Sunday, November 28, 2010

New York Philharmonic - Mozart, Haydn & Tchaikovsky - 11/27/10

Conductor: Rafael Frühbeck de Burgos
Mozart: String Quintet in G Minor, K. 516 – Glenn Dicterow, Michelle Kim, Cynthia Phelps, Rebecca Young and Carter Brey
Haydn: Symphony No 100 in G Major, Hob. I: 100, “Military”
Tchaikovsky: Violin Concerto in D Major, Op. 35 – Leonidas Kavakos

After the excellent big adventure that Don Carlo was on Friday night, I was back at the Lincoln Center yesterday afternoon for more musical revelry: a concert by the NY Philharmonic under the guidance, for the occasion, of much sought after Spanish conductor Rafael Frühbeck de Burgos. What was extra special about it though, was the presence of Leonidas Kavakos as the soloist for Tchaikovsky’s dazzling violin concerto. The rest of the program was featuring a Mozart string quintet and Haydn’s Military symphony, standard fare, yes, but high quality nonetheless.

It all started very elegantly with the Mozart quintet, which, in line with the Viennese tradition of that time, was the combination of two violins, two violas and one cello. This particular piece from the Austrian composer expresses a wide range of moods and the five eminent members of the NY Philharmonic on the stage did a superb job in joining forces. Such a superb job, in fact, that they got applause between almost each movement!
In 1794, Mozart’s contemporary Haydn was living in England, where he ended up writing 12 symphonies within a few years. The No 100 was dubbed Military and has enjoyed a wide popularity as soon as it was premiered. Listening to it yesterday was like going back to that politically troubled period in Europe, complete with calls to battle and heroic charges, as Maestro Frühbeck led the orchestra into a vivid interpretation of it.
Last, but definitely not least, came Tchaikovsky’s violin concerto courtesy of Leonidas Kavakos. Building up expectations is not necessarily a good thing as one must eventually live up to them, but our violinist was obviously more than ready for it. Dark-clad and serious-looking, he ripped through the majestic first movement with an equal amount of force and lightness, effortlessly negotiating his way through the treacherous minefield. His performance of it was actually so electrifying that the audience started clapping before he got a chance to wrap it up and even gave him a mini but lingering standing ovation (Not sure where they were all coming from, but overall they did seem a bit over-excitable.). After he calmed everybody down, we eventually all moved on to the other two movements, the sweetly melancholic Canzonetta and the fiercely pyrotechnical Finale, which he handled with the same spectacular expertise. Definitely worth the wait... and the interruption.

Saturday, November 27, 2010

Met - Don Carlo - 11/26/10

Composer: Giuseppe Verdi
Conductor: Yannick Nézet-Séguin
Director: Nicholas Hytner
Don Carlo: Roberto Alagna
Elisabeth of Valois: Marin Poplavskaya
Philip II: Ferruccio Furlanetto
Rodriguo: Simon Keenlyside
The Princess of Eboli: Anna Smirnova

It is Thanksgiving’s extended weekend again and I always welcome having those four days off with the same high spirits. This year, however, is kind of special as I am still getting used to my brand new status of New Yorker (I've even passed the DMV! How more official can it get?) and am still endlessly delighting in the proximity of the Lincoln Center. So I quickly decided that I’d forgo the traditional turkey dinner and would instead concentrate on the dutifully productive (getting rid of the ugly eggshell walls of my apartment by painting them white) and the shamelessly hedonistic (Verdi’s Don Carlo at the Met yesterday and the NY Philharmonic and Leonidas Kavakos for the Tchaikovsky violin concerto at the Avery Fisher Hall today).
Therefore, it was with paint still stubbornly stuck under some of my finger nails that I walked down to the Met last night to be there at the unusual curtain time of 7:00 pm. But it was certainly a wise scheduling move for an opera that, in the original version we saw yesterday evening, albeit in Italian, can last up to five hours. A look at the cast, however, showed that the mammoth epic would be conducted by newly minted Philadelphia Orchestra’s music director Yannick Nézet-Séguin, a young Canadian who is well-known for his boundless energy and unrelenting pace. If his exhilarating debut in Carmen last year was any indication, we were in good hands to get out of the opera house before midnight.

