Sunday, December 30, 2012

Met - Les Troyens - 12/29/12

Composer: Hector Berlioz
Conductor: Fabio Luisi
Producer/Director: Francesca Zambello
Aeneas: Bryan Hymel
Dido: Elizabeth Bishop
Cassandra: Deborah Voigt

There was an unforgettable look of mixed horror and incredulity on the faces of most people when I told them that I had suddenly decided to treat myself to my own end-of-year gift by spending some of my hard-earned money and over five hours of my busy life to attend a French opera about The Trojan War. Then they categorically turned me down when I offered them to join me (Nothing personal, of course). Never mind. I was perfectly capable of getting myself to the Metropolitan Opera on Friday evening to get a ticket for yesterday's matinee of Les Troyens and - Surprise! - there were still some left. Go figure.
I am not a die-hard fan of Hector Berlioz, although I've always thought that his Symphonie Fantastique is without a doubt one of the most fantastic works of music ever composed. On the other hand, his inexplicable preference for Gluck over Bach as well as his soft spot for pompous showiness can at times really rub me the wrong way. However, I also figured that I should grab a chance to watch this not often performed opera, especially with Susan Graham getting rave reviews for her Dido and young newcomer Bryan Hymel getting rave reviews as the last-minute stand-in for an apparently ill-at-ease Marcello Giordani in the role of Aeneas. Moreover, I would still have three days off afterwards to digest it. Even better, it was supposed to snow all afternoon.
So after a marathon-worthy breakfast (Come to think of it, in my running heyday it took me way less time than the duration of this whole performance to complete a marathon, even as an eternal mid-packer) I eagerly walked down Broadway and into the Met lobby only to find myself face-to-face with a sign saying that Susan Graham had called in sick! Noooooooo!!!!!!!! Regardless, I still decided to soldier on and hiked my way back up to the good old Family Circle, where I hadn't been in awhile after interludes in the Parterre (Sigh) and the Orchestra. Sometimes there's nothing like coming home. I just wish the Parterre were home.

Based on Books I, II and IV of Virgil's Aeneid, Les Troyens is a majestic lyric opera in two big parts divided into five acts. No matter how you slice it - and the willing but inadequate Théâtre Lyrique in Paris certainly did its best to repeatedly slash the last three acts after completely eliminating the first two - it is a big endeavor from every possible angle: length, size, cast, score, themes. So much so that poor Berlioz never got to fully see what he considered the culmination of his eminent career. Luckily for us, the world has since come to its senses and, while the work's monumental scope has prevented it from becoming a steady staple of the répertoire, its unique might can be experienced live if you look around for it long and hard enough, and a chance to witness it is apparently not to be missed.
After Marcello Giordani's announced withdrawal and Susan Graham's sudden indisposition, Deborah Voigt turned out to be the only familiar singer on that stage. As the Trojan prophetess Cassandra, she cut an imposing figure and made good use of her impeccable bright high notes to express anguish, powerlessness, and eventually resignation. Her low range was not quite as assured, but there was no distinct wavering either. After all, it took a truly convincing force to entice the vast majority of the conquered Trojan women to commit suicide rather than to become slaves, and she persuasively embodied that uncompromising figure.
The stand-in for Susan Graham was Elizabeth Bishop, who not only bravely stepped in without batting an eyelid, but also did it with much commitment and aplomb. Whether sweetly singing the many splendors of love or powerfully exploding into a psychopathic rage, her Dido went through a lot over the course of three acts, and all those gripping emotions were compellingly conveyed.
The best surprise of the day, however, was Bryan Hymel, who has quickly appropriated the challenging role of Aeneas and obviously never looked back. Blessed with a robust and versatile voice he fully controls, he was effortlessly switching from sweeping heroic passages to more subtle moments like the lovely love duet with Dido, a little jewel of exquisite refinement, which was one of the undisputed highlights of the performance. The other highlight was his long and tortured soliloquy at the beginning of Act V, which earned him the one and only spontaneous and enthusiastic ovation of the whole afternoon.
The other unquestionable star yesterday was the reliably fabulous Met chorus, which had many opportunities to shine and did not miss a single one of them. Some other members of the cast, such as Karen Cargill as Anna, Dido's sister, and Kwangchul Youn as Narbal, Dido's minister, distinguished themselves particularly well. Also to be remembered was the simple aria sung by Paul Appleby as the home-sick sailor Hylas, which stood out as an eerily poignant moment in the middle of all the dramatic turmoil.
So the singing was pretty much satisfactory, but what about the production? It was adequately massive, not overly original, but it served the opera well by leaving enough open space for the numerous crowd scenes and incorporating some movable divisions for the more intimate encounters. For once, I was actually happy to be perched in the penultimate row of the Family Circle because it gave me a winning overall view over the often busy stage.
As a grand opera - and Berlioz would not have had it any other way - Les Troyens also includes a lot of ballet. In the current Met production, even more dance has been added for purposes not always clear. So the audience spends a lots of time watching dance numbers, which fit in with various degrees of success. When the entertainment of dancing is an integral part of the story, as in Act IV, you grit your teeth and bear it. When we're talking about a few silhouettes gesticulating in the background during Dido and Anna's conversation in Act III, you wonder what it is about (although at least it does not slow down the action).
Berlioz's sprawling score is of course what keeps all the various elements together. Constantly alternating between dramatic grandiosity and economical restraint, the music faithfully emphasizes the stories and the characters. Fabio Luisi kept a firm control over the orchestra for a muscular and colorful performance. He let the arias breathe and take a life on their own while the big choral numbers were tightly turned out.
Although the audience was fairly subdued during most of the afternoon, as if they were saving their energy to be able to reach the finish line, they eventually showed their approval with a long and warm ovation, which was all the more remarkable considering how many departures had taken place. But this finish line was worth waiting for, especially as the hysterically predicted - and eventually harmless - snow had not managed to actually materialize yet when we finally returned to reality.

Sunday, December 16, 2012

Cantori New York - A Cantori Holiday - 12/15/12

Artistic Director & Conductor: Mark Shapiro
Basque Carol: Gabriel's Message (Arr. David Willcocks)
J.H. Hopkins: We Three Kings - Danny Campbell, Joe Ancowitz, Joey Mele (Singers)
Dutch Traditional Melody: King Jesus Hath a Garden (Arr. Charles Wood)
Alice Dryden: Banu Choshech Legaresh - Danny Campbell (Tambourine)
Malcolm Williamson: This Christmas Night
French Traditional Melody: Shepherds in the Field Abiding (Arr. Charles Wood)
German Traditional Melody: Lo, How a Rose e'er Blooming
Kim Gannon & Walter Kent: I'll be Home for Christmas (Arr. Mac Huff)
Mykola Leontovich: Carol of the Bells (Arr. Peter Wilhousky)
Hugh Martin & Ralph Blane: Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas (Arr. Ken Neufeld)
Moses Hogan: Glory, Glory, Glory - Steve Underhill (Tenor)
Francis Poulenc: The Story of Babar - Jason Wirth (Piano)
Harry Simeone, Katherine Davis & Henry Onorati: The Little Drummer Boy
Jonathan Breit: Ocho Kandelikas
Elizabeth Poston: Jesus Christ the Apple Tree - Margot Bassett (Soprano)
English Carol: Wassail Song (Arr. Vaugh Williams) - Jason Wirth (Conductor)
Noel Regney & Gloria Shayne: Do You Hear What I Hear (Arr. Harry Simeone)
Franz Biebl: Ave Maria
Welsh Carol: Deck the Halls
West Country Carol: We Wish You a Merry Christmas
Franz Gruber: Silent Night (Sing along)

I am not sure when a tradition becomes a tradition, but Cantori New York's annual holiday concert, which I attended for the first time last year, can boast again about being the one and only holiday-related musical event on my calendar right now, and it will hopefully remain so for many years to come if they keep up the good work. Because when all is said and done, and you simply cannot bear the thought of hearing yet another round of The Messiah or putting up with the continuously perky sounds of the typical seasonal fare (not to mention the crowds) when stepping outside, there remains Cantori New York.
Breaking away from their avowed mission of presenting the best of neglected and contemporary choral music, once a year this distinguished ensemble led by its fearless music director and conductor Mark Shapiro reaches far and wide to come up with a list of popular and less well-known holiday songs, to which they add their always appealing, once in awhile unexpected, but never even remotely boring, twist.
So it was with much anticipation that yesterday I worked my way down to the concert at their lovely Greenwich Village home that is the Church of Saint Luke in the Fields to join a few friends for this very special occasion. And no, for the record I want it to be known that I did not pick this concert (over the one this afternoon at the more convenient but less intimate Church of the Holy Trinity on the Upper East Side) JUST because of the post-concert reception.  

A festive yet spiritual mood was set right away with a totally engaging "Gabriel's Message", which immediately made everybody feel completely secure that the singers were in fine form indeed. This starting point in the Basque country kicked off a whirlwind international tour of traditional Christmas songs that stopped in The Netherlands for a discreetly joyful "King Jesus Hath a Garden", France by way of a cheerfully rustic "Shepherds in the Field Abiding", Germany with a sweetly romantic "Lo, How a Rose e'er Blooming", England courtesy of the happy drinking "Wassail Song", and The Wales via "Deck the Halls", whose annoyingly jolly "Fa la la la la la la la la" Cantori managed to make bearable thanks to what had to be a divine intervention.
Even works that I consider corny but inescapable US standards such as "I'll be Home for Christmas", "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas" and "Do You Hear What I Hear" came out smartly arranged, richly textured and altogether exceptionally pleasant. That being said, it did not hurt that they were kept blissfully short either.
One of the most exciting things about a Cantori concert is that you never know what they will think up next. And yesterday was no exception when, in the midst of all the Christmassy tunes, sprung up two esoteric and, in the words of Mark Shapiro, "non dopey", Hanukkah songs. Alice Dryden's "Banu Choshech Legaresh" (Here we came to expel the darkness) had a refreshing earthiness to it while "Ocho Kandelikas" (Eight candles), arranged by Cantori's very own Jonathan Breit, brought some - Dare I say "devilish" in the House of the Lord? I do! - fun to the celebration.
Other highlights included a personal favorite of mine in the beautifully rendered "Little Drummer Boy", an unusually elegant, all-male version of "Ave Maria" by Franz Biebl (Take that Schubert and Gounod) with groups of singers in the back and front of the church and conductor in the aisle, and two rollickingly entertaining excerpts from Poulenc's "The Story of Barbar" performed at the piano by Jason Wirth with Mark Shapiro reading (Because what would the holidays be without Babar, right?).
Naturally, no holiday concert would be complete without Gruber's immaculately peaceful "Silent Night". Yesterday evening, this perennial favorite turned into a sing along during which the capacity crowd did their best to sing verses 1 and 3 while Cantori effortlessly nailed verse 2, whose lyrics were wisely kept out of our programs. A nice communal touch before audience and artists got a chance to bond even further over food and drinks at the decidedly rocking post-concert reception. Happy Holidays!

