Monday, December 19, 2016

Cantori New York - A Cantori Holiday - 12/17/16

Mark Shapiro: Artistic Director and Conductor 
Elliot Levine: Al Hanissim 
Malcolm Williamson: This Christmas Night 
Mykola Leontovich: Carol of the Bells (Arr. Peter J. Wilhousky) 
Alice Dryden: Banu Choshech 
 Basque Carol: Gabriel's Message (Arr. David Willcocks) 
 G. R. Woordward: Shepherds in the Fields Abiding (Arr. David Willcocks) 
14th Century German Melody: Lo, How the Rose (Arr. M. Praetorius) 
J. Pierpont: Jingle Bells (Arr. David Willcocks) 
Mark Shapiro: Piano 
Kim Gannon & Walter Kent: I'll be home for Christmas (Arr. David Willcocks) 
Hugh Martin & Ralph Blane: Have yourself a Merry Little Christmas (Arr. Ken Neufeld) 
Moses Hogan: Glory, Glory, Glory 
Soloist: Steve Underhill 
German Carol: Kling, Glöckchen, Kling (Arr. Robert Sieving) 
Every Voice Concert Choi
John Rutter: Donkey Carol 
Every Voice Concert Choir 
Folk Melody: Mi Zeh Hidlik (Arr. Elliot Z. Levine) 
Every Voice Concert Choir & women of Cantori 
Solomon Golub: Boruh Ate, Zingt der Tate (Arr. Bill Zulof and Elliot Levine) 
Every Voice Concert Choir & women of Cantori 
French Carol: Noël Nouvelet (Arr. Michael McGlynn) 
Elizabeth Poston: Jesus Christ and the Apple Tree 
Soloist: Sarah Glaser 
Sergei Rachmaninoff: Bogoroditse Devo 
English Carol: The Wassail Song (Arr. R. Vaughan Williams) 
Franz Xaver Biebl: Ave Maria 
Soloists: Ben Haile, Paul Rozario-Falcone 
Trio: Steve Albert, Steve Underhill, Joseph Holly-Beaver 
 Welch Carol: Deck the Hall (Arr. David Willcocks) 
West Country Carol: We Wish You a Merry Christmas (Arr. Arthur Warrell) 
Franz Gruber: Silent Night (Sing Along) 

As a six-year Cantori Holiday veteran, I cannot help but deduct that there is a direct connection between Cantori New York's holiday concert weekend and bad weather. Although it is a tradition that most of us really do not care for (the bad weather, not the holiday concerts), this year again, New York City had to put up with an unappetizing mix of snow and rain, as well as depressing gray skies, pretty much the entire weekend.
That said, it would have taken much more than unfavorable weather conditions to keep the typically packed audience, including a wide range of old and new friends, from gathering in Greenwich Village's Episcopal Church of St. Luke in the Fields to hear the unstoppable ensemble merrily belt out its very own mix of time-honored crowd-pleasers and exciting new additions that never fails to lift up everybody's spirits, regardless of whatever else is going on the world and, let's face it, a lot of not so good stuff has been going on lately.
So after getting into the spirit of winter earlier in the week with Music Mondays' Music of the North program, I was very much looking forward to my one and only  and eager  concession to holiday music of the season on Saturday afternoon. That is, of course, if you exclude the three different versions of "Jingles Bells" I had already had to grit my teeth through on a subway train (four a cappella singers), at Columbus Circle (lone saxophone) and inside the Time Warner Center (jazz recording).

Because Cantori is not your typical choir, they did not kick off their holiday concert with a typical Christmas piece, but with Elliot Levine's "Al Hanissim", a highly melodic, irresistibly infectious Hebrew tune that not only reminded us that music is a universal language that transcends pretty much everything, but that Hanukkah is around the corner too.
The other Hebrew songs of the program were the "Banu Choshech" by former Cantori member Alice Dryden, which sounds more delightful year after year, as well as "Mi Zeh Hidlik" and "Boruh Ate, Zingt der Tate", two immediately engaging works for which the ladies of Cantori joined the special young guests of the evening, the Every Voice Concert Choir.
Scheduled to have their moment in the spotlight right after intermission, the youth choir brought their bright faces, sweet voices, and proud family members filming on their smartphones all over the audience, to the celebration. They completed their endearing short set with more traditional fare such as "Kling, Glöckchen, Kling" from Germany and "Donkey Carol" from England.
The spirit of Christmas was also very much alive and well with Cantori gamely performing the usual suspects, including the hopelessly sentimental classics "This Christmas Night", "I'll be home for Christmas" and "Have yourself a Merry Little Christmas", and the peskily perky carols "Deck the Hall", "We Wish You a Merry Christmas" and, reigning supreme above them all, "Jingle Bells". And it is to Cantori's immense credit that they unfailingly make those endlessly reheated songs not only edible, but fresh and fun too.
Among this Christmassy feast, a few exceptional goodies definitely stood out for me due to their masterful composition (Rachmaninoff's "Bogoroditse Devo" and Biebl's all-male "Ave Maria"), blazing interpretation (Moses Hogan's "Glory, Glory, Glory" and The Wassail Song) or personal childhood memories (G. R. Woordward's "Shepherds in the Fields Abiding").
The concert was concluded with the traditional "Silent Night" sing-along, during which the audience is invited to join Cantori's singers for the first and third verses, while the third one was sung by the choir alone and, maybe because they really wanted to make sure we would not unexpectedly join in, in German.
Last, but not least, the festivities, which included a raffle at intermission, ended with the reliably lively reception during which artists and audience members heartily partied away. Happy holidays!

Saturday, December 17, 2016

Music Mondays - JACK Quartet and Ekmeles - Music of the North - 12/12/16

JACK Quartet 
John Luther Adams: I. Sky with Four Suns from Canticles of the Sky 
Jean Sibelius: The North from Songs for Voice and Piano, Op. 90 
Jean Sibelius: The Bird Catcher from Songs for Voice and Piano, Op. 90 
John Luther Adams: II. Sky with Four Moons from Canticles of the Sky 
Karin Rehnqvist: Davids Nimm 
Marc Sabat: Jean-Philippe Rameau 
Anna Thorvaldsdottir: Hvolf 
John Luther Adams: III. Sky with Nameless Colors from Canticles of the Sky 
Kaija Saariaho: I. II. III. IV. I. from the Grammar of Dreams 
John Luther Adams: IV. Sky with Endless Stars from Canticles of the Sky

 Just as the temperatures were reaching seasonal lows, Music Mondays decided to add their own personal touch to fast approaching winter with some intriguing music from Northern countries such as Iceland, Finland, Sweden and Canada as well as... Alaska. Of course, the fact that those compositions would be performed by the highly regarded JACK Quartet and the exciting newcomer Ekmeles only made the offer even more appealing.
In another commendable decision, the four movements of John Luther Adams’ Canticles of the Sky and Marc Sabat’s Jean-Philippe Rameau, which constituted the instrumental portion of the concert, would be interspersed with the more esoteric vocal pieces by the non-American composers in a continuous one-hour loop that was not to be interrupted by any applause, but enjoyed as an extended winter-celebrating piece.
Last, but not least, despite all the cold weather that has fallen upon us, there is actually no doubt that global temperatures are rising around the world, and Music Mondays pledged to donate one third of all door donations to the National Resources Defense Council, whose increasingly taxing but more necessary than ever task is to fight global warming.
It is hard to go wrong with some good music and a good cause, especially on a dark and cold mid-December Monday evening, so my newly arrived and endlessly curious Parisian colleague Vy An spontaneously decided to join me and a substantial crowd at the Upper West Side's Advent Lutheran Church for a worthy introduction to some of the best that the New York music scene has to offer.

The JACK Quartet has an impeccable track record in adventurous and brilliant playing due to their imperturbable focus on new and challenging works, so it was not surprising to find their name on yet another unusual program. Their spellbinding take on John Luther Adams’ minimalist Canticles of the Sky was subtle and powerful, dexterously emphasizing the stark beauty and ethereal atmosphere of the Alaskan landscape the composer drew inspiration from.
Native Canadian, and current Berlin resident - How about that for cold climate credentials? - Marc Sabat wrote a likewise inconspicuously intense piece about Baroque French composer Jean-Philippe Rameau, which the quartet executed with the same commitment and expertise.
Boldly following the JACK Quartet's steps in the voice-centric world, the new vocal ensemble Ekmeles, whose laudable mission is to bring new and rarely heard works to a wider audience, was represented by three young ladies who were totally unfazed by the often esoteric endeavors they were finding themselves involved in.
The two songs by Sibelius turned out to be the most accessible ones of the evening, "The North" beautifully evoking the rugged landscapes of his native Finland, "The Bird Catcher" bringing to my mind, for better or worse, a slightly less perky Papageno. Then things got trickier and more abstruse with Karin Rehnqvist and her "Davids Nimm", which consisted in a Swedish text that was sung backwards by three fearless singers in an exercise whose novelty wore out fairly quickly.
Iceland was in the house through Anna Thorvaldsdottir and her "Hvolf", a deceptively austere and quietly radiant song for soprano and piano that was short, hypnotic and memorable. The second Finn on the program, the ubiquitous Kaija Saariaho, showed her more experimental side with I. II. III. IV. I. from The Grammar of Dreams, in which texts from Sylvia Plath's novel The Bell Jar and poem "Paralytic" were continuously intermingled by the two voices in a most dreamlike way.
The busy hour went quickly, and we eventually came back to the real world, and the real cold.

Tuesday, December 13, 2016

Met - L'amour de loin - 12/10/16

Composer: Kaija Saariaho 
Librettist: Amin Maalouf 
Conductor: Susanna Mälkki 
Producer/Director: Robert Lepage 
Jaufré Rudel: Eric Owens 
Clémence: Susanna Phillips 
The Pilgrim: Tamara Mumford

 Now that a woman has technically – if not effectively – broken one of the highest glass ceilings of them all (by a couple million more votes and counting), it somehow seems fitting that the Met presents an opera composed by a woman for the second time ever (and over one century after the first one, Ethel Smyth's Der Wald, in 1903), and conducted by a woman for the fourth time ever. And those ladies are not just any composer or conductor either, as Kaija Saariaho has had a long and acclaimed career that is going stronger than ever and Susanna Mälkki has been an increasingly in demand maestra. Makes you wonder what on earth is in the Finnish water...
I actually had a first taste of L'amour de loin back in October at the Park Avenue Armory where Esa-Pekka Salonen conducted the New York Philharmonic and Jennifer Zetlan in "Lohn", and the intriguing experience had left me curious for more. That and the frustrating stinginess of the Met when it comes to new works made this new offering an opportunity I simply could not miss.
So there I was on Saturday afternoon in the not quite filled opera house, getting ready for a performance that was supposed to run two and a half hours, including intermission, which, frankly, was a welcome change after the extended, if worthy, marathons of Tristan und Isolde and Guillaume Tell.

