Monday, May 19, 2014

New York Classical Players - Mozart, Lin, Mendelssohn & Janacek - 05/18/14

Conductor: Dongmin Kim
Mozart: Divertimento K. 136
Wei-Chieh Jay Lin: Double Concerto for Violin, Cello and Strings
Katie Hyun: Violin
Michael Katz: Cello
Mendelssohn: String Sinfonia No. 2 in D Major
Janacek: Suite for String Orchestra

T'is this time of the year again, when music institutions and ensembles are industriously wrapping up their season, the audiences suddenly distracted by fair weather activities are dwindling down, and I do my best to catch those last performances before the quiet months of summer.
That's why yesterday afternoon I decided not to let the untimely cold that had already made me cancel my planned weekend in DC keep me down any longer before prudently gulping down some cough syrup and arming myself with tissues, Ricolas and water. Then I briskly walked up Broadway all the way to the beautiful Broadway Presbyterian Church to hear the New York Classical Players close their own busy season, including their first-ever mini US tour, with another free, open-to-all, no-holds-barred string feast featuring the household names of Mozart, Mendelssohn and Janacek as well as newcomer Wei-Chieh Jay Lin.

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart is rightfully one of the most famous figures in music for his knack to handle everything coming his way with incredible ease and extraordinary craftsmanship, and the delightful Divertimento that opened the concert is yet one more example of this supernatural ability. Written when the composer was 16 years old and performed with impressive poise by the young musicians of the orchestra, it was an irresistible mix of German precision, Italian joie de vivre and the composer's trademark elegance. Definitely a cheerful beginning if there ever was one.
Then we moved on to Wei-Chieh Jay Lin's Double Concerto for Violin, Cello and Strings, which was commissioned by The New York Classical Players and inspired by, of all things, Monet's Garden in Giverny. There was, however, nothing bucolic about the constant tension, sometimes discreetly underlying, sometimes loudly exploding, that ran through the whole piece, wreaking havoc in the two soloists' tentative relationship. On the other hand, the blurring between the reflection and the reality of the celebrated lily pond was most accurately transposed as violin and cello found themselves fighting for their legitimate place in the ever-changing composition. Nonplussed by the technical challenges, all musicians followed the steadfast lead of Dongmin Kim and delivered a tight performance that could only please the composer, who was in attendance.
And that was not all, as violinist Katie Hyun and cellist Michael Katz treated the enthusiastic audience to a special encore that took us back to Mozart with the third movement of his Duo for Violin and Viola in G Major, the cello impeccably filling in for the viola in this case, clearly proving that they were as comfortable with thorny contemporary adventures as with quintessential classical works.
We were back to more absurdly accomplished music composed by another child prodigy in his teenage years after intermission with Mendelssohn's enchanting String Sinfonia No. 2, which happily filled the whole space with youthful exuberance, pretty melodies and vibrant colors.
The concert, and the season, ended with Janacek's Suite for String Orchestra, written when he had already reached the ripe age of 23. Made of six distinct movements, it presented various moods, including the high-spirited Presto to the ethereal Adagio and concluded with the voluptuous lyricism of the Andante. I could not have expected more memorable final notes to carry me over until next season.

Saturday, May 17, 2014

Cantori New York - Osborne, Metzger, Rossi, Boyle & Handel - 05/13/14

Charles Osborne: Samachti B'omrim Li (Psalm 122)
Cheryl Metzger: Oseh Shalom
Park Avenue Synagogue Congregational Choir & Cantor Ben Ellerin
Salamone Rossi: Elohim Hashiveinu (Psalm 80)
Park Avenue Synagogue Quartet
Benjamin C.S. Boyle: Excerpts from Lamentations of Jeremiah
Cantori New York & Mark Shapiro (Conductor)
George Frideric Handel: Excerpts from Judas Maccabeus
Cantori New York, Park Avenue Synagogue Congregational Choir, Mark Shapiro (Conductor), James Wetzel (Organ), Cantor Azi Schwartz (Tenor), Cantor Shira Lissek (Soprano) & Cantor Ben Ellerin (Tenor)

Since I had been to the Park Avenue Synagogue back in October to hear Cantori New York open their concert season, it only made sense for me to be there again when they closed the season last Tuesday. Naturally, the fact that they would reprise a couple of verses of Benjamin Boyle's mesmerizing Lamentations of Jeremiah as well as add some excerpts of Handel's Judas Maccabeus to the program did not hurt, so my friends Lori, Ruth and I eagerly converged in the bustling synagogue to start our evening with an early, short and free concert.

