Friday, December 30, 2011

New York String Orchestra - Arriaga, Bartok & Beethoven - 12/28/11

Conductor: Jaime Laredo
Arriaga: Symphony in D Major
Bartok: Divertimento for Strings
Beethoven: Piano Concerto No 5 in E-flat Major, Op. 73, "Emperor" – André Watts

For my last performance of the year, I could hardly have picked a better one than the New York Strings Orchestra led by Jaime Laredo and featuring André Watts as the soloist at Carnegie Hall last Wednesday. However, truth be told, the main purpose of my attendance was not to support current and past child prodigies, but to enjoy one of my very favorite musical works: Beethoven’s formidable Emperor concerto. Moreover, Bartok’s Divertimento for Strings could only appeal to the string lover that I am, and getting a chance to sample Spanish composer Juan Crisostomo Arriaga's œuvre could only be beneficial to my musical education. So that’s how I found myself in a Stern auditorium packed with an eclectic crowd of excited family members and friends of the young performers in the prestigious spotlight as well as, holiday season oblige, hordes of tourists coming from all over the world, probably drawn as much by the prospect of hearing some of the headliners of tomorrow as by the international renown of the historic venue.

An extraordinarily talented young Spanish composer who grew up on Beethoven and Schubert, Arriaga obviously learned to make the most of these influences for his own symphony, which he completed right before his untimely death at the age of twenty. Although he hadn’t had the time to find his own voice yet, his one and only symphony is an appealing recap of the best the late-Classical and early-Romantic styles had to offer, and the youngsters onstage on Wednesday did not waste any time channeling one of their own for an enthusiastic rendition of it.
Another musical giant who got a decidedly early start, Hungarian composer Bela Bartok had a natural knack to neatly blend earthy folk tunes with more traditionally refined music. A powerful combination of both elements, his Divertimento for Strings opens with an irresistible pulse that never officially lets off until the dark Adagio comes around and calms things down. It all eventually ends in a fun, free-spirited polka. However, no matter what its name implies, Bartok’s Divertimento is not just fluffy entertainment but also a serious, intricate musical work, which can be quite challenging for the musicians. The ones at Carnegie Hall did not seem to mind though, and whole-heartedly threw themselves into it with sharp focus and unwavering intensity, assuredly conducted by Jaime Laredo.
Last, but not least, André Watts came for the high point of the evening, Beethoven’s widely popular Concerto No 5. There’s nothing in the Emperor that does not inspire awe and delight: The unusual appearance of the piano with a cadenza, the triumphant complexity of the first movement, the warm delicacy of the Adagio, the boundless energy bursting from the final Rondo. Beethoven’s last concerto is more than familiar territory for André Watts, but he still kept it fresh and engaging. While he strongly held his own against the fiery orchestra, his performance also had an underlying light-heartedness to it. Viscerally virtuosic, yet elegantly playful. The perfect way to end another memorable musical year and to look forward to a brand new one. Happy New Year!

Saturday, December 24, 2011

Met - Faust - 12/20/11

Composer: Charles Gounod
Conductor: Yannick Nézet-Séguin
Director: Des McAnuff
Faust: Jonas Kaufmann
Marguerite: Marina Poplavskaya
Méphistophélès: René Pape

France and Germany have notoriously had a tumultuous relationship throughout the centuries, and one more subject of dissension is the Germans’ insistence of calling Faust, one of the world’s most famous French operas, by its heroine’s name, Margarethe. What gives? Well, it appears that a true blue Frenchman actively working in and for his own country during the Franco-Prussian War did not seem quite the right person to tackle Goethe’s monumental masterpiece. Moreover, Margarethe is the title of the play often associated with the novel on the other side of the Rhine. So there.
Although Goethe was adamant about Mozart being the only composer worthy of turning his epic drama into an opera, time was unfortunately not on his side and Gounod was apparently the only artist brave, or foolhardy, enough to try to tame the beast. By focusing on the timeless human themes such as the desire for youth, sensuality and salvation, all basking in unabashedly expressive melodies, he ended up with a solid hit, whose popularity has never faltered even through the numerous rounds of revisions. Therefore, while perusing the Met program at the beginning of the season, I figured that it was high time that I checked it out, especially when the cast included Jonas Kaufmann, René Pape and Marina Poplavskaya.

