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April 4, 2007

Ranking classical music concerts?

John Stoehr

One of my goals in covering the Savannah Music Festival, an annual event that's fast gaining national attention, is to rank the classical music concerts that I saw. It sounds kinda silly, I know, but if the AP can rank college football teams and the New York Times can rank books, I figured why not rank classical music concerts in order of worst to best.

Why rank classical music concerts? Because it's fun, for one thing. For another, classical music is often spared this kind of treatment, because (a) editors and reporters are too skittish about criticizing it and (b) classical music for too long has been considered too high-minded for this kind of thing. The result is the impression that classical music isn't meaningful enough to argue about. Well, I think it is. As long as the fight is civil. And I think it's important enough to make an argument for what concerts were worthier than others. And, of course, here's plenty of room for discussion. There's no telling where things will go when people disagree with passion.

11. Mark Padmore
Despite an extraordinary voice, Mark Padmore's one-and-a-half-hour performance of the entire length of Schubert's "Winterreise" was disappointing. The English tenor should be praised for his strength, endurance, vocal expression and knowledge of the repertoire. But as a musical experience, the recital was mediocre due to a combination of flawed equipment and ambition outstripping ability. The performance called for a fortepiano, a much quieter keyboard instrument than the modern-day piano, but none could be procured. Accompanist Kristian Benzuidenhout used a Steinway, but he performed it with the lid up, which overpowered Padmore. Though an excellent concert tenor (he is respected for his interpretations of Bach and other baroque composers), Padmore could not embody the narrator's voice in each of the 24 songs. He himself said a vague sort of narrative provides the audience with helpful "benchmarks" as the music went along. Padmore's strength as a concert tenor, however, revealed his weakness as a singer acting the part of a character. His lack of stage presence made the performance long on German and short on sustained interest.

10. Bach's St. Matthew Passion
The three-hour performance of Bach's celestial St. Matthew Passion by two period-instrument ensembles, two choirs and a handful of soloists under the baton of the esteemed Martin Haselbock, maestro of Musica Angelica and the Wiener Akademie Baroque Orchestra, was an ambitious undertaking that never lived up to its hype. The period instruments were muted by the dry acoustics of the Lucas Theatre. Some of the vocalist appeared to be pushing while others sounded resonate and clear. Bottom line: The oratorio is a religious work that would have sounded glorious in a church, not a former movie theater. A lack of theatricality also made for a tedious experience. After some time passed, it felt like I was merely being sung at in German, not witnessing Christ's death and resurrection. An inconsistency of logic was also distracting. The musicians performed on the instruments of Bach's day, but the soloists were dressed (the men in white tie and tails) as if entertaining at a ball in 19th-century Vienna. Plus, Haselbock demanded the air conditioning be turned off. Not good.

9. Sensations I
Violinist Daniel Hope assembles an ad hoc ensemble of world-class musicians to perform a series of chamber music called "Sensations" that he creates every year. These musicians don't play together often, but when they do, they bring a clearly visible vacation vibe with them. It's apparent to the audience they are having fun and that they are experiencing the novelty of live performance as much as we are. That said, the result of not playing together often is what you'd expect when the normal pressures of performing aren't there: a lack of focus, evident in the quintet arrangement of Beethoven's Kreutzer Sonata. The upside is a willingness to take risks. The downside is that sometimes those risks don't pay off. In fairness, this was the first of the "Sensations" concerts. The series usually improves as the festival continues. This year was no exception.

8. Ivan Moravec
Moravec long ago earned every laurel any one concert pianist could earn. It was a pleasure to see the Czech pianist and master of subtlety recall all the wisdom and skill he has amassed over his 50-plus year career. The recital, the first of the classical music concerts at this year's music festival, began softly and built up to a powerful dynamic, but it took the entire first half of the concert to get there. He finally revealed his strength in Debussy and Chopin, but by that time the end of the program was on the horizon. One felt compelled to show appreciation more than passion. It was one of the few recitals in which the audience did not stand to applaud.

7. Sensations IV
By the time of the fourth installment of "Sensations," Daniel Hope's crew was really cooking with gas. Their performance of Vaughan Williams' Piano Quintet in C minor can compete with any other chamber music concert in the country. It was that good. That's due to Hope's leadership and his colleague's willingness to stretch. Still, you get a sense that maybe that was luck. Sometimes it feels like they themselves don't know how a concert is going to turn out, because there is simply not enough time during the festival's short 18 days to work out all the kinks in ensemble playing. That, as I've said, can be a good thing. It can also be a bad thing. That lack of certainly can lead to delightful highs. This concert had plenty of those, making it easy to overlook minor flaws.

6. Borodin Quartet
Simply put, the Russian music (Tchaikovsky, Shostakovich) was better than the German music (Beethoven). Perhaps that's because the Borodin Quartet is Eastern European, soulful and sophisticated. It originated in Soviet Russia. The lone remaining member, cellist Valentin Berlinsky, knew Shostakovich personally. So it's no surprise the quartet really knows how to evoke the contained inner turmoil of Russian music. Their performance style -- romantic, gypsy-esque, schmaltzy -- didn't work as well (to my ears) for the Beethoven quartet. What detracted from the concert experience was the quartet's reluctance to tell the audience what happened when (I think) a string broke on the viola during the Shostakovich. The audience was never told. All we heard was a scratching noise followed by the rapid exit of the violist. A warmer style of interaction would have been warmly received by the audience.

