Friday, December 30, 2011

New York String Orchestra - Arriaga, Bartok & Beethoven - 12/28/11

Conductor: Jaime Laredo
Arriaga: Symphony in D Major
Bartok: Divertimento for Strings
Beethoven: Piano Concerto No 5 in E-flat Major, Op. 73, "Emperor" – André Watts

For my last performance of the year, I could hardly have picked a better one than the New York Strings Orchestra led by Jaime Laredo and featuring André Watts as the soloist at Carnegie Hall last Wednesday. However, truth be told, the main purpose of my attendance was not to support current and past child prodigies, but to enjoy one of my very favorite musical works: Beethoven’s formidable Emperor concerto. Moreover, Bartok’s Divertimento for Strings could only appeal to the string lover that I am, and getting a chance to sample Spanish composer Juan Crisostomo Arriaga's œuvre could only be beneficial to my musical education. So that’s how I found myself in a Stern auditorium packed with an eclectic crowd of excited family members and friends of the young performers in the prestigious spotlight as well as, holiday season oblige, hordes of tourists coming from all over the world, probably drawn as much by the prospect of hearing some of the headliners of tomorrow as by the international renown of the historic venue.

An extraordinarily talented young Spanish composer who grew up on Beethoven and Schubert, Arriaga obviously learned to make the most of these influences for his own symphony, which he completed right before his untimely death at the age of twenty. Although he hadn’t had the time to find his own voice yet, his one and only symphony is an appealing recap of the best the late-Classical and early-Romantic styles had to offer, and the youngsters onstage on Wednesday did not waste any time channeling one of their own for an enthusiastic rendition of it.
Another musical giant who got a decidedly early start, Hungarian composer Bela Bartok had a natural knack to neatly blend earthy folk tunes with more traditionally refined music. A powerful combination of both elements, his Divertimento for Strings opens with an irresistible pulse that never officially lets off until the dark Adagio comes around and calms things down. It all eventually ends in a fun, free-spirited polka. However, no matter what its name implies, Bartok’s Divertimento is not just fluffy entertainment but also a serious, intricate musical work, which can be quite challenging for the musicians. The ones at Carnegie Hall did not seem to mind though, and whole-heartedly threw themselves into it with sharp focus and unwavering intensity, assuredly conducted by Jaime Laredo.
Last, but not least, André Watts came for the high point of the evening, Beethoven’s widely popular Concerto No 5. There’s nothing in the Emperor that does not inspire awe and delight: The unusual appearance of the piano with a cadenza, the triumphant complexity of the first movement, the warm delicacy of the Adagio, the boundless energy bursting from the final Rondo. Beethoven’s last concerto is more than familiar territory for André Watts, but he still kept it fresh and engaging. While he strongly held his own against the fiery orchestra, his performance also had an underlying light-heartedness to it. Viscerally virtuosic, yet elegantly playful. The perfect way to end another memorable musical year and to look forward to a brand new one. Happy New Year!

Saturday, December 24, 2011

Met - Faust - 12/20/11

Composer: Charles Gounod
Conductor: Yannick Nézet-Séguin
Director: Des McAnuff
Faust: Jonas Kaufmann
Marguerite: Marina Poplavskaya
Méphistophélès: René Pape

France and Germany have notoriously had a tumultuous relationship throughout the centuries, and one more subject of dissension is the Germans’ insistence of calling Faust, one of the world’s most famous French operas, by its heroine’s name, Margarethe. What gives? Well, it appears that a true blue Frenchman actively working in and for his own country during the Franco-Prussian War did not seem quite the right person to tackle Goethe’s monumental masterpiece. Moreover, Margarethe is the title of the play often associated with the novel on the other side of the Rhine. So there.
Although Goethe was adamant about Mozart being the only composer worthy of turning his epic drama into an opera, time was unfortunately not on his side and Gounod was apparently the only artist brave, or foolhardy, enough to try to tame the beast. By focusing on the timeless human themes such as the desire for youth, sensuality and salvation, all basking in unabashedly expressive melodies, he ended up with a solid hit, whose popularity has never faltered even through the numerous rounds of revisions. Therefore, while perusing the Met program at the beginning of the season, I figured that it was high time that I checked it out, especially when the cast included Jonas Kaufmann, René Pape and Marina Poplavskaya.

Faust’s plot line and moral may sound a bit simplistic (not to mention matter-of-factly): Selling your soul to the Devil is not a good idea. Although not dreadfully long, the opera still has five acts and two intermissions, which means almost four hours of watching, listening and waiting as Faust makes his pact with the Devil, seduces, abandons and drives to insanity an innocent girl, kills her brother, and finally repents too late. Very German AND very French, no doubt about that.
Naturally charismatic tenor Jonas Kaufmann was a superb Faust, impeccably dashing in his fancy suits and flaunting flawless vocal power to match. Whether fiercely conveying his intense lust for the pleasures of life or deftly turning into a sweetly seductive romantic, he handled the role with remarkable ease and flair.
Marina Poplavskaya was a lovely Marguerite, turning a character that can easily be just a one-dimensional pathetic figure into an all too vulnerable human being. Granted, she was seduced  amazingly fast by the box of jewelry, but her mix of gullibility and coquettishness during the “Jewel Song” was sparklingly touching and fun, bringing some welcome light-heartedness to a rather thankless part.
Everybody’s favorite bass, René Pape, was, of course, a delicious Méphistophélès, suave and charming, but always aware of when to strike. With his magnetic presence, magnificent voice and debonair looks, he was the man running the show and obviously enjoying every single minute of it. So were we.
The chorus did a spectacular job, as usual. There does not seem to be anything this amazing ensemble cannot thoroughly nail.
As much as the cast came through beautifully, the production failed to make a lasting impression for the most part. Beside the ubiquitous stairs and scaffoldings, apparently modern operas’ favorite props, the overall impression was of minimalism, which is fine, and distance, which is much less so. Setting the story in the first half of the 20th century was not a problem in itself, but most of the time the feeling was of heavy-handedness and lack of purpose.
A couple of scenes, however, spontaneously grabbed my attention, such as Méphistophélès leading a macabre dance during the drinking song in the second act, or the giant red roses popping up in the background and in the air during the seduction scene in the third act. The large black and white portraits projected on the black curtain during the intermissions were riveting as well. But Marguerite’s image briefly looming in the background during the first act was frustratingly lost to most people in the auditorium's family section.
Character development may not have been Gounod's forte, but he more than made up for it by composing some memorable music. The orchestra took it all to heart and delivered a strong, richly nuanced performance. Yannick Nézet-Séguin, who is fast becoming a familiar figure at the Met, has just added yet another impressive conducting feat to his rapidly expanding resume. Subtly highlighting the refined elegance and passionate lyricism of the supremely melodic score, he knowingly let the music speak for itself.
The third act, in particular, during which Faust courts and eventually wins Marguerite, had truly exquisite moments. After Méphistophélès joined them, all three voices converged into a brilliantly soaring dramatic climax, the undisputed high point of the evening. Devilishly good, indeed.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Cantori New York - A Cantori Holiday - 12/17/11

Artistic Director & Conductor: Mark Shapiro
H. J. Gauntlett: Once in Royal David’s City
Flemish Traditional Carol: Cradle Song (Arr. John Rutter)
Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas (Arr. Kenneth Neufeld)
Herbert Howells: Sing Lullaby
French Traditional Melody: Shepherds in the field Abiding (Arr. Charles Wood)
J. H. Hopkins: We Three Kings – Joe Klein, Joey Mele & Tobias Engstrom
Jonathan Breit: Ocho Kandelikas
Bach: Sheep may Safely Graze (Arr. Egon Petri) – Jason Wirth
Elizabeth Piston: Jesus Christ the Apple Tree – Emily Klonowski
Morten Lauridsen: O Magnum Mysterium
Traditional Taita Melody: Natufurahi Siku Ya Leo (Arr. Boniface Mganga)
Swedish Traditional Carol: Bereden väg för Herran!
Swedish Traditional Carol: Jul, Jul, Stralende Jul!
Elliot Z. Levine: Lo v’chayil
J. Pierpont: Jingle Bells – Jason Wirth & Erol Gurol
Adolphe Adam: Oh, Holy Night – Nicholas Chong
Russian Traditional Carol: I drink to my Mary’s Health
W. J. Kirkpatrick: Away in a Manger
English Traditional Carol: Wassail Song (Arr. Vaughn Williams)
Franz Biebl: Ave Maria – Matt Perkins, Gerald Metz, Joel Klein, Erol Gurol & Jason Wirth
Welsh Traditional Carol: Deck the Hall
14th century German Melody: Lo, How the Rose
Traditional West Country Carol: We wish you a Merry Christmas
Franz Gruber: Silent Night - Sing Along

The holiday season is upon us again, which means frigidly cold temperatures, ubiquitous Christmas markets, crowded department stores, brightly colorful decorations, Santa Clauses at every corner, and the same darn Christmas music over and over and over again. Even if you carefully avoid any commercial destinations, it is practically impossible to escape gratingly cheerful seasonal tunes as soon as you step outside, whether they're spilling out through the open door of a store or are just innocently hummed by an unsuspecting culprit carrying a dozen shopping bags on the street. The economy may be thankful. I am less so.
Since there seems to be no way to get around it, I have decided to embrace it in the best way possible: hearing those cyclic songs and hymns performed by dedicated professionals in an elating environment. That’s how yesterday evening I found myself in the lovely Church of Saint Luke in the Fields, a prized landmark of Greenwhich Village, for “A Cantori Holiday”, ready to be serenaded by one of the most consistency adventurous and highly praised choruses of New York City. If I was going to do it, I might as well do it with the best.

The result was a truly delectable celebration, overflowing with fun, sacred, exotic holiday songs picked by various members of Cantori New York to take us all over the world as well as through several centuries. Even if “Jingle Bells” or “We wish you a Merry Christmas”, to name my two worst nightmares, were as exasperatingly perky as ever, they also had never sounded so good. (Granted, the bar was set pretty low, but that is still a huge compliment.)
Highlights were numerous: a brilliantly festive “Ocho Kandelikas” by Jonathan Breit, a member of Cantori New York, an intensely rousing “Holy Night”, sung by Nicholas Chong, and Franz Biebl’s all-male “Ave Maria”, during which three of the singers were placed in the back of the church while Mark Shapiro was conducting from the middle of the aisle.
My personal favorite, Bach’s “Sheep may safely Graze”, was the only work not involving any voice, except for the piano’s. I frankly can’t imagine anybody surpassing Leon Fleisher’s divinely inspired take on it a couple of years ago at Strathmore, the kind of encore that makes you instantaneously forget the work on the program you had actually come to hear. Last night Jason Wirth unsurprisingly did not surpass the master, but he clearly proved to be on the right path to grow into an excellent soloist.
The last piece of the evening was the unavoidable “Silent Night”, with Mark Shapiro conducting the audience for the first and last verses while turning back to his chorus for the second one. A beautifully peaceful – This is one of the traditional carols I do like – ending to a much enjoyed performance.

