Sunday, February 28, 2010

The Philadelphia Orchestra - Brahms & Shostakovich - 02/28/10

Conductor: Charles Dutoit
Brahms: Violin Concerto in D Major, Op. 77 - Janice Jansen
Shostakovich: Symphony No 11 in G Minor, Op. 103, "The Year 1905"

As hard as it was to believe, that time of the year was upon us again today! After 11 long months of burning anticipation, Heidi and I were back in her station wagon (Oops! I mean SUV. Well, one of these big things) on the road to Philadelphia to meet our friends Meg, David and Matìas for brunch and my now traditional belated-but-so-worth-it Christmas gift. The eagerly awaited present was dispensed this year again in the form of tickets to the prestigious Philadelphia Orchestra, which would for the occasion be conducted by Charles Dutoit and welcome Dutch virtuoso Janine Jansen. The program consisted in two works (but what works!) by Brahms and Shostakovich. Side by side, their names can appear like an odd association, but since even one of them would have easily justified the trip, the two together were just too good to be pass.

Brahms's hyper-Romantic violin concerto needs no introduction and spotting it on a concert program never fails to make my day. It is the musical piece I've heard the most often, bar none, and that status is unlikely to change any time soon as it is one of those classics frequently performed to ecstatic audiences all around the world. This afternoon, Janine Jansen displayed the same impressive chops she demonstrated a couple of weeks ago at the Kennedy Center, effortlessly going from Sibelius' icy brilliance to Brahms' unrestrained lyricism. The opulent richness of the first movement being a dazzling treasure chest of gorgeous melodies, it is hard to believe that the rest of the score measures up, but it does. The exquisite Adagio, in which the oboe and the violin gracefully compete for attention, is a little jewel in itself, and the final explosion routinely concludes things with sparkling exuberance. Earlier today, the Philadelphia Orchestra proved once more that it is staying at the top of its game with tightness, fluidity and flair, the ideal respectful accompaniment to our radiant soloist.
After Brahms' lush Romanticism, the time had come for one of Shostakovich's beautifully gripping symphonies. The man had the knack to make even the depressing and turbulent sound incredibly good, and his Symphony No 11 is no exception. Allegedly inspired by a bloodily repressed popular uprising in St Petersburg in 1905 as well as the brutally put down Hungarian revolution in 1956, its four movements, based on old Russian tunes and performed without a pause, strikingly combine the stirring quietness of death and the rousing sounds associated with rightful upheavals. There was obviously a lot going on and maestro Dutoit managed to keep everything under tight control, eliciting clear and unified sounds from all the various sections of the orchestra, including the less frequently highlighted instruments such as the violas, the harps and some of the timpani. Today, all of them got their turn in the spotlight at some point during the sprawling hour and the result was an all-encompassing musical feast. Sometimes, more is more.

BSO - Mozart & Beethoven - 02/27/10

Conductor: Nicholas McGegan
Mozart: Overture to The Marriage of Figaro, K. 492
Beethoven: Piano Concerto in C Major, op. 15 - Robert Levin
Improvisations in the Style of Beethoven - Robert Levin
Mozart: Symphony No 41 in C Major, K. 551, "Jupiter"

Snow? What snow? As the big bad storm everybody was bracing themselves for was courteous enough to spare Washington, life went on as usual yesterday. So it was on clear roads that my friend Deborah and I made our way to Strathmore for yet another concert by the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, conducted this time by Nicholas McGegan, a name that has been long linked to the Philharmonica Baroque Orchestra (PBO) of San Francisco. Well-established Mozart expert and contemporary music supporter Robert Levin was going to be the soloist for Beethoven's first piano concerto as well as some cool-sounding improvisations. To stay in a Viennese state of mind, Mozart was also going to be present with the delicious overture to The Marriage of Figaro and the majestic Jupiter.

