Saturday, December 25, 2010

New York String Orchestra - Mozart & Mendelssohn - 12/24/10

Conductor: Jaime Laredo
Mozart: Overture to Così fan tutte
Mendelssohn: Concerto for Violin, Piano, and Strings in D Minor - Jennifer Koh & Benjamin Hochman
Mozart: Symphony No 31 in D Major, K. 297, "Paris"

What better way to treat myself on Christmas Eve than with a concert at Carnegie Hall courtesy of the New York String Orchestra, the product of one of the most highly praised musical training programs in the States, led by veteran conductor, pedagogue and musician Jaime Laredo? Moreover, the fact that violinist Jennifer Koh, who I try to hear every time I can, and Benjamin Hochman, a new pianist for me to discover, would also be featured was another incentive that could not be ignored. Best of all, the play-list was all spirited, joyful even, works by Mozart and Mendelssohn, and not a single jingling bell or seasonal chorus was threatening to disrupt a decidedly all-inclusive crowd-pleasing concert. So I happily took one last walk down divinely scented Broadway where the left over trees were being packed off and quickly made it to the hall for the unusual starting time of 7:00 pm.

So it was on this very special night to many and in front of a very eclectic audience of tourists, friends, families and a few regulars that the perky first notes of Così fan tutte’s overture vivaciously resonated to everybody’s delight. The orchestra undeniably brought an infectious exuberance to the proceedings as much from the brightly colored tops they were wearing as from the unbridled enthusiasm they were showing. For an inspiring musician, life could certainly be worse than playing Mozart’s dazzling little gem on one of the world’s most prestigious stages before an almost full and obviously indulgent house on Christmas Eve. Eventually, they all seemed to fully relish the experience once they got around to relaxing a bit.
Having composers who were child prodigies on a program performed by unusually talented youngsters was a neat idea. Although Mozart’s two pieces were written when his art was already maturing, Mendelssohn came up with the ambitious Concerto for Violin, Piano and Strings when he was a mere 14-year-old. Wittily combining grace, ferocity and Romanticism, it gave Jennifer Koh and Benjamin Hochman plenty of opportunities to display their remarkable talents, sometimes fiercely playing off each other, sometimes harmoniously teaming up, consistently backed-up by a solid orchestra.
Mozart’s Paris symphony, which he wrote for the 1778 Concert spirituel, may not have won him the secure post he had hoped for in the French capital, but it sure helped establish him as a composer to watch. It is a short but immensely enjoyable work, easily melodious and impeccably refined, which is frequently heard in concert halls worldwide. Conductor Jaime Laredo, who had kept a watchful eye over his young charges all evening, led them with the same loving discipline and devoted commitment, clocking out the evening at… 8:20 pm! Although we did not get a loudly and insistently requested encore (What happened to the Christmas spirit?!), it was still an uplifting way to celebrate the season’s festivities, or just another wonderful night for music lovers in New York City.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Leon Fleischer - Takacs & Bach - 12/12/10

Takacs: Toccata and Fugue for Left Hand, Op. 56
Bach: Chaconne in D Minor for Piano for Left Hand (Arr. Brahms)

What to do on a gray, wet and cold winter Sunday in New York City? How about hearing world-famous pianist Leon Fleischer play for 30 minutes and talk about his life and career for an additional hour in an intimate space for the price of a movie ticket? Now that is some sunshine for you! And that’s exactly what I did this afternoon in the Greene Space of the WQRX (105.9 fm) radio station where Leon Fleischer made a stop on the promotional tour for his newly released biography “My Nine Lives: A memoir of Many Careers in Music”, which he co-wrote with Anne Midgette, the Washington Post classical music critic. Even the merciless rain had temporarily stopped falling for the occasion!
Due to time constraints, Leon Fleisher was only able to perform two pieces and had to do it with his left hand only, again, because these days his right hand is still recovering from a recent surgery and his doctors advised that he couldn’t “use his right thumb professionally” just yet. Bust since he had mastered the left-hand repertoire decades ago after his right hand became inexplicably, if temporarily, paralyzed, there was no doubt that he would not disappoint either the lucky few in the studio or the larger audience following the live broadcast on the radio or the Internet.

