Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Clarion Choir - Rachmaninoff - 12/31/13

Artistic Director & Conductor: Steven Fox
Rachmaninoff: All-Night Vigil

I did mean it when I declared that my holiday music duty had been completely and happily fulfilled a couple of weeks ago, but that was without counting Rachmaninoff's All-Night Vigil, widely considered one of the finest achievements in Russian Orthodox music, unexpectedly sneaking up on me at the last minute. I had never heard of the Clarion Choir, but I was very well aware of the pristine reputation of The Trinity Church's music programs, so the timing sounded just right to head all the way downtown earlier today and wrap up 2013 with a Russian touch.
This explains why this afternoon I took a fiercely refreshing walk down Broadway from Madison Square Park to Wall Street - The bitterly cold wind and countless whirling flurries adding to the Russian background - where I met my friend Ruth at the entrance of the landmark Episcopal church, all bundled up and hanging out with an already impressive number of eager music lovers.

The Clarion Choir is by no means a large choir (I counted 27 singers) but from the very first notes of "Come, let us worship", the singers organically formed one distinctly assertive ensemble that was clearly relishing taking over the magnificent space with such an inspiring composition. Their remarkable osmosis did not mean that individual voices did not get to shine though, and all the soloists made a well-taken point of standing out in a unfussy but unmistakable way. Young and dynamic conductor Steven Fox masterfully brought out the rich lyricism of the work and created beautifully complex tapestries of sounds.
I have always found the Russian language's intrinsic fullness of sound and depth of tone particularly well-suited for singing, and today I felt totally vindicated again. Even if the words' meanings were not semantically understood, the emotional force of the various movements effortlessly came through thanks to the choir's highly expressive singing. The "Alleluias" eloquently resonated, the "Phos Hilaron" oozed stark solemnity and the "Ave Maria" opened with elating grace, among many other memorable moments.
"Nunc Dimittis" was allegedly Rachmaninoff's favorite movement - He even requested it to be performed at his funeral - and it is easy to figure out why. Combining a mood of exquisite serenity, a gently uplifting tenor and what has to be the most incredible bass progression in all choral history, it is both understated and forever haunting. This evening's gripping performance of it confirmed, if need be, its flawless beauty and dramatic power.
The concert, and my musical year, finished with the grand finale that is "To thee, the victorious leader", a rousing Greek chant celebrating the Virgin in all her glory. In the packed church, it literally exploded with life, joy and colors galore. Could those last exhilarating notes be a good omen for 2014? One can only hope so. Happy New Year!

Sunday, December 29, 2013

New York String Orchestra - Elgar, Prokofiev & Tchaikovsky - 12/28/13

Conductor: Jaime Laredo
Elgar: Introduction and Allegro, Op. 47 - Johannes String Quartet
Prokofiev: Piano Concerto No. 4 in B-Flat Major, Op. 53 - Leon Fleisher
Tchaikovsky: Symphony No. 6 in B Minor, Op. 74 (Pathétique)

After the fun little concert in an uptown crypt of Friday night, I was back in Carnegie Hall's much more conventional Stern Auditorium last night for the second holiday concert by the New York String Orchestra, the outstanding ensemble of young music students carefully selected across the US and Canada.
Yesterday's program had many attractive features, but the two that had decisively tipped the scale for me were the presence of legendary pianist Leon Fleisher, regardless of the work that he would be playing, as well as Tchaikovsky's epic Pathétique symphony, one of my first forays into classical music and still one of my favorite symphonies.

Although seeing the name of Edward Elgar typically guarantees lush Romantic sounds, his "Introduction and Allegro", composed for the newly formed London Symphony Orchestra at the time, appeared more restrained and complex than his usual style, which nevertheless does not mean that it was lacking in beauty or passion. Performed by the unusual combination of quartet and orchestra, it was an immensely enjoyable string feast.
Commissioned by and written for Austrian pianist Paul Wittgenstein, who had lost his right arm during World War I, Prokofiev's Piano Concerto No. 4 was actually never performed by him and eventually disappeared until after the composer's death. Last night the concerto was superbly performed by Leon Fleisher who, as an 85-year-young artist, demonstrated the same amount of heart and enthusiasm as the much younger members of the orchestra. Although he himself had lost the use of his right hand for many years, Fleisher never gave up on music, and yesterday his artless virtuosity was on full display as he was effortlessly bringing to life the work's pretty melodies and intricate passages.
Listening to the vibrant and dynamic performance of the Pathétique by the orchestra, which was for the occasion enhanced by a few alumni to celebrate Jaime Laredo's 20-year tenure, I could not help but think that the relentless roller-coaster that is Tchaikovsky's swansong may resonate even more powerfully with young musicians since it overflows with the type of intense Romantic emotions that are so strongly felt by sensitive youth. Whether my theory is right or not, the soaring melodies grandly swelled, the sudden outbursts mightily exploded, the undanceable waltz serenely limped, and the packed audience stayed at the edge of their seats the whole time. The spontaneous ovation at the end of the rousing military march was lasting so long that Jaime Laredo felt compelled to have the orchestra stand up and bow before sitting back down to take care of the last movement, the heart-wrenching Adagio lamentoso. A glorious official finish to a smashing home run.

JP Jofre & Wendy Law with guest artist Ariadna Castellanos - Jofre & Piazzola - 12/27/13

Jofre: Preludio
Jofre: Como el Agua
Jofre: Sweet Dreams
Jofre: Tangodromo
Jofre: Mirella
Piazzola: Libertango
Jofre: Rondo Malicioso - Ariadna Castellanos: piano
Jofre: After the Rain - Ariadna Castellanos: piano
Jofre: Tango Movements - Ariadna Castellanos: piano
Jofre: Bandoneon Cadenza (from Bandoneon Concerto) - Ariadna Castellanos: piano
Jofre: Universe - Ariadna Castellanos: piano

When genuinely puzzled people ask me what on earth possessed me to leave France for the US over two decades ago, I invariably reply in earnest that I was for the most part fleeing cigarette smoke and accordion music. So when on Friday afternoon my friend Amy mentioned out of the blue an informal "tango-classical-world music" concert featuring a cello, a piano and a bandoneón (The accordion's remote Argentinean cousin) in a church way uptown that same evening, I have to admit to a half-second of reluctance, but then I let my spirit of adventure take over and agreed that it would be an unusual - and interesting - way to get the weekend going.
That's how we found ourselves in the foreign territory that is for us Washington Heights, at which point she revealed to me that the concert would take place not in the nave of the Church of the Intercession, but in its crypt, which certainly added a not unwelcome touch of spookiness to our already out-of-the-box excursion. After finding the entrance to the massive church, walking around a lovely cloister and negotiating a maze of corridors and staircases, we did find the cozy little crypt, complete with vaulted ceilings, stained glass windows and urns in the wall, all ready for some live music.

If I had had any doubts about the cello and bandoneón pairing, they would have been quickly and forever dissipated as the short, well-rounded musical pieces were swiftly succeeding one another. Whether it was the engaging intricacies of "Preludio", the flowing dreaminess of "Como el Agua", the delicate harmonies of "Sweet Dreams" or the fierce hot-bloodedness of "Tangodromo", the cello's long chocolaty lines beautifully intertwined with the bandoneón's more upbeat sounds for a bold, fresh and totally winning combination.
Although the vast majority of the concert's works had been composed by JP Jofre, this series of duos ended with Piazzola's famous "Libertango", whose sensual and infectious rhythms soon resonated in all their glory thanks to Wendy Law's and JP Jofre's accomplished handling of the popular tune.
The excitement went up another notch when flamenco pianist Ariadna Castellanos, temporarily stepping out of her area of expertise, joined the cello and bandoneón for a few decidedly high-flying numbers. One of the highlights of the evening was hands-down "After the Rain", a masterly composition that confidently opened with the bandoneón at its most melancholic before the addition of the languorous cello and the wandering piano eventually led to a stunningly lyrical crescendo.
But I guess you cannot keep an Argentinean away from tango for too long, and the restless rhythms inherent to the world's sexiest dance irreverently filled up our small venue one more time with some vigorous "Tango Movements". When all was said and done, "Universe" ended our intimate musical feast with virtuosic sparks popping up all over the place. Who would have thought that spending a Friday evening in a crypt would have been that much fun?

Thursday, December 26, 2013

New York String Orchestra - Mozart & Mendelssohn - 12/24/13

Conductor: Jaime Laredo
Mozart: Overture to The Marriage of Figaro
Mozart: Symphony No .31 in D Major, K. 297, "Paris"
Mendelssohn: Violin Concerto in E Minor, Op. 64 - Bella Hristova

One of New York City's most enduring, beloved and - amazingly enough at this time of the year - secular holiday tradition has been the couple of concerts performed by the New York String Orchestra at Carnegie Hall every December. Made of specially gifted music students hand-picked across the United States and Canada alongside more illustrious alumni, the New York String Orchestra was therefore back on Tuesday evening and presenting an early, no-fuss, one-hour program of solid crowd pleasers by Mozart and Mendelssohn. And that was totally fine because, really, who wants obtuse, challenging works on Christmas' Eve, when everybody, including the friends, family, tourists and music lovers filling up the hall, was already in a celebratory mood?

Mozart's overture to The Marriage of Figaro needs no introduction, and proved right away that the budding artists on the stage were quite a talented bunch indeed. Under the upbeat baton of Jaime Laredo, the program's director and conductor for the past 20 years, the orchestra happily infused the sparkling work with youthful energy and artless virtuosity.
Opening on the kind of assertive note that was so popular with the French orchestras at the time, Mozart's Paris symphony is a relatively short composition that bristles with pretty melodies and understated complexity. Written when the composer was a mere 21-year old, this 31st symphony of his received a respectful and dynamic treatment from the equally young musicians, with just the right amount of classy elegance. Even if it understandably did not have the impeccable osmosis of the most prestigious professional orchestras at their finest hour, this ensemble more than made up for it with its boundless enthusiasm.
Mendelssohn, who was just as much of a child prodigy and versatile artist as Mozart, is the author of many memorable works, among which indisputably stands out his hugely popular violin concerto. A highly successful alumni of the 2004 and 2006 New York String Orchestra seminars, Bulgaria-born violinist Bella Hristova was evidently non-plussed by the formidable task at hand and kept her playing light and graceful. The unabashedly lyrical opening, probably one of the most instantly recognizable in the entire violin concerto repertoire, rose beautifully, and the rest went on just as effortlessly, all the way to the grand finale, which concluded the concert with brio and panache.

