Wednesday, May 31, 2017

Cantori New York - Holst & Ho - 05/21/17

Artistic Director & Conductor: Mark Shapiro 
Gustav Holst: Six Choral Folk Songs 
Kimberly DiNicola: Soloist 
Alice Ping Yee Ho: The Depth of this Quiet 
Hen Herman: Viola 
Yukie Honda: Violin 
Karla Moe: Flute 
Juja Shen: Pipa 
James Waldo: Cello 
Junling Wang: Guzheng 

When, right before their performance last March, Cantori New York's artistic director and conductor Mark Shapiro announced from the stage that the choir would be singing in Chinese for the first time ever during their May concert, it was clear from the singers' faces that this tidbit of information was news to them too. On the other hand, anybody even just remotely familiar with Cantori is well aware that the one thing that can be reliably expected from them is the unexpected, so there was no reason for the singers not to take this new development in stride and rise up to the challenge.
Consequently, after a mini-marathon of three widely different and equally terrific music performances in a row, spanning from a classic Baroque set by Johann Sebastian Bach to a wild contemporary ride by Esa-Pekka Salonen, I was thrilled to be able to reach the finish line  as well as my unavoidable and not entirely welcome milestone birthday  slightly breathless but totally psyched in the virtuosic company of Cantori on Sunday afternoon, even if that meant attending the world deuxième instead of the world première of Alice Ho's The Depth of this Quiet.
Since there is never a dull moment with the MTA either, the local train was running express and the express train was running local, making the trip down to the Village more unpredictable than I cared for. But it all paid off when I found myself back in the lovely Church of Saint Luke in the Fields with various friends and acquaintances on a gloriously warm and sunny spring afternoon for Cantori's last, but by no means least, concert of their season.

Before the highly anticipated new adventure, the program included a traditional set of songs by Gustav Holst, an English composer best-known for his instrumental one hit wonder The Planets. However, beside a keen interest in astrology, the man was apparently into investigating the many possibilities of the human voice too, and one of the results of this laudable endeavor is his lively "Six Choral Folk Songs".
From the charmingly flowery "I sow'd the seeds of love" to the spirited drinking song "Swansea town", "There was a tree" delighted with its fluttering birds, "Matthew, Mark and Luke and John" reminded us we were in a church, "The song of the blacksmith" brought some highly rhythmical comic relief, and "I love my love" leisurely unfolded with sentimentality galore. Whether lightweight or more serious, with always just the right amount of earthiness, they went down quick and easy.
After intermission, the time had come to boldly travel across cultures, space and time with Canadian composer Alice Ho's The Depth of this Quiet, a 45-minute cantata based on poetry in English by contemporary Canadian writer Carole Glasser Langille interspersed with poetry in Mandarin by Alice Ho and 8th century writer Li Bait. This unusual mix would be performed by the choir and a substantial instrumental ensemble comprised of Western flute, violin, viola and cello as well as Eastern pipa and guzheng, two Chinese plucked string instruments.
From the very first moment, the general impression was one of unaffected beauty as even in the most sorrowful moments, the two drastically different languages organically flowed into each other while the instruments’ distinctive sonorities blended just as effortlessly, creating a unique combination of sounds that was instantly engaging and universal. Nothing flashy ever occurred, and yet this wide-ranging exploration of stark Canadian landscapes and complex human emotions was absorbing and memorable.
I would be hard-pressed to assess the singers’ Chinese pronunciation, but I can tell that they skillfully brought out the exquisite lyricism of the English poetry, including numerous naturalistic details such as apple frozen on trees, the moon thin as ice and blue shadows floating in the snow. Once in a while, things got suggestive when two women decided to hang around a bed covered with black satin in "Black", vivacious when trying to deal with a crazy map in "Directions", inquisitive when questions were repeatedly asked in "Noise", or compellingly pulse-driven in "This Naked Morning".
The Chinese famously say that “The journey is the reward” and this one was certainly a mesmerizing experience that, with no big sounds or loud statements, but plenty of genuine cooperation and gorgeous harmonies, subtly and assuredly asserted itself. That is one lesson that the rest of the world should definitely heed these days.

