Friday, February 27, 2009

WPAS - The London Philharmonic Orchestra - 02/26/09

Mahler: Symphony No 10 in F-sharp Major - Adagio
Mozart: Piano Concerto No 23 in A Major, K. 488
Ligeti: Atmosphères
Strauss: Also Sprach Zarathustra, Op. 30

Yesterday I was back at Strathmore for the much distinguished and respected London Philharmonic Orchestra that boasted of two very special guests: Leon Fleischer at the piano and Vladimir Jurowski on the podium. With an incredible triumph-over-adversity personal story and some just as incredible talent to spare, Leon Fleisher is one of the most beloved musicians on the music scene today. The young Russian conductor Vladimir Jurowski has been slowly but surely making a name for himself with prestigious engagements and highly praised performances, and he has proved over and over that he is definitely here to stay.

The program started with the beautifully moving Adagio from Mahler’s unfinished 10th Symphony. The only completed movement before he died, it more than stand on its own. While it is mostly hushed and introspective moments, it also contains splashy passages, and was a wonderful way to start the concert.
Leon Fleischer gave sparkling life to Mozart’s enchanting piano concerto No 23. The second movement was minimalist and limpid, and the third full of joyful exuberance. Not requiring showy technical prouesses, the concerto allowed the pianist to gently and effortlessly blend with the orchestra and the end result was quite lovely.
After these two traditional musical works, Ligeti’s Atmosphères opened new horizons. With no melodies or rhythms, the lingering sounds emanating from the instruments created an enclosed universe where the music stood still for unusual long periods of time. It was very, well, atmospheric and eventually transitioned surprisingly and seamlessly into Strauss’ Also Sprach Zarathustra.
Universally famous thanks to Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, in which the Ligeti happened to be included as well, Zarathustra is much more that just the sum of its first few and spectacularly attention-grabbing minutes. Indeed, Strauss' grand tone poem has a lot going for it, especially some glorious passages for strings. Inspired by Nietzche's treaty of the same name, it somewhat differently but just as powerfully philosophizes on man and nature, with the Übermensch appearing near the end as a Viennese waltz played by a solo violin. Maestro Jurowski kept the energy level up with the economical precision and ethereal grace of a young Slavic prince and helped the orchestra deliver a finely calibrated performance.

Last but not least, the evening concluded with a rousing interpretation of what in all likelihood was Strauss' Der Rosenkavalier Suite. There was no announcement and I couldn't really place it, but it did sound like Strauss. It has been reported that at their concert at the Avery Fisher Hall a couple of days later they did play Der Rosenkavalier Suite as the encore, and since neither the WPAS nor the orchestra has replied to my inquiries, I am left with my borderline-certainty assumption.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Academy of St. Martin in the Fields - Britten, Bach & Walton - 02/24/09

Conductor: Julia Fischer
Britten: Variations on a Theme of Frank Bridge - Julia Fischer
Bach: Violin Concerto in A Minor - Julia Fischer
Bach: Concerto for Violin No. 2 in E Major, BWV 1042 - Julia Fischer
Walton: Sonata for Strings - Julia Fischer
For the past 50 years (Happy Gold Anniversary!), the prestigious Academy of St. Martin in the Fields has delighted English and foreign ears and, while they were at it, has also become the most recorded chamber music ensemble in the world (with over 500 recordings, for those who keep track of those things). Mostly well-known and well-liked as an über-talented young violinist, although she happens to be an accomplished pianist as well, Julia Fischer last night was scheduled to grace the Strathmore stage as their violin soloist AND conductor (über-and multi-talented, obviously). The combination of all these powerful musical forces (and Bach!) was just too good an opportunity to pass, so I went.

We started with quite a kaleidoscopic exercise in the form of Britten’s variations, which displayed an attractively wide range of various moods that a string orchestra can bring to life, and the result was a fairly quick succession of short pieces that were unpredictable and a lot of fun.
It’s difficult to go wrong with Bach, and having the good fortune to hear two of his violin concertos by such transcendentally good musicians just doubled the pleasure. I have to say that I find the sound of the harpsichord rather grating, and it has often been a major impediment to my appreciation of Baroque music, but luckily yesterday it remained discreet and did not interfere with my full enjoyment of these two delicately eloquent pieces. The orchestra and the soloist harmoniously collaborated together and the violin beautifully sang its lively solos.
Walton's Sonata for Strings was pretty much what its name announced. The music came to life bristling with grace and style thanks to an impeccably precise interpretation, and this final work on the program proved to be the ultimate gift for the string lover.

But this was not the end yet, and a little, elating movement by Mozart eventually concluded an evening of polished musical entertainement.

Monday, February 23, 2009

St. Luke Orchestra - All-Mozart - 02/22/09

Conductor: Roberto Abbado
Mozart: Symphony No 35 in D Major, K. 385, "Haffner"
Mozart: Piano Concerto No 15 in B-flat Major, K. 450 - Andreas Haefliger
Mozart: Symphony No 41 in C Major, K. 551, "Jupiter"

The St. Luke Orchestra is quite a unique ensemble on the current music scene, and not only for the infallibly high caliber of its performances. For the past 34 years, it has been an organization that includes musicians from the Orchestra, the Chamber Ensemble, and the St. Luke's Arts Education Program. With additional incentives such as Roberto Abbado conducting and Andreas Heafliger at the piano for an all-Mozart program, I was on my way to Carnegie Hall yesterday morning. All composed while he was at the height of his creative power, the Haffner, the Piano Concerto No 15 and the Jupiter promised a couple of hours of blissful respite on a cold, grey and rainy Sunday.

