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 .

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Music Mondays - Enso Quartet - Janacek, Puccini, Beethoven & Shostakovich - 11/17/14

Janacek: String Quartet No. 1, "Kreutzer Sonata"
Puccini: Chrysanthemums
Beethoven: String Quartet in C Major, Op. 59, No. 3
Shostakovich: Piano Quintet in G Minor, Op. 57 - Aaron Wunsch

 There's nothing like a little bit (or even better, a lot) of high quality live music to brighten up a miserable, cold and wet, November Monday. So yesterday evening I headed straight to the Upper West Side's cozy Advent Lutheran Church for an intimate Music Mondays evening with the Enso Quartet. The much-acclaimed 15-year-old ensemble was scheduled to play an appealing smorgasbord of beloved and lesser-known works by celebrated composers and could have hardly found a more captive audience.
After an unofficial Czech festival at Carnegie Hall on Sunday afternoon, it seemed like my Monday evening would decidedly be Russian-flavored, starting with Janacek's "Kreutzer Sonata", which was inspired by Leo Tolstoy's novella "The Kreutzer Sonata", which itself incorporates Beethoven's famed "Kreutzer Sonata" in its plot. Since the story ends with a murder, it was going to be followed by Puccini's elegiac "Chrysanthemums", because it kind of made sense after all. Then we had Beethoven and his particularly upbeat String Quartet in C Major, Op. 59, No. 3, which was dedicated to Russian Prince Andrei Razumovsky, and finally the big centerpiece of the evening, the Stalin-prize winning Piano Quintet by Shostakovich, which could not be more Russian even if it tried. Davai!

Starting a concert by a particularly challenging work can be considered counter-intuitive, but on the other hand, everything is likely to go down smoothly after it. Janacek's "Kreutzer Sonata" deals with the painful theme of domestic abuse and ends with a husband killing his wife in an act of jealous rage. After experiencing Janacek's "Tutras Bulba", which features three wartime deaths, the day before, I admit that I briefly wondered about Janacek's apparent fixation on macabre tales. But the fact of the matter is, he does them very well, and the unapologetically dissonant score, peppered with passionate élans, seething quietness and violent outbursts, is probably one of the most unique musical studies in mental instability and its dreadful consequences. The Enso Quartet resolutely met the challenge, unafraid of producing gritty sounds or disturbing images, and delivered a starkly emotional performance.
What could bring better solace after a brutal murder that some stunningly lyrical "Chrysanthemums", courtesy of Italy's premier melody-maker Giacomo Puccini? This delightful little gem packed a big soothing punch in its few minutes, proving that a lot can be beautifully said with the right notes and the right players. We obviously had them last night.
Then we went back in time for Beethoven's String Quartet in C Major, Op. 59, No. 3, a superb piece from his middle period, when he had more or less come to terms with his hearing loss and decided to move on to even bigger and better things than before. With an inconspicuous opening and a grand finale, it bursts with sunny radiance and self-confident optimism, and kept the ensemble busy expertly weaving a superb tapestry from the spectacularly wide range of sounds.
Fully on Russian soil this time, we moved to the Piano Quintet in G Minor, Op. 57 by Shostakovich, for which the Enso Quartet was joined by dedicated pianist Aaron Wunsch, who also happens to be the unstoppable artistic director of Music Mondays. It cannot be denied that this piano quintet may sound a bit conventional from an artist well-known as a major figure of Modernism, which would incidentally explain its unabated popularity, but it is nevertheless a masterfully shifting, deeply expressive and all-around musically satisfying composition. And let's not forget that having the Soviet government keep a watchful eye on your every move does not exactly encourage you to take unreasonable chances of any kind. Finally, the poised performance of it we got to enjoy last night categorically showed that one could stay politically out of trouble and still create meaningful work. So there. 

Monday, November 17, 2014

Czech Philharmonic - Janacek, Liszt & Dvorak - 11/16/14

Conductor: Jiri Belohlavek
Janacek: Taras Bulba
Liszt: Piano Concerto No. 2 in A Major - Jean-Yves Thibaudet
Dvorak: Symphony No. 9 in E Minor, Op. 95, "From the New World"

