Friday, May 27, 2016

NY Phil Biennial - JACK Quartet - Sabat, Bermel & Ergun - 05/23/16

Marc Sabat: Euler Lattice Spirals Scenery
Derek Bermel: Intonations
Cenk Ergun: Celare
Cenk Ergun: Sonare

Just when, like the school year, the official 2015-2016 music season is pretty much done and over with, and you think you can now relax and enjoy some shamelessly low-brow down-time, come the New York Philharmonic's music director Alan Gilbert and his irresistibly ambitious and wide-ranging second NY Phil Biennial, whose main mission is to put together programs of new music that he and his team think we should hear. And whatever the New York Philharmonic says...
True to form, the intermission-free, 90-minute opening concert featured recent works by contemporary composers as diverse as Marc Sabat, Derek Bermel and Cenk Ergun. Appropriately enough, the ensemble that had been tasked to headline this exciting undertaking was no less than the JACK Quartet, whose brilliance and audacity have been persuasively demonstrated over and over again.
So last Monday evening a sizable crowd had clearly heeded the call for adventure and packed up the 92nd Street Y's dark, intimate and acoustically friendly Buttenwieser Hall, ready to embark on this promising exploration of unchartered but alluring new territories.

The first piece, which was also a New York premiere, turned out to be the brainiest of the lot, and that is actually saying something. Although Marc Sabat's Euler Lattice Spirals Scenery occasionally felt more like an abstruse academic exercise conceived for the illuminati than an artistic endeavor destined for the general public, its assured development from bare sustained notes to complex flights of fancy was often fascinating. And if its 30-minute running time may at first have seemed more than sufficient, its power of hypnosis made it also easy for the listener to get lost in a time-warp and marvel at the originality of the composition. The intriguing experiment was all the more mesmerizing as the JACK Quartet totally lived up to their reputation of technical mastery and laser-sharp precision.
After such an otherworldly experience, we all happily landed back on earth with the world premiere of Derek Bermel's Intonations, whose many compelling movements revolved around significantly different musical influences such as swing, jazz, blues, rock and hip-hop. Inspired by Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man and its exploration of the human voice, the spontaneously engaging bouquet of sounds and the quartet's consistently infectious playing reminded us all that a substantial undertaking can be a lot of fun too.
We stayed in the realm of intellectually stimulating entertainment with the New York premiere of Cenk Ergun's two tasty nuggets "Celare" and "Sonare". "Celare" started and ended with the musicians playing the strings with their left hand and doing nothing with their right hand, therefore producing no sounds. In between stood out a harmonically rich tapestry that slowly but surely built up for a gripping result. "Sonare", on the other hand, was all non-stop high-energy, speed and agitation, as well as an unusual star turn for the viola, everything being always tightly controlled and flawlessly performed by the consummate musicians. By all accounts, modern music is definitely alive and doing well too.

Thursday, May 19, 2016

Cantori New York - Brahms & Smyth - 05/15/16

Music Director & Conductor: Mark Shapiro
Brahms: Sieben Marienlieder, Op. 22
Dame Ethel Smyth: The Prison
The Prisoner: Thomas West
His Soul: Chelsea Morris Shephard
Piano: Jason Wirth

One of the original gut-wrenching dilemmas of last Saturday night were the simultaneous performances of Yuja Wang rocking the "Hammerklavier" at Carnegie Hall and Cantori New York presenting their last concert of the season in the Village's Church of St. Luke in the Fields. But then the stars aligned when the latter providentially added a second performance on Sunday evening, which therefore allowed me to attend both concerts, even if it meant breaking a well-established rule and only show up for the US deuxième instead of the US première of Dame Ethel Smyth's valedictory oratorio The Prison (Can't say that the title was tremendously inviting either).
Since Cantori's laudable mission is to focus on "new and neglected works that deserve to be performed and heard", it came as no surprise that their program revolved around a virtually unknown work by one of the world's most unfairly neglected composers. More unexpected though was the inclusion of Sieben Marienlieder by Brahms, who by all accounts is far from languishing in obscurity. But that particular piece is definitely not included among his most popular hits and Dame Smyth was apparently a big fan of his œuvre, so we shall let it slide this time.

