Sunday, February 24, 2013

Philadephia Orchestra - Frank, Ravel & Stravinsky - 02/24/13

Conductor: Yannick Nézet-Séguin
Gabriela Lena Frank: Concertino Cusqueño
Ravel: Piano Concerto in G Major - Jean-Yves Thibaudet
Stravinsky: The Rite of Spring

Succeeding in making a good impression the first time out is of course of paramount importance, but then comes the challenge of at least sustaining, even surpassing it the second time around. Because there is always room for improvement, right? That's one of the reasons I was so much looking forward to hearing Yannick Nézet-Séguin conduct the Philadelphia Orchestra again at Carnegie Hall on Friday night after attending his memorable debut in the prestigious concert hall earlier this season.
Stravinsky's The Rite of Spring may seem very far from Verdi's Requiem, but both have a grand theatricality to them that seems just perfectly suited for the youthful energy and thoughtful musicianship of the orchestra's new music director. So let's see. And since Jean-Yves Thibaudet playing Ravel's Piano Concerto in G Major was going to add some sophisticated French flair to the evening, all seemed to fall into place for a well-deserved enjoyable evening for my friend Linden and me.

The first piece on the program was Gabriela Lena Frank's Concertino Cusqueño, a short and pleasant movement that successfully matches Peruvian culture, with the first few notes of a religious tune, and Benjamin Britten, with the opening notes of his violin concerto. Composed with the Philadelphia Orchestra's appointment of Yannick Nézet-Séguin in mind, the result is earthy and elegant, both qualities being brightly enhanced by the totally committed treatment the score received from the orchestra.
Ravel's Piano Concerto in G Major brazenly flaunts its composer's love for jazz via a myriad of more or less conspicuous details and is for sure a breath of fresh air in the piano concerto répertoire. And who could better embody the French's love for American jazz than man of the world and pianist extraordinaire Jean-Yves Thibaudet? Well-known for his fierce talent and boundless versatility, he was the perfect interpreter for a piece that requires the technical skills of a classical virtuoso and the organic coolness of a jazz cat. Definitely in tune in every possible way, orchestra and soloist were clearly having a ball, which resulted in an endlessly fun ride for all.
Even as it is about to reach the ripe old age of 100, Stravinsky's Rite of Spring still amazes by its freshness and radicalism. And chances are that 100 years from now, it will still be heralded as a composition of unique transformative power. Any chance of hearing it in a concert hall is a true gift, and Yannick Nézet-Séguin and the Philadelphia Orchestra made sure to rise up to the daunting challenge by making the work come vibrantly alive, from the ferocious violin attacks to the resounding timpani outbursts. The impeccably polished, boldy primitive sounds coming from the stage magnificently highlighted the novelty of the work and created a flamboyantly colorful performance of it. The quieter moments were not forgotten either, and rose with all due delicacy and eeriness, surreptitiously hinting at the revolutionary musical explosion they were part of.

The ovation was so long and heart-felt that it earned us an encore that could not have been more appropriate: An arrangement of Stravinsky’s "Pastorale", which Leopold Stokowski wroted for the Philadelphia Orchestra. A lovely trip to memory lane for the orchestra as well as a delightful tribute to the composer's eclectic talent.

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Music Mondays - Miró Quartet - Beethoven, Dutilleux & Schubert - 02/18/13

Beethoven: Quartet No 11 in F Minor, Op. 95, (Serioso)
Dutilleux: Ainsi la nuit
Schubert: Quartet in D Minor, D. 810 (Death and the Maiden)

After all the excitement of Powder Her Face in Brooklyn last Friday, an intimate evening of elevated chamber music - Beethoven, Dutilleux, Schubert - by one of today's premier string quartets in the lovely little Advent Lutheran Church right in my neighborhood sounded just what I needed. I actually had to do a double take after seeing the Miró Quartet's name on the Music Mondays series' schedule, having a hard time believing that the prestigious ensemble, which these days performs in world-famous concert halls like Amsterdam's Concertgebouw, Berlin Philharmonic's Kammermusiksaal and London's Wigmore Hall, would venture in our little neck of the woods, but here they were. And that was more than enough to make me forget my crazy day in the office (on a national holiday!), breathlessly squeeze into the packed church (The word had obviously gotten out and around) and finally be ready for whatever enchanting sounds may come my way.