Sunday, December 9, 2012

NSO - Lutoslawski, Chopin & Tchaikovsky - 12/07/12

Conductor: Hans Graf 
Lutoslawski: Musique funèbre 
Chopin: Piano Concerto No 1 in E Minor, Op. 11 – Yuja Wang 
Tchaikovsky: Symphony No 3 in D Major, Op. 29, “Polish” 

With business or pleasure regularly getting in the way, I was ready to give up on making it back to DC for a long weekend before next year. Then a couple of weeks ago, this weekend suddenly appeared free of any kind of commitments. A glance at the Polish-centric program that the National Symphony Orchestra would be playing on those dates pretty much sealed the deal. I quickly made plans for three full days of meeting up with friends to eat and drink at favorite spots, peruse exhibits of Lichtenstein and Weiwei, explore botanical gardens and outdoors markets, keep fit with yoga and runs on the Mall. Even better, it all started on Friday evening with the above-mentioned concert and the added bonus of a (real!) Champagne-soaked pre-concert get-together with my old NSO buddies Pat and Jennifer.
Washington, DC's premier orchestra may not be the most famous or the most remarkable orchestra in the US, let alone the world, but they were my home team for so many years that seeing some of those familiar faces again always feels like paying a visit to some beloved relatives. And there they were again on the stage of the Kennedy Center’s concert hall, headed by ever-classy Nurit Bar-Josef and, for this week, conducted by visiting maestro Hans Graf.

The title of the first piece, Musique funèbre, kind of put a temporary damper on our festive spirits at first, but once the music started flowing, we effortlessly eased into its serene mood. Dedicated to the memory of Bela Bartok and inspired by the opening fugue of his Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta, Lutoslawski’s composition is a beautiful arch-shaped feast for strings, and we thoroughly enjoyed its impeccably harmonious balance.
Having an opportunity to hear the petite but fiercely talented Ms. Wang is never to be missed, so I was particularly happy to see her name on the NSO’s program. After assertively walking through the stage in a simple but eye-popping purple gown, she just as assertively handled Chopin’s Piano Concerto No 1. Although I cannot say I like this concerto as much as his solo works – The then 20-year old composer was obviously a little clueless about what to do with an orchestra – I was still very much taken by its innocence and liveliness. A technical wizard behind an impassive face, Yuja Wang is going to have to dig deeper into the music she plays to find the soul of it, but she seemed on the right track with the delicate Romanze, which came out so exquisitely that one could feel the whole audience collectively holding their breath.
Tchaikovsky’s third symphony is not one of his strongest works, but its pleasant melodies went down nicely, even when they extended their welcome a bit. The orchestra played well all night, but it was really in this rendition of the Polish that one could notice the fruitful relationship the musicians had unanimously established with Hans Graf. The down-to-earth Austrian conductor certainly seemed to get exactly what he wanted without making a big fuss about it. And that was very good indeed.

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

The Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center - All-Bach - 12/04/12

Conductor & Piano: Jeremy Denk
Bach: Concerto in A Major for Keyboard, Strings, and Continuo, BWV 1055
Bach: Concerto in G Minor for Keyboard, Strings, and Continuo, BWV 1058
Bach: Concerto in E Major for Keyboard, Strings, and Continuo, BWV 1053
Bach: Concerto in F Minor for Keyboard, Strings, and Continuo, BWV 1056
Bach: Concerto in D Major for Keyboard, Strings, and Continuo, BWV 1054
Bach: Concerto in D Minor for Keyboard, Strings, and Continuo, BWV 1052

No matter what one thinks about big city living, there's one advantage that cannot be denied: Being able to enjoy a wide range of extraordinary live musical moments that will remain in one's memory for a very long time and, as far as I'm concerned, in this blog forever. That's how these past couple of weeks I've been lucky enough to hear three memorable piano performances by French intellectual master Pierre-Laurent Aimard in a surprisingly non-experimental recital at Carnegie Hall, established virtuoso Yefim Bronfman impeccably working his way through the Emperor at Carnegie Hall again, and last but by no means least, fearlessly imaginative pianist Jeremy Denk delectably tackling Bach's reputedly august œuvre with eleven musicians of the highly regarded Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center at the wonderful Alice Tully Hall last night.

I must confess that I have sometimes thought of Baroque music as attractive, of course, but also a bit too stodgy and well-behaved for my own taste. Well, last night was definitely the time to think again as I would have been hard-pressed to point out a single moment during the concert where anything even remotely humdrum happened. With a little bit of Mozart's elegance here and a lot of Vivaldi's exuberance there, the pure genius of the prolific father of them all glowed brighter than ever.
Playing on modern instruments with a refreshing bounciness, the twelve accomplished musicians onstage breathed an irresistible new life into those six concertos for solo keyboard and orchestra, which had been primarily composed for entertainment purposes. And entertaining they sure were, with their newly highlighted unpredictable tempos, intricate passages and beguiling harmonies. The second half of the concert was dedicated to the most popular ones among them, and it was a real treat to hear those familiar pieces performed with such an inspired spin to them.
Turning his back to the audience all the better to conduct and play his top-less piano, Jeremy Denk spontaneously combined the unrestrained joie de vivre of an exalted dilettante with the bottomless expertise of a seasoned pro. Taking his musical companions and the audience for a glorious Bacchanal (Sorry. I had to) ride, he brilliantly proved that timeless works are truly relevant to all times. And a lot of fun too.

The MET Orchestra - Gubaidulena, Beethoven & Stravinsky - 12/02/12

Conductor: Fabio Luisi
Gubaidulina: In tempus praesens - David Chan
Beethoven: Piano Concerto No 5 in E-Flat Major, Op. 73, "Emperor" - Yefim Bronfman
Stravinsky: The Firebird Suite (1945 version)

Because there's always some action unfolding right in our faces from the Metropolitan Opera's stage, it is very easy to overlook the remarkable music machine that makes it all possible right in the orchestra pit. Luckily, The MET Orchestra occasionally performs sans distracting visuals in concert halls, just like they did on Sunday afternoon at Carnegie Hall with special guest Yefim Bronfman for Beethoven's glorious Emperor concert. As if this was not enough excitement for one concert, the other two pieces came straight from two uncompromising Russian iconoclasts: Igor Stravinsky and the 1945 version of his Firebird Suite as well as Sofia Gubaidulina and her In tempus praesens.

A violin concerto without being a bona fide violin concerto, Sofia Gubaidulina's In tempus praesens was the unknown component of the program and turned out to be, err, different, but eventually worth-hanging in there for. Dedicated to Anne-Sophie Mutter in honor of their almost identical names and the fact that "Sophia" means "Wisdom", the work's main character is the soloist's violin, the one and only violin in the whole composition, which itself requires a wide array of instruments, including a piano and two harps. From the very start, it was wisdom against the world, the soloist again the orchestra, as the one intensely lyrical voice continued imperturbably pressing forward, trying to ignore all the various obstacles, even the big bad loud ones, thrown at it. As a result, while the unstoppable violin churned out some beautiful melodic lines, the short, unpredictable outbursts from the orchestra kept the work from taking off and soar, keeping their fundamental opposition alive until the very end. Comfortably led by their most frequent conductor Fabio Luisi, David Chan, the orchestra's concertmaster, and his fellow musicians played with plenty of poise and deftness, eventually turning this difficult challenge into an accessible, if not quite irresistible, half hour of musical experimentation.
After Gubaidulina's jarring sounds, it was with particular glee that we welcome the much more traditional concerto that is Beethoven's Emperor. Perfectly in tune with the orchestra, popular piano virtuoso Yefim Bronfman delivered an unquestionably grand but still deeply human performance of it, happily lashing out splashes of fierce momentum and discreetly underlying the more introspective moments. A refreshingly straightforward Emperor, played with a lot of heart.
Inspired by a Russian folk tale and composed for the ballet version of it, Stravinsky's Firebird is an immediately engaging and totally fun score. Some passages owe a lot to Rimsky-Korsakov - Stravinsky's former teacher - and Tchaikovsky in their unabashedly sweeping melodies, but a careful or even not so careful listener can also easily detect some atypical musical ideas getting ready to powerfully explode in a not so distant future. This delightful work, however, does not need any excuse to proudly stand on its own in Stravinsky's oeuvre, and the MET's orchestra brightly colored performance of it on Sunday only seconded that statement.

Monday, November 26, 2012

Met - Un Ballo in Maschera - 11/24/12

Composer: Giuseppe Verdi
Conductor: Fabio Luisi
Producer: David Alden
Gustavo III: Marcelo Álvarez
Count Anckarström: Dmitri Hvorostovsky
Amelia: Sondra Radvanovsky
Ulrica: Dolora Zajick
Oscar: Kathleen Kim

After an exciting Tempest at the Met with my friend Nicole a couple of weeks ago, I was very much looking forward to going back for an hopefully just as exciting new production of Un Ballo in Maschera on Saturday night with my friend Dawn. Seriously, what better way to kick off the holiday season than with one of Verdi's most enduring operas performed by some of the best Verdian voices around? Even the fact that it would last three and a half hours - one of which would be for the two intermissions and the short break - did not spoil our anticipation. Hey, at least there would still be two and a half hours of Verdi.
The seats were not quite as fabulous as the last time I was there - I guess miracles like that one only happen once in a blue moon - but the last row of the orchestra had the definite advantage of guaranteeing that nobody will be breathing (or snoring) down our necks, the view was still pretty good and it allowed for a quick exit. If it had not been for the overhead created by the Parterre above, which partially prevented the music from fully coming to our area, our seats could really have been a prime location for undisturbed enjoyment.

