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.

Sunday, June 17, 2012

Cantori New York - Fauré - 06/16/12

Artistic Director & Conductor: Mark Shapiro
Fauré: Requiem in D Minor, Op. 48
Meredith Lustig: Soprano
Erik Downs: Bass
Wiliam Trafka: Organ

Of all the various circumstances in which I had been attending performances until yesterday, nothing had ever been as unusual as (kind of) crashing the memorial service of a total stranger. But it happened less than 48 hours ago, when Cantori New York was the hired chorus to perform Fauré’s Requiem and I was offered to discreetly tag along in the historic St. Bartholomew’s Church, a huge byzantine place of worship proudly standing near Grand Central, in that non-exotic foreign land that is the Upper East Side (aka the other side).
So there I was, quietly sitting among a large group of people whom I had never met in my life and who were all obviously connected among themselves in some capacity. I was ready to pull out my “I’m with the band (err, I mean, the chorus)” card if any questions were asked, but that was not necessary. Soon everybody settled down and got ready to hear Fauré’s Requiem interspersed by testimonies about the life of Joan Harding King, by all accounts, a truly remarkable woman who happened to love choral music.

Although my two favorite requiems are the ones composed by Mozart, for sheer magnificence, and Verdi, for operatic breadth, I had always been curious about Fauré’s alleged serene beauty. And yesterday afternoon, as I was happily listening to the flowing voices of the singers and the solemn sounds of the organ, I was indeed struck by the peaceful view of death that was being expressed, all French delicacy and none of that Teutonic grandeur or Italian passion. Fear, anger and gloom were no longer present, and death appeared more like a welcome liberation than the dreaded final end. Consequently, what was lost in gripping intensity (Where was my beloved hair-raising Dies Irae?) was gained in spiritual grace, and the whole concert became one blissfully soothing journey, religious devotion not required.
The acoustics were surprisingly good for such a relatively small group in such a large space, and the audience mostly attentive, except maybe for the woman who was filing her nails behind me during one of the tributes (Don’t you just hate it when that happens to you too, and you simply MUST file your nails during a memorial service?). The absence of orchestra allowed for a better focus on the unwaveringly committed, skillfully textured singing from the chorus and the two noteworthy soloists, and the couple of planned interruptions were quickly overlooked once the music started again. All in all, a much rewarding, if definitely atypical, experience.

New York Philharmonic - Beethoven, Korngold & Nielsen - 06/14/12

Conductor: Alan Gilbert
Beethoven: Overture to Coriolan, Op. 62
Korngold: Concerto in D Major for Violin and Orchestra, Op. 35 – Leonidas Kavakos
Nielsen: Symphony No. 3, “Sinfonia espansiva” – Erin Morley – Joshua Hopkins

One of the major advantages of living in New York City is that even when the regular cultural season is winding down, performances still spring up here and there. That’s how on Saturday, June 2, I found myself in the beautiful Congregation Beth Elohim Temple of Park Slope for a concert by the Brooklyn Community Chorus, which heartily performed a large variety of works, from an immediately engaging “Be not Afraid” from Mendelssohn’s Elijah, which made me feel sorry they were not playing the whole piece, to… an admittedly catchy spoof of The Spice Girls’ “Wannabe”, which still made me feel grateful that it was a short song.
Last Sunday, June 10, I was literally much closer to home with a concert by the Sweet Plantain String Quartet, which delighted a much appreciative local crowd in the West Side Community Garden. The classically trained, effortlessly virtuosic musicians did not let any unruly kid, frisky dog, chirping bird, passing plane, honking car, or even the sing songy ice cream truck, prevent them from delivering a winning performance that expertly fused latin, jazz, blues and classical sounds. Their infectious rap version of Vivaldi’s concerto for two cellos, played in this case with viola and trombone, perfectly summarized their iconoclastic approach to music and was the big hit of the evening.
On Thursday night I was back on even more familiar ground with a concert by the New York Philharmonic and Leonidas Kavakos. While I am not a dedicated follower of the orchestra, a state of things that has much more to do with their home than their musicianship, I can’t imagine not grabbing a chance of hearing Leonidas Kavakos playing… whatever it is that he is playing. I had never heard Korngold’s violin concerto before, but if I was meant to become acquainted with it, it might as well in his brilliant company. Although I do like Beethoven’s Coriolan and was clueless about the “Sinfonia espansiva”, they were pretty much after-thoughts in this case.

