Sunday, September 27, 2009

NSO - Glinka, Kodaly, Sarasate, Chopin, R. Strauss & J. Strauss, Jr. - 09/26/09

Conductor: Ivan Fischer
Glinka: Overture to Russlan and Ludmilla
Kodaly: Dances of Galanta
Sarasate: Zigeunerweisen for Violin and Orchestra, op. 20 - Jozsef Lendvay, Jr.
Chopin: Piano Concerto No 2 in F Minor, Op. 21 - Evgeny Kissin
R. Strauss: "Salome's Dance"
J. Strauss, Jr: On the Beautiful Blue Danube

After my first New York Philharmonic concert of the season a couple of days ago, yesterday evening my mum and I were in the Kennedy Center concert hall for my first National Symphony Orchestra of the season. The program was a wide-ranging smorgasbord of various crowd-pleasing works, our beloved Ivan Fischer was back on the podium, and we had two special guests making their NSO debuts: Hungarian violinist Jozsef Lendvay for Sarasate's ever popular Zigeunerweisen and Russian pianist Evgeny Kissin for Chopin's youthful Piano Concerto No 2. So we did not let the pouring rain dampen our spirits and and got ready for our second musical feast of the week.

The four-minute overture to Russlan and Ludmilla was obviously programmed to give an opportunity for the audience and orchestra to get situated, well, a certain portion of the audience anyway. While the fancily dressed VIPs were taking their sweet old time smooching all the way to their seats, Ivan Fischer thankfully decided to get things started and authoritatively led a sparkling opening number.
Then he reconnected with his Hungarian roots via Kodaly's delightful Dances of Galanta, the composer's hometown. This unique combination of Hungarian folk music and Western classical music in the 150-year old verbunkos style produced a lively festival of colorful melodies and ever-changing moods and tempos. Conductor and musicians made sure to convey the boundless liveliness of the music throughout the whole concert hall, and they fully succeeded.
As things were heating up, next was Sarasate's tour de force inspired by the Gypsy airs he had heard during his extended concert tours in Hungary. Add a bit a Spanish fire and a couple of playful pizzicatos to the mix and the result is a breath-taking wild ride, which virtuoso violinist Jozsef Lendvay masterfully handled. Va-va-voom!
After a glass of champagne during the intermission and the obligatory speeches right after, it was another virtuoso who took the stage in the person of former child prodigy Eygeny Kissin for the first piano concerto Chopin ever wrote (Its higher opus is due to a later publication date). Equally at ease with the dreamy poetry and the dramatic passion of the score, Kissin gracefully let the quiet beauty of the music shine through.
After Chopin's subtle intricacies, the fiery first notes of "Salome's Dance" were quite a rude awakening, albeit a welcome one. A big success ever since its premiere, no doubt thanks to its provocative attack on morality and uncompromisingly modern musical style, Strauss' Salome has never ceased to stir reactions. Deeply symbolic of the adolescent princess' relationship to Jochanaan, the luxurious "Dance of the Seven Veils" oozes unrestrained teenage moodiness and irrepressible sexual craving. Last night, the NSO was apparently having a field day making all the wildness and depravity of the famed dance come alive loud and clear. This is definitely not music for the faint of heart, but then, why would the faint of heart be interested in Salome?
As we were finally catching our breath after the heroine's collapse at Herod's feet, we were quickly transported to imperial Vienna by way of the Beautiful Blue Danube. Although I am not a huge fan of waltzes in general, I have to admit that this one usually hits the right spot and yesterday was no exception. Its voluptuous rhythms and and infectious melodies merrily conjured up fancy balls of a past era and brought the official opening program to a happy ending.

But the audience wasn't quite ready to call it a night just yet, so Ivan Fischer obliged with a dynamite version of Dvorak's "Slavonic Dances", actually ending this first concert of the season with a resounding fireball.

Friday, September 25, 2009

New York Philharmonic - Brahms & Schoenberg - 09/24/09

Conductor: Alan Gilbert
Brahms: Concerto in D Major for Violin and Orchestra, Op. 77
Frank Peter Zimmermann: Violin
Schoenberg: Pelleas and Melisande (After the Drama by Maurice Maeterlinck): Symphonic Poem for Orchestra, Op. 5

Now that summer is basically over, things are finally picking up on the musical front. To officially start my New York performance season with a fully loaded bang, I'm taking my visiting mum to the Big Apple for a couple of days, combining purely touristy fun such as a long-delayed boat ride and a much anticipated walk on the recently opened High Line with more high-brow fare such as a concert by the New York Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by their newly appointed music director Alan Gilbert. I was not familiar with the second piece on the program, Schoenberg's Pelleas and Melisande, but I figured that this outing would be the perfect opportunity to add it to my musical experience while enjoying Brahms' lusciously romantic violin concert played by no less than much celebrated German violinist (and Alan Gilbert's good friend) Frank Peter Zimmermann.

