Saturday, August 12, 2017

Mostly Mozart Festival - Brahms, Bach & Mendelssohn - 08/09/17

Brahms: Concerto for Violin and Cello in A Minor, Op. 102 (Double Concerto) 
Joshua Bell: Violin 
Steven Isserlis: Cello 
Bach: Contrapunctus XIV, from Art of Fugue (Arranged by Andrew Manze) 
Mendelssohn: Symphony No. 5 in D Major (Reformation) 

For a few decades now the Mostly Mozart Festival has been perking up the summer of New York City’s dwellers, and one of its most enjoyed features used to be the free preview concert in then Avery Fisher Hall, which never failed to create a long line of music lovers, who killed time bonding among themselves, on the Lincoln Center Plaza on that morning. Last year the preview concert was moved to nearby Damrosch Park on a disgustingly muggy Friday evening, which prompted me to sit the concert – and the festival – out. This year the festival’s powers that be resolved the budgetary and logistical restrictions once and for all by not having a preview concert at all. So there.
However, I still managed to find a free Mostly Mozart Festival concert, and one that promised new takes on 11 among Schubert’s 24 “Winterreise” songs, plus games and prizes, last Monday evening in the nearby David Rubenstein Atrium. And “Schubertiade Remix” turned out to be a rambunctious evening of electric instruments, including a mean ukulele, synthesizers, amplified voices, distorted sounds, English lyrics and peculiarly loose adaptations performed by some members of the fearless International Contemporary Ensemble and other local artists. I eventually left with my ears still unpleasantly ringing and no prizes.
But all was back to normal on Wednesday night at the David Geffen Hall where the Mostly Mozart Festival Orchestra conducted by Andrew Manze was going to be joined by violinist Joshua Bell and cellist Steven Isserlis for Brahms’ Concerto for Violin and Cello, which would be followed by a maestro Manze-arranged fugue by Bach, and Mendelssohn’s Reformation Symphony. So Mozart was nowhere in sight or within earshot, but plenty of very cool music was on the program, making it the perfect introduction to the festival for my friend Vy An, after the traditional slice of pizza on the Hearst Plaza.

Since first impression are key, it was excellent timing that the concert started with the dream duo of Joshua Bell and Steven Isserlis tackling Brahms’ less well-known but downright satisfying Concerto for Violin and Cello, his last work for orchestra, which by default requires both soloists to be in flawless synchronicity. This was of course not too tall of an order from the long-time music partners on the stage, and unsurprisingly the performance went off without a hitch. The expertly crafted, effortlessly virtuosic conversation between the two instruments, whether assertively alone or seamlessly together, was beautifully backed by the orchestra, which knew exactly how to take a back-seat while still remaining unmistakably present.
And since the audience made it abundantly clear that we simply could not get enough of the star soloists, they came back for an inspired Langsam from Schumann’s Violin Concerto with a coda by Benjamin Britten. Truth be told, this parting gift was so stunningly beautiful that it almost overshadowed the Brahms.
After intermission, Andrew Manze gave the slightly smaller audience a quick and fun introduction to the rest of the program, most notably asking us to remember that Felix Mendelssohn was an outstanding gymnast, among many other talents. Then we moved on to his engaging arrangement of the Contrapunctus XIV, from Art of Fugue by Bach, the master rightfully worshiped by all three composers being heard that evening.
This little foray into Bachian territory was in fact the perfect introduction to Mendelssohn’s rigorously Lutheran yet irrepressibly melodic Symphony No. 5, which was actually his second in chronological order, but never mind, to which we silently and eagerly transitioned. Another not so well-known work by a very well-known composer, the Reformation Symphony was performed in its original form on Wednesday night, Mendelssohn being notorious for not knowing when to stop revising to the point of damaging his own work.
Originally written for the 300th anniversary of the Augsburg Confession, this new piece was not finished in June 1830 due to the composer’s poor health. Rarely performed when he was alive and eventually published 21 years after he died – Hence the No. 5 attribution – the Reformation Symphony has nevertheless plenty going for it, with a serious first movement (Protestantism will do that to a composition), a carefree second one, a lyrical third one (Mendelssohn shall be Mendelssohn) and a powerful final one. The orchestra took immediate ownership of it and brought it to life in a performance that the Englishman leaving behind us qualified as “stupendous”. We could not have agreed more.

Wednesday, July 12, 2017

MoMA's Summergarden - Samuelsson, Vázquez, Sierra & Crockett - 07/09/17

The New Juilliard Ensemble 
Conductor: Joel Sachs 
Marie Samuelsson: Förnimmelser 
Hebert Vázquez: Pinturas del mundo flotante: Bajo una ola en altamar en Kanagawa 
Roberto Sierra: El sueño de Tartini 
Donald Crockett: Dance Concerto 
Bryan Conger, Clarinet 

 Now that summer is officially in and the cultural season is officially out, life is tough for the poor music lovers who do not have the money or the time to make it to the countless prestigious music festivals around the world. Luckily, New York City has had its own mini-festival in July since 1971 when MoMA decided to offer some first-class contemporary music performed by first-class musicians in its lovely sculpture garden.
The weather has not always cooperated in the past, but last Sunday was as perfect a summer evening as could be expected for an outdoor event, and the extra-long line of regulars and newcomers certainly attested of that. Undaunted by the challenge, my friend Vy An and I waited forty-five minutes outside and one hour inside before venturing into international contemporary classical music territory in the expert company of The New Julliard Ensemble conducted by Joel Sachs (in his 25th season this year!).

The concert started with the US premiere of Swedish composer Marie Samuelsson's "Förnimmelser", whose various "Notations" lovingly evoked people dear to her. Soulfully conveyed by a tight septet consisting of clarinet, bassoon, horn, violin, viola, cello and bass, those musical musings had the ethereality and tenderness that come with cherished memories while still being accompanied by an unmistakable touch of Nordic coolness.
Then we moved from Scandinavia to Central America for another US premiere with Mexican composer Hebert Vázquez's "Pinturas del mundo flotante: Bajo una ola en altamar en Kanagawa." Those "Paintings of the floating world: Under the wave off Kanagawa", which are part of an unfinished chamber music work, vibrantly conveyed the ukiyo-e woodblock prints and paintings that were popular in Japan from the 17th through the 19th centuries with contemporary Western instruments. Delicately outlined or vigorously splashy, the music changed along with the imaginary images during this time- and border-transcending experience.
After a short intermission, we got to enjoy the world premiere of the final version of Puerto Rican composer Roberto Sierra's "El sueño de Tartini", a virtuosic account of what the devil's music may have sounded like in "Tartini's Dream", which incidentally was also the inspiration for his famous solo violin piece "Devil’s Trill Sonata". Unsurprisingly, the result, which involved flute, clarinet, violin, cello and piano, was sometimes eerie, often mysterious, generally unpredictable, and always exciting. The devil would have been proud, possibly jealous.
We ended our evening with the New York premiere of American composer Donald Crockett's "Dance Concerto", which featured Bryan Conger in a star turn at the clarinet and eight other musicians in equally confident performances, , everybody seemingly ready to "dance the night away until dawn" indeed. We did not, but reluctantly left our little mid-town oasis to go back to the gritty urban reality.

