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.

Saturday, May 19, 2018

Yuja Wang - Rachmaninoff, Scriabin, Ligeti & Prokofiev - 05/17/18

Rachmaninoff: Prelude in G Minor, Op. 23, No. 5 
Rachmaninoff: Étude-tableau in C Minor, Op. 39, No. 1 
Rachmaninoff: Étude-tableau in C Minor, Op. 33, No. 3 
Rachmaninoff: Étude-tableau in B Minor, Op. 39, No. 4 
Rachmaninoff: Prelude in B Minor, Op. 32, No. 10 
Rachmaninoff: Étude-tableau in E-flat Minor, Op. 33, No. 6 
Rachmaninoff: Étude-tableau in E-flat Minor, Op. 39, No. 5 
Scriabin: Piano Sonata No. 10, Op. 70 
Ligeti: Étude No. 3, "Touches bloquées" 
Ligeti: Étude No. 9, "Vertige" 
Ligeti: Étude No. 1, "Désordre" 
Prokofiev: Piano Sonata No. 8 in B-flat Major, Op. 84 

Last week my Met season ended with a resounding bang thanks to Russian opera superstar Anna Netrebko in Tosca, and this week my Carnegie Hall season ended with a resounding bang thanks to classical Chinese music superstar Yuja Wang in a long sold-out solo recital (even the stage was as packed as possible with clusters of chairs). As it was, her concert would also end a very exciting run of piano-centric performances by Daniil Trifonov, Leif ove Andsnes, Emmanuel Ax and the Naughton sisters. So much fabulous music, so little time!
As fearless and adventurous as ever, Wang had concocted an intriguing program that included early 20th century pieces by Moscow conservatory buddies Sergei Rachmaninoff and Alexander Scriabin as well as mid-20th century pieces by Austrian-Hungarian composer Gyorgy Ligeti and Saint Petersburg Conservatory alumni Sergei Prokofiev, all being rather proficient pianists before turning their attention to composition, a decision for which music lovers are very grateful indeed.

Yuja Wang is such a big star these days that a large part of the audience attends her concerts more to see the much buzzed-about phenomenon in the flesh (and often eye-popping outfits) than to live through an exciting musical experience. Therefore, on Thursday night, a significant portion of the audience dutifully clapped after each and every one of Rachmaninoff’s five études-tableaux and two preludes, effectively depriving the rest of us of an uninterrupted flow of the delicately evocative vignettes. There was, however, still plenty to savor as Wang was probing the generally dark, slightly hazy moods and not caring about making them sound attractive.
Sometimes described as the “Insect Sonata” because of its frequent use of trills and tremolos, Scriabin’s one-movement Piano Sonata No. 10 offers about 10 minutes of brazenly edgy yet totally accessible music. On Thursday night, Wang did not hesitate to emphasize the insistent grittiness as well as the vibrant colors of the work, running through a whole range of emotions without getting too much involved.
Next, Ligeti’s three short but fiendishly difficult studies were clearly a piece of cake for Wang, who not only easily overcame the technical challenges, but seemed to be having fun in the process too. “Vertige”, in particular, turned out to be a hypnotic stream of notes that imperceptibly dispatched a potent spell.
After an unusually long intermission, Wang was back for Prokofiev’s Piano Sonata No. 8, which was composed during the dark times of World War II, but also during a happy time in the newly in love composer’s life, which no doubt explains its tranquil and optimistic mood. Wang did not linger much on dreaminess or romanticism though, but rather sharply focused on intensity and musicality for an imperturbably confident performance.

Beside her prodigious musical talent and bold fashion sense, Yuja Wang is also famous for being extraordinarily generous when it comes to encores. Last Thursday was no exception as she treated the ecstatic audience to no fewer than seven (seven!) thrilling party favors. It started with Mendelsohn’s Song Without Words No 2, followed by Horowitz's Carmen Variations, before moving on to Youman’s "Tea for Two", which generated quite a few chuckles from the crowd. We went back to Prokofiev with the Precipitato from his Piano Sonata No. 7, indulged in a delightful arrangement of Mozart’s "Rondo alla Turca”, before calming down with an ethereal "Mélodie" from Gluck’s Orfeo ed Euridice, and eventually wrapping things up with Schubert’s "Gretchen am Spinnrade" arranged by no less than Liszt. The only one missing seemed to be Chopin, but then again, Wang will be back at Carnegie Hall next year with her own perspectives series, so patience is the name of the game now.

Monday, May 14, 2018

Sunday Morning Coffee Concerts - Christina and Michelle Naughton - Ravel, Adams, Chopin & Lutoslawski - 05/13/18

Ravel: Ma mère l’oye (Mother Goose Suite) for piano four hands 
Adams: Roll over Beethoven 
Chopin: Rondo in C major for Two Pianos 
Lutoslawski: Variations on a Theme by Paganini 

So what do you do when, after a cold, wet and generally dreary Saturday you are facing a cold, wet and generally dreary Sunday? Well, you go to a concert, of course. So yesterday I found myself in the Walter Reed Theater at 11 AM for one of those Sunday Morning Coffee concerts, which are intermission-free, one-hour concerts organized as part of the Lincoln Center’s Great Performers series. On top of it, since those events are about socializing as well as music, coffee is offered before and after the performance, and the performers typically come and mingle once their mission has been accomplished.
Yesterday morning, the power piano duo formed by eerily identical twin sisters Christina and Michelle Naughton was there with an ambitious program that included Maurice Ravel, John Adams, Frederic Chopin and Witold Lutoslawski. Even more exciting, I unexpectedly bumped into my friend Paula, who was busy splurging on macchiato and chatting up some tourists from the West Coast. And suddenly the world was not such a dreary place anymore.

