Monday, March 31, 2014

Kronos Quartet - 40th Anniversary Celebration - 03/28/14

Aleksandra Vrebalov: Bubbles
Brooklyn Youth Chorus
Thomas Kozumplik: Vibraphone
Bryce Dessner: Aheym (Homeward)
Bryce Dessner: Guitar
Traditional: Tusen Tankar (A thousand thoughts)
Geeshie Wiley: Last Kind Words (arr. Jacob Garchik)
Omar Souleyman: La Sidounak Sayyada (I'll present the hunters from hunting you) (arr. Jacob Garchik)
Terry Riley: The Serquent Risadome
Severiano Briseno: El Sinaloense (The man from Sinaloa)
Face the Music
Laurie Anderson: Flow (arr. Jacob Garchik)
Jherek Bischoff: A Semiperfect Number
Jherek Bischoff: Bass guitar
Philip Glass: Orion: China (arr. Michael Riesman)
Wu Man: Pipa
Vladimir Martynov: The Beatitudes, from La Grande Bellezza
Clint Mansell: Lux Aeterna, from Requiem for a Dream (arr. David Lang)
Clint Mansell: Death is the Road to Awe, from The Fountain (arr. Kronos Quartet)

Electric equipment and a silver screen are a rather uncommon sight on the stage of Carnegie Hall's august Stern Auditorium, but on Friday night the element of surprise quickly faded when one remembered that the headliner was The Kronos Quartet, one of the most boldly eclectic ensembles in classical music.
The occasion was the celebration of four busy decades spent constantly pushing the boundaries of the string quartet formula while resolutely engaging in ground-breaking cross-cultural adventures, and the promise to a fifth one just as exciting. So it was not overly surprising - and rather heart-warming - to see that the audience filling up the concert hall looked more diverse than usual.

After the short film "Kronos at 40" summed up as succinctly as possible the quartet's remarkable career, the four current members took the stage along with the Brooklyn Youth Chorus for Vrebalov's "Bubbles". Energetic and playful, it readily opened the concert on a quirky, upbeat note, youthful laughter included.
More cross-generational collaboration was on display with the first number after intermission, when young string players from the Face the Music program, which Kronos violinist David Harrington greeted as "the future", joined the quartet for an all-around rambunctious "El Sinaloense", an infectious Mexican folk song by Severiano Briseno.
One of the advantages of collaborating with living composers is that they sometimes can come and join you onstage, and that's exactly what Bryce Dessner and Jherek Bischoff did on Friday night. Bryce Dessner's "Aheym" was an intense, pulse-driven work, whose sense of urgency was duplicated by the gritty sounds of his electric guitar.
Looking like he had just stepped out of a 50s rockabilly band, Jherek Bischoff was also able to contribute in person to his "A Semiperfect Number". The piece had a complex, ever-evolving texture, which benefited significantly from the addition of the bass guitar.
Bigger names in contemporary music composition were not on hand, but that did not keep us from enjoying their works. As such, Laurie Anderson's "Flow" was a little marvel of peaceful harmonies and minimalist structure.
On the other hand, "Orion: China" by Master of Minimalism Philip Glass brightly exploded with virtuosity and exoticism, not the least thanks to the presence of the young Chinese musician whom David Harrington heralded as the "Queen of Pipa", Wu Man. Making full use of her incredible dexterity, the piece adroitly featured many sounds playing with and against one another for a memorable string feast.
Not to be outdone, Terry Riley's "The Serpent Risadome", which had been commissioned for the Kronos Quartet by Carnegie Hall (That's what I call an anniversary gift!), was having its world premiere that evening and proved that the long-standing relationship between the ensemble and the composer is as fruitful as ever. Fearlessly exploring all the possibilities of the string quartet, Riley created an endlessly intriguing composition.
During the first half of the program, we also made a little melancholic detour by Scandinavia with the traditional folk song "Tusen Tankar", whose theme of unrequited love delicately unfolded in all its timelessness. But the mood quickly perked up with the jazzy sassiness of Geeshie Wiley's "Last Kind Words", and became downright festive with "La Sidounak Sayyada", the irresistible dance tune by Syrian music superstar Omar Souleyman.
This rocking celebration ended in a more subdued atmosphere with three soundtracks, starting with Vladimir Martynov's conventionally beautiful "The Beatitudes", which has recently been heard in La Grande Bellezza. Clint Mansel's "Lux Aeterna" from Requiem for a Dream and "Death is the Road to Awe" from The Fountain were also in the same classical mood, albeit with accompanying recorded tracks, and magisterially demonstrated that the Kronos Quartet can effortlessly master all possible genres.

