Friday, May 28, 2010

WPAS - The Philadelphia Orchestra - Glinka, Rachmaninoff & Stravinsky - 05/26/10

Conductor: Charles Dutoit
Glinka: Overture to Ruslan and Ludmilla
Rachmaninoff: Piano Concerto No 3 in D minor, Op. 30 - Nikolai Lugansky
Stravinsky: Petrushka

For the last concert of its Celebrities Series, the Washington Performance Arts Society sure did not hold back: it invited the prestigious Philadelphia orchestra under the baton of its distinguished chief conductor Charles Dutoit and was featuring a piece that is extremely high on my not-to-miss list: Rachmaninoff's piano concerto No 3, the Himalaya of all piano concertos, which would be performed by young but already much awarded Nikolai Lugansky. Moreover, the evening would start by Glinka and end with Stravinsky, a very eclectic and compelling trio from Russia if there ever was one, so off I was to Strathmore.

The opera Rusland and Ludmilla has pretty much disappeared from the standard repertoire, but its overture is often performed as a stand-alone piece in concerts and it is easy to understand why: it starts with a bang, alternates good old fun and swooning melodies, and clocks in under five minutes, which was just enough to reassure us that the orchesta has not let internal turmoil spoil their well-known musical excellence.
After this cheerful pick-me-up, we were on for the wild Romantic ride that is "Rach 3". Its inconspicuous opening melody may not sound like much at first, but it rarely fails to penetrate and haunt the mind of the listener before going off to incredibly bigger and better things as the music becomes more and more Russian in sound and scope, and the challenge becomes more and more daunting for the pianist. Combining breathless urgency and daunting intricacies, this one is not for the faint of heart, but Nikolai Lugansky handled it all with unflappable poise. From where we were seating my neighbors and I had a particularly good view over his fingers and watched them fly all over the keyboard in total awe. But beside the technical tour de force, he was also extremely efficient at conveying the take-no-prisoners nature of the whole piece, its grand lyricism and sparkling virtuosity, all the way to its exhilarating climax.
After such a exciting performance, poor Petrushka sounded a bit underwhelming at first, but the orchestra made full use of their well-established savoir faire and successfully brought to life the story of the traditional Russian theater puppet. Far from Rachmaninoff's sweeping power, Stravinsky's work was an impressive festival of colors and moods and concluded our evening on a fully satisfying note.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

WNO - Hamlet - 05/24/10

Composer: Ambroise Thomas
Conductor: Placido Domingo
Director: Thaddeus Strassberger
Hamlet: Liam Bonner
Ophelia: Elizabeth Futral
Claudius: Samuel Ramey
Gertrude: Elizabeth Bishop

After the Met's minimalist but appealing production of Ambroise Thomas' "Hamlet", I was quite curious to see how the Washington National Opera's allegedly more elaborate version would compare. One thing the two houses had in common though was a noted difficulty in pinning down their Ophelia: Marlis Petersen replaced Natalie Dessay at the last minute in New York, and a pregnant Diana Damrau had to let Elizabeth Futral take on the part in Washington. As for the title role, after Carlos Alvarez cancelled, it is now being shared by veteran Michael Chioldi and brand new comer Liam Bonner, who was making his very debut with the NSO on Monday, the same evening my friend Jennifer and I were there. But that's a mere detail. "Hamlet" the opera revolves around "Ophélie" and her 20-minute mad scene, especially designed, as it was the custom in those days, for the soprano du jour, and the rest of the action follows more or less distantly Shakespeare's original play. But good drama and Romantic music are often a recipe for success, and that was enough of a reason to go out to the Kennedy Center on a beautiful Monday night.

