Tuesday, December 22, 2015

Cantori New York - A Cantori Holiday - 12/19/15

Mark Shapiro: Artistic Director and Conductor
Richard Rodney Bennett: Out of your Sleep
William Wallton: What Cheer
Alice Dryden: Banu Choshech
G. R. Woordward: Shepherds in the Fields Abiding (Arr. David Willcocks)
Jonathan Dove: The Three Kings
16th Century French Melody: Ding Dong, Merrily on High (Arr. Charles Wood)
Hector Berlioz: The Shepherds' Farewell
English Traditional Carol: The Wassail Song (Arr. R. Vaughan Williams)
Old Basque Carol: I saw a Maiden (Arr. Edgar Pettman)
J. Pierpont: Jingle Bells
Mark Shapiro: Piano
Emily Klonowski: Conductor
Reginald Jacques: When Christ was Born
Peter Warlock: Bethlehem Down
English Traditional Carol: The First Noël (Arr. David Willcocks)
English Traditional Carol: The Holly and the Ivy (Arr. Walford Davies)
Rex Isenberg: Ravta et Rivam
Elizabeth Poston: Jesus Christ and the Apple Tree
Emily Klonowski: Soloist
English Traditional Carol: I saw Three Ships (Arr. David Willcocks)
Polish Carol: Infant Holy (Arr. David Willcocks)
Franz Xaver Biebl: Ave Maria
Mark Stedman: Soloist
Steve Albert, Matt Perkins and Steve Underhill: Trio
West Country Carol: We Wish You a Merry Christmas (Arr. Arthur Warrell)
Franz Gruber: Silent Night (Sing Along)

It was on a appropriately - but still shockingly - cold, late afternoon that I made my way to the Village's Church of St. Luke in the Fields last Saturday for my one and only concession to the holiday season in general, and holiday music in particular: Cantori New York's immensely popular holiday concert. And this year again, the lovely little church filled up early and quickly with an eclectic crowd that was obviously very much looking forward to enjoying not only the choir's well-known singing chops, but also their very special holiday gift to us: A whole treasure chest full of new songs to accompany the ones we simply could not do without. Who said Santa did not exist?

Since some deep-rooted traditions are just too good to disregard, a few musical treats from the Old Continent were still there. So it was with always the same pleasure that we heard the singers happily work their expert way through "Shepherds in the Fields Abiding", which never fails to bring me back to my French childhood, "The Wassail Song", which eloquently celebrates the joys of drinking English style, and the timelessly beautiful all-male "Ave Maria", whose German composer Franz Xaver Biebl could only have been divinely inspired.
From this side of the pond we still had "Jesus Christ and the Apple Tree", which has consistently remained one of the most beloved carols of the entire repertoire despite making no references to Christmas whatsoever and, since it apparently must be heard if at all possible, Cantori's admittedly pretty groovy version of "Jingle Bells". On the other hand, the entire basket of sugary Hollywood tunes had blissfully disappeared, which naturally led me to think that there might be a God after all.
More recurring works of the welcome kind, stepping out of the Christmas box this time, were "Banu Choshech" by Alice Dryden and "Ravta et Rivam" by Cantori member Rex Isenberg, who accomplished the commendable feat of providing the non dopey Jewish song of the evening.
Among the eagerly awaited novelties stood out a group of compelling traditional carols from England comprising the inconspicuously haunting "Bethlehem Down", the delicately uplifting "The First Noël" and "The Holly and the Ivy", as well as the more upbeat "I saw Three Ships". Nonplussed by those new challenges, Cantori's singers handled them with poise and gusto.
In the spirit of the season, the die-hard "Ocho Kandelikas" aficionados eventually decided against carrying out a mutiny, or even loudly huffing and puffing their way out of the church for that matter, after discovering to their horror that their favorite Hanukkah song was not included in the program, but we still have to state for the record that it was a seriously close call.
The concert ended with the borderline-too-perky-but-we-will-put-up-with-it-because-this-is-almost-over "We Wish You a Merry Christmas", followed by the time-honored sing along on "Silent Night", with everyone singing the first and last verse while the choir took care of the second one. They're still better than the rest of us – All that practice does pay off – but then again, there is always next year.

The evening was not over though, as this year artists and audience excitedly made their way downstairs to a more spacious space than the regular one (This time, one could not only breathe, but actually move around too!) where the traditional post-performance party rocked as hard as ever. Happy Holidays!

