Sunday, October 15, 2017

Met - Norma - 10/11/17

Composer: Vincenzo Bellini 
Conductor: Carlo Rizzi 
Producer/Director: Sir David McVicar 
Norma: Sondra Radvanovsky 
Adalgisa: Joyce DiDonato 
Pollione: Joseph Calleja 
Oroveso: Matthew Rose

Opera being at its best a glorious musical feast, boosted by an inspired production if one gets really lucky, I figured that I could not go wrong kicking off my Metropolitan Opera season with the dream trio of beloved Met regulars Sondra Radvanovsky, Joyce DiDonato and Joseph Calleja in Vincenzo Bellini's perennial crowd-pleaser Norma. Sometimes a score tailor-made to brazenly display the many possibilities of well-trained voices and a love triangle that predictably will not end well after a string of big high-stakes scenes are all you need for a satisfying evening at the opera.
The main challenge of bringing a production of Norma to the stage is finding the soprano with enough vocal power and agility to handle bel canto style combined with the acting skills and stamina required to handle the non-stop emotional roller coaster (Considering killing one's offspring is not exactly an everyday occurrence for most women). I had missed Sondra Radvanovsky's 2013 turn as the constantly torn high priestess and was therefore positively thrilled to get another chance at hearing the dazzling soprano in such a dazzling part, and in equally dazzling company.
Throw in a new production by David McVicar, whose Met endeavors have ranged from truly outstanding, as in Giulio Cesare and Il Trovatore, to generally satisfactory, as in the three Tudor Queens, as well as an unusually short run with the starry cast, and I found myself in a packed opera house on a Wednesday night, more than ready to be dazzled.

Set in Gaul at the beginning of the Roman occupation, the story revolves around a Gallic high priestess, who has had a long-term secret liaison producing two children with the Roman proconsul, who in turn has fallen in love with - you've guessed it - a younger and blonder novice priestess, who happens to be a close companion of - you've guessed it again - the high priestess. Political and personal conflicts have frequently given good drama, and Norma is no exception.
The lead part is definitely not for the faint of heart, but then again soprano Sondra Radvanovsky has proven over and over that the expression "force of nature" may have been invented for her. After all, her successful feat of portraying the three Tudor Queens, incidentally under the direction of the same David McVicar, in one season at the Met is not attempted often, and for a good reason!
Norma, however, is not just an unstoppable powerhouse trail-blazing through the opera, but also has many issues to wrestle with, and Radvanovsky constantly displayed a keen sense of her character's inner turmoil. Her famously powerful voice has certainly remained so, and on Wednesday night she also impressed by assuredly rolling out those agonizing long Italian lines without sacrificing clarity or precision, while forcefully exploding in anger when the right moment came. Hell has no fury like this Norma scorned!
It can be easy to dismiss Adalgisa as the new pretty young thing on the block, but director David McVicar and mezzo-soprano Joyce DiDonato thankfully would have none of that. Sporting an extremely becoming, if perplexingly out-of-place, pixie haircut, this Adalgisa was a full-fledged character dealing with complex emotions of her own, which consequently made her a credible rival to the formidable Norma.
Her dedicated singing, bright and expressive, and acting, passionate and subtle, gave heart-breaking authenticity to the inexperienced novice who unwittingly found herself in a rather prickly situation and desperately yearned to do the right thing.
As Pollione, the man who had stolen the hearts of both women, tenor Joseph Carreja was vocally and physically as fiercely ardent as ever. Even if his Roman warrior/lover initially appeared to be slightly on the boorish side, his final scene with Norma was all about self-sacrifice and redemption, cleverly bringing out his inherent sensitiveness and humanity.
In smaller parts, bass Matthew Rose was a wonderful Oroveso, Norma's father, and contributed some welcome muscular gravity to the proceedings. The Met Chorus grabbed every opportunity to make themselves heard with unbreakable conviction, and were definitely in a rousing mood as they prepared to fight the occupants.
The terrific singing would have been worth the investment of time and money in itself, but the sets were also, if not brilliantly inventive, at least visually attractive and smartly set up. The forest made of branchless trees, while not particularly original, was fittingly dark and foreboding, while Norma's secret dwelling, a dome-shaped yurt all organic earth tones and shabby chic decor, was literally hiding underneath it.
In line with the life-in-the-forest theme, everybody looked appropriately disheveled. When the Gallic druids and warriors finally decided to take up arms against the Romans, fire was brought in on torches and a bright red background lit up. These lighting elements added colorful touches to the generally somber set without distracting from the on-going action.
The highly dramatic score found a tremendous vehicle in the MET Orchestra, and Carlo Rizzi did an exceptional job bringing out the vivid colors, soaring intensity and compelling melodies that Bellini had put on paper. Combine that the reliably magnificent singing coming from the stage, and the performance had all the right ingredients to be a truly memorable evening at the opera. Except that... 
Right after intermission , Act II started with one of the most exciting scenes of the entire opera, in which Norma and Adalgisa go from rivals to allies, and having two of the most electrifying singers in the world to bring it to life only raised already high expectations. The expected magical experience was, however, ruined by the couple next to me who was leisurely sipping the drinks they had brought in from the bar (The smell of the alcohol was bad, the noise of the ice cubes was worse) and the teenager in the row behind me who was intermittently taking bites out of a sandwich wrapped in crisp plastic. And suddenly the evening became another, much less welcome, kind of memorable.