One of Brahms' most popular works, his violin concerto rarely fails to attract and please the crowds. I've probably heard it live more than any other classical music score, and the magic had thoroughly operated every single time. Yesterday though, things turned out a bit different and took some unforeseen adjusting on my part. As I was sitting there fully expecting to be quickly and decisively swept away, I quickly realized that the conductor and violinist had something else in mind: they were clearly aiming at keeping it lean and clean, as far as they could possibly get from any heart-on-their-sleeves flash or élan. Some sweeping away did take place, but it was definitely understated, steadily minimalist sweeping, which yielded a new and distinctive take on the piece. Therefore, I initially had to work at getting to it instead of just letting it get to me, and I have to say that the experience turned out to be quite rewarding. Conductor and soloist were precisely in sync and the orchestra brilliantly backed them up, so after a few unsettled minutes, the connection did happen.
The audience gave it a long and enthusiastic ovation, which got us rewarded with a encore from Zimmermann, who quickly shifted gears and mood for a short and delicious treat by Bach.
For the second part of the program, Alan Gilbert had the judicious idea of introducing Pelleas and Melisande instead of jumping right into it, which was immensely helpful to the ignoramus among us. His explanations and demonstrations of the various motives and plot twists of the story indeed made it much easier to appreciate Schoenberg's late romantic tone poem beyond its lavishly beautiful music. The original play by Maeterlinck became popular as soon as it came out in 1893, with Debussy, Fauré and Sibelius all taking stabs at it in various formats over a short period of time. But Schoenberg's version stands out as a purely musical composition of symphonic dimensions, an uninterrupted 45-minute voluptuous ride into the ill-fated lives of the three protagonists. Now I was getting my big, no-holds-barred sweeping élans! And the resoundingly tragic ending positively concluded this first experience with the Gilbert-era New York Philharmonic on a satisfied and promising note.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

WNO - The Barber of Seville - 09/14/09

By Gioachino Rossini
Conductor: Michele Mariotti
Director: David Gately
Figaro: Simone Alberghini
Count Almaviva: Lawrence Brownlee
Rosina: Silvia Tro Santafé

What better way to start my Washington National Opera season than with Rossini's most popular opera buffa, Il Barbiere di Siviglia? The first time I heard the world-famous call of "Figaro, Figaro, Fi-ga-ro" live I was sitting in La Scala Theater in Milan, and just the fact of being in this legendary venue was so overwhelming that it did not allow me to fully indulge in the delightful silliness of the plot or the enchanting melodies of the score. But last night, in the familiar surroundings of the Kennedy Center's opera house and the even more familiar presence of Jennifer, my opera buddy, I was determined to concentrate on what was happening on the stage. Frequently hinted at in pop culture, The Barber of Seville is the kind of opera that even the unwashed have been exposed to, in some cases probably unknowingly, through a wide range of beloved American icons such as Bugs Bunny and Seinfeld. Accordingly, the crowd did look more eclectic than usual, and everybody seemed ready to enjoy some high-flying fun on that beautiful fall evening.

