Monday, March 2, 2015

Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra - Brahms - 03/01/15

Conductor: Daniele Gatti
Brahms: Ein deutches Requiem
Diana Damrau: Soprano
Christian Gerhaher: Baritone
Westminster Symphonic Choir

After a nice Saturday afternoon spent marveling at the incredible possibilities of the human voice with Joyce DiDonato and Juan Diego Flores in Rossini's La Donna del Lago at the Met, I was totally up for even more exceptional vocal exploits yesterday afternoon with Diana Damrau, Christian Gerhaher and the Westminster Symphonic Choir accompanying the über-prestigious Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra led by highly esteemed and endlessly versatile conductor Daniele Gatti for Brahms' Ein deutsches Requiem at Carnegie Hall. Although Mozart's and Verdi's Requiems will always be the ones I could not live without, Ein deutsches Requiem, with its deep humanism and glorious musicality, more into consolation than after-life, is right there behind them.
Earlier in the week an automated voice message from Carnegie Hall had advised me to allow extra time to get to my seat as it was a sold-out performance, and there would be no intermission and no late seating. Yes, sir. So never mind the light snow that had started to gently fall as I was walking briskly down Broadway, I was just too psyched to even be bothered by it.

Using excerpts derived from the German Luther Bible and clocking in at about 75 minutes, Brahms' longest work is a model of detailed craftsmanship, stunning lyricism and subtle restraint, while still including a few starkly intense, but never overly flamboyant, passages for good measure. Of course, having such a beloved piece performed by the top-quality musicians and singers that were gracing the packed Stern Auditorium's stage on Sunday was a tremendous luxury, and the stakes - as well as the ticket price - were extremely high. But they were unquestionably met, and then some.
The Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra needs no introduction, and their remarkably polished playing yesterday reminded us all why they have remained one of the top orchestras in the world for so long. The glow of the strings and the precision of the winds, the implacability of the timpani and the glistening of the harps, all superbly came together for a masterfully accomplished performance. Maestro Gatti was deeply involved with all parties and kept the music flowing sans score, but with constant attentiveness and non-stop energy.
The deservedly much in demand Westminster Symphonic Choir is used to high pressure gigs at Carnegie Hall and seemed totally serene about this one as well. They certainly created a startlingly unified sound that ranged from delicate subtlety, such as the expectantly hushed opening, to highly charged tension, such as the intensely dark "Denn alles Fleishes it wie Gras". Altogether, they provided a powerful human voice, proudly secular, but still profoundly spiritual, to Brahms' most personal composition.
German opera star Diana Damrau lent her crystal clear soprano voice to the rhapsodic solo of the fifth movement, which was added later by Brahms, possibly as a tribute to his late mother. Her all-around classy yet genuinely touching part, which dealt with sorrow and comfort, came out as a radiant ray of light.
Not as well-known, but definitely a consummate artist with much to offer, German baritone Christian Gerhaher offered naturally elegant and commanding singing, his voice beautifully conveying darkness and anxiety, but also strength and resolve.
The ovation was long and loud, and then it was back outside, where we resignedly found ourselves unhappily trudging in a winter wonderland... again.

Saturday, February 28, 2015

Met - La Donna del Lago - 02/28/15

Composer: Gioachino Rossini
Conductor: Michele Mariotti
Elena: Joyce DiDonato
Giacomo/Uberto: Juan Diego Florez
Malcolm: Daniela Barcellona
Rodrigo: John Osborn
Douglas: Oren Gradus

Few singers have the power to have operas produced for them, and one of the lucky few is the outstanding mezzo-soprano Joyce DiDonato, who has rightfully taken advantage of it by putting in a special request for Rossini's La Donna del Lago. Maybe it was for the pretty melodies she'd get to sing, or for the guilty indulgence of being ardently courted by no fewer than three young men, one of them being no less than the King in disguise, or maybe just for the satisfaction of seeing this pleasant but little known opera enjoy its moment in the spotlight.
Whatever her motives were, the public has followed in droves, and for La Donna del Lago's first run there ever, the Met's opera house was packed to the brim this afternoon with, I may add, what had to be the widest range of age I had ever seen there. A heart-warming sight for a heart-warming opera.

