Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Steven Isserlis & Kirill Gerstein - 01/26/13

Bartok: Rhapsody for Cello and Piano
Busoni: "Kultaselle", variations on a Finnish folksong
Brahms: Sonata for Cello and Piano No 1 in E Minor, Op. 38
Liszt: "Romance oubliée "
Liszt: "Die Zelle in Nonnenwerth"
Brahms: Sonata for Cello and Piano No 2 in E Minor, Op. 99

On Sunday afternoon, I temporarily left my digs on the Upper West Side to cross Central Park and venture into the foreign territory that is the Upper East Side. But I had a very good reason to do so, and that was a recital by Steven Isserlis and Kirill Gerstein at the 92Y. Moreover, after too many hours spent in front of the computer, nobody had to twist my arm to get out and even passingly enjoy the gorgeous weather in the park on my way to a couple of afternoon hours of elevated music by two distinguished musicians.

The zesty opening number was Bartok's transcription of his Rhapsody for Violin and Piano for cello and piano, which smartly combined the infectious folk tunes of the composer's native country and some more generally engaging melodies. The cello and piano immediately entered into a meaningful dialogue of harmonies and rhythms that ended up in some quite spectacular fireworks.
Busoni's Kultaselle has a lot going for it under a rather inconspicuous first impression. On Sunday, the fired-up duo treated us to a lively rendering of it as they let these 10 variations on a Finnish folksong develop and expand, keeping the listener in a constant state of alertness and delight.
Then came the first Sonata for Cello and Piano by Brahms, written when he was not even twenty years old but already unquestionably on his path to becoming a musical giant. The work has an endearing spontaneity and tentative maturity that were masterly reflected in the expert playing coming from the stage. Obviously not a masterpiece but definitely more than just a curiosity, this sonata offers an interesting early glimpse of the bigger and better things to come while still genuinely standing on its own merit.
It is hard to go wrong with Liszt, and the ethereal versions of "Romance oubliée" and "Die Zelle in Nonnenwerth" that started the second half of the program reminded us that the occasional moody composer also knew how to express delicate emotions like very few others. In the hands of Steven Isserlis and Kirill Gerstein, those exquisite little gems brought the celestial light of this beautiful winter afternoon right into the concert hall.
More than twenty years after his first sonata, Brahms, ever the ultimate perfectionist, finally published his second sonata. Having a much more solid grasp on the challenges of his craft, he made good use of his vast musical experience and friendship with German cellist Robert Hausmann to concoct an intense, all-encompassing work. A grand, fun way to conclude the program.

But the concert was actually not quite over yet as the two musicians came back for an encore which, if it did not surpass what had been played previously, came pretty darn close. Dedicated to a 92Y regular who had just passed away, Schubert's beautifully meditative "Nacht und Traüme" was as compelling and peaceful a good-bye as could have ever been.

Sunday, January 27, 2013

Met - Maria Stuarda - 01/26/13

Composer: Gaetano Donizetti
Conductor: Maurizio Benini
Producer: David McVicar
Mary Stuart (Maria Stuarda): Joyce diDonato
Queen Elizabeth I (Elisabetta): Elza van den Heever
Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester (Roberto): Matthew Polenzani
George Talbot (Giorgio): Matthew Rose
William Cecil (Guglielmo): Joshua Hopkins
Jane Kennedy (Anna): Maria Zifchak

Although I was thrilled at the thought of taking a break for the Big Apple and exploring the wonderful country of Spain for a couple of weeks, I still had to make sure that this little escapade did not prevent me from attending not-to-be-missed productions such as Donizetti's Maria Stuarda at the Met. Luckily, the timing worked out very well because the last presentation of it, which I attended with a few like-minded friends, was last night.
I am not an unreserved afficionada of the bel canto style mainly because I find some of its conventions, such as the same lines repeated over and over or the applause unfailingly erupting after each aria, rather cumbersome. But I can still find myself completely in awe of the often death-defying vocal acrobatics that come with it. If the singers have also enough acting talent to properly convey emotions, all the better. And if the plot is not too silly, I am totally there.
After some light research, I had come to the conclusion that Maria Stuarda had all the right ingredients. The story was at least inspired by historical facts, even if Queen Elizabeth I and Mary Stuart have reportedly never met, Donizetti is well-known for the irresistible arias he apparently churned out at will, and the cast featured popular American soprano Joyce DiDonato, whom I still had to hear live, in a role that would give her plenty of opportunities to display her reputedly dazzling voice. Even better, the full duration of the performance would be less than three hours, which made it totally acceptable by opera standards.

