Tuesday, October 25, 2016

Center for Contemporary Opera - Jane Eyre - 10/22/16

Composer: Louis Larchin 
Libretto: Diane Osen 
Conductor: Sara Jobin 
Director Kristine McIntyre 
Jane Eyre: Jennifer Zetlan 
Edward Rochester: Ryan MacPherson 
Mrs. Fairfax: Kimberly Giordano 
Roderick Ingram/St Jon Rivers: Thomas Meglioranza 
Mrs. Ingram/Diana Rivers: Jessica Thompson 
Miss Blanche Ingram: Katrina Thurman 
Mr. Richard Mason: Adam Cannedy 
Bessie/Mary Rivers: Jessica Best 
Mr. Wood: David Salsbery Fry 
Mr. Briggs: Adam Cannedy 

 A sweeping romantic story with intense emotions, unexpected plot twists and ground-breaking social themes, Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre is one of those classics of literature that has always seemed ripe for all kinds of adaptation. Cinema and TV have had their share of more or less successful attempts, but curiously enough the opera world had left it alone, until recently that is, when American composer Louis Larchin boldly took the plunge, which eventually resulted in the world premiere of Jane Eyre (the opera) at the Kaye Playhouse at Hunter College courtesy of The Center for Contemporary Opera last Thursday, with a repeat performance on Saturday.
 Since on Thursday night I had already committed to the New York Philharmonic, I did not have much of a choice. Despite the fact that I’d rather not go out on Saturday night, the venue was on the other (therefore, wrong) side of The Park, and the weather was hopelessly wet and cold, I was just too curious to let that one pass me by, not to mention that the presence of Jennifer Zetlan in the title could easily make up for many minor aggravations.

 There is little doubt that the challenge-ridden relationship between Jane Eyre and Edward Rochester has been one of the most popular aspects of the novel so it only makes sense that the opera focuses on it while still introducing some topics such as social classes, religion and feminism. All of this is still a lot to develop to an engaging degree and integrate into a harmonious whole; therefore, if some portions of the book, such as Jane’s miserable childhood, have been left out, except for one recapitulative aria, so be it. The cuts are overall appropriate, and while at roughly three hours, including two intermissions, the opera is by no means short, it is of manageable length.
After witnessing American soprano Jennifer Zetlan beautifully carry Kaija Saariaho’s reworked medieval song “Lohn” with the NY Phil the week before, I was thrilled to have a chance to watch her tackle a big romantic role in a more traditional opera setting on Saturday night. A young singer blessed with a gorgeous voice, a charismatic presence, and some sharp acting skills too, she embodied Jane Eyre with a lot of grace and strength. She did not shy away from the big emotional scenes, and she certainly belted out those big arias with force and conviction, but she also made sure never to fall into cheap sentimentality, reminding us that Jane Eyre is first and foremost the tale of a highly moral young woman standing up for herself in a world that was not used to girl power.
As Edward Rochester, the quintessential Byronic master of the house, tenor Ryan MacPherson was as dashing as they come, first mysteriously aloof before becoming more alive, demonstrating infectious joy and touching vulnerability, as he was falling in love with Jane. His powerful, flexible voice effortlessly expressed the wide range of emotions felt by an ultimately sensitive man desperately torn between passion and duty, and his genuine chemistry with Jennifer Zetlan made the intensity of their relationship all the more believable.
The rest of the large cast was totally committed to bringing the story to life as well, and it was a real pleasure to hear all those highly competent singers whole-heartedly dig into their respective parts, some of them even gamely fulfilling two roles in the course of the performance.
The sets and direction were generally conventional, which in this case turned out to be not only the safe but also the appropriate thing to do. Some overhead projections of videos, which seem de rigueur in a lot of productions these days, were in fact well incorporated and for the most part justified as they added insightful information. The costumes reinforced the traditional aspect of the staging, as did the furniture and props, except maybe for the numerous chairs hanging upside-down from the ceiling, letting you know that everything was not all right up there.
If the sets were predictable, the music definitely erred on the wild side with a resolutely modern score that served the action surprisingly well, with alarming dissonances to describe inner turmoil, delicate lines to underscore reflective moments, and show-stopping arias to emphasize dramatic peaks while displaying the singers’ impressive singing abilities. The orchestra performed with plenty of vigor and a laudable attention to details under the direction of Sara Jobin, and significantly contributing in making this Jane Eyre a successful endeavor.

