Saturday, December 25, 2010

New York String Orchestra - Mozart & Mendelssohn - 12/24/10

Conductor: Jaime Laredo
Mozart: Overture to Così fan tutte
Mendelssohn: Concerto for Violin, Piano, and Strings in D Minor - Jennifer Koh & Benjamin Hochman
Mozart: Symphony No 31 in D Major, K. 297, "Paris"

What better way to treat myself on Christmas Eve than with a concert at Carnegie Hall courtesy of the New York String Orchestra, the product of one of the most highly praised musical training programs in the States, led by veteran conductor, pedagogue and musician Jaime Laredo? Moreover, the fact that violinist Jennifer Koh, who I try to hear every time I can, and Benjamin Hochman, a new pianist for me to discover, would also be featured was another incentive that could not be ignored. Best of all, the play-list was all spirited, joyful even, works by Mozart and Mendelssohn, and not a single jingling bell or seasonal chorus was threatening to disrupt a decidedly all-inclusive crowd-pleasing concert. So I happily took one last walk down divinely scented Broadway where the left over trees were being packed off and quickly made it to the hall for the unusual starting time of 7:00 pm.

So it was on this very special night to many and in front of a very eclectic audience of tourists, friends, families and a few regulars that the perky first notes of Così fan tutte’s overture vivaciously resonated to everybody’s delight. The orchestra undeniably brought an infectious exuberance to the proceedings as much from the brightly colored tops they were wearing as from the unbridled enthusiasm they were showing. For an inspiring musician, life could certainly be worse than playing Mozart’s dazzling little gem on one of the world’s most prestigious stages before an almost full and obviously indulgent house on Christmas Eve. Eventually, they all seemed to fully relish the experience once they got around to relaxing a bit.
Having composers who were child prodigies on a program performed by unusually talented youngsters was a neat idea. Although Mozart’s two pieces were written when his art was already maturing, Mendelssohn came up with the ambitious Concerto for Violin, Piano and Strings when he was a mere 14-year-old. Wittily combining grace, ferocity and Romanticism, it gave Jennifer Koh and Benjamin Hochman plenty of opportunities to display their remarkable talents, sometimes fiercely playing off each other, sometimes harmoniously teaming up, consistently backed-up by a solid orchestra.
Mozart’s Paris symphony, which he wrote for the 1778 Concert spirituel, may not have won him the secure post he had hoped for in the French capital, but it sure helped establish him as a composer to watch. It is a short but immensely enjoyable work, easily melodious and impeccably refined, which is frequently heard in concert halls worldwide. Conductor Jaime Laredo, who had kept a watchful eye over his young charges all evening, led them with the same loving discipline and devoted commitment, clocking out the evening at… 8:20 pm! Although we did not get a loudly and insistently requested encore (What happened to the Christmas spirit?!), it was still an uplifting way to celebrate the season’s festivities, or just another wonderful night for music lovers in New York City.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Leon Fleischer - Takacs & Bach - 12/12/10

Takacs: Toccata and Fugue for Left Hand, Op. 56
Bach: Chaconne in D Minor for Piano for Left Hand (Arr. Brahms)

What to do on a gray, wet and cold winter Sunday in New York City? How about hearing world-famous pianist Leon Fleischer play for 30 minutes and talk about his life and career for an additional hour in an intimate space for the price of a movie ticket? Now that is some sunshine for you! And that’s exactly what I did this afternoon in the Greene Space of the WQRX (105.9 fm) radio station where Leon Fleischer made a stop on the promotional tour for his newly released biography “My Nine Lives: A memoir of Many Careers in Music”, which he co-wrote with Anne Midgette, the Washington Post classical music critic. Even the merciless rain had temporarily stopped falling for the occasion!
Due to time constraints, Leon Fleisher was only able to perform two pieces and had to do it with his left hand only, again, because these days his right hand is still recovering from a recent surgery and his doctors advised that he couldn’t “use his right thumb professionally” just yet. Bust since he had mastered the left-hand repertoire decades ago after his right hand became inexplicably, if temporarily, paralyzed, there was no doubt that he would not disappoint either the lucky few in the studio or the larger audience following the live broadcast on the radio or the Internet.

The first piece was Takacs’ Toccata and Fugue for Left Hand, which the Hungarian composer wrote in grand baroque style when he was a mere 18-year-old. It is extremely vivid and deeply harmonious at the same time, a nice combination that Leon Fleischer kept in perfect balance.
Bach’s famous Chaconne is of course better known in its version for violin, but the piano transcription of it for the left hand, which Brahms wrote for Clara Schumann after she hurt her right hand, is quite a masterpiece as well. All 66 variations of the four-bar theme are still there, just one octave lower – Obviously Brahms knew not to mess around with a good thing when he saw one – and seeing Leon Fleischer work his way through it just a few feet away, sometimes discreetly muttering the beat, sometimes intensely scrutinizing the score, was as much as treat as actually hearing him play it. His Chaconne turned out beautifully detailed and expressive, rightfully concluding this mini-concert as any additional work would have surely paled afterwards.

During the one-hour interview, which was interspersed by excerpts of some recordings of his, the guest of honor proved to be a genuinely witty, congenial and thoughtful conversationalist. Among other things, he remembered his first performance in that same space in 1945 (!), talked about how much Brahms’ piano concerto No 1 meant to him, and explained why his sudden infirmity at the peak of his soloist career was, in some way, a blessing in disguise as it allowed him to explore other paths in the music field such as conducting and teaching. The enlightening hour just flew by and before we knew it, it was time to leave the studio to the sound of his recording of Bach’s lovely “where sheep may safely graze”, the sweet little encore that often ends his regular concerts.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Jeremy Denk & Steven Isserlis - Saint-Saëns, Ligeti, Fauré, Kurtág, Ravel & Adès - 12/09/10

Saint-Saëns: Sonata for Cello and Piano No 1 in C Minor, Op 32
Ligeti: Three études from Book 1: Fanfare – Arc-en-ciel – Automne à Varsovie
Fauré: Sonata for Cello and Piano No 2 in G Minor, Op. 117
Kurtág: Selections from Signs, Games and Messages for Solo Cello
Ravel: Deux mélodies hébraïques for Cello and Piano (arr. Isserlis): Kaddish and L’énigme éternelle
Adès: Lieux retrouvés for Cello and Piano: Les eaux – La montagne – Les champs – La ville

New York’s famous 92nd Street Y had always sounded like a magical Shangri La to me. As a live performance lover, I had heard about it from reviews, ads and people, but I had never actually been there before moving to the Big Apple. As a matter of course, since the Upper West Side is apparently musicians’ central, I was 110% sure that it was located there and was consequently overjoyed when I found an apartment that would be, at most, just a few blocks away. After signing the lease and dropping numerous boxes in my new home, a quick but exhaustive walk on West 92nd Street eventually proved fruitless. I then had the bright idea of Googling the place… and found out that it was straight across the park, on the Upper East Side.
Never mind, I was still closer to it than a couple of months ago and I figured that as a neighbor-from-across-the-park it was high time to pay it a visit. First impressions being key I carefully reviewed their winter program and the first concert that caught my attention was a recital by highly regarded long-time visiting cellist Steven Isserlis and just as highly regarded local pianist Jeremy Denk. Two endlessly intriguing performers presenting an equally intriguing program sounded just like the perfect way to kick off a most likely long-term patronizing to this concert venue.

And it all started with an assault of energy courtesy of the introduction of the Saint-Saëns sonata. It was an attractive opening number, all comfortable harmonies and rigorous balance. Both musicians being as well-known for their physical expressiveness as their musical talent, we got treated to an all-around performance including sounds and visions while they steadily and effortlessly complemented each other.
Next came a surprise. Instead of the two pieces by Liszt announced in the program, Jeremy Denk decided to tackle the three final études from Ligeti's Book 1 for his solo turn, and he generously communicated his deep commitment to the music with flawless technique and remarkable eloquence.
The Fauré sonata turned out to be the highlight of the evening for me thanks to its beautifully soaring Andante, a breath-taking rêverie that immediately brought to my mind Franck’s beloved sonata that I heard performed, maybe not so coincidentally, by the same Jeremy Denk and Joshua Bell a couple of years ago. Incidentally, the fact that this particularly movement distinguished itself enough to become a separate Élégie even before the sonata was completed speaks volumes of its intrinsic qualities.
After intermission, it was Steven Isserlis’ turn as a soloist and he had chosen four pieces by contemporary Romanian composer György Kurtág. This was a fortuitous choice as the audience swallowed them all up, from the quietness of the Homage to John Cage, smartly ending on a perky note, to the stop-and-go rhythm of Gérard de Nerval, inspired by the 19th century poet, to the downright minimalist, subtly atmospheric Shadows and Kroó György in memoriam.
With Jeremy Denk back at the piano, Steven Isserlis got another golden opportunity to display his wide-ranging skills with Two Hebrew Songs by Ravel, which he arranged himself for his instrument. The first one, Kaddish, was a wonderful showcase for the cello’s vocal-like qualities while the second one L’énigme éternelle (The Eternal Enigma) turned out to be less lyrical but efficiently touching in its simplicity.
The last work on the program, Lieux retrouvés (Rediscovered Places) by young British composer Thomas Adès made the most of the piano and cello’s musical possibilities to convey the flowing Waters, the moody Mountain, the peaceful Fields and the exciting City. A non-stop wild ride for performers and audience alike, it kept us all on the edge before leaving us happily breathless.

To end this brazenly eclectic and enormously satisfying concert, we got a sweet, lovely lullaby, which had all of us dreamily swoon until the very last note.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

The First Baptist Church - Vivaldi, Larson, Baker, Choplin, Grant & Smith - 12/05/10

Conductor: Gordon Scott
Vivaldi: Gloria
Shepherds’ Echo Carol (How Great Our Joy)” - Traditional German Carol
Larson: “Manger Songs
Baker: “All in the Silence of the Night
Choplin: “Star of Advent
Grant & Smith: “No Eye Had Seen

I have always been highly allergic to Christmas music and religious institutions, so I did have some misgivings when I saw the poster for “Vivaldi’s Gloria And Other Music of the Season with Choir, Soloists and Chamber Orchestra” (Quite a mouthful!) at the First Baptist Church on the corner of Broadway and 79th Street earlier this week. On the other hand, it was free and near my new home, so I quickly decided that it would be my one and only personal bit to honor the holiday season this year. Therefore, last night I braved the biting cold and walked down the animated twelve blocks amidst a Saturday night crowd that was busy browsing window displays, picking up Christmas trees, piling up shopping bags (What recession?) and generally showing plenty of high spirits.

