Monday, May 25, 2020

Summertime Blues, a 2020 version

Memorial Day weekend is the traditional start of summer, but oh! what mixed messages this year as the USA approaches a...

Posted by Jay Harvey on Monday, May 25, 2020

Saturday, May 16, 2020

'Blended Lineage': David Bixler's mixed results in suite on theme of tribes

Current political and social commentary tends to tsk-tsk at "tribalism," suggesting a regression from civilized norms.  Pushing back against such connotations, alto saxophonist David Bixler leads a five-man group he calls the Bixtet, supplemented by a string quartet, in a commissioned work on the theme of tribes.

"Blended Lineage" (Red Piano Records) is a 34-minute suite in which the composer's forces are well-
Composer-saxophonist David Bixler
distributed, but sometimes seem to be searching for musical substance. Bixler has said he deliberately accentuated the positive (to use Johnny Mercer's phrase) in writing the work. The ferocity and insularity of tribal identity clearly held little appeal to him.

Ensemble virtues fade a bit into the background in the finale,"My Soul Swoons Softly," a phrase borrowed somewhat disconcertingly from James Joyce's eulogistic short story "The Dead." Bixler makes this summing-up an alto-sax showcase. That cuts against the ensemble focus of the rest of "Blended Lineage," but it's meant to emphasize the personal import of the theme.

Even when the string quartet sits out, in "Motherland," the suite usually maintains a nifty balance of instruments. Thus, in "My Soul Swoons Softly," the way the strings seem to be coming in from a distance may well be an artistic decision rather than an engineering flaw. I guess it's designed to represent the soul's soft swooning, a risky area for music to settle into, but a plausible foray here.

Here's a contrast: In the suite's opening section, "Origins," the string quartet partners steadily with Jon Cowherd's piano after the deliberately careful jelling of the material. Bixler's tone is reflective, soft-edged, and verges on the lugubrious.

The positive message becomes more explicit in "Motherland," a tribute to Bixler's Wisconsin heritage. There's energy in the theme that the alto sax shares with trumpeter Mike Rodriguez. The open-road feeling evokes for me memories of motoring along the rolling farm country of the state with my wife and her mother (both native Badgers). The tune's ending kicks up agreeably.

My favorite track is "Trenches," where both the theme and its treatment are edgy. The trenches of the  title allude to the life of musicians, often struggling to maintain a foothold, especially since mid-March. I like the way the anxiety of that lifestyle is both tamed and projected through the music. The Rodriguez solo in particular displays the mood. The strings seem more than window dressing, and there's some fine interplay near the end in patterns placed on top of Fabio Rojas' drums.

Luke Sellick completes the Bixtet personnel on bass. The string quartet comprises Judith Ingolfsson, gold medalist in the 1998 International Violin Competition of Indianapolis, violinist Heather Martin Bixler, violist Josh Kail, and cellist Rubin Kodheli.

Friday, May 15, 2020

Putting a long-form feeling into compact new works: Sebastien Ammann's 'Resilience'

Sebastien Ammann shows off his keyboard chops chiefly in the title tune of his new CD. But
it's his composer-bandleader acuity that moves his band, Color Wheel, into applying its own signature to "Resilience"  (Skirl Records) and making the band memorable.

Sebastien Ammann contemplates form and space.
The Swiss keyboardist wrote seven of the nine pieces on the recording. Each piece establishes itself; it sets down on a firm footing right away. No wonder he's attracted to the direct quirkiness of Carla Bley's "King Korn Revisited,"  the more notable of the two borrowings.

I found the pensive, diffuse work called "The Traveller" a bit inclined to woolgathering, but the personality behind it was clear. This band, often making a point of individualism, still seems well matched internally. Besides Ammann, they are Michael Attias, alto saxophone; Samuel Blaser, trombone; Noah Garabedian, bass, and Nathan Ellman-Bell drums.

Blaser has a liquescent tone and an immense reach of range and expression. His solo on "Untangled" is masterly, especially in the way it leads into the ensemble's re-entry. I like the way he seems to sum up everything about "The Traveller," too, giving coherence to the piece's peregrinations.

"Afterthought" allows lots of room for Attias' sometimes assertive, sometimes inquisitive alto sax, and Ammann's eccentric but generally apt accompaniment patterning comes off very well here.

