Sunday, April 23, 2017

Festival de Pâques - Renaud Capuçon, Jean-Yves Thibaudet & The Knights - Bach, Mendelssohn, Stravinsky & Mozart - 04/20/17

Bach: Brandenburg Concerto No. 3 in G Major, BWV 1048 
Mendelssohn: Double Concerto for Piano, Violin and Strings in D Minor, MWV 4 
Stravinsky: Concerto in E-flat (Dumbarton Oaks) 
Mozart: Symphony No. 29 in A Major

Another day at Aix-en-Provence’s Festival de Pâques, another exciting concert in perspective. For our last stop in our foray into the terrific musical event, my mom and I had selected a concert featuring festival founder, eminent violinist, and incidentally Gautier’s big brother, Renaud Capuçon, the most American of French pianists, endlessly versatile and international star Jean-Yves Thibaudet, and the festival’s Orchestra-in-Residence The Knights, a resolutely plucky musical collective from Brooklyn that is equally at ease in the prestigious confine of Carnegie Hall’s Zankel Hall as in the outdoor space of Central Park’s Naumburg Shell.
Therefore, on Thursday evening, after some quality time at the Musée Granet and the Collection Jean Planque, we ventured to the third and biggest venue of our program, the soberly modern, round-shaped Grand Théâtre de Provence. That’s where a large and eclectic audience, which happened to include former French Prime Minister Manuel Valls and his violinist wife in the row behind us, eagerly packed the auditorium for the compelling program consisting of Bach, Mendelssohn, Stravinsky and Mozart. And if we still had not realized that this concert was indeed a big deal, numerous fancy-looking cameras and microphones reminded us that the performance would be broadcast live on Radio Classique and later on ARTE Concerts. So there.

Starting a concert with Johann Sebastian Bach is a good way to assert one’s musical credentials as well as make everybody happy. So far so good, but The Knights had something else in mind too. Not only contenting themselves to display their impeccable skills while playing the original composition, they also demonstrated once again their well-known spirit of adventure by boldly inserting Paul Simon’s 1973 song “American Tune”, soulfully sung by Knightess Christina Courtin, into the middle movement. Chosen as a testimony of our uncertain times, the song, which is based on a melody line found in a chorale from Bach’s Saint Matthew Passion, integrated into the Adagio rather well, if a bit peculiarly. In any case, as the woman sitting next to me pointed out, it was indisputably “creative”.
Readily jumping from baroque with a pop twist to classical with a romantic twist, the ensemble next joined forces with Renaud Capuçon and Jean-Yves Thibaudet for Felix Mendelssohn’s Doule Concerto for Piano, Violin and Strings, which the precocious composer wrote when he was 14 years old. Probably as a result, the piece overflows with boundless energy and intense lyricism, cheerfully spinning out one attractive melody after another. The playing was in fact so exhilarating that the audience started vigorously applauding at the end of the first movement, and for so long that Capuçon eventually had to discreetly signal that it was not over yet. And then the music went on, the violin and piano handling the tricky passages with impressive dexterity and flair while the orchestra provided the indispensable solid background to let the duo shine steady and bright.
After intermission, The Knights were back for Stravinsky’s Dumbarton Oaks Concerto, a composition – and a composer – whose uncompromising inventiveness seem tailor-made for them. Commissioned by Robert and Mildred Bliss for their thirtieth wedding anniversary at Dumbarton Oaks in Washington, D.C., which could not fail to remind me of my brief residency right down the street from the historic estate, and inspired by – Surprise! – the Bradenburg Concertos, most particularly No. 3, Dumbarton Oaks is bubbly without being vacuous and imaginative without being esoteric. The Knights played the three continuous movements with plenty of verve and just the right amount of grittiness.
The program ended on an immensely enjoyable note with one of Mozart’s most popular works from his youth, his Symphony No. 29, which also marked his farewell to Bach’s influence as the 18-year old composer was moving toward defining his own style. And while the interpretation by the smaller ensemble that is The Knights by default did not have the breadth and richness that a larger orchestra would have made possible, their more intimate performance was expertly calibrated to bring out the irresistible élan and natural radiance of the piece. In the end, beside providing pure musical bliss, this splendid conclusion to our mini-festival also brought about a fleeting thought about my return to The Big Apple, and a solemn promise to come back to the festival sooner than later.

Thursday, April 20, 2017

Festival de Pâques - Vengerov, Weilerstein & Cho - Schumann, Ravel &Shostakovich - 04/15/17

Schumann: Fantasiestücke for Cello and Piano, Op. 73 
Ravel: Sonata for Violin and Piano 
Ravel: Tzigane, Rhapsody for Violin and Piano 
Shostakovich: Piano Trio No. 2 in E Minor, Op. 67 

My bucket list includes a few musicians that I have never managed to experience live despite my best efforts. But I have not given up on any of them yet. Former child prodigy and still one of the world’s premier violinists, Maxim Vengerov has stubbornly remained among the top names on that list for longer than I care to remember, but luckily this year Aix-en-Provence’s still young but already essential Festival de Pâques and good timing have forever changed this sorry state of affairs.
When I heard that for the third time in five years he was going to be in one of my favorite French towns to perform three widely different compositions – pleasantly engaging, boldly virtuosic and intensely gripping – that would allow me not only to be able to enjoy his prodigious talent in a wonderful environment, but also to support a worthy musical endeavor at the same time, I pretty much organized a trip to France around the not-to-be-missed opportunity.
Therefore, last Saturday after enjoying some superb Goldberg Variations followed by a lovely lunch on cours Mirabeau, my mom and I found ourselves in the coolly modern, perfectly sized, acoustically blessed and definitely packed Conservatoire Darius Milhaud at 6 p.m. to hear the exasperatingly elusive violinist perform alongside familiar New York cellist Alisa Weilerstein and fast-rising Korean pianist Seong-Jin Cho, who apparently blew everybody away last year when he stepped in for Daniil Trifonov and impressively nailed no less than Rach 3.

As if to make the suspense last a little longer, the first piece on the program, Robert Schumann’s Fantasiestücke, had been written for cello and piano only. Bringing along his two signature characters, the extrovert Florestan and the introvert Eusebius, the composer provided Alisa Weilerstein and Seong-Jin Cho with an attractive set of eight vignettes to play with, and so they did with a totally winning dedication.
But persistence and patience do pay off sometimes, and Maxim Vengerov finally made his first appearance in the concert to join Cho for Maurice Ravel’s popular Sonata for Violin and Piano. Beautifully emphasizing the natural quality of their own instrument as well as the inherent musicality of the piece, the two musicians adroitly wandered their own winding paths, the much anticipated bluesy interlude languorously unfolding in all its irresistible splendor.
While Ravel’s Sonata was a delightful treat, Vengerov really got to display his fierce virtuosity in the French composer’s flamboyant Tzigane. Conceived more or less as a formidable one-man show for the violin, the piano showing up late and discreetly, Tzigane packs an awful lot of dazzling twists and turns in its 10-minute duration, all the more to highlight the conflicting darkness and light of the traditional Hungarian gypsy dance. Starting in a gloomy mood and concluding with joyful fireworks, Vengerov delivered a passionate performance freely oozing the sexy exoticism of bohemian life and the gorgeous lushness of Late Romanticism.
After the musically appealing but relatively light-hearted previous numbers, the three musicians got together for Dmitri Shostakovich’s Piano Trio No. 2, which incidentally happens to be one of my favorite chamber music pieces, not the least because of its viscerally expressed sense of tragedy. Written in 1944 when the composer was dealing with the general exhaustion brought by World War II and the tremendous grief caused by the loss of his closest friend, the work evokes those trying times with grating dissonances, frenzied episodes, dark melodic lines, and a devilish passacaglia whose relentless staccato rarely fails to stick into the listener’s mind for an unduly long time.
Having three certified virtuosos take on the technically and emotionally difficult piece was of course a near-guarantee of excellence, and I am happy to report that the brilliant performance even exceeded our sky-high expectations. Far from shying away from the composition’s many jarring moments, the trio confronted them head-first with tightly coordinated expertise and downright exhausting force. That said, aside from the purely musical fulfillment, it was also extremely heart-warming to see American, Russian/Israeli and Korean artists make beautiful music together in our only slightly less turbulent times.

Although the world has clearly not been waiting for my feedback with bated breath, I can now confirm that Maxim Vengerov is a truly outstanding violinist. However, his French speaking skills being slightly less impressive, we were not able to catch the full name of their encore, only to figure out that it was the second movement of a trio of some sort. But that did not keep us from enjoying the mysterious parting gift until the very last note.

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

Festival de Pâques - Beatrice Rana - Bach - 04/15/17

Bach: The Goldberg Variations, BWV 988 

Travels and music being two of life’s utmost pleasures in my view, I often try to combine the two one way or another when I have some free time and/or receive an offer I simply cannot resist. This of course inevitably results in exhausting but exhilarating vacations, but then again, one only lives once.
This year I finally decided to join my mom for Aix-en-Provence’s five-year old Festival de Pâques. She’s been a regular since the classical music event’s opening and I have been enviously listening to her glowing reports ever since. This trip to France also provided the perfect opportunity to spend time in the truly lovely town of Aix, partake in long overdue family reunions, and shamelessly indulge in extremely fine dining and drinking. So never mind the frantic pace, including sleeping in six different places in eight days, I just knew it would be all worth it at the end.
That’s how, after my heathen mother copiously fed her many equally pagan guests sinful pâtés, including foie gras, and rabbit among many other goodies during an extended Good Friday lunch, she and I got up at 6:00 a.m. the following morning to beat an Easter weekend traffic that never materialized during the two-hour drive to Aix. On the other hand, our early arrival left us plenty of time to make the de rigueur stop at Les Deux Garçons brasserie, check out a couple of open air markets, and still make it to the 12:00 p.m. concert.
To ease us into the classical music groove, the first performance of our own three-concert festival was Bach’s timeless Goldberg Variations, which would be played by young Italian pianist Beatrice Rana in the small, eye-popping and packed Théâtre du Jeu de Paume.

