Sunday, March 28, 2010

NSO - Dvorak, Schubert & Janacek - 03/28/10

Conductor: Jakub Hrusa
Dvorak: Cello Concerto in B Minor, Op. 104 - Daniel Müller-Schott
Schubert: Symphony No 8 in B Minor, D. 759, "Unfinished"
Janacek: Taras Bulba

Now that the visiting family members are gone, nothing symbolizes a return to regular life like a concert by the National Symphony Orchestra at the Kennedy Center. When the program includes Dvorak's superb cello concerto and Schubert's compelling Unfinished as well as a work by Janacek, it is a no brainer. Of course, having Dvorak's most famous composition performed by young but much talked-about German cellist Daniel Müller-Schott was an extra incentive, a young Czech conductor taking charge of the works of two major Czech composers wrapped up the compelling package nicely.
The life of a live performance aficionada may be full of twists and turns, but it is also packed with grating frustrations. As I was taking my seat in the concert hall, I found myself surrounded by the trio from hell: the woman to my right was abominably reeking of cigarette smoke (and had the skin to go with it), the woman to my left had a nervous habit that made her head constantly bob (I was exhausted by just sitting next to her) and the one behind had a nasty coughing fit as the soloist had just started to play, fit of course followed by the dreaded unwrapping of a cough drop. I was really back!

In the middle of all these olfactory, physical and auditive disturbances, I still managed to connect with Dvorak's bittersweet concerto. Unequivocally putting the cello in the foreground, the Czech composer wrote some dazzlingly melodic lines for the instrument while remaining careful to keep it fully integrated in the whole piece. This classic among classics develops to be a dramatically lyrical statement featuring a delicately ethereal second movement about the imminent death of his sister-in-law, who had been the big love of his life, and deep nostalgia toward his homeland. This afternoon it received a strongly committed treatment by Daniel Müller-Schott and unfolded with true symphonic grandeur despite its seemingly chamber-like setting.
After Dvorak's passionate personal score, Schubert's Unfinished was all deep darkness, long-winded melodies, turbulent passages and quiet poignancy. Indisputably the most celebrated truncated work of classical music, its two movements are a bottomless wealth of textural richness and emotional expressiveness. Conductor and orchestra took a subtle, unhurried approach to it, and as a result it seemed to last longer than expected, but who am I to complain?
Back in the Czech Republic, Janacek wrapped up the program with a composition that was about a novella by Gogol relating the rather grim life of the 16th century ruthless Cossack military leader Taras Bulba. Trying hard to emphasize the warrior's love for his country and, err, family issues (He killed one of his sons while the other met a dreadful end courtesy of the Poles), it includes breathless, drastic rhythmical changes and makes full use of the whole orchestra. There were a few opportunities for first violin Nurit Bar-Josef to shine, which she did with her usual talent.

Met - Hamlet - 03/27/10

Composer: Ambroise Thomas
Conductor: Louis Langrée
Director: Patrice Caurier & Moshe Leiser
Hamlet: Simon Keenlyside
Ophelie: Marlis Petersen
Claudius: James Morris
Gertude: Jennifer Larmore
Laerte: Toby Spence

NOT AGAIN! Although the change had been announced with some notice this time, it did not make the disappointment easier to swallow: much anticipated French soprano Natalie Dessay was not going to reprise her celebrated role of Ophélie because of an ill-timed illess, and lesser-known but reputedly magnetic Marlis Petersen had been tapped to fill in for her... with 3 days to get ready! That being said, my all-consuming eagerness to see my fellow countrywoman in action had not stemmed from any nationalistic impulse but because she is particularly famous for throwing herself whole-heartedly into every mad scene that comes her way, Ophélie's being her calling card (with Lucia de Lammermoor not far behind). Since this was supposed to be her last performance of it at the Met, all we can hope is that she will get well soon enough and come back at a later date to deliver.

