Sunday, January 31, 2010

National Philharmonic - Mussorgsky, Prokofiev & Tchaikovsky - 01/31/10

Conductor: Piotr Gajewski
Mussorgsky: Night on a Bald Mountain
Prokofiev: Concerto for Piano (Left hand) and Orchestra, No 4, Op 53 - Leon Fleisher
Tchaikovsky: Symphony No 6 in B Minor, Op. 74, "Pathétique"

What more appropriate than a cold, white Sunday afternoon to go back to Strathmore for a concert dedicated to Russian music? Much beloved pianist, conductor and teacher Leon Fleisher was the special guest and scheduled to handle the concerto for piano for the left hand by Prokofiev, a particularly fitting endeavor considering the right-hand paralysis that stopped him at the pinnacle of his career and prevented him from being a traditional musician for decades. Fortunately, his persistence and the progress of science have allowed him to fully recover and be again the much-sought soloist he once was. After Jeremy Denk and Radu Lupu, I have to say I have been very lucky in the pianist department lately. And I felt even luckier when I saw that the rest of the program featured Mussorgsky's delightfully spooky Night on a Bald Mountain and Tchaikovsky's relentlessly gripping Pathétique symphony.

Mussorgsky's Night on a Bald Mountain of course brings to mind what is probably the scariest part of the Disney film Fantasia, in which ghouls and skeletons go dance at the top of a bald mountain with a big black Satan before the festivities are eventually interrupted by dawn, an episode faithfully in line with the original Russian folk tale that inspired the composition. This afternoon, the Rimsky-Korsakov-improved score resounded with unrestrained force in the concert hall, energetically conjuring up the same type of devilish fun, never mind that it was taking place in a most upscale Maryland suburb.
Commissioned by the Austrian pianist Paul Wittgenstein after he lost his right hand during World War I, Prokofiev's piano concerto for the left hand was never actually played by his particularly finicky recipient and just disappeared. A quarter of a century later a German pianist having lost his right hand during World War II asked Prokofiev's widow to dig it out after hearing about it. Bless his heart! It is a nice little piece, with three whimsical movements and a lushly lyrical second one. Leon Fleisher having suffered to some degree the same handicap as the two previous pianists obviously has a special connection to this non-traditional composition, and he gave a remarkably nuanced and perkily light-hearted interpretation of it.
As talented and generous as the two other piano men I've heard recently, he also went way beyond the call of duty, with his two hands this time, and responded to our endless ovation with a substantial, if not Russian, encore: Sheep May Safely Graze by Bach's Cantata No 208. Here again, he easily enchanted everybody with the delicacy of his touch, discreetly highlighting the lovely recurring melody and the overall sing-song quality of that extra goodie.
But a Russian-centric concert wouldn't be complete without Tchaikovsky, so after getting to hear three of his shorter works a couple of days ago, I was more than ready for his beautiful swan song, the ever-popular Pathétique, probably my favorite among his symphonies. All the familiar themes were there, the unbridled confidence of the first movement, the awkward waltz of the second one, the triumphant march of the third one, and the poignant, whispering death of the fourth one. Today, the famously false ending after the third movement was all the more believable as maestro Gajewski turned to the audience with the exhilarated expression of a marathon winner catching his breath after making it through the finish line, which to some extent he was. Once the clapping subdued, we did get to enjoy one of classical music's most moving conclusions. It was a hair-raising, no-holds-barred performance, a more than fitting way to end an official Russian concert and an unofficial Tchaikovsky week.

Saturday, January 30, 2010

NSO - Bernstein, Tchaikovsky & Dvorak - 01/29/10

Conductor: Ivan Fischer
Bernstein: Three Dance Episodes from On the Town ("The Great Lover", "Lonely Town: Pas de deux", "Times Square: 1944")
Tchaikovsky: Lensky's aria from Eugene Onegin (cello and orchestra) - Mischa Maisky
Tchaikovsky: Variations on a Rococo Theme for Cello and Orchestra, Op. 33 - Mischa Maisky
Dvorak: Symphony No 8 in G Major, Op. 88

Two days after Radu Lupu's long overdue but definitely worth the wait recital at Strathmore, the guest artist of the National Symphony Orchestra was another soloist much revered in Europe if lesser known in the US: Latvian cellist Mischa Maisky. As part of this year's Focus on Russia at the Kennedy Center, he was to perform two pieces by Tchaikovsky, and those were my main reason to be there last night. Bernstein is, of course, always welcome, and Dvorak's 8th symphony was no doubt going to bring some much needed sunniness to that dreadfully cold evening. Ivan Fischer was back on the podium for the second week in a row, an unfortunately too rare but all the more appreciated occurrence, and, hey, it was Friday!

