Sunday, April 28, 2013

American Landscapes - Ives, Adams, Norman & Gordon - 04/25/13

Ives: Three Places in New England
Conductor: Yuga Cohler
Conductor: Gemma New
Adams: Shaker Loops
Conductor: Karina Canellakis
Norman: Try
Conductor: Gemma New
Gordon: Yo Shakespeare
Conductor: Yuga Cohler

Back for more American Landscapes on Thursday evening with my friend Linden this time, I was heartened to scope out an almost full Zankel Hall. I, however, found such a huge difference in size from the evening before rather puzzling, and after giving it some thought, I came to the non-proven conclusion that the presence of John Adams' first minimalist hit Shaker Loops might have had something to do with it. Or the offer of four works instead of three, for whoever is counting. Or the promise of some (gasp!) bona fide rock and roll sounds, if not aesthetics, as a reward for sitting through the first three pieces of the concert. In any case, whatever it was, it worked.

As he did on Wednesday night, David Robertson first came onstage, explained the mission of the American Landscapes workshop and introduced the first piece on the program, Charles Ives' Three Places in New England. Still reeling from his schizophrenic Symphony No 4, I was preparing myself for a massive impact that never really came. The first movement, "The St. Gaudens' in Boston Common", which is dedicated to the first Union Army regimen that included black soldiers, blossomed with delicate transparency, brightly perked up a bit, and ended in a gentle whisper. The second movement, "Putman's Camp, Redding, Connecticut" about the Revolutionary War memorial park, was an upbeat tribute to big bands and exuberant patriotic celebrations. The third movement, "The Housatonic at Stockbridge", which was inspired by a Sunday morning walk with his new wife, resumed the contemplative mood of the opening and even featured a few suspended magical moments. The ensemble of first-rate young musicians and the non-simultaneous two conductors provided a clear, warm and totally satisfying performance of it. Again, most of the Americana references escaped me, but the music itself could easily stands of its own and it nicely did.
Although I am not particularly familiar with modern music, I had heard and immediately loved Shaker Loops a few years back when John Adams was doing a residency at the Kennedy Center, so I was naturally thrilled by the opportunity of hearing it live again. When he introduced it, the composer mentioned that had he known how popular it would become, he would have made it a better piece. Well, in my humble opinion, it is awfully good as it is. On Thursday night, Shaker Loops decisively kicked off with its instantaneously recognizable driving pulse that led the way into a wild adventure in music-making during which harmonies, melodies and rhythms created an ever-changing yet tightly woven tapestry of very cool string sound effects. Its devilishly complex nature was deftly handled by Karina Canellakis, who had all seven string players deliver a relentlessly hypnotic, highly energetic performance of it, which a beaming John Adams seemingly approved of without reservations.
After those two easily accessible works, we started to let our guards down and relax, but that was counting without the rude awakening that was Andrew Norman's Try, with the Brooklynite composer checking out the Carnegie Hall premiere of his piece among the audience. Staging a grandly theatrical fight between a piano and the rest of a small orchestra, the work consisted in cacophonous outbursts repeatedly trying to shut out the resilient piano. Lo and behold, the little guy eventually won, but not before the cluttered tug of war had overextended its welcome despite the genuine eagerness of musicians and conductor.
Another Carnegie Hall premiere was Michael Gordon's Yo Shakespeare. Beside the unusual sight of electric cords and amps on Zankel Hall's stage, the 13 musicians divided into three separate groups also formed an uncommonly eclectic ensemble of amplified and acoustic instruments. Even if they did not actually play according to the same score, a choice that in the wrong hands could have been a ready recipe for disaster, the combination of the three simultaneous musical forces yielded a rather odd, totally groovy and ultimately fascinating result. The intriguing title turned out to be an insider's joke about the lack of cultural awareness of one of the composer's friends, Shakespeare being the only name he can think of in that regard, a sad commentary that was remarkably in line with the caustic observation about the current cultural dumbing down in this country made by John Adams the night before, followed by his marked and justified enthusiasm at seeing young composers, musicians and conductors bravely fighting the good fight for a better future for all music lovers. May the force be with them.