 Fact is, with a minimal plot and only three characters, if you do not count the ubiquitous sea and the sporadically appearing chorus, L'amour de loin really does not need more than a couple of hours to make its point. Inspired by real-life 12th century French Prince of Blaye, also known as the troubadour Jaufré Rudel, and his idealized love for Clémence, Countess of Tripoli, the opera combines several themes such as medieval times and the mysterious nature of love that seem ready-made for Kaija Saariaho's delicately colored and exquisitely ethereal music.
As the prince who had grown tired of the party scene and yearned for more elevated pursuits, bass-baritone Eric Owens conveyed the right amount of inescapable world-weariness and child-like innocence. His voice was dark and his performance earthy, giving much weight to his words and feelings as he was struggling to figure out what to do about this "love from afar". His pouring out his heart to Clémence as he was dying in her arms in the final scene especially showed his genuine gift for raw sensitivity.
Symbolizing an idealized love that is "beautiful without the arrogance for the beauty" is a tough job, but somebody's got to do it, and soprano Susanna Phillips did it extremely well thanks in large part to her luminous presence and radiant singing. Resplendent in a mermaid-like silver dress and naturally flowing dark hair, her Clémence was both surreally beautiful and profoundly human, her agile and limpid voice completely in tune with the music’s complexities.
As the indispensable go-between before modern communication was even thought of, mezzo-soprano Tamara Mumford was the nameless pilgrim, who tirelessly brought messages in person to the distant lovers. Her poised and gorgeous voice was a pure pleasure to listen to, and her singing Jaufré's poems to Clémence in Act II had to be one of the most memorable moments of the entire afternoon.
As usual, the Met chorus brilliantly contributed to the performance, whether as a haunting background during a raging storm, Jaufré fun-loving buddies or Clémence's fancy entourage, never mind that they looked like cute little water goblins bobbing up and down the waves, which from time to time became a (presumably unintended) comical distraction.
The fourth bona fide character was the sea separating the star-crossed lovers, and if it did not utter any sound, it sure had a mesmerizing visual presence throughout the opera. Made of thousands of LED lights, dozens of strings extended across the entire stage twinkling, changing colors and shifting shapes to create natural elements such as swelling waves and golden sunsets as well as emphasize emotional highs and lows. As dazzlingly shimmering as the music, the sea also cleverly prevented even the most static moments from becoming lifeless.
But all was not uniformly well on the stage as apparently director Robert Lepage just cannot stay away from big machinery, even if that got him in plenty of trouble a few years ago with his absurdly costly and widely derided "Ring" cycle. This time he settled for one mobile staircase for the characters to occasionally perch on, walk on and generally move around on. It may have been convenient as an all-purpose prop, but it was downright ugly and inappropriately stood out on the otherwise stylishly unfussy set.
The other misfire in my view was having Clémence spontaneously jump around the waves like a dolphin on her way to make her first (imaginary) appearance to a delirious Jaufré. While her official appearance standing up behind his boat made for a sizzling tableau that turned into an instant classic and, not so incidentally, a promotional image, her getting there half-flying, half-swimming looked decidedly awkward and was, all things considered, really not necessary.
Two reliable sources of mine had informed me that the second part would be better than the first, and I, along with a couple of patrons I over-heard on my way out, whole-heartedly agree. The first three acts moved at an uneven pace, which had as much to do with the score as with the production, while the last two acts had mercifully much more dramatic power. For those of us who fully stepped into the composer’s esoteric world and stuck around after intermission, there was ultimately plenty of poetic justice to be savored.
In true Saariaho fashion, the score was a resolutely minimalist, deeply atmospheric and inconspicuously seductive combination of myriads of timbres, textures, colors and harmonies that subtly evoked the Middle Ages, exotic lands, uncontrollable longings, confusing emotions and the quest for ideal love. Nobody left the opera house humming an infectious melody, but there was plenty of conventional lyricism to be enjoyed.
Due to its refined nature, the music could have easily come out monotonous or mushy in lesser hands. However, under the precise and assertive baton of Susanna Mälkki, the Met orchestra, which always seems to strive on new challenges, gave an intelligently scintillating performance, making sure that all the tiny details came through crystal clear while still keeping the integrity of the whole piece intact. The voyage may not have been constantly smooth sailing, but it had been different and rewarding.

Saturday, December 3, 2016

Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra - Glanert & Mahler - 11/30/16

Conductor: Semyon Bychkov 
Detlev Glanert: Theatrum bestiarum, Songs and Dances for Large Orchestra 
Mahler: Symphony No. 5 in C-sharp Minor 

 After indulging in a glorious Resurrection by the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra in their Amsterdam home back in September, I simply had to try to relive the magical experience last Wednesday night in New York's Carnegie Hall, where they were appearing under the baton of Semyon Bychkov for Mahler's sprawling Symphony No. 5, which could be succinctly described as the composer's first complete mature work. After all, one can never get too much Mahler, especially when it is performed by such subject matter experts.
And just to add a bit of novelty to the program, the main attraction would be preceded by the New York premiere of Theatrum bestiarum by Detlev Glanert, a tone poem partly inspired by the composer's own opera Caligula, and more generally by Mahler and Shostakovich. One more reason to go out in that miserable rainy evening at the end of that miserable rainy day.

 Detlev Glanert's Theatrum bestiarum owes its fancy title to the "zoo of human beings" it describes, and sure enough, on Wednesday night the raucous menagerie came out as an intriguing combination of dark undertones, grotesque images and captivating colors. Boldly opening with a mighty 25-note chord and consisting of a single 20-minute movement, the composition burst with beguiling music that not only never stopped flowing, but also kept the audience riveted with its surprisingly wide range of often surreal, always imaginative sounds.
We moved on to another somber and strangely hypnotic place after the intermission when the first notes of Mahler's Symphony No. 5 assertively filled the Stern auditorium. Gorgeously dark and starkly foreboding, the funeral march unfolded with gravity and grandeur thanks to a tightly unified orchestra that knew exactly where it was going. A pause was introduced before the Allegro, but even this unexpected break did not kill the momentum, and the music quickly resumed with plenty of vigor and wilderness.
The expansive Scherzo exploded with chaotic energy and unrestrained exuberance before the achingly beautiful Adagietto, Mahler's stunning love letter to his young wife Alma, magnificently soared with poignant tenderness. Love had finally conquered all, and the feat was celebrated with the de rigueur fireworks all the way to the breathless, life-affirming grand finale.
The journey had been intensely dramatic without being sentimental, the orchestra had been technically flawless and emotionally involved, Semyon Bychkov had remained in full control but cleverly unobtrusive, and the composition remains one of the repertoire's timeless masterpieces. Even the rain that was still relentlessly falling as we were exiting did not managed to dampen our elevated spirits. The Concertgebouw and Mahler had ruled the night.

Sunday, November 20, 2016

White Light Festival - Jeremy Denk - Medieval to Modern - 11/16/16

Machaut: Doulz amis, oy mon compleint 
Binchois: Triste plaisir et douloureuse joie 
Ockeghem: Kyrie, from Missa prolationum 
Du Fay: Franc cuer gentil, sur toutes gracieuse 
Josquin: Kyrie, from Missa “Pane lingua” 
Byrd: A Voluntarie, from My Ladye Nevells Booke of Virginal 
Gesualdo: O dolce mio tesoro 
Monteverdi: Zefiro torna e di soave accenti, SV 251 
Scarlatti: Sonata in B-flat Major, K.545 
Bach: Chromatic Fantasia and Fugue in D Minor, BWV 903 
Mozart: Andante, from Sonata No. 5 in G Major, K.283 
Beethoven: Allegro molto e con brio, from Sonata No. 5 in C Minor, Op. 10 
Schumann: In der Nacht, from Fantasiestücke, Op. 12, No. 5 
Chopin: Prelude in C Major, Op. 28, No. 1 
Chopin: Prelude in A Minor, Op. 28, No. 2 
Liszt: Liebestod, from Tristan und Isolde 
Brahms: Intermezzo in B Minor, from Klavierstücke, Op. 119, No. 1 
Schoenberg: Mäßige Viertel, from Three Piano Pieces, Op. 11, No. 1 
Debussy: Reflets dans l’eau, from Images, Série 1 
Stravinsky: Piano-Rag-Music 
Stockhausen: Klavierstücke I 
Glass: Étude No. 2 
Ligeti: Autumn in Warsaw, from Études, Book I 
Binchois: Triste plaisir et douloureuse joie 

 Being a technically flawless and emotionally expressive – not to mention delightfully entertaining – performer is already a blessing not bestowed upon just any musician, and being on top of it a brilliant writer, talented composer, ambitious programmer and engaging presenter is even rarer, but New York pianist Jeremy Denk has proved many times over that he could handle it all without any noticeable fuss.
And the ever-inquisitive music man did it again on Wednesday night in a Alice Tully Hall packed with an obviously very dedicated and genuinely excited audience, when he closed Lincoln Center's White Light Festival with an 80-minute, break-free series of 23 works spanning six centuries entitled "Medieval to Modern", the appealing experience being heightened by insightful program notes, a good-humored introduction, and occasionally faulty but generally helpful surtitles above the stage.

