Sunday, December 21, 2008

Met - Thaïs - 12/20/08

By Jules Massenet
Conductor: Jesus Lopez-Cobos
Director: John Cox
Thais: Renee Fleming
Athanael: Thomas Hampton
Nicias: Michael Schade

Thaïs may not hold a privileged spot among the famous courtisanes of the opera répertoire, but yesterday afternoon the new Met production proved to be a sure-fire winner, and not just because of the presence of Renee Fleming and Thomas Hampton. A mostly engaging, if longish, study of the eternally uneasy relation between sex and religion set in 4th century Egypt, it most importantly boasts a beautifully understated score featuring the ever-popular Méditation. It hasn't been staged by the Met since 1978 and is generally performed only on rather rare occasions due to the daunting task of casting the two leads. But yesterday's pairing, and the whole production indeed, really hit the jackpot.

Right from the start, the deep blue of the sky violently contrasting with the bright yellow of the sand made this simple combination powerfully evocative of the harsh living conditions of the desert. The other sets were mostly efficiently designed as well, even if occasionally a bit off-putting: I'm not sure a woman of the slightest taste would have blue walls next to a purple carpet in her bedroom (or anywhere else for that matter), and I couldn't make much of the altar-like set-up Thaïs would eventually die on. On the other hand, the costumes were generally gorgeous, and the diva's dresses, created especially for her by Christian Lacroix, fit her role and her body to perfection, except maybe for an obsession with sleeves inexplicably and rather awkwardly dragging all the way down to the floor. Who could forget her first appearance, literally resplendent from head to toe, from her cascading blond curls to her luscious golden dress?
Even more than the visual elements, the music was particularly arresting. Much more subtle than your typical operatic fare, what with the fierce expressiveness of the Germans or the hyper-melodic drama of the Italians, Massenet's delicately crafted score closely followed his characters' psychological evolutions. Renee Fleming and Thomas Hampton handled their technically challenging parts with all the talent they're renowned for, her solid command of the middle-voice tessitura being the perfect match to his wide-ranging deep register, and their obvious chemistry added a profoundly human dimension to what could have easily been a simple orientalism-infused harlot-with-a-heart-of-gold tale. The rest of the cast has to be praised as well, and the violinist David Chan deserves a very special mention for an impeccably soaring Méditation.
Yes, some parts dragged a bit: did we really need a belly dancer to channel oriental debauchery? The image may have been deliciously exotic in 19th century France, but nowadays it is essentially an unnecessary number, even if well-executed. The positive, however, easily trumped the negative, and this new Thaïs turned out to be a well-packaged combination of narrative, musical and visual enjoyments, and should enjoy long and prosperous runs with the Met audiences for many years to come.

Friday, December 19, 2008

Harlem Quartet - Turina, Piston, Strayhorn & Schubert - 12/18/08

Turina: La oración del torero
Piston: String Quartet No 3
Strayhorn: Take the “A” Train (arranged by Paul Chihara)
Schubert: String Quintet in C Major, D 956 - Carter Brey

Yesterday evening the Library of Congress offered his traditional Stradivari Anniversary Concert to mark the 271th anniversary of the unequalled violin maker's death, and the lucky borrowers of some prized pieces from the Library's Cremonese collection were the young and feisty musicians of the Harlem String Quartet, who were joined by special guest New York Philharmonic principal cellist Carter Brey, who played his own cello, for Schubert's quintet. The quartet is comprised of first place laureates of the Sphinx competition, and they proved more than worthy of the prestigious instruments they were playing on for that special occasion. The raw talent they displayed and the wide musical range they performed earned them loud, occasionally very loud, but well-deserved applause from the packed auditorium.

The first three pieces were contemporary and unknown to me, but they turned out to be very nice surprises. Joaqín Turina's oración followed a toreador's day at the office, so to speak. From getting ready for the ring to the actual corrida followed by the quiet ending, it smartly combined Andalusian Gypsy music and French impressionism and was fun to listen to.
Next was the late Walter Piston’s third string quartet, all restrained harmony and subtle balance. It was certainly pleasant enough, even if nothing in it particularly stood out.
One of Duke Ellington’s signature tunes and the official song of New York City, the infectiously jazzy Take the “A” Train brought the house down by making full use of the decidedly versatile skills of the quartet’s musicians. Billy Strayhorn composed this rousing number in 1939 shortly after the Duke, upon the composer’s arrival in New York City, told him to “take the ‘A’ train” to his house. Arranged in the 1980s by the multi-faceted Paul Chihara, it is a short but immensely satisfying blend of classical music's subtle complexity and the sophisticated swing of Ellington’s big band sound.
After the intermission, Schubert’s String Quintet, which was to be his last chamber music work and a perennial favorite among connoisseurs, finally got me on familiar territory. The unusual addition of the second cello gives the piece a dark soulfulness that was beautifully highlighted last night and made this journey into his suffering mind even more poignant. After the long, melodic first movement, the beloved adagio in particular was delicately introspective, which made the few outbursts of anguish even more powerful. The five musicians treated us to a tightly homogeneous performance, even if the audience couldn't keep themselves from clapping between each movement and, in an extreme case of overflowing enthusiasm, even during a short pause in the second one.

We eventally, if reluctantly, made it to the end of the celebration, and are already looking forward to the next Stradivari anniversary. Same time, same place, more music.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Musicians from Marlboro I - Janacek, Mozart & Mendelssohn - 12/10/08

Janacek: String Quartet No 1, "Kreutzer Sonata"
Mozart: String Quintet in E-flat Major, K 614
Mendelssohn: Octet in E-flat Major, Op. 20

Unless you're a fan of Christmas-themed entertainment, December typically means slim pickings on the music scene. It is not all bad though, as I'm happily making the most of this well-deserved break by spending some quality time with... my CD collection. Nothing like a little digital homework to enjoy the Real Thing even more. But if most private venues are mercilessly holiday-oriented, the Smithsonian is coming to the rescue with promising chamber music concerts at the Freer and the Library of Congress, among others. Therefore, last night I was part of the crowded Freer auditorium for a performance by the crème de la crème of the Marlboro on Tour musicians. Although they're not household names yet, there's no doubt these youngsters are outstanding artists in their own right and well on the way to bigger things in the near future.

The first featured composer was Janacek whose dark and powerful Jenufa was easily the best surprise of the last WNO season. In this string quartet, he is exploring one of his favorite causes: male despotism towards women. Inspired by Tolstoy's Anna Karenina and his own opera Katya Kabanova, the four movements closely follow his heroine's convoluted story, from yearning to euphoria before ending in anguish and resignation. Accordingly, beautiful harmonies were sprinkled by nagging spams and strange timbres, interestingly mixing romantic and Czech folk traditions.
Next was Mozart's quintet, and new fresh faces appeared on the stage, except for the impressive Jessica Lee, who would end up playing in all three pieces on the program. Her slight frame may have looked a bit wobbly on her sky-high heels, but once she sat down and grabbed her violin, all insecurity quickly evaporated and she fiercely demonstrated more than solid skills and endurance. In all fairness, all her companions were equally impressive and delivered a meticulously precise and effortlessly elegant performance.
But the best was yet to come, and the last work of the evening was Mendelssohn's remarkable octet. Composed when young Felix was a mere 16-year old as the prelude to his famous overture to A Midsummer Night's Dream, it starts with a sweepingly romantic first movement featuring exquisite melodies and a soaring theme for the first violin. It is meant to be played "con fuoco," and there was definitely plenty of fire, but also lightness and lyricism, to be had last night. Things cooled off a bit during the andante, and perked up again in the scherzo, which was Mendelssohn's trademark "fairy music" at its best, masterfully combining ebullience and softness, although it was ironically enough inspired by the Walpurgisnacht scene of Goethe's Faust, thus referring to a traditional witches' festival in Germany. The eight string instruments gave the music a multi-layered complexity worthy of a symphony, and the first violin, the terrific Scott St. John, led the tight ensemble in a seamlessly dazzling performance.

"Praise youth and it will prosper" says the Irish proverb. So let's just hope that the long, enthusiastic ovation these young musicians received encouraged them on their chosen path to fulfillment and prosperity. In the meantime, thank you for the heads-up and the glorious evening!

Sunday, December 7, 2008

NSO - Bach, Mozart & Tchaikovsky - 12/06/08

Conductor: Itzhak Perlman
Bach: Concerto No 1 in A Minor for Violin and String Orchestra, BWV 1041 - Itzhak Perlman
Mozart: Symphony No 35 in D Major, K. 385, "Haffner"
Tchaikovsky: Symphony No 6 in B Minor, Op. 74, "Pathétique"

How lucky can a girl get? After hearing the Pathétique a couple of weeks ago at Strathmore while the Warsaw Philharmonic Orchestra was visiting (and his Symphony No 4 back in October played by the New York Philharmonic at the Kennedy Center), I was back at the Kennedy Center last night for another performance of Tchaikovksy's achingly beautiful swan song, this time courtesy of the National Symphony Orchestra conducted by a very special guest, Itzhak Perlman. The rest of the program consisted of two oldies but goodies, namely a violin concerto by Bach and Mozart's short but always reliable Haffner. Going against my instinctive aversion to Saturday night (a.k.a. Amateur night) outings, I was not going to let this opportunity pass and did not hesitate to join the masses for a sold-out but well worth the effort concert.

Things got started nice and easy with the fluid and lively Bach concerto, which was clearly reminiscent of the famed Brandenburg concertos. The abundance of strings naturally overjoyed me and was a more than nice compensation for the presence of harpsichord, whose sound I've never really cared for. As a no more than passing fan of Baroque music, I still found this piece a real pleasure to listen to, the solo violin effortlessly fitting in with the other instruments while occasionally rising above the fray for a short solo venture.
Itzhak Perlman came back for baton duty only, and led a generously melodic performance of Mozart's Haffner. Originally requested by his father in honor of the ennoblement of one of his boyhood friends, who was also the son of the Salzburg Burgomaster, the original serenade was reshaped a few months later to become his Symphony N0 35. It is a finely crafted piece of work, and our guest conductor made sure the orchestra played it with all the necessary cohesion and elegance.
After intermission came the pièce de resistance, and that was yet another Pathétique performance to remember. I am fully aware that my sentimental attachment to this symphony makes it hard, if not impossible, for me to analyze it objectively. (What is objectivity anyway? But I disgress...) Hearing it live is such a priceless treat that I just get totally caught up in it and happily let it bowl me over. Last night was no exception, and listening to it felt like walking down a familiar path on a new journey. All the well-known elements were there: the long, agitated first movement, the limping waltz, unable to find itself, the unabashedly triumphant military march, and finally the heart-breaking, unconditional capitulation. However, since each live performance is by definition unique, we all found ourselves embarked on the same very special flight piloted by Captain Perlman and his eager-to-please crew straight to Tchaikovsky's heaven, and that was a hell of a way to spend a Saturday night. No paraphernalia needed and a 45-minute high garanteed!

