Mason Bates’s Second ‘KC Jukebox’ Falls Short of Expectations

KC Jukebox Of Land and Sea program and personnel-2

Mason Bates’s KC Jukebox: Of Land & Sea, February 22, 2016

Mason Bates’s inaugural “KC Jukebox” was always going to be a tough act to follow. For one night last November, the Kennedy Center’s new, young composer-in-residence managed to turn the staid institution into a bustling spot for experimental music. That evening—the first in a new contemporary music series overseen by Bates—was, at its heart, a really fun party that also opened up intriguing possibilities for rethinking traditional ways of experiencing classical music.

The second installment in the series, presented at the Kennedy Center Theater Lab on Monday night, fell short of fulfilling that promise. Unlike the first concert – where the audience freely circulated through three period-specific “lounge” spaces in a “walk-through history of ambient music”—Monday’s KC Jukebox, titled “Of Land & Sea,” didn’t attempt to radically alter the familiar concert-going experience. (Nor did it attract a markedly younger or more diverse demographic.) It was, essentially, a traditional, seated concert of contemporary music written for small, chamber-sized ensembles that could have been presented at any number of institutions around town.

The first KC Jukebox was so successful, in part, because it managed to create and sustain a relaxed, casual, and novel atmosphere for enjoying music. Bates’s “curated” lounges were a stimulating setting for listening to unfamiliar music and for hearing familiar music in a new way. While the logistics of moving hundreds of people through three separate spaces necessitated some artistic compromises, the evening nonetheless proved vibrant and immersive.

On Monday night, however, Bates and his crew could not solve the seemingly simpler logistical challenge of resetting the stage quickly in between pieces. The evening began promisingly with excerpts from Gabriela Lena Frank’s colorful, spiky evocation of the daily life of Peru, “Milagros,” performed by the Last Stand Quartet. Yet the piece led to what was the first of a series of seemingly interminable pauses, as the stagehands fussed and fumbled about to reset the stage for the next set of performers. This increasingly awkward comedy of errors, including a minutes-long quest to correctly plug in music stand lights, killed any sense of momentum and deadened the atmosphere in the theater. Kennedy Center President Deborah Rutter (seated next to me) became more and more frustrated at the evening’s stage management—and at her powerlessness to do anything about it.

Bates used video projections and light electronic music to cover the set changes, but they weren’t sufficient to overcome the shortcomings of stagecraft and sustain the energy and atmosphere of the concert. The projections, in and of themselves, were fine—they were understated and conveyed just the right amount of information about each piece and each composer. They were also certainly slicker and more elegant than the norm for projections at classical music concerts (here I’m thinking of the amateurish World War II-themed PowerPoint used by the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra for its performances of Shostakovich’s “Leningrad” Symphony in 2012). But Bates’s projections didn’t conjure a transportive environment that made the audience experience the music in a fundamentally different way.

The music, itself, proved a mixed bag. Bates’s program brought together a collection of short contemporary pieces inspired by the theme of geography. Two propulsive pieces for percussion ensemble by Christopher Rouse—“Ku-Ka Ilimoku” (a take on a Hawaiian war dance) and “Ogoun Badagris” (a savage evocation of Haitian Voodoo ritual)—generated the most excitement. Kevin Puts’s maritime-themed “Seven Seascapes” sounded wanly pretty and stuck in the mid-20th century, with a main theme that could have been written by Aaron Copland. Bates’s meandering “Red River”—the only work on the program that incorporated electronic music—brought the concert to a somewhat anti-climactic close. When the house lights came up, many members of the audience looked around, as if to ask, “Was that it?”

DJ Masonic
Mason Bates (Photo by Scott Suchman)

Emerson String Quartet Performs Late Haydn and Early Beethoven

Photo by Lisa Marie Mazzucco

Haydn, String Quartet in C Major, Op. 76, No. 3, “Emperor”
Beethoven, String Quartet in G Major, Op. 18, No. 2
Haydn, String Quartet in E-Flat Major, Op. 76, No. 6
Beethoven, String Quartet in B-Flat Major, Op. 18, No. 6

How is the Emerson String Quartet sounding these days? Now in its 40th year – and two seasons after a personnel change – the quintessential modern American chamber ensemble finds itself not quite at the top of its game. While the program for Saturday evening’s concert, presented by Smithsonian Associates at Baird Auditorium, did not play to the quartet’s strengths, the ensemble also betrayed some signs of frailty amidst its trademark energy and vigor.

Listeners accustomed to the technical precision and glossy sheen of the Emerson Quartet’s studio recordings would have been taken aback by some of the unpolished playing on Saturday, especially from the violins, who appear to be the weak links at the moment. The concert got off to an inauspicious start, with Philip Setzer, playing the first violin part in Haydn’s String Quartet in C Major, Op. 76, No. 3 (“Emperor”), sagging flat in the exposition. Setzer righted his intonation after the piece’s first repeat but offered consistently blunt, heavy-handed playing. Eugene Drucker, taking over as first violin after the intermission, played with greater finesse – especially in the sweetly lyrical slow movements – but still showed some sluggishness in fast passagework.

The quartet’s newest member, Welsh cellist Paul Watkins, has the lightest, warmest, and most beautiful tone in the ensemble but on Saturday still, at times, sounded as though he drifted in from another group.  Violist Lawrence Dutton proved a steadying presence with his mellow playing and restraint.