Sunday, May 28, 2017

New York Philharmonic - Brahms, Thorvaldsdottir & Salonen - 05/20/17

Conductor: Alan Gilbert 
Johannes Brahms: Concerto in D Major for Violin and Orchestra, Op. 77 
Leonidas Kavakos: Violin 
Anna Thorvaldsdottir: Aeriality 
Esa-Pekka Salonen: Wing on Wing 
Anu Komsi: Soprano 
Piia Komsi: Soprano 
Ella Wahlstrom: Sound Design 

For the past several years, I had planned to spend my next milestone birthday, Sunday, May 21, 2017, at the Philharmonie de Paris, or potentially in another music venue of the City of Lights if the program in my first choice had not been to my liking. Because I simply could not imagine a better excuse to find out what all the fuss about the new musical institution was about while spending quality time in the city as well. It was a no-brainer.
However, about one year before B-Day I received the New York Philharmonic's 2016-2017 season calendar and immediately noticed that on my birthday week my home orchestra had put together a pretty unbeatable line-up that included Leonidas Kavakos playing the Brahms concerto (A double hitter than could not possibly go wrong), a new piece by an emerging composer (New voices are always welcome), and the New York premiere of a piece by Esa-Pekka Salonen (Always a pleasure).
So I soon concluded that there was no point crossing the Atlantic Ocean to go hear the Philharmonie's program for that weekend, which was not even close to being as appealing as the triple treat waiting for me down the street. And I figured that the venue and the city would still be there whenever I am finally ready. So I happily stayed and excitedly walked down Broadway to the unquestionably less cool but definitely more convenient David Geffen Hall on Saturday night.

The programming was actually a bit of a bold move as the most popular work of the evening would be performed before intermission, giving the less adventurous members of the audience an opportunity to leave before things became less familiar, but under's Alan Gilbert's firm leadership, the NY Phil has learned to live dangerously anyway. For the last program of his artist-in-residence stint, Leonidas Kavakos could not have picked a more beloved staple than Brahms' violin concerto, which pretty much guaranteed that he would wrap up his purposefully eclectic and immensely enjoyable one-year residency with plenty of virtuosic fireworks.
Although he is not the flashy type, his interpretation had gripping moments of lush lyricism in the expansive first movement and terrific pyrotechnics during the no-holds-barred gypsy-inspired last movement. Joseph Joachim's tricky cadenza was keenly played, and the meditative Adagio was a truly exquisite interlude, oboe solo included. In the end, Kavakos' characteristically understated approach to the dauntingly dense and magnificently intricate work did marvels at emphasizing its intense Romanticism, not to mention its enduring appeal.
The audience predictably went wild, but alas no encore was bestowed upon us – I guess he did not get the memo that this was a uniquely special performance for me – so we eventually had to let him go.
Having attended the entire concert, I can rightfully confirm that all the people who did not return after intermission should be eating crow by now as the next two pieces were totally worth staying for. Deceptively short and inconspicuous, Aeriality by young Icelandic composer Anna Thorvaldsdottir ended up making a memorable statement. A continuous 13-minute evocation of mysterious Nordic landscapes, the music was generally so subtle that it was challenging to know if anything was actually going on until barely perceptible details started springing out such as sparks, bubbles and clanks. It did not take long to realize that there was in fact always something going on, and that the whole adventure was quite mesmerizing.
While I believe I am fairly open-minded when it comes to contemporary music, I have to admit that I tend to resent the incorporation of electronics in instrumental music simply because their appearance usually feels forced and unnecessary, like an easy shortcut to get credits for innovation and edginess. The one exception I can think of is unsurprisingly Esa-Pekka Salonen who, to my knowledge, is the only composer able and willing to deal with non-traditional musical elements not only efficiently, but imaginatively as well.
Therefore, I was very much looking forward to hearing his Wing on Wing, a work that was inspired by the imposing tribute to water, wind and sails that is Frank Gehry's Walt Disney Concert Hall in downtown Los Angeles and that premiered at its opening. Truth be told, I was also very intrigued by how the recordings of the plainfin midshipman's singing, whose mating call does bring to mind a bunch of buzzing bees and, somewhat more logically, Frank Gehry's (sampled and distorted) voice would fit into the whole thing.
And sure enough, the musical creation turned out to be as boldly conceived, deftly executed and immediately awe-inspiring as the architectural creation, which is admittedly no small feat. Unabashedly ambitious in its composition and staging – the extravagantly colorful score was epic in its weirdness and brilliance, the huge orchestra included a wide range of unusual instruments, the fish and Frank Gehry eerily reverberated around the space, the two coloratura soprano sisters extraordinarily vocalized from various spots in the hall – Wing on Wing sailed on smoothly and confidently.
That was certainly the most glorious send-off I could hoped for before reluctantly and irreversibly stepping into "the other side".