And Brahms' Songs to the Virgin Mary and Mary Magdalena turned out to be an especially good fit for the endlessly versatile choir, who immediately went down to business with their typical savoir-faire. Inspired by early German Romantic poems, the seven songs keenly described simple scenes featuring country folks impersonating religious figures in a bucolic environment, which gave an unusual but welcome human dimension to the short biblical scenes.
Things got a little more high-brow after intermission, when Mark Shapiro, the choir and three special guests took us on the metaphysical journey of a prisoner talking to his soul while trying to break free from his own walls and reach the universal divine. Written in 1930 and based on a treatise by Harry Brewster, seemingly Smyth's closest friend and ever-present confidante, The Prison takes the austere theme and boldly enhances it with myriads of masterly crafted harmonies and organically beautiful colors, especially designed for the various vocal parts, while a frequent piano and a sporadic bugle provide the instrumental accompaniment.
But even the most accomplished score still needs the right artists to come alive, and we had them last Sunday evening with much appreciated last-minute replacement Thomas West, whose flexible baritone starkly highlighted the struggle of the prisoner desperately looking for deliverance, and soprano Chelsea Morris Shephard, whose bright and eloquent singing gave a vibrant personality to the soul. Cantori's singers commandingly handled the intricate details and full-blown lyricism, whether the composition called for powerful swelling waves or more introspective moments. Pianist Jason Wirth solidly supported the voices' ever-changing ebb and flow and brilliantly fulfilled a pivotal solo at the beginning of The Deliverance.
The fight for freedom was torturous and intense, but it was eventually won in a totally uplifting release of glorious sounds. A memorable way to conclude Cantori's 32nd season and Mark Shapiro's 25th anniversary as artistic director. May there be many more!

Monday, May 16, 2016

Yuja Wang - Brahms, Schumann & Beethoven - 05/14/16

Brahms: Ballade in D Minor, Op. 10, No. 1
Brahms: Ballade in D Major, Op. 10, No. 2
Schumann: Kreisleriana, Op. 16
Beethoven: Piano Sonata No. 29 in B-flat Major, Op. 106, (Hammerklavier)

Another mid-May evening at Carnegie Hall, another sold-out performance by a superstar pianist from China, this time with Yuja Wang and a solidly classical program including two short ballads by Brahms, a love letter to his soon-to-be-wife Clara by Schumann, and a monumental masterpiece for piano by Beethoven.
This is a busy time of the year for music lovers in New York City as a lot of venues and ensembles are closing their season with very tempting, if occasionally conflicting, programs. But when the prospect of hearing the inimitable Miss Wang tackle the epic "Hammerklavier" presented itself, I figured that for better or worse some serious schedule reshuffling – and regretful sacrifices – were in order, and that's just what I did, totally confident that the outcome would be worth the effort.

The concert started engagingly enough with Brahms's first pair of Op. 10 Ballades, the grave darkness of the Scottish "Edward" Ballade starkly invoking the macabre patricide, the highly rhythmical radiance of the second one betraying a decidedly more upbeat mood.
Schumann's Kreisleriana was inspired by the manic-depressive character of Johannes Kreisler created by the Romantic writer E. T. A. Hoffmann, which explains the numerous contrasting sections, during which Schumann conjured up once again his two imaginary alter egos: The perky Florestan and the dreamy Eusebius. Moreover, the burning passion that Schumann was feeling towards Clara, possibly intensified by her father's stubborn opposition to their relationship, adds an unmistakable layer of hot-bloodedness to the work’s literary value. In Wang's astonishingly dexterous hands, Kreisleriana reached the right combination of drama and poetry.
But no matter how well the previous pieces had been executed – or even what they were – the one most attendees were anxiously waiting for had to be Beethoven's devilishly difficult and compellingly irresistible "Hammerklavier", one of the most famous pillars of the piano repertoire and an enormous challenge for even the most seasoned musicians.
It is beyond doubt that since her noted debut Yuja Wang has been steadily sharpening her technical chops and developing her sense of artistry to the point where she can now face Beethoven’s daunting sonata squarely, and she confirmed it on Saturday evening with youthful vigor, vivid colors, beautiful phrasing and plenty of attention paid to the knotty little details. Her spirited interpretation was at times as voluptuously majestic as the composition itself, but she also kept the Scherzo rhythmically sharp and the quieter moments intimate and subtle. Once she had made it to the end, she was indisputably entitled to declared complete victory.