The Park Avenue Synagogue Congregational Choir's lively performance of "Samachti B'omrim Li" and "Oseh Shalom" opened the concert with attractive melodies while The Park Avenue Synagogue Quartet did full justice to the Baroque appeal of "Elohim Hashiveinu".
After having very much enjoyed the entire work about ten days ago, hearing Cantori sing a couple of takes from the Lamentations of Jeremiah was another not-to-be-missed opportunity to experience the poignant composition that Benjamin Boyle created from the prophet's dark predictions. And there was still a lot to be discovered and savored in his ingenious blend of classical and modern choral techniques that was smoothly brought to life by the finely tuned choir.
As much as I regretted not getting to hear the full version of the Lamentations of Jeremiah again, I was mightily grateful for not being put through the entirety of Handel's Judas Maccabeus (I have to confess that the all-or-nothing purist in me easily caves in when it comes to endless Baroque oratorios). That being said, the several excerpts had been cleverly selected and included a personal favorite in "Ah, wretched, wretched Israel", which winningly combined the lyrical powers of soprano Shira Lissek and Cantori's singers, a couple of unusual but pleasant duets, a couple of arias that charismatic cantor Azi Schwartz assuredly handled, and the grand finale of "Hallelujah, amen" that brought together both choirs. It was actually so grand that it was repeated as an encore and provided a roof-raising conclusion to our early evening musical treat.

Sunday, May 11, 2014

New York Philharmonic - Rouse - 05/05/14

Conductor: Alan Gilbert
Christopher Rouse: Requiem
Jacques Imbrailo: Bass-baritone
Westminster Symphonic Choir
Brooklyn Youth Choir

A cultural capital such as New York City owes it to itself to have a world-class symphony orchestra, and luckily for all of us, it does. But since I love the New York Philharmonic just about as much as I hate the Avery Fisher Hall, I try to stay away from it and wait patiently for them to play somewhere more acoustically pleasing, which usually means yet another trip to Carnegie Hall.
This year the occasion was even more exciting than usual when Monday evening the orchestra was there to open the fourth and (Alas!) final Spring for Music festival, which has been striving to offer a wide range of contemporary music performed by smaller American and Canadian orchestras at an affordable price, an admirable endeavor that made the sight of the rather sparsely crowded auditorium all the more disheartening.
But, in any case, what better way to honor New York City than by presenting the New York premiere of what Christopher Rouse - the Philharmonic's current Composer-in-Residence - himself considers his "magnum opus"? As the festival was kicked off by WQXR's David Garland and dedicated classical music fan Alec Baldwin, hundreds of orange handkerchiefs were cheerfully waved for our musical home team in the best New York tradition.

The mood grew dark and heavy pretty quickly though. Closely inspired by Berlioz's own Requiem and written partly for the bicentennial anniversary of the French composer's birth in 2003, Rouse's Requiem also has a couple of connections to Britten's Requiem, which had been performed less than a week earlier in the same Stern Auditorium, namely the combination of Latin liturgical text for the chorus with English, Italian and Latin vernacular poems for the soloist(s), including a piece by English poet Siegfried Sassoon, who during World War I became brother in arms with English poet Wilfred Owen, whose work can be found all over Britten's Requiem. On Monday night, more coincidental occurrences were the return of the Brooklyn Youth Chorus, with the girls this time, while the boys had been there for Britten, and the presence of South African bass-baritone Jacques Imbrailo, who was a discreetly but brilliantly effective Billy Budd last fall at BAM.
Rouse's Requiem may be somewhat conventionally long (90 minutes) for a work of that kind, but it is probably the biggest and loudest of them all, so much so in fact that it wisely included an intermission to give artists and audience a well-deserved break. That's when I heard the concert-goers in the box next to mine animatedly complaining about the often cataclysmic loudness of some passages as well as the lack of melodies to hold on to, apparently missing the fact that the raging chaos often had a justified raison d'être in all its fascinating force. I have to confess though, that I was bracing myself every time Alan Gilbert looked like he was getting ready to jump and launch a new assault, and this strategy sure helped soften a few resounding blows.
I will also agree that from time to time the fully committed Westminster Symphonic Choir frustratingly disappeared under the huge orchestra's devastating outbursts, resulting in unrelatable turmoil and not much else. But when given a chance to shine, it did so beautifully, from the haunting "Requiem aeternam", to the lyrical "Quaerens me", to the powerful "Lacrimosa".
Not to be outdone, the girls of the Brooklyn Youth Choir, singing from the far right end of the First Tier, brought a much needed touch of angelic purity to the second part, especially with the Marian hymn (and incidental Christmas carol) "Es ist ein ros entsprungen".
The only moments of true introspection, however, were provided by soloist Jacques Imbrailo, whose sensitive singing depicted with much poise the intense grief experienced by the everyday man when faced with the death of a loved one through poems by Seamus Heaney, Siegfried Sassoon, Michelangelo, Ben Johnson, and John Milton. Unsurprisingly, those quiet islands of deep human distress stood out even more poignantly among the violent contrasts and extreme colors surrounding them.
The composer, who appeared onstage when all had been said and done, looked pleased with the result and received a thunderous ovation. His Requiem may be a technically and emotionally challenging work, but Alan Gilbert remained solidly on top of it and unwaveringly made sure that it received the compelling performance it deserved. And it did.