Tuesday, October 10, 2017

Paavali Jumppanen - Debussy, Duckworth & Beethoven - 10/08/17

Debussy: Études (Books I & II) 
Duckworth: Selections from The Time Curve Preludes 
Prelude I 
Prelude II 
Prelude III 
Prelude IV 
Prelude VII 
Beethoven: Sonata No. 23 in F Minor, Op. 57 (Appassionata

 The more I think about it, the most I suspect that there is something in Finland’s water that has been helping the small, inconspicuous Northern European country churn out distinctively brilliant composers, such as Jean Sibelius, Magnus Lindberg, Kaija Saariaho and Esa-Pekka Salonen, and reliably intriguing musicians, such as violinist Pekka Kuusisto and pianist Paavali Jumppanen.
It was the latter that was giving a sold-out recital in the Frick Collection’s attractive and intimate round-shaped concert hall on the Upper East Side last Sunday. Beside the exciting perspective of hearing the fast-rising musician live, I also could not help but marvel at the demanding program that included some selections from William Duckworth’s The Time Curve Preludes that were book-ended by Claude Debussy’s devilishly intricate Études and Ludwig van Beethoven’s grandly tempestuous Appassionata.
At least nobody could fault the endlessly versatile and seemingly unstoppable young pianist for lacking ambition. When most of us could only think of slowing down and taking it easy on that depressingly grey and grossly muggy Sunday afternoon, he was willingly putting himself through a couple of hours of the most technically taxing and emotionally far-reaching music in the piano repertoire. Way to go!

The salon atmosphere of the venue hall turned out to be particularly appropriate for the first works of the afternoon, namely Books I and II of Debussy’s Études. Written in historical and personal dark times as Paris was suffering under incessant German bombing and Debussy was suffering from the cancer that would bring about his demise, the two sets nevertheless exude the healthy combination of erudition and light-heartedness prevailing in the prestigious salons of the Parisian elite back then.
On Sunday afternoon, Jumppanen’s impressive sense of articulation, no doubt assiduously practiced and still feeling totally organic, produced a reading that was as clear as virtuosic. Each and every one of the twelve miniature masterpieces was handled with focused expertise, sustained stamina and loving care, turning the challenging exercise into a high-flying feat while still making it accessible to everybody.
After intermission we seamlessly moved from début de siècle France to late 1970s United States with five selections from Book I of Duckworth’s The Time Curve Preludes, a piece consisting of two books, each containing twelve fleetingly short and yet impressively substantial preludes, that by all accounts started the post-minimalist movement in earnest.
As requested by the composer, who had also been his personal coach and collaborator, before each prelude Jumppanen placed specifically designated weights on a few bass keys to generate sympathetic vibrations, which in turn created uniquely sounding “drones”. The unusual ritual has understandably been compared to playing chess on the keyboard and was as calming as the preludes were bursting with carefully organized appealing melodies and thorny rhythms.
The concert ended with a trip to 19th century Germany by way of Beethoven’s boldly imaginative and relentlessly powerful Sonata No. 23 in F Minor. It may not have been given the name “Appassionata” during the composer’s lifetime, but the later move by his publisher was nevertheless fully justified on Sunday afternoon when Jumppanen delivered a truly, well, passionate performance of it, which superbly resounded in the hushed concert hall.
That does not mean, though, that the more introspective moments were neglected as he made sure to give them all the detailed attention they deserve. After the grand ride up and down and around the magnificent structure, the grand finale exploded with memorable fire and fury, leaving us all happily overwhelmed and completely satisfied.

