Sunday, October 4, 2015

Met - Il Trovatore - 10/03/15

Composer: Giuseppe Verdi
Conductor: Marco Armiliato
Producer: Sir David McVicar
Leonora: Anna Netrebko
Count di Luna: Dmitri Hvorostovsky
Yonghoon Lee: Manrico
Azucena: Dolora Zajick
Fernando: Stefan Kocan

Dmitri's back! And opera-loving New Yorkers are ecstatically swooning. Although I had seen it back in 2009 from the furthest house right upper corner of the Family Circle, there were many reasons for me to attend the revival of Il Trovatore at the Metropolitan Opera yesterday afternoon, including a slightly better seat, the opera's fabulous score, Anna Netrebko daringly stepping into Sondra Radvanovsky's inherently Verdian shoes as Leonora, the silly but still gripping plot involving three storylines overloaded with love, hate, revenge and death, and, last but not least, the iconic – and performed partially shirtless – anvil chorus. All those legitimate incentives, however, paled in comparison to the perspective of getting to enjoy universally beloved Russian baritone Dmitri Hvorostovsky as the scheming Count di Luna again in his last of only three performances as a serious health scare had him essentially clear out most of his professional schedule.
Moreover, Joaquin having decided to make this first October Saturday a gray, cold, wet, and generally miserable one (So much for fall being my favorite season), checking out this oldie but goodie Il Trovatore right down the street in the Met's familiar environment sounded as good as any proposition, and certainly a promising way to kick off my 2015-2016 opera season.

If opera has occasionally been deemed a dying art, it sure did not look like it yesterday in the Met's huge opera house that was packed all the way to the standing room area, where people were busily piling up in two rows, and buzzing with excitement. Happily stuck between a large contingent of chatty Italians who had made a special trip to the island for the occasion and two Russian Babushkas beaming with pride every time one of their country fellowmen was onstage, I could not but be fully aware and grateful for being part of a very special occasion.
When Dmitri Hvorostovsky first appeared onstage the week before, the ovation was so humongous that maestro Armiliato had to stop the orchestra and the baritone briefly acknowledge the rapturous greeting. Well, there was no reason that we could not match, possibly surpass, that audience, and after pulling out all the stops, we did earn our own moment in opera's history too. Fact is, convalescent or not, the man of the moment treated us to another flawlessly poised and desperate Count di Luna, his hauntingly burnished voice shining as beautifully as ever in countless dark hues. Although he was clearly the bad guy, there was most likely not a single dry eye in the entire house after he nailed "Il balen del suo sorriso", his heart-breaking ode to unrequited love.
His long-time colleague and friend Anna Netrebko, in all probability the world's most famous soprano these days, has been adding new and demanding roles to her resume at an impressive pace. For her second foray into Verdian territory, she took on sweet but nevertheless strong-willed Leonora with her trademark intensity and commitment, her magnificent and powerful voice effortlessly filling up the Met's cavernous space with a seemingly endless supply of dazzling sounds. She is still not the most subtle performer out there, but she does know how to carry her points gorgeously across.
Mezzo-soprano Dolora Zajick has pretty much been the Met's go-to Azucena since 1988, and while she could probably do the part in her sleep by now, she was very much awake and kicking yesterday afternoon as the aging gypsy haunted by her past and still seeking revenge after all these years. Just like her character, her singing was fierce and uncompromising.
It had to be mightily intimidating to be the relatively untested fourth element in such an ensemble of seasoned singers, but up-and-coming tenor Yonghoon Lee convincingly held his own and some as Manrico, the mysterious troubadour and leader of the rebel forces. His bright singing, genuinely remarkable in its clear articulation and assured phrasing, combined to a charismatic presence and energy galore, definitely makes him a newcomer to watch closely.
While the singing was, as my live HD broadcast-watching friend Steve so rightly put it, "consistently glorious", the Goya-inspired production, which places the plot during the Spanish Civil War, was its usual drab with the occasional inspired touches, such as the ominous huge crosses looming in the background and the grittiness of the rebels' camp. The transition between the sets was at least very efficient and did wonders with keeping the momentum of the convoluted story going.
But ultimately, the opera's raison d'être is Verdi's unfailingly compelling score, which miraculously keeps on churning out high-flying melodies in an amazingly wide range of styles. Each of the four lead singers gets to belt out devilishly difficult and stunningly beautiful arias that ingenuously contribute to define their characters' emotional truths, emphasize the dramatic twists and turns of the narrative, and simply provide divine musical entertainment. One of the Met's regular conductors, Marco Armiliato led the excellent orchestra in a vibrant and supple performance, which provided the perfect instrumental background for the recurrent electrifying vocal feats.