Things got started in full swing with Bernstein's three numbers from On the Town. Vividly describing the adventures of three sailors on leave in New York City, the composition is both serious and fun, smartly mixing the complex sounds of classical music with more dynamic and languorous jazzy tunes. Orchestra and conductor seemed to be having a ball, and their enjoyment proved to be contagious.
Next we were transported smack in the Romantic period with the Russian master of heart-on-his-sleeve music, Piotr Ilych Tchaikovsky. Eugene Onegin has always been his most popular opera and for some very good reasons, one of them being its outstanding score. In Lensky's aria, the composer beautifully emphasizes the fateful moment when the character foresees that he is about to be killed by his best friend as well as his eternal love for Olga. Having the cello take charge of the melody immediately adds a dark undertone to the natural lyricism of the piece, and Mischa Maisky, all resplendent in a dashing silver shirt competing with his impressive mass of unruly gray hair, gave a remarkably eloquent interpretation of it.
As far as I'm concerned one can never get too much Tchaikovsky, so I was absolutely delighted that the third work on the program turned out to be his Variations on a Rococo Theme. Inspired by the rococo architectural style of the 18th century, the variations are both elegant and whimsical. It is as close to an actual cello concerto as Tchaikovsky has ever gotten and the result is quite spectacular in its wide range of moods and sheer virtuosity. Mischa Maisky's playing was unrestrained and lush, and maestro Fischer made sure that he was ably backed up by the reduced orchestra.
Since everybody seemed to relish this Tchaikovsky double-whammy by giving it an effusive ovation, we were rewarded with a beautifully ethereal Nocturne by yet again the special composer of the evening, a lovely parting gift that could have easily competed with any of the other numbers.
But all good things have to come to an end, so after the intermission we moved on to Dvorak (things could have been worse). In stark contrast to Tchaikovsky's brooding and sophisticated moods, Dvorak's symphony No 8 is all joyous happiness and never fails to bring to my mind Mendelssohn's unabashedly radiant Italian symphony. If the Czech composer did not quite possess the German prodigy's stunning gift for melody, he was not too far behind. Obviously influenced by the bohemian folk music he loved, his 8th symphony is all warmth and cheerfulness, harmony and lyricism, and Ivan Fischer led the more than willing orchestra in a resounding performance of it, easily matching the infectious vivacity and pure joy of the opening Bernstein numbers.

Thursday, January 28, 2010

WPAS - Radu Lupu - Janacek, Beethoven & Schubert - 01/27/10

Janacek: In the Mist
Beethoven: Piano Sonata No 23 in F minor, Op. 57, "Appassionata"Schubert: Piano Sonata in A Major, D. 959

Just when I was getting ready to give up on ever hearing Radu Lupu live, the Washington Performing Art Society finally came to the rescue and included him in its 2009-2010 season. This is how yesterday the audience at the Strathmore music center got to enjoy the distinguished Romanian pianist for the first time in 16 years in his first Washington recital ever (well, sort of). So never mind the whirlwind business trip to Tucson I was just coming from (I do have to say, however, that five plane rides in three days, not to mention spending half a Sunday waiting in a terminal, is a bit much) and never mind the couple of hours of sleep (again!) the previous night, never even mind what was on the program, the master was in town and not much else mattered.

The opening piece by Janacek was inconspicuous in its melancholy, highlighting the general decline of old age that the Czech composer was experiencing at the time. By the same token, it set the tone for an evening of understated but emotionally charged music.
Beethoven was also in declining health when he wrote his Appasionata sonata, and this was a state that he was obviously not taking to well. Both ethereal and tormented, it is a score with symphonic ambition that never fails to move the listener. Radu Lupu kept a minimalist approach to this piece as well and delivered a rich and subtle performance.
I have somehow never understood all the fuss about Schubert's symphonies, but I've always found his chamber music simply divine. So it was with a certain dose of excitement that I was getting ready for the sonata he wrote during the last year of his too short life. Here again, the sentiment of irreversible decline was discreetly but powerfully present, and the dreadful psychological and physical agony the composer was going through at the time was for sure palpable, but never blatantly displayed. In yet another example of his mastery of his instrument, Lupu gracefully expressed feelings of isolation, unquietness and regret in a truly beautiful interpretation of a timeless work.

