Monday, January 16, 2017

New York Philharmonic - Beethoven & Brahms - 01/11/17

Conductor: Alan Gilbert 
Beethoven: Piano Concerto No. 5 in E-flat Major, Op. 73 (Emperor) - Stephen Hough 
Brahms: Symphony No. 3 in F Major, Op. 90 

 Because life and music must go on, after enjoying a rousing Roméo et Juliette at the Met on Tuesday night, I was back at Lincoln Center about 24 hours later for a long-planned and highly anticipated concert by the New York Philharmonic and Stephen Hough at the David Geffen Hall. The main purpose of my getting a ticket was to hear the modern-day Renaissance pianist's take on Beethoven's Emperor concerto, as I had figured it would be hard to go wrong with that pairing. And having Brahms' Symphony No. 3 on the same program would be a nice continuation in the Romantic tradition. After all, there's nothing wrong with indulging in stellar servings of oldies but goodies once in a while.

 Stephen Hough's flawless Debussy and Chopin recital at Carnegie Hall last May had been one the highlights of my season, and I simply could not wait to hear him get busy with Beethoven's majestic Emperor. I am happy to report that my patience was splendidly rewarded by the technically brilliant and emotionally engaging performance the captive audience got to revel in on Wednesday night. Starting with vivacious assertiveness in the long Allegro, he moved on to the Adagio with delicate introspection, before going all fireball with a tad of mischief in the Rondo. Even in his most energetic moments, there was a fundamental purity of sound and a clear sense of purpose that made this Emperor not only remarkable for its sweeping grandeur, but also for its delicate lyricism and sparkling details. Everything I could have hoped for and more.
After intermission and a speech to thank donors, welcome music students among the orchestra and salute the NY Phil's special relationship with the University of Michigan, we headed back to familiar territory with Brahms' relatively lesser-known Symphony No. 3, a puzzling status that was actually hard to believe as the composition was magisterially unfolding with big brass, fleeting winds and glowing strings. Its rich and complex texture beautifully brought to life with vibrancy and flair, the black sheep of Brahms' symphonies probably conquered the last skeptics, assuming there were any in the packed concert hall, and triumphantly concluded the evening with a soft touch.

Sunday, January 15, 2017

Met - Roméo et Juliette - 01/10/17

Composer: Charles Gounod 
Librettist: Jules Barbier and Michel Carré 
Conductor: Gianandrea Noseda 
Producer/Director: Bartlett Sher 
Diana Damrau: Juliette 
Vittorio Grigolo: Roméo 
Laurent Naouri: Capulet 
Frère Laurent: Mikail Petrenko 
Diana Montague: Gertrude 
Tybalt: Diego Silva 
Elliot Madore: Mercutio 

 A few days after witnessing a modern-day doomed love story with the Prototype Festival’s gripping Breaking the Waves, I found myself at the Met for the original doomed love story of them all with Charles Gounod’s Roméo et Juliette starring opera's latest dream duo consisting of German soprano Diana Damrau and Italian tenor Vittorio Grigolo. I have to admit that I initially had slight misgivings about the opera being too sentimental and Diana Damrau being too old to play a teenager. But then I came to my senses thanks to my ever-reliable friend Nicole’s high praise of the opera, and my realization that Diane Damrau is not that old since she is after all younger than me, and of course a divine singer to boot.
In her determined quest of experiencing New York City's impressive art scene, my still newish French colleague and friend Vy An has been on a trail-blazing mission checking out all kinds of cultural institutions for the past couple of months, and she had been looking forward to her first foray into the Met. And we could not think of a better way to get her started than with two of the hottest singers of the moment putting their rightfully acclaimed talents to excellent use in a universally famous love story that, in this case, would even be sung in French. So that’s where we were on Tuesday evening, kind of spontaneously, in no less than decent orchestra seats.