Beatrice Rana may only be 24 years old, but her thoughtful and assured playing of Bach’s daunting masterpiece showed that she is blessed with a musical maturity way beyond her years while still displaying a healthy dose of youthful freshness and impetuosity. That also explained her still budding but already prestigious career.
Starting and ending with the famously delicate aria, the Goldberg Variations, which were allegedly written to help Count Hermann von Keyserling sleep and originally performed by Johann Gottlieb Goldberg, a former student of the composer’s employed by the Count, is a work remarkable for its thorny structural complexity and genuine emotional appeal, spanning from childish wonder to breathless dancing to dark mysticism.
On Saturday, Rana resolutely stayed the course, effortlessly handling the technical challenges while keeping the endless density and inherent beauty of the music accessible to all. Her light touch was ideal for the exquisite aria that would launch the 30 variations, yet she also knew when to stir things up with strength and clarity. In short, those 75 minutes were a totally satisfying beginning of our own mini-festival and more than whetted our appetites for what was coming next.

Sunday, April 9, 2017

San Francisco Symphony - Cage, Shostakovich & Bartok - 04/07/17

Conductor: Michel Tilson Thomas 
Cage: The Seasons 
Shostakovich: Cello Concerto No. 1 in E-flat Major, Op. 107 
Gautier Capuçon: Cello 
Bartok: Concerto for Orchestra 

Any excuse is a good one to experience the magic of the San Francisco Orchestra and Michael Tilson Thomas during their annual visit to Carnegie Hall, and this year the additional incentive of finally getting a chance to check out still young and already highly reputed French cellist Gautier Capuçon sealed the deal even faster than usual. Not to mention that, to top it all off, he would be playing Shostakovich's Cello Concerto No. 1, which would be a nice change from the much more ubiquitous cello concertos by Dvorak and Haydn.
So never mind the busy week. On Friday evening, I was officially on vacation for the following two weeks, and I could not find a better way to get into a carefree groove than spending it at Carnegie Hall in brilliant company for an eclectic program featuring three musical giants of the 20th century.

John Cage's The Seasons may only last about 15 minutes, but those are 15 efficiently used minutes. Originally written to accompany a ballet choreographed by his buddy Merce Cunningham, it was the composer's first composition for orchestra and it of course did not fail to baffle audiences when it first came out. Nowadays this little gem sounds carefully proportioned, delicately colored, fleetingly melodic and downright beguiling. Handled with meticulous precision and a lot of love by the orchestra, The Seasons opened the concert on a bold and fascinating note.
Dimitri Shostakovich's cello concerto is a truly mesmerizing work, and on Friday night Gautier Capuçon confidently confirmed his well-known command of it. Without any fuss, the cello got busy right away with the main theme and plenty of dark humor for the Allegretto, before the Moderato and its stunningly beautiful long lines took over. Still in a pensive mood, the mighty Cadenza served as a thrilling transition to the last movement and its mercilessly manic race to a breathless ending.
Stepping into the shoes of Mstislav Rostropovitch, for whom the concerto was written, is mission impossible, and Capuçon smartly does not even try. He does not have to anyway. His thoroughly informed appreciation of the work allowed him to make the concerto his own and to deliver an impeccably elegant, assuredly virtuosic and deeply sensitive performance, which was rightfully rewarded by an fervent ovation.
In fact, the ovation was so fervent that it was itself rewarded by a delightful rendition of "March of the Small Soldiers" by Prokofiev, which readily closed the Russian portion of our evening.
After intermission, Bela Bartok's Concerto for Orchestra, which he composed when he was impoverished, depressed and already ill with the leukemia that would eventually kill him, took center stage, vividly going from brooding somberness all the way to sunny cheerfulness. The orchestra performed it with their customary savoir-faire, brilliantly highlighting the piece's many moods and colors, maestro Thomas constantly making sure that the various sections retained their individuality while still playing harmoniously together.
When this was over, the tireless conductor and orchestra treated the ecstatic audience to a heartfelt gift: “The Alcotts” movement from Ives’ Concord Sonata as orchestrated by Henry Brant. And just like that, we were back in America.

Saturday, April 8, 2017

Cantori New York - Gibbons, Farrant & Victory - 04/05/17

Artistic Director & Conductor: Mark Shapiro 
Gibbons: O Lord, In Thy Wrath 
Farrant: Hide Not Thou Thy Face 
Gibbons: O Clap Your Hands Together 
Victory: Seven Songs of Experience 
The Sunflower 
The Fly 
The Tyger 

 Nobody has ever had to twist my arm for me to take a day off in the middle of the week – or at any other time, for that matter – especially when the day includes a sadly short but predictably uplifting musical treat for lunch, and just within (extended) walking distance from my apartment at that.
Therefore, after attending La Campana sommersa with the New York City Opera down Broadway in the Rose Theater at Columbus Circle last Tuesday night, I found myself up Broadway in an acoustically blessed room of the massive Interchurch Center in Morningside Heights last Wednesday afternoon. That's where a slightly reduced but still resolutely blazing Cantori New York led by Mark Shapiro was scheduled to perform a few works from their last concert's program as part of the facility's Wednesday Noonday Concerts series. 

Back to where the original concert started, The three Tudor motets by Orlando Gibbons and Richard Farrant came vibrantly alive in all their polyphonic glory while exploring the universal dualism of darkness and light. Religionism oblige, the texts of Gibbons' "O Lord, In Thy Wrath" and Farrant's "Hide Not Thou Thy Face" were essentially stern and moralistic, but Gibbons' "O Clap Your Hands Together" eventually allowed the singers and the rest of us to let loose and indulge in a bit of irrational exuberance. 
From England we then moved to Ireland for a persuasive taste of Gerard Victory's Seven Songs of Experience. The entire piece being unfortunately too long to fit into the allowed time, we still got to enjoy three songs that had been democratically selected – which means, just to be clear, selected by popular vote – by the choir. Turns out that those chosen few were also arguably the most popular ones during the Saturday night performance I attended a couple of weeks, although the unquestionable biggest hit of that evening, the dauntingly challenging for the choir and irresistibly catchy for the audience "Human Abstract", was alas left out.
But the samples offered on Wednesday afternoon were more than satisfying, "The Sunflower" beautifully blossomed in many vivid colors again in a rousing celebration of the sun and youth. Changing our focus from plants to animals, we witnessed the relentless existential musings of "The Fly", which proved once and for all that some insects have feelings too, before boldly venturing into the jungle for the popular "Tyger Tyger", the most substantial and energetic song of the day, which eloquently emphasized the wonder and fear inspired by such a majestic and ferocious creature in a fiercely enjoyable closing number.

New York City Upera - La campana sommersa - 04/04/17

Composer: Ottorino Respighi 
Conductor: Ira Levin 
Director: Pier Francesco Maestrini 
Brandie Sutton: Rauthendelein 
Marc Heller: Enrico 
Michael Chioldi:L'Ondino 
Glenn Seven Allen: The Faun 
Kristin Cokorinos: Magda 

 The New York City Opera’s long and much lauded tradition of offering mostly little known operas performed by up-and-coming singers was an absolute godsend for opera buffs who needed more excitement than the often fancy but even more often predictable productions at the Met. So a lot of us are extremely pleased that, after a somewhat short but still too long hiatus, the NYCO is back and still presenting obscure but deserving works, including La campana sommersa of Ottorino Respighi, a composer more rightfully famous for his remarkably evocative tone poems.
I had purposely bought my ticket to hear much established Italian tenor Fabio Armaliato, whom I had found memorable as Caravadossi back in Vienna several years ago. Unfortunately, the man had the nerve to take ill for the two performances he was supposed to be in – Sinuses can truly be a terrible thing to have for a singer – but fortunately Marc Heller, the other tenor singing Enrico’s part during the four-performance run, was well, ready, available and willing to fill in. Therefore, it is with still plenty of confidence that we all sat down on Tuesday night in Time Warner Center’s wonderful Rose Theater.

Inspired by the German poetic play Die versunkene Glocke, the narrative of La campana sommersa revolves around a married-with-children church bell-maker who is rescued from dying by a water sprite, follows her into the woods, and lives to regret it. The moral of the story can be summed up as "Do not fall for the irresistible fairy, even if she provides free and amazingly effective healthcare". It sounded all a bit far-fetched, and of course the uneasy encounter between fairies and humans cannot fail to remind regular concert-goers of Rusalka, but most operas are about suspension of disbelief anyway, so we suspended it.
As the main character Rautendelein, soprano Brandie Sutton had the daunting challenge of impersonating an insouciant elf who doubles as a de facto femme fatale, and she brilliantly pulled it off with a powerful and ravishing voice that made even the most over-extended arias – and there were quite a few of those – simply fly by. This mighty asset of hers easily soared over the orchestra and just as easily put Enrico in her pocket in no time (although with a little help from her magic broth). Add to that a real stage presence, convincing acting chops and seemingly boundless energy, and you have a genuine star in the making.
Tenor Marc Heller's Enrico may not have been the sharpest knife in the drawer on that stage, but he was still a good guy at heart, well-meaning but understandably blinded by Rautendelein's overwhelming power of attraction. And once the honeymoon was over, things went dreadfully downhill for the poor guy. Heller's singing was unfailingly articulate and resounding; moreover, he was also able to expertly tone it down and project just the right amount of softness when needed.
One of the forest’s most beguiling creatures, the king of the frogs L'Ondino had the lustrous voice of baritone Michael Chioldi and never missed an opportunity to announce his presence loud and clear with his signature "brekekekex".
Still in the magic kingdom, tenor Glenn Seven Allen was a visually dazzling faun, complete with goat horns, a green upper body, red furry legs and fancy cloven hooves. Oh, and he could sing too, and very well at that.
Back in the real world, soprano Kristin Cokorinos also made a very strong impression in the relatively small part of Magda, Enrico’s wife, with richly nuanced singing and a key role in the unfolding drama.
The attractive production was divided between a fantasy world, which was bursting with bright colors and rather eye-popping outfits, and the real world, which was matter-of-factly, but nicely represented by a large rustic house, including the de rigueur burning fireplace, a traditional family, and a bunch of additional kids running around. Those conventional sets were not very inventive, but totally appropriate and well designed.
Some videos were put to excellent use when creating a beautifully lit, endlessly mysterious forest, but others much less so when showing the bell sinking in the lake (redundant), the mother drowning (gratuitous), and Enrico's two over-sized children bringing him a chalice filled with their mother's tears (trying too hard at being innovative). Not to mention that the screen on which some of those videos were projected remained in front of the stage for the entire duration of Acts 3 and 4, which created a Bretchian distance that was probably not intended and was definitely not welcome.
If Pier Francesco Maestrini did not hold back on splashy colors when staging the opera, maestro Levin certainly did not hold back on splashy colors when conducting the orchestra either. All together, the musicians from the Theatro Lirico di Cagliari Orchestra and from the City Opera Orchestra were more than capable of delivering a consummate performance, and they did brilliantly succeed in making the lushly lyrical score sing to high heaven.
The bottom line is that, while too substantial to be a mere trifle, La campana sommersa is not accomplished enough to become a classic. But the experience was still much enjoyed. A young woman a few seats away from me confided to her friend during intermission that she was finding it “weird, but loving it”, and an older woman ahead of me as we were leaving was wondering aloud why the Met does not “do operas like that”. So we shall call it a success.

