Thursday, November 27, 2014

Leonidas Kavakos & Yuja Wang - Brahms, Schumann, Ravel & Respighi - 11/22/14

Brahms: Violin Sonata No. 2 in A Major
Schumann: Violin Sonata No. 2 in D Minor
Ravel: Violin Sonata (Posthumous)
Respighi: Violin Sonata in B Minor

As I was happily working my way through my serendipitous "Eight performances in eight days" mini-marathon, last Saturday was reserved for the crossing of the finish line back at Carnegie Hall, but in the Stern Auditorium this time, with a recital by Leonidas Kavakos and Yuja Wang. Although Zankel Hall is a much more appropriate space for this kind of intimate performances, the popularity of both performers forced them – and us – to move to the larger hall to accommodate the expected demand.
I was in fact very curious to hear the musical sum of those two performing parts because I had a hard time imagining the combination of the well-established, sophisticated violinist from Greece and the fast-rising, impetuous pianist from China. A promising program including some standard oldies but goodies by Brahms and Schumann, along with some welcome rarities by Ravel and Respighi, sounded just about the right cocktail for it. And that’s obviously what they thought too since they showed up onstage stylishly dressed in black from head to toe as if ready to hit the New York party scene, he looking every bit like the soulful musician who lives exclusively for his art, she in a form-fitting dress short enough to guarantee her immediate admittance in the most select nightclubs.

Back to the musical component of the evening, Brahms' Violin Sonata No. 2 started the concert on a serene and radiant note, like a delightful sunny stroll in the countryside. Eons away from the famous pyrotechnics of the violin concerto the composer had just completed, this sonata is an uncomplicated, relaxed and animated dialogue between two long-time friends. On Saturday night, the duo on the stage eventually settled into an easy-going exchange, even if it seemed to take a little while for them to fully hit their stride together.
Then we moved on to Schumann's Violin Sonata No. 2, a longer and more challenging work that provided both musicians plenty of opportunities to display their truly dazzling virtuosic skills. There were a lot of fiery passages to marvel at, but the quieter moments created a real intimacy that was genuinely moving as well. It was an expansive, eventful journey, and the audience fully enjoyed it until the very end.
After those staples of the Romantic chamber music repertoire, the time had come for more recent pieces, first with the one-movement Violin Sonata that Ravel wrote as a student and never published in his lifetime. Listening to the work's gently melodic waves and boldly soaring peaks, I could not help but be baffled by the 22-year-old composer's lack of confidence toward this unquestionably attractive effort. Yuja Wang's assertive playing did not overpower Leonidas Kavakos' more subdued tone, although it sometimes came a bit too close to it for comfort.
More blazingly virtuosic sparks flew during Respighi's Violin Sonata, whose rich lyricism and natural radiance immediately brought to mind Brahms and Franck. The conventional three movements may essentially deliver the emotional intensity favored by the late Romantics, but when performed by those two highly accomplished musicians, there was really nothing more we could have asked for.

We did not literally ask for them, but our endless ovation unmistakably dropped quite a loud hint, so before we departed, we were treated to two delicious encores. The "Danse russe" from Stravinsky's Petrushka was a little marvel of laser-like precision and high spirits. Then we went back to Brahms for his lively Scherzo from the "FAE" Sonata, which was executed with just the right amount of sensitivity and brio. A totally exhilarating finish to a lovely evening, and an extensive test of endurance. Then I went to sleep.

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

American Composers Orchestra - Orchestra Underground: Monk's Sphere - 11/21/14

Conductor: George Manahan
A. J. McAffrey: Motormouth
Ian Williams: Clear Image
Theo Bleckmann: My Brightest Garment
Loren Loiacono: Stalks, Hounds
Meredith Monk: Night

After happily becoming acquainted with new choral music in Brooklyn on Thursday night, I was back at Carnegie Hall on Friday night, in Zankel's intimate underground space this time, to become acquainted with more new choral and instrumental music courtesy of the American Composers Orchestra. The only orchestra in the world uncompromisingly dedicated to American composers and their works, the ACO took the opportunity of artistic multitasker extraordinaire Meredith Monk reaching 50 years of non-stop ground-breaking creativity this year - and incidentally her 72nd birthday the day before - to throw a party of sorts showcasing some already much buzzed-about American composers of the new generation.

