Northwest Sinfonietta’s ‘Gypsy Nights”

By Philippa Kiraly

It wasn’t until the concert itself that the title of Northwest Sinfonietta’s performance last Friday, “Gypsy Nights,” became clear. Yes, music director Christophe Chagnard’s own work titled “Opre, Roma!” with its three guitars clearly had a gypsy component, but Dvorak, Mahler and Shostakovich?

As the concert progressed at Nordstrom Recital Hall, Chagnard’s choices made sense. Dvorak was represented by his Slavonic Dance No. 8, played with all the musicians except the cellos standing and swaying with the lively beat. It was the kind of performance to have everyone ready to join in and dance in the aisles, such was its verve and spirit, and kinship to Roma music of that era in Czechoslovakia.

Shostakovich was only 27 when he wrote his Piano Concerto No. 1, and there is the same swirling tempestuousness here. However, it’s not one of the composer’s best works. It gives the impression he is still casting about how to reconcile his conflicting wishes for tonality and atonality, for stepping unfettered outside traditional musical bounds and staying within them. The result is not as coherent as his later works. The concerto doesn’t have the focused outrage and grief so clear in his more mature music, though the irony is already present. Much of the time the concerto is in agressive in–your-face mode, occasionally softening and allowing the strings to sing, but the piano role is flat out with as many notes or more than the busiest section of a Brahms piano concerto. Mark Salman undertook the solo role and managed all the notes, but whether the lack of nuance was in the concerto or in his interpretation, it would be hard to say. Judson Scott did well with the trumpet solos.

It could be considered a far cry from Mahler to gypsy music, but as Chagnard pointed out, he was born in Bohemia, which gives him some credence, and was a great free musical mind, which lines up with Roma music. The orchestra played the “Adagietto” from his Symphony No. 5 in centennial remembrance of his death. It’s an exquisite movement, and was exquisitely played. Chagnard elicits an amazingly full, warm sound from his 35 musicians, who can also play as quiet as a breath. Usually this symphony is heard with a large orchestra. One of the pleasures of this small group was the chance to hear the harp part (played by Bethany Man) not buried in the orchestra.

Lastly came the world premiere of Chagnard’s own “Opre Roma!” (“Roma people, rise!”), a hybrid by his own description of contemporary gypsy jazz and classical music.

He himself played one of the three guitars, the other players being Neil Andersson and Ron Peters. Chagnard was originally a jazz guitarist when he became a student at Berklee College of Music in Boston, and it was there he discovered classical music, conducting and composition, neglecting his guitar until some five years ago.

Taking it up again, and pursuing the sounds of gypsy jazz as epitomized by Django Reinhardt, he ended up with the Northwest Sinfonietta Jazz Quintet.

His is an energetic work in four movements, with the two styles well integrated and the whole well structured. The acoustic guitars, all miked, set the tone and tempi and a vibrant rhythm strumming while the strings created a lively dance around them with harp roulades, string runs and plenty of plucking from the cellos and basses. A slow movement in five/four time required a conductor, and for that, Chagnard changed hats to conduct, though for much of the rest of the work, the orchestra maintained excellent synchronization without him.

Varied interest was added by tapping bows, and several instrumental solos, though I would have liked much more from the guitars, whose solos were the soul of the work.

A wild gypsy dance ended “Opre Roma” to enthusastic applause from both audience and orchestra.

It would be well worth hearing ths piece again. Perhaps Chagnard could schedule it again for next season.

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