Classicism, Romanticism, Impressionism – A Belated Concert Report

Kennedy Center Honors Luncheon MenuFor my Piano class last semester, I had to prepare a report for a piano performance. The concert took place the night before the 35th Anniversary Kennedy Center Honors, so during the intermission, my friend Afroditi and I got to see the preparations for the fancy dinner that Buddy Guy, Dustin Hoffman, David Letterman, Natalia Makarova and Led Zeppelin were going to enjoy the day after. I thought it might be nice to share my thoughts on the concert that night, albeit belatedly:

Friday, November 30, 2012 – Kennedy Center Concert Hall – National Symphony Orchestra

Conductor:  Juraj Valcuha

I attended a wonderful concert performance of the National Symphony Orchestra with Jonathan Bliss on the solo piano. The regal Concert Hall at the Kennedy Center was the perfect setting for this concert with an unusually diverse program which span from the classicism of Mozart through the Romanticism of Szymanowski to the Impressionism of Debussy. In fact, while I thoroughly enjoyed the music, I felt that Mozart did not fit in this program – the jump from the early 20th century to the end of 18th century and back was, in my humble opinion, misguided. However, the virtuosity of the performers, and the rich tapestry each musical peace painted, were truly uplifting. The only other regret I had was seeing how almost uniform was the majority of the audience – Caucasians of a certain age. With that in mind, I can only be grateful for the generosity of the Kennedy Center which proactively attempts to introduce ever more diverse audiences to the joy of classical music.

Concert Program:

1.     Szymanowski – Concert Overture in E major, Op. 12

Instruments: flutes, piccolo, oboes, English horn, clarinets, bassoons, contrabassoon, horns, trumpets, trombones, tube, timpani, harp, strings, bass drum, cymbal, snare drum, and triangle.

The ecstatic opening of this romantic composition, first for this Polish / Ukrainian composer, and inspired by the life-affirming poem of a compatriot of his, meandered into a softer territory to be followed not long after by the passionate syncopation of the string section of the massive concert orchestra.  When the violins started slowing down, followed by the cellos and the brass section, one could hear the intertwining melodies of the main theme building up through cyclic repetition, interrupted by the snare drum, leading the way for the passionate polyphonic phrases to the dramatic ending.

2.     Mozart – Piano Concerto No. 13 in C major, K. 387b [415] – Solo piano: Jonathan Biss

i.         Allegro

ii.         Andante

iii.         Allegro

Instruments: oboes, basoons, horns, trumpets, timpani, strings, solo piano

This third of Mozart’s piano concertos opens with a festive theme presented by the violins – a theme which builds up with the addition of the brass section of the orchestra to be resolved by the beautiful, if speedy, entrance of the solo piano tremolo. It was fascinating to observe how the accomplished soloist Jonathan Biss gracefully managed to slow down his play to a pace that while showcasing his virtuosity, harmonized his passionate energy with that of the orchestra.

The slow second movement, the Andante, was mellow with very melodic violins followed by the cellos. The pianist was so gentle, just caressing the keys, yet so convincing in leading the melody that was later repeated by the strings and followed by a duet with the woodwinds and horns.

The Allegro finale was delightful and playful with the piano theme again reinforced by the orchestra. Midway, an unexpected change in rhythm and even key — switching to a 2/4 in C minor – eventually brought forth a newly energized orchestral theme repeated by the pianist and later incorporated into the interplay between the piano and the mesmerizing pizzicato of the strings, leading to the surprisingly quiet ending.

3.     Ravel – Suite from Ma Mere l’Oye (Mother Goose)

i.         Pavane of the Sleeping Beauty

ii.         Hop o’ My Thumb

iii.         Laideronette, Empress of the Pagodas

iv.         Conversations of Beauty and the Beast

v.         The Fairy Garden

Instruments: flutes, piccolo, oboes, English horn, clarinets, bassoons, contrabassoon, horns, timpani, harp, strings, celesta, bass drum, cymbal, glockenspiel, tam tam, triangle and xylophone.

This delightful set of five movements, each based on a favorite fairy tale, invited us to close our eyes and imagine the magical worlds of a child’s play:

The flute, other woodwinds, and the oboe solo with their dreamy, bird-like sounds leading us, like the lost Tom, through the forest of our imagination; the xylophone melody building up through the Oriental pentatonic scales of the Empress of the Pagodas; the waltzing Beauty conversing with the contrabassoon Beast; the fairy violins in the Fairy Garden culminating, through a slow crescendo, to the conclusion of Ravel’s musical adventure.

4.     Debussy – La Mer

i.         De l’aube à midi sur la mer (From dawn to noon on the sea)

ii.         Jeux de vagues (The play of the waves)

iii.         Dialogue du vent et de la mer (Dialogue of the wind and the sea)

Instruments: flutes, piccolo, oboes, English horn, clarinets, bassoons, contrabassoon, horns, trumpets, cornets, trombones, tuba, timpani, harp, strings, bass drum, cymbals, suspended cymbal, glockenspiel, tam tam, and triangle.

The waves of the quiet opening in Debussy’s La Mer, represented by the violins gradually rise to an energetic, twirling melody of oboe and woodwinds in 6/8; differing rhythms for the clashing of the waves into the shore with the dramatic ascend of woodwinds against the strings. Harps and French horns lead us to a very dramatic theme, culminating with drums and percussions.  Contrasting, changing themes of different instrumentation, with moods rising and subsiding like the waves, bring this fantastic second movement to a ringing triangles’ conclusion. The third movement — very dark with trumpets, horns, violins, and dramatic strings – subsides and swells, like the majestic sea, and at long last concludes in the clash of wind and waves.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.