Thursday, July 31, 2014

Mostly Mozart Festival - Mozart, Gluck & Berlioz - 07/26/14

Conductor: Louis Langrée
Mozart: Overture to Don Giovanni
Gluck: Final scene from Don Juan, ou Le festin de pierre
Berlioz: Symphonie fantastique

I have always found it profoundly paradoxical that constantly hurried New Yorkers nevertheless spend so much of their precious time standing in endless lines at the movies, at the restaurant, at the bus stop, at the store, at Shakespeare in the Park, and at the Lincoln Center to score free tickets for the preview concert of the Mostly Mozart Festival, the latter being the only substantial ticket line I have been joining every year, and which last Saturday morning turned out to be yet another uneventful three hour of sitting down before dutifully obeying the stark orders to "keep the line moving".
Later on, serendipity was definitely in the air as an early arrival at the Lincoln Center allowed me to enjoy a few minutes of the world premiere of John Luther Adams’ “Sila: The Breath of the World”, which was being performed on the Hearst Plaza by numerous musicians standing all over the place, from the overhead lawn to the water of the fountain, to the middle of the crowd. And suddenly I found myself surrounded by 2,500 people of all kinds enjoying a magical summer evening imbued with unflappably atmospheric music.
The power of good timing did not stop there as I met my friend Christine for an over-priced and over-sinful gelato before reaching our premium orchestra seats for Berlioz's famously mind-tripping Symphonie fantastique, as well as two shorter but just about as otherworldly works by Mozart and Gluck. All of that, of course, in the company of maestro Louis Langrée, who in the span of the past 12 years has come to epitomize the Mostly Mozart Festival almost even more than the Viennese master himself, and the dynamic festival orchestra.

As tradition goes, the eclectic, excited crowd packing the Avery Fischer Hall, including three bleacher-style seating areas on the stage, had to patiently wait through the routine speeches, and then got superbly rewarded by the performance that followed. Although it is not as impeccably sparkling as the overture to Le Nozze di Figaro, the overture to Don Govanni is still Mozart at his most effortlessly seductive with a harmonious balanced combination of light-hearted humor and underlying darkness. And so it was on Saturday night, a most fitting unofficial opening to the festival.
The world's most notorious seducer was also the focus of the second piece of the evening, the last scene of Gluck's Don Juan, which features a quite apocalyptic ending to what was admittedly quite an apocalyptic life. Accordingly, Louis Langrée energetically encouraged the musicians to cut loose from all niceties and totally revel into the appealing horror of it all. And so did we.
Once fired-up, orchestra and conductor kept moving and whole-heartedly threw themselves into a resounding Symphonie fantastique. Things started very civilly, with the rapt audience happily partaking into contemplative Rêveries and hot-blooded Passions, delicately swooning along the elegant Waltz and quietly enjoying the bucolic Scène aux champs. Then we finally got to the heart of the matter with a frightfully riotous Marche au supplice and a Dies irae-driven Songe d'une nuit du Sabbat, which was as nightmarish as grand finales dare to be. Being eight rows from the stage certainly gave me a different sonic perspective from my usual perch, and many instrumental details which blend and become a whole as music rises were clearly and interestingly noticeable. Colors were more nuanced, small touches were more precise, and the whole experience was as thrilling as an actual opium-infused trip. Or so I guess.

Sunday, July 27, 2014

National Youth Orchestra of the United States of America - Bernstein, Britten, Adams & Mussorgsky - 07/22/14

Conductor: David Robertson
Bernstein: Symphonic Dances from West Side Story
Britten: Violin Concerto, Op 15 - Gil Shaham
Samuel Adams: Radial Play
Mussorgsky: Pictures at an Exhibition (Orch.: Maurice Ravel)

Carnegie Hall being a staunch supporter of music education, it only made sense that the National Youth Orchestra of the United States of America it has created and nurtured since last year through the Weill Music Institute finally made its delayed debut on its legitimate home stage. Boasting of 120 among the top musicians between the ages of 16 and 19 from all corners of the US, this concert was the result of their two-week intensive training with seasoned professionals at Carnegie Hall before embarking on a coast-to-coast mini-tour.
The additional incentive of hearing Britten's Violin Concerto performed by former child prodigy Gil Shaham made the occasion simply too good to pass on, so my friend Ruth, whom I originally met at another youth orchestra concert at Carnegie Hall, joined me last Wednesday night in our highly perched seats among hordes of the musicians' wide-eyed yet rambunctious family and friends in a frigid Stern Auditorium, which even the heartening sight of a bunch of poised youngsters wearing black tops, red pants and white sneakers on the august stage could not warm up.

