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Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Some Old New Music

Back in the Day Dept.: As summer hints at its arrival, the summer music festivals are gearing up. Many years ago, the Philadelphia Orchestra’s annual Saratoga Performing Arts Center residency included new works and a composer-in-residence. Although Yo Yo Ma will return to SPAC this summer, he’ll be playing music by Tchaikovsky. The only new work on the schedule is Tan Dun’s “Nu Shu: The Secret Songs of Women,” which conductor Yannick Nézet-Séguin insisted on performing. But here’s an old piece of mine about how it used to be.


NEW MUSIC – THE STUFF THAT GETS LITTLE RADIO PLAY, sells few recordings and turns up only sparingly in the concert hall – once found a haven in the Philadelphia Orchestra’s summer season in Saratoga. It was a welcome break from all that Brahms and Tchaikovsky, but it wasn’t what the summer audience was happy to hear. Since the advent of conductor Charles Dutoit’s August residency, going on ten years, the programming has grown much safer, with the new-music responsibility (and it is a responsibility, a vital one) shunted over to the Chamber Music Festival, in which a mix of old and new has attracted enough of an audience to sell out concerts in the smaller Spa Little Theatre venue.
Richard Danielpour
Photo by Mike Minehan

This year’s Chamber Music Festival composer-in-residence is Richard Danielpour, whose music also was featured during the Philadelphia Orchestra’s opening performance two Wednesdays ago. Yo-Yo Ma was soloist in the composer’s Cello Concerto, which took up most of the first part of the program and proved that new music – and this is a particularly recent piece – needn’t be overly scary.

It helped, too, that Ma introduced the piece with some spoken comments, talking about his ten-year association with the composer (they met in Saratoga) and briefly describing the program of the work. “It’s about the life of a prophet,” he explained. “The bad news is, the prophet gets killed. But it’s in an okay way.” Too lighthearted a patter? I don’t think so: it certainly made the piece much more accessible.

According to Danielpour’s notes, the idea for the piece came in a dream in which he saw an oracle deliver bad news to a judgmental assembly, which condemns the messenger to death. With a story like that, it’s not surprising that it’s no easygoing work. Its structure is suggestive of Bernstein’s “Serenade (after Plato’s ‘Symposium),” his concerto for violin and orchestra, and Danielpour’s rhythms and orchestral textures also are strongly Bernstein reminiscent, with generous dashes of Stravinsky and Shostakovich thrown in.

Although the piece starts off with soloist and orchestra at odds with one another, the angry dialogue moves into moments as romantic in flavor as in Dvořák’s famous concerto (which followed). Danielpour even borrowed one of Dvořák’s lyrical secrets, pairing the cello with solo instruments from the orchestra. Shrewd theatrical effects also characterize the piece, as when the soloist’s prayer (the extended cadenza in the third movement) gives way to a series of interruptions leading to the big moment of dramatic condemnation. But there’s a transcendent finish, as the orchestral part grows again lyrical and the cello finishes with a sweet, sad song. Gorgeous work, too, by Ma and the orchestra, under conductor Charles Dutoit.

Then there was the second-half payoff of the Dvořák concerto, about as familiar as a piece can be, a structural mess but so winningly melodic that nobody cares about its structure. Ma is great face-maker as he plays, looking as if he’s suffering under the burden of all that romanticism. He’s a little more strident in his playing, attacking even the most plaintive passages with slightly sharpened edge. But it’s an interpretation that works, and the effect was terrific.

The concert opened with a stirring performance of Beethoven’s Leonore Overture No. 3, a work that’s hard to botch but which rewards a thoughtful reading with an even better effect. Dutoit understands Beethoven; even better, he understands how to have fun with Beethoven, which meant that we all had a good time.

Not so good was the triple dose of Senator Joseph Bruno laid upon us during intermission. While it’s certainly appropriate to salute his arts-saving contributions to the area, the videotaped encomium shown on SPAC’s new screens was as sappy a piece of campaign propaganda as ever hit the airwaves – and, most cruelly, it was run twice! Then Bruno himself was brought onstage for an overlong tribute. It’s a bad time of year for a state senator to show his face, as one audience member reminded us: as the first video run-through began, he hollered, “How ‘bout a budget!?” How ‘bout it, indeed.

The Philadelphia Orchestra with Yo-Yo Ma, cellist and Charles Dutoit, conductor
Saratoga Performing Arts Center, July 28, 1999

Metroland Magazine, 5 August 1999

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