American Landscapes - Mackey, Adams & Carter - 04/24/13

Mackey: Ground Swell
Conductor: Karina Canellakis
Viola: Amanda Verner
Adams: Gnarly Buttons
Conductor: Gemma New
Clarinet: Vicente Alexim Nunes da Silva
Elliott Carter: Double Concerto
Conductor: Yuga Cohler
Conductor: Karina Canellakis
Harpsicord: Daniel Pesca
Piano: Yukiko Sekino

They say that the future belongs to youth, and so it was at Zankel Hall last Wednesday and Thursday evenings, where a select group of hand-picked young artists were blazingly offering the audience a comprehensive look at contemporary music. While their original talents were being richly honed by five days of being coached by John Adams and David Robertson, they also extensively explored the relationships between composer, conductor and musicians to eventually deliver highly accomplished, sometimes puzzling, but never boring performances.
Although I am the first one to confess that I am not a hard core fan of some of the most esoteric modern music out there, I can at least appreciate the effort to break the usual mold and move on to uncharted territories. After all, every single current household name was a contemporary at some point in time, and some of them were not always well received either. So, onward and forward with the new!

Wednesday's concert started with Ground Swell by Steven Mackey, whose accessible reputation generally has the significant advantage of not scaring people away. This time, however, the concert hall sadly contained many empty seats. Inspired by some of the composer's travels in 2006 - essentially Aspen, Colorado and Tuscany, Italy - the seven movements were presented in symmetrical pairs, culminating in the "Peak Experience" middle movement. But one did not have to get that technical to enjoy the pleasantly atmospheric evocations of, among others, the picturesque Italian coastline or the majestic Rocky Mountains. Violist Amanda Verner injected some beautifully soaring solo lines, reminding us all of the numerous possibilities of her often unfairly neglected instrument. Conductor Karina Canellakis kept the rolling musical snapshots under tight control while giving them enough room to develop and expand. Things had started well.
Presented by the composer himself, John Adams' Gnarly Buttons is a clarinet-centric work that he wrote to pay tribute to his father, who had been his clarinet teacher. Predictably, it has a definite tenderness to it, but each movement eventually goes berserk for a little while too. Beside the more or less standard musical instruments one would expect from a chamber ensemble - Well, maybe not the banjo - a synthesizer also made its appearance on stage in order to provide short pre-recorded samples of sounds from an accordion, a clarinet and... a mooing cow. Although the whole thing got pretty busy, it never lost sight of its vision and happily combined pretty melodies with unpredictable flights of fancy. Brazilian Clarinetist Vicente Alexim Nunes da Silva showed a deep knowledge of his instrument that would have made papa Adams proud, and conductor Gemma New made sure that the many parts came together in an appealing whole.
Moving even more back in time, next were Elliot Carter and his Double Concerto, maybe the more intriguing piece of the evening. Involving two separate ensembles, respectively led by a harpsichord and a piano, and consequently two conductors, the work may be qualified as inventive, complex, energetic and all that good stuff, but I have to say that its resolutely antiphonal nature made it occasionally hard for me to digest. The musicians and conductors obviously gave it their fiercely committed all and the experience itself definitely had a unique, bold quality to it, but the woodwinds, brass and percussion had a strong tendency to overpower the harpsichord (a little) and the piano (a lot). I have no doubt that this state of things was due to the score and not the playing, but that fact of the matter is it produced a mostly loud and chaotic, albeit attention-getting, result. Originally considered "unplayable", Carter's Double Concerto has recently been downgraded to "challenging", and I have a feeling that it will keep this label for a long time.

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Maurizio Pollini - Chopin & Debussy - 04/21/13

Chopin: Prelude in C-sharp Minor, Op. 45
Chopin: Ballade in F Major, Op. 38
Chopin: Ballade in A-flat Major, Op. 47
Chopin: Four Mazurkas, Op. 33
No 1 in G-Sharp
No 2 in D Major
No 3 in C Major
No 4 in B Minor
Chopin: Scherzo No 3 in C-sharp Minor, Op. 39
Debussy: Preludes, Book I

He showed up! And played divinely too! After he had flaked on his adoring New York audience, including myself, for the past couple of years, I had sworn that I would give Maurizio Pollini just one more chance. And there he was. The French-flavored program of works by Chopin and Debussy he had put together for his concert on Sunday afternoon sounded just about right, and the capacity audience in the Stern auditorium was by all accounts more than ready to enjoy some of the intellectual rigor and superb craftsmanship he's been displaying for the past four decades. The all-Chopin recital he gave in DC a few years ago had been an illuminating experience, and I had been looking forward to repeating it ever since. That's why despite all the excitement brought by the fantastic concerts I had attended the previous evenings, I had also been keeping my fingers and toes firmly crossed so that the elusive man would just show up and play already.

