Friday, April 22, 2016

Jeremy Denk - Bach, Hayden/Joplin, Stravinsky, Hindemith, Bolcom, Nancarrow, Lambert & Schubert - 04/17/16

Bach: English Suite No. 3 in G Minor, BWV 808
Hayden/Joplin: "Sunflower Slow Drag"
Stravinsky: Piano-Rag-Music Byrd: "The Passinge Mesures: The Nynthe Pavian" from My Ladye Nevells Book
Hindemith: "Ragtime" from Suite "1922"
Bolcom: Graceful Ghost Rag
Nancarrow: Canon No. 1
Lambert: "Pilgrim's Chorus" from Tannhäuser
Schubert: Piano Sonata in B-Flat Major, D. 960

After a busy Saturday with Donizetti at the Met in the afternoon followed by Puts and Mahler at Carnegie Hall in the evening, the next morning my mom and I were gearing up for another musical adventure at Carnegie Hall again, this time for a Sunday afternoon "ragtime sandwich" courtesy of pianist Jeremy Denk. The intriguing description amazingly enough turned out to be accurate as his recital would consist in an "iPod shuffle" of various works with one connection or another to ragtime, which would be bookended by bona fide classical composers in Bach and Schubert. But then again, what else do you expect from one of the most creative and multi-faceted music artists of our times?

The concert started in full Baroque mode with Johann Sebastian Bach and his English Suite No. 3, which we got to enjoy in a deeply insightful and delightfully free-spirited performance. Denk's profound knowledge of the score and innate communication skills allowed him to easily connect with the audience while strongly emphasizing the piece’s timeless appeal.
The ragtime portion of the program was as educational as exciting. One of the highlights was the wildly rambunctious "Piano-Rag-Music" by Igor Stravinsky, who was a Russian expatriate in Paris when he discovered the joys of popular American music and did not hesitate to appropriate them for this thrilling little number. Another was Donald Lambert’s bold take on the "Pilgrim's Chorus" from Tannhäuser, which gave Wagner’s sumptuous composition an irresistible jazz spin that would have been right at home in any 1940s jazz clubs.
The quintessential ragtime hit "Sunflower Slow Drag" by Scott Hayden and Scott Joplin had kicked things off in style and they only got better after that. We went back to 16th century England with "The Passinge Mesures: The Nynthe Pavian" from My Ladye Nevells Book by William Byrd, whose elaborate intricacies fit right in this series. Paul Hindemith’s chaotic "Ragtime" and Conlon Nancarrow’s playful Canon No. 1 turned out to be wild romps that brightly resounded throughout the concert hall, with William Bolcom’s nuanced "Graceful Ghost Rag" strategically slowing things down right in between.
After intermission, we were back on more familiar territory with Schubert’s Piano Sonata in B-Flat Major, which was his last and is widely considered to be his most accomplished sonata. One could only agree with that statement while listening to Denk put his technical expertise to the service of the composer’s ambitious ideas and exposed emotions. After the rollicky fun ragtime episode, Schubert’s work brought us inner peace and quiet.

The dedicated audience was clearly ecstatically happy with their unusual musical afternoon, and we still wanted some more. So it was back to square one with Bach and a thoughtful Variation No. 13 from The Goldberg Variations,  wrapping up a virtuosic performance on an ultimate virtuosic note.

Wednesday, April 20, 2016

Baltimore Symphony Orchestra - Puts & Mahler - 04/16/16

Conductor: Marin Alsop
Puts: The City
Mahler: Symphony No. 5 in C-Sharp Minor

Fact is, New York City's music venues do not consult with me before programming their seasons. On the other hand, I do not mind mixing it up, if I must. So after three hours of glorious bel canto at the Met on Saturday afternoon, I found myself walking down Broadway again in the evening, all the way down to Carnegie Hall this time, for a concert by the distinguished Baltimore Symphony Orchestra presenting an intriguing new piece by contemporary American composer Kevin Puts and a popular classical symphony by Viennese master Gustav Mahler, in the company of my visiting mom and a few friends.
Such is the life of a music lover in the Big Apple sometimes, and I would really be ungrateful to complain about such an embarrassment of richness, especially since I had a grand total of four hours in between to regroup after all.

