Thursday, April 30, 2015

New World Symphony - Schubert, Berg, Moret & Debussy - 04/28/15

Conductor: Michael Tilson-Thomas
Schubert: Incidental Music from Rosamunde
Berg: Violin Concerto ‒ Anne-Sophie Mutter
Moret: En rêve ‒ Anne-Sophie Mutter
Debussy: La mer

After Mahler's monumental sixth symphony and then a little lull, I was back at Carnegie Hall on Tuesday night to hear the divine Ms. Mutter wrap up her Perspective series with a promising double bang, namely Alban Berg's famously wrenching Violin Concerto and the long overdue US premiere of Swiss composer Norbert Moret's "En rêve", which happens to have been written especially for her. As if such a dazzling treat were not enough, the concert would start with some excerpts from Schubert's Rosamunde and conclude with Debussy's beautifully atmospheric "La mer".  Although it did look a bit random, the program was still mightily exciting.
True to her dedicated mentor mission, Anne-Sophie Mutter would be accompanied by The New World Symphony, the 27-year old, Miami-based, highly democratic orchestra consisting of 87 carefully selected post-undergraduate instrumentalists (When you know that about 1,500 aspirants apply each year and very few are chosen, you realize that those kids have to be serious and seriously talented), and conducted by another tireless music education advocate, the orchestra's co-founder and artistic director Michael Tilson-Thomas.

The concert opened with 25 minutes of incidental music from Schubert's Rosamunde, which immediately showed the packed Stern Auditorium that the youngsters on the stage had the right stuff indeed. Schubert may have failed miserably as an opera composer, but on Tuesday the orchestra readily proved, if need be, that he was nevertheless able to come up with downright appealing music for the theater, which was then fortunately recycled for other uses.
One of the most significant works of the 20th century, and maybe not so incidentally one of Anne-Sophie Mutter's calling cards, Berg’s last composition proves once and for all that resolute modernity and timeless beauty are not mutually exclusive after all. Dedicated "to the memory of an angel" following the death of Manon, the 18-year-old daughter of Mahler's widow Alma and the architect Walter Gropius, this gripping violin concerto is a rather short, but endlessly complex and emotional draining roller-coaster ‒ lyrical, playful, angry, mournful, soothing ‒ which soloist and orchestra impeccably drove with impressive technique and deep sense of musicality all the way to the very last note.
After the much needed intermission, Anne-Sophie Mutter was back for Moret's "En rêve", another short, even more uncompromisingly challenging piece that was obviously as familiar to her, who has been championing it in Europe for the past 18 years, as it was unknown to most of us. We could have hardly dreamed of a better introduction to it though. "En rêve" started with a mystical journey into the world of nature and dreams before exploding into unusual sounds, hazy colors and carefree spirit. Here again, MTT led the superb orchestra into a totally engaging performance that subtly highlighted the haunting quality of the work, making it the perfect parting gift If we must part from Ms. Mutter.
Debussy's "La mer", on the other hand, needs no introduction. Solidly established as one of the French composer's most popular hits, on Tuesday it received a particularly well-balanced treatment, in which the three "symphonic sketches" sprang out brilliantly colored and meticulously detailed, effortlessly sweeping the more than willing audience with force and authority. It was hard to believe that such a remarkable display of terrific skills was coming from such a young ensemble, but there they were, commandingly breathing new, invigorating life into the splendidly impressionistic composition.

It was getting late, but that was obviously not an issue for the fired-up musicians as they whole-heartedly threw themselves into a joyful "Farandole" from Bizet’s L’Arlésienne. ¡Olé!

Monday, April 20, 2015

Boston Symphony Orchestra - Mahler - 04/17/15

Conductor: Andris Nelsons
Mahler: Symphony No. 6 in A Minor

After the two smaller-scale, kind of off-the-beaten-track concerts I had attended lately, last Friday night was more or less back to business as usual with a monumental classical symphony performed by a prestigious symphony orchestra at Carnegie Hall. Since the program ha no intermission, I even got the automated phone call reminding me to get there on time or else.
Mahler's Symphony No. 6 is certainly not one of his most popular ones, maybe because it has the particularity of being one of his densest and darkest works (It has not be called "The Tragic" for no reason) despite the fact of having been written during one of the happiest times of his life. Go figure. On top of the promise of a memorable journey into a grand composition, this concert was also the perfect opportunity to enjoy the illustrious Boston Symphony Orchestra and check out its new music director and conductor Andris Nelsons. Filling in James Levine's shoes has to be a tough job, but somebody's got to do it.

