Monday, March 30, 2015

New York Classical Players - Holst, Hallman, Diamond & Elgar - 03/28/15

Conductor: Dongmin Kim
Holst: St. Paul's Suite
Hallman: Rhapsody Concerto for Violin and Piano with Strings ‒ Donald & Vivian Weilerstein
Diamond: Rounds for String Orchestra
Elgar: Introduction and Allegro for Strings, Op. 47

Another beautiful, sunny and unusually March Sunday afternoon, another inspirational concert by a tremendously talented string chamber orchestra. There should be more weekends like this. So there I was yesterday afternoon, back in the Upper East Side's Church of the Heavenly Rest with two like-minded friends of mine for another open to all and free for all performance of an appealing program by the New York Classical Players.
And appealing it was. Book-ended by two renowned English composers, Holst and Elgar, were the world premiere of Joseph Hallman's "Rhapsody Concerto for Violin and Piano with Strings", which was commissioned by the NYCP and The Weilerstein Duo, followed by David Diamond's popular "Rounds for String Orchestra". Plenty of opportunities for the little orchestra that can to put their glorious strings to good use.

Written as a thank you note to the St. Paul's Girls' School in Hammersmith for letting him use their large soundproof studio, Gustav Holst's "St. Paul's Suite" started the concert with an assertively lively... jig! And why not? The fact is, the whole work features many attractive melodies, which the musicians kept on expertly unfurling with much sparkling energy under Dongmin Kim's insightful baton.
The brand new piece on the program, Joseph Hallman's "Rhapsody Concerto for Violin and Piano with Strings", was composed with Donald and Vivian Weilerstein in mind, a power couple who has not only produced trail-blazing cellist Alisa Weilerstein, but has also taught some of the members of the orchestra. Needless to say, the string music world is forever in their debt. The concerto had a little bit of everything for everyone, including some lyrical lushness, fast-paced passages, as well as solo cadenzas for the violin and the piano, because when you have the Weilerstein Duo perform your composition, you make sure to showcase their talent. Mission accomplished.
The story goes that Dimitri Mitropoulos, who was the commissioner and conductor of David Diamond's "Rounds for String Orchestra", asked the composer for a "happy work". Whether this is an apocryphal account or not, yesterday afternoon the result was undeniably cheerful, agreeable and light-hearted. The perfect breath of fresh air on this sunny Sunday.
There's nothing in the world that my friend Ruth enjoys more than a healthy dose of premium schmaltz when it comes to music, and she finally got her fill of it with the last piece on the program, Edward Elgar's "Introduction and Allegro for Strings". A complex, multi-layered symphonic poem designed to highlight the virtuosic skills of the musicians performing it, it is also, and maybe first of all, a downright beautiful work. Needless to say that the NYCP's players have all the necessary chops to deliver a brilliant and moving rendition of it, and they did.

And then, just when we thought the concert was over, an irresistible set of variations on "Happy Birthday" filled up the church in celebration of Donald Weilerstein's 75th birthday. A totally unexpected but much savored bonbon for the road back across the park.

Saturday, March 28, 2015

New York Philharmonic - Lyadov, Stravinsky & Adams - 03/27/15

Conductor: Alan Gilbert
Lyadov: The Enchanted Lake, Op. 62
Stravinsky: Petrushka - Eric Huebner (Piano)
Adams: Scheherazade.2 ‒ Dramatic Symphony for Violin and Orchestra ‒ Leila Josefowicz

My first and unforgettable taste of the already long-standing and flawless musical chemistry between premier American composer John Adams and formidable violinist Leila Josefowicz took place five years ago, when she performed his Dharma at Big Sur at one of the concerts by the National Symphony Orchestra he was conducting during his residency at the Kennedy Center. On that fateful evening, they also incidentally proved to me once and for all that contemporary classical music could be a truly thrilling experience. I've made a point of keeping up with both artists as much as possible since then, but never again had I had the opportunity to hear her play one of his works until this week.
As timing would have it, this past Thursday the New York Philharmonic, Alan Gilbert and Leila Josefowicz presented for the first time John Adams' latest piece, Scheherazade.2, which is dedicated to the violinist, along with works by Lyadov and Stravinsky. Inspired by an exhibition about the Arabian Nights at the Institut du monde arabe in Paris a couple of years ago and the casual brutality still suffered by many women around the world, Adams has created a sprawling four-movement "dramatic symphony" in which the solo violin impersonates a fearless modern-day Scheherazade. Enters Leila Josefowicz, the quintessential fearless modern-day musician. So it was with high expectations that after wrapping up another busy week, I made it to the Avery Fisher Hall yesterday evening for ‒ I must reluctantly admit it ‒ not the première, but the deuxième of John Adams' Scheherazade.2.

