Tuesday, December 19, 2017

Cantori New York - A Cantori Holiday - 12/16/17

Mark Shapiro: Artistic Director and Conductor 
William Walton: What Cheer 
Elliot Levine: Al Hanissim 
Malcolm Williamson: This Christmas Night 
Mateo Flexcha: Riu, riu, riu 
Soloists: Steve Albert, Kimberly DiNicola, Daniel Lowen, Benjamin Haile, Eleanor Killiam, Bruce Bush 
Shepherds in the Fields Abiding (Arr. David Willcocks) 
German Melody: Lo, How the Rose (Arr. M. Praetorius) 
Kim Gannon & Walter Kent: I'll be home for Christmas (Arr. Mac Huff) 
J. Pierpont: Jingle Bells (Arr. David Willcocks) 
Mark Shapiro: Piano 
Hugh Martin & Ralph Blane: Have yourself a Merry Little Christmas (Arr. Ken Neufeld) 
Moses Hogan: Glory, Glory, Glory 
Soloist: Ben Keiper 
Aaron Bruckner: Virga Jesse 
English Carol: The Wassail Song (Arr. R. Vaughan Williams) 
Elizabeth Poston: Jesus Christ and the Apple Tree 
Soloist: Kimberly DiNicola 
Mykola Leontovich and Peter J. Wilhousky: Carol of the Bells 
Harold Darke: In the Bleak Midwinter 
Soloists: Amy Baehr, Ben Keiper 
Welch Carol: Deck the Hall (Arr. David Willcocks) 
Sergei Rachmaninoff: Bogoroditse Devo 
Franz Xaver Biebl: Ave Maria 
Soloists: Bruce Bush, Mark Stedman Trio: Steve Albert, Brian Morales, Steve Underhill 
West Country Carol: We Wish You a Merry Christmas (Arr. Arthur Warrell) 
Franz Gruber: Silent Night (Sing-along) 

Ready or not, we’re now in the midst of the holiday season with all that it implies, and in New York City it does imply quite a lot. But it is not all bad. While countless poor souls spend hours fighting huddled masses in the cold to catch a glimpse of the Rockefeller Center’s dazzling Christmas tree or some fancy holiday windows, the enlightened ones wisely turn their attention to one of the Big Apple’s other beloved traditions: Cantori New York’s holiday concert at the Church of St. Luke in the Fields.
Not that their glowing reputation is unearned as the unflappable choir and artistic director have never failed to deliver imaginative holiday music performances, boldly taking an ever-changing set of over-played seasonal classics and making them sound fresh and exciting while introducing a few more obscure but totally worthy pieces for good measure. The end result being that the program offers plenty for everybody to enjoy and take home.
As an extra bonus, this year the weather proved to be admittedly acceptable (Fighting for one’s way through a full-blown snowstorm was not required), the trains reasonably efficient (Minimum planning was still required), and the choir in exceptional form (No surprise there). So the West Village’s historic Episcopalian church steadily filled up with an eclectic and excited crowd before happily rocking for a couple of hours on Saturday afternoon. I for one would not have the holiday season any other way.

