Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Met - Capriccio - 04/19/11

Composer: Richard Strauss
Conductor: Andrew Davis
Production: John Cox
Director: Peter McClintock
The Countess: Renée Fleming
Flamand: Joseph Kaiser
Olivier: Russell Braun
La Roche: Peter Rose

The Count: Morten Frank Larsen
Clairon: Sarah Connolly

I guess that it is somehow fitting to have for the last opera of my Met season (Sniff!) the very last opera of Richard Strauss’ career, the lovely Capriccio. Subtitled a “Conversation Piece for Music”, this curiosity leisurely mulls over the respective importance of words and music (and, to a lesser degree, theater) separate and combined for two and a half uninterrupted hours without drawing a final conclusion, therefore leaving this all-important question likely to keep my mind occupied until the beginning of the next season and its new dramas.
As her splendid Marschallin in last season’s Rosenkavalier made crystal clear, Renée Fleming has an innate affinity for Richard Strauss’ œuvre. At the peak of a remarkable career, her wide-ranging experience as America’s favorite soprano now allows her to provide the appropriate amount of weight and relevance to her character’s musings about the mysteries of art, and that sounded almost too good of a timing to be true. The rest of the cast was unknown to me and the name of the conductor did not ring a bell, but that did not matter. Yesterday, I happily braved the inclement weather and the late starting time for yet another new adventure at the Met.

The pace and mood of the evening were quickly established when the performance started with a refined, drawn-out string sextet for an overture, before going on and on as the story unfolded with the studied nonchalance, constant chattiness and understated preciousness of an Eric Rohmer film. Moreover, the fact that the action – if non-stop verbal exchanges can be called action – took place at a château near Paris in the 1920s added an unmistakable touch of aristocratic sophistication and trouble-free luxury. The dilemma between words and music was represented by the poet Olivier and the composer Flamand, both engaged in a friendly competition to win the Countess’ undecided heart. A no-nonsense theater director, La Roche, as well as her brother, an amateur actor, and his new paramour, a stage actress, were thrown in for good measure and readily joined in the on-going debate, which was occasionally disrupted by ballet or vocal numbers.
The whole production revolved, of course, around a luminous Renée Fleming who effortlessly graced the stage from almost beginning to end. Whether in a beautifully unfussy dress contouring her voluptuous curves or a sparkling outfit straight out of a Las Vegas closet, she reigned supreme and provided the perfect catalyst for the continuous elevated brain-storming. Her voice sounded ideally suited for the Countess’ subtle but insightful conversational singing, and she admirably nailed her final monologue, a magnificent showcase for the many possibilities of her soprano voice.
Her two suitors were two fine young men, indeed, if not without faults. Baritone Russell Braun was a humorless, brooding poet while tenor Joseph Kaiser made for a spontaneous, hot-blooded composer. Baritone Morten Frank Larsen was a dashing young Count and the object of his desire, mezzo-soprano Sarah Connolly, exuded all the star power of a real tragédienne. Last, but no least, bass Peter Rose was a powerful voice of reason in the form of the theater director who would rather diligently work on putting on his show than indulge in rethorical aesthetic reflections.
The set was the richly decorated salon of the Countess and contained all the expected amenities, including an impressive army of servants, who would eventually provide the one truly amusing interlude of the whole opera. The costumes were just as sumptuous and one more indication of the luxurious world in which the characters evolved.
The music was often as light as a summer breeze (Is it really the same composer that gave us Elektra?!), but still solidly supported the constant chatter and occasional outburst of actual singing, such as the traditional Italian duet. When the action (or lack thereof) dragged on, it was easy to become lulled by the polished sounds coming from the orchestra and the steady conversations coming from the stage. Another case in point that, as the Countess ultimately finds out, there is no ready answer to the central question. So the performance, the opera, Strauss' career and my Met season quietly ended as the major-domo delicately put out the last candle.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Calder Quartet - Mozart, Beethoven & Janacek - 04/17/11

Mozart: String Quartet in C Major, K. 465, “Dissonance”
Beethoven: String Quartet in F Minor, Op. 95, “Serioso”
Janacek: String Quartet No 2, “Intimate Letters”

As if an opera and a symphony were not enough for one weekend, I ventured to the Brooklyn Central Library this afternoon for another one of Carnegie Hall’s popular Neighborhood Concerts. This time, it was the musicians of the Calder Quartet who brought their dark suits, skinny ties, remarkable chops and solid-value program (Mozart, Beethoven and Janacek) to the community event, just two days after appearing at Carnegie Hall for a more esoteric Christopher Rouse-centric concert. Located right a Grand Armor Plaza, the bunker-style library was bustling with activities and the 160-seat auditorium quickly filled up to capacity with a healthily eclectic crowd.

