Monday, October 30, 2017

Daniil Trifonov - Mompou, Schumann, Grieg, Barber, Tchaikovsky, Rachmaninoff & Chopin - 10/28/17

Mompou: Variations on a Theme of Chopin 
Schumann: "Chopin" from Carnaval, Op. 9 
Grieg: Study, Op. 73, No. 5, "Hommage à Chopin" 
Barber: Nocturne, Op. 33 
Tchaikovsky: Un poco di Chopin 
Rachmaninoff: Variations on a Theme of Chopin 
Chopin: Piano Sonata No. 2 in B-flat Minor, Op. 35 

For any musician, getting their own prestigious Perspectives series at Carnegie Hall is a big deal. And when said musician sells out the large Stern auditorium for the first concert of said series, he has unquestionably arrived. Granted, when the musician is 26-year old pianist Daniil Trifonov, the occasion probably looks like just another step in his meteoric rise in the classical music world, just another evening in yet another concert hall. It also confirms than even in this most elevated sphere, when you’re hot, you’re hot.
To his credit, instead of resting on his already numerous laurels and coming up with predictable playlists loaded with the biggest hits of the piano repertoire, the unstoppable young man with the old soul is apparently planning to continue pushing the envelope with programs that are as ambitious as exciting for the full extent of his Carnegie Hall Perspective, possibly his career.
Accordingly, last Saturday night, his “Homage to Chopin” concert was going to start with variations by Frédéric Mompou, followed by a few bonbons by Robert Schumann, Edvard Grieg, Samuel Barber and Piotr Tchaikovsky, before proceeding to more variations by Rachmaninoff, to eventually wrap things up with – Who else? – Frédéric Chopin himself and his popular Sonata No. 2. No wonder the packed audience was buzzing with great expectations.

At first impression, Mompou’s Variations on a Theme of Chopin, which were probably the wild card of the evening, may sound low-key and unassuming, but hearing them played by such a sensitive and expressive pianist as Daniil Trifonov readily allows the lucky listener to discover countless impressionist details and subtle contrasts during those busy 25 minutes. The Catalan composer may have been a delicate miniaturist, but he is not one to be dismissed, as this finely crafted and impressively wide-ranging work demonstrated.
The eclectic assortment of four fleeting nuggets by major composers that came next turned out to be fun and enlightening while clearly attesting of Chopin's wide and large influence in less than 15 minutes. The German Schumann was smoothly flowing, the Norwegian Grieg insistently agitated, the American Barber lyrically complicated and the Russian Tchaikovsky vibrantly playful.
After this multi-faceted interlude, Trifonov came back with his own version of the daunting Variations on a Theme of Chopin by Rachmaninoff, which he performed with the perfect balance of thoughtfulness and intensity. I had heard him triumphantly master the monumental Rach 3 two years ago with the New York Philharmonic, so I was looking forward to hear him conquer the only slightly less monumental Variations by himself. And that he did.
Once we were done with the Chopin-loving composers populating the first part of the program, we all took a well-deserved break, and then finally moved on to the man himself with his Sonata No. 2. Although I am a hopeless sucker for his ballads, I have to admit that Trifonov’s terrific reading of the sonata, including an expertly paced, all-around stunning Funeral March, gave me pause and almost made me revise my judgment. He knew exactly when to hold back and when to come out in full force, proving once and for all that a natural virtuoso does not need to show off to impose himself.

And for those of us who felt slightly short-changed with just one Chopin piece, we did not have to worry long because our delirious ovation earned us an achingly beautiful arrangement for piano of the Largo from Chopin’s Cello Sonata in G Minor by Alfred Cortot. An exquisite ending to a memorable evening. Not only has Daniil Trifonov arrived, but he is also here to stay.

