Let’s all hope that more music people get their butts to the Orlando Phil concerts. Even the most cynical, nitpicking, musical-doomsaying and typical ‘Orlando is a cultural wasteland’ parrot would have to raise their eyebrows in wonder at last night’s well attended concert. Joy and I left feeling immensely satisfied. Kudos to Maestro Chris Wilkins for blending the obscure (Sung, Chausson) with standard repertoire showpieces.
1. The Phoenix Rising by Stella Sung
2. Poeme for Violin and Orchestra, op 25 by Ernest Chausson
3. Romeo & Juliet, Fantasy Overture by Tchaikovsky
4. The Lark Ascending by Vaughan Williams
5. The Firebird Suite by Stravinsky
Stella Sung’s “The Phoenix Rising” was publicly dedicated to Jonathan May, a leader in Central Florida music as a musician, teacher and conductor for the Florida Youth Symphony for whom the work commissioned by in 2008. I love Stella and am happy that she has the role of resident composer – but this was not one of her better works. The work was stated as one of transformation as the title makes evident – beginning with great force and later becoming transcendent. The weakness was in orchestration, especially in comparison to the other works on the bill.
Bob Carr auditorium, the home of the OPO, is an unforgiving acoustic environment (aren’t they all?) but not for the average reasons. Essentially a public speaking hall modified to become a concert hall, it suffers from a lack of acoustic focus. There is no curved surface or panel that is designed to reflect the sound to the audience. The ceiling clouds are fixed and do not extend over the last portion of the stage, leaving the strings with no help to congeal and fill the 2000 seat hall. Up until last year, a shell was used – but it created a huge unbalance – midrange combing was excessive, the sheen of the strings was lost and the winds and percussion were pronounced. Low end was gone. Removing the shell last year provided the correct dynamics and recovered the natural timbre, but sound pressure level (loudness) was down. In order to help solve that problem, Wilkins hired more string players. Last night, risers were used, too. This constant tuning of the stage is working. The lack of reflection from controlled surfaces makes the hall dry sounding in quiet passages, save for quiet reflections from the back brick wall and the voluminous space on both sides backstage. Loud passages fill the building entirely, activating the surfaces of the hall. In this acoustic climate, it seems to me that ‘the loudest sounds win’ – masking all non-supported filigree and detail. But if a musical line is supported, it sings. What this means to us composers is that traditional orchestration seems to work best – nontraditional mixtures in both melodies and accompaniments, like in Stella’s work, don’t. I still remember how “Earth Caoine” compared to Debussy’s “Afternoon of a Faun” in 1999: something about Debussy’s orchestration gave it more clarity – and the Mozart clarinet concerto that followed sonically ‘leapt’ off the stage – but it was not something to be found in a text about orchestration. I think it has to do with constructive interference resulting from consonant pitches and overtones as well as directional qualities of how each instrument propagates. The orchestration magic of the standard repertoire is worthy of deep study. I’m sure a factor in how these works ‘speak’ is also due to the familiarity of the musicians with the music – but this does not explain the acoustical clarity. The Chausson, for example, was new to this group – but the entire scope of the piece was ever so much clearer from its onset because of its clearly orchestrated statements.
The Ernest Chausson work “Poem for Violin and Orchestra” was a pleasant surprise. Being unfamiliar with his works, I wrongly guessed from his dates (1855-1899) that his work would be similar to Franck or Dukas. Instead, I heard a harmonic language more like Rimsky Korsakov, Strauss and Debussy. Wonderful, rich yet totally sensible chromaticism and color. I think he may be the best French composer of his generation. The best part of the Chausson and later, the Vaughan WIlliams, is the orchestra’s new concertmaster Yuriy Bekker.
Yuriy is a quiet and reflective performer. He does not ‘play out’ with bravura in the typical male violinist fashion but simply stands in front and gets lost in the music – forcing the orchestra to play under him. He saves his power for those few peaks and phrases that truly deserve it. His tone is sweet and kind – something that seems more suitable as a team player than a prima macho – which of course suits his role as concertmaster perfectly. Yuriy’s “Lark Ascending” stayed intimate throughout, never digging in with a gigantic vibrato fff, but maintained the intimate mystery of the music. Yuri told me later that he had performed the Chausson on previous occasions and loved the work. He seems so focused upon technically perfect performances (his pitch is ever so perfect and his bow flawless) not because he is showing off – but rather that he is a completely devoted servant of the mystery of the music. We are lucky that OPO found a violinist worthy to fill Tamas Kocsis seat – and do it in a new and unique way.
For some reason, so many well educated composers and musicians poo-poo the work of Tchaikovsky. I have never understood this. Romeo and Juliet, for example, is simply brilliant – the thematic development, the humanness of development in light of the story – the orchestration (who has the third? alway changing colors), the use of percussion and balance of forces, etc. Does one horrible piece, like his 1812 Overture, make all his works weak and derivative? Of course not. The fact is that Tchaikovsky speaks volumes to audiences and ever shall. He will always be stuck in controversy in the ivory tower crowd as long as we use the usual theoretical yardsticks for him. There is a reason that crowds of people love his great musical achievements and is has to do with basic brain wiring – I hope that the theorists will open up to what that is… I really enjoyed this performance.
The Lark Ascending was warm and glowing. This performance really moved my wife Joy. It was ecstatic and she later related to me that, at points, it made her breathless. Looking back, it is as if a warm sun had set on the stage – shining warmth and beauty to all present. Thank you Yuriy, Chris and orchestra for those precious minutes. That is why we come.
Though the Stravinsky is standard repertoire, it is a beast. Not one note can be misplaced without things falling amiss. The woodwinds shone like I have never heard them before! I have heard this work so many times in recordings and know it so well – I was able to take it in completely fresh. The performance was jaw-dropping. How does Stravinsky do so much with such brilliant clarity? At 28 years old – creating such a magnificent thing? The orchestration is simply unbelievable and displays the wide spectrum of what an orchestra can do. I wonder why Stravinsky rarely wrote pieces of such orchestral depth after his first style period instead of distilling his ideas to such elegant and simpler gestures? Stravinsky has emerged my hero once again. Wow was that fun and amazing to behold.
I don’t think that the members of OPO realize how great they sound from the audience’s perspective. A recent conversation with one of the first violinists revealed that she considered OPO as second rate quality even as a regional group. I hope musicians open their ears and hearts and listen to what they are creating. There is something good happening here.