Thursday, June 20, 2013

NSO - Ravel, Dutilleux & Vaughn Williams - 06/14/13

Conductor: Matthew Halls
Ravel: Le Tombeau de Couperin
Dutilleux: Tout un monde lointain - David Hardy
Vaughn Williams: Symphony No 2 (A London Symphony)

After the fun musical prelude of the Millennium Stage and an equally wonderful get-together with old friends in the NSO Lounge, we were finally ready for the National Symphony Orchestra concert of the evening. The fact of the matter is, I had picked this particular weekend to come down more because it worked better in terms of work schedule than because I wanted to catch this specific concert. The program had not exactly made me want to drop everything and show up, but it still sounded attractive enough with an exciting, if thorny, work by Dutilleux bookended by pleasant and much more traditional pieces by Ravel and Vaughn Williams.

Although I've always liked the delicate nuances of Ravel's "Le Tombeau de Couperin", it is not a composition I have ever had particularly strong feelings about. The orchestra's performance was as lovely as could be and the musicians seemed to respond well to their conductor for the evening, the young but definitely in charge Matthew Halls.
Dutilleux's "Tout un monde lointain", on the other hand, was a demanding but rewarding challenge. Inspired by Baudelaire's masterpiece Les fleurs du mal, meticulously detailed and strangely atmospheric, I certainly had to work at it to make sense of it, but it was totally worth it. NSO cellist extraordinaire David Hardy assuredly impersonated the lead character around which various worlds mysteriously evolved while Matthew Halls was keeping a watchful eye over the numerous unexpected twists and turns of the tricky score. The whole experience felt like a leisurely flow of enigmatic and enthralling moments, and I could not help but think that Dutilleux, who died last month, and the NSO's very own Rostropovitch, for whom it was written, would have been pleased.
After this occasional rough but overly brilliant ride, Vaughn Williams' sprawling London Symphony went down really nice and easy. Full of sweeping Romantic élans and bright brassy outbursts, this symphony sounded to me as if the composer had tried to sound like Tchaikovsky, without the Russian master's unique gift for heart-on-your-sleeve melodies, but with a distinct touch of British flair. Even then, it is still a grand journey and the orchestra made sure to highlight all there was to like about it, of which there was plenty. It was good to be back.

Millennium Stage - Jacobs & Bolling - 06/17/13

Gordan Jacobs: Two Pieces for Two Oboes and English Horn
Nicholas Stovall: Oboe
Jamie Roberts: Oboe
Andrea Overturf: English Horn
Claude Bolling: Suite No 1 for Flute and Jazz Piano Trio
Aaron Goldman: Flute
Charles Nilles: Double Bass
Joseph Connell: Drums
Tony Nalker: Piano

After many false alarms and way too many months, I finally managed to make it back to our nation's capital for an extended weekend resolutely sans computer or work of any kind, but with a healthy dose of eating, drinking, catching up with friends, perusing exhibits and, of course, attending the traditional NSO concert. To top it all off, I got to enjoy some incredibly mild weather, if you don't count the tornado that I managed to miss when it quickly hit the area right after my arrival at Union Station.
Back at the Kennedy Center on Friday night, I was delighted to find out that the free performance of the daily Millennium Stage would be an NSO Prelude that day, which basically meant that I got even more NSO than expected.

Although the program was announcing just Claude Bolling's No 1 for Flute and Jazz Piano Trio, the concert actually kicked off with Gordan Jacobs' Two Pieces for Two Oboes and English Horn, a short and whimsical work that lifted up everybody's spirit.
When we finally got to the main feature, we were ready for the seven self-contained nuggets expressing each a different, full-fledged mood. Although the flute was often in the spotlight, it was adroitly backed up by the jazzy combination of double-bass, drums and piano for an enjoyable combo of luscious lyricism, dance-inspiring exuberance and devilish speed.
The attractive encore, which was no less than the "Summer Song" of Michel Legrand's score for Summer of 42, was the flavorful last bite of this substantial appetizer.