Sunday, December 13, 2015

Pacifica Quartet - Carter, Janacek & Beethoven - 12/09/15

Carter: Two Fragments for String Quartet
Janacek: String Quartet No. 2, (Intimate Letters)
Carter: String Quartet No. 5
Beethoven: String Quartet No. 16 in F Major, Op. 135

The last, but not least, stop of my chamber music mini-marathon last week was at the Upper East Side's 92Y on Wednesday night, where I joined a large crowd of regulars and others to attend the highly regarded Pacifica Quartet's long-overdue debut there. The program was interestingly dedicated to the "Last Words" of a trio of widely different and ever-intriguing composers that included the American Elliott Carter, with whom the quartet had a long and fruitful relationship, the Czech Leo Janacek and the German Ludwig van Beethoven. Although the concept may seem a bit morbid at first, and was not exactly accurate in the case of Carter, the works to be performed were certainly appealing enough to promise a totally satisfying musical evening.

Although they were far from being his last piece – Carter would still remain amazingly productive for more than a decade before dying at 103 – and in fact precluded his late style, "Two Fragments for String Quartet" turned out to be a deceptively inconspicuous, yet eventually powerful opener on Wednesday night. Starting as mysterious and understated, it quickly became more assertive in its relentless inventiveness, but still kept a resolutely low profile.
There was, on the other hand, nothing understated in Janacek's "Intimate Letters", which exploded with all the desperate passion that the old composer felt towards a much younger, and very married, woman. By turns burning with obsessive desire and exuding pure tenderness, and plenty of resigned and not so resigned frustration too, the hopelessly beleaguered composer wrote one of his most intense and personal works. Janacek's troubled mind found the perfect outlet in the Pacifica Quartet, whose performance was downright commanding, deeply emotional and widely expressive, never letting the off-kilter notes subvert, but rather have them contribute to the overall beauty of the musical statement.
After intermission, we were back in the concert hall for what had to be the tour de force of the evening. Carter's dazzling String Quartet No. 5 being notorious for its complex structure, the musicians had to spend countless hours going against their natural instincts and "trying to play not together", as explained by second violin Sibbi Bernhardsson. All the dedicated practice has obviously paid off as the quartet played with hard-earned assurance, insightful precision, but also communicative enjoyment.
After Janacek's emotional turmoil and Carter's technical challenges, we finally got to relax and revel in the full glow and uncomplicated playfulness of Beethoven's String Quartet No. 16. The last substantial piece the aging master ever wrote, it still bursts with life and creativity. The Pacifica Quartet was clearly happy to finally let loose while still making the most of their remarkable kills, and they delivered a beautifully radiant performance of the sunny composition.

The mood stayed totally uplifted for the much appreciated encore, which was a short, but thoroughly electrifying "Four for Tango", an appropriately late work by Argentine Astor Piazzola. The perfect ending to the perfect evening.

Thursday, December 10, 2015

Music Mondays - Claremont Trio & Horszowski Trio - Schubert, Poulenc & Kurtag - 12/07/15

Schubert: 2 marches caractéristiques in C Major, D. 968b
Allegro Vivace
Rieko Aizawa: Piano
Andrea Lam: Piano
Schubert: Notturno in E-Flat Major, Op. 148, D. 897
Claremont Trio
Poulenc: Improvisation No. 12 (1941), "Hommage à Schubert"
Rieko Aizawa: Piano
Kurtag: Hommage à Schubert from Jatekok (Games)
Andrea Lam: Piano
Piano Trio in E-Flat Major, D. 929
Horszowski Trio
Schubert: String Quintet in C Major, D. 956
Emily Bruskin: Violin
Julia Bruskin: Cello
Jesse Mills: Violin
Raman: Ramakrishnan: Cello
Jessica Thompson: Viola

After a wonderful Vienna-flavored chamber music concert in Dumbo's Bargemusic on Sunday afternoon, I decided to keep my momentum going and headed to another intimate classical music experience, which happened to be blissfully much closer to home this time, on Monday evening.
The unstoppable Music Mondays series had scheduled an appealing Schubert feast, which included not only some of his works but also works inspired by him, that was to be performed by a bunch of young and incredibly talented musicians in their usual home of the Upper West Side's Advent Lutheran Church. Apparently a lot of music lovers felt the irresistible program’s pull too because the small venue was literally bursting at the seams with excited people, including my friend Ruth, long before starting time.

