Monday, April 28, 2014

JACK Quartet - Zorn, Abrahamsen, Feldman & Lutoslawski - 04/27/14

John Zorn: Cat o' Nine Tails
Hans Abrahamsen: String Quartet No. 4
Morton Feldman: Structures for String Quartet
Witold Lutoslawski: String Quartet

After a rather traditional and totally satisfying recital in upper Manhattan the night before, I was in Brooklyn's Central Library on Sunday afternoon for Carnegie Hall's Neighborhood Concert featuring the always exciting JACK Quartet, which consists of four like-minded musicians who, in the best tradition of the ground-breaking Kronos Quartet, have seemingly never met a hair-raising challenge they did not like and virtuosically sink their teeth into. So the playlist unsurprisingly showed experimental contemporary composers such as John Zorn, Hans Abrahamsen, Morton Feldman and Witold Lutoslawski.
Although none of those would qualify as a household name, that did not keep all sorts of people from eagerly filling up the Dweck auditorium to the brim, briefly overflowing in the lobby. The lucky ones inside included a father and pre-teen son who had come all the way from Washington Heights out of devotion for the ensemble, and an older Russian gentleman who was openly lamenting his accompanying pianist daughter's lack of interest in non-traditional music, which prompted their early departure. The vast majority of the concert-goers, however, stayed and were amply rewarded for it.

No matter what the various audience members had come for, the JACK Quartet wasted no time making clear that just because this was a free community concert open to all, they had no plans to compromise their hard-core adventurous stance in the name of accessibility, beside some insightful and much appreciated explanations. Accordingly, they kicked off the concert with the wild feast of recurring scratchy dissonances, unexpected cartoonish jump cuts and sudden melodic flashes that is American composer-saxophonist John Zorn's "Cat o' Nine Tails". Take it or leave it.
Danish composer Hans Abrahamsen's String Quartet No. 4 was over 20 years in the making, which probably explains its rigorous simplicity, exacting structure and cool feel. Nothing had been left to chance there, and the musicians made sure to do full justice to the stark contrast between the ethereally serene, barely there, first movement and the primitively dark, pizzicato-filled, third one, the vivacious happy-go-lucky mood second movement and the delicate babbling of the fourth one.
Still in the quiet minimalist style, the following six minutes were sparsely filled by "Structures" for String Quartet by American composer Morton Feldman, for whom silent is clearly as important as sounds. True to form, this precious little nugget turned out to be a short and fascinating exercise in musical experimentation.
We then moved on to Polish composer Witold Lutoslawski's String Quartet, a well-known example of aleatory music from the mid 1960s, which intriguingly combines notated music and chance occurrences. Although some vaguely discernible rhythmic patterns occasionally sprang out as if to tease us, most of the time I felt as if we were all floating in a vacuum with no clear direction whatsoever, which actually may very well have been the whole point of the endeavor. We eventually touched down, grateful for the memorable adventure and ready to do it all over again.

Jeremy Denk & Steven Isserlis - Hahn, Chopin, Martinu, Liszt & Franck - 04/26/14

Hahn: Variations chantantes for Cello and Piano
Chopin: Sonata for Cello and Piano in G Minor, Op. 65
Martinu: Sonata for Cello and Piano No. 1
Liszt: Romance oubliée for Cello and Piano
Franck: Sonata for Cello and Piano in A Major

After a couple of totally enjoyable, somewhat out-of-the-box, performances last week, on Saturday evening I took advantage of a break between two spring showers (Quite a nice change from snow showers!) to cross the Park and make my way to the always bustling 92Y on the Upper East Side for a more traditional event: The exclusive New York engagement of "Distinguished Artists" Jeremy Denk and Steven Isserlis, two of the venue's favorite artists, whether they're onstage together or on their own.
The general theme of the concert was "The Lure of Paris" and, accordingly, the program focused on foreign-born composers who had at least temporarily made Paris their home, eagerly soaking up its unique atmosphere, language and culture to more of less subconsciously inject this influence into some of their works. So we had an exciting Parisian-flavored international cast featuring Venezuelan Reynaldo Hahn, Polish Frédéric Chopin, Czech Bohulav Martinu, Hungarian Franz Liszt and Belgian César Franck in perspective.

