Sunday, February 27, 2011

Vuilliani String Quartet - Haydn, Mendelssohn & Dvorak - 02/27/11

Haydn: String Quartet in F Major, Op. 77, No 2
Mendelssohn: String Quartet in F Minor, Op. 80
Dvorak: Viola Quintet in E-flat Major, Op. 97, "The American" – Ida Kavafian

Another weekend in New York City, another new musical adventure to embark on. I had heard that the Schneider Concerts at the New School in Chelsea, an endeavor that started over five decades ago with the goal to expose exceptional budding musical talent to the general public, was one of the best-kept secrets for classical music lovers in the Big Apple, so I of course had to go check it out for myself. They only present a few concerts a year and, as a matter of fact, are already half-way through their season, but better late than never. A program including Haydn, Mendelssohn and Dvorak performed by the no doubt outstanding youngsters of the Vuilliani String Quartet, with special guest Ida Kavafian on the second viola, sounded just like the perfect way to spend a beautiful Sunday afternoon.

Written when Haydn was 67 years old, his String Quartet in F Major, Op. 77, No 2 is definite proof that age is totally irrelevant when it comes to artistic creation. Stunningly combining treacherous intricacies and graceful refinement, this work was in the right hands this afternoon and beautiful rose in the acoustically satisfactory Tishman Auditorium. After the youthful, spirited first two movements, the Andante opened with an exquisite dialog between the cello and the first violin, and later expanded the dreamy mood to all the instruments. The last movement was vivacious and whimsical, all the way to the joyful Finale.
A decade after composing this brilliant masterpiece, Franz Joseph Haydn died, in 1809, the exact same year in which Felix Mendelssohn was born: The master was dead, long lived the master! The String Quartet in F Minor happens to be the last piece that the German master of Romanticism wrote before his untimely death two months later. Dedicated to his beloved and equally talented sister Fanny after her sudden, highly distressing death, it is a particularly agitated and deeply emotional journey. Opening with relentlessly tormented tremolos, it nevertheless also contains catchy melodies and quieter passages, especially in the expressive Adagio, before concluding in a ball of disturbed energy. The four musicians handled the challenge with plenty of vigor and polish, easily keeping abreast with the work’s complexity and pace.
After intermission the quartet was back in the company of their special guest, seasoned violist Ida Kavagian, for Dvorak’s Viola Quintet in E-flat Major, which he wrote while spending the summer with a Czech immigrant community in Spillville, Iowa, of all places. Unsurprisingly, folksy tunes abound and a deep nostalgia permeates the whole score. Far from being depressing though, it is a delightfully colorful and intensely atmospheric piece. Dvorak, of course, gives the violas, his own instrument, the lion’s share of the work, and it was very nice to be able to hear the lovely music that can be produced by such a neglected solo instrument. Not to be outdone, the two violins and the cello masterfully joined in as well for a vibrant interpretation of “The American”.

So this first foray in the Schneider Concerts was for the most part a true success. The venue was conducive to enjoying a live concert, the ensemble was excellent, the program top-notch, and the audience, well, let’s just say they were an interesting bunch. Beside the ego-boosting fact that I was positively one of the five youngest people there, they were an eclectic crowd. As soon as the performance started, the woman next to me promptly dozed off, which was actually a good thing because she did not snore and had a tendency to let out long, deep sighs when she was awake. The one in front of me unperturbedly carried on with her crossword puzzle, and the one behind me just had to have a tic tac during the Adagio of the Mendelssohn. She was actually considerate enough to offer one to her buddy – What’s yet a little more rattling? – but her courtesy obviously did not extend to letting her neighbors enjoy the music in peace. The pros, however, easily outweighed the cons, and I will be back.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

BSO - Rossini, Chopin and Tchaikovsky - 02/19/11

Conductor: Hans Graf
Rossini: Overture to William Tell
Chopin: Piano Concerto No 2 in F Minor, Op. 21 – Ingrid Fliter
Tchaikovsky: Symphony No 2 in C Minor, Op. 17, “Little Russian”

