Jan Lisiecki, A Tale of Two Washingtons

Chopin Piano Concerto in DC; Chopin Nocturnes and Études in Seattle

March 17, 2022

By S.E. Barcus

Over the past two months, I had the chance to check out pianist Jan Lisiecki, a relatively young man (about to turn 27) who is marketed as pretty hot stuff.  He is Polish-Canadian, and his claim to fame started when Poland recognized him as something special, awarding him as a young teen to play both Chopin piano concertos, both of which were recorded and released, which immediately led to Deutsche Grammophon sucking him up with a recording contract like the behemoth Yankees stealing up the best ball-players.  And all of that happened by the time he was 15.  I mean, I know classical music is obsessed with child prodigies more than any other artform, but … JFC.  15?!

So … I checked him out.  Twice.  Once in Washington State this past January 25, when he played a plethora of Chopin Études and Nocturnes, and again last night in Washington DC, when he performed what seems to be his calling card piece with the National Symphony Orchestra, Chopin’s Piano Concerto No. 1. 

I’m not privy to the inner working of the classical music business, but one cannot help but cynically think – “Polish-ancestry.  Check.  Seeming to corner the Polish-composer Chopin’s market (as if a “Polish” sensibility is inherited somehow).  Check.  Sprinkle in some of that “best pianist to come out of Canada since Glenn Gould” schtick for good measure.  Check.  In a good-looking young man who can definitely play the keys. Check.”  It all seems a little … “markety”.  It seems he very very very often plays Chopin.  Like, almost every single performance he gives.  At least in the recent past and upcoming European performances (with some Prokofiev thrown in here  — and Denver/Colorado Orchestra seems to get a special treat with some Grieg).  But overall … mostly Chopin.

Lisiecki at Benaroya Hall, Seattle, January 25

Lisiecki says in one of his online interviews that he’s being pretty adventurous by ‘forcing’ his record company to let him do some Mendelssohn, something not as frequently played.  For this young man, this is his “bad-ass rebellion”.  And to be sure, that’s cool that we got the 20th version of some Mendelssohn rather than the 500th version of whatever Chopin they wanted him to do again.  But….   I witnessed so much talent here.  And being older, I am hopeful that the young man will realize his power with every passing day, and demand not only Felix, but perhaps continue on his current path into the 20th century with the likes of Prokofiev.  (I hope neither he nor the Europeans change these performances due to the war, as some have done, in “freedom fries” fashion.  Good Russian people should not be vilified, but supported; supported in their own efforts to overthrow their despot.  Besides which … Prokofiev is amazing!)  I am hopeful in my lifetime I will be able to buy a recording of Lisiecki playing Ligeti.  (Hey!  That has a nice consonance ring to it!  Are you hearing me, Deutsche Grammophon?!)

All that said, when you see and hear him for yourself, it is apparent that Lisiecki is quite obviously his own person now.   Perhaps his sensibility truly is one similar to that found in the 19th century, and that’s what he’ll play the rest of his life.  He has described the joys of being a pianist due to the nearly-infinite quantity of literature available.  With hundreds of years to select from, one could easily spend one’s lifetime in just one century and still be as happy as a clam, still re-discover jewels and gems and pearls a-plenty.  So … you do you, Lisiecki.

SEATTLE

Lisiecki said, in the program for his night at Benaroya Hall, that he organized his Études and Nocturnes by a progression in keys, which is odd, given they initially progress to the next piece by moving a third down or a 5th up, but then after intermission mostly a 4th up with even some 2nds thrown in….  I’m sure the goal, like any composer doing some book of Preludes or something (or some rock album figuring out its ”track list”), was for a nice variety that would flow seamlessly.  Given the performer of another’s work does not compose the piece, I get the feeling pianists enjoy this curatorial sort of work, which considers the emotional ebbs and flows of an evening as carefully as a composer does within each piece.  It must be a creative and fun aspect of “their job”. 

Lisiecki wanted an evening that gave the impression of “poems in a book”, and I think he succeeded.  Although, perhaps more like “entries in a diary”, for me, given Chopin is so emotionally wrought that it feels almost too private and intense than the more-often artistic façade of a poem.  Which, of course, is why Chopin is to this day – without hyperbole — one of the greatest composers in all of human history, especially in regards to writing for the piano. 

To hear Nocturnes at night is dangerous.  They are so quiet and peaceful at times that if you didn’t get much sleep the night prior, or had too much booze before the show or during intermission, you might just be lulled to sleep.  (Don’t be that guy snoring at a performance!)  For myself, the Nocturnes instantly transport me to someone’s living room in Paris, with all hipsters quietly surrounding the piano like 19th century goth kids, as Chopin wows them with his virtuosity and sensitivity, somehow hypnotizing everyone into a calm and pensive night, altogether, often with that happy-sad sense of melancholy. 