The annual celebration got underway on a resolutely jolly and all-inclusive note with William Walton’s rousing Christmas carol “What Cheer” before the choir seamlessly moved on to Elliot Levine’s equally lively Hanukkah song “Al Hanissim”. Back on the Christmas track without missing a beat, the choir took the more than willing audience on a highly selective trip around the world with Australian Malcolm Williamson’s “This Christmas Night”, Spanish Mateo Fletcha’s “Riu, riu, riu”, French-flavored “Shepherds in the Fields Abiding”, and German-born “Lo, How the Rose”.
We eventually made it to predictable American territory for Cantori’s actually enjoyable version of the inescapable “Jingle Bells”, whose irrepressible cheerfulness stood out even more than usual, which is saying something, as it was sandwiched between the two sure-fire tranquilizers that are “I'll be home for Christmas” and “Have yourself a Merry Little Christmas”. Next, and not a minute too soon, the performance reached another certified high with Moses Hogan’ gloriously uplifting spiritual “Glory, Glory, Glory”.
After the intermission and raffle, the second half of the concert started in style with a highbrow new addition in Bruckner’s heavenly motet “Virga Jesse”, followed by the rambunctious old English favorite “The Wassail Song”. The non-Christmassy but still appropriate “Jesus Christ and the Apple Tree” was back too, as was the unabashedly joyful “Carol of the Bells”. On the other hand, Harold Darke’s appealing “In the Bleak Midwinter”, a lovely musical setting to Christina Rosetti’s popular poem, was a brand new — and welcome — number. There was no avoiding “Deck the Hall”, but the deftly sped-up version went by quickly enough, and then it was thankfully over for another year.
The home-run was grand almost all the way starting with Rachmaninoff’s splendid “Bogoroditse Devo”, for which the singers were standing on each side of the audience and Biebl’s ever-poignant all-male “Ave Maria”, possibly the holiday concert’s all-time favorite, before “We Wish You a Merry Christmas” kind of broke the lingering spell with relentless perkiness galore and then some. But the traditional “Silent Night” sing-along, during which the choir unexpectedly sang the second verse in German while the rest of us safely stuck to English, made everything all right, as it always does.
Not to be outdone by the cultural part of the day, the well-attended post-concert party was as generous in goodies and festive in mood as it has ever been. Happy holidays!

Tuesday, December 12, 2017

Janine Jansen and Friends - Bartok, Szymanowski & Messiaen - 12/07/17

Bartok: Contrasts for Violin, Clarinet, and Piano 
Szymanowski: Myths for Violin and Piano 
Messiaen: Quatuor pour la fin du temps 
Janine Jansen: Violin 
Lucas Debargue: Piano 
Martin Frost: Clarinet 
Torleif Thedéen: Cello 

In our heady days of irrepressible women’s empowerment, it is particularly comforting to see über-talented female musicians assertively perform on concert hall stages around the world, even if there is still a long way to go in that field as well. Witnessing the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra’s indomitable Marin Alsop at Strathmore a little while ago during my weekend in D.C. was both heartening, because she seemed to be going stronger than ever, and depressing, because she’s still only one of a tiny handful of female conductors and/or music directors worldwide. But things are changing.
Although the season started just a couple of months ago, I have been lucky enough to attend concerts featuring remarkable female soloists, each making her very own indelible mark. My non-exhaustive list has included fearlessly adventuress Leila Josefowicz at the 92Y, petite dynamo Yuja Wang at the Kennedy Center, and inconspicuously formidable Janine Jansen in Zankel Hall this past Thursday for the first concert of her Carnegie Hall Perspectives series, which handily sold out. Now that is one way to officially arrive on the New York music scene.
And since she is not only much in demand but well-connected too, the worldly Dutch violinist surrounded herself with French pianist Lucas Debargue, Swedish clarinetist Martin Fröst and Swedish cellist Torleif Thedéen for a truly exciting program consisting of two intriguing pieces from Eastern Europe and, to my boundless delight, a French classic that has to be one of my favorite music works ever.

Originally composed for classical violinist Joseph Szigeti and jazz clarinetist Benny Goodman, Bela Bartok’s Contrasts for Violin, Clarinet, and Piano focuses squarely on the violin and clarinet, which is not a bad thing when the former is handled by Janine Jansen and the latter by Martin Fröst. Making plenty of fascinating sounds and alluring moves, Fröst stood out as the ideal woodwind counterpart, his clarinet playfully engaging into exhilaratingly fast dance routines with the always game violin while the piano took a thoughtful step back.
But Lucas Debargue got his moment in the spotlight too when he joined Jansen for Karol Szymanowski’s Myths for Violin and Piano, a set of three short tone poems that were as gorgeously impressionistic as Contrasts’ three movements had been vigorously earthy. Quietly evoking natural elements such as shimmering water, refreshing wind, a murmuring forest and some playful sprites, the duo delicately highlighted myriads tiny details with pointed precision while wrapping the whole performance in a subtly poetic atmosphere.
When I first heard Olivier Messiaen’s Quatuor pour le fin du temps (Quartet for the End of Time) it hit me like a ton of bricks, which is ironic considering the generally ethereal nature of the music, and I did not even know its extraordinary genesis yet. I was, however, already a budding fan of Messiaen’s œuvre, never mind that I don’t really care for bird songs, and even less for Catholicism.
Partially due to the strict limitations that literally come with the territory when one composes and performs in a Nazi prisoner-of-war camp, partially due to Messiaen’s relentless imagination, Quatuor pour la fin du temps has an unusual instrumentation. But that does not keep it from delivering a 50-minute emotional punch that often stays with the listener long after the last notes of “Louange à l’immortalité de Jésus” (Praise to the Immortality of Jesus) have faded away.
On Thursday night, the four musicians, including cellist Torleif Thedéen, who seamlessly fit in in his only appearance of the evening, gave a riveting performance of the ambitious piece. Although the work requires potent individual voices, it really comes alive through a truly collaborative effort from all the participants. This expert multi-tasking was on full display on the stage on Thursday to try to fulfill a challenging mission: Fully expressing the poignant eeriness of the music while making it totally accessible. And the mission was brilliantly accomplished.

