Tuesday, December 22, 2015

Cantori New York - A Cantori Holiday - 12/19/15

Mark Shapiro: Artistic Director and Conductor
Richard Rodney Bennett: Out of your Sleep
William Wallton: What Cheer
Alice Dryden: Banu Choshech
G. R. Woordward: Shepherds in the Fields Abiding (Arr. David Willcocks)
Jonathan Dove: The Three Kings
16th Century French Melody: Ding Dong, Merrily on High (Arr. Charles Wood)
Hector Berlioz: The Shepherds' Farewell
English Traditional Carol: The Wassail Song (Arr. R. Vaughan Williams)
Old Basque Carol: I saw a Maiden (Arr. Edgar Pettman)
J. Pierpont: Jingle Bells
Mark Shapiro: Piano
Emily Klonowski: Conductor
Reginald Jacques: When Christ was Born
Peter Warlock: Bethlehem Down
English Traditional Carol: The First Noël (Arr. David Willcocks)
English Traditional Carol: The Holly and the Ivy (Arr. Walford Davies)
Rex Isenberg: Ravta et Rivam
Elizabeth Poston: Jesus Christ and the Apple Tree
Emily Klonowski: Soloist
English Traditional Carol: I saw Three Ships (Arr. David Willcocks)
Polish Carol: Infant Holy (Arr. David Willcocks)
Franz Xaver Biebl: Ave Maria
Mark Stedman: Soloist
Steve Albert, Matt Perkins and Steve Underhill: Trio
West Country Carol: We Wish You a Merry Christmas (Arr. Arthur Warrell)
Franz Gruber: Silent Night (Sing Along)

It was on a appropriately - but still shockingly - cold, late afternoon that I made my way to the Village's Church of St. Luke in the Fields last Saturday for my one and only concession to the holiday season in general, and holiday music in particular: Cantori New York's immensely popular holiday concert. And this year again, the lovely little church filled up early and quickly with an eclectic crowd that was obviously very much looking forward to enjoying not only the choir's well-known singing chops, but also their very special holiday gift to us: A whole treasure chest full of new songs to accompany the ones we simply could not do without. Who said Santa did not exist?

Since some deep-rooted traditions are just too good to disregard, a few musical treats from the Old Continent were still there. So it was with always the same pleasure that we heard the singers happily work their expert way through "Shepherds in the Fields Abiding", which never fails to bring me back to my French childhood, "The Wassail Song", which eloquently celebrates the joys of drinking English style, and the timelessly beautiful all-male "Ave Maria", whose German composer Franz Xaver Biebl could only have been divinely inspired.
From this side of the pond we still had "Jesus Christ and the Apple Tree", which has consistently remained one of the most beloved carols of the entire repertoire despite making no references to Christmas whatsoever and, since it apparently must be heard if at all possible, Cantori's admittedly pretty groovy version of "Jingle Bells". On the other hand, the entire basket of sugary Hollywood tunes had blissfully disappeared, which naturally led me to think that there might be a God after all.
More recurring works of the welcome kind, stepping out of the Christmas box this time, were "Banu Choshech" by Alice Dryden and "Ravta et Rivam" by Cantori member Rex Isenberg, who accomplished the commendable feat of providing the non dopey Jewish song of the evening.
Among the eagerly awaited novelties stood out a group of compelling traditional carols from England comprising the inconspicuously haunting "Bethlehem Down", the delicately uplifting "The First Noël" and "The Holly and the Ivy", as well as the more upbeat "I saw Three Ships". Nonplussed by those new challenges, Cantori's singers handled them with poise and gusto.
In the spirit of the season, the die-hard "Ocho Kandelikas" aficionados eventually decided against carrying out a mutiny, or even loudly huffing and puffing their way out of the church for that matter, after discovering to their horror that their favorite Hanukkah song was not included in the program, but we still have to state for the record that it was a seriously close call.
The concert ended with the borderline-too-perky-but-we-will-put-up-with-it-because-this-is-almost-over "We Wish You a Merry Christmas", followed by the time-honored sing along on "Silent Night", with everyone singing the first and last verse while the choir took care of the second one. They're still better than the rest of us – All that practice does pay off – but then again, there is always next year.

The evening was not over though, as this year artists and audience excitedly made their way downstairs to a more spacious space than the regular one (This time, one could not only breathe, but actually move around too!) where the traditional post-performance party rocked as hard as ever. Happy Holidays!

Sunday, December 13, 2015

Pacifica Quartet - Carter, Janacek & Beethoven - 12/09/15

Carter: Two Fragments for String Quartet
Janacek: String Quartet No. 2, (Intimate Letters)
Carter: String Quartet No. 5
Beethoven: String Quartet No. 16 in F Major, Op. 135

The last, but not least, stop of my chamber music mini-marathon last week was at the Upper East Side's 92Y on Wednesday night, where I joined a large crowd of regulars and others to attend the highly regarded Pacifica Quartet's long-overdue debut there. The program was interestingly dedicated to the "Last Words" of a trio of widely different and ever-intriguing composers that included the American Elliott Carter, with whom the quartet had a long and fruitful relationship, the Czech Leo Janacek and the German Ludwig van Beethoven. Although the concept may seem a bit morbid at first, and was not exactly accurate in the case of Carter, the works to be performed were certainly appealing enough to promise a totally satisfying musical evening.

Although they were far from being his last piece – Carter would still remain amazingly productive for more than a decade before dying at 103 – and in fact precluded his late style, "Two Fragments for String Quartet" turned out to be a deceptively inconspicuous, yet eventually powerful opener on Wednesday night. Starting as mysterious and understated, it quickly became more assertive in its relentless inventiveness, but still kept a resolutely low profile.
There was, on the other hand, nothing understated in Janacek's "Intimate Letters", which exploded with all the desperate passion that the old composer felt towards a much younger, and very married, woman. By turns burning with obsessive desire and exuding pure tenderness, and plenty of resigned and not so resigned frustration too, the hopelessly beleaguered composer wrote one of his most intense and personal works. Janacek's troubled mind found the perfect outlet in the Pacifica Quartet, whose performance was downright commanding, deeply emotional and widely expressive, never letting the off-kilter notes subvert, but rather have them contribute to the overall beauty of the musical statement.
After intermission, we were back in the concert hall for what had to be the tour de force of the evening. Carter's dazzling String Quartet No. 5 being notorious for its complex structure, the musicians had to spend countless hours going against their natural instincts and "trying to play not together", as explained by second violin Sibbi Bernhardsson. All the dedicated practice has obviously paid off as the quartet played with hard-earned assurance, insightful precision, but also communicative enjoyment.
After Janacek's emotional turmoil and Carter's technical challenges, we finally got to relax and revel in the full glow and uncomplicated playfulness of Beethoven's String Quartet No. 16. The last substantial piece the aging master ever wrote, it still bursts with life and creativity. The Pacifica Quartet was clearly happy to finally let loose while still making the most of their remarkable kills, and they delivered a beautifully radiant performance of the sunny composition.

The mood stayed totally uplifted for the much appreciated encore, which was a short, but thoroughly electrifying "Four for Tango", an appropriately late work by Argentine Astor Piazzola. The perfect ending to the perfect evening.

Thursday, December 10, 2015

Music Mondays - Claremont Trio & Horszowski Trio - Schubert, Poulenc & Kurtag - 12/07/15

Schubert: 2 marches caractéristiques in C Major, D. 968b
Allegro Vivace
Rieko Aizawa: Piano
Andrea Lam: Piano
Schubert: Notturno in E-Flat Major, Op. 148, D. 897
Claremont Trio
Poulenc: Improvisation No. 12 (1941), "Hommage à Schubert"
Rieko Aizawa: Piano
Kurtag: Hommage à Schubert from Jatekok (Games)
Andrea Lam: Piano
Piano Trio in E-Flat Major, D. 929
Horszowski Trio
Schubert: String Quintet in C Major, D. 956
Emily Bruskin: Violin
Julia Bruskin: Cello
Jesse Mills: Violin
Raman: Ramakrishnan: Cello
Jessica Thompson: Viola

After a wonderful Vienna-flavored chamber music concert in Dumbo's Bargemusic on Sunday afternoon, I decided to keep my momentum going and headed to another intimate classical music experience, which happened to be blissfully much closer to home this time, on Monday evening.
The unstoppable Music Mondays series had scheduled an appealing Schubert feast, which included not only some of his works but also works inspired by him, that was to be performed by a bunch of young and incredibly talented musicians in their usual home of the Upper West Side's Advent Lutheran Church. Apparently a lot of music lovers felt the irresistible program’s pull too because the small venue was literally bursting at the seams with excited people, including my friend Ruth, long before starting time.

As if the general mood had not been electric enough, Schubert's 2 marches caractéristiques started the concert on a highly spirited and strongly virtuosic note. Impeccably channeling the piece’s irrepressible nature, Rieko Aizawa and Andrea Lam resolutely stormed through the four-hand composition with boundless energy and razor-sharp precision, having apparently as much fun playing it as we had listening to it.
Then the light-heartedness that had quickly filled up the church went down a notch with the beautifully atmospheric Notturno in E-Flat Major, which the Claremont Trio handled with much care and dedication. The gorgeously hushed melodic lines unfolded with flawless ease in what seemed like suspended time, and it almost felt like heavens had descended on earth.
Then we took a small detour with a short and a very short tributes to the German master from 19th century France and 20th century Hungary, by respectively Francis Poulenc and Gyorgy Kurtag, which clearly proved that Schubert's influence has never stopped transcending periods and borders.
The Horszowski Trio was next for a beautifully lush interpretation of Schubert's expansive Piano Trio in E-Flat Major, D. 929. The main theme of the second movement may be familiar to even non-classical music aficionados due to its many appearances in pop culture, but the fact is, the entire work is so dauntingly complex in its wide-ranging harmonies and textures that it routinely keep audiences totally enthralled despite clocking in at about 45 minutes. It sure did on Monday night.
The Music Mondays people having smartly kept the most popular work for last, we had to wait until after intermission to enjoy one of chamber music's most undisputed masterpieces – and a personal favorite of mine – in Schubert's String Quintet in C Major. Written a couple of months before the composer's death, one can almost sense that the sick young man threw everything he had and then some into the dazzling quintet, which is as remarkable for its pure inventiveness as for its immediate appeal. Boldly unconventional, highly melodic and deeply emotional, the "Cello Quintet" deserves to played by the best and brightest, and it certainly sounded like we had them on Monday night as the five musicians on the stage were expertly working their way through the immense work while keeping it constantly fresh and fun all the way to the very end. It could not get better than that.

