Wednesday, June 29, 2016

New York City Opera - Florencia en el Amazonas - 06/23/16

Composer: Daniel Catán 
Conductor: Dean Wilkinson 
Elizabeth Caballero: Florencia 
Sarah Beckham Turner: Rosalba 
Won Whi Choi: Arcadio 
Lisa Chavez: Paula 
Luis Ledesma: Alvaro 
Kevin Thompson: Capitán Philip 
Cokorinos: Riolobo 

 After a successful Tosca, which I happily attended back in January, and a reportedly not quite as successful Hopper’s Wife back in the spring, which I missed due to a lack of notice, not will, last week the resurrected New York City Opera seemed poised to continue unabated on the road to recovery with the New York premiere of Mexican-born Daniel Catán’s Florencia en el Amazonas. A Spanish-language opera that was first performed in Houston in 1996, which is like yesterday in opera years, Florencia immediately sounded like a clever choice for the recovering company with a straightforward narrative and a constantly gorgeous score sure to get the approval of the more traditional part of audience while its contemporary flavor was bound to attract the more adventurous minds.
So on Thursday evening, my friend Christine – South American literature buff and Amazon veteran, not to mention birthday girl! – joined me in the Jazz at Lincoln Center’s Rose Theater, which was, all things considered, remarkably filled for a not so well-known opera presented on a warm summer school night.

Although the libretto is not actually based on any work of his, the story was overtly inspired by Colombian novelist Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s impressive œuvre and signature magical realism. As it was, the plot revolves around a steamboat trip down the Amazon taken in the early 1900s by a small eclectic group of South Americans, including a world-famous diva travelling incognito in search of her long-lost, butterfly-chasing sweetheart, who are all dealing with many different aspects of love, or lack thereof, in many different ways. Add to that the jungle, some piranhas and a cholera epidemic, and you have all the ingredients for rewarding entertainment.
She may not have been onstage as much I had thought she would be, considering that Florencia Grimaldi is after all the main character of the opera, but soprano Elizabeth Caballero resolutely rose to the vocal and dramatic challenge of impersonating the most acclaimed diva in the world with a voluptuous and powerful voice, which she notably put to excellent use during her three hair-raising arias. Even when her part was slowly veering toward maudlin, she still had her character keep her dignity and clear-mindedness, making her infinitely more complex than just an unfulfilled middle-aged woman desperately seeking her first and only love before it is too late. Or is it already?
The young and still relatively naïve couple that stubbornly fought their genuine feelings for each other for the longest time until they simply had to give in was endearing and well-matched. Incisive soprano Sarah Beckham Turner was fiercely, but not blindly, determined as Rosalba, a budding journalist and Florencia’s #1 fan, while clear-voiced tenor Won Whi Choi was all congenial spontaneity and burning ardor as Arcadio, the captain’s good-hearted nephew.
The older, love-weary and constantly squabbling couple contributed the bitterness of too many unpleasant times together as well as some priceless comic relief, including an admittedly rather unappetizing dish of fried iguana for dinner. Velvety mezzo-soprano Lisa Chavez skillfully alternated between grumpy and melancholic as Paula before eventually coming to her senses with a little help from Amazonian magic, and smooth baritone Luis Ledesma was mostly resigned affability with a touch of mischief as Alvaro.
Bass Kevin Thompson was an unflappable captain with just the right amount of gruffness; bass-baritone Philip Cokorinos was the agreeable deckhand Riolobo as well as a memorable spirit of the river, whose most amazing feat of the evening had to be his surviving a terribly misguided butterfly outfit that definitely had too much reality and not enough magic about it.
The production supported the story more or less adequately with some engaging ideas that panned out brilliantly and other choices that did not work very well. For example, the sporadic use of videos turned out to be distracting and totally uncalled for. The footage of an actual boat trip down the Amazon, while interestingly exotic in itself, looked more suited for a documentary, and the visual presence of Cristobal, Florencia’s erstwhile paramour, felt superfluous and overly sentimental, especially during a cheesy Tinkerbellish finale that simply did not fly.
On the other hand, the dozen of dancers clad in blue bodysuits from Ballet Hispánico did a very good, occasionally outstanding, job boldly bringing the Amazon to life through their writhing and dancing in the foreground, which turned the enigmatic river into a bona fide character that was both tastefully abstract and incredibly real. And while the game-changing storm at the end of Act I may have been a bit facile in all its unrestrained mightiness, I found it musically and visually stunning.
Under the committed guidance of Dean Wilkinson, the orchestra delivered a beautiful performance that was overflowing with vivid colors, soaring melodic lines and plenty of unabashed prettiness all around. While there is no doubt that the general attractiveness of the composition – One third Puccini-inspired intense lyricism, one third neo-romantic lushness reminiscent of Strauss and Wagner, and one third delicately evocative neo-impressionism à la Debussy – made it easy for the audience to just take it all in without asking too many questions, and that was just fine.

