A Coherent Concert with Some Great Moments

Last Friday, Paula and I went to our second Grand Rapids Symphony concert of the relatively young season. The orchestra is auditioning music directors this year, so we will try to see as many of them as possible. (Here’s my previous review of the Mahler concert.)

Friday’s concert was conducted by Jacomo Bairos. He doesn’t have the most impressive resume in the world, but that’s OK — I’d rather hire a music director with something to gain than one making a lateral move. I’d also rather hire someone with enormous potential who spends a couple of years in Grand Rapids on the way to a better gig than someone who grows moss here. To me, Bairos has real potential.

The concert opened with Beethoven’s 6th Symphony, the “Pastoral.” It’s not a piece that I listen to regularly, but I’ve played it a couple of times and know it reasonably well. It’s kind of fun to have it in the same season as Mahler’s 1st Symphony, since Mahler 1 quoted Beethoven 6 so distinctively.

From the opening notes, I was optimistic. There was color from the strings! It actually sounded pastoral! I looked up and down the string sections, and every player was engaged — this was great to see. As the first movement progressed, I found myself simply enjoying it. It’s not the most transcendent piece, so I didn’t expect to be transported, but I was never bored either. The first movement was coherent, which is not trivial to accomplish. From that point on, I found myself cheering for Bairos.

Unfortunately, the second movement revealed some serious intonation problems — so much that I couldn’t enjoy it. On the positive side, nobody gave up, but it was actually pretty rough to listen to.

The third movement got a little better, although the strings lost some of their color — the violins were a bit rhythmically indecisive in the opening motif and seemed a little strident throughout. The ensemble was still a bit pitchy as well.

I tried to figure out where the intonation problems began and how they could be fixed. Most issues were across sections (trumpets playing different pitch from the violins, for example). Violins have a tendency to match the highest note they hear — but since I play violin, the higher note usually sounds right to me, too! All the strings seemed to agree on that higher pitch and thus played together to my ear. Likewise, the clarinets and bassoons seemed appropriately pragmatic in their intonation, but the flutes and oboes were all over the place. Once an ensemble goes out of tune, it’s hard to blame one person or one section, but some end up sounding worse than others. Compared to the strings, the principle trumpet seemed consistently, almost stubbornly flat, which actually made me wonder if he has perfect pitch — it can be uncomfortable for someone with perfect pitch to play out of tune, and if the orchestra as a whole can’t decide on a consistent relative pitch, it would make sense to pick the absolutely “correct” one instead if you could. Or maybe he just tuned flat … I don’t know the exact source of the problem — I just know it should have been better.

By the middle of the fourth movement, the sections started to agree more on pitch (or else I stopped being so distracted by it). The finish was nice — not bombastic like Mahler but quite satisfying. Overall, it was a solid performance marred by intonation problems. Playing in tune is a basic qualification for any ensemble, and ultimately, the orchestra needs to take it more seriously. I hope they can find a way to fix those problems, but it’s not easy.

At intermission, I overheard a funny comment from a gentleman in my row: “I didn’t know I was going to get that kind of show.” You see, Bairos is a fit, attractive man from Portugal, and he prefers a more European style of tuxedo with quite a short jacket and tighter pants. As soon as he raises his arms to conduct, it’s hard not to notice his butt. I don’t think the ladies minded at all, but some of the men probably felt a little threatened. I was happy to hear one of them address it with good humor.

After intermission, Bairos came on stage with long-time associate conductor John Varineau to answer a couple of softball questions posed by the audience. Both were very charming (Varineau managed to pander to both U of M and MSU football fans at the same time, which is pretty impressive). Bairos showed that he can tell a story with words as well as music. That kind of charm is extremely useful in a music director, especially in a town like Grand Rapids, where we desperately need to grow the audience for orchestra music if the symphony is to thrive.

Schmoozing complete, the second half opened with a short piece by Adam (not Arnold) Schoenberg that featured three virtuosic mallet parts. I don’t know if the percussionists said “Yay!” or “Oh shit!” when they got the music, but I suspect they appreciated the opportunity to show off a bit. I can’t say a lot about this piece, but I liked it. It was tonally complex enough to be challenging to my ear, yet it was rhythmically flashy enough to be accessible. And it was short, which is an underrated virtue.

Next came a guitar “concerto” (actually called Fantasia para un Gentilhombre) by Rodrigo, featuring soloist Pablo Villegas. Guitar isn’t my favorite solo instrument, but this was a fine performance of a pleasant piece. My favorite moment was near the beginning, when Bairos coaxed a beautiful shimmer from the strings. He proved himself a wonderful accompanist! Guitar is extremely easy to cover, but I heard every single note from the soloist.

Villegas gave a focused and cheerful performance — I especially enjoyed his slow, lyrical passages. The encore he played (thanks for the correction, Mr. Varineau) featured a few “tricks” … for example, a section that made the guitar sound like a snare drum. It’s pretty hard not to smile at that, and in fact the crowd cheered as if listening to a jazz solo. And like Bairos, Villegas is fit and handsome … the ladies were swooning.

The concert finished with a 10-minute orchestral show piece by Marquez: Danzon No. 2. I had never heard this piece before, but it was fantastic — schmaltzy, showy, dancy … it was nearly impossible to keep from swaying while listening to it, and I’ve never heard the orchestra sound better.

The ensemble as a whole conveyed the dance mood effectively, and there were great solos from the clarinet, oboe, violin (bravo — my favorite solo ever from James Crawford), piano, trumpet, even piccolo! Looking up and down the sections, I saw musicians who weren’t just engaged … they were smiling. What a great sign.

There were few intonation problems in this piece, although the one iffy moment that stuck out for me was from a section I hadn’t noticed before, the lower brass. It made me wonder if the orchestra remembers to think about intonation from the bottom up — lower notes have longer wave forms, and higher notes literally “fit inside” those wave forms. In practice, this means that the easiest way for an ensemble to play more in tune is to have the lower instruments play a bit louder and compel the higher instruments to tune to the basses, bassoons, tubas, etc. It’s worth thinking about.

I was thrilled to hear a program of mostly music written in the last century. I’ve said it before — smaller market orchestras sound much better playing new music. It’s hard to compete with Big City Symphony on Beethoven, but new music can sound great anywhere. I doubt any orchestra could have made me like the Marquez piece any more, and I commend Bairos and the Grand Rapids Symphony for programming it. The Marquez was so enjoyable and accessible that it would also be great for children’s concerts (and the Schoenberg was short enough that it might be as well).

John Varineau informed me that they do indeed play the Marquez for children’s concerts — and it’s actually a staple of the main stage, too. I’m not the only one who likes it, apparently. He also revealed that the Schoenberg is probably too difficult to play in the semi-caffeinated state necessitated by early children’s concerts.

I haven’t heard all of the music director candidates, but I was very happy to hear Bairos. I love his approach to playing modern music, and I love his enthusiasm. Although he’s good looking, he’s not preening — I didn’t pay much attention to him during the performance (except for the initial butt shot, of course), which I consider a compliment. His focus was squarely on the orchestra and the music, and it helped me keep my focus on those things as well (compare that to Michael Tilson Thomas, whose 270-degree style makes it seem as though he’s conducting the audience as much as the orchestra).

There is much to consider when picking a music director — the most important question is how he or she will make the orchestra better. In my opinion, only the orchestra itself can judge who will be effective at that, but based on what I heard from the orchestra — as well as the enthusiasm and genuine pleasure that I saw from them — Bairos has set a high bar for the next music director, whoever ends up getting the job.