After already over three months of fully enjoying life as a New York City resident, I figured that it was high time to take a small trip down memory lane (via the New Jersey Turnpike and the 95) to Washington, DC. All I needed was the right opportunity, and it soon presented itself in the form of highly regarded Argentinean pianist Ingrid Fliter, who was coming to town to play Chopin’s piano concerto No 2 with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra at Strathmore. I frankly would have preferred to hear her in a tête-à-tête with the French composer through the course of an intimate recital, but one can only nitpick so much. As two extra incentives, Rossini’s ever-popular overture to William Tell and Tchaikovsky’s unexpectedly bubbly "Little Russian" Symphony would complete a comfortably eclectic program. So it was with high spirits and an agenda as packed as a foreign dignitary on an official visit that I eagerly headed for our nation’s capital on Friday evening.

I understand that for the past 50 years, a lot of Americans have become acquainted with William Tell’s overture through the radio and TV series The Lone Ranger and some commercials. Since I did not grow up in the US and do not have a television, this smashing little tune is still for me first and foremost associated to, well, Rossini. Moreover, I think it is totally unfair to reduce this truly inspired four-movement tone poem to its immediately infectious yes, but still only one quarter of the whole piece, finale. As far as I am concerned, the haunting cello-driven opening, the mighty storm rolling through the second movement and the authentic Swiss ranz des vaches ("call to the cows") are just as attention-worthy as the exhilaratingly galloping ending. After showing up late due to adverse traffic conditions, the BSO wasted no time launching into a vibrant but nevertheless fully controlled performance of it under the unflappable baton of visiting maestro Hans Graff. Things had - finally - started with a fabulous bang.
The effervescent atmosphere went down a few notches for Chopin’s concerto. Although in my eyes (and ears) the composer is best appreciated through his solo work, having Ingrid Fliter channel and interpret his musical musings was way too good of an offer to pass. And there she was, inconspicuously highlighting the attractively sing-songy quality of the music with plenty of sensitivity and technique. The second movement, in particular, during which young Frédéric expresses his lingering, undisclosed crush on a fellow student, delicately blossomed with poetic longing, violent frustration and back to all-around enchantment. I guess the solo works can wait, after all.
Piotr Tchaikovsky was well-known for wearing his big emotions (and he did have a lot of them) on his sleeve, resulting is some of the most beautifully and loudly depressing music ever. But his Symphony No 2 is drastically different in that respect. Because it is essentially a tribute to Russian folk tunes, it is by far his most cheerful work, which of course in his case does not necessarily mean that the score overflows with happy melodies, but amazingly enough, it does! Tchaikovsky was also famous for never laying off the wind or brass instruments for very long, and this sophomore symphonic effort is no exception. Accordingly, those sections of the orchestra made sure not to hold anything back on Saturday night, and the fact that our seats were directly above the orchestra - if on the side - made the whole experience even more, er, resounding. But let's not forget to also mention the impeccably soaring horn solo and the brilliantly united strings, all coming together for a thrilling ride. It was good to be back!

Monday, February 14, 2011

Carnegie Hall Festival Anniversary Chorus - Berlioz - 02/13/11

Berlioz: Requiem, Op. 5
Atlanta Symphony Orchestra Chamber Chorus
The Concord Vocal Ensemble of the York County Senior Donors Choir
Capital Pride of Leesville Road High School
Orchestra of St. Luke’s
Conductor: Robert Spano
Chorus Conductor: Norman Mackenzie
Tenor: Thomas Cooley

After Mitsuko Uchida’s intimate recital last Friday night, I was back at Carnegie Hall yesterday for one of classical music’s most monumental achievements: Berlioz’s Requiem. Working for a government commission, the French composer first took inspiration from the traditional Latin Requiem Mass but quickly came up with his very own epic, which originally required no less than 190 musicians, 210 singers as well as additional timpani and brass choirs. Even if nowadays most performances of it are not that crowded, they still feature an unusual orchestration with, most notably, four groups of brass instruments often placed in separate locations offstage, and a consistently huge chorus.
Although in my view Berlioz’s Grande messe des morts cannot compete with the haunting beauty of Mozart’s or the operatic grandeur of Verdi’s own requiems, it is nevertheless a work of undeniable power, which could only mean yet another exciting adventure at Carnegie Hall where the forces of the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra Chamber Chorus, The Concord Vocal Ensemble of the York County Senior Donors Choir, the Capital Pride of Leesville Road High School and the always reliable Orchestra of St. Luke’s all converged yesterday afternoon under the baton of fearless Robert Spano to make it happen.

