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All Star Orchestra: Programs 1 & 2 - Stravinsky, Ravel, Beethoven / Gerard Schwarz

Stravinsky / All-star Orchestra / Schwarz
Release Date: 11/19/2013 
Label:  Naxos   Catalog #: 2110348  
Composer:  Igor StravinskyMaurice RavelBright ShengLudwig van Beethoven,   ... 
Conductor:  Gerard Schwarz
Orchestra/Ensemble:  All Star Orchestra
Number of Discs: 1 
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Notes and Editorial Reviews

THE ALL-STAR ORCHESTRA Gerard Schwarz, cond; Xiayin Wang (pn); 1 Julian Schwarz (vc); 2 Yevgeny Kutik (vn); 3 All-Star O NAXOS 2110348-50 (3 DVDs: 342:00)

Programs 1 & 2: STRAVINSKY Firebird: Suite. RAVEL Read more class="ARIAL12bi">Daphnis et Chloé: Suite No. 2. SHENG Black Swan. BEETHOVEN Symphony No. 5. GLASS Harmonium Mountain

Programs 3 & 4: DVO?ÁK Symphony No. 9, “From the New World.” ZWILICH Avanti! SHOSTAKOVICH Symphony No. 5

Programs 5 & 6: BRAHMS Academic Festival Overture. SCHUMANN Symphony No. 3, “Rhenish.” DANIELPOUR 1 Piano Concerto No. 4, “A Hero’s Journey”: 3rd movt. JONES 2 Cello Concerto. SCHWANTNER 3 The Poet’s Hour: Soliloquy for Violin

These are the first three DVDs of a four-disc series issued by Naxos and featuring “The All-Star Orchestra,” comprised of musicians from the major Philadelphia, Boston, New York, Chicago, Minnesota, Dallas, Florida, Cincinnati, Utah, Hartford, New Jersey, Pittsburgh, Los Angeles, Mostly Mozart, Metropolitan Opera, Richmond, New Jersey, Winnipeg, North Carolina, Orpheus, Jacksonville, Aspen, Cleveland, American Ballet Theater, Oregon, Seattle, and Houston orchestras. They were gathered together in the Grand Ballroom of Manhattan Center in New York, rehearsed and conducted by Gerard Schwarz, and filmed in high definition video and surround sound by 19 cameras—so the voice-over on the DVDs tell us—“just for you,” so apparently this is a project meant solely for dispersion via these videos, although one screen of the credits claims that they were made in conjunction with support from WNET in New York. The last screen of credits also mentions American Public Television, or “APTonline.” But there is no audience present, so they’re not exactly like the old Leonard Bernstein “Young People’s Concerts” of the 1960s.

Yet these programs are like the Young People’s Concerts in one respect: They are no-nonsense, straightforward explanations of what this music is and what it was trying to convey. Short descriptions of the orchestration are also given, in some cases by the composer himself (like Bright Sheng explaining his Black Swan ). I personally consider these videos to be outstanding introductions to classical music by one of our better conductors and an orchestra that is almost beyond description for its luminous sound and perfection of ensemble.

One of the many things I liked about this series was that visuals were used in a correct way, for instance in Program 1 to illustrate the connection between music and dance. In the cases of the Stravinsky and Ravel suites, photos of Diaghilev, his Ballets Russes, and their colorful, groundbreaking stage sets are displayed for all to see, allowing the listener to create his or her own connection between music and visuals. Just enough descriptions of the music are given to let listeners understand some of the orchestration and the way the music is put together. While it’s true that Schwarz lacks Bernstein’s ability to break down even the harmonic construction and development of music into terms that even a 10-year-old can understand, I think that if you simply up the target age of these DVDs to about 16 or 17 years old they are perfect introductions to classical music for listeners of that age group.