Classics are supposed to be timeless, so why not indeed place this one in a 1950s fascist country, like, somewhere in Eastern Europe? All things considered, it did not ruin it, but it did not really bring anything to it either, except for some small moments of confusion: was Hamlet's father really a good king or a borderline dictator? Was Polonius really in on the royal murder? And how can a king rule a fascist country anyway? Sometimes dealing with such a well-known plot can be as much a blessing as a curse because one cannot distance itself enough to look at it with fresh eyes and stop comparing. But as long as everything makes more or less sense (this is opera, after all, so let's not nit-pick too much) why not go for the ride?
We were all the more willing as the story got tremendous help from the last-minute but nevertheless well-prepared singers. A recent graduate of the Domingo-Crafitz Young Artist Program, baritone Liam Bonner easily projected the youth and insecurity of the young prince, but he was still very green in his singing and acting for such an intense and complex part. Granted, the opera's character is less of a long-windedly neurotic than the theater one, but still... Next to the Met's mesmerizing Simon Keenlyside, to whom it is of course unfair to compare him, Liam Bonner is definitely a light-weight. But he is on the right track though, and we were more than happy to support his promising first professional steps.
On the other hand, Elizabeth Futral has been around for a while, particularly in La Traviata, in which she steadily charms audiences around the world, and her Ophelia proved that she could pull off quite a show even on short notice. She quickly asserted her presence, which is considerably more important than in the play, stayed at the top of her game and eventually delivered a riveting mad scene. Even if the iconic passage was bizarrely, if somewhat effectively, cut in two by her actual diving backwards, which sparked off a frantic ovation, it eventually kind of came all together in her visually startling last moments as she is serenely floating under the multi-colored waters, having become the nymph she was so ethereally singing about earlier.
Although the opera focuses mostly on the love story between Hamlet and Ophelia, the other characters were also there and dutifully fulfilled their parts: Samuel Ramey was an appropriately ambitious and authoritarian Claudius, but the most gripping singing of the evening was heard from mezzo-soprano Elizabeth Bishop, who stole every scene she was in as Queen Gertrude. The incredible range and power of her voice made her conflicted queen and mother absolutely memorable.
Ambroise Thomas' pleasantly Romantic score was aptly conducted by Placido Domingo himself. It is not grand music, but it serves the action closely and efficiently, allowing the singers to have their moments in the spotlight without losing track of the overall story. This will never be a timeless masterpiece, but it certainly deserves to be seen more often, although I have to say that twice in the last couple of months is just enough for now, thank you very much.

Friday, May 21, 2010

NSO - Britten, Adams & Stravinsky - 05/20/10

Conductor: John Adams
Britten: Four Sea Interludes from Peter Grimes (Dawn, Sunday Morning, Moonlight and Storm)
Adams: The Dharma at Big Sur - Leila Josefowicz
Stravinsky: Feu d'artifice, Op. 4
Adams: Doctor Atomic Symphony

Last night was probably my last glimpse of John Adams for a while, but at least he would leave me with some wonderful memories. For his last set of performances at the Kennedy Center with the National Symphony Orchestra, he had chosen a semi-eclectic, semi-logical program. The first part would revolve around large expanses of water with chosen excerpts of Britten's Peter Grimes and Adams' Dharma at Big Sur, the later providing us with the pleasure of listening to dedicated modern music advocate Leila Josefowicz. The second part was going to focus on loud and louder human creations with bursting fireworks, courtesy of Stravinsky's Feu d'artifice, and the dreaded atomic bomb, which would conclude the concert with Adams' symphony inspired by his opera Doctor Atomic.

