Monday, November 20, 2017

Vassilis Varvaresos - Schumann, Papanas, Schubert, Liszt, Scriabin & Ravel - 11/16/17

Schumann: Faschingsschwank aus Wien, Op. 26
Papanas: Piano Suite No. 1
 Schubert/Liszt: Soirée de Vienne No. 7
Liszt: Méphisto Waltz No. 1
Scriabin: Waltz for piano in A flat Major, Op. 38
Ravel: La Valse

Although I tend to enjoy all sub-genres of classical music, the one I am the least fond of has to be the Hapsburg waltz. So I was originally kind of bummed when I noticed that the recital by fast-rising Greek pianist Vassilis Varvaresos last Thursday night revolved around the theme of waltz, or at least dance. A closer look, however, made me realize that, despite their titles, none of the pieces he had selected was a traditional Viennese waltz, so I breathed a huge sigh of relief and promptly made a reservation.
My early commitment turned out to be a clever move because Lincoln Center's wonderfully intimate Merkin Hall can only sit 425 people, and almost twice as many had tried to get a ticket. Thing is, even though Vassilis Varvaresos may not be a household name just yet, the young musician has earned impressive degrees, won prestigious competitions, composed for films and television series, wrote a book, and delivered a wide range of performances around the world, including at the White House. And this is clearly only the beginning.
So barely 48 hours after the wild ride that was Thomas Adès' The Exterminating Angel at the Met, I was getting mentally prepared for a more low-key but no less exciting musical evening with my friend Jayne, whom I incidentally met at the Onassis Cultural Center, the non-profit organization that was supported this concert along with the Hellenic-American Cultural Foundation. We originally felt like we were sticking out big time in the apparently all-Greek crowd, but the unifying power of music quickly helped us blend in.

After the official speeches were done and before the music got started, Vassilis Varvaresos proved to be a charming and insightful host as he was introducing the various works in the program. Then he wasted no time to establish his virtuoso credentials by boldly kicking off the concert with Schumann's "Faschingsschwank aus Wien" (Carnival Scenes from Vienna), a popular concert piece that include five widely different and equally challenging movements in an epic 20-minute stretch.
The opening Allegro was substantial and multi-faceted, almost an entire work in itself. The Romanze was short and tender as if to give pianist and audience a little break before the Scherzino perked things up with plenty of playfulness. The emotionally-charged Intermezzo had a truly lovely melody to it and the Finale exploded with much energy and power. There was clearly nothing there that Varvaresos could not handle, and he delivered an assured performance of it.
If Robert Schumann needs no introduction, contemporary Greek composer Simos Papanas is not that well-known yet, but judging from the Piano Suite No. 1 he wrote for Varvaresos, he certainly has the composing chops needed to reach a larger audience. Inspired by the hypnotic nature of shimmering water and the sentimental sounds of church bells, this new work for piano started wonderfully ethereal and atmospheric until an irresistibly fun and devilishly difficult Macedonian dance whipped it into a thrilling virtuosic frenzy.
The second part of the program consisted of shorter pieces literally inspired by waltzes, but so ingeniously arranged that not much was left of the original dance form. Franz Liszt's personal take on Franz Schubert's "Soirée de Vienne No. 7" turned out to be delightfully quirky. On the other hand, his own "Méphisto Waltz No. 1", which evokes the episode of the "Dance at the village inn" from Nikolaus Lenau’s Faust, unfolded with voluptuous sensuality and colorful drama. Channeling the powerhouse that was Liszt is no easy task for even the most seasoned pianist, so Varvaresos deftly met the challenge by making the two pieces his own and brilliantly succeeded.
At just over five minutes, Alexander Scriabin's Waltz for piano in A-flat Major was a fleeting Romantic pleasure exuding sweet perfumes and pretty melodies. It also went through a wide range of moods, from hesitant to passionate to happy-go-lucky, which Varvaresos unperturbably expressed with impeccable timing and infectious enthusiasm.
The program ended with Maurice Ravel's "La valse", a choreographic poem for orchestra originally conceived for a ballet, but now more often heard as a concert piece. Whether it is a comment on the merciless destruction of World War I, a tribute to Ravel's mother who had just died, or a plain musical score for a ballet, only the composer knows for sure.
The piano version we heard on Thursday evening beautifully preserved the darkness and surrealism that were so prevalent in the original composition, and managed to celebrate the death of the Viennese waltz all by itself with diabolical determination and macabre glee. Who needs a whole orchestra when you have the right pianist?