Saturday, December 9, 2017

BSO - Rouse & Mozart - 12/01/17

Conductor: Marin Alsop 
Rouse: Berceuse infinie 
Mozart: Requiem in D Minor, K. 626 
Benjamin Butterfield: Tenor 
Michael Dean: Bass-baritone 
Alisa Jordheim: Soprano 
Diana Moore: Mezzo-soprano 
University of Maryland Concert Choir 

After an extremely satisfying concert by the National Symphony Orchestra with my friend Jennifer on Saturday night, I was getting mentally prepared for my concert by the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra with my friend Deborah and her friend Anne on Sunday afternoon. The program had the right balance of brand new with the world premiere of Baltimore-born Christopher Rouse’s “Berceuse Infinie”, which had been commissioned by the BSO, and quintessentially timeless with Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s magnificent Requiem, which he famously did not get to finish, but has always been one of his biggest hits.
Although I had been a regular at the Strathmore Music Center before moving to New York City, I had not been back in quite a few years. Despite being warned that the surrounding area was not what it used to be, my heart still sank when I saw the big fancy condos that have been built in the beautiful park next to the building, where refreshing strolls were encouraged and a deer sighting not unusual.
But here again, for the second time in my eventful D.C. weekend, music came to the rescue and healed all my wounds in the packed concert hall, even before the concert started as maestra Alsop warmly welcome everybody with her signature red cuffs and quirky introductions. Thankfully some things do not change. 

Marin Alsop may have confessed that eons ago she fell for Christopher Rouse’s music because it was so unapologetically loud, but the work that the orchestra was presenting last Sunday certainly was anything but. In fact, true to its title, for the most part his “Berceuse Infinie” (Infinite Lullaby) quietly unfolded with a gently rocking rhythm, which discreetly highlighted the soberly beautiful melodies, the delicately nuanced colors, the finely crafted textures, a couple of outstandingly dramatic moments, and a few stunning lines for the cello. At barely 15 minutes, this exquisite lullaby for adults inconspicuously made us lose the sense of time and did bring us a little bit closer to infinity.
Mozart’s Requiem never fails to attract large crowds in concert halls all over the world and last Sunday at Strathmore was no exception. And truth be said, the large crowd could not have been more mightily pleased with the exhilaratingly powerful performance that Marin Alsop got from the fired-up orchestra, the confident choir of young singers from the University of Maryland, and the four excellent soloists.
To add a new twist to my listening of the Requiem, and take full advantage of the perfectly balanced lighting in the hall, for the first time I decided to follow the entire piece on the lyric sheet as the music was going on, and quickly found the experience insightful and rewarding. Secure in my knowledge of the instrumental part, I was able to focus more on the words and therefore go up another notch in my already sky-high level of enjoyment of it.
On Sunday afternoon, the “Dies irae,” possibly the most popular movement of the entire composition, came out particularly muscular and, well, wrathful, soon followed by a gorgeously sad “Lacrimosa.” Of note were also the wonderful contrasts between the forceful assertiveness of the male voices in the “Confutatis” and the delicately ethereality of the female voices in the “Voca me.”
Throughout the performance the seasoned orchestra made the overly familiar piece sound fresh and exciting while the youthful choir made their palpable enthusiasm at tackling such a universal masterpiece crystal clear. Each of the four soloists fulfilled their parts with plenty of talent and commitment, adding strong individual voices to the larger ensembles. It was decidedly good to be back.