Sunday, December 22, 2013

Met - Falstaff - 12/21/13

Composer: Giuseppe Verdi
Conductor: James Levine
Producer/Director: Robert Carsen
Sir John Falstaff: Nicola Alaimo
Alice Ford: Angela Meade
Mistress Quickly: Stephanie Blythe
Meg Page: Jennifer Johnson Cano
Ford: Franco Vassalo
Nannetta: Lisette Oropesa
Fenton: Paolo Fanale
Bardolfo: Keith Jameson
Pistola: Christian van Horn

Although I am a huge Verdi fan, I was not particularly overjoyed to see that Falstaff would be part of the current Met season, mostly because I did not have any really fond memories of a production by the Marinsky Theater I attended in Washington, DC several years ago. On the other hand, the Italian master's swan song, composed when he was well into his seventies, has an excellent reputation and is appropriately light fare for the holiday season. Inspired mostly by Shakespeare's The Merry Wives of Windsor, as well as Henry IV, Verdi's opera Falstaff has no problem standing on its own right as a rather sophisticated comedy about a not very sophisticated bon vivant, brightened up by a relentlessly inventive score.
Moreover, the cast of this production had quite a few enticing names, starting with the formidable Stephanie Blythe, and our beloved James Levine would be back on the podium. So when my friend Dawn came up with an offer that I could not refuse, namely pretty good orchestra seats, which got even better after we had moved a couple more down towards the center, we figured that we had every reason to give the bigger than life character a brand new shot yesterday afternoon.

As soon as a beaming James Levine took the podium and received a thunderous rock-star-worthy ovation, we knew that we were in the perfect hands. His visceral connection to the outstanding Met orchestra and his deep knowledge of the score could not but promise a unique musical experience, if nothing else. As it turned out, everything else fell miraculously into place as well.
Although our performance did not feature the much lauded official lead of this production, Ambrogio Maestri, other Italian tenor Nicola Alaimo did a fabulous job with the role. He effortlessly conveyed the obvious voraciousness as well as the not so obvious refinement of the seemingly big fat slob while singing with powerful conviction and graceful stylishness. His Falstaff was often shameless when it came to money, food and women, but he also had surprisingly philosophical and truly endearing moments too. Maybe it was simply the genuine Italian warmth he brought to the part, but he was a constant joy to watch and listen to.
Nicola Alaimo may have been a mesmerizing Falstaff, but he had fierce competition every time the merry wives showed up. As the big man's main object of desire, soprano Angela Meade was a smart and attractive Alice Ford, terrifically served by her lush and agile voice.
Falstaff's other object of desire and Alice's partner in teaching him a lesson, mezzo-soprano Jennifer Johnson Cano sang with plenty of assertiveness and ease the role of Meg Page.
The mezzo-soprano everybody loves to love, Stephanie Blythe, was in her finest form as Mistress Quickly, generously displaying her well-known extraordinary voice and a talent for comedy that may be not as well-known but is just as remarkable. Her pretend plotting with Flastaff in the Scene 2 of Act I, in particular, was a marvel of flawless dual signing and impeccable comic timing.
Soprano Lisette Oropesa was a lovely Nannetta, and made an adorable couple with tenor Paolo Fanale. Together they repeatedly injected a breath of fresh air every time they were onstage, always high and above the complicated shenanigans brought on by the other characters.
Baritone Franco Vassalo was clearly having a lot of fun as jealous Ford, who first appeared as a sleazy Texan oilman, complete with gold lamé suit, cobalt blue shirt, shades and hat. He received the full seal of approval from my Texas born-and-bred seatmate, and I really have nothing to add to that.
An unexpected guest star enlivened the beginning of the Scene 1 of Act II as a horse placidly poked its head through an opening in the wall and quickly got busy munching on some food, completely uninterested in Falstaff lamenting his sorry fate nearby.
The cast for sure benefited from a wonderfully imaginative production, starting with the ingenious idea of placing the story in 1950s England. Beside a few unavoidable oddities, such as mentions of "knights" and 'swordsmen", the whole concept worked extremely well and allowed from some really striking décors, such as a gasp-inducing bright yellow kitchen. The place would actually be subjected to frantic action during the Scene 2 of Act II, including clothing flying out of the laundry basket and dishes flying out of cabinets. The various sets were all consistently eye-catching and had the commendable ability to turn from a fancy dining room into a mysterious starry night without an itch.
The action could sometimes feel slightly overwhelming with a lot happening in various corners of the stage, but some clever directing, such as the whole scene in the restaurant freezing, except for the couple of young lovers completely engrossed in each other, made the plot easier to follow by focusing the attention while creating some startling tableaux. The briskness of the pace was well-sustained and had the distinct advantage of keeping things light and lively, in true comedic fashion.
The Met does not usually hold back with it comes to costumes, and sure enough, the outfits for men and women were luxurious, colorful, with the occasional funky little touch such as Mistress Quickly's boldly purple matching hat and gloves. But the most vivid display of fashion wear took place at the very end, when the chorus concluded the performance in a large assortment of incredible black and red gowns and suits.
Although it was surprisingly not sprinkled with memorable arias, Verdi's score contained many brilliant pieces bristling with musical ideas, always right in tune with the action going on, whether it was the frenzy of the kitchen being turned upside down, the lecturing tone of the soliloquy about honor, or the sweet serenade ignited by young romantic love. The ensembles were tightly constructed and richly lyrical, and the Met's mighty chorus got its moment in the spotlight during the last scene, which it handled with its usual poise. In the midst of it all, maestro Levine made the music swoon and sparkle in all its glory. He definitely seemed happy to be there, and so were we.

Monday, December 16, 2013

New Amsterdam Singers - A Ceremony of Britten: Carols, Hymns, and Lullabies - 12/15/13

Music Director & Conductor: Clara Longstretch
Britten: A. M. D. G. (Ad majorem Dei gloriam)
Britten: A Shepherd's Carol
Britten: A Wealdon Trio (The Song of the Women)
Britten: A Ceremony of Carols, Op. 28 - Frances Duffy (Harp)
Milhaud: Psaume 121
Biebl: Ave Maria - Richard Bonsall, Nathaniel Granor, Nate Mickelson (Soloists), Robert Thorpe, Scott Wilson, Mike Landy (Trio)
Appalachian Carol: I Wonder as I Wander (Arr. John Jacob Niles) - Andy James (Tenor)
Britten: A Hymn to the Virgin
Susa: Carols and Lullabies: Christmas in the Southwest - Frances Duffy (Harp), Stephen Benson (Guitar), William Trigg (Marimba and Vibraphone)

Although "A Cantori Holiday" is typically my only concession to holiday concerts, I just could not let this season go by without attending one performance of Benjamin Britten's Ceremony of Carols, especially since it is understandably being played all over the city these days, so that I could conclude the British composer's centennial year in the most appropriate way possible. In the end I decided on the New Amsterdam Singers on the Upper East Side late afternoon yesterday for the relatively convenient time and location, of course, and most of all, for the solid reputation of the well-established choir and the fact that the Ceremony of Carols would be paired with its official companion piece, Conrad Susa's Carols and Lullabies: Christmas in the Southwest.
After walking across a Central Park that was more of a soupy mess than the winter wonderland I had hoped for, I met up with my friend Linden at the beautiful Immanuel Lutheran Church, whose most striking features were dark wood structures and ornaments, brightly colored stained-glass windows and a large Christmas tree classily adorned with white lights. The space eventually filled up literally up to the ceiling, and we were off to our second holiday concert of the weekend.

The first three pieces were songs inspired by religious as well as secular texts, and written for mixed chorus and for women alone, that Britten composed between the age of 16 and 31. The chorus on the stage may have been reduced, but it was nevertheless perfectly capable of conveying the various moods of the small-scale works in all their many subtleties.
Put together for Christmas 1942 when Britten was at sea between the US and England, A Ceremony of Carols was originally meant for a treble chorus, soloists and a harp. Yesterday evening, however, circumstances oblige, the ladies of the New Amsterdam Singers filled in for the boy sopranos. The twelve movements of the full cycle are loosely unified and roughly range from sweet and ethereal when it comes to Mary and her newborn child, to the fierce intensity of Satan's appearance, to the joy brought by spring and gratitude towards God. The intrinsic simplicity of the English poems provided an excellent basis to Britten's challenging composition, and the singers delivered a remarkably clear and lyrical performance of it. Even if by default it did not have the unique purity of trebles' voices, the complex tapestry of sounds we heard yesterday - and that would include the virtuosic harp - was superbly expressive, with "The Little Babe" unmistakably standing out as the gasp-inducing tour de force.
After intermission, it was the gentlemen's turn to come out in full force for three male-only works. After Milhaud's "Psaume 121", a rather upbeat psalm, I was delighted to get a chance to hear Biebl's "Ave Maria" for the second time in two days. The New Amsterdam Singers is a much larger choir than Cantori New York, but their setting was plainly conventional, so while their sound was fuller, its distribution was also more ordinary. Regardless of those respective differences, yesterday this stunning hymn came out once again as the timeless masterpiece it is. The last piece was the Appalachian carol "I Wonder as I Wander", which gave tenor Andy James the perfect opportunity to display his considerable vocal skills.
After the ladies had joined the gentlemen to finally form the whole chorus for the first time that evening, we went back to Britten with "A Hymn to the Virgin", which divided the singers into the full chorus singing in English and a smaller chorus singing in Latin. Written when he was only 17 and eventually sung at his funeral, this well-balanced work was all freshness and unfussiness, even when brought to life by the impressive wall of sound created by so many voices.
The companion piece to Britten's fundamentally serious-minded Ceremony of Carols are Susa's generally light-hearted Carols and Lullabies, which also add the more populist guitar, marimba and vibraphone to the high-brow harp. Those ten songs, which are to be performed in Catalan and North American Spanish, are mostly Nativity scenes and lullabies. Some are serene, others are full of energy, but they all sounded unabashedly bright and colorful after all the unabated churchiness that had preceded them.
When all had been sung and done, we still got a fun little encore, and then we were off into the cold dark night, our holiday music duties duly completed for another 51 weeks.

