REVIEW: Detroit Symphony Mahler 5 Facebook Stream

On March 22, the Detroit Symphony Orchestra held a Facebook Live event, hosted by their Principal Timpanist and University of Michigan LEO instructor (my professor), Jeremy Epp. Epp began the session by giving an inspirational message about the current predicament American society finds itself in and by stating how much the DSO wishes they could play live for us, but these Facebook live events will have to do instead. He then went on to give special recognition to Principal Horn Karl Pituch and Principal Trumpet Hunter Eberly for their magnificent solos in the Mahler that was about to be broadcast. He also added that the orchestra was being conducted by Rafael Payare, a young conductor making his debut with the symphony. With that we were on our way. To be clear, this performance was a recording of one of their concerts from last spring. I was fortunate enough to see that concert live and enjoyed it so much that I wanted to see it again on Facebook. Jeremy was certainly correct that Mr. Eberly’s solo in the beginning was quite spectacular. The piece begins with a solo trumpet playing a theme that quite literally sets the tone for the whole piece as it is repeated by many instruments later on. After the initial trumpet, the power of the orchestra was felt soundly as everyone else joined in for the first tutti section about 30 seconds in. The brass really stole the show for the first movement as Mahler wrote them gorgeous and powerful melodies. In contrast to the heft of the brass, were some lovely soft moments from some unsuspecting characters. Notably, the timpanist has a gorgeous solo about halfway through the movement that is very soft and echoes the trumpet solo that starts the piece. Mr. Epp executed it to perfection, of course. After the first movement died down the same way it began, with a trumpet solo, the orchestra geared up for a wild ride with the second movement. While the first movement was very in control and militaristic, the second movement was wild and almost unhinged, but in a good way. While the music was happening, Facebook holds a comment section next to the video, allowing people to give opinions on the performance. Because Jeremy was moderating, he would chime in now and then with interesting, albeit in depth and nerdy, facts about the piece, especially regarding the timpani part. In addition, many members of the DSO were in the chat hyping up their colleagues before big solos which was great to see. The sense of family that this orchestra has is truly something special. The third movement featured Principal Horn Karl Pituch who did a phenomenal job with the solo part. Many orchestras, including the University of Michigan’s USO, ask the principal horn to come to the front of the stage for this movement because their part is almost akin to a soloist in a concerto. The fourth movement is the part that gets played on its own the most because of how beautiful it is. It almost rivals Barber’s Adagio for Strings in its beauty. While the brass dominated the beginning of the piece, the strings dominated this movement. The played everything with such passion and sorrow that one couldn’t help but be moved while listening to it. The fifth movement is one of the most exciting finales of any piece, in my opinion. It truly embodies what it means to build up a movement or piece as the ending is absolutely enormous in comparison to its somewhat sparse beginning. Mr. Epp was featured again here, earning multiple action shots of him at work as he navigated this challenging movement. In my opinion, the last 3 or 4 minutes of this piece are some of the best to ever be written and make this my favorite Mahler symphony. Overall, I really enjoyed watching the DSO live version of this piece because they streamed a really high quality video and it was really cool to see everybody interacting in the chat. Their performance of Mahler’s 5th Symphony can be found here: Subsequent streams will keep occurring through the Facebook Live platform and I encourage everyone to check those out. In addition, the DSO is offering free access to their digital library for a short period of time in light of the coronavirus pandemic. I encourage everybody to seize the opportunity to see this great orchestra in action and attend their concerts once everything is back to normal as they are a vital part of the Michigan arts community.