Sunday, October 29, 2017

American Ballet Theatre - Daphnis and Chloé - 10/26/17

Conductor: David LaMarche 
Tchaikovsky: Souvenir d’un lieu cher: Meditation and Scherzo 
Choreography: Alexey Ratmansky 
Eric Wyrick: Violin 
Chopin: Mazurka, Op. 17, No. 4 
Chopin: Mazurka, Op. 41, No. 3 
Chopin: Mazurka, Op. 63, No. 2 
Chopin: Mazurka, Op. 33, No. 2 
Chopin: Waltz, Op. 64, No. 3 
Choreography: Jerome Robbins 
Emily Wong: Piano 
Ravel: Daphnis and Chloé 
Choreography: Benjamin Millepied
Cantori New York 

Twenty-hour hours after enjoying a rousing Bernstein celebration with the New York Philharmonic at the David Geffen Hall, I temporarily defected to the David H. Koch Theater across the Lincoln Center Plaza for an unusual foray into ballet territory for the American Ballet Theatre with my friend Vy An.
This visit had been prompted by the perspective of checking out a fairly new production of Daphnis and Chloé choreographed by former New York City Ballet principal Benjamin Millepied, who these days is working on various fronts from his current Los Angeles base. It was also the perfect opportunity to experience Maurice Ravel’s famous score in context, and with New York’s very own contemporary choir Cantori New York.

The shorter numbers by Tchaikovsky and Chopin were lovely openers and nicely highlighted the delicate Romanticism of the former and engaging danceability of the latter.
Originally put together for the Ballets Russes, Daphnis and Chloé has come a long way during the past century, and this contemporary production of it emphatically proves that the brilliant score is still as fresh and relevant today as it has ever been. The choreography was boldly inventive and easily evocative to the point that even without knowing the story, one could effortlessly figure out what was going on. The dancers were all impressive in their physical abilities, the main pirate often stealing the show with mind-boggling acrobatics.
The sets were bare, but the various large transparent geometric forms, which were brightly colored, framed by Lichtensteinesque black and white stripes and hanging from the ceiling, as well as the clever lighting added some dynamic mood-setting touches. The costumes were simple in more ways than one, the good guys being dressed in white and the bad guys in black up to the anything-goes bacchanale that which exploded in a feast of vivid colors and rambunctious dancing.
The accompanying “choreographic symphony” was Ravel at his most ground-breaking, voluptuous and impressionistic. Starting at the very beginning, the downright gorgeous wordless vocals produced by the chorus, which would impeccably rise, or rather swell, to the occasion a few more times, immediately commanded attention with their rich sonorities and seemingly divine transcendence, which was not that surprising since the action was taking place in the land of the gods that is Greece after all. 
By mastering myriads of tiny details, the fastidious composer came up with a wide range of impossibly lush harmonies and attractive textures, which in turn makes the music deeply passionate yet unfailingly elegant, in true French fashion. On Thursday evening, the excellent performance of the orchestra and chorus in the pit flawlessly complemented the vibrant dancing happening on the stage for a totally successful Daphnis and Chloé.

Saturday, October 28, 2017

New York Philharmonic - Rouken & Bernstein - 10/25/17

Conductor: Alan Gilbert 
Rouken: Boundless (Homage to L.B.) 
Bernstein: Serenade (after Plato’s Symposium) for Violin, String Orchestra, Harp and Percussion 
Joshua Bell: Violin 
Bernstein: Symphony No. 1 (Jeremiah) 
Kelley O’Connor: Mezzo-soprano 

The endlessly multi-faceted music man – His many hats included composer, conductor, pianist, author, educator, humanitarian, and maybe most importantly, tireless music advocate – Leonard Bernstein would turn 100 years-old on August 25, 2018, which basically means the world has benefited from his presence or legacy in some capacity for almost a century by now. Hence, without wasting any more time, the celebration started on Wednesday night at his former home of the New York Philharmonic, as it should.
For the first performance of their three-week “Bernstein’s Philharmonic: A Centennial Festival” series, the orchestra clearly went all out. The program presented two of the composer’s major works, his  unofficial violin concerto Serenade and his first symphony Jeremiah, the New York premiere of a contemporary piece written as a homage to him, Joey Rouken’s "Boundless", some serious star power with violinist Joshua Bell and mezzo-soprano Kelley O’Connor, and to top it all off, maestro Alan Gilbert.

