Monday, October 20, 2014

New York Philharmonic - Beethoven & Stravinsky - 10/16/14

Conductor: Esa-Pekka Salonen
Beethoven: Overture to King Stephen
Beethoven: Piano Concerto No 1 in C Major. op. 15 - Jeremy Denk
Stravinsky: The Firebird

Although the Lincoln Center is located at a totally manageable distance from my apartment, my visits to the Avery Fisher Hall are few and far between, this state of affairs being definitely due to the space itself and not to the performers appearing in it. Therefore, when the typically reliable New York Philharmonic boasts of headliners like Esa-Pekka Salonen and Jeremy Denk, two of the most exciting and multi-talented music men of our times, there is little doubt that a visit must be paid. I first thought that the program, which included Beethoven and Stravinsky, was rather conventional for such tirelessly adventurous artists, but I also quickly figured that they could be trusted to put their very own spin on it. So I went.

The concert started with a solid rendition of Beethoven's overture to King Stephen, which immediately established the seamless connection between conductor and orchestra.
Unbelievably enough, Thursday night was the very first time that endlessly versatile and much in demand New York pianist Jeremy Denk performed with the New York Philharmonic. The occasion was Beethoven's Piano Concerto No 1 (which was actually his second one, but never mind), and as soon as Denk made his entrance with his trademark subtle virtuosity, it was obvious that he had fully conquered the work, the orchestra and conductor, and the audience. This early concerto sparkles with the youthful impetuosity and remarkable maturity to be expected from a 25-year old composer already on his way to becoming one of the biggest names in the classical repertoire. Classical elegance combined with Romantic passion through delicate musings, a seductive air of mystery, but also clear brightness and sheer determination. All of this, and so much more, including Beethoven's own cadenzas, was on full display on Thursday night under the accomplished fingers of Jeremy Denk, whose flawless technique allowed him to merrily focus on the pure joy of playing. This was a long-overdue debut that would unquestionably go down in history as a complete success as could attest, if nothing else, the tremendous ovation from the audience.
The festive mood not only lingered, but also expanded to new heights with Stravinsky and an explosive Firebird, during which Salonen guided the more than willing musicians and audience into the Russian fairy tale featuring a dashing prince, an evil king, a beautiful princess and an all-powerful Firebird. Confidently drawing with broad, vibrantly colorful strokes while still superbly bringing out the tiniest details, such as delicately emphasizing the sweet tenderness of the "Berceuse" and unleashing all possible furies for the "Infernal Dance", expertly mixing elaborate technical intricacies, energetic folk rhythms and take-no-prisoners Romantic emotions, he put together an all-around electrifying performance. The various solos were all spot-on, and the whole orchestra flamboyantly showed what kind of sweepingly beautiful music it can make when playing a magnificent work for a conductor it evidently loves and respects. And if the extraordinary musical experience we had just witnessed had not been enough proof, it made its feelings crystal clear when, after Salonen came back on the stage during the on-going ovation and signaled the musicians to get up again, they all spontaneously and whole-heartedly started clapping for him instead, happily joining into the well-deserved unanimous love fest.

Saturday, October 18, 2014

Emerson String Quartet with Yefim Bronfman - Beethoven, Purcell, Britten & Schumann - 10/14/14

Beethoven: String Quartet in F Minor, Op. 95, "Serioso"
Purcell: Chacony in G Minor, Z. 730
Britten: String Quartet No 2 in C Major, Op. 36
Schumann: Piano Quintet in E-flat Major, Op. 44 - Yefim Bronfman

Two days after a big prestigious symphonic concert in Carnegie Hall's Stern Auditorium, I was back in the same hall on Tuesday night with my friend Dawn for a smaller but still prestigious chamber music concert featuring the distinguished Emerson String Quartet and a very special guest in the equally distinguished pianist Yefim Bronfman for a program presenting the classical fare of Beethoven and Schumann, and some really exciting works tied to our beloved Benjamin Britten.
I've always found the Stern Auditorium too cavernous for small ensembles, but I guess it is a small price to pay for popular artists who have outgrown the intimate and oh so cool Zankel Hall. And frankly, one would have been hard-pressed to complain considering the premium seats we got to sit in... or the performance we got to enjoy.