Don Carlo, originally written for the French public as Don Carlos, remains Verdi’s longest and most ambitious opera, a sprawling saga taking place in Spain during the Inquisition, in which the unhappy characters keep on fighting the unsavory fate in store for them. Politics, religion and, of course, human passions all collide in a story line vaguely inspired by the real Spanish royal family of that time, and there is literally never a dull moment. Based on a dramatic play by Friedrich Schiller, it is no doubt a considerable, at times probably overwhelming, endeavor to undertake, even after the unavoidable issue of finding the right singers has been resolved (Nobody has ever said that tackling Verdi was easy).
In that respect, the cast at hand last night was probably as strong as it could get. In the title role, Roberto Alagna’s noble handsomeness and natural charisma were as efficient as usual, but it is his singing that eventually made us all deeply care for the over-sensitive prince. Although his first and only aria was frustratingly punctuated by a mini-concert of coughs around me (Hey, you, the sick people, why don’t you get a grip on your self-centeredness and STAY HOME so that the rest of us can enjoy a noise- and germ-free performance?!), there was still plenty of other times where we could relish his genuinely supple and ardent singing. As his oppressive father, King Philip II, Ferruccio Furlanetto demonstrated stunning versatility, ruthless tyrant here, broken-down man there. His famous nine-minute aria at the beginning of Act IV, probably the best aria for bass ever written, when he lets down his guards and opens up about his inner torments, was such a heart-breaking eye-opener that it almost made us root for the guy. Simon Keenlyside may not have quite the same vocal power as those two, but he was a fierce Rodrigo, as committed to his best friend, Don Carlo, as to the people of Flanders, whose fate he’s so desperately trying to improve.
On the ladies’ side, there was much to praise as well, starting with Marina Poplavskaya, who was a wonderful Elisabeth of Valois. She may not have all the fire-in-the-belly necessary for a Verdi heroine, but her luminous, assured singing more than compensated for that. Her transformation from care-free, impetuous princess to duty-bound, lovelorn queen was truly painful to watch. As the Princess of Eboli, Elisabeth’s ultimate frenemy, Anna Smirnova produced some no-hold-barred singing, occasionally lacking in subtlety if not in intensity. Other smaller parts fit in well into the generally homogeneous production, and the Met’s fabulous chorus did live up to its sterling reputation again, especially in the grand, monumental scene of the auto-da-fé.
Speaking of grand scenes, Don Carlo is for the most part a constant succession of fateful, dramatic encounters, except for the first meeting of Don Carlo and Elisabeth in Fontainebleau, where all is joy and optimism, the one blissful moment of the whole opera. And, man, does it go down quickly from there! After the announcement that Elisabeth has suddenly become betrothed to Don Carlos’ father, King Philip II, you immediately know that there is no happy ending in sight. The fast and easy chemistry among the singers was a tremendous plus for the emotionally charged confrontations, whether it was the brotherly bond between Don Carlo and Rodrigo or the tearful confession of a sincerely repentant Princess of Eboli to her hopelessly drained-out queen.
Grand scenes do not take place in a vacuum, and the creative team behind the costumes and sets certainly contributed in turning this production into such an all-around success. While the outfits were decidedly traditional, the décors were stark and minimalist with changing lighting to help create the moods, sometimes to dazzling effect, like in the eerily beautiful forest of Act I, sometimes less so, do we really need the stage aglow in bright red every time the tension goes up a notch? The overall visual sternness, however, was perfectly in line with the unfolding plot and discreetly let the audience focus on the characters. This is the first Met production of Nicholas Hytner, who is also the current director of London’s National Theater in addition to many other prestigious assignments. Let’s hope it won’t be his last.
Verdi’s opera may have been a work in progress for twenty years, but he never lost his touch for dramatically powerful music. Here, the Italian master came up with a sprawling, multi-layered composition, which magnificently brings to life intimate encounters and huge crowd scenes, the personal turmoil of the characters and the big conflicts of their time: father versus son, independence versus duty, church versus state. Carefully detailed and immensely complex, each singing part benefits from Verdi’s blazingly colorful score and fits in seamlessly in this remarkably cohesive large-scale work.
Keeping a few hours of Verdi under control can sound like a daunting task, but luckily Yannick Nézet-Séguin, the name that naturally pops to mind when a conductor with unswerving stamina is wanted, was on the podium. Not only did he draw an all-out passionate and often nuanced performance from the orchestra and the singers, but he also had us all out of the door by 11:30 pm! I think this is my first Met performance ever where I leave before the estimated ending time, and it was much appreciated on a cold, cold late November night.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

