Monday, July 18, 2016

Lincoln Center Festival - Reich/Reverberations - Reich - 07/16/16

Reich: Drumming 
So Percussion 
Victor Caccesse: Percussions 
Evan Chapman: Percussions 
David Degge: Percussions 
Yumi Tamashiro: Percussions 
Jude Traxler: Percussions 
Beth Meyers: Soprano 
Daisy Press: Soprano 
Jessica Schmitz: Piccolo 

 For the last couple of weeks I had been looking forward to celebrating Bastille Day with a relaxing four-day weekend, but alas July 14 started with brutally high temperatures in New York and ended with brutally distressing news from France, which was more than enough to seriously dampen even the most unbreakable spirit and then some.
 So a little but powerful pick-me-up was in order, and I figured that a ticket to Drumming, the first concert of The Lincoln Center Festival's Reich/Reverberations series, on Saturday evening in the Alice Tully Hall might do the trick. Performed by the immensely talented and genuinely hip So Percussion ensemble accompanied by eight equally intrepid musicians and singers, the intriguing work from the early 1970s promised one hour and ten minutes of non-stop drumming, which sounded like the perfect remedy to keep my mind temporarily off the seemingly out-of-control madness of the real world while fully indulging in a unique musical adventure.

 As its title indicates, the entire piece was about drumming, and this the music artists on the stage did at a level I had rarely witnessed. Starting innocuously enough with two members of So Percussion on the bongo drums, the endlessly morphing musical web started becoming more complex and more fascinating as additional musicians joined in and out of the various instrument sections and all those intricate rhythms were slowly but surely casting an irresistible and powerful spell on the eager audience.
As the performance progressed the music focus imperceptibly moved forward within each section and from one section to another without ever missing a beat. From the drums' primitive assertiveness to the marimbas' tropical light-heartedness to the glockenspiels' crystalline chimes, with the human voices occasionally echoing the marimbas and the piccolo making sporadic appearances with the glockenspiels, all was hyper-concentrated energy, razor-sharp precision and detailed clarity.
This clever and attractive combination of Western, African and Balinese traditions played with impressive ease and unwavering dedication resulted in a timelessly organic, infectious and life-affirming celebration of the joys of multi-culturism. The grand finale, which eventually involved all twelve artists, steadily grew ever denser before coming to a sudden end in a remarkable display of flawless coordination.

The spontaneous standing ovation that followed was long and loud, and earned us an exciting encore during which all performers as well as an understandably beaming Steve Reich gleefully joined forces for a virtuosic and fun clapping number.
The concert was literally and figuratively a welcome breath of fresh air on that hot summer night, although most of us did not enjoy it as much as we could have as late-comers kept on streaming in and disturbing audience members during the performance, despite the ubiquitous "No late seating" warnings and the generous ten-minute grace period before the performance started. Seriously, what's the point of having a "No late seating" policy if you are not going to enforce it?

Wednesday, July 13, 2016

MoMA's Summergarden - Francesconi, Crowley, Archbold & Sigurbjornsson - 07/10/16

The New Juilliard Ensemble
Conductor: Joel Sachs 
Lucas Francesconi: Da Capo II 
James Crowley: Circle in the Round 
Paul Archbold: Traces 
Hroomar Ingi Sigurbjornsson: Septet

 Despite the many live music offerings The Big Apple has in store each summer, I tend to stay away from outdoor performances essentially due to the unappealing combination of chatty audiences, pesky bugs, unpredictable weather, predictable works and, to a much lesser degree, amplified sound. But there are of course occasional exceptions to that not so hard-and-fast rule.
And the first concert of MoMA's ever-popular Summergarden series last Sunday was one of them as I was quickly pulled in by the perfect weather and an intriguing program of New York premieres coming from Italy, English, Iceland and…Milwaukee, WI, which, to make the proposition even more attractive, would be performed by some of the still young but already impressively seasoned members of The New Juilliard Ensemble under the familiar baton of Joel Sachs.
Therefore, after spending most of my Saturday morning inside MoMA fully enjoying the visual arts, on Sunday afternoon I sat on the sidewalk outside MoMA for almost an hour, and then on a chair inside the oh so cool sculpture garden for another hour, before being able to fully enjoy some of the finest musical art the city had to offer, which is actually saying something.