Wednesday, April 5, 2017

Paul Lewis - Bach, Beethoven, Chopin & Weber - 04/05/17

Bach: Partita No. 1 in B-flat Major, BWV 825 
Beethoven: Sonata No. 4 in E-flat Major, Op. 7 
Chopin: Waltz in A Minor, Op. 34, No. 2 
Chopin: Waltz in F Minor, Op. 70, No. 2 
Chopin: Waltz in D-flat Major, Op. 64, No. 1 (Minute Waltz) 
Weber: Sonata No. 2 in A-flat Major, Op. 39 

 Last week was a good one for piano lovers in the Big Apple. After Mitsuko Uchida at Carnegie Hall on Thursday evening, Paul Lewis, who may very well be the most exciting export from Liverpool since the Beatles, was giving his one and only New York recital at the historic Town Hall on Sunday afternoon courtesy of the Peoples’ Symphony Concerts.
As an additional incentive, the program would feature some works that are not heard frequently, such as Beethoven’s Sonata No. 4 and Weber’s Sonata No. 2, alongside more familiar pieces such as Bach’s Partita No. 1 and a couple of waltzes by Chopin, which all together were more than reason enough to sacrifice a couple of hours of gorgeous spring weather without any remorse or regrets, hike all the way to midtown, and enjoy the music.

It is hard to go wrong with Bach when you have the right musician, and Lewis proved to be just that on Sunday afternoon as he navigated the six expertly crafted movements of the Partita No. 1 with genuine ease and a slight touch of Romanticism, from the sunny liveliness of the Allemande to the breathless bounciness of the Gigue. That said, my personal highlight was the sublime Sarabande, whose intricate textures and undisturbed serenity beautifully stood out among the other more vivacious movements.
We next moved on to more muscular sounds with Beethoven’s early Sonata No. 4, which has remained his second longest one, right after the Himalayan Hammerklavier. Although the music was still fairly traditional, especially for the ground-breaker he was about to become, the work’s unusual scope was announced right at the beginning with an intensely tumultuous first movement, which gave even Lewis a pause after it was over, before he proceeded the poetic Largo, the light-hearted Allegro and the animated Rondo. The general consensus could probably be summed up by the woman behind me who called it “a hell of a piece”.
After intermission, we got to indulge in a little bit of Chopin with three lovely waltzes of his, including the popular “Minute Waltz”, which made a lot of audience members spontaneously swoon with happiness. Ever the imperturbable Englishman, Lewis handled those reliable crowd-pleasers with confidence and brio.
The least-known composer on the program – although in all fairness he was facing pretty stiff competition – was Carl Maria von Weber, and he definitely acquired quite a few new fans on Sunday with his all-around appealing Sonata No. 2. Overflowing with attractive melodies, vivid colors and passionate emotions, the unabashedly Romantic piece insistently tugged at our heart-strings while making excellent use of Lewis’s virtuosic skills all the way to the understated ending. That was the wild card of the afternoon for many of us, and we were certainly glad we stuck around for it.

 The encore, which we earned through a long and loud ovation, was a delightful little parting gift by Schubert, which he delivered with his signature care and delicacy. And then we were all off in the gorgeous spring afternoon again.

Monday, April 3, 2017

St. Louis Symphony - The Gospel According to the Other Mary- 03/31/17

David Robertson: Conductor 
Adams: The Gospel According to the Other Mary 
Kelley O'Connor: Mezzo-soprano (Mary Magdalene) 
Michaela Martens: Mezzo-soprano (Martha) 
Jay Hunter Morris: Tenor (Lazarus) 
Daniel Bubeck: Counter-tenor 
Brian Cummings: Counter-tenor 
Nathan Medley: Counter-tenor 
St. Louis Symphony Chorus

'Tis Passion season again, and nowhere is it more obvious than in New York City where musical settings of the Gospel stories, with Bach's popular St. John Passion and St. Matthew Passion way ahead of other lesser versions, are springing out all over town. I tend to skip oratorios because they are a taste I have definitely not acquired, but this year brought along an irresistible offer that I simply could not turn down.
After the New York Philharmonic celebrated John Adams' 70th birthday last month with delightful performances of  his Absolute Jest and Harmonielehre, Carnegie Hall pulled out all the stops and scheduled his Gospel According to the Other Mary, a modern oratorio  from 2012 whose libretto was put together by Adams' long-time music partner Peter Sellars and combines traditional biblical content with texts by Hildegarde von Bingen, Primo Levi, Dorothy Day, Louise Erdrich and Rosario Castellanos, resulting in an uncommon smorgasbord of religion, spirituality and social activism. 'Nuff said.
Therefore, on Friday evening I left work a few minutes early and went back to Carnegie Hall's Stern Auditorium in a cold, windy and rainy weather that was making the anticipated adventure inside even more compelling.

The 30-minute pre-concert talk with composer John Adams, St. Louis Symphony Director David Robertson and Carnegie Hall Director of Artistic Planning Jeremy Geffen was short, casual and informative, but at the end of the day, Adams' quirkiness and Robertson's eloquence only made us more eager to experience the real thing, which we excitedly did.
And The Gospel According to the Other Mary turned out to be an indisputably ambitious, sprawling and fascinating work of love, which was also from time to time overreaching in its scope, inconsistent in its execution and over-extended in its length. There was apparently so much material and enthusiasm involved in the making of it that the final result ended up being as mesmerizing as overwhelming.
It for sure contains plenty of awesome music, resolutely wide-ranging and frequently inspired, and awesome ideas, like linking the past to the present. And Friday night we had a remarkable group of staunchly dedicated talents onstage that made it all happen. The huge orchestra included some unusual instruments such as the cimbalom, which infused a ubiquitous touch of exoticism, and a bass guitar, which was mostly notable for its inconspicuousness. Under the baton of their long-time director and conductor David Robertson, the musicians played confidently and whole-heartedly.
Ironically enough for a composition revolving around women, some of the most memorable moments of the evening belonged to Lazarus. Of course, his being represented by charismatic tenor Jay Hunter Morris in rare form did not hurt one bit. His first appearance had an unstoppable life-affirming swagger that could only from a man who, well, had just risen from the dead, and his soulful, not to mention gorgeous, crooning of Primo Levi's poem "Passover" was a genuine wonder of understatement and effectiveness.
But the ladies fared very well too, the main issue being that their voices were too often drowned by the rambunctious orchestra. As a high-strung Mary Magdalene, Kelley O'Connor had the dubious honor of opening the performance with an explosive aria describing her incarceration with a drug addict suffering from withdrawal symptoms. While the orchestra was boisterously conveying the brutality of the situation, the mezzo-soprano’s voice tended to disappear, never mind its sharp assertiveness.
With her richly nuanced voice and poised attitude, Michaela Martens was the more grounded Martha. Since she was generally found in quieter episodes, she had no trouble being heard, whether she matter-of-factly described her grueling work at the women' shelter or reproachfully upbraided Jesus for deliberately letting her brother die.
The three counter-tenors, who cleverly contributed to the transitions in various combinations, gave the performance necessary moments of undisturbed regrouping while their voices' unusual timbre provided a bit of an otherworldly atmosphere in between nerve-wracking scenes.
Anybody who bothered checking out Adams' The Death of Klinghoffer despite the unsubstantiated controversy surrounding it quickly realized that 1) the opera was not anti-Semitic and 2) the choral arias were phenomenal. And one of the biggest strengths of The Gospel According to the Other Mary is also its dazzling choral arias, which were magnificently performed by the St. Louis Symphony Chorus. From formidable to unfussy, they made the most of the work's impressive harmonic palette.
The journey, which lasted over two hours, was long and at times arduous, but also enlightening and eventually rewarding. The audience that made it through gave a fervent standing ovation, and then it was back in the even colder, windier and rainier night.

Saturday, April 1, 2017

Mitsuko Uchida - Mozart, Schumann & Widmann - 03/30/17

Mozart: Piano Sonata in C Major, K. 545 
Schumann: Kreisleriana 
Widmann: Sonatina facile 
Schumann: Fantasie in C Major 

The grand dame of the piano is back for her annual visit to Carnegie Hall and music-loving New Yorkers are flocking en masse. Although I have always found the Stern Auditorium, for all its beauty and prestige, too large a space for intimate recitals, I am more than willing to happily suck it up for the privilege and pleasure of hearing Mitsuko Uchida unperturbedly work her magic in front of her customary collectively mesmerized audience.
In cases of long-time established artists like Ms. Uchida, the program is almost secondary, but I was still particularly thrilled to see that she would be playing Schumann’s splendid love letter that is his Fantasie in C Major, admittedly one of the most memorable compositions ever written for the piano. It would be preceded by his dynamic Kreisleriana, Mozart’s graceful Piano Sonata in C Major, and a mysterious New York premiere for a carefully balanced evening.

