Concerts off the beaten track

David Geffen Hall, Lincoln Center
Brian Newman with his band at Xavier

In the past month — aside from my regular “beat” at Cincy Music Hall — I’ve heard concerts from New York to Atlanta. Here are a few observations.

It’s always a thrill to be in NYC, this time with the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra in David Geffen Hall (formerly Avery Fisher) at Lincoln Center, rather than Carnegie Hall. Despite wide public opinion about the hall’s problematic acoustics, I was pleasantly surprised. Sitting on the orchestra level, the sound was actually fairly good. (Although not as good as Music Hall.) But it’s always been uneven. It will close in 2019 for a major renovation, mainly to fix those acoustical issues, to the tune of $500 million at last count.

Jazz at Xavier

Gallagher Center Theatre at XU was packed for Brian Newman and his band on Jan. 24. Of course, we are especially interested in this band because four of the five are CCM grads, and they regularly play with Lady Gaga (Newman is known as her bandleader). Read about them here. And just Sunday,, Cincinnati native Alex Smith (a St. X and CCM grad), the piano player of the group, was seen by probably a billion people as he accompanied Lady imageGaga in her classy rendition of the National Anthem for Superbowl 50.

Their show at Xavier (without Gaga) was pure joy — mostly standards that began with “Get Happy” and included tunes such as “A Foggy Day,” “I’ve got You Under my Skin,” and Willie Nelson’s “Night Life.” Newman was a sophisticated crooner, wonderful trumpeter and amiable host. And what great arrangements! The band gave nods to Tony Bennett (“The Good Life”) and Gaga (“Cheek to Cheek”.Their opening act was also superb: The Nati 6, formed by Dan Karlsberg, with several local jazz masters in the ensemble.

Brian Newman, trumpeter, with the author
Brian Newman, trumpeter, with the author

At least four cameras were filming the show, to be aired on CET Channel 48 at a future date. Afterwards, Newman was mobbed for autographs, but stopped everything to make sure a young girl in a wheelchair got one, too.

String quartets and Klezmer

Two days later (Jan. 26), I was in Corbett Auditorium for the Ariel Quartet with guest clarinetist David Krakauer.

Ariel Quartet and David Krakauer
Ariel Quartet and David Krakauer

It’s always a treat to hear the Ariels — string quartet in residence at CCM. They opened with Debussy’s String Quartet in G Minor. This was magical; the muted first movement unfolded with dark color and swirling intensity, yet always with complete unity among the players. I especially enjoyed the third movement, which was hymn-like and veiled with mystery.

The quartet also performed Webern’s Six Bagatelles, Op. 9, which clocked in at just 4 minutes. (As a listener remarked later, it took longer to read the program notes.) This was the essence of minimalism, and the players carried on an airy dialogue with razor-sharp precision.

But it was the finale, Golijov’s “The Dreams and Prayers of Isaac,” inspired by the blind kabbalist rabbi of Provence, that wowed the audience. In three movements, the music was inspired by liturgical music and prayers for High Holy Days, as well as Klezmer dances. With the strings as his partners, the clarinetist alternately sang like a cantor and wailed in frenzied Klezmer dance tunes. There were varied effects, such as the second movement’s dreamy, ethereal sound of the soprano clarinet, against slow-motion writing for the strings.

Krakauer’s playing was astonishing as he navigated a range of emotions as well as technical challenges. Afterwards, he told us it was nearly 20 years to the day since he recorded the piece with the Kronos Quartet. “It’s been an amazing journey.” Then he lifted his clarinet for another amazing Klezmer tune, which he played using circular breathing, improvising into the stratosphere. It was both exhilarating and moving.

Last weekend, I made a quick trip to Atlanta, with just enough time to squeeze in a performance by the Atlanta Symphony in the Woodruff Arts Center. Miguel Harth-Bedoya was conducting, with Van Cliburn winner Vadym Kholodenko as soloist in the Prokofiev Piano Concerto No. 3.

The lobbies were buzzing at Woodruff Arts Center in Atlanta recently
The lobbies were buzzing at Woodruff Arts Center in Atlanta recently

Here’s what I liked: The large, diverse audience that poured into the concert hall, built in 1968. The campus also houses the Alliance Theatre, as well as event rooms, so there was lots of buzz in the lobby. (During the day, I also took in the unique High Museum of Art.)

Looking through the arts campus from High Museum of Art
Looking through the arts campus from High Museum of Art

The Grammy-winning orchestra has excellent musicians, and their performance of Dvorak’s Symphony No. 7 was engagingly played and conducted.

The Atlanta Symphony's hall was built in1968
The Atlanta Symphony’s hall was built in1968

The pianist possesses a formidable technique, and the first movement was as fast and driving as I’ve ever heard. More to my taste was his atmospheric approach to the slow movement. Here, he communicated with gorgeous color, and Harth-Bedoya was an excellent partner. The pianist treated the audience with a lovely encore, too: Ravel’s Alborado del gracioso.

Other impressions: The hall is like a concrete box in the auditorium, with concrete floors and walls, although there is a wooden orchestra shell. One often had to strain to hear the strings. The acoustics were bright, and it was also difficult to hear nuance or shading. But was a full house, seating about 1,700, and the audience gave four standing ovations (including the encore).



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