Tuesday, June 28, 2011

New York Philharmonic - The Cunning Little Vixen - 06/23/11

Composer: Leos Janacek
Conductor: Alan Gilbert
Director: Doug Fitch
Vixen: Isabel Bayrakdarian
Fox: Marie Lenormand
Forester: Alan Opie

After bracing myself through a viscerally powerful Jenufa at the Washington National Opera a few years ago and an engaging but still depressing From the House of Dead at the Met last season, I figured that to have opera and Janacek in the same sentence could never mean anything but gloom and suffering. So when I first heard the title The Cunning Little Vixen connected to a staged opera performance by the New York Philharmonic, I immediately thought of a cross between Calamity Jane and a Playboy Bunny blazing her way through the Avery Fisher Hall stage to her unavoidable, spectacular doom.
Well, not quite! After a quick look at the program’s notes, I learned that this opera was in fact inspired by a series of comic strips featuring wild and farm animals, including the cunning little vixen, and a few humans too. It is therefore light-hearted, occasionally downright funny, with even a few smart-ass social commentaries thrown in for good measure. However, Janacek being Janacek, he of course had to inject a sad turn of event straight out the opera tradition into the proceedings. Luckily, it would have taken much more than that to spoil the enjoyable evening.

Stepping into the Avery Fisher concert hall last Thursday evening was a unique and dazzling experience when suddenly faced with the stage turned into a magical forest thanks to an amazing backdrop of sky-high, enormous, resplendent sunflowers. Other props discreetly contributed to the bucolic environment, and soon enough splendidly dressed singers and dancers started making their appearance as the forest’s numerous inhabitants and villagers.
Since it is an opera, there was of course plenty of music and singing. The vixen’s cycle of life and her many adventures offer plenty of opportunities for snappy little vignettes, and Janacek was totally game to musically support his main character’s shenanigans with an overall delightful score full of cheerful, earthy melodies and light exotic touches.
In the title role, soprano Isabel Bayrakdarian and her luscious tail were as cute as can be, and her flexible voice was perfectly suited for to her part. Whether mischievous, coy or angry, her little vixen was the quintessential irresistible heroine everybody loves to root for. As her paramour, mezzo-soprano Marie Lenormand was a charming Fox, but I’m afraid I will never get used to trouser roles. No matter how talented the singers were, to my ears the Fox and his Vixen ended up sounding like a couple of frisky lesbians (BTW: Kudos to Governor Cuomo for decisively putting one more nail into the coffin of bigotry and steadily supporting human rights, giving me one more reason to be a proud New Yorker).
Back at the Avery Fisher Hall, the rest of the cast, including the Metropolitan Opera Children’s Chorus, fulfilled their human and animal parts with remarkable enthusiasm, and the New York Philharmonic orchestra sounded like they were having a good old time as well under the steady baton of Alan Gilbert. The whole production was obviously meant to be a fun crowd-pleaser for a lovely summer night, and that is just what it turned out to be.

Sunday, June 26, 2011

Ethel - Zarvos, Dufallo, Lawson, Farris, Cage, Felsenfeld, Riley, Ruo & Stewart - 06/21/11

Marcel Zarvos: "Arrival"
Cornelius Dufallo: "Lighthouse"
Dorothy Lawson: "Chai"
Ralph Farris: "2fer"
John Cage: "4’33”"
Daniel Felsenfeld: "You. Have. No. Idea."
Terry Riley: "Sunrise of the Planetary Dream Collector"
Huang Ruo: String Quartet No 2 (The Flag Project)
Mark Stewart: "To Whom It May Concern: Thank You"

What better way to celebrate the longest day of the year, June 21st, by making it all music, everywhere, all the time, free for all. That is more or less the laudable ambition of the “Make Music New York” project, which on the big day allowed for all sorts of concerts to spring up at many street corners of the city for the fifth year in a row. Since it was regrettably a weekday, I was not able to partake in the festivities until early evening, but it only made appreciate the occasion even more, especially since I benefited from my friend Nicole's effortless navigating skills that got us there right in time.
Last Tuesday night was also the last Carnegie Hall Neighborhood Concert of the season, and to wrap things up with a virtuosic bang, the ensemble at hand was no less than the string quartet Ethel, whose fearless Juilliard-trained musicians have been steadily pushing the limits of musical possibilities with infectious energy for the past 11 years now. In line with the “Make Music New York” tradition, the exterior location was the outside amphitheater of the Abron Arts Center at the Henry Street Settlement, where the non-stop hustle and bustle of the Lower East Side indiscriminatingly mixed with the wide-ranging musical sounds of an unabashedly eclectic program.

