Thursday, March 31, 2011

Miró Quartet - Schubert, Haydn & Brahms - 03/30/11

Schubert: “Quartettsatz” in C Minor, D. 703
Haydn: String Quartet in E-flat Major, Op. 33
Brahms: String Quartet in C Minor, Op. 51, No 1

Beside routinely presenting classical music's biggest names in its acoustically perfect environment, Carnegie Hall has also been involved in bringing live music to every corner of New York’s five boroughs for decades now. Those neighborhood concerts are free, open to all and feature a wide range of exciting artists playing all kinds of music.
That’s how my friend Lisa and I ventured yesterday evening into the Lower East Side for a concert by the Miró Quartet, one of the major chamber music ensembles in the US today. The University Settlement had a nice little space where about 100 people eventually crammed in before the quartet took the stage with a 20-minute delay, more due to late-comers than any lack of readiness, and quickly proved that they were worth every second of the wait.

Schubert’s "Quartettsatz" may be short in quantity, but undeniably does not lack in quality. Its lively, fluent treatment in the hands of the Miró Quartet was the perfect way to assert the musicians’ brilliance while establishing a warm connection with the eclectic audience.
As everybody was getting into the mood for music, Haydn’s refined classicism as well as his robust joie de vivre shone light and bright through his String Quartet in E-Flat Major. After three breezily elating movements came the famous last one, in which each pause is longer than the previous one, making it impossible to determine when the piece is actually over. This was a solid success and living proof the even classical music composers, musicians and aficionados have a sense of humor.
After the Viennese Master’s clear and clean elegance, we readily moved on to more humanly passions with the master of Romanticism and his own string quartet. In this case again, Johannes Brahms lived up to his reputation as the ultimate perfectionist by burning no fewer than 25 works before coming up with his String Quartet in C Minor. And he probably would have been extremely pleased with the red hot interpretation of his vibrant first release by the Miró Quartet yesterday. Strongly emphasizing the instantaneously catchy drama and lyricism of the composition, the ensemble played with infectious but controlled energy and delivered a colorful, genuinely engaging performance enjoyed by all.

Monday, March 28, 2011

Jeremy Denk - Ives & Bach - 03/27/11

Ives: Piano Sonata No 2, “Concord, Mass., 1840-60” - Tara Helen O'Connor - Flute
Bach: Goldberg Variations, BWV 988

After weeks of mounting excitement, it is always disappointing to some degree when the artist one had looked forward to hearing cannot make it, never mind that the reasons for not showing up are totally legitimate. But I must say that lately I have had a very hard time feeling sorry for myself even after Maurizio Pollini stood me up not once, by twice in less than two weeks. After all, life could be much worse than having Joshua Bell and Jeremy Denk (separately, in this case) fill in after the ailing Italian pianist cancelled his American tour, that’s for sure.
So it was in decidedly high spirits that I walked down Broadway and then Central Park South all the way to the mythical corner of E. 57th Street and 7th Avenue for my second Carnegie Hall concert of the weekend. I was all the more secure about the matinee performance I was about to attend knowing that local pianist extraordinaire Jeremy Denk would be there too, not only substituting at the very last minute without batting an eyelash, but also finally getting his first solo recital in the prestigious Isaac Stern auditorium - the place that makes you or breaks you - by the same token. It was about time.

Although it is probably safe to assume that most of the audience was there for the beloved Goldberg Variations, the concert kicked off in a much more challenging fashion with the ”Concord” Sonata by American composer Charles Ives. Inspired by the Transcendentalism society of 19th century New England (each movement is named after one of its writers), Beethoven’s Symphony No 5, Protestant hymns and Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde, among other things, the score is intrinsically complex with unpredictable moods and fast-changing rhythms striving for balance. Jeremy Denk, however, made sure to keep it accessible and engaging for all without compromising the work’s integrity. As an extra bonus, the appearance of the flute, which is often overlooked in live performances, at the end of the fourth movement added a lovely touch of lightness and simplicity.
After this excursion into experimental music, we were on to a different kind of experiment, one that has belonged to music history for literally centuries now, in Bach’s monumental Goldberg Variations. Although the composition is a marvel of technical wizardry, no knowledge of music theory is necessary to fully enjoy its intricate nature and irresistible appeal. All one needs is a genial, virtuosic pianist, just like the one we had before us yesterday. Keeping his playing clear, graceful and spontaneous, Jeremy Denk managed the daunting marathon in just under an hour without even breaking a sweat. (Actually, this was not hard considering the sub-polar temperature in the hall.) Under his care, each variation got to show its own personality and strut its little, personable stuff before the next one took over, eventually coming full circle to the dreamy opening aria.