Originally written as a serenade for the ennoblement celebration of Sigmund Haffner of Salzburg, Mozart later revised it to fit the traditional Viennese symphony format. The end result turned out to be quite compelling, with a solemn first movement, a lovely andante, a festive menuet and a splashy finale. Maestro Abbado economically but persuasively led the musicians into a highly refined interpretation of it, consistently highlighting the graceful coherence of the whole piece.
Always the busy man, Mozart composed no fewer than 12 concertos between 1784 and 1786, and yesterday it was the Piano Concerto No 15 that Andrea Haefilger was set to play for us. Mostly unusual for its emphasis on the wind instruments, it also gives the piano discreetly virtuosic parts, which stood harmoniously out amidst the elegantly understated score.
The pièce de résistance, the Jupiter symphony, was last on the program, but more than worth the wait. Promisingly starting with what have to be the sexiest pick-up notes in the whole classical music répertoire, it majestically unfolds as a composition of extraordinary complexity and appeal. Its melodic power makes it instantly accessible, and its multi-layered richness makes the listener constantly discover new unsuspected nuances. The orchestra gave a beautifully subtle and vibrant performance, bringing the amazing grand finale to a rousingly spot-on conclusion. This Jupiter brightly shone in all its timeless splendor.

Friday, February 20, 2009

NSO - Ravel, Prokofiev & Stravinsky - 02/19/09

Conductor: Charles Dutoit
Ravel: Le tombeau de Couperin
Prokofiev: Piano Concerto No 2 in G Minor, Op. 16 - Yuja Wang
Stravinsky: The Firebird, Ballet in Two Scenes

A short trip down the elevator from the Terrace Theater and its promising young artists, the NSO was scheduled to play a one-third French, two-third Russian program under the Canadian baton of renowned conductor Charles Dutoit. The special guest for the evening was the young Chinese pianist Yuja Wang, who incidentally not so long ago graduated from the Curtis Institute of Music, the prestigious school featured in the Conservatory Project the evening before. Last year I heard her perform Prokofiev's short but lovely piano concerto No 1 with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra at Strathmore, and yesterday I was totally looking forward to hearing her one year older talent being applied to the considerably meatier concerto No 2.

I can't say I've ever been overly sensitive to Ravel's oeuvre, except for the immediate appeal the Boléro or Tzigane, which even a caveman would immediately fall for. Le tombeau de Couperin is no exception. Originally written for the piano as a tribute to six of his fallen friends right after the Great War, it is both a deeply personal endeavor and his most patriotic musical statement ever. Later, he only kept four of the six movements and modified them to be played by an orchestra, with a particular emphasis on wind instruments. The result is pleasant enough, and there are some really neat ethereal passages for the oboe, but it did not really keep me on the edge of my seat.
Big sweeping sounds, however, were aplenty in Prokofiev's second piano concerto, and tiny Yuja Wang did her very best, which is very good indeed, to stay on top of it. While the pounding got occasionally a bit much for its own sake, she also displayed undeniable grace under fire. With intensity control and delicate nuances, she more than held her own, even when the orchestra unceremoniously covered her playing. All I'm hoping now is that she'll be back next year in the DC area for Prokofiev's piano concerto No 3...
After Prokofiev's unabashed romanticism came Stravinky's colorful Firebird, and the orchestra delivered particularly fine evocations of all the enchanted story's elements, from the fairy-tale atmosphere to the earthy Russian folk tunes, from the good firebird to the bad Kashchei. While knowing the full story obviously enhances the whole experience, and watching the ballet being performed even more so, it was just as easy to sit back, relax and enjoy the full dramatic spectrum of the music itself. Maestro Dutoit assuredly led the musicians into a sparkling performance, and they all made sure that this firebird masterfully took flight and soared to mighty heights.

Millennium Stage - Univ. of Michigan School of Music, Theater & Dance - 02/19/09

Beethoven: Piano Trio in G Major, Op. 1, No 2 - III & IV
Schoenberg: Sparks of Glory - I & II
Crumb: Sonata for Solo Cello
Bolcom: "Amor"
Bolcom: "A Great Man's Child" from Casino Royale

Still in the context of the Conservatory Project organized by the Kennedy Center's Millennium Stage, last night I was back in the Terrace Theater before the NSO concert for performances by the most promising students of the famed School of Music, Theater & Dance of the University of Michigan. Although the early start of the NSO concert wouldn't let me stay until the end of the program, I couldn't pass a new opportunity to hear some outstanding youngsters at the beginning of their artistic journey.

