Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Mostly Mozart Festival - Martin, Bach & Mozart - 08/23/14

Conductor: Louis Langrée
Martin: Polyptyque: Six Images of the Passion of Christ
Bach: Chorales from St. John Passion
Concert Chorale of New York
Violinist: Patricia Kopatchinskaja
Mozart: Requiem, K. 626
Concert Chorale of New York
Mezzo-soprano: Kelley O'Connor
Soprano: Susanna Phillips
Tenor: Dimitri Pittas
Bass: Morris Robinson

You know that summer is coming to an end when days are significantly shorter, temperatures slightly cooler, and the Requiem suddenly appears on the Mostly Mozart Festival's program. But not all years are created the same, and 2014 promised to be particularly interesting millésime as Mozart's unfinished masterpiece was paired with another equally religious, yet drastically different, contemporary work in Frank Martin's "Polyptyque: Six Images of the Passion of Christ". To make things even more intriguing, this relatively new work for two string orchestras and violin would be interspersed with chorales from Bach's St. John Passion, an established classic among liturgical compositions.
There was nothing in this offering that my friend Christine and I could possibly object to, so we met on Saturday evening near the Lincoln Plaza, where a growing crowd was getting ready for the Met's HD screening of La Bohème, made our way to the top of the Avery Fisher Hall, and became a part of the packed audience.

Written at the request of Yehudi Menuhin to commemorate the 25th anniversary of UNESCO's International Music Council, Martin's "Polyptyque: Six Images of the Passion of Christ" is a series of six vibrant tableaux inspired by Renaissance painted panels that had caught the composer's attention in Siena. Brought to life by myriads of strings, the piece beautifully combined the deep earnestness of sacred music and the visceral immediacy of human emotions. Young but unmistakably assertive violinist Patricia Kopatchinskaja masterfully handled both attractive lines and scratchier sounds while the two orchestras played with both force and subtlety. The Concert Chorale of New York added immaculately serene interludes between each movement, and the whole Calvinist-Lutheran alliance somehow made unusual sense to me. It has also made me eager to hear the Polyptyque by itself in the near future.
After an opening number resolutely off the beaten track, we were back on familiar territory with Mozart's magnificent Requiem, to which maestro Langrée added just enough of a personal touch to keep it intriguing. The Concert Chorale of New York sang again with laudable expressiveness and the four soloists nicely complemented one another. The mood was intense, the pace was brisk, and the performance paid a heart-felt, resounding tribute to the Viennese master.

The ovation was immediate (to a fault. What on earth happened to that precious moment of suspended time after such a memorable journey?), long and loud; many red roses were brought to the stage and distributed to everyone in sight. A well-deserved reward for another mission superbly accomplished on another perfect summer night.

Saturday, August 23, 2014

Dell'Arte Opera Ensemble - Falstaff - 08/17/14

Composer: Antonio Salieri
Conductor: Christopher Fecteau
Producer/Director: Louisa Proske
Falstaff: Gary Ramsey
Mrs. Ford: Marie Masters
Mrs. Slender: Heather Antonissen
Mr. Ford: Erik Bagger
Mr. Slender: Scott Lindroth
Bardolfo: Jonathan Dauermann
Betty: Joanie Brittingham

Just as the clock was fatefully ticking the last hours before a possible lockout at the Met, therefore jeopardizing the beginning of the New York opera season, I decided to take a well-deserved break during an extremely laborious weekend to go check out some other fish in the New York opera sea. And what better way to lift up my spirits than a dramma giocoso courtesy of... Antonio Salieri, of all composers, who back in his days successfully adapted Shakespeare's The Merry Wives of Windsor in Falstaff, ossia le tre burle, before almost a century later Giuseppe Verdi triumphantly followed suit, unceremoniously relegating the original effort to punishing and, as I was about to find out, unfair obscurity?
Fortunately for us, the small but feisty Dell'Arte Opera Ensemble somehow decided to give the opera its first New York stage performance in 16 years, putting a modern spin on it for the occasion, in the well-proportioned, if mercilessly freezing, black box of the East Thirteen Street Theatre. So I figured that after attending the pitch-perfect production of Verdi's Falstaff presented by the Met last year, it was high time to become acquainted with another take on every opera lover's favorite sleaze ball in a space that allows the audience to have a blissfully more close and personal experience of it.