After much loud begging, we got our encore in a repeat of  "The Alcotts" movement from the "Concord" sonata, the one in which the famous first notes of Beethoven's fifth symphony are in most obvious display. One last treat to take home from a richly fulfilling afternoon.

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Toronto Symphony Orchestra - Britten, Bruch, Estacio & Williams - 03/26/11

Conductor: Peter Oundjian
Britten: "Four Sea Interludes" from Peter Grimes
Bruch: Violin Concerto No 1 in G Minor, Op. 26 – Itzhak Perlman
Estacio: Frenergy
Williams: Symphony No 4

Although my maiden live experience of the Bruch violin concerto had unexpectedly happened ten days earlier than planned with Joshua Bell and the Boston Symphony Orchestra, I was still very excited about hearing it performed by Itzhak Perlman and the Toronto Symphony Orchestra last night at Carnegie Hall with my fellow Itzhak's die-hard fan Lisa. After all those years of waiting, getting to relish it twice within ten days sounded just like the appropriate reward.
The rest of the program was, of course, secondary, but I was nevertheless very happy to see that the opening number would be the "Four Sea Interludes" from Peter Grimes, one of my favorite operas. I had no idea who John  Estacio was and Ralph Vaughan Williams’ Symphony No 4 was unknown territory ot me, but I figured that if the first half of the program lived up to my (high) expectations, my evening would be made regardless.

The "Four Sea Interludes" from Britten’s riveting opera about a fisherman’s cruel fate amidst harsh human conflicts in a coastal English village were as brightly evocative as I remembered them, giving the indomitable sea the scope and complexity of an actual character in the drama. Under the congenial, assured conducting of Peter Oundjian, the orchestra beautifully highlighted all the nuances of the four atmospheric episodes.
My second live take on Bruch’s glorious violin concerto turned out to be every bit as thrilling as my first one, and that is saying a lot. The Toronto Symphony Orchestra may not have the same polished exactness as their Boston counterparts, but they were all solidly committed to supporting their mesmerizing soloist. In full command of his formidable technique, Itzhak Perlman delivered an impeccably fluid performance of heightened emotions and dazzling fireworks. Far from shying away from the trademark heart-on-sleeve nature of the composition, he made it come to unabashedly lyrical life for a superb tour de force that left even the fidgety teenagers behind me in stunned silence. Now that was a major - and most welcome - accomplishment!
After Bruch’s virtuosic Romantic journey and a well-timed intermission to come back down to earth, we got a taste of Frenergy by John Estacio, a fun little piece which, as its title indicates, was a dynamite mix of frenetic pace and unbounded energy. A lot of percussion and wind instruments got together for a short but fulfilling quickie, and we were already off to the next piece.
The fourth symphony of Vaughan Williams is a world in itself, far from his other, more traditional-sounding compositions. Written not long before World War II, it is hard not to think of the tragedy to come when listening to the turbulent score, even if Williams steadily refused to acknowledge any connections. In the capable hands of the Toronto Symphony Orchestra, the work became a resounding smorgasbord of musical influences once the blisteringly dissonant opening had come and gone, but it had its sporadic charms too, especially in the fleeting, quieter moments. The overall tension never quite lifted off though, and it kept the audience on their toes all the way to the final assault.