Wednesday, May 7, 2014

Cantori New York - Boyle & Beecher - 05/03/14

Artistic Director and Conductor: Mark Shapiro
Benjamin C.S. Boyle: The Lamentations of Jeremiah
Lembit Beecher: The New Amorous World
Emily Hoile: Harp
Kyle Hoyt: Horn
Rheagan Osteen: Horn
Jeremy Cohan: Narrator

Although I had regularly heard raves about the remarkable acoustics and eye-catching interior of the Park Avenue Christian Church on the Upper East Side, I had not been there for a concert - or any other reason - until last Saturday. That's when Cantori New York kind of reversed their usual schedule and performed the first concert of their new series there, instead of the Church of St. Luke in the Fields, where they will return this Saturday. Since I only do premières, not deuxièmes, I reversed my schedule too and finally got a chance to go check out the rightfully much lauded church, my only regret being that the late hour automatically prevented us from enjoying what looked like spectacular stained-glass windows.
As if to make the occasion even more special, the resolutely forward-looking choir was presenting the world première of not one, but two radically different choral works about the past and future of humanity, written by two young and up-coming American composers, Benjamin C.S. Boyle and Lembit Beecher, who were both in attendance. A typically intriguing and ambitious endeavor that attracted a significant crowd, which was amply rewarded with exciting new music, some of it inspirational for its sheer beauty, some of it memorable for its idiosyncratic inventiveness.

The first piece of the evening, Benjamin Boyle's The Lamentations of Jeremiah, was finally brought before an audience in its entirety after almost 10 years in the making. Needless to say it was perfectly suited for a Christian church, and after hearing it, I can also safely state that its appeal is truly universal. The admittedly superior acoustics did a wonderful job at letting the haunting voices boldly take up the whole space, and the finely tuned, expertly layered singing did the rest. Fundamentally complex in its structure and yet impeccably soaring in its execution, Boyle's new musical setting of the popular liturgical text is clearly entitled to have its own spot among the versions of numerous other masters such as Tallis, Couperin, Stravinsky and Bernstein.
Half as long and (at least) twice as weird, Beecher's The New Amorous World was kind of a CliffsNotes-type lesson in early 19th century French philosopher Charles Fourier's utopian ideas using a chorus, a harp and two horns. This one was not completely new to me as I had attended a sneak preview of it when it was still a work in progress about a month ago, but there was still a lot to take in. Opening to the assertive sounds of a glistering harp and two triumphant horns, the recurring theme of "Harmony" made it first and powerful appearance, reminding us all that its occurrence is as essential in music as it is in civilization.
What followed was a series of statements, sung or spoken, ranging from relatively common topics such as equal rights and free love to the definitely more esoteric concept of the all-mighty "Archibras" (aka the Arm of Harmony). The whole enterprise was for sure more engaging than my high school philosophy lessons, and about just as enlightening, which, incidentally, proves the importance of the method. Cantori's singers and conductor Mark Shapiro were obviously game, and with noticeable help from the vibrantly present instrumentalists, turned Fourier's sometimes eccentric, sometimes compelling, but in any case never boring, social theory into a totally winning performance. It all ended up in a slightly bluesy mood, the choir quietly pondering the (in)sanity of it all. And frankly, so were we.

Sunday, May 4, 2014

Philadelphia Orchestra - Barber & Bartok - 05/02/14

Conductor: Yannick Nézet-Séguin
Barber: Adagio for Strings, Op. 11
Bartok: Violin Concerto No. 1 - Lisa Batiashvili

Sometimes even the best laid plans just spin out of control and adjustments, including sacrifices, have to be made to stay afloat. That's why a Friday night at Carnegie Hall with my friend Linden to hear The Philadelphia Orchestra perform Barber, Bartok and Bruckner turned into a Friday night at Carnegie Hall with my friend Amy to hear The Philadelphia Orchestra perform Barber and Bartok. Still not a bad deal at all.
I try hard not to miss any appearance by The Philadelphia Orchestra and its dynamic music director and conductor Yannick Nézet-Séguin as I consider them a guarantee for an evening of adventurous, vibrant and engaging music making. In this case, Barber's "Adagio for Strings" remains a must-hear for the string lover in me, and Bartok always manages to keep me entertained in a challenging sort of way. So even if the voice of reason was making me skip Bruckner, with whom I've never felt a special connection anyway, I knew that my reduced playlist would still be worth the trip to W. 57th Street.

