Wednesday, June 30, 2010

NSO - Ravel & Golijov - 06/29/10

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

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

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

Saturday, June 19, 2010

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

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

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

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

Monday, June 14, 2010

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

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

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

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

Sunday, June 6, 2010

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

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

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

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

Saturday, June 5, 2010

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

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

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

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