Saturday, November 28, 2015

New York Philharmonic - All-Rachmaninoff - 11/27/15

Conductor: Ludovic Morlot
Rachmaninoff: Piano Concerto No. 3 in D Minor, Op. 30 - Daniil Trifonov
Rachmaninoff: Symphonic Dances, Op. 45

After a blissfully uneventful Thanksgiving Day, Black Friday sounded decidedly more exciting sans shopping, but with a fun visit to the Museum of the City of New York across the Park in the afternoon and a promising concert by the New York Philharmonic in the David Geffen Hall down Broadway in the evening. The soloist was the alleged new Russian pianist prodigy – and incidentally official new board member – Daniil Trifonov, performing what is considered by many the Everest of the piano repertoire, Rachmaninoff's Piano Concerto No. 3, which would be a most efficient way to assess the relative newcomer's much hyped skills. Let's face it, if he can handle the notoriously untamable Rach 3, he should be able to handle pretty much everything else.
Rachmaninoff's delightful Symphonic Dances completed the substantial program, whose popular appeal was made even more obvious by the packed concert hall. Just play big, gorgeous, timeless music and they will come.

If the posters advertising the New York Philharmonic's Rachmaninoff festival have featured a strongly determined-looking Daniil Trifonov, the skinny, smiling young man who was greeted by an unusually loud ovation on Friday night looked more harmless than anything else. However, as soon as he started playing it quickly became clear that he was fully capable of taking on the challenging work with not only an impressive technique, but also plenty of sensitivity during the more introspective passages, which sometimes get lost in all the sweeping Romantic turmoil. His long fingers were confidently flying all over the keyboard at breakneck speed, but always with razor-sharp precision and impeccable timing. Whether wildly galloping or dreamily pondering, the fierce virtuoso was unquestionably in charge, occasionally forcing conductor Ludovic Morlot to make tiny but necessary adjustments. I generally roll my eyes at the American habit of giving standing ovations to all performances regardless of their actual merit, but this time I happily joined the spontaneous, roof-raising standing ovation that saluted the truly mind-blowing Rach 3 we had just experienced.
Obviously sensitive to our loud demonstration of appreciation and probably psyched by the feat he had just accomplished, the unstoppable pianist, who had more than earned the right to rest on his laurels, came back for Medtner's "Fairy Tale" in F Minor, letting his poetic side beautifully blossom and prompting yet another resounding ovation in the process. Believe the hype: The kid is THAT good.
So what does one play after Rachmaninoff's Piano Concerto No. 3? Well, more Rachmaninoff, of course! And so we moved on to his Symphonic Dances, which finally put the orchestra in the spotlight . Moving from the non-stop intensity of the piano concerto to the more light-hearted spirit of the orchestral work was a bit of adjustment, but once their infectious theme came out to tease us on, we were right onboard and stayed on until the very end. The voltage had definitely gone down a notch, which made it a perfectly pleasant way to unwind the evening.

Thursday, November 19, 2015

Leif Ove Andsnes - Sibelius, Beethoven, Debussy & Chopin - 11/16/15

Sibelius: Kyllikki, Op. 41
Sibelius: The Birch Tree, Op. 75, No. 4
Sibelius: The Spruce, Op. 75, No. 5
Sibelius: Forest Lake, Op. 114, No. 3
Sibelius: Song in the Forest, Op. 114, No. 4
Sibelius: Spring Vision, Op. 114, No. 5
Beethoven: Piano Sonata No. 18 in E-flat Major, Op. 31, No. 3
Debussy: La soirée dans Grenade from Estampes
Debussy: Étude No. 7, Pour les degrés chromatiques
Debussy: Étude No. 11, Pour les arpèges composés
Debussy: Étude No. 5, pour les octaves
Chopin: Impromptu in A-flat Major, Op. 29
Chopin: Étude in A-flat Major from Trois nouvelles études
Chopin: Nocturne in F Major, Op. 15, No. 1
Chopin: Ballade No. 4 in F Minor, Op. 52

A few days after spending an evening with my fellow Lyonnais Jean-Yves Thibaudet at Carnegie Hall, I was back in the exact same venue, as a matter of fact almost in the exact same seat, for Leif Ove Andsnes, another pianist extraordinaire from the Old Continent, whom I make a point of stalking every time he is in town, usually with my friend Paula, who may be an even bigger fan of his than I am.
So on Monday night the three of us converged into the Stern Auditorium for his annual visit and a cleverly eclectic program that included seemingly random works by celebrated composers such as Sibelius, Beethoven, Debussy and Chopin. Let's face it, whatever combination the man puts together, we will come.

