Monday, September 26, 2011

BSO - James Lee III, Dvorak & Tchaikovsky - 09/24/11

Conductor: Marin Alsop
James Lee III: "Chuphshah! Harriet’s Drive to Canaan" 
Dvorak: Cello Concerto in B minor, Op. 104 – Alisa Weilerstein 
Tchaikovsky: Symphony No 6 in B minor, Op. 74 (Pathétique)

After my extremely successful visit to DC back in June, I had wasted no time planning to come back late September, mostly because I had no desire to put up with the local heat and humidity of summer, if I could help it. But sure enough, just as I was stepping off the bus at Union Station on Thursday afternoon, my clothes immediately clung to my skin, my hair started frizzing uncontrollably and all I could do was desperately gasp for oxygen. That’s when I quickly realized that my best laid plan still couldn't control everything.
But even if Mother Nature did not initially bother to cooperate (It rained pretty much all day on Friday, which I consequently spent happily eating, drinking and catching up with various friends), there were still too many wonderful moments to regret for even one minute the trip down south. One of those highlights happened on Saturday night when, like in the good old days, I had the opportunity to enjoy the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra at Strathmore, where they performed two of my favorite musical works: Dvorak’s glorious cello concerto and Tchaikovsky’s magnificent Pathétique. So who am I to complain about some minor meteorological inconveniences?

 Although I will probably never have the same sentimental connection with the Strathmore music center as with the Kennedy Center’s concert hall, which I have always considered my DC musical home, it was still a real treat to be back within its familiar walls. (The heart-breaking destruction of the beautiful park surrounding it to make room for yet more condos is another story). Seeing the faces of the BSO’s musicians and its music director - and conductor for the evening - Marin Alsop, complete with her trademark red cuffs, really made me feel as if I had never left. The first piece on the program was the world’s première of a tone poem dedicated to the extraordinary abolitionist Harriet Tubman. Taking its name from the Hebrew word for freedom and from the northern free states of America, then considered the promised land by the slaves, “Chuphshah! Harriet’s Drive to Canaan” alternates fast and slow segments describing the heroine’s personal feelings such as sadness and fear as well as cultural/historical elements like the Civil War and Negro spiritual hymns. Even if the whole thing was a bit discombobulated, the orchestra sounded as good as ever.
I had had the pleasure of hearing Alisa Weilerstein authoritatively tackle Haydn’s cello concerto with the National Symphony Orchestra a couple of years ago, and I was very much looking forward to her taking on Dvorak’s much celebrated cello concerto, probably the most popular cello concerto of them all. Its strong, catchy opening sets the tone by introducing the two irresistibly melodic themes, preparing the ears, heart and mind for the cello’s late but startling appearance. Each note oozes full-blown Romanticism, instilling the work with passionate élans and exquisite wistfulness for a sentimental trip to the composer’s beloved Bohemia. Alisa Weilerstein turned out to be an extremely gifted guide and virtuosically conveyed all the technical and emotional complexity of Dvorak’s masterpiece, steadily backed up by a remarkably attentive orchestra. Even the inconsiderate light bulb that loudly blew up right over the musicians’ heads during the first movement did not manage to break the spell.
 Then we were on to Tchaikovsky’s grand swan song, the unrivaled Pathétique. As its French title explains, this is all about an “emotional” journey starting with a dark, sober evocation of death and ending in a last whisper fading into silent. Far from being hopelessly depressing though, it also features a poignantly Romantic theme, a strangely limping waltz and an assertively boisterous military march. All of that plus the composer’s inherent genius for riveting melodies make the whole experience downright unforgettable, especially when it is performed by such an accomplished ensemble as the BSO. While the interpretation of Saturday night was less unabashedly heart-on-sleeves than others I have attended, it was still plenty gripping and powerful. No matter how you looked at it, this Pathétique was yet another hands-down winner for Marin Alsop and her musicians.

