Sunday, May 24, 2015

Bargemusic - Timo Andres & David Kaplan - Barber, Andres, Ravel & Stravinsky - 05/22/15

Barber: Souvenirs, Op. 28 for piano four hands
Andres: Retro Music
Ravel: La Valse
Stravinsky: Le Sacre du printemps (The Rite of Spring)

Finally! I've been Barged! After hearing countless raves about Bargemusic for a couple of years now, and patiently waiting for the right combination of schedule, program and performers, I decided that becoming acquainted with the four-hand version of Stravinsky's ground-breaking Rite of Spring by two young trailblazing musicians in a barge floating right underneath the Brooklyn Bridge sounded like the perfect birthday to myself, even if the concert was actually happening the day after, on Friday evening. (Fact is, B-Day was not half bad either as I excitedly treated myself to a membership to the all-around fabulous new Whitney Museum ‒ once you get past the unsightly exterior, that is ‒ with the added bonus of my friend Linden's unexpected company.)
So on Friday my fantastic five-day weekend continued with another art-filled day at a relatively uncrowded MoMA (The new Whitney's sky-high hotness level has some fortunate consequences indeed. I even got to spend a memorable, long-overdue moment almost alone with van Gogh's magical Nuit étoilée for the first time ever), before enjoying leisurely walks on Brooklyn Heights' stately Promenade and Brooklyn Bridge Park's gentrified piers. Then I headed to oh so cool DUMBO to take my seat among a sizable audience in the attractive and cozy little barge, complete with a view on downtown Manhattan's skyline at dusk, seriously wondering what had taken me so long.

My own question on how many pianos would be there got answered as soon as I got in and saw that there was only one, and for a good reason: There's no way that two grand pianos would have fit on the small stage. But preppy-looking music partners Timo Andres and David Kaplan were obviously very comfortable in each other's company and performed the five movements of Samuel Barber's "Souvenirs" with high spirits and impressive dexterity. Together, they totally brought out the carefree charm of those delightful little tunes and made sure to subtly highlight their whimsical nature, including the playful endings.
The second piece on the program, "Retro Music", had been written by Timo Andres himself and was dealing with dance music too, except that the intended traditional 19th century waltz never had a chance to get going in earnest because it kept on getting into frustratingly dissonant modern "collisions". Although Kaplan had informed us that the valiant effort "almost delivers" beforehand, the two musicians fully delivered on the imaginative composition full of surprise twists and turns.
Another piece, another deconstructed waltz, this one written by Maurice Ravel during the First World War. Although the man himself has denied it, "La valse" is suspiciously reminiscent of the turbulent times Europe was going through then. Go figure. However, no matter what the composer's true intentions were, it is unquestionably a powerful work, overflowing with tragically intense emotions as well as a touch of extravagance all the way to the all-destructive finale. The live rendition of it strongly resounded with brilliance and awe.
The second part of the program was entirely dedicated to the original version of my beloved Rite of Spring, which, Kaplan shared with us, was performed for the very first time by Igor Stravinsky and... Claude Debussy. On Friday night the duo pianists did not let themselves be intimidated by the thought of their illustrious predecessors and whole-heartedly threw themselves into an impeccably virtuosic performance that exploded with savage primitivism, vibrant colors, blazing sounds and boundless energy. As if on command, the barge started noticeably swaying with the first notes of the irresistible pounding of "The dance of the adolescents". The unusual motion, the intimate setting, the excellent acoustics, the now lit-up skyline and the terrific music all contributed to making this pared-down Rite of Spring a deliciously eerie experience. I can't wait for more.