The evening could not end without a truly out-of-the-box number, so we got to happily indulge into a shamelessly amplified, ferociously hot "Purple Haze", a party favor so brazenly exhilarating that, for a few minutes, we indeed felt like we were kissing the sky. I just can't wait for the quartet's 50th anniversary.

Sunday, March 23, 2014

Leif Ove Andsnes - All-Beethoven - 03/19/14

Beethoven: Piano Sonata No. 11 in B-flat Major, Op. 22
Beethoven: Piano Sonata No. 28 in A Major, Op. 101
Beethoven: Six Variations on an Original Theme in F Major, Op. 34
Beethoven: Piano Sonata No. 23 in F Minor, Op. 57, "Appassionata"

Amidst all the numerous uncertainties of life, one thing I am always confident about is that my more or less annual rendez-vous with pianist extraordinaire Leif Ove Andsnes will be a source of delight and wonder. And it never fails. So this season, I was looking forward to hearing him put his superb skills to work... on a long-overdue Beethoven recital.
By his own account, he was waiting to be ready for his "Beethoven Journey", and the time has apparently come. Since this would in all likelihood be yet another musical adventure to remember, my friends Paula - a long-time devotee - and Linden - a curious uninitiated - and I met in at Carnegie Hall on Wednesday night and happily joined the ever-increasing hordes of other Andsnes admirers.

From the get-go, opening the concert with Beethoven's Sonata No. 11 seemed like a perfectly appropriate way to pay homage to the composer's early-period works before moving to more exciting offerings. The thing is, however, that plenty of excitement came out of this not overly popular piece too, largely thanks to Leif Ove Andsnes' uncanny ability to expertly highlight the tiny details, boldly bring out the attractive colors and subtly underline the smooth textures. His clean-cut look for the evening conveyed an undeniable sense of respect and control, but there was no lack of carefree playfulness in his playing either.
Then we jumped over one and a half decade in time all the way to his late-period Sonata No. 28. Beautifully intimate in nature and technically complex in form, it received an assured and committed interpretation, all the way to the intricate, upbeat ending.
Back to the beginning of the 19th century after intermission, Andsnes turned the Six Variations on an Original Theme in F Major, Op. 34 into a fascinating exercise. Beside the innovative fact that each variations had its own key, the series was notable for its overall improvisatory, yet involved, feel.
The obvious anchor of the concert, Beethoven's middle-period "Appassionata" easily met and resolutely surpassed our wildest expectations. For this meaty pièce de résistance, Andsnes metaphorically got rid of his formal tie, unbuttoned his pristine shirt, and played with a no-holds-barred intensity that grandly swept everything on its way. The fact that he was able to steer so commandingly one of the most turbulent storms of the repertoire may not have been so surprising after all, and could unquestionably be counted as yet another supreme proof of his remarkable mastery of his craft.

Since neither the suddenly revved-up audience nor the newly liberated soloist seemed ready to leave, we got to enjoy three perfectly rounded encores, starting with more Beethoven courtesy of his "Bagatelle" in E-flat Major and Allegretto from Piano Sonata No. 22. To progressively cool off and wrap things up with a semi-unexpected touch, the very last party favor of the night had Leif Ove Andsnes go back to one of his first musical loves, Franz Schubert, and the exquisite rêverie that is his "Moment musical" No. 6. Then we all finally, if still reluctantly, left.

