Friday, June 26, 2009

NSO - Delius & R. Strauss - 06/23/09

Conductor: Andreas Delfs
Delius: The Walk to the Paradise Garden
R. Strauss: "Four Last Songs" (Spring, September, Going to Sleep, At Sunset) - Karita Mattila
R. Strauss: Also Sprach Zarathustra

Yesterday evening yet another subscription season bit the dust, this one being the National Symphony Orchestra's, which lately not only have had to deal with the jet-lag from their just-wrapped Chinese-Korean tour, but with last-minute artist and program changes as well. Luckily, the biggest draw of the evening, celebrated soprano Karita Mattila was still on, but her répertoire had switched from Richard Strauss' little-known "Three Hymns" to his much more popular "Four Last Songs". Her fellow Finnish conductor Mikko Franck had lived up to his reputation for unpredictability (we'll have to wait and see to check out his just as much famed brilliance) and had bailed out a mere few days before to be replaced by less exciting but more reliable Andreas Delfs. Oh well, there's no way I was going to miss bidding a temporary farewell to our NSO, celebrated with no less than Strauss' impressive Also Sprach Zarathustra, and decided that che sera sera.

The first piece of the concert had undergone, what else, a last-minute change, but "The Walk to the Paradise Garden" from Frederick Delius' A Village Romeo and Juliet was a lovely way to start the evening, delectably wallowing in the lush sounds of late romanticism. The experience was not nearly as interesting as Einojuhani Rautavaara's Manhattan Transfer would have been in Franck's hands, but maestro Delfs comfortably led the orchestra in a solid, if not particularly transcendental, performance.
Next, the excitement went up a notch as Karita Mattila brought her statuesque presence to the stage. After witnessing her beautifully touching Tatyana in Eugene Onegin at the Met earlier this year, which had to be a real tour de force for somebody with such strong physicality, I was very much looking forward to hearing her tackle Strauss. And the verdict is: mostly very good, but uneven. She has a big, well-nuanced voice and knows how to use it, but last night it occasionally lacked clarity and expressiveness. On top of it, the orchestra sounded at times way too loud for their own good and prevented the frustrated audience from hearing the singing. However, when everything came together, there were definitely arresting moments to savor such as her soaringly lyrical dialog with the NSO's readily dependable concertmaster Nurit Bar-Josef in Going to Sleep.
Last, but not least, the obligatory big-bang send-off piece was Strauss' most famous work, "freely based", as he himself put it, on Nietzsche's Also Sprach Zarathustra. The crowd-pleasing first few minutes and the less familiar remaining half hour were big-bangey enough, thank you very much, but not much else. Not that the orchestra sounded bad, but the very animated conductor did not quite succeed in bringing out the remarkable characteristics of the various sections making up this grand tone poem, and for the most part served a straightforward read-through, which did not always perfectly gel. In all fairness, it was still an overall grippingly resounding conclusion to what has turned out to be, all things considered, a pretty good season. Onward and forward!

Friday, June 12, 2009

BSO - Rachmaninoff & Wagner - 06/11/09

Conductor: Marin Alsop
Rachmaninoff: Piano Concerto No 3 in D minor, Op. 30 - Yefim Bronfman
Wagner: Orchestral Selections from The Ring of the Nibelungen

During the intermission, Marin Alsop promised to finish the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra's official season with something "strong", and she sure did. Already on paper the program looked like a sure-fire hit - the concert was heart-warmingly sold-out - and it only got better live. The presence of famed pianist virtuoso Yefim Bronfman is always a guarantee of high quality and worth the trip to the concert hall regardless of what he is playing, but the fact that it was no less than the mighty "Rach 3" was yet another irresistible bonus. I haven't managed to see the Ring operas in sequence yet, but really don't mind being reminded what I'm missing once in a while.

Commonly considered the Himalaya of piano concertos, "Rach 3" is first and foremost one of the most stunningly beautiful concertos of the whole répertoire. It may have reached world-wide fame as the uncontrollable force driving poor Geoffrey Rush to insanity in the movie "Shine", but it is ultimately its exceptional expressiveness that will take the audience to a higher ground. After an innocently inconspicuous opening, the piano takes charge and does not let off until the very end, even if yesterday the woman behind me coughing her heart out for a good 10 minutes did spoil part of it. Far from the unwelcome ruckus, Yefim Bronfman used his natural aplomb and well-known virtuosity, all the more remarkable that he probably cannot boast the same enormous hands as Rachmaninoff's, to tame the beast and delivered a steadily assured performance. It is easy to forget the orchestra in such circumstances, but the BSO did not fail to rise to the occasion and brilliantly emphasized all the sweeping and lush Romantic sounds sumptuously filling the concert hall.
Such a performance is a tough act to follow, but as la maestra promised, something strong was coming our way. The one hour we got to savor from Wagner's 16-hour landmark work, The Ring of the Nibelungen, was just the perfect balance between restless, rousing wind sounds and quietly introspective passages. Seamlessly flowing from one excerpt to another, we were happily willing participants to the emotional-philosophical oeuvre of the 19th century. Although I was not familiar enough with the whole Ring to place each and every piece we heard, I was quite satisfied to just kick back, enjoy the wonderful ride in Wagner's world... and end my BSO's season with one fell swoop.

