Tuesday, November 6, 2018

Paul Lewis - Brahms, Haydn & Beethoven - 11/03/18

Brahms: Seven Fantasies, Op.116 
Haydn: Sonata in C Minor, Hob. XVI/20 
Beethoven: Seven Bagatelles, Op. 33 
Haydn: Sonata in E-flat Major, Hob. XVI/52 

Although it has been offering memorable performances by musicians of the highest caliber in conveniently located venues at stunningly low prices for the past 118 years, the Peoples’ Symphony Concerts organization is not that well known, most likely because it has inexplicably been staying under the radar of most media outlets. On the other hand, this frustrating situation also means that music lovers can be spontaneous and get a more than reasonably priced ticket at the last minute.
This all changed last week thoughat least when it comes to being unfairly ignoredwhen both The New Yorker and The New York Times mentioned that on Saturday evening, superb English pianist Paul Lewis would be giving his only New York concert of the season at the Washington Irving High School on Saturday evening. That would, of course, imply going to the Union Square area on a Saturday night, which for better or worse rarely fails to be an, errr, interesting experience, but then again, I knew it would be worth the hassle.

Sporting a short haircut that makes him look even younger, Paul Lewis is not one to collect himself before starting playing. He just sits down and does it. And what he did on Saturday evening, to begin with, were Brahms’ Seven Fantasies, a series of seven jewels that are short in duration and giant in expressiveness. Composed late in his life, they boast enigmatic melodies, rich textures and a wide range of emotions, which were all powerfully yet subtly conveyed by Lewis.
I have never associated Haydn with buoyancy, but his Sonata in C Minor sure lifted everybody’s spirits and some. The first work for piano that the composer actually called a sonata, and the most difficult one out of a set of seven, it is challengingly dense, but also wonderfully high-spirited. Constantly keeping the right balance between seriousness and fun, Lewis delivered a totally engaging performance of it, making papa Haydn cool again.
There was plenty of light-heated humor after intermission with Beethoven’s Seven Bagatelles too, a couple of which spontaneously caused happy chuckles from the audience and knowing smiles from the player. It has to be pointed out though, that those so-called “trifles” were not just mere fluffy little things, but presented a wide range of complex and inventive elements that Lewis handled with aplomb and flair.
More Haydn was around the corner with his Sonata in E-flat Major, his last and, arguably, his most accomplished one. A truly virtuosic piece originally written for Therese Jansen, a truly virtuoso English pianist, it was played by another truly virtuosic English pianist on Saturday night. Big, bold and beautiful, with witty sparks, poetic musings and moments of unabashed luminosity, it was the perfect way to end the perfect recital. Or was it?

Because we made it clear that we were not ready to let him go yet, Lewis obligingly came back with Bagatelle No. 6 from Beethoven’s Opus 16. Another perfect way to end the perfect recital.

Sunday, November 4, 2018

Maxim Vengerov & Roustem Saïtkoulov - Brahms, Enescu, Ravel, Ernest & Paganini - 10/30/18

Brahms: Violin Sonata No. 3 in D Minor 
Enescu: Violin Sonata No. 2 in F Minor 
Ravel: Violin Sonata No. 2 
Ernest: The Last Rose of Summer 
Paganini: I palpiti (after Rossini's "Di tanti palpiti" from Tancredi; arr. Fritz Kreisler) 

After an unusual piano-and-percussion concert last Thursday night and a sweeping Resurrection last Sunday afternoon, I was back in the Stern Auditorium on Tuesday night for a good old-fashioned recital by Maxim Vengerov and Roustem Saïtkoulov. The main attraction for me, and probably for the huge continent of Russian nationals surrounding me, was the presence of former violin prodigy turned dedicated teacher and still occasional performer Maxim Vengerov, who thankfully seems to have found his way back to Carnegie Hall after a first visit about a year ago, which finally put an end to an all too long absence.
Needless to say, the program was not that essential, but it certainly did not hurt that it included Brahms’ Violin Sonata No. 3 and Ravel’s Violin Sonata, two natural crowd-pleasers even if the crowd is not made of chamber music fans. And I had no doubt that the other numbers would go down just as easily.

Brahms’ Violin Sonata No. 3, the last, but definitely not least, of a very attractive trio, opened the concert with its dramatic overtone and exquisite details. It takes twos virtuosos to make it justice fully, and we certainly had them on Tuesday evening, as they both beautifully complemented each other from the dynamic Allegro to the turbulent Presto agitato. And whose heart did not melt while listening to the short, but deeply lyrical and unabashedly Romantic Adagio? It certainly would be hard to claim that Brahms was just a emotionless perfectionist after that.
Romanticism was also found in Enescu’s Violin Sonata No. 2 too, but it was of the late kind (Not that there’s anything wrong with that) and accompanied by pretty melodies, modern elegance, Romanian playfulness and melancholia, as well as an unexpected—and unexpectedly anti-climatic—ending.
A recital favorite, Ravel’s Violin Sonata No. 2 injected a solid dose of crossover sparks into our evening, especially with its irresistibly bluesy second movement, which came to life after an American music style had been appreciated through the eyes and ears of an intellectually curious French composer and, on Tuesday night, was played with plenty of eagerness by two Russian musicians.
Then Vengerov occupied the stage alone for Heinrich Ernest’s “The Last Rose of Summer”, a challenging showpiece inspired by the popular Irish ballad and written to make use of many of the violin’s countless possibilities. Vengerov’s performance of it was as dazzling as you would expect and easily brought down the house.
The official program ended with a piece written by Nicolo Paganini, another violin virtuoso, who for the occasion dabbled into composing. “I palpiti” was inspired by Rossini’s Tancredi and arranged by Fritz Kreisler, yet another violin virtuoso. Although the work started with an assertive statement by the piano, the violin eventually appeared with a beautiful melodic line that nonchalantly twisted and turned for what seem a long, and yet still too short, time.

The enthusiastic ovation earned us a delicious “Caprice viennois” by Kreisler, a serene “Vocalise” by Rachmaninoff, arranged by Heifetz, and, when we all thought that everything had be said and done, Vengerov came back, signaled that he still had time for one more, and readily threw himself into a brilliantly high-spirited Hungarian Dance No. 2 by Brahms, arranged by Joseph Joachim. The older Russian couple to my right were beaming from ear to ear with national pride, and for some reason so was I.

Wednesday, October 31, 2018

Czech Philharmonic - Mahler - 10/28/18

Mahler: Symphony No. 2 (Resurrection) 
Conductor: Semyon Bychkov 
Christiane Karg: Soprano 
Elisabeth Kulman: Mezzo-soprano 
Prague Philharmonic Choir 

Mahler’s sprawling Resurrection symphony holds a special place in my heart not only because it is a stunning work, but also because I heard it live for the first time performed by the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra in their home, in Amsterdam. As most connoisseurs will tell you, those Dutch know their Mahler, and they certainly proved it that night. Of course, the fact that I was sitting in close proximity of the timpani made the impact of the whole experience even more powerful.
Last Sunday afternoon, I was getting physically and mentally prepared to hear it again, performed this time by the Czech Philharmonic as a celebration of the 100th anniversary of Czech independence from the Austrian Empire, in Carnegie Hall’s Stern Auditorium. At least this was a more joyful occasion that the other two events it has been noticeably performed at, namely after JFK’s assassination and for the 10th anniversary of September 11.

The program notes gave the duration at approximately 80 minutes, but in the end we did not leave the hall well after the estimated time, feeling predictably shaken and stirred,but also inexplicably hopeful, especially considering the relentlessly turbulent times we live in. The fact that the orchestra’s new music director Semyon Bychkov had observed the original 5-minute pause might have had something to do with it, but on the other hand, who cares? We were just grateful for the opportunity to lose ourselves in Mahler’s magnificent world in such qualified company.
Although they’re more known for the bohemian flair, the Czech Philharmonic’s musicians had apparently decided to show the rest of us what they were made of when it comes to Mahler, and I think it is fair to say that they succeeded beyond our—maybe their—wildest dreams when, somehow, all the stars aligned for a performance that was supremely confident, organically flowing, without any discernable flaws or quirks. They did not achieve this remarkable feat alone though, as they were reliably accompanied by “a distant orchestra” (fernorchester), the Prague Philharmonic Choir, and two soloists. Sometimes more is more.
From the ominous opening funeral march to the blazing choir-driven finale, the big moments resounded without ostentatiousness, and the lighter passages made themselves heard naturally as well, like the beautifully ethereal “Urlicht” (Primal Light) that mezzo-soprano Elisabeth Kulman took to heavenly heights.Not a bad way to spend a gray, cold and generally depressing October afternoon.

Yuja Wang & Martin Grubinger - Bartok, Psathas, Stravinsky & Marquez - 10/26/18

Bela Bartok: Sonata for Two Pianos and Percussion (arr. for one piano and percussion by Martin Grubinger Sr.) 
John Psathas: One Study (arr. for one piano and percussion by Martin Grubinger Sr.) 
Igor Stravinsky: Le sacre du printemps (arr. for one piano and percussion by Martin Grubinger Sr.) 
Arturo Marquez: Danzón No. 2 (arr. for solo piano by Leticia Gómez-Tagle; arr. for one piano and percussion by Martin Grubinger Sr.) 
Yuja Wang: Piano 
Martin Grubinger: Percussion 
Alexander Georgiev: Percussion 
Leonhard Schmidinger: Percussion 
Martin Grubinger Sr.: Percussion 

Having one’s own Perspectives series at Carnegie Hall is about as prestigious an honor as they come for any musician, but for the dazzling pianist Yuja Wang, it is probably just another day in the office, or rather six days in the office, as this season she is busily curating six concerts for the legendary music venue.
Never one to rest on her already impressive laurels, Wang obviously decided to heed her voracious spirit of adventure. For the first program of her series, she joined forces with her guest star Austrian percussion prodigy Martin Grubinger and three partners of his, in the Stern Auditorium last Friday night. Even more exciting, our piano-and-percussion evening would be filled by known and less known pieces by an impressively international range of composers, all arranged by Martin Grubinger’s father, who also happened to be one of the musicians onstage.
Needless to say, you can always trust the unstoppable Miss Wang to start a Carnegie Hall Perspective series with a loud, clear and―naturally―sold-out bang.

