Thursday, May 31, 2012

New York Classical Players - Mozart, Ravel & Dvorak - 05/24/12

David Southorn: Violinist
Elizabeth Young: Violinist
Wei-Yang Andy Lin: Violist
Jiyoung Lee: Cellist
Mozart: String Quartet No 17 in B-flat Major, “The Hunt”
Ravel: String Quartet in F Major
Dvorak: American” String Quartet Op. 96 in F Major

As a die-hard lover of the musical, gustatory and visual arts, I was absolutely thrilled to hear about the very first “Culturemerge” organized by the New York Classical Players, vinoteria and the YellowKorner Gallery. Now that it has happened, it is of course easy to wonder how come it had never happened before, especially in a city as creative and culture-centric as New York. On the other hand, it meant that my mum and I would be able to brag about attending the very first one!
Aiming for the “ultimate indulgence of the senses”, the principle behind the event is deceptively simple and devilishly clever: Three different wines (White, Red, Rosé) would be enjoyed while listening to three different musical works (Mozart, Ravel, Dvorak) performed in three different corners of the gallery (Nature, Urban, Landscape). The location of the venue in – Where else? – the heart of SoHo amped up the trendiness factor, the small, informal space was perfect for a more intimate musical experience, and the delicious amuse-bouches provided by Le Gamin Café made us feel right at home. never mind the omnipresent rain (again!).

The first theme of the evening was “Nature”, and although I doubt that Mozart had the African wilderness in mind when he composed it, his “Hunt” string quartet somehow did not feel out of place while being played before a background of splendid photos of exotic predators in their natural habitat. It is true that the superior skills of the four musicians from the New York Classical Players had a lot to do with keeping the crowd quiet and attentive as they brightly emphasized the light-hearted, elegant quality of the music. All I can say is that the remarkable Château Gaillard Sauvignon Blanc I was sipping perfectly completed a brand new and totally elating experience.
Now that we had gained momentum, we just kept going and got ready for the following theme: “Urban”. I was very eager to get to this part because not only do I love endless metropolitan excitement and strong red wines, but Ravel’s String Quartet is a favorite of mine too. The only problem was I had not finished my Sauvignon Blanc yet, so the wine component was slightly off for me, but I still thoroughly dug hearing this melodically happy, vigorously present ode to youth coming brilliantly alive in front of whole assortment of bright lights and big cities.
After making the executive decision to grab some red and forget about the rosé (Who on earth drinks rosé after red anyway?), I found a spot near the entrance of the gallery this time, where several photos of a young woman in various states of dress (or undress, depending on how you look at it) were welcoming the visitors. This was apparently the “Landscape” décor for Dvorak’s “American” Quartet, which would conclude our evening. Another standard of the chamber music répertoire, this popular piece was written while Dvorak was living in a Bohemian community in Iowa. Obviously influenced by American folk tunes, it is a highly entertaining piece, attractive and joyful. Last Thursday night, the musicians quickly made it their own and delivered a vividly evocative performance of it, as robust and satisfying as the hearty Château Lastours red wine I did manage to finish. Can’t wait for the next Culturemerge!

Sunday, May 27, 2012

Jeremy Denk - Ligeti & Beethoven - 05/21/12

Ligeti: Études, Book 1 – Désordre (Disorder), Cordes à vide (Open Strings), Touches bloquées (Blocked Keys), Fanfares, Arc-en-ciel (Rainbow), Automne à Varsovie (Warsaw Autumn)
Beethoven: Piano Sonata No 32, Op. 111

