Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Richmond Symphony: Carmina Burana

My review of Saturday night's Masterworks performance ran in Monday's Times-Dispatch. Read it first, then here are a few more thoughts.

"Cignus ustus cantat," that roasting swan song, truly epitomized why live performance (by professionals) is alwasy better than a recording. What splendid avian agony from the oboe! What tortured misery from the tenor! Marcus Shelton was not on stage when the movement began... huh? He staggered on, smoldering (well, not literally) and hammed up the part, to the audience's delight. I'm just guessing, but it also seemed like Zeller, the baritone, felt more at home in his parts after Shelton's performance.

The problems with dynamic contrast that I mention were also evident in the first two pieces. I hope the review (as always, I only get about 400 words) makes it clear that I think this is primarily a matter of getting used to the new space, not a shortcoming of the conductor or the orchestra.

Likewise, I sometimes had trouble hearing the winds when the full orchestra was playing. I'm sure that was due to my seat in the sixth row. (Clarke Bustard didn't have that problem, but I don't know where he was sitting.)

Mr. Bustard also notes the reverberancy of sound in the hall. This is neither good nor bad, but it can present a challenge to work with, especially when there are so many elements, like in the "Carmina." A violinist I spoke to after the concert said that symphony staff were trying out all sorts of seating arrangements and placements during rehearsals and that the sound was incredibly "booming" without the 1700 bodies in the seats.

There were times, such as at the ends of some of the Carmina movements--when the sustained sound was perfectly dramatic. But at the end of the Brahms, the combination of a long sustain and Willis' perhaps nervous impatience meant he actually turned around to receive applause before the note ended.

Now for some wild tangents.

If I were a hard-core snob, I would complain that the program (Saint-Saens' Bacchanale, a "greatest-hits" sort of piece; Brahms' "Variations on a [Cute] Theme by Haydn"; and Orff's big-noise, Ozzy-adopted "Carmina Burana") was too familiar. But I'm the people's snob, so in addition to loving it, I'm also thinking about how all three pieces are, in the broadest sense, folk music.

In a strict sense, folk music is that which has no identifiable single origin, is associated with a particular culture or place, and can be played/sung without extensive techinical training. But for a while now, I've been thinking that only that last part should be retained. For one thing, modern obsessions with documentation and authorship/ownership have basically guaranteed that we know the origins of almost all music composed in the past century and a half. I think a better definition of folk music is simply music that folks can and want to recreate themselves, with more or less practice, from memory.

No, we didn't all go home and play the oboe solo from the beginning of the Bacchanale (oh, I wish). But all three works had easily identifiable melodies or melodic bits, stuff that folks could--and did--go home singing or humming. (The "theme by Haydn" is probably a folk melody from Austria. Did you click the Brahms link above?)

So humor me. It's kind of like folk music, right?

In any case, the program was a stoke of marketing genius--I'm saying this with admiration, not cynicism. Think about it: if you can hum the music, you'll remember it. If you remember the music, you'll remember the night you went to the Richmond Symphony. And if you remember that, you'll be more likely to go again. The symphony knew that the first Masterworks concert of the season in the new Carpenter Theatre would be very well attended. I do hope all of them return.

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