Sunday, March 31, 2013

Orchestra of St. Luke's - Bach - 03/28/13

Conductor: Ivan Fischer
Bach: St. Matthew Passion, BWV 244
Dominique Labelle: Soprano
Barbara Kozelj: Mezzo-Soprano
John Tessier: Tenor
Hanno Müller-Brachmann: Bass-Baritone
Musica Sacra

As Easter and its inescapable parade of colorful eggs and cute bunnies were upon us, it seemed only appropriate to get into the spirit in the best possible way, with the Orchestra of St. Luke's and its guest conductor Ivan Fischer performing Bach's St. Matthew Passion at Carnegie Hall on Thursday night.
Although my friend Linden and I were eagerly anticipating the concert, it soon became clear that we were not quite prepared for what we were getting ourselves into. As Linden was carefully going through the text of it, she couldn't help notice how long it was, prompting us to wonder about the announced performance duration of approximately two hours and ten minutes. Now that would have required some rather remarkable speed singing skills. But we were in such good company that we decided to let go of such logistical details and focus our undivided attention on the musical experience ahead of us instead.

It turns out that the performance did last about one hour longer than expected, and while some parts certainly provided moments of timeless transcendental beauty, I came to the conclusion that the work could definitely use some editing. I am, however, also guessing that nobody will ever be brave enough to slice through the Gospel and Bach, the two being equally worshipped by their hordes of fiercely dedicated faithful.
Stopping at nothing to reach perfection, Bach came up with a sprawling composition containing a wide range of disparate elements - recitative, arias, chorales - expertly combined for maximum impact, and the result on Thursday night was unquestionably superb. The instrumental score was impeccably played by the orchestra and ever-engaged Ivan Fischer made sure that the various vocal parts fit in seamlessly as well. He was significantly helped in that mission by the distinguished Musica Sacra choir and a brilliant assortment of soloists, with the top prize going straight to mesmerizing Slovenian mezzo-soprano Barbara Kozelj. So the late and somber night was obviously still a very good night, and that is eventually what really mattered.

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Jeremy Denk - Bartok, Liszt, Bach & Beethoven - 03/22/13

Bartok: Piano Sonata, Sz. 80
Liszt: "Weinen, Klagen, Sorgen, Zagen", Prelude after J. S. Bach, S. 179
Sonetto del Petrarca No 123, from Années de pélerinage, deuxième année, S. 161
"Après une lecture de Dante, Fantasia quasi sonata" from Années de pélerinage, deuxième année, S. 161
"Liebestod", from Wagner's Tristan und Isolde, S. 477
Bach: Prelude and Fugue in B Minor from The Well-tempered Clavier, Book I, BWV 869
Beethoven: Piano Sonata No 32 in C Minor, Op. 111

In the middle of last week came the shock and disappointment of having the over-indulged members of the San Francisco Orchestra cancel their East Coast tour, including their appearance at Carnegie Hall on Thursday night for Mahler's 9th symphony, at the last minute because the rough economic reality of our times has apparently no place in the select sphere they evolve in. But that eventually made me all the more eager to go to that very same venue on the very next evening to hear a brilliant musician whose artistic integrity would, by all accounts, never allow him to behave like such a spoilt brat. Not to mention that, in addition to his selfless dedication to his craft, multi-faceted pianist Jeremy Denk also has the virtuosic chops to effortlessly offer some of the most thoughtful and entertaining recitals I've ever had the chance to attend. So I decided to at least temporarily forget - if not quite forgive - the temper tantrums from the Bay area and fully indulge in an appealing musical smorgasbord of works by Bartok, Liszt, Bach and Beethoven.

