Tuesday, December 12, 2017

Janine Jansen and Friends - Bartok, Szymanowski & Messiaen - 12/07/17

Bartok: Contrasts for Violin, Clarinet, and Piano 
Szymanowski: Myths for Violin and Piano 
Messiaen: Quatuor pour la fin du temps 
Janine Jansen: Violin 
Lucas Debargue: Piano 
Martin Frost: Clarinet 
Torleif Thedéen: Cello 

In our heady days of irrepressible women’s empowerment, it is particularly comforting to see über-talented female musicians assertively perform on concert hall stages around the world, even if there is still a long way to go in that field as well. Witnessing the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra’s indomitable Marin Alsop at Strathmore a little while ago during my weekend in D.C. was both heartening, because she seemed to be going stronger than ever, and depressing, because she’s still only one of a tiny handful of female conductors and/or music directors worldwide. But things are changing.
Although the season started just a couple of months ago, I have been lucky enough to attend concerts featuring remarkable female soloists, each making her very own indelible mark. My non-exhaustive list has included fearlessly adventuress Leila Josefowicz at the 92Y, petite dynamo Yuja Wang at the Kennedy Center, and inconspicuously formidable Janine Jansen in Zankel Hall this past Thursday for the first concert of her Carnegie Hall Perspectives series, which handily sold out. Now that is one way to officially arrive on the New York music scene.
And since she is not only much in demand but well-connected too, the worldly Dutch violinist surrounded herself with French pianist Lucas Debargue, Swedish clarinetist Martin Fröst and Swedish cellist Torleif Thedéen for a truly exciting program consisting of two intriguing pieces from Eastern Europe and, to my boundless delight, a French classic that has to be one of my favorite music works ever.

Originally composed for classical violinist Joseph Szigeti and jazz clarinetist Benny Goodman, Bela Bartok’s Contrasts for Violin, Clarinet, and Piano focuses squarely on the violin and clarinet, which is not a bad thing when the former is handled by Janine Jansen and the latter by Martin Fröst. Making plenty of fascinating sounds and alluring moves, Fröst stood out as the ideal woodwind counterpart, his clarinet playfully engaging into exhilaratingly fast dance routines with the always game violin while the piano took a thoughtful step back.
But Lucas Debargue got his moment in the spotlight too when he joined Jansen for Karol Szymanowski’s Myths for Violin and Piano, a set of three short tone poems that were as gorgeously impressionistic as Contrasts’ three movements had been vigorously earthy. Quietly evoking natural elements such as shimmering water, refreshing wind, a murmuring forest and some playful sprites, the duo delicately highlighted myriads tiny details with pointed precision while wrapping the whole performance in a subtly poetic atmosphere.
When I first heard Olivier Messiaen’s Quatuor pour le fin du temps (Quartet for the End of Time) it hit me like a ton of bricks, which is ironic considering the generally ethereal nature of the music, and I did not even know its extraordinary genesis yet. I was, however, already a budding fan of Messiaen’s œuvre, never mind that I don’t really care for bird songs, and even less for Catholicism.
Partially due to the strict limitations that literally come with the territory when one composes and performs in a Nazi prisoner-of-war camp, partially due to Messiaen’s relentless imagination, Quatuor pour la fin du temps has an unusual instrumentation. But that does not keep it from delivering a 50-minute emotional punch that often stays with the listener long after the last notes of “Louange à l’immortalité de Jésus” (Praise to the Immortality of Jesus) have faded away.
On Thursday night, the four musicians, including cellist Torleif Thedéen, who seamlessly fit in in his only appearance of the evening, gave a riveting performance of the ambitious piece. Although the work requires potent individual voices, it really comes alive through a truly collaborative effort from all the participants. This expert multi-tasking was on full display on the stage on Thursday to try to fulfill a challenging mission: Fully expressing the poignant eeriness of the music while making it totally accessible. And the mission was brilliantly accomplished.

Saturday, December 9, 2017

BSO - Rouse & Mozart - 12/01/17

Conductor: Marin Alsop 
Rouse: Berceuse infinie 
Mozart: Requiem in D Minor, K. 626 
Benjamin Butterfield: Tenor 
Michael Dean: Bass-baritone 
Alisa Jordheim: Soprano 
Diana Moore: Mezzo-soprano 
University of Maryland Concert Choir 

After an extremely satisfying concert by the National Symphony Orchestra with my friend Jennifer on Saturday night, I was getting mentally prepared for my concert by the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra with my friend Deborah and her friend Anne on Sunday afternoon. The program had the right balance of brand new with the world premiere of Baltimore-born Christopher Rouse’s “Berceuse Infinie”, which had been commissioned by the BSO, and quintessentially timeless with Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s magnificent Requiem, which he famously did not get to finish, but has always been one of his biggest hits.
Although I had been a regular at the Strathmore Music Center before moving to New York City, I had not been back in quite a few years. Despite being warned that the surrounding area was not what it used to be, my heart still sank when I saw the big fancy condos that have been built in the beautiful park next to the building, where refreshing strolls were encouraged and a deer sighting not unusual.
But here again, for the second time in my eventful D.C. weekend, music came to the rescue and healed all my wounds in the packed concert hall, even before the concert started as maestra Alsop warmly welcome everybody with her signature red cuffs and quirky introductions. Thankfully some things do not change. 

Marin Alsop may have confessed that eons ago she fell for Christopher Rouse’s music because it was so unapologetically loud, but the work that the orchestra was presenting last Sunday certainly was anything but. In fact, true to its title, for the most part his “Berceuse Infinie” (Infinite Lullaby) quietly unfolded with a gently rocking rhythm, which discreetly highlighted the soberly beautiful melodies, the delicately nuanced colors, the finely crafted textures, a couple of outstandingly dramatic moments, and a few stunning lines for the cello. At barely 15 minutes, this exquisite lullaby for adults inconspicuously made us lose the sense of time and did bring us a little bit closer to infinity.
Mozart’s Requiem never fails to attract large crowds in concert halls all over the world and last Sunday at Strathmore was no exception. And truth be said, the large crowd could not have been more mightily pleased with the exhilaratingly powerful performance that Marin Alsop got from the fired-up orchestra, the confident choir of young singers from the University of Maryland, and the four excellent soloists.
To add a new twist to my listening of the Requiem, and take full advantage of the perfectly balanced lighting in the hall, for the first time I decided to follow the entire piece on the lyric sheet as the music was going on, and quickly found the experience insightful and rewarding. Secure in my knowledge of the instrumental part, I was able to focus more on the words and therefore go up another notch in my already sky-high level of enjoyment of it.
On Sunday afternoon, the “Dies irae,” possibly the most popular movement of the entire composition, came out particularly muscular and, well, wrathful, soon followed by a gorgeously sad “Lacrimosa.” Of note were also the wonderful contrasts between the forceful assertiveness of the male voices in the “Confutatis” and the delicately ethereality of the female voices in the “Voca me.”
Throughout the performance the seasoned orchestra made the overly familiar piece sound fresh and exciting while the youthful choir made their palpable enthusiasm at tackling such a universal masterpiece crystal clear. Each of the four soloists fulfilled their parts with plenty of talent and commitment, adding strong individual voices to the larger ensembles. It was decidedly good to be back.