Saturday, May 27, 2017

Trinity Church Wall Street - All-Glass - 05/19/17

Conductor: Julian Wachner 
Glass: Symphony No. 5 (Requiem, Bardo, Nirmanakaya) 
The Choir of Trinity Wall Street 
Downtown Voices 
Trinity Youth Chorus 
NOVUS NY 
Heather Buck: Soprano 
 David Cushing: Bass 
Katherine Pracht: Mezzo-Soprano 
 Vale Rideout: Tenor 
 Stephen Salters: Baritone 

 One day after the intimate Bach recital by Wha Chung in Carnegie Hall’s vast Stern Auditorium on Thursday night, I was becoming mentally prepared for a much larger musical ensemble in a much smaller space for Philip Glass’ Symphony No. 5, which would be performed by The Choir of Trinity Wall Street, Downtown Voices, Trinity Youth Chorus, the NOVUS NY orchestra and five soloists in the historic Trinity Church Wall Street, which also happens to be conveniently located less than a block away from my office. That, at least, would mean no agonizingly suspenseful train ride followed by a breathless last-minute dash.
Originally composed to celebrate the new millennium at the Salzburg Festival, Philip Glass’ sprawling Symphony No. 5, also known kind of cryptically as Requiem, Bardo, Nirmanakaya, can tentatively be described as a musical smorgasbord whose spiritual influences are the Bible, the Tibetan Book of the Dead, the Koran, Hindu scriptures, and West African traditions, all expertly put together by the Very Reverend James Parks Morton of the Interfaith Center of New York and Professor Kusumita P. Pedersen of St. Francis College.
This last program of the Trinity Church’s eventful season was obviously a big deal as the beautiful venue was packed by eager audience members half an hour before starting time, and the stage did not have not much breathing room left once all the performers had taken their places. And then we were off.

Philip Glass’ Symphony No. 5 is remarkable for, among other things, the multi-cultural richness of its philosophical and religious content and the resolutely modern, refreshingly unfussy, constantly driven musical score (Once a minimalist, always a minimalist). Although the vast array of sacred texts was originally written in all kinds of exotic languages such as Greek, Hebrew, Sanskrit, Arabic, Chinese, Japanese and other indigenous idioms, they had all been translated into English to be more accessible and unequivocally establish the astonishing abundance of their common themes.
Ambitiously covering the history of the cosmos and humanity in 12 movements over roughly 100 uninterrupted minutes, Requiem, Bardo, Nirmanakaya is a genuinely exhilarating marathon, and the artists performing it on Friday night formed an impressively tight and committed ensemble. After having experienced the hopeful, angelic voices of the creation, love and joy, and then the dark forces of evil, ignorance and suffering, we faced explosive judgment and apocalypse before death took over. Next we reached the “in between” (Bardo) before moving on to the enlightened rebirth (Nirmanakaya).
The orchestra basically did not stop, except for short breaks between a couple of movements, and NOVUS NY unquestionably proved that their physical stamina is as outstanding as their musical skills. Since the music was intrinsically minimalist, it fell on the voices to make the various episodes individually stand out while still preserving the shockingly natural way they flowed into one another.
Consequently, the three choruses kept busy weaving beautifully contrasting textures, from haunting to threatening to heavenly, always mindful of the formal background. The five soloists filled their parts really well too, alone or in combination, allowing for more intimate moments to sporadically come up and add a true human dimension to the proceedings. Some of them were earth-shattering, like bass David Cushing thunderously inquiring “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” in “Suffering”, others were light-filled like soprano Heather Buck luminously describing “Paradise”.
There were many different moving parts to the complex whole, and on Friday night Trinity Church Wall Street director and music and conductor Julian Wachner was probably the hardest working man in show business, constantly keeping musicians, choristers and soloists in check and making sure that the performance went off smoothly and vibrantly. And it miraculously did.
At the end of the musically, philosophically and emotionally rewarding journey, what stuck with me were a few words by 8th century Buddhist monk, philosopher and poet Santideva, which appeared toward the end of the pivotal “Death” movement and certainly put life as we know it in perspective:
My foes will become nothing. 
 My friends will become nothing. 
 I too will become nothing. 
 Likewise all will become nothing. 
So there.