Inspired by the real-life assassination of Swedish King Gustav III during a masked ball and targeted by government censors and the Pope because it was dealing with monarchy, among other squabbles, Un ballo in maschera ended up having two versions, the politically correct one, taking place in late 17th century Boston (?!) and the original one, set in 18th century Sweden, which the Met had rightfully chosen to present this time.
Political conspiracies and love triangles may not be very original storylines, but they can still provide some quite explosive material to work with, and Verdi did not hesitate to dwell into this one and create his own plot. However, what really sets Ballo apart is the Italian composer's canny combination of a healthy dose of profoundly lyrical drama, some periodic sprinkles of light comedy and a one-time but decisive touch of the occult, resulting in one of his most popular works.
Like with any Verdi opera, the cast for this Ballo was key to success. And just a look at it would have made any Verdi lover's heart jump with joy. To begin with, the part of the ill-fated king went to veteran Met tenor Marcelo Álvarez, whose bigger-than-life singing strongly conveyed the dreadful tug-of-war between his mind and his heart. Throwing himself whole-heartedly into the role, he convincingly carried out some beautiful arias, ranging from his ardent declaration of love to Amelia to his final stirring plea for forgiveness.
His secretary and most trusted friend, Count Anckarström, was impersonated by first-class baritone Dmitri Hvorostovsky. Another familiar face to the Met spectators, he was his usual brilliant self, making full use of his stunning voice and charismatic presence. Expertly controlling the wide array of dark tones he always seems to effortlessly muster, he powerful expressed his undying commitment to the king, his sudden shame and consequent raging anger at the apparent betrayal, his iron will when plotting and carrying out revenge. 
Soprano Sondra Radvanovsky was a hands-down splendid Amelia, the woman unluckily stuck between the two men. Granted, she is not a particularly subtle actress, but her unabashedly vibrant, deeply earthy singing more than makes up for it. She is also an immensely generous singer who can easily engage the audience, as could have attested an obviously die-hard fan sitting in one of the first rows of the orchestra and quietly taping her first aria on his iPad. Later on, the intensely emotional opening scene of Act III she shared with Dmitri Hvorostovsky was a truly grand moment by two terrific artists and clearly reminded me why I go to the opera in the first place.
The rest of the cast was equally skilled, starting with Dolora Zajick, the well-known go-to Met mezzo-soprano when you need force and vitality. As the fortune-teller Ulrica, she simply did not let anyone or anything stand in her way, even while wearing a matronly outfit. The trouser role of Oscar was vivaciously sung by coloratura soprano Kathleen Kim, who perkily added some comic moments to the whole proceedings. The chorus had a memorable turn, among many others, at the end of Act II, when they were sneakily making fun of Renato after his wife revealed herself.
While the singers unanimously provided very satisfying vocal performances, the production was not so worthwhile. In fact, I had detected trouble even before the curtain rose when I saw its depiction of The fall of Icarus by Blondel. As a supposed metaphor for Gustavo's fate, it looked pretentious and unconvincing. Moreover, it kept on popping up often, looking inevitably out-of-place in the sleek modern décors. Speaking of the sets, which mostly consisted in black and white geometric shapes, it was hard to tell what they were meant to convey: The austerity of the Swedish court? The bleakness of some pre-war or post-war era? Both? Neither?
The stage directions did not help much either. The first odd sight of the evening was the young page Oscar wearing a white suit and a pair of wings. Really. That he would wear the same get-up while leisurely puffing on a cigarette during the ball was just as puzzling. Had he become the symbol of perverted innocence or was he just being a mischievous servant? At that same fateful ball appeared a bunch of men wearing black outfits and black wings, making you wonder how many of those had been deemed necessary to let the audience know that something bad was about to happen. Much fuss was generally going on during the crowd scenes such as the visit to Ulrica, which would have been fine if it had made sense, but most of the time, it just felt like a lot of hot air.
The ball scene provided a couple of eye-catching tableaux with chic black and white costumes, huge mirrors, an understated backdrop and an elaborate choreography, but it was too little too late. Stylization may be a swell concept, but without a master plan to refer to, it unsurprisingly falls flat. And so it did over and over again.
However, if the production left a lot to be desired, the music for sure did not. The right singers were there, brightly adding their respective vocal tours de force to Verdi's superb score, which was enthusiastically performed by the Met's fabulous orchestra under Fabio Luisi's unwavering baton. The melodies soared with flying colors and each aria got a chance to fully display its very own qualities. Best of all, the pace remained thankfully brisk and before we knew it, we were out by 11:30 PM, just as planned. A final positive note on an overall positive experience.

Thursday, November 22, 2012

Patricia Kaas - Kaas chante Piaf - 11/20/12

Singer: Patricia Kaas
Music: Song by Édith Piaf

Very few French singers have had the honor of performing at Carnegie Hall, but Patricia Kaas is not just any French singer. She has probably been the most talented and popular of them all for a quarter of a century now, and since there is no justice, she can also boast of a unique classical beauty and an unequaled stage presence. In short, this consummate artist has it all, but she always seems eager for new challenges. So these days she is touring the globe to present a concert revolving around that other world-famous French singer: Édith Piaf.
That's how I found myself in a packed Isaac Stern Auditorium on Tuesday evening to hear - Gasp! - partly pre-recorded AND completely amplified music. Quite a shock to my system, especially within those beloved walls, but then again, anything for Patricia. The other surprise was to find myself not in the midst of a large crowd of my French countrymen, although they had obviously come out in force too, but surrounded by so many excited Russian nationals that I was half-expecting Eugene Kissin or Anna Netrebko, and not Patricia Kaas, to appear on stage any minute.

My fear quickly proved unfounded though, because she showed up right on time, professedly a bit intimidated by her prestigious surroundings, but otherwise totally poised to deliver a memorable show. Hearing and watching Patricia Kaas perform Édith Piaf's well-known and less well-known songs, I could not help but marvel at how incredibly distinctive their respective voices are, and how similar their remarkable power of instantaneously connecting with their mesmerized audiences was/is. Édith Piaf was probably the least intellectual singer ever, and this was constantly reflected in her spontaneous display of raw emotions. Although Patricia Kaas is by all accounts a classy and intelligent woman of our times, you can tell that she is not averse to channel Piaf's unreserved opening of heart and soul, and let it all pour out. Different eras, different voices, same uncompromising commitment to their art.
The biggest hits were, predictably, "Dans la foule", with its pulsing rhythms and catchy choreography, "Padam, padam", in all its life-afffirming energy, "Hymne à l'amour", all the more poignant in its basic simplicity, "Milord", accompanied by a touchingly unguarded Alain Delon via video projection, "La vie en rose", which led to a sensual pas-de-deux with a dashing shirtless young man, "Non, je ne regrette rien", the much acclaimed encore she fiercely sang in a glamorous modern Cinderella dress. The audience gobbled it all up, always eager for more.
While the use of a pre-recorded soundtrack is always to be deplored, there were also a couple of accomplished musicians onstage, who happily gave it to us live, if electrically-enhanced. I did not think that the violin was present enough while I found the accordion over-bearing, but this sentiment probably comes from my strong preference for the former instrument over the latter. (Sometimes I actually think that the accordion was invented so that the world would have an easily found reason to make fun of the French.) The occasional media components were nice touches, but mostly unnecessary, except maybe for the never seen or heard before footage and recordings of Édith Piaf. Let's face it, we were all there first and foremost for Patricia Kaas, and the woman has enough talent and charisma to immediately capture and keep everybody's attention without external help. Just like Édith Piaf.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

New York Classical Players - Bach, Arensky & Tchaikovsky - 11/18/12

Conductor: Dongmin Kim
Bach: Brandenburg Concerto No 3 in G Major, BWV 1048
Arensky: Variations on a Theme of Tchaikovsky, Op. 35a - Eunshik Park
Bach: Piano Concerto No 5 in F Minor, BWV 1056 - Eunshik Park
Tchaikovsky: Souvenir de Florence (Première, NYCP edition transcribed by Yoomi Paick)

As my concert season finally seems to be picking up a nice pace, on Sunday I was more than ready to trek to the other side of the Park to hear the New York Classical Players in one of their regular homes, the austerely beautiful Church of the Heavenly Rest. The fact that the program included Tchaikovsky's "Souvenir de Florence" got me especially excited not only because the Russian composer was my first musical love, but also because some string-enhanced, free-flowing emotions sounded like just what I needed after Pierre-Laurent Aimard's superb but borderline rigid piano recital on Thursday night at Carnegie Hall. More of Tchaikovsky's œuvre would be present thanks to his conservatory colleague Arensky, and then Bach, who is always a welcome name on any musical listing, would be there as well. Although my friend Dawn could not make it, having injured herself by taking the concept of bar-hopping a little bit too literally, Lisa, another music-loving buddy, eventually showed up on this sunny and cold afternoon.

Bach's Brandenburg concertos are probably one of the most popular works of the classical music realm, but for some reason I do not get to hear them live often. So I was very happy for the opportunity to revel into the No 3 performed by such a stellar ensemble. I was even happier to find out that they would play it without the harpsichord, which is an instrument I've always found singularly grating. Performed with strings only - But what strings! - by the New York Classical Players, the concerto overflowed with boundless vitality and elegant refinement, brilliantly proving one more time why this six-piece set is considered by general consensus one of the most remarkable achievements of the Baroque era.
Drawing inspiration from the slow movement of Tchaikovsky's String Quartet No 2, Arenky did not err far from the Russian master's trademark lyricism, but then again, why should he have? In the respectful hands of the Players, those Variations on a Theme of Tchaikovsky were both imaginative and thoughtful, a totally fitting tribute to the quintessential Romantic composer that Tchaikovsky was.
I do not tend to associate Bach with the piano, but his piano concerto No 5 turned out to be the nice surprise of the afternoon. Guest soloist Eunshik Park made it easy for all of us to simply sit back and enjoy the ride as he was effortlessly treating us to a bright, lively and just sentimental enough performance of yet another perfectly structured jewel by the prodigious German composer.
As if that was not sufficient, he came back for a joyful, highly virtuosic Waltz in A-flat Major, Op. 42 by Chopin. A completely unexpected but deeply appreciated gift.
Then we went back to Tchaikovsky, with his beloved "Souvenir de Florence" this time, in a brand new version by Yoomi Paick, who has adapted the piece originally written for a sextet to the different requirements inherent to a larger ensemble like the New York String Players. This had the advantage of adding more layers to the texture, more colors to the melodies, more depth to the expressiveness. As a result, the work had retained all of its emotional power without falling into soapy maudlinness, and this was accomplished in no small part thanks to the perfectly balanced playing from the musicians. Ever the ultimate perfectionist, Tchaikovsky would have been very pleased indeed, and so were we.

