Sunday, December 30, 2012

Met - Les Troyens - 12/29/12

Composer: Hector Berlioz
Conductor: Fabio Luisi
Producer/Director: Francesca Zambello
Aeneas: Bryan Hymel
Dido: Elizabeth Bishop
Cassandra: Deborah Voigt

There was an unforgettable look of mixed horror and incredulity on the faces of most people when I told them that I had suddenly decided to treat myself to my own end-of-year gift by spending some of my hard-earned money and over five hours of my busy life to attend a French opera about The Trojan War. Then they categorically turned me down when I offered them to join me (Nothing personal, of course). Never mind. I was perfectly capable of getting myself to the Metropolitan Opera on Friday evening to get a ticket for yesterday's matinee of Les Troyens and - Surprise! - there were still some left. Go figure.
I am not a die-hard fan of Hector Berlioz, although I've always thought that his Symphonie Fantastique is without a doubt one of the most fantastic works of music ever composed. On the other hand, his inexplicable preference for Gluck over Bach as well as his soft spot for pompous showiness can at times really rub me the wrong way. However, I also figured that I should grab a chance to watch this not often performed opera, especially with Susan Graham getting rave reviews for her Dido and young newcomer Bryan Hymel getting rave reviews as the last-minute stand-in for an apparently ill-at-ease Marcello Giordani in the role of Aeneas. Moreover, I would still have three days off afterwards to digest it. Even better, it was supposed to snow all afternoon.
So after a marathon-worthy breakfast (Come to think of it, in my running heyday it took me way less time than the duration of this whole performance to complete a marathon, even as an eternal mid-packer) I eagerly walked down Broadway and into the Met lobby only to find myself face-to-face with a sign saying that Susan Graham had called in sick! Noooooooo!!!!!!!! Regardless, I still decided to soldier on and hiked my way back up to the good old Family Circle, where I hadn't been in awhile after interludes in the Parterre (Sigh) and the Orchestra. Sometimes there's nothing like coming home. I just wish the Parterre were home.

