Thursday, May 7, 2009

O'Riley, Ravel, and Radiohead (that's right- you didn't read it wrong)

It's not too often you can come to a concert and hear a musical potpourri of pieces, all in one sitting. The April 25 Baltimore Symphony Orchestra concert I recently attended at The Strathmore included pieces such as Ravel's well known but not often performed Piano Concerto for the Left Hand, to Ballet Music from Mozart's opera, Idomeneo, to piano arrangements of the band, Radiohead, and lastly, excerpts from Prokofiev's Romeo and Juliet. I originally thought that this is just way too much to cram in to one concert, but I was blown away.

Chistopher O'Riley, the guest artist, made the night. His immaculate performance of the Ravel was as fascinating to watch as to hear. After having grown up listening to O'Riley as host of the popular radio show, From the Top, it was thrilling to see him live, right here at the Strathmore Music Center. I always thought it was so cool that he would play the piano part for the young solo artist performing- I used to imagine how great that would be to have a chance to play with O'Riley, and he seemed to be able to converse with the young people with easiness. That same calm, collected, easiness was present during this performance.

James Gaffigan, the guest conductor, flown in all the way from San Francisco, teamed up with the BSO and ORiley for the weekend’s performances. He brought a fresh approach to conducting, and, although no other conductor works as well as Alsop (yes, I’m biased), Gaffigan's large and expressive motions seemed to pull every last drip of passionate playing from the musicians.

The Classical Period Selection of the Night:
Mozart’s Idomeneo, re di Creta, K.366 (1781), his first attempt at opera seria (serious opera), was composed when he was only eighteen years of age. The story of Idomeneo, Kingof Crete, was thought to be chosen by Elector Karl Theodor of Bavaria, who commissioned Mozart to compose the work. The Ballet Music from the opera, traditionally inserted at the end of the performance, is rarely performed with the rest of the opera today. This shortage is more than adequately filled in the orchestral field, where the ballet music is on repertoire lists the world over. As the opener, the BSO, always a pro group with Amadeus, performed the short pieces with a fierce daintiness. Mozart exists for strings, in my opinion, and the string section, led that night by Madeline Adkins, performed with a pure, unified sound. I could almost see the dancers on stage during the opera.

Romantic/Contemporary Period Work of the Concert:
After much striking and set-up of the stage, (Mozart performances require a much smaller orchestra- some of the instruments in today's symphony orchestra were not yet invented during the eighteenth century and it was not until the works of Berlioz and Beethoven that the orchestra grew in number and variety of instruments), the Ravel Piano Concerto for the Left Hand (1929-1930) was performed with O'Riley on the piano. I had forgotten the extensive jazz influences in this work. The offbeat, syncopated rhythms and clarinet/saxophone slides (yes, there’s a tenor saxophone part) significantly move the piece up to the twentieth century. The work does demonstrate many Romantic Period traits as well, especially in the traditional concerto structure, disguised within one lengthy movement.

It is truly a shame that this work is not more developed into the musical canon. It appears that one would have to spend as much time and effort developing the skill of keeping the right hand limp and resting in the lap as pushing the limits of the left hand, the unfortunate appendage that rarely gets a chance to play the melodic line. The work was composed for Ravel's good friend, Paul Wittgenstein (1887-1961), who lost his right arm during WWI. Apparently, Wittgenstein could not stand the work at first, but it quickly grew on him as he came to perform it many times over the course of his career.

Rock Music Work of the Concert:
Radiohead arrangements for the piano, composed by O'Riley himself. He took the time during the changeover of the stage to talk about how he developed a liking for Radiohead's music (beginning with their CD, OK Computer). He began playing the arrangements on From the Top, and their popularity took flight after that. There were some really advanced technical moments that the audience Oood' and Ah'd to, and he performed more works as an encore. I have to admit I really like Radiohead's music, but I don't know it that well. When O'Riley played an arrangement of the song, Paranoid Android, I (and the rest of the audience) clapped prematurely, before the song was actually over. My date, a devotee of Radiohead (and not a devotee of classical music), did not clap, and gave me that eyebrow lifted, judging look that I usually give him when he claps too early! The roles were certainly reversed for a hot second, and it was oddly refreshing to be out of my element.

Contemporary American Work of the Concert (out of the Canon):
Leonard Bernstein's "Three Dance Episodes" from On The Town, was another jazz-influenced work, but more mainstream since the pieces were from the 1944 musical. I always enjoy Bernstein, and this was certainly an audience favorite. People couldn't stop "air toe-tapping" in their seats and mouthing the words during the BSO's performance. This was the only piece on the program that I felt had weak moments; there were occasionally transition points where it felt like the ensemble was not completely together, and althought I loved seeing the sax onstage, he could have projected more over the orchestra as it was hard to hear his solos.

Contemporary Period Work of the Concert (in the Canon):
Prokoffiev's Romeo and Juliet, Op.64 (1935, with revisions), was a fantastic way to end the concert. I did not read through the program close enough to see which Romeo it was, falsely assuming it was Tchaikovsky's version, written many years prior. I am now decidedly a fan of the Prokofiev, moreso than Tchaik's. The Prokofiev has more tension and drama- it is so much more powerful, especially in the first movement, Montagues and Capulets.

After a whirlwind tour of classical music, the college night festivities began. O'Riley and Gaffigan (and their lovely dates) came to the party to meet everyone and of course participate in some fun photo-ops! The only downside for me at these events is the food is always gone by the time I get to the table! Please bring more food, BSO staff, and don't forget about vegetarian options!!

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