Sunday, May 31, 2009

National Philharmonic - Wagner, Dvorak, Saint-Saëns & Mahler - 05/31/09

Conductor: Piotr Gajewski
Wagner: Prelude to Die Meistersinger
Dvorak: Romance for Violin in F Minor, Op. 11 - Soovin Kim
Saint-Saëns: Introduction and Rondo Capriccioso, Op. 28 - Soovin Kim
Mahler: Symphony No 1 in D Major, "Titan"

Summer's here and the 2008-2009 regular concert/opera season is slowly moving to an end with performances already few and far between. This afternoon, The National Philharmonic was presenting an interesting last hooray with the help of the young but already much awarded Soovin Kim, who was there to contribute on the two unabashedly crowd-pleasing Romantic solo pieces. Bookending them were different but deeply connected works from the same period, Wagner being Mahler's major source of inspiration. The beautiful weather unfortunately lured many people to stay outside, therefore the Strathmore concert hall looked sparsely filled, but the dedicated crowd was rewarded with a very enjoyable concert.

Wagner's grand prelude to his only comic opera is a work that can easily stand on its own, and has actually been doing just that pretty much since it was composed. Featuring the master's trademark powerful sound, it was a gripping and rousing way to get things started.
Sharply contrasting with Wagner's big entrance was Dvorak's lovely Romance for Violin. Contemplative and melancholy, it got the elegant treatment it deserves in the decidedly savvy hands of Soovin Kim. The orchestra smartly held back, and let the quiet lyricism of the Romance delicately shine.
Camille Saint-Saëns' much beloved Introduction and Rondo Capriccioso was another perfect summer afternoon violin-centric treat with its strong Spanish flavor and syncopated rhythms. Technically challenging for the soloist and a lot of fun for the listener, it easily dazzled the audience with its infectious nature and intrinsic charm.
Thanks to, or maybe because of, a difficult gestation, Mahler's symphony No 1 remains a sumptuously complicated gift that keeps giving. Its long first movement started slowly with a thrilling evocation of various sounds of nature, and was followed by the waltzy rhythms of a rustic Austrian ländler. The third movement, well-known for uniquely incorporating "Frère Jacques" into a funeral march worked beautifully and even made the odd combination sound natural. Starting with a few steamrolling notes, the last movement brought some of the previous ideas together into an eventually grand Finale. Clearly in his element and relishing every minute of it, maestro Gajewski kept pretty much everything under control, especially a tight brass section that proved its hair-raising efficiency when it counted, and concluded the National Philharmonic Orchestra's season with a memorable bang!

Sunday, May 24, 2009

WNO - Turandot - 05/24/09

Director: Andrei Serban
Conductor: Keri-Lynn Wilson
Princess Turandot: Maria Guleghina
Calaf: Dario Volonte
Liu: Sabina Cvilak
Timur: Morris Robinson

The Washington National Opera is currently concluding its season with Puccini's last work, the Oriental-flavored Turandot, courtesy of a production that was created at London's Covent Garden 25 years ago and has been revived no less than 22 times since. Assuming it must be doing something right, I was looking forward to checking it out, but with cautious enthusiasm as the opera's unavoidable pomp and contrite story have never made a favorite of mine among my beloved Puccini's oeuvre. There is no doubt, however, that the music remains as stunningly harmonious as ever, at least until he died and Alfano eventually carried on, and there is no better recipe for escapism in Washington these days, especially on a hot three-day Memorial Day weekend.

