Tuesday, December 30, 2014

New York String Orchestra - Tchaikovsky, Barber & Beethoven - 12/28/14

Conductor: Jaime Laredo
Tchaikovsky: Serenade in C Major for Strings, Op. 48
Barber: Violin Concerto, Op. 14 - Augustin Hadelich
Beethoven: Symphony No. 6 in F Major, Op. 68, "Pastoral"

One of New York's most beloved and enduring holiday traditions is the two concerts performed by the New York String Orchestra at Carnegie Hall, one on Christmas' Eve and the other the following weekend. As one of the foremost professional training programs for the crème de la crème of music schools across the country and Canada, the New York String Orchestra Seminar spares no expense at preparing future classical music professionals of the highest quality. The concerts' programs usually include a solid collection of unbeatable crowd-pleasers, and as the end of the year nears, there's absolutely nothing wrong with kicking back and relaxing to the sounds of oldies but goodies.
So early on Sunday afternoon, as if on cue, the rain stopped and I was able to walk down Broadway and along W. 57th Street all the way to my seat in a very crowded Stern Auditorium for a wide-ranging tribute to the Romantic movement with the Russian master, Piotr Tchaikovsky, the American contemporary, Samuel Barber, and the German instigator, Ludwig van Beethoven. A wonderful way to wrap up a wonderful four-day Christmas weekend.

A sure-fire hit that never fails to make the audience swoon, Tchaikovsky's Serenade for Strings proved one more time that the quintessential Romantic composer is simply peerless when it comes to shamelessly tugging at the audience's heart-strings and leave them all the better for it. Never mind the Neo-Classical Mozartean influence, the serenade overflows with a memorable recurring theme, lush melodies, spirited folk rhythms, a graceful waltz, passionate élans and peaceful interludes for an unforgettable Romantic experience. On the stage, the dynamic young musicians clad in colorful tops may have appeared occasionally insecure about their ties and high heels, but when the time had come to grab their instruments and play under the attentive baton of Jaime Laredo, they quickly demonstrated that they were well on their way to becoming consummate professionals with an impressively assertive performance.
A slightly older and more experienced musician, Augustin Hadelich is the rapidly rising Juilliard graduate who joined the orchestra for Barber's Violin Concerto. I have never been as enthralled by the Barber as by some of the other well-known violin concertos of the repertoire, but I can still appreciate its lovely melodies, intricate passages and stark contrasts. On Sunday, Augustin Hadelich effortlessly handled the beautiful lushness and the technical pitfalls of the composition and assuredly delivered a brilliantly detailed and intensely committed interpretation. It is no wonder he is in such high demand.
Lo and behold, his dazzling virtuosic skills were on even more evident display during the encore, which turned out to be Paganini's thrilling Caprice No. 24, and sounded, to my amazed ears at least, even more enjoyable than the Barber. Fiercely challenging for the soloist and yet a lot of fun for the listener, the sparkling caprice was a delightful Italian detour that rightly enchanted the audience.
Since one cannot really go wrong with Beethoven, the ultimate piece on the program was an all-around radiant Pastoral. One of Beethoven's most popular achievements, his sixth symphony luxuriantly unfolded, deftly describing the joys of nature in all their bucolic charms and power of destruction. The orchestra showed a remarkable cohesion and a deep devotion for the work, all of which resulted in a heart-felt journey to the countryside that ended my musical year 2014 on a youthful and blissful note. Happy New Year!

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Met - Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg - 12/13/14

Composer: Richard Wagner
Conductor: James Levine
Producer/Director: Otto Schenk
Hans Sachs: Michael Volle
Walter von Stolzing: Johan Botha
Beckmesser: Johannes Martin Kränzle
Vet Pogner: Hans-Peter König
David: Paul Appleby
Eva: Annette Dasch
Magdalene: Karen Cargill

Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg is well-known for being Wagner's only comedy, all four and a half hours of it, which can easily extend to six hours when you include the intermissions. It is also routinely considered a masterpiece, even if its legacy has been tainted by debatable associations with anti-semitism and nazism. In any case, for anyone with the slightest interest in opera, there's really only one way to earn the prized Meistersinger's stripes: Dedicating a few hours of one's life to it.
And I can certainly imagine worse ways to spend an entire afternoon or evening attending an opera that narrates a conventional ‒ and conventionally thwarted ‒ love story while also discussing the essence of real art (Because there's no way Wagner was going to keep it truly simple, right?) in one of the most vibrant German Renaissance cities. We're not dealing with Gods or legends here, but real people, nationalism, humanities and nature, and that sounds about just as good a proposition.
So when I heard that the Met had scheduled one matinee performance of it this season, I quickly grabbed a ticket for it before it got sold out. That's why last Saturday I reluctantly sacrificed a sunny December afternoon to spend some quality time with opera's favorite shoemaker and, incidentally, my friend Nicole who was watching the Live in HD simulcast from a movie theater in Barcelona, Spain, and with whom I happily killed time comparing notes during those interminable, although understandably necessary, intermissions.

Wagner had apparently decided to go light after two of his serious operas, Tannhäuser and Tristan und Isolde, were being rejected left and right, and debts were piling up. Pulling from a bunch of different sources, including the real-life Nuremberger Hans Sachs and his œuvre, early German romantic authors, and the historic city of Nuremberg itself, the composer successfully put together a genuine crowd-pleaser while still staying true to his artistic ambitions in terms of dramatic depth and musical complexity. And it had finally come to an opera house near me. Yeah!
A deeply human character that is almost too noble to be true, Hans Sachs has to be a career goal for any baritone with enough power and stamina to carry it through. Michael Volle has both, and solid acting skills too. An undeniable presence onstage, he was also singing with force and nuance, while effortlessly exuding authority and wisdom or convincingly conveying poignant feelings of tenderness and regrets. It is an emotionally complex and vocally demanding part, and Volle nailed it as surely as he was nailing the soles to the shoes he was making.
As the aspiring Meistersinger Walter von Stolzing, tenor Johan Botha was in utterly splendid vocal form. He sang with the refreshing abandon of a young man who had fallen hopelessly in love, his vibrant voice assertively projecting his burning desire throughout the entire opera house. And if he was not your typical dashing romantic lead, he was still one who will not be easily forgotten.
His chief competitor for Eva's heart, the hapless and grumpy Beckmesser, was also the brilliant main source of comic relief of the story. Baritone Johannes Martin Kränzle smartly did not emphasize the pedantry and silliness usually associated with the character, a choice that effectively prevented him from becoming a predictable caricature, but still made sure to generate plenty of healthy laughter from the audience.
Bass Hans-Peter König was a wonderful Pogner, the goldsmith with the magnificent dark voice, torn between his devotion to his art and his love for his daughter.
Tenor Paul Appleby was spontaneously endearing as the apprentice David, with a bright voice and energy to spare, readily stealing the scenes he was in.
I realize that all of this makes the opera sound like a man's world, and in many ways it was, but let's not forget that the whole chain of events started because of a young woman. And Eva was winningly impersonated by soprano Annette Dasch, who completely justified her popularity with a radiant voice and a sweet yet no-nonsense personality.
Not to be outdone, mezzo-soprano Karen Cargill was a wonderful Magdalene, Eva's attendant and David's love interest, boasting a rich voice and impeccable comic timing.
The Met Chorus was its usual excellent self every time it appeared, from the powerful opening church scene in Act I to the out-of-control riot in the street  in Act II, to the playful, roof-raising happy ending.
The attractive sets, such as the bare interior of a church, a street lined up with houses, or a meadow, were as traditional as they come, and their direct appeal perfectly suited a story that is about community, art and nature. The same applied to the costumes, which were all in muted, earthy colors. An informed and loving hand had clearly been hard at work and had done a very good job at setting up the perfect environment for what was originally a simple little romantic comedy, which slowly morphed into something much bigger.
The score may be one of Wagner's most accomplished feats, beautifully underlying the sweetness of young love, the grandeur of lyrical art, the depth of human emotions, the ludicrousness of narrow-mindedness. And if he did indulge himself a few times (I really don't think the inspired comical back and forth between Sachs and Beckmesser in Act II needed to go on that long), he more than made up for it with memorable moments like the magnificent preludes, the evolution of Walther's Prize Song, the sublime quintet in Act III, Sach's thoughtful "Wahn" monologue about human madness, among many others.
Having such a monumental opera performed down the street was a privilege, having James Levine conduct it was nothing short of a miracle. But there he was, seemingly full of energy and happy to be back among "his" orchestra, which delivered a majestic, well-paced and expertly detailed performance.
Even when things started to drag on a bit, I was reminding myself that I was getting twice as much glorious music for the price of a single ticket, so I should just sit back and enjoy the moment already, which I did to the fullest.

Saturday, December 13, 2014

American Symphony Orchestra - Requiem for the 20th Century - 12/10/14

Conductor: Leon Botstein
Williams: Symphony No. 6
Ligeti: Requiem
Sara Murphy: Mezzo-soprano
Jennifer Zetlan: Soprano
Bard Festival Chorale
Schnittke: Nagasaki
Sara Murphy: Mezzo-soprano
Bard Festival Chorale

When American Symphony Orchestra's music director and principal conductor Leon Botstein greeted us with "Welcome to my holiday concert!" on Wednesday night at Carnegie Hall, he generated quite a few chuckles. And understandably so, because if the time of year was right on, and our first light snow fall earlier in the day proved it, the program was more than a bit off with three very different but equally dark, challenging and essential compositions by Ralph Vaughan Williams, Gyorgy Ligeti and Alfred Schnittke.
While being a fundamentally laudable endeavor ‒ keeping music lovers on their toes is a tough job, but somebody's got to do it ‒ boldly going against the current nevertheless has its drawbacks, and the mostly empty balcony of the Stern Auditorium was one of them. On the other hand, the rest of the space was filled by an obviously dedicated audience that could not wait for the not-to-be-missed experience. We had some heavy stuff ahead of us for sure, but it had to be heard.