Sometimes I wonder why writers spend so much time racking their brains to come up with new narratives when history often contains plenty of ready-made and relatively adaptable material. A case in point is the endless personal and political clash between protestant Queen Elizabeth I of England and catholic Mary, Queen of Scots, which first inspired Friedrich Schiller to write a play about it. Later, the play was adapted and became, with a little help from one of Italy's most prodigious melody-makers, what has to be the best-sounding cat-fight in opera history. After overcoming censorship issues and decades in obscurity, Maria Stuarda is now part of the standard répertoire and we all should be grateful for that.
It may have taken me a long time to find the right occasion to experience Joyce DiDonato's magic live, but I have to say that I was rewarded by some of the most glorious singing I have ever heard at the Met, or anywhere else for that matter. Not only does she have a naturally rich and beautiful voice, but she also knows exactly how to temper it to express her character's wide-ranging emotions with the utmost precision and eloquence. The gentle wistfulness with which she enjoyed a fleeting moment of relative freedom in the woods suddenly turned into a studied submissiveness when meeting with Queen Elizabeth and eventually became full-blown rage when calling her rival a "vile bastard" and a "harlot". Not exactly a good move towards peace-making, even before our present days of syrupy political correctness. But she sure made her point clear.
South African soprano Elza van den Heever was a more than appropriate match to Joyce DiDonato's all-around superb performance. This fast-rising newcomer unhesitatingly lent her unusual voice, fierce temperament and incredible poise to a character who may not have appeared very likable, but was definitely mesmerizing. That being said, while her Queen Elizabeth I could be downright imperious and cruel, she also projected ephemeral glimpses of vulnerability and warmth, effectively transforming what could have been a mere one-dimensional villain into a much more complex human being. After all, nobody ever said it was easy to be the Queen.
Met regular Matthew Polenzani brought his trademark appealing voice and engaging presence to well-meaning but ultimately unsuccessfully Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester. An impeccably polished bel canto tenor, Polenzani immediately seized every moment and proved that his "Roberto" was much more than just the object of desire of two strong-headed queens. He was most remarkable at expressing his conflicting feelings towards the two women and his growing frustration and despair at Mary's increasingly hopeless fate.
The rest of the cast were equally brilliant, with bass Matthew Rose as George Talbot, Mary's long-time custodian, baritone Joshua Hopkins as William Cecil, Elizabeth cunning Secretary of State, and mezzo-soprano Maria Zifchak as Jane Kennedy, Mary's loyal lady-in-waiting. Although its part was rather limited, the Met chorus was its usual fabulous during the haunting prayer Mary called for as she was preparing to die.
The production was not particularly adventurous, but it was unquestionably smart, even tentatively imaginative at times. Furniture was scarce, with the dramatically contrasting colors and elaborate lighting creating the vast majority of the arresting visual effects. Among the most memorable tableaux were the meeting of the two queens in the woods, where dark trees starkly rose against gray skies, and Mary's death sentence being pronounced by a Queen Elizabeth in sparkling royal regalia powerfully standing out in the dark room. Nothing superfluous, nothing wasted.
The music is often the raison d'être of bel canto operas, and while Maria Stuarda can boast of a coherent and tight story, its main appeal still resides in a magnificent score overflowing with emotionally charged arias. Not only do they allow the singers to have their shining moments in the spotlight, but they also keep the action neatly moving along. There was still a fair amount of traditional blocking and belting out, but at least it did not feel overly contrived or aggravating.
The orchestra was in an olympic form and delivered a vibrantly colorful performance of the challenging but immensely rewarding score. Visiting conductor Maurizio Benini proved that he totally deserves his reputation of expert in bel canto works by knowingly striking the right balance between musicians and singers, which resulted in a heightened sense of drama coming from the pit and the stage... and a perfect night at the opera for all.

