Sunday, October 30, 2011

American Classical Orchestra - Mozart - 10/29/11

Conductor: Thomas Crawford
Mozart: Symphony No 39 in E-flat Major, K. 543
Mozart: Requiem, K. 626 – The Choirs of Trinity Church on the Green, New Haven, CT – The Choir of Trinity Episcopal Church, Princeton, NJ – Maeve Hoglund – Abigail Fischer – Rufus Muller – Christopher Devage

As my friend Nicole so rightly put it, for some unknown reason Mother Nature seems determined to ruin our enjoyment of Mozart’s Requiem. After unleashing Irene on the day we were supposed to attend a performance of it last summer at the closing night of the Mostly Mozart Festival, which was consequently cancelled, she rudely dumped a nasty winter storm on the city all day and all night yesterday, turning what should have been a leisurely evening outing into a cold, windy, wet and slippery ordeal. This time, however, the concert was still on and there was no way we were going to miss it, come hell or high water or whatever. So we eventually made it to the historic Methodist Church of St. Paul & St. Andrew on the Upper West Side, gloriously basking in our complete victory against Nature's adversity for a moment, before nervously wondering what will be in store for us when we go listen to the same Requiem at Carnegie Hall in the spring.

Our resilience was actually rewarded with not only the Requiem, but also Mozart’s Symphony No 39, one of his most immediately attractive works, in the first part of the program. The American Classical Orchestra, a local orchestra specializing in the repertoire of the 17th and 18th centuries, quickly proved to be a talented ensemble whose precise, refined sound is ideally suited for Mozart. Although the opening resonated with pompous grandeur, the Adagio stood out because of the intensely sweeping passages for the strings. The Andante with moto bristled with gripping poignancy, the Menuetto exuded stately elegance and the Finale explodes with unfussy but sunny exuberance. The space was devoid of any fancy ornaments yet welcoming, and the acoustics turned out to be totally acceptable. So far, so good.
Then, at last, it was time for the Requiem, and I'm happy to report that it was well worth the wait. The nicest touch of the whole set-up was probably the young children in the choirs trying not to be distracted by their anxious parents in the audience. Seeing them sing their hearts out during the "Dies irae" made me briefly wonder how much of the Day of Wrath concept they were actually getting, but it did not matter. The singing from all parties involved was excellent and the orchestra delivered a powerful, warmly expressive performance of Mozart’s unfinished masterpiece. Once the applause had subsided, we were able to leave with the good feeling that our mission had been belatedly but masterfully accomplished.

Met - Don Giovanni - 10/29/11

Composer: Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
Conductor: Fabio Luisi
Producer/Director: Michael Grandage
Don Giovanni: Mariusz Kwiecien
Leporello: Luca Pisaroni
Donna Anna: Marina Rebeka
Donna Elvira: Barbara Frittoli
Zerlina: Mojca Erdmann
Masetto: Joshua Bloom
The Commendatore: Stefan Kocan

Just as I was planning my Mozart marathon for yesterday, Don Giovanni in the afternoon and the Requiem in the evening, I was kind of lamenting the fact that I wouldn’t have many opportunities to spend time outside enjoying fall in New York City, my favorite time of the year. Well, it turned out that yesterday was the perfect day for indoors activities as thousands of buckets of rain and then snow were continuously falling onto the city from morning to night (!?). So much for bonding with nature.
After he had to withdraw at the last minute from the first few performances due to an emergency back surgery, young Polish baritone Mariusz Kwiecien, the star of this new Met production of Don Giovanni, showed steely determination by promptly getting back on his feet and on the stage this week. So I went ahead and tried to show the same steely determination when looking for a precious ticket, even though all the dates were sold-out. And I finally succeeded too!
Mozart’s last and most ambiguous opera lends itself to so many interpretations that any occasion to watch a new take on it is always an exciting endeavor, never mind the kind of elements you have to brave to get to it. Therefore, I decided that after overcoming the ticket shortage, no untimely winter storm was going to keep me away from a date with this Don. And once again, determination paid off.

