Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Teatro Grattacielo - I Compagnacci & Il Re - 05/24/11

I Compagnacci
Composer: Primo Riccitelli
Anna Maria: Jessica Klein
Baldo: Gerard Powers
Bernardo del Nero: Peter Castaldi
Venanzio: Lawrence Long
Cantori New York Chorus
RIS Children's Opera Chorus

Il Re
Composer: Umberto Giordano
Rosalina: Joanna Mongiardo
Colombello: James Price
Il Re: John Maynard
Il Mugnaio: Lawrence Long
Il Mugnaio’s wife: Eugenie Grunewald
Cantori New York Chorus

Being able to attend grand-scale opera performances featuring international stars at the one and only Met is of course one of the many wonderful perks enjoyed by music-loving New Yorkers. But other smaller, and much smaller, companies also provide significant musical delights in their own way, and I try to make a point of periodically checking them out. That’s how I found myself at the wonderful Rose Theater of the Lincoln Center last night, for a double bill of Italian one-act operas in concert on the theme “Love Lost… Love Won!”. The lyric comedy I Compagnacci and the fable in three scenes Il Re sounded just like the perfect nice little pick-me-up with the promise of melodic music, lyrical singing and… happy ends!

A short opera with many characters, if not much development, Riticelli’s I Compagnacci mostly focuses on the two leads who get to sing a couple of meaty solos and a central duet. Both young singers Jessica Klein and Gerard Powers demonstrated reasonable vocal skills and admirable willingness to belt out their inconsequential lines, and that was all that really mattered. The other singers proved adequate, and although the chorus had little to sing, they came out mightily strong when their turn came. Boy eventually got Girl, and all was well again in the world.
Giordano’s Il Re easily stood out mostly thanks to Joanna Mongiardo, an incredibly powerful soprano whose riveting coloratura sounded destined to blow the theater’s roof any second. The fact that she had an unabashedly all-around pretty, witty musical score to work from did not hurt either. The other three singers nevertheless managed to hold their own and the orchestra definitely proved capable as well. A fluffy little thing, Giordano’s last opera made the most of its simplicity and directness, and nicely concluded a very enjoyable evening.

Florilegium Chamber Choir - Monteverdi, Cavalli & Carissimi - 05/22/11

Monteverdi: Selections from the Third Book of Madrigals
Cavalli: L’alma fiacca svani from La Didone – Christie Finn
Monteverdi: O primavera
Monteverdi: Occhi un tempo mia vita
Carissimi: Ferma, lascia ch’io parli (The Lament of Mary Stuart) – Christie Finn
Monteverdi: Vattene pur crudel, Part I
Monteverdi: Là, tra ‘l sangue, Part II
Monteverdi: Poi ch’ella, Part III
Monteverdi: Rimanti in pace, Part I
Monteverdi: Ond’ei di morte, Part II

Even though we're nearing the end of May and the regular musical seasons are over or slowly coming to an end, that does not mean that there is no music to be heard in the Big Apple (That'll be the day!). So when I realized that the Florilegium Chamber Choir was coming back to the Trinity Evangelical Lutheran Church in my neck of the woods, I immediately marked the date on my calendar. And sure enough, after tackling some challenging contemporary works by Ligeti last winter, they were all back on Sunday afternoon with some more traditional Baroque Italian pieces by Monteverdi, Carissimi and Cavalli.

A quick look at the program and you knew you were not in for anything even remotely cheerful. The whole performance seemed to revolve around the eternal themes of love’s joys and sorrows as well as death, and even the natural attractiveness of the Italian language did not manage to lift up the general mood. The concert was nevertheless a lovely journey thanks to the ethereal combination of multi-layered harmonies that kept of melodies lines delicately intertwining and progressing.
The soprano of the afternoon, Christie Finn, had a clear, pretty voice that she was able to put to good use especially in Carissimi’s The Lament of Mary Stuart. One of the very first “mad” arias ever, it describes Mary Stuart’s state of mind during her final moments and gives the soloist plenty of opportunities to display her vocal skills, which Christie Finn did with much aplomb.

Even if the weather outside was cold and gray and the music inside was soft and sad, Sunday afternoon in the church turned out to be a very pleasant and rewarding time.