Faust’s plot line and moral may sound a bit simplistic (not to mention matter-of-factly): Selling your soul to the Devil is not a good idea. Although not dreadfully long, the opera still has five acts and two intermissions, which means almost four hours of watching, listening and waiting as Faust makes his pact with the Devil, seduces, abandons and drives to insanity an innocent girl, kills her brother, and finally repents too late. Very German AND very French, no doubt about that.
Naturally charismatic tenor Jonas Kaufmann was a superb Faust, impeccably dashing in his fancy suits and flaunting flawless vocal power to match. Whether fiercely conveying his intense lust for the pleasures of life or deftly turning into a sweetly seductive romantic, he handled the role with remarkable ease and flair.
Marina Poplavskaya was a lovely Marguerite, turning a character that can easily be just a one-dimensional pathetic figure into an all too vulnerable human being. Granted, she was seduced  amazingly fast by the box of jewelry, but her mix of gullibility and coquettishness during the “Jewel Song” was sparklingly touching and fun, bringing some welcome light-heartedness to a rather thankless part.
Everybody’s favorite bass, René Pape, was, of course, a delicious Méphistophélès, suave and charming, but always aware of when to strike. With his magnetic presence, magnificent voice and debonair looks, he was the man running the show and obviously enjoying every single minute of it. So were we.
The chorus did a spectacular job, as usual. There does not seem to be anything this amazing ensemble cannot thoroughly nail.
As much as the cast came through beautifully, the production failed to make a lasting impression for the most part. Beside the ubiquitous stairs and scaffoldings, apparently modern operas’ favorite props, the overall impression was of minimalism, which is fine, and distance, which is much less so. Setting the story in the first half of the 20th century was not a problem in itself, but most of the time the feeling was of heavy-handedness and lack of purpose.
A couple of scenes, however, spontaneously grabbed my attention, such as Méphistophélès leading a macabre dance during the drinking song in the second act, or the giant red roses popping up in the background and in the air during the seduction scene in the third act. The large black and white portraits projected on the black curtain during the intermissions were riveting as well. But Marguerite’s image briefly looming in the background during the first act was frustratingly lost to most people in the auditorium's family section.
Character development may not have been Gounod's forte, but he more than made up for it by composing some memorable music. The orchestra took it all to heart and delivered a strong, richly nuanced performance. Yannick Nézet-Séguin, who is fast becoming a familiar figure at the Met, has just added yet another impressive conducting feat to his rapidly expanding resume. Subtly highlighting the refined elegance and passionate lyricism of the supremely melodic score, he knowingly let the music speak for itself.
The third act, in particular, during which Faust courts and eventually wins Marguerite, had truly exquisite moments. After Méphistophélès joined them, all three voices converged into a brilliantly soaring dramatic climax, the undisputed high point of the evening. Devilishly good, indeed.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Cantori New York - A Cantori Holiday - 12/17/11