To get things going in a positive mood, the concert opened with A. J. McAffrey's "Motormouth", a restless 15-minute piece that seemed to take off in every possible direction and put itself through a wide range of moods in doing so, just like the composer's four-year-old son eagerly repeating the same joke over and over again with numerous variations. It left us all exhausted, but exhilarated.
We cooled off by listening to Ian Williams' electro-rock "Clear image", whose intriguing goal was to explore the differences between a multi-track recording and live music. The result was a jumpy, and not always particularly pleasing to the ear, pseudo-conversation between an annoyingly dysfunctioning R2-D2 and a standard instrumental orchestra that at times bothered to respond. Nothing much seemed to come out of this tedious exercise, or I completely missed it.
Coming up next, Theo Bleckmann's "My Brightest Garment" was a somewhat playful song about death seen as a magician's ultimate disappearing act. Simple but impactful, it started nice and sweet before growing into a wild ball of spiky energy. It was a decidedly cool little musical piece, and it would have been cooler without the lyrics or the electronics.
After realizing that the pretty sounds she had heard as a child when playing a Barbie's Dream House-based computer game essentially came from Ravel's lavish Daphnis et Chloé, Loren Loiacono set out to use the same concept for her own "Stalks, Hounds". Opening with a harp and woodwinds flourish similar to Ravel's, her composition steadily evolved into something completely different, but still intrinsically attractive.
The four youngsters above may have strived and occasionally succeeded in coming up with more or less satisfying works, but at the end of the day, Meredith Monk's "Night", performed by a distinguished vocal ensemble, including composer-turned-baritone Theo Bleckman, and the full orchestra, categorically proved that she could easily out-compose them all. Originally written in 1996 and revised in 2005, the immediately engaging, vaguely mystical work was clever without being flashy, adventurous without being inaccessible, unique without being self-centered. It endlessly created exciting relationships between voices and instruments, engaged in small sound experiments that were brilliantly illuminating at best and interestingly odd at worse, and effectively demonstrated how appealing bold contemporary music can be. Long live Meredith Monk!

Sunday, November 23, 2014

Brooklyn Youth Chorus - Black Mountain Songs - 11/20/14

Choral Director & Conductor: Dianne Berkun-Menaker
Creator: Bryce Dessner
John King: aer imitatur naturam
Bryce Dessner: Black Mountain Song
Richard Reed Parry: there is a sound
Caroline Shaw: Its Motion Keeps
Bryce Dessner: My World
Aleksandra Vrebalov: Bubbles
Jherek Bischoff: Childhood's Dreams
Nico Muhly: Fielding Dawson in Franz Kline's Studio
Bryce Dessner: Maximus to Gloucester
Richard Reed Parry: Spaceship Earth
Caroline Shaw: Anni's Constant
Richard Reed Parry: Their Passing in Time
Additional music:
Tim Hecker and Bryce Dessner: M.C. Richard

After attending one performance per day for the past five days and having two more lined up for the next two days, I had figured that I should take Thursday night off and just stay home. But I had not taken into account the irresistible siren song coming from the Brooklyn Youth Chorus all the way from BAM's cool Harvey Theater, where the unstoppable ensemble would première Black Mountain Songs, a 90-minute choral work co-commissioned by BAM and the Brooklyn Youth Chorus, created by Bryce Dressner, and inspired by North Carolina's erstwhile Black Mountain College, an informal community of teachers and students deeply dedicated to carrying out its intergenerational and multidisciplinary mission in a highly collaborative atmosphere.
Accordingly, eight composers have industriously collaborated for the past three years, eventually coming up with twelve songs that would be interspersed with readings and enhanced with the occasional dance number and photo or video projection. Running the whole show would be Dianne Berkun-Menaker and her consistently excellent Brooklyn Youth Chorus, a sizeable group of predominantly female teenagers who delivered dazzling performances the couple of times I got to hear them at Carnegie Hall. I could not have imagined a better singing force to embody Black Mountain's youthful, creative and collaborative spirit, or a better reason to go out on what was supposed to be my night at home.