Tuesday, December 5, 2017

NSO - Britten, Prokofiev & Rachmaninoff - 12/02/17

Conductor: Gianandrea Noseda 
Britten: Matinées musicales after Rossini 
Prokofiev: Piano Concerto No. 5 in G Major, Op. 55 
Yuja Wang: Piano 
Rachmaninoff: Symphonic Dances, Op. 45

When the prospect of a whole month full of holiday music relentlessly invading New York City’s concert halls, stores and homes became too much to bear, I figured that I should escape to greener pastures where performances would not include anything Christmassy. That’s why last weekend I headed down to my old digs of Washington, D.C. to hear the National Symphony Orchestra with Yuja Wang playing Prokofiev at the Kennedy Center on Saturday night and the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra for Mozart’s Requiem at the Strathmore Music Center on Sunday afternoon. Because why settle for just one musical trip down memory lane when I could go for two?
Because there's never a dull moment in our nation's capital, on Saturday I got to marvel at the newly developed Wharf on the waterfront in the morning before enjoying two outstanding exhibits (Ai Weiwei’s “Traces” at the Hirschhorn Museum and “Vermeer and the Masters of Genre Paintings” at the National Gallery of Art) in the afternoon. And then my friend Jennifer and I survived a memorably sub-par dinner that even dedicated drinking would not improve at the fancy, long-established Italian restaurant La Perla (You know you’re in trouble when you’re greeted with supermarket white bread and butter) early evening.
But music famously heals all wounds, and after perfect little pick-me-ups at Campono and an invigorating walk around the Kennedy Center’s rooftop, we expectantly took our seats in the packed concert hall. The particularly exciting program presented works that Benjamin Britten, Sergei Prokofiev and Sergei Rachmaninoff wrote when they lived outside their native countries between the two world wars. And the icing on the cake came in the form of the prodigious pianist Yuja Wang. Last, but not least, the red carpet that was covering the center’s hallways was a heart-warmingly welcoming touch, even if in all likelihood it had been unrolled for the up-coming Kennedy Center Honors, and not for my long-overdue visit to D.C.

“Matinées musicales” is a rarely performed adaptation of Gioachino Rossini’s themes by Benjamin Britten, and the final result that opened the concert on Saturday night still sounded definitely more Italian than English. One explanation for the boundless energy and vivid colors may have been the unmistakable Italian roots of the NSO’s new music director, who was also the host and conductor for the evening, Gianandrea Noseda, or just Britten not daring to mess too much with a good thing. In any case, it was a charming curiosity.
Prokofiev’s Piano Concerto No. 5, which happens to be his last one, is a funny little piece that comes with more challenges and rewards that its conciseness and playfulness may originally let on, but I had no doubt that Miss Wang would handle it with her signature flair and aplomb, not the least because about a decade ago, even as a much less experienced musician she immediately impressed me with her head-on mastering of the Russian composer’s first and second piano concertos.
And sure enough, on Saturday night she clearly demonstrated that she had not lost her apparently seamless connection to Prokofiev and his œuvre, never mind the amount of mercilessly daunting obstacles she was facing again. Fearlessly inventive and constantly surprising, the concerto was brilliantly performed, its delicately lyrical middle movement beautifully standing out among the other four rambunctiously virtuosic, occasionally downright grotesque, ones.
Never one to be stingy about extending the party, Wang treated the ecstatic audience to two encores, starting with a fierce and exhilarating reading of the Horowitz Variations based Bizet’s Carmen before expertly quieting things down with an unidentified by lovely work.
After intermission, we were in for more Russian fare with Rachmaninoff’s irresistible Symphonic Dances, which unfolded in all their vigorously rhythmical splendor. The orchestra responded exceptionally well to maestro Noseda’s enthusiastic conducting and all of the orchestral suite’s various distinct elements, from the infectious three-note motif to the ever-shifting harmonies to the saxophone solo to the ecclesiastic chants, came effortlessly together to create a glorious musical experience. It was Rachmaninoff’s last composition, but let’s face it, there were not many places to go to after that. So that was fittingly our last piece of the evening as well.

Monday, November 20, 2017

Vassilis Varvaresos - Schumann, Papanas, Schubert, Liszt, Scriabin & Ravel - 11/16/17

Schumann: Faschingsschwank aus Wien, Op. 26
Papanas: Piano Suite No. 1
 Schubert/Liszt: Soirée de Vienne No. 7
Liszt: Méphisto Waltz No. 1
Scriabin: Waltz for piano in A flat Major, Op. 38
Ravel: La Valse

Although I tend to enjoy all sub-genres of classical music, the one I am the least fond of has to be the Hapsburg waltz. So I was originally kind of bummed when I noticed that the recital by fast-rising Greek pianist Vassilis Varvaresos last Thursday night revolved around the theme of waltz, or at least dance. A closer look, however, made me realize that, despite their titles, none of the pieces he had selected was a traditional Viennese waltz, so I breathed a huge sigh of relief and promptly made a reservation.
My early commitment turned out to be a clever move because Lincoln Center's wonderfully intimate Merkin Hall can only sit 425 people, and almost twice as many had tried to get a ticket. Thing is, even though Vassilis Varvaresos may not be a household name just yet, the young musician has earned impressive degrees, won prestigious competitions, composed for films and television series, wrote a book, and delivered a wide range of performances around the world, including at the White House. And this is clearly only the beginning.
So barely 48 hours after the wild ride that was Thomas Adès' The Exterminating Angel at the Met, I was getting mentally prepared for a more low-key but no less exciting musical evening with my friend Jayne, whom I incidentally met at the Onassis Cultural Center, the non-profit organization that was supported this concert along with the Hellenic-American Cultural Foundation. We originally felt like we were sticking out big time in the apparently all-Greek crowd, but the unifying power of music quickly helped us blend in.

After the official speeches were done and before the music got started, Vassilis Varvaresos proved to be a charming and insightful host as he was introducing the various works in the program. Then he wasted no time to establish his virtuoso credentials by boldly kicking off the concert with Schumann's "Faschingsschwank aus Wien" (Carnival Scenes from Vienna), a popular concert piece that include five widely different and equally challenging movements in an epic 20-minute stretch.
The opening Allegro was substantial and multi-faceted, almost an entire work in itself. The Romanze was short and tender as if to give pianist and audience a little break before the Scherzino perked things up with plenty of playfulness. The emotionally-charged Intermezzo had a truly lovely melody to it and the Finale exploded with much energy and power. There was clearly nothing there that Varvaresos could not handle, and he delivered an assured performance of it.
If Robert Schumann needs no introduction, contemporary Greek composer Simos Papanas is not that well-known yet, but judging from the Piano Suite No. 1 he wrote for Varvaresos, he certainly has the composing chops needed to reach a larger audience. Inspired by the hypnotic nature of shimmering water and the sentimental sounds of church bells, this new work for piano started wonderfully ethereal and atmospheric until an irresistibly fun and devilishly difficult Macedonian dance whipped it into a thrilling virtuosic frenzy.
The second part of the program consisted of shorter pieces literally inspired by waltzes, but so ingeniously arranged that not much was left of the original dance form. Franz Liszt's personal take on Franz Schubert's "Soirée de Vienne No. 7" turned out to be delightfully quirky. On the other hand, his own "Méphisto Waltz No. 1", which evokes the episode of the "Dance at the village inn" from Nikolaus Lenau’s Faust, unfolded with voluptuous sensuality and colorful drama. Channeling the powerhouse that was Liszt is no easy task for even the most seasoned pianist, so Varvaresos deftly met the challenge by making the two pieces his own and brilliantly succeeded.
At just over five minutes, Alexander Scriabin's Waltz for piano in A-flat Major was a fleeting Romantic pleasure exuding sweet perfumes and pretty melodies. It also went through a wide range of moods, from hesitant to passionate to happy-go-lucky, which Varvaresos unperturbably expressed with impeccable timing and infectious enthusiasm.
The program ended with Maurice Ravel's "La valse", a choreographic poem for orchestra originally conceived for a ballet, but now more often heard as a concert piece. Whether it is a comment on the merciless destruction of World War I, a tribute to Ravel's mother who had just died, or a plain musical score for a ballet, only the composer knows for sure.
The piano version we heard on Thursday evening beautifully preserved the darkness and surrealism that were so prevalent in the original composition, and managed to celebrate the death of the Viennese waltz all by itself with diabolical determination and macabre glee. Who needs a whole orchestra when you have the right pianist?

