14 September 2008

two concertos and Transylvanian folk

Posted by at 4:51 AM Read our previous post

I attended a performance by the Phoenix Symphony last night. It was my first time in at least two or three years and my first time since they completed construction of the new Symphony Hall. Nice place. Good acoustic design. The sound of the orchestra was clear, focused.

The concert was part of the inagural World Music Festival. First up—a gesture of patriotic solidarity:

  • John Stafford Smith (1779—1836) - The Star Spangled Banner (arr. Toscanini)

The audience was encouraged to sing along, so I did, timidly at first, but more forcefully by the time the rockets red-glared.

  • Töru Takemitsu (1931-1996) - "Day Signal"
    from Signals from Heaven I
  • Takemitsu - Three Film Scores
    1. "Music of Training and Rest" from Jose Torres
    2. "Funeral Music" from Black Rain
    3. "Waltz" from Face of Another
  • Takemitsu - "Night Signal"
    from Signals from Heaven II

I was previously unfamiliar with the work of this Japanese-born composer. I particularly enjoyed the film music pieces, one of which reminded me of Gerwshin harmonically and melodically, but with an understated rhythmic vagueness which made it delightfully ambiguous. The waltz piece was interesting in that it was simultaneously traditional (none of the motifs would have sounded out of place in 19th century Vienna) yet harmonically adventurous, modulating between keys freely.

  • Lou Harrison (1917-2003) - Concerto for Pipa
    Wu Man, pipa

I quite enjoyed watching Ms. Wu Man play her pipa, a pear-shaped four-stringed fretted Chinese lute. I love to watch a musician really get into it like she does. The concerto was written especially for her and her flawless confident execution shows an intimate familiarity with it. Particularly notable is the fact that this is not a patchwork quilt of traditional Chinese folk melodies accompanied by orchestra; this is a texturally-rich piece which utilizes chromatically shifting harmonies in a way that evokes Chinese music while expanding its traditional pentatonic palatte. I suspect that the tone of the instrument itself is a major contributing factor in this evocation of the far east in the listener.

A master of her instrument, Wu Man's playing is nuanced and complex.


  • Musical Selections (announced from the stage)
    featuring Romashka, a gypsy folk troupe

Romashka played several tunes from the eastern European traditions, including Romania, Transilvania, Hungary and Russia. Although I enjoyed their enthusiasm and I am a big fan of Easter-European folk music, the ensemble had to be amplified (unlike the orchestra, needless to say) and it felt like the sound was not quite dialed in at first. This was a slight distraction but once whoever was mixing sound got it together they pulled off a pretty good performance.

  • Béla Bartók - Concerto for Orchestra

This being the only one of the pieces that I was familiar with before the concert, and considering that it's already a standard of many (if not most) orchestra repertoires, I won't say much about it, except to say that I was impressed by this orchestra's range and control of dynamics. Well done.

For an encore, the orchestra was joined by Romashka AND by Ms. Man (who approached the music with the same verve as she did in the concerto which featured her) for a rendition of an old Hungarian folk tune arranged for both the ensemble and the orchestra. At the end of the piece, Romashka continued playing, segueing into what sounded like the familiar klezmer theme that opens "Fiddler on the Roof" and proceeded to keep playing as they walked off the stage toward the lobby where the audience was invited to join them for another set of music and dance.



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