Thursday, May 21, 2015

Cantori New York - Rosing-Schow & Potes - 05/16/15

Artistic Director & Conductor: Mark Shapiro
Niels Rosing-Schow: Where the Willows
Meet Alba Potes: Pedro Páramo
Alfonso Diaz: Narrator
Peter Tantsits: Tenor
Dan Kempson: Baritone
Greg Hesselink: Cello
Jared Soldiviero: Percussion
Wendy Stern: Flute
Kristina Teuschler: Clarinet
Soprano Solo: Dawn Jordan

After ending my Carnegie Hall season with a mostly traditional program on Thursday night, I was more than ready to end my Cantori season with ‒ what else? ‒ a mostly non-traditional program last Saturday night down in the Village, where I giddily joined a few friends spread out in a sizeable crowd in the lovely Church of Saint Luke in the Fields.
The evening would include Danish composer Niels Rosing-Schow's "Where the Willows Meet", which consisted of four poems by James Joyce arranged for a choir, and then Colombian-American composer Alba Potes' "Pedro Páramo", a one-hour brand new composition commissioned and premiered by Cantori New York that very evening. The work sounded all the more intriguing as in South America Juan Rulfo's novella Pedro Páramo enjoys a widespread popularity that only equals its uncompromising weirdness in form and content. Because there’s nothing like wrapping up a concert season with an attractive teaser followed by an intrepid adventure in high drama and pervasive creepiness.

As if not to scare anyone away, Cantori opened the concert with a thoroughly engaging rendition of Niels Rosing-Schow's "Where the Willows Meet", which delightfully dwelled on the artless lyricism of the poems written by a young man happily celebrating the joys of love and nature. Smoothly moving from richly colorful descriptions to rousing commands ‒ When they sang out “Arise, arise!”, you knew they really meant it ‒ the choir was in full, splendid romantic mood, and so was the audience.
We did not have the opportunity to marvel at those pretty melodies very long though, as after the intermission we all boldly stepped into the whole different world of Alba Potes' "Pedro Páramo", a world imbued with magical realism that was considerably darker, drastically less tonal, and filled with odd characters, whether they were dead or alive, as well as death, bitterness, abuse ‒ and still the occasional glimmer of hope ‒ in the (literal) ghost town of Colama, Mexico. The cantata unfolded in six sharply fragmented, starkly colored scenes, each starting with an English introduction from narrator Alfonso Diaz in order to provide some much needed context.
The singing, on the other hand, was entirely done in Spanish, the chorus making a grand entrance as their voices powerfully swelled and meandered when describing the road that rises and falls in the hot August wind. Then it all went down to nightmarish Colama from there. Although at times they whole-heartedly threw themselves into dreadful fits of rage ‒ when as the spectral town people they repeatedly lashed out that Pedro Páramo was "living spite", you could definitely tell that deep-seated resentment had reached its boiling point ‒ the chorus also thoughtfully conjured up quieter, softer moments of warmth and longing when bringing up as fond as could be memories.
Tenor Peter Tantsits was persuasively ambivalent and fearful as Juan Preciado, the son who went on a reluctant search for his estranged father after the death of his mother and ended up meeting his own death in the middle of the story. That's when his father appeared and took over the narrative with baritone Dan Kempson, who was appropriately sinister but also surprisingly poignant as Pedro Páramo, the strongman who deeply suffered from youthful unrequited love before eventually destroying the town. Some guys just do not take rejection well.
 Last, but by no means least, the instrumental accompaniment extensively helped create an eerie atmosphere thanks to the appealing combination of the mysterious darkness of the cello, the ambiguous flutter of the flute and clarinet, and the disturbing ominousness of the set of percussion, which I found particularly effective when evoking rattling skeletons' bones. Moreover, the extra soundtrack provided by the steadily pouring rain outside the church added yet another spooky musical component to the already unsettling experience.
This year happens to be the 60th anniversary of the novella's publication, and this gripping performance may even have gotten the classic work new fans, one gratefully weirded out audience member at a time.