As a hard-core fan of Jean Sibelius, I was thrilled by the inclusion of some of his pieces for solo piano on the program. As if to prove that there's nothing like a musician from Norway to impeccably channel a composer from Finland, Leif Ove Andsnes gave a uniformly brilliant account of the small-scale curiosities. The three movements of Kyllikki beautifully displayed a wide range of lovely colors; the following five precious nuggets evoked the multiple joys of nature in a beautifully understated performance that always made sure to discreetly empathize the little details while keeping the atmosphere delicately breathy and mysterious.
By all accounts Ludwig van Beethoven was not a happy-go-lucky kind of guy, so one has to wonder what on earth he was smoking when writing his surprisingly chirpy Piano Sonata No. 18. In any case, on Monday night we all sat back and immensely enjoyed Leif Ove Andsnes' readily bright and brisk rendition of it, which successfully conveyed the master's trademark intensity and less trademark cheerfulness.
After intermission, we moved on to Claude Debussy with four works that gave the pianist many opportunities to make the most of the composer's relentless inventiveness with, in particular, his superb phrasing technique. From the exotic sounds "La soirée dans Grenade" (The evening in Grenade) to the fascinating textures in "Pour les octaves" (For the octaves), we all happily lost ourselves in Debussyan land.
Our last, but certainly not least, composer on the list was Frédéric Chopin with an appealing cocktail of an impromptu, an étude, a nocturne and a ballade of his, as if to leave no stone unturned. and sure enough, the wide-ranging set clearly demonstrated the endless complexity in form and content of the impressive body of work, the gorgeously lyrical Ballade No. 4 making the perfect ending to a perfect evening.

Or was it? It was not! We actually extended the revelry with a light-as-a-feather Étude in F Minor, Opus 25, and the biggest gift of them all, an irresistible Polonaise in A-flat, Op. 53 that gloriously exploded with grandeur, energy and just the right amount of sentiment. Then we really had our perfect ending to a perfect evening.

Monday, November 16, 2015

Cantori New York - Crabtree, Thiele & Beecher - 11/14/15

Artistic Director & Conductor: Mark Shapiro
Crabtree: The Valley of Delight
Thiele: Prophezeiungen
Emily Klonowski: Soprano
Beecher: The New Amorous World
Michael Lombardi: Horn
Marion Ravot: Harp
Kyle Wilbert: Horn

One of the main reasons the unstoppable Cantori New York choir has kept its prominent place on New York's crowded choral music scene is its admirably implemented mission of keeping on performing new and neglected works in each concert, which in turn allows their grateful audience to become acquainted with pieces they had probably never heard before.
Therefore, I was more than a little surprised when I heard that the first concert of their 2015-2016 season last Saturday night would feature not just one, but two compositions they had performed in the previous years. But when I realized that they would be Siegfried Thiele's splendidly apocalyptic Prophezeiungen and Lembit Beecher's clever cantata The New Amorous World, I quickly agreed that the two works were rich enough in form and content to stand a second listening. As for the unknown item on the program, it was Paul Crabtree's The Valley of Delight, an intriguing foray into the American Shaker community.
As it were, after too many hours glued to my computer obsessively checking the increasingly distressing news from Paris, I was only too happy to head for the Village and the Church of St. Luke in the Fields to join a few friends and have something – anything – else to focus on.