Chances are most people in the audience yesterday afternoon had originally bought their tickets for Anna Netrebko, but the undisputed star of the show remained Dmitri Hvorostovsky all the way to the curtain call, when he was greeted with not only a roof-raising rock-star ovation, but also a shower of white roses thrown from the orchestra pit. And everybody took their Kleenex out again. Speaking of emotional truth, they had kept the best for last.

Thursday, October 1, 2015

Music Mondays - Christina and Michelle Naughton - Mendelssohn, Adams & Messiaen - 09/28/15

Mendelssohn: Allegro brillante, Op. 92
Adams: Hallelujah Junction
Messiaen: Visions de l'Amen

Another September evening in New York City, another season opening concert, this time in the Upper West Side's lovely and so convenient Advent Lutheran Church for a piano recital by pianists Christina and Michelle Naughton, who were headlining the always intriguing Music Monday series last Monday night. Since graduating from the Juilliard School AND the Curtis Institute of Music (Why stop at one, when you can make it through two of the world’s most prestigious music schools?) the young twin sisters have already built up a truly impressive resume and are clearly showing no signs of slowing down.
Furthermore, Monday's program was a decidedly attractive combination of genres, periods and nationalities that included the German Romantic Felix Mendelssohn, the American contemporary John Adams, and the French mystical Olivier Messiaen. I obviously could not have found a better way to blissfully unwind at the end of my very busy first day as a newly relocated downtown working girl (Wall Street, watch out, here I come!).

Looking eerily and adorably alike, except for their pink and blue flowing tops, Christina and Michelle Naughton sat down at the same piano for Mendelssohn's delightful Allegro brillante. A delicious little bonbon ingeniously served as appetizer, the irrepressibly melodic concert opener happily sparkled with joie de vivre and witticism, the two sisters demonstrating a real osmosis and an impeccable technique in their brightly colored four-hand performance.
Then the two ladies sat down at two pianos facing each other for John Adams' Hallelujah Junction, a highly rhythmical work that distinguishes itself with a brilliantly minimalist, tightly organized chaos that would actually be right at home in a road movie. The pianists dynamically played off each other and proved once again that they were in perfect synchronicity.
The main piece of the evening was Visions de l'Amen, the first piece that Messiaen wrote after being released from a war camp in 1943, and also his first collaboration with Yvonne Loriod, then his student, later his wife and muse. But even without this unique background, Visions de l'Amen mightily stands out for being a grand and austere experience, sweepingly displaying a wide range of emotions on its own terms, taking the time to breathe and follow its natural flow. Facing each other at their own piano again, the duo resolutely dug deep into the work and gave a beautifully heart-felt performance of it, from which emerged random extraordinary moments such as the turmoil of the “Amen des étoiles", the suffering of the "Amen de l'agonie de Jésus", the tenderness turning into passion of the "Amen of Desire", the chirping of the birds and the clanging of the church bells. Just when you thought that New York City could not take another ounce of self-important Catholicism, Olivier Messiaen showed us the way to true spirituality.

The concert had been kind of short, but very challenging for the musicians and extremely satisfying for the audience, so we would have totally understood if the artists had decided to call it a night. But no. They came back with a transcription for two pianos of a stunning funeral cantata by Johann Sebastian Bach, which kept us in an all-encompassing spiritual mood while ending the evening on a flawlessly serene note.

Sunday, September 27, 2015

New York Classical Players - Mozart, Nielsen, Neidich & Schoenberg - 09/27/15

Conductor: Dongmin Kim
Mozart: Divertimento in B-flat, K. 137
Nielsen: Clarinet Concerto Op. 57
Charles Neidich: Clarinet
Neidich: Scherzissimo for Clarinet and Strings
Charles Neidich: Clarinet
Schoenberg: Verklärte Nacht (Transfigured Night), Op. 4

After the expected lull of late summer, the official season has finally been kicked into high gear in concert halls and opera houses around the city, and after a rousing concert by the New York Philharmonic on Friday night, this afternoon I was more than ready for the smaller but no less blazingly talented New York Classical Players in a typically eclectic program including well-known entities such as Mozart, Schoenberg and Nielsen, and the bonus discovery du jour, Charles Neidlich, doing double duty as clarinetist and composer.
So just as the sun was coming out, the temperature was moving slightly up and the city was navigable again, I took a walk across a bustling Central Park and joined an eager crowd in the orchestra's unofficial Manhattan home of the Church of the Heavenly Rest on the Upper East Side for yet another free concert by this unique group of dedicated and selfless young musicians.

