Articles & Reviews

PostClassical Ensemble transcends Shostakovich’s modest intentions

Washington Post
Stephen Brookes
November 5, 2012

There was a sizable Russian contingent in both the audience and the orchestra at the National Gallery of Art on Sunday night; not surprising, perhaps, given that it was the closing concert of the PostClassical Ensemble’s three-week festival devoted to Dmitri Shostakovich, the brilliant and controversial composer who was either a closet opponent or a passive supporter of the oppressive Soviet regime under which he worked.

And it was, in every respect, a fascinating and compelling evening. The PostClassical Ensemble is famous for its innovative performances — which mix different media with unusual repertoire — and Sunday night’s concert took a fresh look at contrasting sides of Shostakovich’s character, featuring rarely heard transcriptions for string chamber orchestra of two of the composer’s most personal string quartets.

The concert opened with the Chamber Symphony for Strings in C Minor, Op. 110a, the transcription by Rudolf Barshai of Shostakovich’s autobiographical eighth quartet. Beefing up a quartet to an ensemble five times as large is risky; delicate details get lost, and edge and agility are often sacrificed for power. But under the nuanced and utterly fluid direction of Angel Gil-Ordonez, the work lost none of its roiling, acrid bite nor its unearthly luminosity. The wild-eyed allegretto was as menacing as ever, the three largo movements even more sweeping and ethereal than in the quartet version, and concertmaster Oleg Rylatko brought off the lead violin lines with genuine ferocity and power. The quartet may be a whirlwind, but in these hands, the chamber version became a tornado.

A typically PostClassical touch followed, as a recording of Shostakovich himself playing his Prelude in C Major drifted, ghost-like, from speakers high in the hall. Pianist George Vatchnadze then took the stage to play the same work (with its accompanying Fugue) as well as the Prelude and Fugue in G minor, providing an island of calm and transcendent clarity before the closing work, the Chamber Symphony for Strings in A-flat Major, Op. 118a (from the 1964 string quartet No. 10). Beautifully played, with a wonderfully scherzo-like allegro furioso and a profound, deeply moving adagio passacaglia, it proved to be a work of stunning power and grace — perhaps even more beautiful than the original version for quartet.

Lou Harrison Feted in DC

Musical America
By Brett Campbell
March 14, 2011

WASHINGTON, D.C. — The shimmering, seductive sounds of the Javanese gamelan beguiled American composer Lou Harrison (1917-2003) from the first time he heard them, in 1939 at San Francisco’s Golden Gate Exposition. Harrison [Musical America’s 2002 Composer of the Year] composed dozens of works for gamelan beginning in the mid-1970s, and often called its sound the most beautiful on the planet.

The Post-Classical Ensemble, of which Joseph Horowitz is artistic director, recently presented a mini Harrison festival on the campus of George Washington University, featuring two and one-third of the composer’s finest works. By way of introducing Harrison’s oeuvre to the uninitiated, a symposium on March 4 at the Indonesian Embassy included a brief demonstration and explanation of traditional Javanese gamelan music, drawing a capacity crowd of more than 200. The event also featured a symposium in which Wesleyan University’s gamelan ensemble director and scholar Sumarsam, biographer Bill Alves and Indonesian Ambassador Dino Patti Djalal persuasively distinguished Harrison’s sensitive, thoughtful “confluence” of Western and Asian musical forms from “exotic” cultural forms appropriated by commercial interests.

The discussion/demonstration provided nourishing context for the following evening’s concert in GWU’s Lisner Hall. The Wesleyan gamelan performed Harrison’s jubilant “Bubaran Robert,” with trumpeter Chris Gekker playing his processional phrases on stage and in different parts of the hall. The gamelan ensemble was sensitive throughout, as it was to former Bang on a Can pianist Lisa Moore on the next piece, the first movement of the composer’s brilliant, dramatic 1987 Concerto for Piano and Javanese Gamelan. Horowitz later told me they had decided to omit the other two movements for fear of taxing listeners’ stamina, but truncating such a stirring showpiece left the concert’s first half feeling imbalanced. (The complete work is available on a splendid new recording by Seattle’s Gamelan Pacifica.)

PostClassical Ensemble: No Coats, Ties or Stuffed Shirts

The Washington Post
By Stephen Brookes
Sunday, October 14, 2007

Listen closely to the average symphony orchestra, and you can almost hear it lumbering into extinction. Large-bodied, slow-moving and frighteningly expensive, classical music’s most important institutions seem increasingly like relics of a distant age, kept alive by an audience that gets grayer every year. Most younger listeners are oblivious — they give classical music the same respect they hold for the periwig and pince-nez — but few orchestras are doing much to draw them in, huddling around formulas that haven’t worked for years: formal concerts, disdain for contemporary culture and a numbing attachment to the music of 19th-century Germany.