As the concert hall erupted into a huge ovation, I could only marvel at how fortunate I was to conclude my Carnegie Hall season on such a memorable note, thinking that after such a tremendous journey everybody was ready to pack up and go home. But then I had to think again because Wang eventually came back, and not empty-handed, to say the least.
For about a half-second she understandably seemed unsure what to play, but she quickly regained confidence and went on to treat the ecstatic audience to no fewer than five little nuggets that kept on popping out like dazzling fireworks: Liszt’s version of Schubert’s "Gretchen am Spinnrade" was cleverly crafty, and followed by a lovely rendition of "Melodie" from Gluck’s Orfeo ed Euridice. Next, Horowitz’s intensely flavorful "Carmen Variations" and Arcadi Volodos’ wildly entertaining take on Mozart’s "Rondo alla Turca" let off countless virtuosic sparks to the audience's delight, before Chopin’s Waltz in C-sharp Minor cooled things off and finally eased our way into the outside world. The outcome had definitely been worth the effort.

Saturday, May 14, 2016

Philadelphia Orchestra - Rachmaninoff & Mahler - 05/11/16

Conductor: Yannick Nézet-Séguin
Rachmaninoff: Piano Concerto No. 1 in F-sharp Minor, Op. 1 - Lang Lang
Mahler: Symphony No. 10 in F-sharp Major (Deryck Cooke, 1976)

The Chinese are coming! To Carnegie Hall, of all places. The first one arrived last Wednesday evening as classical music superstar Lang Lang was the soloist for the Philadelphia Orchestra, three days before Yuja Wang headlines her own recital also in the Stern Auditorium. Two very different styles, two equally exciting performers. Not a bad way to conclude my Carnegie Hall season.
On Wednesday, the main work of the evening was going to be musicologist Deryck Cooke's 1976 version of Mahler's Symphony No. 10, a monumental work that could have easily filled a shortish concert, but apparently the orchestra's unstoppable music director Nézet-Séguin decided not to stop there, but to start things off with Rachmaninoff's Piano Concerto No. 1, whose youthful energy seems tailor-made for Lang Lang's trademark impetuous playing.

And his playing was impetuous indeed, but this time it was at least justified by the intrinsic exuberance of Rachmaninoff's first piano concerto, which was later revised and is now chock-full of flashy passages as well as more subtle lyricism. While the composition's numerous qualities do not quite match the immediate appeal of the poppish No. 2 or the sweeping grandeur of the mighty Rach 3, the No. 1 is nevertheless extremely engaging in its unapologetically brazen Romanticism. And if the naturally extroverted pianist occasionally indulged in some over-the-stop theatricals, his musical performance was simply too genuinely thrilling to quibble about them. The orchestra kept a discreetly efficient presence revolving around the fired-up soloist, and the captive audience was totally satisfied.
Maybe mindful of the long endeavor coming up after intermission, Lang Lang kept his encore – Chinese composer Mingxin Du's "Dance of the Coral" – appropriately short, nice and sweet. And understated.
There were quite a few empty seats after intermission in the previously packed Stern Auditorium, proof that some people are more interested in catching a major music phenomenon than curious about experiencing an extended symphony that may or may not be considered to be part of Mahler's œuvre. But even if logically it is not Mahler's work, except for the fully completed first movement, the 75-minute journey is still worth-taking, as the audience who stayed on Wednesday evening can attest.
Written when Mahler was facing serious professional, marital and health crises and remaining a work in progress for a long time after his untimely death, his Symphony No. 10 as completed by Deryck Cooke with the permission of Mahler's widow is well-known for sounding Mahlerian to a fault and for annoying some die-hard purists to no end. But it exists, so why not give it a chance, especially when it is played by an orchestra much celebrated for their expert handling of Romantic and post-Romantic pieces.
The stunningly beautiful, unmistakably foreboding viola opening quickly proved that the Philadelphians still had it, and if the rest of the performance was not always as impeccably consistent, which after all cannot be unexpected considering the composition's history, there was still a lot to enjoy and ruminate over. By now Nézet-Séguin obviously knows how to bring out the best out of his dedicated musicians and on Wednesday they all treated us to truly exceptional moments. And that was more than enough.