The show started with Hungarian composer Bela Bartok’s Sonata for Two Pianos and Percussion and, from the very first notes, it became evident that piano and percussion are, in fact, brothers in rhythms. I tend to dismiss the sounds of tropical instruments such as the marimba and the xylophone as too mellow, but hearing them handle Bartok’s often dark and relentlessly driven composition was certainly an interesting experience. What was even more spell-binding though, was watching the tight ensemble energetically works their way through the piece with jaw-dropping virtuosity.
New Zealander composer John Psathas’ short and fun "One Study" was a relentlessly kaleidoscopic movement that blended a little bit of everything, including rock and jazz. Never losing a beat, the musicians confidently kept their momentum throughout the exhilarating 10 minutes.
In the original line-up, Russian composer Igor Stravinsky’s Le sacre du printemps was the concert’s opening number, but by the time we all opened our programs, we found a slip informing us that it would be played after intermission, probably to make people come back to their seats. Sure enough, they did, and ended up being vastly rewarded for it too.
Already famous for its viscerally primitive rhythms, on Friday night the ground-breaking work was even more thrilling than usual in the hands of four expert percussion or percussion-like piano, and I dare say that the missing instruments were barely missed, if at all. The opening bassoon was winningly replaced by a vibraphone, which promptly set the tone for the unusual journey, and the small but fierce ensemble went on to create plenty of fascinating colors and sounds.
After such satisfying delirium, it was difficult to come back to the much more subdued reality of Mexican composer Arturo Márquez’s short and sweet "Danzón No. 2". Pleasantly languorous and undeniably colorful, it went down like a refreshing drink after a terrific nightmare.

Our evening was winding down, but it was over yet. Responding to our huge ovation, the star duo came back for a devilishly efficient version of American composer Jesse Sieff’s "Chopstakovich", a dazzling number inspired by the Allegro molto from Dmitri Shostakovich’s Chamber Symphony, Op. 110a, with a whiff from the Allegretto from his Piano Trio No. 2 thrown in. And just like that, the encore became one of the many highlights of my evening.

Saturday, October 27, 2018

Met - Marnie - 10/22/18

Composer: Nico Muhly 
Conductor: Robert Spano 
Librettist: Nicholas Wright 
Producer/Director: Michael Mayer 
Isabel Leonard: Marnie 
Christopher Maltman: Mark Rutland
Iestyn Davies: Terry Rutland 
Denyce Graves: Marnie’s Mother 
Janis Kelly: Mrs. Rutland

Because the Met is so stingy when it comes to new operas – We are typically granted one a season – each one of them is a drop-everything-and-go event. This season, I was all the more intrigued by the offering, Nico Muhly’s Marnie, as it is based on a book by Winston Gresham that inspired Hitchcock to make a film, a few scenes of which have remained ingrained in my memory since I first saw it as a young child – The raging storm! The red flashes! The doomed horse! – never mind that I had no idea what it was all about at the time. Who would have thought that my conservative grand-parents would be the ones accidentally introducing me to what is routinely considered the master of suspense’s most disturbing film during summer vacation?
Another reason to go is that I have always enjoyed Nico Muhly’s music, from short pieces to his first opera Two Boys, and I welcome opportunities to discover more. I was also looking forward to hearing Isabel Leonard, a rising star whose talent I had heard countless good things about, but never got to experience live. This season, however, I will be catching up with her not once or twice, but three times, since I will also be checking her out in Pelléas et Mélisande and Le dialogue des Carmélites.
Last, but not least, it was so heartening to see a younger than usual audience in an almost full house for a modern opera on a Monday night at the Met.

It’s no wonder that the book caught the attention of Alfred Hitchcock back in the early 1960s, even if he ended up taking large liberties with it. The story of a young kleptomaniac whose mental disorder and consequential odd behavior stems from way back in her childhood, Marnie has many ingredients of a good film or opera with a heroine with multiple personalities, a fair amount of suspense, the indispensable love story, even if in this case it is hard to come by, and 1950s England. What's not to love?
With her petite frame, fashionable looks and expressive singing, mezzo-soprano Isabel Leonard was a wonderfully mysterious and oh so troubled Marnie. Although her voice is not big, it has an appealing slightly dark quality, and she used it expertly to convey Marnie’s unstable personality. Add to that some impressive acting skills, and we had an exceptionally well-rounded, delicately nuanced performance.
Baritone Christopher Maltman was a handsome Mark Rutland, a widower so taken with Marnie that he blackmailed her into marriage in order to try to figure her out. Part the ultimate male chauvinist pig who stops at nothing to get what he wants, part genuinely caring companion who stops at nothing to help his wife get better, Maltman successfully treaded the treacherous fine line of the challenging part.
Countertenor Iestyn Davies was his deliciously sleazy brother Terry, a man who has trouble taking no for an answer. The poker scene with Marnie was as uncomfortable as it was engrossing, and that was obviously just the tip of the iceberg. He may not have been the big boss in the family business, but he eventually ran the show on the stage.
Legendary mezzo-soprano Denyce Graves had a couple of blink-and-you’ll-miss scenes, except that, even if you had blinked, you could not have missed her unmistakable presence and stunning singing as Marnie’s disabled and bitter mother. Not to be outdone, soprano Janis Kelly was equally remarkable in her own few scenes as Mark’s implacably assertive mother.
Marnie’s four shadows, who were four singers at times accompanying Marnie musically and physically to convey her multiple personalities, were a mixed blessing as they were as dazzling as distracting. The Met chorus, being his typical excellent self, compellingly fleshed out the crowd scenes, whether in a bustling office or in a packed pub.
Michael Mayer’s slick modern production had an irresistible cinematic look and rhythm to it. The several panels on which various images, including large portraits of Marnie, were projected slid effortlessly during the many transitions, and the 1950s outfits were vibrantly colorful and delightfully stylish. Marnie being a loner by default, it was kind of shocking to see her so frequently surrounded not only by her four shadows, but also by a bunch of men seemingly preying over her. Although we understand that it is all in her head, all this agitation got to become borderline obnoxious.
Some moments powerfully came together though, such as Marnie’s blurry silhouette and then distinct hand appearing from behind a frosted glass panel that suddenly turned bright red when, after her husband attempted to rape her during their honeymoon, she slashed her wrist in the bathroom. Or the scene in the psychiatric office where the truth about the childhood trauma began to unravel. (Get ready for a healthy dose of family drama and pop psychology).
Nico Muhly’s score is an intriguing, often spell-binding, mix of baroque and contemporary, which is after all not that surprising since the composer is a modern young man fascinated by Renaissance choral music. Unsurprisingly, the meticulous pointillism worked very well for atmosphere creation, but it was less conducive to keeping the audience on their toes. There were some intense moments for sure, such as the frantic pace of the office or the heated confrontation on the ship, but at other times, I felt a lack of momentum creeping up.
Robert Spano, making his long-overdue debut at the Met, led an excellent performance of the tricky composition, effectively bringing out its exciting idiosyncrasies, its intricate rhythms, its overall eeriness, as well as its discreet lyricism that perked up now and then. Possibly thrilled about sinking their teeth into a cool new work, the musicians played with dynamism and confidence.
Some may say that Marnie, with its undeniable sexism, is kind of an odd choice for a new opera in our me-too era, but it is also easy to see what could make it an attractive subject, especially in the hands of the right artists. And attractive it was.

Sunday, October 14, 2018

Met - Samson et Dalila - 10/09/18

Composer: Camille Saint-Saëns 
Librettist: Ferdinand Lemaire 
Conductor: Sir Mark Elder 
Producer/Director: Darko Tresnjak 
Samson: Roberto Alagna 
Dalila: Elina Garanca 
The High Priest of Dagon: Laurent Naouri 

Some opera memories are of course more vivid than others, and one of my best times at the Met is still the incandescent pairing of French tenor Roberto Alagna and Latvian mezzo-soprano Elina Garanca in Carmen, back in 2009. Therefore, I was understandably very eager to repeat the experience this season with Camille Saint- Saëns’ Samson et Dalila, and to add another opera under my belt at the same time.
A certified child prodigy who became a prodigious pianist and organist, as well as a staunch supporter of young artists, the French composer was not known for dwelling on emotions too much. A born perfectionist, he unquestionably mastered his craft but did not carry his heart on his sleeve, which makes his foray into opera, an art essentially made of larger-than-life emotions, all the more interesting. Samson et Dalila, which deals with big time religion, politics and sentiments, seems like an odd choice for him, but then again, you don’t know until you try it.
So that's what I did last Tuesday night at the Met, on an unseasonably warn evening, in a not quite full house.

Among all the biblical stories, Saint-Saëns had picked the haircut that resounded around the world – or at least would eventually bring down the Philistines’ temple – to originally make an oratorio out of it, until his librettist Ferdinand Lemaire persuaded him to turn it into an opera that is. And since this was happening in end-of-the-century France, the end product came out as a grand opera that featured two extended dance sequences, a decadent bacchanal and a sure-fire hit for mezzo-sopranos.
This fall the mezzo-soprano in charge is Elina Garanca, whose singing is as well-known for its surgical precision as for its underlying coolness. However, she did not let this aura of mystery of hers make her Dalila indifferent, just naturally poised and undoubtedly conniving. And if it was not always easy to figure out what her true feelings toward Samson were, she still sang the hell out of the seduction scene in Act II, including the much celebrated “Mon cœur s’ouvre à ta voix”. And all our hearts, including Samson's, did in fact open to her voice. Incidentally, she also has to be given credit for looking impossibly glamorous in the gaudiest outfits.
The yang to her yin was tenor Roberto Alagna, who never stopped singing his heart out, whether he was trying to raise his fellow Hebrews’ spirits or to resist Dalila’s compelling charms. Alagna always seems most comfortable with hot-blooded characters that are going through vertiginous highs and bottomless lows, and on Tuesday night, his Samson, whether the fearless leader, the hopeless lover or the remorseful traitor, was dramatically and vocally intense.
The third wheel, which turned out to be one of the true stars of the evening, was French bass-baritone Laurent Naouri who gave an imperturbably commanding performance in the smaller role of the High Priest of Dagon. His scene with Dalila in Act II, in particular, as they are plotting Samson’s demise, was a real treat.
Unsurprisingly, another shining star was the Met’s chorus, who brought their superior skills flawlessly together to create wonderfully nuanced crowd scenes, especially making Act I come alive with gripping fervor and Act III explode with orgiastic decadence.
Although Samson et Dalila can be a frustratingly static opera to begin with, a setting in biblical times – Gaza in 1150 BCE, to be precise – still has the potential to set imaginative minds on fire. But, beside a few flashes of creativity, that was not much the case for this production. The costumes, for example, were downright predictable, such as drab-looking rags for the enslaved Hebrews as opposed to glitzy get-ups and half-naked bodies for the Philistines. At least the two teams were easy to tell apart.
Truth be told, some ideas had their merit, such as leaving the Islamic art-patterned, metal-looking curtain down for a few minutes into the opera smartly concretized the confinement of the Hebrews, who then appeared at the bottom of the stage while the Philistines looked down at them from above. On the other hand, at some point, the young guy behind me was wondering aloud where Dalila’s “spaceship dungeon” of a home was supposed to be located, and I had no answer. In Act III, in a sharp study of contrast, the much-awaited bacchanal was vividly colorful and tremendously agitated while the collapse of the pagan temple was cleverly symbolized.
Saint-Saëns’ score is rigorously structured and dutifully runs the gamut from crass to romantic to spiritual, strongly establishing the laudable piety of the Hebrews and the shameless debauchery of the Philistines. Even in the most forceful moments, the orchestra never covered the singers, all the better to hear the carefully crafted parts they had been assigned. As conducted by the estimable Sir Mark Elder, the flamboyant kitsch was all on the stage and the understated efficiency was all in the pit. And that worked out.

