Monday, February 1, 2016

Orchestre National de France - Debussy, Shostakovich & Tchaikovsky - 01/28/16

Conductor: Daniel Gatti
Debussy: Prélude à l'après-midi d'un faune
Shostakovich: Violin Concerto No. 1 in A Minor, Op. 77 – Julian Rachin
Tchaikovsky: Symphony No. 5 in E Minor, Op. 64

After a longer than usual absence from it, I was happily back at Carnegie Hall last Thursday night to support my fellow countrymen of the Orchestre National de France, along with Lithuanian violinist, violist and now conductor Julian Rachlin, in a resolutely classical program consisting of a delicately nuanced French symphonic poem by Debussy and two grippingly emotional Russian works – a violin concerto by Shostakovich and a symphony Tchaikovsky – that could only attract a large and excited crowd.
And the crowd was definitely there, including my friend Christine, who had decided to bravely dip her toes a little bit deeper into classical music's mysterious waters, and Christine Lagarde, who is the president of Honorary Committee for the orchestra's US tour and, incidentally, the Managing Director of the IMF. And who can clearly recognize a good gig when she sees one.

Unexpectedly, the concert did not start with Debussy's Prélude à l'après-midi d'un faune, but with Wagner's prelude to Act III of Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, which needless to say has a totally different groove. But who were we to complain about a surprise opening gift being thrown upon us? The orchestra dwelled into German romanticism with gusto, and off we were.
Next, Debussy's eagerly awaited Prélude à l'après-midi d'un faune got to glow with mesmerizing shimmering colors and beautiful impressionistic touches. On Thursday night, Debussy's ground-breaking masterpiece proved once again that sometimes the most understated works are the most memorable ones.
There is nothing understated about Shostakovich's Violin Concerto No. 1, but some subtle nuances can for sure be found in it. The one and only time I had heard Julian Rachlin perform before Thursday, he had played the tricky piece with confident virtuosity. About a decade later, he still took on the challenge head-on, but also made sure to let the quieter passages expand and brilliantly come alive. After much brooding darkness, the notorious passacaglia and its treacherous melodic lines appeared as the wild ride they are, and it all ended in a fierce finale.
But taming one of the violin repertoire's most untamable beasts was apparently not enough, and our enthusiastic ovation was rewarded with Ysaye's difficult "Ballade" sonata, which Rachlin handled with much dexterity and heart.
After intermission, we seamlessly moved from Shostakovich's unforgiving grittiness to Tchaikovsky's intense emotions with his majestic Symphony No. 5. Big sentiments and big sounds were in order here, and the orchestra unconditionally responded to Daniel Gatti's with precision and voluptuousness. So we shamelessly indulged in the luscious account of the magnificent composition, and felt all the better for it.
The hour was getting late and a good chunk of the audience was already out of the hall when the unstoppable French decided to end the concert the same way they had started it, with a surprise treat. This time, however, we moved back to the realm of French music with a heart-felt rendition of Fauré's prelude from Pelléas et Mélisande. Vive la France !

Tuesday, January 26, 2016

NYCO Renaissance - Tosca - 01/24/16

Composer: Giacomo Puccini
Conductor: Pacien Mazzagatti
Stage Director: Lev Pugliese
Tosca: Latonia Moore
Cavaradossi: Raffaele Abete
Scarpia: Carlo Guelfi

It had all started so auspiciously. Firstly, Tosca was my very first taste of opera and has occupied a very special place in my heart ever since "Recondita Armonia" hooked me up fair and square – and for life – just a few minutes into the performance. Secondly, last week the New York City Opera-turned- the New York City Opera Renaissance was reviving the original 1900 production of it in the Time Warner Center's easily accessible, pleasantly intimate and acoustically friendly Rose Theater. Thirdly, The New Yorker admonishing that "For anyone in New York who loves opera, attendance is mandatory" could only mean that I had to attend, so I dutifully got a ticket for the Sunday matinee.
Then it felt like it all went down from there. On Friday a less than stellar review by The New York Times' unfailingly considerate Anthony Tommasini made me wonder what I had gotten myself into, before realizing that I would hear the other cast anyway. And on Saturday came Jonas (The snowstorm, not Kaufmann, who, incidentally, was a thrilling Cavaradossi at The Met a few years ago) and the two performances on that day had to be cancelled due to the state of emergency that brought the city to a standstill.
By Sunday, however, The Big Apple and the NYCO Renaissance were back in business, and so was I. As a matter of fact, after an entire Saturday cooked up at home, I was only too happy to be outside, even if it meant making my way down Broadway among hordes of undisciplined pedestrians as we were all slaloming between impressive snow hills, huge water puddles and plenty of dirty slush on the warm and sunny afternoon.

