Monday, April 23, 2012

New York Classical Players - Elgar, Penderick & Chopin - 04/22/12

Conductor: Dongmin Kim
Elgar: Serenade for Strings, Op. 20
Penderecki: Sinfonietta for Strings
Chopin: Piano Concerto No 1 in E Minor, Op. 11 (Chamber Version) – Edward Auer

What better way to brighten up a miserable cold and rainy Sunday than with a little Chopin? Since I found it difficult to come up with a better alternative, I left behind my dry apartment and the pile of New Yorkers I was finally getting around to perusing and begrudgingly trudged across a deserted Central Park for The New York Classical Players’ last, but by no means least, concert of the season. After discovering this young ensemble earlier this year, I have quickly become accustomed to the refined command of their playing and the adventurous eclecticism of their programming. So there I was, back in the beautiful Church of the Heavenly Rest and ready to delight in English, Polish and French treats from Elgar, Penderecki and, an all-time personal favorite of mine, Chopin.

Regardless of circumstances, there are few opening pieces as smooth as Elgar’s ever-popular Serenade for Strings. Performed by the superior strings of the New York Classical Players under the detailed conducting of their music director Dongmin Kim, this melodic feast sounded as crisp and silky as the composer must have dreamed it. The much heralded Larghetto, in particular, delicately came through with just the right combination of poetry and mystery.
After Elgar’s uplifting introduction, we were in for a forceful, attention-grabbing second number with Penderecki’s Sinfonietta for Strings. The rude awakening triggered by the hard-hitting first chords was rapidly softened by the luminous lyricism of a long viola solo before the insistent chords returned and continued to assertively manifest themselves between individual turns by various soloists. Until the very end, the composition remained resolutely innovative, yet easily accessible. Accordingly, the orchestra did not even try to dig up any pretty sounds out of it, but successfully brought out its gritty edginess and unusual appeal.
There is of course nothing unusual about Chopin’s appeal, and it was a priceless pleasure to hear his hyper-Romantic Piano Concerto No 1, never mind that it is actually the second one he wrote. The first American to ever win a prize at the Chopin Competition in Warsaw, among other prestigious awards, Edward Auer has had a long and distinguished career. Yesterday afternoon, as he was making his entrance after the expansive orchestral introduction, it immediately became obvious that he had not forgotten his first inspiration. Gentle yet passionate, he delicately emphasized the natural beauty of the music without sacrificing any of its fervent intensity. Having a chamber ensemble instead of a full orchestra accompany the soloist was a welcome novelty too, insofar as it made the whole experience more intimate, therefore more affecting. Unsurprisingly, the captive audience rewarded the musicians with a vigorous standing ovation.

Before we parted ways, Edward Auer came back for an exquisite rendition of Chopin’s Nocturne Op. 15 No 2. Another proof, if need be, that one can never hear too much Chopin.

Sunday, April 22, 2012

European Union Youth Orchestra - Copland, Mozart & Strauss - 04/18/12

Conductor: Vladimir Ashkenazy
Copland: An Outdoor Overture
Mozart: Violin Concerto No 3 in G Major, K 216 – Itzhak Perlman
Strauss: Eine Alpensinfonie, Op. 64

An opportunity to hear violinist extraordinaire Itzhak Perlman is never to be missed. When you can also support the European Union Youth Orchestra, a unique ensemble made up of the crème de la crème of music students coming from the 27 member states of the European Union, by the same token, there is simply no excuse to skip the concert, especially if it takes place at Carnegie Hall. On top of it, the traditional but solid program – overture, concerto, symphony – featuring Copland, Mozart and Richard Strauss was promising attractive melodies, evocative moods and emotional richness. The ideal mid-week pick-me-up, if you asked me.

