Saturday, October 31, 2015

Joshua Bell & Sam Haywood - Vitali, Beethoven & Fauré - 10/27/15

Vitali: Chaconne in G Minor
Beethoven: Violin Sonata No. 9 in A Major, Op. 47, (Kreutzer)
Fauré: Violin Sonata No. 1 in A Major, Op. 13

Some traditions are just that, but others occasionally bring an extra something that makes them all the more memorable. When I was originally heading to Carnegie Hall's Stern Auditorium for my annual rendez-vous with Joshua Bell and Sam Haywood on Wednesday night, my main goal was to enjoy superior playing by two seasoned musicians.
What I was not expecting was that Joshua Bell would dedicate the concert to his teacher, Josef Gingold, who would have turned 106 on that night, and that he would also take that opportunity to celebrate his 30th year of performing in the prestigious music venue as well. The program was therefore filled with oldies but goodies, including Tomaso Antonio Vitali's feisty Italian Chaconne, Beethoven's intrinsically German Kreutzer sonata and Fauré's exquisitely French Violin Sonata No. 1. Just the little pick-me-up I needed after an endlessly grey and rainy Hump Day.

Impeccably nailing Vitali's Chaconne for starters was an unambiguous way for Joshua Bell and Sam Haywood to assert their command of their art and whet our appetite for the bigger and better things that were about to come. Regardless of the recent controversy surrounding the actual author of the work, it was a flavorful treat.
But it soon paled in comparison to the magnificent Kreutzer sonata that was next, a deeply visceral journey from moody to meditative to exuberant, the two musicians always striking the perfect balance between them. Emotions were flying high, the tone was gorgeous, the precision infallible. Later on, as we were all leaving the hall, a woman behind me authoritatively stated that "the first big one was very good", and the spontaneous eruption of applause after the first movement only confirmed was everyone could easily hear. This was a grand Kreutzer indeed.
The Fauré sonata that followed is certainly an accomplished composition, and it was performed with the utmost professionalism, offering a welcome, if not complete, respite from all the ever-shifting turbulences that had preceded it. What it did not have in sheer magnitude was more than made up for in the work's natural charm and subtle wit.

The evening was rounded up with a small smorgasbord of violin-centric gems such as an infectious Hungarian Dance No. 1 by Brahms, a bittersweet Liebesleid by Kreisler and a devilishly virtuosic Scherzo tarantelle by Wieniawski, which Joshua Bell had not performed since an appearance on the Johnny Carson show in 1981. The young prodigy has decidedly come a long way.

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Teatro Grattacielo - Siberia - 10/24/15

Composer: Umberto Giordano
Conductor: Israel Gursky
The Teatro Grattacielo Orchestra
The Cantori New York Chorus
Marie Masters: Stephana
Raul Melo: Vassili
Daniel Ihn-kyu Lee: Gleby

Umberto Giordano's Siberia may not have made it to glorious posterity, but it sounded intriguing enough for a curious audience to go check it out last Saturday night in John Jay College's Gerald W. Lynch Theater, conveniently located right on the border between the Upper West Side and Hell's Kitchen, where it was presented by Teatro Grattacielo in one performance only.
The small but tenacious opera company was indeed implementing one more time their laudable mission of bringing hidden gems from the Italian repertoire from the 1890s to 1930s to new life, and one can only be grateful that they are still around and unfailingly kicking after New York City Opera's heir apparent, Gotham Chamber Opera, stunned a lot of opera buffs by unexpectedly biting the dust earlier this month. Sometimes real life has even more drama than fiction.

