Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Met - Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg - 12/13/14

Composer: Richard Wagner
Conductor: James Levine
Producer/Director: Otto Schenk
Hans Sachs: Michael Volle
Walter von Stolzing: Johan Botha
Beckmesser: Johannes Martin Kränzle
Vet Pogner: Hans-Peter König
David: Paul Appleby
Eva: Annette Dasch
Magdalene: Karen Cargill

Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg is well-known for being Wagner's only comedy, all four and a half hours of it, which can easily extend to six hours when you include the intermissions. It is also routinely considered a masterpiece, even if its legacy has been tainted by debatable associations with anti-semitism and nazism. In any case, for anyone with the slightest interest in opera, there's really only one way to earn the prized Meistersinger's stripes: Dedicating a few hours of one's life to it.
And I can certainly imagine worse ways to spend an entire afternoon or evening attending an opera that narrates a conventional ‒ and conventionally thwarted ‒ love story while also discussing the essence of real art (Because there's no way Wagner was going to keep it truly simple, right?) in one of the most vibrant German Renaissance cities. We're not dealing with Gods or legends here, but real people, nationalism, humanities and nature, and that sounds about just as good a proposition.
So when I heard that the Met had scheduled one matinee performance of it this season, I quickly grabbed a ticket for it before it got sold out. That's why last Saturday I reluctantly sacrificed a sunny December afternoon to spend some quality time with opera's favorite shoemaker and, incidentally, my friend Nicole who was watching the Live in HD simulcast from a movie theater in Barcelona, Spain, and with whom I happily killed time comparing notes during those interminable, although understandably necessary, intermissions.

Wagner had apparently decided to go light after two of his serious operas, Tannhäuser and Tristan und Isolde, were being rejected left and right, and debts were piling up. Pulling from a bunch of different sources, including the real-life Nuremberger Hans Sachs and his œuvre, early German romantic authors, and the historic city of Nuremberg itself, the composer successfully put together a genuine crowd-pleaser while still staying true to his artistic ambitions in terms of dramatic depth and musical complexity. And it had finally come to an opera house near me. Yeah!
A deeply human character that is almost too noble to be true, Hans Sachs has to be a career goal for any baritone with enough power and stamina to carry it through. Michael Volle has both, and solid acting skills too. An undeniable presence onstage, he was also singing with force and nuance, while effortlessly exuding authority and wisdom or convincingly conveying poignant feelings of tenderness and regrets. It is an emotionally complex and vocally demanding part, and Volle nailed it as surely as he was nailing the soles to the shoes he was making.
As the aspiring Meistersinger Walter von Stolzing, tenor Johan Botha was in utterly splendid vocal form. He sang with the refreshing abandon of a young man who had fallen hopelessly in love, his vibrant voice assertively projecting his burning desire throughout the entire opera house. And if he was not your typical dashing romantic lead, he was still one who will not be easily forgotten.
His chief competitor for Eva's heart, the hapless and grumpy Beckmesser, was also the brilliant main source of comic relief of the story. Baritone Johannes Martin Kränzle smartly did not emphasize the pedantry and silliness usually associated with the character, a choice that effectively prevented him from becoming a predictable caricature, but still made sure to generate plenty of healthy laughter from the audience.
Bass Hans-Peter König was a wonderful Pogner, the goldsmith with the magnificent dark voice, torn between his devotion to his art and his love for his daughter.
Tenor Paul Appleby was spontaneously endearing as the apprentice David, with a bright voice and energy to spare, readily stealing the scenes he was in.
I realize that all of this makes the opera sound like a man's world, and in many ways it was, but let's not forget that the whole chain of events started because of a young woman. And Eva was winningly impersonated by soprano Annette Dasch, who completely justified her popularity with a radiant voice and a sweet yet no-nonsense personality.
Not to be outdone, mezzo-soprano Karen Cargill was a wonderful Magdalene, Eva's attendant and David's love interest, boasting a rich voice and impeccable comic timing.
The Met Chorus was its usual excellent self every time it appeared, from the powerful opening church scene in Act I to the out-of-control riot in the street  in Act II, to the playful, roof-raising happy ending.
The attractive sets, such as the bare interior of a church, a street lined up with houses, or a meadow, were as traditional as they come, and their direct appeal perfectly suited a story that is about community, art and nature. The same applied to the costumes, which were all in muted, earthy colors. An informed and loving hand had clearly been hard at work and had done a very good job at setting up the perfect environment for what was originally a simple little romantic comedy, which slowly morphed into something much bigger.
The score may be one of Wagner's most accomplished feats, beautifully underlying the sweetness of young love, the grandeur of lyrical art, the depth of human emotions, the ludicrousness of narrow-mindedness. And if he did indulge himself a few times (I really don't think the inspired comical back and forth between Sachs and Beckmesser in Act II needed to go on that long), he more than made up for it with memorable moments like the magnificent preludes, the evolution of Walther's Prize Song, the sublime quintet in Act III, Sach's thoughtful "Wahn" monologue about human madness, among many others.
Having such a monumental opera performed down the street was a privilege, having James Levine conduct it was nothing short of a miracle. But there he was, seemingly full of energy and happy to be back among "his" orchestra, which delivered a majestic, well-paced and expertly detailed performance.
Even when things started to drag on a bit, I was reminding myself that I was getting twice as much glorious music for the price of a single ticket, so I should just sit back and enjoy the moment already, which I did to the fullest.