Beethoven's "Serioso" quartet is only true to its title to some extent. In fact, the seriousness of the music often cannot quite stifle the vivacious exchanges and joyful outbursts taking place. It is a short piece, but there is a lot going on in it at all times, as if the composer got lost in the thrill of experimentation, having fun breaking new grounds under the cover of thoughtful music. Rapidly switching between the various moods and tempos, the four musicians of the Miró Quartet, who could have easily been mistaken for Wall Street players in their sharp suits, delivered an impeccable performance, confidently combining sleek sounds and warm playing.
Between the venerable German masters that were Beethoven and Schubert I was happily surprised to see French avant-garde composer Henri Dutilleux and his impressionist masterpiece Ainsi la nuit. Inspired by nighttime and all its mysteries, the seven movements organically flow together as if in a dream, their special sound effects sprinkling the surreal atmosphere. It is probably a fascinating - and difficult - work for musicians to study and play, but it is also a spell-binding journey for the audience, whether its members choose to pay attention to the different elements unexpectedly popping up or to just relax and let it wash over them. Yesterday, the Miró Quartet had their strings create unpredictable and always compelling moments of wonder, just like a night during which anything could happen.
And then we were back to more familiar ground with Schubert's memorable testament Death and the Maiden. Opening the first movement with all due gloom and terror, the four musicians kept up the vigorous pace and gripping tension until things calmed down a bit in the second movement. The Scherzo brought in some welcome lyricism, gorgeously highlighted by the glowing strings, but the insistent darkness never completely lifted and the piece eventually concluded in a death-defying Tarantella from hell. Maybe not the most cheerful way to end the evening, if it hadn't been for the sheer brilliance of the performance, which blazingly fired up everybody's heart and mind, at least until we got back to reality outside, on a cold Monday night in the dead of winter.

Sunday, February 17, 2013

New York City Opera - Powder Her Face - 02/15/13

Composer: Thomas Adès
Conductor: Jonathan Stockhammer
Director: Jay Scheib
Duchess: Allison Cook
Maid: Nili Riemer
Electrician, Lounge Lizard, Waiter: William Ferguson
Duke, Judge, Hotel Manager: Matt Boehler

It had been a long, long wait, but on Friday evening I was happily bracing myself for Powder Her Face, the reputedly raunchy tale of sex (a lot), drugs (a little) and opera (all of it), with a touch of British aristocracy for good measure, at the much hyped BAM multi-arts center in Brooklyn, where I hadn't been yet. Written when Thomas Adès was only 24, the work's main claims to fame include being inspired by real-life Margaret Campbell, Duchess of Argyll, AKA "The Dirty Duchess", and featuring what is probably the first musical depiction of a fellatio in opera history, which consequently had the whole composition banned from The British radio station Classic FM. But then again, there is no bad publicity, and a new enfant terrible was born in the process.
I was also eager to visit The New York City Opera' new home, and it turned out to be a wonderful surprise. Never mind the box office's disorganization which had the performance start over 15 minutes late, as soon as I stepped into the historic Howard Gilman Opera House, I found a space of a welcoming intimate size and attractive architectural details, much more appropriate for a small-scale chamber opera than the acoustically challenged David H. Koch Theater at the Lincoln Center. So while I missed the short trip home and the cheaper tickets, I also felt that crossing the East River may have been a good move after all.

