Sunday, March 29, 2009

WNO - Peter Grimes - 03/29/09

By Benjamin Britten
Conductor: Ilan Volkov
Director: Paul Curran
Peter Grimes: Christopher Ventris
Ellen Orford: Patricia Racette
Captain Balstrode: Alan Held

Just as the sky was finally clearing up after days of relentless cloudiness and rain, I was getting ready to embark on an opera that I had so far avoided because the two comments generally associated to it are "hopelessly grim" and "over three-hour long." On the other hand, I like to think of myself as an open-minded person and this Peter Grimes had a cast way too exciting to ignore: Tenor Christopher Ventris had been a solid Fidelio a few seasons ago, soprano Patricia Arquette had blown everybody away in Jenufa two years ago, and Alan Held, our beloved local Wagnerian bass-baritone, is as reliable a singer as they come. Inspired by Suffolk poet George Crabbe's The Borough, the story of the outcast fisherman revels indeed in pessimism, but is also a universal and unfortunately still relevant tale of a man against a mob. The reputedly striking score and some very positive reviews eventually contributed to my decision to go and brace myself, but there was no need for that. Time just flew by.

Not only Britten's first major work, it is also his most well-known to date and has been steadily performed in major opera houses around the world. While the plot starts with Peter Grimes defending himself against a crime he did not commit and things go pretty much downhill from there, it is also full of ambiguities regarding characters and situations and is not as straightforward as it may seem at first. The title role himself is never clearly defined, appearing both as cruel but sensitive, simple-minded but psychologically complex, fiercely independent but yearning for a family. This big bear of a man never seems to do the right thing, although at the end of the day his fate is sealed more by the hard blows dealt to him than his own shortcomings.
And we have to give credit to Christopher Ventris for successfully bringing out some human qualities in this seemingly brute. Beside his beautifully nuanced singing, he was able to occasionally convey a touching sense of vulnerability, that same vulnerability that no doubt arose motherly feelings in Ellen. As Peter's steady ally, Patricia Racette was right-on as the sweet, educated widow, who expresses genuine human interest in helping him, and her singing was fearlessly transcendental whether she bravely stood up to the villagers or desperately tried to tame the reckless fisherman. Alan Held easily complemented this duo with his towering presence and unmistakable voice, and it's hard to imagine a more appropriate Captain Balstrode, Grimes' only other friend.
Another major element in Peter Grimes is the mob of viciously gossiping villagers, who set the drama in motion. Therefore, the chorus is an almost constant presence on and off stage, and today the ensemble was more than up to the task, effortlessly delivering multi-layered, sometimes bone-chilling, singing and strongly reinforcing the feelings of claustrophobia, hypocrisy and mass hysteria. The last scene, in which Peter walks towards the sea as the parting crowd slowly sways as if to swallow him while Ellen and Balstrode stand tall at each side of the stage, remained a powerful and lasting vision.
Although the story is not pretty, the music is downright beautiful. As one of the first major contemporary operas, Peter Grimes has a complex, poly-tonal score of symphonic dimensions that also shines through its simplicity and directness. No hummable melodies here, but a bit of English folksong combined with Britten's personal inspiration, including the gripping Sea Interludes. This afternoon, the music discreetly supported but never overtook the action or the singing, and that was all very well.
Last, but not least, another major contribution to this memorable production was the drab costumes and the bleak décor in which geometrical buildings in muted shades of blue and off-white had multi-purposes, switching from the village square to the pub's interior. Near the end, the two rows of houses leaning towards the center where Peter Grimes stood alone in the background were an arresting image of the village slowly closing down on him.

Written during trying times in Europe, Peter Grimes dared to raise questions about the Rousseauist theme of man and society and the fundamental issues of morality and social injustice. Add an economical but deeply moving score and the result is a true, all-encompassing work of art. My incredible experience at the Kennedy Center this afternoon was undoubtedly worth being open-minded and missing the couple of hours of sunshine of the whole weekend. An opera has rarely shone so bright.

Saturday, March 28, 2009

WPAS - London Symphony Orchestra - Prokofiev & Beethoven - 03/28/09

Prokofiev: Symphony No 1 in D Major, Op. 25, "Classical"
Beethoven: Piano Concerto No 4 in G Major, Op. 58 - Alexei Volodin
Prokofiev: Symphony No 6 in E-Flat Minor, Op. 111

Two days after hearing Prokofiev's Symphony No 5 performed by the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra at Strathmore, his symphonies No 1 and 6 were being performed by the London Symphony Orchestra at the Kennedy Center and conducted by no less than Valery Gergiev. But I can't imagine ever hearing too much of Prokofiev! A long-time supporter of 20th century Russia's enfant terrible, Gergiev's well-known expertise in the composer's oeuvre obviously makes him the ideal conductor for such a program. In-between the two symphonies was Beethoven's 4th piano concerto, performed by his young but already getting around fellow countryman Alexei Volodin. The London Symphony Orchestra has been one of the most highly regarded orchestras in the world for more than a century thanks to not only their stellar performances, but also their unflinching commitment to educative and community-oriented endeavors. This afternoon, however, they were here to play, and they sure proved that in that field, they're second to none.

