Photos by Lauren Rock.
Anthony Bannon | Guest Reviewer
What a delight, as Alexander Schimpf played Beethoven’s silences, the gaps between sound, and the Chautauqua Symphony Orchestra established a balance to the evening air, a summer idyll. It was the luxury of a fine art at Chautauqua.
It doesn’t get much better, and the mid-sized audience knew just what was happening, as it fell into the silence and stilled as gatherings do when something really special is happening. Even the cicadas, I swear, quieted their background accompaniment for a few moments.
The Piano Concerto in B-flat Major was young Ludwig van Beethoven’s first performed piece under public auspice, in Vienna, when he was in his early 20s, and just his 19th work created. Many today — and even then — hear Mozart and Haydn in the young composer’s work, though Thursday in the Amphitheater, another young German pianist held his audience spellbound with a timing and delicacy that invited their participation.
That was a rare invitation. So often music holds an audience at the arm’s length of an assertive aesthetic. In that instance, pianist and extraordinary young American conductor Andrew Grams, conspired to bring the audience in close and personal, leaving room at the table for all of us to join in the art of creation.
After that, it should be noted, Grams closed with the wallop of a full-tilt boogie creation, one of the last of the great Hungarian Béla Bartók, his “Concerto for Orchestra” first performed in 1944 in Boston, just before the composer’s death. But more on that later.
Now, it may sound far-fetched to make so much about the silence in a concert, but I want to be honest and thorough about it and not overlook or let it pass by in the dross of sounds during a summer season of concerts.
I want to summon to attention that with pianist Schimpf, much awarded lately around the world and wearing full formal tails, each note — each note sometimes isolated by breaths of quiet — each note seemed summoned and touched singly, intentionally, gently on the keyboard and lifted softly, preciously alone and for all it was worth, particularly during the Adagio of the Beethoven piece, called his second piano concerto.
Those were rare moments, and the audience got it, and when the piece was over, after the contrasting romp of youthful composer’s play in the third and final movement, a Rondo, molto allegro, the slight crowd leapt to its feet with sustained shouts from around the hall.
Conductor Grams, who is now in demand around the world, worked so well with Schimpf. They have common ground, if not contemporaneously. Schimpf won the coveted Cleveland International Piano Competition in 2011, which introduced his talents to the United States, and Grams, several years earlier had completed a three-year appointment as assistant conductor of the Cleveland Orchestra.
Their timing together at Chautauqua was impeccable. One knows when it is right on, exactly matching in this here and that now, clicking, right together, like a perfectly fitting key into a lock — in this instance, the moving targets of both key and lock matching and inserting without hesitation in real time. It is magic when that happens so perfectly between strange soloist and orchestra, led by a conductor strange to them both 48 hours ago. Magic.
Certainly a tool and dye man who had done this work on behalf of a complex machine would understand the pride of ownership the audience held. And we get it, too. We were witness to an analytic interpretation that stretched through the past centuries, touching the composer and then adding the extraordinary witness of this time — and talents. The CSO in the Beethoven and in the Stravinsky concerto that preceded it (in D, from 1947) was in such accord, such harmony of means and ends — a remarkable like-mindedness.
The orchestra announced its intentions with a small opening concerto.
Similar to both the Beethoven and the Bartók in several elements — among them its brisk assertive beginning like Beethoven, and its relentless closing like Bartók — the orchestra played through it all totally in balance with a summer evening in a vast space. Its sound as if at a distance, not overpowering, left polite room for us to be there too, reaching into Stravinsky’s melodies. His first movement yearned for a finish, filled with life and with getting there, one measure at a time, until the build at the end. Like a perpetual motion technique, Rondo: Allegro, the last moment of the third movement, suddenly cut out of space, like a piece of aggressively torn paper that calls it all to a dramatic close.
The Bartók ended the evening. Conductor Grams, stylishly dressed in a grey-fronted formal vest with a black tie, comporting an erect, declarative manner, addressed an almost fully loaded orchestra, two harps and a gang of percussion, and mastered the intricate, difficult rhythms and moods of Bartók’s life-ending work.
The concerto is an opportunity for an orchestra to shine, and it plays extremes through a language system that includes many of the building blocks of an orchestra experience. Rather than a concerto that features a particular instrument, Bartók gave this concerto as a gift to almost all the players.
It begins with the richly connotative quiet of his signature “Night Music,” an extended passage of hushed expectation, punctuated by the flute sending sounds as if from nature — the bass and cello a rising temolando, with a flutter from the flute and then assertions from the trumpet — lifted up from the melancholy, expectant, a great statement of the vibrancies of life.
Grams decided to ask for even more from the orchestra, more presence in the “Night Music,” to match the closing night at Chautauqua, more amp from the orchestra than expected. And he got it — dissident, noisy, clangorous contrasts, and then into the calmer moments in the second movement which paired instruments as if on display. Then into the third — “Night Music” again leading to reflections of fearful, mysterious death. Out again for a sometimes comic fourth movement, making fun of marching music — some say a satire on the Nazis, some say on the composer Dmitri Shostakovich; maybe both. Finally, into a Hellzapoppin’ conclusion, a perpetual motion extravaganza, like “Flight of the Bumblebee” or something by the contemporary John Adams, racing on and then catching breathe with the oboe, through a playful, vivacious breakneck romp, slashing violins, shrill horns, timpani doing its own echo chamber, swirling form out of chaos, and ready, set, go. Until it ends, all of a rousing sudden.
Oh, what a night. And how the orchestra did shine with its new friends, Grams and Schimpf.
Anthony Bannon is the executive director of the Burchfield Penney Art Center, a multi-arts venue on the campus of Buffalo State College. Previously, he was an arts writer for The Buffalo News, a filmmaker and director of George Eastman House in Rochester, N.Y.