It all started very organically with Peter Grimes' four seascape-inspired interludes, during which the atmospheric quietness of "Sunday Morning" was in sharp contract with the thunderous roar of the final "Storm". Those were beautifully rendered hymns to the opera's ever-present mighty sea, both friend and foe.
The second piece, The Dharma at Big Sur, was written by John Adams for the opening of the Walt Disney Hall in Los Angeles back in 2003 and combines typically Californian elements such as the wild coastal scenery, Jack Kerouac and...an electric violin that would be played by fearlessly adventurous and immensely gifted Leila Josefowicz. Her classical blond beauty refreshingly jazzed up by a flowing psychedelic dress - all the better to invoke freedom-loving California - was only slightly over-shadowed by the incredible instrument she was carrying. Featuring six strings, which would allow it to sound as low as the upper range of the cello, and a partly hollow body, it was looking decidedly odd. But the music it produced was perfectly suited to recreate the irrepressible feeling of shock and awe one feels when confronted for the first time with the wild, rugged landscape of the rocky coast and the majestic, scintillating vastness of the Pacific Ocean (I know. Been there. Saw it. Felt that.). Conjuring up frequent borderline bluesy tones among serene passages before the grand ecstatic finale, it was a truly lovely performance, and everybody clearly loved it.
Stravinsky's Feu d'artifice was short, fun and did shake us up from the elated mood the previous works had put us in.
Before the orchestra proceeded to Doctor Atomic Symphony, the audience got to view a clip of the opera during which hyper-cultivated J. Robert Oppenheimer, impersonated by baritone Gerard Findley, finds himself alone with his monstrous creation, suddenly becomes profoundly disturbed by self-doubt and wishes to be undone and reborn again through one of John Donne's Holy Sonnets "Batter my heart, three person'd God". As the live music took over, the same feelings of worry, hesitation and eventual terror were permeating the score, the violins relentlessly expressing nagging anxiety, the brass loudly speaking of inescapable doom, the final ciaccone by a trumpet becoming the hero's humanistic voice trying to rise above it all. Not very subtle, but you sure could tell that something with huge implications for mankind was at stake, and it was not good news.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

WPAS - Los Angeles Philharmonic - Bernstein & Tchaikovsky - 05/17/10

Conductor: Gustavo Dudamel
Bernstein: Symphony No 2 for Piano and Orchestra, "The Age of Anxiety"
Tchaikovsky: Symphony No 6 in B Minor, Op. 74, "Pathétique"

It is not often that a classical music persona stirs up as much unbridled excitement as a rock star, but young Venezuelan conductor Gustavo Dudamel has been managing to do just that for the past couple of years. So now that he's at the head of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, left in pristine condition by Esa-Pekka Salonen, everybody has unsurprisingly been dying to see what this newcomer is really made of. Consequently, the Kennedy Center concert hall was packed to the brim on Monday evening and the frisson of great expectations was undeniably palpable. Of course,the fact that they were playing my beloved "Pathétique" was yet another irresistible incentive for me to go out on that rainy night (Not that I needed any, really), and Bernstein's "Age of Anxiety" with Jean-Yves Thibaudet a nice additional touch.

Half-traditional symphony half-piano concerto, "The Age of Anxiety" has for sure some gripping moments, and Jean-Yves Thibaubet is always an interestingly adventurous artist, so what's not to love? Inspired by Auden's long poem, the piece strives, and often succeeds, to convey a combination of intellectual reflexion and pure exuberance, with the occasional jazzy overtone. The orchestra was obviously very comfortable under the baton of their youthful leader and delivered well.
But the second part was when everybody on stage went whole-heartedly down to real business while performing one of the world's most popular symphonies, Tchaikovsky's immense, magnificent "Pathétique", the one that the man himself put above all his other works. Having such a physical dynamo as Dudamel was of course a huge plus during the most turbulent passages, as the out-and-out energy coming from the barely controlled brass and percussion could attest, but he also dwelled deeply into the most lyrical parts, passionately guiding the luscious violins into streams of pure bliss, sweeping us all away with his refreshingly spontaneous but unmistakeably informed take on this quintessential Romantic masterpiece. As a result, sooner than later everybody in the concert hall seemed to fully revel in the sheer joy of being part of such a musical feast. So yes, DO believe the hype, there is a lot of genuine substance underneath all the marketing flash.

After the unusually long silent, the ovation was so long and frenetic that it got us an extra goodie: the Intermezzo from Manon Lescaut. As hard as it is to follow the "Pathetique", Puccini's ultimate gift perfectly concluded a truly fabulous evening.

Millennium Stage - Adams - 05/17/10

Adams: Shaker Loops - Members of the National Symphony Orchestra
Adams: Chamber Symphony - Conservatory Project Chamber Orchestra

Yesterday evening, John Adams was back for his second week of residency at the Kennedy Center, this time at the Millennium Stage where he would conduct two of his own works: Shaker Loops with some musicians of the National Symphony Orchestra, and "Chamber Symphony" with carefully hand-picked music students from The Conservatory Project. A nice way to further enjoy the master's presence and experience more samples from his impressive oeuvre.