Although Ralph Vaughan Williams reputedly asserted that his sixth symphony had nothing to do with World War II, or anything else for that matter, but should only be appreciated as pure music, the claim is hard to believe, and not just for the fact that he wrote it during and right after the war, but also because it so forcefully expresses the violence and destruction suffered in troubled times. Accordingly, on Wednesday night, chaos and gloom quickly descended upon us with all their might, but there was also the occasional distraction such as a high-spirited scherzo here and a jazzy solo saxophone there. The last movement, completely colorless and expressionless, had us all drift into an existential nothingness that would have made Sartre envious. This was serious music, but Williams did not shy away from making it accessible as well.
For the second stop on our depressing but enlightening tour, we were plunged into Gyorgy Ligeti's haunting Requiem. For better or worse, the piece became world-famous for being featured in Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey, and amazingly enough had never been performed in its entirety in New York before Wednesday. Granted, we still did not have the double chorus and huge orchestra that the Hungarian composer had in mind for it, but Botstein quipped that he was not holding his breath for that, so we did with what we had. Being a holocaust survivor, Ligeti used his harrowing personal experience to create a unique work of emotional directness and musical complexity. The orchestra was accompanied by the fearless Bard Festival Chorale, mezzo-soprano Sara Murphy, whose poised and majestic singing had a mesmerizing effect, and soprano Jennifer Zetlan, whose visceral performance could not have been further away from her delightful turn as Mozart in The Classical Style less than a week earlier. As for Ligeti's signature "micropolyphony" and its famed vertiginous effect, I felt like I was listening to a community of dead people relate the horrors they had been through and the depth of their grief. It was seriously chilling.
After a much needed intermission, we had one more work to go in the US première of Alfred Schnittke's Nagasaki, which was the composer's graduation thesis from The Moscow Conservatory in 1958 and finally had its public première in its original form in Cape Town in 2006, eight years after Schnittke's death. Better late than never. Inspired by Russian and Japanese poets, influenced by Shostakovich, Stravinsky and Orff, the oratorio immediately strikes the listener by its big, appealing sounds that compellingly convey the exotic land of Japan, the senseless dropping of the bomb, its dreadful consequences on humanity, and finally renewed hope. A lot of the score's undeniable appeal rests upon the intensity of the instrumental score and the gripping parts for the chorus and the mezzo-soprano, which the orchestra, the Bard Festival Chorale and Sara Murphy handled deftly. And then the explosive grand finale brought a new peaceful beginning. Maybe the program was not that far off the holiday spirit after all.

Thursday, December 11, 2014

Music Mondays - Aeolus Quartet & Aizuri Quartet - Schulhoff, Welcher, Beecher & Mendelssohn - 12/08/14

Erwin Schulhoff: Five Pieces for String Quartet
Aeolus Quartet
Dan Welcher: Museon Polemos for String Octet
Aeolus & Aizuri Quartets
Lembit Beecher: These Memories may be true
Aizuri Quartet
Felix Mendelssohn: Octet in E-flat Major, Op. 20
Aeolus & Aizuri Quartets

Hearing Mendelssohn's famed Octet live has been a privilege too rare in all my years of concert going, but I do understand that it requires, well, eight musicians, which is not exactly a common combination. At last the opportunity presented itself again earlier this week thanks to the unstoppable Music Mondays series, which was generously featuring not one but two incredibly young and already much in demand string quartets. When it comes to glowing recommendations, one could hardly ask for more than the Graduate Resident String Quartet at the Juilliard School, the Aeolus Quartet, and the String Quartet-in-Residence at the Curtis Institute of Music, the Aizuri Quartet. So I had no doubts that Mendelssohn's youthful miracle would get the expert treatment it deserves, and so would pretty much everything else, which was fortuitous because it looked like there were quite a few other delectable goodies in store as well.
So never mind the frigid temperatures that had fallen upon us, there was no stopping me and many other die-hard Music Mondays regulars from filling up the pretty Advent Lutheran Church for an evening of string-only music.

The concert opened with "Five Pieces for String Quartet" a fun and intriguing work by Czech composer Erwin Schulhoff, who took us on a tongue-in-cheek tour of European Baroque dance music in five short movements. It all started with a drunken Viennese waltz that kept on throwing itself off, then we had an insistent, strongly rhythmical serenata, followed by a highly spirited, rowdy Czech dance tune. Next we moved to a sensual, slowly intoxicating tango and finally ended with a seemingly out of control, high speed tarantella. The Aeolus Quartet's performance had the right amount of energy and grittiness, emphasizing each movement's musical style while easily transitioning from one to the next for a smooth journey.
The following piece was performed by the two quartets together, although they often did it independently to emphasize a sharp Apollonian/Dionysian contrast. As described to us by the composer Dan Welcher, "Museon Polemos for String Octet" was originally commissioned by the Miró Quartet and the Shanghai Quartet for the 100th anniversary of Stravinsky's Rite of Spring. Welcher, however, did not write an octet directly inspired by the ground-breaking composition itself, but rather by the ballets Stravinsky was writing for in those days. The one nod to Rite of Spring was the famous pounding of "The Dance of the adolescents", as if to make sure nobody could miss it, and it was in fact perfectly integrated into the whole. The eternal rivalry between the intellect and the senses fiercely played out through a complex, convoluted, and engaging score performed by eight impeccably synchronized musicians, before ending on a quiet note with no clear resolution.
After intermission, the Aizuri Quartet came back alone for Lembit Beecher's "These Memories may be true", which is, according to the composer, who was also in attendance, a loving tribute to his grand-mother who was an immigrant from Estonia. Throughout the four movements, we got to enjoy lovely moments dedicated to old Estonian folk songs as well as more vigorous rhythms reserved for more personal themes such as the last ship she had apparently taken to come to America and the super hero status she held in her grand-son's mind. In the assured hands of the Aizuri Quartet's ladies, the trip down memory lane was touching without falling into easy sentimentalism, and it was fun too, as the mighty grandmother and her incredible stories were being remembered through the innocent eyes of an impressionable child.
The last piece of the evening was Mendelssohn's invariably cheerful Octet, for which both quartets seamlessly joined forces and unquestionably conquered. The shamelessly infectious melodies unfolded unabated, vibrantly expressing the irrepressible joie de vivre of a 16-year-old genius who happily let his staggering creative juices freely flow and came up with a true masterpiece. The playing was uniformly balanced and focused, allowing the work's brilliance to gloriously explode in countless colors and liberally dispense some much needed bright sunshine on this bitterly cold winter night. And that felt really good while it lasted.

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Cantori New York - A Cantori Holiday - 12/06/14

Artistic Director & Conductor: Mark Shapiro
French Franciscan Processional: Veni, veni Emmanuel (Arr. David Willcocks)
Dutch Traditional Melody: King Jesus Hath a Garden (Arr. Charles Wood)
Alice Dryen: Banu Choshech Legaresh
Hugh Martin & Ralph Blane: Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas (Arr. Ken Neufeld)
Mykola Leontovich: Carol of the Bells (Arr. Peter Wilhousky)
Malcolm Williamson: This Christmas Night
Rex Isenberg: Ravta et Rivam Isaac
French Traditional Melody: Shepherds in the Field Abiding (Arr. Charles Wood)
German Traditional Melody: Lo, How a Rose e'er Blooming
Blooming J. Pierpoint: Jingle Bells
John Jacob Niles: I wonder as I wander - Thomasin Bentley (Soprano)
H. Berlioz: Shepherds Chorus from L'enfance du Christ
Elizabeth Poston: Jesus Christ the Apple Tree - Amy Joscelyn (Soprano)
Jonathan Breit: Ocho Kandelikas
Kim Gannon & Walter Kent: I'll be Home for Christmas (Arr. Mac Huff)
Franz Biebl: Ave Maria - Jonathan Breit, Mark Stedman (Soloists), Steve Underhill, Joe Klein, Steve Albert (Trio)
Welsh Carol: Deck the Halls (Arr. David Willcocks)
West Country Carol: We Wish You a Merry Christmas (Arr: Arthur Warrell)
Franz Gruber: Silent Night (Sing along)

'Tis this time of the year again, when days are short, temperatures are low, trees are cut, shop windows are sparkling, and holiday concerts spring up everywhere. So the main question is not if you will get a chance to hear holiday music, but which performance(s) to pick. I figured a long time ago that although I try to stay away from the typical sugariness and perkiness of standard holiday tunes, some traditions cannot really be avoided, so I might as well choose the most fun events.
Luckily for me, Cantori New York came to the rescue a few years ago with its holiday-flavored, but carefully balanced and expertly performed assortment of old European songs (That would be the best part), Hollywood tunes (That would be the sugary part) and Christmas carols (That would be the perky part). And since the adventurous ensemble is also an equal opportunity choir and this time of year is not only about Christmas after all, they always make sure to throw a couple of Hanukkah pieces in the mix as well (That would be the untraditional part).
So last Saturday afternoon, I made it down to the West Village again to join a large group of friends spread out among the packed audience in the lovely St. Luke in the Fields Church for the annual holiday ritual. The pouring rain we had to put up with was still a vast improvement over the snow storm we had to trudge through last year, even if it was visually less pleasing. More importantly, the inside of the church was dry, welcoming, and ready for a celebration.

The concert started with the elegiac Franciscan chant "Veni, veni Emmanuel", which, in a remarkable effort of synchronicity, was unexpectedly accompanied from the very first note, and then sporadically, by the protesting of a baby, who was clearly not in the mood to enjoy the hymn's serene beauty. The presumably tiny but decidedly feisty additional soundtrack was at last removed a couple of songs down the road, after several attempts at restoring peace had repeatedly failed. When you gotta go, you gotta go.
The rest of the concert went on without any other disturbances, and the choir whole-heartedly worked their way through the familiar playlist with their trademark assurance, energy and finesse. There was one new piece, "Shepherds' Farewell" from Berlioz's L'enfance du Christ, a simple, very moving and warmly executed tribute to the shepherds' bidding good-bye to the infant Jesus as he and his family were leaving Bethlehem for Egypt.
My eagerly awaited personal favorites did not disappoint either. Beside the intermittently enjoyable "Veni, veni Emmanuel", the German carol "Lo, How a Rose e'er blooming" was a tastefully joyful moment and, as always,  Biebl's popular all-male "Ave Maria" turned out discreetly, yet richly nuanced.
There was more upbeat fare too. "Shepherds in the Field Abiding", the English version of "Les anges dans nos campagnes", gloriously brought me back to my childhood's Christmas music, and Jonathan Breit's ever-sizzling "Ocho Kandelikas" added its unique touch of hot, hot, hot Judeo-Spanish spices to the celebration, rightfully prompting one of the most enthusiastic ovations of the day.
All songs were big hits and the fired-up ensemble did an impeccable job at pleasing the captive audience, which continuously swooned, reflected, rejoiced, laughed and clapped. And even I have to admit that Cantori performs an exceptionally rocking version of the dreaded "Jingle Bells", which never fails to bring the house ‒ or church ‒ down.
The last number of the evening was the traditional "Silent Night" sing along, which went as smoothly as possible considering the circumstances, before we all reconvened in the back room for the traditional post-concert party. Some traditions are just too good not to be upheld indeed. Happy holidays!