Then it was on to the backroom for the after-concert party with less lofty but just as pleasurable festivities. The sheep safely, and abundantly, grazed, indeed. Happy Holidays!

Monday, December 12, 2011

London Philharmonic Orchestra - Pintscher, Mozart & Brahms - 12/07/11

Conductor: Vladimir Jurowski
Pintscher: towards Osiris
Mozart: Violin Concerto No 5 in A Major, K. 219, "Turkish" – Janine Jansen
Brahms: Symphony No 4 in E Minor, Op. 98

Now that the trip to France is a lovely but far off memory and that I am fully back in real life, it is time to resume my unofficial residency at Carnegie Hall with a traditional concert that included a violin concerto, which could only be a thoroughly enjoyable one since it was Mozart’s Turkish performed by Janice Jansen, and a timeless symphony, which in this case was Brahms’ last and sumptuous masterpiece. Since one has to leave room for the young, or at least the contemporary, German composer Matthias Pintscher was also appearing on the program with the Carnegie Hall première of its 2005 toward Osiris. All this would happen courtesy of the London Philharmonic Orchestra, one of the world’s most highly regarded musical ensembles, as famous for its many riveting performances as for its numerous outreach programs all over England.

The unknown toward Osiris, taking its inspiration from the ancient Egyptian myth of Osiris and Isis, sounded appropriately fragmented and ethereal, a six-minute festival of eclectic sonorities delicately hovering in the air from the orchestra operating in full force.
After this strange beast, we went back on über-familiar territory with a much reduced orchestra for Mozart’s popular Turkish violin concerto, to which a diaphanous-looking Janine Jansen did full justice. Always the ultimate piano man, Mozart nevertheless knew a thing or two about the violin, as his five concertos for the instrument can attest. For the Turkish, he had the violin make an unusually subdued, poetic entrance before going all out in a dazzling show of exuberance. Janine Jansen, a naturally graceful and sensitive musician, let her elegant tone take flight and brilliantly expand, before moving into an angelic Adagio. The finale was a bouquet of exotic flavors that happily exploded, but never lost their refined taste. Mozart would have been pleased.
One of my hands-down favorite musical journeys, Brahms’ Symphony No 4 is an intense, somber and deeply moving work, which opens with some of the most hypnotic waves in the entire classical music répertoire. From then on, the seriously magnificent score just keeps unrolling as if nothing could stop the outpouring of romantic longings, regrets and resolve. Young but nevertheless definitely in charge maestro Vladimir Jurowski, who had proven quietly efficient until then, was finally able to lead his musicians into a tight and passionate performance of Brahms’ supreme achievement, crowning the evening with a truly beautiful tour de force. There was regretfully no encore, but then again, what can you play after Brahms' Fourth?

Monday, December 5, 2011

Jeremy Denk - Bach, Beethoven & Ligeti - 12/03/11

Bach: Toccata in D Major, BWV 912
Bach: Toccata in F-Sharp Minor, BWV 910
Beethoven: 15 Variations and Fugue on an Original Theme, Op. 35, "Eroica"
Ligeti: Études, Book 1 – Désordre (Disorder), Cordes à vide (Open Strings), Touches bloquées (Blocked Keys), Fanfares, Arc-en-ciel (Rainbow), Automne à Varsovie (Warsaw Autumn)
Beethoven: Sonata in C Minor, Op. 111

Coming back from two weeks of a shamelessly epicurean life-style in France cannot be pleasant no matter how you look at it, but I did find a way to make the return to reality a little bit less painful by carefully scheduling a sure-fire fabulous treat upon my return: a recital by Jeremy Denk, the coolest pianist in New York, possibly in the States, at the 92Y. So after strategically flying back four days earlier in order to prevent any kind of jet lag from screwing up my attention span, I crossed the park to the Upper East Side on Saturday night in a giddy, but bright and wide open state of mind. The program had been slightly changed and was even more intriguing that originally planned with Bach, Beethoven, Ligeti, and more Beethoven. It is good to be back!

Kicking off the performance on a decidedly festive note, the carefree opening of Bach’s Toccata in D Major made me think of the high-spirited soundtrack of a silent comedy, where the characters’ comical antics compete with unpredictable twists of fate. After a while the pace did slow down, but not without wild accelerations springing up here and there.
Although more conventional and atmospheric, Bach’s Toccata in F-Sharp Minor was still an impressive exercise in manic finger dexterity. Playing these short works with his trademark free-spirited, unperturbed virtuosity, Jeremy Denk really made us believe that he routinely just rolls out of bed and nails it. Then again, maybe he does…
Opening on a simple but thunderous chord, Beethoven’s constantly inventive “Eroica” variations are a multi-faceted gift hat keeps on giving. It is an essentially happy, humorous even, piece, which is actually surprising considering that it was written during one of the darkest periods in the composer’s life. In Jeremy Denk’s expert hands, the complex variations sounded like purely hedonistic child’s play, as if all the technical challenges had been fully digested and only the fun part remained.
Although it seems that nowadays any program attempting to sound even vaguely cutting-edge has to include Ligeti, the Eastern European composer fit in naturally among the other two musical ground-breakers featured on Saturday. His six études presented short vignettes describing widely different scenes and atmospheres such as the relentless "Désordre" or the gentle "Cordes à vide". The sustained rhythms of "Touches Bloquées" were followed by the joyful Latin flavors of "Fanfares". Eventually, the pretty "Arc-en-ciel" let the robust "Automne à Varsovie" conclude this very enjoyable series.
Then it was back to Beethoven with the last piano sonata he ever wrote, his Sonata in C Minor. Famous for its two viscerally contrasting movements, it has deservedly been a favorite among musicians and audiences since it first came out. On Saturday at the 92Y, Jeremy Denk delivered a truly impassionate, drama-filled first movement before flawlessly switching to a light-hearted, overtly optimistic mood for the second half. The immaculate fluidity of his playing, the precise blend of spontaneity and thoughtfulness as well as his profound understanding of Beethoven’s work all contributed to making this sonata a grand, wide-reaching experience.

I was originally more than a little surprised when I noticed that Ives was not on the program, but the American composer still made a late appearance courtesy of the encore: "The Alcotts" from the Concord Sonata. A beautifully executed labor of love that brought a transcendental closure to yet another thoroughly engrossing performance by Jeremy Denk.

Friday, December 2, 2011

Opéra National de Paris - La Cenerentola - 11/28/11

Composer: Gioachino Rossini
Conductor: Bruno Campanella
Director: Jean-Pierre Ponnelle
Producer: Grischa Asagaroff
Angelina: Karine Deshayes
Don Ramiro: Javier Camarena
Clorinda: Jeanette Fischer
Tisbe: Anna Wall
Don Magnifico: Carlos Chausson
Dandini: Riccardo Novaro
Alidoro: Alex Esposito

Attending an opera at Palais Garnier had long been a goal of mine, so this trip to Paris sounded like the perfect opportunity to finally make it happen, until it started to dawn on me that all my well-laid musical plans might be irreversibly doomed. Although the London Symphony Orchestra with Valery Gergiev and Hélène Grimaud at Salle Pleyel had been solidly sold out forever, we had somehow managed to make up for it with very agreeable concerts at Sainte Chapelle and Saint-Eustache. It would, however, be much more difficult to find a substitute for an evening at the opera, so we decided to take a chance with last minute tickets for La Cenerentola, which had also been hopelessly sold out from the very minute the tickets went on sale to the general public, except for some prohibitively expensive seats.
Somehow the opera gods must have been on our side because after a long and anxious wait, we ended with 10 Euros seats that were not half bad, especially once we had moved to the box next to ours. Being in Palais Garnier is, of course, a mind-blowing experience in itself, and it was hard to figure out where to look among the fancy stone friezes and columns, the ubiquitous statues and mirrors, the grand staircase, the splendid foyer and my personal favorite: the whimsical, colorful ceiling by Marc Chagall in the auditorium. All the gold and red opulence brought us back to another time while putting us in the most appropriate frame of mind for Rossini’s hyper-melodic version of the timeless fairly tale of Cinderella.

Although Charles Perrault’s heroine is an excessively familiar character of Western culture, her musical Italian counterpart is a tad different, mostly due to the opera conventions of the early 19th century. Therefore, the glass slipper became a bracelet, since female artists could not expose their feet on a respectable stage. The fairy godmother was replaced by a philosopher – who also happens to be the prince’s former tutor – so that nobody would have to bother with the limited special effects at the time, and the mean step-mother was substituted by a greedy father, making the heavily moral ending resonate even louder.
In the title role, French mezzo-soprano Karin Deshayes effortlessly displayed the right combination of sweetness, intelligence and assertiveness, whether she was slaving for her step-sisters or making her grand entrance at the ball. Her coloratura was spot on, and its intense yet delicate radiance grabbed everybody’s attention at once. To top off this well-rounded performance, she did not hesitate to show some sharp comic timing as well.
Her two step-siblings, Jeanette Fischer and Anna Wall as respectively Clorinda and Tisbe, had the right sounds but the wrong looks. Decked out with enormous noses, outrageous hair and ridiculous outfits, they also distinguished themselves with commedia dell’arte-style routines that were too delirious to fit in well into the overall story. That’s too bad because they obviously are talented singers, who would have been much better off with a little bit more subtlety in their acting.
The male singers constituted an unquestionably solid cast. Mexican tenor Javier Camanera was a very charming Don Ramiro, his ardent devotion to his beloved Angelina endearingly innocent and strongly heart-felt. Carlos Chausson was a brilliant Don Magnifico, although his excessive antics could become borderline grating. Alex Esposito as the philosopher Alidoro and Riccardo Navarro as the valet Dandini fulfilled their parts with professional assurance. The all-male chorus was consistently excellent.
The set consisted essentially of black and white curtains, on which were outlined the décors, as well as the occasional piece of furniture. This minimalist approach had the advantage of efficiently placing and serving the action without being over-bearing. The costumes were quietly resplendent as well, with a special mention for the magnificent black velvet dress with discreet white ornaments that Angelina wears at the ball.
Rossini’s sunny score found the right conductor in Italian maestro Bruno Campanella, who led the uniformly committed orchestra into a bright, engaging interpretation of it. They smartly let the bel canto singers perform their intricate acrobatics while providing the steady support for them.

