Sunday, September 18, 2005

It's a Pause between Movements, Not a Lunch Break

We went to the opening gala of the Peoria Symphony season last night, and I was super-psyched because it was all Russians and I LOVE the Russians. Plus, they featured one of my favorite pieces in the entire symphony literature, Pictures at an Exhibition.

Now, Piano Concerto No. 1 by Tchaikovsky and performed by Antonio Pompa-Baldi was really excellent. Standing O and all. Awesome. And the Autumnal Sketch by Prokofiev was delightfully light and airy and expressive. The Caucasion Sketches were okay, but somewhat marred by the low brass repeatedly flubbing notes. (Let's be honest - if my high school orchestra had bungled an entrance as badly as the PSO's brass did, my conductor would have stopped the concert and made us start the piece over because we sucked so bad. Maybe David Commanday needs to apply some similarly tough love to the low brass section here.)

Pictures at an Exhibition was frankly painful.

First of all, if the low brass can't hit the notes EARLY in the concert, they clearly can't hit them LATE in the concert. The poor baritone horn player - and I hesitate to write this because he was visibly flinching and freaked at his flubs, and we were five rows from the back of the hall - just destroyed the "Bydlo" movement. Even my husband, who's not very classically-aware, said, "What's up with that guy on the end with the horn? Can he just not play or what?" (Typically Mr. McGee can't pick out individual instruments or sections, let along individual players.) The low brass was sloppy all through. Don't put the hardest piece for the brass, where they are the most-exposed, last.

Secondly, and this is one of my least-favorite David Commanday idiosyncracies: It's a pause between movements, dude. It's not a lunch break. Particularly in a piece like Pictures where the movements flow naturally one to the next - it's just WEIRD to stop, put your arms down, have all the musicians relax for 60 seconds, and then start again. It creates a VERY disjointed listening experience. (To its credit, though, the PSO doesn't get a pole up its butt about people applauding between movements, which they often do because Commanday stops the entire concert for at least a minute between movements and people think it's time to clap.)

Thirdly, Pictures is vividly composed and strikingly orchestrated to take advantage of the expressive qualities of both music itself and of the various instruments. Ravel's orchestration really takes that expression to the outside limits of the capabilities of the orchestral instruments, using them in novel ways that create the perfect marriage of music and tonal quality. So while Commanday's overdramatic interpretation of Pictures worked in some movements - notably Gnomus - it just made most of the piece feel cartoonish. (Also, when you can tell from the back of the hall by the postures of certain musicians that they're fed up with the conductor's prancing and overdramatizing, it is perhaps time for the conductor to tone it down.)

It was a terribly weak ending to a very uneven concert, and I'm frankly irate at Commanday's melodramatic butchering of one of my favorite pieces on the planet.

I still enjoyed it, because, hey, live symphonic music is live symphonic music, and the piano concerto was excellent. But I sincerely hope the low brass has cleaned up its act by October and that Commanday tones down his.

1 comment:

Phoibos said...

Damn. _Pictures_ is one of my favorite works. It's sad to hear of it being mistreated that way. :-(