Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Clarion Choir - Rachmaninoff - 12/31/13

Artistic Director & Conductor: Steven Fox
Rachmaninoff: All-Night Vigil

I did mean it when I declared that my holiday music duty had been completely and happily fulfilled a couple of weeks ago, but that was without counting Rachmaninoff's All-Night Vigil, widely considered one of the finest achievements in Russian Orthodox music, unexpectedly sneaking up on me at the last minute. I had never heard of the Clarion Choir, but I was very well aware of the pristine reputation of The Trinity Church's music programs, so the timing sounded just right to head all the way downtown earlier today and wrap up 2013 with a Russian touch.
This explains why this afternoon I took a fiercely refreshing walk down Broadway from Madison Square Park to Wall Street - The bitterly cold wind and countless whirling flurries adding to the Russian background - where I met my friend Ruth at the entrance of the landmark Episcopal church, all bundled up and hanging out with an already impressive number of eager music lovers.

The Clarion Choir is by no means a large choir (I counted 27 singers) but from the very first notes of "Come, let us worship", the singers organically formed one distinctly assertive ensemble that was clearly relishing taking over the magnificent space with such an inspiring composition. Their remarkable osmosis did not mean that individual voices did not get to shine though, and all the soloists made a well-taken point of standing out in a unfussy but unmistakable way. Young and dynamic conductor Steven Fox masterfully brought out the rich lyricism of the work and created beautifully complex tapestries of sounds.
I have always found the Russian language's intrinsic fullness of sound and depth of tone particularly well-suited for singing, and today I felt totally vindicated again. Even if the words' meanings were not semantically understood, the emotional force of the various movements effortlessly came through thanks to the choir's highly expressive singing. The "Alleluias" eloquently resonated, the "Phos Hilaron" oozed stark solemnity and the "Ave Maria" opened with elating grace, among many other memorable moments.
"Nunc Dimittis" was allegedly Rachmaninoff's favorite movement - He even requested it to be performed at his funeral - and it is easy to figure out why. Combining a mood of exquisite serenity, a gently uplifting tenor and what has to be the most incredible bass progression in all choral history, it is both understated and forever haunting. This evening's gripping performance of it confirmed, if need be, its flawless beauty and dramatic power.
The concert, and my musical year, finished with the grand finale that is "To thee, the victorious leader", a rousing Greek chant celebrating the Virgin in all her glory. In the packed church, it literally exploded with life, joy and colors galore. Could those last exhilarating notes be a good omen for 2014? One can only hope so. Happy New Year!

Sunday, December 29, 2013

New York String Orchestra - Elgar, Prokofiev & Tchaikovsky - 12/28/13

Conductor: Jaime Laredo
Elgar: Introduction and Allegro, Op. 47 - Johannes String Quartet
Prokofiev: Piano Concerto No. 4 in B-Flat Major, Op. 53 - Leon Fleisher
Tchaikovsky: Symphony No. 6 in B Minor, Op. 74 (Pathétique)

After the fun little concert in an uptown crypt of Friday night, I was back in Carnegie Hall's much more conventional Stern Auditorium last night for the second holiday concert by the New York String Orchestra, the outstanding ensemble of young music students carefully selected across the US and Canada.
Yesterday's program had many attractive features, but the two that had decisively tipped the scale for me were the presence of legendary pianist Leon Fleisher, regardless of the work that he would be playing, as well as Tchaikovsky's epic Pathétique symphony, one of my first forays into classical music and still one of my favorite symphonies.

Although seeing the name of Edward Elgar typically guarantees lush Romantic sounds, his "Introduction and Allegro", composed for the newly formed London Symphony Orchestra at the time, appeared more restrained and complex than his usual style, which nevertheless does not mean that it was lacking in beauty or passion. Performed by the unusual combination of quartet and orchestra, it was an immensely enjoyable string feast.
Commissioned by and written for Austrian pianist Paul Wittgenstein, who had lost his right arm during World War I, Prokofiev's Piano Concerto No. 4 was actually never performed by him and eventually disappeared until after the composer's death. Last night the concerto was superbly performed by Leon Fleisher who, as an 85-year-young artist, demonstrated the same amount of heart and enthusiasm as the much younger members of the orchestra. Although he himself had lost the use of his right hand for many years, Fleisher never gave up on music, and yesterday his artless virtuosity was on full display as he was effortlessly bringing to life the work's pretty melodies and intricate passages.
Listening to the vibrant and dynamic performance of the Pathétique by the orchestra, which was for the occasion enhanced by a few alumni to celebrate Jaime Laredo's 20-year tenure, I could not help but think that the relentless roller-coaster that is Tchaikovsky's swansong may resonate even more powerfully with young musicians since it overflows with the type of intense Romantic emotions that are so strongly felt by sensitive youth. Whether my theory is right or not, the soaring melodies grandly swelled, the sudden outbursts mightily exploded, the undanceable waltz serenely limped, and the packed audience stayed at the edge of their seats the whole time. The spontaneous ovation at the end of the rousing military march was lasting so long that Jaime Laredo felt compelled to have the orchestra stand up and bow before sitting back down to take care of the last movement, the heart-wrenching Adagio lamentoso. A glorious official finish to a smashing home run.

