Saturday, December 3, 2016

Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra - Glanert & Mahler - 11/30/16

Conductor: Semyon Bychkov 
Detlev Glanert: Theatrum bestiarum, Songs and Dances for Large Orchestra 
Mahler: Symphony No. 5 in C-sharp Minor 

 After indulging in a glorious Resurrection by the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra in their Amsterdam home back in September, I simply had to try to relive the magical experience last Wednesday night in New York's Carnegie Hall, where they were appearing under the baton of Semyon Bychkov for Mahler's sprawling Symphony No. 5, which could be succinctly described as the composer's first complete mature work. After all, one can never get too much Mahler, especially when it is performed by such subject matter experts.
And just to add a bit of novelty to the program, the main attraction would be preceded by the New York premiere of Theatrum bestiarum by Detlev Glanert, a tone poem partly inspired by the composer's own opera Caligula, and more generally by Mahler and Shostakovitch. One more reason to go out in that miserable rainy evening at the end of that miserable rainy day.

 Detlev Glanert's Theatrum bestiarum owes its fancy title to the "zoo of human beings" it describes, and sure enough, on Wednesday night the raucous menagerie came out as an intriguing combination of dark undertones, grotesque images and captivating colors. Boldly opening with a mighty 25-note chord and consisting of a single 20-minute movement, the composition burst with beguiling music that not only never stopped flowing, but also kept the audience riveted with its surprisingly wide range of often surreal, always imaginative sounds.
We moved on to another somber and strangely hypnotic place after the intermission when the first notes of Mahler's Symphony No. 5 assertively filled the Stern auditorium. Gorgeously dark and starkly foreboding, the funeral march unfolded with gravity and grandeur thanks to a tightly unified orchestra that knew exactly where it was going. A pause was introduced before the Allegro, but even this unexpected break did not kill the momentum, and the music quickly resumed with plenty of vigor and wilderness.
The expansive Scherzo exploded with chaotic energy and unrestrained exuberance before the achingly beautiful Adagietto, Mahler's stunning love letter to his young wife Alma, magnificently soared with poignant tenderness. Love had finally conquered all, and the feat was celebrated with the de rigueur fireworks all the way to the breathless, life-affirming grand finale.
The journey had been intensely dramatic without being sentimental, the orchestra had been technically flawless and emotionally involved, Semyon Bychkov had remained in full control but cleverly unobtrusive, and the composition remains one of the repertoire's timeless masterpieces. Even the rain that was still relentlessly falling as we were exiting did not managed to dampen our elevated spirits. The Concertgebouw and Mahler had ruled the night.

Sunday, November 20, 2016

White Light Festival - Jeremy Denk - Medieval to Modern - 11/16/16

Machaut: Doulz amis, oy mon compleint 
Binchois: Triste plaisir et douloureuse joie 
Ockeghem: Kyrie, from Missa prolationum 
Du Fay: Franc cuer gentil, sur toutes gracieuse 
Josquin: Kyrie, from Missa “Pane lingua” 
Byrd: A Voluntarie, from My Ladye Nevells Booke of Virginal 
Gesualdo: O dolce mio tesoro 
Monteverdi: Zefiro torna e di soave accenti, SV 251 
Scarlatti: Sonata in B-flat Major, K.545 
Bach: Chromatic Fantasia and Fugue in D Minor, BWV 903 
Mozart: Andante, from Sonata No. 5 in G Major, K.283 
Beethoven: Allegro molto e con brio, from Sonata No. 5 in C Minor, Op. 10 
Schumann: In der Nacht, from Fantasiestücke, Op. 12, No. 5 
Chopin: Prelude in C Major, Op. 28, No. 1 
Chopin: Prelude in A Minor, Op. 28, No. 2 
Liszt: Liebestod, from Tristan und Isolde 
Brahms: Intermezzo in B Minor, from Klavierstücke, Op. 119, No. 1 
Schoenberg: Mäßige Viertel, from Three Piano Pieces, Op. 11, No. 1 
Debussy: Reflets dans l’eau, from Images, Série 1 
Stravinsky: Piano-Rag-Music 
Stockhausen: Klavierstücke I 
Glass: Étude No. 2 
Ligeti: Autumn in Warsaw, from Études, Book I 
Binchois: Triste plaisir et douloureuse joie 