Sunday, December 15, 2013

Cantori New York - A Cantori Holiday - 12/14/13

Artistic Director & Conductor: Mark Shapiro
French Franciscan Processional: Veni, veni, Emmanuel (Arr. David Willcocks)
Basque Carol: Gabriel's Message (Arr. David Willcocks)
Hugh Martin & Ralph Blane: Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas (Arr. Ken Neufeld)
Dutch Carol: King Jesus Hath a Garden (Arr. Charles Wood)
J.H. Hopkins: We Three Kings (Arr. David Willcocks) - Joey Mele, Joel Klein, Julien Touafek (Singers)
French Carol: Shepherds in the Field Abiding (Arr. David Willcocks)
German Carol: Lo, How a Rose e'er Blooming (Arr. M. Praetorius)
Kim Gannon & Walter Kent: I'll be Home for Christmas (Arr. Mac Huff)
Alice Dryden: Banu Choshech Legaresh - Jason Wirth (Conductor), Danny Campbell (Tambourine)
French Carol: Sing We Now of Christmas (Arr. Fred Prentice)
Jonathan Breit: Ocho Kandelikas - Jason Wirth (Piano)
Elizabeth Poston: Jesus Christ the Apple Tree - Alice Joscelyn (Soprano)
J. Pierpont: Jingle Bells
Malcolm Williamson: This Christmas Night - Jason Wirth (Conductor)
Welsh Carol: Deck the Halls (Arr. David Willcocks)
Morten Lauridsen: O Magnum Mysterium - Emily Klonowski (Conductor)
Rex Isenberg: Ravta et Rivam Isaac
Albeniz: Malagueña - Jason Wirth (Solo piano)
Franz Biebl: Ave Maria - Jonathan Breit, Nathan Benavides (Soloists), Steve Underhill, Erol Gurol, Steve Albert (Trio)
West Country Carol: We Wish You a Merry Christmas (Arr. Arthur Warrell)
Franz Gruber: Silent Night (Sing along)

As we are rapidly reaching the middle of December, the holiday season has been shifting into full gear with its never-ending parade of shopping, eating, drinking and Christmas caroling. While I happily mingle with old and new friends over food and drinks, I deliberately stay away from crowded stores and holiday concerts, but I also make one exception in the spirit of the season and, maybe first of foremost, for the proven fun of it.
Fact is, if I must hear some jingle f*** bells yet one more time, they might as well be performed by Cantori New York since I am practically assured that those will not be just ordinary bells. Not to mention that there will be plenty of other predictable and unpredictable delectable goodies too. So never mind the myriad of other tempting concerts happening around town and the snow mercilessly falling since morning, late afternoon yesterday an unusually large contingent from work eagerly converged to the Church of St. Luke in the Fields in the Village for the ever-popular annual Cantori Holiday concert.

Although experience had taught me that in all likelihood the concert would be an eclectic mix of recurring and new pieces, including unavoidable Christmas carols, old Europeans tunes and the occasional Hanukkah song, it started with the rather conventional ancient hymn "Veni, veni, Emmanuel". I happen to be more familiar with instrumental versions of it, but I found that the chorus' expert multi-layered singing added a powerful and poignant human dimension to the beautifully elegiac work.
Although we were all gathered in an Episcopal church and the main theme was by default Christmas, this year again one of the undisputed highlights of the whole evening was what has to be the sexiest Hanukkah song ever, Jonathan Breit's "Ocho Kandelikas", which, benefitting from Jason Wirth's virtuosic contribution at the piano, enthralled the audience with its irresistible upbeat vibes and sensual tango-infused rhythms.
The two other Hanukkah pieces, "Banu Choshech" and "Ravta et Rivam", did not even come close to being as blazingly hot, but they nevertheless stood out on their own, more subdued, merit and provided a refreshing break from the Christmassy overload.   
Another work I was very much looking forward to hearing again was Biebl's male-only "Ave Maria", during which chorus and soloists sang from the stage and the trio from the back while Mark Shapiro conducted half-way in between. And sure enough, the gentlemen of Cantori were once again utterly successful in bringing out the organic beauty of the richly textured composition.
The mini-European tour was as fully enjoyable as I remembered it with readily engaging tunes from the Basque country with "Gabriel's Message", Holland with "King Jesus Hath a Garden", Germany with "Lo, How a Rose", England with "Jesus Christ the Apple Tree", featuring a lovely solo by Amy Joscelyn, and France with "Sing We Now of Christmas", and the one that never fails to bring back some seriously old memories, "Shepherds in the Field Abiding".
For one reason or another, Wales and the West Country of England produced two of the most annoyingly perky carols ever, namely "Deck the Halls" and "We Wish You a Merry Christmas", but I knew that I could trust Cantori to make them at least bearable, which they obligingly did without batting as much as an eyelid.
"Jingle Bells", which may very well have the dubious honor of being the most ubiquitous and exasperating Christmas songs of all times, was vastly improved thanks to a much needed sobering up treatment as well as Jason Wirth and Erol Gurol's high-flying piano four-hands turn.
Wirth later came back on his own for an instrumental interlude with "Malagueña" by Isaac Albeniz. This unexpected detour in Spain significantly boosted the festive mood with seductive melodies and spirited rhythms, cheerfully pointing out that this was all about a celebration after all.
The American classics "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas", "I'll be home for Christmas" and "This Christmas Night", which were sprinkled throughout the concert, came and went rather inconspicuously, which was really as good as it could have gotten.
While there is no doubt that shaking up entrenched traditions can be a laudable endeavor, some of them are simply too good not to keep, so choir and audience eventually concluded the concert together by joining forces for the time-honored "Silent Night" sing along under the imperturbable baton of Mark Shapiro. The result was unsurprisingly uneven, but we did not let the difference in singing competence stop us from bonding some more during the hopping reception afterwards. Happy Holidays!

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Music Mondays - Nico Muhly: Beaming Music - 12/09/13

Nico Muhly: Big Time - Lark Quartet - Yousif Sheronick: Percussion
Nico Muhly: Common Ground - Claremont Trio
Nico Muhly: How about now - NOW Ensemble
Nico Muhly: Far Away Songs - Lark Quartet - Aaron Wunsch: Piano - Jennifer Zetlan: Soprano
Nico Muhly: Motion - Lark Quartet - Aaron Wunsch: Piano - Todd Palmer: Clarinet

If anyone still had any lingering doubts about the ever-growing popularity of the American composer Nico Muhly, who has recently made the headlines with his first full-fledged opera Two Boys at the Met, they would have immediately come to realize that he has indeed become one of the hottest names on the current music scene after catching a glimpse of the line sneaking around the Upper West Side’s Advent Lutheran Church over one hour before the performance's starting time last night.
Presented by the ever-dynamic and laudably altruistic Music Mondays organization, the "Nico Muhly: Beaming Music" concert was to focus on a few random works from the young man's already dazzlingly prolific and eclectic œuvre with introductions by the artist himself in the intimate setting of the pretty church. In short, this would be the perfect little pick-me-up after a rather gloomy winter Monday.

We started the evening on a fun note with “Big Time”, whose unexpected changes in gear, from the driven opening to the soft finale, were a large part of the entertainment value. The Lark Quartet sounded like they were having a good big time, and the audience did as well. So far so good.
Put together right after he graduated, “Common Ground” was Muhly's first foray into professional chamber music writing. While it did feel a bit unsettled at times, this engaging endeavor never lacked in endearing energy, boasted of an unabashedly lyrical passage, and concluded on a high-spirited punch. Listening to the Claremont Trio’s appealing sounds, it was easy to pinpoint hints that bigger things were obviously in store for the tirelessly inventive budding composer.
The title “How about Now” made me fear a dour existential journey, but I was quickly proven wrong. The NOW ensemble was a not so common combination of double bass, piano, flute, clarinet and electric guitar, and their take on the piece that was written for them was refreshingly organic and deeply knowledgeable. All sounds fit in seamless into a harmonious whole, discreetly enhanced by neat jazzy overtones.
The one vocal interlude of the evening was a set of "Far Away Songs", which were inspired by three poems by the Greek poet Constantine Cavafy revolving around the theme of death and the impressive singing skills of Jennifer Zetlan, who was even at hand to sing it. Solidly back by the Lark Quartet and Aaron Wunsch at the piano, the fast-rising soprano's voice displayed steely strength, remarkable flexibility and sharp pointedness. This may have been just the darker moment of the evening, but it turned out to be first and foremost one of reflection and beauty.
The most religious work of the evening, “Motion” ended the concert with some palpable anxiety that eventually grew pretty intense before the liberating release. The capacity crowd was then released as well, back in the cold night but with some cool music in their ears.

Sunday, December 8, 2013

Central City Chorus - Matthews & Britten - 12/08/13

Music Director & Conductor: Phillip Cheah
David Matthews: Psalm 23: The Lord is my shepherd, Op. 90a
Britten: The Company of Heaven
The Adelphi Chamber Orchestra
Jennifer van Dyck: Speaker
Wanda Yang Temko: Soprano
Daniel Neer: Tenor
David Shuler: Organist

After receiving an out of the blue postcard informing me that the Central City Chorus would be performing a piece by Benjamin Britten at the St. Ignatius of Antioch Church, which happens to be located a few blocks from my apartment, I quickly got a ticket. The British composer had come to my fascinated attention when I first attended a gripping performance of Peter Grimes by the Washington National Opera a few years ago, and the New York City Opera's brilliant Turn of the Screw earlier this year has put him on my permanent radar for good. Just as the Britten Fest celebrating his centennial is slowly coming to an end, this was probably my last chance for a while to become acquainted with a little-known work of his so conveniently, so I happily grabbed it.