Based on a poem by Sir Walter Scott, La Donna del Lago is a fairly standard operatic cocktail of political turmoil and love entanglements, although this one takes place in Scotland during the first half of the 16th century. But as it is often the case in the bel canto repertoire, the plot is nothing more than an excuse for the composer to let his creative juices freely flow. When the composer is bel canto master Giaochino Rossini, even if one goes for story, chances are one will stay for the music.
Hearing Joyce DiDonato sing live is a priceless treat that will not be turned down by any opera buffs. And when hearing her sing Helena, AKA La Donna del Lago, it is impossible not to come to the conclusion that she is smart artist as well as the young conflicting woman is an ideal part for her to showcase her incredible range, from melting sweetness to sparkling fireworks and everything in between. Moreover, beside her famed coloratura, she is also blessed with fine acting skills, which enabled her to generously give her character, who may not have been that exciting to begin with, a fully realized presence. To top it all off, her "Tanti affetti" was eagerly awaited and magisterially demonstrated why she is unquestionably one of today's top opera singers.
The other big name in the cast, tenor Juan Diego Florez, also happens to be a frequent stage partner of Joyce DiDonato's, a fact that has probably significantly contributed to the palpably high level of comfort between them. But if their chemistry made for some dazzling singing together, he also superbly stood on his own, in particular during the show-stopping aria of Act 2 "Oh fiamma soave". With a technique as astounding as ever and charisma galore, he probably made his dashing King a nicer guy than he deserved, which in turn of course made you wonder why Elena just did not run off with him.
Rodrigo, the heroic chief of the rebellious highlanders who has decided to make Elena his bride was impersonated by John Osborn, who handled the opera's other challenging tenor part with bravura and commitment. Malcolm, the young man who stole Elena's much in demand heart was actually mezzo-soprano Daniela Barcellona. A trouser role regular, she made the most of her frumpy look and sang with nuance and conviction. The last, but definitely not least, man in Elena's life was her father, Douglas, to whom bass Oren Gradus equally imparted fierce patriotism, deep fatherly love and natural gruff.
All the splendid singing made the three hours go fast, but they would have gone even faster if the production had been of the same level. Unfortunately, the earthy-tone sets and costumes were really minimalist, which probably worked well in Santa Fé since they could benefit from glorious desert vistas at sunset in the background, but in the Met's cavernous opera house, they looked mostly drab, except for the last scene, in which the sumptuous costumes of the courtiers were all in refined shades of yellow.
The richly lyrical music is of course the main reason to attend La Donna del Lago. From virtuosic arias to dazzling ensembles, the score keeps on coming up with stunning melodies, which not only powerfully express high-voltage human emotions but also winningly convey the mysterious beauty of faraway Scotland. This afternoon, conductor Michele Mariotti drew a genuinely inspired performance from the always excellent orchestra, and the chorus did its usual impeccable job. I had come for the music, and I stayed for the music.

Mahler Chamber Orchestra & Leif Ove Andsnes - All-Beethoven - 02/25/15

Leader: Leif Ove Andsnes
Beethoven: Piano Concerto No. 1 in C Major, Op. 15
Beethoven: Piano Concerto No. 5 in E-flat Major, Op. 73, "Emperor"

Forty-five hours and counting after I had left Carnegie Hall completely dazzled by the first concert of Leif Ove Andsnes and the Mahler Chamber Orchestra's "Beethoven Journey" on Monday, I was ravenously back for Part 2, namely his Piano Concertos No. 1 and No. 5. Fact is, even if one had not known that the mighty "Emperor" was on the program, it would have been easy to guess just by looking at the balcony as Monday's sparsely filled top rows were now brimming with all kinds of people and the whole Stern Auditorium was buzzing with the kind of anticipation that is reserved for big nights. And so the journey resumed.

Beethoven's first official piano concerto, even though it was actually his second - but what the master wants, the master gets - is certainly the flashier of the two, and makes a powerful case to justify its first place in the composer's heart and, incidentally, music history. Boasting special ingredients such as a hypnotic clarinet in the sublime Largo and a cheeky surprise ending, the No. 1 provides an early glimpse in the ground-breaking works that were to follow. Leif Ove Andsnes and the orchestra beautifully emphasized the opulent richness of the composition with plenty of brilliance, thoughtfulness and dynamism.
Then came the big one, the one that most people were probably in the concert hall for, and who could blame them? When it comes to "take no prisoners" endeavors, it is hard to beat the assertively marching "Emperor". At that point, there was no stopping the on-going momentum and the No. 5 received the grand performance it inherently calls for, but never at the expense of the highly prized intimate moments, the musicians being always mindful to preserve the perfect virtuosic balance between impervious force and exquisite delicacy. I really can't imagine it could get better than that one.

And so the journey ended, but not without, you've guessed it, more Beethoven, with his Bagatelle in E-flat Major, Op. 126, No. 3 as well as two festive German Dances, the No. 11 in G Major and the No. 10 in D Major from 12 German Dances, the last one even featuring Leif Ove Andsnes heartily playing... the tambourine for a memorable light-hearted finale.

Mahler Chamber Orchestra & Leif Ove Andsnes - All-Beethoven - 02/23/15

Leader: Leif Ove Andsnes
Beethoven: Piano Concerto No. 2 in B-flat Major, Op. 19
Beethoven: Piano Concerto No. 3 in C Minor, Op. 37
Beethoven: Piano Concerto No. 4 in G Major, Op. 58

Norwegian pianist Leif Ove Andsnes has been uniformly praised, increasingly popular, and therefore extremely busy for a long time now, but apparently he is still not inclined to rest on his many prestigious laurels. A case in point would be his latest venture, "The Beethoven Journey", during which he performs all five piano concerts by Beethoven with the international Mahler Chamber Orchestra during the course of two concerts. The tour has been scheduled to last 4 years, span 108 cities in 27 countries, and present more than 230 concerts. A remarkable feat that would give pause to even the most hardened globe-trotting artists.
His New York stop was at Carnegie Hall earlier this week, starting with the piano concertos No. 2, 3 and 4. It was an impressive trio to perform in a single concert, but who was I to stop him? So on Monday, after spending an exciting afternoon in Carnegie Hall's Resnick Wing for a master class with the fabulous Joyce DiDonato, I took a quick trip home and came right back down to spend a no less exciting evening in Carnegie Hall's Stern Auditorium with no less fabulous Leif Ove Andsnes. Some days are simply more memorable than others.