Frédéric Chopin

Whenever Lisiecki hits the sweet spot, the tender moments, his body stiffens, and he sits straight up as if he were having tea with the Queen (which — holy shit — he actually did once?!).  If I were to interview the lad, I’d ask him if this posture does not somehow subconsciously help his performance with these delicate spots.  With the pianissimo.  Does it relax the arms, to really focus on the hands for those quietest moments, which are, after-all, the hardest to control and vary and play well?  Or does the posture somehow mentally transport him to a place where everything is dainty and refined, and so such feelings just naturally exit the hands due to this corporeal trick? I dunno, but he returns to that posture several times, and in DC as well, when proper delicacy is required. 

Performatively, I also like the way Lisiecki nods and bobs his head around while he’s playing.  Keeps things interesting for the spectator, expresses visually what is often aurally coming your way, as well.

The Études always seem as difficult to me as a Bach 5-voice fugue when I hear them, mixed in with virtuoso passages meant to wow and amaze (and terrify, if you are a performer, yourself).  Here, too, Lisiecki doesn’t disappoint.  For these pieces, when they really get rolling, his style is to stand slightly off the chair and literally lean over the keys, attacking them with downward thrusts of his arms, likely getting more force this way.  (Again, he does this several times in DC, as well.)  It’s not a personal little stool he’s on, and he’s not humming along with the music (as far as I can tell), but something about this performative technique was quirky. A technique that was odd, and might be frowned upon as something that might distract our attention, and thus avoided.  And it was with this impression — the feeling that the kid (er, young man) doesn’t seem to care what he looks like as long as he’s going about his job and business of playing this piece as well as he can, his way, even if it’s a little “weird” — that he reminded me at those moments of his fellow Canadian and genius, Glenn Gould. Quirky and unique and not giving a damn … and being really, really good.

All of these pieces are undoubtedly well-known to everyone, we’ve heard them a million times.  But if he is getting tired of these pieces, now that he has played them over and over (he says in an interview that he likes to practice as little as possible, just enough to be able to execute, but no more, so as to keep music as fresh as possible), it does not show itself.  The night was wonderful at expressing the famous composer’s works.

Lisiecki does have more rubato than I think I’ve heard on various recordings.  Perhaps it is his true personal feelings coming through, or perhaps it is that tendency for performers to want to make their unique mark on a piece that you otherwise cannot quite modify or control.  Or both.  But it was noticeable.  And it was fine.  It was beautiful.  Domo arigato.  Mr. Rubato.

The last piece in Seattle was the biggest crowd-pleaser, the Revolutionary Étude, and he performed it with great passion, ending the night with a standing ovation and a curtain call.  But no encore.  (Insert sad-face emoji here.)  Of course, the Revolutionary Étude is often other pianists’ encore, so … we’re good. 

DC

I wondered if, given my sense in Seattle that Lisiecki’s tendency was to dramatically vary his tempi, I wondered, would the orchestra and he stay together?  Would Conductor Thomas Wilkins keep them together, or would Mr. Lisiecki perhaps stray off into his own thoughts and tempi?  He exploited rubato in his solo parts, but yes, they seemed to stay together very well, otherwise.  At times, maybe, things seemed to get too fast?  And Conductor Wilkins would turn to Lisiecki with bigger gestures (hard to get a pianist’s attention as they are playing difficult passages), which seemed to settle things down.  If this was truly the case, it was hardly noticeable, given most of the time the piece seemed to flow as effortlessly and near-perfectly as any recording, with only a few wrong notes here and there.  But to be fair, whatever transpired between conductor and soloist, the music sounded great, and shortly after any look of consternation – as well as after each movement, during the pause – Wilkins never failed to turn to Lisiecki with a literal subtle wink of the left eye, communicating either “atta boy” or “damn, are we not knocking this out of the park, or what?!”

For not writing much music other than for the piano, Chopin’s Piano Concerto No. 1 sure does have a long orchestral opening – 3 to 4 minutes — before the piano rears its beautiful head. One almost forgets there’s a piano up there, at all, until that first E minor chord crashes on top of you, fortissimo, in your face.  Lisiecki almost seemed to slightly jump the gun with it, which I liked.  If one knows it’s coming, as the strings slowly fade away, the quicker that attack, the better the effect, I think.

There are then several minutes of more virtuoso passages, that were probably designed to showcase the young composer as he bid farewell to his Poland.  And they are great, with all of their cascading arpeggios and little waterfalls essentially based around the third interval, whether modified as a 6th or 10th.  (My own preference, of course, but … when his solo parts are over, especially the more extravagant show-offy ones, and the orchestra picks up the music again, I believe the jazz culture does it better.  We should be able to acknowledge and applaud sections by soloists who just completed an outstanding passage.  I have lost too many arguments to classical folks about this opinion to know that this behavior will never happen in classical music culture – or at least, if it did, that that person would be kicked out tout de suite if they ever acted on the impulse!)