The St. Ignatius of Antioch Episcopal Church is an all-around attractive space of a reasonable size, with detailed stained-glass windows and other discrete artworks. That's in this welcoming environment that David Matthew's Psalm 23 kicked off the concert on a lovely note.
Britten's The company of Heaven turned out to be a 50-minute composition, which would have been more than enough of a feast if at least half of it hadn't been spoken Biblical excerpts or poems about angels and other religious figures. No matter how convincingly Jennifer van Dyck declaimed them, and there was plenty of conviction on her part, I found myself desperately checking the program more than once in order to figure out how long I would have to wait until the next musical interlude.
I have to admit, though, that my patience was vastly rewarded pretty much each and every time. From the turbulently engaging instrumental opening to the powerfully rousing chorale finale, the musical vignettes strongly benefited from the composer's idiosyncratic inventiveness, the chorus' beautifully textured singing, the soloists' bright voices, the organist's dynamic interjections as well as the orchestra's glowing strings and assertive timpani. The undisputed highlight of the performance had to be "War in Heaven", during which the brashly menacing drums, organ and male voices conjured up dramatic images of darkness and chaos before eventually disappearing as the soothing strings brought in peace and harmony, which in turn created a seamless bridge to the opening number of Part 3, the luminous "Heaven is Here". Other memorable passages included the happy-go-lucky spirit of Emily Brontë's poem "A thousand, thousand gleaming fires" and the short Mahlerian orchestral "Funeral March for a Boy".

So we ended up with roughly 25 minutes of musical enjoyment in a one-hour concert, which, granted, is better than no musical enjoyment at all in a longer concert, but nevertheless made me feel kind of short-changed as I was leaving the church just in time to catch the first winter flurries. On the other hand, I got home early enough to avoid the worst of the modest snow storm that was starting, so I guess that there were a couple of silver linings in the whole situation after all.

The Philadelphia Orchestra - Brahms & Berlioz - 12/06/13

Conductor: Michael Tilson Thomas
Brahms: Piano Concerto No 1 in D Minor, Op. 15 - Hélène Grimaud
Berlioz: Symphonie fantastique, Op. 14

Although the French are not particularly well-known for their tremendous musical heritage, once in a while a major work emerges that takes the whole world by storm and eventually becomes an ever-recurring staple in concert halls. Berlioz's Symphonie fantastique having indisputably reached that rare status, my friend Linden and I were originally very excited at the prospect of hearing it performed by The Philadelphia Orchestra under the baton of their young dynamo of a music director and conductor Yannick Nézet-Séguin on Friday night. Then earlier in the week we received the notice that maestro Nézet-Séguin would not be able to travel to New York City due to illness and would be replaced by not quite as young, but just as much of a dynamo, Michael Tilson Thomas.
We were also informed that Brahms' Piano Concerto No 2 had just been replaced by Brahms' Piano Concerto No 1, but thankfully France's first piano lady Hélène Grimaud would still be there to play it. So we decided to take all those changes in stride and happily headed off to Carnegie Hall on a miserable Friday evening, which instantly got better up as soon as we took our seats into the near-full Stern Auditorium.

Opening with some sweeping Sturm und Drang straight from the most majestic Romantic symphonies, Brahms' Piano Concerto No 1 turned out to be a sprawling, supremely life-affirming conversation between piano and orchestra, which would be continuously punctuated by urgent outbursts and dreamy interludes. A fierce performer underneath her classy looks, Hélène Grimaud was all virtuosic fire and exquisite daintiness, a combination that responded particularly well to the orchestra's polished sound and boundless enthusiasm.
Still in a Romantic, if by then wildly mischievous, mood, we moved on to Berlioz and his brilliantly ground-breaking Symphonie fantastique. Although I've had the privilege of hearing it regularly throughout the years, the endless inventiveness of the work never fails to make it a brand new experience each and every time. MTT may have been a late addition to the program, but he was nevertheless solidly in control of the complex composition and the huge orchestra, constantly stressing out the small details while never losing sight of the mighty big picture. This Symphonie fantastique was a vibrantly colorful depiction of the "Épisode in the life of an artist" and resoundingly reasserted its freshness and relevance. The weather was still miserable when we got out, but the weekend had definitely started off very well.

Monday, November 25, 2013

Juilliard Opera - Radamisto - 11/24/13

Composer: George Frideric Handel
Conductor: Julian Wachner
Director: James Darrah
Radamisto: John Holiday
Zenobia: Virginie Verrez
Tiridate: Aubrey Allicock
Polissena: Mary Feminear
Tigrane: Elizabeth Sutphen
Fraarte: Pureum Jo
Farasmane: Elliott Carlton Hines

I have never been a big fan of Baroque music, but I ain't no quitter either, so I keep trying on improving my relationships with composers such as Handel whenever I get an appealing opportunity to do so. And this is just what happened when some friends talked me into joining them for Radamisto at the Juilliard School yesterday afternoon. This would be my first foray with performances presented by the Ellen and James S. Marcus Institute for Vocal Arts, and I figured that it would be an interesting experience considering the quality assurance provided by the stellar reputation of the prestigious school and the prospect of hearing some hand-picked stars of tomorrow tackle a master of early music today.
The story would roughly revolve around warring kingdoms, ruthless tyranny, unrequited love and unwavering loyalty, all of which are definitely not concepts foreign to opera synopses, but offer as good a basis as any for an engaging musical development. The original three acts and four hours had thankfully been reduced to two acts and three hours, which no doubt could have used a little bit more trimming, but were at least a reasonable compromise.

My favorite thing about Baroque music is that the subtlety of the music typically gives the singers plenty of room to display their vocal skills. My main pet peeve with Baroque music are the endless da capo arias which, beside essentially repeating what has already been clearly established, have also the disadvantage of slowing down the action over and over again. So I sat down in the truly wonderful Peter Jay Sharp Theater mentally prepared for an enjoyable musical adventure and some unavoidable thumb-twiddling.
It did not take us long to notice that the singers, whom I consider the main component of an opera performance, were all refreshingly young and obviously talented way beyond their years. Starting with the two female leads, soprano Mary Feminear was an assertive Polissena, even as she was making some downright incomprehensible choices in steadily supporting her faithless, tyrannical husband Tiridate. Mezzo-soprano Virginie Verrez was just as strong-headed as Zenobia, Radamisto's dedicated wife and Tiridate's lust object.
In the male cast, counter-tenor John Holiday was an admirable Radamisto, all righteousness and sacrifice. Bass-baritone Aubrey Allicock was an appropriately menacing Tiridate, who will eventually, if rather unconvincingly, amend his ways. Baritone Elliott Carlton Hines gave Farasmane much dignity even as he was dragged in with ropes.
I am not big on trouser roles, but I will happily admit that the two sopranos impersonating Radamisto's aides, Elizabeth Sutphen as Tigrane and Pureum Jo as Fraarte, were totally believable as young men and in fine vocal form too.
The set was of the minimalist kind with a large standing wall, which was at its most interesting when at some point a few shadows were fleetingly projected onto it. This original idea was one of not many though, even if some understated lights reliably added nice touches to the scenery. The props consisted mostly in a few chairs, which in the second act provided for an awkward and kind of pointless, really, game of musical chairs, or were at best inconspicuous.
Under Julian Wachner's energetic baton, the uniformly brilliant orchestra readily responded in kind. Seeing young musicians give such an elegant and poised performance was certainly heart-warming, and one could only marvel at their obvious dedication to their art in a world awash in pessimistic opinions about the dismal state and precarious future of classical music.

I cannot say that this by all accounts satisfying musical performance of Radamisto has totally reconciled me with Baroque music, but there were certainly worse ways to spend a bitterly cold, relentlessly blustery Sunday afternoon.

Saturday, November 23, 2013

Orchestra of St. Luke's - Weiner, Schumann, Bartok & Mozart - 11/21/13

Conductor: Ivan Fischer
Weiner: Serenade for Small Orchestra, Op. 3
Schumann: Piano Concerto in A Minor, Op. 54 - Jonathan Biss
Bartok: Hungarian Sketches (An Evening at the Village - Bear Dance - Melody - A Bit Tipsy - Dance of the Urog Swineherds)
Mozart: Symphony No. 41 in C Major, K. 551, "Jupiter"

The mighty creative vibes of New York City routinely go up one more notch when Ivan Fischer brings his tremendous talent to town, and when his task consists in conducting the remarkable Orchestra of St. Luke's in Mozart's magnificent "Jupiter" at Carnegie Hall, there's not much else to say but get a ticket and go with a couple of like-minded friends. Moreover, the program also included Schumann, whose Piano Concerto in A Minor would be interpreted by thoughtful pianist Jonathan Biss, and works by Hungarian composers Weiner and Bartok, which would no doubt benefit from the informed touch of their fellow countryman maestro Fischer.

Although Leo Weiner is by no means a household name, his Serenade for Small Orchestra displayed all the engaging melodic power that, in some other times, would have made him world famous. Under Ivan Fischer's precise and relaxed leadership, the orchestra made the music come out fresh, sweet and lively.
A brashly assertive opening followed by the first instance of a lovely dialog between oboe and piano confirmed that we were in for a real treat with Schumann's popular Piano Concerto. Seamlessly alternating between explosive outbursts and pensive passages, soloist and orchestra made beautiful music together and delivered a deeply heartfelt rendition of the quintessential Romantic work. Although Jonathan Biss' impeccable technique made him equally comfortable with the composition's many twists and turns, his talent really shone when delicately highlighting the pearly exquisiteness of the quieter moments.
Bartok took us back to Hungary with five very short sketches that dwelt deeply into his rich native culture. Unequivocally simple and spontaneously engaging in all of their many moods, these folk tunes brilliantly conjured up snapshots of everyday country life in Magyar land for a fun and fascinating interlude.
There are few symphonies in the entire classical repertoire as fully accomplished as the "Jupiter", and its stunning perfection can only make us wonder what Mozart would have come up with if he had lived on. On Thursday night, the eloquently contrasting opening immediately gave way to an energetic yet gracious performance of it. The piece's countless textures were highly detailed, but that did not keep Ivan Fischer and the orchestra from getting deep into Mozart's groove and fly with it for an outstanding home run. There were no encores, but then again, I can't imagine what one could dare play after the "Jupiter".