Siberia deals with real people, their complicated lives and unhappy fates, such as a nice young soldier who unknowingly falls in love with the mistress of a prince, wounds the prince in a duel, ends up in a labor camp in Siberia, and eventually sees his mistress reappear right there to be with him. Happy ending? Not so, as verismo tradition oblige, things must go downhill from there, and I am not just talking about the extreme local climate. One day, she happens to bump into her former pimp, who tactlessly reveals her hooker's past, ungentlemanly snitches on her plan to run away with her lover, and literally has her killed (Well, since somebody had to die, it might as well be the scarlet woman).
So the plot was predictably straight-forward and silly, and sure enough, the music was just as predictably intense and lyrical, a constant flow of intense peaks and more controlled transitions that kept the passions burning hot and the story moving swiftly along. It is not a subtle score, but it is definitely an attractive one.
And the singers did full justice to it with not only their fearlessly expressive singing, but also enough emotional involvement to successfully inhabit their characters. Soprano Marie Masters was a naturally hot-blooded, fiercely determined Stephana, and sang the taxing part with plenty of ardor and clarity throughout the whole evening, never missing a beat between tender love songs and highly dramatic outbursts.
Irrepressible tenor Raul Melo was equally fervent and articulate as Vassili, the sweet but hapless young soldier whose encounter with Stephana triggers the chain of unfortunate events. Nothing was more heart-breaking that his discovery that the woman he loved, and ended up in Siberia for, was not an embroideress, after all.
Baritone Daniel Ihn-kyu Lee was a deliciously creepy Gleby, both poised and relentless, with just a tad of self-satisfied irony. His singing stood out with impressive staying power and resonance.
The ever-reliable Cantori New York chorus provided consummate background support, especially distinguishing themselves with the eloquent hauntingness of the prisoners' laments and the fleeting light-heartedness of the women's chattering and giggling.
The Teatro Grattacielo Orchestra was obviously having a ball with the dynamic score, and Israel Gursky energetically kept the music going strong and strongly appealing. The concert had impressive, unwavering momentum from beginning to end, never mind the two intermissions in the 90-minute performance, and most capably shed some bright light on an undeservedly ignored opera.

Monday, October 26, 2015

American Composers Orchestra - Orchestra Underground: 21st Firsts - 10/23/15

Music Director & Conductor: George Manahan
Michael-Thomas Foumai: The Spider Thread
Melody Eotvos: Red Dirt/Silver Rain
Hannah Lash: Concerto for Harp and Chamber Orchestra
Hannah Lash: Harp
Judah Adashi: Sestina for Voice and Orchestra
Caroline Shaw: Voice
Conrad Winslow: Joint Account for Orchestra and Video
Paul Libier: Projections

For its 125th anniversary, Carnegie Hall had boldly decided to focus not on its prestigious past but on an equally exciting future by commissioning 125 new classical music works to be performed in the next five years. Reaching far and wide, the ambitious 125 Commissions Project represents a serious injection of fresh blood into art form that is regularly presented as stagnating at least, and promises quite a few interesting evenings in perspective as well. What's not to love?
And that's why on Friday evening my friend Christine, who had decided she was up for the challenge after all, and I celebrated the end of the work week by heading to the cool Zankel Hall for the closing night of the SONiC festival with a concert that would include five world premieres composed by young but already much lauded composers and performed by the American Composers Orchestra, which has been creating, performing, preserving and promoting music by American composers for the past 39 years.

Hawaii-born Michael-Thomas Foumai's The Spider Thread opened the concert with some suspense and plenty of cleverness, even if the background story (A criminal trying to climb out of hell to paradise, only to fall right back into darkness again) was on the macabre side.
Australia-born and raised Melody Eotvos remembered her childhood in Queensland with her subtly atmospheric Red Dirt/Silver Rain. Inspired by the local dirt's volcanic red and the summer's rain showers, this irresistible invitation to share her memories felt like a dreamy, organic journey to the Land Down Under, which maestro George Manahan and his orchestra beautifully evoked.
Hannah Lash made the old saying "You are never as well served as when you serve yourself" an obvious truth when she assuredly filled in the soloist position in her Concerto for Harp and Chamber Orchestra with elegance and sensitivity. Always an instrument rightfully associated with mystery and ethereality, the harp rarely gets to be center stage, and this virtuosic performance of a harp-centered work proved that it is a damn shame.
The shortest among all those short pieces, Judah Adashi's Sestina for Voice and Orchestra clocked in at 12 minutes, but for some reason felt the longest of them all. Sung torch-song style by Caroline Shaw, the composition unravels an entire romantic relationship with six words, using Ciara Shuttleworth's poem Sestina, and soft melancholy.
Then we were served the sounds and visions combo of Conrad Winslow's Joint Account for Orchestra and Video, which was inspired by "Baroque theorist Johann Mattheson's 1739 manual of techniques on representing emotions in music". The result was a fast-paced hodge-podge of video excerpts accompanied by a lively score, or maybe the other way around, which concluded the concert on a colorful and chaotic note.

