Friday, January 25, 2013


January 16
January 23

A fierce talent with his own vision of the music.

Orchestras around the world are struggling to attract younger audiences to hear music that is regarded as decidedly unhip by the digital generation. The Cleveland Orchestra addresses that problem with innovative programming and marketing that has been strikingly successful in taking the music out to neighborhoods and bars and city schools. Another approach is to feature young artists with something fresh to say. Several who performed in Prague recently offered dazzling demonstrations of just how vital classical music can be.

Polish conductor Krzysztof Urbański, 29, is what Stateside critics would call a “phenom” – winner of the 2007 Prague Spring conducting competition before he graduated from the Chopin Music Academy in Warsaw, currently holding positions with orchestras on three continents, including music director of the Indianapolis Symphony. Even more remarkable, he’s accomplished all this with a distinctly different attitude.

When I’m onstage, the music is what’s important,” he said in an interview before his debut with the Czech Philharmonic last week. “I don’t think about what the audience might like or not like. There are ways to do the music that I’m sure would help me achieve success more easily. But there are much more important things than my career. I’m trying to be true to the music, and the way the composer wanted it played.”

Urbański was as good as his word, striding confidently onstage for the first of three concerts and opening with a formidable piece: Krzysztof Penderecki’s Threnody to the Victims of Hiroshima, a maelstrom of special effects that sounds like time and space are warping as thousands of souls go up in radioactive flames. Despite the orchestra’s well-known distaste for modern music, Urbański drew out a finely detailed version of Hiroshima, riveting in its intensity.

He deferred to the orchestra on Dvořák’s Cello concerto in B minor – no one is going to come into their home hall and tell the Czech Philharmonic how to play Dvořák – focusing mainly on tempo and dynamics, and keeping the volume down to open up space for the soloist, Sol Gabetta. She played the piece with heartfelt warmth, if a bit too staccato by Czech standards. More impressive was the encore she served up with support from four cellists in the orchestra, a lovely, delicate rendering of Pablo Casals’ arrangement of The Song of the Birds. (A thematically fitting choice as well, as Casals often played it to promote world peace.)

The showpiece of the evening was the concluding work, Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 5. For this the orchestra deferred to Urbański, who has studied the piece extensively and knows it in a way that few conductors do. His control of it was masterful, never veering into the emotional frenzy that Shostakovich often invites, instead keeping it clear, razor-sharp and expertly crafted throughout. Urbański showed that he could build tension and volume when he chose to, but it was his stylish interpretation that was most impressive. If there was a weakness, it was a lack of the fire that typically characterizes Shostakovich – a result, perhaps, of Urbański’s ultratight control. In the interview, he acknowledged that he is still learning how and when to loosen up and “let the music breathe.”

The conductor is a show in himself, working without a score or even a baton much of the time, crafting 3-D sculptures in the air with his hands, grimacing fiercely as he pulls what he wants out of various sections of the orchestra. A raw but exceptional talent, Urbański packed the house the rest of the week.

The Prague Philharmonia lies at the other end of the orchestral spectrum – young (average age of the musicians: 34), open to new ideas, and unfailingly enthusiastic about everything it plays. The ensemble is led by Chief Conductor and Music Director Jakub Hrůša, a rising Czech star whom Cleveland audiences had a chance to see in his debut appearance with the Cleveland Orchestra at Blossom this past summer. Hrůša, 31, is a big fan of American pianist Jonathan Biss, who at 32 has compiled an impressive set of Beethoven and Schumann recordings and is touring this season to promote the latter, with whom he is unabashedly infatuated.

Poetry at the keyboard.
My feelings for Schumann’s music go beyond love, though there’s also plenty of that: silly as it may sound, I feel somehow protective of him,” Biss writes on his website. “This is first of all because his music is so deeply personal and achingly vulnerable. But equally, it comes from my sense that he is subject to a remarkable number of misconceptions. I want to show Schumann’s music exactly as it is – deeply poetic, fragile, obsessive, evocative, whimsical, internal.”