Streamlining the original plot from The Merry Wives of Windsor and making ingenious use of late-18th-century classical music, Salieri created a sure-fire crowd-pleaser through a solid narrative structure, strong characters and attractive melodies. It may not be very deep and for sure lacks Mozart's divinely inspired genius (Since the comparison is bound to come up, let's get it out of the way now, shall we?), but then again, intellectual stimulation and ground-breaking experimentation was probably not the point anyway.
From the very first scene, baritone Gary Ramsey established himself as a Falstaff who may not have been the most physically imposing ever, despite a protruding pot belly, but who more than made up for it with a substantial dose of sleazy self-confidence and an electric blue suit that would have made any disco king proud. His singing was assured without being overbearing, and cleverly conveyed quite a bit of self-delusion.
Although Falstaff was the main character, the real star of the show turned out to be Marie Masters' Mrs. Ford, a petite but unstoppable fireball whose luxuriously rich, endless pliable soprano voice kept everyone enthralled. By turns charming and shrewd, she never missed a single beat and had her moment of glory when she appeared as a Snookie-like German au-pair, impeccably switching back and forth from Italian to German before masterfully wrapping Falstaff around her conniving little finger.
Her more than willing partner in mischief, Mrs. Slender, was mezzo-soprano Heather Antonissen, whose very special way of pruning made it clear that it was best not to upset her when she had her fearsome tool in hand. Her singing, on the other hand, was controlled and elegant.
If the ladies were unquestionably delightful, their husbands were just as well-defined in their own way. As the irrationally jealous Mr. Ford, tenor Erik Bagger, looking dapper in a business suit or shady in a gangster outfit, was the ultimate hapless victim of his own paranoia, but he did it with style physically and vocally.
Baritone Scott Lindroth was an endearingly nerdy Mr. Slender, who particularly distinguished himself during the aria in which he effortlessly switched from man to woman, displaying an impressive vocal range and a notable comic talent to boot.
As the hired help, bass Jonathan Dauermann was a denim-clad Bardolfo who looked like he had spent too many hours with rock bands, and soprano Joanie Brittingham winningly brought her colorful singing to the perky Betty.
Dell'Arte Opera Ensemble may operate on a shoe-string budget, but it makes up for its lack of means with remarkable passion and creativity. Neither the sets nor the costumes were lavish, but everything on that stage efficiently served the dynamite performance. Louisa Proske's sharp and imaginative direction kept the thee-hour affair moving along briskly, and had it punctuated by numerous light touches, such Mr. Ford getting a bouquet of flowers from a stagehand on his way to go greet his wife. An adroit use of the lighting system nicely completed the well-conceived scenes.
The score was an appealing example of good old Viennese music with harpsichord and recitative introducing each scene, deft and fluid arrangements, high-flying arias and challenging vocal ensemble numbers. The small but accomplished orchestra did an excellent job at conveying the sophistication and playfulness of the opera under the baton of Christopher Fecteau, who tirelessly did double duty as conductor and keyboard player.
It was fun, it was fresh, it was everything an opera performance should be, and everybody left the theater with a smile and the feeling that no matter what is in store at the Met these days, there's plenty of irrepressible operatic talent to be discovered and nurtured beyond the Lincoln Center. And that is a good thing.