The concert started with Maurice Ravel and excerpts from his famous Ma mère l’oye suite. Inspired by folk tales and the possibilities they offered in terms of musical creation, Ravel put some of the highlights of those stories to music to stimulate children’s instinctively fertile imagination and managed to enchant audiences of all ages in the process. The two lovely young ladies sat side by side at the same keyboard for that one, and readily started making beautiful music in impressive unison, transporting us all to colorful fantasylands full of strange creatures and exotic sounds.
I was very much looking forward to Adams’ Roll over Beethoven, which the Naughtons premiered in New York City’s Greene Space. Taking as starting points elements from Beethoven’s œuvre ─ a thematic fragment from the Scherzo of his piano sonata in A-flat major, Op. 110, the melody from the opening of Op. 110 and a fragment from the “Diabelli” Variations ─ Adams did his own thing. Turned out that the piece is seriously complex, but a lot of fun too, a cool duality that the pianists, facing each other at their own piano now, conveyed with plenty of enthusiasm and flair. It did not immediately sweep me away like some of my all-time Adams favorites such as Shaker Loops or Harmonielehre did, but I still found this wild Beethovian ride very enjoyable.
Chopin being Chopin, the appearance of his name on a piano-centric program was no surprise. Although it was never published during the composer’s lifetime, his Rondo in C major for Two Pianos is a lively, unabashedly Romantic, carefree little romp that kept the mood in the theater buoyant and elevated.
The Lutoslawski’s Variations on a Theme by Paganini were a brief and thrilling exercise, complete with myriads of virtuosic sparks flying everywhere. Sometimes it is the shortest piece that makes the biggest impact, and while all works on the program had been a joy to listen to, this scintillating little gem may have gotten the loudest ovation.

It had been a terrific performance, and we made sure to let the duo know our appreciation of it. They eventually came back, on the same side of a piano this time, for the Allegro molto of Mozart’s Sonata for Piano Four Hands in D major, another delightful miniature bursting with inventiveness and joie de vivre, which concluded this wonderful hour on a much needed positive note, before we eventually all headed back out in the rain.

Sunday, May 13, 2018

Emmanuel Ax - Mozart, Liszt, Bach & Beethoven - 05/10/18

Mozart: Piano Sonata in F Major, K. 533 / K. 494 
Liszt: Tre sonetti del Petrarca from Années de pèlerinage, Deuxième année : Italie, S. 161 
Benedetto sia ‘l giorno 
Pace non trovo 
l’ vidi in terra angelici costumi 
Bach: Partita No. 5 in G Major, BWV 829 
Beethoven: Andante in F Major, WoO 57, “Andante favori” 
Beethoven: Piano Sonata No. 21 in C Major, Op. 53 (Waldstein) 

Because balance is everything in life, after a tempestuous Tosca on Tuesday night at the Met, I was more than ready for a more subdued evening on Thursday with a recital by Emmanuel Ax at Carnegie Hall. When I bought my ticket I realized to my horror that I had never attended a solo recital by this legendary musician before, although I had of course enjoyed his prodigious talent in chamber music and orchestral settings. But this was still unpardonable and I was counting the days to fix the situation.
And it would be fixed in grand style as this long overdue tête-à-tête had a hell of a program, which included Baroque Bach, Classical Mozart, Classical-to-Romantic Beethoven and Romantic Liszt, the big reward coming at the very end with Beethoven’s fabulous Waldstein sonata. Things could not get much better than that.

Although it started inconspicuously enough, Mozart’s Piano Sonata in F Major soon turned out to be a feast of intricate inventiveness, with just the right dosage of fun and thoughtfulness. With his effortless virtuosity, Ax effortlessly played music that was glowing from the inside as well as the outside, all technical wizardry wrapped up in pure elegance.
Liszt’s Tre sonetti del Petrarca yanked us out of Mozart’s orderly refinement and into Liszt’s mystical musings inspired by some of Petrarch’s exquisite sonnets. One of the undisputed superstar musicians of his days, Franz Liszt was also a bona fide composer who never stopped searching and experimenting, and those three short tone poems overflow with myriads of emotions, some being more openly expressed than others, that keep the listener spellbound.
We went back to Germanic rigor with Bach’s Partita No. 5, which unsurprisingly stood out for its sheer brilliance, but also for the warmth of Ax’s performance. Some people may find the exacting aspect of Bach’s music off-putting, but beyond it there is also the pure joy of making and sharing exceptional music that perceptive musicians like Ax are able to find, and then fully convey, just like he did on Thursday.
Widely considered to be one of Beethoven's most accomplished and most challenging piano sonatas, the Waldstein occupied the second half of the program in more ways than one since, before he delivered a rapturous performance of it, beautifully emphasizing Beethoven’s shift from classicism to a more heroic style, Ax also played the lovely “Andante favori”, which was the original slow movement of the sonata. Nowadays, the Andante is a much more concise and  mysteriously dark passage between two extended, intensively lyrical and irresistibly uplifting movements that altogether make the work such a magnificent creation.

Even if he had been working hard and given us much more than we could have ever hoped for, Ax eventually came back twice: first for Chopin’s Nocturne in F-sharp Major, and then for Liszt’s “Valse oubliée”, both genuinely heart-felt and simply wonderful. With encores like this, it is a miracle to remember the official program!

Saturday, May 12, 2018

Met - Tosca - 05/08/18

Composer: Giacomo Puccini 
Conductor: Bertrand de Billy 
 Director/Producer: David McVicar 
 Floria Tosca: Anna Netrebko 
 Mario Cavaradossi: Najmiddin Mavlyanov 
 Baron Scarpia: Zeljko Lucic

To conclude my Met season with as big and memorable a bang as possible, I decided to go check out the irrepressible Anna Netrebko take on the role of the irrepressible Floria Tosca for the first time in her career because I figured I could hardly go wrong with those two ladies. Since this would be my second time attending the new McVicar’s production of Giacomo Puccini's "depraved" opera,, which I had seen back in February with Sonya Yoncheva and Vittorio Grigolo, there would be no surprise there, but then again, I could never see Tosca too many times.
Beside Netrebko, the cast of singers would include returning Serbian baritone Zeljko Lucic as Scarpia, and, instead of Marcello Alvarez, who had bailed out without an explanation, Najmiddin Mavlyanov, a young tenor from Uzbekistan who would then be making his Met debut sharing the stage with one of the opera world’s biggest stars impersonating one of the opera repertoire’s most beloved romantic characters in a sold-out house. No pressure there.