Who says Alan Gilbert automatically says new works, so true to form, the concert opened with young Dutch composer Joey Rouken’s “Boundless”, a confident mini-symphony that was clearly inspired by Bernstein’s signature mix of classical and pop music, with more than just a hint of rock and jazz as well. The first movement hit the ground running, full of Latin-flavored energy and inhibited exuberance, before things came almost to a halt in the second movement, whose slowly enveloping ethereality was only interrupted by an old-fashioned ring tone... twice. Things shifted back into high gear from the last movement, whose syncopated rhythms made it brazenly fast and brash. 
Alan Gilbert, who got the loudest ovation of the evening for just stepping on the stage, and the orchestra, which was clearly as excited as the audience to have him back on the podium, effortlessly picked up right where they had all left off a few months ago, and a grand time was had by all.
I was introduced to Bernstein’s Serenade, and the wonderful Jennifer Koh, back in Washington, DC many years ago and had never had the chance to hear it again until last Wednesday in New York, performed by no less than violinist superstar Joshua Bell. Based on Plato’s Symposium, whose Aristophanes chapter happens to be the first philosophical text I’ve ever read back in high school, Bernstein’s Serenade is an engaging ode to the various aspects of love that keeps the exposé constantly evocative and immensely attractive.
Of course, having Joshua Bell and his famously radiant tone as messenger only made the experience even more memorable. There were many highlights to be enjoyed among the five movements, especially the deeply lyrical and good-naturedly light-hearted first movement, the gorgeous song that is the Adagio, as well as the more substantial last movement, dedicated to Socrates, which featured a lovely dialog between the violin and the principal cello, Carter Brey, and all-out swinging jazzy interludes.
Moving on to more serious matters after intermission, the orchestra delivered a strong reading of Bernstein's Jeremiah symphony, which the composer wrote when he was a mere 24-year old getting his career underway. The fervent “Prophesy” came out winningly with big brassy sounds and vivid colors, the overall spirited “Profanation” did give hints of trouble to come, and the ominously dark under-tones of mezzo-soprano Kelley O’Connor’s terrific singing impressively contributed to the mournful “Lamentation”.
During the final ovation, Alan Gilbert held up Jeremiah’s score as if to gratefully salute the man of the hour. Up in music legend heavens, Leonard Bernstein had to be smiling.

Tuesday, October 24, 2017

New York City Opera - Dolores Claiborne - 10/22/17

Composer: Tobias Picker 
Librettist: J.D. McClatchy
Conductor: Pacien Mazzagatti 
Director: Michael Capasso 
Lisa Chavez: Dolores Claiborne 
Jessica Tyler Wright: Vera Donovan 
Lianne Gennaco: Selena 
Thomas Hall: Joe St. George 
Spencer Hamlin: Detective Thibodeau 
New York City Opera Orchestra 

At least no one can fault the New York City Opera for lacking diversity in style, mood or subject matter in its programming. After a playfully dramatic Fanciulla del West by Italian bel canto master Giacomo Puccini, which exploded with infectious melodies, an exotic location and a happy ending as their 2017-2018 season opener, we are now being served a grimly dramatic Dolores Claiborne by contemporary American composer Tobias Picker, NYCO’s current composer-in-residence, that came with an appalling dose of domestic violence, sexual abuse and, for good measure, an accidental death AND a murder.
Although Stephen King’s 1992 psychological thriller and Taylor Hackford 1995 film starring Kathy Bates and Jennifer Jason Leigh by the same name have both been profusely acclaimed, I did not have first-hand knowledge of either of them. I was therefore getting ready to enter the dismal world of Dolores Claiborne (the opera) with a wide open mind, and a lot of curiosity and excitement.
Not to mention that, as if to sweeten the deal even more, my return to the Upper West Side enabled me to take a wonderful, if not particularly peaceful, walk through Central Park down to 59E59’s packed main theater on a gloriously beautiful fall afternoon two days ago.