The concert opened with probably the least-known works, secular and religious compositions that were some of the greatest hits of the Middle Age and Renaissance and that Denk played with much conviction and sensitivity in his own arrangements for the modern piano.
After attractive madrigals by Gesualdo and Monteverdi, we happily entered blazingly virtuosic territory with Scarlatti's perky Sonata in B-flat Major, K.545, before fully indulging into Bach's Chromatic Fantasia and Fugue in D Minor, BWV 903. As it was, the longest piece of the program also turned out to be one of the most memorable peaks of the evening not only because it symbolized the beginning of a new era, but also because its impeccable rendition effortlessly conveyed the outstanding structure and the emotional power of the composition.
The transition to Mozart was seamless, and the subtly lyrical Andante from his Sonata No. 5 in G Major sounded remarkably fresh and inherently elegant, in true Mozartian fashion. It was followed by a surprisingly subdued but still totally fitting submission for Beethoven in the beautifully lilting Allegro molto e con brio from his Sonata No. 5 in C Minor.
Schumann and Chopin kept the Romantic mood alive before Liszt and his soaring transcription of "Liebestod" from Wagner's Tristan und Isolde imposed itself as one of the undisputed highlights of the concert with the right combination of intensity and finesse. It was followed by a nice, but in truth unnecessary, intermezzo by Brahms.
A momentous break came next with Schoenberg's "Mäßige Viertel" from Three Piano Pieces, in which tonality shockingly disappeared and endless possibilities suddenly emerged, making a logical progression of the modern portion of the program impossible, but a scrumptious, wide-ranging bouquet of random goodies most welcome.
So we got to fully indulge in Debussy's delicately colored "Reflets dans l’eau" before Stravinsky's wildly rhythmical "Piano-Rag-Music" unexpectedly and unceremoniously jolted us out of our rêverie. In Denk's expertly adapting hands, Stockhausen's "Klavierstücke I" probably sounded as boldly radical on Wednesday night as it did back in 1952. It was cleverly followed by the perfect antidote to controlled chaos that is Glass' quintessentially minimalist Étude No. 2.
One last modern serving was Ligeti's festive "Autumn in Warsaw" before we moved right back to the troubadour lament of Binchois' "Triste plaisir et douloureuse joie". We had pretty much come full circle is this by default incomplete tour of Western music history, therefore our music-packed evening ended with an extended ovation and, regretfully but understandably, no encore.

Monday, November 14, 2016

International Brazilian Opera Company - The Seventh Seal (Act I) - 11/12/16

Composer: João MacDowell 
Conductor: Néviton Barros 
Olga Bakaki: Death 
Nelson Ebo: The Knight Antonius Block 
Melanie Ashkar: The Squire Jons 
Heejae Kim: The Actor Jof 
Alexandra Filipe: The Actress Mia 
Shana Grossman: The Witch Tyan 
Daniel Klein: The Monk Raval

After a couple of trips to the Metropolitan Opera to attend grand-scale performances in its huge house, I found the perfect way to downsize with the small but feisty International Brazilian Opera Company, which had put together a chamber music concert presenting Act I of The Seventh Seal, an opera adaptation of Ingmar Bergman's classic – and incidentally one of my favorite films ever  by João MacDowell, one of Brazil's most widely eclectic music composers, who had already dabbed into Bergman’s œuvre with an opera adaption of Cries and Whispers.
The intriguing proposition would take place in the pleasantly intimate concert hall of the Scandinavian House, which of course meant that I had to venture into Midtown on a Saturday night after an especially busy day. That was definitely no small sacrifice, but curiosity and optimism prevailed.

The Seventh Seal is unquestionably one of world cinema's most admired films whose most iconic scenes, such as The Knight playing chess with Death on the beach and the final Dance of Death, have been parodied many times over, including by dedicated connoisseurs as disparate as Woody Allen and The Monty Python. Taking place in a medieval Sweden devastated by the plague, featuring strongly symbolic characters, daring theatricality, dark humor, as well as universal themes such as existentialism, obscurantism, religion and death, the original film offers many possibilities to composers intrepid enough to tackle it, and on Saturday night a sizable crowd was on hand to see how the work was coming along.
Memorable characters require outstanding singers, and we sure had them in the international cast that had been gathered, starting with Greek soprano Olga Bakali, whose poised and powerful voice made her a stark, unforgiving and impenetrable Death. She quickly found a worthy adversary in the weary Knight Antonius Block, who was immortalized on the screen by a young Max von Sydow, and on Saturday night was persuasively impersonated by sternly intense Angolan tenor Nelson Ebo.
Mezzo-soprano Melanie Ashkar was a delightfully expressive Squire Jons, the ultimate witty bon vivant, as she skillfully bantered and sparred with The Knight. Korean tenor Heejae Kim and Brazilian soprano Alexandra Filipe formed a totally endearing young couple of artists as The Actor Jof and The Actress Mia. American soprano Shana Grossman was devilishly good as The Witch Tyan, and American bass-baritone Daniel Klein exuded appropriate grim authority as The Monk Raval.
The singers were uniformly talented, each in their own way, but also had the capacity to come together and organically constitute a coherent ensemble. A few of them even got to indulge in special feats such as Death and The Witch belting out commanding flights of lyricism, or Jof and Mia turning their love duet into a bona fide rock song, in which João MacDowell’s certified pop credentials shone brightly. The rhythmical screams of pain uttered by the leader of the procession were as distressing as necessary, and the scene concluded in a rousing choral finale.
The compelling score, which was scaled down to chamber music level for the concert, was immediately engaging. Its multiple colors cleverly conveyed the austere expressionism the film is famous for, the melodies having been directly inspired by the Swedish dialogs from the original script. The ominous dark lines from the cello and the eerily bluesy contributions from the trumpet effectively created a subtly ghostly atmosphere. The percussion provided a wide range of usual and unusual sounds, such as whistling winds and spooky rattling, while the perky banjo added authenticity and light-heartedness to the bohemian episode.
The adventure lasted only over an hour and left us wanting more. Act II should be ready next year, and the full opera in 2018. If Act I is any indication, the result is going to be worth the wait.

Sunday, November 13, 2016

Berlin Philharmonic - Schoenberg, Webern, Berg & Brahms - 11/10/16

Conductor: Sir Simon Rattle 
Schoenberg: Five Pieces for Orchestra, Op. 16 
Webern: Six Pieces for Orchestra, Op. 6b 
Berg: Three Pieces for Orchestra, Op. 6 
Brahms: Symphony No. 2 in D Major, Op. 73 

In the nick of time! For way too long many good and not so good reasons had kept me from attending performances conducted by the one and only Sir Simon Rattle. This season, however, promised to be different as I was traveling to his current musical fief of Berlin in September and I had a ticket for a performance of Tristan und Isolde he would be conducting in New York in October. 
Alas! Turned out that he was not conducting his Berlin Philharmonic when I was in the German capital because he was getting the Met orchestra ready for Tristan und Isolde in the Big Apple, and I was not able to attend Tristan und Isolde as originally planned because I would have been an undesirable coughing patron (I must admit, though, that I probably still benefited from his masterly touch when basking in the majestic performance of the orchestra he had trained to perfection).
On the other hand, I was not about to give up while the man was still in town. Therefore, as the end of his extended and busy New York residency was looming, I cleared my schedule and scored one of the last coveted tickets to his last performance ever conducting the Berlin Philharmonic as their artistic director at Carnegie Hall. The brainy and appealing program included classics from the Second Viennese School and Brahms’ Symphony No. 2, and the venue could not feel more like home, so it definitely looked like the curse was about to be lifted in the most memorable way possible.

In an obvious case of occasionally hard to wallow vegetables before a luscious dessert, the first part of the program was dedicated to masterpieces of the Second Viennese School. Before the concert started, Simon Rattle informed the sold-out and particularly eclectic audience that the works from Schoenberg, Webern and Berg would be played as a single piece  possibly Mahler’s 11th symphony  and asked us to refrain from applauding until the end, at which point, he quickly added with deadpan aplomb, it would be “just fine”.
So we dutifully kept quiet throughout all 14 movements, seamlessly moving from Arnold Schoenberg’s resolutely bold Five Pieces for Orchestra, Op. 16, to Anton Webern’s eerily transparent Six Pieces for Orchestra, Op. 6b, to Alban Berg’s tension-filled Three Pieces for Orchestra, Op. 6, the differences between the three composers establishing themselves organically as the journey through early 20th century Vienna ineluctably progressed.
The first shock wave from the ground-breaking movement came with Schoenberg, whose exploration of the subconscious led to compositions that essentially left out tonality and melodies while still managing to vividly express ideas and emotions. Years ago my introduction to his œuvre was Pierrot Lunaire, which I found stunningly off-putting, followed a few months later by Verklärte Nacht, which I found stunningly beautiful. On Thursday night, the wide range of unpredictable sounds, subtle colors and elusive concepts of his Five Pieces for Orchestra was meticulous articulated and dexterously rendered for a totally engaging opener.
Anton Webern, one of Schoenberg’s most gifted students, was next with six spell-binding miniatures whose main characteristic was to pack a mightily effective punch in their incredibly tiny size. Fearlessly minimalist, delicately poetic and endlessly surprising, Six Pieces for Orchestra had the audience’s intrigued attention continually perked up as they kept coming up with fleeting images such as a sweet lullaby, a dark haunted house and a grim funeral march. Performed with cool finesse and infallible precision, the shortest and quietest episode of the triptych ended up being its most eloquent.
Alban Berg, the other fiercely gifted student of Schoenberg’s, brought us to the finish line with his intellectually stimulating, but more readily accessible Three Pieces for Orchestra. The playing got markedly more muscular, but never lost its unwavering attention to detail, and assuredly transported us through the impressionistic "Prelude", the agitated "Round Dance" and the resounding "March". Mahler would have certainly approved. As for me, the orchestra's exceptionally brilliant performance was a revelation. While I have admired and respected the movement and the works associated to it, on Thursday night I found myself genuinely enjoying the entire 50-minute experience.
After intermission, Brahms’ majestic Symphony No. 2 sounded even more richly lyrical than usual, its rigorously crafted structure receiving the royal treatment from an orchestra that clearly could do no wrong. Simon Rattle had the musicians at his fingertips and drew a grandly sweeping, expertly polished and superbly nuanced performance from them. Although it is a repertoire staple that they all have probably played multiple times, they stayed away from cruise control and effortlessly succeeded in keeping the music joyful, fresh and engaging. And they have our bottomless gratitude for bringing two hours of direly needed escapism, beauty, solace and hope into a seriously distressing week.