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Kate Royal - Bolcom, Schumann, Wolf, Liszt, Debussy, Schubert, Tosti, Canteloube, Bridge, Copland, Beach, Ravel, Fauré, Strauss, Duparc, Brahms, Britten, Sibelius, Hahn & Hughes - 05/20/11

William Bolcom: "Waitin’"
Robert Schumann: "Jemand," Op. 25, No. 4
Hugo Wolf: "Die Kleine"
Franz Liszt: "Es muss ein Wunderbares sein"
Claude Debussy: "Apparition"
Hugo Wolf: "O wär dein Haus durchsichtig"
Hugo Wolf: "Erstes Liebeslied eines Mädchens"
Franz Schubert: "Gretchen am Spinnrade," D.118
Franz Schubert: "Rastlose Liebe," D. 138
Paolo Tosti: "Pour un baiser"
Joseph Canteloube: "Tchut, tchut"
Frank Bridge: "Love went a'riding"
Aaron Copland: "Pastorale"
Amy Beach: "Ah, love but a day"
Robert Schumann: "Lieder der Braut aus dem Liebesfrühling I," Op. 25, No. 11
Robert Schumann: "Lieder der Braut aus dem Liebesfrühling II," Op. 25, No. 12
Maurice Ravel: "Chanson de la mariée"
Gabriel Fauré: "Donc, ce sera par un clair jour d’été," Op. 61, No. 7
Richard Strauss: "Hochzeitlich Lied," Op. 37, No. 6
Henri Duparc: "Extase"
Johannes Brahms: "Am Sonntag Morgen zierlich angetan," Op. 49, No. 1
Franz Schubert: "Die Männer sind méchant," D. 866, No. 3
Franz Schubert: "Du liebst mich nicht," D. 756
Benjamin Britten: "O Waly, Waly"
Hugo Wolf: "Verschling’ der Abgrund"
Jean Sibelius: "Was it a dream?" Op. 37, No. 4
Reynaldo Hahn: "Infidélité"
Aaron Copland: "Heart, we will forget him"
Herbert Hughes: "I will walk with my love"
William Bolcom: "Waitin’"

I have never been big on song recitals because I have always preferred enjoying the marvelous possibilities of the human voice through full-fledge opera productions. What can I say? I am spoiled that way. But some opportunities should not be missed, and when my friend Nicole offered me a ticket to go hear popular English soprano Kate Royal, fresh from her first ever run at the Met in “Orfeo ed Euridice”, and much admired pianist Christopher Glynn in Carnegie Hall’s intimate Weill Recital Hall last Friday, I was more than happy to accept. And not to be outdone, I managed to grab the very last ticket for the performance as an early French Mother’s Day gift for my visiting mum too!

Entitled “A Lesson in Love”, the concert was a song cycle put together by Kate Royal and describing the first roller-coasting journey of a young girl through the endless twists and turns and ups and downs of love. Cleverly combining elaborate numbers by famous composers such as Claude Debussy’s “Apparition” and Franz Schubert’s “Gretchen am Spinnrade, D. 118” with fleeting trifles by lesser-known names like Paolo Tosti’s “Pour un baiser” and Henri Duparc’s “Extase”, she immediately struck the right pace and managed to easily maintain it for a steady progression through the four stages of Waiting, The Meeting, The Wedding and Betrayal, all the way back to Waiting again. Smarter, but still hopeful.
After getting a taste of her elegantly accented English while she was explaining the performance’s overall concept, we got to hear Kate Royal sing in English, German, French and… Auvergnat, an Occitan-derived dialect dating back to the Roman Empire. The small space and proximity of our seats to the stage allowed us to experience the artists’ solid skills close and personal, happily taking in all the details of the voice and piano making beautiful music together. As she had mentioned it at the beginning, some of the songs were old friends, some new acquaintances, but she kept on churning them out with the same remarkable aplomb. Efficiently supported by Christopher Glynn's assured playing, she enacted each and every of the young girl’s torments and ecstasies as if they were her own, with unwavering emotional commitment and a firm grasp on her vocal capacities.