Tuesday, December 8, 2015

Bargemusic - Brahms, Haydn, Beethoven, Scarlatti & Mozart - 12/06/15

Brahms: Intermezzo, Op. 119, No.2 – Andantino un poco
Haydn: Sonata in E-Flat Major, Hob. 52
Beethoven: String Trio in G Major, Op. 9, No. 1
Scarlatti: Sonata in A Minor, K. 54, L. 241
Mozart: Piano Quartet No. 1 in G Minor, K. 478
Andrew Gonzalez: Viola
Coleman Itzkoff: Cello
Michael Kimmelman: Piano
Mark Peskanov: Violin

More often than not my spontaneous decisions have actually had fortunate outcomes, and that proved to be true again this past weekend, when I decided that after a super busy week in the office I needed a change of scenery and some live music. That’s pretty much how on Sunday I got off the island and headed for Bargemusic in Dumbo, which has fast become a favorite playground for tourists (eagerly gathering at Fulton Ferry Landing to diligently snap gazillions of pictures of the admittedly spectacular Lower Manhattan skyline and occasionally get ripped off at Grimaldi’s) and hipsters (eagerly filling up the Brooklyn Roasting Company to nonchalantly sip over-priced drinks while busily surfing their de rigueur Apple laptops in the studiously gritty space). But it was a lovely fall afternoon and I got to enjoy a quick, semi-impromptu and very fun reunion with my friend Amy, so life was good.
It got even better when I reached Bargemusic, the wonderfully intimate concert venue that offers a terrific view on the above-mentioned spectacular Lower Manhattan skyline while gently – and not so gently – swaying on the East River, and my spontaneous decision was serendipitously rewarded by a third row seat. If my environment was relatively unfamiliar territory (I had been there exactly once before), the program, on the other hand, boasted the crème de la crème of classical Viennese composers with no less than Haydn, Beethoven and Mozart. The line-up du jour comprised chamber music veterans with decidedly impressive resumes and, as I was about to find out, the skills to match. And as an added bonus, a sunset was scheduled too. Bingo!

After a bright Andantino un poco from Brahms’s Intermezzo, Op. 119, No. 2, piano man Michael Kimmelman effortlessly shifted gears and moved on to Haydn’s much more substantial Sonata in E-Flat Major, Hob. 52. As performed with inspired mastery by Kimmelman, the endlessly complex, large-scale work unfolded with grandeur and vitality, and plenty of whimsical sparkles too, which made the ever-evolving journey both momentous and light-hearted.
Beethoven’s highly colorful String Trio in G Major, Op. 9, No. 1 was up next and immensely benefitted from the glowing sounds generated by violinist Mark Peskanov, violist Andrew Gonzalez and cellist Coleman Itzkoff. Written when Beethoven had not even reached his thirties yet, the first trio of his Opus 9 magnificently bursts with lyricism, wit and subtlety, qualities that the three musicians brought out with vigor and precision.
After intermission, Michael Kimmelman was back with another little gem for solo piano in Scarlatti’s Sonata in A Minor, K. 54, L. 241, before being joined by the three string instrumentalists for Mozart’s beautifully woven Piano Quartet No. 1 in G Minor, K. 478. In true Mozart fashion, the composition is impeccably structured, and throughout the entire work the strings get to play richly expressive music while the piano ingeniously appears either as a guest star or a team player. As daylight had turned to nighttime and the Lower Manhattan skyline had slowly lit up in the background, the four musicians delighted the packed audience with a truly detailed, informed and engaging performance of it, which eventually got everybody off the boat and back on terra firma with genuinely uplifted spirits.

Saturday, November 28, 2015

New York Philharmonic - All-Rachmaninoff - 11/27/15

Conductor: Ludovic Morlot
Rachmaninoff: Piano Concerto No. 3 in D Minor, Op. 30 - Daniil Trifonov
Rachmaninoff: Symphonic Dances, Op. 45

After a blissfully uneventful Thanksgiving Day, Black Friday sounded decidedly more exciting sans shopping, but with a fun visit to the Museum of the City of New York across the Park in the afternoon and a promising concert by the New York Philharmonic in the David Geffen Hall down Broadway in the evening. The soloist was the alleged new Russian pianist prodigy – and incidentally official new board member – Daniil Trifonov, performing what is considered by many the Everest of the piano repertoire, Rachmaninoff's Piano Concerto No. 3, which would be a most efficient way to assess the relative newcomer's much hyped skills. Let's face it, if he can handle the notoriously untamable Rach 3, he should be able to handle pretty much everything else.
Rachmaninoff's delightful Symphonic Dances completed the substantial program, whose popular appeal was made even more obvious by the packed concert hall. Just play big, gorgeous, timeless music and they will come.

If the posters advertising the New York Philharmonic's Rachmaninoff festival have featured a strongly determined-looking Daniil Trifonov, the skinny, smiling young man who was greeted by an unusually loud ovation on Friday night looked more harmless than anything else. However, as soon as he started playing it quickly became clear that he was fully capable of taking on the challenging work with not only an impressive technique, but also plenty of sensitivity during the more introspective passages, which sometimes get lost in all the sweeping Romantic turmoil. His long fingers were confidently flying all over the keyboard at breakneck speed, but always with razor-sharp precision and impeccable timing. Whether wildly galloping or dreamily pondering, the fierce virtuoso was unquestionably in charge, occasionally forcing conductor Ludovic Morlot to make tiny but necessary adjustments. I generally roll my eyes at the American habit of giving standing ovations to all performances regardless of their actual merit, but this time I happily joined the spontaneous, roof-raising standing ovation that saluted the truly mind-blowing Rach 3 we had just experienced.
Obviously sensitive to our loud demonstration of appreciation and probably psyched by the feat he had just accomplished, the unstoppable pianist, who had more than earned the right to rest on his laurels, came back for Medtner's "Fairy Tale" in F Minor, letting his poetic side beautifully blossom and prompting yet another resounding ovation in the process. Believe the hype: The kid is THAT good.
So what does one play after Rachmaninoff's Piano Concerto No. 3? Well, more Rachmaninoff, of course! And so we moved on to his Symphonic Dances, which finally put the orchestra in the spotlight . Moving from the non-stop intensity of the piano concerto to the more light-hearted spirit of the orchestral work was a bit of adjustment, but once their infectious theme came out to tease us on, we were right onboard and stayed on until the very end. The voltage had definitely gone down a notch, which made it a perfectly pleasant way to unwind the evening.

Thursday, November 19, 2015

Leif Ove Andsnes - Sibelius, Beethoven, Debussy & Chopin - 11/16/15

Sibelius: Kyllikki, Op. 41
Sibelius: The Birch Tree, Op. 75, No. 4
Sibelius: The Spruce, Op. 75, No. 5
Sibelius: Forest Lake, Op. 114, No. 3
Sibelius: Song in the Forest, Op. 114, No. 4
Sibelius: Spring Vision, Op. 114, No. 5
Beethoven: Piano Sonata No. 18 in E-flat Major, Op. 31, No. 3
Debussy: La soirée dans Grenade from Estampes
Debussy: Étude No. 7, Pour les degrés chromatiques
Debussy: Étude No. 11, Pour les arpèges composés
Debussy: Étude No. 5, pour les octaves
Chopin: Impromptu in A-flat Major, Op. 29
Chopin: Étude in A-flat Major from Trois nouvelles études
Chopin: Nocturne in F Major, Op. 15, No. 1
Chopin: Ballade No. 4 in F Minor, Op. 52

A few days after spending an evening with my fellow Lyonnais Jean-Yves Thibaudet at Carnegie Hall, I was back in the exact same venue, as a matter of fact almost in the exact same seat, for Leif Ove Andsnes, another pianist extraordinaire from the Old Continent, whom I make a point of stalking every time he is in town, usually with my friend Paula, who may be an even bigger fan of his than I am.
So on Monday night the three of us converged into the Stern Auditorium for his annual visit and a cleverly eclectic program that included seemingly random works by celebrated composers such as Sibelius, Beethoven, Debussy and Chopin. Let's face it, whatever combination the man puts together, we will come.

As a hard-core fan of Jean Sibelius, I was thrilled by the inclusion of some of his pieces for solo piano on the program. As if to prove that there's nothing like a musician from Norway to impeccably channel a composer from Finland, Leif Ove Andsnes gave a uniformly brilliant account of the small-scale curiosities. The three movements of Kyllikki beautifully displayed a wide range of lovely colors; the following five precious nuggets evoked the multiple joys of nature in a beautifully understated performance that always made sure to discreetly empathize the little details while keeping the atmosphere delicately breathy and mysterious.
By all accounts Ludwig van Beethoven was not a happy-go-lucky kind of guy, so one has to wonder what on earth he was smoking when writing his surprisingly chirpy Piano Sonata No. 18. In any case, on Monday night we all sat back and immensely enjoyed Leif Ove Andsnes' readily bright and brisk rendition of it, which successfully conveyed the master's trademark intensity and less trademark cheerfulness.
After intermission, we moved on to Claude Debussy with four works that gave the pianist many opportunities to make the most of the composer's relentless inventiveness with, in particular, his superb phrasing technique. From the exotic sounds "La soirée dans Grenade" (The evening in Grenade) to the fascinating textures in "Pour les octaves" (For the octaves), we all happily lost ourselves in Debussyan land.
Our last, but certainly not least, composer on the list was Frédéric Chopin with an appealing cocktail of an impromptu, an étude, a nocturne and a ballade of his, as if to leave no stone unturned. and sure enough, the wide-ranging set clearly demonstrated the endless complexity in form and content of the impressive body of work, the gorgeously lyrical Ballade No. 4 making the perfect ending to a perfect evening.