It was therefore with immense relief that we heard that the evening’s encore was nothing less than the serene slow movement of Williams’ crowd-pleasing fifth symphony. Providing much appreciated calm after the rolling tempest, it ended the concert on a lovely, delicately harmonious note.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Boston Symphony Orchestra - Haydn, Bruch & Beethoven - 03/16/11

Conductor: Roberto Abbado
Haydn: Symphony No 93 in D Major
Bruch: Violin Concerto No 1 in G Minor, Op. 26 – Joshua Bell
Beethoven: Symphony No 5 in C Minor, Op. 67

My week at Carnegie Hall has been full of surprises brought on by the much-lamented absence of James Levine, who was supposed to conduct the three concerts by the Boston Symphony Orchestra but had to cancel because of recurring health issues. On Tuesday night the orchestra’s assistant conductor, Marcelo Lehninger, had very capably taken over and the program had remained the same, for better and worse.
As I was getting ready to buy my ticket for Wednesday night with Maurizio Pollini as the soloist a couple of weeks ago, I was informed that not only had he also cancelled due to illness, but that Joshua bell would be the soloist and would play… Bruch’s violin concerto! The one and only violin concerto that I unconditionally love but had never had a chance to hear live despite all those years of dedicated concert hall patronizing. For a while I thought the situation was hopeless, but careful planning, sheer serendipity and Itzhak Perlman, who is scheduled to perform it at Carnegie Hall on March 26, were about to change that insufferable state of things. And lo and behold, it suddenly looked like I had the opportunity to indulge in it not once but twice within two weeks by two of the most brilliant violinists around. Sometimes stars do align, don’t they?
The new program also included Haydn’s pleasant Symphony No 93 and Beethoven’s masterful Symphony No 5, all under the ever-reliable baton of Roberto Abbado. A lot of “comfort music”, yes, but I had paid my dues to modernism and open-mindedness the night before, and Beethoven’s No 5 was a ground-breaking work in its time anyway. So there.

I have the same relationship with Haydn as with Dvorak: I wouldn’t go out of my way to hear his works, but when I do hear them – and I come across them fairly often – I thoroughly enjoy it. And it happened again with his Symphony No 93, the first one of his “London” series, on Wednesday night. Under Roberto Abbado’s assured leadership, the orchestra did full justice to yet another example of Haydn’s mastery of the classical form.
Ah, the Bruch concerto! Never mind his other two violin concertos, or the rest of his impressive œuvre for that matter. His violin concerto in G Minor remains one of the pure jewels of the Romantic répertoire and one that I had been listening to in various digital versions again and again while patiently (then impatiently) waiting for a chance to hear it the way music should be heard: live. And hear it live I finally did, and supremely performed too thanks to Joshua Bell. Between the keen melodic talent of Max Bruch and the expert input of Joseph Joachim, who was probably warming up for the Brahms back then, the final composition could only be, and definitely is, a high-flying virtuosic feast for the ears. On Wednesday evening, the slow, somber opening was quickly livened up by the violin’s dramatic entrance, and the music soon switched into full lyrical mood. Unsurprisingly, the radiant sentimentality of the delicate Adagio, the  unconventional center of the piece, beautifully stood out before exhilarating fireworks simultaneously concluded the concerto and broke the curse once and for all in truly grand style.
Premièred not even two decades after Haydn’s Symphony No 93 but already a world away, Beethoven’s Symphony No 5 managed to radically change the face of music AND sound magnificent at the same time, so it can be done. It is probably the most popular symphony of them all, and consequently a steady presence on concert programs all over the world, but how can one not just sit, listen and marvel at what came out of the mind of a single deaf composer? Obviously relishing the moment as much as the audience, conductor and orchestra embarked on the daunting technical and emotional journey with finesse and gusto for a rousing performance, making the ultimate war horse sound superbly alive and kicking. James Levine would have been proud.

