Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Ravinia Rant from Ralph Boyd

Last night the Knights played a varied concert in the Martin Theater at Ravinia. They are a pick up orchestra from the New York area. That the are young and freelance shows in their music making.

The first half was mostly 20th century except for a brief unnecessary piece of filler. The group does not usually use a conductor but did for the first piece on the concert which was the chamber version of Ives' Three Places in New England. The first section which is the most difficult to put together musically was an under rehearsed mess. The second piece fared better with its typical Ivesian mix of popular tune juxtapositions. It was noisy, fast and forgiving The third, The Housatonic at Stockbridge, is a lyrical meditation that does not fare well in the chamber version. What you miss most is the larger string section shimmer that balances the solo instrument lines.

The second piece was a transcription of Dowland songs for string orchestra. It was ordinary at best. I thought they might be sight reading since it was not the piece listed in the program. The playing was wooden and out of tune.

Closing the first half was Stravinsky's Dumbarton Oaks Concerto. I was given the impression that this is one of their signature pieces. Their interpretation lacked the incisive rhythmic drive I associate with neo-classical Stravinsky. Part of the problem was the lack of conductor. The individual musicians phrased as they saw fit without concern for the structure of the piece. It was a piano lounge interpretation.

I think the great music of the 20th century has become so much part of the canon and so familiar to younger players that it does not inspire them anymore. I have heard Bartok and Stravinsky played with the sleepy half attention usually given to yet another performance of Beethoven's 5th. Something familiar enough to players and audiences that there seems to have entered into a tacet agreement not to offend and not to care respectively.

 The second half consisted of two 21st century pieces. The first, a suite from Run Rabbit Run was an arrangement of a larger piece by its composer Sufjan Stevens, an indie rock songwriter multi instrumentalist art band dude, who works mostly on computer. The arrangement for string orchestra was an expanded version of an arrangement done for string quartet. The piece was entertaining with lots of special string noises but the unrelieved four bar phrases would have gagged a garage band .

Dawn Upshaw was the soloist in the last piece, a song cycle by Maria Schneider called Winter Morning Walks. The orchestration was for string orchestra and a jazz combo consisting of piano, bass and clarinet/saxophone. The piece was conventionally pretty in a Hallmark Channel music way. One of the nine songs sounded, and I am being generous, like a tune cut from a lesser Sondheim musical. That is about as good as it got. The jazz element consisted in some piano flourishes. Ms. Upshaw was not in the best voice but the gal sure knows how to sell a song. I remember hearing her sing the Britten " Les Illuminations"; blazing through the somnambulant strings of the CSO with intelligence and style.

There were no encores.

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