REVIEW: Richard Jewell

Richard Jewell is a movie based on a true story of the security guard who found the bomb that was planted  in Centennial Park at the 1996 Atlanta Olympic Games. While the movie endured some criticism regarding its portrayal of reporter Kathy Scruggs (Olivia Wilde), I found it to be an entertaining and enjoyable picture overall. The film starts by providing the audience with some background into the mindset of the movie’s namesake and main character, Richard Jewell (Peter Walter Hauser). Richard’s dream is to join law enforcement in some capacity, but he is unable to just dive into a job as a police officer immediately. The movie takes great care to establish his relationship with Watson Bryant (Sam Rockwell) early on as well, showing that Richard worked in his office at one point and was such a good employee that he went so far as to stock his drawers with Snickers bars. They then show that Richard left his job at Bryant’s office for security work at a university. While working at this university he “overachieved” in a way and ends up getting fired for overstepping the limits of his power. All of this background is included to set up Richard’s character as someone who dreams of being in law enforcement so much that he actually tries too hard to get there. When the 1996 Olympics come to Atlanta, Richard seizes the opportunity to be hired as a security guard. After a run in with some drunk teens, Richard notices a backpack is left under his security bench. He is the only one who considers it suspicious and insists that they call the “bomb guy” to check it out. Unfortunately for everyone at the concert, Richard’s suspicion proved correct; there was a bomb in the backpack. Thankfully, because he was able to alert the other security personnel, they were able to clear the immediately surrounding area and limit the damage to slightly over 100 injuries and 12 or 13 deaths I believe. Unfortunately for Richard, the FBI is not sold on the legitimacy of his heroics and start investigating him as the bomber. The controversy surrounding the movie comes from its depiction of how the story that the FBI was investigating Jewell got out. The movie shows Kathy Scruggs seducing an FBI agent (Jon Hamm) into telling her who the focus of the investigation is. The newspaper she worked for refute the validity of this portrayal, arguing there is no evidence to suggest that this ever happened. Regardless, word of the investigation got out and Richard Jewell went from hero to public enemy number one very quickly. After realizing he might be a suspect, Richard calls “the only lawyer he knows”, Watson Bryant, to represent him. Mr. Bryant prevents Richard from accidentally incriminating himself as he is so eager to help the law enforcement officers whose ranks he aspires to join that he is willing to do just about anything they ask. Because of his eagerness to cooperate, the FBI take full advantage of him until he realizes what is going on. Finally, upon coming to his senses, the movie shows a heated exchange in an interrogation where Richard asks the officers if they have any evidence against him whatsoever and they are unable to answer. As a result, they have to drop the case, but Richard’s public persona is not out of the woods, even to this day. Some people still think he planted that bomb and treat him as a criminal instead of the hero he truly is. Overall, Richard Jewell is really well done and, regardless of whether or not it is 100% accurate, is an entertaining portrayal of a very interesting case in American history. It takes a traditional story of a person being wrongfully accused of a crime and adds the element of them helping their accusers, making for a really interesting twist.

REVIEW: Star Wars The Rise of Skywalker

A few days ago in a galaxy far far away, Disney released the 9th installment of the Star Wars sequel trilogy, The Rise of Skywalker, on Disney Plus. After receiving lots of backlash that stemmed from the questionable decisions Rian Johnson made while directing the 8th movie, Disney decided to bring JJ Abrams back in to see if he could salvage what was shaping up to be another failed spin-off series. I think he tried his best, but at the end of the day there was only so much he could do given what had already happened in the newest trilogy. The Rise of Skywalker continues to build on the “force dyad” connection that Kylo Ren and Rey share, including a few more discussions through the force as seen in the 8th movie (but without shirtless Adam Driver this time). This connection was one of the few parts of the 8th movie that was actually interesting in my opinion. As is expected in any JJ Abrams film, the movie also had some of the best action in the entire Star Wars series, featuring thrilling lightsaber battles, epic spacecraft fights, and force lightning. Abrams also did a great job of limiting the roles of annoying characters like Finn and Rose. At first I liked Finn, but after watching the 7th and 8th movies, I started to realize that his character only ever runs and yells. Once I realized that, anytime he did either or both of those things (which was a lot), I couldn’t help but cringe. Rose is an unnecessary character and I’m really not sure why Rian Johnson created her. While these aspects contributed positively to the movie and made it somewhat enjoyable, in my opinion, they were far outweighed by the negatives that accompanied them. While JJ did a good job of limiting Finn’s role, he still left him in enough scenes to have an annoying storyline. While falling through a pit of space quicksand (?) he tells Rey that he needs to tell her something important and then proceeds to never tell her even though they bring it up multiple times later on in the movie. After they fall through the quicksand, they happen to find a dagger with an inscription that tells them where to find the “Sith Wayfinder”. I really dislike the fact that they just luck into the exact information they are looking for. The 6th Star Wars starts with a well thought out plan that Luke and company execute to perfection to save Han. The use of planning as opposed to luck is one of the reasons that the original trilogy is better than all of the prequels and sequels, in my opinion. Another missed opportunity for an impactful moment came with Chewbacca’s fake death. I love Chewy as a character, but in this new sequel series, he is not important . However, because of his role in the earlier films, killing him off would have been a really powerful moment that I think would have been amazing. There were other choices that I didn’t like (such as Rey being a Palpatine, the kiss with Kylo, etc.), but they weren’t as offensive as the ones I discussed above. Overall, I felt like this movie wasn’t as bad as The Last Jedi, but was worse than The Force Awakens. In the grand scheme of Star Wars, I would rank it below the entire original trilogy, the 7th movie, and the 3rd prequel. Hopefully, when Disney tries its next spin off from this universe, a fresh set of characters will inspire them to create some better content.