Saturday, December 6, 2008

Juilliard String Quartet - Mendelssohn, Dutilleux & Ravel - 12/05/08

Mendelssohn: String Quartet
Dutilleux: Ainsi la nuit
Ravel: Quartet in F Major


After an erratic week dealing with a high and undeserved plumbing bill and an ever-elusive computer technician, an evening with the Juilliard String Quartet seemed just what the doctor ordered. This was a last-minute decision, but I sure wish they all landed such satisfying results. One of the oldest and most widely recognized American chamber music ensembles, the Juilliard Quartet has been such a familiar sight on the music scene for so long that it is easy to just take their presence and talent for granted. So it’s good to sometimes pause and really listen to the wonderful music these eminent musicians make when they play together.

The program started safely with a string quartet by Mendelssohn, which vividly expressed in typical Mendelssohn fashion a powerful emotional roller-coaster. I have to say that I needed a bit of time to settle in after another hectic day and did not pay much attention to the announcer who came onstage before the concert to announce a change in the program (another Mendelssohn quartet was listed). Never mind, it was a truly delightful piece, brilliant and refined, and a wonderful way to get things started.
The second piece was much different, and had a decidedly contemporary flair to it. Composed by Dutilleux for the Juilliard Quartet, Ainsi la Nuit ("So is the night") consists of seven multi-layered short movements whose themes and ideas often magically overlap. Strongly influenced by Proust’s concept of memory, the music evokes memories and emotions while being at the same time unified and multi-faceted. It was by no means easy listening, but if one paid enough attention, twittering insects and the far off sounds of church bells coudl sporadically be heard. Very subtle and impressionistic, it was a delicate and interesting departure from the romantic élans of the Mendelssohn's.
After the intermission, we stayed in 20th century France with Ravel. Lovely melodies, quick changes of moods and an irregular finale were the main ingredients of his Quartet in F Major, and the Juilliard musicians gave a sharp, clean performance of this well-loved piece.

As a reward for our enthusiastic ovation, they came back to play the third movement of a sonata by Haydn, and proved one more time their easy mastery of various musical forms.

Sunday, November 30, 2008

Met - La damnation de Faust - 11/29/08

By Hector Berlioz
Conductor: James Levine
Director: Robert Lepage
Faust: Marcello Giordani
Méphistophélès: John Relyea
Marguerite: Susan Graham

Not a bona fide opera, Berlioz’s “légende dramatique” has nevertheless been successfully staged a few times in the past, and this season the Met decided to take it up one notch by making it a truly interactive journey. Inspired by Goethe’s poem Faust, this work is not easily categorized, but it does give good drama while exploring the doomed fates of Faust and Marguerite, all supervised by the stop-at-nothing Méphistophélès. The music is both subtly and grandiosely beautiful, but because it was not composed in classical operatic form, its unusual and ambitious scope makes it quite a challenge to produce and a no less interesting experience to watch the end result.

The main selling point of this production is its multi-media component, and yesterday our eyes sure got as much to process as our ears. Some elements were a smart but not overly odd use of the space, such as the 24 cubicles layered over four levels, allowing for lovely dance sequences and scenes of relentless debauchery at the tavern. Others, on the other hand, were highly computerized and resulted occasionally in truly dazzling effects. Horses galloping at full speed to Berlioz's breathless score or trees elegantly dying one after the other as Méphistophélès was passing them across the stage were perfect examples of the exciting possibilities new technologies can bring to a centuries-old art form. Images of Faust eerily swirling in dormant water were still eerily swirling in our minds at intermission.
But new toys can also sometimes become too much of a good thing though, and the smoke coming out of Susan Graham's live close-up, backed up by more small fires projected behind her, was more likely to give the spectator the urge to grab the closest fire extinguisher than to convey burning passion. Her singing, however, was a stunning ode to untamable longing and obviously in no need of added effects. Sometimes less is indeed more. Her Marguerite was an abashedly sweet and innocent victim (although her close-ups made it harder to suspend disbelief as she definitely looked more, ahem, mature than her character was supposed to be) and her duo with Marcello Giordani, who was in fine form as Faust, was one of the highlights of the matinee. With a macho mustache à la Burt Reynolds and a feathered hat reminiscent of Robin Hood, John Relyea's red leather-clad Méphistophélès seemed more ready for a Village People revival than a 19th century opera, but all was forgotten as soon as he started singing and effortlessly projected all the perverse charisma his character required. And let's not forget the magnificent chorus, who did an amazing job in contributing to bringing the whole production to life.

This first interactive opera production of the Met can easily be deemed a success, and its small bits of high-tech self-indulgence can certainly be forgiven upon viewing the widely satisfying final result. Not only did most of these digital projections effectively express larger-than-life feelings and ideas, but they also provided fluid transitions between scenes in a work that does not always flow seamlessly. Although I can't imagine anything ever replacing the direct emotional connection between live artists and their audience, jazzing up the classics by mixing traditional musical and modern visual languages can obviously turn out to be an ultimately very rewarding adventure.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Warsaw Philharmonic Orchestra - Kilar & Tchaikovsky - 11/21/08

Conductor: Antoni Wit
Kilar: Orawa
Tchaikovsky: Piano Concerto No 1, Op. 23, B-flat Minor
Tchaikovsky: Symphony No 6, Op. 74, B Minor, "Pathétique"


What better way to end this music marathon week with the man who first ignited my interest in classical music, Piotr Ilych Tchaikovsky? The one whose music grabbed me, made me see the light and put me back to earth definitely shaken, and forever enlightened. The prospect of hearing the celebrated Warsaw Philharmonic Orchestra play two perennial works by my favorite composer, the piano concerto and the Pathétique, in the acoustic wonder that is the Strathmore concert hall, allowing for a nice change from the Kennedy Center, was almost too good to be true. Therefore, I did not even think twice about braving the bitter cold and trekking all the way across the Maryland border for the grand finale of my unusually hectic but oh so enjoyable week.

As if two Russian masterpieces were not enough for one evening, the concert opened with the short but exciting Orawa by Kilar, which got things energetically started right away. Inspired by the Carpathian region on the Polish-Slovak border, it is a vibrant evocation of the area’s scenery, people and folk culture. Combining no less than 15 string instruments and assuredly conducted by maestro Wit, this briskly driven piece gave us all the impression of being dazzled passengers in a train zooming through the exotic landscape, and by the same token proved that the Warsaw Philharmonic Orchestra could boast of a mean, mean string section.
Next was Tchaikovsky’s piano concerto, which by general consensus remains THE ONE, even for the poor unsuspecting souls who do not care for classical music. One can only be relieved and grateful that Tchaikovsky did not follow the advice of his colleague, the pianist Nikolai Rubinstein, who in good faith recommended a whole revision of it because it was “unperformable.” Last night, the Ukrainian pianist Valentina Lisitsa brilliantly demonstrated one more time, as if it were necessary, that not only is it performable, but also almost too much of a marvel for words. As soon as the horns played the famed four descending notes, a frisson of pleasure ran through the audience and we all started to breathlessly take it all in, from the grand, take-no-prisoner opening to the magnificent pyrotechnics of its finale. The andantino did not get lost in all the soaring melodies either, and sprung up as a lovely interlude in the middle of all the sweeping passages. The orchestra was in fine form, and Ms. Lisitsa gave an inspired performance, even if the pounding was a bit much at times. I guess one can never be too passionate when playing Tchaikovsky…
After catching our breath during the intermission, we braced ourselves for more transporting intensity with his symphony No 6, incidentally the last work he wrote. However, in the interest of linguistic accuracy, it is first of all important to point out that its other name, Pathétique, should be understood according to its French meaning, which is the same as the original Russian title, Патетическая, and quite different from its frequent too literal English translation as “Pathetic.” It is indeed not meant to express a sense of “arousing pity,” but is intended to be rendered as “emotional,” which it most certainly is. Profoundly melancholic, it starts with a somber adagio and eventually ends with a requiem-style adagio lamentoso. Although the second movement presents a waltz, it is not the joyful kind, but instead yearns for unattainable contentment even in its relative serenity. The third movement contains a military march which occasionally sounds joyful and concludes on a triumphant note, but the last movement falls back into despair and ends on a strikingly mournful note. The orchestra powerfully expressed all the deep-seated sadness of this beautiful symphony in large part thanks to its outstanding string section working some real magic in tight harmony with the clear sounds coming from the brass instruments.

But the Tchaikovsky festival was not over, and our rapturous applause earned us a few encores, the first of which was a dynamite Slavic March that got everybody out of their funk. Finally some truly happy music! The last, but not least, bit of music we got to hear was a classic of a different sort, and much closer to home too. As it turns out, the surprise of the evening was a hair-raising rendition of Stars and Stripes Forever in honor of our new president-to-be. If only we had had such a winning combination during the Cold War, things might have improved much faster.

Friday, November 21, 2008

NSO - Dvorak, Mozart & Schmidt - 11/20/08

Conductor: Yakov Kreizberg
Dvorak: Carnival Overture, Op. 92
Mozart: Piano Concerto No 20 in D minor, K. 466 - Lars Vogt
Schmidt: Symphony No 4 in C Major

The main attraction of last night's National Symphony Orchestra concert was no doubt the brilliant young German pianist Lars Vogt, who has become quite a sensation on the international music scene these past few years. The other eminent guest was the conductor Yakov Kreizberg, a familiar fixture in all the major concert halls in Europe. The program was a little bit of everything, with an overture by Dvorak, the piano concerto No 20 by Mozart, and the NSO first performance ever of Schmidt’s Symphony No 4. The only connection I could make out among such an eclectic list was between Dvorak and Schmidt whose works have identical way of beginning and ending, by repeating the same piece. Not much, but unusual enough to be note-worthy.