Although Tobias Picker’s Dolores Claiborne premiered in San Francisco back in 2013, last Sunday was the world premiere of its chamber adaptation. And the significantly down-sized production could not have found a better location than 59E59’s main theater, which is the kind of space so intimate that the fourteen-piece orchestra had no choice but to play backstage, and set designer John Farrell and director Michael Capasso probably had to shift their creative juices into high gear to make everything fit. Even sitting in the furthest seat of the top row house left gave me a very good point of view while the sound came to me bright and clear, the way it should always be.
Fresh from her small but remarkable turn in NYCO’s Florencia en el Amazonas last season, mezzo-soprano Lisa Chavez has quickly moved up to the starring role in Dolores Claiborne and delivered a solidly grounded performance as the middle-aged woman who has never gotten a break in her miserable life on her tiny Maine island. Her highly flexible, impressively wide-ranging voice powerfully expressed the visceral emotions she was going through such as her fierce love for her daughter as well as her unbreakable determination to put an end to their misery. Her luminous aria remembering happier times on the ferry brought a brief moment of unadulterated joy to much put-upon Dolores, and splendid music to the audience’s ears.
As Joe St. George, the lazy, alcoholic and abusive husband and father, baritone Thomas Hall put his raw physicality and dark-hued voice to brilliant use in his ever-combative exchanges with Dolores and in his incestuous relationship with Selena. His suggestively singing a creepy nursery rhyme while molesting his daughter, in particular, was the kind of scene that spontaneously made you feel queasy and want to look away, no matter how tastefully it was handled.
Their child, Selena, was consummately impersonated by soprano Lianne Gennaco, who seamlessly went from tormented and awkward teenager, whose innocence was lost in the worst possible way, to an emotionally challenged adult, even as she became a big shot lawyer. Her big aria, an uneasy ode to the stars, dazzlingly established Gennaco’s excellent vocal skills and Selena’s increasing distress. 
Vera Donovan, Dolores’ long-time employer, whose accidental death starts the whole string of flashbacks, was given an occasionally quirky, often cunning and always assertive presence by soprano Jessica Tyler Wright. With her sharp singing and authoritative demeanor, Tyler Wright could have simply turned Vera into the quintessential capricious and demanding nouvelle riche everybody loves to hate, but thankfully the librettist and the singer gave the character more complexity than that.
The production did not have much of a choice but to do a lot with little, and successfully pulled out all the stops in that regard. The going back and forth between the two time periods could have been tricky and confusing, but with a smartly divided and endlessly versatile set, a few essential props, a clever use of projections, and generally well-calibrated blocking, the whole thing went smoothly and was over in barely over two hours, intermission included.
As could be expected considering the sotry, the eclectic score was filled with dark forces and gloomy overtones, with still a traditional aria vibrantly coming up once in a while to perk things up. The orchestra was apparently unfussed by the mix of harsh dissonances and pretty melodies, although it sometimes felt like it was first and foremost putting itself to the service of the libretto, an uncommon but appealing combination of crude profanity and dark poetry, instead of taking the lead and driving the show. But that is a minor squabble, and one likely to disappear overtime.
At the end of the day, this Dolores Claiborne turned out to be totally worth seeing and fully justifies the by then already almost sold-out run it is enjoying. Way to go, NYCO!