The first piece certainly sounded attractive to me when I realized that all seven instruments would be all strings. Yeah! And the music itself ended up being quite mesmerizing, taking the audience on a on-going journey during which the tension just kept on building up and up on many different levels but always with a purposeful pulse.
Next was a piece that Adams himself considers his most difficult work, but the "future of music", as he called the 15 music students on the stage with him, looked mostly undaunted. Inspired by what the composer sees as "good cartoons" (from the 1950s), it is a kaleidoscopic mix of many different sounds (including from a synthesizer) and ends up being both fun and virtuosic. The youngsters seemed to have a ball indeed, but also made sure to let their frightfully mature talents shine.

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Met - Lulu - 05/15/10

Composer: Alban Berg
Conductor: Fabio Luisi
Production: John Dexter
Director: Gregory Keller
Lulu: Marlis Petersen
Dr Schön/Jack the Ripper: James Morris
Countess Gerschwitz: Anne Sophie von Otter
Alwa: Gary Lehman

They say that it is not over until the fat lady sings, and I guess Patricia Racette was just not plump enough to end my Met season three weeks ago as last week my long-time friend and occasional Met companion Charles surprised me with an unexpected but most welcome early birthday present: his subscription ticket for Alan Berg's deliciously scandalous Lulu, which I'd have the pleasure to watch in the company of our mutual friend and Met veteran Martin. That sure helped soften the blow of being about to gain yet another year.
Little, however, did I know that getting to that precious seat would be as just suspenseful as the most convoluted opera with plot twists involving a lost ticket, an earlier than usual performance starting time, a consequently dangerously late bus departure time (complete with uncooperative luggage compartment door, a detour in downtown Baltimore, a long stop-over in White Marsh and crawling traffic to get to the Lincoln Tunnel), a wrongly labelled pass and, to set this quintessential case of Murphy's Law in motion, a mild case of food poisoning the afternoon before. But what at times looked like mission impossible had a happy ending, and we eventually took our seats with a full 5 minutes to spare!
Lulu was appealing to me for several reasons, the main ones being the sterling cast and the prospect of watching four hours of unchecked decadence by following the consummate femme fatale in Vienna, Paris and London as she was leaving a trail of death (natural, suicide and murder) and ruin behind her while still managing to remain above it all, at least for a while.

After an unnecessary circus-inspired introduction, things started in earnest in a painter's workshop where Lulu's irresistible sex appeal did not waste time manifesting itself through her magnetic seduction of the poor artist, unwillingly causing the death of her husband in the process (Never mind that she was there to get her portrait done for her lover). And it went all downhill from there in splendid decadence (or was it decadent splendour?), all the way to the dreadful London garret in which she ended up turning tricks for miserly sums before meeting her ghastly fate. As the black and blacker story unfolded, I couldn't help but marvel at the stunning Art Nouveau sets and tastefully sumptuous costumes, all the more dazzling in contrast with Lulu's bleak tale of shameless manipulation and debauched laissez-faire.
It is a tough job to impersonate a central character deprived of the slightest bit of any human quality, to say the last, but Marlis Petersen did it very well, confidently exuding brazen sexuality and detached amorality as if her power was truly outside of her control. You may not have wanted to make her your new BFF, but you couldn't take your eyes off of her either. The German soprano had obviously dwelled head-first into the challenging part and made it her very own thanks to her natural, charismatic beauty and her supple, assured voice. As Dr Schön, the only man that Lulu ever loved, James Morris brought his reassuring presence and compelling voice to the part, even as he was repeatedly falling into helpless submission. Anne Sophie von Otter made a strong impression in the shorter role of the Countess who never ceased to pine for Lulu, her ever-elusive "angel". All the other cast members fulfilled their roles with remarkable competence and helped make those mostly grim four hours surprisingly spell-binding.
Beside a sordid story, the singers also had to contend with a unique, ground-breaking score that uses the twelve-tone technique pioneered by Alban Berg's teacher, Arnold Schoenberg. Enough said that there were no recognizable melodies, or any melody at all for that matter, which actually can be a blessing as the audience did not break into applause after each aria. Yesterday, the spectators were mostly attentive and respectful, although more than a few chuckles predictably responded to the line that "Bankers know their business, dear", a reply uttered right before the Junfrau Cable Railway shares took a deadly plunge at the stock exchange, bringing massive ruin to all.
The Met's beloved James Levine, who had been instrumental in bringing Lulu to the Met in the 1970s and had missed only three performances ever since, had to withdraw due to his on-going health issues. But Fabio Luis, who is decidedly becoming a familiar figure to the Met audience after replacing also maestro Levine at the last minute for Tosca on top of his regularly scheduled appearances, conducted the brilliant as usual orchestra with his trademark gusto. His dedication has actually been rewarded and he has recently been nominated the Met's new principal guest conductor. Good for us!