As the audience sounded determined not to let him go, he came back with a lovely A Major Intermezzo by no other than Brahms, a last, but by no means least, exercise in delicacy and restraint.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

WPAS - Jeremy Denk - Bach, Ives, Berlioz and Meyerbeer - 01/23/10

Bach: Toccata in D Major, BWV 912
Ives: Piano Sonata No 1
Berlioz: "March to the Scaffold" from Symphonie fantastique Op. 14 (arr. Liszt)
Meyerbeer: Réminiscences de Robert le diable, S. 413 (arr. Liszt)
Schumann: Davidsbündlertänze, Op. 6

It is probably a safe bet to assume that most people know Jeremy Denk through his annual touring with Joshua Bell, whom he will actually join at Strathmore in a couple of weeks also as part of the WPAS season, but this afternoon he showed up on his own at the Terrace theater for his first Kennedy Center solo recital debut. It's about time, I'd say. The program was as eclectic as intriguing: Bach, Ives, Berlioz, Meyerbeer, the two last pieces arranged by no less than Liszt, and Schumann to wrap everything up. A nice cocktail for a welcome Saturday afternoon musical interlude.

The opening Bach toccata was energetic and whimsical, and a good way to get the concert going with inventiveness and fun. It made me wonder for a quick minute how better it would get after such an impeccable start, and I quickly found out.
Ives' First Piano Sonata is an awe-inspiring work consisting of five movements regularly alternating opposite moods, three of them serious, the remaining two light scherzos, all of which presenting various themes such as three more or less known American tunes and the story of a Connecticut farming family whose son has gone sowing his wild oats, so sorting everything out can become a very involving exercise even with the benefit of Jeremy Denk's extensive program notes and live introduction with samples. On the other hand, one could just sit back and relax, enjoying the endless intricacies of the music. The wild composer created here a wild piece, and riding the roller-coaster with him can be a thrilling adventure. Denk's obvious fondness for and deep knowledge of the composition helped make it more accessible and a good time was had by all.
After the intermission, we were back for a very neat piano version of Berlioz's "March to the Scaffold" courtesy of Liszt. Scrupulously faithful to the score, it retains, even emphasizes, the original brilliance of the Symphonie fantastique and Denk's interpretation of it had nothing to envy to Liszt's wildly successful one.
Liszt struck gold again with his arrangement for piano of Réminiscences de Robert le diable by Meyerbeer, and La valse infernale did sound as if it were conjuring all demonic spirits in a dark countryside.
Schumann's Davidsbündlertänze were of a lighter nature, quickly alternating Florestan's hot-headiness and Eusebius' dreaminess, as per the characters created by the composer himself. Denk's quick-witted playing sharply highlighted the fast descriptions of the various moods and the sheer vivacity of the work.
Our long and loud ovation earned us an encore in the "Alcotts" movement of Ives' Concord Sonata, one of his most popular works. The inserted famous opening notes of Beethoven's 5th symphony brought a familiar touch to the proceedings and concluded the concert on an upbeat note.

NSO - Bach, Mozart and Mahler - 01/22/10

Conductor: Ivan Fischer
Bach: Suite No 3 "Air on the G String"
Mozart: Symphony No 38 in D Major, K. 504, "Prague"
Mahler: Das Lied von der Erde - Christianne Stotijn & Stig Andersen

As the world is trying to bring much-needed aid to earthquake-ravaged Haiti, benefits of all sorts are springing up. Not to be outdone, the National Symphony Orchestra quickly announced that all the proceeds from last night's performance would go directly to the relief efforts. A last-minute addition of Bach's "Air on the G String" would mark the special occasion, but the program was already very attractive in its original line-up with Mozart's all-around beautiful Prague symphony and Mahler poetry-inspired "Das Lied von der Erde", which was going to be sung by young Dutch mezzo-soprano Christianne Stotijn and more seasoned Danish tenor Stig Andersen. Our beloved Ivan Fischer was back on the podium, so it almost looked like business as usual, if not for the very moving opening speech by the ambassador of Haiti.