The first piece was Takacs’ Toccata and Fugue for Left Hand, which the Hungarian composer wrote in grand baroque style when he was a mere 18-year-old. It is extremely vivid and deeply harmonious at the same time, a nice combination that Leon Fleischer kept in perfect balance.
Bach’s famous Chaconne is of course better known in its version for violin, but the piano transcription of it for the left hand, which Brahms wrote for Clara Schumann after she hurt her right hand, is quite a masterpiece as well. All 66 variations of the four-bar theme are still there, just one octave lower – Obviously Brahms knew not to mess around with a good thing when he saw one – and seeing Leon Fleischer work his way through it just a few feet away, sometimes discreetly muttering the beat, sometimes intensely scrutinizing the score, was as much as treat as actually hearing him play it. His Chaconne turned out beautifully detailed and expressive, rightfully concluding this mini-concert as any additional work would have surely paled afterwards.

During the one-hour interview, which was interspersed by excerpts of some recordings of his, the guest of honor proved to be a genuinely witty, congenial and thoughtful conversationalist. Among other things, he remembered his first performance in that same space in 1945 (!), talked about how much Brahms’ piano concerto No 1 meant to him, and explained why his sudden infirmity at the peak of his soloist career was, in some way, a blessing in disguise as it allowed him to explore other paths in the music field such as conducting and teaching. The enlightening hour just flew by and before we knew it, it was time to leave the studio to the sound of his recording of Bach’s lovely “where sheep may safely graze”, the sweet little encore that often ends his regular concerts.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Jeremy Denk & Steven Isserlis - Saint-Saëns, Ligeti, Fauré, Kurtág, Ravel & Adès - 12/09/10

Saint-Saëns: Sonata for Cello and Piano No 1 in C Minor, Op 32
Ligeti: Three études from Book 1: Fanfare – Arc-en-ciel – Automne à Varsovie
Fauré: Sonata for Cello and Piano No 2 in G Minor, Op. 117
Kurtág: Selections from Signs, Games and Messages for Solo Cello
Ravel: Deux mélodies hébraïques for Cello and Piano (arr. Isserlis): Kaddish and L’énigme éternelle
Adès: Lieux retrouvés for Cello and Piano: Les eaux – La montagne – Les champs – La ville

New York’s famous 92nd Street Y had always sounded like a magical Shangri La to me. As a live performance lover, I had heard about it from reviews, ads and people, but I had never actually been there before moving to the Big Apple. As a matter of course, since the Upper West Side is apparently musicians’ central, I was 110% sure that it was located there and was consequently overjoyed when I found an apartment that would be, at most, just a few blocks away. After signing the lease and dropping numerous boxes in my new home, a quick but exhaustive walk on West 92nd Street eventually proved fruitless. I then had the bright idea of Googling the place… and found out that it was straight across the park, on the Upper East Side.
Never mind, I was still closer to it than a couple of months ago and I figured that as a neighbor-from-across-the-park it was high time to pay it a visit. First impressions being key I carefully reviewed their winter program and the first concert that caught my attention was a recital by highly regarded long-time visiting cellist Steven Isserlis and just as highly regarded local pianist Jeremy Denk. Two endlessly intriguing performers presenting an equally intriguing program sounded just like the perfect way to kick off a most likely long-term patronizing to this concert venue.