The church, which looks so imposing from outside, was surprisingly, if attractively, bare inside, except for a row of bright red poinsettias in front of the stage and discreetly sparkling lights here and there. The small stage quickly welcome a small orchestra and choir, and pretty soon Vivaldi’s famously florid Gloria was filling up the whole space. While it did not have the finesse or unity of a large professional orchestra, the ensemble at hand made up for it with plenty of dedicated commitment and continuous enthusiasm. The soloists, in particular, had a few truly lovely moments.
The rest on the program consisted of a few other season-appropriate short pieces, none of which I was familiar with, but they all went down very smoothly. To conclude this nice little concert, “Silent Night, Holy Night”, at last a classic that we could all groove to, was performed by everybody in the church, with a lit-up candle in one hand and, for those of us who did not know the words by heart, the program in the other. Luckily for the ones around me, I kept my mouth shut so as not to break the charm. My neighbor, however, did not hesitate to belt out and even occasionally hit the right notes. After the unexpected juggling act was over, it was time for a little bit of preaching and since there was no way to discreetly escape, I sat in for the closing pastoral comments as well. Then it was back out in the even more biting cold for the over-heated-but-it-sure-beats-the-alternative-these-days comfort of my little pad.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

New York Philharmonic - Mozart, Haydn & Tchaikovsky - 11/27/10

Conductor: Rafael Frühbeck de Burgos
Mozart: String Quintet in G Minor, K. 516 – Glenn Dicterow, Michelle Kim, Cynthia Phelps, Rebecca Young and Carter Brey
Haydn: Symphony No 100 in G Major, Hob. I: 100, “Military”
Tchaikovsky: Violin Concerto in D Major, Op. 35 – Leonidas Kavakos

After the excellent big adventure that Don Carlo was on Friday night, I was back at the Lincoln Center yesterday afternoon for more musical revelry: a concert by the NY Philharmonic under the guidance, for the occasion, of much sought after Spanish conductor Rafael Frühbeck de Burgos. What was extra special about it though, was the presence of Leonidas Kavakos as the soloist for Tchaikovsky’s dazzling violin concerto. The rest of the program was featuring a Mozart string quintet and Haydn’s Military symphony, standard fare, yes, but high quality nonetheless.

It all started very elegantly with the Mozart quintet, which, in line with the Viennese tradition of that time, was the combination of two violins, two violas and one cello. This particular piece from the Austrian composer expresses a wide range of moods and the five eminent members of the NY Philharmonic on the stage did a superb job in joining forces. Such a superb job, in fact, that they got applause between almost each movement!
In 1794, Mozart’s contemporary Haydn was living in England, where he ended up writing 12 symphonies within a few years. The No 100 was dubbed Military and has enjoyed a wide popularity as soon as it was premiered. Listening to it yesterday was like going back to that politically troubled period in Europe, complete with calls to battle and heroic charges, as Maestro Frühbeck led the orchestra into a vivid interpretation of it.
Last, but definitely not least, came Tchaikovsky’s violin concerto courtesy of Leonidas Kavakos. Building up expectations is not necessarily a good thing as one must eventually live up to them, but our violinist was obviously more than ready for it. Dark-clad and serious-looking, he ripped through the majestic first movement with an equal amount of force and lightness, effortlessly negotiating his way through the treacherous minefield. His performance of it was actually so electrifying that the audience started clapping before he got a chance to wrap it up and even gave him a mini but lingering standing ovation (Not sure where they were all coming from, but overall they did seem a bit over-excitable.). After he calmed everybody down, we eventually all moved on to the other two movements, the sweetly melancholic Canzonetta and the fiercely pyrotechnical Finale, which he handled with the same spectacular expertise. Definitely worth the wait... and the interruption.

Saturday, November 27, 2010

Met - Don Carlo - 11/26/10

Composer: Giuseppe Verdi
Conductor: Yannick Nézet-Séguin
Director: Nicholas Hytner
Don Carlo: Roberto Alagna
Elisabeth of Valois: Marin Poplavskaya
Philip II: Ferruccio Furlanetto
Rodriguo: Simon Keenlyside
The Princess of Eboli: Anna Smirnova

It is Thanksgiving’s extended weekend again and I always welcome having those four days off with the same high spirits. This year, however, is kind of special as I am still getting used to my brand new status of New Yorker (I've even passed the DMV! How more official can it get?) and am still endlessly delighting in the proximity of the Lincoln Center. So I quickly decided that I’d forgo the traditional turkey dinner and would instead concentrate on the dutifully productive (getting rid of the ugly eggshell walls of my apartment by painting them white) and the shamelessly hedonistic (Verdi’s Don Carlo at the Met yesterday and the NY Philharmonic and Leonidas Kavakos for the Tchaikovsky violin concerto at the Avery Fisher Hall today).
Therefore, it was with paint still stubbornly stuck under some of my finger nails that I walked down to the Met last night to be there at the unusual curtain time of 7:00 pm. But it was certainly a wise scheduling move for an opera that, in the original version we saw yesterday evening, albeit in Italian, can last up to five hours. A look at the cast, however, showed that the mammoth epic would be conducted by newly minted Philadelphia Orchestra’s music director Yannick Nézet-Séguin, a young Canadian who is well-known for his boundless energy and unrelenting pace. If his exhilarating debut in Carmen last year was any indication, we were in good hands to get out of the opera house before midnight.

Don Carlo, originally written for the French public as Don Carlos, remains Verdi’s longest and most ambitious opera, a sprawling saga taking place in Spain during the Inquisition, in which the unhappy characters keep on fighting the unsavory fate in store for them. Politics, religion and, of course, human passions all collide in a story line vaguely inspired by the real Spanish royal family of that time, and there is literally never a dull moment. Based on a dramatic play by Friedrich Schiller, it is no doubt a considerable, at times probably overwhelming, endeavor to undertake, even after the unavoidable issue of finding the right singers has been resolved (Nobody has ever said that tackling Verdi was easy).
In that respect, the cast at hand last night was probably as strong as it could get. In the title role, Roberto Alagna’s noble handsomeness and natural charisma were as efficient as usual, but it is his singing that eventually made us all deeply care for the over-sensitive prince. Although his first and only aria was frustratingly punctuated by a mini-concert of coughs around me (Hey, you, the sick people, why don’t you get a grip on your self-centeredness and STAY HOME so that the rest of us can enjoy a noise- and germ-free performance?!), there was still plenty of other times where we could relish his genuinely supple and ardent singing. As his oppressive father, King Philip II, Ferruccio Furlanetto demonstrated stunning versatility, ruthless tyrant here, broken-down man there. His famous nine-minute aria at the beginning of Act IV, probably the best aria for bass ever written, when he lets down his guards and opens up about his inner torments, was such a heart-breaking eye-opener that it almost made us root for the guy. Simon Keenlyside may not have quite the same vocal power as those two, but he was a fierce Rodrigo, as committed to his best friend, Don Carlo, as to the people of Flanders, whose fate he’s so desperately trying to improve.
On the ladies’ side, there was much to praise as well, starting with Marina Poplavskaya, who was a wonderful Elisabeth of Valois. She may not have all the fire-in-the-belly necessary for a Verdi heroine, but her luminous, assured singing more than compensated for that. Her transformation from care-free, impetuous princess to duty-bound, lovelorn queen was truly painful to watch. As the Princess of Eboli, Elisabeth’s ultimate frenemy, Anna Smirnova produced some no-hold-barred singing, occasionally lacking in subtlety if not in intensity. Other smaller parts fit in well into the generally homogeneous production, and the Met’s fabulous chorus did live up to its sterling reputation again, especially in the grand, monumental scene of the auto-da-fé.
Speaking of grand scenes, Don Carlo is for the most part a constant succession of fateful, dramatic encounters, except for the first meeting of Don Carlo and Elisabeth in Fontainebleau, where all is joy and optimism, the one blissful moment of the whole opera. And, man, does it go down quickly from there! After the announcement that Elisabeth has suddenly become betrothed to Don Carlos’ father, King Philip II, you immediately know that there is no happy ending in sight. The fast and easy chemistry among the singers was a tremendous plus for the emotionally charged confrontations, whether it was the brotherly bond between Don Carlo and Rodrigo or the tearful confession of a sincerely repentant Princess of Eboli to her hopelessly drained-out queen.
Grand scenes do not take place in a vacuum, and the creative team behind the costumes and sets certainly contributed in turning this production into such an all-around success. While the outfits were decidedly traditional, the décors were stark and minimalist with changing lighting to help create the moods, sometimes to dazzling effect, like in the eerily beautiful forest of Act I, sometimes less so, do we really need the stage aglow in bright red every time the tension goes up a notch? The overall visual sternness, however, was perfectly in line with the unfolding plot and discreetly let the audience focus on the characters. This is the first Met production of Nicholas Hytner, who is also the current director of London’s National Theater in addition to many other prestigious assignments. Let’s hope it won’t be his last.
Verdi’s opera may have been a work in progress for twenty years, but he never lost his touch for dramatically powerful music. Here, the Italian master came up with a sprawling, multi-layered composition, which magnificently brings to life intimate encounters and huge crowd scenes, the personal turmoil of the characters and the big conflicts of their time: father versus son, independence versus duty, church versus state. Carefully detailed and immensely complex, each singing part benefits from Verdi’s blazingly colorful score and fits in seamlessly in this remarkably cohesive large-scale work.
Keeping a few hours of Verdi under control can sound like a daunting task, but luckily Yannick Nézet-Séguin, the name that naturally pops to mind when a conductor with unswerving stamina is wanted, was on the podium. Not only did he draw an all-out passionate and often nuanced performance from the orchestra and the singers, but he also had us all out of the door by 11:30 pm! I think this is my first Met performance ever where I leave before the estimated ending time, and it was much appreciated on a cold, cold late November night.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

The Mutter-Bashmet-Harrell Trio - All-Beethoven - 11/14/10

Anne-Sophie Mutter: Violin
Yuri Bashmet: Viola
Lynn Harrell - Cello

Beethoven: String Trio in C Minor, Op. 9, No 3
Beethoven: Serenade for String Trio in D Major, Op. 8
Beethoven: String Trio in E-flat Major, Op. 3

It seems that I have been on a Beethovian roll this weekend as the German master was being honored at two major music venues in the Big Apple yesterday and today. After enjoying a grand Eroica last night at Carnegie Hall courtesy of Marin Alsop and the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, I was at the Avery Fisher Hall this afternoon for an all-Beethoven program of string trios featuring three distinguished masters of their instruments in violinist Anne-Sophie Mutter, who also is this season’s James G. Wallach Artist-in-Residence, violist Yuri Bashmet and cellist Lynn Harrell. After all, why stop at a symphony when you can have some chamber music as well?