From the very first notes it became clear that no matter what kind of health issues had kept him away for the past two years, the distinguished Italian maestro was unquestionably back. With his customary discreet elegance and unassuming demeanor, he sat down at the piano and promptly started working his way through a recital featuring some of the most beautiful music ever written, kicking off with Chopin's lovely Prelude in C-sharp Minor.
The two ballades, in F Major and A-flat Major, that followed were much more substantial works and therefore gave Maurizio Pollini plenty of opportunities to express a wide range of emotions while he was steadily unfurling flows of woven notes with arresting easiness. Although he did exercise some of his famous - and more than once lamented - restraint, he also created moments of simple and unsurpassed beauty.
The four Mazurkas, Chopin's preferred genre, were self-contained vignettes packing a nice little punch in a short amount of time.
Despite its name, the Scherzo No 3 is much more than a light-hearted, good-natured composition and often conveys much torment and passion. Accordingly, the piano gamely let off a winning mix of chaos and peace.
Then we were on to Debussy and his bag of twelve assorted miniatures that are the Preludes of Book I. By turns delicately graceful ("Danseuses de Delphes", "Voiles"), relentlessly turbulent ("Le vent dans la plaine", "Ce qu'a vu le vent d'ouest"), quietly lyrical ("La fille aux cheveux de lin") or barely there ("Des pas dans la neige"), they teased the audience with their immediate attractiveness, brilliantly painted a colorful picture of their subject, and then quickly disappeared to leave room for the next one. So much to evoke, so little time. Imperturbable yet playful, Maurizio Pollini did not let off until the very last note had resonated through the hall.

The first encore, Debussy's "Pour les arpèges composés" from the Études of Book II, was a delightful surprise, but the real treat of the afternoon came next. Maybe because he was getting close to the finish line, Maurizio Pollini suddenly sounded as if had decided to throw all caution to the wind and bestowed upon us two hot-blooded, lusciously romantic favorites by Chopin, the "Revolutionary" étude and, as if the best had been saved for last, the Ballade No. 1 in G Minor, for the highest pleasure of the ecstatic audience. As I was walking outside the building, still on my little cloud, I heard a French woman assertively whispers to her friend that the last two encores were "magnifiques". You can certainly say that again.

Sunday, April 21, 2013

National High School Choral Festival - Whitacre, Lauridsen, Cardoso, Read, Bach, Byrd & Mozart - 04/20/13

North Jersey Homeschool Association Chorale
Whitacre: Water Night
Traditional: Ain't no grave can hold my body down
Arlington High Chamber Singers
Lauridsen: En une seule fleur, from Les chansons des roses
Cardoso: Introitus, from Requiem for Six Voices
Whitacre: With a lily in your hand, from Three Flower Songs
Blue Valley Northwest High School Chorale
Read: Windham (arr. Brad Holmes) Bach: Come, sweet death (arr. Rhonda Sandberg)
Byrd: Sing joyfully
Traditional: My soul's been anchored in the Lord (arr. Moses Hogan)
Orchestra of St. Luke's
Conductor: John Nelson
Nicole Cabell: Soprano
Jamie Barton: Mezzo-soprano
Russell Thomas: Tenor
John Relya: Bass-baritone
Mozart: Requiem, K. 626 (completed by Süssmayr)

Happily back in Carnegie Hall's Stern auditorium yesterday, I couldn't help but be shocked at the number of empty seats for a Saturday night concert featuring Mozart' magnificent Requiem. Granted, it is regularly performed all over the world by the most famous ensembles while, for this occasion, the chorus would consist of high school students instead of the more seasoned professionals typically gracing this prestigious stage. But the Orchestra of St. Luke's and their conductor for the evening, John Nelson, enjoy well-deserved sterling reputations that should have been enough to draw additional music lovers and, again, why not take advantage of an opportunity to hear such a timeless masterpiece for less than a movie ticket? The ways of the public are for sure impenetrable sometimes.

