April 27, 2006

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CLASSICAL REVIEWS
Reviews by Jeff Rapsis jrapsis@hippopress.com

Pre-teen prodigy makes amazing music
Review: Nashua Symphony 4/22: It was back to basics for the Nashua Symphony's final concert of the season: a Dvorak overture, a Mozart concerto, and Beethoven's iconic Symphony No. 5 all serving to remind us why great classical music of the past is still as compelling as ever.

Led by conductor Royston Nash, the orchestra delivered solid and convincing performances of the familiar scores. The real news at last Saturday's concert in Keefe Auditorium, however, was piano soloist Peng Peng, who joined the group for Mozart's Piano Concerto No. 20 in D minor.

Peng Peng's work was remarkable on many levels, and not simply because of his age. Though just entering his teenage years, Peng Peng possesses an artistic maturity at the keyboard that rivals many adult virtuosos. The Mozart was a nice showcase for his ability: Peng took the music to many places, though never strayed from the composer's essential style. Interestingly, he created legato from the keyboard rather than by using the pedal, an approach that allowed the piano writing to come through with wonderful clarity and detail.

A highlight was the concerto's middle movement, which begins with a simple melody but gradually becomes more complex, culminating in some ambitious passages that demand some fancy fingerwork. From Peng, this all flowed and built so naturally, it seemed that he was making it up as he went along, capturing the sense of effortlessness that characterizes much of Mozart's best music.

The orchestra contributed a superbly balanced accompaniment, the brass never playing above a mezzoforte. Yet the overall effect was one of great power and beauty, not because of volume, but artistry. Peng Peng and Nash collaborated in a way that highlighted the timeless beauties of Mozart's score in a way that also made it seem fresh and new. The musicians received an instant and well-deserved standing ovation.

The other works on the program, though well-played, did not have the same impact. The program-opening Carnival Overture by Dvorak was a treat as always, but slightly slow tempos and some noticeably out-of-balance brass playing took away some of the joy.

Beethoven's 5th Symphony sounded fine. Under Nash, the orchestra got under the hood of this masterwork and found ways to make it come alive. Nash heightened the impact by ignoring repeats in the finale, givng the performance an entertaining rush-to-the-finish-line quality. Sometimes less is indeed more.
— Jeff Rapsis

Dan Perkins brings Finnish music to Manchester
Review: Plymouth State College musicians in the Queen City 4/21: Since the New Hampshire Symphony Orchestra cut back its performing schedule in Manchester two seasons ago, the Queen City has suffered a relative shortage of big classical music events.

Enter conductor Dan Perkins. As music director of the Manchester Choral Society and the New Hampshire Master Chorale, Perkins has leaped into the void, consistently staging concerts that feature above-average performances of scores that are daring, unusual, and never dull.

His latest effort? A program of large-scale Finnish music, of all things, performed last Friday at Ste. Marie Church on the city's West Side by a 65-piece freelance orchestra and about 100 singers from Plymouth State University, where Perkins directs the choral programs.

As such, the Manchester gig might have served as a road show warm-up for an on-campus performance that followed Saturday night at Plymouth State. But that wouldn't do justice to what Perkins actually produced last Friday—an energetic, big-hearted concert that turned out to be one of the highlights of the local musical season.

But why Finnish music? Turns out as a young man, Perkins served a missionary in the Scandinavian nation, and later pursued doctoral studies there. This year at Plymouth State, his choral students are immersed in all things Finnish, and that includes learning some unusual contemporary scores that highlighted the programs this past weekend.

First up was the non-choral Symphony No. 2 in D minor by Jan Sibelius, the one "name-brand" Finnish composer whose works are played the world over, though not recently in Manchester.

With its big gestures and pregnant silences, the Sibelius score lends itself to the cavernous interior and echo-chamber acoustics of Ste. Marie Church. Throughout the performance, Perkins made the most of the space, somehow magnifying the sonic impact both of quiet passages and those for full orchestra.

Though some loss of detail was inevitable, especially in quick passages for upper strings (which seem to disappear at Ste. Marie), Perkins brought the four-movement work to life with a long slow boil and an ear for overall effect. By the time the finale erupted in full force, with its famous broad sweeping theme, the impact was overpowering.