Two weeks after the all-French Quatuor Ebène’s inspired performance of it, I got to hear another take on Mozart’s “Dissonance” piece from the equally skillful all-American Calder Quartet. Today again, the slow, dark opening brilliantly contrasted with the joyful mood and refined elegance that were to ensue. The four string players onstage offered a vivacious and graceful rendition of this lovely work, and I am ready for my third take of it anytime.
After Mozart, we moved on to his obvious successor, Beethoven, with “Serioso”, one of his shortest and most compact quartets. Because of its use of compositional techniques unusual at the time, this work was never meant to be performed in public, but only to a small group of connoisseurs. Luckily for us, it did make it out of its hiding place, and the Calder Quartet made sure to do full justice to its considerable creativity and immense appeal so that everybody in the audience could enjoy it regardless of their musical expertise (or lack thereof).
But the best was yet to come when we bore witness to a burning case of unrequited love from an aging and married Janacek for a just as married woman 38 years his junior. Luckily for the rest of us, this unfortunate situation yielded a major, sizzling work from the Czech composer as he poured the vast majority of the 700 letters he wrote to her into his 30-minute String Quartet No 2, from the most elevated romantic feelings to the most frustrated lustful thoughts. Completely shifting gears after the classicism of the two previous masters, the Calder guys let Janacek's obsessive mood and feverish passion brilliantly flow and concluded the concert with a grand, intensely resonating bang.

Chicago Symphony Orchestra - Berlioz - 04/16/11

Conductor: Riccardo Muti
Berlioz: Symphonie fantastique, Op. 14
Berlioz: Lélio, ou Le retour à vie (The Return to Life), Op. 14 bis - Gérard Depardieu (Narrator), Mario Zeffiri (Tenor), Kyle Ketelsen (Bass-Baritone) and the Chicago Symphony Chorus

After enjoying one of the most ground-breaking works of the 20th century in a viscerally gripping Wozzeck at the Met yesterday afternoon, I travelled back in time, for about one century, and got to revel in one of the most ground-breaking works of the 19th century in Berlioz’s magnificent Symphonie fantastique at Carnegie Hall yesterday evening. Of course, the fact that it was going to be performed by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra under the baton of his still new music director, world-renowned conductor Riccardo Muti, was a powerful incentive, and the cherry on top of the cake was the presence of French cinema super-star Gérard Depardieu, who would be narrating lesser-known Lélio, Berlioz’s half-music, half-poetry sequel to La symphonie fantastique, after intermission.
Earlier during the week, a nice but firm automated voice mail from Carnegie Hall had warned me that the concert would start promptly at 7:30 pm and that from that moment on no-one would be allowed to enter the hall until intermission. A much laudable initiative that should be repeated in all performance venues, if you asked me.