Wednesday, October 10, 2018

New York Philharmonic - Andriessen, Stravinsky & Debussy - 10/06/18

Conductor: Jaap van Zweden 
Andriessen: Agamemnon 
Stravinsky: Violin Concerto in D 
Leila Josefowicz: Violin 
Stravinsky: Symphonies of Wind Instruments 
Debussy: La Mer: Trois esquisses symphoniques 

I had to wait over eight agonizingly long years before hearing Igor Stravinsky’s idiosyncratic little violin concerto live again, but since patience is apparently a virtue with priceless rewards, last week I got abundantly rewarded when I serendipitously got to hear it not only once, but twice. And by no less than Leonidas Kavakos with the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra at Carnegie Hall on Thursday night, and then Leila Josefowicz with the New York Philharmonic Orchestra at Davis Geffen Hall on Saturday night. And suddenly, all was well in the world again (and that takes a lot these days).
So I had to suck up my contempt for going out on a Saturday night one more time, and happily headed down to Lincoln Center for my big New York Philharmonic season-opening performance (Yes, that was that kind of a week). As a substantial bonus, the program also included La Mer, the stunning orchestral work by Stravinsky’s colleague and friend Claude Debussy. Even better, I found one of those mysterious little envelopes filled with goodies welcoming returning subscribers on my seat in a happily buzzing concert hall. 

As if van Zweden, the New York Phil’s new artistic director, wanted to assert his dedication to bringing new works to music-loving New Yorkers, the program started with Agamemnon, a composition by Dutch composer Louis Andriessen that had been commissioned by the New York Philharmonic and was having its world premiere last week. Inspired by Greek mythology, the tone poem combined resounding war-like chaos with a little help from an electric guitar, an electric bass, and a discernably jazz influence. There were a lot of conflicts going on among the several characters until the finale, when Kassandra suddenly got up and spoke a few lines while maestro van Zweden was keeping the orchestra under quiet tension. And that was that.
Although an in-depth comparative study between Leonidas Kavakos’ and Leila Josefowicz’ performances of Stravinsky’s violin concerto almost seemed inevitable, it would also have been an exercise in futility, both of them being artists well-known for their outstanding musicianship and insatiable spirit of adventure. It was kind of unfair to Josefowicz too, since Kavakos would benefit from the vastly superior acoustics of Carnegie Hall’s Stern Auditorium, and consequently sound better by default. But then again, life is not always fair.
Stravinsky famously used his lack of knowledge about the violin and his close friendship with American violinist Samuel Dushkin to come up with a piece that did not heed the conventional limits of violin playing, but instead boasted a constant stream on inventiveness that seduces nowadays more than ever. In the end, after all had been said, done and played, I am happy to confirm that, with a firm grasp on the feisty score and a tight connection with the superb orchestras accompanying them, both soloists delivered tremendously exciting performances. Now all I can hope for is not to have to wait another eight years before hearing it again.
After intermission we got more Stravinsky, and of the more unusual kind too, with his Symphonies of Wind Instruments, an ironically string-less composition made for woodwind and brass instruments. Dedicated to the memory of his friend Debussy, the 10-minute, one-movement piece came out somber and respectful.
And then, logically enough, we moved on to Debussy himself by way of La Mer, one of his most remarkable and popular works, never mind its inauspicious debut. Although the composer did not care for the real thing and routinely stayed away from large bodies of water, preferring drawing inspiration from visual representations of them, he nevertheless created a richly evocative composition that the New York Philharmonic beautifully brought to vivid life with radiant colors, powerful winds, splashy waves and a big bad storm. In fact, while listening to such a powerfully eloquent depiction of the sea, one almost does not need the real thing.

Sunday, October 7, 2018

San Francisco Symphony - All-Stravinsky - 10/04/18

Conductor: Michael Tilson Thomas 
Stravinsky: Pétrouchka (Petrushka) 
Stravinsky: Violin Concerto in D Major 
Leonidas Kavakos: Violin 
Stravinsky: Le sacre du printemps (The Rite of Spring) 

After my big Met season-opening performance of Aida with Anna Netrebko on Tuesday night, I was getting ready for my big Carnegie Hall season-opening performance by the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra, their long-time music director and conductor Michael Tilson Thomas and their guest soloist violinist Leonidas Kavakos for an all-Stravinsky program on Thursday night.
Hearing Stravinsky’s music is always a thrill to me, and Le sacre du printemps has to be one of my all-time favorites from the entire classical music repertoire. That said, I was equally thrilled for a long-overdue other opportunity to hear his electrifying violin concerto again. I had the privilege of hearing it twice, performed both times by Gil Shaham, back in Washington, D.C. years ago, and haven’t been able to find it on any concert programs until last spring, when the Carnegie Hall’s 2018-1019 season catalog appeared in my mailbox and quickly made my day.
So it was with great expectations that I made my way to the bustling Stern Auditorium, where I found what seemed like a lot of the same staunchly patriotic Russian population that I had found myself among on Tuesday night. Those Russian know a good thing when they see it.

Among Igor Stravinsky’s many works, I can’t say that Pétrouchka stands out for me, maybe because I have never cared for puppets and their misadventures. On the other hand, I can still appreciate the score’s refreshing inventiveness, and when it is played by a well-oiled ensemble like the San Francisco Symphony, it is hard not to be carried away by the whole thing. And I eventually was.
Stravinsky’s Violin Concerto, on the other hand, had grabbed me the first time I heard its recurring dissonant “passport” chord followed by a cascade of idiosyncratically spirited music. And that was only the first movement of a piece whose unexpected twists and turns kept me on my toes the entire time, and left me eager to repeat the experience as often as possible. That proved to be more difficult than I had thought.
But my patience was mightily rewarded when at long last the magic operated flawlessly again on Thursday night with Leonidas Kavakos, who spontaneously made the quirky little concerto his own with his trademark virtuosity. Among many other things, you simply had to love the Baroque hints and asymmetrical rhythms of the composition, and the right balance between warmth and causticity of the performance. Although I remembered the concerto’s pulsating playfulness most vividly, this time I was struck by the introspectiveness lyricism of its two slower Aria movements. The work only lasts slightly over 20 minutes, but it kept soloist and orchestra constantly busy going through Stravinsky’s seemingly bottomless bag of tricks for a totally exhilarating performance.
After a well-earned enthusiastic ovation, Kavakos came back and treated us to a gritty Adagietto from the Sonata for Solo Violin by Second Viennese School’s member Nikos Salkottas, adding an unmistakable Greek touch to our Russian neo-classical evening.
After intermission came the prodigious Sacre du printemps, which I can never hear enough either. Its riotous Paris premiere, which was probably caused as much by Diaghilev’s avant-garde choreography as by the revolutionary nature of the Stravinsky’s score, may have made it famous for the wrong reason, but there’s no doubt that its own artistic merit would have guaranteed it a prime spot in the classical music canon regardless. An unambiguous ode to the “mystery and great surge of the creative power of spring” and a discreet homage to Eastern European folk music overflowing with experiments in tonality, meter, rhythm, stress and dissonance, it remains a unique work that still sounds as fresh and innovative today as it did back in 1913.
There’s probably not much, if anything, that the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra and MTT cannot handle, and sure enough, they gave a brilliant performance of it, deftly using their technically advanced skills to compellingly evoke primal rituals with mysteriously foreboding percussion, brightly ringing brass, strongly confident winds, and of course, the organically sinuous and a little unnerving bassoon. For all its wild ferocity and sonic eeriness, this Sacre also featured superbly polished harmonies in the quieter moments, proving once and for all that far from being mutually exclusive, primitiveness and refinement can make beautiful music together.

Saturday, October 6, 2018

Met - Aida - 10/02/18

Composer: Giacomo Puccini 
Librettist: Antonio Ghislanzoni 
Conductor: Nicola Luisotti 
Producer/Director: Sonja Frisell 
Aida: Anna Netrebko
Amneris: Anita Rachvelishvili  
Radamès: Aleksandrs Antonenko 
Quinn Kelsey: Amonasro 
Ryan Speedo Green: Egyptian king 

Sometimes the third time is the charm, and that’s what I was dearly hoping for when I bought my ticket for yet another go at Aida back last summer. After a lackluster first experience in Washington, D.C. eons ago and a humdrum one at the Met a couple of years ago, I was still waiting to hear Aida the way it is supposed to be heard. Luckily for me, this season the Met booked the world's premier soprano and indomitable force of nature Anna Netrebko, by all accounts the living opposite of lackluster and humdrum, which made me think that she could be not only the one breaking the curse, and also provide a resounding kick-off to my 2018-2019 Met season.
Even if Aida has enjoyed an enduring popularity since it first came out, it has never appealed to me the way other operas by Verdi have. But again, hearing the ill-fated love triangle fiercely battle it out amidst political conflicts is never all bad. And a lot of people, including the apparently entire Russian population of New York City, were obviously thinking the same thing as the Met’s opera house was literally packed to the rafters, including the standing room patrons who had to stand the whole time, on a (Gasp!) Tuesday night. 