JP Jofre & Wendy Law with guest artist Ariadna Castellanos - Jofre & Piazzola - 12/27/13

Jofre: Preludio
Jofre: Como el Agua
Jofre: Sweet Dreams
Jofre: Tangodromo
Jofre: Mirella
Piazzola: Libertango
Jofre: Rondo Malicioso - Ariadna Castellanos: piano
Jofre: After the Rain - Ariadna Castellanos: piano
Jofre: Tango Movements - Ariadna Castellanos: piano
Jofre: Bandoneon Cadenza (from Bandoneon Concerto) - Ariadna Castellanos: piano
Jofre: Universe - Ariadna Castellanos: piano

When genuinely puzzled people ask me what on earth possessed me to leave France for the US over two decades ago, I invariably reply in earnest that I was for the most part fleeing cigarette smoke and accordion music. So when on Friday afternoon my friend Amy mentioned out of the blue an informal "tango-classical-world music" concert featuring a cello, a piano and a bandoneón (The accordion's remote Argentinean cousin) in a church way uptown that same evening, I have to admit to a half-second of reluctance, but then I let my spirit of adventure take over and agreed that it would be an unusual - and interesting - way to get the weekend going.
That's how we found ourselves in the foreign territory that is for us Washington Heights, at which point she revealed to me that the concert would take place not in the nave of the Church of the Intercession, but in its crypt, which certainly added a not unwelcome touch of spookiness to our already out-of-the-box excursion. After finding the entrance to the massive church, walking around a lovely cloister and negotiating a maze of corridors and staircases, we did find the cozy little crypt, complete with vaulted ceilings, stained glass windows and urns in the wall, all ready for some live music.

If I had had any doubts about the cello and bandoneón pairing, they would have been quickly and forever dissipated as the short, well-rounded musical pieces were swiftly succeeding one another. Whether it was the engaging intricacies of "Preludio", the flowing dreaminess of "Como el Agua", the delicate harmonies of "Sweet Dreams" or the fierce hot-bloodedness of "Tangodromo", the cello's long chocolaty lines beautifully intertwined with the bandoneón's more upbeat sounds for a bold, fresh and totally winning combination.
Although the vast majority of the concert's works had been composed by JP Jofre, this series of duos ended with Piazzola's famous "Libertango", whose sensual and infectious rhythms soon resonated in all their glory thanks to Wendy Law's and JP Jofre's accomplished handling of the popular tune.
The excitement went up another notch when flamenco pianist Ariadna Castellanos, temporarily stepping out of her area of expertise, joined the cello and bandoneón for a few decidedly high-flying numbers. One of the highlights of the evening was hands-down "After the Rain", a masterly composition that confidently opened with the bandoneón at its most melancholic before the addition of the languorous cello and the wandering piano eventually led to a stunningly lyrical crescendo.
But I guess you cannot keep an Argentinean away from tango for too long, and the restless rhythms inherent to the world's sexiest dance irreverently filled up our small venue one more time with some vigorous "Tango Movements". When all was said and done, "Universe" ended our intimate musical feast with virtuosic sparks popping up all over the place. Who would have thought that spending a Friday evening in a crypt would have been that much fun?