Things got started on a decidedly classical note with no less than Beethoven and the last two movements of one of his piano trios. The three musicians did a very good job at bringing out the lightness and sheer virtuosity of the lovely composition, and everything indicated that we were off to a good start.
Next the mood grew considerably darker with Paul Schoenfield's Sparks of Glory, whose music vividly backs up the direct accounts of the Polish-Israeli journalist Moshe Prager when Germany invaded Poland. The unusual combination of piano, cello, violin and clarinet gave the score a multi-layered quality and added to the narration's human dimension, making this work quite effective. Not an easy choice, but the dare did pay off.
The last piece I got to hear was Crumb's Sonata for Solo Cello by the fearless Yeonjim Kim. Written in the 1950s, it stays away from modern music's most off-putting experiments, rather alluding to dark romanticism and Bartok. It is a very complex and therefore daunting work to tackle, but our young cellist did not hesitate to fully throw herself in it, and the result was spectacularly successful. I was certainly sorry I had to leave the theater, but most grateful I had a chance to hear this already much awarded young artist. I'm sure I'll see her again.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Trio con Brio Copenhagen - Mendelssohn & Beethoven - 02/18/09

Mendelssohn: Song without Words in D Major for cello and piano, Op. 109
Beethoven: Piano Trio in B-flat Major, Op. 97, "Archduke"
Mendelssohn: Piano Quartet No 3 in B Minor, Op. 3

Another trip to the Library of Congress, another Mendelssohn-centric concert, although this time we also got to hear Beethoven's Archduke. Still young, but boasting of an already pretty impressive international career, the Trio con Brio Copenhagen was a welcome addition to the Mendelssohn festivities, and their guest artist, renowned violist James Durham from the no less renowned Cleveland Quartet, among many other endeavors, made last night's program even more attractive.
The opening piece from Mendelssohn was another one of his wonderful Songs Without Words, and eased our minds into concert mood. The lovely duet between the piano and the cello was perfectly balanced and delivered a gentle, very satisfying appetizer to the more substantial fares that were to follow.
Archduke is a milestone not only as Beethoven's final piano trio composition, but also as representing the end of his career as a solo pianist. The master, of course, made sure to go with a bang, and this trio remains one of the masterpieces of the genre, to which the three musicians seemed totally determined to do it justice. It started with a refined first movement, followed by a Scherzo marked with quite a few fierce passages. The Andante displayed restrained playfulness before a Finale full of exhilarating outbursts. Right on!
Back to Mendelssohn, his Piano Quartet No 3 in B Minor, which he composed when he was sixteen and dedicated to Goethe, certainly made more than one allusion to Beethoven, but is nevertheless already representative of his own emerging style. Featuring our special guest on the cello, the ensemble played it with vigor and refinement, and beautifully concluded yet another very festive evening.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Millennium Stage - Indiana Univ. Jacobs School of Music - 02/18/09

Creston: Sonata for saxophone and Piano, Op. 19
Chopin: Mazurka in C-sharp Minor, Op. 50, No 3
Chopin: Ballade No 1 in G Minor, Op. 23
Verdi: Credo in un Dio crudel from Otello
Rogers: "Some Enchanted Evening" from South Pacific
Rachmaninoff: Ona, kak polden', khorosha, Op. 14, No 9
Rachmaninoff: Ja zhdu tebja, Op. 14, No 1
Debussy: String Quartet in G Minor, Op. 10 - III & IV

Beside providing free entertainment every single day of the year, twice a year the Millennium Stage invites the most promising students of the top music schools in the US to perform for a whole week in a program baptized "The Conservatory Project". These mini-concerts are a wonderful opportunity not only to check out the stars of tomorrow, but also to hear some excerpts of popular and lesser known works. Moreover, these performances taking place in a closed space, as opposed to either end of the Kennedy Center's main hall, was an added bonus to our ability to fully enjoy them. Yesterday evening, as a prelude to the New York Ballet Theater, my friend Heidi and I got to sample some exceptional young artists from the distinguished Jacobs School of Music of Indiana University.

The first piece was a jazzy tune by Paul Creston, and the pianist, David Hughes, and saxophonist, Dana Booher, took us through a whole range of rhythms without batting as much as an eyelid. They had a good thing going and gladly shared it with us.
For sheer wonder at the talent of youth, we did not have to look further than Andrew Marrs, who played Chopin with a sensitivity and a maturity well beyond his young years. His interpretations of the Mazurka and the Ballade were precise and heartfelt, and would have no doubt pleased the composer himself.
After jazz and classical music, we got a taste of vocal prouesse with a wonderful baritone, Aleksey Bogdanov, who effortlessly displayed his skills in a wide variety of songs: Verdi in Italian, Rogers in English, and Rachmaninoff in Russian. Equally comfortable in all those different styles, the assuredness he projected was an additional asset to his impressive vocal range and promises him a bright future.
Last, but not least, were the last two movement of Debussy's String Quartet in G Minor, which were played with all due expressiveness and passion, and beautifully concluded a very satisfying hour.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Met - La Rondine - 02/14/09

By Giacomo Puccini
Conductor: Marco Amiliato
Director: Stephen Barlow
Magda: Angela Georghiu
Ruggero: Giuseppe Filianoti
Prunier: Marius Brenchiu
Lisette: Lisette Oropesa

Although Puccini wrote some of the most popular operas in the répertoire, La Rondine is surprisingly enough not one of them. Originally commissioned as an operetta by Viennese producers, the composer had enough healthy contempt for the genre to make sure he would twist it to the extent that it would meet his personal artistic standards. Bless his heart! My main motivation for attending the Met production last night was to hear celebrated Romanian soprano Angela Gheorghiu, who has been instrumental, along with her husband , tenor Roberto Alagna, in bringing this lesser known work to opera audiences worldwide. Boasting of Puccini's trademark compelling melodies, doomed love story, a generous amount of lightheartedness, eye-popping art déco sets and costumes, not to mention a big name star, this production has all the right ingredients to be a big hit with critics and public alike.
 
