Thursday, August 25, 2011

Naumburg Orchestral Concerts - Schubert & Liszt - 08/22/11

Conductor: Eric Jacobsen
Schubert: Overture to Rosamunde, D. 644
Liszt: "Am Grabe Richard Wagners", S. 135
Schubert (arr. Liova): "Gretchen am Spinnrade", Op. 2, D. 118
Schubert (arr. Jacobsen): "Des Baches Wiegenlied" from Die Schöne Müllerin
Liszt (arr. The Knights): "From the Cradle to the Grave", Symphonic Poem No 13
Liszt (arr. The Knights): "Freudvoll und Leidvoll"
Schubert: Symphony No 8 in B minor, D. 759 (Unfinished)
Liszt (arr. The Knights): "Hungarian Rhapsody No 2"

As my first summer in New York is slowly coming to an end, I am pleased to say that there is (musical) life beyond the traditional Mostly Mozart Festival and other musical celebrations taking place in bucolic locales out of town. I was actually delighted to discover a musical treasure right in my own bucolic backyard that is Central Park as I was exploring it in search of some much needed coolness one steamy Saturday afternoon. That’s when I came across violinist Susan Keser, who routinely delights a typically captive audience at the southern end of The Mall with a complete smorgasbord of infectious tunes. As she became a regular fixture on my weekend schedule, I got to enjoy her wide répertoire, from Paganini’s melodic pyrotechnics to Bach’s understated elegance, from Pachelbel’s popular Canon to Puccini’s operatic gems "O mio babbino caro" and "Nessun dorma". Even the random but invariably chatty tourists, who never fail to come sit right next to me, haven’t managed to spoil that weekly treat.
But that is not all. Although the New York Philharmonic has not showed up this year, the Naumburg Orchestral Concerts, the oldest continuous free outdoor concert series in the US, are alive and well and playing in the park. That's how on Monday The Knights, the young, fast-rising orchestra that seems to be everywhere, including TV, these days bracingly took the historic bandshell stage. They were scheduled to wrap up the season with a program featuring works by Franz Schubert as well as his No 1 fan, Franz Liszt, and it looked that literally everybody and their dogs had decided to come enjoy a musical summer evening in the park.

The performance started with the stirring notes of Schubert’s Overture to Rosamunde, which assertively opened a steady flow of Romantic élans and warm feelings. This was a truly fine work to get the audience in the mood and, by the same token, display the orchestra’s assured musicianship.
The next four short pieces, in most cases arranged to accommodate the large ensemble on the stage, were enthusiastically brought to life by the players, subtle nuances and all. Never mind the amplified sound, the accompanying birds, the restless kids and the occasional airplane, the two Franz got a chance to have their voices heard through those vibrant little vignettes that were boldly filling up the cool air as the sky was gradually darkening.
But it is the second half of the program that featured the two highlights of the evening. After a charming “Freudvoll und Leidvoll” by Liszt, Schubert’s Symphony No 8 appeared as the plat de résistance. I have to say that I much prefer Schubert’s chamber music to his other works, but hearing the Unfinished live under the stars was definitely an exciting experience. The strings, in particular, had some wonderful take-no-prisoners moments. Maestro Jacobsen, however, made sure to keep everybody in line and energetically brought it all home.
And to conclude this lovely evening with beautiful fireworks, The Knights played their own compelling arrangement of Liszt’s rightfully ubiquitous “Hungarian Rhapsody No 2”. Achieving the perfect balance between seductive, languorous rhythms and zestful, exhilarating folk tunes, the orchestra easily moved from drama to light-heartedness with joyful abandon. There was no encore after that, but really, none was needed.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Mostly Mozart Festival - All-Beethoven - 08/12/11

Conductor: Louis Langrée
Beethoven: Leonore Overture No 2, Op. 72a
Beethoven: Concerto No 2 in B-Flat Major, Op. 19 – Jeremy Denk
Beethoven: Abscheulicher! Wo eilst du hin? From Fidelio, Op. 72 – Christine Brewster
Beethoven: Symphony No 8 in F Major, Op. 93

After paying our respects to all-mighty Mozart last week with Don Giovanni, my friend Nicole and I decided to spread our discriminating love and move on to another worthy Viennese master with an all-Beethoven feast on Friday evening. The program, which, except for Fidelio’s aria, could have easily been entitled “Beethoven light”, sounded compelling enough, but what immediately got – and steadily kept – our undivided attention was the irresistible prospect of hearing terrific pianist Jeremy Denk, one of our top local favorites, perform Beethoven live. Neither of us was familiar with the piano concerto No 2, but if we were going to become acquainted with it, we figured that we might as well do it in the right company, and Jeremy sounded just like the man for it.