Sunday, October 23, 2016

New York Philharmonic - Bach, Busoni & Schumann - 10/20/16

Conductor: Leonidas Kavakos 
Bach: Violin Concerto in D Minor, BWV 1052R (reconstructed by W. Fischer) 
Leonidas Kavakos: Violin 
Paolo Bordignon: Harpsichord 
Busoni: Berceuse élégiaque, Op. 42 
Schumann: Symphony No. 2 in C Major, Op. 61 

 After some forays into the wild side of classical music last week, I was back on familiar territory, albeit with a ground-breaking twist, last Thursday at the David Geffen Hall for favorite violinist Leonidas Kavakos, this season's Artist-in-Residence, making his debut as New York Philharmonic conductor. The program included a reconstructed violin concerto by Bach, for which he would do double-duty as soloist and conductor, followed by a short Busoni piece and Schumann's compelling Symphony No. 2, for which he would trade his ubiquitous Stradivarius for the baton.
So it was with great expectations – and the knowledge that in all likelihood they would be amply fulfilled – that I made it to the Lincoln Center on Thursday, an unusually sultry October night, for my first concert of the season at the David Geffen Hall.

About six months ago Leonidas Kavakos' arresting Gavotte en Rondeau from Bach’s Partita No. 3, which he played as an encore after a stunning Sibelius concerto with the NY Phil, was a priceless gift and a merciless teaser, leaving us all both infinitely grateful for the treat and desperately eager for more. Well, since apparently wishes do come true in New York Philharmonic's land, he is back with more Bach this season, and by all accounts the Violin Concerto in D Minor we heard on Thursday night more than rewarded our patience. While the reduced orchestra expertly brought out the superb craftsmanship that had gone into the composition, the performance really stood out thanks to the glowing life that was inconspicuously injected into it, happily filling up the hall with technical wizardry and elegant poise. It was also evidence that Leonidas Kavakos had no problem multi-tasking.
Busoni may have resented being associated with Debussy – Although, let's face it, worse things could happen to a composer – but the connection between the two sounded rather evident during the eight exquisite minutes of his Berceuse élégiaque. This touching tribute to his mother, who had just passed away, exuded delicate colors and subtle textures, and constituted a truly poignant interlude.
I had definitely come for Bach, but I am thrilled I stayed for Schumann, who may not be one of my top composers when it comes to symphonies, but again, in the right company, I cannot help but find myself carried away by the inherently engaging nature of his work. Written during a time of serious physical ailment and mental turmoil, his second symphony is nevertheless surprisingly life-affirming. And that was certainly the general vibe we got on Thursday, where the composer's agonizing struggle, endless agitation, quiet melancholy and final triumph over adversity were expressed with much brilliance and heart by the fully committed orchestra. Nonplussed by the daunting challenge, Leonidas Kavakos conducted sans sheet music, but with a clear vision, a steady command and an instinctive rapport with the musicians, which allowed him to conclude this relatively new endeavor of his with a totally enjoyable performance.

Tuesday, October 18, 2016

Argus Quartet - Haydn, Theofanidis, Livengood & Knox - 10/16/16

Joseph Haydn: String Quartet in C Major, Op. 74, No. 1 
Christopher Theofanidis: Visions and Miracles 
Kerrith Livengood: This is my Scary Robot 
Garth Knox: Satellites 

 After a big time musical journey with the NY Phil and Kaija Saariaho in the Park Avenue Armory on Friday evening, I was back in a more traditional setting on Sunday afternoon in Park Slope’s Brooklyn Public Library for a chamber music concert by the Argus Quartet as part of Carnegie Hall’s long tradition of Neighborhood Concerts.
It would be traditional with a twist though, because the young and feisty ensemble has proven over and over again that it is definitely not afraid of getting its feet wet with challenging contemporary music, and is well-known for regularly bringing them to all kinds of audiences. Definitely my kind of musicians, which is why I sacrificed part of a very pleasant fall afternoon and put up with a moderately unpleasant subway schedule situation to be there.

