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Sunday, June 28, 2009

Concert Review: Palo Alto Chamber Orchestra

Needing a psychological break from the non-stop 24-hour news coverage on TV about the death of the King of Pop, I took an excursion into Harvard Square on Saturday evening to listen to some good music.

It was just one of the many free concerts the Boston area. There are literally more musical events scheduled each week than I can take find the time to get to. Boston is great in this regard. Music is everywhere, and you don't need to spend big bucks to experience it.

The free public concert was by PACO, or the Palo Alto Chamber Orchestra from the San Francisco Bay Area. Founded in 1966, it is an institution for young string players on the West Coast. Since 2002 it has been led by conductor and violist Benjamin Simon (shown right).

PACO actually consists of five ensembles of various ages, but what we heard last night was an elite group of approximately 34 musicians. They formed a string orchestra of 10 first violins, 8 seconds, 7 violas, 7 cellos, and 2 double basses.

The ensemble is on an impressive 2009 East Coast tour. After their performance at Harvard's Sanders Theatre, they head south for concerts at Yale in New Haven (Sunday), Alice Tully Hall in NY (Tuesday), and then to Baltimore (Friday).

Each year, PACO commissions and performs the work of a composer 21 years old or younger with a $500 grant. Composer Stephen Feigenbaum (a former student of Boston's Michael Gandolfi) had was the recipient of this award, and his work Monsoon Season was presented on the 2009 PACO tour.

The big draw for this concert was the acclaimed cello soloist Matt Haimovitz. Born in Israel in 1971, Haimovitz made his debut in 1984 at the age of 13 as a soloist with Zubin Mehta and the Israel Philharmonic. Currently he teaches cello at the Schulich School of Music at McGill University in Montréal, Quebec. Described as a Maximalist, he selects his music from a broad spectrum of musical styles, and has performed in diverse venues ranging from the rock'n roll club T.T. The Bear's Place in Boston's Central Square, to the elite Celebrity Series at Boston Symphony Hall. Haimovitz is an alumnus of the Palo Alto Chamber Orchestra (PACO).

Although he studied formally at Juilliard, Princeton, and Harvard, the classically-trained cellist is comfortable improving with musical artists such as jazz guitarist John McLaughlin, DJ Olive, and Constantinople (a Middle Eastern ensemble). He even performs Led Zeppelin tunes, and once took "Machine Gun" (a protest song by Jimi Hendrix from 1979 - a year before Haimovitz was born) on tour to pubs across the nation. Haimovitz also captured the public's imagination with his solo cello transcription of Jimi Hendrix's screaming version of the "The Star-Spangled Banner" - although I don't think he has set his expensive cello on fire.

Haimovitz is a new music champion too, and has performed works by Luciano Berio, George Crumb, Sebastien Currier, Mario Davidovsky, Henri Dutilleux, Osvaldo Golijov, John Harbison, Hans Werner Henze, Aaron Jay Kernis, Tod Machover, Steven Mackey, Paul Moravec, George Perle, Lewis Spratlan, Robert Stern, Augusta Read Thomas, and Toby Twining - just to name a few.

He's worked on some innovate projects, such as Tod Machover's Vinyl Cello for amplified solo cello, DJ, Hyperbow, and interactive audience. Composer Machover, a cellist himself, is associated with MIT's aclaimed Media Lab and has invented hyper-instruments of various types. The Hyperbow was designed by his team as a kind of musical equivalent to a Nintendo Wii controller.

Although Haimovitz has been an exclusive artist with Deutsche Grammophon for ten years and recorded with them extensively, in 2000 he co-founded (with composer Luna Pearl Woolf) the indie label Oxingale Records. The company gets its name from a quote by Voltaire, "Sir, you make me believe in miracles; you know how to turn an ox into a nightingale."

Never having heard him perform live before, this was a concert that I was looking forward to hearing. His reputation precedes him.

Haimovitz appeared in two works with PACO. The first was "Max's Moon" by Luna Pearl Woolf (b. 1973). The composer is in fact married to Matt Haimovitz.

The composer's two movement work was written in 2007 just before the birth of their child, and arranged for string orchestra by the composer in 2009. It is inspired by two well-known children's stories "Where the Wild Things Are" and "Goodnight Moon."

I haven't heard any of her music until now. She has been commissioned and performed by cellists Haimovitz and Fred Sherry, flutist Eugenia Zukerman., and others.