The concert opened with the New York premiere of Kevin Puts' The City, which was co-commissioned to celebrate not only the 125th anniversary of Carnegie Hall, but the 100th anniversary of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra as well. Although it was originally inspired by the city of Baltimore, the score could easily apply to any major city around the world. The film by James Bartolomeo accompanying it was all Baltimore though, and included countless images from the 19th century to the present, mixing panoramic views, historical landmarks,  public figures, street scenes and snippets of TV news.
The film was certainly mesmerizing in its own right, but its power was unquestionably duplicated by the vibrant performance of the orchestra, which emphasized the eclecticism, excitement, grittiness and sufferings of the living organism that is a city. The raw, often chaotic, but also attractively melodic music kept the audience on the edge until the evocation of the 2015 riots, at which point the film stopped and the music revolved around a sustained single note, before both eventually resumed with tentative optimism. It may not have been a smooth ride, but it was artistically bold and socially relevant.
After enjoying Mahler's singing celebration Das Lied von der Erde on Thursday evening with the San Francisco Symphony within those same walls, I was very much looking forward to his all-instrumental Symphony No. 5 with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra on Saturday evening. So much Mahler, so little time. Written during an increasingly happy period in the composer’s life, starting with a somber funeral march and ending in a unequivocally triumphant finale, Mahler's sprawling fifth is no easy undertaking.
But the orchestra on the stage was no ordinary music ensemble either, and they proved it by delivering an assuredly virtuosic, skillfully nuanced and emotionally charged performance of it. Marin Alsop's trademark red cuffs were flying all over the podium and the fired-up musicians kept busy dealing with Mahler's profound musings about life and death. It was a long and tortuous journey, but we all eventually left the concert hall in a total state of elation.

Tuesday, April 19, 2016

Met - Roberto Devereux - 04/16/16

Composer: Gaetano Donizetti
Conductor: Maurizio Benini
Producer/ Director: Sir David McVicar
Queen Elizabeth (Elisabetta): Sondra Radvanovsky
Robert (Roberto) Devereux, Earl of Essex: Matthew Polenzani
Sarah (Sara), Duchess of Nottingham: Elina Garanca
Duke of Nottingham: Mariusz Kwiecien

After the Metropolitan Opera’s offerings of Anna Bolena with Anna Netrebko and Maria Stuarda with Joyce di Donato in the past couple of years, I was more than ready to conclude the Tudor trilogy with Roberto Devereux starring Sondra Radvanovsky last Saturday afternoon. The commanding American soprano reportedly dazzled opera lovers in New York earlier this season after she took over the two aforementioned roles, and by all accounts is now capping off a glorious home run with the third and final chapter of the Three Donizetti Queens.
As if to make this crown achievement as memorable as possible, the Met pulled all the stops and gathered an impressive cast including some of the hottest names in the opera world these days with Elina Garanca, Matthew Polenzani and Mariusz Kwiecien. The presence of David McVicar as producer was good news as well since his productions for the other two queens had turned out to be definitely adequate, occasionally inspired.
So it was with great expectations that I walked down Broadway on a ridiculously warm and sunny afternoon last Saturday to join my friend Steve and a sold-out audience at the Met, almost feeling sorry for myself for having to sit inside for three hours, but also confident that my sacrifice would be rewarded.