So even if the farcical moments were a bit over the top, the action dragged on from time to time, and the ending turned Angelina into an almost insufferable goodie two-shoes, the stellar cast, solid orchestra and Rossini’s scintillating composition all contributed in making one more of my musical dreams come true with a wonderful night at the Opéra de Paris.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Saint-Eustache - Mussorgsky - 11/27/11

Organ: Jean Guillou
Mussorgsky: Pictures at an Exhibition

After the medieval marvel built by King Louis IX that is the Sainte Chapelle, my mum and I found ourselves in the much more populist church that is Saint-Eustache, which used to be the place of worship for the market workers toiling in Les Halles. Inside the monumental Gothic edifice modeled on Notre-Dame, a decidedly Renaissance style prevails. But its most amazing sight is without a doubt the magnificent organ – supposedly the largest one in France with 8,000 pipes – that is still regularly played for all to enjoy freely.
That’s why we made a point to be there for one of the popular Sunday afternoon concerts, this one presenting no less than Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition arranged by Jean Guillou, the church’s long-time titular organist.

The grandeur of the site and the solemnity of the sound flawlessly concurred to make the 10-movement suite a whole new experience. Far from the assertive subtlety of the original piano version or the textured inventiveness of Ravel’s take on it, the music was now coming alive loud and clear through the impressive pipe system… at least until one of the keys got stuck.
After some pessimistic assessment by Jean Guillou as to his ability to have it repaired promptly, the instrument did get swift and efficient attention, and we were able to hear the remaining of the work, making us appreciate the incredible feat that is organ playing – with its delayed sounds and all – even more.

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Les Violons de France - Mozart, Saint- Saëns, Massenet & Vivaldi - 11/26/11

Mozart: "Eine kleine Nachtmusik"
Saint-Saëns: "The Swan" from The Carnival of the Animals
Massenet: 'Méditation" from Thais
Vivaldi: The Four Seasons

Rightfully famous for being one of the most beautiful cities in the world, Paris seems to take endless delight in casually displaying one stunning sight after another to its predictably elated visitors. Few of them, however, are as unforgettable as the medieval Sainte Chapelle, which quietly stands in the shadow of Notre Dame on the Île de la Cité. While the outside looks like just another Gothic church, the inside is such a breath-taking festival of light and colors through the 15 stained-glass windows reaching up to the star-covered ceiling that you’ll believe you have accidentally stepped into heaven.
Therefore, while I was trying to find some musical performances in the City of Lights that would take place during our stay there and came across a concert of Vivaldi’s Four Seasons by Les Violons de France in the Sainte Chapelle, I knew that my mum and I just had to go, so we went. Even though the darkness of the evening prevented us from enjoying the full visual effect of the interior, the delicate lighting created a less spectacular but more intimate atmosphere that was perfectly appropriate to savor one of the undisputed masterpieces of the Baroque genre to our heart's content.

But just as we were getting mentally prepared for the melodic lightness of Vivaldi’s “Spring”,  the evening suddenly took an unexpected turn for the better when the first notes coming from the stage sounded unmistakably like… Mozart’s “Eine kleine Nachtmusik”! And that was not all. It was followed by a graceful “Swan” from Saint- Saëns’ Carnival of the Animals, and then a soaring “Méditation” from Massenet’s Thais, led by the assertive soloist Frédéric Moreau. This lovely trio of violin all-time hits was such a treat that I almost forgot what we were there for.
Luckily the musicians did not, and they finally treated us to four vibrant seasons, slightly pared down, yes, but still beautifully resplendent of myriad of colors. The acoustics were favorable and the temperature comfortable, so Vivaldi’s beloved work got to thoroughly enchant its attentive audience one more time.

After a rousing ovation, Frédéric Moreau came back for a diabolically virtuosic “Dance of the Goblins” by Barzini. Another sure-fire crowd pleaser that, true to form, concluded the concert on an irresistibly fun note.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Joshua Bell & Sam Haywood - Mendelssohn, Beethoven, Ysaye & Franck - 11/14/11

Mendelssohn: Violin Sonata in F Major
Beethoven: Violin Sonata No 7 in C Minor, Op. 30, No 2
Ysaye: Solo Violin Sonata in D Minor, Op. 27, No 3, "Ballade"
Franck: Violin Sonata in A Major

Planning a vacation out of town is always tricky because no matter how attractive the destinations are (and let’s face it, Provence and Paris are not half bad) some exciting performances are inevitably going to be missed on the home turf. So the goal is to squeeze as much as possible before and after in order to minimize the sacrifices and not have them come back and haunt me while I’m abroad.
That’s why on my first official vacation evening I found myself in the Stern Auditorium of Carnegie Hall for a recital by Joshua Bell and Sam Haywood, a nice way to ease myself into some carefree time before flying off to the City of Lights the next day. The composers on the program, Mendelssohn, Beethoven, Ysaye and Franck, promised some engaging complex "comfort music", and the two headliners some predictably brilliant playing. What more could I ask for to leave the Big Apple on a grand note?

Mendelssohn’s long-ignored Violin Sonata in F Major opened the concert with full-blown romantic élan and decisively highlighted the effortless chemistry between the two musicians. From the very beginning, the vibrant combination of the piano’s playfulness and the violin’s lushness cast a very special spell over the audience, prompting a shy but still heart-felt ovation after the first movement, something that I had never witnessed during a sonata. It seems that every time I think I have seen everything in a concert hall, a new unexpected occurrence manages to prove me wrong.
After Mendelssohn’s radiant lyricism, Beethoven’s Violin Sonata No 7 brought some subtly dark hues to the general mood as soon as the first notes resounded. After relishing the monumental "Kreutzer" last week, I appreciated all the more the human scale of the No 7. Here again, Joshua Bell and Sam Haywood played their parts with surgical precision and ardent virtuosity.
After intermission, Joshua Bell was back on the stage by himself for Ysaye’s Solo Violin Sonata in D Minor and provided some glorious evidence that practice, practice, practice does pay off. Although I don’t know how much he had practiced this particular piece, the “Ballade” certainly gave one of the most popular violinists in the world the perfect opportunity to make full use of the bag of tricks he’s been filling up all these years. After all, nobody gets to celebrate their 30th performance in 26 years at Carnegie Hall, which Joshua Bell did on Monday night, by slacking off.
With Sam Haywood back at the piano, they concluded the program with an unabashedly passionate rendition of Franck’s Violin Sonata in A Major. In turns dreamily luminous and intensely fiery, this stunningly beautiful love letter has long been a favorite among musicians and listeners. Taking their task obviously to heart, the two artists treated their clearly captivated audience to an absorbing, richly nuanced performance.

We simply couldn’t leave one another like this. So the night concluded with a delicate "Nocturne" by Chopin, which rose and unfolded like a memorable, bitter-sweet good-bye... until next time.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Leonidas Kavakos & Enrico Pace - Prokofiev, Auerback & Beethoven - 11/08/11

Prokofiev: Violin Sonata No 1 in F Minor, Op. 80
Auerbach: Selections from Twenty-four Preludes for Violin and Piano, Op. 46
Beethoven: Sonata for Violin and Piano No 9 in A Major, Op. 47 (Kreutzer)

There are musical masterpieces whose performances I make a point not to miss, and then there are masterful musicians whose concerts are considered high priority on my calendar. Highly regarded violinist Leonidas Kavakos is unquestionably one of them, so when I saw that he was scheduled for a recital in the Zankel auditorium at the Carnegie Hall with equally reliable pianist Enrico Pace, I promptly made plans to attend.

The icy first movement of Prokofiev’s Violin Sonata No 1 felt even gloomier than usual in Zankel’s pleasantly intimate but wintry cold environment. One of the Russian composer’s darkest pieces, it nevertheless sporadically offers some welcome outbursts of lyricism and vitality. Finding the right balance between mournful slowness and melodic energy, Leonidas Kavakos and Enrico Pace played off of each other with virtuosic precision and turned what could have been an interesting but depressing exercise into a complex and rewarding tour de force.
The ten selections from the Twenty-Four Preludes for Violin and Piano by Lera Auerbach were a nice sample of the contemporary multi-faceted Siberian artist’s œuvre. All equally short and instinctively attractive, they covered a wide spectrum of moods and sonorities, which gave the two musicians plenty of opportunities to display their acute interpretative skills.
Last, but not least, Beethoven’s formidable Kreutzer sonata unraveled without frills but plenty of warmth and meticulousness. One of Beethoven’s wildest rides, its fiendishly difficult twists and turns received a royal treatment and concluded the program with a grand bang.

We thought that we were not going to get it, and many people had already given up and left, but the duo eventually came back for an encore in the form of a diabolically festive “Danse russe” from Stravinsky's Pétrouchka. Another proof that patience does pay off.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Atlanta Symphony Orchestra - Salonen, Scriabin & Rachmaninoff - 11/05/11

Conductor: Robert Spano
Salonen: Nyx
Scriabin: Le poème de l’extase (The Poem of Ecstasy, Symphony No 4), Op. 54
Rachmaninoff: Piano Concerto No 3 in D Minor, Op. 30 – Garrick Ohlsson

There are some musical works whose performance I must attend, providing they take place within a reasonable radius of my location at the time, and Rachmaninoff’s sumptuous Piano Concerto No 3 definitely holds a prime spot on that list. Moreover, when the performer is the superb pianist Garrick Ohlsson and the venue Carnegie Hall, getting a ticket for it becomes a simple matter of course. The other details of the concert involved The Atlanta Symphony Orchestra conducted by its music director, Robert Spano, the New York première of Esa-Pekka Salonen’s Nyx and the promising-sounding Poème de l’extase by Scriabin. All nice, but all second fiddle, so to speak, to the majestic piano masterpiece.

