Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Mostly Mozart Festival - Haydn, Mozart & Mendelssohn - 08/11/09

Conductor: Louis Langrée
Haydn: Symphony No 104 in D Major, "London"
Mozart: Adagio for Violin and Orchestra in E Major, K. 261 - Joshua Bell
Mozart: Rondo for Violin and Orchestra in C Major, K. 373 - Joshua Bell
Mendelssohn: The Hebrides, Op. 26 ("Fingal's Cave")
Mendelssohn: Violin Concerto in E Minor, Op. 64 - Joshua Bell

The third and final round of my abridged, but immensely gratifying, Mostly Mozart Festival found me back in the Avery Fisher Hall with the festival's official orchestra conducted again by Louis Langrée. Superstar violinist Joshua Bell was the very special guest for the evening, having been tapped to contribute his wide-ranging skills to a couple of short, purely classical pieces by Mozart and, more predictably, Mendelssohn's unabashedly romantic violin concerto. A fervent admirer of Haydn and Mozart when the rest of the world was foolish enough not to care much for them, Mendelssohn more than deserves a special place in a Mozart-centric festival, and his rugged Hebrides were a nice extra touch next to one of his most famous works. Haydn was, one more time, a familiar and welcome figure, perfectly suited to get things started.

The London symphony's lasting popularity can be easily explained by its majestic opening, natural elegance, downright happy and more subdued sections. Yesterday, all the right ingredients were there, and under Louis Langrée's assured baton, the orchestra was obviously having a good time and unconditionally let us partake in the celebration.
Mozart's Adagio and Rondo may have lasted only about 10 minutes altogether, but these sure were 10 heavenly minutes. Both works were composed for Salzburg concertmaster Antonio Brunetti, and while the Adagio was a substitute for the middle movement of his violin concerto in A Major, the equally charming Rondo is a stand-alone work. Clearly demonstrating that he is not just the ultimate Romantic expert, Joshua Bell appropriately delivered delicate interpretations of these exquisitely crafted little gems.
Mendelssohn's strongly atmospheric Hebrides provided a stark contrast to the previous, more polished, works, and colorfully evoked the rough-looking islands of western Scotland by emphasizing the fast-changing light and climate that are part of their natural environment.
Nevertheless, no matter how thoroughly enjoyable these pieces were, there is little doubt that the concert was sold-out because of the very last offering on the program. Especially written for the concertmaster of Leipzig Gewandhaus orchestra, Ferdinand David, who also happened to be a close friend of the composer, Mendelssohn's widely popular violin concerto has regularly appeared in the répertoire of every concert violinist since its creation. After recording it twice and playing it for decades, Joshua Bell can probably nail it even in his sleep by now. Luckily for us, he was decidedly wide awake yesterday evening, even adding some novel, revitalizing sparks to the über-familiar score with his own cadenza. In his ever-dependable hands the concerto came dazzlingly alive with inspired lyricism, bursts of focused energy, and some good old fun too, like one of those elatingly refreshing storms that New York so sorely needed on that hot summer night. In lieu of cooling rain, we had to - happily - settle for musical fireworks, and the virtuosic eruption at the concerto's very end smashingly concluded my Mostly Mozart Festival mini-marathon in grand style before I reluctantly headed back to Washington and sweltering inertia.

Mostly Mozart Festival - Dvorak - 08/11/09

Arnaud Sussmann & Michael Brown
Dvorak: Sonatina in G Major, Op. 100

Before the piece de resistance of the evening, the ticket-holders were fortunate to be invited to enjoy an amuse-gueule in the form of a pre-concert recital in the Avery fisher Hall by two young but already very busy former Juilliard students. The program consisted in one 20-minute sonatina by Dvorak, band it was a lovely way to cool off and get in the mood for the meatier fare served a little bit later.

The sonatina turned out to be a more impressive work that its diminutive title had led me to believe, and the two musicians made sure to convey its limpid simplicity with sensitivity and brio. It was light, but stood on its own, the perfectly little triffle that is engaging enough to linger, but not heavy enough to overwhelm. Onward and forward!