The evening started with "The Enchanted Lake", a short but lush tone poem by Anatoly Lyadov, a student of Rimsky-Korsakov. It is hard to tell is the indirect Scheherazade connection was intended or not, but this precious little gem turned out to be a big winner regardless.
After this elegiac opening number, Igor Stravinsky's mischievous Petrushka exploded with bright colors, inventive melodies and a generally exuberant mood. The full orchestra did a masterful job at delivering an irresistibly fun account of the puppet's adventures, including an especially dazzling turn by pianist Eric Huebner.
After intermission, John Adams came onstage to introduce his Scheherazade.2, and off we were to a long, tortuous, but also cautiously optimistic journey towards women's empowerment. First appearing as a traditionally beautiful and sensual female figure, Leila Josefowicz wasted no time expressing unbreakable strength and deep-rooted resilience too, brilliantly representing both every woman and the ideal woman. Never mind all the obstacles she had to overcome, among which incensed "true believers" and squabbling "religious zealots", she resolutely stayed true to herself as she was unfurling stunning lyrical lines between breathless escapes and intense arguments. Although all the eyes and ears were rightly focused on the riveting soloist, the orchestra kept constantly busy playing the bad guys, but also conveying a subtly exotic atmosphere as well as vividly cinematic images. This was a richly complex and strongly evocative score, which can definitely be filed with Adams' most commendable artistic achievements, and it really sounded like he had found the perfect musicians to perform it, as the huge ovation from the packed audience could attest. Contemporary classical music can be a truly thrilling experience indeed.

Monday, March 23, 2015

ECCO, East Coast Chamber Orchestra - Golijov, Sibelius, Janacek & Tchaikovsky - 03/22/15

Golijov: Last Round
Sibelius: Canzonetta Op. 62a for String Orchestra
Janacek: String Quartet No. 1, "Kreutzer Sonata" arranged for String Orchestra
Tchaikovsky: Serenade for Strings in C Major, Op. 48

Just because we found ourselves under a serious blanket of snow on the first day of spring did not mean that we were going to let Mother Nature completely ruin the weekend. So it was on a beautiful, sunny, but still unusually cold Sunday afternoon that I met my friend Paula at the endearingly old-fashioned Town Hall to check out the democratically run and self-conducted East Coast Chamber Orchestra ‒ or ECCO ‒ in an appealing program featuring Golijov, Sibelius, Janacek and Tchaikovsky as part of the indefatigable Peoples' Symphony Concert's Festival Series. Coming from well-established orchestras and ensembles all over the country, ECCO's members periodically meet to socialize and make beautiful music together... or so I had heard. Now the time had finally come to find out for myself.

As soon as they appeared onstage, it became clear that the expected 18 string players had brought two additional members-to-be in tow, or rather in bellies, as two of the musicians were visibly pregnant under their flowing dresses. That, however, did not keep them from standing up in heels with the rest of the orchestra to assertively kick start the performance with Osvaldo Golijov's irresistibly Argentinean "Last Round". Although references to Piazzolla were all but inevitable, "Last Round" proudly stood on its own, endlessly oozing tango's infectious sensuality while brilliantly evoking a combative dance that did not want to end.
After the sizzling hot opening from the South, the atmosphere cooled off a bit with a melancholic, borderline mystical, miniature piece from the North. Wrapped in mournful elegance, Sibelius' Canzonetta Op. 62a got a sensitive and respectful treatment by ECCO's musicians, who played it with the same deep sense of musicality as they did the Golijov's spontaneously danceable work.
Inspired by Tolstoy's dramatic novella "The Kreutzer Sonata", which itself had been inspired by Beethoven's popular work, Janacek's "The Kreutzer Sonata" was originally written as a string quartet, and later arranged for a string orchestra. The result yesterday was a riveting psychological journey filled with on-going conflicts, brief moments of tenderness and raging outbursts of jealousy, the use of a larger, tightly unified ensemble auspiciously allowing for more texture and complexity.
After intermission, we got to shamelessly indulge in what Paula has rightly deemed "Tchaikovsky's most perfect composition" with his "Serenade for Strings". From the intensely Romantic introduction that mercilessly tugged at the audience's happily consenting heartstrings to the delicately graceful Valse, the achingly poignant Élégie and the vibrantly colored Finale, which swiftly took us back to the emotionally stirring introduction, the performance was technically impeccable, and, most importantly, full of unrestrained love for life and music.