From the very first scene, Magda, the swallow of the title, proves to be drastically different from the world she evolves in. Believing in the power of love amidst the cynicism surrounding her, she of course will have to pay dearly for deciding to put her heart above her mind. Luckily, solid doses of humor are sporadically injected here and there, even if they don't always blend in flawlessly. The whole package ends up being a unique, sophisticated cocktail of tradition and modernism as much in its musical structure as in its dramatic development.
Angela Georghiu was a sweet and strong Magda, her voice increasingly gaining clarity, luminosity and suppleness as she was reaching for higher notes. She grabbed our undivided attention at "Chi il bel sogno di Doretta" and we never looked back. Her Ruggero, the reliable Italian tenor Giuseppe Filiantoni, was refreshingly touching in his innocence and spontaneity, and the straight-from-Feydeau couple of the unflappable poet Prunier and the mischievious, smart-ass maid Lisette added some welcome comic relief and melodic lightness to the unfolding drama. The young Italian conductor Marco Armiliato channeled his best Puccini and let the master's gorgeously expressive music soar in all its glory.
This production places the story in Paris and the French Riviera in the 1920s, therefore allowing the set and costume designers to have a no holds bar field day with their particular craft. The décor ranged from a lavishly elegant Parisian salon to a Mediterranean love-nest featuring some stunning stained-glass window panels, beautifully situating the action without overdoing it. The outfits were a tasteful, extensive tribute to the fashion of the day and greatly contributed to the endless enchantement for the eyes.
All that being said, for the second time yesterday, love did not conquer all, which seemed kind of counter-indicated for Valentine's Day programming. Although, quite remarkably, nobody died, nobody got to live happily ever after either. On the bright side, however, these unhappy couples, each unhappy in their own way, ended up making fiercely beautiful music together while mercilessly tearing each other apart.

Let's hope that this swell Rondine will fly towards even more success in the future. It is an immensely enjoyable production at every level and should easily find its rightful place in Puccini's much beloved oeuvre.

Met - Eugene Onegin - 02/14/09

By Piotr Tchaikovsky
Conductor: Jiri Belohlavek
Director: Peter McClintock
Eugene Onegin: Thomas Hampton
Tatiana: Karita Mattila
Lenski: Piotr Beczala

What more could a girl want for Valentine's Day than enjoying some prime quality time at the Met with her first two musical coups de foudre? While Tchaikovsky is definitely the one who got me to stop and listen to classical music, my first taste of opera was Puccini's Tosca, and he had me at "Recondita Armonia". Tchaikovsky's Eugene Onegin was part of my Met subscription yesterday, and I couldn't resist adding Puccini's La Rondine as my evening treat. Incidentally, I also got to hear a solid couple of hours of James Brown in the morning on my way to the Big Apple. You can always trust public transportation to keep you connected with pop culture... But by early afternoon I was back in a familiar environment and more than ready for some Russian drama.

Being a die-hard Tchaikovsky fan does not mean I am the ultimate groupie blindingly following her idol. Although the heart-on-sleeve quality of his work rarely fails to get to me, I do confess some reservations about his sometimes unrestrained tendency towards overbearing grandiloquence. Eugene Onegin, however, blissfully refrains for the most part from mushy sentimentality while oozing technical virtuosity and graceful melodies.
Tatiana's famed letter scene and Prince Gremin's ode to love found at last remain two of the composer's most touching compositions, and the final confrontation between Tatiana and Onegin had an eerily Chekhovian poignancy while reminiscing of what might have been and is now irremediably lost. Drawn from a poem by Pushkin, who also inspired The Queen of Spades, Tchaikovsky's other most popular opera, Eugene Onegin is first and foremost a surprisingly sensitive drama of unfulfilled love.
Thomas Hampton's natural poise and elegance combined with his richly nuanced baritone voice easily made him the quintessential Onegin, but the shining star of this production was the Finnish soprano Karita Mattila, who brought inborn demureness to her heroïn while making sure that her violent feelings were being heard. The steel resolve she showed when faced with the possibility of finally getting what she had so ardently desired, but finally choosing the path of rightfulness was particularly heart-breaking without falling into the traps of cheap melodrama. The Polish tenor Piotr Beczala was a wonderfully expressive Lenski and sang his farewell-to-life aria as if there were no tomorrow indeed. Last, but not least, James Morris made an indelible impression in his short appearance as Prince Gremin.
The stage stayed mostly bare throughout the whole story, except for a few strategically placed props and some quietly efficient lighting. The outdoor rural scenes were attractively enhanced by a whole carpet of multi-colored leaves, the ball at the country estate soberly conveyed just the right amount of pleasure and ennui, and the glittery world of imperial Russia was emphasized with sumptuously understated décor and costumes, the final, uniformly black outfits somberly warning of the tragic end.

