Reviews of Live Musical Performances

Dr. Phillip M. Feldman

Santa Barbara Symphone, guest conductor Dirk Brossé conducting, performed 16 March, 2019, playing the musical score of the film Amadeus in accompaniment to the film. This was my first experience of this type of performance. There were moments when I became sufficiently caught up in the story that I forgot about the orchestra and choir, but I was aware of them most of the time. I believe that the live accompaniment definitely enhanced my enjoyment of the film. And, there's no harm in enjoying Amadeus as long as one remembers that the idea that Antonio Salieri sought the downfall of Mozart not only has no historical basis, but is completely inconsistent with everything that we know about Salieri, who was a thoroughly decent human being.

Russian National Orchestra, Mikhail Pletnev conducting, performed 27 Feb., 2019. The following pieces were performed:

The pre-concert lecture by Derek Katz, Professor of Music History, UCSB Department of Music, significantly aided my understanding of Rachmaninoff's music, as well as that of the man himself. One of Katz's observations that stuck in my mind was that while most music introduces the most important thematic material at the outset, Rachmaninoff's Piano Concerto No. 2 introduces the most important thematic material only in the second movement. I'd never thought about this before.

I can't end this review without mentioning my favorite Rachmaninoff piece, the Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini. It is tempting to say that the composer introduces the most powerful and moving material in Variation 18; as the video linked earlier in this paragraph explains, the material in that variation is technically just a rehashing of the original theme, but it certainly feels like something completely new.

Santa Barbara Symphony, Nir Kabaretti conducting, performed 16 Feb., 2019. Three pieces were performed:

After the previous rather disappointing performance, the S.B. Symphony has largely redeemed itself. If I allowed fractional ratings, I'd assign 4.5 stars. Since I don't allow this, I'm giving the Symphony the benefit of the doubt.

Santa Barbara Symphony, Nir Kabaretti conducting, performed 19 Jan., 2019. Three pieces were performed:

I'd like to comment briefly on the USC-created animated film that accompanied the Mussorgsky performance. It is hard to make such things work, because any animation is bound to show us something at variance from what we would ourselves imagine if left to our own devices. But, this problem was compounded by several avoidable issues. The animation lacked coherence and a clear connection to the music and more importantly, a clear connection to the subject matter of the paintings and to the cultural milieu in which they were created. The one part that was coherent and well-connected to both the painting and the music was Ballet of the chicks in their shells, which begins with a young girl looking at a picture, with elements of the picture then becoming alive in her imagination. This was delightful, and would have been perfect if it had provided closure by returning to the young girl (and with the painting again in its original state), instead of leaving us in the realm of her imagination.

Santa Barbara Symphony, Nir Kabaretti conducting, performed four pieces—three Spanish and one French—with Pablo Sáinz Villegas as soloist on the guitar in two of the Spanish pieces, as well as in three encores, 19 Nov., 2017.

I'm no fan of the New York Times, but agree wholeheartedly with their description of Villegas' virtuosic playing characterized by irresistible exuberance. His performances nearly equal the crisp, precise renderings of John Williams, although Villegas exceeds Williams in showmanship.

Chicago Symphony, Riccardo Muti conducting, performed the Schubert Symphony No. 8 in B-minor ("Unfinished"), Mozart Clarinet Concerto in A Major, and Robert Schumann Symphony N. 2 in C Major, 21 Oct., 2017.

The program notes for the Schubert symphony begin as follows:

We don't know why Schubert never finished his B-Minor symphony. This has been one of music's great unanswered questions for more than a hundred years, and, despite some intelligent speculation, we still come up empty-handed today. At least we know that he didn't finish it. For many years, music lovers persisted in believing that the missing movements sat, forgotten, in some Viennese attic. On the other hand, scholars no longer suggest that Schubert intended to write a two-movement sympony, giving the composer credit for a bold stroke that, for all his daring, is [sic] not his.

Perhaps because I have no training in composition, this piece sounds perfectly finished, regardless of the number of movements. It is always a delight to listen to it, especially when played so well.

It is impossible not to enjoy and be touched by a fine performance of Mozart's Clarinet Concerto. Muti reigned in the orchestra just enough to prevent it from overpowering the delicate sound of the soloist, Stephen Williamson.

My wife and I should have left during the intermission, because Schumann's Symphony No. 2 is Teutonic, Wagnerian, and frankly, boring.

Overall, this was a strong performance. (When the Santa Barbara Symphony performs, I often have the feeling that they needed a few more rehearsals, but I had no such feeling tonight). But, my rating reflects not only the quality of the playing, but also the selection of pieces, hence the four stars.

Santa Barbara Symphony, Nir Kabaretti conducting, performed 14 Oct., 2017. This all-Mozart program, entitled Mozart in Dance, consisted of the "Jupiter" Symphony and the Requiem, with the Requiem including a novel dance accompaniment choreographed by William Soleau. The musical part of the program was quite solid, and I particularly enjoyed the Jupiter, despite having heard it so many times. At least for me, the dancing (by the State Street Ballet), although expertly done, detracted from the music. The dance movements were overly repetitious and lacked any obvious connection to the music and lyrics, even including a romantic interlude that contrasted sharply with the theme. I don't know whether the Requiem could be interpreted in dance in a way that would enhance the music, but this interpretation certainly did not work for me.

Note: My rating of this performance (see below) does not reflect the (as always) outstanding pre-performance “Behind the Music” talk by Saïd Ramon Araïza. Ramon knows more about the history of music than anyone whom I can think of (with the sole exception of Prof. Robert Greenberg), and at the same time manages to be wonderfully engaging and entertaining. I've been agitating for the last two years for the Santa Barbara Symphony to record these lectures, and was informed by Kevin Marvin (Executive Director of the Symphony) prior to this performance that recording of these lectures has begun, initially with audio only (which, as far as I'm concerned, is completely adequate).

Last update: 20 Mar., 2019