The journal of a Kentucky culture vulture
It’s a question any arts group should ask itself, even a volunteer ensemble. Why devote a couple hours a week to rehearsal, and more as performances approach, learning material even professionals find challenging? Another stand in the spotlight? To make a statement? To hone a craft that you love?
Saturday night, the Lexington Chamber Chorale gave a pretty emphatic answer: It is a group of serious singers who want to develop their craft by challenging themselves with new, interesting material.
Fascinating would also be an apt description of the fare in “Music from the Land of the Midnight Sun,” the choir’s decidedly wintry concert of Scandinavian music. It was a program inspired by Chamber Chorale director Gary Anderson’s work with Swedish choral conductor Gary Graden. Graden was actually supposed to conduct Saturday night’s concert, except he fell ill and had to stay back home. Anderson seamlessly stood in for him.
Guest percussionist Anders Åstrand was able to make the journey and joined with Jim Campbell, head of the University of Kentucky’s award winning percussion program, to add another dimension to the evening.
It began with the chorale processing into the sanctuary of Central Baptist Church where it surrounded the audience to sing the improvisation “Veni Sancte Spiritus/Adoro te devote,” a piece in which different parts took on the task of singing a chant while others improvised. It was an opening where you may have gotten a decidedly different performance from others in the hall, depending on where you sat.
Improvisational choral singing is one of Graden’s specialties, and we heard it again on full display in American minimalist composer Terry Riley’s “Olson III,” a piece that in this performance sounded similar to choral work by György Ligeti, albeit a bit more free and underscored by Åstrand’s jazzy marimba and the high tones of Campbell’s accompaniment.
Per a request at the beginning of the concert, the approximately 55-minute performance was presented without applause or break. There was a program with a schedule of pieces, though it was easy to lose your place getting wrapped up in the often intricate, sometimes unusual sounds of the chorus taking on this unfamiliar repertoire.
It was mesmerizing and, considering the music’s northern origin, appropriate to an evening where the audience exited into a snowy landscape and bitter cold temperatures. A few utterances of “Gloria” and “peace” even lent the night a Yuletide vibe.
No, a night of music from a far off, vaguely familiar land, utilizing unusual techniques may not be the board room recipe for building an audience. But Central Christian was packed Saturday night demonstrating that if you do something you love and do it very well, often an audience will find you.
Max Bruch is not exactly one of the Three Bs of classical music: Bach, Beethoven and Brahms.
“I don’t even know if he’d make a second tier of Three Bs,” says Daniel Mason, concertmaster of the Lexington Philharmonic Orchestra.
But Bruch (1838-1920) did write an iconic work: his unique “Violin Concerto No. 1 in G minor.” This month, Lexington has a chance to hear two live performances of this work.
On Friday night, rising violin star Arnaud Sussmann will perform the piece, which was written in 1866, with conductor Scott Terrell and the Lexington Philharmonic. Eight days later, on Feb. 20, international recording star Sarah Chang will play the concerto with conductor John Nardolillo and the University of Kentucky Symphony Orchestra. Chang released a recording of the concerto, along with Johannes Brahms’ Violin Concerto, last year.
To get a little perspective on the piece, I caught up with Mason and his concertmaster counterpart in the UK Symphony, Jessica Miskelly, to talk about the masterwork.
Question: I was looking up the Bruch concerto in iTunes, and there were recordings from Jascha Heifetz to Joshua Bell and everyone in between. Why is it so popular?
Mason: It’s very user-friendly. It’s the kind of piece you can learn for the first time as an advanced student, so for many violinists, it’s one of their early big pieces. That means it’s one of the pieces that tends to be most comfortable for life.
If you set a recipe for a violin concerto, the things that you would want as a violinist are all there in the Bruch concerto. For example, at the beginning of the piece, you don’t have to wait very long to play. When you do play, you play a beautiful, sonorous G-minor melody. It makes it very inviting to play because the sound on the open G-string on the violin is one of the better features of the instrument. So, at the beginning of the piece, it makes you as a player say, “Oh! Nice sound.” …
So you do that thing a little bit, and it lets you warm up and settle down, and then, bit by bit, are layered more demanding things which are written to show off the skill of the player, but not written in a way to be more difficult than they sound. …
It’s interesting that a composer such as Bruch, who is not one of the Three Bs, was able to pack so many good musical ideas into this one piece. If he had spread them out over several pieces, he would be a good composer of that rank. But because he was able to concentrate all those good ideas in one piece, that piece really makes the reputation of the composer. … You wonder, was this person always working below that level, or was he just working way above his level? How did that happen, that one real stroke of genius?
Miskelly: I can still remember the first time that I ever heard the piece. We were driving along in my parents’ car, and it came on halfway through the first movement, and then it went into that gorgeous second movement, and it gripped me. I probably had my mouth open the whole time. And I think it is for that second movement that violinists and audiences keep coming back to it over and over again. The melodic line, I can’t get over. He just wrote a really inspirational piece that I think speaks to many people.
Q: Both of you have played it as soloists. What is it like to play?
Mason: Everybody has recorded it. So the challenge is to play how you as an artist want to present it. Read the rest of this entry »
About Rich Copley & Copious Notes
Raised by opera-loving parents in a rock ’n’ roll world, Rich Copley has parlayed his broad interests into his career writing about arts and entertainment. Since 1998, he has covered performing arts, film and faith-based popular culture for the Lexington Herald-Leader, the daily newspaper in Lexington, Ky. MORE | E-mail Rich