Thursday, June 6, 2013

Lang Lang and Friends - Chopin, Franck, Brahms, Beethoven, Fabricius, Ghost, Poe, Harrison, Legend, will-i-am & Canteloube - 06/03/13

Host: Alec Baldwin
Chopin: Nocturne in E-flat Major, Op. 55, No 2 - Lang Lang
Chopin’s Grande Valse Brillante in E-Flat Major, Op. 18 - Lang Lang
Liszt: Campanella - Lang Lang
Franck: Sonata in A Major for Violin and Piano - Joshua Bell & Lang Lang
Brahms: Hungarian Dance No 1 in G Minor (Allegro molto) - Kate Xintong Lee & Jonathan Jun Yang
Brahms: Hungarian Dance No 2 in D Minor (Allegro non assai - Vivace) - Derek Wang & Charlie Liu
Brahms: Hungarian Dance No 5 in F-sharp Minor (Allegro - Vivace) - Anna Larsen & Derek Wang
Beethoven: Piano Sonata for four hands in D Major, Op. 6 - Lang Lang & Johnson Zhonxin Li
Chopin: Tristesse - Oh Land & Lang Lang
Fabricius & Poe: Oh Land, Lang Lang & Joshua Bell
Harrison: Here Comes the Sun - John Legend & Lang Lang
Legend & will-i-am: Ordinary People - John Legend & Lang Lang
Canteloube: Baïlèro - Renée Fleming & Lang Lang
Canteloube: Malurous qu'o uno Fenno - Renée Fleming & Lang Lang

On Monday night, my Carnegie Hall season ended with a particularly resounding bang thanks to the benefit gala Lang Lang and Friends. Originally scheduled for the end of October 2012 and then postponed because of Sandy, this long sold-out musical extravaganza had lined up classical music superstars of today, such as Joshua Bell and Renée Fleming, and tomorrow, with some of the brightest students supported by the Lang Lang International Music Foundation. Personalities from other musical realms, such as John Legend and Oh Land, were included in the program too, the reliably entertaining Alec Baldwin was supposed to host, the whole thing would benefit musical education, and I would have an excuse to leave work early, so what was not to love?

It all started rather traditionally with Lang Lang doing what he still does best: Playing the piano. And the fact of the matter is, regardless of what the naysayers like to assert, the man is clearly talented. His technique is nothing short of astonishing and as the brazen young prodigy is maturing, so is his playing. Maybe even more important for such an event, this new philanthropist possesses a truly engaging personality, which makes it easy for him to immediately catch, retain and then direct the attention of unsuspecting audiences. His Chopin and Liszt pieces were by turns downright brilliant, overly embellished, borderline goofy and genuinely touching. Considering the music-for-all spirit of the occasion, we happily gobbled it all up.
Moving along with more popular tunes, Lang Lang was next accompanied by violinist Joshua Bell, who certainly needs no introduction either, for my beloved Franck Sonata. Although the two musicians proved to be a winning pairing, their noteworthy performance of this intensely luminous work was not quite as impeccably soaring as the ones I've heard by Joshua Bell and Jeremy Denk. But the thunderous ovation that spontaneously erupted right after... the first movement and the other one at the end categorically confirmed that we were witnessing a unique encounter of musical forces and there was no reason to fuss whatsoever.
After the intermission, M. C. Alec Baldwin appeared onstage and the festive mood went up a notch or two. Young protégés of Lang Lang's Foundation showed their remarkable stuff with movements from three Hungarian Dances by Brahms and quickly won everybody over. But the budding virtuoso who stole our hearts was nine-year-old cutie Johnson Zhonxin Li, who played Beethoven's Piano Sonata for four hands in D Major side-by-side with Lang Lang with boundless energy and imperturbable poise. That is certainly one way to make one's Carnegie Hall debut in a packed Stern auditorium.
The pop portion of the evening was filled by collaborations with the Danish singer Oh Land for Chopin's "Tristesse" and her own "Love You Better", for which Joshua Bell made one more appearance. The R&B pianist and vocalist John Legend was at hand for George Harrison's "Here Comes the Sun" and his own "Ordinary People". For all the numbers, Lang Lang took a respectful backseat while still substantially contributing at the keyboard.
Some of the best had been saved for last with celebrated soprano Renée Fleming, who eventually showed up to sing subdued arrangements of two short Auvergnat folk songs (?!), which in all likelihood had never received such a luscious treatment. Probably sensing our breathless eagerness for more, she briefly got back to business as usual with a gorgeous "Mio babbino caro", which she dedicated to her father in the audience. As she rightly pointed out, it is simply impossible to go wrong with Puccini's universally loved aria.

When the official program was over, the young people who had quietly been sitting on two rows in the back of the stage finally got their turn in the spotlight when they joined Lang Lang, Renée Fleming, John Legend and Oh Land for a feel good, if still kind of corny, "Climb Every Mountain". Quite a departure from the Chopin opening, but an eloquent testimony to the unifying power of music.