The story originally does not seem more far-fetched than most operas, albeit a bit on the bloody side. It's not every day that you hear of a princess who had all of her twenty-six suitors beheaded for failing to solve three riddles, and is ready for more. Therefore, Turandot appears as a pretty unsavory, almost cartoonish, character until the very end. While her beauty (and the throne of China that comes with her) are apparently bewitching, it is still pretty hard to understand Calaf's irresistible attraction to her, especially after she callously provokes the suicide of Liu, the slave-with-the-golden-heart who was just too good for that rowdy crowd. Love may be blind, but my philosophy regarding that trio from hell has always been very simple: Kill the bitch, or at least get her a good therapist quickly, for Christ's sake.
Narrative issues aside, Turandot is also well-known as the perfect excuse for art directors to go crazy, and this production did turn out to be spectacularly, if rather tastefully, over-the-top. It sure got pretty busy on that cluttered stage, with the soberly dressed chorus smartly confined to balconies, the glittery dancers artfully evoking China's exotic culture, the commedia dell'arte-inspired Ping-Pang-Pong trio jumping around, and all the main characters constantly bustling around, usually accompanied by their entourage.
The costumes were brightly exotic and displayed a wide-range of styles and colors, vividly contributing to the visual feast. The decor was not Zeffirelli-extravagant, but the set designer had not exactly held back either. However, amidst the exuberant chaos, a few moments were particularly breath-taking, such as the subdued light coming from the moving Chinese lanterns at the beginning of the Act 3, or the harsh red luminosity suddenly bathing the whole stage right after Liu cut her own throat.
As the title role, Maria Guleghina certainly proved she could deliver wall-shaking power and subtle nuances, the former being much more obvious than the latter. She was not afraid to dig scarily deep into Turandot's icy personality, much less inclined to strike the graceful poses that were also part of the deal. As her extremely determined suitor, Dario Volonte fared much less satisfactorily. His voice was often dull and had difficulties rising above the orchestra, making it challenging for his Calaf to sound up to his mission impossible. Even the stop-the-press aria "Nessun dorma" was adequate, but not transporting. As ill-fated Liu, Sabina Cvilak was easily the star of the production, her young and vibrant notes luminously soaring and perfectly matching her tiny, innocent and strong-willed character. After winning the WNO's audience last year as a heart-breaking Mimi, this lovely Slovenian soprano has demonstrated once again that she possesses a wonderful instrument and knows how to use it. Completing this uneven cast, Morris Robinson was a dignified Timur, his big voice going all over his impressive bass register.
The orchestra was aptly, if not originally, conducted by opera and symphony maestra Keri-Lynn Wilson, and Puccini's trademark superb melodies and dramatic climaxes came alive without too much trouble. She also smartly inserted a barely perceptible pause in Act 3 to signal the end of the original score. This was a commendable move, and thankfully not as grandiose as Toscanini's when, during the premiere of Turandot at La Scala, he stopped conducting, turned to the audience and said: "At this point the maestro laid down his pen", effectively ending the performance.

Let's leave aside the cheesy, controversial, several times revised and still not quite successful ending, and acknowledge this production as a success. Even if the plot is, as the teenager behind me implacably assessed at the end of Act 1, "dumb" (and to think he hadn't gone through the other two acts yet), the appeal of the last Italian opera to hold the international stage still operates, turning it into the fitting conclusion of a pretty good season.

Friday, May 22, 2009

Moscow String Quartet - Glinka, Gubaidulina, Borodin - 05/21/09

Glinka: String Quartet No 2 in F Major
Gubaidulina: String Trio
Borodin: String Quartet No 2 in D Major
Gubaidulina: String Quartet No 4

Sometimes, it is possible indeed to have too much of a good thing. While I did hope that on my birthday - and for my 100th performance this season! And counting! - I would get to attend a memorable concert, conflicting programs at the Library of Congress and the Freer Gallery of Art caused more frustration than happiness. The Coolidge Auditorium in the former does hold a special place in my heart as it has been the site of so many wonderful memories, but the thought of hearing my beloved String Quartet No 2 by Borodin in the latter played by an all-female Russian ensemble, who should logically know a thing or two about Borodin, trumped the logical choice (Trio Appollon sounded sooooooooo promising!), and my friend Jennifer and I eventually took our seats in the less-than-acoustically-blessed-but-anything-for-Borodin Meyer auditorium on a beautiful spring evening.
Well, as I am getting yet a year older, I am still learning every day that expectations are not always met, but that there are positive lessons to be learnt even from disappointments, and that life goes on. And yesterday's concert was a true case in point.

