Except for my ears, there’s nothing gay here (at least as far as I know). These are my reviews for the Times Union (Albany, NY) from last weekend. I’ve decided to start posting more of this sort of thing, since these assignments are what can keep me from providing more original content on here.
Daniel Bernard Roumain & The Mission
January 22, 2010, The Egg, Albany
Daniel Bernard Roumain, also known as DBR, is a composer with ample classical chops, but he also knows how to improvise — and not just with notes. He turned his long-scheduled return to The Egg on Friday night into a benefit for the victims of the earthquake in Haiti, which is where his own family roots lie. His opening violin solo was a kind of theme and variations on the country’s national anthem.
The musical heart of the program remained mostly in tact, a series of string quartets written in honor of civil rights leaders. During one lengthy movement, a striding tribute to Adam Clayton Powell and Harlem style, Roumain didn’t have to read the vibe of the room to know that the crowd was down with the music. They’d started calling out their appreciation, as at a gospel service. Immediately Roumain brought the audience into the performance, leading them in finger snaps of increasing rhythmic complexity.
A few minutes further into the piece, a telephone sang out in the hall and Roumain halted the quartet. He’d warned us that something might happen during the piece, but a phone call?
Through the speaker system, Roumain conducted a conversation with two American friends who recently arrived in Haiti, asking them to describe in detail the situation and how they’re getting by. If the musical program was curtailed for a while to make time for the dialogue, no one seemed to mind and members of the local Haitian community were allowed to ask a few questions.
Roumain’s series of Civil Rights Portraits features five quartets and portions of four were performed. The music is post-minimal with most sections consisting of a perpetual rhythmic motion. Much of it might feel pretty stagnant when played by a traditional quartet, politely seated on stage. But Romain’s amplified band — the SQ Unit, he calls them — swayed their bodies, grinded their bows and made it all rather gritty and gripping. Their encore of free improvisation was full of daring and personality.
Roumain, 38, is one of the most prominent of the new generation of composers who don’t hide offstage. He’s a dynamic emcee and showman, who sometimes scratches the violin like it’s a turntable. Also part preacher and music instructor, he brings a so-called classical concert to life like nobody else can. Cheers to The Egg for bringing him here regularly.
Mahler’s Fifth Symphony
Albany Symphony Orchestra, Benjamin Zander, guest conductor
Saturday January 23, Palace Theatre, Albany
If Benjamin Zander wasn’t already friends with half of the Capital Region by the time he led the Albany Symphony Orchestra on Saturday night, it wasn’t for lack of trying. The Boston conductor had a string of public appearances throughout the week, starting with a well attended talk on leadership Monday night at the Massry Center. It all culminated with Saturday’s concert in the Palace Theatre featuring Mahler’s Fifth Symphony.
A prescient depiction of modern angst, the Fifth dates from 1902 and is cast in five movements that stretch well more than an hour in length. Eight-three players were on stage for the performance.
To heighten the effect of Mahler’s stormy vision, Zander began the program with a lilting picture of old Europe in the form of Johann Strauss’ Emperor Waltzes. He used plenty of rubato, with most passages either racing along or almost dragging. Though the music was intimate, Zander’s gestures were huge. Since he stands at least six feet tall, the crowd in the balcony could have probably followed along easily.
As if wiping away the exuberant life of his earlier symphonies, Mahler begins the Fifth with a desolate cry from the trumpet. Eric Berlin handled it and many more solos with aplomb
The first two movements are a near constant tug of war between romanticism and modernity. Imagine a joyous song accompanied by the march of soldiers. Yet Zander’s interpretation seemed to accentuate the tender, such as the cello section’s smooth composure during a descending melody in the second movement.
The central Scherzo was most arresting when the strings played pizzicato, followed by a number of solos from the woodwinds and brass. The passage culminated with one of Mahler’s most obvious allusions to the waltz, which prompted a brief return of Zander’s grand beat. He nearly touched the ceiling. Also memorable in the Scherzo was the sustained and full bodied playing of first horn William Hughes.
The string choir was all heart in the gentle Adagietto, with a delicate underpinning from harpist Lynette Wardle. When the music faded to nothing, the thrilling ride of the finale commenced immediately. The string of climaxes included a series of descending chords from the mighty brass.
Along the way there were moments to quibble about — an out of tune tympani in the opening movement, a sour tuba solo near the end of the second, and a vague and weary line from a horn near the end. But the larger perspective was Zander outlining a picture of the piece that a talented and dedicated orchestra filled in with both vivid color and deep sentiment.
Brentano String Quartet plays Beethoven
Sunday January 24, 2010, Union College Concert Series, Schenectady
Whether a listener or a performer, everyone in classical music must address the works of Beethoven. But the Brentano String Quartet has a special obligation because it’s named for Antonie Brentano, who scholars believe was Beethoven’s unrequited love interest, his “immortal beloved.”
On Sunday afternoon, for the Brentano’s second solo engagement at the Union College Concert Series, the group stepped up to the challenge with an all-Beethoven program. It was obvious that the material was hardly new to them. Though its members are youthful looking, the Brentano has been around for 18 years already and it couldn’t have earned its many awards and accolades without having a firm grip on Beethoven. From start to finish, they played with a polished sound and impeccable ensemble.
The three quartets at hand date from Beethoven’s early, middle and late periods and were offered in chronological order. It was an immersive listening experience that got deeper, though surprisingly less interesting, as things progressed.
The String Quartet No. 1 in F Major, Op. 18 No. 1 has more than a few touches of Hadyn and Mozart, yet the Brentano brought out the romantic side. After starting with some beautiful unison trills, the opening Allegro became quite forceful, almost explosive. Then the Adagio was so meditative that the writing seemed a little incoherent, even listless. The spell wore off soon enough as the material turned increasingly grave. The Scherzo had an admirable articulation and bounce but the final Allegro, with Beethoven’s return to classical gestures, rattled on a bit.
Even more free form was the String Quartet No. 9 in C Major, Op. 59, No. 3 “Rasumovsky.” In his program notes, founder and first violinist Mark Steinberg described it as feeling “at sea.” The piece really came to life in the spare Andante, when a curvaceous rather Eastern melody got passed around for solos. Cellist Nina Maria Lee had a fun walking bass figure and throughout the afternoon she added more low register support than most quartets have.
After intermission came the Quartet No. 12 in E-flat major, Op. 127. It’s the first of the so-called late quartets, yet it’s not the late late kind that got into such weird harmonies and forms. It actually turned out to be the most cohesive writing of the afternoon, and one was reminded that E-flat is one mellow key, popular for lullabyes. As the sun was setting and the piece droned on, it felt good that duties to Beethoven were nearing completion.