Biss made a convert of this critic with his rendition of the composers Piano concerto in A minor, which was at once distinctive and respectful. Biss doesnt play the piece so much as inhabit it, following its lyrical flow with great sensitivity, connecting with its open heart and lush romanticism and letting the music speak for itself. Thats not easy to do, particularly given the light touch this piece calls for if one is to preserve its delicate character. With equally nuanced support from the orchestra, Biss struck an elegant balance between technique and expression not only in the concerto, but in his encore, a brief and wonderfully dreamy excursion into Schumanns Kinderszenen – #13, Der Dichter spricht.

Biss will be continuing his Schumann crusade in the U.S. and Canada throughout the spring, and is well worth seeing.

The program opened with Bergs Lyric Suite for Strings, a 1925-26 work utilizing Schoenbergs twelve-tone technique that seemed not to be in Hrůšas wheelhouse. Though carefully crafted and well-played by a 24-piece ensemble, it lacked detail and bite. That music should have a sharper edge, and if some of the chords sound wrenching...well, thats the idea. Hrůšas version was competent but rather too polite and polished, at least for this critics tastes.

Making a small orchestra sound big.
By contrast, his handling of the closing piece, Beethovens Symphony No. 3 (“Eroica”), was a masterful demonstration of how to bring to life a grand work with a relatively small orchestra – in this case, just 37 players. That necessarily means a compact sound, which would seem to preclude serious depth. But Hrůša has fingertip control of the Philharmonia, and was able to create and modulate rich dynamics, lending the music surprising grandeur and sweep.

He struck a brisk tempo in the first movement, contrasting light and dark tones and developing a clean, crisp sound, particularly in the strings, which were radiant. The drama in the second movement was perhaps a bit overblown in the brass, though not to Hrůšas ear – he made a point of singling out the three French horn players for extra bows afterward. The third movement had a buoyant, playful quality that didnt quite carry over to the final movement, which thundered to a pulsating, satisfying close.

The audience responded with extended applause, then flooded the conductor's room to offer Hrůša congratulations. Notably, the crowd was a mix of both old and young admirers – another indication of the energy that young performers can bring to a staid art form, and the excitement they can generate even in a very traditional part of the world.

For more on Krzysztof Urbański:

For more on Jakub Hrůša:

For more on Jonathan Biss:

For more on the Prague Philharmonia:

Urbanski photo: Ole-Einar Andersen

Monday, January 14, 2013


Prague State Opera
January 10
January 11

At the opera, an interwar novel inspires a social satire.

Mr. Culture is on the road this month, getting his ears tuned in one of the great music centers of Europe: Prague. This is the land of Dvořák, Smetana, Janáček and Martinů, the place where Mozart premiered Don Giovanni in 1787, and where the Prague Spring festival continues to draw world-class performers every year. Long known as “the conservatory of Europe,” the city has two music academies, five working symphony orchestras, three dedicated Baroque ensembles – including possibly the best in Central Europe, Collegium 1704 – and more chamber groups than one can count. Clevelanders missed a chance to see one of the best, the Prazak Quartet, when they canceled their appearance at the Art Museum in October.

The city also boasts two opera houses, a thriving modern music scene, and a first-rate roster of jazz musicians, many of whom studied at Berklee in Boston. With all that to choose from, where does one begin?

In this case, with the premiere of a new work at the State Opera, War with the Newts (Válka s mloky in Czech). A hybrid that incorporates elements of opera, musical theater, pop music and social satire, Newts is based on an eponymous 1936 novel by Karel Čapek, perhaps the greatest Czech writer of the 20th century. A political allegory cast in the form of a sci-fi novel, Newts tells of the discovery of a race of giant salamanders who are enslaved and exploited by humans, and ultimately revolt. Čapek casts an acerbic eye on capitalism, nationalism and racism, and foresees the coming shadow of Nazi fascism.

