Musical Adventures 1: Now’s the time to explore new musical territories

A Grammy nominee and a new disc from the Takacs Quartet

By Peter Alexander Jan. 19 at 11:15 p.m.

I am someone who enjoys adventures, in music as in other ways.

I’m not as interested in new Beethoven recordings, although I got notices about plenty of them last year. (In case you were completely isolated last year: 2020 was the 250th anniversary of his birth.) But give me a recording with composers I have never heard before, and I will go straight to the CD player.

Since we are likely to be isolated for a while longer, now is a good time for you to have your own musical adventures. Committed performances of music we don’t know, even music we don’t like, helps clean out the ears and open the mind to new experiences. If you don’t like it, don’t listen again; but at least you know what’s out there.

In that spirit, this is the first of several articles I plan to write about recordings that offer musical adventures, small steps into new territory. And if one of these is not new territory for you, congratulations. I will have other suggestions.

There is no better place to start than a stunning recent recording by violist Richard O’Neill, the newest member of the Takács quartet. His performance of the Concerto for viola and chamber orchestra by Christopher Theofanidis with the Albany Symphony Orchestra and conductor David Alan Miller (Albany Records TROY1816, released August 2020) has been nominated for a classical music Grammy. Since the Grammy awards have been postponed until March 14, you can hear the recording before the winners are announced.

Theofanidis teaches composition at Yale and is co-director of the composition program at the Aspen Music Festival. His orchestral work Rainbow Body has been performed by more than 150 orchestras worldwide. He is a composer of remarkably wide imagination and creativity, as his Viola Concerto shows.

The concerto was written for the violist Kim Kashkashian in 2002 and revised for O’Neill in preparation of his performances and recording. Partly inspired by Navajo texts, it is by design a work of great emotional intensity. “It is written as a response to [Kashkashian’s] incredible intensity and focus as a performing artist,” Theofanidis wrote.

O’Neill provides all the intensity Theofanidis calls for. As soloist he creates a wide palette of sounds that match the kaleidoscopic moods and sounds of the score. The are passages of dark, brooding gloom and fleet passages of sheer virtuosity, with O’Neill flying through these changes without a hitch or a stumble.

Each movement has its own individual rewards. The first is dominated by pulsing sounds in the orchestra, an extension of drum patterns that open the movement, interrupted by fleet passages for the soloist. The second enters a totally different sound world, with a static orchestral haze overlaid with barely-musical fragments for the soloist that gradually coalesce to reach a moment of passionate intensity.

The emotional high point is the third movement, written in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks and using a Sikh melody that was sung at a memorial held at Yankee Stadium. Here O’Neill’s expressive playing creates a deep sense of mourning. This is eloquent music of loss, a barren emotional landscape that accepts the light of consolation only at the end. After this catharsis, the scurrying finale closes the concerto with an explosion of energy.

So varied are the movements and their internal sections that it is easy to see why this recording stood out to the Grammy committee. O’Neill’s interpretation and integration of the disparate elements seems flawless as he flies confidently through this emotionally virtuosic work. “No matter what happens with this nomination,” O’Neill says, “ I think this piece deserves to be in the repertoire.”

The Viola Concerto is paired on Albany’s disc with Theofanidis’s Violin Concerto, played by Miller and the Albany Symphony with violinist Chee-Yun. Another dramatic and varied work, it is dominated by a movement based on a theme the composer wrote for his new-born daughter. That moment of lyrical blossoming is framed by a dramatic movement where the soloist seems pitted in a struggle with forces of nature, and another whirlwind finale.

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Takacs

The full Takacs Quartet, recorded before O’Neill replaced Geraldine Walther in the viola chair, offers a comfortable adventure with their recording of the piano quintets of Amy Beach and Edward Elgar. Released in June, the recording was made with pianist Garrick Ohlsson (Hyperion CDA68295).

The first American woman to achieve success as a composer, Beach was a teenaged piano prodigy in the 1880s but had to give up her public career when she married. She published first under the name Mrs. H.H.A. Beach until her husband’s death in 1910, and then as Amy Beach. Her Quintet in F-sharp minor for piano and strings of 1905 was widely performed in her lifteime, often with the composer playing the piano part.

The Quintet was heavily influenced by Brahms’s popular Quintet in F minor, which she had played. An echo of Brahms is heard in the first movement, but Beach announcers her own imagination at the very opening, sustained notes that overlay dramatic flourishes in the piano. Here the atmospheric performance by Ohlsson and the Takacs pulls the listener in from the first notes. They follow Beach’s expressive turns, through sudden changes of mood from warmth to spookiness and a gentle sigh at the ending.

The sigh is followed by a realm of sweetness and gentle repose through a second movement marked by long, lyrical lines that build to a strong climax, subsiding to a quiet close. The finale seems less integrated, as passage follows passage. This is no fault of the performers, who follow Beach in her rambling walk. Every section is well crafted, creating just the sound that the composer wants, but it fails to hang together as an organic whole. It is none the less pleasant for that, especially as played by Ohlsson and the Takacs.

Elgar is closer to the beaten path than Beach, although the Quintet is less familiar than his “Pomp and Circumstance” or “Enigma” Variations. Like his other works, the Quintet is marked by a cheerful mixture of drama and playfulness that seems thoroughly Victorian in style. It is a musically challenging work that lacks conspicuous flamboyance; even the most energetic passages remain genial in mood.

The first movement is a moderate allegro that anecdotally may be based on supernatural tales about a wooded copse near Elgar’s home. The exact source of inspiration remains mysterious, and any sense of menace the woods may have suggested is lessened by sudden bursts of song. 

The second movement begins in a state of serenity, in Elgar’s best warm if slightly fuzzy Romantic manner. One is easily carried along by the flow of the Takacs Quartet’s performance, which conveys a feeling of enveloping comfort, with no danger in sight.

One idea succeeds another succeeds another in the long, fantasy-like Finale. In the hands of Ohlsson and the Takacs Quartet, the changing tempos seem organic across a wide and shifting range. Each idea and section emerges seamlessly from the material before, even as Elgar extends and extends his material toward a final firm ending. The performance is well balanced among the instruments, with the performers achieving a notable clarity of texture in spite of Elgar’s luxuriant harmonic language.

Both performances are exemplary. There is no better place to begin your musical adventures than with these congenial and thoroughly enjoyable works. And if these works are not new to you, stand by for further suggestions.

2 thoughts on “Musical Adventures 1: Now’s the time to explore new musical territories

    • Hi, Evanne! As a former member of a Marine Field Band, I was‚and wishing they got more time in the broadcast! Of course, I have played most of the pieces that were featured, and had fun seeing the players. Such a familiar situation, playing for a ceremony.

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