Saturday, June 17, 2017

Bargemusic - Bach & Mendelssohn - 06/11/17

Bach: Concerto for Two Violins and Orchestra in D Minor, BWV 1043 
Mendelssohn: Octet in E-flat Major, Op. 20 
Manhattan Symphonie 
Mark Peskanov 

As New York City’s official music season is slowly but surely coming to an end, I could not think of a better way to conclude mine than with Felix Mendelssohn’s unabashedly sunny Octet, another one of my favorite classical music pieces, but one that I do not get to hear very often, and certainly not as often as I’d like. The fact that it would be performed by Mark Peskanov and some members of the Manhattan Symphonie orchestra  in the Bargemusic in Dumbo only added to the incentive, and I figured I just had to go.
My schedule got a little bit off track with a productive but hectic Saturday, but things eventually worked out, including a very quick but extremely enjoyable get-together with my friend Amy at the original Jacques Torres location because there’s nothing like a good old hot chocolate when it is a muggy 95 degrees outside.
In summer I always complain about the need to carry a cashmere sweater everywhere I go to protect myself against the AC’s sub-arctic temperatures, so it was with major relief that on Sunday I got to enjoy a short but sizzling concert in not only the intimate space, but also the totally civilized temperature, of the languorously floating music venue. Oh, and there’s always the fantastic view over Lower Manhattan in the background as an added bonus too.

Because Bach is unconditionally appreciated anytime anywhere, the performance started with his Concerto for Two Violins and Orchestra in D Minor, which allowed the eight string players on the stage to instantly jazz up the atmosphere of the full house. Cleverly combining Italian zest and German exactness, the brilliantly crafted work received an informed treatment that bristled with energy and savoir-faire.
Written when Mendelssohn had reached the ripe age of 16, his Octet brilliantly stands out for its mature artistry and youthful joie de vivre, which in his case were obviously not mutually exclusive. The composition is tightly woven and beautifully intricate, unquestionably showing that the precocious teenager had a decidedly uncommon gift for composition. Its highly infectious melodies and overall cheerful mood have also made it an instantly hummable classic that never gets old.
Mark Peskanov and the members of the Manhattan Symphonie orchestra delivered a vivacious and polished performance of it, expertly handling the technical challenges and spontaneously expressing feelings of joyful insouciance. Melodies unfolded, sparks flew, and it all ended up in a breathless race to the finish line. And then that was it. But that one blissful hour was more than enough to lift everybody's spirits with a welcome splash of virtuosic freshness on that hot Sunday afternoon in the barge with Felix.

Tuesday, June 13, 2017

New York City Opera - Angels in America - 06/10/17

Composer: Peter Eotvos 
Conductor: Pacien Mazzagatti 
Librettist: Mari Mezei 
Producer/Director: Sam Helfrich 
Andrew Garland: Prior Walter 
Kristen Chambers: The angel 
Sarah Beckham-Turner: Harper Pitt/Ethel Rothenberg/Angel Antarctica 
Wayne Tiggs: Roy Cohn/Ghost 1/Angel Australia 
Sarah Castle: Hannah Pitt/Rabbi Chemelwitz/Henry/Angel Asiatica 
Matthew Reese: Belize/Mr. lies/Woman/Angel Africani 
Michael Weyandt: Joseph Pitt/Angel Europe/Ghost 2 

 The New York City Opera may have had an eventful life, but since its much celebrated comeback last year, it has been proving time and time again that it is here to stay. After tentatively testing the water last season, the feisty company moved on to a resolutely varied and ambitious program this season, which is ending with the much-anticipated opera version of Tony Kushner’s Angels in America, his by now classic play about the beginning of the AIDS epidemic during the Reagan era, which landed with a loud bang and a Pulitzer Prize on the theater scene in the early 1990s.
Unfazed by the fact that the two-part play is a seven-hour epic involving multiples characters, stories and themes, Hungarian husband and wife team Peter Eotvos and Mari Mezei boldly took on respectively the musical composition and the libretto. The result was a two-and-a-half hour opera that came out in 2004, has been successfully performed in major cities around Europe, and is having its long-overdue New York premiere at the Rose Theater right now. About time.

I had joined the masses and attended the play and watched the HBO film of Angels in America way back when, and my foggy memories served me well on Saturday night as quite a few audience members around me, who were unfamiliar with the story and had not bothered to read the program notes, confirmed that the opera was kind of hard to follow for novices. On the other hand, the sprawling play had been reduced in what may be the only way that was making sense for an opera: Several crucial scenes in which the emotions were raw, the social commentary barely there, the political context non-existent, and the singing pretty awesome.
In the pivotal role of AIDS patient Prior Walter, baritone Andrew Garland proved that he has some remarkable performing chops. His nuanced singing and committed acting were always on cue to convey his feelings, from his love for a boyfriend that will soon abandon him to his incredulity at being proclaimed a prophet by a random angel, of all things. Anguished, skeptical or hopeful, he confidently took us on a journey during which each day could have been his last.
As Louis Ironston, the neurotic Marxist lover that deserted Prior when the latter needed him most, tenor Aaron Blake managed the impressive feat not to appear as just a selfish coward, but as a deeply conflicted young man who simply could not face the admittedly dire situation.
Bass-baritone Wayne Tigges clearly had a ball impersonating stubbornly in denial, bigger-than-life – although not bigger-than-death –Roy Cohn, the notorious MacCarthyist New York lawyer and social celebrity that was as well-known for his boisterous personality and for his highly questionable business practices.
Working for him was Louis’ new lover, Joe Pitt, a well-meaning, deeply religious, closeted Mormon lawyer, who was struggling with many issues on his own, as you can imagine. Baritone Michael Weyandt did a particularly fine job bringing up his internal turmoil.
Joe’s wife, Harper Pitt, was unsurprisingly unhappy in her marriage and was remaining undecided about her next steps, finding temporary escapism in the Valium pills she popped at a rather amazing rate. Her acerbic wit and aching vulnerability were pointedly expressed by soprano Sarah Beckham-Turner, who also stole the show during her two appearances as a delightfully caustic Ethel Rosenberg.
I was never a big fan of the generally over-blown supernatural happenings in the original play, finding the complicated human stories more than mesmerizing enough to captivate and keep anybody's attention, but I must admit that I was extremely grateful for the blazing angel we had on Saturday night in effortlessly charismatic soprano Kirsten Chambers, who consistently displayed a solidly earthy presence and potently vibrant voice.
Overall, all roles were well provided for, and a lot of the singers, especially the less visible ones, such as countertenor Matthew Reese an assertive night nurse Belize and a delightful homeless woman, and mezzo-soprano Sarah Castle, a relentless Mother Pitt and a hilarious Yiddish Rabbi, managed to juggle their small but delightful parts smoothly and efficiently.
The often divided stage had the bare minimum on it, which allowed for props to be brought in and provide more context. There was nothing even remotely imaginative about the directions, although the bright ray of light from the side window that first announced the presence of the angel was simple, well designed and tremendously effective. The freight elevator that effectively brought her in was a bit less so, but it added an unmistakable touch of industrial chic to the humdrum proceedings.
The libretto was a constant mix of singing and speaking, which inevitably stretched the opera into Broadway musical territory, for better or worse. However, the same biting humor that made the original play so memorable was thankfully present in spades and kept on injecting some priceless comic relief into the grim situations. Just because the subject matter was somber did not mean that it could not be lightened up a bit, and on Saturday night there were plenty of spontaneous chuckles heard even during the darkest moments.
For the most part the modern score was ostensibly understated, suitably atmospheric, at times erring on the jazzy side. It made up for what it was missing in drive and intensity with unusual sounds coming from atypical components such as a discreetly plucked electric guitar, occasional low-key digital enhancements and three subtly eerie choristers, which fit in especially well during the hallucinatory and other otherworldly episodes. Bottom line is, if those angels did not soar as grandly as the original ones, they still had a fair amount of wind beneath their wings.

