Monday, November 25, 2013

Juilliard Opera - Radamisto - 11/24/13

Composer: George Frideric Handel
Conductor: Julian Wachner
Director: James Darrah
Radamisto: John Holiday
Zenobia: Virginie Verrez
Tiridate: Aubrey Allicock
Polissena: Mary Feminear
Tigrane: Elizabeth Sutphen
Fraarte: Pureum Jo
Farasmane: Elliott Carlton Hines

I have never been a big fan of Baroque music, but I ain't no quitter either, so I keep trying on improving my relationships with composers such as Handel whenever I get an appealing opportunity to do so. And this is just what happened when some friends talked me into joining them for Radamisto at the Juilliard School yesterday afternoon. This would be my first foray with performances presented by the Ellen and James S. Marcus Institute for Vocal Arts, and I figured that it would be an interesting experience considering the quality assurance provided by the stellar reputation of the prestigious school and the prospect of hearing some hand-picked stars of tomorrow tackle a master of early music today.
The story would roughly revolve around warring kingdoms, ruthless tyranny, unrequited love and unwavering loyalty, all of which are definitely not concepts foreign to opera synopses, but offer as good a basis as any for an engaging musical development. The original three acts and four hours had thankfully been reduced to two acts and three hours, which no doubt could have used a little bit more trimming, but were at least a reasonable compromise.

My favorite thing about Baroque music is that the subtlety of the music typically gives the singers plenty of room to display their vocal skills. My main pet peeve with Baroque music are the endless da capo arias which, beside essentially repeating what has already been clearly established, have also the disadvantage of slowing down the action over and over again. So I sat down in the truly wonderful Peter Jay Sharp Theater mentally prepared for an enjoyable musical adventure and some unavoidable thumb-twiddling.
It did not take us long to notice that the singers, whom I consider the main component of an opera performance, were all refreshingly young and obviously talented way beyond their years. Starting with the two female leads, soprano Mary Feminear was an assertive Polissena, even as she was making some downright incomprehensible choices in steadily supporting her faithless, tyrannical husband Tiridate. Mezzo-soprano Virginie Verrez was just as strong-headed as Zenobia, Radamisto's dedicated wife and Tiridate's lust object.
In the male cast, counter-tenor John Holiday was an admirable Radamisto, all righteousness and sacrifice. Bass-baritone Aubrey Allicock was an appropriately menacing Tiridate, who will eventually, if rather unconvincingly, amend his ways. Baritone Elliott Carlton Hines gave Farasmane much dignity even as he was dragged in with ropes.
I am not big on trouser roles, but I will happily admit that the two sopranos impersonating Radamisto's aides, Elizabeth Sutphen as Tigrane and Pureum Jo as Fraarte, were totally believable as young men and in fine vocal form too.
The set was of the minimalist kind with a large standing wall, which was at its most interesting when at some point a few shadows were fleetingly projected onto it. This original idea was one of not many though, even if some understated lights reliably added nice touches to the scenery. The props consisted mostly in a few chairs, which in the second act provided for an awkward and kind of pointless, really, game of musical chairs, or were at best inconspicuous.
Under Julian Wachner's energetic baton, the uniformly brilliant orchestra readily responded in kind. Seeing young musicians give such an elegant and poised performance was certainly heart-warming, and one could only marvel at their obvious dedication to their art in a world awash in pessimistic opinions about the dismal state and precarious future of classical music.

I cannot say that this by all accounts satisfying musical performance of Radamisto has totally reconciled me with Baroque music, but there were certainly worse ways to spend a bitterly cold, relentlessly blustery Sunday afternoon.

Saturday, November 23, 2013

Orchestra of St. Luke's - Weiner, Schumann, Bartok & Mozart - 11/21/13

Conductor: Ivan Fischer
Weiner: Serenade for Small Orchestra, Op. 3
Schumann: Piano Concerto in A Minor, Op. 54 - Jonathan Biss
Bartok: Hungarian Sketches (An Evening at the Village - Bear Dance - Melody - A Bit Tipsy - Dance of the Urog Swineherds)
Mozart: Symphony No. 41 in C Major, K. 551, "Jupiter"

The mighty creative vibes of New York City routinely go up one more notch when Ivan Fischer brings his tremendous talent to town, and when his task consists in conducting the remarkable Orchestra of St. Luke's in Mozart's magnificent "Jupiter" at Carnegie Hall, there's not much else to say but get a ticket and go with a couple of like-minded friends. Moreover, the program also included Schumann, whose Piano Concerto in A Minor would be interpreted by thoughtful pianist Jonathan Biss, and works by Hungarian composers Weiner and Bartok, which would no doubt benefit from the informed touch of their fellow countryman maestro Fischer.