Thursday, July 31, 2014

Mostly Mozart Festival - Mozart, Gluck & Berlioz - 07/26/14

Conductor: Louis Langrée
Mozart: Overture to Don Giovanni
Gluck: Final scene from Don Juan, ou Le festin de pierre
Berlioz: Symphonie fantastique

I have always found it profoundly paradoxical that constantly hurried New Yorkers nevertheless spend so much of their precious time standing in endless lines at the movies, at the restaurant, at the bus stop, at the store, at Shakespeare in the Park, and at the Lincoln Center to score free tickets for the preview concert of the Mostly Mozart Festival, the latter being the only substantial ticket line I have been joining every year, and which last Saturday morning turned out to be yet another uneventful three hour of sitting down before dutifully obeying the stark orders to "keep the line moving".
Later on, serendipity was definitely in the air as an early arrival at the Lincoln Center allowed me to enjoy a few minutes of the world premiere of John Luther Adams’ “Sila: The Breath of the World”, which was being performed on the Hearst Plaza by numerous musicians standing all over the place, from the overhead lawn to the water of the fountain, to the middle of the crowd. And suddenly I found myself surrounded by 2,500 people of all kinds enjoying a magical summer evening imbued with unflappably atmospheric music.
The power of good timing did not stop there as I met my friend Christine for an over-priced and over-sinful gelato before reaching our premium orchestra seats for Berlioz's famously mind-tripping Symphonie fantastique, as well as two shorter but just about as otherworldly works by Mozart and Gluck. All of that, of course, in the company of maestro Louis Langrée, who in the span of the past 12 years has come to epitomize the Mostly Mozart Festival almost even more than the Viennese master himself, and the dynamic festival orchestra.

As tradition goes, the eclectic, excited crowd packing the Avery Fischer Hall, including three bleacher-style seating areas on the stage, had to patiently wait through the routine speeches, and then got superbly rewarded by the performance that followed. Although it is not as impeccably sparkling as the overture to Le Nozze di Figaro, the overture to Don Govanni is still Mozart at his most effortlessly seductive with a harmonious balanced combination of light-hearted humor and underlying darkness. And so it was on Saturday night, a most fitting unofficial opening to the festival.
The world's most notorious seducer was also the focus of the second piece of the evening, the last scene of Gluck's Don Juan, which features a quite apocalyptic ending to what was admittedly quite an apocalyptic life. Accordingly, Louis Langrée energetically encouraged the musicians to cut loose from all niceties and totally revel into the appealing horror of it all. And so did we.
Once fired-up, orchestra and conductor kept moving and whole-heartedly threw themselves into a resounding Symphonie fantastique. Things started very civilly, with the rapt audience happily partaking into contemplative Rêveries and hot-blooded Passions, delicately swooning along the elegant Waltz and quietly enjoying the bucolic Scène aux champs. Then we finally got to the heart of the matter with a frightfully riotous Marche au supplice and a Dies irae-driven Songe d'une nuit du Sabbat, which was as nightmarish as grand finales dare to be. Being eight rows from the stage certainly gave me a different sonic perspective from my usual perch, and many instrumental details which blend and become a whole as music rises were clearly and interestingly noticeable. Colors were more nuanced, small touches were more precise, and the whole experience was as thrilling as an actual opium-infused trip. Or so I guess.

Sunday, July 27, 2014

National Youth Orchestra of the United States of America - Bernstein, Britten, Adams & Mussorgsky - 07/22/14

Conductor: David Robertson
Bernstein: Symphonic Dances from West Side Story
Britten: Violin Concerto, Op 15 - Gil Shaham
Samuel Adams: Radial Play
Mussorgsky: Pictures at an Exhibition (Orch.: Maurice Ravel)

Carnegie Hall being a staunch supporter of music education, it only made sense that the National Youth Orchestra of the United States of America it has created and nurtured since last year through the Weill Music Institute finally made its delayed debut on its legitimate home stage. Boasting of 120 among the top musicians between the ages of 16 and 19 from all corners of the US, this concert was the result of their two-week intensive training with seasoned professionals at Carnegie Hall before embarking on a coast-to-coast mini-tour.
The additional incentive of hearing Britten's Violin Concerto performed by former child prodigy Gil Shaham made the occasion simply too good to pass on, so my friend Ruth, whom I originally met at another youth orchestra concert at Carnegie Hall, joined me last Wednesday night in our highly perched seats among hordes of the musicians' wide-eyed yet rambunctious family and friends in a frigid Stern Auditorium, which even the heartening sight of a bunch of poised youngsters wearing black tops, red pants and white sneakers on the august stage could not warm up.