The concert started in the most understated and captivating way with Mozart’s Piano Sonata in C Major, a relatively short and deceptively simple work that nevertheless rarely fails to leave a lasting impression, especially when it is played with the elegance and clarity that Ms. Uchida put into it on Thursday night. Light and compelling, it was a wonderful tribute to the Viennese master.
After Mozart’s delightful classicism, mischievous Florestan and introverted Eusebius made their conspicuous entrances in Schumann‘s Kreisleriana and animated the eight self-contained vignettes with verve and determination. Ms. Uchida proved one more time her deep affinity to Schumann’s music by expertly highlighting the detailed contrasts between the two colorful characters.
The mystery du jour was Jörg Widmann’s Sonatina facile, which actually was not so easy, but plenty fun. Inspired by our evening’s opening number, this 10-minute piece kept some of Mozart’s classical elegance while offering some decidedly modern deviations from it. The result was an intriguing and engaging exercise, the ovation greeting the composer only confirming that it had been a worthy enterprise.
Last, but for sure not least, we finally got to voluptuously indulge in his Schumann‘s breathtaking Fantasie in C Major. When the Fantasie first came out, Franz Liszt was allegedly one of the very few pianists able to handle its daunting technical challenges, therefore rightfully earning the work’s dedication to him, but Ms. Uchida did not seem to have any trouble on Thursday night either, and treated her impressively diverse and clearly adoring audience to a magnificent performance of it.
She wholly dived into it as soon as she sat at the piano, beautifully conveying the composer’s passionate feelings toward his beloved and far away Clara in the lushly expansive first movement. The second movement, during which Clara famously could hear “an entire orchestra”, had an unabashed sense of drama and heroism that expanded way beyond what could be expected from a single piano. The last movement unfolded delicately poetic and yet unmistakably intense, as if Schumann still did not how to deal with all those powerful emotions. He did get the girl though, and truth be told, what girl would not give in to that?

And since we made it heard that we were not ready to leave yet, Ms. Uchida added another treat to an evening that already contained quite a few with Mozart's Andante cantabile from Piano Sonata in C Major, which you brought us right back to Square 1.

Saturday, March 25, 2017

The International Street Cannibals - Air Schoenberg: Connecting Flights - 03/22/17

Pärt: Fratres, for violin and piano 
Zemlinsky: Entbietung from Irmelin Rose und andere Gesänge, Op, 7 
Webern: 5 songs from Der siebente Ring, Op. 3 
Berg: Nachtigall from Sieben Frühe Lieder 
Schoenberg: String Quartet in F Minor No. 2, Op. 10 
Berg: Two settings of Schliesse mir die Augen beide 
Schoenberg: Sechs kleine Klavierstücke 
Schoenberg: Erwartung from Vier Lieder, Op. 2 
Korngold: Glückwunsch, Op. 38 
Schnittke: Silent Night 
Schubert: Erlkönig 

 Sometimes there’s nothing better that a last-minute notice of an exciting event to suddenly perk up an uneventful week. So when on Tuesday night I had the bright idea to check the Goings On About Town section of The New Yorker issue I had just received, I immediately spotted the intriguingly named concert "Air Schoenberg: Connecting Flights" by the equally intriguingly named International Street Cannibals and soprano Ariadne Greif. The program would apparently revolve around Schoenberg’s emotionally gripping, musically ground-breaking, and rarely heard String Quartet No. 2, and be performed the following evening in the St. Mark's Church in-the-Bowery on the Lower East Side. A proposition definitely hard to turn down.
So on Wednesday, after having quickly ditched all my other tentative plans, I had a brisk walk in the cold wind up Broadway, grabbed an ersatz dinner at Maison Kayzer (Spending an evening in a historically gritty part of town did not have to mean you have to rough it all the way, after all), and finally made it to the Episcopal church’s bare but welcoming main space for an intimate soirée of still edgy music in the company of about 40 like-minded souls.

Beside Arnold Schoenberg’s String Quartet No. 2, which needless to say amply justified the spontaneous expedition by itself, Arvo Pärt’s endlessly versatile and always mesmerizing “Fratres” was the other piece that had caught my eye on the program. And sure enough, as played by pianist Conor Hanick and violinist Natalie Kreiss, the deceptively understated composition swiftly turned into a bouquet of dazzling virtuosity as the duo expertly alternated frantic outbursts and ethereal stillness.
After Pärt’s hypnotic tintinnabuli, Hanick was joined by Ariadne Greif for Alexander Zemlinsky's "Entbietung", an invitation that took us straight to the heart of Romantic passion in all its grandeur and seriousness, complete with wild black hair and red poppies as striking visual touches. 
Still from early 20th century Vienna, Anton Webern's intimate 5 songs from Der siebente Ring, the first foray into atonality of Schoenberg’s student, beautifully blossomed while celebrating life and nature with attractive melodic lines and subtle poetic undertones.
Who says nature says birds, and that’s when “Nachtigall” from Sieben Frühe Lieder by Alban Berg, another prominent student of Schoenberg’s, came in handy. As voluptuously sung by Greif, this colorful nightingale flew high on Late Romantic tradition.
About half-way through the intermission-free concert we finally got to Schoenberg’s String Quartet No. 2. Written when the composer was going through extreme personal turmoil, his wife having just left him and their young children for a neighbor and friend of the family, the painter Richard Gerstl, the work not only reflects a dire emotional state, but also takes the time to slowly but surely usher a revolution into the world of classical music, which of course also means that it was not well-received, to say the least, when it first came out in 1908 Vienna.
Flash forward over a century to New York City’s Lower East Side, and the piece sounded as fascinating and timeless as ever. In the solid hands of the International Street Cannibals, the first movement started conventionally enough, harmonically safe and emotionally self-possessed. Things, however, quickly took a discreet turn for the stranger during the second movement, never mind the fleeting quote from the popular nursery rhyme tune "Ach, du lieber Augustin". And then all hell – or at least tonality – broke lose during the last two movements, during which Greif brought her blazingly expressive singing to the two heart-wrenching poems anchoring them. Bold and insightful, the performance strongly emphasized the intrinsic beauty and the emotional resonance of the game-changing quartet.
Speaking of music history, the following number was actually two compositions that were written almost 20 years apart by Berg based on the same poem by Theodore Storm, "Schliesse mir die Augen beide", and therefore constituted a fun comparative study. And it was in fact best advised not to close both eyes, or even blink, because the two songs were really short, and widely different, the first one oozing opulent Late Romanticism, the second one consisting of bold atonal fragmentation.
And since you can never get too much Schoenberg once you’re hooked, we proceeded to his "Sechs kleine Klavierstücke", whose six exquisite miniatures were soulfully brought to life by Hanick, each proudly standing on its own with its unique personality.
Ariadne Greif was back in the spotlight for the last Schoenberg piece of the evening with "Erwartung", a lushly colored love song in which a lover is waiting for his beloved by a pond as the music, and presumably his being, become more agitated.
The duo then moved on to Erich Wolgang Korngold, another one of Schoenberg's students, and his "Glückwunsch", a lovely song that offered sincere, tender and passionate good wishes.
Next, Hanick and Kreiss winningly teamed up again for Alfred Schnittke's arresting version of Christmas favorite "Silent night", which unfolded in an eerie atmosphere without the slightest trace of serenity or sentimentality, but with plenty of restrained sarcasm and dark humor.
The last work on the program was Franz Schubert's animated song "Erlkönig". Based on a famous poem by Goethe, which was itself inspired by a Scandinavian folktale, this four-minute ballad shows an inordinate sense of drama and impressive compositional sophistication from the 18-year-old youngster that Schubert was at the time. The sharply defined four characters gave Greif a priceless opportunity to display her remarkable gift for spellbinding narrative and on-the-spot shifts in rhythmical nuances. The last image of the dead child was grim and irrevocable for a concert that had been well thought out and brilliantly carried out.

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Cantori New York - Tyger Tyger - 03/18/17

Artistic Director & Conductor: Mark Shapiro 
Gibbons: O Lord, In Thy Wrath 
Farrant: Hide Not Thou Thy Face 
Gibbons: O Clap Your Hands Together 
Victory: Seven Songs of Experience
Thomasin Bentley: Alto 
Ellie Killiam: Soprano 
Ben Keiper: Tenor 
Mark Stedman: Tenor 
Steve Underhill: Tenor 
Przybylski: Tyger Tyger 
Gareth Flowers: Trumpet 
Richard Harris: Trombone 
Jared Soldiviero: Percussion 
Matt Smallcomb: Percussion 

 After attending a few large-scale performances at David Geffen Gall, Carnegie Hall and The Met in the past couple of weeks, I was very much looking forward to downsizing in quantity, but definitely not in quality, with Cantori New York's first concert of 2017 in their usual home, the West Village's Church of St. Luke in the Fields. I obviously was not the only one who had figured out that the best way to spend this cold and wet Saturday evening would be to ponder universal issues such as the eternal fight between good and evil as well as to wallow in profound existential angst – and a healthy dose of weird sounds too – because the space filled up quickly with a wide assortment of curious newbies and confident regulars.
Ever the equal opportunity choir, Cantori was presenting a wide-ranging, all-English program that included three motets from 16th century England, the U.S. premiere of a choral work from 17th century Ireland, and the world premiere of a modernist composition for chorus, brass and percussions from 21th century Poland, not only to attempt to make everybody happy, but also, and especially, not to scare anybody away until the end.

For an ensemble long known and prized for its unwavering commitment toward new and neglected works, the concert started on a shockingly traditional note with three not particularly overlooked English motets by Orlando Gibbons and Richard Farrant. But, come to think of it, maybe tackling traditional pieces is Cantori's way of beating their own tradition of being non-traditionalist, after all. In any case, this little foray into Tudor England’s church music persuasively demonstrated that they can effortlessly handle this type of material too.
Next we remained in the fairly traditional realm, but moved on to a by all accounts unfairly neglected work with Gerard Victory’s Seven Songs of Experience, a substantial piece consisting of selected poems from William Blake's not so neglected Songs of Innocence and of Experience. It did not take long for me to realize that I was already somewhat familiar with "The Fly" and "The Sick Rose" as Cantori had sung different versions of them concocted by contemporary French composer Pascal Zavaro just about three years ago. On Saturday night, Victory's older takes may have lacked Zavaro's ingenious quirkiness and Miranda Cuckson's exquisite violin, but the underlying melancholy and subtle lyricism nicely stood out.
Other highlights included an organically gorgeous "Ah Sun-flower", which clear-voiced soprano Ellie Killiams raised to rather amazing heights, "The Little Vagabond", whose rambunctious and endearing character was playfully pointing out the dire need for cool ale and a warm fireplace in church to make it more appealing, and, last but not least, "The Tyger", whose magnificence and ferocity came out in spades.
Overall though, the undisputed hit of the seven-part work, and of the evening, was "The Human Abstract", a moralistic text whose stern subject matter (The most memorable image probably being Cruelty knowingly using abstract Christian values to plant and grow a malicious tree in the Human Brain) was wonderfully balanced by its beautiful intricate textures and infectious swinging rhythms, which Cantori’s singers carried out with brio and finesse led by indefatigable maestro Shapiro. One day after St. Patrick's Day, the Irish was still going strong.
After intermission, it was time to put our avant-garde hats on and gear up for Dariusz Przybylski's resolutely adventurous Tyger Tyger. And as if to get right to the heart of the matter, this time Blake's "The Tyger" had been intrepidly deconstructed, first opening in a mysterious jungle smoothly put together by the exotic percussions and the resounding brass, before myriad voices were heard relentlessly whispering in the shadows. Soon enough sopranos and altos started creating attractive background tapestries while tenors and basses took charge of the text while trying to come up with their best tygerish impressions for what turned out to be a bold trip on the wild side, with its fair share of eloquent theatrics and colorful expressiveness.
The roaring performance went on with three Shakespeare quotes about the Devil whole-heartedly screamed by the singers, a spell-binding dialog between the two percussionists, a chunk of contemporary Polish poet Wislawa Szymborska's "Life-while-you-wait" about man's inadequate preparedness for the act of living, and Victorian poet Matthew Arnold's "To Marguerite: Continued", which ended the work, and the concert, with thorny questions about science interfering with human relationships and God, a gorgeously soaring lament, and no resolution in sight. There was plenty of musical satisfaction to be had though.