Thursday, May 12, 2016

Met - Die Entführung aus dem Serail - 05/07/16

Composer: Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
Conductor: James Levine
Producer/Director: John Dexter
Osmin: Hans-Peter König
Konstance: Albina Shagimuratova
Belmonte: Paul Appleby
Blondchen: Kathleen Kim
Pedrillo: Brenton Ryan

After Roberto Devereux’s messy love entanglements and Elektra’s dire family issues, I was more than ready to end my Met season on a markedly lighter note with Mozart's delicious bonbon Die Entführung aus dem Serail. Although I am not a big fan of the Singspiel style, I knew that I could expect a delightful score churning out flawless tunes, not to mention one of the most spectacular arias ever written for sopranos in "Martern aller Arten." And that was more than enough to commit.
Incidentally, last Saturday's matinee was going to be the last performance ever conducted by James Levine as the Met's music director, and just because his stepping down after four glorious decades is probably for the best does not really make it any easier to digest. So it looked like the fluff-filled afternoon I was very much looking forward to after two tragedy-filled operas and one rain-filled week would be more emotional than expected after all. But anything for Jimmy... and Mozart.

Written when Mozart was still a young man on the order of Emperor Joseph II, who wanted to promote German works in a Vienna awash with French culture and Italian operas, Entführung was a big success then and is still regularly performed now. Not that it is overly surprising given its appealing combination of drama and comedy, a suspenseful abduction from a harem, some amusing cultural clashes, the exoticism of 18th century Turkey, and a sizzling score.
The most challenging part of them all is unquestionably Konstanze, with her two widely different and almost equally daunting back-to-back arias in Act II, among many other musical highlights. But soprano Albina Shagimuratova was totally in charge of her role and her voice, displaying plenty of emotional power in "Traurigkeit" and an impressive knack for dazzling fireworks in "Martern aller Arten." Her solid technique and boundless energy allowed her to keep going undefeated all the way to the happy ending.
Up-and-coming tenor Paul Appleby was her ever-gallant and much devoted paramour, the Spanish aristocrat Belmonte. While it seemingly took him a few minutes to get totally into the groove, his encounter with Osmin definitely kicked things into high gear and he never looked back after that. His youthful physique and elegant demeanor nicely complemented his attractive voice, and he had some truly memorable moments, such as his love duet with Konstanze.
Soprano Kathleen Kim brought her endearing diminutive frame, incredibly agile voice and impeccable comic timing to Blondchen, Konstanze's servant who knows how to stand for herself in more ways than one. Her confrontations with besotted Osmin, to whom she has been gifted by the pasha, provided some of the most sparkling exchanges of the afternoon as she cleverly used a potentially appalling situation to come up with her own assertive women’s lib manifesto.
Newcomer Brenton Ryan made a remarkably poised debut as Belmonte's no-nonsense servant Pedrillo. His physical nimbleness and bright singing helped him put together a totally engaging character that exuded freshness and smarts. Although the thought crossed my mind that Mozart had created him mostly as a preliminary draft for Figaro, fact is Pedrillo cannot be so easily dismissed. As the opera went on, it became clear that he was a fully realized individual and significantly contributed to the plot.
But the star of the opera remains Osmin, the harem's bigger-than-life overseer, who is simply too entertaining to be completely despicable. On Saturday afternoon, he also had the distinct advantage of being expertly impersonated by bass Hans-Peter König whose extensively dark range superbly matched the various emotions he was going through, from irrepressible anger at the foreign prisoners to burning love for pretty Blondchen, skillfully negotiating the treacherous line between comedy and tragedy.
The sets and costumes were generally predictable and easy on the eye, with pretty colors and oriental shapes, and then there was the occasional uninspired East-meets-West mélange or fairground-cheap décor item. If the goal was to hint at the presumed splendors of the Ottoman Empire back then, the effort was too timid to be really noteworthy. But at least it did not distract from the action unfolding on that stage.
The score, on the other hand, is unarguably a marvel of solos and ensemble pieces so stunning that they make you completely forget that, more often than not, the various characters are repeating the same thing over and over again. The inclusion of some Turkish instruments helped Mozart subtly convey the exoticism of the setting while still writing with his trademark sophistication. There were "very many notes" indeed, but each and every one of them was completely and utterly justified. The orchestra responded beautifully, delivering a warm and heart-felt performance.
Mozart is one of James Levine's favorite composers, and since he was instrumental in bringing Entführung back to the Met in 1979 after more than three decades of being out of the season programs, it was only fitting that he would be conducting it for his farewell appearance as music director.
A touching homage to his unsurpassed career was Osmin evoking the "Kapellmeister" (Conductor) instead of "Stockmeister" (Dungeon Master) during Act I, which immediately sparked quite a few knowing chuckles. And then there were the ever-longer ovations until the final, seemingly endless one. But this is only good-bye as he will be back conducting the orchestra as music director emeritus. Chances are we ain’t heard nothing yet.