 After a couple of de rigueur short speeches, the concert briskly opened with Lucas Francesconi's Da Capo II (From the beginning II), which was performed for the first time outside of Europe for the occasion. Built as a "single giant arch", the bright piece progressed with plenty of determination and energy. Although each instrument actively contributed to the clever whole, the piano assertively stood out, as much through the actual part that had been written for it as through the virtuosic playing of Robert Fleitz.
From Italy we moved back to United States with the New York premiere of James Crowley's Circle in the Round, whose title was borrowed from a compilation record by Miles Davis, a worthy "musical hero" if there ever was one. Making full use of the six musicians on the stage, the composition turned out to be highly explorative and wildly inventive, constantly engaging in new paths and assuredly keeping the audience on its mesmerized toes, an audience that made sure to express its deep appreciation by giving the attending composer an enthusiastic ovation.
After a brief intermission, we became acquainted with Paul Archbold's Traces, which was coming straight from England and making its first appearance outside of Europe. Inspired by Debussy's notoriously challenging Étude No. 8 "Pour les agréments" (For ornaments), the delightful two-movement piece started with a long melody line that became a series of chords that blossomed into myriads of melodies, all beautifully rendered by the hard-working orchestra. The composer, who was sitting among us, seemed very pleased by the performance, and so were we.
We finished the concert with the most substantial work of the evening, Hroomar Ingi Sigurbjornsson's Septet. Heard for the first time outside Iceland on Sunday, the four movements dynamically unfolded with the kind of zest and vigor that spontaneously bring to mind eastern European music in general and Bela Bartok in particular. There were also a few opportunities for some musicians to shine in mini-solos, which they did brilliantly.
That was certainly an outdoor performance that I would not have wanted to miss. Even the couple of giant dragonflies insistently hovering over us, the police sirens and helicopters sounds reminding us of our urban environment, and the loud picnickers apparently unable to stop stuffing their faces did not manage to spoil this enchanted evening.

Wednesday, June 29, 2016

NYCO - Florencia en el Amazonas - 06/23/16

Composer: Daniel Catán 
Conductor: Dean Wilkinson 
Elizabeth Caballero: Florencia 
Sarah Beckham Turner: Rosalba 
Won Whi Choi: Arcadio 
Lisa Chavez: Paula 
Luis Ledesma: Alvaro 
Kevin Thompson: Capitán Philip 
Cokorinos: Riolobo 

 After a successful Tosca, which I happily attended back in January, and a reportedly not quite as successful Hopper’s Wife back in the spring, which I missed due to a lack of notice, not will, last week the resurrected New York City Opera seemed poised to continue unabated on the road to recovery with the New York premiere of Mexican-born Daniel Catán’s Florencia en el Amazonas. A Spanish-language opera that was first performed in Houston in 1996, which is like yesterday in opera years, Florencia immediately sounded like a clever choice for the recovering company with a straightforward narrative and a constantly gorgeous score sure to get the approval of the more traditional part of audience while its contemporary flavor was bound to attract the more adventurous minds.
So on Thursday evening, my friend Christine – South American literature buff and Amazon veteran, not to mention birthday girl! – joined me in the Jazz at Lincoln Center’s Rose Theater, which was, all things considered, remarkably filled for a not so well-known opera presented on a warm summer school night.