The concert safely opened with Mozart and the Divertimento in B-flat, K. 137 that he wrote when he was a rapidly maturing 16-year old prodigy tirelessly travelling all over Europe. As the NYCP's string players put their expert skills to work, they did full justice to the genuinely attractive piece, brightly highlighting the highly melodic nature of the composition while also displaying Mozart's solid sense of his own structure as well as an uncanny dramatic flair.
Carl August Nielsen's Clarinet Concerto Op. 57 turned out to be a non-stop 30-minute conversation, sometimes friendly, sometimes confrontational, but for sure never boring, between the soloist and the orchestra. Only a true virtuoso would be able to come out of this worthy predicament alive, and luckily for us the NYCP had solicited the right one in acclaimed clarinetist, composer, conductor and teacher Charles Neidich. Stormingly asserting itself, playfully flitting around or pensively reflecting, the clarinet boldly held its own and treated the audience to a mesmerizing demonstration of its wide range of possibilities. The strings, however, did not let their guest star steal the entire show and performed with plenty of countering power for a totally enjoyable battle.
After a well-deserved break during the intermission, Charles Neidich was back onstage with the orchestra for his own Scherzissimo for Clarinet and Strings, a short work he composed in 1999 for Elliot Carter's 91st birthday. Tonally based on the notes E, C, B, and B-flat for roughly Elliott, Carter, Happy and Birthday, this outstanding birthday gift had its New York premiere this afternoon, virtuosically flying around in all directions to everyone's delight.
The concert ended with a magnificent rendition of Anton Schoenberg's lushly Romantic Verklärte Nacht, the one work of his that keeps on reminding the world that the ground-breaking inventor of the often off-putting 12-tone technique was also capable of churning out an amazing wealth of richly lyrical sounds, which would have no doubt made Brahms and Wagner turn green with jealousy. Inspired by a poem by Richard Dehmel, in which a woman confesses to her lover that she bears another man's child and he gently forgives her as they walk under the moonlight, Verklärte Nacht takes this highly dramatic background to create a whole world of intense emotions and gorgeous sounds lavishly unfolding in one sweeping and – Yes! – transfiguring movement. And there's nothing like a little transfiguration on a lovely fall Sunday afternoon.

Saturday, September 26, 2015

New York Philharmonic - Salonen & Strauss - 09/25/16

Conductor: Alan Gilbert
Salonen: LA Variations
Strauss: Ein Heldenleben (A Hero's Life), Op. 40
Frank Huang: Violin

Yesterday I knew that my evening and, as it happens, my new musical season had started well when I was unexpectedly handed a free CD filled with goodies performed by the New York Philharmonic, including Mozart's Symphony No. 40 (Yeah!), by a friendly violinist from the orchestra on my way into the newly renamed David Geffen Hall. The most welcome gift turned out to be a token of appreciation for taking the plunge and becoming a subscriber again after a few years as a single-ticket buyer. I guess commitment does pay off sometimes!
So I decided to put aside work-related distractions, such as the emotional goodbye to an old colleague of ours and to our old office location earlier in the day, as well as New York-related frustrations, such as the infuriating street closings and the hysterical hoopla generated by the dreadfully outdated and overbloated entities that are the U.N. and papacy, to resolutely focus on what had brought me to the Lincoln Center: The first concert program of the season by the New York Philharmonic, featuring a work by the always exciting Esa-Pekka Salonen and a classic by the no less reliable Richard Strauss, as well as an opportunity to welcome Salonen as the new Marie-Josée Kravis Composer-in-Residence for the next three years and check out the orchestra's brand new concertmaster Frank Huang. Not a bad way to kick off the weekend after all.

The advantage of having a composer on the program in the house is that he just may get on the stage and share some precious background information. Since yesterday's program was shorter and Salonen is a wildly popular figure on the New York music scene, he was totally game to entertain us with a few insightful and funny anecdotes on how LA Variations came about (Suddenly realizing that he was happy while making an espresso alone in his kitchen while his family was sleeping, one morning in the mid-1990s, in Santa Monica, CA, was apparently an "extraordinary" thing for the Finnish man that he was, and this particular experience unleashed his creative juices again). Or on how he and a buddy of his broke into and stole some sounds from Pierre Boulez's IRCAM Institute on a floppy disk – one of which made it into the composition – only to confess to the man years later without getting much of a reaction.
And so "LA variations" was born soon afterwards. As performed by the New York Philharmonic last night, it was predictably a joyful work, punctuated by moments of occasionally dark cacophony, and quirky splashes, in particular a delightful double bass solo that was as quick as mind-blowing, and always a solid sense of purpose. The adventurous spirit of the composer was nevertheless always mindful of the exacting nature of the conductor, and the result was 20 minutes of meticulously crafted yet spontaneously creative music that managed to be unabashedly fun and reasonably challenging. E.P. had done it again.
After intermission, we were in for a more substantial piece with Richard Strauss' Ein Heldenleben, the composer's sweeping tone poem partially inspired by his wife, which could not but bring me back to the glorious performance I heard of it several years ago in Vienna's prestigious Musikverein courtesy of the prestigious Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra. But hey, the David Geffen Hall is conveniently closer to home and the New York Philharmonic is made of highly talented professionals, so I was in good hands last night too. Strauss' lush melodies, stark resonances and eerie quietness were heartily conveyed while kept in tight check by maestro Gilbert, and it is probably a safe bet to assume that Frank Huang met everybody's high expectations with his delicately assertive sound during the challenging violin solos. The season has started well.