As if the general mood had not been electric enough, Schubert's 2 marches caractéristiques started the concert on a highly spirited and strongly virtuosic note. Impeccably channeling the piece’s irrepressible nature, Rieko Aizawa and Andrea Lam resolutely stormed through the four-hand composition with boundless energy and razor-sharp precision, having apparently as much fun playing it as we had listening to it.
Then the light-heartedness that had quickly filled up the church went down a notch with the beautifully atmospheric Notturno in E-Flat Major, which the Claremont Trio handled with much care and dedication. The gorgeously hushed melodic lines unfolded with flawless ease in what seemed like suspended time, and it almost felt like heavens had descended on earth.
Then we took a small detour with a short and a very short tributes to the German master from 19th century France and 20th century Hungary, by respectively Francis Poulenc and Gyorgy Kurtag, which clearly proved that Schubert's influence has never stopped transcending periods and borders.
The Horszowski Trio was next for a beautifully lush interpretation of Schubert's expansive Piano Trio in E-Flat Major, D. 929. The main theme of the second movement may be familiar to even non-classical music aficionados due to its many appearances in pop culture, but the fact is, the entire work is so dauntingly complex in its wide-ranging harmonies and textures that it routinely keep audiences totally enthralled despite clocking in at about 45 minutes. It sure did on Monday night.
The Music Mondays people having smartly kept the most popular work for last, we had to wait until after intermission to enjoy one of chamber music's most undisputed masterpieces – and a personal favorite of mine – in Schubert's String Quintet in C Major. Written a couple of months before the composer's death, one can almost sense that the sick young man threw everything he had and then some into the dazzling quintet, which is as remarkable for its pure inventiveness as for its immediate appeal. Boldly unconventional, highly melodic and deeply emotional, the "Cello Quintet" deserves to played by the best and brightest, and it certainly sounded like we had them on Monday night as the five musicians on the stage were expertly working their way through the immense work while keeping it constantly fresh and fun all the way to the very end. It could not get better than that.

Tuesday, December 8, 2015

Bargemusic - Brahms, Haydn, Beethoven, Scarlatti & Mozart - 12/06/15

Brahms: Intermezzo, Op. 119, No.2 – Andantino un poco
Haydn: Sonata in E-Flat Major, Hob. 52
Beethoven: String Trio in G Major, Op. 9, No. 1
Scarlatti: Sonata in A Minor, K. 54, L. 241
Mozart: Piano Quartet No. 1 in G Minor, K. 478
Andrew Gonzalez: Viola
Coleman Itzkoff: Cello
Michael Kimmelman: Piano
Mark Peskanov: Violin

More often than not my spontaneous decisions have actually had fortunate outcomes, and that proved to be true again this past weekend, when I decided that after a super busy week in the office I needed a change of scenery and some live music. That’s pretty much how on Sunday I got off the island and headed for Bargemusic in Dumbo, which has fast become a favorite playground for tourists (eagerly gathering at Fulton Ferry Landing to diligently snap gazillions of pictures of the admittedly spectacular Lower Manhattan skyline and occasionally get ripped off at Grimaldi’s) and hipsters (eagerly filling up the Brooklyn Roasting Company to nonchalantly sip over-priced drinks while busily surfing their de rigueur Apple laptops in the studiously gritty space). But it was a lovely fall afternoon and I got to enjoy a quick, semi-impromptu and very fun reunion with my friend Amy, so life was good.
It got even better when I reached Bargemusic, the wonderfully intimate concert venue that offers a terrific view on the above-mentioned spectacular Lower Manhattan skyline while gently – and not so gently – swaying on the East River, and my spontaneous decision was serendipitously rewarded by a third row seat. If my environment was relatively unfamiliar territory (I had been there exactly once before), the program, on the other hand, boasted the crème de la crème of classical Viennese composers with no less than Haydn, Beethoven and Mozart. The line-up du jour comprised chamber music veterans with decidedly impressive resumes and, as I was about to find out, the skills to match. And as an added bonus, a sunset was scheduled too. Bingo!

After a bright Andantino un poco from Brahms’s Intermezzo, Op. 119, No. 2, piano man Michael Kimmelman effortlessly shifted gears and moved on to Haydn’s much more substantial Sonata in E-Flat Major, Hob. 52. As performed with inspired mastery by Kimmelman, the endlessly complex, large-scale work unfolded with grandeur and vitality, and plenty of whimsical sparkles too, which made the ever-evolving journey both momentous and light-hearted.
Beethoven’s highly colorful String Trio in G Major, Op. 9, No. 1 was up next and immensely benefitted from the glowing sounds generated by violinist Mark Peskanov, violist Andrew Gonzalez and cellist Coleman Itzkoff. Written when Beethoven had not even reached his thirties yet, the first trio of his Opus 9 magnificently bursts with lyricism, wit and subtlety, qualities that the three musicians brought out with vigor and precision.
After intermission, Michael Kimmelman was back with another little gem for solo piano in Scarlatti’s Sonata in A Minor, K. 54, L. 241, before being joined by the three string instrumentalists for Mozart’s beautifully woven Piano Quartet No. 1 in G Minor, K. 478. In true Mozart fashion, the composition is impeccably structured, and throughout the entire work the strings get to play richly expressive music while the piano ingeniously appears either as a guest star or a team player. As daylight had turned to nighttime and the Lower Manhattan skyline had slowly lit up in the background, the four musicians delighted the packed audience with a truly detailed, informed and engaging performance of it, which eventually got everybody off the boat and back on terra firma with genuinely uplifted spirits.