Or was it? It was not! We actually extended the revelry with a light-as-a-feather Étude in F Minor, Opus 25, and the biggest gift of them all, an irresistible Polonaise in A-flat, Op. 53 that gloriously exploded with grandeur, energy and just the right amount of sentiment. Then we really had our perfect ending to a perfect evening.

Monday, November 16, 2015

Cantori New York - Crabtree, Thiele & Beecher - 11/14/15

Artistic Director & Conductor: Mark Shapiro
Crabtree: The Valley of Delight
Thiele: Prophezeiungen
Emily Klonowski: Soprano
Beecher: The New Amorous World
Michael Lombardi: Horn
Marion Ravot: Harp
Kyle Wilbert: Horn

One of the main reasons the unstoppable Cantori New York choir has kept its prominent place on New York's crowded choral music scene is its admirably implemented mission of keeping on performing new and neglected works in each concert, which in turn allows their grateful audience to become acquainted with pieces they had probably never heard before.
Therefore, I was more than a little surprised when I heard that the first concert of their 2015-2016 season last Saturday night would feature not just one, but two compositions they had performed in the previous years. But when I realized that they would be Siegfried Thiele's splendidly apocalyptic Prophezeiungen and Lembit Beecher's clever cantata The New Amorous World, I quickly agreed that the two works were rich enough in form and content to stand a second listening. As for the unknown item on the program, it was Paul Crabtree's The Valley of Delight, an intriguing foray into the American Shaker community.
As it were, after too many hours glued to my computer obsessively checking the increasingly distressing news from Paris, I was only too happy to head for the Village and the Church of St. Luke in the Fields to join a few friends and have something – anything – else to focus on.

Notwithstanding its deceptively light-hearted title, Paul Crabtree's The Valley of Delight turned out to be a serious composition about Quaker-turned-Shaker immigrant Ann Lee's utopian community, which itself was apparently dead serious about doubtful concepts like the power of ecstatic dancing and shouting for the body to rid itself of sin (?!). On the other hand, one can of course only applaud the promotion of equal treatment of men and women. And while Ann Lee's and Lynn Emmanuel's texts often sound like poetry dreamed up by unhinged idealists, the music offers a vast tapestry of melodies and harmonies that are viscerally stunning in their directness and gorgeousness. Fact is, utopia has rarely sounded as good as the soaring performance by Cantori on Saturday night.
Composed during the Cold War, inspired by writings from Leonardo da Vinci's notebook and using a rather macabre German folk song, Siegfried Thiele's Prophezeiungen had totally taken me by surprise last season with the blatant force of its uncompromising sounds and visions, and I was more than eager for a repeat. And sure enough, the ominous "Prophecies" did not bother taking any prisoners as they barreled down their destructive path with all their might again as Cantori confidently delivered another blazing account of the end of the world.
Things calmed down after intermission with The New Amorous World, a composition that puts the bizarre – An Archibras? – and not so bizarre – Equal rights for all – ideas conjured up by French philosopher Charles Fournier at the turn of the 18th century to contemporary music. Accordingly, after firmly establishing the core principles of "The Calculus of Harmony" for starter, the choir and instrumentalists went on to explain the importance of free love in all its manias and manifestations, the system to navigate them, the attractive aspect of work, the usefulness of the Archibras and the mission of the blind savants. Featuring two horns and a harp, spoken words and infectious singing, The New Amorous World spiritedly provided Fourier's often endearingly naive vision with a decidedly engaging musical platform and eventually left it up to the audience to decide how far along we've come over the last couple of centuries. From the current look of things, it unfortunately looks like the world still has an awfully long way to go before reaching the ever-elusive Harmony.

Saturday, November 14, 2015

Jean-Yves Thibaudet - Schumann & Ravel - 11/11/15

Schumann: Kinderszenen, Op. 15
Schumann: Piano Sonata No. 1 in F-Sharp Minor, Op. 11
Ravel: Pavane pour une infante défunte
Ravel: Miroirs

After happily basking in the dazzling sounds of the intimate, resolutely eclectic recital by Leila Josefowicz and Jon Novacek in the small Zankel Hall on Tuesday night, I was back at Carnegie Hall, in the sizeable Stern Auditorium this time, for a – by default – less intimate, Franco-German recital by Jean-Yves Thibaudet on Wednesday night.
The prestigious space, ideal for large scale events, is far less conducive to creating the perfect atmosphere for the close and personal experience that is a recital or a chamber music performance. It is, however, the obvious choice for the big names in the classical music world, who for better or worse have outgrown Zankel, with the flawless acoustics making up to some degree for the lack of intimacy. So on Wednesday I headed to Midtown again to end another dreary November day on another uplifting note.

One of Robert Schumann's most rightly popular works, Kinderszenen seems to be at first a rather simple composition, but it progressively reveals a vast array of deeply heart-felt emotions as the short scenes from childhood quickly succeed one another. On Wednesday, the dreaminess of "Träumerei", the joyfulness of "Glückes genug" and the spookiness of "Fürchtenmachen", just to name a few of the vignettes, all came through with understated contrast and refreshing directness for a lively and manifold concert opener.
Kinderszenen may have been a favorite of Schumann's beloved Clara, but it is probably a safe bet to assume that she was just as taken with his Piano Sonata No. 1. And for a good reason. Describing it as "a cry from my heart to yours", the hopelessly infatuated composer used his reliable signature alter egos – the introvert Florestan and the extrovert Eusebius – to express his passionate feelings towards the young pianist without raising her father's suspicion. Here again, Jean-Yves Thibaudet applied his considerable skills for a committed rendition of this fierce declaration of love.
When I decided to get a ticket for this concert, my main interest rested unquestionably in hearing Thibaudet perform Schumann. But if I went for Schumann and enjoyed the two pieces of his, I remained pretty much astounded at the renditions of Ravel's Miroirs. After a delicate "Pavane pour une infante défunte ", the suddenly fired-up pianist went on to paint the remarkably self-contained tableaux with bold, vividly colored strokes, gently and not so gently evoking the rippling movement of the water in "Une barque sur l'océan" (A boat at sea) and authoritatively conjuring up some sizzling hot Spanish rhythms in "Alborada del gracioso" (Morning song of the jester). Subtlety and soulfulness were the names of the game in "Oiseaux tristes" (Sad birds) and "La vallée des cloches" (The Valley of bells).

Our rousing ovation was acknowledged with two encores, an assertive Intermezzo in A Major by Brahms and an achingly beautiful "Kupelwieser-Walzer", Schubert's Waltz in G-flat Major, arranged by Strauss. The concert ended even better than it had started.

Thursday, November 12, 2015

Leila Josefowicz & John Novacek - Falla, Messiaen, Schumann, Tüür & Adams - 11/10/15

Falla: Suite populaire espagnole
Messiaen: Theme and Variations
Schumann: Violin Sonata No. 1 in A Minor, Op. 105
Tüür: Conversio
Adams: Road Movies

Bold in her choices and fearless in her playing, Leila Josefowicz is a violinist whose performances I make a point of attending as often as possible, which is not as easy as it sounds considering how popular she is all over the world. And for all the right reasons too. So I was thrilled at the perspective of a chance to hear her in Zankel Hall's intimate space with pianist John Novacek in a program as eclectic as adventurous on Tuesday night. Quite a nice little pick-me-up at the end of a dreary November day.

The musical journey across countries and through time started in Spain at the turn of the 20th century, with a colorful bouquet of transcriptions of songs by Manuel del Falla, from the high-spirited "El paño moruno" and the ethereal "Nana" to the uncompromising "Polo" and the lovely "Canción". A fiery and subtle opening to a concert that managed to deliver many additional treasured moments one after the other.
A couple of decades or so later, French composer Olivier Messiaen was offering his "Theme and Variations" to his wife, violinist and composer Claire Delbos, for their wedding. It has obviously been a gift that has kept on giving as on Tuesday night Leila Josefowicz and John Novacek treated their audience to a divinely inspired, beautifully nuanced performance of the intricate, mood-swinging work.
Then it was on to mid-19th century Germany with Robert Schumann's Violin Sonata No. 1, a quintessential Romantic piece that the duo vigorously dusted up and cleverly spiked up. The two contrasting personas of sweet Eusebius and feisty Florestan were therefore transposed to modern times for a genuinely winning rendition. Schumann would have surely been pleased.
Like his illustrious predecessor Arvo Pärt, contemporary Estonian composer Erkki-Sven Tüür obviously has a knack for gratifying minimalism. His light but relentless "Conversio" started with an insistent violin and a sporadic piano before progressively wandering among many intriguing, ever-changing paths, which all came together for a riveting experience.
Leila Josefowicz's long-standing professional and personal relationship with contemporary American composer John Adams makes her the de facto ultimate interpreter of his work for violin – He has after all written a violin concerto just for her – and the artistic chemistry was clearly palpable during "Road Movies", a delightful account of a delightful composition. Captivating in its unpretentious virtuosity, this "Road Movies" took us along numerous musical landscapes for an endlessly fun, truly relaxing ride.

The encore of course had to be something off the beaten track, and it was, with Claus Ogermann' arrangement of "Smile" from Charlie Chaplin's Modern Times, an exquisite combination of simplicity and intensity with concluded the concert on a gentle, deeply felt note.

Monday, November 9, 2015

NSO - Mahler - 11/07/15

Conductor: Christoph Eschenbach
Mahler: Symphony No. 3 in D Minor
Anne Sofie von Otter: Mezzo-soprano
The women in the Choral Arts Society of Washington
Children's Chorus of Washington

After deciding to finally head back to Washington, DC for a long-overdue extended weekend, I was happily surprised to notice that my visit would coincide with the National Symphony Orchestra playing Mahler's sprawling Symphony No. 3 under the baton of its current music director Christoph Eschenbach. Maybe not exactly a light-hearted way to start my little jaunt in our nation' capital, but certainly a welcome walk down memory lane all the way to the Kennedy Center's concert hall with my former NSO buddy Jennifer. To make the occasion even more special, on Friday evening the record-breaking 80 degree temperature (?!) and de rigueur accompanying high humidity brought us right back to the many sultry summer nights spent on the Kennedy Center's terrace yakking away while gazing at the Georgetown lights. Ah, memories.