After treating my mum to the very special gift of The MET Orchestra and Christian Tetzlaff at Carnegie Hall for Mother’s Day, I felt totally entitled to treat myself to a just as special gift for my own birthday. And it certainly felt like my stars were all blissfully aligning when my friend Paula mentioned over a month ago that Jeremy Denk would be playing Ligeti and Beethoven at Le Poisson Rouge on (Ta-Da!) May 21. I mean, what more could a girl want than one of today’s most idiosyncratic pianists performing works by two ground-breaking composers in one of Greenwich Village’s most talked-about venues? Nothing, really.
So even if the non-stop pouring rain put a slight damper on our spirits, my mum and I got to enjoy a crowd-free walk across Central Park, an edifying visit of the Museum of the City of New York and a semi-surprise visit from a long-time dear friend from Baltimore, which led to a sangria-fueled Happy Hour in the Village. Next stop was a mysterious staircase going down to an equally mysterious space. Once we got there, one thing became immediately clear: If the level of trendiness has anything to do with the degree of darkness, there is no doubt whatsoever that Le Poisson Rouge is the hottest spot in town indeed.

I had been first introduced to the music of Gyorgy Ligeti by the very same Jeremy Denk so I was already fully aware that he knew his stuff and we were in extremely good hands. That, of course, does not mean that these Études go down easy, and I was secretly wondering how my mum would take to Ligeti’s controlled chaos, especially after putting her through Schoenberg’s unfriendly cacophony the day before. But those worries were quickly brushed aside by our pianist for the evening, who not only tamed those technical minefields with carefree aplomb, but also allowed the challenging works to become readily accessible to even the most unsuspecting listener. True passion is just so incredibly communicative, isn’t it?
From the jazzy swing of “Désordres” to the devilish acrobatics of “Touches bloquées”, he seemed to totally revel in the Hungarian-turned-Austrian composer’s maniacal intricacies while still subtly displaying his innermost finesse in the delicate poetry of “Arc-en-ciel” and the evocative beauty of “Automne à Varsovie”. As if this mesmerizing festival of unusual textures and colors were not enough, he casually threw in Liszt’s transcription of Bach’s “Weinen, Klagen, Sorgen, Zagen” between Ligeti’s fifth and sixth pieces, just like that. A little bonus track from another fellow virtuosic pianist whose timeless brilliance fit in perfectly.
If Ligeti was a substantial smorgasbord, Beethoven was one memorable journey from stormy past to luminous future. Keeping the tempo dynamic and the touch light, Jeremy Denk brought a deeply felt humanity to the work, keenly demonstrating that the grumpy old composer had real feelings too. The passionate first movement exploded with fierce turbulence and powerful drama, before heavens eventually opened up during the second movement, which reached transcendental heights while alluding to a bright, peaceful future. I am actually determined to take the unabashedly hopeful conclusion as a good omen for this brand new year in my life.

As I am getting older and so much wiser, it is performances like this that remind me that it is pointless to sweat passing inconveniences, such as the subpar quality of the food (But, hey, I did manage to find one white anchovy and one parmesan shaving in my otherwise dull Caesar salad) and a “first come, first served” seating policy that comes into force only BEYOND the first two rows of tables (At least we caught a glimpse of the New York Philharmonic’s very own Alan Gilbert clad in a decidedly appropriate leather jacket). The music’s the thing, and the thing was fabulous.

Monday, May 21, 2012

The MET Orchestra - Mozart, Mendelssohn & Schoenberg - 05/20/12

Conductor: David Robertson
Mozart: Adagio in E Major, K. 261 – Christian Tetzlaff
Mendelssohn: Violin Concerto in E Minor, Op. 64 – Christian Tetzlaff
Schoenberg: Violin Concerto, Op. 36 – Christian Tetzlaff

The Met season may have ended, but that does not mean that its musical force can no longer be heard. As if covering an impressive range of operas seven times a week during its 33-week season were not enough, the unfaced (but definitely not unsung) heroes of New York City’s preeminent opera company keep on relentlessly playing and collaborating with prestigious conductors and soloists all over the world the rest of the time.
After consistently enjoying the MET orchestra’s impeccable work in their Lincoln Center home over the years, I thought that hearing - not to mention actually seeing - them at Carnegie Hall last Sunday in the company of über-talented Christian Tetzlaff for three incredibly different violin works would be a fabulous treat not only for myself, but also for my visiting mum. The US Mother’s Day was last weekend and the French Mother’s Day will be early June, so anywhere in between sounded like fair game for a memorable gift. Therefore, after indulging in the culinary arts in a frigid temperature at Petrossian (Their duck confit risotto was simply too divine for words), we went for a leisurely walk in Central Park to warm up, and then headed to Carnegie Hall to revel in the musical arts. Anything for maman!

