Sunday, May 31, 2015

News Amsterdam Singers - Poems, Letters and Premieres - 05/28/15

Music Director & Conductor: Clara Longstreth
Francis Poulenc: Petites voix
Eric Whitacre: She weeps over Rahoon
Andrew Adelson: English Horn
Pen Ying Fang: Piano
Leonard Bernstein: French choruses from The Lark
Jason Hill: Baritone
Robert Thorpe: Tenor
Matthew Harris: Drinking Song (samba)
Michael Dellaira: Nobody
Robin Beckhard: Soprano
Andrew Adelson: Oboe
Paul Hindemith: Six chansons
Ben Moore: Dear Theo
Rick Bonsall: Bass
Rebecca Dee: Alto
Allison Gish: Soprano
Nathaniel Granor: Tenor
Cecil Effinger: Four Pastorales
Andrew Adelson: Oboe

All good things have to come to an end, but at least the ultimate concert of my 2015-2015 music season ‒ and regretfully my first one by the reliably stellar New Amsterdam Singers ‒ offered the double advantage of being appealing and convenient. Indeed, it would luckily be taking place a few blocks from my apartment in the Upper West Side's beautiful Saint Ignatius of Antioch Episcopal Church. And the program, which encompassed a wide variety of "Poems. Letters and Premieres" in English and French, sounded like the perfect pick-me-up on a hot Thursday night (Almost Friday!). Apparently a lot of people thought the same because the spacious venue eventually filled up to capacity with a large and dedicated crowd.

The concert started in a light-hearted mood with "Petites voix", five French songs by Francis Poulenc, which were sung with much verve by the women singers of the choir. It was a totally charming opening number.
Superstar composer Eric Whitacre's "She weeps over Rahoon" was also a ladies-only piece, for which they were accompanied by an English horn and a piano. Inspired by James Joyce's Pomes Penyeach, it beautifully expressed gloomy weather with a light touch of exoticism in an appropriately haunting performance.
Next, another widely popular composer, the French language and a hint of Latin were combined for the choir's male singers and a drum with Leonard Bernstein's "French choruses", some incidental music for Lillian Hellman's The Lark, which was itself adapted from Jean Anouilh's play about Joan of Arc. The three songs were delightfully melodic and unabashedly lively, infectious clapping included.
High spirits were still flying for Matthew Harris' merry take on W. B. Yeats' verse, "Drinking Song".
Composer Michael Dellaira himself introduced his "Nobody" work for its New York City premiere. After James Joyce, Jean Anouilh and William Butler Yeats, it was Emily Dickinson's turn in the spotlight with four poems of hers containing the word "nobody" put to music for the full chorus, a soprano and an oboe. The result was a convincing mix of serious existentialism and attractive harmonies.
After intermission, Paul Hindemith's "Six chansons", whose texts were six French poems by Rainer Maria Rilke, brought up themes of nature, such as animals and the seasons, and very much benefited from an organically nuanced performance by the chamber chorus.
The chamber chorus and four soloists also distinguished themselves in the New York City premiere of "Dear Theo" by Ben Moore, who introduced this new piece of his. Using some excerpts of letters that Vincent van Gogh wrote to his brother Theo, he came up with a deeply emotional and singularly affecting musical portrait of the artist, which the singers vividly brought to colorful life.
The last work on the program was "Four Pastorales" for chorus and oboe by Colorado educator, performer, inventor and composer Cecil Effinger from the poetry by Colorado's Poet Laureate Thomas Hornsby Ferrill. Unsurprisingly the lovely pastorales revolved around the joys of nature and went off as lightly as the summer breathe that was definitely needed in the stifling church. A slight inconvenience that by no means lessened the lasting impact of this thoroughly enjoyable musical evening.

Sunday, May 24, 2015

Bargemusic - Timo Andres & David Kaplan - Barber, Andres, Ravel & Stravinsky - 05/22/15

Barber: Souvenirs, Op. 28 for piano four hands
Andres: Retro Music
Ravel: La Valse
Stravinsky: Le Sacre du printemps (The Rite of Spring)

Finally! I've been Barged! After hearing countless raves about Bargemusic for a couple of years now, and patiently waiting for the right combination of schedule, program and performers, I decided that becoming acquainted with the four-hand version of Stravinsky's ground-breaking Rite of Spring by two young trailblazing musicians in a barge floating right underneath the Brooklyn Bridge sounded like the perfect birthday to myself, even if the concert was actually happening the day after, on Friday evening. (Fact is, B-Day was not half bad either as I excitedly treated myself to a membership to the all-around fabulous new Whitney Museum ‒ once you get past the unsightly exterior, that is ‒ with the added bonus of my friend Linden's unexpected company.)
So on Friday my fantastic five-day weekend continued with another art-filled day at a relatively uncrowded MoMA (The new Whitney's sky-high hotness level has some fortunate consequences indeed. I even got to spend a memorable, long-overdue moment almost alone with van Gogh's magical Nuit étoilée for the first time ever), before enjoying leisurely walks on Brooklyn Heights' stately Promenade and Brooklyn Bridge Park's gentrified piers. Then I headed to oh so cool DUMBO to take my seat among a sizable audience in the attractive and cozy little barge, complete with a view on downtown Manhattan's skyline at dusk, seriously wondering what had taken me so long.