Wednesday, November 9, 2016

Cantori New York & Musicatreize - Moultaka, Petrossian, Ohana & Primosch - 11/06/16

Conductor: Roland Hayrabedian 
Zad Moultaka: Ikhtifa 
Michel Petrossian: Horae quidem cedunt 
Maurice Ohana: Swan Song 
Musicatreize & Cantori New York 
Conductor: Mark Shapiro 
James Primosch: Mass for the Day of St. Thomas Didymus

Although I had the best intentions in the world, a schedule packed with can't-miss performances made me regretfully miss Cantori New York's turn in Daphnis et Chloé with the American Ballet Theater (Although I probably would not have been able to hear them much anyway considering the notoriously subpar acoustics of the Koch Theater), and then their first official concert of the season with Musicatreize, the French professional vocal ensemble they had partnered with during their whirlwind and intense concert series in Marseille back in 2013, when the city was one of the European capitals of culture, because I had to put myself through Guillaume Tell again, and make it the end this time. Therefore, I had to contend myself with the deuxième on Sunday evening as opposed to the première on Saturday evening.
That's when after three long years the American choir finally got to not only host to their fellow French choir, but also to join them for Mass for the Day of St. Thomas Didymus by James Primosch, after Musicatreize had performed an intriguing program on their own in the cavernous Saint Ignatius of Antioch Episcopal Church, which is not only beautiful but, as luck would have it, also happens to be located a few blocks from my apartment. It could not get much better than that.

The concert opened with a nostalgic trip down memory lane all the way to the South of France with Zad Moultaka’s Ikhtifa, which Musicatreize had already performed during their concert with Cantori in Marseille. Complex, atmospheric, whimsical, and making clever use of the Arabic language, once again Ikhtifa (Disappearance) offered a unique and hypnotic musical experience as seemingly random sounds uttered by the singers were playing off one another, coming together to constitute a fascinating whole during the first half and shooting off in myriad directions, in particular once the singers had moved to various locations around the audience, during the second half. Some pieces just never get old.
Next, Michel Petrossian’s Horae quidem cedunt, which was originally the accompanying score to the 1972 film by Armenian cineaste and poet Artavazd Péléchian The Seasons, is a stark homage to landmarks in Armenian history expressed through texts by Virgil, Philippe Mahaud, Cicero, The Old Testament and the composer himself that are sung in French, Russian, Latin and Ancient Hebrew. On Sunday, the endless variations of the voices, on their own or together, in which East met West, somberly evoked the hard life of the Armenian people migrating according to nature’s and history’s demands and toiling the ever-present land throughout the unalterable cycle of the seasons. Poetic, earthy and sung to perfection, the musical journey was gratefully taken and enjoyed.
Maurice Ohana’s Swan Song is an atypical requiem that keeps on fighting death in the course of four movements before triumphantly winning. The opening "Drone" was a dense, colorful and energetic incantation made of countless different phonemes, from which a single voice occasionally sprang out. In sharp contrast, "Eleis", a Negro spiritual sung in Creole English, was overflowing with rich harmonies and compelling solo turns. Inspired by the French poet Ronsard's "À son âme", "Épitaphe" was lighter fare, but still pondering mortality, before "Mambo" wrapped things up by chasing death off in a strongly rhythmical Afro-Cuban dialect. Wildly eclectic yet totally coherent, Swan Song strongly emphasized the tremendous vocal range, impeccable clarity and laser-sharp precision of Musicatreize’s singers.
After intermission, Musicatreize and Cantori New York joined their mighty forces for the New York premiere of James Primosch’s Mass for the Day of St. Thomas Didymus, for which Roland Hayrabedian passed the baton to Mark Shapiro. After the resolutely bold, at times coming from exceptionally far out left field, vocal experiments we had just heard, the openly beautiful and profoundly stirring mass spontaneously engaged the audience as it was confidently unfolding its adroit combination of traditional liturgy literature and Mass-inspired text by English poet Denise Levertov.
Throughout the five movements, the four soloists from Musicatreize superbly sang the excerpts from the Latin Mass while the combined choirs, stalwartly open-minded but definitely no fool, soulfully reflected on them in magnificent unison. With truly uplifting music and brilliantly written poems, this contemporary mass grandly stood out for its winning spirit of collaboration, a healthy dose of skepticism and a universal sense of humanity, all of which are unfortunately needed more than ever now that The Apocalypse – not to mention national embarrassment – are officially upon us.

Sunday, November 6, 2016

Met - Guillaume Tell - 11/05/16

Composer: Gioachino Rossini 
 Conductor: Fabio Luisi 
 Director: Pierre Audi 
 Guillaume Tell: Gerald Finley 
 Arnold: Bryan Hymel 
Mathilde: Marina Rebeka 
Jemmy: Janai Brugger 
Gesler: John Telyra 
Melcthal: Kwangchul Youn

The Swiss have won! One week and seven hours after the Metropolitan Opera was evacuated during the second intermission of Guillaume Tell because somebody thought it was a good idea to scatter a suspicious powder, which was in fact cremated ashes, in the orchestra pit, I was back in the opera house last night and got to make it to the long-awaited – and happy – ending. Unlike a fellow companion in frustration who just came back for the fourth act, I had decided to treat myself to the whole thing again because, why not?

This second viewing, which did include the fourth act, did not change my original assessment of glorious music and uneven production, but allowed me to happily dwell into some of the most memorable arias, such as Gerald Finley's quietly heart-breaking advice to his son "Sois immobile". Even better, the short final act turned out to be nothing less than the grandly sweeping and divinely inspired denouement that the audience deserved after a four-hour performance that, let's face it, occasionally dragged.
But there was no chance that our minds would wander after the second intermission. The music and voices kept on gorgeously soaring in what was essentially a one-man show for Bryan Hymel, who impeccably nailed "Asile héréditaire" with plenty of emotional power and high-flying notes, with a brilliant guest-starring appearance by the chorus, who got the last word of the evening when magnificently belting out their roaring hymn to "Liberty" while bathed in a bright sunny glow. And then, at last, there was closure.

Saturday, November 5, 2016

New York Philharmonic - Bartok, Bruch & Dvorak - 11/01/16

Conductor: Pablo Heras-Casado 
Bartok: Dance Suite, BB86a 
Bruch: violin Concerto No. in G Minor, Op. 26 - Frank Huang 
Dvorak: Symphony No. 7 in D Minor, Op. 70 

 When I went to the "Insight in the Atrium: An evening with Concertmaster Frank Huang" organized by the New York Philharmonic a couple of weeks ago, it was more of a spur-of-the-moment decision than a long-planned outing. But I ended up having a really wonderful time listening to the downright charming young musician talk about his already brilliant career and share his thoughts about music in general and the Bruch violin concerto, which he was going to perform the following week, in particular.
Even more importantly, hearing a couple of recorded excerpts of the Bruch violin concerto and Huang's personal take on them made me realize what an appealing work it is and how much I had missed hearing it. So I did what any other commonsensical person would have done and I bought a ticket for one of his concerts, whose program also included works from East European natives and sometimes New Yorkers Bela Bartok and Anton Dvorak.

The name of Bela Bartok is always a welcome sight on any program, and the "Dance Suite" that opened the concert was predictably brilliant and fun. Dynamic conductor Pablo Heras-Casado did wonder leading the orchestra in a delightfully upbeat performance of the six short movements, and we all felt all the better for it.
Then came the moment I had come for, and I was pleased – although not surprised – to see and hear for myself that Frank Huang had no problem going from the concertmaster's chair to the soloist's spotlight, which he had successfully occupied in the past, for the occasion. His approach to the Bruch concerto was collaborative, direct and loving, letting his violin happily sing the richly lyrical melodies while still instilling enough depth into his playing to make the performance multi-faceted and exciting. His virtuosity is not of the flashy kind, but it is quietly and efficiently riveting, and the huge ovation he got from the audience and the orchestra made one thing clear: Everybody loves Frank!
Probably having had their full of dazzling music for the evening, quite a few people did not come back after the intermission, and it was their loss because Pablo Heras-Casado and the orchestra had an infectiously grand time with Dvorak's Symphony No. 7. The ubiquitous Czech master is not one of those composers whose name I avidly search on orchestra season programs, but then again, when I happen to hear one of his works live, I suddenly realize what I was missing.
That said, I am the first to admit that with its somber mood, engaging melodies and stark rigor, his seventh symphony is not only a heart-felt tribute to Brahms, and also a powerful statement by a strong individual voice that has learned many important lessons from his distinguished master and is now boldly and successfully moving on on his own. The orchestra played it with much enthusiasm and savoir-faire, and we all thoroughly enjoy it. So glad I stayed.

Friday, November 4, 2016

White Light Festival - London Symphony Orchestra - Verdi - 10/30/16

Verdi: Messa da Requiem 
Conductor: Gianandrea Noseda 
London Symphony Chorus 
Danielle Barcellona: Mezzo-soprano 
Giorgio Berrugi: Tenor 
Erika Grimaldi: Soprano 
Vitali Kowaljow: Bass

 After Giaochino Rossini last Saturday afternoon, I eagerly moved to Giuseppe Verdi on Sunday afternoon as the London Symphony Orchestra was in town to perform the latter’s magnificent Requiem. Dedicated to Italian poet Allessandro Manzoni, but also including an updated version of "Libera Me", which the composer had written for a Requiem in honor of Rossini that was never completed, and my favorite "Dies Irae" ever, Verdi’s Requiem was a totally appropriate and most welcome addition to the Lincoln Center’s annual White Light Festival.
Last Sunday was as unseasonably hot and muggy as could be for late October, so I actually got to double my pleasure by enjoying a cold Mister Softee ice-cream on the Lincoln Center’s Hearst Plaza alone and Verdi’s red-hot Requiem inside the David Geffen Hall with my friend Christine, the enjoyment only being slightly compromised by the cranked-up AC that was mercilessly blowing on us in the back of the orchestra, but we tried not to let such a minor detail unduly bother us and focused on the music instead.

