Tag Archives: classical

Schubertiad at Wistariahurst

In the middle of Holyoke’s dingy, post-industrial tenements stands the Wistariahurst Museum. A gem hidden in the middle of the city, the museum is lavish and ornate. The music room is full of marble columns, arched ceilings, and tapestries—it’s an atmosphere that begs for culture and sophistication, and on Sunday, December 6th, the Chamber Music at Wistariahurst ensemble provided it.

The group performed their fifth annual Schubertiad on Sunday. The ensemble is comprised of eight performers—four pianists, a cello player, two sopranos, and a baritone—but also featured several guest performers. They performed 11 songs in total, and included both familiar and rare pieces by Schubert. Schubertiads, named after Franz Schubert, date back to when Schubert and his friends would come together to play his pieces.

The opening piece was “Schicksalslenker,” which featured a vocal quartet accompanied by piano. It gave great insight into what to expect from the group—the four voices blended perfectly. No one voice overpowered another, and each vocalist had a quality of seamlessness and fluidity.

The third piece, “Moment Musical,” was a piano solo played by Edward Rosser. His interpretation was visceral and romantic, and there was a level of deliberation in his playing style that seemed to keep the audience engaged and on the edge of their seats. It was a stark contrast from the “Sonata for Arpeggione and Piano in A-minor,” which was played by cellist Astrid Schween and pianist Estela Olevsky. Olevsky’s playing was more free-flowing, though the piece was full of understated tension that was gripping. The two players had a rapport that created a great dynamic. Moments of call and response and variations between staccato and legato playing made the song rife with emotion. Pianist Monica Jakuc Leverett, who opened the second half of the concert, also had her own style of playing—it was authoritative and bold, but also fluttery and reminiscent of snowfall.

My favorite selection of the program was “Auf dem See,” which translates to “On the Lake” in English. It was a duet between Rosser and baritone David Perkins. The song was inspired by Schubert’s frequent nature walks, and the two musicians made that abundantly clear in their rendition of the piece. The staccato, sprightly piano part was met with Perkins’s booming but controlled voice that together sounded like a rolling river over rocks.

The concert ended with a melodrama (a recitation of a poem over music), performed by Perkins and Olevsky. Though the piece, “Abschied von der Erde,” or “Farewell to the Earth”, was certainly relevant, it didn’t showcase the talents of the group like the other pieces did. It wasn’t as hearty or satisfying as the other pieces and left me wanting more.

It was apparent that each musician involved knew the songs they were working with—dynamics were uniform and expressed the different themes and moods of each piece precisely. They performed with a confidence that was professional and refined without being haughty—they made Schubert relatable and fun. This was also due in part to artistic director Perkins, who introduced and explained several of the songs through casual anecdotes and humor. Not only that, but the repertoire as a whole was a balance between serious selections and more fun ones. Making a classical music performance into something that is accessible and without pretension makes it something a person of any age or background could enjoy, and it was disappointing to see so few young people in attendance. The Chamber Music at Wistariahurst’s Schubertiad was evocative and entertaining, and was a great introduction to the winter months that would have made Schubert proud.

(disclaimer:  all of this is honest, I swear to god I’m not sucking up)


Classical vs Pop: The Constant Debate

Lady Gaga

Thinking of the debate between classical music and popular music always brings the same person to mind: Theodor Adorno. A musicologist and philosopher of the Frankfurt School, Adorno had a lot to say about which form of music was the serious one and which one wasn’t. To him, classical art was serious, and popular music (which roughly translates to any music you can dance to, including jazz) was not a real form of music. Popular music, according to Adorno, was all standardized and the same, and was mused merely as a way to distract less-intelligent, less-cultured listeners from their work. It’s a means of pacification and it lacks true talent.

Despite the leaps and bounds that music and music studies have made (jazz and/or popular music studies are now respected, scholarly fields), there is definitely still a stigma. Saying you’re a classically trained musician still gets peoples attention and makes them assume you’re more talented than the kid whose lessons entailed playing Beatles songs on his guitar. But the fact is, at least to me, that music is music. It has deep cultural connotations and brings together a community of music-makers and listeners, and as long as those relationships are being expressed, then who cares what the music sounds like?

