Thursday, March 26, 2009

Bach Festival Opener: The Brandenburg Concertos

The Spivey Hall 2009 Spring Bach Festival opens this Sunday with a feast of Johann Sebastian's most popular instrumental works: all six of the Brandenburg Concertos, performed by London's Academy of Ancient Music under the direction of harpsichordist Richard Egarr, who's featured as a soloist in the Fifth Brandenburg.

The timing is perfect for our Spring Bach Festival. The flowering trees on the Clayton State University campus are resplendently in bloom. And the ducks, geese and swans are nesting (there are five large duck eggs in the grass outside the box office entrance that we're watching carefully) -- so life is renewed once again, and we can celebrate with some glorious music by Bach.

The Brandenburg Concertos are such buoyant, high-spirited pieces. They're all in major keys, with outer movements either Allegro or livelier, and the writing for the instruments is full of character.

The Academy of Ancient Music is on a nationwide tour this month performing the Brandenburgs, and yesterday there was a review in The New York Times of their Carnegie Hall performance in Zankel Hall. I don't entirely understand Allan Kozinn's choice to dedicate one-third of the review to the shortest of all movements (two chords) in the Third Concerto, but he wrapped it up by writing, "But the Sixth, for low strings; the Fourth, with its bright recorder lines; and the Fifth, in which Mr. Egarr brought a dramatic flair to the harpsichord solo, were all as shapely and energizing as you’ll hear them."

The AAM and Egarr have recorded the Brandenburgs, and these are zesty performances. I confess to a preference for the even-number concertos, partially because I was a recorder player and loved playing bits of the Second and the Fourth (the opening themes of the Second have been buzzing my head for days now), and also because, as a teenager at music camp in The Hague, campers and faculty performed the Sixth, and I was enhralled by the sonorities of the strings, especially in the first movement; I hadn't heard such impressive string playing up close before.

The Brandenburgs also played a role in my formative experiences as a collector of recordings. Growing up in the northern Italian city of Monza, outside of Milano, I would spend time in a good record store (more about that later in another blog post), but also a discount department store that still operates 40 years later (I visited it again last September): UPIM. At the time, UPIM sold inexpensive LPs with performances by lesser-known European ensembles, featuring mostly Baroque and Classical works, with a strong representation of Italian composers (a bonanza of Vivaldi, Scarlatti, Albinoni, etc. -- UPIM knew its market).

One of my very first recording purchases were two LPs of complete Brandenburg Concertos at UPIM, for about $6 -- such a bargain! I listened to them over and over again. Like so much of sturdy, well-conceived Baroque music, even if the performances aren't (ahem) superlative, the essential spirit of the music can still come through. I played those LPs so much, the grooves pretty much disappeared, but I had them for years.

So I'm excited about getting a first-rate period-instrument ensemble to make its Spivey Hall debut with this great music. To celebrate the opening of the Bach Festival our bonanza of Brandenburgs, we're taking a slightly longer intermission to enjoy a mini-reception with free food and beverages following Concertos 1, 6, and 2, which will give us energy to savor Concertos 5, 3, and 4 in the second half.

Because the AAM is a period-instrument band, the sound will be unlike that of a modern symphony orchestra. The textures of strings, winds, and brass, with harpsichord, theorbo and guitar among the continuo instruments, reveal this music in a different light. So, even if you're familiar with these magnificent works, here's an oportunity to rediscover them. The AAM's recording of the Brandenburgs has certainly opened my ears and (especially with some choices of tempos) made me reconsider my understanding of them. Such is the glory of great music -- there's always more to appreciate, especially when performed by outstanding artists.

We also have a special pre-concert talk speaker: Predrag Gosta, who's music director of Atlanta's New Trinity Baroque and a harpischordist and organist himself, intimately familiar with the Brandenburgs and period-instrument practice. His talk is at 2 PM, and the concert starts this Sunday, March 29, 2009, at 3 PM. A few dozen tickets are (at time of writing) still available.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Patron feedback methods, old and new

We've reinstituted the Feedback Box at Spivey Hall. It's amazingly low-tech. It's a paper box on a table on the upper level near the entrance to the Box Office, with comments cards and a pen. The Feedback Box is there for patrons to bring to our attention any comments, suggestions, questions, and/or words of concern or praise. Patrons may also complete the cards later and send them to us via snail-mail.