As unfairly sculptural as ever, sporting a smart and sexy outfit, Anne-Sophie Mutter remains one class act visually and musically. As the leader of the small ensemble, she instantly established flawless chemistry with her two long-time collaborators, affable Lynn Harrell and dark-looking Yuri Bashmet, as they got going with the dynamic, never-a-dull-moment String Trio in C Minor. It was followed by the lovely, happy Serenade Op. 8 and the attractively melodic Trio in E-flat Major, Op. 3, which unfolded in all of its 40 glorious minutes. The evident camaderie among the musicians allowed them to make beautiful music together, even if the Avery Fisher Hall’s controversial acoustics and a less than ideal location (I just hate being on the side) were not very conducive to a totally flawless experience. It was as good as it could get, and that was pretty good indeed.

So Beethovened out yet? Not in the least. I am looking forward to more.

BSO - Barber, Prokofiev & Beethoven - 11/13/10

Conductor: Marin Alsop
Barber: Second Essay for Orchestra, Op. 17
Prokofiev: Piano Concerto No 3 in C Major, Op. 26 – Simon Trpčeski
Beethoven: Symphony No 3 in E-flat Major, Op. 55, “Eroica” – Arranged by Gustav Mahler

Like for many music lovers all around the world, Carnegie Hall has always held a special place in my heart. So when I first heard that the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, whose concerts I usually attend at Strathmore, was going to headline the November 13-14 weekend at the legendary music venue, I was determined to go regardless of my place of residence at the time. This weekend being my first one as a New Yorker made the prospect of seeing all these familiar faces in my new home even more alluring, kind of linking the recent past and the brand new present.
And last night’s occasion turned out to be special all right, but not for the expected reasons. Being back in the hall was as wonderful as always, of course, but the feeling of bliss quickly turned to frustration and resentment when an almost continuous and dreadfully distinct rattling noise seemed to come out of nowhere as soon as the orchestra started playing the first piece. It took a couple of minutes to figure out that it was coming from the air conditioning system above our heads, and another couple of minutes to realize that it was not stopping.
After the second piece was over, I approached one of the ushers who assured me that it had been reported, but who did not know what would be done about it. Since my friend Deborah and I had made the trip to hear the BSO – not Carnegie Hall’s air conditioning system – perform, and that there was no guarantee that any action was being taken – like, say, hmmm, TURNING IT OFF, for example – I grabbed her and we found other seats on a lower level, far from the killjoy device. Barber and Prokofiev had been ruined, but I would be darned if I’d let the same thing happen to Beethoven. One out of three is not too much to ask, is it?

So I am afraid that I cannot say much about the performance of Barber’s or Prokofiev’s works, but from what I managed to grasp during the few seconds of respite now and then, rising Macedonian pianist Simon Trpčeski handled Prokofiev’s challenging third piano concerto with eagerness and sensitiveness. I can only hope that I’ll be able to hear him again soon sans rattling accompaniment or with a more pro-active management in charge.
Once safely parked in a quiet corner of the hall, we were finally able to enjoy one of the finest orchestras of the country perform one of the most dazzling symphonies ever written in a version arranged by Gustav Mahler. I did not instantly connect with Beethoven’s Eroica when I first heard it, but it is rather a piece that has slowly but surely grown on me. Now I fully relish the simple but bold opening, the ground-breaking structures, the recurring heroic theme and the overall intensity of the whole enterprise. Not to mention that the original dedication to Napoleon never fails to tackle my nationalistic pride, never mind the subsequent fallout. Mahler's arrangements add quite a few wind and brass instruments, which provides a more pronounced sonic power, and it is probably safe to think that Beethoven would have approved. Last night, an uncharacteristically silent Marin Alsop and the musicians under her command went all out and made the German composer’s altered third symphony rise and fill up the concert all with much force and passion, finally reminding us what a unique experience listening to live music can be, especially when it is heard as originally intended, undisturbed.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Met - Don Pasquale - 11/10/10

Composer: Gaetano Donizetti
Conductor: James Levine
Director: Otto Schenk
Don Pasquale: John De Carlo
Norina: Anna Netrebko
Dr. Malatesta: Mariusz Kwiecien
Ernesto: Matthew Polenzani

Wednesday, November 10, 2010 will come down in my personal history as my first full day as a bona fide New Yorker, and after completing way too many annoying small tasks related to my exciting but exhausting move to the Big Apple, I really felt that I needed to reward myself. I had performances planned at Carnegie Hall and the Avery Fisher Hall that coming weekend, but I suddenly realized that I hadn’t been to the Metropolitan Opera since last season. A quick look at their catalog showed that Don Pasquale was on the program. Now Donizetti’s fun little trifle may not have had enough pull in itself for me to drop everything and go, but the prospect of seeing Anna Netrebko in the role that made her a full-fledge star, not to mention seeing James Levine back on the podium, were for sure enough reasons for me to buy a standing room ticket and look forward to standing on my feet for three hours. After all, being on a tight budget does not necessarily mean forgoing having a life.

One of the last works that Donizetti wrote, Don Pasquale has all the standard elements of the quintessential comic opera: two young people in love, a grumpy old man trying to prevent them from getting married and a smart ass good guy trying to help the distressed couple. Throw in a few witty arias and several downright comical, if occasionally borderline silly, situations, and you have plenty of old-fashioned bubbly entertainment all the way to the unavoidable happy end.
On Wednesday the opera house was packed to the brims and there is little doubt that much celebrated Russian soprano Anna Netrebko had a lot to do with it (No offense to Donizetti or her stage partners). Instantly appropriating the role as if it were her own (which it essentially is anyway) she confidently delivered the goods with her energy-filled physical presence, unwavering comic timing and poised vocal feats. As Norina, the irresistible temperamental-but-good-hearted young widow, she vivaciously strutted her attractive stuff all over the place and easily carried the evening, making me regret that the part did not have more depth for her to sink her obviously more than willing teeth in. But she had a ball with the material at hand and so did we.
Her counterparts shone through as well: As Don Pasquale, John Del Carlo brought warmth and humanity to what could have been just another pathetic, clueless old bachelor, Mariusz Kwiecien capably impersonated the relentless Dr. Malatesta, who seemed to have as much fun helping his friends as coming up with new schemes, and Matthew Polenzani touchingly exuded the right combination of strength, desperation and mischievousness of a hot-blooded young man fighting for his one true love. Together they formed a winning team that kept the story come to life with much gusto.
They got tremendous help in this all-important mission by Donizetti’s highly melodic score, which may have been difficult for them to negotiate at times, but which also strongly emphasizes their characters’ state of mind as well as the story’s twists and turns. The music is generally light and pleasant, but a few meaty arias do place Don Pasquale a notch above the typical comic operas of that time. After making his entrance under much applause, beloved maestro Levine led the orchestra in a perky performance during the first two acts, but alas did not return after intermission. The traditional but engaging production nevertheless basked in a continuous musical glow and ended up being a delightful way for me to start this new season at the Met.

Saturday, November 6, 2010

NSO - Debussy, Prokofiev, Stravinsky & Bartok - 11/04/10

Conductor: Xian Zhang
Debussy: Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faun
Prokofiev: Violin Concerto No 2 in G Minor, Op. 63
Stravinsky: Le chant du rossignol, Symphonic Poem for Orchestra
Bartok: Suite from The Miraculous Mandarin, Op. 19

I thought that this day would never come, but yesterday was my last National Symphony Orchestra concert as a Washingtonian (Sniff!) and I have to say that seeing the usual familiar faces on the stage and in the audience suddenly took a whole other dimension. The orchestra’s brand new music director, Christoph Eschenbach, was already off guest-conducting somewhere else in the world and the baton was going to be held by Xian Zhang, whose name did not ring a bell but who turned out to be female, Chinese and has apparently been busy making a name for herself with more and more prestigious assignments around the globe. Coincidence or not, the last two pieces on the program, by Stravinsky and Bartok, featured Chinese themes to some degree, and the other two were Debussy’s ethereal Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faun and Prokofiev’s multi-faceted Violin Concerto No 2, which, to my endless delight, would be performed by always reliable Gil Shaham.

Debussy’s Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faun is a fine way to get a concert started, and yesterday was no expectation. Even if this performance was not as deliciously atmospheric as the New York Philharmonic last month, it certainly held its own. Hearing the faun’s gentle musings come to life is too much of a treat to be nit-picking and last night the magic beautifully operated again.
Showing up looking like a young, jovial, energetic business man in his suit and tie, Gil Shaham walked right up on stage and… went right down to business, immediately diving into the opening on Prokofiev’s second concerto with grace and aplomb. Written as the composer was moving from Paris to Madrid by way of Voronezh and Baku, it sounds nevertheless more conventional than some of the enfant terrible's bolder works. Constantly moving his body to the music and spontaneously engaging in private moments with conductor and musicians, Gil Shaham seemed completely at ease negotiating the still challenging score. The highlight of his performance was a particularly remarkable second movement, during which he quickly switched gears between the delicate opening and ending and the whimsical middle section. After holding back during the Debussy, Xian Zhang took this opportunity to demonstrate what a small but resilient ball of energy she could be, keeping a tight control over all of her charges.
The more the concert went on, the more she seemed to get into her element and Stravinsky’s wild plays on rhythms and harmonies got a particularly vivid treatment on her watch. Inspired by the Hans Christian Andersen story, Le chant du rossignol (“The song of the Nightingale”) is a symphonic poem that makes the most of its exotic setting and characters, powerfully emphasizing all the plot's twists and turns. The story is pleasant enough to easily lend itself to a musical treatment (It is about a Chinese emperor and nightingale, after all) and gives the musicians plenty of material to play with.
Bartok’s The Miraculous Mandarin, a macabre tale of three tramps and a wealthy Chinese, gets even more into strong, overlapping and intricate sounds, which can easily become overwhelming if the listener is not in the right frame of mind. But it can also be a rewarding experience for anybody sensitive to resoundingly expressive music, and our guest conductor managed to vivaciously guide the musicians into a unabashedly dynamic version of it, keeping the right balance between energy and precision all the way to a rousing conclusion. Thank you, NSO, for a memorable send off! I shall return.