It is hard to go wrong with an opening number by Mozart, and the short but all-around exquisite Adagio in E Major was no exception. Under the light but firm baton of David Robertson, who had just finished conducting them in Billy Budd, the orchestra sounded as fundamentally unified as ever, with Christian Tetzlaff fitting right in.
One of the most enduring classical music hits ever, Mendelssohn’s violin concerto was no doubt the big draw on the program, and rightfully so. From the shamelessly infectious opening notes on, Christian Tetzlaff was totally in control of his surgically precise, unswervingly vigorous and delightfully melodic performance. The orchestra kept pace without any fuss, respectfully supporting the soloist while making beautiful music on their own. The three movements were played without a pause, emphasizing how brilliantly intertwined the various sections are and how remarkably seamless the entire work is. As the connoisseur in the row before us authoritatively stated during the enthusiastic ovation: “Muy impressionante.”
After Mendelssohn’s intense luminosity, we moved on to Schoenberg’s intense, hmmm, obscurity. It is not that I mind terribly atonal experimentation, but I really wish the results sounded better than the seemingly discombobulating mess that was thrown upon us. Unsure of what it was saying or where it was going, I was hanging on for dear life while trying to find any hint of meaning, or even just coherence. Truth be told, I was not particularly successful. Luckily, Christian Tetzlaff’s impeccable technique and obvious dedication to the task at hand not only managed to make the experience bearable, but also occasionally (Gasp!) pleasant to the ears. Maestro Robertson kept things going as smoothly as possible and, as far as I could tell, not that many people fled the auditorium considering the circumstances.

Probably fearful that the applause would not last long, David Robertson quickly announced that our good behavior during the Schoenberg would be rewarded with... more Mozart. There is of course no question that after Schoenberg, any decent musical composition would sound like Mozart, but we got treated to the real thing indeed with an utterly delectable Rondo for violin and orchestra in C Major, which ended the concert on a purely hedonistic, charmingly whimsical note.

Sunday, May 13, 2012

Met - The Makropulos Case - 05/08/12

Composer: Leos Janacek
Conductor: Jiri Belohlavek
Producer/Director: Elijah Moshinsky
Emilia Marty: Karita Mattila
Albert Gregor: Richard Leech
Jaroslav Prus: Johan Reuter
Vitek: Alan Oke
Dr Kolenaty: Tom Fox

Just when I thought my 2011-2012 Met season was over, there came an unexpected ticket to The Makropulos Case treating me to an even more unexpected vantage point… six rows from the stage! Maybe not the very best seat in the house – You can indeed get too close to even a good thing – but definitely an unusual and interesting experience in perspective. Moreover, although I was unfamiliar with the opera itself, I have always found Janacek’s music compelling and Karita Mattila’s voice fabulous, so my friend Nicole certainly did not have to twist my arm to accompany her last Tuesday.
From the little information I had had time to gather, I vaguely knew that the story was about a legal case and a 337-year-old diva. It had also become clear that the performance would pretty much revolve entirely around the soprano, which means that without the right one, we would be in for a long evening, even if the performance itself would be relatively short. It seemed, however, that the perfect leading lady had been found, and this assumption was confirmed as soon as I got to the Met, when I caught a few minutes of Karita Mattila’s legendary Salome playing in the gift shop.

