Tuesday, January 27, 2015

St. Lawrence String Quartet - Haydn, Adams & Dvorak - 01/23/15

Haydn: String Quartet in E-flat Major, Op. 33, No. 2, H.III: 38 (The Joke) 
Adams: Second Quartet 
Dvorak: String Quartet No. 11 in C Major, Op. 61

 After one year of absence, last Friday I finally made it back to my old home turf of Washington, DC for a long weekend of catching up with old friends, visiting free museums, eating and drinking at favorite hang-outs and, last but not least, attending a chamber music concert at the Library of Congress' cozy and acoustically blessed Coolidge Auditorium, where I spent many enchanted evenings when I conveniently lived in its backyard.
As luck would have it, on Friday the renowned St. Lawrence String Quartet was there performing a set that included, among other goodies, the DC premiere of John Adams' Second Quartet, after first having performed the world premiere of it the weekend before at their home of Stanford University to celebrate their 25th birthday. That being said, the unstoppable ensemble is just as keen to handle more traditional composers such as Haydn, with his respectable yet whimsical Op. 33, and Dvorak, with his endlessly melodic Op. 61.
The program was in fact so appealing that my friend Jennifer and I did not even mind the rain that was mercilessly pouring on us during our short walks sans umbrellas from her place to the Jefferson Building and back.

Never mind the grim weather, the Coolidge Auditorium was packed and the audience more than ready for the entertaining light-heartedness of Haydn's "Joke". Not one to waste time with flashy and unnecessary effects, the ingenious composer instead keeps the mood joyful and the writing complex all the way to the comically suspenseful ending. The musicians played with detailed precision while discreetly emphasizing all the unexpected twists and turns of the clever work, eventually prompting a couple of hearty rounds of applause, and more than a few chuckles, from the delighted audience. There is no doubt about it, Papa was a jokester too.
If Haydn's opening act was fun and gratifying, the real highlight of the evening for me was John Adams' latest quartet with the man himself in attendance to introduce it. After jokingly pointing out that he always felt at home on that particular stage - Coolidge being his middle name - he added that he could not have found better partners-in-chamber-music than his long-time collaborators and friends of the St. Lawrence String Quartet, who had already premiered his first quartet at that same location in 2009. We quickly realized that those were not empty words as we were listening to their handling of the Beethoven-inspired but definitely Adams-created tumultuous roller-coaster, whose immediately noticeable feature was its insistent, unstoppable pulse, which by the way did not prevent an attractive tapestry of sounds from being crafted around it. The second movement of the two had a wider range, from resolutely minimalist to downright lyrical, but never completely released the tension even during the quieter moments, which resulted in a truly exciting virtuosic feast.
After Adams' brazenly modern quartet, we went back to the Viennese Classical style with Dvorak's Op. 61. This is a nice big quartet that continuously overflows with colorful melodies, upbeat rhythms and an overall happy mood. The St. Lawrence String Quartet performed it with assurance, warmth and brio.

Our genuinely enthusiastic ovation earned us a last Haydn treat for the road with a serenely beautiful slow movement of one of his Op. 20 works. Then it was back out in the dark, cold and wet reality, with nevertheless a totally psyched up state of mind about the concert that had just ended and the weekend that had just started.

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Budapest Festival Orchestra - Mendelssohn & Brahms - 01/18/15

Conductor: Ivan Fischer
Fanny Mendelssohn (arr. Sandor Balogh): Three Songs - Anna Lucia Richter
Die Mainacht (May night)
Ferne (Distance)
Gondellied (A gondolier's song)
Felix Mendelssohn: Violin Concerto in E Minor - Isabelle Faust
Brahms: Symphony No. 3 in F Major

There are a few musical figures that make me plan my life around their performances, and Ivan Fischer is one of them. From his days as the principal conductor of the National Symphony Orchestra, which gave the Washingtonian I was then plenty of opportunities to appreciate his innovative approach to music making, to his eminent career leading his unanimously acclaimed Budapest Festival Orchestra, which I got to enjoy in many different exciting adventures, I always make a point of answering the call.
And if the program he was scheduled to perform with his orchestra at the Avery Fisher Hall last Sunday looked like nothing but solidly classical, there was still the unexpected appearance of a, gasp, 19th century female composer among the headliners, right ahead of her more famous brother and another German Romantic household name. That was certainly nothing to sneeze at.
However, the big surprise of the day for me was actually finding myself seated smack in front of my friend Paula without even knowing that she would be there. Great minds think alike indeed.