 When it comes to an irresistible mix of spirituality and theatricality, nothing that I know of has ever beaten the glorious fireball that is Verdi’s Requiem. And with the prestigious London Symphony Orchestra and Chorus – Not to mention Verdi aficionado Gianandrea Noseda on the podium – Judgment Day Verdi-style turned out as uncompromisingly intense as one could have hoped for, and then some.
While Verdi was not a religious man, he still managed to cleverly extract the most dramatic portions of the inevitably yawn-inducing Roman Catholic funeral mass and matched them to a truly grand score, in which he made sure to incorporate some blazing parts for the chorus and carefully calibrated parts for the soloists. The end result never fails to immediately catch the listener’s attention by exploding with ferocious flamboyance while still letting more subtle human emotions beautifully blossom.
So on Sunday afternoon, the audience was transported in one swell swoop into a musical version of the after-life that was impressively broad in scope and profusely high in color. Although Verdi’s Requiem is well-known for its fierce spirit, which is displayed at its best in the electrifying "Dies Irae", it also contains quite a few elegiac moments, such as "The Lux Aeterna" movement, which were delicately expressed as well.
The four soloists, in particular, kept busy alone and together with complex parts, and all carried out their assignments with commitment and poise. Special kudos should be directed at tenor Giorgio Berrugi, who was a last-minute replacement, but did not let the short notice get in the way of delivering a confident performance.
Beside drawing excellent performances from all the instrumentalists and singers involved – and there were a lot of them –maestro Noseda also has to be commended for keeping a consistently excellent balance among all those various fired-up components of the superb whole, ensuring that we would all enjoy as full an experience as can be, and that we did. Even the raging downpour we had to contend with as we were exiting the concert hall did not succeed in dampening our seriously elevated spirits.

Monday, October 31, 2016

Met - Guillaume Tell (Minus Act IV) - 10/29/16

Composer: Gioachino Rossini 
Conductor: Fabio Luisi 
Director: Pierre Audi 
Guillaume Tell: Gerald Finley 
Arnold: Bryan Hymel 
Mathilde: Marina Rebeka 
Jemmy: Janai Brugger 
Gesler: John Telyra 
Melcthal: Kwangchul Youn 

As if spending over four hours in the Metropolitan Opera for the second time in a single week were not enough excitement, I had to pick the Saturday matinee where some unexpected real-life drama would unquestionably surpass the onstage performance when a certified dimwit decided to throw some powder, which later turned out to be cremated ashes, in the orchestra pit during the second intermission of Guillaume Tell. This prompted the management to cancel the rest of the performance as well as the evening performance of L'Italiana in Algeri, the police to launch an investigation, the media to report the incident, and me to renounce forever my long-held and deeply cherished belief that music is good for the brain.
My weekend had started rather innocuously though, an ordinary Saturday with a not so ordinary  but not unheard of either  starting time of 12 PM for the Met's new production of Rossini's Guillaume Tell, which the company is offering for the first time in 85 years, and for the first time ever in the original French version. Curiosity toward this infrequently performed opera, the opportunity to hear the famous overture in context, and Gerald Finley – Need I say more? – had enticed me and many others to go buy a ticket already.

Guillaume Tell is mostly known for its ambitious scope and for being Rossini's last opera, although the rich and famous composer lived la dolce vita to the fullest for another 39 years, leaving behind him 39 operas for the world to enjoy. With bucolic yet occupied Switzerland as background, the rough Middle Ages as time period, the virtuous fight for the homeland, revenge for one's father murder, a problematic love story and, of course, the most memorable archery feat in opera history, Guillaume Tell had all the ingredients to be a ground-breaking epic, and sure enough became one.
As the battered but unbroken hero of the story, Canadian bass-baritone Gerald Finley was as noble and warm-hearted as they come. His voice may not be huge, but it is superbly expressive and he had total control over it as he was flawlessly navigating his extensive range. With a scruffy beard and a high-priest dress, he was an unwavering anchor against the occupants, his presence never less than quietly powerful even when he was just discreetly standing by the side of the stage.
American tenor Bryan Hymel was an endearing Arnold, the impetuous young Swiss who falls in love with the enemy and spends quite a bit of highly melodic time agonizingly torn between homeland and love. With a robust voice and high notes effortlessly reaching unsuspecting altitudes, he had the spontaneity of youth, but still enough emotional maturity to be genuinely distraught by his dire political and sentimental situation.
His paramour, Mathilde, was certainly worth of attention as Latvian soprano Marina Rebeka sang the part with plenty of inner strength and vocal power, occasionally throwing in some impressive acrobatics without batting an eyelid. But she also knew when to turn down the heat for a heart-breaking "Pour notre amour, plus d’espérance" as she was realizing that their budding love was doomed.
Smaller parts were well provided for too. Although I don't think I'll ever get used to trouser roles, I found that young American soprano Janai Brugger was a very convincing Jemmy, Tell's mature-beyond-his-years son. Canadian bass-baritone John Telyra was a mercilessly menacing Gesler, in strong contrast with South Korean bass Kwangchul Youn, who was a wonderfully wise Melcthal.
Needless to say, the other star of the opera was the Met's unstoppable chorus, who just kept on brilliantly singing the technically challenging choral numbers with their customary commitment and excellence. If there are any composers that the ever-versatile ensemble cannot handle, the Met has not found them yet.
The same praise can be directed at the indefatigable orchestra, who first delighted the audience with a fleet-footed overture that received an enthusiastic ovation before throwing themselves whole-heartedly into Rossini's beautifully crafted score, which expertly blends Italian bel canto and French grand style through attractive melodies, high-flying fireworks, emotionally charged arias, appealing dance numbers and plenty of good old drama to go around. Fabio Luisi, who by now has a downright seamless and highly productive relationship with the musicians, proved one more time what a priceless asset he is to the Met.
At the risk of sounding like a broken record, I have to state that here too, if the music and singing were of the highest caliber, the staging left quite a bit to be desired. Granted, the sheer magnitude of Guillaume Tell, its convoluted story, numerous crowd scenes, not to mention a boat and a lake to come up with somehow, do not help. So going the abstract way does not necessarily sound like a bad idea as long as the director knows where he is going.
In this case, I thought that less was definitely more, and while I generally enjoyed the minimalist tableaux, bathed as they were in elegiac blue shades, their subtle charm was immediately and permanently broken as soon as unsightly and perplexing elements such as high wooden structures with large slabs of rock at the top or three poles brightly lit up with more slabs of rock across their tops made their appearance and kept coming back, their raison d'être far from being obvious.
There were some peculiar directing choices too, like when in Act III a couple of black gown-clad dominatrix suddenly showed up out of the blue with a group of equally black-clad aristocrats straight out of the Habsburg empire, and started dancing and whipping the medieval peasants around during one of the dance numbers in a silly time-warp moment. As a symbol of Austrian oppression over Swiss villagers (I guess), this felt heavy-handed and awkward.

So we did not get to see the fourth act, which is especially infuriating because we had made it that far, it is short and it has some of the best stuff in it. But there is no rest even for the weary opera buffs, and I will be back in the Metropolitan Opera house for another  hopefully complete  performance of Guillaume Tell on Saturday evening. To be continued...

Thursday, October 27, 2016

Met - Tristan und Isolde - 10/24/16

Composer/Librettist: Richard Wagner 
Conductor: Asher Fisch 
Producer/Director: Mariusz Treliński 
Isolde: Nina Stemme 
Tristan: Stuart Skelton 
Brangäne: Ekaterina Gubanova 
King Marke: René Pape 
Kurwenal: Evgeny Nikitin 

 After thoroughly enjoying the prized intimacy of small theaters for a few operas in Berlin and New York, I was back in the cavernous Met for their controversial new production of Tristan und Isolde on Monday evening, three weeks after I had to exchange my original ticket for one for a later performance, which I would attend fortunately without the slightest hint of coughing, but unfortunately without the slightest hint of Simon Rattle either as by then he would have passed the baton on to Asher Fisch.
The extra time had also given me an opportunity to feel the buzz around it and from what I could tell, the generally consensus, from conservative audience members like my own mother and a random audience member over-heard at Jane Eyre to typically more open-minded professional critics, could be summed up by “terrific singing and crappy production”, which, all things considered, still beat the alternative in my book.
So on Monday evening, I left work early to safely make it for the 6:30 PM starting time, scarfed down a sandwich with many of my fellow opera-goers on the Lincoln Center’s Josie Robertson Plaza, enjoyed a bit of the crisp evening air on the terrace, walked my way up to the packed Family Circle, silently commanding the dedication of the horde of standing room opera buffs confined at the very top of the section, and buckled up for the next five hours.

 If on Saturday I had enjoyed a big romantic love story in a traditional setting with Jane Eyre, on Monday I was definitely in for a doggedly modern take on another big romantic love story with Mariusz Treliński’s Tristan und Isolde. Not that there is anything wrong with that, of course, as long as the transposition works. But since Wagner’s glorious score, the appealing cast of celebrated singers and the Met’s endlessly versatile orchestra had by all accounts been managing the musical portion of the equation just fine, I sat down fairly confident in my time and money investment.
This season’s Met campaign features black-and-white portraits of the company’s biggest stars and the commanding tagline “The voice must be heard”. And sure enough, on Monday evening, formidable German Wagnerian soprano Nina Stemme’s absurdly powerful voice magnificently soared above all with impeccable articulation, penetrative expressiveness and unwavering focus, frequently making me even forget the mess of a production she was stuck in, which was no small feat. Her Isolde was dignified, passionate and knowingly moving toward inexorable tragedy. The voice was heard indeed, and it was an extraordinary experience all the way to a transcendental "Liebestod". A scholarly-sounding young man exiting behind me confided to his companion that he had found her singing “absolutely flawless from beginning to end, the only problem being to find her a Tristan to match”.
While I totally agree with the first part of this statement, I am ambivalent about the second part as I had found Australian tenor Stuart Skelton more than adequate as Tristan. He had the right voice, rich, supple and ardent, the ability to take Wagner’s complex lines and make them his very own, and the dramatic skills to convey the very human emotions he was wrestling with and the dire situation he unwittingly found himself in. His totally engaging portrayal made his extended delirious scene at the beginning of Act 3 incredible moving as he was facing nothing but death and despair.
The rest of the cast offered plenty of memorable singing too, starting with American bass René Pape, a certified Met favorite, who added yet one more title to his ever-growing list of unquestionable triumphs. Although he can been seen as the trouble-maker in Tristan und Isolde’s doomed love story, King Marke is also a man who will turn out to be rational and understanding, and René Pape confidently brought out all aspects of the character with his commanding presence and superb singing. His first dazzling appearance as he walked in on the guilty lovers in a resplendent white suit immediately made him the center of the attention, which he held naturally and effortlessly for the rest of the evening.
Russian mezzo-soprano Ekaterina Gubanova gave an equally riveting performance as Brangäne, making the most of her role as Isolde’s fiercely loyal lady-in-waiting, who nevertheless was not afraid to speak her mind. Her singing was attractively lyrical, sharp and assured, and the intense scenes she had with Isolde strongly emphasized the unbreakable bond between the two women.
Beside the four outstanding leads, the rest of the cast, including Russian bass-baritone Evgeny Nikitin who did the most of his substantial scene with Tristan as his faithful friend Kurwenal in Act III, earned my bottomless admiration too. There was truly not a single weak link of the entire group of singers.
Another priceless contributor to the musical success of the endeavor was the glorious Met orchestra, which after four presumably intense weeks with Simon Rattle put their training to good use as Asher Fisch took over the challenging conducting duties. The pace was unhurried but steady, leaving plenty of room for the big romantic waves to swell while myriad colors and tricky textures received all the meticulous attention they deserved. It was a long and difficult assignment even for such a seasoned ensemble, and the mission was smashingly accomplished.
When it came to the staging, unlike many protesters, I did not actually object to the generally reviled overall darkness of it ─ Tristan und Isolde is a tragedy, after all ─ and in fact thought that the hint of German expressionism and noirish atmosphere at the beginning of Act II, for example, should have been fully explored instead of being just one half-baked idea among other unconvincing ones such as modern warfare, electronic gadgets and scene splintering. By the way, speaking of Act II, I still can’t figure out why the two lovers, while singing gorgeously, barely looked at each other even though their irrepressible passion was clearly heating up.
The original opera takes place in the Middle Ages, and while moving it to another social and historical context is not a bad proposal in itself –passion and death being quintessentially timeless themes – it is still highly preferable that the end result have a clear purpose and make sense. Poor, confusing stage directions on top of grim industrial-looking sets, too many stark videos and a few borderline cheesy, often questionable, arbitrary add-ons, such as the little boy checking on the dying Tristan or Isolde slitting her wrist in Act III (?!), made this whole enterprise too hard to like and very easy to reject. And after a few hours of it, I too could make the informed decision to join the general chorus and say: "Thank goodness for the music!"

