Saturday, October 26, 2013

Tetzlaff Quartet - Haydn, Bartok & Beethoven - 10/24/13

Haydn: String Quartet in C Major, Op. 20, No 2
Bartok: String Quartet No 4
Beethoven: String Quartet No 15 in A Minor, Op. 132

Any opportunity to hear the brilliant violinist Christian Tetzlaff is never to be turned down, especially when he comes with its own quartet to perform in Carnegie Hall's sleek and intimate Zankel Hall. That's why after serendipitously scoring a ticket to the instantly sold-out concert, I firmly decided that I would not let a lingering bad cold keep me grounded at home while the popular foursome would be churning out works by Haydn, Bartok and Beethoven. So I still showed up, prudently drugged up and armed with water bottle and cough drops, although all those precautions turned out to be completely unnecessary in the end. Once my body and mind were solidly focused on Tetzlaff & Co., nothing else mattered.

Although today Haydn does not exactly stand as a revolutionary figure, back in his days his six Op. 20 quartets decisively broke the mold by giving an equal voice to all four individual instruments while creating seamless musical tapestries. When one of these masterworks is in such expert hands as the Tetzlaff Quartet's, the result is an impeccably executed example of classical refinement at its most intricate and attractive, never mind the unwelcome disturbance created by two late-comers that were let in after the performance had started (?!).
Since the quartet is well-known for its fearless take on contemporary music, Bartok sounded just like the right composer to be featured as he would probably please lovers of esotericism and not scare away the more conservative-minded. Sure enough, the symmetrical five movements of the endlessly inventive, arch-like String Quartet No 4 had plenty of musical gifts for everyone. The third movement, which was the nucleus of the piece, in particular contained mesmerizing cello lines, whose dark lyrical beauty was powerfully enhanced by Tanja Tetzlaff's compelling playing. The fourth movement was a pizzicato-only variation of the second one, adding a whimsical rustic touch to the proceedings, before the fifth movement thematically reprised the first one in an explosion of urgent dance rhythms. When Hungarian imagination and high-spiritedness meets German precision and boldness, anything can happen, and did.
After intermission, we moved on to 45 minutes of Beethovian bliss with his String Quartet in A Minor, Op. 132, in which the composer's unmatched mastery of his craft majestically unfolded for posterity. As he was recovering from a major illness and nearing the end of his life, the old man was wrestling with life and death questions, and fortunately for the rest of us, he put them to music. The Tetzlaff Quartet knowledgeably took us on this challenging emotional journey where dark alternates with light, sorrow with happiness, all the way to the assertive victory of life.

We had almost given up on an encore as they had come, bowed and gone three times, but our persistence was eventually rewarded with an lively Allegretto from String Quartet in G Minor, Op. 20, No 3, which took us back right where we started.

Thursday, October 17, 2013

Mariinsky Orchestra - All-Rachmaninoff - 10/15/13

Conductor: Valery Gergiev
Rachmaninoff: Piano Concerto No 3 in D Minor, Op. 30 - Denis Matsuev
Rachmaninoff: Symphonic Dances

Back in a sold-out Carnegie Hall on Tuesday night for my last date with Valery Gergiev for a while, I was getting mentally prepared to wrap up the crash course in the Russian repertoire I had been happily putting myself through for the past couple of weeks. After Tchaikovsky's unabashed Romanticism, Stravinsky's ground-breaking modernism and Shostakovich's irreverent zaniness, the spot was on Rachmaninoff with his irrepressible Piano Concerto No 3 and his irresistible Symphonic Dances. I was not familiar with Denis Matsuev, the pianist who would attempt to tame the wild beast, but my friend Linden and I were very eager to watch them battle it out, safe from our perch way above the fray.