Sunday, September 25, 2011

New York Philharmonic - Barber, Wagner & Strauss - 09/21/11

Barber: Overture to The School for Scandal, Op. 5
Wagner: "Dich, teure Halle", from Tannhäuser, Act II - Deborah Voigt
Barber: "Andromache's Farewell", for Soprano and Orchestra - Deborah Voigt
Wagner: Overture to Tannhäuser
R. Strauss: Intermezzo, Dance of Seven Veils, and Final Scene from Salome - Deborah Voigt

As another season is finally looming, a bunch of opening nights are all happening in quick succession in the Big Apple, starting with the New York Philharmonic last Wednesday night. The program frankly did not look particularly inspired - Barber has never done much for me, and reducing Wagner's and Strauss' œuvres to short excerpts sounded more like a merciless tease than a fully satisfying experience. On the other hand, the wonderful Deborah Voigt was going to be there, the New York Philharmonic is always a pleasure to listen to, and a comp ticket had unexpectedly ended on my lap, so why not?

After a rousing "Star-Spangled Banner", the concert started in earnest with Barber's overture to The School of Scandal. Written when the composer was only 21, it had a pleasant, melodic directness to it, the kind that I happily enjoy while I hear it, but soon forget as soon as it is over. The polite but restrained applause from my fellow concert-goers made me think that I was not the only one of that opinion.
The audience's enthusiasm, however, quickly went up a notch or two when hugely popular soprano Deborah Voigt made her appearance on stage for an aria from Wagner's Tannehäuser. That's also when the acoustics shortcomings of the Avery Fisher Hall became painfully obvious as the muddled sounds from the orchestra were often unceremoniously covering her clear, powerful voice. Granted, sitting in a side box probably did not help matters either. Bottom line is, what could have been a thrilling collaboration between one of the today's top opera singers and one of the world's most highly regarded orchestras turned out to be only intermittently exciting.
The same unfortunate circumstances applied to "Andromache's Farewell" by Barber, not to mention that, let's face it, Barber is no Wagner, and I'm no fan of Greek tragedies. Next.
The overture to Tannhäuser fared much better. Even if it gets repetitive and brass-heavy toward the end, the lively, gutsy performance of it by the fired-up orchestra briefly reconciled me with the concert hall.
Less than a year ago, my move from DC to NY was way too hectic and costly to allow me to keep up my regular performance schedule, and one of my biggest regrets was to have missed Deborah Voigt in Salome with the Washington National Opera. On Wednesday, it looked like I would at least have a taste of it thanks to a trio of excerpts from Richard Strauss' shocker. Alas, while the Intermezzo and the Dance of the Seven Veils were appropriately fierce and bold, the final scene was another frustrating combination of vibrant, full-throttled singing sporadically drowned by instrumental sounds going off all over the place, allowing for just a few fleeting, right-on moments to come through brilliantly. Better than nothing, of course, and enough, I guess, to have us come back next season.

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Adam Banda & Konstantin Soukhovetski - Bach, Chopin, Tchaikovsky, Sains-Saëns, Bartok, Sarasate, Hubay & Vajda - 09/17/11

Bach: Chaconne from Partita No 2 for solo violin
Chopin: Nocturne No 20 in C-sharp minor, Op. Posth. (arr. Milstein)
Tchaikovsky: Valse-Scherzo in C-Major, Op. 34
Sains-Saëns: Introduction and Rondo Capricioso in A minor, Op. 28
Bartok: Rhapsody No 2, Sz. 90, BB96
Sarasate: Zigeunerweisen (Gypsy Airs), Op. 20
Hubay: Carmen-Fantasie Brillante
Hubay: Preghiera (Prayer)
Vajda : Just for you for solo violin