Notwithstanding its deceptively light-hearted title, Paul Crabtree's The Valley of Delight turned out to be a serious composition about Quaker-turned-Shaker immigrant Ann Lee's utopian community, which itself was apparently dead serious about doubtful concepts like the power of ecstatic dancing and shouting for the body to rid itself of sin (?!). On the other hand, one can of course only applaud the promotion of equal treatment of men and women. And while Ann Lee's and Lynn Emmanuel's texts often sound like poetry dreamed up by unhinged idealists, the music offers a vast tapestry of melodies and harmonies that are viscerally stunning in their directness and gorgeousness. Fact is, utopia has rarely sounded as good as the soaring performance by Cantori on Saturday night.
Composed during the Cold War, inspired by writings from Leonardo da Vinci's notebook and using a rather macabre German folk song, Siegfried Thiele's Prophezeiungen had totally taken me by surprise last season with the blatant force of its uncompromising sounds and visions, and I was more than eager for a repeat. And sure enough, the ominous "Prophecies" did not bother taking any prisoners as they barreled down their destructive path with all their might again as Cantori confidently delivered another blazing account of the end of the world.
Things calmed down after intermission with The New Amorous World, a composition that puts the bizarre – An Archibras? – and not so bizarre – Equal rights for all – ideas conjured up by French philosopher Charles Fournier at the turn of the 18th century to contemporary music. Accordingly, after firmly establishing the core principles of "The Calculus of Harmony" for starter, the choir and instrumentalists went on to explain the importance of free love in all its manias and manifestations, the system to navigate them, the attractive aspect of work, the usefulness of the Archibras and the mission of the blind savants. Featuring two horns and a harp, spoken words and infectious singing, The New Amorous World spiritedly provided Fourier's often endearingly naive vision with a decidedly engaging musical platform and eventually left it up to the audience to decide how far along we've come over the last couple of centuries. From the current look of things, it unfortunately looks like the world still has an awfully long way to go before reaching the ever-elusive Harmony.

Saturday, November 14, 2015

Jean-Yves Thibaudet - Schumann & Ravel - 11/11/15

Schumann: Kinderszenen, Op. 15
Schumann: Piano Sonata No. 1 in F-Sharp Minor, Op. 11
Ravel: Pavane pour une infante défunte
Ravel: Miroirs

After happily basking in the dazzling sounds of the intimate, resolutely eclectic recital by Leila Josefowicz and Jon Novacek in the small Zankel Hall on Tuesday night, I was back at Carnegie Hall, in the sizeable Stern Auditorium this time, for a – by default – less intimate, Franco-German recital by Jean-Yves Thibaudet on Wednesday night.
The prestigious space, ideal for large scale events, is far less conducive to creating the perfect atmosphere for the close and personal experience that is a recital or a chamber music performance. It is, however, the obvious choice for the big names in the classical music world, who for better or worse have outgrown Zankel, with the flawless acoustics making up to some degree for the lack of intimacy. So on Wednesday I headed to Midtown again to end another dreary November day on another uplifting note.

One of Robert Schumann's most rightly popular works, Kinderszenen seems to be at first a rather simple composition, but it progressively reveals a vast array of deeply heart-felt emotions as the short scenes from childhood quickly succeed one another. On Wednesday, the dreaminess of "Träumerei", the joyfulness of "Glückes genug" and the spookiness of "Fürchtenmachen", just to name a few of the vignettes, all came through with understated contrast and refreshing directness for a lively and manifold concert opener.
Kinderszenen may have been a favorite of Schumann's beloved Clara, but it is probably a safe bet to assume that she was just as taken with his Piano Sonata No. 1. And for a good reason. Describing it as "a cry from my heart to yours", the hopelessly infatuated composer used his reliable signature alter egos – the introvert Florestan and the extrovert Eusebius – to express his passionate feelings towards the young pianist without raising her father's suspicion. Here again, Jean-Yves Thibaudet applied his considerable skills for a committed rendition of this fierce declaration of love.
When I decided to get a ticket for this concert, my main interest rested unquestionably in hearing Thibaudet perform Schumann. But if I went for Schumann and enjoyed the two pieces of his, I remained pretty much astounded at the renditions of Ravel's Miroirs. After a delicate "Pavane pour une infante défunte ", the suddenly fired-up pianist went on to paint the remarkably self-contained tableaux with bold, vividly colored strokes, gently and not so gently evoking the rippling movement of the water in "Une barque sur l'océan" (A boat at sea) and authoritatively conjuring up some sizzling hot Spanish rhythms in "Alborada del gracioso" (Morning song of the jester). Subtlety and soulfulness were the names of the game in "Oiseaux tristes" (Sad birds) and "La vallée des cloches" (The Valley of bells).

Our rousing ovation was acknowledged with two encores, an assertive Intermezzo in A Major by Brahms and an achingly beautiful "Kupelwieser-Walzer", Schubert's Waltz in G-flat Major, arranged by Strauss. The concert ended even better than it had started.

Thursday, November 12, 2015

Leila Josefowicz & John Novacek - Falla, Messiaen, Schumann, Tüür & Adams - 11/10/15

Falla: Suite populaire espagnole
Messiaen: Theme and Variations
Schumann: Violin Sonata No. 1 in A Minor, Op. 105
Tüür: Conversio
Adams: Road Movies

Bold in her choices and fearless in her playing, Leila Josefowicz is a violinist whose performances I make a point of attending as often as possible, which is not as easy as it sounds considering how popular she is all over the world. And for all the right reasons too. So I was thrilled at the perspective of a chance to hear her in Zankel Hall's intimate space with pianist John Novacek in a program as eclectic as adventurous on Tuesday night. Quite a nice little pick-me-up at the end of a dreary November day.