But somewhere around the 8th minute or so of the 1st movement is when the piece gets its “dolce” back, becomes more lyrical, beautiful, “sublime” – all of the things that come to mind when one hears the word “Chopin”.  Of course, great composers have a mastery of all emotional expression, and Chopin is no different.  Just in this first movement, every expression seems represented at one time or another.  The first movement then ends as if Forman’s Salieri were with us, “end it with a bang, so they know it’s done”.  I would’ve preferred the “whimper” sort of ending, with tenderness, thank you T.S. Eliot.  Perhaps I am influenced this particular month by the current war?

But, of course, Chopin knows best.  A whimper wouldn’t have segued into nor contrasted with the 2nd movement nearly as well.  The second movement, the Romanze, is like a lullaby.  Chopin said it was dedicated to the tenderness one feels, being in a familiar place with 1000 sweet memories. Hearing this in DC, where I was born, and where I was visiting all of my old haunts, and knowing that Chopin had intended this for the movement, made a special impression on me.  Music is, of course, an abstract artform, but if we bring to it all of the contextual features, its history, and if the composer is a genius for whatever “programmatic” story he wants to tell, and we are still yet within their cultural milieu enough to overcome the passage of time or space, and understand the composer’s intended symbolism – music then can be moving and meaningful beyond just what sound frequencies are known to provoke in the deeply-rooted non-dominant hemispheric musical/emotional centers of our brains.  Music has the power to stir things in the consciousness – memories, images, feelings – that other artforms just cannot match.  Which is why it is so powerful and beloved, of course.

At some point, as he plays, Lisiecki’s hands seem really big to me, at least from the audience.  Like he’s a puppy and still growing, with giant paws.  (They are most definitely not Trump’s hands….)  This would seem to be physically perfect for the piano. I might ask how such a young man can possibly have and convey such a wide range of emotion, with relatively few experiences?  But then, Chopin WROTE the damn thing when he was just 20!  Which should make us sit down, take a breath, and realize … it is hopeless for us!  (Of course, Lisiecki first played the piece for that Warsaw festival when he was … what? … 14?!  ….  We are doomed.)

One of the more memorable performative gestures was a swooshing of Lisiecki’s trunk to the left, at the end of a solo section, almost flipping his short hair back, as if literally “throwing it back” to the conductor and orchestra.  I loved it.  (It was probably here that I wanted to applaud, like at a jazz show.)

Roger Daltrey as Liszt, from Lisztomania

The third movement is much more lively, filled with dances and grand-sounding marches, filled again with more of the ”look at me” virtuoso stuff one expected from a piano concerto back then, more arms than hands, swinging around both ends of the compass almost perfunctorily.  This isn’t what I come to Chopin for – I prefer the Nocturnes, for the sublime, which again Lisiecki did equally well in Seattle, of course.  But if you wants tha glitz – the concerto gives you the Liberace-schtick better than anyone, as well. (Except for maybe that true “Liberace of the Romantics”, Liszt.)  And if you wants bouncy-fun country dances, that’s in this 3rd movement in spades. 

Why do we perform and experience old works that have been recorded a hundred times?  Even if Lisiecki or any performer were the greatest of all time, no matter how they adjusted a work to suit their own expressive needs as an artist themselves, overall, mostly the same emotions and expressions are communicated if they’re following the composers wishes, i.e. notes and tempo and expressive markings. So, we’re here to experience, what?  Skill – “look what I can do?”  Look, human beings still got it, in 2022?  We’re still cultured? We care about our history? Is it so we can experience the work together, as a community?  Is it nostalgia, and thus no wonder classical music gets the bad rap for being the artform for the older and more conservative audience?  Obviously, it is probably all these things and much more. (And there are undoubtedly several PhD theses on the topic from musicologists, so I’ll stop now!).

They might be marketing Lisiecki as the master of Chopin because he’s Polish, or the next Glenn Gould, or whatever.  But, hearing him in interviews, and reading about the guy, I’m not sure Lisiecki is that Machiavellian.  My guess is it is more the agents or the companies that want to sell him.  And you know what?  Cynicism aside, more power to them, given how tiny and fragile our classical music world is, at least in America.  Whatever works – more power to you.  Go out there and get more people coming back to the symphony halls, you Madison Avenue whiz-kids!  Get busy!  And I am most pleased to announce that whatever the hype, when you see and hear the fellow, you won’t be disappointed.  He is professional, embodies the music, performs it as well as anyone.  So, do – do – do, do – do believe the hype.