Shakespeare's plays have been adapted to the musical stage with various degrees of success. Hamlet being one of his most popular, it was unavoidable that it would receive an operatic treatment sooner or later. Everybody thinks they know Hamlet, but the fact is the play can be seen at so many different levels that the possibilities for interpretation are literally endless. With a straightforward story involving complex characters, it is nothing but a dream source of good old drama, and I was very curious to see how it would translate in the hands of a French opera composer.
Let's kill the suspense right now: the mad scene went really, really well. Marlis Petersen does not have the bigger-than-life quality of Natalie Dessay, but she turned out to be a fabulous Ophélie in her very own way. Her bright coloratura nicely complemented her chaste white dress and sweet demeanor, and she fully and beautifully immersed herself in the crucial scene, delicately bristling with vulnerability and hopelessness among the few scattered bouquets of white flowers, emblematic remnants of her cancelled wedding. I think it is fair to say that after smashingly conquering this ferociously challenging 20-minute aria, Marlis Petersen has established herself as a true opera gem, and all the better for us.
Being the world's most famous prince cannot be an easy task, but English star baritone Simon Keenlyside proved to be as equally talented an actor as a singer. His Hamlet was painfully touching in his brewing rage and incapacity to make a decision, his constant, nagging ambivalence well-displayed in his rich, nuanced voice and his elegant, tormented appearance. Despite Ophélie's tour de force, this is the multi-layered character who makes things happen by precisely not being able to act, and yesterday afternoon Simon Keenlyside's sensitive interpretation assuredly caught and kept everybody's attention.
The rest of the cast showed that they too had the right stuff to take part in this singer-centric production. Met regular James Morris gave a paradoxically dignified interpretation of Claudius and Jennifer Larmore was simply terrific as a ghastly Gertrude. Smaller roles were equally strong, and the Met's chorus made its presence vividly heard, as usual.
The overall quality of the singing was all the more emphasized that the set was drastically bare, apart from two moving walls and a few carefully symbolic props, and highly efficient in its minimalism. The color scheme was decidedly neutral and soft for the decor and the costumes. All the more to zero in on the characters' conflicts.
Ambroise Thomas was obviously not a first-rate composer, even though he was very successful in his time. Maestro Langrée nevertheless made the most of a score that inconspicuously, if not brilliantly, supported the libretto, the latter from which all of the Bard's eloquent language had unfortunately disappeared. But at least let's be grateful that this production presented the play's traditional ending as opposed to the happy one that was wrapping the original version of the opera. You can only take change so far, and what we saw was just enough.

Monday, March 22, 2010

Met - La Bohème - 03/21/10

Composer: Giacomo Puccini
Conductor: Marco Armiliato
Director: Franco Zeffirelli
Mimi: Angela Gheorghiu
Rodolfo: Piotr Beczala
Musetta: Ruth Ann Swenson
Marcello: George Petean
Colline: Oren Gradus
Schaunard: Massimo Cavalletti

The life of a live performance aficionada can sometimes have as many unexpected twists and turns as the most convoluted opera. Even as I was feeling pangs of guilt for temporarily abandoning my not-well-traveled, hardly-English-speaking parents and sister to their own device for a couple of hours on their first day in New York City, I was giddily looking forward to experiencing Zeffirelli's famed production of La Bohème at the Met with the alluring couple of Anna Netrebko and Piotr Beczala.
But fate had decided otherwise and as soon as I opened my program I noticed the dreaded insert, this time stating that Anna Netrebko was ill, which made my heart sink, and that Angela Gheorghiu would fill in for her, which made my heart leap right back into place. I had been very disappointed by the latter's baling out of Carmen a couple of months ago, so it looked like payback time had already come.
In the wide-ranging world of the lyrical arts, La Bohème definitely qualifies as "comfort opera". The story is all about love and bohemian life, and the music is of course as pretty as can be. Add to that charismatic singers and a richly evocative decor, et voilà! After the miserable opening night that nearly broke Puccini's heart, this blatantly sentimental, unabashedly lyrical opera has consistenly been an audience's favorites, and the long sold-out crowd on Saturday afternoon was yet another case in point.