The second half opened with Perkins leading the PSU Chamber Singers in the upper choir loft in two a capella pieces by contemporary Finnish composer (take a deep breath) Einojuhani Rautavaara. A setting of the Credo ("I believe in one God...") in Latin and, interestingly, a version of the Lord's Prayer sung in Finnish.

Singing from their vertiginous perch, the two dozen PSU vocalists brought both scores to life with an assurance and confidence that made them totally convincing. Hearing the student voices collide in mild dissonances that carried throughout the church, it was hard to be unmoved by the exquisite beauty echoing above you.

The most daring "big gulp" of contemporary music followed—a full scale Requiem by Finnish composer Joonas Kokkonen. Everyone pitched in on this sprawling score, with forces further augmented by two soloists: soprano Debra Lawrence and baritone Stephen Small.

On first hearing, the Requiem emerged as a powerful work with immediate appeal that draws on Kokkonen's extensive 20th century musical vocabulary. The score includes passages of great calm and fiercesome outbursts, and conveys an overall impression of being strong and serious stuff.

As absorbing as the Requiem is, however, one has to believe that the score cannot necessarily speak for itself so effectively. Kokkonen, who died in 1996, is fortunate that Perkins a sensitive champion of the music who brought a compelling urgency to the performance from start to finish.

A concert-concluding of Finlandia, the tunefully noisy nationalistic tone poem by Sibelius, ended things with a bang. Perkins received a well-deserved ovation; he is an exciting conductor because he takes chances with new and unusual music, and also because he pushes local performance to make music they never thought they'd be able to make, which in turn creates palpable energy that seems to infuse every concert he stages.

And how about the all-Finnish theme—did it work?

Author Solomon Volkov once wrote that the genius of Russian composer Dmitri Shostakovich was that his music caused you to think of others, not yourself. Last Friday night, Perkins and the PSU singers had me pondering the proud spirit and traditions of Finland, a country to which I have no connection whatsoever. If that was the intention, they succeeded handsomely.
— Jeff Rapsis

Musicians give Mozart a fine birthday bash
Review: Mozart in Manchester 4/21: There was no cake, but that was about the only thing missing from a musical party last Friday evening to mark this year's 250th anniversary of Mozart's birth.

The evening concert, held at Grace Episcopal Church in Manchester, gave listeners a chance to hear some local musicians play a selection of some of Mozart's finest small-scale works, which allowed the composer's gifts to be appreciated in up-close-and-personal fashion.

The performances were of a high standard throughout. For openers, pianist Mila Filatova, (who organized the free concert) was joined by violinist Frederic Bednarz and cellist Harel Gietheim for Mozart's Piano Trio in C, K 548.

From the start, the musicians produced a smooth sound and unified attack, as if they'd been playing together for years. The Andante Cantabile was smooth and flowing, while the concluding Allegro emerged as a joyous romp.

Things ratcheted up a notch when violist Thomas Mayo joined the team for the G Minor Quartet, K.478. This is expertly crafted and intense music; the four dug into each of the three movements with equal parts passion and precision. In the concluding Rondo, Filatova handled the relentlessly frenetic piano part with aplomb.

But the highlight was a piece for just two instruments: Mozart's Duo in B flat for Violin and Viola, K. 424, performed by Bednarz and Mayo. The pair achieved a breath-taking level of musicianship in the way they negotiated the intricate interplay and moments of rubato, all the while playing with a sweet and glowing lyricism that brought out the score's many beauties. The two of them produced more excitement than you often hear at a full symphony orchestra concert.

Singer Mark Andrew Cleveland, music director at Grace Episcopal, rounded out the program in celebratory style with a selection of stage and concert arias. Accompanied by Filatova, Cleveland's bright ringing bass voice filled the hall with selections from Don Giovanni, The Marriage of Figaro, and others. It was a fun treat (especially with Cleveland's expressive approach) and the perfect way to top off a classy celebration honoring one of the great classical composers.
— Jeff Rapsis


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