(Be careful though, Lisiecki!  The lady next to me was disappointed that, after your three curtain calls, you did not give us an encore.  “I saw Lang Lang here at the Kennedy Center, and he came out and gave us an encore….”  It’s a tough business, man!  Find yourself some of those Yuja Wang show-stoppers!  In DC, the civil servants are restless!) 

As in Seattle, he has played this concerto so many times, so he risks “being a caricature of himself”, as he has worried publicly.  That he might, himself, become bored with a work, and thus play it without feeling.  “Calling it in.”  If he was, we didn’t get that sense.  The performance was excellent.  He seems to play the Romantics very well.  I do think his own soul might just be that schmalzy? 

But not to be flippant — he also does the work.  He’s professional.  He hits the notes, conveys the emotions, expertly varies the tempo and dynamics (including those pp moments, in a sense, the most difficult sections) in a confident and – yes – already very “experienced” manner (at 26!).  Have no fear — you pays your money, you will gets your product.  Close your eyes, and the performance is as good as any recording that needed 30 takes.  And it is live, and in front of you, surrounded by your community, sharing in the sublime.  These were good nights.  Lisiecki deserves the title of “professional”.

NSO

Let’s give the National Symphony Orchestra their due for the works they did the rest of their night.

They were led this St. Patrick’s Day by the seemingly-pleasant-but-strict, Conductor Thomas Wilkins, who comes out punctually (I was warned by the event staff to get to my seat – they start right on time!).  He makes little fanfare, climbs the podium, and jumps right into the music.  He conducts with very small gestures, more subtle ticks of the baton, only slightly leaning in here or there to various sections of the orchestra.  (To my joy and surprise, at the end of the evening, this stern-seeming man had a giant boyish smile on his face and even fist-bumped people in the first row – so … you know what they say about the covers of books….)

Marine helicopters roaring by Kennedy Center patio, March 17.

People are posting on social media about various symphonies around the world opening with the Ukrainian national anthem.  Here, in DC, while the war drums are pounding loudly, with military helicopters literally freaking me out as they roared over the Kennedy Center’s patio … no such thing.  The night began with a somewhat cheesy Romantic-era piece, Franz von Suppé’s Die schöne Galathée, the Overture.  Suppé was forced to compete with Offenbach and his Can Can, and the opera buffa sensibility shined.  It starts ceremonial/militaristic, pomp-and-circumstance-like, like a John Philip Sousa passage (I guess apropos for a National Orchestra), and definitely wakes you up to start the night.  There are sweet moments, as well, not to mention some very Austrian um-pah-pah’s here and there, so overall, it was a fine divertissement.

The second half of the night in DC, after the concerto and intermission, featured the 20th century German composer, Paul Hindemith, and his Mathis der Maler Symphony.  (On March 17, tonight was nothing but Austrian and Polish and German? So, to honor the day on my own, I felt obliged to have an Irish whiskey at intermission….)  (And no, I wasn’t the guy snoring!)  Hindemith was an alternative to the Stravinsky version of a neoclassicist, and Baroque forms sneak in here and there, but he was still open and searching, promoting the music of Webern and Schoenberg when he led festivals in the 1920s. 

Conductor Wilkins and the National Symphony Orchestra, March 17

The symphony is based on his opera of the same name, about a painter living in a time of warfare between Catholic and Lutheran, and what it meant to be an artist making sense of his profession in a time of conflict, which Hindemith himself was doing in the 1930’s, with the Nazis on the rise, and he, negotiating how far he could go with his art, while keeping a careful eye on whether or not the racist pieces of shit might actually continue to rise in power, especially keeping in mind his wife was Jewish….  (Artists in Russia who have recently fled to Finland and Armenia, or artists in America in the age of Trump, couldn’t possibly relate to such a theme, could they?!) Hindemith himself had to flee Germany in 1938, to Switzerland.  Perhaps the current global nationalist creepiness is why the artists of the NSO chose to perform this piece…?

This piece opens with what a modern audience might recognize coincidentally as Danny Elfman’s Batman theme (of course that would be the other way around!), but in this case quickly evolves into a cheerful three angels German folk music theme (that actually comes near the end of the associated opera), and from there, a bantering off and on of those angels with atypical tonal themes, starting with flutes, bouncing around the sections of the orchestra for most of the movement, at one point with fugal-like elements in the strings about halfway through.  The third movement has a lot of drums in the beginning, and lots of colors at the end, until the finale, which sounds to me like it was ripped right out of Pictures at an Exhibition. I wasn’t as familiar with this work, and am thankful to the NSO’s musicians and Conductor Wilkins, for this great performance and well-done, enjoyable evening, overall.