 In an unmistakable nod to tradition, Haydn's String Quartet in C Major, Op. 74, No. 1 opened the concert in a brilliant example of classical chamber music at its most glowing and memorable. The majestic composition readily oozed commanding elegance and irresistible wit and sounded as fresh as if it had been written nowadays. The musicians expertly maneuvered around the daunting complexity of the piece while keeping the mood light-hearted, and instantly accounted for their virtuoso credentials.
We stayed in a happy mood with Christopher Theofanidis’ immediately attractive Visions and Miracles, which celebrated life by joyfully exploding with infectious rhythms, vibrant colors, lush lyricism, and plenty of imagination. The two uplifting fast movements solidly bookended the beautifully eerie slow one while smartly highlighting the vivid contrasts between them. The quartet was all youthful vigor and mature talent, and went on to deliver a dynamite performance.
After this musical feast, we were in for darker times with Kerrith Livengood’s This is my Scary Robot, which describes her phobia of public speaking. And sure enough, the entire work contains a constant tension that reached literally unbearable levels in the furiously dissonant moments of highest distress. The musicians did not hesitate to dwell deep into the composer’s terrified state of mind and created some seriously gritty sounds that I frankly would not care to hear again, but were totally justified in context.
The last, but not least, treat of the afternoon, Garth Knox’s Satellites, went even further into exploring extended string techniques for a result even more peculiar, which started with a wide range of pizzicatos and moved on to more otherworldly sounds that were generally produced by the musicians slapping their violin, using the wooden park of the bow on the strings, and forcefully whipping the air with the bow, among other unusual possibilities. Far from being off-putting though, all those weird noises added a playful dimension to the experience, and ended the concert on a totally forward-minded note.

Monday, October 17, 2016

New York Philharmonic - An Evening of Spatial Works by Kaija Saariaho - 10/14/16

Conductor: Esa-Pekka Salonen 
Saariaho: Lumière et pesanteur 
Saariaho: D'om le vrai sens 
Saariaho: Lohn 
Saariaho: Circle Map 
Kari Krikku: Clarinet 
Jennifer Zetlan: Soprano 
Jean-Baptiste Barrière: Video and Projection Designer 

 My Carnegie Hall season now well underway, on Friday night I kicked off my New York Philharmonic season at the Park Avenue Armory, of all places, with an "evening of spatial works by Kaija Saariaho" that would be conducted by her frequent collaborator and fellow Finn – and NY Phil's Composer-In-Residence – Esa-Pekka Salonen, and included extra elements such as electronics, projections and guest artists. I was frankly not quite sure what I was getting myself into, but I was very much looking forward to becoming better acquainted with her impressive œuvre in a totally immersive 90-minute experience that would consist of four separate pieces performed sans interruption or any other distractions.
 Upon entering the Armory's former drill hall I could tell that we were really in for an unusual affair as the orchestra was placed in the middle of the cavernous space and surrounded about two-thirds by rows of legless chairs on the floor, which themselves were surrounded by stadium-style bleachers, which made all audience members face the orchestra and the large screen hanging behind it. After the hall had filled up to capacity, we were all eagerly off to more or less unknown territories.

 The short opening number, Lumière et pesanteur (Light and heaviness), readily set the tone with subtle sounds and delicate colors slowly evolving in hazy stretches that were occasionally punctuated by discreet outbursts. Salonen’s poised and precise conducting significantly contributed in highlighting the ethereal quality of the composition that was gifted to him in 2009 after Saariaho had heard him conduct the Los Angeles Philharmonic in her oratorio La Passion de Simone. The accompanying videos were appropriately abstract, and also repetitive after a while, in all their fancy swirling and twirling, and the combination of music and visuals efficiently created a mystical atmosphere that would remain for the rest of the evening.
Inspired by the six medieval tapestries constituting the renowned series "The Lady and the Unicorn", each one being named after the five senses and a mysterious sixth one called "À mon seul désir" (To my only desire), D'om le vrai sens, which alludes to the true meaning of mankind, was mostly memorable by the stupendous clarinet solos performed by the no less stupendous Finnish clarinetist Kari Kriikku, the work’s dedicatee. Throughout most of the piece, he playfully walked, ran, jumped and pranced around the orchestra with the vigor and bounciness of a unicorn, occasionally engaging other musicians who responded in kind, some of them even getting up and slowly walking away from their seats during the last movement. The projections were visually pleasant in their detailed study the tapestries’ intricacies and nicely expanded the musical exploration.
The next piece, Lohn, for soprano and electronics, from 1996, had the distinct advantage of featuring soprano Jennifer Zetlan, an artist whose penchant for challenging and wide-ranging projects is decidedly unwavering. And she certainly was the bright light of this conceptually fascinating but actually uneven endeavor based on a medieval Provençal poem about love from afar recorded in Occitan, French and English. Recordings of birds, wind and rain had been electronically processed with the three narrations, which resulted in sound effects sometimes intriguing, sometimes as blurry as the projected face of the live soloist, which itself was often competing with many exotic images on the busy screen. Her voice, however, was as clear, luminous and expressive as ever, and she carried herself with remarkable dignity as she slowly circulated among the silent orchestra.
Circle Map, written for orchestra and electronics in 2012, concluded the evening with more shimmers, contemplation and nebulousness. The performance combined the reading of six quatrains by 13th century Persian poet Rumi in their original language, the playing of the orchestra deftly in tune with the voice’s inflections, and videos showing the poems being written along with more abstract images. The subtle differences among the short movements were beautifully highlighted by the orchestra, which finally got a chance to play with more force and presence while still carefully maintaining the de rigueur meditative mood.