Radu Lupu - Schubert, Franck & Debussy - 01/24/13

Schubert: Four Impromptus, D 935
Franck: Prélude, Chorale, and Fugue
Debussy: Préludes, Book II

Sometimes it is hard to figure out what the right decision is, and then life gives you this extra little push that suddenly makes everything crystal clear. Way back last summer when I was building my Carnegie Hall season, I had noticed the Radu Lupu recital, which included my beloved Préludes by Debussy, in the end of January. Not knowing the exact timing of my trip to Spain, I had prudently held off. Later, the trip was planned and my return scheduled for the evening before the concert, so I reluctantly decided to pass.
But then I received a comp ticket offer while busily touring Madrid and decided that I had to reconsider. After my friend Linden agreed to come along and give me a little nudge if necessary, we were at Carnegie Hall on Thursday night. After all, the best way to get back into a routine is just to get back into a routine, right?

The Four Impromptus by Schubert were a lovely, if not particularly imaginative, opening number. Subtly contrasted and gently flowing, they efficiently soothed my body and soul and helped me overcome the shock of a full workday after two weeks of hedonistic life in Spain.
Franck's impeccably luminous Violin Sonata became a favorite of mine as soon as I heard it, and while no other works of his has ever managed to match the intensity of this coup de foudre, I was looking forward to hearing his Prélude, Chorale, and Fugue for the first time in such knowledgeable company. Verdict: A nicely interconnected work covering a wide range of sounds while steadily sustaining a discreet touch of elegance. It did not rock my world, but it is definitely on the "Approved" list.
As Debussy's Préludes were getting closer, my energy was slowly fading away, and by the time they came around, I am afraid my attention span was no longer what it should have been. But I still very much enjoyed those attractive little snippets as I let them flow over me, inconspicuously evocative and delightfully harmonious. Radu Lupu's famous idiosyncratic ways kept those vignettes constantly interesting while still remaining easily accessible, which was exactly what my slowly weakening state needed.

The encore was a diaphanous little treat that concluded the evening on a soft note, before the icy cold outside brought us all back to a biting reality and kept me awake long enough to easily find my way home.

Teatro Real - The Perfect American (Final Dress Rehearsal) - 01/20/13

Composer: Philip Glass
Conductor: Dennis Russell Davies
Walt Disney: Christopher Purves
Roy Disney: David Pittsinger
Dantine: Donald Kaasch
Lillian Disney: Marie McLaughlin
Hazel George: Janis Kelly

After a short but fantastic escapade in Andalucía where I took in the wonderful sights of Granada, Cordoba and Seville to my heart's content, I was ready for more live music upon meeting up with my friend Nicole in Madrid last weekend. And I did not have to worry. Always the resourceful one, she had landed us prime tickets to the final dress rehearsal of Philip Glass' brand new opera, The Perfect American. Granted, we did not know much about it, except for the fact that it was based on the last days of... Walt Disney, of all people, which was intriguing enough. Not to mention that it would give us the opportunity to check out yet another opera house, El Teatro Real. Last, but not least, we were also shamelessly enjoying the cool factor of being able to witness a new artistic creation before the rest of the world.
The facility, who had been renovated in the 1990s, was welcoming but a bit too modern for my taste, especially when compared to the other European opera houses I have been lucky enough to explore. Once inside the theater, however, things were a little bit more traditional with a stunning embroidered red velvet curtain, an understated but nevertheless impressive chandelier and a huge royal box. As the composer himself democratically took his seat among the rest of us in the full house, we were ready for the show to begin.