The first piece by Glinka was harmless enough, but I couldn't help wondering if it would have been played for its merit alone were the composer not considered no less than "the father of art music in Russia". It did contain some pleasant melodic themes, but its lack of originality and the fairly indifferent treatment it got in the hands of the Moscow Quartet definitely made it more of a filler than a full-fledged musical accomplishment.
However, since we found out that the ensemble actually specializes in contemporary music (which, come to think of it, did not bode well for my Borodin), we were expecting good vibrations from the two modern pieces of the evening, which had been written a couple of decades ago by now 77-year old Sofia Gabaidulina, who was sitting with us in the audience. Unfortunately, it quickly became clear that if her intensely atonal, mercilessly deconstructed music may be interesting to music theorists, its visceral at best and teeth-grinding at worse nature made listen to it more of a pensum than a pleasure.
The second piece was using plastic balls on the strings, two pre-recorded quartets on tape and colors projected behind the stage, but it didn't help make it more edible. Dissonances abounded and nothing even close to a melody or theme was to be found. Of course, that was not the point, but then again, isn't the point of music to sound good? By that time, a bunch of people had fled after the Borodin, and while I do believe in exposing myself to different experiences, I ended up envying them.
What about the Borodin quartet then? Book-ended by the two Gubaidulina pieces, it sure sounded refreshingly romantic and incredibly melodious, even if the restrained reading it received did not do much justice to its stunning lyricism. The transcendentally luminous Notturno was still enjoyable, but far from the divinely no-holds-bar version I had heard by the all-Russian Atrium Quartet at the Library of Congress back in February.

So, yeah, I wish that this birthday/season milestone celebration had been more climatic, and will be eternally grateful to Jennifer for sticking around through it all. On the other hand, considering all the unforgettable moments I've had so far this season, this is nothing but a minor let-down. Onward and forward!

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Valentina Lisitsa - Shostakovich, Beethoven, Schubert & Rachmaninoff - 05/20/09

Shostakovich: Prelude and Fugue in D Minor, No 24
Beethoven: Sonata in B-flat Major, Op. 106, No 29, "Hammerklavier"
Schubert: Impromptu in B-flat Major, Op. post. 142, No 3 (D. 935)
Rachmaninoff: First Sonata in D Minor, Op. 28

The inconspicuous Museum of Women in the Arts in Washington, DC is a wonderful source of interesting events, but regrettably it is usually not on my radar. Luckily, my friend Patty is more au courant than I am, and got us two tickets for a recital by Ukrainian pianist Valentina Lisitsa, whom I was eager to hear again after attending her rousing performance of Tchaikovsky's famous piano concerto with the National Philharmonic a few months ago. Of course, the prospect of experimenting first-hand her version of the Mount Everest that is the Hammerkavier was another strong incentive to attend, and we showed up ready to be dazzled.

It all started with a solid dose of Russian broodiness with a hint of lighter melodies courtesy of (who else?) Dimitri Shostakovich, which gave a diaphanous-looking Valentina Lisitsa her first opportunity to display her note-worthy skills.
But that was barely a warm-up for the daunting challenge that was coming up next. Composed of four expansive movements, the Hammerklavier is revered or notorious (depending on how you're looking at it) for its sheer power and relentless complexity. Unfazed, Lisitsa attacked it with unrestrained force, and there was no stopping her expertly and mercilessly hammering the museum's venerable Steinway. With technique and energy to spare, her fingers were flying all over the keyboard and delivered some quite impressive virtuoso playing. Even if some of the Romantic passages did not fully get the delicate treatment they deserved, the whole performance was accomplished with much brio and assurance, and left us breathless.
After such a dinosaur, the quick Schubert was light and lively, and went down like a fleeting summer breeze.
Then it was back to Russia with a sonata by Rachmaninoff during which she displayed the kind of intensity befitting the composer and his oeuvre, and we were again happily surrounded by big and fast sounds.

