Friday, October 31, 2008

Jupiter Quartet - Haydn, Shostakovich, 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 mom 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 mom’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.

Thursday, October 9, 2008

Staatsoper Unter den Linden - Tosca - 10/08/08

by Giacomo Puccini
Conductor: Julien Salemkour
Director: Carl Riha
Tosca: Micaela Carosi
Caravadossi: Fritz Burkhard
Scarpia: Gerd Grochowski

Ich bin eine Berlinerin! I'm in Berlin for four days visiting my old friend Nyla and her daughter Gita, who moved here about a year ago, and I'm totally enjoying this opportunity to finally explore this city that I had at the top of my list of places-to-see for a very long time. Yesterday was my first full day, and after a run through the Tiergarten to the Brandenburg Tor, we wasted no time organizing a killer cultural program.
My main goal was to hear the Berlin Philharmonic in their home, but the tickets for the three concerts they're having this week had been sold out on their Web site for weeks. Undaunted, yesterday morning Nyla called the box office and managed to grab me the very last ticket. It is for an all-Mozart program. How could I got wrong with that? Next, we got tickets for Tosca yesterday evening at the Staatsoper. That was wonderful news. Not only do I have a sentimental connection to it (It's the first opera I've ever seen), but it has remained one of my favorites and I'm very familiar with it, which was a good thing since the surtitles were in German!

So yesterday evening we met outside the opera house, and I was happily surprised to see the very eclectic and pretty casual crowd. Here opera going seems more like just another evening activity than a special event, and it is really comforting to see it so well integrated in Berliners' everyday life. There are three full-time operating opera houses in the city, and although the house was not quite full, the performance was still very well-attended. The inside was spacious and beautiful, ornate but not flashy. The production, which was from 1976, was definitely traditional, and this came as a surprise to me as Germans are known for updating the classics and not hesitating to shake things up a bit... or a lot.
As far as I'm concerned, as long as the singing is good, the rest is details. And the singing was wonderful last night, especially from the soprano who brought down the house after the famous aria "Vissi d'arte." She was the best Tosca I've seen so far, physically and musically. She was very Italian, fierce but pious, and her singing was very powerful and assured. Her Cavaradossi was mostly adequate, but no match for her. Scarpia was appropriately nasty, and the second act, which contains a heated confrontation with Tosca, was a real treat. All in all, it was a marvelous way to be introduced to Berlin's opera scene, and a marvelous way to spend my first real (as in "really awake") evening in the German capital.

Monday, October 6, 2008

Met Orchestra - Beethoven, Messiaen & Brahms - 10/05/08

Conductor: James Levine
Beethoven: Grosse Fuge in B-flat Major, Op. 133
Messiaen: Et exspecto resurrectionem mortuorum
Brahms: Violin Concerto in D Major, Op. 77 – Christian Tetzlaff

As part of my New York-centric weekend, yesterday afternoon found me at Carnegie for a much-anticipated concert. While I usually try to come up for the whole weekend, time is sometimes not on my side, and I just go for the day if the performance is a matinee. Going to Carnegie Hall is always a special treat, even more so if I can combine it with a meal at Petrossian, but that did not happen yesterday. What happened, however, was definitely good enough to justify the quick jaunt. I get to hear the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra when I attend operas at the Met, but never outside their home. Add Christian Tetzlaff and Brahms' violin concerto and the whole package definitely sounded like a winning combination.

The concert started with a short piece by Beethoven that I was not familiar with. After one of his trademark openings, the Fuge unfolded full of energy, with notes galloping ad infinitum, and complex enough to keep the audience effortlessly engaged. Those were 16 exhilarating minutes.
The second piece was by Olivier Messiaen for the occasion of the 100th anniversary of his birth. It had been composed for woodwinds, brass and percussion instruments only, and as a piano and string aficionada, that did not bode well. The five short movements, inspired by the Bible, were obviously meant to be played in a church or cathedral setting. To say that the general mood was austere would be an understatement, although one could occasionally distinguish some bird chirping, and maestro Levine taking overlong breaks between movements added to the solemnity of the piece. It felt like a weight had been lifted when it ended.
After the intermission, the strings were blissfully back, and in powerful force, for Brahms’ much beloved violin concerto. Christian Tetzlaff treated us to a riveting performance, solidly backed by the orchestra in great form. In the acoustically perfect hall, the notes were rising and soaring, clear and distinct, emphasizing the swooping romantic passages and the more gentle currents. Even the woman behind me, who seemed to wait for the quieter moments to clear her throat, did not manage to break the spell.

Our loud and lingering approbation of his performance earned us an encore, a beautiful Gavotte from Bach's Third Partita. It was the perfect way to put a temporary stop to my outings in the US as I’m heading off to Berlin, and later France, in a few hours. But I shall return.

