Fall in love with Pleyel's works

Critic's Corner//Music

Critic's Corner//Music

February 13, 2007|By Tim Smith | Tim Smith,sun music critic

If you're looking for something different to do on Valentine's Day, check out a Baltimore Chamber Orchestra concert devoted to one of the most famous composers you may never have heard of -- Ignace Joseph Pleyel.

He barely registers on the public consciousness today, but this contemporary of Haydn's and Beethoven's enjoyed heady celebrity status, thanks to his tuneful, graceful compositions and some major business ventures. The music publishing house he founded in Paris in 1795 was a leader in its field for four decades. And the piano manufacturing firm he started in 1807 is still in the game, two centuries later.

Pleyel was a mass-market composer, uncomplicated, unchallenging and, above all, felicitous. People just loved his stuff, and not only in Europe -- a Pleyel Society was founded in Nantucket, Mass., in 1822.

Born in Austria in 1757 and taught by Haydn, Pleyel had early triumphs in Italy, where he wrote opera and hurdy-gurdy music, and in England, where his London concert series rivaled Haydn's. After settling in France, Pleyel apparently ran into trouble with the Revolution but scored points with a noisy patriotic piece for voices, orchestra, bells and cannons (many years before Tchaikovsky got the idea of putting that kind of ammo into music).

By the time he died in 1831, Pleyel was still a big deal, but his fame subsided steadily as the 19th century's pantheon of great composers took their rightful place in public esteem.

The BCO's concert tomorrow is a welcome opportunity to be reminded of what once made Pleyel a household name.

The program, led by music director Markand Thakar, will focus on works for solo strings and orchestra. In a Valentine's Day twist, the two violin soloists, David Perry and Isabella Lippi, are a married couple. And the viola soloist, Victoria Chiang, is married to Thakar.

The BCO is also embarking on a project to record Pleyel's violin concertos for the Naxos label.

The concert is at 7:30 p.m. at Kraushaar Auditorium, Goucher College, 1021 Dulaney Valley Road. Tickets are $24 and $28; free for all students. Call 410-704-2787.

Modern voices at An die Musik

Nothing much to report, sorry to say, about Benjamin Kim's recital Thursday at An die Musik. This recent winner of a big international competition in Munich, Germany, played like, well, a competition winner -- technically polished (minus a memory slip), interpretively underpowered. Perhaps it was just a case of a talented pianist having an off night.

It was a different story the next night, when An die Musik's intimate concert room was turned over to the Evolution Contemporary Music Series and a program called "A New Songbook" that delivered a stimulating sample of vocal works from the past 27 years. (Full disclosure: I participated, however unmemorably, in a pre-concert panel discussion.)

Founded and directed by An die Musik's composer-in-residence, Judah Adashi, the Evolution project has added a welcome dose of newness to the local concert scene. This particular venture was rich in unusual experiences.

Eminent soprano Phyllis Bryn-Julson came out of retirement -- vocal artistry of her magnitude shouldn't be allowed to retire, anyway -- to deliver a riveting account of Gyorgy Kurtag's complex, unaccompanied Attila Jozsef Fragments. Another unaccompanied piece, Bernard Rands' Memo 7, turns art song into performance art, and soprano Bonnie Lander took full advantage of the theatrical possibilities in this brilliant atomization of an Emily Dickinson poem.

Lander also took a wry romp through Life Story, a delicious Tennessee Williams text set to edgy music by Thomas Ades. Andrea Moore's lovely soprano uncovered the interior beauty of scores by Joseph Schwantner and, especially, Osvaldo Golijov.

The dark lyricism in John Harbison's Simple Daylight emerged tellingly in soprano Leah Inger's performance. Ryan Scott Ebright brought a thin baritone but abundant expressive understanding to David Del Tredici's retro-romantic Matthew Shepard.

The program's keyboard-accompanied works, all presenting their own considerable challenges, were divided up by five excellent pianists: Adashi, R. Timothy McReynolds, Patricia Puckett, Daniel Schlosberg and David Witmer.

tim.smith@baltsun.com

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