But that was not all. Apparently she had enough momentum to treat us to yet another piece by yet another Russian composer, and the evening truly came to an end with a meaty encore by Mussorgsky, during which she made darn sure that we'd leave the auditorium with two full hours of stirring music in our ears. And we did.

Monday, May 18, 2009

Staatskapelle Berlin - Mahler - 05/17/09

Conductor: Daniel Barenboim
Mahler: Symphony No 9 in D Major

After the Guarneri String Quartet’s helluvah of a farewell at the Metropolitan Museum on Saturday night, I made my way to Carnegie Hall yesterday afternoon for the conclusion of their “Mahler: The Symphonies in Sequence” program with, predictably enough, his symphony No 9. This regretfully would be the first, and obviously the last, I would hear of the series, but the privilege to hear it performed by the prestigious 450-year old Staatskapelle Berlin under the baton of no less than Daniel Barenboim softened the frustration. Composed during trying times in Mahler’s life - his young daughter’s death, his unhappy departure from the Vienna Court Opera and the discovery of his heart condition – it is a magnificent journey of 80 minutes whose four movements are played without intermission and constitute a hell of a marathon for all involved.

Like the Pathétique, it was to be its composer’s last completed score, and its general structure is often reminiscent of Tchaikovsky’s own poignant swan song. The long, multifaceted first movement remains one of Mahler’s grand creations and received a crisp, tight treatment from the orchestra. The second movement took its time to leisurely and spiritedly unfold its aimless chaos while the third one was imposed upon us with fierceness and urgency. After a longer pause than usual, maestro Barenboim quietly ushed the musicians into an achingly beautiful Adagio, sublimely brought out by the orchestra’s incredibly lyrical string sections. It eventually ended the symphony with stirring stillness... eventually followed by a raucous 10-minute standing ovation. A fitting conclusion to a grand performance, and a grand weekend.

Guarneri String Quartet - Beethoven & Schubert - 05/16/09

Beethoven: String Quartet No 12 in E-flat Major, Op. 127
Schubert: Cello Quintet in C Major, Op. 163, D 956

Some of my jaunts to New York have a more distinctive flavor than others, and last Saturday kicked off one of my most emotionally charged Big Apple weekends to date. As fate would have it, on Saturday night I was at the Metropolitan Museum of Art for the last ever performance by the 45-year old venerable Guarneri String Quartet after a 43-year run in the no less venerable institution. And on Sunday afternoon, the Staatskapelle Berlin Orchestra were performing their very last concert of the “Mahler: The Symphonies in Sequence” program at Carnegie Hall. But first things first, and it was on a beautiful spring evening that the Guarneri String Quartet were exceptionally reunited with their original cellist, David Soyer, for a Beethoven quartet and, most importantly, Schubert’s much beloved “String Quintet in C Major”, one of chamber music’s truly miraculous masterpieces.

Although I had bought my ticket months earlier, the ensemble’s prestigious reputation, the size of the auditorium and the very special nature of the occasion all contributed to my sitting on the stage, in the second row right behind the famous foursome. And it turned out that this unusual position ended up offering a peculiar advantage: as they attacked Beethoven’s piece, it soon became obvious that I would be able to perceive the sound from each instrument very vividly and distinctly, making the whole experience interestingly unique.
If the warm and graceful Beethoven had whetted our appetites, Schubert was a gloriously fulfilling main course and dessert rolled into one (which was a good thing because we did not get an encore). The rich texture and symphonic scope of this ambitious quintet, enhanced by the additional layer of darkness brought in by the second cello, was all the more perceptible to the audience members on the stage as we were so close to the source of the music. The infectious melodies as well as the more introspective passages all beautifully came together and masterfully filled the over-packed space where everybody was carefully holding their breath. The performance, as heart-felt and bittersweet as the music itself, was a truly memorable parting gift.

But all things have to come to an end, and after 10 minutes of rapturous applause and numerous curtain calls, it was time to say a sad but deeply appreciative good-bye. So we left, feeling grateful for the privilege of having borne witness to a grand concert and little bit of musical history.