Saturday, October 4, 2008

WPAS - New York Philharmonic - All-Tchaikovsky - 10/04/08

Conductor: Lorin Maazel
Tchaikovsky: Suite No 3 in G Major, Op. 55
Tchaikovsky: Symphony No 4 in F Minor, Op. 36

Just got back from (where else?) the Kennedy Center where I attended an absolutely glorious all-Tchaikovsky concert by the New York Philharmonic conducted by Lorin Maazel. Their relationship goes way back as he first conducted the orchestra 60 years ago when he was a mere 12-year old, and now he’s getting ready to bid them farewell. Time sure flies… More recently, they made headlines all over the world for being the first American orchestra ever to perform in Pyongyang, Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. Another interesting fact is that it is one of the oldest orchestras in the world (and the oldest in the US), and it gave its 14,000th concert on December 2004, which is, according to the program, “a milestone unmatched by any other symphony orchestra in the world.”
Their home is the Avery Fisher Hall at the Lincoln Center, but I have to admit that I’ve only been there twice and never connected to the place. Its U-shape makes me feel like in a warehouse and its acoustics are nothing to write home about. It has enticing programs, to be sure, but I’d much rather go down to Carnegie Hall and get there as often as I can, although not as often as I’d like. Of course, The Kennedy Center acoustics are nothing exceptional either, but at least the commute is much easier.

I was anticipating this afternoon concert with much impatience because I’m a die-hard Tchaikovsky fan and could only imagine how good his music would sound played by such seasoned performers. And I was not disappointed. The first piece, the Suite No 3, was new to me, and I really enjoyed its light and sunny quality. It did not have the scope or power of his symphonies, but it was delicately crafted, with wonderful melodies and themes.
After the intermission, the implacable fanfare started his Symphony No. 4 and gave way to its powerful currents interspersed with moments of bleakness and melancholy. I’ve always had a soft spot for the pizzicato in the third movement, so catchy with its obstinate agility, and I particularly relished these few minutes, but the whole performance was praise-worthy, intense and focused. Tchaikovsky confided that the piece was about Fate, “that tragic power which prevents the yearning for happiness from reaching its goal.” He certainly managed to carry his point across while writing the score, and Lorin Maazel certainly managed to carry the point across while conducting his musicians. Even if, or maybe because, this symphony is probably familiar territory for all parties involved, it was a brilliant performance and brought down the almost full-capacity house.

The maestro must have had a good time as well because he came back for two encores that were pieces from Tchaikovsky’s ballet oeuvre, and which the orchestra played with the same gusto. As far as I’m concerned, one can never get too much Tchaikovsky, and this afternoon performance was a real treat to the ears and a wonderful way to start my vacation.

Friday, October 3, 2008

NSO - Beethoven & Shostakovich - 10/02/08

Conductor: Miguel Harth-Bedoya
Beethoven: Overture to The Consecration of the House, Op. 124
Beethoven: Piano Concerto No. 4 in G Major, Op. 58 - Hélène Grimaud
Shostakovich: Symphony No. 5 in D Minor, Op. 47

Since the Kennedy Center has for the time being apparently become my home away from home, I was back yesterday evening, by myself, for a National Symphony Orchestra concert with Hélène Grimaud and special guest conductor Miguel Harth-Bedoya. I had meant to hear the celebrated French pianist quite a few times in the past, but life had always intervened, so that was an opportunity not to be missed.

The first piece by Beethoven, the overture to The Consecration of the House, was pleasantly appealing with a baroque flair to it.
The second piece, Beethoven’s piano concerto No. 4 with Hélène Grimaud, was much more substantial and had the particularity of starting with a short piano monologue, which was pretty much a first at the time. It was a beautiful voyage, from the poetic beginning to the fierce ending, and it was beautifully played, with understatement and rigor. The perfect introduction to the piece and the pianist.
The evening was concluded by Shostakovich's popular Symphony No. 5, a brilliant work that can be appreciated even without any knowledge of the social-political situation in Russia at the time. After riling Stalin with his wildly successful, but definitely not politically correct, opera Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk, the embattled composer was compelled to accept the subtitle "A Soviet artist's creative response to just criticism" for his fifth symphony, which he completed in a mere three months. However, while some degree of awareness of the "Stalin issue" probably provides useful background to interpret the various moods across the four movements, not to mention the controversial finale, this is undoubtedly an exciting piece of music that can easily stand on its own. The fact that the meaning of the "victory song" triumphantly ending the symphony has been so hotly and inconclusively debated makes it even more gripping, and last night its sheer force resonated long after the orchestra stopped playing.