Saturday, October 21, 2017

Orchestre Symphonique de Montréal - Moussa, Bartok & Brahms - 10/18/17

Conductor: Kent Nagano 
Samy Moussa: A Globe Itself Infolding for Organ and Orchestra 
Bartok: Concerto for Orchestra 
Brahms: Violin Concerto in D Major, Op. 77 
Maxim Vengerov: Violin  

As I am slowly but surely working my way down my personal season-opening performance card, on Wednesday evening I found myself at Carnegie Hall with my friend Vy An to celebrate the “triumphant New York return” of Maxim Vengerov. While I had no doubt that the performance would be a triumph, I am not sure I would call it a “New York return” since he appeared with the New York Philharmonic two years ago after admittedly almost a decade away from the Big Apple.
I unfortunately was not able to attend those concerts, but I made up for it in the best possible way earlier this year at Aix-en-Provence’s Festival de Pâques (Like they say, if the mountain will not come to Mohamed, Mohamed will go to the mountain). Back in the US, I was thrilled at the additional opportunity to hear him play, this time the fabulous Brahms violin concerto with the Orchestre Symphonique de Montréal conducted by their music director Kent Nagano, an all too rare visitor around these parts himself.
Oh, and there were also a mysterious opening piece by Montreal-born, Berlin-residing, internationally sought-after and present in the hall composer Samy Moussa as well as a Hungarian-flavored middle piece with Bartok’s Concerto for Orchestra. Not a bad way to kick start my Carnegie Hall season, even of the concert was not part of their official season.

Starting the evening with an attractive mix of sheer force and subtle nuances, Samy Moussa’s "A Globe Itself Infolding for Organ and Orchestra" turned out to be a short contemporary work that had a fascinating otherworldly atmosphere to it. Spiritual without being pompous, and melodic without being buoyant, the composition took us on a cosmic voyage that defied time and space, and featured the rather unusual presence of an organ. Vy An, who has her reservations toward contemporary music, gave it two enthusiastic thumbs up while rightfully comparing it to a (good) movie soundtrack. Stanley Kubrick would have loved it.
Bela Bartok’s Concerto for Orchestra is one of his most popular works probably because it is one of his most accessible too. In this case, however, “accessible” does not mean “uninspired”. Although the composition treats the various orchestral instruments as soloists, therefore earning the name of concerto as opposed to symphony, the orchestra showed a solid unity throughout the symmetrically arranged five movements. With a solid balance of seriousness and light-heartedness, as well as a deep sense of drama and unabashed lyricism, the music flowed smoothly and seamlessly under maestro Nagano's energetic baton.
But then again, let’s face it, the vast majority of the audience was there for the star of the evening, the Siberian child prodigy turned classical music superstar Maxim Vengerov, and the enthusiastic ovation he received upon just appearing on the stage only confirmed the notion that distance does make the heart grow fonder. But the man still knows how to deliver the goods too, and his uncompromisingly intense performance of  the Brahms violin concerto was unquestionably one to remember.
Granted, at times style blatantly overpowered substance, but there was still an awful lot to savor as the prodigious outpour was often delightfully overwhelming. And while at some point his imposing cadenza seemed to be bound to go on forever, it was hard not to feel grateful for the privilege of being able to witness all its exciting virtuosic twists and turns. Once the expansive first movement over, the Adagio unfolded with more dramatic strength than usual before the last movement exploded with infectious irrational exuberance and plenty of vividly colorful fireworks. Va-Va-Voom!
The ovation was predictably delirious and abundantly rewarded with a stunningly beautiful “Méditation” from Massenet’s Thais. After German Romanticism at its most exacerbated, we happily switched to French Romanticism at its most radiant. Turning the intensity down a notch, Vengerov simply played from the heart and let the ever-popular intermezzo gorgeously soar into the hall. This uplifting parting gift more than made up for the harrowing trip back to my temporary home in Brooklyn.