Centered on the universal myth of Don Juan and achieving an adjustable combination of comedy and drama, Don Giovanni also boasts a magnificent score that allows each character to take center stage without outshining the others. Granted, the whole thing can be a bit messy, but the music is constantly there to smooth over the occasional narrative deficiency with the utmost Mozartian grace so that the final result, in the right hands, leaves the audience fully satisfied.
A super-juicy part like the world’s most famous seducer can be as tempting as daunting, but Mariusz Kwiecen hasn’t wasted any time grabbing it and making it his very own, as if coming so close to missing on it has fueled up his resolve. And it has to be said that his first appearance, a fireball of lustful energy wearing form-fitting tights, an open shirt and a mask, was so striking that it instinctively made me wonder why Donna Anna did not just relax and delight in the moment instead of fighting him like a madwoman, sparing herself the heart-breaking death of her father by the same token. Eventually I realized that he was singing too. Even more, his voice was strong and genuinely engaging, solidly assertive when ordering Leporello around, attractively lyrical when trying to woo his various preys. Obviously relishing to the fullest a role that is fast becoming his calling card, he delivered a steadily spontaneous and nuanced performance.
While I was watching Venezuelan bass-baritone Luca Pisaroni dutifully but resentfully tower over his master as the hapless Leporello, I couldn’t help but think what a splendid Don Giovanni he could be. His singing was assured and bright, his presence real and charismatic; he’s definitely got the right stuff. His colorful Leporello was a real treat.
As the ever-patient Don Ottavio, Mexican tenor and Met regular Roman Vargas drew big waves of applause for his two major arias and his curtain call, all totally deserved. Slovakian bass Stefan Kocan was a deeply powerful Commendatore, although it would be advisable to do something about his blue face and Halloween-style shirt.
The three ladies all fared pretty well, especially Latvian soprano Marina Rebeka, a newcomer with a lot of potential, who sang the role of Donna Anna with notable clarity and intensity. Veteran Italian soprano Barbara Frittoli exuded the right mix of dignity and desperation, vividly highlighted by her ardent singing. German soprano Mojca Erdmann was a sweet Zerlina, and formed a cute couple with Australian bass Joshua Bloom, a charming Masetto.
The set, consisting essentially of two movable walls lined-up with balconies, was in earthy tones and appropriately versatile, if not particularly imaginative. Also, some worthy concepts did not seem to go far enough to be fully realized: The appearance of women at some of the windows during the famous Catalog aria was an amusing touch, but you wondered why there were not more of them considering the context. Another, more frustrating, half-baked idea: The statues in the cemetery were all displayed on three levels, but because the Commendatore was standing on the top one, only the bottom half of his body was visible to the Family Circle section, which made everybody there miss his gesturing during the dinner invitation scene. On the other hand, kudos for a red-hot descent in hell!
The music, of course, is Don Giovanni’s strongest point, and the Met orchestra did full justice to the glorious score. Fabio Luisi, who has recently added the title of Met’s appointed principal conductor to his impressive resume, drew a vibrant, detailed performance from his musicians and pleasantly fulfilled the harpsichord duties during the recitatives. Add the inspired singing from the all-around winning cast, particularly remarkable when vocal ensembles were seamlessly meshing with the orchestra, and you have the perfect remedy to take your mind off an unexpected, and ultimately gross, winter afternoon.

Saturday, October 29, 2011

Zucchero - 10/25/11

No play list because I was too busy enjoying the concert to keep track.