All contemporary music scholars seem to agree that Fanny Mendelssohn was unquestionably as talented as her brother Felix, but had had the misfortune of having being born female in a time where the glass ceiling was dreadfully lower and harder than it is today. A case in point for her talent was the three songs selected by Ivan Fischer and performed by the young German soprano Anna Lucia Richter, who beautifully channeled the freshness and musicality of these little gems: "Die Mainacht" exudes the fragrance of a spring night, "Ferne" expressed aching melancholy caused by unbreakable distance and "Gondellied" brought to mind a gentle escape on the water.
As if to emphasize the difference in scope between the siblings' careers (or lack therefore) Fanny's three delicately crafted songs were followed by what may be Felix's most popular composition of them all, his formidable violin concerto. The violiniste du jour was Isabelle Faust, a frequent soloist with the world's most prestigious orchestras, who on Sunday delivered a highly focused performance that was most remarkable for its understated and yet so present virtuosity. Firmly in command of the temperamental composition from beginning to end, she allowed us to (re)discover the timeless natural beauty of the concerto once its flashy parts had been toned down, reminding us all why we fell in love with it in the first place and why it has remained such a beloved masterpiece for so long.
After our foray into the Mendelssohn siblings' respective œuvres, we moved on to another Romantic giant with Brahms and his third symphony. Although his fourth symphony is the one that will always have a special place in my heart, I must admit that the previous one is quite a special journey as well and could hardly have been brought to life by a more fabulous ensemble. As a very animated and deeply involved Ivan Fischer led the way, the Budapest Festival Orchestra played the impeccably constructed work with intelligence, flair and a lot of heart, letting the wide emotional range of the piece come into full bloom and sweep us all up. It was a grand performance of a grand symphony.

Before we parted, Ivan Fischer obviously could not help but spring one of his delightful party favors on us, this time in the form of Fanny Mendelssohn's lovely "Morgengruss", which was sung by Anna Lucia Richter and, more surprisingly, the entire orchestra, which had turned into an a cappella choir for the occasion, bringing us back full circle where we had started.

Monday, January 19, 2015

Bronx Opera Company - Albert Herring - 01/17/15

Composer: Benjamin Britten
Conductor: Michael Spierman
Director: Rod Gomez
Albert Herring: Chad Kranak
Lady Billows: Leslie Swanson
Mrs. Herring: Helena Brown
Florence Pike: Julie De Vaere
Sid: Stan Lacy
Nancy: Amy Maude Helfer
Miss Wordworth: Danielle Buonaiuto
Mr. Gedge: Andrew Oakden
Mr. Upfold: Joseph Michael Brent
Superintendent Budd: C. David Morrow

As winter is tightening its freezing grip over New York City, I could not find a better way to combat the season's nascent blues than with an unexpected but most welcome pick-me-up from the Bronx Opera Company and their new production of Albert Herring. Freely based on Guy de Maupassant's Le rosier de Madame Husson, Benjamin Britten's one and only comedy is a chamber opera that preserves the novella's basic narrative and light-hearted mood, but transplants the action to the composer's native Suffolk area, which is, after all, fair enough.
So on Saturday night, I half-reluctantly half-excitedly left my warm and cozy apartment to go into the cold and dark night, crossed the Park to the other side and took my seat in Hunter College's nicely proportioned Kaye Playhouse among a sparse but dedicated crowd.