Monday, August 10, 2009

Mostly Mozart Festival - The Chamber Orchestra of Europe - 08/09/09

Conductor: Pierre-Laurent Aimard
Haydn: Symphony No 101 in D Major, "The Clock"
Ligeti: Chamber Concerto
Mozart: Piano Concerto No 19 in F Major, K. 459 - Pierre-Laurent Aimard

Round 2 of my Mostly Mozart Festival included predictable names and a decidedly unexpected surprise: Haydn was again on the program, which is only fair considering his close friendship to Mozart and the 200th anniversary of his death. Needless to say that Ligeti's presence had me do a double-take, but after all he did share with Mozart an uncompromising commitment to contemporary, therefore often "difficult" and often not readily accepted music. The program was going to conclude with, at long last, the man being honored himself. Adding to my excitement, the critically acclaimed, multi-cultural Chamber Orchestra of Europe was conducted and accompanied by the no less appreciated, multi-faceted Pierre-Laurent Aimard. His keen interest in unique programming as well as his pristine reputation as a pianist made me very much look forward to hearing my fellow countryman live in the context of my first visit to the new, much talked about, Alice Tully Hall.

The Clock was Haydn at his best and happiest. It owes its nickname to the fun second movement, which effectively features the mechanical sound of a timepiece as the main melody. It is for sure the most outstanding part of the symphony, and effortlessly fits into the general harmony of the whole piece.
From Haydn to Ligeti, the jump is not as big as initially thought because the much more hermetic concerto by the Hungarian composer in fact contains some mechanical passages reminiscent of a clockwork in the form of repeating figures moving at different speeds. In that respect, Pierre-Laurent Aimard's detailed explanations and live demonstrations were very helpful in the audience's appreciation of Ligeti's unusual musical ideas. Even if the lack of traditional melodies can put off the listener, a little attention to the score's intricacies went a long way, and the complex rhythms ended up becoming a quite interesting, if not immediately compelling, challenge in polyphonic study.
And, FINALLY, Mozart. For that last piece, Pierre-Laurent Aimard took over the double duty of conductor and soloist, and elegantly mastered both. Written during what was probably the happiest period of his life, his piano concerto No 19 consequently is probably one of his happiest works. Back on familiar territory, we all listened to Mozart's joyful, carefree dialogue between the orchestra and the piano with a more relaxed but still attentive ear. The peaceful beauty of the music eventually led to some virtuoso fireworks, which were the perfect ending to the concerto, and the concert.
The Alice Tully Hall turned out to deserve all the raving reviews it has been receiving, and its classy, versatile design along with fabulous acoustics made the packed performance even more special. Two down, one more to go.

Sunday, August 9, 2009

Mostly Mozart Festival - Brahms & Haydn - 08/08/09

Conductor: Louis Langrée
Brahms: Variations on a Theme by Haydn in B-flat Major, Op. 56a
Haydn: Piano Concerto in D Major, Hob.XVIII: 11
Brahms: Symphony No 4 in E Minor, Op. 98

Now in its 43rd year, the Mostly Mozart Festival continues to pay tribute to the Austrian composer not only by performing various parts from his impressive oeuvre, but also by branching out to the works of numerous composers he was more or less closely connected to. So last night I was at the Avery Fisher Hall where Brahms was the headliner, his Variations and Symphony No 4 bookmarking Haydn's delightful piano concerto No 4. Acclaimed Viennese pianist Stefan Vladar was in charge of the concerto, and French conductor Louis Langrée was back on the podium for the seventh year in a row, bringing his extensive experience of Mozart's music to the celebration of the composer's unequal influence. My aversion to the Avery Fisher Hall has not completely disappeared, but desperate times call for desperate measures, and it was air-conditioned!

Brahm's eight Variations on a Theme by Haydn and their Finale were fun little playthings that kept on coming at us in all sorts of moods, although a summer-appropriate light-heartedness definitely prevailed. The attendance was surprisingly sparse, but nevertheless deeply appreciative.
Haydn's piano concerto was a sparkling, witty tribute to Mozart's more elaborate concertos, and Stefan Vladar kept his dexterous fingers expertly fluttering on the keys, making the whole 20 minutes literally fly by.
After the freshness of tone of Haydn's concerto, we had to switch gears and get mentally prepared for the perfectionist rigorousness of Brahm's Symphony No 4. After originally stirring audiences with its darkness and severity, it eventually earned its well-deserved reputation as one of classical music masterpieces. The majestic first movement opened with its ambiguous recurring motive and was so captivating that it received a spontaneous wave of applause. The orchestra's momentum did not falter, and took us through a subdued Andante moderato, boisterous Scherzo and thunderous grand Finale. Brahms, even Mozart, would have been impressed, and so was I. It was an auspicious beginning, and I couldn't wait for more.