Sunday, May 21, 2017

Kyung Wha Chung - All-Bach - 05/18/17

Bach: Sonata No. 1 in G Minor, BWV 1001 for Solo Violin
Bach: Partita No. 1 in B Minor, BWV 1002 for Solo Violin
Bach: Sonata No. 2 in A Minor, BWV 1003 for Solo Violin
Bach: Partita No. 2 in D Minor, BWV 1004 for Solo Violin
Bach: Sonata No. 3 in C Major, BWV 1005 for Solo Violin
Bach: Partita No. 3 in E Major, BWV 1006 for Solo Violin

 There are a few world-class musicians that, despite my best efforts, I have never managed to hear perform live. Russian violinist Maxim Vengerov had been one of them until last month at Aix-en-Provence’s Festival de Pâques (Yes, I will travel to break the curse), Argentine pianist Martha Argerich will probably remain one of them until next season at Carnegie Hall (I am keeping fingers and toes solidly crossed), and Korean violinist Kyung Wha Chung finally got off the list last Thursday night at Carnegie Hall, where she not so incidentally had won the Leventritt Competition exactly 50 year earlier.
Moreover, maybe to make sure that this significant anniversary would go straight down to history, the former child prodigy turned living legend had decided to go ahead and tackle no smaller feat than Johann Sebastian Bach’s Six Sonatas and Partitas for Solo Violin. Widely considered the pinnacle of the violin repertoire, those six pieces are a daunting challenge for the soloist and a priceless treat for the audience.
However, it turns out that sometimes you gotta earn your treat, which I found out the hard way on Thursday when, after a particularly hectic day at work, I had a particularly hectic trip uptown that included an endless wait on an R train (No big surprise there), a desperate search for an available cab, a wild ride in the cab I eventually found (I had foolishly neglected to ask the driver to get me there on time AND alive), and a final mad dash on 57th Street to Carnegie Hall, where I finally arrived, with an empty stomach and a full bladder, four full minutes before the start of the concert. But one has to be grateful for the small things, n'est-ce-pas?

You'd think that someone who has made her professional debut when she was 9 years old with the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto and has been forced into retirement from performing over 10 years ago due to a finger injury may be tempted to rest on her laurels and eat bonbons all day, but Kyung Wha Chung is clearly not that type of musician. Cutting an endearingly petite figure on the vast stage, she soldiered on for three hours and bravely delivered, sometimes with a few technical hiccups on the way, but always with unwavering commitment, some of the most stunning music out there.
By turns happily smiling at the rock star ovations greeting her every time she appeared, openly feisty when she playfully yet authoritatively shushed the enthusiastic clapping that erupted after her rapid-fire Corrente during the B-Minor Partita, and instinctively grimacing at her fleeting mistakes, she genuinely played from the heart and effortlessly had every audience member root for her.
There were many special moments, including – unsurprisingly – the five movements from the mighty D-Minor Partita, which were performed with plenty of emotional involvement and confident virtuosity all the way to her take-no-prisoners approach to the epic Chaccone. Among others stood out a stirring Sarabande from the B-Minor Partita, a remarkable rendition of the arrestingly long and complex Fugue from the C-Major Sonata, followed by an exquisite Largo, and a delightfully light-on-its-feet Gavotte from the E-Major Partita.
Once the marathon over, she sat down on the stool behind her just as the audience spontaneously rose for a long and heart-felt standing ovation. On Thursday night at Carnegie Hall, Kyung Wha Chung was back and conquered again.

Wednesday, May 10, 2017

The Cecilia Chorus of New York - Jabri & Brahms - 05/06/17

Conductor/Music Director: Mark Shapiro 
Zaid Jabri: A Garden Among the Flames 
Sidney Outlaw: Baritone 
Chelsea Shepard: Soprano 
Every Voice Children’s Choir 
Johannes Brahms: Ein deutsches Requiem, Op. 45 
Sidney Outlaw: Baritone 
Chelsea Shepard: Soprano 

Some days are decidedly busier than others, and last Saturday was definitely a busy one, in the best possible way. After doing my political French thing at the voting booth in the morning and my cultural French thing at the Met in the afternoon, I quickly regrouped and then walked down Broadway again while getting mentally prepared for a universally relevant, time-transcending, multi-lingual thing at Carnegie Hall in the evening.
That’s where I met my friend Steve for Brahms’ Ein deutsches Requiem that would be performed by the highly regarded Cecilia Chorus of New York conducted by their no less highly regarded music director Mark Shapiro. Being both unconditional fans of the magnificent work ─ Although Steve is admittedly way ahead of me in that regard since he has actually sung it more than once ─ this was an opportunity we simply could not miss, busy day notwithstanding. So there we were.

