Monthly Archives: September 2012

Another Tried-and-True Russian Extravaganza

Three Russian masterpieces were played on Monday night by the University of Iowa Symphony Orchestra under the baton of Dr. William LaRue Jones. They were joined by pianist Dr. Ksenia Nosikova in a concerto by Prokofiev to create a very memorable evening.

The program seemed to be in reverse order, starting with a symphony and ending with an overture. But when the first piece is Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 9 in E-flat major, Op. 70, the gaiety and brevity of this work settle in the audience to prepare for the the heavier hitters to come. Like most young classical musicians of my generation, I remember being a teenager and falling in love with the turbulent emotions that Shostakovich’s other symphonic works evoke; and, I also remember watching Leonard Bernstein’s lecture on Shostakovich’s Ninth, describing the entire work as a musical joke. Dr. Jones’ performance adhered to every notion that I previously had about the piece: the humor of the piccolo and trombone interplay in the first movement, the brief despair of the (marvelously performed) bassoon cadenzas, and the rousing finale. The first movement procured images of the Young Pioneers of the USSR, marching to fife and drum, but getting distracted every now and again, but returning valiantly to the task at hand. Indeed, a clean and crisp performance, even to the back row.

I had studied Prokofiev’s Piano Concerto No. 3 in C major, Op. 26 with Dr. Nosikova a couple years ago, so it was very interesting to hear her perform the piece. The work is somewhat scary for both orchestra and soloist: a solo clarinet starts the piece and the piano has to jump on the train of allegro sixteenth notes, but both were played ably with aplomb. Dr. Nosikova’s steely brilliance broke through the orchestra clearly, and Dr. Jones accompanied well. The second movement is a set of variations on an andantino theme, the first variation written for solo piano. This moment was my favorite of the concert, despite one parent’s wailing baby. The disadvantage of the orchestra’s performances in the  IMU is that only a very small percentage of concert-goers get an alright view (the front row), so I was unable to see what Dr. Nosikova does in the second variation, which has a notoriously difficult piano part that is reconfigured by many superstar pianists to fit the hands more easily. She played it well, but what was her secret? The last movement is quick on the outsides, but has a gooey center which clearly reflects the piece’s heritage and place of composition: Prokofiev wrote the bulk of the piece in France in 1921, and the planing triads and the impressionistic ambiance reflect (to my ears) the death of Debussy that happened a couple years before. This middle center also has the main characteristic of Russian music, the long golden strand of melody. In its own way is a set of variations, too, although it’s not indicated in the score. The last variation is the climax of the whole piece, and Monday’s performance clearly brought this to the fore, with Dr. Nosikova asserting the many fortississimo chordal accents. The piece closed in a whirlwind of C major, the audience rightly leaping to their feet.

I was so hungover from the concertante performance that it was hard to gather the energy to listen toTchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture. The opening chorale of the piece did make me well up, however–some pieces have this effect on me, the effect of a Classical Musician National Anthem, if you will (other anthems include The Ninth [Beethoven’s!, not Shostakovich] and “Aus alten Märchen winkt es” from Schumann’s Dichterliebe). It was fun to see the classical music laymen in front of me bob their heads to the famous theme at the head, and I joined them. Isn’t great music supposed to bring us all together, anyway?

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On Friday September 14, I attended Dr. Kristin Thelander’s recital, American Music for Horns and Piano.  As a horn player, I was excited to hear both familiar and unfamiliar works.  I was not disappointed.  The audience seemed to be quite pleased with the recital as well.  The program included a variety of settings with three works for horn and piano, one horn duet, and one horn quartet.

The evening began with Sonata for Horn and Piano by Halsey Stevens. I was unfamiliar with this piece but it reminded me of the horn sonatas by Paul Hindemith and Bernhard Heiden.  In each of these works, pitch-centricity brings a familiarity to the audiences’ ears yet the harmonic language is extended far beyond classical tonality.  The Stevens Sonata began with a triumphant and technical opening movement.  The second movement was fraught with open chords which created a mysterious and cavernous setting.  The playful final movement demonstrated the horn’s ability for contrast with a conversation between running eighth note passages and a slow lyrical melody.

Second on the program was Calls for Two Horns by legendary horn pedagogue Verne Reynolds.  For this piece, Thelander was joined by hornist Steve Schultz. Thelander explained how the predecessors of the horn, animal horns and shells, were used for signals and calls.  Reynolds, known by many horn players for his extremely challenging atonal etudes, was inspired by these calls but he gave them his own post-tonal twist.  Rather than using the traditional intervals of a fourth or fifth, Reynolds has the horns call with intervals such as the tritone and major seventh.  In addition, the piece brings a visual twist.  The two horn players began offstage. As the piece continued, each hornist moved on stage only to return offstage before the end.  The movement in the piece created a sonic landscape.  Audience members listened with their eyes closed as the horns played in the distance and their tones rang throughout the hall.