Although Leo Weiner is by no means a household name, his Serenade for Small Orchestra displayed all the engaging melodic power that, in some other times, would have made him world famous. Under Ivan Fischer's precise and relaxed leadership, the orchestra made the music come out fresh, sweet and lively.
A brashly assertive opening followed by the first instance of a lovely dialog between oboe and piano confirmed that we were in for a real treat with Schumann's popular Piano Concerto. Seamlessly alternating between explosive outbursts and pensive passages, soloist and orchestra made beautiful music together and delivered a deeply heartfelt rendition of the quintessential Romantic work. Although Jonathan Biss' impeccable technique made him equally comfortable with the composition's many twists and turns, his talent really shone when delicately highlighting the pearly exquisiteness of the quieter moments.
Bartok took us back to Hungary with five very short sketches that dwelt deeply into his rich native culture. Unequivocally simple and spontaneously engaging in all of their many moods, these folk tunes brilliantly conjured up snapshots of everyday country life in Magyar land for a fun and fascinating interlude.
There are few symphonies in the entire classical repertoire as fully accomplished as the "Jupiter", and its stunning perfection can only make us wonder what Mozart would have come up with if he had lived on. On Thursday night, the eloquently contrasting opening immediately gave way to an energetic yet gracious performance of it. The piece's countless textures were highly detailed, but that did not keep Ivan Fischer and the orchestra from getting deep into Mozart's groove and fly with it for an outstanding home run. There were no encores, but then again, I can't imagine what one could dare play after the "Jupiter".

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

New York Classical Players - Bach & du Bois - 11/17/13

Conductor: Dongmin Kim
Bach: Concerto for Oboe and Violin in C Minor, BWV 1060
Bach: Violin Concerto No. 1 in A Minor, BWV 1041
Alexandra du Bois: Noctilucent Song for String Orchestra
Bach: Concerto for Two Violins in D Minor, BWV 1043
Bach: Violin Concerto No. 2 in E Major, BWV 1042
Bach: Air on a G string for Orchestral Suite No. 3, BWV 1068

It is hard to imagine a better way to wrap up a busy musical week than in the company of the stellar New York Classical Players and the eternal Bach. The prolific German composer for sure churned out enough memorable works to keep orchestras and audiences happily busy forever, and somehow I had always thought that his formidable œuvre would be a perfect fit for the fearless strings of the New York Classical Players. So this concert was definitely in the not-to-be-missed category on my calendar. The weather was gray and wet on Sunday afternoon, but that was really no reason to renounce walking up Broadway to the minimalist and intimate Broadway Presbyterian Church in Morningside Heights.

Although the NYCP orchestra is well-known for its impeccable strings, the concert's first piece welcomed the addition of an oboe for Bach's Concerto for Oboe and Violin. That special guest made itself immediately at home by seamlessly joining the ever-tight ensemble and whimsically striking out on its own from time to time. From the very first notes, the mood was immediately festive as we were brilliantly transported right into early 18th century Germany.
Bach's Violin Concerto No. 1 is a work overflowing with enchanting melodies that would have made Vivaldi proud. On Sunday, it received the royal treatment in the hands of the orchestra, which completely succeeded in bringing out its elegance and high-spiritedness.
For the contemporary break of the performance, Alexandra du Bois and her ethereal "Noctilucent Song for string orchestra", which had been commissioned by the NYCP, had the tremendous honor of sharing the program with Bach. Inspired by the thin clouds occasionally found in high altitude at night, the inconspicuously atmospheric piece conjured up ideas of serene beauty and intense sadness, which were superbly conveyed by the musicians. The composer, who was in the audience, must have been extremely pleased.
Back to Bach, we doubled our pleasure with his Double Concerto for Two Violins, during which the two soloists engaged in an animated, warm and always courteous conversation that would not falter for even a second. Together with the orchestra they created a complex tapestry that ended in a perfectly balanced finish.
Bach’s Violin Concerto No. 2 probably owes it lasting popularity to an intoxicating mix of carefree exuberance and delicate poignancy. Accordingly, the playing from orchestra and soloist was by turn joyful, melancholic and refined, pointedly expressing the wide range of emotions of the composition and strongly emphasizing the timeless appeal of the work by the same token.
Thoughtfully dedicated to the people of The Philippines, the beautifully elegiac “Air on a G String” concluded the concert on a moving and exquisite note.