REVIEW: Orchestre Métropolitain de Montréal

Last night, Hill Auditorium hosted the Orchestre Métropolitain de Montréal with singer Joyce DiDonato.  The concert started out with the overture to Mozart’s La Clemenza di Tito.  They performed this work with a smaller orchestra that only took up about half the stage.  The instrumentation consisted of strings, a few winds, a couple trumpets, and timpani.  Once Ms. DiDonato joined the orchestra, the trumpets and timpanist left and a clarinetist made their way to the front of the stage to be featured alongside her.  I had heard of Ms. DiDonato many times, but I had never actually heard her sing live.  She was incredible.  Her voice sounded exactly like you would expect an opera singer’s to sound.  This is likely because she has set a standard in singing that others strive to match.  The interplay between her and the clarinetist was fascinating the watch as they alternated similar phrases.  She was able to perfectly match the articulation and timbre of the clarinet using just her voice.  In addition, she mimicked the other winds flawlessly, especially in the first aria.  There was a moment where she had a run of doubled notes that the flute played at a different time where she embodied the character of a flautist to a T.  As an encore, she joined the orchestra for a rendition of “Voi che sapete” from The Marriage of Figaro.  She used an iPad for the arias from La Clemenza, but she had this one memorized.  It was clear she had performed it many times.  She really took control of the stage by incorporating some acting into her performance and having some fun with Maestro Nézet-Séguin and the assistant principal first violinist.  Overall, the first half of the concert was great, especially for those who are big fans of opera.  On the second half, the orchestra played Anton Bruckner’s Fourth Symphony.  Bruckner’s music is best known for it’s epic, massive moments and this symphony had plenty of them.  The size of the orchestra seemingly doubled between the first and second halves with a full brass section, a timpanist, and about half a string section joining the chamber orchestra from the first half.  I thought the orchestra performed the piece very well, overall.  There were some questionable moments where the horns might have had an off night or the timpani might have been too loud for my liking, but mistakes happen in performances and everyone has their own opinion as to what sounds best.  The piece seemed to follow a structure of peaks and valleys which, honestly, gets pretty old in a symphony that’s over an hour long.  We’d hear a couple minutes of really loud, awesome music, followed by some softer, prettier stuff.  I feel like most great symphonies have a few moments that are really special and people immediately think of them when they think of that symphony.  This one had so many big moments that I can’t remember any of them because, even though they were awesome when I heard them, they all blended together.  None of this is the fault of the orchestra, of course.  They played it in a very convincing manner and Maestro Nézet-Séguin commanded the podium with an incredible energy.  They closed the night with a really cool encore by Violet Archer, a composer I had never heard of.  I really enjoyed the piece and was grateful that Maestro Nézet-Séguin exposed the audience to it.  I have seen him perform twice at Hill now, and he has been fantastic both times.  I will surely be going back if I see his name on the UMS schedule again next year!

