ASO: Robert Spano with David Coucheron

The ASO violins left me wondering if they had to use a large number of subs or if they had even rehearsed this concert en ensemble. They were really off this evening and you could even see bows moving out of sync and in opposite directions of the rest of the section on numerous occasions, especially during Strauss’ Till Eulenspiegel, which certainly didn’t help me appreciate a piece that has never really caught my ear. I’m also not a huge fan of Brahms’ violin concerto, for that matter. Top that off with me, due to an unfortunate series of phone conversations that I had to have today, being in a mood that seeing Lauri Stallings — a choreographer who has been called out by the NY Times for blatantly ripping off other artists and, in her supreme ignorance of her art form, has likely caused physical harm to her students in the past or, at the very least, taught them absolute worst practices in regards to basic dancer safety — really got under my skin. Despite all of that, I can, in all honesty (and with a little help of some wine during intermission), say that I enjoyed the evening’s concert.

So, if I don’t really dig on the Brahms or the Strauss, why would I go to this concert? Two reasons: first, I do try to make it out to the ASO’s performances of contemporary music and this evening they gave a world premier of a piece by ASO Bassist Michael Kurth; and second, I am used to hearing Coucheron play more sonorous, lyrical pieces like the violin concerti of Mendelssohn or Sibelius and was very curious as to what he’d bring out of the Brahms. I found myself quite satisfied for both of those reasons: the Kurth piece was an enjoyable mound of groovy boom and Coucheron brought a lot of character to the concerto, at times bringing out a warmth that I don’t think that I’ve ever heard come from the piece.

I was sitting next to a grouchy but entertaining woman who proclaimed, after the intermission, that she hasn’t liked anything written from the mid 20th century on and that she’d be holding her nose through Kurth’s piece. I explained that this was a man who liked to write tangos so it probably wouldn’t be an atonal experiment with peculiar rhythms and that it probably would at least be tolerable. Still, she stuck to her guns and said that she’d love to tell me that she liked it but probably wouldn’t be able to. I challenged her on her assertion about the latter half of the 20th century and she said that she didn’t like anything from Copland — even Appalachian spring — and that John Adams’ operas were the worst. I found this to be as comical as I found it to be sad, but I appreciate that she was at least willing to buy a ticket and sit through the concert. Apparently the Brahms was worth it for her.

Anyway, as I said, I enjoyed the piece a lot. It opened with a big, slow crescendo which, according to Kurth, was inspired by a sunrise in January on Tybee Island. I, having grown up watching sunrises from Tybee Beach, found it more expressive of a sunrise over mountains or cliffs, but, regardless, it was a really strong start to the piece. The second movement, entitled “Beneath: My Sinister Groove Machine” began with a big loud chord that I think may have been more effective if the first and second movements were performed without pause. It then moved into a series of pretty sweet grooves, some of which were, indeed a bit sinister. By the end of the third and into the fourth movement, I noticed that I had been moving unconsciously to the rhythms for quite some time. Kurth made effective use of strong dance rhythms expressed through a rich use of percussion.

That said, the piece was all over the place and, though it didn’t exactly lack coherency, did come across more as a ballet or incidental music than a purely orchestral work. It put me in mind, somewhat, of John Cale’s music for Nico the Ballet in the way that it grooved and jumped around, as though backing someone else’s story. I think that I could dig a documentary shot to fit with the music in the vein of the Qatsi trilogy or Baraka. I will say that I felt that the orchestration sounded a bit muddy at times, but I’m not entirely sure that it wasn’t the result of the way that it was conducted and played: Spano seemed to bring out the breathers and beaters over the bowers for much of this evening, which I think somewhat helped cover up the poor performance that I heard come from the violins. Although I think that it can be improved upon, I can honestly say that I would enjoy seeing this piece programmed again sometime a few seasons from now even in its present form.

Once the Kurth piece ended, the funny, grouchy woman next to me said that she liked about 45 seconds of music from it. I asked if she really couldn’t find a total of a minute and a quarter of music from it to like and she said absolutely not. I asked if she really didn’t even like the opening crescendo and she said that she hated it. I pointed out that, really, it wasn’t particularly radical compared to Strauss, and she said that she liked Strauss but was now wondering if she’d like the piece tonight (Till Eulenspiegel’s Merry Pranks). I explained that it was a light-hearted piece for which I never really had developed a fondness and that if she couldn’t dig at least a little more of the Kurth then she might not like it. As it started, she said that she liked it better than the Kurth already. Once it ended, she said that she enjoyed about a minute and a half of it. So, there you have it: Kurth is at least half the composer that Strauss was, which is really not a bad thing to be given Strauss’ continued popularity.

Notable about this performance was that it began with the concerto and then ended with a light piece, with a four movement piece sandwiched in between. The Brahms concerto is pretty long, but I have to say that ending a concert on Till Eulenspiegel is a bizarre choice. It’s not a strong piece and is really better suited to warming up an audience than sending them off for the evening. I’d rather have walked away with Kurth’s grooves in my step or Coucheron’s violin in my head than a melody of lilting silliness.

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