And the first comment card is in! I found it in the Feedback Box just now.

It seems to have been submitted by one of our younger patrons who attended Monday's Young People's Concert by the Swiss Wind Quintet. I was out of town on Monday, but Sunday's Swiss Wind Quintet performance with CSU music faculty pianist Michiko Otaki was utterly delightful, and word has it that the YPC was also wonderful.

So, Mikayle's Feedback Box comment card about the Swiss Winds Quintet reads, "That was awesome!" Mikayle even added a pronunciation guide to her name: "ma-ka-lee."

Thanks, Mikayle -- I'm glad you enjoyed it!

Soon we shall embrace a 21st-century method of receiving feedback from patrons -- an email address. (What a concept, eh??) A feedback link is now available.

From Spivey Hall's website's home page,, click "About Spivey Hall" at the top, then "Contact Us," and in the drop-down box, click "Feedback" at the bottom of the list.

Patrons "vote" and give us feedback with their attendance, ticket purchases, and donations, but we love to know more about what they experience before, during and after a visit to Spivey Hall. We often receive very valuable observations, comments, and suggestions from patrons we see at concerts, and I hope the email address will both facilitate and encourage their feedback.

Of course, patrons may always call the Box Office at (678) 466-4200 and speak with us during business hours, Tuesday through Friday. Now, that's a time-honored tradition using good old-fashioned 19th-century technology -- the telephone, and talking to another human being. (I think Emilie Spivey would approve.)

If we can help, please let us know!

Friday, March 13, 2009

Celtic music from The Boys of the Lough -- and Swiss winds

We're getting a jump on St. Patrick's Day celebrations with the BOYS OF THE LOUGH on Saturday night. A good time will be had by all. The Boys are great fun. They spin terrific tunes and tell tales in their charmingly low-key way. Dave Richardson, from Northumberland, plays mandolin, cittern, English concertina, and button accordion; he also composes. Kevin Henderson is a prize-winning fiddler from the Shetland Islands. Cathal McConnell, who hails from County Fermanagh, plays flute and whistle and performs vocals, and is a truly legendary figure in traditional Irish music. Brandon Begley, "a genial giant from the Dingle peninsula in County Kerry," plays button accordion and melodeon and supplies vocals. Malcolm Stitt, originally from the Scottish Highlands, is a guitarist barely out of his 20s who adds to the Boys (according to one reviewer) "youthful rhythmical fizz."

What's amazing to realize is that the Boys (the first full-time professional Celtic band to arise on the international scene) have toured in the USA more than 70 (!!) times, and their performances and recordings have been spread over five decades. "True originals coming directly from the tradition," reads their bio, "the Boys have earned respect on both sides of the Atlantic and continue to act as role models for countless younger musicians. Their concerts, recordings, and compositions have been crucial in bringing about the current explosion of interest in all facets of Celtic music."

The Boys are no strangers to Spivey Hall. I really enjoyed them last time there were here and invited them back. I hope their many fans, throughout metro Atlanta and beyond, will abandon their television sets, rise from their couches, head to our beautiful jewel of a hall where superb acoustics and close proximity to the stage enable artists and audiences to really connect, and enjoy excellent Celtic music in the congenial company of the Boys Saturday night (March 14) at 8:15 PM. Or, in simple terms, "Y'all come!"

Sunday afternoon at 3 PM, the focus shifts to Switzerland, when we welcome the SWISS WIND QUINTET. Two of these musicians are native Swiss, and the other three have made Switzerland their home working as professional musicians in leading Swiss ensembles. They're going to perform a 1967 Wind Quintet by Swiss composer Jost Meier (whose opera The Dreyfus Affair was performed by New York City Opera in 1996) -- and it just so happens that Sunday is Mr. Meier's 70th birthday. Also on the program are Ligeti's Six Bagatelles for Wind Quintet, one of the best 20th-century works for this combination of instruments and always intriguing to hear.