“There’s a need for fundamental change — the format and the repertoire of the concert needs to be completely rethought,” says Joseph Horowitz, author of the groundbreaking book “Classical Music in America: A History of Its Rise and Fall.” Conductor Angel Gil-Ordóñez agrees: “We cannot do music in the same way, because humanity has changed.”

But Horowitz and Gil-Ordóñez aren’t just criticizing — they’re charging the ramparts. Four years ago they launched an unusual D.C.-based group called the Post-Classical Ensemble as a sort of working laboratory for new ideas. And they’ve turned the traditional model on its head: Unlike traditional orchestras, the ensemble has no fixed size (it’s made up of freelancers hired for specific programs), no fixed home (it’s played everywhere from the Library of Congress to Strathmore), a minuscule budget and complete freedom to take risks.

The bold approach is part of a wider movement to shake the classical world out of its torpor and to drag it — kicking and screaming, if necessary — into the 21st century. Innovative groups such as Cleveland’s Red (an orchestra) and New York’s Wordless Music– which pairs rock and classical performers together onstage — are using flexible ensembles and uninhibited approaches to both music and performance. They’re throwing out staid conventions and dated repertoire — even the term “classical” itself — and reinventing the classical concert from the ground up.

The Post-Classical Ensemble, for instance, has brought life-size puppets to the Kennedy Center, juxtaposed Mexican folk songs with edgy new orchestral works and even shared the stage with a gypsy band from Budapest. And the ensemble’s fifth season — which opens this afternoon at the Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center with a live performance of Aaron Copland’s score for the 1939 documentary “The City” — is just as unconventional. There’s a program on the first African American opera company in the United States (complete with the operetta performed), a concert devoted to the brilliant, little-known Mexican composer Silvestre Revueltas and a provocative look at how exile in the United States affected the immigrant composers Kurt Weill and Arnold Schoenberg.

A longtime music critic, Horowitz, 59, honed his ideas while serving as executive director of the Brooklyn Philharmonic Orchestra in the 1990s, where he was tasked with halting a precipitous drop in attendance. He threw out the old subscription template, developed themed, interdisciplinary concerts, got rid of celebrity performers — and turned the group around in just a few seasons.

While Horowitz takes an analytical approach to the topic (he’s written eight books on music and tends to speak in long, perfectly manicured paragraphs), Gil-Ordóñez, 50, addresses it almost physically. A conductor who spent many years with the National Symphony Orchestra of Spain, he’s a kinetic performer onstage, using his entire body to guide the ensemble. His conversation is just as animated. Ask him a question and 20 ideas spill out in a headlong rush — illustrated with shouts, snippets of a song, dramatic whispers and the occasional groan, all inflamed with revolutionary passion.

Almost everything about the classical world lights his fuse: the isolation of the concert hall, the stuffy, outdated rituals. “Everything is so artificial!” he says, clenching his fists in frustration. “The performers in black: ‘Okay, we will allow you, the audience, to be here.’ The person who says ‘shhhh!’ if you want to applaud between movements. Really — why would you want to go to that?”

Instead, he says, classical music needs to recover the freewheeling atmosphere it had before it became, well, classical. “When you went to a concert 200 years ago, it was the event of the week. You were there to meet your friends, to talk — even during performances! At the premiere of Beethoven’s Ninth, people jumped up shouting in the second movement: Aarrgghhhh! Like Mick Jagger!

“And this is the key: We have to recover this sense of spontaneity. I am still hoping somebody in the audience will just sing aloud some of the music while I’m conducting.”

But the primary focus, both he and Horowitz agree, is moving beyond the mainstream repertoire.

“I use the term ‘post-classical’ to identify what’s going on at the borders, whether it’s the border between China and the U.S., or gamelan and the symphonic orchestra, or West African drumming and jazz,” says Horowitz. “And the most interesting composers — people like Zhou Long, Lou Harrison and Steve Reich — are all post-classical.”

The strategy makes sense, because modern audiences are post-classical, too. Raised on a global diet of music — everything from salsa to grunge rock to Japanese gagaku — younger listeners can hardly be blamed for finding the traditional European repertoire narrow and Dead-White-Male-ish.

But that doesn’t mean they’re not interested in serious music; they just want it performed for 21st-century ears.

“One failing in the classical world is not really understanding the audience,” says critic Greg Sandow, who teaches a course at Juilliard on the future of music. “Maybe the most important thing now is a real knowledge of pop culture and the world in which your music is going to be received. People who watch ‘The Sopranos’ — as I do! — are going to be a little restless listening to ‘Tosca,’ ” he says, laughing.

In the end, according to several observers, the classical world may have no choice but to change. Bureaucracy-heavy institutions like the National Symphony Orchestra (with its $29 million budget) are competing for the next generation against more adventurous groups like the Post-Classical Ensemble — whose lean, $400,000 annual operation gives it the flexibility to take risks.

“Symphony orchestras,” Gil-Ordóñez says flatly, “are going to disappear.”