Friday, May 15, 2009

NSO - Schumann & Mozart - 05/14/09

Conductor: Jun Märkl
Schumann: Konzertstück in F Major for Four Horns and Orchestra, Op. 86
Mozart: Piano Concerto No 25 in C Major, K. 503 - Garrick Ohlsson
Schumann: Symphony No 1 in B-flat Major, Op. 38, "Spring"

After all the unusual sounds of the National Symphony Orchestra’s concert dedicated to contemporary works a week ago, we were comfortably back on familiar ground yesterday with good old Schumann and Mozart, and celebrated pianist Garrick Ohlsson. The only totally new element of the evening was the NSO first appearance of German-Japanese guest conductor Jun Märkl, with whom I have my own special connection as he currently is the music director of the Orchestre National de Lyon, my hometown. I am ashamed to say I’ve never been to any of their concerts even when I lived there, but the time will hopefully come.

Can’t say that the first piece carried me away, but then again, it is pretty difficult to be carried away by… horns. Regardless of how well they’re played, I’ve always found their bombastic sounds hard to digest, and yesterday was no exception. While Schumann’s Konzertstück was on the whole pleasant, there was not much to take home.
After this lukewarm beginning, things instantly looked up with Mozart’s delightful piano concerto No 25. The orchestra truly seemed to revel in both the lightness and majesty of the score, and Garrick Ohlsson’s spot-in interpretation of it, including the cadenzas written by his colleague Alfred Brendel, was a true gift. His enchanting notes came up crisp and clear, and maestro Märkl gracefully led the NSO into a beautiful, heart-felt performance.
Back to Schumann, his Spring symphony was much more engaging than his Konzertstück, never mind the overemphatic Romantic élans and in-your-face lyricism. The piece was only 30 minutes long, easy on the ears, and a more than enjoyable way to end yet another wet spring evening.

Friday, May 8, 2009

NSO - Anderson, Knussen, Thomas & Schuller - 05/07/09

Conductor: Oliver Knussen
Anderson: Imagin'd Corners
Knussen: Violin Concerto, Op. 30 - Leila Josefowicz
Thomas: Helios Choros I
Schuller: Of Reminiscences and Reflections

I am fully aware that I am not doing enough (or anything, really) to keep abreast of what’s going on in the field of contemporary classical music, but once in a while I do bring myself to a concert that was not on my drop-everything-and-go list. I really don’t mind making the effort (It’s good for the brain), but it sure helps if the music is somewhat enjoyable, or at least intriguing. After all, some past composers did not always have it easy either when they were breaking new ground, and today they are unanimously appreciated, their works regularly filling up concert halls around the world. With that thought in mind, I’m more than willing to explore unknown territory and face less comfortable music as long as my open-mindedness does not lead me to self-inflicted torture because, at the end of the day, if it doesn't sounds good, why listen to it?

Last night, the NSO promised an accessible concert of contemporary music and it is pretty much what they delivered under the baton of one of the genre's pillars, Scottish multi-faceted music man Oliver Knussen. Julian Anderson’s Imagin’d Corners was, all things considered, a neat way to start the program. The main feature of the work was four horns played from various spots in the concert hall before ending up on the fours corners of the stage where the rest of the orchestra was also playing, smartly bringing the music into focus. The score was definitely on the cacophonous side and supposed to evoke the Last Judgment and the Resurrection. OK.
After the jarring sounds of the opening number, it was with quite a bit of relief that we saw Leila Josefowicz appear for Knussen's violin concerto, the sure-fire hit, if there was one, of the evening. Originally written for the composer's long-time friend Pinchas Zukerman, its three interconnected movements pleasantly displayed a steady balance between modern and traditional, and its attractive highlight came in the form of an exquisite Romantic Aria that may not have been particularly innovative, but sure sounded good. A hard-core contemporary music advocate herself, Leila Jesofwicz performed which much grace and conviction and received a long ovation from the grateful audience.
The next two works were by American composers, and they went down rather well too. Augusta Read Thomas, who was there to introduce hers, obviously enjoys mixing and matching various musical influences, and the end result was, well, eclectic. The first part of a triptych, her Helios Choros I, was originally conceived as a score for a dance number, but yesterday we had to contend ourselves with sounds and no visuals. Starting very gently with crystalline sounds, it soon became a busy festival of different timbres and colors, including some jazzy flavors, before its rousing conclusion.
Not to be outdone, Gunther Schuller’s work starts with a sudden and powerful assault before getting on relentless roller-coaster of violent emotions. Written as a memorial for his wife of 49 years, it is a dark, passionate mini-symphony, and resoundingly wrapped up an evening that didn't turn out as dreadfully hermetic as originally feared, and proved that a middle ground is not only reachable, but also not such a bad place to be in after all.

