Sunday, August 25, 2013

Mostly Mozart Festival - All-Mozart - 08/24/13

Conductor: Louis Langrée
Mozart: Symphony No 39 in E-flat Major, K 543
Mozart: Symphony No 40 in G Minor, K 550
Mozart: Symphony No 41 in C Major, K 551, “Jupiter

What more appropriate way to wrap up the Mostly Mozart Festival could there be than with the man himself, represented by not one or two, but three of his final, all-around brilliant and widely popular symphonies? The idea of playing the famous trilogy of 1788, which he composed within six weeks three years before his untimely death, is so clever that it is kind of hard to believe it has not been done more often, if at all.
I had been lucky enough to hear the endlessly contrasting and ambiguous No 40 less than a month ago as part of the festival’s preview concert, but yesterday I was more than ready to get into its groove again, as this time it was book-ended by the promising No 39 and the majestic No 41, on the closing night of another highly successful Mostly Mozart Festival.

The Symphony No 39 is probably the less well-known of those final masterworks, and I couldn’t help but wonder what the reason for that relative neglect might be as I was listening to its more subdued but just as attractive lines. Back on the podium for this festival’s final hurrah, Louis Langrée was by all accounts fully in charge, sans score but with plenty of insights, which his orchestra happily took in for a light and joyful performance. This No 39 sounded like the older and wiser, as well as less complicated, child who people sometimes do not bother to notice but who, when given half a chance, comes alive as fervently and memorably as its younger, more hot-blooded siblings.
Yesterday’s latest take on the Symphony No 40 was as satisfying as the previous one, both elegantly emphasizing the contrasting themes of grace and sorrow in one intensely emotional journey. The urgent Molto allegro, the thoughtful Andante and the forceful Menuetto all confidently led to an ever-changing, energy-filled Finale to everyone’s delight.
The intermission, which is typically meant to provide a welcome break for performers and audiences, was a totally different affair last night due to the first evening of the Met’s Summer HD Festival, which yesterday featured Willy Decker’s acclaimed production of La Traviata. That’s how, standing on the balcony of the Avery Fisher Hall above a mobbed Lincoln Plaza where people were enjoying a balmy and free outdoor night at the opera, I got to relive the last few minutes of the tense Hvorostovsky-Dessay encounter, followed by a Dessay passionately begging Polenzani to love her as much as she loved him before fleeing for his alleged own good. This Verdi-infused interlude had to be the most unusual and elating intermission ever for a lot of the concert attendees, myself included.
Back to Mozart in the concert hall, the most assertive come-on of the entire classical music répertoire wasted no time opening the symphonic gates and let the mighty Jupiter powerfully unfurl. Then solidly at the top of his game, the unstoppable composer seems to have thrown in everything he had learned so far, add a healthy dose of his own genius, and come up with what has to be one of the most accomplished musical masterpieces ever written. For the final work of the final concert, Louis Langrée and his orchestra did not save anything and delivered a well informed and genuinely enthusiastic performance of the intrinsically complex, immediately appealing score. A resoundingly glorious finish for a resoundingly rewarding concert. À l’année prochaine !

Friday, August 16, 2013

Mostly Mozart Festival - Beethoven & Rossini - 08/13/13

Conductor: Gianandrea Noseda
Beethoven: Symphony No 2 in D Major
Rossini: Stabat Mater
Concert Chorale of New York
Maria Agresta: Soprano
Daniela Barcellona: Mezzo-soprano
Gregory Kunde: Tenor
Kyle Ketelsen: Bass-baritone

After paying my dues to Mozart with Ivan Fischer’s immensely enjoyable Nozze di Figaro at the Rose Theater on Sunday, I barely had time to catch my breath before moving on to lesser-known works by Beethoven and Rossini at the Avery Fisher Hall on Tuesday night. My main motivation for that choice had been the opportunity to hear Rossini’s rarely performed Stabat Mater. Since I tend to associate the popular Italian master to melody-filled but substance-lacking operas, I was certainly intrigued by the idea of hearing a composition of his that by definition should be a totally different kind of work. And the presence of Beethoven is always welcome in any concert, especially since this time I would be able to reacquaint myself with his less consequential but still appealing Symphony No 2.

After Mozart's exquisite daintiness, Beethoven’s solemn then fierce opening started the evening with plenty of assertive sounds. Mostly known in New York for his semi-regular conducting at the Met, Gianandrea Noseda proved to be equally comfortable being in charge of a symphonic concert. His muscular approach to Beethoven was not just about brilliantly plowing through the entire piece, which the Allegro originally made me fear, but quickly turned out to be refreshing and infectious as well. Besides, he took the time to let the more leisurely Larghetto beautifully expand and blossom. The festival orchestra responded with plenty of organic vitality on their own and the result was a vibrant, larger-than-life performance that concluded on a happily resounding note.
Rossini’s Stabat Mater had a rather convoluted genesis, but suffice it to say that the version we heard on Tuesday night was the final one and all Rossini. And he had every reason not to give up on this complex, yet easily accessible and downright riveting work. Not getting carried away by either the religious theme or the operatic scope of the composition, Gianandrea Noseda had apparently decided to play it straight and simply emphasize the intrinsic musical quality of the work. The melodies magnificently unfolded, the harmonies dramatically shone, and the various elements all came together for a glorious hymn to the grieving Mother of Christ. The four remarkable soloists as well as the flawless Concert Chorale of New York also contributed enormously in making this laudable endeavor a memorable success. The audience may have been sparse here and there, but it is probably a safe bet to assume that most of its members, if not all, left the hall very satisfied.