"Pedestrian Space" is something we all need in these social-distancing times. The nervous energy of the percussion figures finds Attias and Blaser's adroitness giving an amusing urban profile to what comes close to barnyard noises we haven't heard since the Original Dixieland Jazz Band. This is whimsy taken to an offhand application of virtuosity. The whole CD manages to present an appealing blend of sophistication and naivete.

Monday, May 11, 2020

Bob Dylan said a mouthful in 'Subterraean Homesick Blues"; here's a mouthful of Covid-19 stuff: 'Subterranean Homeland Blues'

Surterranean Homeland Blues

Tony’s in the basement
Mixing up the medicine
Donald’s tweets won’t relent
Bragging about the government
Doctor in a white coat
License out, laid off
Said he’s got a bad cough
All his chips are played off

Look out for Covid
You gotta stay hid
No one knows when
You can come out again
Keep at least six feet away
Don’t look for a new friend
Reopen protester among armed men
Wants 11 explanations, you only got ten.

Pence comes blank-faced
Always close to Trump placed
Giving the boss praise
Presidential hopes raised
Trump says that many say
Must resume by end of May
Keep America great, hey!

But look out, kid
Don’t matter what you did
Try to blame the Fake News
Why lead? Just refuse
Can’t be a shipping clerk
Got duties?  Try to shirk
Stand still, don’t twerk
Stay aloof, that’ll work.
You don’t need the media
To know which way the wind blows.

Ah, get sick, get well
Little tracing, hard to tell
What policy will sell.
Lie hard, truth barred
Many ventilators fail
Governors turn pale
Time to bail, let ‘em wail
Look out for Covid, it wants to get rid
Of insiders, outsiders, health-care providers
Don’t worry ‘bout the gene pool
Many more folks to fool
Keep the same leaders
In virtual theaters.

Ah, get born, keep warm
Is that a fever or romance
Learn to dance, get fixed in politics
All the messages are mixed
Please Trump, please Pence, they’re adrift
Can’t heal, try to shift
Three years in the White House
Feeling slighted, he’s miffed
Look out till we’re rid of the evil Covid
Better jump down a manhole
Of isolation lighting candles
Chill in pajamas, wear old sandals
Can’t keep up with all the scandals
Public health don’t work
Cause the vandals took the handles

Saturday, May 9, 2020

Making a political point through abstract music: What to make of 'Hypocrisy Democracy'?

Dave Glasser's privileging of political unease, a feeling shared by many nowadays, struggles for musical expression in "Hypocrisy Democracy" (Here Tiz Music).

The alto saxophonist builds on the jingle-jangle of his unusual title to set down a critique of the system that both sustains and undermines us. It's not irrelevant that he's the son of Ira Glasser, former  executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union. That connection also boosted his musical interests insofar as, through the jazz commentator and Bill of Rights defender Nat Hentoff,  he met and studied with the late Lee Konitz, a key figure in jazz alto sax independent of the pervasive Charlie Parker influence.

The music carries no text, so associations with the bandleader's political perspective must be gleaned from the composition titles, where those apply. When I hear "Justice," for example, I'm not sure how justice applies to the music. My main complaint on musical grounds is that many of the tracks seem evasive, despite the evident rapport of Glasser with pianist Andy Milne,  bassist Ben Allison and drummer Matt Wilson. I often get the feeling that there's a drive to resist whatever implications a given tune sets up.

This persists despite Glasser's declared interest in rooting his music in the jazz heritage. This is explicit in "Dilemonk," a slow bluesy piece including a definitive Allison solo. The Thelonious Monk misterioso vein is evoked, though I was puzzled by the news release description of the approach as "skulking."

Dave Glasser has an agenda.
Glasser's unforced lyricism and abstract inventiveness clearly draw upon the Konitz influence with his solo in "Coffee, Dogs, and Telelogs." There's a rare use of paraphrase ("Fascinating Rhythm") in, unfortunately, yet another example of a piece seemingly trying to escape itself. Another nod to tradition is "Revolver," whose form derives from the Great American Songbook and whose essence seems to be Rodgers and Hart's "Lover."