Based on Books I, II and IV of Virgil's Aeneid, Les Troyens is a majestic lyric opera in two big parts divided into five acts. No matter how you slice it - and the willing but inadequate Théâtre Lyrique in Paris certainly did its best to repeatedly slash the last three acts after completely eliminating the first two - it is a big endeavor from every possible angle: length, size, cast, score, themes. So much so that poor Berlioz never got to fully see what he considered the culmination of his eminent career. Luckily for us, the world has since come to its senses and, while the work's monumental scope has prevented it from becoming a steady staple of the répertoire, its unique might can be experienced live if you look around for it long and hard enough, and a chance to witness it is apparently not to be missed.
After Marcello Giordani's announced withdrawal and Susan Graham's sudden indisposition, Deborah Voigt turned out to be the only familiar singer on that stage. As the Trojan prophetess Cassandra, she cut an imposing figure and made good use of her impeccable bright high notes to express anguish, powerlessness, and eventually resignation. Her low range was not quite as assured, but there was no distinct wavering either. After all, it took a truly convincing force to entice the vast majority of the conquered Trojan women to commit suicide rather than to become slaves, and she persuasively embodied that uncompromising figure.
The stand-in for Susan Graham was Elizabeth Bishop, who not only bravely stepped in without batting an eyelid, but also did it with much commitment and aplomb. Whether sweetly singing the many splendors of love or powerfully exploding into a psychopathic rage, her Dido went through a lot over the course of three acts, and all those gripping emotions were compellingly conveyed.
The best surprise of the day, however, was Bryan Hymel, who has quickly appropriated the challenging role of Aeneas and obviously never looked back. Blessed with a robust and versatile voice he fully controls, he was effortlessly switching from sweeping heroic passages to more subtle moments like the lovely love duet with Dido, a little jewel of exquisite refinement, which was one of the undisputed highlights of the performance. The other highlight was his long and tortured soliloquy at the beginning of Act V, which earned him the one and only spontaneous and enthusiastic ovation of the whole afternoon.
The other unquestionable star yesterday was the reliably fabulous Met chorus, which had many opportunities to shine and did not miss a single one of them. Some other members of the cast, such as Karen Cargill as Anna, Dido's sister, and Kwangchul Youn as Narbal, Dido's minister, distinguished themselves particularly well. Also to be remembered was the simple aria sung by Paul Appleby as the home-sick sailor Hylas, which stood out as an eerily poignant moment in the middle of all the dramatic turmoil.
So the singing was pretty much satisfactory, but what about the production? It was adequately massive, not overly original, but it served the opera well by leaving enough open space for the numerous crowd scenes and incorporating some movable divisions for the more intimate encounters. For once, I was actually happy to be perched in the penultimate row of the Family Circle because it gave me a winning overall view over the often busy stage.
As a grand opera - and Berlioz would not have had it any other way - Les Troyens also includes a lot of ballet. In the current Met production, even more dance has been added for purposes not always clear. So the audience spends a lots of time watching dance numbers, which fit in with various degrees of success. When the entertainment of dancing is an integral part of the story, as in Act IV, you grit your teeth and bear it. When we're talking about a few silhouettes gesticulating in the background during Dido and Anna's conversation in Act III, you wonder what it is about (although at least it does not slow down the action).
Berlioz's sprawling score is of course what keeps all the various elements together. Constantly alternating between dramatic grandiosity and economical restraint, the music faithfully emphasizes the stories and the characters. Fabio Luisi kept a firm control over the orchestra for a muscular and colorful performance. He let the arias breathe and take a life on their own while the big choral numbers were tightly turned out.
Although the audience was fairly subdued during most of the afternoon, as if they were saving their energy to be able to reach the finish line, they eventually showed their approval with a long and warm ovation, which was all the more remarkable considering how many departures had taken place. But this finish line was worth waiting for, especially as the hysterically predicted - and eventually harmless - snow had not managed to actually materialize yet when we finally returned to reality.

Sunday, December 16, 2012

Cantori New York - A Cantori Holiday - 12/15/12

Artistic Director & Conductor: Mark Shapiro
Basque Carol: Gabriel's Message (Arr. David Willcocks)
J.H. Hopkins: We Three Kings - Danny Campbell, Joe Ancowitz, Joey Mele (Singers)
Dutch Traditional Melody: King Jesus Hath a Garden (Arr. Charles Wood)
Alice Dryden: Banu Choshech Legaresh - Danny Campbell (Tambourine)
Malcolm Williamson: This Christmas Night
French Traditional Melody: Shepherds in the Field Abiding (Arr. Charles Wood)
German Traditional Melody: Lo, How a Rose e'er Blooming
Kim Gannon & Walter Kent: I'll be Home for Christmas (Arr. Mac Huff)
Mykola Leontovich: Carol of the Bells (Arr. Peter Wilhousky)
Hugh Martin & Ralph Blane: Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas (Arr. Ken Neufeld)
Moses Hogan: Glory, Glory, Glory - Steve Underhill (Tenor)
Francis Poulenc: The Story of Babar - Jason Wirth (Piano)
Harry Simeone, Katherine Davis & Henry Onorati: The Little Drummer Boy
Jonathan Breit: Ocho Kandelikas
Elizabeth Poston: Jesus Christ the Apple Tree - Margot Bassett (Soprano)
English Carol: Wassail Song (Arr. Vaugh Williams) - Jason Wirth (Conductor)
Noel Regney & Gloria Shayne: Do You Hear What I Hear (Arr. Harry Simeone)
Franz Biebl: Ave Maria
Welsh Carol: Deck the Halls
West Country Carol: We Wish You a Merry Christmas
Franz Gruber: Silent Night (Sing along)