Mahler's Symphony No. 3 opens with a movement so long (over 30 minutes) and so chaotic, frequently sounding unsure of where it is going, that making it to the end intact can be a rather daunting challenge. But then, in drastic contrast to all the opening turmoil, the second movement is simply and undisputedly lovely. The third movement has its fair share of light and darkness, and a memorable posthorn solo, before the music moves on to the mysterious fourth movement and Nietzsche's "Midnight Song" from Also sprach Zarathustra. The cheerful, folk-inspired children's chorus stands out in the fifth movement, which is followed by the peaceful and eventually triumphant sixth movement.
There is a lot to take in from the endlessly complex work, much more than can be grasped in one performance, no matter how enlightening it happens to be. Friday night's concert had a lot going for it, including staunchly committed conductor, musicians and singers, who did their best to maintain a solid momentum and the ever-precarious balance of the whole enterprise. Even if they did not always succeed, the experience was often so intense that it did not leave much room to quibble about details. It was a real pleasure to hear Anne Sofie von Otter's beautiful voice soar from the center of the chorister section, and the women of the Choral Arts Society of Washington and the Children's Chorus of Washington provided a delightful human touch to the gigantic endeavor. The journey ended with a majestic Adagio, which leisurely unfolded to reach its gloriously life-affirming conclusion. The NSO is decidedly doing well.

Monday, November 2, 2015

Met - Tannhaüser - 10/31/15

Composer: Richard Wagner
Conductor: James Levine
Production: Otto Schenk
Direction: Stephen Pickover
Tannhaüser: Johan Botha
Wolfram von Eschenbach: Peter Mattei
Elisabeth: Eva-Maria Westbrock
Venus: Michelle DeYoung
Hermann, Landgraf of Thuringia: Günther Groissböck

The eternal fight between virtue and, well, less virtue had to tempt a man as preoccupied with philosophical dilemmas as Richard Wagner, and sure enough, Tannhaüser actually kept him preoccupied for most of his adult life, or more precisely from 1842, when he was 29, to 1883, right before he died.
Inspired by German medieval literature, Tannhaüser is about a troubadour who, during the course of roughly four and a half hours, cannot make up his mind between sensual Venus and chaste Elisabeth. He eventually dies and is redeemed after the virtuous woman sacrificed herself. Wagner being Wagner, he composed a sumptuously Romantic score for it, and at some point even threw some ballet in as well so that it could be premiered at the Paris Opera according to the house's rules (Never mind that said premiere was a total fiasco for political reasons).
As I have been conscientiously making progress into Wagnerian territory with whatever the Met is kind enough to program, I was more than excited to see that Tannhaüser was up this season, and with an all-around impressive cast to boot. So it was with almost no regrets that I walked down to the Lincoln Center on a beautiful October day to confine myself for the entire afternoon in the Met's packed Family Circle.

Typically long and challenging, Wagnerian operas are not for the faint of hearts, and I am not talking only about the audience here. They also require the singers to have bottomless reserves of power and stamina on top of the expected professional-level singing. But the carefully hand-picked international cast we had in the house on Saturday afternoon proved that they could handle it all without apparently even breaking a sweat.
South African tenor Johan Botha, who had already proved his Wagnerian credentials last season with Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, was an indefatigable Tannhaüser. If physical acting is not his forte, the myriad of subtle and not so subtle emotions he openly expressed in his compelling, well-articulated singing certainly more than made up for it.
Swedish baritone Peter Mattei, who had easily vowed the New York crowds in Parsifal two seasons ago, was a wonderful Wolfram, all dignified elegance and sensitive righteousness. His appealing voice and impeccable phrasing made a flawless accompaniment to the magnificent music.
The ladies fared very well too, with virtuous Elisabeth being brilliantly embodied by Dutch soprano Eva-Maria Westbroek, in a role eons away from her superb Lady Macbeth of Mtensk from last season. Purity, however, obviously did not mean demureness in this case, and this Elisabeth stood up to the world with remarkable poise and authority.
American mezzo-sporano Michelle DeYoung was a decidedly seductive if moody Venus, oozing carefree sensuality galore, and seemed to relish every minute of it. You go, girl!
The ever-versatile chorus sounded totally at ease in Wagnerian land and authoritatively delivered pitch-perfect ensemble singing throughout the performance, with a special mention for an absolutely stupendous Pilgrims' Chorus. Hallelujah, indeed!
With singing so consistently mesmerizing, the production did not attract much attention, but it did not call for it either. Discreet and serviceable, such as a bunch of semi-clad young people frolicking in the Venusberg scene or a traditionally attractive German medieval Hall of Song, the sets got the job done unimaginatively, but efficiently. The costumes were equally good-looking and predictable.
The composition, on the other hand, is as memorable as they come. Starting with the iconic overture, which is seamlessly followed by the enchanting ballet segment, it goes on with highly dramatic solos such as Elisabeth's salute to the hall, "Dich, teure Halle" or inconspicuously delicate hymns like Wolfram's greeting to the evening star, "O, du mein older Abendstern". Wagner may have intermittently agonized for four decades over Tannhaüser, but we can now say that it was worth it.
James Levine is a well-known Wagner expert, and there is no doubt that he had the score and the orchestra under tight and loving control. It is in fact hard to imagine any other conductor being able to unfold those seemingly endless and impossible gorgeous Romantic lines with the same mastery as he does. He ensured the right balance between orchestra and singers, expertly pacing the entire proceedings with deeply insightful command. The result was a musical performance as transcendental as the score, and that is saying a lot.

Saturday, October 31, 2015

Joshua Bell & Sam Haywood - Vitali, Beethoven & Fauré - 10/27/15

Vitali: Chaconne in G Minor
Beethoven: Violin Sonata No. 9 in A Major, Op. 47, (Kreutzer)
Fauré: Violin Sonata No. 1 in A Major, Op. 13

Some traditions are just that, but others occasionally bring an extra something that makes them all the more memorable. When I was originally heading to Carnegie Hall's Stern Auditorium for my annual rendez-vous with Joshua Bell and Sam Haywood on Wednesday night, my main goal was to enjoy superior playing by two seasoned musicians.
What I was not expecting was that Joshua Bell would dedicate the concert to his teacher, Josef Gingold, who would have turned 106 on that night, and that he would also take that opportunity to celebrate his 30th year of performing in the prestigious music venue as well. The program was therefore filled with oldies but goodies, including Tomaso Antonio Vitali's feisty Italian Chaconne, Beethoven's intrinsically German Kreutzer sonata and Fauré's exquisitely French Violin Sonata No. 1. Just the little pick-me-up I needed after an endlessly grey and rainy Hump Day.

Impeccably nailing Vitali's Chaconne for starters was an unambiguous way for Joshua Bell and Sam Haywood to assert their command of their art and whet our appetite for the bigger and better things that were about to come. Regardless of the recent controversy surrounding the actual author of the work, it was a flavorful treat.
But it soon paled in comparison to the magnificent Kreutzer sonata that was next, a deeply visceral journey from moody to meditative to exuberant, the two musicians always striking the perfect balance between them. Emotions were flying high, the tone was gorgeous, the precision infallible. Later on, as we were all leaving the hall, a woman behind me authoritatively stated that "the first big one was very good", and the spontaneous eruption of applause after the first movement only confirmed was everyone could easily hear. This was a grand Kreutzer indeed.
The Fauré sonata that followed is certainly an accomplished composition, and it was performed with the utmost professionalism, offering a welcome, if not complete, respite from all the ever-shifting turbulences that had preceded it. What it did not have in sheer magnitude was more than made up for in the work's natural charm and subtle wit.

The evening was rounded up with a small smorgasbord of violin-centric gems such as an infectious Hungarian Dance No. 1 by Brahms, a bittersweet Liebesleid by Kreisler and a devilishly virtuosic Scherzo tarantelle by Wieniawski, which Joshua Bell had not performed since an appearance on the Johnny Carson show in 1981. The young prodigy has decidedly come a long way.

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Teatro Grattacielo - Siberia - 10/24/15

Composer: Umberto Giordano
Conductor: Israel Gursky
The Teatro Grattacielo Orchestra
The Cantori New York Chorus
Marie Masters: Stephana
Raul Melo: Vassili
Daniel Ihn-kyu Lee: Gleby

Umberto Giordano's Siberia may not have made it to glorious posterity, but it sounded intriguing enough for a curious audience to go check it out last Saturday night in John Jay College's Gerald W. Lynch Theater, conveniently located right on the border between the Upper West Side and Hell's Kitchen, where it was presented by Teatro Grattacielo in one performance only.
The small but tenacious opera company was indeed implementing one more time their laudable mission of bringing hidden gems from the Italian repertoire from the 1890s to 1930s to new life, and one can only be grateful that they are still around and unfailingly kicking after New York City Opera's heir apparent, Gotham Chamber Opera, stunned a lot of opera buffs by unexpectedly biting the dust earlier this month. Sometimes real life has even more drama than fiction.