After this strong conclusion of a short 2015-16 season and a downright compelling full 2016-17 season, opera-loving New Yorkers have good reasons to get their hopes up. It is going to be a long wait until September.

Monday, June 20, 2016

Norgard in New York - Momenta Quartet - All-Norgard - 06/17/16

Norgard: String Quartet No. 3 (Three Miniatures)
Norgard: Playground
Norgard: String Quartet No. 8 (Night)
Norgard: String Quartet No. 5 (Inscape)
Norgard: Tjampuan (Where the Rivers Meet)
Norgard: String Quartet No. 10 (Harvest Timeless)

As luck would have it, just as I was marveling at the exceptional talent of contemporary Danish composer Per Norgard after the New York Philharmonic's vibrant performance of his Symphony No. 8 a week earlier, I was able to become more acquainted with his impressive œuvre, including his intriguing "infinity series", thanks to the timely three-day mini-festival "Norgard in New York", of which I regretfully could attend only the second night, at Scandinavia House. It turned out, however, to be a night to remember.
As it was, the program looked like a well-balanced mix of substantial works and less significant pieces, which all together formed a compelling smorgasbord. And to make the offer even more attractive, the Momenta Quartet, whose strong dedication to international avant-garde music and superior musicianship have been well proven for a while now, would logically enough be the ensemble in charge of the performance.

After a short video featuring Norgard talking about his constant search in music, the concert started with the US premiere of his 1959 String Quartet No. 3, and while the "Three Miniatures" were indeed short-lived, they nevertheless delivered an illuminating punch into the composer's mindset at the time, with each musician getting to play their own little melody that brilliantly developed into delightfully original patterns before it all ended on a refreshing whimsical note.
We stayed in a light-hearted mood and fast-forwarded almost five decades for "Playground", an immediately engaging piece for solo violin that, in Emilie-Anne Gendron's expert hands, turned out to be a highly rhythmical, blazingly virtuosic treat that vividly expressed children's spontaneity, feistiness and unspoiled sense of fun.
But then the atmosphere grew darker for the US premiere of his 1997 String Quartet No. 8. Drawn from Norgard's chamber opera Nuit des Hommes, which itself is an abstract work about World War I based on poems by Guillaume Apollinaire, "Night Descending Like Smoke" was an emotionally gripping journey that relentlessly moved from eerie tensions to severe turbulences. The Momenta Quartet gave a haunting, assured and richly rewarding performance of the challenging composition, during which they once again clearly demonstrated their outstanding skills.
After a well-deserved intermission, we moved back to 1969 for the US premiere of the String Quartet No. 5. Finely crafted and inconspicuously hypnotic, "Inscape" started unabashedly minimalist and generated a myriad of subtly intricate sounds before finally launching into a joyful, earthy episode in the best folk music tradition.
Next we had another US premiere with "Tjampuan", a lighter work from 1992 that highlighted Norgard's keen interest in Indonesian culture. Both violinist Alex Shiozaki and cellist Michael Haas did an excellent job brightly impersonating the two rivers of the title, each resolutely following its own course until they eventually met toward the end.
The concert concluded with the 2015 String Quartet No. 10 ("Harvest Timeless"), a more traditional, but still endlessly inventive composition that had the composer's trademark microtones, but also flowed more freely before slowly fading away. The Momenta Quartet's playing was impeccably precise and smooth as they leisurely took us across various melodic landscapes in a successful and timeless combination of classical and contemporary music.