The concert literally kicked off with Bartok's Piano Sonata, Sz. 80, which was a fun way to get things going with wild tempos, rowdy dissonances and an infectious happy mood. Even if the middle movement was of a more subdued nature, the whole piece still sounded like the score of silent movie in which a healthy dose of action mercilessly competed with sporadic episodes of comic relief.
Next, the audience had a delectable taste of Liszt's long and eclectic career with four extremely different and equally fascinating works by the multi-talented Hungarian composer. From the title "Weinen, Klagen, Sorgen, Zagen", which literally translates into "Weeping, lamenting, worrying, fearing", it was easy to figure that the first work would not be particularly uplifting, but the Romantic overtones that Liszt infused into Bach's original composition and the expert playing by Jeremy Denk seamlessly meshed for a spontaneously engaging Prelude.
From intense sadness we moved on to pure beauty with Sonetto del Petrarca. Expertly shifting gears, Jeremy Denk delicately brought to life Liszt's exquisitely lyrical homage to the Petrarch Sonnet 123. Unhurried and freely flowing, the Sonetto unfolded with heavenly grace before ending in an elusive whisper.
"Après une lecture de Dante, Fantasia quasi sonata", on the other hand, had an intensity coming straight out from the Inferno, although Paradise would eventually win the fierce battle. The complexity and length of this challenge did not seem to faze Jeremy Denk though, and he steadily let the powerful dichotomy speak for itself.
I was very curious to hear Liszt's transcription of Wagner's Liebestod, and while the results left me somewhat wanting for the unique emotional quality of the human voice, this piano performance of it was still oozing grand Romantic passion.
Then we went back in time to Bach's Prelude and Fugue in B Minor from The Well-tempered Clavier. Not that any of Bach's work ever needs any dusting off, but Jeremy Denk's spirited playing certainly injected some additional sparking zest into the difficult two-voiced piece.
The official program concluded with Beethoven's Piano Sonata No 32 in C Minor, Op. 111, which is one of the last compositions for piano he ever wrote. I had heard Jeremy Denk play this very same piece last year at Le Poisson Rouge on my birthday, and while Friday night was not quite as big an occasion for me, hearing him perform it at Carnegie Hall was for sure another priceless gift. Starkly opening with fateful chords, the first movement ferociously exploded with the composer's hot-blooded drama while the last one gracefully expressed a soothing softness occasionally bordering on the mystical, with just a devilish ragtime interlude thrown in towards the end to remind us all what a visionary Beethoven was.

And since one can never hear too much Bach, the two encores were his Goldberg Variations, BWV 988, No. 13 followed by his Intermezzo in A Major, Op. 118, No. 2. The night was still young, the musician in a happily communicative mood, the audience completely captivated, and it was all over much too soon.

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

New York Classical Players - Bridge, Lewin & Vivaldi - 03/18/13

Conductor: Dongming Kim
Bridge: Suite for String Orchestra
Lewin: Concerto on Silesian Tunes, Movement III (Transcribed for string orchestra for the New York City Players by Yoomi Paick)
Vivaldi: The Four Seasons - Cho-Liang Lin

After the intensity of the previous weekend, which was brimming with an eclectic mix of philosophical musings, youthful energy and urban angst, and the blissful quietness of the week that followed it, I was more than ready for the uplifting brilliance of Vivaldi's Four Seasons on Sunday afternoon, especially since they were going to be performed by the reliably flawless New York Classical Players with special guest world-renowned violinist Cho-Liang Lin. As New Yorkers are increasingly pining for spring while winter is stubbornly dragging its feet - Did it really snow all day on Saturday?! - my friend Dawn and I decided that one of the best places to wait for sunshine and warmth was the Church of Heavenly Rest on the Upper East Side for yet another free, open-to-all concert of life-affirming music.

The performance started with Frank Bridge's neo-classical Suite for String Orchestra, whose simple, straightforward lyricism was truly enjoyable. Once the late-comers had finished settling down, we could all happily revel in its gentle melodies and uncomplicated harmonies. But easily accessible does not mean insignificant, and the virtuosic strings of the New York Classical Players whole-heartedly brought this wonderful piece to subtantial life.
Frank Lewin's third movement of his Concerto on Silesian Tunes, transcribed for the occasion, turned out beautifully elegiac. Opening with a long dark cello solo, the music eventually expanded with all the strings glowingly coming into play before gently ending in a whisper.
As violinist Cho-Liang Lin rightly pointed out, Vivaldi's Four Seasons need no introduction. Starting on the upbeat note of nature's rebirth, Dongmin Kim and his musicians took the captive audience on a vividly evocative musical journey through the unstoppable return to life of the joyful spring, the excitedly chirping birds before the flamboyant storm of the hot summer, the completion of the hard labor followed by the folk dances of the happy autumn, and the blistering wind competing with the warm fireplace of the bitter winter. With the added bonus of having Cho-Liang Lin read the sonnet corresponding to each season before picking up his violin, the genius of the composer and the talent of the orchestra were perfectly in line for a delightful performance of the timeless masterpiece.