For those of us who showed up on time – and there were very few empty seats in the sold-out auditorium - the reward was all-around glorious. What was shockingly modern almost two centuries ago has preserved its vibrant inventiveness while being now completely accessible to even the least adventuresome audiences. The story behind the Symphonie fantastique, which in the early days had to be provided to the audience at the composer’s insistence, has of course considerable helped connect the listener to the dramatic outline and meaning of the work. However, regardless of how many external pointers are out there, the music's still the thing. Last night, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra made sure that the revolutionary score splendidly came alive in all its distinctive details, from the more subdued but richly evocative first three movements to the last two diabolically thrilling episodes. The violins luminously sang, the brass brightly shone, the winds harmoniously rose and, in the middle of it all, stood maestro Muti dynamically keeping the sound traffic smooth and steady.
I had never heard of Lélio before and was curious to see what would come of it. The composition turned out to be a 6-movement tableau vivant combining narrated monologues, sung poetry and, well, music too. During my French years, I grew up with Gérard Depardieu effortlessly dominating the French cinema world with incredible talent, authority and stamina. So watching him, whose voice I will probably recognize until the day I die, impersonate Berlioz and channel the composer’s musings about life, love and art on the stage of Carnegie Hall was an extraordinary experience for me. Hearing him advise Riccado Muti not to confuse mezzo-forte with fortissimo before playing the score he had just written was one priceless moment that got the whole audience to chuckle. By the time he told the orchestra and chorus that their performance was quite good, therefore allowing them to tackle bigger works, he had fully conquered us all. The work itself was too disjointed to be totally engaging, but it contained a handful of very enjoyable highlights. The two soloists were fine and the Chicago Orchestra Chorus was fantastic, especially in the haunting “Chorus of the Shades”. While Lélio does not have the scope of La symphonie fantastique (But then, what does?) yesterday’s presentation of it was a pleasant and fun, if not transcendent, experience, and that was already plenty.

Saturday, April 16, 2011

Met - Wozzeck - 04/16/11

Composer: Alban Berg
Director: Gregoy Keller
Producer: Mark Lamos
Conductor: James Levine
Wozzeck: Alan Held
Marie: Waltraud Meier
Captain: Gerhard Siegel
Doctor: Walter Fink
Drum Major: Stuart Skelton

After a quiet week on the musical front, today came with a particularly gloomy, unapologetically atonal and (Thankfully!) compact opera at the Met in the afternoon as well as a dazzling French masterpiece performed by a major American orchestra at Carnegie Hall in the evening. But first things first: Even if you did not know that Alban Berg’s Wozzeck is famous for not being of everybody’s taste, the fact that the Met scheduled only four performances of it instead of the typical eight speaks volumes. However, if you’re feeling daring, or even just curious, and decide to give it a try, chances are you will find yourself richly rewarded. Having Alan Held sing the title role and James Levine conduct the opera he has championed for so long promised a matinee to remember, so I got a ticket for the very last performance of the season and duly showed up in a surprisingly packed auditorium.
Still ground-breaking enough to disorient the more traditionally-minded audience but by now accessible enough to delight the open-minded opera aficionados, Wozzeck remains a matchless adventure. Bottom line is, no matter what mood you’re in when you enter the opera house, you will in all likelihood be depressed - albeit in an enlightened way - when you leave it. Deemed shocking and scandalous as soon as it came out, Wozzeck therefore made Alban Berg an overnight star and has since become an undisputed pillar of the standard répertoire.

When he attended the first production of Georg Büchner's unfinished expressionist play Woyzeck, Berg allegedly knew right away he had to make an opera out of it. And he did. Although the plot is downright sordid and occasionally fragmented, it is not the main thing. Wozzeck is first and foremost a psychological opera. Even today, after decades of countless directors all over the world busily tweaking tradition with various degrees of success in their outputs, the work's uniqueness is still obvious on many different levels with its constant use of a wide range of vocal, instrumental and structural styles of expression. And it is this bold festival of genres that still intensely emphasizes the relentless chaos and dire hopelessness in the poor soldier’s life, powerfully representing the oppression of the masses by the haute bourgeoisie.
When I saw Alan Held’s name on the program, I knew that I would be in good hands. After stunning me as Capitain Balstrode in Peter Grimes a couple of seasons ago, he just seemed the perfect baritone for the role of the miserable soldier driven to insanity by his mistress’ infidelity. And sure enough, his imposing frame, remarkable presence and robust, flexible voice gave his character a human quality that elevated him above being a mere symbolic figure for all the little people. Whether in his confrontations with the other protagonists or his own hallucinations, Held’s Wozzeck stubbornly kept on fighting an increasingly isolating and losing battle that could not possibly end well, and indeed did not.
The catalyst of the drama is a young, unassuming woman by the innocent name of Marie. German mezzo-soprano Waltraud Meier brought her bright, assured voice to the merciless role and made a vibrant case for her heroine. Marie has many faults, but thanks to the singer's vividly emotional portrait of her, you cannot help but root for the trouble-maker.
The Captain and the Doctor, the two bad guys who will turn out to also be instrumental in Wozzeck’s demise, were respectively impersonated by German Tenor Gerhard Siegel and Austrian Bass Walter Fink. Representing the established society at its worse, patronizing and ridiculing the masses, they ganged up with much force and callousness against the poor soldier, eventually contributing a good deal to his creeping insanity. In an impressive debut, Australian Tenor Stuart Skelton brought just the right combination of braggartism and carelessness to the Drum Major.
The set and costumes were predictably grim and understated, but I cannot imagine them any other way. The stage became bathed in a striking scarlet red light at the expected moments, which may not have been very subtle or original, but certainly carried the dramatic points straight home.
After being deliriously greeted by an ovation worthy of a rock-star, James Levine led the unfailingly fabulous Met orchestra into a tight, riveting musical account of the stark tragedy. Unmistakably relishing being involved in a project so close to his heart, not to mention being back where he clearly belongs after another health-related absence, maestro Levine put his momentously informed knowledge of the score and his boundless enthusiasm for the opera to terrific use. I cannot say that I am totally reconciled with atonal music, but I’ve certainly gained a new appreciation of it. And that is a major accomplishment in itself.

