Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Jeremy Denk - Mozart, Ligeti, Byrd & Schumann - 04/13/14

Mozart: Sonata in F Major, K. 533/494
Ligeti: Piano Études: Book Two
VII. Galamb borong
X. Der Zauberlehrling (The Sorcerer's Apprentice)
XI. En suspens (In suspense)
XII: Entrelacs (Interlacing)
XIII: L'escalier du diable (The Devil's Staircase)
Byrd: A Voluntary from My ladye Nevells Booke
Schumann: Davidsbündlertänze, Op. 6

So many pianists, so little time. Last week was a good one indeed for piano music lovers in New York City, as on Wednesday night Mitsuko Uchida graced the stage of Carnegie Hall, and then on Saturday night Jeremy Denk appeared at the Washington Irving High School as part of the Peoples' Symphony Concerts, a commendable organization which for over a century has successfully strived to keep the ticket prices low and the performance quality high.
The tuner still working hard on the piano as the audience was eagerly filling in the hall did not bode particularly well, but everybody was too excited to worry. We were all about to hear one of today's most versatile, intrepid and engaging artists tackle a resolutely eclectic program including Mozart, Ligeti, Byrd and Schumann, and not much else mattered.

We kicked off the concert in the finest Viennese tradition with Mozart and his sonata in F Major, which was as light and breezy as the lovely spring evening the Big Apple was finally enjoying. Keeping the playing carefree and the mood lively, Jeremy Denk expertly negotiated the piece's elegant twists and turns, not to mention the occasional flights of fancy, for a delightful opening number.
After this quintessentially classical beginning, the fearless virtuoso came out in full force when he attacked the knotty little vignettes that are Ligeti's Piano Études: Book Two. Although some glimpses of humor sprang up here and there, those études mostly distinguished themselves for their gnarly complexity as well as the unwavering aplomb and remarkable dexterity with which Jeremy Denk handled them. Among this series of dazzling feats particularly stood out the merrily, if still weirdly, melodic "Der Zauberlehrling", the hypnotic harmonic tapestry created by the two hands operating in two different worlds in "En suspens", and the devilish irresistible, downright unstoppable "L'Escalier du diable".
After intermission, during which the tuner was back to work some more on the seemingly reluctant piano, we jumped back in time all the way to the 16th century with "A Voluntary" from William Byrd's My Ladye Nevells Booke. This quick Renaissance detour turned out to be fun and pleasant, the prettiness of the work being jazzed up with a few quirky spikes.
Schumann's Davidsbündlertänze, one of the supreme piano achievements of 19th century Romanticism, magisterially wrapped up the official program. The famous dialogue between hot-blooded Florestan and dreamy Eusebius, the two conflicting aspects of the composer's personality, is long and animated. It is, after all, an ardent love letter to his future wife Clara, and Schumann clearly did not spare any effort. Accordingly, Jeremy Denk's playing covered a wide variety of moods with much expressiveness, and obviously a lot of love for the piece. The passionate outbursts fiercely exploded, the deep-seated melancholy achingly lingered, and the beautiful poetry delicately blossomed.

After this brilliant smorgasbord of piano works, there was nowhere else to go but to where it all began. So a small selection of Bach's Goldberg Variations wrapped things up with a flawless Baroque touch and kept my spirits high as I was walking back to the subway through a Union Square overflowing with revved-up people, loud noises and illicit smells.

Saturday, April 12, 2014

Mitsuko Uchida - Schubert & Beethoven - 05/09/14

Schubert: Piano Sonata in G Major, D. 894
Beethoven: Thirty-three Variations on a Waltz by Diabelli, Op. 120

After whetting my musical appetite with Cantori New York at lunchtime all the way uptown on Wednesday, the following appointment on my To-Do list was attending a recital by the current First Lady of Piano, Dame Mitsuko Uchida, who was making her annual stop at Carnegie Hall that evening to the immeasurable delight of her hordes of New York fans.
The program consisted of Schubert's last and, according to many connoisseurs, best sonata, as well as of Beethoven's monumental Diabelli Variations, which, according to even more connoisseurs, remains the most extraordinary piano work ever composed for its breadth, variety and ambition (Take that, Bach!).