Composed with a young orchestra in mind, Copland’s Outdoor Overture is a delightfully invigorating breath of fresh air, and even more so when performed with the incredibly seasoned skills and unwavering aplomb of this particular group. Vladimir Ashkenazy, their music director since 2000, looked just as enthusiastic as his young charges and a grand time was had by all.
A long-time dedicated pedagogue himself, Itzhak Perlman is no stranger to collaborating with the next generation and clearly knows how to make the most of it. On Wednesday night, it was a real pleasure to hear his refined, luminous tone arise amidst the vivacious accompaniment from the reduced ensemble for Mozart’s Violin Concerto No 3. With this lovely piece, the 19-year-old composer was finally coming into his own, and its fast maturing talent was particularly evident in the divine Adagio, which bristled with angelic grace before the charming Rondo wrapped things up with careless exuberance.
Richard Strauss is somebody that has never ceased to amaze me. I mean, how on earth can you go from Ein Heldenleben to Salome to Der Rosenkavalier to … Eine Alpensinfonie (among many, many other things)? Inspired by his beloved Bavarian Alps and spurred by his boundless imagination, this monumental tone poem narrates a whole day of climbing a mountain peak. The majestic beauty of nature, the pleasant presence of cattle (complete with cowbells), the breathtaking view from the top, the blinding fury of a storm and the peaceful glow of the evening all came out loud and clear in a splendid display of what a group of whole-heartedly committed musicians can achieve. Obviously stimulated by the intense energy coming from the orchestra, maestro Ashkenazy nevertheless kept everything under control and created a mermorable experience totally worthy of the prestigious Stern Auditorium.

It is probably a safe bet to assume that, as European natives, most of the musicians onstage were setting foot on American soil for the first time. Therefore, it was indeed more than fitting that the encore was a wordless but dynamite version of Bernstein’s “America” from West Side Story, one of the most infectious tunes ever written and one thrilling conclusion to a totally uplifting concert.

Friday, April 20, 2012

Orchestra of St. Luke's - All-Mozart - 04/12/12

Conductor: Ivan Fischer
Mozart: Symphony No 34 in C Major, K. 338
Mozart: Requiem, K. 626 – Musica Sacra – Dominique Labelle – Kelley O’Connor – Joseph Kaiser – Richard Paul Fink

As this invigorating mini marathon is coming to an end, I couldn’t imagine a more fortunate convergence of fabulous musical forces than Mozart’s extraordinary Requiem performed by the brilliant Orchestra of St. Luke’s under the always inventive baton of Ivan Fischer at Carnegie Hall. I fell in love with the Requiem the very first time I heard it and it has remained one of my all-time favorite works. The Orchestra of St. Luke’s were headlining my very first concert at Carnegie Hall, and Ivan Fischer has always been a wonderful musical mentor through the fun, ground-breaking, puzzling and thrilling endeavors of his I got to attend in Washington, DC, Budapest and New York City. So my friend Nicole and I were more than ready for a memorable evening together.

The evening was memorable, yes, and also not without some unexpected moments along the way. Mozart’s Symphony No 34, however, was not one of them. A lovely composition bristling with its creator’s well-known elegant refinement, it sounded all the better thanks the committed, highly detailed playing of the orchestra. This was a satisfying performance of course, but it did not have this unique element of happy surprise I have come to expect from maestro Fischer.
Things quickly changed with the Requiem though. Watching the stage being reconfigured, we were wondering where the choir would be placed since we could not see any structure anywhere for them to stand on. Then we noticed two small stands behind the orchestra, and sure enough, they were soon occupied by the male choristers of Musica Sacra while the females singers ended up scattered among the musicians. The soloists were on small podiums between orchestra and choristers, and the whole set-up formed quite a peculiar, kind of cosy scene for such a sprawling piece. But when Ivan Fischer is running the show, you know to just go with the flow and enjoy the unusual ride.
And all things considered, this out-of-the-box Requiem was very much enjoyed indeed, especially as the lofty, unified sound he drew from the flawlessly coordinated musicians and choir gave the stunning Mass for the Dead a profoundly human dimension. Toning down the sweeping grandeur and haunting darkness that are traditionally associated with Mozart’s most enigmatic composition, this performance almost felt intimate. A personal highlight on mine, the quintessentially take-no-prisoners Dies Irae may not have been the most hair-raising I’ve ever experienced, but it was still a viscerally powerful Day of Wrath. The soloists all came through beautifully, and this unusual Requiem concluded four incredible evenings with a different, but superb, touch.

Mission accomplished.