In the program’s notes explaining Nyx, which takes its name from the mysterious Greek goddess, Esa-Pekka Salonen promised us a nebulous time. True to form, he had us wander aimlessly in a universe of floating melodic bubbles for 20 minutes, never exactly knowing what was going on but happily going along for the ride. A wide range of sounds making full use of the large orchestra kept on elusively appearing, mixing and fading, which in turn created myriad shades of colors and textures. Not the kind of music that grabs you and never lets you go, but rather a composition that can and will inconspicuously seduce you if you let it.
Another continuous work of 20 minutes is Scriabin’s Poème de l’extase, which moved us toward a romantic mood, even if I found the title slightly misleading. It was good, but not THAT good. Nevertheless, Robert Spano drew a warm response from his musicians, and this all went down very well.
But enough nit-picking. We were there for Rach 3, and boy did we get a glorious performance of it. Garrick Ohlsson may not be the flashy type, but on Saturday night he showed enough virtuosic fervor to make those huge Romantic waves beautifully come alive and totally submerge us. Always in impeccable control even during the most dazzling fireworks displays, the winner of the 1970 Chopin International Competition proved that he knew a thing or two about intricate nuances as well by constantly highlighting some new details. Brilliantly seconded by the orchestra, Garrick Ohlsson magisterially handled the Himalaya of piano concertos without fuss but plenty of heart, earning himself a well-deserved, resounding ovation.

As the audience was finally calming down, he came back for an encore, which was a sight as welcome as unexpected. Because, really, what do you do after Rach 3? After identifying it as “too famous to be announced”, he delivered the most delicate "Clair de lune" from Suite bergamasque by Debussy, masterly keeping the final notes hanging in the air for several breathless seconds. A precious little gift that was treasured all the way home, and beyond.

Sunday, October 30, 2011

American Classical Orchestra - Mozart - 10/29/11

Conductor: Thomas Crawford
Mozart: Symphony No 39 in E-flat Major, K. 543
Mozart: Requiem, K. 626 – The Choirs of Trinity Church on the Green, New Haven, CT – The Choir of Trinity Episcopal Church, Princeton, NJ – Maeve Hoglund – Abigail Fischer – Rufus Muller – Christopher Devage

As my friend Nicole so rightly put it, for some unknown reason Mother Nature seems determined to ruin our enjoyment of Mozart’s Requiem. After unleashing Irene on the day we were supposed to attend a performance of it last summer at the closing night of the Mostly Mozart Festival, which was consequently cancelled, she rudely dumped a nasty winter storm on the city all day and all night yesterday, turning what should have been a leisurely evening outing into a cold, windy, wet and slippery ordeal. This time, however, the concert was still on and there was no way we were going to miss it, come hell or high water or whatever. So we eventually made it to the historic Methodist Church of St. Paul & St. Andrew on the Upper West Side, gloriously basking in our complete victory against Nature's adversity for a moment, before nervously wondering what will be in store for us when we go listen to the same Requiem at Carnegie Hall in the spring.

Our resilience was actually rewarded with not only the Requiem, but also Mozart’s Symphony No 39, one of his most immediately attractive works, in the first part of the program. The American Classical Orchestra, a local orchestra specializing in the repertoire of the 17th and 18th centuries, quickly proved to be a talented ensemble whose precise, refined sound is ideally suited for Mozart. Although the opening resonated with pompous grandeur, the Adagio stood out because of the intensely sweeping passages for the strings. The Andante with moto bristled with gripping poignancy, the Menuetto exuded stately elegance and the Finale explodes with unfussy but sunny exuberance. The space was devoid of any fancy ornaments yet welcoming, and the acoustics turned out to be totally acceptable. So far, so good.
Then, at last, it was time for the Requiem, and I'm happy to report that it was well worth the wait. The nicest touch of the whole set-up was probably the young children in the choirs trying not to be distracted by their anxious parents in the audience. Seeing them sing their hearts out during the "Dies irae" made me briefly wonder how much of the Day of Wrath concept they were actually getting, but it did not matter. The singing from all parties involved was excellent and the orchestra delivered a powerful, warmly expressive performance of Mozart’s unfinished masterpiece. Once the applause had subsided, we were able to leave with the good feeling that our mission had been belatedly but masterfully accomplished.

Met - Don Giovanni - 10/29/11

Composer: Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
Conductor: Fabio Luisi
Producer/Director: Michael Grandage
Don Giovanni: Mariusz Kwiecien
Leporello: Luca Pisaroni
Donna Anna: Marina Rebeka
Donna Elvira: Barbara Frittoli
Zerlina: Mojca Erdmann
Masetto: Joshua Bloom
The Commendatore: Stefan Kocan

Just as I was planning my Mozart marathon for yesterday, Don Giovanni in the afternoon and the Requiem in the evening, I was kind of lamenting the fact that I wouldn’t have many opportunities to spend time outside enjoying fall in New York City, my favorite time of the year. Well, it turned out that yesterday was the perfect day for indoors activities as thousands of buckets of rain and then snow were continuously falling onto the city from morning to night (!?). So much for bonding with nature.
After he had to withdraw at the last minute from the first few performances due to an emergency back surgery, young Polish baritone Mariusz Kwiecien, the star of this new Met production of Don Giovanni, showed steely determination by promptly getting back on his feet and on the stage this week. So I went ahead and tried to show the same steely determination when looking for a precious ticket, even though all the dates were sold-out. And I finally succeeded too!
Mozart’s last and most ambiguous opera lends itself to so many interpretations that any occasion to watch a new take on it is always an exciting endeavor, never mind the kind of elements you have to brave to get to it. Therefore, I decided that after overcoming the ticket shortage, no untimely winter storm was going to keep me away from a date with this Don. And once again, determination paid off.

Centered on the universal myth of Don Juan and achieving an adjustable combination of comedy and drama, Don Giovanni also boasts a magnificent score that allows each character to take center stage without outshining the others. Granted, the whole thing can be a bit messy, but the music is constantly there to smooth over the occasional narrative deficiency with the utmost Mozartian grace so that the final result, in the right hands, leaves the audience fully satisfied.
A super-juicy part like the world’s most famous seducer can be as tempting as daunting, but Mariusz Kwiecen hasn’t wasted any time grabbing it and making it his very own, as if coming so close to missing on it has fueled up his resolve. And it has to be said that his first appearance, a fireball of lustful energy wearing form-fitting tights, an open shirt and a mask, was so striking that it instinctively made me wonder why Donna Anna did not just relax and delight in the moment instead of fighting him like a madwoman, sparing herself the heart-breaking death of her father by the same token. Eventually I realized that he was singing too. Even more, his voice was strong and genuinely engaging, solidly assertive when ordering Leporello around, attractively lyrical when trying to woo his various preys. Obviously relishing to the fullest a role that is fast becoming his calling card, he delivered a steadily spontaneous and nuanced performance.
While I was watching Venezuelan bass-baritone Luca Pisaroni dutifully but resentfully tower over his master as the hapless Leporello, I couldn’t help but think what a splendid Don Giovanni he could be. His singing was assured and bright, his presence real and charismatic; he’s definitely got the right stuff. His colorful Leporello was a real treat.
As the ever-patient Don Ottavio, Mexican tenor and Met regular Roman Vargas drew big waves of applause for his two major arias and his curtain call, all totally deserved. Slovakian bass Stefan Kocan was a deeply powerful Commendatore, although it would be advisable to do something about his blue face and Halloween-style shirt.
The three ladies all fared pretty well, especially Latvian soprano Marina Rebeka, a newcomer with a lot of potential, who sang the role of Donna Anna with notable clarity and intensity. Veteran Italian soprano Barbara Frittoli exuded the right mix of dignity and desperation, vividly highlighted by her ardent singing. German soprano Mojca Erdmann was a sweet Zerlina, and formed a cute couple with Australian bass Joshua Bloom, a charming Masetto.
The set, consisting essentially of two movable walls lined-up with balconies, was in earthy tones and appropriately versatile, if not particularly imaginative. Also, some worthy concepts did not seem to go far enough to be fully realized: The appearance of women at some of the windows during the famous Catalog aria was an amusing touch, but you wondered why there were not more of them considering the context. Another, more frustrating, half-baked idea: The statues in the cemetery were all displayed on three levels, but because the Commendatore was standing on the top one, only the bottom half of his body was visible to the Family Circle section, which made everybody there miss his gesturing during the dinner invitation scene. On the other hand, kudos for a red-hot descent in hell!
The music, of course, is Don Giovanni’s strongest point, and the Met orchestra did full justice to the glorious score. Fabio Luisi, who has recently added the title of Met’s appointed principal conductor to his impressive resume, drew a vibrant, detailed performance from his musicians and pleasantly fulfilled the harpsichord duties during the recitatives. Add the inspired singing from the all-around winning cast, particularly remarkable when vocal ensembles were seamlessly meshing with the orchestra, and you have the perfect remedy to take your mind off an unexpected, and ultimately gross, winter afternoon.

Saturday, October 29, 2011

Zucchero - 10/25/11

No play list because I was too busy enjoying the concert to keep track.

Some weeks are indisputably more special than others, and this week started in a very special way indeed with a concert by Zucchero, Italy’s reigning music artist of his generation. For decades now his boyish face, wild hair, cool hats and, above all, unrivalled voice, both ancient and primal, have been as unconditionally beloved in his native country and beyond as his unique blend of rock, blues, gospel and soul influences. So even after swearing off amplified sound and oversized venues over a decade ago, he had remained the one and only for whom I would have happily made exception to the rule, should the opportunity arise.
And it eventually did. That’s why on Tuesday night I was exceptionally thrilled at the prospect of finally having a chance to experience his famous magic live in the lavishly decorated and comfortably intimate (Yes!) Beacon Theater, one of the Upper West Side’s prized historic jewels, not to mention conveniently located a 15-minute walk down Broadway from my apartment.

Kicking off the party with songs from his new album Chocabeck, the man made it unequivocally clear where his immense popularity is coming from as his dynamite performance and genuine talent to directly connect with his audience turned the whole concert into a memorable musical adventure. While infectious dance tunes such as “Baila Morena” and “Diavolo in Me” neatly alternated with lovely ballads like “Occhi” and “Cosí Celeste”, my personal highlights of the evening were the two hits that put him on my radar in the first place: “Il Volo”, without a doubt one of the most beautiful love songs ever written, and “Miserere” with the recorded voice of Pavarotti, a heart-felt tribute to his “grand’amico Lucio”.

Grazie mille, Zucchero, e per favore torna presto!

