Monday, April 20, 2015

Boston Symphony Orchestra - Mahler - 04/17/15

Conductor: Andris Nelsons
Mahler: Symphony No. 6 in A Minor

After the two smaller-scale, kind of off-the-beaten-track concerts I had attended lately, last Friday night was more or less back to business as usual with a monumental classical symphony performed by a prestigious symphony orchestra at Carnegie Hall. Since the program ha no intermission, I even got the automated phone call reminding me to get there on time or else.
Mahler's Symphony No. 6 is certainly not one of his most popular ones, maybe because it has the particularity of being one of his densest and darkest works (It has not be called "The Tragic" for no reason) despite the fact of having been written during one of the happiest times of his life. Go figure. On top of the promise of a memorable journey into a grand composition, this concert was also the perfect opportunity to enjoy the illustrious Boston Symphony Orchestra and check out its new music director and conductor Andris Nelsons. Filling in James Levine's shoes has to be a tough job, but somebody's got to do it.

On Friday night, in a packed Stern Auditorium, the ominous march implacably opened the way to roughly 90 minutes of a remarkably powerful and highly detailed performance, which significantly benefited from the unbreakable unity of the entire orchestra and the unwavering conducting of indefatigable Andris Nelsons.
There is typically a lot going on in Mahler's symphonies, and the sixth is no different. The first movement was majestic, complex and inexorably driven. More importantly even, the right pace was picked from the very beginning, fast enough for the momentum to keep going and slow enough for telling details to clearly emerge.
The order of the second and third movements has been hotly debated ever since Mahler himself decided to switch from "Scherzo-Andante" to "Andante-Scherzo" during a rehearsal before the premiere. On Friday, we got back to the original order, which resulted in a seamless transition ‒ once the applause had subsided ‒ from the expansive Allegro to the agitated Scherzo, and later a more drastic contrast between the warm Andante and the apocalyptic Finale.
Few composers know how to stir a spontaneous emotional response without falling into gooey schmaltz, but Mahler had the absolute knack to come up with stunningly beautiful slow movements seemingly without any fuss. The Andante of his Symphony No. 6 happens to be one of them, and it may very well be the one that will be most vividly remembered from Friday night's concert.
After such an elating interlude, the unyielding tragedy of the Finale resounded all the more loud and clear, like a cruel fate that could not be stopped and kept on resolutely charging ahead to the very end. And then a well-deserved, roof-raising ovation took over for a very long time.

Monday, April 13, 2015

So Percussion - Reich, Cage & Dessner - 04/12/15

Steve Reich: Music for Pieces of Wood
John Cage: Child of Tree
John Cage: Third Construction
Bryce Dessner: Music for Wood and Strings

The genuine spring weather we had all been waiting for finally arrived in New York City yesterday, but that still did not keep my friend Angie and me from venturing to a still gritty part of Manhattan's Lower East Side and joining a sizable crowd in the pleasantly intimate Playhouse of the Abrons Arts Center at Henry Street Settlement as part of Carnegie Hall’s Neighborhood Concerts series.
Fact is, it was hard to resist the promise of hearing the self-proclaimed "musical innovators, collaborators: Brooklyn-bred and globally minded" So Percussion perform a particularly exciting program featuring Steve Reich, John Cage and Bryce Dessner, which band member Jason Treuting rightly dubbed "New York Experimental Works from the 1940s, 1970s and our present time". And so it was.