The concert started with Dvorak’s Carnival Overture, a short and joyful piece, and one of the composer’s best contributions to the genre. Sandwiched between exuberant carnival music, the two middle movements were notably slower and discreetly melodious.
Next was one of Mozart’s most “Romantic” works, composed during his golden decade in Vienna, when he was fully immersed in the imperial capital’s musical life. It is a wonderful piece, and yesterday Lars Vogt made sure to emphasize all its extensive emotional range. The tension of the first movement, the lyricism of the second one and the bright mood of the last one were all precisely conveyed by the pianist’s detailed and passionate playing. The result was simply divine, and it is easy to guess that the dramatic intensity it exudes is probably what made it the only Mozart concerto Beethoven ever performed, even writing down his own cadenza.
After such a transporting experience, Schmidt’s symphony was kind of anti-climatic. It was an engaging but generally very sad piece, played without pauses between the four movements. The opening and closing trumpet solo underlined the gloomy mood that lingered most of the time, and which may be explained by the death of Schmidt’s daughter in childbirth right before he started working on the composition. Yakov Kreizberg kept things moving along without dwelling too deep in the most morbid passages, but concentrating on the few brighter spots instead. The cello solo opening the third movement was a beautifully lyrical moment in itself and one of the highlights of the work.

An amusing aside is that the master of the evening, maestro Kreizberg, turned out to be a very different conductor from Gustavo Dudamel, who was occupying the very same spot a mere 48 hours before. The young Venezuelan golden boy gave way to the mature old-European pro, and instead of bounceful energy and flying black curls we got an aristocratic demeanor and sharp gesturing. Each style, however, proved very successful in their own right, and Washingtonians should feel all but very grateful for having the privilege of witnessing such contrasting talents in such a short period of time.

Georgetown Quintet - Ibert, Cambini, Rameau & Bizet - 11/20/08

Ibert: “Trois Pièces Brèves”
Cambini : Quintet No 1 in B-Dur
Rameau: “L’agaçante” and “L’indiscrète”
Bizet: “Jeux d’enfants”

Back at the Kennedy Center for the fourth and last time this week, I made a detour by the Millennium Stage before heading off to the concert hall. The Georgetown Quintet was scheduled to perform, and upon a short review of the program, I quickly realized that the five musicians all played wind instruments: bassoon, clarinet, flute, French horn and oboe & English horn. While I always welcome opportunities to hear something different, the perspective of hearing only wind instruments for an hour was less than alluring due to my personal lack of inclination towards them, but I decided to keep an open mind and soldiered on. And in all honesty, that was not that painful.

The program was an interesting mix of classic and contemporary, popular and little-known works. Since I am not familiar with the wind music repertoire, I enjoyed the fact that this small smorgasbord presented a wide-ranged introduction to it. Bizet's Jeux d’enfants (Children's Games) was by far the most captivating, each short movement dedicated to a specific game. The ensemble unfortunately did not play Mendelssohn’s A Midsummer Night's Dream due to lack of time, and I couldn’t stay for Mussorgsky’s Ballet of the Chickens in their Shell from Pictures at an Exhibition, but the 45 minutes I got to hear certainly were pleasant enough. The musicians were obviously talented and very comfortable playing together, so they made this unofficial prelude to the NSO concert light and agreeable for even the unconvinced audience that I am.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

WNO - Carmen - 11/19/08

By Georges Bizet
Conductor: Steven Gatham
Director: David Gately
Carmen: Denyce Graves
Don José: Thiago Arancam
Escamillo: Alexander Vinogradov
Micaëla: Sabina Cvilak


Probably the most popular opera ever, Carmen has always been much loved by cognoscenti and unwashed alike thanks to its well-paced story, infectious tunes, and above all its irresistible, untamable heroine. Last night was the last performance of the WNO’s run and we were all grateful for the crowd-pleasing, if kind of predictable, production. It is quite understandable that in today's volatile market an artistic company needs to schedule a sure-fire hit among more adventurous choices, and having Denyce Graves, our local-who-made-it-big, impersonate her signature role was one more smart move to ensure that if the WNO presented it, the public would come. And they did.

And, let’s face it, our girl did a mostly wonderful job. While her voice took awhile to reach her full range, she was on solid and familiar ground once she got there, and her lower register in particular was very impressive. Her full-figured body moved with the devil-may-care swagger of the self-confident sex symbol, and her deep understanding of Carmen's behavior made her completely secure and fully engaged in her interpretation.
The cast around her was very capable as well. Thiago Arancam was a young, but very promising Don José. He did not have the all-around presence of an older or more experienced performer, but that actually suited the part pretty well, enhancing the weakness of his character that will lead the story to its tragic end. Alexander Vinogradov brought all the necessary manly bravado to Escamillo, and Sabina Cvilak, who shone last year in La Bohème, was a touchingly vulnerable Micaëla. The chorus also did a very good job, especially in the last scene where they convincingly conveyed the unrestrained excitement of a corrida crowd.
The visual elements did not hold any big surprises and were inconspicuously efficient. The set itself was pretty nondescript, but the color theme of each act was well thought out: in the first act, earthy shades gaily described everyday life in a Spanish town, delicate blue hues emphasized the clandestine lifestyle of the fugitive clan in the second act, while the third act was an explosion of vibrancy and euphoria, all bright lights and flamboyant colors. Some small details stood out a bit, such as the bright pink knee socks worn by Escamillo with his black velvet and gold toreador outfit, but everything generally came together very harmoniously.

My only real objection to Carmen is that I’ve always found the spoken parts to be an impediment in making it a true masterpiece, and I’m not saying that just because some of it was absolutely incomprehensible to my French ears last night. Of course, a lot of the French singing was incomprehensible to me as well, but understanding the words literally has never been the main point of opera singing, although a minimum grasp of it is definitely preferable. Emotions and plot twists can be just as effectively expressed by way of music, singing and acting while actual talking has never struck me as a necessary part of the equation. But that’s a small tiff; yesterday production was delightful on many levels and reminded us all why Carmen remains such a timeless and universal work.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

WPAS - Israel Philharmonic Orchestra - Mendelssohn & Brahms - 11/18/08

Conductor: Gustavo Dudamel
Mendelssohn: Symphony No 4 in A Major, Op. 90, "Italian"
Brahms: Symphony No 4 in E Minor, Op. 91


Last night I was back at the Kennedy Center for a concert featuring two giants of the Romantic music movement, namely Felix Mendelssohn and Johann Brahms. The biggest draw, however, was the Washington debut (yes, we’ve had quite a few artists visiting us for the first time lately) of the hot new thing on the music scene, the 27-year old Venezuelan conductor Gustavo Dudamel, who was to conduct the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra, one of the oldest and most prominent orchestras in the world. The two symphonies, widely regarded as each composer’s crown achievement, are quite contrasting works, which can probably be explained as much by the times they were written in as by the artistic inclinations of their creators.

The evening started with Mendelssohn’s luminous “Italian” symphony, not surprisingly inspired by the year he spent as a young man traveling in that sense-stimulating country. While not a direct replica of Italian music, this work for the large part does reflect the Italian spirit at its more lively and optimistic. Accordingly, Gustavo Dudamel immediately and enthusiastically took charge and the first movement was all bubbly tunes and happy melodies, effortlessly bringing up images of lemon trees and sun-drenched seashores. The gloomier second movement couldn’t quite succeed in drastically darkening the mood, but did slow the pace down a bit with what has been referred to as the “March of the Pilgrims”, possibly inspired by a religious procession the composer had witnessed in Naples. The Mozart-like third movement was gentle and harmonious, and the fourth one concluded the symphony with a very Italian saltarello, which gave the orchestra the perfect opportunity to fully display their undeniable virtuosity.
After the lyricism and songfullness of Mendelssohn’s fourth symphony, Brahms’ elegant but stern fourth symphony appeared even more so. Ironically composed during Brahms’ happiest period of his life, even his trusted friends did not take to its seriousness and austerity when he first presented it to them. It nevertheless eventually became one of his most acclaimed works, especially once the public got over the fact that it was ending in tragedy, a rarity in those days. Yesterday, the orchestra did not hesitate to dwell deep into the quiet intensity of the epic first movement, beautifully driven by an admirable string section. The serenity of the second movement was livened up by playful pizzicatos, and the third movement sporadically provided some almost-comic relief. But tragedy stroke again and eventually took over the fourth movement, dramatically unleashing violent contrasts and climaxes leading to a powerful final impact. Our young star conductor fully immersed himself in the work and gave a no-hold-barrel energetic performance, never hesitating to jump to highlight the most gripping passages, and led the orchestra into a truly compelling performance.

But two musical masterpieces in one evening were apparently not enough, and the audience was blissfully treated to two wonderful encores, the first one being the intermezzo from Manon Lescaut featuring truly heavenly sounds from the principal cello, violin and viola, the last one being a spirited, multi-faceted rendition of Brahms’ Hungarian Dance No 1, quite a departure from his dark fourth symphony, and a most welcome upbeat conclusion. The concert proved that not all hype is just hot air, and it was refreshing to see the bright young conductor, far from letting the recurring thunderous applause get to his head, remain modestly among the musicians every time he took a bow.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

WNO - Lucrezia Borgia - 11/17/08

By Gaetano Donizetti
Conductor: Plácido Domingo
Director: John Pascoe
Lucrezia Borgia: Sondra Radvanovsky
Gennaro: Vittorio GrigoloMaffio
Orsini: Kate Aldrich
Duke Alfonso: John Marcus Bindel

I just had to do it. The temptation was too strong not to give in and go back to see Lucrezia Borgia, this time with celebrated soprano Sondra Radvanovsky making her long overdue WNO debut. Upon a quick review of the program, I quickly realized that there was one more cast change, this one unexpected, as Ruggero Raimondi was indisposed and John Marcus Bindel had to step in Duke Alfonso’s shoes. In fine, this little comparative study proved to be not only an interesting exercise, but also a wonderful opportunity to catch some details that had escaped my attention the first time around.

The main purpose for my return visit was, of course, to hear Sondra Radvanovsky and observe the differences between her and Renée Fleming. And differences there were indeed. While Renée Fleming’s all American girl wholesomeness made Lucrezia maybe more sympathetic than she deserved to be, Sondra Radvanovsky did not have any qualms in rendering the conflicted heroine as a generally tough-as-nails kind of gal. This was particularly palpable in her confrontation with her husband when she's trying to save her son's life. Even her failed attempt at seduction was not as sweet and heart-felt as her counterpart’s, and her anger eventually raged much more convincingly. By the same token, in the last scene, when she was unabashedly oozing with unbearable suffering at her dead son’s feet, one could feel her gut-wrenching pain from the last corner of the theater. This outpouring of raw emotions was conveyed all the more forcefully that her singing was reaching a transcendental quality that nailed everybody to their seats. Her impeccable technique combined with her dazzling expressiveness made her performance one of a kind, the unforgettable kind.
The other new cast member was an excellent surprise as well. While he did not have the same magnetic presence as Ruggero Raimondi, John Marcus Bindel made Alfonso the strong and menacing character he should be, and his singing was scarily convincing. The rest of the production unfolded as planned, but I have to say that a second viewing made me enjoy it even more than last week. I could detect some humor here and there, mostly of the noir kind of course, the discreet luminosity of some lighting (I’m thinking of the ethereal atmosphere of Lucrezia’s first encounter with her son) and I got a new appreciation for the quietly effective chorus. It was still a pretty silly story, but you don’t get singing of that caliber very often, so the second time around was definitely an even bigger charm.