Before we parted ways, the ensemble had one last memorable piece in store for us with a divinely inspired version of Mozart's Ave Verum Corpus, which made us notice even more the atmospheric light of the sunset in Central Park as we were reluctantly going back to the real world.

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Pierre-Laurent Aimard - Debussy, Holliger & Schumann - 11/15/12

Debussy: Préludes, Book II
Holliger: Elis (Three Night Pieces)
Schumann: Symphonic Studies, Op. 13

The French pianist Pierre-Laurent Aimard has always been known for his adventurous spirit and unique capacity of mixing old and new works, discovering hidden connections as well as new possibilities, somehow making everything flow seamlessly. So it came as a surprise to me that this year his Carnegie Hall stop would include standard, if substantial, works from Debussy and Schumann, with a short piece by Holliger stuck in-between for good measure. But the uncommon talent brewing under his unassuming demeanor is reason enough to go hear him no matter what is on the program. So it is with full confidence in our evening that my friend Linden and I entered the Isaac Stern Auditorium after a rather harrowing day at work. We knew we were in good hands.

I am not entirely convinced that French music must be performed by French musicians in order to reach its highest level of being. However, when the perfect combination of complete Frenchness and outstanding musicianship appears, things are extremely unlikely to get better indeed. Drawing on his no doubt intimate knowledge of Debussy's Préludes, Pierre-Laurent Aimard gave each of the precious miniatures of Book II a compelling life of their own by precisely highlighting their details and delicately livening up their colors. And while he kept a brisk pace, he never rushed them or came close to overlooking any of their many fine points. From the atmospheric "Brouillards" (Fogs) to the dazzling "Feux d'artifice" (Fireworks), every single étude stood up proudly on its own, with a special mention for the ever-shifting "Homage à S. Pickwick, Esq. P.P.M.P.C.".
Heinz Holliger may be a famous oboist, but he also knows a thing or two about composing for the piano as his Elis can attest. Covering a wide range of sounds, it was a short but expansive musical experience.
I have never been a huge fan of Schumann, but it may very well be simply because I have never had the right exposure to him. Thursday night at Carnegie Hall may not have completely changed my mind, but Pierre-Laurent Aimard has certainly provided me with the proper tools for a much deeper and more informed appreciation of the fiendishly difficult Symphonic Studies. Just as he was expertly working his way through those minefields, I found in them the fictional characters the composer created to represent the opposite ends of his personality: the hot-blooded Florestan, oozing Romantic intensity, and the brooding Eusebius, impersonating introverted thoughtfulness. Ever the understated virtuoso, Aimard gave an aseptically clean, unswervingly coherent and still fundamentally affecting performance of these études, clearly reminding us that he is not just a contemporary music aficionado, but can handle the classics with the best of them as well.

As we were not ready to let him go just yet, he eventually came back for a homage to the "beloved and irreplaceable" Elliott Carter, who passed away on November 5, with a sober rendition of "Fratribute" from Tri-Tribute. A short bit that went a long way in heart-felt meaningfulness.

Cantori New York - Larsen, Brickle & Bank - 11/11/12

Artistic Director & Conductor: Mark Shapiro
Special Guests: The Cassatt String Quartet
Libby Larsen: Alaska Spring
Frank Brickle: Four Songs - Tim Ruedeman
Jacques Bank: Felix und Clara - Kathleen Chalfant

After Florilegium's performance on the Upper West Side, we all soldiered on to the Church of St Luke in the Fields in the Village for Cantori New York. Originally meant to take place on the previous Sunday, The "Felix und Clara" concert, which included the added bonus of a few well-regarded special guests such as the Cassatt String Quartet, saxophonist Tim Ruedeman and actress Kathleen Chalfant, had been rescheduled due to - You've guessed it - Sandy and its aftermath. Never mind. The venue was now fully back in business and, with one extra week to sharpen their skills, singers, musicians, actress and conductor could obviously only sound better, right? So we all happily sat down in another church pew, this time ready for an evening of always unusual, often challenging and reliably rewarding contemporary choral music. We would not expect anything else from those guys.

And sure enough, the first piece of the program, Libby Larsen's "Alaska Spring", proved once again what a fabulous ensemble Cantori New York is. Smartly choosing a life-affirming hymn to nature that is both sophisticated and organic, they had plenty of opportunities to display their well-known technique and did so without flinching, discreetly backed by the atmospheric sounds from the Cassatt String Quartet. Just like Mother Nature, this beautiful score kept the audience on their toes with its constant unpredictability and sheer power. After such an arresting opening number, I was worriedly wondering how the rest of the program could not go down from there.
The good news is, while the other works were not as instantly mesmerizing, they were certainly worthy of our attention as well. Composer Frank Brickle was in the audience, probably to check how the world première of his "Four Songs" would fare, and it is a safe bet to assume that he was pleased. While the poems themselves tended to be long and occasionally over-bearing, the harmonious voices of the chorus, the lush strings of the quartet and the natural sensuality of the wandering saxophone created a winning combination that was thoroughly enjoyable.
"Felix und Clara" was a different beast entirely. Inspired by the troubled relationship between Clara Schumann and her youngest son Felix (He wanted to be an artist, she did not think he was good enough), this is a 10-part piece made of her letters, which were recited, and his poems, which were sung. The strings connected everything together for a musically continuous and emotionally convoluted experience. Lucid and loving, Clara was solidly embodied by Kathleen Chalfant, who definitely sounded like the voice of reason in this constructed dialog. Stubborn and hedonistic, Felix came to life through the chorus, who managed to express the youngster's restless thoughts with steady commitment and poise. There is a lot going on in terms of words and sounds, but at the end of the day, the work is still accessible enough to strongly convey the ever-current theme of generational conflicts while remaining at its core a very satisfying musical creation. So what else could we ask for? Hmmm, maybe what that "baby crying" part, which none of us had identified as such, was all about...

Florilegium Chamber Choir - Tallis, Byrd, Ives, Whitacre, Cage & Barber - 11/11/12

Music Director: Nicholas DeMaison
Thomas Tallis: Why fum'th in fight
Thomas Tallis: If ye love me
William Byrd: Mass for Five Voices
Charles Ives (arr. Nicholas DeMaison): He is there!
Charles Ives (arr. Nicholas DeMaison): In Flanders Fields
Eric Whitacre: Nox Aurumque
John Cage: 4'33"
Samuel Barber: Agnus Dei

After Adès' much eagerly awaited Tempest had memorably come and gone on Saturday afternoon, my musical weekend was still in full gear with two other concerts lined up for Sunday, both of which revolving around the wondrous possibilities of the human voice. Of course, taking that much time off while slaving over a very large project did not feel very reasonable, but on the other hand, working at the computer all day is not the healthiest lifestyle either. So I decided to join some like-minded friends and support the arts.
The first concert would be performed by Florilegium Chamber Choir, who were starting yet another season in their usual home, the pretty Trinity Lutheran Church on the Upper West Side. Predictably enough, "The Eleventh minute of the Eleventh hour" was dedicated to the Armistice that was declared on that very day, and also to the dichotomy between sound and silence that consequently happened on the battlefields, when suddenly human beings were allowed to stop killing one another. At the stroke of a pen. Just like that.

The two opening numbers were coming to us straight from the Elizabethan period courtesy of Thomas Wallis and his church music, and soon enough the whole space was filled with peaceful harmonies. More Renaissance sacred music followed with William Byrd's sprawling "Mass for Five Voices", which came through as very pleasant, very elevated, and pretty long.
Things became decidedly more secular after intermission with Ives and his perky "He is there!" as well as more subdued "In Flanders fields". But all of those pieces suddenly became mere warm-ups when the singers and their conductor got to Eric Whitacre's immaculately beautiful "Nox Aurumque". In just over six minutes, the Florilegium choir masterfully channeled the mysterious angel musing over gold into the night, reminding us all that music does not have to be religious to be spiritual. After this mystical journey, John Cage's environment-focused 4'33" went relatively quickly and incredibly quietly. Barber's "Agnus Dei", the composer's own arrangement on his popular Adagio for Strings, was the other undisputed highlight of the concert, when in lieu of instrumental strings, we had human voices magnificently reaching out to the heavens. Since nothing could have surpassed this gorgeous conclusion, everybody wisely just left it at that.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Met - The Tempest - 11/10/12

Composer: Thomas Adès
Conductor: Thomas Adès
Producer: Robert Lepage
Prospero: Simon Keenlyside
Miranda: Isabel Leonard
Ariel: Audrey Luna
Caliban: Alan Oke

Even if the HD screenings of Don Giovanni and Salome on the Lincoln Plaza all the way back in September were fun, there's nothing like attending a performance live INSIDE the Metropolitan Opera house. After willingly skipping Anna Netrebko in yet another Donizetti and unwillingly missing Renée Fleming in Otello, it suddenly looked like the long-delayed opening of my personal 2012-2013 Met season would be Thomas Adès' The Tempest, and I frankly couldn't not have imagined much better company, including my friend Nicole who was serendipitously back in the Big Apple for a few days and made all of the following possible.
While I was for sure looking forward to an exciting matinee at the Met, I certainly did not have the slightest inkling of the kind of unforgettable afternoon we would end up spending there, and in so many unexpected ways too. Looking back about the whole thing, I can now tell that the slow but steady metamorphosis on our standing room tickets into actual seats into Parterre seats before we ended up in the first row of the center box - next to quite a dashing figure too - should have made it clear that this would not be any ordinary opera outing. And it was not.