Beethoven’s overture to Coriolan is a grand-scale opening number under any circumstances, and Alan Gilbert wasted no time leading his orchestra into a gripping interpretation of it. Things were off to a good start.
After much suspense due to a conscious decision not to check it out before hearing it live on Thursday, Korngold’s violin concerto turned out to be an unabashedly attractive piece, overflowing with pretty lyrical melodies to make the audience swoon and treacherous intricate passages to make them gasp. First a child prodigy at the piano, Erich Korngold later became a busy composer of popular Hollywood movie scores, an influence that can be easily detected in his theme-driven, drama-filled violin concerto. Unhesitatingly rising up to the occasion, Leonidas Kavakos not only handled the numerous technical challenges with deftness and precision, but he also made sure to let the intrinsic expressiveness of the piece come through as well. His well-calibrated balance may have deprived us of a few take-no-prisoners sweeping moments in the best Romantic tradition, but this was nevertheless a totally thrilling experience.
Speaking of “sweeping moments”, we sure got our fill of those in the last item on the program, Nielsen’s Symphony No 3. Not unlike his fellow Scandinavian Sibelius, Nielsen wrote here an expansive, beautifully contrasted and viscerally appealing journey that conveys a wide range of moods and images. It is not hard to believe that Alan Gilbert is a die-hard supporter of the unfairly little-known composer once you’ve heard him conduct his orchestra in a decidedly heart-felt, borderline exuberant performance of it, with special kudos for the brass section, who played with steady aplomb and gusto. Not to be outdone by all the pulsing intensity of the first movement, Erin Morley and Joshua Hopkins suddenly stood up among the musicians and gorgeously sang a vocalise as pure as the driving snow, adding an exquisite human touch to the heavenly tranquility of the second movement. And what was originally the mysterious wild card of the program became the wonderful surprise of the evening. More Nielsen, please maestro!

Sunday, June 3, 2012

Lang Lang - Bach, Schubert & Chopin - 05/29/12

Bach: Partita No 1 in B-flat Major, BWV 825
Schubert: Sonata in B-flat Major, D. 960
Chopin: 12 Études, Op. 25

My last and probably most appreciated Mother’s Day gift was a ticket for Lang Lang’s recital at Carnegie Hall last Tuesday, which would also be my mum’s last night in the Big Apple. She has always had a special place in her heart for the superstar pianist after hearing him gloriously trailblaze though Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No 1 several years ago in Washington, and I strongly suspect that the timing of her visit to New York City is not totally unrelated to his recital here this season.
My personal take on his indeniable skills is more ambivalent, so it was more curiosity at seeing him handle introspective works than endless admiration for his musicianship that made me sign us up for a program featuring Bach, Schubert and Chopin. The concert was, of course, sold out, even after adding 120 chairs on the stage, and a quick scan of the crowd proved without any doubt the incredibly wide-ranging appeal of the charismatic young musician. Now all he had to do was justify the hype.