Saturday, March 19, 2011

Boston Symphony Orchestra - Mozart, Birtwistle & Bartok - 03/15/11

Conductor: Marcelo Lehninger
Mozart: Rondo in C Major for Violin and Orchestra, K. 373 – Christian Tetzlaff
Birtwistle: Violin Concerto – Christian Tetzlaff
Bartok: Violin Concerto No 2 – Christian Tetzlaff

Any opportunity to hear Christian Tetzlaff perform is always a special treat, so I was very much looking forward to indulging in a very special triple treat last Tuesday night at Carnegie Hall, where he is the Perspectives artist of the season. To my endless chagrin and growing frustration, I hadn’t been able to catch any of his performances so far, but what can I say? I have been a little busy lately. Of course, the fact that he would be accompanied the prestigious Boston Symphony Orchestra did not hurt one bit, even if James Levine had to pull out again due to his recurring health issues. The orchestra’s assistant conductor, Marcelo Lehninger, would be at hand and I trusted that he could handle the job almost as well.
The program was an interesting mix of the very well-known with Mozart’s Rondo in C Major for Violin and Orchestra, the completely unknown with the New York première of Birtwistle’s violin concerto, and the moderately known with Bartok’s second violin concerto. All in all, a trio of violin-centric works which could only get the deluxe treatment in the consistently brilliant hands of Christian Tetzlaff.

Although Mozart's mastery of the violin is rarely emphasized, it is nevertheless a historic fact that can be easily proven with, for example, his delicious little Rondo whose only flaw is its shortness. At only seven minutes, it barely gives the listener the time to get into the elegantly playful mood and it is already over. On Tuesday night, those seven minutes were as perfect as they could get and just flew by with delightful grace.
After this all-round charming beginning, we were in for a rude awakening with Harrison Birtwistle’s violin concerto. Seeing instruments such as a low nipple gong and a castanet machine in the scoring section should have alerted me that something unusual was coming our way, but little was I prepared for the mostly gratingly dissonant cacophony that mercilessly hit us. During the whole 25-minute pensum (and those were by far the longest 25 minutes I have ever spent in a concert hall) that did not seem to go anywhere, I could not help but internally lament what a waste it was to have such outstanding musicians play such an unengaging composition. It may have been an interesting experiment for a few esoteric music theorists, but at the end of the day, if it does not sound good, why play it in public... or play it at all?
Compared to that dreadful assault, Bartok’s violin concerto went down almost as easily as Tchaikovsky’s! Yes, it does have some rough spots here and there, but it also displays plenty of good old-fashioned lyricism and attractive Eastern European exoticism. After a very subdued opening, the violin makes a dazzling appearance and the concerto unfolds in a smorgasbord of rhythms and colors, constantly keeping the audience – and probably the musicians – on their toes. After Mozart’s lovely candy and Birtwistle’s athletic ordeal, Christian Tetzlaff was finally able to dwell into a challenging but appealing adventure while the orchestra showed a wonderfully united front, reminding us all what good music sounds like.

Monday, March 14, 2011

Florilegium Chamber Choir - Ligeti, Pärt and Górecki - 03/13/11

Conductor: Nicholas DeMaison
Ligeti: Gossiping Women
Ligeti: Wedding Song
Ligeti: From a High Mountain Rock
Ligeti: Songs from Inaktelke
Ligeti: Hortobágy
Ligeti: Like a Stream Gently Flowing
Ligeti: Oh, Youth!
Pärt: Berliner Messe
Górecki: Amen – Organist: Walter Hilse
Jane V. Hsu Difficult Mountain

Although I am not an aficionada of choral singing, I am usually up for new musical adventures. So when my colleague Dawn mentioned that her chamber choir had a concert coming up right in my neighborhood and featuring Ligeti, my interest was definitely picked and I planned accordingly. That’s how I ended up at the Trinity Evangelical Lutheran Church on 100th Street and Amsterdam yesterday evening, ready to expand my cultural horizon with a program including three Eastern European composers who did not let oppressive regimes prevent their creative juices from flowing.