Thursday, December 26, 2013

New York String Orchestra - Mozart & Mendelssohn - 12/24/13

Conductor: Jaime Laredo
Mozart: Overture to The Marriage of Figaro
Mozart: Symphony No .31 in D Major, K. 297, "Paris"
Mendelssohn: Violin Concerto in E Minor, Op. 64 - Bella Hristova

One of New York City's most enduring, beloved and - amazingly enough at this time of the year - secular holiday tradition has been the couple of concerts performed by the New York String Orchestra at Carnegie Hall every December. Made of specially gifted music students hand-picked across the United States and Canada alongside more illustrious alumni, the New York String Orchestra was therefore back on Tuesday evening and presenting an early, no-fuss, one-hour program of solid crowd pleasers by Mozart and Mendelssohn. And that was totally fine because, really, who wants obtuse, challenging works on Christmas' Eve, when everybody, including the friends, family, tourists and music lovers filling up the hall, was already in a celebratory mood?

Mozart's overture to The Marriage of Figaro needs no introduction, and proved right away that the budding artists on the stage were quite a talented bunch indeed. Under the upbeat baton of Jaime Laredo, the program's director and conductor for the past 20 years, the orchestra happily infused the sparkling work with youthful energy and artless virtuosity.
Opening on the kind of assertive note that was so popular with the French orchestras at the time, Mozart's Paris symphony is a relatively short composition that bristles with pretty melodies and understated complexity. Written when the composer was a mere 21-year old, this 31st symphony of his received a respectful and dynamic treatment from the equally young musicians, with just the right amount of classy elegance. Even if it understandably did not have the impeccable osmosis of the most prestigious professional orchestras at their finest hour, this ensemble more than made up for it with its boundless enthusiasm.
Mendelssohn, who was just as much of a child prodigy and versatile artist as Mozart, is the author of many memorable works, among which indisputably stands out his hugely popular violin concerto. A highly successful alumni of the 2004 and 2006 New York String Orchestra seminars, Bulgaria-born violinist Bella Hristova was evidently non-plussed by the formidable task at hand and kept her playing light and graceful. The unabashedly lyrical opening, probably one of the most instantly recognizable in the entire violin concerto repertoire, rose beautifully, and the rest went on just as effortlessly, all the way to the grand finale, which concluded the concert with brio and panache.

Sunday, December 22, 2013

Met - Falstaff - 12/21/13

Composer: Giuseppe Verdi
Conductor: James Levine
Producer/Director: Robert Carsen
Sir John Falstaff: Nicola Alaimo
Alice Ford: Angela Meade
Mistress Quickly: Stephanie Blythe
Meg Page: Jennifer Johnson Cano
Ford: Franco Vassalo
Nannetta: Lisette Oropesa
Fenton: Paolo Fanale
Bardolfo: Keith Jameson
Pistola: Christian van Horn

Although I am a huge Verdi fan, I was not particularly overjoyed to see that Falstaff would be part of the current Met season, mostly because I did not have any really fond memories of a production by the Marinsky Theater I attended in Washington, DC several years ago. On the other hand, the Italian master's swan song, composed when he was well into his seventies, has an excellent reputation and is appropriately light fare for the holiday season. Inspired mostly by Shakespeare's The Merry Wives of Windsor, as well as Henry IV, Verdi's opera Falstaff has no problem standing on its own right as a rather sophisticated comedy about a not very sophisticated bon vivant, brightened up by a relentlessly inventive score.
Moreover, the cast of this production had quite a few enticing names, starting with the formidable Stephanie Blythe, and our beloved James Levine would be back on the podium. So when my friend Dawn came up with an offer that I could not refuse, namely pretty good orchestra seats, which got even better after we had moved a couple more down towards the center, we figured that we had every reason to give the bigger than life character a brand new shot yesterday afternoon.