Sunday, November 17, 2013

Met - Die Frau ohne Schatten - 11/16/13

Composer: Richard Strauss
Conductor: Vladimir Jurowski
Producer: Herbert Wernicke
The Empress: Meagan Miller
The Dyer's Wife: Christine Goerkle
Barak: Johan Reuter
The Emperor: Torsten Kerl
The Nurse: Ildiko Komlosi

Although I've always liked, to various degrees, the widely different works of Richard Strauss, I've always had a hard time figuring out what the composer was all about. Since I am always on the lookout for more clues, I was particularly intrigued by The Met'd revival of its popular production of Die Frau ohne Schatten from over a decade ago. I understood that the performance would be long (about four hours) and the story pretty opaque (something about two childless couples and fertility), but the sets and the music were supposed to be wonderful, so I prudently avoided any school night and picked yesterday evening in order to be able to dedicate my full and rested attention to it. Then the endless raving about the cast came to my ears, which of course made the whole endeavor even more exciting.

Although it is now part of the repertoire, Die Frau ohne Schatten is still not exactly a regular presence in opera houses around the world. Among the reasons tentatively given for that fact are its length, its complexity and its size. Even Strauss was reportedly baffled by Hofmannstahl's enigmatic libretto, but that sure did not keep him from composing a formidable score for it. After all, when one tackles lofty themes such as the essence of life and human relationships, it does not really make sense to stop half way, intelligibility be damned.
One of the biggest challenges of producing Die Frau ohne Schatten is to find singers with enough guts, musicality and stamina to take on the five enormously demanding lead roles. In that regard, the current revival is a resounding success.
As the Empress, or the Woman without a Shadow, American soprano Meagan Miller looked and sang icy blonde style when she first appeared, but her natural compassion gradually took over as she was coming to realize that her happiness should not depend on another woman's misery. When she went into her big aria in Act III, her clear, beautiful voice powerfully rose and expanded with impressive volume and flexibility. This was a hell of a Met debut, and we can only hope to hear her again soon.
One could hardly imagine a more triumphant return for American soprano Christine Goerkle, or a more drastic departure from her previous parts in Mozart and Gluck operas. She has been unanimously heralded as the big winner of this production as The Dyer's Wife, and I am confirming that the world should believe the hype. She gave the rather ungrateful role of the bitter wife a genuinely human dimension, subtly underlining the character's wrenching unhappiness. She is unquestionably blessed with an amazing range, from the colorful high notes she assertively tossed up in the air to the dark depths of her lower register, which allowed her to flawlessly display a broad array of emotions.
Danish bass-baritone Johan Reuter gave a wonderfully touching performance as her steadily loving husband, Barak, the only character with a name. Somehow he knew that underneath his wife's moody personality was hiding a heart of gold and he never missed an opportunity to side with her, even during their most trying times.
The Emperor was just about as adoring towards his wife, as German tenor Tortsen Kerl masterfully demonstrated in his few and often solo appearances. His big moment took place in Act II, when he believed his wife had been unfaithful, but simply could not find the strength to do her any harm. 
As the witchy Nurse, Hungarian mezzo-soprano Ildiko Komlosi gave a deliciously wicked performance, authoritatively taking control of the proceedings and spectacularly losing her marbles when she was eventually dismissed from the spirit life she had been fighting so fiercely for.
The main set was smartly divided between the mythical realm upstairs, where the Emperor and Empress lived since she had the crazy idea to marry a mortal, and therefore had to step down from the spirit world, and the Dyer's home downstairs, in the mortal realm, both being simply but efficiently connected by a staircase. From beginning to end the stage was home to boldly inventive decors, which provided visual splendor and palpable atmosphere.
The castle of the Emperor and Empress dazzlingly proved that an ingenious use of mirrors is indeed possible on an opera stage when the minimalist set turned into a truly magical place thanks to an endlessly creative use of lighting. On the other hand, the Dyer's home was cluttered, drab and crudely lit up by factory lights; it was made even gloomier by the strained relationship between the couple.
Perfectly in line with their eye-catching surroundings, the costumes in the mythical realm were predictably splendid, never mind that the Emperor's clothes had more sparkles than even Liberace would have dared to wear and the Nurse looked as if she had come straight out of Vogue magazine. The most spectacular outfit, however, was no doubt created for the bright red acrobatic Falcon. I did not really get what the recurring bird was all about, but I found every one of its appearances absolutely mesmerizing.
The titanic score is not for the faint of heart, but Vladimir Jurowski bravely managed to steadily draw out the dark beauty of the music, including its big surging waves, its long romantic lines and its occasional introspective musings. Even more remarkable, he was particularly successful at holding the huge orchestra back during the most intense moments so that the singers could be heard, which is always much appreciated. Among the most memorable touches of quietness stood out the peaceful march of the night watchmen and the creepy voices of the unborn children coming from the boiling pot (Seriously).
With opulent music, stunning singing and gorgeous visuals, this Frau ohne Schatten is hands-down one of the most ambitious, fascinating and puzzling opera performances I have ever attended. My only ― and minor, really ― squabbles are all related to the convoluted story, obscure symbolism and heavy moralism that are inherent to the original work, but those can easily be cast aside as there is always plenty going on musically and dramatically.