A few days earlier I had had the pleasure of attending a terrific, if occasionally challenging, chamber music concert featuring Thomas Adès' music in a little church in my neighborhood with the composer himself in attendance. That had done nothing but whet my appetite even more for the promised Tempest. Shakespeare's play has never been one of my favorites, but Adès' œuvre has been catching my attention for a while now, which is no small compliment from the reluctant contemporary music lover that I am. So on Saturday afternoon, we literally settled in the best seats in the house while still figuratively remaining at the very edge of them.
The furious storm that begins the opera - Ironically a natural calamity quite familiar to New Yorkers these days - was a truly spectacular opening with a dramatic raging ocean, an out-of-control chandelier, frantically drowning victims, cool light effects and wild dissonances galore. It was utter chaos at its best. And while the rest of the performance did not always live up to its stunning kick off, there was still plenty to love.
Simon Keenlyside's effortlessly authoritative presence and uncommonly assured singing made him the ideal Prospero, and it is no wonder that Adès designed the role especially for him. Even when he was silently sitting on one side of the stage watching the unfolding action, you couldn't take your eyes off of him. When his character came alive, he superbly embodied a bitter man unable to find any peace, a powerful magician unhesitant to use his many tricks and a devoted father ready to do anything for his daughter's happiness.
As his daughter Miranda, mezzo-soprano Isabel Leonard was the warm, calming voice after the storm, graciously and confidently handling some pretty stressful vocal demands. Not as stressful as the ones put upon coloratura soprano Audrey Luna though, who spent the first act breathlessly performing dazzling, and incomprehensible, acrobatics in the highest possible range, to the point where even Prospero had to shout out "That's enough, Ariel!" That certainly was.
Among the unanimously strong and perfectly cast singers, Alan Oke particularly stood out as Caliban, accomplishing the remarkable feat of turning his unsavory vengeful creature into an almost sympathetic character. The Italian aristocrats all came through very well, and Stefano and Trinculo were a lot of fun to watch. The Met chorus was - What else? - excellent.
While the sets were colorful and imaginative, the concept of the "play within the play", with Prospero directing the action, was not exactly ground-breaking, but at least it worked for the most part. To have La Scala's opera house for background as a hint to the city of Milan, for example, was a nice, if a bit heavy-handed, touch. Other moments were simply beautiful in an understated sort of way, like when after their lovely love duet Miranda and Ferdinand walked off in a delicately promising landscape.
If the décors did not disappoint, the libretto could have used some improvement. Of course, it would have been a losing battle to use Shakespeare's original text, but there had to be a better option than those rhyming couplets. Instead of suggesting poetry, which was presumably the goal, the characters' parts often sounded contrived and numbing. A more naturalistic approach would probably have paid off better.
But the music. Ah, the music. That's where it's really at. With a boldly modern, incredibly versatile and immediately evocative score, Adès has created a popular opera that brilliantly mixes out-worldly magic and human emotions, bringing unique characters to vibrant musical life: The conflicted Prospero, the high-flying Ariel, the lyrical Caliban, the sweet young couple, the orderly Italian court, the clueless servants. There was a lot going on, but every sound had a specific purpose, which it fulfilled without fuss. The orchestra played superbly under the composer's baton, reminding us, if need be, how limitless their collective talent really is.

So yes, this was definitely a winning opera, and we were definitely at the right place at the right time. Or so we thought.
While we were expecting the opera itself to be an exceptional adventure, we did not expect to have to put up with an extra soundtrack that was definitely not part of the score. But that's what happened when, after the mighty storm washed off and things quieted down onstage, a woman in the box next to us started snoring as loudly as a drunken sailor. Now why would somebody spend a few hundred bucks for a prime opera seat to do something she could accomplish at home just as well and for free? I don't know, and that was frankly the last of my worries at that point.
After waking up during the short pause before the second act, giving us all hope that the unfortunate episode had just been a brief lapse of attention and not the sign of a pattern, she proceeded to promptly prove us all wrong by falling asleep and snoring again, only more loudly, effectively ruining the second act. Since turning around a few times to her friend had not worked, I gave her a piece of my mind as soon as the lights came up for intermission, just as she was being whisked away and her seatmate was staring at me in apparent disarray because she "hadn't noticed" the noise. Really?
The hard-earned happy ending of the whole affair was that all was quiet in Box 28 during the third act, and we also got to enjoy the fun company of our charming chance companion in misery, who was a downright arresting sight himself from his fancy Barneys snakeskin boots to his cheap but so stylish feather hat. Not to mention that he was rocking his mini-skirt better than most catwalk top models ever have. And I am not saying that just because he had gallantly backed me up during my little frustrated outburst before, well, storming off to talk to the house manager to make sure we'd get to hear at least the last act in peace. And we did. Thankfully.

Thursday, November 8, 2012

Music Mondays - In the Tempest: Music of Thomas Adès - 11/05/12

Adès: Catch
Debussy: Sonata for Cello and Piano
Adès-Couperin: Les barricades mystérieuses
Adès: Life Story"- Abigail Fischer
Janacek: Sonata for Violin and Piano
Adès: Court Studies of The Tempest
Adès-Christopher Foreman and Cathal Snyth: Cardiac Arrest

Just as my musical season was finally getting going with upcoming concerts like Angela Hewitt at Le Poisson Rouge and the Lang Lang & Friends benefit at Carnegie Hall, Mother Nature apparently decided that she was sick and tired of being relentlessly used and abused, and wrathfully sent Big Bad Sandy our way to remind us who the boss is. As was to be expected, the fast and furious super-storm wasted no time destroying coastlines, flooding entire neighborhoods, cutting power to countless homes and businesses, even leaving a crane dangling right across the street from Carnegie Hall, prompting the closing of the block and the cancellation of numerous performances. Over a week later, i.e. last night, just as structures and people were slowing recovering, came Athena with high winds, freezing temperatures, rain, snow and sleet. I am so ready for spring right now.
In the middle of it all, Thomas Adès' The Tempest has appropriately enough been the unofficial event of the city's opera season. In the priceless company of William Shakespeare for inspiration, Robert Lepage as the audacious producer and Simon Keenlyside as the magnetic lead, the only contemporary composer that I can not only stomach, but actually like, occasionnally even a lot, originally seemed well poised to take New York City by storm until he got somewhat upstaged by the actual meteorological phenomenon. Current status: While Mother Nature may have won in terms of media coverage, Adès has definitely won the popularity contest.
Since art, unlike the NYC Marathon, must go on, and while patiently waiting for my opera date with my visiting friend Nicole at The Tempest on Saturday afternoon, I eagerly went for an eclectic sampling of Adès' œuvre, with the composer in attendance among the packed audience, on Monday evening at the cozy little Advent Lutheran Church on the Upper West Side, conveniently located a couple of blocks from my apartment.

Written when Adès was only 19, "Catch" starts with not very pretty but certainly exciting dissonances, which quickly create some control chaos among the violin (Miranda Cuckson), cello (Julia Bruskin) and piano (Aaron Wunsch) while the clarinet (Todd Palmer) makes a couple of physically fleeting appearances. Even when things calm down, it is an uneasy calm, which will eventually turn into another melee of all the instruments, including the final reappearance of the clarinet. Not the easiest introduction, but intriguing and rewarding.
After the prickly unpredictability of "Catch", Debussy's Sonata for Cello and Piano came out in all its luminous simplicity, expertly enhanced by the cello and the piano whimsically playing off each other.
Couperin's "Les barricades mystérieuses" received a gentle yet assured treatment by Adès. Thanks to the large but tight ensemble made of clarinet, bass clarinet (Meighan Stoops), viola (Miranda Cuckson), cello and bass (Kris Saebo), the short piece gently oozed all the ephemeral mystery that has famously made it so mesmerizing.
Inspired by Tennessee Williams' poem "Life Story", Adès' work by the same name boasts of smooth jazzy overtones while a mezzo-soprano narrates the irresistible combination of funny, sad and tragic moods. On Monday night, Abigail Fischer was obviously having a good time describing first-time post-coital protocol, even though her solid, powerful voice was too often unceremoniously covered by the bass clarinets (Meighan Stoops and Alicia Lee) and the bass.
Janacek's Sonata for Violin and Piano is one of Adès' favorite pieces, and who could blame him? Unabashedly earthy and deeply atmospheric, it has everything going for it, especially the truly lovely melody in the second movement. Violin and piano were perfectly in tune for a lively rendition of it before ending it in a quiet whisper.
Then came some miniature excerpts of The Tempest that described politicians slowly mutating from abstract figures into three-dimensional characters (Who knew that breed could do that?!) with the help of clarinet, violin, cello and bass.
Adès' "Cardiac Arrest" concluded this concert with a short and devilishly rhythmical work brought to life with brilliant efficiency by a septet including two sets of hands on the piano, including Taka Kigawa, clarinet, bass clarinet, viola, cello and bass. An inspired take on the hit song "Cardiac Arrest" of the British band Madness, Adès cleverly preserved the driven tempo and totally brought home the inescapable manic pace of modern life.

Is is Saturday afternoon yet?

Saturday, October 27, 2012

The Philadelphia Orchestra - Verdi - 10/23/12

Conductor: Yannick Nézet-Séguin
Verdi: Requiem
 Marina Poplavskaya: Soprano
Christine Rice: Mezzo-soprano
Rolando Vollazón: Tenor
Mikhail Petrenko: Bass
Westminster Symphonic Choir

It had been a long, very long time coming, but Tuesday night was finally my first concert of the 2012-2013 Carnegie Hall season. And I could not have been in better company with not only my friend Linden joining me for the evening, but also the prestigious Philadelphia Orchestra and its new music director, who just happens to have become a personal favorite of mine among conductors along the years, Yannick Nézet-Séguin. The icing of the cake was the return of Rolando Villazón, after some vocal problems had been keeping him away from world stages as he was quickly becoming a household name among opera lovers.
For some unexplained reason, I was under the impression that the program consisted of Mozart's magnificent Requiem, which I would never miss an opportunity to enjoy. So it was quite a shock when upon arriving at Carnegie Hall we distinctly saw that, half-hidden by the SOLD OUT sign, we were about to enjoy the equally magnificent, but much more muscular, Requiem of Verdi. That definitely taught me to double-check the program ahead of time to be more mentally prepared, and Linden not to make the mistake of trusting me ever again.

Although I do not typically do any homework before a live performance, I really wished I had had in this case because this beautifully theatrical (theatrically beautiful?) piece, probably the most stunning mass ever written by a dedicated agnostic, is also extremely dense and stubbornly complex, and my only experience of it had been years before and was rather foggy. Oh well, it was obviously too late to do anything about it by the time we entered the hall, so I just decided to take it as it came.
And it came with a full, glorious force that would have made Verdi proud. For his eagerly debut at Carnegie Hall, Yannick Nézet-Séguin had wisely chosen a piece he deeply knows and clearly loves. Under his expert baton, the big, roof-raising hit of the night was incontestably the thunderous Dies Irae, which never failed to make my neighbor jump every time it fiercely erupted. But the quieter moments were not lost to anyone either. The serene Offertorio and the angelic Agnus Dei, for example, offered perfect opportunities for the orchestra to exercise its solid control over the most subtle portions of the journey as well.
After 26 operas, including a few true masterpieces, the Italian master had definitely learned a thing or two about composing for singers, and it openly showed in the superbly rewarding score. The four soloists kept unusually busy and all fared relatively well. The best overall performance came from Christine Rice, who is doubly blessed by a lovely voice and a sound technique. Maria Poplavskaya sang along nicely, if not remarkably, and really came through during her big, splashy scene. Despite some satisfying episodes, Rollando Villazón did not seem as comfortable as expected, sometimes not projecting enough, sometimes overly straining himself. Mikhail Petrenko did a good job with his cavernous and committed singing, an inconspicuous but unmistakable presence.
The real star of the evening, however, turned out to be the fabulous Westminster Symphonic Choir. Whether they were conveying intense drama or more subdued emotions, they displayed an impeccable unity while brilliantly enhancing the score's multi-layered texture.

