Sunday, May 26, 2013

The MET Orchestra - Wagner, Beethoven & Schubert - 05/19/13

Conductor: James Levine
Wagner: Prelude to Act I of Lohengrin
Beethoven: Piano Concerto No 4 in G Major, Op. 58 - Eugene Kissin
Schubert: Symphony No 9 in C Major, D. 944 (The Great)

Very few people have the power to ignite a thunderous standing ovation as soon as they show up, but then again, James Levine is not just any conductor. And if anybody still had doubts about this state of things, the rock-star-worthy welcome he received in the packed Stern Auditorium of Carnegie Hall last Sunday afternoon would have definitely proved them wrong. This was a big day for all of us. Not only was he back after a two-year absence, but he would be conducting his beloved MET Orchestra too. To make things even more exciting, Eugene Kissin, a classical music superstar in his own right, would be the soloist for one of Beethoven's most dazzling piano concertos.
Since I've learned the hard way that it is best to grab tickets for popular events as soon as they become available, my seat had been secured since last summer. My mum, however, announced her visit's dates last winter, and by then the concert had been long sold-out. The sight of numerous people desperately seeking tickets in front of the hall half an hour before the concert start confirmed that getting her in would be mission impossible, so she gave up and I eagerly walked my way upstairs.

First of all, it was wonderful being able to actually see an orchestra to which I owe so many memorable moments at the Met, the not-so-secret weapon without which the prestigious opera house would probably not be considered such a mighty musical force throughout the world. Obviously thrilled by the return of their leader of four decades and counting, they delivered an impeccably gorgeous Prelude of Act I of Lohengrin, one of those magical moments that felt like time had really been suspended and nothing else mattered but the delicately polished flow of music coming from the glowing strings. Getting around in a motorized wheelchair and conducting from a custom-designed enclosure, James Levine looked energized and happy to be there. Those 10 minutes of pure bliss proved that he still had plenty to contribute and was more than capable to get the job brilliantly done.
After such a glorious opening number, it was hard not to think that things would go down by pure default. But the fact was, the thrill did no fade away, and Beethoven's piano concerto No 4 got a resolutely poised treatment by young Russian virtuoso Eugene Kissin, who mustered just the right balance of exquisite refinement and hot-blooded expressiveness. Neither the flamboyant showman nor the rigid intellectual, he sounded perfectly in tune with the complex score while James Levine and his orchestra provided unwavering respectful support, and the result was a big success. The keenly observant babushka sitting to my right, opera glasses firmly in hand, was beaming so wide that I thought she was going to jump right onstage to get even closer to the golden boy.
To reward our long and loud ovation, Eugene Kissin treated us to one encore. As if to brazenly show off his impressive technical skills, he tossed upon us a brightly sparkling but still tightly controlled Rondo a capriccio in G Major to everyone's delight.
As much as I love some of Schubert's chamber music and solo piano works, I have never been a big fan of his symphonies. Not to mention that there are plenty of symphonies in the classical music canon that I would consider more worthy candidates of being called "The Great" than his Symphony No. 9. But other people have clearly thought otherwise, and I must confess that after The MET Orchestra's enthusiastic performance of it last Sunday, I have almost joined the converts. Led by a James Levine firmly in charge, the musicians' playing was fluid and flawless, the four movements flew by with heart-felt gusto, and the undeniable grandeur of the whole symphony was as awe-inspiring as it has probably ever been. Let there be no doubt about it: The maestro's back.

