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.