Originally commissioned for the opening of Cairo’s Royal Opera House, Aida was delayed by the Franco-Prussian War, but still eventually had its world premiere there in 1871. It is generally considered a good introduction to opera because the plot is easy to follow, the music is thrilling, and it is not overly long. Add to that the exotic setting of ancient Egypt, and you have a certified hit, especially when you have the right cast. And we sure came pretty damn close on Tuesday.
Over the past few years opera superstar Anna Netrebko has been mindfully moving away from the lighter roles that made her famous to venture successfully into (vocally and psychologically) darker territories. And sure enough, she whole-heartedly threw herself into the exciting new part of the deeply conflicted enslaved princess and delivered a fully controlled, dynamite performance that kept the happily enthralled audience on their toes the entire evening. Following her by now well-honed M.O., she made the most of her magnetic stage presence and her constantly evolving, more nuanced than ever, magnificent voice, and if her signature impossibly long, delectably voluptuous lines were not always crystal clear, they certainly unfolded gorgeously.
Her worthy rival was sensational Anita Rachvelishvili, who turned out to be a remarkably strong yet still achingly vulnerable Amneris. Making the thankless role of the ruthlessly scheming trouble-maker engaging is no small task, but the Georgian mezzo-soprano was totally up for it with a wonderfully wide-ranging and expressive voice, solid acting chops and plenty of charisma of her own. The confrontation scene between the two women was one of the highlights of the evening, bristling with tension and anxiety.
As military hero and romantic lead, Radamès was impersonated by tenor Aleksandrs Antonenko, who, among other things, faced the daunting challenge of belting out one of opera’s most beloved arias a few minutes into the performance. His “Celeste Aida” went well, and he managed to hold more or less his own against the two fired-up ladies fighting for his attention. My main quibble is that while his singing had all the steady power required for the part, his lyrical side sometimes had trouble coming through.
The Met chorus was as fabulous as usual, especially in the Triumphal March scene, to which they vividly breathed much needed new life, and smaller but key roles such as Amonasro, Aida’s father, and the Egyptian king were more than capably filled by respectively baritone Quinn Kelsey and bass-baritone Ryan Speedo Green.
Sonja Frisell’s squarely old-fashioned production, featuring huge pharaoh’s statues, quiet sandy landscapes, bare-chested troops and fake tans, has been regularly used for the past three decades now, and although its indisputable grandeur makes up to some degree for its lack of inspiration, it is high time to retire it. Piling up a bunch of monumental set pieces and moving a lot of people on a stage may be visually arresting, but it takes more than that to make a production truly memorable. Even the much talked-about live horses of the victory parade made it clear that they could not wait to get out of there.
The Met orchestra musicians can probably play Verdi’s sumptuous score in their sleep by now, but they were nevertheless wide awake on Tuesday as conducted by Nicola Luisotti and gave it richly colorful reading. The arias had space and time to blossom, the dramatic moments came out truly genuinely gripping, and the pace was nicely kept (The final curtain dropped just 10 minutes after the scheduled time).
Bottom line is, Anna Netrebko and Anita Rachvelishvili made it all worth it, and all we need now is a new production for it

Friday, October 5, 2018

Teatro Grattacielo - Gloria - 09/29/18

Composer: Francesco Cilea 
Librettist: Arturo Colautti 
Conductor: Israel Gursky 
Kerri Marcinko: Gloria 
Wesley Morgan: Lionetto de Ricci 
John Robert Green: Bardo 
Mikhail Svetlov: Aquilante 
Chorus: Cantori New York 
The Teatro Grattacielo Orchestra 

Just as my 2018-2019 music season is slowly but nicely warming up, Teatro Grattacielo, the feisty little opera company that shall not be denied, managed to dig out another barely-known and yet worth-knowing work in Francesco Cilea’s little verismo jewel Gloria, and presented its New York premiere last Saturday night. While the plot, which revolves around a doomed love story à la Romeo and Juliet in 16th century Siena, is not terribly imaginative (who needs another pair of star-crossed lovers?), it still had the potential to yield plenty of good drama and good music.
Since I like to think of myself as a staunch supporter of out-of-the-box endeavors, I decided to put aside my physical and mental exhaustion after a long day of labor with a stubborn cold, not to mention my general disdain of going out on a Saturday night, and headed down to the Gerald Lynch Theater to check out this mysterious Gloria in concert last weekend, on what was an appropriately glorious fall evening.

There’s little doubt that Teatro Grattacielo operates with very limited means, but that does not stop them for coming through for their audience. Therefore, if there were no surtitles over the stage, a complete bilingual libretto was provided inside the program. And if a staged production was out of reach, some pretty impressive talents had been booked for that one and only performance regardless.
As the female protagonist torn between her brother and her lover, soprano Kerri Marcinko was an endearing Gloria, whose naturally beautiful voice helped her expertly turn from sweet young girl to fiercely passionate woman who does not hesitate to make the ultimate sacrifice to be reunited with the man she cannot live without. This Gloria constantly had a lot on her mind, but she stayed true to herself until the very end.
Her Lionetto was more than capably impersonated by tenor Wesley Morgan, who did not let his almost non-existent rehearsal time get in the way of delivering a solid and engaging performance. Lionetto may not be the perfect son-in-law (That kind of went out of the window when he abducted the daughter of one of the town's noblemen), but his genuine love for Gloria, as well as his sincerity and courage, are to be commended, and Morgan made sure that those laudable traits came through.
Every love story needs a villain, who will try by any means necessary to keep the two lovers apart, and on Saturday night baritone John Robert Green did a wonderful job at being the bad guy who will stop at nothing to get his revenge. Among many highlights, his extended volcanic duet with his sister in the second act certainly brought out the best of them. As his father Aquilante, bass Mikhail Svetlov made a lasting impression in his smaller part.
The expanded Cantori New York choir had a swell time creating a lively crowd of busybodies right from the start as they opened the opera with a bright celebration of the joys of spring and the symbolic nature of the fountain, giving the story context, depth and energy.
In true verismo tradition, Cilea's Gloria boasts a richly colorful, intensely lyrical score, complete with quite a few attractive arias, and the large orchestra, including a harp and a harmonium, gave it their all under the attentive baton of maestro Gursky. Not a bad way to spend a Saturday night after all.

Sunday, September 23, 2018

Orpheus Orchestra - Little Giants - 09/20/18

Pärt: Fratres 
Chopin: Piano Concerto No. 2 in F Minor, Op. 21 (arr. Shuying Li) 
Nobuyuki Tsujii: Piano 
Tchaikovsky: Chamber Symphony No. 1 in D Major, Op. 11b (arr. Christopher Theofanidis) 

Although Carnegie Hall’s official season finally kicks off in early October, the walls of the prestigious concert venue have already become alive again with the sounds of music produced by musicians who cleverly booked one of the halls for a performance before it becomes much more challenging to squeeze in.
That’s the case for the Orpheus Orchestra, a long-time member on the local music scene whose impeccably musicianship only equals its refreshing resourcefulness. For example, since the repertoire for chamber orchestras is rather limited, they decided to be proactive and have some classical pieces arranged for them, either by downsizing them, like Chopin’s Piano Concerto No. 2, or expanding them, like Pärt’s Fratres or Tchaikovsky’s First String Quartet.
Moreover, beside those intriguing experiments that were begging to be checked out, the program also promised an opportunity for the audience to hear young Japanese pianist Nobuyuki Tsujii, also known as Nobu, one of those natural child prodigies who make the rest of us feel like a speck of dust. But never mind that. My friend Ruth and I decided to swallow our pride and go for it.

As a big fan of the violin and piano version of Arvo Pärt’s Fratres, I was particularly curious, and, let’s face it, a little apprehensive, to hear the chamber orchestra version of it as I had a hard time imagining how the deeply spiritual quality of the pared-down original would translate with a more substantial group of musicians. Turns out that while the orchestra version had its indisputable merits, notably a more nuanced texture, I found that it simply did not convey the spell-binding mystical appeal of the composer’s tintinnabuli style. Nice try though.
When it comes to Chopin, I whole-heartedly agree with the conventional wisdom that proclaims him the unequal master of the solo piano, and I also think that he did not really know what to do with an orchestra. A case in point of in favor of that theory is his Piano Concerto No. 2, in which the pianist gets to display his virtuosic skills and the orchestra mostly comes in as an after-thought. Shuying Li’s arrangement of the piece for chamber orchestra does allow the ensemble to steal a few fleeting moments in the spotlight, but there's no question that the piano remains the shining star of the show.
On Thursday night, the other star of the show was fast-rising musician Nobuyuki Tsujii, who did not let his youth or blindness get in the way of delivering a technically sound and emotionally involved performance. I am happy to confirm that in the case of this young man, you should believe the hype.
The rousing standing ovation that followed the concerto earned us an irresistibly jazzy "Prelude" from 8 Concert Études, Op. 40 by Kapustin that lifted everybody's spirit a little bit more while readily proving that his talent is as wide-ranging as his interests.
After intermission, it was Tchaikovsky’s turn for a somewhat radical make-over when the orchestra delivered a beautiful reading of his First String Quartet arranged by Christopher Theofanidis for chamber orchestra. Since I tend to lament the liberal use of schmaltz and brass in Tchaikovsky’s orchestral music, I was particularly thrilled that this chamber symphony preserved his trademark lush melodies, went easy on the sentimentality, and did not contain any excessive loudness. In fact, it was occasionally so refined that it almost felt Mozartian, which would have no doubt immensely pleased the Russian composer, who was one of the Austrian composer’s biggest fans. And it certainly pleased us too.

Saturday, September 22, 2018

Music Mondays - Jasper Quartet - Beethoven, Shaw, Mazzoli & Mendelssohn - 09/17/18

Ludwig van Beethoven: String Quartet in G Major, Op. 18, No. 2 
Caroline Shaw: Valencia 
Missy Mazzoli: Death Valley Junction 
Felix Mendelssohn: String Quartet in D Major, Op. 44, No. 1 

After an essentially forced downtime on the performance front, the music drought I had to endure was officially over last Monday evening. That’s when the Philadelphia-based Jasper Quartet and the reliably ambitious, not to mention wonderfully convenient, Music Mondays series provided me with the perfect opportunity to ease myself back into the slowly but surely opening 2018-2019 New York music season with an attractive mix of traditional and new string quartet music.
The program included timeless works by Beethoven and Mendelssohn book-ending recent pieces by two of the most exciting female composers today, namely Caroline Shaw, whose resolutely eclectic works regularly appear in a vast array of programs, and Missy Mazzoli, whose opera Breaking the Waves rocked the 2017 Prototype Festival. A lot of music lovers obviously felt as intrigued as I was, and the Advent Lutheran Church quickly got packed to the rafters.