But that was not all. After confessing some strong family ties to the Church of Heavenly Rest - that's where he got married and Sunday happened to be his mom's birthday - Cho-Liang Lin was kind enough to treat her and us to a sweet yet elegant Adagio movement of Haydn's concerto in C Major. One last heart-warming musical goodie before reluctantly going out in the bitter cold again.

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Cantori New York - Crouch, Moss, Bielawa & Fairouz - 03/09/13

Artistic Director & Conductor: Mark Shapiro
Bass Clarinet: Bohdan Hilash
Baritone: David Kravitz
Alto Flute: Karla Moe
English Horn: Setsuko Otake
Viola: Nadia Sirota
Shawn Crouch: Sleepless
Piotr Moss: Go Where Never Before
Lisa Bielawa: Lamentation for a City - Conductor: Jason Wirth
Mohammed Fairouz: Anything Can Happen

Somebody once said that variety is the spice of life. So after a long, philosophical and grandly rewarding Parsifal on Friday night, I was off to Harlem on Saturday afternoon for a Carnegie Kids concert with the groovy soul band Shine and the Moonbeams. This whole gig turned out to be a bigger endeavor than planned when I first realized that the two subway lines I needed to get there were not running, and later when I found myself face to face with dozens of kids of all ages obviously on high power batteries running all over the lobby and the concert hall of the Schomburg Center. This one and a half hour of boisterous, semi-controlled chaos certainly got my mind off lofty redemption issues and into the real world in no time.
After so much boundless exuberance, I was more than happy to contemplate what would probably be a more sedate evening with Cantori New York and their new "Anything Can Happen" concert. I had briefly thought of giving myself a break and going to the Sunday afternoon performance, but since the program featured two premières and that after Saturday night they would technically no longer be premières - After all, a first time can only happen once - I soldiered on. Moreover, the perspective of hearing musical pieces evoking big city living in a bare black box located in a decidedly gritty area of New York City sounded somewhat more appropriate than in a lovely little church on the stately Upper East Side.

The first work, Crouch's Sleepless, was not exactly new to my ears as I had heard it about a month before in a reduced version at the Morningside Heights Interfaith Center. But Saturday night's performance of it was definitely more layered and more effective at expressing all the frustrations associated with sleep deprivation, clearly proving that there is undeniable strength in numbers. As the lone instrumental voice, the insistent bass clarinet deftly contributed to the description of sleeplessness in all its irritating, even debilitating nature.
I had been repeatedly warned that the program would be depressing (but beautiful). Nevertheless, after mulling over getting a shrink and/or a drug dealer and putting them on speed dial, I decided to just show up as mentally prepared as possible for a Saturday night filled with gloom and misery. So there I was, mightily bracing myself as soon as the first notes of Go Where Never Before, the world première du jour, resounded. The name of Samuel Beckett is naturally no big surprise when a collaborative mope-fest is threatened, and the moroseness of his prose was indeed inescapable. But while the accompanying composition by Piotr Moss was solidly on the ruminatively existentialist side as well, the end result was not quite the expected open invitation to suicide. The first poem, which was very much stop-and-go, made the next three sound comparatively much more pleasant and harmonious as they were simultaneously flowing in English and in French. The unusual instrumental quartet consisting of an alto flute, an English horn, a bass clarinet and a viola provided a discreetly bluesy ambiance, which, granted, had a melancholy tinge to it, but reportedly did not induce any vertiginous descent into clinical depression among the audience. In fact, the richly nuanced chocolatey overtones of the instruments were beautifully balanced by the uplifting human voices of the singers, and together they created some downright appealing, delicately noirish, Stieglitzian musical snapshots of urban life.
For the gloriously lyrical portion of the evening, we had Lisa Bielawa's magnificent Lamentations for a City. Skillfully combining the continuously frenetic buzz coming from the high-tech media hive that is the unstoppable, barely controllable World Wide Web in the background with the poignant Lamentations of Jeremiah, which dramatically describe the destruction of Jerusalem in 587 BCE, she composed an emotionally powerful hymn to the convoluted rises and falls of legendary metropolises throughout the world. The unparalleled grief and suffering caused by the fall of the biblical city found its highest form of expression in the choir's hauntingly moving singing, which eventually culminated in a brutally intense Kaph.
The last work of the evening was the New York première of Mohammed Fairouz's Anything Can Happen in the presence of the young composer himself. Opening with the formidable winter storm of "In Iowa", it featured two other poems by Seamus Heaney, which were interspersed by two Suras from the Injeel (The Arabic Christian Bible) in their original language. So, on paper, we were basically facing a solid dose of disturbing physical upheavals and dour religious themes. But that was without counting the collective musical forces of the Cantori's singers, baritone David Kravitz and violist Nadia Sirota, all under the assured baton of Mark Shapiro. The choir's nicely textured voices made themselves vibrantly heard while the viola's gorgeous earthy huskiness and David Kravitz's assertive dark tones added a strong spiritual touch to the whole experience. Let's just point out that the finale, "Anything Can Happen", should not be recommended for the faint-of-heart. Although it has been associated with September 11, the poem also conveyed much more universal apocalyptic images from Horace's time to the present days, before concluding on a quieter, but still depressing note. The ending was definitely not happy, but the audience certainly was.