The sheer exuberance of the serenade was gently toned down by the somberly beautiful Bach Chorale, which the orchestra played as an encore and dedicated to past and new lives. As the last note was still hanging in the air, a cell phone rang, which abruptly brought us back to reality and de facto concluded the concert.

Sunday, March 15, 2015

The MET Chamber Orchestra - Stravinsky, Ives, Carter, Cage & Wuorinen - 03/08/15

Conductor: James Levine
Stravinsky: Octet for Wind Instruments
Ives: Scherzo: Over the Pavements
Carter: The American Sublime
Evan Hughes: Bass-Baritone
Cage: Atlas Eclipticalis
Wuorinen: It Happens Like This
Steven Brennfleck: Tenor
Sharon Harms: Soprano
Laura Mercado-Wright: Mezzo-Soprano
Douglas Williams: Bass-Baritone

After an exceedingly long and much lamented absence from the music scene, Maestro Levine seems to be fervently determined to catch up for lost time. Not only has he been firmly back conducting a wide range of performances at his home away from home that is the Metropolitan Opera, but he has also been heading smaller, projects dear to him here and there.
And that is just what he was doing last Sunday afternoon in Zankel Hall, where he was conducting the fabulous MET Chamber Orchestra in a demanding but exciting program consisting of idiosyncratic works by 20th and 21st century composers before a packed audience eagerly waiting to be challenged. It is so good to have him back!

The only foreigner in the group, Russian pioneer Igor Stravinsky provided what turned out to be to some extent the most traditional piece of them all. That being said, his neo-classical "Octet for Wind Instruments", as far from his flamboyant Russian roots as could be, was still brashly inventive in its slightly acerbic light-heartedness. And the eight musicians on the stage readily gave it the highly precise, cleverly witty performance it calls for.
Charles Ives' short but definitely notable "Scherzo: Over the Pavements" had us all take in a busy city corner early morning, trying to make sense of all the hustle-bustle incessantly going on... or not. A scenario familiar to all New Yorkers, for sure, but in a fresh, entertaining musical form that encouraged the audience to listen to city noises in a new, less combative way.
Elliot Carter's "The American Sublime" was dedicated to James Levine, who has to be one of Carter's longest and staunchest supporters, so it was only fair that it was premiered last Sunday on his watch. While Wallace Stevens' poetry and Carter's composition were decidedly low-key, excellent bass-baritone Evan Hughes elevated the whole affair to awe-inspiring heights with his remarkably articulate, poised and committed singing.
John Cage's make-it-your-own "Atlas Eclipticalis" proved to be as engaging an experience as to be expected from one of the most prominent avant-garde American composers. Directly inspired by star charts that were reproduced onto blank music paper, effectively turning stars into notes, this fascinating experiment kind of set the musicians free in terms of rhythm and tempo for a highly adaptable end result. On Sunday the unusual but enchanting voyage lasted only six heavenly minutes, which felt both concise and timeless.
Last, but definitely not least, Charles Wuorinen's assertively irreverent cantata "It Happens Like This" featured James Tate's deliciously absurdist prose poems ‒ one being about a candy store with inflexible rules and bizarre customers, another about a man attending a fancy dinner party to find out that he is to be the human sacrifice ‒ being put to delightfully whimsical and unapologetically destabilizing music.
The four superbly spot-on singers, whether reciting or singing, clearly had a ball describing the various surrealistic scenes while the small orchestra provided a discreet but most efficient instrumental background. Although the piece had been commissioned by James Levine, he confessed that he had been too busy lately to prepare for it adequately, and consequently ceded the baton to the composer himself, who did a fine job negotiating the fun but complex work. The last scene was the surprise visit by "The Wild Turkey", which ended a rather intellectually charged concert with an endearing human touch.

Thursday, March 12, 2015

Cantori New York - Messiahs: False and True - 03/07/15

Artistic Director & Conductor: Mark Shapiro
Thomas Tallis: The Lamentations of Jeremiah, I
Conductor: Emily Klonowski
Siegfried Thiele: Prophezeiungen (Prophesies)
Thomas Tallis: The Lamentations of Jeremiah, II
Rex David Isenberg: Messiahs: False and True
Kathleen Chalfant: Narrator
James Kennerley: Organ
Jared Soldiviero: Percussion

"Joyful pessimism", that's how Cantori New York's artistic director and conductor Mark Shapiro described the concert program to the packed audience in the Church of St. Luke in the Fields on Saturday night. And since the three works being performed were all dealing with prophets throughout the ages ― and the choir had been hard at work on them for months ― there was no reason to doubt his word.
So we all happily embarked on an exciting cogitative adventure ― Not that we'd expect anything else from Cantori, of course ― with Thomas Tallis' "The Lamentations of Jeremiah" from 16th century England, Siegfried Thiele's "Prophezeiungen" from late 20th century Germany, and Rex David Isenberg's "Messiahs: False and True" from today's New York City.

