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Here Comes Hudson!

Music review
by Kevin T. McEneaney
Sun Mar 18th, 2018

James Bagwell congratulates concertmaster Yuqian Zhang 

On a brisk sunny afternoon at the old Hudson Opera House, The Orchestra Now offered a free concert under the ardent direction of James Bagwell. The old Opera House has recently been renovated with new hardwood floor and sophisticated lighting. Since it was an opera house, the acoustics retain its old reputation for excellence.

They opened with the Estonian composer Arvo Pärt. Fratres (1983) is, according to TŌN violinist Michael Rau, “mesmerizing and ethereal.” Pärt was an innovating minimalist unaware of the American minimalist movement. After initial success with serialism, he moved to collage, then spent five years in silence, emerging with Fratres (Brothers) which is one of the most haunting musical meditations ever composed.

Opening with strange bass percussion which grounds the piece, Fratres is all about the unworldly strings putting the listeners mind into a different orbit and the orchestra conjured the magic to get us there. I’ve heard this work in recordings and on the radio, but it was a real pleasure to hear it well-done live.

Virgil Thompson’s The Plow that Broke the Plains Suite (1936) harkens back to that distant naïve era when the American government had an interest in promoting the arts for the benefit of the populace. In this case the government funded a film about the history of Midwestern farming and the tragedy of the dustbowl phenomenon. Thompson was commissioned to compose the music in 1936, rearranging the music as a suite in 1942. The music is folksy and had a formative influence on Aaron Copland. Prose interlude transcriptions of descriptions were read by Bagwell with clear diction and appropriate pacing. The music was pleasant but not remarkable.

During intermission some members of the orchestra descended the stage to talk to audience members. Adults were shy, so an audience of half-a-dozen children between five and seven captivated the musicians. The children asked each player what is their high note and what is their low note. After demonstrations of clarinet by Micah Candiotti-Pacheco and oboe by Aleh Remezau, they admired Carl Gardner’s large bassoon; they jumped half in fright at his low note and squealed cutely with delight at his high note. Carla Engen on violin appeared to possess an aura that the children could not resist; she appeared to be a natural-born teacher and she entertained the children demonstrating techniques and tunes until she had to return to the orchestra for the main event.  

George Bizet’s Symphony in C was begun four days after he turned seventeen and finished about four or five weeks later. At the time he was studying under Charles Gounod. The symphony was discovered sixty years after his death (1875) at 36 in the archives of the Paris Conservatory. Although Bizet regarded the symphony as merely a schoolboy task (to graduate every student had to compose a symphony), Bizet’s youthful romantic composition now holds a minor place in the classical repertoire (first performed in 1933). Bagwell, a Hudson resident, chose this work because Bizet had written the symphony in 1855, the year the Hudson Opera House was built.

While bassoonist Carl Gardner wrote excellent program notes, violist Emmanuel Koh delivered an eloquent introduction with warmth and humor. Concertmaster Yuqian Zhang on violin vigorously led the strings which excelled in the second melancholy movement where James Jihyun Kim on oboe led us down the path of frustrated love. After the buoyant comic relief of the following Scherzo, which appeared to mock the illusions of young love, we moved to the concluding fourth movement which celebrates the triumph of young love. Bizet’s melodies are seductive, even the playful parodies of his teacher Gounod, and this was material that these young players obviously loved for its authenticity, clarity, romance, and effervescence, as Koh had acclaimed.

I suspect that The Orchestra Now will in the future appear as an occasional performer under this new music program directed by flutist Eugenia Zukerman. Next Saturday Hudson Hall will present “To Lenny with Love: Bernstein at 100.” For more information go online to Hudson Hall appears to be upcoming musical center in the Hudson Valley.