Even if she lacks Anna Netrebko's innocence and vulnerability, Angela Ghiorghiu more than makes up for it with her famously versatile voice and unmistakable presence. Let's face it, the woman may have an infuriating prima donna attitude offstage and borderline grating mannerisms onstage, but as soon as she opens her mouth, all is forgiven and forgotten. Mimi has long been one of her signature roles, so she had the choice to dwell deep into the part or just walk through it. Luckily for us, she chose the first option and offered us a lovely, if a bit on the mature side, heroine, effortlessly conveying the poor girl's sweet nature and tragic fate with her endlessly pliable, artlessly lyrical voice.
As Rodolfo, Piotr Beczala delivered a pitch-perfect performance combining ardent singing and committed acting. His instantaneous love for his neighbor genuinely seemed to take him by surprise and his burning desire to do the right thing was as touching as his helplessness when confronted with her fatal illness. Their first encounter remains one of the most treasured duets in opera, and on Saturday the chemistry beautifully operated.
The rest of the gang served the production admirably. Rodofo's three roommates skillfully formed a tight group of best buddies and easily brought the right amount of good-natured humor and dramatic thrust to the plot. As Musetta, Ruth Ann Swenson may not have had the flawless beauty she boasted about in her stirring introductory aria, and which explains the irresistible power she has over her impressive list of conquests, but her singing was gloriously full and bright.
The story unfolded in Zeffirelli's predictably opulent set, where even the destitute artists' attic studio was striking by its richness of details and overall attractiveness. The second act was a dazzling two-leveled festival of sights and sounds, brilliantly evoking the Latin Quarter on a rambunctious Christmas Eve. The snow was poetically falling on the dreamy wintry landscape during Act 3, poignantly underlining the growing direness of the lead couple's circumstances before the action was back in the infamously cold garret for the final act. All those scenes, as different as they were, clearly displayed the Italian director's lavish touch without stealing the attention from the action.
The score is Puccini at his very best, overflowing with enchanting melodies that not only dramatically emphasize the decisive moments, but also connect everything together with transcendental lyricism. Marco Armiliato is a frequent conductor at the Met and his mastery at bringing Italian opera to life had long been proven. On Saturday afternoon, he let it all impeccably soar, even if the singers' voices were occasionally drowned in the brazenly rolling musical waves. The result may not always have been perfectly balanced, but it was for sure passionately expressive, and would have made Puccini very proud of his opera about the lives of little people with big emotions.

Friday, March 12, 2010

NSO - Verdi - 03/11/10

Conductor: Christopher Eschenbach
Verdi: Requiem - Twyla Robinson, Mihoko Fujimura, Nikolai Schukoff, Evgeny Nikitin & The Washington Chorus

As soon as March comes around, you can be sure that spring and Verdi's Requiem are likely to make their equally welcome appearances in the Washington, DC area. Spring seemed to be shyly lurking earlier this week, but Verdi's monumental liturgical work was for sure scheduled on the National Symphony Orchestra's calendar later in the week, with maestro Eschenbach making his first appearance since the announcement of his nomination as the NSO's latest Music Director, a post he will officially take on in September. As a die-hard fan of opera and classical music, I could only rejoice at the thought of being able to revel in such a perfectly balanced cocktail of those two arts.
Verdi's Requiem has always struck me as more in tune with the relentless drama surrounding the Latin text than the stuffiness of the Catholic mass. Being a dedicated agnostic all of his adult life obviously did not prevent him to reflect on the issues of conscience and spirituality. He had originally composed Libera Me after Rossini's death as part of a Requiem that was supposed to be made of contributions from all the leading Italian composers at the time but never came to fruition. Therefore, when five years later his personal friend the Italian poet Alessandro Manzoni, whom he considered a true Italian national hero, passed away, he decided to honor him with a full Requiem.
As an experienced opera man (he had completed no fewer than 16 of them at the time), Verdi knew a thing or two about exploring and expanding the power and possibilities of the human voice, and his Requiem is probably the most operatic of them all. Far from the solemn beauty of Mozart's and the grand pomposity of Berlioz's, Verdi's red-blooded version dwells deeply on primitive human emotions such as fear and hope. To bring those to life, last night we were lucky to have our first-class Washington Chorus and a quartet of international and internationally acclaimed singers. Christopher Eschenbach's reputation to shake things up is definitely bringing some excitement to our wide-ranging but still pretty conservative cultural scene, so we were all looking forward to a very special evening.