 Being a technically flawless and emotionally expressive – not to mention delightfully entertaining – performer is already a blessing not bestowed upon just any musician, and being on top of it a brilliant writer, talented composer, ambitious programmer and engaging presenter is even rarer, but New York pianist Jeremy Denk has proved many times over that he could handle it all without any noticeable fuss.
And the ever-inquisitive music man did it again on Wednesday night in a Alice Tully Hall packed with an obviously very dedicated and genuinely excited audience, when he closed Lincoln Center's White Light Festival with an 80-minute, break-free series of 23 works spanning six centuries entitled "Medieval to Modern", the appealing experience being heightened by insightful program notes, a good-humored introduction, and occasionally faulty but generally helpful surtitles above the stage.

The concert opened with probably the least-known works, secular and religious compositions that were some of the greatest hits of the Middle Age and Renaissance and that Denk played with much conviction and sensitivity in his own arrangements for the modern piano.
After attractive madrigals by Gesualdo and Monteverdi, we happily entered blazingly virtuosic territory with Scarlatti's perky Sonata in B-flat Major, K.545, before fully indulging into Bach's Chromatic Fantasia and Fugue in D Minor, BWV 903. As it was, the longest piece of the program also turned out to be one of the most memorable peaks of the evening not only because it symbolized the beginning of a new era, but also because its impeccable rendition effortlessly conveyed the outstanding structure and the emotional power of the composition.
The transition to Mozart was seamless, and the subtly lyrical Andante from his Sonata No. 5 in G Major sounded remarkably fresh and inherently elegant, in true Mozartian fashion. It was followed by a surprisingly subdued but still totally fitting submission for Beethoven in the beautifully lilting Allegro molto e con brio from his Sonata No. 5 in C Minor.
Schumann and Chopin kept the Romantic mood alive before Liszt and his soaring transcription of "Liebestod" from Wagner's Tristan und Isolde imposed itself as one of the undisputed highlights of the concert with the right combination of intensity and finesse. It was followed by a nice, but in truth unnecessary, intermezzo by Brahms.
A momentous break came next with Schoenberg's "Mäßige Viertel" from Three Piano Pieces, in which tonality shockingly disappeared and endless possibilities suddenly emerged, making a logical progression of the modern portion of the program impossible, but a scrumptious, wide-ranging bouquet of random goodies most welcome.
So we got to fully indulge in Debussy's delicately colored "Reflets dans l’eau" before Stravinsky's wildly rhythmical "Piano-Rag-Music" unexpectedly and unceremoniously jolted us out of our rêverie. In Denk's expertly adapting hands, Stockhausen's "Klavierstücke I" probably sounded as boldly radical on Wednesday night as it did back in 1952. It was cleverly followed by the perfect antidote to controlled chaos that is Glass' quintessentially minimalist Étude No. 2.
One last modern serving was Ligeti's festive "Autumn in Warsaw" before we moved right back to the troubadour lament of Binchois' "Triste plaisir et douloureuse joie". We had pretty much come full circle is this by default incomplete tour of Western music history, therefore our music-packed evening ended with an extended ovation and, regretfully but understandably, no encore.

Monday, November 14, 2016

International Brazilian Opera Company - The Seventh Seal (Act I) - 11/12/16

Composer: João MacDowell 
Conductor: Néviton Barros 
Olga Bakaki: Death 
Nelson Ebo: The Knight Antonius Block 
Melanie Ashkar: The Squire Jons 
Heejae Kim: The Actor Jof 
Alexandra Filipe: The Actress Mia 
Shana Grossman: The Witch Tyan 
Daniel Klein: The Monk Raval

After a couple of trips to the Metropolitan Opera to attend grand-scale performances in its huge house, I found the perfect way to downsize with the small but feisty International Brazilian Opera Company, which had put together a chamber music concert presenting Act I of The Seventh Seal, an opera adaptation of Ingmar Bergman's classic – and incidentally one of my favorite films ever  by João MacDowell, one of Brazil's most widely eclectic music composers, who had already dabbed into Bergman’s œuvre with an opera adaption of Cries and Whispers.
The intriguing proposition would take place in the pleasantly intimate concert hall of the Scandinavian House, which of course meant that I had to venture into Midtown on a Saturday night after an especially busy day. That was definitely no small sacrifice, but curiosity and optimism prevailed.