With all the pessimistic talks and anguished discussions about the falling attendance at classical music and opera performances, taking my seat in a cultural venue hosting a sold-out show is always a comforting moment, even if I am painfully aware that it also comes with some unavoidable inconveniences, such as exponentially increased chances that a concert-goer will forget to turn off their electronic device and get a call, another one will take a photo of the soloist, send it from his iPhone and carry on a conversation about it all during the performance, or another one will drop her program during the Largo.
And sure enough, all of the above happened yesterday afternoon at Carnegie Hall, where after a sold-out concert by the Philadelphia Orchestra for Mahler's "Resurrection" symphony a couple of weeks ago, the Stern auditorium could boast of a sold-out concert by the Czech Philharmonic for Dvorak's "New World" symphony. Va-va-voom! So there is hope, even if it starts with big crowd-pleasers. The rest of the program sounded like a lot of fun too, with Janacek's "Taras Bulba" ‒ If we're having the premier Czech orchestra on the stage, we might as well celebrate Czech music ‒ and my personal motivation for being in the hall, Liszt's second piano concerto performed by my fellow Lyonnais piano man extraordinaire Jean-Yves Thibaudet.

The concert started on an openly nationalistic, musically engaging, but dramatically grim note, with Janacek's "Taras Bulba", a 25-minute work inspired Gogol's short story about the Ukrainian Cossack's fight against the Poles, in which each of the three movements features a death (Bulba's younger son, Bulba's older son, Bulba). With the inventiveness of Janacek's score and the dynamic conducting of Jiri Belohlavek strongly emphasizing the burning dilemma between personal feelings and patriotic duty, the story swiftly unfolded with lavish melodies and resounding fanfares in a fiercely colorful number.
The first time I heard Jean-Yves Thibaudet perform Liszt ‒That would be "Tottentanz" several years ago ‒ I immediately realized that those two were a match made in heaven. Although I'd go hear the most stylish pianist of them all play pretty much anything, the prospect of hearing him tackle Liszt always adds an extra, irresistible, incentive. Predictably, yesterday lived up to my sky-high expectations again, even as the typical flamboyance was significantly toned down to make room for subtle introspection and the orchestra was skillfully brought in as a more equal partner. On the other hand, Liszt will be Liszt, and there were still plenty of opportunities for Thibaudet to show off his impressive virtuosic skills and his gorgeous delicate touch all the way to the old-fashioned grand finale.
Since the one-movement piano concerto lasted a mere 20 minutes, Thibaudet generously extended his much appreciated stay among us with a heavenly account of Schubert 's "Kupelwieser-Walzer", arranged by Richard Strauss, which provided us with a wonderfully soothing respite between Liszt's lush Romanticism and Dvorak's American liveliness.
Dvorak's universally popular and widely quoted "New World" symphony is the kind of works that I never go out of my way for because I know that sooner or later our paths will cross, usually after I've been lured in by another item on the program. Then I hear it again and realize what an incredibly cool composition it is again, yesterday's richly earthy performance of it by the Czech Philharmonic being yet another case in point. A heart-felt tribute to America's culture and spirit, deeply influenced by Native-American and African-American music traditions, this classic among classics never fails to captivate the listener with its unpretentious freshness and boundless exuberance. Back for the umpteenth time in the Stern Auditorium where it was premiered 121 years ago, Dvorak's Symphony No. 9 gloriously took over the whole space, proudly rising, leisurely meditating, happily dancing, unequivocally triumphing. This is obviously the stuff the musicians were born to play, and this intensely committed performance would have made Dvorak very happy.

Obviously fired-up by what they had just achieved and the enthusiastic ovation it prompted from our part, conductor and orchestra decided to just carry on and treated us to an energetic overture to The Bartered Bride by Bedrich Smetana and a melancholic "Valse triste" by Oskar Nedbal, which pleasantly rounded up our quick, incomplete, but fully enjoyed, taste of Czech composers.

Sunday, November 16, 2014

Met - The Death of Klinghoffer - 11/15/14

Composer: John Adams
Conductor: David Robertson
Producer/Director: Tom Morris
The Captain: Paulo Szot
Marilyn Klinghoffer: Michaela Martens
Leon Klinghoffer: Alan Opie
Mamoud: Aubrey Allicock
Molqi: Sean Panikkar
Rambo: Ryan Speedo Green

They say there is no such thing as bad publicity, and the robust ticket sales of John Adams' The Death of Klinghoffer at the Met following weeks of vituperative accusations of anti-semitism and pro-terrorism would certainly support this theory. But the artists, Met personnel and public who had to put up with all kinds of harassment, from mere annoying to plain vicious, may think that the means did not justify the end, and who could blame them? Moreover, in this particular case, the irony is that there was no controversy to be found to begin with, which the protesters could have easily realized if they had bothered checking out the opera instead of stridently stating groundless claims and making fools of themselves. Oops.
Unlike the vast majority of the protesters, I was actually familiar with Klinghoffer because I had seen - and very much liked - the BBC film version of it several years ago. So last summer, my only motivation to buy a ticket was to attend a live production of it, not thinking for a minute that it was about to become the focus of so much pointless ranting and raving. And then all hell broke loose.
Fortunately Peter Geld held strong when it came to the live production, unfortunately he caved in when it came to the broadcasts, depriving the rest of the world from a chance to get to know a major work and make up their own mind about it like, you know, grown-ups are supposed to do. So it was with a special thought for my frustrated opera-loving friends and family that I walked down Broadway yesterday afternoon to attend the Saturday matinee we should have all shared.