Saturday, October 22, 2011

Yuja Wang - Scriabin, Prokofiev & Liszt - 10/20/11

Scriabin: Prelude in B Major, Op.11, No 11, Prelude in B Minor, Op. 13, No 6, Prelude in G-sharp Minor, Op.11, No 12, Etude in G-sharp Minor, Op. 8, No 9, Poème in F-sharp Major, Op. 32, No 1
Prokofiev: Sonata No 6 in A Major, op. 82
Liszt: Sonata in B Minor

The young Chinese pianist Yuja Wang is hot these days, and I’m not saying that only because of the nightclub-ready look she had adopted for her concert at the Hollywood Bowl last summer, consequently creating a mini-storm in the classical music world and beyond. She has also repeatedly proven that she possesses mighty musical chops and definitely knows how to use them. Therefore, after hearing her perform Prokofiev’s first two piano concertos in Washington, DC within the past few years, I was very excited at the prospect of attending her much anticipated Carnegie Hall recital debut last Thursday evening, especially with a program including sonatas by Prokofiev (him again) and Liszt. While I enjoy concertos tremendously, I don’t think anything matches the direct connection between soloist and audience that can only happen in the hushed intimacy of a recital setting, where each note enjoys the luxury of having a life of its own and no other distractions interfere (except from the unruly members of the audience). I am apparently not the only one of that opinion because the Stern auditorium was remarkably full and obviously eager to partake in a concert likely to become a milestone.

Five short pieces from Alexander Scriabin, mixing the sweetness and the turbulence of Romantic music, aptly served as opening act. Ms. Wang, who throughout the evening effortlessly achieved the right combination of elegance and sexiness with her dark, form-fitting long dresses, immediately took charge of the proceedings and delivered a totally engaging performance.
After this lovely warm-up, it was time to move on to heavier stuff with Prokofiev’s first “war sonata”. Its nickname, however, shouldn’t be taken at full face value because if the first movement is threateningly dark and aggressively dissonant, the remaining ones are of a much more gentle nature, respectively exuding mysterious charm, appealing lyricism and virtuosic fun. Yuja Wang assuredly took everything in stride, assertively expressing the chaos of tumultuous times before moving to the other extremes with delicate nuances, eventually coming around full circle with a decisively apocalyptic conclusion. It surely sounded as if Prokofiev had found his ultimate interpreter.
Then we moved on to another composer who knew a thing or two about piano matters. Franz Liszt wrote his Sonata in B Minor, widely considered his masterpiece for solo piano, as a single 30-minute movement in which five themes are constantly forming new relationships among them. From heavenly highs to hellish lows, Yuja Wang navigated Liszt’s treacherous terrain with grace and precision, always fiercely in charge no matter how daunting the road ahead was.

The first time I saw Yuja Wang, I was equally dazzled by her mastery of Prokofiev’s first piano concerto and miffed by the lack of an encore in spite of our frenetic applause. Well, it took her about four years, but she definitely made up for it on Thursday night with not one or two, but - appropriately enough - four encores!
Staying in a Lisztian mood, she responded to our prolonged and enthusiastic ovation with his "Gretchen am Spinnrade", an intense evocation of a mind going out of control, which she deftly handled.
Next we had Dukas’ "The Sorcerer Apprentice", arranged by Ms. Wang herself. More known as the musical background for The Sorcerer Apprentice episode in Disney’s Fantasia, the work has an irresistible, diabolically playfulness that was another perfect opportunity for our soloist to display her impeccable, mesmerizing technical wizardry.
We also enjoyed a superb Romantic interlude with Gluck’s dreamy melody from Orfeo and Eurydice before finally calling it a night with a delightful "Tritsch-Tratsch" Polka by Johann Strauss Jr. If there is anything she cannot completely conquer, we were not made aware of it.

Sunday, October 9, 2011

Met - Nabucco - 10/08/11

Composer: Giuseppe Verdi
Conductor: Paolo Carignani
Producer: Elijah Moshinsky
Director: J. Knighten Smit
Nabucco: Zeljko Lucic
Abigaille: Maria Guleghina
Fenena: Renée Tatum
Ismaele: Yonghoon Lee
Zaccaria: Carlo Colombara

While I was busy pondering what to pick among the many tempting choices of the newly opened Met season, I got an unexpected but much appreciated offer to attend the performance of Nabucco last night. Although it had not been on my list of must-sees and I’ve had a long-time aversion to going out on Saturday night, I figured that I couldn’t really go wrong with Verdi, not to mention that I had never had an opportunity to become familiar with his first big success. Moreover, and maybe even more importantly, hearing “Va, pensiero”, an aria so meaningful to Italians that it was spontaneously sung by crowds in the streets during Verdi’s state funeral in Milan, performed live by the consistently fabulous Met chorus just had to be a memorable experience. So off I happily went on a surprisingly mild fall evening.

I am no fan of Biblical stories, probably because I often have a hard time keeping track of all the tribes, territories, gods and complicated relationships among them all, but that does not keep me from trying. Apparently taking some significant liberties from ancient history – not that I could tell anyway – Nabucco’s plot revolves around the political and romantic entanglements of several characters, with a quick supernatural intervention thrown in for good measure, during the exile of the Israelites in Babylon. The fact that it is all happening in a rather discombobulated, heavy-handed way is, needless to say, irrelevant. This is an old-fashioned opera, after all.
Although Nabucco is the title role – being the victorious king of Babylon has its privileges – all eyes and ears are typically focused on Abigaille, a slave who is originally thought to be his older daughter (I can’t explain it either). In the past, this notoriously taxing soprano part has mercilessly ended the careers of some of the brave singers who dared to take it on, and was promptly turned down by some other ones who obviously knew better. So I was curious to see how Maria Guleghina, a widely experienced Met stalwart, would handle it. Well, it turns out that she did very well, in all likelihood because the role is the perfect fit for her mighty, take-no-prisoners voice and stage presence. Since nobody was going for prettiness or nuances here, the broad strokes with which she painted and sang her Abigaille, whether casually planning to have her sister killed to get closer to the man and the throne she was coveting, or incessantly scheming and ranting and raving with ferocious determination, made for a jubilantly larger-than-life villainess, whose glittery, tight-fitting outfits shamelessly outlined all her impressive curves for an even stronger impact. Now that’s entertainment, folks!
Although the other characters couldn’t but pale beside her, they still managed to more or less hold their own. In the role of the conquering king temporarily blinded by ambition and insanity before coming back to his senses, Serbian baritone Zeljko Lucic got better as the evening went on. Young Korean tenor Yonghoon Lee brightly shone as Ismaele, and his onstage paramour, equally young Californian Renée Tatum, did an honorable job with Fenena. So did Italian bass Carlo Colombara as Zaccaria, the high priest of the Hebrews.
But if you wanted to experience sheer musical ecstasy, you had to wait for the chorus to have a chance to sing, which they fortunately did frequently. If for any reason there were any doubts left about the dazzling quality of their work, this Nabucco would magisterially put them to rest by proving once and for all that there is not a single, even remotely weak element in the superb ensemble. The show-stopper of the evening was, naturally, “Va, pensiero”, the poignant hymn of the Israelites longing for their homeland, and the Met chorus’ viscerally haunting rendition of it last night will definitely have a prime spot on my all-time musicorgasms list. Of course, the fact that the scene was also a visually simple but arresting tableau did not hurt either.
Speaking of visuals, I cannot say that the set was very imaginative, what with all the stairs and doors and that huge god-like statue, but on the other hand, its smart design enabled it to rotate and mutate with laudable efficiency. Again, there was nothing subtle about it, but it got the job done, which basically meant that people could run up and down, then stand at various locations and sing out.
The music is not the best Verdi has ever had to offer, but hey, the guy was only 26 when he wrote it, and it is interesting to see this third opera of his in light of his subsequent œuvre. And let’s give it to him, he was at least sharp enough to realize that the chorus deserved special attention while still being mindful not to neglect the soloists, so a wide range of emotions is vividly expressed throughout the score. Paolo Carignani, our conductor for the evening, made sure to keep the reliably brilliant Met orchestra going at a brisk pace, and nicely contributed in making this first, unplanned Met evening of the season a successful one. May there be many more.

Mariinsky Orchestra - Shostakovich, Tchaikovsky & Rimsky-Korsakov - 10/05/11

Conductor: Valery Gergiev
Shostakovich: Festive Overture in A Major, op. 96
Tchaikovsky: Variations on a Rococo Theme, Op. 33 – Yo-Yo Ma
Rimsky-Korsakov: Scheherazade

The Carnegie Hall Neighborhood Concerts series and its mission consisting in bringing the joys of live music to all corners of the five boroughs is undeniably a wonderful endeavor, and the delightful vocal recital last Saturday on the UWS was yet another proof of it, but it cannot match (nor does it try) the real thing. So it was with boundless anticipation that I had been counting down the days to last Wednesday night because it meant not only being back in my favorite concert hall for the opening of a new exciting season, but also enjoying a completely Russian evening featuring Shostakovich, Tchaikovsky (Yeah!) and Rimsky-Korsakov performed by the Mariinsky Orchestra conducted by its music director Valery Gergiev. The only non-Russian element on the program was the presence of classical music super-star Yo-Yo Ma, but his talent is so universal that he effortlessly fits right in under any circumstances anyway.

Shostakovich’s Festive Overture opened the concert with the grand, all-out brilliance expected to kick off a new season, and kept on going bright and upbeat, with the innumerable, breathless twists and turns of a wacky cartoon. Crisp, precise and straight to the point, we were decidedly off to a good start.
Nobody has ever had to twist my arm to bring my attention to Tchaikovsky or Yo-Yo Ma, so combining the two of them could only double my pleasure, and it did. A kind-of cello concerto, the Variations on a Rococo Theme is a gorgeous blend of Classical tasteful refinement and Romantic sweeping melodies that goes on for an uninterrupted 20-minute journey through the seven intricate variations of a simple, elegant theme. The Fitzenhagen version that was performed on Wednesday is even more challenging that the original piece, but Yo-Yo Ma handled it all with his signature dexterity and grace, delicately lingering during the contemplative moments, energetically negotiating the blazing speed of the finale. His spirited friendly competition with the violin section of the orchestra added delicious spice to the proceedings, and total victory was eventually declared for all parties.
Just when we thought that things couldn’t get any better, a substantial encore came in the form of the Andante cantabile movement from Tchaikovsky’s First String Quartet for Cello and Strings. Another heart-felt homage to the sheer beauty of Mozart’ music, this beloved work is a melancholic composition rich in transparent melodies and refined textures, which Yo-Yo Ma and some fellow string players from the Mariinsly brought to stunning life in the uniformly hushed auditorium.
Then we moved right on (The VIPs had a post-concert dinner, and the rest of us little people obviously had to stick to their schedule) to another Russian crowd-pleaser with Scheherazade, her fairy tale, her exotic background and all those exquisite violin solos. Maestro Gergiev led his musicians in a rousing account of it, all drama and voluptuousness, and cast on the audience a spell as powerful as the one the Persian princess had secured over the sinister Sultan. The famously sensual violin solos were as seductive as could be, but the other strings did not take a back-seat either and came out in full force with all the other instruments impeccably joining in as well.
Probably to make sure that we wouldn’t feel slighted by this shorter concert, the last encore was the Polonaise from Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin. Even if it did not register as strongly with me as the other works, it was still a much appreciated bonus to take all the way home.