Sunday, December 7, 2014

The Classical Style: An Opera (of Sorts) - 12/04/14

Mozart: Rondo in F Major, K. 494 - Jeremy Denk
Mozart: Sonata in C Minor, K. 457 - Jeremy Denk
The Classical Style: An Opera (of Sorts)
Composer: Steven Stucky
Librettist: Jeremy Denk
Conductor: Robert Spano
The Knights
Jennifer Zetlan: Soprano
Rachel Calloway: Mezzo-Soprano
Peabody Southwell: Mezzo-Soprano
Dominic Armstrong: Tenor
Keith Jameson: Tenor
Kim Josephson: Baritone
Aubrey Allicock: Bass-Baritone
Ashraf Sewailam: Bass-Baritone

Earlier this year, when I heard that Jeremy Denk, along with eminent contemporary American composer Steven Stucky, was working on an opera (?!) based on Charles Rosen's highly regarded, rigorously academic study The Classical Style (??!!) , I decided to read the book to get a better sense of what it was all about. I eventually made it to page 43, "The Origin of Style", skipping the most technical parts that were too obscure for me, and never went any further, more due to a lack of time than to a lack of desire. But I trusted the consummate pianist who went from best-kept secret to prestigious award-winning, multi-faceted artist within just a few years to make the intriguing adventure smart, entertaining, educational, unconventional, but still widely accessible.
Since I did not make it to the Ojai Music Festival last summer, on Thursday evening I joined my friend Paula in a Zankel Hall packed to the brim and buzzing with excitement to attend the New York première of The Classical Style: An Opera (of Sorts). The uniqueness of the endeavor was apparently not lost on anybody, especially not the woman behind me who confided to her seatmate that she had "no idea what she was there for". So let the show begin!

The first part of the program was actually traditional fare - namely two piano pieces by Mozart - which were performed by Jeremy Denk with his signature combination of deep respect and carefree style. The Rondo kickstarted our evening with a light and easy touch, before the Sonata moved us into more dramatic territory. After hearing Denk give recitals in concert halls of various sizes and acoustical qualities, I realized that we had finally found the perfect venue for those periodic rendez-vous and totally relished this heavenly half hour.
After intermission, I went right back to heaven, and found Mozart right there too! The Viennese master was passing time playing Scrabble with Haydn and Beethoven, bored and bickering. The first few minutes wasted no time setting the witty and insightful tone of the opera by roundly establishing their distinct personalities. Haydn showed slight irritation at being called "Pa-pa-pa-pa-pa-pa Haydn" to the tune of Papageno's popular aria from The Magic Flute, Mozart was starkly determined to get his share - 25% - from the gross generated by the film Amadeus, and Beethoven pedantically beat his adversaries at Scrabble with lofty words like "Weltanschauung" and "Gesamtkunstwerk", an accomplishment that Mozart, in true Amadeus form, giddily countered with "Scheisse", and Haydn, more prosaically, with "Bier". They eventually heard from The New York Times that classical music is dead, came across The Classical Style, and decided to descend back to earth to have a word with Charles Rosen.
Another major scene took place in a bar, where Dominant, Tonic and Subdominant hung out and talked about their lives. Dominant was mournfully looking for an ever-elusive but indispensable resolution, Tonic made a show-stopping grand entrance, and Subdominant wanted everybody to understand that there is nothing "sub" about her. The exchanges among this humanly volatile but harmonically codependent ménage à trois were clever, hilarious and edifying, even if some of the insider's jokes only made total sense to music connoisseurs.
Another key character was Henry Snibblesworth, a nerdy Berkeley PhD musicology student who may not have had the sharpest social skills, but who got to unwittingly rescue Donna Anna when crashing her forced seduction scene for no other purpose than to point out to her that her next vocal line would "contravene values of good melodic writing". His big moment, however, came a few minutes later when he winningly sang about who Beethoven was through an exhaustive list of numerous milestones such as the numbers of performances of the ninth symphony in America, of interminable lectures, of accidental cell phone rings, of standing ovations and of dogs named Beethoven, among many others, to the tune of... Leporello's famous Catalog aria from Don Giovanni. Positively ingenious and devilishly effective.
But not all was fun and game, and the most poignant scene was hands-down when the depressed, homeless Tristan Chord walked into the bar, with an eye-patch à la Wotan, and whole-heartedly sang to the puzzled diatonic trio endlessly long, incredibly lush Wagnerian lines about how, as an excitable youngster eager for musical innovation, he had come up with a chord that managed to annihilate the rules of harmony, sternly warning them that hell was about to break loose. You don't say.
The man at the origin of the whole enterprise, Charles Rosen, was there too, with a bigger than life personality that restlessly went on and on about music. He was the only character that never goofed off or lost his solid common sense, always remaining his brilliant self, unshakably dedicated to his noble cause, forever exploring and looking for new ideas.
All singers were excellent, effortlessly switching from one part to another, and seemed to have a good time as well. With her agile voice and superior comic timing, soprano Jennifer Zetlan was a wonderfully expressive Mozart, and her impressive gymnastics during her "too many notes" moment made us very grateful for the undue number of notes indeed. A Met veteran, baritone Kim Josephson put his deeply majestic voice to the service of the Tristan Chord and his commanding presence to Charles Rosen. Bass-baritone Ashraf Sewailam successfully impersonated an endearingly grumpy Beethoven and bass-baritone Aubrey Allicock was irresistibly full of himself as the dynamite Tonic. Tenor Keith Jameson pulled off the musicology student's part with lots of energy and humor.
In perfect line with the opera's spirit, Steven Stucky's contribution was an inspired pastiche score featuring direct quotes from Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven, which made looking for clues part of the fun. Don Giovanni, in particular, was a recurring presence, and who could complain about that? These classical excerpts were interspersed with Stucky's own composition, and it all worked pretty much seamlessly. The music was original, colorful and engaging, creating the ideal environment for reality and fantasy to commingle. Kudos to the chamber music orchestra The Knights and conductor Robert Spano for keeping it fresh and compelling.
The lively, occasionally rambunctious, performance ended on a rather subdued note, with a surprise visit from Robert Schumann. Music will go on, and hopefully so will The Classical Style: An Opera (of Sorts). No music knowledge required, but nevertheless advised for maximum enjoyment.

Sunday, November 30, 2014

Met - Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk - 11/29/14

Composer: Dmitri Shostakovich
Conductor: James Conlon
Producer/Director: Graham Vick
Katerina: Eva-Maria Westbroek
Sergei: Brandon Jovanovich
Boris: Anatoli Kotscherga
Zinovy: Raymond Very

I first came across Shostakovich's Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk several years ago at the Kennedy Center, where Valery Gergiev conducted the Kirov Opera in a ferocious concert version of it that blew critics and audience away in one fell swoop, and made us all forgive and forget the rather pedestrian productions of Falstaff and Viaggio a Reims they had put us through earlier in the year. Sometimes all it takes are the shenanigans of a hot and bothered housewife of the Russian countryside to spice up an otherwise humdrum residency.
Stalin, on the other hand, did not appreciate the popular opera back in the days. Apparently more disturbed by the unapologetically dissonant music than by the explosive cocktail of a dysfunctional family, bare-faced sexuality and grisly crimes, he had the Pravda roundly condemn it, effectively depriving the Russian public of it for the next three decades. Just like that. Fortunately, times have changed and these days the world can indulge in the work's musical and dramatic values again in the full original version.
Nevertheless, Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk is still not one of the frequently performed operas, so I was overjoyed a few months ago when I saw it in the Metropolitan Opera's line-up for the 2014-2015 season. And this was with great expectations that I walked down Broadway yesterday, while being definitely conflicted between the disheartening sight of so many cut Christmas trees and the unavoidable enjoyment of their captivating fragrance, to spend my afternoon with the woman who decided to get a life at all costs, and paid the ultimate price for it.

Although he drew inspiration from Nikolai Leskov's horror story Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District, Shostakovich made sure to somewhat sugar-coat the plot for his own opera, which incidentally gives a fair warning about the original. But not to worry, there's still enough bitter satire, surreal decadence and loud raunchiness, not to mention a thrilling score, to make it the delicious guilty pleasure it has become, and yesterday afternoon the buzzing full opera house was eagerly looking forward to it.
The starting time was slightly delayed by malfunctioning lights in the orchestra pit, but once the performance got going, it kept on boldly going, and so did Dutch soprano Eva-Maria Westbroek, a truly fabulous Marilynesque Katerina from beginning to end, which was no small feat considering that she was onstage almost the entire time. From hopelessly bored housewife to jealous and suicidal murderess, she made her heroine a complex, and ultimately rather sympathetic, character through her superb singing and acting skills. She is blessed with an intense, beautiful and versatile voice that she assuredly plied to the tiniest nuances for maximum effect. From the title role of Anna Nicole to Die Walküre's Sieglinde and many others, this fearless artist evidently has an incredible range and seemingly limitless potential. I cant' wait to hear her again.
Her worthy partner in crime was American tenor Brandon Jovanovich. A first-class opportunist, his lover boy Sergei confidently strutted his impressive stuff, which included a strong, expressive voice and an unmistakable physical presence à la young Marlon Brando. Whether playing rough with Katerina or smooth talking her into killing her husband, he clearly knew how to get his way and took full advantage of it.
Ukrainian bass Anatoli Kotscherga did wonders with the thankless part of Boris, Katrina's authoritative father-in-law, whose purpose in life was apparently to be the most uncouth dirty old man of them all. His voice had the wide range needed to be starkly effective, and he wholeheartedly embraced the juicy part.
There were myriads of smaller parts that were filled with excellent singers like Raymond Very as Zinovy, the hapless impotent husband, Michael Kolelidhvili as the comical priest, Dmitry Belosselskiy as the old convict, Oksana Volkova as the shameless floozy.
The Met Chorus, which has to be the hardest-working vocal ensemble in show business, has proven once again that it is also probably one of the best ones too. They constantly changed costumes and circumstances without ever missing a beat or letting their terrific singing falter ever so slightly, even as they were running all over the huge stage.
Graham Vick's production is a couple of decades old and has understandably undergone a few updates, but it is still an eye-popping delight. Placing the action in the fifties or so, the colorful (Was that bed hot pink or what?!) and minimalist (A few pieces of furniture, a car and the occasional prop) set was easily adjustable and therefore succeeded in keeping the logistical fuss at a minimum. The background consisted of a slanted cloudy sky mural with an upper gallery on which the chorus would sometimes appear and a series of doors which were put to clever use as well. As for the all-important refrigerator, I wondered if I should look for a Freudian association or something like that for a little while, then I gave up.
The ingenious set-up combined with imaginative lighting allowed to create some memorable scenes such as Katerina's fantasizing about men in various states of undress, her ambiguous first confrontation with Sergei on the testosterone-filled worksite, her violent seduction by Sergei which immediately brought to mind The Postman Always Rings Twice, the cartoonish music hall number by the police force, the nightmarish running of the bloodied brides, or the disco-ball-enhanced wedding party from hell.
The singing and staging may have been of the highest quality, but it is the music, a compellingly jarring hodgepodge of various styles, that expertly brought everything together. The Met Orchestra, which has never met a score it could not masterfully handle, delivered a superb performance of Shostakovich's endlessly inventive yet always accessible composition. Under the baton of Met veteran James Conlon, the musicians, with a special nod for the brass, brilliantly emphasized not only the darkness, but also the grotesque, the humor and the occasional tenderness of the story, with intensity and precision.