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

New York Classical Players - Bach & du Bois - 11/17/13

Conductor: Dongmin Kim
Bach: Concerto for Oboe and Violin in C Minor, BWV 1060
Bach: Violin Concerto No. 1 in A Minor, BWV 1041
Alexandra du Bois: Noctilucent Song for String Orchestra
Bach: Concerto for Two Violins in D Minor, BWV 1043
Bach: Violin Concerto No. 2 in E Major, BWV 1042
Bach: Air on a G string for Orchestral Suite No. 3, BWV 1068

It is hard to imagine a better way to wrap up a busy musical week than in the company of the stellar New York Classical Players and the eternal Bach. The prolific German composer for sure churned out enough memorable works to keep orchestras and audiences happily busy forever, and somehow I had always thought that his formidable œuvre would be a perfect fit for the fearless strings of the New York Classical Players. So this concert was definitely in the not-to-be-missed category on my calendar. The weather was gray and wet on Sunday afternoon, but that was really no reason to renounce walking up Broadway to the minimalist and intimate Broadway Presbyterian Church in Morningside Heights.

Although the NYCP orchestra is well-known for its impeccable strings, the concert's first piece welcomed the addition of an oboe for Bach's Concerto for Oboe and Violin. That special guest made itself immediately at home by seamlessly joining the ever-tight ensemble and whimsically striking out on its own from time to time. From the very first notes, the mood was immediately festive as we were brilliantly transported right into early 18th century Germany.
Bach's Violin Concerto No. 1 is a work overflowing with enchanting melodies that would have made Vivaldi proud. On Sunday, it received the royal treatment in the hands of the orchestra, which completely succeeded in bringing out its elegance and high-spiritedness.
For the contemporary break of the performance, Alexandra du Bois and her ethereal "Noctilucent Song for string orchestra", which had been commissioned by the NYCP, had the tremendous honor of sharing the program with Bach. Inspired by the thin clouds occasionally found in high altitude at night, the inconspicuously atmospheric piece conjured up ideas of serene beauty and intense sadness, which were superbly conveyed by the musicians. The composer, who was in the audience, must have been extremely pleased.
Back to Bach, we doubled our pleasure with his Double Concerto for Two Violins, during which the two soloists engaged in an animated, warm and always courteous conversation that would not falter for even a second. Together with the orchestra they created a complex tapestry that ended in a perfectly balanced finish.
Bach’s Violin Concerto No. 2 probably owes it lasting popularity to an intoxicating mix of carefree exuberance and delicate poignancy. Accordingly, the playing from orchestra and soloist was by turn joyful, melancholic and refined, pointedly expressing the wide range of emotions of the composition and strongly emphasizing the timeless appeal of the work by the same token.
Thoughtfully dedicated to the people of The Philippines, the beautifully elegiac “Air on a G String” concluded the concert on a moving and exquisite note.

Sunday, November 17, 2013

Met - Die Frau ohne Schatten - 11/16/13

Composer: Richard Strauss
Conductor: Vladimir Jurowski
Producer: Herbert Wernicke
The Empress: Meagan Miller
The Dyer's Wife: Christine Goerkle
Barak: Johan Reuter
The Emperor: Torsten Kerl
The Nurse: Ildiko Komlosi

Although I've always liked, to various degrees, the widely different works of Richard Strauss, I've always had a hard time figuring out what the composer was all about. Since I am always on the lookout for more clues, I was particularly intrigued by The Met'd revival of its popular production of Die Frau ohne Schatten from over a decade ago. I understood that the performance would be long (about four hours) and the story pretty opaque (something about two childless couples and fertility), but the sets and the music were supposed to be wonderful, so I prudently avoided any school night and picked yesterday evening in order to be able to dedicate my full and rested attention to it. Then the endless raving about the cast came to my ears, which of course made the whole endeavor even more exciting.

Although it is now part of the repertoire, Die Frau ohne Schatten is still not exactly a regular presence in opera houses around the world. Among the reasons tentatively given for that fact are its length, its complexity and its size. Even Strauss was reportedly baffled by Hofmannstahl's enigmatic libretto, but that sure did not keep him from composing a formidable score for it. After all, when one tackles lofty themes such as the essence of life and human relationships, it does not really make sense to stop half way, intelligibility be damned.
One of the biggest challenges of producing Die Frau ohne Schatten is to find singers with enough guts, musicality and stamina to take on the five enormously demanding lead roles. In that regard, the current revival is a resounding success.
As the Empress, or the Woman without a Shadow, American soprano Meagan Miller looked and sang icy blonde style when she first appeared, but her natural compassion gradually took over as she was coming to realize that her happiness should not depend on another woman's misery. When she went into her big aria in Act III, her clear, beautiful voice powerfully rose and expanded with impressive volume and flexibility. This was a hell of a Met debut, and we can only hope to hear her again soon.
One could hardly imagine a more triumphant return for American soprano Christine Goerkle, or a more drastic departure from her previous parts in Mozart and Gluck operas. She has been unanimously heralded as the big winner of this production as The Dyer's Wife, and I am confirming that the world should believe the hype. She gave the rather ungrateful role of the bitter wife a genuinely human dimension, subtly underlining the character's wrenching unhappiness. She is unquestionably blessed with an amazing range, from the colorful high notes she assertively tossed up in the air to the dark depths of her lower register, which allowed her to flawlessly display a broad array of emotions.
Danish bass-baritone Johan Reuter gave a wonderfully touching performance as her steadily loving husband, Barak, the only character with a name. Somehow he knew that underneath his wife's moody personality was hiding a heart of gold and he never missed an opportunity to side with her, even during their most trying times.
The Emperor was just about as adoring towards his wife, as German tenor Tortsen Kerl masterfully demonstrated in his few and often solo appearances. His big moment took place in Act II, when he believed his wife had been unfaithful, but simply could not find the strength to do her any harm. 
As the witchy Nurse, Hungarian mezzo-soprano Ildiko Komlosi gave a deliciously wicked performance, authoritatively taking control of the proceedings and spectacularly losing her marbles when she was eventually dismissed from the spirit life she had been fighting so fiercely for.
The main set was smartly divided between the mythical realm upstairs, where the Emperor and Empress lived since she had the crazy idea to marry a mortal, and therefore had to step down from the spirit world, and the Dyer's home downstairs, in the mortal realm, both being simply but efficiently connected by a staircase. From beginning to end the stage was home to boldly inventive decors, which provided visual splendor and palpable atmosphere.
The castle of the Emperor and Empress dazzlingly proved that an ingenious use of mirrors is indeed possible on an opera stage when the minimalist set turned into a truly magical place thanks to an endlessly creative use of lighting. On the other hand, the Dyer's home was cluttered, drab and crudely lit up by factory lights; it was made even gloomier by the strained relationship between the couple.
Perfectly in line with their eye-catching surroundings, the costumes in the mythical realm were predictably splendid, never mind that the Emperor's clothes had more sparkles than even Liberace would have dared to wear and the Nurse looked as if she had come straight out of Vogue magazine. The most spectacular outfit, however, was no doubt created for the bright red acrobatic Falcon. I did not really get what the recurring bird was all about, but I found every one of its appearances absolutely mesmerizing.
The titanic score is not for the faint of heart, but Vladimir Jurowski bravely managed to steadily draw out the dark beauty of the music, including its big surging waves, its long romantic lines and its occasional introspective musings. Even more remarkable, he was particularly successful at holding the huge orchestra back during the most intense moments so that the singers could be heard, which is always much appreciated. Among the most memorable touches of quietness stood out the peaceful march of the night watchmen and the creepy voices of the unborn children coming from the boiling pot (Seriously).
With opulent music, stunning singing and gorgeous visuals, this Frau ohne Schatten is hands-down one of the most ambitious, fascinating and puzzling opera performances I have ever attended. My only ― and minor, really ― squabbles are all related to the convoluted story, obscure symbolism and heavy moralism that are inherent to the original work, but those can easily be cast aside as there is always plenty going on musically and dramatically.

The Met opera house was not full last night, but it was more than reasonably filled for such a non-traditional opera. More importantly, the audience stayed put, applauded enthusiastically and, in an unusual move, even the musicians in the orchestra pit stuck around to applaud the cast and their conductor. I finally made it home just after midnight, exhausted, but totally relishing the elating feeling of having just witnessed a challenging mission being magnificently accomplished.

Saturday, November 16, 2013

San Francisco Symphony - Beethoven, Mackey, Mozart & Copland - 11/13/13

Conductor: Michael Tilson Thomas
Beethoven: Leonore Overture No 3, Op. 72a
Mackey: Eating Greens
Mozart: Piano Concerto No 25 in C Major, K. 503 - Jeremy Denk
Copland: Symphonic Ode

The San Francisco Symphony and I have had a regrettable history of repeatedly missing each other. Whether I have family obligations or they go on strike, or other impediments get in the way, getting together in the same concert hall had seemed like mission impossible... until last Wednesday, when the stars finally aligned and we all converged to Carnegie Hall for the first of their two nights there.
So the perspective of finally getting to hear this highly regarded orchestra conducted by their music director, the ever-cool MTT, was of course tremendously exciting, but truth be told, the deciding factor of my being there was first and foremost the singular pairing of adventurous pianist Jeremy Denk and über-classical composer Mozart. Among a program democratically divided between the Viennese past and the American present, that would have to be the highlight of my evening.

