Clouds and Passion

Pictured: Pianist Joyce Yang. Click for full photo.

Marin Symphony's Stellar Concert

A wide contrast of era and mood characterized the first half of Marin Symphony’s stellar June 19 program in the Marin Center, opening with Jennifer Higdon’s transparent, cloud-light tone poem, blue cathedral, and ending with Stravinsky’s clashing, crashing Symphony in Three Movements.

Conductor Alasdair Neale’s introductory remarks alluded to this contrast, calling the Higdon “all soft focus” and the Stravinsky “a thrilling ride, angular and hard edges.” As sharp as the juxtaposition was, it prepared the audience for the second half: Tchaikovsky’s B Flat Piano Concerto, a work full of dramatic internal contrasts.
Ms. Higdon’s orchestral reverie, named for her late brother, Andrew Blue Higdon, features a delightful array of percussion instruments, including crotales (small, tuned brass disks), marimba, vibraphone, glockenspiel, tom-tom, and triangles, but the main voices in the piece are flute and clarinet, standing in for the composer and her brother. Flutist Myunglu Yeo’s playing symbolized the composer and Arthur Austin’s clarinet line her brother.

The piece is above all a loving dialogue and a meditation on death. Celestial harmonies converge and separate like moving clouds. Composed for the 75th anniversary of Philadelphia’s Curtis Institute, the piece speaks of love and memory. Violins sing, woodwinds soar, horns rise to glass ceilings of sound, and bells and other percussion affirm the importance of the sacred in our lives. At the end, the piece sparkles from the tinkling sound of small bells being rung from around the orchestra, and then a sonority that to me was reminiscent of a cellphone’s busy signal—as though with time and faith, a lost connection can be recovered.

The origin of some sections of Stravinsky’s 22-minute Symphony is music composed in the 1940s, but ultimately not used, for several Hollywood films. Spliced and augmented, they create a symphonic work in sonata form that ultimately was choreographed by Balanchine and premiered by the New York City Ballet in 1972.

Throughout the symphony, one hears echoes of earlier Stravinsky works, including The Rite of Spring. Driving rhythms are passed around the orchestra like hot potatoes, at full volume and running pace. Drumbeats sound ominously, and there’s a deep sense of unease. The playing in the Allegro first movement conjured visions of wandering into a dark cave without a torch until a freshet is felt and the sea comes into view. Then, bam! Slash! And critters scurry out from beneath rocks. Out of dissonance a carnival-like theme issues merrily forth.

The tender second movement (Andantino semplice) is music Stravinsky composed for the film “The Song of Bernadette.” In a trailer for the documentary “Stravinsky in Hollywood” the scene for which it was intended (Bernadette’s vision of the Virgin Mary) is evoked with Stravinsky’s score. The music is haunting and makes a beautiful second movement. Stravinsky wrote music for at least three additional films during World War II, and is quoted as saying that in his Symphony’s third movement, “each episode is linked in my mind with a concrete impression of the War.”

Tchaikovsky’s Concerto from 1879 lies at the intersection of revolution and passion, and is arguably the most popular classical concerto. The playing in the famous opening Allegro non troppo e molto maestoso stirs the listener’s blood: a series of clarion calls from the brass sections to which the pianist responds with huge chords rising six-plus octaves. Soloist Joyce Yang played powerfully and sensitively, underscoring the sense of triumph and tragedy that suffuse the work. Her pianistic mastery allowed her to expressively turn quickly from the strength of violent passion to the quietest tenderness. Her performance of the composer’s own cadenza was exquisite.

The second movement, Andantino semplice, unfurled like liquid glass, with extended trills and lovely playing from the winds: flutist Myung Yeo, oboist Margot Golding and bassoonist Carla Wilson. This is Tchaikovsky at his most romantic, and the audience, which had burst into applause after the first movement, was rapturously attentive.

The Allegro con fuoco finale began with a bang and ended with a huge flourish. The coda alone is worthy of a ballet, and in this dramatic music one could hear echoes of Swan Lake. At its climax Ms. Yang did total justice to the huge octaves that throw down the gauntlet to the pianist and the triple-speed runs that follow them. The concerto came to a triumphal conclusion, and the audience rose to give her and the orchestra a standing ovation.

Even after three curtain calls the ovation persisted, and the pianist returned to the stage to play what she announced as “a very beautiful dream,” Rachmaninoff’s serene E Major Prelude, Op. 23, No. 4. The interpretation was indeed beautiful, and most would have been content to let that end the afternoon, because it brought the concert full circle to the dreamy mood of the Higdon work. But the applause went on, and Ms. Yang came back with a smile, saying her hands were now rested, to offer a second gift: Rachmaninoff’s glorious Prelude in Op. 23, No. 2, in B-flat Major.

Published at on June 27, 2022