As I was leaving my seat after the performance was over, I heard the young guy in the row behind me confide to his buddy that he felt he needed to "take a shower". I bet Shostakovich would have been thrilled.

Thursday, November 27, 2014

Leonidas Kavakos & Yuja Wang - Brahms, Schumann, Ravel & Respighi - 11/22/14

Brahms: Violin Sonata No. 2 in A Major
Schumann: Violin Sonata No. 2 in D Minor
Ravel: Violin Sonata (Posthumous)
Respighi: Violin Sonata in B Minor

As I was happily working my way through my serendipitous "Eight performances in eight days" mini-marathon, last Saturday was reserved for the crossing of the finish line back at Carnegie Hall, but in the Stern Auditorium this time, with a recital by Leonidas Kavakos and Yuja Wang. Although Zankel Hall is a much more appropriate space for this kind of intimate performance, the popularity of both performers forced them – and us – to move to the larger hall to accommodate the expected high demand.
I was in fact very curious to hear the musical sum of those two performing parts because I had a hard time imagining the combination of the well-established, thoughful violinist from Greece and the fast-rising, impetuous pianist from China. A promising program including some standard oldies but goodies by Brahms and Schumann, along with some welcome rarities by Ravel and Respighi, sounded just about the right cocktail for it.
And that’s obviously what they thought too since they showed up onstage stylishly dressed in black from head to toe as if ready to hit the New York party scene, he looking every bit like the soulful musician who lives exclusively for his art, she in a form-fitting dress short enough to guarantee her immediate admittance in the most select nightclubs.

Back to the musical component of the evening, Brahms' Violin Sonata No. 2 started the concert on a serene and radiant note, like a delightful sunny stroll in the countryside. Eons away from the famous pyrotechnics of the violin concerto the composer had just completed, this sonata is an uncomplicated, relaxed and animated dialogue between two long-time friends. On Saturday night, the duo on the stage eventually settled into an easy-going exchange, even if it seemed to take a little while for them to fully hit their stride together.
Then we moved on to Schumann's Violin Sonata No. 2, a longer and more challenging work that provided both musicians plenty of opportunities to display their truly dazzling virtuosic skills. There were a lot of fiery passages to marvel at, but the quieter moments created a real intimacy that was genuinely moving as well. It was an expansive, eventful journey, and the audience fully enjoyed it until the very end.
After those staples of the Romantic chamber music repertoire, the time had come for more recent pieces, first with the one-movement Violin Sonata that Ravel wrote as a student and never published in his lifetime. Listening to the work's gently melodic waves and boldly soaring peaks, I could not help but be baffled by the 22-year-old composer's lack of confidence toward this unquestionably attractive effort. Yuja Wang's assertive playing did not overpower Leonidas Kavakos' more subdued tone, although it sometimes came a bit too close to it for comfort.
More blazing sparks flew during Respighi's Violin Sonata, whose rich lyricism and natural radiance immediately brought to mind Brahms and Franck. The conventional three movements may essentially deliver the emotional intensity favored by the late Romantics, but when performed by those two highly accomplished musicians, there was really nothing more we could have asked for.

We did not literally ask for them, but our endless ovation unmistakably dropped quite a loud hint, so before we departed, we were treated to two delicious encores. The "Danse russe" from Stravinsky's Petrushka was a little marvel of laser-like precision and high spirits. Then we went back to Brahms for his lively Scherzo from the "FAE" Sonata, which was executed with just the right amount of sensitivity and brio. A totally exhilarating finish to a lovely evening, and an extensive test of endurance. Then I went to sleep.

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

American Composers Orchestra - Orchestra Underground: Monk's Sphere - 11/21/14

Conductor: George Manahan
A. J. McAffrey: Motormouth
Ian Williams: Clear Image
Theo Bleckmann: My Brightest Garment
Loren Loiacono: Stalks, Hounds
Meredith Monk: Night

After happily becoming acquainted with new choral music in Brooklyn on Thursday night, I was back at Carnegie Hall on Friday night, in Zankel's intimate underground space this time, to become acquainted with more new choral and instrumental music courtesy of the American Composers Orchestra. The only orchestra in the world uncompromisingly dedicated to American composers and their works, the ACO took the opportunity of artistic multitasker extraordinaire Meredith Monk reaching 50 years of non-stop ground-breaking creativity this year - and incidentally her 72nd birthday the day before - to throw a party of sorts showcasing some already much buzzed-about American composers of the new generation.

To get things going in a positive mood, the concert opened with A. J. McAffrey's "Motormouth", a restless 15-minute piece that seemed to take off in every possible direction and put itself through a wide range of moods in doing so, just like the composer's four-year-old son eagerly repeating the same joke over and over again with numerous variations. It left us all exhausted, but exhilarated.
We cooled off by listening to Ian Williams' electro-rock "Clear image", whose intriguing goal was to explore the differences between a multi-track recording and live music. The result was a jumpy, and not always particularly pleasing to the ear, pseudo-conversation between an annoyingly dysfunctioning R2-D2 and a standard instrumental orchestra that at times bothered to respond. Nothing much seemed to come out of this tedious exercise, or I completely missed it.
Coming up next, Theo Bleckmann's "My Brightest Garment" was a somewhat playful song about death seen as a magician's ultimate disappearing act. Simple but impactful, it started nice and sweet before growing into a wild ball of spiky energy. It was a decidedly cool little musical piece, and it would have been cooler without the lyrics or the electronics.
After realizing that the pretty sounds she had heard as a child when playing a Barbie's Dream House-based computer game essentially came from Ravel's lavish Daphnis et Chloé, Loren Loiacono set out to use the same concept for her own "Stalks, Hounds". Opening with a harp and woodwinds flourish similar to Ravel's, her composition steadily evolved into something completely different, but still intrinsically attractive.
The four youngsters above may have strived and occasionally succeeded in coming up with more or less satisfying works, but at the end of the day, Meredith Monk's "Night", performed by a distinguished vocal ensemble, including composer-turned-baritone Theo Bleckman, and the full orchestra, categorically proved that she could easily out-compose them all. Originally written in 1996 and revised in 2005, the immediately engaging, vaguely mystical work was clever without being flashy, adventurous without being inaccessible, unique without being self-centered. It endlessly created exciting relationships between voices and instruments, engaged in small sound experiments that were brilliantly illuminating at best and interestingly odd at worse, and effectively demonstrated how appealing bold contemporary music can be. Long live Meredith Monk!

Sunday, November 23, 2014

Brooklyn Youth Chorus - Black Mountain Songs - 11/20/14

Choral Director & Conductor: Dianne Berkun-Menaker
Creator: Bryce Dessner
John King: aer imitatur naturam
Bryce Dessner: Black Mountain Song
Richard Reed Parry: there is a sound
Caroline Shaw: Its Motion Keeps
Bryce Dessner: My World
Aleksandra Vrebalov: Bubbles
Jherek Bischoff: Childhood's Dreams
Nico Muhly: Fielding Dawson in Franz Kline's Studio
Bryce Dessner: Maximus to Gloucester
Richard Reed Parry: Spaceship Earth
Caroline Shaw: Anni's Constant
Richard Reed Parry: Their Passing in Time
Additional music:
Tim Hecker and Bryce Dessner: M.C. Richard

After attending one performance per day for the past five days and having two more lined up for the next two days, I had figured that I should take Thursday night off and just stay home. But I had not taken into account the irresistible siren song coming from the Brooklyn Youth Chorus all the way from BAM's cool Harvey Theater, where the unstoppable ensemble would première Black Mountain Songs, a 90-minute choral work co-commissioned by BAM and the Brooklyn Youth Chorus, created by Bryce Dressner, and inspired by North Carolina's erstwhile Black Mountain College, an informal community of teachers and students deeply dedicated to carrying out its intergenerational and multidisciplinary mission in a highly collaborative atmosphere.
Accordingly, eight composers have industriously collaborated for the past three years, eventually coming up with twelve songs that would be interspersed with readings and enhanced with the occasional dance number and photo or video projection. Running the whole show would be Dianne Berkun-Menaker and her consistently excellent Brooklyn Youth Chorus, a sizeable group of predominantly female teenagers who delivered dazzling performances the couple of times I got to hear them at Carnegie Hall. I could not have imagined a better singing force to embody Black Mountain's youthful, creative and collaborative spirit, or a better reason to go out on what was supposed to be my night at home.

