now of my distaste for Tchaikovsky, the problem here was not simply that the music was bad, though it certainly was not of any real interest. My real point is that placing this Tchaikovsky work, which seems virtually identical to every other one of his orchestral compositions, right after a fresh-sounding premiere that was full of new musical life, was simply a bad move.
By insisting on programming a work that would redirect the audience’s attention on the orchestra and the conductor, and not on the soloists or the composer, the concert took on the feel of a talent show, in which Feldman showed off the local talent and then took the stage (alone) to leave everyone with a good taste in their mouth. But I don’t think that anyone would have complained if the most exciting work on the program had ended the evening, allowing everyone to get home earlier with Mazzariello’s musical statement still floating around in their heads. It’s thoughts like this that make me wonder if perhaps the Revolution was successful, after all.