Sunday, May 17, 2015

Philadelphia Orchestra - Muhly, Beethoven & Rachmaninoff - 05/14/15

Conductor: Yannick Nézet-Séguin
Muhly: Mixed Messages
Beethoven: Piano Concerto No. 3 in C Minor, Op. 37 Emanuel Ax
Rachmaninoff: Symphony No. 3 in A Minor, Op. 44

Because all good things have to come to a (in this case, temporary) end, my last Carnegie Hall concert of the season took place last Thursday night, happily mixing tradition, with the prestigious Philadelphia Orchestra, a concerto by Beethoven performed by Emanuel Ax and a symphony by Rachmaninoff, and novelty, with two young men who, although they have quickly become well-established figures in the classical music world, still bring boundless enthusiasm and wide-ranging creativity to their respective fields: Music director/conductor Yannick Nézet-Séguin and multi-faceted composer/occasional keyboardist Nico Muhly. Not bad for a send-off.

The first piece of the concert ‒ and frankly my main reason for being there, with all due respect to all the other parties involved ‒ was Muhly's "Mixed Messages", which was having its New York premiere on Thursday. Clocking in at approximately 11 minutes, it is a single movement that kept the large and eclectic orchestra continually busy in a myriad of different ways, all driven by one minimalist, but constant and propulsive pulse, in (Surprise!) the best Philip Glass tradition. Listening to the various, sometimes startling but always appealing, instrumental combinations, I kind of felt like I was standing in front of a toy store window in which a lot of animated mechanisms were all doing their own thing. Between the resounding opening and the abrupt ending, the adventure was inventive, fun and colorful, apparently a direct reflection of the ever-ebullient composer, who was rightly greeted like a rock star when he came onstage to take a bow or two.
When I originally looked at the program and saw Beethoven's Piano Concerto No. 3, my first thought was to wonder if, after indulging in Leif Ove Andsnes' magnificent "Beethoven Journey" three months ago, I needed to hear this third piano concerto again so soon. But of course I did! Especially when it is performed by such an accomplished pianist as Emanuel Ax. And so it was, beautifully unfolding with the impossibly lush sound of the orchestra, the unfailingly eloquent playing of the soloist and the deeply involved conducting of the maestro. And if the orchestra's take-no-prisoners élan at times threatened to unceremoniously drown the delicate piano, Ax deftly made sure to let his stunning part be heard and smashingly succeeded, as the thunderous ovation he got could attest.
After intermission, most of us were more than ready for Rachmaninoff's Symphony No. 3, but a few concert goers were apparently taking their own sweet time getting back to their seats in the parquet, to which Nézet-Séguin responded by seating patiently on one side of his podium, and then on the other side, to the chuckles and applause of the audience, before finally giving the downbeat. Although the symphony was written for the Philadelphia Orchestra all the way back in 1935, on Thursday night the current ensemble proved that it still unquestionably owes the opulently Russian work, especially in the intensely schmaltzy, deeply satisfying Adagio. And that's how my Carnegie Hall season ended, on a grand, unapologetically Romantic, and totally fulfilling note. I will be back.

Saturday, May 16, 2015

Stephen Hough - Debussy & Chopin - 05/09/15

Debussy: La plus que lente
Debussy: Estampes
Chopin: Ballade No. 2 in F Major
Chopin: Ballade No. 1 in G Minor
Chopin: Ballade No. 3 in A-fFat Major
Chopin: Ballade No. 4 in F Minor
Debussy: Children's Corner
Debussy: L’isle joyeuse

When  a few years ago I moved into my Upper West Side apartment and I heard some piano playing coming from downstairs, I figured that my exorbitant rent would at least be partly justified by some free-of-charge serenading. Alas! It did not take me long to realize that my downstairs neighbor's piano playing skills were hopelessly limited and would not improve with time. For the past year or so he's been doing unspeakable things to poor Chopin ‒ the "Revolutionary" étude being a favorite victim of his ‒ and I've been quietly gritting my teeth and loudly playing my Chopin CD by Jean-Yves Thibaudet to remember what those sparkling little gems actually sound like.
But there is nothing like live music, especially when performed by such a seasoned and well-rounded musician as Stephen Hough in the acoustically flawless environment that is Carnegie Hall's Stern auditorium, so that's where I was last Saturday night. And to make things even better, the four ballades of Chopin's would be book-marked by four works of Debussy's. So I cleared my head as much as possible from the immensely enjoyable production of The Rake's Progress I had seen at the Met in the afternoon and got mentally prepared for an old-fashioned Parisian evening in modern day New York City.