Based on the 1985 hijacking of the Italian cruise ship Achille Lauro by members of the Palestine Liberation Front, during which wheelchair-bound Jewish American Leon Klinghoffer was murdered, his body and wheelchair thrown overboard, The Death of Klinghoffer has been regularly performed in major cities around the world for the past 23 years. Even when it generated controversy, those occurrences can hardly be compared to all the noise we had to endure here, which incidentally does not speak exactly well of New York City as the potential cultural capital of the world.
After a rowdy, headline-making opening night a few weeks ago, things have been back to normal outside the Met, but once inside yesterday, a vague feeling of paranoia was still in the air as apologetic extra personnel asked me to throw away my water bottle "just for this show" as I was passing security. (But not to worry, I quickly realized that I could still buy an overpriced water bottle at one of the Met's bars and hurl it toward the stage if that had been my intention anyway.)
Although the title is about Leon Klinghoffer, the lead part was the nameless captain, who was soberly and efficiently interpreted by baritone Paulo Szot, whose strong and flexible voice gave the character a dignified presence, the one of a man ready to reason the unreasonable and sacrifice himself for the crew and passengers he was responsible for.
Mezzo-soprano Michaela Martens was viscerally touching as Marilyn Klinghoffer, a devoted wife dying of cancer but determined to spend quality time with her husband. Her singing was crystal clear, richly colorful and deeply affecting, making her an instant crowd favorite.
As Leon Klinghoffer, baritone Alan Opie had only two arias, but they were spell-binding ones, and he easily commanded the stage with his particularly expressive voice as he first angrily confronted the hijackers and later ethereally drifted away.
The bad guys, who had generated so much of the heat because they were literally given a voice, grabbed the opportunity and made a riveting use of theirs. Bass-baritone Aubrey Allicock was a complex Mamoud, who had survived the Sabra and Shatila massacre, where he saw his mother and brother murdered, and consequently turned into a cold-hearted, non-compromising terrorist. The hard line he had adopted, however, did not keep him from having mundane tastes, such as fondly remembering the pop music from some local radio stations and musing about birds and freedom.
Tenor Sean Panikkar was an out-of-control Molqi, whose virulent singing made him even more of an unpredictable threat. Bass baritone Ryan Speedo Green was quick-tempered, big-mouthed Rambo, the one who suddenly launched into an anti-Jewish rant bursting with bigoted stereotypes and later came up with the immature, sadistic hand grenade scare.
Although the soloists were all very fine indeed, the real star of the opera had to be the Met chorus, which handled the massive challenge of providing richly textured, organic interludes with unshakable force and stunning subtlety. The opening Chorus of Exiled Palestinians followed by the Chorus of Exiled Jews were dramatically instrumental, musically mesmerizing and set the highly expressive tone of the choral parts right away. However, to my ears at least, their tour de force of the afternoon was the Night Chorus, which exploded with ferocious rage before a West Bank wall covered with screamingly colorful street art as huge green flags were being assertively waved.
But all the outstanding singing talent in the house could not hide the fact the text they were given did not say much or said too much, depending on how you looked at it. In fact, the major flaw of the opera is probably an overly dense libretto that for the most part overflows with fancy words, biblical references, obscure metaphors, and rarely seems to connect with the reality of the situation. This is all the more problematic as the story is neither linear nor always well-balanced, and all this over-ambitious pseudo-poetry fails to clarify or elevate the unfolding drama. Even the most emotionally gripping scene of the opera, when the captain told Marilyn Klinghoffer that her husband had been murdered, eventually got spoiled when another weird metaphor sneaked into her otherwise simple, devastatingly effective text.
On the other hand, the production's use of projected photos and text often helped situate the action and fill some of the most static scenes with valuable insights. Backgrounds representing the thankless nature of the arid land or the sheer impassibility of the Mediterranean sea and sun worked well, as did the partial reconstitution of the ship, on which brilliant minimalist tableaux were created at times. But I could have done without the jumpy choreography, or having a veiled Palestinian mezzo-soprano sing the part of Omar, a male terrorist who was embodied by a jerky dancer. In those cases, less would have definitely been more.
The ultimate unifier of all the parts was the hypnotic composition written by John Adams. Whether it was dealing with complex chorus numbers expressing universal ideas, introspective arias conveying psychological struggle, or the inherent tension of life on a hijacked ship, the music never failed to persuasively draw the attentive audience in and keep them on a permanent edge. The score also benefitted from a beautifully nuanced and masterfully executed performance by the always excellent Met orchestra, who gave it their all under the assured and unwavering baton of David Robertson.