Allegedly an homage to Haydn, Prokofiev's first symphony was a big departure for him inasmuch as it was so, well, classical, which was, naturellement, another way for him to stun the unsuspecting public. Only 12 minutes long, it is typically a model of graceful style... until maestro Gergiev decides to bring out the fire in it, that is. While he remained dutifully respectful of Prokofiev's original score, his version yesterday had certainly more intensity and resonance than the ones I've had the chance to hear before. The Finale, in particular, was a lot of fun, with all the unbridled energy of a relentless car chase... Eventually quite "unclassical"!
Beethoven's fourth piano concerto starts with a surprise when the solo piano opens the piece. The second surprise is its serene and lyrical mood. The third one is the constantly engaging dialogue between piano and orchestra, where the soloist responds gently to the grouchy orchestra. Alexei Volodin gave a solid performance, and was kind enough to reward our resounding ovation with a short, but exquisite Prelude by Rachmaninoff.
Composed a few years after the heroic Symphony No 5, Prokofiev's sixth symphony was a less grandiose and merciless grim reminder of the cost of war, and was of course promptly banned by the Soviet government until after Prokofiev's death in 1953. Considered by some as his masterpiece, it is unmistakeably dark and chaotic music, indeed, and Gergiev fiercely brought it to life sans baton, but who needs it when you have the impeccably oiled ensemble that is the LSO at your fingertips? The intense outbursts and falsely lyrical passages kept us riveted in our seats, and after the light-hearted circus-like beginning of the third movement, the incandescent Finale brought the whole piece to its harshly dissonant and deeply troubled conclusion.

After this wild ride, we thankfully got an opportunity to catch our breath with some lighter fare, which did not take a lot, really, in the form of Romeo and Juliet's "Dance of the Knights". The maestro seamlessly channelled Prokofiev to the very end and assuredly led the tireless orchestra in yet another terrific performance. Spassiba!

New Zealand String Quartet - Mendelssohn, Whitehead & Schubert - 03/27/09

Mendelssohn: String Quartet in E Minor, Op. 44, No 2
Whitehead: "Hineputehue" for string quartet and taonga puoro (Maori instruments)
Schubert: String Quartet in G Major, D. 887

To end another busy week, I was back with great pleasure at the Library of Congress for a quiet break between Prokofiev's Symphony No 5 the night before at Strathmore and his Symphonies No 1 and 6 scheduled for tomorrow at the Kennedy Center. And the line-up looked quite interesting indeed. Bookmarked between the go-back-to-basics music of Mendelssohn and Schubert was a contemporary piece for a string quartet and Maori instruments. The New Zealand String Quartet has built an excellent reputation over the past two decades throughout the world and seemed perfectly appropriate for such an intriguing program.

The ensemble may be a quartet of old pros, but they sure brought out all the quintessential freshness of Mendelssohn's early work. The Scherzo, especially, was all youthful joy and the following Andante beautifully lyrical. All standing up, except for the cellist who was sitting on a small platform, they played the traditional romantic music with much gusto.
After the melodic predictability of Mendelssohn, we were off to the realm of New Zealand's godess of peace. Written for string and Maori instruments, Hineputehue was a quietly engaging compositions of mostly exotic wind and string sounds, sometimes intertwined, sometimes interspersed. All of this resulted in the eerie feeling of spending the night in the desert, an impression reinforced as the light and music eventually slowy faded in unison and all was left was cosmic silent.
After the short excusion down-under, we were back on much more familiar territory with good old Schubert. Although not as popular as some of his other works, it was lovely piece performed with much finesse, and beautifully concluded another elating Friday evening in the Coolidge Auditorium.

Friday, March 27, 2009

BSO - Brahms & Prokofiev - 03/26/09

Conductor: Yan Pascal Tortelier
Brahms: Violin Concerto in D Major, Op. 77 - Vadim Repin
Prokofiev: Symphony No 5 in B-Flat Major, Op. 100

Last night’s line-up of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra sounded like a totally winning combination, even if former conductor and music director Yuri Temirkanov inexplicably bailed out a few weeks ago. I can’t imagine not grabbing yet another opportunity to hear Brahms’ lushly romantic violin concerto, this time performed by the always reliable cherubic-faced Vadim Repin, and I was also very much looking forward to my first take of Prokofiev’s popular Symphony No 5 live. This Russian-flavored program included a Gallic touch as well via the presence of French conductor Yan Pascal Tortelier, whose prestigious career brought him to many corners of the world, and who was more than welcome in ours.