Always an inherently graceful presence on the stage, Mitsuko Uchida never fails to infuse everything she plays with her subtle, unaffected elegance. On Wednesday night, Schubert's Piano Sonata in G Major was no exception, with a performance that quickly became one for the record for its clear, focused playing and immaculately peaceful mood. She deliberately let the music naturally breathe and take a life of its own, mostly shining with a serene luminosity while still being, at times, slightly troubled by the occasional hint of dark or stormy feelings. Those moments, however, did not last, and before long we were all again engaged in tranquil contemplation.
The actual origin of the Diabelli Variations - that is, whether Beethoven wrote them to make money and to show off, or both - may never be confirmed, but their renown as an amazing achievement in piano composition has never been disputed. And who better to bring them to glorious life than a musician heralded for her profound talent and uncompromising integrity? And sure enough, Mitsuko Uchida handled this dazzlingly vast and complex work with the assurance of somebody deeply familiar with the treacherous minefield, impeccably switching gears from delicate to energetic, simple to complicated, funny to serious, inconspicuous to grand, and so much more. The interpretation was intelligent and respectful, the technique brilliant and right on target. Once the monster had been successfully tamed, Mitsuko Uchida came back three times to effusively thank her adoring audience, but that was all. And that was perfect.

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Cantori New York - Beecher - 04/09/14

Artistic Director & Conductor: Mark Shapiro
Lembit Beecher: The New Amorous World
Jason Wirth: Piano

Nobody has ever had to twist my arm to take a day off, especially when it promises to be filled with sunshine and music (and a very efficient trip to a blissfully crowd-less Trader's Joe). So that's what I happily did yesterday, first for a lovely walk up Riverside Park to the Interchurch Center of New York for Cantori New York's mini-concert at mid-day, and then for an equally lovely walk down Central Park to Carnegie Hall for Mitsuko Uchida's full-scale recital in the evening. There really should be more days like this.

Since I had no idea what to expect from Cantori, I made sure to come with my mind and ears open. It turned out that the piece du jour was Estonian-American composer Lembit Beecher's brand new "The New Amorous World", which will be included in the choir's next series of concerts in May. So yesterday's performance was kind of an exclusive preview before the upcoming world première, with the clear understanding that this was still a work in progress.
I was not familiar with Charles Fourier's utopian vision, but the 19th century French philosopher had however come to my attention before for his steady support for women's rights. This was a tough job in those days, and he did it. As for the thoroughly thought-out, obviously well-intentioned, and yet often utterly bizarre, society he had come up with, with its pointedly defined rules for organizational structures and human relations, it was used by Beecher as a basis for a 30-minute dense choral work, from which yesterday stood out pêle-mêle some interestingly textured parts, a general upbeat mood, an occasional speaker, a sporadic instrumental accompaniment, and some insistent stomping-like sounds that, for a brief moment, made me think that the chorus was about to break into The Rite of Spring. They did not, but on the other hand, they managed to make their way through a cantata that was presenting some refreshingly innovative philosophical and musical ideas, not unlike Stravinsky's ground-breaking masterpiece in its own time, for an action-packed lunchtime break. One down, one more to go.

Sunday, April 6, 2014

The Tallis Scholars - 40 Years of Renaissance Polyphony - 04/05/14

Director & Conductor: Peter Phillips
Josquin Desprez: Praeter rerum seriem
Cipriano de Rore: Missa Praeter rerum seriem
Michael Nyman: Two Sonnets for Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz
Procura des mentir
En la muerte de la marquesa de Mancera
John Sheppard: Jesu salvator seculi
John Sheppard: Our Father
Thomas Tallis: If ye love me
Thomas Tallis: Hear the voice and prayer
Thomas Tallis: Salve intemerata

