By Janet Elizabeth
March 13, 2010
Some pieces are a delight to hear in a live setting, helping the listener to develop a deeper connection with the music being played and a better understanding of the composer, the time it was composed. Last night's performace of Ravel's Le Tombeau de Couperin by the ASO was precisely this kind of experience. This is piece I've heard a hundred times over, and though I love some of Ravel's other works, Le Tombeau never quite captured my imagination. Perhaps it was the mastery of Thomas Wilkins, whose lithe conducting style wove him seamlessly in and out of the music coming from the musicians in front of him. Wilkins body is one with his conductor's wand, his kind face expressive and measured as he conducts. His leadership is altogether holistic.
But where my imagination found itself as the first, second, third and fourth movements progressed was in some little french cartoon form. A child leaping through fields of lavendar. Sunny French countrysides. Chasing that red balloon in the park. You likely would have another story in your mind, but what is certain is that the orchestra was able to capture the quintessentially French air that Ravel was trying to impress upon the listener.
After the Ravel piece had been played however, the big moment of the evening awaited us. Violinist Jennifer Koh stepped strongly out onto stage, long red dress modestly indicating her loveliness, and took the audience by complete surprise. Barber's violin concerto is a familiar enough 20th century piece, accessible and conventional, but more romantic than a typical Barber piece. From the first beat, Koh was immersed in the concerto's stormy, tumultuous waters. The audience held our breaths and went under with her. From the first movement's pathos to the third movement's dizzy flight, Koh commanded the stage.
The most remarkable thing to me was how the symphony responded in their accompaniment to Koh. I remembered from my own experience accompanying others as a musician, when the soloist has such grace, command, and sensitivity, you are internally inspired to respond with the same. That is exactly what the ASO did - they responded to Koh's beautiful and dynamic performance with their own.
A funny aside: at intermission, two older - way 0lder - ladies were in line for the restroom in front of me. Lady one said, "Wasn't that just beautiful? She was astonishing!" Lady two responded, "Oh, yes. And that Barber piece - well, it was nice to hear a 20th century piece that I didn't have to stretch so far for. Right in my comfort zone."
After intermission, I wondered if I was going to be too full for what was being served as the main course. Pictures At an Exhibition is like early cinematic music. The music tells the entire story, and the program notes give you just enough information, like silent movie cards, to fill in the blanks. As the theme was introduced in the Promenade, I forgot I was full and pushed my plate back to the center of the table to be filled. Pictures plays out like a ballet. (In fact, I've dreamed of turning this piece into an official ballet since I first heard it. Has nobody already done this?...) Each picture is distinct from the other, brought together sometimes by a variation on the theme of promenade to indicate the viewer walking from painting to painting, and sometimes one painting flowing into the next. My favorites: Bydlo (the music imitating a large wooden cart) and Baba-Yagá.
Pictures is impressionism in its most literal form. Music based on paintings based on scenes from a street. As I walked to my car after the performance, I thought about how Mussorgsky in many ways had created musical idioms which we still use today -- the back and forth of children arguing, heavy objects being carried...
From beginning to end, ASO's program of pieces was a feast for the imagination. If you're free tonight, I encourage you to go and see where your mind goes.
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