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Met - Werther - 03/11/14

Composer: Jules Massenet
Conductor: Alain Altinoglu
Producer/Director: Richard Eyre
Werther: Jonas Kaufmann
Charlotte: Sophie Koch
Sophie: Lisette Oropesa
Albert: David Bizic

I have never been a big fan of Massenet no matter how hard I've tried. I enjoyed Thaïs with Renée Fleming and Thomas Hampton, but that was more for the mesmerizing singers than the actual opera, and I've always found Manon to be a vapid floozy definitely not worthy of all the attention she gets (Although I must admit that the image of Anna Netrebko singing a beautifully heart-felt "La petite table" a couple of years ago at The Met has been solidly anchored in my memory ever since). As for the rest of his fairly large œuvre, there actually may be a reason why it did not really survive the test of time. Just saying.
So I had never been particularly interested in his Werther either. However, Goethe's popular novel The Sorrows of Young Werther, with its simple and dramatic story, certainly seemed ready-made for an opera treatment. Then It Tenor of the moment Jonas Kaufmann and highly regarded mezzo-soprano Sophie Koch got signed by The Met as the ill-fated couple, instantaneously increasing the production's hotness level. And finally, I should not be put down anything I haven't gotten a chance to experience in person anyway.

So I decided to give it a try last night, and so did many, many others. I couldn't help but feel sorry for the large contingent holding standing-room tickets as they were gamely climbing to the top of the Family Circle section with no hope whatsoever of being able to grab an empty seat during intermission. The performance was "only" three hours, but even such a reasonable duration can feel like a long time when one has to content oneself with standing room and limited view.
And all that, let's face it, for most people was probably not endured to experience Massenet's opera live or to check out Sophie Koch, who has been positively buzzed about, but is still relatively unknown on this side of the pond, but for über-popular Jonas Kaufmann. At least, he did not disappoint. From his first appearance as the quintessential Romantic poet, as impossibly handsome as ever with tussled dark hair and a long black coat, he eerily looked the part. And man, can he brood.
But the real treat was to hear him use his stentorian power to forcefully convey his uncontrollable feelings toward the woman he loves and cannot have. Even his warmer and softer notes had a moving honesty and desperation to them, all the way to his pianissimo dying words. Needless to say, his eagerly awaited, impeccably soaring "Pourquoi me réveiller" was rewarded by a frenzied ovation almost as long as the aria itself. Tired of moping around, the frustrated young man was getting really angry, and the moment was divine.
He was particularly well-matched with his French stage partner Sophie Koch, their immediate chemistry and obviously high comfort level in all likelihood stemming from their having performed these very same roles in Europe before. In her long overdue Met debut as Charlotte, the sensitive mezzo-soprano confidently displayed a constantly strong, endlessly versatile voice, from youthful freshness to unbreakable resolve to aching vulnerability. While I found the touching last scene overly long, I was absolutely floored by Act III, which started with the other famous letter scene of the opera repertoire, moved on to Werther making his dashing entrance, and peaked during their highly emotional confrontation.
The other members of the cast fared just as well, with among them lovely soprano Lisette Oropesa, a Met regular who brought a breath of fresh air every time Sophie walked in, although Charlotte's younger sister may also have been more mature than she let out, and affable baritone David Bizic, who capably embodied a good-hearted but hapless Albert in his Met debut.
The first thing that struck me even before the performance started was that the greeting "Joyeux Noel" that appeared on the Christmas card on the stage was misspelled, as "Noel" should have been "Noël". Apart from that unfortunate and easily avoidable faux pas, the sets were in general conventionally attractive, from the picturesque garden to the book-filled study, as were the costumes. Computer-generated imagery also helped change the atmosphere, the scenes and the seasons without ever being intrusive or out-of-place. And if it all seemed a bit precious, especially with Werther and Charlotte dropping to the floor at each dramatic plot twist, it is after all a Romantic tragedy.
The added opening scene, during which we saw Charlotte's mother collapse and eventually being mourned as the overture was playing, was unnecessary, but certainly not a disaster. The other controversial scene was Werther's killing himself, which included brooding, hesitancy, more brooding, and finally a fatal gunshot that splattered bright red blood on the white back wall. This unapologetic Tarantino moment may have felt too graphic for such a nuanced opera, but it also vividly emphasized the deep desperation of his act. It was not pretty, but then again, neither is suicide by gunshot.
Massenet wrote some nice melodies for the orchestra, but he obviously reserved his best compositional efforts for the singers. Having this consummate cast dive into the score with such committed passion was all benefit for the audience, who reveled in their terrific singing to the very end. On the podium, conductor Alain Altinoglu made sure to tread lightly while still keeping a tight grip on the overall musical performance. And it worked.