And we got it. After a beautifully hushed opening, highlighting the NSO's much celebrated cellos, the music and chorus gently then assertively rose, charged with expectations, before the soloists made their first appearances in the stirring cry for mercy "Kyrie". Without a pause, a near-hysterical "Dies Irae" suddenly erupted, forcefully imposing a truly terrifying vision of the Last Judgement. And that was just the beginning. The rest of the performance mostly managed to keep the same level of intensity thanks to a thrillingly brilliant chorus and an admirable quartet that faced many challenges and met them head on. Most notable was the sharp contract between Mihoko Fujimua's Wagnerian steelness and Twyla Robinson's singsongy lightness, and their duo in the delicate Agnus Dei will definitely be remembered. Christopher Eschenbach seemed to immerse himself body and soul in a work that obviously means a lot to him, and after taking us on a wild ride right between heaven and hell, he brought us all safely to the whispering final plea for deliverance.

Sunday, March 7, 2010

Curtis Institute of Music - Ligeti, Messiaen, Barber, Kovacs & Hindermith - 03/07/10

Ligeti: Six Bagatelles for Wind Quintet
Messiaen: "Appel interstellaire" from Des Canyons aux Etoiles
Barber: Summer music for Wind Quintet
Kovacs: Hommage de Manuel de Falla
Hindemith: Kleine Kammermusik for Wind Quintet, Op. 24

After the four sprawling hours of "War and Peace" wrapped up at 5:45 PM, I was questioning the sanity of going straight to the Millennium Stage upstairs for what would be my last concert of the "Conservatory Series" at 6:00 PM. But I was right there and those young kids had been amazing so far, so why not? The list of internationally famous musicians who have graduated from the Curtis Institute of Music is one of the most impressive around. Just during the last few years its alumni have included Hilary Hahn, Lang Lang, Juan Diego Florez, Alan Gilbert and Jennifer Higdeon. Their program featured modern composers and wind instruments, which would be a double negative for me, but then again, why not?

The Six Bagatelles by Ligeti were just that, six very short and innocuous pieces.
Messiaen's "Appel Interstellaire" sure sounded like coming from outer space, but I have to say that it takes more than a horn solo for me to see stars, never mind that Corey Klein was a very committed young man.
Barber's Summer Music was a breath of fresh air and a pleasant prelude to warmer seasons, the various instruments playfully evoking carefree times.
Kovacs' clarinet solo was lovely thanks to Ruokai Chen's sheer eagerness.
The Kleine Kammermusik by Hindemith brought back the same quintet as Barber's Summer Music, and they displayed the same youthful enthusiasm as previously.

The Mariinsky Opera and Orchestra - War and Peace - 03/07/10

Composer: Sergei Prokofiev
Conductor: Valery Gergiev
Director: Irkin Gabitov
Prince Andrei Bolkonsky: Alexey Markov
Natasha Rostova: Irina Mataeva
Prince Anatol Kuragin: Sergei Skorokhodov
Princess Maria Bolkonskaya: Zlata Bulycheva
Count Pierre Bezukhov: Alexei Steblianko

I put reading "War and Peace" on the list of my New Year's resolutions for a couple of years, and every time quickly gave up. I bought the book though, which I guess would be the first step, and it has been staring down at me from my upper shelf, the one I never reach to, ever since. I am therefore not any kind of authority to speak of it, but I had heard enough about the scope and density of the work to eagerly look forward to watching an abridged but apparently still relevant live version of it (involving, after all, Prokofiev, Gergiev and The Mariinsky Opera and Orchestra) whose running time is about four hours, cut by only one 45-minute intermission. The massive revolving set weighing 30 tons and costing 2 million to ship, not to mention the truly epic nature of the production right in line with Tolstoy's mammoth novel, had made headline news in New York even before it got here so the tickets sold briskly from Day 1 and the visiting Russian artists eventually got to perform in front of sold-out audiences both Saturday night and Sunday afternoon.