The Mutter-Bashmet-Harrell Trio - All-Beethoven - 11/14/10

Anne-Sophie Mutter: Violin
Yuri Bashmet: Viola
Lynn Harrell - Cello

Beethoven: String Trio in C Minor, Op. 9, No 3
Beethoven: Serenade for String Trio in D Major, Op. 8
Beethoven: String Trio in E-flat Major, Op. 3

It seems that I have been on a Beethovian roll this weekend as the German master was being honored at two major music venues in the Big Apple yesterday and today. After enjoying a grand Eroica last night at Carnegie Hall courtesy of Marin Alsop and the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, I was at the Avery Fisher Hall this afternoon for an all-Beethoven program of string trios featuring three distinguished masters of their instruments in violinist Anne-Sophie Mutter, who also is this season’s James G. Wallach Artist-in-Residence, violist Yuri Bashmet and cellist Lynn Harrell. After all, why stop at a symphony when you can have some chamber music as well?

As unfairly sculptural as ever, sporting a smart and sexy outfit, Anne-Sophie Mutter remains one class act visually and musically. As the leader of the small ensemble, she instantly established flawless chemistry with her two long-time collaborators, affable Lynn Harrell and dark-looking Yuri Bashmet, as they got going with the dynamic, never-a-dull-moment String Trio in C Minor. It was followed by the lovely, happy Serenade Op. 8 and the attractively melodic Trio in E-flat Major, Op. 3, which unfolded in all of its 40 glorious minutes. The evident camaderie among the musicians allowed them to make beautiful music together, even if the Avery Fisher Hall’s controversial acoustics and a less than ideal location (I just hate being on the side) were not very conducive to a totally flawless experience. It was as good as it could get, and that was pretty good indeed.

So Beethovened out yet? Not in the least. I am looking forward to more.

BSO - Barber, Prokofiev & Beethoven - 11/13/10

Conductor: Marin Alsop
Barber: Second Essay for Orchestra, Op. 17
Prokofiev: Piano Concerto No 3 in C Major, Op. 26 – Simon Trpčeski
Beethoven: Symphony No 3 in E-flat Major, Op. 55, “Eroica” – Arranged by Gustav Mahler

Like for many music lovers all around the world, Carnegie Hall has always held a special place in my heart. So when I first heard that the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, whose concerts I usually attend at Strathmore, was going to headline the November 13-14 weekend at the legendary music venue, I was determined to go regardless of my place of residence at the time. This weekend being my first one as a New Yorker made the prospect of seeing all these familiar faces in my new home even more alluring, kind of linking the recent past and the brand new present.
And last night’s occasion turned out to be special all right, but not for the expected reasons. Being back in the hall was as wonderful as always, of course, but the feeling of bliss quickly turned to frustration and resentment when an almost continuous and dreadfully distinct rattling noise seemed to come out of nowhere as soon as the orchestra started playing the first piece. It took a couple of minutes to figure out that it was coming from the air conditioning system above our heads, and another couple of minutes to realize that it was not stopping.
After the second piece was over, I approached one of the ushers who assured me that it had been reported, but who did not know what would be done about it. Since my friend Deborah and I had made the trip to hear the BSO – not Carnegie Hall’s air conditioning system – perform, and that there was no guarantee that any action was being taken – like, say, hmmm, TURNING IT OFF, for example – I grabbed her and we found other seats on a lower level, far from the killjoy device. Barber and Prokofiev had been ruined, but I would be darned if I’d let the same thing happen to Beethoven. One out of three is not too much to ask, is it?