I was very much looking forward to hearing the Ligeti pieces because, well, he is the only composer I was familiar with on the program. His choral works were unknown to me, but I thoroughly enjoy the polyphonic quality of his arrangements of the traditional Hungarian folk songs we got to hear. The multi-layered textures coming from the medium-sized choir resonated attractively in the pleasant setting of the church and kept the mood light and engaged. As it is often the case with folk songs, the texts were down-to-earth and occasionally silly, but since they were sung in their native Hungarian, except for one, it was very easy to just concentrate on the beautiful sound of music and not read the translation. From the short, fun little things like Gossiping Women and the Wedding Song to the elaborate Hortobágy, dedicated to Hungary’s largest national park, Ligeti came through as both refreshingly direct and delightfully intricate.
After intermission came Arvo Pärt’s Berliner Messe, which, unlike the previous works, was going to be sung with the choir surrounding the organ behind us while a film was being projected on a makeshift screen. The best way to describe the piece may be “a sort of extended Gregorian chant” the unison singing giving it its force and serenity. The film, Difficult Mountain, focused mostly on natural phenomena such as snow-covered landscapes and erupting volcanoes among some science-fictionish images. Some distracting daylight and the partly crumpled screen were not very conducive to a good viewing of it, and ultimately it was fine, but not necessary.. But the singing was uniformly powerful, and that was the main thing.
The last, very short work of the evening was Górecki’s Amen. It consisted of some variations of the word Amen, from tranquillissimo to fortissimo, and ended the concert on an appropriately inspiring note.

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Met - Lucia de Lammermoor - 03/08/11

Composer: Gaetano Donizetti
Conductor: Patrick Summers
Producer/Director: Mary Zimmerman
Lucia: Natalie Dessay
Edgardo: Joseph Carreja
Lord Enrico Ashton: Ludovic Tézier
Raimondo: Kwangchul Youn

The prospect of spending three hours and forty minutes cooked up in an opera house may sound like pure torture to some (My colleague Amy quizzically asked: “And you pay for THAT?”), but when the stage is graced by the vibrant presence of French coloratura soprano Natalie Dessay in her signature role of Lucia de Lammermoor, it suddenly becomes a much more enticing offer. I had only a vague but generally pleasant recollection of the Zimmermann production of Donizetti’s Bel canto masterpiece from two years ago, when I saw it with Diane Damrau in the title role, so I figured that the time had come to go back and check it out again with a new cast, a cast that allegedly features the ultimate soprano for that challenging career-making role (Just see what it did for Dame Joan Sutherland). Needless to say that the late hour of the performance on a week night did not appeal to me in the least (Not only is it a long one, but it started at 8:30 p.m.), but I decided to soldier on and hike up Broadway to the Lincoln Center one more time… all for Natalie.