As soon as a beaming James Levine took the podium and received a thunderous rock-star-worthy ovation, we knew that we were in the perfect hands. His visceral connection to the outstanding Met orchestra and his deep knowledge of the score could not but promise a unique musical experience, if nothing else. As it turned out, everything else fell miraculously into place as well.
Although our performance did not feature the much lauded official lead of this production, Ambrogio Maestri, other Italian tenor Nicola Alaimo did a fabulous job with the role. He effortlessly conveyed the obvious voraciousness as well as the not so obvious refinement of the seemingly big fat slob while singing with powerful conviction and graceful stylishness. His Falstaff was often shameless when it came to money, food and women, but he also had surprisingly philosophical and truly endearing moments too. Maybe it was simply the genuine Italian warmth he brought to the part, but he was a constant joy to watch and listen to.
Nicola Alaimo may have been a mesmerizing Falstaff, but he had fierce competition every time the merry wives showed up. As the big man's main object of desire, soprano Angela Meade was a smart and attractive Alice Ford, terrifically served by her lush and agile voice.
Falstaff's other object of desire and Alice's partner in teaching him a lesson, mezzo-soprano Jennifer Johnson Cano sang with plenty of assertiveness and ease the role of Meg Page.
The mezzo-soprano everybody loves to love, Stephanie Blythe, was in her finest form as Mistress Quickly, generously displaying her well-known extraordinary voice and a talent for comedy that may be not as well-known but is just as remarkable. Her pretend plotting with Flastaff in the Scene 2 of Act I, in particular, was a marvel of flawless dual signing and impeccable comic timing.
Soprano Lisette Oropesa was a lovely Nannetta, and made an adorable couple with tenor Paolo Fanale. Together they repeatedly injected a breath of fresh air every time they were onstage, always high and above the complicated shenanigans brought on by the other characters.
Baritone Franco Vassalo was clearly having a lot of fun as jealous Ford, who first appeared as a sleazy Texan oilman, complete with gold lamé suit, cobalt blue shirt, shades and hat. He received the full seal of approval from my Texas born-and-bred seatmate, and I really have nothing to add to that.
An unexpected guest star enlivened the beginning of the Scene 1 of Act II as a horse placidly poked its head through an opening in the wall and quickly got busy munching on some food, completely uninterested in Falstaff lamenting his sorry fate nearby.
The cast for sure benefited from a wonderfully imaginative production, starting with the ingenious idea of placing the story in 1950s England. Beside a few unavoidable oddities, such as mentions of "knights" and 'swordsmen", the whole concept worked extremely well and allowed from some really striking décors, such as a gasp-inducing bright yellow kitchen. The place would actually be subjected to frantic action during the Scene 2 of Act II, including clothing flying out of the laundry basket and dishes flying out of cabinets. The various sets were all consistently eye-catching and had the commendable ability to turn from a fancy dining room into a mysterious starry night without an itch.
The action could sometimes feel slightly overwhelming with a lot happening in various corners of the stage, but some clever directing, such as the whole scene in the restaurant freezing, except for the couple of young lovers completely engrossed in each other, made the plot easier to follow by focusing the attention while creating some startling tableaux. The briskness of the pace was well-sustained and had the distinct advantage of keeping things light and lively, in true comedic fashion.
The Met does not usually hold back with it comes to costumes, and sure enough, the outfits for men and women were luxurious, colorful, with the occasional funky little touch such as Mistress Quickly's boldly purple matching hat and gloves. But the most vivid display of fashion wear took place at the very end, when the chorus concluded the performance in a large assortment of incredible black and red gowns and suits.
Although it was surprisingly not sprinkled with memorable arias, Verdi's score contained many brilliant pieces bristling with musical ideas, always right in tune with the action going on, whether it was the frenzy of the kitchen being turned upside down, the lecturing tone of the soliloquy about honor, or the sweet serenade ignited by young romantic love. The ensembles were tightly constructed and richly lyrical, and the Met's mighty chorus got its moment in the spotlight during the last scene, which it handled with its usual poise. In the midst of it all, maestro Levine made the music swoon and sparkle in all its glory. He definitely seemed happy to be there, and so were we.

Monday, December 16, 2013

New Amsterdam Singers - A Ceremony of Britten: Carols, Hymns, and Lullabies - 12/15/13

Music Director & Conductor: Clara Longstretch
Britten: A. M. D. G. (Ad majorem Dei gloriam)
Britten: A Shepherd's Carol
Britten: A Wealdon Trio (The Song of the Women)
Britten: A Ceremony of Carols, Op. 28 - Frances Duffy (Harp)
Milhaud: Psaume 121
Biebl: Ave Maria - Richard Bonsall, Nathaniel Granor, Nate Mickelson (Soloists), Robert Thorpe, Scott Wilson, Mike Landy (Trio)
Appalachian Carol: I Wonder as I Wander (Arr. John Jacob Niles) - Andy James (Tenor)
Britten: A Hymn to the Virgin
Susa: Carols and Lullabies: Christmas in the Southwest - Frances Duffy (Harp), Stephen Benson (Guitar), William Trigg (Marimba and Vibraphone)