 The evening started with the world premiere of Zaid Jabri's "A Garden Among the Flames", a brand new work commissioned by the Cecilia Chorus to be paired with Brahms' Requiem and its unyielding focus on mankind. Adroitly combining Ibn' Arabï's classic Sufi poem "A Garden Among the Flames" extolling the virtues of tolerance, a contemporary English poem by Yvette Christiansë describing the on-going refugee crisis, and the Beati pacifici from the Latin Bible praising the peacemakers, the thought-provoking composition turned out to be a far-reaching hymn to the human race not only for our troubled times, but for all other times as well.
As a music buff and a language nerd, I could not help but be excited by the imaginative use of those two components. The exotic nature of the Arabic and the solemnity of the Latin ingeniously contrasted with the immediate impact of the English and the lyrical-with-an-edge instrumental music was readily accessible, which resulted in a work that persuasively emphasized the apparent differences and ultimate sameness of all human beings. The Cecilia Chorus and the soloists gave an engaging performance, but the final word had to be the universal message of peace vividly conveyed by the young singers of the Every Voice Children’s Choir. May it be heard and, most importantly, heeded far and wide.
Going back to where "A Garden among the Flames" had picked up, we found ourselves ready to bask in one of the most fundamentally humanist masterpieces in the classical music repertoire, not to mention beloved familiar territory. Uncharacteristically based on the Lutheran Bible and the Apocrypha, partly motivated by the death of Brahms’ close friend Robert Schumann and if his mother, Ein deutsches Requiem progressively moved from choral piece to cantata to a deeply spiritual Requiem meant to console the ones left behind instead of conjuring up highly debatable Christian beliefs regarding a hypothetical after-life.
From the blessing of the bereaved to the blessing of the dead, the Cecilia Chorus sang whole-heartedly and expressively, the orchestra played with total commitment, and baritone Sidney Outlaw fulfilled his part with elegantly burnished dark tones. However, the shining star of this Requiem ended up being soprano Chelsea Shepard who, during her few minutes in the spotlight, delivered a stunningly beautiful rendition of “Ihr habt nun Traurigkeit”. My two favorite parts, the starkly haunting “Denn alles Fleisch, es ist wie Gras” and the ferociously victorious “Der Tod ist verschlungen in den Sieg”, came out intense and powerful. Death surely did not win that round, but some gloriously life-affirming music did.

Monday, May 8, 2017

Met - Cyrano de Bergerac - 05/06/17

Composer: Franco Alfano 
Conductor: Marco Amiliato 
Librettist: Henri Cain 
Producer/Director: Francesca Zambello 
Roberto Alagna: Cyrano de Bergerac 
Jennifer Rowley: Roxanne 
Atalla Ayan: Christian 
Juan Jesus Rodriguez: Count de Guiche 
Roberto de Candia: Ragueneau 
Michael Todd Simpson: Carbon 
David Pittsinger: Le Bret 

 As a typical product of the French education system, and of French culture in general, I grew up perpetually exposed to the art of the written word. Consequently, I spent many years reading many books and attending many plays, and one of my most vivid memories of those times is a production of Edmond Rostand's Cyrano de Bergerac featuring the magnificent Jacques Weber in the title role in Lyon back in the 1980s. Watching one of France's most prominent stage actors virtuosically embody the hero of what has remained my all-time favorite French play made me turn down any subsequent opportunity to see it again. You just don't mess with perfection.
Enter Roberto Alagna and Cyrano de Bergerac (the opera) by Italian composer Franco Alfano, whose main claim to fame is to have reluctantly and not entirely satisfactorily – But then again, nobody should be expected to conquer the impossible – finished up Puccini's Turandot. Alagna championed the obscure opera for a long time and eventually performed it with a little help from his brothers in Montpellier in 2003. On this side of the pond, Placido Domingo championed it and eventually performed it at the Met in 2005.
When I saw it included in the current Met season, I decided to find out what it was all about and got a ticket for one of the only four performances. Therefore, last Saturday, after having enthusiastically fulfilled my French citizen duty early morning, I just as enthusiastically stepped into the Met's filled-to-the-brim Family Circle early afternoon for further bonding with my French heritage.