A bona fide film buff, Varvaresos has composed ten film scores already. He has also come up with a 70-minute composition on a paraphrase from Star Wars (At least nobody can accuse him of thinking small.). As luck would have it, our extended standing ovation earned us a excerpt of it, which needless to say contained the universally famous Star Wars theme, as a formidable encore. On Thursday night, the force was unquestionably with Vassilis Varvaresos.

Sunday, November 19, 2017

Met - The Exterminating Angel - 11/14/17

Composer: Thomas Adès 
Conductor: Thomas Adès 
Librettist: Tom Cairns 
Director/Producer: Tom Cairns 
Frédéric Antoun: Raúl Yebenes 
Sophie Bevan: Beatriz 
Kevin Burdette: Señor Russell 
Alice Coote: Leonora Palma 
Iestyn Davies: Francisco de Ávila 
Amanda Echalaz: Lucia de Nobile 
Rod Gilfry: Alberto Roc 
Joseph Kaiser: Edmundo de Nobile 
Audrey Luna: Leticia Mayvar 
Sally Matthews: Silvia de Ávila 
David Adam Moore: Colonel Álvaro Gómez 
David Portillo: Eduardo 
Christine Rice: Blanca Delgado 
Sir John Tomlinson: Doctor Carlos Conde 
Christian van Horn: Julio 

The decision-makers at the Metropolitan Opera have never been known for their forward programming, but you have to give it to them, when they decide to venture into intriguing new territory, they often know how to choose them. And this new season is no exception with Thomas Adès’ The Exterminating Angel flying high above the other 21 predictable works in terms of the bold vision it has brought and the genuine excitement it has ignited.
Nobody will ever be able to fault England’s favorite enfant terrible composer for having plebeian tastes. After transforming William Shakespeare’s magic tale The Tempest into an uneven but mostly thrilling opera, he turned his attention to Luis Buñuel’s 1962 surrealist film The Exterminating Angel and came up with an even more ambitious opera that prompted ecstatic reviews when it first came out in Salzburg in 2016.
Ecstatic reviews popped up all over New York City too after the Salzburg production opened here a couple of weeks ago, with the composer himself conducting a totally different orchestra and slightly different cast, and filled up the large opera house with remarkable efficiency. The Met packed with an eclectic audience giddily looking forward to a modern production in a rare sight, but last Tuesday night that is just what fellow opera lovers Dawn and Brian and I happily witnessed.