PREVIEW: Orchestre Métropolitain de Montréal

On Wednesday November 20th at 7:30, Hill Auditorium will play host to the Orchestre Métropolitain de Montréal, featuring Music Director Yannick Nézet-Séguin and superstar Mezzo-Soprano, Joyce DiDonato.  This is not the first appearance at Hill for either Nézet-Séguin or DiDonato.  They performed a collaborative recital last year with Maestro Nézet-Séguin accompanying Ms. DiDonato on piano.  Maestro Nézet-Séguin is also the music director of the Philadelphia Orchestra and he conducted them here last fall.  On this concert, Ms. DiDonato will perform arias from Mozart’s La Clemenza di Tito, one of the last operas he ever worked on.  They will follow the Mozart up with Anton Bruckner’s 4th symphony in E flat Major.  Bruckner’s works have become more widely recorded as of late.  Maestro Nézet-Séguin and this orchestra actually released a recording of his 4th symphony in 2011.  This concert promises to be a great night of serious music making with some of the best musicians in the business right now.  Tickets are still available and can be purchased on the UMS website or from the ticket office in the League.

REVIEW: Israel Philharmonic Orchestra

The Israel Philharmonic’s visit to Hill Auditorium had been on my radar as a performance I knew I wanted to see since UMS released their schedule last year.  The original plan was for the orchestra to be led by Maestro Zubin Mehta, a man who is probably the most successful Indian Western classical musician of all time.  Unfortunately, due to health reasons, Maestro Mehta was sidelined for this event, so Maestro Yoel Levi had to conduct in his place.  While Maestro Levi was certainly more than qualified to lead the Israel Philharmonic, a concert conducted by him simply doesn’t have the same allure as one conducted by Zubin Mehta, a veritable giant in the classical music field.  Levi brought excitement to the performance as any good conductor should, but, in my opinion, the amount of technical errors made by the orchestra overshadowed the great energy on stage.  The program started with the playing of the US National Anthem, followed by the Israeli one.  Unfortunately, those were the best pieces they played on the concert.  They started off the real program with a piece for string orchestra.  It was fine, overall.  I didn’t notice any major flaws or anything, but to me it just felt kind of boring.  This could have been due to the piece as opposed to the players, though.  They followed it up with Schubert’s third symphony to round out the first half.  It was OK, again.  My main gripe with this piece was the timpanist’s muting.  Every time he hit a note, there was a sharp, audible cut off an eighth note later.  As a timpanist myself, I can attest that nobody should be making that much extraneous noise, regardless of the style they choose to play or musical background they come from.  It distracted me so much from the rest of the piece that I couldn’t focus on anything else.  Most people in the audience probably didn’t even notice, but to me that was a huge red flag.  The second half of the program was Tchaikovsky’s 6th symphony, a masterwork.  Every major orchestra has played this piece a million times and Israel certainly cannot be an exception to that.  Because of this, I am baffled at how many mistakes they made.  Every time there was a run in the strings or brass, there was absolutely no clarity because they were simply not together.  To make matters worse, there were times when the strings would finish a run and we would be left hearing an incorrect chord.  The brass sounded kind of thin which cannot happen when playing powerful music like that of Tchaikovsky.  The timpanist redeemed himself to an extent on this half.  His strong playing led the orchestra through their best moments of the piece.  Unfortunately, he had some tuning troubles.  He was checking the low drum at intermission with a tuner, so maybe there was some sort of equipment malfunction, but it sounded out of tune at multiple spots.  It was just disappointing to see a world class orchestral play such a standard piece with so many mistakes.  The clarity issues could have been a result of a lack of familiarity with Hill Auditorium, an acoustically superior, yet really weird place to perform.  The other mistakes don’t really have a justification, in my opinion, though.  The encores were solid, but nothing special.  They performed “Nimrod” from Elgar’s Enigma Variations and the “Waltz” from Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake.  Just when it seemed as though the orchestra was about to redeem itself with an exciting rendition of the waltz, the end fell flat.  As the rest of the orchestra hit an accelerando to end the piece, the low brass fell behind and simply couldn’t hang.  Overall, it was a fitting end to an underwhelming performance by a group that I can only characterize as overhyped.