Sex and money (Love is out of the picture for that one) have often made storylines go round, and here again, a promiscuous British Duchess' sexual shenanigans, which became fodder of endless gossips and speculation during her divorce in 1963, provide enough material for two and a half hours of adventurously dissonant music, a bold exploration of sexual morality, class warfare and societal hypocrisy, and nudity galore. Oh, and it also comes with some sharp witticisms here and there to make sure that we do not take it too seriously.
The Duchess, an improbable but relatively real combination of the aristocratic Marschallin for the fear of aging and femme fatale Lulu for the devil-may-care depravity, required a fearless leading lady, and this production found one in British mezzo-soprano Allison Cook. Throwing herself in the part with the same determination as the Duchess did in her multiple affairs, she at least remained solidly in charge of her course of action and delivered a totally engaging interpretation of a not particularly sympathetic woman. The fact that she looked mighty good in racy black lingerie certainly did not hurt either. But beside being blessed with a versatile physique that allowed her to move credibly through the span of five decades, she can also boast of a powerful voice possessing an impressive flexibility as well as a solid technique that enabled her to navigate the treacherous score without flinching. During the last two scenes, she just grabbed the spotlight for an emotionally and musically gripping tour de force.
As her Maid and - incidentally - the Duke's mistress, soprano Nili Riemer proved to be a decidedly noticeable presence too, and not just because of her eerie resemblance to Adèle, if the latter had red hair. Her agile and pretty coloratura, however, was definitely her own. And she unquestionably knew how to use it to make herself heard and state her points. She may be the lowly servant in the story, but this talented singer will not stand in anyone's shadow.
The male cast had a lot going for it too, in particular with bass Matt Boehler, who moved easily from the hapless Duke to the grandiloquent judge to the merciless hotel manager. Chameleonic tenor William Ferguson got to show a remarkable singing range while impersonating the Electrician, the Lounge Lizard and the Waiter, and I suspect there may be still more where it came from.
The sets consisted of several compartmentalized spaces and a few accessories that were swiftly moved around as needed. The audience even got to have a peek behind the scenes as a cameraman was often "backstage" streaming live what was going on there, from cocaine-snorting to trips to the toilet. This gave the production an unusual edge, but it also added chaos and overstimulation. There could be too much of a good thing at times. The less agitated moments, however, carried power and purpose.
The most memorable scene by unofficial general consensus had to be the fourth one, incidentally more or less half-way through the opera. In it we find a languorously relaxing Duchess whose room is little by little invaded by over twenty strappy young men, who also happen to be stark naked. Embodying the woman's previous liaisons, they leisurely move around, casually strike a pose or take a minute or two to watch the Duke's videotaped sexual encounter with the Maid that is playing in non-stop rotation on a TV while she casually calls room service to order a beef sandwich. The Waiter who will deliver the order will be tipped in nature in the daring onstage act that earned the opera its overnight notoriety. And he will get plenty of cash too.
The music may not be immediately appealing to ears used to more conventional fare, but its intrinsic grittiness had a genuine rawness that brilliantly emphasizes the Duchess' shameless extravagances, uncompromising behavior and eventual downfall. Creating his own special cocktail from Berg and Stravinsky for the contemporary dissonances, Kurt Weill for the decadent expressionism and Piazzola for the sensual tangos, Adès has come up with a score that did take a bit of work for me to get into, but once I was there, there was no turning back. Conductor Jonathan Stockhammer did an admirable job negotiating the challenging composition and drew a brave, vibrant performance from his musicians.

The ovation from the relatively young crowd was long and enthusiastic as the whole cast, production team and composer took the stage. And deservedly so.

Saturday, February 16, 2013

Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra - Bartok & Mahler - 02/13/13

Conductor: Mariss Jansons
Bartok: Violin Concerto No 2 - Leonidas Kavakos
Maher: Symphony No 1 in D Major, (Titan)

Back at Carnegie Hall on Wednesday night, I was preparing myself for the annual visit of the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra accompanied by their chief conductor Mariss Janons, which has long enjoyed a well-earned reputation as one of the oldest and best orchestras in the world. The fact that they were going to perform Mahler's first symphony was an extra incentive - the composer being one of their specialties - and the presence of Leonidas Kavakos to handle Bartok's Violin Concerto No 2 was the unmistakable cherry on top.

Bartok's second violin concerto for sure does not qualify as easy listening, but in the expert hands of Leonidas Kavakos it glowed with an alluring beauty that was both rough and luminous. Moreover, even if the composition is not the most accessible, it is still enough of a smorgasbord to keep the audience at least interested. Add to that mix a violinist famous for his assured virtuosity and the result should be nothing short of riveting. And that's exactly what we got on Wednesday night.
A rather inconspicuous yet magnetic presence on the stage, Kavakos churned out acrobatic trills and lyrical melodies without batting an eyelid, effortlessly maintaining a steady balance between folksy earthiness and warm Romanticism. The orchestra, which premiered the work back in 1939, proved to be the ideal partner for this tour de force, providing unflappable support overflowing with colors of its own.
The ovation was predictably thunderous and long, to the point where, lo and behold, Leonidas Kavakos eventually treated the ecstatic audience to an unexpected but most appreciated encore in the form of the Allemanda from Ysaÿe's "Fritz Kreisler" sonata. Having the privilege of hearing Kavakos play such a richly vibrant movement sans accompaniment would have easily justified the price of the concert ticket by itself.
Then we moved on to Mahler and his sprawling first symphony, which the orchestra brought to life with deep knowledge and clear confidence. The brass and woodwinds, in particular, distinguished themselves with crisp and precise sounds. Mariss Jansons used the tight connection he has formed with the musicians to draw an exceptionally inspired performance from them. Each section got to display its musical power while remaining solidly integrated in the whole, reminding us all by the same token where the hype came from, and how brilliantly they justify it.