It is hard to go wrong with Viennese master Ludwig van Beethoven in any circumstances, and his String Quartet in G Major, Op. 18, No. 2 was a very rewarding opening number indeed, starting with the civilized exchanges of the Allegro before moving on to the smoothness of the Adagio cantabile, which was followed by the spontaneous sparkles of the Scherzo. The Jasper Quartet seemed to enjoy themselves as much as we did as they skillfully and easily made their way through the piece.
After we fast-forwarded over two centuries, the energetic classicism of Beethoven’s quartet found a modern equivalent in Caroline Shaw’s short and unabashedly sunny Valencia, which spontaneously perked up our gray September evening with plenty of bright colors and zesty flavors.
Missy Mazzoli’s Death Valley Junction was inspired by the California desert town of the same name, which is home to three people, a café, a hotel, and a fully functional opera house. The real star of the composition, however, is Marta Becket, the New York artist who, after a flat tire grounded her and her husband there in 1967, decided to stay and repair the crumbling opera house, eventually performing one-woman shows every week in it until her retirement in 2012 at age 87. Unsurprisingly, the musical evocation of this unusual story combines the harsh textures of the environment and the wild exuberance of the artistic endeavor, which were all expertly conveyed by the four musicians.
More exuberance, of the decidedly more polished kind this time, filled up the little church after intermission with Mendelssohn’s confident String Quartet in D Major, Op. 44, No. 1, during which the string players engaged in a high-spirited conversation, before slowing down for the two more introspective, but still highly melodic, central movements. Things perked up again for the brilliant finale, which wrapped up the movement, the piece, and the performance with delightful fireworks.

Friday, August 3, 2018

Mostly Mozart Festival - Adams, Bruch & Brahms - 08/01/18

Conductor: Louis Langrée 
Adams: Tromba Lontana 
Bruch: Violin Concerto No. 1 
Joshua Bell: Violin 
Brahms: Symphony No. 2 

New York City’s Mostly Mozart Festival may not be the only game in town in summer, but it sure is the biggest event out there (Not that there’s anything wrong with that). Since 1966, the festival has been one of the most welcome perks of spending the summer in the Big Apple, which routinely involves putting up countless tourists, scorching heat, gross humidity, and grosser smells day in day out.
In such dire circumstances, looking for an opportunity to combine a cool space and superlative entertainment on a particularly sticky day, like my friend Christine and I did on Wednesday evening at David Geffen Hall, is a no-brainer. And that’s just what we got, as the air-conditioning was going full blast above our heads, and the entertainment was superlative on the stage in front of us.
Then again, it is difficult to go wrong with classical music superstar Joshua Bell as well as long-time Mostly Mozart Festival’s music director and more recent Renée and Robert Belfer music director Louis Langrée joining forces for a program starting with a short contemporary piece by John Adams, before digging deep into the time-honored repertoire for Max Bruch’s first violin concerto and Johannes Brahms’ second symphony.

Picking up basically right where we had left off last Saturday night, meaning with the ubiquitous American composer John Adams, we got to enjoy his Tromba Lontana, a four-minute breathe of the type of fresh air that we so sorely needed on Wednesday. So far, so good.
I do not actively look for the Bruch violin concerto when I scan concert programs, but every time I get to hear it, just like Joseph Joachim, I cannot help but marvel at how “enchanting” it genuinely is. It may not have the intricate complexity or the sweeping grandeur of some other violins concertos, but its unabashed lyricism and infectious charm are not to be discounted either.
Beside, having a certified virtuoso like Joshua Bell, who has never met a Romantic violin concerto he could not master, made the whole experience even more memorable. The famous sweetness of his tone combined with his signature knack at handling lush lines and explosive fireworks made him the ideal soloist for the Bruch on paper, and in real life too. He has obviously played this beloved classic for many years, so it was no surprise that on Wednesday night he delivered a performance that was deeply informed. But he also managed to keep it effortlessly fresh and totally engaging.
His expertise does extend beyond the warhorses though. Therefore, the encore that we insistently requested turned out to be a delightfully moody excerpts from John Corigliano’s score for the movie The Red Violin.
Still on German Romantic territory, we moved on to Brahms’ generally sunny and incidentally personal favorite Symphony No. 2 after intermission. Although it took him about two decades – and plenty of agony – to put together his first symphony, it took him only one summer to compose his second one. Having tamed Beethoven’s ghost and built some self-confidence, he quickly came up with a still rather traditional structure and constantly mood-shifting movements.
Louis Langrée and the MMF orchestra did not let the work’s daunting density intimidate them, but instead decided to dwell into the richness of a score that never ceases to impress and inspire the audience. Overflowing with a myriad of special moments deftly brought together by one unifying voice, the symphony beautifully unfolded under the steadily firm and totally committed conducting of maestro Langrée. That was the kind of performance that put a smile on your face for the next couple of days. And it did.

Monday, July 30, 2018

String Orchestra of Brooklyn - Adams & Gorecki - 07/28/18

Conductor: Eli Spindel 
Adams: Shaker Loops (1982 revised version) 
Wolfe: Four Marys 
Gorecki: Concerto for Piano and Orchestra, Op. 40 
Adam Tendler: Pianist 

Who said that New York City’s Mostly Mozart Festival is practically the only classical music game in town in summer? Certainly not The New Yorker magazine, which earned my deepest gratitude last week for directing my attention to the less well-known and less fancy  ̶  but definitely more ambitious  ̶  String Orchestra of Brooklyn, who were giving a concert in the historic St. Ann and the Holy Trinity Church, in Brooklyn Heights, last Saturday night. The contemporary program could not help but make a strong impression with John Adams’ early classic and personal favorite Shaker Loops, Julia Wolfe’s intriguing Four Marys, and Henryk Gorecki’s short but eloquent piano concerto.
The 2 and 3 subway lines having just resumed running almost normally (Not that there is anything really normal with the MTA these days), my weekend trips to Brooklyn are thankfully transfer-free again. To make the deal even sweeter, my friend Christine had the brilliant idea of organizing an informal wine-and-munchies get-together with her mom and her friend Karen because culinary and musical pleasures go so well together. Even Mother Nature had apparently decided to treat us to one of her dry, if still sultry, summer nights.
So I temporarily got over my distaste of going out on Saturday night and valiantly left the island for an evening across the East River. As soon as we stepped into the magnificent Episcopal church, I knew it would be worth the effort. I mean, what could go wrong with enjoying an exciting concert in such a stunning setting?

The small orchestra may have had the most casual dress code I have ever seen (and that includes rehearsals), but there was nothing even remotely casual about their music-making. Alert and ready, they immediately took ownership of Adams’ 1982 version of his perennially fresh and downright infectious Shaker Loops, which had been upgraded from the original septet to a reduced orchestra, and smoothly ran with it. As he was combining the fun of playing around with melodies and the thrill of breaking new ground, Adams was also coming into his own as a minimalist composer, and it shows. On Saturday night, the orchestra conducted by Eli Spindel managed all those treacherous loops with plenty of dexterity and flair for a totally engaging performance.
The mysterious piece du jour was Wolfe’s Four Marys, which had also been fleshed out from its original quartet form for a larger ensemble. Considering the caliber of the two other works on the program, I was fairly confident that this one would be of at least some interest too. And I was readily proven right as the Appalachian dulcimer-inspired music came out assertively focused, at times subtly nostalgic, with plenty of attractive colors flying around and just the right amount of grittiness.
Last, but definitely not least, new music advocate and intrepid pianist Adam Tendler joined the orchestra for Gorecki’s headily rhythm-driven piano concerto, which they fearlessly and virtuosically dispatched. Hitting the ground running with impeccable timing and enthusiastic gusto, piano and strings kept on going strong throughout the exhilarating 10-minute ride. Va-va-voom!

After the short but taxing test of endurance, Adam Tendler was kind enough to come back and play John Adams’ beautifully nuanced China Gates, which brilliantly brought the intense one-hour concert pretty much full circle before exquisitely fading away. And there was nothing more to say.

Friday, July 27, 2018

NYO2 - Revueltas, Prokofiev and Shostakovitch - 07/24/18

Conductor: Carlos Miguel Pireto 
Fellows of the New World Symphony, America’s Orchestral Academy 
Revueletas: Suite from Redes (arr. Erich Kleiber) 
Prokofiev: Violin Concerto No. 1 
Gil Shaham: Violinist 
Shostakovich: Symphony No. 5 

Carnegie Hall’s official season may be over, but it does not mean that nothing is going on there. In fact, these days it seems like the venerable concert hall has been taken over by hordes of disgustingly young and talented youngsters coming from all the over the States courtesy of NYO2, an orchestral training program created two years ago by Carnegie Hall' Weill Music Institute for talented teenage musicians coming from communities underrepresented in classical music. And more power to them for that.
So last Tuesday evening, my friend Ruth and I found ourselves in the Stern Auditorium packed with countless friends and family members of the orchestra’s members, as well as regular music lovers and random visitors, all gathered together for a program featuring three very different 20th century works. The cherry on top and, to be truthful, my main reason for being there, was the presence of Gil Shaham, a fabulous violinist – and maybe not so incidentally a fierce music education advocate – whose live performances I hadn’t been attending in way too many years. Better late than never.

Suite from Redes, which was written by Mexican composer, conductor, violinist, professor and political activist Silvestre Revueletas for the film Redes, and then arranged by Viennese conductor Erich Kleiber, opened the concert with plenty of dark realism. And the large orchestra vigorously proved that they were fully adept at mastering the boldness and complexity of the starkly expressive piece under the energetic baton of Mexican maestro Carlos Miguel Pireto.
Although Prokofiev’s unusually arranged Violin Concerto No. 1 opens in a lyrical mood and boasts attractive melodies, it wastes no time showing its brilliant mood-swinging side in the second movement, before calming down and eventually fading away in the last movement. I was pleased, although not surprised, to see that former ebullient child prodigy Gil Shaham had not lost his magical touch as he gamely delivered an effortlessly virtuosic performance, which was readily enhanced by his seamless connection with the deeply appreciative kids surrounding him. No slouches themselves, they supported him whole-heartedly throughout the occasionally thorny, but always engaging work.
The collaboration was in fact so successful that they all treated us to a repeat of the endlessly exciting second movement as an encore, just for the heck of it, and it was just about as dazzling as the first time around.
We stayed in the Russian repertoire after intermission with Shostakovitch's sprawling Symphony No. 5, which the orchestra handled with the same expertise and enthusiasm they had demonstrated so far. Written while the Stalinist purges were in full swing, his fifth marked the composer’s comeback from total banishment and still showed more rebellion than repentance, starting with open anger and closing with cautious optimism, if any. The brass brightly resounded, the strings beautifully glowed, and it all simply fell into place, regardless of the many challenges the musicians had to overcome.