Monday, October 18, 2010

New York Philharmonic - Webern & Brahms - 10/16/10

Conductor: Alan Gilbert
Webern: Passacaglia, Op. 1
Brahms: concerto in D Major for Violin and Orchestra, Op. 77 – Pinchas Zukerman
Brahms: Symphony No 4 in E Minor, Op. 98

The last concert of my New York Philharmonic mini-series was notable for its healthy dose of deliciously familiar and transcendentally elevating “comfort music”, compositions that we all tend to hear often but just cannot get enough of. Last week, the program featured two of Brahms’ major works, which are always a sure bet when one is looking for an evening that will please amateurs and connoisseurs alike. His violin concerto remains one of the most widely performed of the genre, and Saturday night it was internationally renowned violinist, conductor and teacher Pinchas Zukerman who had the terrifying honor to tackle it. As for his symphony No 4, there’s no denying the power of what has always been considered the crown achievement of an illustrious and much praised oeuvre. No wonder it was his last one. The opening number would be Webern’s Passacaglia, a piece that I had never heard before, but hey, I’ll take it as well.

The Passacaglia was ten very pleasant minutes of lushness and turmoil in late Romantic fashion, an elaborate but very accessible way to get everybody ready for the Brahms’ masterpieces that were to come.
This was my first chance to hear Brahms’ violin concerto this season, and I was very much looking forward to taking Pinchas Zukerman off my ever-shrinking list of top violinists whom I hadn’t heard perform it yet. For some unknown but deeply regrettable reason, our paths rarely cross, so getting to hear him at all was a totally giddiness-inducing prospect and the fact that it would be for Brahms’ stunning violin concerto only doubled the anticipation. Bring it on, for Pete’s sake! And he sure did, displaying an assuredness that even turned to studied nonchalance at times, always the consummate expert for whom this looked like just one more performance of a score he could handle in his sleep. That, however, did not keep him from conjuring moments of bracing intensity and sheer beauty, whether in the lushly expansive first movement or the delicately expressive Adagio. He eventually let loose for a joyfully exuberant finale and concluded the whole thing with minimum artificial flash but plenty of natural panache.
Bu the Brahms feast was not over and maestro Gilbert readily enticed a luscious, involved interpretation of the German master’s last symphony from his orchestra, taking his time to fully express the composer’s wide range of conflicting emotions. Every time I hear it, its all-around perfectness reminds me why this has to be one of my favorite symphonies ever. From the gentle waves of its soaring first movement to the passacaglia of its grand finale, which incidentally brought us full circle back to the beginning of the program, it is a trip that never fails to get to me, and it did yet again.. until next time.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

NSO - All-Beethoven - 10/09/10

Conductor: Christoph Eschenbach
Beethoven: Violin Concerto in D Major, Op. 61 - Christian Tetzlaff

I am a strong believer that timing is everything, and therefore careful planning is paramount to make the most of life. Then, of course, you have to deal with the unexpected. Although I was going to be in New York on Thursday and Friday evenings, I figured that I could still catch the National Symphony Orchestra and never-to-be-missed Christian Tetzlaff on Saturday evening. It did eventually happen, even if at times the carefully planned outing did not go, well, as planned.
Due to an unavoidable combination of family and work obligations I had missed Christian Tetzlaff last time he was in town, back in April, with the San Francisco Symphony and Michael Tilson-Thomas to perform Tchaikovsky's violin concerto. So I was dead set about hearing him this time, even if Beethoven's concerto does not rank as high in my personal chart as Tchaikovsky's. When a hectic Friday and very little sleep lately made me decide to go to the concert for the concerto but skip Bruckner's symphony No 6, things were still on track. But that was before I realized at 7:30 pm that some of the downtown metro stations were closed for scheduled track maintenance, a huge line had formed for the metro shuttle bus and I had no cash for a cab. Pushing aside any thoughts of just giving up and getting some much needed rest instead, I found an ATM machine, then a cab, and got to the Kennedy Center in time to bump into… my former German teacher and her husband! Small world.

After hearing Christian Tetzlaff masterfully handle Beethoven's violin concerto in Philadelphia a couple of years ago, I was very much looking forward to a repeat performance of it on Saturday. This particular work is a piece that I have learned to like, as opposed to getting swept up by it as soon as I heard the first notes, but now I like it a lot. I still think it does not unmistakably stand out compared to some other compositions in the remarkable German master's oeuvre, but the truth is that competition is pretty darn stiff in there. And if the score does not sparkle with virtuosic fireworks, it does give violinists plenty of opportunities to display their technical skills in a wide range of moods. Accordingly, our soloist for the evening showed that he had things under control from the start with finesse and ardor. Moreover, since the composer did not write any cadenza for it, Christian Tetzlaff played his own arrangements, including an engaging dialogue with the timpani. Eschenbach led the NSO in a solid performance and remained in tight tune with his soloist, bringing the audience to a standing ovation resounding all around the packed concert hall. On that triumphant note, I bailed out and eventually made it back home with the satisfied feeling of yet another mission accomplished.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

New York Philharmonic - Debussy, Sibelius & Lindberg - 10/08/10

Conductor: Alan Gilbert
Debussy: Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faun
Sibelius: Concerto for Violin and Orchestra in D Minor, Op. 47 - Joshua Bell
Lindberg: Kraft

My first foray in New York City since last spring, Friday, October 8, 2010, has become quite a personal milestone for me with an exciting, successful job interview, a bitter-sweet but ultimately comforting ash-scattering mission all over the city and, to top it all off, my first New York Philharmonic concert of the season. I had to miss Itzhak Perlman and the Mendelssohn violin concerto two weeks ago, there was no way I was going to miss Joshua Bell and the Sibelius violin concerto that evening, damn it! Debussy’s Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faun is a work that I would go hear anytime anywhere and Lindberg's Kraft was going to be the I-am-not-afraid-of-contemporary-music component of the evening, so the whole program seemed ideal to wrap up this non-stop busy, impeccably gorgeous fall day with some untraditional but riveting sounds.

Debussy’s Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faun, which delicately plays with notes in a non-continuous but absolutely exquisite way, has always resonated with me much more intensely than the poem by Mallarmé that was the source of its inspiration. And Friday night was no exception as all the different instruments in the orchestra were distinctively highlighting their own intrinsic qualities while at the same time coming all together for an ethereally impressionistic, subtly atmospheric tapestry of sounds.
Speaking of atmospheric music, on a grand scale this time, Sibelius’ violin concerto has also been a long-time favorite of mine and an endless source of frustration as well because I do not get to hear it live very often. Of course, even as a non-musician I can easily tell that the main reason for its scant appearance on concert programs is that it is not just a tough one, it is a very tough one. That was Sibelius' only concerto and he obviously went all out for it. So needless to say I was overjoyed at the prospect of hearing Joshua Bell perform it live with the New York Philharmonic. Playing his recording of it to death is one thing, but getting to hear the real thing was for sure going to bring the whole experience on a different level. Sibelius’ icy, lean but still deeply emotional concerto has always evoked to me an epic journey into stark landscapes, one that is relentlessly driven by an ever-changing but unstoppable pulse. Taking full control of the wildly difficult ride, Joshua Bell assuredly brought warmth and grandeur to a seemingly brooding piece, especially in the Adagio, which dramatically alternates moments of quiet contemplation and passionate outbursts. Although the orchestra tends to take a back seat to the soloist’s tour de force in that case, it would be unfair not to mention their superb contribution to the immensely successful endeavor.
After two works of that caliber, my night was already made and fatigue was slowly taking over, but since I had heard that Magnus Lindberg's Kraft ("Power") would use a wide range of percussion instruments, I figured that they’d probably keep me awake, if nothing else. I was also very curious to see what a score requiring “instruments” such as oxygen tanks and stuff from a junkyard would end up sounding like, or even how the whole thing would come together. Well, the result was a surprisingly interesting half hour of all kinds of sounds literally coming from all directions as several small stations were set up in various locations of the concert hall. That also meant that some of the musicians had to run all over the place, occasionally competing with the few people who left during the performance. So not only did it keep me awake, but it kept me entertained as well. And it certainly concluded this memorable day with a resounding bang.

Monday, October 4, 2010

BSO - Adams, Mendelssohn & Dvorak - 10/03/10

Conductor: Marin Aslop
Adams: Doctor Atomic Symphony
Mendelssohn: Violin Concerto in E Minor, Op. 64 - Stefan Jackiw
Dvorak: Symphony No 9 in E Minor, Op. 95, "From the New World"

Music heals all wounds they say, so by all means, let the music in! After a couple of emotionally and physically draining weeks, it is unbelievably comforting to be back in the familiar environment of local concerts halls for such uplifting works as Beethoven’s Symphony No 9 and Dvorak’s Symphony No 9. I’m not sure if the No 9 has anything to do with musical inspiration in general, but it sure is forever associated with the most iconic works of these two masters, and hearing them both within three days has been a wonderful and, yes uplifting, experience.
Mendelssohn’s dazzling violin concerto is another piece that I simply cannot conceive passing on. This is, however, what I had to do last weekend, and as much as it broke my heart to miss no less than Itzhak Perlman and the New York Philharmonic do their thing with it, common sense did prevail. Stefan Jackiw is no Itzhak Perlman, but after hearing him perform Beethoven’s violin concerto with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra a couple of years ago, I was confident that he would be worth the trip up North to the Meyerhoff Hall.

The concert started with a symphony by John Adams (No, there was no No 9 involved this time) inspired by his own opera Doctor Atomic. I actually got to hear it a few months ago conducted by the man himself when he was the artist-in-residence of the National Symphony Orchestra. Enlightened by the background information I had gotten then and the introduction provided by maestra Alsop today, it was fairly easy to connect the music with the various elements of the story. The experience was all the more complete that the BSO powerfully highlighted all the chaos, natural or man-created, that was going on during those dark days of the Manhattan Project, and a special mention should be made of principal trumpet Andrew Balio for admirably bringing out the moral anguish that overtook Oppenheimer on the eve of the fateful testing.
After such a disturbing half-hour, Mendelssohn’s lovely violin concerto shone all the brighter. Still as serious-looking as two years ago, Stefan Jackiw treated us to a thoughtful, sometimes almost restrained, interpretation of it, his sweet tone allowing just the right balance of quiet introspective and youthful joie de vivre. The orchestra went all out to provide the discreet support that was needed without overwhelming the soloist’s part and they all made beautiful music together. Hearing such an all-around delightful work never fails to be a soothing, heart-warming experience and today proved no exception thanks to a remarkable young man who just keeps getting better and better.
Mendelssohn may be an expert at playfully lightening up a mood, but Dvorak’s From the New World symphony grabs you and lifts you up with one big take-no-prisoners swoop. The first work that he wrote entirely on American soil, the Czech composer’s Symphony No 9 combines American music traditions with rhythms from his own native Bohemia so flawlessly that it is hard to tell them apart. Add to that a heroic theme so infectious that it sounds straight out of Star Wars and you have one of the most popular symphonies ever. The orchestra went into it full throttle and just never let go of their momentum all the way to the triumphantly exuberant finale. Va-va-voom!