Saturday, December 13, 2014

American Symphony Orchestra - Requiem for the 20th Century - 12/10/14

Conductor: Leon Botstein
Williams: Symphony No. 6
Ligeti: Requiem
Sara Murphy: Mezzo-soprano
Jennifer Zetlan: Soprano
Bard Festival Chorale
Schnittke: Nagasaki
Sara Murphy: Mezzo-soprano
Bard Festival Chorale

When American Symphony Orchestra's music director and principal conductor Leon Botstein greeted us with "Welcome to my holiday concert!" on Wednesday night at Carnegie Hall, he generated quite a few chuckles. And understandably so, because if the time of year was right on, and our first light snow fall earlier in the day proved it, the program was more than a bit off with three very different but equally dark, challenging and essential compositions by Ralph Vaughan Williams, Gyorgy Ligeti and Alfred Schnittke.
While being a fundamentally laudable endeavor ‒ keeping music lovers on their toes is a tough job, but somebody's got to do it ‒ boldly going against the current nevertheless has its drawbacks, and the mostly empty balcony of the Stern Auditorium was one of them. On the other hand, the rest of the space was filled by an obviously dedicated audience that could not wait for the not-to-be-missed experience. We had some heavy stuff ahead of us for sure, but it had to be heard.

Although Ralph Vaughan Williams reputedly asserted that his sixth symphony had nothing to do with World War II, or anything else for that matter, but should only be appreciated as pure music, the claim is hard to believe, and not just for the fact that he wrote it during and right after the war, but also because it so forcefully expresses the violence and destruction suffered in troubled times. Accordingly, on Wednesday night, chaos and gloom quickly descended upon us with all their might, but there was also the occasional distraction such as a high-spirited scherzo here and a jazzy solo saxophone there. The last movement, completely colorless and expressionless, had us all drift into an existential nothingness that would have made Sartre envious. This was serious music, but Williams did not shy away from making it accessible as well.
For the second stop on our depressing but enlightening tour, we were plunged into Gyorgy Ligeti's haunting Requiem. For better or worse, the piece became world-famous for being featured in Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey, and amazingly enough had never been performed in its entirety in New York before Wednesday. Granted, we still did not have the double chorus and huge orchestra that the Hungarian composer had in mind for it, but Botstein quipped that he was not holding his breath for that, so we did with what we had. Being a holocaust survivor, Ligeti used his harrowing personal experience to create a unique work of emotional directness and musical complexity. The orchestra was accompanied by the fearless Bard Festival Chorale, mezzo-soprano Sara Murphy, whose poised and majestic singing had a mesmerizing effect, and soprano Jennifer Zetlan, whose visceral performance could not have been further away from her delightful turn as Mozart in The Classical Style less than a week earlier. As for Ligeti's signature "micropolyphony" and its famed vertiginous effect, I felt like I was listening to a community of dead people relate the horrors they had been through and the depth of their grief. It was seriously chilling.
After a much needed intermission, we had one more work to go in the US première of Alfred Schnittke's Nagasaki, which was the composer's graduation thesis from The Moscow Conservatory in 1958 and finally had its public première in its original form in Cape Town in 2006, eight years after Schnittke's death. Better late than never. Inspired by Russian and Japanese poets, influenced by Shostakovich, Stravinsky and Orff, the oratorio immediately strikes the listener by its big, appealing sounds that compellingly convey the exotic land of Japan, the senseless dropping of the bomb, its dreadful consequences on humanity, and finally renewed hope. A lot of the score's undeniable appeal rests upon the intensity of the instrumental score and the gripping parts for the chorus and the mezzo-soprano, which the orchestra, the Bard Festival Chorale and Sara Murphy handled deftly. And then the explosive grand finale brought a new peaceful beginning. Maybe the program was not that far off the holiday spirit after all.