I’ll say this about these two nights.  Between Washington State and Washington DC, there is a continent.  The former has a season-ticket-holding crowd that attends in sweaters and jeans (“come as you are”…), while the Kennedy Center crowd was much more dressy, and much older, in general, as well, as if JFK himself might be in the upper balcony tonight.  But at the end of both nights, there was warm and sincere applause, a shared experience of a young, living performer who reincarnated the ghost of Chopin for us, as he seems to be doing throughout the world.  As a borderline Gen Z’er, this is Lisiecki’s time, and there is now no doubt that Chopin, for whatever reason – whether marketing or talent or ancestry or otherwise – has become his responsibility.  He owns Chopin.  … And frankly, that’s a big fucking terrifying responsibility, so I really feel for this guy.  But … he’s meeting the moment.  He’s doing it really well, and we should be thankful we have moments like the ones he gave us these two nights.  I truly believe that all of the Northwest Bro-mazons, and all of the DeCeit policy-wonks, the folks on both coasts, were, for these two nights anyway, amazed and transported by a Lisiecki séance.

Copyright 3-18-2022, S.E. Barcus

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Jan Lisiecki, A Tale of Two Washingtons

Beethoven and the War of February 24

Night at the an der Vilar
Review of Colorado Symphony performing Beethoven’s 5th and 6th Symphonies

Beaver Creek, CO

By S.E. Barcus (and Vladimir Putin)

February 24, 2022

The Colorado Symphony (CS) perform Beethoven’s 6th and 5th Symphonies for the (mostly) wealthy skiers of Beaver Creek and Vail, February 24-27, 2022, at the Vilar Performing Arts Center in Beaver Creek, CO.  I had a chance to see the opening night, and am SO glad I did (if for no other reason than it was a brief reprieve from Putin’s homicidal start to Europe’s greatest tragedy in over 70 years).  Not knowing what to expect, I was thoroughly impressed with this Rocky Mountain state’s symphony by the end of the evening.  (Looking through their season seemed worrying; kinda cheesy.  In between classics from the usual repertoire, they will be performing ‘works by Queen’, a collaboration with Ben Folds (ugh), among other things.…  This is not surprising, though.  When Vaclav Havel took over the Czech Republic after the Soviet block disintegrated, and they went full-on freedom and democracy, people didn’t entirely jump to the highbrow arts.  Did they flock to Kafkaesque theater?  Heck no!  They demanded sit-coms!  And so, too, America.  If you want to sell the season tickets for classical music, you might need to throw in the music from the video game Final Fantasy VII….)

The introduction to our concert pointed out that it was the most musicians (~60) on that stage at one time ever in the history of the Vilar, and that they’d always strived to host symphonic works.  The usual pretty panels of the ceiling were removed in an attempt for better acoustics.  Overall, hats off to Vilar, as well as the CS, this weekend, for pulling it off.

Theater an der Wien.

But why 6th before 5th?  Perhaps because it is the longer piece before the intermission?  Perhaps – as Beethoven did when he turned the tables on many of his sonatas and symphonies — to end, rather than begin, with the bang?  Or, perhaps because this is how they were originally performed, together, at their world premier at the Theater an der Wien in Vienna on that famous night of December 22, 1808?  (Only, without the other world premieres of that same evening, including:  Ah! perfido; the Mass in C Minor;  the Piano Concerto No. 4;  an extemporized fantasia for solo piano; and finally (what he hoped would be the ‘end-with-a-bang’) — the famed precursor to the 9th Symphony — the Choral Fantasy.  I could argue this almost gives near-certainty to a diagnosis of mania.  So, the world premiere of these two beloved symphonies came with all the rest of that music – four hours in total – with an under-rehearsed, shoddy, community orchestra, in a cold, unheated theater, with Beethoven ranting and raving around like a lunatic all day and night. … In short, it must … have … been … AWESOME!  If anyone wants to produce my screenplay of the happening, “Night at the an der Wien”, please email me!)

6th Symphony in F Major, Op. 68, “Pastoral”

The 6th should be considered a special challenge, and should terrify anyone having anything to do with performing it.  More ‘holy’, perhaps, than even Beethoven’s epic late-period Missa Solemnis.  While everyone always raves about the odd-numbered 3rd, 5th, 7th, and 9th Symphonies (as if Beethoven’s symphonies were like the San Antonio Spurs’ Championships), the even-numbered 6th in many other ways stands alone.  (It’s like that one year Timmy Duncan got his even-numbered ring in 2014 … his “Pastoral Championship”?).  Remember that Beethoven was not a very religious person.  If he was anything, it seems he was more ‘spiritual’, and the forest canopy was his cathedral.  Beethoven: “My miserable hearing does not trouble me here. In the country it is as if every tree said to me: ‘Holy! Holy!’ Who can give complete expression to the ecstasy of the woods! Oh, the sweet stillness of the woods!”  … So, you’re performing the most revered-composer-of-all-time’s ‘Pastoral’ Symphony, the greatest work he ever made that was dedicated to Nature? … Um, ok, good luck with that.