Friday, March 17, 2017

New York Philharmonic - Adams, Salonen & Berlioz - 03/15/17

Conductor: Alan Gilbert 
Adams: The Chairman Dances, Foxtrot to Orchestra 
Salonen: Cello Concerto 
Yo-Yo Ma: Cello 
Berlioz: Symphonie fantastique, Episode from the Life of an Artist, Op. 14  

 Esa-Pekka Salonen and Yo-Yo Ma indisputably belong to the very exclusive club of musical figures whose names make music lovers' hearts beat faster. Therefore, when I heard that the former was composing a cello concerto for the latter and that, on top of it, the New York Philharmonic and Alan Gilbert would perform its New York premiere – The world premiere taking place in Chicago one week earlier, with Salonen conducting Yo-Yo Ma and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra – I made sure to pencil in the date in my calendar.
So there I was on Wednesday night, in a very full David Geffen Hall, totally ready not only to at last discover this brand new piece, which apparently was first discussed one fateful night over too many post-concert drinks, but also to explore more John Adams, a short excerpt from his opera Nixon in China offering a seamless transition from the terrific concert featuring two of his works last Thursday, and to hear the Symphonie fantastique again, two weeks after the Boston Symphony Orchestra played it for the ages at Carnegie Hall.

Drawn from the final scene of John Adams' Nixon in China, “The Chairman Dances” opened the concert with zesty vigor and a touch of colorful exoticism. I always find selections from larger works frustrating as they often whet our appetite but eventually leave us hanging for more, but this little “foxtrot for orchestra” certainly was a flavorful appetizer.
A long-time favorite of New York audiences, E-P Salonen introduced his new composition with his signature dry humor and quirky comments, essentially advising us to see it as "one continuous zoom" that was slowly getting closer to its near-impossible goal, and then we finally got to find out for ourselves what he had been working on for the past two years.
Unlike Adams' immediately accessible music, Salonen's Cello Concerto distinguished itself first and foremost for its unflappable Nordic coolness – Once a Finn, always a Finn – discreetly oozing from the entire piece, its cosmic atmosphere, sometimes mysterious to the point of eeriness, and some fiendish technical challenges, which cellist extraordinaire Yo-Yo Ma fearlessly handled with his fierce virtuosity.
Throughout its entire course, the concerto presented a wide range of compelling melodies and fascinating textures, which Alan Gilbert expertly brought out of his orchestra – As Salonen pointed out in his opening remarks: “He gets it” –, delightful episodes such as the cello engaging into a light-hearted duet with the alto flute or into a wildly rhythmical conversation with bongos and congas placed on the other side of the podium, stunning lyrical phrases exquisitely played by Ma and cleverly echoed around the hall through live tape loops, as well as the electronically-enhanced final note, an impossibly high B flat that only everybody’s favorite cellist could make possible, and smashingly did. When all was said and done, the all-around brilliance of this new concerto kept on shining brightly... and a little eerily.
After this otherworldly journey, the Symphonie fantastique appeared like a good old pal, maybe a bit anti-climactic after the concerto’s exciting novelty, but always worth revisiting. The orchestra sounded particularly at ease and delivered a splendid performance of it, even without benefiting from Carnegie Hall’s wonderful acoustics, which had certainly provided the Bostonians with an unfair advantage two weeks ago. The New York Philharmonic did it on their own, and did it very well.

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

New York Philharmonic - All-Adams - 03/09/17

Conductor: Alan Gilbert 
Adams: Absolute Jest, for String Quartet and Orchestra 
New York Philharmonic String Quartet 
Adams: Harmonielehre 

I am not sure what was in U.S. water back in 1947, but it had to be something good since both Philip Glass and John Adams were born that year, which consequently means that this year marks their 70th birthdays. Philip Glass celebrated his at Carnegie Hall with his long-time buddy Dennis Russell Davies who brought his Bruckner Orchestra Linz back in January, and John Adams had Alan Gilbert and the New York Philharmonic perform two works of his at David Geffen Hall last week. Apparently being a prominent composer comes with nice perks these days.
I have been exploring John Adams' impressively eclectic œuvre more or less randomly for years now, starting in earnest with the Kennedy Center's John Adams Perspectives back in 2010, during which the composer himself took part in many introductions and discussions, and continuing to this day pretty much every chance I get.
My last concert featuring his music – and his presence – was at the Berlin Philharmonic last September, and I was delighted when I found out that the Harmonielehre that I had enjoyed so much on that memorable evening was going to be on the NY Phil's program, accompanied by Absolute Jest, a tribute to Beethoven that doubles as a creative exercise. A program so exciting that my friend Angie simply had to join me and find out for herself what the fuss was all about.

 Before the concert started, John Adams, introduced as "the dean of American new music" by Alan Gilbert, provided fun and insightful information about the pieces selected for the evening, complete with excerpts performed by the New York Philharmonic String Quartet, a brand new deluxe ensemble consisting of no less than the orchestra's four string principals.
Then we all got to hear Absolute Jest in a more enlightened state of mind. And if the whole thing felt a bit discombobulated at times, it was still an engrossing experience featuring quotes from Beethoven's Eroica, Ninth Symphony, and Op. 131 and 135, among others, ingeniously springing out like distinguished surprise guests courtesy of the glowing quartet. From those carefully selected snippets came out Adams' high-spirited composition, which was enthusiastically performed by the rest of the orchestra, the potentially uneasy relation between smaller and bigger ensembles having been completely smoothed over for a harmonious result.
After intermission, we got to indulge in what is widely considered to be one of Adams' most brilliant and engaging works, which is quite a compliment considering the breadth of his output. A symphony in all but name, Harmonielehre has to be the most perfect cocktail of Minimalism (a little) and Late Romanticism (a lot) ever, an unabashedly compelling composition overflowing with big brush strokes of lush lyricism that exploded with vivid colors, beautifully soaring melodies that seemed to have a vibrant life of their own, and some highly rythmical sequences to remind us that, even if he's never been a die-hard Minimalist, the man sure knows how to make clever use of the movement's core principles.
A thrilling ride propelled by an irresistible pulse worthy of a road movie, Harmonielehre has remained as fresh and fun as when it first came out in the mid-1980s. On Thursday evening, the terrific performance by the New York Philharmonic was full of exhilarating sounds and positive momentum, a visibly energized Alan Gilbert happily in charge of the excellent adventure. And this crowd-pleaser did in fact totally please the crowd, as the long and loud ovation could attest.

Sunday, March 12, 2017

Met - La Traviata - 03/07/17

Composer: Giuseppe Verdi 
Conductor: Nicola Luisotti 
Director/Producer: Willy Decker 
Violetta Valéry: Sonya Yoncheva 
Alfredo Germont: Michael Fabiano 
Giorgio Germont: Thomas Hampson

 There are a handful of operas in the repertoire that I think even non-opera buffs should experience at least once in their life, such as, unsurprisingly, La Traviata. A straightforward story, stunningly beautiful music, and a relatively short running time make it hands-down the ideal opera for beginners, and the perfect gift that keeps on giving for die-hard aficionados. Add to that an assertively modern, irresistibly appealing production, which also stands as irrefutable proof that “modern” does not always have to be a dirty word when it comes to art, two of today’s fastest rising opera stars in Bulgarian soprano Sonya Yoncheva and American tenor Michael Fabiano and, last but not least, my friend Steve’s delirious raving about his evening there the previous week, and I knew it was high time to go back.
So after witnessing a tentative Marina Poplavskaya and a blazing Nathalie Dessay don the little red dress to impersonate the world's most famous Parisian courtesan years ago, I was back at The Met on Tuesday night for another round of Decker’s bold take on Verdi’s masterpiece. And this time I had the company of my friend Vy An who was more than ready to become acquainted with Violetta and Co. before jetting off to The Big Easy for a mini-vacation the next day. Life can be so hard.