There are many reasons why Cyrano de Bergerac seems ready-made for an opera treatment: An engaging story, well-defined characters, and a compelling combination of visceral emotions, action-packed sword fights and humorous touches. I suspected that Rostand's exceptionally gorgeous and deliciously witty poetic language would not completely survived and I was right (Why, oh why wasn't the fabulous nose monologue turn into a show-stopping aria?), but there are sacrifices to be accepted when going from one medium to another, so be it.
The hero of the afternoon in more ways than one was popular French tenor Roberto Alagna. Not only has he been instrumental in bringing this undeservedly neglected opera to the stage, but he was also wonderful in a role that fits him like a glove. Fearless duelist, eloquent poet, quick wit and hopeless romantic, Alagna was a memorable Cyrano, the ugly man who sacrificed everything for the woman he loved. Clearly relishing every minute of singing the irresistibly complex role, particularly at ease with the admittedly still attractive French libretto, he sang his heart out with refreshing confidence and ardor.
From swashbuckling swordsman to brilliant man of letters, always displaying impeccable comic timing, this Cyrano never lost his signature panache. He was, however, truly at his best in the heart-breaking balcony scene, during which, passionately in love yet resigned to his fate, he finally got to declare his intense feelings to an unsuspecting Roxanne in the cover of darkness, and then selflessly helped his undeserving rival enjoy the ultimate reward. Lastly, it is a safe bet to assume that his dying in her arms in the opera's final scene did not leave many audience members indifferent.
The object of his affection, his beautiful cousin Roxanne, was winningly sung by young American soprano Jennifer Rowley, who made a remarkable (almost) Met debut for the occasion. Although by default not the most discerning person ever (Must be the blond factor), her Roxanne could nevertheless be a willful and sharp woman at times. Blessed with a voice that effortlessly went from youthful joie de vivre to profound dismay, Rowley had the acting and singing chops necessary to bring it all home, and she repeatedly did.
The object of her affection, unquestionably good-looking but hopelessly inarticulate Christian, was persuasively sung by young Brazilian tenor Atalla Ayan. Being mostly known for not being able to utter a word worth-remembering is a pretty thankless role for a singer, but Ayan took it in stride and was completely convincing as the young cadet who is genuinely in love with Roxanne, but does not have the the slightest communication skill to express it. Singing artlessly and vigorously, not shying away from the comical aspect of his shortcomings, Ayan was an endearing Christian.
Smaller parts were unfailingly well cast too, starting with baritone Juan Jesus Rodriguez, who was an impressively nuanced Count de Guiche, baritone Roberto de Candia, whose pastry chef Ragueneau brought some always welcome comic relief, baritone Michael Todd Simpson was a solid Carbon and bass baritone David Pittsinger a steadfast Le Fret.
As usual, the chorus distinguished themselves by being conspicuously present or easily blending in, depending on the scene. The male singers got a chance, and resolutely grabbed it, to make a powerful impression as mournful down-on-their-luck soldiers facing a near-certain death in Act III.
The production was traditional, but in the best way possible. The various sets were attractive, if not particularly imaginative, and the period costumes were sumptuous and colorful. The carefree existence of the first two acts was highlighted by the generally bright and warm lights while the somber atmosphere of the last two acts was subtly conveyed with muted colors and hazy glow. The Met’s cavernous stage can sometimes be a problem for directors, but Francesca Zambello’s 2005 production filled it very efficiently.
We thankfully got to hear the original French version of the opera, and the music had an alluring natural elegance and a nuanced Debussyan impressionism to it. On the other hand, some hot-blooded italianness could not help but come out too now and then. While the score did not contain any spontaneously hummable tunes, it did have some emotionally charged arias that splendidly, if not always very subtly, emphasize the on-going conflicts. Not an undisputed masterpiece by any means, but still a worthy vehicle for the gripping story.
Back in the pit, Met regular Marco Amiliato kept things going at a good pace while leaving the singers plenty of room to bring their characters to life. The outstanding MET Orchestra has proven many times that they can handle anything, and they did it again on Saturday afternoon, steadily supporting the drama unfolding on the stage with plenty of vivid colors, unwavering attention to details… and, in true Cyrano fashion, unwavering panache.

Friday, May 5, 2017

Music Mondays - Andrew Norman: Hear by Design - 05/01/17

Guillaume Dufay: Nuper rosarum flores 
Trident Ensemble 
Meaghan Burke: Cello 
Ann Lanzilotti: Viola 
Andrew Norman: Farnsworth: Four Portraits of a House 
Trident Ensemble 
Matthew Beaumont: Percussion 
Jessica Jade Han: Flute 
Jennifer Koh: Violin 
Aaron Wunsch: Pian
Johann Sebastian Bach: Two Part Inventions (arr. for strings) 
György Kurtág: Selections from Signs, Games and Messages 
Variation String Trio 
Andrew Norman: Still Life 
Jennifer Koh: Violin 
Andrew Norman: Stop Motion for String Quartet 
Rhythm Method 
Andrew Norman: Companion Guide to Rome 
Variation String Trio 

Since I often bemoan of the lack of contemporary classical music compositions in nowadays' concert programs, I try to make a point of attending performances of new music as often as possible. Therefore, after NOW Ensemble’s fun little gig in Inwood on Sunday afternoon, I found myself thankfully much closer to home and in a familiar space too last Monday night as I was sitting in the Upper West Side’s colorful and intimate Advent Lutheran Church for the Music Mondays’ PWYC monthly concert.
Always the advocate for imaginative programming and living composers, the popular music series had concocted yet another promising concert focusing on the music of Andrew Norman, a California-based composer whose work more often than not has been influenced by his fondness for architecture and design. To make things even more intriguing, the program also included pieces by composers as far apart as Dufay, Bach and Kurtág. And, to top it all off, one of the performing musicians would be the inimitable Jennifer Koh. That was quite a nice reward for having worked on International Workers' Day. 