Monday, April 16, 2012

Academy of St. Martin in the Fields - All-Beethoven - 04/11/12

Conductor: Joshua Bell
Beethoven: Overture to Coriolan, Op. 62
Beethoven: Violin Concerto in D Major, Op. 61 – Joshua Bell
Beethoven: Symphony No 4 in B-flat Major, Op. 60

After happily basking in Verdi’s gorgeous œuvre at the Metropolitan Opera for two evenings in a row, the time eventually came to move on to musical highs of a different type. And those were in fact going to happen right next door in the Avery Fisher Hall where, on Wednesday night, the prestigious London-based Academy of St. Martin in the Fields and their newly appointed music director Joshua Bell were scheduled to perform an all-Beethoven feast.
This exciting prospective had actually faced one major hurdle about a month before, when I discovered that I also had a ticket for Mitsuko Uchida playing an all-Schubert recital at Carnegie Hall that very same evening. But I quickly figured that, while both musicians stand equally high in my esteem, Beethoven easily trumps Schubert any day. Moreover, Beethoven’s violin concerto was the last major violin concerto that I had not heard Joshua Bell play at least once, and it was time to cross that one off the list as well. That’s why after a well-deserved day off – Nobody said that steadily supporting live performances was an easy job, but somebody’s got to do it – I was on my way to the Lincoln Center again.

Roman General Coriolanus, the inspiration for Henrich von Collin’s tragedy Coriolan, was confronted with quite a gut-wrenching dilemma when he found himself torn between attacking Rome, the home he had fled after being accused of plotting against it, and giving in to his beloved mother’s plead not to proceed. Unsurprisingly, this will not end well. Back in the Avery Fisher Hall on Wednesday night, Beethoven’s eight-minute Coriolan’s Overture kicked off in full force not only the evening’s concert, which would have been enough of a brilliant idea in itself, but also Joshua Bell’s first US appearance as the orchestra’s new music director and conductor. After getting over the unusual sight of seeing him fulfill all his duties, including violinist, sitting in the concertmaster chair, we got to enjoy a vigorously driven opening number that could only be promising bigger and better things to come.
And they came quickly with, next, Beethoven’s monumental violin concerto. For the occasion, Joshua Bell was back in his more familiar standing position while still conducting with subtle body language, assuredly making use of his much celebrated sweet tone to luminously highlight the pure beauty of the piece. The composer’s combative nature was not completely subdued though, and authoritatively emerged in Bell’s own dramatic cadenzas, which came out blazingly fast and furious. The orchestra, renowned for its refined precision and discreet warmth, kept up with their impeccable reputation and proved to be the ideal partner for the virtuosic soloist.
While not as popular as some of his other symphonies (Being stuck between the Eroica and the Fifth has got to be a tough spot), Beethoven’s Fourth still got an all-out royal treatment, and ended up sounding not unworthy of such a station. Back in the concertmaster’s chair, Joshua Bell led the musicians into an intense and exhilarating interpretation of it, one that was filled with a clear and present sense of purpose. Engagingly brisk and lyrical, this Fourth firmly stood on its own and probably converted more than a few audience members in the process.

After much applause, the musicians were apparently not ready to leave us, or the Viennese masters for that matter. That’s how after rocking the hell out of Beethoven, Joshua and the Brits treated us to the first movement of Mozart’s Symphony No. 25, the first piece that he’s ever heard them perform. Probably best known for opening the film Amadeus, this unexpected bonus wasted no time in gloriously filling up the concert hall with the fiercest Sturm und Drang that could have possibly been mustered out of the majestic work. It also incidentally provided the perfect transition to my next concert, Mozart’s magnificent Requiem, the following evening.

Three down. One to go.

Sunday, April 15, 2012

Met - La Traviata - 04/10/12

Composer :Giuseppe Verdi
Conductor: Fabio Luisi
Producer/Director: Willy Decker
Violetta Valéry: Natalie Dessay
Alfredo Germont: Matthew Polenzani
Giorgio Germont: Dmitri Hvorostovsky

Why stop at one Verdi opera when you can attend two in a row? Unlike Macbeth, which was a last-minute decision, La Traviata had been long planned and eagerly awaited for months. I was actually so excited at the prospect of seeing it with Natalie Dessay that I did not pay attention to the starting time, which was again the dreaded 8:30 pm. And to think that all that commotion is due to the obscenely expensive, monstrously complex and ultimately preposterous sets of the current Ring cycle makes you really question the sanity of the Met’s powers-that-be.
Willy Decker’s modern take on La Traviata has stirred some controversy too as opera goers have voiced strong – if overall positive – opinions on its uncompromising boldness ever since it came out. But aren’t ground-breaking artistic endeavors supposed to spark off stimulating conversations anyway? While it is totally understandable that this daring experiment cannot be everybody’s cup of tea, no one can deny that it manages to preserve the fundamental essence of the original opera while putting its very own stamp on it. And that is no small feat.
Seeing it last year was a revelation for me, so when I heard that Natalie Dessay had been tapped by the Met to don the little red dress this season, along with Met regulars Matthew Polenzani and Dmitri Hvorostovsky, a second visit to the minimalist set was inevitable. After a couple of days of panic upon hearing that Ms. Dessay was ill and may not be able to perform on Tuesday night, the rumor thankfully proved to be just that, and after my premium orchestra seat the night before, I happily took my less glorious but still priceless spot in the Family circle.

