Monday, October 18, 2010

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

NSO - All-Beethoven - 10/09/10

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

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

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

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

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

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

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

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

Monday, October 4, 2010

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

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

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

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

NSO - Pintscher & Beethoven - 09/30/10

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

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

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