Saturday, January 31, 2009

Mendelssohn Piano Trio - Mendelssohn - 01/30/09

Mendelssohn: Piano Trio in D Minor, Op. 49, No 1
Mendelssohn: Piano Trio in C Minor, Op. 66, No 2

This February, Washington is celebrating Felix Mendelssohn's 200th birthday with several concerts spread out in various venues all over town. Last night, the community-oriented music school Levine presented one of its many offerings at the Atlas Performing Arts Center on the gentrifying H Street, NE. Inside, the smaller Lang theater turned out to be quite a little haven of homely comfort and good acoustics. One of the premier chamber music ensembles worldwide, the Mendelssohn piano trio chose, not surpringly, two little treasures from the Romantic composer's repertoire, and on we went with the celebration.

Mendelssohn may not have broken new ground in the musical field, but, ah, the melodies! The two pieces featured yesterday evening night are among the most representative of his works, deeply musical in their magical combination of joyful lightness and no holds bar intensity. The three musicians were visibly very comfortable with one another, probably due to over a decade of collaborating, and gave us a tight and perfectly balanced performance. This was very refined chamber music played by an exceptional trio whose skills were as sharp at technique as they were at lyricism.

Sunday, January 25, 2009

Budapest Festival Orchestra - Liszt, Brahms & Sarasate - 01/24/09

Conductor: Ivan Fischer
Traditional Gypsy Folk Music - Jozsef "Csocsi" Lendvay, Sr & Oskar Okros
Liszt - Hungarian Rhapsody No3 in D Major
Brahms - Hungarian Dances No 15 and No 1
Sarasate - Zigeunerweisen, Op. 20
Brahms - Hungarian Dance No 11 - Jozsef Lendvay, Jr, Jozsef "Csocsi" Lenvay, Sr & Oszkar Okros
Brahms - Symphony No 1 in C Minor, Op. 68

Yesterday evening, for the first time this season, I was finally back at Carnegie Hall, which is probably my favorite classical music venue, but which has the extremely irritating habit of scheduling very tempting concerts during the week. Therefore, reviewing their season offerings can be a very frustrating experience for anybody not residing in the Big Apple. It does, of course, have attractive programs on the weekends too, and I was more than happy to go check out current NSO principal music director, Ivan Fischer, conduct the Budapest Festival Orchestra, which he founded in 1983 and with which he is still deeply involved, in a performance dedicated to the joys of Hungarian music. He proved to be a very gracious host as well, filling us in between pieces and obviously relishing the opportunity to bring part of his heritage to such a wide audience.

The celebration kicked off with some traditional music played on the cimbalom, and we had one of the world's leading experts, Oszkar Okros, make a delightful demonstration of it. He was soon joined by Jozsef "Csocsi" Lendvay, Sr, a celebrated violinist in Hungary and abroad, and they soon engaged in spirited and virtuosic improvisation.
Next, Ivan Fischer used Liszt's lively Hungarian Rhapsody No 3 as the perfect example of the winning combination of traditional and classical music. It started as the version we all know and love, took a detour in gypsy territory, and ended with a classical finish.
A Hungarian music celebration wouldn't be complete without Brahms, and two of his Hungarian Dances, the unabashedly joyful No 15 and the more languorous No 1, reminded us why these infectious short works remain such perennial favorites.
Pablo de Sarasate owes his fame as a composer to essentially one piece, but what a piece! Either played with solo violin and orchestra or with violin and piano, Zigeunerweisen remains the quintessential gypsy tune. The frequently alternating slow and fast sections, evoking in turn dignified pride and exuberant joy, make it an irresistible classic, and last night's version, with an orchestra, would have made the fiery Spanish violinist and composer proud.
Back to Brahms, we had the privilege to hear Jozsef Lendvay, Sr, again, but this time accompanied by his no less talented son, Jozsef Lendvay, Jr, who has been making a name for himself in the past few years. They joined forces with Oskar Okros and performed a really, really lovely version of the Hungarian Dance No 11.
The (almost) last piece on the program was Brahm's Symphony No 1, the one the world waited over 20 years for, but the impressive work at least did not disappoint. Deeply romantic and lyrical, it proved once and for all that the composer was not just hype but could actually deliver. From the sweeping first notes to the decidedly melodic final theme, "Beethoven's Tenth" as it is sometimes called for good and less good reasons, benefited for a very committed conductor holding the orchestra at his fingertips. Clearly in their element, the musicians gave an inspired and assured performance, proving to be the perfect ambassadors for their country's musical culture.

