Sunday, July 28, 2013

Mostly Mozart Festival - Mozart & Beethoven - 07/27/13

Conductor: Louis Langrée
Mozart: Symphony No 40 in G Minor, K. 555
Beethoven: Symphony No 7 in A Major

Some traditions are just so enjoyable that observing them is just a matter of course. And so is the Mostly Mozart Festival, New York City's breath of musical fresh air in summer, especially now that French music man Louis Langrée has been infusing it with daring and informal performances involving an eclectic assortment of musicians and composers. This naturally does not mean that the war horses are all forgotten - I am the first person to jump at any opportunity to hear the Jupiter yet one more time - and the good news is that they generally make their appearances with such an irresistible renewed vitality that one cannot but fall for them all over again.
The line-up of last night's preview concert did not scream boldness, but it certainly went straight to the point when it comes to superbly accomplished works by musical masters with Mozart's Symphony No 40 and Beethoven's Symphony No 7. As usual, the free and popular tickets had to be earned with an early wake-up call (although my showing up at 7 a.m. pales when compared to the 3 a.m. arrival of the first person in line) and a lot of patience (at least this year's bright sunshine was a welcome change from last year's sporadic drizzle). That's how for the second year in a row my friend Linden and I ended up in prime orchestra seats, from which we excitingly waited to be swept away by the Viennese power duo on a beautiful summer night.

After the customary introductions by Jane Moss, the artistic director, and Louis Langrée, the music director, we were all ready to get down to business in a packed Avery Fisher Hall, in which bleachers had been added on the sides and in the back of the stage. We did not have to bide our time for very long. As soon as we heard the first notes of the emotionally ambiguous but oh so catchy opening theme of Mozart's 40th symphony, we knew that we were in for a scrumptious treat. Solidly in charge of the evidently eager orchestra, maestro Langrée led a brisk performance that still gave plenty of attention to a myriad of details. While it overtly bristled with elegance and vivaciousness, this rendition did not shy away from displaying more agitated and somber overtones, therefore powerfully highlighting the incredibly wide dramatic range of the whole work. There was definitely some dark turmoil underneath the well-composed surface, all of it so remarkably put together that it seamlessly meshed and impeccably soared.
After Mozart's well-mannered odyssey, Beethoven made his grand entrance with the sweeping, life-affirming first movement of his 7th symphony. From then on, the infectious energy of the piece was steadily maintained until the very last note of the exhilarating Finale, except for the spell-binding Allegretto, whose magical power was barely disturbed by the brief ringing of a cell phone. Come to think of it, it probably makes sense that a fully committed Frenchman managed to effortlessly bring out such exuberant joie de vivre from one of Beethoven's sunniest works. Conducting here again sans score, Louis Langrée was clearly in charge and relishing every second of it. The musicians were happily keeping up with the high-spirited nature of the work, and the audience had a ball. As a matter of fact, the concert was such a resounding success that clapping dutifully erupted at the end of each and every movement of both symphonies. May this proof of boundless enthusiasm be a good omen for the official festival starting next week.

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

MoMA's Summergarden - Lasoń, Armer & Annunziata - 07/21/13

Aleksandr Lasoń: String Quartet No 4, "Of Tarnowskie Góry"
Elinor Armer: String Quartet 11
Alessandro Annunziata: String Quartet No 1, "Griko"
Elizabeth Derham: Violin
Paul Dwyer: Cello
Maria Im: Violin
Kim Mai Nguyen: Viola

Right between the end of the official season in June and the Mostly Mozart Festival in August, July is always the toughest month for music lovers in New York City. Free outdoor performances are fundamentally a neat idea, but I've learnt the hard way that it is apparently pointless to expect the audience, sometimes the weather, to cooperate. Out-of-town music festivals are, well, out of town.
Early July, a little trip to the beautiful St Bart's Episcopal Church on the Upper East Side for an advertised "sacred music festival" had me stuck in a full religious service that included a couple of unsteady musical interludes. I eventually managed to flee after one very long hour and went straight up to the Met's "Chaos to Punk" exhibit. As I was happily ogling the elaborate and fun displays, The Sex Pistols and Co thoroughly cleared my ear drums of any forgettable yet lingering choral singing.
For all those reasons, I was overjoyed to come across MoMA's Summergarden concert series with its appealing programming of international contemporary chamber music, the sure value of Juilliard-trained musicians, an easily accessible location, the cool environment of the museum's famed sculpture garden, no charge, and even a back-up plan in case of inclement weather. To top it all off, my friend Marlena decided to join me, and our one and a half hour wait was rewarded with the perfect prime seats for such an all-around exciting summer evening.

The first piece was coming straight from Poland to have its Western hemisphere premiere in New York City. Dedicated to the lovers of the picturesque region around the ancient town of Tarnowskie Góry, the quartet by the same name had the austere sounds traditionally associated with Eastern European music, but also featured some lovely lyrical lines and zesty sporadic sparks. Although it took me a while to get used to the instinctively cringe-inducing amplification of the string instruments, the superior skills of the orchestra, the attentiveness of the packed audience and the deliciousness of the light breeze, not to mention the occasional chirping of the birds, all made for a promising beginning.
Next, we got to enjoy the New York premiere of Elinor Armer's String Quartet 2011. Part fleeting schizophrenia, part road trip, this irrepressible work also perked up our spirits with tentative harmonies and bits of humor. There was no doubt a lot going on, and this gave the superb musicians plenty of opportunities to show off their individual talents and flawless team spirit, easily winning the approval of the beaming composer herself in the process.
The other creative force in attendance was Alessandro Annunziata, who was among us for the US premiere of his "Griko" quartet, a vibrant tribute to the popular music and folk culture of southern Italy. Opening with playful pizzicatos and sensual melodies, the immediately attractive first movement was a totally fitting introduction to the eventful journey that was to follow. In due course this colorful feast concluded the concert on a particularly upbeat note, which is always an appreciated plus on a Sunday night.