The Met opera house was not full last night, but it was more than reasonably filled for such a non-traditional opera. More importantly, the audience stayed put, applauded enthusiastically and, in an unusual move, even the musicians in the orchestra pit stuck around to applaud the cast and their conductor. I finally made it home just after midnight, exhausted, but totally relishing the elating feeling of having just witnessed a challenging mission being magnificently accomplished.

Saturday, November 16, 2013

San Francisco Symphony - Beethoven, Mackey, Mozart & Copland - 11/13/13

Conductor: Michael Tilson Thomas
Beethoven: Leonore Overture No 3, Op. 72a
Mackey: Eating Greens
Mozart: Piano Concerto No 25 in C Major, K. 503 - Jeremy Denk
Copland: Symphonic Ode

The San Francisco Symphony and I have had a regrettable history of repeatedly missing each other. Whether I have family obligations or they go on strike, or other impediments get in the way, getting together in the same concert hall had seemed like mission impossible... until last Wednesday, when the stars finally aligned and we all converged to Carnegie Hall for the first of their two nights there.
So the perspective of finally getting to hear this highly regarded orchestra conducted by their music director, the ever-cool MTT, was of course tremendously exciting, but truth be told, the deciding factor of my being there was first and foremost the singular pairing of adventurous pianist Jeremy Denk and über-classical composer Mozart. Among a program democratically divided between the Viennese past and the American present, that would have to be the highlight of my evening.

Beethoven's third Leonore overture, by far the most popular one among the four in existence, is actually much more than a prelude to a stage drama. It is a superb musical work in its own right, full of operatic grandeur and human emotions, which powerfully encapsulates all the passions at play in Beethoven's one and only opera, Fidelio. The orchestra's muscular performance of it unequivocally confirmed that they had been worth waiting for and kicked off the evening with a vigorous punch.
In sharp contrast to this bona fide classical opening, Steven Mackey's Eating Greens was a whimsical tribute to modern life made of numerous interconnected auditive snapshots. The work may be occasionally tongue-in-cheek, but it does not lack ambition, with, among others, high-brow references to Matisse, Ives and Thelonious Monk, but also everyday occurrences such as traffic noises and even a chuckle-inducing old-fashioned phone off the hook (Those were the days). Starting with formal church bells and ending with a playful harmonica, the orchestra gamely ran the 20-minute gamut of eclectic sounds, which eventually all came together in surprising harmony for a refreshingly unusual adventure. The audience seemed to good-naturedly take it all in and rewarded musicians, conductor and composer, who was in attendance, with warm applause.
After intermission, we were back on solidly Viennese territory with Mozart and his Piano Concerto No 25. The last one of his twelve major piano concertos, it may not be the most popular, but its treasures of emotional depths make it a truly remarkable piece. At Carnegie Hall on Wednesday, the piano's gentle entrance quickly expanded into intricate harmonies and engaged in a delightful and engrossing conversation with the orchestra. Jeremy Denk's superb playing was perfectly in tune with Mozart's refined elegance and subtle expressiveness, always deeply respectful of the sheer beauty of the composition and free enough to make it his very own.
Back in the contemporary US, the last work on the program was Copland's Symphonic Ode, for which the full orchestra and then some filled up the stage. Although it is rarely performed in concert halls, it was one of the composer's favorites among his œuvre. I tend to associate Copland with loudness, and the opening of Symphonic Ode couldn't but reinforce this idea with trumpets, trombones, horns, and soon the whole orchestra. But there were some wonderfully elegiac moments as well, interspersed between explosions of bouncy, odd and catchy flights of fancy inspired by Mahler, Stravinsky, his love for jazz, his Jewish heritage and his Parisian days. A grand voyage that left orchestra and audience exhausted, but happy.

We stuck around with Copland with a high-energy "Hoe-Down" from Rodeo as the much appreciated encore. A big gulp of fresh air straight from the American folk tune repertoire, which concluded the evening on a resoundingly upbeat note.

Friday, November 15, 2013

Joshua Bell & Sam Haywood - Tartini, Beethoven & Stravinsky - 11/12/13

Tartini: Violin Sonata in G Major, "Devil's Trill Sonata"
Beethoven: Violin Sonata No 10 in G Major, Op. 96
Stravinsky: Divertimento

Although I think that Carnegie Hall’s beautiful Stern Auditorium is unquestionably too large for recitals, I find myself in it pretty much every time the headliners are simply too hard to resist, which means fairly frequently. Tuesday night was another one of those not-to-be-missed occasions, with Joshua Bell and Sam Haywood stopping by on their annual US tour.
The official program, which included works by the Italian Tartini, the German Beethoven and the Russian Stravinsky, sounded appealing enough, if rather short, but then we were informed that additional works would be announced from the stage. So without further ado, my friend Linden and I took our seats in the nearly full concert hall and waited for the guys to show up.