NSO - Pintscher & Beethoven - 09/30/10

Conductor: Christoph Eschenbach
Pintscher: Hérodiade-Fragmente - Marisol Montalvo
Beethoven: Symphony No 9 in D Minor, op. 125, "Choral" - Marisol Montalvo, Yvonne Naef, Nikolai Schukoff, John Relya and The Choral Arts Society of Washington

For the first subscription concert of his tenure as the National Symphony Orchestra’s music director, Christoph Eschenbach went for well planned balance. Beethoven’s glorious Symphony No 9 is certainly a no brainer when it comes to special occasions, but then the problem lies in the other half of the program, which requires a piece of the right length and with enough punch not to be overshadowed by the all-encompassing masterpiece.
Today, the honor went to young and highly-regarded German composer Matthias Pintscher and his Hérodiade-Fragmente, a “Dramatic Scene for Soprano and Orchestra”, which he wrote in 1999 for the Berlin Philharmonic. It has been a favorite of the NSO’s new maestro for a while, and since this is his night, it is only fair to let him have it.

After the obligatory “Star Spangled Banner”, we got plunged right into high-octave biblical drama with Salome and Hérodias turned into one single woman who was having twice as bad a day. Inspired by a monologue from the French poet Stéphane Mallarmé in which Salome is having a total breakdown while waiting for the head of John the Baptist, Matthias Pintscher composed a post-modernist score of grating intensity. According to him, getting what you want is apparently not always what it's cracked up to be. Mostly driven by a huge percussion section, the music is multi-layered, dissonant affair that definitely requires some work from the listener. The soprano Marisol Montalvo, another favorite of Eschenbach's with whom she has performed this particular piece a dozen times, was visually dazzling in a personally designed, tightly fit, bright red dress, but her voice did not come close to match her allure. I am not sure if our seats in the back or the loud playing from the orchestra or an actual lack of vocal power on her part are to blame, but she was barely audible most of the time. She seemed to have the right stuff the few times she came through, but those moments were so fleeting that it was hard to tell for sure.
Anyway, after Salome/Herodias and her hysterical neurosis were done and over with, we finally got to hear what most of us were there for, Beethoven’s sublime ninth symphony. And boy, was it worth the wait! Christoph Eschenbach is well-known for his emotional as opposed to technical approach to music, and thank God for that. He led a NSO obviously happy to be back on such familiar territory into a viscerally alive performance, bringing particularly beautiful sounds from the always reliable cello section. The thunderous moments resounded forcefully, the quiet moments soared impeccably, and then came the Ode to Joy. Aptly introduced by an assertive John Relya, Schiller’s stirring call for brotherhood among men exhilaratingly filled the packed concert hall with the help of the more than competent quartet of soloists and an all-around brilliant chorus. Ground-breaking works deserve over-committed performers and listeners and that is just what happened this evening, when we all happily basked in Beethoven's work of genius. The rousing, ever-lasting ovation bodes well for the just beginning Eschenbach era.

Saturday, September 25, 2010

WNO - Un Ballo in Maschera (A Masked Ball) - 09/19/10

Composer: Giuseppe Verdi
Conductor: Daniele Callegari
Director: James Robinson
King Gustavus III: Salvatore Licitra
Count Anckarstrom: Lusa Salsi
Amelia: Tamara Wilson
Oscar: Micaela Oeste

There’s nothing like kicking off a new season with a meaty crowd-pleaser featuring a big name in the lead, and that is just what the Washington National Opera did on Sunday with Verdi’s “Un ballo in maschera” and Salvatore Licitra. To pack an even bigger punch, over 10,000 people also showed up at the Nationals baseball park for a perfect fall afternoon of not only music and singing, but informative pre-performance games and open concession stands as well. Back in the Kennedy Center opera house, the melody lover in me was looking forward to the fabulous score and the purist in me was rejoicing at the prospect of seeing the story back in the original Sweden.
Verdi’s problem child had to go through an awfully convoluted birth before becoming one of his most enduring successes. Nothing was simple for artists in mid-19th century Naples where two groups of censors (political and catholic) were nit-picking about every little detail. So a plot involving illicit feelings, royalty, magic, dancing, conspiracy and, to top it all off, murder was really asking for trouble. After the censors demanded that more than one third of the libretto and most of the story be altered, the already popular Italian master quickly took off to nearby Rome and its own more accommodating breed of censors, who merely suggested changing the setting from Sweden to… Boston, MA! After all, anything was possible in the New World, even a... Boston governor (?!). These days both versions are presented, and the WNO wisely picked the "real thing".

Doomed love triangles are of course nothing new in opera, but this one has all the more poignancy to it as the two allegedly guilty parties manage to remain true to their principles, therefore succeeding in keeping their love truly chaste. Unfortunately, external forces will conspire in making things increasingly more difficult for them, and it will inevitably all end up in tragedy during the famed masked ball.
Having a big name in the cast is always a good move, and it is even more indispensable in these challenging economic times where audiences are growing dreadfully leaner. Italian tenor Salvatore Licitra has been establishing a solid reputation of being larger than life (and louder too) and he sure stood out on Sunday. As ill-fated King Gustavus III his voice was clear and powerful, easily rising over the orchestra with unwavering stamina, if not consistent subtleness. His spontaneously endearing demeanor was of course a big plus in the role of the good king who will be murdered for a sin he did not commit, and his discreet charisma wrapped up a genuinely engaging star turn.
Count Anckarstrom, the best friend turned murderer, was sung by another blood-and-guts Italian, baritone Luca Salsi. Soprano Tamara Wilson did not hold back either and brought the right amount innocence and strength to the woman who unwillingly spells big trouble. Her love duet with Licitra in the gallows field (could you think of a less romantic spot?) was one of the highlights of the afternoon. In the smaller but crucial role of Ulrica (I don't know of anybody who calls her Mam’zelle Arvidon), mezzo-soprano Elena Manistina was a quite arresting fortune-teller, and soprano Micaela Oeste was a lovable if jumpy Oscar.
Another telling sign of budget restrictions was the rather bare and/or recycled sets, but the minimalist approach worked out quite well. The costumes were on the understated side too, and one couldn’t help but be surprised at the guests’ drab grey outfits at the final ball. While it visually reinforced the idea of conspiracy, it was nevertheless odd to have a royal festivity look more like a monastic retreat.
But colors galore were vividly filling up the opera house thanks to Verdi's luscious melodies, and that was all that eventually mattered. Another Italian was on the podium in the person of maestro Daniele Callegari, who was making his promising debut with the WNO. He assuredly led the orchestra in a robust celebration of the beautifully lyrical score without missing a beat.

A couple of hours prior to curtain time, horrendous news made me quickly question if I should attend the performance or not. There was nothing I could do at that point and while millions of thoughts kept on viciously exploding in my head, I decided to catch my breath and soldier on in order to keep myself from insanity and because music, like life, must go on. This post is dedicated to my former, dearest opera buddy and closest friend.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

BSO - Prokofiev, Mahler, Bach, Schumann, Williams, Mozart, Barber & Shostakovich - 09/10/10

Conductor: Marin Alsop
Guest Conductor: Ilyich Rivas
Prokofiev: "Allegro con brio" from Classical Symphony
Bach: "Air" from Suite No 3 (Arr. Mahler)
Mahler: "Blumine" from Symphony No 1 in D Major - Ilyich Rivas
Schumann: "Allegro molto vivace" from Symphony No 2 in C Major, Op. 61
Williams: "Main Title" from Star Wars
Mozart: Overture to The Magic Flute, K. 620
Barber: Essay No 2, Op. 17
Prokofiev: "Quarrel" and "Amoroso" from Cinderella
Shostakovich: "Allegro non troppo" from Symphony No 5 in D Minor, Op. 47

Now that summer is officially over, it does not get much better than taking the Red Line train again all the way up to Strathmore, which I did last night for the much-awaited Season Preview concert by the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra. The music center was bustling on such a beautiful fall evening and once the concert got underway, it really felt like I had never left because - guess what - they were all there: the snifflers, the coughers, the talkers, the fidgeters, the program droppers, the loud candy sucker to my left (just once, but unfortunately during The Magic Flute’s overture. Damn it, and her) and the sporadic bangle shaker to my right (at will. Hers, not mine, obviously). It may be a brand new season, but some things will never change, will they?
In the middle of it all, maestra Alsop brought her trademark hot red cuffs, deadpan sense of humor and unwavering commitment to sharing the wonders of classical music. Having the musicians and herself mingle with the audience during intermission was yet another one of her non-stop initiatives to make us all one big happy music-loving family, and the schmoozing feast was such a big success that it apparently may even become a regular thing. In the meantime, the program was predictably a smorgasbord of excerpts from the upcoming season, loosely alternating movements from large pieces with stand-alone works. So on with the music.

