Saturday, June 17, 2017

Bargemusic - Bach & Mendelssohn - 06/11/17

Bach: Concerto for Two Violins and Orchestra in D Minor, BWV 1043 
Mendelssohn: Octet in E-flat Major, Op. 20 
Manhattan Symphonie 
Mark Peskanov 

As New York City’s official music season is slowly but surely coming to an end, I could not think of a better way to conclude mine than with Felix Mendelssohn’s unabashedly sunny Octet, another one of my favorite classical music pieces, but one that I do not get to hear very often, and certainly not as often as I’d like. The fact that it would be performed by Mark Peskanov and some members of the Manhattan Symphonie orchestra  in the Bargemusic in Dumbo only added to the incentive, and I figured I just had to go.
My schedule got a little bit off track with a productive but hectic Saturday, but things eventually worked out, including a very quick but extremely enjoyable get-together with my friend Amy at the original Jacques Torres location because there’s nothing like a good old hot chocolate when it is a muggy 95 degrees outside.
In summer I always complain about the need to carry a cashmere sweater everywhere I go to protect myself against the AC’s sub-arctic temperatures, so it was with major relief that on Sunday I got to enjoy a short but sizzling concert in not only the intimate space, but also the totally civilized temperature, of the languorously floating music venue. Oh, and there’s always the fantastic view over Lower Manhattan in the background as an added bonus too.

Because Bach is unconditionally appreciated anytime anywhere, the performance started with his Concerto for Two Violins and Orchestra in D Minor, which allowed the eight string players on the stage to instantly jazz up the atmosphere of the full house. Cleverly combining Italian zest and German exactness, the brilliantly crafted work received an informed treatment that bristled with energy and savoir-faire.
Written when Mendelssohn had reached the ripe age of 16, his Octet brilliantly stands out for its mature artistry and youthful joie de vivre, which in his case were obviously not mutually exclusive. The composition is tightly woven and beautifully intricate, unquestionably showing that the precocious teenager had a decidedly uncommon gift for composition. Its highly infectious melodies and overall cheerful mood have also made it an instantly hummable classic that never gets old.
Mark Peskanov and the members of the Manhattan Symphonie orchestra delivered a vivacious and polished performance of it, expertly handling the technical challenges and spontaneously expressing feelings of joyful insouciance. Melodies unfolded, sparks flew, and it all ended up in a breathless race to the finish line. And then that was it. But that one blissful hour was more than enough to lift everybody's spirits with a welcome splash of virtuosic freshness on that hot Sunday afternoon in the barge with Felix.

Tuesday, June 13, 2017

New York City Opera - Angels in America - 06/10/17

Composer: Peter Eotvos 
Conductor: Pacien Mazzagatti 
Librettist: Mari Mezei 
Producer/Director: Sam Helfrich 
Andrew Garland: Prior Walter 
Kristen Chambers: The angel 
Sarah Beckham-Turner: Harper Pitt/Ethel Rothenberg/Angel Antarctica 
Wayne Tiggs: Roy Cohn/Ghost 1/Angel Australia 
Sarah Castle: Hannah Pitt/Rabbi Chemelwitz/Henry/Angel Asiatica 
Matthew Reese: Belize/Mr. lies/Woman/Angel Africani 
Michael Weyandt: Joseph Pitt/Angel Europe/Ghost 2 

 The New York City Opera may have had an eventful life, but since its much celebrated comeback last year, it has been proving time and time again that it is here to stay. After tentatively testing the water last season, the feisty company moved on to a resolutely varied and ambitious program this season, which is ending with the much-anticipated opera version of Tony Kushner’s Angels in America, his by now classic play about the beginning of the AIDS epidemic during the Reagan era, which landed with a loud bang and a Pulitzer Prize on the theater scene in the early 1990s.
Unfazed by the fact that the two-part play is a seven-hour epic involving multiples characters, stories and themes, Hungarian husband and wife team Peter Eotvos and Mari Mezei boldly took on respectively the musical composition and the libretto. The result was a two-and-a-half hour opera that came out in 2004, has been successfully performed in major cities around Europe, and is having its long-overdue New York premiere at the Rose Theater right now. About time.