Siberia deals with real people, their complicated lives and unhappy fates, such as a nice young soldier who unknowingly falls in love with the mistress of a prince, wounds the prince in a duel, ends up in a labor camp in Siberia, and eventually sees his mistress reappear right there to be with him. Happy ending? Not so, as verismo tradition oblige, things must go downhill from there, and I am not just talking about the extreme local climate. One day, she happens to bump into her former pimp, who tactlessly reveals her hooker's past, ungentlemanly snitches on her plan to run away with her lover, and literally has her killed (Well, since somebody had to die, it might as well be the scarlet woman).
So the plot was predictably straight-forward and silly, and sure enough, the music was just as predictably intense and lyrical, a constant flow of intense peaks and more controlled transitions that kept the passions burning hot and the story moving swiftly along. It is not a subtle score, but it is definitely an attractive one.
And the singers did full justice to it with not only their fearlessly expressive singing, but also enough emotional involvement to successfully inhabit their characters. Soprano Marie Masters was a naturally hot-blooded, fiercely determined Stephana, and sang the taxing part with plenty of ardor and clarity throughout the whole evening, never missing a beat between tender love songs and highly dramatic outbursts.
Irrepressible tenor Raul Melo was equally fervent and articulate as Vassili, the sweet but hapless young soldier whose encounter with Stephana triggers the chain of unfortunate events. Nothing was more heart-breaking that his discovery that the woman he loved, and ended up in Siberia for, was not an embroideress, after all.
Baritone Daniel Ihn-kyu Lee was a deliciously creepy Gleby, both poised and relentless, with just a tad of self-satisfied irony. His singing stood out with impressive staying power and resonance.
The ever-reliable Cantori New York chorus provided consummate background support, especially distinguishing themselves with the eloquent hauntingness of the prisoners' laments and the fleeting light-heartedness of the women's chattering and giggling.
The Teatro Grattacielo Orchestra was obviously having a ball with the dynamic score, and Israel Gursky energetically kept the music going strong and strongly appealing. The concert had impressive, unwavering momentum from beginning to end, never mind the two intermissions in the 90-minute performance, and most capably shed some bright light on an undeservedly ignored opera.

Monday, October 26, 2015

American Composers Orchestra - Orchestra Underground: 21st Firsts - 10/23/15

Music Director & Conductor: George Manahan
Michael-Thomas Foumai: The Spider Thread
Melody Eotvos: Red Dirt/Silver Rain
Hannah Lash: Concerto for Harp and Chamber Orchestra
Hannah Lash: Harp
Judah Adashi: Sestina for Voice and Orchestra
Caroline Shaw: Voice
Conrad Winslow: Joint Account for Orchestra and Video
Paul Libier: Projections

For its 125th anniversary, Carnegie Hall had boldly decided to focus not on its prestigious past but on an equally exciting future by commissioning 125 new classical music works to be performed in the next five years. Reaching far and wide, the ambitious 125 Commissions Project represents a serious injection of fresh blood into art form that is regularly presented as stagnating at least, and promises quite a few interesting evenings in perspective as well. What's not to love?
And that's why on Friday evening my friend Christine, who had decided she was up for the challenge after all, and I celebrated the end of the work week by heading to the cool Zankel Hall for the closing night of the SONiC festival with a concert that would include five world premieres composed by young but already much lauded composers and performed by the American Composers Orchestra, which has been creating, performing, preserving and promoting music by American composers for the past 39 years.

Hawaii-born Michael-Thomas Foumai's The Spider Thread opened the concert with some suspense and plenty of cleverness, even if the background story (A criminal trying to climb out of hell to paradise, only to fall right back into darkness again) was on the macabre side.
Australia-born and raised Melody Eotvos remembered her childhood in Queensland with her subtly atmospheric Red Dirt/Silver Rain. Inspired by the local dirt's volcanic red and the summer's rain showers, this irresistible invitation to share her memories felt like a dreamy, organic journey to the Land Down Under, which maestro George Manahan and his orchestra beautifully evoked.
Hannah Lash made the old saying "You are never as well served as when you serve yourself" an obvious truth when she assuredly filled in the soloist position in her Concerto for Harp and Chamber Orchestra with elegance and sensitivity. Always an instrument rightfully associated with mystery and ethereality, the harp rarely gets to be center stage, and this virtuosic performance of a harp-centered work proved that it is a damn shame.
The shortest among all those short pieces, Judah Adashi's Sestina for Voice and Orchestra clocked in at 12 minutes, but for some reason felt the longest of them all. Sung torch-song style by Caroline Shaw, the composition unravels an entire romantic relationship with six words, using Ciara Shuttleworth's poem Sestina, and soft melancholy.
Then we were served the sounds and visions combo of Conrad Winslow's Joint Account for Orchestra and Video, which was inspired by "Baroque theorist Johann Mattheson's 1739 manual of techniques on representing emotions in music". The result was a fast-paced hodge-podge of video excerpts accompanied by a lively score, or maybe the other way around, which concluded the concert on a colorful and chaotic note.

Sunday, October 18, 2015

American Symphony Orchestra - Mimesis: Musical Representations - 10/16/15

Music Director & Conductor: Leon Botstein
Schuller: Seven Studies on Themes of Paul Klee
Dutilleux: Correspondances
Sophia Burgos: Soprano
Muhly: Seeing is Believing
Tracy Silverman: Electric Violin
Strauss: Also sprach Zarathustra, Op. 30

Interestingly enough, on Friday evening my return to Carnegie Hall for the first time this season was for a concert that was not part of their official program, although it was performed by one of the notable local orchestras regularly visiting the Stern Auditorium. As it was, the American Symphony Orchestra and its always probing music director Leon Botstein were presenting "Mimesis: Musical Representations", another typically ambitious program exploring the complex and fascinating connections among music, words and images with the help of an eclectic group of composers that included Gunther Schuller, Henri Dutilleux, Nico Muhly and Richard Strauss. Not exactly light fare for a Friday night, but then again, a little intellectual stimulation before the weekend has never killed anybody.

Although Gunther Schuller is not exactly a household name, he for sure deserves to be with a resume as diverse as illustrious: Horn player, conductor, author, educator, administrator and, obviously, composer. My ignorance about Gunther Schuller was, however, counterbalanced by my bottomless devotion to Paul Klee, and his appearance on the program had more than picked my curiosity. And sure enough, the astonishing variety of the painter's œuvre was to some degree faithfully reflected in the different styles of composer's Seven Studies on Themes of Paul Klee. The diabolically fun "Little Blue Devil" came out gleefully swinging and was an outstanding example of Schuller's "third stream" practice of fusing jazz and classical music. Other highlights were the short-lived, whimsical "Abstract Trio", during which only three instruments played at a time, and the extended, atmospheric "Arab Village", whose quiet exoticism made a nevertheless powerful impression.
Commissioned by the Berlin Philharmonic in 1983 and eventually premiered in 2003 by Simon Rattle and Dawn Upshawn, Henri Dutilleux's song cycle Correspondances focuses the relations between music and words with poems from Rainer Maria Rilke and Prithwindra Mukherjee as well as letters by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn and Vincent Van Gogh. The orchestra handled the wide ranging nature of the texts with commendable subtlety, and if soprano Sophia Burgos was dressed in a demure full-length white lace dress, her fierce singing was anything but. The best had been kept for last, when musicians and singer went all out for a blazing description of Van Gogh's popular masterpiece La nuit étoilée.
There were also plenty of shining stars in Seeing is Believing, Nico Muhly's engaging evocation of, yes, a starry night, featuring endlessly versatile violinist Tracy Silverman and his six-string electric violin. Staying solidly front and center the entire time, the virtuosic soloist delivered a truly inspired and free-spirited performance. The orchestral accompaniment seemed to occasionally lose its way, aimlessly wandering in the vast universe at night, but everything eventually fell into place with purpose and precision.
After paintings, the written word and the cosmos, we moved back in time to philosophy with Also sprach Zarathustra. Inspired by Nietzsche's epic philosophical novel by the same name, Richard Strauss' excessively Romantic tone poem partly owes its worldwide fame to Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey, which cleverly used the spontaneously gripping introduction. A firm believer that music is humankind's highest form of expression, Strauss found in Nietszche's prose the same kind of exalted thoughts and decided to put it in music for posterity. The result is a bold, dramatic and triumphant journey, which on Friday night orchestra and conductor vigorously brought to glorious life. The weekend and my Carnegie Hall season has started well.

Trinity Wall Street - Concerts at One - Salonen & Brahms - 10/15/15

Music Director & Conductor: Julian Wachner
Salonen: Five Images after Sappho
Soprano: Mellissa Hughes
Brahms: Serenade No. 2 in A Major, Op. 16

After another week of slowly exploring with increasing interest my new office's neighborhood, I was happily back in the Trinity Wall Street Church last Thursday for the second Concert at One of the season. Although I will probably not attend all of them, this time I had planned ahead carefully in order to be able to make it for the intriguing pairing of the ever-cool modernist Finnish Essa-Pekka Salonen and the ever-traditional Romantic German Johann Brahms, a combination that promised a blissful hour of instrumental music with the NOVUS NY chamber orchestra and soprano Mellissa Hughes. You gotta give it to Julian Wachner, the church's music director and conductor. Even if part of the audience obviously stumbles across those concerts by chance as they are tirelessly touring the bustling area with backpacks, maps and cameras in tow, he sets the bar high and resolutely keeps it right up there for all music lovers.

For Five Images after Sappho, composer-turned-conductor-turned-composer Essa-Pekka Salonen drew his inspiration from texts by the Greek poet Sappho and came up with a musical journey illustrating the life of a young woman in five short but telling episodes. Salonen being an imaginative composer with a knack for brilliant and accessible music, the vivacious chamber orchestra and the appealing soprano Mellissa Hughes had no trouble making their way through the attractive score to deliver a totally committed and satisfying performance, even if the musicians at times covered the singer's unswerving singing in the beautiful but not acoustically ideal space.
Dedicated to his beloved Clara Schumann, Brahms' Serenade No. 2 is indisputably a mature and impressive work on its own, but it can also be seen as an insightful preview of the magnificent symphonies that were to come much later (Painstaking perfectionism oblige). The Adagio, one of Clara Schumann's favorite musical pieces ever, interestingly acts as the core of the piece, the four other movements developing in a carefully designed palindrome structure around it. Clearly buoyant at the opportunity to play such openly uplifting music, the orchestra of woodwinds and low strings kept on enthusiastically generating plenty of sunny melodies and voluptuous lyricism in the best Brahms tradition. And then it was back to the usual grind, but with a revved-up mind.