Beethoven's third Leonore overture, by far the most popular one among the four in existence, is actually much more than a prelude to a stage drama. It is a superb musical work in its own right, full of operatic grandeur and human emotions, which powerfully encapsulates all the passions at play in Beethoven's one and only opera, Fidelio. The orchestra's muscular performance of it unequivocally confirmed that they had been worth waiting for and kicked off the evening with a vigorous punch.
In sharp contrast to this bona fide classical opening, Steven Mackey's Eating Greens was a whimsical tribute to modern life made of numerous interconnected auditive snapshots. The work may be occasionally tongue-in-cheek, but it does not lack ambition, with, among others, high-brow references to Matisse, Ives and Thelonious Monk, but also everyday occurrences such as traffic noises and even a chuckle-inducing old-fashioned phone off the hook (Those were the days). Starting with formal church bells and ending with a playful harmonica, the orchestra gamely ran the 20-minute gamut of eclectic sounds, which eventually all came together in surprising harmony for a refreshingly unusual adventure. The audience seemed to good-naturedly take it all in and rewarded musicians, conductor and composer, who was in attendance, with warm applause.
After intermission, we were back on solidly Viennese territory with Mozart and his Piano Concerto No 25. The last one of his twelve major piano concertos, it may not be the most popular, but its treasures of emotional depths make it a truly remarkable piece. At Carnegie Hall on Wednesday, the piano's gentle entrance quickly expanded into intricate harmonies and engaged in a delightful and engrossing conversation with the orchestra. Jeremy Denk's superb playing was perfectly in tune with Mozart's refined elegance and subtle expressiveness, always deeply respectful of the sheer beauty of the composition and free enough to make it his very own.
Back in the contemporary US, the last work on the program was Copland's Symphonic Ode, for which the full orchestra and then some filled up the stage. Although it is rarely performed in concert halls, it was one of the composer's favorites among his œuvre. I tend to associate Copland with loudness, and the opening of Symphonic Ode couldn't but reinforce this idea with trumpets, trombones, horns, and soon the whole orchestra. But there were some wonderfully elegiac moments as well, interspersed between explosions of bouncy, odd and catchy flights of fancy inspired by Mahler, Stravinsky, his love for jazz, his Jewish heritage and his Parisian days. A grand voyage that left orchestra and audience exhausted, but happy.

We stuck around with Copland with a high-energy "Hoe-Down" from Rodeo as the much appreciated encore. A big gulp of fresh air straight from the American folk tune repertoire, which concluded the evening on a resoundingly upbeat note.

Friday, November 15, 2013

Joshua Bell & Sam Haywood - Tartini, Beethoven & Stravinsky - 11/12/13

Tartini: Violin Sonata in G Major, "Devil's Trill Sonata"
Beethoven: Violin Sonata No 10 in G Major, Op. 96
Stravinsky: Divertimento

Although I think that Carnegie Hall’s beautiful Stern Auditorium is unquestionably too large for recitals, I find myself in it pretty much every time the headliners are simply too hard to resist, which means fairly frequently. Tuesday night was another one of those not-to-be-missed occasions, with Joshua Bell and Sam Haywood stopping by on their annual US tour.
The official program, which included works by the Italian Tartini, the German Beethoven and the Russian Stravinsky, sounded appealing enough, if rather short, but then we were informed that additional works would be announced from the stage. So without further ado, my friend Linden and I took our seats in the nearly full concert hall and waited for the guys to show up.

Violinist and composer Tartini may or may not have actually seen the devil in his dream, but his diabolically virtuosic “Devil’s Trill Sonata” sure sounds like it was born of a supernatural intervention. Although the violin was the undisputed star of the piece, it would not have sounded as good without the piano discreetly but efficiently doing its thing as well. As performed by Joshua Bell and Sam Haywood on Tuesday night, the music unfolded with vibrant colors and gasp-inducing feats that only made us wish that it could go on a little longer.
Since this was not meant to be, we moved to the rather sedate sonata No 10 by Beethoven, which reminded us all that the moody composer could be quite introspective too. That being said, just as we were happily settling in, the overall dreaminess gave way to sudden outbursts of vivacity towards the end, all the way to the sparkling finish.
The question mark of the evening was definitely Stravinsky, whose name I never would have expected to appear on a program featuring Joshua Bell. And the fact of the matter is, the unusual experience was exciting and enjoyable, the idiosyncratic Divertimento turning out to be a surprisingly natural fit for a violinist who has become world famous for his dazzling performances of the big Romantic concertos. True, the composition is such a brilliant feast of quirky ideas that it would have been hard not to be drawn into it, especially when performed by the two consummate professionals we had onstage.

The promised additional works turned out to be a couple of encores, starting with Tchaikovsky's Mélodie from "Souvenir d'un lieu cher", which, beside the obvious nod to Stravinsky, finally brought Joshua Bell back into his natural element and gave him the perfect opportunity to fully display his much celebrated, unabashedly lyrical tone.
The second encore, Wieniawski's "Polonaise brillante", was a fun exercise, in which the violin got to shine in many ways, solidly accompanied by the faithful piano. And that was already it.

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Cantori New York - The End of Men - 11/10/13

Artistic Director & Conductor: Mark Shapiro
Claudin de Sermisy: Martin menoit son pourceau
Jacobus Clemens non Papa: Jacquin, Jacquet
Pierre Passereau: il est bel et bon
Lord Mornington: The Housemaids
Jonathan Pollack Breit: The End of Men
Jason Wirth: Piano
Tristan Marzeski: Drums
Dann Rose: Judd
Jonny Beauchamp: Ru
Atjana Andris: Clitilla
Paula Galloway: Myra
Quinn Warren: Lena

After a mini-tour in the South of France in September and a follow-up gig on the Upper East Side in October, Cantori New York finally started their 30th season in earnest last Sunday with the premiere of The End of Men, a brand new work written by their member composer Jonathan Pollack Breit. It had been described to me as a modern musical adaptation of Aristophanes' Thesmophoriazusae, which, beside distinguishing itself by being a true mouthful, may also not be at the top of most people's reading list when it comes to social satires. But then again, why stick to familiar territory when there is plenty of little-known fertile ground waiting to be explored out there?
Since the venue ended up being The Dixon Place, an underground black box on the Lower East Side, I found myself wrapping up my week the same way it had started, by trudging downtown for experimental music purposes. On Sunday, however, I managed to make the most of my trip by taking the time to walk around what is left of this once wild side in memory of recently departed Lou Reed.

The concert started with four frisky tunes, whose perky rhythms and general high-spiritedness left little to the imagination, even if the old language and multi-layered textures often made the text difficult to decipher. The three French madrigals and one English song were short and fun, just enough of an appetizer to get the packed house in the mood for the main course.
Unusual set-ups being common practice at Cantori's performances, I was not overly surprised at the sight of four empty chairs in front of the stage, which would be filled by actors, and a drum kit standing beside the more standard piano. The stage was divided in two according to gender with the women house left and the men house right, and maestro Shapiro smack in the middle trying to keep the two groups from killing each other. As the show went underway, we were duly warned that the performers reserved "the right to be absurd", but we were already hooked anyway and decided to stay put no matter what.
After a brisk exposition of the trouble brewing between the sexes, things really got going when the two male protagonists, Danny Rose as red-blooded Judd, whose wide-eyed affability called to mind the late James Gandolfini, and Jonny Beauchamp as drag queen Ru, who bore an eerie resemblance with a young and skinny Sarah Bernhard, quickly realized that their loosely plotted scheme to infiltrate the women's exclusive meeting was no match for Arjana Andris as the strong-headed leader Clitilla, and Paula Galloway as the young voice of reason Myra. Eventually, the arrival of Quinn Warren as the luminous goddess Lena reconciled everybody and led to a happy end that was both traditional, with two weddings, and unorthodox, since it is not every day that a woman marries a drag queen.
Transposing a 5th century play into the present time provided the advantage of introducing plenty of contemporary references to which the audience was able to relate (Who knew that after-school workshops did so much for women's lib?). On the other hand, practices like hair waxing, which goes back to the Egyptians but remains a reliable source of comic relief, and themes like stereotypical gender-based recriminations, this time-tested fodder for much of the world's entertainment industry, apparently never die. When they're so ingeniously refreshed, they can even be as relevant as ever. The once censored vulgarity was allegedly back and for the most part PG-13, with just enough Rabelaisian humor to keep things happily saucy without falling into tasteless raunchiness.
Each half of the choir brightly demonstrated that making war to infectious music can be an extremely enjoyable endeavor as the women kept on fighting for supremacy and the men struggling for survival. At the piano, Jason Wirth proved one more time that he is capable of expertly handling anything thrown at him. Percussionist Tristan Marzeski turned out to be a remarkably talented partner who kept the beat steady and the music hot. Together they seamlessly combined the attractive qualities of smooth modern jazz and uplifting Broadway musicals in one swell package. One particular highlight of the show was the riotous four-hand Battle Music, for which Jonathan Breit joined in at the piano, which brilliantly emphasized the rowdy confrontation that was culminating onstage.
After experiencing a cerebral Monday evening with Salonen and some musicians of the New York Philharmonic, it was really nice to enjoy a, err, less intellectually challenging Sunday afternoon with Breit and the singers of Cantori New York, but still solidly on the wild side.