As the audience wouldn't let them go, they came back five times and eventually treated us with a fired-up version of Brahms' Hungarian Dance No 7, and finally ended the festivities the way they had started, with some more folk music from the Hungarian heartland.

Friday, January 23, 2009

NSO - Dusapin, Ravel & Berlioz - 01/22/09

Conductor: Emmanuel Krivine
Dusapin: Apex
Ravel: Piano Concerto in G Major - Yundi Li
Berlioz: Symphonie fantastique, op. 14

Now that Washington, DC is slowly but surely getting back to somewhat normal after the phenomenal love fest that was the inauguration of our new president, Barak Obama, the National Symphony Orchestra apparently couldn't think of anything else than scheduling a fully French program as its first three performances of this new era. While I certainly appreciated the honor paid to my double heritage, especially now that I don't have any more qualms about being an American, I did find it a bit puzzling. But, hey, experiencing the Symphonie fantastique live is always a welcome treat, and combining it with a short modern piece and a barely longer and slightly older concerto was not a bad idea after all. An additional bonus was the opportunity to hear the young but already well-known pianist Yundi Li, and the visiting conductor Emmanuel Krivine.

The NSO did, however, start its first concert under the new administration with a rousing rendition of the Star-spangled banner and played it with an incredible amount of energy and gusto that more than powerfully expressed delayed but obviously deeply heart-felt patriotic fervor.
Then it was onward and forward with quite a wide range of Gallic musical works. The first one, Apex by Dusapin, was probably the least known and the most nontraditional. His musical games, both serious and fun, and the absence of linearity required the listener’s attention, but did not beat you up on the head, which is always a plus. Each instrument’s sound was clearly and gracefully defined and their occasional intermingling yielded unusual but interesting results.
After the brainy part of the evening was over, we moved on to more hedonistic oeuvres, starting with Ravel’s eclectic piano concerto. A smorgasbord of various influences ranging from Mozart to Gershwin, sprinkled with sporadic jazzy flavours, it was a ball of rhythms and energy after the ethereal mood of the previous piece. Yundi Li proved he was quite of a dexterous player, but did not look like he was really losing himself into it. He did bring some delicate romanticism to the second movement, the adagio assai, while remaining a bit away from it all.
Next came the pièce de résistance, and the symphony turned out to be quite fantastic, indeed. Composed by Berlioz after he became obsessed with the young Irish actress Harriett Smithson while watching her play Ophelia onstage, it is the imaginary diary of a hopelessly smitten young artist, a psychedelic journey whose five distinct scenes are all connected by the idée fixe, the recurring melodic motif. The Rêveries and the Scenes aux champs were bucolically poetic, and the strings gave the Bal much grace and lightness. Then the orchestra got really fired up and the last two movements were brilliantly intense; the Marche au supplice brimmed with high-voltage macabre energy and the Songe d'une nuit de Sabbat was shamelessly ghoulish. The brass showed no restraint and the orchestra was whole-heartedly supported them under the blazing baton of maestro Krivine. Once more, Berlioz's magnificent masterpiece took its more than willing audience from surrealistic dream to bone-rattling nightmare... and left us asking for more.

Monday, January 19, 2009

Met - Orfeo ed Euridice - 01/17/09

By Christoph Willibald Gluck
Conductor: James Levine
Director: Mark Morris
Orfeo: Stephanie Blythe

Euridice: Danielle de Niese
Amor: Heidi Grant Murphy

Back when I got my subscription for the 2008-2009 season, I did mull over exchanging Orfeo ed Euridice for another opera, one of the war horses maybe, but my friend and Met veteran Martin dissuaded me, and I'm very grateful he did. This legendary tale of undying love told by Gluck through the winning triumvirate of music, poetry and dance broke all the rules when it first came out in 1762, and today it remains a powerfully touching study of love and grief, even with an audience-friendly happy ending. Nobody dies, and the heroine actually comes back from the dead! Moreover, with a total duration of a mere 90 minutes, I figured that if worse came to worse, the misery would be short-lived. There was no need to fear though.

