Sunday, April 23, 2017

Festival de Pâques - Renaud Capuçon, Jean-Yves Thibaudet & The Knights - Bach, Mendelssohn, Stravinsky & Mozart - 04/20/17

Bach: Brandenburg Concerto No. 3 in G Major, BWV 1048 
Mendelssohn: Double Concerto for Piano, Violin and Strings in D Minor, MWV 4 
Stravinsky: Concerto in E-flat (Dumbarton Oaks) 
Mozart: Symphony No. 29 in A Major

Another day at Aix-en-Provence’s Festival de Pâques, another exciting concert in perspective. For our last stop in our foray into the terrific musical event, my mom and I had selected a concert featuring festival founder, eminent violinist, and incidentally Gautier’s big brother, Renaud Capuçon, the most American of French pianists, endlessly versatile and international star Jean-Yves Thibaudet, and the festival’s Orchestra-in-Residence The Knights, a resolutely plucky musical collective from Brooklyn that is equally at ease in the prestigious confine of Carnegie Hall’s Zankel Hall as in the outdoor space of Central Park’s Naumburg Shell.
Therefore, on Thursday evening, after some quality time at the Musée Granet and the Collection Jean Planque, we ventured to the third and biggest venue of our program, the soberly modern, round-shaped Grand Théâtre de Provence. That’s where a large and eclectic audience, which happened to include former French Prime Minister Manuel Valls and his violinist wife in the row behind us, eagerly packed the auditorium for the compelling program consisting of Bach, Mendelssohn, Stravinsky and Mozart. And if we still had not realized that this concert was indeed a big deal, numerous fancy-looking cameras and microphones reminded us that the performance would be broadcast live on Radio Classique and later on ARTE Concerts. So there.

Starting a concert with Johann Sebastian Bach is a good way to assert one’s musical credentials as well as make everybody happy. So far so good, but The Knights had something else in mind too. Not only contenting themselves to display their impeccable skills while playing the original composition, they also demonstrated once again their well-known spirit of adventure by boldly inserting Paul Simon’s 1973 song “American Tune”, soulfully sung by Knightess Christina Courtin, into the middle movement. Chosen as a testimony of our uncertain times, the song, which is based on a melody line found in a chorale from Bach’s Saint Matthew Passion, integrated into the Adagio rather well, if a bit peculiarly. In any case, as the woman sitting next to me pointed out, it was indisputably “creative”.
Readily jumping from baroque with a pop twist to classical with a romantic twist, the ensemble next joined forces with Renaud Capuçon and Jean-Yves Thibaudet for Felix Mendelssohn’s Doule Concerto for Piano, Violin and Strings, which the precocious composer wrote when he was 14 years old. Probably as a result, the piece overflows with boundless energy and intense lyricism, cheerfully spinning out one attractive melody after another. The playing was in fact so exhilarating that the audience started vigorously applauding at the end of the first movement, and for so long that Capuçon eventually had to discreetly signal that it was not over yet. And then the music went on, the violin and piano handling the tricky passages with impressive dexterity and flair while the orchestra provided the indispensable solid background to let the duo shine steady and bright.
After intermission, The Knights were back for Stravinsky’s Dumbarton Oaks Concerto, a composition – and a composer – whose uncompromising inventiveness seem tailor-made for them. Commissioned by Robert and Mildred Bliss for their thirtieth wedding anniversary at Dumbarton Oaks in Washington, D.C., which could not fail to remind me of my brief residency right down the street from the historic estate, and inspired by – Surprise! – the Bradenburg Concertos, most particularly No. 3, Dumbarton Oaks is bubbly without being vacuous and imaginative without being esoteric. The Knights played the three continuous movements with plenty of verve and just the right amount of grittiness.
The program ended on an immensely enjoyable note with one of Mozart’s most popular works from his youth, his Symphony No. 29, which also marked his farewell to Bach’s influence as the 18-year old composer was moving toward defining his own style. And while the interpretation by the smaller ensemble that is The Knights by default did not have the breadth and richness that a larger orchestra would have made possible, their more intimate performance was expertly calibrated to bring out the irresistible élan and natural radiance of the piece. In the end, beside providing pure musical bliss, this splendid conclusion to our mini-festival also brought about a fleeting thought about my return to The Big Apple, and a solemn promise to come back to the festival sooner than later.