As a bonus, the first part of the concert was a smorgasbord of choral works performed by the three invited choirs. From the easy listening of Eric Whitacre to Gospel-inspired tunes, the performance was pleasantly insightful and engaging. Proving one more time, if need be, that Bach's œuvre will truly survive anything, the high point of the whole series was his "Come, sweet death" courtesy of the very promising Blue Valley Northwest High School Chorale.
Regardless of the controversies about Mozart's actual contribution to the Requiem carrying his name, his signature innate ability to convey universal emotions through technical perfection is deeply imprinted all over it. The straightforward performance of it we got to enjoy last night was most remarkable by the distinctly pure-sounding voices of the terrific chorus, which subtly emphasized the innocence of youth as opposed to the world weariness often expressed by more mature singers. My two favorite movements, the hell-raising "Dies irae" and the haunting "Lacrimosa", were heartily executed, deftly controlled and appropriately intense. The four soloists beautifully raised up to the task and the orchestra played with its characteristic mix of warmth and precision, John Nelson obviously relishing leading the way in such a grand endeavor. Yesterday evening at Carnegie Hall, there was no doubt that the absent are always in the wrong.

Saturday, April 20, 2013

New York Philharmonic - Rouse, Bernstein & Ives - 04/19/13

Conductor: Alan Gilbert
Rouse: Prospero's Rooms
Bernstein: Serenade (after Plato's Symposium) for Violin, String Orchestra, Harp and Percussion - Joshua Bell
Ives: Symphony No 4
Second Conductor: Case Scaglione
Second Piano: Eric Huebner
Representatives of the New York Choral Consortium

Right in the middle of my "mini-residency" at Carnegie Hall this week, I took the liberty to make a small detour by the Avery Fisher Hall last night, where the New York Philharmonic and Joshua Bell were scheduled to perform an all-American program that included the world premiere of Rouse's Prospero's Rooms, which by default I was not familiar with, Bernstein's Serenade, which is not a violin concerto pretty much only by name, and Ives' Symphony No 4, which apparently was going to be an, err, interesting experience.

Edgar Poe's short story "The Masque of the Red Death" is about a prince who locks himself and all his friends in his palace to escape the Red Death, only to see it appear during the ball and promptly decimate the whole crowd. Rouse's musical version of it is efficiently condensed so that the action moves swiftly and colorfully during a 10-minute span. And it sure did.
In view of the score he brought on the stage, one can safely assume that Joshua Bell does not perform Bernstein's Serenade as often as the other classics of the Romantic violin repertoire he is rightfully famous for. That, however, did not prevent him from delivering a winning performance of it, all riveting intensity during the challenging passages and glowing lyricism in the more introspective moments. Unsurprisingly, the quietly luminous Agathon imposed itself as the highlight of the whole piece - I would even say of the whole evening - although the delicate yet assertive opening fugato came an extremely close second. The five separate movements, all inspired by different statements about love made during a banquet in the best ancient Greek tradition, received a uniformly committed treatment from conductor and orchestra, who all seemed to be having quite a bit of fun with it.
If the last movement of the Serenade was definitely on the happily rambunctious side, it still sounded downright understated when compared to the schizophrenic cacophony that followed. When from the get-go you see two conductors appear onstage in order to handle a full orchestra, a large chorus and a handful of musicians on a balcony, you quickly figure that it might get loud. And the fact is, not only did it get loud, but it often sounded like an intentional good old mess as well. Although Alan Gilbert and, when needed, Case Scaglione, looked like they had everything under control, Ives' Symphony No 4 is clearly not for the traditionally minded or the faint of heart. It would be unfair, however, not to mention a few thoroughly appealing string-driven moments resolutely rising above the densely textured musical fray. The numerous rumored hints to American culture totally escaped me and there were very few straightforward melodies to hang on to, so I mostly let it all wash over me until the very last note rang, which by then was not a minute too soon.