A deliciously campy, unapologetically vulgar and highly melodic little affair involving pêle-mêle politics, religion, love, sex, torture and rather gruesome deaths – All three main characters die onstage through murder, execution and suicide – Tosca is extremely hard to resist, which probably explains why the NYCO Renaissance picked it as their first offering: If you present it, they will come. And we did.
In the title role, American soprano Latonia Moore immediately proved that she was blessed with a naturally charismatic presence and a truly beautiful voice perfectly suited for opera's most irresistible diva. Not only did her powerful singing gorgeously fill up the theater every time she appeared, but it was also precise and flexible. Both playful and fierce in her first exchanges with Cavaradossi, she was later able to convincingly express aching vulnerability and unbreakable strength. Unsurprisingly, her "Vissi d'arte" brought down the house.
As her ardent lover, Italian tenor Raffaele Abete had a strongly virile voice that compellingly conveyed the right combination of tenderness, hot-headedness and heroism. His increasingly self-confident demeanor served him well in the more physical scenes and his easy rapport with Latonia Moore made them a totally credible couple. The character can do no wrong, and neither could the singer.
As the villain everybody loves to hate, Italian baritone Carlo Guelfi was as bad-ass as they come. Althoughimpeccably suave and pitiless as the man before whom "all Rome trembled", he smartly avoided becoming a mere caricature of evil, preferring using his voice's ominously dark tones to lay bare his foreboding schemes.
Inspired by the original décors, the sets were mostly painted panels and backdrops along with a few pieces of furniture and props, all resolutely traditional, subtly elegant and easy on the eyes. The costumes were also appropriately attractive, if not sumptuous. Everything was well put together to maximize the space and the performance, and it worked.
As for the music, the blazingly colorful score is a tightly woven marvel of variety and invention that includes a wide range of stunning melodies, memorable arias, clever leitmotivs and one mighty Te Deum. Once the ball gets rolling, the energy never lets off as the whole story unfolds in 18 hours and one single Rome location.
Pacien Mazzagatti conducted the competent orchestra with an eager baton for a generally satisfying performance, even if we experienced some small mishaps such as an occasionally inconsistent pace, a few balance issues and a shepherd's song that was inaudible at first. That said, I still have to attend one performance of Tosca without any balance issues so my slight but persistent pet peeve may very well come with Puccini's territory of intense drama and even more intense music.
Speaking of the popular Italian composer, after serendipitously getting to enjoy two major works of his within one week, I can safely confirm that his legacy is unquestionably alive and well. As for the New York City Opera Renaissance, let's hope that the incredibly bad timing of this comeback of sorts and any consequential hardships will not discourage them from their exciting and laudable endeavor. And I am not just saying that because they still owe me money.

Saturday, January 23, 2016

Met - Turandot - 01/18/16

Composer: Giacomo Puccini
Conductor: Paolo Carignani
Producer/Director: Franco Zeffirelli
Turandot: Nina Stemme
Calaf: Marco Berti
Liu: Leah Crocetto
Timur: Alexander Tsymbalyuk