In many ways, Tosca seems like a textbook version of what an opera should be: strong characters battling out complicated emotional entanglements and, incidentally trying to save their own virtues and lives with a background of political turmoil. Naturally, the loving couple is made of a painter and a singer because artists are so much sexier, and the bad guy is the chief of police, which is decidedly less sexy, unless you're into uniforms. Each of the three characters will meet a gruesome death, but not before a lot of drama has relentlessly unfolded. All of it wrapped neatly in less than three hours, including two intermissions.No muss, no fuss.
Opera superstar Anna Netrebko is famous for her gorgeous voice, attractive physique and seemingly uncontrollable urge to storm every stage she steps on. All those qualities, of course, are particularly appropriate when it comes to Tosca, and she sure brought her A game on Tuesday night, especially in the second act where she had to be one of the most resplendent divas who have ever graced – or stormed – the Met stage. Increasingly desperate to save Cavaradossi and to keep Scarpia’s hands off of her, she managed to achieve both goals with an impressive supply of poise and stamina, and just the right amount of fretting. On the other hand, I thought that her final leap off the Castel Sant’Angelo was a bit wimpish, but that’s a minor squabble.
As Mario Cavaradossi, lover, artist and revolutionary, Najmiddin Mavlyanov brought his good looks, youthful energy and solid vocal skills to the part and easily won the audience over. It can’t be easy making one’s more or less last-minute debut in that kind of high profile production, but this was not his first Cavaradossi and the young man clearly knew what he was doing. His singing, full of passion for Tosca one minute and full of spite for Scarpia the next, easily adapted to the demands of the score, and he had an easy rapport with the other performers.
Zeljko Lucic is a familiar face to the Met audience, and it was good to see him having fun with the SOB everybody loves to hate. His ominous burnished singing and chilling demeanor did wonder conveying Scarpia’s unquenchable thirst for power and complete lack of common decency despite his aristocrat’s ways, and we wouldn’t have our Scarpia any other way.
The three sets provided the typical Met crowd with what they like best: predictability and opulence, with the slight slant of the stage adding a discreet touch of originality. Being in the family circle, as opposed to orchestra left, this time gave me a very different, more all-encompassing, view over the proceedings, and one that really made me appreciate how well put-together everything was. That said, there have to be some creative minds able to come up with something more inventive than that out there. Please let them speak up.
Puccini’s richly colorful score is generously spiked with show-stopping arias and other special musical treats such as the rousing Te Deum in the first act and the sweet shepherd boy’s song opening the third act, making it immediately engaging and constantly satisfying. And when you have a crack ensemble like the Met orchestra performing it, the result is an on-going feast for the ears. Maestro de Billy was thankfully mindful of not letting the intensity of the instruments take over the intensity of the voices too often, and a wonderful time was had by all.

Wednesday, May 9, 2018

New York Philharmonic - Dvorak, Sibelius & Tchaikovsky - 05/03/18

Conductor: Manfred Honeck 
Dvorak: Rusalka Fantasy (arr. By Manfred Honeck) 
Sibelius: Concerto for Violin and Orchestra in D Minor, Op. 47 
Nikolaj Znaider: Violin 
Tchaikovsky: Selections from Sleeping Beauty (arr. By Manfred Honeck) 

As a die-hard fan of Finnish composer Jean Sibelius, I have to say that last week was pretty good for me. Not only did I enjoy discovering short solo piano pieces of his thanks to Norwegian pianist Leif ove Andsnes on Tuesday evening, but on Thursday evening I was back in David Geffen Hall to experience his magnificent violin concerto for the umpteenth time thanks to Danish-Israeli violinist and conductor Nikolaj Znaider, the New York Philharmonic, and Austrian conductor (and music arranger!) Manfred Honeck. Those composers and musicians from the North took over part of the Big Apple last week, and it was a total blast.
Moreover, beside the Sibelius concerto, the rest of the program provided more lush Romanticism with some selections from Anton Dvorak’s opera Rusalka arranged by Honeck, and then some selections from Piotr Tchaikovsky’s ballet score The Sleeping Beauty arranged by Honeck too. I certainly could see an intriguing pattern here and I was looking forward to exploring it.

There are heaps of lovely melodies of Dvorak’s Rusalka, and Honeck’s Rusalka Fantasy did a good job at picking up bits and pieces and putting everything together in a convincing whole. It also handed “Song to the Moon” to concertmaster Frank Huang, and while the result did not benefit from the flexibility of a human voice, his beautifully glowing violin solo gave the beloved aria a different kind of life. 
Speaking of violins, I must hear Sibelius’s violin concerto at least once a season. This is probably not the violin concerto I’ve heard the most (The Brahms would probably win that title, due to the sheer number of opportunities to hear it), but it is certainly the one I am the most obsessive about. Which kind of makes sense when you think of how obsession-filled the concerto actually is. On Thursday night, Znaider’s riveting performance, knowing exactly when to step on the intensity pedal and when to let go of it, reinforced my long-held belief that it is one of the most stunning compositions of the classical music repertoire.
Because no Romantic evening is complete without a visit from the King of Schmaltz himself, quintessential heart on one’s sleeve lyricism occupied the second half of the program with Honeck’s selections from Tchaikovsky’s The Sleeping Beauty. Like for his Rusalka Fantasy earlier, he put the various movements together not in chronological order, but more in a way that was making musical sense, and that turned out to be a clever decision in that case too. The New York Philharmonic has never shied away from embarking on an openly feel-good mission and we all went for it. Even if you were not familiar with the fairy tale, the ballet or the Disney movie, those were 45 glorious minutes of attractive melodies and lush orchestration that could not help but leave people all fuzzy inside, and sometimes that's all one needs.