Some weeks are indisputably more special than others, and this week started in a very special way indeed with a concert by Zucchero, Italy’s reigning music artist of his generation. For decades now his boyish face, wild hair, cool hats and, above all, unrivalled voice, both ancient and primal, have been as unconditionally beloved in his native country and beyond as his unique blend of rock, blues, gospel and soul influences. So even after swearing off amplified sound and oversized venues over a decade ago, he had remained the one and only for whom I would have happily made exception to the rule, should the opportunity arise.
And it eventually did. That’s why on Tuesday night I was exceptionally thrilled at the prospect of finally having a chance to experience his famous magic live in the lavishly decorated and comfortably intimate (Yes!) Beacon Theater, one of the Upper West Side’s prized historic jewels, not to mention conveniently located a 15-minute walk down Broadway from my apartment.

Kicking off the party with songs from his new album Chocabeck, the man made it unequivocally clear where his immense popularity is coming from as his dynamite performance and genuine talent to directly connect with his audience turned the whole concert into a memorable musical adventure. While infectious dance tunes such as “Baila Morena” and “Diavolo in Me” neatly alternated with lovely ballads like “Occhi” and “Cosí Celeste”, my personal highlights of the evening were the two hits that put him on my radar in the first place: “Il Volo”, without a doubt one of the most beautiful love songs ever written, and “Miserere” with the recorded voice of Pavarotti, a heart-felt tribute to his “grand’amico Lucio”.

Grazie mille, Zucchero, e per favore torna presto!

Saturday, October 22, 2011

Yuja Wang - Scriabin, Prokofiev & Liszt - 10/20/11

Scriabin: Prelude in B Major, Op.11, No 11, Prelude in B Minor, Op. 13, No 6, Prelude in G-sharp Minor, Op.11, No 12, Etude in G-sharp Minor, Op. 8, No 9, Poème in F-sharp Major, Op. 32, No 1
Prokofiev: Sonata No 6 in A Major, op. 82
Liszt: Sonata in B Minor

The young Chinese pianist Yuja Wang is hot these days, and I’m not saying that only because of the nightclub-ready look she had adopted for her concert at the Hollywood Bowl last summer, consequently creating a mini-storm in the classical music world and beyond. She has also repeatedly proven that she possesses mighty musical chops and definitely knows how to use them. Therefore, after hearing her perform Prokofiev’s first two piano concertos in Washington, DC within the past few years, I was very excited at the prospect of attending her much anticipated Carnegie Hall recital debut last Thursday evening, especially with a program including sonatas by Prokofiev (him again) and Liszt. While I enjoy concertos tremendously, I don’t think anything matches the direct connection between soloist and audience that can only happen in the hushed intimacy of a recital setting, where each note enjoys the luxury of having a life of its own and no other distractions interfere (except from the unruly members of the audience). I am apparently not the only one of that opinion because the Stern auditorium was remarkably full and obviously eager to partake in a concert likely to become a milestone.

Five short pieces from Alexander Scriabin, mixing the sweetness and the turbulence of Romantic music, aptly served as opening act. Ms. Wang, who throughout the evening effortlessly achieved the right combination of elegance and sexiness with her dark, form-fitting long dresses, immediately took charge of the proceedings and delivered a totally engaging performance.
After this lovely warm-up, it was time to move on to heavier stuff with Prokofiev’s first “war sonata”. Its nickname, however, shouldn’t be taken at full face value because if the first movement is threateningly dark and aggressively dissonant, the remaining ones are of a much more gentle nature, respectively exuding mysterious charm, appealing lyricism and virtuosic fun. Yuja Wang assuredly took everything in stride, assertively expressing the chaos of tumultuous times before moving to the other extremes with delicate nuances, eventually coming around full circle with a decisively apocalyptic conclusion. It surely sounded as if Prokofiev had found his ultimate interpreter.
Then we moved on to another composer who knew a thing or two about piano matters. Franz Liszt wrote his Sonata in B Minor, widely considered his masterpiece for solo piano, as a single 30-minute movement in which five themes are constantly forming new relationships among them. From heavenly highs to hellish lows, Yuja Wang navigated Liszt’s treacherous terrain with grace and precision, always fiercely in charge no matter how daunting the road ahead was.