An undeniable stand-out in Tchaikovsky's oeuvre, this Eugene Onegin remains a deeply romantic story, and this daringly economical production fortuitously allows the singers to hold center stage and fully project their complex characters' tortured minds. In this case, less is more indeed.

Atrium Quartet - 02/13/09

Mendelssohn: String Quartet in F minor, Op. 80
Borodin: String Quartet No 2 in D Major
Shostakovitch: String Quartet No 5 in B-flat Major, Op. 92

On Friday night I was back at the Library of Congress for yet another Mendelssohn celebration, featuring this time the Atrium Quartet, straight from Saint Petersburg, Russia, with some love hopefully, but plenty of talent for sure. Playing on some instruments from the Library's collection, which are getting quite a workout these days, they presented a decidedly international program including, beside the predictable Mendelssohn piece, Borodin's soulful Quartet No 2, a decisive factor in my decision to attend, and their fellow countryman Shostakovitch.

Unlike most of his oeuvre and sharply contrasting with one of his first compositions, the exuberantly sunny Octet, Mendelssohn's final quartet, written after his beloved sister's sudden death, forcefully expresses feelings of torment and loss with unusual dissonance. Even the Andante is conspicuously dark and unquiet while occasionally eluding to happy memories. The four young musicians did not hesitate to get right into it and brilliantly brought out the full range of the composer's agitated state of mind.
After so much turbulence and grief, Borodin's Quartet No 2 rose like bright sunshine. A gift to his wife for their 20th anniversary, it bristles with lyrical romanticism, and on Friday night the strikingly luminous, deeply heart-felt Notturno was absolutely stunning, the somber cello providing the perfect counterpoint to the passionately expressive violin. After such an elating movement, the vivacious Finale almost seemed too fast and furious, but eventually concluded the whole piece with panache.
It is probably a safe bet to assume that Shostakovitch has a particular resonance for Russian musicians, and hearing the Atrium Quartet tear through his String Quartet No 5 all but reinforced that notion. Of ambitious scope and gloomy mood, the three movements are supposed to be performed without a pause and are remarkably distinct from one another. Amidst all the restless anguish, the Andante rose with delicate poignancy, and we could only praise the ensemble's last-minute decision to change the order of the program. Hearing Mendelssohn and Shostakovitch back to back would have probably been too much to digest.

Since the enthusiastic audience of the packed auditorium wouldn't let them go, they came back for a short, soulful piece by Shostakovitch again, a quietly beautiful way to wrap up the evening. Friday the 13th has never felt so lucky.

Friday, February 13, 2009

Hilliard Ensemble - Palestrina & Lassus - 02/12/09

Palestrina: Heu mihi Domine
Lassus: Introit Requiem aeternam + Kyrie
Palestrina: Domine quando veneris
Lassus: Gradual - Si ambulem
Palestrina: Ad Dominum cum tribularer
Lassus: Offertory - Domine Iesu Christe + Sanctus and Benedictus
Palestrina: Miserere mei Deus
Lassus: Agnus Dei + Communion - Lux aeterna
Palestrina: Libera me, Domine
Chant: In paradisum

"Variety is the spice of life" the saying goes, so last night I was set to explore new musical territory with The Hilliard Ensemble. Founded in 1974, this English vocal chamber ensemble has had quite a distinguished career throughout the years and throughout the world despite numerous personnel changes. Being able to sample new fare with experts in the field is not an opportunity to be missed, so I showed up at the Terrace Theater of the Kennedy Center with open ears and open mind.

Since I am a complete ignoramus as far as Renaissance musical traditions are concerned, the names Palestrina and Lassus did not ring a bell, but my friend Michael, whose knowledge equals my cluelessness, assured me they were la creme de la creme of the genre. Even though I have to say that a lot of it sounded similar to my untrained ears, the performance turned out to be quite a compellingly spiritual adventure. The very distinctive baritone and counter-tenor were efficiently backed up by the two tenors, and the wide range of harmonies they masterfully created was definitely attention-grabbing.

As an encore, we got to appreciate another facet of a cappella singing with a modern composition by Piers Hellawell called "Sapphire". The last sound uttered by the ensemble was the deeply resonating word "Beauty", and more than adequately fit the overall impression left by their mind-elevating, seamless concert.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Mira Trio - All-Mendelssohn - 02/10/09

Fanny Mendelssohn Hensel: Trio for Piano, Violin, and Cello in D minor, Op. 11
Felix Mendelssohn: Andante espressivo in E-flat Major, Op. 30 No. 1
Fanny Mendelssohn Hensel: Andante in G Major, Op. 2, No. 1
Fanny Mendelssohn Hensel: "Il Saltarello Romano" (Allegro molto in A Minor), Op. 6, No. 4
Felix Mendelssohn: Piano Trio No 2 in C minor, Op. 66

Last night I was back at the Library of Congress for an all-Mendelssohn program played this time by a fairly new chamber music ensemble, the Mira Trio, which was founded in 2007. Taken its name from the giant red "stella mira" (wonderful star), they presented an appropriately shining program of works by Felix Mendelssohn, of course, but also by his sister, Fanny. Although her name has never been as big as his, she was by all accounts as much of a child prodigy as he was and dedicated her life to music as well, both as a masterful composer and a piano virtuoso.