I am not sure when a tradition becomes a tradition, but Cantori New York's annual holiday concert, which I attended for the first time last year, can boast again about being the one and only holiday-related musical event on my calendar right now, and it will hopefully remain so for many years to come if they keep up the good work. Because when all is said and done, and you simply cannot bear the thought of hearing yet another round of The Messiah or putting up with the continuously perky sounds of the typical seasonal fare (not to mention the crowds) when stepping outside, there remains Cantori New York.
Breaking away from their avowed mission of presenting the best of neglected and contemporary choral music, once a year this distinguished ensemble led by its fearless music director and conductor Mark Shapiro reaches far and wide to come up with a list of popular and less well-known holiday songs, to which they add their always appealing, once in awhile unexpected, but never even remotely boring, twist.
So it was with much anticipation that yesterday I worked my way down to the concert at their lovely Greenwich Village home that is the Church of Saint Luke in the Fields to join a few friends for this very special occasion. And no, for the record I want it to be known that I did not pick this concert (over the one this afternoon at the more convenient but less intimate Church of the Holy Trinity on the Upper East Side) JUST because of the post-concert reception.  

A festive yet spiritual mood was set right away with a totally engaging "Gabriel's Message", which immediately made everybody feel completely secure that the singers were in fine form indeed. This starting point in the Basque country kicked off a whirlwind international tour of traditional Christmas songs that stopped in The Netherlands for a discreetly joyful "King Jesus Hath a Garden", France by way of a cheerfully rustic "Shepherds in the Field Abiding", Germany with a sweetly romantic "Lo, How a Rose e'er Blooming", England courtesy of the happy drinking "Wassail Song", and The Wales via "Deck the Halls", whose annoyingly jolly "Fa la la la la la la la la" Cantori managed to make bearable thanks to what had to be a divine intervention.
Even works that I consider corny but inescapable US standards such as "I'll be Home for Christmas", "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas" and "Do You Hear What I Hear" came out smartly arranged, richly textured and altogether exceptionally pleasant. That being said, it did not hurt that they were kept blissfully short either.
One of the most exciting things about a Cantori concert is that you never know what they will think up next. And yesterday was no exception when, in the midst of all the Christmassy tunes, sprung up two esoteric and, in the words of Mark Shapiro, "non dopey", Hanukkah songs. Alice Dryden's "Banu Choshech Legaresh" (Here we came to expel the darkness) had a refreshing earthiness to it while "Ocho Kandelikas" (Eight candles), arranged by Cantori's very own Jonathan Breit, brought some - Dare I say "devilish" in the House of the Lord? I do! - fun to the celebration.
Other highlights included a personal favorite of mine in the beautifully rendered "Little Drummer Boy", an unusually elegant, all-male version of "Ave Maria" by Franz Biebl (Take that Schubert and Gounod) with groups of singers in the back and front of the church and conductor in the aisle, and two rollickingly entertaining excerpts from Poulenc's "The Story of Barbar" performed at the piano by Jason Wirth with Mark Shapiro reading (Because what would the holidays be without Babar, right?).
Naturally, no holiday concert would be complete without Gruber's immaculately peaceful "Silent Night". Yesterday evening, this perennial favorite turned into a sing along during which the capacity crowd did their best to sing verses 1 and 3 while Cantori effortlessly nailed verse 2, whose lyrics were wisely kept out of our programs. A nice communal touch before audience and artists got a chance to bond even further over food and drinks at the decidedly rocking post-concert reception. Happy Holidays!