The Swiss Wind Quintet is joined by Clayton State University's faculty pianist and Director of Keyboard Activities, MICHIKO OTAKI, for a work of German Romanticism by Ludwig Thuille -- his Sextet for Piano and Winds, Op. 6, which will be a happy discovery if you've never heard it -- very gratifying; and, to open the program, Mozart's Quintet in E-flat major for Piano and Winds.

I have a special fondness for the Mozart Quintet. My mother wanted me play the French horn, so I took up the instrument as a third grader in my public elementary school's music program, with free prviate lessons (not such a common opportunity these days). To give me an idea of how the French horn could really sound, she sat me down next to our Magnavox stereo console and made me listen to Dennis Brain's Angel recording of the Mozart Quintet, an LP that included Mozart's D-major Horn Concerto. At first, the Quintet didn't make much sense to me, but I always admired the warm, rounded, elegant horn playing of Dennis Brain. Ultimately, it took root.

The Mozart Quintet and Tchaikovsky's Nutcracker Suite both had a major influence on my earliest classical-music consciousness, followed by my teenaged discoveries of recordings of the Bach Brandenburg Concertos, the Schubert C-major String Quintet with Pablo Casals, and Brahms' Double Concerto, which (still as a horn player) I performed with our community orchestra and members of the Guarneri String Quartet. If I can point to any one single event that led me to a career in music, it was this Brahms Double Concerto experience. I was hooked.

So -- back to the future -- Mozart and much more on Sunday, when we also welcome the new Consul General of Switzerland, Mr. Claudio Leoncavallo, for his first Spivey Hall concert. (I'm curious to learn if he's related to Verismo composer Ruggiero Leoncavallo, whose one-act opera, Pagliacci, ranks high in my pantheon of Italian operas.) The Swiss Consulate General in Atlanta is very generously hosting a post-concert reception in honor of the Swiss Wind Quintet, whose US tour is supported by the Swiss Arts Council, Pro Helvetia (which graciously welcomed me to Switzerland last summer for a study tour of the Swiss music scene -- a wonderful experience I have yet to blog, all my good intentions notwithstanding). Prior to the 3 PM concert, Dr. Otaki and her Dept. of Music colleague, Dr. Kurt-Alexander Zeller, are giving a free talk at 2 PM about the program. I expect Dr. Otaki will illustrate some of the highlights of the Mozart and/or and Thuille at the piano, which is a great way to appreciate some musical moments of interest in the performance that follows.

Next weekend: Guitarist John Williams (March 21 at 8:15) - sold out. Pianist Murray Perahia (March 22 at 3 PM) - sold out. If you want to attend but don't have tickets, call the box office to put your name on the wait list, since tickets do sometimes become available closer to the day of the performance.

Friday, March 06, 2009

Terell Stafford, Belcea Quartet, Yevgeny Sudbin this weekend

With all the dire economic news pummelling us this week, I, for one, am ready for some excellent music this weekend.

Terell Stafford is an amazing jazz trumpeter who works with the best in the business. I had the pleasure of hearing him again in January in New York City, where he performed with the Grammy Award-winning Vanguard Jazz Orchestra. A year earlier, I was wowed by his playing with the Clayton Brothers at Dizzy's Club. For his Spivey Hall debut, Terell will be joined by Tim Warfield on saxophone, Gerald Clayton on piano, Rodney Whitaker on bass, and Dana Hall on drums. Their performance tonight is also Spivey Hall's 2009 Teacher Appreciation Night. As our way of saying thanks to the important people who make a critical difference in the lives of young people both inside and outside the classroom, teachers and administrators can attend for free (call the Box Office for details, or just show up at about 7:30 PM -- tickets still available). We'll also have a reception afterwards for everyone. It's going to be a great night, so come listen if you can.

