Woodstock Symphony surprises, pleases

Alex McLaughlin

The postponed Woodstock Symphony Orchestra concert, scheduled for January 19, still drew a sizeable audience to the Woodstock Playhouse on January 26. I continue to be favorably impressed by the work music director Jonathan Handman and his enlarged ensemble are doing together. I would have liked a little more volatility in Beethoven’s Egmont Overture, but the accents were good and strong and the playing quite precise. Alex McLaughlin, who won the orchestra’s initial Concerto Competition, plays the viola, an instrument I love but which doesn’t have a huge repertoire for soloist and orchestra — and Berlioz’s Harold in Italy would have taken up almost the entire program. So we got Walton’s Viola Concerto, an episodic piece with some jazz influence (this from the composer who had written the very jazzy Façade a few years earlier). It doesn’t have anything very important to say but it’s a pleasant visitor. And it certainly calls for the resources of a symphony rather than a chamber orchestra. McLaughlin is a very adept player, already playing on a thoroughly professional level. I’d like to hear him again in something more substantial, maybe some Hindemith (who, ironically, played the premiere of the Walton). Elements like full brass chords and the lush sound the movie-music finale required came through very well in this performance. Sibelius’s Second Symphony was even better, a convincing interpretation, very well played, with excellent sound and a truly powerful climax at the end of the first movement. This improbable enterprise — a full symphony orchestra in such a small town — continues to surprise and please me. It will be back in March at Olin Hall, Bard College.

Speaking of Bard, one of the stars of its music department, pianist Benjamin Hochman (whom you may remember hearing at Maverick), plays an all-Mozart recital, part of an ongoing series, on February 3 at the Bitó Conservatory Building, 7 p.m. The following Sunday, February 10, same time and location, visiting faculty member Lera Auerbach plays one of the great challenges in the piano repertory, Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition, and her own composition Labyrinth. The Blithewood Ensemble (which I reviewed last month) is performing again, probably the same interesting program, on February 13. No admission price for these, no tickets, just show up. At www.bard.edu/news/events you can find whatever concerts are happening there, especially if you sort by music. 

Newburgh is beyond my usual orbit. But I got a tip that the January 6 concert of the Newburgh Chamber Music Series was going to be something special, and it was: quartets by Mozart, Bartók, and Beethoven played by a new ensemble called the Ceres String Quartet. One of the group’s violinists (they alternate at first and second), Brian Kwan Yeung Choi, won the Hudson Valley Philharmonic String Competition. He played the Sibelius Violin Concerto so impressively that he attracted the attention of the HVP’s concertmaster, Carole Cowan, who also is music director of the Newburgh series. When she heard that he had joined a new ensemble, she brought it to Newburgh and tipped me off. This group is something special. Its Mozart was stylish and expressive. So was its Bartók, played with complete comprehension and awesome technical command. As impressive as these performances were, it was Beethoven’s Op. 130 which really blew me away. I will always prefer to hear Op. 130 with Beethoven’s original finale, the daunting “Grosse Fuge,” instead of the substitute finale he wrote to placate a frightened publisher. (My old friends, the much-lamented Colorado Quartet, used to play the “Grosse Fuge” where it belongs and add the replacement finale as an encore, an elegant solution.) But what the Ceres Quartet did with this music was still treasurable, with such powerful emphasis on the new and radical elements of the quartet that it seemed new again. I will be watching the future of the Ceres Quartet with great interest. If you are adventurous enough to travel to Newburgh for music, you’ll be interested to know that the American String Quartet is playing there in March; details at www.newburghchambermusic.org. This series attracts quite an impressive crowd to the large St. George’s Church.

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Much music upcoming in February, so let’s hope snow holds off those dates. The 2019 Ulster Chamber Music Series begins its new season on Sunday, February 24 at 3 p.m. with the Jasper String Quartet. Many will remember first violinist J Freivogel’s performance of the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto a couple of years ago with what was then the Woodstock Chamber Orchestra. Its program is quite interesting: Haydn’s Quartet in E flat, Op. 64, No. 6; Joan Tower’s Wild Summer, a 2018 commission for this group; Middleground, by the young (born 1991) composer Shelley Washington; and Beethoven’s Quartet in F, Op. 59, No. 1. Washington is a woman from Kansas City who composes and plays baritone saxophone. A sample on her website, www.shelleywashington.com, sounds very stimulating. UCMS has a new venue this year, Redeemer Lutheran Church, 104 Wurts St., Kingston. Info on the UCMS is at www.ulsterchambermusicseries.org. A little bird has told me that the Jasper Quartet will be coming to Maverick this summer, with a completely different program. 

I don’t usually mention the Met Live in HD broadcasts in this column because they’re usually in Poughkeepsie at the Bardavon. In February, though, there will be one of those dazzling shows at UPAC in Kingston: Carmen on February 2. My introduction is at 12:30 p.m.; the opera starts at 1. If you have never seen one of these broadcasts before, I think you will be dazzled by their audio and video quality, the best of either I’ve ever encountered. The next Met Live show will also be at UPAC, Donizetti’s Le fille du régiment on March 2. 

Saugerties Pro Musica is trying out something unusual for its February concert: an organ recital. I can remember when organ concerts were frequently offered at local churches but all of them seem to have gone away. On Sunday, February 17, SPM is presenting an organ recital by Gregory D’Agostino, which I’m looking forward to even though no program has been posted on the website (www.saugertiespromusica.org) yet. I’m hoping for some Bach but even without him there is an enormous repertory of worthwhile organ music and it’s not all intended for church services, either. 

SUNY New Paltz isn’t quite in full swing yet but has a couple of intriguing February events. On Thursday, February 21, at 6:30 p.m., the school’s planetarium presents “Music Under the Stars,” a 45 minute program of music by Arvo Pärt and improvisations “under the stars,” played by SUNY music students under the direction of Prof. Alex Peh. Tickets are free but you have to reserve them at www.newpaltz.edu/planetarium. The following Thursday, February 28, 8 p.m., at Shepard Recital Hall, New Paltz faculty guitarist Greg Dinger presents a concert of duets for his own guitar and another instrument, varying with the selection. It’s preceded at 5 p.m. by a demonstration and discussion of “aspects of this program, as well as similarities and differences between classical guitar and other guitar styles.” The 5 p.m. event is free; the concert carries a modest admission charge ($8/$6/$3). Advance tickets at https://www.newpaltz.edu/music/concertseries.html#tickets.

Speaking of Greg Dinger, he is a frequent attendee at monthly music listening sessions I hold, which I have decided to open to our readers. We meet at 7 p.m. on the third Friday of every month to listen and discuss. This month, we’ll be enjoying “Mozart’s Favorite Pupil: An Introduction to Johann Nepomuk Hummel.” If you’re interested, send me an email at piano@parnassusrecords.com.

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