Markus Stenz.

First Violinist and Concertmaster, Yumi Hwang-Williams, who herself was excellent through the evening, brought out the maestro.  Markus Stenz was our Guest Conductor tonight.  A German fellow — so the Beethoven spirit he summoned might have been in the bones? — he trained with Leonard Bernstein, among others.  

The opening movement of the 6th, “Joyful Feelings Upon Arriving in the Country”, is ‘literally’ magical.  It is awe-inspiring, how – within just the first 20-30 seconds of strings – Beethoven so instantly transports one to a casual stroll through a quiet woods.  You can listen to it a hundred times and it never, ever, fails.  And on this night — after hearing probably dozens of various orchestras play this — the Colorado Symphony with Stenz captured that feeling with an even gentler walk than I have ever heard.  Not sure if it was just a little more pianissimo, or if Ms. Hwang-Williams and her ‘team’ just played it more warmheartedly than others have, but it was beautiful.  (Another contribution might have been – despite Vilar’s applaudable efforts – the acoustics, as later on, whenever fortissimo was needed, it just never quite got there.  But hey – we can’t all have an ear-shaped auditorium like the Walt Disney Concert Hall….)

This conductor is FUN to watch.  If you don’t know much about the music you’re experiencing, it’s a good idea to watch the conductor.  If they’re good, like Stenz, they’ll lead you just as well as they’re leading the symphony players.  Stenz bounced up and down through the night, trotting like a horse as the rest of the symphony entered in with the galloping theme, baton-less, bopping his fists rhythmically whenever things danced on the off-beats here, waving his fingers around like an enchanting magician there.

And then again with the opening of the second movement – “By the Brook”– such exceptional tenderness produced by this Colorado Symphony’s strings to begin the movement!  I’m kinda sappy, but the openings of these first two movements tonight brought tears to the eyes, the music was just so gentle.  I wish they made a recording out of this night.  Sweet flute sounds, like Pan in the woods (Disney got the mythological spirit right in its Fantasia-Bacchus-filled rendering of this symphony), signify the approaching end to both the first two movements, played here and throughout the night by the excellent Principal Flutist (I assume Ms. Brook Ferguson).  

“Peasant Merrymaking”, the third movement, has a hint of the 7th Symphony, with its bouncy dancing rhythms, perhaps George Thomson’s Scottish dance tunes were sticking in Ludwig’s head by that point?  (Oh!  Look out!  There goes Stenz trotting again, actually needing to hold that bar behind him at times, so he wouldn’t fall off the podium!)  The French horns were on ONE note a little squeaky, but they quickly found their legs (lips?), and were excellent for the rest of the night.  Actually – this might have been the single moment there was any detectable faux pas, for the whole night.  (Sorry to stick that on you, French horns!)  So given that, in a live performance, this Symphony gave us a night of excellent execution.  

The 4th movement brings the “The Thunderstorm”, of course.  Ah!  Our poor timpani player, William Hill (I presume), finally gets to do something!  Pounding thunder, then rolling away, then pounding again, then rolling away, until rumble … rumble … and gone….  But then Mr. Hill had to sit down in the corner for the rest of the symphony, once again, solemn and alone – shooed off like a Black Bart cowboy villain at the end of that storm/conflict.  Near the end of the movement, there is one of those color-adding piccolo parts that reaches so high it makes you hold onto your seat like a roller-coaster that might fly off the rails because it seems so difficult.  Yet each note was hit precisely by that expert of the tiny flute, Julie Duncan Thornton (as she did again in the 5th, as well!).

Then, as Beethoven himself said about the C Major ending to his C Minor 5th Symphony, “Joy follows sorrow, sunshine – rain!”  The last movement, “The Shepherd’s Song After the Storm”, is like pure sunshine made out of sound.  Near the end, Beethoven brings the strings to such a rising fortissimo that they fill your lungs with air to the point you cannot exhale until they stop.  It literally takes your breath away, a spiritual sylvan moment, presaging that powerful ability of the strings that Samuel Barber would later exploit with his Adagio for Strings

So, you’re performing the most revered-composer-of-all-time’s ‘Pastoral’ Symphony, the greatest work he ever made that was dedicated to Nature? … Yes, Colorado Symphony did do that, and did it superbly.

5th Symphony in C Minor, Op.67

S.E.:  And now, folks, I reluctantly turn the 5th’s review over to President Putin of Russia, given he has a gun to my head….