Polyphony seemed to be the name of the game on Thursday night, whether stemming from Black Mountain's multi-faceted raison d'être or the music's endlessly complex harmonies. The multitude of composers involved in the project, among whom the most recognizable names may be Caroline Shaw, Nico Muhly, Richard Reed Parry and Bryce Dessner himself, also provided an impressively wide range of songs, which for the most part relied on poetry or text related to Black Mountain.
From John King's stunningly ethereal "aer imitatur naturam", sung by chorus members located in the stairs, the boxes and on the stage, all the way to Richard Reed Parry's red-hot "Their Passing in Time", which including a lot of fiercely rhythmical stomping, the audience found itself immersed in a totally engaging performance that was paying a sincere tribute to the ground-breaking educational experiment.
Inevitably, some songs stood out more than others. In addition to the powerful opening and closing numbers, I particularly noted Caroline Shaw's "Its Motion Keeps", which started inconspicuously with the composer on the viola and the chorus singing at its clearest, before growing into a soaring tapestry of sounds examining the ever-elusive concept of time.
Bryce Dessner's "Maximus to Gloucester" organically evoked America's original seaport and Richard Reed Parry's "Spaceship Earth" eloquently spoke of Buckminster Fuller's work, both supported by insightful visuals. Nico Muhly's spirited "Fielding Dawson in Franz Kline's Studio" proved that choral singing could be a lot of fun too, as did Aleksandra Vrebalov's whimsical "Bubbles".
The Brooklyn Youth Chorus being made of 50 young people, the singing was predictably fresh, fearless and energetic. More surprising was their uncanny ability to handle complicated harmonies and generally difficult passages, a challenge that they apparently found more stimulating than paralyzing if we are to believe the beautiful sounds they were creating. Granted, these beautiful sounds sometimes happened at the expense of articulation, which is regrettable when the text is such a crucial part of the whole show, but the experience was too exhilarating to dwell on it too much.
Complementing the musical performance was the projection of photos taken at Black Mountain during its years of operation, from 1933 to 1957, as well as photo and videos of related topics. While we were not always sure who we were looking at, it still made the seemingly utopian institution and its people a more palpable reality.
The small orchestra played on an elevated platform in the back, non-obtrusive and yet very much present. On the discreetly rustic stage, the singers and dancers, clad in free-flowing light-colored clothes, had plenty of room to move around freely, while the narrators, which included the poet and artist Basil King, a Brooklynite since 1969 and former Black Mountain student, and some of the singers, read from the sides. This simple setting made the performance accessible and compelling.
Black Mountain College has had a direct influence on a large array of cultural luminaries ‒ By default it did not matter of they were teachers or students ‒ such as John Cage, Merce Cunningham, Willem de Kooning, Robert Rauschenberg, Cy Twombly, Franz Kline, Robert Creely, Charles Olson and Buckminster Fuller, just to name a few. I bet they would be pleased with Black Mountain Songs.

San Francisco Symphony - Mahler - 11/19/14

Conductor: Michael Tilson-Thomas
Mahler: Symphony No. 7 in E Minor

After enjoying Anne-Sophie Mutter and her young Mutter Virtuosi ensemble in Vivaldi's crowd-pleasing The Four Seasons on Tuesday night, I was back in the same spot of the Stern Auditorium for a very different program ‒ and with very different expectations ‒ 24 hours later. Although last season the striking musicians of the San Francisco Symphony caused the cancellation of their Carnegie Hall performance of Mahler's Symphony No. 9, it looked like they were going to make it this season for Mahler's lesser-known but no less appealing Symphony No. 7. Then I knew that the concert was definitely on when I received the customary phone message from Carnegie Hall reminding us of their late seating policy. Mahler is serious business over there.
Yannick Nézet-Séguin and his Philadelphia Orchestra treated Carnegie Hall's packed audience to a magnificent Symphony No. 9 a couple of weeks ago, and on Wednesday night I sat down hoping for Michael Tilson-Thomas and his San Francisco Symphony to treat the less packed audience (But how do you compete with the Ninth?) to an equally magnificent Symphony No. 7, all the more since the tireless music director and conductor is widely recognized as a Mahler expert and the recordings he and the orchestra made of Mahler's symphonies are by and large considered classics of the genre. Bring it on, MTT!

All things considered, I would not quite qualify the performance I attended on Wednesday of "magnificent", but this assessment is essentially due to the symphony's inherently uneven nature, which strongly contrasts with its symmetrical structure, and not to a lack of efforts from the conductor and orchestra.
The first and last movements could not be more similar in length and more drastically opposite in mood. The seductive grandeur of the former was there, but not as commandingly sweeping as could have been expected; on the other hand, the sunny cheerfulness of the latter happily resounded in the entire hall, as if after many challenging twists and turns the musicians were finally letting their hair down, before concluding the frequently chaotic journey on a puzzlingly random note. Go figure.
The two "Nachtmusik" movements book-ending the central Scherzo came out satisfactorily atmospheric, even if they sometimes lacked a bit of cohesion. The first one was appropriately spooky and full of unexpected occurrences that may or may not happen during a midnight stroll, the second one quickly turned into a magical serenade, which included a lovely number for solo violin.
In the middle of it all, the infernal "shadowy" Scherzo proudly stood out as the darkest movement of the entire piece, a Viennese waltz that kept on taking the wrong turn, was going crazy, and sounded as if it was relishing every minute of it. More precise refinery than macabre grotesquerie, it ended up being the most fun and memorable episode of the whole evening.
Ultimately, no matter how you look at it, Mahler's Symphony No. 7 stubbornly remains a mysterious epic, and Wednesday's often exciting, occasionally inconsistent performance of it by the committed orchestra, dedicated conductor and uniformly strong soloists did not do anything to change this notion. It is a weird beast that shall not be easily tamed, but it is a good thing that brave souls keep on trying.

Saturday, November 22, 2014

Anne-Sophie Mutter Virtuosi - Bach, Previn & Vivaldi - 11/18/14

Bach: Concerto for Two Violins, Strings, and Continuo in D Minor, BWV 1043
André Previn: Concerto for Violin and String Orchestra (with two Harpsichord interludes)
Vivaldi: The Four Seasons

For most music lovers there are few pleasures in life that can equate to listening to Anne-Sophie Mutter play just about anything on the violin, and luckily for New Yorkers, she is the topic of a Carnegie Hall Perspectives series this season, which means that we can experience her ever-dazzling talent in a wide range of concerts, many of which focus on her unwavering commitment to music education and contemporary composers.
So this past Tuesday my friend Christine and I seized this opportunity to go hear Carnegie Hall’s unofficial Woman of the Year and some alumni of her Anne-Sophie Mutter Foundation, the Mutter Virtuosi, perform Vivaldi’s ever-popular The Four Seasons, which would be preceded by a major work by Bach and a US premiere by André Previn. The day was particularly cold and windy, but that obviously did not stop a large crowd, including an unusual high number of young people, to pack up the concert hall for a string-heavy concert led by the peerless violinist, who played like a goddess, and incidentally looked like one too.

Performing a demanding work by Johann Sebastian Bach with veteran violinist Anne-Sophie Mutter in Carnegie Hall's stately Stern Auditorium has to be an equally daunting and exciting milestone for any young musician, and it was occasionally felt in their playing, which was committed, for sure, but not as polished as it may have been in less paralyzing circumstances. There was still plenty to be enjoyed though, and it was. "Mutter" means "Mother" in German, and Anne-Sophie Mutter certainly kept a motherly watch over her protégés while still letting them engage in occasional flights of fancy on their own. Banding closely together, they did their best to bring out the austere beauty of the Concerto for Two Violins, Strings, and Continuo with dutiful studiousness, but also poise and gusto.
Dedicated to Anne-Sophie Mutter, André Previn’s Concerto for Violin and String Orchestra mostly stood out as a welcome transition to the Baroque masterpiece that was to follow it with its appealing lyricism, spiky passages, and two – slightly overextended, if you ask me – harpsichords interludes. Not as challenging as Bach and not as expansive as The Four Seasons, it turned out to be a pleasant, varied exercise, which soloist and students carried out nicely.
No matter how many times you've heard them, it is nearly impossible not to fall victim to the irresistible power of attraction of Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons one more time. And sure enough, with its countless pretty melodies, richly evocative sounds and perfectly balanced movements, the universally beloved classic among classics beautifully unfolded from the stage on Tuesday evening, prompting so many applause outbursts between movements that after another wave of enthusiastic clapping rewarded a particularly lively celebration of fall harvest, Anne-Sophie Mutter had to point out to the audience that there was still "One more season!". Spring enchanted with nature’s rebirth, full of hope and promises, Summer's oppressive heat finally broke when the mighty storm exploded, Fall enthralled with colorful, care-free revelry, Winter emphasized the ethereally delicate snow and the unforgiving icy rain. A true master of emotional intelligence way before it became an over-used buzzword, Antonio Vivaldi came up with the perfect composition to prove once and for all that descriptive music could be powerful, sophisticated, and still please the crowds. The Mutter Virtuosi sounded totally in their element and delivered a happily exuberant performance around their leader’s virtuosic feats.

This special occasion was wrapped up with another, definitely no-holds-barred, rendition of the Summer's storm by Vivaldi, before coming full circle to Bach and a simply sublime "Air on a G String", the ultimate parting gift before going to the cold winter reality .

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Music Mondays - Enso Quartet - Janacek, Puccini, Beethoven & Shostakovich - 11/17/14

Janacek: String Quartet No. 1, "Kreutzer Sonata"
Puccini: Chrysanthemums
Beethoven: String Quartet in C Major, Op. 59, No. 3
Shostakovich: Piano Quintet in G Minor, Op. 57 - Aaron Wunsch

 There's nothing like a little bit (or even better, a lot) of high quality live music to brighten up a miserable, cold and wet, November Monday. So yesterday evening I headed straight to the Upper West Side's cozy Advent Lutheran Church for an intimate Music Mondays evening with the Enso Quartet. The much-acclaimed 15-year-old ensemble was scheduled to play an appealing smorgasbord of beloved and lesser-known works by celebrated composers and could have hardly found a more captive audience.
After an unofficial Czech festival at Carnegie Hall on Sunday afternoon, it seemed like my Monday evening would decidedly be Russian-flavored, starting with Janacek's "Kreutzer Sonata", which was inspired by Leo Tolstoy's novella "The Kreutzer Sonata", which itself incorporates Beethoven's famed "Kreutzer Sonata" in its plot. Since the story ends with a murder, it was going to be followed by Puccini's elegiac "Chrysanthemums", because it kind of made sense after all. Then we had Beethoven and his particularly upbeat String Quartet in C Major, Op. 59, No. 3, which was dedicated to Russian Prince Andrei Razumovsky, and finally the big centerpiece of the evening, the Stalin-prize winning Piano Quintet by Shostakovich, which could not be more Russian even if it tried. Davai!