One of Orfeo ed Euridice's unique characteristics is the near-constant presence of the chorus, who did a fantastic job Saturday afternoon at evoking first the haunting sadness brought by Euridice's death, and later the joys of love's ultimate triumph over death. It was visually quite arresting as well: Isaac Mizrahi transformed each of the nearly 100 members into a historical personality, all lined up on three levels, emphasizing thereby the timelessness and universality of the myth.
Although I've never been a big fan of female singers impersonating men, I have to admit that mezzo-soprano Stephanie Blythe was a stupendous Orfeo. Her voice was clear and agile, and she more than anything beautifully conveyed the wrenching pain and agonizing yearning driving the grieving musician. As the irresistible object of desire, Danielle de Niese's Euridice was a strikingly virginal vision and touchingly expressed her increasing confusion at her husband's odd behavior. Their emotionally charged duet in the menacingly dark underworld was definitely one of the highlights of the performance.
Amor was quite a vision as well, but for very different reasons. As she slowly descended from the ceiling amidst chuckles from the audience, her short tousled orangey blond hair and bright pink shirt over casual khakis were quite at odds with what could have rightfully been expected from the God of Love, and even a pair of discreet white wings did not manage to add a celestial touch to the whole unkempt look. She convincingly sang her part though, and perkily provided a bit of welcome relief.
The dance routines were probably for me the least convincing part of the whole production, but they were quite effective at first embodying the dreary mood of Euridice's death, and later were a lot of fun to watch when they all engaged in an exuberantly colorful celebration of the lovers' reunion. I did think this last dance went on for too long, but the score is the score, and I made good use of my time by carefully checking out the chorus and trying to figure out who was who.

All things considered, this Orfeo ed Euridice turned out to be quite an elating adventure. The rich and delicately nuanced music was the perfect background for the subtly poignant singing. No fireworks here, but none were needed. The minimalist set allowed for a quasi real-time, easy flow of the story, and maestro Levine made sure to keep things tight and moving along. The continuous performance went by like a charm, and renewed my resolve to keep on checking out lesser well-known, but ultimately very rewarding, artistic works.

Friday, January 16, 2009

NSO - Stravinsky, Crumb & Rachmaninoff - 01/15/09

Stravinsky: Jeu de cartes, Ballet in Three Deals
Crumb: A Haunted Landscape
Rachmaninoff: Piano concerto No 3 in D Minor, Op. 30 - Leif Ove Andsnes

Last night's program was kind of eclectic, with a modern American piece sandwiched between two giant of Russian music. The big draw was, of course, the much celebrated Norwegian pianist Leif Ove Andsnes who was there to tackle one of Rachmaninoff's crown achievements: his piano concerto No 3, or "Rach 3". Ilan Volkov, the young chief conductor of the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, was back for the second time conducting the NSO, and working with our star guest for the very first time. The only apparent common element among these three works was that they had all been premiered in New York but, regardless of the trivia, we were all looking forward to a nice warm musical evening as the temperatures were rapidly free falling outside.