My own question on how many pianos would be there got answered as soon as I got in and saw that there was only one, and for a good reason: There's no way that two grand pianos would have fit on the small stage. But preppy-looking music partners Timo Andres and David Kaplan were obviously very comfortable in each other's company and performed the five movements of Samuel Barber's "Souvenirs" with high spirits and impressive dexterity. Together, they totally brought out the carefree charm of those delightful little tunes and made sure to subtly highlight their whimsical nature, including the playful endings.
The second piece on the program, "Retro Music", had been written by Timo Andres himself and was dealing with dance music too, except that the intended traditional 19th century waltz never had a chance to get going in earnest because it kept on getting into frustratingly dissonant modern "collisions". Although Kaplan had informed us that the valiant effort "almost delivers" beforehand, the two musicians fully delivered on the imaginative composition full of surprise twists and turns.
Another piece, another deconstructed waltz, this one written by Maurice Ravel during the First World War. Although the man himself has denied it, "La valse" is suspiciously reminiscent of the turbulent times Europe was going through then. Go figure. However, no matter what the composer's true intentions were, it is unquestionably a powerful work, overflowing with tragically intense emotions as well as a touch of extravagance all the way to the all-destructive finale. The live rendition of it strongly resounded with brilliance and awe.
The second part of the program was entirely dedicated to the original version of my beloved Rite of Spring, which, Kaplan shared with us, was performed for the very first time by Igor Stravinsky and... Claude Debussy. On Friday night the duo pianists did not let themselves be intimidated by the thought of their illustrious predecessors and whole-heartedly threw themselves into an impeccably virtuosic performance that exploded with savage primitivism, vibrant colors, blazing sounds and boundless energy. As if on command, the barge started noticeably swaying with the first notes of the irresistible pounding of "The dance of the adolescents". The unusual motion, the intimate setting, the excellent acoustics, the now lit-up skyline and the terrific music all contributed to making this pared-down Rite of Spring a deliciously eerie experience. I can't wait for more.

Thursday, May 21, 2015

Cantori New York - Rosing-Schow & Potes - 05/16/15

Artistic Director & Conductor: Mark Shapiro
Niels Rosing-Schow: Where the Willows
Meet Alba Potes: Pedro Páramo
Alfonso Diaz: Narrator
Peter Tantsits: Tenor
Dan Kempson: Baritone
Greg Hesselink: Cello
Jared Soldiviero: Percussion
Wendy Stern: Flute
Kristina Teuschler: Clarinet
Soprano Solo: Dawn Jordan

After ending my Carnegie Hall season with a mostly traditional program on Thursday night, I was more than ready to end my Cantori season with ‒ what else? ‒ a mostly non-traditional program last Saturday night down in the Village, where I giddily joined a few friends spread out in a sizeable crowd in the lovely Church of Saint Luke in the Fields.
The evening would include Danish composer Niels Rosing-Schow's "Where the Willows Meet", which consisted of four poems by James Joyce arranged for a choir, and then Colombian-American composer Alba Potes' "Pedro Páramo", a one-hour brand new composition commissioned and premiered by Cantori New York that very evening. The work sounded all the more intriguing as in South America Juan Rulfo's novella Pedro Páramo enjoys a widespread popularity that only equals its uncompromising weirdness in form and content. Because there’s nothing like wrapping up a concert season with an attractive teaser followed by an intrepid adventure in high drama and pervasive creepiness.

