Sunday, August 2, 2015

Mostly Mozart Festival - Bach, Mozart and Brahms - 08/01/15

Conductor: Louis Langrée
Bach: Chaconne in D Minor for piano left hand (Transcription by Brahms) − Jeremy Denk
Mozart: Piano Concerto No. 20 in D Minor, K. 466 − Jeremy Denk
Brahms: Symphony No. 4 in E Minor

On yet another summer weekend in New York City, yesterday evening I was back at the Avery Fisher Hall for, incidentally, another performance of Brahms' Symphony No. 4 and, most importantly, a solo piece by Bach and a piano concerto by Mozart − It is his festival, after all − performed by one of the Mostly Mozart Festival's main attractions, our very own Jeremy Denk.
The other differences from last weekend would be the seats and the company as my friend Angie had been replaced by my equally dear friend Christine, and we found ourselves in much lesser (and ironically paid for this time) seats in the packed concert hall. But the complimentary flutes of champagne that we got to leisurely sip on the Avery Fisher Hall's balcony overlooking Lincoln Plaza before the concert certainly helped alleviate to some degree the indignity of going back to the nose-bleed section's last row one week after tasting the fleeting pleasure of the center of the orchestra section. A bit like going back to flying Coach after enjoying a stint in First Class (or so I've heard).

Bach's Chaconne from his Partita in D Minor for solo violin is famous for being one of the most extraordinary − and extraordinarily difficult − works of the classical music repertoire. Brahms managed to make it even more daunting when he boldly came up with his own transcription of it for the left hand only, a formidable token of his admiration for Bach and his love for Clara Schumann, to whom the composition was dedicated. Seemingly all alone in the darkened concert hall, which cleverly made the grand performance feel downright intimate, Jeremy Denk was in full command of his remarkable skills, starting in a subdued way before handling the countless tricky challenges with the expertise and ease of the ultimate connoisseur. More than just a flamboyant tour de force, this Chaconne was also a richly imaginative and strongly expressive musical adventure.
After recovering the use of both hands, Jeremy Denk just as dexterously tackled Mozart's Piano Concerto No. 20, which happened to include Brahms' own cadenza last night. Although the music retained Mozart's trademark elegance and lyricism, which especially stood out in the stunning Romanze movement, it also betrayed some uncharacteristically dark and agitated passages, which immediately brought to my mind Don Giovanni at its most dramatic. Completely unfazed, Jeremy Denk negotiated the various moods with flawless technical expertise and genuine emotional finesse, the orchestra superbly coming through on their own under Louis Langrée's highly collaborative baton.
And because the going was so good the soloist just kept going on his own. Our thunderous ovation earned us a poignant interpretation of the 13th variation of Bach's Goldberg Variations, adroitly taking us right back where our evening started.
After intermission, I had the pleasure of hearing Brahms' Symphony No. 4 again, and the journey was about just as sweepingly intense as it had been the previous week. If nothing else, the orchestra sounded in even finer shape and responded even more robustly to Louis Langrée's unwaveringly spot-on and deeply involved conducting. As the endless ovation was slowly subsiding, we dashed out of the hall and made it to the L'Arte del Gelato cart located right around the corner in record time for the de rigueur stop before enjoying our refreshing treats with a view over the Hearst Plaza. Because some traditions are just too good to pass on.

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Mostly Mozart Festival - Mozart & Brahms - 07/26/15

Conductor: Louis Langrée
Mozart: Symphony No. 34 in C Major, K. 338
Brahms: Symphony No. 4 in E Minor

Another summer weekend in New York City, another couple of hours whiled away in line for another free concert, in vastly different circumstances from the previous weekend though. Last Saturday morning, as a gentle breeze was efficiently keeping the Upper West Side cool, I patiently waite in front of the Avery Fisher Hall for about three hours with a couple of New Yorker magazines and a pauper's breakfast for the opportunity to score premium seats for the preview concert of the Mostly Mozart Festival that very evening. And for the fourth year in a row, patience proved to a be conquering virtue.
The crowd-pleasing program included, of course, a work by the man himself with his Symphony No. 34, and then what has to be one of my favorite works in the entire classical music repertoire, Brahms' Symphony No. 4. So after the de rigueur stop at the L'Arte del Gelato cart located right on Lincoln Plaza and the leisurely enjoyment of our refreshing treats with a sweeping view over the Hearst Plaza, my friend Angie and I took our seats in the packed to the rafters (and on the stage) Avery Fisher Hall for the unofficial opening concert 49th Mostly Mozart Festival.