One of Verdi’s most popular operas – and God knows the competition is fierce – La Traviata was inspired by the equally famous French novel La Dame aux Camélias of Alexandre Dumas fils. Despite a less than auspicious debut, the sentimental story of the ill-fated Parisian courtesan (That certainly sounds better than “high-priced hooker”, doesn’t it?) who finds and loses her one and only chance at true love has enthralled audiences the world over for a long time now. And that is most likely because, even if the story is borderline maudlin, the gloriously lyrical score has remained pretty much unsurpassed.
With her petite frame, quirky looks and visceral acting talent, French soprano Natalie Dessay is not your typical opera diva. Her voice is not overly big either, but its power of expressiveness is absolutely spellbinding. While on Tuesday night it took her a couple of minutes to shift into full range, there was no stopping her once she got to that magical place. Whether a carefree party girl, a blissfully in love woman or a terminally ill patient, she blazingly conveyed the convoluted emotional and physical journey her character was going through as the end of her life was slowly but inexorably coming ever closer.
As lovelorn Alfredo, American tenor Matthew Polenzani had a wonderful night as well. I had already seen him nail that part last year, so I did not expect anything else, but it was still a real pleasure to hear his ardent and supple voice bring vibrant life to his young and hot-blooded character. His easy chemistry with Natalie Dessay made them an instantly credible and lovable couple, but it is in the heated scene with Dmitri Hvorostovsky, who impersonated his father, that he really got a chance to show his tremendous vocal possibilities.
Russian baritone Dmitri Hvorostovsky has been proving he has all the right stuff for a while now, and his turn as the seemingly pitiless but eventually moved Germont père has to be counted as yet another memorable tour de force for this versatile artist. His genuinely aristocratic presence and richly velvety singing were in full display all night, especially during the two major scenes with Natalie Dessay and Matthew Polenzani.
This semi-new production has been a solid hit since it first came out, finally demonstrating that modern can be creative and successful. All it took was to authoritatively get rid of the traditional elaborate décors and sumptuous costumes and replace them with a curved, mostly empty, white set, an implacable giant clock, an omnipresent mysterious figure, several highly symbolic moments and fabulous singers. Et voilà! The absence of superfluous distractions allows the audience to fully focus on the emotionally charged interactions among the three protagonists, some crucial elements of the story, and Verdi’s stunningly beautiful score.
As far as music goes, La Traviata is definitely a Verdi grand cru, even for such a natural master of melodic lines and dramatic effects. For over one and a half century now, the opera has grabbed everybody’s attention with unforgettable arias that make daunting demands on the singers and lasting impressions on the listeners. Predictably, the soprano has to do most of the heavy lifting with the show-stoppers “Sempre Libera” and “Addio del passato”, not to mention the formidable three-hitter “Donna son io”, “Non sapete” and “Dite all giovine”. But the guys still get their moments in the spotlight too with “Dei miei bollenti spiriti” for Alfredo and “Di Provenza il mare” for his father.
Under the informed baton of Fabio Luisi, the reliably excellent Met orchestra sounded in top form and negotiated the timeless composition with plenty of vigor and attention to detail. They knew exactly when to hold back and when to come out in full force, all the better to serve the story. Add to that the riveting human touch provided by the magnificent singers, and it is easy to see why this Traviata has unquestionably become my top Met production of this season.

Two down. Two to go.

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Met - Macbeth - 04/09/12

Composer Giuseppe Verdi
Conductor: Gianandrea Noseda
Producer/Director: Adrian Noble
Macbeth: Thomas Hampton
Lady Macbeth: Nadja Michael
Banquo: Günther Groissböck
Macduff: Dimitri Pittas

Performance scheduling Gods often seem to work in mysterious ways, and this is after all their prerogative, but it really becomes a problem when the occasional lack of coordination yields frustrating, if still elating, results. For example, after a couple of relatively quiet weeks on the musical front, I suddenly find myself with four events scheduled back-to-back, and that’s not counting the ones I had to give up due to irreconcilable timing conflicts.
The first case in point is Verdi’s Macbeth at the Met. After too much procrastinating, the only option still available was last Monday at the ungodly starting time of 8:30 pm. So my heart was almost set on the American Classical Orchestra’s concert at the Alice Tully Hall, until I was made an offer I simply couldn’t resist in the form of a free premium orchestra seat in the premium company of my New York opera buddy Nicole to Macbeth. My favorite play by Shakespeare reworked by one of my favorite opera composers and featuring Thomas Hampton, one of the most popular Met regulars, with the added bonus of Nicole’s presence was just too enticing a combination to pass on.

