Sunday, April 27, 2008

The Protégés of Nadia Boulanger Are Still With Us

The Baltimore Symphony Orchestra @ The Joseph Meyerhoff Symphony Hall, Baltimore, MD
Sunday, April 27, 2008

Yan Pascal Tortelier: conductor

Richard Yardumian: Armenian Suite
Sergei Prokofiev: Piano Concerto No. 1 in D-flat Major, op. 10
Yuja Wang: piano
Hector Berlioz: Symphony fantastique, op. 14

With a list of students that includes Quincy Jones, Philip Glass, Roy Harris, Aaron Copeland and Virgil Thomson the influence of composer and conductor Nadia Boulanger has enormous reach. Conductor Yan Pascal Tortelier was also tutored in general music studies with Boulanger and her indelible bias could be clearly felt from the podium, from the selection of works on the program and even within the prose of the program notes provided at the concert.

The music of Richard Yardumian is exactly the aesthetic flavor that Nadia Boulanger would have championed given her well documented hostility toward atonal movements. The following passage from Janet E. Bedall's program notes neatly channels Boulanger's opinions:
"Because his music was rather conservative and tonally (or modally) oriented in a period when twelve-tone serialism was dominant, Yardumian never really caught on in the larger worlds of New York and Europe. But in our post-serial, neo-Romantic era, he seems ready for rediscovery."
Post-serial, definitely. But I'd argue that this current era is post-neo-Romantic as well. While the beautifully tonal music of Richard Yardumian, Benjamin Britten, Jean Sibelius and many others were under appreciated and arguably suppressed under the intolerant attitudes associated with the serialist movement, the "post-serial" and "neo-Romantic" movements suggest supplanting one dogma with another as overcompensation. The unprecedented plurality of musics in an age of downloads that opens up a world of sound that crosses all boundaries of genre, culture and time suggests that this is in fact a post-dogmatic era. One that exposes the trunk of classical music that grew from Bach to Beethoven to Ives as but a single branch - a niche - within a vast interlocking network of great music. It is a good niche, worthy of celebrating. Even the warhorses. But the contemporary ear understands that a single concert season from any orchestra is only a grain of sand within a vast repertoire. It is good to rediscover the music Richard Yardumian. But let's not stop with timid forays into the early twentieth century and discover music composed just 50, 20 or even 2 years ago.

The Symphony fantastique lives up to its name with its breathtaking, sprawling programmatic form and inventive orchestrations. Hector Berlioz allowed his intuition to override formal structure and realized an intensely creative work. He was particularly adept at contrasting passages of quiet, thin beauty with moments of full orchestral strength noise. Yan Pascal Tortelier was an energetic force at the podium as he coaxed the most from each extreme from this score. Toward the end of the final movement he even appeared to be weathering the forceful storms of the fantastique's dramatic conclusion.

Yuja Wang was impressive at the ivories for the Prokofiev Piano Concerto No. 1. This early work is thick with virtuosic passages that show off Wang's considerable chops and blur of octave-grabbing fingers. Tortelier provided an excellent sense of balance between the soloist and symphony that allowed the musical ideas share the stage as an equal to the pianism on display.

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