Sunday, October 18, 2015

American Symphony Orchestra - Mimesis: Musical Representations - 10/16/15

Music Director & Conductor: Leon Botstein
Schuller: Seven Studies on Themes of Paul Klee
Dutilleux: Correspondances
Sophia Burgos: Soprano
Muhly: Seeing is Believing
Tracy Silverman: Electric Violin
Strauss: Also sprach Zarathustra, Op. 30

Interestingly enough, on Friday evening my return to Carnegie Hall for the first time this season was for a concert that was not part of their official program, although it was performed by one of the notable local orchestras regularly visiting the Stern Auditorium. As it was, the American Symphony Orchestra and its always probing music director Leon Botstein were presenting "Mimesis: Musical Representations", another typically ambitious program exploring the complex and fascinating connections among music, words and images with the help of an eclectic group of composers that included Gunther Schuller, Henri Dutilleux, Nico Muhly and Richard Strauss. Not exactly light fare for a Friday night, but then again, a little intellectual stimulation before the weekend has never killed anybody.

Although Gunther Schuller is not exactly a household name, he for sure deserves to be with a resume as diverse as illustrious: Horn player, conductor, author, educator, administrator and, obviously, composer. My ignorance about Gunther Schuller was, however, counterbalanced by my bottomless devotion to Paul Klee, and his appearance on the program had more than picked my curiosity. And sure enough, the astonishing variety of the painter's œuvre was to some degree faithfully reflected in the different styles of composer's Seven Studies on Themes of Paul Klee. The diabolically fun "Little Blue Devil" came out gleefully swinging and was an outstanding example of Schuller's "third stream" practice of fusing jazz and classical music. Other highlights were the short-lived, whimsical "Abstract Trio", during which only three instruments played at a time, and the extended, atmospheric "Arab Village", whose quiet exoticism made a nevertheless powerful impression.
Commissioned by the Berlin Philharmonic in 1983 and eventually premiered in 2003 by Simon Rattle and Dawn Upshawn, Henri Dutilleux's song cycle Correspondances focuses the relations between music and words with poems from Rainer Maria Rilke and Prithwindra Mukherjee as well as letters by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn and Vincent Van Gogh. The orchestra handled the wide ranging nature of the texts with commendable subtlety, and if soprano Sophia Burgos was dressed in a demure full-length white lace dress, her fierce singing was anything but. The best had been kept for last, when musicians and singer went all out for a blazing description of Van Gogh's popular masterpiece La nuit étoilée.
There were also plenty of shining stars in Seeing is Believing, Nico Muhly's engaging evocation of, yes, a starry night, featuring endlessly versatile violinist Tracy Silverman and his six-string electric violin. Staying solidly front and center the entire time, the virtuosic soloist delivered a truly inspired and free-spirited performance. The orchestral accompaniment seemed to occasionally lose its way, aimlessly wandering in the vast universe at night, but everything eventually fell into place with purpose and precision.
After paintings, the written word and the cosmos, we moved back in time to philosophy with Also sprach Zarathustra. Inspired by Nietzsche's epic philosophical novel by the same name, Richard Strauss' excessively Romantic tone poem partly owes its worldwide fame to Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey, which cleverly used the spontaneously gripping introduction. A firm believer that music is humankind's highest form of expression, Strauss found in Nietszche's prose the same kind of exalted thoughts and decided to put it in music for posterity. The result is a bold, dramatic and triumphant journey, which on Friday night orchestra and conductor vigorously brought to glorious life. The weekend and my Carnegie Hall season has started well.