As for the music playing, it was unsurprisingly vivacious, unquestionably committed, and even remarkably nuanced. Under the dynamic baton of an equally white sneaker-clad David Robertson, their enthusiastic account of the Symphonic Dances from West Side Story proved from the very beginning that regardless its somewhat unorthodox circumstances, this temporary orchestra has serious chops.
Britten's Violin Concerto is not an easy piece, technically or emotionally, but in the virtuosic hands of Gil Shaham, its unusual combination of rough sounds and lyrical phrases was totally riveting. The orchestra kept a respectful approach, assuredly handling the contrasting moods with force and finesse. Throughout the whole journey, the music remained unpredictable and somewhat mysterious, all the way to the openly melodic Passacaglia, which wrapped things up with a touch of haunting beauty.
 Especially composed for the occasion and fittingly dedicated to the orchestra, Samuel Adams' Radial Play was five minutes of kaleidoscopic sounds appearing and disappearing, morphing in all kinds of ways and generally keeping the audience on their toes.
Although my main reason to be in the concert hall was Gil Shaham mastering the Britten concerto, I have to admit that the orchestra's performance of Mussorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition was one for the books, viscerally reminding us all why the kids playing their hearts out on the stage were considered the crème de la crème of the next generation of musicians. Confidently making Ravel's popular orchestral version their very own, they moved from one colorfully expressive picture to another without as much as blinking an eyelid.

The huge ovation they received was apparently much appreciated, so much so in fact that they treated us to not one, but two encores, never mind that they had already played for a couple of hours. The “Porgy and Bess” suite was another big hit, and Philip Rothman’s arrangement of “America the Beautiful” became a sentimental sing along that, as David Robertson pointed out, gave everybody in attendance a chance to sing at Carnegie Hall. And a lot of the dwindling audience did.

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Lincoln Center Festival - The Passenger - 07/13/14

Composer: Mieczyslaw Weinberg
Conductor: Patrick Summers
Director: David Poutney
Liese: Michelle Breedt
Marta: Melody Moore
Walter: Joseph Kaiser
Tadeusz: Morgan Smith

Although summer typically has its fair share of mind-numbing entertainment such as beach novels, jack-hammer action movies and dumb comedies, once in a while comes up a worthy artistic endeavor. And that's exactly what happened last week when the Lincoln Center Festival presented Mieczyslaw Weinberg's The Passenger, a three-hour opera daring to take on the decidedly daunting subject matter of the Holocaust, which was performed by the Houston Grand Opera at The Park Avenue Armory.
With a story inspired by Passenger from Cabin Number 45, a radio play by Zofia Posmysz, a Polish woman who had survived three years in Auschwitz before becoming a noted journalist and writer, and a score composed by Mieczyslaw Weinberg, a Polish man who lost his entire family, his country and his name in 1939 before fleeing to Russia where other challenges would await him, The Passenger had irreproachable pedigree from the very beginning. But where would it go from there?
The Park Avenue Armory was clearly not designed for live musical performances, but on the other hand, even my side seat in the penultimate row was still a vast improvement over The Met's Family Circle. And if I was not thrilled by the unavoidable amplification, I must admit that it was discreet and unobtrusive, much more so in fact than the hearing aid of the man sitting next to me. Luckily I was able to escape the grating echoing and buzzing effects coming from the device by moving away quickly and settling down again three seats away, mentally thanking from the bottom of my heart whoever had not showed up and saved my evening.