So I am afraid that I cannot say much about the performance of Barber’s or Prokofiev’s works, but from what I managed to grasp during the few seconds of respite now and then, rising Macedonian pianist Simon Trpčeski handled Prokofiev’s challenging third piano concerto with eagerness and sensitiveness. I can only hope that I’ll be able to hear him again soon sans rattling accompaniment or with a more pro-active management in charge.
Once safely parked in a quiet corner of the hall, we were finally able to enjoy one of the finest orchestras of the country perform one of the most dazzling symphonies ever written in a version arranged by Gustav Mahler. I did not instantly connect with Beethoven’s Eroica when I first heard it, but it is rather a piece that has slowly but surely grown on me. Now I fully relish the simple but bold opening, the ground-breaking structures, the recurring heroic theme and the overall intensity of the whole enterprise. Not to mention that the original dedication to Napoleon never fails to tackle my nationalistic pride, never mind the subsequent fallout. Mahler's arrangements add quite a few wind and brass instruments, which provides a more pronounced sonic power, and it is probably safe to think that Beethoven would have approved. Last night, an uncharacteristically silent Marin Alsop and the musicians under her command went all out and made the German composer’s altered third symphony rise and fill up the concert all with much force and passion, finally reminding us what a unique experience listening to live music can be, especially when it is heard as originally intended, undisturbed.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Met - Don Pasquale - 11/10/10

Composer: Gaetano Donizetti
Conductor: James Levine
Director: Otto Schenk
Don Pasquale: John De Carlo
Norina: Anna Netrebko
Dr. Malatesta: Mariusz Kwiecien
Ernesto: Matthew Polenzani

Wednesday, November 10, 2010 will come down in my personal history as my first full day as a bona fide New Yorker, and after completing way too many annoying small tasks related to my exciting but exhausting move to the Big Apple, I really felt that I needed to reward myself. I had performances planned at Carnegie Hall and the Avery Fisher Hall that coming weekend, but I suddenly realized that I hadn’t been to the Metropolitan Opera since last season. A quick look at their catalog showed that Don Pasquale was on the program. Now Donizetti’s fun little trifle may not have had enough pull in itself for me to drop everything and go, but the prospect of seeing Anna Netrebko in the role that made her a full-fledge star, not to mention seeing James Levine back on the podium, were for sure enough reasons for me to buy a standing room ticket and look forward to standing on my feet for three hours. After all, being on a tight budget does not necessarily mean forgoing having a life.

One of the last works that Donizetti wrote, Don Pasquale has all the standard elements of the quintessential comic opera: two young people in love, a grumpy old man trying to prevent them from getting married and a smart ass good guy trying to help the distressed couple. Throw in a few witty arias and several downright comical, if occasionally borderline silly, situations, and you have plenty of old-fashioned bubbly entertainment all the way to the unavoidable happy end.
On Wednesday the opera house was packed to the brims and there is little doubt that much celebrated Russian soprano Anna Netrebko had a lot to do with it (No offense to Donizetti or her stage partners). Instantly appropriating the role as if it were her own (which it essentially is anyway) she confidently delivered the goods with her energy-filled physical presence, unwavering comic timing and poised vocal feats. As Norina, the irresistible temperamental-but-good-hearted young widow, she vivaciously strutted her attractive stuff all over the place and easily carried the evening, making me regret that the part did not have more depth for her to sink her obviously more than willing teeth in. But she had a ball with the material at hand and so did we.
Her counterparts shone through as well: As Don Pasquale, John Del Carlo brought warmth and humanity to what could have been just another pathetic, clueless old bachelor, Mariusz Kwiecien capably impersonated the relentless Dr. Malatesta, who seemed to have as much fun helping his friends as coming up with new schemes, and Matthew Polenzani touchingly exuded the right combination of strength, desperation and mischievousness of a hot-blooded young man fighting for his one true love. Together they formed a winning team that kept the story come to life with much gusto.
They got tremendous help in this all-important mission by Donizetti’s highly melodic score, which may have been difficult for them to negotiate at times, but which also strongly emphasizes their characters’ state of mind as well as the story’s twists and turns. The music is generally light and pleasant, but a few meaty arias do place Don Pasquale a notch above the typical comic operas of that time. After making his entrance under much applause, beloved maestro Levine led the orchestra in a perky performance during the first two acts, but alas did not return after intermission. The traditional but engaging production nevertheless basked in a continuous musical glow and ended up being a delightful way for me to start this new season at the Met.