Starting a concert by a particularly challenging work can be considered counter-intuitive, but on the other hand, everything is likely to go down smoothly after it. Janacek's "Kreutzer Sonata" deals with the painful theme of domestic abuse and ends with a husband killing his wife in an act of jealous rage. After experiencing Janacek's "Tutras Bulba", which features three wartime deaths, the day before, I admit that I briefly wondered about Janacek's apparent fixation on macabre tales. But the fact of the matter is, he does them very well, and the unapologetically dissonant score, peppered with passionate élans, seething quietness and violent outbursts, is probably one of the most unique musical studies in mental instability and its dreadful consequences. The Enso Quartet resolutely met the challenge, unafraid of producing gritty sounds or disturbing images, and delivered a starkly emotional performance.
What could bring better solace after a brutal murder that some stunningly lyrical "Chrysanthemums", courtesy of Italy's premier melody-maker Giacomo Puccini? This delightful little gem packed a big soothing punch in its few minutes, proving that a lot can be beautifully said with the right notes and the right players. We obviously had them last night.
Then we went back in time for Beethoven's String Quartet in C Major, Op. 59, No. 3, a superb piece from his middle period, when he had more or less come to terms with his hearing loss and decided to move on to even bigger and better things than before. With an inconspicuous opening and a grand finale, it bursts with sunny radiance and self-confident optimism, and kept the ensemble busy expertly weaving a superb tapestry from the spectacularly wide range of sounds.
Fully on Russian soil this time, we moved to the Piano Quintet in G Minor, Op. 57 by Shostakovich, for which the Enso Quartet was joined by dedicated pianist Aaron Wunsch, who also happens to be the unstoppable artistic director of Music Mondays. It cannot be denied that this piano quintet may sound a bit conventional from an artist well-known as a major figure of Modernism, which would incidentally explain its unabated popularity, but it is nevertheless a masterfully shifting, deeply expressive and all-around musically satisfying composition. And let's not forget that having the Soviet government keep a watchful eye on your every move does not exactly encourage you to take unreasonable chances of any kind. Finally, the poised performance of it we got to enjoy last night categorically showed that one could stay politically out of trouble and still create meaningful work. So there. 

Monday, November 17, 2014

Czech Philharmonic - Janacek, Liszt & Dvorak - 11/16/14

Conductor: Jiri Belohlavek
Janacek: Taras Bulba
Liszt: Piano Concerto No. 2 in A Major - Jean-Yves Thibaudet
Dvorak: Symphony No. 9 in E Minor, Op. 95, "From the New World"

With all the pessimistic talks and anguished discussions about the falling attendance at classical music and opera performances, taking my seat in a cultural venue hosting a sold-out show is always a comforting moment, even if I am painfully aware that it also comes with some unavoidable inconveniences, such as exponentially increased chances that a concert-goer will forget to turn off their electronic device and get a call, another one will take a photo of the soloist, send it from his iPhone and carry on a conversation about it all during the performance, or another one will drop her program during the Largo.
And sure enough, all of the above happened yesterday afternoon at Carnegie Hall, where after a sold-out concert by the Philadelphia Orchestra for Mahler's "Resurrection" symphony a couple of weeks ago, the Stern auditorium could boast of a sold-out concert by the Czech Philharmonic for Dvorak's "New World" symphony. Va-va-voom! So there is hope, even if it starts with big crowd-pleasers. The rest of the program sounded like a lot of fun too, with Janacek's "Taras Bulba" ‒ If we're having the premier Czech orchestra on the stage, we might as well celebrate Czech music ‒ and my personal motivation for being in the hall, Liszt's second piano concerto performed by my fellow Lyonnais piano man extraordinaire Jean-Yves Thibaudet.

The concert started on an openly nationalistic, musically engaging, but dramatically grim note, with Janacek's "Taras Bulba", a 25-minute work inspired Gogol's short story about the Ukrainian Cossack's fight against the Poles, in which each of the three movements features a death (Bulba's younger son, Bulba's older son, Bulba). With the inventiveness of Janacek's score and the dynamic conducting of Jiri Belohlavek strongly emphasizing the burning dilemma between personal feelings and patriotic duty, the story swiftly unfolded with lavish melodies and resounding fanfares in a fiercely colorful number.
The first time I heard Jean-Yves Thibaudet perform Liszt ‒That would be "Tottentanz" several years ago ‒ I immediately realized that those two were a match made in heaven. Although I'd go hear the most stylish pianist of them all play pretty much anything, the prospect of hearing him tackle Liszt always adds an extra, irresistible, incentive. Predictably, yesterday lived up to my sky-high expectations again, even as the typical flamboyance was significantly toned down to make room for subtle introspection and the orchestra was skillfully brought in as a more equal partner. On the other hand, Liszt will be Liszt, and there were still plenty of opportunities for Thibaudet to show off his impressive virtuosic skills and his gorgeous delicate touch all the way to the old-fashioned grand finale.
Since the one-movement piano concerto lasted a mere 20 minutes, Thibaudet generously extended his much appreciated stay among us with a heavenly account of Schubert 's "Kupelwieser-Walzer", arranged by Richard Strauss, which provided us with a wonderfully soothing respite between Liszt's lush Romanticism and Dvorak's American liveliness.
Dvorak's universally popular and widely quoted "New World" symphony is the kind of works that I never go out of my way for because I know that sooner or later our paths will cross, usually after I've been lured in by another item on the program. Then I hear it again and realize what an incredibly cool composition it is again, yesterday's richly earthy performance of it by the Czech Philharmonic being yet another case in point. A heart-felt tribute to America's culture and spirit, deeply influenced by Native-American and African-American music traditions, this classic among classics never fails to captivate the listener with its unpretentious freshness and boundless exuberance. Back for the umpteenth time in the Stern Auditorium where it was premiered 121 years ago, Dvorak's Symphony No. 9 gloriously took over the whole space, proudly rising, leisurely meditating, happily dancing, unequivocally triumphing. This is obviously the stuff the musicians were born to play, and this intensely committed performance would have made Dvorak very happy.

Obviously fired-up by what they had just achieved and the enthusiastic ovation it prompted from our part, conductor and orchestra decided to just carry on and treated us to an energetic overture to The Bartered Bride by Bedrich Smetana and a melancholic "Valse triste" by Oskar Nedbal, which pleasantly rounded up our quick, incomplete, but fully enjoyed, taste of Czech composers.

Sunday, November 16, 2014

Met - The Death of Klinghoffer - 11/15/14

Composer: John Adams
Conductor: David Robertson
Producer/Director: Tom Morris
The Captain: Paulo Szot
Marilyn Klinghoffer: Michaela Martens
Leon Klinghoffer: Alan Opie
Mamoud: Aubrey Allicock
Molqi: Sean Panikkar
Rambo: Ryan Speedo Green

They say there is no such thing as bad publicity, and the robust ticket sales of John Adams' The Death of Klinghoffer at the Met following weeks of vituperative accusations of anti-semitism and pro-terrorism would certainly support this theory. But the artists, Met personnel and public who had to put up with all kinds of harassment, from mere annoying to plain vicious, may think that the means did not justify the end, and who could blame them? Moreover, in this particular case, the irony is that there was no controversy to be found to begin with, which the protesters could have easily realized if they had bothered checking out the opera instead of stridently stating groundless claims and making fools of themselves. Oops.
Unlike the vast majority of the protesters, I was actually familiar with Klinghoffer because I had seen - and very much liked - the BBC film version of it several years ago. So last summer, my only motivation to buy a ticket was to attend a live production of it, not thinking for a minute that it was about to become the focus of so much pointless ranting and raving. And then all hell broke loose.
Fortunately Peter Geld held strong when it came to the live production, unfortunately he caved in when it came to the broadcasts, depriving the rest of the world from a chance to get to know a major work and make up their own mind about it like, you know, grown-ups are supposed to do. So it was with a special thought for my frustrated opera-loving friends and family that I walked down Broadway yesterday afternoon to attend the Saturday matinee we should have all shared.

Based on the 1985 hijacking of the Italian cruise ship Achille Lauro by members of the Palestine Liberation Front, during which wheelchair-bound Jewish American Leon Klinghoffer was murdered, his body and wheelchair thrown overboard, The Death of Klinghoffer has been regularly performed in major cities around the world for the past 23 years. Even when it generated controversy, those occurrences can hardly be compared to all the noise we had to endure here, which incidentally does not speak exactly well of New York City as the potential cultural capital of the world.
After a rowdy, headline-making opening night a few weeks ago, things have been back to normal outside the Met, but once inside yesterday, a vague feeling of paranoia was still in the air as apologetic extra personnel asked me to throw away my water bottle "just for this show" as I was passing security. (But not to worry, I quickly realized that I could still buy an overpriced water bottle at one of the Met's bars and hurl it toward the stage if that had been my intention anyway.)
Although the title is about Leon Klinghoffer, the lead part was the nameless captain, who was soberly and efficiently interpreted by baritone Paulo Szot, whose strong and flexible voice gave the character a dignified presence, the one of a man ready to reason the unreasonable and sacrifice himself for the crew and passengers he was responsible for.
Mezzo-soprano Michaela Martens was viscerally touching as Marilyn Klinghoffer, a devoted wife dying of cancer but determined to spend quality time with her husband. Her singing was crystal clear, richly colorful and deeply affecting, making her an instant crowd favorite.
As Leon Klinghoffer, baritone Alan Opie had only two arias, but they were spell-binding ones, and he easily commanded the stage with his particularly expressive voice as he first angrily confronted the hijackers and later ethereally drifted away.
The bad guys, who had generated so much of the heat because they were literally given a voice, grabbed the opportunity and made a riveting use of theirs. Bass-baritone Aubrey Allicock was a complex Mamoud, who had survived the Sabra and Shatila massacre, where he saw his mother and brother murdered, and consequently turned into a cold-hearted, non-compromising terrorist. The hard line he had adopted, however, did not keep him from having mundane tastes, such as fondly remembering the pop music from some local radio stations and musing about birds and freedom.
Tenor Sean Panikkar was an out-of-control Molqi, whose virulent singing made him even more of an unpredictable threat. Bass baritone Ryan Speedo Green was quick-tempered, big-mouthed Rambo, the one who suddenly launched into an anti-Jewish rant bursting with bigoted stereotypes and later came up with the immature, sadistic hand grenade scare.
Although the soloists were all very fine indeed, the real star of the opera had to be the Met chorus, which handled the massive challenge of providing richly textured, organic interludes with unshakable force and stunning subtlety. The opening Chorus of Exiled Palestinians followed by the Chorus of Exiled Jews were dramatically instrumental, musically mesmerizing and set the highly expressive tone of the choral parts right away. However, to my ears at least, their tour de force of the afternoon was the Night Chorus, which exploded with ferocious rage before a West Bank wall covered with screamingly colorful street art as huge green flags were being assertively waved.
But all the outstanding singing talent in the house could not hide the fact the text they were given did not say much or said too much, depending on how you looked at it. In fact, the major flaw of the opera is probably an overly dense libretto that for the most part overflows with fancy words, biblical references, obscure metaphors, and rarely seems to connect with the reality of the situation. This is all the more problematic as the story is neither linear nor always well-balanced, and all this over-ambitious pseudo-poetry fails to clarify or elevate the unfolding drama. Even the most emotionally gripping scene of the opera, when the captain told Marilyn Klinghoffer that her husband had been murdered, eventually got spoiled when another weird metaphor sneaked into her otherwise simple, devastatingly effective text.
On the other hand, the production's use of projected photos and text often helped situate the action and fill some of the most static scenes with valuable insights. Backgrounds representing the thankless nature of the arid land or the sheer impassibility of the Mediterranean sea and sun worked well, as did the partial reconstitution of the ship, on which brilliant minimalist tableaux were created at times. But I could have done without the jumpy choreography, or having a veiled Palestinian mezzo-soprano sing the part of Omar, a male terrorist who was embodied by a jerky dancer. In those cases, less would have definitely been more.
The ultimate unifier of all the parts was the hypnotic composition written by John Adams. Whether it was dealing with complex chorus numbers expressing universal ideas, introspective arias conveying psychological struggle, or the inherent tension of life on a hijacked ship, the music never failed to persuasively draw the attentive audience in and keep them on a permanent edge. The score also benefitted from a beautifully nuanced and masterfully executed performance by the always excellent Met orchestra, who gave it their all under the assured and unwavering baton of David Robertson.