I had never really cared enough about Turandot to give it another go after attending a particularly underwhelming production of it in Washington, DC years ago, but once in a while I had reminded myself that according to reliable sources the Met's famously over-the-top production cooked up by (who else?) Franco Zeffirelli was by itself worth the price of admission, So I had figured that I would wait for the right opportunity to maybe consider checking that one out.
Turns out that the right opportunity came last week after my friend Angie mentioned again that she had never been to an opera and would love to try. As I carefully perused the Met's Website, Turandot quickly stood out for having the perfect combination of attractive melodies, exotic setting, simple story, reasonable length and, last but not least, one show-stopping aria that everybody needs to hear live at least once in their lives. Moreover, for me that would also be a nice return to comfortable tradition after the visceral grittiness of The Prototype Festival's Dog Days.
I had never heard anyone in the current cast, but I will hear highly regarded Nina Stemme in Elektra later this season so an early introduction would not hurt. And there was of course always the possibility of discovering a hidden gem. So it was with genuine excitement that last Monday night, on a finally seasonally cold Martin Luther King Day, Angie and I took our seats dead center in the penultimate row of the Family Circle – The price to pay for procrastinating – in a very full opera house.

Giacomo Puccini's last and most ambitious opera, Turandot unfolds on a grand scale and then veers towards unevenness towards the end (Can't blame the composer though, since the poor guy died before he had a chance to finish it). Featuring an unattainably beautiful princess, a hopelessly smitten suitor, a thoroughly kind-hearted slave, an opulent China of legend, and three famously unsolvable riddles, the opera has never quite reached the admittedly hard to match popularity of La Bohème, Tosca or Butterfly, but it has been a reliable crowd pleaser in major opera houses around the world for decades.
Unsurprisingly Turandot depends in no small part on the soprano in charge of the unforgivingly challenging title role, the icy princess who will eventually come around 180 degrees after one mightily revelatory kiss (Yes, apparently that's sometimes all it takes.) And we had that rare bird on Monday night in Swedish soprano Nina Stemme, who winningly expressed not only the expected uncompromising harshness, but also the overwhelming human emotions that eventually brought the opera to a happy – if rather yawn-inducing – end. Her assured singing was consistently strong and delicately nuanced, and I am now very much looking forward to hearing her tackle Elektra.
But no matter how splendidly Nina Stemme sang, the star of the evening turned out to be promising American newcomer Leah Crocetto, whose beautiful soprano voice and charismatic stage presence gave sizzling life to self-sacrificing Liu. Of course it did not hurt that she was the only fully fleshed-out and spontaneously endearing character of the entire opera, but even beside that given advantage, she gorgeously conveyed heart-breaking vulnerability and unbreakable strength. Definitely a star-in-the-making.
If the ladies were memorable, Italian tenor Marco Berti did not make a strong impression as Calaf, the love-struck stranger who dared to enter the contest to win the impregnable princess, and incidentally the vast empire of China. Although he clearly could and in fact did get the job done, his lack of emotional range quickly became frustrating, and I still have to hear “Nessun dorma” the way it is supposed to be heard.
The chorus, on the other hand, distinguished itself one more time with total control of the numerous and daunting chorus numbers.
If the singing was uneven, the production was indisputably Zeffirelli at his most dazzlingly extravagant with hordes of people decked-out in sumptuous costumes, explosions of eye-popping colors everywhere and various activities going on in every corner, from an (offstage) beheading and a royal decree to dance numbers and commedia dell'arte routines. That was definitely as visually spectacular an opera as they come. However, one wished that the opera house’s entire configuration had been taken into account during the conception as the emperor, who was at some point allegedly standing at the top of the stage, was not visible to most of the audience in the Family Circle, and probably more in the house.
The music was pure Puccini, with luscious melodies and soaring arias, but it also interestingly included some unusual instruments such as alto saxophones and a celesta. This allowed the composer to create a wider range of sounds, to which were added complex arrangements for the chorus and a few Chinese folk themes. Altogether, this was a grand musical adventure, and Paolo Carignani made sure that the reliably fabulous orchestra delivered a glowing performance of the magnificent score. So despite a couple of misgivings, this was deemed a successful night at the opera, and we both shall return.