The concert actually started with her Trio for Piano, Violin and Cello in D Minor, and its freshness and spontaneity were a sure reminder of her brother's best work, with an added touch of her own free spiritedness. All three instruments blended harmoniously together, with the expressive cello discreetly standing out now and then.
After this remarkable introduction, we got treated to three Songs Without Words for piano by the ensemble's pianist, Byron Schenkman, and this mini-recital gave us a chance to appreciate three sparkling little gems, Fanny's Saltarello Romano being unmistakably reminiscent of the famous Finale of her brother's Italian Symphony in all its straightforward joyfulness. The pianist literally made his instrument sing these short but so enjoyable pieces, and turned what could have a mere set of trifles into a brilliant interlude.
The trio back on the stage, we wrapped up the evening with the birthday boy's Piano Trio No 2 in C Minor, another example of his unlimited gift for deeply musical composition. This was an multi-faceted firework of finesse and lyricism, and the perfect way to end another Mendessohn's celebration while looking forward to the next one.

Monday, February 9, 2009

Joshua Bell & Jeremy Denk - Janacek, Brahms, Ysaye & Franck - 02/08/09

Janacek: Sonata for Violin and Piano
Brahms: Violin Sonata No 3 in D Minor, Op. 108
Ysaye: Violin Sonata No 2 in A Minor
Franck: Violin Sonata in A Major

Being a hopeless noise-magnet is not an easy life when you're a fan of the performing arts, but sometimes good timing helps make things a little more bearable. Last Wednesday, I was lucky enough to be at Strathmore for the Joshua Bell & Jeremy Denk concert, but not lucky enough to be able to enjoy it as fully as I could have. I had the misfortune of finding myself sitting next to a gratingly loud heavy-breather (imagine Darth Vader with a thick Russian accent and an even thicker waistline), who was providing a rhythmically consistent but nevertheless most unwelcome accompaniment to Janacek's composition.
So as soon as the music ended I quickly grab my coat, hat, gloves, scarf, program and bag and dashed to another seat nearby before Brahms' sonata and found myself next to a sympathetic usher, who was finally getting around to turning off her cell phone. Things could have been worse, I guess. And from then on, calm was pretty much restored, never mind the woman behind me intermittently scratching what sounded like cheap polyester pants. In the end though, there was still this nagging feeling of unfinished business about the whole outing stubbornly lingering in the air...
After two inconclusive attempts, I had never clicked with and had pretty much given up on the Avery Fisher Hall at New York's Lincoln Center, but it never gave up on me and I still receive regular e-mails from them. Therefore, I was aware of the concert yesterday afternoon, and since I was in town for the Guarneri String Quartet the night before, the call was just too compelling not to be answered. So I got a ticket and went for a last-minute comparative study and, most importantly, a little peace and quiet and music.

The mission has been accomplished and the verdict is in. Regarding outside distractions, this was a vast improvement, except for the occasionally fidgety neighbor and the signal watch abruptly informing our whole section that it was 5:00 p.m. during Méditation, that is. On the acoustics side, Strathmore wins hands-down, but the AFH was not as bad as I remembered it, and I may even give it another chance one of these days. Oh, yes, and for the performance, it's another loud and clear A+.
As a matter of fact, I believe that a lot has to be said about the benefits of attending more than one performance of the same program. Having another opportunity to fully indulge my ears, heart and mind allowed me to dwell deeper into these beautifully crafted works, and surely brought my understanding of them to another level. Instead of the dazzling technical fireworks of Ysaye, this time it is probably Franck's stunning sonata that really stood out for me as I got to appreciate its rich textures and exquisite harmonies in yet another light.

All in all, this second concert, a true luxury for sure, turned out to be both a blessing, for the sheer pleasure it brought, and a curse, for fueling an appetite for more. It was also, ultimately, another proof that not giving up and going the extra 200+ miles for a worthy goal has its own priceless rewards.

Sunday, February 8, 2009

Guarneri Quartet - Bartok, Mozart & Sibelius - 02/07/09

Bartok: String Quartet No 3
Mozart: String Quartet in B Flat, K. 589
Sibelius: String Quartet in D Minor, op. 56, "Voces intimae"

As the Guarneri String Quartet is quickly heading towards retirement and I was not fast enough to get a ticket for their long sold-out Kennedy Center concert, I decided to come to their performance at the Metropolitan Museum's sober and acoustically blessed small concert hall yesterday evening. Saying that this world-famous ensemble deserves the effort would be an understatement, and the solid mix of composers on the program added yet another incentive to the mission.

Bartok's third string quartet was in line with his constant goal of combining lyrical and rustic, but this time on a more blended scale. The soft beginning of the first movement and the more rhythmic opening of the second one offered a nicely defined contrast in romanticism and modernism, which was recapitulated in the well integrated, vibrant third movement.
After Bartok's cocktail experiment, Mozart sounded particularly classical. Probably written for the Prussian King Friedrich Wilhem III, a dedicated amateur cellist himself, it does emphasize the sounds of that instrument, adding a darker tone to the carefully intricate work.
I was particularly thrilled about the inclusion of Sibelius in the program. Composed while he was fearing for his health, his sonata starts with a short dialog between the cello and the first violin, and from there takes the audience through an involving roller-coaster before a fiery grand finale. The Adagio, also called "voces intimae", is structurally and musically the heart of the piece by quietly conveying feelings of anguish and darkness. In the hands of these four musicians, it easily rose to new heights and beautifully concluded an impeccable performance.