And it turned out to be... OK, although I want to quickly add that the reasons it turned out to be just OK are not all related to the performances (More on that later). The story is inspired by Beaumarchais's first part of his Figaro trilogy, Le barbier de Séville, and is easy on the heart and mind with its simple narrative and colorful characters. The sets and costumes were fairly traditional and efficiently reinforced the place and time, and the overture was as engaging as ever. At that point though, it was basically all up to the singers to make the production take off or barely sail through, and they effortlessly raised up to the occasion by providing the more uplifting moments of the evening.
As opera's favorite "Jack-of-all-trades", baritone Simone Alberghini started things off with spot-on assurance and infectious cheerfulness. His singing was not particularly "bubbly" but right on target, and his stage presence hard to miss. During the whole performance, he would also serve as the unflappable master of ceremony, giving authoritative stage directions with a snap of the fingers. While not a ground-breaking idea, it certainly worked well in that case. In the role of the love-stricken Count Almaviva, Lawrence Brownlee effortlessly justified all the rave reviews he's been getting for a while now. His small stature hides an impeccably precise instrument which he uses to the fullest, mastering daunting technical intricacies and projecting relatable emotional power. The object of his relentless ardor, the feisty Rosina, was wonderfully impersonated by Spanish mezzo-soprano Silvia Tro Santafé, who let it all gorgeously soar with unwavering timing. The rest of the cast went way beyond the call of duty to make this production as enjoyable as possible, and they brilliantly succeeded.
The director had made some downright comical choices that worked pretty much as intended, from turning Don Basilio into a shameless kleptoman and Rosina into a hard-headed young woman seen mischievously playing tricks on her despicable guardian. The Act I finale was a grand old mess in slow motion, the physical uncontrolled chaos in the room perfectly expressing the utterly confused state of mind all the main characters were in by then. However, despite first-rate singers, catchy arias and cutely funny moments, the almost three-hour performance did drag on now and then, which can mostly be blamed to the obligatory singing of the same line over and over again. While it allows for impressive vocal acrobatics, it also mercilessly slows down the action and unduly extends the running time.
To make things worse, a couple of external annoyances kept on making the whole evening increasingly frustrating. It started with the couple next to me reeking of a garlic-centric dinner (This type of Italian touch was quite unnecessary, thank you very much), continued with the woman behind us sporadically fidgeting with her purse, and ended with a young couple a few seats down from her steadily eating peanuts from one of those incredibly noisy little plastic bags (Yes, we got smell AND sound for that one), obviously uninterested by what they had come to see and apparently shocked by my audacity of asking them to, well, you know, stop. I'm not sure if Murphy's law was already a known concept in 19th century Italy, but it was decidedly unwelcome last night.

So this first opera outing of the season was not all it could have been, but looking at it from the cup-half-full perspective, it only means it whetted my appetite for more, even if the flawless singing will definitely be hard to top. Onward and forward!

Friday, September 4, 2009

Millennium Stage - Beethoven, Prokofiev, Monti & Tchaikovsky - 09/04/09

Beethoven: Sonata No 8 for Violin and Piano in G Major, Op. 30, No 3
Prokofiev: March from The Love for Three Oranges
Monti: Czardas
Tchaikovsky: Variations on a Rococo Theme for Cello and Orchestra, Op. 33

After a couple of lazy summer weeks, I'm back in one of regular Washington haunts: the Kennedy Center. While I tend to go there almost every week during the regular season, my visits are few and far between during the summer months as the NSO exiles itself at Wolf Trap and the only happenings are crowd-pleasing musicals that are generally not my cup of tea. So I take a break from the place, making my heart grow fonder, and eventually return ready for a brand new season. Today, the daily free Millennium Stage had a very special program: the combined power of Beethoven and Tchaikovsky performed by three brilliant members of the much respected Washington National Opera Orchestra, who threw in a couple of last-minute surprises as well.

Beethoven's chamber music may not be as well-known as his ground-breaking symphonies, but their sheer beauty makes them hard to forget once you've had a chance to hear them. His sonata was predictably enough an immensely attractive work radiating a graceful tone and emotional power. The various combinations of the two instruments were exquisitely rendered by pianist Anna Ouspenskaya and violinist Michelle Kim, and it was a lovely way to get the over-flowing crowd in the mood.
Before moving on to Tchaikovsky, the two musicians came back with two unexpected but most welcome additions to the program. I've always had a soft spot for the short-but-packing-a-punch march from Prokofiev's opera The Love for Three Oranges, and this one and half minute of pure virtuosic fun was for sure the highlight of my day.
Then we were on to Monti's Czardas, the second out-of-the-blue treat. Inspired by the traditional Hungarian folk dance bearing the same name and featuring no less than five tempo variations, it delighted the audience by adding a lively gypsy flavor to the increasingly wide-ranging recital.
Then it was back to more classical works with Tchaikovsky's Rococo Variations performed on the cello by the composer's fellow native Russian Igor Zubkovsky. After pointing out that we would be hearing the original version of the piece, he got down to business and created gorgeously lush sounds from his instrument, smartly backed up by the discreet but ever-present piano. It was a particularly tasteful interpretation of a markedly refined effort from Tchaikovsky, and it perfectly concluded this very pleasant Friday evening, uplifting our spirits even more on the eve of the Labor Day weekend.