It is impossible to go wrong with Beethoven's œuvre, and the quartet got everything right with the man's "Serioso" string quartet. After a gripping opening, the four musicians, three of whom were standing up, impeccably maneuvered around the piece's various intricacies and turbulences. This was the first time I had a chance to hear them with their one-year member, cellist Paul Watkins, who was - and still is - the first change ever in the group's composition in 37 years, and the result was decidedly impressive in tightness and cohesion. Under their informed and confident bows, Beethoven sounded very much alive and well, as he should.
A short Baroque detour was next with Purcell's Chacony in G Minor arranged by Britten. There was a lot more of the former than the latter in this lovely interlude, probably a telling sign of how much Britten revered Purcell.
Premiered at London's Wigmore Hall in 1945, on the 250th anniversary of Purcell's death, Britten's String Quartet No 2 is a true marvel of brilliant inventiveness that includes a wide range of sounds and moods, from spontaneously attractive to unapologetically quirky, from happily free to intensely restless, a short second movement that sounds like an action movie soundtrack, some stunning lines for the viola in the thrilling Chaconne, and so much more. The technically exacting and emotionally engaging performance of the quartet could not but make this live introduction to the small masterpiece a memorable one. In fact, the experience turned out to be so astounding that we did not even manage to get out of our seats during intermission.
After so much excitement, Schumann and his Piano Quintet came out rather conventional, which is not a totally fair assessment given the undeniable quality of the work and of its rendition. With Yefim Bronfman taking up piano man's duties, the slightly bigger ensemble did full justice to the popular quintet, which often sounded like an spontaneous ode to unrestrained joie de vivre.

Time flew as we were having fun and the hour was getting late, but the five gentlemen still kindly acknowledged our resounding ovation with a beautifully serene Adagio from Brahms' Piano Quintet in F Minor. A very generous and much appreciated parting gift before we reluctantly went back to reality.

Monday, October 13, 2014

The MET Orchestra - Mozart & Mahler - 10/12/14

Conductor: James Levine
Mozart: Piano Concerto No 21 in C Major, K. 467 - Maurizio Pollini
Mahler: Symphony No 9

As if enjoying the fabulous MET Orchestra with Verdi's Macbeth in their home on Saturday afternoon had not been enough, I had the good fortune to hear them again at Carnegie Hall yesterday afternoon, this time conducted by their dearly beloved music director of over 40 years, James Levine, and accompanied by another long-time major figure of classical music in Maurizio Pollini. The program was an attractive pairing of Mozartian elegance, with the popular piano concerto No 21 of the 19th century Viennese master, and Mahlerian angst, with the monumental symphony No 9 of the 20th century Viennese master. So it was with mightily high expectations that I joined the capacity crowd for the opening concert of my Carnegie Hall season.

Mozart's piano concerto No 21 has been one of his biggest hits for the longest time not only because of its irresistible mix of perfection and accessibility, but also because, for better or worse, the 1967 Swedish film Elvira Madigan used the dreamy Andante as its main theme. Any opportunity to hear it is always welcome in my book, and the musicians on the stage yesterday only made that perspective even more alluring than usual. So when the expected sweeping magic did not happen, the disappointment was all the more crushing. Truth be told, this was not a complete disaster, and there were some wonderful moments that impeccably rose above the fray, but all too often the music did not seem to flawlessly gel apparently due to a lack of coordination between pianist and orchestra, with the latter unquestionably winning on all fronts. I guess there was a lesson here to be learned about the pitfalls of mightily high expectations.
Mahler's Symphony No 9 has a lot to say over the course of its 90 minutes, and it employs many means to say it as well. With death omnipresent throughout the journey, Mahler is still looking everywhere for answers, relentlessly dealing with big philosophical ideas and intense human emotions. Now solidly in charge of the action, James Levine gave the music plenty of time and space to breathe without losing any of its driving force... all the way to the famed Adagio, which sounded borderline over-stretched, but hey, what's a little self-indulgence when you're dwelling into this achingly beautiful movement? The violins stunningly soared in all their glory, and even the increasingly fidgety woman next to me did not manage to break the spell. Speaking of instruments, praise must be also bestowed upon the brass section that did such a stupendous job throughout the entire performance. Mightily high expectations were met this time.