Thursday, June 8, 2017

The MET Orchestra - Mahler & Sibelius - 06/06/17

Conductor: Esa-Pekka Salonen 
Mahler: Blumine 
Sibelius: Violin Concerto 
Christian Tetzlaff: Violin 
Mahler: Kindertotenlieder 
Anne Sofie von Otter: Mezzo-Soprano 
Sibelius: Symphony No. 7 

The Sibelius violin concerto being one of my all-time favorites in the entire classical music repertoire, I make a point of hearing it live any chance I get, schedule permitting. Additionally, because it is such a challenging composition, it is generally performed by certified virtuosic violinists at the top of their game, which never fails to make the whole experience even more memorable. I had been markedly spoiled in that regard last season with Anne-Sophie Mutter, Hilary Hahn and Leonidas Kavakos satiating at least temporarily my incurable craving for it, each in their own special way.
On the other hand, this season I would have to content myself with one performance of it at the beginning of June, just about one long year after I had last heard it. But my patience would no doubt be grandly rewarded since the formidable Christian Tetzlaff would be the one doing the honors this time. And the rest of the concert line-up was unquestionably impressive as well with The MET Orchestra, Esa-Pekka Salonen and Anne Sofie von Otter for a program that also comprised Sibelius’ Symphony No. 7 – because one can never hear too much Sibelius – as well as a few Mahler pieces, all of which would hopefully cheer up the almost capacity crowd on that gray, cool and wet Tuesday evening.

The concert started with Gustav Mahler’s short “Blumine”, a sentimental “Bouquet of flowers” that was eventually removed from his Titan symphony and nowadays delicately blooms on its own. In the hands of The MET Orchestra, playing from a stage instead of a pit for a change, the attractive miniature stood out for its finely nuanced inconspicuousness.
In stark contrast to the lovely opening serenade, Christian Tetzlaff’s absolutely thrilling and particularly athletic take of the Sibelius concerto included his signature intellectual inquisitiveness accompanied by the perfect combination of muscularity and nimbleness. The first movement came out starkly beautiful, atmospherically haunting and emotionally intense, even earning him a spontaneous round of applause at the end of it. The Adagio was pure lyrical bliss and the third movement had all the requisite playful oomph, fearless heroism, and then some.
Even though the MET orchestra is by default not experienced in Sibelius music, their assertive performance of the demanding work made them the ideal partner for the kind of high-flying star turn that Tetzlaff delivered, and confirmed one more time that they can handle just about anything thrown at them. As usual, maestro Salonen managed to keep the blazing music under his cool control while still whole-heartedly indulging the soloist's breath-taking acrobatics.
Our thunderous standing ovation was not in vain, and Tetzlaff gamely moved from Finland to Hungary for a surprise Presto from Bartok’s Solo Violin Sonata, whose daunting difficulties were clearly mere Kinderspiel to him.
 The atmosphere went down a notch or two after intermission, when Anne Sofie von Otter sang Kindertotenlieder, which consisted in five poignant poems about parents’ reactions to their children’s death that had been written by German poet Friedrich Rückert and later sensitively put to music by Mahler. The veteran Swedish mezzo-soprano’s voice has never been huge and is therefore more suited for intimate settings. That was not quite the case on Tuesday night, but Salonen generally succeeded in making sure that her refined and touching singing was heard over the orchestra as she was describing the parents’ distraught, reflective and ultimately hopeful states of mind.
The evening concluded with more Sibelius with his Symphony No. 7, a 20-minute piece that the composer first called a “Fantasia sinfonica” before deciding that the one constantly morphing movement had the scope and power of an actual symphony after all. And it does. On Tuesday night, the composer’s seemingly low-key yet ambitious approach yielded myriad individual details for an end result that was as unique as satisfying. Fully channeling his Nordic heritage, Salonen let the music organically grow with unexpected colors, endless ambiguities, fascinating sounds, and an intensely dramatic ending that was totally worthy of the composer's final symphonic work and, incidentally, of the final concert of my Carnegie Hall season.

Wednesday, May 31, 2017

Cantori New York - Holst & Ho - 05/21/17

Artistic Director & Conductor: Mark Shapiro 
Gustav Holst: Six Choral Folk Songs 
Kimberly DiNicola: Soloist 
Alice Ping Yee Ho: The Depth of this Quiet 
Hen Herman: Viola 
Yukie Honda: Violin 
Karla Moe: Flute 
Juja Shen: Pipa 
James Waldo: Cello 
Junling Wang: Guzheng 

When, right before their performance last March, Cantori New York's artistic director and conductor Mark Shapiro announced from the stage that the choir would be singing in Chinese for the first time ever during their May concert, it was clear from the singers' faces that this tidbit of information was news to them too. On the other hand, anybody even just remotely familiar with Cantori is well aware that the one thing that can be reliably expected from them is the unexpected, so there was no reason for the singers not to take this new development in stride and rise up to the challenge.
Consequently, after a mini-marathon of three widely different and equally terrific music performances in a row, spanning from a classic Baroque set by Johann Sebastian Bach to a wild contemporary ride by Esa-Pekka Salonen, I was thrilled to be able to reach the finish line  as well as my unavoidable and not entirely welcome milestone birthday  slightly breathless but totally psyched in the virtuosic company of Cantori on Sunday afternoon, even if that meant attending the world deuxième instead of the world première of Alice Ho's The Depth of this Quiet.
Since there is never a dull moment with the MTA either, the local train was running express and the express train was running local, making the trip down to the Village more unpredictable than I cared for. But it all paid off when I found myself back in the lovely Church of Saint Luke in the Fields with various friends and acquaintances on a gloriously warm and sunny spring afternoon for Cantori's last, but by no means least, concert of their season.

Before the highly anticipated new adventure, the program included a traditional set of songs by Gustav Holst, an English composer best-known for his instrumental one hit wonder The Planets. However, beside a keen interest in astrology, the man was apparently into investigating the many possibilities of the human voice too, and one of the results of this laudable endeavor is his lively "Six Choral Folk Songs".
From the charmingly flowery "I sow'd the seeds of love" to the spirited drinking song "Swansea town", "There was a tree" delighted with its fluttering birds, "Matthew, Mark and Luke and John" reminded us we were in a church, "The song of the blacksmith" brought some highly rhythmical comic relief, and "I love my love" leisurely unfolded with sentimentality galore. Whether lightweight or more serious, with always just the right amount of earthiness, they went down quick and easy.
After intermission, the time had come to boldly travel across cultures, space and time with Canadian composer Alice Ho's The Depth of this Quiet, a 45-minute cantata based on poetry in English by contemporary Canadian writer Carole Glasser Langille interspersed with poetry in Mandarin by Alice Ho and 8th century writer Li Bait. This unusual mix would be performed by the choir and a substantial instrumental ensemble comprised of Western flute, violin, viola and cello as well as Eastern pipa and guzheng, two Chinese plucked string instruments.
From the very first moment, the general impression was one of unaffected beauty as even in the most sorrowful moments, the two drastically different languages organically flowed into each other while the instruments’ distinctive sonorities blended just as effortlessly, creating a unique combination of sounds that was instantly engaging and universal. Nothing flashy ever occurred, and yet this wide-ranging exploration of stark Canadian landscapes and complex human emotions was absorbing and memorable.
I would be hard-pressed to assess the singers’ Chinese pronunciation, but I can tell that they skillfully brought out the exquisite lyricism of the English poetry, including numerous naturalistic details such as apple frozen on trees, the moon thin as ice and blue shadows floating in the snow. Once in a while, things got suggestive when two women decided to hang around a bed covered with black satin in "Black", vivacious when trying to deal with a crazy map in "Directions", inquisitive when questions were repeatedly asked in "Noise", or compellingly pulse-driven in "This Naked Morning".
The Chinese famously say that “The journey is the reward” and this one was certainly a mesmerizing experience that, with no big sounds or loud statements, but plenty of genuine cooperation and gorgeous harmonies, subtly and assuredly asserted itself. That is one lesson that the rest of the world should definitely heed these days.