The 45-minute journey had been intensely emotional, but nothing could stop the youngsters as they kept going full speed ahead with two exuberant encores: The Intermezzo from La boda de Luis Alonso by Spanish composer Gerónimo Giménez and "Malambo" from Estancia by Argentine composer Alberto Ginastera. And it was an memorably fun send-off, complete with some of the sections suddenly popping up and getting back down without missing a beat. Because they could.

Sunday, July 22, 2018

Mostly Mozart Festival - Bernstein's MASS - 07/17/18

Composer: Leonard Bernstein 
Conductor: Louis Langrée
Nmon Ford: Celebrant 

Mostly Mozart Festival Orchestra 
Concert Chorale of New York 
Young People’s Chorus of New York City 

After a couple of very quiet weeks on the performance front, the time finally came for me to kick-start the Mostly Mozart Festival with…Leonard Bernstein, of all composers, and an awful lot of other performers for his extravagant MASS. The inclusion of the unique “theater piece for singers, players and dancers” in New York City’s major classical music summer festival may come as a surprise at first, but it makes more sense when one knows that this year is the 100th anniversary of the quintessential New York composer’s birth. If we’re going to celebrate, as we should, we might as well go big and loud.
My only experience of Bernstein’s MASS was the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra’s expert take on it (Marin Alsop, Bernstein’s erstwhile protégée, probably having quite a bit to do with it) at the Kennedy Center back in Washington, D.C. almost 10 years ago. And I figured that this year was as good of a time as any to refresh my admittedly foggy memory. That’s how, on Tuesday night, I took a break from a busy week to join colleagues and friends, most of us being scattered throughout David Geffen Hall, for the first of the two sold-out performances.

When the MASS first came out, in 1971, the United States was going through politically and socially turbulent times (Some things just never completely disappear, do they?). Consequently, for better or worse, the crisis of faith at the center of it all is not exactly new material. Moreover, the generous mix of musical genres that may have sounded fresh and exciting back then has become commonplace throughout the years and is unlikely to bring the same kind of happy amazement. That said, it is not necessary an issue for a musical piece to reflect its time and place.
And there was plenty to enjoy in Tuesday night’s performance. Young baritone Nmon Ford, who threw himself whole-heartedly into the wild adventure as the Celebrant, stayed vocally strong throughout the whole evening. The two choruses contributed committed singing while occasionally partaking into the general staging. The vastly enlarged MMF orchestra seamlessly moved from pop to rock to jazz and more without missing a beat. And some vividly colorful visual effects, not to mention an exhilaratingly rambunctious protest riot, had the unmistakable psychedelic flavor of the late 1960s.
On the other hand, the score is unquestionably uneven, over-extended and features a borderline cheesy Hollywood ending, the staging was sometimes lacking direction, and the dreadful combination of David Geffen Hall’s challenged acoustics and the production’s amplified sounds did not help matters either. For a while, my friend Dawn and I thought we were going to make it to the end without a cell phone ring, which is always a plus, but we were not quite that lucky.
Bottom line is, if, as a music lover, you’re not particularly into the Catholic or the Broadway tradition, the main benefit for attending was probably a shorter bucket list. And this by itself is nothing to sneeze at.

Tuesday, June 26, 2018

Trinity Wall Street - Time's Arrow: Webern Part 2 - Webern, Schultz & Brahms - 06/23/18

Conductor: Julian Wachner 
Anton Webern: Passacaglia, Op. 1 
Anton Webern: Im Sommerwind, Op. 21 (arranged for 16-art choir by Clytus Gottwald)
The Choir of Trinity Wall Street 
Downtown Voices 
Anton Webern: Cantata No. 2, Op. 31 
Colleen Daly: Soprano 
Paul An: Bass 
Heinrich Schütz: Selig Sind die Toten, SWV 391 
The Choir of Trinity Wall Street 
Downtown Voices 
Johannes Brahms: A German Requiem 
The Choir of Trinity Wall Street 
Downtown Voices 
Colleen Daly: Soprano 
Stephen Salters: Baritone

After a week dedicated to the music of Anton Webern, I was bracing myself for the grand finale of Trinity Wall Street’s “Time’s Arrow - Webern 2” festival, which would include not only more Webern pieces, but also Brahms’ magnificent Requiem, as it had been expertly masterminded by Trinity Wall Street director of music and the arts Julian Wachner. However, little did he know at the time that Trinity Church would be closed for revocation by now, and that he would have to downsize (or not!) in St. Paul’s Chapel, but he obviously decided to roll with the punches, and it has clearly been working. As a hard-core uptown girl, it takes a lot for me to come downtown in the weekend, but in this case at least, I had no doubt that the trip would be worth it.
Apparently a lot of people thought so too, as even over a half hour before the concert’s starting time the little chapel was filling up quickly and steadily. There were loyal music lovers and curious out-of-towners, as well as the full NOVUS NY orchestra on the ground floor, and then the Choir of Trinity Wall Street and Downtown Voices in two of the upstairs balconies, and more audience members in the third one. I guess that’s what people mean when they say “packed to the rafters”.
In addition to securing a good seat, the early birds were also rewarded with a particularly illuminating lecture on Brahms and Webern music and the connections between them (Quick trivia question: Who knew that Brahms was so forward-thinking?! Answer: Webern.), by young, deeply knowledgeable and naturally engaging musician and musicologist David Miller, who had made the trip down all the way from Cornell University. And suddenly the Upper West Side did not seem that far anymore.

After a series of concerts featuring all kinds of compositions by Webern, we started the ultimate one with the first score he officially bestowed upon the world, his roof-raising Passacaglia, Op. 1. Characteristically crafted with the utmost care, and paying noteworthy hints at the last movement of Brahms Symphony No. 4 and the Late Romanticism period of his mentor Schoenberg, it has been regularly performed since it first came out, unlike the original efforts of many other highly respected composers. Under the dynamic baton of Julian Wachner, the NOVUS NY orchestra got chance to give their all to the first and last work Webern ever wrote for a large orchestra. And that they did.
Even earlier Webern was next with Clytus Gottwald’s choral adaptation of his lushly lyrical, openly Straussian tonal poem Im Sommerwind. Whoever is not into Webern-The-Serialist may still want to check out Webern-The-Late-Romantic, whose output is for sure straightforwardly beautiful enough to please even the most conservative minds. The 80 singers of the two chorus being mixed and matched all over the two balconies, their voices blended and interwove remarkably well together for a gorgeously atmospheric evocation of summer wind. Although Webern quickly disowned it and consequently never heard it performed, the original orchestral version has been a hit ever since it was rediscovered in the 1960s, and the choral version proved to be just as popular on Saturday.
Then it was time to put our modernist hat and hold on to it for dear life while listening to Webern’s Cantata No. 2, Op. 31. However, as if to ease the unusually drastic transition – Same composer, two radically different genres – first Julian Wachner led us through some brief, informative and fun interactive singing exercises in no less than pointillistic technique and the klangfarben concept so that we would get a better grip of what the hell happened in early 20th century Vienna.
Then it was on to the cantata, which also remains the last work Webern completed. This also meant that we had come full circle, and the contrast could not have been starker. With a sparse score connecting Renaissance and modern traditions through a wide range of sonorities and techniques, this was Webern at his most serialist. Ironically enough for such a challenging piece, it is also the longest composition he ever wrote at 24 minutes. But hey, nobody said that earning one’s Webern stripes was easy, and although this one required some effort on my part, I did make it to the end with a new appreciation of him and the performers.
After the vegetables came the dessert, and what a dessert it was with Brahms’ glorious, sacred but not liturgical, German Requiem. It was preceded by Schütz’s mid-17th century motet “Selig Sind die Toten, SWV 391”, which integrated seamlessly into the much larger work, and would kind of find its way actually in it at the end. Although I’ve had the privilege to hear A German Requiem performed by various ensembles in various venues, St. Paul Chapel’s was unquestionably the smallest of them all, and I had been wondering how the whole thing was going to turn out.
Well, all I can say is that I am glad the renovations were completed before this performance because I highly doubt that the windows would have resisted the sheer force of the epic, and epically executed, funeral march of the second movement and death-defying taunts of the sixth movement, in their pre-reinforcement state. Not to mention that the contribution of the mighty organ added a resounding touch of irrepressible spirituality to the thrillingly uplifting experience.
That’s not to say that the quieter moments were less commendable, especially when the soloists by default calmed things down for a bit. Soprano Colleen Daly’s “Traurigkeit” stood out for all its moving unfussiness and inconspicuous longing for all that had been lost. Her part was nicely balanced with baritone Stephen Salters’ slightly more prominent role, all burnished darkness and inner warmth.
All in all, Trinity Wall Street achieved the rare feat of delivering a larger-than-life performance while somehow preserving the profound human quality that makes Brahms’ requiem so powerful and so universal. Coming full circle, the second part of the concert ended back where it started, with the same passage from Revelation 14:13 used by Schütz, “Selig Sind die Toten”. The dead may be blessed, but so were the living in St. Paul’s Chapel on Saturday afternoon.