A pleasant surprise is the inclusion of the Disney favorite "It's a Small World," for which Glasser turns to flute. The interpretation is rooted in Glasser's memory of struggle to be musical as a little boy (the program note in this case is illuminating) and coming out on top. The performance is gratifyingly centered, and not just because it's based on a quite familiar tune. I also liked the direct tribute to his mentor, "Glee for Lee," harmonically untethered but not irresolute,  in the best Konitz tradition.

A prominent statement from Glasser on the jacket is worth an eye-roll: "My hope is this recording will stimulate thought and converse towards a more peaceful, sustainable existence." Make of that what you will, but Glasser's music, though conflicted, is not without charm, with a lot of credit going to his capable bandmates.

I was even delighted by Glasser's company name (Here Tiz), reminding me of a less complicated jazzman of long ago, Fats Waller. Introducing "Moppin' and Boppin'," the inimitable singer-pianist says: "Want some more of that mess? Well, here 'tis. Zutty [Singleton], take over. Pour it on!" That's the kind of spirit I think most fans want more of from jazz, and less musicianly ax-grinding.

Friday, May 8, 2020

Alto saxophonist Michael Thomas explores the 'Event Horizon'

An "event horizon" is the theoretical place beyond which matter in space vanishes into a black hole. It's a clever title for an expansive exercise in small-group acoustic jazz: Stay just this side of the devouring nothingness and you have exciting matter to deal with, intelligible but on the edge.

Musings on the edge: saxophonist Michael Thomas
In the case of Michael Thomas' "Event Horizon," that edge is the Jazz Gallery in New York City, where the two-disc set was recorded last August and produced by the bandleader and Jimmy Katz, the photographer and guiding light behind Giant Steps Arts.

Eight original compositions, three of them prefaced by solo-instrument introductions, make up the program. Thomas displays a light hand compositionally, putting just enough distinctiveness into the themes to allow improvisation to flow freely from there. He enjoys the services of Jason Palmer, a trumpeter who has just issued his own two-disc set on the label, to bolster the front line. Backing them up are the bassist Hans Glawischnig and the drummer Johnathan Blake. Blake's project for Giant Step Arts, titled "Trion," was my introduction to Katz's worthy venture last year.

Thomas' compositions are gentle hooks for extensive improvisations, principally from the bandleader and Palmer. Glawischnig provides a reliable harmonic foundation, animated by rhythmic verve; he duos fruitfully with the bandleader in "Drift," then takes a meditative solo that stays consistently within the pulse.

Especially vital is the remarkable percussion energy and wisdom of Blake. His partnership with Thomas in several places brings out the keenness of the saxophonist's imagination. Considered as a duo, they sometimes drive each other to swing like mad, starting with the program-opener, "Distance."

Of the entire program, I found only "Chant" somewhat tedious, though Thomas' nearly four-minute solo intro gave me fair warning. It struck me as very fluid practice material, glibly tossed off, and when "Chant" follows, the saxophonist maintains an etude-like focus. Despite the length that Thomas permits himself and Palmer, so that variety can emerge, this was the only track where I feared mere note-spinning was about to take over.

"Dr. Teeth," the closest the band gets to a down-home feeling, is a witty, oblique reference to the late Dr. John and the New Orleans "second-line" vibe. Everyone blazes away, yet the internal rapport of the group never falters. The Thomas-Palmer partnership is perhaps at its must lustrous here, but frankly there are very few lapses from the high level the band achieves throughout more than 90 minutes of music. There's a lot of poise to tingle the listener's nerves at this event horizon.

Tuesday, May 5, 2020

Happy 250th birthday, darn it all! Gilmore Festival presents Jonathan Biss livestreamed in three Beethoven sonatas

Among the cultural trashing that the current Covid-19 pandemic has added to its overall toll is the
scanting of celebrations of Beethoven's 250th birthday.

Jonathan Biss comes to Beethoven with a high degree of preparation and insight.
Just yesterday, we learned that the elimination of all Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra activities through September 17 meant that an appropriate observance to end its Classical Series — May and June weekends of the piano concertos and the "Missa Solemnis" -- had to be wiped from the boards. Some observers have said, at least since the 200th death anniversary in 1977, that concert life is already a perpetual Beethoven festival, but there's something poignant in the fact that, on a milestone anniversary,  the greatest example of a composer whose adult life was cast in the deepening shadow of deafness cannot be heard now in concert.