Saturday, October 10, 2015

Trinity Wall Street - Concerts at One - Strauss, Martin & Mahler - 10/08/15

Music Director & Conductor: Julian Wachner
Strauss: Der Abend
 Martin: Mass for Double Choir
Mahler: Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen

My office's move from the by now completely gentrified Flatiron District to still evolving Downtown Manhattan a couple of weeks ago has had its fair share of pros and cons, but the bottom line is, if I had to bid a tearful arrivederci to Eataly and its sinful gelatos and hot chocolates, I was thrilled by the sudden opportunity to attend the highly regarded, extremely popular, but until now out of reach, weekly Concerts at One in the beautiful Episcopal Trinity Wall Street Church, which proudly stands at the corner and Broadway and Wall Street, just about one block from our new address.
After experiencing the superb musicianship of the Choir of Trinity Wall Street and its indefatigable music director and conductor Julian Wachner at Carnegie Hall last season, I could only look forward to becoming more acquainted with them on a regular basis. So last Thursday, at 12:55 PM, a small contingent made the executive decision to discreetly leave the office and go bask in the glorious sounds of familiar Richard Strauss and Gustav Mahler, as well as of lesser-known Frank Martin, for the season-opening performance of Concerts at One.

When he was not busy shocking the world with radical operas, Richard Strauss was enthralling it with stunningly beautiful works in the best late Romantic German tradition. Specifically written for a 16-part a cappella choir, "Der Abend" is such a radiant little gem, dreamily describing a peaceful seascape at sunset in all its ever-changing, naturally blazing colors. The feeling of complete perfection was delicately highlighted by the song's delicate textures and the choir's richly lyrical singing, which softly ended in a barely there whisper.
Before moving on to Mahler, another Viennese master of the late Romantic German tradition, we made a memorable detour via multi-cultural Switzerland with Geneva-born Calvinist Frank Martin and his Mass for Double Choir. The composer finished it in 1928 and then purposely left it in the back of his drawer for four decades, thinking that this testament of his relationship to God was too private to be bestowed upon the general public. Luckily for us, he changed his mind, and the world can now enjoy this major, if still under-recognized, 20th century choral masterpiece, whose brilliant combination of Renaissance and modern styles makes it a truly grand achievement. The Choir of Trinity Wall Street did not shy away from the challenge at hand and delivered a performance of remarkable intensity, expertly conveying a myriad of different emotions while unflappably maintaining the work's artistic and spiritual integrity.
The cleverly rounded up program concluded with a solid dose of Mahlerian angst and melancholy with his lieder "Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen", which for the occasion was sung in an arrangement for a 16-part a cappella choir. The atmosphere was not all darkness and gloom though, and beyond the overall poignancy one could decipher a touching ode to solitude and introspection, which was all the more appreciated as we were getting ready to jump back into the crowded streets and frantic pace of the real world outside. We will be back.

Sunday, October 4, 2015

Met - Il Trovatore - 10/03/15

Composer: Giuseppe Verdi
Conductor: Marco Armiliato
Producer: Sir David McVicar
Leonora: Anna Netrebko
Count di Luna: Dmitri Hvorostovsky
Yonghoon Lee: Manrico
Azucena: Dolora Zajick
Fernando: Stefan Kocan

Dmitri's back! And opera-loving New Yorkers are ecstatically swooning. Although I had seen it back in 2009 from the furthest house right upper corner of the Family Circle, there were many reasons for me to attend the revival of Il Trovatore at the Metropolitan Opera yesterday afternoon, including a slightly better seat, the opera's fabulous score, Anna Netrebko daringly stepping into Sondra Radvanovsky's inherently Verdian shoes as Leonora, the silly but still gripping plot involving three storylines overloaded with love, hate, revenge and death, and, last but not least, the iconic – and performed partially shirtless – anvil chorus. All those legitimate incentives, however, paled in comparison to the perspective of getting to enjoy universally beloved Russian baritone Dmitri Hvorostovsky as the scheming Count di Luna again in his last of only three performances as a serious health scare had him essentially clear out most of his professional schedule.
Moreover, Joaquin having decided to make this first October Saturday a gray, cold, wet, and generally miserable one (So much for fall being my favorite season), checking out this oldie but goodie Il Trovatore right down the street in the Met's familiar environment sounded as good as any proposition, and certainly a promising way to kick off my 2015-2016 opera season.

If opera has occasionally been deemed a dying art, it sure did not look like it yesterday in the Met's huge opera house that was packed all the way to the standing room area, where people were busily piling up in two rows, and buzzing with excitement. Happily stuck between a large contingent of chatty Italians who had made a special trip to the island for the occasion and two Russian Babushkas beaming with pride every time one of their country fellowmen was onstage, I could not but be fully aware and grateful for being part of a very special occasion.
When Dmitri Hvorostovsky first appeared onstage the week before, the ovation was so humongous that maestro Armiliato had to stop the orchestra and the baritone briefly acknowledge the rapturous greeting. Well, there was no reason that we could not match, possibly surpass, that audience, and after pulling out all the stops, we did earn our own moment in opera's history too. Fact is, convalescent or not, the man of the moment treated us to another flawlessly poised and desperate Count di Luna, his hauntingly burnished voice shining as beautifully as ever in countless dark hues. Although he was clearly the bad guy, there was most likely not a single dry eye in the entire house after he nailed "Il balen del suo sorriso", his heart-breaking ode to unrequited love.
His long-time colleague and friend Anna Netrebko, in all probability the world's most famous soprano these days, has been adding new and demanding roles to her resume at an impressive pace. For her second foray into Verdian territory, she took on sweet but nevertheless strong-willed Leonora with her trademark intensity and commitment, her magnificent and powerful voice effortlessly filling up the Met's cavernous space with a seemingly endless supply of dazzling sounds. She is still not the most subtle performer out there, but she does know how to carry her points gorgeously across.
Mezzo-soprano Dolora Zajick has pretty much been the Met's go-to Azucena since 1988, and while she could probably do the part in her sleep by now, she was very much awake and kicking yesterday afternoon as the aging gypsy haunted by her past and still seeking revenge after all these years. Just like her character, her singing was fierce and uncompromising.
It had to be mightily intimidating to be the relatively untested fourth element in such an ensemble of seasoned singers, but up-and-coming tenor Yonghoon Lee convincingly held his own and some as Manrico, the mysterious troubadour and leader of the rebel forces. His bright singing, genuinely remarkable in its clear articulation and assured phrasing, combined to a charismatic presence and energy galore, definitely makes him a newcomer to watch closely.
While the singing was, as my live HD broadcast-watching friend Steve so rightly put it, "consistently glorious", the Goya-inspired production, which places the plot during the Spanish Civil War, was its usual drab with the occasional inspired touches, such as the ominous huge crosses looming in the background and the grittiness of the rebels' camp. The transition between the sets was at least very efficient and did wonders with keeping the momentum of the convoluted story going.
But ultimately, the opera's raison d'être is Verdi's unfailingly compelling score, which miraculously keeps on churning out high-flying melodies in an amazingly wide range of styles. Each of the four lead singers gets to belt out devilishly difficult and stunningly beautiful arias that ingenuously contribute to define their characters' emotional truths, emphasize the dramatic twists and turns of the narrative, and simply provide divine musical entertainment. One of the Met's regular conductors, Marco Armiliato led the excellent orchestra in a vibrant and supple performance, which provided the perfect instrumental background for the recurrent electrifying vocal feats.

Chances are most people in the audience yesterday afternoon had originally bought their tickets for Anna Netrebko, but the undisputed star of the show remained Dmitri Hvorostovsky all the way to the curtain call, when he was greeted with not only a roof-raising rock-star ovation, but also a shower of white roses thrown from the orchestra pit. And everybody took their Kleenex out again. Speaking of emotional truth, they had kept the best for last.

Thursday, October 1, 2015

Music Mondays - Christina and Michelle Naughton - Mendelssohn, Adams & Messiaen - 09/28/15

Mendelssohn: Allegro brillante, Op. 92
Adams: Hallelujah Junction
Messiaen: Visions de l'Amen

Another September evening in New York City, another season opening concert, this time in the Upper West Side's lovely and so convenient Advent Lutheran Church for a piano recital by pianists Christina and Michelle Naughton, who were headlining the always intriguing Music Monday series last Monday night. Since graduating from the Juilliard School AND the Curtis Institute of Music (Why stop at one, when you can make it through two of the world’s most prestigious music schools?) the young twin sisters have already built up a truly impressive resume and are clearly showing no signs of slowing down.
Furthermore, Monday's program was a decidedly attractive combination of genres, periods and nationalities that included the German Romantic Felix Mendelssohn, the American contemporary John Adams, and the French mystical Olivier Messiaen. I obviously could not have found a better way to blissfully unwind at the end of my very busy first day as a newly relocated downtown working girl (Wall Street, watch out, here I come!).

Looking eerily and adorably alike, except for their pink and blue flowing tops, Christina and Michelle Naughton sat down at the same piano for Mendelssohn's delightful Allegro brillante. A delicious little bonbon ingeniously served as appetizer, the irrepressibly melodic concert opener happily sparkled with joie de vivre and witticism, the two sisters demonstrating a real osmosis and an impeccable technique in their brightly colored four-hand performance.
Then the two ladies sat down at two pianos facing each other for John Adams' Hallelujah Junction, a highly rhythmical work that distinguishes itself with a brilliantly minimalist, tightly organized chaos that would actually be right at home in a road movie. The pianists dynamically played off each other and proved once again that they were in perfect synchronicity.
The main piece of the evening was Visions de l'Amen, the first piece that Messiaen wrote after being released from a war camp in 1943, and also his first collaboration with Yvonne Loriod, then his student, later his wife and muse. But even without this unique background, Visions de l'Amen mightily stands out for being a grand and austere experience, sweepingly displaying a wide range of emotions on its own terms, taking the time to breathe and follow its natural flow. Facing each other at their own piano again, the duo resolutely dug deep into the work and gave a beautifully heart-felt performance of it, from which emerged random extraordinary moments such as the turmoil of the “Amen des étoiles", the suffering of the "Amen de l'agonie de Jésus", the tenderness turning into passion of the "Amen of Desire", the chirping of the birds and the clanging of the church bells. Just when you thought that New York City could not take another ounce of self-important Catholicism, Olivier Messiaen showed us the way to true spirituality.