Saturday, February 9, 2013

New York Philharmonic - Dvorak, Brahms & Bartok - 02/06/13

Conductor: Andris Nelsons
Dvorak: The Noon Witch, Op. 108
Brahms: Concerto in D Major for Violin and Orchestra, Op. 77 - Christian Tetzlaff
Bartok: Concerto for Orchestra, BB 123, Sz. 116

Some days are just more blessed than others, and last Wednesday was definitely one of those. After my lovely lunchtime interlude with Cantori New York, I proceeded to spend my evening in the Avery Fisher Hall with the New York Philharmonic conducted by visiting Latvian conductor Andris Nelsons and featuring enigmatic violinist Christian Tetzlaff for Brahms' magnificent violin concerto, my main reason to attend the concert. But I also have to say that the prospect of hearing a work that I did not know from Bartok - reputedly one of his most engaging compositions - certainly did not hurt either.

The concert started with Dvorak's symphonic poem The Noon Witch, a short piece inspired by the Czech poem "Polednice". Although the story conveys an eerie darkness - A mother ends up accidentally smothering her rambunctious son because of the Noon Witch she had invoked to make him obey - the performance by the Philharmonic enhanced the boundless colors and vivacity of the score with just a touch of macabre. 
Christian Tetzlaff being the ultimate cerebral musician, I am always curious to hear him fearlessly present his own version of works that are popular crowd-pleasers. So far, this interesting exercise has always turned out to be an excellent adventure. And I am pleased to report that Wednesday night was no exception either as he did not hesitate to hold back all the shamelessly sweeping lyricism of Brahms' grandly Romantic violin concerto while at the same time coming up with unusual, well-thought-out details. Intellectualism does not necessarily mean detachment though, and his unquestionable musical expertise also allowed him to boldly inject a slick virtuosic grittiness into this richly ornate piece. The Adagio probably did not bring any tears to anybody's eyes, but it most likely made a few jaws drop at its exacting yet compelling quality, which is quite a remarkable feat when it comes to this beloved composition. The orchestra was definitely game to follow the soloist wherever he fancied venturing, and Andris Nelsons made sure everybody was on the same page to successfully bring this intriguing war horse home.
We resolutely stayed in the realm of stimulating experimentation with Bartok's Concerto for Orchestra, whose exceptionally dense score is as unpredictable as it is rewarding. The three major movements and the two more episodic intermezzos cover a wide range of sounds and moods, and it is to Andris Nelsons' credit that he managed to tightly keep track of every single detail while not losing sight of the big picture. All instrument sections got their turn in the spotlight, and I was particularly pleased that the sounds coming from the two harps were clear and assertive, which is not always the case. The whole orchestra brilliantly raised to the challenge and in the process reminded the captive audience why this symphony-like concerto has always been one of Bartok's most enduring successes ever since it first came out. As long as it is played with such fierce commitment, this well-earned status is unlikely to change.

Cantori New York - Crouch & Larsen - 02/06/13

Conductor: Jason Wirth
Shawn Crouch: Sleepless
Libby Larsen: Alaska Spring

After the momentous Beethoven marathon last week, this week started very quietly to suddenly speed up with two concerts on Wednesday, the first one by Cantori New York at high noon and the second one by the New York Philharmonic and Christian Tetzlaff in the evening. That was a lot of excitement for one day up and down Broadway, and since nobody has ever had to twist my arm to take a day off, that's just what I did.
On Wednesday, the good news was that the predicted snow failed to materialize. It actually did last night in the form of Nemo, the Northeastern corridor's new bête noire. I don't overly mind some snow in winter, but what I really wish is that 1) it did not always happen on the weekend, 2) it had not caused the cancellation of two concerts I was planning to attend, 3) the well-meaning soul shoveling in my street had not started doing it at 3:00 AM this morning and 4) if he must do it, that he cleared MY sidewalk too, and not just the one across the street!
Back to Wednesday, I dutifully sat in the welcoming modern chapel of the Morningside Heights Interchurch Center at 12:00 PM, where a reduced but still commanding Cantori was going to perform two pieces, one of which - "Alaska Spring" - ranks sky-high in my favorite choral work list.