So the opportunity not to rely exclusively on recordings during the global health crisis depends on livestreaming such as what the Gilmore Festival offered Monday afternoon in a home recital of three Beethoven piano sonatas by Jonathan Biss. The eminent concert artist, born in 1980 and hailing from Bloomington, was honored by the Gilmore's Young Artist Award in 2002 and has gone on to  a career marked recently by his recording of all 32 Beethoven piano sonatas, works represented as well on the international concert stage before the coronavirus shut everything down.

The May 4 recital comprised three challenging works by Beethoven: Op. 7 in E-flat, by reputation the knottiest of the composer's early sonatas; the great cresting of his middle period in op. 90 in E minor, and the first of the troika at the summit of Beethoven piano sonatas, op. 109 in E. In his spoken introduction to the program, the recitalist declared from the piano bench that the final piece almost defeats any attempt to embody its sublimity in words. And Biss is no slouch when it comes to verbal eloquence about music and the life of a musician. (The biography on his web site is a sufficient example, with an opening paragraph I can confidently describe as unique in its genre.)

I will take a cue from the pianist and not offer a full-throated critique of Monday's performance. I could tell a lot about both the instrument and how much at home Biss felt performing on it, but I'm not too confident that my tiny iPhone speaker conveyed a more than adequate impression to me. It was evident that aspects of Biss' artistry were fully intact: the apt weighting of phrases, the rhythmic acuity, the technical panache, and an overall interpretive elan that seems naturally to tap into the music's significance. Biss perhaps would echo a predecessor's championship of the core repertoire, with Beethoven at the center: Artur Schnabel said that he wanted to devote himself to "music better than it can be played."

The second-movement climax of op. 109 was overwhelming, and I'm not referring to how it nearly overwhelmed my iPhone. But before those memorable final moments made their impact, I also enjoyed subtler excellences. To go back to the beginning, there was an eloquence to the rests that separate the recurring phrases in the theme of op. 7's slow movement. The weight and timing Biss lent to them  made the accents in the subsequent dotted figures all the more impressive, creating a unified effect this pianist seems to have no trouble producing.

I want to end by citing the start of the op. 90 finale, which at first disturbed me. The composer specifies "not too fast, with a very vocal style of playing" and the opening is marked "dolce" (sweetly). At first, Biss' presentation seemed too assertive — where is the singing quality, I wondered, where is the sweetness?  As the movement progressed, I felt Biss's performance grew into meeting that requirement, and there was no dearth of vocal style.

The change turned out to be more apparent than real. In retrospect, I happened to think that Beethoven's lyricism is always highly wrought, and a performer's being forthright in stating it doesn't violate what the composer seems to demand when he's in a tender mood. His sketchbooks indicate how hard satisfactory melodies came to him, and his final thoughts about a melody always seem unveiled and a bit bold, even if "dolce" may have been running through his mind.

I thought of a minor but telling example: the way an aria briefly emerges, something that could almost be sung by Florestan, as a secondary theme is briefly elaborated in the "Waldstein" sonata, just before the sunny Rondo finale begins. So, in op. 90,  everything Biss does in bringing out the melodic line in its first appearance seems consistent with his overall interpretation. Beethoven was thus properly saluted here as he was in the whole recital. And as a listener, among a presumably worldwide audience, I came away feeling a guest at this year's unusual Beethoven birthday party, thanks to Jonathan Biss's authentic invitation.

Monday, May 4, 2020

"Goldberg Variations / Variations": Revisiting Dan Tepfer revisiting J.S. Bach

Nine years ago, I reviewed for the Indianapolis Star a recording by the 2007 American Pianists
Dan Tepfer sits atop his study of "Goldberg Variations" and variations of his own,
Cole Porter Fellow Dan Tepfer titled "Goldberg Variations / Variations." The title's  forward slash and  repetition of "Variations" said succinctly what this recording was all about: The original Aria and 30 variations on it that came to be known by a student's name had each of those variations followed by Tepfer's improvised variation on what Bach wrote.