Thursday, April 20, 2017

Festival de Pâques - Vengerov, Weilerstein & Cho - Schumann, Ravel &Shostakovich - 04/15/17

Schumann: Fantasiestücke for Cello and Piano, Op. 73 
Ravel: Sonata for Violin and Piano 
Ravel: Tzigane, Rhapsody for Violin and Piano 
Shostakovich: Piano Trio No. 2 in E Minor, Op. 67 

My bucket list includes a few musicians that I have never managed to experience live despite my best efforts. But I have not given up on any of them yet. Former child prodigy and still one of the world’s premier violinists, Maxim Vengerov has stubbornly remained among the top names on that list for longer than I care to remember, but luckily this year Aix-en-Provence’s still young but already essential Festival de Pâques and good timing have forever changed this sorry state of affairs.
When I heard that for the third time in five years he was going to be in one of my favorite French towns to perform three widely different compositions – pleasantly engaging, boldly virtuosic and intensely gripping – that would allow me not only to be able to enjoy his prodigious talent in a wonderful environment, but also to support a worthy musical endeavor at the same time, I pretty much organized a trip to France around the not-to-be-missed opportunity.
Therefore, last Saturday after enjoying some superb Goldberg Variations followed by a lovely lunch on cours Mirabeau, my mom and I found ourselves in the coolly modern, perfectly sized, acoustically blessed and definitely packed Conservatoire Darius Milhaud at 6 p.m. to hear the exasperatingly elusive violinist perform alongside familiar New York cellist Alisa Weilerstein and fast-rising Korean pianist Seong-Jin Cho, who apparently blew everybody away last year when he stepped in for Daniil Trifonov and impressively nailed no less than Rach 3.

As if to make the suspense last a little longer, the first piece on the program, Robert Schumann’s Fantasiestücke, had been written for cello and piano only. Bringing along his two signature characters, the extrovert Florestan and the introvert Eusebius, the composer provided Alisa Weilerstein and Seong-Jin Cho with an attractive set of eight vignettes to play with, and so they did with a totally winning dedication.
But persistence and patience do pay off sometimes, and Maxim Vengerov finally made his first appearance in the concert to join Cho for Maurice Ravel’s popular Sonata for Violin and Piano. Beautifully emphasizing the natural quality of their own instrument as well as the inherent musicality of the piece, the two musicians adroitly wandered their own winding paths, the much anticipated bluesy interlude languorously unfolding in all its irresistible splendor.
While Ravel’s Sonata was a delightful treat, Vengerov really got to display his fierce virtuosity in the French composer’s flamboyant Tzigane. Conceived more or less as a formidable one-man show for the violin, the piano showing up late and discreetly, Tzigane packs an awful lot of dazzling twists and turns in its 10-minute duration, all the more to highlight the conflicting darkness and light of the traditional Hungarian gypsy dance. Starting in a gloomy mood and concluding with joyful fireworks, Vengerov delivered a passionate performance freely oozing the sexy exoticism of bohemian life and the gorgeous lushness of Late Romanticism.
After the musically appealing but relatively light-hearted previous numbers, the three musicians got together for Dmitri Shostakovich’s Piano Trio No. 2, which incidentally happens to be one of my favorite chamber music pieces, not the least because of its viscerally expressed sense of tragedy. Written in 1944 when the composer was dealing with the general exhaustion brought by World War II and the tremendous grief caused by the loss of his closest friend, the work evokes those trying times with grating dissonances, frenzied episodes, dark melodic lines, and a devilish passacaglia whose relentless staccato rarely fails to stick into the listener’s mind for an unduly long time.
Having three certified virtuosos take on the technically and emotionally difficult piece was of course a near-guarantee of excellence, and I am happy to report that the brilliant performance even exceeded our sky-high expectations. Far from shying away from the composition’s many jarring moments, the trio confronted them head-first with tightly coordinated expertise and downright exhausting force. That said, aside from the purely musical fulfillment, it was also extremely heart-warming to see American, Russian/Israeli and Korean artists make beautiful music together in our only slightly less turbulent times.