Despite a highly prolific œuvre during his short life, Gaetano Donizetti is not exactly a household name as far as opera composers go. Beside the silly, if melodically blessed, L’Elisir d’amore, Don Pasquale and La Fille du régiment (this one is more of an operetta anyway, no?), he is mostly remembered for one work, but what work! Inspired by the historical novel The Bride of Lammermoor, which itself is based on a true Scottish story, the supremely Romantic opera Lucia de Lammermoor faithfully keeps the winning explosive cocktail of feuding families, a pair of star-crossed lovers and the ever-mysterious Scottish moors. With Donizetti's highly dramatic score to support the tragic plot, all a director needs are magnificent singers so that the uneven structure and the off-putting length of the whole thing are just forgotten.
The lead singer was, predictably, magnificent indeed on Tuesday night. Although these past couple of years she has been afflicted by vocal ailments, prompting the unavoidable lament by some that “she does not sound like used to”, Natalie Dessay was in superb form. Her petite silhouette barely containing her light but viscerally intense voice, she handled the vocal acrobatics of Lucia’s increasingly fragile state of mind with literally flying colors. Her steady combination of innocence and vulnerability was spot-on for the part and her natural charisma did the rest. The most famous mad scene in the history of opera unfolded on a minimalist set featuring a bare balcony and a grand staircase against a dark sky and moon, which made her ghostly appearance in the blood-stained wedding dress and her subtle but deeply emotional singing even more striking. Just for that understated but genuinely poignant scene, the seemingly endless 40-minute second intermission due to the set change was whole-heartedly forgiven.
But a splendid Lucia does not the opera completely make, and if her cast mates had not lived up to expectations, the evening may still have ended up being a long one. Luckily for us, the important shoes of lover boy Edgardo were masterfully filled by ardent Maltese tenor Joseph Carreja, who surely does not lack either in charismatic presence or in vocal power. His two big, difficult arias come around last and their blasting lyricism acted as a welcome release of all the repressed tension accumulated during the emotionally draining mad scene. Never missing a beat, Joseph Carreja effortlessly pulled through and was superbly eloquent until his very last breath.
The role of Enrico, Lucia’s brother, had gone to French baritone Ludovic Tézier, who sang it with beautifully dark and rich tones. His hard-hearted and pitiless decisions may have been made more out of circumstantial desperation than sheer cruelty, but the result was just as gory. As Raimondo, the well-meaning chaplain who is trying to make sense of it all, Korean bass Kwangchul Youn was poised and engaging.
The production, which sets the action in the 19th century, was overall successful at conveying a brooding Romantic mood with an attractive recreation of the wild Scottish moors, complete with threatening black branches rising up against a chromatic pink sky, branches that will be seen again on huge photos over the curtain during the intermissions. The sheet-covered furniture in a too large castle added a touch of aristocratic decadence, and the almost bare set of the mad scene was economically arresting. Even if everything was not perfect (Did we really need a “real” ghost during Act I? I didn’t think so either.), the décors and costumes generally served the production well.
The music of course revolves around the title role’s tragic story and she does have gorgeous moments to dwell in and dazzle the audience with, beside the exquisite show-stopper that is the mad scene. The other indisputable highlight of the composition is the outstanding Sextet of Act II, where two tenors, a baritone, a soprano, a mezzo-soprano and a bass join forces for one of opera’s most celebrated ensemble numbers. And you don’t even have to put yourself through the actual opera to hear it since it regularly appears in popular culture, from Bug Bunny cartoons to Jack Nicholson’s ringtone in Martin Scorcese’s The Departed and more.
On Tuesday night, the musical feast that is Donizetti’s glorious score was in the very capable hands of Patrick Summers, who I had incidentally just heard conduct Iphigénie in Tauride the previous week. (Maybe we should stop meeting like that. On the other hand, maybe not.) The orchestra kept the music sweepingly Romantic and beautifully tragic, efficiently wrapping everything up five minutes ahead of schedule. Now that’s what I call yet another successful night at the opera.

Sunday, March 6, 2011

St. Louis Symphony - Williams, Adès and Tchaikovsky - 03/05/11

Conductor: David Robertson
Williams: Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis
Adès: Violin Concerto, “Concentric Paths” - Leila Josefowicz
Tchaikovsky: Symphony No 6 in B Minor, Op. 74, “Pathétique”

A personal musical week that started on Monday with a remarkably satisfying performance by the visiting Minnesota Orchestra with young, lovely violinist Lisa Batiashvili at Carnegie Hall ended last night with a remarkably satisfying performance by the visiting St. Louis Symphony with young, lovely violinist Leila Josefowicz at Carnegie Hall. Not a bad week at all in New York's landmark concert hall. And although both evenings were mostly focused on traditional classical music, yesterday's concert stood out with the inclusion of Thomas Adès’ violin concerto “Concentric paths”, a brazenly contemporary piece that sharply contrasted the two solidly classical works book-ending it: Williams’ Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis and Tchaikovsky’s ever-popular “Pathétique”, which alone is worth a trip down Broadway as far as I am concerned.