Tuesday, January 12, 2016

Prototype Festival - Dog Days - 01/10/16

Composer: David T. Little
Librettist: Royce Vavrek
Director: Robert Woodruff
Chamber Orchestra: Newspeak
Lisa: Lauren Worsham
Father (Howard): James Bobick
Mother: Marnie Breckenridge
Michael Marcotte: Elliott
Peter Tantsits: Pat
Captain: Cherry Duke
Prince: John Kelly

There's no better way to celebrate a new year than with new exciting artistic endeavors, and that is just what the still relatively small-scale, but definitely feisty Prototype Festival has been offering for the past three years now, consistently feeding its followers a steady diet of new and original works that always challenge and often conquer even the most blasé of New Yorkers.
Premiered in Montclair, New Jersey, back in 2012, the opera Dog Days finally made its long-overdue New York debut in this year's festival preceded by a sterling reputation, never the seemingly depressing subject matter. So just as the sky cleared up after a morning worthy of The Flood, I made my way to the Village and NYU in balmy temperatures before taking my seat among an impressive crowd in the comfortable Skirball Center for the Performing Arts.

Tolstoy once famously wrote that if all happy families resemble one another, each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way, and I could not help but think of that quote on Sunday afternoon as I was witnessing a dreadfully unhappy working-class family trying to survive in dreadfully grim, vaguely post-war circumstances. Based on a short story by Judy Budnitz, Dog Days could have easily turned into a hopeless downer, but Royce Vavrek's richly satisfying libretto and David T. Little's wildly inventive score made sure it did not.
That said, no matter how promising the original ingredients were, it is hard to imagine a production coming together as powerfully as that one without the resolutely fearless, incredibly tight cast that has been whole-heartedly and winningly committed to the project from Day One.
As the teenage daughter Lisa, the charismatic soprano Lauren Worsham sensitively conveyed the perfect combination of sweetness, madness and dignity. Her two arias   ̶  First befriending the dog-man with child-like innocence and later heartbreakingly marveling in front of her mirror on how her constant state of starvation had given her a model's body   ̶  were the undisputed highlights of the afternoon. Her final act, which she performed without uttering a single word, made the dramatic ending even more devastating.
As her long-suffering mother, soprano Marnie Breckenridge exuded haunting vulnerability as she constantly struggled to keep a semblance of normal life. On the other hand, baritone James Bobick was all loud and pent-up rage as the increasingly frustrated father. Tenors Michael Marcotte and Peter Tantsits also did very well as the immature, never-do-well brothers.
In the silent role of a man inexplicably looking and behaving like a dog, performance and visual artist John Kelly routinely became the center of the attention every time he appeared, always mysterious, and yet eventually turning into a somewhat reassuringly familiar figure.
The set was appropriately gritty and smartly outfitted with a large video screen hanging over the stage. From the pale lights mercilessly projected onto the dirty, sweaty bodies to the drab costumes unable to protect from the harsh elements, everything relentlessly oozed misery and gloominess. The space was ingeniously used so that the various characters could easily move around while still efficiently creating a creepily dark and claustrophobic atmosphere as hunger and desperation were slowly but surely driving everybody to madness.
Boldly mixing opera's long-held traditions such as show-topping arias with aggressive electric guitars and other modern sound effects, David T. Little significantly contributed to the general feeling of tension and bleakness with a downright accessible score that expertly switched from moments of earth-shattering intensity to scenes of poignant beauty. The terrific chamber ensemble Newspeak gave it a vibrant and colorful life from behind the stage, always present, but never intruding.
As for the decision to mike the singers, although it may make sense when it comes to projecting particularly subtle sounds, I still found it regrettable because the devices ironically overpowered some of the subtle emotions that can only be fully expressed by unadulterated human voices. The singing on that stage was clearly of the highest caliber, and it would have been nice to be able to enjoy it au naturel.
This small nitpicking aside, my musical year has unquestionably started with an all-out resounding bang, and I can only hope to keep this tremendous momentum going for the next eleven months and a half.