Like most masterpieces, Brahms’ violin concerto has enough layers of complexity to keep on surprising the listener every time they get to experience it in a concert hall. Last night, I noticed some discreetly conspicuous pizzicatos that were quietly enhancing the sweepingly lyrical mood. Dedicated to his friend and colleague, the violonist Joseph Joachim, Brahms wrote a score that is a fascinating and multi-faceted challenge, and yesterday the voluptuously long first movement demonstrated one more time its symphonic proportions right away. The second movement, introduced by an oboe solo that even I found stunning (and god knows that the oboe is not high on my list of musical instruments) was delicately sweet and expansive while the finale bristled with gypsy-like joyful exuberance. Vadim Repin delivered a deeply committed performance, especially ethereal in the most poetic passages, and proved once again his remarkable talent.
Next, it was time for what many, including the man himself, consider Prokofiev’s best symphonic work. Although he is one of my favorite composers, I have to confess that my knowledge of his oeuvre is far from exhaustive, but so far I have to agree. Written as the tide of World War II was turning, his 5th symphony was premiered in Moscow on January 13, 1945, and maestro Prokofiev waited patiently until the cannons outside were done thunderously announcing the Soviet army's cross-over into Nazi Germany's territory before raising his baton. Talk about incredible timing for this epic tribute to the Russian people during those trying times! On that evening the symphony majestically unrolled its four very distinct movements and swept everybody away, just like it did yesterday. The slow war-inspired mood was immediately gripping in all its thunder and mournful sounds. In sharp contrast to all that darkness, the second movement was a sort of caustic, macabre dance before moving into a beautifully lyrical Adagio, which eventually led to a manically optimistic grand Finale. Heroic in spirit and sound, this tumultuous adventure got a polished, assured treatment by the BSO and concluded the evening with sheer grandeur, maybe "the grandeur of the human spirit" to which Prokofiev dedicated this symphony.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Met - La Sonnambula - 03/21/09

By Vincenzo Bellini
Director: Mary Zimmerman
Conductor: Evelino Pido
Amina: Natalie Dessay
Elvino: Juan Diego Flórez
Count Rodolfo: Michele Pertusi
Lisa: Jennifer Black

The New York Times said it was a shitty production with fabulous singers. The Washington Post, which rarely bothers to review operas outside the Washington area, said it was a really shitty production with fabulous singers. The Wall Street journal, on the other hand, said it was an interesting production with fabulous singers. So it was with a great deal of curiosity that I went to see the new Met production of Bellini's rarely performed semiseria opera La Sonnambula. I was all the more surprised by all the negative feedback that the director, Mary Zimmerman, staged a wildly inventive and hugely successful Pericles at the Shakespeare Theater in Washington a few years ago, and her Lucia de Lammermoor at the Met last year, even if not universally acclaimed, had the merit of making bold and still mostly relevant choices. But what the hell. I figured that even if the production was THAT bad, the two hot leads would more than make up for it and the trip wouldn't be a total waste.

The intrinsic issue with La Sonnambula is the light and silly story which brings nothing but serves as an excuse for "the Swan of Catania" to let his Bel Canto creative juices flow freely. (When two major elements of the plot are a Swiss village and sleepwalking, you know you're in trouble.) And indeed, the result is a constant stream of gracefully melodic music and emotionally charged arias, which are a total delight for the ears. Maestro Evelino Pido kept the music going, even if he did not sound overly inspired, but then why bother with a fully staged opera if there is nothing really engaging happening on the stage?
Placing the narrative in the present time as an opera company rehearsing La Sonnambula and living more or less the same story was a nice try, but did not turn out to be very convincing. While experimenting with the reality/fiction dichotomy can be a laudable, even exciting, endeavor, this did not work particularly well in that case, probably due to the lack of solid material to work from. Some of the ideas were fun (announcing the context on a blackboard, a grand finale in full Swiss regalia), but most of the time the concept caused confusion, made little sense or did not go anywhere. Oh boy.
La Sonnambula was especially composed for two of the most sensational singers at the time, Giuditta Pasta and Giovanni Battista Rubini, and yesterday afternoon it befell on two of today's most sensational singers to impersonate the central characters. An ardent supporter of dusting off traditional productions by putting a modern spin on them through theatricality, Soprano Natalie Dessay was obviously game. She may not have a big voice, but her coloratura was agile, detailed and assured, and her Amina had a rather lively personality, which was a big step up from her usual portrayal as a plain goody-two-shoes. Her equally terrific partner, tenor Juan Diego Flórez, was in brilliant vocal form and brought to Elvino enough passion and innocence, if not a particularly sharp mind, to make him vibrantly real. Their evident chemistry quickly turned their appealing duets, simply staged and free of external distractions, into show-stopping numbers.
They were generally well supported by the ever-present chorus, which often did not seem to know what to do with themselves, and when they did have directions to follow, those were quite perplexing. Michele Pertusi was an appropriately lecherous count turned savior of the day and Jennifer Black a delighfully sassy Lisa. But all the assembled talent could not work any miracle, even if they obviously did their best to pull it off.