The performance started with the unexpected sight of a young woman positioning herself front and middle of the cluttered stage and starting to impassibly beat on the woodblock she was holding, factually opening Steve Reich's "Music for Pieces of Wood". So Percussion's four members eventually joined her, one by one, each of them beating on their own woodblock according to their own patterns, and altogether the five musicians ended up creating a fascinating tapestry of sounds, which was both uncompromisingly minimalist and richly complex. It did not take long for the effect to become downright hypnotic, our minds slowly losing themselves as a subtly and constantly changing musical Web was expertly crafted before us for an indeterminate amount of time up to the impeccably timed ending.
The 1970s piece was followed by two works from the 1940s, during which So Percussion took us on John Cage's endless search for brand new, never thought of or little appreciated sounds that surround us. "Child of Tree" had Josh Quillen play on the spikes of a cactus, break down tree bark and otherwise create sounds from other organic elements for exactly eight minutes; "Third Construction" had the quartet play on all kinds of random things, from a conch shell, to kitchenware, to actual instruments and more, to create some highly purposeful but still unabashedly fun music. Obviously, one can always count on John Cage to keep the audience entertained, or at least intrigued, with the most unusual tools.
Back to the present with endlessly versatile Brooklynite Bryce Dessner’s "Music for Wood and Strings", we were first introduced to four amplified "chord sticks", which are odd combinations of hammer dulcimers and electric guitars, which would be played alongside woodblocks, snares and bass drums. The boldly innovative, inherently appealing composition consisted in various movements naturally transitioning from one to the other, regardless of the multiple changes in sounds, rhythms or moods, from mysterious ethereality to thundering rock ‘n’ roll, from electric modernity to classical rigor. In our days of too many futile gimmicks and pointless cross-overs, this refreshing and groovy trip brightly demonstrated that avant-garde experiments are not only still alive and well, but easily accessible and totally enjoyable too. And definitely worth staying inside on a beautiful spring afternoon for.

Saturday, April 11, 2015

Music Mondays - The Debussy "Six" - 04/06/15

Claude Debussy: Sonata for Cello and Piano
Julia Bruskin: Cello - Aaron Wunsch: Piano
Thomas Adès: Sonata da caccia for Oboe, Horn, and Harpsichord
Arthur Sato: Oboe - Elizabeth Martignetti: Horn - Christopher Oldfather: Harpsichord
Claude Debussy: Sonata for Violin and Piano
Jesse Mills: Violin - Rieko Aizawa: Piano
Libby Larsen: Ferlinghetti for Clarinet, Viola and Piano
Todd Palmer: Clarinet - Edward Klorman: Viola - Aaron Wunsch: Piano
Claude Debussy: Sonata for Flute, Viola and Harp
Alex Soop: Flute - Edward Klorman: Viola - Bridget Kibbey: Harp
Marc-André Dalbavie: Axiom for Piano, Clarinet, Bassoon and Trumpet
Todd Palmer: Clarinet - Peter Evans: Trumpet - Adrian Morejon: Bassoon - Aaron Wunsch: Piano

On Monday, January 26, I was in a train on my way back to New York City from Washington, DC to attend Music Mondays' eagerly anticipated The Debussy "Six" concert and, incidentally, beat the forecast "historic" blizzard. Later that day, however, it was announced that the subway system was shutting down. Therefore, the concert had to be cancelled and rescheduled. Oh, and the blizzard did not turn out to be "historic" anyway.
On Monday, February 16, I was in a bus on my way back to New York City from Washington, DC to attend Music Mondays' thankfully rescheduled The Debussy "Six" concert. Later that day, however, it was announced that one of the musicians had fallen ill. Therefore, the concert had to be cancelled and re-rescheduled.
On Monday, April 6, I was in the subway on my way back to the Upper West Side from The Flatiron District to attend Music Mondays' miraculously re-rescheduled the Debussy "Six" concert. And later that day, lo and behold, the concert actually happened!
Seeing the name of Claude Debussy on a concert program is always the promise of a special treat for me, and the perspective of hearing the three sonatas he wrote as part of his unfinished "Six sonatas for various instruments" project, plus the three more sonatas written by contemporary composers inspired by the project, definitely sounded like a truly extra-special treat to me. And against all odds, snow storms, illnesses, and logistical challenges (Have you ever tried scheduling 13 busy musicians and special instruments three times in three months?), ever-resilient Music Mondays eventually made that seemingly elusive dream come true.