1973 was obviously a fertile year on the music scene, and in many different ways too, as both the Kronos Quartet, which celebrated its 40th anniversary at Carnegie Hall last week, and The Tallis Scholars, who are celebrating their 40th anniversary all season long, including last night at the Church of St. Mary the Virgin, were created. Not to mention that Pink Floyd's landmark album The Dark Side of the Moon was released that year as well, but I (slightly) digress.
It takes a lot to bring me anywhere close to Times Square on a Saturday night (or any other time, for that matter), but the prospect of hearing some of the biggest hits of Renaissance choral music - and a Miller Theatre-commissioned world première - by internationally acclaimed masters of the genre quickly sealed the deal. It was also coincidentally the 25th anniversary of Miller Theatre at Columbia University, whose laudable mission is to promote new music in New York City by any means possible.
The historic Episcopal Anglo-Catholic church (Whatever that means) looked dwarfed and kind of out of place among the surrounding high buildings, hopping bars, unavoidable chain stores and incidental street works. However, once inside the discreetly gothic space, which boasts features such as eye-popping incense thuribles hanging from the star-adorned, cobalt blue ceiling, it was easy to forget the area's grating hustle and bustle and just focus on the higher purpose of live music.

We started our journey logically with medieval superstar composer Josquin Desprez and his popular Christmas motet "Praeter rerum seriem", whose endlessly complex structure was brilliantly brought out by the remarkably detailed singing of the ensemble. The various vocal effects, including distortions and reverberations, were beautifully rendered and helped emphasize the mystery of the virgin birth.
Taking inspiration from that same motet, the other major Franco-Flemish composer of those days, Cipriano de Rore, developed it into his mesmerizing "Mass praeter rerum seriem". While it can be convincingly argued that the basics were already there in Josquin's motet, and therefore de Rore did not do much but play around with them, his knack for reinvention resulted in something seemingly new, refreshingly different and immediately appealing. the Agnus Dei, in particular, somberly concluded the piece on a immaculately pure and far-reaching note.
Associating German baroque composer Johann Sebastian Bach with Mexican baroque poet Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz may not spontaneously spring to the minds of a lot of composers, but that's what Michael Nyman ended up doing upon the suggestion of his friend, the Mexican artist Lorena Camarena Osorno. Tweaking some of Bach's preludes to adapt them to Sor Juana's sonnets while taking advantage of the sing-songy quality of the Spanish language, Nyman created two downright attractive works that The Tallis Scholars made brightly shine.
Back to the Middle Ages and the solemnity of the Latin language, but in the context of the English Reformation this time, we moved on to two works by John Sheppard. "Jesu salvator seculi" and "Our father" distinguished themselves by their fundamental minimalism, subtle colors and spiritual dimensions.
A concert of Renaissance music naturally cannot be completed without Thomas Tallis, who enjoyed a long and productive career in 16th century England and is still considered one of the country's most prominent composers. And for sure, the two unfussy nuggets that are "If ye love me" and "Hear the voice and prayer" were absolutely lovely in their straightforward simplicity.
We could not hope for a more fitting program conclusion than his earlier votive antiphon "Salve intemerata". Written when Tallis was in his twenties, this motet to the Virgin Mary is a substantial and magnificent treat in terms of technical bravura and musical pleasure, incidentally representing the end of the genre in all its splendor. Blessed with an intricate, perfectly thought-out architecture that includes endlessly long lines and a challengingly wide vocal range, "Salve intemerata" remains one of the pinnacles of medieval English music. In the hands of a choir and a conductor firmly dedicated to Renaissance polyphony, it received the flawlessly grand performance it so deserves.

The sold-out audience refusing to leave, the artists came back for a harmoniously soothing, high flying "Blue Bird" by Irish composer Sir Charles Villiers Stanford, one last moment of pure musical bliss before heading back to the outside world and its cold, crowded and loud reality.

Monday, March 31, 2014

Kronos Quartet - 40th Anniversary Celebration - 03/28/14

Aleksandra Vrebalov: Bubbles
Brooklyn Youth Chorus
Thomas Kozumplik: Vibraphone
Bryce Dessner: Aheym (Homeward)
Bryce Dessner: Guitar
Traditional: Tusen Tankar (A thousand thoughts)
Geeshie Wiley: Last Kind Words (arr. Jacob Garchik)
Omar Souleyman: La Sidounak Sayyada (I'll present the hunters from hunting you) (arr. Jacob Garchik)
Terry Riley: The Serquent Risadome
Severiano Briseno: El Sinaloense (The man from Sinaloa)
Face the Music
Laurie Anderson: Flow (arr. Jacob Garchik)
Jherek Bischoff: A Semiperfect Number
Jherek Bischoff: Bass guitar
Philip Glass: Orion: China (arr. Michael Riesman)
Wu Man: Pipa
Vladimir Martynov: The Beatitudes, from La Grande Bellezza
Clint Mansell: Lux Aeterna, from Requiem for a Dream (arr. David Lang)
Clint Mansell: Death is the Road to Awe, from The Fountain (arr. Kronos Quartet)