I very much disliked the idea and its execution, though I found a saving grace to the extent that Tepfer's idea (and maybe this actual recording) might be useful as a teaching tool. I wish I could find that 2011 review so I could learn just how wrong I was about the work's public viability. I must have been wrong, because "Goldberg Variations / Variations" was greeted with a chorus of praise. And it took a favored place in Tepfer's repertoire — a 2013 performance of it at the genre-busting showplace Le Poisson Rouge in Manhattan brought kudos from Anthony Tommasini, chief music critic of the New York Times.

He called Tepfer's performance "riveting and inspired." I can sort of agree with that after listening to Sunday's account by Tepfer of his bold idea, livestreamed from his Brooklyn apartment. The pianist was to have been in Indianapolis yesterday afternoon under APA auspices to play "Goldberg Variations / Variations" at Trinity Episcopal Church, and I would have been there.

Why? Because the set is undeniably riveting. If you love Bach's masterwork, you will be on the edge of your seat waiting to learn, after each variation, just what Tepfer will make of it. That was true today, and so it was when I reacquainted myself with the CD last week after not having slipped it into the player since 2011. As for "inspired," well, sure it is: I can't imagine someone undertaking such a project and carrying it out time and again in a phlegmatic frame of mind.

Another irritation I can't get rid of: LP of "Four Organs"
Finally, for the listener, Tepfer's "Goldberg Variations /Variations" is at least a memorable experience. It's not one of those "meh" records you lightly discard when you're trying to downsize. At the same time, unfortunately, it is one of the most irritating recordings I own, right up there with Steve Reich's "Four Organs" and Kenneth Gaburo's "Lingua II: Maledetto." After today, I'll admit, the irritation receded somewhat. I'll keep all three recordings until they cart me out of here — they're just memorable, and that is a quality that sticks.

In the current case, I was listening Sunday for signs that Tepfer's background as a jazz pianist would bring fresh insights to J.S. Bach. They could be expected to show up in the pianist's improvisations as well as in his traversal of the original, I figured. I have often been struck by the wide gulf between the jazz and classical aesthetics, and the piano is the ideal instrument on which to observe it. I have known too few people who find both genres congenial. Tepfer clearly does, and the way he plays the Goldberg Variations displayed his classical chops and interpretive affinity well.

Once long ago, when using the men's restroom at a break from a Leon Fleisher masterclass at the University of Michigan, I was disheartened to read an anti-jazz scrawl on the wall, scorning the very presence of jazz instruction at a university. OK, so what? Restroom walls are the precursor of social-media trolling. But I suspect one side looking askance at the other may remain a general phenomenon in the public square.

Among music critics, the divide is certainly notable, with a few exceptions such as Mark Stryker,
Harold C. Schonberg, a formidable critic and piano expert, had no use for jazz.
formerly of the Detroit Free Press, and Howard Reich of the Chicago Tribune. Harold C. Schonberg, Tommasini's predecessor by a few critical generations at the Times, once told me and other young critics how an editor had assigned him to go to the Newport Jazz Festival, back when the Times lacked a jazz specialist. "I remember listening to a pianist named Erroll Garner; he was trying to play octaves," Schonberg said disdainfully. "Later I learned he was supposed to be a big deal. The next day the Times hired John Wilson ."

Schonberg just didn't like jazz, he said in informal conversation later. Knowing he had special knowledge of the piano, I asked if he was familiar with Art Tatum, thinking of the uncanny evenness of Tatum's runs and their precise insertion into the melodic line. Schonberg shrugged; he hadn't heard of Tatum. Later, in his admiring biography of Vladimir Horowitz, the esteemed critic mentioned the reclusive Russian going to a jazz club occasionally to admire Tatum's art.

Murray Perahia saluted jazz pianists' harmonic sense.
And the eminent master pianist Murray Perahia once gave an interview to an English journalist frankly admitting that jazz pianists are steeped in harmony to a degree many classical musicians are not. Perahia mentioned working with a violinist he chose not to name who wasn't aware what key the music was in during a passage it would have been useful to the partnership for the fiddler to know. A jazzman would have known, Perahia suggested pointedly.

So there is plenty respect to take into account. The Tepfer project has earned it from both sides. Furthermore, APA's  enduring advocacy of both jazz and classical piano is essential to its distinguished brand. Even with his habit of vocalizing, especially in his improvisations, Tepfer seems to salute both branches of his art, represented at their most extreme in vocal self-accompaniment by Keith Jarrett and Glenn Gould.