Tuesday, October 25, 2016

Center for Contemporary Opera - Jane Eyre - 10/22/16

Composer: Louis Larchin 
Libretto: Diane Osen 
Conductor: Sara Jobin 
Director Kristine McIntyre 
Jane Eyre: Jennifer Zetlan 
Edward Rochester: Ryan MacPherson 
Mrs. Fairfax: Kimberly Giordano 
Roderick Ingram/St Jon Rivers: Thomas Meglioranza 
Mrs. Ingram/Diana Rivers: Jessica Thompson 
Miss Blanche Ingram: Katrina Thurman 
Mr. Richard Mason: Adam Cannedy 
Bessie/Mary Rivers: Jessica Best 
Mr. Wood: David Salsbery Fry 
Mr. Briggs: Adam Cannedy 

 A sweeping romantic story with intense emotions, unexpected plot twists and ground-breaking social themes, Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre is one of those classics of literature that has always seemed ripe for all kinds of adaptation. Cinema and TV have had their share of more or less successful attempts, but curiously enough the opera world had left it alone, until recently that is, when American composer Louis Larchin boldly took the plunge, which eventually resulted in the world premiere of Jane Eyre (the opera) at the Kaye Playhouse at Hunter College courtesy of The Center for Contemporary Opera last Thursday, with a repeat performance on Saturday.
 Since on Thursday night I had already committed to the New York Philharmonic, I did not have much of a choice. Despite the fact that I’d rather not go out on Saturday night, the venue was on the other (therefore, wrong) side of The Park, and the weather was hopelessly wet and cold, I was just too curious to let that one pass me by, not to mention that the presence of Jennifer Zetlan in the title could easily make up for many minor aggravations.

 There is little doubt that the challenge-ridden relationship between Jane Eyre and Edward Rochester has been one of the most popular aspects of the novel so it only makes sense that the opera focuses on it while still introducing some topics such as social classes, religion and feminism. All of this is still a lot to develop to an engaging degree and integrate into a harmonious whole; therefore, if some portions of the book, such as Jane’s miserable childhood, have been left out, except for one recapitulative aria, so be it. The cuts are overall appropriate, and while at roughly three hours, including two intermissions, the opera is by no means short, it is of manageable length.
After witnessing American soprano Jennifer Zetlan beautifully carry Kaija Saariaho’s reworked medieval song “Lohn” with the NY Phil the week before, I was thrilled to have a chance to watch her tackle a big romantic role in a more traditional opera setting on Saturday night. A young singer blessed with a gorgeous voice, a charismatic presence, and some sharp acting skills too, she embodied Jane Eyre with a lot of grace and strength. She did not shy away from the big emotional scenes, and she certainly belted out those big arias with force and conviction, but she also made sure never to fall into cheap sentimentality, reminding us that Jane Eyre is first and foremost the tale of a highly moral young woman standing up for herself in a world that was not used to girl power.
As Edward Rochester, the quintessential Byronic master of the house, tenor Ryan MacPherson was as dashing as they come, first mysteriously aloof before becoming more alive, demonstrating infectious joy and touching vulnerability, as he was falling in love with Jane. His powerful, flexible voice effortlessly expressed the wide range of emotions felt by an ultimately sensitive man desperately torn between passion and duty, and his genuine chemistry with Jennifer Zetlan made the intensity of their relationship all the more believable.
The rest of the large cast was totally committed to bringing the story to life as well, and it was a real pleasure to hear all those highly competent singers whole-heartedly dig into their respective parts, some of them even gamely fulfilling two roles in the course of the performance.
The sets and direction were generally conventional, which in this case turned out to be not only the safe but also the appropriate thing to do. Some overhead projections of videos, which seem de rigueur in a lot of productions these days, were in fact well incorporated and for the most part justified as they added insightful information. The costumes reinforced the traditional aspect of the staging, as did the furniture and props, except maybe for the numerous chairs hanging upside-down from the ceiling, letting you know that everything was not all right up there.
If the sets were predictable, the music definitely erred on the wild side with a resolutely modern score that served the action surprisingly well, with alarming dissonances to describe inner turmoil, delicate lines to underscore reflective moments, and show-stopping arias to emphasize dramatic peaks while displaying the singers’ impressive singing abilities. The orchestra performed with plenty of vigor and a laudable attention to details under the direction of Sara Jobin, and significantly contributing in making this Jane Eyre a successful endeavor.

Sunday, October 23, 2016

New York Philharmonic - Bach, Busoni & Schumann - 10/20/16

Conductor: Leonidas Kavakos 
Bach: Violin Concerto in D Minor, BWV 1052R (reconstructed by W. Fischer) 
Leonidas Kavakos: Violin 
Paolo Bordignon: Harpsichord 
Busoni: Berceuse élégiaque, Op. 42 
Schumann: Symphony No. 2 in C Major, Op. 61 

 After some forays into the wild side of classical music last week, I was back on familiar territory, albeit with a ground-breaking twist, last Thursday at the David Geffen Hall for favorite violinist Leonidas Kavakos, this season's Artist-in-Residence, making his debut as New York Philharmonic conductor. The program included a reconstructed violin concerto by Bach, for which he would do double-duty as soloist and conductor, followed by a short Busoni piece and Schumann's compelling Symphony No. 2, for which he would trade his ubiquitous Stradivarius for the baton.
So it was with great expectations – and the knowledge that in all likelihood they would be amply fulfilled – that I made it to the Lincoln Center on Thursday, an unusually sultry October night, for my first concert of the season at the David Geffen Hall.

About six months ago Leonidas Kavakos' arresting Gavotte en Rondeau from Bach’s Partita No. 3, which he played as an encore after a stunning Sibelius concerto with the NY Phil, was a priceless gift and a merciless teaser, leaving us all both infinitely grateful for the treat and desperately eager for more. Well, since apparently wishes do come true in New York Philharmonic's land, he is back with more Bach this season, and by all accounts the Violin Concerto in D Minor we heard on Thursday night more than rewarded our patience. While the reduced orchestra expertly brought out the superb craftsmanship that had gone into the composition, the performance really stood out thanks to the glowing life that was inconspicuously injected into it, happily filling up the hall with technical wizardry and elegant poise. It was also evidence that Leonidas Kavakos had no problem multi-tasking.
Busoni may have resented being associated with Debussy – Although, let's face it, worse things could happen to a composer – but the connection between the two sounded rather evident during the eight exquisite minutes of his Berceuse élégiaque. This touching tribute to his mother, who had just passed away, exuded delicate colors and subtle textures, and constituted a truly poignant interlude.
I had definitely come for Bach, but I am thrilled I stayed for Schumann, who may not be one of my top composers when it comes to symphonies, but again, in the right company, I cannot help but find myself carried away by the inherently engaging nature of his work. Written during a time of serious physical ailment and mental turmoil, his second symphony is nevertheless surprisingly life-affirming. And that was certainly the general vibe we got on Thursday, where the composer's agonizing struggle, endless agitation, quiet melancholy and final triumph over adversity were expressed with much brilliance and heart by the fully committed orchestra. Nonplussed by the daunting challenge, Leonidas Kavakos conducted sans sheet music, but with a clear vision, a steady command and an instinctive rapport with the musicians, which allowed him to conclude this relatively new endeavor of his with a totally enjoyable performance.

Tuesday, October 18, 2016

Argus Quartet - Haydn, Theofanidis, Livengood & Knox - 10/16/16

Joseph Haydn: String Quartet in C Major, Op. 74, No. 1 
Christopher Theofanidis: Visions and Miracles 
Kerrith Livengood: This is my Scary Robot 
Garth Knox: Satellites 

 After a big time musical journey with the NY Phil and Kaija Saariaho in the Park Avenue Armory on Friday evening, I was back in a more traditional setting on Sunday afternoon in Park Slope’s Brooklyn Public Library for a chamber music concert by the Argus Quartet as part of Carnegie Hall’s long tradition of Neighborhood Concerts.
It would be traditional with a twist though, because the young and feisty ensemble has proven over and over again that it is definitely not afraid of getting its feet wet with challenging contemporary music, and is well-known for regularly bringing them to all kinds of audiences. Definitely my kind of musicians, which is why I sacrificed part of a very pleasant fall afternoon and put up with a moderately unpleasant subway schedule situation to be there.