Monday, May 20, 2013

Cantori New York - Gesualdo & The Balliett Brothers - 05/18/13

Artistic Director & Conductor: Mark Shapiro
Gesualdo: Tribulationem et dolorem
Gesualdo: Ave dulcissima Maria - Jason Wirth
Gesualdo: O vos omnes
Brad and Doug Balliett: A Gnostic Passion
Ariadne Greif: Soprano
Catherine Gregory: Flute
Brad Balliett: Bassoon
Ashley Jackson: Harp
Jason Wirth: Piano
Doug Balliett: Double Bass

After the grand-scale Baroque spectacle of Handel's Giulio Cesare and the more intimate classical eclecticism of the Tokyo String Quartet's ultimate New York performance last weekend, my mum and I were more than ready to tread fearlessly onto the unchartered territory that would be Cantori New York's world premiere of A Gnostic Passion. At least, as every adventurous and discriminating choral music lover in New York City knows, nobody would ever be able to accuse them of playing it safe by reheating an umpteenth Carmina Burana.
Written by twin brothers Brad and Doug Balliett, this collaborative composition started with a collection of controversial Biblical accounts of the Passion of Christ - taking place either in a cave or on the cross - that were suppressed until recently. Then they were all individually put to music. This brand new experience had been described to me as "Bach meets Jesus Christ Superstar" and "weird, but in the best possible way", all the more reasons to heed the call and head down to the Village's lovely Church of St. Luke in the Fields expecting the unexpected.

And sure enough, the unexpected manifested itself right away with an unannounced, small but guiltily satisfying amuse-bouche in the form of three sacred miniatures by Italian Renaissance composer, aristocrat and murderer Duke Carlo Gesualdo, who died exactly 400 years ago and whose name has consequently been appearing on quite a few programs this year. The concert therefore started on a highly dramatic and boldly harmonious note. Although homicide should of course not be recommended as a source of inspiration, it looks like Gesualdo's colorful life deeply influenced his remarkable art, and I could not help but feel grateful for it.
Then we moved on to the substantial main course after a short introduction by the composers themselves, who were doing double duty by playing the bassoon and the double bass. Inspired by random, often unorthodox, occasionally simultaneous, episodes from the Acts of John, brought to vibrant life by various combinations of human voices and instrumental sounds under the firm baton of Mark Shapiro, and vividly enhanced by the friendly acoustics of the church, A Gnostic Passion publicly took off for the very first time on Saturday night.
The chorus/Jesus made its grand entrance with a startling call to John, who just as powerfully responded through soprano Ariadne Greif, and pretty much set the tone for the next hour or so, which would include unheard-of religious scenes, underlying classical music influences and plenty of Broadway-style pizzazz (Not a word I'd typically associate with Cantori, but then again, they unfailingly expand my vocabulary every time I hear them.).
That was not all as between Part I and II sprung up the second unexpected treat du jour, a bona fede sonata da chiesa that not only integrated very well into the whole work, but was also a perfectly self-contained showpiece for the tight ensemble of talented musicians. The harp, in particular, which too often tends to be drowned by other louder instruments, was able to make itself beautifully heard and remind us all of its intrinsically dainty qualities.
Ariadne Greif, who first of all needs to be commended for bravely stepping in with a just a few days' notice, did not let anything like a very brief preparation time stop her from giving a fiercely committed performance, her supple and assertive voice ferociously rising above the chorus or harmoniously blending in. I thought she particularly distinguished herself in the mesmerizing aria "I Didn't Suffer", which had the immediately infectious power of a brilliant pop song while still projecting the haunting nature of unexplained divinity.
In this rich kaleidoscope of Passion vignettes, some of them naturally stood out more strongly than others. "The Litany", for one, had been described as a "list of all the parts of the hand/wrist that a nail would pass through", and I was not sure if I was ready for that. The live version, however, turned out to be a downright engaging study in anatomy, complete with an attractive musical background hinting at a Romanticism-spiked Baroque trio sonata. Another undisputed highlight was the two "Round Dance" episodes surrounding the "Strange Feats", which had a genially groovy rhythm to them and gave plenty of opportunities to both chorus and soloist to winningly play off each other and together.
It all ended kind of abruptly, but not before Jesus admonished us all through John that any worship should be kept between him and the worshipper and, presumably, should not be either broadcast or force-fed to unsuspecting audiences. The audience on Saturday night, on the other hand, happily made it through the entire ride and was obviously feeling all the more uplifted by it. As my mum put it, it had been "unusual", indeed, but in the best possible way.