Saturday, October 8, 2011

Karen Vuong & Carrie-Ann Matheson - Purcell, Wolf, Fauré, Hahn, Delibes, Rachmaninoff & Thomas - 10/01/11

Soprano: Karen Vuong
Piano: Carrie-Ann Matheson
Purcell: Music for a while
Purcell: Sweeter than roses
Wolf: Elfenlied
Wolf: Auch kleine Dinge
Wolf: Mausfallen-Sprüchlein
Wolf: Kennst du das Land
Fauré: Mandoline
Hahn: L’heure exquise
Delibes: Les filles de Cadix
Rachmaninoff: In my garden at night
Rachmaninoff: That rat catcher
Rachmaninoff: Dreams
Pearson Thomas: Races for the Sky – Angelica Cho (Violin)
Pearson Thomas: To the towers themselves
Pearson Thomas: How my life has changed
Pearson Thomas: Meditation
Pearson Thomas: Don’t look for me anymore

Even closer to my apartment that the Symphony Space is the Advent Lutheran Church, which has been standing at the corner of Broadway and W 93rd Street since 1900. It has been a beloved pillar of the community through, among other things, an eclectic and dynamic live performance calendar, which I had never had a chance to check out. This, however, changed last Saturday thanks to the second Carnegie Hall Neighborhood Concert of the current season, which presented up-coming soprano Karen Vuong during a late afternoon recital of crowd-pleasers. What better way to beat the cold and wet weather than by enjoying a local musical treat while sitting a couple of rows from opera legend Marilyn Horne, who made this concert possible through the Marilyn Horne Legacy at Carnegie Hall, and under some newly restored Tiffany stained glass windows that were softly illuminating the fully occupied little space?

And Karen Vuong definitely proved to be a worthy headliner as she kept on churning out tune after tune. From the delicate, appropriately titled first piece, Purcell’s “Music for a while”, to the gripping four Races for the Sky, whose scores Richard Pearson Thomas composed to accompany random texts found near Ground Zero shortly after 9/11, the young and poised soprano steadily demonstrated that she had a strong, clear and deeply expressive voice that seemed to hold many promises for the near future. Easily perking up for Wolf’s spirited “Elfenlied” and Delibes’s playful “Filles de Cadix”, she also had us all revel in Reynaldo’s Hahn’s “Heure exquise”, which was an exquisite couple of minutes - if not a whole hour - indeed. But my personal favorite had to be Rachmaninoff’s short but ethereally soulful “Dreams”, in which the voice and the piano delicately melted together to create the perfect musical experience. The program diplomatically contained a little bit of everything for everybody, and the hearty ovation that concluded the concert unmistakably showed that she had brilliantly pleased everybody.

Monday, September 26, 2011

BSO - James Lee III, Dvorak & Tchaikovsky - 09/24/11

Conductor: Marin Alsop
James Lee III: "Chuphshah! Harriet’s Drive to Canaan" 
Dvorak: Cello Concerto in B minor, Op. 104 – Alisa Weilerstein 
Tchaikovsky: Symphony No 6 in B minor, Op. 74 (Pathétique)

After my extremely successful visit to DC back in June, I had wasted no time planning to come back late September, mostly because I had no desire to put up with the local heat and humidity of summer, if I could help it. But sure enough, just as I was stepping off the bus at Union Station on Thursday afternoon, my clothes immediately clung to my skin, my hair started frizzing uncontrollably and all I could do was desperately gasp for oxygen. That’s when I quickly realized that my best laid plan still couldn't control everything.
But even if Mother Nature did not initially bother to cooperate (It rained pretty much all day on Friday, which I consequently spent happily eating, drinking and catching up with various friends), there were still too many wonderful moments to regret for even one minute the trip down south. One of those highlights happened on Saturday night when, like in the good old days, I had the opportunity to enjoy the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra at Strathmore, where they performed two of my favorite musical works: Dvorak’s glorious cello concerto and Tchaikovsky’s magnificent Pathétique. So who am I to complain about some minor meteorological inconveniences?

 Although I will probably never have the same sentimental connection with the Strathmore music center as with the Kennedy Center’s concert hall, which I have always considered my DC musical home, it was still a real treat to be back within its familiar walls. (The heart-breaking destruction of the beautiful park surrounding it to make room for yet more condos is another story). Seeing the faces of the BSO’s musicians and its music director - and conductor for the evening - Marin Alsop, complete with her trademark red cuffs, really made me feel as if I had never left. The first piece on the program was the world’s première of a tone poem dedicated to the extraordinary abolitionist Harriet Tubman. Taking its name from the Hebrew word for freedom and from the northern free states of America, then considered the promised land by the slaves, “Chuphshah! Harriet’s Drive to Canaan” alternates fast and slow segments describing the heroine’s personal feelings such as sadness and fear as well as cultural/historical elements like the Civil War and Negro spiritual hymns. Even if the whole thing was a bit discombobulated, the orchestra sounded as good as ever.
I had had the pleasure of hearing Alisa Weilerstein authoritatively tackle Haydn’s cello concerto with the National Symphony Orchestra a couple of years ago, and I was very much looking forward to her taking on Dvorak’s much celebrated cello concerto, probably the most popular cello concerto of them all. Its strong, catchy opening sets the tone by introducing the two irresistibly melodic themes, preparing the ears, heart and mind for the cello’s late but startling appearance. Each note oozes full-blown Romanticism, instilling the work with passionate élans and exquisite wistfulness for a sentimental trip to the composer’s beloved Bohemia. Alisa Weilerstein turned out to be an extremely gifted guide and virtuosically conveyed all the technical and emotional complexity of Dvorak’s masterpiece, steadily backed up by a remarkably attentive orchestra. Even the inconsiderate light bulb that loudly blew up right over the musicians’ heads during the first movement did not manage to break the spell.
 Then we were on to Tchaikovsky’s grand swan song, the unrivaled Pathétique. As its French title explains, this is all about an “emotional” journey starting with a dark, sober evocation of death and ending in a last whisper fading into silent. Far from being hopelessly depressing though, it also features a poignantly Romantic theme, a strangely limping waltz and an assertively boisterous military march. All of that plus the composer’s inherent genius for riveting melodies make the whole experience downright unforgettable, especially when it is performed by such an accomplished ensemble as the BSO. While the interpretation of Saturday night was less unabashedly heart-on-sleeves than others I have attended, it was still plenty gripping and powerful. No matter how you looked at it, this Pathétique was yet another hands-down winner for Marin Alsop and her musicians.

Sunday, September 25, 2011

New York Philharmonic - Barber, Wagner & Strauss - 09/21/11

Barber: Overture to The School for Scandal, Op. 5
Wagner: "Dich, teure Halle", from Tannhäuser, Act II - Deborah Voigt
Barber: "Andromache's Farewell", for Soprano and Orchestra - Deborah Voigt
Wagner: Overture to Tannhäuser
R. Strauss: Intermezzo, Dance of Seven Veils, and Final Scene from Salome - Deborah Voigt

As another season is finally looming, a bunch of opening nights are all happening in quick succession in the Big Apple, starting with the New York Philharmonic last Wednesday night. The program frankly did not look particularly inspired - Barber has never done much for me, and reducing Wagner's and Strauss' œuvres to short excerpts sounded more like a merciless tease than a fully satisfying experience. On the other hand, the wonderful Deborah Voigt was going to be there, the New York Philharmonic is always a pleasure to listen to, and a comp ticket had unexpectedly ended on my lap, so why not?

After a rousing "Star-Spangled Banner", the concert started in earnest with Barber's overture to The School of Scandal. Written when the composer was only 21, it had a pleasant, melodic directness to it, the kind that I happily enjoy while I hear it, but soon forget as soon as it is over. The polite but restrained applause from my fellow concert-goers made me think that I was not the only one of that opinion.
The audience's enthusiasm, however, quickly went up a notch or two when hugely popular soprano Deborah Voigt made her appearance on stage for an aria from Wagner's Tannehäuser. That's also when the acoustics shortcomings of the Avery Fisher Hall became painfully obvious as the muddled sounds from the orchestra were often unceremoniously covering her clear, powerful voice. Granted, sitting in a side box probably did not help matters either. Bottom line is, what could have been a thrilling collaboration between one of the today's top opera singers and one of the world's most highly regarded orchestras turned out to be only intermittently exciting.
The same unfortunate circumstances applied to "Andromache's Farewell" by Barber, not to mention that, let's face it, Barber is no Wagner, and I'm no fan of Greek tragedies. Next.
The overture to Tannhäuser fared much better. Even if it gets repetitive and brass-heavy toward the end, the lively, gutsy performance of it by the fired-up orchestra briefly reconciled me with the concert hall.
Less than a year ago, my move from DC to NY was way too hectic and costly to allow me to keep up my regular performance schedule, and one of my biggest regrets was to have missed Deborah Voigt in Salome with the Washington National Opera. On Wednesday, it looked like I would at least have a taste of it thanks to a trio of excerpts from Richard Strauss' shocker. Alas, while the Intermezzo and the Dance of the Seven Veils were appropriately fierce and bold, the final scene was another frustrating combination of vibrant, full-throttled singing sporadically drowned by instrumental sounds going off all over the place, allowing for just a few fleeting, right-on moments to come through brilliantly. Better than nothing, of course, and enough, I guess, to have us come back next season.