Among the elements of Buñuel’s film that would understandably be attractive to an out-of-the-box composer like Adès is probably the sheer absurdity of having the participants of a fancy dinner party trapped inside the dining room for no good, or even bad, reason and eventually running out of bare necessities, including food, water, and manners.
One of the particularities of The Exterminating Angel is that it includes no fewer than a dozen main characters who are more or less constantly on the stage, plus a few minor roles, mostly servants who somehow had the good sense to escape early. Therefore, the main challenge for the audience was to figure out who was who as the dinner guests and butler were all busy mingling politely first, and then definitely less so.
The women were much easier to tell apart thanks to their distinct glamorous outfits and sharply defined traits. Audrey Luna as the soprano Leticia may actually be the one who has been generating the most press with the stratospheric upper notes that we had already endured in The Tempest. Her vocals feats often made her speech difficult to decipher, but on the other hand, they really made you appreciate the few times she came down from her high perch for some truly exquisite singing.
Mezzo-soprano Christine Rice was Blanca Delgado, the pianist and singer who at some point capably calmed things down with a hauntingly beautiful song from the Ladino tradition of Sephardic Jews. It was an off moment that seemed to come out of nowhere but, come to think of it, in fact cleverly underlined the confusion and unpredictability of the whole situation.
More predictable was the fate of terminally ill Leonora Palma, and mezzo-soprano Alice Coote's wonderfully nuanced singing efficiently conveyed her complex character, whether she unexpectedly gave her doctor a luscious kiss or engaged in an hallucinatory dance.
From a distance at least the men was much harder to distinguish as they all wore formal evening wear, but a couple of them eventually stood out too. For one, there was counter-tenor Iestyn Davies, who as the insufferably supercilious aristocrat Francesco provided one of the most hilarious speeches of the entire opera as he was obsessively explaining the differences among the various types of spoons.
On the other end of the vocal spectrum was veteran bass John Tomlinson as the unwaveringly poised, elderly doctor Conde whose dead-pan delivery of his recurring punch line about death was as comically dark as it could get. And he was the apparent voice of reason.
One of the most moving touches of the essentially cynical opera was the couple of young lovers Beatriz and Eduardo, endearingly impersonated by soprano Sophie Bevan and tenor David Portillo, who were staunchly inseparable until the very end. Turning the closet into a make-shift love nest, they got to sing the most gorgeous music of the entire score all the way to their heart-breaking final duet.
Speaking of music, it is probably hard to come up with an opera composition that is so relentlessly inventive, filled with all kinds of sonority whose originality is so completely in tune with the surrealist atmosphere and bizarre premise. To make it all happen, Adès brought in unusual but legitimate instruments such as an ondes Martenot and eight tiny violins to create a wide range of eerie sounds. More mundane items such as a small door, rocks, paper and a salad bowl contributed in various capacities too, and by all accounts the orchestra, conducted by the composer himself, had a ball.
In fact, one of the most exhilarating musical treats came between Act I and II when a sudden surge of high-precision percussion that would not been out of place at a heavy metal concert both released the tension that had been slowly building and sent an ominous warning about the more unappetizing things to come. Hell was breaking loose big time.
As if to encourage the audience to check their logical thinking at the door, the opening scene of the opera, which included the rising of the Met's famous chandeliers, was repeated twice. That may have felt rather weird and gimmicky at first, but certainly not more so than the presence of live sheep, which apparently are the de rigueur accessory in opera productions these days, or an incongruous bear, which at least was fake or projected in the background (The Met's insurance policy may have had something to do with that). But then again, all's fair when regular rules no longer apply.
The rest of the décor, which was dominated by a huge wooden arch on a revolving stage, and the costumes were smartly designed to convey an elegant upscale house that will become more and more claustrophobic and wild as primitive needs are not being met. Eventually, the ghost-like guests will find themselves among a colorful crowd of ordinary people where their grossly disheveled looks will not escape notice.
The Met's audience fared much better and seemed generally grateful, if occasionally bewildered, for the experience. Thomas Adès has struck twice at the Met now. I am already looking forward to number three.

Saturday, November 18, 2017

New York Classical Players - Tessa Plays Beethoven - 11/12/17

Conductor: Dongmin Kim 
Nathan: Four to One for String Orchestra 
Beethoven: Violin Concerto in D Major, Op. 61 (Arr. David Schneider) 
Tessa Lark: Violin 
Copland: Appalachian Spring Suite 

Experience and common sense have taught me that the only sure way to beat the New York City subway system in the weekend is not to use it. Therefore, I took full advantage of the beautiful fall weather we had last Sunday afternoon and happily walked across a bustling Central Park to the Upper East Side’s Church of the Heavenly Rest for the New York Classical Players’ second subscription program of the season: Tessa plays Beethoven.
The original program had Paganini on it, which had immediately set my heart aflutter as I hadn’t heard his intensely sunny and fiercely virtuosic violin concerto in such a long time, but then my friend Vy An and I realized a couple of minutes before the start of the performance that it had been replaced by the Beethoven violin concerto. Fortunately, that one is nothing to sneeze at either, just a little bit less radiance and a little bit more bombast, so we promptly made the mental switch and eagerly took it in stride.
The rest of the program sounded like an unofficial tribute to current and past American composers with the new arrangement of a piece by contemporary composer Eric Nathan and the beloved Appalachian Spring Suite by Aaron Copland that simply seems never to get old.