As for the music playing, it was unsurprisingly vivacious, unquestionably committed, and even remarkably nuanced. Under the dynamic baton of an equally white sneaker-clad David Robertson, their enthusiastic account of the Symphonic Dances from West Side Story proved from the very beginning that regardless its somewhat unorthodox circumstances, this temporary orchestra has serious chops.
Britten's Violin Concerto is not an easy piece, technically or emotionally, but in the virtuosic hands of Gil Shaham, its unusual combination of rough sounds and lyrical phrases was totally riveting. The orchestra kept a respectful approach, assuredly handling the contrasting moods with force and finesse. Throughout the whole journey, the music remained unpredictable and somewhat mysterious, all the way to the openly melodic Passacaglia, which wrapped things up with a touch of haunting beauty.
 Especially composed for the occasion and fittingly dedicated to the orchestra, Samuel Adams' Radial Play was five minutes of kaleidoscopic sounds appearing and disappearing, morphing in all kinds of ways and generally keeping the audience on their toes.
Although my main reason to be in the concert hall was Gil Shaham mastering the Britten concerto, I have to admit that the orchestra's performance of Mussorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition was one for the books, viscerally reminding us all why the kids playing their hearts out on the stage were considered the crème de la crème of the next generation of musicians. Confidently making Ravel's popular orchestral version their very own, they moved from one colorfully expressive picture to another without as much as blinking an eyelid.

The huge ovation they received was apparently much appreciated, so much so in fact that they treated us to not one, but two encores, never mind that they had already played for a couple of hours. The “Porgy and Bess” suite was another big hit, and Philip Rothman’s arrangement of “America the Beautiful” became a sentimental sing along that, as David Robertson pointed out, gave everybody in attendance a chance to sing at Carnegie Hall. And a lot of the dwindling audience did.

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Lincoln Center Festival - The Passenger - 07/13/14

Composer: Mieczyslaw Weinberg
Conductor: Patrick Summers
Director: David Poutney
Liese: Michelle Breedt
Marta: Melody Moore
Walter: Joseph Kaiser
Tadeusz: Morgan Smith

Although summer typically has its fair share of mind-numbing entertainment such as beach novels, jack-hammer action movies and dumb comedies, once in a while comes up a worthy artistic endeavor. And that's exactly what happened last week when the Lincoln Center Festival presented Mieczyslaw Weinberg's The Passenger, a three-hour opera daring to take on the decidedly daunting subject matter of the Holocaust, which was performed by the Houston Grand Opera at The Park Avenue Armory.
With a story inspired by Passenger from Cabin Number 45, a radio play by Zofia Posmysz, a Polish woman who had survived three years in Auschwitz before becoming a noted journalist and writer, and a score composed by Mieczyslaw Weinberg, a Polish man who lost his entire family, his country and his name in 1939 before fleeing to Russia where other challenges would await him, The Passenger had irreproachable pedigree from the very beginning. But where would it go from there?
The Park Avenue Armory was clearly not designed for live musical performances, but on the other hand, even my side seat in the penultimate row was still a vast improvement over The Met's Family Circle. And if I was not thrilled by the unavoidable amplification, I must admit that it was discreet and unobtrusive, much more so in fact than the hearing aid of the man sitting next to me. Luckily I was able to escape the grating echoing and buzzing effects coming from the device by moving away quickly and settling down again three seats away, mentally thanking from the bottom of my heart whoever had not showed up and saved my evening.