The Seventh Seal is unquestionably one of world cinema's most admired films whose most iconic scenes, such as The Knight playing chess with Death on the beach and the final Dance of Death, have been parodied many times over, including by dedicated connoisseurs as disparate as Woody Allen and The Monty Python. Taking place in a medieval Sweden devastated by the plague, featuring strongly symbolic characters, daring theatricality, dark humor, as well as universal themes such as existentialism, obscurantism, religion and death, the original film offers many possibilities to composers intrepid enough to tackle it, and on Saturday night a sizable crowd was on hand to see how the work was coming along.
Memorable characters require outstanding singers, and we sure had them in the international cast that had been gathered, starting with Greek soprano Olga Bakali, whose poised and powerful voice made her a stark, unforgiving and impenetrable Death. She quickly found a worthy adversary in the weary Knight Antonius Block, who was immortalized on the screen by a young Max von Sydow, and on Saturday night was persuasively impersonated by sternly intense Angolan tenor Nelson Ebo.
Mezzo-soprano Melanie Ashkar was a delightfully expressive Squire Jons, the ultimate witty bon vivant, as she skillfully bantered and sparred with The Knight. Korean tenor Heejae Kim and Brazilian soprano Alexandra Filipe formed a totally endearing young couple of artists as The Actor Jof and The Actress Mia. American soprano Shana Grossman was devilishly good as The Witch Tyan, and American bass-baritone Daniel Klein exuded appropriate grim authority as The Monk Raval.
The singers were uniformly talented, each in their own way, but also had the capacity to come together and organically constitute a coherent ensemble. A few of them even got to indulge in special feats such as Death and The Witch belting out commanding flights of lyricism, or Jof and Mia turning their love duet into a bona fide rock song, in which João MacDowell’s certified pop credentials shone brightly. The rhythmical screams of pain uttered by the leader of the procession were as distressing as necessary, and the scene concluded in a rousing choral finale.
The compelling score, which was scaled down to chamber music level for the concert, was immediately engaging. Its multiple colors cleverly conveyed the austere expressionism the film is famous for, the melodies having been directly inspired by the Swedish dialogs from the original script. The ominous dark lines from the cello and the eerily bluesy contributions from the trumpet effectively created a subtly ghostly atmosphere. The percussion provided a wide range of usual and unusual sounds, such as whistling winds and spooky rattling, while the perky banjo added authenticity and light-heartedness to the bohemian episode.
The adventure lasted only over an hour and left us wanting more. Act II should be ready next year, and the full opera in 2018. If Act I is any indication, the result is going to be worth the wait.

Sunday, November 13, 2016

Berlin Philharmonic - Schoenberg, Webern, Berg & Brahms - 11/10/16

Conductor: Sir Simon Rattle 
Schoenberg: Five Pieces for Orchestra, Op. 16 
Webern: Six Pieces for Orchestra, Op. 6b 
Berg: Three Pieces for Orchestra, Op. 6 
Brahms: Symphony No. 2 in D Major, Op. 73 

In the nick of time! For way too long many good and not so good reasons had kept me from attending performances conducted by the one and only Sir Simon Rattle. This season, however, promised to be different as I was traveling to his current musical fief of Berlin in September and I had a ticket for a performance of Tristan und Isolde he would be conducting in New York in October. 
Alas! Turned out that he was not conducting his Berlin Philharmonic when I was in the German capital because he was getting the Met orchestra ready for Tristan und Isolde in the Big Apple, and I was not able to attend Tristan und Isolde as originally planned because I would have been an undesirable coughing patron (I must admit, though, that I probably still benefited from his masterly touch when basking in the majestic performance of the orchestra he had trained to perfection).
On the other hand, I was not about to give up while the man was still in town. Therefore, as the end of his extended and busy New York residency was looming, I cleared my schedule and scored one of the last coveted tickets to his last performance ever conducting the Berlin Philharmonic as their artistic director at Carnegie Hall. The brainy and appealing program included classics from the Second Viennese School and Brahms’ Symphony No. 2, and the venue could not feel more like home, so it definitely looked like the curse was about to be lifted in the most memorable way possible.

