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25.3.07

Camerata Ireland and Barry Douglas

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Prokofiev, Piano Sonatas 2/7, Various works, Barry Douglas (1991)
Back in my undergraduate years, my fellow piano students and I watched a documentary on Barry Douglas's astounding Gold Medal performance at the 1986 Tchaikovsky Competition. Awed by his forthright, forceful style of playing, I later bought and obsessively listened to his Prokofiev recording, while I was trying to play the Prokofiev second sonata. The strong arm of Barry Douglas was still in evidence during his Friday evening concert at the Library of Congress. The primary attraction of the program was the chance to hear Douglas and his chamber orchestra of Irish musicians, Camerata Ireland, play Beethoven's second piano concerto (B-flat major, op. 19). It was a rare chance to hear this sort of work, not in the vastness of a large hall with a large symphony orchestra, but in an intimate space, with Douglas conducting from the keyboard amid the orchestra, as Beethoven did when he composed this piece for himself to play.

In and of itself, however, the performance was less extraordinary than merely good. Standing in front of the lidless Steinway, with his back to the audience, Douglas conducted the orchestral exposition of the first movement in his agitated and slightly confusing manner. The musicians of Camerata Ireland come together occasionally from their jobs with other ensembles, which may also partially account for the general lack of unity in sound. Douglas played very well, which is not to say without any glitches, and the first movement's hellish cadenza was impressively rendered. The second movement was lovely, especially in that section where the piano accompanies a little wind serenade section, and the third was speedy and robust, with a playful lightness from the orchestra.

Camerata IrelandThe first half was pleasant enough, with a vigorous and jolly reading of Mozart's 33rd symphony (B-flat major, K. 319). No reason was given as to why the group played this symphony instead of no. 25 in A major, which was announced, but the holograph score of no. 33 was on display in a case in the lobby. For a small group, the strings had an incisive forte sound, although the Mozart had a few horn splats and some dolorous string tuning issues. Elliott Carter's Elegy for String Orchestra was arranged in 1952 from two earlier string pieces from the 1940s, and it has about as much in common with the later, thorny Carter style as the music of Copland, Bernstein, or Barber (or Walter Piston, Carter's teacher at Harvard, for that matter). If a film studio executive had heard that piece and hired Carter to write movie soundtracks, American music might have been very different.

Unfortunately, this concert was connected to a cultural tourist pitch called Rediscover Northern Ireland, with concerts o' Oirish music a-plenty, saints be praised! About one-third of the relatively sparse audience had some connection to the Irish Embassy or other Irish organizations. (The audience showed itself to be unrelated to the normal Library of Congress concert-goer by applauding after every movement, to the point that Barry Douglas got visibly annoyed by having the start of the Beethoven concerto third movement delayed by applause, yet again.) The world premiere of David Morris's flute concerto The Magnificent Peak (still listed as "A commissioned work -- tba" on the Library's Web site) was the tie-in to the advertising brochures handed to the audience as we left. The piece, in part a setting of an Irish air, was not as terrible as I feared and featured the talented young flutist named Eimear McGeown. Encores included a waltz from Tchaikovsky's Serenade for Strings and -- who would have guessed -- a schmaltzy arrangement of Oh, Danny Boy.

What has happened to the programming at the Library of Congress? The next concert there really worth your attention is the Jerusalem String Quartet (April 11, 8 pm). In the last couple seasons, reviews of the Jerusalem Quartet by me and by Jens have been very positive.

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