Sunday, May 28, 2017

New York Philharmonic - Brahms, Thorvaldsdottir & Salonen - 05/20/17

Conductor: Alan Gilbert 
Johannes Brahms: Concerto in D Major for Violin and Orchestra, Op. 77 
Leonidas Kavakos: Violin 
Anna Thorvaldsdottir: Aeriality 
Esa-Pekka Salonen: Wing on Wing 
Anu Komsi: Soprano 
Piia Komsi: Soprano 
Ella Wahlstrom: Sound Design 

For the past several years, I had planned to spend my next milestone birthday, Sunday, May 21, 2017, at the Philharmonie de Paris, or potentially in another music venue of the City of Lights if the program in my first choice had not been to my liking. Because I simply could not imagine a better excuse to find out what all the fuss about the new musical institution was about while spending quality time in the city as well. It was a no-brainer.
However, about one year before B-Day I received the New York Philharmonic's 2016-2017 season calendar and immediately noticed that on my birthday week my home orchestra had put together a pretty unbeatable line-up that included Leonidas Kavakos playing the Brahms concerto (A double hitter than could not possibly go wrong), a new piece by an emerging composer (New voices are always welcome), and the New York premiere of a piece by Esa-Pekka Salonen (Always a pleasure).
So I soon concluded that there was no point crossing the Atlantic Ocean to go hear the Philharmonie's program for that weekend, which was not even close to being as appealing as the triple treat waiting for me down the street. And I figured that the venue and the city would still be there whenever I am finally ready. So I happily stayed and excitedly walked down Broadway to the unquestionably less cool but definitely more convenient David Geffen Hall on Saturday night.

The programming was actually a bit of a bold move as the most popular work of the evening would be performed before intermission, giving the less adventurous members of the audience an opportunity to leave before things became less familiar, but under's Alan Gilbert's firm leadership, the NY Phil has learned to live dangerously anyway. For the last program of his artist-in-residence stint, Leonidas Kavakos could not have picked a more beloved staple than Brahms' violin concerto, which pretty much guaranteed that he would wrap up his purposefully eclectic and immensely enjoyable one-year residency with plenty of virtuosic fireworks.
Although he is not the flashy type, his interpretation had gripping moments of lush lyricism in the expansive first movement and terrific pyrotechnics during the no-holds-barred gypsy-inspired last movement. Joseph Joachim's tricky cadenza was keenly played, and the meditative Adagio was a truly exquisite interlude, oboe solo included. In the end, Kavakos' characteristically understated approach to the dauntingly dense and magnificently intricate work did marvels at emphasizing its intense Romanticism, not to mention its enduring appeal.
The audience predictably went wild, but alas no encore was bestowed upon us – I guess he did not get the memo that this was a uniquely special performance for me – so we eventually had to let him go.
Having attended the entire concert, I can rightfully confirm that all the people who did not return after intermission should be eating crow by now as the next two pieces were totally worth staying for. Deceptively short and inconspicuous, Aeriality by young Icelandic composer Anna Thorvaldsdottir ended up making a memorable statement. A continuous 13-minute evocation of mysterious Nordic landscapes, the music was generally so subtle that it was challenging to know if anything was actually going on until barely perceptible details started springing out such as sparks, bubbles and clanks. It did not take long to realize that there was in fact always something going on, and that the whole adventure was quite mesmerizing.
While I believe I am fairly open-minded when it comes to contemporary music, I have to admit that I tend to resent the incorporation of electronics in instrumental music simply because their appearance usually feels forced and unnecessary, like an easy shortcut to get credits for innovation and edginess. The one exception I can think of is unsurprisingly Esa-Pekka Salonen who, to my knowledge, is the only composer able and willing to deal with non-traditional musical elements not only efficiently, but imaginatively as well.
Therefore, I was very much looking forward to hearing his Wing on Wing, a work that was inspired by the imposing tribute to water, wind and sails that is Frank Gehry's Walt Disney Concert Hall in downtown Los Angeles and that premiered at its opening. Truth be told, I was also very intrigued by how the recordings of the plainfin midshipman's singing, whose mating call does bring to mind a bunch of buzzing bees and, somewhat more logically, Frank Gehry's (sampled and distorted) voice would fit into the whole thing.
And sure enough, the musical creation turned out to be as boldly conceived, deftly executed and immediately awe-inspiring as the architectural creation, which is admittedly no small feat. Unabashedly ambitious in its composition and staging – the extravagantly colorful score was epic in its weirdness and brilliance, the huge orchestra included a wide range of unusual instruments, the fish and Frank Gehry eerily reverberated around the space, the two coloratura soprano sisters extraordinarily vocalized from various spots in the hall – Wing on Wing sailed on smoothly and confidently.
That was certainly the most glorious send-off I could hoped for before reluctantly and irreversibly stepping into "the other side".

Saturday, May 27, 2017

Trinity Church Wall Street - All-Glass - 05/19/17

Conductor: Julian Wachner 
Glass: Symphony No. 5 (Requiem, Bardo, Nirmanakaya) 
The Choir of Trinity Wall Street 
Downtown Voices 
Trinity Youth Chorus 
NOVUS NY 
Heather Buck: Soprano 
 David Cushing: Bass 
Katherine Pracht: Mezzo-Soprano 
 Vale Rideout: Tenor 
 Stephen Salters: Baritone 

 One day after the intimate Bach recital by Wha Chung in Carnegie Hall’s vast Stern Auditorium on Thursday night, I was becoming mentally prepared for a much larger musical ensemble in a much smaller space for Philip Glass’ Symphony No. 5, which would be performed by The Choir of Trinity Wall Street, Downtown Voices, Trinity Youth Chorus, the NOVUS NY orchestra and five soloists in the historic Trinity Church Wall Street, which also happens to be conveniently located less than a block away from my office. That, at least, would mean no agonizingly suspenseful train ride followed by a breathless last-minute dash.
Originally composed to celebrate the new millennium at the Salzburg Festival, Philip Glass’ sprawling Symphony No. 5, also known kind of cryptically as Requiem, Bardo, Nirmanakaya, can tentatively be described as a musical smorgasbord whose spiritual influences are the Bible, the Tibetan Book of the Dead, the Koran, Hindu scriptures, and West African traditions, all expertly put together by the Very Reverend James Parks Morton of the Interfaith Center of New York and Professor Kusumita P. Pedersen of St. Francis College.
This last program of the Trinity Church’s eventful season was obviously a big deal as the beautiful venue was packed by eager audience members half an hour before starting time, and the stage did not have not much breathing room left once all the performers had taken their places. And then we were off.