Sunday, December 9, 2012

NSO - Lutoslawski, Chopin & Tchaikovsky - 12/07/12

Conductor: Hans Graf 
Lutoslawski: Musique funèbre 
Chopin: Piano Concerto No 1 in E Minor, Op. 11 – Yuja Wang 
Tchaikovsky: Symphony No 3 in D Major, Op. 29, “Polish” 

With business or pleasure regularly getting in the way, I was ready to give up on making it back to DC for a long weekend before next year. Then a couple of weeks ago, this weekend suddenly appeared free of any kind of commitments. A glance at the Polish-centric program that the National Symphony Orchestra would be playing on those dates pretty much sealed the deal. I quickly made plans for three full days of meeting up with friends to eat and drink at favorite spots, peruse exhibits of Lichtenstein and Weiwei, explore botanical gardens and outdoors markets, keep fit with yoga and runs on the Mall. Even better, it all started on Friday evening with the above-mentioned concert and the added bonus of a (real!) Champagne-soaked pre-concert get-together with my old NSO buddies Pat and Jennifer.
Washington, DC's premier orchestra may not be the most famous or the most remarkable orchestra in the US, let alone the world, but they were my home team for so many years that seeing some of those familiar faces again always feels like paying a visit to some beloved relatives. And there they were again on the stage of the Kennedy Center’s concert hall, headed by ever-classy Nurit Bar-Josef and, for this week, conducted by visiting maestro Hans Graf.

The title of the first piece, Musique funèbre, kind of put a temporary damper on our festive spirits at first, but once the music started flowing, we effortlessly eased into its serene mood. Dedicated to the memory of Bela Bartok and inspired by the opening fugue of his Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta, Lutoslawski’s composition is a beautiful arch-shaped feast for strings, and we thoroughly enjoyed its impeccably harmonious balance.
Having an opportunity to hear the petite but fiercely talented Ms. Wang is never to be missed, so I was particularly happy to see her name on the NSO’s program. After assertively walking through the stage in a simple but eye-popping purple gown, she just as assertively handled Chopin’s Piano Concerto No 1. Although I cannot say I like this concerto as much as his solo works – The then 20-year old composer was obviously a little clueless about what to do with an orchestra – I was still very much taken by its innocence and liveliness. A technical wizard behind an impassive face, Yuja Wang is going to have to dig deeper into the music she plays to find the soul of it, but she seemed on the right track with the delicate Romanze, which came out so exquisitely that one could feel the whole audience collectively holding their breath.
Tchaikovsky’s third symphony is not one of his strongest works, but its pleasant melodies went down nicely, even when they extended their welcome a bit. The orchestra played well all night, but it was really in this rendition of the Polish that one could notice the fruitful relationship the musicians had unanimously established with Hans Graf. The down-to-earth Austrian conductor certainly seemed to get exactly what he wanted without making a big fuss about it. And that was very good indeed.

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

The Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center - All-Bach - 12/04/12

Conductor & Piano: Jeremy Denk
Bach: Concerto in A Major for Keyboard, Strings, and Continuo, BWV 1055
Bach: Concerto in G Minor for Keyboard, Strings, and Continuo, BWV 1058
Bach: Concerto in E Major for Keyboard, Strings, and Continuo, BWV 1053
Bach: Concerto in F Minor for Keyboard, Strings, and Continuo, BWV 1056
Bach: Concerto in D Major for Keyboard, Strings, and Continuo, BWV 1054
Bach: Concerto in D Minor for Keyboard, Strings, and Continuo, BWV 1052

No matter what one thinks about big city living, there's one advantage that cannot be denied: Being able to enjoy a wide range of extraordinary live musical moments that will remain in one's memory for a very long time and, as far as I'm concerned, in this blog forever. That's how these past couple of weeks I've been lucky enough to hear three memorable piano performances by French intellectual master Pierre-Laurent Aimard in a surprisingly non-experimental recital at Carnegie Hall, established virtuoso Yefim Bronfman impeccably working his way through the Emperor at Carnegie Hall again, and last but by no means least, fearlessly imaginative pianist Jeremy Denk delectably tackling Bach's reputedly august œuvre with eleven musicians of the highly regarded Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center at the wonderful Alice Tully Hall last night.

