When I wrote advertising copy for the Minnesota Orchestra, there were certain words I refused to use unless they were truly accurate. One of those words was "virtuoso." In marketing, it's common to pump up the description of something in order to capture a potential consumer's interest and marketing in classical music is no different. But I rarely used "virtuoso," and then only for artists who had truly earned it. Steven Isserlis is one of those artists. Wow.
|Steven Isserlis (From southbankcentre.co.uk)|
Several years ago, Isserlis performed John Tavener's The Protecting Veil for Cello and Orchestra with the Minnesota Orchestra. A profoundly spiritual piece of music, it challenges the listener and performers alike to listen closely to what's around, above, below and behind the notes. Isserlis inhabited this music with his cello. Wow.
So I was looking forward to hearing him perform Edward Elgar's Cello Concerto with the Minnesota Orchestra last night.
Elgar's Cello Concerto, completed and premiered in 1919, traverses the range of emotions that fill grief. Isserlis's muscular bowing in the first movement gave the sound weight, like the cold hard stone of anger in the stomach. The lyrical theme does nothing, really, to lighten the mood, either. It is pure elegy. The second movement is like a race but not a foot race, a race with time itself. I watched Isserlis's bowing wrist with fascination -- it never appeared to tense or lose control as he played insanely fast. The third movement, a slow one, was like speaking for five minutes on one breath slowly. The beginning of the last movement recalls the opening of the first and includes a cadenza for the soloist that leads into the body of the music that sounds almost defiant in its determination.
This concerto has mystified me for a long time. But last night, suddenly, I got it. It's like Brahms' Second Piano Concerto with its four movement structure, and like a symphony in form. I could see the relationship of the orchestra and soloist as they played -- yes, there is a strong visual element to live performance that enhances and enriches the sonic experience. Isserlis and his cello conversed with the orchestra, cajoled, complained, wailed and embraced it. I heard lines I had not heard clearly before, and saw the soloist as part of the orchestra in sections. The sound of the cello -- its timbre -- pierces in the higher register and pulls in the lower realms. Isserlis commanded it masterfully, using his technique to illuminate the music. Wow.
His solo bows afterward included the orchestra with his arms open wide. He sat down again to play an encore, standing to speak -- to verbalize the joy of the moment playing again with the Minnesota Orchestra in Orchestra Hall, and complimenting the musicians -- before sitting again, laying his bow on the floor and playing his happy-sounding encore entirely in pizzicato. Wow. Thank you, Steven Isserlis for taking me on your Elgar journey with you.
Out of this World
The second half of the concert showcased the Minnesota Orchestra performing Gustav Holst's The Planets, conducted by Yan Pascal Tortelier (who also conducted the Elgar). Elgar kept us earthbound with his cello concerto, but Holst takes us to the planets in our solar system by way of the astrological personalities of the planets. If a listener also hears echoes of John Williams' score for the movie Star Wars at times, they are truly there as Williams was influenced by this work.
Each movement is a tone poem of a planet beginning with the martial, dark and aggressive Mars. Venus brings light, peace and romance in sound while Mercury scurries and leaps. Jolly Jupiter dances and cartwheels right into the Grim Reaper of Saturn. I found the Magician Uranus to be creepy and scary -- "Chuckie" kept popping into my mind, or the carnival in Ray Bradbury's Something Wicked This Way Comes. Mystical Neptune filled the hall with ethereal sound from the woodwinds, xylophone, and the women of the Minnesota Chorale.
Holst's work functions effectively as a concerto for orchestra, showing off dynamic range, different sections, ensemble discipline and control. Tortelier conducted without a baton, something that always fascinates me. Usually batonless means the conductor will use more of his body to communicate with the orchestra and Tortelier was no exception. But he didn't distract from the music.
With the infamous renovation of Orchestra Hall and the new lobby area, I was concerned the most about the acoustics in the hall. I needn't have worried. I heard no significant change in the acoustics. I asked a musician post-concert what the musicians thought, and he said they'd thought it was just a little drier than it was, and they could definitely hear themselves better on stage.
The audience responded enthusiastically to the orchestra, Mr. Isserlis and Mr. Tortelier. The standing ovations thundered and shrill whistles pierced the air as well as bravos. I spotted President and CEO Michael Henson in the first balcony, now Balcony A. I wondered what he thought about as he listened to the music. Was he truly focused on the music or did his mind wander to other things? When he surveyed the audience standing and cheering, did he understand why? We cheered for the music and for the musicians on stage -- the sole reason I go to Orchestra Hall and I know there were many others who are the same.
|Before Renovation (Credit: KSalfelder)|
I LOVE the new restrooms!