Philip Glass’ Symphony No. 5 is remarkable for, among other things, the multi-cultural richness of its philosophical and religious content and the resolutely modern, refreshingly unfussy, constantly driven musical score (Once a minimalist, always a minimalist). Although the vast array of sacred texts was originally written in all kinds of exotic languages such as Greek, Hebrew, Sanskrit, Arabic, Chinese, Japanese and other indigenous idioms, they had all been translated into English to be more accessible and unequivocally establish the astonishing abundance of their common themes.
Ambitiously covering the history of the cosmos and humanity in 12 movements over roughly 100 uninterrupted minutes, Requiem, Bardo, Nirmanakaya is a genuinely exhilarating marathon, and the artists performing it on Friday night formed an impressively tight and committed ensemble. After having experienced the hopeful, angelic voices of the creation, love and joy, and then the dark forces of evil, ignorance and suffering, we faced explosive judgment and apocalypse before death took over. Next we reached the “in between” (Bardo) before moving on to the enlightened rebirth (Nirmanakaya).
The orchestra basically did not stop, except for short breaks between a couple of movements, and NOVUS NY unquestionably proved that their physical stamina is as outstanding as their musical skills. Since the music was intrinsically minimalist, it fell on the voices to make the various episodes individually stand out while still preserving the shockingly natural way they flowed into one another.
Consequently, the three choruses kept busy weaving beautifully contrasting textures, from haunting to threatening to heavenly, always mindful of the formal background. The five soloists filled their parts really well too, alone or in combination, allowing for more intimate moments to sporadically come up and add a true human dimension to the proceedings. Some of them were earth-shattering, like bass David Cushing thunderously inquiring “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” in “Suffering”, others were light-filled like soprano Heather Buck luminously describing “Paradise”.
There were many different moving parts to the complex whole, and on Friday night Trinity Church Wall Street director and music and conductor Julian Wachner was probably the hardest working man in show business, constantly keeping musicians, choristers and soloists in check and making sure that the performance went off smoothly and vibrantly. And it miraculously did.
At the end of the musically, philosophically and emotionally rewarding journey, what stuck with me were a few words by 8th century Buddhist monk, philosopher and poet Santideva, which appeared toward the end of the pivotal “Death” movement and certainly put life as we know it in perspective:
My foes will become nothing. 
 My friends will become nothing. 
 I too will become nothing. 
 Likewise all will become nothing. 
So there.

Sunday, May 21, 2017

Kyung Wha Chung - All-Bach - 05/18/17

Bach: Sonata No. 1 in G Minor, BWV 1001 for Solo Violin
Bach: Partita No. 1 in B Minor, BWV 1002 for Solo Violin
Bach: Sonata No. 2 in A Minor, BWV 1003 for Solo Violin
Bach: Partita No. 2 in D Minor, BWV 1004 for Solo Violin
Bach: Sonata No. 3 in C Major, BWV 1005 for Solo Violin
Bach: Partita No. 3 in E Major, BWV 1006 for Solo Violin

 There are a few world-class musicians that, despite my best efforts, I have never managed to hear perform live. Russian violinist Maxim Vengerov had been one of them until last month at Aix-en-Provence’s Festival de Pâques (Yes, I will travel to break the curse), Argentine pianist Martha Argerich will probably remain one of them until next season at Carnegie Hall (I am keeping fingers and toes solidly crossed), and Korean violinist Kyung Wha Chung finally got off the list last Thursday night at Carnegie Hall, where she not so incidentally had won the Leventritt Competition exactly 50 year earlier.
Moreover, maybe to make sure that this significant anniversary would go straight down to history, the former child prodigy turned living legend had decided to go ahead and tackle no smaller feat than Johann Sebastian Bach’s Six Sonatas and Partitas for Solo Violin. Widely considered the pinnacle of the violin repertoire, those six pieces are a daunting challenge for the soloist and a priceless treat for the audience.
However, it turns out that sometimes you gotta earn your treat, which I found out the hard way on Thursday when, after a particularly hectic day at work, I had a particularly hectic trip uptown that included an endless wait on an R train (No big surprise there), a desperate search for an available cab, a wild ride in the cab I eventually found (I had foolishly neglected to ask the driver to get me there on time AND alive), and a final mad dash on 57th Street to Carnegie Hall, where I finally arrived, with an empty stomach and a full bladder, four full minutes before the start of the concert. But one has to be grateful for the small things, n'est-ce-pas?

You'd think that someone who has made her professional debut when she was 9 years old with the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto and has been forced into retirement from performing over 10 years ago due to a finger injury may be tempted to rest on her laurels and eat bonbons all day, but Kyung Wha Chung is clearly not that type of musician. Cutting an endearingly petite figure on the vast stage, she soldiered on for three hours and bravely delivered, sometimes with a few technical hiccups on the way, but always with unwavering commitment, some of the most stunning music out there.
By turns happily smiling at the rock star ovations greeting her every time she appeared, openly feisty when she playfully yet authoritatively shushed the enthusiastic clapping that erupted after her rapid-fire Corrente during the B-Minor Partita, and instinctively grimacing at her fleeting mistakes, she genuinely played from the heart and effortlessly had every audience member root for her.
There were many special moments, including – unsurprisingly – the five movements from the mighty D-Minor Partita, which were performed with plenty of emotional involvement and confident virtuosity all the way to her take-no-prisoners approach to the epic Chaccone. Among others stood out a stirring Sarabande from the B-Minor Partita, a remarkable rendition of the arrestingly long and complex Fugue from the C-Major Sonata, followed by an exquisite Largo, and a delightfully light-on-its-feet Gavotte from the E-Major Partita.
Once the marathon over, she sat down on the stool behind her just as the audience spontaneously rose for a long and heart-felt standing ovation. On Thursday night at Carnegie Hall, Kyung Wha Chung was back and conquered again.

Wednesday, May 10, 2017

The Cecilia Chorus of New York - Jabri & Brahms - 05/06/17

Conductor/Music Director: Mark Shapiro 
Zaid Jabri: A Garden Among the Flames 
Sidney Outlaw: Baritone 
Chelsea Shepard: Soprano 
Every Voice Children’s Choir 
Johannes Brahms: Ein deutsches Requiem, Op. 45 
Sidney Outlaw: Baritone 
Chelsea Shepard: Soprano 

Some days are decidedly busier than others, and last Saturday was definitely a busy one, in the best possible way. After doing my political French thing at the voting booth in the morning and my cultural French thing at the Met in the afternoon, I quickly regrouped and then walked down Broadway again while getting mentally prepared for a universally relevant, time-transcending, multi-lingual thing at Carnegie Hall in the evening.
That’s where I met my friend Steve for Brahms’ Ein deutsches Requiem that would be performed by the highly regarded Cecilia Chorus of New York conducted by their no less highly regarded music director Mark Shapiro. Being both unconditional fans of the magnificent work ─ Although Steve is admittedly way ahead of me in that regard since he has actually sung it more than once ─ this was an opportunity we simply could not miss, busy day notwithstanding. So there we were.