Although the world has clearly not been waiting for my feedback with bated breath, I can now confirm that Maxim Vengerov is a truly outstanding violinist. However, his French speaking skills being slightly less impressive, we were not able to catch the full name of their encore, only to figure out that it was the second movement of a trio of some sort. But that did not keep us from enjoying the mysterious parting gift until the very last note.

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

Festival de Pâques - Beatrice Rana - Bach - 04/15/17

Bach: The Goldberg Variations, BWV 988 

Travels and music being two of life’s utmost pleasures in my view, I often try to combine the two one way or another when I have some free time and/or receive an offer I simply cannot resist. This of course inevitably results in exhausting but exhilarating vacations, but then again, one only lives once.
This year I finally decided to join my mom for Aix-en-Provence’s five-year old Festival de Pâques. She’s been a regular since the classical music event’s opening and I have been enviously listening to her glowing reports ever since. This trip to France also provided the perfect opportunity to spend time in the truly lovely town of Aix, partake in long overdue family reunions, and shamelessly indulge in extremely fine dining and drinking. So never mind the frantic pace, including sleeping in six different places in eight days, I just knew it would be all worth it at the end.
That’s how, after my heathen mother copiously fed her many equally pagan guests sinful pâtés, including foie gras, and rabbit among many other goodies during an extended Good Friday lunch, she and I got up at 6:00 a.m. the following morning to beat an Easter weekend traffic that never materialized during the two-hour drive to Aix. On the other hand, our early arrival left us plenty of time to make the de rigueur stop at Les Deux Garçons brasserie, check out a couple of open air markets, and still make it to the 12:00 p.m. concert.
To ease us into the classical music groove, the first performance of our own three-concert festival was Bach’s timeless Goldberg Variations, which would be played by young Italian pianist Beatrice Rana in the small, eye-popping and packed Théâtre du Jeu de Paume.

Beatrice Rana may only be 24 years old, but her thoughtful and assured playing of Bach’s daunting masterpiece showed that she is blessed with a musical maturity way beyond her years while still displaying a healthy dose of youthful freshness and impetuosity. That also explained her still budding but already prestigious career.
Starting and ending with the famously delicate aria, the Goldberg Variations, which were allegedly written to help Count Hermann von Keyserling sleep and originally performed by Johann Gottlieb Goldberg, a former student of the composer’s employed by the Count, is a work remarkable for its thorny structural complexity and genuine emotional appeal, spanning from childish wonder to breathless dancing to dark mysticism.
On Saturday, Rana resolutely stayed the course, effortlessly handling the technical challenges while keeping the endless density and inherent beauty of the music accessible to all. Her light touch was ideal for the exquisite aria that would launch the 30 variations, yet she also knew when to stir things up with strength and clarity. In short, those 75 minutes were a totally satisfying beginning of our own mini-festival and more than whetted our appetites for what was coming next.

Sunday, April 9, 2017

San Francisco Symphony - Cage, Shostakovich & Bartok - 04/07/17

Conductor: Michel Tilson Thomas 
Cage: The Seasons 
Shostakovich: Cello Concerto No. 1 in E-flat Major, Op. 107 
Gautier Capuçon: Cello 
Bartok: Concerto for Orchestra 

Any excuse is a good one to experience the magic of the San Francisco Orchestra and Michael Tilson Thomas during their annual visit to Carnegie Hall, and this year the additional incentive of finally getting a chance to check out still young and already highly reputed French cellist Gautier Capuçon sealed the deal even faster than usual. Not to mention that, to top it all off, he would be playing Shostakovich's Cello Concerto No. 1, which would be a nice change from the much more ubiquitous cello concertos by Dvorak and Haydn.
So never mind the busy week. On Friday evening, I was officially on vacation for the following two weeks, and I could not find a better way to get into a carefree groove than spending it at Carnegie Hall in brilliant company for an eclectic program featuring three musical giants of the 20th century.