Violinist and composer Tartini may or may not have actually seen the devil in his dream, but his diabolically virtuosic “Devil’s Trill Sonata” sure sounds like it was born of a supernatural intervention. Although the violin was the undisputed star of the piece, it would not have sounded as good without the piano discreetly but efficiently doing its thing as well. As performed by Joshua Bell and Sam Haywood on Tuesday night, the music unfolded with vibrant colors and gasp-inducing feats that only made us wish that it could go on a little longer.
Since this was not meant to be, we moved to the rather sedate sonata No 10 by Beethoven, which reminded us all that the moody composer could be quite introspective too. That being said, just as we were happily settling in, the overall dreaminess gave way to sudden outbursts of vivacity towards the end, all the way to the sparkling finish.
The question mark of the evening was definitely Stravinsky, whose name I never would have expected to appear on a program featuring Joshua Bell. And the fact of the matter is, the unusual experience was exciting and enjoyable, the idiosyncratic Divertimento turning out to be a surprisingly natural fit for a violinist who has become world famous for his dazzling performances of the big Romantic concertos. True, the composition is such a brilliant feast of quirky ideas that it would have been hard not to be drawn into it, especially when performed by the two consummate professionals we had onstage.

The promised additional works turned out to be a couple of encores, starting with Tchaikovsky's Mélodie from "Souvenir d'un lieu cher", which, beside the obvious nod to Stravinsky, finally brought Joshua Bell back into his natural element and gave him the perfect opportunity to fully display his much celebrated, unabashedly lyrical tone.
The second encore, Wieniawski's "Polonaise brillante", was a fun exercise, in which the violin got to shine in many ways, solidly accompanied by the faithful piano. And that was already it.

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Cantori New York - The End of Men - 11/10/13

Artistic Director & Conductor: Mark Shapiro
Claudin de Sermisy: Martin menoit son pourceau
Jacobus Clemens non Papa: Jacquin, Jacquet
Pierre Passereau: il est bel et bon
Lord Mornington: The Housemaids
Jonathan Pollack Breit: The End of Men
Jason Wirth: Piano
Tristan Marzeski: Drums
Dann Rose: Judd
Jonny Beauchamp: Ru
Atjana Andris: Clitilla
Paula Galloway: Myra
Quinn Warren: Lena

After a mini-tour in the South of France in September and a follow-up gig on the Upper East Side in October, Cantori New York finally started their 30th season in earnest last Sunday with the premiere of The End of Men, a brand new work written by their member composer Jonathan Pollack Breit. It had been described to me as a modern musical adaptation of Aristophanes' Thesmophoriazusae, which, beside distinguishing itself by being a true mouthful, may also not be at the top of most people's reading list when it comes to social satires. But then again, why stick to familiar territory when there is plenty of little-known fertile ground waiting to be explored out there?
Since the venue ended up being The Dixon Place, an underground black box on the Lower East Side, I found myself wrapping up my week the same way it had started, by trudging downtown for experimental music purposes. On Sunday, however, I managed to make the most of my trip by taking the time to walk around what is left of this once wild side in memory of recently departed Lou Reed.