Polyphony seemed to be the name of the game on Thursday night, whether stemming from Black Mountain's multi-faceted raison d'être or the music's endlessly complex harmonies. The multitude of composers involved in the project, among whom the most recognizable names may be Caroline Shaw, Nico Muhly, Richard Reed Parry and Bryce Dessner himself, also provided an impressively wide range of songs, which for the most part relied on poetry or text related to Black Mountain.
From John King's stunningly ethereal "aer imitatur naturam", sung by chorus members located in the stairs, the boxes and on the stage, all the way to Richard Reed Parry's red-hot "Their Passing in Time", which including a lot of fiercely rhythmical stomping, the audience found itself immersed in a totally engaging performance that was paying a sincere tribute to the ground-breaking educational experiment.
Inevitably, some songs stood out more than others. In addition to the powerful opening and closing numbers, I particularly noted Caroline Shaw's "Its Motion Keeps", which started inconspicuously with the composer on the viola and the chorus singing at its clearest, before growing into a soaring tapestry of sounds examining the ever-elusive concept of time.
Bryce Dessner's "Maximus to Gloucester" organically evoked America's original seaport and Richard Reed Parry's "Spaceship Earth" eloquently spoke of Buckminster Fuller's work, both supported by insightful visuals. Nico Muhly's spirited "Fielding Dawson in Franz Kline's Studio" proved that choral singing could be a lot of fun too, as did Aleksandra Vrebalov's whimsical "Bubbles".
The Brooklyn Youth Chorus being made of 50 young people, the singing was predictably fresh, fearless and energetic. More surprising was their uncanny ability to handle complicated harmonies and generally difficult passages, a challenge that they apparently found more stimulating than paralyzing if we are to believe the beautiful sounds they were creating. Granted, these beautiful sounds sometimes happened at the expense of articulation, which is regrettable when the text is such a crucial part of the whole show, but the experience was too exhilarating to dwell on it too much.
Complementing the musical performance was the projection of photos taken at Black Mountain during its years of operation, from 1933 to 1957, as well as photo and videos of related topics. While we were not always sure who we were looking at, it still made the seemingly utopian institution and its people a more palpable reality.
The small orchestra played on an elevated platform in the back, non-obtrusive and yet very much present. On the discreetly rustic stage, the singers and dancers, clad in free-flowing light-colored clothes, had plenty of room to move around freely, while the narrators, which included the poet and artist Basil King, a Brooklynite since 1969 and former Black Mountain student, and some of the singers, read from the sides. This simple setting made the performance accessible and compelling.
Black Mountain College has had a direct influence on a large array of cultural luminaries ‒ By default it did not matter of they were teachers or students ‒ such as John Cage, Merce Cunningham, Willem de Kooning, Robert Rauschenberg, Cy Twombly, Franz Kline, Robert Creely, Charles Olson and Buckminster Fuller, just to name a few. I bet they would be pleased with Black Mountain Songs.

San Francisco Symphony - Mahler - 11/19/14

Conductor: Michael Tilson-Thomas
Mahler: Symphony No. 7 in E Minor

After enjoying Anne-Sophie Mutter and her young Mutter Virtuosi ensemble in Vivaldi's crowd-pleasing The Four Seasons on Tuesday night, I was back in the same spot of the Stern Auditorium for a very different program ‒ and with very different expectations ‒ 24 hours later. Although last season the striking musicians of the San Francisco Symphony caused the cancellation of their Carnegie Hall performance of Mahler's Symphony No. 9, it looked like they were going to make it this season for Mahler's lesser-known but no less appealing Symphony No. 7. Then I knew that the concert was definitely on when I received the customary phone message from Carnegie Hall reminding us of their late seating policy. Mahler is serious business over there.
Yannick Nézet-Séguin and his Philadelphia Orchestra treated Carnegie Hall's packed audience to a magnificent Symphony No. 9 a couple of weeks ago, and on Wednesday night I sat down hoping for Michael Tilson-Thomas and his San Francisco Symphony to treat the less packed audience (But how do you compete with the Ninth?) to an equally magnificent Symphony No. 7, all the more since the tireless music director and conductor is widely recognized as a Mahler expert and the recordings he and the orchestra made of Mahler's symphonies are by and large considered classics of the genre. Bring it on, MTT!