The good thing about watching an opera inspired by a certified classic, be it a book, play or film, is that the plot being so well-known, no homework is generally required. Adapted many times over, including in West Side Story, which incidentally takes place exactly where the Met stands now, Roméo et Juliette can boast about being the gift that keeps on giving. And the tragedy of the original  and probably ultimate  pair of star-crossed lovers gave plenty again on Tuesday night.
In an irrefutable proof that I should just shut up when I don’t know what I am talking about, Diana Damrau effortlessly conquered everybody in the house as soon as she stepped up on stage, a pure and luminous presence among the rambunctious ball crowd. Seeing her twirl around in a pretty yellow gown and flowing blond tresses, I had to readily acknowledge that she was a truly lovely Juliette, from carefree teenager eager to live life to the fullest to the tragic heroine whose only escape is death. However, if her demeanor was appropriately youthful, there was no doubt that the unfailingly exacting, delicate yet intense singing unquestionably came from the seasoned soprano that she is.
As for Vittorio Grigolo, he certainly seemed to have found a meaty part that fit him like a glove. His Roméo was temperamentally hot-blooded and physically restless, intrepidly climbing walls, breathlessly running around and fiercely engaging in the fateful sword fight. But obviously determined not to be just a pretty face and a non-stop fireball, he displayed an impressive singing range, which was not just burning ardor and unabashed romanticism, but achingly vulnerable and subtly introspective as well, convincingly conveying every emotion the youngster desperately in love was going through.
 A lot has been written about the “sizzling chemistry” between those two inherently charismatic singers, and I am happy to confirm that it was there in spades on Tuesday night. So much so, in fact, that an audience member a few rows ahead of us could not resist filming their admittedly thrilling love duet after their first and only night together on his smartphone until an usher put an end to it. The culprit should not worry though, as chances are he will not forget this exceptional pairing anytime soon. And neither will the rest of us.
Even though the opera squarely focused on the leads, smaller roles were interpreted by top-notch singers as well such as bass-baritone Laurent Naouri, who embodied firm patriarchy as Juliette’s father, bass Mikhail Petrenko brought out the best of good-hearted Frère Laurent, mezzo-soprano Virginie Verrez was a dynamic Stéphano, mezzo-soprano Diana Montague endeared herself to all as Juliette’s strongly devoted nurse, and tenor Diego Silva as Tybalt and baritone Elliot Madore as Mercutio effectively portrayed the two ferocious enemies.
The production was solidly conventional, with a permanent set that included a three-floor Italian palace exterior, a town square and a Greek column, but it got the job done. Every time the action moved to a new place, a few things were altered. Some chairs were brought in for the opening scene, a few religious accessories made up the church, a sheet more or less inventively served several purposes – its puzzlingly interfering with the last sword fight being the one major faux pas of the staging – and two coffins in front of a large door stood for the crypt. The crowd scenes, especially the sword fights, were winningly choreographed.
It comes to no surprise that the music is lushly romantic, and if may not have all of the weight necessary to support the full emotional depth of Shakespeare's tragedy, it stayed thankfully away from excessive maudlinness. Damrau and Grigolo had beautiful arias and duets that they consistently nailed with impeccable savoir faire, turning their scenes into the undisputed highlights of the evening. And the typically fabulous Met chorus also had several opportunities to show that they were having a very good night as well.
The always dependable orchestra delivered a warm, energetic and richly melodic performance under the baton of Met regular Gianandrea Noseda, who cleverly focused more on firing up the score's all-out lyricism than on getting closer to the more subdued French style. The result was an exciting musical accompaniment that compellingly contributed to the non-stop drama unfolding on the stage, which in turn made our evening with Roméo et Juliette a complete success.

Monday, January 9, 2017

Prototype Festival - Breaking the Waves - 01/06/17

Composer: Missy Mazzoli 
Conductor: Julian Wachner 
Librettist: Royce Vavrek 
Director: James Darrah 
Kiera Duffy: Bess McNeill 
John Moore: Jan Nyman 
Eve Gigliotti: Dodo McNeill 
Theodora Hanslowe: Bess' Mother 
Matthew Curran: Terry 
Dominic Armstrong: Dr. Richardson 
Marcus DeLoach: Minister 
The Choir of Trinity Church Wall Street 
Opera Philadelphia Chorus

 Now that 2016 is solidly behind us, I could not find a better way to start 2017 than with a new opera that deals head-first with exacerbated emotions, religious fanaticism, sexual depravity and modern martyrdom, courtesy of Beth Morrison Projects, Opera Philadelphia and, first and foremost, New York's very own Prototype Festival, which in its fifth year is showing nothing but signs of getting bigger, stronger and better, a remarkable accomplishment all music-loving New Yorkers are very grateful for.
Inspired by the 1996 Lars von Trier film, which routinely dealt an unforgettable gut-wrenching punch to everyone who saw it while putting wide-eyed but steel-willed Emily Watson forever on the map of actresses to watch, Breaking the Waves has become an opera composed by Missy Mazzoli, who fully embraced and clearly conquered the mighty challenge.
Three performances were scheduled at the NYU Skirball Center for the Performing Arts, and I figured that I might as well go to the first one, on Friday evening, since it was the official New York premiere and, more prosaically, the weather forecast was not particularly optimistic for the rest of the weekend. Apparently, a lot of important and less important people felt the same way, and we all excitedly packed up the pleasant theater.