Artistic Director & Conductor: Mark Shapiro
H. J. Gauntlett: Once in Royal David’s City
Flemish Traditional Carol: Cradle Song (Arr. John Rutter)
Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas (Arr. Kenneth Neufeld)
Herbert Howells: Sing Lullaby
French Traditional Melody: Shepherds in the field Abiding (Arr. Charles Wood)
J. H. Hopkins: We Three Kings – Joe Klein, Joey Mele & Tobias Engstrom
Jonathan Breit: Ocho Kandelikas
Bach: Sheep may Safely Graze (Arr. Egon Petri) – Jason Wirth
Elizabeth Piston: Jesus Christ the Apple Tree – Emily Klonowski
Morten Lauridsen: O Magnum Mysterium
Traditional Taita Melody: Natufurahi Siku Ya Leo (Arr. Boniface Mganga)
Swedish Traditional Carol: Bereden väg för Herran!
Swedish Traditional Carol: Jul, Jul, Stralende Jul!
Elliot Z. Levine: Lo v’chayil
J. Pierpont: Jingle Bells – Jason Wirth & Erol Gurol
Adolphe Adam: Oh, Holy Night – Nicholas Chong
Russian Traditional Carol: I drink to my Mary’s Health
W. J. Kirkpatrick: Away in a Manger
English Traditional Carol: Wassail Song (Arr. Vaughn Williams)
Franz Biebl: Ave Maria – Matt Perkins, Gerald Metz, Joel Klein, Erol Gurol & Jason Wirth
Welsh Traditional Carol: Deck the Hall
14th century German Melody: Lo, How the Rose
Traditional West Country Carol: We wish you a Merry Christmas
Franz Gruber: Silent Night - Sing Along

The holiday season is upon us again, which means frigidly cold temperatures, ubiquitous Christmas markets, crowded department stores, brightly colorful decorations, Santa Clauses at every corner, and the same darn Christmas music over and over and over again. Even if you carefully avoid any commercial destinations, it is practically impossible to escape gratingly cheerful seasonal tunes as soon as you step outside, whether they're spilling out through the open door of a store or are just innocently hummed by an unsuspecting culprit carrying a dozen shopping bags on the street. The economy may be thankful. I am less so.
Since there seems to be no way to get around it, I have decided to embrace it in the best way possible: hearing those cyclic songs and hymns performed by dedicated professionals in an elating environment. That’s how yesterday evening I found myself in the lovely Church of Saint Luke in the Fields, a prized landmark of Greenwhich Village, for “A Cantori Holiday”, ready to be serenaded by one of the most consistency adventurous and highly praised choruses of New York City. If I was going to do it, I might as well do it with the best.

The result was a truly delectable celebration, overflowing with fun, sacred, exotic holiday songs picked by various members of Cantori New York to take us all over the world as well as through several centuries. Even if “Jingle Bells” or “We wish you a Merry Christmas”, to name my two worst nightmares, were as exasperatingly perky as ever, they also had never sounded so good. (Granted, the bar was set pretty low, but that is still a huge compliment.)
Highlights were numerous: a brilliantly festive “Ocho Kandelikas” by Jonathan Breit, a member of Cantori New York, an intensely rousing “Holy Night”, sung by Nicholas Chong, and Franz Biebl’s all-male “Ave Maria”, during which three of the singers were placed in the back of the church while Mark Shapiro was conducting from the middle of the aisle.
My personal favorite, Bach’s “Sheep may safely Graze”, was the only work not involving any voice, except for the piano’s. I frankly can’t imagine anybody surpassing Leon Fleisher’s divinely inspired take on it a couple of years ago at Strathmore, the kind of encore that makes you instantaneously forget the work on the program you had actually come to hear. Last night Jason Wirth unsurprisingly did not surpass the master, but he clearly proved to be on the right path to grow into an excellent soloist.
The last piece of the evening was the unavoidable “Silent Night”, with Mark Shapiro conducting the audience for the first and last verses while turning back to his chorus for the second one. A beautifully peaceful – This is one of the traditional carols I do like – ending to a much enjoyed performance.

Then it was on to the backroom for the after-concert party with less lofty but just as pleasurable festivities. The sheep safely, and abundantly, grazed, indeed. Happy Holidays!