If my two evenings at David Geffen Hall last week were as musically satisfying as could be, the behaviors of some audience members was not. After a cell phone unceremoniously interrupted Leif ove Andsnes’ opening number on Wednesday night, on Thursday night I happened to be sitting next to a blue-haired patron with a bourgeois look and a pig mentality. As the performance was going on and she started coughing, she did the right thing by reaching out for her cough drops, and the wrong thing by nonchalantly dropping the wrapper not once, or two, or even three, but four times! Who knew that the New York Philharmonic’s orchestra seats came with a license to litter?

Monday, May 7, 2018

Leif ove Andsnes - Nielsen, Sibelius, Beethoven, Schubert & Widmann - 05/02/18

Carl Nielsen: Chaconne, Op. 32 
Jean Silbelius: Selections 
The Birch Tree, Op. 75, No. 4 
Impromptu, Op. 97, No. 5 
Rondino II, Op. 68, No. 2 
The Shepherd, Op. 58, No. 4 \
Romance in D-flat Major, Op. 24, No. 9 
Ludwig von Beethoven: Piano Sonata No. 17 in D Minor, Op. 31, No. 2 (The Tempest) 
Franz Schubert: Two Scherzos for Piano, D. 593 
Jorg Widmann: Idyll and Abyss 
Franz Schubert: Drei Klavierstücke (Three Piano Pieces), D. 946 

 As far as I am concerned, Finnish Jean Sibelius is one of the most underrated composers ever, and Norwegian Leif ove Andsnes is a pianist that you can never hear too often. Therefore, the perspective of hearing the latter play obscure gems composed by the former was exciting not only from a purely musical point of view, but also because this recital would celebrate the end of Andsnes’ New York Philharmonic’s Artist-in-Residence engagement and, incidentally, promote his new Sibelius record because, after all, he might as well.
So my qualms about adding another concert to an already busy week did not linger very long and I excitingly grabbed tickets for my friend Angie and me, an Andsnes neophyte and a dedicated fan. That's how on that downright summery evening (What on earth happened to spring?!), which of course had to come with its usual share of sinus issues, we both eagerly headed to a Lincoln Center bustling with people eagerly marching on to their respective venue.

Inspired by Bach’s monumental Chaconne, Danish composer Carl Nielsen’s own Chaconne is a good choice for an opening number, even if it does not even come close to achieve the timeless grandeur of the original one (But then again, what does?). And since a cell phone rang as Andsnes had just started, immediately turning the guilty party into THAT person, he paused and restarted, so we even got to hear the first few notes twice!
The main curiosity of the program was the set of five Sibelius pieces selected by Andsnes, which turned out to be attractive miniatures, if not masterpieces, endearingly engaging with sporadic flashes of brilliance. And that was all for the better because while Andsnes is well-known for his thoughtful approach, he is also no stranger to letting sparkles happily fly too!
But as much as Andsnes gave a committed performance of the Sibelius works, he really came into his virtuosic own when he turned his undivided attention to Beethoven’s Piano Sonata in D Minor. Whether its nickname actually comes from Shakespeare’s play The Tempest or not, the piece is undoubtedly stormy, and it received a crisp, vibrant and flawless reading.
The second part of the program had two sets of pieces by Schubert, the obscure Two Scherzos for Piano and the classic Drei Klavierstücke, bookending German composer, conductor and clarinetist Jorg Widmann’s Idyll and Abyss, in which fragments of Schubert’s surrounding efforts unexpectedly showed up in a resolutely twisted, post-modern structure to create eerily pointed effects.

It took a little bit of persuading, but we eventually got an encore by Sibelius again, because, hey, he was the man of the evening after all. More surprisingly, it was followed, as we were about to give up on feasting on a second treat, by a small but dazzling gem by… Debussy! Maybe because Adnsnes is a pianist of wildly eclectic taste, maybe because you cannot go wrong with Debussy.

Sunday, May 6, 2018

JACK Quartet - Gee, Glass, Applebaum & Williams - 04/29/18

Erin Gee: Mouthpiece XXII 
Philip Glass: String Quartet No. 8 
Mark Applebaum: Darmstadt Kindergarten 
Amy Williams: Richter Textures 

One of New York City’s premier string quartets not only for their impeccable technique, but also for their irrepressible spirit of adventure, last Sunday afternoon the JACK Quartet virtuosically blessed us with a one-hour free performance of relatively new contemporary chamber music in Inwood’s Our Saviour’s Atonement Lutheran Church as part of Carnegie Hall’s Neighborhood Concerts series. Granted, you had to earn it, because not only was the location not particular convenient to begin with, but the one train that would have made the trip a straight shot for me was not going all the way on that day. But never mind.
Location and transportation challenges obviously had fazed neither the quartet’s fiercely dedicated audience, Neighborhood Concerts regulars and curious locals, including my colleague Fabri, who showed up with his wife and their roommates, and the little church quickly became so packed that standing room was soon becoming a problem. A good problem to have, for sure, and one that the JACK Quartet is likely to encounter more and more often as their career and reputation are unmistakably on a well-deserved upward path.