Probably the least-known name of the entire list, Reynaldo Hahn inconspicuously opened the concert with his short "Variations chantantes", which had been inspired by a lovely melody from Cavallini's opera Il Xerse. This was the perfect opportunity for the large audience and the two silver-haired men in black to become acquainted with each other and get in the mood for bigger and better things.
Chopin is rightfully world-famous for his extraordinary output of piano compositions, so I was surprised to see a work for cello and piano on the program. (On the other hand, while Jeremy Denk is by all accounts capable of masterfully handling Chopin on his own, having Steven Isserlis dwindle his thumbs on the side would have been a deplorable waste of available talent.) Fact is, although this semi-oddity sometimes sounded a bit unlike Chopin, it was still a quintessentially Romantic sonata overflowing with attractive melodies and sumptuous lyricism, into which the two extremely physical musicians indulged without restraint and in impeccable unison.
The most "un-classical" episode of the evening was provided courtesy of Bohulav Martinu, the only composer from the 20th century on the program, whose 1939 sonata exploded with turmoil and passion, and concluded in a high-spirited mood that could not completely hide some discreetly dark undertone. This was a fiery, if somewhat ambivalent, love letter to The City of Light he would soon have to flee.
After intermission, the power duo was back at its most poetic for "Romance oubliée", one of my favorite song transcriptions by Liszt. The heart-felt poignancy of the cello impeccably responded to the refined elegance of the piano, and this delicate little jewel effortless made a powerful and lasting impression.
The Franck sonata being also one of my favorite works of the classical music repertoire, I always feel privileged every time I have a chance to hear it. Until yesterday though, I had only been able to enjoy the original violin and piano version, in some cases performed by the very same Jeremy Denk in the company of erstwhile partner in recital Joshua Bell, so I was extremely curious to get to know the cello and piano version. And the verdict is, it was still a richly harmonic, stunningly lyrical composition celebrating undisturbed love and happiness, and if the cello's notes did not soar as luminously high as the violin's, they definitely added a subtle aura of mystery to the whole piece.

Our long and loud ovation was rewarded with a delightful treat by Stravinsky, yet another foreign-born composer who had a strong relationship with Paris, before we had to reluctantly leave the concert hall and come to terms with a dark and rainy Saturday night.

Sunday, April 27, 2014

Collected Stories: Spirit - Tuvan Throat Singing & Pärt - 04/23/14

Tuvan Throat Singing - Huun-Huur-Tu
Pärt: Passio
Conductor: Julian Wachner
Jesus: Dashon Burton
Pilatus: Dashon Phan
Organ: Renée Anne Louprette
Oboe: ToniMarie Marchioni
Bassoon: Shelley Monroe Huang
Violin: Emily Popham Gillins
Cello: Saeunn Thorsteinsdóttir
Choir of Trinity Wall Street

After our fun little escapade at Brooklyn's Roulette the night before, on Wednesday evening my friend Linden and I found ourselves within the much more familiar structure of Carnegie Hall, even if our concert was taking place underground in the less often patronized, smaller and oh so cool Zankel Hall, for the "Spirit" evening of the week-long "Collected Stories" festival curated by composer David Lang.
Throat singing does not present itself like your everyday musical cup of tea, even for the most esoteric-minded, and my brief, first and only experience of it over 10 years ago during The Smithsonian Folklife Festival focusing on The Silk Road in Washington, DC had not entirely convinced me of its artistic value. On the other hand, an opportunity to hear anything by Estonian composer Arvo Pärt is something that I simply cannot turn down, especially when the work on the program is his rarely performed Passio. So it was still with great expectations and even greater curiosity that we happily left the office early to be there for the 6 PM starting time.