Verdi’s first foray into The Bard’s dense world was his less successful one, but it still gives good musical drama galore. Trying to break away from the bel canto tradition, Macbeth is not overflowing with instantly catchy tunes and show-stopping numbers. It benefits, however, from the still young composer’s increased focus on the human aspects of his characters while keeping the story moving briskly along. And Shakespeare’s unforgiving tale of naked ambition and its consequences sure had enough material for psychological study and plot twisting to concoct a riveting opera.
American baritone Thomas Hampton has been singing at the Met for over a quarter of a century now and does not show any sign of even slowing down any time soon. So there was absolutely no reason why this versatile artist wouldn’t make a superb Macbeth, and he indeed handled the role with remarkable poise and flair. His naturally aristocratic demeanor was sometimes a bit too polished for such an ultimately weak and cowardly criminal, but his voice was beautifully rich and elegantly nuanced, easily overcoming the many technical challenges of the notoriously difficult score.
Those challenges were less well handled by Nadja Michael, the German soprano who was making her debut at the Met as his plotting consort. The true mastermind behind all the political intrigues and murders, Lady Macbeth is a wonderfully juicy role for the right singer. Alas, this is not what we got on Monday night. While she was cutting a striking figure as a viscerally icy and definitely ambitious blonde, Nadja Michael’s singing was too often loud and unrefined. Granted, Lady Macbeth does not exactly stop to smell the roses on her way to the throne, but she’s still a fascinating character and deserves better than the few respectable moments we got to enjoy with her. This also proves that if casting Ms. Michael was part of the Met’s alleged plan to sex up their productions in order to draw a younger audience, it is likely to fail miserably if they don’t make sure that those attractive newcomers can sing as well.
I’ve always thought that the biggest irony of Macbeth is that not only does the one truly memorable aria, “Ah, la paterna mano”, appear in the last act, but it is also sung by the secondary character of Macduff. Of course, it makes sense insofar as Macduff turns out to be the real hero of the play (and opera) when he strikes the fatal blow to Macbeth. On Monday night, we were treated to an unabashedly heart-felt rendition of it, courtesy of American young tenor Dimitri Pittas. As Macbeth’s former comrade, Austrian bass Günther Groissböck was also an appealing Banquo, the man that will not go away.
The Met’s chorus has constantly proven to be a musical force to be reckoned with, and this Macbeth gave them yet another chance to display their seemingly endless talents. Whether hauntingly appalled by the horrific murder, increasingly puzzled by Macbeth’s erratic behavior or hauntingly mourning their distressed fatherland, they always managed to set the pitch-perfect mood and fill in the opera house with their gorgeous sounds. Even if I’ve never been a fan of replacing the three witches by a three-part chorus, I was thrilled by the additional opportunity to hear this outstanding ensemble.
Shakespeare’s works are so universal that they can be set in any period of time and still profoundly resonate with the audience. This decidedly modern, militarist-looking production was in a mixed bag. Bleak tree silhouettes, imposing fascist columns, stylish aristocratic chandeliers and a high-tech crystal ball in which Banquo’s descendants appear were some of the sets’ memorable touches. The costumes were as impeccable as usual, especially in the ballroom scene where the Scottish 1% seemed to have come straight out of a French fashion magazine.
Unlike what could be legitimately expected from a Verdi opera, Macbeth does not offer much in terms of vibrant melodies. Instead, it emphasizes the ugliness of the whole story with suspenseful, imperious, somber, but never pretty, music. Beside Macduff’s famous aria, arresting solos abound throughout the opera, with the vast majority attributed to the scheming couple. The “deed is done” scene was certainly the one that caught everybody’s attention, in all its breathy, macabre tension. Lady Macbeth’s sleepwalking episode and Macbeth’s last moments were also two high points that lingered for a while. On the podium, Gianandrea Noseda kept a brisk pace and brought out the best of Verdi’s evocative score. The Scottish opera lives on and well.

One down. Three to go.