Things started off with a decidedly racing pulse courtesy of Brazilian composer Marcel Zarvos and its fiddling-happy "Arrival".
Ethel members are not only accomplished musicans, but they compose as well. So next came Ethel violinist Cornelius Dufallo’s "Lighthouse", which kept the mood upbeat with its Gypsy-inspired rhythms.
Not to be outdone, Ethel cellist Dorothy Lawson also presented her own piece, "Chai", whose funkiness was perfectly in tune with the beverage it got its name from.
Then we moved on to Ethel violist Ralph Farris’s "2fer", its mean double-bass lines and wide assortment of whimsical sounds.
Neighborhood Concerts are typically performed without intermission, but the instrumental music did stop for John Cage’s famously Zen "4”33”", thus encouraging everybody to focus on the multitude of noises endlessly interacting at the restless street corner that was their environment at that time.
Back to more conventional musical compositions, we heard the first two movements of Daniel Felsenfeld’s "You. Have. No. Idea", which were by turn soulful and dramatic.
Terry Riley’s modular quartet "Sunrise of the Planetary Dream Collector" was predictable repetitive, but the wild conversation it created among the musicians kept everybody hooked until the very end.
The second movement of Huang Ruo’s String Quartet No 2 (The Flag Project) opened with Tibetan prayer bells played with bows, which created as much of an ethereal atmosphere as one can get in downtown New York City.
To finish up our unusual musical journey, we had Mark Stewart’s playful "To Whom It May Concern: Thank You", which is an atheist prayer he got from his God-denying mother, who had unpredictably married his God-fearing father. Another proof, if need be, that opposites do attract, and even sometimes end up inspiring beautiful music together.

Saturday, June 25, 2011

NSO - Walton & Shostakovich - 06/17/11

Conductor: Vladimir Ashkenazy
Walton: Portsmouth Point Overture
Walton: Cello Concerto – Steven Isserlis
Shostakovich: Symphony No 10 in E Minor, Op. 93

With summer fast approaching, I had been thinking that it was high time to take a trip down memory lane (and the New Jersey Turnpike, and the I-95) and pay my former home of Washington, DC another visit before the music season ended and the infamous seasonal heat made its appearance. I did not win the race against high temperatures and even higher humidity, but I did get to breathlessly catch up with old friends, leisurely cruise some museums and happily attend a wonderful concert by the National Symphony Orchestra with very special guests: Steven Isserlis on the cello, Vladimir Ashkenazy on the podium and my NSO buddy Pat next to me in the audience. So what was a little sticky sweat thrown in the mix?

Back at the Kennedy Center, which more than any other place has taken of my musical education live, the NSO concert started nice and easy with Walton’s Portsmouth Point Overture, a short and vivid description of the rowdy British harbor.
After the rambunctious port and its even more rambunctious activities, Walton’s absolutely exquisite love letter composed in Italy for his much younger Argentine wife sounded absolutely divine in the virtuosic hands of Steven Isserlis. Throughout the whole concerto, the work’s serene beauty discreetly glowed with a luminous, steady light. The middle movement temporarily perked things up, but the sweet melodies and subtle lyricism surrounding it kept the audience in a dreamy state all the way to the soft whisper of an ending.
The honeymoon, however, was quickly over after the intermission with the rude awakening that is Shostakovich’s Symphony No 10, abruptly going from the dolce vita enjoyed on the Mediterranean island of Ischia to the turmoil of Stalinist Russia. Despite an understated opening and some quiet passages, this piece is mostly famous for its power and loudness, and it sure rose in all its no holds barred glory last Friday night. Finally able to express himself after all those totalitarian years, the Russian composer was obviously ready to vent and did not hold back. Luckily for us, maestro Ashkenazy kept a firm grasp on the fired up orchestra, which delivered a robust and unified performance. I have to say that I have witnessed many unusual scenes in concert halls along the years, but watching the woman two seats down from me repeatedly nod off during Shostakovich’s Symphony No 10 was definitely one of the most unexpected and inexplicable ones. There's really never a dull moment in classical music performances...