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

CONTACT! at SubCulture - An Evening with Esa-Pekka Salonen - 11/04/13

Salonen: knock, breathe, shine for Solo Cello
Nathan Vickery: Cello
Salonen: Memoria for Wind Quintet
Yoobin Son: Flute/Alto flute
Keisuke Ikuma: Oboe/English horn
Dean Leblanc: Clarinet
Kim Laskowski: Bassoon
Arlen Fast: Contrabasson
Howard Wall: Horn
Salonen: YTA III for Solo Cello
Sumire Kudo: Cello
Salonen: Second Meeting for Oboe and Piano
Robert Botti: Oboe
Steven Beck: Piano
Salonen: Homunculus for String Quartet
Sharon Yamada: Violin
Hae-Young Ham: Violin
Dawn Hannay: Viola
Patrick Jee: Cello

The pleasure of having Esa-Pekka Salonen in town has been too rare for too long, so the opportunity to enjoy his prodigious talent not once but twice within a couple of days truly felt like an irresistible early Christmas present. That’s why after hearing him lead the New York Philharmonic and Leila Josefowitz into an impeccable concert featuring his violin concerto and Sibelius’ Symphony No 5 at the sedate Avery Fisher Hall on Saturday night, I was particularly excited at the prospect of discovering some of his lesser-known compositions last night at Subculture, a brand new but already buzz-generating live performance venue in NoHo, on the occasion of the first ever CONTACT! at SubCulture event co-presented by 92Y Concerts and the New York Philharmonic.
The staff was very friendly and the space wonderfully intimate. Moreover, the casual and artsy vibes of the attractive place made everybody in the packed audience - from the just curious to the die-hard connoisseurs - feel totally at ease. In short, one could not have expected a more auspicious environment for a close and personal encounter with Mr. Salonen The Cerebral Composer and The Genial Host.

The range of works on the program spanned a couple of decades and got a royal treatment from musicians straight from the New York Philharmonic and other distinguished guests, starting with the solo cello piece "knock, breathe, shine for Solo Cello", written for the ARD International Music Competition in 2003. The strong personality of each of the three movement came masterfully through in the hands of Nathan Vickery, whether it was the playful assertiveness of the opening pizzicatos, the thoughtful spirituality of the middle movement, dedicated to Salonen's late manager, or the final expansive showcase of the countless possibilities of the cello.
After this stunning cello-driven voyage, we moved on to his "Memoria for Wind Quintet", which finally came out after a 20-year gestation and many radical changes. For this project, the goal of the six (indeed!) musicians was to create a common surface so that they would eventually all become one hybrid instrument. This intricate tapestry of various winds sounded like an on-going conversation among friends, including the shared thoughts and the occasional tiny outburst. The stirring choral part, dedicated to Salonen's late friend Luciano Berio, ended the work on an ethereal note of limpid beauty.
Next, another mighty cellist from the New York Philharmonic, Sumire Kudo, got a solo turn, which she quickly turned into a dazzling tour de force. Inspired by Scriabin's "Vers la flamme", the early "YTA III" vividly tells the story of a moth that gets too close to the flame and unceremoniously fries. This split-second fatal moment has been extended to six minutes of virtuosic agony and features all the elements of a convoluted death. Kind of repulsive, yet totally fascinating.
The "Second meeting", from 1992, takes place between a oboe and a piano, which may not be readily associated in most people's minds, but Robert Botti and Steven Beck made it work seamlessly, the piano staying faithfully in the oboe's high range, even if it allowed itself a small detour once an a while.
The last offering was probably the most traditional one of the whole evening, which of course still did not mean that it was completely straightforward. Dutifully in line with the ancient spermists' theory of the "Little Man", the "Homunculus String Quartet" was an immediately engaging, vibrant little piece that stubbornly kept on trying to be a big piece, not even bothering to make a pause between the packed-to-the-brim movements. It eventually may not have had enough time to fulfill its wish, but it certainly had enough staying power to delight everybody in the audience and prove one more time, if need be, that size really does not matter.

Sunday, November 3, 2013

New York Philharmonic - Ravel, Salonen & Sibelius - 10/02/13

Conductor: Esa-Pekka Salonen
Ravel: Suite from Ma Mère l'Oye
Esa-Pekka Salonen: Violin Concerto - Leila Josefowicz
Sibelius: Symphony No 5 in E-flat Major, Op. 82

After spending 17 years making the LA Philharmonic not just relevant, but cool, and focusing on his own composing, it seems like acclaimed Finnish conductor Esa-Pekka Salonen will be on the road a little bit more frequently from now on, to the delight of countless music lovers. A guest appearance with the New York Philharmonic this week and next Tuesday to conduct his own violin concerto in the company of the fearless violinist for whom he wrote it, Leila Josefowicz, looked just like a case in point and was more than enough of a reason for me to walk back down to the Lincoln Center yesterday evening.
And that was not all. Sibelius' fifth symphony would be the other compelling work on the program, the timing of this being all the more appropriate as I was supposed to attend an all-Sibelius concert by The Minnesota Orchestra at Carnegie Hall yesterday evening, which was cancelled due to the orchestra's on-going work stoppage. Although the Avery Fisher Hall does not come even close to Carnegie Hall in terms of acoustical bliss, I was probably still in a better place there since I stood to mightily benefit from the Finnish connection between composer and conductor, as well as from the famed virtuosity of the New York Philharmonic.

The concert opened with the orchestral version of Ravel's Suite from Ma Mère l'Oye. Inspired by excerpts of French fairy tales, the five short pieces were subtle and sweet. A nice little trifle to whet our appetite a little more.
Salonen's violin concerto, on the other hand, was a substantial, unique and fascinating piece of work, which Leila Josefowicz attacked with unremitting fierceness and prodigious technique. Her signature predilection for contemporary composers and eagerness to boldly tread onto unchartered territory has made her the ideal interpreter of thorny, unusual, but ultimately rewarding musical adventures. As Salonen has been relentlessly exploring the limits of the violin's possibilities, occasionally slightly crossing over the borders, with this concerto, she has resolutely made the challenging journey her own. It is not a concerto for the traditionalist or the faint of heart, with its breakneck speed episodes, eerily soaring lines and brashly cacophonous moments, but it is not overly abstruse either. Not to mention that the incongruous appearance of some rock 'n' roll percussion certainly added a touch of relatable urban culture to the proceedings.
The performance was absolutely admirable and the ovation understandably huge, so huge in fact that she eventually granted us an encore, another violin piece "by Mr. E.P.S.", which was unsurprisingly another marvel of technical wizardry.
After the esoteric experiment, we moved on to more classical fare with Sibelius' majestic Symphony No 5. Setting a brisk but not hurried pace, Salonen led the more than willing orchestra into an expansive, but still tightly controlled, performance of this magnificent evocation of the rugged Finnish countryside, vividly emphasizing the organic beauty of the composition. I left the concert hall disappointed by the absence of an encore despite a long and loud ovation - Finlandia would have been such a perfect parting gift - but buoyant by the fact that I did get to hear some fabulous Sibelius last night after all.

Met - Two Boys - 11/02/13

Composer: Nico Muhly
Production: Bartlett Sher
Conductor: David Robertson
Anne Strawson: Alice Coote
Brian: Paul Appleby
Jake (Boy soprano): Andrew Pulver
Jake: Christopher Bolduc
Rebecca: Jennifer Zetlan
Fiona: Sandra Piques Eddy
Peter: Keith Miller

While The Met occupies a preeminent place in the opera world, it is not exactly known for ground-breaking productions. So needless to say that the New York premiere of Nico Muhly's Two Boys, the first work from the Met/Lincoln Center Theater New Works Program, had been eagerly expected, at least by the more adventurous-minded portion of The Met's audience. And let's face it, they may not be the richest or the most powerful, but they're hopefully here to stay.
Inspired by true events that roughly involved two English teenagers, Internet chat rooms, fictive identities, sexual tensions, virtual seduction and actual stabbing, the story certainly has plenty of attention-grabbing drama to pick and keep most people's interest. Moreover, if composer Nico Muhly turned out to be even just about half the endlessly inventive wonder boy he's been touted to be, I figured that the whole enterprise would be worth a trip down Broadway yesterday afternoon.

The actual crime dates back to 2003, which feels both like ancient history in IT years and a giant leap forward from the traditional 18th and 19th century fare that regularly headlines The Met's programming. The opera's gestation took several years until its London premiere in 2011, and then another couple of years were spent on extensive revisions before it finally made it to The Met a couple of weeks ago. Fact is, no matter what the end result would end up being, Two Boys was already a noteworthy musical event in itself.
The cast was mostly unknown, except maybe for British mezzo-soprano Alice Coote, whose sterling reputation quickly proved to be totally justified as her clear, robust and flexible voice gave life to the detective Anne Strawson. Her rather thankless role has apparently been fleshed out since the London run and I can't really decide if it was a good idea or not. Her scenes at home kind of felt out of place and soap-operaish, but still provided a couple of additional insights into her character, who could otherwise have easily passed for a one-dimensional spinster defined by her computer illiteracy and loneliness.
As the 16-year-old Brian, tenor Paul Appleby was a viscerally brooding and unusually gullible young man, whose solid and expressive singing successfully conveyed mounting yearnings and frustration. Boy soprano Andrew Pulver was an impressively believable Jake, the 13-year-old computer whiz who had created a chat room full of imaginary characters for his own disturbing purposes, and enchanted the audience with his innocent voice and unique presence.
The whole cast of fictitious individuals populating Jake's world was uniformly in top shape, from the provocative sister Rebecca, sung with titillating effectiveness by soprano Jennifer Zetlan, to the manipulative spy Fiona, whose cool poise mezzo-soprano Sandra Piques Eddy expertly depicted, to the evil gardener Peter, impersonated with alarming creepiness by bass-baritone Keith Miller, to the well-adjusted Jake, to whom baritone Christopher Bolduc gave handsomeness and self-confidence.
The boys' parents fared just as well, with extra points for Caitlin Lynch and her highly melodious singing as Jake's heart-broken and clueless mother. Cluelessness was also the main emotion ably expressed by Maria Zifchak and Kyle Pfortmiller as Brian's parents. Veteran Judith Forst had a short but outstanding role as Anne Strawson's old mother, and provided a welcome touch of comic relief.
Creating a high-tech environment onstage is by default a fairly new challenge, but this sleek production has pretty much succeeded. The various sets, which efficiently moved from one to another, were brilliantly evocative of the seemingly possibilities lurking in cyberspace, including countless fake, meaningless, misleading, sometimes dangerous, always unaccountable, virtual connections. The smart use of videos added a physicality to this brand new high-tech world with a fleeting gay sex scene, online conversations in real time, and increasingly insistent messages asking if somebody - anybody - was there, all in the name of an escape from a reality seemingly filled with loneliness and disappointment.
The production was not an undisputed winner though, mostly due to some unnecessary and distracting  dance numbers. I would assume that they were introduced to physically convey the chat rooms' frantic virtual activity as opposed to the motionless computer users, but the music was doing the job just fine, offering a stark contrast between the still bodies and the pulsating sounds.
The other lesser issue is that the story did not always unfold as smoothly as hoped for, mostly due to the naturally convoluted nature of the plot and the use of flashbacks, but the libretto was generally strong and the few slight bumps on the road did not manage to significantly spoil the enjoyment. Come to think of it, it is also possible to see the uneven narrative pace as  - incidentally or not - indicative of the short attention spans often associated with heavy Internet users.
The music, on the other hand, was an appealing combination of various influences, among whom Benjamin Britten and Philip Glass were clearly, but not overwhelmingly, distinguishable. While the overall tone was resolutely minimalist, the singers still had opportunities to do their operatic thing to satisfying effect. But the brightest star of the show was hands-down the chorus, which turned all the arresting choral parts into memorable moments. From the first foray into the Internet world, to the church episode, to the final haunting scene, the singing was all hypnotic sounds and shimmering charisma. Attentive conductor David Robertson made a point of keeping the complex score vibrant and colorful, making it boldly experimental and effortlessly accessible.

