Saturday, September 30, 2017

The music goes round and round

Here it is a few hours, it will be October, and Spivey Series concerts are about to resume once again. The summer always whizzes by. This summer the Hall was more quiet than usual, because of repair work done on the reed pipes of our Fratelli Ruffatti organ, which involved taking a good number of them out, shipping them to Ohio, and then having them reinstalled and all the pipes regulated and tuned. Thanks to the Schantz Organ Co. and Spivey Hall's organ curator Tommy McCook, the Albert Schweitzer Memorial Organ is fully operational again and in great shape.

We also completed the final edit of the video made May 13, 2017 at our Organ 25th Anniversary Celebration of a three-movement suite from The Love for Three Oranges by Sergei Prokofiev, transcribed by Weicheng Zhao for Ken Cowan, Alan Morrison and Cherry Rhodes -- a Spivey Hall commission that received its world premiere on this auspicious occasion. During the editing review process, I watched and listened to the video perhaps a dozen times, and the suite really grew on me. The performance was excellent, and the video shows the faces and hands of the organists sitting cozily, three on a bench. There's some humor involved at the beginning, too. It's definitely worth a look and a listen, and it's available on Spivey Hall's YouTube channel. Thanks to all who made this possible!

My summer travels took me to the second round of the Cliburn Competition in Fort Worth, Texas, where I heard 20 pianists each give a 45-minute recital in just two (!!) days. I also headed out to California to hear a concert at the La Jolla Music Society's annual Summerfest, happily combined with some time at the beach.

I also spent several days in Amsterdam and London attending concerts, some of which were wonderful, others less so. You never know until you go, sit, and listen. In addition to discovering musicians I think Spivey Hall audiences might like to hear in future seasons, it's also valuable to know what NOT to book!

The core of my European music experience this summer was the ten days spent with the Spivey Hall Friends in Vienna.This visit held an abundance of pleasures (more than I will attempt to describe in this post) for which I owe equally abundant thanks to Spivey Hall Friends Council Travel Program Directors Susan Hunter and Jeff Adams, who worked closely with Hapsburg Heritage Tours and our extraordinary tour guide, Gabriela Steiner-Scharfetter, to devise our itinerary and excursions, and to secure tickets. But there are two performances that will live longest with me.

One was  a searingly good performance of Elektra at the Wiener Staatsoper with soprano Nina Stemme in the title role, and the Staatsoper Orchestra (selected members of which comprise the Vienna Philharmonic when giving concerts) in the pit, playing with tremendous power and refinement. There were moments in which the music seemed to cut right through me, conveying, at times, almost volcanic passion. Just thinking about it brings back chills. It was exhilarating and completely captivating. I respect this opera more than I love it, but my admiration for Strauss and the artistry we experienced is lasting and profound, and I do not expect to hear a performance of Elektra that will surpass this one.

The other Vienna musical memory I'll cherish is sitting on the stage of the Musikverein's main hall (the Goldener Saal), tucked away in the corner, in the first row behind the percussion section, to hear Mariss Jansons and the Wiener Philharmoniker perform Dvorak's Symphony No. 8, Strauss's Death and Transfiguration, and Stravinsky's Firebird Suite. This was a subscription concert, long sold out (in Vienna, Philharmonic subscriptions are, I'm told, more often inherited than purchased anew), so my 30 Euro stage seat, acquired online the week of the concert, was my only way in. Yet these were the best 30 Euro I think I've ever spent on a concert ticket. I had a near-perfect view of Maestro Jansons' face and hands, and could see into the rear section of the first violins, sideways along the back rows of the brass and winds, and over to the double basses plus a few of the cellos. The Goldener-Saal stage is not large for a full orchestra, therefore a special sense of closeness and focused concentration prevailed. What transpired was truly magical. The orchestra and conductor seemed entirely at one, and the music-making was masterful in its vast range and exquisite subtlety of expression. In their supreme confidence and grace, the players made these performances seem entirely natural and organic, almost inevitable. Nothing was wanting. And never have I been so enveloped, engulfed, and totally awash with such utterly deep, rich, luminous, transcendentally beautiful orchestral sound. Half the time my eyes were brimming with tears, I was so moved.This was unquestionably one of the most satisfying orchestral experiences of my life, including the many of my 18 years of working with major orchestras in the US and Australia, and from hearing orchestras in cities across North America and Europe. I floated out of the Musikverein in an ecstatic daze afterwards. It was simply sublime.

Vienna is well endowed with acoustically superior performance spaces for music and opera. Acoustics do make a difference. And this is why I am always glad to return home to Atlanta to hear performances throughout the season at Spivey Hall, which in addition to acoustical excellence possesses a size and intimacy that make each performance seem very human and personal. Artists and audiences connect so readily in Spivey Hall because of this; it adds special meaning to what we see and hear. This, and the quality of the artists and the music they perform, represent "the Spivey difference" that we invite you to discover if you've not already done so. In the memorable words of the legendary conductor Robert Shaw, "Spivey Hall is to music what light is to painting."