After originally composing "Four to One" for a string quartet, Eric Nathan arranged his appealing description of an autumnal sunset in upstate New York for a string orchestra after the NYCP, who obviously know a good thing when they hear it, commissioned it. Both earthy and atmospheric, that particular sunset’s vivid colors burst out in all their flamboyant glory before darkness and stillness ineluctably took over.
I had not heard the Beethoven violin concerto in quite a long time, and Tessa Lark’s commanding performance of it was the perfect opportunity to become reacquainted with the imposing work. It was also the perfect opportunity to become acquainted with the musician. Suffice to say that after going through her already impressive biography and hearing her in action, I have little doubt that the young and yet remarkably poised violinist will go places.
Although I found her playing particularly thrilling during the endlessly tricky cadenza and the unabashedly lyrical larghetto, the entire concerto immensely benefited from her energy, savoir-faire and commitment. Having it performed with a reduced orchestra was by default different from the traditional symphony orchestra version, but somehow this special arrangement managed to preserve its highly dramatic flair while allowing the soloist to shine even more, so everybody won.
Going from 19th century Austria to 20th century United States requires a giant leap, but Miss Lark unhesitatingly took it for the encore, treating the delighted audience to a fun little bluegrass number that readily proved that her range of skills was even wider than initially suspected (Yes! The girl can sing too!).
After intermission we remained solidly on American territory, early 19th century rural Pennsylvania to be exact, as the NYCP orchestra whole-heartedly worked their way through the original version of Copland’s engaging Appalachian Spring Suite, which on Sunday was played with a slightly expanded string section because, let’s face it, one can never have too many strings.
As the music went on, it was easy to see why the ballet score has always remained a popular concert piece, what with its vibrant post-war optimism, big sweeping emotions and nostalgia for life’s simple pleasures, which the musicians energetically conveyed without forgetting the more subtle touches. Seriously, who knew that such a quintessential piece of Americana could be such an invigorating breath of fresh air?
As timing would have it, Vy An and I got to enjoy some actual invigorating fresh air as we walked around the northern side of Central Park’s Reservoir during a lovely autumnal sunset in New York City, which kind of brought us right back to the beginning of the program.

Monday, November 13, 2017

Cantori New York - Voices from the Shadows - 11/11/17

Artistic Director & Conductor: Mark Shapiro 
Johann Brahms: Ich aber bin Elend (But I am poor)
Jacob Avshalomov: Tom O’Bedlam 
Thierry Machuel: Paroles contre l’oubli (Words against Oblivion)
Ben Keiper: Tenor 
Eleanor Killiam: Soprano 
Lucian Avalon: Oboe 
Charles Kiger: Percussion 

 For the last, but by no means least, installment of my “Three Saturday Nights on the Town” series, last Saturday evening I braced myself and made it all the way down to the West Village’s Church of St Luke in the Fields for contemporary choir Cantori New York’s long-awaited first concert of their official season. Not that the hard-working singers and artistic director have been lounging around though, as earlier in the fall they have been relentlessly busy with a blink-and-you-miss one-nighter with Teatro Grattacielo before moving on with barely enough time to regroup to a more extended – and no doubt more rewarding – fling with American Ballet Theatre.
Finally back on their own track, the endlessly versatile ensemble drastically switched gears one more time from Il Grillo del Focolare’s Italian verismo and Daphnis et Chloé’s French Romanticism to “give voices to the unheard” in three widely different works from Thierry Machuel with Paroles contre l’oubli, Jacob Avshalomov with “Tom O’Bedlam”, and Johann Brahms with “Ich aber bin Elend”. Granted, the perspective of hearing a choral version of French and Basque testimonies written by prisoners, an English song about homelessness and a German motet about misery may not have sounded particularly appealing at first, but the consistently adventurous choir has proven many times over that it can always be trusted to deliver a worthwhile musical experience.
Therefore, a fairly large crowd, including a few familiar faces, and I decided to brave the shockingly sudden arctic cold spell and the predictably unpredictable subway system to make it to the Village for one hour of essentially somber music on off-putting topics, made even more depressing by their persistent relevance.