Sunday, October 15, 2017

Met - Norma - 10/11/17

Composer: Vincenzo Bellini 
Conductor: Carlo Rizzi 
Producer/Director: Sir David McVicar 
Norma: Sondra Radvanovsky 
Adalgisa: Joyce DiDonato 
Pollione: Joseph Calleja 
Oroveso: Matthew Rose

Opera being at its best a glorious musical feast, boosted by an inspired production if one gets really lucky, I figured that I could not go wrong kicking off my Metropolitan Opera season with the dream trio of beloved Met regulars Sondra Radvanovsky, Joyce DiDonato and Joseph Calleja in Vincenzo Bellini's perennial crowd-pleaser Norma. Sometimes a score tailor-made to brazenly display the many possibilities of well-trained voices and a love triangle that predictably will not end well after a string of big high-stakes scenes are all you need for a satisfying evening at the opera.
The main challenge of bringing a production of Norma to the stage is finding the soprano with enough vocal power and agility to handle bel canto style combined with the acting skills and stamina required to handle the non-stop emotional roller coaster (Considering killing one's offspring is not exactly an everyday occurrence for most women). I had missed Sondra Radvanovsky's 2013 turn as the constantly torn high priestess and was therefore positively thrilled to get another chance at hearing the dazzling soprano in such a dazzling part, and in equally dazzling company.
Throw in a new production by David McVicar, whose Met endeavors have ranged from truly outstanding, as in Giulio Cesare and Il Trovatore, to generally satisfactory, as in the three Tudor Queens, as well as an unusually short run with the starry cast, and I found myself in a packed opera house on a Wednesday night, more than ready to be dazzled.

Set in Gaul at the beginning of the Roman occupation, the story revolves around a Gallic high priestess, who has had a long-term secret liaison producing two children with the Roman proconsul, who in turn has fallen in love with - you've guessed it - a younger and blonder novice priestess, who happens to be a close companion of - you've guessed it again - the high priestess. Political and personal conflicts have frequently given good drama, and Norma is no exception.
The lead part is definitely not for the faint of heart, but then again soprano Sondra Radvanovsky has proven over and over that the expression "force of nature" may have been invented for her. After all, her successful feat of portraying the three Tudor Queens, incidentally under the direction of the same David McVicar, in one season at the Met is not attempted often, and for a good reason!
Norma, however, is not just an unstoppable powerhouse trail-blazing through the opera, but also has many issues to wrestle with, and Radvanovsky constantly displayed a keen sense of her character's inner turmoil. Her famously powerful voice has certainly remained so, and on Wednesday night she also impressed by assuredly rolling out those agonizing long Italian lines without sacrificing clarity or precision, while forcefully exploding in anger when the right moment came. Hell has no fury like this Norma scorned!
It can be easy to dismiss Adalgisa as the new pretty young thing on the block, but director David McVicar and mezzo-soprano Joyce DiDonato thankfully would have none of that. Sporting an extremely becoming, if perplexingly out-of-place, pixie haircut, this Adalgisa was a full-fledged character dealing with complex emotions of her own, which consequently made her a credible rival to the formidable Norma.
Her dedicated singing, bright and expressive, and acting, passionate and subtle, gave heart-breaking authenticity to the inexperienced novice who unwittingly found herself in a rather prickly situation and desperately yearned to do the right thing.
As Pollione, the man who had stolen the hearts of both women, tenor Joseph Carreja was vocally and physically as fiercely ardent as ever. Even if his Roman warrior/lover initially appeared to be slightly on the boorish side, his final scene with Norma was all about self-sacrifice and redemption, cleverly bringing out his inherent sensitiveness and humanity.
In smaller parts, bass Matthew Rose was a wonderful Oroveso, Norma's father, and contributed some welcome muscular gravity to the proceedings. The Met Chorus grabbed every opportunity to make themselves heard with unbreakable conviction, and were definitely in a rousing mood as they prepared to fight the occupants.
The terrific singing would have been worth the investment of time and money in itself, but the sets were also, if not brilliantly inventive, at least visually attractive and smartly set up. The forest made of branchless trees, while not particularly original, was fittingly dark and foreboding, while Norma's secret dwelling, a dome-shaped yurt all organic earth tones and shabby chic decor, was literally hiding underneath it.
In line with the life-in-the-forest theme, everybody looked appropriately disheveled. When the Gallic druids and warriors finally decided to take up arms against the Romans, fire was brought in on torches and a bright red background lit up. These lighting elements added colorful touches to the generally somber set without distracting from the on-going action.
The highly dramatic score found a tremendous vehicle in the MET Orchestra, and Carlo Rizzi did an exceptional job bringing out the vivid colors, soaring intensity and compelling melodies that Bellini had put on paper. Combine that the reliably magnificent singing coming from the stage, and the performance had all the right ingredients to be a truly memorable evening at the opera. Except that... 
Right after intermission , Act II started with one of the most exciting scenes of the entire opera, in which Norma and Adalgisa go from rivals to allies, and having two of the most electrifying singers in the world to bring it to life only raised already high expectations. The expected magical experience was, however, ruined by the couple next to me who was leisurely sipping the drinks they had brought in from the bar (The smell of the alcohol was bad, the noise of the ice cubes was worse) and the teenager in the row behind me who was intermittently taking bites out of a sandwich wrapped in crisp plastic. And suddenly the evening became another, much less welcome, kind of memorable.