As if to establish their fearless experimenter credentials from the get-go, the four musicians started the concert with Erin Gee’s Mouthpiece XXII, a short piece during which they not only played their respective instruments, but also used their vocal chords to produce various sounds such as whistling and whispering. This wide-ranging sonic exploration gradually created a stream of consciousness-type phenomenon that was as eerie as intriguing and imperceptibly captured the audience’s attention with unique and exciting textures.
Nowadays musical pioneer Philip Glass almost seems too conventional for the JACK Quartet, but hearing them brilliantly work their way through his String Quartet No. 8 three months ago at Carnegie Hall was too thrilling of an experience to worry about over-thinking it, and I most grateful for a repeat performance of it. Having injected the traditional structure and spirit of the string quartet with playfully irreverent notes, Glass managed to please everyone without a fuss while still boldly breaking new ground. One of those timeless masterpieces that never get old, Glass’ String Quartet No. 8 can easily engage unsuspecting audiences into the realm of contemporary music, and keep them there too. Unsurprisingly, Sunday’s crowd was pretty ecstatic and made it loudly clear.
Commissioned by the Kronos Quartet – Talk about fearless experimenters! – for one of their children’s concerts and inspired by the famous Darmstadt Summer Courses, where the latest modern music trends of the 1950s and 1960s used to be fervently discussed, Mark Applebaum’s Darmstadt Kindergarten combines the rigor and the fun of music by combining instrumental sounds and choreographic gestures. Accordingly, one by one the four musicians eventually gave up their instruments to get up and mimic the notes they were supposed to play until they were all mimicking their part in total silence. And if the whole thing ended up feeling a bit gimmicky, it was still an undisputed hit.
Back to more conventional playing, the concert concluded with JACK Quartet-commissioned Amy Williams’ Richter Textures, whose seven short and uninterrupted movements were inspired by seven landscape and abstract paintings created by endlessly versatile German visual artist Gerhard Richter. As the widely different snapshots were coming up in the promised richer textures, from eerily delicate to vibrantly colorful to doggedly gritty, each of them took pain to build its own little world for a couple of minutes before making way for the next one.

Monday, April 30, 2018

Trifonov, Capuçon & Kremerata Baltica - All-Chopin - 04/26/18

Chopin: Introduction and Polonaise brillante in C Major, Op. 3 
Daniil Trifonov: Piano 
Gautier Capuçon: Cello 
Chopin: Cello Sonata in G Minor, Op. 65 
Daniil Trifonov: Piano 
Gautier Capuçon: Cello 
Chopin: Nocturne in E Major, Op. 62, No. 2 (arr. by Victor Kissine) 
Kremerata Baltica 
Chopin: Piano Concerto No. 2 in F Minor, Op. 21 (arr. by Yevgeny Sharlat) 
Daniil Trifonov: Piano 
Kremerata Baltica 

Every opportunity to hear meteorically rising Russian pianist Daniil Trifonov is to be at least considered, and New Yorkers have had quite a few of those lately thanks to his season-long Perspectives series at Carnegie Hall. And each of them comes with its own perks. Accordingly, beside providing another precious occasion to bask into the young pianist’s astounding brilliance, last Thursday’s concert gave us a chance to become more acquainted with steadily rising French cellist Gautier Capuçon, whose violinist brother Renaud I happened to hear last month during Aix-en-Provence’s Festival de Pâques, which he co-founded and helps run. Their mother must be so proud.
Last, but not least, Thursday's program, which was totally dedicated to revolutionary composer and pianist extraordinaire Frédéric Chopin through a cool mix of rarities and classics, was yet another powerful incentive for me to squeeze myself into the sold-out audience occupying the Stern Auditorium.

Chopin’s early Introduction and Polonaise brillante opened the concert with the sparkly insouciance of youth. The slow Introduction and the high-spirited Polonaise brillante lasted less than 10 minutes, but there was still plenty for Trifonov's unabashedly playful piano and Capuçon's more stable cello to do. In fact, this lovely little work also made me wonder why the obviously winning piano-cello combination was not used more often by composers.
This thought lingered on my mind during Chopin’s vastly more substantial Cello Sonata. He wrote it more than two decades after the Introduction and Polonaise brillante and it shows. By then he could boast of a solid command of his craft as well as an overflowing imagination, which led him to boldly mix Classical rigor and Romantic passion for a highly melodic and strongly uplifting result. Trifonov and Capuçon worked energetically and seamlessly together while negotiating the tricky musical territory with plenty of virtuosic flair.
It is always fun to discover unexpected versions of well-known pieces, and the instrumental version of Chopin’s beloved Nocturne in E Major as arranged by Victor Kissine and played by strings-only Kremerata Baltica was certainly a case in point on Thursday night.
Chopin’s Piano Concerto No. 2, which he wrote as a youngster, shows that while composing for an orchestra may not have come as naturally to him as composing for the piano alone, he could still write pretty exciting music. But Chopin will be Chopin, and as soon as the piano makes its assertive entrance, it resolutely steals the spotlight and stays firmly in it the entire time. On Thursday night, Trifonov made that clear without the slightest hint of ostentation. There was no mistaking who the star of the performance was, but the pared-down Kremerata Baltica orchestra played beautifully along all the way to the dazzling mazurka.

We had been treated to a memorable evening of interesting curiosities and enjoyable moments, but the undisputed highlight was the encore when Trifonov, finally alone at the keyboard, let loose for a downright stunning Fantaisie-Impromptu. Because that is just what he does.

New York Festival of Songs: A 30th Anniversary Celebration - 04/24/18

Steven Blier: Piano 
Michael Barrett: Piano 
Ralph Vaughan Williams: Orpheus with his lute 
Theo Hoffman 
Marc Blitzstein: Cross-Spoon 
Lauren Worhsam and Theo Hoffman 
William Bolcom: I knew a Woman 
Paul Appleby 
Antonin Dvorak: Mé srdce casto v bolesti 
Antonina Chehovska 
Edvard Grieg: En svane 
Julia Bullocks 
Sergei Rachmaninoff: Spring waters 
John Brancy 
Sergei Rachmaninoff: To her 
Antonina Chehovska 
Anonymous Spanish: El dulce de America 
Lauren Worhsam 
Enrique Granados: El mirror de la maja 
Antonina Chehovska 
Jorge Anckermann: Flor de Yumuri 
Paul Appleby 
Ernesto Lecuona: Como el arrullo de palmas 
Paul Appleby and John Brancy 
Gabriel Faure: En sourdine 
John Brancy 
Francis Poulenc: Tu vois le feu du soir 
Paul Appleby 
Stephen Sondheim: Talent 
Theo Hoffman 
Fats Waller: Aint-cho glad 
Julia Bullocks 
Michael John Lachiusa: Heaven 
Mary Testa Hoagy 
Carmichael: Old buttermilk sky 
Mary Testa Adam Guettel: Awaiting you 
John Brancy 
Jonathan Larson: Hosing the furniture 
Lauren Worhsam 
Franz Schubert: Die Taubenpost 
Paul Appleby 
John Lennon and Paul McCartney: In my life 
Julia Bullocks and Theo Hoffman 