Although "A Cantori Holiday" is typically my only concession to holiday concerts, I just could not let this season go by without attending one performance of Benjamin Britten's Ceremony of Carols, especially since it is understandably being played all over the city these days, so that I could conclude the British composer's centennial year in the most appropriate way possible. In the end I decided on the New Amsterdam Singers on the Upper East Side late afternoon yesterday for the relatively convenient time and location, of course, and most of all, for the solid reputation of the well-established choir and the fact that the Ceremony of Carols would be paired with its official companion piece, Conrad Susa's Carols and Lullabies: Christmas in the Southwest.
After walking across a Central Park that was more of a soupy mess than the winter wonderland I had hoped for, I met up with my friend Linden at the beautiful Immanuel Lutheran Church, whose most striking features were dark wood structures and ornaments, brightly colored stained-glass windows and a large Christmas tree classily adorned with white lights. The space eventually filled up literally up to the ceiling, and we were off to our second holiday concert of the weekend.

The first three pieces were songs inspired by religious as well as secular texts, and written for mixed chorus and for women alone, that Britten composed between the age of 16 and 31. The chorus on the stage may have been reduced, but it was nevertheless perfectly capable of conveying the various moods of the small-scale works in all their many subtleties.
Put together for Christmas 1942 when Britten was at sea between the US and England, A Ceremony of Carols was originally meant for a treble chorus, soloists and a harp. Yesterday evening, however, circumstances oblige, the ladies of the New Amsterdam Singers filled in for the boy sopranos. The twelve movements of the full cycle are loosely unified and roughly range from sweet and ethereal when it comes to Mary and her newborn child, to the fierce intensity of Satan's appearance, to the joy brought by spring and gratitude towards God. The intrinsic simplicity of the English poems provided an excellent basis to Britten's challenging composition, and the singers delivered a remarkably clear and lyrical performance of it. Even if by default it did not have the unique purity of trebles' voices, the complex tapestry of sounds we heard yesterday - and that would include the virtuosic harp - was superbly expressive, with "The Little Babe" unmistakably standing out as the gasp-inducing tour de force.
After intermission, it was the gentlemen's turn to come out in full force for three male-only works. After Milhaud's "Psaume 121", a rather upbeat psalm, I was delighted to get a chance to hear Biebl's "Ave Maria" for the second time in two days. The New Amsterdam Singers is a much larger choir than Cantori New York, but their setting was plainly conventional, so while their sound was fuller, its distribution was also more ordinary. Regardless of those respective differences, yesterday this stunning hymn came out once again as the timeless masterpiece it is. The last piece was the Appalachian carol "I Wonder as I Wander", which gave tenor Andy James the perfect opportunity to display his considerable vocal skills.
After the ladies had joined the gentlemen to finally form the whole chorus for the first time that evening, we went back to Britten with "A Hymn to the Virgin", which divided the singers into the full chorus singing in English and a smaller chorus singing in Latin. Written when he was only 17 and eventually sung at his funeral, this well-balanced work was all freshness and unfussiness, even when brought to life by the impressive wall of sound created by so many voices.
The companion piece to Britten's fundamentally serious-minded Ceremony of Carols are Susa's generally light-hearted Carols and Lullabies, which also add the more populist guitar, marimba and vibraphone to the high-brow harp. Those ten songs, which are to be performed in Catalan and North American Spanish, are mostly Nativity scenes and lullabies. Some are serene, others are full of energy, but they all sounded unabashedly bright and colorful after all the unabated churchiness that had preceded them.
When all had been sung and done, we still got a fun little encore, and then we were off into the cold dark night, our holiday music duties duly completed for another 51 weeks.

