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.