The production was evenly cut into two parts that could not be more distinct. The first half focuses on convoluted relationships and easily belongs to the most traditional opera style. The heroine is young and lovely, she falls for the good guy, then she falls for the bad guy, then she wants to die, all of this drama prettily unfolding on an aristocratic background including countryside retreats and fancy balls. The second part opens on a striking but after all quite simple tableau of Napoleon standing tall surrounded by his kneeling soldiers ready to shoot. This was the perfect introduction to most of the second act, which concentrated on the historical circumstances of the novel, namely the French General's foolish attempt to subdue Russia, with powerful battle scenes and rousing patriotic choruses to boot.
This combination of personal and societal turmoils was well-served by the various singers. Irina Mataeva had the right amount of innocence and spunk to convey Natasha's misguided behaviour and her singing, while not transcendental, was clear and very pleasant. As Prince Andrei Bolkonsky, Alexey Markov effortlessly exuded a gentle charm that was all the more reinforced by his strong and attractive, if not mesmerizing, voice. The rest of the cast proved to be up to par as well, but Alexei Steblianko deserved special praise for his powerful turn as all too human Count Pierre Bezukhov. Completely absent before intermission, the Mariinsky chorus kept busy during most of the war-related scenes, steadily churning out rousing peans to Mother Russia with boundless intensity.
The unifying element of all this agitation was of course Prokofiev's unrolling score and maestro Gergiev's well-known stamina was put to good use again while he was manning it all. Beautifully lyrical in the most intimate moments and proudly reaching for the sky when stirring patriotic feelings, the music never ceased to be part of the action without overtaking it. Yes, some hymns were so blatantly populist that they were bordering cheesy propaganda, but the sheer power of the music and the unstoppable fervor of the chorus made us root for them anyway. Clearly relishing every minute of it, Mariinsky Artistic and General Director Valery Gergiev made sure to bring out the best of his obviously committed, if occasionally a touch weary, artists.
And what about the famous revolving set then? After all was said and done, it frankly looked a bit underwhelming, probably because a lot of the scenes are rightfully minimalist, but it did allow for some fluid movements within a single frame. Sometimes it does take a lot to make things appear effortless, and at least it did not overly distract us from the on-going story. Some images were simply but beautifully evocative, such as Moscow's burning symbolized by its glistening red skyline, others a bit off, like the columns occasionnally descending from above and never quite touching the ground in Act 1.

But overall it all worked out very well, even if things dragged on a bit in the second part. After making multiple revisions to the score to please the Kremlin, to no avail, Prokofiev eventually died without having had the opportunity to see the production on stage. Luckily for us, the Mariinsky Theater rose up to the challenge and magisterially succeeded, and in more ways than one. I am considering plunging into the novel... again.

Cleveland Institute of Music - Takemitsu, Bach, Chopin, Schubert, Obradors, Puccini & Mendelssohn - 03/06/10

Takemitsu: "Air"
Bach: Suite No 3 in C Major, BMW 1009
Chopin: Introduction and Polonaise Brillante, Op. 3
Schubert: Gretchen am Spinnrade: An den Mond (Holty) & Ganymed (Goethe)
Obradors: Dos Cantares populares: "Corazon porque pasais" & "Al Amor"
Puccini: "Quando men vo" from La Boheme
Mendelssohn: Piano Trio No 2 in C Minor, Op. 66

Saturday was Day 3 of my "Conservatory Project" marathon and the going was getting good. Just a look at the program and I took off on a special trip to the Kennedy Center where I happened to bump into my friend Patty in the Terrace Theater. Located in the same city as what many consider the finest American classical music orchestra (and incidentally the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame), the Cleveland Institute of Music is a recurring name on the list of best music schools in the country. Having the dean as the page turner no doubt was a powerful incentive for the students to give it their all, and a very attractive program did the rest.

This is the second appearance of Toru Takemitsu this week, and this piece again was for solo flute. Light and melodic, "Air" lived up to its name.
Next, things got serious with a remarkable rendition of the Prelude of Suite No 3 in C Major by Bach, and serious-looking Matthew Allen made his cello muster darkly beautiful tones with poise and dexterity.
He was back for the third work on the program, Chopin's Introduction and Polonaise Brillante, in the company of already much accomplished pianist Eri Nakamura. The chemistry was immediately palpable and her informed piano playing blended seamlessly with his nuanced effort at the cello.
She came back with Meg Hamm, a singer that delighted us with arias by Schubert, Obradors and Puccini. With her clear voice and precise phrasing, she quickly won the audience over in three languages.
I was disappointed for having missed Mendelssohn's Song without Words the day before, but I got a special treat last night with the last two movements of his Piano Trio No 2 in C Minor. The Fairmount Trio proved the perfect ensemble to perform the irresistibly melodic work with youthful vigor and mature talent.