Among Janacek’s operatic œuvre, The Makropulos Case may not be as popular as Jenufa, and it is not hard to understand why. While the character of the supernaturally old Emilia Marty is intriguing and complex, the intricacies of the legal affair are not that easy to follow. But in fact it does not really matter because everybody’s attention is focused on the mysterious heroine and the mesmerizing power she holds over the other protagonists. And that’s plenty.
Heralded as an extraordinary singer even before she set foot onstage, Karita Mattila’s Emilia Marty managed to confidently meet all expectations when she eventually showed up. Her sculptural body clad into a stylish blue outfit and enhanced by mean stilettos, her icily blond hair framing an impeccably made-up face, she effortlessly exuded bewitching charisma galore even before opening her mouth. As soon as she started singing, it immediately became clear that she was as much in control of her viscerally expressive voice as of her inherently glamorous presence. She may not have made her coolly manipulative character particularly relatable - That was not the point anyway -but she sure made her a fascinating piece of work. All throughout the final scene, during which she invoked her tumultuous past while facing a de facto life or death situation, she blazingly conveyed such an incredible range of emotions that she turned an already daunting challenge into a genuine tour de force for the ages. I simply cannot imagine anybody else in that role.
But even a truly riveting diva does not an opera make, and it is only fair to point out how well supported she was. Two of the numerous men losing their minds over her were returning Met tenor Richard Leech, effectively impersonating a hopelessly infatuated (and hopelessly in debt) Albert Gregor, and bass-baritone Johan Reuter, a rock-solid Jaroslav Prus, the baron who realized a bit late that it is not always good to get what you want. All the other singers completed a uniformly excellent cast and significantly contributed in making this production a memorable experience.
This was an all the more remarkable feat as Janacek’s score is far from being overly friendly to either singing talents or audience members. And while its short phrases, abrupt cutaways, gripping dissonances and generally unsettled mood did wonder to express the elusive, multi-persona nature of Emilia Marty and the convoluted relationships she entertained with others, it was not always the most pleasing to the ears. It was, however, wonderfully adapted to the unique musicality of the Czech language and flawlessly complemented it.
Accordingly, Czech conductor Jiri Belohlavek kept singers and orchestra under tight control while making sure that the music’s vibrant colors and unconventional sounds shone through. This winning strategy paid off handsomely: The contrasting beauty of the last scene, when Emilia’s vulnerability is revealed and a peaceful end is nearing, was all the more transcendent in all its glowing lyricism, before the giant portrait of the diva, and my Met season, went up in a literally red-hot blaze of glory.

The 2011-2012 season is dead, vive the 2012-2013 season!

Saturday, May 12, 2012

Louis Lortie - Beethoven & Chopin - 05/06/12

Beethoven: Sonata No 21 in C Major, op. 53, “Waldenstein”
Beethoven: Sonata No 26 in E-flat Major, Op. 81a, “Les adieux”
Chopin: Nocturne in F Major, Op. 15, No 1
Chopin: Ballade No 2 in F Major, Op. 38
Chopin: Nocturne in F Minor, Op. 55, No 1
Chopin: Ballade No 4 in F Minor, Op. 52
Chopin: Nocturne in F-sharp Major, Op. 15, No 2
Chopin: Barcarolle in F-sharp Major, Op. 60

You know how they say that third time’s a charm? Well, I now have irrefutable evidence that it is total b***: After standing me and his New York fans up twice at Carnegie Hall last year, Oops! Maurizio Pollini did it again this year. So after raving to my friend Nicole about the Italian virtuoso’s extraordinary handling of Chopin and getting us tickets over six months ago, I had to break the news to her than he would not be coming after all, but that much respected French-Canadian pianist Louis Lortie would step in for a program that had slightly changed from an all-Chopin feast to a careful selection of Beethoven’s and Chopin’s works. Still shouldn’t be bad…

