Saturday, March 25, 2017

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

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

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

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

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

Friday, March 17, 2017

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

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

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

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

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

Sunday, March 12, 2017

Met - La Traviata - 03/07/17

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

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

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

Sunday, March 5, 2017

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

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

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

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

Saturday, March 4, 2017

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

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

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

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

Friday, March 3, 2017

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

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

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

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

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