One cannot imagine a better way to get the evening going than by kicking it off with the high-spirited perfection that is Mozart's overture to The Marriage of Figaro. Smartly recapitulating characters and plot line, it vivaciously prepares the audience for the brilliant comedy of manners that is to follow. The BSO plunged right into it, highlighting the finesse and fun of a delightful work that could easily stand on its own.
Although Mozart's influence is clearly palpable in Beethoven's piano concerto No 1, it also contains elements that were slowly but surely ushering the more opulent Romantic wave. The speedy first movement was probably written to allow Beethoven to flaunt his extraordinary skills at the piano while the second one is a melancholic rêverie that delicately unfolds. It was actually so dream-like that the two men sitting on both sides of my seat managed to promptly fall asleep (No snoring involved, thank goodness!), barely disturbed by the robust, perky finale. Young but already much in demand, Robert Levin got plenty of opportunities to display his considerable talent while playfully enjoying a good chemistry with a very comfortable orchestra.
Before the Beethoven concerto, our soloist had asked able and willing audience members to provide him with a couple of Beethoven-style bars via the ushers during the intermission so he could then pick a few and let his creative juices freely flow. And he did! After selecting four samples, he started working on them right away and the result was a full-blown, mesmerizing tour de force.
After the delightful treat, it was back to business as usual with Mozart and his last symphony. Although the name "Jupiter" was later attributed to it by London impresario Peter Salomon for marketing purposes, it is hard to think of a more appropriate one. The stupefying breadth and all-around harmony of the work from the authoritative opening to the truly grand finale magisterially prove the incredible artistic maturity he had reached in his mid-thirties and what the world has been missing since his ridiculously ill-timed death. True to his alleged opinion that music should never be painful to the ear, his 41th symphony bristles with his trademark purity of sound while showing a surprising intensity as if he was attempting to bridge the gap between his own refined classicism and Beethoven's sense of struggle and urgency. So irresistibly attractive that anybody is instantly hooked and complex enough to keep us coming back for more, it is truly a gift that keeps on giving. Having a first-class ensemble such as the BSO bring it to life one more time was yet another proof that one can never get too much of a good thing. We didn't, but we sure got our fill of it.

Monday, February 22, 2010

The Orchestra of St. Luke - Haydn & Beethoven - 02/21/10

Conductor: Sir Roger Nottington
Haydn: Symphony No 99 in E-Flat Major, Hob. I:99
Beethoven: Symphony No 9 in D Minor, Op. 125 - Westminster Symphonic Choir, Jessica Rivera, Kelley O'Connor, Eric Cutler & Wayne Tigges

This week of renewal has turned out to be a week of incredible double-whammies as well with Rachmaninoff, Tchaikovsky and, during the weekend, Beethoven with his Symphony No 5 on Saturday night in Washington and his Symphony No 9 on Sunday afternoon in New York. That's what I call a good use of one's own time. So as it were, yesterday the reliably brilliant Orchestra of St Luke conducted by distinguished Sir Roger Nottington was entertaining a sold-out crowd at Carnegie Hall. Beside being his other ground-breaking feat, Beethoven's ninth symphony also owes its ever-lasting popularity to its last movement which not only puts Schiller's ode "An die Freude" to music in a stirring fashion, but has also become the European Union's national anthem. What's not to love?

Things started off with good old Haydn who never disappoints me, even if he never completely carries me away either. I do, however, deeply admire his clever craftsmanship, and his symphony No 99 stands as yet another example of his remarkable, and remarkably abundant, oeuvre. The musicians of the slightly reduce orchestra proved one more time what a truly virtuosic ensemble they are by delivering a beautifully unified sound.
But the mammoth in the Perlman auditorium was of course Beethoven's awe-inspiring swan song, a symphony that smashingly expresses the universal triumph of humanity over adversity. All the way to the baritone's opening statement, the music oozes mystery, darkness and terror, occasionally punctuated by short lyrical outbursts. There is an endless spiritual quest in those currents, a challenging search for unifying brotherhood among men. Eventually, an answer is found as the all-around thrilling Ode to Joy explodes and conquers all. Far from the natural reserve typically associated with Englishmen, maestro Nottington led a ferociously gripping performance by a fully committed orchestra and singers, treating the riveted audience to over an hour of pure electric bliss. A special note much be made of the choir who sang all the way up to the heavens. As much as I was resenting spending such a beautiful Sunday afternoon inside, all this ambivalence had disappeared once I got out, having celebrated not only the victory of mankind over dark forces, but also life's rebirth over the winter blues.