In its decade of existence Zankel Hall has probably witnessed the most unusual sounds ever produced in the Carnegie Hall complex, so it was only natural that it would host such a peculiar ensemble as the Tuvan throat singers/musicians Huun-Huur-Tu (whose name means, of all things, "Separation of Light Rays on the Prairie") on Wednesday. And all for the better. As much as the mercilessly guttural opening number was brutally harsh on my Western ears, to my endless surprise I quickly adjusted to the wide-ranging, truly amazing sounds that the singers were able to create from their vocal chords thanks to a highly developed breathing technique and, in all likelihood, a lot of practice, practice, practice. I ended up feeling in genuine awe of their unique talent. The songs were apparently about elements of nature, such as animals and landscapes, occasionally enhanced by a folk-like string accompaniment, and they all came out sounding earthy and spiritual at the same time for a strangely fascinating performance.
After such a deeply throaty journey, hearing the first celestially minimalist notes of Pärt's Passio felt like entering a brand new world. Boldly setting the whole piece based on John's Gospel as a 70-minute uninterrupted composition and resolutely dismissing any easy musical or dramatic effects, Pärt offered a gift of unsurpassed rigorous beauty to the world. With that in mind, the various musicians and singers at Zankel on Wednesday night dutifully toed the line, continuously keeping a low profile while creating a crystal clear, mesmerizingly austere texture more reminiscent than not of Gregorian chant. Baritone Dashon Burton was an excellent Jesus, his overall restraint making his assured singing all the more captivating, and tenor Nicholas Phan's voice came out remarkably bright and strong as Pilate. Casual listening was not recommended, but with a minimum of attention, the reward was priceless.

Saturday, April 26, 2014

The Wanton Sublime & The Companion - 04/22/14

The Wanton Sublime
Composer: Tarik O'Regan
Librettist: Anna Rabinowitz
Stage Director: Mallory Catlett
Mary: Hai-Ting Chinn

The Companion
Composer: Robert Paterson
Librettist: David Cote
Stage Director: Walker Lewis
Maya: Nancy Allen Lundy
Joe: Brandon Snook
Dax: Kyle Guglielmo

A lot has been written about the current, unquestionably worrisome, situation of opera in New York City, especially after the much lamented demise of The New York City Opera last fall and the recent release of The Met's lackluster upcoming season, therefore it is easy to forget that some good, or at least promising, things are happening too. The Big Apple is still the home of myriads of talented, bold and pro-active artists, who only need a little luck, some modest funding and a regular audience to breathe new energized life into the art form.
And from the look of things, this much needed entrepreneur spirit was alive and well at Roulette, a cool, versatile and convenient space located a few blocks from BAM in Brooklyn, on Tuesday night when Ear Heart Music, American Modern Ensemble and American Opera Projects have joined their impressive creative forces to present the premieres of two semi-staged chamber operas. And that's where my friend Linden and I had ventured and taken our seats among an eclectic and enthusiastic crowd that had quickly filled up the attractive venue.

Tarik O'Regan's "The Wanton Sublime" rested for the most part on the slim but unwavering shoulders of mezzo-soprano Hai-Ting Chinn, whose clear voice and expressive singing beautifully conveyed the mythical and earthly aspects of the Virgin Mary. Whether dutifully folding laundry under a crude modern lighting and pondering her unusual fate while celestially lit from a mysterious source, Mary's complex personality progressively appeared in gripping snapshots as she was questioning her place in the world.
This impressive one-woman show was strongly supported by a chamber orchestra composed by members of AME, with whom she shared the stage. The fragmented, but nevertheless focused, score powerfully highlighted Mary's dual persona with, among other catchy musical accompaniments, the assertiveness of percussion and the sweetness of the violin. This was an unusual, fascinating and touching musical portrait of someone who, to this day, has fundamentally remained a somewhat mysterious character as a historical figure and as a woman.
The intermission was partly spent listening to an insightful discussion on the creative process of the works among the composers, librettists and stage directors of both projects that was moderated by author A.M. Homes.
Then we moved on to Robert Paterson's "The Companion", which is the second act of an opera triptych called Three Way. In sharp contrast to the world's most famous woman existential hand-wringing about her destiny, this futuristic endeavor could be best described as an innovative - and, yes, occasionally explosive - cocktail of opera buffa, sex comedy, science fiction, psychological study and social commentaries, all supported by an appropriately gritty score.
This production also had the distinct advantage of featuring three remarkably engaging singers in Nancy Allen Lundy as Maya, an unsatisfied corporate executive desperately looking for the perfect man, Brandon Snook as Joe, her android companion who can never seem to be able to fulfill all her needs, and Kyle Guglielmo as Dax, a no-nonsense tech-support agent caught in the middle of it all. With a well-paced and tightly written libretto peppered with quite a few sparkling dirty jokes and plenty of underlying sharp observations about relationships and technology, "The Companion" effortless managed to tackle heavy topics and be wildly, yet smartly, entertaining at the same time. So our evening ended on a resolutely high note, having been at least temporarily reassured about the current state of new musical enterprises in New York City.