Monday, December 12, 2011

London Philharmonic Orchestra - Pintscher, Mozart & Brahms - 12/07/11

Conductor: Vladimir Jurowski
Pintscher: towards Osiris
Mozart: Violin Concerto No 5 in A Major, K. 219, "Turkish" – Janine Jansen
Brahms: Symphony No 4 in E Minor, Op. 98

Now that the trip to France is a lovely but far off memory and that I am fully back in real life, it is time to resume my unofficial residency at Carnegie Hall with a traditional concert that included a violin concerto, which could only be a thoroughly enjoyable one since it was Mozart’s Turkish performed by Janice Jansen, and a timeless symphony, which in this case was Brahms’ last and sumptuous masterpiece. Since one has to leave room for the young, or at least the contemporary, German composer Matthias Pintscher was also appearing on the program with the Carnegie Hall première of its 2005 toward Osiris. All this would happen courtesy of the London Philharmonic Orchestra, one of the world’s most highly regarded musical ensembles, as famous for its many riveting performances as for its numerous outreach programs all over England.

The unknown toward Osiris, taking its inspiration from the ancient Egyptian myth of Osiris and Isis, sounded appropriately fragmented and ethereal, a six-minute festival of eclectic sonorities delicately hovering in the air from the orchestra operating in full force.
After this strange beast, we went back on über-familiar territory with a much reduced orchestra for Mozart’s popular Turkish violin concerto, to which a diaphanous-looking Janine Jansen did full justice. Always the ultimate piano man, Mozart nevertheless knew a thing or two about the violin, as his five concertos for the instrument can attest. For the Turkish, he had the violin make an unusually subdued, poetic entrance before going all out in a dazzling show of exuberance. Janine Jansen, a naturally graceful and sensitive musician, let her elegant tone take flight and brilliantly expand, before moving into an angelic Adagio. The finale was a bouquet of exotic flavors that happily exploded, but never lost their refined taste. Mozart would have been pleased.
One of my hands-down favorite musical journeys, Brahms’ Symphony No 4 is an intense, somber and deeply moving work, which opens with some of the most hypnotic waves in the entire classical music répertoire. From then on, the seriously magnificent score just keeps unrolling as if nothing could stop the outpouring of romantic longings, regrets and resolve. Young but nevertheless definitely in charge maestro Vladimir Jurowski, who had proven quietly efficient until then, was finally able to lead his musicians into a tight and passionate performance of Brahms’ supreme achievement, crowning the evening with a truly beautiful tour de force. There was regretfully no encore, but then again, what can you play after Brahms' Fourth?

Monday, December 5, 2011

Jeremy Denk - Bach, Beethoven & Ligeti - 12/03/11

Bach: Toccata in D Major, BWV 912
Bach: Toccata in F-Sharp Minor, BWV 910
Beethoven: 15 Variations and Fugue on an Original Theme, Op. 35, "Eroica"
Ligeti: Études, Book 1 – Désordre (Disorder), Cordes à vide (Open Strings), Touches bloquées (Blocked Keys), Fanfares, Arc-en-ciel (Rainbow), Automne à Varsovie (Warsaw Autumn)
Beethoven: Sonata in C Minor, Op. 111

Coming back from two weeks of a shamelessly epicurean life-style in France cannot be pleasant no matter how you look at it, but I did find a way to make the return to reality a little bit less painful by carefully scheduling a sure-fire fabulous treat upon my return: a recital by Jeremy Denk, the coolest pianist in New York, possibly in the States, at the 92Y. So after strategically flying back four days earlier in order to prevent any kind of jet lag from screwing up my attention span, I crossed the park to the Upper East Side on Saturday night in a giddy, but bright and wide open state of mind. The program had been slightly changed and was even more intriguing that originally planned with Bach, Beethoven, Ligeti, and more Beethoven. It is good to be back!