If putting all that onstage sounds like a challenge, imagine throwing in satirical commercials, a dose of heavy metal, and a postmodern score, and trying to make sense of it all. That it works is largely to the credit of David Drábek, one of the Czech Republic’s most versatile and innovative stage directors, who matches the nonstop momentum of the music with a fast-paced flow of singing, acting, and eye-catching visuals, segueing seamlessly from comedy to disaster. Costume designer Simona Rybáková adds to the effect with tall, genuinely creepy newts, who skulk about with glowing red eyes.

The weird mix of elements is totally appropriate to librettist Rostislav Křivánek’s setting: Morgan Bay, a resort town near New Orleans. Drunks at a beachside bar, exploited workers vaguely reminiscent of black slaves, ruthless capitalists – it’s all disturbingly familiar, especially when a monster storm hits, á la Katrina, and wipes out the town. Composer Vladimír Franz matches the maelstrom onstage with a tumultuous, driving score that barely stops for an occasional duet or aria, and unabashedly throws in an electric guitar when a heavy metal singer entertains the tourists.

For a visitor, Newts is at once enthralling and confounding. Without some background in Čapek’s novel and Czech opera and theater, there is no way to make any sense of this. But as a sampling of Central European culture, it’s riveting – not to mention a bit disconcerting seeing your homeland through the eyes of foreigners. It’s easy to ignore the dark side of capitalism when you live in its throbbing heart, but eye-opening to see the reaction of people still adapting to it after 40 years of communist socialism.

At the other end of Old Town, the flagship orchestra of the Czech Republic, the Czech Philharmonic, took the stage last week under the baton of Ken-ichiro Kobayashi for a roof-raising rendition of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9. It was another wild mix: a Japanese conductor leading a Czech orchestra in one of the greatest German works ever written, with an opening elegy by a Japanese composer for the victims of the 2011 earthquake and tsunami. This combination one can only get in a musical crossroads like Prague.

A Beethoven specialist.
Despite his Asian origin, Kobayashi is an acknowledged master of the Beethoven symphonic repertoire, which he performs regularly with the Czech Philharmonic. A member of the orchestra who happened to be in the lobby before Friday night’s performance suggested that No. 9 is not the conductor’s forte, and by the end of the evening, this critic was forced to agree.

Kobayashi’s interpretations of Beethoven are typically characterized by a careful balance in the sound and dynamics. He keeps the roiling passions of the music controlled beneath a finely detailed surface, with remarkable transparency and a full, three-dimensional quality in the sound. Perhaps most impressive, there is not a hint of foreign inflection in his interpretation; Kobayashi connects with the universality in Beethoven’s music and presents it with worldly intelligence and restraint.

The Ninth in his hands had a full-bodied, commanding character, but not much in the way of subtlety or nuance, with many of the fine points of the music lost in a surprisingly muddy sound. There was plenty of power and volume, but not much definition, with individual instruments sometimes out of balance – an overwhelming timpani in the first movement, screeching horns in the second and fourth. Overall, the music was ragged instead of crisp, and often lacking in color. The result was a performance that moved at a fast clip but never caught fire, engaging but not satisfying by Kobayashi’s usual standards.

The vocals were better, particularly from bass Matěj Chadima and soprano Simona Houda-Šaturová, one of Prague’s finest opera singers. And the Prague Philharmonic Choir, filling the empora behind the orchestra, was lustrous, earning a well-deserved ovation from the audience. Of course, this was the same audience that applauded between the movements and leapt to its feet as the final notes were still hanging in the air, leaving this critic as possibly the only person in the hall less than satisfied. But the Ninth has that effect; even imperfectly rendered, it’s one of the most moving pieces of music ever written.

And Kobayashi, who did a better job with the nine-minute neo-classical elegy by Japanese composer Shigeaki Saegusa, is always fun to watch. He works from a crouch, coaxing music from the orchestra with excited nods of his head and samurai jabs of the baton, and has everyone take elaborate, Japanese-style bows at the close of the concert. Shaggy-haired and wrinkled, he’s been nicknamed Indiánská babička (Indian grandmother) by the Czech Philharmonic players, who genuinely like him – not always the case with this temperamental orchestra, which has put more than a few visiting conductors through the mill.