 In an unmistakable nod to tradition, Haydn's String Quartet in C Major, Op. 74, No. 1 opened the concert in a brilliant example of classical chamber music at its most glowing and memorable. The majestic composition readily oozed commanding elegance and irresistible wit and sounded as fresh as if it had been written nowadays. The musicians expertly maneuvered around the daunting complexity of the piece while keeping the mood light-hearted, and instantly accounted for their virtuoso credentials.
We stayed in a happy mood with Christopher Theofanidis’ immediately attractive Visions and Miracles, which celebrated life by joyfully exploding with infectious rhythms, vibrant colors, lush lyricism, and plenty of imagination. The two uplifting fast movements solidly bookended the beautifully eerie slow one while smartly highlighting the vivid contrasts between them. The quartet was all youthful vigor and mature talent, and went on to deliver a dynamite performance.
After this musical feast, we were in for darker times with Kerrith Livengood’s This is my Scary Robot, which describes her phobia of public speaking. And sure enough, the entire work contains a constant tension that reached literally unbearable levels in the furiously dissonant moments of highest distress. The musicians did not hesitate to dwell deep into the composer’s terrified state of mind and created some seriously gritty sounds that I frankly would not care to hear again, but were totally justified in context.
The last, but not least, treat of the afternoon, Garth Knox’s Satellites, went even further into exploring extended string techniques for a result even more peculiar, which started with a wide range of pizzicatos and moved on to more otherworldly sounds that were generally produced by the musicians slapping their violin, using the wooden park of the bow on the strings, and forcefully whipping the air with the bow, among other unusual possibilities. Far from being off-putting though, all those weird noises added a playful dimension to the experience, and ended the concert on a totally forward-minded note.

Monday, October 17, 2016

New York Philharmonic - An Evening of Spatial Works by Kaija Saariaho - 10/14/16

Conductor: Esa-Pekka Salonen 
Saariaho: Lumière et pesanteur 
Saariaho: D'om le vrai sens 
Saariaho: Lohn 
Saariaho: Circle Map 
Kari Krikku: Clarinet 
Jennifer Zetlan: Soprano 
Jean-Baptiste Barrière: Video and Projection Designer 

 My Carnegie Hall season now well underway, on Friday night I kicked off my New York Philharmonic season at the Park Avenue Armory, of all places, with an "evening of spatial works by Kaija Saariaho" that would be conducted by her frequent collaborator and fellow Finn – and NY Phil's Composer-In-Residence – Esa-Pekka Salonen, and included extra elements such as electronics, projections and guest artists. I was frankly not quite sure what I was getting myself into, but I was very much looking forward to becoming better acquainted with her impressive œuvre in a totally immersive 90-minute experience that would consist of four separate pieces performed sans interruption or any other distractions.
 Upon entering the Armory's former drill hall I could tell that we were really in for an unusual affair as the orchestra was placed in the middle of the cavernous space and surrounded about two-thirds by rows of legless chairs on the floor, which themselves were surrounded by stadium-style bleachers, which made all audience members face the orchestra and the large screen hanging behind it. After the hall had filled up to capacity, we were all eagerly off to more or less unknown territories.

 The short opening number, Lumière et pesanteur (Light and heaviness), readily set the tone with subtle sounds and delicate colors slowly evolving in hazy stretches that were occasionally punctuated by discreet outbursts. Salonen’s poised and precise conducting significantly contributed in highlighting the ethereal quality of the composition that was gifted to him in 2009 after Saariaho had heard him conduct the Los Angeles Philharmonic in her oratorio La Passion de Simone. The accompanying videos were appropriately abstract, and also repetitive after a while, in all their fancy swirling and twirling, and the combination of music and visuals efficiently created a mystical atmosphere that would remain for the rest of the evening.
Inspired by the six medieval tapestries constituting the renowned series "The Lady and the Unicorn", each one being named after the five senses and a mysterious sixth one called "À mon seul désir" (To my only desire), D'om le vrai sens, which alludes to the true meaning of mankind, was mostly memorable by the stupendous clarinet solos performed by the no less stupendous Finnish clarinetist Kari Kriikku, the work’s dedicatee. Throughout most of the piece, he playfully walked, ran, jumped and pranced around the orchestra with the vigor and bounciness of a unicorn, occasionally engaging other musicians who responded in kind, some of them even getting up and slowly walking away from their seats during the last movement. The projections were visually pleasant in their detailed study the tapestries’ intricacies and nicely expanded the musical exploration.
The next piece, Lohn, for soprano and electronics, from 1996, had the distinct advantage of featuring soprano Jennifer Zetlan, an artist whose penchant for challenging and wide-ranging projects is decidedly unwavering. And she certainly was the bright light of this conceptually fascinating but actually uneven endeavor based on a medieval Provençal poem about love from afar recorded in Occitan, French and English. Recordings of birds, wind and rain had been electronically processed with the three narrations, which resulted in sound effects sometimes intriguing, sometimes as blurry as the projected face of the live soloist, which itself was often competing with many exotic images on the busy screen. Her voice, however, was as clear, luminous and expressive as ever, and she carried herself with remarkable dignity as she slowly circulated among the silent orchestra.
Circle Map, written for orchestra and electronics in 2012, concluded the evening with more shimmers, contemplation and nebulousness. The performance combined the reading of six quatrains by 13th century Persian poet Rumi in their original language, the playing of the orchestra deftly in tune with the voice’s inflections, and videos showing the poems being written along with more abstract images. The subtle differences among the short movements were beautifully highlighted by the orchestra, which finally got a chance to play with more force and presence while still carefully maintaining the de rigueur meditative mood.

 As the audience was finally allowed to clap, the applauds were unquestionably sincere but somehow subdued, before we all quietly left the Armory, as if we were hesitant to burst the otherworldly but comfortable bubble we had been kept in and get back to the loud and fast-paced reality of Friday night in New York City.

Sunday, October 16, 2016

Brooklyn Rider & Anne Sofie von Otter - Glass, Shaw, Jacobsen, Adams, Braxton, Muhly, Janacek, Bjork, Hillborg, Costello & Bush - 10/13/16

Philip Glass: Three Selections from "Suite from Bent" 
Caroline Shaw: Cant voi l'aube 
Colin Jacobsen: For Sixty Cents 
John Adams: "Am I In Your Light?" from Doctor Atomic (arr. Evan Ziporyn)
Tyondai Braxton: Arp Rec 1 
Nico Muhly: So Many Things  
Leos Janacek: String Quartet No. 1 (Kreutzer Sonata) 
Bjork: Cover Me (arr. Erik Arvinder)
Bjork: Hunter (arr. Vince Mendoza)
Anders Hillborg: Kvall 
Elvis Costello: Speak darkly, my Angel (arr. Rob Mathes)
Kate Bush: Pi (arr. Kyle Sanna)

My Carnegie Hall season may have started with the fabulous splash that is Messiaen's Turangalila-symphonie, but things considerable scaled down last Thursday night in Zankel Hall where the unstoppable Brooklyn Rider and long-established Swedish mezzo-soprano Anne Sofie von Otter were giving a concert whose program, which included Janacek, Philip Glass, Nico Muhly, Bjork and Elvis Costello among many others, was too intriguing to resist. It sounded like an unusual collaboration at first, but come to think of it, their versatility and her spirit of adventure are not that far apart after all, so I went.

 The concert started with what turned out to be one of its high points: A resolutely sleek version of three selections from Philip Glass' "Suite from Bent", which not only pointed out the brilliance of the composition but also the tremendous talents of the musicians.
After intermission, a confidently virtuosic "Kreutzer Sonata" quickly confirmed that the Brooklyn Rider could handle pretty much anything. Inspired by Leo Tolstoy's jealousy-driven novella The Kreutzer Sonata, which itself features Beethoven's "Kreutzer Sonata", Janacek's amazing combination of beautiful melodies and dramatic outbursts rightfully turned out to be another high point of Thursday's concert.
Those two instrumental works – plus Tyondai Braxton's attractively intricate Arp Rec 1 – aside, the evening was mostly dedicated to the quartet's collaboration with Anne Sofie von Otter, who for the occasion definitely looked more like a Brooklyn hipster than an opera singer. Caroline Shaw's take on the medieval French ballad "Cant voi l'aube" and Brooklyn rider member Colin Jacobsen's bittersweet lament on inflation with "for Sixty Cents" were both mellow chansons that nicely went by.
 More substantial pieces included a streamlined version of "Am I in your Light?" from John Adams' Doctor Atomic, which allowed the dramatically charged opera aria to be subtly conveyed by the four string musicians and the singer, and Nico Muhly's So Many Things, in which a long poem by Joyce Carol Oates was bookended by two short ones by Cavafy for an end result full of wistful longing and delicate lyricism.
The pop portion of the evening was engaging and stimulating with new arrangements of songs by Bjork, Elvis Costello, Kate Bush and Anders Hillborg, all artists whose creative credentials have long been validated and praised. With her crystal-clear voice, a killer band of musicians behind her and some exciting compositions to tackle, Anne Sofie von Otter was totally game to become the ultimate deluxe pop star for the evening and seemed to relish every second of it, just like we did.

We stayed in the pop realm for the encores, which consisted in Sting's soulful "Practical Arrangement" from his Broadway endeavor The Lost Ship, before everybody let their hair down for a rousing version of Abba's monster hit "Gimme! Gimme! Gimme!" complete with bouts of comical dancing by von Otter and uplifted spirits all around. Needless to say, disco had never sounded so good.

Monday, October 10, 2016

Simón Bolívar Symphony Orchestra of Venezuela - Messiaen - 10/08/16

Conductor: Gustavo Dudamel 
Messiaen: Turangalîla-symphonie 
Cynthia Miller: Ondes Martenot 
Jean-Yves Thibaudet: Piano 

 After making the heart-breaking but fundamentally right decision of forgoing Tristan und Isolde on Monday evening for a later date due to an intermittent cough, I at least could take heart in knowing that at the end of the week I would attend another rendition of Olivier Messiaen's stunning Turangalîla-symphonie, a monumental 20th century masterpiece that I had become acquainted with about six months earlier in a memorable performance by the New York Philharmonic conducted by Esa-Pekka Salonen.
Although I really could not imagine a more thrilling experience of it than that first one, the opportunity to live through it again with whiz kid Gustavo Dudamel and his Simón Bolívar Symphony Orchestra of Venezuela, who were in town to open Carnegie Hall's new season with three concerts, was just too good to pass, especially now that I had become a healthy and inconspicuous audience member again.
Besides, apparently the Turangalîla’s irresistible pull was felt far and wide because, lo and behold, the concert was actually sold out. Who said that challenging contemporary music was not popular?