Sunday, March 10, 2013

Met - Parsifal - 03/08/13

Composer: Richard Wagner
Conductor: Asher Fisch
Producer/Director: François Girard
Parsifal: Jonas Kaufmann
Kundry: Katarina Dalayman
Gurnemanz: René Pape
Amfortas: Peter Mattei
Kingsor: Evgeny Nikitin

Of all the operas I could have picked for my first live performance of this incredible art form when I lived in Washington, DC, I chose Parsifal. I can't exactly remember the reason, but it probably had to do with a random combination of timing, curiosity, word of mouth and the presence of Placido Domingo in the title role. I also figured that if I could survive over four hours of Wagner, the rest of the répertoire should be no problem. Long story short, the experience was memorable and conclusive - if a bit overwhelming - and live opera had gotten into my life to stay.
Last Friday night, over a decade and numerous operas later, I was totally ready for my second, much more informed, take on Wagner's sprawling tale of redemption through renunciation and compassion with the Met's brand new production of it. The snow that had steadily fallen throughout most of the day and made my heart sink at the thought of a cancellation had fortunately pretty much melted by the time I left work one hour early, and I was more than eager to start the weekend with a few hours of elevated music and high-brow drama.

Wagner had never been one to think small, whether in terms of life or art. Accordingly, it took him about a quarter of a century to wrap up this Bühnenweihfestspiel (Festival play for the consecration of the stage), which came with all sorts of specific rituals, such as no applause at the end of the first act and no performances of it outside Bayreuth, except for King Ludwig II in Munich. A couple of decades later, the right to stage Parsifal had been fiercely fought and decisively won so that opera lovers all over the world could finally embark on its long but immensely rewarding journey.
The Met had it pretty easy with its marketing campaign for this production since the lead role was going to be held by one of the most talented and charismatic tenors of his generation. But beside his classical good looks, Jonas Kaufmann also happens to be perfectly capable of carrying an aria, which he did brilliantly throughout the evening. You can add to that some rather noteworthy acting skills, which were on full display when he confidently exuded the endearing cluelessness of the pure fool or the unwavering resolve of the enlightened man with a life-changing mission. (Never mind that even after smartening up, he still did not ask for directions and wasted an awful lot of time wandering all over the place). On top of the purely artistic performance, the fact that he ended up shirtless no fewer than three times certainly did not hurt his popularity either, and it was frankly nice to have such down-to-earth little pick-me-ups in the middle of all the lofty themes. That being said, I will never listen to the Good Friday Spell the same way ever again.
Kundry may be the only woman of the whole story, but at least Katarina Dalayman got to project two very distinctive and richly nuanced personas. Whether the reliable messenger dedicated to the Knights or the sultry temptress determined to seduce and abandon, maybe even Parsifal's mother, she remained an endlessly mystifying yet very vivid presence. Katarina Dalayman's impressive range allowed her to flawlessly bring her multi-faceted character to vibrant life and death.
As the veteran Knight Gurnemanz, Met regular René Pape simply stole the show every time he appeared. Blessed with a superbly dark, highly flexible bass voice as well as perfect articulation, he gave his part an intrinsic, occasionally heart-breaking, grandeur that made him a truly memorable leader. The rock-star ovation he received at curtain call was yet another proof of his eminent status among the Met audience.
Peter Mattei was an achingly effective Amfortas. Permanently wounded and in constant pain for having given in to his lustful urges, his king was wasting away in a noble agony that was sometimes too much to bear. On the other hand, Evgeny Nikitin was gleefully real as Klingsor, the bad guy who looked like a particularly enraged version of Mephistopheles, deeply yearning for revenge.
As far as I'm concerned, this new production, whose daring avant-gardism was by all means praise-worthy, had one major nagging kink that prevented it from being a total success. I understand that the bare, apparently sun-baked ground and the oddly changing background (sky or outer space?) were meant to express the timelessness of the story, but I still think that the forest, which a major element of it, should have be depicted with trees of some sort. I mean, where would have a swan come from in this apocalyptic landscape?
There were, however, many arresting images to savor and remember. The red river running through the wasteland in Act I only but hinted at the stylishly surreal decadence of Klingsor's castle in Act II. In this closed world dripping with the blood gushing from the open wound Klingsor inflicted upon Amfortas, ghost-like creatures wearing diaphanous white dresses and long black hair while holding on to mightly spears strikingly stood out in total stillness before starting their eerily elegant, deviously seductive dance. Even the occasional undignified splashing sounds coming from the bubbling red pool could not break the magical spell. So yes, I must grudgingly admit that the two 40-minute intermissions presumably necessary to install and uninstall that bloody décor were justified.
Other tableaux, such as the Knights partially disrobing before sitting in two circles while the veiled women moved to the other side of the river, all behind a black see-through curtain during the magnificent prelude, were simple and powerful. The original heavy Christian symbolism had generally become hints at more universal spiritual and moral truths by, for example, leaving the medieval Spanish setting for some undetermined time and place where spirituality and morality are still very much present.
The expansive, complex and much celebrated score provides the ideal musical accompaniment to this epic journey, and I have to say that attending a performance uninterrupted by clapping every time a vocal tour de force is achieved was incredibly gratifying. From the very first notes, the glorious prelude set the tone and the pace for the whole evening, the audience became part of Wagner's world, and the master knew exactly where to take us with his hypnotic combination of music and drama. Conductor Asher Fisch led the reliably excellent orchestra into a sumptuous, deeply respectful interpretation of the daunting composition and passed the finish line with flying colors.