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Tokyo String Quartet - Schubert, Haydn & Bartok - 05/11/13

Schubert: String Quintet in C Major, D. 956 - Lynn Harrell
Haydn: String Quartet in D Minor, Op. 103 (Unfinished)
Bartok: String Quartet No 6

Nonplussed by our late night on Friday, my mum and I were back on the music scene on Saturday evening for the last New York appearance of the world-famous Tokyo String Quartet, who have decided to bid us all farewell after 43 seasons. After hearing them at the Strathmore Music Center a few years ago, I was very much looking forward to enjoying their tremendous talents in the more intimate concert hall of the 92Y, where they have been the quartet in residence since the 2003/2004 season.
To make the occasion even more special, acclaimed cellist Lynn Harrell would be joining for what has to be one of my very favorite chamber music pieces, Schubert's expansive String Quintet in C Major, as well as works by Haydn and Bartok. So it was in front of an almost full and definitely excited house that the Tokyo String Quartet and Lynn Harrell took their places on that stage for what had to be a historic performance.

Clocking in at just under an hour, Schubert's ultimate chamber music masterpiece, his String Quintet in C Major, is both endlessly complex and unabashedly lyrical. This winning combination was all the more dazzling in the hands of those five distinguished musicians, who took the time to dig deep into the work and bring out all its fundamentally emotional and spontaneously irresistible qualities. Listening to the strings playing one another off and impeccably meshing together, it was not hard to assume that as he was feeling death creeping ever closer every day, Schubert threw all he had and then some into this magnificent swan song. The two cellos, replacing the more common two violas, added deeply seductive dark tones to an already extraordinarily accomplished composition and decisively turned it into a classic for the ages. On Saturday night, the bittersweet beauty of the music, especially in the ethereal second movement, came through even more vividly and movingly than expected, and the heart-felt performance was greeted by a well-deserved huge ovation.
After such a journey, Haydn's String Quartet in D Minor sounded kind of low-key, but still very pleasant in its graceful classicism. Those 10 minutes were just what was needed before moving on to Bartok's much more idiosyncratic endeavor.
The Hungarian composer's String Quartet No 6 is for sure not a happy-go-lucky testimony, and the fact that it was written on the eve of World War II, right before he fled Hungary, probably had something to do with it. Performed with just the right amount of ferociousness and poignancy, livened up with a distinct touch of folksong flair, Bartok's sixth string quartet came out full of complicated, colorful life, exactly as it should be. A supreme ending to a supreme run.

Sunday, May 12, 2013

Met - Giulio Cesare - 05/11/13

Composer: George Frideric Handel
Conductor: Harry Bicket
Producer/Director: David McVicar
Giulio Cesare: David Daniels
Cleopatra: Natalie Dessay
Cornelia: Patricia Bardon
Sesto Pompeo: Alice Coote
Tolomeo: Christophe Dumaux
Achilla: Guido Loconsolo
Nireno:Rachid Ben Abdeslam

When a few months ago my mum announced that she was timing her annual visit to be able to catch the last performance of Handel's Giulio Cesare at the Met with me, mainly to get a chance to hear dazzling coloratura soprano Natalie Dessay in person, I was kind of ambivalent about it, and not just because her being here for my birthday sounded rather coincidental in her master plan. The truth is, I am not particularly fond of Baroque music, especially the mercilessly omnipresent harpsichord and endless repetitions, I don't really care for counter-tenors or trouser roles, and I would have to attend a four-and-a-half-hour opera on a Friday night after a full work week.
I remember putting myself through Rinaldo in Prague for the sake of watching a live performance in the city's historical Estates Theatre - Mozart's home away from home - and while I was beyond thrilled to spend an evening within those prestigious walls, the opera itself hadn't done much to endear Handel to me. But then again, hearing Natalie Dessay in New York City is too rare a pleasure these days, the performance would start at 7:00 pm, and I would not have to rack my brain for a Mother's Day gift. So there I was on Friday night, tired but having made up my mind that I could and I would handle Handel without grimacing or falling asleep.