Tuesday, October 10, 2017

Paavali Jumppanen - Debussy, Duckworth & Beethoven - 10/08/17

Debussy: Études (Books I & II) 
Duckworth: Selections from The Time Curve Preludes 
Prelude I 
Prelude II 
Prelude III 
Prelude IV 
Prelude VII 
Beethoven: Sonata No. 23 in F Minor, Op. 57 (Appassionata

 The more I think about it, the most I suspect that there is something in Finland’s water that has been helping the small, inconspicuous Northern European country churn out distinctively brilliant composers, such as Jean Sibelius, Magnus Lindberg, Kaija Saariaho and Esa-Pekka Salonen, and reliably intriguing musicians, such as violinist Pekka Kuusisto and pianist Paavali Jumppanen.
It was the latter that was giving a sold-out recital in the Frick Collection’s attractive and intimate round-shaped concert hall on the Upper East Side last Sunday. Beside the exciting perspective of hearing the fast-rising musician live, I also could not help but marvel at the demanding program that included some selections from William Duckworth’s The Time Curve Preludes that were book-ended by Claude Debussy’s devilishly intricate Études and Ludwig van Beethoven’s grandly tempestuous Appassionata.
At least nobody could fault the endlessly versatile and seemingly unstoppable young pianist for lacking ambition. When most of us could only think of slowing down and taking it easy on that depressingly grey and grossly muggy Sunday afternoon, he was willingly putting himself through a couple of hours of the most technically taxing and emotionally far-reaching music in the piano repertoire. Way to go!

The salon atmosphere of the venue hall turned out to be particularly appropriate for the first works of the afternoon, namely Books I and II of Debussy’s Études. Written in historical and personal dark times as Paris was suffering under incessant German bombing and Debussy was suffering from the cancer that would bring about his demise, the two sets nevertheless exude the healthy combination of erudition and light-heartedness prevailing in the prestigious salons of the Parisian elite back then.
On Sunday afternoon, Jumppanen’s impressive sense of articulation, no doubt assiduously practiced and still feeling totally organic, produced a reading that was as clear as virtuosic. Each and every one of the twelve miniature masterpieces was handled with focused expertise, sustained stamina and loving care, turning the challenging exercise into a high-flying feat while still making it accessible to everybody.
After intermission we seamlessly moved from début de siècle France to late 1970s United States with five selections from Book I of Duckworth’s The Time Curve Preludes, a piece consisting of two books, each containing twelve fleetingly short and yet impressively substantial preludes, that by all accounts started the post-minimalist movement in earnest.
As requested by the composer, who had also been his personal coach and collaborator, before each prelude Jumppanen placed specifically designated weights on a few bass keys to generate sympathetic vibrations, which in turn created uniquely sounding “drones”. The unusual ritual has understandably been compared to playing chess on the keyboard and was as calming as the preludes were bursting with carefully organized appealing melodies and thorny rhythms.
The concert ended with a trip to 19th century Germany by way of Beethoven’s boldly imaginative and relentlessly powerful Sonata No. 23 in F Minor. It may not have been given the name “Appassionata” during the composer’s lifetime, but the later move by his publisher was nevertheless fully justified on Sunday afternoon when Jumppanen delivered a truly, well, passionate performance of it, which superbly resounded in the hushed concert hall.
That does not mean, though, that the more introspective moments were neglected as he made sure to give them all the detailed attention they deserve. After the grand ride up and down and around the magnificent structure, the grand finale exploded with memorable fire and fury, leaving us all happily overwhelmed and completely satisfied.

