Friday , May 24 2024
Parlando chamber orchestra
Photo courtesy of 8va

Concert Review: Parlando Chamber Orchestra – ‘Odysseys’

“Parlando,” in Italian musical nomenclature, means to play as if you’re speaking. The idea is to make the most direct connection possible between an instrumentalist and the listener. Ian Niederhoffer named his chamber orchestra “Parlando” because he wants to communicate music’s meaning or feeling in a way a wide audience can follow and respond to.

Introducing the three works on “Odysseys,” the orchestra’s latest program, Niederhoffer, the orchestra’s music director and conductor, outlined the links among these disparate pieces, by Tchaikovsky (the Souvenir de Florence) and two intensely inventive 21st-century composers, Joey Roukens and Jimmy López Bellido. Aside from being scored for strings, thematically all three works concern an aspect or vision of a journey. And it was the most treacherous of these trips that led off the first of four Parlando concerts this season at Merkin Hall in New York City.

Setting Sail with Parlando for Unknown Shores

Visions at Sea by Dutch composer Joey Roukens makes good on its title. This extremely visual music depicts an ill-fated ocean voyage by Dutch sailors centuries ago, when The Netherlands dominated the seas.

Photo credit: Fay Fox Studios

While its intentions are clear, the piece was a somewhat rough listen. It began with an extended skein of meditative sighs, quiet wails, and smoky glissandos, with eerily intriguing harmonies shared among the strings – and occasionally spotted with twinges of uncertain intonation. Then the first of several sea shanties emerged, at first sneakily, sparking an admixture that proved the most powerful element of the piece.

A storm develops. Heavy tremolos depict crashing waves while surges of sound evoke swooshing wind, darkness, perhaps hail. When the sea shanty music returns, it’s with dissonant harmonies over wailing basses that remonstrate below in an unrelated key. While not exactly pleasant, this is strongly spooky and disturbing music, and it builds into what feels like true chaos. Structurally there’s method to the madness, but I felt a loss of narrative flow two-thirds of the way through the piece.

Something clicked for me, though, when the soft sighing and wailing returned to close the loop on these doomed sailors. I suddenly heard in Roukens’ drifting harmonies the call of the Sirens, beckoning from a misty distance over the glowing Mediterranean to Odysseus – the mythical hero whose very name has come to define a long and difficult journey.

New Horizons

The odyssey continued with Guardian of the Horizon, a brash work in three movements by Peruvian composer Jimmy López Bellido. For this music López Bellido took inspiration from the figure of the Sphinx, who in mythology guarded passage from one realm to another. (The piece was commissioned by the Sphinx Organization, which focuses on growing the numbers of Black and Latinx artists in classical music.) Parlando’s performance featured the superb soloists who debuted the piece a few years ago, violinist Adé Williams and cellist Gabriel Cabezas.

The muscular Guardian of the Horizon depicts a more abstract struggle than conquering the waves, but a struggle nonetheless, exemplified by the soloists’ parallel projection of similar lines while a second layer of dialogue builds between soloists and orchestra. Here Parlando loosened up and truly found its groove. The music gave the animated Niederhoffer much to sink his obvious talent into.

Violinist Adé Williams and cellist Gabriel Cabezas with the Parlando chamber orchestra (Photo courtesy of 8va)
Violinist Adé Williams and cellist Gabriel Cabezas with the Parlando chamber orchestra (Photo courtesy of 8va)

The first movement, “Riddle,” is heavy with rhythmic swells and staccato punctuation. The second, “Crossing the Threshold,” continues the battle, with ominous bass chords churning beneath high plaintive notes from the solo violin. It introduces soft lyricism with elements of harmonic hopefulness. There is a stormy interlude, and finally a dramatic build, with swirling rhythmic figures vibrating throughout the ensemble.

The final movement, “Into the Effulgent Light,” depicts a successful crossing of a threshold. It also salutes the composer’s father, who died as López Bellido was working on this commission. The music unfolds with sweeping melodies, but nothing is simple here; unorthodox and complex harmonies persist. Finally, though, the soloists play “in concert” instead of fighting one another, and a bright major-key melody emerges.

Parlando, Tchaikovsky, and a Sparkling Souvenir

Niederhoffer has a clever “hot pepper”-like method of rating pieces by level of listening difficulty. On a scale of five, he bestowed three “eighth notes” on Visions and two on Lopez’s Guardian. I might have reversed those ratings, but either way, while both works had much to recommend them, I found the latter more consistently engaging, greatly aided by the work of the fine soloists and of the orchestra under Niederhoffer’s sure baton.

Tchaikovsky’s Souvenir de Florence, as Niederhoffer pointed out, sounds much more Russian than Italian. The young conductor showed his facility for smoothing rhythmic intricacies in the first movement; drew a rich resonance from the orchestra in the Adagio; and crafted fine ensemble work and a sound alternately towering and sparkling in the third and fourth movements, both based on Russian dances. This crowd-pleasing music might only deserve one “hot pepper” for difficulty but it was a savory feast for the ears.

Read more about Parlando on its website. Tickets to upcoming concerts are available online.

About Jon Sobel

Jon Sobel is Publisher and Executive Editor of Blogcritics as well as lead editor of the Culture & Society section. As a writer he contributes most often to Music, where he covers classical music (old and new) and other genres, and Culture, where he reviews NYC theater. Through Oren Hope Marketing and Copywriting at you can hire him to write or edit whatever marketing or journalistic materials your heart desires. Jon also writes the blog Park Odyssey at where he is on a mission to visit every park in New York City. He has also been a part-time working musician, including as lead singer, songwriter, and bass player for Whisperado.

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