A young man of imposing stature, Denis Matsuev indeed looked the part when he arrived on stage, and he certainly proved he had the technique, power and stamina to keep the formidable "Rach 3" under control. What was occasionally missing though, was the delicate lyricism of the quieter passages, which were handled with plenty of skills but little emotion. Once the haunting opening was over and he had made his understated entrance, Matsuev grabbed the monster and ran with it, resolutely never looking back. The notoriously challenging peaks exploded in all their might, the inconspicuous valleys remained in the shadows. But the journey was still an incredible ride, with a particularly animated Gergiev making sure the orchestra provided a solid background to the revved-up soloist.
The audience was so enthusiastic in showing its appreciation that Denis Matsuev eventually came back for two encores. The first one was more Rachmaninoff with "Étude-tableau", Op. 39, No 2, which came out as a little wonder of melancholy ― an unquestionable proof that the flashy fireball had a sensitive side too ― while the second one turned out to be some wild jazzy improvisation that did not want to end. This combination of variety and virtuosity comforted me in the notion that whatever might happen with the Symphonic Dances, my evening had just been made.
But there was no reason to wonder because the second work on the program gloriously opened with its famed infectious exuberance, which would soon contrast sharply with somber moments and elegiac passages. From this embarrassment of melodic richness, among which stood out discreet references to the "Dies Irae" and other spooky chants, Rachmaninoff's fundamental Romanticism rose beautifully thanks to some striking combinations among a wide range of instruments, including a piano, a harp and a saxophone. The orchestra responded to the unique composition with finesse and gusto, each section getting a chance to shine in all its bright colors before all coming together to create an unusually brilliant patchwork.

Last week, after the all-Stravinsky program we got to enjoy a muscular overture to Verdi's La Forza del Destino. On Tuesday night, it is Wagner we got to take home with an absolutely stunning overture to Lohengrin. Parting may be sweet sorrow, but the memories will be of complete happiness. 

Monday, October 14, 2013

New York Classical Players - Wagner, Fung & Mozart - 10/13/13

Conductor: Dongmin Kim
Wagner: Prelude from Tristan and Isolde (arr. Yoomi Paick)
Fung: String Sinfonietta
Mozart: Violin Concerto No 5 in A Major, K 219,"Turkish" - Sean Lee
Mozart: Adagio and Fugue, K 546

Now that everybody is back in business and the official season is solidly underway, last week was full of exciting musical adventures of many sorts before wrapping up yesterday with the first concert of the New York Classical Players' Season 4. Moreover, I was particularly happy to go back to their Upper East Side home, the Church of the Heavenly Rest, not only because it is such a wonderful space, but also because I got to reach it by walking through Central Park on another splendid October afternoon. I actually felt kind of sorry about leaving the golden sun and crisp air behind, but on the other hand, I walked into the nave fully aware that everybody there was pretty darn lucky to be able to enjoy such a stellar ensemble play masterworks by Wagner and Mozart for free. So on with the music!

A new version of the Prelude from Tristan and Isolde arranged for small string ensemble started the concert on a deeply Romantic note, the characters' passionate longing for each other gorgeously expressed in the long Wagnerian lines, which the musicians handled masterfully. Just listening to this prelude solidified the notion that changing the course of music history can also be a truly transporting experience for creator and listeners.
Next, Vivian Fung's "String Sinfonietta" had a lot was going on in it, constantly keeping the orchestra and the audience at the edge of their seats. Displaying a wide range of moods and plenty of pizzicatos, this little string symphony was big on surprises and a real pleasure for the ears, with maestro Kim assuredly leaving no detail unattended.
Then we went back to a tried and true classic with Mozart's fifth and last violin concerto. Bristling with the inventiveness and elegance that have come to characterize its composer's oeuvre, the Turkish was a perfect opportunity to hear out young violinist Sean Lee, who passed the daunting test without any difficulty. His refined tone proved a natural fit for the work's understated lyricism, and he knew exactly when to let lose in the most exuberant moments.
As a bonus, our enthusiastic ovation earned us a deftly rendered Preludio from Bach's Partita No 3 in E Major, which turned out to be the ideal transition for the next, and last, but by no means least, piece on the program.
So we went back to Mozart, but incidentally enhanced by a touch of Bach this time, with his "Adagio and Fugue", which I personally consider one of the Viennese master's most spectacular achievements. Combining dramatic outbursts with compelling rhythms, the whole work progresses with an underlying dark intensity that makes it all the more spell-binding. Thanks to their remarkable sense of musicality, the New York Classical Players delivered a performance that projected all the endless complexity of the short composition, and concluded this delightful concert with virtuosity and flair. 