The Leonore Overture No 2 may not be as well-known as the subsequent, more intense and better constructed No 3, but its emphasis on quiet details and emotional elements makes it probably a better overall reflection of the opera Fidelio. All in all, it was just as fitting a concert opening as any other, and the lively, heart-warming music produced by the orchestra enthusiastically conducted by ever-jovial Louis Langrée definitely sounded like a good omen for the rest of the evening.
Written by the young Beethoven for his own use when he was trying to show the world what an incredible piano prodigy he was, his piano concerto No 2 sounds a lot like some piano pieces composed by an earlier incredible piano prodigy. But once in a while, amidst all the lovely Mozartian elegance and lightness, discreet and not so discreet touches of drama unexpectedly spring up. On Friday night, Jeremy Denk spiritedly breathed new and unabashedly vibrant life into this relatively lesser work and brilliantly proved one more time why he is one of the hottest pianists around today. With the insouciantly playful first and last movements firmly book-ending the exquisite Adagio, and Beethoven’s own tricky cadenza showcasing the soloist’s virtuosic chops, I can only say that this introductory interpretation is going to be difficult to match.
After intermission, the time had come for full-blown drama with one of Fidelio’s major arias, through which the heroine Leonore finally gets a chance to vent all her frustrations, fears and resolve. Although Beethoven famously struggled to no end when trying to write for the stage, Fidelio, his one and only opera, can readily stand on its own. On Friday night, American soprano Christine Brewster had the challenging task of embodying a fairly short, but narratively crucial and emotionally gripping moment out of context, and the result was decidedly mixed. Sheer power for sure abounded, but there was not much else going on and it was all over pretty quickly, making us quizzically wonder what had just hit us.
But we soon entered a territory that Beethoven had long fully and grandly mastered with his Symphony No 8. Far from his ground-breaking works, it is a mostly conventional, but still immensely enjoyable journey, which was ironically written during one of the most turbulent periods of the composer’s life in the bucolic Austrian town of Linz. Considering the predominantly healthy, life-affirming feelings the music conveys it may very well be a case where an idyllic environment trumped all internal turmoil. Back at the Avery Fisher Hall, conductor and orchestra joined forces to treat us to a straight-forward, buoyant account of it, a fitting tribute to a musical tradition that was about to be unceremoniously invaded by the heart-on-sleeve sentimentality of Romanticism, and a fully satisfying conclusion to our Beethovenian evening.

Sunday, August 7, 2011

Mostly Mozart Festival - Don Giovanni - 08/04/11

Composer: Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
Budapest Festival Orchestra
Conductor & Director: Ivan Fischer
Don Giovanni: Tassis Christoyannis
Leporello: José Fardilha
Donna Anna: Laura Aikin
Donna Elvira: Myrto Papatanasiu
Zerlina: Sunhae Im
Commendatore: Kristinn Sigmundsson
Don Ottavio: Zoltán Megyesi
Masetto: Riccardo Novaro

After the delightful amuse-bouche that was the preview concert of the Mostly Mozart Festival last weekend came what would be for me the main course (and what main course!) of this year’s celebration with a staged concert of what many, including myself, consider Mozart’s finest opera: Don Giovanni. And of course, the fact that it would be performed by the superb Budapest Festival Orchestra conducted by its no less superb co-founder and dedicated nurturer, Ivan Fischer, in the most welcoming Rose Theater made it an offer that simply could not be missed.
Don Giovanni has always had a very special connection with the city of Prague because it is where it was premiered, became a huge success right away and has been part of the permanent répertoire ever since. On the other hand, the complex music and dark overtone of this new endeavor of Mozart’s did not sit well with the Viennese public still enthralled by the scintillating Nozze di Figaro, and they did not give it more than a lukewarm reception, never mind the extra arias that the composer had written just for them. For the concert on Thursday night, Ivan Fischer had picked the Prague version, giving us the precious opportunity to enjoy the original concept in all its glory. It even started early so that my friend Nicole and I could get our beauty sleep. What else could we have asked for?

The world’s most prolific seducer (1,003 in Spain only! And we all know that Leporello is not talking about a tapas-eating contest here.) was already a major character in popular culture when Mozart and his librettist, Lorenzo Da Ponte set out to tackle him as well. The result would eventually be an impeccably balanced blend of opera buffa and opera seria, in which the story and the music indiscriminately and beautifully combine drama, farce, wit and tragedy.
The Greek baritone Tassis Christoyannis had the daunting privilege to impersonate the infamous lover, but apparently did not let the pressure overly get to him. His unwavering commitment, assured presence and reptile moves nicely made up for the intermittently less than stellar vocal performance. As the Don’s obedient if often exasperated servant, José Fardilha's singing was not flawless either, but his infectious natural charm wasted no time winning the audience over. The ladies fared slightly better with Laura Aikin as a riveting Donna Anna, Myrto Papatanasiu a solid Donna Elvira and Sunhae Im an adorable Zerlina.
The production being a staged opera there were no elaborate sets or fancy costumes, but there was still a lot going on thanks to the mostly silent, sometimes perplexing but often exciting work of 16 specter-like students from the Budapest Acting Academy. As they went on using their eerie figures to emphasize key moments, stand in for extra characters or form pieces of furniture, not everything worked out perfectly, but it soon became clear that Ivan Fischer’s direction should for sure get him extra points for its daring theatricality. I found the grand finale, in which an ever-defiant Don Giovanni finally meets his ghastly end by slowly disappearing into a menacing mass of greedy hands, particularly powerful in its stark simplicity.
Hearing the Budapest Festival Orchestra conducted by Ivan Fischer is always an unadulterated joy and this Don Giovanni was no exception. Bringing out the multi-faced richness of Mozart’s magnificent score obviously qualified as a labor of love for these uniformly brilliant, enthusiastic musicians and they fully succeeded. The task is not the easiest with the constant switching of musical moods according to, for example, the wooing schemes of the main character: formal and serious for high-class Donna Elvira, folk-like and light-hearted for peasant Zerlina. The mix of three different musical genres in the ballroom scene – elegant minuet for Don Ottavio and Donna Anna, country dance for Giovanni and Zerlina and folk dance for Masetto and Leporello – was another tour de force that went off without a hitch. What can I say? They apparently can do no wrong.

This was the only performance of Mozart’s work that I had on my festival calendar this year, but I suspect that it would be hard to top it off anyway. And there is always Beethoven next week…