Friday, April 19, 2013

Mitsuko Uchida - Bach, Schoenberg & Schumann - 04/18/13

Bach: Prelude and Fugues from The Well-Tempered Clavier, Book II
No 1 in C Major, BWV 870
No 14 in F Sharp Minor, BWV 883
Schoenberg: Six Little Piano Pieces, Op. 19
Schumann: Waldszenen, Op. 82
Schumann: Piano Sonata No 2 in G Minor, Op. 22
Schumann: Fünf Gesänge der Frühe, Op. 1333

After Wednesday night's big Romantic orchestral hoopla consisting in Brahms' overture, concerto and symphony, not to mention a little Wagner bonus for good measure, last night was a decidedly more sedate but no less exciting affair with a recital, dedicated to the memory of Sir Colin Davis as well, by the undisputed First Lady of the Piano Mitsuko Uchida. When such a celebrated musician headlines, needless to say the program is mere details, but in this case the mere details were rather intriguing as they included restrained Classicism and vibrant Romanticism, with Arnold Schoenberg, of all people, acting as the go-between. Hmmm...

Bach is a name always welcome on any kind of program. And when his compositions are played by such expert hands, flawlessly striking the perfect balance between grace and assertiveness, their intrinsic clarity and unfussy elegance cannot but unperturbedly shine on. So there was ever-mesmerizing Dame Mitsuko Uchida, effortlessly negotiating the early German master's works with a subtle touch and plenty of poise.
Although I've always had a love/hate relationship with Schoenberg (Fell in deep love with Verklärte Nacht, ran out screaming of Pierrot Lunaire), I am still open to discovering new works of his because, well, he is who he is. Those Six Little Piano Pieces were actually tiny and the whole thing was over in about... six minutes. They, however, packed a lot of tension in this short period of time and constantly kept the audience on their feet, wrapping up at their most Romantic point, when bell-like chords expressed grief over the death of Gustav Mahler, Schoenberg's close friend and fellow Viennese music man.
As it was, one could not have found a better transition to Schumann's hymn to nature that is his Waldszenen. Inspired by a walk in the woods, he recreated lively vignettes filled with sounds and visions associated with a bucolic environment, and Mitsuko Uchida guided us through those wonders of wilderness with poetry, gentleness, vivacity, and the occasional dissonance.
Then came the intermission, which yesterday was not only the usual welcome opportunity to stretch my legs, but also the eagerly awaited chance to flee over two seats and across the aisle in an attempt to escape the undesirable additional soundtrack provided by the relentlessly wheezing guy sitting next to me. Granted, in my new spot I no longer had the view, but most importantly I had gotten rid of the sound, so I declared victory. Once settled, a look around me indicated that quite a few companions of misery had managed to migrate to quieter vicinities as well, which was not an easy task in the packed auditorium.
The second part of the program was therefore enjoyed to the fullest, starting with Schumann's early Piano Sonata No 2 in G Minor. An extensive and demanding virtuoso work, it however did not intimidate Mitsuko Uchida a bit as she handled it with her signature dexterity, vigor and finesse. The woman can clearly do no wrong.
Twenty years later and only three years before his death, Schumann wrote Fünf Gesänge der Frühe, whose occasional peculiarities bear unmistakable testimony to the composer's declining lucidity. Comprising a wide range of sounds and emotions, these Five Songs of Dawn are profoundly fascinating, if not always coherent. Here again, Mitsuko Uchida kept her insightful command over the music and delivered a beautifully nuanced performance of them.

Schumann's mysterious and heart-breaking swan song would have been a more than appropriate ending to a superb recital, but it turns out that we were in for two more delightful treats with Scarlatti's Sonata in D Minor and Mozart's Andante cantabile from Sonata in C Major. Just when we thought it could not have gotten much better, Mitsuko Uchida still managed to prove us wrong.

Staatskapelle Dresden - All-Brahms - 04/17/13

Conductor: Christian Thielemann
Brahms: Academic Festival Overture, Op. 80
Brahms: Violin Concerto in D Major, Op. 77 - Lisa Batiashvili
Brahms: Symphony No 4 in E Minor, Op. 98

During the last couple of weeks, which were relatively quiet on the musical front, I was busily gearing up for five concerts in five days, from Wednesday through Sunday of this week. And if it sounds almost like too much of a good thing, it probably is, but then again, why not?
The first in line was the über-prestigious Staatskapelle Dresden at Carnegie Hall for an all-Brahms program, including his dazzling violin concerto and his magnificent Symphony No 4. Both happen to be two of my favorite musical masterpieces, and the fact that the violin concerto would be performed by Lisa Batiashvili was yet another incentive to go. After hearing her positively nail the uncommonly treacherous Sibelius concerto with the New York Philharmonic a couple of years ago, I had high hopes she could just as classily tame the equally challenging Brahms.