Bach's piece was short, but its ethereal grace delicately rose in the almost-full concert hall, providing yet another hint that we were all there on a special mission. In fact it had such an emotional impact that nobody got around clapping at the end, and maestro Fischer dove right into one of Mozart's best efforts.
Written during the most prolific time of Mozart's life, the Prague symphony displays a brand new level of maturity in the complexity of its composition. Yesterday an authentically reduced orchestra played it with much vivacity and grace, and Ivan Fischer kept everybody in tight check. It was a particularly heart-felt performance and the music predictably enthralled a very eclectic audience. So eclectic, in fact, that the two breaks between the three movements were filled with applause, which the slightly taken aback conductor and musicians graciously, if quickly, acknowledged.
I am a big fan of Mahler's sumptuous symphonies, but his "Song of the Earth" is definitely a different endeavor. Inspired by German poems that were themselves based on classic Chinese poems, each of the five distinct movements concentrate on a particular aspect of life on the earth. Yesterday's performance started with the traditional dark drunken song, and it rapidly became apparent that Stig Andersen had trouble projecting over the orchestra that was playing in full force. This problem would plague him during the entire evening, although a solid voice could be spotted in the calmer moments. Christianne Stotijn was better served by a deep knowledge of her pieces and the generally quieter music she accompanied. Her singing got better as the evening went on and her "Abschied" was lovely, all the way to a truly poignant ending followed by an unusually long suspended silent, bringing an emotionally packed conclusion to an emotionally packed occasion.

Monday, January 18, 2010

Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra - Schoenberg, Boulez & Beethoven - 01/16/10

Conductor: Daniel Barenboim
Schoenberg: Five Pieces for Orchestra, Op. 16 (1909; arr. for orchestra 1949)
Boulez: Notations (1945; versions for orchestra 1978)
Beethoven: Symphony No 5 in C Minor, Op. 67

What an incredible weekend! After attending a fabulous Carmen at the Met on Saturday afternoon, I was finally back at Carnegie Hall yesterday for a very Viennese afternoon with the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra performing Beethoven's ground-breaking 5th symphony with eminent conductor (among other distinguished talents) Daniel Barenboim. Only in New York! This symphony among symphonies was to be preceded by Schoenberg's Five Pieces for Orchestra and Boulez's Notations, but there was little doubt that the sold-out audience was there for the second part of the program. (Here again, the sign-holding unlucky souls outside the hall may have inspired pity, but not generosity, as everybody walked right past them into Carnegie Hall's lobby.)
Holding another very precious ticket for another very special event, not to mention finally being back at the hall for the first time this season, I had to treat myself. In lieu of my beloved Viennese pastries I had a beloved apricot pinwheel from my beloved Petrossian and did not let the pouring rain dampen my spirits. I was going to hear one of the world's most prestigious orchestras and conductors perform a truly timeless masterpiece at Carnegie Freaking Hall, so life was good...

The concert was wisely programmed so we had to go through the modern, challenging works before revelling into the grand tried-and-true symphony, a bit like having to eat our so-good-for-us vegetables before the luscious dessert. Not that I minded Schoenberg's smart exercice, I even enjoyed its wide range of sounds and rhythms. The pieces were very short, therefore hard to get into, but on the other hand, it also meant that the whole thing was over pretty quickly, which was not entirely bad.
I guess that at that point in the program, it actually made kind of sense to feature somebody who had written a essay entitled "Schoenberg is dead" with the open goal to shake things up a bit... or a lot. The guilty party, Pierre Boulez, did go on and composed progressive music, among many other music-related activities, and the Notations we heard yesterday for sure were complex (his love for mathematics may have had something to do with it) but kept pretty short as well. So all of it was very much bearable.
After all the theories, we finally got our reward when, after taking his place on the podium, maestro Barenboim immediately dove right into a ravishing interpretation of what may be Beethoven's most popular composition. The famed opening notes proudly resounded in all their dark glory, and it just went right uphill from there. The clarity of the sounds, the fluidity of the playing and the stunning unity of the whole orchestra gave the much often heard score yet a new life. This was no doubt a familiar territory trodden on many times by everybody on that stage, but they still expressed the sheer power and intrinsic beauty of the music as if they were on a holy mission. Mission accomplished: heaven was indeed reached.