The Passenger's plot is fairly simple: In the 1960s, while accompanying her diplomat husband to his new assignment in Brazil aboard a luxury ship, a woman seems to recognize a former prisoner, supposedly long dead, she used to supervise at Auschwitz during the war. This triggers a confession about her past to her shocked husband as well as a trip down to the hell that was the notorious prisoners' camp. That's where we ended up spending most of the evening, leaving the frivolous pleasures of luxury cruising above for an examination of life and survival down under.
A lot of the performance's success depended on the two leading ladies, and they both brilliantly gave full human dimension to their characters while maintaining a superior level of musical integrity. As the traveler Liese, mezzo-soprano Michelle Breedt easily went from seemingly gentle high society lady to cruel, sometimes ambiguous, camp overseer. 
She found the perfect sparring partner in soprano Melody Moore, whose Marta steadily bristled with strength and poise even when confronting evil forces. Her singing was bright, assured, and even in the darkest moments lighted up the stage with uncompromising dignity, turning the young prisoner into a true leader.
Walter is a hapless man, but he still deserves to be heard, and tenor Joseph Kaiser imparted his understandably dumfounded diplomat with just enough humanity not to make him look despicable. Moreover, his naturally elegant singing totally fit in the fancy environment he was traveling in.
Tadeusz, Marta's fiancé, was the closest we ever came to a romantic lead, and baritone Morgan Smith had the looks and the voice to memorably fill the part. He was not onstage often, but his presence improved every scene he was in: love struck with Marta, proudly defiant with Liese, and grandly standing with the commandant.
Marta's companions in the camp were all fully drawn out characters so that the various personalities effortlessly came through. Their playful camaraderie and unwavering solidarity were vividly expressed in scenes like the chaotic arrival of the new prisoners, Marta's unflappably lying to save a Russian partisan, and the touching celebration of her birthday.
Taking place in two different worlds, the opera benefited from an ingeniously designed two-level set that made good use of The Armory's cavernous space. The top level represented the upper deck of an opulent ocean liner on which white-clad beautiful people wandered, conversed and danced with enviable insouciance. Right underneath stood the filthy camp where the Nazis ruled and the prisoners struggled to survive. Railroad tracks efficiently helped move lights and sections of the set while starkly symbolizing the transient nature of the business at hand. Having the chorus hang over the camp as a bunch of curious modern witnesses was another inspired idea emphasizing the hard-to-believe horrors happening below and their relevance to our modern times.
But even with a dynamite cast and an impressive set, The Passenger could not hide a few superficial flaws such as non-singing exchanges that generally lacked dramatic resonance, music conveying emotional turmoil too pompously, and the frustratingly uneven pace of the whole thing. But that's nitpicking when one thinks of the many powerful moments, including the unforgettable climax during which Tadeusz, summoned to perform the commandant's beloved cheesy waltz in front of him, threw himself into Bach's Chaconne instead, a defiant move that will have fatal consequences, just like his solo violin will eventually be overpowered by the full orchestra.
If the opera itself was not an impeccably well-rounded affair, Weinberg's score presented an remarkable wide range of musical components such as the light jazz entertaining the well-heeled passengers on the ship, the jarring dissonances endured by Walter when discovering that his wife is a monster, the richly melodic romanticism illuminating Marta and Tadeusz's chance encounter, the sweet simplicity of the a cappella Russian folk song sung by Katya. The biting influence of Dmitri Shostakovich, Weinberg's long-time friend and mentor, was everywhere to be found, but the composition had also clearly been put together by someone who was working from first-hand experience.
Placed stage left but still visible by most, the Houston Grand Opera Orchestra made itself superbly heard under the energetic baton of Patrick Summers. The relentless score is not an easy one to tame, but the overall performance was clean, sharp and perfectly balanced. This was definitely not pretty music, but its jagged edges made it all the more intriguingly complex, eventually giving the opera its irrepressible force and profound humanity.

Friday, July 4, 2014

American Ballet Theatre - The Dream & The Tempest - 07/01/14

The Dream
Choreographer: Frederick Ashton
Composer: Felix Mendelssohn
Conductor: Ormsby Wilkins
Chorus: The Young People's Chorus of New York City
Artistic Director: Francisco Nunez
Solo Soprano: Elizabeth Nunez
Solo Mezzo-Soprano: Lindsay Bogaty
Titania: Julie Kent
Oberon: Marcelo Gomes
Puck: Daniil Simkin
Helena: Gemma Bond
Hermia: Nicola Curry
Demetrius: Sterling Baca
Lysander: Roman Zhurbin

The Tempest
Choreographer: Alexei Ratmansky
Composer: Jean Sibelius
Conductor: Ormsby Wilkins
Chorus: Cantori New York
Artistic Director: Mark Shapiro
Solo Mezzo-Soprano: Heather Johnson
Prospero: Cory Stearns
Miranda: Yuriko Kajiya
Ariel: Gabe Stone Shayer
Caliban: Blaine Hoven

After a long and frustrating month of live performance deprivation, I was only too happy to join two friends of mine at The Met on Tuesday for a highly anticipated evening with the American Ballet Theatre, William Shakespeare, Felix Mendelssohn, Jean Sibelius, The Young People's Chorus of New York City and Cantori New York, who would all joined their formidable forces for two dance performances that mixed up classical drama and Romantic music while featuring one of the world's premier classical ballet companies. I ain't no ballet afficionada, but this program was pretty much a no brainer, and how could I resist finally getting to hear Mendelssohn's famous "Wedding March" in context?
Both ballets had many obvious connections, including the themes of magic and reconciliation, and there's little doubt that both teams had been working extra hard at dealing with the embarrassment of richness that is The Bard's plays. But each had clearly found its own way around it, and the contrasting productions turned out to be totally enjoyable as high level entertainment as well as unquestionably interesting as parts of a comparative study.