Monday, October 2, 2017

New York Classical Players - Paik & Beethoven - 09/29/17

Dongmin Kim: Conductor 
Nathan: Omaggio a Gesualdo for String Orchestra 
Saint-Saëns: Introduction and Rondo Capriccioso, Op. 28 (Arr. Yoomi Paick) 
Ken Hamao: Violin 
Shostakovich: Prelude and Scherzo, Op. 11 
Beethoven: Piano Concerto No. 4 in G Major, Op. 58 (Arr. Yoomi Paick) 
HaeSun Paik: Piano 

 Fresh from my fabulous “Bach + Glass” double bill at the Miller Theater up Broadway 24 hours earlier, on Friday night I was even closer to home in the Upper West Side’s Advent Lutheran Church for the season opening concert by the New York Classical Players, who in seven short years have become an indispensable part of New York City’s classical music scene. True to their stated mission, they were kicking off yet another compelling season of free concerts of high-quality classical music that will take them to numerous locations in New York City, New Jersey and… Arkansas as well.
The program featured their usual mix of tried and true classics such as Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 4 starring HaeSun Paik, a seasoned pianist of uncommon talent and sensitivity, as well as a nicely eclectic first set consisting of an exciting American premiere, a popular French piece and an interesting Russian curiosity. No wonder the cozy church was packed and buzzing with excitement.

We started with Eric Nathan’s “Omaggio a Gesualdo for String Orchestra”, whose string version was recently commissioned by the New York Classical Players’ very own music director and maestro Dongmin Kim. An inventive tribute to the Italian madrigal master in general and his “text painting” method in particular, this delectable little treat offered a clever combination of Renaissance and contemporary music, accomplishing the no small feat of making dissonances sound more intriguing than grating, in only six minutes.
Back to the more traditional repertoire, Camille Saint-Saëns’ “Introduction and Rondo Capriccioso” clearly does not need any introduction, and the version for violin and string orchestra by Yoomi Paick we heard on Friday kept all the elegance, wildness and insouciance of the original showpiece. Soloist Ken Hamao handled the tricky challenges with plenty of aplomb and savoir-faire, and the orchestra came through tight and committed, with just the right amount of playfulness. This infectious melodic feast hadn’t been on my radar for years, and this performance made me realize what I has been missing.
Next was a quick and fun foray into the beginning of Dmitri Shostakovich's œuvre with his “Prelude and Scherzo” from his Petrograd Conservatory student days. Essentially a miniature octet for strings inspired by Mendelssohn’s famous early work, the prelude oozed subtly lyrical melancholy while the scherzo distinguished itself by its relentlessly driven feistiness. Shostakovich The Modernist was born.
After this delightful assortment of amuse-bouches and a well-deserved break, we moved on to the plat de resistance in the form of Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 4, whose string version had been arranged by Yoomi Paick. Unusually enough for a piano concerto,  HaeSun Paik actually got to begin playing the piece alone with a few understated yet eloquent notes, but the orchestra wasted almost no time joining in and they all made beautiful music together, the orchestra's occasional abruptness quickly tempered by the soloist’s gentleness. Although the composition exudes a generally reserved mood, it is Beethoven’s most expansive piano concerto, all the way to a grand finale that exploded with virtuosic fireworks. Another season has started well.