BSO - Bach, Tchaikovsky & Beethoven - 02/20/10

Conductor: Itzhak Perlman
Bach: Concerto in C Minor for Oboe and Violin, BWV 1060
Tchaikovsky: Serenade for Strings, Op. 48
Beethoven: Symphony No 5 in C Minor, Op. 67

As part of my back-to-normal program last week, and with complete disregard for my reluctance of going out on "amateur night" (in the burbs on top of it!), I finally went to hear the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra for the first time this year on Saturday night at Strathmore, their second home. But when Itzhak Perlman shows up, who wouldn't go? Not to mention that it was an all the more appealing outing as the uncontested premier violin virtuoso was going to play and conduct a back-to-the-classics trio of works by Bach, Tchaikovsky and Beethoven.

Bach's Concerto for Oboe and Violin was our one and only opportunity to witness our special guest's stunning skills at violin playing, and we had to focus all our attention on it because the piece was short and the solos, either his or the oboist's, did not particularly stand out but were subtly integrated into the music. To make the experience even more pleasant, the reduced orchestra gently emphasized the courtly intricacies of the concerto and allowed the spirited melodies to playfully shine.
After Bach's Baroque moment, I had the always welcome pleasure of hearing Tchaikovsky for the second time last week. Only the full string sections of the BSO were performing his appropriately titled Serenade for Strings, a welcome respite from all the resounding brass sounds of his 4th symphony that were still ringing in my ears. Reining in his trademark sentimentality and demonstrating a quasi-Mozartian elegance, the Russian composer used his extraordinary gift for melody to the fullest and created a truly lovely serenade. No stranger to refined lyricism himself, Itzhak Perlman made all those strings sing with passion and delicacy for an enchanting divertimento.
The main course of the evening was of course Beethoven's ground-breaking Symphony No 5, a classic among classics, and it was a BSO in full force that gave us another hair-raising interpretation of it. Proving that he could skillfully handle the German master's magnificent score, maestro Perlman kept the music coming and washing over the audience from the dark, urgent first movement through the quieter, happier ones all the way to the final triumph of life. A familiar journey for the vast majority of the sold-out audience for sure, but also another memorable take on it, proving once more that you can never get too much of a good thing.

Friday, February 19, 2010

NSO - Auerbach, Rachmaninoff & Tchaikovsky - 02/18/10

Conductor: James Gaffigan
Auerbach: Requiem for Icarus
Rachmaninoff: Piano Concerto No 2 in C Minor, Op. 18 - Denis Matsuev
Tchaikovsky: Symphony No 4 in F Minor, Op. 36

Since Washington has certainly been looking more like Russia than where-North-meets-South lately (Never mind the Mariinsky people scoffing at the cancellation of one of their performances for what they consider a minor climate challenge), it was perfect timing for one of the National Symphony Orchestra's Focus on Russia program that was presenting an appetizing trio of goodies consisting of Auerbach's myth-inspired requiem, Rachmaninoff's ever-popular Piano Concert No 2 and Tchaikovsky's epic Symphony No 4. In this week celebrating our area's return to normalcy, it was a pleasure to welcome such comfort musical pieces that would be performed by brand new partners to the NSO in the persons of young but already much acclaimed American conductor James Gaffigan and Russian pianist Denis Matsuev.

Needless to say, the first work was the more obscure of the evening, but it sure made a strong and lasting impression. Inspired by Icarus' tragic fate and opening with stirring brass notes, the 10-minute requiem did wonder at expressing the winged boy's growing impatience, complete rapture and eventual downfall, all punctuated by lovely violin solos as well as more unusual sounds coming from a theremin or a glass harmonica.
But no matter how satisfying the first part of the concert was, it is probably a safe bet to assume that most people in the audience were there for the two following warhorses of the Russian repertoire that were coming up next. Rachmaninoff's second piano concerto has remained a beloved appearance on concert programs all around the world no doubt because of the endlessly generous beauty of its music, another lush journey into the very heart of Russian Romanticism. Denis Matsuev proved to be a more than worthy interpreter of his fellow countryman by inconspicuously enhancing the natural quality of the score without falling into syrupy maudlinness. The NSO played with plenty of liveliness under the very dynamic baton of its young maestro, but all eyes and ears were rightfully riveted to the piano man.
After a thunderous ovation, he even came back and treated us to his personal arrangement of "Largo al Factotum" from Rossini's Barber of Seville, brilliantly demonstrating that he could handle spirited fun as well.
And the evening went on with one of Tchaikovsky's most instantly recognizable works, his 4th symphony, which got the respectful and energetic treatment it deserved, from the bright opening sounds of the brass to the sweeping élans of the violins, all smartly put to the service of the composer's widely contrasting emotional state of mind. Last night the first movement opened with an implacable Fate-invoking fanfare while the last one ended in an intoxicating life-affirming explosion. Every familiar segments in between - the delicate waltz, the nostalgic oboe solo, the spooky pizzicati - kept on bringing us back to the life journey James Ganiffan and Co were taking us on. It was a take-no-prisoner, thrilling account of the first truly memorable symphony by the Russian composer, and smashingly concluded our very hot Russian evening.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