The concert started with four frisky tunes, whose perky rhythms and general high-spiritedness left little to the imagination, even if the old language and multi-layered textures often made the text difficult to decipher. The three French madrigals and one English song were short and fun, just enough of an appetizer to get the packed house in the mood for the main course.
Unusual set-ups being common practice at Cantori's performances, I was not overly surprised at the sight of four empty chairs in front of the stage, which would be filled by actors, and a drum kit standing beside the more standard piano. The stage was divided in two according to gender with the women house left and the men house right, and maestro Shapiro smack in the middle trying to keep the two groups from killing each other. As the show went underway, we were duly warned that the performers reserved "the right to be absurd", but we were already hooked anyway and decided to stay put no matter what.
After a brisk exposition of the trouble brewing between the sexes, things really got going when the two male protagonists, Danny Rose as red-blooded Judd, whose wide-eyed affability called to mind the late James Gandolfini, and Jonny Beauchamp as drag queen Ru, who bore an eerie resemblance with a young and skinny Sarah Bernhard, quickly realized that their loosely plotted scheme to infiltrate the women's exclusive meeting was no match for Arjana Andris as the strong-headed leader Clitilla, and Paula Galloway as the young voice of reason Myra. Eventually, the arrival of Quinn Warren as the luminous goddess Lena reconciled everybody and led to a happy end that was both traditional, with two weddings, and unorthodox, since it is not every day that a woman marries a drag queen.
Transposing a 5th century play into the present time provided the advantage of introducing plenty of contemporary references to which the audience was able to relate (Who knew that after-school workshops did so much for women's lib?). On the other hand, practices like hair waxing, which goes back to the Egyptians but remains a reliable source of comic relief, and themes like stereotypical gender-based recriminations, this time-tested fodder for much of the world's entertainment industry, apparently never die. When they're so ingeniously refreshed, they can even be as relevant as ever. The once censored vulgarity was allegedly back and for the most part PG-13, with just enough Rabelaisian humor to keep things happily saucy without falling into tasteless raunchiness.
Each half of the choir brightly demonstrated that making war to infectious music can be an extremely enjoyable endeavor as the women kept on fighting for supremacy and the men struggling for survival. At the piano, Jason Wirth proved one more time that he is capable of expertly handling anything thrown at him. Percussionist Tristan Marzeski turned out to be a remarkably talented partner who kept the beat steady and the music hot. Together they seamlessly combined the attractive qualities of smooth modern jazz and uplifting Broadway musicals in one swell package. One particular highlight of the show was the riotous four-hand Battle Music, for which Jonathan Breit joined in at the piano, which brilliantly emphasized the rowdy confrontation that was culminating onstage.
After experiencing a cerebral Monday evening with Salonen and some musicians of the New York Philharmonic, it was really nice to enjoy a, err, less intellectually challenging Sunday afternoon with Breit and the singers of Cantori New York, but still solidly on the wild side.

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

CONTACT! at SubCulture - An Evening with Esa-Pekka Salonen - 11/04/13

Salonen: knock, breathe, shine for Solo Cello
Nathan Vickery: Cello
Salonen: Memoria for Wind Quintet
Yoobin Son: Flute/Alto flute
Keisuke Ikuma: Oboe/English horn
Dean Leblanc: Clarinet
Kim Laskowski: Bassoon
Arlen Fast: Contrabasson
Howard Wall: Horn
Salonen: YTA III for Solo Cello
Sumire Kudo: Cello
Salonen: Second Meeting for Oboe and Piano
Robert Botti: Oboe
Steven Beck: Piano
Salonen: Homunculus for String Quartet
Sharon Yamada: Violin
Hae-Young Ham: Violin
Dawn Hannay: Viola
Patrick Jee: Cello

The pleasure of having Esa-Pekka Salonen in town has been too rare for too long, so the opportunity to enjoy his prodigious talent not once but twice within a couple of days truly felt like an irresistible early Christmas present. That’s why after hearing him lead the New York Philharmonic and Leila Josefowitz into an impeccable concert featuring his violin concerto and Sibelius’ Symphony No 5 at the sedate Avery Fisher Hall on Saturday night, I was particularly excited at the prospect of discovering some of his lesser-known compositions last night at Subculture, a brand new but already buzz-generating live performance venue in NoHo, on the occasion of the first ever CONTACT! at SubCulture event co-presented by 92Y Concerts and the New York Philharmonic.
The staff was very friendly and the space wonderfully intimate. Moreover, the casual and artsy vibes of the attractive place made everybody in the packed audience - from the just curious to the die-hard connoisseurs - feel totally at ease. In short, one could not have expected a more auspicious environment for a close and personal encounter with Mr. Salonen The Cerebral Composer and The Genial Host.

The range of works on the program spanned a couple of decades and got a royal treatment from musicians straight from the New York Philharmonic and other distinguished guests, starting with the solo cello piece "knock, breathe, shine for Solo Cello", written for the ARD International Music Competition in 2003. The strong personality of each of the three movement came masterfully through in the hands of Nathan Vickery, whether it was the playful assertiveness of the opening pizzicatos, the thoughtful spirituality of the middle movement, dedicated to Salonen's late manager, or the final expansive showcase of the countless possibilities of the cello.
After this stunning cello-driven voyage, we moved on to his "Memoria for Wind Quintet", which finally came out after a 20-year gestation and many radical changes. For this project, the goal of the six (indeed!) musicians was to create a common surface so that they would eventually all become one hybrid instrument. This intricate tapestry of various winds sounded like an on-going conversation among friends, including the shared thoughts and the occasional tiny outburst. The stirring choral part, dedicated to Salonen's late friend Luciano Berio, ended the work on an ethereal note of limpid beauty.
Next, another mighty cellist from the New York Philharmonic, Sumire Kudo, got a solo turn, which she quickly turned into a dazzling tour de force. Inspired by Scriabin's "Vers la flamme", the early "YTA III" vividly tells the story of a moth that gets too close to the flame and unceremoniously fries. This split-second fatal moment has been extended to six minutes of virtuosic agony and features all the elements of a convoluted death. Kind of repulsive, yet totally fascinating.
The "Second meeting", from 1992, takes place between a oboe and a piano, which may not be readily associated in most people's minds, but Robert Botti and Steven Beck made it work seamlessly, the piano staying faithfully in the oboe's high range, even if it allowed itself a small detour once an a while.
The last offering was probably the most traditional one of the whole evening, which of course still did not mean that it was completely straightforward. Dutifully in line with the ancient spermists' theory of the "Little Man", the "Homunculus String Quartet" was an immediately engaging, vibrant little piece that stubbornly kept on trying to be a big piece, not even bothering to make a pause between the packed-to-the-brim movements. It eventually may not have had enough time to fulfill its wish, but it certainly had enough staying power to delight everybody in the audience and prove one more time, if need be, that size really does not matter.