The clapping started even before the lights had completely faded, maybe out of a need to come back to a comforting reality quicker, and only grew exponentially to reach a thunderous ovation when John Adams appeared on the stage of the packed opera house. And rightly so. After a rather humdrum Aida a couple of weeks ago, I was only too happy to have experienced a truly memorable performance of a fundamentally messy, but also profoundly human, musically enthralling, unapologetically thought-provoking, and regrettably more relevant than ever, opera because, at the end of the day, that is what genuine artistic endeavors are all about.

Friday, November 14, 2014

Quatuor Ebène - Mozart, Mendelssohn & Bartok - 11/12/14

Mozart: String Quartet in E-flat Major, K. 428
Mendelssohn: String Quartet in A Minor, Op. 13, "Ist es wahr?"
Bartok: String Quartet No. 4

It is always nice to have an extra little pick-me-up on Hump Day, just to make the day even more special. This past Wednesday, however, had a particularly big treat associated to it with the annual visit of the hottest French string quartet ever to New York City. Watching the meteoric trajectory of the virtuosic and intrepid Quatuor Ebène, from my first encounter with them at the Library of Congress in 2009 to... now, when they regularly fill up Zankel Hall with an enthusiastic audience, has been constantly thrilling and rewarding, and I was more than ready for my annual fix.
Wednesday's program, which included Mozart, Mendelssohn and Bartok, sounded appealing, yes, well-balanced, obviously, but, all things considered, rather conventional. However, as a dedicated fan of the seriously fun-loving ensemble I knew better, and even before the concert started I was already looking forward to the end of the official program, when delightful surprises never fail to materialize.

Mozart's "Haydn" Quartets, in which the old master's classicism cleverly rubs notes with the young pupil's petulant instincts, are the kind of works I can listen to anytime anywhere. Brilliantly performed by those seasoned and committed musicians, the third Quartet of the series unfolded with playfulness, precision and warmth, opening the classical portion of the evening with grace and vitality.
After marveling at young Mozart's refined flair at 27, we got to experience even younger Mendelssohn's passionate style at 18. Both being industrious students, the former's six-piece set was paying a glowing tribute to Haydn, the latter's "Ist es wahr?" Quartet was divinely inspired by Beethoven. Add to that the sunny luminosity already found in his famous Octet, whose first version he had come up with two years earlier, and you have an immediately infectious, profusely melodic composition that does not hesitate to pull on your heartstrings in the best Romantic tradition. The incandescent, flawlessly unified playing of the ensemble intensely heightened the richly lyrical quality of the work in Zankel's ever-cool interior.
Things got unquestionably rougher after intermission when Bartok and his intriguingly symmetrical String Quartet No. 4 took center stage. Carefully arranged around the slow third movement, the four other movements formed compelling outer shells, what with aggressively popping pizzicatos, energetic dance rhythms, dazzling technical tricks, deeply expressive colors and so much more. The wide range of sonorities kept the audience constantly on the edge and ended the official program of the evening with a masterful tour de force.

Once the classical stuff out of the way, the time had come to paaartyyyyy. And party we sure did when the four musicians came back and announced that we were all going to Brazil because last year they recorded an album of Brazilian music coinciding with the World Cup. Inspired by Ari Barroso's "Aquarela do Brasil", "Brazile Odyssey" started slowly but quickly gained tremendous, all-out exuberant momentum, with a little help from one of their local buddies, French-born jazz percussionist Mino Cinelu.
Moreover, since we were all brought in to sing along after a very short rehearsal, I can now legitimately claim that I made my singing debut at Carnegie Hall with the Quatuor Ebène... and a few hundred random fellow audience members, all the more psyched by violist Mathieu Herzog's no doubt totally objective assessment of our performance as "not bad". The rousing ovation they received made it clear that our totally objective assessment of their performance was "outstanding". À l'année prochaine !