Thursday, December 11, 2014

Music Mondays - Aeolus Quartet & Aizuri Quartet - Schulhoff, Welcher, Beecher & Mendelssohn - 12/08/14

Erwin Schulhoff: Five Pieces for String Quartet
Aeolus Quartet
Dan Welcher: Museon Polemos for String Octet
Aeolus & Aizuri Quartets
Lembit Beecher: These Memories may be true
Aizuri Quartet
Felix Mendelssohn: Octet in E-flat Major, Op. 20
Aeolus & Aizuri Quartets

Hearing Mendelssohn's famed Octet live has been a privilege too rare in all my years of concert going, but I do understand that it requires, well, eight musicians, which is not exactly a common combination. At last the opportunity presented itself again earlier this week thanks to the unstoppable Music Mondays series, which was generously featuring not one but two incredibly young and already much in demand string quartets. When it comes to glowing recommendations, one could hardly ask for more than the Graduate Resident String Quartet at the Juilliard School, the Aeolus Quartet, and the String Quartet-in-Residence at the Curtis Institute of Music, the Aizuri Quartet. So I had no doubts that Mendelssohn's youthful miracle would get the expert treatment it deserves, and so would pretty much everything else, which was fortuitous because it looked like there were quite a few other delectable goodies in store as well.
So never mind the frigid temperatures that had fallen upon us, there was no stopping me and many other die-hard Music Mondays regulars from filling up the pretty Advent Lutheran Church for an evening of string-only music.

The concert opened with "Five Pieces for String Quartet" a fun and intriguing work by Czech composer Erwin Schulhoff, who took us on a tongue-in-cheek tour of European Baroque dance music in five short movements. It all started with a drunken Viennese waltz that kept on throwing itself off, then we had an insistent, strongly rhythmical serenata, followed by a highly spirited, rowdy Czech dance tune. Next we moved to a sensual, slowly intoxicating tango and finally ended with a seemingly out of control, high speed tarantella. The Aeolus Quartet's performance had the right amount of energy and grittiness, emphasizing each movement's musical style while easily transitioning from one to the next for a smooth journey.
The following piece was performed by the two quartets together, although they often did it independently to emphasize a sharp Apollonian/Dionysian contrast. As described to us by the composer Dan Welcher, "Museon Polemos for String Octet" was originally commissioned by the Miró Quartet and the Shanghai Quartet for the 100th anniversary of Stravinsky's Rite of Spring. Welcher, however, did not write an octet directly inspired by the ground-breaking composition itself, but rather by the ballets Stravinsky was writing for in those days. The one nod to Rite of Spring was the famous pounding of "The Dance of the adolescents", as if to make sure nobody could miss it, and it was in fact perfectly integrated into the whole. The eternal rivalry between the intellect and the senses fiercely played out through a complex, convoluted, and engaging score performed by eight impeccably synchronized musicians, before ending on a quiet note with no clear resolution.
After intermission, the Aizuri Quartet came back alone for Lembit Beecher's "These Memories may be true", which is, according to the composer, who was also in attendance, a loving tribute to his grand-mother who was an immigrant from Estonia. Throughout the four movements, we got to enjoy lovely moments dedicated to old Estonian folk songs as well as more vigorous rhythms reserved for more personal themes such as the last ship she had apparently taken to come to America and the super hero status she held in her grand-son's mind. In the assured hands of the Aizuri Quartet's ladies, the trip down memory lane was touching without falling into easy sentimentalism, and it was fun too, as the mighty grandmother and her incredible stories were being remembered through the innocent eyes of an impressionable child.
The last piece of the evening was Mendelssohn's invariably cheerful Octet, for which both quartets seamlessly joined forces and unquestionably conquered. The shamelessly infectious melodies unfolded unabated, vibrantly expressing the irrepressible joie de vivre of a 16-year-old genius who happily let his staggering creative juices freely flow and came up with a true masterpiece. The playing was uniformly balanced and focused, allowing the work's brilliance to gloriously explode in countless colors and liberally dispense some much needed bright sunshine on this bitterly cold winter night. And that felt really good while it lasted.