Marlis Petersen is not fat either, but I guess my Met season is over regardless as it was officially ending with Armida yesterday evening. All the more to look forward to next season...

NSO - Copland, Adams, Barber & Elgar - 05/13/10

Conductor: John Adams
Copland: Suite from Billy the Kid
Adams: The Wound-Dresser - Eric Owens
Barber: Adagio for Strings, Op. 11
Elgar: Variations on an original Theme, Op. 36, "Enigma"

Seeing, and especially hearing, a composer conduct his own work can only be an at least interesting endeavor. These days, not only multi-faceted John Adams is the subject of a special residency at the Kennedy Center with the "John Adams: Retrospectives" program, but the man himself was at hand on Thursday evening to conduct the National Symphony Orchestra in his very own "Wound-Dresser" as well as his own choosing of Copland's fun excerpts from "Billy the Kid", Barber's stirring "Adagio for Strings" and Elgar's engaging "Enigma".

Billy the Kid was certainly an appropriate way to start a program focusing mostly on American music, and the NSO got right down to business, led by an elastically dynamic maestro. The various scenes of the story were brought out to life bright and clear, and a good time was had by all.
One couldn't expect a sharper contract with John Adams' "Wound-Dresser", a deeply sober affair that had been inspired by one of Walt Whitman's poems. As he was tirelessly toiling away in the hospital tents hastily erected on the National Mall during the Civil War, he wrote about the endless pain, suffering and death he got to witness on a daily basis. Somberly sung by a committed Eric Owens, the text had nevertheless occasionally trouble rising above the plaintiff violins and mournful trumpet solos.
More violins (and what violins!) were heard after intermission in Barber's Adagio for Strings. Famously used in the movie "Platoon", this orchestration of the slow movement of his First String Quartet had long been a crowd favorite, never mind that Barber later developed some decidedly mixed feelings about it. Immediately gripping and never letting go, it beautifully rose in all its lushness and left us wanting for more.
The only representative of Old Albion in this Yankee festival, Elgar's evocative variations, representing a wide range of people and situations, from the ones very close to him to mere trifles, were mostly light-hearted vignettes, except for its emotional core that was yet another feast for violin lovers, the beloved "Nimrod". The whole work consequently displays an impressive range of emotions and turned out to be the perfect opportunity for the orchestra to show a lot of colors, which it did remarkably well.

Millennium Stage - New England Conservatory of Music - Bach, Mahler, Rossini & Schmann - 05/13/19

Bach: Suite No1 in E minor, BWW 996 (I. Passagio; Presto, II. Allemande, III. Courante, IV. Sarabande, V. Bourrée, VI. Gigue) - George Nickson
Mahler: From Des Knaben Wunderhorn ("Selbstgefuhl", "Nicht wiedersehen", "Scheiden und Meiden") - DongWon Kim (Baritone), Yoko Kida (Piano)
Rossini: "Largo al factotum" from Il barbiere di Siviglia - DongWon Kim (Baritone) and Yoko Kida (Piano)

Schumann: Sonata No 1 in A minor, Op. 105 - David McCarroll (Violin) and Dina Vainshtein (Piano)

Spring is in the air and so is The Conservatory Project at the Kennedy Center Millennium Stage, where for a whole week the most brilliant students of the most prestigious music schools in the nation perform for all and for free. Thursday evening was unfortunately the only evening I would get to enjoy those in-progress talents, from the highly regarded New England Conservatory of Music this time, as a prelude to the National Symphony Orchestra concert that unfortunately constrained me to leave slightly before the end.