John Cage's The Seasons may only last about 15 minutes, but those are 15 efficiently used minutes. Originally written to accompany a ballet choreographed by his buddy Merce Cunningham, it was the composer's first composition for orchestra and it of course did not fail to baffle audiences when it first came out. Nowadays this little gem sounds carefully proportioned, delicately colored, fleetingly melodic and downright beguiling. Handled with meticulous precision and a lot of love by the orchestra, The Seasons opened the concert on a bold and fascinating note.
Dimitri Shostakovich's cello concerto is a truly mesmerizing work, and on Friday night Gautier Capuçon confidently confirmed his well-known command of it. Without any fuss, the cello got busy right away with the main theme and plenty of dark humor for the Allegretto, before the Moderato and its stunningly beautiful long lines took over. Still in a pensive mood, the mighty Cadenza served as a thrilling transition to the last movement and its mercilessly manic race to a breathless ending.
Stepping into the shoes of Mstislav Rostropovitch, for whom the concerto was written, is mission impossible, and Capuçon smartly does not even try. He does not have to anyway. His thoroughly informed appreciation of the work allowed him to make the concerto his own and to deliver an impeccably elegant, assuredly virtuosic and deeply sensitive performance, which was rightfully rewarded by an fervent ovation.
In fact, the ovation was so fervent that it was itself rewarded by a delightful rendition of "March of the Small Soldiers" by Prokofiev, which readily closed the Russian portion of our evening.
After intermission, Bela Bartok's Concerto for Orchestra, which he composed when he was impoverished, depressed and already ill with the leukemia that would eventually kill him, took center stage, vividly going from brooding somberness all the way to sunny cheerfulness. The orchestra performed it with their customary savoir-faire, brilliantly highlighting the piece's many moods and colors, maestro Thomas constantly making sure that the various sections retained their individuality while still playing harmoniously together.
When this was over, the tireless conductor and orchestra treated the ecstatic audience to a heartfelt gift: “The Alcotts” movement from Ives’ Concord Sonata as orchestrated by Henry Brant. And just like that, we were back in America.

Saturday, April 8, 2017

Cantori New York - Gibbons, Farrant & Victory - 04/05/17

Artistic Director & Conductor: Mark Shapiro 
Gibbons: O Lord, In Thy Wrath 
Farrant: Hide Not Thou Thy Face 
Gibbons: O Clap Your Hands Together 
Victory: Seven Songs of Experience 
The Sunflower 
The Fly 
The Tyger 

 Nobody has ever had to twist my arm for me to take a day off in the middle of the week – or at any other time, for that matter – especially when the day includes a sadly short but predictably uplifting musical treat for lunch, and just within (extended) walking distance from my apartment at that.
Therefore, after attending La Campana sommersa with the New York City Opera down Broadway in the Rose Theater at Columbus Circle last Tuesday night, I found myself up Broadway in an acoustically blessed room of the massive Interchurch Center in Morningside Heights last Wednesday afternoon. That's where a slightly reduced but still resolutely blazing Cantori New York led by Mark Shapiro was scheduled to perform a few works from their last concert's program as part of the facility's Wednesday Noonday Concerts series. 

Back to where the original concert started, The three Tudor motets by Orlando Gibbons and Richard Farrant came vibrantly alive in all their polyphonic glory while exploring the universal dualism of darkness and light. Religionism oblige, the texts of Gibbons' "O Lord, In Thy Wrath" and Farrant's "Hide Not Thou Thy Face" were essentially stern and moralistic, but Gibbons' "O Clap Your Hands Together" eventually allowed the singers and the rest of us to let loose and indulge in a bit of irrational exuberance. 
From England we then moved to Ireland for a persuasive taste of Gerard Victory's Seven Songs of Experience. The entire piece being unfortunately too long to fit into the allowed time, we still got to enjoy three songs that had been democratically selected – which means, just to be clear, selected by popular vote – by the choir. Turns out that those chosen few were also arguably the most popular ones during the Saturday night performance I attended a couple of weeks, although the unquestionable biggest hit of that evening, the dauntingly challenging for the choir and irresistibly catchy for the audience "Human Abstract", was alas left out.
But the samples offered on Wednesday afternoon were more than satisfying, "The Sunflower" beautifully blossomed in many vivid colors again in a rousing celebration of the sun and youth. Changing our focus from plants to animals, we witnessed the relentless existential musings of "The Fly", which proved once and for all that some insects have feelings too, before boldly venturing into the jungle for the popular "Tyger Tyger", the most substantial and energetic song of the day, which eloquently emphasized the wonder and fear inspired by such a majestic and ferocious creature in a fiercely enjoyable closing number.

