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Emerson String Quartet receive standing ovation. Photo by Da Ping Luo.
At Alice Tully Hall, on the evening of Sunday, October 22nd, I had the exceptional privilege to attend the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center’s excellent farewell performance of the celebrated Emerson String Quartet. The members of the ensemble were violinists Eugene Drucker and Philip Setzer, violist Lawrence Dutton and cellist Paul Watkins.
The first half of the program was devoted to an accomplished account of the remarkable String Quartet in B-flat major, Op. 130, of Ludwig van Beethoven, presented here in its original version. The initial movement has a somewhat solemn, brief introduction marked Adagio, ma non troppo, with the main body an Allegro with more vivacious, brisk passages organized in a highly unconventional structure. The ensuing, short Presto is propulsive and ebullient and is followed by a slower movement—with a tempo of Andante con moto, ma non troppo—that is elegant, charming, graceful, even Haydnesque. The exquisite Alla danza tedesca movement that succeeds it—with an Allegro assai marking—is also delicate. The contrasting Cavatina—an Adagio molto espressivo—is ruminative, but not without lyricism—with a middle section that achieves an even greater intensity—and ends quietly. The astonishing, avant-garde, unusually ambitious finale—the famous, even infamous Grosse fuge, which the composer also published as an independent work—is agitated but gripping.
After intermission, the ensemble received the CMS Award for Extraordinary Service to Chamber Music in a modest ceremony. The second half of the concert was maybe even more memorable, consisting of an admirable rendition of Franz Schubert’s sterling String Quintet in C major, D. 956, which also featured cellist David Finckel, an original member of the group who left it in 2013. The opening Allegro ma non troppo movement is animated, melodious, and cheerful but not without darker undercurrents and more dramatic episodes, preceding an ethereal and enchanting Adagio with a tempestuous interlude. The marvelous, familiar Scherzo, marked Presto, is energetic and exhilarating, with a slower, more serious and inward Andante sostenuto Trio, and the finale, marked Allegretto, is dancelike and lively although with more pensive moments.
The artists received a very enthusiastic standing ovation.
The next Chamber Music Society program is on the evening of Sunday, October 29th, centered upon the great Russian composer, Sergei Rachmaninoff.
David Robertson conducts New York Philharmonic, photo by Brandon Patoc
At Lincoln Center’s David Geffen Hall on the evening of Saturday, October 21st, I had the pleasure of attending a terrific concert—which was notable for showcasing rarely encountered repertory—presented by the excellent New York Philharmonic under the superb direction of the irrepressible guest conductor, David Robertson.
The program began wonderfully with a masterly account of György Ligeti’s enchanting Mifiso la sodo (Cheerful Music) from 1948—a creation not without its eccentricities, nor lacking in ironic or satirical inflections—played in these concerts in its long overdue U.S. premiere and celebrating the centenary of the composer’s birth. Also remarkable was the brilliant realization of another work—too seldom heard—by the same author, the extraordinary Romanian Concerto of 1951. Neither piece strongly suggested the radical avant-gardism that would later become the famous hallmark of Ligeti’s mature style. About his discovery of the unusual instrument, the alphorn, that he employed to striking effect in this composition, he said:
The alpenhorn (called a bucium in Romanian) sounded completely different from “normal” music. Today I know that this stems from the fact that the alpenhorn produces only the notes of its natural harmonic series and that the fifth and seventh harmonies (i.e., the major third and minor seventh) seem “out of tune” because they sound lower than on the piano, for example. But it is this sense of “wrongness” that is in fact what is “right” about the instrument, as it represents the specific “charm” of the horn timbre.
On the Concerto itself, he commented:
In 1949, when I was 26, I learned how to transcribe folk songs from wax cylinders at the Folklore Institute in Bucharest. Many of these melodies stuck in my memory and led in 1951 to the composition of my Romanian Concerto [Concert Românesc].However, not everything in it is genuinely Romanian as I also invented elements in the spirit of the village bands. I was later able to hear the piece at an orchestral rehearsal in Budapest — a public performance had been forbidden. Under Stalin’s dictatorship,even folk music was allowed only in a “politically correct” form, in other words, if forced into a straitjacket of the norms of socialist realism. Major-minor harmonizations à la Dunayevsky were welcome and even modal orientalisms in the style of Khachaturian were still permitted, but Stravinsky was excommunicated. The peculiar way in which village bands harmonized their music, often full of dissonances and “against the grain,” was regarded as incorrect. In the fourth movement of my Romanian Concerto there is a passage in which an F-sharp is heard in the context of F major. This was reason enough for the apparatchiks responsible for the arts to ban the entire piece.
The opening Andante movement creates an impression of pensiveness while the ensuing Allegro vivace, which introduces a strong folk element,is—not unexpectedly—more exuberant. Contrastingly, the Adagio ma non troppo movement that follows is meditative and uncanny, recalling the music of Béla Bartók, and the finale, marked Molto vivace, is propulsive and dance-like with the folk melodies even more pronounced.