So were the opening night's boos justified? Yesterday's much more tolerant audience (maybe due to lowered expectations?) gave it a warm ovation, which rightfully went up several notches with Natalie Dessay and Juan Diego Flórez took their bows. Without them, this would have been nothing. With them, it remains not much with fabulous singers. Not bad, especially since opera-going is for me first and foremost a musical experience, but not quite good enough.

Friday, March 20, 2009

NSO - Mozart & Bruckner - 03/19/09

Conductor: Herbert Blomstedt
Mozart: Piano Concerto No 27 in B-Flat Major, K. 595 – Jonathan Biss
Bruckner: Symphony No 9 in D Minor

I wasn’t sure about going to the National Symphony Orchestra concert last night as there are so many other opportunities to hear Mozart piano concertos, although notably fewer with the much praised Jonathan Biss at the keyboard, and Bruckner has never been especially high on my list, although I realize that I need to become better acquainted with his oeuvre to form an informed opinion. Herbert Blomstedt may not be a household name outside the musical community, but he has had a distinguished career in the US and abroad, and that was one curiosity to be considered. On the other hand, the Biava Quartet was scheduled to perform neglected Jewish masterpieces upstairs and it was another tempting option. But eventually the NSO’s early start and interesting contrast of subdued and strong flavors won and turned out to be a good choice, even if regrets about missing Biava Quartet’s “Pro Musica Hebraica” are still lingering…

The main attraction of yesterday’s concert was the young but incredibly versatile pianist Jonathan Biss, and his performance of Mozart’s final piano concerto was undoubtedly the highlight of the evening. Considered by many as Mozart’s maturely serene swansong, the music is beautifully understated and seemingly written by somebody with nothing more to prove and at peace with himself. Its songlike quality, so suggestive of playful water drops, was evident as Biss’ fingers barely appeared to touch the keys while still creating enchanting sounds. The playing was effortlessly limpid, fluid and harmoniously complemented by a reduced and tamed NSO.
After Mozart’s magically delicate final concerto, Bruckner’s harrowingly intense final symphony was a rude awakening and resoundingly occupied the whole concert hall for the whole hour of its duration, even in the slower movements. There was no chance to let your attention falter there! Dedicated to “his dear God”, it is an immense undertaking, to be sure, and the brass section occasionally seemed to be having a bit too much of a good time, but the majestic grandeur of the work nevertheless shone through until the very last hushed notes, which closed the concert as softly as it had started.

Monday, March 16, 2009

Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra - Shchedrin, Prokofiev & Brahms - 03/15/09

Conductor: Mariss Jansons
Shchedrin: Beethoven's Heiligenstädter Testament
Prokofiev: Violin concerto No 1 in D Major, Op. 19 - Gil Shaham
Brahms: Symphony No 1, Op. 68

After hearing her effortlessly master the exacting Baroque music of Bach last month, I was very much looking forward to hearing Julia Fisher handle the very different challenge that is Prokofiev's decidedly unorthodox first violin concerto. Brahms' sumptuous Symphony No 1 as well as an unknown piece about Beethoven were also on the program, and the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra has enough of an excellent reputation to make the concert sound like a sure winner at no less of a venue than Carnegie Hall. Therefore, after the obligatory stop at Petrossian Bakery one block up for one of their to-die-for goodies, I was eagerly getting situated into my seat when I discovered that Ms. Fisher would not be performing due to an illness, but that Gil Shaham had very gentlemanly agreed to step in at the very last minute. My heart, which had dropped like a ton of bricks, came back up just as fast. Whew! Disaster avoided, and on with the show.