Benjamin Britten is not typically associated with comedy, but who could blame him for wanting to lighten up after the unquestionably tragic Rape of Lucretia? Still faithful to his signature themes of the social outcast's place in society and the loss of innocence, this time he used the story of a virtuous simpleton who against his will becomes King of May, a distinction that, with a little help from some secretly spiked lemonade, provides him with the desire and, even more importantly, the means to sow his wild oats. Oh boy.
On Saturday night, the title role was more than aptly filled by tenor Chad Kranak, who was an endearingly innocent young lad on the cusp of his journey into adulthood. With a round face as effortlessly expressive as his engaging singing, he was the reluctant leading man everybody ended up rooting for. His newly elated look, carefree attitude and soiled virginal suit after his first wild night on the town delightfully demonstrated in one fell swoop that all boys will eventually be boys.
The rest of the cast was equally strong, starting with mezzo-soprano Leslie Swanson, whose commanding presence and powerful voice immediately asserted her authority over the proceedings as the aging but still ruling town matriarch. As her housekeeper Florence Pike, mezzo-soprano Julie De Vaere readily stood on her own vocally and dramatically.
Mezzo-soprano Helena Brown was another mighty woman to contend with as Mrs. Herring, Albert's tough but loving mother. As fiercely smothering as can be when it came to raising her son, she became poignantly inconsolable when she thought she had lost him.
The couple of young lovers was downright appealing. Baritone Stan Lacy was a handsome Sid, the hot-blooded bon vivant who decided to become the instigator of Albert's emancipation, and mezzo-soprano Amy Maude Helfer was a lovely Nancy, his perky and good-hearted partner in pranks.
The remaining of the town's people was a lively crew that included soprano Danielle Buonaiuto as the uptight school teacher Miss Wordworth, baritone Andrew Oakden as the jovial vicar Mr. Gedge, bass-baritone C. David Morrow as the scruffy superintendent Budd and tenor Joseph Michael Brent as the self-important mayor Mr. Upfold.
All these truly capable singers, dressed in elaborate costumes and evolving in well designed sets, were definitely having a communicative good time, but all their good will could not hide the fact that the story was only moderately funny and somewhat over-extended. Additionally, the absence of surtitles made it sometimes difficult to follow exactly what was going on ‒ Yes, the opera was in English, but it was sung English ‒ and by default resulted in the occasional loss of meaningful nuances.
Unlike the charming but dated plot, the score was highly complex and resolutely modern, bristling with attractive colors, sparking witticisms and clever inventions. It gave each singer a fair chance to create their own eccentric character and featured a few riveting ensemble numbers such as the threnody of Act 3. The 12-piece Bronx Opera Orchestra was literally instrumental in keeping the show going with plenty of vivacity under the indefatigable baton of Michael Spierman.
All the musical talent involved was for sure a major asset to this production and significantly contributed to turning what could easily be not much more than a minor curiosity into a genuinely pleasant night at the opera.

Sunday, January 11, 2015

Prototype Festival - Carmina Slovenia - Toxic Psalms - 01/09/15

Chorus: Vocal Theatre Carmina Slovenica
Director: Karmina Silec
Jacob Cooper: Stabat Mater Dolorosa/The Sorrowful Mother Stood (excerpt)
Bronius Kutavicius: Pskutines Pagoniu apeigos/Last Pagan Rites
Karin Rehnqvist: Puksanger/Timpanum songs (excerpt)
Liga Celma: Sauceja dziezma/A Song
Tellu Virkkalla: Tuulet/Winds
Sergei Rachmaninoff: Bogoroditse Devo/Rejoice, O Virgin
John Pamintuan: De profundis/From the Depths
Lojze Lebic: Mozaiki/Mosaics
Sarah Hopkins: Past Life Melodies
Syrian orthodox hymn (arr. K. silec): Wa habibi/My Beloved
Boaz Avni: Kyrie eleison/Lord, Have Mercy on Us
Veljo tormis: Raua needmine/Curse upon Iron (excerpt)
Giovanni Pergolesi: Sanctua Mater Speciosa/The Beautiful Mother Stood (from Stabat Mater)