Sunday, August 23, 2015

Mostly Mozart Festival - Mozart, Bach & Schumann - 08/18/15

Conductor: Andrew Manze
Mozart: Adagio and Fugue in C Minor, K. 546
Bach: Violin Concerto in E Major, BWV 1042 − Joshua Bell
Bach/Mendelssohn (arr. Milone): Chaconne from Partita No. 2 in D Minor, BWV 1004 − Joshua Bell
Schumann: Symphony No. 2 in C Major

I was not at L'Enfant Plaza metro station in Washington, DC eight years ago when Joshua Bell selflessly busked there for about 45 minutes during morning rush hour without generating much notice. The Washington Post's article about the experiment, on the other hand, went viral quickly and lastingly (Years after the fact I received a French PowerPoint presentation about it from my mom, followed some time later by a Australian newspaper article relating the story from a friend who lived Down Under) and eventually won The Pulitzer Prize.
According to my calculations, that morning I was on my usual way to work, going from the Eastern Market to the Farragut West metro stations. Therefore, the train I was in had to pass right under the feet of one of the world's top violinists playing some of the world's top classical music − including Bach's almighty Chaconne − in a performance open to all and free for all. So incredibly close and still so infuriatingly far away.
Since then I've heard Joshua Bell perform and the Chaconne being performed, but never together... until this year's Mostly Mozart Festival, which had him tackle an orchestral version of it in an effort undertaken by contemporary English composer and violinist Julian Milone based on Mendelssohn's own take on it with piano accompaniment. Not exactly the real thing, but close enough. And as an added bonus, Bell was throwing in Bach's Violin Concerto in E Major as well. Because one can never hear too much Bach.
The rest of the program included other Bach-influenced works such as Mozart's Adagio and Fugue in C Minor and Schumann's Symphony No. 2. What was not to love? Absolutely nothing. So on Wednesday night my friend Christine and I were back in the Avery fisher Hall − Alas, sans champagne this time − and very much looking forward to our last, but obviously not least, Mostly Mozart Festival's concert of the summer.

Mozart's short and impeccably self-contained Adagio and Fugue in C Minor kicked off our musical evening with the perfect combination of Baroque understatement and Classical drama. It was his festival after all, so it was totally fitting that we got to happily revel in a relatively minor but still completely rewarding piece of his impressively eclectic œuvre.
As if to whet our appetite before the Chaconne, Joshua Bell's first appearance of the evening was as violinist and conductor of the orchestra's strings and continuo players for Bach's Violin Concerto in E Major. By turns highlighting the vivacity, exquisiteness and exuberance of the delightful composition, the small ensemble treated us to a brisk, detailed and all-around engaging performance.
Bach's Chaconne is famously one of the pinnacles of the classical music repertoire, so it takes a solid dose of either boldness or cluelessness to even consider doing anything with it. But some people have been bold enough, and this time the result, while in no way surpassing or even equaling the original's rigorous perfection, was fresh and innovative. Joshua Bell used his trademark virtuosic skills with such spontaneity and exactness that it made me wonder why he does not steer away from his usual fare of big Romantic concertos more often. Under his discreet direction, the orchestra flawlessly contributed to the resounding success of the exciting endeavor.
After the intermission, we were back in the hall for Schumann's Symphony No. 2, one last, discreet tribute to Bach and a full emersion into Romantic bipolarity. I may not be Schumann's biggest fan in general, but I'll say that the communicative enthusiasm with which Andrew Manze led the orchestra on Wednesday night brightly emphasized the indisputable qualities of the composition and, in all likelihood, left a lasting impression on the entire audience. So lo and behold, Schuman turned out to be a totally satisfying way to close our Mostly Mozart Festival, but not without one last stop at the L'Arte del Gelato cart located right on the Lincoln Plaza for the de rigueur treat with a view over the Hearst Plaza. A flavorsome ending to a flavorsome festival.