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Moët Trio - Beethoven, Schumann, Schubert & Dvorak - 06/10/11

Beethoven: Piano Trio in E-flat Major, Op. 70, No 2 - Allegretto ma non troppo
Schumann: Piano Trio No 2 in F Major, Op. 80 - Mit innigem Ausdruck
Schubert: Piano Trio No 2 in E-flat Major, D. 929 - Allegro moderato
Dvorak: Piano Trio in E Minor, Op. 90, “Dumky”

What better way to celebrate yet another Friday night than with a chamber music concert in a lovely little church in Washington Heights courtesy of Carnegie Hall's wonderful Neighborhood concerts endeavor? The timing was tight, but perfectly doable with a little bit of planning and willpower, and even the unexpected, short, but pleasant exploration of the area due to my bad memory did not prevent us from making it before the music started.
The ensemble was the young but already solidly established Moët Trio, which cannot help but bring to my mind one of France’s most celebrated bubblies. The equally irresistible-sounding program featured an attractive combination of classical composers musing over the theme of “Memories” (Cats blissfully not included) in front of a decidedly captive audience.

Opening on a surprisingly soft note, Beethoven's Allegretto ma non troppo from his Piano Trio in E-flat Major, Op. 70, No 2 quickly moved on to more sustained and vivacious harmonies, asserting by the same token the remarkably united front of the Moët Trio.
The quiet subtleness of Schumann’s Mit innigem Ausdruck from his Piano Trio No 2 in F Major, Op. 80 beautifully emphasized the song-like quality of the work.
Schubert’s Allegro moderato from his Piano Trio No 2 in E-flat Major, D. 929 was an unforgiving workout for the musicians who passed the finish line with flying colors.
To wrap up the early evening, Dvorak's “Dumky” and its six short pieces presented a wide ranging array of moods, from dark undertones to joyful dance tunes and concluded the performance on a brilliantly virtuosic note.

Thursday, June 2, 2011

New York Philharmonic - Barber & Beethoven - 05/30/11

Barber: Adagio for Strings
Beethoven: Symphony No 3 in E-flat Major, Op. 55 (Sinfonia eroica)

I must confess that since I moved to New York City, about six months ago, I have neglected to attend concerts by the all-around accomplished New York Philharmonic despite living a 20-minute walk from the Lincoln Center. So what gives? Well, it is mostly their home, the still controversial after all these years Avery Fisher Hall, that keeps walking by, but not stopping. Although I have to admit that on a few memorable occasions, when the music was brilliantly flowing from the stage and completely submerged me, I did forget the regrettable box-like design and sub-par acoustics, I’d frankly rather spend my precious time and hard-earned money someplace else.
So when I heard that they were scheduled to perform at the Cathedral Church of Saint John the Divine, which happens to be located even closer to where I live, albeit in the opposite direction, on Memorial Day, plans were quickly firmed up. That’s how I ended up in the massive, still unfinished structure with my mum and a small group of various friends on one of the hottest days of the newly arrived spring. The program was short – barely an hour – but irresistibly attractive to the die-hard string lover that I am with Barber’s unabashedly lyrical Adagio for Strings and Beethoven’s gloriously heroic Symphony No 3, the Eroica.

Only eight-minute long, Barber’s most popular work has been packing an intense and lasting emotional punch for decades now, and remains one of the most poignant elegies ever conceived. Hearing it played in such a spiritual venue, never mind the tacky assortment of country flags hanging above our heads, was certainly a unique experience, which was made all the more powerful as the sounds from the orchestra's inspired strings were slowing filling up the cavernous space. Alan Gilbert led his musicians to a beautifully expressive ode to grief, sadness and melancholy, which was, all things considered, a totally appropriate opening for a Memorial Day concert.
After the violin feast, we moved on to Beethoven’s homage to larger-than-life grandeur with his third symphony. Originally meant to be named after Napoleon, the irascible German composer quickly changed his mind after learning that the French General had crowned himself emperor. The major themes remained though, but on Monday night they were hard to discern in the muddy sounds coming from the orchestra, sometimes bouncing off the far off walls, sometimes losing their way to the top. However, even if balance and clarity were hard to come by, Beethoven’s daring combination of classical tradition and ground-breaking elements still won us over, even if the victory was a bit cloudy. Thanks to the imperturbable Alan Gilbert and his uniformly valiant musicians, we, along with the 1,900 lucky souls who had made it into the cathedral and the 200 listeners who were enjoying the live broadcast outside, got to conclude our Memorial Day weekend with a resounding bang.