Debussy's delicately nuanced yet unabashedly playful "Sonata for Cello and Piano" opened the program with a lot of beautiful sounds, which were produced with plenty of technical dexterity and made a strong impression in only a dozen minutes.
It was followed by Thomas Adès' "Sonata da caccia", the contemporary English composer heeding Debussy's choice of instruments for the fourth sonata he did not live long enough to write. The result was an engagingly quirky baroque piece in which lovely melodies and riotous cacophony deftly mixed.
Back to Debussy with his "Sonata for Violin and Piano", we were in for a lightly vivacious tribute to the French musical master with what happened to be his last composition.
Then Libby Larsen introduced her own piece, "Ferlinghetti", which was finally having its world premiere on Monday evening. Drawing inspiration from poems by the undisputed giant of the Beat movement, the eclectic work featured six vignettes containing musical inside jokes and evoking a wide range of images, from a sexy "Paris in a loud, dark winter" to a softly depicted "sad nude", and ended in a loudly patriotic number. There was a lot going on, but all in good, insightful fun.
Debussy's last and most substantial gem on the program, his "Sonata for Flute, Harp, and Viola", also stood out as the most memorable performance of the evening for its kind of unusual but outright appealing instrumental combination and unmistakably Debussian mood. It started with a refreshingly light-hearted Pastoral movement, all subtle colors and halting pointillism, dreamily strolling in a bucolic landscape on a beautiful spring day. The Interlude had a ball merrily frolicking in the verdant fields and the Finale provided a decidedly faster, denser, but still unquestionably atmospheric, ending.
We came back down to organic earth with Marc-André Dalbavie's blazingly virtuosic "Axiom", which assertively opened with furiously descending octaves and rigorously channeled the musicians' energy for a rush-inducing performance. This was a surprisingly fitting conclusion to a Debussy musical feast, if for nothing else than the gleefully stark contrast it provided. The extra-special treat had been worth waiting for.

Monday, March 30, 2015

New York Classical Players - Holst, Hallman, Diamond & Elgar - 03/28/15

Conductor: Dongmin Kim
Holst: St. Paul's Suite
Hallman: Rhapsody Concerto for Violin and Piano with Strings ‒ Donald & Vivian Weilerstein
Diamond: Rounds for String Orchestra
Elgar: Introduction and Allegro for Strings, Op. 47

Another beautiful, sunny and unusually March Sunday afternoon, another inspirational concert by a tremendously talented string chamber orchestra. There should be more weekends like this. So there I was yesterday afternoon, back in the Upper East Side's Church of the Heavenly Rest with two like-minded friends of mine for another open to all and free for all performance of an appealing program by the New York Classical Players.
And appealing it was. Book-ended by two renowned English composers, Holst and Elgar, were the world premiere of Joseph Hallman's "Rhapsody Concerto for Violin and Piano with Strings", which was commissioned by the NYCP and The Weilerstein Duo, followed by David Diamond's popular "Rounds for String Orchestra". Plenty of opportunities for the little orchestra that can to put their glorious strings to good use.

Written as a thank you note to the St. Paul's Girls' School in Hammersmith for letting him use their large soundproof studio, Gustav Holst's "St. Paul's Suite" started the concert with an assertively lively... jig! And why not? The fact is, the whole work features many attractive melodies, which the musicians kept on expertly unfurling with much sparkling energy under Dongmin Kim's insightful baton.
The brand new piece on the program, Joseph Hallman's "Rhapsody Concerto for Violin and Piano with Strings", was composed with Donald and Vivian Weilerstein in mind, a power couple who has not only produced trail-blazing cellist Alisa Weilerstein, but has also taught some of the members of the orchestra. Needless to say, the string music world is forever in their debt. The concerto had a little bit of everything for everyone, including some lyrical lushness, fast-paced passages, as well as solo cadenzas for the violin and the piano, because when you have the Weilerstein Duo perform your composition, you make sure to showcase their talent. Mission accomplished.
The story goes that Dimitri Mitropoulos, who was the commissioner and conductor of David Diamond's "Rounds for String Orchestra", asked the composer for a "happy work". Whether this is an apocryphal account or not, yesterday afternoon the result was undeniably cheerful, agreeable and light-hearted. The perfect breath of fresh air on this sunny Sunday.
There's nothing in the world that my friend Ruth enjoys more than a healthy dose of premium schmaltz when it comes to music, and she finally got her fill of it with the last piece on the program, Edward Elgar's "Introduction and Allegro for Strings". A complex, multi-layered symphonic poem designed to highlight the virtuosic skills of the musicians performing it, it is also, and maybe first of all, a downright beautiful work. Needless to say that the NYCP's players have all the necessary chops to deliver a brilliant and moving rendition of it, and they did.