Monday, June 13, 2016

NY Phil Biennial - New York Philharmonic - Norgard, Boulez & Stucky - 06/11/16

Conductor: Alan Gilbert
Norgard: Symphony No. 8
Boulez: Messagesquisse for Solo Cello and Six Cellos
Eric Bartlett: Solo Cello
Stucky: Second Concerto for Orchestra

Because all good things must come to an end, on Saturday night the NY Phil Biennial wrapped up with an contemporary music concert by the New York Philharmonic at the David Geffen Hall, followed by a playdate with the artists. True to the biennial’s ambitious and far-reaching mission, the line-up featured intriguing works, two of which written by major composers that have passed away this year, Pierre Boulez and Steven Stucky, as well as lesser-known but equally worth-knowing Danish composer Per Norgard.
Adventurous programming oblige, only the orchestra section of the concert hall was open, but the fact that most of the seats of the large space were filled by an eclectic crowd – I had a banking intern from Colorado to my left, a long-time NY Phil subscriber to my right and a couple of Japanese tourists behind me – was certainly a heart-warming sight considering the wide range of options in New York City and beyond on a warm June Saturday night.

Because Per Norgard's Symphony No. 8 was originally the last piece on the official program, I had figured that I would read about it during intermission. But things had changed, and I was very grateful for Alan Gilbert’s detailed introduction after he had announced that it would open the concert after all.
Fact is, although the composition was indisputably complex and occasionally unusual, it also turned out to be fundamentally engaging, despite, or possibly because of, its subtle mystical loftiness. Throughout its entire course it often came out lively and playful, with light-hearted hints at folk music and tidbits of attractive melodies, but always with unmistakable Nordic clarity and transparence. There was a lot going on, sometimes in the most unexpected ways, but even in the busiest moments, an overall Zen quality prevailed. Alan Gilbert led the orchestra into an intense and haunting performance of it, which also – inexplicably – happened to be the US premiere of the engrossing work.
After intermission, we moved on to Pierre Boulez's Messagesquisse for Solo Cello and Six Cellos, originally a birthday present from the composer to dedicated avant-garde supporter Paul Sacher, which on Saturday became a heartfelt tribute from the New York Philharmonic to the man who was their music director from 1971 to 1977. Downright simple at first sight, the composition is in fact a seven-minute set of coded messages, or esquisses, which allowed soloist Eric Bartlett and the six accompanying cellists to display their renowned virtuosic skills with brio and authority.
Steven Stucky’s Second Concerto for Orchestra, which was awarded the 2005 Pulitzer Prize for Music, was next to celebrate its long-overdue New York premiere and conclude the 2016 NY Phil Biennial. The concerto brilliantly packs in musical references as different, clever and meaningful as Ravel, Sibelius, Debussy, Brahms, Stravinsky and Britten, just to name a few, for a brisk half hour of endlessly inventive and delightfully refreshing, pure musical bliss. Under Alan Gilbert's vigorous conducting, the orchestra's performance was thrilling, infectiously exuding bright colors and unadulterated joy, and proudly bringing this second NY Phil Biennial, still very young but already an essential part of the New York music scene, to a well-deserved, glorious finish.