Berlioz’s Requiem is a composition that put the chorus to the test from the very beginning and does not let them relax for another 90 minutes. So if for any reason they’re not up to task, those can quickly become some very painful 90 minutes. But all was well yesterday. The singers all blended beautifully together and managed to easily keep up their momentum throughout the emotionally and technically daunting marathon. Unfortunately, all this blockbusting music-making did not quite succeed in covering some light and sporadic jingling, which eventually turned out to be produced by the long and elaborate earrings of a nearby tarted up pin-up,who definitely looked more geared up for club-hopping than Requiem-listening. Luckily for her, she was safely out of my reach, so I had to resist the urge of swiftly pulling off the annoying noise-makers, which would have certainly added a touch of real-life agony to all the drama already going on.
Although the fortissimo passages in the Dies Irae, Rex Tremendae and the composition’s magnificent center, the Lacrysoma, readily stood out for their sheer musical force and complexity, my personal highlight of the performance was the dignified tenor solo in the transcendental Sanctus, complete with lofty, lingering notes from a flute and eerie female voices from the chorus. Standing up behind the audience at the right end of the dress circle, le ténor du jour, Thomas Cooley, was simply splendid. Amidst all the lightning and thunder mercilessly rolling on, it was the precious moments of lyricism and simplicity that I appreciated the most, and the wonderful strings of the Orchestra of St Luke’s sure shone whenever they had a chance to do just that.

Bottom line is, while I still find Berlioz’s Requiem slightly on the loud and pompous side, hearing such a ground-breaking and rarely performed work live certainly gave a more immediate, organic dimension to the whole experience, and I am grateful I had a chance to do so in such grand style.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Mitsuko Uchida - Beethoven, Schumann and Chopin - 02/11/11

Beethoven: Sonata No 27 in E Minor, Op. 90
Schumann: Davidsbündlertänze, Op. 6
Chopin: Prelude in C-sharp Minor, Op. 45
Chopin: Sonata No 3 in B Minor, Op. 58

There’s nothing like a brilliant piano recital to get over a hectic work day and celebrate New York City's first snow-free week in quite a while, so that’s just what I attended last Friday night at Carnegie Hall where the Grande Dame of the piano world, Mitsuko Uchida, who incidentally became an actual Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire last year, was displaying her remarkable, long internationally recognized talent during a concert focusing on 19th century Classical and Romantic masters such as Beethoven, Schumann and Chopin. What was there not to love?

Consisting of only two drastically distinct movements, Beethoven’s Sonata No 27 is a nice little piece that may not rank among the top of the composer’s œuvre (It is tough competition up there.) but remains nevertheless a very pleasant study in contrasting moods. After her classy silhouette gracefully glided across the stage to the grand piano waiting for her, Mitsuko Uchida promptly sat down and immediately launched an assertive attack on the first turbulent movement before effortlessly switching gears for the more thoughtful second one, breathing new, vibrant life into a somewhat minor work.
Another composition featuring musical dialogues between two different voices is Davidsbündlertänze by Schumann, allegedly written to win his fellow pianist Clara Wieck’s hand against her father’s wishes. They did eventually marry, although it is unclear if his popular collection of 18 shorts vignettes – not dances, no matter what the title may imply – had a direct part in the achievement. In the Dances of the League of David, two opposite characters representing their creator's dual nature, the hot-blooded Florestan and the sensitive Eusebius, engage in spirited exchanges, even joining forces in four of the numbers. Ever poised under pressure, Mitsuko Uchida brought her stunning precision and regal touch to this lively homage to Schumann's fictional anti-Philistines League of David for an all-around beautiful performance of it.
Last, but not least, came Chopin with a short, spontaneous-sounding prelude before his much meatier Sonata No 3 in C-sharp Minor, the latter clearly highlighting the outstanding fluidity of the performer's playing. Thanks to an assertive opening to the otherwise elegant first movement, a fun-filled Scherzo, a gorgeously lyrical, Nocture-like Largo, and a boundlessly energetic finale, this composition could easily become a comprehensive crash course in “Chopin 101: the firebrand and the dreamer”. The packed, breathlessly attentive audience loved it and gave it a well-deserved, rousing ovation.