Transporting us right into the City of Lights of the early 20th century, Claude Debussy's contemplative "La plus que lente" (The more than slow) opened the concert with an all too fleeting moment of hushed melancholy, understated elegance and some beautiful harmonies.
Next, the program offered a wider range of ever-imaginative sounds with Debussy's three "Estampes" (Prints). The delicate "Pagodes" (Padogas) came out bustling with unusual oriental flavors, the spirited "La soirée dans Grenade" (The evening in Grenada) exploded with assertive rhythms, and the stormy "Jardins sous la pluie" (Gardens in the rain) was full of sound and fury as well as quotes from a couple of French folk tunes. Here again, the impressionistic nature of the composition winningly came through with a poetic atmosphere, bright colors and evocative harmonies.
Then we moved back in time to mid-19th century Paris with Frédéric Chopin and his four glorious ballades. I must confess that I am a total sucker for the Ballade No. 1 ‒ But then again, who isn't? ‒ and hearing it so gorgeously performed only deepened my bottomless love for it. For all four ballades, Stephen Hough did not shy away from the works' intensely expressive power, but rather used his impeccable technique and unwavering sense of the musical line to thoughtfully deliver a lyrically radiant, emotionally stirring, and simply all-around perfect Chopin experience.
Then it was back to Debussy with his "Children's Corner", the six-movement suite dedicated to his daughter Claude-Emma, who was three at the time. While it was predictably filled with sweet lullabies and playful images, it also featured the occasional bouts of frustration, dark passages, weird sounds and jazzy rhythms, all of which were brilliantly brought to life by Hough with plenty of warmth and vivacity.
A lot of fun could also be found in Debussy's "L'isle joyeuse" (The joyful island), which drew its inspiration from both Watteau's painting L’Embarquement de Cythère, in which a group of revelers takes a trip to the mythical island of Cythera in the Mediterranean, birthplace of Venus, and the island of Jersey in the English Channel, where Debussy escaped to with Emma Bardac, who became his second wife, and where he revised the composition. Accordingly, the work packed a lot in six minutes and happily burst with subtle exoticism, vivid colors and unbridled joie de vivre.

If the auditorium was not completely packed, the concert was nevertheless well-attended by an obviously dedicated audience, which eventually saw its rapturous ovations rewarded not by one, or two, or three, but by four (4) encores! And they were not the quick and easy favors he could have gotten away with either.
One can probably never hear too much Chopin ‒ at least with the right performer ‒ and Stephen Hough proved one more time his mastery of the Polish-born but Parisian-at-heart composer in a poignant-in-its-simplicity Nocturne in F-Sharp Major. Then it was on to a lively "Dulcinea Variation" from the ballet score for Don Quixote by Ludwig Minkus, arranged by Hough himself, followed the wild and wildly entertaining "Osmanthus Romp" composed by Hough himself, and finally the one we did not think we would get but did, a lush and sensitive rendition of Grieg's "Notturno". You really cannot get too much of a good thing.

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Met - The Rake's Progress - 05/09/15

Composer: Igor Stravinsky
Conductor: James Levine
Producer/Director: Jonathan Miller
Tom Rakewell: Paul Appleby
Nick Shadow: Gerald Finley
Stephanie Blythe: Baba The Turk
Anne Trulove: Layla Claire