We launch Season 27 with a welcome return of the Grammy Award-winning 12-member a cappella "Orchestra of Voices" from San Francisco, CHANTICLEER, who perform their program Heart of a Soldier on Sunday, October 8, at 3:00 PM. Program details and tickets are available online and by calling the Box Office weekdays 9 AM to 5 PM at (678) 466-4200. There's a CD signing afterwards, as well as an all-audience reception (which several of the singers will attend) to celebrate the opening of the season, all made possible through the generosity of our Friends Concert Sponsors Lauren Benevich, John Cooledge, and Nick Jones, and the annual gifts of our Spivey Hall Friends who make a critical difference in sustaining the artistic excellence of our programming year in and year out.

And so another season is about to begin. But another fantastic though far less serious musical experience I had this summer did not take place in a majestic European concert hall -- it happened while driving in a rental car. The car had satellite radio (my own does not) and I twirled the dial until I found a 30s and 40s swing channel. I love good swing-band music -- it lifts my spirits and puts a smile on my face, so it was a great way to get me in "I'm finally on vacation!" mode. I listened to it for seven hours straight in both directions, driving to and from my family's lake cottage in rural Canada.

The tune that stuck in my head -- one that I don't recall hearing before -- was "The Music Goes Round and Round," which (as I learn from YouTube) many artists have recorded, at various tempos, some slower, some faster -- and there's even a version in Japanese. (Its endless variety and potential for interpretation are among music's greatest pleasures.) This tune is catchy and just plain fun. I haven't yet found the recording that so turned me on (I heard two, and there was a certain plangent quality of the male vocalist whose timing made the better one really swing), but there are many good ones by (among others) Louis Armstrong, Henry Wood, Harry Roy, and Jay Wilbur. Right now, I'm liking the 1936 version by Tommy Dorsey and his Clambake Seven because of its jaunty pace, some offhand nonsense from the bandleader ("And now, grandma!"), and the sass of vocalist Edythe Wright ("My, my...!"). Give a listen!

Wednesday, April 05, 2017

Fred Hersch's piano "perfection" this Saturday

Franklin Abbott has posted an insightful Q&A exchange with the phenomenal jazz pianist FRED HERSCH on the Project Q Atlanta website....very much worth reading (thank you, Franklin and Fred).

And here's a YouTube video from earlier in Fred's career -- hearing this first track on his 1999 Nonesuch Let Yourself Go CD is what turned me on to his music-making. As amply demonstrated in his recent solo and ensemble work, his artistic accomplishments since that time are immensely innovative and gratifying -- and yet, this is one of those recorded performances that I keep coming back to (a "first love" sorta thing), and listen to several times a year (generally late at night) when I'm in the mood for music that really matters to me.

Fred Hersch makes a welcome return to Spivey Hall this Saturday, April 8, 2017 at 7:30 PM.  Choose your preferred seat via Spivey Hall's website (per-ticket fee applies) or call the Box Office (for no-fee personalized service) at (678) 466-4200, Monday through Friday, 9 AM to 5 PM.

If you love piano, and if you love jazz and/or want to learn more about it, come hear Fred play on a superior piano in the superb acoustics of Spivey Hall, and be amazed.

Friday, March 31, 2017

French and French Canadian

The excellent French musicians of the QUATUOR EBENE  will perform at Spivey Hall tomorrow, April 1 at 7:30 PM (this is no April Fool's joke!), giving us Mozart's D-minor Quartet, K. 421 and Debussy's sublime, one-and-only Quartet in G minor, Op. 10. My love of string quartets was inspired by a visit the renowned Guarneri Quartet made to my high school in the late 1970s, where the town's community orchestra (in which I played the French horn) would rehearse and perform. The orchestra's music director was also director of our high school orchestra, and he organized a master class with the Guarneri musicians in which several of my friends performed. (I remember the Quartet's original cellist, the wonderful but often bluntly outspoken David Soyer, asking my cellist friend Martha, "Who on EARTH gave you that fingering?") For the community orchestra concert, the Guarneri split into pairs, performing the Mozart Sinfonia Concertante and the Brahms Double Concerto, concluding the program with Schubert's "Death and the Maiden" Quartet. This was my first encounter with a professional string quartet, and it was powerful. Playing in the Brahms Double, my passion for music took on a entirely new dimension, and led to my 34-year career of working with professional musicians at major orchestras and festivals, and to my 13 seasons at Spivey Hall.

In those days, there was no, no YouTube, no music download technology. So I got myself to a suburban mall's record store, and purchased the Guarneri's LP of the Ravel and Debussy quartets. (The cover showed the musicians in a more casual moment, cavorting barefoot in the sunshine, shirt-tails flying in the wind, along an ocean beach.)  I listened to it over and over and over again, and these two superb French quartets became embedded in my musical consciousness. This, and a recording (not by the Guarneri) of the Schubert C-major String Quintet with the legendary Pablo Casals as the extra cellist, are what led me to believe that chamber music was music I needed in my life -- music that matters. In hindsight, we owe so much to our teachers who create these opportunities for us when we're young -- they are experiences that can sustain and inspire us for a lifetime. So, to the teacher/conductor Donald Grosz who made this possible for me and many others, across the decades, thank you.