New Amsterdam Singers - Calamity and Consolation: From Darkness to Light - 03/09/14

Music Director & Conductor: Clara Longstretch
Howard Skempton: We who with songs
Ola Gjeilo: Ubi Caritas - Nathaniel Granor: Conductor
Johannes Brahms: Warum ist das Licht gegeben - The Chamber Chorus
Felix Mendelssohn: Beati Mortui - Max Blum, Andy James, Nathaniel Granor & Robert Thorpe
Jaakko Mäntyjärvi: Canticum Calamitatis Maritimae - Winnie Nieh (Soprano) & Max Blum (Tenor)
Heinrich Schütz: Musikalische Exequien - John Feeney (Double bass), Pen Ying Fang (Portative organ) & Max Blum (Intonations)

By chance this past weekend was happily overflowing with choral music courtesy of Cantori New York in the Village on Saturday night, and The New Amsterdam Singers, who performed in the beautiful Church of the Holy Trinity on the Upper East Side on Sunday afternoon. So many choirs, so little time (Sigh).
One more coincidence was the presence of Finnish composer Jaakko Mäntyjärvi on both programs, albeit with different works. The NAS had chosen his famous piece, or at least as famous as a Finnish choral piece can be, "Canticum Calamitatis Maritimae", which was inspired by the sinking of the luxury ferry Estonia in 1994. I had heard of it, but I had never actually heard it, so I was understandably very curious. It was a beautiful March day, perfect to cross The Park to venture to The Other Side and spend the late afternoon immersed in "Calamity and Consolation: From Darkness to Light". Oh my.

Not only did I get to enjoy two fabulous choral concerts this past weekend, but interestingly there was also a somewhat seamless continuation between the two performances as the first piece on Sunday afternoon was early 20th century British poet James Elroy Flecker's "The Golden Journey to Samarkand" set to music by contemporary British composer Howard Skempton. The end result, "We who with songs beguile the pilgrimage", had a refreshing directness to it and started the concert with lots of colorful lyricism.
Contemporary Norwegian composer Ola Gjeilo's "Ubi Caritas" followed with a beautiful plain chant, complete with Latin text and an unmistakable medieval ring, which reminded us, if need be, that we were in a church.
Then we travelled back a couple of centuries in the company of two major German masters of Romanticism, starting with Brahms' "Warum ist das Licht gegeben". Bringing up the existentialist topic of "Why may one not die when one is ready to go?", the gripping motet expertly combined the polished restraint of early music and the passionate feelings of Romanticism, to end with the same melody found in Part I of Schütz's Musikalische Exequien.
Next was Felix Mendelssohn and his "Beati Mortui", which is based on Revelation 14:13, which happens to be the same text appearing in the third movement of Schütz's Musikalische Exequien. The sound of the four male voices singing in Latin had an understated elegance and a delectably rich fullness to it.
The anchor of the concert may have been Schütz's Musikalische Exequien for its size alone, but the work I was first and foremost there to hear was Jaakko Mäntyjärvi's "Canticum Calamitatis Maritimae". And my patience was gloriously rewarded. The three main vocal elements - the soprano, whose wordless folk song opened and closed the piece, the tenor, who matter-of-factly intoned the Nunti Latinii news report, and the collective chorus, who sang The Catholic Requiem Mass, Psalm 107 - gave startling performances that made the poignant piece ever more powerful. Soprano Winnie Nieh's voice rose impeccably pure and heart-breaking, tenor Max Blum had an unwavering assurance of tone, and the chorus fully succeeded in not only remarkably singing the liturgical text, but also in creating a wide range of sounds associated with the shipwreck. The work was only about 12-minute long, but the emotional punch it packed lingered on for much longer.
After such an intense journey, I am afraid that Schütz's Musikalische Exequien did not get all the attention it deserved from me. I still, however, very much enjoyed the mix of Bible's excerpts and liturgical texts that was sung by various combinations of singers. Amazingly enough, the tricky structure of the composition did not prevent it from effortlessly flowing. The choir expertly handled the interweaving structures and kept the mournful music - it was written for a funeral, after all - from coming out too lugubrious while the double bass and the portative organ subtly added just the right amount of instrumental accompaniment. And then there was light.

