Who Am I (to be a music critic)? (5 cents)

I did brave the rain today to go to Epiphany Church’s regular Tuesday noon concert, enjoying it as (almost) always.  The guests were members of Ars Nova, which advertises itself as a conductorless orchestra made up of musicians from other orchestras, which performs orchestral and chamber music throughout the DC area.  The ensemble today consisted of 10 strings, a flute, and two horns.

I believe myself completely unqualified to act as a music critic.  I can tell when someone misses a note.  And I know what I like.  But if something seems OK, but not great, who am I to conclude that was OK, and not great, and how can I possibly determine what made it just OK, and how to turn it into great?

So today’s concert, I thought, was OK, but not great.  And let me, in my totally unqualified way, tell you why I concluded that.

For one thing, from the beginning, things seemed disorganized.  The first piece was by Telemann (1681-1767), his “Overture Suite in A Minor” for strings and flute.  The ten strings (without a conductor or obvious leader) were sitting in their chairs.  The music director of the church introduced the program……..And then nothing happened.  The flutist didn’t come out.  We waited, and we waited.  And then one of the viola players got up, went off-stage (if that’s what you would call it in a church) and came out with the soloist.  What happened I am not sure, but it did cast a shadow on the professionalism of the musicians.

Of course, that had nothing to do with the music, you say.  And, of course, you are right. So let’s talk a little about the music and the performance:  Georg Phillip Telemann was a contemporary of Bach, spending his time in Hamburg while back was in Bonn.  In their time, Telemann was the better respected of the two, and the better known.  This was to change over the years until Telemann was hardly known at all in the 19th century to be revived in the 20th.  His Overture, I later found out from Maestro Wikipedia, was an overture to a longer suite; the suite contained a number of additional sections, all based on dances. If you had asked me to identify this piece, I would not have been able to, so I was a bit surprised that much of it seemed familiar.  Whether it was familiar because I have heard it before, or because the themes are found in other Telemann pieces with which I am familiar, I cannot tell you.

Now about the flute soloist, Amy Thomas (the only musician mentioned at all on the rather skimpy and not very informative program).  I thought she played beautifully, and that the acoustics of the church were just right for the flute.  As to the 10 strings playing behind her, I thought that they were a little too hesitant.  (OK, what does “hesitant” even mean in this context?  I am not sure, but that’s the way I felt they were.  Perhaps they were just right and I wanted them to be too in-your-face.)

A few other notes: (1) when Telemann wrote the piece, he wrote it for a form of a recorder, not a metal flute, (2) no one knew this piece existed until 1936 when it was found in manuscript form in a library in Darmstadt, and (3) did you know Telemann wrote over 3000 pieces? (Thank you again, Maestro W.)

The second piece was by Beethoven (1770-1827), his “Sextet in E flat Major for Two Horns and String Quartet.  I can’t say that I particularly liked the piece and I certainly don’t remember hearing it before.  A little research shows that not many people have heard this, and that it is one of the Beethoven works played least often. But why didn’t I like it? I thought that the problem was that the sound of the two horns simply dwarfed the (still hesitant?) sound of the strings, and that this is not the way it should be.  So, I looked up this one, too.  My answer came not from the Maestro, but from Professor U. Tube, as I listened to another version played by the Erbam Quartet with two horn soloists.  How nice it was – there was a perfect balance between horn and strings, that varied as the piece progressed in what to me was what Herr Beethoven must have had in mind.  Beethoven, by the way, wrote this piece when he was in his 20s (and could still hear), but it was not published until much later in his life, and bears an out-of-sequence opus number. (So says Maestro Wikipedia)

Between the Telemann and the Beethoven there was a bit of confusion as the musicians moved their chairs around to reformat them for the second number.  But it was nothing compared to the noise of the chairs being scooted around between the second and third number – it looked like Brownian Motion (or perhaps the Harvard Football Band, at least as it moved about 50 years ago), and sounded like the larger mammal house at the zoo.

The final piece was the “Suite for Strings” by Leos Janacek (1854-1928).  I thought they did a good job on this (no hesitation that I noticed) and enjoyed the piece, which is based on Czech folk tunes. Janacek was an ethno-musicologist as well as a composer, I am told and used folk music in many compositions.  I think that Dvorak and Smetana did as well.  Must be a Czech thing.

Concert ended at 1 – right on schedule.

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