And it all started with an assault of energy courtesy of the introduction of the Saint-Saëns sonata. It was an attractive opening number, all comfortable harmonies and rigorous balance. Both musicians being as well-known for their physical expressiveness as their musical talent, we got treated to an all-around performance including sounds and visions while they steadily and effortlessly complemented each other.
Next came a surprise. Instead of the two pieces by Liszt announced in the program, Jeremy Denk decided to tackle the three final études from Ligeti's Book 1 for his solo turn, and he generously communicated his deep commitment to the music with flawless technique and remarkable eloquence.
The Fauré sonata turned out to be the highlight of the evening for me thanks to its beautifully soaring Andante, a breath-taking rêverie that immediately brought to my mind Franck’s beloved sonata that I heard performed, maybe not so coincidentally, by the same Jeremy Denk and Joshua Bell a couple of years ago. Incidentally, the fact that this particularly movement distinguished itself enough to become a separate Élégie even before the sonata was completed speaks volumes of its intrinsic qualities.
After intermission, it was Steven Isserlis’ turn as a soloist and he had chosen four pieces by contemporary Romanian composer György Kurtág. This was a fortuitous choice as the audience swallowed them all up, from the quietness of the Homage to John Cage, smartly ending on a perky note, to the stop-and-go rhythm of Gérard de Nerval, inspired by the 19th century poet, to the downright minimalist, subtly atmospheric Shadows and Kroó György in memoriam.
With Jeremy Denk back at the piano, Steven Isserlis got another golden opportunity to display his wide-ranging skills with Two Hebrew Songs by Ravel, which he arranged himself for his instrument. The first one, Kaddish, was a wonderful showcase for the cello’s vocal-like qualities while the second one L’énigme éternelle (The Eternal Enigma) turned out to be less lyrical but efficiently touching in its simplicity.
The last work on the program, Lieux retrouvés (Rediscovered Places) by young British composer Thomas Adès made the most of the piano and cello’s musical possibilities to convey the flowing Waters, the moody Mountain, the peaceful Fields and the exciting City. A non-stop wild ride for performers and audience alike, it kept us all on the edge before leaving us happily breathless.

To end this brazenly eclectic and enormously satisfying concert, we got a sweet, lovely lullaby, which had all of us dreamily swoon until the very last note.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

The First Baptist Church - Vivaldi, Larson, Baker, Choplin, Grant & Smith - 12/05/10

Conductor: Gordon Scott
Vivaldi: Gloria
Shepherds’ Echo Carol (How Great Our Joy)” - Traditional German Carol
Larson: “Manger Songs
Baker: “All in the Silence of the Night
Choplin: “Star of Advent
Grant & Smith: “No Eye Had Seen

I have always been highly allergic to Christmas music and religious institutions, so I did have some misgivings when I saw the poster for “Vivaldi’s Gloria And Other Music of the Season with Choir, Soloists and Chamber Orchestra” (Quite a mouthful!) at the First Baptist Church on the corner of Broadway and 79th Street earlier this week. On the other hand, it was free and near my new home, so I quickly decided that it would be my one and only personal bit to honor the holiday season this year. Therefore, last night I braved the biting cold and walked down the animated twelve blocks amidst a Saturday night crowd that was busy browsing window displays, picking up Christmas trees, piling up shopping bags (What recession?) and generally showing plenty of high spirits.

The church, which looks so imposing from outside, was surprisingly, if attractively, bare inside, except for a row of bright red poinsettias in front of the stage and discreetly sparkling lights here and there. The small stage quickly welcome a small orchestra and choir, and pretty soon Vivaldi’s famously florid Gloria was filling up the whole space. While it did not have the finesse or unity of a large professional orchestra, the ensemble at hand made up for it with plenty of dedicated commitment and continuous enthusiasm. The soloists, in particular, had a few truly lovely moments.
The rest on the program consisted of a few other season-appropriate short pieces, none of which I was familiar with, but they all went down very smoothly. To conclude this nice little concert, “Silent Night, Holy Night”, at last a classic that we could all groove to, was performed by everybody in the church, with a lit-up candle in one hand and, for those of us who did not know the words by heart, the program in the other. Luckily for the ones around me, I kept my mouth shut so as not to break the charm. My neighbor, however, did not hesitate to belt out and even occasionally hit the right notes. After the unexpected juggling act was over, it was time for a little bit of preaching and since there was no way to discreetly escape, I sat in for the closing pastoral comments as well. Then it was back out in the even more biting cold for the over-heated-but-it-sure-beats-the-alternative-these-days comfort of my little pad.