The blatantly unusual story revolves around a young Scottish woman who in a short time experiences incredible highs and agonizing lows when joyfully finding the perfect husband and then promptly seeing him suffer from a horrific work accident, which eventually leads her to debase herself through increasingly sordid sexual encounters as a way to save him. To make things even worse, all of this takes place among a deeply religious and particularly intolerant Scottish island community.
A veteran of the world premiere in Philadelphia in September 2016, soprano Kiera Duffy had the frail frame, aching vulnerability, unbreakable stamina, fearless spirit and vocal intensity necessary to carry out what was essentially an awe-inspiring one-woman show. Her visceral combination of endearing goodness and uncompromising fierceness made her Bess all the more poignant as we watched her bare her body and soul all the way to her ghastly death. A new tragic heroine had been born.
Kiera Duffy's performance being so central and riveting, the other singers unsurprisingly tended to pale next to her. However, with his rugged good looks and attractively burnished voice, baritone John Moore did not escape notice as Jan, the oil rig worker Bess marries for better or worse. In their better times, his scenes with Kiera Duffy had a spontaneous intimacy that made their emotional and physical bond all the more palpable, and even after the worst happened, he remained a powerful presence even as he was lying paralyzed from the neck down.
Another standout performer was formidable mezzo-soprano Eve Gigliotti as Dodo McNeill, Bess' sister-in-law who stood firmly by her side even as their entire community turned its back on the increasingly self-degrading young woman. Her beautifully lyrical, wonderfully warm and truly compelling singing effortlessly filled up the entire theater while unmistakably embodying the steady voice of compassion and selflessness.
All the other singers ─ Theodora Hanslowe as Bess' worrying mother, Matthew Curran as Jan’s loyal buddy and supervisor Terry, Dominic Armstrong as compassionate Dr. Richardson and Marcus Deloach as the ruthless minister ─ came through with equal force and commitment, and the outstanding members of the chorus, who had to switch rapidly between implacable churchmen, boisterous rig workers and sadistic lovers, fulfilled their parts with plenty of talent and integrity, and without missing a beat.
The production used one stark set made of broken down planks on the stage, which created spaces and props for the singers to move around, and screens on the background, on which videos of the oil rig violently exploding as well as black splashes of ink tarnishing the immaculate canvas – and Bess' reputation – randomly appeared. Everything remained efficiently minimalist and perfectly in line with the inescapable bleakness of the story.
On the other end, as if to blur the line between performance and reality, during the intermission the audience members who stayed inside the theater got to witness Jan being cared for by dedicated medical staff and then left alone in full hospital gear, and the performance resumed as many people were still streaming back to their seats, which ended up being more frustrating for everybody than anything else.
The brittle Scottish landscape and Bess' no less brittle state of mind were cleverly reinforced by Missy Mazzoli’s wildly inventive, confidently unpredictable score that, for all the occasional pleasant melodic offerings, had countless unnerving moments filled with strange sounds and jagged dissonances. The overall texture was nevertheless cleanly woven and carefully balanced, making sure that the singers could be heard over even the most grating instrumental turbulence.
The exacting musicians of the unseen NOVUS NY orchestra, which featured awesomely esoteric percussions and made impressive use of an electric guitar, was commandingly conducted by Julian Wachner, who proved one more time what a versatile and involved music man he is. Although we could just from time to time see the top of his head and his moving arms, there was no doubt that he was keeping thing firmly under control and significant contributed in turning this daring endeavor into a successful and memorable experience.