Kicking off the performance on a decidedly festive note, the carefree opening of Bach’s Toccata in D Major made me think of the high-spirited soundtrack of a silent comedy, where the characters’ comical antics compete with unpredictable twists of fate. After a while the pace did slow down, but not without wild accelerations springing up here and there.
Although more conventional and atmospheric, Bach’s Toccata in F-Sharp Minor was still an impressive exercise in manic finger dexterity. Playing these short works with his trademark free-spirited, unperturbed virtuosity, Jeremy Denk really made us believe that he routinely just rolls out of bed and nails it. Then again, maybe he does…
Opening on a simple but thunderous chord, Beethoven’s constantly inventive “Eroica” variations are a multi-faceted gift hat keeps on giving. It is an essentially happy, humorous even, piece, which is actually surprising considering that it was written during one of the darkest periods in the composer’s life. In Jeremy Denk’s expert hands, the complex variations sounded like purely hedonistic child’s play, as if all the technical challenges had been fully digested and only the fun part remained.
Although it seems that nowadays any program attempting to sound even vaguely cutting-edge has to include Ligeti, the Eastern European composer fit in naturally among the other two musical ground-breakers featured on Saturday. His six études presented short vignettes describing widely different scenes and atmospheres such as the relentless "Désordre" or the gentle "Cordes à vide". The sustained rhythms of "Touches Bloquées" were followed by the joyful Latin flavors of "Fanfares". Eventually, the pretty "Arc-en-ciel" let the robust "Automne à Varsovie" conclude this very enjoyable series.
Then it was back to Beethoven with the last piano sonata he ever wrote, his Sonata in C Minor. Famous for its two viscerally contrasting movements, it has deservedly been a favorite among musicians and audiences since it first came out. On Saturday at the 92Y, Jeremy Denk delivered a truly impassionate, drama-filled first movement before flawlessly switching to a light-hearted, overtly optimistic mood for the second half. The immaculate fluidity of his playing, the precise blend of spontaneity and thoughtfulness as well as his profound understanding of Beethoven’s work all contributed to making this sonata a grand, wide-reaching experience.

I was originally more than a little surprised when I noticed that Ives was not on the program, but the American composer still made a late appearance courtesy of the encore: "The Alcotts" from the Concord Sonata. A beautifully executed labor of love that brought a transcendental closure to yet another thoroughly engrossing performance by Jeremy Denk.

Friday, December 2, 2011

Opéra National de Paris - La Cenerentola - 11/28/11

Composer: Gioachino Rossini
Conductor: Bruno Campanella
Director: Jean-Pierre Ponnelle
Producer: Grischa Asagaroff
Angelina: Karine Deshayes
Don Ramiro: Javier Camarena
Clorinda: Jeanette Fischer
Tisbe: Anna Wall
Don Magnifico: Carlos Chausson
Dandini: Riccardo Novaro
Alidoro: Alex Esposito

Attending an opera at Palais Garnier had long been a goal of mine, so this trip to Paris sounded like the perfect opportunity to finally make it happen, until it started to dawn on me that all my well-laid musical plans might be irreversibly doomed. Although the London Symphony Orchestra with Valery Gergiev and Hélène Grimaud at Salle Pleyel had been solidly sold out forever, we had somehow managed to make up for it with very agreeable concerts at Sainte Chapelle and Saint-Eustache. It would, however, be much more difficult to find a substitute for an evening at the opera, so we decided to take a chance with last minute tickets for La Cenerentola, which had also been hopelessly sold out from the very minute the tickets went on sale to the general public, except for some prohibitively expensive seats.
Somehow the opera gods must have been on our side because after a long and anxious wait, we ended with 10 Euros seats that were not half bad, especially once we had moved to the box next to ours. Being in Palais Garnier is, of course, a mind-blowing experience in itself, and it was hard to figure out where to look among the fancy stone friezes and columns, the ubiquitous statues and mirrors, the grand staircase, the splendid foyer and my personal favorite: the whimsical, colorful ceiling by Marc Chagall in the auditorium. All the gold and red opulence brought us back to another time while putting us in the most appropriate frame of mind for Rossini’s hyper-melodic version of the timeless fairly tale of Cinderella.

