Thursday, September 14, 2006

Soloists star in Skaneateles finale

To continue the trend in this blog of vacillating between pop and classical music, here's a review I wrote for my AJP 600 (Critical Writing) class. It's not especially timely (concert happened Sept. 2), but many elements of the performance, especially the soloist/ensemble dynamic, stuck with me. I think I have some readers who aren't in my class - Dad? Rebecca? Krystal? - and thus weren't handed a copy of this on Monday. So here it is.

Two world-class soloists turned an average chamber concert into a grand finale for the 2006 Skaneateles Festival.

On another Saturday night concert moved indoors from Brook Farm due to inclement weather, flutist Marina Piccinini and violinist Ilya Kaler rescued a slightly soggy performance by the Festival Chamber Orchestra. Despite the change in venue, the auditorium at Skaneateles High School was nearly full with audience members eagerly awaiting works by three of the most famous names in classical music.

The concert began with J.S. Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto No. 3 in G major, BWV 1048. In both movements, the violinist and violists failed to match articulations clearly, playing more as disjointed soloists than as uniform sections.

The too-fast tempo of the second Allegro movement exaggerated the problem of mismatching rhythms and attacks. The orchestra sounded sloppy in playing triple-meter at such a rapid pace, leading to a disappointing performance of a familiar classic.

The chamber group added oboes, horns and additional string players for Mozart’s Flute Concerto in D major, K. 314. Piccinini’s energetic presence added an immediate boost to the group’s playing. She moved and swayed as she played, and punctuated several sixteenth-note runs with an upward flourish of the barrel end of her flute.

Though the writing for the concerto’s orchestral accompaniment is less colorful than the accompanying music for many of his operas, concertmaster Steven Copes ably led the string players and provided several graceful solo interjections.

Piccinini’s cadenzas highlighted all three movements; she showed great control with regard to tempo, neatly speeding up and slowing down amid the rapid scalar passages. She made octave leaps with ease and played with a crystalline tone in all registers.

The concert closed with another well-known piece: Vivaldi’s "The Four Seasons." The orchestra turned to another outstanding soloist; it’s easy to forget that in addition to the piece’s place among the "greatest hits" of chamber music, it’s also a violin concerto. Ilya Kaler, professor of violin at DePaul University and formerly of the Eastman School of Music, bowed nimbly through some very flashy solo writing, and the orchestra frequently faded into the background as Kaler asserted his control over the music.

His playing was nearly flawless throughout all four sections, but some of the concerto’s less frequently-played movements could have used more care from the orchestra. The ensemble played too heavily throughout the last movement, "Winter." Heavy, clunking pizzicato from the string players failed to capture the lightly falling rain and snow described in the lines of verse that accompany the score.

Kaler was truly the star of the evening. He dominated the stage as he drew broad strokes over open strings to play chords and worked his fingers from top to bottom of the fingerboard. His physical presence – tall and imposing, with long arms and fingers often moved rapidly – transfixed the audience throughout the 45 minute-long concerto.

Sentimentality and the singer/songwriter

The singer/singwriter has a certain archetype in today's pop music - one person with a guitar, singing personal, confessional-sounding songs, sometimes with a back-up band, sometimes not. Between songs, the singer often tells a story that explains where he (or she) was when he wrote the song, or what inspired its writing. Often before kicking off each new song, he says "This next one's called..." And he counts to 4, starts to strum, or fumbles with a harmonica in its frame.

At a show in the SU Underground on Monday night, two artists presented variations on this form. Matt Pond, lead singer and songwriter for the band Matt Pond PA, told no stories and only provided the name to one or two of his songs. He appeared ill at ease between songs, berating an audience member not to call him "Matty" (apparently his mother calls him that) and turning down requests to play certain songs. A lyric from Pond's song "kc" perfectly encapsulate his stage presence: "There’s no way to the heart better than awkwardly." He repeatedly said "Hold please," as he and his bandmates tuned up or switched instruments, and even prefaced several tunes by saying "This is a song."

I expected a set of acoustic guitar-based tunes (based on a cover of the Pixies song "Winterlong" I heard on my undergrad college radio station), but was suprised to hear a group with two electric guitars, bass, drums, cello (!) and occasional electric keyboard. The music surged forward with a bright, pop energy akin to the Police, "Kiss Me Kiss Me Kiss Me"-era Cure or Elvis Costello.

Only after someone requested "Since U Been Gone" and lead guitarist Brian Pearl cranked out the power-pop ballad's guitar part did Pond loosen up to take a more free-wheeling approach. He even agreed to play a few extra songs after his band members took a bathroom break. Though he seemed daunted at first by the crowd's lack of movement during songs and utter silence between, he warmed to the students as they nodded heads, shuffled feet and slowly crept closer to the stage throughout his set.

Opening act Ian Love delivered the archetypal singer/songwriter performance to a tee. "I wrote this song when I was driving across Iceland." "This is a song about my daughter." "While I'm being sentimental, this song is for my wife." Love, accompanied by another guitarist, opened the songwriter's book of his soul. Where Pond pulled away from his audience, Love was conversational. Where Pond tried to mask his imperfections ("This is a new song, so we don't really know it yet"), Love reveled in them. He frequently lifted his voice into a lilting falsetto, not afraid of cracks between registers or of landing on a slightly out-of-tune note. With his voice, swimming in reverb, over top above slowly-arcing songs based in acoustic and pedal-steel guitars, Love's recalled two artists in mainstream "alt-country" - Wilco and My Morning Jacket.

These two bands each feature a prominent frontman (Jeff Tweedy in Wilco, Jim James in MMJ) in the singer/songwriter tradition. Each band draws from country music, both the sad ballad a la "I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry" and the knee-slapping hoedown, and inject it with more modern approaches. Tweedy adds bugs-beneath-the-skin paranoia and anomie, and James blasts the forms into orbit with unearthly falsetto, bizarre lyrics and electric guitar hystrionics. In his opening set, Love took a step toward bringing these forms back to earth.