There is such good buzz in the music business right now about the recently refurbished Alice Tully Hall at in New York's Lincoln Center for the Arts. Not only is the exterior architecture stunning and elegant -- I couldn't believe my eyes when my taxi drove past it a few months ago -- the best part is, the acoustics of this hall are, by all accounts, demonstrably improved -- which is VERY good news for the world of chamber music.

I'll be eager to hear what the musicians of Belcea Quartet have to tell me on Saturday when they're here. They've just performed at Alice Tully Hall. Steve Smith in The New York Times calls them "a group that thrives on works that demand vigor, quick reflexes and a keen sensitivity to matters of balance and nuance." What's more: "In “Death and the Maiden” the quartet emphasized clarity and poise over raw, nervy power, producing an account of potent concentration, even during a Presto taken at a breathless clip. One final note of approval goes to the revitalized hall, which allowed this ensemble’s most intricate detailing to register and resound."

As in New York, the Belcea Quartet will perform Schubert's "Death and the Maiden" String Quartet at Spivey Hall, plus there are beautiful Haydn and Britten quartets to begin, and a pre-concert talk given by Dr. Kurt-Alexander Zeller at 7:15 PM.

In this three-debut triple-whammy weekend, Russian pianist Yevgeny Sudbin takes the stage on Sunday at 3 PM. He, too, offers us Haydn, plus sonatas by Scarlatti, mazukas by Chopin, two "Fairy Tales" by Russian Nikolai Mednter (whom Rachmaninov called "the greatest composer of our time"), and Prokofiev's powerful Sonata No. 7 in B-flat. Subdin's also been in the news. Earlier this winter, he gave a recital at Washington's Kennedy Center, which Anne Midgette covered for The Washington Post. Only in our national's capital would a music review make reference to a member of the new Obama administration!

With the insouciance born of ability and success, Yevgeny Sudbin, looking not unlike a young Rahm Emanuel -- dark-ringed eyes in a thin and handsome face -- sat at the piano at the Terrace Theater on Saturday afternoon and produced some formidable music.

The sound he made was thick and dark and rich: Russian-school virtuosity, but without cloying heaviness. In the first movement of Haydn's Sonata in B Minor, which opened the program, it also had a springy elasticity that conveyed the spirit of the music, as if the sound were informed by the lighter twang of Haydn's fortepiano, like a shadow on the wall behind him.

The Russian-born Sudbin, 28, projects a wunderkind persona: able to fling out technical fireworks, offer insightful and intimate Scarlatti, write articulate program notes that give an insight into what he thinks about what he is playing (something too often absent from the classical-music equation). He has been garnering critical raves, particularly in England, where he now lives; and his string of recordings on the Bis label (Scarlatti, Scriabin, Rachmaninoff) have picked up a slew of accolades and awards.

Mr. Sudbin has indeed writtten insightful program notes for this concert, and as is virtually always the case at Spivey Hall, you can meet him afterwards in the reception room to speak with him. Just remember, though, we "Spring Ahead" on Sunday with the time change, so you need to set your clocks ahead by an hour on Saturday night if you don't want to miss the first half!

Patrons please note, it's also a triple-event weekend at the Atlanta Motor Speedway, with the fourth race of the 2009 NASCAR Sprint Cup season on Sunday; this can sometimes slow down traffic here on the Southside, and construction continues on I-75 South around Morrow's exit 233, so do yourself a favor and give yourself a little extra time getting here.

The snow that fell so heavily on Sunday is now 99% gone (the Atlanta Chamber Players' concert planned for that afternoon has been rescheduled to Saturday, April 25, 2009 at 8:15 PM -- more on this soon). The temperture will be in the mid 70s, with sun and bright skies. The geese, ducks and swans are nesting in the bushes around the lake adjacent to Spivey Hall -- no signs of offspring yet, however. (My favorites are the ducklings. I can't help but smile when I see them on my way to lunch.) Spring must be on its way.

A postscript: Spivey Hall's 2009/10 season of concerts will be announced soon -- anyone who's bought a ticket here in the last five years or so should look for our new season book in their mailboxes in early April. I'm glad to say there's plenty of great music in store for us.