Sunday, November 3, 2013

New York Philharmonic - Ravel, Salonen & Sibelius - 10/02/13

Conductor: Esa-Pekka Salonen
Ravel: Suite from Ma Mère l'Oye
Esa-Pekka Salonen: Violin Concerto - Leila Josefowicz
Sibelius: Symphony No 5 in E-flat Major, Op. 82

After spending 17 years making the LA Philharmonic not just relevant, but cool, and focusing on his own composing, it seems like acclaimed Finnish conductor Esa-Pekka Salonen will be on the road a little bit more frequently from now on, to the delight of countless music lovers. A guest appearance with the New York Philharmonic this week and next Tuesday to conduct his own violin concerto in the company of the fearless violinist for whom he wrote it, Leila Josefowicz, looked just like a case in point and was more than enough of a reason for me to walk back down to the Lincoln Center yesterday evening.
And that was not all. Sibelius' fifth symphony would be the other compelling work on the program, the timing of this being all the more appropriate as I was supposed to attend an all-Sibelius concert by The Minnesota Orchestra at Carnegie Hall yesterday evening, which was cancelled due to the orchestra's on-going work stoppage. Although the Avery Fisher Hall does not come even close to Carnegie Hall in terms of acoustical bliss, I was probably still in a better place there since I stood to mightily benefit from the Finnish connection between composer and conductor, as well as from the famed virtuosity of the New York Philharmonic.

The concert opened with the orchestral version of Ravel's Suite from Ma Mère l'Oye. Inspired by excerpts of French fairy tales, the five short pieces were subtle and sweet. A nice little trifle to whet our appetite a little more.
Salonen's violin concerto, on the other hand, was a substantial, unique and fascinating piece of work, which Leila Josefowicz attacked with unremitting fierceness and prodigious technique. Her signature predilection for contemporary composers and eagerness to boldly tread onto unchartered territory has made her the ideal interpreter of thorny, unusual, but ultimately rewarding musical adventures. As Salonen has been relentlessly exploring the limits of the violin's possibilities, occasionally slightly crossing over the borders, with this concerto, she has resolutely made the challenging journey her own. It is not a concerto for the traditionalist or the faint of heart, with its breakneck speed episodes, eerily soaring lines and brashly cacophonous moments, but it is not overly abstruse either. Not to mention that the incongruous appearance of some rock 'n' roll percussion certainly added a touch of relatable urban culture to the proceedings.
The performance was absolutely admirable and the ovation understandably huge, so huge in fact that she eventually granted us an encore, another violin piece "by Mr. E.P.S.", which was unsurprisingly another marvel of technical wizardry.
After the esoteric experiment, we moved on to more classical fare with Sibelius' majestic Symphony No 5. Setting a brisk but not hurried pace, Salonen led the more than willing orchestra into an expansive, but still tightly controlled, performance of this magnificent evocation of the rugged Finnish countryside, vividly emphasizing the organic beauty of the composition. I left the concert hall disappointed by the absence of an encore despite a long and loud ovation - Finlandia would have been such a perfect parting gift - but buoyant by the fact that I did get to hear some fabulous Sibelius last night after all.

Met - Two Boys - 11/02/13

Composer: Nico Muhly
Production: Bartlett Sher
Conductor: David Robertson
Anne Strawson: Alice Coote
Brian: Paul Appleby
Jake (Boy soprano): Andrew Pulver
Jake: Christopher Bolduc
Rebecca: Jennifer Zetlan
Fiona: Sandra Piques Eddy
Peter: Keith Miller

While The Met occupies a preeminent place in the opera world, it is not exactly known for ground-breaking productions. So needless to say that the New York premiere of Nico Muhly's Two Boys, the first work from the Met/Lincoln Center Theater New Works Program, had been eagerly expected, at least by the more adventurous-minded portion of The Met's audience. And let's face it, they may not be the richest or the most powerful, but they're hopefully here to stay.
Inspired by true events that roughly involved two English teenagers, Internet chat rooms, fictive identities, sexual tensions, virtual seduction and actual stabbing, the story certainly has plenty of attention-grabbing drama to pick and keep most people's interest. Moreover, if composer Nico Muhly turned out to be even just about half the endlessly inventive wonder boy he's been touted to be, I figured that the whole enterprise would be worth a trip down Broadway yesterday afternoon.

