by Michael Caruso
Donald Nally will lead The Crossing in the world premiere of Gavin Bryars’ “A Native Hill” Sunday, Oct. 13, at 5 p.m. in the Presbyterian Church of Chestnut Hill. The score for unaccompanied choir was composed as a gift to The Crossing, has been dedicated to Cassia Bryars-Rockey, and is in memoriam for Julian Rockey.
Speaking of his work with Nally and The Crossing, Bryars said, “Following the success of our previous collaboration, I have composed a substantial new ‘a cappella’ work for The Crossing as a gift to the choir. It draws on the close working relationship and personal friendships that have developed between us as well as my intimate knowledge of the singers’ individual characteristics, including solo parts written specifically for individual voices.”
He explained that the piece is in 12 sections, setting extracts from the American writer Wendell Berry’s 1968 of the same title. Although that essay initially seems “pastoral” in nature, Berry’s descriptions of the minutiae of his rural existence have a profound metaphysical and even political force. Berry has been called a “modern Thoreau,” although here his visionary prose has something of the mysticism of the writings of Thomas Traherne that Bryars previously used in music composed for The Crossing.
“Quite coincidentally,” Bryars mentioned, “I finished the piece on Aug. 29, the day my granddaughter Cassia was born, and I had worked on it on and off, for nine months – the whole period of the pregnancy; and her father, Julian (her mother Orlanda’s partner), died suddenly halfway through.”
Continuing, the composer said, “Completing the work in Canada throughout the summer was an intense experience. I had Orlanda’s situation always in mind ever since I left England in mid-June, and in addition I worked on the piece with care and scrutiny beyond anything I have done before. Generally I write very quickly, though usually after a period of reflection and study around questions of text. But here I did not set myself a specific deadline, and the result of this was that the energy I would normally have put into the speed of writing was diverted into detail and concentration.”
Visit CrossingChoir.org for more information.
St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Chestnut Hill, launched its “Five Fridays” series of fundraising chamber music recitals Friday, Oct. 4, with the Jasper String Quartet and pianist Ching-yun Hu playing music by Beethoven, Schubert via Liszt, and Schumann. The concert attracted so large an audience that the players were moved to the front of the church’s main sanctuary because the series’ usual place, the foyer, wasn’t large enough to accommodate all the music lovers in attendance.
Although Beethoven’s Quartet in C minor, Opus 18, no. 4, is a relatively early work, written during the composer’s first “classical” stylistic period, it nonetheless contains within its pages the seeds of the more “romantic” middle period. Its first movement is darkly dramatic, its second employs the fugal techniques Beethoven used in his “spiritual” final period, its third movement Menuetto is anything but courtly, and its closing movement proffers music that seems to have been driven by demons.
The Jasper Quartet – J. Freivogel & Karen Kim on violins, Sam Quintal on viola and Rachel Henderson Freivogel on cello – projected the formal cohesion and the emotional expansiveness of the score, giving each movement its individual due while placing all four within the tightly conceived shape of the entire score.
Pianist Hu proved herself a fine addition to the mix for Schumann’s Piano Quintet in E-flat major, Opus 44. The German romantic displays more depth of development and counterpoint than is usual in his canon without suffering the loss of any of the melodic beauty that so distinctively marks Schumann’s output. The Jasper and Hu delineated its special personality with technical prowess and interpretive conviction.
“Five Fridays” raises funds for Face-to-Face Germantown and Philadelphia Interfaith Hospitality Network. The next recital in the series features pianist Zhenni Li on Nov. 8 at 7:30 p.m. Visit StPaulsChestnutHill.org/five-fridays for more information.
Music director Yannick Nezet-Seguin thankfully returned to the podium of the Philadelphia Orchestra to lead two performances of an archly romantic program in the Kimmel Center’s Verizon Hall. The concert opened with a scintillating rendition of Sergei Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 2 in C minor, with Haochen Zhang as soloist, then closed with a dazzling reading of Richard Strauss’ “An Alpine Symphony” following intermission. Although Nezet-Seguin gave the Strauss a convincing interpretation, it was the performance of the Rachmaninoff that most impressed me.
Composed between 1900 and 1901, and coming shortly after Rachmaninoff’s bout of severe depression and successful treatment by a noted therapist of the time, the Second Piano Concerto remains among the most popular scores of this possibly most popular of all classical composers.
And well it should be so beloved. It’s immaculately constructed, the Russian master’s command over developmental structure is flawless, it’s a marvel of melody and harmony, its overall orchestration shimmers with bright timbres yet breathes with luscious strings, and the piano portion of the score is both brilliant and lyrical.
All of that, of course, makes it incredibly difficult to play because above and beyond its technical demands are its interpretive challenges. Its superficial beauty is so complete that it’s tempting to just play it and let it take care of itself.
Such an approach would be the mark of an adequate pianist – but certainly not a great one. Fortunately for local audiences, Nezet-Seguin has an ear for budding talent, and so he regularly chooses extraordinary youthful players at the cusp of towering careers.
Such a talent is Curtis Institute of Music alumnus Zhang. His technical mastery of the notes of the Rachmaninoff No. 2 was ironclad, but that was only the beginning of what made Saturday evening’s performance so unforgettable. His command over the soft and loud dynamics drawn from his Steinway & Sons concert grand collaborator was breath-taking. The balances he struck between the principal themes and the inner voices that support them was the work of a magician. His use of the tempo give-and-take known as “rubato” (Italian for “to rob,” as in time) allowed the phrases to sing and the rhythms to dance. And his ability to fit the solo piano part into the overall context of the score as a whole was extraordinary.
Nezet-Seguin displayed talent of equal stature accompanying Zhang. He elicited playing from the Philadelphians that rivaled the Technicolor glitter and sumptuous tones of the glory days of the “Philadelphia Sound” of both predecessors Leopold Stokowski and Eugene Ormandy, but also invested those gorgeous sounds with the rhythmic vitality and precision of tempo of Riccardo Muti. No wonder, then, that the New York Times has asserted that the Philadelphia Orchestra could very well be the best-playing symphonic ensemble in America.