Stravinsky's Jeu de cartes (Card game) was a lot of fun. Stravinsky was a keen card player and even used his favorite pastime to write a ballet score for Balanchine on that theme, a Ballet in Three Deals. Even without the visual element or any particular inclination for card playing, I found these 20 minutes of continuous music full of excitement and intricacies as each deal featured the shuffle and the actual play.
After all the excitement of card playing, Crumb's Haunted Landscape took us down a very mysterious road to a mystical landscape. Played by four musicians on more than 50 percussion instruments from all over the world, it was a richly and delicately evocative tone poem, pushing the limits of what an orchestra can do, and doing it very successfully.
Not only an incredible musical piece by itself, Rachmaninoff's third piano concerto is also the bona fide star of the movie Shine, based on the life of Australian pianist David Helfgott, where his increasingly desperate attempts to tame the formidable beast eventually lead to his breakdown. Ironically enough, composing "Rach 3" undeniably helped Rachmaninoff recover from a breakdown of his own. Far from the instantly hummable melodies of his second piano concerto, allegedly his most popular, the third is a exciting combination of technical fireworks, for sure, but also lushly lyrical passages and even moments of quiet introspection. There is a lot going on in that piece, but yesterday the high point had to be the beautifully chaotic cadenza, where the pianist let us see the light through all the turmoil. His incredible fingers apparently barely touching the keys, he nevertheless did not let his remarkable dexterity overwhelm the romanticism of the emotional content, and took us to the finish line exhausted, but deeply grateful.

Millennium Stage - Sitt, Haydn, Brahms, Saint-Saens & Dvorak - 01/15/09

Sitt: Concert Piece in G Minor
Haydn: Cello Concerto in C Major (III - Allegro molto)
Brahms: Clarinet Sonata No 2 in E-flat, Op. 120
Saint-Saens: Violin Concerto No 3 in B Minor, Op. 61 (I - Allegro non troppo)
Dvorak: Cello Concerto in B minor, Op. 104 (I - Allegro)

Yesterday evening was a wonderful opportunity to hear some young artists belonging to the NSO Youth Program before enjoying their more seasoned mentors an hour later. The play list featured a wide range of classical works, starting with Sitt's little-known viola piece and ending with Dvorak's much loved cello concerto. As usually these students displayed a wide range of skills, but their obvious enthusiasm and dedication easily made up for any unfortunate mishap.

The first piece was probably the more obscure of them all, therefore a nice surprise. It masterfully highlighted an instrument much less popular than its close cousin, the violin, but nevertheless quietly effective: the viola. While its sound may not be very familiar, the young violist did a wonderful job at bringing forward its possibilities, especially during the more lyrical passages.
Next was Haydn's cello concerto during which the soloist made a special effort to emphasize its elegance, and succeeded for the most part. There was a bit of a coordination snafu between him and the accompanist at the very end, but it was overall a fine performance.
Brahm's clarinet sonata rose light and clear, adding a little bit of ethereal wind to all these impetuous strings.
Then the first notes of Saint-Saens' violin concerto livened things up with their gypsy flair and was a real pleasure to listen to.
Alas, I had to leave during Dvorak's richly melodic cello concerto to make my way to the concert hall, but I still managed to catch a few minutes of it, and it sounded very promising indeed.

Monday, January 12, 2009

The Philadelphia Orchestra - Webern, Beethoven & Brahms - 01/11/09

Conductor: Donald Runnicles
Webern: Im Sommerwind
Beethoven: Violin Concerto in D Major, Op. 61 - Christian Tetzlaff
Brahms: Symphony No 4 in E Minor, Op. 98

After my first 2009 concert in Washington, it was time to branch out to... the City of Brotherly Love. One of the Big Five in the United States and a prestigious name all around the world, the Philadelphia Orchestra has been offering top-notch performances for over a century. So yesterday afternoon I invited some worthy friends of mine to the Kimmel Center in downtown Philly as I was strongly enticed by the two major musical pieces on the program. Und natürlich, the always exciting prospect of hearing Christian Tetzlaff play, in that case Beethoven's surprisingly playful violin concerto, was the final factor that made everything come together. Philadelphia's Center for the Performing Arts turned out to be a rather interesting combination of industrial drabness, overflowing luminosity and wide open spaces. Inside, the Verizon concert hall welcomed with voluptuous angles, dark wood panels, bright red velvet seats and, as we were bound to find out, wonderful acoustics. Let the music begin!