 After happily basking in a lot of instrumental music lately, the time had come to focus on the wonderful capacities of the human voice. And that is just what my visiting friend Nicole and I did on Tuesday night at New York Festival of Songs’ 30th anniversary celebration in Kaufman Music Center’s Merkin Concert Hall after a super-busy day filled with business, because we kind of had to, and pleasure, because we definitely wanted it. That was also the perfect opportunity for Nicole to reconnect with a lot of people she used to work with and for me to become acquainted with NYFOS’ mission and artists.
For that very special occasion, the very special program featured an impressively wide range of offerings, which is the least you can say when names like Sergei Rachmaninoff, Ernesto Lecuona, Hoagy Carmichael and Lennon & McCartney appear on the same page. And to top it all off, the performers were an extraordinary group of singers, two of whom, Julia Bullocks and Paul Appleby, I had heard previously and was very much looking forward to hearing again.

The concert started with baritone Theo Hoffman singing Ralph Vaughan Williams’ “Orpheus with his lute”, which happens to be the first song ever performed on a NYFOS stage. This interesting bit of trivia, and the many entertaining introductions that would precede almost every tune, were provided by Steven Blier, NYFOS’ co-founder and artistic director. NYFOS’ other co-founder and associate artistic director Michael Barrett was also there, and both men seamlessly shared accompaniment duty at the piano, with the occasional help of Jack Gulielmetti at the classical guitar, David Ostwald at the tuba and Eric Borghi at the percussion.
The four ladies who took the stage at various times had a lot going for them, each in her own special way: the perky soprano Lauren Worhsam, the soulful soprano Antonina Chehovska, the sassy soprano Julia Bullocks and the veteran mezzo-soprano Mary Testa. The three gentlemen seemed to have just as much of a ball and we all got to indulge in Theo Hoffman’s liveliness, tenor Paul Appleby’s dreaminess and baritone John Brancy’s somberness.
There of course had to be an encore involving all the singers for a “song that everybody knew”, and we concluded the festive event with a rousing performance of The Beatles’ notorious ode to reggae and silliness “Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da”.

Monday, April 23, 2018

Denk, Jackiw & Hudson Shad - All-Ives - 04/22/18

Ives: Violin Sonata No. 4 (Children’s Day at the Camp Meeting) 
Beluah Land 
I Need Thee Every Hour 
Ives: Violin Sonata No. 3 
Autumn (Mighty God, While Angels Bless Thee) 
Ives: Violin Sonata No. 2 
Hymns and Songs 
Shining Shore (My Days Are Gliding Swiftly By) 
Tramp! Tramp! Tramp! The Boys Are Marching 
The Old Oaken Bucket 
Work Song (Work For The Night Is Coming) 
Ives: Violin Sonata No. 1 

Exactly one week after attending an all-Mozart performance by the Peabody Chamber Orchestra and Leon Fleisher, my friend Paula and I met in Town Hall yesterday at the exact same time and place for another concert of People’s Symphony Concerts’ Salomon series. This time, however, instead of classical Viennese works written by one of the world’s most famous composers, we were in for a concert dedicated to American modernist composer Charles Ives courtesy of his relentless advocate Jeremy Denk, fearless young violinist Stefan Jackiw and the endlessly versatile Hudson Shad vocal quartet.
I have actually gotten to know Ives’ œuvre almost exclusively through Jeremy Denk. This is of course no big surprise as he is probably one of the few musicians around these days with the emotionally understanding, intellectual capacity and technical skills necessary to tackle the music of a man who was so fiercely dedicated to his craft that he did not seem to mind that his uncompromising compositions did not allow him to make a living off them.
On top of it, while one week earlier I had to take the subway both ways to avoid the dreadful winter weather, yesterday afternoon more than made up for it with gorgeous spring weather. So I happily ditched the subway for two very enjoyable walks in a Central Park bursting with people, flowers and, yes, music.

Jeremy Denk is not only known for his virtuosic talent at the keyboard, but also for the informal, witty, and enlightening introductions he gives before his performances. Yesterday, providing a brief biography of Ives, especially pointing out his staunchly avant-garde outlook and obsessive tendency to inject unexpected musical references in his compositions, was in fact very useful to put the pieces in context. Given my background, I was unfortunately not able to play the “search-for-and-name-the-hymn” game, but there was still plenty for me to enjoy regardless.
Proceeding counter-chronologically, which means that, curiously enough, we went from the most accessible to the most esoteric sonatas, we started with the Violin Sonata No. 4, which was his first one to be published, probably because he considered it the strongest one of them all. Inspired by the boys’ summer camp in Brookline Park he attended in his childhood, the score was playful, boisterous and lyrical, each quality being vividly expressed by the power duo of Denk and Jackiw. Complex but readily accessible, the fourth was an ideal starting point.
The longest piece of the afternoon, and incidentally the one he liked the least, Ives’ Violin Sonata No. 3 came out vigorously swinging, especially in the ragtime-flavored second movement. The duo performed it in perfect balance, both strongly expressive without being overbearing, through technical acrobatics, unpredictable dissonances and poetic moments. The rewarding experience almost got ruined though, by an audience who felt compelled, as they sometimes do, to make himself heard by starting to clap as soon as the last note had been played instead of letting it drift away, as it should have. Thanks for nothing.
After intermission, it was time for the Violin Sonata No. 2, which was yet another example of the right combination of nostalgia and modernism with more than a touch of rowdiness. This savory combo was particularly present in the tightly organized chaos of the second movement “In the barn”, the violin’s transformation into a fiddle igniting more than a few chuckles from the audience. After all that earthy fun, the spirituality of the last movement was all the more fervent and poignant. 
Allegedly the most experimental sonata of the four, the Violin Sonata No. 1 still had enough traditional elements to make everybody feel at ease, and enough esoteric surprises to resolutely challenge performers and audiences. Inspired by “people’s outdoors gatherings”, the work busily evoked what could go right and wrong in those settings with wild distortions and intense overlapping, and the occasional pristine melodic line.
Getting to hear Ives’ four brilliant violin sonatas preceded by extensive explanations was certainly an unusual treat. To make the whole experience even more edifying, between sonatas the four singers of the Hudson Shad ensemble sang some of the hymns and traditional songs to be found in the following piece in impressive unison. And to make the whole experience even more personal, the audience was invited to join in for the second round of “I Need Thee Every Hour”, which we did very discreetly. Some things are just best left to the pros.