 The opera may be on the short side – two and a half hours with one intermission – but it probably ends not a minute too soon for the soprano intrepid enough to take on the challenge. That said, the endeavor must be rewarding enough since the sopranos who can handle the vocally and dramatically demanding part keep going back to it. So sure enough, after a successful run two years ago, Sonya Yoncheva is back at it this season, and on Tuesday was obviously relishing every second of it while making sure that the rest of us did too. From our reactions throughout the performance, one can say that this difficult mission was being smashingly accomplished.
Things is, the woman is blessed with a naturally gorgeous, fiercely expressive and effortlessly powerful voice that filled up the Met's notoriously cavernous space during big emotionally charged outbursts as well as more intimate moments, flying coloratura and soaring phrases included. Moreover, beside the expected technical feats, she had no trouble keeping her singing warm and engaging, subtly bringing out the humanity and vulnerability of her ill-fated heroine. With plenty of talent and gusto, the unstoppable soprano seamlessly went from carefree party girl to self-sacrificing woman in love to dying tubercular patient, making this Traviata as genuinely thrilling as it could get.
As Alfredo Germont, the young man who disrupts Violetta's turbulent life to give her one true shot at happiness, Michael Fabiano was not the typical wide-eyes suitor, but rather a slightly rough-around-the-edges, wildly impulsive lover whose passion only grew more intense as things were not going his way. His singing was ardent and uncompromising, and if his duets with Sonya Yoncheva did not have that ever-elusive dazzling chemistry one always hopes for, the two singers quickly built a comfortable rapport that readily made them a totally endearing couple worth-rooting for.
As the father everybody loves to hate, American baritone and Germont père veteran Thomas Hampson proved that he still has what it takes to make the most of the thankless role. The journey from his initial well-meaning sternness to his eventual sincere remorse was subtly conveyed through his delicately hued, richly colored tone while the acting was kept to a satisfying minimum.
The Met chorus, which has a fairly big job in the opera, fulfilled his duties as brilliantly as ever, whether willful participants or conspicuous witnesses of the doomed love story. As usual, their expert singing was a splendid asset to a production that will decidedly never get old.
Maybe because I have had my fair share of poor attempts at modern staging, most of them turning out to be either frustratingly half-baked or downright nonsensical, since I last saw Decker's timeless production four years ago, seeing it again on Tuesday night made me appreciate even more how a few clever props and the right vision can whip up even a quintessential classic into something boldly fresh and deeply meaningful. And let's face it, in our days of constant budget crisis in the arts, a winning minimalist set is nothing to sneeze at either. Aspiring Met directors, take note.
In the pit, Italian maestro Nicola Luisotti led an efficient, if not particularly exciting, instrumental performance. But it is hard not to get carried away by Verdi's impossibly sumptuous score regardless, and we all relished it. The orchestra confidently supported the fireworks happening on the stage as plenty of beautiful lyrical phrases were coming to glorious life, and that was certainly a laudable achievement in itself.
It was so good to see and hear it again. Some things just never get old.

Sunday, March 5, 2017

Boston Symphony Orchestra - Ravel, Benjamin & Berlioz - 03/02/17

Conductor: Andris Nelsons 
Ravel: Le tombeau de Couperin 
Benjamin: Dream of the Song, for Countertenor, Female Chorus, and Orchestra 
Bejun Mehta: Countertenor 
Lorelei ensemble 
Berlioz: Symphonie fantastique, Episode from the Life of an Artist, Op. 14 

 After three evenings filled with music-related activities, I was happy to conclude this mini-marathon on Thursday evening with the Boston Symphony Orchestra, who were in town for a two-night stand at Carnegie Hall, where I would catch them on their second night. The program featured two French works – Maurice Ravel's well-known Le tombeau de Couperin and Hector Berlioz's world-famous Symphonie fantastique – book-ending the actual reason for my presence in the concert hall, George Benjamin's Dream of the Song.
Although I had not been quite as bowled over as other audience members by his opera Written on Skin back in 2015, I still had found the work endlessly fascinating from a musical point of view, and I was very curious to move on to another composition of his. And of course, any chance to hear the prestigious Boston Symphony Orchestra is to be grabbed and enjoyed to the fullest.

 I must confess that I have never particularly cared about Ravel's Le tombeau de Couperin, but I nevertheless was able to appreciate the clarity and thoughtfulness with which the orchestra performed it.
Benjamin's Dream of the Song, on the other hand, turned out to be a brilliant little jewel that boldly shone with myriads of unusual colors for 15 agonizingly short minutes. As it was, the flawlessly polished performance benefited immensely from the spot-on reduced orchestra, remarkably poised countertenor Bejun Mehta singing English translations of medieval Hebrew poems from Andalusia, and the eight delicately radiant ladies of the Lorelei Ensemble singing Lorca's Spanish translations of medieval Arabic poems also from Andalusia. The finely crafted end result was as ethereal as hypnotic in its various combinations of instruments and voices, all the better to channel the universal mystery of the night.
A woman behind me commented to her seatmate that she had really felt ambivalent toward Written on Skin, but had really enjoyed that Dream of the Song. And it was easy to see why after having experienced the piece's intriguingly gorgeous polyphonic world.
I have heard the Symphonie fantastique quite a few times in my life so I have been giving it a rest for the past few years. But there's no way I was going to turn down the invitation from the Bostonians when I was already in the concert hall. And I have to say that their tightly controlled, sharp and  muscular take on it made me fully realize what I had been missing, especially with the delicately bucolic "Scene in the Country" and the diabolically sleek "Dream of a Witches' Sabbath". They clearly did not spare any efforts while they were bringing out the bold originality and irresistible appeal of the ground-breaking work with their renowned savoir faire. On Thursday night at Carnegie Hall, Berlioz's symphony was truly fantastic.

Saturday, March 4, 2017

New York Philharmonic - Auerbach & Mahler - 03/01/17

Conductor: Alan Gilbert 
Auerbach: NYx: Fractured Dreams (Concerto No. 4 for Violin and Orchestra) 
Leonidas Kavakos: Violin 
Mahler: Symphony No. 4 in G Major 
Christina Landshamer: Soprano 

 Getting to hear new music while it is being brought to the world for the first time ever is always exciting, and getting to attend a discussion about it with the composer and soloist beforehand is even better, even if the sensibly scheduled event cramps further an already busy week. That’s why on Tuesday evening I was in the packed Rubinstein Atrium for the New York Philharmonic’s Insight at the Atrium talk featuring Greek violinist and New York Philharmonic’s current artist-in-residence Leonidas Kavakos as well as Russian-born New York-residernt, natural night owl and tirelessly multi-tasking artist Lera Auerbach, who were being interviewed by the New York Philharmonic’s Vice-President of Education Theodore Wiprud in anticipation of the world premiere of her fourth, NY Philharmonic-commissioned, violin concerto, NYx: Fractured Dreams, the following night.
As expected, there were no excerpts to be heard, but still plenty of insights to be gained, such as the fact that the composition consists of thirteen interconnected fragments describing things that can happen during the night (“Nyx” being the name of the Greek goddess of the night, mother of sleep and death), and that it is also a tribute to the dreamers that New York City is made of, which explains the capitalized “NY”.
That was more than enough to pick everybody’s curiosity and, about 24 hours later, a much bigger crowd eagerly converged to the David Geffen Hall for the real thing and, as if to counterbalance the potential darkness of the concerto, Mahler’s blatantly sunny Symphony No. 4.

So on Wednesday night, after a few words by the composer herself, Leonidas Kavakos and his prized Stradivarius started alone with a beguiling melody , as unfussy and mesmerizing as usual, before the orchestra abruptly made itself loudly heard. And then we were off to a widely contrasting, highly expressive, a bit mysterious, non-stop journey that was filled to the rim with dramatic colors, peaceful interludes and startling episodes. The piece may have sometimes felt erratic or unsettled, just like dreams and New York City are, but it is not hard to see that it is in fact rigorously structured, a quality that the tightly coordinated soloist, orchestra ─ and, of all things, musical saw ─ made abundantly clear.
During the talk Lera Auerbach had pointed out the priceless advantage of composing for a musician who makes possibilities “limitless” and, accordingly, she made sure to keep Kavakos constantly busy with plenty of material for virtuosic feats that he impeccably accomplished. Whether he was discreetly indulging in a graceful dance or fiercely fighting terrifying outside forces, he unhesitatingly jumped in the challenging fray and remained solidly in charge until the very subdued ending, which allowed us to cleverly come full circle. And just like that, a new violin concerto was born. Long live NYx: Fractured Dreams!
After that intense opener, Mahler’s Symphony No. 4 sounded downright earthy and carefree. Although I have to confess that I like his work more when he is angst-ridden, the composer did a wonderful job evoking the joys of Alpine countryside living, which on Wednesday night were radiantly brought to life by a very involved Alan Gilbert and his totally engaged orchestra.
The adagio beautifully soared and was in fact so breathtaking that most of the shockingly high number of smartphone users in the audience raised their heads from their lit-up screens in genuine wonder for at least for a couple of  minutes. And nowadays that means something.
German soprano Christina Landshamer had a hard time being heard over the orchestra on a couple of occasions, but her luminous voice was a precious addition to the final movement, and concluded the work, and concert, with touching innocence and glowing hopefulness.

Friday, March 3, 2017

Music Mondays - Playing with Bach - 02/27/17

Bach: Prelude in D Major 
Paul Jacobs: Organist 
Bach: Excerpts from Bach Cantatas (arr. György Kurtág) 
Orion Weiss: Pianist 
Aaron Wunsch: Pianist 
Bach: Preludes from the Well-Tempered Clavier (arr. Grand Electric) 
Mark Dancigers: Electric Guitar 
Aaron Wunsch: Piano 
Bach: Goldberg Variations, BWV 988 (arr. Calefax Reed Quintet) 
Calefax Reed Quintet 
Bach: Toccata and Fugue in D Minor, BWV 565 (arr. Salvatore Sciarrino) 
Claire Chase: Flutist 
Bach: No. 5 and No. 2 of 10 Chorale Preludes (arr. Frederico Busoni) 
Orion Weiss: Pianist 
Bach: Goldberg Variations, BWV 988 (arr. Calefax Reed Quintet) 
Calefax Reed Quintet 

To most music lovers, Bach’s œuvre is timeless, and last Monday night the relentlessly enterprising Music Mondays series decided to give that claim the litmus test with a program that featured creative adaptations of some of the composer’s most beloved as well as lesser known works. To make things even more exciting, the concert would be performed by an attractive array of downright local (Aaron Wunsch being no less than Music Mondays’ artistic director) and not so local (The globe-trotting Calefax Reed Quintet coming all the way from Amsterdam, Netherlands) musicians.
And if the composer’s popularity had ever been questioned, the sight of the long line around the corner of Broadway and W. 93rd Street and then the packed Advent Lutheran Church long before the festivities started would have categorically dispelled any doubts.