Saturday, March 6, 2010

NSO - Mozart & R. Strauss - 03/05/10

Conductor: Rafael Frühbeck de Burgos
Mozart: Serenade No 6 in D Major, K. 239
Mozart: Piano Concerto No 23 in A Major, K. 488 - Ingrid Fliter
R. Strauss: Symphonia domestica, Op. 53

After checking out the classical music stars of tomorrow upstairs, Heidi and I were back in the more familiar concert hall for an evening of Viennese delight courtesy of the National Symphony Orchestra. I have been hearing quite a bit of Mozart's oeuvre lately, but I am always ready for more, and the fact that much praised Argentinean pianist Ingrid Fliter was going to be on hand to play his stunningly beautiful piano concerto No 23 was enough to make me giddy with anticipation. His Serenade No 6 was going to open the concert, and Richard Strauss' ambitious tone poem Symphonia domestica would be the second half of the program. Maestro Frühbeck de Burgos (Quite a mouthful) was the special conductor of the evening, a familiar and welcome figure to the NSO and its audience.

Mozart's Serenade was predictably a delight of elegance and lightness, a little tidbit with a big pay-off. A fully enjoyed introduction to bigger things to come.
Next, his piano concerto No 23, unsurprisingly one of the most popular in the whole repertoire, unabashedly radiated the same luminous grace, especially highlighted this time in the delicate intricacies sprinkling the soloist's parts in the first and last movements. Breaking the generally sunny mood, however, the slow second movement bristled with thoughtfulness and melancholy while remaining fully integrated in the whole piece, an unexpected emotionally charged moment in an ocean of gentle waves. At the keyboard, Ingrid Fliter clearly demonstrated that her command of piece was real and I couldn't help but notice the impressive fluidity of her playing and her unwavering lightness of touch. Orchestra and conductor seemed to totally relish playing such an accomplished work in such good company, and the whole performance was a true feast to the ear.
After such refined entertainment, it was time to become acquainted with Richard Strauss' apparently blissful domestic life. Even if it has not uninamously praised as a work worthy of its composer and does not appear very often on concert programs, the depiction of 24 hours in the Strauss' household in four continous movements contains a lot to like. The NSO played with praise-worthy, if not impeccable, coherence for such a large and complex challenge and Rafael Frühbeck de Burgos obviously had a field day conducting it from memory. All in all, this was yet another very good evening at the Kennedy Center.

The Shepherd School of Music at Rice University - Meldessohn, Barber, Takemitsu, Villa-Lobos & Brahms - 03/05/10

Mendelssohn: Song without Words in E Major, Op. 19, No 1
Barber: Sonata for piano, op. 26 (IV)
Takemitsu: Voice for Solo Flute
Villa-Lobos: Assobio a jato (The Jet Whistle) for Flute and Cello, W. 493
Brahms: Trio for Violin, Horn (or Violoncello) and Piano in E-Flat Major, Op. 40

Back in the Terrace Theater of the Kennedy Center for the "Conservatory Project", yesterday evening it was the students of the Shepherd School of Music at Rice University who had the privilege to entertain us with a pretty eclectic program fortunately book-ended by two German composers who need no introduction: Mendelssohn and Brahms. Friday night is of course the perfect time to go out and enjoy a free musical performance, so it was in a packed auditorium that my friend Heidi and I made our late entrance due to a particularly hectic work day, but better than never.

Mendelssohn's Songs without Words are brilliant little gems and I am really sorry we did not make it for that one, but life, and music, go on.
Right after we got situated in our seats, Mi-Jong Lee attacked the Fuga of Barber's Sonata for Piano with much force and kept us focused on her the entire time. That's what I call hitting the ground running!
Next was contemporary Japanese composer Takemitsu and a solo piece for flute sprinkled with French words. I am not a big fan of wind instruments and the interspersed French words sounded kind of weird, but at least it was short.
The same flutist, Catherine Ramirez, came back, accompanied this time by a cellist, Lachezar Kostov, and their Spanish rhythms-infused duo was an unusual but nice combination of the two instruments.
And was well that ended well with a stunning rendition of Brahms' Trio for Violin, Violoncello and Piano which the three musicians on the stage (Lachezar Kostov again, Sonja Hasarim and Andrew Staupe) delivered with plenty of heart-felt vivacity and way-beyond-their-years ease. When all is said and done, it is hard indeed to beat the stunning craftsmanship of Brahms and we fully indulged.