Sunday, October 12, 2014

Met - Macbeth - 10/11/14

Composer: Giuseppe Verdi
Conductor: Fabio Luisi
Producer/Director: Adrian Noble
Lady Macbeth: Anna Netrebko
Macbeth: Zeljko Lucic
Banquo: René Pape
McDuff: Joseph Calleja

Some traditions die hard, others do not even really die. A case in point would be that this year Anna Netrebko, by now the Met's most bankable star, was not part of its opening night performance after doing the honor three years in a row (Needless to say, having maestro Levine conduct Mozart's sparkling Le Nozze di Figaro instead was nothing to sneeze at). But that did not stop the opera superstar from becoming the talk of opera lovers in New York City two days later, when she debuted her eagerly awaited Lady Macbeth to much acclaim. So there.
The combination of Shakespeare and Verdi is of course a very enticing proposal to begin with, and the added bonus of a dream cast only contributed to make this revival production of Verdi's Macbeth one of the major cultural events of the fall in the Big Apple... and the perfect production for my return to the Met, where yesterday afternoon I giddily walked up the red carpet-covered stairs for the first time this season to take my seat in a packed to the brim opera house. There was no doubt about it: After all the drama and uncertainty of this past summer, the Met was back in exciting business... and so was I.

The good thing about operas based on classics of literature is that there is no need to make an extra effort to figure out the story, which helps keep the focus on the singing. Faithfully following Shakespeare's original plot, Verdi's Macbeth is blissfully lean and tight, the absence of pretty melodies but abundance of psychological insights emphasizing the play's dark and implacable nature. Moreover, like in the original drama, the opera's main character is cleverly not the title role, but his power-thirsty wife, who will stop at nothing to get her way.
When this demanding but mesmerizing part is held by the world's most popular soprano, the public is bound to take notice, and it has been doing just that. Decisively driving the final nail in a coffin full on the "inas" she had been rather inexplicably stuck with for a while, resolutely stepping away from sweet Juliet, Mimi and Tatiana, Anna Netrebko has at last given herself the opportunity to voraciously bite into a deliciously meaty role, and she is by all accounts clearly relishing every single juicy bite of it.
Her naturally gorgeous voice and fiercely intense singing effortlessly filling up the cavernous house, her unmistakable presence taking command of the stage every time she appeared, admittedly lacking in subtlety but never short of charisma, she was a Lady Macbeth you definitely did not want to cross. So I barely dare to say that the blond wig should probably go, because the fact of the matter is, the icy blonde look does not fit this fiery Lady Macbeth and never will.
Next to Hurricane Anna, Serbian baritone Zeljko Lucic managed to somehow hold his own in a role that has fundamentally less dramatic oomph, Macbeth being after all not much more than a puppet at the service of his wife's unstoppable ambition. His singing was poised and elegant, with just enough detachment to express how overwhelmed he was slowly becoming. His duos with his lady brought out the best of him, as if his singing partner fired him up as much as the ever ruthless lady fired up her increasingly hapless husband.
The cast was impeccably completed with two of The Met's most compelling stars in German bass René Pape as Banquo, whose burnished tone gave a quiet dignity to the well-meaning and ill-fated lord, and Maltese tenor Joseph Calleja as Mcduff, whose turns were as short as memorable, one of them featuring the opera's big hit "O figli! O figli miei", which he delivered with delicate sensitiveness and heart-breaking anguish. My only quibble: So much talent, so little time.
The Met chorus remained busy in various combinations during the whole performance and was as excellent as usual. From witches to aristocrats, from soldiers to refugees, they often played key parts in the proceedings and provided unwavering background support when needed.
If the singing should be, and has been, uniformly praised, I did not think that the production, which set the narrative in a vague post-World War II period, was a complete winner. I am all for playing around with time periods when appropriate, and the universal themes of Macbeth certainly allow for that kind of liberty, but the new vision has to be imaginative and confident.
Granted, this production had a lot going for it: The stark woods and grim palaces efficiently emphasized the gloomy mood of the story, and the discreetly glitzy ball added just the right touch of macabre glamour. However, I found other choices, such as the witches looking like a bunch of housewives waiving purses, the huge crystal ball coming up from the ground on a bed of smoke and the figure-filled golden circles hanging up in the air, puzzling, unnecessary or distracting.
The score, on the other hand, is as viscerally gripping as the action, even if for the most part it does not have the vibrant lyricism often associated with Verdi's œuvre. For the occasion, the Italian master had rightly decided to leave pure musical delights mostly behind and focus on the emotional complexity of the characters instead. Therefore, musicians and singers are still given plenty of unquestionably daunting but deeply rewarding challenges to contend with, from technically difficult arias to ever-changing orchestrations, and when those are so expertly handled as they were yesterday afternoon, the operatic experience is truly grand.
The Met orchestra, one of the surest values of the New York City music scene, gave a powerfully dramatic, beautifully nuanced performance under the detailed baton of Fabio Luisi, one of its most regular conductors. The sweeping quality of Verdi's music was on full display, yet the intimate moments came through with much force as well, reinforcing the already palpable notion of pure musical nirvana. It was good to be back indeed.