New York City Upera - La campana sommersa - 04/04/17

Composer: Ottorino Respighi 
Conductor: Ira Levin 
Director: Pier Francesco Maestrini 
Brandie Sutton: Rauthendelein 
Marc Heller: Enrico 
Michael Chioldi:L'Ondino 
Glenn Seven Allen: The Faun 
Kristin Cokorinos: Magda 

 The New York City Opera’s long and much lauded tradition of offering mostly little known operas performed by up-and-coming singers was an absolute godsend for opera buffs who needed more excitement than the often fancy but even more often predictable productions at the Met. So a lot of us are extremely pleased that, after a somewhat short but still too long hiatus, the NYCO is back and still presenting obscure but deserving works, including La campana sommersa of Ottorino Respighi, a composer more rightfully famous for his remarkably evocative tone poems.
I had purposely bought my ticket to hear much established Italian tenor Fabio Armaliato, whom I had found memorable as Caravadossi back in Vienna several years ago. Unfortunately, the man had the nerve to take ill for the two performances he was supposed to be in – Sinuses can truly be a terrible thing to have for a singer – but fortunately Marc Heller, the other tenor singing Enrico’s part during the four-performance run, was well, ready, available and willing to fill in. Therefore, it is with still plenty of confidence that we all sat down on Tuesday night in Time Warner Center’s wonderful Rose Theater.

Inspired by the German poetic play Die versunkene Glocke, the narrative of La campana sommersa revolves around a married-with-children church bell-maker who is rescued from dying by a water sprite, follows her into the woods, and lives to regret it. The moral of the story can be summed up as "Do not fall for the irresistible fairy, even if she provides free and amazingly effective healthcare". It sounded all a bit far-fetched, and of course the uneasy encounter between fairies and humans cannot fail to remind regular concert-goers of Rusalka, but most operas are about suspension of disbelief anyway, so we suspended it.
As the main character Rautendelein, soprano Brandie Sutton had the daunting challenge of impersonating an insouciant elf who doubles as a de facto femme fatale, and she brilliantly pulled it off with a powerful and ravishing voice that made even the most over-extended arias – and there were quite a few of those – simply fly by. This mighty asset of hers easily soared over the orchestra and just as easily put Enrico in her pocket in no time (although with a little help from her magic broth). Add to that a real stage presence, convincing acting chops and seemingly boundless energy, and you have a genuine star in the making.
Tenor Marc Heller's Enrico may not have been the sharpest knife in the drawer on that stage, but he was still a good guy at heart, well-meaning but understandably blinded by Rautendelein's overwhelming power of attraction. And once the honeymoon was over, things went dreadfully downhill for the poor guy. Heller's singing was unfailingly articulate and resounding; moreover, he was also able to expertly tone it down and project just the right amount of softness when needed.
One of the forest’s most beguiling creatures, the king of the frogs L'Ondino had the lustrous voice of baritone Michael Chioldi and never missed an opportunity to announce his presence loud and clear with his signature "brekekekex".
Still in the magic kingdom, tenor Glenn Seven Allen was a visually dazzling faun, complete with goat horns, a green upper body, red furry legs and fancy cloven hooves. Oh, and he could sing too, and very well at that.
Back in the real world, soprano Kristin Cokorinos also made a very strong impression in the relatively small part of Magda, Enrico’s wife, with richly nuanced singing and a key role in the unfolding drama.
The attractive production was divided between a fantasy world, which was bursting with bright colors and rather eye-popping outfits, and the real world, which was matter-of-factly, but nicely represented by a large rustic house, including the de rigueur burning fireplace, a traditional family, and a bunch of additional kids running around. Those conventional sets were not very inventive, but totally appropriate and well designed.
Some videos were put to excellent use when creating a beautifully lit, endlessly mysterious forest, but others much less so when showing the bell sinking in the lake (redundant), the mother drowning (gratuitous), and Enrico's two over-sized children bringing him a chalice filled with their mother's tears (trying too hard at being innovative). Not to mention that the screen on which some of those videos were projected remained in front of the stage for the entire duration of Acts 3 and 4, which created a Bretchian distance that was probably not intended and was definitely not welcome.
If Pier Francesco Maestrini did not hold back on splashy colors when staging the opera, maestro Levin certainly did not hold back on splashy colors when conducting the orchestra either. All together, the musicians from the Theatro Lirico di Cagliari Orchestra and from the City Opera Orchestra were more than capable of delivering a consummate performance, and they did brilliantly succeed in making the lushly lyrical score sing to high heaven.
The bottom line is that, while too substantial to be a mere trifle, La campana sommersa is not accomplished enough to become a classic. But the experience was still much enjoyed. A young woman a few seats away from me confided to her friend during intermission that she was finding it “weird, but loving it”, and an older woman ahead of me as we were leaving was wondering aloud why the Met does not “do operas like that”. So we shall call it a success.