Saturday, September 30, 2017

Miller Theater - Bach + Glass - 09/28/17

A far Cry 
Bach: Brandenburg Concerto No. 3 in G major, BWV 1048 
Glass: Symphony No. 3 
Bach: Keyboard Concerto in G Minor, BWV 1058 
Glass: Piano Concerto No. 3 
Simone Dinnerstein: Piano 

 Another season opening concert in New York City, another program featuring Philip Glass in what has to be the most extended – and most enjoyable – birthday celebration ever. On the other hand, needless to say that nobody’s really counting as we’re all too busy marveling at the opportunities and indulging into the music.
After the New York premiere of his 2015 Concerto for Two Pianos with the Labèque sisters and the New York Philharmonic last Friday night, it was his brand new Piano Concerto No. 3 that the packed audience in Columbia University’s Miller Theater got to hear last Thursday night, six days after its world premiere in Boston. On both occasions the musicians were the work’s dedicatee, Miller Theater regular and piano virtuoso Simone Dinnerstein, accompanied by the conductor-free and staunchly democratic chamber string orchestra A Far Cry.
And to make the evening even more irresistible, the program also included Philip Glass’ Symphony No. 3 as well as Johann Sebastian Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto No. 3 and Keyboard Concerto in G Minor for good measure.

The concert started with Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto No. 3, which also happens to be the most symphonic, and the shortest, among the six. Without missing a beat, the reduced orchestra authoritatively took control of the work with verve and precision, beautifully highlighting why Bach’s music remains so fascinating and timeless, namely the rigorously intricate structures and the quintessentially luminous undertones. Some things will never grow old.
Following a piece by Bach, let alone one of his most popular, can be no easy task for anybody, but Glass’ delightful symphony No. 3 effortlessly stood on its own thanks to the dynamite performance by the full orchestra. The short first movement got the ball rolling with infectious energy, the second movement grew into exciting complexity, the third and most important movement unfolded more slowly with fancy flights of lyricism from the principal violins, and the short fourth one concluded things swiftly and efficiently. It was the perfect mix of intellectual stimulation and pure fun.
After intermission, Simone Dinnerstein joined the orchestra and quickly demonstrated why she is widely considered a Bach expert. His Keyboard Concerto in G Minor is well-known for organically and flawlessly integrating piano and orchestra, and on Thursday night the easy rapport between the two components made for a very persuasive interpretation of it.
Readily moving from 18th century Germany to 21st century United States, Dinnerstein again applied her impressive dexterity and committed approach to Glass’ meticulously crafted, immediately engaging and often surprising third and latest piano concerto. Whether superbly playing the four exquisite cadenzas on her own or brilliantly blending with the orchestra, she delivered an informed and gripping performance of the constantly fresh and inventive score. The orchestra seamlessly joined in on cue and considerably contributed to the total success of the endeavor, which splendidly wrapped up the memorable evening.

Sunday, September 24, 2017

New York Philharmonic - Glass & Mahler - 09/22/2017

Conductor: Jaap van Zweden 
Glass: Concerto for Two Pianos and Orchestra 
Katia and Marielle Labèque: Piano 
Mahler: Symphony No. 5 

As one of the countless lovers of new music still mourning the departure of Alan Gilbert and his resolutely adventurous programming from the New York Philharmonic, I have also resigned myself to giving well-respected music director designate Jaap van Zweden a chance, renewing my subscription, and looking forward to the future with – let’s face it – a few unavoidable pangs of anxiety.
And, ready or not, the future officially started this week with a first subscription program that made my jaw drop in surprise and excitement at the perspective of the New York premiere of Philip Glass’ Concerto for Two Pianos and Orchestra performed by the long-celebrated French duo that is the Labèque sisters. Moreover, in a smart move that had the new music director pay tribute to a former music director of the Philharmonic, it had been paired with Gustav Mahler’s sprawling Symphony No. 5, an epic journey famous for its grandeur, its intensity, and its ubiquitous Adagietto.
So even if the world was going to end on Saturday, September 23, as it is apparently suggested in the ever so reliable Bible, things were unquestionably looking up on Friday night.