Saturday, August 8, 2009

The Youth Orchestra of the Americas - Bernstein, Rachmaninoff & Beethoven - 08/07/09

Guest Conductor: Benjamin Zander
Bernstein: Overture to Candide
Rachmaninoff: Piano Concerto No 2 in C Minor, Op. 18 - Gabriela Montero
Beethoven: Symphony No 5 in C Minor

To break the enveloping hot lull of summer, how about a two-city concert mini-marathon in August? The ever-popular Mostly Mozart Festival opened last week at the Lincoln Center, and it is the perfect excuse for a long weekend in the Big Apple. As luck would have it, I was able to warm up my ears last night in the frigidly cold Strathmore music center with a crowd-pleasing performance by the wonderful concept that is the Youth Orchestra of the Americas (YOA). Founded in 2001 and boasting no less than Placido Domingo as its artistic director, it comes into life every year thanks to 100 rigorously selected music students aged between 18 and 28. This year, they represented 21 countries of the American continent, and ended their two-week intensive residency and three-week whirlwind American tour in our nation's capital. Non-plussed by a 17-hour bus ride from Canada, they brought boundless energy and infectious joie de vivre to the younger than usual audience.

After a brief introduction and the obligatory thanks to the dignitaries in the hall, audience-friendly English conductor Benjamin Zander led the more than ready orchestra into a spirited overture to Candide. I'm not a huge fan, but it did set the right mood. If nothing else, the kids could play.
The perfect vehicle for romantic adolescent longing, Ramaninoff's famed piano concerto No 2 received a technically respectful and emotionally committed treatment in the hands of the young and fast-rising Venezuelan pianist Gabriela Montero. The somber, lonely eight chords notes were quickly swept up by the discreetly restless strings and the music securely went on and on all the way to the all-encompassing powerful conclusion, with a lovely passage featuring wistful flute and clarinet. It is an easily accessible yet deeply moving piece than never fails to get to its audience. It sure hit the right spot yesterday, and an enthusiastic standing ovation whole-heartedly thanked the beaming soloist. Refreshingly wearing a casual, slightly psychedelic outfit, a welcome change from the over-stuffy gowns so often observed, she has no doubt a long career ahead of her.
Her two encores were delightful surprises: an improvisation on Mozart's Laci darem la mano from Don Giovanni, requested by an audience member, and a fun Latin American music-inspired medley featuring short excerpts of Ravel's Bolero and Carmen's trademark aria, initiated by one of the cellists. Clearly revelling in her natural element that is spontaneous improvisation, she graciously provided us with the unquestionable highlight of the evening.
Beethoven's fifth symphony needs no introduction, thanks mostly to its own introduction, and under the baton of maestro Zander, who had decided to stick to the shock-and-awe aspect of Beethoven's less commonly used fast-tempo markings, the famous four-note motive mightily resounded in all its dark splendor. And that was just the beginning. As promised, the orchestra played this "dangerous music dangerously", and even the slower passages were flying by at breakneck speed. The eager musicians did manage to sustain the unforgiving pace, with a special mention for the four awe-inspiring double basses during the Scherzo, and this thrilling, occasionally a bit messy, but always exhilarating, joy ride left the audience, and probably the orchestra, utterly exhausted when that was all over. Talk about revolutionary music!

But the party was apparently just starting, and instead of one or two encores, the orchestra performed four more very distinct and engaging works. Ah, the spirit of youth! The first one was a boisterous Stars and Stripes Forever, complete with twirling cellos and audience joining in.
The second piece was Danzon No 2 by Mexican composer Arturo Marquez, sizzling with languorous rhythms, to which the black-clad Juan Carlos Rincones dancers added alluring moves, although from my seat I couldn't see much. The score, however, was an attractive tribute to Latin American music.
Back on more traditional ground and channeling Benjamin Zanger's English roots, "Nimrod" from Elgar's Enigma Variations was an eerily soaring call to, Zanger stated, the human being in all of us. Sweepingly lush without falling into easy sentimentality or overblown pomposity, it had a remarkably calming effect after all the preceding agitation.
We knew something was still brewing when some of the young women unfolded colorful scarves and some of the young men took off their formal black jackets and white shirts to reveal colorful tee-shirts. Following the tempo of the again groovy music and demonstrating spontaneous dancing skills just as impressive as their musical skills, some of them even jumped off the stage and danced in the hall, mingling with audience members. The ones still playing on the stage were going all out connecting with their native roots, twirling the double basses, whole string sections rising and sitting back down in unison, the conductor even briefly taking over an abandonned cello, all finally ending the festivities with a chaotically joyful celebration.