Monday, December 19, 2016

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

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

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

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

Saturday, December 17, 2016

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, December 13, 2016

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

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

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

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

Saturday, December 3, 2016

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

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

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

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