Sunday, May 8, 2016

Trinity Wall Street - Concerts at One - Ginastera & Beethoven - 05/05/16

Borromeo Quartet
Ginastera: String Quartet No. 2, Op. 26 (1958, Rev. 1968)
Beethoven: String Quartet No. 14 in C-sharp Minor, Op. 131

Even the best laid plans go off course sometimes, and after the original excitement of my office's move half a block from the historical Trinity Wall Street Church last September, which has theoretically been allowing me to attend their usually intriguing Concerts at One series easily, I must confess that I let stuff like work get in the way of going to those concerts after happily attending a couple of them in October.
But when I heard that the highly regarded Borromeo Quartet would be there to perform Beethoven's one and only "131" as part of the "Revolutionaries" series, which is dedicated to the late works by Beethoven and Ginastera, I was clearly facing a force majeure event and quickly put my priorities back in order. So there I was last Thursday at 1 PM sharp, eagerly waiting for the lunchtime musical interlude to brighten up a drearily gray and wet day in the middle of a drearily gray and wet week.

The rowdy opening of Ginastera's String Quartet No. 2 kicked off the concert with speed and gusto before eventually slowly down, at least for a moment, while still keeping the audience on the edge. The composition is a compelling mix of fire, suspense, melodies and dissonances, which were all on colorful display on Thursday thanks to the impressive technical chops of the four musicians.
Then came Beethoven's String Quartet No. 14 in C-sharp Minor, Op. 131, an extraordinary work routinely considered a supreme achievement not only in Beethoven's repertoire, which would be remarkable enough, but in the entire chamber music repertoire as well. Its unusual length, daunting complexity and plain awesomeness reputedly made it a favorite of not only Beethoven himself, but of Schubert and Schumann as well.
So many brilliant ideas keep on popping up throughout the seven widely different and yet organically connected movements that they can easily leave you blissfully dizzy. On the other hand, the piece's intrinsic warmth, vibrant lyricism and emotional directness were beautifully brought out by the fiercely virtuosic Borromeo Quartet, which delivered a thoroughly accomplished and totally accessible performance. I sure wish there were more lunch breaks like this.

Sunday, May 1, 2016

Met - Elektra - 04/30/16

Composer: Richard Strauss
Conductor: Esa-Pekka Salonen
Producer: Patrice Chéreau
Stage Director:Vincent Huguet
Elektra: Nina Stemme
Klytamnestra: Waltraud Meier
Chrysothemis: Adrianne Pieczonka
Orest: Eric Owens
Aegisth: Burkhard Ulrich

Among all the exciting prospects of my 2015-2016 Met season, Elektra had to have the top spot, not so much for the opera itself, which admittedly has plenty going for it, but for the artists involved in this new production. I had loved Patrice Chéreau's long-overdue Met debut From the House of the Dead several years ago and was fully confident in his ability to bring a unique perspective to one of opera's most dysfunctional families. Esa-Pekka Salonen, who also made his Met debut in From the House of the Dead, worked closely with Chéreau on this Elektra, which debuted to unanimous acclaim in Aix-en-Provence in 2013, shortly before Chéreau's death.
Nina Stemme was a thoroughly convincing Turandot earlier in the season, and after the cold Chinese princess I was curious to hear her take on the vengeful Greek princess. I could not wait to finally get an opportunity to experience the power of living legend Waltraub Meier in person, and to become reacquainted with Eric Owens after too many years apart.
And if I had to sacrifice part of another sunny spring afternoon in New York for this new adventure, so be it.