Putin:  Ah!  Spasibo.  I do love ski!  And up here in Vail, I both ski and catch up with fellow world oligarchs; strategize with them on how we might soon have to adjust our methods of criminal laundering (thanks to nuisances like Alexei Navalny and those damned Panama-and-Pandora-Papers, or the studies from the likes of Thomas Piketty proving just how ridiculous-much I have pilfered from my idiot Russian serfs!  But I am confident, overall, no need worry, since to really attack criminal off-shore accounts, would mean West needs to attack its own corruption-laden white-collar crime, which I know they would never do.  Too weak, and their own people too stupid, as well!)  

Beaver Creek – you are not for me splendid like Sochi (where is beautiful, and I can kill anyone with impunity — not even needing to use poison there, if not want!), but is still nice, nonetheless….

And behold!  While here — Beethoven!  I think I as Russian psychopath, in particular, have had soft spot for Beethoven ever since Kubrick film – one with all Russian slang…?  And to mark this day, the 24th — when I have militarily invaded the peaceful democracy of Ukraine for no good reasons other than my petty revanchist desires or my childlike insecure hurt feelings that the old Warsaw block for some strange reason would rather be with EU over ME!?  Thank goodness they did not perform that damnable 9th Symphony!  All ‘brotherhood of man’ nonsense – ya ya ya!  (I do see that they do that one May 27-29 with their newly-named Principal Conductor, Peter Oundjian.)

No!  We got Beethoven’s Fifth!  Thank goodness!  I do love that symphony!  As you know, First movement is full of ‘Fate knocking on door’, from most famous motif in all classical music, those first four notes, those first five bars, and most beautiful development onward.  Stenz went with the quick, crisp opening, not the drawn out melodrama.  I like this! And Principal Oboist Peter Cooper (I presume) really stood out in this movement, I thought.  Just enchanting to hear him play.

S.E.:  Yes, I agree, I think he and Ms. Ferguson next to him both stood out.  They were quite a team together through both symphonies.

Putin:  Da.  Now shut up, or I pull trigger.  …  Where I was?  … Ah!  And so ended first movement of ‘Fate’ beating down on poor Ludwig — with deafness, with illness, with unrequited love, with financial struggles…. And yet, as we know, by end of symphony, he rose up to create one of greatest symphonies in human history, representing strength and resilience of human spirit!  The 5th is also “V” for “Victory” symphony after World War II, again something I, as Russian, appreciate.  (The Eroica would’ve been nice, too, as everyone knows I am “great man”….)  The audience loved this movement so much they applauded it by itself, as if wanting encore right then, like 2nd movement of 7th Symphony world premiere.  And who can blame them?  This Colorado Symphony perform most excellent.

Second movement, Andante con moto, with variations and rousing horns remind me that I would have military orders to go back and give when this all done.  Allegro was wonderful, especially that little fugue – oh, how I loved how Principal Cellist Seoyoen Min would bop her head, dancing to the rhythms and intertwined themes.

Last movement, another Allegro, just magnificent!  (I swear there is section there, with French horns playing a brief martial C Major into G Major theme before strings take over — John Williams blatantly ripped off for a Star War theme, da?! Or perhaps was Superman?)  And C minor symphony ends how?  With C major chords — 29 straight bars of them right up to end!  (I am surprised Schoenberg thought anything else could be written in C Major.)  As old KGB man who saw lands lost but now takes back, to bring back into my sphere of cronyism, repression, corruption, and murder?!  This ending warms my heart.  Little Russia, you know, did not fall in love with U.S, or ‘the West’, or NATO, or the E.U.  Let us be clear.  What Ukraine fell in love with were ideals of Enlightenment.  With idea that people should be “free”, and choose their leaders in a “free and open election”, that there should be a “rule of law” that is filled with principles of “Justice” and ”fairness”.  …  I – and my good friend Xi – are against these values to the fullest and stand together against such biased Western hegemony.  These values make people behave very badly, as you can plainly see.  They make them do unspeakable things like … like … speak truth, or stand up for so-called “rights” and “freedoms”.   Very bad ideals.  Do nothing but get people hurt.

Without inspiring music like the 5th, I myself might not have had the strength to overcome my own adversity.  But I have done so!  Ukraine will return to flock!  The world will become filled with C Major for Putin!  As all was not lost in 1989! 

S.E.:  But what about the innocent civilians being killed in Ukraine?  Or the drafted young Russians who you throw into battle, who don’t even want to fight, but who will die in large numbers killing their brothers? 

Putin:  Alas, if only your past leader, that useful idiot, had disbanded NATO like I told him to, none of this would have happened.  (What a ‘loser’.  Ha!)  But as for needless suffering and death of thousands and thousands of Ukrainians and Russians?  Eh.  I am psychopath, I not really have ‘feelings’, so is of no concern for me, personally. 

S.E.: Oh Vlad?

Putin: Da?

S.E.: Given Beethoven created the 9th Symphony, I think we can honestly say that the 5th is not meant for people like you.