As if not to scare anyone away, Cantori opened the concert with a thoroughly engaging rendition of Niels Rosing-Schow's "Where the Willows Meet", which delightfully dwelled on the artless lyricism of the poems written by a young man happily celebrating the joys of love and nature. Smoothly moving from richly colorful descriptions to rousing commands ‒ When they sang out “Arise, arise!”, you knew they really meant it ‒ the choir was in full, splendid romantic mood, and so was the audience.
We did not have the opportunity to marvel at those pretty melodies very long though, as after the intermission we all boldly stepped into the whole different world of Alba Potes' "Pedro Páramo", a world imbued with magical realism that was considerably darker, drastically less tonal, and filled with odd characters, whether they were dead or alive, as well as death, bitterness, abuse ‒ and still the occasional glimmer of hope ‒ in the (literal) ghost town of Colama, Mexico. The cantata unfolded in six sharply fragmented, starkly colored scenes, each starting with an English introduction from narrator Alfonso Diaz in order to provide some much needed context.
The singing, on the other hand, was entirely done in Spanish, the chorus making a grand entrance as their voices powerfully swelled and meandered when describing the road that rises and falls in the hot August wind. Then it all went down to nightmarish Colama from there. Although at times they whole-heartedly threw themselves into dreadful fits of rage ‒ when as the spectral town people they repeatedly lashed out that Pedro Páramo was "living spite", you could definitely tell that deep-seated resentment had reached its boiling point ‒ the chorus also thoughtfully conjured up quieter, softer moments of warmth and longing when bringing up as fond as could be memories.
Tenor Peter Tantsits was persuasively ambivalent and fearful as Juan Preciado, the son who went on a reluctant search for his estranged father after the death of his mother and ended up meeting his own death in the middle of the story. That's when his father appeared and took over the narrative with baritone Dan Kempson, who was appropriately sinister but also surprisingly poignant as Pedro Páramo, the strongman who deeply suffered from youthful unrequited love before eventually destroying the town. Some guys just do not take rejection well.
 Last, but by no means least, the instrumental accompaniment extensively helped create an eerie atmosphere thanks to the appealing combination of the mysterious darkness of the cello, the ambiguous flutter of the flute and clarinet, and the disturbing ominousness of the set of percussion, which I found particularly effective when evoking rattling skeletons' bones. Moreover, the extra soundtrack provided by the steadily pouring rain outside the church added yet another spooky musical component to the already unsettling experience.
This year happens to be the 60th anniversary of the novella's publication, and this gripping performance may even have gotten the classic work new fans, one gratefully weirded out audience member at a time.

Sunday, May 17, 2015

Philadelphia Orchestra - Muhly, Beethoven & Rachmaninoff - 05/14/15

Conductor: Yannick Nézet-Séguin
Muhly: Mixed Messages
Beethoven: Piano Concerto No. 3 in C Minor, Op. 37 Emanuel Ax
Rachmaninoff: Symphony No. 3 in A Minor, Op. 44

Because all good things have to come to a (in this case, temporary) end, my last Carnegie Hall concert of the season took place last Thursday night, happily mixing tradition, with the prestigious Philadelphia Orchestra, a concerto by Beethoven performed by Emanuel Ax and a symphony by Rachmaninoff, and novelty, with two young men who, although they have quickly become well-established figures in the classical music world, still bring boundless enthusiasm and wide-ranging creativity to their respective fields: Music director/conductor Yannick Nézet-Séguin and multi-faceted composer/occasional keyboardist Nico Muhly. Not bad for a send-off.

The first piece of the concert ‒ and frankly my main reason for being there, with all due respect to all the other parties involved ‒ was Muhly's "Mixed Messages", which was having its New York premiere on Thursday. Clocking in at approximately 11 minutes, it is a single movement that kept the large and eclectic orchestra continually busy in a myriad of different ways, all driven by one minimalist, but constant and propulsive pulse, in (Surprise!) the best Philip Glass tradition. Listening to the various, sometimes startling but always appealing, instrumental combinations, I kind of felt like I was standing in front of a toy store window in which a lot of animated mechanisms were all doing their own thing. Between the resounding opening and the abrupt ending, the adventure was inventive, fun and colorful, apparently a direct reflection of the ever-ebullient composer, who was rightly greeted like a rock star when he came onstage to take a bow or two.
When I originally looked at the program and saw Beethoven's Piano Concerto No. 3, my first thought was to wonder if, after indulging in Leif Ove Andsnes' magnificent "Beethoven Journey" three months ago, I needed to hear this third piano concerto again so soon. But of course I did! Especially when it is performed by such an accomplished pianist as Emanuel Ax. And so it was, beautifully unfolding with the impossibly lush sound of the orchestra, the unfailingly eloquent playing of the soloist and the deeply involved conducting of the maestro. And if the orchestra's take-no-prisoners élan at times threatened to unceremoniously drown the delicate piano, Ax deftly made sure to let his stunning part be heard and smashingly succeeded, as the thunderous ovation he got could attest.
After intermission, most of us were more than ready for Rachmaninoff's Symphony No. 3, but a few concert goers were apparently taking their own sweet time getting back to their seats in the parquet, to which Nézet-Séguin responded by seating patiently on one side of his podium, and then on the other side, to the chuckles and applause of the audience, before finally giving the downbeat. Although the symphony was written for the Philadelphia Orchestra all the way back in 1935, on Thursday night the current ensemble proved that it still unquestionably owes the opulently Russian work, especially in the intensely schmaltzy, deeply satisfying Adagio. And that's how my Carnegie Hall season ended, on a grand, unapologetically Romantic, and totally fulfilling note. I will be back.