Met - Carmen - 01/16/10

Composer: Georges Bizet
Conductor: Yannick Nézet-Séguin
Director: Richard Eyre
Carmen: Elina Garanca
Don José: Roberto Alagna
Micaëla: Barbara Frittoli
Escamillo: Teddy Tabu Rhodes

My heart had just sunk back in September upon hearing that much celebrated soprano Angela Gheorghiu had for the most part bailed out of her Met debut as Carmen, in which she was supposed to share top billing with her husband, the tenor Roberto Alagna. I can't say that I was overly surprised though, because the woman is as well-known for her incredible voice and charismatic presence as for her capricious diva attitude. It has now become clear that they are going through a divorce and will not be on the same stage anytime soon, if ever. Result: he was staying put for Carmen, she was not. And I was mostly seething because I had figured that between the two of them, I'd rather watch HER take on a role that sure looked like the perfect fit: the voice, the looks, the fierceness... the flakiness.
But Carmen is an opera that it is hard not to love regardless of who's involved in it and the buzz about this new production was excellent, so it was still with mounting anticipation that my opera buddy Jennifer and I were finally set to kick off the New Year together in grand style at the Met on Saturday afternoon.

Bizet's most accomplished work was originally greeted with a hostile reaction when it premiered in Paris in 1875, in all likelihood because the audience consisted mostly of families and that its topic is not exactly PG-13, to say the least. But it is still extremely sad that all the negative feedback probably speeded up Bizet's untimely death three months later, a short time before the opera slowly started to build its reputation as one of the most popular of all times. And rightly so. What's not to love about a story energetically combining passion, sex, betrayal, violence and death?
Carmen, of course, revolves around its irresistible heroine, which means that selecting the right mezzo soprano is a daunting task. But my initial fears were quickly put to rest when Elina Garanca made her first appearance and I was immediately struck by her wild natural beauty, richly nuanced voice and defiantly untamed behavior. She was brazenly oozing unrepressed sexual energy through every single pore of her attractive body and was more than eager to fiercely flaunt everything she had and then some. After previous stints in Riga, Rome and London, this Latvian kind-of newcomer was obviously very comfortable with her free-spirited character and it gloriously showed. Her singing was vibrantly earthy, with clear phrasing and a real control over the notes she was effortlessly reaching. Move over Angela Gheorghiu, Elina Garanca has arrived.
A thinner Roberto Alagna seemed to completely relish slipping into a part that remains one of his main calling cards and flawlessly projected Don José's constant inner battle between doing the right thing or giving in to his obsession, all this emotional turmoil being impeccably reinforced by his ardent, passionate singing. Unsurprisingly, the show-stopping "Flower Song" had everybody instinctively hold their breath, totally caught up in the sheer beauty of the song, not to mention the poor guy's heart-breaking helplessness. Having him there instead of his future ex-wife turned out to be a true blessing, so I am standing duly corrected.
As the doomed pair everybody loves to watch tear each other apart, those two leads, who were both part of the same London production in those very same roles a few months ago, were burning up the stage with such sizzling chemistry that their steamy love scenes were sending heat waves blasting throughout the entire opera house, possibly piercing the screens of the worlwide simulcast too, she as sexy as the devil that possessed her, he as hot as the hell he was heading straight for.
But that was not all. Barbara Frittoli needs no introduction to Met's regulars and her Micaëla was absolutely lovely in her sweetness and dedication to the lost cause that was her former paramour. A last-minute replacement for an ailing Mariusz Kwiecien (I can't imagine it gets less last-minute than three hours before curtain time!), Teddy Tahu Rhodes did his best as Escamillo, the dashing toreador who thinks that the world is his oyster... or his arena. Although his signature song is readily recognizable from the very first notes, it is not a particularly easy one to tackle and on Saturday our baritone had occasionally trouble projecting over the orchestra, but he sure made up for it with plenty of cockiness in his demeanor.
The always reliable Met orchestra was conducted by fast-rising and fast-moving Canadian Yannick Nézet-Séguin, who proved to be the perfect choice to bring Bizet's vividly colorful score to life. He kept the music going with unwavering taste and gusto while making sure that the singers could all be heard above the fired-up musicians. Under his fully committed baton, the instantly hummable melodies sounded bright and fresh and the singing blended in seamlessly. Such a resounding success for a debut may be a blessing in disguise, but we all enjoyed every second of it.
The visual elements were well-integrated too, starting with the revolving circle-shaped walls that were reminiscent of a bull ring, of course, but could also be seen as a concrete metaphor for the circles of hell from where no escape was possible. As usual, the costumes were beautifully designed down to the last details. Amidst the unconspicuous earthy tones worn by most, the matadors' fancy outfits featured some eye-popping colors and intricate ornaments while Carmen met her tragic demise in a gorgeous Spanish-style black lace dress cut through by a blood-red slash and proudly sporting a traditional mantilla on her head.
For his Met Debut acclaimed English director Richard Eyre made quite a few interesting choices while being careful to respect tradition. The plot had been moved to the 1930s repressive Spain, but nothing much came out of it, and the cigarette factory was inexplicably located underground. Flashes of genuine inspiration, however, were numerous, such as the individual dancing numbers during the musical overtures (it sure beat staring at the black curtain), the welcome introduction of truly elaborate flamenco-inspired routines in the tavern, the fortunate disappearance of almost all spoken dialogues, and an unexpected but powerful final tableau right after Carmen got fatally stabbed, when the revolving set slowly revealed a bloody, stricken down bull under Escamillo's feet with the crowd in the background, all bathed in bright red light, spookily quiet and still as irrational violence and brutal death had suddenly won over.