Sandow won’t go that far but pronounces the situation “fairly dire.” The age of the mainstream classical audience has been rising for 50 years; ticket sales have been dropping for the past 20, he notes. “Orchestras are finding it very restricting to keep 80 musicians under contract for 52 weeks, and that model is not really sustainable. The future may belong to smaller, more nimble organizations. We’re still learning what works.”

On DVD, American Propaganda’s High-Water Mark

The Washington Post
By Philip Kennicott
Sunday, January 28, 2007

Pare Lorentz’s “River” and “Plow”: The high art of propaganda

At the 1938 Venice Film Festival, Pare Lorentz’s “The River” won best documentary for his New Deal film about the flooding and “taming” of the Mississippi River, beating Leni Riefenstahl’s far more ambitious “Olympia,” a visual symphony shot at Hitler’s 1936 Olympics in Berlin. Riefenstahl’s celebration of athletic competition had strong Nazi undertones, but it was Lorentz’s Mississippi film that was the more forthright exercise in propaganda. It was bought and paid for by the U.S. government, an effort to convince the public that Roosevelt-era projects, such as the Tennessee Valley Authority, would make the United States a more fair, livable and humane society.

It is such good propaganda that watching it 70 years later on a new Naxos DVD feels a little creepy. “The River” was one of two major projects that Lorentz filmed with music commissioned from composer and famous music critic Virgil Thomson, and the DVD includes vibrant new recordings of the soundtracks by the D.C.-based Post-Classical Ensemble. Thomson’s music, combined with the Whitmanesque torrents of poetry in Lorentz’s script and powerful images of natural grandeur and squalid poverty, makes “The River” and the earlier “The Plow That Broke the Plains” disturbing examples of what a full-fledged American propaganda machine might produce. There are moments, especially involving tractors (the great fetish object of 20th-century propagandists), when you are certain that this film could have been produced in one of the political film mills of the totalitarian states of Europe.The music draws on Thomson’s study and appreciation of cowboy ditties, church hymns and other folk melodies, all of which have such deep and far-reaching associations that few Americans will fail to find something that is both familiar and unconsciously haunting. Lorentz was smart enough to recognize great music when he heard it, and he cut his films to fit Thomson’s scores when necessary. The result is a quasi-operatic film that comes as close as anything this country produced to the great collaborations between Sergei Eisenstein and Sergei Prokofiev in the Soviet Union.

Although Thomson recycled his music into popular concert suites, hearing it in its original context is revelatory. He was taking film music in a very different direction from the composers who took root in Hollywood in the mid-1930s (Max Steiner, Franz Waxman), who were working in a lush, heavily orchestrated, post-Wagnerian vein. Often described as “deceptively simple,” Thomson’s music was leaner and more transparent, but filled with little flourishes, such as fugal passages, that set it far above the hackwork that accompanied so many commercial films. He followed the progress of the film’s editing closely, and his music is always in subtle dialogue with what one sees on-screen.

PostClassical Ensemble, Performing Some Very Good Works

The Washington Post
By Stephen Brookes
Thursday, March 16, 2006

Classical music may be dying a slow death, but not if Joseph Horowitz has anything to say about it. Author of the essential “Classical Music in America,” executive director of the Brooklyn Philharmonic and founder (with Angel Gil-Ordonez) of the Post Classical Ensemble, Horowitz has been dragging classical music out of its High Culture sickbed and giving it a series of healthy kicks.

And on Tuesday night the Ensemble did just that, in a bold concert at the Virginia Theological Seminary titled “Manuel de Falla and the Music of Faith.”

The concert focused on a single movement of a single piece — the 1926 Concerto for Keyboard — which many Falla lovers tend to view with distrust or outright hate.

PostClassical Ensemble (2005)

The Washington Post
By Joseph McLellan
Friday, March 18, 2005

Gustav Mahler’s “Das Lied von der Erde” (“The Song of the Earth”) presents a curious combination of late romantic German sensibility in its music and Chinese poetry of the 8th century in the original source of its texts. Its final segment, “Der Abschied” (“The Farewell”), is particularly notable; it describes two friends saying goodbye, perhaps forever, and many admirers have considered it a farewell to life by Mahler, who was suffering from heart disease and nearing death when he composed it.

No single performance can explore all the dimensions of “Der Abschied,” but the interpretation by the Post-Classical Ensemble, Wednesday night at the Austrian Embassy, came brilliantly close. The ensemble, directed by Angel Gil-Ordoñez with a precise sense of idiom and style, used the chamber music reduction by Arnold Schoenberg, which requires only 13 players and preserves all the music’s subtly varied colors. Mezzo-soprano Delores Ziegler sang the text, with a haunting treatment of the final words, “ewig . . . ewig” (“forever . . . forever”) that lingered in memory long after the music had faded to silence.

That ended the program. What came before it was equally fascinating. First a solo on the erhu, a two-stringed fiddle, by Wang Guowei, an extraordinary performer; then an exotically evocative piece, “Moonlit River in Spring,” played on Chinese instruments by four members of the Music From China ensemble.

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