Sunday, December 15, 2013

Cantori New York - A Cantori Holiday - 12/14/13

Artistic Director & Conductor: Mark Shapiro
French Franciscan Processional: Veni, veni, Emmanuel (Arr. David Willcocks)
Basque Carol: Gabriel's Message (Arr. David Willcocks)
Hugh Martin & Ralph Blane: Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas (Arr. Ken Neufeld)
Dutch Carol: King Jesus Hath a Garden (Arr. Charles Wood)
J.H. Hopkins: We Three Kings (Arr. David Willcocks) - Joey Mele, Joel Klein, Julien Touafek (Singers)
French Carol: Shepherds in the Field Abiding (Arr. David Willcocks)
German Carol: Lo, How a Rose e'er Blooming (Arr. M. Praetorius)
Kim Gannon & Walter Kent: I'll be Home for Christmas (Arr. Mac Huff)
Alice Dryden: Banu Choshech Legaresh - Jason Wirth (Conductor), Danny Campbell (Tambourine)
French Carol: Sing We Now of Christmas (Arr. Fred Prentice)
Jonathan Breit: Ocho Kandelikas - Jason Wirth (Piano)
Elizabeth Poston: Jesus Christ the Apple Tree - Alice Joscelyn (Soprano)
J. Pierpont: Jingle Bells
Malcolm Williamson: This Christmas Night - Jason Wirth (Conductor)
Welsh Carol: Deck the Halls (Arr. David Willcocks)
Morten Lauridsen: O Magnum Mysterium - Emily Klonowski (Conductor)
Rex Isenberg: Ravta et Rivam Isaac
Albeniz: Malagueña - Jason Wirth (Solo piano)
Franz Biebl: Ave Maria - Jonathan Breit, Nathan Benavides (Soloists), Steve Underhill, Erol Gurol, Steve Albert (Trio)
West Country Carol: We Wish You a Merry Christmas (Arr. Arthur Warrell)
Franz Gruber: Silent Night (Sing along)

As we are rapidly reaching the middle of December, the holiday season has been shifting into full gear with its never-ending parade of shopping, eating, drinking and Christmas caroling. While I happily mingle with old and new friends over food and drinks, I deliberately stay away from crowded stores and holiday concerts, but I also make one exception in the spirit of the season and, maybe first of foremost, for the proven fun of it.
Fact is, if I must hear some jingle f*** bells yet one more time, they might as well be performed by Cantori New York since I am practically assured that those will not be just ordinary bells. Not to mention that there will be plenty of other predictable and unpredictable delectable goodies too. So never mind the myriad of other tempting concerts happening around town and the snow mercilessly falling since morning, late afternoon yesterday an unusually large contingent from work eagerly converged to the Church of St. Luke in the Fields in the Village for the ever-popular annual Cantori Holiday concert.

Although experience had taught me that in all likelihood the concert would be an eclectic mix of recurring and new pieces, including unavoidable Christmas carols, old Europeans tunes and the occasional Hanukkah song, it started with the rather conventional ancient hymn "Veni, veni, Emmanuel". I happen to be more familiar with instrumental versions of it, but I found that the chorus' expert multi-layered singing added a powerful and poignant human dimension to the beautifully elegiac work.
Although we were all gathered in an Episcopal church and the main theme was by default Christmas, this year again one of the undisputed highlights of the whole evening was what has to be the sexiest Hanukkah song ever, Jonathan Breit's "Ocho Kandelikas", which, benefitting from Jason Wirth's virtuosic contribution at the piano, enthralled the audience with its irresistible upbeat vibes and sensual tango-infused rhythms.
The two other Hanukkah pieces, "Banu Choshech" and "Ravta et Rivam", did not even come close to being as blazingly hot, but they nevertheless stood out on their own, more subdued, merit and provided a refreshing break from the Christmassy overload.   
Another work I was very much looking forward to hearing again was Biebl's male-only "Ave Maria", during which chorus and soloists sang from the stage and the trio from the back while Mark Shapiro conducted half-way in between. And sure enough, the gentlemen of Cantori were once again utterly successful in bringing out the organic beauty of the richly textured composition.
The mini-European tour was as fully enjoyable as I remembered it with readily engaging tunes from the Basque country with "Gabriel's Message", Holland with "King Jesus Hath a Garden", Germany with "Lo, How a Rose", England with "Jesus Christ the Apple Tree", featuring a lovely solo by Amy Joscelyn, and France with "Sing We Now of Christmas", and the one that never fails to bring back some seriously old memories, "Shepherds in the Field Abiding".
For one reason or another, Wales and the West Country of England produced two of the most annoyingly perky carols ever, namely "Deck the Halls" and "We Wish You a Merry Christmas", but I knew that I could trust Cantori to make them at least bearable, which they obligingly did without batting as much as an eyelid.
"Jingle Bells", which may very well have the dubious honor of being the most ubiquitous and exasperating Christmas songs of all times, was vastly improved thanks to a much needed sobering up treatment as well as Jason Wirth and Erol Gurol's high-flying piano four-hands turn.
Wirth later came back on his own for an instrumental interlude with "Malagueña" by Isaac Albeniz. This unexpected detour in Spain significantly boosted the festive mood with seductive melodies and spirited rhythms, cheerfully pointing out that this was all about a celebration after all.
The American classics "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas", "I'll be home for Christmas" and "This Christmas Night", which were sprinkled throughout the concert, came and went rather inconspicuously, which was really as good as it could have gotten.
While there is no doubt that shaking up entrenched traditions can be a laudable endeavor, some of them are simply too good not to keep, so choir and audience eventually concluded the concert together by joining forces for the time-honored "Silent Night" sing along under the imperturbable baton of Mark Shapiro. The result was unsurprisingly uneven, but we did not let the difference in singing competence stop us from bonding some more during the hopping reception afterwards. Happy Holidays!

