Sunday, February 21, 2016

The Harrisburg Symphony: "You Made Me Want to Get Up and Dance"

- A special report by Dick Strawser for Thoughts on a Train

That's how one enthusiastic listener put it at the end of the Harrisburg Symphony's concert last night, with three pieces on the program which had lots of dance music in them: Stravinsky's ballet Petrushka, the “Spanish Rhapsody” of Ravel and the Suite from Richard Strauss' Der Rosenkavalier which included some waltzes worthy of a different Strauss from an earlier generation.

(Normally, I don't write reviews and I don't like writing them, though lots of people tell me I should. In fact, as a musician on the receiving end, I never liked reading them, either. But since the Patriot-News no longer publishes reviews and the Carlisle Sentinel no longer has a Sunday edition to publish one in, consider this in lieu of a review. But here, I'm not limited to 500 words or less: my apologies in advance.)

The Harrisburg Symphony & Stuart Malina on the Forum stage (photo: Curt Rohrer)
To reduce the concert to one word – “Spectacular!” “Brilliant!” or maybe “Colorful!” – is to miss the point. The program is varied, despite all three pieces being completed within a three-year period, and within that, each piece is so varied itself, one word cannot possibly describe everything you would have noticed or sensed, even if you say you know nothing about “classical music” or if you were just letting the music “sweep” over you.

Stuart Malina conducted the orchestra in a program that didn't feature a soloist, someone standing out in front to perform a concerto, someone paid “the big bucks” to draw in the audience. These days, of course, few orchestras can afford to bring in the kind of virtuoso soloist that attracted throngs of music-lovers in the past. Unfortunately, this attitude tends to create a let-down feeling when people see no name, familiar or otherwise, at the top of the program.

But as Stuart (and let's face it, most of Harrisburg is on a first-name basis with the conductor of our orchestra who seems the very opposite of the old-fashioned, unapproachable “Maestro”) always points out, when given the chance, this town is lucky to have an orchestra of this caliber with players who are, every one, a soloist in their own right.

And as Truman Bullard pointed out in his illustrated pre-concert talk – a regular feature of the Masterworks Concerts, beginning an hour before each performance – each piece on the program is a kind of “Concerto for Orchestra,” where individual players get a spotlight here and there, some brief, some a little more extended, to create a tapestry of virtuosity that shows the true mettle of a fine ensemble.

One very helpful detail, especially for those not familiar with Stravinsky's ballet – anyone who's seen in continues to “see” it in their minds, the music is so theatrical – were the “super-titles” projected above the orchestra, a wonderful idea letting you know what was happening in the story with the music you're hearing. Though waiting another beat for “The End” might have been better since the final, quiet, unobtrusive note that ends the music was overshadowed by chuckles from the audience.

(You can see a video of the ballet with the original sets, costumes and choreography, in this blog-post about Petrushka, here.)

There's one more performance of this program – today, Sunday afternoon at 3:00 at the Forum, with Truman Bullard's pre-concert talk starting at 2:00. Tickets will be available at the door.

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“Colorful” is one of those adjectives you might use to describe these pieces which were all written when composers were becoming more aware of the orchestra as an artist's palette from which to choose their sounds, that skill we call “orchestration.”

But with “Colorful” comes the subtle shades we hear in those sounds – dynamics (loud and soft), texture (density or lightness) and all the various nuances that a player can bring to an instrument.

Take the trumpet which can play brilliant flashy passages or skittish bursts that might color an expression like a blush or a chuckle would color a face, perhaps the Ballerina's in Petrushka. Or a long, romantic theme of quiet passion (I'm thinking of the Strauss, here) to something so subtle (the Ravel “Spanish Rhapsody,” especially) you're not even aware it's a trumpet, the way the moonlight adds a glow to the air on what would otherwise be a scene at night.