Saturday, June 11, 2016

NY Phil Biennial - Aspen Music Festival and School - Kotcheff, Hartke, Young, Stucky, Stark & Salonen - 06/08/16

Thomas Kotcheff: bang Z
Stephen Hartke: The Blue Studio
Nina C. Young: Rising Tide
Steven Stucky: The Stars and the Roses
Christopher Stark: Mercy Bell
Esa-Pekka Salonen: Catch and Release

As the NY Phil Biennial kept on unfolding its many appealing offerings this week, my next stop was the Whitney Museum of Art's intimate multi-use Susan and John Hess Family Theater, where I have been enjoying quite a few enlightening talks, but no concerts yet. I could hardly have hoped, however, for a better occasion than a program featuring New York premieres of contemporary chamber music works written by new and established composers and performed by young musicians from the highly regarded Aspen Contemporary Ensemble. The untimely death of Steven Stucky deprived us from his conducting magic, and we were very grateful for equally adventurous Timothy Weiss for stepping in.
So on Wednesday evening, as the rain has finally stopped, the clouds cleared up and the sun was coming out, I eagerly made my way to the still damp Meatpacking District for the unusual 7 PM starting time, which would then leave plenty of time for the post-concert play-date with the artists.

The concert started with the shortest number of the program, which in seven minutes turned out to be one of the most inconspicuous and enjoyable musical escapades of the evening. Using the small Chinese wood block called bangzi to provide the central timbre, Thomas Kotcheff's bang Z seemed to go into many different directions at once in the most spontaneous fashion, except that the playing was obviously way too precise to have been left to chance. In the end, all this controlled chaos felt joyful and fun.
Inspired by Matisse's Studio with Goldfish, whose mesmerizing deep blue shade is similar to the one in the composer’s own studio, Stephen Hartke's The Blue Studio was definitely a more classical endeavor with its traditional violin-cello-piano trio. On Wednesday evening, the composition warmly invited the audience to leisurely browse through an expertly colored art portfolio, all five movements representing completely unique and readily attractive images.
The mood grew even more organic with Nina C. Young's Rising Tide, an engaging piece that skillfully focuses on climate change – as well as a passage from Shakespeare's Julius Caesar – with a fascinating collage of ethereal and earthy sounds. The seven musicians delivered a strongly assured performance under the diligent baton of Timothy Weiss in just eight minutes.
One of the major works on the program, Steven Stucky's The Stars and the Roses was a gentle three-song cycle for tenor and orchestra. Based on poems by Polish writer Czeslaw Milosz, thoughtfully sung by Spencer Lang and delicately backed up by the orchestra, the songs were poetic and lyrical, definitely pretty, but not overly sweet.
During intermission, the background curtain came up and we were suddenly facing a rather impressive view over the Hudson River just as the sun was setting. The dazzling vista stayed with us for the rest of the evening, including Christopher Stark's Mercy Bell, whose sources of inspiration are as wide-ranging as the Misericordia bell in Giotto's Campanile in Florence for the childhood memories, Stravinsky's The Soldier's Tale for the seven-piece instrumentation and Miles Davis' Birth of the Cool for the jazzy overtones, all of which converged into an infectious and virtuosic performance.
Last, but by no means least, Esa-Pekka Salonen closed the concert with Catch and Release, which, while rather modest when compared to the rest of his œuvre, was the longest and most substantial work of the evening. Keeping the same instrumentation as Mercy Bell and The Soldier's Tale, Salonen came up in with a delightful little jaunt that, within 22 minutes and three movements, brilliantly sparkled with uninhibited playfulness, quick wit and stylish nonchalance. An irrefutable proof that mature talent can still remain fresh and inquisitive.

Tuesday, June 7, 2016

NY Phil Biennial - The Importance of Being Earnest - 06/04/16

Composer: Gerald Barry
Conductor: Ilan Volkov
Director: Ramin Gray
Paul Curievici: John Worthing
Benedict Nelson: Algernon Moncrieff
Alan Ewing: Lady Bracknell
Stephanie Marshall: Gwendolen Fairfax
Claudia Boyle: Cecily Cardew
Hilary Summers: Miss Prism
Simon Wilding: Lane/Merriman
Kevin West: Rev. Canon Chasuble, D.D.