Saturday, April 21, 2018

New York Philharmonic - Mozart & Bruckner - 04/19/18

Conductor: Christoph Eschenbach 
Mozart: Piano Concerto No. 22 in E-flat Major, K. 482 
Till Fellner: Piano 
Bruckner: Symphony No. 9 in D Minor (Ed. Nowak) 

These past few days I have been reminded of the importance of the Viennese musical scene with a serendipitous marathon of many things Viennese. After happily basking in a couple of hours of Mozart’s glorious music last Sunday afternoon, I found myself getting ready for more on Thursday evening with our own New York Philharmonic, German conductor Christoph Eschenbach and Viennese pianist Till Fellner. I had the pleasure of hearing the young pianist play the same all-Beethoven program a couple of weeks apart in Vienna and in Washington, D.C. a few years ago, and I was now very much looking forward to becoming reacquainted with him and Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 22.
Not to be outdone, the second half of the concert would be dedicated to Viennese composer Anton Bruckner’s sprawling Symphony No. 9, which he did not get to finish, but is widely regarded as a major achievement of his. Moreover, the prospect of witnessing maestro Eschenbach’s famously idiosyncratic conducting applied to the challenging musical work promised to be an experience to remember, hopefully for the right reasons.

One of Mozart’s loveliest creations in a wide-ranging œuvre containing many timeless works, his Piano Concerto No. 22 kicked off the concert with brisk elegance in a very full David Geffen Hall. Still as youthful-looking and reserved as I remembered him, Fellner, who was making his long-overdue New York Philharmonic debut on Thursday evening, focused squarely on the music, delivering a wonderfully pristine and quietly thrilling performance.
The cadenzas of the first and third movements in particular, by Paul Badura-Skoda and Johann Nepomuk Hummel respectively, spontaneously brought to mind a gently lilting stream as his fingers were working at break-neck speed. After an assertive Allegro, the Andante unfolded delicately introspective and slightly mysterious, before the exciting last movement, a personal favorite in no small parts due to all those hints at Le nozze di Figaro, came out radiantly colored and smartly paced. The collaboration between piano and orchestra was organic and respectful, and strove on subtlety.
After the 18th century tasteful refinement of Mozart’s piano concerto, we all braced ourselves for the 19th century dark thunder of Bruckner’s Ninth Symphony. Once the intermission was over, an impressive number of musicians packed the large stage, and we were off for a deeply immersive journey that even in its most relaxed moments – I am thinking especially of the pizzicatos playfully opening the second movement – simply would not let off.
I am not a huge Bruckner fan, but I have to admit that his Ninth Symphony is something else by its scope, force and diversity. On the other hand, I am not going to lament on what the composer’s untimely death has deprived us of because the three movements altogether generally clock in at one hour already. Under the exceptionally firm baton of maestro Eschenbach the orchestra played with tightness and vigor, keeping the audience on their toes, come hell or high water, while expertly taking us to a nobly beautiful finish line. Unplanned maybe, but remarkably fitting.

Tuesday, April 17, 2018

People’s Symphony Orchestra - Peabody Chamber Orchestra & Leon Fleisher - All-Mozart - 04/15/18

Conductor: Leon Fleisher 
Mozart: Symphony No. 1 in E-flat Major, K. 16 
Mozart: Piano Concerto No. 12 in A Major, K. 414 
Leon Fleisher: Piano 
Mozart: Symphony No. 41 in C Major, K. 551 

After some fabulous vacation busily mixing music, food and wine in the south of France – It sure is hard to go wrong with that combo – and a hectic but eventually successful return trip, I have been getting back to my New York routine the only way I know how, by getting to my New York routine. Unsurprisingly, said routine includes live music, even if I almost missed the first concert on my calendar due to a treacherous combination of jet lag and over-confidence in my memory.
Needless to say, I would have been heart-broken if I had unwittingly passed on People’s Symphony Orchestra’s all-Mozart feast performed by the graduate and upper-division students of the Peabody Chamber Orchestra and conducted by 90-year-young living legend Leon Fleisher at the historical Town Hall. That also gave me the opportunity to catch up with my friend Paula, a fellow music lover and the outing instigator, on my first weekend back.
So that’s how early on Sunday afternoon, I expectantly headed to Midtown, the trip being uncharacteristically taken by subway since after two days of stunning summer weather that almost felt like an extension of my vacation, Mother Nature had apparently decided to give us another taste of winter.