Monday, December 19, 2016

Cantori New York - A Cantori Holiday - 12/17/16

Mark Shapiro: Artistic Director and Conductor 
Elliot Levine: Al Hanissim 
Malcolm Williamson: This Christmas Night 
Mykola Leontovich: Carol of the Bells (Arr. Peter J. Wilhousky) 
Alice Dryden: Banu Choshech 
 Basque Carol: Gabriel's Message (Arr. David Willcocks) 
 G. R. Woordward: Shepherds in the Fields Abiding (Arr. David Willcocks) 
14th Century German Melody: Lo, How the Rose (Arr. M. Praetorius) 
J. Pierpont: Jingle Bells (Arr. David Willcocks) 
Mark Shapiro: Piano 
Kim Gannon & Walter Kent: I'll be home for Christmas (Arr. David Willcocks) 
Hugh Martin & Ralph Blane: Have yourself a Merry Little Christmas (Arr. Ken Neufeld) 
Moses Hogan: Glory, Glory, Glory 
Soloist: Steve Underhill 
German Carol: Kling, Glöckchen, Kling (Arr. Robert Sieving) 
Every Voice Concert Choi
John Rutter: Donkey Carol 
Every Voice Concert Choir 
Folk Melody: Mi Zeh Hidlik (Arr. Elliot Z. Levine) 
Every Voice Concert Choir & women of Cantori 
Solomon Golub: Boruh Ate, Zingt der Tate (Arr. Bill Zulof and Elliot Levine) 
Every Voice Concert Choir & women of Cantori 
French Carol: Noël Nouvelet (Arr. Michael McGlynn) 
Elizabeth Poston: Jesus Christ and the Apple Tree 
Soloist: Sarah Glaser 
Sergei Rachmaninoff: Bogoroditse Devo 
English Carol: The Wassail Song (Arr. R. Vaughan Williams) 
Franz Xaver Biebl: Ave Maria 
Soloists: Ben Haile, Paul Rozario-Falcone 
Trio: Steve Albert, Steve Underhill, Joseph Holly-Beaver 
 Welch Carol: Deck the Hall (Arr. David Willcocks) 
West Country Carol: We Wish You a Merry Christmas (Arr. Arthur Warrell) 
Franz Gruber: Silent Night (Sing Along) 

As a six-year Cantori Holiday veteran, I cannot help but deduct that there is a direct connection between Cantori New York's holiday concert weekend and bad weather. Although it is a tradition that most of us really do not care for (the bad weather, not the holiday concerts), this year again, New York City had to put up with an unappetizing mix of snow and rain, as well as depressing gray skies, pretty much the entire weekend.
That said, it would have taken much more than unfavorable weather conditions to keep the typically packed audience, including a wide range of old and new friends, from gathering in Greenwich Village's Episcopal Church of St. Luke in the Fields to hear the unstoppable ensemble merrily belt out its very own mix of time-honored crowd-pleasers and exciting new additions that never fails to lift up everybody's spirits, regardless of whatever else is going on the world and, let's face it, a lot of not so good stuff has been going on lately.
So after getting into the spirit of winter earlier in the week with Music Mondays' Music of the North program, I was very much looking forward to my one and only  and eager  concession to holiday music of the season on Saturday afternoon. That is, of course, if you exclude the three different versions of "Jingles Bells" I had already had to grit my teeth through on a subway train (four a cappella singers), at Columbus Circle (lone saxophone) and inside the Time Warner Center (jazz recording).

Because Cantori is not your typical choir, they did not kick off their holiday concert with a typical Christmas piece, but with Elliot Levine's "Al Hanissim", a highly melodic, irresistibly infectious Hebrew tune that not only reminded us that music is a universal language that transcends pretty much everything, but that Hanukkah is around the corner too.
The other Hebrew songs of the program were the "Banu Choshech" by former Cantori member Alice Dryden, which sounds more delightful year after year, as well as "Mi Zeh Hidlik" and "Boruh Ate, Zingt der Tate", two immediately engaging works for which the ladies of Cantori joined the special young guests of the evening, the Every Voice Concert Choir.
Scheduled to have their moment in the spotlight right after intermission, the youth choir brought their bright faces, sweet voices, and proud family members filming on their smartphones all over the audience, to the celebration. They completed their endearing short set with more traditional fare such as "Kling, Glöckchen, Kling" from Germany and "Donkey Carol" from England.
The spirit of Christmas was also very much alive and well with Cantori gamely performing the usual suspects, including the hopelessly sentimental classics "This Christmas Night", "I'll be home for Christmas" and "Have yourself a Merry Little Christmas", and the peskily perky carols "Deck the Hall", "We Wish You a Merry Christmas" and, reigning supreme above them all, "Jingle Bells". And it is to Cantori's immense credit that they unfailingly make those endlessly reheated songs not only edible, but fresh and fun too.
Among this Christmassy feast, a few exceptional goodies definitely stood out for me due to their masterful composition (Rachmaninoff's "Bogoroditse Devo" and Biebl's all-male "Ave Maria"), blazing interpretation (Moses Hogan's "Glory, Glory, Glory" and The Wassail Song) or personal childhood memories (G. R. Woordward's "Shepherds in the Fields Abiding").
The concert was concluded with the traditional "Silent Night" sing-along, during which the audience is invited to join Cantori's singers for the first and third verses, while the third one was sung by the choir alone and, maybe because they really wanted to make sure we would not unexpectedly join in, in German.
Last, but not least, the festivities, which included a raffle at intermission, ended with the reliably lively reception during which artists and audience members heartily partied away. Happy holidays!