Saturday, June 23, 2018

Trinity Wall Street - Time's Arrow: Webern Part 2 - Webern, Epstein, Holliger & Rouse - 06/21/2018

Anton Webern: Four Pieces for Violin and Piano, Op. 7 
 Marti Epstein: Oil and Sugar 
Heinz Holliger: Harp Sequenza 
Anton Webern: Three Little Pieces for Cello and Piano, Op. 11 
Anton Webern: Quartet for Violin, Clarinet, Tenor Saxophone, and Piano, Op. 22 
Marti Epstein: Wonders of the Invisible World 
Anton Webern: Variations for Piano, Op. 27 
Christopher Rouse: Compline 

Although this week was originally supposed to be kind of humdrum, it was much improved on Tuesday afternoon by an intellectually stimulating and immensely enjoyable – another proof that those two things are not mutually exclusive – lunch-time concert of music by Anton Webern and Mari Epstein at Lower Manhattan’s St. Paul’s Chapel, courtesy of Trinity Church Wall Street’s “Time’s Arrow – Webern Part 2” festival and some of the NOVUS NY musicians.
So there was nothing left to do but go back on Thursday afternoon. Same time, same place, same abominably crowded sidewalk from my office to the venue, same presenters, and some of the same composers as well as new ones because Trinity Wall Street is the gift that keeps on giving.
I quickly found a seat in the bright and attractive space during the introduction by Trinity Wall Street’s Director of Music and the Arts Julian Wachner and composer and professor Marti Epstein. As expected, more works by Webern and Epstein were on the program, but also a short piece for solo harp by Heinz Holliger, and a more substantial one, and probably louder too, by Christopher Rouse.
Not a bad mid-day treat for the first day of summer.

As if to get straight to the heart of the matter, the concert started off with Webern’s Four Pieces for Violin and Piano, Op. 7, which was his first experiment with extreme concentration of form and content. It resulted in brief movements packed with inner meanings, the ethereally slow first and third alternating with the powerfully dramatic second and fourth, all of them being pointedly carried out in the most austere language possible by the fearless musicians of NOVUS NY.
On the other hand, Epstein’s Oil and Sugar avoided marked contrasts, and there was in fact an organically flowing quality to it that sounded incredibly easy-going after the uncompromising, and fulfilling, brain food we had just been fed. Inspired by Kadder Attia’s video of stacked up sugar cubes on which motor oil is poured, and their consequential crumpling into countless tiny details, the whole thing was highly palatable, and even tasty.
Holliger’s Harp Sequenza was a lovely interlude, during which the harp took us on quiet, slightly mysterious, journey of discovery of its numerous possibilities.
Back to Webern, his Three Little Pieces for Cello and Piano, Op. 11 kind of followed the pattern established by his Four Pieces for Violin and Piano, Op. 7, except that the second piece is very short, the third is barely there, and the fourth is non-existent. Unapologetically experimental and concise to a fault, they sounded as revolutionary on Thursday after as they did back in 1914.
We stayed with Webern and fast-forwarded over 15 years for his Quartet for Violin, Clarinet, Tenor Saxophone, and Piano, Op. 22, an unusual combination of instruments that yielded a 6-minute, 2-movement composition so original that when it first came out his fellow composers of the Second Viennese School predictably loved it, and just as predictably pretty much everybody else hated it. On Thursday, the audience was definitely on the thumb up side, and deservedly so.
For better or worse, it is unlikely that Epstein’s Wonders of the Invisible World provokes such extreme reactions, mostly because this resolutely sparse and carefully constructed work for solo harp is engaging enough to get into easily, but at almost 15 minutes eventually feels like it is extending its welcome, even with the flawless performance we got to hear.
Next, we dutifully returned to Webern for his Variations for Piano, Op. 27, his only major work for the piano, which is a treacherously complex and highly virtuosic piece that offers plenty of challenges to the performer during its 6-minute running time. Not that it seemed to faze the pianist we had on the stage on Thursday, who obviously had the chops to handle it.
The clock was mercilessly ticking and I knew that I should be heading back to the office, but I simply could not walk away from a work by Christopher Rouse, and my dedication was largely rewarded with an exciting performance of his septet for flute, clarinet, harp, and string quartet, Compline. More inspired from the composer’s 1989 trip to Rome than by the final church service of the day in the Catholic church that is evoked in its title, the score did not sound the least bit religious, but came alive with vibrant colors and a cool touch of jazziness. And then it was time for another mad dash to the office.

Friday, June 22, 2018

Trinity Wall Street - Time's Arrow: Webern Part 2 - Webern & Espstein - 06/19/18

Anton Webern: String Trio, Op. 20 
Anton Webern: String Quartet, Op. 28 
Marti Epstein: Hidden Flowers 
Anton Webern: Six Bagatelles for String Quartet, Op. 9 
Marti Epstein: Phosphenes 
Anton Webern: Five Movements for String Quartet, Op. 5 
NOVUS NY String Quartet 

June is typically the time of the year where I reluctantly have to slow down my performance going schedule due not a lack of will, but to a lack of opportunities, for a couple of months. In all fairness, there is the occasional uplifting email, like the one I got from Lower Manhattan’s Trinity Wall Street, where the director of music and the arts, as well as composer, conductor and keyboardist, Julian Wachner tirelessly comes up with infallibly inventive programming. The one I got last week was about “Time’s Arrow - Webern Part 2”, the second part of a series whose first part I unfortunately missed last fall. Time had definitely come to catch up.
Since these days the historic Trinity Church is mostly off-limit due to a large-scale renovation, all performances have been moved to the equally historic St. Paul’s Chapel, whose own restoration was completed a while ago. Granted, the charming chapel is located a little bit further from my office, but still at a very reasonable walking distance. At least that’s what it looks like on the map, whereas in real life unruly hordes of clueless tourists, harried office workers and stoic locals routinely turn these few blocks into an Olympics-worthy obstacle course.
But it took more than that to discourage me from using my all-important lunch break to go hear some exciting contemporary music from early 20th century Vienna with Anton Webern and early 21st century United States with Marti Epstein. Now that’s what I call “food for the soul”, even if it sometimes has a challenging taste.
As I entered the light-filled, pleasantly cool and interestingly resonant space, the periodic rumbling of MTA trains underneath our feet unmistakably reminding us of our urban setting, Julian Wachner and composer Marti Epstein were wrapping up a short introduction to the program. And then three members of the youthful NOVUS NY String Quartet kicked off the intermission-free, one-hour concert with plenty of audacity and assurance.

Since this series revolved around the music of Austrian serialism pioneer Anton Webern and some of the composers he has inspired, it was only fair to let him get things started with his deceptively inconspicuous, confidently atonal and relentlessly tense String Trio, Op. 20. In short, the perfect illustration of Webern’s radically economical yet richly expressive music.
Next came his String Quartet, Op. 28, whose potentially disarming abstractness evokes some of our basic emotions through the often unusual, precisely calibrated utterances of the instruments. The last piece of chamber music Webern ever wrote, it adroitly combines past and future, subtly relying on the passionate feelings of Late Romanticism while boldly springing forward with ground-breaking techniques, in a tour de force that the NOVUS NY String Quartet expertly performed.
Epstein’s Hidden Flowers took a while to reveal themselves, but there was a lot going on during their long-winded blooming. Enticing us to pay attention to the subtle score while outside noises popped in and out, and then surprising us with a myriad of unexpected tiny details and appealing new sounds, the composer also allowed us to find the beauty within.
Webern’s Six Bagatelles for String Quartet, Op. 9 looks like a lot on paper, but true to their qualifiers, the six miniature movements came and went in about five minutes. That did not prevent each of them from displaying their own personalities in highly dramatic fashion, even when the music was actually very quiet. Just like waters, still music can run deep.
Sticking to the same principle of “Less is more”, Epstein’s Phosphenes lasted only four minutes, during which the seemingly random occurrences of exacting pointillism produced by the musicians turned out to be as fleeting and illusory as the spots of light that appear when the eyes are closed. 
Webern’s restless exploration of atonality reached a new level with his Five Movements for String Quartet, Op. 5, whose expansive first movement contains a whole world of musical sounds in itself. From heart-felt nostalgia to assertive pizzicatos to ethereal calm, the four musicians handled them all with disconcerting ease. The next four movements distinguished themselves by their brevity and came out respectively as hushed, agitated, lyrical and gloomy, the last one featuring some stunning — and stunningly dark — lines for the cello, before ending in an inexorable whisper. And then it was back to real life.

Monday, June 11, 2018

New York Philharmonic - Foreign Bodies - 06/08/18

Conductor: Esa-Pekka Salonen 
Esa-Pekka Salonen: Foreign Bodies 
Tal Rosner: Video Artist 
Daniel Bjarnason: Violin Concerto 
Pekka Kuusisto: Violin 
Wayne McGregor: Obsidian Tear 
Esa-Pekka Salonen: Lachen verlernt 
Simone Porter: Violin 
Members of Boston Ballet
Esa-Pekka Salonen: Nyx 
Members of Boston Ballet 

As I am nearing the bottom of my end-of-the-season dance card, I was at David Geffen Hall last Friday evening not only for the New York Philharmonic’s last concert of the season, except for their popular Concerts in the Park series, but also for the New York Philharmonic’s last concert conducted by Esa-Pekka Salonen as Marie-Josée Kravitz composer-in-residence. (Needless to say, we dearly hope to have him back sooner than later as very special guest conductor and composer). And for the last hurrah of his memorable three-year stint, he had clearly decided to go all out with an expertly curated triple treat of sounds, movements and visuals.
Not quite sure of what I was getting myself into, but confident in the artists and endeavors mentioned on the program, I got myself a ticket, never mind the hectic week I had just had or the fact that drinks would be allowed in the concert hall. (Anyone who’s ever had to put up with the unwelcome accompaniment of ice cube clunking noises during a performance will understand my misgivings.) But in the end, I simply could not pass on one more evening with the one and only E.P. Salonen, our classical music home team, and a particularly intriguing program.