As its name indicates, Mozart’s Symphony No. 1 was the first symphony he ever wrote; it is therefore a bona fide curiosity, if not exactly a masterpiece. What the name does not indicate though, is that the wunderkind was eight years old at the time, which is a ridiculously precocious age even for a child prodigy. The piece turned out to be an endearing little composition, pleasantly light and delightfully melodic, and it got a radiant and energetic treatment from the orchestra under maestro Fleisher’s watchful baton. Even Paula, who is not a fan of juvenilia, to say the least, admitted that it was better than she had feared.
Watching Leon Fleisher conduct was fun, but let’s face it, we were all there to hear him play the piano, and that’s just what he did for Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 12. Written when the composer had reached the ripe age of twenty-six, it shows a remarkable command of his craft, most particularly his famous knack for elegance and complexity. Myriads of wonderful tiny details can be found in the seemingly modest structure, and Leon Fleisher brought them all out with assurance, expertise and a lot of heart in an unhurried, organically beautiful performance.
Coming full circle, the concert ended in grand style with an irrepressibly  glowing Jupiter, Mozart’s last masterpiece, which is incidentally also one of my favorite symphonies ever. Starting with one of the sexiest come-ons in music history, it is bold and noble, refined and majestic, and so emotionally powerful that it sweeps the audience right into the Romantic territory that lies just around the corner. A stunning swan song for a composer who was probably not even at the top of his game yet when he sadly left us (Sigh). And a much appreciated welcome back gift for me.

Sunday, April 15, 2018

Festival de Pâques - Capuçon, Angelich, Argerich & Soltani - Debussy, Schumann & Mendelssohn - 04/08/18

Debussy: Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune for two pianos 
Nicholas Angelich: Piano 
Martha Argerich: Piano 
Debussy: Sonata for Cello and Piano in D Minor 
Nicholas Angelich: Piano 
Kian Soltani: Cello 
Debussy: Sonata for Violin and Piano in G Minor
Nicholas Angelich: Piano 
Renaud Capuçon: Violin 
Schumann: Six Études in Canonical Form, Op. 56 (arranged for two pianos by Debussy) 
Nicholas Angelich: Piano 
Martha Argerich: Piano 
Mendelssohn: Piano Trio No. 1 in D Minor, Op. 49 
Nicholas Angelich: Piano 
Martha Argerich: Piano 
Renaud Capuçon: Violin 
 Kian Soltani: Cello 

The final concert of the Festival de Pâques in Aix-en-Provence has always been a special event as festival artistic director and violinist Renaud Capuçon gets to invite a bunch of friends for a pleasantly informal yet highly virtuosic play date. This year was no exception as the star-studded guest list included legendary pianist Martha Argerich (Yes, the same Martha Argerich that let me down at Carnegie Hall last month), legendary pianist Daniel Barenboim, and up-and-coming cellist Kian Soltani.
When I got an email from the festival on Thursday evening, my heart sank at the thought of Martha Argerich cancelling on me again. But this time, the good news was that she was still on, the bad news was that Daniel Barenboim was bailing out due to illness (Sigh). He would be replaced by Nicholas Angelich, a highly respected pianist who is also a regular partner of Argerich and Barenboim, and the original all-Debussy program would be slightly modified to include Schumann and Mendelssohn.
So on Sunday, after another wonderful day leisurely walking around the town and exploring the Musée Granet and the Collection Jean Planque, we headed to the Grand Théâtre de Provence one last time for the 5:00 P.M. starting time. This time our seats were in the third row, which was still dreadfully close to the stage, but since the concert had a waiting list, I did not even bother trying to get a better one. The important thing was I was in, and so was Martha.

The first piece on the program was the two-piano version of Debussy’s Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune performed by Argerich and Angelich. And that’s how, after so many years of missed opportunities as well as short speeches by Dominique Bluzet, the festival's executive director, and Renaud Capuçon, I finally got a chance to experience the magic of Martha Argerich live, which incidentally made my bucket list one item shorter too. She of course still had to tease me though, so while her delicately atmospheric Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune with Angelich was everything I could have hoped for, she then disappeared until the second half of the program. Seriously.
But Angelich carried on, first with cellist Kian Soltani for Debussy’s avant-garde Sonata for Cello and Piano, during which the cello had stunning moments in the limelight, and then with Renaud Capuçon for Debussy’s compelling Sonata for Violin and Piano, which showed how the composer was at that point boldly moving into purely abstract territory. Listening to such brilliantly creative music, one not only enjoys it, but also cannot help think and lament about what Debussy’s untimely death probably deprived us of.
During his opening speech, Capuçon had delighted the audience by announcing that starting this year, the Festival de Pâques will offer a glass of champagne to everybody in the audience during intermission. Needless to say, this brand new tradition proved to be a raging success right away, not to mention another powerful incentive to come back every year, in case the town and the music were inexplicably not enough.
Once our little treat happily guzzled down, we came back to our seats slightly buzzed, but Argerich and Angelich quickly got us to focus on the program again with Debussy’s arrangement of Schumann’s Six Études in Canonical Form. Schumann’s time-honored Romantic language adapted to Debussy’s ground-breaking Impressionistic style turned out to be an intriguing concept that yielded some truly exciting music.
Although the concert marked the 100th anniversary of Debussy’s death, somehow Felix Mendelssohn managed to get in with his Piano Trio No. 1 performed by Argerich, Capuçon and Soltani. One of the composer’s most popular hits, the piece notably features a substantial part for the piano in the best Schumanesque tradition, and then of course there is Mendelssohn’s quasi-unparalleled command of melody. It was the perfect way to add some sunshine to this rather grey day and wrap up the official program on a positively upbeat note.
The first movement was in fact so satisfyingly intense that the audience spontaneously erupted into an extended ovation that only subsided when Capuçon pointed out that there were four movements in total. That gave Argerich the opportunity to authoritatively get the second movement going, then go straight into the third one and barely pause before the fourth one to avoid any more disruption. What Martha wants, Martha gets, and the two gentlemen gamely went along while exchanging amused glances.

When Mendelssohn shows up, it is hard to let him go, so the three musicians came back to reward the thunderous ovation with a repeat of the Scherzo, which was just as thrilling as the first time. But this was Debussy’s party after all, so Argerich and Angelich sat down one last time in front of their instruments with Capuçon and Soltani as their respective deluxe page turners. A star-studded grand finale for another highly successful festival.