There are definitely some distinct differences between classical and popular music, though. For one, classical performers simply have more at stake. The classical community has been marginalized and pushed out of the spotlight, and the people that are still playing classical music are not just providing a means to hear it, but are keeping the genre extant. On the other hand, popular musicians are working within a huge system of music and musicians, and their only challenge is to create something we haven’t heard before. I do think there is some truth in Adorno’s belief that pop music is standardized, though I don’t believe it to the extent he would want me to. There is a lot of music on the radio that sounds the same. The structure, the instruments, the voice, etc., are all the same. Popular music is a victim (or perhaps successor) of consumer-centric culture, and the songs that are mass-distributed are more like commodities than art. That’s not to say that all pop music is commodified, though, or that classical music isn’t.

In an over-generalized sense, I think that the classical versus pop debate exists, but it’s not real. We have been told to believe that classically trained means better, or that having to wear a suit to a concert instead of jeans somehow means that the music is more serious. If more classical artists were willing to include popular music themes, and more popular artists were willing to include some classical components, then people wouldn’t be so quick to affirm that there’s a rift. If you’ve ever heard Third Stream jazz, you’d know that this synthesis of genres can work beautifully, but it’s all in vain unless people believe in it. Passion is passion, and as long as that exists, then who cares what the music is called?


A Celebration of Leonard Bernstein

A Celebration of Leonard Bernstein ends with a performance of Gee Officer Krupke from West Side Story.

The celebration ended with "Gee Officer Krupke" from West Side Story.

Having been in choir for the past 15 years of my life, it would be an understatement to say that the songs of Leonard Bernstein have a special and nostalgic value to them. Growing up, my stepmom forced us to watch West Side Story more times than I can count, and seeing the way the music affected and entertained my family no matter what age or gender has made me realize just how approachable Bernstein’s works are. That being said, watching Michael Tilson Thomas’s “A Celebration of Leonard Bernstein” was  walk down memory lane. But more importantly, it shows the flexibility of Bernstein’s work and just how many different people his music has impacted and inspired, from cellist Yo-Yo Ma to famous soprano Christine Ebersole.

The performances took place on October 29th at Carnegie Hall, and featured famous Bernstein selections as played by the San Fransisco Symphony. The celebration opened with Symphonic Dances from West Side Story. Never in my life have I seen a symphony play with so much joy and vibrancy. Michael Tilson Thomas’s precise and passionate directing came together with the expertise of the players to create sounds that were composed and exact while being heartfelt and real enjoyment–there was this quality to the music that made it seem like the sounds themselves were dancing and smiling throughout the hall.

The vocal songs, too, were  very lively and done with great proficiency. Their performance of “I Can Cook Too” from On The Town featured Christine Ebersole and was fun and impossible not to tap your toes to. The Symphony showed its ability to play as a commanding front line or as a support for Ebersole, and Ebersole’s voice was full of personality and character–her growling alto range and powerful belts generated a sense of confidence and cheekiness that fit with the mood of the song excellently.

Another personal favorite of the show was  Yo-Yo Ma’s performance. I’m a huge fan of Yo-Yo Ma’s playing, and I was taken aback by his interpretation of “Meditation No. 1.” I loved the way his face and playing always seemed to match up perfectly–he is a perfect example of the way music can have a visceral effect on a musician or listener. There’s this palpable sense of intensity coming from his masterful playing in combination with the harsh yet meticulous accompaniment that the symphony played. In particular, I thought the way all the string parts contrasted and convened was remarkable and gripping.

My favorite part of the production in general was the overall versatility of the show. As I mentioned before, Bernstein’s works touch a lot of different people, and this is perhaps because of his wide range of compositions. Well I appreciated the video excerpts of Michael Tilson Thomas speaking with various soloists and musicians about their musical history and relationship with Bernstein, I did think they were a little contrived. The conversations felt forced and staged, and I would have rather experienced the musician’s answers through their playing rather through an insincere speech.