"I came at that music so tangentially," Tepfer admitted in last Sunday''s livestream chat with 2020 APA competition finalist Dominic Cheli. But, thanks to Tepfer's skill and study ("a project that took me over," he said), the tangent has made a mostly unerring line to the sacred circle of J.S. Bach. That's evident in how well Tepfer handles what Bach wrote. His tempos are varied and well-judged, he has a sure sense of how to apply color, the ornaments and rhythms are crisp, and the interpretations are as spirited as the improvisations that follow. He clearly wants to get pure Bach across, not just use it as a launching pad for Tepfer skyrockets.

Nonetheless, it is hard to sustain admiration for Bach's "argument" — the manner in which he orders his variations and the way they speak to one another — when it is regularly interrupted by spates of Tepfer. And I missed the repeats, though that would have made the recording (and any concert version) twice as long. Not marketable, not even artistically advisable — but still....

There is inevitably some unevenness in the quality of improvisation: What seemed yesterday like an adroitly used "walking bass" in the left hand of the second variation / variation sounds lead-footed and plodding on the recording.

But there are differences, too, that speak favorably to some of the excitement of jazz — "the sound of surprise," in Whitney Balliett's immortal phrase. Tepfer's take on the sixth variation in the recording has a sotto voce intimacy; on Sunday — wow!— his improvisation on the same variation featured tone clusters and more pedal than Tepfer's norm. The color contrast was exciting. I would judge either approach a success in context.

Here's a long coda of Beethovenesque proportions. I want to close by mentioning a few other ways this seasoned jazz pianist makes good use of his background. He catches the martial nature of Variation 9 by becoming more explicitly militaristic in his personal treatment, complete with suggestions of drum rolls. One hears the kind of "spread rhythm" in which pulse expands into  texture, the legacy of Elvin Jones that any number of today's "sons of Elvin" have mastered.

Variation 13  is modified in a manner hinted at propheticlly by Bach to approximate how a jazz pianist approaches ballads from the Great American Songbook. There's some significant foreshadowing of "Ev'ry Time We Say Goodbye," which Tepfer explicitly references in the final improvisation, following Bach's quodlibet model of restricting to one main focus the practice of assembling snippets of well-known tunes, here a folk song titled "Kraut und Ruben" (cabbage and turnips). A modern use of this kind of medley enjoys restoration of its lighthearted spirit in P.D.Q. Bach's "Quodlibet for Small Orchestra."

But Tepfer's entire manner as he spins out his take on Variation 13 enters the reflective atmosphere jazz pianists create when they deal with such songs as "I Thought About You" or "I Didn't Know What Time It Was." I enjoyed also Tepfer's suggestion of bop phrasing here and there, an occasional use of "space" a la Miles Davis, and, in addressing the formidable challenge of Bach at his most astonishingly chromatic (Variation 25) a surefootedness about passing through key centers that seems to honor John Coltrane.

On the other hand, there were several improvisations in Sunday's performance where Tepfer seemed to be searching for direction, never quite wresting meaning out of the materials. One of those came near the end, in the Variation 27 Tepferization. But it was succeeded by a strong finish: Clanging bells being evoked in the Variation 28 improvisation, picking up on Bach's 32nd-note figures, and a deft, sprightly turn at boogie-woogie piano in the next improvisation, with Bach's Variation 29 coming in between and seeming a credible shoulder-to-shoulder partner. Finally there was in the Variation 30 improvisation a fitting prelude to the concluding reprise of the Aria. The pianist crafted a poignant, sidelong tribute to the Cole Porter of "Ev'ry Time We Say Goodbye," with the first part of the title phrase repeated lingeringly and some inside-the-piano plucks decorating a high-register Tepfer farewell to his improvisations.

So, on balance, I got more out of my return visit to this project. It's still a somewhat irritating listening experience. The whole kit and caboodle may be worth more study by jazz and classical pianists than it can ever be recommended for listeners. The art is there, but the instructional heft of the project seems dominant in promising any longevity for it.

And it's likely I may play my "Goldberg Variations / Variations" CD a time or two more than I will ever put my LPs of "Four Organs" or "Maledetto" on the turntable. Some kinds of irritation are oddly more rewarding than others.