Sergei Prokofiev was only 26 years old when he wrote his Haydn-inspired Classical Symphony (never mind that it actually is one of the first neo-classical works ever since even then he couldn’t help but toy with new compositional practices). Not quite yet Russia’s enfant terrible, he made sure to include everything that makes us love classical music: the pretty melodies, the vibrant harmonies and the inventive rhythms, all conspiring to attract, enchant and convert. Its “Allegro con brio” was therefore a playful, infectious way to kick off this new journey with the BSO, and they threw themselves whole-heartedly into it.
From 20th century Russia we went right back to 18th century German with Bach and his lovely “Air” (on the G String. The violin one, that is) from Suite No 3, arranged by no less than Gustav Mahler. One of the most popular hits of the Baroque era, it gracefully rose and ethereally soared. It is one of those soothing pieces that make you feel a better person by just listening to it.
Next, we stuck to Mahler with “Blumine”, the rejected second movement of his first symphony. For the occasion, the baton was passed on to Ilyich Rivas, a promising 17-year-old conductor in the making from Venezuela, who brought steady soulfulness to the short but so pleasant intermezzo. The orchestra seemed to take well to their temporary leader and let the work’s delicate lyricism open and bloom.
After all those lofty sounds, it was time for some happy tunes, which we ironically got from one of the most ill-fated composers ever. The “Allegro molto vivace” closes Schumann’s second symphony with unabated zest and sunniness, and Marin Alsop, back on the podium, led her musicians in a merrily alive rendition of it.
Our uplifted spirits got another boost with John Williams’ main title from Star Wars, his world-famous heroic theme unabashedly filling up the Strathmore concert hall loud and clear. Unsurprisingly, it got the biggest ovation of the evening, a feat probably due, at least partly, to all the young (and a bit less young) people in the audience.
The second half of the evening started with Mozart’s irresistible overture to The Magic Flute. One of the best cross-over achievements in the opera répertoire, this truly magical score quickly grabs the undivided attention of young and old right from its first, strongly assertive notes to the fast-paced, buoyant passages that follow. And best of all, no knowledge of freemasonry is needed (Watch for Number 3 if you're interested) to appreciate all the perky intricacies of this mood-enhancing frolic. In the hands of the BSO, it brightly shone as the all-around crowd-pleaser that it is.
I have not been a big fan of Barber so far and his Essay No 2 won’t change my mind, but it nevertheless went down nicely.
Then it was back to Prokofiev with two short excerpts from his Cinderella score, “Quarrel”, whose vivaciousness did conjure up some heated arguments and “Amoroso”, whose charming melodies could only have been inspired by blissful love.
Maestra Alsop had obviously decided to wrap things up with a resounding bang, and we sure felt its power courtesy of Shostakovich and the “Allegro non troppo” from his fifth symphony. The forceful, no holds barred movement (out of triumph or despair, you decide) concluded our evening with an intense punch. Let the season begin!

Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Joo Young Oh & Carlos Avila - Tartini, Saint-Saëns, Kreisler, Debussy, Wieniawski, Piazzola & Sarasate - 08/28/10

Tartini: Violin Sonata in G minor, (“Devil’s Trill”)
Saint-Saëns: Violin Sonata No 1, Op. 75
Kreisler: Praeludium and Allegro
Debussy: Clair de Lune
Wieniawski: Scherzo Tarantella
Piazzola: Oblivion
Sarasate: Faust Fantasy Op. 13

AT LAST! After searching for weeks on end anything even remotely musical to attend (Beside Mary Poppins The Musical, that is), the recital by young Korean violinist Joo Young Oh at the Terrace Theater of the Kennedy Center sounded like an oasis of relief in the dreadful cultural desert that is Washington, DC in August. I had never heard of him despite an already impressive list of achievements, so  the time had come to rectify the situation and I happily signed on.
That’s how last night I found myself one of the very few Caucasian faces in an ocean of Korean nationals of all ages, all animatedly exchanging greetings and gossips (as far as I could tell) literally over my head. After a few minutes of observing my surroundings, I quickly realized that this was a big-time social event for their community, and a lot of them seemed to be there more out of patriotic fervor than actual love for Tartini’s or Kreisler’s greatest hits. The two fidgety, bored kids on my left and the older guy constantly checking his watch on my right certainly did not challenge that notion, but at least they were a respectfully attentive crowd during the performance and a deliriously appreciative one during the breaks, giving the young musician, a jovial 17-year old sporting slightly spiked up hair and a shiny black shirt with sparkling buttons, a rock star-worthy welcome.
Although Joo Young Oh was obviously the focus of the evening, I found it very odd that the name of his equally talented Juilliard buddy, pianist Carlos Avila, was nowhere to be found in the program or on the Kennedy Center Website. Was this glaring omission justified because Korean businesses were sponsoring the event and only cared for their national pride and joy? He, at least, did not let all the boundless adoration get to his head and did introduce "his very good friend" on stage during the second part. Better late than never.

Starting with Tartini’s Devil’s Trill is a sure-fire way to get musicians and audience ready for a musical feast. Joo Young Oh’s soulful opening was studiously effective before he and Carlos Avila picked up speed and finished things up with, well, devilish fun.
The Saint-Saëns’s violin sonata was the only piece of sustained substance on the program and got us acquainted with Oh’s artless fluidity and ardent romanticism. After much pretty strolling, both musicians eventually got into a fast and furious spell, bringing in the conclusion with flying sparks.
After the intermission, we were treated to a smorgasbord of short violin classics whose purpose was apparently to display all that our soloist, now sporting a shiny white shirt with sparkly buttons, could handle. And he handled them all with beyond-his-years poise and flair.
Kreisler’s beloved Praeludium and Allegro got the right amount of sternness first and razzle-dazzle later, managing to both contrast and unify the two moods.
Debussy’s Clair de Lune was a subtly colored, delicately impressionistic moonlight.
I’ve never cared much for tarantellas, so I can't say that Wieniawski’s scherzo rocked my world, but it still was a pleasant frolic, in a jumpy way.
One the other hand, Piazzola’s Oblivion was an appropriately pensive affair, nicely enhanced by a graceful, sensual Spanish overtone.
Although I would have loved for Sarasate to be present through his zesty Zigeunerweiser, it was his Faust Fantasy Op. 13, a lesser-known but nevertheless engaging rythmical roller-coaster, that closed the official play-list.

But the party was not over. Our young violinist had promised to extend it if the applause was loud enough, and the thunderous standing ovation got us not one but two encores. In such young and playful hands, Bazzini’s Dance of the Goblins just kept on going with non-stop virtuosic merriment. Couldn't figure out what the second encore was, but its more subdued tone brought this delightful concert to a lovely ending. 

Saturday, July 31, 2010

Millennium Stage - Mozart, Li, Glinka, Ginastera, Liszt, Yu, Chopin, Wei, Barber, Zhu & Chang - 07/31/10

W. A. Mozart: Sonata in C, K545 (1st) - Gloria Cai
Chun Kuan Li: Dance - Gloria Cai
Michael Glinka: The Lark - Elizabeth Hu
Alberto Ginastera: Rondo on Argentine Children's Folk Song - Michelle Bao
Franz Liszt: La leggierezza - Evelyn Mo
Da Cheng Yu - Variations - Evelyn Mo
Frederick Chopin: Andante Spianato and Grande Polonaise - Michael Mei
Qu Wei: Theme and variations - Michael Mei
Samuel Barber: Sonata Op. 26 (Fugue) - Kimberly Hou
Gong Yi Zhu: Overture (Small Stream) - Kimberly Hou
Li-Ly Chang - Capriccio - Sangmi Yoon

One more time I want to extend my most heart-felt thanks to the Millennium Stage at the Kennedy Center for injecting some attractive live music in Washington during this culturally lackluster summer. This evening, it was the International Young Artist Piano Competition which was presenting its young prodigies, and when I say young I mean between the ages of 7 and 18. Founded by Li-Ly Chang in 1986, its goal is not only to encourage budding musicians to work on their craft, but also to build a bridge between Western and Eastern cultures. Accordingly, today we heard all Chinese students (or of Chinese descent) performing Western and Chinese pieces.

The seven young artists were appearing on the stage from the youngest to the oldest, and seeing how much of a difference even a couple of years can make was as interesting as astounding. The first pianist was 7-year old Gloria Cai, who was resplendent in her bright red dress and her sparkling silver shoes. Non-plussed by the large audience, she delivered her short Mozart piece with endearing graciousness.
One funny thing to notice was that as the skills became more and more pronounced and nuanced with the performer's age, and the biographies predictably more impressive, the outfits turned out to be more subtle and sophisticated too, all the way to the delicately bead-embedded black dress donned by 17-year old Sangmi Yoon. Her Capriccio by Li-Ly Chang was fun and infectious.
Among this rainbow of colors (each female musician had a different color dress), 14-year old Michael Mei stood out as not only the only male of the group, but also the most remarkable musician of them all. His treatment of Chopin's Andante Spianato and Grande Polonaise clearly demonstrated solid talent and unflappable poise, and has been one of my summer's highlights so far.

Monday, July 26, 2010

Millennium Stage - Verdi, Mozart, Bottesini & Dvorak - 07/25/10

Conductor: Elizabeth Schulze
Verdi: Overture to La Forza del Destino
Mozart: Concerto in A Major, K. 622 - Allegro - Benjamin Chen
Bottesini: Concerto No 2 in B Minor - Moderato - Samuel Suggs
Dvorak: Symphony No 9 in E Minor, Op. 95 ("From the New World")

After a big bad thunderstorm tore through our suffocatingly hot July weekend, finally making the air outside somewhat breathable, I dared to step out of my apartment on Sunday afternoon to head for the Kennedy Center for the final concert by the promising students of the National Symphony Orchestra’s Summer Music Institute Orchestra. Culminating four weeks of intense training, the last performance is typically “the real thing”. Although it is scheduled as part of the daily Millennium Stage, it takes place in the concert hall and lasts almost two hours, including intermission. We never know what is on the program until we get there, but it rarely fails to please the vast majority of the audience. This year again, a smorgasbord featuring Verdi, Mozart, Bottesini and Dvorak sounded like the perfect send-off for musicians and audience alike.