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Music Mondays - Nico Muhly: Beaming Music - 12/09/13

Nico Muhly: Big Time - Lark Quartet - Yousif Sheronick: Percussion
Nico Muhly: Common Ground - Claremont Trio
Nico Muhly: How about now - NOW Ensemble
Nico Muhly: Far Away Songs - Lark Quartet - Aaron Wunsch: Piano - Jennifer Zetlan: Soprano
Nico Muhly: Motion - Lark Quartet - Aaron Wunsch: Piano - Todd Palmer: Clarinet

If anyone still had any lingering doubts about the ever-growing popularity of the American composer Nico Muhly, who has recently made the headlines with his first full-fledged opera Two Boys at the Met, they would have immediately come to realize that he has indeed become one of the hottest names on the current music scene after catching a glimpse of the line sneaking around the Upper West Side’s Advent Lutheran Church over one hour before the performance's starting time last night.
Presented by the ever-dynamic and laudably altruistic Music Mondays organization, the "Nico Muhly: Beaming Music" concert was to focus on a few random works from the young man's already dazzlingly prolific and eclectic œuvre with introductions by the artist himself in the intimate setting of the pretty church. In short, this would be the perfect little pick-me-up after a rather gloomy winter Monday.

We started the evening on a fun note with “Big Time”, whose unexpected changes in gear, from the driven opening to the soft finale, were a large part of the entertainment value. The Lark Quartet sounded like they were having a good big time, and the audience did as well. So far so good.
Put together right after he graduated, “Common Ground” was Muhly's first foray into professional chamber music writing. While it did feel a bit unsettled at times, this engaging endeavor never lacked in endearing energy, boasted of an unabashedly lyrical passage, and concluded on a high-spirited punch. Listening to the Claremont Trio’s appealing sounds, it was easy to pinpoint hints that bigger things were obviously in store for the tirelessly inventive budding composer.
The title “How about Now” made me fear a dour existential journey, but I was quickly proven wrong. The NOW ensemble was a not so common combination of double bass, piano, flute, clarinet and electric guitar, and their take on the piece that was written for them was refreshingly organic and deeply knowledgeable. All sounds fit in seamless into a harmonious whole, discreetly enhanced by neat jazzy overtones.
The one vocal interlude of the evening was a set of "Far Away Songs", which were inspired by three poems by the Greek poet Constantine Cavafy revolving around the theme of death and the impressive singing skills of Jennifer Zetlan, who was even at hand to sing it. Solidly back by the Lark Quartet and Aaron Wunsch at the piano, the fast-rising soprano's voice displayed steely strength, remarkable flexibility and sharp pointedness. This may have been just the darker moment of the evening, but it turned out to be first and foremost one of reflection and beauty.
The most religious work of the evening, “Motion” ended the concert with some palpable anxiety that eventually grew pretty intense before the liberating release. The capacity crowd was then released as well, back in the cold night but with some cool music in their ears.

Sunday, December 8, 2013

Central City Chorus - Matthews & Britten - 12/08/13

Music Director & Conductor: Phillip Cheah
David Matthews: Psalm 23: The Lord is my shepherd, Op. 90a
Britten: The Company of Heaven
The Adelphi Chamber Orchestra
Jennifer van Dyck: Speaker
Wanda Yang Temko: Soprano
Daniel Neer: Tenor
David Shuler: Organist

After receiving an out of the blue postcard informing me that the Central City Chorus would be performing a piece by Benjamin Britten at the St. Ignatius of Antioch Church, which happens to be located a few blocks from my apartment, I quickly got a ticket. The British composer had come to my fascinated attention when I first attended a gripping performance of Peter Grimes by the Washington National Opera a few years ago, and the New York City Opera's brilliant Turn of the Screw earlier this year has put him on my permanent radar for good. Just as the Britten Fest celebrating his centennial is slowly coming to an end, this was probably my last chance for a while to become acquainted with a little-known work of his so conveniently, so I happily grabbed it.