Widely considered one of Elizabethan England's most talented composers, Thomas Tallis at some point decided to take on "The Lamentations of Jeremiah" and created his own adaptation of them, just as many other composers had done before and did after him. For this iconic version, as big of a hit today as it was back then, Cantori's singers made full use of the richly layered and seamlessly connected texture that Tallis had painstakingly woven for them, and delivered a riveting rendition of the prophet's poignant adjuration to the fallen city of Jerusalem.
Book-ended between the two parts of "The Lamentations" fiercely stood out little-known but definitely noteworthy "Prophezeiungen" by Siegfried Thiele. If English Renaissance man Tallis was inspired by the Ancient Bible, German contemporary Thiele chose texts by Italian Renaissance man Leonardo da Vinci as well as a German folk song. And for all their wide differences and odd similarities, it was hard not to notice that both ominous pieces are still just about as regrettably relevant nowadays as ever.
"Prophezeiungen" is certainly no walk in the park as many disturbing images of conflict, mayhem and destruction, including the macabre arrival of a reaper named "Death", the dire warning issued to a pretty little flower, the heart-breaking soprano solo evoking all the unborn, or the powerfully resounding question "Why", kept on relentlessly assaulting the audience, but let's not forget that fleeting glimpses of poetic beauty could also be found here and there. And if the future looks awfully grim in Thiele's world, on Saturday night the strongly unified choir resolutely plowed through the apocalyptic prophesies for a totally exhilarating performance of them.
After the US premiere of Siegfried Thiele’s "Prophezeiungen", we moved on to the world premiere of Cantori member Rex David Isenberg's "Messiahs: False and True", in which English texts from and about public figures as disparate as Julius Caesar, Martin Luther King, Charles Manson and Ronald Reagan were interspersed with Latin excerpts from The Old and New Testaments. Together they formed a surprisingly cohesive whole that continuously challenged the audience's views on past, present and future leaders.
Broadway stalwart and Cantori regular Kathleen Chalfant gave articulate and poised readings of the various historical characters' texts, which at times even eerily transitioned as smoothly as can be from one to the other through time and space. The choir wholeheartedly handled the Biblical prose and mastered many hair-raising moments, such as when admonishing to prepare the way for the Lord or celebrating the appearance of a dawning light. On the other hand, dark omens were sarcastically hinted at by Jared Soldiviero’s thinly threatening bass drum and James Kennerley’s starkly solemn organ, which constantly reminded us not to believe all those fancy words and big promises. The best may not be yet to come, after all.
But then again, it may be, if we are to believe Ralph Waldo Emerson's "Man is his own star", a quietly humanistic poem about self-reliance that gently pointed out that the answer is in ourselves, ending the work, and the concert, with a much needed glimmer of hope.

Friday, March 6, 2015

Joshua Bell & Sam Haywood - Beethoven, Grieg, Brahms & Bartok - 03/04/15

Beethoven: Violin Sonata No. 4 in A Minor
Grieg: Violin Sonata No. 1 in F Major
Brahms: Violin Sonata No. 1 in G Major
Bartok: Rhapsody No.1 for Violin and Piano

After a busy week full of large scale performances, this week serendipitously promised more intimate musical experiences, but certainly no less enjoyment. And that started on Wednesday night with the annual recital by superstar violinist Joshua Bell and his current piano accompanist Sam Haywood in one of my favorite concert halls, Alice Tully Hall.
Having bought my ticket long before the program was announced, I showed up knowing nothing about it. But when I finally got around to checking it, I was pleased to notice that in between sonatas by the traditional German suspects that are Ludwig van Beethoven and Johannes Brahms proudly stood less commonly heard but equally appealing pieces by Norwegian Edvard Grieg and Hungarian Bela Bartok.
So I decided to forget about my rude awakening at 4 AM by a couple of chatty dudes presumably trying to clear the icy sideway below my bedroom window, and the even ruder realization four hours later that they had only cleared the sidewalk across the street from my building. In all likelihood, Hump Day would end in a better way than it had started.