As any good old-fashioned Italian opera, Verdi’s La forza del destino (The Force of Destiny) mixes and matches the themes of love, death, friendship and revenge. All are unmistakably present in its attractive overture, but the hight point is undoubtlessly the spellbinding flute melody impersonating Fate. Under the dynamic baton of ever-cheerful Elizabeth Schulze, the youngsters on the stage quickly appropriated the piece and gave it a spontaneous, energetic spin.
Next we got to enjoy Benjamin Chen’s clarinet playing skills as he worked his way through the first movement of Mozart’s lovely Concerto for Clarinet and Orchestra in A Major. Although it is entitled Allegro, the soloist is mostly there to highlight the intimacy and gracefulness of Mozart’s composition. And so he did.
Double-basses very seldom take center stage, but Bottesini’s Concerto for Bass and Orchestra No 2 in B Minor gives them just the perfect opportunity. Yesterday, we enjoyed that special treat infused with remarkable panache thanks to the virtuosic talent of Samuel Suggs, our second soloist for the evening. Another up-and-coming talent to watch.
To conclude this unique occasion, what could be more appropriate than Dvorak’s majestic New World symphony? Bristling with intense drama and subtle darkness, indirectly inspired by Native American and African-american music, this powerful evocation of the United States, where the Czech composer was residing at the time, remains his most popular work and regularly appears on concert programs all over the world. This new generation whole-heartedly dwelled into it with rousing gusto, and if not everything fell perfectly into place, their boundless enthusiasm at tackling such a meaty work more than made up for it. The last, famously hair-raising, movement was a most appropriate grand finale to a symphony, and a concert, to remember.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

BSO - All-Tchaikovsky - 07/17/10

Conductor: Christian Colberg
Capriccio italien, Op. 45
Tchaikovsky: Violin Concerto in D Major, Op. 35 - Sirena Huang
Tchaikovsky: Piano Concerto No 1 in B-flat Minor, Op. 23 - Conrad Tao

Although its regular concert season was over, the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra pulled one more not-to-be-missed program out of its seemingly bottomless hat last night with the double-whammy of Tchaikovsky's violin concerto and piano concerto. Two of the world's most rightfully popular musical masterpieces, they are particularly welcome on a leisurely summer evening when their luscious melodies and virtuoso tricks offer a perfectly seasoned dish of top-quality comfort food. Both concertos would be performed by disgustingly young and talented musicians, violinist Sirena Huang and pianist Conrad Tao, who at barely 16 already have careers most adult musicians would kill for. And they're apparently just warming up, so let us be warned. Last, and in that case probably least, the Russian master's delightful Capriccio italien was set to open the evening in the impressively crowded Strathmore concert hall.

Alternating powerful fanfares and lighter tunes, Tchaikovsky's Capriccio italien was a welcome breath of fresh air, reliably prepping our ears for the bigger and better things to come.
Tchaikovsky's stunning violin concerto needs no introduction, mostly because the public decided a long time ago that the unsuspecting critics who mercilessly dissed the piece when it first came out were just a bunch of hopeless ignoramuses. Moreover, they eventually all died while the concerto has lived on, so there. Although still in her teenage years, Sirena Huang immediately demonstrated plenty of technique and heart while assuredly churning out Tchaikovsky's sparkling melody lines. Unlike some of the lightning-fast versions I've heard in the past, this concerto was blissfully allowed to soar and breathe, giving us the opportunity to seize and savor its myriads of multi-layered intricacies. Can't wait to hear her tackle the Brahms!
Then we were on to the next prodigy of the evening, Conrad Tao, who was playing children's songs on the piano at 18 months and gave his first recital at the ripe age of... 4. Here again, the work was originally pronounced an utter failure, this time by no less than the composer's close friend Nikolai Rubinstein, eminent pianist and conductor. Again, the master, shaken but not stirred, carried on with the enthusiastic support of celebrated pianist Hans von Bülow and the piece has remained part of the classic répertoire ever since. Embarking on Tchaikovsky's piano concerto No 1 may be one of the most daunting rites of passage for any aspiring pianist, and yesterday we were only too happy to be part of it. Brazenly opening with the startling horns, the concerto quickly launched into the famously sweeping melody that will never be heard again. From the grand Romantic feelings to the more subdued poetic moods, Conrad Tao handled it all with more stamina than thoughtfulness, but that perfect balance definitely sounds within his grasp.

As the clapping was winding down, the Russian Romantic vibes lingered on as our pianist came back for a happily perky Prelude in B-flat Minor Op. 23 No 2 by Rachmaninoff. A lovely ending to a lovely evening that even the usher next to me, loudly unwrapping candies during the violin concerto and energically scratching her ear during the piano concerto, did not manage to spoil.

Saturday, July 10, 2010

Millennium Stage - Wagner & Tchaikovsky - 07/09/10

Conductor: Elizabeth Schulze
Wagner: Prelude to Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg
Tchaikovsky: Piano Concerto No 1 in B-flat Minor, Op. 23 - John Chen

After a week of scorching heat and decreased activity, it is with much anticipation that I was heading back to the Kennedy Center yesterday evening for a very special Millennium Stage. Still free and still at 6:00 pm, the performance this time would take place in the concert hall and feature the 58 budding musicians (from 31 states and 3 countries) participating in the National Symphony Orchestra's Summer Music Institute alongside some members of the orchestra. As every year, their enthusiastic supporter maestra Elizabeth Schulze was there to present, assist and, of course, conduct. A little Wagner and full-fledged Tchaikovsky sounded just want the doctor ordered for a Friday night, so there I was, among a very eclectic crowd, all ready for the musical feast.

Wagner's prelude to Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg contains just the right combination of expected power and less expected lightness, thus providing the music students with the perfect opportunity to show off their range under the watchful eyes of their mentors, who were playing along right next to them. It all went down very well, thanks to no small part to Elizabeth Schulze's dynamic direction.
Seeing Tchaikovsky's piano concerto No 1 on a program never fails to set my heart aflutter, and this time my being there would also encourage a local talent in the person of John Chen, a seemingly unflappable 16-year old from Leesburg, VA, who is currently studying at The Juilliard School after winning a bunch of awards and performing in various prestigious venues. And if yesterday's remarkable feat is any indication, this is just the beginning of a brilliant career. Solidly back by the NSO musicians, he whole-heartedly plunged into the sink-or-swim challenge with plenty of energy and sensitiveness. Even the wild clapping after the first movement, which he sweetly acknowledged with a quick get-up-and-bow, did not break the mood of what remains a true masterpiece of the Russian Romantic répertoire. More wild clapping (legitimate, this time) and a standing ovation saluted the shyly smiling young man and brought this short but wonderful concert to a resounding conclusion.

Wednesday, June 30, 2010

NSO - Ravel & Golijov - 06/29/10

Conductor:Jeffrey Kahane
Ravel: Alborada del gracioso
Ravel: Suite from Ma Mère l'Oye
Ravel: Rapsodie espagnole
Golijov: Azul ("Blue") for Cello, Hyperaccordion, Percussion and Orchestra - Yo-Yo Ma

Yesterday evening the National Symphony Orchestra's 2009-2010 season wrapped up for good as the musicians are probably bracing themselves up for unpredictable weather and assured traffic jams at the otherwise lovely outdoor venue of Wolf Trap in Virginia. The final concert was a curious affair: the program was certainly not one of the typical all-around crowd-pleasers. Nothing against Ravel, but I highly doubt that the performance was solidly sold-out thanks to his inventive, yes, but ultimately light Ma Mère l’Oye or Rapsodie espagnole. The name of our conductor for the occasion, Jeffrey Kahane, may not have rung many bells either, although he has been around for a while and is highly respected as a conductor and as a pianist.
The big draw on this unusual Tuesday night date was of course the promise of “An Evening with Yo-Yo Ma”, and the programmers took no chances by scheduling him after the intermission, thus avoiding the unavoidable exodus after his performance. It is also probably a safe bet to assume that most of the audience had never heard of Argentinean composer Osvaldo Golijov, and the promise of an “hyperaccordion” in the title of the piece sure made me cringe (What’s the point of moving 3,000 miles from the dreaded French instrument if it follows me here?!) but hey, an evening with Yo-Yo Ma is too good of an offer to pass, so there I was.

Although I’ve never been a huge fan of Ravel’s, I have to admit that his Alborada del Gracioso was an enjoyable, energetic way to start the festivities, hailing all the way back from Provence and its troubadours.
The scores he wrote for the four traditional tales Pavane de la Belle au bois dormant (Pavane of the Sleeping Beauty), Le petit poucet (Hop o’ My Thumb), Laideronnette, Impératrice des Pagodes (Empress of the Pagodas) and Les entretiens de la Belle et la Bête (The Conversations of Beauty and the Beast) are decidedly low-key but harmonically complex little pieces, and Jeffrey Kahane led the orchestra into appropriately multi-faceted, lively interpretations of them.
Then it was on to some vibrant, Iberia-flavored rhythms with his Rapsodie espagnole, no doubt inspired by both his Spanish mother and his own birth in Basque country. Full of joyful and languorous melodies, it was a fun and fitting way to conclude this mini Ravel festival, which turned out not to be so painful after all. So there.
If anybody ever questioned Yo-Yo Ma’s across the board popularity, the rousing ovation he received for simply appearing on the stage would have dissipated any remaining doubt. But more than just a superstar, the Paris-born, US-bred Chinese virtuoso remains first and foremost a consummate musician, and yesterday he obviously meant business. Golijov’s Azul for Cello, Hyperaccordion, Percussion and Orchestra is not an easy trip to get on, but extremely rewarding if you let yourself go with the flow. Originally written for Yo-Yo Ma and the Boston Symphony Orchestra for the 125th anniversary of the Tanglewood Festival in 2006, then reworked by its composer in 2007, it is a deeply atmospheric, at times widely exotic, journey through world cultures and religions that could have been magically transporting, if it had not been for the grating sounds of that darn “electronically enhanced” accordion. But hearing Yo-Yo Ma tackle a genuinely engaging contemporary work is always a real treat, and last night was no different, eventually giving this last concert, and the now past season, a truly grand finale.

Saturday, June 19, 2010

NSO - Haydn, Szymanowski & Mahler - 06/11/10

Conductor: Juraj Valcuha
Haydn: Symphony No 85 in B-Flat Major, "La Reine"
Szymanowski: Violin Concerto No 1, Op. 35 - Jennifer Koh
Mahler: Symphony No 1 in D Major, "Titan"

The last concert of a season is always bittersweet as the audience is getting ready for a couple of long months without the regular trips to the orchestra's traditional venue. In the case of the National Symphony Orchestra, home is of course the Kennedy Center concert hall, maybe not the best hall in the world, but, again, it is home.
The NSO, however, wouldn't bid its audience au revoir without a bang, at least, and yesterday we had an enticing program of Haydn's cheerful La Reine Symphony, Szymanowski's luscious violin concerto, in Jennifer's Koh ever-safe hands, and Mahler's sprawling Symphony No 1. All of that under the young but already well-informed baton of Slovakian conductor Juraj Valcuha, who would be making his first appearance with the NSO.