Then there’s the Rudolfinum – one of the finest classical halls in Central Europe, with acoustics that attract performers from all over the world, including Norwegian pianist Leif Ove Andsnes, who launched a project to record all of Beethoven’s piano concertos live with the Mahler Chamber Orchestra there last year. One can nitpick individual performances, but the sound is so refined that hearing virtually anything in that hall is a treat. More from the Rudolfinum and other historic Prague venues next week.

For more on War with the Newts:

For more on Ken-ichiro Kobayashi:

Sunday, January 6, 2013


Cleveland Museum of Art
January 5 & 6

Offering sophisticated analysis in an accessible format.

Thirty-three years after they broke up, the Beatles hold a place in popular culture like no other band – rock, pop, classical, and everything in between. Beyond the standards they added to the musical repertoire and sales records that remain unbroken and enduring technical innovations, the Beatles embody the spirit of the Sixties, an era when old restrictions and boundaries were swept away in an exhilarating wave of openness, experimentation and fresh ideas that still resonate today.

What’s been lost in the intervening years is the artifice behind the art; that is, the breadth and depth of the Beatles’ oeuvre, the influences that informed their music, the intelligence that shaped it, and the enormous work that went into creating a seemingly straightforward, three-and-a-half minute song. Which is where Scott Freiman comes in.

A soundtrack composer for film and television who also runs his own recording studio, Freiman has developed a series of lectures called “Deconstructing the Beatles” in which he takes a detailed look at the group’s creative efforts. After talks on Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band and The Beatles (aka The White Album) drew big crowds at the Cleveland Museum of Art last year, Freiman was invited back for three presentations this past weekend that focused on the band’s early years and the incredibly productive period in 1966 and 1967 that produced Revolver and seminal works like “Strawberry Fields Forever” and “A Day in the Life.”

For aficionados, there is not much new in Freiman’s talks. Many books have recounted the Beatles’ history, music and recording sessions. What’s compelling about Freiman is the way he splices together sound, visuals and a running patter of commentary and explanation filtered through a geeky but accessible engineer’s sensibilities to show how songs were created in the studio, often starting with a simple demo. This is the best part of his presentations: rare demos and early takes demonstrating how an idea that began with one or two chords and a few rough lyrics on a home recorder could blossom into a masterpiece like “Tomorrow Never Knows.”

Freiman also does a great job of putting the music in context. He tosses off endless references – some specific, like Bernard Herrmann’s Psycho strings showing up in “Eleanor Rigby,” and some speculative, like the television “Batman” theme possibly inspiring some of the vocals in “Taxman.” He draws in many of the Beatles’ contemporaries, like Brian Wilson, David Crosby and Mick Jagger, and elucidates the influences of avant-garde composers like John Cage and Karlheinz Stockhausen, and Indian sitar virtuoso Ravi Shankar. He sets the scene in swinging London and follows John Lennon into the Indica bookstore, where Lennon discovers Timothy Leary’s The Psychedelic Experience and the lines “Turn off your mind, relax and float downstream...”

Not surprisingly, the central figure in all this is George Martin, the EMI producer who made many of the Beatles’ aural dreams come true. With the help of engineer Geoff Emerick, Martin was willing to work with the band at a time when no one else would accommodate their demands for pushing boundaries. Slowing down or speeding up tracks, adding tape loops, running drum or guitar solos backwards – none of it was too weird for Martin. He could write a string octet arrangement for “Eleanor Rigby” as skillfully as he could expand four recording tracks to eight or even 12, or push Lennon’s voice through a Leslie speaker to get a never-heard effect. Freiman also did a great job recounting Martin’s use of a 40-piece classical orchestra on “A Day in the Life,” which Martin multiplied by five in the final mix to get that ominous, frenetic sound.