Starting the concert with a composition for double string orchestra and solo string quartet could only be a good omen. David Roberston, the genial and spirited music director and conductor of the prestigious St. Louis Symphony, the second-oldest orchestra in the US, took immediate command of his uniformly outstanding charges and did not let off. The 15-minute Fantasia was a real joy to dwell into, beautifully melodic and richly textured, just the way music should be.
Although I am the first to admit my bottomless guilt of not listening to much contemporary classical music, I manage to keep in semi-touch with some of it thanks to Leila Josefowicz, one of its strongest and most talented advocates. Indeed, I truly think that she is one of the very few musicians who can consistently achieve the little miracle of making challenging music easily engaging and I wouldn’t miss a chance to hear her live for anything. Moreover, the little I’ve heard of Thomas Adès’ œuvre made me eager to learn more and a new violin concerto is always an exciting prospect, so I figured that all these converging elements would at least make for an interesting experience. The result turned out to be partly traditional in the fast-slow-fast pattern of the concerto, but also decidedly modern as the middle movement was the longest one and the whole piece abounded with unexpected sounds going from one extreme to the other of the scale before ending on a surprising, whimsical note. As usual, I found Leila Josefowicz’s luminous, adventurous playing absolutely thrilling while she was assuredly making the treacherous work her very own.
After this foray into unknown territory, I was back on most familiar ground with my annual fix of Tchaikovsky’s magnificent “Pathétique”. The full orchestra was on stage for this grand occasion and they all flawlessly joined forces to deliver an absolutely dynamite interpretation of one of classical music's most prized treasures, not the least thanks to their energetic conductor who did not spare any effort to make it all happen. The passionate, the elegant, the triumphant and the heart-wrenching, all the various moods that Tchaikovsky injected in his last symphony were vibrantly expressed in this glowing performance. The strings sumptuously sang, the brass elatedly rang and the winds harmoniously rose. At the end of this epic journey through life and death, when all was said and done, we all left the concert hall sans the ultimate gift of an encore, but on the other hand, like my seatmate and I were pondering while frenetically clapping our appreciation, what on earth could have been played after THAT?

Saturday, March 5, 2011

Met - Iphigénie en Tauride - 03/02/11

Composer: Christoph Willibald Gluck
Conductor: Patrick Summers
Director: Stephen Wadsworth
Iphigénie: Susan Graham
Oreste: Placido Domingo
Pylade: Paul Groves

Neither Greek tragedies nor Baroque music have ever been my cup of tea, so I really was not sure if I wanted to bother with Gluck’s Iphigénie en Tauride at the Met at all. But Susan Graham and Placido Domingo are two phenomenal singers who have never disappointed me, and the prospect of hearing them together eventually made me forget all my other misgivings about the opera itself. After all, if it was good enough for them to star in, it couldn’t be all bad… Truth be told, the fact that the whole thing was supposed to barely last two and a half hours did not hurt either, especially on a week night. So there I was, back at the Met on Wednesday night and ready to be transported in the mysterious land of Tauride where after the Trojan War the remaining of Agamemnon’s family endures various agonies before the unexpected happy end.