The concert had been kind of short, but very challenging for the musicians and extremely satisfying for the audience, so we would have totally understood if the artists had decided to call it a night. But no. They came back with a transcription for two pianos of a stunning funeral cantata by Johann Sebastian Bach, which kept us in an all-encompassing spiritual mood while ending the evening on a flawlessly serene note.

Sunday, September 27, 2015

New York Classical Players - Mozart, Nielsen, Neidich & Schoenberg - 09/27/15

Conductor: Dongmin Kim
Mozart: Divertimento in B-flat, K. 137
Nielsen: Clarinet Concerto Op. 57
Charles Neidich: Clarinet
Neidich: Scherzissimo for Clarinet and Strings
Charles Neidich: Clarinet
Schoenberg: Verklärte Nacht (Transfigured Night), Op. 4

After the expected lull of late summer, the official season has finally been kicked into high gear in concert halls and opera houses around the city, and after a rousing concert by the New York Philharmonic on Friday night, this afternoon I was more than ready for the smaller but no less blazingly talented New York Classical Players in a typically eclectic program including well-known entities such as Mozart, Schoenberg and Nielsen, and the bonus discovery du jour, Charles Neidlich, doing double duty as clarinetist and composer.
So just as the sun was coming out, the temperature was moving slightly up and the city was navigable again, I took a walk across a bustling Central Park and joined an eager crowd in the orchestra's unofficial Manhattan home of the Church of the Heavenly Rest on the Upper East Side for yet another free concert by this unique group of dedicated and selfless young musicians.

The concert safely opened with Mozart and the Divertimento in B-flat, K. 137 that he wrote when he was a rapidly maturing 16-year old prodigy tirelessly travelling all over Europe. As the NYCP's string players put their expert skills to work, they did full justice to the genuinely attractive piece, brightly highlighting the highly melodic nature of the composition while also displaying Mozart's solid sense of his own structure as well as an uncanny dramatic flair.
Carl August Nielsen's Clarinet Concerto Op. 57 turned out to be a non-stop 30-minute conversation, sometimes friendly, sometimes confrontational, but for sure never boring, between the soloist and the orchestra. Only a true virtuoso would be able to come out of this worthy predicament alive, and luckily for us the NYCP had solicited the right one in acclaimed clarinetist, composer, conductor and teacher Charles Neidich. Stormingly asserting itself, playfully flitting around or pensively reflecting, the clarinet boldly held its own and treated the audience to a mesmerizing demonstration of its wide range of possibilities. The strings, however, did not let their guest star steal the entire show and performed with plenty of countering power for a totally enjoyable battle.
After a well-deserved break during the intermission, Charles Neidich was back onstage with the orchestra for his own Scherzissimo for Clarinet and Strings, a short work he composed in 1999 for Elliot Carter's 91st birthday. Tonally based on the notes E, C, B, and B-flat for roughly Elliott, Carter, Happy and Birthday, this outstanding birthday gift had its New York premiere this afternoon, virtuosically flying around in all directions to everyone's delight.
The concert ended with a magnificent rendition of Anton Schoenberg's lushly Romantic Verklärte Nacht, the one work of his that keeps on reminding the world that the ground-breaking inventor of the often off-putting 12-tone technique was also capable of churning out an amazing wealth of richly lyrical sounds, which would have no doubt made Brahms and Wagner turn green with jealousy. Inspired by a poem by Richard Dehmel, in which a woman confesses to her lover that she bears another man's child and he gently forgives her as they walk under the moonlight, Verklärte Nacht takes this highly dramatic background to create a whole world of intense emotions and gorgeous sounds lavishly unfolding in one sweeping and – Yes! – transfiguring movement. And there's nothing like a little transfiguration on a lovely fall Sunday afternoon.

Saturday, September 26, 2015

New York Philharmonic - Salonen & Strauss - 09/25/16

Conductor: Alan Gilbert
Salonen: LA Variations
Strauss: Ein Heldenleben (A Hero's Life), Op. 40
Frank Huang: Violin

Yesterday I knew that my evening and, as it happens, my new musical season had started well when I was unexpectedly handed a free CD filled with goodies performed by the New York Philharmonic, including Mozart's Symphony No. 40 (Yeah!), by a friendly violinist from the orchestra on my way into the newly renamed David Geffen Hall. The most welcome gift turned out to be a token of appreciation for taking the plunge and becoming a subscriber again after a few years as a single-ticket buyer. I guess commitment does pay off sometimes!
So I decided to put aside work-related distractions, such as the emotional goodbye to an old colleague of ours and to our old office location earlier in the day, as well as New York-related frustrations, such as the infuriating street closings and the hysterical hoopla generated by the dreadfully outdated and overbloated entities that are the U.N. and papacy, to resolutely focus on what had brought me to the Lincoln Center: The first concert program of the season by the New York Philharmonic, featuring a work by the always exciting Esa-Pekka Salonen and a classic by the no less reliable Richard Strauss, as well as an opportunity to welcome Salonen as the new Marie-Josée Kravis Composer-in-Residence for the next three years and check out the orchestra's brand new concertmaster Frank Huang. Not a bad way to kick off the weekend after all.

The advantage of having a composer on the program in the house is that he just may get on the stage and share some precious background information. Since yesterday's program was shorter and Salonen is a wildly popular figure on the New York music scene, he was totally game to entertain us with a few insightful and funny anecdotes on how LA Variations came about (Suddenly realizing that he was happy while making an espresso alone in his kitchen while his family was sleeping, one morning in the mid-1990s, in Santa Monica, CA, was apparently an "extraordinary" thing for the Finnish man that he was, and this particular experience unleashed his creative juices again). Or on how he and a buddy of his broke into and stole some sounds from Pierre Boulez's IRCAM Institute on a floppy disk – one of which made it into the composition – only to confess to the man years later without getting much of a reaction.
And so "LA variations" was born soon afterwards. As performed by the New York Philharmonic last night, it was predictably a joyful work, punctuated by moments of occasionally dark cacophony, and quirky splashes, in particular a delightful double bass solo that was as quick as mind-blowing, and always a solid sense of purpose. The adventurous spirit of the composer was nevertheless always mindful of the exacting nature of the conductor, and the result was 20 minutes of meticulously crafted yet spontaneously creative music that managed to be unabashedly fun and reasonably challenging. E.P. had done it again.
After intermission, we were in for a more substantial piece with Richard Strauss' Ein Heldenleben, the composer's sweeping tone poem partially inspired by his wife, which could not but bring me back to the glorious performance I heard of it several years ago in Vienna's prestigious Musikverein courtesy of the prestigious Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra. But hey, the David Geffen Hall is conveniently closer to home and the New York Philharmonic is made of highly talented professionals, so I was in good hands last night too. Strauss' lush melodies, stark resonances and eerie quietness were heartily conveyed while kept in tight check by maestro Gilbert, and it is probably a safe bet to assume that Frank Huang met everybody's high expectations with his delicately assertive sound during the challenging violin solos. The season has started well.

Sunday, August 23, 2015

Mostly Mozart Festival - Mozart, Bach & Schumann - 08/18/15

Conductor: Andrew Manze
Mozart: Adagio and Fugue in C Minor, K. 546
Bach: Violin Concerto in E Major, BWV 1042 − Joshua Bell
Bach/Mendelssohn (arr. Milone): Chaconne from Partita No. 2 in D Minor, BWV 1004 − Joshua Bell
Schumann: Symphony No. 2 in C Major

I was not at L'Enfant Plaza metro station in Washington, DC eight years ago when Joshua Bell selflessly busked there for about 45 minutes during morning rush hour without generating much notice. The Washington Post's article about the experiment, on the other hand, went viral quickly and lastingly (Years after the fact I received a French PowerPoint presentation about it from my mom, followed some time later by a Australian newspaper article relating the story from a friend who lived Down Under) and eventually won The Pulitzer Prize.
According to my calculations, that morning I was on my usual way to work, going from the Eastern Market to the Farragut West metro stations. Therefore, the train I was in had to pass right under the feet of one of the world's top violinists playing some of the world's top classical music − including Bach's almighty Chaconne − in a performance open to all and free for all. So incredibly close and still so infuriatingly far away.
Since then I've heard Joshua Bell perform and the Chaconne being performed, but never together... until this year's Mostly Mozart Festival, which had him tackle an orchestral version of it in an effort undertaken by contemporary English composer and violinist Julian Milone based on Mendelssohn's own take on it with piano accompaniment. Not exactly the real thing, but close enough. And as an added bonus, Bell was throwing in Bach's Violin Concerto in E Major as well. Because one can never hear too much Bach.
The rest of the program included other Bach-influenced works such as Mozart's Adagio and Fugue in C Minor and Schumann's Symphony No. 2. What was not to love? Absolutely nothing. So on Wednesday night my friend Christine and I were back in the Avery fisher Hall − Alas, sans champagne this time − and very much looking forward to our last, but obviously not least, Mostly Mozart Festival's concert of the summer.

Mozart's short and impeccably self-contained Adagio and Fugue in C Minor kicked off our musical evening with the perfect combination of Baroque understatement and Classical drama. It was his festival after all, so it was totally fitting that we got to happily revel in a relatively minor but still completely rewarding piece of his impressively eclectic œuvre.
As if to whet our appetite before the Chaconne, Joshua Bell's first appearance of the evening was as violinist and conductor of the orchestra's strings and continuo players for Bach's Violin Concerto in E Major. By turns highlighting the vivacity, exquisiteness and exuberance of the delightful composition, the small ensemble treated us to a brisk, detailed and all-around engaging performance.
Bach's Chaconne is famously one of the pinnacles of the classical music repertoire, so it takes a solid dose of either boldness or cluelessness to even consider doing anything with it. But some people have been bold enough, and this time the result, while in no way surpassing or even equaling the original's rigorous perfection, was fresh and innovative. Joshua Bell used his trademark virtuosic skills with such spontaneity and exactness that it made me wonder why he does not steer away from his usual fare of big Romantic concertos more often. Under his discreet direction, the orchestra flawlessly contributed to the resounding success of the exciting endeavor.
After the intermission, we were back in the hall for Schumann's Symphony No. 2, one last, discreet tribute to Bach and a full emersion into Romantic bipolarity. I may not be Schumann's biggest fan in general, but I'll say that the communicative enthusiasm with which Andrew Manze led the orchestra on Wednesday night brightly emphasized the indisputable qualities of the composition and, in all likelihood, left a lasting impression on the entire audience. So lo and behold, Schuman turned out to be a totally satisfying way to close our Mostly Mozart Festival, but not without one last stop at the L'Arte del Gelato cart located right on the Lincoln Plaza for the de rigueur treat with a view over the Hearst Plaza. A flavorsome ending to a flavorsome festival.