By the time this was all over and a delirious standing ovation was saluting the artists, I had all but forgotten about my original misgivings (Angela who?). This was hands-down one of the best operas, and definitely the best Carmen, I had ever seen. There was an unrestrained joy, a palpable giddiness in the air of the Met's opera house on Saturday afternoon as we were all so unabashedly happy to have borne witness to such an all-around brilliant performance. Those feelings were all the more emphasized as on our way in we had passed several procrastinators desperately begging for tickets, to no avail as far as we could tell. Missing such a priceless production for a mere cash reward would have been just plain unthinkable, and we were glad we did not even think about it.

Friday, January 15, 2010

NSO - Barber, Beethoven & Sibelius - 01/15/10

Conductor: Michael Stern
Barber: Symphony No 1, Op. 9
Beethoven: Piano Concerto No 2 in B-Flat Major, Op. 19 - Emanuel Ax
Sibelius: Symphony No 2 in D Major, Op. 43

It is a well-known fact that Emanuel Ax is one of those not-to-be-missed soloists, so when the only time I could go during his three-concert stint with the National Symphony Orchestra was this afternoon, the decision was really simple: I would just take some of my precious comp time off to hear the prolific master play Beethoven's lovely piano concerto No 2. Of course, the other meaty piece on the program being my beloved Sibelius' Symphony No 2 was another powerful incentive, and Barber's Symphony No 1 was going to be a discovery. And really, what's not to enjoy about having Friday afternoon off?

Barber started the concert with a fairly short, one-movement symphony featuring a wake-up call-style opening, constant vigorous energy and, most importantly in my eyes, some grandly lyrical passages for the strings. In short, the result was a healthy blend of modern and romantic traditions.
Beethoven's second piano concerto is always a special treat because of its classical quality, much more in tune with Haydn or Mozart than with the composer's ground-breaking, stormy later work. Having a sensitive pianist such as Emanuel Ax make it come alive is truly a pleasure too rare to pass. Keeping his fingers light and displaying tranquil assurance, he inconspicuously emphasized the delicate finesse of the concerto. The NSO backed him up remarkably well under the baton of a much at ease Michael Stern.
It is for me an eternal frustration not to hear Sibelius' music more often in concert halls, so when I do, I am more than ready for it. This afternoon was no exception as I got to fully revel in his sweepingly lush melodies, fervently rousing passages and generally beautiful harmonies. The Pathétique-worthy final movement was so unabashedly romantic that it would have probably made Tchaikovsky jealous and totally explains why it rightfully stands as one of the most emotionally stirring finales of all classical music.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Met - Der Rosenkavalier - 01/09/10

Composer: Richard Strauss
Conductor: Edo de Waart
Director: Nathaniell Merrill
Renée Fleming: The Marschallin, Princess von Werdenberg
Susan Graham: Octavian
Baron Ochs auf Lerchenau: Kristinn Sigmundsson
Sophie von Faninal: Christine Schäfer