When I looked at the time in the 66th Street subway station, it was 11:53 pm and I had just missed my train. The saxophone player who routinely performs with more or less deftness some excerpts of what has just wrapped on the Met's stage sounded a bit out of his depth, but luckily my ears were still ringing with the actual performance and the huge ovation it received from the full house, and that was enough to carry me home.

Monday, March 4, 2013

Florilegium Chamber Choir - Bach, Füting & Bruckner - 03/03/13

Conductor: Nicholas DeMaison
Bach: Cantata No 131
Peter Tantsits: Tenor - Adrian Rosas: Bass - Emily DiAngelo: Oboe - Walter Hilse: Piano
Reiko Füting: silently wanders/extensio
Nani Füting: Mezzo soprano - John Popham: Cello - Peter Adrian: Organ
Bruckner: Te Deum
Kathryn Hotarek: Soprano - Nani Füting: Mezzo soprano - Peter Tantsits: Tenor - Adrian Rosas: Bass - Walter Hilse: Organ

After all the excitement of last week, it was nice to spend a low-key weekend hanging out in my neighborhood, with the extra bonus of attending La Commedia Tedesca by the Florilegium Chamber Choir in their usual home, the Trinity Evangelical Lutheran Church, which presents the double advantage of good acoustics and a walking distance from my apartment. Not only was the program promising to retrace some Dante-inspired afterlife travels through the works of German composers Bach, Füting and Brucker, but it was also an opportunity of making good use of the church's newly restored organ and piano. All the more reason to give up the sunny afternoon outside and join a group of friends and colleagues inside.