WPAS - The Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra - Sibelius & Rachmaninoff - 02/15/10

Conductor: Mariss Jansons
Sibelius: Violin Concerto in D Minor, Op. 47 - Janice Jansen
Rachmaninoff: Symphony No 2 in E Minor, Op. 27

FINALLY! After too many days of being hunkered down at home while the wintry elements were raging outside, things are slowly getting back to normal. However, I for one am still having a hard time coming to terms with the crushing disappointment that was the cancellation of Till Fellner's Beethoven recital at the National Gallery of Art on that beautiful but transportation-challenged Sunday evening. At least Joshua Bell and Jeremy Denk's recital at Strathmore got rescheduled for early March. The German say "Anticipation is the best form of happiness", but I'm still expecting the actual performance to outdo my eager anticipation.
One thing for sure, nobody needed the excuse of cabin fever to get out and show up at the Kennedy Center last night. Authoritatively dubbed "the greatest orchestra in the world " by no less than venerable Gramophone, which at some point had declared itself "the greatest music magazine in the world" (I guess it takes one to know one), the Royal Concertgebouw was paying us a most welcome visit in the irresistible company of their fellow countrywoman Janice Jansen to perform Sibelius' fabulous violin concerto and Rachmaninoff's majestic symphony No 2 in a Romantic-to-the-brim program.

As much as I hate cut-and-dry ranking, I have to say that Sibelius' gripping violin concerto definitely belongs to my personal holy trinity that also includes Tchaikovsky's and Brahms' (Mendelssohn's and Bruch's hovering at extremely close proximity as well, needless to say). The Finnish composer being a first-rate violinist himself, the score makes full and dazzling use of the instrument's seemingly endless possibilities. From the hypnotic evocation of a bleak, icy landscape during the first movement to the open-hearted lyricism of the middle one, the music imperceptibly inserts itself in the listener's mind before exploding into the brilliantly electric finale. And to handle this bravura piece, what better virtuoso than fast-rising Janine Jansen, a fearless young woman who obviously hides nerves of steel under her sculptural silhouette? Taking full command of the devilishly difficult work right away, she steadily managed to combine just the right amount of exquisite finesse and uncompromising urgency in a relentlessly dynamic performance. Backed by the impeccable ensemble that is the Concertgebouw under the involved but disciplined baton of maestro Jansons, Ms Jansen swept away everything in her path in three movements and a lot of va-va-voom. Can't wait to hear her tackle the Brahms in two weeks in Philly.
Then came the roller-coaster journey that is Rachmaninoff's second symphony. Yes, the music is a bit (too much, according to some) on the sentimental side, and it does not make any apology for it. If you're the slightest into lush, sweeping sounds, it does not get much better than hearing it performed by such a perfectly unified assembly of virtuosi. Yesterday the Adagio, well-known for its two forever soaring melodies in the best Tchaikovsky tradition, turned out to be the indisputed highlight of the self-indulgent treat that is the last, but not the least, of the grand Russian Romantic symphonies. Obviously benefiting from an in-depth knowledge of this familiar territory, Mariss Jansons and the musicians played it safe-but-gratifying by unrolling the sumptuous score with passionate commitment and controlled flair, making its one-hour duration just fly by.

As if it were not enough, Mariss Jansons led the apparently tireless orchestra into an energy-filled rendition of the "Farandole" from the second suite of Bizet's L'Arlésienne and sent us off into the night with plenty of happy notes in our heads.