She finds interesting projects and just as interesting titles for her works: such as "Dr. Watson and the Dark Lady of DNA" and "After the Wave" - which was an orchestral response to the 2004 tsunami devastation. "I am a fish" is a work scored for soprano and string quartet that was premiered at New York's Alice Tully Hall.

The composer studied composition with Mario Davidovsky, Augusta Read Thomas and Lewis Spratlan and graduated from Harvard University (where her cellist husband also studied). Her Masters degree is from Smith College.

Currently, Woolf and Haimovitz are involved with a cross-over venue in Montréal called ex-Centris. Woolf is the producer/artistic director and Haimovitz curates classical performances for them. It's intended to be a space that holds up to 300 people where you can listen to A-list performers play a Brahms Piano Quintet while sipping on glass of wine or a cocktail.

Luna Pearl Woolf's two-movement piece for PACO was at once modern and unpretentious (not that the two are mutually exclusive). The solo cello part is laden with ample melodic lines that dip and dive across the entire range of the instrument. At times the soloist plays in duets or trios with members of the string orchestra, and interacts with them equally in direct dialogue. Predictably, the soloist oft soars with melodic ease over the impressionistic back drop of darkly hued strings.

The string writing is impressive, and the cello soloist displayed his formative technique in executing double stops, harmonics, and glissandi. It's a tricky combination to write for, since the solo cello is at risk for being subsumed by the larger string ensemble. Woolf found ingenious ways to keep the solo verses ensemble writing transparent through careful techniques of orchestration. She may have picked up some useful compositional tips directly or indirectly from her teachers - including Mario Davidovsky.

But Woolf's music is not at all like Davidovsky's. She is more of a new age impressionist than an edgy modernist. The music is hard to define, and does not fall into any clear category. It's hard to tell from this work alone, but she is clearly a composer of talent and ability. I'm curious and would like to hear more.

After the Luna Pearl Woolf work, Haimovitz performed with PACO the cello concerto Schubert never actually composed.

The Arpeggione Sonata was written during a period when Schubert was suffering from the late stages of syphilis and was lapsing into deep states of depression. It was originally written for an instrument called the arpreggione and was scored with accompaniment by the forte-piano.

The six-stringed arpeggione (shown in photo on the right) was one of the instruments that did not survive natural selection. It's sort of a hybrid between cello and guitar. Schubert was the only composer to write anything significant for it. Today his piece is transcribed for either cello or viola, but also exists in various other interesting versions.

Haimovitz and PACO performed a transcription of Schubert's little heard Arpeggione Sonata for solo cello and string orchestra by Heinrich Klug - first cello with the Munich Philharmonic.

Klug's solo cello and string orchestra version of this work is wonderful. It captures the song-like spirit of Schubert's music, while almost creating the impression of a cello concertino. While there are no sweeping cadenzas, I do feel as if I've heard a performance of a recently discovered cello concerto by Schubert, and I was impressed.

Haimovitz played the Schubert from memory, and I was able to hear the musicality that has projected him to success. He is very expressive in his playing and finds wonderful tone color in his instrument.

PACO was well-received during the Cambridge stop of their East Coast tour. Before the chamber orchestra started, conductor Benjamin Simon had mentioned the obvious Harvard connections with the evenings' program (Haimovitz and Pearl-Woolf had both studied there). He then added that he had studied "down the pike at a school in New Haven" - thus fueling (in good humor) the age-old Harvard-Yale rivalry. The audience was bustling with hundreds of young people enrolled at Harvard Summer School who were excited by the music and quite at home in the Harry Potter-like appearance of Sanders Theatre. The historic auditorium could easily be a set for the next blockbuster movie in the series. I haven't been at Sanders for a long time, but it brought back fond memories of hearing the Harvard Chamber Orchestra in many concerts there led by Leon Kirchner.

I left at the intermission to avoid the Josef Suk Serenade for String Orchestra, Op. 6, which had a consumer warning in the program notes. It said that the middle section of the second movement is "in the dreadful (for string players) key of G-flat, displaying either Suk's inexperience or daring." String players prefer sharps rather than flats. I don't know why, but I didn't want to find out.

Harvard Square on a summer's night is a cozy place. Before heading home I stopped off for a nostalgic visit to the Harvard Bookstore and then for a quick snack at Pinocchio's Pizza. Pinocchio's thick-sliced Sicilian pizza is just as good as it was 3o-something years ago. It's still a bargain at the current price of $2.45. A generous-sized slice is smothered in fresh vegetables, and the crust is just perfect.