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Jeremy Denk - Mozart, Ligeti, Byrd & Schumann - 04/13/14

Mozart: Sonata in F Major, K. 533/494
Ligeti: Piano Études: Book Two
VII. Galamb borong
X. Der Zauberlehrling (The Sorcerer's Apprentice)
XI. En suspens (In suspense)
XII: Entrelacs (Interlacing)
XIII: L'escalier du diable (The Devil's Staircase)
Byrd: A Voluntary from My ladye Nevells Booke
Schumann: Davidsbündlertänze, Op. 6

So many pianists, so little time. Last week was a good one indeed for piano music lovers in New York City, as on Wednesday night Mitsuko Uchida graced the stage of Carnegie Hall, and then on Saturday night Jeremy Denk appeared at the Washington Irving High School as part of the Peoples' Symphony Concerts, a commendable organization which for over a century has successfully strived to keep the ticket prices low and the performance quality high.
The tuner still working hard on the piano as the audience was eagerly filling in the hall did not bode particularly well, but everybody was too excited to worry. We were all about to hear one of today's most versatile, intrepid and engaging artists tackle a resolutely eclectic program including Mozart, Ligeti, Byrd and Schumann, and not much else mattered.

We kicked off the concert in the finest Viennese tradition with Mozart and his sonata in F Major, which was as light and breezy as the lovely spring evening the Big Apple was finally enjoying. Keeping the playing carefree and the mood lively, Jeremy Denk expertly negotiated the piece's elegant twists and turns, not to mention the occasional flights of fancy, for a delightful opening number.
After this quintessentially classical beginning, the fearless virtuoso came out in full force when he attacked the knotty little vignettes that are Ligeti's Piano Études: Book Two. Although some glimpses of humor sprang up here and there, those études mostly distinguished themselves for their gnarly complexity as well as the unwavering aplomb and remarkable dexterity with which Jeremy Denk handled them. Among this series of dazzling feats particularly stood out the merrily, if still weirdly, melodic "Der Zauberlehrling", the hypnotic harmonic tapestry created by the two hands operating in two different worlds in "En suspens", and the devilish irresistible, downright unstoppable "L'Escalier du diable".
After intermission, during which the tuner was back to work some more on the seemingly reluctant piano, we jumped back in time all the way to the 16th century with "A Voluntary" from William Byrd's My Ladye Nevells Booke. This quick Renaissance detour turned out to be fun and pleasant, the prettiness of the work being jazzed up with a few quirky spikes.
Schumann's Davidsbündlertänze, one of the supreme piano achievements of 19th century Romanticism, magisterially wrapped up the official program. The famous dialogue between hot-blooded Florestan and dreamy Eusebius, the two conflicting aspects of the composer's personality, is long and animated. It is, after all, an ardent love letter to his future wife Clara, and Schumann clearly did not spare any effort. Accordingly, Jeremy Denk's playing covered a wide variety of moods with much expressiveness, and obviously a lot of love for the piece. The passionate outbursts fiercely exploded, the deep-seated melancholy achingly lingered, and the beautiful poetry delicately blossomed.

After this brilliant smorgasbord of piano works, there was nowhere else to go but to where it all began. So a small selection of Bach's Goldberg Variations wrapped things up with a flawless Baroque touch and kept my spirits high as I was walking back to the subway through a Union Square overflowing with revved-up people, loud noises and illicit smells.