Sunday, October 13, 2013

Met - The Nose - 10/12/13

Composer: Dmitri Shostakovich
Conductor: Valery Gergiev
Production: William Kentridge
Kovalyov: Paulo Szot
Police Inspector: Andrey Popov
The Nose: Alexander Lewis

Nobody could possibly argue that when premier Russian maestro Valery Gergiev comes to town, he does not hit the ground breathlessly running with a whirlwind schedule taking him back and forth between The Met to Carnegie Hall, effortlessly switching from one composer to another without seemingly batting much of an eyelid. That's how after catching a few glimpses of him at The Met for Eugene Onegin last week and having a much better view of his getting the job done at Carnegie Hall for his all-Stravinsky concert last Thursday, I got yet another opportunity to enjoy his sometimes-inconsistent-but-never-boring conducting back at The Met yesterday afternoon for Shostakovich's The Nose.
The Kentridge production has been deemed a winner ever since it opened in 2010, and I was curious to check out an opera that combines Gogol's 19th century absurdism and Shostakovich's 20th century iconoclasm. More prosaically, I thought that its total duration of less than two hours with no intermission sounded like a true blessing, especially when there was a beautiful October afternoon to be enjoyed outside. I was, however, less happy about the promised compactness of the performance when I realized that I would be sitting in a far Siberia corner of the orchestra section, right where the parterre overhang partially blocks view and music, and that there would be no way to escape this undesirable location at any moment. Oh well, at least I was able to get in and out of the building in a flash.

Shostakovich was only 22 years old when he wrote The Nose, but while the score unquestionably overflows with youthful energy and bustling creativity, it also shows a solid grasp of various musical styles as well as an uncanny ability to mix and transform them for maximum effect. The zany story of a man waking up without his nose, which will develop a life of its own for a little while, becomes the perfect excuse for a clever and irreverent take on Russian bureaucracy in Saint Petersburg, in all its paralyzing bloatedness, incompetence and self-importance, at the beginning of the Stalinist era. Hmmm, come to think of it, this sorry state of affairs somehow does not sound that far off these days, does it?
As the hapless collegiate assessor whose nose is simply not there one morning, Brazilian baritone Paulo Szot was back in superb physical and vocal shape. The role earned him rave reviews in the past, and it was easy to see why. His Kovalyov was an ordinary man unexpectedly thrown into an extraordinary situation, relentlessly trying to keep his sanity and recover his nose. His singing was wonderfully supple, strong and articulate, breathing a truly human dimension into the increasingly puzzled and frustrated character.
Russian tenor Andrey Popov proved again that he was totally in control of the police inspector and newcomer Australian tenor Alexander Lewis did a good job in the title role. Among the smaller roles that particularly distinguished themselves among the huge cast were Chinese soprano Ying Fang, whose luminous voice beautifully rose over the chorus in the cathedral scene and later delicately emphasized the loveliness of Mrs. Podtochina's daughter, as well as tenor Sergei Skorokhodov, who sang an attractive balalaika number as the servant Ivan.
Back in The Nose's days, Saint Petersburg may have been a rather drab place with policemen at every corner, but South African artist William Kentridge made it a visually arresting one with a constant cacophony of images, words, newspaper clips, moving projections, lights and shadows, humans and puppets, and that's obviously not counting what I could not see from the back of the opera house. On this busy stage occasionally popped up parts of a building, or a coach, or a crowd, all the more to make the actual characters appear small and insignificant. Those various surrealistic sets remained a continuous source of surprise and wonder, impeccably in tune with the unusually bizarre story and boldly fragmented music.
Speaking of the music, it is hard not to marvel at how such a brazenly innovative young composer could channel so seamlessly a writer who had lived in the same city and resented the same impenetrable bureaucracy, yes, but one century apart. Some things apparently never change. Others, on the other hand, evolve constantly, and Shostakovich certainly did his part in shaking up the musical landscape with The Nose's score, which is a tightly controlled chaos characterized by atonality, dissonance, wildness and eclecticism. No pretty aria or even a simple lyrical line is to be found for comfort, just a few references to traditional musical genres that are promptly twisted into something else for the opera's higher purpose.
Evidently on deeply familiar territory, Valery Gergiev conducted with the right amount of vigor and dedication. The Met Orchestra, which does not seem to be capable of delivering anything subpar, brilliantly dealt with the composition's numerous technical challenges and grating sounds while still managing to keep the musical performance as genuinely engaging as the theatrical production. That's when you know you have a winner indeed.