Wednesday, April 5, 2017

Paul Lewis - Bach, Beethoven, Chopin & Weber - 04/05/17

Bach: Partita No. 1 in B-flat Major, BWV 825 
Beethoven: Sonata No. 4 in E-flat Major, Op. 7 
Chopin: Waltz in A Minor, Op. 34, No. 2 
Chopin: Waltz in F Minor, Op. 70, No. 2 
Chopin: Waltz in D-flat Major, Op. 64, No. 1 (Minute Waltz) 
Weber: Sonata No. 2 in A-flat Major, Op. 39 

 Last week was a good one for piano lovers in the Big Apple. After Mitsuko Uchida at Carnegie Hall on Thursday evening, Paul Lewis, who may very well be the most exciting export from Liverpool since the Beatles, was giving his one and only New York recital at the historic Town Hall on Sunday afternoon courtesy of the Peoples’ Symphony Concerts.
As an additional incentive, the program would feature some works that are not heard frequently, such as Beethoven’s Sonata No. 4 and Weber’s Sonata No. 2, alongside more familiar pieces such as Bach’s Partita No. 1 and a couple of waltzes by Chopin, which all together were more than reason enough to sacrifice a couple of hours of gorgeous spring weather without any remorse or regrets, hike all the way to midtown, and enjoy the music.

It is hard to go wrong with Bach when you have the right musician, and Lewis proved to be just that on Sunday afternoon as he navigated the six expertly crafted movements of the Partita No. 1 with genuine ease and a slight touch of Romanticism, from the sunny liveliness of the Allemande to the breathless bounciness of the Gigue. That said, my personal highlight was the sublime Sarabande, whose intricate textures and undisturbed serenity beautifully stood out among the other more vivacious movements.
We next moved on to more muscular sounds with Beethoven’s early Sonata No. 4, which has remained his second longest one, right after the Himalayan Hammerklavier. Although the music was still fairly traditional, especially for the ground-breaker he was about to become, the work’s unusual scope was announced right at the beginning with an intensely tumultuous first movement, which gave even Lewis a pause after it was over, before he proceeded the poetic Largo, the light-hearted Allegro and the animated Rondo. The general consensus could probably be summed up by the woman behind me who called it “a hell of a piece”.
After intermission, we got to indulge in a little bit of Chopin with three lovely waltzes of his, including the popular “Minute Waltz”, which made a lot of audience members spontaneously swoon with happiness. Ever the imperturbable Englishman, Lewis handled those reliable crowd-pleasers with confidence and brio.
The least-known composer on the program – although in all fairness he was facing pretty stiff competition – was Carl Maria von Weber, and he definitely acquired quite a few new fans on Sunday with his all-around appealing Sonata No. 2. Overflowing with attractive melodies, vivid colors and passionate emotions, the unabashedly Romantic piece insistently tugged at our heart-strings while making excellent use of Lewis’s virtuosic skills all the way to the understated ending. That was the wild card of the afternoon for many of us, and we were certainly glad we stuck around for it.