Trinity Wall Street - Concerts at One - Salonen & Brahms - 10/15/15

Music Director & Conductor: Julian Wachner
Salonen: Five Images after Sappho
Soprano: Mellissa Hughes
Brahms: Serenade No. 2 in A Major, Op. 16

After another week of slowly exploring with increasing interest my new office's neighborhood, I was happily back in the Trinity Wall Street Church last Thursday for the second Concert at One of the season. Although I will probably not attend all of them, this time I had planned ahead carefully in order to be able to make it for the intriguing pairing of the ever-cool modernist Finnish Essa-Pekka Salonen and the ever-traditional Romantic German Johann Brahms, a combination that promised a blissful hour of instrumental music with the NOVUS NY chamber orchestra and soprano Mellissa Hughes. You gotta give it to Julian Wachner, the church's music director and conductor. Even if part of the audience obviously stumbles across those concerts by chance as they are tirelessly touring the bustling area with backpacks, maps and cameras in tow, he sets the bar high and resolutely keeps it right up there for all music lovers.

For Five Images after Sappho, composer-turned-conductor-turned-composer Essa-Pekka Salonen drew his inspiration from texts by the Greek poet Sappho and came up with a musical journey illustrating the life of a young woman in five short but telling episodes. Salonen being an imaginative composer with a knack for brilliant and accessible music, the vivacious chamber orchestra and the appealing soprano Mellissa Hughes had no trouble making their way through the attractive score to deliver a totally committed and satisfying performance, even if the musicians at times covered the singer's unswerving singing in the beautiful but not acoustically ideal space.
Dedicated to his beloved Clara Schumann, Brahms' Serenade No. 2 is indisputably a mature and impressive work on its own, but it can also be seen as an insightful preview of the magnificent symphonies that were to come much later (Painstaking perfectionism oblige). The Adagio, one of Clara Schumann's favorite musical pieces ever, interestingly acts as the core of the piece, the four other movements developing in a carefully designed palindrome structure around it. Clearly buoyant at the opportunity to play such openly uplifting music, the orchestra of woodwinds and low strings kept on enthusiastically generating plenty of sunny melodies and voluptuous lyricism in the best Brahms tradition. And then it was back to the usual grind, but with a revved-up mind.

Saturday, October 10, 2015

Trinity Wall Street - Concerts at One - Strauss, Martin & Mahler - 10/08/15

Music Director & Conductor: Julian Wachner
Strauss: Der Abend
 Martin: Mass for Double Choir
Mahler: Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen

My office's move from the by now completely gentrified Flatiron District to still evolving Downtown Manhattan a couple of weeks ago has had its fair share of pros and cons, but the bottom line is, if I had to bid a tearful arrivederci to Eataly and its sinful gelatos and hot chocolates, I was thrilled by the sudden opportunity to attend the highly regarded, extremely popular, but until now out of reach, weekly Concerts at One in the beautiful Episcopal Trinity Wall Street Church, which proudly stands at the corner and Broadway and Wall Street, just about one block from our new address.
After experiencing the superb musicianship of the Choir of Trinity Wall Street and its indefatigable music director and conductor Julian Wachner at Carnegie Hall last season, I could only look forward to becoming more acquainted with them on a regular basis. So last Thursday, at 12:55 PM, a small contingent made the executive decision to discreetly leave the office and go bask in the glorious sounds of familiar Richard Strauss and Gustav Mahler, as well as of lesser-known Frank Martin, for the season-opening performance of Concerts at One.

When he was not busy shocking the world with radical operas, Richard Strauss was enthralling it with stunningly beautiful works in the best late Romantic German tradition. Specifically written for a 16-part a cappella choir, "Der Abend" is such a radiant little gem, dreamily describing a peaceful seascape at sunset in all its ever-changing, naturally blazing colors. The feeling of complete perfection was delicately highlighted by the song's delicate textures and the choir's richly lyrical singing, which softly ended in a barely there whisper.
Before moving on to Mahler, another Viennese master of the late Romantic German tradition, we made a memorable detour via multi-cultural Switzerland with Geneva-born Calvinist Frank Martin and his Mass for Double Choir. The composer finished it in 1928 and then purposely left it in the back of his drawer for four decades, thinking that this testament of his relationship to God was too private to be bestowed upon the general public. Luckily for us, he changed his mind, and the world can now enjoy this major, if still under-recognized, 20th century choral masterpiece, whose brilliant combination of Renaissance and modern styles makes it a truly grand achievement. The Choir of Trinity Wall Street did not shy away from the challenge at hand and delivered a performance of remarkable intensity, expertly conveying a myriad of different emotions while unflappably maintaining the work's artistic and spiritual integrity.
The cleverly rounded up program concluded with a solid dose of Mahlerian angst and melancholy with his lieder "Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen", which for the occasion was sung in an arrangement for a 16-part a cappella choir. The atmosphere was not all darkness and gloom though, and beyond the overall poignancy one could decipher a touching ode to solitude and introspection, which was all the more appreciated as we were getting ready to jump back into the crowded streets and frantic pace of the real world outside. We will be back.