Saturday, October 12, 2013

Mariinsky Orchestra - All-Stravinsky - 10/10/13

Conductor: Valery Gergiev
Stravinsky: The Firebird
Stravinsky: Pétrouchka
Stravinsky: Le sacre du printemps (The Rite of Spring)

Gay rights may have been mercilessly trampled in Russia lately, but the right of speech is by all accounts alive and well in New York City, as Valery Gergiev has experienced at the Met gala a couple of weeks ago, and then again at Carnegie Hall on Thursday night. Although it may not have come as a total surprise considering his obstinate silence about his close relationship to Valdimir Putin and the government-ordered crack-down on gay rights, the first of the three all-Russian concerts by the Marrinsky Orchestra at the hall was greeted by protesters outside the building and two hecklers, who were quickly and peacefully escorted out, inside. After all, as Anna Netrebko and her PR team very well know, all it takes to calm down heated spirits is a short, generic, but politically correct, press release.
It is not as if Carnegie Hall needed this additional headache after its opening night concert got cancelled last week due to a strike by the stagehands' union, which wants to extend its greedy grip into the new educational wing. (I actually want to take this opportunity to let Carnegie Hall's HR Department know that I am more than willing to do the job for half of their mid-six-figure salary, although I may have to revise that since one of the ushers has just confided to me he'd do it for a quarter of it). Frankly, after hearing that the all-Sibelius concert by the Minnesota Orchestra in early November had also been cancelled due to some lingering internal disputes, a couple of friends and I were simply relieved that the Mariinsky Orchestra actually bothered to show up and stay on for their fabulous all-Stravinsky program.

Studiously stoic during the disturbance, Valery Gergiev apparently did not let any of the unrest get to him as he confidently launched a vividly colorful performance of The Firebird, 1910 version. A long-time remarkable ensemble in their own right, the Mariinsky Orchestra’s international prestige has been increasingly solidified through an even more far-reaching exposure under the fiercely dedicated leadership of their artistic director and conductor. Therefore, it is not surprising that the pretty much seamless osmosis among them produced a thoroughly exciting performance, during which all the instrumental sections, from the glowing violins to the elating woodwinds, got a chance to shine. Although this was still fairly conventional Stravinsky, the orchestra made sure to enhance the inherent magic of the fairy tale.
The idea of having the three widely different and constantly challenging scores that Stravinsky composed for the Ballets Russes in Paris presented in chronological order was both obvious and brilliant. And if the musicians resented being put through such a relentless grinder, they did not let it show and gamely played on with awe-inspiring stamina. Next was Pétrouchka, whose music powerfully suggests the child-like directness of the emotions newly acquired by the Russian folk puppet. Far from being a heart-warming tale, Pétrouchka may rile for its biting sarcasm, but it impresses first and foremost for its musical boldness, which the orchestra fully embraced.
After those two preparatory works, we finally got to the mighty Rite of Spring, which still manages to sound as fresh and innovative as ever, even as it has been celebrating the 200th anniversary of its sulfurous premiere this year. Probably connecting with the score in their very own visceral Russian way, the musicians went far beyond the typical pounding contest that can become Stravinsky's irreversibly ground-breaking work, and superbly brought out not only its famous deep-rooted primitivism, but also the inner delicacy of its more subtle passages. Led by a deeply committed master of Russian music, the performance of this giant leap into modernism was both organic and polished.

You would think that after this Stravinsky marathon, conductor and orchestra would be ready to pack up and leave. Not so. The real surprise of the evening happened when Valery Gergiev turned to the audience and announced that in honor of Verdi's 200th birthday, they would perform the overture to La Forza del Destino. So we just sat back down and happily enjoyed this dashing Italian nightcap before everybody eventually, if reluctantly, left the hall.