Thursday, October 2, 2008

WNO - The Pearl Fishers - 10/01/08

By George Bizet
Conductor: Giuseppe Grazioli
Director: Andrew Sinclair
Leïla: Norah Amsellem
Nadir: Charles Castronovo
Zurga: Trevor Scheunemann
Nourabad: Denis Sedov

There’s no rest for the brave, and yesterday evening Jennifer and I were back in our seats at the Kennedy Center opera house. (Actually one seat off towards the center. Not that we're keeping track...) This time, we saw The Pearl Fishers (Les pêcheurs de perles), which Bizet wrote when he was 25. Not a major work, it is more of a curiosity. The story line revolves essentially around the typical love triangle of two male friends fighting over a woman. Of course, in this case it is not just any woman, but no less than a “consecrated celestial virgin,” also known as Leïla, the goddess who rules the seas and protects the fishermen. My guess is that this opera has been mostly popular for the exotic setting of Ceylon (nowadays Sri Lanka), which allows the set and costum designers to liberate their creative juices.

Last night was no exception, and the opening was a psychedelic explosion of colors, music, singing and dancing. The palm trees were all but wildly decorated by big strokes of crayolas, and the multi-hued costumes, when they were actually on, added to the delirious exuberance of the place. Some choices, like the group of men dancing in what looked like diapers, were a bit odd, but in the anything-goes atmosphere, nothing looked totally out of place.
Beside the eye-popping set, the story unfolded nicely, if uneventfully. Luckily, the three main singers were game and fulfilled their duties with youthful ardor. The tenor, Charles Castronovo, was especially praise-worthy as Nadir, displaying his wide range from the lovely aria “Je crois entendre encore” (“I think I can still hear”) to his winning duets with Zurga (Trevor Scheunemann) and Leïla (Norah Amsellem). The chorus also did a more than fine job on several occasions, present but not overpowering.
As a native French speaker working in the translation business, I am always curious about the handling of that task, and I have to admit that a couple of times, I did find it lacking. For example, when towards the end Zurga sang in French that “nobody knows the future,” the surtitle read that “God only knows the future.” While I understand that the WNO translation may be more idiomatic, I really don't see the need for it when a literally closer and perfectly adequate one can easily be found. Nobody goes to the opera to be proselytized, or more generally misled.
But linguistic frustations aside, the outing was still a success. While we would have liked a more involving story and some character development, it is sometimes quite enjoyable to just kick back, relax and take it all in without much emotional trauma. After all, we even got an almost happy ending!

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

WNO - La Traviata - 09/30/08

By Giuseppe Verdi
Conductor: Dan Ettinger
Director: Marta Domingo
Violetta Valery: Elizabeth Futral
Flora Bervoix: Margaret Thompson
Alfredo Germont: Arturo Chacón-Cruz
Giorgio Germont: Lado Ataleli

Last night I was back at the Kennedy Center, at the opera house this time, for my first opera of the season: Verdi's La Traviata, or “the one who strayed” (and paid dearly for it.) My friend Jennifer was with me as this year we managed to coordinate our efforts when acquiring our mini-subscriptions, and consequently are sitting next to each other for a change. Inspired from Alexandre Dumas’ famed La Dame aux camélias, which was itself inspired by real-life courtesan Marguerite Duplessis, with whom the author had a love affair before she died at 23, this tragic story remains one of the most beloved operas in the repertoire. And for very good reasons: a tragic love story and incredibly melodious arias from the mind of the master of Italian opera can only be a winning production in the right hands.

And those hands were right last night. The two main characters were played and sung by two of the hottest opera names around: Elizabeth Frutal and Arturo Chacón-Cruz. And deliver the goods they did. She was a lovely Violetta, her voice effortlessly going up and down the register of emotions. He stood up on his own, adequately filling the part, even when not totally mastering his promising instrument. A special mention also has to be made of Lado Ataneli, who played the role of Giorgio Germont, Alfredo’s father, with force and dignity.
Marta Domingo’s production was mostly by-the-book, with beautiful costumes and well-polished sets. Nothing appeared particularly or even slightly unusual, except for the final scene where the minimalist décor of blue and green, and a religious overtone, highlighted the emotional power of the tragic ending. The most breathtaking tableau was undoubtedly the second scene of Act 2. In a decadent mix of black, red and hot pink, Flora’s party was an arresting vision of upscale debauchery reflected on wall mirrors decorated with pictures of half-naked nymphs. Marta Domingo ain't no Martha Stewart, that’s for sure!
All in all, it was a perfectly satisfying night at the opera, with good value, and no big surprises, for our money. A classic is a classic is a classic. The full-capacity crowd was predictably more eclectic than usual and gave the artists some well-deserved ovations. Our only regret was the two 20-minute intermissions that made the evening seem fairly long, even if the opera itself runs "only" about two hours. Some things shouldn't be changed, others, on the other hand, could be easily adjusted and make everybody’s evening even more enjoyable.