October 1, 2013
The reviews are in from the Season Opening concerts!
Program of music’s notorious jokesters
By D.S. Crafts / For the Journal | Sun, Sep 29, 2013
Pianist Conrad Tao, a familiar fixture with the Santa Fe Pro Musica over the past years opened that organization’s new season last weekend. After playing a solo recital on Friday night, Tao joined the Pro Musica Orchestra at the Lensic Performing Arts Center on Saturday and Sunday for two performances of two piano concertos, one by W.A. Mozart and one by Dimitri Shostakovich. A Joseph Haydn symphony rounded off the program conducted by Music Director Thomas O’Connor – a program of music by three of music’s most notorious jokesters.
In music as in literature the first element to fall to the passage of time is humor. Jokes too quickly become unintelligible as the social or idiomatic landscape changes. Haydn’s Symphony No. 83, the most popular of his group of Paris Symphonies, takes its nickname “The Hen” (La Poule) from what sounded to contemporary listeners as chicken-like clucking in the first movement.
The work is replete with musical jokes beyond the chicken, though unfortunately mostly lost on modern audiences. But Haydn incorporates his jokes with such skill that even if the satire goes unrecognized, the beauty of the music remains.
The opening has all the gravitas of Mozart in minor key, yet the second “chicken” theme is purely playful papa Haydn. O’Connor deftly led the music vacillating between the two themes which could not be more different.
The comically pompous finale took on a brilliance of airy agility full of sparkling dance rhythms.
Placing the Shostakovich between the two classical works proved an excellent idea, causing us to hear each work with fresh ears. The Concerto for Piano, Trumpet and Strings is not exactly a duo concerto (the piano part is significantly larger) but it does call upon the trumpet (Brian Shaw) to illuminate certainly crucial passages, especially the lovely theme of the second movement.
Tao’s playing was bold and decisive, much in the Russian style of playing, and much the way the composer himself would have played it. More than merely dazzlingly technical, Tao also brought out the comedy of this musical satire, especially in the final Allegro, which is often described as quasi circus music. O’Connor masterfully held together all these wildly competing musical forces, especially his energetic pianist, as rambunctious as a young stallion out of the gate.
The youthful Piano Concerto No. 9 in E flat “Jeunehomme,” is often thought to be Mozart’s first great masterpiece, full of surprises for contemporaries who would have expected certain formalities of style. Here Tao well demonstrated that his talent is more than that of a brilliant technique. His playing remained bold but with a grace necessary to the subtleties of the music.
This was a deeply felt, passionate and consummate account, full of emotional drama, even operatic at moments. Finally, a delicious sense of mischief informed the Rondo capping off Sunday’s afternoon of music-making of the highest order.
Pasa Reviews: Taking it slow
Posted: Friday, September 27, 2013 5:00 am
James M. Keller
Solo recital, Sept. 19, St. Francis Auditorium
Last week, Santa Fe Pro Musica hosted pianist Conrad Tao in his annual visit to town, during which he played a solo recital (on Sept. 19 at St. Francis Auditorium) and appeared in concertos by Shostakovich and Mozart (on Sept. 21 and 22 at the Lensic Performing Arts Center, of which I heard the former). The recital was chockablock with interest, beginning with a reading of Bach’s Italian Concerto that boasted clear textural differentiation and rhythmic élan, perhaps at a tempo that was a notch too slow for comfort in the Andante and a notch too quick in the finale. The program’s high point was Ravel’s Gaspard de la nuit. Its third movement, “Scarbo,” is a touchstone of virtuosity. Tao managed it well, with fine attention to sonics in the sustained bass tones, but his best work came in the opening movement, “Ondine,” depicting a seductive water sprite. Here the pianist negotiated its cascades of notes with hands that, octopus-like, seemed everywhere on the keyboard at once. But Tao’s greater triumph was again his delicate sensitivity to rhythm, through which Ravel’s sweeping lines were subsumed into the ceaseless current. It is not often that music and musician seem so completely conjoined.
Although he delivered firmly executed accounts of four Rachmaninoff preludes (especially appealing in the purling figuration of op. 23, no. 7) and Prokofiev’s Seventh Sonata (which worked up to a forceful rendition of its toccata-like finale), Tao did not seem motivated by a desire to dazzle. His interpretations instead emphasized warmth, seriousness, logic — and invariably that intangible aptness of rhythm. Tao’s musical pursuits extend to composing, and he included his own well-wrought suite (from 2012) titled Vestiges, each of its four movements conveying something about strange images that had arisen in a dream. It will not devalue his originality to suggest that composers of the past guided him to the musical language of this work. Its opening movement, “upon walking alongside green glass bottles,” seemed for a moment like Hindemith on magic mushrooms, and later the suite bowed to Gershwin and Messiaen. All in all, though, these seemed mostly the dreams of a young man who had been practicing Gaspard de la nuit during his waking hours. It is heartening to encounter an emerging composer who has digested such excellent models.
In the orchestral concert two days later, Thomas O’Connor led his Santa Fe Pro Music Orchestra in its most polished performances in a good while, at least in my experience. It opened with a solid, assured interpretation of Haydn’s Symphony No. 83 (“La poule”), and then moved on to Shostakovich’s Piano Concerto No. 1, in which Brian Shaw handled the obbligato trumpet part adeptly. Tao again came across as an essentially earnest player, which did not get in the way of his tossing off the circus-flavored portions with aplomb. Apart from some ooziness of tempo in the first movement, Mozart’s “Jenamy” Concerto in E-flat Major (K.271) also met with marked success. (It’s time to retire the piece’s former nickname, “Jeunehomme,” now that we know it was simply a misspelling of the surname of the pianist for whom Mozart wrote the piece, Mlle. Victoire Jenamy.) It was a fine, warm-hearted job throughout, but where Tao most stands apart from the crowd is as an interpreter of slow music, which made the central Andantino especially cherishable.