I must confess that I have sometimes thought of Baroque music as attractive, of course, but also a bit too stodgy and well-behaved for my own taste. Well, last night was definitely the time to think again as I would have been hard-pressed to point out a single moment during the concert where anything even remotely humdrum happened. With a little bit of Mozart's elegance here and a lot of Vivaldi's exuberance there, the pure genius of the prolific father of them all glowed brighter than ever.
Playing on modern instruments with a refreshing bounciness, the twelve accomplished musicians onstage breathed an irresistible new life into those six concertos for solo keyboard and orchestra, which had been primarily composed for entertainment purposes. And entertaining they sure were, with their newly highlighted unpredictable tempos, intricate passages and beguiling harmonies. The second half of the concert was dedicated to the most popular ones among them, and it was a real treat to hear those familiar pieces performed with such an inspired spin to them.
Turning his back to the audience all the better to conduct and play his top-less piano, Jeremy Denk spontaneously combined the unrestrained joie de vivre of an exalted dilettante with the bottomless expertise of a seasoned pro. Taking his musical companions and the audience for a glorious Bacchanal (Sorry. I had to) ride, he brilliantly proved that timeless works are truly relevant to all times. And a lot of fun too.

The MET Orchestra - Gubaidulena, Beethoven & Stravinsky - 12/02/12

Conductor: Fabio Luisi
Gubaidulina: In tempus praesens - David Chan
Beethoven: Piano Concerto No 5 in E-Flat Major, Op. 73, "Emperor" - Yefim Bronfman
Stravinsky: The Firebird Suite (1945 version)

Because there's always some action unfolding right in our faces from the Metropolitan Opera's stage, it is very easy to overlook the remarkable music machine that makes it all possible right in the orchestra pit. Luckily, The MET Orchestra occasionally performs sans distracting visuals in concert halls, just like they did on Sunday afternoon at Carnegie Hall with special guest Yefim Bronfman for Beethoven's glorious Emperor concert. As if this was not enough excitement for one concert, the other two pieces came straight from two uncompromising Russian iconoclasts: Igor Stravinsky and the 1945 version of his Firebird Suite as well as Sofia Gubaidulina and her In tempus praesens.

A violin concerto without being a bona fide violin concerto, Sofia Gubaidulina's In tempus praesens was the unknown component of the program and turned out to be, err, different, but eventually worth-hanging in there for. Dedicated to Anne-Sophie Mutter in honor of their almost identical names and the fact that "Sophia" means "Wisdom", the work's main character is the soloist's violin, the one and only violin in the whole composition, which itself requires a wide array of instruments, including a piano and two harps. From the very start, it was wisdom against the world, the soloist again the orchestra, as the one intensely lyrical voice continued imperturbably pressing forward, trying to ignore all the various obstacles, even the big bad loud ones, thrown at it. As a result, while the unstoppable violin churned out some beautiful melodic lines, the short, unpredictable outbursts from the orchestra kept the work from taking off and soar, keeping their fundamental opposition alive until the very end. Comfortably led by their most frequent conductor Fabio Luisi, David Chan, the orchestra's concertmaster, and his fellow musicians played with plenty of poise and deftness, eventually turning this difficult challenge into an accessible, if not quite irresistible, half hour of musical experimentation.
After Gubaidulina's jarring sounds, it was with particular glee that we welcome the much more traditional concerto that is Beethoven's Emperor. Perfectly in tune with the orchestra, popular piano virtuoso Yefim Bronfman delivered an unquestionably grand but still deeply human performance of it, happily lashing out splashes of fierce momentum and discreetly underlying the more introspective moments. A refreshingly straightforward Emperor, played with a lot of heart.
Inspired by a Russian folk tale and composed for the ballet version of it, Stravinsky's Firebird is an immediately engaging and totally fun score. Some passages owe a lot to Rimsky-Korsakov - Stravinsky's former teacher - and Tchaikovsky in their unabashedly sweeping melodies, but a careful or even not so careful listener can also easily detect some atypical musical ideas getting ready to powerfully explode in a not so distant future. This delightful work, however, does not need any excuse to proudly stand on its own in Stravinsky's oeuvre, and the MET's orchestra brightly colored performance of it on Sunday only seconded that statement.