Closing out the first half of the program was “A Simple Song” from Leonard Bernstein’s Mass. This controversial work tells the story of a priest as he struggles with faith in times of conflict.  Thelander explained that this specific song, based on a hymn and a psalm, is one of her favorites.  The solo horn reminded me of a cantor singing liturgical music.  University of Iowa alumna and pianist for the evening, Sue Haug, is currently director of the School of Music at Penn State, where the entire Mass will be performed this spring.  Here is a performance of the original version of the song.

The second half of the program began with a horn quartet, Americana Variations by Douglas Hill.  Hill, recently retired horn professor from the University of Wisconsin, was Thelander’s professor as she completed her doctorate degree.  His works on horn pedagogy, extended techniques, jazz, and natural horn have been invaluable to the horn world.  Americana Variations includes depictions of Daybreak, Lullaby, Kid’s Game, Ballad, Country Dance, Hymn, and Sundown.  The writing style of this piece reminded me of Aaron Copland and specifically the Horn Quartet No. 2 “Americana” of Kerry Turner.  Known as the Bon Vivant Quartet, this horn quartet includes Kristin Thelander, Steve Schultz, Kelly Heidel, and Russ Lenth.

Margaret Brouwer’s Sonata for Horn and Piano was the final piece of the evening.  Thelander was part of an eleven person group to commission the work.  In addition to recording the piece, she premiered the work here at the University of Iowa in a faculty recital in 1996.  With only two movements, Brouwer’s Sonata for Horn and Piano is different than other horn sonatas. The work is about the sudden tragic death of the composer’s husband.  The first movement, Hymn, is almost a surreal prayer.  The colors of muted and stopped horn are used to create a dramatic contrast with the high range of the piano.  The prayer transitions into hope for the second movement, Rising to Higher Clouds.  With an almost minimalistic repetition in the piano, the movement elicited a haunting character.  The horn was majestic, however, as it rose above the piano and the piece concluded with triumph.

Friday evening’s American Music for Horns and Piano recital was a great performance.  As a horn player, the program and high quality of performance were the highlights for me.  By sharing her connections with the pieces, Thelander helped make the music more accessible to the audience.

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by | September 17, 2012 · 5:15 pm

Information and Knowledge Enhance the Experience

On September 5, 2012 I had the opportunity to go to a faculty recital that featured Dr. Schendel and her trumpets. She collaborated with three fantastic keyboardists: Dr.Rene Lecuona, Dr. Greg Hand, and Jason Sifford. The beauty and the individuality of this concert not only came from the performance of the music but came from the information behind the music.

Dr. Schendel opened the concert with Sonata for Trumpet and Piano by Wayne Lu. The composer, who is a native of Iowa and is a friend of Dr. Schendel, was present at the concert. The beauty of the piece came from the contrasting musical ideas that appeared in each of the three movements. The first movement was quick and lively. The Andante was eerie, yet it turned resolute and hopeful towards the end. The third movement, entitled Fast, was very exciting but also, musically disjunct.  The piano part added the dissonance of the twentieth century such as clusters (groups of notes that contain close dissonances), parallel chords and other sonorities such as seconds and sevenths, etc… However, the music did not sound unpleasant but many times it enhanced the music of the trumpet and in my opinion, enhanced what the composer wanted to achieve.  I say this because I not only got to listen to the music and interpret it for myself, but I had the great opportunity to talk to the composer about his composition.

After the concert, Wayne Lu and I discussed his Sonata in greater detail. He wrote the piece for a fellow trumpeting friend, Kurt Gorman. He wanted to write a piece that would show off the musical talent of Gorman. But not only did he write a virtuosic piece for Gorman, but some of the music came because of what Gorman had experienced in his life. I brought up the second movement, as it was the most intriguing to me, and asked if there was any symbolism behind it. Lu explained that his friend had passed through a hard time in his life, but it is important to remember that we must be hopeful for the future and carry on.

Other pieces on the program such as In Memorium by Joseph Turrin or L’esprite de la trompette by James M. Stephenson also had background information that helped me connect more to the music. In Memorium was written for a friend of the composer whose mother passed away. I could hear the sadness and the loss, yet I could hear the joy of having the memories of family. L’esprite de la trompette was written recently as a commission to help raise money for one the composers’ students that he wanted to send to an international seminar.  Money was donated for the commission and he had the opportunity to send not only one, but three students. Although this story doesn’t seem all that important to the music itself, it gave a connection to the composer, the performer, and me, the listener. This information given to me gave more beauty to the pieces presented.

What was most pertinent to me during and after this concert was the realization that the music of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries are not as abstract as we sometimes think. There is purpose, reason, and beauty behind each composition. I have learned that the more I am exposed to and the more I understand the music and the composers of the twentieth and twenty-first century, the more I come to appreciate and many times, enjoy the music more fully.

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