Saturday, June 7, 2014

Budapest Festival Orchestra - All-Dvorak - 06/02/14

Conductor: Ivan Fischer
Dvorak: Slavonic Dance, Op. 72, No. 6
Dvorak: Cello Concerto in B Minor - Daniel Müller-Schott
Dvorak: Legend No. 10
Dvorak: Symphony No. 9 in E Minor, "From the New World"

Every time I am at a reasonable distance from Ivan Fischer and his unfailingly fabulous Budapest Festival Orchestra, I simply have to go. And so I did go to the Avery Fisher Hall on Monday night to hear Hungary's most prestigious export perform an all-Dvorak program, which included his grand cello concerto and his even grander "New World" symphony. Although these two extremely popular works regularly appear on concert programs all over the world, I knew that the visiting Hungarians would make them special by the sheer power of their committed musicianship and irrepressible spirit of adventure.

The short but lively Slavonic Dance No 8 that opened the program immediately put everybody in a festive mood, even more so when one of the orchestra's percussionists suddenly got up, nonchalantly came to sit down right in the empty soloist chair, casually took out a tiny brass cymbal from his pocket, and eventually started playing it right in tune, non-plussed by the big deal his small contribution had become.
Next, the soloist for the evening, young but already much in demand German cellist Daniel Müller-Schott, did take the seat that was rightfully his and readily delivered a beautifully expressive performance of Dvorak's beloved cello concerto. Listening to such a well-rounded composition, I was finding it hard to believe that it took Dvorak forever to decide to write for the cello. Taking his time to let the music expansively breathe and leisurely display a wide range of moods, from elegant to lyrical, from mournful to triumphant, Daniel Müller-Schott indisputably proved that he had a solid grasp on the challenging work and plenty of virtuosic skills to pull it off.
This was only confirmed by his soulful interpretation of Maurice Ravel's "Pièce en forme de Habanera" that rewarded our enthusiastic ovation.
Another lovely amuse bouche, Dvorak's Legend No 10 kicked off the second part of the concert with just enough firing power to prepare us for the big one that was coming our way.
Although Dvorak's Symphony No. 9 was written in the United States and is peppered with more or less obvious references to various American musical traditions, it remains first and foremost a majestic composition chock-full of intense emotions, appealing melodies and plenty of oomph. From the gripping opening to the take-no-prisoners finale, Ivan Fischer led his orchestra in a compelling performance that exuded razor-sharp precision and rustic light-heartedness by exemplarily unifying all fronts and boldly drawing out the work's many vibrant colors. Amidst all the sweeping moments, the melancholic Largo strongly stood out thanks to the spell-binding English horn solo that was inconspicuously supported by the hushed wind section. It all ended up in the well-known exhilarating climax that is the Allegro con fuoco. And there was a lot of raging fire indeed coming out of the stage on Monday night, prompting me to think that my 2013-2014 music season was about to finish with a resounding bang.

But assuming that the concert would wrap up with this terrific take on a classic among classics would be vastly underestimating Ivan Fischer's ever-unpredictable imagination. And sure enough, as if to prove their appreciation of our wild ovation, the women in the orchestra got up, took out a score and started singing Dvorak's "Hoře", a sad love song from his "Moravian Duets", delicately accompanied by the male string players. As low-key as the New World symphony was big-time, this unexpected conclusion of the concert effectively brought my music season to a unique and memorable end.

Tuesday, June 3, 2014

The Arvo Pärt Project at St. Vladimir Seminary - 05/31/14

Tallinn Chamber Orchestra
Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir
Conductor: Tonu Kaljuste
Pärt: "Fratres" for violin, string orchestra, and percussion
Harry Traksmann: Violin
Pärt: "Cantus in Memory of Benjamin Britten" for string orchestra and bell
Pärt: "Adam's Lament" for mixed choir and string orchestra
Pärt: "Salve Regina" for mixed choir, celesta, and string orchestra
Pärt: "Te Deum" for three choirs, string orchestra, piano, and wind harp

The weather is getting unquestionably sunnier and slowly warmer, but that did not keep a widely diverse crowd, in which stood out quite a few clergymen all decked out in impressive garb, from eagerly filling up Carnegie Hall's Stern Auditorium on Saturday night for "The Arvo Pärt Project at St. Vladimir Seminary ", a concert of works by the inimitable Arvo Pärt, the undisputed master of tintinnabulation who, starting from the rather limited sphere of Eastern Orthodox Christian tradition, has reached an extraordinary level of respect AND adoration reserved to very few living composers.
The fact that his selected pieces for the evening would be performed by the ultimate experts of his œuvre - Conductor Tonu Kaljuste, the Tallinn Chamber Orchestra and the Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir - only added to the growing excitement and elevated already high expectations ever more. So I met up with my friends Dawn and Linden in the packed concert hall for a Saturday night dedicated to that strange beast that is popular spiritual music.

Stepping right onto familiar territory, the audience first got to hear an orchestral version of the popular "Frartres" and right off the bat, we all realized that the artists onstage definitely had what it takes to bring the Pärt's deceptively simple yet deeply poignant music to mesmerizing life. As first violin Harry Traksmann started playing the hypnotic opening and the orchestra surreptitiously joined in, it became very clear that every single note had been carefully considered and fell right into place for a performance that was as precise as it was affecting.
"Cantus in Memory of Benjamin Britten", the other, even shorter, instrumental work on the program, paid a heart-felt tribute to the English composer with an inspired combination of strings, which achingly expressed the agony of grief, and a sporadically tolling bell, which reminded us all of the implacability of death. Even the audience member who decided he should start clapping right after the last note had been played in order to show how knowledgeable about the piece he was did not manage to spoil the moment.
The much taunted choir finally made its dazzling entrance with the hair-raising opening of "Adam's Lament". Taking the subject of Adam from a text written by Saint Silouan the Athonite, a Russian Orthodox monk from the early 20th century, Pärt magnificently expands on it and successfully reaches out for all of humanity with the universal themes of loss and hope. Although the music is intrinsically linked to the liturgical lyrics, one does not have to be the religious type to appreciate its intricate structure and emotional power, including some devilish pizzicatos, all of which were assuredly and flawlessly handled by musicians and singers under the insightful baton of Tonu Kaljuste.
On a more subdued and less anguished note, "Salve Regina" was a delicately measured medieval prayer to the Virgin Mary, whose elegant simplicity was briefly shaken up by a couple of gripping outbursts before calming down again and ending in a wistful whisper.
The final work of the evening was Pärt's "Te Deum", an austere yet dramatic prayer that transcendentally combines Gregorian and Byzantine traditions while still remaining broadly accessible. Organically unfolding as a meditative journey remarkable for both its humility and its majesty, this "Te Deum" also significantly benefited from the unusual configuration of three choirs, a string orchestra, a piano, and a wind harp, which all miraculously came together under the exacting watch of maestro Kaljuste. Under its seemingly minimalist appearance, the work's structure is complex enough to make it a richly satisfying composition, which concluded the concert with a soothing feeling of restful peace.

The endless ovation started loud, then became delirious when Mr. Pärt himself came on the stage, as humble and inconspicuous as ever. After a while, as there were understandably no encores to be expected, we collectively picked up our jaws from the floor and headed for the exit. As it happened, my last Carnegie Hall concert of the season did not end with a resounding bang, but with the discreet and lingering magical spell of a quiet Estonian visionary's music. And that was so much better.