I had joined the masses and attended the play and watched the HBO film of Angels in America way back when, and my foggy memories served me well on Saturday night as quite a few audience members around me, who were unfamiliar with the story and had not bothered to read the program notes, confirmed that the opera was kind of hard to follow for novices. On the other hand, the sprawling play had been reduced in what may be the only way that was making sense for an opera: Several crucial scenes in which the emotions were raw, the social commentary barely there, the political context non-existent, and the singing pretty awesome.
In the pivotal role of AIDS patient Prior Walter, baritone Andrew Garland proved that he has some remarkable performing chops. His nuanced singing and committed acting were always on cue to convey his feelings, from his love for a boyfriend that will soon abandon him to his incredulity at being proclaimed a prophet by a random angel, of all things. Anguished, skeptical or hopeful, he confidently took us on a journey during which each day could have been his last.
As Louis Ironston, the neurotic Marxist lover that deserted Prior when the latter needed him most, tenor Aaron Blake managed the impressive feat not to appear as just a selfish coward, but as a deeply conflicted young man who simply could not face the admittedly dire situation.
Bass-baritone Wayne Tigges clearly had a ball impersonating stubbornly in denial, bigger-than-life – although not bigger-than-death –Roy Cohn, the notorious MacCarthyist New York lawyer and social celebrity that was as well-known for his boisterous personality and for his highly questionable business practices.
Working for him was Louis’ new lover, Joe Pitt, a well-meaning, deeply religious, closeted Mormon lawyer, who was struggling with many issues on his own, as you can imagine. Baritone Michael Weyandt did a particularly fine job bringing up his internal turmoil.
Joe’s wife, Harper Pitt, was unsurprisingly unhappy in her marriage and was remaining undecided about her next steps, finding temporary escapism in the Valium pills she popped at a rather amazing rate. Her acerbic wit and aching vulnerability were pointedly expressed by soprano Sarah Beckham-Turner, who also stole the show during her two appearances as a delightfully caustic Ethel Rosenberg.
I was never a big fan of the generally over-blown supernatural happenings in the original play, finding the complicated human stories more than mesmerizing enough to captivate and keep anybody's attention, but I must admit that I was extremely grateful for the blazing angel we had on Saturday night in effortlessly charismatic soprano Kirsten Chambers, who consistently displayed a solidly earthy presence and potently vibrant voice.
Overall, all roles were well provided for, and a lot of the singers, especially the less visible ones, such as countertenor Matthew Reese an assertive night nurse Belize and a delightful homeless woman, and mezzo-soprano Sarah Castle, a relentless Mother Pitt and a hilarious Yiddish Rabbi, managed to juggle their small but delightful parts smoothly and efficiently.
The often divided stage had the bare minimum on it, which allowed for props to be brought in and provide more context. There was nothing even remotely imaginative about the directions, although the bright ray of light from the side window that first announced the presence of the angel was simple, well designed and tremendously effective. The freight elevator that effectively brought her in was a bit less so, but it added an unmistakable touch of industrial chic to the humdrum proceedings.
The libretto was a constant mix of singing and speaking, which inevitably stretched the opera into Broadway musical territory, for better or worse. However, the same biting humor that made the original play so memorable was thankfully present in spades and kept on injecting some priceless comic relief into the grim situations. Just because the subject matter was somber did not mean that it could not be lightened up a bit, and on Saturday night there were plenty of spontaneous chuckles heard even during the darkest moments.
For the most part the modern score was ostensibly understated, suitably atmospheric, at times erring on the jazzy side. It made up for what it was missing in drive and intensity with unusual sounds coming from atypical components such as a discreetly plucked electric guitar, occasional low-key digital enhancements and three subtly eerie choristers, which fit in especially well during the hallucinatory and other otherworldly episodes. Bottom line is, if those angels did not soar as grandly as the original ones, they still had a fair amount of wind beneath their wings.