To anybody who has ever suffered from sleep deprivation, Shawn Crouch's "Sleepless" will accurately evoke the inner desperation of a restless mind looking for a break and the grating outside noises that are keeping it from reaching that blessed state. On Wednesday, the performance was both appealing and unsettling. The successful combination of the piano's insistent rhythms and the voices' gripping harmonies sneakily connected the unsuspecting audience with the frustrated victim of the Insomnia. This unfortunate situation eventually improved, however, when the soothing Lullaby rose and calmed everybody's spirits.
Inordinately appropriate as an object of desire during those lingering winter days, Libby Larsen's "Alaska Spring" is mesmerizing at all times of the year, especially to long-time city dwellers yearning for fresh air and unspoiled green spaces. In this specific corner of Alaska, nature's progressive rebirth oozes through every note of the score, which brillantly creates vivid images of the eagerly awaited renewal. The highly complex yet organically gorgeous composition may be a challenge for the singers, but its fundamentally lyrical nature impeccably came through in all its glory, even in this pared down version of it. Through Cantori's confidently multi-layered voices, the persistent snow melted, a warm wind blew, the first blade of grass appeared, some happy birds chirped again, among many other subtle details that spring had indeed arrived and all was well in the woods again. All was well in the Interchurch Center' chapel too.

Monday, February 4, 2013

West-Eastern Divan Orchestra - All-Beethoven - 02/03/13

Conductor: Daniel Barenboim
Beethoven: Symphony No 2 in D Major, Op. 36
Beethoven: Symphony No 9 in D Minor, Op. 125
Diana Damrau: Soprano
Kate Lindsey: Mezzo-soprano
Piotr Beczala: Tenor
René Pape: Bass
Westminster Symphonic Choir

Back in Carnegie Hall yesterday afternoon for the last concert of the whirlwind Beethoven marathon, I was feeling sad about this performance being the last time I would be enjoying the terrific West-Eastern Divan Orchestra and Daniel Barenboim from this specific seat. A quick look around the capacity crowd confirmed that beside the score-following aficionada in her usual spot, a couple of faces were also eagerly back for more.
The homestretch was promising to be a memorable grand finale with what many, including myself, consider Beethoven's crown achievement, his Ninth Symphony. When I first got my tickets, I was so excited at the prospect of the whole run that I did not even pay attention to the soloists featured on the program. When I finally did, I figured that Carnegie Hall had put the Met on speed dial and grabbed a couple of its biggest stars, with Diana Damrau and René Pape, along with two of its fastest-rising singers in Kate Lindsey and Piotr Beczala. To complete this stellar cast, the highly regarded Westminster Symphonic Choir would take care of the chorus duties. I don't think there was much more I could have asked for.

Before the massive undertaking that is the Ninth, the orchestra and its conductor got to warm up with the joyful Second. Although Beethoven was going through a dark period in his life when he wrote it, having realized that he was growing deaf, his composition neither bears any trace of fear or anxiety nor breaks any new ground. And that is just fine. The musicians treated it with the same respect and enthusiasm as any of the major works, and it was a charmingly innocuous, light-hearted way to start the concert.
Then came the Big One of the afternoon, the one that revolutionized classical music in so many ways, including its colossal size, innovative structure and emotional complexity, that it is still hard to fully comprehend how much we owe to it. But no matter what its place in music history is, it is first and foremost a deeply personal work of incredible power. Even if they did not know what to make of it when it first came out, everybody seemed to have a fervent opinion on it. Now that things have calmed down and it has become part of the cultural landscape, it is still capable of grabbing the most distracting listener's attention and stir up strong passions.
And that's exactly what happened yesterday afternoon with the orchestra whole-heartedly negotiating the epic Allegro, the breathless Scherzo and the lyrical Adagio. If there were any slight mishaps along the way, the moment was way too big for anybody to notice. And then, when René Pape suddenly got up and forcefully exhorted the musicians to stop "these sounds", they all immediately executed and impeccably switched to the new melody that would accompany Schiller's Ode to Joy. The irrepressible intensity during the textually corny but musically exhilarating hymn shot up a notch or two as the terrific choir joined in to mightily proclaim some lofty moral truths on behalf of Beethoven. The four soloists did the little they had to do very well and predictably left us wanting for more. Always in total charge of the big picture as much as the tiniest details, Daniel Barenboim had orchestra and singers at his fingertips throughout the whole journey and drew an exceptionally thrilling performance from all of them.