 The encore, which we earned through a long and loud ovation, was a delightful little parting gift by Schubert, which he delivered with his signature care and delicacy. And then we were all off in the gorgeous spring afternoon again.

Monday, April 3, 2017

St. Louis Symphony - The Gospel According to the Other Mary- 03/31/17

David Robertson: Conductor 
Adams: The Gospel According to the Other Mary 
Kelley O'Connor: Mezzo-soprano (Mary Magdalene) 
Michaela Martens: Mezzo-soprano (Martha) 
Jay Hunter Morris: Tenor (Lazarus) 
Daniel Bubeck: Counter-tenor 
Brian Cummings: Counter-tenor 
Nathan Medley: Counter-tenor 
St. Louis Symphony Chorus

'Tis Passion season again, and nowhere is it more obvious than in New York City where musical settings of the Gospel stories, with Bach's popular St. John Passion and St. Matthew Passion way ahead of other lesser versions, are springing out all over town. I tend to skip oratorios because they are a taste I have definitely not acquired, but this year brought along an irresistible offer that I simply could not turn down.
After the New York Philharmonic celebrated John Adams' 70th birthday last month with delightful performances of  his Absolute Jest and Harmonielehre, Carnegie Hall pulled out all the stops and scheduled his Gospel According to the Other Mary, a modern oratorio  from 2012 whose libretto was put together by Adams' long-time music partner Peter Sellars and combines traditional biblical content with texts by Hildegarde von Bingen, Primo Levi, Dorothy Day, Louise Erdrich and Rosario Castellanos, resulting in an uncommon smorgasbord of religion, spirituality and social activism. 'Nuff said.
Therefore, on Friday evening I left work a few minutes early and went back to Carnegie Hall's Stern Auditorium in a cold, windy and rainy weather that was making the anticipated adventure inside even more compelling.

The 30-minute pre-concert talk with composer John Adams, St. Louis Symphony Director David Robertson and Carnegie Hall Director of Artistic Planning Jeremy Geffen was short, casual and informative, but at the end of the day, Adams' quirkiness and Robertson's eloquence only made us more eager to experience the real thing, which we excitedly did.
And The Gospel According to the Other Mary turned out to be an indisputably ambitious, sprawling and fascinating work of love, which was also from time to time overreaching in its scope, inconsistent in its execution and over-extended in its length. There was apparently so much material and enthusiasm involved in the making of it that the final result ended up being as mesmerizing as overwhelming.
It for sure contains plenty of awesome music, resolutely wide-ranging and frequently inspired, and awesome ideas, like linking the past to the present. And Friday night we had a remarkable group of staunchly dedicated talents onstage that made it all happen. The huge orchestra included some unusual instruments such as the cimbalom, which infused a ubiquitous touch of exoticism, and a bass guitar, which was mostly notable for its inconspicuousness. Under the baton of their long-time director and conductor David Robertson, the musicians played confidently and whole-heartedly.
Ironically enough for a composition revolving around women, some of the most memorable moments of the evening belonged to Lazarus. Of course, his being represented by charismatic tenor Jay Hunter Morris in rare form did not hurt one bit. His first appearance had an unstoppable life-affirming swagger that could only from a man who, well, had just risen from the dead, and his soulful, not to mention gorgeous, crooning of Primo Levi's poem "Passover" was a genuine wonder of understatement and effectiveness.
But the ladies fared very well too, the main issue being that their voices were too often drowned by the rambunctious orchestra. As a high-strung Mary Magdalene, Kelley O'Connor had the dubious honor of opening the performance with an explosive aria describing her incarceration with a drug addict suffering from withdrawal symptoms. While the orchestra was boisterously conveying the brutality of the situation, the mezzo-soprano’s voice tended to disappear, never mind its sharp assertiveness.
With her richly nuanced voice and poised attitude, Michaela Martens was the more grounded Martha. Since she was generally found in quieter episodes, she had no trouble being heard, whether she matter-of-factly described her grueling work at the women' shelter or reproachfully upbraided Jesus for deliberately letting her brother die.
The three counter-tenors, who cleverly contributed to the transitions in various combinations, gave the performance necessary moments of undisturbed regrouping while their voices' unusual timbre provided a bit of an otherworldly atmosphere in between nerve-wracking scenes.
Anybody who bothered checking out Adams' The Death of Klinghoffer despite the unsubstantiated controversy surrounding it quickly realized that 1) the opera was not anti-Semitic and 2) the choral arias were phenomenal. And one of the biggest strengths of The Gospel According to the Other Mary is also its dazzling choral arias, which were magnificently performed by the St. Louis Symphony Chorus. From formidable to unfussy, they made the most of the work's impressive harmonic palette.
The journey, which lasted over two hours, was long and at times arduous, but also enlightening and eventually rewarding. The audience that made it through gave a fervent standing ovation, and then it was back in the even colder, windier and rainier night.