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Adam Banda & Konstantin Soukhovetski - Bach, Chopin, Tchaikovsky, Sains-Saëns, Bartok, Sarasate, Hubay & Vajda - 09/17/11

Bach: Chaconne from Partita No 2 for solo violin
Chopin: Nocturne No 20 in C-sharp minor, Op. Posth. (arr. Milstein)
Tchaikovsky: Valse-Scherzo in C-Major, Op. 34
Sains-Saëns: Introduction and Rondo Capricioso in A minor, Op. 28
Bartok: Rhapsody No 2, Sz. 90, BB96
Sarasate: Zigeunerweisen (Gypsy Airs), Op. 20
Hubay: Carmen-Fantasie Brillante
Hubay: Preghiera (Prayer)
Vajda : Just for you for solo violin

The end of my musical summer has turned out to be quite an unpredictable roller coaster featuring vertiginous highs and heart-breaking lows. It all started with a huge disappointment when the final performance of Mozart’s Requiem that was supposed to wrap up the Mostly Mozart Festival was cancelled because a particularly ill-timed, extremely wet, but eventually wimpish Irene had decided to come our way. Then it peaked with the screenings of the Met’s “Lucia de Lammermoor” and “Don Carlo” on the Lincoln Center Plaza, complete with an excellent sound and mesmerizing close-ups under a (for the most part) starry sky. Even the few rain drops that dared to appear right before the start of “Don Carlo” quickly stopped. However, the thrill of seeing my favorite production of last season again was later severely dampened by the news of the untimely death of much beloved, big-hearted Italian tenor Salvadore Licitra.
As the approach of fall has suddenly brought much cooler temperatures, the time has now come to get ready for some more regular musical enjoyments. So it is in that expectant spirit that I finally got around to checking the concert schedule of the Symphony Space. I am ashamed to confess that although the dynamic cultural center stands just a few blocks from my apartment, I had never paid that much attention to it before. But this sorry state of affairs has finally changed after I noticed that Hungarian “Violin Virtuoso” Adam Banda was going to make his NY debut yesterday afternoon. Let’s face it, there are worse ways to informally start a new musical season than with Bach’s unsurpassed Chaconne!

I always give extra credit for boldness, but starting a performance with the Himalaya of the violin répertoire that is the Chaconne when you’re a gifted, yes, but still up-coming young musician sounded more like plain recklessness, if you asked me. An Alpine summit such as Zigeunerweisen, featured later in the program, would have sufficed, but hey, the Chaconne it was. Looking a bit nervous but nevertheless fully committed to the task at hand, Adam Banda managed to deliver a rather respectable interpretation of it. The occasional lapse of assuredness or lack of subtlety seemed to stem as much from his relative inexperience as from the formidable challenge facing him, and things will in all likelihood improve as he and his talent continue to mature.
The same could be said of his Nocturne No 20 from Chopin, beautifully arranged by Nathan Milstein for violin and piano. While he channeled the French composer’s musings with heart-felt competence, now accompanied by equally young and talented pianist Konstantin Soukhovetski - apparently a local favorite if judged from the warm welcome he received - the duo did not always succeed in conveying the haunting quality that is fundamentally associated with the work.
Despite my unwavering love for Tchaikovsky, I cannot say that his Valse-Scherzo has ever rocked my world. It is good fun and all, but I’ve always found its existence merely anecdotal. Adam Banda, however, suddenly sounded as if he had finally found his groove and treated us to a pleasingly vivacious version of this regular recording filler.
No doubt more substantial and intricate is Sains-Saëns’ Introduction and Rondo Capricioso, which was written especially for violin virtuoso Pablo de Sarasate and highlights the seemingly endless possibilities of the violin thanks to the composer’s thorough knowledge of the instrument. Adam Banda happily dove into it, eliciting bright, colorful sounds that would have made Sains-Saëns proud.
The second part of the program was mostly focusing on Hungarian composers and started with Bartok’s Rhapsody No 2. Now completely in his element, Adam Banda did not hesitate to let loose for an exhilarating homage to the folk dances of his native country.
Still in a festive mood, he moved on to one of my favorite solo violin pieces, the high-flying Zigeunerweisen by, him again, Sarasate. More pointedly inspired by the spirited rhythms of gypsy airs, it has been a staple of concerts and recordings for well over a century now, and its infectious charm has remained as alive and kicking today as on the day it was premièred by the man himself. Adam Banda may not be Pablo de Sarasate, but his enthusiastic, exciting performance of it yesterday certainly brought him a little closer, earning him his biggest ovation of the afternoon in the process.
Another Hungarian violinist and composer, Jeno Hubay, was also under the spotlight with his Carmen-Fantasie Brillante, obviously based on the stunning melodies of Bizet’s opera, and it was very enjoyable to hear these pared-down versions of them.
Next was his soulful “Preghiera”, during which both musicians blended harmoniously together.
The official concert ended on a downright attractive piece that its composer, Janos Vajda, eventually dedicated to Adam Banda out of respect and admiration. And the dedicatee did not less than full justice to the delightful gift.

Our fervent ovation earned us not one, but two encores. I have no idea what the first one was, but the second and last one was definitely the first movement of Saint- Saëns’ violin concerto No 3, also dedicated to Sarasate, which wrapped up the concert with a lovely final bouquet of brilliant melodies.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Naumburg Orchestral Concerts - Schubert & Liszt - 08/22/11

Conductor: Eric Jacobsen
Schubert: Overture to Rosamunde, D. 644
Liszt: "Am Grabe Richard Wagners", S. 135
Schubert (arr. Liova): "Gretchen am Spinnrade", Op. 2, D. 118
Schubert (arr. Jacobsen): "Des Baches Wiegenlied" from Die Schöne Müllerin
Liszt (arr. The Knights): "From the Cradle to the Grave", Symphonic Poem No 13
Liszt (arr. The Knights): "Freudvoll und Leidvoll"
Schubert: Symphony No 8 in B minor, D. 759 (Unfinished)
Liszt (arr. The Knights): "Hungarian Rhapsody No 2"

As my first summer in New York is slowly coming to an end, I am pleased to say that there is (musical) life beyond the traditional Mostly Mozart Festival and other musical celebrations taking place in bucolic locales out of town. I was actually delighted to discover a musical treasure right in my own bucolic backyard that is Central Park as I was exploring it in search of some much needed coolness one steamy Saturday afternoon. That’s when I came across violinist Susan Keser, who routinely delights a typically captive audience at the southern end of The Mall with a complete smorgasbord of infectious tunes. As she became a regular fixture on my weekend schedule, I got to enjoy her wide répertoire, from Paganini’s melodic pyrotechnics to Bach’s understated elegance, from Pachelbel’s popular Canon to Puccini’s operatic gems "O mio babbino caro" and "Nessun dorma". Even the random but invariably chatty tourists, who never fail to come sit right next to me, haven’t managed to spoil that weekly treat.
But that is not all. Although the New York Philharmonic has not showed up this year, the Naumburg Orchestral Concerts, the oldest continuous free outdoor concert series in the US, are alive and well and playing in the park. That's how on Monday The Knights, the young, fast-rising orchestra that seems to be everywhere, including TV, these days bracingly took the historic bandshell stage. They were scheduled to wrap up the season with a program featuring works by Franz Schubert as well as his No 1 fan, Franz Liszt, and it looked that literally everybody and their dogs had decided to come enjoy a musical summer evening in the park.

The performance started with the stirring notes of Schubert’s Overture to Rosamunde, which assertively opened a steady flow of Romantic élans and warm feelings. This was a truly fine work to get the audience in the mood and, by the same token, display the orchestra’s assured musicianship.
The next four short pieces, in most cases arranged to accommodate the large ensemble on the stage, were enthusiastically brought to life by the players, subtle nuances and all. Never mind the amplified sound, the accompanying birds, the restless kids and the occasional airplane, the two Franz got a chance to have their voices heard through those vibrant little vignettes that were boldly filling up the cool air as the sky was gradually darkening.
But it is the second half of the program that featured the two highlights of the evening. After a charming “Freudvoll und Leidvoll” by Liszt, Schubert’s Symphony No 8 appeared as the plat de résistance. I have to say that I much prefer Schubert’s chamber music to his other works, but hearing the Unfinished live under the stars was definitely an exciting experience. The strings, in particular, had some wonderful take-no-prisoners moments. Maestro Jacobsen, however, made sure to keep everybody in line and energetically brought it all home.
And to conclude this lovely evening with beautiful fireworks, The Knights played their own compelling arrangement of Liszt’s rightfully ubiquitous “Hungarian Rhapsody No 2”. Achieving the perfect balance between seductive, languorous rhythms and zestful, exhilarating folk tunes, the orchestra easily moved from drama to light-heartedness with joyful abandon. There was no encore after that, but really, none was needed.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Mostly Mozart Festival - All-Beethoven - 08/12/11

Conductor: Louis Langrée
Beethoven: Leonore Overture No 2, Op. 72a
Beethoven: Concerto No 2 in B-Flat Major, Op. 19 – Jeremy Denk
Beethoven: Abscheulicher! Wo eilst du hin? From Fidelio, Op. 72 – Christine Brewster
Beethoven: Symphony No 8 in F Major, Op. 93

After paying our respects to all-mighty Mozart last week with Don Giovanni, my friend Nicole and I decided to spread our discriminating love and move on to another worthy Viennese master with an all-Beethoven feast on Friday evening. The program, which, except for Fidelio’s aria, could have easily been entitled “Beethoven light”, sounded compelling enough, but what immediately got – and steadily kept – our undivided attention was the irresistible prospect of hearing terrific pianist Jeremy Denk, one of our top local favorites, perform Beethoven live. Neither of us was familiar with the piano concerto No 2, but if we were going to become acquainted with it, we figured that we might as well do it in the right company, and Jeremy sounded just like the man for it.