Sunday, October 4, 2015

Met - Il Trovatore - 10/03/15

Composer: Giuseppe Verdi
Conductor: Marco Armiliato
Producer: Sir David McVicar
Leonora: Anna Netrebko
Count di Luna: Dmitri Hvorostovsky
Yonghoon Lee: Manrico
Azucena: Dolora Zajick
Fernando: Stefan Kocan

Dmitri's back! And opera-loving New Yorkers are ecstatically swooning. Although I had seen it back in 2009 from the furthest house right upper corner of the Family Circle, there were many reasons for me to attend the revival of Il Trovatore at the Metropolitan Opera yesterday afternoon, including a slightly better seat, the opera's fabulous score, Anna Netrebko daringly stepping into Sondra Radvanovsky's inherently Verdian shoes as Leonora, the silly but still gripping plot involving three storylines overloaded with love, hate, revenge and death, and, last but not least, the iconic – and performed partially shirtless – anvil chorus. All those legitimate incentives, however, paled in comparison to the perspective of getting to enjoy universally beloved Russian baritone Dmitri Hvorostovsky as the scheming Count di Luna again in his last of only three performances as a serious health scare had him essentially clear out most of his professional schedule.
Moreover, Joaquin having decided to make this first October Saturday a gray, cold, wet, and generally miserable one (So much for fall being my favorite season), checking out this oldie but goodie Il Trovatore right down the street in the Met's familiar environment sounded as good as any proposition, and certainly a promising way to kick off my 2015-2016 opera season.

If opera has occasionally been deemed a dying art, it sure did not look like it yesterday in the Met's huge opera house that was packed all the way to the standing room area, where people were busily piling up in two rows, and buzzing with excitement. Happily stuck between a large contingent of chatty Italians who had made a special trip to the island for the occasion and two Russian Babushkas beaming with pride every time one of their country fellowmen was onstage, I could not but be fully aware and grateful for being part of a very special occasion.
When Dmitri Hvorostovsky first appeared onstage the week before, the ovation was so humongous that maestro Armiliato had to stop the orchestra and the baritone briefly acknowledge the rapturous greeting. Well, there was no reason that we could not match, possibly surpass, that audience, and after pulling out all the stops, we did earn our own moment in opera's history too. Fact is, convalescent or not, the man of the moment treated us to another flawlessly poised and desperate Count di Luna, his hauntingly burnished voice shining as beautifully as ever in countless dark hues. Although he was clearly the bad guy, there was most likely not a single dry eye in the entire house after he nailed "Il balen del suo sorriso", his heart-breaking ode to unrequited love.
His long-time colleague and friend Anna Netrebko, in all probability the world's most famous soprano these days, has been adding new and demanding roles to her resume at an impressive pace. For her second foray into Verdian territory, she took on sweet but nevertheless strong-willed Leonora with her trademark intensity and commitment, her magnificent and powerful voice effortlessly filling up the Met's cavernous space with a seemingly endless supply of dazzling sounds. She is still not the most subtle performer out there, but she does know how to carry her points gorgeously across.
Mezzo-soprano Dolora Zajick has pretty much been the Met's go-to Azucena since 1988, and while she could probably do the part in her sleep by now, she was very much awake and kicking yesterday afternoon as the aging gypsy haunted by her past and still seeking revenge after all these years. Just like her character, her singing was fierce and uncompromising.
It had to be mightily intimidating to be the relatively untested fourth element in such an ensemble of seasoned singers, but up-and-coming tenor Yonghoon Lee convincingly held his own and some as Manrico, the mysterious troubadour and leader of the rebel forces. His bright singing, genuinely remarkable in its clear articulation and assured phrasing, combined to a charismatic presence and energy galore, definitely makes him a newcomer to watch closely.
While the singing was, as my live HD broadcast-watching friend Steve so rightly put it, "consistently glorious", the Goya-inspired production, which places the plot during the Spanish Civil War, was its usual drab with the occasional inspired touches, such as the ominous huge crosses looming in the background and the grittiness of the rebels' camp. The transition between the sets was at least very efficient and did wonders with keeping the momentum of the convoluted story going.
But ultimately, the opera's raison d'être is Verdi's unfailingly compelling score, which miraculously keeps on churning out high-flying melodies in an amazingly wide range of styles. Each of the four lead singers gets to belt out devilishly difficult and stunningly beautiful arias that ingenuously contribute to define their characters' emotional truths, emphasize the dramatic twists and turns of the narrative, and simply provide divine musical entertainment. One of the Met's regular conductors, Marco Armiliato led the excellent orchestra in a vibrant and supple performance, which provided the perfect instrumental background for the recurrent electrifying vocal feats.