The first piece was quite a short and delightful surprise. Written last year by Moscow-born pianist and composer Rodion Shchedrin, it was inspired by Beethoven's Heiligenstädter Testament, a private document addressed to his brother in which he was expressing the torture that was his art, especially as he was becoming deaf. Its hair-raising opening notes and generally energetic tone were powerful evocations of the German composer's own thunderous music as well as the growing frustration and anger caused by his encroaching infirmity. It was also a good way for the orchestra to assert their uniformly brilliant sound while paying tribute to one of their fellow countrymen.
After witnessing Gil Shaham's virtuosic performance of Stravinsky's violin concerto a couple of weeks ago at the Kennedy Center, I figured that his tackling Prokofiev's wild ride would be yet another exciting adventure. Both only 22-minute long (Not that I'm clocking them or anything, but it says so in the program's notes) and both keeping the soloist fully engaged almost the whole time, they nevertheless present notable differences. For example, I've always thought that Prokofiev's concerto was more of a whizz kid's rebellious exercise compared to Stravinsky's more immediately attractive work. Its four-minute second movement stands out like a fast and furious wake-up call for attention while the first and third ones contain enough lyrical and melodic powers to be endlessly enchanting to the ears. The enfant terrible of 20th century Russia was having a hell of a creative year in 1917, and it shows. Not surprisingly, Gil Shaham's gave a technically agile and emotionally heart-felt performance, and enjoyed a strong but not overwhelming support from the perfectly oiled orchestra.
After Prokofiev's defiant unconventionality, Brahms' first symphony sounded even more sweepingly romantic. Nineteen years in the making, "Beethoven's 10th" is a finely crafted piece of work, from the swooning romantic élans of the beginning to the chorale-driven finale that bears more than a passing resemblance to Beethoven's Ode to Joy, but who's complaining? The light-heartiness of the two middle movements nicely counter-balance the rest of the score, and the whole symphony unfolds like a grand journey. Clearly dwelling deep into it, the orchestra rose as one under the direct but not overbearing baton of maestro Jansons and gave a majestically memorable performance.

And there was no stopping the party once these Bavarians got started! The first encore, Brahms' Hungarian Dance No 5, was ethereally delicate in the slow passages and anarchically energetic in the fast ones. The dynamite second encore, Josef's Strauss' polka Ohne Sorgen! ("Without Care"), exuded indeed unrestrained, carefree joie de vivre and was still resonating in our ears as we were slowly exiting the hall and going back to a cold and gray reality.

Saturday, March 14, 2009

Quatuor Ebène - Ravel, Fauré & Debussy - 03/13/09

Ravel: String Quartet in F Major
Fauré: String Quartet in E Minor, Op. 121
Debussy: Quartet in G Minor, Op. 10

After the exotic musical wanderings of the Silk Road Ensemble two nights ago, it was quite a shock to my system to be back at the Library of Congress yesterday evening for not only some Western chamber music, but an all-French program performed by an all-French quartet too! The three composers to be heard were all turn-of-last-century artists and had quite a few personal and professional connections among them: they each wrote only one string quartet, Fauré was Ravel's teacher at the Paris Conservatoire and later appointed Debussy to the governing body of that same institution, Ravel and Debussy had a friendly, then estranged relationship... Young, rightfully fast-rising and already all over the place, the Quatuor Ébène definitely looks like the ultimate musical ambassadors for a country not especially renowned for its strong musical tradition. However, when the French muse strikes, the results can be quite spectacular, as we were about to find out.

Although well-meaning critics advised Ravel to revise his quartet, his then buddy Debussy strongly urged him "in the name of the gods of music" not to touch a single note and, thankfully for us, Ravel listened to the voice of friendship. Although obviously influenced by Debussy's earlier output, Ravel's quartet more than stands on its own. Yesterday, rhythmic pizzicatos were popping up all over the scherzo and the third movement was so ethereally delicate that one was afraid to breath, before things decisively perked up for a very passionate grand finale.
After the student's youthful vigor, the old master sounded downright classical with a subtle touch and Franck-like meditative restraint. Proving their technical and emotional maturity, the musicians gave a serene, deeply-felt reading of Fauré's last work, and did a wonderful job at emphasizing its quiet, intrinsic beauty.
Another gem of French chamber music, Debussy's quartet is a magically impressionistic work that no true-blue French native can hear without feeling the strong urge to sip a leisurely cup of afternoon tea while nibbling at a sweet, golden madeleine, remembering of things past. While his composition techniques were famously ground-breaking at the time, one does not need any expertise in musical analysis to fully enjoy the gorgeous unity of the four intricately refined movements. The andantino by itself is a little gift that keeps giving regardless of the mood you're in, and just stays with you long after the music has stopped.

But the party was not over yet, and the quartet decided to reward the resounding ovation from the packed auditorium with quite an unexpected treat: They started by singing a cappella "Un jour mon prince viendra" ("Someday my prince will come") from... Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (!?) before grabbing their respective instruments and performing a free-wheeling, right-on jazzy spin-off of it. Classical, yes, but with a twist. Vive la France!