For all the promises of innovative versions on Bach classics, the concert actually started with a traditional take of Bach’s Fugue in D Major by organist Paul Jacobs, which took us straight to early 18th century Germany. And the real thing sounded mighty good.
We remained literally and musically in the Lutheran realm with four Bach Cantatas arranged for four hands by modern Hungarian composer and pianist György Kurtág. This small set provided attractive, if no doubt tricky, material for Orion Weiss and Aaron Wunsch to display their impressive dexterity, and they sure did.
Aaron Wunsch stayed at the piano for Book I of The Well-Tempered Clavier, for which he was unexpectedly accompanied by… an electric guitar! The two instruments in fact blended surprisingly well, the guitar keeping a rather low but still noticeable profile, and this subdued rock’n’roll version of the three preludes was innovative and fun.
Next we moved on to the famed Goldberg Variations, which had been deftly adapted by the endlessly inquisitive Calefax Reed Quintet, and the result was as original as thrilling. Starting to play as they were entering the performance space, they eventually found their respective spots and unflappably kept on going all the way to Variation 15. Just like a bunch of colorful birds fluttering playfully, the five reed musicians, who occasionally switched instruments for maximum effect, beautifully highlighted the composition’s daunting complexity in their finely nuanced performance.
After intermission, Claire Chase treated the delighted audience to a boldly virtuosic tour de force as she brilliantly nailed the Toccata and Fugue in D Minor arranged for the flute by Salvatore Sciarrino all the way from the small mezzanine above the front door, right in the back of the church.
Orion Weiss came back for two of the 10 Chorale Preludes arranged by Frederico Busoni, the No. 5 keeping its solemn character while the No. 2 hit the ground running before expertly slowing down.
The Calefax Reed Quintet came back for the second part of The Goldberg Variations, from Variation 16 through Aria da capo, which they handled with the same flair and ingenuity as the first part. But that was not all.

To mark their New York City journey, the tireless ensemble had an encore up their sleeve, and it was quite appropriately the song “New Amsterdam” by Moondog & the London Saxophonic, which gave them the opportunity to demonstrate not only their expertise with reed instruments, but their singing talents as well. Bach would have approved.

Friday, February 24, 2017

Met - I Puritani - 02/22/17

Composer: Vincenzo Bellini 
Conductor: Maurizio Benini 
Director/Producer: Sandro Sequi 
Elvira: Diana Damrau 
Arturo: Janier Camarena 
Giorgio: Luca Pisaroni 
Riccardo: Alexey Markov 

 Another night at the opera, another pair of star-crossed lovers who just can’t seem to get a break, although those eventually will. Yes, amazingly enough for an opera that is not a comedy, nobody dies in Bellini’s I Puritani! The thin plot not being an irresistible magnet, my only reason to make it to the Met on Wednesday evening was to finally get to experience hot, hot, hot Mexican tenor Javier Camarena live – Never mind our missed rendez-vous on the evening of Valentine’s Day – without having to endure any of the insufferably silly bel canto operas like La fille du régiment or La sonnambula again. And since he would be joined by the dazzling Diana Damrau, I also figured that I would probably never be able to get to know the opera in better company.
My palpable excitement was apparently contagious enough to infect my indefatigable friend Vy An, so we found ourselves one more time eating our traditional take-out pizza slice on the Lincoln Center Plaza while getting mentally prepared for another music-filled evening.
In this case, we were gearing up for three and a half hours, including two intermissions, of drama-with-a-happy-ending taking place in England during the Civil War and sung in Italian by a Mexican tenor, German soprano, Italian bass-baritone and Russian baritone. A ready-made advertisement for multiculturalism if there ever was one.

When the time came to witness Javier Camarena in action at long last, all I can say is that I went, I heard, and I was bowled over. From the tender “A te, o cara” to the thrilling “Credeasi misera”, he displayed a stupendous range and an incredible knack for throwing vibrant, colorful high notes into the stratosphere as if it were his one and only mission in life, which it actually may very well be. His genuinely warm, deeply lyrical voice could effortlessly go from bright clarion to achingly gentleness, and he clearly had no problem projecting his blazing fireworks all over the house to the audience’s endless delight. Bottom line is, when it comes to Javier Camarena, you can believe the hype.
It is basically impossible to ever get enough of the divine Diana Damrau, one of the most beloved Met regulars, and after thoroughly enjoying her as the teenage Juliette last month, I was eager to hear her again in the slightly more mature role of Elvira, the sweet young woman who goes mad after her betrothed runs off with another woman. Blessed with a truly melodic and extremely flexible voice that she used with laser-like precision, Diana Damrau was an endearingly innocent and painfully vulnerable Elvira, throwing herself into the part with her typical fervor, especially for a “Qui la voce” that will be remembered for a long time.
Everybody else was likely to pale next to this incandescent pair, but bass-baritone Luca Pisaroni and baritone Alexey Markov managed to draw some solid characters as, respectively, Giorgio, Elvira’s good-hearted uncle, and Riccardo, the dashing young man who can’t take no for an answer. Both were having a fine night on Wednesday, Luca Pisaroni confirming why he has become one of the Met’s most popular singers with solid singing and dramatic commitment, and Alexey Markov making a very positive impression with the meaty part of the story's villain.
The Met chorus, one of the prized jewels of New York’s opera scene, proved as efficient as ever, lending its peerless singing power to the vocal feast.
If the singing was top-notch, the production on the other hand was less than attention-grabbing, although in all fairness it did create some pleasant-looking, if hopelessly conventional, tableaux. But even if those were relevant, they did not by any means justify all the “brief pauses” for set changes we had to wait through and which, added to the already lengthy intermissions, stretched an opera that did not have a lot of action to begin with into a much longer affair than it had to be.
To make things even worse, the pace in the pit was uncharacteristically sluggish as conductor Maurizio Benini never got around to nailing down Bellini’s groove. The endlessly versatile orchestra nevertheless did a more than decent job in bringing the subtly beautiful score to life, and all was well in the world again in the third act when all musical forces converged into the intensely rousing duet between Elvira and Arturo “Vieni, fra queste braccia”, in which the revved-up singers resolutely took matters into their own hands and delivered a show-stopping performance that actually stopped the performance for almost as long as the aria itself, effectively showing the maestro and the rest of us how bel canto is really done. And that was more than enough to make our evening.

Monday, February 20, 2017

Orchestra of St Luke's - Lutoslawski & Brahms - 02/16/17

Conductor: Pablo Heras-Casado 
Lutoslawski: Musique funèbre 
Brahms: Ein deutsches Requiem, Op. 45 
Florian Boesch: Baritone 
Sophie Karthäuser: Soprano 
Musica Sacra 

 As life is obviously made of ups and downs, so was last week for me, when a nagging cold inconveniently kept me from attending I Puritani at the Met on Tuesday, effectively preventing tenor-of-the-moment Javier Camarena from being my (unsuspecting) Valentine. Maybe the ultimate first world problem, but no less frustrating.
By Thursday, however, things, and particularly my health, were definitely looking up as my friend Vy An and I got to shamelessly indulge in a scrumptiously decadent cocktail party at the Russian Tea Room before heading to the Stern Auditorium for a performance of Brahms' magnificent Ein deutsches Requiem by the Orchestra of St. Luke's and Musica Sacra, all courtesy of Carnegie Hall. And if my resolution not to drink any alcohol while taking cold medicine quickly evaporated at the sight of the champagne-stocked open bar, it all turned out for the better for everyone as neither coughing nor sleeping overtook me during the concert. Champagne does heal all wounds.

Written for the 10th anniversary of Bela Bartok's death, Lutoslawski's Musique funèbre proved to be the perfect opening for the evening with its small string orchestra, four distinct movements, bold dissonances and potent lyricism. It was short, but proudly stood on it own.
As conceived by the Orchestra of St. Luke's principal conductor Pablo Heras-Casado and impeccably performed by the terrific orchestra, the transition from the one cello ethereally ending Musique funèbre to the gently comforting first notes of Ein deutsches Requiem felt truly organic and seamless.
The remaining of Brahms' Requiem unfolded with total mastery, gloriously highlighting the profoundly humanistic nature of the composition. The splendid performance considerably benefited from Heras-Casado actively keeping the right balance between clear transparency and bright colors among instruments and voices. The maestro did not go overboard with Romanticism, but rich lyricism still thankfully abounded.
A personal favorite of mine, the seemingly solemn "Denn alles Fleisch es ist wie Gras", came out viscerally gripping and haunting, inexorable crescendos included. Speaking of raw power, another resounding highlight, "Dann wird erfüllet werden", later exploded with apocalyptic force and did not let off as the chorus was mercilessly teasing Death.
On top of the impressively unified chorus and the positively glowing orchestra, the soloists came through superbly. Baritone Florian Boesch sang with passion and precision, his phrasing consistent and poised, while soprano Sophie Karthäuser handled her smallish but challenging part with remarkable warmth and finesse.
When all was said and done, this commanding performance reminded us how, with its provocative non-liturgical German text and spontaneously engaging, openly beautiful music, Brahms' Ein deutsches Requiem has had no trouble reaching and maintaining a timeless universality.

Friday, February 10, 2017

Leonidas Kavakos & Yuja Wang - Janacek, Schubert, Debussy & Bartok - 02/08/17

Janacek: Sonata for Violin and Piano 
Schubert: Fantasie for Violin and Piano in C Major, D. 934 
Debussy: Sonata for Violin and Piano 
Bartok: Sonata No. 1 for Violin and Piano, Op. 21 

 After large-scale performances of certified masterpieces by Tchaikovsky and Beethoven in Lincoln Center’s David Geffen Hall within the last few days, I was back there on Wednesday evening for a much more intimate evening with Leonidas Kavakos and Yuja Wang, whose unusual artistic chemistry has made them one of the hottest duos on the current classical music scene, on top of being two of its most sought-after soloists. Their Carnegie Hall recital a couple of years ago has remained deeply ingrained in my memory as a prime example of a highly successful collaboration, and I just could not wait to repeat the experience.
Just a few years ago, long-time violinist extraordinaire and The New York Philharmonic's current Artist-in-Residence Leonidas Kavakos would have been the bigger draw, but these days it is safe to assume that most of the audience came to see the glitzy fashion-plate and hear the truly prodigious musician that is Yuja Wang, to the point that the program, a clever, attractive and wide-ranging set of three sonatas and a fantasia, felt more like an after-thought. After all, what can't those two handle?