Upon entering the hall, a screen hanging above the orchestra, a forward extension of the stage, a row of computers across an entire seating section, and a more diverse audience definitely confirmed that we were in for something different. On the other hand, things like the organically seamless and highly rewarding bond between Salonen and the New York Philharmonic thankfully had not changed. As such, the first piece of the program, his militarily assertive Foreign Bodies, opened with a gripping surge of sounds that had the musicians hit the ground running while a live video feed that was first showing them soon turned their movements into swirling colorful lines. And that was only the beginning.
Since Salonen’s score is intrinsically big and bold, and for sure exciting enough to be enjoyed sans visuals, Tai Rosner’s predominantly abstract video could be seen more like a glitzy addition meant to catch the attention of the younger audience than a called-for component. Feeling sometimes like a throwback to Disney’s Fantasia, some other times like a fancier version of Windows’ latest screensavers, it certainly was attractive entertainment, especially during the third movement, which contained more creative ideas and concluded in an apocalyptic explosion of sounds of colors. The whole experience had only lasted about 20 minutes, but the first break of the evening was already upon us, and it was somewhat needed.
There was no visual component officially added to the performance of Icelandic composer Daniel Bjarnason’s rowdy Violin Concerto, but Finnish violinist Pekka Kuusisto readily took care of that with a black multi-layered, baggy outfit and a blond male bun proudly standing on top of his head. As it was, the uniqueness of his grown-up elf look was particularly well suited to the uniqueness of the one-movement concerto, which he started by uncharacteristically playing solo and whistling.
There would be more of that unusual combo, and some folk-like singing too, during the 20-minute concerto, which turned out to be fundamentally earthy and light-hearted, but also contained some seriously intricate, not to mention downright weird, passages. Violinist and orchestra were unfussed though, and Kuusisto brought it all home with the effortless ease of a virtuoso and the insouciant flamboyance of a rock star.
There was more impressive violin playing after the second break of the evening, this time from young and fast-rising violinist Simone Porter, who handled Salonen’s relentless Chaconne “Lachen verlernt” (“Laugh unlearnt” From Schoenberg’s Pierrot Lunaire) with remarkable poise from her perch on second tier left. Her powerful performance also provided the musical accompaniment to the first part of choreographer Wayne McGregor’s Salonen-inspired Obsidian Tear, during which two half-naked, buffed, endlessly energetic and extremely flexible young men from the Boston Ballet seemingly battled out a love-hate relationship.
More of them showed up during Salonen’s extravagant orchestral work Nyx, and vigorously enacted a complicated ritual that quickly appeared to be a barely disguised tribute to the Stravinsky-Ballets Russes’ riot-igniting, headline-grabbing and ground-breaking Sacre du printemps. A musical evocation of the elusive Greek goddess who was involved in no less than the creation of the world, Nyx is a compositional tour de force whose countless brilliant twists and turns were hard to pin down, but still flawlessly formed a fully coherent whole on Friday night. There may have been a fair amount of eye-candy on that stage, but the ever-present goddess still won.
It was unquestionably a worthy finale for the all-hands-on-deck wrap-up party that Salonen admittedly wanted, rightfully deserved and ultimately got. Even better, no booze was needed for extra stimulation, and no ice cubes (although a cell phone just had to ring, for routine’s sake, during Nyx) were heard.

Sunday, June 3, 2018

NYCO - Brokeback Mountain - 06/02/18

Composer: Charles Wuorinen 
Librettist: Annie Proulx 
Conductor: Kazem Abdullah 
Director: Jacopo Spirei 
Daniel Okulitch: Ennis del Mar 
Glenn Seven Allen: Jack Twist 
Heather Buck: Alma Beers 
Hilary Ginther: Lureen 
Christopher Job: Aguirre 

Since all good things must come to an end, my last, but not least, performance of the season turned out to be Charles Wuorinen’s Brokeback Mountain presented by New York City Opera as their 2nd annual pride series production at Jazz at Lincoln Center’s Rose Theater yesterday afternoon. In an ironic twist of fate, the opera should have been NYCO’s to produce and premiere to begin with, back when Gérard Mortier was supposed to take the company over. When that did not work out, he took it to Madrid’s Teatro Real, where it was produced and premiered in 2014.
Although I have not read Annie Proulx’s acclaimed short story, I had loved Ang Lee’s acclaimed film inspired by it (not the least, let’s face it, because of the two hot young actors that were Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal back then). So I was curious to check out what Annie Proulx, in her brand-new capacity as a librettist, and Charles Wuorinen, in his usual capacity as an unapologetically modern composer, would come up with, even if the New York audience would see the down-sized production specially adapted for the smaller stage of the Salzburg Festival. When it comes to intimate drama, less is actually often more.

Because we’ve come a long way, although admittedly still not remotely far enough, with gay rights, these days the intense love story between the two young cowboys in Wyoming does not seem as controversial as it used to be. That said, there is still plenty of juicy material waiting to be squeezed out for a sizzling opera. Resolutely discarding Ang Lee’s majestic scenery and heart-felt romanticism, Wuorinen decided to go back to the source for a more authentic and grittier operatic version of the story. And why not?
Although he takes his time to open up, and even then stubbornly remains the taciturn type, Ennis del Mar is the man squarely at the heart of the story, and eventually the last man standing. It is a challenging role, no doubt, and bass-baritone Daniel Okulitch, who created it back in Madrid, handled it remarkably well, particularly distinguishing himself in the final soliloquy. His performance was appropriately understated, and still powerfully conveyed his uncontrollable confusion and panic when faced with his unspeakable desires.
Tenor Glenn Seven Allen was vocally bright and physically energetic as Jack Twist, the one who was ready to throw caution to the wind and live his life to the fullest with the one person he truly loved. But domestic bliss with Ennis, even modest and discreet, was not in the cards for him, and Allen was terrific at showing his frustration slowly but surely building up all the way to their explosive final confrontation.
Soprano Heather Buck was a genuinely sweet Alma Beers, who made her first appearance gleefully picking her wedding gown, only to ask for divorce later in the second act. That was, of course, an understandable reaction since in the meantime she had caught her husband Ennis passionately kissing another man, just before he casually suggested she catches up with her ironing while the two men would go on the first of their “fishing” trips.
In her smaller but note-worthy part, mezzo-soprano Hilary Ginther used her impressive range to create a memorable Lureen, the rich, educated and extroverted girl who fell for the fearless rodeo man that was Jack, only to find out that he would never be able to fulfill all her needs.
All the numerous other peripheral characters benefited from strong singing and acting, and the chorus made a memorable impression during its short appearance near the end of the second act. From a vocal point of view, the performance was a total success.
The stage was minimalist, and the various rolling mini-sets, from Ennis and Alma’s plain kitchen to the cheap motel room in which Ennis and Jack reconnect in, were efficiently moved around while the background remained a screen on which images of the sky at different times of the day were projected. This, however, became a significant element mostly when the scenes took place on Brokeback Mountain itself, giving a hint of the wide-open space. In short, nothing was deliriously imaginative, but everything worked.
As the story was unfolding, the score was revealing itself as both a blessing and a curse. The blessing was an underlying darkness that was ubiquitous during the entire performance, as if there was no getting away from the reputedly evil mountain. You really did not need herd owner Aguirre to sing of its “dark power” in the opening scene to feel it. And when it occasionally slowed down and took the time to connect with the characters, the music was very effective at expressing their bewilderment, tension and exasperation.
However, its overall unforgiving complexity and occasional intellectual coldness - not to mention a dense libretto - often seemed at odds with the rugged landscapes and raw emotions the two men were dealing with. And while Wuorinen obviously took great pains to shape a lot of the vocal lines according to natural speech patterns, those often ended up being monotonous and unengaging, making even the random touches of laconic humor fall flat. But the orchestra played it valiantly under the baton of Kazem Abdullah in the pit and, with the outstanding singers on that stage, they managed to save the day.

Thursday, May 24, 2018

Cantori New York - Harp/Lark - 05/20/18

Artistic Director/Conductor: Mark Shapiro 
Francisco Valls: Tota pulchra es 
Francisco Valls: Credidi propter quod locutus sum 
Francisco Valls: Laudate Dominum omnes gentes 
Francisco Valls: Kyrie from Missa Regalis 
Ashley Jackson: Harp 
Leonard Bernstein: Choruses from The Lark 
Ilinca Kiss: Joan of Arc 
Nicholas Tamagna: Countertenor 
Daan Manneke: Psalmenrequiem 
Ashley Jackson: Harp 

Back in April I unfortunately had to miss Cantori New York’s spring concerts, which not only had an intriguing Russian program, but also marked the staunchly Manhattanite choir’s long-overdue debut in Brooklyn (Hey, it is not my fault if they scheduled their March concerts on the only April weekend I was out of town). And to add insult to injury, not only did they boldly cross the East River – After all, boldness is nothing new to them – but they also performed at the oh so cool National Sawdust, smack in hipster central, AKA Williamsburg.
So I made a point of penciling in their very last concert of the season, and not just because the Sunday afternoon performance would conveniently take place a few blocks from my apartment, in the attractive Saint Ignatius of Antioch Church, and would give me the opportunity to catch up with a couple of friends. Fact is, the exciting program was enough of an incentive to go with a couple of motets and a Kyrie by little-known Catalan Baroque composer Francisco Valls, choruses from a not so well-known piece by American icon Leonard Bernstein, and the US premiere of a requiem by not well-known enough contemporary Dutch composer Daan Manneke.

Francisco Valls’ short pieces opened the concert with some beautiful harmonies from Cantori’s singers and some ethereal sounds from Ashley Jackson’s harp. Unconventional, and consequently controversial, in their use of dissonance back in the early 18th century, those opulent gems shone nice and bright on Sunday afternoon.
This year is Bernstein’s centennial, and the man is rightfully being celebrated in countless events around town and beyond. Never to be outdone, Cantori decided to honor this giant of the New York music scene the best way they know how: by singing a neglected work of his. Never to be outsmarted, their artistic director Mark Shapiro had the brilliant idea to pick the French and Latin choruses Bernstein composed as incidental music for the play The Lark, which was Lillian Hellman’s adaptation of the original play by Jean Anouilh.
Young French heroine Joan of Arc is of course a timeless subject, and one that is in fact more relevant than ever in our days of heady female empowerment. It was therefore a real treat to discover such an appealing work about her. Going through her entire, admittedly short but definitely eventful, life in about 30 minutes was no mean feat, but one that Cantori and Co. accomplished with plenty of commitment and poise. Actress Ilinca Kiss was an articulate and engaging Joan, countertenor Nicholas Tamagna was remarkably powerful as soloist and accompanist, and the choir compellingly tied everything together in a vibrant performance of deftly combined old and new music.
Among the many different types of compositions out there, the requiem is one of my favorites, so I was very much looking forward to hearing Daan Manneke’s Psalmenrequiem. And it turned out to be as enthralling as I had hoped. Commissioned by Dutch musician and choral director Paul Hameleers in memory of his late son, the work follows the typical structure of a requiem, relying on medieval and Renaissance traditions, and then goes off and does its own fascinating thing.
It was hard not to think of Estonian composer Arvo Pärt’s œuvre as the choir’s singers were producing delicately pointillistic, seamlessly flowing and gloriously spiritual music in various spatial configurations, including a Kyrie in a horseshoe formation. Back with her harp, Ashley Jackson significantly contributed to the haunting quality of the piece, especially during her few minutes in the spotlight at the beginning of the Agnus Dei. And that's how Cantori concluded their season with a subtle yet memorable bang.