Stanching the Tide
Britons are currently dealing with a drought so severe that officials are seriously considering pumping water from France through the Chunnel. In Fargo, they’re trying to contain a 500-year flood from the Red River. April has been like that for the classical-music lover in Nashvillewe’re either in Fargo or in London.
Last week, I covered performances by the Kronos Quartet and the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra, only a part of the musical deluge from April 10-12. The final freshet was a Stuttgart Chamber Orchestra performance presented by Friends of Music and TPAC as part of the New Directions Series. Some of the music, including pieces by Vivaldi and Tchaikovsky, was hardly unknown, but works by Lou Harrison and Giya Kancheli really did strike out in a musical new direction.
Predictably, the best-known works received somewhat better performances. At first, the SCO was plagued by a scratchy string sound and questionable intonation in Vivaldi’s “Sinfonia al Santo Sepulcro,” but when the pace picked up with the volume, things became more certain. Tchaikovsky’s Serenade for Strings, which closed the concert, also suffered from this squalliness, but Maestro Dennis Russell Davies’ individual way with phrasing helped redeem the performance. The result was a waltz movement with surprising vigor and a Russian dance finale calculated to send Cossacks racing across the steppes. Davies’ pregnant pauses during the “Élégie,” however, induced a hyper-Russian mawkishness.
The most attractive “new” offering was Harrison’s New First Suite for Strings. Although the music’s modal harmonies and limited melodic compass posed no difficulty for the audience, the SCO’s performance had problems. The opening “Fantasia” went well, with the orchestra controlling the thicket of fugato passages, but all else was marred by lifelessness. The second movement, entitled “Round Dance,” suffered from a Teutonic tepidity in the players’ handling of the gamelan-like percussive episodes. The third movement, “Threnody,” was too curtly conveyed, and the finale had numerous intonation problems, especially with the cellos and the violas.
The true novelty of the concert, however, was Giya Kancheli’s Valse Boston. Given the fact that the SCO commissioned the piece from Kancheli and that the extensive piano part was tailored to Davies’ not inconsequential keyboard skills, this was scarcely surprising. What was surprising was the poor quality of the music.
Mr. Kancheli’s cleverly conceived piece was fraught with difficulties for both performers and listeners. Davies and his musicians displayed great cunning in their reading, especially in Kancheli’s explosion of notes. The juxtaposition of Bartokian keyboard passages with musical reminiscences by the strings from Debussy, Poulenc, and even Jacques Brel was not without whimsy. But the totality, no matter how well done, remained utterly unappealing.
Interestingly enough, the SCO’s program here was not the group’s only program for its U.S. tour. The Stuttgart’s Louisville concert featured a piece for strings by Peteris Vasks that was warmly reviewed by Andrew Adler, critic for The Courier Journal. Considering the great success of Vasks’ String Quartet No. 3 in the Kronos Quartet’s Nashville performance a couple weeks ago, it’s too bad that Davies and the SCO dumped the Kancheli on us. As to Vasks and his fellow Baltic composers, watch this space in coming weeks.
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