San Francisco Conservatory of Music - London & Schoenberg - 03/04/10

London: "Starry Nights, Doggy Days"
Schoenberg: Pierrot lunaire, Op. 21

It is that time of the year again, when promising youngsters from the finest music schools in the country converge to the Terrace Theater of the Kennedy Center to showcase their budding talents during the first week of March as part of the "Conservatory Project". I have missed the first three concerts, but I am determined to catch up as the clock keeps on ticking. Thursday evening the young musicians were coming for the San Francisco Conservatory of Music and presented a decided contemporary program.

The ethereal sounds of marimbas and vibraphones, so reminiscent of a delicate ballet of raindrops, are certainly rare and attractive enough to make them a welcome novelty, if not a transcendental experience.
Schoenberg's combination of spoken text and musical score inspired by Albert's Giraud's set of 21 (3 x 7) poems called Pierrot lunaire turned out to be quite an acquired taste as well. The atonality of the work and the outwardly nature of the narrative made it hard to connect to despite the best efforts of the obviously fully committed performers. We even thought we'd get an early reprieve as a cord of the cello broke and we had to skip two movements, in which the wounded instrument would have been necessary, to make it to the last one. But no such luck. Once all was sung and played, she came back and we got to hear the last three movements in full.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

WPAS - Joshua Bell & Jeremy Denk - Bach, Grieg, Schumann & Ravel - 03/03/10

Bach: Sonata No 4 in C Minor for Violin and Keyboard, BWV 1017
Grieg: Violin Sonata No 3 in C Minor, Op. 45
Schumann: Violin Sonata No 1 in A minor, Op. 105
Ravel: Sonata in G Major for Violin and Piano

Frustratingly delayed, yes, but thankfully not denied, the performance did eventually take place. Cancelled due to challenging wintry conditions, the annual recital by Joshua Bell and Jeremy Denk had been rescheduled from early February to yesterday evening, still at Strathmore, and the WPAS audience quickly proved their resilience by showing up in droves on a cold and damp, but clear, night. Their program typically consists of a few works from various times and styles, and every year the assorted pieces eventually find a transcendental coherence that has the public leave the concert hall inspired and enlightened. Yesterday evening, Bach, Grieg, Schumann and Ravel had the privilege to be performed by two of the finest classical musicians around today, and we were particularly grateful they cared enough to find the time of their no doubt hectic lives to finally come and entertain us.

It is hard to go wrong with Bach as a starter. The first celebrity composer without whom the evolution of music would probably look very different, he does not need the chronological advantage to be fully appreciated, his oeuvre more than justifying his constant appeal. The sonata we heard last night was a memorable model of balance between the two instruments, enhanced by discreet yet very present effects in the individual playing.
The surprise of the evening was Grieg's Sonata No 3 that was replacing Saint-Saëns'. That was a good decision because after Bach's restrained tone the Norwegian composer's passionate lyricism vividly rose up like a warm, all-enveloping wave into the hushed auditorium. The famously sweet tone of Joshua Bell's violin combined with Jeremy Denk's boldly free-flowing style turned out to be the ideal pairing for an unexpected but deeply enjoyable foray into full-blown Romanticism.
Schumann kept us in the same mood with passages alternatively featuring dramatic surges and gentler melodies. Here again, the two musicians delivered a richly nuanced performance of this all-around lovely work.
As the official last piece, Ravel's Sonata in G Major sure brought a touch of eclecticism to the festivities with its jazz-flavored second movement, probably picked up from some American jazz band in Paris in the 1920s. The strumming at the start of that striking "Blues" movement and its attractively languorous rhythms make it a definite stand-out, but the whole work was easy and fun to get into, concluding the announced program with plenty of virtuosic coolness.

That was not all though, and the party favor of the evening was Fritz Kreisler's Slavonic Fantasy, a short but impactful encore to masterfully wrap up two hours of pure bliss.