June 08, 2008
Well, here I sit in my ol’ blog cabin on a late Sunday afternoon, reveling once again in a splendid musical experience, courtesy of LACO musicians, past and present. The Walt Disney Concert Hall this afternoon featured the San Luis Obispo Symphony, with Michael Nowak, director, playing, “From California’s Middle Kingdom…the Music of Craig Russell.” Russell, who has been a much-honored professor at California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo, for more than 20 years, has been a classical guitarist who studied under Héctor A. Garcia at the University of New Mexico and Emilio Pujol at the Curso Internacional de Guitarra, Laud y Vihuela in Cervera, Lérida, Spain. He is also a Historical Musicologist, having earned his doctorate at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill. Steeped in the music of Spain and the Hispano-American world, he has published over 70 articles on 18th-Century Hispanic studies, Mexican Cathedral music, the California Missions, and more. As a composer, he has worked closely with the San Luis Obispo Symphony and the acclaimed twelve-member vocal group, Chanticleer, including on the recent, critically acclaimed, California Mission Road Tour.
Our main reason for attending was to hear Russell’s “Rhapsody for Horn and Orchestra,” written for LACO’s own principal French horn player, Richard Todd. Rick was featured here in The Stream in a two-part interview in January 2008; if you missed it, you can read it here and here. But we were impressed to find out that at least two other musicians featured on the program had LACO roots as well. Director Michael Nowak, who is in his 24th year with the San Luis Obispo Symphony, played viola with LACO under Sir Neville Marriner until 1980, before beginning his association with Helmuth Rilling at the Oregon Bach Festival and touring and recording in Europe with the Stuttgart Bach Collegium. In addition, Kathleen Lenski, violin soloist on Russell’s “Ecos armónicos,” served as soloist and concertmaster of LACO under both Sir Neville Marriner and Iona Brown!
The crowd at the WDCH was moderate but respectable in size and exceptionally appreciative and enthusiastic in demeanor; we were surprised that applause followed nearly every movement of each selection. The chosen program was balanced, varied and well-chosen. The concert opened with the brief “Gate City: A Hymn for Peace,” the second movement from Russell’s “Symphony No. 2, American Scenes.” This selection was inspired by and dedicated to his parents, but especially his mother, whose home town was Gate City, Virginia. It began with the front-porch sound of a country fiddle and unfolded with melodies and harmonies reminiscent, as Russell says, of “those home-spun Wesley hymns that fill Methodist hymnals,” sounds I grew up with. The reverie was modest and prayerful, and as requested, the audience paused for a moment’s silent meditation for peace at the piece’s conclusion.
The program continued with the four-movement “Concierto Romántico,” featuring Seville native José María Gallardo del Rey, called “guitarist of his generation” and featured soloist in concerts at Madrid’s Teatro Real, the Champs Elysée, the Vienna Konzerthaus, Carnegie Hall, and Rachmaninov Hall, among others. The 30-year-old concerto is charming, optimistic and accessible, a delightful contribution to the guitar repertoire. Gallardo del Rey’s playing was clean, sensitive and satisfying, so totally without frills and flourishes as to appear deceptively simple. The first movement featured a cadenza that was noteworthy for its virtuosic section for left-hand alone.
Following the intermission, we were treated to “Ecos armónicos,” which is based on snippets of tunes heard in various mission communities and presidio fortresses in the late 18th and early 19th Centuries, although itself a thoroughly modern composition. The result is a lovely piece of music for violin soloist and small string orchestra, with simple, pretty melodies and lush harmonies and orchestration. It is at times like these that growing accustomed to LACO’s string ensemble sound is a mixed blessing. These strings were well rehearsed and well played, but LACO, they’re not.
Concluding the plentifully music-filled concert was the rhapsody we had come to hear, and it was well worth the wait. A “rhapsody” can include nearly everything but the kitchen sink, and this one does. As Russell says, “my idea was a five-movement scheme that would explore different flavors and varied styles.” Movements 1 (“Morning’s Decisions”) and 3 (“Wistful Musings”) are lower-energy, slow-to-moderate sections of similar mood and form. For instance, the rhapsody begins with a rich solo horn portraying dawn, which eventually yields to a 7/4 meter, conveying the obligations of the day.
On the other hand, Movements 2 (“Dizzy Bird”) and 4 (“Tito Machito”) are high-energy barn-burners; the first, named for Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker, is a straight-ahead bebop chart; the second (for Tito Puente and Frank Grillo, or “Machito”), a blistering Afro-Cuban offering. Each contains lots of space for Rick Todd to improvise, and he was totally into it, a dervish of virtuosic intensity and brilliance. Each movement brought its own massive wave of applause, but they sounded much more appropriate here, as one would expect to hear at a jazz concert. Rick was completely immersed in the rhythms; he even counted off the Latin movement, a perfect groove, and it wasn’t his fault that, in its excitement, the stage-right percussion (especially, the clavés) tended to rush, getting slightly ahead of the trap set on stage-left until Maestro Nowak reined them in.
As if Rick hadn’t been pushed enough already, the final movement was a dash to the finish entitled “Flash”; he hardly had time to breathe, much less rest on his laurels. Russell says the tempo is marked “at the speed of light—or as fast as possible.”
The audience was breathless as well and, with the final chord, was on its feet with a lusty cheer. I’ve never heard a more spontaneous or excited ovation in that august venue, and Maestro Nowak, Rick Todd and Craig Russell basked in wave after wave of adulation. I would hazard a guess that this rhapsody, which received its East Coast premiere at Carnegie Hall in April 2001, and was performed at the Sydney Opera House in 2006, has never been more auspiciously received.
Both the “Rhapsody for Horn and Orchestra” and the “Concierto Romántico” have been recorded with this orchestra and these soloists on the Naxos American Classics label. You can hear samples of the rhapsody here.