Friday, December 30, 2016

My favorite concert of 2016

The Free Times's final issue of the year bore a headline that neatly summarizes the feelings many people seem to have about the 12 months just gone by: "2016: The Worst."  Between the shocking result of the election and the seemingly out-of-proportion rate at which some beloved and iconic pop musicians of high regard (David Bowie, Prince, George Michael, among others) were snatched too soon from our midst, it's an understandable emotion.

But the juxtaposition of life-affirming beauty and tragedy, of hope and despair, is an ever-present element of the human condition. It has ever been thus. And in that spirit, as other aspects of the culture have gotten year-end retrospectives, it's worth just taking a few moments to celebrate the vibrant classical music scene in Columbia and what it brought us in 2016. And on that count, 2016 was definitely NOT the worst, in fact it was maybe one of the best ever.

I didn't get to every event in town of course, not even close to and other life obligations tend to get in the way, but here's a great thing that I've noticed over the span of the 12 years I've lived here: the breadth and depth of cultural offerings in this town has expanded so much that one no longer feels [as] desperately depressed to have to miss this one or that one now and then for unavoidable reasons. And, as many of my friends and colleagues have remarked recently, we are now often having to choose between simultaneous events, both of which we might like to have attended. On one level, that may be frustrating; on another level, it's the sign of a burgeoning, maturing cultural scene within our city.

Undoubtedly two of the biggest stories of the classical music year in Columbia would probably be the appearance in April of the legendary new-music group eighth blackbird under the joint auspices of Southern Exposure New Music Series and the Indie Grits festival, and the new Juno Concerto by Bela Fleck commissioned by the South Carolina Philharmonic, premiered by Fleck and the SCP in November. (neither of which I was in town to be able to see 😞 ) These three entities (SouEx, Indie Grits, SCP) all did fantastic work in 2016.

Among concerts I was able to get to, Chamber Music on Main continued to thrive with stellar performances by world-class artists from the touring/festival world, culminating in an appearance by Brooklyn Rider in December (meaning we got to hear two Beethoven quartets live in Columbia within a month's span, more on that in a minute); Opera at USC* continued to astound, particularly with a delightful Barber of Seville in February and an astonishingly beautiful "Sunday in the Park with George" by Stephen Sondheim in early November; in June, the Southeastern Piano Festival brought us several nights of legendary pianism, including Sergei Babayan performing the complete Bach Well-Tempered Clavier Volume I at the Columbia Museum of Art, and Ann Schein's regal recital of big juicy repertoire (Beethoven's Les Adieux Sonata, Schumann Davidsbundlertanze, Chopin B minor Sonata) in the resonant acoustics of Trinity Episcopal Cathedral.

Marina Lomazov absolutely owned the Rachmaninoff Piano Concerto No. 2 in a dazzling but also highly poetic and lyrical performance in September with the USC Symphony. Also in September we saw the Columbia performance at 701 CCA's gallery space of USC's Experimental Music Ensemble under the direction of Greg Stuart, reprising a performance of works by Michael Pisaro that they had done several days earlier in New York City to great acclaim.

One of the premier wind quintets around today, the Imani Winds, arrived for a spectacular several-day residency (the first of several planned) at USC in October, and electrified a bursting-at-the-seams crowd with their concert on the Southern Exposure Series, including a scintillating and completely successful arrangement of Stravinsky's "Rite of Spring."

The quintet's energy and precision transformed their mere five instruments into a large and powerful ensemble.

It is another USC School of Music ongoing residency, that of the Parker Quartet, that brought to Columbia what I felt (as an audience member) was the concert of the year. That was their Nov. 3 performance in the SOM's recital hall (a great acoustic space for quartets) of Beethoven's Op. 130 (with its original finale, the rather unhinged "Grosse Fuge") and Schubert's massive G Major Quartet No. 15, D. 887.

This was a program that challenged and asked the best of both performers and audience, with two titanic works that in their own way represent the pinnacle of the genre. Written less than a year apart (late 1825 and 1826) each quartet explodes the tradition of the form and genre developed over the previous half-century, and points the way to the future, but in completely different ways  The Beethoven is still bewildering (nearly two centuries later) to follow structurally as a listener with its six movements, and concluding it with the Grosse Fuge is the icing on the cake. (Beethoven's publisher pleaded successfully with LVB to replace this final movement with something more palatable for the players and audiences of the day. The Fugue remained as a stand-alone composition with its own opus number, but some quartets---like the Parker Quartet---perform Op. 130 with its original finale as Beethoven first envisioned). This most uncompromising of Beethoven's late adventures into fugal writing assaults the listener with 128 measures right off the bat of music marked forte or more and taxes the players to the max. The PQ rode the beast triumphantly all the way to the end, and then returned after intermission with an equally massive work from the astonishingly-productive last couple of years of Schubert's life.

The Schubert G Major may be more structurally comprehensible than the Beethoven but the sheer winding scope of each movement makes it occasionally a challenge for the listener to retain a sense of the relationship of any particular moment to the whole. What makes this piece miraculous is Schubert's mastery of the harmonic language of his day in taking us from stability to instability in a second, as in the very opening of the work which establishes a major-to-minor juxtaposition immediately, or areas where Schubert has modulated us so far away from the tonic key that we have a real, palpable sense of being "a long way from home." And in terms of texture, Schubert breaks new ground for the string quartet here, with tremulos, extremes of register, and a willingness to push the envelope, whether it's the feeling that the quartet is going to rip the strings off their instruments in the driving tarentella of the finale, or a heartbreaking quiet fragility that seems to ask the players to use but one hair of their bow at times.

It was a tribute to the Columbia audience the Parker Quartet has developed over their several years of visiting here, that they would ask us to go on this journey with them. Always brilliant and accomplished interpreters, they brought a new level of maturity and passion and risk-taking to this mammoth program. Those of us lucky enough to be in attendance knew we were being granted special access to magical and wonderful truths, some of the best of what humans can achieve. It was a glow that was shattered only a few days later with the national election.  The Free Times may well find that they have to repeat their year-end headline for 2017 and beyond, if the signs of the national unraveling continue, but works like Op. 130 and D. 887 have survived through worse and will always bring joy and revelation to those open to receiving it.

PS: on a personal note, 2016 brought special thrills to me in terms of performances I was fortunate to be a part of here in town: it was exciting beyond compare to collaborate in February with Morihiko Nakahara and the South Carolina Philharmonic in both the Ravel G Major Concerto and Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue; and in November, I joined the Parker Quartet in their second residency concert for the Brahms Quintet in F minor----a joy to work with musicians of such personal charm and deep musical integrity. We had a great time.

photo credits: Southeastern Piano Festival; Phillip Bush; Jamie Jung
*full disclosure: my wife is vocal coach for Opera at USC productions

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