A bona fide film buff, Varvaresos has composed ten film scores already. He has also come up with a 70-minute composition on a paraphrase from Star Wars (At least nobody can accuse him of thinking small.). As luck would have it, our extended standing ovation earned us a excerpt of it, which needless to say contained the universally famous Star Wars theme, as a formidable encore. On Thursday night, the force was unquestionably with Vassilis Varvaresos.

Sunday, November 19, 2017

Met - The Exterminating Angel - 11/14/17

Composer: Thomas Adès 
Conductor: Thomas Adès 
Librettist: Tom Cairns 
Director/Producer: Tom Cairns 
Frédéric Antoun: Raúl Yebenes 
Sophie Bevan: Beatriz 
Kevin Burdette: Señor Russell 
Alice Coote: Leonora Palma 
Iestyn Davies: Francisco de Ávila 
Amanda Echalaz: Lucia de Nobile 
Rod Gilfry: Alberto Roc 
Joseph Kaiser: Edmundo de Nobile 
Audrey Luna: Leticia Mayvar 
Sally Matthews: Silvia de Ávila 
David Adam Moore: Colonel Álvaro Gómez 
David Portillo: Eduardo 
Christine Rice: Blanca Delgado 
Sir John Tomlinson: Doctor Carlos Conde 
Christian van Horn: Julio 

The decision-makers at the Metropolitan Opera have never been known for their forward programming, but you have to give it to them, when they decide to venture into intriguing new territory, they often know how to choose them. And this new season is no exception with Thomas Adès’ The Exterminating Angel flying high above the other 21 predictable works in terms of the bold vision it has brought and the genuine excitement it has ignited.
Nobody will ever be able to fault England’s favorite enfant terrible composer for having plebeian tastes. After transforming William Shakespeare’s magic tale The Tempest into an uneven but mostly thrilling opera, he turned his attention to Luis Buñuel’s 1962 surrealist film The Exterminating Angel and came up with an even more ambitious opera that prompted ecstatic reviews when it first came out in Salzburg in 2016.
Ecstatic reviews popped up all over New York City too after the Salzburg production opened here a couple of weeks ago, with the composer himself conducting a totally different orchestra and slightly different cast, and filled up the large opera house with remarkable efficiency. The Met packed with an eclectic audience giddily looking forward to a modern production in a rare sight, but last Tuesday night that is just what fellow opera lovers Dawn and Brian and I happily witnessed.

Among the elements of Buñuel’s film that would understandably be attractive to an out-of-the-box composer like Adès is probably the sheer absurdity of having the participants of a fancy dinner party trapped inside the dining room for no good, or even bad, reason and eventually running out of bare necessities, including food, water, and manners.
One of the particularities of The Exterminating Angel is that it includes no fewer than a dozen main characters who are more or less constantly on the stage, plus a few minor roles, mostly servants who somehow had the good sense to escape early. Therefore, the main challenge for the audience was to figure out who was who as the dinner guests and butler were all busy mingling politely first, and then definitely less so.
The women were much easier to tell apart thanks to their distinct glamorous outfits and sharply defined traits. Audrey Luna as the soprano Leticia may actually be the one who has been generating the most press with the stratospheric upper notes that we had already endured in The Tempest. Her vocals feats often made her speech difficult to decipher, but on the other hand, they really made you appreciate the few times she came down from her high perch for some truly exquisite singing.
Mezzo-soprano Christine Rice was Blanca Delgado, the pianist and singer who at some point capably calmed things down with a hauntingly beautiful song from the Ladino tradition of Sephardic Jews. It was an off moment that seemed to come out of nowhere but, come to think of it, in fact cleverly underlined the confusion and unpredictability of the whole situation.
More predictable was the fate of terminally ill Leonora Palma, and mezzo-soprano Alice Coote's wonderfully nuanced singing efficiently conveyed her complex character, whether she unexpectedly gave her doctor a luscious kiss or engaged in an hallucinatory dance.
From a distance at least the men was much harder to distinguish as they all wore formal evening wear, but a couple of them eventually stood out too. For one, there was counter-tenor Iestyn Davies, who as the insufferably supercilious aristocrat Francesco provided one of the most hilarious speeches of the entire opera as he was obsessively explaining the differences among the various types of spoons.
On the other end of the vocal spectrum was veteran bass John Tomlinson as the unwaveringly poised, elderly doctor Conde whose dead-pan delivery of his recurring punch line about death was as comically dark as it could get. And he was the apparent voice of reason.
One of the most moving touches of the essentially cynical opera was the couple of young lovers Beatriz and Eduardo, endearingly impersonated by soprano Sophie Bevan and tenor David Portillo, who were staunchly inseparable until the very end. Turning the closet into a make-shift love nest, they got to sing the most gorgeous music of the entire score all the way to their heart-breaking final duet.
Speaking of music, it is probably hard to come up with an opera composition that is so relentlessly inventive, filled with all kinds of sonority whose originality is so completely in tune with the surrealist atmosphere and bizarre premise. To make it all happen, Adès brought in unusual but legitimate instruments such as an ondes Martenot and eight tiny violins to create a wide range of eerie sounds. More mundane items such as a small door, rocks, paper and a salad bowl contributed in various capacities too, and by all accounts the orchestra, conducted by the composer himself, had a ball.
In fact, one of the most exhilarating musical treats came between Act I and II when a sudden surge of high-precision percussion that would not been out of place at a heavy metal concert both released the tension that had been slowly building and sent an ominous warning about the more unappetizing things to come. Hell was breaking loose big time.
As if to encourage the audience to check their logical thinking at the door, the opening scene of the opera, which included the rising of the Met's famous chandeliers, was repeated twice. That may have felt rather weird and gimmicky at first, but certainly not more so than the presence of live sheep, which apparently are the de rigueur accessory in opera productions these days, or an incongruous bear, which at least was fake or projected in the background (The Met's insurance policy may have had something to do with that). But then again, all's fair when regular rules no longer apply.
The rest of the décor, which was dominated by a huge wooden arch on a revolving stage, and the costumes were smartly designed to convey an elegant upscale house that will become more and more claustrophobic and wild as primitive needs are not being met. Eventually, the ghost-like guests will find themselves among a colorful crowd of ordinary people where their grossly disheveled looks will not escape notice.
The Met's audience fared much better and seemed generally grateful, if occasionally bewildered, for the experience. Thomas Adès has struck twice at the Met now. I am already looking forward to number three.