Although the libretto is not actually based on any work of his, the story was overtly inspired by Colombian novelist Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s impressive œuvre and signature magical realism. As it was, the plot revolves around a steamboat trip down the Amazon taken in the early 1900s by a small eclectic group of South Americans, including a world-famous diva travelling incognito in search of her long-lost, butterfly-chasing sweetheart, who are all dealing with many different aspects of love, or lack thereof, in many different ways. Add to that the jungle, some piranhas and a cholera epidemic, and you have all the ingredients for rewarding entertainment.
She may not have been onstage as much I had thought she would be, considering that Florencia Grimaldi is after all the main character of the opera, but soprano Elizabeth Caballero resolutely rose to the vocal and dramatic challenge of impersonating the most acclaimed diva in the world with a voluptuous and powerful voice, which she notably put to excellent use during her three hair-raising arias. Even when her part was slowly veering toward maudlin, she still had her character keep her dignity and clear-mindedness, making her infinitely more complex than just an unfulfilled middle-aged woman desperately seeking her first and only love before it is too late. Or is it already?
The young and still relatively naïve couple that stubbornly fought their genuine feelings for each other for the longest time until they simply had to give in was endearing and well-matched. Incisive soprano Sarah Beckham Turner was fiercely, but not blindly, determined as Rosalba, a budding journalist and Florencia’s #1 fan, while clear-voiced tenor Won Whi Choi was all congenial spontaneity and burning ardor as Arcadio, the captain’s good-hearted nephew.
The older, love-weary and constantly squabbling couple contributed the bitterness of too many unpleasant times together as well as some priceless comic relief, including an admittedly rather unappetizing dish of fried iguana for dinner. Velvety mezzo-soprano Lisa Chavez skillfully alternated between grumpy and melancholic as Paula before eventually coming to her senses with a little help from Amazonian magic, and smooth baritone Luis Ledesma was mostly resigned affability with a touch of mischief as Alvaro.
Bass Kevin Thompson was an unflappable captain with just the right amount of gruffness; bass-baritone Philip Cokorinos was the agreeable deckhand Riolobo as well as a memorable spirit of the river, whose most amazing feat of the evening had to be his surviving a terribly misguided butterfly outfit that definitely had too much reality and not enough magic about it.
The production supported the story more or less adequately with some engaging ideas that panned out brilliantly and other choices that did not work very well. For example, the sporadic use of videos turned out to be distracting and totally uncalled for. The footage of an actual boat trip down the Amazon, while interestingly exotic in itself, looked more suited for a documentary, and the visual presence of Cristobal, Florencia’s erstwhile paramour, felt superfluous and overly sentimental, especially during a cheesy Tinkerbellish finale that simply did not fly.
On the other hand, the dozen of dancers clad in blue bodysuits from Ballet Hispánico did a very good, occasionally outstanding, job boldly bringing the Amazon to life through their writhing and dancing in the foreground, which turned the enigmatic river into a bona fide character that was both tastefully abstract and incredibly real. And while the game-changing storm at the end of Act I may have been a bit facile in all its unrestrained mightiness, I found it musically and visually stunning.
Under the committed guidance of Dean Wilkinson, the orchestra delivered a beautiful performance that was overflowing with vivid colors, soaring melodic lines and plenty of unabashed prettiness all around. While there is no doubt that the general attractiveness of the composition – One third Puccini-inspired intense lyricism, one third neo-romantic lushness reminiscent of Strauss and Wagner, and one third delicately evocative neo-impressionism à la Debussy – made it easy for the audience to just take it all in without asking too many questions, and that was just fine.

After this strong conclusion of a short 2015-16 season and a downright compelling full 2016-17 season, opera-loving New Yorkers have good reasons to get their hopes up. It is going to be a long wait until September.

Monday, June 20, 2016

Norgard in New York - Momenta Quartet - All-Norgard - 06/17/16

Norgard: String Quartet No. 3 (Three Miniatures)
Norgard: Playground
Norgard: String Quartet No. 8 (Night)
Norgard: String Quartet No. 5 (Inscape)
Norgard: Tjampuan (Where the Rivers Meet)
Norgard: String Quartet No. 10 (Harvest Timeless)

As luck would have it, just as I was marveling at the exceptional talent of contemporary Danish composer Per Norgard after the New York Philharmonic's vibrant performance of his Symphony No. 8 a week earlier, I was able to become more acquainted with his impressive œuvre, including his intriguing "infinity series", thanks to the timely three-day mini-festival "Norgard in New York", of which I regretfully could attend only the second night, at Scandinavia House. It turned out, however, to be a night to remember.
As it was, the program looked like a well-balanced mix of substantial works and less significant pieces, which all together formed a compelling smorgasbord. And to make the offer even more attractive, the Momenta Quartet, whose strong dedication to international avant-garde music and superior musicianship have been well proven for a while now, would logically enough be the ensemble in charge of the performance.

