The big classical music event of January in our area was the Woodstock Chamber Orchestra’s concert at the Woodstock Playhouse on January 6. It was one of the coldest days of our incredible cold snap, yet the event drew the largest audience ever to attend a WCO concert. While the management is puzzling over the size of the attendance, I’ll report that the attendees were well rewarded. Guitarist Gregory Dinger, who spoke with me last month about some of the difficulties in Rodrigo’s “Concierto de Aranjuez,” didn’t entirely manage to conceal those difficulties. But Dinger (an old friend of mine) got through the piece unscathed, and his playing was gratifyingly expressive. He and WCO conductor Jonathan Handman gave us a performance with good coordination, splendidly precise ensemble, and uncommonly good balance. The WCO opened the program with Rossini’s “L’Italiana in Algeri” Overture, warm-toned and with extremely accurate pizzicati. Probably the biggest challenge of the afternoon was Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony, a special favorite of mine. I’ve yet to hear my ideal performance of that work but this one was quite satisfying. Handman again got good precision and balance from his players, although a little less energy than I might have liked. He followed Beethoven’s repeat marks in the first and third movements, appropriate but not often heard. The Presto third movement was quite zippy, and the opening theme of the fourth movement was better articulated than usual, a treat. I suspect that if the horn players had been placed further forward on the stage we would have heard them better but recessive horns were the only balance problem in the whole Symphony. The WCO returns on March 3 at Olin Hall, Bard College, with guest violinist Madalyn Parnas playing the daunting Sibelius Violin Concerto. Check www.wco-online.com for information.
Another major cultural event took place on Jan. 28 at Sosnoff Theater, Bard College: “Music from China: East Meets West.” This concert marked the debut of the US-China Music Institute — and did it ever! In addition to six orchestral works performed by two orchestras, we also got to sit through speeches by such luminaries as the Consul General of the People’s Republic of China in New York, Ambassador Zhang Qiyue, and several Chinese musicians. In addition, all five of the living composers had been brought to hear their music and to accept the audience’s applause. I did my best to isolate my musical reactions from the Event aspects, even postponing reading the copious program notes until after the concert. My impression of Chinese music for orchestra was formed by such works as the “Yellow River” Concerto for Piano and Orchestra and the “Butterfly Lovers” Concerto for Violin and Orchestra (all done on Western instruments), recorded and disseminated in the 1970s and all hideously awful music, cheap orchestral pops with some Chinese pentatonic scales thrown in for color. Fortunately, nothing like that was on this program.
The first half of the concert was performed by the Chamber Orchestra of the Central Conservatory of Music, Beijing, a mixed ensemble of Western and Chinese instruments, conducted by Chen Bing. These were the most contemporary works. The Concerto Grosso by Chen Xinruo had touches of such Western exotics as Lou Harrison and Béla Bartók, concisely stated in about 12 minutes. Yang Jianping’s “Jin Lin” (named for two Chinese characters) was the most far-out piece on the concert, colorful avant-garde atonality but not very coherent to my ears. Guo Wenjing’s “Recitative for Chinese Gongs” allowed the unnamed soloist to demonstrate the variety of sound available from a single gong and then to bash away at a set of gongs while the orchestra commented. (The gongs were then donated to Bard.) After intermission, The Orchestra Now, all Western instruments, under the direction of Jindong Cai, performed three earlier orchestral works. Chen Danbu’s “Dance of the Sleeve Dagger and Warriers” alternated solos on the pipa (a sort of Chinese lute, played by Zhang Qiang) with orchestral passages, during some of which pipa playing could be seen but not heard; musically it seemed like bits of things stitched together. In Zhou Yanjia,’s “Forlornness,” the guzheng (another Chinese string instrument which looked like but didn’t sound like a steel guitar, played by Zhou Wang) was successfully blended with the orchestra. (The guzheng was also donated to Bard.) The sound of the erhu (played by Yu Hongmei), a kind of Chinese violin, was so arresting–it has a very vocal quality — that it held my attention through much of the two movements of Liu Wenjin’s “From the Great Wall Cappriccio” we got to hear, especially the long solo cadenza. The musical content, alas, wasn’t worth much. All the performances seemed extremely well executed, the soloists all obviously masters.
I’ve heard more musically rewarding concerts at Bard, but perhaps never one as elaborately prepared or as expensive to put on, considering all the imported musicians involved. So I did my best to avoid thoughts of how this new enterprise is a small contribution to the Chinese colonization of the United States, obviously not comparable to the economic domination which becomes more pronounced every year. Let’s just say that it was an intriguing experience.
The Orchestra Now returns to the Sosnoff Theater on February 3/4 with James Bagwell conducting Jennifer Higdon’s “blue cathedral,” Gershwin’s “An American in Paris,” and Schumann’s Second Symphony. Leon Botstein leads TON on Feb. 17/18 in Weber’s Clarinet Concerto No. 1 and Mahler’s Seventh Symphony. Info on Fisher Center events is at www.fishercenter.bard.edu. TON has its own website: theorchestranow.org/bard. And you can get a comprehensive listing of all Bard events open to the public, musical and otherwise, at www.bard.edu/news/events. Among them, the DaCapo Chamber Players offers its annual Celebrate Bard Concert on Monday, Feb. 5, at 5 p.m. at the Chapel of the Holy Innocents, including music by Joan Tower, Kyle Gann, and other composers with various Bard associations. You have to buy tickets for TON but other events are free.
Pianist Polina Kulikova, who won First Prize at last year’s PianoSummer Flier Competition, returns to SUNY New Paltz on Feb. 13 to play music of Mozart, Schubert, and Stravinsky, a program sure to test the artistry and versatility of any pianist. The concert is at 8 p.m. at Studley Theater; tickets are required but inexpensive. At the same venue on Wednesday, Feb. 14, 5 p.m., the Music Department presents a “Chamber Music Hour” (no further details yet), free admission. I get my New Paltz information at www.newpaltz.edu/events.
Saugerties Pro Musica and the Ulster Chamber Series have managed to avoid conflicting dates in February, which I applaud enthusiastically. Tenor Thomas Leighton, a Saugerties native, brings pianist Liz Toleno and flutist Marisa Trees as well as Leighton’s brother Thomas. The Leighton brothers will be singing together professionally for the first time. This concert takes place on Sunday, Feb. 18, at 3 p.m. at the usual venue, Saugerties United Methodist Church, Washington Ave. & Post St. Since it’s a concert by Saugerties performers, SPM is expecting a sell-out audience so get there early, and check www.saugertiespromusica.org for details.
UCS brings us the Chiara String Quartet, an ensemble which performs (atypically for string quartets) from memory. The program includes Mendelssohn’s Quartet in A Minor, Op. 13, Shostakovich’s nerve-shattering String Quartet No. 8 (one of his greatest masterpieces), and Beethoven’s Quartet No. 15, in A Minor, Op. 132. This one is on Sunday, Feb. 25, at the Church of the Holy Cross, 30 Pine Grove Ave., Kingston; www.ulsterchamberseries.org for more info. The weather outside may still be frightful but it sounds as though there’s a lot of delightful music coming this month.