Thursday, August 20, 2015

Mostly Mozart Festival - Messiaen, Ligeti & Benjamin - 08/16/15

Conductor: George Benjamin
International Contemporary Ensemble
Messiaen: Oiseaux exotiques − Pierre-Laurent Aimard
Ligeti: Piano Concerto − Pierre-Laurent Aimard
Benjamin: Into the Little Hill
Susan Bickley: Mezzo-soprano
Hila Plitmann: Soprano

About 24 hours after leaving the David H. Koch Theater shaken AND stirred by George Benjamin's Written on Skin, I was back at the Lincoln Center on Sunday afternoon, this time happily making my way to the fabulous Alice Tully Hall. The occasion was a resolutely contemporary concert performed by the trail-blazing International Contemporary Ensemble conducted by George Benjamin and featuring works by his teacher, Olivier Messiaen, and his exotic birds, one of his major inspirations, Gyorgy Ligeti, and his piano concerto, and finally his own chamber opera, Into the Little Hill. It is becoming obvious that the Mostly Mozart Festival is branching out big time these days, and their boldness was rightfully rewarded with an auditorium filled by an excited audience.
To make the package even more appealing, my fellow Lyonnais and fearless pianist Pierre-Laurent Aimard was going to contribute his formidable talent to the two taxing first pieces, and a duo of equally adventurous ladies, Susan Bickley and Hila Plitmann, was going to tackle the Little but still uncompromisingly challenging Hill. Not a bad way to spend another grossly hot and muggy summer weekend afternoon in an air-conditioned space.

As its name indicates, Messiaen's Oiseaux exotiques puts together songs of birds from countries far away from France such as North America, South America, India, China and Malaysia. Using wind instruments, percussions and piano, the famously bird-loving composer created an unusual but fascinating piece celebrating the truly amazing world of birds, which the excellent orchestra brought to vibrant life with plenty of brightly colored nuances and a few odd sounds as well. What could have been just a series of pretty melodic tunes turned out to be a highly complex and boldly polyphonic work, which was also a lot of fun.
After brilliantly distinguishing himself with the tricky piano part in Oiseaux exotiques, Pierre-Laurent Aimard moved right into Ligeti's even more devilishly arduous piano concerto without missing a beat. The five movements presented such a wide array of sounds and influences that it was often hard to keep track of what was going on, so the audience did not have much of a choice but to hang on for dear life. On the other hand, Aimard, the consummate professional, remained firmly in charge of the performance, superbly backed up by the orchestra. Benjamin conducted with authority and insights, and we eventually all came out alive.
After experiencing Written on Skin in all its visceral glory the day before, I was kind of bracing myself for my next George Benjamin operatic experience while being fully aware that Into the Little Hill would for sure be shorter, and probably a little less intense too. Inspired by the popular story of the Pied Piper of Hamelin, the 40-minute opera, which was also the composer's first collaboration with the librettist Martin Crimp, is a rather unconventional endeavor with only two female singers busily narrating and playing all the parts, as well as some unexpected instruments like the banjo, the cimbalom and contrabass clarinet being put to clever use. And sure enough, on Sunday afternoon the mini-opera proved to be an ever-expanding marvel of musical and narrative invention, a deeply mysterious journey that was never fully explained, but nevertheless very much enjoyed in large part thanks to the terrific orchestra and singers. Conducting one's own work has to be a very special treat, and Benjamin could only have been pleased with how his adolescent effort came out on Sunday. And so were we.

Monday, August 17, 2015

Mostly Mozart Festival - Written on Skin - 08/15/15

Composer: George Benjamin
librettist: Martin Crimp
Conductor: Alan Gilbert
Mahler Chamber Orchestra
Christopher Purves: The Protector
Barbara Hannigan: Agnès
Tim Mead: Angel 1/The Boy
Victoria Simmonds: Angel 2/Marie
Robert Murray: Angel 3/John

For all its undeniably attractive offerings, the Mostly Mozart Festival programming can sometimes feel overly traditional and predictable. As much as I love the tried and true classics, I do not need to hear them again and again every year when there is an untapped richness of lesser known and exciting works out there. And I like to think that Herr Mozart, the ultimate music man of his time, would have agreed.
So when this year's program was announced, I was thrilled to notice contemporary British composer − and conductor, pianist, teacher, and Mostly Mozart Festival's current composer-in-residence − George Benjamin proudly standing out among the usual suspects, although it of course makes perfect sense when you know that no less than Olivier Messaien once compared Benjamin, then his student, to Mozart. I was even more thrilled that the crash course in his œuvre would even have two components, with first three performances of his most ambitious opera to date, Written on Skin, whose glowing reputation made you wonder where it had been for the past three years (Actually in quite a few European cultural capitals, and at Tanglewood in concert form), and then on Sunday his chamber opera Into a Little Hill, a definitely more low-key but equally intriguing work.
Therefore, last Saturday, on a hot and muggy afternoon, I eagerly walked down to the Lincoln Center's David H. Koch Theater, which has the significant advantage of providing a more intimate venue than its more famous neighbor, the cavernous Metropolitan Opera, and which had become foreign territory to me pretty much after the New York City Opera left it. It was nice to be back, especially for a promising endeavor that would have probably felt right at home with NYCO.

I had decided not to learn too much about the opera to be able to approach it with fresh ears, but what I had heard in passing had certainly picked my interest, what with an ill-fated love triangle inspired by a 13th provençal troubadour's story, a study of the connections between past and present, lofty themes such as art, love, sex, violence and politics, exacerbated passions expressed in an austere setting, and angels. That's a lot of different ingredients to throw into the same pot, but then again, with the right cooks a real treat just might come out of it.
The opera may have a somewhat unusual structure, not to mention score, but at least it has one typical element: A woman is the troublemaker. In this case, who could blame her since her main purpose in life is to be obedient to her overbearing husband? Since she premiered the role of Agnès in Aix-en-Provence three years ago, soprano Barbara Hannigan has honed the part so well that it is hard to imagine anybody else in it. Her highly precise, steely but never rigid, singing easily moved from open sensuality to utter desperation with unwavering aplomb, and to top it all off, she can also act with the right combination of subtlety and intensity.
Baritone Christopher Purves was also in Aix-en-Provence as the nameless Protector, a complex part to which he brought a stunning range of dark vocal colors and deeply committed acting as well. Apparently well-meaning, but with an unmistakable sinister streak, he was the bad guy that just did not know any better.
As the Boy chosen by the Protector to create an illuminated book about himself and by Agnès to become her object of desire, countertenor Tim Mead exuded the right amount of youthful innocence and effortlessly reached a remarkable purity of sound.
The opera and the 100-minute, intermission-free production of it were highly and for the most part efficiently compartmentalized. Martin Crimp's carefully calibrated libretto was divided into three parts, which were neatly sub-divided into 15 tightly organized scenes. The set was divided into five spaces, although not all of them were necessary. But while the set-up was generally lean and smart, that did not fully prevent some slightly confusing moments as past and present collided.
The fact that the modern-day angels were sometimes commenting like a Greek chorus, sometimes intervening directly, maintained a Brechtian distance from the actual narrative, a deliberate choice that was reinforced by the singers often describing what they were doing and saying. This ended up making the production more artificially theatrical and softening the visceral effect of the most dramatic moments. Nevertheless, all the scenes involving the three main characters turned out seriously gripping, clearly proving that the core story had more than enough substance to stand on its own.
The music has been described as ravishing more than once, and I am happy to confirm that this seemingly hyperbolic accolade is totally justified. Pulling out all the stops, George Benjamin has come up with a clever mix of delicate exquisiteness and hard-core grittiness, masterfully alternating rapturous moments of pregnant quietness and violent explosions of grating harshness. With the help of unusual instruments like the bass viol, the glass harmonica and some cowbells, the uncompromising composer has indeed created a unique and memorable score.
As the music went on, it quickly became clear that each and every note had been meticulously chosen and that one tiny change would have irremediably unsettle the entire experience. Even the original grumbling I heard behind me from what had to be an old-school Met subscriber subsided right after the short but admittedly aggressively dissonant opening, and thankfully not a single additional peep was heard again after that.
Right across Lincoln Plaza from his usual home, maestro Gilbert looked perfectly at ease in the orchestra pit and led the consistently fabulous Mahler Chamber Orchestra in a bold, detailed and vibrant performance. To accomplish this impressive feat, he expertly highlighted the music's extraordinary complexity while making sure to keep it downright accessible and perfectly in tune with the action unfolding on the stage.
Written on Skin has been heralded by some critics and audiences as the "best opera written in the 21st century", which is about as good a statement as any marketing professional can dream of. On the other hand, while the opera is indisputably a major artistic achievement, we also have to face the fact that the praise is that high because the bar has been set so agonizingly low for so long. With so few other contemporary operas to compete with, anything that has a lot going for it is bound to stand out by default.
And stand out it did on Saturday afternoon, with the beaming artists and the endearingly unassuming composer rightfully enjoying a well-deserved stupendous ovation. And although I thought it had been some really intense fare for a summer weekend afternoon, it had also been a grand introduction to George Benjamin's body of work, right before my next rendez-vous with him on Sunday afternoon.