Thursday, March 12, 2009

WPAS - The Silk Road Ensemble with Yo-Yo Ma - 03/11/09

Frank: Ritmos Anchinos
Ziporyn: Salvasutra
Perapaskero: Turceasca
Hajibeyov: Layla and Majnun - Alim Qasimov & Fargana Qasimova

Last night’s program may not have presented what the Western world considers classical music and which is, after all, the raison d'être of this blog, but why always listen to the Western world? Not content to be one of the most respected and beloved musicians around today, cellist extraordinaire Yo-Yo Ma decided just about 10 years ago to branch out and help make our planet a better place to live on by connecting people and cultures all around the globe with his Silk Road Project. As one man's tradition is another man's novelty, this concert was an opportunity for the Silk Road Ensemble to take us on a trail-blazing trip around the world in two solid hours, if not 80 days. I actually had the privilege to hear this very eclectic group of uniformly brilliant musicians perform at the fabulous Smithsonian Folk Life Festival dedicated to The Silk Road back in 2002, and it was with great anticipation that my friend Jennifer and I went to Strathmore yesterday for another enlightening multi-cultural experience.

Needless to say that none of the pieces listed on the program rang the slightest bell, and from the very first notes, it became quite obvious that we were indeed entering a whole different musical territory. Written by the Peruvian-Jewish-Chinese composer Gabriela Lena Frank and happily mixing Latin and Western musical forms, Ritmos Anchinos took some getting used to, but the familiarization was pleasantly eased by the star of the piece, the pipa, whose playful and almost human sounds occasionally stirred amused chuckles from the audience.
Composer, clarinetist and Balinese gamelan aficionado Evan Ziporyn's Sulvasutra brought to life an ancient Sanskrit treatise about the proper engineering for Vedic altars through vivid evocations of the universe before the Big Bang, the sacrificial fire, and the ever-expanding mathematical formulas that keep the fire alive. The string quartet and pipa expert surrounding the relentless Indian tabla player expressively played the composition's three rhythmic cycles of four, five and three - the sides of the right triangle - from the hushed, uncertain quietness of the Beginning to the fierce fire blasting, and eventually reaching all corners of the globe.
Turceasca ("Turkish piece") is the signature tune of the very popular Romanian Gypsy band Taraf de Haiidouks, who are particularly well-known for their very open performances during which musicians can come and go in a very fluid and spontaneous fashion. After being arranged to incorporate other unexpected influences by Osvaldo Golijov, the piece exuded spirited, festive Gypsy vibes as well as more classical, disciplined flavors, and was an irresistibly fun way to celebrate intermingling musical heritages and let the good times roll.
Layla and Majnun, the early 20th century Azerbaijani opera based on a beloved classical Arabic love story, the Romeo and Juliet of the Middle East and Central Asia, is a multi-media project that assembled a wide array of musicians sitting in a half circle around the renowned Azerbaijani father-daughter singing duo of Alim Qasimov and Fargana Qasimova, who were impersonating the star-crossed lovers. The music was a compelling mix of beautifully vibrant sounds thanks to the winning association of Asian and Western traditions with mugham, a form of Azerbaijani modal music where stories and emotions are expressed through songs and traditional instruments. The singing, on the other hand, was for me much harder to get into as my Western ears are far from being accustomed to such mournful and lingering sounds. As for the lyrics, whose translation was helpfully provided, they were just about as hopelessly syrupy as any good old Western opera featuring a doomed love story.

Being exposed to such an impressive range of musical traditions and combinations thereof by such dedicated artists was quite a trip indeed, and proved that even if the path less travelled does not always lead to the same spontaneous rapture that more familiar and beloved works would, the mental stimulation and increased open-mindedness it promotes are rewards enough to be deeply grateful for this very different experience.

Sunday, March 8, 2009

BSO - Stravinsky & Mozart - 03/07/09

Conductor: Jun Märkl
Stravinsky: Apollo
Mozart: Requiem - Baltimore Choral Arts Society - Christine Brandes - Susan Platts - Roger Honeywell - Timothy Jones

Everybody has their own favorite pieces from Mozart's incredibly wide-ranging oeuvre, and for me, it was his Requiem that first got my attention, and still has it after all these years. Of course, it can be argued that he did not write it all, but his imprint is unmistakably all over the score and his untimely death all but adds a special poignant touch to an already spectacular work. Commissioned by Count Franz Walsegg-Stuppach upon the death of his young wife, Mozart postponed composing it quite a few times maybe due to other more pressing engagements, maybe due to his fear of inviting his own demise. After he did pass away, his widow had his student Süssmayr finish it more out of dire needs for money than out of some loftier desire of preserving her genius husband's name for posterity, but it has remained one of his most enduring masterpieces. The first part of the concert was Stravinsky's Appollo, which I had never heard of, but sounded inviting enough, and this was finally the first opportunity for me this year to hear the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra at Strathmore, which always qualifies as a special treat.