Monday, March 10, 2014

Cantori New York - Evening Star: Choral Settings of English Verse - 03/08/14

Artistic Director & Conductor: Mark Shapiro
Sir George Dyson: To Music
Charles Hubert Hastings Parry: At the Round Earth's Imagined Corners
Edward Elgar: There is Sweet Music
Charles Hubert Hastings Parry: Music, When Soft Voices Die
Thea Musgrave: Four Madrigals by Thomas Wyatt
"With serving still"
"At most mischief"
"Tanglid I was in love's snare"
"Hate whom ye list"
Pascal Zavaro: Songs of Innocence - Miranda Cuckson: Violin
"The Sick Rose"
"The Fly"
Jaakko Mäntyjärvi: More Shakespeare Songs
"Fear no more"
"Over Hill, Over Dale"
"Who is Sylvia?"
"A Scurvy Tune"

After my fun little rock'n'roll detour by the Madison Square Garden on Thursday night, I was back on much more familiar territory on Saturday night as I was going down to the Village's Church of St. Luke in the Fields for Cantori New York's "Evening Star" concert. This weekend also saw the first hints that spring may be on its way after all, which at this point really could not happen too soon. So what better way to celebrate Nature's eagerly awaited rebirth than with a night out to experience some classic English poetry set to music written by composers from the last couple of centuries? Not much, apparently, as a sizable crowd took place in the church and got ready for whatever was coming our way.

Among all the works included in a program focusing on the richness of the English language and the universal power of music, William Blake's deceptively unassuming "The Sick Rose", under the delicate care of contemporary French composer Pascal Zavaro, spontaneously stood out for me. As the choir breathed a new life into the ailing flower and the violin added a subtle shade of darkness, the fate of the doomed rose hauntingly played out in the last quatrain, when its bright crimson joy was mercilessly destroyed by the invisible worm.
Pascal Zavaro also put his considerable skills to work for the first stanza of William Blake's "Night", a precious moment of peace and stillness as the world was serenely going to sleep under the shining evening star and the smiling moon. Accordingly, the hushed voices would eventually remain suspended in the air as the violin made itself imperceptibly heard for a few more seconds, one last whisper of life before complete silent.
But the evening was not just about memorable flowers and sunsets, and plenty of genuine entertainment was to be had as well, still with William Blake and Pascal Zavaro as they tackled "The Fly". The quirky little piece started with the familiar annoying buzz before choir and violin vividly described the author's comparison of himself with an carefree fly. All was not fun and play though, as the hand of death suddenly showed up and unmistakably pointed out the precariousness of life.
Another episode of brilliant light-heartedness, except possibly for the sender and recipient, was Thomas Wyatt's last madrigal, "Hate whom ye list", a hell of an assertive 16th century forerunner of our times' "Dear John Letter" cleverly enhanced by Thea Musgrave's 20th century choral composition for it. That's when some highly spirited singing expressed better than written words alone could ever do the fact that, well, things between the two lovers were unequivocally over, and that, no, they would not still be friends.
On the other hand, an impressive challenge arose with Charles Hubert Hastings Parry's "At the Round Earth's Imagined Corners", which had been inspired by Donne's metaphysical poem "Holy Sonnet VII". Taking on no less than the Christian Judgment Day, Cantori's singers boldly created an intricate and convoluted tapestry of sounds in which it was awfully easy to lose one's way (I know I did). All this meticulously organized chaos being nevertheless superbly lyrical, the journey ended only too soon.
Speaking of challengingly intricate lyricism, there was even more of it in the next number, Edward Elgar's "There is Sweet Music", a choric song from Lord Alfred Tennyson's "The Lotos-Eaters". Whether singing in two separate gender-based groups, momentarily overlapping or eventually joining forces, the choir was continuously kept on their toes as they were building a fascinating, ever-expanding musical texture that miraculously resolved at the end.
After all those two minefields, Charles Hubert Hastings Parry's choral treatment of Shelley's famous poem "Music, When Soft Voices Die" came out refreshingly straightforward and had a welcome soothing quality to it.
Last, but by no means least, came five songs by Shakespeare brought to musical life by contemporary Finnish composer Jaakko Mäntyjärvi, who remained deeply respectful of the intrinsic splendor of the Bard's verse while adding engaging melodies and humorous touches to them. That's how we got to enjoy a soothing "Fear No More", a sparkling "Over Hill, Over Dale", an intense "Time", a lively "Who is Sylvia?", before "A Scurvy Tune" wrapped up the performance on a resolutely upbeat note.