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Florilegium Chamber Choir - Gesualdo, Wert, Willaert, Bach, Messiaen & Harvey - 06/02/13

Music Director & Conductor: Nicholas DeMaison
Gesualdo: Beltà poi che t'assenti
Wert: Io non son però morto
Gesualdo: Ancide sol la morte
Willaert: O dolce vita
Gesualdo: Io parto e non più dissi
Gesualdo: Caligaverunt oculi mei
Gesualdo: Illumina faciem tuam
Wert: Ave, dulcissima Maria
Bach: Chorale: Wenn wir in höchsten Nöten sein/BWV 432
Bach: Fugue: Vor deinen Thron tret ich hiermit/BWV 668a
(finale from The Art of Fugue, also known as organ prelude BWV 668, arr. DeMaison)
Messiaen: O sacrum convivium!
Harvey: Remember, O Lord
Gesualdo: Tristis est anima mea
Gesualdo: Miserere

After indulging in the refined orchestral music of Classical Vienna performed by the Orchestra of St. Luke at Carnegie Hall on Saturday night, I was more than ready to switch gears and become better acquainted with Gesualdo's œuvre, as well as a few other loosely related choral pieces, on Sunday afternoon in the company of the Florilegium Chamber Choir in the always welcoming Trinity Evangelical Lutheran Church, conveniently located a few blocks from my apartment. The weather did not turn out so convenient though, so it was in a sweltering hot church that a small assortment of friends and I took our seats for the choir's last performance of the season, which also happened to be their last performance with their current music director and conductor, Nicholas DeMaison.

But no matter how bitter-sweet the occasion was, the singers went on to deliver a send-off that should have made everyone involved proud. As expected, Gesulado's works, whether they were secular or sacred, distinguished themselves with their bold harmonies and extreme emotions. Overflowing with images of sorrow, pain, sin and death, they nevertheless managed to come through as spontaneously engaging and brightly colorful, especially if one did not read the actual texts. The man may have had a few grim idées fixes, but he sure knew how to entertain as well.
Interspersed with those episodes were short works of Italian-flavored early music by Giaches de Wert and Adrian Willaert, followed by the unavoidable John Sebastian Bach, who was present with a chorale and a chorale fugue. Then we fast-forwarded to the 20th century for Olivier Messiaen's exquisitely ethereal "O sacrum convivium!" before moving on to Jonathan Harvey's quietly poignant "Remember O Lord". Two more motets by Gesualdo and a short speech by a member of the choir praising their departing maestro, who by all accounts will be sorely missed, concluded this special performance, before we all finally got out for some well-deserved semi-fresh air.

Sunday, June 2, 2013

Orchestra of St. Luke's - Mozart & Haydn - 06/01/13

Conductor: Nicholas McGegan
Mozart: Symphony No 29 in A Major, K. 201
Haydn: Cello Concerto No 2 in D Major, Hob. VIIb:2 - Steven Isserlis
Mozart: Ballet music from Ideomeneo, K. 367
Haydn: Symphony No 99 in E-flat Major, Hob. I:99

Although the seasons of most musical ensembles and venues are coming to an end, some concerts are still being performed these days as a result of Big Bad Sandy. That's how last night I found myself back at Carnegie Hall for a concert by the always brilliant Orchestra of St. Luke's featuring the equally brilliant cellist Steven Isserlis for a decidedly Classical Viennese evening of works by Haydn and Mozart. Better late than never.

Mozart's famous knack for crowd-pleasing complexity was continuously apparent through his Symphony No 29, which opened the concert, as if to remind us why he is one of the most popular figures in classical music history. This is not one of his most memorable pieces, but the fluid and bright playing by the orchestra made it fly by just like the refreshing summer breeze that was so much needed on that stiflingly hot evening.
The main attraction last night had to be the presence of Steven Isserlis, who is always a pleasure to hear and to watch no matter what he tackles. He has probably played Haydn's second cello concerto more times than he cares to remember, and it is to his credit that he still brought unbridled vitality and a superb technical command to the task. It also turns out that this performance was actually more special than usual as he dedicated it to Janos Starker, eminent cellist and professor. Solidly seconded by the musicians of St. Luke's, he happily grabbed the work and let the seductive dark sounds of his instrument create beautifully lyrical moments in between intricate challenges. As soon as the last notes had faded away, my evening had been made.
Sandwiched between Haydn's cello concerto and Symphony No 99, The ballet music from Mozart's Idomeneo clearly demonstrated how much the young composer had learned from and was quickly surpassing the old master. A vibrant testimony of Mozart's effortless elegance, this elaborate portion of the opera is perfectly capable of standing on its own, not unlike some of his dazzling overtures, as it did last night.
Haydn's Symphony No 29 went off smoothly as well, with Nicholas McGegan watching over all the details of the engaging score. The three sections of the orchestra eventually stood up for the few final notes and concluded this impeccable performance with a well-deserved happy ending.