After all was sung and played, time stood still for what felt like an eternity as the conductor had everybody in the hall hold their breath and, amazingly enough, everybody did, now they had finally stopped coughing. Then loudly enthusiastic cheers and applause poured out for what felt like another eternity, comforting us into the feeling that we had just been part of a very special night indeed. It is so good to be back.

Saturday, September 22, 2012

New York Philharmonic - Kurtag, Beethoven & Stravinsky - 09/21/12

Conductor: Alan Gilbert
Kurtag: ... quasi una fantasia ... for Piano and Groups of Instruments, Op. 27, No 1 - Leif Ove Andsnes
Beethoven: Piano Concerto No 3 in C Minor, Op. 37 - Leif Ove Andsnes
Stravinsky: Le sacre du printemps (The Rite of Spring)

One week before opening its season with a gala concert starring Itzhak Perlman for an attractive-but-safe program of crowd pleasers, the New York Philharmonic has been presenting its first series of performances of the season with a much more substantial program boasting of Kurtag, Beethoven and Stravinsky. It sounded good to me. Of course, the fact that the two first pieces would feature pianist extraordinaire Leif Ove Andsnes did not hurt a bit either. And, after all, why not celebrate the first official day of fall with one of classical music's most influential masterpieces, which happens to celebrate... the rite of spring? 
As luck would have it, my evening at the Lincoln Center yesterday started on an unexpected but happy note as I was welcome on the Lincoln Plaza by some excerpts of the Met HD broadcast of last season opening opera Anna Bolena, probably to allow the Met tech crew to work out any technical glitches before Monday's live broadcast of this season opening opera L'Elisir d'amore, starring the very same Anna Netrebko. An offer to hear the superstar soprano's gorgeous voice is always to be grabbed, so I contentedly sat down to watch and listened while marveling that this surprise treat made my just consolidated plan to go hear her live across the pond in just a few months even more palpable.

Back to the New York Philharmonic in the Avery Fisher Hall, the evening started with a short but fascinating work by contemporary Hungarian composer Gyorgy Kurtag. Performed by the conductor, pianist and timpanist on stage while the other musicians were relegated to the back of the various tiers, the four miniature pieces turned out to be mysterious, atmospheric, unpredictable and always engaging. Although I typically hate sitting in one of the sides of a concert hall, I have to say that it worked out very well in these circumstances since I could watch and hear what was going on on both ends without any difficulty.
Back in their normal configuration, the orchestra and soloist proved to be in very fine form indeed for Beethoven's Piano Concerto No 3. As was to be expected, Leif Ove Andsnes subtly emphasized the organic beauty of the music thanks to a winning combination of more Mozartian elegance and less Beethovian drama. The composer's impetuousness was nevertheless there too, especially in the vibrantly alive third movement. Solidly backed up by an understated but unmistakably present orchestra, the pianist felt free to let the music simply, eloquently speak for itself.
As the 100th anniversary of its infamous Parisian première nears (on May 19, 2013, to be exact), Stravinsky's Rite of Spring is likely to appear on quite a few concert programs this season, and who is complaining? Certainly not the audience in the Avery Fisher Hall last night, where the New York Philharmonic in full force - in more ways than one - made it abundantly clear why this avant-garde series of "Pictures of Pagan Russia" is as viscerally radical today as it was one century ago, minus the riot. From the opening bassoon solo of uncompromising purity to the closing notes of unrestrained savagery, this thrilling Rite benefited enormously from the orchestra's rock-solid mastery of their art and Alan Gilbert's steady command of the relentless wild ride. The result was a finely textured and highly energized performance that regularly exploded into moments of enigmatic exoticism and thunderous primitiveness, to the point where the listeners had no choice but to happily abandon themselves to the implacable score. On the other hand, dissonances had never sounded so good. If this concert is any indication of what's in store for next season with New York City's premier orchestra, I will definitely show up more often.

Saturday, September 15, 2012

Classical Jam - Piazzola, Bach, Tielman-Susato, Brahms, Hines & Nazareth - 09/15/12

Piazzola: Fuga y Misterio from María De Buenos Aires
Bach: The Art of Fugue
Tielman-Susato: Three dances
Natasha's Dream
Brahms: Hungarian Dance No 5
Justin Hines: There is a Hole in the Bucket
Nazareth: Choro

Summer is over or almost over, depending on if you consider Labor Day or September 21 the official change of season, but in any case, I am ready to say "Vive l'automne", with its golden lights, cool temperatures, colorful foliage and, finally, the beginning of the new cultural season. New York City was not, of course, completely music-deprived during the past couple of months, with the popular outdoors concerts in July and the acclaimed Mostly Mozart Festival in August.
More adventurous - or simply luckier - music fans on the Upper West Side could also find solace in various informal, occasionally unexpected and always free, treats such as Susan Keser, the gracious violinist steadily enchanting visitors and locals in her Central Park corner, the bluesy saxophonist worrisomely sounding on his last breath by the Metropolitan Museum, the young violinist expertly working her hula hoop around her hips while playing a pared-down version of "Imagine" near Strawberry Fields, or the groovy jazz band spontaneous enlivening the south-western corner of Broadway and W. 86th Street some weekend afternoons.
Now that we're slowly getting back to business as usual, I could not but be thrilled at the prospect of enjoying a free concert today at the atypical time of 11:00 am by the unusual band Classical Jam in the Lincoln Center's David Rubinstein Atrium as part of the Meet the Artist Saturday series. Constituted of seasoned musicians playing the flute, percussion, violin, viola and cello, Classical Jam was promising an eclectic program reflecting the different personal backgrounds and interests of its members, and I happily joined the eager crowd to watch them walk (or rather play) the talk.

It all started with the vibrant notes of Piazzola's Fuga y Misterio, which sounded pleasantly bright and lively in a space that was probably not designed with live music in mind. Smartly combining classical rigor and Argentine sensuality, it immediately caught and kept the attention of adults and children alike.
After leading the audience into a Fugue-related singing exercise, the fearless ensemble took everybody back in time - and across the pond - from Piazzola's Fuga to Bach's The Art of Fugue. But that was not all. Not contenting themselves with churning out an impeccable, totally engrossing version of it, they eventually turned it into a smoking hot jazz tune, which proved once more the timelessness of Bach's music.
The next number was three short Renaissance dances from the Italian composer Tielman-Susato, which flawlessly transported us into yet another time, another place.
The atmosphere turned downright oriental with Natasha's Dream, an engaging work during which percussionist Justin Hines masterfully demonstrated the possibilities of his fancy tambourine and violinist Jennifer Choi clearly stood out with a short but high-flying solo turn.
Brahms' infectious Hungarian Dance No 5 has long been a staple in concert halls, but hearing it while watching The Great Dictator's sequence in which the barber Charlie Chaplin takes care of a worried-looking customer certainly put a different spin to it. Violist Cyrus Biroukhim had the difficult task of cueing his band mates and making sure that the live music matched the action of the screen, but it all worked out brilliantly.
One of Classical Jam's mottos is to bring music "from the street to the concert hall," and we all got to witness how seriously they take this laudable mission when three empty plastic buckets appeared upside down on the stage for Justin Hines' own composition: There is a Hole in the Bucket. Well, even if there was, that did not stop us from enjoying a truly virtuosic bucket-centered jam during which the composer and bucket player ended up using everything around him, including sheet music stands and the soles of his colleagues' shoes. Nothing could stop the bucket man!
To wrap up this totally fun hour, the musicians got back to their respective instruments and performed a choro dance by Brazilian composer Ernesto Nazareth, whose energetic rhythms took us full circle back to South America, where it had all started. I couldn't have hoped for a better kick-off of the weekend, and the season.

Friday, August 24, 2012

Mostly Mozart Festival Orchestra - Bach, Mendelssohn & Mozart - 08/21/12

Conductor: Andrew Manze
Bach: Orchestral Suite No 3 in D Major, BWV 1068
Mendelssohn: Piano Concerto No 1 in G Minor - Stephen Hough
Mozart: Symphony No 41 in C Major, K. 551 (Jupiter)

After some exciting performances of major works by Beethoven and Brahms lately, it was high time to indulge in a bona fide masterpiece by the man without whom the festival wouldn't be: Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. And what better way to celebrate the Viennese master's genius than by treating myself to his truly god-worthy Jupiter? What's more, Stephen Hough and Mendelssohn did not sound like a bad pairing, and everybody loves Bach, so off my friend Linden and I went on Tuesday night... only to serendipitously bump into an old acquaintance of mine/dedicated music lover from Washington, DC at the entrance of the Avery Fisher Hall. Great minds think alike indeed.

Bach's Orchestral Suite No 3 had actually been arranged by Mendelssohn, which provided a nice transition to the second piece on the program. But it first provided a nice opening to the concert, with the wonderful "Air on the G String" artlessly standing out in all its ethereal simplicity.
Mendelssohn's Piano Concerto No 1 is only 20 minute long, but then again, why keeping on rambling on if you've already made your point, right? And the young composer certainly packed a lot in a comparatively short span, all brisk tempos and bright melodies. In the effortlessly virtuosic hands of Stephen Hough, the Romantic euphoria sprang up bubbly and intense, but always knowing its place in respect to the orchestral accompaniment.
The ovation was long, loud, and eventually rewarded with an achingly delicate Traumerei. The perfect counter-balance after Mendelssohn's fireworks, Schumann's little treasure was all the more savored for its serene nature.
After the intermission, during which we rushed out to warm up on the balcony, we giddily went back to our seats and for a few minutes even forgot the frigid temperatures in the concert hall, carried away that we were by the Jupiter's attention-grabbing, vibrantly contrasting opening. And it only got better as the sprawling symphony magnificently unfolded. International conductor Andrew Manze had for sure hit the bull's eye for its first gig with the Mostly Mozart Festival and he did not spare any effort. Under some rather inconspicuous looks he obviously nurtures a passionate soul, which became quite apparent as he was vigorously leading the orchestra into an energy-filled, impeccably informed and all-around impressive performance. Now I can say that beside some brilliant distractions from Beethoven, Brahms, Schubert and Mendelssohn, I finally heard some truly kick-ass Mozart at the Mostly Mozart Festival, and was able to subsequently go home with complete peace of mind.