 In an obvious case of occasionally hard to wallow vegetables before a luscious dessert, the first part of the program was dedicated to masterpieces of the Second Viennese School. Before the concert started, Simon Rattle informed the sold-out and particularly eclectic audience that the works from Schoenberg, Webern and Berg would be played as a single piece  possibly Mahler’s 11th symphony  and asked us to refrain from applauding until the end, at which point, he quickly added with deadpan aplomb, it would be “just fine”.
So we dutifully kept quiet throughout all 14 movements, seamlessly moving from Arnold Schoenberg’s resolutely bold Five Pieces for Orchestra, Op. 16, to Anton Webern’s eerily transparent Six Pieces for Orchestra, Op. 6b, to Alan Berg’s tension-filled Three Pieces for Orchestra, Op. 6, the differences between the three composers establishing themselves organically as the journey through early 20th century Vienna ineluctably progressed.
The first shock wave from the ground-breaking movement came with Schoenberg, whose exploration of the subconscious led to compositions that essentially left out tonality and melodies while still managing to vividly express ideas and emotions. Years ago my introduction to his œuvre was Pierrot Lunaire, which I found stunningly off-putting, followed a few months later by Verklärte Nacht, which I found stunningly beautiful. On Thursday night, the wide range of unpredictable sounds, subtle colors and elusive concepts of his Five Pieces for Orchestra was meticulous articulated and dexterously rendered for a totally engaging opener.
Anton Webern, one of Schoenberg’s most gifted students, was next with six spell-binding miniatures whose main characteristic was to pack a mightily effective punch in their incredibly tiny size. Fearlessly minimalist, delicately poetic and endlessly surprising, Six Pieces for Orchestra had the audience’s intrigued attention continually perked up as they kept coming up with fleeting images such as a sweet lullaby, a dark haunted house and a grim funeral march. Performed with cool finesse and infallible precision, the shortest and quietest episode of the triptych ended up being its most eloquent.
Alan Berg, the other fiercely gifted student of Schoenberg’s, brought us to the finish line with his intellectually stimulating, but more readily accessible Three Pieces for Orchestra. The playing got markedly more muscular, but never lost its unwavering attention to detail, and assuredly transported us through the impressionistic "Prelude", the agitated "Round Dance" and the resounding "March". Mahler would have certainly approved. As for me, the orchestra's exceptionally brilliant performance was a revelation. While I have admired and respected the movement and the works associated to it, on Thursday night I found myself genuinely enjoying the entire 50-minute experience.
After intermission, Brahms’ majestic Symphony No. 2 sounded even more richly lyrical than usual, its rigorously crafted structure receiving the royal treatment from an orchestra that clearly could do no wrong. Simon Rattle had the musicians at his fingertips and drew a grandly sweeping, expertly polished and superbly nuanced performance from them. Although it is a repertoire staple that they all have probably played multiple times, they stayed away from cruise control and effortlessly succeeded in keeping the music joyful, fresh and engaging. And they have our bottomless gratitude for bringing two hours of direly needed escapism, beauty, solace and hope into a seriously distressing week.