The musical journey across countries and through time started in Spain at the turn of the 20th century, with a colorful bouquet of transcriptions of songs by Manuel del Falla, from the high-spirited "El paño moruno" and the ethereal "Nana" to the uncompromising "Polo" and the lovely "Canción". A fiery and subtle opening to a concert that managed to deliver many additional treasured moments one after the other.
A couple of decades or so later, French composer Olivier Messiaen was offering his "Theme and Variations" to his wife, violinist and composer Claire Delbos, for their wedding. It has obviously been a gift that has kept on giving as on Tuesday night Leila Josefowicz and John Novacek treated their audience to a divinely inspired, beautifully nuanced performance of the intricate, mood-swinging work.
Then it was on to mid-19th century Germany with Robert Schumann's Violin Sonata No. 1, a quintessential Romantic piece that the duo vigorously dusted up and cleverly spiked up. The two contrasting personas of sweet Eusebius and feisty Florestan were therefore transposed to modern times for a genuinely winning rendition. Schumann would have surely been pleased.
Like his illustrious predecessor Arvo Pärt, contemporary Estonian composer Erkki-Sven Tüür obviously has a knack for gratifying minimalism. His light but relentless "Conversio" started with an insistent violin and a sporadic piano before progressively wandering among many intriguing, ever-changing paths, which all came together for a riveting experience.
Leila Josefowicz's long-standing professional and personal relationship with contemporary American composer John Adams makes her the de facto ultimate interpreter of his work for violin – He has after all written a violin concerto just for her – and the artistic chemistry was clearly palpable during "Road Movies", a delightful account of a delightful composition. Captivating in its unpretentious virtuosity, this "Road Movies" took us along numerous musical landscapes for an endlessly fun, truly relaxing ride.

The encore of course had to be something off the beaten track, and it was, with Claus Ogermann' arrangement of "Smile" from Charlie Chaplin's Modern Times, an exquisite combination of simplicity and intensity with concluded the concert on a gentle, deeply felt note.

Monday, November 9, 2015

NSO - Mahler - 11/07/15

Conductor: Christoph Eschenbach
Mahler: Symphony No. 3 in D Minor
Anne Sofie von Otter: Mezzo-soprano
The women in the Choral Arts Society of Washington
Children's Chorus of Washington

After deciding to finally head back to Washington, DC for a long-overdue extended weekend, I was happily surprised to notice that my visit would coincide with the National Symphony Orchestra playing Mahler's sprawling Symphony No. 3 under the baton of its current music director Christoph Eschenbach. Maybe not exactly a light-hearted way to start my little jaunt in our nation' capital, but certainly a welcome walk down memory lane all the way to the Kennedy Center's concert hall with my former NSO buddy Jennifer. To make the occasion even more special, on Friday evening the record-breaking 80 degree temperature (?!) and de rigueur accompanying high humidity brought us right back to the many sultry summer nights spent on the Kennedy Center's terrace yakking away while gazing at the Georgetown lights. Ah, memories.

Mahler's Symphony No. 3 opens with a movement so long (over 30 minutes) and so chaotic, frequently sounding unsure of where it is going, that making it to the end intact can be a rather daunting challenge. But then, in drastic contrast to all the opening turmoil, the second movement is simply and undisputedly lovely. The third movement has its fair share of light and darkness, and a memorable posthorn solo, before the music moves on to the mysterious fourth movement and Nietzsche's "Midnight Song" from Also sprach Zarathustra. The cheerful, folk-inspired children's chorus stands out in the fifth movement, which is followed by the peaceful and eventually triumphant sixth movement.
There is a lot to take in from the endlessly complex work, much more than can be grasped in one performance, no matter how enlightening it happens to be. Friday night's concert had a lot going for it, including staunchly committed conductor, musicians and singers, who did their best to maintain a solid momentum and the ever-precarious balance of the whole enterprise. Even if they did not always succeed, the experience was often so intense that it did not leave much room to quibble about details. It was a real pleasure to hear Anne Sofie von Otter's beautiful voice soar from the center of the chorister section, and the women of the Choral Arts Society of Washington and the Children's Chorus of Washington provided a delightful human touch to the gigantic endeavor. The journey ended with a majestic Adagio, which leisurely unfolded to reach its gloriously life-affirming conclusion. The NSO is decidedly doing well.