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Cantori New York - A Cantori Holiday - 12/06/14

Artistic Director & Conductor: Mark Shapiro
French Franciscan Processional: Veni, veni Emmanuel (Arr. David Willcocks)
Dutch Traditional Melody: King Jesus Hath a Garden (Arr. Charles Wood)
Alice Dryen: Banu choshech Legaresh
Hugh Martin & Ralph Blane: Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas (Arr. Ken Neufeld)
Mykola Leontovich: Carol of the Bells (Arr. Peter Wilhousky)
Malcolm Williamson: This Christmas Night
Rex Isenberg: Ravta et Rivam Isaac
French Traditional Melody: Shepherds in the Field Abiding (Arr. Charles Wood)
German Traditional Melody: Lo, How a Rose e'er Blooming
Blooming J. Pierpoint: Jingle Bells
John Jacob Niles: I wonder as I wander - Thomasin Bentley (Soprano)
H. Berlioz: Shepherds Chorus from L'enfance du Christ
Elizabeth Poston: Jesus Christ the Apple Tree - Amy Joscelyn (Soprano)
Jonathan Breit: Ocho Kandelikas
Kim Gannon & Walter Kent: I'll be Home for Christmas (Arr. Mac Huff)
Franz Biebl: Ave Maria - Jonathan Breit, Mark Stedman (Soloists), Steve Underhill, Joe Klein, Steve Albert (Trio)
Welsh Carol: Deck the Halls (Arr. David Willcocks)
West Country Carol: We Wish You a Merry Christmas (Arr: Arthur Warrell)
Franz Gruber: Silent Night (Sing along)

'Tis this time of the year again, when days are short, temperatures are low, trees are cut, shop windows are sparkling, and holiday concerts spring up everywhere. So the main question is not if you will get a chance to hear holiday music, but which performance(s) to pick. I figured a long time ago that although I try to stay away from the typical sugariness and perkiness of standard holiday tunes, some traditions cannot really be avoided, so I might as well choose the most fun events.
Luckily for me, Cantori New York came to the rescue a few years ago with its holiday-flavored, but carefully balanced and expertly performed assortment of old European songs (That would be the best part), Hollywood tunes (That would be the sugary part) and Christmas carols (That would be the perky part). And since the adventurous ensemble is also an equal opportunity choir and this time of year is not only about Christmas after all, they always make sure to throw a couple of Hanukkah pieces in the mix as well (That would be the untraditional part).
So last Saturday afternoon, I made it down to the West Village again to join a large group of friends spread out among the packed audience in the lovely St. Luke in the Fields Church for the annual holiday ritual. The pouring rain we had to put up with was still a vast improvement over the snow storm we had to trudge through last year, even if it was visually less pleasing. More importantly, the inside of the church was dry, welcoming, and ready for a celebration.