Saturday, May 16, 2015

Stephen Hough - Debussy & Chopin - 05/09/15

Debussy: La plus que lente
Debussy: Estampes
Chopin: Ballade No. 2 in F Major
Chopin: Ballade No. 1 in G Minor
Chopin: Ballade No. 3 in A-fFat Major
Chopin: Ballade No. 4 in F Minor
Debussy: Children's Corner
Debussy: L’isle joyeuse

When  a few years ago I moved into my Upper West Side apartment and I heard some piano playing coming from downstairs, I figured that my exorbitant rent would at least be partly justified by some free-of-charge serenading. Alas! It did not take me long to realize that my downstairs neighbor's piano playing skills were hopelessly limited and would not improve with time. For the past year or so he's been doing unspeakable things to poor Chopin ‒ the "Revolutionary" étude being a favorite victim of his ‒ and I've been quietly gritting my teeth and loudly playing my Chopin CD by Jean-Yves Thibaudet to remember what those sparkling little gems actually sound like.
But there is nothing like live music, especially when performed by such a seasoned and well-rounded musician as Stephen Hough in the acoustically flawless environment that is Carnegie Hall's Stern auditorium, so that's where I was last Saturday night. And to make things even better, the four ballades of Chopin's would be book-marked by four works of Debussy's. So I cleared my head as much as possible from the immensely enjoyable production of The Rake's Progress I had seen at the Met in the afternoon and got mentally prepared for an old-fashioned Parisian evening in modern day New York City.

Transporting us right into the City of Lights of the early 20th century, Claude Debussy's contemplative "La plus que lente" (The more than slow) opened the concert with an all too fleeting moment of hushed melancholy, understated elegance and some beautiful harmonies.
Next, the program offered a wider range of ever-imaginative sounds with Debussy's three "Estampes" (Prints). The delicate "Pagodes" (Padogas) came out bustling with unusual oriental flavors, the spirited "La soirée dans Grenade" (The evening in Grenada) exploded with assertive rhythms, and the stormy "Jardins sous la pluie" (Gardens in the rain) was full of sound and fury as well as quotes from a couple of French folk tunes. Here again, the impressionistic nature of the composition winningly came through with a poetic atmosphere, bright colors and evocative harmonies.
Then we moved back in time to mid-19th century Paris with Frédéric Chopin and his four glorious ballades. I must confess that I am a total sucker for the Ballade No. 1 ‒ But then again, who isn't? ‒ and hearing it so gorgeously performed only deepened my bottomless love for it. For all four ballades, Stephen Hough did not shy away from the works' intensely expressive power, but rather used his impeccable technique and unwavering sense of the musical line to thoughtfully deliver a lyrically radiant, emotionally stirring, and simply all-around perfect Chopin experience.
Then it was back to Debussy with his "Children's Corner", the six-movement suite dedicated to his daughter Claude-Emma, who was three at the time. While it was predictably filled with sweet lullabies and playful images, it also featured the occasional bouts of frustration, dark passages, weird sounds and jazzy rhythms, all of which were brilliantly brought to life by Hough with plenty of warmth and vivacity.
A lot of fun could also be found in Debussy's "L'isle joyeuse" (The joyful island), which drew its inspiration from both Watteau's painting L’Embarquement de Cythère, in which a group of revelers takes a trip to the mythical island of Cythera in the Mediterranean, birthplace of Venus, and the island of Jersey in the English Channel, where Debussy escaped to with Emma Bardac, who became his second wife, and where he revised the composition. Accordingly, the work packed a lot in six minutes and happily burst with subtle exoticism, vivid colors and unbridled joie de vivre.

If the auditorium was not completely packed, the concert was nevertheless well-attended by an obviously dedicated audience, which eventually saw its rapturous ovations rewarded not by one, or two, or three, but by four (4) encores! And they were not the quick and easy favors he could have gotten away with either.
One can probably never hear too much Chopin ‒ at least with the right performer ‒ and Stephen Hough proved one more time his mastery of the Polish-born but Parisian-at-heart composer in a poignant-in-its-simplicity Nocturne in F-Sharp Major. Then it was on to a lively "Dulcinea Variation" from the ballet score for Don Quixote by Ludwig Minkus, arranged by Hough himself, followed the wild and wildly entertaining "Osmanthus Romp" composed by Hough himself, and finally the one we did not think we would get but did, a lush and sensitive rendition of Grieg's "Notturno". You really cannot get too much of a good thing.