Tuesday, December 22, 2015

Cantori New York - A Cantori Holiday - 12/19/15

Mark Shapiro: Artistic Director and Conductor
Richard Rodney Bennett: Out of your Sleep
William Wallton: What Cheer
Alice Dryden: Banu Choshech
G. R. Woordward: Shepherds in the Fields Abiding (Arr. David Willcocks)
Jonathan Dove: The Three Kings
16th Century French Melody: Ding Dong, Merrily on High (Arr. Charles Wood)
Hector Berlioz: The Shepherds' Farewell
English Traditional Carol: The Wassail Song (Arr. R. Vaughan Williams)
Old Basque Carol: I saw a Maiden (Arr. Edgar Pettman)
J. Pierpont: Jingle Bells
Mark Shapiro: Piano
Emily Klonowski: Conductor
Reginald Jacques: When Christ was Born
Peter Warlock: Bethlehem Down
English Traditional Carol: The First Noël (Arr. David Willcocks)
English Traditional Carol: The Holly and the Ivy (Arr. Walford Davies)
Rex Isenberg: Ravta et Rivam
Elizabeth Poston: Jesus Christ and the Apple Tree
Emily Klonowski: Soloist
English Traditional Carol: I saw Three Ships (Arr. David Willcocks)
Polish Carol: Infant Holy (Arr. David Willcocks)
Franz Xaver Biebl: Ave Maria
Mark Stedman: Soloist
Steve Albert, Matt Perkins and Steve Underhill: Trio
West Country Carol: We Wish You a Merry Christmas (Arr. Arthur Warrell)
Franz Gruber: Silent Night (Sing Along)

It was on a appropriately - but still shockingly - cold, late afternoon that I made my way to the Village's Church of St. Luke in the Fields last Saturday for my one and only concession to the holiday season in general, and holiday music in particular: Cantori New York's immensely popular holiday concert. And this year again, the lovely little church filled up early and quickly with an eclectic crowd that was obviously very much looking forward to enjoying not only the choir's well-known singing chops, but also their very special holiday gift to us: A whole treasure chest full of new songs to accompany the ones we simply could not do without. Who said Santa did not exist?

Since some deep-rooted traditions are just too good to disregard, a few musical treats from the Old Continent were still there. So it was with always the same pleasure that we heard the singers happily work their expert way through "Shepherds in the Fields Abiding", which never fails to bring me back to my French childhood, "The Wassail Song", which eloquently celebrates the joys of drinking English style, and the timelessly beautiful all-male "Ave Maria", whose German composer Franz Xaver Biebl could only have been divinely inspired.
From this side of the pond we still had "Jesus Christ and the Apple Tree", which has consistently remained one of the most beloved carols of the entire repertoire despite making no references to Christmas whatsoever and, since it apparently must be heard if at all possible, Cantori's admittedly pretty groovy version of "Jingle Bells". On the other hand, the entire basket of sugary Hollywood tunes had blissfully disappeared, which naturally led me to think that there might be a God after all.
More recurring works of the welcome kind, stepping out of the Christmas box this time, were "Banu Choshech" by Alice Dryden and "Ravta et Rivam" by Cantori member Rex Isenberg, who accomplished the commendable feat of providing the non dopey Jewish song of the evening.
Among the eagerly awaited novelties stood out a group of compelling traditional carols from England comprising the inconspicuously haunting "Bethlehem Down", the delicately uplifting "The First Noël" and "The Holly and the Ivy", as well as the more upbeat "I saw Three Ships". Nonplussed by those new challenges, Cantori's singers handled them with poise and gusto.
In the spirit of the season, the die-hard "Ocho Kandelikas" aficionados eventually decided against carrying out a mutiny, or even loudly huffing and puffing their way out of the church for that matter, after discovering to their horror that their favorite Hanukkah song was not included in the program, but we still have to state for the record that it was a seriously close call.
The concert ended with the borderline-too-perky-but-we-will-put-up-with-it-because-this-is-almost-over "We Wish You a Merry Christmas", followed by the time-honored sing along on "Silent Night", with everyone singing the first and last verse while the choir took care of the second one. They're still better than the rest of us – All that practice does pay off – but then again, there is always next year.

The evening was not over though, as this year artists and audience excitedly made their way downstairs to a more spacious space than the regular one (This time, one could not only breathe, but actually move around too!) where the traditional post-performance party rocked as hard as ever. Happy Holidays!