Oscar Wilde’s perennially popular The Importance of Being Earnest is as flawlessly sparkling a comedy as they come, therefore I was very much looking forward to checking out the modern dress, semi-staged opera production of it by Irish composer Gerald Barry and the Royal Opera of London. I highly doubted that the original play could be much improved upon, but on second thought, the idea of giving it a musical spin sounded very intriguing and totally worth exploring.
So last Saturday evening I walked down Broadway to the Time Warner Center's not so full but still wonderful Rose Theater, where, two days after its US premiere, The Importance of Being Earnest (The Opera) was being presented with most of the original London cast for the third and last time as part of the NY Phil Biennial.

In his "A Trivial Comedy for Serious People", Oscar Wilde used the concept of double identity and double life to expose Victorian ways with no mercy, but plenty of mordant wit and laugh-out-loud shenanigans. So my hope was that the opera would keep the irresistible spirit of the play and spice it up with an equally appealing musical accompaniment, et voilà! The exciting mission would be accomplished. But it did not happen.
Having a man impersonate the formidable high-society matron that is Lady Bracknell is not exactly a novelty since it has successfully been done in the play. But in this case, the fact that bass Alan Ewing was dressed as a businessman and did not project anything remotely feminine automatically killed the potentially entertaining gender-bending touch and simply looked odd. His singing, on the other hand, was self-possessed and engaging, even when he launched into an amusingly dreadful version of Schiller’s "Freude Schöner Götterfunken", excruciatingly poking fun at the obsession of Victorian upper class with German culture, and making me even more grateful than usual for Beethoven's glorious "Ode to Joy".
The two endlessly scheming buddies, Jack and Algernon, were equally well represented by clear-voiced tenor Paul Curievici and borderline scruffy baritone Benedict Nelson respectively. They both managed to keep up with the comedic and musical pace without seemingly breaking a sweat, which certainly was no mean feat.
Their two attractive love interests fared just as heroically. Mezzo-soprano Stephanie Marshall was Gwendolen Fairfax, the iron-willed young woman who will stop at nothing to marry someone named Ernest, and soprano Claudia Boyle was Cecily Cardew, an irresistible bimbo whose impeccably – if gratingly – stratospheric singing was a tour de force in itself.
The rest of the cast, including contralto Hilary Summers as a truly wonderful, not so uptight Miss Prism, easily blended in to create a wildly rambunctious, completely homogeneous ensemble.
Their excellent singing was all the more remarkable given how dauntingly difficult, mercilessly dissonant and aggravatingly erratic the score was, not to mention how generally unrewarding the overall experience ended up being. There were a few more or less delightfully inventive moments to be sure, such as two French horns evoking an army of buzzing bumblebees driving Cecily and Miss Prism crazy in the countryside, dinner plates being rhythmically smashed on the off-beats during a confrontation between Cecily and Gwendolen via megaphones (?!), the musicians adding chanting or stomping to their already unnerving instrumental duties. But a lot of it seemed designed just for wackiness' sake and all the non-stop agitation ended up feeling gratuitous and tiresome.
Kudos, however, are in order for the reduced brass-and-wind-centric orchestra consisting of New York Philharmonic members who bravely tried to make sense of it all, and for conductor Ilan Volkov who unflappably kept his head cool and his baton precise, even after being unceremoniously bumped off his stand at the very beginning of the performance, right before a garish take on "Auld Lang Syne" ominously warned us of louder and zanier things to come. And they kept coming for almost two hours.
To be fair, there were some random instances where the refined humor of the original play winningly made it through the widespread mayhem and some directional choices were somewhat inspired, such as the first row in the orchestra being mostly occupied by the singers when they were not onstage, but really, there are only so many cucumber sandwiches one can watch fly all over the place in the course of a single performance.
From what I overheard during intermission, audience members had widely different opinions about the experience. The comments from the group of slightly puzzled adults in front of me ranged from "unusual" to "unbearable", and concluded that their next opera outing should be Madama Butterfly. A few minutes later a revved up kid passing in front of me turned to his buddy and breathlessly confessed "I don't understand it but I like it". Sometimes ignorance is bliss indeed.