After a short video featuring Norgard talking about his constant search in music, the concert started with the US premiere of his 1959 String Quartet No. 3, and while the "Three Miniatures" were indeed short-lived, they nevertheless delivered an illuminating punch into the composer's mindset at the time, with each musician getting to play their own little melody that brilliantly developed into delightfully original patterns before it all ended on a refreshing whimsical note.
We stayed in a light-hearted mood and fast-forwarded almost five decades for "Playground", an immediately engaging piece for solo violin that, in Emilie-Anne Gendron's expert hands, turned out to be a highly rhythmical, blazingly virtuosic treat that vividly expressed children's spontaneity, feistiness and unspoiled sense of fun.
But then the atmosphere grew darker for the US premiere of his 1997 String Quartet No. 8. Drawn from Norgard's chamber opera Nuit des Hommes, which itself is an abstract work about World War I based on poems by Guillaume Apollinaire, "Night Descending Like Smoke" was an emotionally gripping journey that relentlessly moved from eerie tensions to severe turbulences. The Momenta Quartet gave a haunting, assured and richly rewarding performance of the challenging composition, during which they once again clearly demonstrated their outstanding skills.
After a well-deserved intermission, we moved back to 1969 for the US premiere of the String Quartet No. 5. Finely crafted and inconspicuously hypnotic, "Inscape" started unabashedly minimalist and generated a myriad of subtly intricate sounds before finally launching into a joyful, earthy episode in the best folk music tradition.
Next we had another US premiere with "Tjampuan", a lighter work from 1992 that highlighted Norgard's keen interest in Indonesian culture. Both violinist Alex Shiozaki and cellist Michael Haas did an excellent job brightly impersonating the two rivers of the title, each resolutely following its own course until they eventually met toward the end.
The concert concluded with the 2015 String Quartet No. 10 ("Harvest Timeless"), a more traditional, but still endlessly inventive composition that had the composer's trademark microtones, but also flowed more freely before slowly fading away. The Momenta Quartet's playing was impeccably precise and smooth as they leisurely took us across various melodic landscapes in a successful and timeless combination of classical and contemporary music.

Monday, June 13, 2016

NY Phil Biennial - New York Philharmonic - Norgard, Boulez & Stucky - 06/11/16

Conductor: Alan Gilbert
Norgard: Symphony No. 8
Boulez: Messagesquisse for Solo Cello and Six Cellos
Eric Bartlett: Solo Cello
Stucky: Second Concerto for Orchestra

Because all good things must come to an end, on Saturday night the NY Phil Biennial wrapped up with an contemporary music concert by the New York Philharmonic at the David Geffen Hall, followed by a playdate with the artists. True to the biennial’s ambitious and far-reaching mission, the line-up featured intriguing works, two of which written by major composers that have passed away this year, Pierre Boulez and Steven Stucky, as well as lesser-known but equally worth-knowing Danish composer Per Norgard.
Adventurous programming oblige, only the orchestra section of the concert hall was open, but the fact that most of the seats of the large space were filled by an eclectic crowd – I had a banking intern from Colorado to my left, a long-time NY Phil subscriber to my right and a couple of Japanese tourists behind me – was certainly a heart-warming sight considering the wide range of options in New York City and beyond on a warm June Saturday night.

Because Per Norgard's Symphony No. 8 was originally the last piece on the official program, I had figured that I would read about it during intermission. But things had changed, and I was very grateful for Alan Gilbert’s detailed introduction after he had announced that it would open the concert after all.
Fact is, although the composition was indisputably complex and occasionally unusual, it also turned out to be fundamentally engaging, despite, or possibly because of, its subtle mystical loftiness. Throughout its entire course it often came out lively and playful, with light-hearted hints at folk music and tidbits of attractive melodies, but always with unmistakable Nordic clarity and transparence. There was a lot going on, sometimes in the most unexpected ways, but even in the busiest moments, an overall Zen quality prevailed. Alan Gilbert led the orchestra into an intense and haunting performance of it, which also – inexplicably – happened to be the US premiere of the engrossing work.
After intermission, we moved on to Pierre Boulez's Messagesquisse for Solo Cello and Six Cellos, originally a birthday present from the composer to dedicated avant-garde supporter Paul Sacher, which on Saturday became a heartfelt tribute from the New York Philharmonic to the man who was their music director from 1971 to 1977. Downright simple at first sight, the composition is in fact a seven-minute set of coded messages, or esquisses, which allowed soloist Eric Bartlett and the six accompanying cellists to display their renowned virtuosic skills with brio and authority.
Steven Stucky’s Second Concerto for Orchestra, which was awarded the 2005 Pulitzer Prize for Music, was next to celebrate its long-overdue New York premiere and conclude the 2016 NY Phil Biennial. The concerto brilliantly packs in musical references as different, clever and meaningful as Ravel, Sibelius, Debussy, Brahms, Stravinsky and Britten, just to name a few, for a brisk half hour of endlessly inventive and delightfully refreshing, pure musical bliss. Under Alan Gilbert's vigorous conducting, the orchestra's performance was thrilling, infectiously exuding bright colors and unadulterated joy, and proudly bringing this second NY Phil Biennial, still very young but already an essential part of the New York music scene, to a well-deserved, glorious finish.