Monday, November 17, 2008

BSO - Beethoven & Schumann - 11/15/08

Conductor: Juanjo Mena
Beethoven: Music to a Ritterballet
Beethoven: Violin Concerto in D Major, Op.61 – Stefan Jackiw
Schumann: Symphony No 4 in D Major, Op. 120

There’s no rest for the brave, so one and a half hours after leaving the Kennedy Center concert hall with Vadim Repin’s intense Kreutzer still in my ears, I found myself at the Strathmore music center for more Beethoven, in this case his fabulous violin concerto, played by the BSO and Stefan Jackiw, a fast-rising and already much admired young violinist from Boston. The rest of the program, a little-known piece from Beethoven’s early career and the fourth symphony by Schumann certainly wouldn’t have enticed me to go all the way up across the Maryland border after getting a very satisfying musical fix much closer to home, but this was just too good to pass.

As predicted, the Music to a Ritterballet was pleasant enough, but apart from showing an unknown, and not particularly significant, side of Beethoven, there really was not much to it. Nothing more than straightforward 19th century ballet music, it was at most an amusing curiosity.
One of those disgustingly young and talented prodigies that make the rest of us feel like wastes of humanity, Stefan Jackiw quickly proved that his much touted talent was for real. Appearing onstage as a serious-looking, all black-clad and generally unassuming young man, things immediately changed when he finally picked up his violin and started playing the difficult cadenza-like entrance. With the energy of his 23 years and the technique of an old pro, he took command of Beethoven’s concerto from the very first notes and did not let off until he fiercely wrapped it up, taking us all along the magnificent journey that is this grand masterpiece.
This concerto is remarkable not only for its intrinsic and overwhelming beauty, but also for the technical skills and emotional commitment it demands. Essentially free of all the heavy drama so omnipresent in most of Beethoven’s oeuvre, it unabashedly reflects warmth, poetry, even light-heartedness. Orchestra and soloist are equal partners in bringing the music to life, and this certainly happened last night with each party effortlessly complementing the other. Juanjo Mena conducted with energy and sporadic grandiloquence, making sure to keep musicians and audience on their toes. Not one to rest on his laurels, Jackiw came back before the enthusiastic crowd and treated us to an outstanding prelude by Bach.
Schumann's fourth symphony was perfectly respectable, with nice romantic passages, and concluded this decidedly German evening with richness and comfort. So, violined out yet? Not in the least.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

WPAS - Vadim Repin & Nikolai Lugansky - Debussy, Stravinsky & Beethoven - 11/15/08

Debussy: Sonata for Violin and Piano in G Minor
Stravinsky: Divertimento
Beethoven: Violin Sonata in A Major, Op. 47, “Kreutzer”


Already well-established as one of the top virtuoso violinists of our times, Vadim Repin was making his long overdue Washington debut yesterday afternoon at the Kennedy Center concert hall. After experiencing his first stage appearance at six and winning a few impressive awards in his teens, he has been playing with the world’s most prestigious orchestras under the baton of the most in-demand conductors. His regular collaborator and accompanist for the concert, Nikolai Lugansky, is not as well-known, but he has been increasingly acknowledged as an exceptional performer by critics and audiences alike. The program was an alluring combination of French, Russian and German classics for violin and piano, and the prospect of hearing them played by two young Russian talents of the musical scene was very enticing indeed.

Despite his rapidly declining health and World War I raging outside, Debussy managed to write a delicate sonata, full of impressionistic details and nuances. The Sonata for Violin and Piano in G minor is short, only 13 minutes, but absolutely lovely. Yesterday, from the very first notes the chemistry between the two musicians was obvious and helped make the music gently soar.
As it is usually the case with Stravinsky, the Divertimento was originally an orchestra piece composed for a ballet, in this case The Fairy’s Kiss, which itself had been inspired by Hans Andersen’s tale The Ice Maiden. Boasting widely different influences such as Tchaikovsky and jazz music, played by two young fellow Russians who seemed to enjoy themselves immensely, the music was sweet and fun, with plenty of hummable tunes. Quite a departure from the previous piece, but variety is the spice of life… and art, isn’t it?
One of the most famous pieces ever written for violin and piano, Beethoven’s Kreutzer was dedicated to the French violinist by the same name after the composer had quarreled with the violinist he had originally intended to dedicate it to, but the lucky recipient never managed to play it for lack of proper understanding! It is an ambitious piece, to be sure, almost concerto-like in its power and scope, and retrospectively it is no surprise that Beethoven started work on the Eroica as soon as he had finished it. The two musicians readily undertook the daunting task of engaging in a balanced dialog where no instrument overpowered the other, and succeeded with poise and elegance. The Andante con Variazioni was particularly thrilling, with the central theme followed by the four variations, and they eventually wrapped things up with aplomb thanks to the fierce tarantella.
Vadim Repin is a popular performer not only for his outstanding talent, but also for his willingness to keep on playing far beyond the call of duty. Yesterday afternoon, we were the fortunate beneficiaries of his famed generosity as he came back twice for fairly lengthy encores to the greatest delight of the sizeable and adoring audience which, from what I could tell, was in large part composed by Russian expatriates. All we can hope is that he and his accompanist will come back soon now that they know the way to our nation’s capital.

Takacs Quartet, Muzsikas & Marta Sebestyen - Bartok and Folk Music - 11/14/08

Danes from Transylvania
Long Flute Melodies
Swineheard’s Dances
Transdanubian Ugros and Fast Csardas
Bartok: String Quartet No 4
Bartok: Violin duos with source tunes
Sonatina on Themes from Transylvania
Ballad of the murdered shepherd
Romanian Folk Dances with source tunes


One of the world’s most prominent string quartets, the Hungarian Takacs Quartet made a stop at the Coolidge auditorium of the Library of Congress on Friday night, and they were not alone. Less widely known but just as talented, the four musicians of the Muzikas brought us the old traditional Hungarian folkloric way of playing and improvising. They were accompanied by a young but already quite tested folk singer: Marta Sebestyen. International recognition came to her after two of her songs were used on the soundtrack of The English Patient, but she usually sticks to more traditional folk music and songs. The concert was titled “Bartok and Folk Music”, and that is exactly what we got.
A huge fan of Hungarian village folk music, Bela Bartok was always eager to incorporate its melodies, harmonies and rhythms into the new musical language he was creating. Therefore, the two ensembles decided to collaborate and study the influence of peasant music into more modern works, such as Bartok’s celebrated fourth quartet or his ever popular Romanian Folk Dances. Far from being a dry academic exercise, the concert turned out to be a delightful musical experience during which both musical genres, the classical and the rural, were played alternatively or together to highlight their similarities and differences.

After a couple of Transylvanian dances and melodies by the Muzsikas, their classical counterparts appeared for what may be Bartok’s highest achievement: his String Quartet No 4. The Takacs’ vibrant performance was excitingly enhanced by the interspersion of traditional tunes played by the Muzsikas in between the original movements. The result was a quite effective succession of contrasting but nevertheless unifying short pieces all belonging to the complex puzzle of Hungarian music.
After the intermission, Muzsikas’ first violin and Takacs’ second violin both simultaneously engaged in three violin duos, from Bartok again, each playing his own style and, here again, highlighting their different musical perspectives while remaining in perfect harmony.
The last part of the program was the Romanian Folk Dances, which undoubtedly remain one of his most beloved compositions, and their high-spirited rendition by both ensembles, paying alternatively and eventually together, easily brought the house down.
It wouldn’t be fair to overlook the more traditional short works such as songs, vocal feats – Marta Sebestyen’s imitation of bagpipes was a lot of fun – dances, and even old recordings, but the evening belonged to Bartok, and the encore loudly begged for by the enthusiastic audience started with a short folk song and slowly turned into another brilliantly exuberant rendition of his sixth folk dance by both Takacs and Muzsikas. In one fell swoop, these dedicated ambassadors of Hungarian music managed to combine rural, classical and fun, and earned our ever-lasting gratitude.

Saturday, November 15, 2008

NSO - Stravinsky & Bernstein - 11/13/08

Conductor: Michael Christie
Stravinsky: Symphonies of Wind Instruments
Bernstein: Serenade after Plato's Symposium for solo violin, strings, harp and percussion – Jennifer Koh
Stravinsky: Pétrouchka

After doing my bit to encourage the budding musicians of the Millennium Stage, I was ready for the more seasoned sounds of the NSO and, above all, Jennifer Koh. I had heard her for the first time last summer when she joined the BSO for a dynamite interpretation of Tchaikovsky’s violin concerto, and I couldn't wait to hear her again. Friday evening, she was gracing the stage of the Kennedy Center’s concert hall for Bernstein’s Serenade, which the program had sandwiched between two very different pieces by Stravinsky: a short homage to Debussy and the famous Pétrouchka.

As if I hadn’t had enough with Mozart’s horn concerto less than 20 minutes earlier, I had to hear another 10 minutes of wind instruments as the first piece of the evening. Granted, the sonorities of the “symphonies” were occasionally quite catchy and made this one movement an unusual, if not quite riveting, starter.
All this was forgotten, however, as soon as Ms. Koh stepped up and started the Serenade with a strikingly beautiful violin solo, which, quite appropriately, is supposed to be an ode to Eros, the god of love. The Serenade is an interesting and complex work, boasting a pretty high-brown literary background. Indeed, Bernstein used Plato’s Symposium as an inspiration for five separate movements, each representing five different speakers’ views on the universal topic of love, and the result is a very compelling musical meeting of sorts. On Friday, the adagio particularly stood out, partly because it is such an exquisitely simple and lyrical piece, vividly conveying all aspects of love, partly because in the expert hands of Ms. Koh it elegantly rose to heavenly heights. The last movement was also worth-noting because it was kind of fun: the bunch of the by then pretty drunk fellas enjoyed a bit of rowdiness, and the jazzy tunes here and there sure helped liven things up. This mix of classical and popular, one of Bernstein’s signature touches, has now pretty much reached universal approval, and proves once again how much ahead of his time he was. The Serenade quickly became one of his most popular works, and Jennifer Koh’s flawless performance of it made its natural appeal even stronger.
Next to such an intense experience, poor Pétrouchka was not really able to compete. Originally composed as a ballet score, it tells the story of the mischievous Russian folk figure in four tableaux. Although the Vienna Philharmonic originally deemed it schmutzige Musik (“dirty music”) in 1913, it has now become a beloved piece either as the musical accompaniment to the ballet or the puppet show, or as stand-alone work. On Friday, we heard the 1947 version, which Stravinsky wrote later to receive some well-deserved copyrights and which, according to him, was much superior to the original one. Of course. Michael Christie spared no effort and led the orchestra into a spirited performance, but I have to confess that it was hard to concentrate on the poor puppet’s fate with Jennifer Koh's virtuoso notes still happily ringing in my ears.