And after all, what better advocates for Beethoven's sweeping call for understanding among men than a dedicated artist profusely awarded for his peace efforts and an ensemble of brilliant young musicians deeply committed to listening to one another?

Sunday, February 3, 2013

West-Eastern Divan Orchestra - All-Beethoven - 02/02/13

Conductor: Daniel Barenboim
Beethoven: Symphony No 6 in F Major, Op. 68 (Pastorale)
Beethoven: Symphony No 7 in A Major, Op. 92

After one day off in the course of Carnegie Hall's Beethoven symphony marathon, it was back to business yesterday evening with the countryside-inspired Sixth and the energy-filled Seventh. At this point though, it was with full confidence that I walked down Broadway before making a left turn on E. 57th Street. If the previous two concerts had been any indication, those two compositions did not sound like anything the young, bold and extremely talented West-Eastern Divan Orchestra could not handle.
So I went back to my "Beethoven seat" in another packed Stern Auditorium filled with another batch of new faces, except for the by now familiar sight of that one dedicated fan, who was dutifully back with her scores in the same spot. Our little corner is really starting to feel like home.

I've always thought that the Pastorale stands out in a special way among Beethoven's symphonies. Its instantaneously recognizable moods suggesting bucolic scenes and its gentle Romantic overtones make it both innovative and accessible, a winning combination which in turn has rightfully made it one of his most popular works. Taking their cue from the composer's resolutely organic approach and their conductor's deep knowledge of the score, the orchestra was at its best when creating subtle colors and refined textures that were beautifully evoking the simple yet profound pleasures to be found in nature. The strings glowed and the woodwinds sang, deftly conjuring up the unconditional enjoyment of unspoiled green spaces and innocent peasant revelry. The assertive timpani and brass eventually joined their powerful forces for the resounding thunderstorm that would unceremoniously if temporarily disrupt the perfect day in the country. But all ended well as calm and happiness were completely restored to let the whole experience conclude on a quietly satisfied note.
The Seventh may legitimately be known as the most dynamic of Beethoven's symphonies, but the fact of the matter is its most beloved movement has always been the otherworldly gorgeous Allegretto. And no wonder. With a regal yet compelling momentum, it rarely fails to inconspicuously hypnotize the audience into a stunned silent right before the high-spirited Presto suddenly gives everybody a jolt and reminds them that music can be a lot of riotous fun too. The vast variety of harmonies and rhythms throughout the whole symphony keeps it constantly fresh and exciting, all the more so when it is performed with the boundless energy and deep commitment that was on full display last night.
Seven down. Two more to go.

Saturday, February 2, 2013

West-Eastern Divan Orchestra - All-Beethoven - 01/31/13

Conductor: Daniel Barenboim
Beethoven: Symphony No 4 in B-flat Major, Op. 60
Beethoven: Symphony No 3 in E-flat Major, Op. 55 (Eroica)

On Thursday evening, I was back on my own in my temporary Carnegie Hall spot for the second leg of the Beethoven marathon by the wonderful West-Eastern Divan Orchestra, 24 hours after a very promising debut. This time, we would get to hear the Fourth and the Third symphonies, and in that order too, presumably to make sure that the audience would stick around for the much more substantial Eroica.
I was slightly surprised that the people around me looked different from the night before, although still represented a pretty accurate sample of the general population. The only exception being the dedicated woman who was back with the scores in front of her a few seats from me. I guess that if for any reason Daniel Barenboim, who was effortlessly conducting sans music sheet, suffered a sudden lapse of memory, she could always shout out the answer.

