Silver Screen and concert hall worlds collide, delightfully, with Parlando

Mon Feb 28, 2022 at 12:44 pm
By David Wright
Ian Neiderhoffer conducted Parlando Sunday afternoon at Merkin Concert Hall. Photo: Rebecca Fay

In musical scores, the Italian term “parlando” (speaking) indicates a passage whose rhythm and inflection mimic human speech. A concert by the chamber orchestra named Parlando doesn’t just mimic speech, it features the real thing, in the form of verbal introductions to each piece delivered by music director Ian Niederhoffer from the podium.

In Parlando’s program of music by American composers on Sunday at Merkin Concert Hall, the twenty-something conductor not only offered the kind of crisp and colorful performances one has come to expect from this group, but upped his game as a verbal communicator. Besides the approachable manner of an eager grad student, and his willingness to share a laugh with listeners when something struck them as funny, he came prepared with cogent historical points and details in each piece that got a lot across in only a couple of minutes of chat before he gave the downbeat.

The concert’s overall title, “Cinema vs. the Concert Hall,” sounded perhaps an overfamiliar theme in 20th-century music, but the conductor’s brief remarks managed to draw a line from 1930s Hollywood as a haven for distinguished European Jewish emigré composers to this year’s live telecast of the Academy Awards, which is slated to omit the “Best Original Score” award presentation entirely. How are the mighty fallen!

The movies hovered as a presence in the background of each of the three works on the program, although only one—John Mauceri’s concert arrangement of Bernard Herrmann’s music for the film Psycho—actually contained movie music.

But it was a different fright-night composer who led off the bill. No less a cinema authority than Steven Spielberg reportedly pronounced Michael Abels to be “Jordan Peele’s John Williams,” referring to the director of the groundbreaking 2017 horror film Get Out, and to Abels’s skin-crawling score, which earned him several awards (but inexplicably, no Oscar nomination). In 2019, Peele and Abels collaborated again on Us, another scary movie on black themes.

The 2007 Abels piece on Sunday’s program, Delights & Dances, was of far sunnier disposition, but no less indebted to the composer’s African-American heritage. With both feet squarely in the concert hall this time, the music was free to tell its own story in concerto grosso format, with a string quartet leading off by itself, then alternating with the string orchestra.

The piece’s understated opening “delights” included unaccompanied monologues for each of the four soloists followed by the orchestra stealing in on cat feet, pianissimo and pizzicato, with a syncopated riff. Very gradually, the soft, laid-back blues gave way to more assertive solos and finally a fiery hoedown with fancy fiddling by all. Under Niederhoffer’s economical yet fully engaged conducting, the players captured every mood from meditative to raucous.

Herrmann’s music for Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho is famous for its slashing (excuse the expression) title theme and above all for the shrieking violins of its notorious “shower scene.”  These moments were duly noted in the “narrative for string orchestra” that conductor Mauceri compiled from Herrmann’s score.

But one was struck by how much of Herrmann’s music evoked not violence or spooky suspense but desolation and loneliness. In long piano-to-pianissimo passages, rustling tremolos and harmonics in the violins were punctuated here and there by a yearning phrase in the violas, or a more urgent one in the double basses, or the “distant thunder” of fingertips tapping bass strings.

Even for a listener who couldn’t mentally match all the excerpts to specific scenes, Sunday’s performance was eloquent testimony to the composer’s and director’s skill in creating a landscape of spiritual emptiness and longing, from which the film’s brief (but indelible) scenes of violence could suddenly spring.

Still, in concert one couldn’t help missing the visuals that made the original work of art complete. So it was in some ways a relief to turn back to music composed for concerts, in Bernstein’s Serenade (after Plato’s “Symposium”).

The title and the five-movement form of the Serenade links it to entertaining “night music” pieces by Mozart, and this concertante piece for solo violin and string-and-percussion orchestra works well on those terms. But Bernstein the Harvard man couldn’t resist also including some classical allusions, and sometimes program books dutifully reprint his notes attributing the movements to various philosophers expounding on love at Plato’s dinner party, an idea that apparently came late in the composition process.

Niederhoffer didn’t venture far down that road in his spoken introduction, but instead noted Bernstein’s lonely status as a jazz-influenced tonal composer in the Schoenberg-dominated 1950s, and pointed out the Serenade’s persistent “question” (a rising motive) and the droll “hiccups” of Aristophanes in the second movement. He also amusingly quoted the composer’s (tongue-in-cheek, one hopes) apology to pearl-clutching concertgoers in 1955 for not writing “ancient Greek music” in the finale, but rather allowing foxtrot and blues to express the idea of “revelry” for a “contemporary American audience.” 

The fruitful contradictions of movies vs. concerts, and high vs. low culture in general, seemed summed up in this glimpse of America’s most serious-humorous, betwixt-and-between musical personality.

As for the piece itself, it opened with the violin alone, stating a long, loose-limbed fugue subject full of the wide melodic leaps that are Bernstein’s trademark. Playing a part composed for the mid-century Romantic virtuoso Isaac Stern, soloist Tai Murray adopted a distinctly 21st-century approach, emphasizing simplicity of expression and clear, slender tone. Meanwhile, conductor Niederhoffer expertly stirred the orchestra’s cocktail of Stravinskian neoclassicism in the strings and “Broadway Lenny” in the percussion.

This protean composer’s many sides were on full display in the later movements. The tender “Aristophanes” allegretto lurched gently, as if drunk, while the brief “Eriximachus the physician” scherzo bubbled and flashed like circulating blood and firing neurons.

Murray’s violin softly, then soaringly, sustained the love song of Agathon, letting in a touch of Romantic portamento and pealing out the fervent double stops at the movement’s climax. Soloist and orchestra vividly projected the finale, with its curious contrast of Socrates’s imposing presence in the strings and Alcibiades’s percussion-driven revelry. Niederhoffer made the orchestra swing and crack rhythmic jokes, and Murray capped the finale with hot fiddling in the coda. And in the end, even at a Parlando concert, it was Bernstein’s self-portrait that did the talking.

Parlando will premiere new works by Figgis-Vizueta, Impichchaachaaha’tate, Roberts-Gevalt, and Bynes, along with Copland’s Appalachian Spring for 13 instruments, April 24 at Merkin Concert Hall.; 212-501-3330.

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