 The evening started with the world premiere of Zaid Jabri's "A Garden Among the Flames", a brand new work commissioned by the Cecilia Chorus to be paired with Brahms' Requiem and its unyielding focus on mankind. Adroitly combining Ibn' Arabï's classic Sufi poem "A Garden Among the Flames" extolling the virtues of tolerance, a contemporary English poem by Yvette Christiansë describing the on-going refugee crisis, and the Beati pacifici from the Latin Bible praising the peacemakers, the thought-provoking composition turned out to be a far-reaching hymn to the human race not only for our troubled times, but for all other times as well.
As a music buff and a language nerd, I could not help but be excited by the imaginative use of those two components. The exotic nature of the Arabic and the solemnity of the Latin ingeniously contrasted with the immediate impact of the English and the lyrical-with-an-edge instrumental music was readily accessible, which resulted in a work that persuasively emphasized the apparent differences and ultimate sameness of all human beings. The Cecilia Chorus and the soloists gave an engaging performance, but the final word had to be the universal message of peace vividly conveyed by the young singers of the Every Voice Children’s Choir. May it be heard and, most importantly, heeded far and wide.
Going back to where "A Garden among the Flames" had picked up, we found ourselves ready to bask in one of the most fundamentally humanist masterpieces in the classical music repertoire, not to mention beloved familiar territory. Uncharacteristically based on the Lutheran Bible and the Apocrypha, partly motivated by the death of Brahms’ close friend Robert Schumann and if his mother, Ein deutsches Requiem progressively moved from choral piece to cantata to a deeply spiritual Requiem meant to console the ones left behind instead of conjuring up highly debatable Christian beliefs regarding a hypothetical after-life.
From the blessing of the bereaved to the blessing of the dead, the Cecilia Chorus sang whole-heartedly and expressively, the orchestra played with total commitment, and baritone Sidney Outlaw fulfilled his part with elegantly burnished dark tones. However, the shining star of this Requiem ended up being soprano Chelsea Shepard who, during her few minutes in the spotlight, delivered a stunningly beautiful rendition of “Ihr habt nun Traurigkeit”. My two favorite parts, the starkly haunting “Denn alles Fleisch, es ist wie Gras” and the ferociously victorious “Der Tod ist verschlungen in den Sieg”, came out intense and powerful. Death surely did not win that round, but some gloriously life-affirming music did.

Monday, May 8, 2017

Met - Cyrano de Bergerac - 05/06/17

Composer: Franco Alfano 
Conductor: Marco Amiliato 
Librettist: Henri Cain 
Producer/Director: Francesca Zambello 
Roberto Alagna: Cyrano de Bergerac 
Jennifer Rowley: Roxanne 
Atalla Ayan: Christian 
Juan Jesus Rodriguez: Count de Guiche 
Roberto de Candia: Ragueneau 
Michael Todd Simpson: Carbon 
David Pittsinger: Le Bret 

 As a typical product of the French education system, and of French culture in general, I grew up perpetually exposed to the art of the written word. Consequently, I spent many years reading many books and attending many plays, and one of my most vivid memories of those times is a production of Edmond Rostand's Cyrano de Bergerac featuring the magnificent Jacques Weber in the title role in Lyon back in the 1980s. Watching one of France's most prominent stage actors virtuosically embody the hero of what has remained my all-time favorite French play made me turn down any subsequent opportunity to see it again. You just don't mess with perfection.
Enter Roberto Alagna and Cyrano de Bergerac (the opera) by Italian composer Franco Alfano, whose main claim to fame is to have reluctantly and not entirely satisfactorily – But then again, nobody should be expected to conquer the impossible – finished up Puccini's Turandot. Alagna championed the obscure opera for a long time and eventually performed it with a little help from his brothers in Montpellier in 2003. On this side of the pond, Placido Domingo championed it and eventually performed it at the Met in 2005.
When I saw it included in the current Met season, I decided to find out what it was all about and got a ticket for one of the only four performances. Therefore, last Saturday, after having enthusiastically fulfilled my French citizen duty early morning, I just as enthusiastically stepped into the Met's filled-to-the-brim Family Circle early afternoon for further bonding with my French heritage.

There are many reasons why Cyrano de Bergerac seems ready-made for an opera treatment: An engaging story, well-defined characters, and a compelling combination of visceral emotions, action-packed sword fights and humorous touches. I suspected that Rostand's exceptionally gorgeous and deliciously witty poetic language would not completely survived and I was right (Why, oh why wasn't the fabulous nose monologue turn into a show-stopping aria?), but there are sacrifices to be accepted when going from one medium to another, so be it.
The hero of the afternoon in more ways than one was popular French tenor Roberto Alagna. Not only has he been instrumental in bringing this undeservedly neglected opera to the stage, but he was also wonderful in a role that fits him like a glove. Fearless duelist, eloquent poet, quick wit and hopeless romantic, Alagna was a memorable Cyrano, the ugly man who sacrificed everything for the woman he loved. Clearly relishing every minute of singing the irresistibly complex role, particularly at ease with the admittedly still attractive French libretto, he sang his heart out with refreshing confidence and ardor.
From swashbuckling swordsman to brilliant man of letters, always displaying impeccable comic timing, this Cyrano never lost his signature panache. He was, however, truly at his best in the heart-breaking balcony scene, during which, passionately in love yet resigned to his fate, he finally got to declare his intense feelings to an unsuspecting Roxanne in the cover of darkness, and then selflessly helped his undeserving rival enjoy the ultimate reward. Lastly, it is a safe bet to assume that his dying in her arms in the opera's final scene did not leave many audience members indifferent.
The object of his affection, his beautiful cousin Roxanne, was winningly sung by young American soprano Jennifer Rowley, who made a remarkable (almost) Met debut for the occasion. Although by default not the most discerning person ever (Must be the blond factor), her Roxanne could nevertheless be a willful and sharp woman at times. Blessed with a voice that effortlessly went from youthful joie de vivre to profound dismay, Rowley had the acting and singing chops necessary to bring it all home, and she repeatedly did.
The object of her affection, unquestionably good-looking but hopelessly inarticulate Christian, was persuasively sung by young Brazilian tenor Atalla Ayan. Being mostly known for not being able to utter a word worth-remembering is a pretty thankless role for a singer, but Ayan took it in stride and was completely convincing as the young cadet who is genuinely in love with Roxanne, but does not have the the slightest communication skill to express it. Singing artlessly and vigorously, not shying away from the comical aspect of his shortcomings, Ayan was an endearing Christian.
Smaller parts were unfailingly well cast too, starting with baritone Juan Jesus Rodriguez, who was an impressively nuanced Count de Guiche, baritone Roberto de Candia, whose pastry chef Ragueneau brought some always welcome comic relief, baritone Michael Todd Simpson was a solid Carbon and bass baritone David Pittsinger a steadfast Le Fret.
As usual, the chorus distinguished themselves by being conspicuously present or easily blending in, depending on the scene. The male singers got a chance, and resolutely grabbed it, to make a powerful impression as mournful down-on-their-luck soldiers facing a near-certain death in Act III.
The production was traditional, but in the best way possible. The various sets were attractive, if not particularly imaginative, and the period costumes were sumptuous and colorful. The carefree existence of the first two acts was highlighted by the generally bright and warm lights while the somber atmosphere of the last two acts was subtly conveyed with muted colors and hazy glow. The Met’s cavernous stage can sometimes be a problem for directors, but Francesca Zambello’s 2005 production filled it very efficiently.
We thankfully got to hear the original French version of the opera, and the music had an alluring natural elegance and a nuanced Debussyan impressionism to it. On the other hand, some hot-blooded italianness could not help but come out too now and then. While the score did not contain any spontaneously hummable tunes, it did have some emotionally charged arias that splendidly, if not always very subtly, emphasize the on-going conflicts. Not an undisputed masterpiece by any means, but still a worthy vehicle for the gripping story.
Back in the pit, Met regular Marco Amiliato kept things going at a good pace while leaving the singers plenty of room to bring their characters to life. The outstanding MET Orchestra has proven many times that they can handle anything, and they did it again on Saturday afternoon, steadily supporting the drama unfolding on the stage with plenty of vivid colors, unwavering attention to details… and, in true Cyrano fashion, unwavering panache.