Monday, November 2, 2015

Met - Tannhaüser - 10/31/15

Composer: Richard Wagner
Conductor: James Levine
Production: Otto Schenk
Direction: Stephen Pickover
Tannhaüser: Johan Botha
Wolfram von Eschenbach: Peter Mattei
Elisabeth: Eva-Maria Westbrock
Venus: Michelle DeYoung
Hermann, Landgraf of Thuringia: Günther Groissböck

The eternal fight between virtue and, well, less virtue had to tempt a man as preoccupied with philosophical dilemmas as Richard Wagner, and sure enough, Tannhaüser actually kept him preoccupied for most of his adult life, or more precisely from 1842, when he was 29, to 1883, right before he died.
Inspired by German medieval literature, Tannhaüser is about a troubadour who, during the course of roughly four and a half hours, cannot make up his mind between sensual Venus and chaste Elisabeth. He eventually dies and is redeemed after the virtuous woman sacrificed herself. Wagner being Wagner, he composed a sumptuously Romantic score for it, and at some point even threw some ballet in as well so that it could be premiered at the Paris Opera according to the house's rules (Never mind that said premiere was a total fiasco for political reasons).
As I have been conscientiously making progress into Wagnerian territory with whatever the Met is kind enough to program, I was more than excited to see that Tannhaüser was up this season, and with an all-around impressive cast to boot. So it was with almost no regrets that I walked down to the Lincoln Center on a beautiful October day to confine myself for the entire afternoon in the Met's packed Family Circle.

Typically long and challenging, Wagnerian operas are not for the faint of hearts, and I am not talking only about the audience here. They also require the singers to have bottomless reserves of power and stamina on top of the expected professional-level singing. But the carefully hand-picked international cast we had in the house on Saturday afternoon proved that they could handle it all without apparently even breaking a sweat.
South African tenor Johan Botha, who had already proved his Wagnerian credentials last season with Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, was an indefatigable Tannhaüser. If physical acting is not his forte, the myriad of subtle and not so subtle emotions he openly expressed in his compelling, well-articulated singing certainly more than made up for it.
Swedish baritone Peter Mattei, who had easily vowed the New York crowds in Parsifal two seasons ago, was a wonderful Wolfram, all dignified elegance and sensitive righteousness. His appealing voice and impeccable phrasing made a flawless accompaniment to the magnificent music.
The ladies fared very well too, with virtuous Elisabeth being brilliantly embodied by Dutch soprano Eva-Maria Westbroek, in a role eons away from her superb Lady Macbeth of Mtensk from last season. Purity, however, obviously did not mean demureness in this case, and this Elisabeth stood up to the world with remarkable poise and authority.
American mezzo-sporano Michelle DeYoung was a decidedly seductive if moody Venus, oozing carefree sensuality galore, and seemed to relish every minute of it. You go, girl!
The ever-versatile chorus sounded totally at ease in Wagnerian land and authoritatively delivered pitch-perfect ensemble singing throughout the performance, with a special mention for an absolutely stupendous Pilgrims' Chorus. Hallelujah, indeed!
With singing so consistently mesmerizing, the production did not attract much attention, but it did not call for it either. Discreet and serviceable, such as a bunch of semi-clad young people frolicking in the Venusberg scene or a traditionally attractive German medieval Hall of Song, the sets got the job done unimaginatively, but efficiently. The costumes were equally good-looking and predictable.
The composition, on the other hand, is as memorable as they come. Starting with the iconic overture, which is seamlessly followed by the enchanting ballet segment, it goes on with highly dramatic solos such as Elisabeth's salute to the hall, "Dich, teure Halle" or inconspicuously delicate hymns like Wolfram's greeting to the evening star, "O, du mein older Abendstern". Wagner may have intermittently agonized for four decades over Tannhaüser, but we can now say that it was worth it.
James Levine is a well-known Wagner expert, and there is no doubt that he had the score and the orchestra under tight and loving control. It is in fact hard to imagine any other conductor being able to unfold those seemingly endless and impossible gorgeous Romantic lines with the same mastery as he does. He ensured the right balance between orchestra and singers, expertly pacing the entire proceedings with deeply insightful command. The result was a musical performance as transcendental as the score, and that is saying a lot.