Saturday, April 12, 2014

Mitsuko Uchida - Schubert & Beethoven - 05/09/14

Schubert: Piano Sonata in G Major, D. 894
Beethoven: Thirty-three Variations on a Waltz by Diabelli, Op. 120

After whetting my musical appetite with Cantori New York at lunchtime all the way uptown on Wednesday, the following appointment on my To-Do list was attending a recital by the current First Lady of Piano, Dame Mitsuko Uchida, who was making her annual stop at Carnegie Hall that evening to the immeasurable delight of her hordes of New York fans.
The program consisted of Schubert's last and, according to many connoisseurs, best sonata, as well as of Beethoven's monumental Diabelli Variations, which, according to even more connoisseurs, remains the most extraordinary piano work ever composed for its breadth, variety and ambition (Take that, Bach!).

Always an inherently graceful presence on the stage, Mitsuko Uchida never fails to infuse everything she plays with her subtle, unaffected elegance. On Wednesday night, Schubert's Piano Sonata in G Major was no exception, with a performance that quickly became one for the record for its clear, focused playing and immaculately peaceful mood. She deliberately let the music naturally breathe and take a life of its own, mostly shining with a serene luminosity while still being, at times, slightly troubled by the occasional hint of dark or stormy feelings. Those moments, however, did not last, and before long we were all again engaged in tranquil contemplation.
The actual origin of the Diabelli Variations - that is, whether Beethoven wrote them to make money and to show off, or both - may never be confirmed, but their renown as an amazing achievement in piano composition has never been disputed. And who better to bring them to glorious life than a musician heralded for her profound talent and uncompromising integrity? And sure enough, Mitsuko Uchida handled this dazzlingly vast and complex work with the assurance of somebody deeply familiar with the treacherous minefield, impeccably switching gears from delicate to energetic, simple to complicated, funny to serious, inconspicuous to grand, and so much more. The interpretation was intelligent and respectful, the technique brilliant and right on target. Once the monster had been successfully tamed, Mitsuko Uchida came back three times to effusively thank her adoring audience, but that was all. And that was perfect.

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Cantori New York - Beecher - 04/09/14

Artistic Director & Conductor: Mark Shapiro
Lembit Beecher: The New Amorous World
Jason Wirth: Piano

Nobody has ever had to twist my arm to take a day off, especially when it promises to be filled with sunshine and music (and a very efficient trip to a blissfully crowd-less Trader's Joe). So that's what I happily did yesterday, first for a lovely walk up Riverside Park to the Interchurch Center of New York for Cantori New York's mini-concert at mid-day, and then for an equally lovely walk down Central Park to Carnegie Hall for Mitsuko Uchida's full-scale recital in the evening. There really should be more days like this.

Since I had no idea what to expect from Cantori, I made sure to come with my mind and ears open. It turned out that the piece du jour was Estonian-American composer Lembit Beecher's brand new "The New Amorous World", which will be included in the choir's next series of concerts in May. So yesterday's performance was kind of an exclusive preview before the upcoming world première, with the clear understanding that this was still a work in progress.
I was not familiar with Charles Fourier's utopian vision, but the 19th century French philosopher had however come to my attention before for his steady support for women's rights. This was a tough job in those days, and he did it. As for the thoroughly thought-out, obviously well-intentioned, and yet often utterly bizarre, society he had come up with, with its pointedly defined rules for organizational structures and human relations, it was used by Beecher as a basis for a 30-minute dense choral work, from which yesterday stood out pêle-mêle some interestingly textured parts, a general upbeat mood, an occasional speaker, a sporadic instrumental accompaniment, and some insistent stomping-like sounds that, for a brief moment, made me think that the chorus was about to break into The Rite of Spring. They did not, but on the other hand, they managed to make their way through a cantata that was presenting some refreshingly innovative philosophical and musical ideas, not unlike Stravinsky's ground-breaking masterpiece in its own time, for an action-packed lunchtime break. One down, one more to go.