There is probably very little ‒ if anything at all ‒ that James Levine can ask from the Met and not get, and luckily for opera buffs in New York City, the return of The Rake's Progress, last seen in 1997, was yet another wish of his that was granted. Although we need to keep in mind that apparently the inclusion of Stravinsky's neo-classical opera in the 2014/2015 season is probably not a sign of the Met branching out into more adventurous territory after all: With only three performances and no live HD broadcast, the powers-that-be obviously did not have high hopes for it.
Still nursing the burn I got from missing out on Dialogue des Carmélites two years ago due to the equally meager number of performances and my extended procrastinating, I got my ticket for The Rake's Progress as soon as they became available and was vastly rewarded on Saturday afternoon as I took my seat in the packed and buzzing opera house. Hmmm... Maybe in these days of constant hand-wringing about the future of opera in general and the Met in particular it would not be a bad idea to get rid of some of the umpteenth reheatings of La bohème or Aida to make room for less rehashed and more exciting productions if you want to keep dedicated opera goers interested, have a chance to attract a new audience and, you know, sell tickets.

As the one and only opera written by avant-garde Russian composer Igor Stravinsky, The Rake's Progress may be considered first and foremost a curiosity, but the fact is the opera can also proudly stand on its own with a surprisingly accessible core that winningly draws from various influences and a moral tale spiked with the occasional touch of laugh-out humor. Beside the presence of James Levine in the pit, the cast sounded almost too good to be true with fast rising star Paul Appleby as the nice young man led astray, unflappable Gerald Finley as the suave Devil and the one and only Stephanie Blythe as paparazzi favorite Baba The Turk.
Young tenor Paul Appleby has always delivered solid performances every time I got a chance to hear him on the Met stage and, it was a real pleasure to hear him tackle such a substantial and nuanced part so compellingly on Saturday. Tom Rakewell is not a gloriously heroic role, but his transformation from naive country bumpkin to depraved city dweller to wrenching lunatic allowed him to convincingly express a wide range of emotions, which he effortlessly did with crystal clear articulation, a strong sense of melody and a truly beautiful voice.
As the Faustian Nick Shadow, established bass-baritone Gerald Finley exuded his natural elegance and also a vague air of menace, just enough to let you know that there will be no happy ending. There was a mysterious darkness surrounding the ever-present character, and you could not take your eyes off of him every time he was onstage, let alone when he was mesmerizingly singing.
The true comic relief of the evening was brought by beloved mezzo-soprano Stephanie Blythe, who was unforgettable in her short but irresistible turn as celebrity around town Baba The Turk. From her discreet yet assertive entrance as a bejeweled hand waving outside a coach window to her grand exit storming out of the auction room, you could not but marvel at her sumptuous voice, charismatic presence and impeccable comic timing.
The other female character was much more subdued Anne Trulove, who was sweetly impersonated by soprano Layla Claire. As the simple country girl who loves Tom and will not give him up, this newcomer was all purity, naïveté and devotion all the way to the heart-breaking parting scene.
The chorus was kept happily busy, especially as merry débauchés in the brothel, heartless vultures at the auction and mad inmates in the lunatic asylum, and seemed to have a lot of fun in the splendid costumes they got to wear.
Beside the spot-on singing, this production was also remarkable for its brilliantly imaginative, slightly surrealistic and stylishly understated sets, which were perfectly in tune with the sporadically wacky but still somewhat humanly relatable tale. The opening tableau, for example, featured a tall bare house in which trees grew all the way to the top and a few puffy clouds adorning a serenely blue sky à la Magritte. Strikingly contrasted with this bucolic scene was the fancy nouveau riche city apartment of Act 2, decorated with the worse minimalist taste possible (hanging stuffed shark, anyone?) and incidentally the background of what has to be the most hilarious domestic dispute in opera history.
The music was probably more classical than could have been expected from Stravinsky, with Mozartian melodic power and overall polish, recitative over harpsichord and a finale sung directly to the audience, but still has enough weird rhythms and sharp dissonances to make it unique and fascinating. If the plot had unexpected twists and turns, so did the score, keeping us well aware that we were watching a theatrical performance while still imperceptibly drawing us to the humanity of the story. James Levine was clearly having a ball and his orchestra did not let him down (Would they ever?).

And so the 2014-2015 Met season ended, with a relatively obscure, thoroughly enjoyable and highly popular bang. May the lesson be learnt.