Thursday, June 8, 2017

The MET Orchestra - Mahler & Sibelius - 06/06/17

Conductor: Esa-Pekka Salonen 
Mahler: Blumine 
Sibelius: Violin Concerto 
Christian Tetzlaff: Violin 
Mahler: Kindertotenlieder 
Anne Sofie von Otter: Mezzo-Soprano 
Sibelius: Symphony No. 7 

The Sibelius violin concerto being one of my all-time favorites in the entire classical music repertoire, I make a point of hearing it live any chance I get, schedule permitting. Additionally, because it is such a challenging composition, it is generally performed by certified virtuosic violinists at the top of their game, which never fails to make the whole experience even more memorable. I had been markedly spoiled in that regard last season with Anne-Sophie Mutter, Hilary Hahn and Leonidas Kavakos satiating at least temporarily my incurable craving for it, each in their own special way.
On the other hand, this season I would have to content myself with one performance of it at the beginning of June, just about one long year after I had last heard it. But my patience would no doubt be grandly rewarded since the formidable Christian Tetzlaff would be the one doing the honors this time. And the rest of the concert line-up was unquestionably impressive as well with The MET Orchestra, Esa-Pekka Salonen and Anne Sofie von Otter for a program that also comprised Sibelius’ Symphony No. 7 – because one can never hear too much Sibelius – as well as a few Mahler pieces, all of which would hopefully cheer up the almost capacity crowd on that gray, cool and wet Tuesday evening.

The concert started with Gustav Mahler’s short “Blumine”, a sentimental “Bouquet of flowers” that was eventually removed from his Titan symphony and nowadays delicately blooms on its own. In the hands of The MET Orchestra, playing from a stage instead of a pit for a change, the attractive miniature stood out for its finely nuanced inconspicuousness.
In stark contrast to the lovely opening serenade, Christian Tetzlaff’s absolutely thrilling and particularly athletic take of the Sibelius concerto included his signature intellectual inquisitiveness accompanied by the perfect combination of muscularity and nimbleness. The first movement came out starkly beautiful, atmospherically haunting and emotionally intense, even earning him a spontaneous round of applause at the end of it. The Adagio was pure lyrical bliss and the third movement had all the requisite playful oomph, fearless heroism, and then some.
Even though the MET orchestra is by default not experienced in Sibelius music, their assertive performance of the demanding work made them the ideal partner for the kind of high-flying star turn that Tetzlaff delivered, and confirmed one more time that they can handle just about anything thrown at them. As usual, maestro Salonen managed to keep the blazing music under his cool control while still whole-heartedly indulging the soloist's breath-taking acrobatics.
Our thunderous standing ovation was not in vain, and Tetzlaff gamely moved from Finland to Hungary for a surprise Presto from Bartok’s Solo Violin Sonata, whose daunting difficulties were clearly mere Kinderspiel to him.
 The atmosphere went down a notch or two after intermission, when Anne Sofie von Otter sang Kindertotenlieder, which consisted in five poignant poems about parents’ reactions to their children’s death that had been written by German poet Friedrich Rückert and later sensitively put to music by Mahler. The veteran Swedish mezzo-soprano’s voice has never been huge and is therefore more suited for intimate settings. That was not quite the case on Tuesday night, but Salonen generally succeeded in making sure that her refined and touching singing was heard over the orchestra as she was describing the parents’ distraught, reflective and ultimately hopeful states of mind.
The evening concluded with more Sibelius with his Symphony No. 7, a 20-minute piece that the composer first called a “Fantasia sinfonica” before deciding that the one constantly morphing movement had the scope and power of an actual symphony after all. And it does. On Tuesday night, the composer’s seemingly low-key yet ambitious approach yielded myriad individual details for an end result that was as unique as satisfying. Fully channeling his Nordic heritage, Salonen let the music organically grow with unexpected colors, endless ambiguities, fascinating sounds, and an intensely dramatic ending that was totally worthy of the composer's final symphonic work and, incidentally, of the final concert of my Carnegie Hall season.