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.