The Seasons A-Changing to the Tune of a Drone
Stern Auditorium, Carnegie Hall
09/26/2019 - & October 15 (Ottawa), 16 (Kingston), 2019
Jessie Montgomery: Shift, Change, Turn, and Variations (World Premiere)
Felix Mendelssohn: Piano Concerto No. 2 in D Minor, Op. 40 – Symphony No. 4 in A Major “Italian”, Op. 90
Jan Lisiecki (piano)
Orpheus Chamber Orchestra
J. Lisiecki with Orpheus Chamber Orchestra (© Fadil Kheir)
Although the official opening of the 2019-2020 season at Carnegie Hall is still a few days away, the Orpheus Orchestra, as seems to be their custom, preempted that opening with their own and offered a program consisting of works by a young American, Ms. Jessie Montgomery, and Felix Mendelssohn. This marvelous ensemble makes a laudable effort to always present a new work by a living composer in their programs and this time was no exception.
The orchestra and their management are heavily involved in community outreach and one of their customs is to offer free tickets to school children. As the old saying goes “no good deed goes unpunished”... Thus not only school children attended the Thursday performance, but also parents: parents who brought along infants and/or toddlers, and it’s no secret that listening to this type of music is not exactly their choice: they expressed their displeasure quite audibly, even to us sitting several floors below. Apparently, the ushers were either helpless or instructed to look the other way. Perhaps the next time, school administrators and music teachers should make sure that parents are accompanied by responsible children. In other words, if the audience wishes to hear babies screaming, they can visit not a concert hall but rather the nearest nursery.
Judging from her rather sizable biographical note, Ms. Montgomery is not only a native New Yorker but also deeply involved in social causes. I always wonder how the “fight-for-social-justice” translates into music, but fortunately Ms. Montgomery’s 15 minute long score Shift, Change, Turn, and Variations which with this performance received its world premiere, allowed us to evaluate it on its own merits. The title itself seems to be a rarity, as it features capital letters rather than lower case ones, de rigueur these days. This score (commissioned by Orpheus) offered our composer “a great opportunity to contribute to the tradition of writing a piece based on seasons, as change and rotation is something that we all experience as humans... it is a musical exploration of both the external and internal seasons, which at times seem to changing along the same axis”. Sometimes writing a justification for one’s work is almost as hard as the act of composing itself.
What we heard was a four segment score, in which the first two parts were clearly delineated (and caused applause from the balcony); the others segued without a break and the last one thematically came back to the beginning. The salient feature of the outer movements is a drone-like chant with the winds intoning a wailing tune: the proximity of the Jewish High Holidays (just four days after the performance) gave me fleeting sensation of the quite prolonged blowing of a shofar, though I am sure that our composer didn’t have that in mind. Open fifths in the strings gave the “Shift” a little primordial feeling and the wailing/chant of the trumpet and French horn, with the slurs as if taken from Ravel’s Boléro, gave one an impression of hearing music springing from some Caucasian wild mountain. I wasn’t able, for the life of me, to establish any relation between the titles and the music, which ended abruptly and went into a lively and restless segment “Change”: there prevailed a prominent four note motif and occasionally a bit hazy atmosphere, and toward the end we had another appearance of the introductory first movement tune. That lead subito to “Turn”, which I found to be perhaps the most successful movement of the four. It is characterized by skillfully written, little Bernsteinesque jazzy sounding virtuosic riffs exchanged between the winds and strings, which later have a slow chanting tune imposed upon the underpinning of the impulsive figures. And then the Variations segment appears, with its drones and wails. All in all it is an effective, likable, easy on the ear work which proves that writing music for the listener, not against him, has perhaps became the new norm. If there are some moments that remind us of more famous composers, well... if you borrow, at least borrow from the good ones. I think that Ms. Montgomery could not dream of a better performance than the one presented by this ultra-versatile ensemble of soloists, comfortable in almost anything you put in front of them.
I was much better acquainted with the other two works in the program not only because both of them are well-known, but also because I already heard Orpheus in this repertoire at the 2018 “Chopin and His Europe” Festival in Warsaw, Poland. Their all-Mendelssohn program, which included both of the piano concertos, with Jan Lisiecki, and the “Italian” Symphony was one of the festival’s highlights. When, this summer, another inferior quality orchestra allowed itself to present the same symphony, the prevailing comment among the audience was “do you remember when Orpheus played this work?” Yes, that night in August the orchestra seemed to be not only in great shape but also inspired, and many of us thought that we were hearing the best performance of these works ever. Was that experience duplicated at Carnegie Hall? I am afraid only to some degree. One of the problems with this democratically operating ensemble of free-lancers is that although the pool of musicians from whom the players and the subs are picked is sizable, one never knows who will be leading from the concertmaster seat and who will actually play in the orchestra. The level never goes below some degree of excellence, but there sometimes appeared some imperfections of intonation in the wind section or the sound of strings is less lustrous or there simply is not as much inspiration for which one would wish. And such was the case of this last performance: though vigorous, highly energetic and generally well played, to my ears it lacked not only the same exhilarating quality that we heard during their European tour, but also a minimal lack of excellence in execution.
However the Piano concerto in D minor, the second of two such works Mendelssohn composed, fared this time possibly even better than a year ago. At that time, the orchestra and their soloist, also Mr. Lisiecki, were not as well acquainted with the score, though they recorded a successful live disc issued by Deutsche Grammophon. This score suits excellently the piano technique and abilities of Mr. Lisiecki, who this year has gotten quite good mileage out of this music in Carnegie Hall alone: in the spring of 2019, with the Philadelphia Orchestra, he already performed the First Concerto. He possesses a clear, clean, precise (if a little clinical) touch and just the proper dose of lyrical feeling necessary for the melodious second movement. This is playing from which dictation can be taken. I also preferred the sound in the hall to the detached and unnaturally piano-prominent recording. Carnegie Hall offered these musicians a much warmer, better blended and cushioned sound to which our pianist added an enviable precision and evenness of tone, especially in the virtuosic last movement Presto scherzando, that sparkled in the staccato chords and sung nicely in melodies that the composer, in a manner novel at the time, placed between the two hands, as if a harbinger to the three-hand effects of Liszt and Thalberg. Mr. Lisiecki might not be my favorite performer, and on basis of some of his performances I would hesitate to call him, as the blurb dictates, “perhaps the most complete pianist of his age”, yet there was not much to dispute, let alone dislike in his dazzling performance.