The Leonore Overture No 2 may not be as well-known as the subsequent, more intense and better constructed No 3, but its emphasis on quiet details and emotional elements makes it probably a better overall reflection of the opera Fidelio. All in all, it was just as fitting a concert opening as any other, and the lively, heart-warming music produced by the orchestra enthusiastically conducted by ever-jovial Louis Langrée definitely sounded like a good omen for the rest of the evening.
Written by the young Beethoven for his own use when he was trying to show the world what an incredible piano prodigy he was, his piano concerto No 2 sounds a lot like some piano pieces composed by an earlier incredible piano prodigy. But once in a while, amidst all the lovely Mozartian elegance and lightness, discreet and not so discreet touches of drama unexpectedly spring up. On Friday night, Jeremy Denk spiritedly breathed new and unabashedly vibrant life into this relatively lesser work and brilliantly proved one more time why he is one of the hottest pianists around today. With the insouciantly playful first and last movements firmly book-ending the exquisite Adagio, and Beethoven’s own tricky cadenza showcasing the soloist’s virtuosic chops, I can only say that this introductory interpretation is going to be difficult to match.
After intermission, the time had come for full-blown drama with one of Fidelio’s major arias, through which the heroine Leonore finally gets a chance to vent all her frustrations, fears and resolve. Although Beethoven famously struggled to no end when trying to write for the stage, Fidelio, his one and only opera, can readily stand on its own. On Friday night, American soprano Christine Brewster had the challenging task of embodying a fairly short, but narratively crucial and emotionally gripping moment out of context, and the result was decidedly mixed. Sheer power for sure abounded, but there was not much else going on and it was all over pretty quickly, making us quizzically wonder what had just hit us.
But we soon entered a territory that Beethoven had long fully and grandly mastered with his Symphony No 8. Far from his ground-breaking works, it is a mostly conventional, but still immensely enjoyable journey, which was ironically written during one of the most turbulent periods of the composer’s life in the bucolic Austrian town of Linz. Considering the predominantly healthy, life-affirming feelings the music conveys it may very well be a case where an idyllic environment trumped all internal turmoil. Back at the Avery Fisher Hall, conductor and orchestra joined forces to treat us to a straight-forward, buoyant account of it, a fitting tribute to a musical tradition that was about to be unceremoniously invaded by the heart-on-sleeve sentimentality of Romanticism, and a fully satisfying conclusion to our Beethovenian evening.

Sunday, August 7, 2011

Mostly Mozart Festival - Don Giovanni - 08/04/11

Composer: Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
Budapest Festival Orchestra
Conductor & Director: Ivan Fischer
Don Giovanni: Tassis Christoyannis
Leporello: José Fardilha
Donna Anna: Laura Aikin
Donna Elvira: Myrto Papatanasiu
Zerlina: Sunhae Im
Commendatore: Kristinn Sigmundsson
Don Ottavio: Zoltán Megyesi
Masetto: Riccardo Novaro

After the delightful amuse-bouche that was the preview concert of the Mostly Mozart Festival last weekend came what would be for me the main course (and what main course!) of this year’s celebration with a staged concert of what many, including myself, consider Mozart’s finest opera: Don Giovanni. And of course, the fact that it would be performed by the superb Budapest Festival Orchestra conducted by its no less superb co-founder and dedicated nurturer, Ivan Fischer, in the most welcoming Rose Theater made it an offer that simply could not be missed.
Don Giovanni has always had a very special connection with the city of Prague because it is where it was premiered, became a huge success right away and has been part of the permanent répertoire ever since. On the other hand, the complex music and dark overtone of this new endeavor of Mozart’s did not sit well with the Viennese public still enthralled by the scintillating Nozze di Figaro, and they did not give it more than a lukewarm reception, never mind the extra arias that the composer had written just for them. For the concert on Thursday night, Ivan Fischer had picked the Prague version, giving us the precious opportunity to enjoy the original concept in all its glory. It even started early so that my friend Nicole and I could get our beauty sleep. What else could we have asked for?

The world’s most prolific seducer (1,003 in Spain only! And we all know that Leporello is not talking about a tapas-eating contest here.) was already a major character in popular culture when Mozart and his librettist, Lorenzo Da Ponte set out to tackle him as well. The result would eventually be an impeccably balanced blend of opera buffa and opera seria, in which the story and the music indiscriminately and beautifully combine drama, farce, wit and tragedy.
The Greek baritone Tassis Christoyannis had the daunting privilege to impersonate the infamous lover, but apparently did not let the pressure overly get to him. His unwavering commitment, assured presence and reptile moves nicely made up for the intermittently less than stellar vocal performance. As the Don’s obedient if often exasperated servant, José Fardilha's singing was not flawless either, but his infectious natural charm wasted no time winning the audience over. The ladies fared slightly better with Laura Aikin as a riveting Donna Anna, Myrto Papatanasiu a solid Donna Elvira and Sunhae Im an adorable Zerlina.
The production being a staged opera there were no elaborate sets or fancy costumes, but there was still a lot going on thanks to the mostly silent, sometimes perplexing but often exciting work of 16 specter-like students from the Budapest Acting Academy. As they went on using their eerie figures to emphasize key moments, stand in for extra characters or form pieces of furniture, not everything worked out perfectly, but it soon became clear that Ivan Fischer’s direction should for sure get him extra points for its daring theatricality. I found the grand finale, in which an ever-defiant Don Giovanni finally meets his ghastly end by slowly disappearing into a menacing mass of greedy hands, particularly powerful in its stark simplicity.
Hearing the Budapest Festival Orchestra conducted by Ivan Fischer is always an unadulterated joy and this Don Giovanni was no exception. Bringing out the multi-faced richness of Mozart’s magnificent score obviously qualified as a labor of love for these uniformly brilliant, enthusiastic musicians and they fully succeeded. The task is not the easiest with the constant switching of musical moods according to, for example, the wooing schemes of the main character: formal and serious for high-class Donna Elvira, folk-like and light-hearted for peasant Zerlina. The mix of three different musical genres in the ballroom scene – elegant minuet for Don Ottavio and Donna Anna, country dance for Giovanni and Zerlina and folk dance for Masetto and Leporello – was another tour de force that went off without a hitch. What can I say? They apparently can do no wrong.

This was the only performance of Mozart’s work that I had on my festival calendar this year, but I suspect that it would be hard to top it off anyway. And there is always Beethoven next week…

Sunday, July 31, 2011

Mostly Mozart Festival - Mozart & Stravinsky - 07/30/11

Conductor: Louis Langrée
Mozart: Overture to Le nozze di Figaro
Stravinsky: Symphony in C
Mozart: Symphony No 36 in C Major (Linz)

As July is slowly coming to an end, my concert dance card is finally starting to fill up a bit thanks to New York’s most welcome summer tradition that is the Mostly Mozart Festival. Moreover, as if fate just couldn’t wait to give me a little break, it inconspicuously dropped a two-comp ticket offer for the preview concert in my friend Paula’s e-mail, and she just as promptly bestowed one upon me. Life was worth-living again!
All those weeks of live music deprivation (Never mind the Bach Vespers quickie of last Sunday) had certainly contributed to lowering my standards or, depending on how you look at it, making me a more tolerant person. So lo and behold, I just could not wait to step into… the Avery Fisher Hall, of all places! But, hey, with a program promising the delicious overture to Le nozze di Figaro and the flawless Linz Symphony book-ending the Symphony in C by the “special guest” of this year’s festival, Igor Stravinsky, all seemed to come together to unofficially kick off the month-long festival with plenty of beauty, brilliance and fun.

Louis Langrée’s ever-present smile and communicative enthusiasm are now indelibly associated to the Mozart celebration, and we surely are all the better for it. Taking charge of the happy-looking musicians for the very first time this season, he vigorously led them into a graceful, exhilarating overture to Mozart’s “crazy day” opera. One would be hard-pressed to find a better-suited number to open the musical fest, and we did not even try.
Whether Stravinsky’s Symphony in C is actually a symphony or not has been forever debated among connoisseurs, but it is unquestionably an engaging, if not very well-known, piece of work. Written during particularly turbulent times in the Russian composer’s life (one of his daughters, his wife and his mother all died within six months), its four separate and distinct movements have allegedly more to do with the various locales in which they were written than with their creator’s own state of mind. And indeed, the first two movements, written in France and Switzerland, sound like an earnest homage to the time-honored European masters of the time while the last two, respectively written in Cambridge, MA and Hollywood, CA, do not hesitate to fool around with rhythms and harmonies. Diving head-first into the peripatetic work, the orchestra – with a special mention for the woodwinds’ remarkable poise – managed to confidently handle the challenge all the way to the quietly serene ending.
But it wouldn’t have been fair to open the Mostly Mozart Festival without a scrumptious treat by the man himself, so last, but by no means least, came his delightful Linz symphony. After the relative disorientedness generated by the Stravinsky showpiece, it was a pleasure to be back on firm and familiar ground with Mozart’s Symphony No 36 in – not so coincidentally – C, which he composed in four days during a stopover in (you’ve guessed it) the Austrian town of Linz upon the invitation of a rich and friendly supporter. If Mozart had a somewhat nonchalant attitude toward it, the public has continuously embraced this crowd-pleaser and it has remained one of his most popular hits. From the solemn notes opening the slow first movement to the stylish Andante, from the dance melodies of the Menuetto to the ever-changing moods of the Presto, last night’s performance of Mozart’s four-day miracle proved once again why his genius is still shining today as bright as ever. The infectious sheer joy of playing coming from the orchestra added to the perfectly balanced score made for a totally elating musical experience, one that was well worth-waiting for.

Thursday, July 28, 2011

Bach Players - Bach - 07/24/11

Bach: Brandenburg Concerto No 5 in D Major
Bach: Cantata 8 (Liebster Gott, wenn werd ich sterben?)

It is a well-known fact that desperation can make people do strange things, so imagine desperation time two! That’s how I found myself in a Lutheran Church last Sunday afternoon, with the double goal to revel in some long-overdue live music and to escape my AC-deprived apartment in a still very hot city. The Holy Trinity Lutheran Church on Central Park West did not turn out to be much cooler than my little home, but hearing Bach’s riveting compositions in such a lovely environment was nevertheless a very pleasant way to bring the weekend to an end.
Never mind the fact that the three movements of the concerto were not going to be performed nonstop from beginning to end, but instead be interspersed by preaching, praying, singing, rising and seating as well as money collecting (And to think that some people complain about some brief clapping between movements!). At least these Vespers had the merit of unfolding as it would have in Bach’s time, and we did not have much of a choice anyway.

The Brandenburg Concerto No 5 remains among Bach’s most popular works, and even when taking into account my natural aversion to the flute and the harpsichord, I have to admit that it is very addictive music indeed. Last Sunday was no exception as its perky sounds assuredly conjured up happy thoughts thanks to all the virtuosic playing. The three movements were performed by the highly regarded Bach Players in the space reserved for the organ, high above ground in the back of the church, and after deciding that twisting myself to face them wouldn’t be a good idea in the long run, I simply got to enjoy the live music coming from the back. Not ideal, but after almost a month of contenting myself with a steady diet of CDs, it was pretty satisfying.
Predictably enough revolving around the concepts of death, punishment and redemption, the German composer’s Cantata No 8 was the perfect opportunity to hear not only instrumental music, but a wide range of singing as well with two sopranos, an alto, a tenor and a bass. Individually and together, they added some nice human touches to the brief six movements blissfully performed, this time, one after the other and in front of the audience. So all things considered, this little local expedition turned out to be a nice little interlude while patiently waiting for bigger and better opportunities.