Friday, February 24, 2017

Met - I Puritani - 02/22/17

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

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

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

Monday, February 20, 2017

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

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

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

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

Friday, February 10, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, February 7, 2017

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

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

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

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

Sunday, February 5, 2017

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

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

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

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

Friday, February 3, 2017

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

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

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

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