As a popular Greek mythology figure, Elektra had made a name for herself way before Hofmannsthal and Strauss decided to make an opera out of her. She was the main character in classical tragedies by Sophocles and Euripides before occupying a central role in plays by Aeschylus, Alfieri, Voltaire and Eugene O'Neill. Oh, and she's an American comic book heroine as well. Heck, she even gave her name to a neo-Freudian mother-daughter complex. So the woman is clearly here to stay.
Swedish soprano Nina Stemme's formidable presence and visceral singing are no news, but in Elektra she has found the perfect character to use the full range of her dramatic chops as well. Yesterday she was unquestionably enraged by her mother and her lover murdering her father, ferociously ranting and raving all over the stage while obsessively plotting her revenge, but she also showed a truly vulnerable side first when she was with her mother and later with her brother in two of the most heartbreaking scenes of the afternoon. Once she had made her discreet yet unmistakable entrance, Stemme powered through the next two hours with admirable focus and stamina, and delivered a memorable performance.
As the mother Elektra wants to murder, German mezzo-soprano Waltraud Meier, still blessed with an inherently beautiful voice, impeccable acting skills and a magnetic presence after four decades of dazzling audiences, was a naturally commanding and surprisingly human Queen Klytamnestra. She was not presented as the typical hysterical murderess, but as a deeply conflicted woman suffering from bad dreams and desperate to reconnect with her rebellious daughter. As such, her singing was not only technically assured, but also touchingly poignant. At this point, I will probably never fulfill my dream of hearing her sing Isolde in context, but we'll always have Klytamnestra.
Canadian soprano Adrianne Pieczonka may not have been as well-known as the other lead singers on that stage, but she more than held her own as Chrysothemis, Elektra's deeply unhappy sister who only dreams of a normal life with husband and children. Her fiercely expressive singing and impressive dramatic flair are valuable assets that she used with utmost intelligence to create a strong and relatable character. She appeared to be as grounded as Elektra was tormented, and conveyed her thoughts through clear phrasing and expertly shapes lines.
As the put-upon brother who simply has to do the deed, American bass-baritone Eric Owens was an emotional and determined Orest, emotional when at long last he was reunited with his beloved sister, determined when he coolly went off to accomplish his gruesome mission. Before he revealed himself to Elektra, he was seen for a while in the background, silent and imposing, the inescapable figure of fate.
In the small and thankless role of Aegisth, Klytamnestra's lover and accomplice, German tenor Burkhard Ulrich had trouble making a lasting impression. On the other hand, the five female servants and their overseer who were cleaning the steps and ground during the opening scene in silent first, and then singing to the music, were all outstanding, with a special mention going to Roberta Alexander, the older woman and the only one defending Elektra.
The set was spartan with just a few walls, steps and not much else, everything being in light shades; the costumes were also minimalist and in earthy colors. In fact, everything seemed designed to place the story in nondescript place and time, emphasizing the timelessness of the conflicts and focusing the attention on the characters. The end result was a cleverly streamlined production that resolutely brought out raw human emotions, not shrieking hysteria or orgiastic decadence.
By all accounts Elektra is a wild, non-stop, two-hour ride; therefore it takes a fearless conductor to be in charge of taming the complex score and properly directing the 120 musicians in the pit while making sure to convey the composition's many fascinating qualities. Fortunately, we had the right maestro in Esa-Pekka Salonen, who not only dug out myriad of details from the music, but also subtly highlighted its fundamental beauty and intense lyricism, which in turn made the shattering eruptions all the more startling and terrifying. Kudos to him also for not drowning the singers' voices even during the most forceful outbursts.
The Met Orchestra's sterling reputation of being able to handle anything thrown at them And an awful lot is constantly thrown at them was reinforced one more time yesterday afternoon. As the drama was steadily unfolding on the stage, the instrumental performance was wildly colorful, but also richly textured, gorgeously nuanced and profoundly haunting.
When all had been said and done and everybody finally got a chance to catch their breath, we all found ourselves thoroughly exhausted, and immensely elated. The tremendous ovation that followed confirmed it: Patrice Chéreau may rest in peace. His Elektra vibrantly lives on.