Friday, November 14, 2008

Millennium Stage - Bach, Walton, Mozart & Dvorak - 11/13/08

Bach: Suite No 3 in C Major – Julia Henderson
Walton: Viola Concerto – Lee Fan
Mozart: Concerto No 2 in E-flat Major, K. 417 – Emily Wilson
Dvorak: Cello Concerto in B Minor, Op. 104 – Erin Snedecor

Regardless of what one thinks of Fannie Mae, its name will forever be associated in my mind to the Kennedy Center’s daily Millennium Stage, which it has sponsored for many years along with Target. The party is pretty much over now for the badly hurting enterprise, but the stage at either end of the Kennedy Center hall still presents one hour or so of free entertainment every single day of the year at 6:00 p.m. Its offerings vary widely, but are often worth checking out.

Yesterday, the program had scheduled some members of the National Symphony Orchestra Youth Fellowship Program, which is a training project to provide scholarships to high school musicians so that they can study privately with NSO members and learn all there is to know about the orchestra business as well. The four students performed short but challenging musical works, and although they obviously hadn't reached a level a maturity that would allow them to perform professionally yet, their combination of enthusiasm and apprehension was quite endearing.
The young woman who had the formidable privilege of starting the festivities played the Bach suite a bit stiff, but gradually grew more comfortable and even ended up smiling. Next was a young man who handled the andante comodo of Walton' viola concerto with enough dexterity to make it flow fairly well. I have to admit I am not a big fan of wind instruments, therefore, the young horn player’s interpretation of Mozart's Concerto No 2 did not do much for me, but she certainly gave it her all. The best was saved for last, and despite an often pained look on her face, the final cellist successfully tackled the allegro of Dvorak’s melodic Cello Concerto with a lot of skills and energy.
All in all, this was a welcome prelude to the actual NSO concert I was going to attend a few minutes later, and a strong reminder of the paramount importance of practice, practice, practice.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

WNO - Lucrezia Borgia - 11/11/08

By Gaetano Donizetti
Conductor: Plácido Domingo
Director: John Pascoe
Lucrezia Borgia: Renée Fleming
Gennaro: Vittorio Grigolo
Maffio Orsini: Kate Aldrich
Duke Alfonso: Ruggero Raimondi

I can’t imagine anybody going to the opera for the actual story, but Lucrezia Borgia is one of those works requiring an especially strong suspension of disbelief with its cocktail of various forms of love, hate and jealousy, all sprinkled with a bit of poison and antidotes here and there. Luckily, Donizetti's mastery of the melodic enchantment that is bel canto makes it more than just digestible if you would only open your ears wider than your mind. Although this opera does not come close to his masterpiece, Lucia de Lammermoor, he still managed to turn what could have easily been a senselessly violent soap opera into a greatly refined and enjoyable piece. The main character is a woman who, in the right hands, can prove to be much more than a mere caricature, even if it is hard for the audience to have a genuine, full-blown coup de coeur for her. Therefore, the selection of the leading soprano is a particularly daunting task, and it looks like the WNO covered itself pretty well with two outstanding performers: Renee Fleming, who needs no introduction, and Sondra Radvanovsky, who is lesser-known, but just as appreciated among opera buffs.

Last night was Renée Fleming’s night, literally, but she had to share the crowd’s adoration with quite a few remarkable colleagues. The young Italian tenor, Vittorio Grigolo, who dazzled Washington last year in La Bohème, exhibited loud and clear evidence that he is far from being a flash-in-the-pan, his range and presence constantly reaching new heights. Looking more like Billy Idol (As my friend Jennifer justly pointed out) that a Venetian soldier, he gave a heartfelt and energetic performance that makes one feel fully secure about his professional future. All we can wish him, really, is a career of the length and prestige of his fellow countryman, the bass Ruggero Raimondi, whom I was overjoyed to finally hear live. He did not disappoint, and was absolutely mesmerizing as Alfonso, Lucrezia's jealous and cruel husband. A special mention should also be made of Kate Aldrich, the young mezzo-soprano who filled the masculine shoes of Maffio Orsini’s with inspired acting and singing. Last but not least, it has been very nice to see the young Yingxi Zhang, a Domingo-Cafritz alum, confidently develop his craft in increasingly bigger and more challenging parts.
But the full house was there for “the people’s diva”, and Renée Fleming offered a powerful, fairly balanced portrayal of her darkly tragic heroine. Her singing was full, occasionally exceptional, more particularly in the duos with her long-lost son and husband. She obviously cared for her character and presented her not just as the beautiful killer everybody loves to “abhor”, but also as a conflicted woman desperately yearning to experience this most human of conditions that is motherly love. Solidly supported, she was able to convey all the possible nuances of Lucrezia’s complex story and nature.
The sets and costumes were quite a wide array of things, some of them working better than others. Renée Fleming’s luscious dresses gave way to a perplexing dominatrix outfit for the last scene, and her short hairdo made her seem ready for a mano-a-mano battle rather than merely poisoning the revelers. Ruggerio Raimondi’s black leather coat and pants, however, were the perfect finishing touch for his sinister all-black look. The sets and visuals were ranging from some non-descript exposed brick walls, which could have been anywhere anytime, to the quietly atmospheric Rembrandt-like tableau backing up Gennaro’s death.

Despite some slight production missteps, this Lucrezia delivered the goods by concentrating on the music and singing, and that's what we were there for. Under the consistent, if not particularly inspired, baton of maestro Domingo, things kept moving along and the audience got more than willingly swept up by the relentlessly unfolding drama.

Sunday, November 9, 2008

Tetzlaff Quartet - Mozart, Berg & Sibelius - 10/07/08

Mozart: String Quartet in D Minor, K. 421
Berg: Lyric Suite
Sibelius: String Quartet in D Minor, Op. 56 (“Voces Intimae”)

Having had the pleasure to hear Christian Tetzlaff early October at Carnegie Hall with the Met orchestra, where he brilliantly performed Brahms' magnificent violin concerto, I felt doubly lucky getting to hear him again Friday evening in very different circumstances: his chamber music quartet was scheduled to perform Mozart, Berg and Sibelius in the wonderful Coolidge auditorium of the Library of Congress. This time he was accompanied by three young ladies, the cellist being his sister, whose chops turned out to be as impressive as his. Quite an exceptional group for quite an exceptional concert.

The first piece by Mozart was as lovely as could be expected, all polish and refinement. I didn’t think the composition had anything really exceptional to it (its particularity being that he wrote it while his wife was delivering their first child), but it was a nice start.
Berg’s 12-tone string quartet, on the other hand, is atonal chamber music at its very best. Each movement was intensely evocative of the illicit love affair that was their original inspiration. It all started with fierce, youthful ardor to end up with the viola’s few last notes of dark gloom. The other moods qualified of “amorous”, with swooning romanticism, “mysterious”, emphasized by a suspenseful pizzicato, “passionate”, accompanied by ardent playing, and “delirious”, with all the strident anguish that comes with it. A further study of the program explained that numbers that had a special meaning to Berg and his beloved Hannah govern the formal proportions and metronome markings, but this type of information is not necessary at all to appreciate the emotional richness of that piece. We did not get to hear the singing that sometimes complements the last movement, but the quartet was in fine form and beautifully depicted the various stages of this emotional roller-coaster.
I’m not sure how I got to be doubly lucky twice, but the last piece of the concert was by Sibelius whose Symphony No 2 I had just heard the night before. Friday night I got to hear the only string quartet he’s ever written, and it was unquestionably a lesson in beautiful and complex brooding. Written while he was going through a period of his life plagued by health, money and depression issues, this is a sometimes crying-out-loud sometimes intimate testimony of his all too real suffering. A break-neck speed ending concluded the piece, and the concert, with a feeling of pain being finally released.

Saturday, November 8, 2008

BSO - Rossini, Slatkin & Sibelius - 11/06/08

Conductor: Leonard Slatkin
Rossini: Overture to La gazza ladra (“The Thieving Magpie”)
Slatkin: The Raven
Sibelius: Symphony No 2 in D Major, Op. 43

Leonard Slatkin left us last June to become the conductor of the Detroit Symphony Orchestra, among many other engagements, so it was quite a bittersweet feeling to see him back in the DC area, but away from the Kennedy Center, where he conducted the National Symphony Orchestra for the past 12 years. No matter what one thinks of his tenure, he was a familiar face who slowly but surely brought the once provincial national orchestra to a much wider audience and spared no effort in outreach programs. On Thursday evening, he was back in our neck of the woods for a concert with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, with a surprisingly diverse, and ultimately mostly satisfying, program.

The first piece was the overture of Rossini’s La gazza ladra, a long-forgotten opera, which apparently deserves to remain in oblivion, except for the vivacious, infectious overture. The strategically placed drum rolls, the well-known oboe tune and the general brilliant sound proved its unique appeal, and it sure was an upbeat way to get things started.
The second number was quite unusual, on paper and live. Composed by Slatkin himself in 1971, this piece was background music to five poems by Edgar Poe originally meant to be read by the all-too-appropriate Vincent Price. On Thursday, he had five different actors on the stage: Tony Tsendeas was adequately eerie in The Sleeper, efficiently backed up by the wind instruments, Rosemary Knower got eventually carried away by the written Bells and the live harp and percussions, Denis Diggs sweetly evoked Romance on a lovely waltz, Jon Spelman solemnly recalled the greatness of Ancient Rome with The Coliseum, accompanied by some strong, sonorous brass, and finally, my personal favorite, John Astin and the full orchestra treated us to a creepily effective version of The Raven. What would have been the perfect performance for Halloween turned out to be pretty engaging and fun, even if the timing was not quite right and the sound system was experiencing occasional issues.
The evening ended with Sibelius’ Symphony No 2, a fairly light work from the composer who I’ve always found so incredibly good at evoking the cold, majestic landscapes of his native Finland. Written during his stay at Verdi’s place in Italy, it is therefore no surprise that this symphony is generally sunnier, except for the drama-laden second movement, than the rest of his oeuvre. The repeated first three notes of the opening movement bring to mind gentle waves, before the mood turns darker. A spooky pizzicato for basses and cellos opens the following movement, but the music becomes even more tragic, with barely a glimmer of hope, and the fact that Sibelius had originally labeled the two main themes “Death” and “Christ” says it all. Fortunately, things perk up in the third movement, which opens with a vigorous string attack, and a swooning romantic melody later takes over and brings the symphony to its Tchaikovskian finale. With performances like this, maestro Slatkin is welcome back anytime.