Or the way Stravinsky, in his scene between the fearsome Moor and the dainty Ballerina, shows you how these two different characters dance first separately, then together: the Ballerina's theme is a doll-like tune lightly shared between the trumpet and the flute; the Moor's, a sinewy even slithery line (hardly a melody) in the lower, darker register of the English horn (that alto oboe) with exotic percussion accompaniment. That they even sound like they're in different tempos when combined allows us to focus on the overall effect of that sound. And the impact is only possible when they're played with the same conviction of a musician who stands up front and who has dedicated the time and integrity to “practice, practice, practice” whether or not they ever get close to Carnegie Hall, a classical musician's stereotypical nirvana.

There are so many of these instances through each of these works, a cameraman would be kept busy for a televised broadcast or (God forbid) a voice-over narrator, acknowledging each soloist the way sportscasters do at a football game, would be out-of-breath by half-time.

(Some people complain about the rigid formality of the orchestra's tuxedos and black gowns: what about HSO jerseys with numbers to identify the players, hmm? During the talk-back, a regular occurrence at the conclusion of each performance, Stuart and principal trumpeter Phil Snedecor joked about close-up cameras on the jumbotron so the audience could see the musicians during their solos – no, before their solos, so we can see beads of sweat in anticipation of their Big Moment. But I digress...)

If anyone is an acknowledged soloist within the orchestra for Petrushka, it's the pianist. This is a dazzling and at the same time gruesomely technical part which requires the musician to step into the virtuosic sphere alone just like a concerto even if for only a few moments. Or here to add a swirl of notes like the reflection of light glistening off a mirror that we might only notice if it draws attention to itself.

The Soul of Petrushka (or P√©trouchka, if you prefer the French) was danced by our regular “keyboardist,” Terry Klinefelter who's played it once before with the orchestra and Malina several seasons ago. It's not a role she would get to play often in her career but it's a part she will be thinking about a lot between the time the repertoire is announced and the concert is finally in the past no matter how many more times she gets to play it in the future. To say she handled the part “splendidly” is to use one of those “one-word-only” comments, but she made Petrushka, the sad-sack-of-sawdust at the heart of this ballet, cry, laugh, scream but above all, dance.

The Ballerina was “danced” by Phil Snedecor who's played the big solo so many times between auditions, performances and in his role as a teacher, it's a challenge to find something fresh each time it comes up. Technically difficult, it's enough to play without being plastered all over the jumbotron, but then Stravinsky plays the ultimate dirty trick: it's just one trumpet player accompanied by a snare-drum, nobody else. Who needs a camera?

The same thing goes for the Role of the Old Magician (or Charlatan) who is the puppetmaster, danced in this case by principal flutist David DiGiacobbe during the tumultuous first scene at the Fair when the crowd parts and we hear just the flute playing a mysteriously halting cascade, back and forth, seductively drawing the audience's attention to the puppets he is about to bring to life. Again, no need for nerves here, right?

And Malina was enough of a musician (rather than The Maestro) to stand back and let his players play it themselves: he has enough faith in them to get out of their way which, in turn, gives them even more confidence.

But there are so many names to spotlight – like Jill Hoffman playing the English horn not only in the Moor's Dance but other prominent flashes of sound here and there in Petrushka or spinning out long-limbed melodies on the second half of the program, especially in the Ravel.

Or Eric Henry playing the tuba's too brief moment of glory as the Dancing Bear who struts his stuff in the final scene of Petrushka, quick entrance, quick exit. (He'll have more work to do in the April concert when he premieres a concerto written for him by Brian Sadler, a full out-front, in-your-face soloist.)