Monday, April 11, 2011

ACJW Ensemble - Mozart, Bartok & Dvorak - 04/10/11

Mozart: Serenade for Winds in E-flat Major, K. 375
Bartok: Contrasts for Violin, Clarinet and Piano
Dvorak: String Quintet in G Major, Op. 77

As much as I miss the wonderful chamber music concerts at the Library of Congress from my Washington, DC days, opportunities to attend excellent intimate performances in New York City are simply too numerous for self-pity. As a case in point, Carnegie Hall tirelessly organizes some not only high-quality but also free concerts in all five boroughs. That’s how yesterday afternoon I found myself in Washington Heights’ lovely Our Saviour’s Atonement Lutheran Church for an eclectic program of Mozart, Bartok and Dvorak by the multi-talented ACJW Ensemble. All the ensemble’s members are alumni or current fellows of The Academy, a program by Carnegie Hall, The Juilliard School, and The Weill Music Institute in collaboration with the NYC Department of Education, and they are firmly dedicated to developing their careers as musicians, teachers and music advocates, all most worthwhile missions if there ever were some.

I am typically not a wind instrument fan, but when Mozart is the composer, I tend to listen and usually end up liking, if not loving. While the man stayed true to his well-known dislike of the flute by not including it, he did wonders with the paired oboes, clarinets, bassoons and horns. Performed by the eight tightly united musicians at hand yesterday, the Serenade became a vivacious treat and did not fail to charm even the most unsuspecting listener.
After Mozart’s classicism, we moved right on to Bartok at its most volcanic with his Contrasts for Violin, Clarinet and Piano. Clearly inspired by Hungarian folk dances, it is devilishly seductive until the dissonances get to you, and then you get sucked up into it again. The trio onstage put a rhythmically exciting spin, full of energy and ferociousness, and eventually won everybody over.
Then we went back to good old harmonies and finally got to enjoy a glorious festival of strings with Dvorak’s String Quintet in G Major. After coming up with the magic formula for a successful blend of Czech folklore and German Romanticism, he put it to utmost use with this luminously lyrical quintet. Yesterday, the performance of it was viscerally intense and totally thrilling, the perfect way to conclude a much enjoyed concert.

Saturday, April 9, 2011

Leif Ove Andsnes - Beethoven, Brahms & Schoenberg - 04/07/11

Beethoven: Sonata No 21 in C Major, Op. 53, (“Waldstein”)
Brahms: Four ballads, Op. 10
Schoenberg: Six Little Piano Pieces, Op. 19
Beethoven: Sonata No 32 in C Minor, Op. 111

After reveling in the joys of orchestral music 24 hours before, I was back at Carnegie Hall on Thursday evening for a recital by one of the foremost pianists in this day and age: Leif Ove Andsnes. Checking out the program, the prospect of hearing him play Beethoven and Brahms quickly got me over my slight disappointment at the absence of Chopin (I only have to wait until next season) and my instinctive dismay at the presence of Schoenberg (No matter what it was, it was only going to last seven minutes). It was the night before Friday and my friend Paula was also there to share in the adoration, so I decided not to let anything spoil my enjoyment.