Things got comfortably started with Haydn's typical mix of sparkly refinement and understated virtuosity. It was a favorite of the French queen Marie-Antoinette, hence its nickname "La Reine" and, unlike the French monarchy, its popularity has never waned ever since. Last night, maestro Valcuha led the NSO in a detailed and unified interpretation of it, with just the right amount of sophisticated zest.
Polish-born Szymanowski was a well-travelled man when he sat down to write his stunning violin concerto, and the work's multi-faceted quality certainly attests of its numerous influences. Lasting almost 30 minutes and played without interruption, it is a score that constantly keeps the audience on the edge with its ever-changing moods. The unabashedly sensual passages and the brashly colorful explosions gave Jennifer Koh the perfect opportunity to display her formidable talent at conveying an amazing range of sounds. Her performance was as assured and fulfilling as they come, all the way to the unexpectedly playful last note.
Mahler's Titan symphony is, well, titanesque indeed in its immensity, and the orchestra gave it a vigorous treatment, from the bucolic first movement to the gloomy but eventually triumphant fourth one. The dance of the second movement was rambunctious fun, the total opposite of the dark, distorted version of "Frère Jacques" opening the third movement. This brazenly uplifting performance for sure cheered up all the spirits and concluded the NSO's regular 2009-2010 season with a resoundingly grand finale.

Monday, June 14, 2010

New York Philharmonic - Lindberg, Sibelius & Brahms - 06/12/10

Conductor: Alan Gilbert
Lindberg: Arena for Orchestra
Sibelius: Concerto for Violin and Orchestra in D minor, Op. 47 - Lisa Batiashvili
Brahms: Symphony No 2 in D Major, Op. 73

Last weekend, it was my New York Philharmonic season that came to an end with one of classical music's highest peaks and a personal favorite: Sibelius' dazzling violin concerto. Georgia-born Lisa Batiashvili has had a long history with that piece, all the way back to the Sibelius competition in which she won second prize at the tender age of 16, the competition's youngest performer ever. Sounded promising. Moreover, it sure looked like cool Finland was the guest of honor on that hot Saturday evening with also Arena for Orchestra by The Marie-Josée Kravis Composer-in-Residence Magnus Lindberg to open the concert. Not be be outdone, Germany was represented by one of its most beloved Romantic masterpieces: Brahms' radiant symphony No 2 (Personally, I prefer the fourth, but needless to say nobody asked me, and let's face it life could be worse).

Arena started with an under-stated, urgent feel and quickly exploded in an endless festival of complex and intriguing sounds and textures. You could never tell what was going to happen next, but Alan Gilbert, who has conducted the unsettling work a number of times, made sure to keep everything under control. Under his informed baton, the orchestra displayed an impressive unity while facing the kaleidoscopic challenge and masterfully brought it all home.
Sibelius' violin concerto is another fiendishly difficult work, and as much as I enjoy listening to it, I can't help but feel sorry for the poor soloist who has to actually work it. Lisa Batiashvili, however, was obviously not intimidated and brilliantly conveyed the dramatic fire and ice dichotomy of the music, from the slow, atmospheric opening to its folksy, energy-filled ending. She demonstrated plenty of technical savvy in the famously treacherous cadenza and readily went on to a thoughtful, emotionally charged Adagio. It was actually quite impressive to see how such a discreet presence could deliver such an all-around knock-out performance, but she did it with flair and grace. While the virtuosic tour de force was happening, the orchestra was respectfully staying in the background, providing all requested support with unflinching commitment, and it all came together beautifully.
Brahms may have only written four symphonies, but each is a unique world to explore and enjoy. Directly inspired by the serene beauty of Pörtschach, in the Austrian countryside, where the composer was vacationing at the time, his second symphony can easily find itself compared to Beethoven's Pastoral and it is easy to see why, with its vivid evocations of the joys of nature and all, but it is also clear that classical music's other grumpy master was starting to find his own voice and revel in it. Happy and relaxed, the score takes the listener on a unhurried journey into a bucolic landscape and concludes the experience with an upbeat, faster finale. Alan Gilbert and the orchestra played it straight, and that was a very fine ending to my New York Philharmonic subscription indeed.

Sunday, June 6, 2010

BSO - Barber, Bartok & Beethoven - 06/05/10

Conductor: Marin Alsop
Barber: Adagio for Strings
Bartok: Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta
Beethoven: Piano Concerto No 5 in E-flat Major, Op. 73, "Emperor" - André Watts

Yesterday evening another one of my subscriptions bit the dust with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra and its three "B's" program, two-third of which were different from the traditional German trio of Bach, Beethoven and Brahms. Although Beethoven stayed put, his presence personified by his much loved Emperor concerto that was to be performed by long-time Romantic pianist André Watts, the more international and contemporary rest of the cast included the American Barber and his ever-popular Adagio for Strings as well as the Hungarian Bartok and his lesser-known but intriguing sounding "Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta". So all conditions seemed to converge to conclude yet another successful BSO season with an all-around high-quality concert.

I have had the pleasure of hearing the Adagio for Strings just a few weeks ago with the National Symphony Orchestra and John Adams, but that's really the type of work that can easily bear repeated listening, very straightforward yet imperceptibly involving just the same. Last night, the BSO's strings made beautifully atmospheric music together, both intense and subtle, impeccably soaring throughout the concert hall.
The following piece by Bartok was as eclectic as they come, with the first and third movements slow and abstract, the second and fourth obviously inspired by Hungarian folk tunes. Rarely performed, it was a decidedly complex blend of cerebral and earthy, vividly played by an orchestra in more than fine form.
Last, but not least, came the masterwork of the program: Beethoven's epic Emperor, ironally composed while Napoléon and his armies were besieging Vienna. Having André Watts as the soloist was of course a reassuring sight, and he easily met our high expectations. His performance was strongly heart-felt and delicately nuanced, the exquisite lilting of the piano standing strong against the more robust sounds from the orchestra. A classic ending to another classical season... May there be many more!

Saturday, June 5, 2010

NSO - Rimsky-Korsakov & Stravinsky - 06/03/10

Conductor: Ivan Fischer
Rimsky-Korsakov: Scheherazade, Op. 35 - Nurit Bar-Josef
Stravinsky: Le sacre du printemps (The Rite of Spring)

Those past two years have gone by awfully fast and now we are faced with the cruel reality of Ivan Fischer's last program with the National Symphony Orchestra as their principal conductor. Although his other numerous engagements have kept him from being here more than a few times a year, he has been an extraordinarily popular presence on the Washington, DC musical scene, and for good reasons. His vast knowledge of the classical repertoire and his unwavering commitment to sharing his passion, not to mention his undeniable talent in bringing the world's most memorable symphonies to life, have made him a particularly welcome figure on the podium.
This week, his last concert series may not be very edgy, but how drool-inducing! Scheherazade's pure and simple melodic power and The Rite of Spring's ferociously ground-breaking score sounded just like the perfect Russian recipe to make those farewell performances memorable, and the packed auditorium was more than ready for it.

After a badly-timed thunder storm and two car accidents kept some musicians and patrons from getting to the Kennedy Center on time, delaying the start of the festivities by over 20 minutes, the attractive first notes of Scheherazade finally made themselves heard and took us all without further ado to the Oh so exotic Near East. A former lieutenant in the Czarist navy, Rimsky-Korsakov was a well-travelled man by the time he came around to writing his most famous work. Inspired by The Thousands and One Nights as much as by its composer's own foreign journeys, Scheherazade prettily evokes the endless wonders of life in the Orient with big sounds and vibrant colors. On Thursday night, Ivan Fischer led the orchestra in a detailed, high-impact rendition of it, the most climatic peaks being drastically contrasted by some beguiling violin solos courtesy of the NSO's ever-classy concertmaster Nurit Bar-Josef. Her couple of short dialogues with the delicate harp exquisitely stood out and brought lovely touches of gracefulness to the crowd-pleasing journey.
After this compelling but, all things considered, fairly traditional musical fairy tale, we were on to Stravinsky's once scandalous Rite of Spring, the one that sparked what has probably been the most notorious riot in music history at its première with the Ballets Russes in Paris in 1913. Part of the fierce reaction probably had something to do with Nijinsky's not exactly conventional choreography, but there is no doubt that the avant-garde nature of the score also was definitely more than even those worldly Parisians could take. The bold stirring up of melody, harmony and form was obviously too much to take in one night, however, this organic homage to pagan rituals and its devilishly difficult, irregular beats has since become a classic with orchestras and audiences around the world. On Thursday, the winning combination of Ivan Fischer's infectious energy and the NSO's particular fondness for Russian works (Spasibo, maestro Rostropovitch!) resulted in a breathlessly virtuosic performance that more than appropriately concluded Ivan Fischer's much too short tenure with the NSO.

Friday, May 28, 2010

WPAS - The Philadelphia Orchestra - Glinka, Rachmaninoff & Stravinsky - 05/26/10

Conductor: Charles Dutoit
Glinka: Overture to Ruslan and Ludmilla
Rachmaninoff: Piano Concerto No 3 in D minor, Op. 30 - Nikolai Lugansky
Stravinsky: Petrushka

For the last concert of its Celebrities Series, the Washington Performance Arts Society sure did not hold back: it invited the prestigious Philadelphia orchestra under the baton of its distinguished chief conductor Charles Dutoit and was featuring a piece that is extremely high on my not-to-miss list: Rachmaninoff's piano concerto No 3, the Himalaya of all piano concertos, which would be performed by young but already much awarded Nikolai Lugansky. Moreover, the evening would start by Glinka and end with Stravinsky, a very eclectic and compelling trio from Russia if there ever was one, so off I was to Strathmore.

The opera Rusland and Ludmilla has pretty much disappeared from the standard repertoire, but its overture is often performed as a stand-alone piece in concerts and it is easy to understand why: it starts with a bang, alternates good old fun and swooning melodies, and clocks in under five minutes, which was just enough to reassure us that the orchesta has not let internal turmoil spoil their well-known musical excellence.
After this cheerful pick-me-up, we were on for the wild Romantic ride that is "Rach 3". Its inconspicuous opening melody may not sound like much at first, but it rarely fails to penetrate and haunt the mind of the listener before going off to incredibly bigger and better things as the music becomes more and more Russian in sound and scope, and the challenge becomes more and more daunting for the pianist. Combining breathless urgency and daunting intricacies, this one is not for the faint of heart, but Nikolai Lugansky handled it all with unflappable poise. From where we were seating my neighbors and I had a particularly good view over his fingers and watched them fly all over the keyboard in total awe. But beside the technical tour de force, he was also extremely efficient at conveying the take-no-prisoners nature of the whole piece, its grand lyricism and sparkling virtuosity, all the way to its exhilarating climax.
After such a exciting performance, poor Petrushka sounded a bit underwhelming at first, but the orchestra made full use of their well-established savoir faire and successfully brought to life the story of the traditional Russian theater puppet. Far from Rachmaninoff's sweeping power, Stravinsky's work was an impressive festival of colors and moods and concluded our evening on a fully satisfying note.