In the relatively familiar environment of 16th century England's Elizabethan court – Never mind the liberties taken with history to deliver more gripping drama – Roberto Devereux presents highly problematic love and power entanglements which can only finish badly, but which also provide the perfect excuse for a sparkling bel canto score. So if all went as planned, big feelings, big statements and big musical feats would abound and converge to create a quintessential opera experience, and boy did we happily suck it all in on Saturday.
The opera's title may be Roberto Devereux, but there was no mistaking that it was Sondra Radvanovsky's show when the intrepid soprano immediately grabbed Elisabetta’s part with her signature soaring singing and visceral acting, and stayed the course until the very end. When in the first act she fiercely pointed out how "great" her revenge would be, you knew she meant it; on the other hand, she was painfully vulnerable in her final scene when, without her regal wig and gown, she hobbled around the stage at her most disheveled and exposed. Aging and tormented, with a spectral white-powdered face and extravagant outfits, Radvanovsky’s queen had a Shakespearean grandeur that was truly haunting.
Not to be outdone, tenor Matthew Polenzani was a wonderfully hot-blooded Roberto Devereux, efficiently portraying Elisabetta’s former favorite who has just lost a major battle and is hopelessly in love with Sara, who is not only a close confident of the queen, but also the wife of a good friend of his. Yikes! Superbly singing with lyrical abandon and convincingly conveying all the anguish brought by his obviously uncomfortable position, Polenzani readily delivered a vivid portrayal of emotional turmoil.
The irresistible object of his affections, sweet yet strong-willed Sara, was beautifully impersonated by mezzo-soprano Elina Garanca, whose stunning darkly hued singing and natural charisma gave the young woman who has been trapped in a loveless marriage but has finally found true love a genuinely mesmerizing presence.
As the Duke of Nottingham, Sara's unloved husband and Roberto's faithful friend, baritone Mariusz Kwiecien contributed to the performance in spades by compellingly expressing the profound dismay of a good man who suddenly finds himself betrayed by his wife and his friend, and decides not to be good anymore.
If the plot revolved around four formidable singers, the smaller parts and the Met chorus were also in top singing form and helped make this engaging production a total crowd-pleaser.
As usual, David McVicar’s versatile set was not overly imaginative, but the fancy black and gold décors attractively bathed in the glow of chandeliers and smoothly morphed into the Tower of London. The production had some note-worthy touches such as an enormous clock occupying the back wall while statues of Death and Time stood on each side of the center doors. Another had the chorus overlook the action from the upper balconies and sides, turning the stage into a glitzy palace filled with countless gossiping courtiers. 
When it comes to the music, very often with bel canto the score’s the thing. This one for sure did not stray from tradition as blazing arias kept on regularly popping out like fireworks while the characters were ferociously battling their fates out. Maestro Benini led the orchestra into a vibrant performance whose bright colors and pulsing intensity did not interfere with its underlying finesse. The standing ovation at curtain call was unusually long and loud, and oh so well deserved.

Monday, April 18, 2016

San Francisco Symphony - Schubert & Mahler - 04/14/16

Conductor: Michael Tilson
Thomas Schubert: Symphony No. 8 in B Minor, D. 759 (Unfinished)
Mahler: Das Lied von der Erde
Sasha Cooke: Mezzo-Soprano
Simon O'Neill: Tenor

It is hard to turn down a date with the San Francisco Symphony and its peerless music director and conductor Michael Tilson Thomas during their annual visit to Carnegie Hall. Since family obligations kept me away from their Copeland concert on Wednesday night, I decided to grab them while I still could and went to their more traditional program of Schubert's Unfinished and Mahler's Das Lied von der Erde on Thursday night.

Although I am not the most die-hard Schubert fan in general, except for some of his dazzling chamber music compositions such as The Trout and the Quintet in C Major, I have to admit that his Unfinished symphony has been steadily growing on me. And when you have a crack ensemble like the San Francisco Symphony dive into it, the result can only be superb, like it was on Thursday night. The first movement was movingly dark and restless, the second and last movement brought a bit of serenity, although no true resolution decisively appeared yet. However, no matter what could have been, the strongly committed playing made the work feel whole and fully satisfying.
Inspired by Chinese poetry and written when Mahler was going through the most painful period of his life, Das Lied von der Erde cleverly mixes rowdy drinking songs and more introspective musings to come up with an unofficial symphonic outing. As performed by the San Francisco Symphony orchestra on Thursday, the music was earthy and refined. The exuberance of the three songs featuring New Zealander tenor Simon O'Neill led to the occasional balance problem when the instruments covered the voice, but he still managed to come through securely feisty most of the time. On the other hand, my long wait to hear much celebrated American mezzo-soprano Sasha Cooke was gloriously rewarded by her impeccable performance. Her "Abschied" (Farewell), in particular, was absolutely magical and concluded the concert on an exquisitely ethereal note.

Monday, April 11, 2016

Andsnes, Ehnes, Hagen & Zimmermann - All-Brahms - 04/09/16

Brahms: Piano Quartet No. 1 in G Minor, Op. 25
Brahms: Piano Quartet No. 2 in A Major, Op. 26
Brahms: Piano Quartet No. 3 in C Minor, Op. 60