5. Philippe Entremont and Sebastian Knauer
The first half of this recital featured Entremont alone and it was ecstasy. He performed some of the best-known piano sonatas by Mozart and Beethoven and it felt like I had never heard them before. They were so fresh and enlivened and -- corny, I know -- free. Entremont is powerful when he needs to be, really nuanced when the moment calls for it. The variations of tone, texture and pacing were like storytelling. This first half was the peak for me. Perhaps this is why I didn't get much out of the second half in which Entremont was joined by Sebastian Knauer to play Brahms' Sonata for two pianos. It's a bombastic work and that might be the cause of my indifference. But I think (once again) a lack of air conditioning made the performance difficult to enjoy. The air was hot and muggy. Brahms' Sturm und Drang felt oppressive, not inspiring.

4. Atlanta Symphony Orchestra featuring Daniel Hope
Daniel Hope must have been exhausted by the time he performed Brahms' monster Violin Concerto today. As associate artistic director of the music festival, he designed all the classical music programs. Since arriving in Savannah more than two weeks ago, he has rehearsed virtually nonstop with people he doesn't normally play with. Together, they have performed music that takes a tremendous amount of skill, artistry and focus. Some of that was missing for the Brahms concerto. Little things that would ordinarily sound right sounded a little off. The fierce double-stops of the first movement require a huge amount of strength and power, but Hope just didn't seem like he had enough gas in the tank. The concerto's sweet moments, however, redeemed whatever weaknesses he had. In fact, Hope sounded sweetest during the cadenza and other moments when he played alone. Which brings to me to orchestra. No matter where the soloist goes, the orchestra has to follow. Spano seemed to be conducting in the other room sometimes, forcing Hope to rethink his artistry when shouldn't have needed to. Something that no one could have controlled was the dry acoustics of the Lucas. It dampened poor Hope's sound even more. No matter how hard he bowed, the sound failed to pop. The dry acoustics, however, benefited the ASO's superlative performance of Rimsky-Korsakov's exotic "Scheherazade." You could hear clearly the discipline of the string section and the clarity of the woodwinds' articulation. Bottom-line: The second half of the concert was highlight of the festival. Conclusion: Dry acoustics are evidently good for Russians, bad for Germans.

3. Morris Robinson
Billed as a night of art songs and negro spirituals, Robinson's recital turned out to be so much more. He sang old Appalachian folk songs like "Black is the color of my true love's hair," bringing new meaning and fresh insight to the old tune. Same with "The lass from the lowcountry," which originated in some far away place, but in Robinson's hands felt like a song with roots right here Georgia and South Carolina. What's more was a tone of artful defiance. Robinson sang Charles Brown's "The Barrier," touching on issues of race, power and shame. Next was Margaret Bonds' setting of Langston Hughes' trio of poems, "The Dream Keeper." The most powerful was "I, too," in which the narrator sings over angry and dissonant chords: "I, too, sing America. I am the darker brother ... Besides, they'll see how beautiful I am and be ashamed." Though the message was universal (triumph in the face of adversity), it is grounded in the specifics of the African-American experience. Robinson never pandered, but he was never pedantic either. He was proud. I loved it. So did the audience. It responded with (this is no exaggeration) with whoops and hollers. For a charming little voice recital, the audience was downright raucous.

2. Isabel Bayrakdarian
This woman is the total package: an incredible soprano, wonderful actress and a charming speaker to boot. The program showed the breadth of her knowledge, the depth of her artistry and an aim to be entertaining, even if that means a joke comes at her own expense. She is the rare diva who doesn't take herself too seriously. Bottom-line: Her recital, with pianist husband Serouj Kradjian, held my attention from beginning to end. I think the reason (I've been preoccupied with this) is that her dexterity, nuance and power combined with an actor-like stage presence, which was evident in her ability to shift from character to character in songs with more than one voice. It was like watching a mini-opera unfold. It was divine.

1. David Finckel and Wu Han
This husband-and-wife duo is what I hope the future of chamber music looks like. As co-directors of the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center, Finckel (cellist) and Han (pianist) make chamber music feel alive by showing us the humanity behind the music. They did this in part by looking at each other -- a lot. With intensity. And with a sense of fun. They gave the impression that the stakes of what they were about to do were high. Their program covered the history of Western music. Han often spoke between pieces about history, style, technique and even how harmony changed as cultural sensibility changed, from baroque (Bach) classical (Beethoven) to romantic (Schumann) to the 20th century (Debussy, Britten). It never sounded pedantic or elitist or boring. The reason talking before playing often fails is because musicians, while great performers, are often terrible public speakers. Not so of Wu Han. As for Finckel, he played the silent straight man to Han's witty shtick. He said everything he needed to say with Jack Benny-like panache. All of this, however, is ancillary to the performance, which was exceptional. Finckel is a powerhouse of technique, range and expression. Han was like his Ginger Rogers, doing everything he did, just backwards, so to speak, and in bright red heels (with black velvet stockings, I might add). They played not as two but one.

Posted by John Stoehr at April 4, 2007 1:01 AM

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