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Mostly Mozart Festival - Le Nozze di Figaro - 08/11/13

Composer: Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
Budapest Festival Orchestra
Conductor & Director: Ivan Fischer
Hanno Müller-Brachmann: Figaro
Laura Tatulescu: Susanna
Roman Terkel: Count Almaviva
Miah Persson: Countess Almaviva
Rachel Frenkel: Cherubino
Ann Murray: Marcellina
Andrew Shore: Bartolo

After another couple of quiet weeks, my Mostly Mozart Festival program finally started in earnest and in the best company possible with Ivan Fischer and his highly regarded Budapest Festival Orchestra back in town two years after a Don Giovanni that had left us many enduring memories. I have been following Ivan Fischer since I became aware of his seemingly unlimited talent during his NSO days, and I was therefore eagerly counting down the days until our next rendez-vous, his staged concert of Le Nozze di Figaro on Sunday afternoon.
If the Don will always occupy a special place in my heart, Figaro and its well-balanced mix of silliness and melancholy, engaging characters and priceless ensemble singing, comes in as a close number two on my personal Mozart opera list. The dazzling overture, on the other hand, is definitely second to none. Now that its underlying social commentary has lost its bite, Le Nozze di Figaro may be just fluff, but it is still fluff of the highest caliber, even if, let's face it, a tad misogynistic. My friend Steve and I were obviously not the only ones excited about such a prospect as the three shows had quickly sold out and an eclectic crowd was filling up the Rose Theater.

Based on Beaumarchais’ French farce Le marriage de Figaro, the opera revolves around a convoluted plot in which several characters freely swap gender and social class for various and occasionally far-fetched reasons. The first time I experienced it live, I felt about Figaro the way I feel about spy movies: I happily followed the story until I lost track, which inevitably made me confused and frustrated, before eventually putting everything back together again. But even in my most aggravated hour, the music had never ceased to be a constant source of enchantment. 
On Sunday, the opera’s constant identity shuffling was emphasized as soon as the first glorious notes of the overture were heard, with the singers running around the democratic stage on which the musicians were also playing, swiftly changing outfits, whether from male to female or from sleek contemporary suits to fancy period costumes, or vice-versa. Watching this frenetic yet tightly controlled opening, it immeditately looked like we were in for another brazenly unusual performance brought together by the laser-sharp, boldly imaginative vision of its creator.
Truth be told, while the staging was once again minimalist yet cleverly evocative, this new endeavor owed most of its success to the superb orchestra and the inspired cast. In the title role, the German bass-baritone Hanno Müller-Brachmann was a handsome, straight-shooting Figaro with a far-reaching, pleasantly dark voice he seemed to be able to handle at will. He was well-matched with his no-nonsense Susanna, Romanian-American soprano Laura Tatulescu, whose energetic presence and assertive voice were a winning combination.
Looking dashing, if in a sleazy sort of way, in his perfectly tailored suits, tall and bald German baritone Roman Trekel cut a remarkable figure as the Count Almaviva. As his long-suffering wife, Swedish soprano Miah Persson exuded dignified grace and aching vulnerability under her blond aristocratic looks, and each one of her gorgeously soaring arias remained the highlights of the whole concert.
I am not a big fan of trouser roles, but I have to admit that German mezzo-soprano Rachel Frenkel was a totally endearing Cherubino. Irish mezzo-soprano Ann Murray was a spot-on Marcellina, first as a feisty broad pining for Figaro, then as his whole-heartedly dedicated mother. British baritone Andrew Shore did not miss a beat as Bartolo and aptly rounded up this impressive group of singers.
The intriguing set featured a few costumes on mannequins or hanging in the air waiting for the matching bodies, a couple of doors, more clothes hanging on racks on the raised round center platform, where an armchair was also conveniently placed for the quiproquo of Act 2. Other more or less successful comic touches included Figaro singing to a loose aristocratic mannequin head (a not so subtle hint at the soon-to-become-omnipresent guillotine?), Susanna asking directly Ivan Fischer if Marcellina was really Figaro’s mother and an extra randomly putting powdered wigs on some of the musicians’ heads between Act 3 and 4.
Mozart’s score for Le Nozze di Figaro remains one of its most towering achievements, and hearing it performed by a crack ensemble like the Budapest Festival Orchestra made it sound even more sparkling with life. Firmly conducted by maestro Fischer, who was discreetly sitting with the violin section when he was not casually standing, the musicians kept the pace brisk enough to impeccably keep up with the comic timing while still making sure to appropriatedly dwell into the more emotional arias. Let there be no doubt about it: Ivan Fischer has brilliantly struck again.