Never catching at least one recital by Christian Tetzlaff and Leif Ove Andsnes when they were regularly appearing in the US together has long been one of the biggest regrets of my concert-goer's life. Back in those days I lived in DC and they never made down there. When I finally decided to make arrangements to go see them in New York, they stopped touring in the US as a duo. Although I have enjoyed many terrific performances of theirs throughout the years, I have never heard them play together.
This season, however, it looked like I was finally getting a chance to get as close a possible to those missed opportunities with a special performance by the dream team of Christian Tetzlaff, Leif Ove Andsnes, Tabea Zimmermann and Clemens Hagen of an exciting program consisting of all three Brahms piano quartets for the Annual Isaac Stern Memorial concert last Saturday in, appropriately enough, the Stern Auditorium. Needless to say, the man who saved Carnegie Hall deserves only the best.
Except that on Wednesday, I got a voice mail from Carnegie Hall announcing that due to the imminent birth of his child, Christian Tetzlaff had to withdraw from the concert and James Ehnes would fill in for him. As much as I was grateful for a violinist of James Ehnes' impressive caliber to be willing to step in at the last minute for such a daunting marathon, I could not help but still seethe at the thought of what I was missing... again.
But at least the rain had stopped, I had an amazing seat and my friend Paula happened to sit nearby. Getting to catch up with her – as well as enjoying almost three hours of glorious music – eventually managed to make (almost) everything alright.

Brahms' Piano Quartet No. 1 came out bright and strong with its well-balanced structure, radiant melodies and gorgeous lyricism, the popular Gypsy-style Rondo taking off with a delightful free spiritedness that would have made any Hungarian composer proud. Even better, it only took a few seconds to realize that héro du jour James Ehnes was fitting right in the flawlessly tight ensemble, his smoothly expressive violin blending seamlessly with the soulful cello and the sensitive viola as they all played around the masterful piano.
After intermission, we eagerly moved on to Brahms' lesser-known Piano Quartet No. 2, which sumptuously unfolded for close to one hour with the scope and complexity of a bona fide symphony. It is, however, a safe bet to assume that the unusual length of the piece did not even register with anyone as the musicians took total control of the magnificent composition, using their much celebrated virtuosic skills to take us through all its brilliant twists and turns.
As much as the first two piano quartets did not give quintessential perfectionist Brahms too much trouble, he was back wallowing in self-doubt with his Piano Quartet No. 3. All the self-inflicted torture paid off though, as I found this last piece the most memorable of the evening, all dark undercurrents, relentless turbulences and an unmistakable feeling of personal tragedy. It was Brahms at his most emotional, almost having a Tchaikovskian moment, and it was the musicians at their most extraordinary. Isaac Stern would have been pleased.

Monday, April 4, 2016

Kronos Quartet - Vrebalov, Lizée, Rajam, Man, Rehnqvit, Haber, Diabaté, Townshend & Behar - 04/02/16

Aleksandra Vrebalov: My Desert, My Rose
Nicole Lizée: The Golden Age of the Radiophonic Workshop [Fiber-Optic Flowers]
N. Rajam: Dadra in Raga Bhairavi (Arr. Reena Esmail)
Wu Man: Ancient Echo from Four Chinese Paintings (Arr. Danny Clay)
Karin Rehnqvist: All Those Strings!
Ritva Koistinen: Kantele
Yotam Haber: break... break... break
Philip White: Electronics
Fodé Lasana Diabaté: Bara kala ta, from Sunjata's time (Arr. Jacob Garchik)
Pete Townshend: Baba O'Riley (Arr. Jacob Garchik)
Albert Behar: Lost Wax

Never an ensemble to rest on its numerous and well-earned laurels, the equally brilliant and adventurous Kronos Quartet is taking advantage of Carnegie Hall's 125th anniversary to launch their exciting "Fifty for the Future: The Kronos Learning Repertoire" project, which consists in co-commissioning with Carnegie Hall and other like-minded partners new pieces from 25 female composers and 25 male composers for the next five years. They will premiere those works in Carnegie Hall’s cool and intimate Zankel Hall, and those not lucky enough to be in attendance for the live performances will be able to find all relevant materials online for free.
On Saturday evening, I found myself one of the lucky few in Carnegie Hall's sold-out Zankel Hall as the quartet was getting ready to perform four pieces from "Fifty for the Future" as well as five other fairly new works for string quartet in a typically widely eclectic program. That was certainly a good reason to walk down Broadway all the way to W. 57th Street and 7th Avenue, just as the sky had finally cleared up after a depressingly gray and wet day.