The clapping started even before the lights had completely faded, maybe out of a need to come back to a comforting reality quicker, and only grew exponentially to reach a thunderous ovation when John Adams appeared on the stage of the packed opera house. And rightly so. After a rather humdrum Aida a couple of weeks ago, I was only too happy to have experienced a truly memorable performance of a fundamentally messy, but also profoundly human, musically enthralling, unapologetically thought-provoking, and regrettably more relevant than ever, opera because, at the end of the day, that is what genuine artistic endeavors are all about.

Friday, November 14, 2014

Quatuor Ebène - Mozart, Mendelssohn & Bartok - 11/12/14

Mozart: String Quartet in E-flat Major, K. 428
Mendelssohn: String Quartet in A Minor, Op. 13, "Ist es wahr?"
Bartok: String Quartet No. 4

It is always nice to have an extra little pick-me-up on Hump Day, just to make the day even more special. This past Wednesday, however, had a particularly big treat associated to it with the annual visit of the hottest French string quartet ever to New York City. Watching the meteoric trajectory of the virtuosic and intrepid Quatuor Ebène, from my first encounter with them at the Library of Congress in 2009 to... now, when they regularly fill up Zankel Hall with an enthusiastic audience, has been constantly thrilling and rewarding, and I was more than ready for my annual fix.
Wednesday's program, which included Mozart, Mendelssohn and Bartok, sounded appealing, yes, well-balanced, obviously, but, all things considered, rather conventional. However, as a dedicated fan of the seriously fun-loving ensemble I knew better, and even before the concert started I was already looking forward to the end of the official program, when delightful surprises never fail to materialize.

Mozart's "Haydn" Quartets, in which the old master's classicism cleverly rubs notes with the young pupil's petulant instincts, are the kind of works I can listen to anytime anywhere. Brilliantly performed by those seasoned and committed musicians, the third Quartet of the series unfolded with playfulness, precision and warmth, opening the classical portion of the evening with grace and vitality.
After marveling at young Mozart's refined flair at 27, we got to experience even younger Mendelssohn's passionate style at 18. Both being industrious students, the former's six-piece set was paying a glowing tribute to Haydn, the latter's "Ist es wahr?" Quartet was divinely inspired by Beethoven. Add to that the sunny luminosity already found in his famous Octet, whose first version he had come up with two years earlier, and you have an immediately infectious, profusely melodic composition that does not hesitate to pull on your heartstrings in the best Romantic tradition. The incandescent, flawlessly unified playing of the ensemble intensely heightened the richly lyrical quality of the work in Zankel's ever-cool interior.
Things got unquestionably rougher after intermission when Bartok and his intriguingly symmetrical String Quartet No. 4 took center stage. Carefully arranged around the slow third movement, the four other movements formed compelling outer shells, what with aggressively popping pizzicatos, energetic dance rhythms, dazzling technical tricks, deeply expressive colors and so much more. The wide range of sonorities kept the audience constantly on the edge and ended the official program of the evening with a masterful tour de force.

Once the classical stuff out of the way, the time had come to paaartyyyyy. And party we sure did when the four musicians came back and announced that we were all going to Brazil because last year they recorded an album of Brazilian music coinciding with the World Cup. Inspired by Ari Barroso's "Aquarela do Brasil", "Brazile Odyssey" started slowly but quickly gained tremendous, all-out exuberant momentum, with a little help from one of their local buddies, French-born jazz percussionist Mino Cinelu.
Moreover, since we were all brought in to sing along after a very short rehearsal, I can now legitimately claim that I made my singing debut at Carnegie Hall with the Quatuor Ebène... and a few hundred random fellow audience members, all the more psyched by violist Mathieu Herzog's no doubt totally objective assessment of our performance as "not bad". The rousing ovation they received made it clear that our totally objective assessment of their performance was "outstanding". À l'année prochaine !

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Cantori New York - Nazziola, Palestrina, Holst & Bank - 11/08/14

Artistic Director & Conductor: Mark Shapiro
Tom Nazziola: Mediterranean Trilogy
I. Love (Text by Khalil Gibran)
II. Here I love you (Text by Pablo Neruda)
III. It gives me wonder (Text by William Shakespeare)
Giovanni Perluigi da Palestrina: Canticum Canticorum Salomonis (Song of Songs)
I. Osculetur me osculo oris sui
II. Trahe me post te
III. Nigra sum sed Formosa
Conductor: Jason Wirth
Gustav Holst: Five Partsongs, Op. 12
I. Dream Tryst
II. Ye little birds
III. Her eyes the glow-worm lend thee
IV. Now is the month of Maying
V. Come to me
Jacques Bank: The jazzman, his wife and the Persian poet
Thomas Bergeron: Trumpet
Paul Murphy: Trumpet
Maryann Plunkett: Narrator
Kris Saebo: Double bass
Jared Soldiviero: Percussion
Jason Wirth: Piano

Now that the 2014-2015 cultural season has gotten into full swing, it was only a matter of time before Cantori New York and their adventurous artistic director and conductor Mark Shapiro presented their season-opening concerts, and that's just what they finally did this past weekend, on the Upper East Side and in the West Village, with a predictably unpredictable program made of works from a wide range of genres, time periods and parts of the world, because they can.
So on Saturday evening, a sizable crowd, including so many familiar faces that it almost felt like another day at the office, braved one of the first bitterly cold spells of the season and eagerly gathered together in the beautiful Park Avenue Christian Church. We were all there to attend the world premiere of attending Dutch composer Jacques Bank's The jazzman, his wife and the Persian poet, a piece about American jazz giant Charlie "Bird" Parker and his common-law wife Chan that involves a chorus, a few musicians, a narrator, and some verses from Omar Khayyam's The Rubaiyat. Although this intriguing centerpiece sounded just about right for the thrill-seekers among us, it was prudently preceded by more traditional but still exciting fare from contemporary New York, Italian Renaissance and early 20th century England to keep the more conservative minds happy as well.

The concert opened with the US premiere of Brooklynite Tom Nazziola's Mediterranean Trilogy, which of course immediately brought me back with profound nostalgia to the work's European premiere over a year ago in Marseille, where it was performed by Cantori as part of the musical festivities celebrating the French city's status of 2013 European Capital of Culture. Based on texts by Khalil Gibran, Pablo Neruda and William Shakespeare, the three spontaneously engaging movements depict various moods of love, from contemplative to wishful to joyful. Since they have just recorded it, I expected Cantori's singing to be pitch perfect, and it pretty much was. Another proof, if need be, that practice, practice, practice does pay off.
Love – or at least lust – was still in the air as we moved on to 16th century Italy for a sample of Palestrina's sprawling Song of Songs. As the choir was working its way through three of the Renaissance master's unabashedly sensual motets, the audience fully relished the timeless beauty of those little gems, whose highly refined polyphony ardently filled up the hushed church. On a more prosaic note, witnessing Cantori perform a choral work that is neither new nor neglected was also a Kodak moment to remember.
Jumping forward a few centuries and heading up north, we found ourselves in England for Five Partsongs by Gustav Holst. Mostly well-known for his popular orchestral suite The Planets, he also happened to have built a remarkably eclectic œuvre throughout his career. Written when he was not yet 30, these five love songs were charmingly melodic, pleasantly light-hearted and all-around lovely, like a care-free stroll in the ever-green English countryside.
They say that behind every great man stands a great woman, and it certainly sounds like Jacques Bank would not disagree with that. By bringing to musical life the long-lasting, endlessly complex and deeply loving relationship between Charlie Parker and Chan through her experience of it in The jazzman, his wife and the Persian poet, he has created a brand new masterwork that eventually reaches universality via its very particulars, whether they be the obstacles faced by the interracial couple in 1950's America, the heart-breaking death of their child, some 11th century Persian poetry or a resolutely modern instrumentation.
Since the composition is not about Charlie Parker's music, there was no saxophone to be found on the stage, but the piano and double bass effortlessly conveyed a discreet jazzy mood. On the other hand, the two trumpets quickly imposed themselves bright and clear, and the wood blocks were so assertive that my ears are still ringing just thinking about them. Although projecting the narration over the music was challenging at times, nonplussed veteran performer Maryann Plunkett whole-heartedly put her crystal clear articulation and strong power of expression to the service of Chan, giving the young woman a vibrant emotional presence. Cantori's singers, taking on the role of a traditional Greek chorus, superbly enhanced the mystical quality of Omar Khayyam’s poetry while providing subtle insights in Bird’s multifaceted-character. In the end, one trumpet gently uttered the jazzman's last, sinuous breath, and the rest was silence.