Stravinsky's Appollo has a special connection to Washington as it was commissioned by Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge, a dedicated and generous classical music supporter, who most notably gave us the wonderful Coolidge auditorium of the Library of Congress. Composed as yet another ballet accompaniment, this time revolving around the Greek god of the sun, it is lovely work making the most of a reduced all-string orchestra. All finely crafted harmonies and melodies, it also features a few stirring parts for the solo violin, and eventually leaves the audience with a lingering feeling of peace and serenity.
Hearing the Requiem on CD is good, but hearing it live in such an acoustically blessed venue brings the whole experience to an entirely different level. Yesterday evening, under the assured baton of maestro Jun Märlk, the orchestra, chorus and soloists all unequivocally joined their impressive forces for a beautifully musical and deeply spiritual performance. From the grandly rising Requiem aeternam to the final Lux eaterna, this relentlessly unrolling stream of magnificent moments surely got under the skin of believers and unbelievers alike. Among the many highlights stood out the fierce medieval tune Dies Irae, the exquisite solo quartet Recordare, and the hauntingly somber Lacrimosa whose first eight measures is the last music Mozart ever wrote. Striking the perfect balance not only in terms of sounds but moods as well, the concert was totally awe-inspiring. Who could have guessed a mass for the dead could be such an uplifting experience?

Friday, March 6, 2009

Belcea Quartet - Haydn, Prokofiev & Schubert - 03/05/09

Haydn: String Quartet in F-sharp Minor, Op. 50, No 4
Prokofiev: String quartet No 1 in B Minor, op. 50
Schubert: String Quartet in D Minor, D. 810 (“Death and the Maiden”)

The British were coming, the British came, and the British indisputably conquered... at least the packed Coolidge auditorium of the Library of Congress last night. One of the major string quartets of the new generation, the Belcea Quartet has had a pretty busy and international career so far, and it seems that nothing is likely to stop them in the near future. Now that Washington has emerged from the thick blanket of snow that abruptly covered it earlier this week, hordes of Yankees and probably more than a few expats came and eagerly sampled an enticing program of Haydn, Prokofiev and Schubert.

The first piece by Haydn was all spontaneous vivaciousness and subtle elegance. Obviously on solid and familiar ground, the four young musicians stepped right into it and delivered an assuredly polished performance. It was nice comfort music, and very satisfying too.
After the sheer refinement of 18th century classical music, Prokofiev's String Quartet No 1 was quite an unsettling contrast in all its 19th century modernism. While the first movement remained fairly “classical” and featured catchy melodies, the second one was all sharp dissonances and tense lyricism, with even a few spooky pizzicatos thrown in for good measure. The fact that the finale was the slow movement was another surprise, and concluded all the restless agitation on a welcome introspective note.
Named “Death and the Maiden” from Matthias Claudius' poem by the same title about a Maiden imploring Death to spare her and Death promising her blissful eternal sleep, this Quartettsatz was composed by Schubert when he was 23 years old and encapsulates all his musical works until then in a stunning display of full-blown maturity. Its structural complexity punctuated by recurring melodic crescendos expresses an impressively wide range of emotions, and the Belcea Quartet’s vigorously precise performance of it grandly enhanced the piece’s natural charm and intensity. These Brits are here to stay.

Sunday, March 1, 2009

Met - Il Trovatore - 02/28/09

By Giuseppe Verdi
Conductor: Gianandrea Noseda
Director: David McVicar
Leonora: Sondra Radnanovsky
Azucena: Dolora Zajick
Manrico: Marcel Alvarez
Count di Luna: Dmitri Hvorostovsky

When you're seating in an opera house eagerly waiting for the performance to start, your biggest fear is the appearance of the announcer, probably the most reviled individual in the opera world, as he seldom brings good news. Yesterday, however, after being greeted with the usual groans from the audience, he merely informed us that mezzo-soprano Dolora Zajick was suffering from a respiratory ailment and requested our indulgence, which won him a heart-felt round of relieved applause.
The relief was all the more genuine because the biggest challenge of producing Verdi's Il Trovatore is to find four equally strong and charismatic singers able to fill the four main characters' dreadfully exacting shoes. This is a rather daunting task, to say the least, but it hasn't stopped well-meaning and clueless people alike from trying again and again, with a decidedly mixed bag of results. Not only do the singers have to make an even-more-convoluted-than-usual plot come to life (and in opera, that is saying something), but the musical score's unforgiving mix of extremely different styles and moods also requires as much vocal technique as unflinching stamina.