Our journey started with Serbian-born, New York resident Aleksandra Vrebalov and her My Desert, My Rose, which was composed for "Fifty for the Future". Therefore, Knonos cellist Sunny Yang opened the concert with gorgeously free-flowing lines before being joined by the other instruments, each of them eloquently evolving in their own world, but somehow managing to meet occasionally and stay in tune continuously. The intricate musical patterns being suggested instead of dictated on the score, each performance is bound to be unique. The one on Saturday evening powerfully highlighted the organic nature of the composition and the earthy tones of the strings. It was a stunning opening number, challenging and engaging, and I got suddenly worried that things could only go downhill from there.
Things did not exactly go downhill from there, but the rest of the program rarely matched, and definitely never surpassed, the dazzling first number. A case in point was Canadian composer Nicole Lizée's The Golden Age of the Radiophonic Workshop [Fiber-Optic Flowers], in which the strings had to contend with various outside sources of ambient sounds such as a Simon game and a type-writer, both of which certainly brought back some long-gone memories, as well as assertive stomping by the musicians. Aiming at creating a multi-sensory world in which the artificial is integrated with the real, the mixed result felt only partially inspired and often gimmicky.
Next, Indian-American violinist N. Rajam's adroitly drew from Western and North Indian classical music traditions in her Dadra in Raga Bhairavi for solo violin that has been arranged for a string quartet. Needless to say that, when the performing string quartet happens to be the Kronos Quartet, magic invariably happens. On Saturday evening, this revised Dadra in Raga Bhairavi captivated the audience with its sinuous lines, sensual feel and delicate colors so typical of early morning hours. Sunny Yang's exacting tapping on her cello resolutely marked the metric cycle, and we all took off to enchantingly exotic land.
Exoticism was still in the cards – and in the strings – with Chinese-born, California-adopted pipa expert Wu Man, who had also been commissioned for "Fifty for the Future". Although writing for Western strings instruments was a new endeavor for her, she obviously took to it and her inconspicuous "Ancient Echo" from Four Chinese Paintings was memorably nice and sweet.
Then we were off to Nordic countries with composer Karin Rehnqvist and Finnish Kantele player Ritva Koistinen. The title All Those Strings! promised a stringfest and we did get one, with no fewer than 54 strings. A solid number of possibilities were cleverly explored, but it felt like the composition was wearing out its welcome after a while.
After intermission we moved on to peripatetic composer Yotam Haber for his break... break... break. The commission for "Fifty for the Future" had him write an originally pessimistic piece about water,  drawing inspiration from Katrina's destroying path in New Orleans and refugees' hazardous sea journeys to reach Berlin, to which he later added a more hopeful touch after the birth of his daughter. For the occasion, the quartet was joined by Philip White, who was in charge of the electronics component of the score. I did not find the combination of the natural strings and grating electronics particularly attractive and longed for what could have been with strings only on such an interesting theme.
We were blissfully back to more natural sounds with the last commission for "Fifty for the Future" of the evening, which turned out to be "Bara kala ta" (He took up the archer's bow) from Sunjata's Time by Guinea-born, Mali-residing composer and balafon player Fodé Lasana Diabaté. Inspired by the grand warrior prince who founded Mali in 1235, boasting plenty of infectious rhythms and a sunny mood, it was an enjoyably light-hearted detour in the African continent.
Then we moved not only to England, but to quintessential English icon Pete Townshend (Yes, THAT Pete Townshend) and his classic Baba O'Riley, which after being winningly adapted for string quartet by Jacob Garchik is still every bit as intensely groovy as the original, providing us with the perfect opportunity to at least mentally let our hair down and party. Just in case the multi-faceted talent of the Kronos Quartet had to be proven again, their impeccably virtuosic, fiercely roof-raising performance for sure did it, earning them the most spontaneous and rousing ovation of the evening. Let there be no doubt about it: Classical musicians can rock.
After such a fun number, we went kind of local with Ojai-born Brooklyn resident Albert Behar's Lost Wax, whose laudable goal was to connect Bela Bartok's wax cylinder phonograph recordings and his string quartets felt like embarking on a new adventure that was part intellectually stimulating endeavor, part borderline tedious and overextended homework.

After two hours of keeping the audience on their toes, the Kronos Quartet's founding violinist David Harrington announced that for their encore they wanted to play a piece by a worthy composer who never made it to Carnegie Hall. So we finished our evening with a red-hot instrumental version of Geeshie Wiley's song "Last Kind Words", Harrington's violin brilliantly singing the blues among flawlessly rhythmical pizzicatos popping out from the three other instruments. They kept us on our toes until the very end.