And it was not. One of my all-time favorite compositions for piano, Beethoven’s irresistible “Waldenstein” is the type of journey that makes you pay attention to its inherent appeal even if your mind is overflowing with other preoccupations. And although Louis Lortie is not a flamboyant musician, he still managed to muster enough sense of drama to do justice to the masterpiece and give us hope for the rest of the concert.
After indulging in Beethoven’s heroic stance, we got a taste of his more sentimental side with “Les adieux”, inspired by the departure and return of his dear friend Archduke Randolph. The sorrow caused by the farewell and absence as well as the joy brought by the reunion came through nicely, if not unforgettably, through Louis Lortie’s dedicated playing.
After Vienna and Beethoven, we moved on to Paris and Chopin for three pairings of Nocturnes with ballades and barcarolle, smartly interweaving highly melodic, free-flowing dreaminess and assertive, occasionally unsure, emotional intensity. Louis Lortie’s winning combination of technical command and soft touch made for a performance that was no doubt satisfying, but nevertheless slightly too subdued for the romantic outpouring it was supposed to convey. This is not to say that brilliant piano playing was not heard, but rather that it was all we got (We have never pretended to be easy to please).

The three encores kept us in Chopin’s world with his Nocturne in D-flat Minor, Op. 27, No 2 and the “Tristesse” and “Torrents” études, all of which turned out to be the undisputed highlight of our concert. Sheer elegance and unbridled passion at long last came out of the piano in full force, leaving us half-wondering where they had been kept all this time, half-rejoicing that they had finally found their way out.

Thursday, May 3, 2012

Garrick Ohlsson - Bach & Liszt - 04/29/12

Bach: Fantasy and Fugue for Organ in G Minor, BWV 542, transcribed for piano by Liszt, S. 463
Liszt: Fantasy and Fugue for Organ on “Ad nos, ad salutarem undam” (after Meyerbeer), S. 259, transcribed for piano by Busoni
Liszt: Bénédiction de Dieu dans la solitude, from Harmonies poétiques et religieuses, S. 173
Liszt: Étude No. 5, “Feux follets”, from Études d’exécution transcendante, S. 139
Liszt: Valse oubliée, S. 215, No 1
Liszt: Nuages gris, S. 199
Liszt: Mephisto Waltz No 1 (Der Tanz in der Dorfstencke), S. 514

It is often tough to bring oneself out of a beautiful – if still chilly – spring afternoon and into a dark – and just about as chilly – concert hall, but that’s just what my friend Linden and I did last Sunday afternoon for a somewhat all-Liszt recital by piano virtuoso Garrick Ohlsson. Granted, the sacrifice was not THAT big. After witnessing him impeccably tame Rach 3 earlier this season, I was more than ready to hear him work his way through a few chosen pieces from Liszt’s ground-breaking œuvre, a relatively less spectacular but by no means less daunting challenge.

The first piece, the Fantasy and Fugue for Organ in G Minor, was actually by Bach, but had been transcribed for piano by Liszt. A meeting of sorts of those two prodigious masters was certainly an interesting way to get the concert started, and Garrick Ohlsson’s contribution was a warm and detailed rendition of it.
We stayed in the realm of large-scale adventures with Liszt’s Fantasy and Fugue for Organ on “Ad nos, ad salutarem undam”, a sprawling work that took us on a grand journey and left us completely exhausted by the time we all reached the final note, about half an hour later. Without breaking a single sweat and remaining in constant control, Garrick Ohlsson coolly managed every turn of the treacherous minefield, whether they were delicately meditative moments or all-out resounding outbursts.
The second part of the program was dedicated to shorter, more intimate pieces. It started with “Bénédiction de Dieu dans la solitude”, a remarkably simple reflection on the search for God and peace of mind. Simple does not mean simplistic though, and Ohlsson’s pared-down take on it was nevertheless deeply affecting.
“Feux follets”, on the other hand, was a short, exuberant and already virtuosic explosion of joy and insouciance, totally fitting to the 15-year-old Liszt who wrote it.
“Valse oubliée” was also a miniature piece. Delightfully graceful, it was composed towards the end of Liszt’s life, as was “Nuages gris”, the somber confession of an emotionally drained man.
Things perked up, however, for the devilishly entertaining Mephisto Waltz No 1. Constantly brilliant and engaging, it was bracingly performed by a Garrick Ohlsson that had gotten right into Liszt’s most congenial groove.

The quick encore was a piece for piano without a name by Liszt, a small but powerful add-on to a concert overflowing with priceless musical treasures.