Friday, May 1, 2020

The Berlin Philharmonic's 2020 European Concert was one for the memory books

Up betimes, as Samuel Pepys used to say, to catch the European Concert of the Berlin Philharmonic.
Kirill Petrenko is the music director of the Berlin Philharmonic.

This annual event, celebrating 30 years and normally traveling to distinctive European cities for the orchestra to perform, this time had to stay at home, the Philharmonie in Berlin, and make other adjustments under the unique mandates of the worldwide Coronavirus pandemic. The 2020 concert was scheduled to have taken place in Tel Aviv, commemorating the 75th anniversary of the collapse of another horror.

This was the first live concert I've "attended" in months, shared with many around the world through technological miracles that are helping us stay in touch in this severely isolating era. It was worth being up at 5 to see and hear small contingents of the BPO play to an empty hall under the direction of Kirill Petrenko.

Pepys, the diarist of Restoration England whose intimate chronicles  of the 1660s include details of the plague in London,  provides premonitions of life under Covid-19. The 2020 European Concert was thoroughly under the spell of the pandemic, yet somehow transcended it. Petrenko nodded to the concertmaster instead of shaking hands. The musicians maintained social distance, placed judiciously along three stage tiers. They had been tested for the virus beforehand, the broadcast host informed us.

The concert's first half didn't require changes beyond spacing. It was a triptych of pieces for strings (plus claves as sole percussion in "Fratres" by Arvo Pärt).  "Fratres," a contemporary hit in several versions, has never sounded so moving as it did here. The deceptively simple representation of a procession of monks gained something uncanny in this set-up.

The program benefited from a bracing piece between "Fratres" and the equally solemn, tunefully restrained "Adagio for Strings" by Samuel Barber. It was Gyorgy Ligeti's "Ramifications," a tightly shifting soundscape in which thematic clarity is jettisoned in favor of textural intensity. It was amazing to hear the effect of such a performance hanging together as it must in spite of a seating arrangement that threatened to overemphasize individual voices.

The familiar Barber was given an admirable interpretation. The great high-register climax was not overstressed, as it is in some performances that flip the piece's memorial import, suggesting the wrong kind of climax. I also liked the prominence of the viola countermelody early in the performance, which reminded me of how well Krzysztof Urbanski brought out that passage with the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra several years ago.

A brief intermission offered viewers a well-done film documentary of the European Concert's three-decade history, following which was a greater challenge for the musicians: a chamber-orchestra version of Gustav Mahler's Symphony No. 4. Erwin Stein's arrangement was insightful and true to Mahler's idiom in a modestly scaled work that had to be even more modestly scaled here.

Especially effective was the reading the chamber orchestra gave of the Adagio, said to be Mahler's favorite of all his slow movements. The two keyboard instruments used, piano and small organ, helped flesh out the harmonies, with the organ especially useful in enveloping the solo winds in a sostenuto atmosphere. Episodes in the minor mode were particularly trenchant with these reduced forces.

The finale, a setting of a blissful vision of heavenly feasting, capped the performance in a manner that makes this symphony a favorite of many who normally despise Mahler for lack of restraint and emotional elephantiasis; it was the only Mahler symphony the late Raymond Leppard ever programmed in his long tenure as the ISO's music director.

The solo soprano, Christiane Karg, put across the song that dominates the movement as if well aware of her worldwide audience; the empty hall did not tempt her to mute her expressiveness. I loved the reverent hush with which she sang, and Petrenko lingered on, the line "Saint Martha shall be the cook." Saint Martha, Michael Steinberg explains in his masterly essay on this symphony, "is the patron saint of those engaged in service of the needy."

So the reference to her in Mahler's Fourth took on special meaning, since the concert was dedicated to refugee children suffering particularly from the extra burden of the pandemic as they shelter indefinitely on a Greek island. The musicians had waived their usual compensation to contribute to UNESCO aid for these victims, and the audience was invited to consider similar donations.

The promise in the work's final lines is well-suited to the world's need to sustain hope, both for the resumption of public artistic events and for true solutions to the current plague: "Die englischen Stimmen / Ermuntern die Sinnen! / Dass Alles für Freuden erwacht."  (The angelic voices gladden our senses, so that all awake for joy). May it be so.