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Our motto: "Critical thinking in the cheap seats." Unbiased, honest classical music and opera opinions, occasional obituaries and classical news reporting, since 2007. All written content © 2019 by Paul J. Pelkonen. For more about Superconductor, visit this link. For advertising rates, click this link. Follow us on Facebook.

Thursday, May 19, 2016

Concert Review: Due South vs. True North

1B1 plays Ginastera at Trinity Church.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Jan Bjøranger (in black) leads the chamber orchestra 1B1 at Trinity Church. Photo by the  author.

When one thinks of an ideal location to hear art music in New York City in the middle of a busy Thursday afternoon, there are few better than Trinity Church. In recent years, the old church at the head of Wall Street has started shedding its reputation as a stolid bastion of Bach and Handel and started experimenting with modern music. 

Its latest project is Revolutionaries: Beethoven and Ginastera, wrapping up this week. This festival celebrates the music of Alberto Ginastera, the firebrand Argentinean composer whose centennial arrived this year, placing him alongside Beethoven and other more traditional composers to give context to his unfamiliar works. Thursday's concert, featuring the Norwegian string ensemble 1B1 under the baton of music director Jan Bjøranger featured Ginastera’s Glosse Sobre Temes de Pau Casals, programmed alongside a work by Norwegian composer Knut Nystedt and an autumnal classic by Richard Strauss. 

The players of 1B1 are young and enthusiastic, clad not in the usual black but in a riotous rainbow of concert gowns that reflect their individual personalities and taste. Yet they play in superb unison, a taut, well trained sound that can be at one moment sere and bright and the next lush and swelling. They also play standing up, with the exception of the cellos--a throwback to the Italian Renaissance style that has become the fashion among 21st century chamber musicians.

The Ginastera work was five movements, based around a theme by the celebrated cellist Pablo Casals. This theme was lovely, even stately in its utterance before the composer’s invention seized hold of it and generated a groundswell of lush, Romantic sound. Throughout, the piece alternating between warm tonal ideas a nd a shivering quicksand of atonality. These were played in flurry of short bow-strokes that set the listener on edge, anticipating the next thematic development. 

Next was the Concerto Arctandriae by Knut Nystedt, a contemporary Norwegian composer who passed just two years ago. This work evoked the spare landscape of the North through eerie drones and a surprising tonal organization that hinted at Norway’s folk-music. A long slow movement  played like an immobile hunk of ice, giving the listener a taste of infinite white wastelands Amd the vast distances that exist as the journey nears the roof of the world.

Richard Strauss’ final compositional period consists chiefly of autumnal pieces. These look back both at a long life devoted to music and to the horror wrought on his beloved Germany by Hitler and the Nazis. Metamorphosen is an elegy, a so-called “study” for 23 solo string players. The vast single span of sound is marked by signposts, nebulous quotes and golden hints of Bach, Beethoven, and (of course) Strauss himself. This most self-referential of composers could not resist lacing this work with his own leitmotivic threads.

Led by Mr. Bjøranger, this performance was appropriately grave, capturing the serious tone of the work building into a lush swell of romanticism with the strings at full cry. The work came to a gigantic climax and simply halted in place, as if overwhelmed by the devastation done to Germany and its culture by both the Third Reich and World War II. When it resumed it was more subdued, eventually wound to a quiet, almost placid close. The silence spoke volumes.

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