Sunday, June 7, 2009

BSO - Beethoven, Higdon & Dvorak - 06/06/09

Conductor: Marin Alsop
Beethoven: Overture to Egmont, Op. 84
Higdon: Violin Concerto - Hilary Hahn
Dvorak: Symphony No 5 in F Major, Op. 76

After witnessing Baltimoran Hilary Hahn's dynamite performance of Paganini's violin concerto with the NSO last year, I was very much looking forward to hearing her this time backed up by her hometown's symphony orchestra, with whom she's enjoyed a steady relation for many years now. I wasn't too sure about that brand new violin concerto composed for her by her former teacher at the Philadelphia Curtis Institute, Jennifer Higdon, but, hey, anything for Hilary... Last night at Strathmore, the female power trio was completed by the BSO's current music director and conductor, Marin Alsop, whose contract incidentally has just been extended to 2015. Beethoven is of course a promise that always delivers and Dvorak's fifth symphony sounded like the perfect innocuous pleasure for a spring evening, so everything seemed lined up for an enjoyable concert.

And it was. It unsurprisingly peaked early with an exhilarating reading of Egmont's overture. It was brash, full of vigor and of epic proportion, quite a fitting tribute to the 16th century Dutch Count Lamoral van Egmont, who ended up executed by the Spanish for trying to liberate his country from, you've guesssed it, the Spanish rule.
It is admittedly a hard, borderline impossible, task to follow the German master and sound up to par, but I did not ask that much from Jennifer Higdon (or even from Dvorak, for that matter), therefore her violin concerto turned out to be a pretty nice surprise. Perfectly tailored to Hahn's unwavering strength and natural delicacy, it kept her busy pretty much the whole time with plenty of opportunities to demonstrate her virtuoso skills. After starting the piece with a few high-flying solo notes, she was frequently accompanied by no more than one to four musicians at a time, creating lovely, quietly lyrical conversations, but she also easily managed to stand out when playing with the full orchestra, who gamely and efficiently supported her. It was a wide-ranging, breezy work and Hahn's radiant performance made it a real winner. Tchaikovsky and Brahms, however, can still rest in peace.
Dvorak's Symphony No 5 is not, by far, one of his most popular works, but its youthful exuberance and melodic power are nevertheless pleasant to the ears, even if there was not much more to it. The orchestra played it with much gusto, and wrapped up the evening with a whole lot of good vibrations.

Thursday, June 4, 2009

The Philadelphia Orchestra - Ravel, Liszt and Rachmaninoff - 06/03/09

Conductor: Charles Dutoit
Ravel: Concerto for the Left Hand for Piano and Orchestra - Jean-Yves Thibaudet
Liszt: Totentanz, S. 126 - Jean-Yves Thibaudet
Rachmaninoff: Symphonic Dances, Op. 45

Ravel: La Valse

I always find the last performance of a musical season bittersweet, half-way between the deep gratefulness for the unforgettable memories and the dreadful thought of the few months ahead without the same steady stream of inspired, and less inspired but rarely completely devoid of enjoyment, moments. Last night, it was WPAS' 2008-2009 Orchestra Series that was coming to an end at the Kennedy Center concert hall with a little help from our venerable neighbor to the North, the Philadelphia Orchestra, conducted by the eminent the-world-is-his-oyster Charles Dutoit. The special perk of hearing my homeboy and international superstar pianist Jean-Yves Thibaudet play two very different and equally challenging piano pieces from Ravel and Liszt conjured up even higher expectations, and everything indeed eventually added up with much success.

Commissioned by the Austrian pianist Paul Wittgenstein, scion of one of Vienna's über-prominent families, after he was amputated during World War I, the first piece was effectively composed for the left hand by a Ravel apparently quite intrigued by the challenge. The concerto presents itself as a straightforward 18-minute single movement, but the music's intense complexity makes it difficult to believe that only one hand, and generally the less dexterous one, is working the keyboard. Last night, the tight and ever-present orchestra joined forces with the technically impressive pianist to make sure that the melodic passages soared and conquered, and the result was a stirring introduction to an evening full of life, music and dance.
After regaining the use of his two hands, Thibaudet treated us to a thrilling account of Liszt's 'Dance of Death" in all its macabre glory. Inspired by the idea of death after coming face to face with Orcagna's nightmare-inducing fresco Il trionfo della morte in Pisa's campo santo cemetery, it took no less than 27 years for the composer and the world to first hear it performed live by Hans von Bulow in 1865. If it sounded anything close to what we got yesterday though, it was definitely worth the wait. Shamelessly revelling in down-and-dirty sounds to convey pure demonic fun while still letting quieter and more polished passages shine through as well, orchestra and soloist adroitly led by maestro Dutoit brilliantly contributed in making these brazenly Gothic variations of the Gregorian chant Dies Irae my personal highlight of the evening.
But the festivities were not over yet, and Rachmaninoff and his Symphonic Dances started the dance-centric second part of the program with their well-known infectious three-note pattern that keeps on obstinately coming back, along with more appearances by the ever-popular Dies Irae. Charles Dutoit proved to be an endlessly energetic conductor leading with his baton and his whole body the more than willing orchestra into colorful and exuberant merriment.
After some much excitement taken in, I have to say that Ravel's Valse sounded kind of anti-climatic to me, even though everybody on the stage gave it their all and the orchestra's famed rich sound happily resonated in all its splendor. A long standing ovation did not earn us any encore, and pouring rain was waiting for us outside, but even that did not manage to dampen our high spirits.