Saturday, November 18, 2017

New York Classical Players - Tessa Plays Beethoven - 11/12/17

Conductor: Dongmin Kim 
Nathan: Four to One for String Orchestra 
Beethoven: Violin Concerto in D Major, Op. 61 (Arr. David Schneider) 
Tessa Lark: Violin 
Copland: Appalachian Spring Suite 

Experience and common sense have taught me that the only sure way to beat the New York City subway system in the weekend is not to use it. Therefore, I took full advantage of the beautiful fall weather we had last Sunday afternoon and happily walked across a bustling Central Park to the Upper East Side’s Church of the Heavenly Rest for the New York Classical Players’ second subscription program of the season: Tessa plays Beethoven.
The original program had Paganini on it, which had immediately set my heart aflutter as I hadn’t heard his intensely sunny and fiercely virtuosic violin concerto in such a long time, but then my friend Vy An and I realized a couple of minutes before the start of the performance that it had been replaced by the Beethoven violin concerto. Fortunately, that one is nothing to sneeze at either, just a little bit less radiance and a little bit more bombast, so we promptly made the mental switch and eagerly took it in stride.
The rest of the program sounded like an unofficial tribute to current and past American composers with the new arrangement of a piece by contemporary composer Eric Nathan and the beloved Appalachian Spring Suite by Aaron Copland that simply seems never to get old.

After originally composing "Four to One" for a string quartet, Eric Nathan arranged his appealing description of an autumnal sunset in upstate New York for a string orchestra after the NYCP, who obviously know a good thing when they hear it, commissioned it. Both earthy and atmospheric, that particular sunset’s vivid colors burst out in all their flamboyant glory before darkness and stillness ineluctably took over.
I had not heard the Beethoven violin concerto in quite a long time, and Tessa Lark’s commanding performance of it was the perfect opportunity to become reacquainted with the imposing work. It was also the perfect opportunity to become acquainted with the musician. Suffice to say that after going through her already impressive biography and hearing her in action, I have little doubt that the young and yet remarkably poised violinist will go places.
Although I found her playing particularly thrilling during the endlessly tricky cadenza and the unabashedly lyrical larghetto, the entire concerto immensely benefited from her energy, savoir-faire and commitment. Having it performed with a reduced orchestra was by default different from the traditional symphony orchestra version, but somehow this special arrangement managed to preserve its highly dramatic flair while allowing the soloist to shine even more, so everybody won.
Going from 19th century Austria to 20th century United States requires a giant leap, but Miss Lark unhesitatingly took it for the encore, treating the delighted audience to a fun little bluegrass number that readily proved that her range of skills was even wider than initially suspected (Yes! The girl can sing too!).
After intermission we remained solidly on American territory, early 19th century rural Pennsylvania to be exact, as the NYCP orchestra whole-heartedly worked their way through the original version of Copland’s engaging Appalachian Spring Suite, which on Sunday was played with a slightly expanded string section because, let’s face it, one can never have too many strings.
As the music went on, it was easy to see why the ballet score has always remained a popular concert piece, what with its vibrant post-war optimism, big sweeping emotions and nostalgia for life’s simple pleasures, which the musicians energetically conveyed without forgetting the more subtle touches. Seriously, who knew that such a quintessential piece of Americana could be such an invigorating breath of fresh air?
As timing would have it, Vy An and I got to enjoy some actual invigorating fresh air as we walked around the northern side of Central Park’s Reservoir during a lovely autumnal sunset in New York City, which kind of brought us right back to the beginning of the program.

Monday, November 13, 2017

Cantori New York - Voices from the Shadows - 11/11/17

Artistic Director & Conductor: Mark Shapiro 
Johann Brahms: Ich aber bin Elend (But I am poor)
Jacob Avshalomov: Tom O’Bedlam 
Thierry Machuel: Paroles contre l’oubli (Words against Oblivion)
Ben Keiper: Tenor 
Eleanor Killiam: Soprano 
Lucian Avalon: Oboe 
Charles Kiger: Percussion 

 For the last, but by no means least, installment of my “Three Saturday Nights on the Town” series, last Saturday evening I braced myself and made it all the way down to the West Village’s Church of St Luke in the Fields for contemporary choir Cantori New York’s long-awaited first concert of their official season. Not that the hard-working singers and artistic director have been lounging around though, as earlier in the fall they have been relentlessly busy with a blink-and-you-miss one-nighter with Teatro Grattacielo before moving on with barely enough time to regroup to a more extended – and no doubt more rewarding – fling with American Ballet Theatre.
Finally back on their own track, the endlessly versatile ensemble drastically switched gears one more time from Il Grillo del Focolare’s Italian verismo and Daphnis et Chloé’s French Romanticism to “give voices to the unheard” in three widely different works from Thierry Machuel with Paroles contre l’oubli, Jacob Avshalomov with “Tom O’Bedlam”, and Johann Brahms with “Ich aber bin Elend”. Granted, the perspective of hearing a choral version of French and Basque testimonies written by prisoners, an English song about homelessness and a German motet about misery may not have sounded particularly appealing at first, but the consistently adventurous choir has proven many times over that it can always be trusted to deliver a worthwhile musical experience.
Therefore, a fairly large crowd, including a few familiar faces, and I decided to brave the shockingly sudden arctic cold spell and the predictably unpredictable subway system to make it to the Village for one hour of essentially somber music on off-putting topics, made even more depressing by their persistent relevance.

Johann Brahms’ “Ich aber bin Elend” started the concert with biblical inspiration, German Romanticism and glorious harmonies. Asking God for protection against life’s many ills, the plea was short, but powerful, and was much appreciated by the die-hard Brahms fan that I am.
Based on a 17th century anonymous English poem, Jacob Avshalomov’s “Tom O’Bedlam” takes on the everyday struggles of a homeless person, which Cantori’s singers conveyed in an insightful and sensitive fashion.
After a brief pause, the choir was back with two instrumentalists for the US premiere of Thierry Machuel’s Paroles contre l’oubli. Putting together eight French testimonies and two Basque testimonies from prisoners of the Maison Centrale de Clairvaux, the composition explores how forgetting and being forgotten (the dreaded “oubli”) takes a severe toll on people set apart by and from the rest of society through those people's very own words.
The succession of sharply individual snapshots, whether universal, fierce or optimistic, was started by the mournful rising of the oboe, then quickly picked up by the choir. Although the oboe and percussion made timely cameos during the performance, it unsurprising;y fell on the singers to actually give voices to those more or less coherent written testimonies. In fact, some of them were definitely less than more so, such as the text by S. M., whose state of deep confusion was only heightened by the intricately overlapping voices.
On the other end, the challenges of gnarly tongue-twisters such as “insignifiantifiée” (whose English equivalent would probably be “insignificantized”, in case you’re wondering, and no, it does not exist in French either.) were met with deftness and assurance by the singers. Slowly building a unified whole, the ever-shifting composition, complex or unadorned, intense or melancholic, disheartening or humorous, eloquently expressed the wide range of disarray of its subjects.
But hope was not totally gone, which Agustin forcefully asserted at the very end of the entire piece with a text in Basque saying loud and clear, and with life-affirming rhythmical stomping too, that he had not forgotten. As if to make sure to drive his positive point home, and maybe to work out the last couple of stubborn kinks as well, the choir gamely performed it twice.
So the concert ended on an unexpected but welcome uplifting note, which happily lingered with me for a while and then gradually faded away during my agonizingly slow subway ride back home, which took significantly longer than the concert itself.