Although Frederick Ashton's "The Dream" is turning 50 this year, the performance we saw on Tuesday wasted no time proving why it has remained such a perennial favorite. Cleverly streamlined and resolutely focused on the world of fairies and the four lovers, the one-act production boasted such crowd-pleasing qualities as a tight structure and seamless flow, a dream-like set and attractive costumes, almost too cute but still highly effective playfulness, tremendously complex yet impeccably executed dance routines, and of course Mendelssohn's unabashedly melodic score. Add to that an eerily gravity-defying Daniil Simkin as the mischievous Puck, who effortlessly stole every scene he was in, and the first half of the evening passed by as pleasantly as a midsummer night's dream indeed.
After the flawless classicism of "The Dream" came the more uneven, but occasionally more boldly creative, production of "The Tempest" by Alexei Ratmansky, ABT's current Artist in Residence. From the get-go the ballet understandably disregarded the original story's intricacies and presented a series of scenes, which ranged from truly inspired to decidedly puzzling, instead. The endless inventiveness of Sibelius' score, on the other hand, made for a constantly evocative accompaniment thanks to a brilliant combination of delicate melodies and disquieting dissonances, an ingenious use of the various instruments, especially the otherworldly harp, and Cantori's discreetly haunting singing. The subtly poetic music sometimes felt at odds with the assertive dancing going on, but there was still plenty to relish when everything came together on the tastefully exotic set (never mind that the brightly colored, spiky hair of Ariel and the Chorus of the Winds could have been toned down a notch). All things considered, it certainly looked like my summer season got off to an unusual but good start.

Saturday, June 7, 2014

Budapest Festival Orchestra - All-Dvorak - 06/02/14

Conductor: Ivan Fischer
Dvorak: Slavonic Dance, Op. 72, No 6
Dvorak: Cello Concerto in B Minor - Daniel Müller-Schott
Dvorak: Legend No 10
Dvorak: Symphony No 9 in E Minor (From the New World)

Every time I am at a reasonable distance from Ivan Fischer and his unfailingly fabulous Budapest Festival Orchestra, I simply have to go. And so I did go to the Avery Fisher Hall on Monday night to hear Hungary's most prestigious export perform an all-Dvorak program, which included his grand cello concerto and his even grander "New World" symphony. Although these two extremely popular works regularly appear on concert programs all over the world, I knew that the visiting Hungarians would make them special by the sheer power of their committed musicianship and irrepressible spirit of adventure.

The short but lively Slavonic Dance No 8 that opened the program immediately put everybody in a festive mood, even more so when one of the orchestra's percussionists suddenly got up, nonchalantly came to sit down right in the empty soloist chair, casually took out a tiny brass cymbal from his pocket, and eventually started playing it right in tune, non-plussed by the big deal his small contribution had become.
Next, the soloist for the evening, young but already much in demand German cellist Daniel Müller-Schott, did take the seat that was rightfully his and readily delivered a beautifully expressive performance of Dvorak's beloved cello concerto. Listening to such a well-rounded composition, I was finding it hard to believe that it took Dvorak forever to decide to write for the cello. Taking his time to let the music expansively breathe and leisurely display a wide range of moods, from elegant to lyrical, from mournful to triumphant, Daniel Müller-Schott indisputably proved that he had a solid grasp on the challenging work and plenty of virtuosic skills to pull it off.
This was only confirmed by his soulful interpretation of Maurice Ravel's "Pièce en forme de Habanera" that rewarded our enthusiastic ovation.
Another lovely amuse bouche, Dvorak's Legend No 10 kicked off the second part of the concert with just enough firing power to prepare us for the big one that was coming our way.
Although Dvorak's Symphony No 9 was written in the United States and is peppered with more or less obvious references to various American musical traditions, it remains first and foremost a majestic composition chock-full of intense emotions, appealing melodies and plenty of oomph. From the gripping opening to the take-no-prisoners finale, Ivan Fischer led his orchestra in a compelling performance that exuded razor-sharp precision and rustic light-heartedness by exemplarily unifying all fronts and boldly drawing out the work's many vibrant colors. Amidst all the sweeping moments, the melancholic Largo strongly stood out thanks to the spell-binding English horn solo that was inconspicuously supported by the hushed wind section. It all ended up in the well-known exhilarating climax that is the Allegro con fuoco. And there was a lot of raging fire indeed coming out of the stage on Monday night, prompting me to think that my 2013-2014 music season was about to finish with a resounding bang.

But assuming that the concert would wrap up with this terrific take on a classic among classics would be vastly underestimating Ivan Fischer's ever-unpredictable imagination. And sure enough, as if to prove their appreciation of our wild ovation, the women in the orchestra got up, took out a score and started singing Dvorak's "Hoře", a sad love song from his "Moravian Duets", delicately accompanied by the male string players. As low-key as the New World symphony was big-time, this unexpected conclusion of the concert effectively brought my music season to a unique and memorable end.