One of the jewels of Beethoven’s middle period, the "Waldstein" is mostly well-known for its unusual structure and form. No theoretical musical knowledge is necessary, however, to appreciate the richness and overall harmony of the whole piece. And those were all the more appreciated through the winning combination of energy and sensitivity in Leif Ove Andsnes’ unfussy approach.
Moving on to Brahms after Beethoven was both logical and interesting. It also made Brahms’ much celebrated four little ballads sound especially understated after Beethoven’s spacious "Waldstein". Understated does not mean irrelevant though, and their youthful, lyrical quality was discreetly highlighted through the genuinely insightful playing.
Schoenberg went down fast and relatively easy. Even if it did not provide the same elevated pleasures of the previous works, those six piano pieces were basically harmless.
Back to Beethoven 20 years after the "Waldstein", the Sonata No 32 distinguishes itself by being the last one he ever wrote. Leif Ove Andsnes played the first stormy movement with controlled authority before focusing on the elegant finesse of the mystical second one. And that was it, and that was enough. Beethoven was right: Who needs a third movement after those?

After all was magnificently said and done, he came back to treat his clearly elated audience to three encores that only kept on getting better: Kurtag’s "Scraps of a Colinda Melody – Faintly Recollected" from Jatekok, Chopin’s Waltz in A-flat Major and Schumann’s Romance in F-sharp Major. I am already counting the days to February 15, 2012.

Orchestra of St. Luke's - Prokofiev, Tchaikovsky & Dvorak - 04/06/11

Conductor: Ivan Fischer
Prokofiev: Symphony No 1 in D Major, Op. 25, (“Classical”)
Tchaikovsky: Violin Concerto in D Major, Op. 35 – Nikolaj Znaider
Dvorak: Symphony No 7 in D Minor, Op. 70

Sometimes, the names of the musicians and the titles of the pieces on a program sound just like the ideal cocktail for a memorable evening, and you know you just have to go. That is exactly what happened when I first saw the line-up for Wednesday’s concert at Carnegie Hall: the big attraction for me was, of course, Tchaikovsky’s stunning violin concerto, one of my first unforgettable tastes of what music was, but Prokofiev’s Symphony No 1 and Dvorak’s Symphony No 7 are no small potatoes either. The combined talents of engaging violinist Nikolaj Znaider, who keeps on moving up, up, up as a soloist, conductor and chamber musician, communicative conductor Ivan Fischer, to whom I owe some of my best NSO memories, and the ever-reliable Orchestra of St. Luke’s seemed just the most pleasurable way to end yet another hectic hump-day in the office. So I went.

For most artists, the freshman effort has often difficulties measuring up with the later, typically more well-defined and involved, works, but in his mid-twenties Prokofiev came up with a symphony so appealing that it has remained one of his most popular scores. While keeping Haydn in mind, the young composer did not hesitate to put a modern spin on the old master’s inspiration and delivered a short but immensely satisfying piece. Doing it full justice from the delightful, gracious opening to the high-spirited speed race of the last movement, Ivan Fischer kept the music vivaciously flowing from an impeccably tight orchestra.
Although Tchaikovsky’s works were rarely well-received when they first came out, quite a few of them have rightfully become some of those universally beloved classics. His famous violin concerto is definitely one of them and hearing it live in the right hands no doubt remains one of my all-time favorite musical highs. Wednesday night, energetic Nikolaj Znaider gave a muscular and invigorating interpretation of it, all singing melodies and vibrant harmonies. The orchestra provided plenty of colorful sounds of their own - almost too much so as the brass were getting close to drowning the beginning of the exquisite Canzonetta - all the way to the virtuosic pyrotechnics of the grand finale.
What to play after Tchaikovsky? Fortunately for us, Znaider decisively and masterfully resolved that thorny issue and took us on a trip back to the basics with Bach’s Sarabande for Partita No 2 in D Minor, which he beautifully carried until the very end. An unexpected but most appreciated little treat.
I’m afraid I’ll never really get Dvorak the way other people do, but I am still working on it regardless. His Symphony No 7 is widely recognized as one of his most compelling achievements and having the privilege to hear it in such talented company made me try even harder to get it. It is a tumultuous journey that Dvorak has in store for us, and I did enjoy the relentless complexity of the sounds and moods coming out of a revved- up orchestra led by a particularly dynamic Ivan Fischer. It was all very good indeed, but I guess some things will never change: I left with Tchaikovsky’s notes still happily dancing in my head.