Beside the possible end of the world, last Friday night also found its place in history because it was the first time EVER that a concert work by Philip Glass was performed by the New York Philharmonic, a fact that is both astonishing and – as my friend Nicole rightly put it – unpardonable. But this lamentable state of things was at long last corrected on Friday with his downright engaging Concerto for Two Pianos and Orchestra, which had been composed especially for the Labèque sisters in 2015.
As if to make up for all that lost time, the composition makes pianists and orchestra hit the ground running, and does not really slow them down for the first two movements, which were inventive, lively and relentlessly driven. But the slow third movement was the one that stood out for me with its subtle, artless and so thrilling beauty. Pianists and orchestra worked together tightly throughout the performance, which resulted in plenty of intriguingly intricate textures and delectably unusual harmonies, but kind of deprived us from hearing the Labèque sisters distinctly strike out on their own. That said, the ovation was tremendous, Philip Glass looked very pleased, and that was a pretty cool way to kick start the New York Philharmonic’s season.
If Glass was new territory for the orchestra, Mahler was most definitely not, and it seemed pretty obvious that most of the packed audience was there to hear a classic from the Viennese master one more time, not to celebrate Glass’ long-overdue entry into the Philharmonic's repertoire. And they sure got to hear his fifth symphony loud and clear for the expected 70 minutes, starting with a dramatically stoic funeral march and ending with a spontaneously uplifting finale. There was, of course, a lot going on in between and the orchestra sounded as solid as ever, with truly exceptional contributions by the various soloists, under the very involved baton of their new maestro.
However, Friday's performance will mostly be remembered for its impressive level of energy, clarity and brightness, if not for its emotional impact, which was often overshadowed by all the exacting music-making. Even the Adagietto, while impeccably drawn out from the stage, was not as magical as it could have been, but I’ll blame that issue on the relentless coughing coming from the audience.
When all had been said and done, the audience went wild again, and it seems safe to say that Jaap van Zweden has arrived with a ground-breaking, resounding and, yes, promising bang.

Monday, September 11, 2017

New York City Opera - La fanciulla del West - 09/08/17

Composer: Giacomo Puccini 
Conductor: James Meena 
Director: Ivan Stefanutti 
Kristin Sampson: Minnie 
Jonathan Burton: Dick Johnson 
Kevin Short: Jack Pance 
Alexander Birch Elliott: Sonora 
Michael Boley: Nick 
Christopher Job: Ashby 
Kenneth Overton: Jake Wallace 

After a fabulous Sibelius-inspired concert gloriously kicked off my concert season on Monday evening, I was more than ready for La fanciulla del West, presented by the New York City Opera, in collaboration with the Teatro di Giglio in Lucca, the Teatro Lirico in Cagliari and Opera Carolina, to kick off my opera season, and incidentally wrap up a short but hectic week, on Friday evening.
Not as perennially popular as some of Puccini's other works, the alleged "original spaghetti western" picked my curiosity because this time not only is the heroine independent-minded, but she's got a gun, knows how to use it, unhesitantly cheats at a card game to get the guy, and literally rides off into the sunset with him in a Hollywood-worthy happy ending. That sure beats dying of tuberculosis in a freezing garret, cutting one’s throat with a harakiri knife because of a worthless cad, or jumping off the top of Castel Sant'Angelo because there’s simply no way out.
Dismissed as a sweet but minor work by some and hailed as an unfairly neglected masterpiece by others, La fanciulla del West still more or less regularly pops up on opera stages around the globe. So I figured that the only thing to do was to go find out for myself, and at the same time support the valiant New York City Opera at the beginning of its second full season, with my friend Christine, who was also game for a light-hearted yet cultural start of the weekend.