On Friday night, in a packed Stern Auditorium, the ominous march implacably opened the way to roughly 90 minutes of a remarkably powerful and highly detailed performance, which significantly benefited from the unbreakable unity of the entire orchestra and the unwavering conducting of indefatigable Andris Nelsons.
There is typically a lot going on in Mahler's symphonies, and the sixth is no different. The first movement was majestic, complex and inexorably driven. More importantly even, the right pace was picked from the very beginning, fast enough for the momentum to keep going and slow enough for telling details to clearly emerge.
The order of the second and third movements has been hotly debated ever since Mahler himself decided to switch from "Scherzo-Andante" to "Andante-Scherzo" during a rehearsal before the premiere. On Friday, we got back to the original order, which resulted in a seamless transition ‒ once the applause had subsided ‒ from the expansive Allegro to the agitated Scherzo, and later a more drastic contrast between the warm Andante and the apocalyptic Finale.
Few composers know how to stir a spontaneous emotional response without falling into gooey schmaltz, but Mahler had the absolute knack to come up with stunningly beautiful slow movements seemingly without any fuss. The Andante of his Symphony No. 6 happens to be one of them, and it may very well be the one that will be most vividly remembered from Friday night's concert.
After such an elating interlude, the unyielding tragedy of the Finale resounded all the more loud and clear, like a cruel fate that could not be stopped and kept on resolutely charging ahead to the very end. And then a well-deserved, roof-raising ovation took over for a very long time.

Monday, April 13, 2015

So Percussion - Reich, Cage & Dessner - 04/12/15

Steve Reich: Music for Pieces of Wood
John Cage: Child of Tree
John Cage: Third Construction
Bryce Dessner: Music for Wood and Strings

The genuine spring weather we had all been waiting for finally arrived in New York City yesterday, but that still did not keep my friend Angie and me from venturing to a still gritty part of Manhattan's Lower East Side and joining a sizable crowd in the pleasantly intimate Playhouse of the Abrons Arts Center at Henry Street Settlement as part of Carnegie Hall’s Neighborhood Concerts series.
Fact is, it was hard to resist the promise of hearing the self-proclaimed "musical innovators, collaborators: Brooklyn-bred and globally minded" So Percussion perform a particularly exciting program featuring Steve Reich, John Cage and Bryce Dessner, which band member Jason Treuting rightly dubbed "New York Experimental Works from the 1940s, 1970s and our present time". And so it was.

The performance started with the unexpected sight of a young woman positioning herself front and middle of the cluttered stage and starting to impassibly beat on the woodblock she was holding, factually opening Steve Reich's "Music for Pieces of Wood". So Percussion's four members eventually joined her, one by one, each of them beating on their own woodblock according to their own patterns, and altogether the five musicians ended up creating a fascinating tapestry of sounds, which was both uncompromisingly minimalist and richly complex. It did not take long for the effect to become downright hypnotic, our minds slowly losing themselves as a subtly and constantly changing musical Web was expertly crafted before us for an indeterminate amount of time up to the impeccably timed ending.
The 1970s piece was followed by two works from the 1940s, during which So Percussion took us on John Cage's endless search for brand new, never thought of or little appreciated sounds that surround us. "Child of Tree" had Josh Quillen play on the spikes of a cactus, break down tree bark and otherwise create sounds from other organic elements for exactly eight minutes; "Third Construction" had the quartet play on all kinds of random things, from a conch shell, to kitchenware, to actual instruments and more, to create some highly purposeful but still unabashedly fun music. Obviously, one can always count on John Cage to keep the audience entertained, or at least intrigued, with the most unusual tools.
Back to the present with endlessly versatile Brooklynite Bryce Dessner’s "Music for Wood and Strings", we were first introduced to four amplified "chord sticks", which are odd combinations of hammer dulcimers and electric guitars, which would be played alongside woodblocks, snares and bass drums. The boldly innovative, inherently appealing composition consisted in various movements naturally transitioning from one to the other, regardless of the multiple changes in sounds, rhythms or moods, from mysterious ethereality to thundering rock ‘n’ roll, from electric modernity to classical rigor. In our days of too many futile gimmicks and pointless cross-overs, this refreshing and groovy trip brightly demonstrated that avant-garde experiments are not only still alive and well, but easily accessible and totally enjoyable too. And definitely worth staying inside on a beautiful spring afternoon for.