Saturday, December 17, 2016

Music Mondays - JACK Quartet and Ekmeles - Music of the North - 12/12/16

JACK Quartet 
John Luther Adams: I. Sky with Four Suns from Canticles of the Sky 
Jean Sibelius: The North from Songs for Voice and Piano, Op. 90 
Jean Sibelius: The Bird Catcher from Songs for Voice and Piano, Op. 90 
John Luther Adams: II. Sky with Four Moons from Canticles of the Sky 
Karin Rehnqvist: Davids Nimm 
Marc Sabat: Jean-Philippe Rameau 
Anna Thorvaldsdottir: Hvolf 
John Luther Adams: III. Sky with Nameless Colors from Canticles of the Sky 
Kaija Saariaho: I. II. III. IV. I. from the Grammar of Dreams 
John Luther Adams: IV. Sky with Endless Stars from Canticles of the Sky

 Just as the temperatures were reaching seasonal lows, Music Mondays decided to add their own personal touch to fast approaching winter with some intriguing music from Northern countries such as Iceland, Finland, Sweden and Canada as well as... Alaska. Of course, the fact that those compositions would be performed by the highly regarded JACK Quartet and the exciting newcomer Ekmeles only made the offer even more appealing.
In another commendable decision, the four movements of John Luther Adams’ Canticles of the Sky and Marc Sabat’s Jean-Philippe Rameau, which constituted the instrumental portion of the concert, would be interspersed with the more esoteric vocal pieces by the non-American composers in a continuous one-hour loop that was not to be interrupted by any applause, but enjoyed as an extended winter-celebrating piece.
Last, but not least, despite all the cold weather that has fallen upon us, there is actually no doubt that global temperatures are rising around the world, and Music Mondays pledged to donate one third of all door donations to the National Resources Defense Council, whose increasingly taxing but more necessary than ever task is to fight global warming.
It is hard to go wrong with some good music and a good cause, especially on a dark and cold mid-December Monday evening, so my newly arrived and endlessly curious Parisian colleague Vy An spontaneously decided to join me and a substantial crowd at the Upper West Side's Advent Lutheran Church for a worthy introduction to some of the best that the New York music scene has to offer.

The JACK Quartet has an impeccable track record in adventurous and brilliant playing due to their imperturbable focus on new and challenging works, so it was not surprising to find their name on yet another unusual program. Their spellbinding take on John Luther Adams’ minimalist Canticles of the Sky was subtle and powerful, dexterously emphasizing the stark beauty and ethereal atmosphere of the Alaskan landscape the composer drew inspiration from.
Native Canadian, and current Berlin resident - How about that for cold climate credentials? - Marc Sabat wrote a likewise inconspicuously intense piece about Baroque French composer Jean-Philippe Rameau, which the quartet executed with the same commitment and expertise.
Boldly following the JACK Quartet's steps in the voice-centric world, the new vocal ensemble Ekmeles, whose laudable mission is to bring new and rarely heard works to a wider audience, was represented by three young ladies who were totally unfazed by the often esoteric endeavors they were finding themselves involved in.
The two songs by Sibelius turned out to be the most accessible ones of the evening, "The North" beautifully evoking the rugged landscapes of his native Finland, "The Bird Catcher" bringing to my mind, for better or worse, a slightly less perky Papageno. Then things got trickier and more abstruse with Karin Rehnqvist and her "Davids Nimm", which consisted in a Swedish text that was sung backwards by three fearless singers in an exercise whose novelty wore out fairly quickly.
Iceland was in the house through Anna Thorvaldsdottir and her "Hvolf", a deceptively austere and quietly radiant song for soprano and piano that was short, hypnotic and memorable. The second Finn on the program, the ubiquitous Kaija Saariaho, showed her more experimental side with I. II. III. IV. I. from The Grammar of Dreams, in which texts from Sylvia Plath's novel The Bell Jar and poem "Paralytic" were continuously intermingled by the two voices in a most dreamlike way.
The busy hour went quickly, and we eventually came back to the real world, and the real cold.