The group is currently in the middle of a season-long traversal of Haydn’s Op. 76 and Beethoven’s Op. 18 quartets. This exploration of the influence of late Haydn on early Beethoven could make for fascinating series of concerts, but this 18th-century repertory does not come naturally for an ensemble whose greatest successes include searing recordings of late Beethoven and Shostakovich. The Emerson Quartet has taken on none of the lessons of the historically-informed performance movement (not always or necessarily a bad thing), and its emphatic, straightforwardly robust approach was not an ideal fit for the Haydn, which could have used a lighter touch and a greater variety of accents and articulation. Still, there were moments to savor, such as the players heartily digging into the rustic folk melody in the Op. 76, No. 3 quartet and the searching lyricism of the slow movement in the Op.76, No. 6 quartet.

The Emerson’s approach proved more successful for the two Beethoven quartets on the program, as even though these pieces date from only a few years after Haydn’s Op. 76, they are a generation apart. Certainly, the Emerson Quartet’s pensive, brooding intensity in the “La Malinconia” passages from Beethoven’s Quartet in B-Flat, Op. 18, No. 6, was far more modern sounding than anything in the Haydn quartets.

Musicologist Joseph Kerman, writing of Beethoven’s Op. 18, No. 2 Quartet in G Major, observed that while the work clearly shows the influence of Haydn’s comedy of manners and musical language, it never could really pass for Haydn’s work – and wasn’t intended to. The Emerson players made the most out of Beethoven’s sly humor – the play with dynamic contrasts, phrasing, and subverted expectations – and capped the piece with a sprightly, witty, and sharply accented finale full of energy and charm.  They showed that there was still life in these old bones.

CD Review: Iván Fischer’s Elegant, Emotionally Reserved Brahms 4

(Courtesy of Channel Classics)

Brahms Symphony No. 4 and Hungarian Dances No. 3, 7 & 11. Budapest Festival Orchestra, Iván Fischer. Channel Classics.

Making the classics sound new has become the calling card of Iván Fischer and the Budapest Festival Orchestra. Over the past three decades, Fischer has shaped the orchestra he co-founded and leads as music director into an ensemble dedicated to vibrant musicianship and restless experimentation within the Central European tradition. Each concert, and each new recording, is an event. But what is left to be said or discovered in yet another recorded cycle of Brahms’s symphonies?

The answer, it turns out, lies in the details. This third installment in Fischer’s ongoing Brahms cycle, which couples the Fourth Symphony with a selection of colorful and idiomatic Hungarian Dances, offers uncommon illumination. Enforcing light and transparent orchestral textures, Fischer brings out the inner aspects of the score often left hidden by Brahms’s dense, polyphonic writing: the flutes playing in canon with the opening violin melody, or the intricacies of Brahms’s cross-rhythms. (One detail that is over-magnified by the recording engineers is the triangle, whose close-miking mars an otherwise delightful Scherzo.)

Fischer leads a classically proportioned reading of Brahms’s elegiac symphony, adopting moderate tempos and maintaining a sense of poise and emotional reserve. In place of imposing power, Fischer offers an attention to musical detail that is meticulous but never fussy or mannered.  This approach pays dividends by heightening the mystery of the dreamy sotto voce passages of the opening movement and imposing restraint on the sentimentality of the slow movement.

Yet there are limitations to Fischer’s musical approach and artistic temperament, which often leads him to pull back from emotional extremes. The wistful opening movement never quite takes on enough urgency and drama as it reaches its grim conclusion. In the concluding passacaglia, Fischer adopts a flexible beat and hauntingly draws out the desolate flute solo and the gorgeous brass chorale. Yet the movement lacks a sense of driving energy and ferocity, falling short of expressing the full, cataclysmic weight of tragedy.

For a recording that better captures Brahms’s expressive extremes, listeners should turn to the hard-driven drama of Carlos Kleiber; the weighty, thrilling power of Otto Klemperer; the tension and energy of Günter Wand; or, best of all, the searing intensity of the peerless Wilhelm Furtwängler. The old masters still reign supreme in Brahms.

Daniele Gatti and the Orchestre National de France Perform Debussy, Shostakovich, and Tchaikovsky

Violinist Julian Rachlin (Photo by Julia Wesely)

Debussy, Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune
Shostakovich, Violin Concerto No. 1 in A Minor, Op. 77
Tchaikovsky, Symphony No. 5 in E Minor, Op. 64

Daniele Gatti, music director
Julian Rachlin, violin

How does one explain the paltry attendance at Sunday afternoon’s Orchestre National de France concert? Forty-two percent of the seats in the orchestra section of the Kennedy Center Concert Hall were still unsold two hours before curtain, according to the Kennedy Center’s online ticketing site. The house management closed down the second tier of the hall and asked ticketholders to fill in the yawning rows of empty seats in the lowest level. One patron was overheard to grouse, “But I hate it down there!” A few hardy and rebellious souls were still spotted, though, in the farthest reaches of the hall. I hadn’t seen this venue this empty since the National Symphony Orchestra’s final Friday afternoon concert back in 2012.

My colleague Anne Midgette recently wrote a review in which she lamented the small audience (“a mere handful of people”) for what turned out to be a terrific concert of new music at the Atlas Performing Arts Center. Midgette laid part of the blame, at least, at the feet of a neglectful Atlas administration that doesn’t seem to “care… much whether anybody attends.” The kind of new downtown music on that program doesn’t sell itself and won’t simply find its own audience at venue like the Atlas.

That was certainly not the issue at play with the Orchestre National concert, which was presented by Washington Performing Arts at the Kennedy Center and featured a standard — maybe too standard — repertory program of Debussy, Shostakovich, and Tchaikovsky. Continue reading “Daniele Gatti and the Orchestre National de France Perform Debussy, Shostakovich, and Tchaikovsky”