Monday, November 6, 2017

Leila Josefowicz & John Novacek - Sibelus, Prokofiev, Zimmermann & Adams - 11/04/17

Sibelius: Valse triste, Op. 44, No. 1 
Prokofiev: Violin Sonata No. 1 in F Minor, Op. 80 
Zimmermann: Sonata for Violin and Piano 
Adams: Road Movies 

Another Saturday night, another concert that I simply had to attend instead of staying away from the Saturday night madness in the comfort of my own home. The one and only Leila Josefowicz is way too rare of a musician to be fussy about where, when and how one can enjoy her prodigious talent and adventurous spirit. Moreover, let’s face it, while going all the way to the Upper East Side’s 92Y to attend her recital with long-time music partner John Novacek was no walk in the park (literally, since I had to take the cross-town bus), it was still significantly more convenient than going all the way to Berlin, Germany, where I saw her last with John Adams and the Berliner Philharmoniker over a year ago.
Knowing her as a staunch advocate of contemporary music, I was more than a little surprised to see that her program included a trio of well-established composers, namely Jean Sibelius, Sergei Prokofiev and John Adams. But then I realized the second part of the concert would start with lesser-known German composer Bernd Alois Zimmermann, whose background promised an intriguing mix of avant-garde, serial and post-modern, and that she was therefore still true to her laudable and exciting mission.

Whether it is played as an outstanding little number on the official program or as an ever-popular encore, Sibelius’ "Valse triste" is usually heard in its orchestral version. Not so on Saturday night, where the leaner combination of piano and violin still beautifully captured the eerie atmosphere and diaphanous textures of the original waltz.
Although Prokofiev’s openly grim Violin Sonata No. 1 is no stranger to concert halls, I hadn’t heard it in a very long time and had almost forgotten what a powerful   ̶  political or not   ̶  statement it makes. And I could hardly have imagined a better pairing than Leila Josefowicz and John Novacek to refresh my memory as they dug deeply into the composition’s icy winds, foreboding darkness, strident dissonances and general sense of hopelessness.
Fortunately, the duo did not let the depressing mood completely take over as Josefowicz came up with some achingly beautiful lyrical lines, which made her uncompromising handling of the more abrupt moments all the more startling. The subtly haunted first movement eventually gave way to a second movement so relentlessly vigorous that her bow ended up losing an impressive quantity of hair and the keyboard had to be seriously tuned up after it was all over. The third movement rocked gently while the frenetic folk dance of the fourth one brought us back to the lugubrious winds.
Never one to shy away from overlooked composers or technical challenges, on Saturday night Josefowicz brought us Bernd Alois Zimmermann via his impossible-to-label Sonata for Violin and Piano. Featuring harsh grittiness mixed with bits of almost danceable tunes and a deceptively quiet middle movement, the 15-minute uncompromisingly complex and boldly virtuosic piece effectively kept musicians and audience on their toes.
A concert by Leila Josefowicz does not feel quite complete without the presence of John Adams, her frequent collaborator and possibly biggest fan, and on Saturday his colorful Road Movies concluded the program on a genuinely fun note. The piano’s easy-going groove and the violin’s restless flying around made for an imaginary car trip that was both relaxing and hard-driven first, before they took a peaceful break to unwind, maybe meditate. Before we knew it though, the trip resumed with the instruments totally refueled and generating pretty cool jazzy overtones too. The discussion heated up and the pace quickened all the way to the final destination.

Now that everybody’s spirit had been lifted up, the performers clearly did not want to break the light-hearted mood, so their priceless parting gift was a straightforwardly luminous performance of “Smile” by Charlie Chaplin. And we all did.

Sunday, November 5, 2017

Ensemble Signal - All-Reich - 11/02/17

Conductor: Brad Lubman 
Reich: Clapping Music 
Reich: Quartet 
Reich: Runner 
Reich: Pulse 
Reich: Double Sextet 

After a couple of piano recitals in Carnegie Hall’s large Stern Auditorium, where the music was amazing but the feeling of intimacy lacking, I was more than happy to make my way down to much smaller Zankel Hall for a concert of Steve Reich compositions performed by the intrepid Ensemble Signal.
Although I have been extensively familiarizing myself with Philip Glass, this other contemporary music giant, this year, my knowledge of Steve Reich’s œuvre is still deplorably superficial at best. So I was thrilled at the perspective of attending a whole evening of his music, spanning from a ground-breaking minimalist work from the 1970s to more elaborate pieces from the third millennium, in such conducive circumstances.
Apparently, I was not the only one who had been seduced by the offer as the concert hall was filled by an impressively eclectic crowd, including a large number of excited youngsters. All hail Steve Reich!

The concert started, rightfully enough, with Steve Reich himself, who was greeted with a rock-star ovation, and Brad Lubman, Ensemble Signal’s founding co-artistic and music director, joining forces for his 1972 "Clapping Music", a three-minute number consisting in the two men clapping and creating increasingly complex and spellbinding rhythmic lines. Come to think of it, who needs instruments when you have hands and a sharp sense of rhythm?
Instruments, however, made themselves useful in a most unusual combination in his 2013 "Quartet". That’s where the two pianos and two vibraphones generated jazz-flavored sounds that seemed to suggest the daytime energy and nighttime melancholy of big city life. The composition kept all four musicians equally busy and the music flowing seamlessly.
According to my unofficial, and maybe slightly biased, clap-o-meter, the big hit of the evening was the comparatively large-scale 2016 "Runner", which was having its New York premiere on Thursday night. For the occasion, no fewer than 19 musicians crowded the stage and kept busy for 16 unpredictable minutes filled with ever-changing harmonies. Starting fast, but quickly learning to pace itself while still enjoying an invigorating workout and reaching a glorious high, that runner made it to the finish line with flying colors!
The 2015 composition "Pulse" distinguished itself by including an electric bass among the winds, strings and piano. The welcome intruder remained relatively discreet though, contenting itself to steadily partner with the piano to provide a rock-solid base, namely the "Pulse", on which the other instruments could elaborate attractive melodies.
Stretching almost half an hour, 2009 Pulitzer Prize-winning "Double Sextet" was by far the longest work of the program. Although the two identical sextets were spatially organized in a totally symmetrical fashion, the music was far less predictable. Dependably anchored by the two pianos and the two vibraphones, the rest of the musicians carried delightfully animated conversations, all of this happening in perfect synchronicity while still feeling somehow spontaneous. Steve Reich looked mightily pleased with the result, and so were we.

Friday, November 3, 2017

Marc-André Hamelin - Liszt, Feinberg, Debussy & Godowsky - 11/01/17

Liszt: Hungarian Rhapsody No. 13 in A Minor 
Liszt: "Bénédiction de Dieu dans la solitude" from Harmonies poétiques et religieuses 
Liszt: Fantasy and Fugue on B.A.C.H. 
Feinberg: Piano Sonata No. 4 in E-flat Minor, Op. 6 
Debussy: Images, Book I 
Godowsky: Symphonic Metamorphosis on Themes by Johann Strauss 

After the terrific Chopin-focused recital given by Russian prodigy Daniil Trifonov on Saturday night, I was back in the Stern Auditorium on Wednesday night for much less buzzed-about but equally talented Quebecois veteran Marc-André Hamelin and his interestingly eclectic program. So many virtuosic pianists, so many brilliant composers, so many intriguing compositions, so little time!
Nobody has ever had to twist my arm to go listen to music by Franz Liszt or Claude Debussy. Add to them Frédéric Chopin from last Saturday, and I have to admit that the piano lover in me has been relishing a good life at Carnegie Hall these past few days. Moreover, since I always welcome the opportunity to discover new composers and new works, I was looking forward to checking out the two additional pianists-composers   ̶  or composers-pianists, depending on how you look at them   ̶  Samuel Feinberg and Leopold Godowsky. I had never heard of them, but needless to say, if they are good enough for Marc-André Hamelin, they are certainly good enough for me.