After my musical year 2014 ended with a classical and uplifting performance by a large ensemble of disgustingly young and talented musicians coming from the US and Canada in Carnegie Hall's prestigious Stern Auditorium, my musical year 2015 happened to start with an edgy and intense performance by a large ensemble of disgustingly young and talented singers coming from Slovenia in Dumbo's ultra-cool St. Ann's Warehouse. To which I say: Onward and forward!
I did not know much about Carmina Slovenica or Toxic Psalms before signing on for it, but I knew enough about the three-year old Prototype Festival's resolute focus on artistic boldness to trust that I was indeed in for an intriguing evening of choral music and theatricality that would be wrestling with concepts like collective power, ethical choices, and whatever else I was about to find out.
That may not sound like ideal Friday night fare, especially after the first post-holidays five-day work week was finally over, but a little intellectual and let's not forget, sensorial stimulation has never hurt anyone. So on this very cold Friday night, my friend Amy and I soldiered on to her neck of the Brooklynian woods for a new, and presumably exciting, adventure.

The initial impression of Toxic Psalms cannot but be one of grimness when the first sight is some black work boots meticulously organized in rows on the stage and suspended in the air, and the second sight the appearance of a group of 31 somber-looking young women slowly taking over the cavernous space. Displaying strikingly similar ghostly pale skin, discreetly expressionist make-up and neatly pulled-back long hair, they nevertheless wore distinctive and occasionally elaborate black outfits as if to emphasize the numerous different parts that were making the remarkable whole, whether they moved and sang in impressive unison or took a commanding stand on their very own.
That's when intrepid director Karmina Silec came in with her signature concept of "choregie", a combination of "Chorus", as in the Greek theater tradition, and "Regie", which means "(theatrical) direction or production" in German. On Friday night, the result was a series of eight seamlessly integrated scenes in which sounds, movements and random accessories all comingled to take the audience on a visceral journey through, according to the program notes, "Palestine, Syria, Pussy Riot, weapons, concentration camps, blood feuds, extinctions, contaminations of religions, and human brutality". Quite an impressive laundry list of unsavory topics for an evening whose subject was supposed to be love, if we were to believe the first statement matter-of-factly uttered by the chorus member who opened the show.
And sure enough, despite a couple of over-extended spoken interludes and some relatively puzzling touches, the performance went on for about 90 gripping minutes, during which an incredibly wide range of musical works allowed for memorable moments to pop here and there. From the haunting medieval "Stabat Mater Dolorosa" and the melancholic Syrian orthodox hymn "Wa habibi" to the turbulent Finnish "Tuulet" and the long, terror-inducing number adapted from the Finnish epic The Kalevala, both accompanied by impeccably synchronized, starkly assertive percussions, the singing was beautifully textured, uncompromisingly powerful, and fiercely committed.
However, no matter how immensely rewarding the musical experience turned out to be, the vignettes that are going to stay with me the longest are unquestionably a handful of outstanding visual feats such as the isolated woman representing justice by balancing two upside-down umbrellas on a rod over her head, a lone accordionist appearing among a sea of purifying lemons scattered all over the floor, the fleeting lights in the bluish tableau featuring Rachmaninoff's stunning "Rejoice, O Virgin", and the dancing mirrors that the entire chorus eventually held up to our faces while telling us not to be afraid.
The raison d'être of the whole endeavor may have been summarized in the unyielding Pussy Riot-worthy electric bass line that was reminding us all that even when outside forces of evil are bringing us down, our spirits must remain unbroken. A statement eerily relevant these days as France and the rest of the civilized world are grappling with the fact that horrific murders have been committed on account of satirical cartoons, and all parties have unanimously decided that our spirits shall not be broken. Nous sommes tous Charlie.