Wednesday, November 9, 2016

Cantori New York & Musicatreize - Moultaka, Petrossian, Ohana & Primosch - 11/06/16

Musicatreize 
Conductor: Roland Hayrabedian 
Zad Moultaka: Ikhtifa 
Michel Petrossian: Horae quidem cedunt 
Maurice Ohana: Swan Song 
Musicatreize & Cantori New York 
Conductor: Mark Shapiro 
James Primosch: Mass for the Day of St. Thomas Didymus

Although I had the best intentions in the world, a schedule packed with can't-miss performances made me regretfully miss Cantori New York's turn in Daphnis et Chloé with the American Ballet Theater (Although I probably would not have been able to hear them much anyway considering the notoriously subpar acoustics of the Koch Theater), and then their first official concert of the season with Musicatreize, the French professional vocal ensemble they had partnered with during their whirlwind and intense concert series in Marseille back in 2013, when the city was one of the European capitals of culture, because I had to put myself through Guillaume Tell again, and make it the end this time. Therefore, I had to contend myself with the deuxième on Sunday evening as opposed to the première on Saturday evening.
That's when after three long years the American choir finally got to not only host to their fellow French choir, but also to join them for Mass for the Day of St. Thomas Didymus by James Primosch, after Musicatreize had performed an intriguing program on their own in the cavernous Saint Ignatius of Antioch Episcopal Church, which is not only beautiful but, as luck would have it, also happens to be located a few blocks from my apartment. It could not get much better than that.

The concert opened with a nostalgic trip down memory lane all the way to the South of France with Zad Moultaka’s Ikhtifa, which Musicatreize had already performed during their concert with Cantori in Marseille. Complex, atmospheric, whimsical, and making clever use of the Arabic language, once again Ikhtifa (Disappearance) offered a unique and hypnotic musical experience as seemingly random sounds uttered by the singers were playing off one another, coming together to constitute a fascinating whole during the first half and shooting off in myriad directions, in particular once the singers had moved to various locations around the audience, during the second half. Some pieces just never get old.
Next, Michel Petrossian’s Horae quidem cedunt, which was originally the accompanying score to the 1972 film by Armenian cineaste and poet Artavazd Péléchian The Seasons, is a stark homage to landmarks in Armenian history expressed through texts by Virgil, Philippe Mahaud, Cicero, The Old Testament and the composer himself that are sung in French, Russian, Latin and Ancient Hebrew. On Sunday, the endless variations of the voices, on their own or together, in which East met West, somberly evoked the hard life of the Armenian people migrating according to nature’s and history’s demands and toiling the ever-present land throughout the unalterable cycle of the seasons. Poetic, earthy and sung to perfection, the musical journey was gratefully taken and enjoyed.
Maurice Ohana’s Swan Song is an atypical requiem that keeps on fighting death in the course of four movements before triumphantly winning. The opening "Drone" was a dense, colorful and energetic incantation made of countless different phonemes, from which a single voice occasionally sprang out. In sharp contrast, "Eleis", a Negro spiritual sung in Creole English, was overflowing with rich harmonies and compelling solo turns. Inspired by the French poet Ronsard's "À son âme", "Épitaphe" was lighter fare, but still pondering mortality, before "Mambo" wrapped things up by chasing death off in a strongly rhythmical Afro-Cuban dialect. Wildly eclectic yet totally coherent, Swan Song strongly emphasized the tremendous vocal range, impeccable clarity and laser-sharp precision of Musicatreize’s singers.
After intermission, Musicatreize and Cantori New York joined their mighty forces for the New York premiere of James Primosch’s Mass for the Day of St. Thomas Didymus, for which Roland Hayrabedian passed the baton to Mark Shapiro. After the resolutely bold, at times coming from exceptionally far out left field, vocal experiments we had just heard, the openly beautiful and profoundly stirring mass spontaneously engaged the audience as it was confidently unfolding its adroit combination of traditional liturgy literature and Mass-inspired text by English poet Denise Levertov.
Throughout the five movements, the four soloists from Musicatreize superbly sang the excerpts from the Latin Mass while the combined choirs, stalwartly open-minded but definitely no fool, soulfully reflected on them in magnificent unison. With truly uplifting music and brilliantly written poems, this contemporary mass grandly stood out for its winning spirit of collaboration, a healthy dose of skepticism and a universal sense of humanity, all of which are unfortunately needed more than ever now that The Apocalypse – not to mention national embarrassment – are officially upon us.