The concert started with the elegiac Franciscan chant "Veni, veni Emmanuel", which, in a remarkable effort of synchronicity, was unexpectedly accompanied from the very first note, and then sporadically, by the protesting of a baby, who was clearly not in the mood to enjoy the hymn's serene beauty. The presumably tiny but decidedly feisty additional soundtrack was at last removed a couple of songs down the road, after several attempts at restoring peace had repeatedly failed. When you gotta go, you gotta go.
The rest of the concert went on without any other disturbances, and the choir whole-heartedly worked their way through the familiar playlist with their trademark assurance, energy and finesse. There was one new piece, "Shepherds' Farewell" from Berlioz's L'enfance du Christ, a simple, very moving and warmly executed tribute to the shepherds' bidding good-bye to the infant Jesus as he and his family were leaving Bethlehem for Egypt.
My eagerly awaited personal favorites did not disappoint either. Beside the intermittently enjoyable "Veni, veni Emmanuel", the German carol "Lo, How a Rose e'er blooming" was a tastefully joyful moment and, as always,  Biebl's popular all-male "Ave Maria" turned out discreetly, yet richly nuanced.
There was more upbeat fare too. "Shepherds in the Field Abiding", the English version of "Les anges dans nos campagnes", gloriously brought me back to my childhood's Christmas music, and Jonathan Breit's ever-sizzling "Ocho Kandelikas" added its unique touch of hot, hot, hot Judeo-Spanish spices to the celebration, rightfully prompting one of the most enthusiastic ovations of the day.
All songs were big hits and the fired-up ensemble did an impeccable job at pleasing the captive audience, which continuously swooned, reflected, rejoiced, laughed and clapped. And even I have to admit that Cantori performs an exceptionally rocking version of the dreaded "Jingle Bells", which never fails to bring the house ‒ or church ‒ down.
The last number of the evening was the traditional "Silent Night" sing along, which went as smoothly as possible considering the circumstances, before we all reconvened in the back room for the traditional post-concert party. Some traditions are just too good not to be upheld indeed. Happy holidays!

Sunday, December 7, 2014

The Classical Style: An Opera (of Sorts) - 12/04/14

Mozart: Rondo in F Major, K. 494 - Jeremy Denk
Mozart: Sonata in C Minor, K. 457 - Jeremy Denk
The Classical Style: An Opera (of Sorts)
Composer: Steven Stucky
Librettist: Jeremy Denk
Conductor: Robert Spano
The Knights
Jennifer Zetlan: Soprano
Rachel Calloway: Mezzo-Soprano
Peabody Southwell: Mezzo-Soprano
Dominic Armstrong: Tenor
Keith Jameson: Tenor
Kim Josephson: Baritone
Aubrey Allicock: Bass-Baritone
Ashraf Sewailam: Bass-Baritone

Earlier this year, when I heard that Jeremy Denk, along with eminent contemporary American composer Steven Stucky, was working on an opera (?!) based on Charles Rosen's highly regarded, rigorously academic study The Classical Style (??!!) , I decided to read the book to get a better sense of what it was all about. I eventually made it to page 43, "The Origin of Style", skipping the most technical parts that were too obscure for me, and never went any further, more due to a lack of time than to a lack of desire. But I trusted the consummate pianist who went from best-kept secret to prestigious award-winning, multi-faceted artist within just a few years to make the intriguing adventure smart, entertaining, educational, unconventional, but still widely accessible.
Since I did not make it to the Ojai Music Festival last summer, on Thursday evening I joined my friend Paula in a Zankel Hall packed to the brim and buzzing with excitement to attend the New York première of The Classical Style: An Opera (of Sorts). The uniqueness of the endeavor was apparently not lost on anybody, especially not the woman behind me who confided to her seatmate that she had "no idea what she was there for". So let the show begin!