The Passenger's plot is fairly simple: In the 1960s, while accompanying her diplomat husband to his new assignment in Brazil aboard a luxury ship, a woman seems to recognize a former prisoner, supposedly long dead, she used to supervise at Auschwitz during the war. This triggers a confession about her past to her shocked husband as well as a trip down to the hell that was the notorious prisoners' camp. That's where we ended up spending most of the evening, leaving the frivolous pleasures of luxury cruising above for an examination of life and survival down under.
A lot of the performance's success depended on the two leading ladies, and they both brilliantly gave full human dimension to their characters while maintaining a superior level of musical integrity. As the traveler Liese, mezzo-soprano Michelle Breedt easily went from seemingly gentle high society lady to cruel, sometimes ambiguous, camp overseer. 
She found the perfect sparring partner in soprano Melody Moore, whose Marta steadily bristled with strength and poise even when confronting evil forces. Her singing was bright, assured, and even in the darkest moments lighted up the stage with uncompromising dignity, turning the young prisoner into a true leader.
Walter is a hapless man, but he still deserves to be heard, and tenor Joseph Kaiser imparted his understandably dumfounded diplomat with just enough humanity not to make him look despicable. Moreover, his naturally elegant singing totally fit in the fancy environment he was traveling in.
Tadeusz, Marta's fiancé, was the closest we ever came to a romantic lead, and baritone Morgan Smith had the looks and the voice to memorably fill the part. He was not onstage often, but his presence improved every scene he was in: love struck with Marta, proudly defiant with Liese, and grandly standing with the commandant.
Marta's companions in the camp were all fully drawn out characters so that the various personalities effortlessly came through. Their playful camaraderie and unwavering solidarity were vividly expressed in scenes like the chaotic arrival of the new prisoners, Marta's unflappably lying to save a Russian partisan, and the touching celebration of her birthday.
Taking place in two different worlds, the opera benefited from an ingeniously designed two-level set that made good use of The Armory's cavernous space. The top level represented the upper deck of an opulent ocean liner on which white-clad beautiful people wandered, conversed and danced with enviable insouciance. Right underneath stood the filthy camp where the Nazis ruled and the prisoners struggled to survive. Railroad tracks efficiently helped move lights and sections of the set while starkly symbolizing the transient nature of the business at hand. Having the chorus hang over the camp as a bunch of curious modern witnesses was another inspired idea emphasizing the hard-to-believe horrors happening below and their relevance to our modern times.
But even with a dynamite cast and an impressive set, The Passenger could not hide a few superficial flaws such as non-singing exchanges that generally lacked dramatic resonance, music conveying emotional turmoil too pompously, and the frustratingly uneven pace of the whole thing. But that's nitpicking when one thinks of the many powerful moments, including the unforgettable climax during which Tadeusz, summoned to perform the commandant's beloved cheesy waltz in front of him, threw himself into Bach's Chaconne instead, a defiant move that will have fatal consequences, just like his solo violin will eventually be overpowered by the full orchestra.
If the opera itself was not an impeccably well-rounded affair, Weinberg's score presented an remarkable wide range of musical components such as the light jazz entertaining the well-heeled passengers on the ship, the jarring dissonances endured by Walter when discovering that his wife is a monster, the richly melodic romanticism illuminating Marta and Tadeusz's chance encounter, the sweet simplicity of the a cappella Russian folk song sung by Katya. The biting influence of Dmitri Shostakovich, Weinberg's long-time friend and mentor, was everywhere to be found, but the composition had also clearly been put together by someone who was working from first-hand experience.
Placed stage left but still visible by most, the Houston Grand Opera Orchestra made itself superbly heard under the energetic baton of Patrick Summers. The relentless score is not an easy one to tame, but the overall performance was clean, sharp and perfectly balanced. This was definitely not pretty music, but its jagged edges made it all the more intriguingly complex, eventually giving the opera its irrepressible force and profound humanity.