The first time I saw Yuja Wang, I was equally dazzled by her mastery of Prokofiev’s first piano concerto and miffed by the lack of an encore in spite of our frenetic applause. Well, it took her about four years, but she definitely made up for it on Thursday night with not one or two, but - appropriately enough - four encores!
Staying in a Lisztian mood, she responded to our prolonged and enthusiastic ovation with his "Gretchen am Spinnrade", an intense evocation of a mind going out of control, which she deftly handled.
Next we had Dukas’ "The Sorcerer Apprentice", arranged by Ms. Wang herself. More known as the musical background for The Sorcerer Apprentice episode in Disney’s Fantasia, the work has an irresistible, diabolically playfulness that was another perfect opportunity for our soloist to display her impeccable, mesmerizing technical wizardry.
We also enjoyed a superb Romantic interlude with Gluck’s dreamy melody from Orfeo and Eurydice before finally calling it a night with a delightful "Tritsch-Tratsch" Polka by Johann Strauss Jr. If there is anything she cannot completely conquer, we were not made aware of it.

Sunday, October 9, 2011

Met - Nabucco - 10/08/11

Composer: Giuseppe Verdi
Conductor: Paolo Carignani
Producer: Elijah Moshinsky
Director: J. Knighten Smit
Nabucco: Zeljko Lucic
Abigaille: Maria Guleghina
Fenena: Renée Tatum
Ismaele: Yonghoon Lee
Zaccaria: Carlo Colombara

While I was busy pondering what to pick among the many tempting choices of the newly opened Met season, I got an unexpected but much appreciated offer to attend the performance of Nabucco last night. Although it had not been on my list of must-sees and I’ve had a long-time aversion to going out on Saturday night, I figured that I couldn’t really go wrong with Verdi, not to mention that I had never had an opportunity to become familiar with his first big success. Moreover, and maybe even more importantly, hearing “Va, pensiero”, an aria so meaningful to Italians that it was spontaneously sung by crowds in the streets during Verdi’s state funeral in Milan, performed live by the consistently fabulous Met chorus just had to be a memorable experience. So off I happily went on a surprisingly mild fall evening.