The first part of the program was actually traditional fare - namely two piano pieces by Mozart - which were performed by Jeremy Denk with his signature combination of deep respect and carefree style. The Rondo kickstarted our evening with a light and easy touch, before the Sonata moved us into more dramatic territory. After hearing Denk give recitals in concert halls of various sizes and acoustical qualities, I realized that we had finally found the perfect venue for those periodic rendez-vous and totally relished this heavenly half hour.
After intermission, I went right back to heaven, and found Mozart right there too! The Viennese master was passing time playing Scrabble with Haydn and Beethoven, bored and bickering. The first few minutes wasted no time setting the witty and insightful tone of the opera by roundly establishing their distinct personalities. Haydn showed slight irritation at being called "Pa-pa-pa-pa-pa-pa Haydn" to the tune of Papageno's popular aria from The Magic Flute, Mozart was starkly determined to get his share - 25% - from the gross generated by the film Amadeus, and Beethoven pedantically beat his adversaries at Scrabble with lofty words like "Weltanschauung" and "Gesamtkunstwerk", an accomplishment that Mozart, in true Amadeus form, giddily countered with "Scheisse", and Haydn, more prosaically, with "Bier". They eventually heard from The New York Times that classical music is dead, came across The Classical Style, and decided to descend back to earth to have a word with Charles Rosen.
Another major scene took place in a bar, where Dominant, Tonic and Subdominant hung out and talked about their lives. Dominant was mournfully looking for an ever-elusive but indispensable resolution, Tonic made a show-stopping grand entrance, and Subdominant wanted everybody to understand that there is nothing "sub" about her. The exchanges among this humanly volatile but harmonically codependent ménage à trois were clever, hilarious and edifying, even if some of the insider's jokes only made total sense to music connoisseurs.
Another key character was Henry Snibblesworth, a nerdy Berkeley PhD musicology student who may not have had the sharpest social skills, but who got to unwittingly rescue Donna Anna when crashing her forced seduction scene for no other purpose than to point out to her that her next vocal line would "contravene values of good melodic writing". His big moment, however, came a few minutes later when he winningly sang about who Beethoven was through an exhaustive list of numerous milestones such as the numbers of performances of the ninth symphony in America, of interminable lectures, of accidental cell phone rings, of standing ovations and of dogs named Beethoven, among many others, to the tune of... Leporello's famous Catalog aria from Don Giovanni. Positively ingenious and devilishly effective.
But not all was fun and game, and the most poignant scene was hands-down when the depressed, homeless Tristan Chord walked into the bar, with an eye-patch à la Wotan, and whole-heartedly sang to the puzzled diatonic trio endlessly long, incredibly lush Wagnerian lines about how, as an excitable youngster eager for musical innovation, he had come up with a chord that managed to annihilate the rules of harmony, sternly warning them that hell was about to break loose. You don't say.
The man at the origin of the whole enterprise, Charles Rosen, was there too, with a bigger than life personality that restlessly went on and on about music. He was the only character that never goofed off or lost his solid common sense, always remaining his brilliant self, unshakably dedicated to his noble cause, forever exploring and looking for new ideas.
All singers were excellent, effortlessly switching from one part to another, and seemed to have a good time as well. With her agile voice and superior comic timing, soprano Jennifer Zetlan was a wonderfully expressive Mozart, and her impressive gymnastics during her "too many notes" moment made us very grateful for the undue number of notes indeed. A Met veteran, baritone Kim Josephson put his deeply majestic voice to the service of the Tristan Chord and his commanding presence to Charles Rosen. Bass-baritone Ashraf Sewailam successfully impersonated an endearingly grumpy Beethoven and bass-baritone Aubrey Allicock was irresistibly full of himself as the dynamite Tonic. Tenor Keith Jameson pulled off the musicology student's part with lots of energy and humor.
In perfect line with the opera's spirit, Steven Stucky's contribution was an inspired pastiche score featuring direct quotes from Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven, which made looking for clues part of the fun. Don Giovanni, in particular, was a recurring presence, and who could complain about that? These classical excerpts were interspersed with Stucky's own composition, and it all worked pretty much seamlessly. The music was original, colorful and engaging, creating the ideal environment for reality and fantasy to commingle. Kudos to the chamber music orchestra The Knights and conductor Robert Spano for keeping it fresh and compelling.
The lively, occasionally rambunctious, performance ended on a rather subdued note, with a surprise visit from Robert Schumann. Music will go on, and hopefully so will The Classical Style: An Opera (of Sorts). No music knowledge required, but nevertheless advised for maximum enjoyment.