Liszt’s Hungarian Rhapsody No. 13 opened the concert with its irresistible mix of tranquility and playfulness, the first movement setting a quietly meditative mood before the second one exploded with infectious Gypsy-inspired melodies. Unflustered by the impressively wide range of the comparatively small work, Hamelin handled it all with assurance and flair.
Things calmed down again with Liszt’s "Bénédiction de Dieu dans la solitude" from Harmonies poétiques et religieuses, a gracefully melodic piece whose restlessness may have sounded deceptively low-key at the outset, but was in fact relentless and occasionally burst out in stunning crescendos. It made the pure serenity that the pianist reached toward the end all the more poignant and fulfilling.
Our mini Liszt marathon ended with his Fantasy and Fugue on B.A.C.H., which was originally a popular organ fantasy on a B.A.C.H motif that was first revised, then transposed for the piano by the composer himself. Homage to Johann Sebastian Bach oblige, its inherent complexity and life-affirming vitality were riveting.
The second part of the program was more varied, but no less satisfying. Feinberg’s Piano Sonata No. 4 oozed subtle but unmistakably foreboding darkness and unrelenting intensity, both of which probably stemming at least to some degree from the political situation in Russia back in 1918. It is to Hamelin’s credit that he made the somber mood deeply moving, but not overly weighty.
Debussy’s Images, Book I has long been a concert hall favorite, and the superb version that we heard on Wednesday night, sharp yet poetic, can safely be added to the list of memorable interpretations of it. Even though Debussy strongly resented the label, there is little doubt that in the right hands those Images cannot help but gently blossom into gorgeously impressionistic little gems. And sure enough, on Wednesday night the mesmerized audience was treated to a scintillating performance and indulged in every minute of it.
The official program ended with Godowsky’s Symphonic Metamorphosis on Themes by Johann Strauss, a lovely take on Strauss’ “Wine, Women and Song” and Die Fledermaus that could easily appeal to even the audience members not particularly sensitive to Viennese waltzes. The sing-songy quality of the music was tastefully expressed by Hamelin’s engaging touch and created an openly uplifting mood that was enjoyed by all.

While we could have happily called it a night, our loud appreciation was rewarded with not one, not two, but three encores! The first one were some joyfully sparkling "Feux d’artifice" (Fireworks) from Debussy’s Preludes, Book II. They were followed by Hamelin’s energetic reading of his own "Toccata on L’homme armé", a modern composition based on a French secular song from the Renaissance that he wrote for this year’s Van Cliburn International Piano Competition. Then he diplomatically let us know that it was time to say goodbye with a beautiful "Abschied" (Farewell) from Schumann’s Waldszenen (Forest Scenes), Op. 82. So we did.

Monday, October 30, 2017

Daniil Trifonov - Mompou, Schumann, Grieg, Barber, Tchaikovsky, Rachmaninoff & Chopin - 10/28/17

Mompou: Variations on a Theme of Chopin 
Schumann: "Chopin" from Carnaval, Op. 9 
Grieg: Study, Op. 73, No. 5, "Hommage à Chopin" 
Barber: Nocturne, Op. 33 
Tchaikovsky: Un poco di Chopin 
Rachmaninoff: Variations on a Theme of Chopin 
Chopin: Piano Sonata No. 2 in B-flat Minor, Op. 35 

For any musician, getting their own prestigious Perspectives series at Carnegie Hall is a big deal. And when said musician sells out the large Stern auditorium for the first concert of said series, he has unquestionably arrived. Granted, when the musician is 26-year old pianist Daniil Trifonov, the occasion probably looks like just another step in his meteoric rise in the classical music world, just another evening in yet another concert hall. It also confirms than even in this most elevated sphere, when you’re hot, you’re hot.
To his credit, instead of resting on his already numerous laurels and coming up with predictable playlists loaded with the biggest hits of the piano repertoire, the unstoppable young man with the old soul is apparently planning to continue pushing the envelope with programs that are as ambitious as exciting for the full extent of his Carnegie Hall Perspective, possibly his career.
Accordingly, last Saturday night, his “Homage to Chopin” concert was going to start with variations by Frédéric Mompou, followed by a few bonbons by Robert Schumann, Edvard Grieg, Samuel Barber and Piotr Tchaikovsky, before proceeding to more variations by Rachmaninoff, to eventually wrap things up with – Who else? – Frédéric Chopin himself and his popular Sonata No. 2. No wonder the packed audience was buzzing with great expectations.

At first impression, Mompou’s Variations on a Theme of Chopin, which were probably the wild card of the evening, may sound low-key and unassuming, but hearing them played by such a sensitive and expressive pianist as Daniil Trifonov readily allows the lucky listener to discover countless impressionist details and subtle contrasts during those busy 25 minutes. The Catalan composer may have been a delicate miniaturist, but he is not one to be dismissed, as this finely crafted and impressively wide-ranging work demonstrated.
The eclectic assortment of four fleeting nuggets by major composers that came next turned out to be fun and enlightening while clearly attesting of Chopin's wide and large influence in less than 15 minutes. The German Schumann was smoothly flowing, the Norwegian Grieg insistently agitated, the American Barber lyrically complicated and the Russian Tchaikovsky vibrantly playful.
After this multi-faceted interlude, Trifonov came back with his own version of the daunting Variations on a Theme of Chopin by Rachmaninoff, which he performed with the perfect balance of thoughtfulness and intensity. I had heard him triumphantly master the monumental Rach 3 two years ago with the New York Philharmonic, so I was looking forward to hear him conquer the only slightly less monumental Variations by himself. And that he did.
Once we were done with the Chopin-loving composers populating the first part of the program, we all took a well-deserved break, and then finally moved on to the man himself with his Sonata No. 2. Although I am a hopeless sucker for his ballads, I have to admit that Trifonov’s terrific reading of the sonata, including an expertly paced, all-around stunning Funeral March, gave me pause and almost made me revise my judgment. He knew exactly when to hold back and when to come out in full force, proving once and for all that a natural virtuoso does not need to show off to impose himself.

And for those of us who felt slightly short-changed with just one Chopin piece, we did not have to worry long because our delirious ovation earned us an achingly beautiful arrangement for piano of the Largo from Chopin’s Cello Sonata in G Minor by Alfred Cortot. An exquisite ending to a memorable evening. Not only has Daniil Trifonov arrived, but he is also here to stay.