Julius Caesar and Cleopatra being probably one of the first power couples in history, they have naturally inspired myriads of works, for better or worse. An immediate success when it first came out, Handel's Giulio Cesare subsequently underwent quite a few revisions before falling into obscurity. Nowadays it is performed regularly throughout the world and has been heralded as Handel's finest Italian opera, with enough dramatic weight and musical merit to capture and keep everybody's attention. I was ready to let myself be convinced.
To go straight to the essential, Natalie Dessay was there and was, as far as I am concerned, the best thing about the evening. Her celebrated sharp acting skills and nifty comic timing served her particularly well in a role for which she had to be playful and intelligent, vulnerable and willful, in short a woman of many facets and emotions. Her voice, which is not big but deeply penetrating and endlessly flexible, sounded well-suited for Baroque music and made itself beautifully heard. My highlight of the whole production was the deceptively simple but irresistibly seductive aria "V'adoro pupille", which she delivered while sensually dancing in a scintillating outfit, deftly presenting herself as the ultimate exquisitely sparkling little jewel.
The other full-fledged woman in the story fared remarkably well too with mezzo-soprano Patricia Bardon, who was a majestically dignified Cornelia, beaten but undefeated. Her noble presence and assured singing powerfully conveyed the new widow's broken spirit and unwavering resolve. As her son Sesto, mezzo-soprano Alice Coote decisively distinguished herself in the difficult role of a young boy suddenly having to grow up too quickly. Their duet at the end of Act I was a memorable moment of arresting harmony.
Among the male singers, the three counter-tenors confidently displayed plenty of talent among themselves, the top prize going to Christophe Dumaux as an inherently devious Tolomeo, complete with robust singing and magnetic presence. He was one brother/king you did not want to cross. Rachid Ben Abdeslam was a spontaneously engaging Nireno, never missing an opportunity to add a spark of comic relief. As Giulio Cesare, David Daniels came through as human and imperial, even if having a counter-tenor impersonate the mighty Roman emperor has always sounded a bit self-defeating to me in the first place. The only indisputably manly voice of the cast was newcomer baritone Guido Loconsolo, who gave a consistently solid, alluringly dark performance as Achilla, the ruthless advisor to Tolomeo.
The sets were uniformly attractive, brightly colorful yet minimalist enough not to overpower the action on the stage. Some expected elements such as a glittery Mediterranean in the background and some massive columns on the sides were part of the décors and provided vague notions of time and place, although sheer visual enjoyment was clearly more important than historical accuracy. And that was totally fine.
The costumes were sumptuous as well. Not unlike Madonna in concert, Natalie Dessay's costume changes were numerous, and occasionally perplexing. Her dancing and walking like a Bangles-style Egyptian was a fun touch during her first aria, but I did not really see the point of her turn as a care-free flapper girl, although she admittedly looked lovely and seemed to enjoy herself.
And granted, things had to be come up with in order to fill in the many times during which nothing happened, except for a repetition of what had just been done. So if sometimes incongruous, borderline silly, dance routines helped kill time, all the better for them. In all fairness, some of these overdrawn episodes were cleverly handled, in particular the one in which Cleopatra repeatedly tried to send Giulio Cesare off to safety as he was obstinately sticking around, all but smitten by the young woman's charms. Nevertheless, I, for one, was eventually more than ready to jump onstage and give her hand.
The score received a dynamic and respectful treatment by the always reliable Met orchestra and his conductor for the occasion, English maestro Harry Bicket. He seemed to know exactly where he was going and got there smoothly. The multiple arias were given room to brilliantly unfold, the continuo group impeccably fit in and concertmaster David Chan got a chance to gamely play a solo onstage as part of the production. So at the end of the evening, which was also the end of my season, Giulio Cesare proved to be a predictably overlong but often rewarding performance. And that was good enough.