Chances are most people in the audience yesterday afternoon had originally bought their tickets for Anna Netrebko, but the undisputed star of the show remained Dmitri Hvorostovsky all the way to the curtain call, when he was greeted with not only a roof-raising rock-star ovation, but also a shower of white roses thrown from the orchestra pit. And everybody took their Kleenex out again. Speaking of emotional truth, they had kept the best for last.

Thursday, October 1, 2015

Music Mondays - Christina and Michelle Naughton - Mendelssohn, Adams & Messiaen - 09/28/15

Mendelssohn: Allegro brillante, Op. 92
Adams: Hallelujah Junction
Messiaen: Visions de l'Amen

Another September evening in New York City, another season opening concert, this time in the Upper West Side's lovely and so convenient Advent Lutheran Church for a piano recital by pianists Christina and Michelle Naughton, who were headlining the always intriguing Music Monday series last Monday night. Since graduating from the Juilliard School AND the Curtis Institute of Music (Why stop at one, when you can make it through two of the world’s most prestigious music schools?) the young twin sisters have already built up a truly impressive resume and are clearly showing no signs of slowing down.
Furthermore, Monday's program was a decidedly attractive combination of genres, periods and nationalities that included the German Romantic Felix Mendelssohn, the American contemporary John Adams, and the French mystical Olivier Messiaen. I obviously could not have found a better way to blissfully unwind at the end of my very busy first day as a newly relocated downtown working girl (Wall Street, watch out, here I come!).

Looking eerily and adorably alike, except for their pink and blue flowing tops, Christina and Michelle Naughton sat down at the same piano for Mendelssohn's delightful Allegro brillante. A delicious little bonbon ingeniously served as appetizer, the irrepressibly melodic concert opener happily sparkled with joie de vivre and witticism, the two sisters demonstrating a real osmosis and an impeccable technique in their brightly colored four-hand performance.
Then the two ladies sat down at two pianos facing each other for John Adams' Hallelujah Junction, a highly rhythmical work that distinguishes itself with a brilliantly minimalist, tightly organized chaos that would actually be right at home in a road movie. The pianists dynamically played off each other and proved once again that they were in perfect synchronicity.
The main piece of the evening was Visions de l'Amen, the first piece that Messiaen wrote after being released from a war camp in 1943, and also his first collaboration with Yvonne Loriod, then his student, later his wife and muse. But even without this unique background, Visions de l'Amen mightily stands out for being a grand and austere experience, sweepingly displaying a wide range of emotions on its own terms, taking the time to breathe and follow its natural flow. Facing each other at their own piano again, the duo resolutely dug deep into the work and gave a beautifully heart-felt performance of it, from which emerged random extraordinary moments such as the turmoil of the “Amen des étoiles", the suffering of the "Amen de l'agonie de Jésus", the tenderness turning into passion of the "Amen of Desire", the chirping of the birds and the clanging of the church bells. Just when you thought that New York City could not take another ounce of self-important Catholicism, Olivier Messiaen showed us the way to true spirituality.

The concert had been kind of short, but very challenging for the musicians and extremely satisfying for the audience, so we would have totally understood if the artists had decided to call it a night. But no. They came back with a transcription for two pianos of a stunning funeral cantata by Johann Sebastian Bach, which kept us in an all-encompassing spiritual mood while ending the evening on a flawlessly serene note.