Saturday, February 25, 2012

About town: Billings Symphony, Elgar, Butterworth, Beethoven

It is exceedingly hard to ruin George Butterworth's "The Banks of Green Willow," a paragon of that lovely turn-of the century British sound -- an idyll if there ever was one. Makes one want to drink tea with milk and nibble scones while watching Downton Abbey episodes.

Hard to ruin, but not impossible, and the Billings Symphony Orchestra's conductor, Anne Harrigan, gave it a shot. The ensemble's playing was passable, but seemed under-rehearsed -- we know they can play better than that. As happens too often, the conducting was exaggerated, which only served to highlight the lackluster sound of the orchestra, and the distraction from the podium threatened to deprive the audience of the soothing Butterworth experience (this was his one symphonic triumph -- don't ruin it for the poor guy!) When Harrigan is at her most controlling -- her micromanaging "best," entrances become tentative and the flow breaks down. It helps to close one's eyes. At times like this, one sometimes thinks that the orchestra would do better if it were simply given a downbeat by the concertmaster and just allowed to play. This muddle in the opening piece has often been a characteristic of the BSO's playing under Harrigan, where the orchestra often starts with something light and short, but which is then not played with the precision and sensitivity that even an "easy" piece deserves.

When it comes to the musicality of a performer, one can often learn as much by how he performs a simple work as by how he dashes out the scintillating virtuoso showcase piece. One's mind goes back to the performance with the BSO of Valentina Lititsa several years ago. She had filled the Alberta Bair with the lush sounds of Rachmaninov's 2nd, and encored with some fiendishly difficult Liszt piece or another. She graciously came back for a second encore and with a smile strolled out the opening 9 simple notes of Beethoven's "Für Elise," upon which there was an audible giggling from some quarters of the hall. It had to be a joke, you know -- a children's piece -- (I certainly hadn't played it since childhood, but thankfully was entranced enough by Lititsa's playing that chuckling never occurred to me.)

Paying the disturbance no mind, she simply and thoughtfully took the audience through the piece, neither trying to play it up by using a breakneck tempo (the fashion of concert pianists playing everything as fast as their God-given fingers can possibly go has never appealed to me -- what is bracing in NASCAR loses its thrill on the concert stage, where one would sometimes actually like to hear the individual notes of a run or the delicious harmonies of a chord long enough for them to register with the brain,) nor playing it with expression. It was rich in its directness, the rubato was subtle and just right, and the lesson learned by all was unmistakable: "Für Elise" is a gem. That is it beautiful is apparent when one's young niece is playing it at a recital -- that it is a work of a certain kind of brilliance can only be brought out by a master of the craft like Lititsa, who, it should be added, like a number of previous soloists with the BSO, has gone on to bigger and better things. We have, with pride, since seen her appear on season schedules with the Seattle and San Francisco Symphonies, and understand that she has made some prestigious appearances at points east as well. It's rather like the kind of satisfaction one gets when seeing a favorite minor league baseball player from the stands one summer, then seeing him on television the next year after he has made "The Show."

But back to the present, and to music. Another Beethoven was on offer tonight -- his triple concerto for Violin, Cello, and Piano. It was an interesting choice of work, since our own concertmaster Randy Tracy was featured on violin and our principal cellist, David Heinzen, played second base (the baseball analogies will be dropped now, promise.) The guest artist was Gustavo Romero on piano, and what made it all a bit odd is that the piano part is by far the easiest part of this triple concerto, mainly because it was written for a skilled amateur who was going to be flanked by a couple of pros. Tracy and Heinzen are fine players, and it was great to hear their talents highlighted, but they are not experienced soloists, and we might more have enjoyed hearing them take on something else.

String players are already at a disadvantage when it comes to intonation when sharing the stage with a piano (unless the piano tuner was particularly incompetent,) and putting our semi-pro guys on the hard parts while giving the visiting pro the easy parts only made the contrast sharper. How this concert was conceived is a bit of a mystery -- one possible clue was in the program notes, where we learn that Romero's specialty is to do the complete works of one composer or another. One wonders whether the conversation went a little like this:

"Mr. Romero, we'd like to have you come to Billings as a guest artist with our symphony."