I had finished my Met year 2009 with Richard Strauss' ghastly shocker Elektra and according to my own programming I was going to start my Met year 2010 with Richard Strauss' endlessly charming (not to mention definitely safer by all accounts) Der Rosenkavalier, featuring no less than Met veterans Renée Fleming and Susan Graham. You gotta give it to the man, he was VERY eclectic! And all the better for us. After expressing his desire to create a Mozartian opera as far as possible from his two sulphurous previous works, he actually followed through with the help of his Elektra collaborator Hugo von Holmannstahl again. After a convoluted genesis, the final outcome proved so all-around popular that the two men just kept at it and enjoyed one of the most thriving partnerships in all opera history. None of their subsequent efforts, however, would ever meet Der Rosenkavalier's instant and enduring success.
Set in an imaginary 18th century Vienna, the story happily mixes nostalgic fantasy, personal drama and social commentary, all accompanied by a richly romantic score. What's not to love? Neither snow nor rain was threatening to complicate my trip, which was accomplished in a near-record time of 3 hours and 45 minutes, so this time the snafu came from my not noticing the opera's unusual length and that its ending was consequently scheduled at the exact same time I was supposed to depart from New York. Oops.

Der Rosenkavalier's plot is not hard to follow, but can from time to time seem downright contrived and silly. Moreover, the purists will have to forget about historical accuracy as it is first and foremost a completely fictitious story. The tradition of the silver rose has never existed and waltzes were not part of the Viennese life in those days. But never mind. The end result is still a delightful comic opera which, in the right hands, delivers opulent music and transcendental singing... for about three and a half hours (not counting the two intermissions).
And you know you're in good hands when the first scene opens on Renée Fleming and Susan Graham giddily rolling around in bed after an obviously very satisfying night together (Ah, those glorious horns in the prelude were just something else, weren't they?). The fact that these two real-life long-time friends managed to pull it off without bursting into giggling fits is an undeniable proof of their power of concentration, and their acting abilities even extend to the point where one fully fell for Renée Fleming as the Marschallin, the washed-out princess at the ripe age of 32 (?!) while Susan Graham did require a stronger suspension of disbelief for her 17-year old Octavian. Although I will never get used to seeing female singers interpret male parts, I have to say that she did a wonderful job, especially from afar.
The singing was top-notch, of course, with truly arresting moments such as Renée Fleming melancholically asserting that some day her lover will leave her or the ravishingly beautiful final trio when she willingly releases Octavian to the one he now loves. To complete the main cast, Kristinn Sigmundsson was an appropriately boorish and lecherous baron, forcefully trying to woo a sweetly innocent Sophie. Even if, here again, soprano Christine Schäfer's real age made it hard to believe she was such an ingenious creature, the purity of her voice and the clarity of her singing more than made up for the disparity. After all, what is opera, if not make-belief?
The decors and costumes were absolutely splendid, from the sumptuous fairy-tale dresses to the lavishly adorned sets, as easy on the eyes as the music was on the ears. Gorgeous melodies were all over the lushly lyrical score, especially in the form of that infectious waltz that everybody takes home with them, but there were also scenes of earthy comic relief such as the Marchallin's rambunctious visitors competing for her attention in Act I or the spooky fun generated by the "supernatural" apparitions in the baron's private room in Act III. So a lot was going on at all times, and to his credit guest conductor Edo de Waart made sure that musicians and singers were provided enough time and space to let the magic happen, masterfully bringing it all home.

So Der Rosenkavalier turned out to be a very enjoyable and promising, if a bit overextended, way to get my 2010 season going in New York, especially since I did manage to eventually make it back to DC with little hassle on the road and much happiness in the head.

Friday, January 8, 2010

NSO - Elgar & Holst - 01/07/10

Conductor: Leonard Slatkin
Elgar: Violin Concerto in B Minor, Op. 61 - Nikolaj Znaider
Holst: The Planets, Op. 32 - The Choral Arts Society of Washington

He's baaaaaaaack!!!!!!!!!!! He may not be the most heralded conductor of our times and his moving on to other opportunities was probably well-timed, but Leonard Slatkin's first return to the National Symphony orchestra's podium since his departure two years ago and his scary heart attack a few months ago was an emotional affair for most classical music lovers in the Washington, DC area, to be sure. So there was definitely a palpable sense of excitement and expectation in the near-capacity concert hall last night. To mark this special occasion, and the first NSO concert of 2010 to boot, the program was appropriately unusual: Elgar's long violin concerto would be performed by young but already much in demand Nikolaj Znaider, and Holst's Planets would take care of the second part of the program, bringing a solid and interesting balance to a decidedly very British evening.