Saturday, April 1, 2017

Mitsuko Uchida - Mozart, Schumann & Widmann - 03/30/17

Mozart: Piano Sonata in C Major, K. 545 
Schumann: Kreisleriana 
Widmann: Sonatina facile 
Schumann: Fantasie in C Major 

The grand dame of the piano is back for her annual visit to Carnegie Hall and music-loving New Yorkers are flocking en masse. Although I have always found the Stern Auditorium, for all its beauty and prestige, too large a space for intimate recitals, I am more than willing to happily suck it up for the privilege and pleasure of hearing Mitsuko Uchida unperturbedly work her magic in front of her customary collectively mesmerized audience.
In cases of long-time established artists like Ms. Uchida, the program is almost secondary, but I was still particularly thrilled to see that she would be playing Schumann’s splendid love letter that is his Fantasie in C Major, admittedly one of the most memorable compositions ever written for the piano. It would be preceded by his dynamic Kreisleriana, Mozart’s graceful Piano Sonata in C Major, and a mysterious New York premiere for a carefully balanced evening.

The concert started in the most understated and captivating way with Mozart’s Piano Sonata in C Major, a relatively short and deceptively simple work that nevertheless rarely fails to leave a lasting impression, especially when it is played with the elegance and clarity that Ms. Uchida put into it on Thursday night. Light and compelling, it was a wonderful tribute to the Viennese master.
After Mozart’s delightful classicism, mischievous Florestan and introverted Eusebius made their conspicuous entrances in Schumann‘s Kreisleriana and animated the eight self-contained vignettes with verve and determination. Ms. Uchida proved one more time her deep affinity to Schumann’s music by expertly highlighting the detailed contrasts between the two colorful characters.
The mystery du jour was Jörg Widmann’s Sonatina facile, which actually was not so easy, but plenty fun. Inspired by our evening’s opening number, this 10-minute piece kept some of Mozart’s classical elegance while offering some decidedly modern deviations from it. The result was an intriguing and engaging exercise, the ovation greeting the composer only confirming that it had been a worthy enterprise.
Last, but for sure not least, we finally got to voluptuously indulge in his Schumann‘s breathtaking Fantasie in C Major. When the Fantasie first came out, Franz Liszt was allegedly one of the very few pianists able to handle its daunting technical challenges, therefore rightfully earning the work’s dedication to him, but Ms. Uchida did not seem to have any trouble on Thursday night either, and treated her impressively diverse and clearly adoring audience to a magnificent performance of it.
She wholly dived into it as soon as she sat at the piano, beautifully conveying the composer’s passionate feelings toward his beloved and far away Clara in the lushly expansive first movement. The second movement, during which Clara famously could hear “an entire orchestra”, had an unabashed sense of drama and heroism that expanded way beyond what could be expected from a single piano. The last movement unfolded delicately poetic and yet unmistakably intense, as if Schumann still did not how to deal with all those powerful emotions. He did get the girl though, and truth be told, what girl would not give in to that?

And since we made it heard that we were not ready to leave yet, Ms. Uchida added another treat to an evening that already contained quite a few with Mozart's Andante cantabile from Piano Sonata in C Major, which you brought us right back to Square 1.