After the usual welcome speeches, Louis Langrée, MMF's iconic and beloved music director and main conductor, and the Mostly Mozart Festival Orchestra went right down to business with Mozart's spirited and elegant Symphony No. 34. The compellingly breezy rendition by the orchestra, which even benefited from a swift insightful comment by maestro Langrée right after the unfinished minuet, was a fitting tribute to the young 24-year-old composer, who by all accounts was just hitting his stride at the time.
The MMF preview concert is an early and short affair, so after a quick pause, conductor and orchestra whole-heartedly switched from quintessential Classical to full-blown Romanticism with Brahms' magnificent final symphony. Serenely opening with the hypnotic, famously unaccompanied principal theme, the first movement rapidly became awash with lush melodies and high drama. And so the journey went on, richly expressive but still fundamentally austere, all the way to the no-holds-barred, Bach-inspired grand Finale which gave way to a thunderous ovation. According to a quick and informal show of hands during the introductions, there were a few people new to classical music in the audience. If this stunning performance of this stunning piece did not convince them of its merits, I am afraid nothing will.

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

MoMA's Summergarden - Saygun, Farrin & Grey - 07/20/15

Isabel Hagen: Viola
Issei Herr: Cello
Nikita Morozov: Violin
Isabel Ong: Violin
Ahmed Adnan Saygun: String Quartet No. 3, Op. 43
Suzanne Farrin: Undecim
Mark Grey: Sparrow's Echo

Back to real life, where after happily making it through the dry and clean summer heat of provençal mountains I have been unhappily putting up with the muggy and polluted summer heat of the Big Apple, last Sunday I grabbed a portion of my Sunday edition of The New York Times and plenty of fluids before going line up outside MoMA for close to an hour, and then wait for another hour in its beautiful sculpture garden, in order to be able to partake in the museum's beloved Summergarden Sunday evening concert series in the best conditions possible.
French vacation oblige, I had to miss the first performance offered by members or alumni of The New Juilliard Ensemble two weeks before (Life can be so hard!), so last Sunday I made a point of attending the second and last one, which was going to focus on "new music for string quartet". And I was definitely not the only one who had resolved to spending the last steamy hours of the week listening to chamber music premieres in the museum's little corner of heaven. By the time 8 p.m. came around, the whole place was packed with hordes of buzzing locals and visitors on the ground, and numerous chirping birds in the trees.

Coming all the way from Turkey for its US premiere, Ahmed Adnan Saygun's String Quartet No. 3 opened the concert with assertive confidence. Sweetly dedicated to his Hungarian wife and clearly influenced by Bartok, with whom the composer shared a keen interest in folk music, the substantial work unfolded with boundless energy, vibrant colors, a bit of expressionism here and a touch of Romanticism there, as well as some discreetly oriental sounds. As it was, it did give new music a very good name, with just enough complexity to satisfy the more adventurous spirits, but still enough traditionally attractive components for the whole audience to be easily taken in. Moreover, the four young string players on the stage threw themselves into the performance with commitment and gusto. There was really nothing not to love.
After a brief pause, we became acquainted with two shorter and more recent works by American composers, each of which was having its New York premiere on Sunday. Consisting of ten uninterrupted movements that tirelessly explored the various possibilities of string instruments as if they had memories, Suzanne Farrin's "Undecim" was intriguing and engaging, erupting with unexpected sounds, some more appealing that others, while still forming an impressively cohesive whole, the eleventh piece of the title.
The last number of the evening, on the other hand, was pure unadulterated fun. Inspired by Mary Doria Russell's apparently dense science-fiction novel The Sparrow, Mark Grey's "Sparrow's Echo" boldly opened with a highly virtuosic violin solo, which Nikita Morozov impeccably nailed, and generally offered a breathlessly bracing score for the enterprising musicians to play with, which they did with remarkable technique and communicative enthusiasm. The Northern Californian pony-tailed composer, who came onstage once the performance was over, looked about just as genuine and accessible as his music. It was decidedly a cool night in the hot city.

Saturday, July 11, 2015

Ensemble Allegria - "Promenade dans un jardin baroque" - 07/05/15

Florence Bruggey: Soprano
Laurence Girard: Violin
Solveig Gernert: Cello
Bach: Siciliano
Caccini: Amarilli
Giordani: Caro mio ben
Scarlatti: O cessate de piagarmi
Pergolesi: Se tu m'ami
Bach: Sinfonia da cantata No. 156 (Arioso)
Handel: 3 airs from Neun deutsche Arien
No. 6: Meine Seele hört im Sehen, HWV 207
No. 4: Süsse Stille, sanfte Quelle,
HWV 205 No. 5: Singe, Seele, Gott zum Preise HWV 206
Bréval: Duet for violin and cello (Allegro)
Pergolesi: Excerpts from "Stabat Mater"
No. 4: Quae moerebat et dolebat
No. 6: Vidit sum dulcem natum
No. 2: Cujus animan gementem
Bréval: Duet for violin and cello (Adagio)
Purcell: "When I am laid in earth" from Dido and Aeneas
Purcell: "Fairest Isle" from King Arthur
Handel: "Lascia ch'io pianga" from Rinaldo
Carissimi: "Vittoria, Vittoria, mio core!"