Johann Brahms’ “Ich aber bin Elend” started the concert with biblical inspiration, German Romanticism and glorious harmonies. Asking God for protection against life’s many ills, the plea was short, but powerful, and was much appreciated by the die-hard Brahms fan that I am.
Based on a 17th century anonymous English poem, Jacob Avshalomov’s “Tom O’Bedlam” takes on the everyday struggles of a homeless person, which Cantori’s singers conveyed in an insightful and sensitive fashion.
After a brief pause, the choir was back with two instrumentalists for the US premiere of Thierry Machuel’s Paroles contre l’oubli. Putting together eight French testimonies and two Basque testimonies from prisoners of the Maison Centrale de Clairvaux, the composition explores how forgetting and being forgotten (the dreaded “oubli”) takes a severe toll on people set apart by and from the rest of society through those people's very own words.
The succession of sharply individual snapshots, whether universal, fierce or optimistic, was started by the mournful rising of the oboe, then quickly picked up by the choir. Although the oboe and percussion made timely cameos during the performance, it unsurprising;y fell on the singers to actually give voices to those more or less coherent written testimonies. In fact, some of them were definitely less than more so, such as the text by S. M., whose state of deep confusion was only heightened by the intricately overlapping voices.
On the other end, the challenges of gnarly tongue-twisters such as “insignifiantifiée” (whose English equivalent would probably be “insignificantized”, in case you’re wondering, and no, it does not exist in French either.) were met with deftness and assurance by the singers. Slowly building a unified whole, the ever-shifting composition, complex or unadorned, intense or melancholic, disheartening or humorous, eloquently expressed the wide range of disarray of its subjects.
But hope was not totally gone, which Agustin forcefully asserted at the very end of the entire piece with a text in Basque saying loud and clear, and with life-affirming rhythmical stomping too, that he had not forgotten. As if to make sure to drive his positive point home, and maybe to work out the last couple of stubborn kinks as well, the choir gamely performed it twice.
So the concert ended on an unexpected but welcome uplifting note, which happily lingered with me for a while and then gradually faded away during my agonizingly slow subway ride back home, which took significantly longer than the concert itself.

Monday, November 6, 2017

Leila Josefowicz & John Novacek - Sibelus, Prokofiev, Zimmermann & Adams - 11/04/17

Sibelius: Valse triste, Op. 44, No. 1 
Prokofiev: Violin Sonata No. 1 in F Minor, Op. 80 
Zimmermann: Sonata for Violin and Piano 
Adams: Road Movies 

Another Saturday night, another concert that I simply had to attend instead of staying away from the Saturday night madness in the comfort of my own home. The one and only Leila Josefowicz is way too rare of a musician to be fussy about where, when and how one can enjoy her prodigious talent and adventurous spirit. Moreover, let’s face it, while going all the way to the Upper East Side’s 92Y to attend her recital with long-time music partner John Novacek was no walk in the park (literally, since I had to take the cross-town bus), it was still significantly more convenient than going all the way to Berlin, Germany, where I saw her last with John Adams and the Berliner Philharmoniker over a year ago.
Knowing her as a staunch advocate of contemporary music, I was more than a little surprised to see that her program included a trio of well-established composers, namely Jean Sibelius, Sergei Prokofiev and John Adams. But then I realized the second part of the concert would start with lesser-known German composer Bernd Alois Zimmermann, whose background promised an intriguing mix of avant-garde, serial and post-modern, and that she was therefore still true to her laudable and exciting mission.