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

WPAS - Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra - Strauss, Haydn & Beethoven - 05/04/09

Conductor: Manfred Honeck
Strauss: Tod und Verklärung ("Death and Transfiguration"), Op. 24
Haydn: Cello Concerto in C Major, Hob. VIIb/1
Beethoven: Symphony No 7 in A Major, Op. 92

It was with great anticipation that I went to the Kennedy Center yesterday evening to hear the century-old prestigious Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra, which is considered by many the "greatest American orchestra". While I tend to find those rankings downright silly, there is no doubt that it is a first-rate ensemble, and the decidedly strong and eclectic program featuring Strauss, Haydn and Beethoven sounded the perfect vehicle for a very satisfying evening. Moreover, they did not come alone. Issued from an extremely musical family, the young veteran of the international scene Alisa Weilerstein was scheduled to play Haydn's lost and rediscovered cello concerto, and the orchestra's fairly new music director, Manfred Honeck, was on the podium, ready to put his extensive experience as a musician and guest conductor to good use.

I can't say I'm a big fan of Strauss' oeuvre, but his symphonic tone poem Death and Transfiguration about the last hours of a dying man got an almost scarily gripping treatment in the hands of the Honeck and Co last night. Every brief theme and motif was vividly evoking the struggle of the body and the soul or cheerfully recalling some happy events of his life before death eventually enabled him to reach the highest ground. Clearly very attentive to the details and full of impressive vigor, maestro Honeck assuredly led the orchestra into a remarkably tight performance, consistently highlighting the natural beauty of a work that can easily become overly flashy. And it only got better.
After Strauss' 19th century Romantic work, we jumped back in time and into the understated elegance of 18th century court music with Haydn's Cello Concerto in C Major. Breaking through the limits of the baroque concerto, this popular piece offers a wide range of delightful material, making it both intrinsically complex and readily accessible. Botticellian Alisa Weilerstein effortlessly displayed her incredible technical skills and remarkably mature understanding of the work, and most particularly delivered an Adagio to die for. With her deeply rich tones perfectly emphasized by the reduced orchestra, she proved once again what an accomplished musician she already is, and kept us wondering how much better it's gonna get.
As the main piece of the program, it is hard to go wrong with Beethoven. Unlike his more famous cataclysmic symphonies, the No 7 unabashedly exudes happiness and joie de vivre. Of course, Beethoven being Beethoven, his trademark intensity is never too far, but here the music takes the time to breath and lighten up too. Yesterday, the orchestra did full justice to the majestic dimension of the score while underlining its earthier flavor as well, and Honeck carefully kept his uniformly outstanding musicians under expert control with energetically expressive conducting. Everything beautifully came and stayed together as the balance between exuberance and quietness was steadily maintained. The well-known second movement, a perennial crowd favorite, was lushly unhurried, opening with its spell-binding crescendo that never seemed to end, but eventually led to even better things before the grand journey's exhilarating Finale.

The air in the concert hall was so electrified that only a carefully picked encore could have cooled things off, and it did. An ethereally beautiful "Morning Mood" was just what Herr Honeck ordered, and Grieg's beloved number gently restored some order before sending us off into the damp and cold spring (?) night fully satiated.