Friday, May 5, 2017

Music Mondays - Andrew Norman: Hear by Design - 05/01/17

Guillaume Dufay: Nuper rosarum flores 
Trident Ensemble 
Meaghan Burke: Cello 
Ann Lanzilotti: Viola 
Andrew Norman: Farnsworth: Four Portraits of a House 
Trident Ensemble 
Matthew Beaumont: Percussion 
Jessica Jade Han: Flute 
Jennifer Koh: Violin 
Aaron Wunsch: Pian
Johann Sebastian Bach: Two Part Inventions (arr. for strings) 
György Kurtág: Selections from Signs, Games and Messages 
Variation String Trio 
Andrew Norman: Still Life 
Jennifer Koh: Violin 
Andrew Norman: Stop Motion for String Quartet 
Rhythm Method 
Andrew Norman: Companion Guide to Rome 
Variation String Trio 

Since I often bemoan of the lack of contemporary classical music compositions in nowadays' concert programs, I try to make a point of attending performances of new music as often as possible. Therefore, after NOW Ensemble’s fun little gig in Inwood on Sunday afternoon, I found myself thankfully much closer to home and in a familiar space too last Monday night as I was sitting in the Upper West Side’s colorful and intimate Advent Lutheran Church for the Music Mondays’ PWYC monthly concert.
Always the advocate for imaginative programming and living composers, the popular music series had concocted yet another promising concert focusing on the music of Andrew Norman, a California-based composer whose work more often than not has been influenced by his fondness for architecture and design. To make things even more intriguing, the program also included pieces by composers as far apart as Dufay, Bach and Kurtág. And, to top it all off, one of the performing musicians would be the inimitable Jennifer Koh. That was quite a nice reward for having worked on International Workers' Day. 

The performance started with early Renaissance Franco-Flemish composer Guillaume Dufay’s “Nuper rosarum flores”, the oldest work on the evening. It was also the one major opportunity we had to enjoy the Trident Ensemble’s dazzling talents as the four singers’ voices beautifully filled up the small space with a stunning combination of clarity and purity. That's what I call setting the bar amazingly high.
We then jumped about six centuries ahead to Norman’s Farnsworth: Four Portraits of a House, which quickly confirmed that the composer is a hell of an architecture buff indeed. Inspired by the purity of lines of Mies’ famous glass house as well as the ever-changing natural world surrounding it, the piece opened in an ethereal and elegant vein with the Trident Ensemble subtly working up their vocal magic at the center of the stage. Not to be outdone, the instruments all contributed in their own special way: Aaron Wunsch’s plucky piano added some spooky notes, Jennifer Koh’s violin occasionally emerged from the back of the stage, Matthew Beaumont’s percussion came from a side angle and Jessica Jade Han’s flute made itself heard from way up above in the entrance of the church. Inventively playing with space and colors, Farnsworth was downright riveting.
The next set actually consisted in two sets of interwoven miniature compositions by Bach and Kurtág, which Norman had picked essentially for their tiny sizes and rigorous structures. The brilliantly performance by the Variation String Trio made us appreciate even more the common qualities as well as the stark differences among those noteworthy nuggets, each representing a unique self-contained world in itself .
Jennifer Koh was on her own for Norman’s very short, very quiet and subtle, and yet undoubtedly purposeful "Stiff Life".
Then the Rhythm Method quartet took over for a blazing version of Norman’s Stop Motion for String Quartet, which according to the composer, was all about pressure and speed. We quickly realized that he was not kidding as the ensemble delivered an episode of lingering calm before a wild storm burst out and raged on for a bit, and eventually subdued.
The second half of the evening was dedicated to Norman’s 2006 Companion Guide to Rome, which he wrote during the year he spent in Rome and tried to visit every church of the city. Although he unsurprisingly failed, he at least got a stunning composition out of it, one movement per church, for a total of nine movements. From the short and explosively dissonant Teresa to the expansive and eerily spiritual Sabina, the Variation String Trio took us on a vividly expressive tour of Norman’s favorite catholic churches in The Eternal City. And then we were back in a lutheran church in New York City.

Thursday, May 4, 2017

NOW Ensemble - Greenstein, Ludwig-Leone, Burke/Pinkerton, Crowell & Dancigers - 04/30/17

Judd Greenstein: Folk Music 
Ellis Ludwig-Leone: Simple Machine 
Patrick Burke/Emily Pinkerton: Rounder Songs 
Emily Pinkerton: Banjo and vocals 
David Crowell: Waiting in the Rain for Snow 
Mark Dancigers: Cloudbank 

After a mesmerizing performance of Philip Glass’ Madrigal Opera at Williamsburg’s National Sawdust on Saturday evening, I was doing my best to keep my momentum going for the additional not-to-be-missed musical adventures I had planned. I kind of succeeded, and eventually headed uptown on Sunday afternoon, all the way to Inwood’s small and lovely Our Saviour’s Atonement Lutheran Church for one of Carnegie Hall’s invariably exciting, popular and free Neighborhood Concerts.
This one would feature the iconoclastic NOW Ensemble, whose stated raison d’être has been to "bring an indie-rock attitude to contemporary classical music" for the past 10 years. This sounds like a particularly laudable and, maybe even most importantly, fun mission, and it probably also explains the unusual make-up of the group, which includes a piano, a double bass, a flute, a clarinet and an electric guitar. That's what I can walking the talk.

The opening number, Judd Greenstein’s "Folk Music", which was inspired by Tanglewood and the Berkshires area, spontaneously provided an invigorating breath of fresh air that had a subtle Zen quality to it. Bringing to mind a relaxing road trip into the countryside and focusing on the simple, although not simplistic, joys of life, the good-naturedly attractive music kept on flowing organically and peacefully.
Ellis Ludwig-Leone’s "Simple Machine", on the other hand, was not so simple. The piece got going with a lot of fits and starts from all the instruments, making ingenious use of their respective sounds. So there was not a lot to hang on to melodically, but things eventually settled a bit and we were able to happily cruise all the way to a pleasantly low-key ending.
The longest work of the afternoon was Patrick Burke/Emily Pinkerton’s Rounder Songs, which was also having its New York premiere on Sunday afternoon. For the occasion, banjo player and singer Emily Pinkerton joined the NOW Ensemble for five ballads that oozed a distinctive Appalachian flavor, paid tribute to folk legends, and celebrated the successful marriage of traditional folk songs and post-minimalist classical music, positively proving that the two musical forms are not as far apart as they might originally seem.
Still in Nature’s realm, David Crowell’s compelling "Waiting in the Rain for Snow" immediately stood out for its catchy, guitar-driven opening chords, sustained pulse and bright lyricism. The guitar and piano collaborated closely to provide plenty of staying power while the woodwinds freely fluttered around, all of which cleverly evoked a sense of on-going transformation that could neither be figured out not stopped. The audience fully enjoyed the thrilling ride though.
The concert concluded with "Cloudbank" by NOW Ensemble’s guitarist Mark Dancigers. Opening like a playful conversation among five distinctly colorful and downright assertive participants, Cloudbank suddenly took a flamboyant melodic break led by the flute before returning to its animated discussion that ended the concert on a lively note.