I am no fan of Biblical stories, probably because I often have a hard time keeping track of all the tribes, territories, gods and complicated relationships among them all, but that does not keep me from trying. Apparently taking some significant liberties from ancient history – not that I could tell anyway – Nabucco’s plot revolves around the political and romantic entanglements of several characters, with a quick supernatural intervention thrown in for good measure, during the exile of the Israelites in Babylon. The fact that it is all happening in a rather discombobulated, heavy-handed way is, needless to say, irrelevant. This is an old-fashioned opera, after all.
Although Nabucco is the title role – being the victorious king of Babylon has its privileges – all eyes and ears are typically focused on Abigaille, a slave who is originally thought to be his older daughter (I can’t explain it either). In the past, this notoriously taxing soprano part has mercilessly ended the careers of some of the brave singers who dared to take it on, and was promptly turned down by some other ones who obviously knew better. So I was curious to see how Maria Guleghina, a widely experienced Met stalwart, would handle it. Well, it turns out that she did very well, in all likelihood because the role is the perfect fit for her mighty, take-no-prisoners voice and stage presence. Since nobody was going for prettiness or nuances here, the broad strokes with which she painted and sang her Abigaille, whether casually planning to have her sister killed to get closer to the man and the throne she was coveting, or incessantly scheming and ranting and raving with ferocious determination, made for a jubilantly larger-than-life villainess, whose glittery, tight-fitting outfits shamelessly outlined all her impressive curves for an even stronger impact. Now that’s entertainment, folks!
Although the other characters couldn’t but pale beside her, they still managed to more or less hold their own. In the role of the conquering king temporarily blinded by ambition and insanity before coming back to his senses, Serbian baritone Zeljko Lucic got better as the evening went on. Young Korean tenor Yonghoon Lee brightly shone as Ismaele, and his onstage paramour, equally young Californian Renée Tatum, did an honorable job with Fenena. So did Italian bass Carlo Colombara as Zaccaria, the high priest of the Hebrews.
But if you wanted to experience sheer musical ecstasy, you had to wait for the chorus to have a chance to sing, which they fortunately did frequently. If for any reason there were any doubts left about the dazzling quality of their work, this Nabucco would magisterially put them to rest by proving once and for all that there is not a single, even remotely weak element in the superb ensemble. The show-stopper of the evening was, naturally, “Va, pensiero”, the poignant hymn of the Israelites longing for their homeland, and the Met chorus’ viscerally haunting rendition of it last night will definitely have a prime spot on my all-time musicorgasms list. Of course, the fact that the scene was also a visually simple but arresting tableau did not hurt either.
Speaking of visuals, I cannot say that the set was very imaginative, what with all the stairs and doors and that huge god-like statue, but on the other hand, its smart design enabled it to rotate and mutate with laudable efficiency. Again, there was nothing subtle about it, but it got the job done, which basically meant that people could run up and down, then stand at various locations and sing out.
The music is not the best Verdi has ever had to offer, but hey, the guy was only 26 when he wrote it, and it is interesting to see this third opera of his in light of his subsequent œuvre. And let’s give it to him, he was at least sharp enough to realize that the chorus deserved special attention while still being mindful not to neglect the soloists, so a wide range of emotions is vividly expressed throughout the score. Paolo Carignani, our conductor for the evening, made sure to keep the reliably brilliant Met orchestra going at a brisk pace, and nicely contributed in making this first, unplanned Met evening of the season a successful one. May there be many more.

Mariinsky Orchestra - Shostakovich, Tchaikovsky & Rimsky-Korsakov - 10/05/11

Conductor: Valery Gergiev
Shostakovich: Festive Overture in A Major, op. 96
Tchaikovsky: Variations on a Rococo Theme, Op. 33 – Yo-Yo Ma
Rimsky-Korsakov: Scheherazade

The Carnegie Hall Neighborhood Concerts series and its mission consisting in bringing the joys of live music to all corners of the five boroughs is undeniably a wonderful endeavor, and the delightful vocal recital last Saturday on the UWS was yet another proof of it, but it cannot match (nor does it try) the real thing. So it was with boundless anticipation that I had been counting down the days to last Wednesday night because it meant not only being back in my favorite concert hall for the opening of a new exciting season, but also enjoying a completely Russian evening featuring Shostakovich, Tchaikovsky (Yeah!) and Rimsky-Korsakov performed by the Mariinsky Orchestra conducted by its music director Valery Gergiev. The only non-Russian element on the program was the presence of classical music super-star Yo-Yo Ma, but his talent is so universal that he effortlessly fits right in under any circumstances anyway.