The renowned soloist, Yefim Bronfman, then entered the stage to confidently perform—these programs represent its New York premiere—the powerful Piano Concerto—of which he is the dedicatee—of contemporary Russian composer, Elena Firsova—which is notable particularly for its impressive orchestration. While oddly compelling, this advanced music is beyond my current ability to truly evaluate and resists description; the author of the work, who was present and afterwards joined the artists to receive the audience’s acclaim, has provided an interesting note on it:
The music of my Double Concerto for violin and cello, from 2017, was very personal and reflected my meditations about the mystery and meaning of Death. You possibly know a relevant quote from Doctor Zhivago by Boris Pasternak: “Art is constantly preoccupied with two things: It always meditates about Death and in this way inevitably creates Life.” The introduction and both movements of the Double Concerto were based on the motif of Beethoven’s final movement of his String Quartet, Op. 135, “Muss es sein?” Only in the beginning I use the motif in its retrograde form and later, of course, in inverted form.
I mention this because my Piano Concerto in a certain sense is a kind of a twin composition with my Double Concerto. The music material of all three movements is based on the same motif. I did it absolutely unconsciously in the beginning, realised it only when I finished the first movement and was astonished how different the music is from the Double Concerto!
I would say only that in the Piano Concerto I concentrated more on the problems and questions of Life, but at the end everything is inevitably coming to the clock which reminds us that everything has its end. As in the Double Concerto, the last movement of the Piano Concerto is the main and longest part of the music.
The initial Andante seems haunted and agonized, preceding anAllegrothat has a similarethosbut is more energetic and intensely dramatic, with afinalethat is quieter and more serene for much of its length, but with very fraught, intensely dramatic passages, although concluding softly and mysteriously.
The second half of the event was at least equally memorable, consisting of a superlative—indeed seemingly perfect—rendition of the too infrequently presented, astonishing, unexpectedly ambitious early masterpiece of Johannes Brahms, the Serenade No. 1 in D major for Large Orchestra, one of the composer’s most Mozartean accomplishments and crucial to understanding his development as a major symphonist. The unusually joyous—for the composer—initial Allegro molto movement has a strongly pastoral quality that evokes the Symphony No. 6 of Ludwig van Beethoven while nonetheless remaining thoroughly Brahmsian in character. The transition to the leisurely, cheerful succeeding Scherzo—marked Allegro non troppo—is barely perceptible while theAdagio non troppothat follows is more inward and highly lyrical, but not tragic. The fourth, Menuetto movement possesses an unusual levity for the composer and theAllegrothat appears after it recapitulates the spirit of the first two movements. Also ebullient is theRondo,with the same tempo marking, that serves as a most dynamicfinale.
With an illustrious acting career that includes roles in Men in Black, Seinfeld, and Fever Pitch, Siobhan Fallon Hogan has taken a turn towards independent filmmaking. Having made its rounds in the film festival circuit, Shelter in Solitude, her sophomore effort, is a more leisurely-paced character piece than Rushed, her producing/writing debut, which came out in 2021.
The film centers on a down-on-her luck bar owner, Val (Fallon Hogan), bonding with a death row inmate (Peter Macon, The Orville) in his last week of life. Fallon Hogan has written for herself a juicy role to dig her teeth into. Few films have opted to be set during the pandemic even though the event had such a cataclysmic societal effect. In Shelter in Solitude, the pandemic is sewn into the plot’s infrastructure. The characters exist in a vague sector of the Rust Belt whose decline is highlighted and exacerbated by the shutdown. Val is hit with debts and loneliness as a bar owner who has to close her business due to Covid-19. She’s also haunted by her failed career as a country singer. Though set in the South, the film was shot in Fallon-Hogan’s hometown of Syracuse. A testament to her location scouting, Fallon shot the film in Syracuse’s defunct Main Street Prison, a setting that seems authentically depressing. The film is, in fact, inspired by the prison in Fallon-Hogan’s hometown of Cazenovia (a Syracuse suburb). Her father was an attorney who would often talk about his cases during dinner and the young actor’s fascination was sparked when her father discussed a prison guard. She also had cousins who lived in a prison nearby — the Jamesville Correctional Facility — which was used for exterior shots.
Just as the real Fallon Hogan has a family connection to the lives of prisoners, Val’s brother Dwayne (Robert Patrick) is a stoic prison warden. The two exhibit a comfortable relationship despite having clashing personalities which spices up some of the film’s slower-moving moments. When the prison guard catches Covid, Val takes over the management of death row and its sole prisoner, Jackson (Macon). This is where the film displays its most awkward moments. Val loses her jaded edge and suddenly morphs into a pollyanna chatterbox as if she’s being neutralized by a high school crush. Fallon Hogan is doing strong enough character work here, that the scenes are strong enough to drive through any inconsistencies. Over the last week of Jackson’s life, the two develop a rapport that drives the second half of the film.
The comic instincts of Fallon Hogan also serve her well in some of the film’s more light-hearted moments. The film is largely held together by the strong character work that Fallon Hogan (it helps that she’s the screenwriter as well) put in creating Val in all her contradictions. She’s defiant against anyone who tries to restrict her, yet unable to be completely self-reliant. It’s the quintessential tale of the perpetual screw-up but the story gives her a little more leeway to have a chance at redemption.
A graduate of Catholic University, Fallon Hogan has navigated a career based on her Christian values. In both Saturday Night Live and her films, she has turned down movie roles that conflicted with her values. As such, religious themes make her way into her work. Like the actress, her character here is unapologetically Christian even if she’s not a paragon of Christian virtues at all times.
Compared to Fallon Hogan’s debut, this film doesn’t have the tension or as much of an edge when it comes to saying something about society. However, the sense of place and character work make this film worth a watch as well.
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