The scheduling of Elgar's rarely heard violin concerto was not just serendipity. Just one century ago this year it was performed for the first time and to enthusiastic acclaim in Queen's Hall, London, by Fritz Kreisler on the very same Guarneri del Gesù violin that Nikolaj Znaider was going to use for us yesterday. And the Danish violinist quickly demonstrated that he positively knew his way around the prestigious instrument by displaying a technique and a maturity way beyond his years. An unabashedly romantic offering to a never fully acknowledged female dedicatee, the concerto proved yesterday that its unusual length could be a true blessing as we were all fully enjoying its wide array of straightforward and intense emotions, occasionally interspersed by short episodes of witticism and darkness. The exquisitely tender cadenza in the final minutes was just the perfect ending to this beautifully expressive piece. Another proof that those English are not that uptight after all!
After Elgar's passionnate declaration of love, the loudly aggressive sounds of Mars, the Bringer of War, the first segment of Holst's seven Planets, sounded particularly harsh. It was, however, immediately contrasted by the lyrical luminosity of Venus, the Bringer of Peace. Going down the firmament, Mercury, the Winged Messenger was full of verve and Jupiter, the Bringer of Jollity exulted boundless energy and fun. The unofficial second half featured Saturn, the Bringer of Old Age, invested with a Mahlerian thoughtfulness, Uranus, the Magician brought carnival-style humor and Neptune, the Mystic concluded the whole series with an etherally mysterious female chorus. Hidden backstage but nevertheless hauntingly present, their diaphanous voices were slowly fading away as the lights grew dimmer, quietly emphasizing the eternity of the unknown.

Thursday, January 7, 2010

Steven Isserlis & Kirill Gerstein - Britten, Schumann & Rachmaninoff - 01/06/10

Britten: Sonata for Cello and Piano, Op. 65
Schumann (arr. Isserlis): Sonata No 3 for Violin and Piano in A Minor
Rachmaninoff: Sonata for Cello and piano in G Minor, Op. 19

Now that we have entered this brand new year (this brand new decade!) it is high time to get back into the groove of live musical performances again. So last night, for the first time in a while, I walked the familiar road to the Kennedy Center for a recital by internationally renowed cellist Steven Isserlis and recent Gilmore award recipient pianist Kirill Gerstein, who were performing at the Terrace Theater as part of the much appreciated Kennedy Center Fortas Chamber Music Concerts series. An attractive, international program was on hand with sonatas by Britten, Schumann and Rachmaninoff, all of them highlighting the less often enjoyed piano-cello combination. And the fact that the works would be presented by such a distinguished Russian connection was a decidedly most auspicious way to start a brand new musical year.

Especially written for Rostropovich by Britten after the Russian cellist insistently requested something for the cello during their first encounter, it was premiered by both masters in Aldeburg in 1961 and would also mark the beginning of a long, solid and productive friendship. The five movements of the sonata have very distinct personalities, from aggressively fragmented to beautifully heart-felt, and form an original musical arch. Undaunted, the two musicians authoritatively took charge of the demanding work and delivered a colorful, virtuosic interpretation of it.
After Britten’s modern, occasionally grating, piece we moved back in time and crossed the pond for a rarely heard composition born in unusual circumstances. It all started when Schumann, Brahms and Dietrich, a student of the latter, decided to collaborate on a sonata for violin and piano for the violinist Joseph Joachim, even calling it the “F.A.E.” (Frei aber einsam – Free but alone) Sonata as per the recipient’s motto. After its first performance, Schumann quickly added an opening movement and a scherzo to his intermezzo and finale before having the cataclysmic breakdown from which he would never fully recover. The sonata was consequently never published, but luckily for us Steven Isserlis has deemed it highly worthy of the spotlight and arranged it for the cello. Yesterday evening, the result turned out to be an often restless but fully engaging work, which was performed with just the right amount of energy and harmony.
And the evening kept on getting better. After the intermission, we all quickly became enthralled by Rachmaninoff’s beautifully expressive Sonata for Cello and piano in G Minor. The Russian composer wrote very little chamber music, but he still infused this piece with his trademark gentleness and melancholy, giving both instruments plenty of opportunities to shine. The piano may have been the leader here, but the cello melodic lines came up so starkly lyrical, beaming with rich dark hues, that they magnificently rose and soared, bringing us all to this ever-elusive higher ground.

A pared-down, magically etheral version of Elgar's "Nimrod" concluded this most satisfying recital, one that will be remembered as a decidedly promising start of a new year. Onwards and forwards!