Shostakovich’s Festive Overture opened the concert with the grand, all-out brilliance expected to kick off a new season, and kept on going bright and upbeat, with the innumerable, breathless twists and turns of a wacky cartoon. Crisp, precise and straight to the point, we were decidedly off to a good start.
Nobody has ever had to twist my arm to bring my attention to Tchaikovsky or Yo-Yo Ma, so combining the two of them could only double my pleasure, and it did. A kind-of cello concerto, the Variations on a Rococo Theme is a gorgeous blend of Classical tasteful refinement and Romantic sweeping melodies that goes on for an uninterrupted 20-minute journey through the seven intricate variations of a simple, elegant theme. The Fitzenhagen version that was performed on Wednesday is even more challenging that the original piece, but Yo-Yo Ma handled it all with his signature dexterity and grace, delicately lingering during the contemplative moments, energetically negotiating the blazing speed of the finale. His spirited friendly competition with the violin section of the orchestra added delicious spice to the proceedings, and total victory was eventually declared for all parties.
Just when we thought that things couldn’t get any better, a substantial encore came in the form of the Andante cantabile movement from Tchaikovsky’s First String Quartet for Cello and Strings. Another heart-felt homage to the sheer beauty of Mozart’ music, this beloved work is a melancholic composition rich in transparent melodies and refined textures, which Yo-Yo Ma and some fellow string players from the Mariinsly brought to stunning life in the uniformly hushed auditorium.
Then we moved right on (The VIPs had a post-concert dinner, and the rest of us little people obviously had to stick to their schedule) to another Russian crowd-pleaser with Scheherazade, her fairy tale, her exotic background and all those exquisite violin solos. Maestro Gergiev led his musicians in a rousing account of it, all drama and voluptuousness, and cast on the audience a spell as powerful as the one the Persian princess had secured over the sinister Sultan. The famously sensual violin solos were as seductive as could be, but the other strings did not take a back-seat either and came out in full force with all the other instruments impeccably joining in as well.
Probably to make sure that we wouldn’t feel slighted by this shorter concert, the last encore was the Polonaise from Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin. Even if it did not register as strongly with me as the other works, it was still a much appreciated bonus to take all the way home.

Saturday, October 8, 2011

Karen Vuong & Carrie-Ann Matheson - Purcell, Wolf, Fauré, Hahn, Delibes, Rachmaninoff & Thomas - 10/01/11

Soprano: Karen Vuong
Piano: Carrie-Ann Matheson
Purcell: Music for a while
Purcell: Sweeter than roses
Wolf: Elfenlied
Wolf: Auch kleine Dinge
Wolf: Mausfallen-Sprüchlein
Wolf: Kennst du das Land
Fauré: Mandoline
Hahn: L’heure exquise
Delibes: Les filles de Cadix
Rachmaninoff: In my garden at night
Rachmaninoff: That rat catcher
Rachmaninoff: Dreams
Pearson Thomas: Races for the Sky – Angelica Cho (Violin)
Pearson Thomas: To the towers themselves
Pearson Thomas: How my life has changed
Pearson Thomas: Meditation
Pearson Thomas: Don’t look for me anymore

Even closer to my apartment that the Symphony Space is the Advent Lutheran Church, which has been standing at the corner of Broadway and W 93rd Street since 1900. It has been a beloved pillar of the community through, among other things, an eclectic and dynamic live performance calendar, which I had never had a chance to check out. This, however, changed last Saturday thanks to the second Carnegie Hall Neighborhood Concert of the current season, which presented up-coming soprano Karen Vuong during a late afternoon recital of crowd-pleasers. What better way to beat the cold and wet weather than by enjoying a local musical treat while sitting a couple of rows from opera legend Marilyn Horne, who made this concert possible through the Marilyn Horne Legacy at Carnegie Hall, and under some newly restored Tiffany stained glass windows that were softly illuminating the fully occupied little space?

And Karen Vuong definitely proved to be a worthy headliner as she kept on churning out tune after tune. From the delicate, appropriately titled first piece, Purcell’s “Music for a while”, to the gripping four Races for the Sky, whose scores Richard Pearson Thomas composed to accompany random texts found near Ground Zero shortly after 9/11, the young and poised soprano steadily demonstrated that she had a strong, clear and deeply expressive voice that seemed to hold many promises for the near future. Easily perking up for Wolf’s spirited “Elfenlied” and Delibes’s playful “Filles de Cadix”, she also had us all revel in Reynaldo’s Hahn’s “Heure exquise”, which was an exquisite couple of minutes - if not a whole hour - indeed. But my personal favorite had to be Rachmaninoff’s short but ethereally soulful “Dreams”, in which the voice and the piano delicately melted together to create the perfect musical experience. The program diplomatically contained a little bit of everything for everybody, and the hearty ovation that concluded the concert unmistakably showed that she had brilliantly pleased everybody.