As far as I could tell, the opera house was almost full for this Saturday matinee and, even more importantly, pretty much everybody came back to their seats after intermission and heartily applauded at the end. I am not sure if this means that Two Boys has a secure future ahead of it, but for all I could see and hear around me, it definitely sounded promising.

Saturday, October 26, 2013

Tetzlaff Quartet - Haydn, Bartok & Beethoven - 10/24/13

Haydn: String Quartet in C Major, Op. 20, No 2
Bartok: String Quartet No 4
Beethoven: String Quartet No 15 in A Minor, Op. 132

Any opportunity to hear the brilliant violinist Christian Tetzlaff is never to be turned down, especially when he comes with its own quartet to perform in Carnegie Hall's sleek and intimate Zankel Hall. That's why after serendipitously scoring a ticket to the instantly sold-out concert, I firmly decided that I would not let a lingering bad cold keep me grounded at home while the popular foursome would be churning out works by Haydn, Bartok and Beethoven. So I still showed up, prudently drugged up and armed with water bottle and cough drops, although all those precautions turned out to be completely unnecessary in the end. Once my body and mind were solidly focused on Tetzlaff & Co., nothing else mattered.

Although today Haydn does not exactly stand as a revolutionary figure, back in his days his six Op. 20 quartets decisively broke the mold by giving an equal voice to all four individual instruments while creating seamless musical tapestries. When one of these masterworks is in such expert hands as the Tetzlaff Quartet's, the result is an impeccably executed example of classical refinement at its most intricate and attractive, never mind the unwelcome disturbance created by two late-comers that were let in after the performance had started (?!).
Since the quartet is well-known for its fearless take on contemporary music, Bartok sounded just like the right composer to be featured as he would probably please lovers of esotericism and not scare away the more conservative-minded. Sure enough, the symmetrical five movements of the endlessly inventive, arch-like String Quartet No 4 had plenty of musical gifts for everyone. The third movement, which was the nucleus of the piece, in particular contained mesmerizing cello lines, whose dark lyrical beauty was powerfully enhanced by Tanja Tetzlaff's compelling playing. The fourth movement was a pizzicato-only variation of the second one, adding a whimsical rustic touch to the proceedings, before the fifth movement thematically reprised the first one in an explosion of urgent dance rhythms. When Hungarian imagination and high-spiritedness meets German precision and boldness, anything can happen, and did.
After intermission, we moved on to 45 minutes of Beethovian bliss with his String Quartet in A Minor, Op. 132, in which the composer's unmatched mastery of his craft majestically unfolded for posterity. As he was recovering from a major illness and nearing the end of his life, the old man was wrestling with life and death questions, and fortunately for the rest of us, he put them to music. The Tetzlaff Quartet knowledgeably took us on this challenging emotional journey where dark alternates with light, sorrow with happiness, all the way to the assertive victory of life.

We had almost given up on an encore as they had come, bowed and gone three times, but our persistence was eventually rewarded with an lively Allegretto from String Quartet in G Minor, Op. 20, No 3, which took us back right where we started.

Thursday, October 17, 2013

Mariinsky Orchestra - All-Rachmaninoff - 10/15/13

Conductor: Valery Gergiev
Rachmaninoff: Piano Concerto No 3 in D Minor, Op. 30 - Denis Matsuev
Rachmaninoff: Symphonic Dances

Back in a sold-out Carnegie Hall on Tuesday night for my last date with Valery Gergiev for a while, I was getting mentally prepared to wrap up the crash course in the Russian repertoire I had been happily putting myself through for the past couple of weeks. After Tchaikovsky's unabashed Romanticism, Stravinsky's ground-breaking modernism and Shostakovich's irreverent zaniness, the spot was on Rachmaninoff with his irrepressible Piano Concerto No 3 and his irresistible Symphonic Dances. I was not familiar with Denis Matsuev, the pianist who would attempt to tame the wild beast, but my friend Linden and I were very eager to watch them battle it out, safe from our perch way above the fray.

A young man of imposing stature, Denis Matsuev indeed looked the part when he arrived on stage, and he certainly proved he had the technique, power and stamina to keep the formidable "Rach 3" under control. What was occasionally missing though, was the delicate lyricism of the quieter passages, which were handled with plenty of skills but little emotion. Once the haunting opening was over and he had made his understated entrance, Matsuev grabbed the monster and ran with it, resolutely never looking back. The notoriously challenging peaks exploded in all their might, the inconspicuous valleys remained in the shadows. But the journey was still an incredible ride, with a particularly animated Gergiev making sure the orchestra provided a solid background to the revved-up soloist.
The audience was so enthusiastic in showing its appreciation that Denis Matsuev eventually came back for two encores. The first one was more Rachmaninoff with "Étude-tableau", Op. 39, No 2, which came out as a little wonder of melancholy ― an unquestionable proof that the flashy fireball had a sensitive side too ― while the second one turned out to be some wild jazzy improvisation that did not want to end. This combination of variety and virtuosity comforted me in the notion that whatever might happen with the Symphonic Dances, my evening had just been made.
But there was no reason to wonder because the second work on the program gloriously opened with its famed infectious exuberance, which would soon contrast sharply with somber moments and elegiac passages. From this embarrassment of melodic richness, among which stood out discreet references to the "Dies Irae" and other spooky chants, Rachmaninoff's fundamental Romanticism rose beautifully thanks to some striking combinations among a wide range of instruments, including a piano, a harp and a saxophone. The orchestra responded to the unique composition with finesse and gusto, each section getting a chance to shine in all its bright colors before all coming together to create an unusually brilliant patchwork.

Last week, after the all-Stravinsky program we got to enjoy a muscular overture to Verdi's La Forza del Destino. On Tuesday night, it is Wagner we got to take home with an absolutely stunning overture to Lohengrin. Parting may be sweet sorrow, but the memories will be of complete happiness. 

Monday, October 14, 2013

New York Classical Players - Wagner, Fung & Mozart - 10/13/13

Conductor: Dongmin Kim
Wagner: Prelude from Tristan and Isolde (arr. Yoomi Paick)
Fung: String Sinfonietta
Mozart: Violin Concerto No 5 in A Major, K 219,"Turkish" - Sean Lee
Mozart: Adagio and Fugue, K 546

Now that everybody is back in business and the official season is solidly underway, last week was full of exciting musical adventures of many sorts before wrapping up yesterday with the first concert of the New York Classical Players' Season 4. Moreover, I was particularly happy to go back to their Upper East Side home, the Church of the Heavenly Rest, not only because it is such a wonderful space, but also because I got to reach it by walking through Central Park on another splendid October afternoon. I actually felt kind of sorry about leaving the golden sun and crisp air behind, but on the other hand, I walked into the nave fully aware that everybody there was pretty darn lucky to be able to enjoy such a stellar ensemble play masterworks by Wagner and Mozart for free. So on with the music!

A new version of the Prelude from Tristan and Isolde arranged for small string ensemble started the concert on a deeply Romantic note, the characters' passionate longing for each other gorgeously expressed in the long Wagnerian lines, which the musicians handled masterfully. Just listening to this prelude solidified the notion that changing the course of music history can also be a truly transporting experience for creator and listeners.
Next, Vivian Fung's "String Sinfonietta" had a lot was going on in it, constantly keeping the orchestra and the audience at the edge of their seats. Displaying a wide range of moods and plenty of pizzicatos, this little string symphony was big on surprises and a real pleasure for the ears, with maestro Kim assuredly leaving no detail unattended.
Then we went back to a tried and true classic with Mozart's fifth and last violin concerto. Bristling with the inventiveness and elegance that have come to characterize its composer's oeuvre, the Turkish was a perfect opportunity to hear out young violinist Sean Lee, who passed the daunting test without any difficulty. His refined tone proved a natural fit for the work's understated lyricism, and he knew exactly when to let lose in the most exuberant moments.
As a bonus, our enthusiastic ovation earned us a deftly rendered Preludio from Bach's Partita No 3 in E Major, which turned out to be the ideal transition for the next, and last, but by no means least, piece on the program.
So we went back to Mozart, but incidentally enhanced by a touch of Bach this time, with his "Adagio and Fugue", which I personally consider one of the Viennese master's most spectacular achievements. Combining dramatic outbursts with compelling rhythms, the whole work progresses with an underlying dark intensity that makes it all the more spell-binding. Thanks to their remarkable sense of musicality, the New York Classical Players delivered a performance that projected all the endless complexity of the short composition, and concluded this delightful concert with virtuosity and flair.