Saturday, August 19, 2017

Mostly Mozart Festival - Oliveros, Thorvaldsdottir & Lim - 08/14/17

International Contemporary Ensemble 
Baldur Brönnimann: Conductor 
Pauline Oliveros: Earth Ears 
Anna Thorvaldsdottir: æquilibria 
Liza Lim: How Forests Think 
Wu Wei: Sheng 

For better or worse, the Mostly Mozart Festival essentially focuses on tried-and-true composers and works, but exceptions do exist. And after a traditional evening with Brahms, Bach and Mendelssohn the previous week, it was time for my friend Rose and me to boldly step into new contemporary classical music territory in the expert company of the International Contemporary Ensemble and Baldur Brönnimann in the pleasantly intimate Merkin Concert Hall.
Beside the excitement of discovering new music, I was also delighted when I saw the name of Icelandic composer Anna Thorvaldsdottir on the program. I had fully enjoyed her short, subtly intricate and yet extremely powerful Aeriality performed by the New York Philharmonic back in May, and I had been very eager to become better acquainted with the rest of her œuvre.
Therefore, one week after subjecting my poor eardrums to much amplified loudness in the name of Schubert, I was back for more music loosely inspired by Schubert and the Romantics, although this time the evening would revolve around the ever-green theme of the nature. Not a bad idea in our days of preoccupying climate changes, and even more preoccupying denials of responsibility for them.

It was easy to figure out that we were in for a special experience by the impressive eclecticism of the instruments noticed in the small orchestra, and they were all put to work at various times in a carefully balanced fashion by their brilliant handlers for American avant-garde composer Pauline Oliveros’ Earth Ears. Plenty of those occurrences sounded odd and random, but that was not a bad thing as it forced the audience to pay attention to what was going on and meet the piece halfway, realizing then that there was a method to the apparent madness, instead of just relaxing and being sucked up into the restless music.
On the other hand, it was definitely tempting to just relax and be sucked up into the organic beauty and overall serenity of Anna Thorvaldsdottir’s æquilibria, which was having its US premiere on Monday night. Plenty of understated details could be worked out for sure, and things did get strikingly dicey in some spots, but the resolute continuation of the music, naturally flowing, quietly sophisticated and discreetly hypnotic, made for an immensely rewarding, full immersion journey into the earth.
We went back to more esoteric sounds, including from the conspicuous sheng, a Chinese free reed wind instrument consisting of vertical bamboo pipes, and from beads being poured inside a violin and percussion, for the US premiere of Australian composer Liza Lim’s How Forests Think. And forests apparently do an awful lot of thinking as the possibilities of the instruments were extended to their utmost. Although these musical descriptions of relationships among trees were often intriguing and engaging, it sometimes felt like the piece was extending its welcome. Toward the end, maestro Brönnimann just took a seat behind the orchestra as light was slowly fading away, effectively bringing the performance to a natural conclusion.

Saturday, August 12, 2017

Mostly Mozart Festival - Brahms, Bach & Mendelssohn - 08/09/17

Brahms: Concerto for Violin and Cello in A Minor, Op. 102 (Double Concerto) 
Joshua Bell: Violin 
Steven Isserlis: Cello 
Bach: Contrapunctus XIV, from Art of Fugue (Arranged by Andrew Manze) 
Mendelssohn: Symphony No. 5 in D Major (Reformation) 

For a few decades now the Mostly Mozart Festival has been perking up the summer of New York City’s dwellers, and one of its most enjoyed features used to be the free preview concert in then Avery Fisher Hall, which never failed to create a long line of music lovers, who killed time bonding among themselves, on the Lincoln Center Plaza on that morning. Last year the preview concert was moved to nearby Damrosch Park on a disgustingly muggy Friday evening, which prompted me to sit the concert – and the festival – out. This year the festival’s powers that be resolved the budgetary and logistical restrictions once and for all by not having a preview concert at all. So there.
However, I still managed to find a free Mostly Mozart Festival concert, and one that promised new takes on 11 among Schubert’s 24 “Winterreise” songs, plus games and prizes, last Monday evening in the nearby David Rubenstein Atrium. And “Schubertiade Remix” turned out to be a rambunctious evening of electric instruments, including a mean ukulele, synthesizers, amplified voices, distorted sounds, English lyrics and peculiarly loose adaptations performed by some members of the fearless International Contemporary Ensemble and other local artists. I eventually left with my ears still unpleasantly ringing and no prizes.
But all was back to normal on Wednesday night at the David Geffen Hall where the Mostly Mozart Festival Orchestra conducted by Andrew Manze was going to be joined by violinist Joshua Bell and cellist Steven Isserlis for Brahms’ Concerto for Violin and Cello, which would be followed by a maestro Manze-arranged fugue by Bach, and Mendelssohn’s Reformation Symphony. So Mozart was nowhere in sight or within earshot, but plenty of very cool music was on the program, making it the perfect introduction to the festival for my friend Vy An, after the traditional slice of pizza on the Hearst Plaza.

Since first impression are key, it was excellent timing that the concert started with the dream duo of Joshua Bell and Steven Isserlis tackling Brahms’ less well-known but downright satisfying Concerto for Violin and Cello, his last work for orchestra, which by default requires both soloists to be in flawless synchronicity. This was of course not too tall of an order from the long-time music partners on the stage, and unsurprisingly the performance went off without a hitch. The expertly crafted, effortlessly virtuosic conversation between the two instruments, whether assertively alone or seamlessly together, was beautifully backed by the orchestra, which knew exactly how to take a back-seat while still remaining unmistakably present.
And since the audience made it abundantly clear that we simply could not get enough of the star soloists, they came back for an inspired Langsam from Schumann’s Violin Concerto with a coda by Benjamin Britten. Truth be told, this parting gift was so stunningly beautiful that it almost overshadowed the Brahms.
After intermission, Andrew Manze gave the slightly smaller audience a quick and fun introduction to the rest of the program, most notably asking us to remember that Felix Mendelssohn was an outstanding gymnast, among many other talents. Then we moved on to his engaging arrangement of the Contrapunctus XIV, from Art of Fugue by Bach, the master rightfully worshiped by all three composers being heard that evening.
This little foray into Bachian territory was in fact the perfect introduction to Mendelssohn’s rigorously Lutheran yet irrepressibly melodic Symphony No. 5, which was actually his second in chronological order, but never mind, to which we silently and eagerly transitioned. Another not so well-known work by a very well-known composer, the Reformation Symphony was performed in its original form on Wednesday night, Mendelssohn being notorious for not knowing when to stop revising to the point of damaging his own work.
Originally written for the 300th anniversary of the Augsburg Confession, this new piece was not finished in June 1830 due to the composer’s poor health. Rarely performed when he was alive and eventually published 21 years after he died – Hence the No. 5 attribution – the Reformation Symphony has nevertheless plenty going for it, with a serious first movement (Protestantism will do that to a composition), a carefree second one, a lyrical third one (Mendelssohn shall be Mendelssohn) and a powerful final one. The orchestra took immediate ownership of it and brought it to life in a performance that the Englishman leaving behind us qualified as “stupendous”. We could not have agreed more.