Our loud appreciation of the concert was not in vain and Dame Mitsuko Uchida came back for two ethereally delicate encores, Schumann's Aveu from Carnival, Op. 9 and Mozart's lovely Andante from Sonata in C major, K. 545, which concluded the concert with calm and serenity.

Saturday, February 5, 2011

Jean-Yves Thibaudet - All-Liszt - 02/02/11

Liszt: Consolations (Second version)
Liszt: Les jeux d’eaux à la Villa d’Este
Liszt: Deux légendes: St. François d’Assise: la prédiction aux oiseaux & St. François de Paule marchant sur les flots
Liszt: Meine Freunden from Chants polonais (after Chopin)
Liszt: Ballade No 2 in B Minor
Liszt: Isoldes Liebestod from Tristan und Isolde (after Wagner)
Liszt: Tarantella from Venezia e Napoli

When I had originally noticed that Jean-Yves Thibaudet was lined up for an all-Liszt recital in the Carnegie Hall catalog about a year ago, I had immediately made a mental note of it and started dreaming of how fortuitous the musical collaboration of those two famously virtuosic performers was going to be, even if one-sided. And what better way to properly celebrate the eclectic composer’s 200th anniversary indeed? After hearing Jean-Yves Thibaudet flamboyantly bring to life the Hungarian master’s deliciously diabolical Totentanz twice in the past couple of years, I was very much looking forward to hearing him tackle some more subdued pieces as well. So never mind the dreadfully icy mess turned into a plain old mess that was New York City on Wednesday, there was dazzling music to be had at Carnegie Hall and all I could say was: “Jean-Yves, j’arrive !”

Franz Liszt is probably remembered mostly as a dazzling figure of 19th century Romanticism, but his œuvre actually covers a wide range of inspirations and genres. Accordingly, the concert started pensively with his set of six short consolations, all gentle and thoughtful little gems. Even better, throughout those 20 minutes and the rest of the performance, an aura of innate elegance, which I have always associated with my fellow Lyonnais, imperceptibly permeated the music and the general atmosphere as well, as if Carnegie Hall had suddenly turned into an exclusive salon of Belle époque’s Paris.
But we actually did not get to stay in the City of Lights for very long as Les jeux d’eaux à la Villa d’Este took us to Rome, where Liszt moved when he was 50 to spend his remaining years, renouncing all Romantic excesses and devoting himself to the joys of God, nature and sacred music. True to form, this lovely piece resonated with countless shimmering, impressionistic sparkles as we were all picturing the water gracefully playing around the famed fountains.
Still in Rome and fully in line with his new life style, his Deux légendes were inspired by Biblical stories about two saints and gave Jean-Yves Thibaudet plenty of opportunities to display his ever impressive skills. As the concert was proceeding, the works were becoming more complex and more involved, but our piano man remained right on top of it all and spectacularly delivered.
Directly and openly connected to Chopin, Meine Freunden and the Ballade No 2 in B Minor had fittingly some quietly poetic moments in them, but Liszt obviously could not stay away from his more hot-blooded style too long, so there was a solid dose of that in them too.
One of my very favorite opera arias, Liebestod from Tristan und Isolde received an appropriately passionate treatment, but I have to say that I missed the ethereal quality that only a human voice can provide. It was still a pleasure to hear such a different version of it though, one that Wagner would have surely approved of.
Liszt the consummate showman finally made a late but brilliant appearance courtesy of his delightful Tarantella, an exciting explosion of colorful fun that quickly turned into a decidedly grand finale.

After such a relentless marathon, and some unreservedly loud and deeply appreciative clapping from the audience, I was dearly hoping that our pianist would treat us to one, maybe two, encores, but we got three! We stayed with Liszt for La cloche sonne, a rare tidbit from 1950, then we moved on to Prélude pathétique by Cherkassy, a Russian pianist and composer whom Thibaudet had seen in that very same hall, to eventually finish with Intermezzo in A Minor, Op. 118, No 2 by Brahms. Once a Romantic…