The St. Ignatius of Antioch Episcopal Church is an all-around attractive space of a reasonable size, with detailed stained-glass windows and other discrete artworks. That's in this welcoming environment that David Matthew's Psalm 23 kicked off the concert on a lovely note.
Britten's The company of Heaven turned out to be a 50-minute composition, which would have been more than enough of a feast if at least half of it hadn't been spoken Biblical excerpts or poems about angels and other religious figures. No matter how convincingly Jennifer van Dyck declaimed them, and there was plenty of conviction on her part, I found myself desperately checking the program more than once in order to figure out how long I would have to wait until the next musical interlude.
I have to admit, though, that my patience was vastly rewarded pretty much each and every time. From the turbulently engaging instrumental opening to the powerfully rousing chorale finale, the musical vignettes strongly benefited from the composer's idiosyncratic inventiveness, the chorus' beautifully textured singing, the soloists' bright voices, the organist's dynamic interjections as well as the orchestra's glowing strings and assertive timpani. The undisputed highlight of the performance had to be "War in Heaven", during which the brashly menacing drums, organ and male voices conjured up dramatic images of darkness and chaos before eventually disappearing as the soothing strings brought in peace and harmony, which in turn created a seamless bridge to the opening number of Part 3, the luminous "Heaven is Here". Other memorable passages included the happy-go-lucky spirit of Emily Brontë's poem "A thousand, thousand gleaming fires" and the short Mahlerian orchestral "Funeral March for a Boy".

So we ended up with roughly 25 minutes of musical enjoyment in a one-hour concert, which, granted, is better than no musical enjoyment at all in a longer concert, but nevertheless made me feel kind of short-changed as I was leaving the church just in time to catch the first winter flurries. On the other hand, I got home early enough to avoid the worst of the modest snow storm that was starting, so I guess that there were a couple of silver linings in the whole situation after all.

The Philadelphia Orchestra - Brahms & Berlioz - 12/06/13

Conductor: Michael Tilson Thomas
Brahms: Piano Concerto No 1 in D Minor, Op. 15 - Hélène Grimaud
Berlioz: Symphonie fantastique, Op. 14

Although the French are not particularly well-known for their tremendous musical heritage, once in a while a major work emerges that takes the whole world by storm and eventually becomes an ever-recurring staple in concert halls. Berlioz's Symphonie fantastique having indisputably reached that rare status, my friend Linden and I were originally very excited at the prospect of hearing it performed by The Philadelphia Orchestra under the baton of their young dynamo of a music director and conductor Yannick Nézet-Séguin on Friday night. Then earlier in the week we received the notice that maestro Nézet-Séguin would not be able to travel to New York City due to illness and would be replaced by not quite as young, but just as much of a dynamo, Michael Tilson Thomas.
We were also informed that Brahms' Piano Concerto No 2 had just been replaced by Brahms' Piano Concerto No 1, but thankfully France's first piano lady Hélène Grimaud would still be there to play it. So we decided to take all those changes in stride and happily headed off to Carnegie Hall on a miserable Friday evening, which instantly got better up as soon as we took our seats into the near-full Stern Auditorium.

Opening with some sweeping Sturm und Drang straight from the most majestic Romantic symphonies, Brahms' Piano Concerto No 1 turned out to be a sprawling, supremely life-affirming conversation between piano and orchestra, which would be continuously punctuated by urgent outbursts and dreamy interludes. A fierce performer underneath her classy looks, Hélène Grimaud was all virtuosic fire and exquisite daintiness, a combination that responded particularly well to the orchestra's polished sound and boundless enthusiasm.
Still in a Romantic, if by then wildly mischievous, mood, we moved on to Berlioz and his brilliantly ground-breaking Symphonie fantastique. Although I've had the privilege of hearing it regularly throughout the years, the endless inventiveness of the work never fails to make it a brand new experience each and every time. MTT may have been a late addition to the program, but he was nevertheless solidly in control of the complex composition and the huge orchestra, constantly stressing out the small details while never losing sight of the mighty big picture. This Symphonie fantastique was a vibrantly colorful depiction of the "Épisode in the life of an artist" and resoundingly reasserted its freshness and relevance. The weather was still miserable when we got out, but the weekend had definitely started off very well.