Putin:  What?!  How dare you!

S.E.:  And also, did you not see that you were currently surrounded by many Russians who came here to ski and hear the performance tonight?

Putin:  Oh!  No, I did not, hello there, brothers!

S.E. And that they heard every word you just said.

Putin:  Oh.  So?  What do I care — Hey!  Wha –  !  Stop that!  … No!!!!

(Putin is picked up and run out of town like Black Bart….)

S.E.:  Thank you, good Russian people from the glorious land of Rachmaninoff and Tchaikovsky and Mussorgsky, of Rimsky and Prokofiev and Stravinsky and on and on and on and on….  

Good people of Russia, we love you and wish you well in your own struggle against your tyrant.  Please take him down asap. Good people of Ukraine, we hope and/or pray for you in every conceivable way.  Good people of the West, try and summon the strength and courage yourselves, to crack down on oligarchs and white collar criminals everywhere — including here.  And make sure your own idiot leaders don’t make the same mistakes that they made at the end of WWI and the Cold War, but instead the correct policy of love-bombing any perceived ‘enemies’ at the end of wars, like we did after WWII with the Marshall Plan.  Germany in the ‘30s and Russia now sure evolved differently than Germany and Japan did after WWII…. Thanks a lot, Bush Sr. and Jim Baker.

The world is just such a horrible place.  February 24 shows us that once again — and (hopefully!) near the final end of this 2-years-long damned plague, no less!  Thank goodness there are immortal works of art like Beethoven’s 5th and 6th that we can turn to, when we need to, when things just get too incomprehensibly depressing.

OK, sorry, CS – no more politics.  In sum, Colorado has proven to me that it needs to add one more S to all of its famed “S’s” (Steers, Skiing, South Park, Stoners…).  Colorado is also home, it turns out, to a very decent Symphony, one that I will look out for any and every time I hit the state.  They could not have expressed these two masterworks any better.  Kudos.

Copyright S.E. Barcus, 2-24-2022.

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Beethoven and the War of February 24

Music in Time, Spoleto Review 2001

2001 Archives.

A review of some amazing days of contemporary classical music, curated by John Kennedy, with superb work by pianist Sarah Cahill, including playing a world premiere by Kui Dong.

(Photo credit — hinnk — of Ms. Cahill performing at Berkeley Art Museum.)

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Music in Time, Spoleto Review 2001

Henry Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas, Spoleto Review 2001

2001 Archives

More from the archives. I think to this day Dido’s Lament, the aria “When I am laid in earth,” stands as the most moving melancholic singing I still have ever heard in my life, which soprano Deanne Meek performed wonderfully.

Nancy Santos, photograph for Charleston City Paper

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Henry Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas, Spoleto Review 2001

Music in Time, Spoleto’s Contemporary Classical Music Showcase, a Preview

2001 Archives

My interview with John Kennedy. Every Spoleto, I was most reliably excited by Kennedy’s curated contemporary classical music series. For this year, 2001, we got to hear music by Ruth Crawford Seeger, in honor of her centennial, including Nine Preludes for Piano, Music for Small Orchestra, and Three Songs, as well as some of her own folk music (before her son Pete took off with the form…!). I was so blown away by Sarah Cahill‘s piano playing the Nine Preludes, that I bought her CD — and still have it! … And I don’t have a CD player anymore! 😦

Sarah Cahill was also the pianist for pieces by Hyo-shin Na (Variations for Piano), Mamoru Fujieda (Patterns of Plants), Evan Ziporyn (Pondok), and Kui Dong (Earth, Water, Wood, Metal, Fire).

This festival year also included music by Giya Kancheli (Exil) and Philip Glass (One Plus One, Head On, Piece in the Shape of a Square, Two Pages, and Company).

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Music in Time, Spoleto’s Contemporary Classical Music Showcase, a Preview

Philip Glass’ “New-World-Fusion-Chamber-Music-Quartet”, a Spoleto Festival Preview

2001 Archives.

My archives, June 6, 2001, posting by coincidence w Philip Glass’ 85th birthday bash. Happy Birthday! My interview with Philip Glass just before his 2001 Spoleto performance of The Screens, a collaborative piece composed along with West African-born composer and griot, Foday Musa Suso. What an honor for me. My fellow-critic/friend, Robert T. Jones, then critic for Charleston Post and Courier, and editor for Glass’ “Music by Philip Glass”, hipped me to the composer (and fellow Marylander!). See for yourself in the interview, he’s a swell guy!

Featured image photo by Pasquale Maria Salerno, posted on Flickr, https://www.flickr.com/photos/71349915@N00, posted on Wikipedia by Axel Boldt. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/User:AxelBoldt

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Philip Glass’ “New-World-Fusion-Chamber-Music-Quartet”, a Spoleto Festival Preview