Beethoven was not as expertly acquainted with the violin as with the piano, but still had enough knowledge about it to create spontaneously engaging works for both instruments together. Therefore, his Violin Sonata No. 4 kicked off the performance full speed ahead. Although there were quieter passages now and then, the main mood was buoyant and free, discreetly emphasizing the intrinsic charm of the composition and the easy-going chemistry between the two musicians.
If Beethoven had already reached the ripe age of 30 when he wrote his Violin Sonata No. 4, Grieg was only 22 years old when he came up with his Violin Sonata No. 1, which probably explains the piece's impetuosity and playfulness. Discreet hints at Norwegian folk tunes were found among the catchy melodies, and a generally happy-go-lucky spirit was definitely palpable as Bell and Haywood successfully put their more experienced skills to work for a totally uplifting result.
After intermission, a more mature Brahms kind of cooled off the atmosphere a bit with his beautifully crafted Violin Sonata No. 1, which opened nonchalantly and kept a relaxed pace, all delicate poetry, compelling lyricism, and the occasional vague suggestion of somberness. The composer of one of the most famous violin concertos ever unapologetically wrote radiant lines for the instrument, which Joshua Bell predictably handled with his signature dramatic flair, but the piano was not forgotten and, among other special opportunities, Sam Haywood got to start the lovely Adagio with remarkable finesse.
The official program ended on a rambunctious Hungarian note with Bartok's Rhapsody No. 1. Effortless shifting from glowing refinement to earthy rowdiness, Bell and Haywood delivered wildly energetic, expertly controlled and thoroughly delightful "Lassú" and "Friss".

The audience now completely revved up, the obliging artists threw in a couple of popular encores with Chopin's Nocturne in C Sharp Major, a treat in fact so memorable that a fan in the orchestra had to record it on her iPhone, and Brahms' Hungarian Dance No. 1, which winningly combined elegance and free-spiritedness. Hump Day could not have ended in a better way indeed.

Monday, March 2, 2015

Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra - Brahms - 03/01/15

Conductor: Daniele Gatti
Brahms: Ein deutches Requiem
Diana Damrau: Soprano
Christian Gerhaher: Baritone
Westminster Symphonic Choir

After a nice Saturday afternoon spent marveling at the incredible possibilities of the human voice with Joyce DiDonato and Juan Diego Florez in Rossini's La Donna del Lago at the Met, I was totally up for even more exceptional vocal exploits yesterday afternoon with Diana Damrau, Christian Gerhaher and the Westminster Symphonic Choir accompanying the über-prestigious Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra led by highly esteemed and endlessly versatile conductor Daniele Gatti for Brahms' Ein deutsches Requiem at Carnegie Hall.
Although Mozart's and Verdi's Requiems will always be the ones I could not live without, Ein deutsches Requiem, with its deep humanism and glorious musicality, more into consolation than after-life, is right there behind them.
Earlier in the week an automated voice message from Carnegie Hall had advised me to allow extra time to get to my seat as it was a sold-out performance, and there would be no intermission and no late seating. Yes, sir. So never mind the light snow that had started to gently fall as I was walking briskly down Broadway, I was just too psyched to even be bothered by it.

Using excerpts derived from the German Luther Bible and clocking in at about 75 minutes, Brahms' longest work is a model of detailed craftsmanship, stunning lyricism and subtle restraint, while still including a few starkly intense, but never overly flamboyant, passages for good measure. Of course, having such a beloved piece performed by the top-quality musicians and singers that were gracing the packed Stern Auditorium's stage on Sunday was a tremendous luxury, and the stakes - as well as the ticket price - were extremely high. But they were unquestionably met, and then some.
The Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra needs no introduction, and their remarkably polished playing yesterday reminded us all why they have remained one of the top orchestras in the world for so long. The glow of the strings and the precision of the winds, the implacability of the timpani and the glistening of the harps, all superbly came together for a masterfully accomplished performance. Maestro Gatti was deeply involved with all parties and kept the music flowing sans score, but with constant attentiveness and non-stop energy.
The deservedly much in demand Westminster Symphonic Choir is used to high pressure gigs at Carnegie Hall and seemed totally serene about this one as well. They certainly created a startlingly unified sound that ranged from delicate subtlety, such as the expectantly hushed opening, to highly charged tension, such as the intensely dark "Denn alles Fleishes it wie Gras". Altogether, they provided a powerful human voice, proudly secular, but still profoundly spiritual, to Brahms' most personal composition.
German opera star Diana Damrau lent her crystal clear soprano voice to the rhapsodic solo of the fifth movement, which was added later by Brahms, possibly as a tribute to his late mother. Her all-around classy yet genuinely touching part, which dealt with sorrow and comfort, came out as a radiant ray of light.
Not as well-known, but definitely a consummate artist with much to offer, German baritone Christian Gerhaher offered naturally elegant and commanding singing, his voice beautifully conveying darkness and anxiety, but also strength and resolve.
The ovation was long and loud, and then it was back outside, where we resignedly found ourselves unhappily trudging in a winter wonderland... again.