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 - Emanuel 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 Emanuel 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, Emanuel 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.