Friday, October 11, 2013

Cantori New York - Ben-Haim, Castelnuovo-Tedesco & Traditional Songs - 10/08/13

Artistic Director & Conductor: Mark Shapiro
Traditional Scottish: Ca' the yowes (arr. Ralph Vaughan Williams)
Cantori New York & Azi Schwartz (Tenor)
Paul Ben-Haim: La rosa enflorece
Paul Ben-Haim: Yo m'enamore d'un aire
Paul Ben-Haim: En el vergel
Paul Ben-Haim: Avre este abajour
Cantori New York
Traditional British: Brigg fair (arr. Percy Grainger)
Cantori New York & Azi Schwartz (Tenor)
Spanish and Portuguese pot-pourri (arr. Raymond Goldstein)
Azi Schwartz (Tenor) & Colin Fowler (Piano)
Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco: Romancero gitano
Cantori New York, Azi Schwartz (Tenor) & Nilko Andreas Guarin (Guitar)
Traditional Sephardic: Yom zeh leyisra'el/Yismach mosheh (arr. Joshua Jacobson)
Park Avenue Synagogue Congregational Singers & Ronen Izik (Percussion)
Traditional Ladino: Durme durme (arr. Alice Parker)
Park Avenue Synagogue Congregational Singers
Traditional Spiritual: Lord, how come me here (arr. Evelyn Simpson-Curenton)
Cantori New York, Park Avenue Synagogue Congregational Singers, Azi Schwartz (Tenor) & Colin Fowler (Piano)

After all the sea, songs and sun of Cassis and Marseille in September, Cantori New York was back in the Big Apple on Tuesday night with an updated roster for their first concert of the new season at the Park Avenue Synagogue, whose entrance puzzlingly happens to be located on Madison Avenue, and which has the distinct advantage of being located across the Park (as opposed to across the pond) from where I live. Amazingly enough, for once the program, which was focusing on the Sephardic tradition, was at least partly familiar to me with four songs by Ben-Haim, the whole Castelnuovo-Tedesco series, but, regrettably, neither "Fuego" nor "Bouillabaisse". The venue, on the other hand, was a brand new adventure and turned out to be a beautiful space, which eventually filled up with a large and appreciative crowd.

The Ben-Haim pieces were as lovely as I remembered them, but the real treat was hearing the canciones gitanes again with the added benefit of Azi Schwartz, the young resident cantor and music director, whose vibrant voice and colorful singing added rays of bright sunshine to a couple of tunes during our exciting musical trip to Spain. And if globe-trotting Colombia-born Nilko Andreas Guarin did not make me forget our favorite Marseillais Rémi Jousselme when it came to the classical guitar, his equally attractive combination of power and delicacy superbly enhanced the enchanting singing from the ensemble, immediately bringing back vivid memories of our Mediterranean days in the sun.
But that was not all, as Cantori and Azi Schwartz also took us on a whirlwind tour of the British isles for more subdued traditional Scottish and British songs, and Azi Schwarz brought us back to Spain and Portugal with pianist Colin Flowler for an uplifting medley. The Park Avenue Synagogue Congregational Singers then took over with an additional couple of melodic Sephardic tunes, efficiently supported by Ronee Itzik on percussion.
It all ended on a communal note including both ensembles, accompanied by Colin Fowler at the organ and Azi Schwartz soloing, all under the baton of Mark Shapiro, for the decidedly downbeat but nevertheless stirring spiritual "Lord, how come me here". Thankfully things perked up again a few minutes later at the bustling reception, which concluded the evening with a happy ending.

Saturday, October 5, 2013

Met - Eugene Onegin - 10/01/13

Composer: Piotr Tchaikovsky
Conductor: Valery Gergiev
Director: Fiona Shaw
Production: Deborah Warner
Eugene Onegin: Mariusz Kwiecien
Tatiana: Anna Netrebko
Lenski: Piotr Beczala

I generally pick and choose the performances I attend based on various factors such as works, artists, schedule and location. And sometimes, the stars somehow align and promise the perfect storm of contentment. That's really what I was feeling on Tuesday night on my way to the Met. Composed by the man who made me fall in love with classical music and headlined by a star-studded cast, Tchaikovsky's Eugene Onegin would mark my return to one of my favorite musical haunts after a long opera-deprived stretch, which was broken only last week at BAM with Anna Nicole, The New York City Opera's brightly colored swan song.
Back on the more familiar territory that is the Lincoln Center, the atmosphere was certainly more dignified, and for a while even political. Incensed by the harsh anti-gay law passed in Russia last June, as well as by Valery Gergiev and Anna Netrebko openly schmoozing up to Vladimir Putin last year, thousands of petitioners had called on The Met to dedicate its season opening gala featuring the most popular opera written by Russia's most famous gay composer to the LGBT community. That did not happen, but Netrebko consequently turned on the diplomatic charm (while Gergiev apparently could not be bothered), Peter Gelb felt compelled to insert a note in the program and some well-mannered protesters were peacefully escorted out of the house. Once order, if not justice, had been restored, the show allegedly went on as planned.