Saturday, February 7, 2009

Cypress String Quartet - Mendelssohn, Puts & Beethoven - 02/06/09

Mendelssohn: String Quartet in A Minor, Op. 13
Puts: Lento assai
Beethoven: String Quartet in F Major, op. 135

As part of the on-going Mendelssohn's birthday celebration in DC this month, last night the Library of Congress presented the Cypress String Quartet, who had a nicely inter-connected program and got to play it on some of the instruments of the Library's prized collection. Beethoven was a major influence to Mendelssohn, and both inspired the quartet to commission Kevin Puts for a piece tipping its hat to the two German musical giants. Altogether, a very compelling selection.

Being the natural melody maker that he was, Mendelssohn's sonata was predictably a delightful combination of attractive harmonies. A fresh and comfortable way to get things started.
Puts was on stage to introduce his work, and briefly explain its coming together. His Lento assai turned out to be the perfect slow movement that was missing in Mendelssohn's piece. Eerily reminiscent of Barber's Adagio for Strings, it made the most of the string instruments' delicate sounds, and the end result was the lovely surprise of the evening.
Beethoven's String Quartet kept us in a light mood, much lighter than some of his other works, and clearly demonstrated his inbred ability to stop the ranting and smell the roses. Although not devoid of intensity, it was for decidedly a happy, occasionally contemplative piece.

But the evening was not over and the encore was the lento movement of Two Sketches on Native American Themes the American composer Charles Tomlinson Griffes. The prominence of the cello and viola gave it a somber tone, but the seriousness was gently lightened up by the violins wandering in. A nice final touch to a quietly refined concert.

Thursday, February 5, 2009

WPAS - Joshua Bell & Jeremy Denk - Janacek, Brahms, Ysaye & Franck - 02/04/09

Janacek: Sonata for Violin and Piano
Brahms: Violin Sonata No 3 in D minor, Op. 108
Ysaye: Sonata in A Minor for Unaccompanied Violin, Op. 27, No 2
Franck: Violin Sonata in A Major

One day after the emerging ladies from the Old World at the Kennedy Center, a duo of all-American more seasoned gentlemen showed up at Strathmore last night. Introducing Joshua Bell seems utterly superfluous nowadays, and if there's any bit of justice left on this planet, his equally talented accompanist Jeremy Denk should also reach the pinnacle of glory any day now. The program had a little something for everybody, and I'm still pinching myself for getting to hear another unaccompanied violin sonata by Ysaye so soon after my first taste of it. Incidentally, all the works listed were composed later in the life of their creators, when they were recognized artists at the peak of their art, so I guess sometimes older is indeed better.

The first piece was the one I was the most curious about. Probably more exotic than the rest of the selection, Janacek's Sonata for Violin and Piano was a maybe unsettling, but all things considered brillant way to grab the audience's attention right away. Throughout the work, the combination of earthy folk tunes and unusual, unexpected sonorities was vividly contrasted with the sheer beauty of the melodies. The second movement, in particular, was as romantic as can be, and the Adagio, featuring some sharp interjections from the violin over a gentle piano, eventually brought the piece to a whispering end.
It was just one small step from this ethereal ending to the full-fledged Romanticism of Brahms and his third Violin Sonata. Yet another example of his extraordinary craftsmanship, it proves once again that his claim of not understanding stringed instruments well enough to compose for them shouldn't be taken too seriously. It is complex, deeply convincing music, and Joshua Bell and Jeremy Denk brought it home effortlessly.
Hearing another sonata for solo violin by Ysaye made me think that stars do align sometimes. His second one, whose first movement is titled Obsession, was dedicated to the violinist Jacques Thibaud, who notably championed Bach when it was not particularly fashionable. The obsession, however, is not entirely about Bach, although his presence is felt throughout the piece, but the ever popular death-evoking Gregorian chant Dies Irae. The sonata makes full and incredible use of the violinist's impressive bag of tricks, and concludes in a virtuosic tour de force. Having one of the world's top violinists perform it promised wonders, and the result was a grand musical experience indeed.
After Ysaye's fiery finale, it was back on familiar territory with Franck's Proustian Violin Sonata in A. Boasting of a delicate balance between dreamy romanticism and intense lyricism, this richly poetic, cyclical work exudes Gallic passion and elegance, and last night the audience was masterfully taken to that magical place where everything comes together in perfect harmony.

But complete fulfillment did not mean we had reached the end of the journey yet, and our encore was the ultimate candy for the road back to reality in the form of a heavenly sweet and deliciously lingering "Méditation" from Thaïs. Predictable, sure, but there was absolutely nothing wrong with it.