BSO - Beethoven & Bruckner - 05/03/09

Conductor: Mario Venzago
Beethoven: Piano Concerto No 4 in G Major - Nelson Freire
Bruckner: Symphony No 3 in D Minor

Since the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra started playing in its second home at the Strathmore music center in Bethesda, I hadn’t been back in the Meyerhoff Hall. But on Sunday afternoon things fell into place for me to go on a little pilgrimage. My attending Louis Lortie’s concert at the Kennedy Center on Saturday afternoon had kind of conflicted with the BSO's concert at Strathmore on Saturday evening. The double-whammy is possible, but experience has taught me that it is a bit of an overkill. So I was still reeling about missing virtuoso Nelson Friere’s performance of Beethoven’s beautiful piano concerto No 4 when an unexpected invitation to the Sunday performance in the orchestra's original home was extended, and off I went.

The Meyerhoff was as welcoming as ever and it was fun to be back. Nevertheless, as soon as Nelson Friere started playing the magical first notes of the concerto, it soon became clear that there was trouble in paradise as late-comers kept on coming into our section, a practice, amazingly enough, obviously known and authorized because ushers were leading them in. Eventually, a dozen people had sporadically streamed in from each side of the upper tier and made themselves unmistakably heard by taking their seats all over the place, taking off their coats, fidgeting with their program, etc. Had I not heard that concerto before, I still would have no concept of the first movement of the work. Once all the trouble-makers had settled, we were eventually able to enjoy the other two movements, but that was meager consolation. The fervently requested encore, Gluck’s “Dance of the Blessed Spirits” from Orfeo and Eurydice, was an irresistible, flawless little jewel that blissfully made us forget our frustration... for a little while at least.
After a change of seats, we had no problem hearing the BSO's rousing performance of the 1890 version of Bruckner's third symphony. Bruckner has never been on my short list of favorite composers and Sunday's concert, for all its merits, did not change my mind. While maestro Venzago energetically led a thoroughly committed orchestra, I couldn't help wondering where on earth they were taking us. The score undoubtedly contains attractive passages, powerful and lyrical, but it is hard to find any kind of focus or progression in all the relentless busyness. What we could do though, was sit back and enjoy, and that's what we did... undisturbed.

So, yes, the outing was not an complete success due to unfortunate distractions, but still worth the effort. It was of course a real pleasure to hear whatever we could hear of Nelson Friere's superbly nuanced performance, and Bruckner's symphony sounded too darn good to keep on nick-picking about its meaning. Onward and forward!

Saturday, May 2, 2009

WPAS - Louis Lortie - All-Chopin - 05/02/09

Chopin: Études, Op. 10 (no 1-12)
Chopin: Trois nouvelles études, Opus posth. (No 1-3)
Chopin: Études, Op. 25

WPAS has been well-known over the years for, among other things, its wonderful Haynes piano series presenting every year la crème de la crème among contemporary pianists. Today was no exception, and I've just come back from spending two absolutely glorious hours listening to much-praised French Canadian pianist Louis Lortis play an all-Chopin program at the Kennedy Center. This naturellement couldn't fail to tackle my French national pride (Never mind that Chopin was originally Polish), and my friend Pat and I were only too happy to have our afternoon dedicated to some Gallic musical enlightenment.

Written by Chopin as training tools, each one of these short exercises deals with a particular technical difficulty of piano playing, but they are also remarkably brilliant compositions, and as much a total delight for the audience as a daunting challenge for the musician. The first set was dedicated to that other incredibly talented and almost coetanous pianist, Franz Liszt, and the second set to Liszt's mistress, the Countess Marie d'Agoult, for good measure.
The good news is one does not need to have the slightest familiarity with piano techniques to fully enjoy them, and today Louis Lortie never let his spectacular virtuoso tours de force dazzle the unsuspected audience to the point where they would not be able to dwell into the simple hedonistic pleasure of just letting the music wash over them. As soon as he sat down, the enchanting cascades of notes of No 1 in C Major came unfurling like fresh water, and it was just the beginning of an extraordinary performance. In turn strikingly energetic or quietly lyrical, he used his stunning dexterity to make it all sound natural and effortless, and we were all blissfully happy to kick back and take it all in.