Electric equipment and a silver screen are a rather uncommon sight on the stage of Carnegie Hall's august Stern Auditorium, but on Friday night the element of surprise quickly faded when one remembered that the headliner was The Kronos Quartet, one of the most boldly eclectic ensembles in classical music.
The occasion was the celebration of four busy decades spent constantly pushing the boundaries of the string quartet formula while resolutely engaging in ground-breaking cross-cultural adventures, and the promise to a fifth one just as exciting. So it was not overly surprising - and rather heart-warming - to see that the audience filling up the concert hall looked more diverse than usual.

After the short film "Kronos at 40" summed up as succinctly as possible the quartet's remarkable career, the four current members took the stage along with the Brooklyn Youth Chorus for Vrebalov's "Bubbles". Energetic and playful, it readily opened the concert on a quirky, upbeat note, youthful laughter included.
More cross-generational collaboration was on display with the first number after intermission, when young string players from the Face the Music program, which Kronos violinist David Harrington greeted as "the future", joined the quartet for an all-around rambunctious "El Sinaloense", an infectious Mexican folk song by Severiano Briseno.
One of the advantages of collaborating with living composers is that they sometimes can come and join you onstage, and that's exactly what Bryce Dessner and Jherek Bischoff did on Friday night. Bryce Dessner's "Aheym" was an intense, pulse-driven work, whose sense of urgency was duplicated by the gritty sounds of his electric guitar.
Looking like he had just stepped out of a 50s rockabilly band, Jherek Bischoff was also able to contribute in person to his "A Semiperfect Number". The piece had a complex, ever-evolving texture, which benefited significantly from the addition of the bass guitar.
Bigger names in contemporary music composition were not on hand, but that did not keep us from enjoying their works. As such, Laurie Anderson's "Flow" was a little marvel of peaceful harmonies and minimalist structure.
On the other hand, "Orion: China" by Master of Minimalism Philip Glass brightly exploded with virtuosity and exoticism, not the least thanks to the presence of the young Chinese musician whom David Harrington heralded as the "Queen of Pipa", Wu Man. Making full use of her incredible dexterity, the piece adroitly featured many sounds playing with and against one another for a memorable string feast.
Not to be outdone, Terry Riley's "The Serpent Risadome", which had been commissioned for the Kronos Quartet by Carnegie Hall (That's what I call an anniversary gift!), was having its world premiere that evening and proved that the long-standing relationship between the ensemble and the composer is as fruitful as ever. Fearlessly exploring all the possibilities of the string quartet, Riley created an endlessly intriguing composition.
During the first half of the program, we also made a little melancholic detour by Scandinavia with the traditional folk song "Tusen Tankar", whose theme of unrequited love delicately unfolded in all its timelessness. But the mood quickly perked up with the jazzy sassiness of Geeshie Wiley's "Last Kind Words", and became downright festive with "La Sidounak Sayyada", the irresistible dance tune by Syrian music superstar Omar Souleyman.
This rocking celebration ended in a more subdued atmosphere with three soundtracks, starting with Vladimir Martynov's conventionally beautiful "The Beatitudes", which has recently been heard in La Grande Bellezza. Clint Mansel's "Lux Aeterna" from Requiem for a Dream and "Death is the Road to Awe" from The Fountain were also in the same classical mood, albeit with accompanying recorded tracks, and magisterially demonstrated that the Kronos Quartet can effortlessly master all possible genres.

The evening could not end without a truly out-of-the-box number, so we got to happily indulge into a shamelessly amplified, ferociously hot "Purple Haze", a party favor so brazenly exhilarating that, for a few minutes, we indeed felt like we were kissing the sky. I just can't wait for the quartet's 50th anniversary.