And then, just when we thought the concert was over, an irresistible set of variations on "Happy Birthday" filled up the church in celebration of Donald Weilerstein's 75th birthday. A totally unexpected but much savored bonbon for the road back across the park.

Saturday, March 28, 2015

New York Philharmonic - Lyadov, Stravinsky & Adams - 03/27/15

Conductor: Alan Gilbert
Lyadov: The Enchanted Lake, Op. 62
Stravinsky: Petrushka - Eric Huebner (Piano)
Adams: Scheherazade.2 ‒ Dramatic Symphony for Violin and Orchestra ‒ Leila Josefowicz

My first and unforgettable taste of the already long-standing and flawless musical chemistry between premier American composer John Adams and formidable violinist Leila Josefowicz took place five years ago, when she performed his Dharma at Big Sur at one of the concerts by the National Symphony Orchestra he was conducting during his residency at the Kennedy Center. On that fateful evening, they also incidentally proved to me once and for all that contemporary classical music could be a truly thrilling experience. I've made a point of keeping up with both artists as much as possible since then, but never again had I had the opportunity to hear her play one of his works until this week.
As timing would have it, this past Thursday the New York Philharmonic, Alan Gilbert and Leila Josefowicz presented for the first time John Adams' latest piece, Scheherazade.2, which is dedicated to the violinist, along with works by Lyadov and Stravinsky. Inspired by an exhibition about the Arabian Nights at the Institut du monde arabe in Paris a couple of years ago and the casual brutality still suffered by many women around the world, Adams has created a sprawling four-movement "dramatic symphony" in which the solo violin impersonates a fearless modern-day Scheherazade. Enters Leila Josefowicz, the quintessential fearless modern-day musician. So it was with high expectations that after wrapping up another busy week, I made it to the Avery Fisher Hall yesterday evening for ‒ I must reluctantly admit it ‒ not the première, but the deuxième of John Adams' Scheherazade.2.

The evening started with "The Enchanted Lake", a short but lush tone poem by Anatoly Lyadov, a student of Rimsky-Korsakov. It is hard to tell is the indirect Scheherazade connection was intended or not, but this precious little gem turned out to be a big winner regardless.
After this elegiac opening number, Igor Stravinsky's mischievous Petrushka exploded with bright colors, inventive melodies and a generally exuberant mood. The full orchestra did a masterful job at delivering an irresistibly fun account of the puppet's adventures, including an especially dazzling turn by pianist Eric Huebner.
After intermission, John Adams came onstage to introduce his Scheherazade.2, and off we were to a long, tortuous, but also cautiously optimistic journey towards women's empowerment. First appearing as a traditionally beautiful and sensual female figure, Leila Josefowicz wasted no time expressing unbreakable strength and deep-rooted resilience too, brilliantly representing both every woman and the ideal woman. Never mind all the obstacles she had to overcome, among which incensed "true believers" and squabbling "religious zealots", she resolutely stayed true to herself as she was unfurling stunning lyrical lines between breathless escapes and intense arguments. Although all the eyes and ears were rightly focused on the riveting soloist, the orchestra kept constantly busy playing the bad guys, but also conveying a subtly exotic atmosphere as well as vividly cinematic images. This was a richly complex and strongly evocative score, which can definitely be filed with Adams' most commendable artistic achievements, and it really sounded like he had found the perfect musicians to perform it, as the huge ovation from the packed audience could attest. Contemporary classical music can be a truly thrilling experience indeed.