The actual crime dates back to 2003, which feels both like ancient history in IT years and a giant leap forward from the traditional 18th and 19th century fare that regularly headlines The Met's programming. The opera's gestation took several years until its London premiere in 2011, and then another couple of years were spent on extensive revisions before it finally made it to The Met a couple of weeks ago. Fact is, no matter what the end result would end up being, Two Boys was already a noteworthy musical event in itself.
The cast was mostly unknown, except maybe for British mezzo-soprano Alice Coote, whose sterling reputation quickly proved to be totally justified as her clear, robust and flexible voice gave life to the detective Anne Strawson. Her rather thankless role has apparently been fleshed out since the London run and I can't really decide if it was a good idea or not. Her scenes at home kind of felt out of place and soap-operaish, but still provided a couple of additional insights into her character, who could otherwise have easily passed for a one-dimensional spinster defined by her computer illiteracy and loneliness.
As the 16-year-old Brian, tenor Paul Appleby was a viscerally brooding and unusually gullible young man, whose solid and expressive singing successfully conveyed mounting yearnings and frustration. Boy soprano Andrew Pulver was an impressively believable Jake, the 13-year-old computer whiz who had created a chat room full of imaginary characters for his own disturbing purposes, and enchanted the audience with his innocent voice and unique presence.
The whole cast of fictitious individuals populating Jake's world was uniformly in top shape, from the provocative sister Rebecca, sung with titillating effectiveness by soprano Jennifer Zetlan, to the manipulative spy Fiona, whose cool poise mezzo-soprano Sandra Piques Eddy expertly depicted, to the evil gardener Peter, impersonated with alarming creepiness by bass-baritone Keith Miller, to the well-adjusted Jake, to whom baritone Christopher Bolduc gave handsomeness and self-confidence.
The boys' parents fared just as well, with extra points for Caitlin Lynch and her highly melodious singing as Jake's heart-broken and clueless mother. Cluelessness was also the main emotion ably expressed by Maria Zifchak and Kyle Pfortmiller as Brian's parents. Veteran Judith Forst had a short but outstanding role as Anne Strawson's old mother, and provided a welcome touch of comic relief.
Creating a high-tech environment onstage is by default a fairly new challenge, but this sleek production has pretty much succeeded. The various sets, which efficiently moved from one to another, were brilliantly evocative of the seemingly possibilities lurking in cyberspace, including countless fake, meaningless, misleading, sometimes dangerous, always unaccountable, virtual connections. The smart use of videos added a physicality to this brand new high-tech world with a fleeting gay sex scene, online conversations in real time, and increasingly insistent messages asking if somebody - anybody - was there, all in the name of an escape from a reality seemingly filled with loneliness and disappointment.
The production was not an undisputed winner though, mostly due to some unnecessary and distracting  dance numbers. I would assume that they were introduced to physically convey the chat rooms' frantic virtual activity as opposed to the motionless computer users, but the music was doing the job just fine, offering a stark contrast between the still bodies and the pulsating sounds.
The other lesser issue is that the story did not always unfold as smoothly as hoped for, mostly due to the naturally convoluted nature of the plot and the use of flashbacks, but the libretto was generally strong and the few slight bumps on the road did not manage to significantly spoil the enjoyment. Come to think of it, it is also possible to see the uneven narrative pace as  - incidentally or not - indicative of the short attention spans often associated with heavy Internet users.
The music, on the other hand, was an appealing combination of various influences, among whom Benjamin Britten and Philip Glass were clearly, but not overwhelmingly, distinguishable. While the overall tone was resolutely minimalist, the singers still had opportunities to do their operatic thing to satisfying effect. But the brightest star of the show was hands-down the chorus, which turned all the arresting choral parts into memorable moments. From the first foray into the Internet world, to the church episode, to the final haunting scene, the singing was all hypnotic sounds and shimmering charisma. Attentive conductor David Robertson made a point of keeping the complex score vibrant and colorful, making it boldly experimental and effortlessly accessible.

As far as I could tell, the opera house was almost full for this Saturday matinee and, even more importantly, pretty much everybody came back to their seats after intermission and heartily applauded at the end. I am not sure if this means that Two Boys has a secure future ahead of it, but for all I could see and hear around me, it definitely sounded promising.