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

WPAS - Nicola Benedetti & Katya Apekisheva - Brahms, Ysaye, Prokofiev & Ravel - 02/03/09

Brahms: Violin Sonata No 2 in A Major, Op. 100

Ysaye: Sonata in G Major for Unaccompanied Violin, Ip. 27, No 5
Prokofiev: Violin Sonata No 1 in F Minor, Op. 80
Ravel: Tzigane

Old Albion does not contend itself to regular spawn upon the world pop bands or singers of various degrees of talent, it also remains a fertile ground for classical musicians as well, and this was clearly obvious last night at the Terrace Theater of the Kennedy Center. Although her background has a touch of exoticism, she's Scottish of Italian heritage, the barely legal Nicola Benedetti has quickly become a media darling across the pond. Her accompanist for her Washington debut was an equally fresh-looking Russian woman, Katya Apekisheva, and the duo had come to present us a very attractive and challenging smorgasbord of musical works.

It all started predictably enough with Brahms whose gentle Violin Sonata in A Major evokes so clearly the bucolic Swiss scenery that inspired it. Far from the austere mood of the fourth symphony he had completed not long ago, it is all graciousness and sweet melodies. Nicola Benedetti dwelt into it with a lot of unbounded energy, if not always the desired subtleness, while Katya Apekisheva kept pace in a more restrained fashion.
After the pretty beginning, things got decisively down and dirty with the Sonata for Solo Violin by Ysaye, which shook things up quite a bit. A virtuoso violin himself, he one day decided to write six works for unaccompanied violins, each dedicated to one distinguished violinist at the time. The fifth sonata was intended for Mathieu Crickboom, and if the recipient is forgotten today, the musical piece is still alive, definitely well and often kicking. From L'aurore (Dawn) to the Danse rustique (Rustic Dance), it runs the whole gamut of violin sounds before the grand finale, and Ms. Benedetti generated plenty of fireworks during these 15 minutes.
Prokofiev's sonata No 1 is a beautifully engaging piece, but requires I think some mental preparation to really take it all in. Written during trying times in Russian history, it forcefully conveys darkness and bleakness without much of even a glimmer of hope. The beginning immediately sets the tone with the piano playing an ostinato passage and the violin making a plaintive, nagging entrance. Last night, the duo kept the mood grim throughout the various changes in tempo, and the icy wind was blowing again to bring the piece to its dreary end. Luckily, Ravel's Tzigane cheered things up with its fiery Gypsy melodies and festive spirit. It is a fun, infectious tune, and the girls were not afraid to let their hair down and finally have a rolling good time.

As if that was not enough, the encore was the second movement of Ravel's Violin Sonata, and its sensual jazziness added yet another dimension to our very eclectic and ultimately pretty satisfying evening.

Sunday, February 1, 2009

NSO - Haydn, Mozart, Previn & Strauss - 02/01/09

Conductor: André Prévin
Haydn: Symphony No 104 in D Major, "London"
Mozart: Violin Concerto No 3 in G Major, K. 216 - Anne-Sophie Mutter
Previn: Double Concerto for Violin, Contrabass, and Orchestra - Anne-Sophie Mutter & Roman Patkolo
Strauss: Suite from Der Rosenkavalier

Although having a chance to hear Anne-Sophie Mutter play is no doubt a drop-everything-and-go opportunity, I did not make it to her last appearance in Washington, which was WPAS' season opening concert at the Kennedy Center. Of course, gorging on classical music and sight-seeing in her native country's capital was no meager consolation, but still... So there was no way I would miss her next performance, again at the Kennedy Center, featuring her playing a classic among classics, Mozart's violin concerto No 3, and a more modern and intriguing piece, André Prévin's double concerto for violin, contrabass and orchestra. The much honored composer/musician looked frail as he was moving around, warmly greeted by the respectful audience, but he did not waste any time and got things rolling for his 80th birthday celebration.

The concert started with one of Haydn's 106 symphonies, the last one he composed in London, and which was included in his farewell performance in the capital, hence its name. It opens quite solemnly, almost like as funeral march, but things eventually lighten up with lively harmonies. The andante is warm and subtle, the minuet a lively country dance and the finale, inspired by an exuberant peasant song from Croatia and/or an English street tune, concludes the piece on a festive note in total opposition to its beginning. Even if the music did not always have the expected effervescence, it was a nice introduction.
Although Mozart always preferred the piano, he had quite a talent for violin playing as well. He wrote his violin concerto No 3 (and the four others) while he was a mere 18-years old, and it magistrally demonstrated his already extraordinary maturity as a composer. It is a beautifully balanced, elegantly refined piece, and yesterday evening Anne-Sophie Mutter performed it with teutonic cleanliness, emphasizing its classical seriousness, with a few occasional sparks. Not surprisingly, the exquisite andante was heavenly ethereal in her hands and brought the whole audience to a breath-holding state of grace.
She came back for the next piece accompanied by the young but already highly regarded Roman Patkolo, a protégé of Mutter and Prévin, who wrote the work they performed especially for them. After the precise vibrancy of Mozart, the mood turned decidedly jazzy, and allowed the violinist and the bass player to engage in spirited dialogue. While the first and third movements were eclectic and contained strong rhythms, it is during the Interlude and the second movement that things really heated up between the two soloists, the deep, dark sounds from the double bass creating the perfect counter-point to the playful, polished harmonies coming out of the violin.
The Suite of Der Rosenkavalier concluded the evening with loud rumble and tumble, playful stop-and-go, and let us go into the cold night with an uplifted mood.