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In performance: NSO family concert

Web-only review:

NSO offers kids classical music as whodunit
by Charles T. Downey

A family concert by the National Symphony Orchestra on Sunday afternoon featured the Washington debut of Nathaniel Stookey's "The Composer Is Dead." Commissioned and premiered by the San Francisco Symphony in 2006, the work is a dark updating of more familiar children's introductions to the orchestra, with text by Lemony Snicket written as a grimly humorous detective story. The composer of the work has been murdered, and suspicion falls on the musicians on the stage: One by one, they provide musical alibis that simultaneously prove their innocence and identify the quirks of their instruments.
(read more after the jump)

The strings were playing a waltz at a ball, a tune that is then deconstructed into its melodic and accompanying parts, including the self-pitying viola countermelody that no one will ever care about or hear. The dizzy flutes were imitating bird songs, and the arrogant brass were playing noisy fanfares. Along the way Stookey's inventive score has episodes in various jazz and classical idioms, including probably the only duet for tuba and harp in the orchestral repertoire, all punctuated by an ominous refrain heard whenever death is mentioned.
This culminates in a virtuosic weaving together of quotations from the classical music pantheon, mostly famous funeral marches, Requiem Masses and other death-obsessed works: "Beethoven - dead! Bach - dead! Brahms - dead!" Dying is not such a bad thing for composers, we learn, because it is only then that orchestras and audiences will begin to take their work seriously.

Author Daniel Handler (a.k.a. Snicket) is an unapologetic champion of classical music, and with Stookey, another San Francisco native, he has created perhaps the best response to the tiresome trope of the death of classical music. After the second performance, two rows of elated, pint-sized concertgoers lined up to find out more about the work by posing questions to the composer, the conductor and two of the musicians. It was a very good thing to see.

-- Charles T. Downey

By Anne Midgette  |  May 11, 2010; 5:37 AM ET
Categories:  local reviews  
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Since classical music lives on, I wonder who in this wonderful town will be helping to prepare Washington adult and older student audiences for the first regular concert of the National Symphony Orchestra 2010-11 season (in late September) under the new NSO and Kennedy Center music director Christoph Eschenbach -- a program that features the local premiere of younger German composer Matthias Pintscher’s very powerful 25 minute-long composition “Hérodiade Fragments” based on a text by Stéphane Mallarmé and scored for solo soprano (the very well-reviewed - in Philadelphia - young American soprano Marisol Montalvo) and large orchestra -- paired with the Beethoven Symphony #9 for large orchestra, four soloists, and chorus. It is a highly promising and ambitious program, and one that I worry local audiences will have trouble appreciating given the relative brevity of the time-based art of musical composition and Washington’s currently distressed institutional musical culture.

Is there an educational opportunity here for the Washington Post music staff, Classical WETA-FM, and the Kennedy Center/NSO?

Six years ago this autumn, Philadelphia music critic Bernard Jacobson wrote that
Ms. Montalvo was a young soloist who “sounded as stunning as she looked, and who dovetailed her phrases with those of the orchestral soloists to magical effect. There have, it is true, been false dawns before. But I do not think it excessively rash to suggest that Pintscher’s is the most arresting compositional voice to have emerged from Germany since Hans Werner Henze.”

(Interestingly, Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge commissioned Paul Hindemith, in 1944 and then at Yale, to write a 22 minute melodrama and ballet [for Martha Graham] based upon the same violent Mallarme ‘Herodiade’ poem, which explores the violence that lies at the heart of Herodias’s and her daughter Salome’s world. That score is now in the Moldenhauer Archives of the Library of Congress. I heard that work performed and recited – but not danced – at the LOC in the 1980s. Others reading here probably did too.)

Posted by: snaketime1 | May 11, 2010 10:44 AM | Report abuse

Those in the San Francisco Bay area this Friday and Sunday can hear Michael Morgan lead the Oakland East Bay Symphony (with mezzo-soprano Layna Chianakas – “a strong, cutting voice … projecting real pathos” – The Boston Globe) in a similarly ambitious (and not light-weight) program pairing American composer Jake Heggie’s deeply moving song cycle “The Deepest Desire: Four Meditations on Love” based on the poetry of Sister Helen Prejean (the real Catholic nun who is also a character in the American opera “Dead Man Walking”) – with the Beethoven Choral Symphony #9. Perhaps the NSO – under Christoph Eschenbach, Rita Shapiro, Nigel Boon, and Detective Chief Superintendent Christopher Foyle - will invite Maestro Morgan to guest conduct this work at the same time that the Washington National Opera stages Mr. Heggie’s “Moby Dick.”

[Christoph Eschenbach led the San Francisco Symphony, last week, in French composer Marc-André Dalbavie’s “La Source d’un regard” and Washington audiences can reasonably expect to hear that work under Maestro Eschenbach and the NSO in the 2011-12 season.]

Posted by: snaketime1 | May 11, 2010 10:44 AM | Report abuse

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