Tuesday, December 5, 2017

NSO - Britten, Prokofiev & Rachmaninoff - 12/02/17

Conductor: Gianandrea Noseda 
Britten: Matinées musicales after Rossini 
Prokofiev: Piano Concerto No. 5 in G Major, Op. 55 
Yuja Wang: Piano 
Rachmaninoff: Symphonic Dances, Op. 45

When the prospect of a whole month full of holiday music relentlessly invading New York City’s concert halls, stores and homes became too much to bear, I figured that I should escape to greener pastures where performances would not include anything Christmassy. That’s why last weekend I headed down to my old digs of Washington, D.C. to hear the National Symphony Orchestra with Yuja Wang playing Prokofiev at the Kennedy Center on Saturday night and the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra for Mozart’s Requiem at the Strathmore Music Center on Sunday afternoon. Because why settle for just one musical trip down memory lane when I could go for two?
Because there's never a dull moment in our nation's capital, on Saturday I got to marvel at the newly developed Wharf on the waterfront in the morning before enjoying two outstanding exhibits (Ai Weiwei’s “Traces” at the Hirschhorn Museum and “Vermeer and the Masters of Genre Paintings” at the National Gallery of Art) in the afternoon. And then my friend Jennifer and I survived a memorably sub-par dinner that even dedicated drinking would not improve at the fancy, long-established Italian restaurant La Perla (You know you’re in trouble when you’re greeted with supermarket white bread and butter) early evening.
But music famously heals all wounds, and after perfect little pick-me-ups at Campono and an invigorating walk around the Kennedy Center’s rooftop, we expectantly took our seats in the packed concert hall. The particularly exciting program presented works that Benjamin Britten, Sergei Prokofiev and Sergei Rachmaninoff wrote when they lived outside their native countries between the two world wars. And the icing on the cake came in the form of the prodigious pianist Yuja Wang. Last, but not least, the red carpet that was covering the center’s hallways was a heart-warmingly welcoming touch, even if in all likelihood it had been unrolled for the up-coming Kennedy Center Honors, and not for my long-overdue visit to D.C.

“Matinées musicales” is a rarely performed adaptation of Gioachino Rossini’s themes by Benjamin Britten, and the final result that opened the concert on Saturday night still sounded definitely more Italian than English. One explanation for the boundless energy and vivid colors may have been the unmistakable Italian roots of the NSO’s new music director, who was also the host and conductor for the evening, Gianandrea Noseda, or just Britten not daring to mess too much with a good thing. In any case, it was a charming curiosity.
Prokofiev’s Piano Concerto No. 5, which happens to be his last one, is a funny little piece that comes with more challenges and rewards that its conciseness and playfulness may originally let on, but I had no doubt that Miss Wang would handle it with her signature flair and aplomb, not the least because about a decade ago, even as a much less experienced musician she immediately impressed me with her head-on mastering of the Russian composer’s first and second piano concertos.
And sure enough, on Saturday night she clearly demonstrated that she had not lost her apparently seamless connection to Prokofiev and his œuvre, never mind the amount of mercilessly daunting obstacles she was facing again. Fearlessly inventive and constantly surprising, the concerto was brilliantly performed, its delicately lyrical middle movement beautifully standing out among the other four rambunctiously virtuosic, occasionally downright grotesque, ones.
Never one to be stingy about extending the party, Wang treated the ecstatic audience to two encores, starting with a fierce and exhilarating reading of the Horowitz Variations based Bizet’s Carmen before expertly quieting things down with an unidentified by lovely work.
After intermission, we were in for more Russian fare with Rachmaninoff’s irresistible Symphonic Dances, which unfolded in all their vigorously rhythmical splendor. The orchestra responded exceptionally well to maestro Noseda’s enthusiastic conducting and all of the orchestral suite’s various distinct elements, from the infectious three-note motif to the ever-shifting harmonies to the saxophone solo to the ecclesiastic chants, came effortlessly together to create a glorious musical experience. It was Rachmaninoff’s last composition, but let’s face it, there were not many places to go to after that. So that was fittingly our last piece of the evening as well.