The first musician, George Nickson, was presenting the unique combination of Bach and marimba. While there's no denying that Bach's genius is easily adaptable, hearing his works played on an instrument that has - at least for me - very exotic resonances was definitely odd. Interesting, yes, but still pretty odd.
Then we were back on more familiar territory with three lieder from Mahler and an aria from Rossini. The young baritone DongWon Kim assuredly took the stage and had no trouble keeping it, whether he was channeling innocuous silliness, sweet sorrow or bright resignation. After Mahler's various moods, he whole-heartedly belted "Largo al factotum" from Il Barbiere di Siviglia and left us all with those resounding notes still ringing in our ears.
As the concert was getting better and better, I was deeply disappointed to be only able to stay for the first movement of the Schumann sonata and to have to miss all of Bartok's Romanian Folk Dances. Dina Vainshtein and David McCarroll all but cruelly emphasized the dreadfully bad timing as they beautifully unfolded Schumann's first movement in all its gentle Romanticism.

Friday, May 14, 2010

WPAS - Maurizio Pollini - All-Chopin - 05/12/10

Chopin: Nocturne No 1, Op. 55, in F minor
Chopin: Nocturne No 2, Op. 55, in E-flat Major
Chopin: Mazurka No 3, Op. 56, in C minor
Chopin: Barcarolle, op. 60 in F-sharp Major
Chopin: Berceuse, Op. 57 in D-flat Major
Chopin: Polonaise-fantaisie in A-flat Major, Op. 61
Chopin: Nocturne No 1, Op. 62, in B Major
Chopin: Nocturne No 2, Op. 62, in E Major
Chopin: Sonata No 3 in B minor, O. 58

The Washington Performing Arts Society had obviously decided to conclude it Star Series with an (intellectual) bang in the person of Maurizio Pollini, the quintessential musician's musician, who was presenting an all-Chopin program on Wednesday at the Kennedy Center. As well-known for his impeccable technique as for being a cerebral Italian (not an oxymoron in this case), the illustrous pianist has been dazzling audiences all around the world for decades now, and I was really intrigued at the prospect of witnessing such a master of meticulousness handle Chopin's unabashed sentimentality.

The verdict is that not only did the two opposites attract, but they made beautiful music together as well. Starting a concert with not one but two Nocturnes may not be that common, but he of course got away with it by surreptitiously capturing our attention while carefully bringing out all their delicate nuances. The following Mazurka was a soulful display of Chopin's affection for his home country, the Barcarolle was as sweepingly romantic as it could get considering the soloist, and the Berceuse (lullaby) delighted the child and the adult in all of us. Then things got simultaneously intricate and intense with the Polonaise-fantaisie, but Pollini made sure to keep it all fun and clean, which is no doubt even harder than it sounds.
The second part of the program started with two new Nocturnes, and also featured Chopin's Sonata No 3 in B minor with its exciting mix of serenity and turbulence, which Pollini easily mastered by carefully balancing surgical precision and florid Romanticism.

Just as we were savouring what we thought was the end of our delightful evening, he came back for no fewer than three Chopin encores, concluding his performance as expertly as he had started it with Chopin's Ballade No 1 in G minor.

Saturday, May 1, 2010

NSO - Debussy, Connesson & Ravel - 04/29/10

Conductor: Hans Graf
Debussy: Images - Rondes de printemps, Gigues & Ibéria
Connesson: The Shining One - Jean-Yves Thibaudet
Ravel: Piano Concerto for the Left Hand - Jean-Yves Thibaudet
Ravel: Suite No 2 from Daphnis et Chloé

After an evening of "Russian perfection" (Right on!) with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra at Strathmore on Thursday evening, I was happily back at the Kennedy Center for a an all-French program with the National Symphony Orchestra on Friday evening, never mind the fact that I was more familiar with the Russian works than the ones coming from my native country. Of course, the only one I still had vivid memories of was Ravel's Piano Concerto for the Left Hand performed by the very same Jean-Yves Thibaubet on that very same stage last year with the Philadelphia Orchestra and Charles Dutoit. So that one was a sure value, and everything else sounded like a nice stroll into French musical impressionism (Even if Debussy vehemently resented that label).