Monday, August 20, 2012

Mostly Mozart Festival Orchestra - Mozart, Schubert & Brahms - 08/17/12

Conductor: Louis Langrée
Mozart: Symphony No 1 in E-flat Major, K. 16
Schubert: Symphony No 4 in C Minor, D. 417 (Tragic)
Brahms: Violin Concerto in D Major, Op. 77 - Joshua Bell

After celebrating the Mostly Mozart Festival last week with Beethoven and some Schubert, I eagerly went back to the Avery Fischer Hall last Friday night for... Brahms and some Schubert this time, and a little bit of Mozart too! But let's face it, my main reason to be there was not Mozart's first ever symphony, which I had never heard, or Schubert's Tragic symphony, which I had heard just two weeks earlier, but Brahms' mighty violin concerto, which has always been one of my top favorites among the whole classical music repertoire. To make things ever better, the performer would be no less than Joshua Bell, whose mission for the last couple of decades has apparently been to bring Romantic works to dazzling life, and the conductor would be no less than Louis Langrée, whose undeniable chemistry with the Mostly Mozart Orchestra consistently produces genuinely satisfying results. There were definitely worse ways to start the weekend in the company of these two gentlemen.

Short, at barely 12 minutes, and straightforwardly entertaining, if not bristling with his trademark inspired refinement, Mozart's first symphony was a welcome curiosity, all the more endearing when one learned that he had reached the ripe age of eight when he composed it. Treating it with all due respect and a whole lotta love, Louis Langrée led the orchestra into a lively and much heart-felt account of this playful trifle.
Schubert was 19 when he wrote his Tragic symphony, and while it is a definitely longer and obviously more mature composition that Mozart's first effort, there's no denying the youthful vigor it exudes. This happy surprise of the preview concert sounded just as good as the first time, opening with a brooding mood before turning into a whirlwind of nostalgia and vivaciousness, and eventually concluding in unresolved agitation. It is a surprisingly complex journey for a teenager to create, but by all accounts Schubert knew where he was going. And so did conductor and musicians at the Avery Fisher. The music was overflowing with a boundless energy and a constant attention to details that would have made the young master proud.
Then finally came Joshua Bell and the Brahms violin concerto, the last, but evidently not least, treat on the program. As far as I'm concerned, hearing Brahms' masterpiece live performed by the right person is one of the most divine pleasures one can experience in a concert hall. Friday night was no exception, with Joshua Bell and his intensely lyrical tone expertly negotiating delicate poetic passages, sweeping dramatic moments and exhilarating dance melodies. However, once the daunting technical challenges masterfully handled, this concerto proved to be much more than just a spectacular flash-over-substance tour de force and got deep into Brahms' own turbulent, spirited and passionate nature. This feat was accomplished in no small part thanks to soloist, conductor and orchestra all getting into the perfect groove for a grand performance. There was no encore after it, in spite of the audience's insistence, but really, none was needed. Or was it?

Friday, August 10, 2012

Mostly Mozart Festival Orchestra - Schubert/Berio & Beethoven - 08/08/12

Conductor: Susanna Malkki
Schubert/Berio: Rendering
Beethoven: Piano Concerto No 5 in E-flat Major (Emperor) - Garrick Ohlsson

After the delightful tease that was the preview concert of the Mostly Mozart Festival, my official attendance of it finally started on Wednesday night with... Beethoven, because... why not? He was a bona fide member of the Viennese gang, after all. Not to mention that under no circumstances would I miss an opportunity to hear his monumental Emperor concerto, especially if Garrick Ohlsson is the man in charge of the keyboard. Even if I was not as blunt about it as the woman seating next to me, a spectacular, if unfortunate, vision of cheap plastic surgery, gaudy make-up and not quite age-appropriate baby doll dress, who matter-of-factly stated to her companion that "the good stuff is coming later", I certainly did not expect the mysterious Schubert/Berio's Rendering to surpass the unsurpassing. So after enjoying the recordings of chirping birds all over the Avery Fisher Hall lobby, a lovely testimony of this year's focus on the pleasures of bird singing, I went into the concert hall determined to find out about the first part of program while silently pining for the second half.

The history of Rendering started when, in 1828, Schubert had the misfortune of dying after composing just a few sketches of what was supposed to become his Symphony in D Major. Fast forward roughly one and a half century later, when avant-garde Italian composer Luciano Berio decided to use those fragments while writing a new orchestral work, dutifully filling in the gaps between Schubert's last, but definitely not least, inspired ideas. And the result is... a bit out of the ordinary, with Schubert's splendidly expressive sketches connected by gently atmospheric episodes that seem to float in mid air while waiting for the next Viennese excerpt. Petite and assertive Finnish maestra Susanna Malkki did not let the unusual arrangement throw her off though, and she led the Mostly Mozart Orchestra in a vivid performance of this constantly surprising piece.
As predicted, the pièce de résistance of the concert belonged Garrick Ohlsson and his brilliant handling of Beethoven's mighty Emperor concerto. Both robust and sensitive, his interpretation unapologically evoked the unstoppable triumph of life that found its way on the score just as Napoleon's army was mercilessly marching on Beethoven's Vienna. The stark military style of this heroic march, however, did not overshadow the stunning lyricism of the Adagio un poco moto, a graceful meditation emerging like a tranquil oasis amidst all the on-going tumult, before the irresistible theme starts again, more powerful than ever. Solidly backed up by the orchestra obviously enjoying themself, Garrick Ohlsson beautifully nailed down yet another impressive feat.

After Beethoven's passionate emotions, Chopin's "Grande valse brillante" in E-flat Major concluded this rather short concert with just the right combination of intricate harmonies and light-hearted fun. Mozart was not missed.

Sunday, July 29, 2012

Mostly Mozart Festival Orchestra - Mozart & Schubert - 07/28/12

Conductor: Louis Langrée
Mozart: Symphony No 38 in C Major, K. 504 (Prague)
Schubert: Symphony No 4 in C Minor, (Tragic)

After a month of July busy with various outdoors performances and their wide range of unpredictable, frustrating and priceless moments, it was with much giddiness that I was expecting the start of the wonderful New York summer tradition that is the Mostly Mozart Festival. Moreover, as if to ease our way into paying to hear live music again, the preview concert last night was free of charge, but not free of delight thanks to two major symphonies by Mozart (Duh!) and its fellow countryman Schubert.
Since the tickets were distributed at 10 am at the Avery Fisher Hall and I figured that the competition would be fierce, I decided not to take any chances and showed up on the Lincoln Center Plaza at 7:00 am, only to find myself in the company of less than a dozen sleepy people. This type of dedication, however, paid off handsomely when (Flash forward 12 hours later) my friend Linden and I took our premium seats smack in the middle of the orchestra section. To top it all off, the seat right in front of me remained unoccupied the whole evening, providing me with an impeccable view on ever-gracious maestro Louis Langrée, with whom I had had the pleasure of exchanging a few words in the lobby in the morning, and the orchestra, all surrounded by temporary bleachers packed with hordes of music lovers. Who would have thought I’d be so happy to be back in the Avery Fisher Hall?!

After the standard welcome speeches, our patience was finally rewarded by a miraculously undisturbed performance of Mozart’s attractive Prague symphony. Apparently as eager to play as the audience was to listen, the orchestra unofficially opened the Mostly Mozart Festival with a rousing, unabashedly joyful account of one of the Viennese master’s later works. Intrinsically simple in all its discreet refinement, the lovely composition appreciably benefited from the dynamic conducting of Louis Langrée, who did not seem to miss an opportunity to vividly highlight each and every charming detail of it. If this was a preview of the rest of the festival, there is a lot to be expected indeed.
Although I am a die-hard fan of Schubert’s chamber music, his other works had never done much for me until I became acquainted with the Tragic symphony last night. While its title made me expect gloom and despair, it was by no means a depressing piece. The beginning may have been slow, brooding even, but the mood quickly switched to a more upbeat tone with appealing rhythms and pretty melodies, turning the whole thing into an unequivocally engaging work. Its natural vigor expertly emphasized by Louis Langrée’s high-spirited baton, Schubert’s symphony quickly proved that it could easily hold its own against Mozart’s, and that’s no small feat.

All in all, the evening was a total winner and the audience made no mistake about it, spontaneously erupting in heart-felt applause after each work (well, each movement, actually) and hopefully making plans to come back for more. The Mostly Mozart Festival has arrived, and not a minute too soon.

Sunday, July 22, 2012

New York Philharmonic - Wagner & Tchaikovsky - 07/16/12

Conductor: Andrey Boreyko
Wagner: Prelude to Act I of Die Meistersinger
Tchaikovsky: Violin Concerto in D Major, Op. 35 – James Ehnes

I was not sure I wanted to go to the second New York Philharmonic concert in Central Park, especially as the temperature was getting high and the air muggy, but then again, how could I pass an opportunity to maybe get to hear Tchaikovsky’s glorious violin concerto? The violinist du jour was going to be James Ehnes, and I knew from previous experience that, if nothing else, he would get the job masterfully done with his rock-solid technique. That just did it. So I ended up finding a seat on a bench outside of the reserved area, and while the constant coming and going of passer-bys could be distracting, it was actually possible to grasp some of what was happening on the stage, which was, after all, the whole point.

Unsurprisingly, Wagner’s Prelude to Die Meistersinger came through pretty much intact, if a bit faint, assertively muscling its way through the ambient noise and freely unfolding its irresistible charm in our countrified setting.
Tchaikovsky’s masterpiece for violin did not fare quite as well, mostly because the quieter moments were practically inaudible. This was, of course, to be expected, but I still couldn’t help spending a large part of the evening pining over the delicate canzonetta. All was not lost though since dazzling pyrotechnics abounded too, and those were performed with such remarkable dexterity and boundless energy that they elicited spontaneous, vigorous applause every time they came up. This was all a bit unorthodox, sure, but, after all, quite in line with the all-inclusive spirit of the whole event. Let us enjoy the music!