The performance started with early Renaissance Franco-Flemish composer Guillaume Dufay’s “Nuper rosarum flores”, the oldest work on the evening. It was also the one major opportunity we had to enjoy the Trident Ensemble’s dazzling talents as the four singers’ voices beautifully filled up the small space with a stunning combination of clarity and purity. That's what I call setting the bar amazingly high.
We then jumped about six centuries ahead to Norman’s Farnsworth: Four Portraits of a House, which quickly confirmed that the composer is a hell of an architecture buff indeed. Inspired by the purity of lines of Mies’ famous glass house as well as the ever-changing natural world surrounding it, the piece opened in an ethereal and elegant vein with the Trident Ensemble subtly working up their vocal magic at the center of the stage. Not to be outdone, the instruments all contributed in their own special way: Aaron Wunsch’s plucky piano added some spooky notes, Jennifer Koh’s violin occasionally emerged from the back of the stage, Matthew Beaumont’s percussion came from a side angle and Jessica Jade Han’s flute made itself heard from way up above in the entrance of the church. Inventively playing with space and colors, Farnsworth was downright riveting.
The next set actually consisted in two sets of interwoven miniature compositions by Bach and Kurtág, which Norman had picked essentially for their tiny sizes and rigorous structures. The brilliantly performance by the Variation String Trio made us appreciate even more the common qualities as well as the stark differences among those noteworthy nuggets, each representing a unique self-contained world in itself .
Jennifer Koh was on her own for Norman’s very short, very quiet and subtle, and yet undoubtedly purposeful "Stiff Life".
Then the Rhythm Method quartet took over for a blazing version of Norman’s Stop Motion for String Quartet, which according to the composer, was all about pressure and speed. We quickly realized that he was not kidding as the ensemble delivered an episode of lingering calm before a wild storm burst out and raged on for a bit, and eventually subdued.
The second half of the evening was dedicated to Norman’s 2006 Companion Guide to Rome, which he wrote during the year he spent in Rome and tried to visit every church of the city. Although he unsurprisingly failed, he at least got a stunning composition out of it, one movement per church, for a total of nine movements. From the short and explosively dissonant Teresa to the expansive and eerily spiritual Sabina, the Variation String Trio took us on a vividly expressive tour of Norman’s favorite catholic churches in The Eternal City. And then we were back in a lutheran church in New York City.

Thursday, May 4, 2017

NOW Ensemble - Greenstein, Ludwig-Leone, Burke/Pinkerton, Crowell & Dancigers - 04/30/17

Judd Greenstein: Folk Music 
Ellis Ludwig-Leone: Simple Machine 
Patrick Burke/Emily Pinkerton: Rounder Songs 
Emily Pinkerton: Banjo and vocals 
David Crowell: Waiting in the Rain for Snow 
Mark Dancigers: Cloudbank 

After a mesmerizing performance of Philip Glass’ Madrigal Opera at Williamsburg’s National Sawdust on Saturday evening, I was doing my best to keep my momentum going for the additional not-to-be-missed musical adventures I had planned. I kind of succeeded, and eventually headed uptown on Sunday afternoon, all the way to Inwood’s small and lovely Our Saviour’s Atonement Lutheran Church for one of Carnegie Hall’s invariably exciting, popular and free Neighborhood Concerts.
This one would feature the iconoclastic NOW Ensemble, whose stated raison d’être has been to "bring an indie-rock attitude to contemporary classical music" for the past 10 years. This sounds like a particularly laudable and, maybe even most importantly, fun mission, and it probably also explains the unusual make-up of the group, which includes a piano, a double bass, a flute, a clarinet and an electric guitar. That's what I can walking the talk.