Sunday, September 28, 2014

New York Classical Players - Rachmaninoff, Bartok & Beethoven - 09/27/14

Conductor: Dongmin Kim
Rachmaninoff: Vocalise, Op. 34, No 14
Bartok: Divertimento for String Orchestra, Op. BB118
Beethoven: Violin concerto in D, op. 61 (NYCP edition, arr. by David Schneider) - Itamar Zorman

After a peculiar Friday evening with the amplified strings of Laurie Anderson and the Kronos Quartet, I was very much looking forward to spending a more conventional Saturday evening with the pristine strings of the New York Classical Players. "Conventional", however, never means predictable or boring when it comes to this tight group of young musicians talented way beyond their years. And if they typically create their program from a solidly classical repertoire, you can always count on the execution to be technically assured and refreshingly vibrant, often bearing their own special touch.
True to form, their first concert series of the season, which as always was free, presented time-tested values such as Rachmaninoff, Bartok and Beethoven, with the latter's violin concerto having just been arranged for them. Enticed by such an attractive proposition, my Russian friend Julia, with a small international entourage of young adults in tow, decided to join me yesterday evening, smack in the middle of a decidedly summery weekend, and we all met up in the rather minimalist but indiscriminatingly welcoming Good Shepherd-Faith Presbyterian Church on the Upper West Side, right around the corner from the Juilliard School.

The last of Rachmaninoff's "Fourteen Songs", "Vocalise" does not have any words, and evidently does not need any to make an immediate impact. Whether actually sung with one vowel or performed with instruments only, this six-minute little jewel never fails to shine its discreetly seductive colors in many different ways, depending on the combination being used. Last night we expectedly heard the string ensemble version of it, and the delicately haunting quality of the music immediately earned Julia's spontaneous and unreserved Russian seal of approval.
Then we moved to Hungary for Bartok and his mood-swinging "Divertimento for String Orchestra". There was actually a lot going on in this somewhat deceptively named composition, and all was not fun and games. Book-ended by two admittedly exuberant movements, the middle one distinguished itself by its slow pace, dark mood, dissonant sounds and sharp contrasts. Undaunted by the numerous challenges and soundly conducted by Dongmin Kim's spot on baton, the orchestra admirably handled the work's numerous twists and turns before coming out a total winner.
Although it was not popular when it first came out, Beethoven's formidable violin concerto needs no introductions these days. Although the version we heard yesterday was brand new, it respectfully kept the irrepressible spirit of the original masterpiece alive and well while being perfectly adapted to the reduced orchestra at hand. Young but already much praised and in high demand all around the world, violinist Itamar Zorman brought invigorating spontaneity and rigorous technique to the proceedings, resolutely giving this concerto the virtuosic treatment it so deserves. Although the spotlight remained on the soloist as soon as he had made his entrance, The NYCP delivered a robust performance that could not but beautifully bring the whole piece together.

As it was becoming obvious that our enthusiastic applause was going to be rewarded, I briefly wondered: "What on earth do you play after the Beethoven violin concerto?!" Well, you go back to the man with whom it all began of course, and that's just what the unstoppable Itamar Zorman did with a stunning Largo from Bach's Sonata in C Major. As it clearly could not get any better than that, we all called it a night and headed back to the still unusually warm reality.