The program started with Webern's Im Sommerwind, which was, as its title indicates, a vivid evocation of the sounds that can be heard "in the summer wind." Inspired partly by a summer spent at his family's country estate, partly by a Bruno Wille's poem, it was both earthy and ethereal, and contained some lovely romantic passages. A nice way to start a January afternoon concert.
Next was the main reason for our presence there and then, Beethoven's violin concerto whose sheer loveliness never ceases to amaze me. The long, majestic first movement, in which the violin makes a late but grand entrance (now that's what I call fashionably late), was soaring beautifully, followed by a Larghetto that shone with delicate serenity until the Rondo cheered things up with an upbeat mood, finally turning the musician loose so he could end the piece on an triumphant note. The orchestra proved to be a solid and responsive partner to our soloist, who not only treated us to a remarkably precise performance, but who also played his own arrangements for the cadenzas, allowing for a really neat dialogue with the percussionist.
After an intermission during which part of the audience was rambunctiously delighted by the opportunity to catch some football updates on TV screens near the concert hall entrance (?!), we were back in for Brahms' magnificently troubled fourth symphony. Yes, it is for sure on the stern side and ends up in tragedy, but it nevertheless takes the listener on a memorable journey. While the mood is generally sober, even dark, some lighter melodies and the occasional warm feeling are present as well. The orchestra easily conveyed all the required intensity without neglecting the sunnier passages for a tight, heart-felt, and very rewarding performance.

This little foray in The United States' original capital turned out to be a big success, and we even managed to accidentally drive right between Independence Hall and Liberty Bell on our way out of the city, thereby adding a historical component to our cultural mission. We shall return.

Saturday, January 10, 2009

NSO - Prokofiev, Schumann & Beethoven - 01/08/09

Conductor: Philippe Jordan
Prokofiev: Symphony No 1 in D Major, Op. 25, "Classical"
Schumann: Cello Concerto in A Minor, Op. 129 - Lynn Harrell
Beethoven: Symphony No 4 in B-flat Major, Op. 60

It was about time! After a meager, to say the least, December, my new year on the musical front finally started with an über-classical program (Not that there's anything wrong with that) on Thursday at the Kennedy Center concert hall where the National Symphony Orchestra welcomed a special guest conductor, the young but already in much demand Philippe Jordan, and a special guest soloist, the not as young but definitely in as much demand cellist Lynn Harrell. Needless to say I had passed the point of being picky, and it was quite a relief to be back for a clean, nice and proper, if somewhat predictable, concert. Anything to assuage these painfully increasing withdrawal symptoms!

The evening started on a decidedly promising note with the enfant terrible of 20th century music, who also happens to be on my favorite composer short list: Sergei Prokofiev. One of his most successful works, the Classical stands out for being short (only 15 minutes) and staying away from the sometimes excessive sentimentality of Russian Romanticism. Composed in four movements, two of which directly inspired by Haydn, it is both a charmingly playful miniature and a sure sign of the wild eclecticism already prevailing in Prokofiev's then emerging career. It starts with a first movement that could be all tradition if not for the occasional quirks adding an unusual flair to it. The second movement, featuring a soaring melody and a delightful pizzicato, is quickly followed by a fun French Gavotte, and it all ends in a brilliant, breathless romp full of agility and exuberance. The orchestra quickly dove into it, and there was no stopping them under the graceful baton of maestro Jordan. It was a quick affair, but it sure hit the right spot.
Schumann's cello concerto had a tough time following such a bright opening. I've never been a big fan of his, and this piece did not change my mind, but it was certainly pleasant enough. Heeding the composer's instructions, its three movements were blissfully played without interruption, thus allowing the musicians and the audience to really dwell into its largely contemplative mood before the virtuosic ending. Lynn Harrell blended well with the orchestra and his lovely duo with the principal cellist was undeniably the highlight of the piece.
Beethoven's fourth symphony definitely seemed the most appropriate one among his oeuvre to wrap up such a dignified evening. The understated but still very present quality of its melodies and the general richness of the whole score may still not make it as extraordinary as some of the composer's ground-breaking work, but it possesses a sense of proportions and balance that gives it a truly unique appeal. Thursday's performance of it was a real treat to the ears and beautifully concluded what turned out to be, all things considered, a pretty satisfying concert.