The opening number, Judd Greenstein’s "Folk Music", which was inspired by Tanglewood and the Berkshires area, spontaneously provided an invigorating breath of fresh air that had a subtle Zen quality to it. Bringing to mind a relaxing road trip into the countryside and focusing on the simple, although not simplistic, joys of life, the good-naturedly attractive music kept on flowing organically and peacefully.
Ellis Ludwig-Leone’s "Simple Machine", on the other hand, was not so simple. The piece got going with a lot of fits and starts from all the instruments, making ingenious use of their respective sounds. So there was not a lot to hang on to melodically, but things eventually settled a bit and we were able to happily cruise all the way to a pleasantly low-key ending.
The longest work of the afternoon was Patrick Burke/Emily Pinkerton’s Rounder Songs, which was also having its New York premiere on Sunday afternoon. For the occasion, banjo player and singer Emily Pinkerton joined the NOW Ensemble for five ballads that oozed a distinctive Appalachian flavor, paid tribute to folk legends, and celebrated the successful marriage of traditional folk songs and post-minimalist classical music, positively proving that the two musical forms are not as far apart as they might originally seem.
Still in Nature’s realm, David Crowell’s compelling "Waiting in the Rain for Snow" immediately stood out for its catchy, guitar-driven opening chords, sustained pulse and bright lyricism. The guitar and piano collaborated closely to provide plenty of staying power while the woodwinds freely fluttered around, all of which cleverly evoked a sense of on-going transformation that could neither be figured out not stopped. The audience fully enjoyed the thrilling ride though.
The concert concluded with "Cloudbank" by NOW Ensemble’s guitarist Mark Dancigers. Opening like a playful conversation among five distinctly colorful and downright assertive participants, Cloudbank suddenly took a flamboyant melodic break led by the flute before returning to its animated discussion that ended the concert on a lively note.

Tuesday, May 2, 2017

Philip Glass Festival: Madrigal Opera - 04/29/17

Composer: Philip Glass 
Director: R. B. Schalther
Johnny Gandelsman: Violin 
William Frampton: Viola 
Choral Chameleon 

After the terrific recital for two pianos by Leif Ove Andsnes and Marc-André Hamelin on Friday night at Carnegie Hall, my schedule had me up for another exciting musical endeavor on Saturday night with a rare performance of Philip Glass' Madrigal Opera at National Sawdust. New York City is apparently not done celebrating the composer's 80th birthday and, needless to say, nobody’s complaining. Having a chance to discover a work I am not familiar with by a composer that I admire is always a treat, so I soldiered on and eagerly crossed the East River to Williamsburg.
That of course also meant that I had to reluctantly contend with relentless throngs of self-important hipsters and directions-challenged tourists on a hot Saturday evening in the ultra-trendy neighborhood – A dreadful combination if there ever was one – but luckily the performance was starting at 7 p.m., which implied that I fortunately would at least avoid the rowdy late-night crowds. One has to be grateful for the little things, n'est-ce-pas?

I did not know much about Madrigal Opera when I got my ticket, and all the information I briefly tried to glean beforehand did not help much either. Commissioned for the 1980 Holland Festival, written between Einstein at the Beach and Satyagraha, it is a deceptively pared-down composition for a violin, a viola, six voices, but neither characters nor plot are to be found because the director intrepid enough to rise to the challenge is expected to provide the theatrical portion of the operatic equation. Or not.
As I stepped into the genuinely cool performance venue, I was instructed to sit anywhere but not to move the seats, which had been placed all over the space in a seemingly helter skelter fashion, a music stand waiting for the solo musician smack in the middle of the room. So there seemed to be a method to the apparent randomness. Or not.
At the appointed time, violinist Johnny Gandelsman, and later violist William Frampton, sat down and took on the lonely task of imperturbably playing Glass' starkly minimalist score, which consisted in repeated motifs inexorably unfolding in ever-changing configurations for over half an hour each. More often than not, the soloist was accompanied by various combinations of the singers from Choral Chameleon, who were all inconspicuously sitting among the audience until they started vocalizing the names of the notes being heard. Altogether, instruments and voices pointedly contributed to the creation of a self-contained system that was as impenetrable as fascinating.
The staging by Artist-in-Residence R. B. Schlather was simple but effective. The only source of light in the venue was a live view from the top of the building of the Williamsburg waterfront, located two blocks away, which was projected on the main wall. As daylight was progressively going down outside, darkness was slowly creeping in inside, a phenomenon that was in fact barely perceptible when one was caught up in the music’s spell-binding groove. And the final effect was all the more arresting for it.
It turned out that my slightly medicated and definitely sleep-deprived state was perfect for this kind of intriguingly eerie yet firmly grounded experience, the hypnotic nature of the music easily dragging my weakened mind into Glass’ mysteriously attractive universe. And except maybe for the guy who suddenly ran out during the second half, the rest of the audience sounded totally fulfilled by the whole trip as well, never mind that the performance did not exactly qualify as a bona fide opera. From the elated comments I overheard, I could tell that nobody was likely to ask for their money back.