Each program has a specific theme. Program 1 (Stravinsky, Ravel, and Sheng) is titled “Music for the Theatre”; Program 2 (Beethoven and Glass) is “What Makes a Masterpiece?”; Program 3 (Dvo?ák and Zwilich) “The New World and its Music”; Program 4 (the Shostakovich Fifth) “Politics and Art”; Program 5 (Brahms and Schumann) “Relationships in Music”; and Program 6 (Danielpour, Jones, and Schwantner) “The Living Art Form.” The camerawork is splendid, keeping one’s interest while doing close-ups of soloists and/or whole sections while they are playing. Those unfamiliar with wind players may puzzle over their puckered lips and odd face-making, but this is a small detraction in such a feast for the eye and ear. Some of the musicians in the orchestra also talk to the viewer, explaining what they particularly like about a piece or feel when they play it. Occasional interjections from other speakers, such as critic Bernard Jacobsen and Bard College president Leon Botstein, add sidelights and interest to the descriptions of certain pieces, particularly the Beethoven Fifth Symphony. It was also interesting to learn that Schwarz has known Ellen Taaffe Zwilich since she was 18 and still a violinist (1965) when both played in the American Symphony Orchestra under Leopold Stokowski! We also learn that her Avanti!, the piece given here, was taken from her larger work Fanfare, Reminiscence and Celebration. As it turns out, Avanti! was also dedicated to Schwarz, and he really does conduct it with exceptional energy and zest. You can tell this is his kind of music.

Another “new” piece here that receives an excellent reading was Samuel Jones’s Cello Concerto. Jones wrote it for Gerard Schwarz’s son, Julian, who is a fine cellist, so perhaps the family connection had something to do with the sympathetic performance. Strictly as music, however, I was even more impressed by Joseph Schwantner’s The Poet’s Hour, inspired by a quote from Thoreau. This was played with melting lyricism by young violinist Yevgeny Kutik.

I’ve had occasion to review several Schwarz CDs in these pages, and while it’s true that not all his performances are epoch-making—the Beethoven Fifth, for instance, is a good reading without really blowing one away and the first and last movements of the Schumann “Rhenish” don’t really jump with the Lebhaft (liveliness) Schumann indicated—yet the Dvo?ák Ninth is really quite good and the Shostakovich Fifth has unusual sensitivity in its phrasing, so, all in all, his interpretive skills serve the specific scores given here very well. I was, in fact, a bit rueful that I did not also request DVD 4 (Programs 7 & 8) which includes a complete performance of Tchaikovsky’s Fourth Symphony, the first movement of the Mahler Second, and Mahler songs performed by mezzo-soprano Nancy Maultsby (Naxos 2110351).

Whether individually or as a set, these discs are well recommended for neophyte classical listeners age 16 and up. You can also find further information about them at the orchestra’s web site, allstarorchestra.org. And because it’s all on DVDs, the programs can be watched in portions at a time, one show or two at a time, backed up if you want to relisten to what someone said about the music, etc. Here it is, folks: Music Education 101 for the 21st century!

FANFARE: Lynn René Bayley
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Works on This Recording

Firebird Suite by Igor Stravinsky
Conductor:  Gerard Schwarz
Orchestra/Ensemble:  All Star Orchestra
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1919/1945;   
Daphnis et Chloé Suite no 2 by Maurice Ravel
Conductor:  Gerard Schwarz
Orchestra/Ensemble:  All Star Orchestra
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1913; France 
Black Swan (after Brahms' Intermezzo in A major, Op. 118: No. 2) by Bright Sheng
Conductor:  Gerard Schwarz
Orchestra/Ensemble:  All Star Orchestra
Period: 21st Century 
Written: 2006 
Symphony no 5 in C minor, Op. 67 by Ludwig van Beethoven
Conductor:  Gerard Schwarz
Orchestra/Ensemble:  All Star Orchestra
Period: Classical 
Written: 1807-1808; Vienna, Austria 
Harmonium Mountain by Philip Glass
Conductor:  Gerard Schwarz
Orchestra/Ensemble:  All Star Orchestra
Written: 2010 

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