Although Walt Disney is a name I've known all my life - Come to think of it, it was probably my first, unconscious taste of American culture - I can't say I was even remotely familiar with the man himself. And apparently ignorance is sometimes true bliss when it comes to popular icons. Inspired by the fictional story written by Peter Stephan Jungk, the opera is letting us know that not only was Walt Disney not the actual creator of many of his famous characters, but that he was also a racist, misogynist, ultra-conservationist megalomaniac (I think I got everything). He had a few redeeming qualities as well, but not that many.
Making such as controversial individual come to life is no easy task, but tenor Christopher Purves had obviously taken charge of his character, warts and all. Beside his supple and assertive voice, he also was enough of a skillful actor to make sure that all the nuances of Disney's complex personality would come through, whether an authoritative empire builder, a fearful cancer patient or a dedicated family man.
As Disney's brother Roy, David Pittsinger was the perfect life-long partner in crime, always eager to support and indulge his world-famous sibling. Donald Kaasch was a very effective trouble-maker in Dantine, powerfully expressing his unrestrained joy at being hired by such a cultural hero and his bitter resentment at being fired for trying to start a union. The leading ladies in Disney's life fared well too: Janis Kelly as the comforting nurse/Snow White and Marie McLaughlin as his rock of a wife.
Other characters, of the more idiosyncratic kind, included Lucy, a strange young girl wearing an owl mask, unfamiliar with Disney's œuvre and unwilling to leave his house. The animatronic Abraham Lincoln allowed for political views to be discussed while remaining in a Disney-created context. And a short but memorable appearance by Andy Wahrol, in a dashing purple velvet suit, brought an irresistible touch of modernity and fun. Although not a character per se, Disney's home-town of Marcelline has a key role in the plot, as it apparently did in his life.
The set was smartly designed with huge "Disney Studios" folders hanging from the ceiling and two old-fashioned movie cameras hovering from the center of it, all constant reminders of the power of cinema in general and the Walt Disney Company in particular. The changing decors were all rather discreet and encouraged the audience to focus its attention on the action unfolding on the stage. That permitted smooth transitions between the various scenes and fostered an agreeable impression of seamless continuation.
I am not a die-hard fan of Philip Glass' music, but I found this particular score very well suited for the story, what with his trademark minimalist basis and driving pulse. Always supporting and never interfering with the voices, which made the singing very vivid and easy to understand, the obviously capable orchestra gave a winning account of the difficult composition in no small part thanks to distinguished English conductor Dennis Russell Davies.

We had been warned that this being the final dress rehearsal, the performance could be interrupted at any moment. But, except for an early technical glitch, everything went on very well and, apart for a few barely noticeable hesitancies, we really felt that we were attending the real thing, and the real thing was pretty good indeed.

Saturday, January 26, 2013

Gran Teatre del Liceu - Iolanta - 01/13/13

Composer: Piotr Tchaikovsky
Orchestra: Mariinsky Theater Symphony Orchestra
Conductor: Valery Gergiev
Iolanta: Anna Netrebko
Count Vaudémont: Sergei Skorokhodov
King René: Sergei Aleksashkin
Robert: Alexander Gergalov
Ibn-Hakia: Edem Umerov

Just as winter had been settling in New York and my friend Nicole had been settling in Barcelona, we decided that the time had come for me to go from my adopted home to hers, and by the same token expand my visit with a quick but relatively comprehensive exploration of Spain. Since no trip would ever be complete without some live music sooner or later, we made sure to time my four-day stay in her city with a promising performance, which in this case happened to be the concert version of Tchaikovsky's Iolanta featuring Russian super-stars Valery Gergiev and Anna Netrebko. As an added bonus, that would also allow me to take a peek at the beautiful Liceu, the classy building proudly standing up amidst the hustle and bustle of La Rambla.
My main interest in Barcelona had always lied in being able to get close and personal with some of Gaudi's most dazzling works, and I have to say that my eyes popped out for each and every one of them. I found the jaw-dropping sight of La Sagrada Familia (at the jaw-dropping price of 20 Euros - But anything to help the Spanish economy, right?), in particular, worth the trip all by itself. But I also got to happily enjoy unexpected musical treats such as a short but lovely recital by Nicole a casa and a rehearsal of the Tchaikovsky violin concerto during a guided tour of the Palau. On Sunday afternoon, however, we were totally ready for our eagerly anticipated detour in Russian culture.