Thursday, November 6, 2008

Emerson String Quartet - All-Shostakovich - 11/05/08

Shostakovich: String Quartet No. 9 in E-flat Major, Op. 117
Shostakovich: String Quartet No. 10 in A-flat Major, Op. 118
Shostakovich: String Quartet No. 11 in F Minor, Op. 122
Shostakovich: String Quartet No. 12 in D-flat Major, Op. 133

Yesterday was a historic day of joyful celebration for most of the country after the American people decisively elected their first African-American president and, of no lesser importance, their first competent president in too many years. Granted, the bar had been set pretty low, but Barak Obama rocked regardless. As the abysmal legacy of his predecessor reaches new lows every day, I certainly don’t envy the weight on his apparently solid but nevertheless human shoulders. But no fear, apprehension, sarcasm or cynicism is allowed these days as I’m finally relishing this brand new feeling of being proud to be an American. (The possibility has only been there for not quite 4 years, but it sure seemed like an eternity).
As History takes its course, the music shall go on as well. Last night I was in the smaller Terrace Theater at the Kennedy Center for a concert by the Emerson String Quartet. By all accounts one of the very premier chamber music ensemble worldwide, they’re more than a sure value when it comes to this intimate musical form, and their performance of some of Shostakovich’s late quartets yesterday was yet another living proof that they more than deserve their pristine reputation. A well-oiled and finely-tuned music machine after more than three decades of collaborating together, they effortlessly churned out notes after notes for two blissful hours.

The first two quarters were different enough in mood to easily be told apart. The uninterrupted five movements of the Ninth Quartet allowed for their seriousness and sophistication to continuously and impeccably flow. Written in less than a month and dedicated to his wife, this quartet carries his signature austerity, but on a much smaller scale than in most of his other works. On the other hand, the Tenth Quartet had much lighter and sunnier vibes, which formed an appreciated counterbalance to the previous one. All is not happy-go-lucky, far from it, but the piece was positively optimistic, even coming close to being openly romantic thanks to a couple of lovely melodies. The final upbeat notes wrapped up this unexpected but welcome work.
The Quartet No 11 was another good surprise, but of another nature. Written while the composer was suffering from serious health problems and undergoing various treatments, dedicated to the memory of Vassily Shirinsky, violinist of the Beethoven String Quartet, this piece is a kind of playful reflection on death (yes!) The seven short movements played without a pause were eccentric and personal, full of paradoxes and complexities, and ultimately deeply moving. After these fireworks, the Quartet N0 12, dedicated this time to Dmitri Tsyganov, leader of the Beethoven Quartet, was a further exploration of the subject of death, occasionally surreal, occasionally downright funereal, and the final note of the concert was a decidedly dissonant and resounding conclusion of an absolutely epic performance.

Sunday, November 2, 2008

WPAS - Midori & Robert McDonald - Schumann, Beethoven, Cage & Enescu -11/02/08

Midori: Violin
Robert McDonald: Piano
Schumann: Violin Sonata in A Minor, Op. 105
Beethoven: Violin Sonata in G Major, Op. 96
John Cage: Six Melodies
Enescu: Violin Sonata No 3 in A Minor, Op. 25

A tiny woman with a huge talent, Midori graced the stage of Strathmore this afternoon together with her long-time musical partner, the esteemed pianist Robert McDonald. A child prodigy, she made her professional debut at 11 as a surprise guest soloist for the New York Philharmonic’s traditional New Year Eve concert, and the rest is history. Now in her late thirties, she continues to dazzle audiences all over the world with her sweet disposition and refined playing.

For unknown reasons, Schumann has never done much for me. I wouldn’t conscientiously avoid a concert featuring his work, but I would certainly never go out of my way either. Reportedly intimidated by the violin while he was by all accounts an accomplished pianist, he eventually managed to write for the feared instrument, and this sonata was his first one. It was pleasant enough, but never got me fully engaged until the third movement, which concluded the piece on a decidedly upbeat note.
Next was Beethoven’s sonata, the final he ever wrote, and this was an absolute delight. The various moods were beautifully expressed, from the simple grace of the Adagio espressivo to the complex Poco allegretto, full of twists and turns and constantly surprising, before ending with a sparkling finale. Both musicians played it with full coordination and really helped the music come alive.
The second part of the concert was dedicated to more recent and probably less well-known composers, and was an interesting combination of different musical styles. The six songs by John Cage were very short and understated dialogues between the two instruments. Although this made it hard to really get into them, a little bit of concentration ended up being very rewarding.
Lastly, the violin sonata by Georges Enescu, himself one of the finest violinists of his time, was a completely winning combination of classical and Romanian folk music. The result is unusual, but not unsettling, mostly because instead of inserting de facto Romanian tunes, the gypsy fiddler’s evocations are very subtle and often barely noticeable. It is a beautiful and popular work, all variations and harmonies, including some atypical sounds such as the obsessive one-note piano ostinato opening the second movement. Quite a spirited way to end a concert… or almost end a concert, as it turned out.

As the audience was clamoring for more, they came back to deliver a lovely performance of "Méditation" from Thaïs by Massenet… and this time really ended the concert on a quiet and, well, meditative note.

Saturday, November 1, 2008

NSO - All-Wagner - 10/31/08

Conductor: Iván Fischer
Prelude to Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg
“Dawn and Siegfried’s Rhine Journey” from Götterdämmerung
Prelude to and “Liebestod” from Tristan und Isolde – Elizabeth Connell
Die Walküre, Act III, Scene III - Elizabeth Connell and Juha Uusitalo

Friday night is always a time to rejoice, and last night I had an even bigger reason than the upcoming weekend to be cheerful. On my schedule was an all-Wagner concert by the NSO. Although I’m not (yet?) a die-hard Wagner groupie, more by lack of deep knowledge of than instinctive disdain for his oeuvre, I’ll be the first one to recognize his priceless contribution to classical music and opera. His genius being as outsized as his ambition, he eventually managed to transform not only the musical world, but the art world as well, through his idea of Gesamtkunstswerk (total artwork), a synthesis of all the poetic, visual, musical and dramatic arts, epitomized by his monumental four-opera cycle Der Ring des Nibelungen. I’ve been forever daunted by the prospect of nearly 15 hours in the company of gods, demigods and mortals whose interactions are ruled by eternal forces and all carrying the message that art has the sacrosanct duty to tackle all lofty issues of human, religious and social nature. After Wagner’s philosophy guru, Schopenhauer, stated that music was the highest form of art, the determined composer set about to start his gargantuan undertaking of The Ring, and started his own revolution in the process.

The festivities started pleasantly enough with the prelude to Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg. The violin attack launching the piece gave the tone to an energy- and passion-filled evening, but so far things kept fairly gentle. Wagner’s only comedy of romance gave him and the orchestra the perfect and only opportunity to lighten up a bit, and it was all the more enjoyable for the audience. The following “Rhine Journey” began the progression towards darker and more convoluted events, and the orchestra dutifully kept pace with it.
An epic love story, for many THE epic love story, Tristan und Isolde famously ends with the love-death hymn “Liebestod” sung by Isolde over Tristan’s dead body. It is not only a heartbreakingly beautiful aria, but it also, more prosaically, marks a welcome conclusion after five intense hours of relentless drama. The prelude already containing some themes to be found again in the final aria, and this is Wagner at his most lyrical to whom the NSO whole-heartedly did justice. Elizabeth Connell gave a faithful, if not transcendental, rendition of Isolde’s last words, even though the low notes couldn’t make it above the orchestra’s playing.
Back for more after the intermission, we got ready to dwell in the final scene of Die Walküre. This is an intensely emotional confrontation between the god Wotan and his favorite goddess daughter Brünnhilde, during which he banishes her, makes her mortal and put her to sleep in a ring of fire. Even if you haven’t put yourself through the whole Ring yet, this scene can easily stand on its own if you just relax and take in the music (Yes, it is “The Ride of the Valkyries”) and the singing. The two singers on Friday got the job done without any particular sparks, but without mishaps either, solidly backed by the NSO.

No matter what one thinks of him, Wagner rarely leaves anybody indifferent. But an audience’s reaction depends mostly on what is happening on the stage, and Friday’s concert-goers were understandably rather reserved during the first half of the performance as the orchestra, later with Elizabeth Connell, was still getting it together. While perfectly adequate, they originally did not seem to have the required fierce cohesion to make the magic happen. Things luckily improved for Die Walküre, and all was well that ended well.

Friday, October 31, 2008

Jupiter Quartet - Haydn, Shostakovitch, Gubaidulina & Beethoven - 10/29/08

Haydn: Quartet in F Major, Op. 77, No 2
Shostakovich: Quartet No 7 in F-sharp Minor, Op. 108
Gubaidulina: Quartet No 2
Beethoven: Quartet in E Minor, Op. 59, No 2

One of Washington, DC’s wonderful perks is the impressive variety of free cultural events, musical and others, at everybody’s reach. Barely emerging and world-famous, but never short of talent, artists perform all-year long in various venues and the main issue is often the too many options to choose from. Well-known for its attractive Asian art collection and intimate space, the Freer Gallery of Art more than holds its own against the bigger, more impersonal and more crowded nearby Smithsonian museums on the Mall. On Wednesday night, the young, but fast-rising Jupiter String Quartet was scheduled to play an intriguing program that boasted quite a few crisscrossed connections. At some point Haydn was Beethoven’s teacher and helped him master the classic style and move on to bigger, and mostly better, things. By the same token, Gubaidulina was a student of Shostakovich’s, who encouraged her to continue down her “mistaken path” (as per Soviet censors) while at the Moscow conservatory.