Without a pen to jot down specifics, I remember sitting there, thinking how well some soloists-within-the-orchestra blend in without your noticing their passing moments (though you would, if they're not well played). Like the principal oboist Jeffrey O'Donnell (busy throughout the concert with some wonderful moments, solo and otherwise) or principal clarinetist Janine Thomas (I remember one specific turn-of-phrase during Petrushka's aching death-scene, felled by the Moor right in front of us, only a few notes at this one spot but where a sudden, subtle drop in dynamics before handing off the phrase was like watching a tear form) and principal bassoonist Darryl Hartshorne (again, many often brief moments that could be overlooked by the average listener taking in the “full orchestra”), even contrabassoonist Richard Spittel who got to play those single (and singular) dyspeptic low notes, surrounded by cautious silences, associated with the Old Magician.

And pairs – especially in Petrushka! Janine Thomas and Linda Farrell have been playing 1st and 2nd Clarinet in this orchestra since I first heard them in 1980 and they make a perfect match, friends who could finish each other's sentences. Whether playing crowd-noise whooshes or that unsettling “Petrushka Chord,” it always sounded like one player. And the same for Snedecor and 2nd trumpet Scott Sabo with similar passages, whether shared or alternating. Comparable moments, especially in the Ravel, bring the pair of bassoonists, Hartshorne and Leann Currie, to mind as well.

And, good grief, who could forget the entire horn section, tearing it up in the opening of Der Rosenkavalier and getting everything off to a rousing start?!

And behind all this, other players not so highlighted (even briefly) whose playing makes you forget what a solid support they create in turning almost 90 players into a cohesive brilliant whole, making these very difficult string parts and wind and percussion ensembles seem like something you do every day.

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The whole program is a challenge, musically and technically, and putting something like this together in three rehearsals and a dress rehearsal the morning of the concert may explain why at times there was maybe too much caution here, a little too much “edge” there, players wishing there'd been a little more time for things to settle. But perhaps all that works to the good – Sunday's performance could be looser, musicians willing to take more of a risk. Or could playing it too often lead to complacency, to the kind of thinking that sneaks up and hits you along side of the head? That happens easily enough.

As an occasional performer years ago myself, I know the last thing you want to tell yourself in the middle of a concert is “so, this is going well...”

In the talk-back, pianist Terry Klinefelter admitted she had been so focused on her knuckle-buster part in Petrushka that she'd left the music for the second half of the concert, the celeste parts for the Ravel and the Strauss, back at the hotel. Trying to calculate if she'd have time to drive back and retrieve them during the intermission, here she was, in the midst of playing the most difficult part a keyboard player has to face in an orchestra, worrying about “now what?!” Malina looked at her and said, “Oh, and here I thought you were just really getting into Petrushka's angst!” To solve the problem, one of those back-stage crises the audience would be unaware of – the graceful swan versus the swan's feet, paddling like mad – someone found the Ravel's part on-line and printed it off. For the Strauss, she borrowed associate conductor Greg Woodbridge's score and played from that (so even if he didn't have to substitute for Stuart in case of an emergency, at least his score got to appear on stage).

Something others would have noticed was that moment – that moment – in the Rosenkavalier, building up to the huuuuge climax that is the opera's emotional high-point, when Stuart, turning to the first violins with a larger-than-usual gesture to “SING IT!”, inadvertently knocked over the concertmaster's stand, sending music (and his baton) to the floor. Fortunately, the page of music that fluttered to the opposite side of the conductor's podium was one they'd already played (not that anybody else knew that at the moment) and Peter Sirotin's stand-partner, Dayna Hepler, retrieved the baton. Malina, without dropping the beat, managed to keep the violinists' stand upright and readjust it, all the while Sirotin continued playing as if nothing ever happened (however wide his eyes may have been).

If you had your eyes closed, out in the audience, you might never have noticed a thing: everybody kept going smoothly. The impact of that huuuge harmonic resolution might have been a little understated a moment later, but at least they didn't have to stop (another of those “wow, what if...” moments).

And frankly, that also speaks volumes to this orchestra's ability to form “one-out-of-many.”

As Stuart acknowledged after the concert, “you know, ten years from now, I may not remember this concert but I know I'll be talking about that moment... jeez!”

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