A sweet little trifle - It contains only one act and nobody dies - inspired by the Danish play King René's Daughter, Tchaikovsky's Iolanta is mostly popular for its unabashedly lyrical score that gives singers plenty of opportunities to make the audience swoon. Since everybody on the stage would be Russian and presumably well acquainted with Russian culture, we figured that the conditions were optimal for a very satisfying musical experience. And we were pretty much right.
But, let's face it, while all the singers quickly proved to be up to task, all eyes were naturally fixed on an Anna Netrebko absolutely resplendent in a bright red gown. More importantly, she sounded definitely more comfortable singing this viscerally romantic part in her native language than she had been in her latest Met appearances. During the gorgeous duet with the Count Vaudémont, at the end of act 3, she belted out her lines with some more energy and passion that I am still amazed the attractive roof of the opera house did not collapse on us. Unsurprisingly, the huge ovation that followed was almost as long as the opera itself, but at least it allowed us to catch our breath.
To his credit, tenor Sergei Skorokhodov managed to steadily hold his own as the Count Vaudémont, and actually got better as the action progressed. Bass Sergei Aleksashkin was a wonderful King René, with his effortlessly dignified presence and deeply affecting singing. Although it is probably more challenging to impersonate characters without the context of a production, the seasoned cast did not seem to mind that lack of support and generally delivered totally convincing performances that significantly deepened my understanding of the story since the English subtitles were not available, my Spanish is precarious and my Russian nonexistent. (The Catalan, on the other hand, proved occasionally helpful. Who knew I had it in me?!).
The Mariinsky orchestra sounded mightily good under the assertive baton of its artistic director and conductor. Even if Valery Gergiev is a world-famous jet-setting maestro, a special connection was unquestionably palpable between the music, the musicians, the singers and the conductor, which resulted in a very exciting musical adventure. I guess that if I cannot make it to Saint Petersburg anytime soon, the memory of this superb concert will do just fine for a while.

Saturday, January 5, 2013

New York Philharmonic - Braunfelds, Grieg & Beethoven - 01/03/13

Conductor: Manfred Honeck
Braunfels: Suite from Fantastic Apparitions on a Theme by Berlioz, Op. 25
Grieg: Piano Concerto in A Minor, Op. 16 - Jean-Yves Thibaudet
Beethoven: Symphony No 7 in A Major, Op. 92

For my first live performance of 2013, it was almost back to business as usual on Thursday night with my neighbors down the street, the New York Philharmonic, my fellow Lyonnais pianist, Jean-Yves Thibaudet, and a program including the always welcome - if not tremendously original - names of Grieg and Beethoven. The two unusual touches of the evening would come from the first piece, a suite written by the German composer Braunsfels (?!) and inspired by La Damnation de Faust, and the New York Philharmonic conducting debut of Manfred Honeck, the well-established Austrian conductor who has been distinguishing himself lately as the artistic director of the Pittsburg Symphony Orchestra.

The one unknown element of the program, Braunsfels' Suite from Fantastic Apparitions on a Theme by Berlioz, opened the concert and my musical year with a fun and robust little number strongly exuding Straussian flavors and assertively setting the Romantic mood for the rest of the evening.
The main attraction for most of the audience that night had to be perennially dapper and famously virtuosic Jean-Yves Thibaudet playing the old war horse that is the Grieg Piano Concerto. And the two proved to be a fine combination indeed. After the commanding crescendo roll from the timpani and the grand flourish from the piano had made their flamboyant entrance, we all gladly embarked on a luxurious journey in full-blown Romanticism. Not an overly complicated work, but made immensely compelling by its attractive melodies and dramatic intensity, the popular staple was vigorously but still respectfully handled by Jean-Yves Thibaudet. The sweeping passages were fast flying, the intricate details were prettily sparkling, the wild rhythms were energetically kept. In short, all went well, thanks in no small part to the mighty orchestra supporting the brilliant soloist.
The last piece of the program was Beethoven's "happy" 7th symphony, which also happens to contain one of my all-time favorite musical movements in its inconspicuously hypnotic Allegretto. On Thursday night, not only did this wonderful little gift beautifully come to life, but the other three movements got to shine in all their own splendor as well. From the majestic opening to the explosive Finale, Manfred Honeck maintained full control over the superb orchestra, having them negotiate every single twist and turn with cleverness and panache for a totally satisfying performance. There's no doubt about it: The year has started well.