Sunday, April 6, 2014

The Tallis Scholars - 40 Years of Renaissance Polyphony - 04/05/14

Director & Conductor: Peter Phillips
Josquin Desprez: Praeter rerum seriem
Cipriano de Rore: Missa Praeter rerum seriem
Michael Nyman: Two Sonnets for Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz
Procura des mentir
En la muerte de la marquesa de Mancera
John Sheppard: Jesu salvator seculi
John Sheppard: Our Father
Thomas Tallis: If ye love me
Thomas Tallis: Hear the voice and prayer
Thomas Tallis: Salve intemerata

1973 was obviously a fertile year on the music scene, and in many different ways too, as both the Kronos Quartet, which celebrated its 40th anniversary at Carnegie Hall last week, and The Tallis Scholars, who are celebrating their 40th anniversary all season long, including last night at the Church of St. Mary the Virgin, were created. Not to mention that Pink Floyd's landmark album The Dark Side of the Moon was released that year as well, but I (slightly) digress.
It takes a lot to bring me anywhere close to Times Square on a Saturday night (or any other time, for that matter), but the prospect of hearing some of the biggest hits of Renaissance choral music - and a Miller Theatre-commissioned world première - by internationally acclaimed masters of the genre quickly sealed the deal. It was also coincidentally the 25th anniversary of Miller Theatre at Columbia University, whose laudable mission is to promote new music in New York City by any means possible.
The historic Episcopal Anglo-Catholic church (Whatever that means) looked dwarfed and kind of out of place among the surrounding high buildings, hopping bars, unavoidable chain stores and incidental street works. However, once inside the discreetly gothic space, which boasts features such as eye-popping incense thuribles hanging from the star-adorned, cobalt blue ceiling, it was easy to forget the area's grating hustle and bustle and just focus on the higher purpose of live music.

We started our journey logically with medieval superstar composer Josquin Desprez and his popular Christmas motet "Praeter rerum seriem", whose endlessly complex structure was brilliantly brought out by the remarkably detailed singing of the ensemble. The various vocal effects, including distortions and reverberations, were beautifully rendered and helped emphasize the mystery of the virgin birth.
Taking inspiration from that same motet, the other major Franco-Flemish composer of those days, Cipriano de Rore, developed it into his mesmerizing "Mass praeter rerum seriem". While it can be convincingly argued that the basics were already there in Josquin's motet, and therefore de Rore did not do much but play around with them, his knack for reinvention resulted in something seemingly new, refreshingly different and immediately appealing. the Agnus Dei, in particular, somberly concluded the piece on a immaculately pure and far-reaching note.
Associating German baroque composer Johann Sebastian Bach with Mexican baroque poet Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz may not spontaneously spring to the minds of a lot of composers, but that's what Michael Nyman ended up doing upon the suggestion of his friend, the Mexican artist Lorena Camarena Osorno. Tweaking some of Bach's preludes to adapt them to Sor Juana's sonnets while taking advantage of the sing-songy quality of the Spanish language, Nyman created two downright attractive works that The Tallis Scholars made brightly shine.
Back to the Middle Ages and the solemnity of the Latin language, but in the context of the English Reformation this time, we moved on to two works by John Sheppard. "Jesu salvator seculi" and "Our father" distinguished themselves by their fundamental minimalism, subtle colors and spiritual dimensions.
A concert of Renaissance music naturally cannot be completed without Thomas Tallis, who enjoyed a long and productive career in 16th century England and is still considered one of the country's most prominent composers. And for sure, the two unfussy nuggets that are "If ye love me" and "Hear the voice and prayer" were absolutely lovely in their straightforward simplicity.
We could not hope for a more fitting program conclusion than his earlier votive antiphon "Salve intemerata". Written when Tallis was in his twenties, this motet to the Virgin Mary is a substantial and magnificent treat in terms of technical bravura and musical pleasure, incidentally representing the end of the genre in all its splendor. Blessed with an intricate, perfectly thought-out architecture that includes endlessly long lines and a challengingly wide vocal range, "Salve intemerata" remains one of the pinnacles of medieval English music. In the hands of a choir and a conductor firmly dedicated to Renaissance polyphony, it received the flawlessly grand performance it so deserves.

The sold-out audience refusing to leave, the artists came back for a harmoniously soothing, high flying "Blue Bird" by Irish composer Sir Charles Villiers Stanford, one last moment of pure musical bliss before heading back to the outside world and its cold, crowded and loud reality.