Although I am much more familiar with Bach’s compositions for the violin than for the piano, I am also always happy to get pulled into a new musical adventure. Tackling Bach for the first time at Carnegie Hall has to be a milestone in any musician’s career and Lang Lang showed nothing but deep respect and informed love for the Partita No 1. It did not, however, translated into the most elating interpretation ever, largely because he did not always connect to the simple yet transcendental beauty that characterizes the German composer’s œuvre.
As Schubert’s health was rapidly deteriorating, it is hard to imagine that the prospect of death did not influence his last sonata. A deceptively grand scale composition, it is to me first and foremost the intimate journey of a man reflecting on life. While Lang Lang’s performance of it had plenty of praise-worthy moments, he also had a tendency to fall back on his amazing, yes, but not quite appropriate bag of technical tricks. The Andante, in particular, lost some of his introspective grace and occasionally became just another slow movement. From time to time I was finding myself wistfully trying to imagine what Mitsuko Uchida did with that very same sonata on that very same stage back in April.
Chopin’s Études are perhaps some of the most difficult pieces to play in the solo piano répertoire, but they’re also delightful little gems for the listener to savor. Much more comfortable in this new endeavor, Lang Lang could finally make full use of his exciting virtuosic chops and obviously did not even consider holding back from shamelessly dazzling the clearly adoring audience again and again and again. Those unique miniatures overflowing with poetry, drama, fleetness, thoughtfulness and more kept on popping up all over the place and were all truly remarkable, each on their own way. Performed with a solid dose of technical wizardry here and a discreet lightness of touch there, they came out the true winners of the evening.

The ovation was naturally long and fierce, which earned us two encores by Liszt, a flamboyant Romantic artist himself. It is therefore not surprising that some of his works appear so tailor-made for Lang Lang’s trademark passionate playing. The delicate “Romance” and the scintillating “Campanella” we got to hear on Tuesday night definitely qualify as the ultimate brilliant little goodies, substantial enough to stay in our memories, light enough not to over-shadow the concert. Conclusion: Two thumbs up for a crowd-pleasing performance by a genuinely gifted musician who keeps on getting better.

Music Mondays - Escher Quartet - Mendelssohn, Dean & Zemlinsky - 05/28/12

Mendelssohn: String Quartet No 6 in F Minor, Op. 80
Brett Dean: “Eclipse”
Zemlinsky: Quartet No 1 in A Major, Op. 4

After the grand scale concert of the New York Philharmonic in the Cathedral of Saint John the Divine in Morningside Heights last year, this Memorial Day’s celebration was a decidedly more subdued affair with the Escher Quartet at the Advent Lutheran Church on the Upper West Side. This lovely little place of worship first came to my attention when I moved a couple of blocks from it and noticed a poster advertising their “Music Mondays”. I later became more directly acquainted with it through Carnegie Hall’s Neighborhood Concerts, and last Monday night I finally attended my first “Music Mondays” concert, which also turned out to be the last one of the season. It would have been difficult, however, to ask for better company than the much acclaimed quartet and an eclectic program featuring Mendelssohn, Dean and Zemlinsky.

We started in the company of the most classical of them all with the last major composition of Felix Mendelssohn. Written shortly after his beloved sister Fanny had died, his String Quartet No 6 is a particularly powerful work that beautifully projects the somberness of the circumstance as well as the emotional memories of the happy and sad times they had shared. From the very first note, the Escher Quartet showed impressive assertiveness, making sure that the composer’s trademark intense lyricism brightly shone through, including in the peaceful good-bye.
Inspired by an international crisis during which some boat people from Afghanistan and Iraq were rescued by a Norwegian ship, the Tampa, only to be refused asylum in Australia in 2001, “Eclipse” describes the struggle between political rules and human needs. The flow of its three movements is uninterrupted, which means that on Monday night the listener went from the listless, uncomfortable sounds of the opening movement to the fierce drama of the second section, before a quieter, if not totally happy, end wrapped up the episode. The four musicians joined their fearless forces to produce a jarring account of it, keenly emphasizing the unusual structures and colors.
We went back to more traditional fare with Zemlinsky’s spontaneously engaging yet fundamentally complex Quartet No 1. More popular as a conductor, the Viennese master obviously knew how to put some notes together on paper too. Although widely distinctive themes abound – from pronounced rhythms to simple melodies, from a wild gypsy dance to a gloriously Romantic finale – the solid unity of the whole work makes its density easy to appreciate. Effortlessly negotiating the various twists and turns, the Escher Quartet proved one more time that nothing is too challenging for them and concluded our Memorial Day with a finely crafted and overall brilliant performance.