Whether it is played as an outstanding little number on the official program or as an ever-popular encore, Sibelius’ "Valse triste" is usually heard in its orchestral version. Not so on Saturday night, where the leaner combination of piano and violin still beautifully captured the eerie atmosphere and diaphanous textures of the original waltz.
Although Prokofiev’s openly grim Violin Sonata No. 1 is no stranger to concert halls, I hadn’t heard it in a very long time and had almost forgotten what a powerful   ̶  political or not   ̶  statement it makes. And I could hardly have imagined a better pairing than Leila Josefowicz and John Novacek to refresh my memory as they dug deeply into the composition’s icy winds, foreboding darkness, strident dissonances and general sense of hopelessness.
Fortunately, the duo did not let the depressing mood completely take over as Josefowicz came up with some achingly beautiful lyrical lines, which made her uncompromising handling of the more abrupt moments all the more startling. The subtly haunted first movement eventually gave way to a second movement so relentlessly vigorous that her bow ended up losing an impressive quantity of hair and the keyboard had to be seriously tuned up after it was all over. The third movement rocked gently while the frenetic folk dance of the fourth one brought us back to the lugubrious winds.
Never one to shy away from overlooked composers or technical challenges, on Saturday night Josefowicz brought us Bernd Alois Zimmermann via his impossible-to-label Sonata for Violin and Piano. Featuring harsh grittiness mixed with bits of almost danceable tunes and a deceptively quiet middle movement, the 15-minute uncompromisingly complex and boldly virtuosic piece effectively kept musicians and audience on their toes.
A concert by Leila Josefowicz does not feel quite complete without the presence of John Adams, her frequent collaborator and possibly biggest fan, and on Saturday his colorful Road Movies concluded the program on a genuinely fun note. The piano’s easy-going groove and the violin’s restless flying around made for an imaginary car trip that was both relaxing and hard-driven first, before they took a peaceful break to unwind, maybe meditate. Before we knew it though, the trip resumed with the instruments totally refueled and generating pretty cool jazzy overtones too. The discussion heated up and the pace quickened all the way to the final destination.

Now that everybody’s spirit had been lifted up, the performers clearly did not want to break the light-hearted mood, so their priceless parting gift was a straightforwardly luminous performance of “Smile” by Charlie Chaplin. And we all did.

Sunday, November 5, 2017

Ensemble Signal - All-Reich - 11/02/17

Conductor: Brad Lubman 
Reich: Clapping Music 
Reich: Quartet 
Reich: Runner 
Reich: Pulse 
Reich: Double Sextet 

After a couple of piano recitals in Carnegie Hall’s large Stern Auditorium, where the music was amazing but the feeling of intimacy lacking, I was more than happy to make my way down to much smaller Zankel Hall for a concert of Steve Reich compositions performed by the intrepid Ensemble Signal.
Although I have been extensively familiarizing myself with Philip Glass, this other contemporary music giant, this year, my knowledge of Steve Reich’s œuvre is still deplorably superficial at best. So I was thrilled at the perspective of attending a whole evening of his music, spanning from a ground-breaking minimalist work from the 1970s to more elaborate pieces from the third millennium, in such conducive circumstances.
Apparently, I was not the only one who had been seduced by the offer as the concert hall was filled by an impressively eclectic crowd, including a large number of excited youngsters. All hail Steve Reich!

The concert started, rightfully enough, with Steve Reich himself, who was greeted with a rock-star ovation, and Brad Lubman, Ensemble Signal’s founding co-artistic and music director, joining forces for his 1972 "Clapping Music", a three-minute number consisting in the two men clapping and creating increasingly complex and spellbinding rhythmic lines. Come to think of it, who needs instruments when you have hands and a sharp sense of rhythm?
Instruments, however, made themselves useful in a most unusual combination in his 2013 "Quartet". That’s where the two pianos and two vibraphones generated jazz-flavored sounds that seemed to suggest the daytime energy and nighttime melancholy of big city life. The composition kept all four musicians equally busy and the music flowing seamlessly.
According to my unofficial, and maybe slightly biased, clap-o-meter, the big hit of the evening was the comparatively large-scale 2016 "Runner", which was having its New York premiere on Thursday night. For the occasion, no fewer than 19 musicians crowded the stage and kept busy for 16 unpredictable minutes filled with ever-changing harmonies. Starting fast, but quickly learning to pace itself while still enjoying an invigorating workout and reaching a glorious high, that runner made it to the finish line with flying colors!
The 2015 composition "Pulse" distinguished itself by including an electric bass among the winds, strings and piano. The welcome intruder remained relatively discreet though, contenting itself to steadily partner with the piano to provide a rock-solid base, namely the "Pulse", on which the other instruments could elaborate attractive melodies.
Stretching almost half an hour, 2009 Pulitzer Prize-winning "Double Sextet" was by far the longest work of the program. Although the two identical sextets were spatially organized in a totally symmetrical fashion, the music was far less predictable. Dependably anchored by the two pianos and the two vibraphones, the rest of the musicians carried delightfully animated conversations, all of this happening in perfect synchronicity while still feeling somehow spontaneous. Steve Reich looked mightily pleased with the result, and so were we.