Barber's "Adagio for Strings" has remained one of the most beloved works in the classical music world and beyond, and on Friday night Yannick Nézet-Séguin and his wonderful string players reminded us all why in a performance that was as subtle as it was powerful. With long, expertly shaped lines and an inconspicuous overtone of haunting sadness, those were truly eight minutes of heavenly music. No matter what would happen or not happen subsequently, our evening had just been made.
The first movement of Bartok's short Violin Concerto No. 1, written when he was still a youngster in his mid-twenties, was also a feast of lush violin playing, after an opening by the soloist alone, a part that was masterfully filled by a bold and thoughtful Lisa Batiashvili. The mood became much more energetic and playful in the second movement, with strong hints of Eastern European folk dance tunes. Those pleasant twenty minutes went by quickly, and then it was regretfully time to leave while making a mental note of making up to the musicians from the City of Brotherly Love for this abridged attendance as soon as possible.

Atlanta Symphony Orchestra - Britten - 04/30/14

Britten: War Requiem, Op. 66
The Atlanta Symphony Orchestra Chorus
The Brooklyn Youth Chorus
Tenor: Thomas Cooley
Soprano: Evelina Dobraceva
Baritone: Stephen Powell

Just because Benjamin Britten's centennial celebrations are officially over does not mean that his music can no longer be enjoyed, so it is with endless excitement that I joined by my friends Dawn and Linden at Carnegie Hall's Stern Auditorium on Wednesday evening for his monumental War Requiem, which would be performed by the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra and Chorus, The Brooklyn Youth Chorus and three soloists. Not exactly the perfect pick-me-up in terms of cheerfulness, especially after a gloomy day of non-stop rain, but an irresistible promise of 90 glorious minutes of music, singing, liturgical Latin text and secular English poetry, all in the name of peace.

Commissioned in 1960 for the dedication ceremony of the new Coventry Cathedral, which had been destroyed in World War II, in England, Britten's War Requiem was an ambitious and unusual, yet readily accessible, endeavor. For this particular occasion, the die-hard pacifist had the brilliant idea to use some works by Wilfred Owen, the English poet and soldier who died in battle right before the Armistice of World War I at 25, but not before writing some viscerally gripping poems about the horror and absurdity of war. Interspersed in the traditional Latin Mass and soberly sung by the tenor and baritone over a chamber orchestra, those first-hand accounts of the battle field were an adroit way to carry out the composer's compelling statement as purposefully as possible.
On Wednesday night, those snapshots were capably rendered by tenor Thomas Cooley and baritone Stephen Powell, who brought the right amount of sensitiveness to their parts. On the other hand, soprano Evelina Dobraceva increasingly rose above the choral fray with a strong, polished and assertive voice. Standing out against the mighty chorus was no easy task, but she consistently came out loud and clear.
Even for all the unquestionable impact of the poetic snapshots, the two choruses turned out to be the real winners of the evening for me. For one, the sprawling Atlanta Symphony Orchestra Chorus sang with remarkable unity and handled a wide range of dynamics with force and aplomb. Nowhere was this well-oiled yet intensely emotional machine more impressive than in the take-no-prisoners moments of "Sanctus" and "Libera me". (Although this last bit was obviously not enough drama for the young guy to my right, who out of the blue pulled out his smart phone, checked his voice mail and actually started to make a call until I had him notice that, err, there was a performance going on.)
The other singing ensemble of the evening was the smaller in scale, but just as powerful on impact, group of boys from the Brooklyn Youth Chorus, who sang from the upper balcony of the auditorium. From their remote spot, they softly but surely impersonated the loss of innocence to memorable celestial effect.
Needless to say, all that singing, regardless of its attention-grabbing quality, did not manage to completely distract us from Britten's haunting score. Robert Spano, the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra and Chorus' music director and conductor for the evening, did not shy away from the complexity of the music, but he rather let it speak for itself in a truly beautiful performance that was respectful, well-controlled and still straight from the heart. Which made our eventual return to a cold reality of raging wind and pounding rain even more dreadful. Après Britten, le déluge!