Sunday, May 5, 2013

Eugene Kissin - Haydn, Beethoven, Schubert & Liszt - 05/03/13

Haydn: Piano Sonata in E-flat Major, Hob. XVI: 49
Beethoven: Piano Sonata No 32 in C Minor, Op. 111
Schubert: Impromptu in F Minor, D. 935, No 1
Schubert: Impromptu in B-flat Major, D. 935, No 3
Schubert: Impromptu in G-flat Major, D. 899, No 3
Schubert: Impromptu in A-flat Major, D. 899, No 4
Liszt: Hungarian Rhapsody, No 12 in C-sharp Minor

After having to sit out Eugene Kissin's Carnegie Hall recitals the last couple of years because the tickets sold out so fast, I jumped on the tickets for this season's recital as soon as they became available last summer and finally managed to score a precious one. At last, I was in. That's how on Friday night I found myself at Carnegie Hall surrounded by what had to be the entire Russian population of the New York metropolitan area. Eugene Kissin being to the Russian and the rest of the world what Lang Lang is to the Chinese and the rest of the world, here again the Stern Auditorium stage had been filled with as many seats as possible due to an obviously insatiable demand.
For the members of the audience who were actually there for the music and not just to catch a glimpse of the young classical music superstar, the program fortunately looked pretty appealing as well, with a chronological progression going from Haydn to Liszt by way of Beethoven and Schubert. I was originally disappointed than Chopin was not included, but quickly decided to stop nit-picking and enjoy the eagerly awaited performance already.

And there was a lot to be enjoyed. The musical feast started with a particularly refined piano sonata by Haydn. After getting over the surprise of discovering the old master's expertise in piano composition, I was completely taken by the clear and elegant rendition of it by Eugene Kissin. As a matter of fact, the well-proportioned and subtle nature of the work, an exquisite example of Viennese Classicism, was such that it did not manage to keep my neighbor to the right awake. His loss.
But not to worry. "Sturm und Drang" were just around the corner with Beethoven's tremendously powerful last sonata, the one whose only two movements are more complex and ambitious than many more traditionally structured pieces. Always a Romantic at heart, Eugene Kissin sounded as if he whole-heartedly relished sinking his teeth into such an awe-inspiring work and emerged largely victorious thanks to his deft combination of technical assuredness and artistic sensibility.
Still in Romantic Vienna, we moved on to Schubert and four impromptus of his, which turned out to be much more substantial than their name could lead to believe, a name that was bestowed upon by Schubert's publisher Haslinger. Each of them oozing its very own mood of tonal poetry, they received an unhurried, lusciously beautiful treatment by Eugene Kissin and, by the same token, made you wonder what Schubert would have been able to create if he had not died the year after those came out at the incredibly young age of 31.
I would think that any virtuoso musician sooner or later yearns to boldly tackle a virtuoso challenge, and very few pieces are as adequate for that task as the wild ride that is Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsody No 12. The fact that it has found a permanent place in popular culture and keeps on appearing in movies, cartoons and - why not? - baseball games, speaks volumes for its universal mass appeal. On Friday night, Eugene Kissin proved again why he more than deserve his virtuoso stripes by delivering a technically impressive and emotionally dramatic interpretation of it, confidently balancing the quiet interludes and the raging fireworks. Those high-flying 10 minutes were handled by the young pianist with the savvy and poise of an old pro for the highest pleasure of the adoring audience.

Since Eugene Kissin had played 12 - No, it is not a typo - encores at his May 2007 Carnegie Hall concert and the starting time of Friday night's concert was 7:00 PM, I could not help but wonder - with a little hope in my heart - if it meant that quite a few extra goodies would be performed after the official program was over.
Well, we did not get 12 encores, and each of the three we did get was earned by loud and prolonged applause in between them, but they were all totally worth the effort. The first one was a delicate Mélodie from Orfeo ed Euridice by Gluck (arranged by Sgambati), then it was back to more Lisztian pleasure with his Étude No 10 in F Minor and "Die Forelle", D. 564 (after Schubert, D. 550). That'll definitely do for this time.