 As the audience was finally allowed to clap, the applauds were unquestionably sincere but somehow subdued, before we all quietly left the Armory, as if we were hesitant to burst the otherworldly but comfortable bubble we had been kept in and get back to the loud and fast-paced reality of Friday night in New York City.

Sunday, October 16, 2016

Brooklyn Rider & Anne Sofie von Otter - Glass, Shaw, Jacobsen, Adams, Braxton, Muhly, Janacek, Bjork, Hillborg, Costello & Bush - 10/13/16

Philip Glass: Three Selections from "Suite from Bent" 
Caroline Shaw: Cant voi l'aube 
Colin Jacobsen: For Sixty Cents 
John Adams: "Am I In Your Light?" from Doctor Atomic (arr. Evan Ziporyn)
Tyondai Braxton: Arp Rec 1 
Nico Muhly: So Many Things  
Leos Janacek: String Quartet No. 1 (Kreutzer Sonata) 
Bjork: Cover Me (arr. Erik Arvinder)
Bjork: Hunter (arr. Vince Mendoza)
Anders Hillborg: Kvall 
Elvis Costello: Speak darkly, my Angel (arr. Rob Mathes)
Kate Bush: Pi (arr. Kyle Sanna)

My Carnegie Hall season may have started with the fabulous splash that is Messiaen's Turangalila-symphonie, but things considerable scaled down last Thursday night in Zankel Hall where the unstoppable Brooklyn Rider and long-established Swedish mezzo-soprano Anne Sofie von Otter were giving a concert whose program, which included Janacek, Philip Glass, Nico Muhly, Bjork and Elvis Costello among many others, was too intriguing to resist. It sounded like an unusual collaboration at first, but come to think of it, their versatility and her spirit of adventure are not that far apart after all, so I went.

 The concert started with what turned out to be one of its high points: A resolutely sleek version of three selections from Philip Glass' "Suite from Bent", which not only pointed out the brilliance of the composition but also the tremendous talents of the musicians.
After intermission, a confidently virtuosic "Kreutzer Sonata" quickly confirmed that the Brooklyn Rider could handle pretty much anything. Inspired by Leo Tolstoy's jealousy-driven novella The Kreutzer Sonata, which itself features Beethoven's "Kreutzer Sonata", Janacek's amazing combination of beautiful melodies and dramatic outbursts rightfully turned out to be another high point of Thursday's concert.
Those two instrumental works – plus Tyondai Braxton's attractively intricate Arp Rec 1 – aside, the evening was mostly dedicated to the quartet's collaboration with Anne Sofie von Otter, who for the occasion definitely looked more like a Brooklyn hipster than an opera singer. Caroline Shaw's take on the medieval French ballad "Cant voi l'aube" and Brooklyn rider member Colin Jacobsen's bittersweet lament on inflation with "for Sixty Cents" were both mellow chansons that nicely went by.
 More substantial pieces included a streamlined version of "Am I in your Light?" from John Adams' Doctor Atomic, which allowed the dramatically charged opera aria to be subtly conveyed by the four string musicians and the singer, and Nico Muhly's So Many Things, in which a long poem by Joyce Carol Oates was bookended by two short ones by Cavafy for an end result full of wistful longing and delicate lyricism.
The pop portion of the evening was engaging and stimulating with new arrangements of songs by Bjork, Elvis Costello, Kate Bush and Anders Hillborg, all artists whose creative credentials have long been validated and praised. With her crystal-clear voice, a killer band of musicians behind her and some exciting compositions to tackle, Anne Sofie von Otter was totally game to become the ultimate deluxe pop star for the evening and seemed to relish every second of it, just like we did.

We stayed in the pop realm for the encores, which consisted in Sting's soulful "Practical Arrangement" from his Broadway endeavor The Lost Ship, before everybody let their hair down for a rousing version of Abba's monster hit "Gimme! Gimme! Gimme!" complete with bouts of comical dancing by von Otter and uplifted spirits all around. Needless to say, disco had never sounded so good.