 Back in March, my first foray into the Turangalîla was as eye-opening as overwhelming. Although on Saturday I was obviously more prepared for my second round, I was still bracing myself for the by now expected impact of this spectacularly unique work, in which have been thrown in hints of Tristan und Isolde’s lush Romanticism (At least I got a whiff of it!), Edgar Poe-inspired macabre images, exotic rhythms from India, Africa and Indonesia and, more predictably but no less brilliantly, Messiaen’s signature bird songs and mystic Catholicism.
The Simón Bolívar Symphony Orchestra has come a very long way from its days of being the much praised but still scrawny youth orchestra issued from El Sistema, Venezuela's national music education program. Nowadays they have truly become a musical force to be reckoned with on the international scene, and on Saturday night they definitely proved that they could technically do pretty much anything a more long-established orchestra could, and with plenty of fervor and heart too.
If the orchestra showed proficient skills and boundless enthusiasm, the two soloists were definitely up to their daunting tasks as well. Ever-dashing Frenchman Jean-Yves Thibaudet assuredly gave a blazing account of the virtuosic piano parts, all outstanding dexterity and head-on boldness, while ondes Martenot extraordinaire Cynthia Miller handled the rarely heard instrument with equally remarkable savoir-faire.
Throughout this formidable ode to love in all its vertiginous joys and dreaded pitfalls, general messiness and pointed extremes, maestro Dudamel kept a firm grip on his eager musicians, letting the brash dissonances powerfully resonate and the gorgeously lyrical passages beautifully soar. The unusual 10-movement structure made for a constantly surprising but somehow consistent journey, and the exhilarating wild ride ended on a ecstatically grand finale, reasserting the comforting notion that love does conquer all.

Tuesday, October 4, 2016

New York Classical Players - Tchaikovsky & Vivaldi - 10/01/16

Conductor: Dongmin Kim 
Tchaikovsky: Souvenirs de Florence, Op. 70 
Vivaldi: The Four Seasons – Clara-Jumi Kang 

As if getting back to reality with a full work week ahead of me after being a shamelessly self-indulgent lady of leisure in Amsterdam and Berlin for two glorious weeks were not brutal enough, I also had to contend with a dreadful combination of persistent jet lag and a nasty cold. Consequently, the past week was pretty much a long blur that ended not one minute too soon.
But there was also a bright light looming ahead as the New York Classical Players were opening their new season of free high-quality concerts on Saturday night with two of the most rightfully popular works in classical music: Piotr Tchaikovsky's Romantic Souvenirs of Florence, in a new version specifically written for the NYCP, and Antonio Vivaldi's Baroque The Four Seasons, starring former child prodigy Clara-Jumi Kang, in the welcoming concert hall of the W83 cultural center, which happens to be located walking distance from my apartment.
So after taking all necessary precautions to keep the cough under control and, most importantly, out of earshot, I was finally able to enjoy being back in New York City by taking advantage of one of the perks that brought me to this maddening place in the first place: Timeless classics superbly played by highly talented musicians in an easily accessible location. And suddenly life was good again.

Written for a string sextet by Tchaikovsky in Russia after an extended stay in Italy, the original score of Souvenirs of Florence has been performed by larger string orchestras as is, an endeavor that unsurprisingly often lends imperfect results due to balance issues. To remedy this situation, teacher and composer Yoomi Paick came up with an updated version of it whose goal is to allow each musician to more or less equally contribute to the performance in their own way while still forming a harmonious whole together.
From what we heard on Saturday night, her laudable mission has been smashingly accomplished as the NYCP confidently delivered the beautifully textured, meticulously detailed, and intensely lyrical performance the piece deserves. Chances are Tchaikovsky would have whole-heartedly approved. The audience sure did.
As summer is now officially gone and fall has completely taken over, Vivaldi's The Four Seasons reminded us of nature’s unalterable rhythm, each of the various times of year being brilliantly highlighted with its own characteristics. To make them even more exciting, the NYCP was joined by German and South Korean violinist Clara-Jumi Kang, who so far has been spending most of her young life collecting top prizes at international competitions and dazzling audiences all over the world. Now it was our turn to experience her incredible skills for ourselves.
With all the right elements in place, it was no surprise that the inherently colorful seasons were particularly vibrant, opening with birds merrily chirping away at nature's rebirth in the spring. Summer is perhaps my favorite Season by Vivaldi, and it certainly was on Saturday when its mighty storm powerfully exploded in countless virtuosic fireworks. Fall glowed with bright shades and harvest celebrations, peasants' revelries and hunting rituals, before winter came around with a fierce wind, a cozy fire, freezing rain and unforgiving ice.
The composition being a structurally perfect and immediately attractive masterpiece, audiences have been warmly responding to it for four centuries by now, and their enthusiasm is not likely to abate anytime soon. Another case in point was this past weekend, when the technically flawless and irresistibly engaging performance by the NYCP and Kang turned out to be a big hit with virtually everybody in the hall.

 For all its sparkles and joie de vivre, The Four Seasons is still a challenging work to perform, so we barely dared to hope for anything else. But our indefatigable soloist was obviously up for more and concluded the evening with a stupendous Largo from Sonata No. 3 by Bach. The season has started well.

Friday, September 30, 2016

Staatsoper im Schiller Theater - Don Giovanni - 09/22/16

Composer: Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart 
Conductor: Massimo Zanetti 
Director: Claus Guth 
Don Giovanni: Christopher Maltman 
Leporello: Luca Pisaroni 
Donna Anna: Olga Peretyatko 
Donna Elvira: Dorothea Röschmann 
Zerlina: Narine Yeghiyan 
Don Ottavio: Antonio Poli 
Masetto: Grigory Shkarupa 
Commendatore: Jan Martiník 

 My stay in Berlin was originally supposed to be five nights, but when I noticed that Don Giovanni would be performed at the Staatsoper im Schiller Theater on Thursday evening, I decided that I just had to be there. Like Tosca, Don Giovanni is one of my favorite war horses, and attending operas that I know well ─ and love dearly ─ abroad is only common sense to me since the surtitles are usually in a foreign language. My comprehension of German being rather feeble these days, in Berlin I needed operas I was familiar with to make the experience not only painless, but enjoyable too.
Another motivation was the presence of Italian bass-baritone Luca Pisaroni as Leporello, a role he wowed everybody in, including me, at the Met a couple of years ago, and Olga Peretyatko, the hot new Russian import I have been curious to check out. The rest of the cast was unknown to me, but just the perspective of hearing the glorious score in such a conducive environment was just too good to pass. And if I had to break the bank and spend a couple more days reveling in everything Berlin had to offer, so be it.

 When your first sight of the stage is a Leporello looking like a modern-day drug addict surrounded by beer cans and stumbling around some mysterious woods at night, you suspect right away that you're in for an unusual Don Giovanni, and that's frankly good news. After all, what other operas offers such a perfect mix of comedy and drama particularly ripe for infinite adaptations?
If Leporello's low-life get-up was out of the ordinary even for a veteran of the part like Luca Pisaroni, he was clearly very comfortable with it. Unlike Don Giovanni’s frequently dazed and confused servant, the singer was always right on top everything all evening, whether he was mastering the musical score or the comic timing. Blessed with a remarkably wide-ranging voice and an unmistakable stage presence, he was an extremely fierce competitor to his master when it came to attracting and keeping the audience's attention.
And that was no easy feat as British baritone Christopher Maltman was a downright charismatic ladies' man, although he also betrayed some uncharacteristic restraint and humanity instead of the predictable overload of swagger and self-confidence. His assured singing had an appropriate hint of hauntingness to it, and his refined acting skills permitted him to present much more than a mere pleasure-seeker. Add to that a handsome physique, and you have a Don that is a pleasure to the eyes and to the ears.
The conquest that sets the drama in motion, Donna Anna, was powerfully sung and impersonated by Russian soprano Olga Peretyatko. Far from being the helpless rape victim she is often portrayed as though, she is first encountered happily cavorting with the Don himself, fully enjoying the consensual romp. And truth be told, the woman certainly had the attractive looks and the considerable vocal talent to easily hold any man under her spell.
On the other hand, German soprano Dorothea Röschmann made Donna Elvira a terribly conflicted spinster carrying an ever-present suitcase, always looking ready to finally go away forever, but always coming back with impeccable timing as the recurring thorn on the Don's side. Unlike her former lover though, the audience relished each and every one of her appearances, fully taking in her clear voice and expressive singing.
As definitely young and possibly innocent Zerlina, Armenian soprano Narine Yeghiyan was lovely in her pretty white dress. The virginal look, however, and the sweetness of her voice would soon be contradicted by her ready willingness to get on top of Don Giovanni first, and then Masetto. Kids grow up so fast these days!
As Don Ottavio, Italian tenor Antonio Poli was a deeply devoted suitor to Donna Anna and managed to turn this typically thankless role into a deceptively self-effacing nice guy that managed to steal the show every time he got to sing one of his arias with delicate nuance and strong command.
As Masetto, Russian bass Grigory Shkarupa was an endearing country boy, who got understandably upset at having his bride stolen away from him and let the world know about it.
Beside the superb singing, the production turned out to be a terrific surprise too. Using nothing more than a revolving set consisting of some dark woods, a few contemporary props, such as a bus shelter and a car, modern costumes, when they were on, and a lot of imagination, esteemed, if occasionally controversial, German director Claus Guth created a resolutely modern, cleverly inventive and immensely entertaining Don Giovanni.
From a hapless Don Ottavio desperately looking for a signal for his cell phone in the woods to a slow-motion rave party in Don Giovanni’s imaginary palace, not to mention some seriously sexy encounters between various participants, the production had plenty of chuckle-inducing humorous touches, but with always enough dark undertones to remind us that this was a tragedy too.
The story got some interesting interpretations as well, from Donna Anna’s more than willing participation in the opening hanky panky scene with the Don to his being shot by her father and slowly but surely dying over the next three hours, the bold plot twists were brilliantly handled so that it all somehow made sense, in no small part thanks to sharply drawn characters and truly inspired directions.
The score sounded as magnificent as ever, peppered as it is with carefully calibrated ensemble numbers and luminous arias. The orchestra played with elegance and high-spiritedness, allowing all the subtle details to beautifully come alive while keeping the performance moving at a brisk pace. Even the second act, which can sometimes drag on a bit, passed by in a flash, and in true German fashion, the curtain fell at 11 PM, exactly three and a half hours after the maestro gave the down beat, just as scheduled. One more reason to love Germany and the Germans.