Taking place in faraway California during the Gold Rush, which had to be a refreshingly novel setting at the time, La fanciulla del West also distinguishes itself for being the first world premiere ever presented at the Metropolitan Opera back in 1910, and a glittery one at that with Emmy Destinn and Enrico Caruso as the star-crossed lovers and Arturo Toscanini on the podium. The post-performance reception at the Vanderbilt’s was probably one of the hottest tickets in town as well. So who cared if the critics were not exactly raving?
Being the only girl in a man's world is a tough job, but from time to time somebody's got to do it, and while Minnie described herself as innocent and insignificant, she also appeared to be unconventionally well-read, self-sufficient and strong-willed. Portraying such a complex young woman can be no easy feat, but soprano Kristin Sampson readily rose to the task with a powerful and pliable voice that she knew how to amp up when reaching for the big emotional peaks and tamper down during the more intimate moments. She did not seem overly comfortable with a gun, but she had enough of a stage presence to make her Minnie an endearing character everyone on the stage and in the audience spontaneously rooted for.
Tenor Jonathan Burton was equally engaging as the outlaw Dick Johnson, even to the point where it was hard to imagine him as a hardened criminal. Maybe it was his sob story explaining his current circumstances, maybe it was his youthful smile and demeanor, maybe it was his going-for-broke singing that sounded straight from the heart, but seeing him through Minnie's loving and forgiving eyes quickly became a given. He had the one big aria of the evening, "Ch'ella mi creda", and did not miss his chance to nail it fair and square.
On the other hand, it was not hard to despise bass-baritone Kevin Short's self-assured sheriff and major boor Jack Pance, who nowadays would have been smacked with a sexual harassment suit in no time for his relentless pursuit of a clearly uninterested Minnie. Efficiently completing the de rigueur love triangle, he sang and acted his love-struck part with commitment and poise, even when dressed in a potentially confidence-crushing electric blue suit.
The rest of the cast defined their various characters skillfully and colorfully, with a special mention for baritone Alexander Birch Elliott, who deftly impersonated the combination of a good heart and a hot head that was Sonora. The all-male chorus seemed to be having a swell time walking around in their fancy cowboy outfits, and they were particularly good at expressing a genuine sense of camaraderie, even in the formulaic but fun bar brawl scene.
Speaking of clichés with an appealing twist, the sets were traditional in an understated way, but at least director Ivan Stefanutti did try to occasionally bring the rugged outside in with projections of nature landscapes on the background, which usually worked. The Western Sierras are no romantic Paris or exotic Japan, but the production made a laudable attempt at recreating the roughness of life in a mining camp in the middle of nowhere. As for the costumes, they went from mostly pleasantly serviceable to randomly downright dowdy, but that did not hugely matter at the end.
What mattered hugely though, is that the romantic mood, nuanced colors and attractive melodies of Puccini's openly ambitious score properly came out from the pit, and the reduced orchestra energetically conducted by James Meena made sure to make it happen. Fewer show-stopping arias and a more elaborate orchestration were in fact a nice change from the quintessential Italian melody master.
Therefore, the verdict is that while not an unquestionable masterpiece, La fanciulla del West deserves a decent spot in the opera canon, and the New York City Opera deserves high praise for having brought it to the New York City audience. All things considered, my opera season has started very well too. And now it is onward and forward!

Saturday, September 9, 2017

Juilliard Orchestra & Sibelius Academy Symphony Orchestra - Sibelius, Salonen & Stucky - 09/05/17

Juilliard Orchestra 
Sibelius Academy Symphony Orchestra 
Esa-Pekka Salonen: Conductor 
Stucky: Radical Light 
Salonen: Mania 
Jonathan Roozeman: Cello 
Sibelius: Lemminkäinen Suite, Op. 22 (Four Legends from the Kalevala) 

Not a minute too soon after Labor Day, my 2017-2018 music season started last Tuesday evening with what could only be considered an excellent omen: A concert celebrating the centennial of Finland’s independence with works by Finnish native Jean Sibelius, maybe the most underrated composer in the classical repertoire, Finnish native Esa-Pekka Salonen, by all accounts the most prominent composer from up North these days, and Steven Stucky, his late American friend who was significantly influenced by Sibelius.
After rehearsals in Helsinki, and performances in Helsinki and Stockholm, the Juilliard Orchestra and the Sibelius Academy Symphony Orchestra brought their combined youthful forces to Alice Tully Hall’s wonderfully intimate and totally packed Starr Theater for the much anticipated final stop of their mini-tour in New York City. Not a bad way to get back to reality after the wonderfully long but yet still too short holiday weekend.

