Sunday, November 20, 2011

concert review: Redwood Symphony

Oh boy, was this intrepid but amateur orchestra not ready to play this challenging concert last night. They sounded more like the S******a Symphony (the nadir of amateur orchestras around here) than like the bottom tier of professional groups, and they're usually closer to the latter. They actually got through it all, though, in reasonable order, and that's some kind of accomplishment.

Strange bleeps and squawks enlivened the whole show. While pianist Daniel Glover made his fleet and (sometimes) deft but totally uninflected way through Rachmaninoff's Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini (imagine a rapid but monotonic reading of a lyric poem), the orchestra was running after him trying to keep up, tripping over its own untied shoelaces. And in the Prelude to Das Rheingold, the bassoons holding the open fifth shouldn't be louder than the horns playing the theme, though it was probably a mercy that they were. And that's just for starters. Still, by the time they got to Siegfried's funeral march and the Immolation scene, some kind of grandeur had slowly gathered, despite itself.

What's that, you say, did they play the entirety of Wagner's Ring? No, it just seemed that way. If you've ever heard one of his operas and thought, "This would be really good music if only the singers would shut up and go away," you're not alone. Wagner is responsible for encouraging such thoughts, having authorized the concert performance of what are usually known as "bleeding chunks" without voices (in context in Die Walküre, for instance, the concert favorite "Ride of the Valkyries" comes with assorted valkyries trying to yell over it), and saying things like "the key to the work is in the orchestra" (by which he was referring to his use of Leitmotifs, brief instrumental tags associated with particular characters or plot points, which he dredges up and bashes you over the head with whenever the original referent is subsequently alluded to). There seemed to be a market for orchestral Wagner in between the "bleeding chunks" and the whole opera, so a few years ago noted conductor Lorin Maazel undertook to fill it by preparing what he called a "symphonic synthesis" of the whole Ring, lasting about 70 minutes non-stop, and it was this which we heard last night. It's less a maniacally fast run-through of the plot than a series of jump-cuts. Here's the dwarfs laboring in Nibelheim (with a total absence of rhythm); slam, now here's the Rainbow Bridge. The Rhinemaidens are taunting Siegfried; whoops, now he's dead.

More successful than Wagner or Rachmaninoff was the opening piece, not on the program, and conductor Eric Kujawsky didn't tell us what it was going to be or who wrote it, but when a man in a green eyeshade wheeled a manual typewriter on a stand onstage and sat down at it, I knew we were in for Leroy Anderson's notorious two-minute concerto for typewriter and orchestra. (The curious may see and hear [if the sound on your computer is working, ahem] a performance - this one with the soloist also serving as conductor - here.) Before starting, Kujawsky said, "Oops, we haven't tuned up yet; give me an A." And the man in the green eyeshade gave him an A.

The hall at Cañada College was full. Why parents had brought so many squirmy 8-to-10 year-olds for such enormous pieces as the Rachmaninoff and Wagner, I don't know. Right in front of me were two high-school students with clipboards, attached to which were pads of paper and their music class assignment: you are the critic; attend a concert and write a review. I was touched to see budding colleagues, and as professional courtesy I told them the name of the composer of the typewriter piece, since Kujawsky had not been forthcoming. What their reviews will be like, I don't know, as they both spent much of the rest of the evening asleep. Maybe they'll grow up to be Virgil Thomson.

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