Sunday, December 21, 2008

Met - Thaïs - 12/20/08

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

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

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

Friday, December 19, 2008

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, December 11, 2008

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, December 7, 2008

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

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

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

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

Saturday, December 6, 2008

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

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

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

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

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