Friday, November 3, 2017

Marc-André Hamelin - Liszt, Feinberg, Debussy & Godowsky - 11/01/17

Liszt: Hungarian Rhapsody No. 13 in A Minor 
Liszt: "Bénédiction de Dieu dans la solitude" from Harmonies poétiques et religieuses 
Liszt: Fantasy and Fugue on B.A.C.H. 
Feinberg: Piano Sonata No. 4 in E-flat Minor, Op. 6 
Debussy: Images, Book I 
Godowsky: Symphonic Metamorphosis on Themes by Johann Strauss 

After the terrific Chopin-focused recital given by Russian prodigy Daniil Trifonov on Saturday night, I was back in the Stern Auditorium on Wednesday night for much less buzzed-about but equally talented Quebecois veteran Marc-André Hamelin and his interestingly eclectic program. So many virtuosic pianists, so many brilliant composers, so many intriguing compositions, so little time!
Nobody has ever had to twist my arm to go listen to music by Franz Liszt or Claude Debussy. Add to them Frédéric Chopin from last Saturday, and I have to admit that the piano lover in me has been relishing a good life at Carnegie Hall these past few days. Moreover, since I always welcome the opportunity to discover new composers and new works, I was looking forward to checking out the two additional pianists-composers   ̶  or composers-pianists, depending on how you look at them   ̶  Samuel Feinberg and Leopold Godowsky. I had never heard of them, but needless to say, if they are good enough for Marc-André Hamelin, they are certainly good enough for me.

Liszt’s Hungarian Rhapsody No. 13 opened the concert with its irresistible mix of tranquility and playfulness, the first movement setting a quietly meditative mood before the second one exploded with infectious Gypsy-inspired melodies. Unflustered by the impressively wide range of the comparatively small work, Hamelin handled it all with assurance and flair.
Things calmed down again with Liszt’s "Bénédiction de Dieu dans la solitude" from Harmonies poétiques et religieuses, a gracefully melodic piece whose restlessness may have sounded deceptively low-key at the outset, but was in fact relentless and occasionally burst out in stunning crescendos. It made the pure serenity that the pianist reached toward the end all the more poignant and fulfilling.
Our mini Liszt marathon ended with his Fantasy and Fugue on B.A.C.H., which was originally a popular organ fantasy on a B.A.C.H motif that was first revised, then transposed for the piano by the composer himself. Homage to Johann Sebastian Bach oblige, its inherent complexity and life-affirming vitality were riveting.
The second part of the program was more varied, but no less satisfying. Feinberg’s Piano Sonata No. 4 oozed subtle but unmistakably foreboding darkness and unrelenting intensity, both of which probably stemming at least to some degree from the political situation in Russia back in 1918. It is to Hamelin’s credit that he made the somber mood deeply moving, but not overly weighty.
Debussy’s Images, Book I has long been a concert hall favorite, and the superb version that we heard on Wednesday night, sharp yet poetic, can safely be added to the list of memorable interpretations of it. Even though Debussy strongly resented the label, there is little doubt that in the right hands those Images cannot help but gently blossom into gorgeously impressionistic little gems. And sure enough, on Wednesday night the mesmerized audience was treated to a scintillating performance and indulged in every minute of it.
The official program ended with Godowsky’s Symphonic Metamorphosis on Themes by Johann Strauss, a lovely take on Strauss’ “Wine, Women and Song” and Die Fledermaus that could easily appeal to even the audience members not particularly sensitive to Viennese waltzes. The sing-songy quality of the music was tastefully expressed by Hamelin’s engaging touch and created an openly uplifting mood that was enjoyed by all.

While we could have happily called it a night, our loud appreciation was rewarded with not one, not two, but three encores! The first one were some joyfully sparkling "Feux d’artifice" (Fireworks) from Debussy’s Preludes, Book II. They were followed by Hamelin’s energetic reading of his own "Toccata on L’homme armé", a modern composition based on a French secular song from the Renaissance that he wrote for this year’s Van Cliburn International Piano Competition. Then he diplomatically let us know that it was time to say goodbye with a beautiful "Abschied" (Farewell) from Schumann’s Waldszenen (Forest Scenes), Op. 82. So we did.