Tuesday, April 23, 2019
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Meeting death, reaffirming life: yin and yang of classical music on a weekend

Classical music is art and should be uncompromising in the realization of its vision. Classical music seeks its place in contemporary life and should reach a new audience by being as engaging and captivating as possible. These are two perfectly valid philosophies, but seeing everyone perform consecutively in Washington this weekend felt like a change from one planet to another.

One extreme was the cold, uncompromising brilliance of "On the Threshold of Winter," Michael Hersch's opera song cycle 2012, which triggered the brand-new Corcoran New Music Festival at Corcoran on Saturday night. Hersch is an accomplished and intense composer whose music is almost fanatically aligned with his own goals. In the poems that Marin Sorescu, the Romanian writer, wrote in 1996 during the last five weeks of his life, he found a kindred sensibility: a sombre, honest look when approaching death.

The confrontation with death is at the same time the most and least dramatic story the human mind can imagine. When you sat down in the darkening atrium of the Corcoran, which was dimly lit by the music stands of an eight-piece instrumental ensemble under Tito Muñoz, did you know that you were going to kill someone, so you might have said that there is no tension in the more than two hours of performance. Still, it was intriguing to follow Sorescu's words – his horror, his gallows humor, his pain, and his renunciation – all leading to the burning screams and cramps and dark drums of Hersch's music.

The play is a tour de force for soprano Ah Young Hong, who has directed this version of a work she has performed since her world premiere at the Brooklyn Academy of Music four years ago. She cries, she howls and sings again and again in a stratospheric area that makes text (fortunately projected as part of the accompanying video) incomprehensible; This is music that regards words as considering their grace.

The work is called opera and is certainly conventionally operative in the treatment of the fear and passion that goes with death – to the breaking off of a stroke of luck that forces the singer to shout the word and then collapse the floor. The piece contains a lot of humanity, but this setting eliminates the weird humor that shimmers through Sorescu's text: the music focuses on the sombre, unalloyed horror and acceptance that are repeatedly drummed into you with hard gossip sounds from the wind-heavy ensemble and into you Moments of beauty: a sustained clarinet phrase or the kicks of hymn-like chords in the piano, aided by the somber, dark beat of a drum.

At the other end of the artistic spectrum was a program that deliberately proved to be a cornucopia of pleasures and was successful. The National Symphony Orchestra kicked off 2015 with the Declassified series of Friday Night Concerts, hoping to attract new audiences with pop stars and shorter programs. The concerts were initially quite mixed, but Ben Folds, the singer-songwriter who became artistic advisor in 2017, has clearly worked with the orchestra to develop the concept. The concert on Friday evening with Regina Spektor, the pianist, singer and songwriter who admiringly balanced orchestral and pop music without using violence, showed that the efforts of all those involved paid off.

One reason why the program was so successful is that the Russian-born Spektor, who was trained as a concert pianist, loves orchestra music so much; She looked nervous and starry, and looked on stage with the NSO, and her love was contagious. She chose one of the pieces from the program, Dance of the Knights from Prokofiev's "Romeo and Juliet," and told the audience, "This piece shows me how amazing the orchestra can rock your soul," and the orchestra continued to demonstrate what she meant when James Gaffigan, the conductor, plunged players into the huge, menacing, aching chords at the beginning of the selection.

Another reason for the success was that the NSO not only offered music that had a lot to offer the audience, but also played a selection from its current program – including the first movement of Shostakovich's 2nd Piano Concerto. The soloist Simon Trpceski showed much more humor than he had the previous night. But the audience also got plenty of specs: they sang seven songs, including "Dear Theodosia" by "Hamilton" in a duet with folds that crossed several genre boundaries: two pop stars sang a song from a hip-hop musical with a symphony orchestra.

These two evenings were obviously designed for different audiences and goals. Whatever your taste, it confirms that two strong gigs are so different and outstanding cases for yourself, your goals and even the whole field.

The Corcoran New Music Festival continues with performances by the percussion-piano quartet Yarn / Wire and student musicians as well as a new work "The Winter Journey" on Tuesday and Saturday evenings.


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