Saturday, November 6, 2010

NSO - Debussy, Prokofiev, Stravinsky & Bartok - 11/04/10

Conductor: Xian Zhang
Debussy: Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faun
Prokofiev: Violin Concerto No 2 in G Minor, Op. 63
Stravinsky: Le chant du rossignol, Symphonic Poem for Orchestra
Bartok: Suite from The Miraculous Mandarin, Op. 19

I thought that this day would never come, but yesterday was my last National Symphony Orchestra concert as a Washingtonian (Sniff!) and I have to say that seeing the usual familiar faces on the stage and in the audience suddenly took a whole other dimension. The orchestra’s brand new music director, Christoph Eschenbach, was already off guest-conducting somewhere else in the world and the baton was going to be held by Xian Zhang, whose name did not ring a bell but who turned out to be female, Chinese and has apparently been busy making a name for herself with more and more prestigious assignments around the globe. Coincidence or not, the last two pieces on the program, by Stravinsky and Bartok, featured Chinese themes to some degree, and the other two were Debussy’s ethereal Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faun and Prokofiev’s multi-faceted Violin Concerto No 2, which, to my endless delight, would be performed by always reliable Gil Shaham.

Debussy’s Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faun is a fine way to get a concert started, and yesterday was no expectation. Even if this performance was not as deliciously atmospheric as the New York Philharmonic last month, it certainly held its own. Hearing the faun’s gentle musings come to life is too much of a treat to be nit-picking and last night the magic beautifully operated again.
Showing up looking like a young, jovial, energetic business man in his suit and tie, Gil Shaham walked right up on stage and… went right down to business, immediately diving into the opening on Prokofiev’s second concerto with grace and aplomb. Written as the composer was moving from Paris to Madrid by way of Voronezh and Baku, it sounds nevertheless more conventional than some of the enfant terrible's bolder works. Constantly moving his body to the music and spontaneously engaging in private moments with conductor and musicians, Gil Shaham seemed completely at ease negotiating the still challenging score. The highlight of his performance was a particularly remarkable second movement, during which he quickly switched gears between the delicate opening and ending and the whimsical middle section. After holding back during the Debussy, Xian Zhang took this opportunity to demonstrate what a small but resilient ball of energy she could be, keeping a tight control over all of her charges.
The more the concert went on, the more she seemed to get into her element and Stravinsky’s wild plays on rhythms and harmonies got a particularly vivid treatment on her watch. Inspired by the Hans Christian Andersen story, Le chant du rossignol (“The song of the Nightingale”) is a symphonic poem that makes the most of its exotic setting and characters, powerfully emphasizing all the plot's twists and turns. The story is pleasant enough to easily lend itself to a musical treatment (It is about a Chinese emperor and nightingale, after all) and gives the musicians plenty of material to play with.
Bartok’s The Miraculous Mandarin, a macabre tale of three tramps and a wealthy Chinese, gets even more into strong, overlapping and intricate sounds, which can easily become overwhelming if the listener is not in the right frame of mind. But it can also be a rewarding experience for anybody sensitive to resoundingly expressive music, and our guest conductor managed to vivaciously guide the musicians into a unabashedly dynamic version of it, keeping the right balance between energy and precision all the way to a rousing conclusion. Thank you, NSO, for a memorable send off! I shall return.