Sunday, April 3, 2011

Quatuor Ebène - Mozart, Bartok & Debussy - 04/03/11

Mozart: Quartet in C Major, K. 465, “Dissonance”
Bartok: Quartet No 3 Sz. 85
Debussy: Quartet in G Minor, Op. 10

For all its priceless contributions to the arts, France has never been able to boast a strong musical tradition. Things, however, have been slowly changing thanks to the sizzling talents and adventurous spirits of the four young music students who created the Quatuor Ebène all the way back in 1999. Their worldwide reputation of excellence and versatility – they are equally comfortable at playing classical, jazz or world music – exploded in 2009 with the release of a CD featuring French composers and a widely acclaimed international tour to be added up to an already long string of prestigious awards won along the way. 2009 is also when I was lucky enough to hear them perform an all-French program (Ravel, Fauré and Debussy) right in my then-backyard: the Library of Congress in Washington, DC.
They made such an incredible impression on me that they are now at the top of my list of ensembles-not-to-be-missed. Therefore I was very excited by the opportunity to hear them again this afternoon with my friend Paula at the Town Hall Theater near Times Square, one of their several local stops with Carnegie Hall and The Greene Space. This time, the program featured Mozart, Bartok, Debussy (I guess we couldn’t do without a little bit on nationalistic pride!) and, hopefully, a few unexpected surprises.

The Town Hall Theater turned out to be an old-fashioned, perfectly sized venue for intimate chamber music concerts, and that's where the four black-clad musicians appeared, their youthful faces betraying deep seriousness and intense concentration, before an almost full house. The solemnity of the moment lingered on with the surprisingly slow, somber introduction of Mozart’s “Dissonant Quartet”, but the haunting darkness eventually made way for bright light when the music suddenly changed mood and burst into elating refinement – Hence the title. Dedicated to his friend and mentor Haydn, this work is clear evidence that the student was quickly catching up with the master. The Quatuor Ebène showed an unwaveringly united front and beautifully conveyed the exquisite intricacies of the popular composition.
Bartok’s Quartet No 3 also features a drastic mood change between the bleak first part and the more cheerful second part. It is a fairly short, one-stretch journey that can occasionally sound quite challenging with its festival of unusual sounds, but in due time it becomes full of energy and life-affirming through a healthy injection of folk rhythms. The quartet did not shy away from the stimulating difficulties and expertly highlighted the sharp dissonances without smoothing them over, letting the raw brilliance of the work boldly shine.
Back on what had to be more familiar territory, their version of Debussy’s one and only quartet was a pinnacle of impressionistic elegance and sensitiveness. Although the composition was conventionally written in four movements, its remarkable richness and constant inventiveness decisively set it apart. The sensually lyrical third movement, a personal favorite of mine, cannot help but bring to mind the delicate harmonies of Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune as it stands out in sharp contrast with the more exotic and vivacious sounds of the rest of the piece. Clearly in their element and relishing every second of it, the Quatuor Ebène gave shimmering life to Debussy’s visionary statement.

The four men in black could have been forgiven for taking their leave after such a powerful performance, but they wouldn't do so before revealing the surprise they had in store for us. When the "Victoires de la musique", the most important music awards show in France and, as the cellist laconically noted, “the only time classical music is featured on a prime-time TV program. Better than nothing”, asked them to play some music from the cult movie Pulp Fiction, they readily did it with their own arrangements and usual savoir-faire. That’s how we got to enjoy a unique encore, which concluded a memorable concert by a truly exceptional ensemble.