The end of my musical summer has turned out to be quite an unpredictable roller coaster featuring vertiginous highs and heart-breaking lows. It all started with a huge disappointment when the final performance of Mozart’s Requiem that was supposed to wrap up the Mostly Mozart Festival was cancelled because a particularly ill-timed, extremely wet, but eventually wimpish Irene had decided to come our way. Then it peaked with the screenings of the Met’s “Lucia de Lammermoor” and “Don Carlo” on the Lincoln Center Plaza, complete with an excellent sound and mesmerizing close-ups under a (for the most part) starry sky. Even the few rain drops that dared to appear right before the start of “Don Carlo” quickly stopped. However, the thrill of seeing my favorite production of last season again was later severely dampened by the news of the untimely death of much beloved, big-hearted Italian tenor Salvadore Licitra.
As the approach of fall has suddenly brought much cooler temperatures, the time has now come to get ready for some more regular musical enjoyments. So it is in that expectant spirit that I finally got around to checking the concert schedule of the Symphony Space. I am ashamed to confess that although the dynamic cultural center stands just a few blocks from my apartment, I had never paid that much attention to it before. But this sorry state of affairs has finally changed after I noticed that Hungarian “Violin Virtuoso” Adam Banda was going to make his NY debut yesterday afternoon. Let’s face it, there are worse ways to informally start a new musical season than with Bach’s unsurpassed Chaconne!

I always give extra credit for boldness, but starting a performance with the Himalaya of the violin répertoire that is the Chaconne when you’re a gifted, yes, but still up-coming young musician sounded more like plain recklessness, if you asked me. An Alpine summit such as Zigeunerweisen, featured later in the program, would have sufficed, but hey, the Chaconne it was. Looking a bit nervous but nevertheless fully committed to the task at hand, Adam Banda managed to deliver a rather respectable interpretation of it. The occasional lapse of assuredness or lack of subtlety seemed to stem as much from his relative inexperience as from the formidable challenge facing him, and things will in all likelihood improve as he and his talent continue to mature.
The same could be said of his Nocturne No 20 from Chopin, beautifully arranged by Nathan Milstein for violin and piano. While he channeled the French composer’s musings with heart-felt competence, now accompanied by equally young and talented pianist Konstantin Soukhovetski - apparently a local favorite if judged from the warm welcome he received - the duo did not always succeed in conveying the haunting quality that is fundamentally associated with the work.
Despite my unwavering love for Tchaikovsky, I cannot say that his Valse-Scherzo has ever rocked my world. It is good fun and all, but I’ve always found its existence merely anecdotal. Adam Banda, however, suddenly sounded as if he had finally found his groove and treated us to a pleasingly vivacious version of this regular recording filler.
No doubt more substantial and intricate is Sains-Saëns’ Introduction and Rondo Capricioso, which was written especially for violin virtuoso Pablo de Sarasate and highlights the seemingly endless possibilities of the violin thanks to the composer’s thorough knowledge of the instrument. Adam Banda happily dove into it, eliciting bright, colorful sounds that would have made Sains-Saëns proud.
The second part of the program was mostly focusing on Hungarian composers and started with Bartok’s Rhapsody No 2. Now completely in his element, Adam Banda did not hesitate to let loose for an exhilarating homage to the folk dances of his native country.
Still in a festive mood, he moved on to one of my favorite solo violin pieces, the high-flying Zigeunerweisen by, him again, Sarasate. More pointedly inspired by the spirited rhythms of gypsy airs, it has been a staple of concerts and recordings for well over a century now, and its infectious charm has remained as alive and kicking today as on the day it was premièred by the man himself. Adam Banda may not be Pablo de Sarasate, but his enthusiastic, exciting performance of it yesterday certainly brought him a little closer, earning him his biggest ovation of the afternoon in the process.
Another Hungarian violinist and composer, Jeno Hubay, was also under the spotlight with his Carmen-Fantasie Brillante, obviously based on the stunning melodies of Bizet’s opera, and it was very enjoyable to hear these pared-down versions of them.
Next was his soulful “Preghiera”, during which both musicians blended harmoniously together.
The official concert ended on a downright attractive piece that its composer, Janos Vajda, eventually dedicated to Adam Banda out of respect and admiration. And the dedicatee did not less than full justice to the delightful gift.

Our fervent ovation earned us not one, but two encores. I have no idea what the first one was, but the second and last one was definitely the first movement of Saint- Saëns’ violin concerto No 3, also dedicated to Sarasate, which wrapped up the concert with a lovely final bouquet of brilliant melodies.