14 July 2017

Copland, Piazzolla, Revueltas, and Bernstein

Last month, we attended a performance by the Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester Berlin, so we found ourselves in the Berliner Philharmonie yet again. They played a very American (as in the continent, not the United States of America) program, starting with Aaron Copland's Appalachian Spring Suite, followed by Astor Piazzolla's Concerto for Bandoneon and Orchestra. They also played Silvestre Revueltas' Sensemayá, and Leonard Bernstein's Symphonic Dances from the West Side Story. I basically bought a ticket because of the Piazzolla, as I wanted to hear it live. I knew of the Copland as well as Bernstein pieces, but not extremely familiar with it. And finally, I never even heard of Silvestre Revueltas. Anyway, it turned out to be a very amazing concert that literally kept me on the edge of my seat.

I never really got to appreciate Aaron Copland's Appalachian Spring Suite until now. It is a piece based from the ballet he wrote with the same name, which was commissioned by Martha Graham. The ballet tells the story of 19th century American pioneers building a house in Pennsylvania. I happened to have explored a little bit of Pennsylvania and the Appalachian Region in the past, so hearing this music gives quite a context to me. Even though I knew bits and pieces of this piece before, the performance actually made me see it as a whole, and the music was vivid enough that it conveyed a story even though this time there isn't no ballet.

I wanted to hear Astor Piazzolla's Bandoneon Concerto live. I am quite familiar with this piece, and I must say I was slightly disappointed that the soloist was playing an accordion and not a bandoneon. Nevertheless, Mie Miki gave a stellar performance, and sometimes I couldn't imagine how such a powerful sound would emit from her small physical stature. I loved every moment of that concerto, and sure enough, the audience liked it too. She gave a short encore playing a sonata by Domenico Scarlatti, and yes, she is a very good accordionist.

After the pause, the orchestra played Sensemayá by Silvestre Revueltas. I am not familiar with this piece at all, let alone the composer. But oh man, this 7-minute long piece was electrifying. It was written on 7/8 time, and the percussion was just amazingly suspenseful. Apparently, this piece is based on a poem by Cuban poet Nicolás Guillén, which has the same name. The poem is about an Afro-Caribbean ritual that involves killing a snake. The music depicts it quite vividly, making use of plenty of percussive elements to convey this sense of voodoo. The pieces starts quietly, but 7 minutes later it screams and fills the whole auditorium.

The final piece was Leonard Bernstein's Symphonic Dances from the West Side Story. I somehow implicitly dismissed Bernstein as a composer of musicals, which is a genre that I don't appreciate too much. Somehow, I have this elitist impression that musicals aren't sophisticated enough, and is more pop music than classical music. But I was proven wrong this time. Bernstein made very good use of the orchestra, with very creative orchestrations, including finger snapping and shouting. There even is a full drum set. It is very unconventional, but nevertheless it reflects orchestral virtuosity, and I cannot help but be impressed.

At the end of the concert, I cannot even choose which piece I liked more. Every piece was masterfully executed, under Yutaka Sado's baton. I definitely had fun.

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