As promised, here is a review (though it might be more accurate to call it a practitioner’s confession) of the Carolina Chamber Symphony concert of February 25th, on which I conducted the premiere of Revenant: Concerto for Horn and Orchestra, with David Jolley as the soloist.
I won’t comment on the first two works on the program for two reasons: 1) They were by Bach and Haydn, and this site is primarily concerned with new music, and 2) I was snoozing on a sofa in a hallway beneath the stage while they were being performed.
But the concert closed with my piece, for which I was wide awake and standing on the podium, baton in hand.
The performance got off to a very good start, especially considering that I almost forgot to put on my reading glasses before beginning. It’s the first time I’ve had to use that particular pharmaceutical enhancement in performance, so I was a bit out of my comfort zone. Without the spectacles, though, I’m afraid the performance would have been a complete disaster. So part of the credit for the success of the evening should go to Ben Franklin.
The first movement (Resonance) is a dirge, or, more accurately, the memory of a dirge. Again, I thought it got off to a fantastic start: the balances were excellent, the colors blended really well. In the middle section, which has a fast, hallucinatory, carnival atmosphere, the occasional slips in ensemble were more than made up for by the headlong momentum and energy.
But the final section, which is a transformation of the opening material, didn’t work quite as well as the beginning. As a conductor, I think I was coasting a bit to the finish line, not really on top of every nuance. As a composer, I think I need to rethink and refocus the way the horn part ends. The first of these problems is irretrievable; the second is one of the reasons I love being a composer: I can always go back and improve myself.
The second movement is the trickiest to carry off. It’s very slow and static, so every phrase has to be shaped perfectly. I don’t think I ever felt comfortably in control of the ending, and the performance bore out my fears. The oboe and piccolo were too loud, and it’s clear to me in retrospect that the musicians didn’t have 100% confidence that I knew how to get what I wanted. Having said that, I have to add that many people told me afterwards that the end of the second movement was their favorite part, so maybe I’m being too hard on myself. But maybe I’m the only one who knows how much better it could have been.
The third movement (Revelry) was a piece of cake… for me, that is. It’s a fast, exuberant dance movement, so all I had to do was keep moving and trust the musicians to play what was on the page. It’s the kind of piece that has a lot of flash, but isn’t really as difficult as it sounds.
Overall, I’m very happy with the conciseness of the composition. I always have great respect for pieces that know what they are about, and this one definitely does. There are some details I will clean up in the next couple of weeks, but no major overhaul is necessary.
As a conductor, I know I did a credible job, but conducting is not really something that excites me, and that lack of interest is what keeps me from really excelling.
By contrast, as a critic, I think I leave a lot to be desired. I have no intention of quitting my day job.
Saving the best for last: with the exception of one late substitute who was a bit overmatched, the orchestra was outstanding. They put the whole program together in two rehearsals and a dress, and I couldn’t have asked for more enthusiasm, consideration and technical/artistic excellence. And David Jolley was phenomenal: what a sweet, soulful, magnificent sound.
Finally, the audience was amazing. I keep hearing all the death knells for Classical music, or whatever this stuff should be called, so I’m always taken aback when I see a huge crowd giving a standing ovation to an outstanding performance. When will I stop being so surprised?