Sunday, October 29, 2017

American Ballet Theatre - Daphnis and Chloé - 10/26/17

Conductor: David LaMarche 
Tchaikovsky: Souvenir d’un lieu cher: Meditation and Scherzo 
Choreography: Alexey Ratmansky 
Eric Wyrick: Violin 
Chopin: Mazurka, Op. 17, No. 4 
Chopin: Mazurka, Op. 41, No. 3 
Chopin: Mazurka, Op. 63, No. 2 
Chopin: Mazurka, Op. 33, No. 2 
Chopin: Waltz, Op. 64, No. 3 
Choreography: Jerome Robbins 
Emily Wong: Piano 
Ravel: Daphnis and Chloé 
Choreography: Benjamin Millepied
Cantori New York 

Twenty-hour hours after enjoying a rousing Bernstein celebration with the New York Philharmonic at the David Geffen Hall, I temporarily defected to the David H. Koch Theater across the Lincoln Center Plaza for an unusual foray into ballet territory for the American Ballet Theatre with my friend Vy An.
This visit had been prompted by the perspective of checking out a fairly new production of Daphnis and Chloé choreographed by former New York City Ballet principal Benjamin Millepied, who these days is working on various fronts from his current Los Angeles base. It was also the perfect opportunity to experience Maurice Ravel’s famous score in context, and with New York’s very own contemporary choir Cantori New York.

The shorter numbers by Tchaikovsky and Chopin were lovely openers and nicely highlighted the delicate Romanticism of the former and engaging danceability of the latter.
Originally put together for the Ballets Russes, Daphnis and Chloé has come a long way during the past century, and this contemporary production of it emphatically proves that the brilliant score is still as fresh and relevant today as it has ever been. The choreography was boldly inventive and easily evocative to the point that even without knowing the story, one could effortlessly figure out what was going on. The dancers were all impressive in their physical abilities, the main pirate often stealing the show with mind-boggling acrobatics.
The sets were bare, but the various large transparent geometric forms, which were brightly colored, framed by Lichtensteinesque black and white stripes and hanging from the ceiling, as well as the clever lighting added some dynamic mood-setting touches. The costumes were simple in more ways than one, the good guys being dressed in white and the bad guys in black up to the anything-goes bacchanale that which exploded in a feast of vivid colors and rambunctious dancing.
The accompanying “choreographic symphony” was Ravel at his most ground-breaking, voluptuous and impressionistic. Starting at the very beginning, the downright gorgeous wordless vocals produced by the chorus, which would impeccably rise, or rather swell, to the occasion a few more times, immediately commanded attention with their rich sonorities and seemingly divine transcendence, which was not that surprising since the action was taking place in the land of the gods that is Greece after all. 
By mastering myriads of tiny details, the fastidious composer came up with a wide range of impossibly lush harmonies and attractive textures, which in turn makes the music deeply passionate yet unfailingly elegant, in true French fashion. On Thursday evening, the excellent performance of the orchestra and chorus in the pit flawlessly complemented the vibrant dancing happening on the stage for a totally successful Daphnis and Chloé.

Saturday, October 28, 2017

New York Philharmonic - Rouken & Bernstein - 10/25/17

Conductor: Alan Gilbert 
Rouken: Boundless (Homage to L.B.) 
Bernstein: Serenade (after Plato’s Symposium) for Violin, String Orchestra, Harp and Percussion 
Joshua Bell: Violin 
Bernstein: Symphony No. 1 (Jeremiah) 
Kelley O’Connor: Mezzo-soprano 

The endlessly multi-faceted music man – His many hats included composer, conductor, pianist, author, educator, humanitarian, and maybe most importantly, tireless music advocate – Leonard Bernstein would turn 100 years-old on August 25, 2018, which basically means the world has benefited from his presence or legacy in some capacity for almost a century by now. Hence, without wasting any more time, the celebration started on Wednesday night at his former home of the New York Philharmonic, as it should.
For the first performance of their three-week “Bernstein’s Philharmonic: A Centennial Festival” series, the orchestra clearly went all out. The program presented two of the composer’s major works, his  unofficial violin concerto Serenade and his first symphony Jeremiah, the New York premiere of a contemporary piece written as a homage to him, Joey Rouken’s "Boundless", some serious star power with violinist Joshua Bell and mezzo-soprano Kelley O’Connor, and to top it all off, maestro Alan Gilbert.

Who says Alan Gilbert automatically says new works, so true to form, the concert opened with young Dutch composer Joey Rouken’s “Boundless”, a confident mini-symphony that was clearly inspired by Bernstein’s signature mix of classical and pop music, with more than just a hint of rock and jazz as well. The first movement hit the ground running, full of Latin-flavored energy and inhibited exuberance, before things came almost to a halt in the second movement, whose slowly enveloping ethereality was only interrupted by an old-fashioned ring tone... twice. Things shifted back into high gear from the last movement, whose syncopated rhythms made it brazenly fast and brash. 
Alan Gilbert, who got the loudest ovation of the evening for just stepping on the stage, and the orchestra, which was clearly as excited as the audience to have him back on the podium, effortlessly picked up right where they had all left off a few months ago, and a grand time was had by all.
I was introduced to Bernstein’s Serenade, and the wonderful Jennifer Koh, back in Washington, DC many years ago and had never had the chance to hear it again until last Wednesday in New York, performed by no less than violinist superstar Joshua Bell. Based on Plato’s Symposium, whose Aristophanes chapter happens to be the first philosophical text I’ve ever read back in high school, Bernstein’s Serenade is an engaging ode to the various aspects of love that keeps the exposé constantly evocative and immensely attractive.
Of course, having Joshua Bell and his famously radiant tone as messenger only made the experience even more memorable. There were many highlights to be enjoyed among the five movements, especially the deeply lyrical and good-naturedly light-hearted first movement, the gorgeous song that is the Adagio, as well as the more substantial last movement, dedicated to Socrates, which featured a lovely dialog between the violin and the principal cello, Carter Brey, and all-out swinging jazzy interludes.
Moving on to more serious matters after intermission, the orchestra delivered a strong reading of Bernstein's Jeremiah symphony, which the composer wrote when he was a mere 24-year old getting his career underway. The fervent “Prophesy” came out winningly with big brassy sounds and vivid colors, the overall spirited “Profanation” did give hints of trouble to come, and the ominously dark under-tones of mezzo-soprano Kelley O’Connor’s terrific singing impressively contributed to the mournful “Lamentation”.
During the final ovation, Alan Gilbert held up Jeremiah’s score as if to gratefully salute the man of the hour. Up in music legend heavens, Leonard Bernstein had to be smiling.

Tuesday, October 24, 2017

New York City Opera - Dolores Claiborne - 10/22/17

Composer: Tobias Picker 
Librettist: J.D. McClatchy
Conductor: Pacien Mazzagatti 
Director: Michael Capasso 
Lisa Chavez: Dolores Claiborne 
Jessica Tyler Wright: Vera Donovan 
Lianne Gennaco: Selena 
Thomas Hall: Joe St. George 
Spencer Hamlin: Detective Thibodeau 
New York City Opera Orchestra 

At least no one can fault the New York City Opera for lacking diversity in style, mood or subject matter in its programming. After a playfully dramatic Fanciulla del West by Italian bel canto master Giacomo Puccini, which exploded with infectious melodies, an exotic location and a happy ending as their 2017-2018 season opener, we are now being served a grimly dramatic Dolores Claiborne by contemporary American composer Tobias Picker, NYCO’s current composer-in-residence, that came with an appalling dose of domestic violence, sexual abuse and, for good measure, an accidental death AND a murder.
Although Stephen King’s 1992 psychological thriller and Taylor Hackford 1995 film starring Kathy Bates and Jennifer Jason Leigh by the same name have both been profusely acclaimed, I did not have first-hand knowledge of either of them. I was therefore getting ready to enter the dismal world of Dolores Claiborne (the opera) with a wide open mind, and a lot of curiosity and excitement.
Not to mention that, as if to sweeten the deal even more, my return to the Upper West Side enabled me to take a wonderful, if not particularly peaceful, walk through Central Park down to 59E59’s packed main theater on a gloriously beautiful fall afternoon two days ago.