The concert started with a bit of irony as Beethoven's official Piano Concerto No. 2 is actually the first one he ever composed, so technically we started the journey at Square 1. But since the opinionated composer never really liked it and it was published two years after his actual second piano concerto, he decided to have the latter recognized as his first. Regardless of this bit of trivia, the Piano Concerto No. 2 is a lovely effort, if endearingly green is some aspects. The orchestra was obviously in fine form and their leader/soloist kept constantly busy, either playing at the topless piano or conducting sans sheet music, seating or standing, his back turned to the audience. The totally engaging performance set a promising tone for the adventure and proved once and for all that the No. 2 is nothing to be dismissed.
Written as Beethoven was experiencing the first symptoms of his coming deafness, the Piano Concerto No. 3 is nevertheless generally lively, occasionally mysterious, often unpredictable and definitely more confident. Leif Ove Andsnes and the orchestra effortlessly kept the momentum going, the delicate dreamliness of the Largo, the only movement not conducted at all among all the concertos, beautifully standing out between the grandly Romantic Allegro and the refreshingly exuberant Rondo.
After the intermission, we moved on to even richer and bolder sounds, to which Leif Ove Andsnes added its trademark touch of natural elegance and thoughtfulness, with the Piano Concerto No. 4. From the quietly lyrical opening to the dizzily brisk finale, the journey remained resolutely spontaneous, insightful, and fun.

It had been a long, challenging and magnificent concert, and I would have forgiven the performers for calling it a night, but the rapturous ovations they received from the surprisingly not quite full house were eventually heeded and rewarded by, well, more Beethoven, of course, with his Bagatelle in C Major, Op. 119, No. 8 and Bagatelle in A-flat Major, Op. 33, No. 7, both of which were decidedly no trifles. To be continued...

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

New York Classical Players - Vaughan Williams, Bark & Schubert - 02/22/15

Conductor: Dongmin Kim
Vaughan Williams: Charterhouse Suite for Strings
Bark: Let all the earth rejoice! for flute and string orchestra - Carol Wincenc
Schubert: Quartet in D Minor Death and the Maiden (Mahler transcription)

After a memorable Saturday night in more ways than one, a more subdued concert was unquestionably in order, and fortunately the New York Classical Players came to the rescue on Sunday afternoon on the Upper East Side. The main attraction of the program was of course the version of Schubert's dazzling "Death and the Maiden" that Mahler had written for a small orchestra, the kind of exciting adventure that the consistently excellent ensemble likes and can flawlessly handle. Add to that a curiosity by Ralph Vaughan Williams and a NYCP-commissioned world premiere by Elliot Bark, who made the trip to introduce it, and you could say that a decidedly satisfying musical afternoon seemed to be just waiting to happen.
Moreover, the weather had cleared, the temperature had risen and the sun was shining, so it was high time to take a somewhat mushy but nevertheless extremely enjoyable walk across the Park and take a seat among an increasingly large and eclectic crowd in the grand Church of the Heavenly Rest, where I would eventually be joined by my friend Angie, an Upper East Side local, after she had eventually managed to get out of her obligations just in the nick of time for not-to-be-missed Schubert.

British composer Ralph Vaughan Williams was as versatile as they come, and it is always a pleasure to discover more works of his. And sure enough, while his Charterhouse Suite for Strings, which had been skillfully arranged from his original Suite for Six Short pieces for Piano by musicologist James Brown, may not be a ground-breaking masterpiece, it is an attractive set of six nuggets that offer a wide range of moods. In the expert hands of the NYCP, this little trifle turned into a lovely stroll in the bucolic English countryside.
From early 20th century Albion we then jumped right ahead to the present time with Elliott Bark's brightly optimistic "Let all the earth rejoice! for flute and string orchestra", a work that cleverly combines all kinds of musical influences, some of them involving singing or dancing traditions, from around the world and throughout the ages. Although this evidently is an ambitious concept, the end result is immediately accessible and downright appealing, especially when performed by the NYCP's vibrant strings and special guest Carol Wincenc's high-flying flute.
Schubert's "Death and the Maiden" needs no introduction and has remained one of my favorite strings quartets ever. So I was particularly curious to hear a larger scale version of it, all the more so as this one was coming courtesy of Gustav Mahler, who knew a thing or two about orchestral arrangements, and the NYCP ensemble, who know a thing or two about string playing. Inspired by Matthias Claudius' poem by the same name, the original "Death and the Maiden" quartet is famous for its dark overtones and infectious melodies. Mahler's transcription remains essentially faithful to the original, but shifted a few things around and added more texture and colors. Under the precise baton of their insightful conductor Dongmin Kim, the musicians jumped right in it and delivered a beautifully polished and powerfully alive performance of it, just as Schubert and Mahler would have liked it.