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.