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.