Saturday, April 11, 2015

Music Mondays - The Debussy "Six" - 04/06/15

Claude Debussy: Sonata for Cello and Piano
Julia Bruskin: Cello - Aaron Wunsch: Piano
Thomas Adès: Sonata da caccia for Oboe, Horn, and Harpsichord
Arthur Sato: Oboe - Elizabeth Martignetti: Horn - Christopher Oldfather: Harpsichord
Claude Debussy: Sonata for Violin and Piano
Jesse Mills: Violin - Rieko Aizawa: Piano
Libby Larsen: Ferlinghetti for Clarinet, Viola and Piano
Todd Palmer: Clarinet - Edward Klorman: Viola - Aaron Wunsch: Piano
Claude Debussy: Sonata for Flute, Viola and Harp
Alex Soop: Flute - Edward Klorman: Viola - Bridget Kibbey: Harp
Marc-André Dalbavie: Axiom for Piano, Clarinet, Bassoon and Trumpet
Todd Palmer: Clarinet - Peter Evans: Trumpet - Adrian Morejon: Bassoon - Aaron Wunsch: Piano

On Monday, January 26, I was in a train on my way back to New York City from Washington, DC to attend Music Mondays' eagerly anticipated The Debussy "Six" concert and, incidentally, beat the forecast "historic" blizzard. Later that day, however, it was announced that the subway system was shutting down. Therefore, the concert had to be cancelled and rescheduled. Oh, and the blizzard did not turn out to be "historic" anyway.
On Monday, February 16, I was in a bus on my way back to New York City from Washington, DC to attend Music Mondays' thankfully rescheduled The Debussy "Six" concert. Later that day, however, it was announced that one of the musicians had fallen ill. Therefore, the concert had to be cancelled and re-rescheduled.
On Monday, April 6, I was in the subway on my way back to the Upper West Side from The Flatiron District to attend Music Mondays' miraculously re-rescheduled the Debussy "Six" concert. And later that day, lo and behold, the concert actually happened!
Seeing the name of Claude Debussy on a concert program is always the promise of a special treat for me, and the perspective of hearing the three sonatas he wrote as part of his unfinished "Six sonatas for various instruments" project, plus the three more sonatas written by contemporary composers inspired by the project, definitely sounded like a truly extra-special treat to me. And against all odds, snow storms, illnesses, and logistical challenges (Have you ever tried scheduling 13 busy musicians and special instruments three times in three months?), ever-resilient Music Mondays eventually made that seemingly elusive dream come true.

Debussy's delicately nuanced yet unabashedly playful "Sonata for Cello and Piano" opened the program with a lot of beautiful sounds, which were produced with plenty of technical dexterity and made a strong impression in only a dozen minutes.
It was followed by Thomas Adès' "Sonata da caccia", the contemporary English composer heeding Debussy's choice of instruments for the fourth sonata he did not live long enough to write. The result was an engagingly quirky baroque piece in which lovely melodies and riotous cacophony deftly mixed.
Back to Debussy with his "Sonata for Violin and Piano", we were in for a lightly vivacious tribute to the French musical master with what happened to be his last composition.
Then Libby Larsen introduced her own piece, "Ferlinghetti", which was finally having its world premiere on Monday evening. Drawing inspiration from poems by the undisputed giant of the Beat movement, the eclectic work featured six vignettes containing musical inside jokes and evoking a wide range of images, from a sexy "Paris in a loud, dark winter" to a softly depicted "sad nude", and ended in a loudly patriotic number. There was a lot going on, but all in good, insightful fun.
Debussy's last and most substantial gem on the program, his "Sonata for Flute, Harp, and Viola", also stood out as the most memorable performance of the evening for its kind of unusual but outright appealing instrumental combination and unmistakably Debussian mood. It started with a refreshingly light-hearted Pastoral movement, all subtle colors and halting pointillism, dreamily strolling in a bucolic landscape on a beautiful spring day. The Interlude had a ball merrily frolicking in the verdant fields and the Finale provided a decidedly faster, denser, but still unquestionably atmospheric, ending.
We came back down to organic earth with Marc-André Dalbavie's blazingly virtuosic "Axiom", which assertively opened with furiously descending octaves and rigorously channeled the musicians' energy for a rush-inducing performance. This was a surprisingly fitting conclusion to a Debussy musical feast, if for nothing else than the gleefully stark contrast it provided. The extra-special treat had been worth waiting for.