Although it is based on Euripides' tragedy Iphigenia in Tauris, no in-depth knowledge of Greek mythology is required, but a certain willingness to suspend disbelief is essential to make sense of the far-fetched plot. The unsavory ties of a clearly dysfunctional family and some barbaric religious rituals are the main, obviously unpleasant, elements at the center of the story, which makes the subdued refinement of the music and clean lines of the singing all the more drastically contrasting. Unlike some of his contemporaries, Gluck thankfully got rid of the typical fussiness of the Baroque genre to create “serious art”. “Serious”, however, does not have to mean “too stuffy to be enjoyed”, especially with the three magnetic leads we had the privilege to hear on Wednesday.
Placido Domingo, who has just turned 70, did not seem affected at all by this brand new decade and readily threw himself into the part of Oreste with the unconditional abandon of a beginner who still has everything to prove. At this point of his career, where he can do everything and anything – including nothing – it was quite refreshing to watch him blend in as seamlessly as possible in the cast, even if his modest demeanor could not come close to overrule his formidable presence. The much beloved voice was still there too, his famed richness beautifully resonating in the full opera house and effortlessly complementing the nobility of his character. He is not a natural baritone, but he is a natural performer, and he flawlessly nailed his part… one more time.
Holding your own opposite the world’s most famous opera star cannot be easy, but Susan Graham certainly has the professional chops necessary to pull it off, and she did. No wall flower herself, she made sure that her Iphigénie was not just a victim haunted by her past but a strong woman fighting to be in charge of her decisions as well, appropriately shifting her voice from hurt innocence to iron-clad will as her character evolved.
To complete this dream team, tenor Paul Grove, a Met veteran not as well-known but certainly as talented as his two other castmates, was an impeccably convincing Pylade, projecting just the right amount of vocal power and stage presence to make Oreste's lifelong friend brilliantly come alive.
The décors and costumes were lovely in rich earth tones and harmoniously completed one another. I could have done without the borderline silly dance numbers, but it was a generally very engaging production, not in the least thanks to the warm, polished sounds coming from the orchestra. Disregarding an overly drammatic approach for a much more direct and efficient simplicity, maestro Patrick Summers elicited the perfect musical background for the action to unfold. Throughout the whole evening, singers and conductor remained steadily in sync to honor Gluck’s subtle sense of drama and make this production the winner it really is.

Thursday, March 3, 2011

Minnesota Orchestra - Beethoven & Sibelius - 02/28/11

Conductor: Osmo Vänskä
Beethoven: Violin Concerto in D Major, Op. 61 – Lisa Batiashvili
Sibelius: Symphony No 6, Op. 104
Sibelius: Symphony No 7, Op. 105

Although I will be the first one to worship at Beethoven’s altar for his incredible œuvre, his violin concerto has never caught my attention the way some other have. I like it, respect it, admire it, but I cannot say that I fell for it the first time I heard it. This, of course, does not mean that I do not welcome opportunities to get acquainted with it again and again through reputable soloists. After experiencing Lisa Batiashvili’s masterful interpretation of Sibelius’ magnificent but treacherous concerto (Now here’s one that grabbed me right away) last year with the New York Philharmonic, I had quickly figured that she could handle pretty much anything. So when I saw her name associated with Beethoven’s violin concerto on Carnegie Hall’s calendar, in addition to not one but two symphonies by Sibelius, courtesy of the Minnesota Orchestra, I decided that it would be the perfect pick me up to wrap up a depressing, rainy Monday.

As I am learning to love Beethoven’s violin concerto in all its glorious complexity, I have to say that I have been extremely lucky with the performers who have been handling it, and Lisa Batiashvili is certainly no exception. The more I listen to it, the more I find its combination of symphonic scope and refined elegance surprising for a work coming from the famously tempestuous Viennese composer. Our soloist du jour proved that she was equally at ease at expressing poetic musings and dwelling into deep lyricism as at setting off technical fireworks and having a good old time. She was solidly seconded by the Minnesota Orchestra, which was conducted by their highly energetic music director Osmo Vänskä.
Later on, the orchestra got to show off its remarkable chops to the fullest during the next two symphonies by Sibelius. At barely half an hour, his Symphony No 6 is a sweeping cosmic journey which cannot help but remind the audience of Beethoven’s uncharacteristically happy Pastoral Symphony. The purity of the sounds and the subdued nature of the composition make it a deeply atmospheric work, and the hard-at-work musicians made sure to vividly highlight all the subtle layers of the music. The Sixth never ceases to surprise the listener, and the Minnesota Orchestra and his maestro sure kept us on our delighted toes.
Sibelius’ seventh and last symphony is a single 20-minute movement, but there is a lot going in it. What sounds like a random collection of brief moments and fleeting ideas somehow manages to mysteriously gel into a symphonic entity and leaves the audience wanting for more. That is exactly what happened on Monday night, when we all set off to wander into the musical forest and lose the sense of time until the majestic final chord.

But that was not all yet and we got to exchange our final good-bye to some sweepingly Romantic Tchaikovskian sounds that proved to be a sumptuous treat to the very last bite.