The encore came in the form of the classic Irish ballad “Danny Boy”, a departure from the general theme of the concert, but since we had already come full circle, it was a perfectly fitting conclusion to a truly lovely evening.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra - Stravinsky, Schneider, Bartok & Haydn - 05/13/2011

Stravinsky: Concerto in D for String Orchestra
Schneider: Carlos Drummond de Andrade Stories for Soprano and Chamber Orchestra – Dawn Upshawn
Bartok: Five Hungarian Folk Songs (arranged for soprano and string orchestra by Richard Tognetti) – Dawn Upshawn
“Anynyi bánat az szüvemen”
“Régi keserves”
“Párositó I”
“Eddig való dolgom”
“Hatforintos nóta”
Haydn: Symphony No 104 (London)

The only full-time professional chamber orchestra in the US, and one of the most highly regarded in the world, the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra was gracing the stage of Carnegie Hall on Friday night for an eclectic program that did not seem to have much coherence except, maybe, for some slight folksy, earthy tone to it. Nothing too ambitious, but still an undeniable breath of fresh air perfectly suited for the “Spring for Music” festival. The presence of American soprano Dawn Upshaw, renowned for being equally at ease with pesky Mozart’s heroines as with challenging contemporary experiments, was an added guarantee of quality, so all seemed to align fortuitously to celebrate the safe fading of Friday the 13th and a pleasant start of the weekend.

And it all started very pleasantly indeed with the lively sounds of Stravinsky’s “Basel” concerto. Expertly combining agility and sophistication, the string players, who were all standing up for the occasion, let the music rise with much polish and energy. Although not as dazzlingly adventurous as the infamous Rite of Spring, this totally engaging piece still kept the happy audience, and the hard-at-work musicians, on their toes.
Maria Schneider’s compositions inspired by Carlos Drummond de Andrade came out the perfect accompaniment for Dawn Upshaw’s pretty voice, even if the physical instrument at times overwhelmed the human one. As Maria Schneider herself took the baton for this New York première of her work, the music harmoniously supported the simple worlds and straightforward emotions evoked in the popular poems. Once in a while, a light touch of exoticism sprung up through some languorous Latin guitar-like notes.
This sweet escapade in Brazil behind her, Dawn Upshaw was up to a totally different task after intermission with Bartok’s native Hungarian songs. Because most of the pieces told sad stories or described sorrowful moods, Dawn Upshaw’s voice finally got a chance to fully express itself over the understated orchestra, and it assuredly did. The series concluded with an energy-filled, fun-loving folk dance that instantaneously uplifted everybody’s spirits up.
One of Haydn’s most beloved creations, the “London” symphony sounded as good as ever in the impeccably skillful hands of the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra. From the solemn opening to the exuberant finale, by way of the exquisite-with-outbursts-of-passion Andante, this rousing performance would have no doubt made the father of the symphony happy and proud.

Sunday, May 8, 2011

Orpheus Chamber Orchestra - Kernis, Wagner, Maxwell Davies, Theofanidis, Hartke & Moravec - 05/06/11

Aaron Jay Kernis: Concerto with Echoes (inspired by “Brandenburg” No 6)
Melinda Wagner: Little Moonhead: Three Tributaries (inspired by “Brandenburg” No 4)
Sir Peter Maxwell Davies: Sea Orpheus (inspired by “Brandenburg” No 5)
Christopher Theofanidis: Muse (inspired by “Brandenburg” No 3)
Stephen Hartke: A Brandenburg Autumn (inspired by “Brandenburg” No 1)
Paul Moravec: Brandenburg Gate (inspired by “Brandenburg” No 2)

Spring is finally in the air in the Big Apple, and Carnegie Hall has decided to celebrate it with a brand new concert series called, appropriately enough: "Spring for Music" (Get it?). And to kick off this brand new adventure, how about presenting the world première of six pieces written by six contemporary composers, each inspired by one of Bach’s timeless "Brandenburg Concertos"? And to make the offering even more enticing, these "New Brandenburgs" would be played by New York’s very own famously leader-less and unequivocally highly regarded Orpheus Chamber Orchestra. With all those ingredients in place, not to mention an introduction by distinguished actor David Hyde Pierce, the evening promised a healthy blend of the eternal classicism and refreshing modernity.