Freiman’s attention to detail is such that even the warm-up music playing as the crowd filters into the auditorium helps set the proper mood. For Sunday’s “Trip Through Strawberry Fields,” the selections included prime psychedelia like “Pictures of Matchstick Men,” “Psychotic Reaction” and “2,000 Light Years From Home.”

Space precludes more than this brief recap of a wealth of stories and information – and the sheer joy of watching the promo videos for “Strawberry Fields,” “Rain,” and other songs that changed the course of pop music. Freiman did a brilliant job deconstructing them. But as the capacity crowds at the museum again this year demonstrated, their enduring appeal remains beyond mere words to capture or explain.

For more on Scott Freiman:

And the official Beatles website:

Friday, January 4, 2013


Cleveland Museum of Art
January 2

Modern music amid historic masterpieces.

Cleveland’s newest contemporary music ensemble drew a capacity crowd to the Art Museum last Wednesday for a performance in the European “Naturalism and Idealism” gallery. As it happens, that title also provides a good capsule description of the concert – a group of natural talents aiming high with a mostly 20th-century program that produced results a bit more uneven than the masterworks surrounding them.

The ensemble, which features student players from the Cleveland Institute of Music, is led by Shuhai Wang, an accomplished pianist and faculty member at CIM. She is also the director of Classical Revolution Cleveland, the outreach effort to put classical music in unorthodox venues that has been such a wild success at the Happy Dog tavern, where it gave birth to a recording project.

Wang took a back seat at this performance, giving her young charges most of the limelight. Flutist Madeline Lucas opened the program with two solo works: a brief flight of fancy by Katherine Hoover, and Arthur Honegger’s charming Danse de la Chèvre, which offers some technical challenges. Lucas played with spirit and energy, though there was not much definition in her sound, which would have benefited from sharper development.

Guitarist Krystin O’Mara showed rock star technique on a trio of short pieces by Joaquín Rodrigo. Though her fingerwork was dazzling, O’Mara seems not to have much performing experience. She was focused on the fretboard to the point of ignoring the audience, and fell apart at the end of the concluding “Zapateado,” finishing short of the actual ending with a quick flourish of slides. Still, her raw talent is unmistakable.

Harpist Shelly Du provided the best pure sound of the evening with mesmerizing renditions of a Bach fugue and Listz’s Le Rossignol, S.250/1. Neither piece was written for harp, but they both sounded superb in the gallery space, which gave the instrument a rich, deep resonance. And Du is a very good player, creating sounds in the Liszt work that sounded identical to piano keys. Hers was the only performance of the set that stopped all the bustle and noise on the edges of the room, as even passers-by were transfixed by the sound of her playing.

A duet by violinist Emily Cornelius and cellist Carlo Javier showcased the group’s weaknesses and strengths. The caliber of their playing on the first movement of Honegger’s Sonatine for Violin and Cello was quite good, capturing the changing tempos and moods with professional precision. But there wasn’t much depth to their performance. That usually comes with time, so it will be interesting to hear what Cornelius and Javier can do after they’ve played together for a while.

That was also true of the final work, Jacques Ibert’s Deux Interludes, performed by Cornelius, Lucas, and Wang on harpsichord. After a first movement that didn’t quite gel, the second movement picked up feeling and energy and blossomed into the most impassioned segment of the evening. As a preview of Ars Futura’s potential, it was a thrilling moment. And it was great fun to hear Wang providing a backbeat on harpsichord. She showed the same mastery of technique on two solo Martinů pieces preceding the trio, which offered the rare treat of hearing 20th-century chords and ideas played on a Baroque instrument.

Flaws aside, this was a lovely concert. Ars Futura may be in its infancy, but the caliber of the players, the intelligence of their program, and the liveliness of their performance suggest great things to come. And the power of performing amid the angels and saints and painters like Cavallino, Reni and Caravaggio can hardly be underestimated. Great art elevates everything in its proximity, and as CMA’s Music in the Galleries series continues to demonstrate, the synergy created by combining art and music can be sublime.

For more on Ars Futura and their CMA concert:

Photo: Greg Donley/Cleveland Museum of Art