As if these 27 Chopin études were not enough, the much applauded pianist did not hesitate to come back with two meatier compositions by... Chopin, and eventually wrapped up this no doubt exhausting but oh so exhilarating marathon as rapturously as it had started.

Friday, May 1, 2009

NSO - All-Haydn - 04/30/09

Conductor: Helmuth Rilling
Haydn: Die Schopfung (The Creation)
Soprano: Klara Ek
Tenor: James Taylor
Bass-baritone: Nathan Berg
University of Maryland Concert Choir

After the short pieces of the NSO Youth Fellows, it was time for a long and involving work by the NSO under the German baton of early music specialist Helmuth Rilling, our special guest for the evening. A three-part secular narration of the Genesis (first four days, fifth and sixth days, and Adam and Eve), The Creation features a beautiful musical score, demanding parts for the soloists, and some treacherous singing for the chorus. Let there be light!

The fact that the programs did not contain any libretto was in some way annoying, or at least challenging, but I ended up relishing the forced opportunity to concentrate on the detailed playing of the music, my German being way too abysmal these days to catch more than a few words now and then, although arias and recitatives were very clearly articulated. After the printed texts got distributed during intermission, a quick review had me notice how hopelessly trite the English translation often was anyway (Can't speak for the German original) and I figured I was actually better off focusing on the music and using my imagination.
Under the informed direction of maestro Rilling, the orchestra delivered subtly evocative depictions of chaos, nature, animals, and eventually Adam and Eve's blissful time on earth. The NSO was in fine form, and the chorus delivered stunningly layered singing. Not to be outdone, the three soloists were more than up to the task: soprano Klara Ek did sound like a heavenly angel thanks to her firm, agile voice and managed to make German sound harmonious (Not a small task!), baritone Nathan Berg displayed a delicately dark register and was a high-spirited Adam, and tenor James Taylor's dramatic purity and understated nobility got the audience's undivided attention more than once.

All those powerful forces splendidly aligned and treated us to a brilliant performance. The grand scale of the whole piece retained a relatable human dimension, and it sheer beauty quietly radiated throughour the concert hall. And there was light!

Millennium Stage - Mozart, Schubert, Ramais, Shostakovich - 4/30/09

Mozart: Clarinet Concerto in A Major, K. 622 - Allegro
Schubert: Sonata in A Minor, D 821, "Arpeggione" - Allegro moderato
Marais: Les Folies d'Espagne
Shostakovich: Cello Sonata in D Minor - Allegro non troppo & Allegro

Since I was going to the Kennedy Center for the NSO’s performance of Haydn’s mighty Creation, I naturally decided to check out the NSO Youth Fellows at the Millennium Stage. This wonderful program has been designed for the most promising of local high school musical talents, and these lucky budding musicians get special training by some of the NSO musicians as well as an overall view of the classical music business. While in most cases they, of course, haven’t developed the professional assurance of more seasoned players, it is always refreshing to see their seemingly never-ending enthusiasm and dedication.

Yesterday, clarinetist David Scott had the dubious honor to start the concert and was a bit on the stiff side. His Allegro of Mozart’s clarinet concerto was not very, well, happy, but nevertheless competent.
The much more relaxed violist, Lee Fan, played a beautifully lyrical and heart-felt Allegro moderato and would have made Schubert happy.
Flutist Hillary Tidman was assured, if missing a bit of the exuberance expected in the Folies d'Espagne, but I've never been particularly sensitive to the flute anyway, so I enjoyed what I could while waiting for the next student.
The best showed up last in the person of Erin Snedecor who displayed already impressive maturity and sensitivity in a richly nuanced performance of the first two movements of Shostakovich’s Cello Sonata in D Minor.

I couldn't stay for the last piece, Gliere's Horn Concerto in B-flat Minor, Op. 61, but I can't say I was heart-broken. My ears and mind had been slowly eased into full awakening, and I headed to the concert hall for The Creation.