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Tag: Rowan Pierce

Beating the Heat With Baroque Subtlety at the Naumburg Bandshell in Central Park

Tuesday night might have been the quietest yet the most dynamic concert at the Naumburg Bandshell in Central Park in several years. Harpsichordist and conductor Richard Egarr cautioned the crowd that they were in for a program of sometimes crazy, sometimes quirky material, and his comments were on the money, in the context of the very stylized world of 17th century British chamber music. Conducting animatedly from behind the keyboard, he led period instrument ensemble the Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra through an often hushed, minutely detailed performance whose passion was in the subtleties.

Believe everything you’ve heard about soprano Rowan Pierce. The highlight of the night was a long, matter-of-fact but meticulously modulated lament from Purcell’s Fairy Queen suite, which she approached with a powerglide vibrato, completely in control yet emotionally bereft, over a poignantly waltzing, suddenly crescendoing backdrop.. She’s an old soul. There’s a lot to be said for classical singers being most empowered to channel emotion in their native tongue, and that may have had something to do with how vividly Pierce moved from a hint of goofy vaudeville in the second of three songs by the vastly underrated John Blow, to a very distant, very proto-circus rock menace, and then to the sorrowful interludes among the highlights of Purcell’s magnum opus which Egarr had cherrypicked for the second half of the program.

Christopher Gibbons, Egarr explained, had the misfortune to be the son of Orlando Gibbons, a name very familiar to any fan of British polyphony. Opening with the younger Gibbons’ Fantasy in A Minor immediately put the audience on notice that this would not be a sedate, predictable evening, the string orchestra nimbly negotiating the piece’s odd cadences and strikingly forward-looking harmonies.

The ensemble left no doubt that Matthew Locke’s Curtain Tune, from an adaptation of Shakespeare’s The Tempest, was an opening-credits theme. Pierce’s seething restraint in Bess of Bedlam, the third of a trio of Purcell songs – better described as partitas – felt visceral, over Egarr’s spacious harpsichord, Adam Cockerham’s elegantly plucked theorbo and William Skeen’s looming, stark cello.

Among many other captivating moments, there was also a coy Purcell rondo ostensibly written for monkeys and an absolutely gorgeous guitar-and-harpsichord song, Lovely Selina, predating the Moody Blues and other pastorally-inclined balladeers of the rock era by two centuries.

For 114 years, from 1905 through 2019, the Naumburg Concerts in Central Park became one of the longest-running annual concert series in world history. Introducing this show, Christopher London, scion of the Naumburg philanthropic legacy, offered hope that 2021 will turn out to be the first of another 114. He didn’t assume any credit for the heroism of keeping classical music performance alive when it has never been more imperiled, but that credit is due.

Gallons of ink, virtual and otherwise, have been spilled over the greying of audiences for classical music, and the shortage of new generations to maintain it. But all that is a drop in the bucket in the face of the New Abnormal being schemed up by Facebook, and Microsoft, and the rest of the surveillance-industrial complex hell-bent on destroying the performing arts and moving all communication from the real world to a virtual one. That the Naumburg organization would seek simply to keep a universal human tradition alive is a braver move than founder Elkan Naumburg ever could have imagined. Although by all accounts, he would have been on the front lines fighting for it.

This year’s final Naumburg Bandshell concert is Aug 3 at 7:30 PM with the East Coast Chamber Orchestra and pianist Shai Wosner playing works by Mozart, Golijov and others. Show up early – an hour and a half isn’t too early – if you want a seat.

Vivid, Epic Symphonic Desolation

In a time of chilling isolation for so many people, the centerpiece of today’s album is the Sinfonia Antarctica, British composer Ralph Vaughan Williams’ seventh and most haunting symphony, just released by the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Andrew Manze and streaming at Spotify.

This 1953 epic is an exploration of vastness and all-pervasive cold. Some might call much of this classical heavy metal. It’s rarely performed, partly because it requires such lavish instrumentation. There’s an organ that leaps in to shock you for a few bars. The score also calls for a choir, plus wordless vocals from a soprano (Rowan Pierce, in this case), a wind machine and a small warehouse worth of percussion. In that sense, it’s sort of the Nutcracker for adults. No matter how you feel about Vaughan Williams’ music, you can’t fault him for thinking outside the box.

Thematically, the piece traces the grim trail of Robert Falcon Scott’s doomed 1912 Antarctic expedition. For a composer, this subject matter is problematic in that there comes a point where desolation becomes interminable (Sarah Kirkland Snyder grappled with that same issue in Penelope, her exploration of the Odyssey from the home front). This is a long piece of music – and the orchestra weather the storm, titanically.

In his weatherbeaten voice, marrator Timothy West introduces each of the symphony’s five movements, the first with a quote from Percy Shelley – totally Iron Maiden, right? The mighty, somber opening theme telegraphs where this beast is going. Icy tubular bells, gothic soprano vocalese and echoes of the creepiest section of Saint-Saens’ Carnival of the Animals appear quickly. Agitated swirls from the strings – “We’ve got to call this off!” – are answered by cruel insistence from the brass, underscored by the stomp of the bass drums. A monochromatic landscape has seldom been so colorful.

The second movement has resolute brass against a spinning string section, a gleefully sinister dance from the xylophone and closes with a a pensive first encounter with the endlessness of the glacial terrain. Everything slows down in the third movement, with a pervasive ominousness, up to a rumbling gloom and Graham Eccles’ big organ break: this orchestra’s low strings are fantastic here.

The wistful fourth movement pictures the men of the expedition missing their sweeties at home, but a lightly trudging hope against hope from strings and high winds pushes that out of the picture. As the symphony sways toward its untimely end, a determined brightness persists against all kinds of low-register foreshadowing, but that heroism proves unsustainable and fades down to the washes of a ghostly angel choir.

The record also includes an equally vivid recording of the composers’s ninth and final symphony, notable for what was in 1958 the innovation of three saxophones amid the winds. It has a similarly macabre Tess of the D’Urbervilles subtext.

There’s looming trouble, anxiously silken clarity from the saxes, Tschaikovskian drama and moody Dvorakian landscape in the first movement. That drama continues with a lonely solo flugelhorn intro and rises from a martial menace to a gloomy sweep in the second: there seems to be a sudden moment where poor Tess meets her fate.

Movement three gets a suspiciously satirical strut to its militaristic pulses and stomps: a listener gets the feeling that the composer was not a fan of violence. The orchestra grow calmer and more lustrous as the conclusion begins, but once again trouble is on the horizon, drawing closer and closer. Daytime struggle alternates with brief, nocturnal respite: nighttime eventually wins. A momumental achievement for this inspired orchestra.