It is hard to go wrong with Bach under any circumstances, and even if his early Cantata No 131 was written when his musical genius was not in full bloom yet, it is unquestionably an engaging work. Inspired by an unfortunate event, namely the burning of the town of Mühlhausen, where Bach had just moved at the time, it nevertheless eventually bristles with joyful hope. The opening may be distressing, but it is also beautifully expressive, and while the numerous repetitions of the text can occasionally become tedious, the cantata contains pleasant turns for the instumental and vocal soloists. Yesterday, the last chorus was especially noteworthy for its delicately intricate texture and appealing harmonies, all emphasizing in unison that things will get better.
The second work on the program, Reiko Füting's silently wanders/extensio, sounded to my ears like one of those abstruse compositions that are more rewarding in theory than in practice. The frequent use of silence, whose undeniable power is too often neglected, was a laudable endeavor and some of the fleeting harmonies springing out of nowhere had a certain attention-grabbing quality to them, but the whole thing was too frustratingly uneven and overly stretched to leave the non-theoretical music lover in me satisfied.
After the intermission, we were back to more traditional fare with Bruckner's only commission ever, his unabashedly glorious Te Deum. For that special occasion, the singers were perched in the organ room, an unusual set-up that had most members of the audience turn around in the pews or sit on the altar's steps. The reward was absolutely grand though. Walter Hilse tamed the mighty organ just enough to let the noble yet jubilant voices of the chorus as well as the outstanding soloists seamlessly rise and flow all throughout the unstoppable epic journey. There was no doubt that we had definitely made it out of hell and were fast ascending into heaven.

Sunday, March 3, 2013

New York City Opera - The Turn of the Screw - 02/28/13

Composer: Benjamin Britten
Conductor: Jayce Ogren
Director: Sam Buntrock
Governess: Sara Jakubiak
Prologue/Peter Quint: Dominic Armstrong
Miss Jessel: Jennifer Goode Cooper
Miles: Benjamin P. Wenzelberg
Flora: Lauren Worsham
Mrs Grose: Sharmay Musacchio

After The New York City Opera's rewarding production of Thomas Adès' Powder her Face, I felt totally confident in my eventual decision to go back to BAM's Howard Gilman Opera house for their second chamber opera of the season, Benjamin Britten's The Turn of the Screw. This one was definitely more of a shot in the dark for me as I only knew that it was based on a novella by Henry James revolving around two kids, two ghosts and a governess in the English countryside. But I had absolutely loved the production of Britten's Peter Grimes I saw in Washington, DC years ago and my Brooklynite colleague Marlena was game, so off we went across the East River on Thursday night.

Drawing inspiration from a well-known book has some obvious advantages such as name recognition and the curiosity of the cognoscenti, but it can also set some pretty high expectations. For better or worse, I had not read the original Turn of the Screw. However, I had heard of its increasingly baffling plot, its frustrating lack of closure and all the mutually exclusive New Criticism theories that had sprung from it. That of course made the whole endeavor even more intriguing. At the end of the day, I decided to put any overly intellectual exercise aside, take the opera as it came and enjoy it for what it reputedly was: A compelling dramatic work with an inspired musical score.
The central character is the nameless governess, and the role is all the more critical in that all the various interpretations of the story stem from her: Is she truthful or is she deranged? In this production, the part was masterfully filled by soprano Sara Jakubiak, who easily went from demure job seeker to fiercely protective mother hen. Unquestionably blessed with a luminous, deeply expressive voice, she can also boast of some impressive acting skills, all of which significantly contributed to making the audience whole-heartedly root for her from the very beginning.
As Peter Quint, tenor Dominic Armstrong totally looked the part of the former valet who may very well love little boys too much with a bloody wound on the side of his Frankenstein-like white face. To complete his ghoulish physique, his voice was appropriately creepy and commanding, making him more of a disturbing menace every time he showed up. Moreover, as if that was not enough, he proved his wide range as a singer during the Prologue, which he belted out with utmost poise and precision.
Soprano Jennifer Goode Copper was the other ghost, the pregnant Miss Jessel, whose scarily disheveled looks made you think that she had had a very rude awakening after a really bad Halloween night. Although the pitiful character did not seem to mean much harm, her voice was uncompromising in its profound despair and cut-throat ferociousness.
The two children were impersonated by 13-year-old treble Benjamin P. Wenzelberg as Miles and 30-year-old soprano Lauren Worsham as Flora. Remarkably, this set-up worked very well. Benjamin P. Wenzelberg's engaging voice may not be able to project clearly all the way to the last row yet, but he wonderfully conveyed Miles' innocence and confusion. A predictably more seasoned pro, and an eclectic one too, Lauren Worsham was a genuinely touching Flora, the sweet young girl who cannot begin to understand what is happening around her.
To wrap up this rock-solid cast, contralto Sharmay Musacchio nailed the part of the housekeeper Mrs Grose, a gentle soul who will eventually become overwhelmed by the supernatural events.
Although the original story was taking place in the mid-19th-century, this production moved it firmly in the late 1970s-early 1980s. This allowed the introduction of a few hints at popular horror movies, such Poltergeist with the haunted TV set, but I'd err to say that it also caused the partial loss of the original charm, mystery and relevance of the novel. After all, it is unlikely that today's children bow and curtsy upon meeting their new nanny for the first time.
The costumes and sets were simple and efficient, and the changing arrangements of the light-bulbs hanging from the ceiling did wonders in establishing the various moods, even if their overall brightness had a tendency to convey modern reality more than spooky phenomena.
Britten's score, which assuredly combines tonality and dissonance, provides a superb musical accompaniment to the plot and characters. On Thursday night, the young conductor Jayce Ogren kept a solid grasp on his talented orchestra, which delivered a richly nuanced performance. The confrontations scenes were intense, the children rhyme Malo eerie, the ghostly appearances mystifying.
In short, everything fell brilliantly into place again for the second big win of the New York City Opera's 2012-2013 season. If they keep up the good work, their uncertain future is bound to become very bright.