After an extremely busy Saturday night filled with traditional and modernized Mozart in Dieulefit's Parc de la Baume, my mom and I got another live music fix on Sunday evening in the Saint-Pierre Church of the nearby village of Comps. Standing proudly on top of its hill, the tiny Roman church hosts extremely popular free concerts performed by small ensembles all year long. And if I had had any doubts about that claim, they would have been quickly dispersed at the sight of an eager crowd of countless regulars and a few newcomers packing the small space to the rafters for the promised "Stroll in a Baroque garden".
The program was a well-balanced Baroque affair, in which four set of arias (Italian, German, Latin and opera excerpts) would be interspersed by instrumental works. Not a bad way to ease into a hot summery Sunday evening.

Blazingly kicking off the performance with a siciliano by Bach, local duo Laurence Girard at the violin and Solveig Gernert at the cello brilliantly demonstrated their virtuosic skills, which were also put to good use for the Arioso of Bach's Sinfonia da cantata No. 156, as well as for two movements of a violin and cello duet by lesser-known but worth-knowing Jean-Baptiste Bréval, which immediately seduced the audience with their pretty melodic lines.
In between those instrumental interludes the musicians were joined by special guest soprano Florence Bruggey, first with four Italian arias by master composers of the genre, which were the perfect opportunity for her to display her strong, wide-ranging voice for a clearly articulated, vividly colored performance.
She did not rest on her laurels long. Next she effortlessly switched to the harsher German language for three pieces from Handel's intimate collection of nine arias, for which he exceptionally returned to his native tongue. Meditatively expressing the goodness of God in all his creation, the texts were serene and intricate, the singing delicately lyrical and subtly organic for maximum impact.
Pergolesi's Stabat Mater became even more popular after his death, which in fact happened shortly after the completion of the composition, and Florence Bruggey expertly handled the sacred Latin text. Although the first excerpt sounded unusually perky for such a disheartening subject matter, the singer powerfully carried across Mary's profound suffering during the crucifixion.
The last set of arias started with the agonizingly sad "When I am laid in earth" from Purcell's Dido and Aeneas, followed by the immaculately beautiful "Fairest Isle" from Purcell's King Arthur and the intensely plaintive "Lascia ch'io pianga" from Handel's Rinaldo. Carissimi's "Vittoria, Vittoria, mio core!" ended the official program on a resoundingly victorious note.

The ovation being long and loud, the three ladies treated us to a repeat performance of Pergolesi's exquisite "Se tu m'ami", an ever-delicious bonbon for the short drive back to Dieulefit.

Thursday, July 9, 2015

Saoû chante Mozart - Antoine Hervé - Mozart la Nuit - 07/04/15

Antoine Hervé: Piano
Isabelle Poinloup: Soprano
Véronique Wilmart: Keyboard - Electronics

The theme of the 26th "Saoû chante Mozart" festival being "Mozart's modernity", it only made sense that some adventurous musicians would take a few works from the Viennese composer's œuvre and play around with them a bit. And what better musician than highly regarded jazz composer and pianist Antoine Hervé to take on this challenging but exciting endeavor? Especially as he had brought with him his two frequent music partners soprano Isabelle Poinloup and electronics player Véronique Wilmart.
So after the unquestionably classical concert with Les Musiciens du Louvre Grenoble that had officially opened the festival earlier in the evening, and a pleasant break at a nearby café, friends, family and I were back in Dieulefit's Parc de la Baume as night was leisurely falling and the air blissfully cooling off for a new foray into Mozartian territory, this time with a unique cocktail of classical, jazzy and electronic sounds... and some decidedly tireless crickets.

Mozart famously accomplished wonders with the piano in his times, and on Saturday night Antoine Hervé, who happens to be blessed with a boundless explorative spirit and impressive technical chops, proved himself to be quite the debonair virtuoso of our times. In fact, we originally thought that we would gladly spend the evening listening to him alone, but as Isabelle Poinloup joined in we quickly realized what we would have missed, and that would have been an awful lot indeed.
Beside the incongruous and unnecessary shorts-jacket-ponytails look and forced acting, her voice was bright and attractive, with the right amount of smokiness when needed, endlessly versatile and always unperturbedly focused. Whether nonchalantly be-bopping or intensely belting out, she turned out to be the vibrantly vital element of the trio and seemed to be having a lot of fun in the process.
My natural distrust of electronics when it comes to music was not swayed by the obviously competent and totally game Véronique Wilmart. Although she did manage to create brazenly innovative sounds, their lack of relatable quality or intrinsic musical value made this more modern component of the group an occasionally perky gimmick and, as far as I am concerned, not much else.
The last song of the concert, a captivating bluesy take on Lacrimosa from the Requiem, beautifully summarized and wrapped up the intriguing experiment, which concluded on a strongly satisfying note before the park eventually returned to its naturally dark and quiet state.