When with the enthusiasm of youth and the aplomb of expertise a music student deems a composition “so cool”, you know that it was something truly special. Fact is, the assertive assessment by one of the concert-goers sitting right in front of me on Monday night neatly summarized what we were all thinking at that point. The piece we had just heard, Steven Stucky’s Radical Light, had indeed come out overflowing with originality and verve in one swell movement. The music first felt delightfully random with its various twists and turns connected by smooth transitions, but it soon became clear that such seemingly unrestrained freedom could only be obtained if a carefully built and rock-solid structure was there to support it, and there it was. And we got to appreciate it all the more as the über-talented, fearless and eager musicians making up the huge orchestra delivered a downright thrilling performance under the precise baton of maestro Salonen.
Next, Esa-Pekka Salonen got to conduct his own 2000 composition Mania, which could be called an almost but not quite cello concerto. It did, however, keep the soloist, indefatigable Finnish-Dutch cellist extraordinaire Jonathan Roozeman, virtuosically scraping away  ̶  Not an oxymoron in this case   ̶  almost the entire 20 minutes while the drastically reduced, cello-less orchestra kept on swirling like an equally wild crowd around him. This was no easy listening for the most part, but there was something eerily fascinating in hearing all the unusual sounds, sometimes clashing sometimes blending, produced by the fired-up musicians mercilessly pushed to their limits.
After having winningly met the Mania challenge, we ventured way down south for the semi-obscure encore that Roozeman had selected, Intermezzo and Dance Finale of Gaspar Cassadó’s Cello Suite, which added unexpected languorous Spanish rhythms to the Finnish-centric evening.
After intermission, it was back to Finland for more traditional fare with finally the unofficial man of the hour, Jean Sibelius, and his sprawling Lemminkäinen Suite. Based on one of the heroes in the Finnish national epic the Kalevala, and originally meant for an opera that never came into being, the four symphonic poems boast emotional drama, sumptuous lushness and beautiful melodies, which all came out through big splashy waves and pointed details as vibrantly performed by the decidedly unstoppable orchestra.
The hour was getting late, and probably past the bedtime of some of the players on the stage, but that did not keep conductor and musicians from treating the ecstatic audience to a delicately elegiac "Valse triste" because one can never hear too much Sibelius.

Saturday, August 19, 2017

Mostly Mozart Festival - Oliveros, Thorvaldsdottir & Lim - 08/14/17

International Contemporary Ensemble 
Baldur Brönnimann: Conductor 
Pauline Oliveros: Earth Ears 
Anna Thorvaldsdottir: æquilibria 
Liza Lim: How Forests Think 
Wu Wei: Sheng 

For better or worse, the Mostly Mozart Festival essentially focuses on tried-and-true composers and works, but exceptions do exist. And after a traditional evening with Brahms, Bach and Mendelssohn the previous week, it was time for my friend Rose and me to boldly step into new contemporary classical music territory in the expert company of the International Contemporary Ensemble and Baldur Brönnimann in the pleasantly intimate Merkin Concert Hall.
Beside the excitement of discovering new music, I was also delighted when I saw the name of Icelandic composer Anna Thorvaldsdottir on the program. I had fully enjoyed her short, subtly intricate and yet extremely powerful Aeriality performed by the New York Philharmonic back in May, and I had been very eager to become better acquainted with the rest of her œuvre.
Therefore, one week after subjecting my poor eardrums to much amplified loudness in the name of Schubert, I was back for more music loosely inspired by Schubert and the Romantics, although this time the evening would revolve around the ever-green theme of the nature. Not a bad idea in our days of preoccupying climate changes, and even more preoccupying denials of responsibility for them.

It was easy to figure out that we were in for a special experience by the impressive eclecticism of the instruments noticed in the small orchestra, and they were all put to work at various times in a carefully balanced fashion by their brilliant handlers for American avant-garde composer Pauline Oliveros’ Earth Ears. Plenty of those occurrences sounded odd and random, but that was not a bad thing as it forced the audience to pay attention to what was going on and meet the piece halfway, realizing then that there was a method to the apparent madness, instead of just relaxing and being sucked up into the restless music.
On the other hand, it was definitely tempting to just relax and be sucked up into the organic beauty and overall serenity of Anna Thorvaldsdottir’s æquilibria, which was having its US premiere on Monday night. Plenty of understated details could be worked out for sure, and things did get strikingly dicey in some spots, but the resolute continuation of the music, naturally flowing, quietly sophisticated and discreetly hypnotic, made for an immensely rewarding, full immersion journey into the earth.
We went back to more esoteric sounds, including from the conspicuous sheng, a Chinese free reed wind instrument consisting of vertical bamboo pipes, and from beads being poured inside a violin and percussion, for the US premiere of Australian composer Liza Lim’s How Forests Think. And forests apparently do an awful lot of thinking as the possibilities of the instruments were extended to their utmost. Although these musical descriptions of relationships among trees were often intriguing and engaging, it sometimes felt like the piece was extending its welcome. Toward the end, maestro Brönnimann just took a seat behind the orchestra as light was slowly fading away, effectively bringing the performance to a natural conclusion.

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.