All things considered, I would not quite qualify the performance I attended on Wednesday of "magnificent", but this assessment is essentially due to the symphony's inherently uneven nature, which strongly contrasts with its symmetrical structure, and not to a lack of efforts from the conductor and orchestra.
The first and last movements could not be more similar in length and more drastically opposite in mood. The seductive grandeur of the former was there, but not as commandingly sweeping as could have been expected; on the other hand, the sunny cheerfulness of the latter happily resounded in the entire hall, as if after many challenging twists and turns the musicians were finally letting their hair down, before concluding the frequently chaotic journey on a puzzlingly random note. Go figure.
The two "Nachtmusik" movements book-ending the central Scherzo came out satisfactorily atmospheric, even if they sometimes lacked a bit of cohesion. The first one was appropriately spooky and full of unexpected occurrences that may or may not happen during a midnight stroll, the second one quickly turned into a magical serenade, which included a lovely number for solo violin.
In the middle of it all, the infernal "shadowy" Scherzo proudly stood out as the darkest movement of the entire piece, a Viennese waltz that kept on taking the wrong turn, was going crazy, and sounded as if it was relishing every minute of it. More precise refinery than macabre grotesquerie, it ended up being the most fun and memorable episode of the whole evening.
Ultimately, no matter how you look at it, Mahler's Symphony No. 7 stubbornly remains a mysterious epic, and Wednesday's often exciting, occasionally inconsistent performance of it by the committed orchestra, dedicated conductor and uniformly strong soloists did not do anything to change this notion. It is a weird beast that shall not be easily tamed, but it is a good thing that brave souls keep on trying.

Saturday, November 22, 2014

Anne-Sophie Mutter Virtuosi - Bach, Previn & Vivaldi - 11/18/14

Bach: Concerto for Two Violins, Strings, and Continuo in D Minor, BWV 1043
André Previn: Concerto for Violin and String Orchestra (with two Harpsichord interludes)
Vivaldi: The Four Seasons

For most music lovers there are few pleasures in life that can equate to listening to Anne-Sophie Mutter play just about anything on the violin, and luckily for New Yorkers, she is the topic of a Carnegie Hall Perspectives series this season, which means that we can experience her ever-dazzling talent in a wide range of concerts, many of which focus on her unwavering commitment to music education and contemporary composers.
So this past Tuesday my friend Christine and I seized this opportunity to go hear Carnegie Hall’s unofficial Woman of the Year and some alumni of her Anne-Sophie Mutter Foundation, the Mutter Virtuosi, perform Vivaldi’s ever-popular The Four Seasons, which would be preceded by a major work by Bach and a US premiere by André Previn. The day was particularly cold and windy, but that obviously did not stop a large crowd, including an unusual high number of young people, to pack up the concert hall for a string-heavy concert led by the peerless violinist, who played like a goddess, and incidentally looked like one too.

Performing a demanding work by Johann Sebastian Bach with veteran violinist Anne-Sophie Mutter in Carnegie Hall's stately Stern Auditorium has to be an equally daunting and exciting milestone for any young musician, and it was occasionally felt in their playing, which was committed, for sure, but not as polished as it may have been in less paralyzing circumstances. There was still plenty to be enjoyed though, and it was. "Mutter" means "Mother" in German, and Anne-Sophie Mutter certainly kept a motherly watch over her protégés while still letting them engage in occasional flights of fancy on their own. Banding closely together, they did their best to bring out the austere beauty of the Concerto for Two Violins, Strings, and Continuo with dutiful studiousness, but also poise and gusto.
Dedicated to Anne-Sophie Mutter, André Previn’s Concerto for Violin and String Orchestra mostly stood out as a welcome transition to the Baroque masterpiece that was to follow it with its appealing lyricism, spiky passages, and two – slightly overextended, if you ask me – harpsichords interludes. Not as challenging as Bach and not as expansive as The Four Seasons, it turned out to be a pleasant, varied exercise, which soloist and students carried out nicely.
No matter how many times you've heard them, it is nearly impossible not to fall victim to the irresistible power of attraction of Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons one more time. And sure enough, with its countless pretty melodies, richly evocative sounds and perfectly balanced movements, the universally beloved classic among classics beautifully unfolded from the stage on Tuesday evening, prompting so many applause outbursts between movements that after another wave of enthusiastic clapping rewarded a particularly lively celebration of fall harvest, Anne-Sophie Mutter had to point out to the audience that there was still "One more season!". Spring enchanted with nature’s rebirth, full of hope and promises, Summer's oppressive heat finally broke when the mighty storm exploded, Fall enthralled with colorful, care-free revelry, Winter emphasized the ethereally delicate snow and the unforgiving icy rain. A true master of emotional intelligence way before it became an over-used buzzword, Antonio Vivaldi came up with the perfect composition to prove once and for all that descriptive music could be powerful, sophisticated, and still please the crowds. The Mutter Virtuosi sounded totally in their element and delivered a happily exuberant performance around their leader’s virtuosic feats.

This special occasion was wrapped up with another, definitely no-holds-barred, rendition of the Summer's storm by Vivaldi, before coming full circle to Bach and a simply sublime "Air on a G String", the ultimate parting gift before going to the cold winter reality .