Fortunately, like Manrico's companions readily responding to his defiant call to arms, the four artists on the stage yesterday had a more than a solid grasp on their parts. Sondra Radvanovsky brought her intensely expressive and wide-ranging soprano voice to the ardently fought-over Leonora, and she was formidably matched by her two relentless suitors: as the big bad Count di Luna, baritone Dmitri Hvorostovsky had all the magnetic presence of Evil itself, never hesitating to go deep under his suave surface to dramatically unfurl his violent feelings, and the romantic troubadour of the title, Manrico, was brilliantly sung by tenor Marcelo Alvarez, who was easily switching from tender love songs to hold-no-prisoner arias such as "Di quella pira". Adding to the triangle from hell, mezzo-soprano Dolora Zajick proved she is still an outstanding Azucena, the demonic but oh so human gypsy haunted by too many torments. The health issue notwithstanding, her voice fiercely rose loud and clear, and we were very grateful to have her with us. These magnificent four assuredly formed a mighty web of emotional ties and unrestrained passions, immensely contributing to Verdi's unabashedly uninhibited music to make this Trovatore the ultimate romantic opera it is.
Inspired by Goya's disturbing war paintings, the revolving set quietly emphasized the dark, turbulent nature of the original story. With huge body-holding crosses constantly looming in the background, the easily adaptable décor was quickly modified according to the scene at hand, therefore allowing for painless transitions. The costumes followed suit and were discreetly appropriate for the place and time in which this production was taking place (The Spanish War of Independence in the early 19th century).
Some scenes were natural stand-outs with their powerful combination of audible and visual stimulation, such as the shirtless metal-workers at the campfire creating rhythmical off-beat percussion during the familiar "Anvil Chorus". Less convincing to me was the final scene, in which Leonora slowly died in an increasingly awkward position while her supposedly devoted-to-the-very-end paramour stands at a surprisingly wide distance from her. It is understood that gradually dying from self-inflected poisoning is not necessarily a pretty sight, but the lack of a final embrace seemed kind of odd for such a passionately committed couple.

Il Trovatore has enjoyed a constant popularity from its very first performance, partly because of the sheer power of its tragic story (stories?), partly because of its magnificent musical score punctuated by gorgeous melodies, which are even at times simultaneously sung to express the characters' different and conflicting emotions. While not strikingly original, this solid production kind of makes sense of the plot, which is quite a remarkable victory in itself, and lets the music do the rest, and that's all very good indeed.

NSO - Adès, Stravinsky & Weill - 02/27/09

Adès: "Overture, Waltz and finale" from Powder Her Face
Stravinsky: Violin Concerto in D Major - Gil Shaham
Weill: Suite from Aufstieg und Fall der Stadt Mahagonny
Stravinsky: Divertimento from The Fairy's Kiss

After two very fulfilling concerts earlier this week and an early wake-up call scheduled for the next morning, I was questioning the sanity of adding yet another musical outing to my busy calendar. But the thought of hearing the brilliant violinist Gil Shaham play Stravinky's stylish violin concerto with the National Symphony Orchestra was just too tempting to perish. The relatively short commute between the Kennedy Center and my place and his performing in the first part of the program, therefore allowing for an early and quick escape, decisively tipped the more-than-willing scales into just stopping the mulling over and going already.

Things started vigorously with the young and fast-rising Finnish conductor Hannu Linu energetically leading a NSO in fine form into a rousingly languorous fox-trot, of all things. Adès' "Overture, Waltz, and Finale" from Powder Her Face, his 1995 chamber opera narrating the eventful life of the Duchess of Argyll, is a strange but attractive beast, with vivid evocations of her glittery past, notorious trial and final sordid situation. Accordingly, the music ranged from loud and assertive to a more gentle waltz, reminiscent of happier times, before the mercilessly biting grand finale, eventually ending in a quiet whisper.
With the wide grin of a mischievous kid wearing his father's oversize fancy outfit, the ever-jovial Gil Shaham made his most welcome appearance on the stage, and without further ado, he and the orchestra got right down to business. Although it lasts a mere 22 minutes, Stravinsky's concerto makes sure the soloist remains almost constantly engaged for the whole duration of the tightly constructed piece. With no room for aimless wandering or in-your-face razzle-dazzle, it nevertheless keeps the audience on their toes with a constant flow of surprises. Friday evening, the highlights included the exquisitely lyrical second aria and the fun-filled, exuberant capriccio. Solidly, occasionally too much so, backed by the orchestra, Gil Shaham gave an impeccably virtuosic and entertaining performance, easily connecting with Hannu Lintu and Nurit Bar-Josef, the always dependable concertmaster, with frequent winks and nods of genuine complicity and pure enjoyment.

My mission accomplished, common sense still prevailed and I did leave during intermission. Luckily, the two pieces in the second half of the program were not enticing enough to me to create a real dilemma, so I headed home with no remorse and no regrets.