The concert started with the classic and lively Haydn’s Quartet. It was traditional music at its best and a promising prelude to better things to come. And they came. The quartet by Shostakovich, one of my favorite composers, was everything I had hoped and more. Dedicated to the memory of his late wife, this deeply emotional piece bristled with his trademark anguish without falling into too dark a mood. The melancholy of the second movement was an eerie reminder of the beginning of his beautiful violin concerto, and the third movement had all the unbridled fierceness of the same concerto’s cadenza linking the third and fourth movements. The Jupiter gave it unconditional life and fire, and turned it into my personal highlight of the evening.
Next was a one-movement piece by Sofia Gubaidulina, a prolific and eclectic composer still living in Germany, mostly known for her religious devotion and original oeuvre. We had been asked not to clap between Shostakovich’s and her quartet to allow for a seamless transition to happen. It started with one bare note and gave way to quite an unusual performance. While occasionally sounding more like an academic exercise for musicians than a made-for-public-consumption musical work, especially with some of the cello’s utterances jarringly reminiscent of mosquitoes relentlessly buzzing, the overall effect was undeniable attention-grabbing. Eventually Beethoven brought us all back onto familiar territory and gave the Jupiter musicians the opportunity to conclude this superb concert with brio and assertiveness.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Meyer & Thile - Own Pieces & Bach - 10/28/08

Edgar Meyer: Double Bass
Chris Thile: Mandolin

Who said that classical music fans are closed-minded, insufferable snobs? Last night, I was happy to prove all these naysayers wrong by having a ball at a bluegrass concert at the Lisner Auditorium, on the George Washington University campus. It is a no-frill space, but the acoustics are decent and it is conveniently located. It is not one of my usual haunts, but every performance I’ve attended there more than met my expectations, and yesterday was no exception. Last time I was at the Lisner Auditorium was actually about a year ago, and it was to hear Edgar Meyer share the stage with Sam Bush and Jerry Douglas. All three prodigious and widely recognized musicians, they had treated us to a fun concert, full of easy banter and sparkling virtuosity. I wanted some more.

Last night I was back on this still-not-quite-familiar territory for Edgar Meyer again together with Chris Thile this time, the latter being a young but already very well-established mandolin prodigy. My friend Deborah, a mandolin aficionada herself, was with me and filled me in on the art of mandolin playing. While we expected an evening of impressive but kind-of-predictable bluegrass virtuoso feats, we quickly realized that the two musicians were determined to go well past and beyond the call of duty as they played a much more indefinable, complex kind of music, expertly mixing bluegrass, folk, country, jazz and a little bit of classical for good measure. Most of the pieces came from the new album they’ve recently recorded together and were at the same time unassumingly down-to-earth and extremely finely crafted. At some point, they also performed their own version of several short pieces by Bach, and their interpretation proved to be inventive, fun and respectful.
After the intermission and a few more numbers, they took suggestions from the audience while collecting random elements for a short story they were to put to music on the spot. The narrative ended up including, in no particular order, Cookie Monster, a koto factory, a garbage chute, a luge, and an alluring Cookie “Monstress.” The result was a short musical piece composed on the fly, and this little improvised adventure rightfully turned out to be a big hit with the audience.

The whole concert was a light-hearted, effortlessly creative and incredibly rich dialogue between the two men and their instruments, proving one more time that in the right company, less is more often than not more.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

BSO - Bernstein's Mass - 10/26/08

“A Theater Piece for Singers, Players & Dancers”
Conductor: Marin Alsop
Morgan State University Choir
Morgan State University Marching Band
Peabody Children’s Chorus
Celebrant: Jubilant Sykes

A never-ending subject of controversy for over three decades, Bernstein’s Mass had always appeared to me as a highly complex, extremely ambitious, hard-to-define extravaganza, and I had willingly stayed away from listening to any recording of it because I wanted to first experience it live. Commissioned by Jackie Kennedy as one of the Kennedy Center’s opening performances in 1971 and a tribute to her late husband, Mass is many things to many people. Some see it as a product of its time, evoking the anti-Vietnam war protests and the emerging religion-centric rock musicals such as Godspell and Jesus Christ Superstar. Others consider it the timeless and deeply felt expression of a spiritual crisis and a compelling call for more love, peace and understanding. Inspired by the Tridentine mass of the Roman Catholic Church, it indiscriminately covers a wide gamut of various musical genres such as, among others, classical, folk, blues, gospel, easy-listening and rock. To add to this eclectic blend, the traditional Latin texts are freely interspersed with non-liturgical numbers.
This grand-scale mishmash did not fail to provoke passionate reactions among audiences and critics alike when it first came out. The Washington Post’s Paul Hume called it “the greatest music Bernstein has ever written” while his much less impressed colleague Harold C. Schonberg at the New York Times deemed it “cheap and vulgar.” Rarely performed due to its impressive scope, I was very excited to finally be able to experience it with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra under the eminently qualified baton of no less than Bernstein’s erstwhile protégée, Marin Alsop. So on Sunday afternoon I went to the Kennedy Center where the Mass was taking place in the sold-out concert hall, next door to the opera house where it had made its debut. I’m not a big fan of musicals in general, and even less of a fan of organized religion, but I was determined to fully embrace the opportunity to finally see this intriguing work, and to approach this unique piece with open ears and an open mind.

The best way to describe the next two hours would be a lot of loud exuberance on a very crowded stage, with a few calmer, more introspective flashes. In short, there was never a dull moment. There was a lot of talent out there as well. Although the music and songs remained the same, the singers impersonating the mass attendees were by all definitions modern in their clothing, accessories and attitudes. They took the stage with poise and vigor, and the Celebrant, Jubilant Sykes, displayed all the charisma, humanity and vocal capacity required for the part. The choir was in impressive form and whole-heartedly delivered beautiful tunes. Last, but by no means least, the BSO managed to shine through all the on-going agitation. A few numbers easily stood out, which were quite representative of the broad range of the repertoire, from the quietly beautiful “Simple song” to the no-hold-barred anger of “Dona Nobis Pacem.”
My main objection to musicals, besides the fact that I really can’t understand why in the middle of a narrative people suddenly stop acting and start singing, is the fact that the singers are usually miked. As an opera buff, I’m used to hearing all the nuances and colors of the singing human voice in its purest form and I have a hard time connecting with the loudness and roughness of an amplified voice. Sunday was no exception. While the singers on the stage were obviously Broadway’s crème de la crème, the noise level sometimes got so high that it garbled what they were saying and occasionally made me want to run for cover. It sure added some extra power to the already hair-raising numbers, but it also deprived the Mass of all subtlety or grace.

All in all, it was still an unforgettable experience. I personally suspect that it takes quite a few listenings to be able to dissect and digest all the various levels and meanings of this very challenging piece. In any case, I don’t think the “sacred/profane” issue should stand in the way of appreciating the Mass as a purely musical adventure. Although at the time the experimental musical mix proved quite controversial, it has remained one of its intrinsic elements, if not a convenient marketing tool (Nothing like a little controversy to spark people’s interest.) All things considered and with now full knowledge of the actual piece live, it seems to me indisputable that it is the polysemic nature of this work that gives it its force and universality.

Monday, October 27, 2008

Met - Lucia di Lammermoor - 10/25/08

By Gaetano Donizetti
Conductor: Marco Amiliato
Director: Mary Zimmerman
Lucia: Diana Damrau

Elgardo: Piotr Beczala
Enrico: Vladimir Stoyanov

Saturday was my return to the Big Apple for the first matinee of my new Met subscription, and what better way to start my NY opera season than with Donizett's bel canto masterpiece, Lucia di Lammermoor? Loosely based on the historical Scottish novel The Bride of Lammermoor, this drama tragico has been hugely popular since its creation thanks to the wild, exotic setting, the unfurling passions it portrays and the incandescence of its music and arias. While the sextet in the second act no doubt deserves all the attention it gets, it is the legendary mad scene in the third act, an emotionally and technically demanding piece, and consequently a perennial showcase for coloratura sopranos, that has more than anything else contributed to make this opera a sure-fire success with audiences throughout the years and all around the world.

For this production, Mary Zimmerman did a wonderful job with the visual elements, but even inventive décors, tasteful lighting and luscious costumes do not an opera make. Lucia is first and foremost a singers' opera, and on Saturday the three leads were in top form. As the title role, the young German soprano Diana Damrau appeared as assured as her singing. She had the youth, the looks and the flexibility to adapt to this very challenging part and the audience showed its approval at every opportunity. The much-awaited mad scene was in turns eerie and frantic, quietly emphasizing the growing intensity of her fragility and distress as she aimlessly wandered the stage. Her voice effortlessly and accurately reached out and vividly expressed her increasingly disturbed state of mind to the horrified guests.
She was extremely well seconded by the young Polish tenor Piotr Beczala as her Edgardo, and they both had the audience in the palms of their hands from the get-go. His steady, passionate singing was pitch-perfect for the other half of the doomed couple, and he was a big hit as well. The Bulgarian baritone Vladimor Stoyanov was appropriately dark and forceful as Lucia’s overbearing brother, Enrico, and filled in the bad guy part with much conviction.

Although the New York sky was gray, this grand production brought plenty of sunshine to its very satisfied audience. The 3 hours and 45 minutes (including two intermissions totaling 75 minutes) went by like a dream, and I left the opera house the head full of soaring notes on a rainy, but suddenly glorious, Saturday afternoon.

Sunday, October 26, 2008

NSO - Weiner, Haydn & Rachmaninoff - 10/24/08

Conductor: Ivan Fischer
Weiner: Serenade, Op. 3
Haydn: Cello Concerto in C Major – Steven Isserlis
Rachmaninoff: Symphony No. 2 in E Minor, Op. 27
I’m a firm believer that the best way to get back into the swing of things is, well, to get back into the swing of things. Therefore, after landing in our nation’s capital on Thursday afternoon and a blurry-but-hopefully-fairly-efficient day in the office on Friday, I’m back at the Kennedy Center that evening for a concert by the National Symphony Orchestra. Although the program certainly looked attractive, I had questioned the good sense of getting a ticket for it before I left as I had no idea in what kind of shape I’d be back in. Upon my return, while still facing my should-I-stay-or-should-I-go dilemma, what with the creeping fatigue and a blinding headache, my good friend Pat called and offered me a free ticket. The dilemma was over, and I was on.
Quite a few additional factors were already tipping my decision towards the “go” option. I’ve always had a soft spot for Russian composers, and Rachmaninoff has always been high on my list of favorites. And although I can’t say that Haydn would make me drop everything and rush to a concert hall, the prospect of witnessing popular cellist Steven Isserlis’ long overdue debut with the NSO was definitely an enticing thought. Plus what better way to make my return to DC official?