I had loved my first Eugene Onegin at The Met, a few years back, and was very much looking forward to this new version of it. Inspired by a celebrated novel in verse by Pushkin, it is a fairly long opera, with a simple story made of a few dramatic scenes full of big emotions and a serious case of bad timing, all to the sound of beautiful melodies. The perspective of hearing Anna Netrebko finally sing a role seemingly created for her luscious voice in her native language had been setting countless opera lovers' hearts aflutter for months. Two fast-rising Met regulars from Poland, baritone Mariusz Kwiecien and tenor Piotr Beczala, who have repeatedly been proving their worth, completed this extremely attractive cast.
The title of the opera may have been Eugene Onegin, but it is highly probable that most eyes and ears stayed solidly focused on Anna Netrebko. And they were well rewarded. Her youthful looks and richly lyrical voice made her a lovely Tatiana, the 17-year-old bookish girl whose deep romantic yearnings were about to become unleashed. For the occasion, the high-energy soprano was at her most demure - She ran across the stage only once! - and while her limited acting skills were not helped by the unfocused direction, her gorgeous singing was often mesmerizing. The eagerly awaited "Letter" aria, during which the shy young woman slowly awakens to feelings of passion, went well. Her truly grand moment, however, happened in the final scene, when she and Mariusz Kwiecien had a final meeting so intensely gripping that I felt violently jolted from the torpor I had been slowly slipping in after two very, very long intermissions. When she sang out "Farewell forever" before resolutely walking away, you definitely knew she would not turn back.
As the bored neighbor causing all the turmoil, Mariusz Kwiecien showed an impressive vocal and physical presence. Laudably not trying to make his boorish character more sympathetic than he is supposed to be, he still behaved honorably when confronting Tatiana about her letter. His Onegin was appropriately insensitive and sometimes cruel, which made the eventual discovery of his human side all the more surprising. 
As the ill-fated Lenski, Piotr Beczala had his big moment with a perfectly soaring "Farewell to life" aria, during which his ardent singing thoughtfully conveyed the many emotions of a young man who knows his life is about to be cut short, but who just can't turn away. Sweet and hot-headed, the young poet in love with Olga projected an endearing personality that made his early demise all the more poignant.
The quality of the singing remained extremely high throughout the whole cast. Oksana Volkova, in particular, was full of life as Olga, Tatiana's fun-loving younger sister, and Alexei Tanovitski was a quietly dignified Prince Gremin, the older aristocrat who found love later in life. The chorus was his usually excellent self, especially when adding some welcome touches of Tolstoyan country life.
The rest of the production, however, did not fare so well. Apparently unsure if they wanted to stick to tradition, with a boringly pleasant, but ultimately uninspired, country home, or go a more stylized route, as the minimalist, yet chillingly effective, duel scene seemed to hint at, the original producer, Deborah Warner, and her later substitute, director Fiona Shaw, never succeeded in creating a unified, or even merely consistent, vision. Tatiana stayed up all night writing in a large room that should logically be her bedroom but really is not, unless it is, after all. The huge columns in the ball room during the third act were distracting and, most of all, unnecessary. The ever-present shiny floor looked like an advertisement for a cleaning product and did not contribute anything in any way. Those were just a few of the nonsensical details that eventually added up and stubbornly kept the theatrical experience from being as transporting as the musical one.
In the orchestra pit, Valery Gergiev took the time to let Tchaikovsky's magnificent score leisurely unfold while still powerfully dwelling on the dramatic peaks. The Russian maestro may not always seem to be capable or willing to keep things tightly under control, but he for sure knows how to keep them exciting. Add to that a deep understanding of the composition, and we had all the ingredients for another memorable performance by the consistently outstanding orchestra, which they naturally delivered. Final verdict: Music: 1. Production: 0.