Janacek’s sonata was a short but not inconsequential concert opener that immediately grabbed our attention with a dramatic Con moto, in which the violin took the lead until the piano decided to restlessly join in, a Ballada that came out as a delicate rêverie, and an Adagio, in which the violin kept on interjecting jarring figures over the mournful piano. It gave the two musicians a good opportunity to establish themselves, each instrument resolutely sticking to its own mission, while still operating in perfect osmosis.
Next came my personal highlight of the evening, which counted many, as Kavakos and Wang delivered a stunning performance of Schubert’s mighty Fantasie in C Major, a shining jewel from the composer’s impressive body of work. One sprawling movement consisting of six highly contrasting sections, the brilliant composition was expertly brought to life, starting with the violin creating achingly beautiful lines while the piano insistently played on in the background, and ending with an unexpected, wildly turbulent coda. The expansive, richly lyrical Andantino was a marvel of technical wizardry and emotional expressiveness.
A beloved staple of recitals for violin and piano, Debussy’s sonata was a leisurely walk in an impressionist landscape, all subtle colors and understated elegance, which Kavakos and Wang effortlessly mastered, organically keeping the right balance between them. This was a memorable take on what ended up being the composer's last substantial output, and one that would have probably made him proud too.
We had started the evening in the Czech Republic and we finished it in Hungary, coming full circle with even more folk dance-inspired rhythms. Bartok's sonata started off with a strongly Expressionist Allegro Appassionato before slowing down in the Adagio, whose Debussyan serenity was partly spoiled by too many coughers, who seem to be as ubiquitous in concert halls as sick passengers are in subway trains these days. As if to release all the pent-up frustration, the Allegro was Bartok at his most devilishly mischievous, during which the two musicians, who had been riding two separate trains heading to the same station, let loose and finished the program with non-stop, seemingly spontaneous but no doubt sharply calibrated, virtuosic fireworks.

 Our enthusiastic ovation, and a resounding shout-out to Wang from a majorly worked-up fan, earned us a very special encore in a compelling arrangement of Schubert’s lied “Sei mir gegrüsst”, whose soulful melody was also present in the Fantasie in C Major we had just heard. A perfect ending to a perfect evening.

Tuesday, February 7, 2017

Budapest Festival Orchestra - All-Beethoven - 02/06/17

Conductor: Ivan Fischer 
Beethoven: Symphony No. 8 in F Major 
Beethoven: Symphony No. 9 in D Minor 
Laura Aikin: Soprano 
Kelley O'Connor: Mezzo-Soprano 
Matthew Rose: Bass 
Robert Dean Smith: Tenor 
Concert Chorale of New York 

Being a classical music ambassador certainly has its own rewards, and my mission has been paying off handsomely lately as last week I successfully introduced my friend Vy An to major Russian composer Tchaikovsky, and last night I expectantly took my friend Christine to a mini-Beethoven marathon consisting of his symphonies No. 8 and No. 9, the latter being the goal of the expedition to the David Geffen Hall because I think that everybody should hear it at least once in their lives.
A seemingly required musical accompaniment to many landmark events in the world, whether the Berlin Wall is falling or Chinese citizens are protesting in Tiananmen Square, just to name a couple, Beethoven’s transcendental take on Schiller's “Ode to Joy”, the Ninth's universal claim to fame, never fails to rise and unite us all, if only for a fleeting moment.
And of course, we were happy to take the Eighth as well, especially since the performing ensemble would be the fabulous Budapest Festival Orchestra and his no less fabulous founder, music director and conductor Ivan Fischer, whose magic everybody should get to experience at least once in their lives. A lot of people obviously agreed and we all packed up the concert hall on this pleasantly mild Monday evening. 

Among Beethoven's peerless set of symphonies, the Eighth does not particularly stand out, except, I guess, for the fact that it does not particularly stand out. But then again, when performed by outstanding musicians like the Budapest Festival Orchestra, it was a much welcome breath of fresh air and light-heartedness as well as an excellent prelude to the imposing grandeur of the Ninth.
As intermission was getting close to an end and people we getting back to their seats, I could not help but notice that there were no bleachers on the stage for the indispensable chorus. Now, Ivan Fischer is known – and beloved – not only for his prodigious talent as a music man, but also for his adventurous spirit when it comes to live performances. And sure enough, as the fourth movement got underway, inconspicuous-looking chorus members scattered among the audience sprang up from their seats according to the parts they had been assigned to in the irresistibly uplifting “Ode to Joy”. This ingenious idea physically unified performers and audience members for one of the most powerful hymns to freedom and brotherhood ever composed, and was an unarguable symbolic and musical success.
That said, the rest of the symphony was just as flawlessly executed, with an extremely tight and readily responsive orchestra, including some timpani downstage, a highly involved conductor and four assertive soloists. From the opening low chords to the triumphant finale, the tempo was kept at a rigorous, urgent pace, which the musicians has no trouble whatsoever keeping up with, never mind the treacherousness of the musical territory. Most importantly, all this potent energy did not prevent the pure beauty of the composition from gloriously coming through. Monday nights do not get any better than this.

Sunday, February 5, 2017

New York Philharmonic - All-Tchaikovsky - 02/02/17

Conductor: Semyon Bychkov 
Tchaikovsky: Piano Concerto No. 1 in B-flat Minor, Op. 23 (1879 version) – Kirill Gerstein 
Tchaikovsky: Manfred Symphony after Byron, Op. 58 

 After the hypnotic minimalism of Philip Glass on Tuesday night at Carnegie Hall, I was excitingly gearing up for the full-blown Romanticism of Piotr Tchaikovsky on Thursday night at the David Geffen Hall with my friend Vy An, who was more than ready to check off yet another local music venue, prestigious orchestra and classic hit from her list while widening her knowledge of the classical music repertoire thanks to the "Beloved Friend - Tchaikovsky and his World: A Philharmonic Festival". I mean, if she did not fall for Tchaikovsky's Piano Concerto No. 1 right off the bat, I had figured that all hope would probably be lost to connect her to the joys of classical music.
And that would not be just any performance of it either, but a chance to discover the rarely heard 1879 version, the final one before a student of Tchaikovsky's decided to make it more flamboyant after the composer's death. Luckily for us, Russian pianist Kirill Gerstein has been determined to spread the word about the real thing, and would therefore be in charge of bringing it to the New York audience with Russian conductor Semyon Bychkov on the podium. And we were all extremely grateful for it.

Tchaikovsky's Piano Concerto No. 1 was indisputably instrumental in hooking me to classical music, and if I have since then moved on to appreciating more esoteric ventures, I still get the same irrepressible frisson every time I hear the famous take-no-prisoners opening before happily succumbing to the sweeping power of the entire piece. And if on Thursday night these first chords had a distinctly less bombastic and more lyrical ring to them, they were still as thrilling as ever. No-one in the crowded auditorium could reasonably have turned down this ever-irresistible invitation to what has remained one of the wildest rides in classical music history.
Displaying a poise and a maturity way beyond his years, Kirill Gerstein was totally in charge from beginning to end, seamlessly integrating the original, more logical, but nevertheless less familiar, components into his performance. On the other hand, no matter how more organic and balanced the 1879 score is, Gerstein did not refrain from the expected outpouring of big emotions and there was still plenty of top-quality schmaltz to go around, as it should. Truth be told, his mission was masterfully accomplished also because he was brilliantly accompanied by the orchestra, who were obviously totally on board and whole-heartedly responded to a very much involved Semyon Bychkov.
Looking almost like an after-thought after the superlative piano concerto, the expansive Manfred Symphony turned out to be a wonderful addition to this Tchaikovsky-centric evening. Predictably overflowing with big brassy moments, lush violin passages and exquisitely understated interludes, the performance beautifully illustrated the mysterious setting, supernatural elements and dramatic plot of Byron's epic poem. Obviously very comfortable with the composition and the conductor, the NY Phil delivered a technically assured, musically opulent and emotionally dramatic performance that perfectly rounded up our glorious Russian feast.

Friday, February 3, 2017

Bruckner Orchestra Linz - All-Glass - 01/31/17

Conductor: Dennis Russell Davies 
Glass: Days and Nights in Rocinha 
Glass: Ifé: Three Yoruba Songs – Angélique Kidjo 
Glass: Symphony No. 11 

So what does a highly regarded, world-famous composer do for a landmark birthday? Well, if you're Minimalist master Philip Glass, your long-time partner-in-music Dennis Russell Davies brings his well-regarded Austrian Bruckner Orchestra Linz as well as adventurous Beninese-born vocalist Angélique Kidjo to Carnegie Hall’s Stern Auditorium for an evening dedicated to your work. And since the man himself is apparently downright indefatigable, he generously threw in the world premiere of his 11th symphony, just because he can.
So last Tuesday night was a very special night for me not only because it was pretty cool to be part of Philip Glass’ 80th birthday bash, but also because it brought me back all the way to Madrid's Teatro Real, where four years and four days before my friend Nicole and I were lucky enough to attend the final dress rehearsal of the opera The Perfect American, which had been composed by Philip Glass and was conducted by Dennis Russell Davies. It is a small world after all.

Written about two decades ago, directly inspired by the Rocinha neighborhood of Rio de Janeiro, remotely commissioned and positively premiered by Dennis Russell Davies, Days and Nights in Rocinha is a prime example of the numerous and exciting possibilities of the Minimalist style. As performed on Tuesday night, the seemingly simple and repetitive score turned out to be anything but as it unfolded with a hypnotic melody, intricate harmonies and steady dance rhythms.
The colorful appearance of Angélique Kidjo on the stage for Ifé splendidly embodied her assertive musical presence and the Yoruba legends that inspired the three poems before they became songs. "Olodumare" was a nice introduction that allowed us to slowly become acclimated to the interactive flow of the language and the music, "Yemanda" stood out as more subdued while "Oshumare" concluded the series on a fervently upbeat note. Kidjo's voice was slightly amplified, but the sound balance was mostly good, if not always ideal, and the result definitely exotic and overall satisfying.
And then, after the intermission, we finally became acquainted with the much anticipated Symphony No. 11, which quickly got going with an unstoppable pulse that would power the extraordinarily force and inexhaustible vitality of the entire work while spontaneously embarking us all in what felt like an exhilarating road movie. Consisting of three movements, the 40-minute composition burst with countless original ideas that made it all the more unique and engaging.
The first movement surged with plenty of irrepressible energy, the second one slowed the pace down but without really losing the momentum, and the third one distinguished itself with, among other things, a clever and electrifying use of percussion. It was all meticulously organized, and yet the journey felt happily free-wheeling and irresistibly life-affirming. Maestro Davies, who conducted the first American performance of a Glass symphony 25 years ago, was solidly in command and consistently brought the best out of the totally devoted orchestra.
Philip Glass, who had received a thunderous round of applause at the beginning of the concert was even more enthusiastically acclaimed when he showed up on stage after all had been played and done. Happy Birthday, Mr. Glass!