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

The Philadelphia Orchestra - Mahler - 10/31/14

Conductor: Yannick Nézet-Séguin
Mahler: Symphony No. 2 in C Minor, "Resurrection"
Sarah Connolly: Mezzo-soprano
Angela Meade: Soprano
Westminster Symphonic Choir

When you get a call from Carnegie Hall warning you that there will be no late seating, and then when you see countless people desperately looking for tickets outside the venue, you know for sure that you have a big night ahead of you. And it was, with The Philadelphia Orchestra scheduled to perform Gustav Mahler's magnificent "Resurrection" symphony under the baton of its ever-ebullient music director Yannick Nézet-Séguin, the still remarkably young man who for the past few years has been enjoying a meteoric international career collaborating with many prestigious orchestras and opera companies.
So after a long, late and uneven night at The Met with Aida on Thursday night, my mom and I were more than ready to wrap up the week with an extensive philosophical journey on what happened to be the creepiest night of the year. This would not be an evening for the faint of hearts, but then again, when the going gets tough, the tough get going.

There is so much going on during the approximate 90 minutes of Mahler's Symphony No. 2 that I always find it nearly impossible for me to take it all in. So I can't even imagine being the poor maestro who has to stay in constant control of the huge orchestra, the large chorus, two female soloists, and the organ. But Yannick Nézet-Séguin looked unfazed by the challenge ahead of him and approached it with his trademark spontaneous enthusiasm and dedicated musicianship. Attempting to tame the mighty "Resurrection" in Carnegie Hall’s Stern Auditorium has to be a milestone in any conductor’s career, and he was manifestly ready to seize the moment.
The performance opened with its famously intense, dark evocations of death before spending the rest of the score wondering what was coming next. Whether fiercely stirring the already potent turbulences or delicately modulating the more contemplative moments, Nézet-Séguin confidently guided the fired up orchestra, which was by all accounts totally devoted to the mission at hand. The path chosen to accomplish it was clear, the ever-precarious balance among the various parts generally well-maintained, and a palpable sense of awe at the heroic undertaking never left the capacity-filled concert hall. The playing was vividly colorful, urgent yet nuanced. In short, just plain thrilling.
As if the endless peaks and valleys of the tumultuous instrumental composition were not enough, the two female soloists eventually rose up and contributed some truly inspired singing. English mezzo-soprano Sarah Connolly was discreet and meticulous, American soprano Angela Meade was luminous and passionate. The uplifting power of the human voice only expanded when the outstanding Westminster Symphonic Choir finally made its exquisitely hushed entrance before concluding the performance with a gloriously explosive grand finale, which immediately prompted a well-deserved thunderous ovation. The mission had been fully accomplished.

Sunday, November 2, 2014

Met - Aida - 10/30/14

Composer: Giuseppe Verdi
Conductor: Marco Armiliato
 Production: Sonja Frisell
Aida: Liudmyla Monastyrska
Radamès: Marcello Giordani
Amneris: Olga Borodina
Amonasro: Zeljko Lucic

I don't consider myself a procrastinator, and yet, for the past several years I had been postponing getting a ticket to the Met's much lauded production of Aida for one reason or another because I regularly figured out that there would always be "next season". Until now that is, as this season is supposed to be this particular Aida's last season, and also happens to coincide with my mom's annual visit. Thrilled at the prospect of being able to watch a Met opera in the house rather than on the HD broadcast screen across the pond, she quickly pointed out that she would treat if I got the tickets. Needless to say I quickly did.
Regardless of its obvious broad appeal, Aida has never been a favorite of mine, maybe at least partly because of its obvious broad appeal. On the other hand, nobody had to twist my harm to have me tag along and experience its exotic locale, gripping moral and emotional dilemmas, and richly melodic score one more time. And at the end of the day, who cared if it would end at a late hour on a school night? At least it should be one to remember.

Aida is allegedly Verdi's most popular opera, a good many knowledgeable people even consider it the most popular opera in the world, and when you look at it objectively, it is easy to see why: the drama is simple, the setting is grand, the music is beautiful, there is the added bonus of a couple of dance numbers and, in this production at least, the promise of the unusual presence of horses on the stage. So even if the overture was partly spoiled by late-comers being let in, the intermissions were interminable and the A/C was mercilessly blowing on us the entire time (So much for sunny warm Egypt!), we were happy to be there.
A lot of good things have been written and said about Ukrainian soprano Liudmyla Monastyrska, an Aida veteran by now, and there was a lot to like indeed. Her strong voice effortlessly soared above all and her range was impressively wide. She definitely sounded in control of everything coming out of her mouth, and that was definitely something to marvel at. All this singing power, however, was frustratingly undermined by her apparent lack of acting abilities. Apart from some tentative emotional involvement in the scene with her father in Act 3, this Aida did not seem overly bothered by all the drama unfolding around her.
On the other hand, Russian mezzo-soprano Olga Borodina was unquestionably in charge of her part and relishing every minute of her bad-ass Amneris. Not only did her singing convincingly rose above the fray, but her impersonation of the fundamentally spoiled, increasingly desperate and ultimately pitiful Egyptian princess was spot-on.
Italian tenor Marcello Giordani, a Radamès veteran himself, got the job done, never mind that his "Celeste Aida" did not dazzle in the least. Granted, the famous aria is at the very beginning of the opera and we were all still getting situated, but still. While most of his remaining performance was respectable, there was nothing even remotely memorable about it.
I found Serbian bass Zeljko Lucic much more expressive than he had been in Macbeth last month. On Thursday night, he carried out the role of the captured King Amonasro with poise and dignity. The chorus was its usual excellent self and beautifully contributed to our musical enjoyment of this performance.
My main reason for attending this production was the production itself, and I must admit that in the regard, my sky-high expectations were mostly met. Yet, a lot of the costumes needed some serious revamping and some hats should simply be tossed out. Some of the characters actually looked like they were rehearsing for a second-rate Halloween parade instead of being part of a landmark Met production.
However, when it came to the sets, they were a real feast for the eyes, finally putting the Met's oversized stage to good use with stylish opulence. Most impressive was Scene 2 of Act 2, when the back wall of Amneris' apartment slowly came down to reveal  a line of soldiers on top of it and a whole public square filled with people, including royalty, behind it. Soon the victory parade brought in even more people and the famous horses, one of which visibly not enjoying its fifteen minutes of fame. The scene ended up in a truly spectacular tableau, which prompted someone behind me to exclaim to his party that this was "what opera should always be like".
But opera is also about the music. In that regard, Verdi wanted to make sure that Aida fit the bill and brilliantly succeeded. Expertly combining complex choral numbers to express heart-felt patriotism and show-stopping arias to convey personal conflicts, the Italian master came up with the perfect cocktail that has been enchanting the crowds for decades. Met veteran Marco Armiliato conducted the superb orchestra in another confident performance and seemed to be on a mission to insure that the stunning score would not get overshadowed by the grandeur of the production. It did not.

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

The Ahn Trio - Bunch, The Doors, Prince, Bowie & Metheny - 10/25/14

Kenji Bunch: Concrete Stream
Kenji Bunch: Swing Shift: Night Flight
The Doors: Riders on the Storm
Prince: Purple Rain
David Bowie: Space Oddity (Arr. Kenji Bunch)
David Bowie & Pat Metheny: This is not America
David Balakrishnan: Skylife

It is not every day that you are welcome in a music venue to the sound of a popular rock'n'roll tune turned into a mesmerizing piece of contemporary classical music, a metamorphosis enhancing both the timeless nature of the original and the irresistible appeal of its bold reinvention.
But that's exactly what happened on Saturday night as my visiting mom and I were walking down the stairs to get to SubCulture's cool, intimate and always happening space. Of course, the unusual greeting was not a complete surprise since the headliners of the evening were the three classical trained (Juilliard, no less) Korean-born sisters who, a couple of decades ago, formed the disarmingly charming, fiercely talented and relentlessly experimenting Ahn Trio.
That's why we decided that, even after a gorgeous October Saturday spent enjoying urban nature on The High Hine, urban music in Washington Square, urban art with an exhibit about the NYC subway in a Tribeca gallery, and an urban treat with some rich hot chocolate in Soho in the company the ultimate urban (Brooklynite!) friend, we would still soldier on and wrap up this busy day with more live music in a decidedly very urban club.

The first piece was written by Kenji Bunch, one of the girls' Juilliard fellow graduates, for a performance combining dance and music. For better or worse no dancing took place on Saturday night, but "Concrete Stream" wasted no time powerfully resounding with its poetic evocation of natural flowing water and vivid depiction of a concrete jungle. From the very first notes, the three players presented a tightly united sisterly front, violinist Angella and cellist Maria regularly exchanging knowing looks and smiles with pianist Lucia fitting right in.
"Swing Shift: Night Flight". the second piece by Kenji Bunch, was composed especially for The Ahn Trio and focused squarely on the maddeningly fascinating environment that is New York City. Remarkable for their combined scope and complexity, those six movements allowed the ladies to readily create various moods, whether an endless drift into town, a brutal traffic jam, a wild party, a short but truly magical hour, or a cool jazz interlude. Clocking in at about 30 minutes, it was long enough to make a strong, multi-faceted statement without over-extending its genuine appeal. Happily diving right into the challenging work, the three musicians put their virtuosic skills to riveting use.
After intermission, the tireless trio got right into a groovy tune that I eventually recognized as "Riders on the Storm", the classical instruments beautifully heightening the spell-binding quality of The Doors' original song, even if this updated version did not feature any rain.
But we got rain of some sorts next, after Angella confided to us that one of the undisputed highlights of their career was hanging out with Prince at Paisley Park, which apparently even beat out playing at The White House for the Korean President. Consequently, we got to hear "Purple Rain" like very few people have, and this was quite an intense trip.
Turns out that Maria and I share an early obsession for David Bowie, but unlike me, she had the talent and means to put together and dedicate a whole solo album to the object of our affections. She was also kind enough to invite her sisters to guest on a couple of pieces, and there was born a very special "Space Oddity", which was the mesmerizing piece of music that had been playing as we were walking in earlier. Hearing it live made the truly otherworldly experience even more real.
Still in David Bowie's catalog, but with Pat Metheny this time, "This is not America" was quietly atmospheric, and the concert ended with a jazzy "Skylife" by David Balakrishnan. A fun, unpretentious, yet very cool conclusion that reaffirmed, if need be, that the sky's indeed the limit for those incredible ladies.