Or so we thought, but not for long as Mark Shapiro brought Miranda Cuckson back for a short but violin-enhanced repeat of "A Scurvy Tune", which officially concluded the performance on an even more upbeat note.

Saturday, March 8, 2014

Paul Simon & Sting: On Stage Together - 03/06/14

This is not the kind of entry I had ever thought I would post, mostly because I had never thought I would have the opportunity for it, but the fact is, on Thursday night, I was unexpectedly paying my very first visit to the Madison Square Garden for the second and last stop of Paul Simon and Sting's current tour in New York's famous arena. Although I had never formally sworn off rock concerts and large venues, these days I tend to limit myself to small venues and artists who can actually perform sans microphones or back-up recordings.
But Paul Simon and Sting are still two of our most valuable and enduring music artists whose paths I had never crossed before, and having a chance to hear them live is not to be missed, even when it means sacrificing (Yikes!) Beethoven's magnificent and rarely performed Missa Solemnis at Carnegie Hall. So when two tickets for this concert fell on my lap a couple of weeks ago, I could not but gratefully accept, spontaneously invite my friend Amy and eagerly look forward to it.

My main qualm about the Madison Square Garden is that the allegedly beautiful Pennsylvania Station had to be torn down to make room for it. Once inside though, I had to admire the smart design of the structure and agree that the location is darn convenient, but I still wish it had been built somewhere else. The biggest surprise, however, was the surprisingly good quality of the sound. Since these two musicians actually play live, it was nice to be able to hear them not overly loud and remarkably clear.
Although I had never gotten around to attending any of their respective concerts, their music steadily accompanied me as I was growing up, and I was amazed at how many songs were still so familiar to me, even after all these years. As the concert went on, the music brought back many memories from when the miracle and wonder was in fact a long-distance call, The Police's Outlandos d'Amour was my first record purchase ever from a school friend as its innovative rock-reggae-punk combination was casting a powerful spell on me and, many years later, Paul Simon's Graceland was on permanent rotation on my record player for quite a few months as it expanded my knowledge of musical styles even further.
Singing alone or together, trading popular songs and friendly barbs, sharing short anecdotes and personal comments, keeping things intriguing while relying on their extensive catalogs and a few oddities, the buff English rock star and the unassuming American troubadour formed a pair that was at the same time unlikely - Their backgrounds and styles are to some degree different - and obvious - Their talent to write catchy and meaningful songs, as well as their willingness to explore other cultures, are definitely comparable.
Assertively kicking off the concert together with Sting's "Brand New Day", they treated the packed and ecstatic Madison Square Garden to almost three hours of downright energetic rock'n'roll, poignant introspective musings, infectious dance tunes, exotically flavored songs, exciting boundaries-pushing experiments and freshened-up old classics. Both artists being consummate professionals used to all kinds of environments, they clearly know how to make it work regardless of the venue. Surrounded by 14 highly capable musicians, they gave a performance as good as it could get, and then some. All we would have needed to reach complete bliss was for the guy behind us to stop his sporadic but dreadfully out-of-tune singing, but that was not meant to be. Even the whiff of marijuana we briefly caught unfortunately did not help ease our pain.
The evening ended with a couple of crowd pleasing encores, such as Sting demonstrating his still considerable lung power for "Bridge Over Troubled Water" and both men singing in perfect sync for "Every Breath You Take", which has to be one of my favorite songs ever. They came back one more time, without orchestra, but each sporting an acoustic guitar because, as Paul Simon rightfully pointed out, that's how it all started. A pared-down but still impactful version of The Everly Brothers' "When Will I Be Loved" concluded this memorable first (and last?) rock concert at the Madison Square Garden. I like to think that Beethoven would have approved.