Dedicated to the memory of Sir Colin Davis, who had an especially close relationship with the orchestra and passed away last Sunday, the concert started on a light-hearted note with Brahms' short and colorful Academic Festival Overture.
Once everybody was warmed up, orchestra and soloist launched into a totally sweeping performance of the violin concerto. Although in general Lisa Batiashvili is a rather discreet presence onstage, her graceful silhouette clad in a one-shouldered black and red long dress was certainly hard to miss on Wednesday, and even less so once she had grabbed her violin and assertively started playing Brahms' exceptionally intricate composition. Among the expected mix of unabashed lyricism, exquisite delicacy, infectious exuberance and virtuosic fireworks - not to forget the mesmerizing oboe solo - stood out the surprise du jour in the form of Ferruccio Busoni's cadenza replacing Joseph Joachim's more familiar one. Its understated nature fit in well into the immensity of the first movement and gave a new spin to the popular work, adding a nice touch of novelty to one of the most enduring staples of the repertoire.
Then we moved on to an even more majestic feat. In the best Romantic tradition, Brahms' fourth and last symphony, one of the most beautifully crafted works by the perfectionist master, was impeccably performed by the orchestra under the assured direction of Christian Thielemann. I've always thought that its depressing nature has been overly exaggerated, and listening to it again did nothing but reinforce my opinion that, while austerity and restraint remain omnipresent, only in the passacaglia finale does darkness win decisively over. As I was happily letting myself be carried away by the grand force that is Brahms' ultimate journey, I found myself thinking that the German may not have won the War on the battle field, but when it comes to the musical realm, they clearly stand second to none.

There's not much to add after Brahms' Symphony No 4, and for once I would have been perfectly happy leaving the Hall right after its conclusion. But the orchestra obviously thought otherwise and boldly broke the Brahmsian spell by throwing themselves whole-heartedly into a vivacious Prelude to Act III of Lohengrin by, you know, The Other Guy. A whimsical nod at the infamous War of the Romantics, but most of all, a true pleasure for the ears.

Monday, April 15, 2013

Ensemble ACJW - Harbison, Ravel & Dvorak - 04/14/13

Harbison: Wind Quintet
Martha Cargo: Flute (Guest Musician)
Stuart Breczinski: Oboe
Liam Burke: Clarinet
Nanci Belmont: Bassoon
Laura Weiner: Horn
Ravel: Sonata for Violin and Cello
Michelle Ross: Violin
Alice Yoo: Cello
Dvorak: Piano Quintet No 2 in A Major, Op. 81
Michelle Ross: Violin
Clara Lyon: Violin
John Stulz: Viola
Alice Yoo: Cello
Alexandria Le: Piano

For our first real spring weekend - still a bit chilly but we happily took it - I kind of felt bad tearing myself from the bright sunshine yesterday to spend the magical hour of late afternoon inside, but this regret was certainly mitigated by the presence of the always exciting Ensemble ACJW, a group of particularly talented and forward-minded musicians on a two-year fellowship with Carnegie Hall and The Juilliard School. The occasion was yet another one of Carnegie Hall's popular Neighborhoods Concerts, taking place this time in the understated but welcoming Our Saviour's Atonement Lutheran Church in Washington Heights.

Written specifically for the five strange bedfellows that are the bassoon, the clarinet, the flute, the horn and the oboe, Harbison's Wind Quintet had the musicians brazenly create some rather unusual sounds, which was interesting enough, but it was not always clear to me where the whole endeavor was heading to. Although I have never been as taken by the possibilities of woodwinds instruments as the composer obviously is, I still enjoyed the experience, if nothing more than because I got to hear accomplished musicians boldly enter and explore unchartered territories.
After my out-of-the-ordinary foray into the woodwind world, I found the violin and cello starring in Ravel's sonata even more reassuringly familiar, never mind that I had never heard that piece before. Dedicated to the memory of Debussy, it is a rather minimalist work, but still contains a healthy cocktail of attractive melodies, spunky pizzicato exchanges and slightly jazzy overtones. In short, this was virtuosic business as usual for the popular French composer, and the string duo onstage handled it all with grace and gusto.
Last, but not least, Dvorak's Piano Quintet made wonderful use of the traditional quartet form plus the piano and enchanted the audience with an irresistible bouquet of luscious and zesty melodies. Whether in full-out lyrical mood or churning out Bohemian folk dance exuberance, the musicians never missed a beat and delivered a fun, high-flying and totally engaging performance, the perfect antidote for the unavoidable Sunday evening blues.