The Fourth symphony is not completely inconsequential, but it is not a flashy artistic statement either. That being said, there's no doubt that being sandwiched between the major achievements that are the Third and Fifth is not a good spot to get noticed either. Naturally, it goes without saying that even an "almost inconsequential" symphony by Beethoven still has a lot more going on in one movement that many other complete works out there. On the other hand, it is true that in view of the rest of his œuvre, the Fourth is rather light-weight. Opening with a few agonizingly slow minutes, it soon perks up, picks up speed and remains in a generally happy-go-lucky mood until the very end. And there's nothing wrong with that. Playing with the same whole-hearted conviction as the day before, the orchestra vividly emphasized the unsung appealing qualities of this very fine composition.
The Big One of the day was, of course, the Eroica whose sheer size and musical density still leaves the listener in awe. Just to make everything clear, the two thunderous opening chords warns everybody who is not already aware of it that what is following is not going to be any ordinary journey but rather a dazzling explosion of force and inventiveness. Having arrived at the half-way point of their strenuous if thrilling run, the resilient youngsters in the orchestra were not showing the slightest sign of fatigue or lack of focus but, au contraire, attacked this new challenge with plenty of heart and gusto. Probably relishing the pleasure of sinking his teeth into such a juicy piece, Daniel Barenboim conducted with his trademark intimate knowledge of the score and die-hard commitment to the musicians for an all-around glorious Eroica.
Five down. Four more to go.

West-Eastern Divan Orchestra - All-Beethoven - 01/30/13

Conductor: Daniel Barenboim
Beethoven: Symphony No 1 in C Major, Op. 21
Beethoven: Symphony No 8 in F Major, Op. 93
Beethoven: Symphony No 5 in C Minor, Op. 67

One of the main reasons why I was looking forward to leaving Spain (?!) and coming back to New York City was that a major treat would be waiting for me upon my return: Beethoven's nine symphonies spread over four concerts in five days at Carnegie Hall. To make things even more exciting, the musical ensemble in charge of this exhilarating challenge would be Argentine-born Israeli Daniel Barenboim's and his late friend the Palestinian scholar Edward Said's thriving creation, the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra. Composed by young musicians coming from Israel, the Palestinian Territories and several Arab countries, this well-regarded orchestra has been playing and touring for over 10 years now, demonstrating many times over than the world would be a much better place if people started putting down their differences and listened to one another a little bit more.
When putting this week's Beethoven marathon together, somebody had obviously come up with the smart idea of featuring one of the major symphonies in each of the four performances, allegedly to make sure that the audience would keep coming back for more. Such an elaborate scheme, however, was probably not necessary since only a quick look at the packed auditorium on Wednesday night confirmed that the name Beethoven had a tremendous appeal to people of all ages, genders, sexual orientations, races, national origins and economic status.
That's when I happily took my seat in what would be my temporary corner for three more concerts, a few seats from a woman who was so ready for it that she had the scores right in front of her. My friend Linden, always the knowledgeable dilettante and smart businesswoman, had picked this performance for her one and only Beethoven date because 1) it included the mighty Fifth and 2) she would basically get three symphonies for the price of two. Who could argue with that?

The symphonies may not be performed in order, but at least the whole series logically starts with the pleasant First and closes with the all-encompassing Ninth. So after receiving a rock-star ovation, Daniel Barenboim scoped out his protégés, raised his baton, and off we were. Beethoven's first foray into the symphonic world was light and fun, with Haydn's shadow occasionally hovering over it, but not too close. That was also my first opportunity to hear the orchestra live, and there was a lot to like. The playing may not have always benefited from an impeccably polished shine, but it projected plenty of endearing spontaneity and genuine enthusiasm. The musicians were young, but they clearly knew what they were doing and quickly won the audience over.
Jumping twelve years ahead, we moved swiftly on to the Eight symphony and realized right away what a difference a decade makes. Not only did this one require a larger orchestra, but it also contained enough complex yet attractive musicality to keep musicians and audience members fully engaged. Although Daniel Barenboim from time to time took a step back, nobody was fooled for a second into thinking that he was loosening his towering command over the proceedings. His connection with the orchestra is evidently so tight and secure that he does not need to spell everything out to make it happen.
Then came the Big One of the evening, the mighty Fifth, the one that has proved once and for all that it is possible to revolutionize an art form and do it with panache too. Being famous as the symphony that even unsuspecting people are to some extent familiar with can be both a blessing and a curse. While its four-note motive is arguably the most recognized hook in all classical music, it would not be fair to reduce such a ground-breaking composition to only one component - however prominent - of it. Yet, this infectious and resilient foursome is a gift that has kept on giving for over two centuries now, throughout the ages and throughout the whole work as well. Taking the time to give the score the opportunity to breathe and resonate with all its monumental power, maestro Barenboim led his musicians into a rousing account of it. From the threatening darkness and underlying tension of the opening movement all the way to the exuberant energy of the grand finale, this Fifth was undisputable evidence that true masterpieces are in fact timeless.
Three down, six more to go.