Although Charles Perrault’s heroine is an excessively familiar character of Western culture, her musical Italian counterpart is a tad different, mostly due to the opera conventions of the early 19th century. Therefore, the glass slipper became a bracelet, since female artists could not expose their feet on a respectable stage. The fairy godmother was replaced by a philosopher – who also happens to be the prince’s former tutor – so that nobody would have to bother with the limited special effects at the time, and the mean step-mother was substituted by a greedy father, making the heavily moral ending resonate even louder.
In the title role, French mezzo-soprano Karin Deshayes effortlessly displayed the right combination of sweetness, intelligence and assertiveness, whether she was slaving for her step-sisters or making her grand entrance at the ball. Her coloratura was spot on, and its intense yet delicate radiance grabbed everybody’s attention at once. To top off this well-rounded performance, she did not hesitate to show some sharp comic timing as well.
Her two step-siblings, Jeanette Fischer and Anna Wall as respectively Clorinda and Tisbe, had the right sounds but the wrong looks. Decked out with enormous noses, outrageous hair and ridiculous outfits, they also distinguished themselves with commedia dell’arte-style routines that were too delirious to fit in well into the overall story. That’s too bad because they obviously are talented singers, who would have been much better off with a little bit more subtlety in their acting.
The male singers constituted an unquestionably solid cast. Mexican tenor Javier Camanera was a very charming Don Ramiro, his ardent devotion to his beloved Angelina endearingly innocent and strongly heart-felt. Carlos Chausson was a brilliant Don Magnifico, although his excessive antics could become borderline grating. Alex Esposito as the philosopher Alidoro and Riccardo Navarro as the valet Dandini fulfilled their parts with professional assurance. The all-male chorus was consistently excellent.
The set consisted essentially of black and white curtains, on which were outlined the décors, as well as the occasional piece of furniture. This minimalist approach had the advantage of efficiently placing and serving the action without being over-bearing. The costumes were quietly resplendent as well, with a special mention for the magnificent black velvet dress with discreet white ornaments that Angelina wears at the ball.
Rossini’s sunny score found the right conductor in Italian maestro Bruno Campanella, who led the uniformly committed orchestra into a bright, engaging interpretation of it. They smartly let the bel canto singers perform their intricate acrobatics while providing the steady support for them.

So even if the farcical moments were a bit over the top, the action dragged on from time to time, and the ending turned Angelina into an almost insufferable goodie two-shoes, the stellar cast, solid orchestra and Rossini’s scintillating composition all contributed in making one more of my musical dreams come true with a wonderful night at the Opéra de Paris.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Saint-Eustache - Mussorgsky - 11/27/11

Organ: Jean Guillou
Mussorgsky: Pictures at an Exhibition

After the medieval marvel built by King Louis IX that is the Sainte Chapelle, my mum and I found ourselves in the much more populist church that is Saint-Eustache, which used to be the place of worship for the market workers toiling in Les Halles. Inside the monumental Gothic edifice modeled on Notre-Dame, a decidedly Renaissance style prevails. But its most amazing sight is without a doubt the magnificent organ – supposedly the largest one in France with 8,000 pipes – that is still regularly played for all to enjoy freely.
That’s why we made a point to be there for one of the popular Sunday afternoon concerts, this one presenting no less than Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition arranged by Jean Guillou, the church’s long-time titular organist.

The grandeur of the site and the solemnity of the sound flawlessly concurred to make the 10-movement suite a whole new experience. Far from the assertive subtlety of the original piano version or the textured inventiveness of Ravel’s take on it, the music was now coming alive loud and clear through the impressive pipe system… at least until one of the keys got stuck.
After some pessimistic assessment by Jean Guillou as to his ability to have it repaired promptly, the instrument did get swift and efficient attention, and we were able to hear the remaining of the work, making us appreciate the incredible feat that is organ playing – with its delayed sounds and all – even more.