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.

Sunday, August 2, 2015

Mostly Mozart Festival - Bach, Mozart and Brahms - 08/01/15

Conductor: Louis Langrée
Bach: Chaconne in D Minor for piano left hand (Transcription by Brahms) − Jeremy Denk
Mozart: Piano Concerto No. 20 in D Minor, K. 466 − Jeremy Denk
Brahms: Symphony No. 4 in E Minor

On yet another summer weekend in New York City, yesterday evening I was back at the Avery Fisher Hall for, incidentally, another performance of Brahms' Symphony No. 4 and, most importantly, a solo piece by Bach and a piano concerto by Mozart − It is his festival, after all − performed by one of the Mostly Mozart Festival's main attractions, our very own Jeremy Denk.
The other differences from last weekend would be the seats and the company as my friend Angie had been replaced by my equally dear friend Christine, and we found ourselves in much lesser (and ironically paid for this time) seats in the packed concert hall. But the complimentary flutes of champagne that we got to leisurely sip on the Avery Fisher Hall's balcony overlooking Lincoln Plaza before the concert certainly helped alleviate to some degree the indignity of going back to the nose-bleed section's last row one week after tasting the fleeting pleasure of the center of the orchestra section. A bit like going back to flying Coach after enjoying a stint in First Class (or so I've heard).

Bach's Chaconne from his Partita in D Minor for solo violin is famous for being one of the most extraordinary − and extraordinarily difficult − works of the classical music repertoire. Brahms managed to make it even more daunting when he boldly came up with his own transcription of it for the left hand only, a formidable token of his admiration for Bach and his love for Clara Schumann, to whom the composition was dedicated. Seemingly all alone in the darkened concert hall, which cleverly made the grand performance feel downright intimate, Jeremy Denk was in full command of his remarkable skills, starting in a subdued way before handling the countless tricky challenges with the expertise and ease of the ultimate connoisseur. More than just a flamboyant tour de force, this Chaconne was also a richly imaginative and strongly expressive musical adventure.
After recovering the use of both hands, Jeremy Denk just as dexterously tackled Mozart's Piano Concerto No. 20, which happened to include Brahms' own cadenza last night. Although the music retained Mozart's trademark elegance and lyricism, which especially stood out in the stunning Romanze movement, it also betrayed some uncharacteristically dark and agitated passages, which immediately brought to my mind Don Giovanni at its most dramatic. Completely unfazed, Jeremy Denk negotiated the various moods with flawless technical expertise and genuine emotional finesse, the orchestra superbly coming through on their own under Louis Langrée's highly collaborative baton.
And because the going was so good the soloist just kept going on his own. Our thunderous ovation earned us a poignant interpretation of the 13th variation of Bach's Goldberg Variations, adroitly taking us right back where our evening started.
After intermission, I had the pleasure of hearing Brahms' Symphony No. 4 again, and the journey was about just as sweepingly intense as it had been the previous week. If nothing else, the orchestra sounded in even finer shape and responded even more robustly to Louis Langrée's unwaveringly spot-on and deeply involved conducting. As the endless ovation was slowly subsiding, we dashed out of the hall and made it to the L'Arte del Gelato cart located right around the corner in record time for the de rigueur stop before enjoying our refreshing treats with a view over the Hearst Plaza. Because some traditions are just too good to pass on.