Saturday, April 13, 2013

Manhattan School of Music - Monteverdi - 04/10/13

Conductor: Kent Tritle
Monteverdi: Vespro della Beata Vergine

As if Bach's seemingly never-ending St Matthew Passion at Carnegie Hall a couple of weeks ago had not been enough, last Wednesday I decided to venture up north to the cathedral of St John the Divine for another copious - Although not quite as copious - dose of early sacred music. The Manhattan School of Music happened to present Monterverdi's Vespro della Beata Vergine, his ambitious collection of liturgical and non-liturgical texts set to different ensemble configurations, and I figured it would be a good opportunity to become acquainted with this monument of the choral music repertoire.
I must admit that getting caught in the first thunderstorm of the season sans umbrella on my way there almost made me turn around and go back home, but a serendipitous 99 cents store and the perspective of live music helped me soldier on and eventually make it in time, drenched but victorious.

The concert took place in the relatively intimate choir area, right between the nave and the sanctuary, creating a lively little bubble of not much warmth, a decent amount of light, and a lot of music. The only problem was that some of the sounds from the instruments and voices did not stay in our reduced open space and often took off to get lost in the cavernous cathedral. As a result, the winds came off bright and over-powering, the strings had trouble making themselves heard, and the voices fared more or less well, depending on the set-up and the accompaniment of the various pieces.
That being said, there was still a lot to be enjoyed. I had a distinct feeling that things were getting better as the performance was proceeding, although I am not sure if it was me or the performers becoming more comfortable with it. The Pulcra es was one of the loveliest soprano duets I'd ever heard, the echoing in the Audi coelum verba mea was a refreshing novelty, the Sonata sopra Sancta Maria happily let the strings take center stage for a few minutes, the difficult but rewarding Lauda Jerusalem went off remarkably well, and the concluding Magnificat had some glorious moments. Even better, by the time we got out, the rain had stopped and the wet city was now glowing under the street lights. Sometimes it pays off not to be a quitter.

Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Peter Serkin - All-Beethoven - 03/30/13

Beethoven: Eleven Bagatelles, Op. 119
Beethoven: Sonata no 31 in A-flat Major, Op. 110
Beethoven: Six Bagatelles, Op. 126
Beethoven: Sonata no 26 in E-flat Major, Op. 81a "Les adieux"

After a decidedly untimely snow storm led to the cancellation of Emanuel Ax's concert on February 9, the event was eventually rescheduled by the People's Symphony Concerts for last Saturday night with Peter Serkin at the High School of Fashion Industries, in Chelsea. Originally ambivalent, I was eventually swung into going by the various incentives of hearing Peter Serkin for the first time, discovering a new concert venue with... a cat walk (?!), as well as relishing an all-Beethoven program and, last but not least, the company of my friend Dawn.

The Eleven Bagatelles that opened the concert were, predictably enough, a wide-ranging series of appealing snippets that kept going and going without ever a dull or uncertain moment. The playing was assured and knowledgeable, strongly emphasizing the distinct moods of the numerous pieces.
Later on, the set of Six Bagatelles, Beethoven's last composition for the piano, opened the second part of the concert. This was another opportunity to enjoy a master musician bringing to life the deceptively inconspicuous work of a master composer.
But we also got to hear more substantial fare in the form of two sonatas. The No 31 was very pleasant, but the No 26 was by far the highlight of the evening. Inspired by the departure, absence and return of his friend and patron the Archiduke Rudolph, it consists of two poignant movements brightly contrasting with the joyful finale. Peter Sorkin being more adept at technical precision than emotional abandon, his approach was solidly intellectual, but he still managed a few transporting moments that even prompted some members of the audience to start clapping after each movement.

Now what is a pianist supposed to play after an all-Beethoven recital? Well, more Beethoven, of course! And that's just what we got with the third movement of Beethoven’s Sonata No. 25 in G, played with just about the same unshakable aplomb.