I did not stay for Brahms’ Symphony No 1, figuring that I had had my fill of stickiness, crowd and, let’s not forget, live music for yet one more summer evening. And that was pretty satisfying.

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Orchestra of St Luke's - Beethoven & Ravel - 07/15/12

Conductor: Pablo Heras-Casado
Beethoven: Symphony No 7 in A Major, Op. 92
Ravel: Le tombeau de Couperin
Beethoven: Piano Concerto No 3 in C Minor, Op. 37 - Emmanuel Ax

Although my growing experience of outdoors performances has been a decidedly mixed bag (beautiful settings, attractive programs, committed musicians, non-committed audiences), I figured that the Caramoor International Music Festival had to be different, if only for the good reason that when people fork out some cold hard cash, they tend to pay more attention. So when my friend Paula asked me if I’d be interested in joining her for a concert featuring the consistently fabulous Orchestra of St Luke’s with the no less consistently fabulous Emmanuel Ax for a program including Beethoven and Ravel, I was ready to pack a picnic and head off to bucolic Katonah before we even got the tickets.
After days of anxiously monitoring the weather forecast and planning the picnic menu and what to do if the picnic was likely to be rained out, we decided to be optimistic and headed to Westchester County with food, wine, water… and no real plan B, except for her car. The muggy weather managed to hold up for our little feast and the first raindrops started falling right at 4:00 pm, just as they were opening the Venetian Theater. This was, however, just the prelude to a massive, unstoppable thunderstorm that kept on relentlessly pounding on the area for over an hour, delaying the start of the performance by 30 minutes and forcing the organizers to shuffle the program, wisely deciding to start off with Beethoven’s high-powered Symphony No 7 instead of Ravel’s understated piece.

The competition between the raging storm outside and the turbulent first movement inside was a tight one and the winner is still unclear. The rain pounding on the tent often made it challenging to hear the music, but since the dynamic rhythms and abrupt modulations did not go unnoticed, we’ll call it a tie. Lo and behold, it is the quieter second movement that inconspicuously put its hypnotic spell on Mother Nature and eventually subdued her wrath. After the first few minutes of the stunning Allegretto, incidentally one of my favorite symphonic movements ever, the rain tapered off, then stopped and some shy sun rays delicately beamed in our much battered shelter. T’was about time! As if to celebrate Beethoven’s ultimate triumph over the elements, the rest of the work was played with much energetic joyfulness, all the way to its breakneck speed conclusion.
After intermission, it was back to what was our original opening number, Le tombeau de Couperin by Ravel. After Beethoven’s endless inventiveness, the young but poised maestro Pablo Heras-Casado and the orchestra made sure that Ravel’s engaging and subtle melodies got all the attention they deserved.
And finally came the unassuming-looking middle-aged man with the magic fingers we had all been waiting for, Emmanuel Ax. Barely containing his eagerness to play, he was obviously having a ball confidently emphasizing the assertiveness of the muscular passages while quietly illuminating the delicacy of the lyrical moments of Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No 3. Just like our Sunday in the country, his memorable performance was peaceful and stormy, with just the right amount of emotional intensity, and the unwelcome touch of what is apparently Westchester County’s hottest fashion accessory these days: metal bangles. While it is understandable that the local ladies took advantage of such a high profile event to doll themselves up, it would have been nice if they hadn’t insisted on sporadically adding their own contribution to the music with their noisy baubles. So much for calm after the storm.

Sunday, July 15, 2012

New York Philharmonic - Tchaikovsky - 07/13/12

Conductor: Alan Gilbert
Tchaikovsky: Symphony No 4 in F Minor, Op. 36

As a long-time classical music lover and a relatively new New Yorker, attending one of the “Concerts in the Parks” by the New York Philharmonic was a compulsory rite of passage that I was very much looking forward to. A smart combination of community outreach and PR savviness, those events have been a New York tradition for the past 47 years (although they did not take place last year due to other commitments from the orchestra) and are obviously as popular as ever. After catching a lovely “Prélude à l’aprés-midi d’un faune” on Tuesday evening courtesy of The Knights at the Naumburg Bandshell, I was more than ready to start the weekend with a full live music experience in the Park again.
A crowd-pleasing line-up of Tchaikovsky and Respighi sounded just about right for my first time and on Friday night I happily quickened my steps to the Great Lawn, which had become a seemingly endless ocean of blankets, food, drinks and people. I guess being a full-time working girl does not help when it comes to attending a gigantic get-together ignited by the presence of an illustrious New York cultural institution and no admission fee, but I eventually found a spot far from the stage and the expansive reserved area, and patiently waited for the festivities to begin.

After a couple of speeches, we quickly went down to business with Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No 4, and I just as quickly realized that my enjoyment of the by all accounts vigorous performance would be marred by the facts that the sound did not carry well to my somewhat remote outpost and that the non-music lovers around me were more interested in keeping on discussing their own lives than in exploring the Russian composer’s first deeply personal work. The intermittent garbled sounds coming from the walkie talkie of a policeman who had suddenly decided to plant himself next to me was not welcome either. Moving helped, but only to a point. So when the omnipresent Fate theme came around, it erupted loud and clear every time, and it was definitely a thrill to hear the sporadic whiffs of those forceful, untamable few notes in such a setting. But the more introspective moments were simply not coming through the significant distance and the general brouhaha.
Respighi’s beautifully expressive but not particularly loud symphonic poems Fountains of Rome and Pines of Rome were next, and just as I was pondering my next move, I felt a few raindrops, which comforted me in my decision to join the mass exodus and go home. Finally seeing the New York Philharmonic in the Park was good, being able to fully hear them would have been better.

Thursday, June 28, 2012

New York Grand Opera - Tosca - 06/27/12

Composer: Giacomo Puccini
Conductor: Vincent La Selva
Director: Roberto Stivanello
Flora Tosca: Claire Stadtmueller
Mario Cavadarossi: Alejandro Olmedo
Baron Scarpia: Raemond Martin

My first and still favorite opera, Tosca is fortunately for me performed far and wide and often, so getting my regular fix when I need to has never been too complicated. But despite various venues and different casts, I had never come even remotely close to hearing it outdoors… or for free. Well, now I can tell that this has been taken care of last night courtesy of New York Grand Opera in the Naumburg Bandshell of Central Park on a deliciously breezy summer night.
Granted, the Naumburg Bandshell, for all its historic, cultural and social significance, is not the Verona Arena, so the music and singing had to be amplified. Major bummer. Additionally, free admission did not mean democratic admission, and there were plenty of mysteriously privileged attendees who had priority over the seats. And there, of course, always is a part of the audience that will treat an outdoors performance as a social event with fancy background music and cannot seem to be able to stop their conversations – with their companions or over the phone – simply because there’s something possibly exciting happening on the stage. But anything for Tosca.

Although the sets and the costumes were neither lusciously opulent nor interestingly creative, they were certainly serviceable and probably some welcome help in situating the action for those that were not familiar with the story. A lot was actually accomplished with a relatively small stage and what are probably fairly modest means.
Because everybody was miked, and technical devices do not come without the occasional technical glitch, it was hard to assess the actual musicianship level of the performers. Puccini’s famously dramatic score and show-stopping arias were all there, just not in their purest, most gripping form. Regardless, singers and orchestra sounded rather competent and managed to get the job done. But I still can’t figure out, for example, if Alejandro Olmedo’s congested singing in the first scene came from some unpreparedness on his part or some technical snafu. Whatever caused it, it regretfully spoiled “Recondita armonia”.
On the other hand, there was something truly magical about hearing “E lucevan le stelle” under a dark blue sky filled with actual shining stars and a luminous half-moon. And to top it all off, just as Tosca was taking her fatal leap from the Castel Sant’Angelo after all hope had been lost, as if on cue, a helicopter suddenly appeared and started hovering over us, adding an unexpected sense of urgency to the consummate tragedy. I am not sure what Puccini would have thought of that, but it certainly turned this Tosca in the Park into a unique experience.

Friday, June 22, 2012

Orpheus Chamber Orchestra - Rossini, Grieg, Mozart & Bartok - 06/19/12

Rossini: Overture to Il signor Bruschino
Grieg: Holberg Suite, Op. 40
Mozart: Symphony No 29 in A Major, K. 201
Bartok: Romanian Folk Dances

How about starting the official summer concert season with a short but fun musical trip around Europe in the company of Rossini in the south, Grieg in the north, Mozart in the east and Bartok slightly south-east? Even the much experienced Naumburg Orchestral Concerts couldn’t come up with anything better, and therefore kicked off this year’s run with this easily accessible program performed by the distinguished Orpheus Chamber Orchestra in Central Park’s historic Naumburg Bandshell on one of those simply perfect June evenings. And it certainly is sure evidence of this summer musical tradition’s on-going popularity (and of the relentless, far-reaching marketing of WQXR, which was also broadcasting live) that everybody and their neighbor seemed to have made a special point to be there, for yet one more season of the oldest continuous free outdoor concert series in the United States.

 First in line was one of the major Italian melody masters in the person of Gioachino Rossini and its overture to Il signor Bruschino. Brightly attractive and perky, this high-spirited opener immediately put everybody in an even more festive mood.
More subdued but equally charming was the composer from the cold and one of his neo-classical works, Edvard Grieg and the Holberg Suite. A somewhat distant location from the stage and the occasionally restless crowd (not to mention an overly cheerful group of runners nearby) made it more challenging for me to actually hear the impeccably unified, effortlessly refined playing coming from the stage, but I guess an outdoor concert without outside distractions wouldn’t be an outdoor concert.
Luckily, everybody was more or less settled after intermission, just as playful fireflies were inconspicuously becoming more and more visible in the slowly dimming daylight. In this lovely setting, Mozart’s naturally elegant Symphony No 29 sounded both intimate enough for a chamber music orchestra to gracefully handle and epic enough for the eclectic audience to collectively enjoy.
We ended this enchanted evening with Bartok’s endlessly infectious Romanian folk dances. Not missing a single beat during the vibrantly groovy tunes, the orchestra clearly demonstrated that their formidable skills had no limits whatsoever. Those precious little gems were also the perfect opportunity for them to conclude a beautiful evening in the park on a particularly uplifting note.