The first piece and its author were completely unknown to me, but I thoroughly enjoyed its light, melodic quality. A successful mix of Hungarian folk tradition and German Romanticism, the serenade was quite a tour de force for a 21-year old composer, who became quite famous and highly regarded in Hungary. On Friday evening, it obviously brought out the Hungarian in Ivan Fischer, and he led the orchestra in an assured, polished performance.
Next was Haydn’s awaited cello concerto. A favorite of the late Rostropovich, this is quite a delightful piece and Isserlis’ precise performance, all the more emphasized by a greatly reduced orchestra, was a perfect example of how to successfully combine of lyricism and technique. This belated debut was definitely worth the wait.
After the intermission, the orchestra back in full force whole-heartedly dove into Rachmaninoff’s second symphony. This is big, luscious, sweeping romantic music, and it was wonderful. Although my attention was slowly, but surely waning, I still fully enjoyed everything that came to me, from the dark melancholy beginning the symphony to the lovely violin melody starting the exquisite adagio, all the way to the triumphant ending. This is the kind of music that can easily submerge you, and I was more than happy to be carried away in its far-reaching currents.

Now it’s onward and forward to a weekend including Lucia de Lammermoor at the Met on Saturday and Bernstein’s Mass by the BSO back at the Kennedy Center on Sunday. What does not kill you makes you stronger!

Friday, October 24, 2008

Opéra de Lyon - La Clemenza di Tito - 10/21/08

by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
Conductor: Jérémie Rhorer
Director: Georges Lavaudant
Tito Vespasiano: Andrew Kennedy
Sesto: Ann Hallenberg
Vitellia: Alexandria Pendatchanka

After one week of extended nature-bonding with each of my parents and their significant others in Provence and Auvergne, it was a real pleasure to be back in my hometown of Lyon for my last days in France. As I was planning this trip, I had decided that this year I was finally going to attend an opera there and I invited my mum to join me as an early Christmas present. Luckily, there was a performance of La Clemenza di Tito, Mozart’s kind-of last opera (The bulk of The Magic Flute was already written), scheduled on one of the three evenings we'd be spending in the area. While not overly familiar with it, I figured it was hard to go wrong with Mozart, and I got us the tickets.
I was also looking forward to the opportunity to at last be able to check out the inside of a building that I've always found so intriguing from the outside, the off-white color and purity of its classical lines standing in sharp contrast against the sleek steel-and-black-glass look of its modern component sticking up and above. The inside turned out to be quite a controversial and, huh, interesting combination as well. While the foyer reminded of the splendor of times past, the auditorium was all black and industrial-looking. Such a dark and stark environment may help the audience focus on what is going on onstage, but is in no way pleasing to the eyes.
As for the opera itself, the initial surprise came from the fact that it was a modern production. I had half-expected to attend one in Germany, which is famous for it, but Tosca had been ultra-traditional. However, I guess good things do come to those who wait as this new French production was not only contemporary, but a fantastic surprise as well. The story is fairly straightforward and revolves around the theme the enlightened despot, in that case the Roman emperor Titus, which happened to be quite a relevant topic in 1791 Europe. This opera seria was obviously more of a money-making job than a work of love, but while some of the plot lines lack credibility and the recitativi secchi can occasionally be quite overdrawn, this work does not deserve the qualification of “porcheria tedesca” (German rubbish”) attributed to it by the empress Maria Luisa.

From the very beginning, the production was very promising. The large worn-out mirror behind the plotting Sesto and Vitellia gave the tone to understated but very assured décors, forcefully emphasizing the unfolding action. Everything seemed to have its purpose and fulfilling it with impressive efficiency, from the discreet use of video, the timeless and attractive costumes, to the stunning, powerfully evocative sets, and, last but not least, the first-class singers. The whole cast and the chorus delivered commanding and heartfelt performances, but a special mention must be made of Ann Hallenberg, whose singing transcendentally and effortlessly covered a full range of emotions while playing Sesto, the part erstwhile reserved to castrati. Andrew Kennedy perfectly impersonated the internal struggle of the title character when he had to sign his friend’s death sentence, and Vitellia was deliciously baaaaaaaaaaad, first full of jealousy and relentlessly scheming to get her way, later convincingly conveying feeling of guilt and anguish.

All in all, this was the type of production that makes one wish that the creative minds at play had better material to work with, but this is really nit-picking. The issues with the narrative ended up disappearing as our eyes and ears were fully engaged in the visuals and musical elements, and the evening was deemed a full success, even as we trod our way to my mum’s car under the pouring rain.

Monday, October 13, 2008

Deutsches Symphonie Orchester Berlin - Oehring & Beethoven - 10/11/08

Conductor: Ingo Metzmacher
Oehring: "Goya II - Yo lo vi" - Memoratorio for boy soprano, deaf mute soloist (male), three instrumental soloists, orchestra, chorus and live-electronics
Beethoven: Symphonie No 3, "Eroica"

You can never get too much of a good thing, so for my last night in Berlin I was happily back at the Berlin Philharmonic for a concert by the Deutsches Symphonie Orchester Berlin, in which a friend of Nyla's plays the viola. The first composer was totally unknown to me, but Beethoven was of course always a good reason to get excited, even if the Eroica is not a favorite of mine among his symphonies. Before the concert started there was a speech and an award was eventually given to Helmut Oehring, who was present that night for the premiere of his new work.

The piece started on a decidedly upbeat note, the music conveying much drive and urgency. Nyla later pointed out that it sounded like it was made for a movie and I couldn't agree more. It would be perfect for a car chase or any situation where speed and suspens are paramount. The stage was pretty crowded: beside the large orchestra to which two electric guitar players were added, a sign-language interpreter and a young boy soprano were on each side of the conductor, not to mention a large chorus in the backgound. The whole performance seemed at times kind of chaotic to me, no doubt because of the language barrier I faced when the poems from Lorca, Kester and Weiss were read in their respective tongues. The few words I managed to grasp here and there were usually not enough for me to understand exactly what it was about, but the music was very evocative and convincingly expressed very distinct moods and feelings. An interesting experience, even if it was at times pretty frustrating.
After the intermission, we found ourselves on much more familiar territory. Even if Beethoven's third symphony never grabbed me the same way others did, I'll be the first to admit that its powerful evocation of, depending on who you ask, Napoleon, revolution, heroism and more, makes it a major milestone in the development of classical music. A lot can be, has been and will be written about it, but the most important thing remains that listening to it in a concert hall is a very gratifying experience, even for the non-initiated in musical theory. That night was no different, and we fully enjoyed the fiery, full-speed-ahead parts interspersed by quieter, lovely dialogs between just a few instruments. The beautiful quartet in the third movement comes to mind, among others, and it perfectly emphasized the wide-range and eloquent style of the whole piece.

After the concert, we sneaked backstage to pay a short visit to Nyla's friend, who was very gracious but unfortunately not feeling well and would have to bail out of their upcoming tour. This was my last evening in Berlin, and another fully successful outing. Even after just four days, I've learnt to appreciate how many cultural opportunities the city has to offer on a daily basis, and how much its people make the arts part of their daily lives. All performances I went to were remarkably well-attended, which is quite amazing when one thinks that Berlin has "only" about three million inhabitants. Everywhere the crowd seemed to cover a whole spectrum in terms of age, social status and education background, which totally validates the idea that the "arts for the masses" concept is not a marketing utopia, but is alive and well in some parts of the world. On this heart-warming note, I said auf wiedersehen to Berlin, but I will be back for more.

Friday, October 10, 2008

Berlin Philharmonic - All-Mozart - 10/09/08

Conductor: Trevor Pinnock
Mozart: Symphony No 25, "The Little"
Mozart: Piano Concerto No 9 "Jenamy" - Maria Joao Pires
Mozart: Symphony No 40, "The Great"

Mission accomplished! I've finally attended a concert by the world-famous Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra at their no less famous home, the Berlin Philharmonic Hall. And what a concert that was. The hall itself was a rather pleasant vision considering the ugliness of its bright yellow tent-like exterior designed by the Berlin architect Hans Scharoun, an unfortunate example of 1960s aesthetics. The space was very large and open, all sharp angles and understated tones. I'm typically not crazy about modern architecture, so it did not take my breath away, but considering my admittedly low expectations, I was happily surprised. I found out I had an unbelievably good seat, another miracle when I think of how late I bought it, and quickly bonded with the woman sitting next to me in half-English half-German. It was her first time too as she had just moved to Berlin, and we were all giddiness and excitement.

The program was all-Mozart and the first piece, the symphony No 25, set the tone for an evening of one musical treat after another. Although it is not as good as his latter work, the man obviously already knew what he was doing, and the orchestra proved right away that its reputation of excellence is more than justified. The perfect acoustics for which the hall is so well-known helped the sound carry faithfully and powerfully, and it was a wonderful way to start the evening.
The second piece was the lovely piano concerto No 9 and our soloist for the evening was Maria Joao Pires. I had never heard her before, but she's definitely worth getting to know. She had a bohemian look, short hair and earth-toned flowing outfit, that was a refreshing change from the overstuffed big-gown-and-bigger-jewelry that a lots of soloists wear in the US. Her playing seemed particularly fit for the lyricism of the concerto and the lightness of her touch was etheral. Even the musicians were attentively listening to her during the solo parts. She was such a big hit that she eventually had to come back and did a little four-hand piece with Trevor Pinnock. It seemed kind of unplanned, but totally delightful.
After the intermission, we were back for the pièce de resistance, the über-popular symphony No 40. Its three very distinctive and extremely melodious movements are the kind that grab you right away and won't get out of your head. They have always been a joy to listen to, and last night even more so. Trevor Pinnock took command right away and led the orchestra in a particularly inspired performance that had everybody in the audience hold their breath. After the infectous first movement, my neighbor and I looked at each other in utter astonishment until she finally asserted that it was "very intensive." The playing was very intense indeed, but also very subtle in the softer passages, highlighting the emotional roller-coater that made Charles Rosen qualify the piece of "work of passion, violence and grief." The orchestra felt totally engaged and committed, and really treated us to an extraordinary performance. I couldn't have expected a better introduction to the orchestra or the concert hall.

But the evening was not over, and Nyla was waiting for me at a tiny, but oh so cool piano bar between the Kulturforum and her apartment: "Joseph Roth Diele. "My spirits still soaring thanks to Mozart's beautiful notes, I settled with a beer and less refined, but no less enjoyable music. The acoustic guitarist was very good, and later the pianist was a lot of fun as well. They really got a good thing going together for a while, and we happily took it all in. Variety is the spice of life, as they say, and it was definitely a heavenly spicy evening.