"Billings, where's that?"


"That in America?"

"Yes, straight north of your home in Dallas -- just follow the Bozeman trail north and take a right half-way through Wyoming."

"OK, but here's the deal -- I, well, have this thing about being able to say I've performed the complete works of composers, and I still need to check off Beethoven's triple concerto. No-one else seems to want to do it -- cost of hiring three soloists and all that. Help me out and we've got a deal."

"Um, OK... you free February 25th?"

Just a thought I had while listening to the performance. One supposes that these days everyone has to have an angle, but things can get a bit strained when applying any sort of doctrine. I own a copy of Alfred Brendel's complete piano works of Beethoven, but how many times, really, is one going to listen through the whole thing?

One final note on Romero, who acquitted himself very well, playing with complete technical mastery and yet with the chamber music restraint that the piece required. This was the first time that I can recall a visiting soloist with the BSO not being brought back for an encore prior to the intermission. An understandable exception was this season's opening concert, when Harrigan wisely chose to have Inon Barnatan's performance of Brahm's massive 2nd Piano Concerto take up the entire final half of the program rather than to occupy the spot before the break. The performance was so satisfying that an encore would have been anti-climactic, almost sacrilegious. But on this evening, I have to confess to feeling as though we got short shrift. You get a pianist of modest national prominence to town, you'd like to get a little more for your money. Since Romero is doing Beethoven right now, would it really have killed him to come back out on stage to give us something simple like, well, I don't know... "Für Elise?"

Speaking of angles, what was with the title of this program, and why do programs need these titles anyway? "Musical Landscapes," Harrigan had entitled it. In one sense, every piece of music has or is a musical landscape, one supposes, but when the opening piece is "Banks of Green Willow," the brain looks for something a little more concrete to complete the thought, only to be frustrated. Beethoven's triple concerto is a fine enough piece, but it distinctly lacks anything "landscapey" -- even by Beethoven standards. And the title becomes even more odd when the final piece on the program is Edgar Elgar's "Enigma Variations," which are musical portraits, not musical landscapes. Just saying.

Lest the reader think otherwise when reading my above comments, the Butterworth and the Beethoven were both quite enjoyable. I had never heard the Butterworth performed live before, and I don't remember having heard the triple concerto at all before, even in a recording or broadcast. Hearing a piece for the first time is always an adventure, and hearing it performed live is an adventure all its own, even when the performances are not perfect. And while on the subject of first hearings, this was the first time "Green Willow" has been performed by the BSO, while the Beethoven had been done by the BSO in the mid-90's with the Guild Trio providing the solo work. The Elgar also was having its BSO debut tonight, which is surprising given its prominent place in the repertoire.

With the Enigma Variations, the joy of a first live listening was there in spades. I own a couple of recordings of the Variations, and listened to a marvelous live performance by the BBC Philharmonic on-line at the BBC Proms this past summer. It is a piece I thought I knew well, by a composer of whom I am particularly fond. And yet, in this performance by the BSO, it was a most fresh hearing of the piece. I noticed the theme in places I hadn't heard it before, the color and texture of the piece was just different, and it was more spatial somehow, which is often true with live performances, but not always.

It was clear that this was where Harrigan and the BSO had put their efforts in rehearsal. It was crisp and clean, Harrigan's conducting was less controlling and the entrances thus more natural and musical. In short, it was all I had hoped for and more when a snowstorm drove me back early to Billings from what was to be a weekend alone reading books and writing in front of the fire at the rural ancestral homestead. I took the impending storm as providential, since I was regretting missing this performance of the Elgar Variations. Part way through the first half of the concert, faith in Providence began to lag a bit, but by the end it was again a man of faith walking out the exit during the final, enthusiastic, and well-deserved ovation. Until, that is, passing through the lobby, he heard the odd sound of Harrigan reprising the final variation as an encore -- a musical practice (to my taste) analogous to being given a second helping of a dessert that had left one feeling just right at the end of a nice meal. The ending had been perfect. Sigh.

But to close the circle on this essay, some things really are difficult to ruin, and while a wave did crash against this fine performance of Elgar, at the end it stood firm in the mind as an evening to remember.

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