Although Tobias Picker’s Dolores Claiborne premiered in San Francisco back in 2013, last Sunday was the world premiere of its chamber adaptation. And the significantly down-sized production could not have found a better location than 59E59’s main theater, which is the kind of space so intimate that the fourteen-piece orchestra had no choice but to play backstage, and set designer John Farrell and director Michael Capasso probably had to shift their creative juices into high gear to make everything fit. Even sitting in the furthest seat of the top row house left gave me a very good point of view while the sound came to me bright and clear, the way it should always be.
Fresh from her small but remarkable turn in NYCO’s Florencia en el Amazonas last season, mezzo-soprano Lisa Chavez has quickly moved up to the starring role in Dolores Claiborne and delivered a solidly grounded performance as the middle-aged woman who has never gotten a break in her miserable life on her tiny Maine island. Her highly flexible, impressively wide-ranging voice powerfully expressed the visceral emotions she was going through such as her fierce love for her daughter as well as her unbreakable determination to put an end to their misery. Her luminous aria remembering happier times on the ferry brought a brief moment of unadulterated joy to much put-upon Dolores, and splendid music to the audience’s ears.
As Joe St. George, the lazy, alcoholic and abusive husband and father, baritone Thomas Hall put his raw physicality and dark-hued voice to brilliant use in his ever-combative exchanges with Dolores and in his incestuous relationship with Selena. His suggestively singing a creepy nursery rhyme while molesting his daughter, in particular, was the kind of scene that spontaneously made you feel queasy and want to look away, no matter how tastefully it was handled.
Their child, Selena, was consummately impersonated by soprano Lianne Gennaco, who seamlessly went from tormented and awkward teenager, whose innocence was lost in the worst possible way, to an emotionally challenged adult, even as she became a big shot lawyer. Her big aria, an uneasy ode to the stars, dazzlingly established Gennaco’s excellent vocal skills and Selena’s increasing distress. 
Vera Donovan, Dolores’ long-time employer, whose accidental death starts the whole string of flashbacks, was given an occasionally quirky, often cunning and always assertive presence by soprano Jessica Tyler Wright. With her sharp singing and authoritative demeanor, Tyler Wright could have simply turned Vera into the quintessential capricious and demanding nouvelle riche everybody loves to hate, but thankfully the librettist and the singer gave the character more complexity than that.
The production did not have much of a choice but to do a lot with little, and successfully pulled out all the stops in that regard. The going back and forth between the two time periods could have been tricky and confusing, but with a smartly divided and endlessly versatile set, a few essential props, a clever use of projections, and generally well-calibrated blocking, the whole thing went smoothly and was over in barely over two hours, intermission included.
As could be expected considering the sotry, the eclectic score was filled with dark forces and gloomy overtones, with still a traditional aria vibrantly coming up once in a while to perk things up. The orchestra was apparently unfussed by the mix of harsh dissonances and pretty melodies, although it sometimes felt like it was first and foremost putting itself to the service of the libretto, an uncommon but appealing combination of crude profanity and dark poetry, instead of taking the lead and driving the show. But that is a minor squabble, and one likely to disappear overtime.
At the end of the day, this Dolores Claiborne turned out to be totally worth seeing and fully justifies the by then already almost sold-out run it is enjoying. Way to go, NYCO!

Saturday, October 21, 2017

Orchestre Symphonique de Montréal - Moussa, Bartok & Brahms - 10/18/17

Conductor: Kent Nagano 
Samy Moussa: A Globe Itself Infolding for Organ and Orchestra 
Bartok: Concerto for Orchestra 
Brahms: Violin Concerto in D Major, Op. 77 
Maxim Vengerov: Violin  

As I am slowly but surely working my way down my personal season-opening performance card, on Wednesday evening I found myself at Carnegie Hall with my friend Vy An to celebrate the “triumphant New York return” of Maxim Vengerov. While I had no doubt that the performance would be a triumph, I am not sure I would call it a “New York return” since he appeared with the New York Philharmonic two years ago after admittedly almost a decade away from the Big Apple.
I unfortunately was not able to attend those concerts, but I made up for it in the best possible way earlier this year at Aix-en-Provence’s Festival de Pâques (Like they say, if the mountain will not come to Mohamed, Mohamed will go to the mountain). Back in the US, I was thrilled at the additional opportunity to hear him play, this time the fabulous Brahms violin concerto with the Orchestre Symphonique de Montréal conducted by their music director Kent Nagano, an all too rare visitor around these parts himself.
Oh, and there were also a mysterious opening piece by Montreal-born, Berlin-residing, internationally sought-after and present in the hall composer Samy Moussa as well as a Hungarian-flavored middle piece with Bartok’s Concerto for Orchestra. Not a bad way to kick start my Carnegie Hall season, even of the concert was not part of their official season.

Starting the evening with an attractive mix of sheer force and subtle nuances, Samy Moussa’s "A Globe Itself Infolding for Organ and Orchestra" turned out to be a short contemporary work that had a fascinating otherworldly atmosphere to it. Spiritual without being pompous, and melodic without being buoyant, the composition took us on a cosmic voyage that defied time and space, and featured the rather unusual presence of an organ. Vy An, who has her reservations toward contemporary music, gave it two enthusiastic thumbs up while rightfully comparing it to a (good) movie soundtrack. Stanley Kubrick would have loved it.
Bela Bartok’s Concerto for Orchestra is one of his most popular works probably because it is one of his most accessible too. In this case, however, “accessible” does not mean “uninspired”. Although the composition treats the various orchestral instruments as soloists, therefore earning the name of concerto as opposed to symphony, the orchestra showed a solid unity throughout the symmetrically arranged five movements. With a solid balance of seriousness and light-heartedness, as well as a deep sense of drama and unabashed lyricism, the music flowed smoothly and seamlessly under maestro Nagano's energetic baton.
But then again, let’s face it, the vast majority of the audience was there for the star of the evening, the Siberian child prodigy turned classical music superstar Maxim Vengerov, and the enthusiastic ovation he received upon just appearing on the stage only confirmed the notion that distance does make the heart grow fonder. But the man still knows how to deliver the goods too, and his uncompromisingly intense performance of  the Brahms violin concerto was unquestionably one to remember.
Granted, at times style blatantly overpowered substance, but there was still an awful lot to savor as the prodigious outpour was often delightfully overwhelming. And while at some point his imposing cadenza seemed to be bound to go on forever, it was hard not to feel grateful for the privilege of being able to witness all its exciting virtuosic twists and turns. Once the expansive first movement over, the Adagio unfolded with more dramatic strength than usual before the last movement exploded with infectious irrational exuberance and plenty of vividly colorful fireworks. Va-Va-Voom!
The ovation was predictably delirious and abundantly rewarded with a stunningly beautiful “Méditation” from Massenet’s Thais. After German Romanticism at its most exacerbated, we happily switched to French Romanticism at its most radiant. Turning the intensity down a notch, Vengerov simply played from the heart and let the ever-popular intermezzo gorgeously soar into the hall. This uplifting parting gift more than made up for the harrowing trip back to my temporary home in Brooklyn.

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.