And we started the concert with above-mentioned Debussy and its trio of musical "Images" from spring, England and Spain, all bristling with delicate touches of various colors, turning the exquisite harmonies into lively tableaux. While the first two were nice little affairs, the three-part Ibéria wonderfully evoked a Spanish village at three different times of the day, complete with clacking castanets, festive violins-as-guitars, ringing bells and the sensuous night-time. Under the sensitive baton of renown composer Hans Graf, the orchestra carefully brought out the composition's small but telling details for a winning performance.
After Debussy's multi-textured portraits, we were on for the world première of a a short piece commissioned by the Royal Scottish National Orchestra and our very own NSO and dedicated to... Jean-Yves Thibaudet by its composer Guillaume Connesson. As its title indicates, The Shining One was inspired by a fantasy fiction and contains a lot of packed action in its nine-minute, one-movement score. Bringing out the wild streak underneath his classy surface, Jean-Yves Thibaudet brilliantly demonstrated that no piece is too short for him to get involved in, and ripped through it all with lightness and panache.
He was back after intermission for Ravel's Piano Concerto for the Left Hand, which I savored even more that last year. Although only his left hand was at work, it grabbed the work from its sweepingly dramatic entrance and kept at it with devilish energy, casually throwing in a few cool jazzy chords for good measure. The solo passages were grand in their force and gentleness, and it eventually concluded in an apotheosis of virtuosity.
After his concerto, we went on to Ravel's luscious Daphnis et Chloé, which he composed for the hot new thing that were the Ballet Russes at the time. The Suite No 2 we heard last night is part of the happy finale, where the lovers are reunited, and the waves of lush violin sounds really made it clear that all was well that ended well for the young Greek couple... and for the NSO audience as well.

BSO - Leshnoff, Stravinsky & Rachmaninoff - 04/29/10

Conductor: Marin Alsop
Leshnoff: Starburst
Stravinsky: Violin Concerto in D Major - Gil Shaham
Rachmaninoff: Symphony No 2 in E Minor, Op. 27

What would the world be without the wonders of Russian classical music? the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra and Marin Alsop obviously do not want to know because on Thursday evening at Strathmore their program was called "Russian Perfection". After a quick look, I saw that they were not kidding with Stravinsky's spirited violin concerto, performed by the same violinist as last year with the National Symphony Orchestra, child-prodigy-all-grown-up Gil Shaham, and Rachmaninoff's sumptuous Symphony No 2.

The concert, however, started with a short piece by a Baltimore-based composer who is really starting to make a name for himself, but which made me also wonder about the Russian connection. The name, maybe? Leshnoff? Then I heard his richly romantic, energetically melodic music and I realized that, regardless of his ancestry, there was a Russian connection right in his work... and that it was a very good thing indeed.
Next Gil Shaham was up with Stravinsky's short, but endlessly fun, when not downright idiosyncratic, violin concerto. Eons away from my beloved Romantic concertos, it is still a work that I very much enjoy for its virtuosic playfulness, and having the consummate musician that is Gil Shaham bring it to life was an especially irresistible treat. As predicted, soloist and orchestra had wonderful chemistry and the 20 minutes just flew by.
After Stravinsky's out-of-the-box endeavor, it was time for a grand lesson in full-blown Russian Romanticism with Rachmaninoff lavishly melodic second symphony. It is a good thing that the harsh reviews his first symphony received did not completely discourage him because his second effort proved an unqualified, and much deserved, success. Mostly well-know for its incredibly luscious, violin-driven third movement, the whole work remains one of the most treasured present Russia ever gave us, and that's saying a lot.