Just this morning I was interested to read in The New York Times thoughts offered by the Met Opera's incoming music director, French Canadian conductor Yannick Nezet-Segin, whom I first saw/heard at a Mostly Mozart Festival in New York some years ago. I've been a fan ever since. Alas, he doesn't take the Met position fully until 2020 (he is a busy guest conductor, as well as music director of The Philadelphia Orchestra), but he is definitely worth the wait, and thankfully will be appearing with the Met in the intervening years.

Before his first rehearsal with the Met Orchestra since his appointment, he made some important statements to the musicians, related in an interview. He is clearly a man of vision, a leader. I was particularly taken by this exchange (the emphasis in his reply is mine):

These are uncertain times. What will you do to make sure the Met can retain its quality?
With the world in general, there is division, fear, reflexes of being for ourselves instead of sharing. If you add this to the fast-paced, hectic life; high stress; less and less culture in schools, that is quite apocalyptic if you look through one lens.
But if you look through the other lens, I think that is why we will become even more special. Not special because “oh, we’re so special,” but special because it will be something so necessary, such a welcome contrast to everyday life. A way to reconvene and regroup together in a place where we feel we’re connected to our own history, connected to our emotions, connected to what it is to be a community together. Music in general has, I think, an even greater role in the years to come.
Amen. The statement of his belief in and dedication to "music that matters" parallels my own convictions, and is reflected in Spivey Hall's mission of cultivating a community of artists and audiences who share a passion for the discovery and appreciation of music through concert and education experiences.  We DO need great music in our lives, now more than ever, when so many other forces can act to isolate and dispirit us.

And so the Ebene musicians are giving us THEIR music that matters -- in addition to pieces we love by Mozart and Debussy (in which they excel, as their CDs amply demonstrate; to my ears, they have a special affinity for the musical language and inflections of the Debussy), music of their own making that combines influences of jazz and contemporary popular music, sometimes called "crossover." Forget the labels; it's just great music. During their prior (and first) visit to Spivey Hall, we had but a taste of it (as an encore), and it was exhilarating. Regardless of what genre of music they're performing, they're listening, responding with millisecond sensitivity (consciously, instinctively, emotionally) to musical ideas and how each other treats them and tosses them around, and in incredibly creative and personal ways, bringing the music alive in the moment. The vitality of their music-making is thus both exciting and deeply satisfying.  My thanks go to Friends Concert Sponsors Debra and Gregory Durden for their generosity in making this possible.

We are also thrilled that French Canadian pianist LOUIS LORTIE is back again this weekend, for his all-Chopin solo recital Sunday, April 2 at 3:00 PM.  He is a phenomenal musician, and his is an astounding program. It opens with a double-dozen of Chopin's Etudes, which technically are immensely challenging and virtuosic -- truly some of the most brilliant writing for the piano -- but also highly expressive and tremendously engaging when performed live as he does. Mr. Lortie has made a specialty of these Etudes in his career (in the course of which he is performing and recording all of Chopin's solo-piano works for Chandos), something that very few pianists do. He made his Spivey Hall debut with the complete Etudes (including the posthumous Etudes), and it was jaw-droppingly, mind-blowingly good. When he offered them again for the current concert season, I couldn't resist. He truly excels in this repertoire. I am particularly fond of the musicianship he brings to the last of the Op. 25 Etudes, in C-minor -- how he makes the inner-line melody sing expansively and lyrically over such a relentless torrent of cascading notes, all of which he makes sound effortless, organic and natural -- and I play his early Chandos recording of this Etude several times each year, when (often late at night) I'm feeling the urge to hear music I love -- music that matters to me.

And as if these two sets of Etudes weren't enough, he is also performing the complete Chopin Preludes, Op. 28, which feature in the lives of many piano students, and are beloved by pianophiles generally.  Some are very short, others more extended, but all are of an eloquent, unique character, distilling expression beautifully into pieces that (in the right hands) seem almost inevitable. With Liszt, Chopin radically expanded not only piano technique, but also the expressive and emotional range of the piano repertoire. More than 170 years later, Chopin's music still has the power to move and delight us.

Thus this is a recital not to be missed! I am grateful for the exceptional generosity of Friends Concert Sponsors Jeffrey M. Adams and Susan M. Hunter that enables us to welcome Louis Lortie back to Spivey Hall.

To anyone who would generally use I-85 to drive through Atlanta near the intersection of I-75 and GA 400 to reach Spivey Hall, this route obviously will NOT be possible this weekend -- and for some time to come, following yesterday's fire that caused the section of I-85 next to where it passes over Piedmont Avenue to collapse.

If traveling from the northeast of metro Atlanta, take I-285 to I-675 then exit at Forest Parkway. Or if you're closer to the center of Atlanta, you can take US 23/Briarcliff Rd, which south of Ponce de Leon Avenue becomes Moreland Avenue -- a straight shot south through Little Five Points to Clayton County, where you would turn right on Forest Parkway, then left at the top of the hill with the traffic light (follow the signs) to the Clayton State campus.

Google Maps correctly identifies Spivey Hall's location:  Beware: not all GPS devices do!  But in any case, do not be deterred from attending these concerts -- you will be glad you did!