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?