Kernis’ Concerto with Echoes started slow, but with an intensity that only grew stronger before exploding with virtuosic force. This was, however, counter-balanced by a lovely middle movement whose thoughtfulness carried over that to the very end of the piece, which concluded with a quiet whisper.
Inspired by the meaning of the German word "Bach", Wagner’s Little Moonhead: Three Tributaries emphasized the free-flowing of a stream, reproducing the three tributaries in the traditional fast-slow-fast pattern. The middle movement, "Moon Ache", had a particularly beautiful, ethereal feel to it while the last one, "Fiddlehead", evoked the edible frond of an unfurled fern plant, looking just like the scroll of a violin, with plenty of whimsical flair.
Sir Peter Maxwell Davies’ Sea Orpheus, taking inspiration from a poem by George Mackay Brown and based on a Gregorian chant, opened with the soulful notes of a cello before proceeding to more discombobulated sounds. Add to that the virtuoso turn of a high-flying pianist and you have an engaging, constantly transformative work.
The first half of the program concluded to polite, appreciative but not totally won over applause, which probably explains why there were quite a few more empty seats after intermission. And it was the departed’s loss because Theofanidis’ Muse quickly turned out to be the kind of number that instantaneously gets a hold on you and just does not let you go. After vainly looking for Bach's musical influence in the previous three pieces, I could finally connect with the German composer’s classical daintiness in the dynamic first movement, before moving on to an unabashedly pretty middle movement and finally ending this all-around winner with a powerful Gregorian chant-inspired last movement. During the performance of that particular work the string players were all standing up, and quite a few audience members did the same during the loudest ovation of the evening.
Hartke came up with A Brandenburg Autumn when residing near the palace where the dedicated of the Brandenburg Concerto No 1 lived. The opening gently brought to mind the peacefulness of the Wannsee, the lake bordering western Berlin and Postdam, with delicate strings, which were later joined by an harpsichord and some wind instruments. The "Scherzo: Colloquy" was an on-going animated discussion while the "Sarabande: Palaces" allowed for a leisurely stroll among the many stunning buildings of the area. It all ended in pompous style with "Réjouissance: Hornpipe" and its festive dance.
Moravec’s Brandenburg Gate is, of course, associated with the actual monument in Berlin. Moreover, the BACH motive, coming from the German musical notation B-flat, A, C, H-natural, which Bach himself occasionally used, served as a foundation for the exercise. The three movements, played without interruption, concluded the series, and the concert, on an energetic, joyful note, before we got a chance to salute the six composers, who all came up on the stage for a final bow.

Sunday, May 1, 2011

Punch Brothers featuring Chris Thile - 05/01/11

Punch Brothers: Next to the Trash
Punch Brothers: Don’t Need, no
Punch Brothers: Punch Bowl
Punch Brothers: Alex
Chris Thile: Brakeman’s Blues
Punch Brothers: You Are
Punch Brothers: The Blinds Leaving the Blinds
Punch Brothers: I Know you Know
Punch Brothers: Ophelia
Punch Brothers: This is the Song (Good luck)
Punch Brothers: Watch the Breakdown

One of the main benefits of regularly attending Carnegie Hall’s Neighborhood Concerts is that, beside indulging in terrific concerts for free, I also get to visit places that have not been high on my list of priorities, but sometimes turn out to be wonderful - or at least interesting - surprises. That’s how today, after an almost two-hour long journey including subway, ferry and bus, I found myself on Staten Island to hear the young but much heralded Punch Brothers featuring mandolin player extraordinaire Chris Thile.
Together they are fast becoming well-known as much for their music, an inspired, often daring, blend of bluegrass, jazz and classical, all neatly connected by fearless improvisations, as for their communicative energy and light-hearted banter. So it was with sky-high expectations that I and over 200 people found ourselves at the Snug Harbor Cultural Center and Botanical Garden to enjoy a lovely afternoon of outdoor music on this sunny, if still cool, first day of May.

No playlist was provided, but I somehow managed to figure out some of the songs. Regardless of what I deciphered and what I missed (My knowledge of bluegrass being extremely feeble), the five-member band and their self-described "jet-lagged souls" (They had just gotten off the red eye from California and endured an arrowing ride on the Varrazano Bridge) kept the music seamlessly flowing during the whole 90-minute set. Whether beautifully unfolding straightforward melodies or spontaneously engaging in collaborative fireworks, the musicians maintained their lively spirits high up and adventurous avant-garde experiments under control for a consistently engaging performance. People who had wandered onto the open field by chance were quickly seduced and rapidly sat down, and the enlightened ones who had made a point of coming in spite of the distance to cover were fully vindicated.

For the encores, Chris Thile treated the adoring audience to an outstanding mandolin version of the Presto from Bach’s Sonata No 1 in G Minor (As he pointed out, this was Carnegie Hall, after all) and proved once more how timeless the German composer’s music is. Then the whole band came back for a rousing version of Elvis Costello’s “Jimmy Standing in the Rain”, clearly demonstrating their assured grasp on pop music in the process, before ending the concert the way it had started, with more high-flying, virtuosic bluegrass.