Tuesday, May 2, 2017

Philip Glass Festival: Madrigal Opera - 04/29/17

Composer: Philip Glass 
Director: R. B. Schalther
Johnny Gandelsman: Violin 
William Frampton: Viola 
Choral Chameleon 

After the terrific recital for two pianos by Leif Ove Andsnes and Marc-André Hamelin on Friday night at Carnegie Hall, my schedule had me up for another exciting musical endeavor on Saturday night with a rare performance of Philip Glass' Madrigal Opera at National Sawdust. New York City is apparently not done celebrating the composer's 80th birthday and, needless to say, nobody’s complaining. Having a chance to discover a work I am not familiar with by a composer that I admire is always a treat, so I soldiered on and eagerly crossed the East River to Williamsburg.
That of course also meant that I had to reluctantly contend with relentless throngs of self-important hipsters and directions-challenged tourists on a hot Saturday evening in the ultra-trendy neighborhood – A dreadful combination if there ever was one – but luckily the performance was starting at 7 p.m., which implied that I fortunately would at least avoid the rowdy late-night crowds. One has to be grateful for the little things, n'est-ce-pas?

I did not know much about Madrigal Opera when I got my ticket, and all the information I briefly tried to glean beforehand did not help much either. Commissioned for the 1980 Holland Festival, written between Einstein at the Beach and Satyagraha, it is a deceptively pared-down composition for a violin, a viola, six voices, but neither characters nor plot are to be found because the director intrepid enough to rise to the challenge is expected to provide the theatrical portion of the operatic equation. Or not.
As I stepped into the genuinely cool performance venue, I was instructed to sit anywhere but not to move the seats, which had been placed all over the space in a seemingly helter skelter fashion, a music stand waiting for the solo musician smack in the middle of the room. So there seemed to be a method to the apparent randomness. Or not.
At the appointed time, violinist Johnny Gandelsman, and later violist William Frampton, sat down and took on the lonely task of imperturbably playing Glass' starkly minimalist score, which consisted in repeated motifs inexorably unfolding in ever-changing configurations for over half an hour each. More often than not, the soloist was accompanied by various combinations of the singers from Choral Chameleon, who were all inconspicuously sitting among the audience until they started vocalizing the names of the notes being heard. Altogether, instruments and voices pointedly contributed to the creation of a self-contained system that was as impenetrable as fascinating.
The staging by Artist-in-Residence R. B. Schlather was simple but effective. The only source of light in the venue was a live view from the top of the building of the Williamsburg waterfront, located two blocks away, which was projected on the main wall. As daylight was progressively going down outside, darkness was slowly creeping in inside, a phenomenon that was in fact barely perceptible when one was caught up in the music’s spell-binding groove. And the final effect was all the more arresting for it.
It turned out that my slightly medicated and definitely sleep-deprived state was perfect for this kind of intriguingly eerie yet firmly grounded experience, the hypnotic nature of the music easily dragging my weakened mind into Glass’ mysteriously attractive universe. And except maybe for the guy who suddenly ran out during the second half, the rest of the audience sounded totally fulfilled by the whole trip as well, never mind that the performance did not exactly qualify as a bona fide opera. From the elated comments I overheard, I could tell that nobody was likely to ask for their money back.

Sunday, April 30, 2017

Leif Ove Andsnes & Marc-André Hamelin - Mozart, Stravinsky & Debussy - 04/28/17

Mozart: Larghetto and Allegro for Two Pianos (Completed by Paul Badura-Skoda) 
Stravinsky: Concerto for Two Pianos 
Debussy: En blanc et noir 
Stravinsky: Le sacre du printemps (The Rite of Spring) for Two Pianos 

Coming back to reality after two weeks of a shamelessly hedonistic lifestyle, which consisted primarily in gorging myself on top-quality foods, drinks, sightseeing, music, not to mention a staggering amount of oxygen and sunshine, occasionally accompanied by forceful gusts of mistral, cannot but be challenging. In my case, however, the unavoidable post-vacation blues was going to be significantly attenuated by an amazing musical weekend that started with a downright unusual but incredibly compelling recital on Friday evening at Carnegie Hall.
That's where two of the world’s most acclaimed pianists from the North, Norwegian Leif Ove Andsnes and Canadian Marc-André Hamelin, were going to join their mighty virtuosic forces and treat the large audience filling up the Stern Auditorium and listening on WQXR to the two piano performance of an eclectic set of compositions by elegant Austrian classicist Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, refined French impressionist Claude Debussy and fierce Russian rule-breaker Igor Stravinsky.
So capricious weather, inescapable chores, nagging jetlag, seasonal allergies and nascent cold (Public service announcement: Starting right now, do not leave home without a four-ply cashmere sweater. The AC and its glacial temperatures are back!) be damned. I was going to be there and enjoy every minute of it.

And here they were, inconspicuous-looking and formidably talented, ready to work their ways through an ambitious program. It all started with Mozart's short Larghetto and Allegro for Two Pianos, which the composer never finished. As deftly completed by Austrian pianist Paul Badura-Skoda and superbly performed by Andsnes and Hamelin, this rarity was a light-hearted and smart classical opener before we plunged in the 20th century.
The first Stravinsky piece of the evening, the Concerto for Two Pianos, had been written by the composer for his son so that they could play it together, which they did most notably on a Pleyel piano with two keyboards for the work's premiere at Paris' Salle Gaveau in 1935. On Friday night at Carnegie Hall, Andsnes and Hamelin had a wonderful time – and so did we – navigating the ever-changing score, which effortlessly switched from energetic rhythms to delicate lyricism, with unexpected quirks springing out here and there.
Despite its descriptive title, Debussy's En blanc et noir is not only about white and black, but also about all the infinite nuances to be found in between those two extremes. And there were a lot of them on Friday, the performance starting with carefree vivacity before moving on to a highly contrasted somber palette to commemorate a friend's death on the battlefield. Last but not least, the Scherzando ended with an unrestrained explosion of colors and fun.
As much as those three numbers had been interesting and enjoyable, Stravinsky's magnificently ground-breaking Sacre du printemps (AKA The Rite of Spring) was still to come. And when it came, we were in for over half an hour of astonishing piano playing. I had heard a four-hand version of it at Bargemusic a couple of years ago and had remained in awe at how well it had worked out. On Friday night at Carnegie Hall, I was thrilled to be in for another exciting round of it.
The two musicians having switched sides, Hamelin did the honors and took over the opening solo bassoon part , still unmistakably recognizable on the piano, an intriguing introduction to an all-out blazing Rite of Spring. A it was, the inevitable loss in colors and textures was not mourned for long because the potential drawback in fact highlighted the wild rhythms and untamed mood of the masterpiece, the famous staccatos savagely resounding in all their pagan splendor.
Originally written and played as a work-in-progress to trusted friends only, the two piano version was never meant to stand on its own in concert halls. What a loss that would have been! The pared down work allows for a closer look at the brilliant complexity and boldly innovative structure of the final piece as well as a deep appreciation for the virtuosic skills involved. Needless to say those skills were in full display on Friday as the two keyboard masters successfully completed their remarkable tour de force in perfect harmony.

No offense to Mozart or Debussy, but Stravinsky has clearly been on the duo's minds lately, quite possibly because they have been recording his works for two pianos we have been hearing. In any case, the three (Yes! Three!) encores were all irresistible miniatures of his for two pianos: "Madrid", "Circus Polka" and "Tango". All in all, it had been a long and eventful evening for me, and I did enjoy every minute of it.

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.