Monday, October 2, 2017

New York Classical Players - Paik & Beethoven - 09/29/17

Dongmin Kim: Conductor 
Nathan: Omaggio a Gesualdo for String Orchestra 
Saint-Saëns: Introduction and Rondo Capriccioso, Op. 28 (Arr. Yoomi Paick) 
Ken Hamao: Violin 
Shostakovich: Prelude and Scherzo, Op. 11 
Beethoven: Piano Concerto No. 4 in G Major, Op. 58 (Arr. Yoomi Paick) 
HaeSun Paik: Piano 

 Fresh from my fabulous “Bach + Glass” double bill at the Miller Theater up Broadway 24 hours earlier, on Friday night I was even closer to home in the Upper West Side’s Advent Lutheran Church for the season opening concert by the New York Classical Players, who in seven short years have become an indispensable part of New York City’s classical music scene. True to their stated mission, they were kicking off yet another compelling season of free concerts of high-quality classical music that will take them to numerous locations in New York City, New Jersey and… Arkansas as well.
The program featured their usual mix of tried and true classics such as Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 4 starring HaeSun Paik, a seasoned pianist of uncommon talent and sensitivity, as well as a nicely eclectic first set consisting of an exciting American premiere, a popular French piece and an interesting Russian curiosity. No wonder the cozy church was packed and buzzing with excitement.

We started with Eric Nathan’s “Omaggio a Gesualdo for String Orchestra”, whose string version was recently commissioned by the New York Classical Players’ very own music director and maestro Dongmin Kim. An inventive tribute to the Italian madrigal master in general and his “text painting” method in particular, this delectable little treat offered a clever combination of Renaissance and contemporary music, accomplishing the no small feat of making dissonances sound more intriguing than grating, in only six minutes.
Back to the more traditional repertoire, Camille Saint-Saëns’ “Introduction and Rondo Capriccioso” clearly does not need any introduction, and the version for violin and string orchestra by Yoomi Paick we heard on Friday kept all the elegance, wildness and insouciance of the original showpiece. Soloist Ken Hamao handled the tricky challenges with plenty of aplomb and savoir-faire, and the orchestra came through tight and committed, with just the right amount of playfulness. This infectious melodic feast hadn’t been on my radar for years, and this performance made me realize what I has been missing.
Next was a quick and fun foray into the beginning of Dmitri Shostakovich's œuvre with his “Prelude and Scherzo” from his Petrograd Conservatory student days. Essentially a miniature octet for strings inspired by Mendelssohn’s famous early work, the prelude oozed subtly lyrical melancholy while the scherzo distinguished itself by its relentlessly driven feistiness. Shostakovich The Modernist was born.
After this delightful assortment of amuse-bouches and a well-deserved break, we moved on to the plat de resistance in the form of Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 4, whose string version had been arranged by Yoomi Paick. Unusually enough for a piano concerto,  HaeSun Paik actually got to begin playing the piece alone with a few understated yet eloquent notes, but the orchestra wasted almost no time joining in and they all made beautiful music together, the orchestra's occasional abruptness quickly tempered by the soloist’s gentleness. Although the composition exudes a generally reserved mood, it is Beethoven’s most expansive piano concerto, all the way to a grand finale that exploded with virtuosic fireworks. Another season has started well.