Saturday, March 2, 2013

Joshua Bell & Sam Haywood - Schubert, Strauss & Prokofiev - 02/27/13

Schubert: Sonatina in A Minor, D. 385
Strauss: Violin Sonata in E-flat Major, Op. 18
Prokofiev: Violin Sonata in E-flat Major, Op. 94bis

Even if I don't particularly like the winter season in general, especially as it is currently dragging on and on, I have to say that I fully enjoy the embarrassment of richness it brings in terms of exciting performances popping all over New York City. A case in point was the recital by Joshua Bell and Sam Haywood at the Alice Tully Hall last Wednesday night. I did not even know what would be on the program, but the thought of hearing those two distinguished musicians tackle just about anything in this wonderful space was enough to make me wait for Hump Day even more eagerly than usual.

The mysterious play list turned out to be a well thought-out lesson in violin sonata history starting with the classical style of Schubert. True to form, Joshua Bell did not fail to inject some discreet but unmistakable vitality to the proceedings, and was elegantly seconded by Sam Haywood. That was all very nice and pleasant all right, if not something I'd consider earth-shattering.
Once the Old Viennese work out was of the way, however, we moved right on to Strauss' hot-blooded Late Romanticism, and the gears definitely shifted big time. After the fairly inconspicuous opening, the two musicians wasted no time authoritatively sweeping us off our feet with dazzling technical acrobatics, lavishly lyrical passages and a highly dramatic mood. The effect was so powerful that a good chunk of the audience spontaneously erupted in applause after the all-around gorgeous first movement. Sam Haywood proved to be a deeply committed and downright compelling pianist, but Joshua Bell was by all accounts on deeply familiar territory here, and all eyes and ears were unsurprisingly focused on him. That's when the sheer beauty of his tone, his flawless command of his craft and the communicative generosity of his playing reminded us how he has become the classical music superstar - a rare title - he is. And we can all but assume that my neighbor was summing up the general consensus when she eventually turned to her husband and breathlessly whispered "He is so wonderful!".
After Strauss' late 19th century riveting work, we jumped another few decades forward and into Russia this time for Prokofiev. His Sonata No 2 is certainly not lacking in intense lyricism either, but it also overflows with icy dark passages, abrupt rhythm changes, poignant melancholy, quirky melodies, high-spirited energy and much more. This endlessly treacherous minefield was negotiated with consummate musicianship by the duo, who got to use a wide range of their impressive virtuosic skills, from understated refinement to high-flying feats all the way to the high-speed grand finale.

After the official program was over, we got treated to two extremely different and equally enjoyable "official" encores, the first of which being the appropriately calming "Après un rêve" by Fauré. An all-time favorite among violin lovers, this ethereal work gently bloomed in all its romantic dreaminess.
The second encore, Sarasate's "Introduction and Tarantella", is a fun way for a violinist to brazenly showcase his bag of virtuosic tricks. Joshua Bell did such a good job at that that applause broke out while he was playing, a barely noticeable pause in the composition apparently fooling quite a few folks. Probably surprised but resolutely unflappable, he carried on with his usual irresistible enthusiasm.
The last and unofficial encore came up more as a matter of timing than anything else. Since the legendary pianist van Cliburn had passed away during the day and the two musicians had visited him in his Texas home a few days earlier while on tour, they dedicated the lovely Mélodie from "Souvenir d'un lieu cher" by - Who else? - Tchaikovsky to the recently departed piano master. A truly heartfelt farewell to a truly unique musician.