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) 
Hymns: 
Beluah Land 
I Need Thee Every Hour 
Ives: Violin Sonata No. 3 
Hymn: 
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.

Saturday, April 14, 2018

Festival de Pâques - The Hagen Quartet - Beethoven, Webern & Debussy - 04/07/18

Beethoven: String Quartet No. 3 in D Major, Op. 38 
Webern: String Quartet (1905) 
Debussy: String Quartet in G Minor, L 85, Op. 10 

After the Festival de Pâques's grand-scale Brahms concert on Friday night, my mom and I were looking forward to downsizing in terms of venue and ensemble, but certainly not in terms of quality, with the eminent Salzburgians of the Hagen Quartet and a particularly appealing program that included early works by Beethoven, Webern and Debussy. Even better, the performance would take place in the historical, intimate and beautiful Théâtre du Jeu de Paume, one of Aix-en-Provence's countless gems, so that’s where we headed after a fun spin around the popular open-air market on cours Mirabeau.
Although the evening before we had more or less unwittingly found ourselves two rows from the stage, this time we were perched right in the middle of the first row in the second balcony, which was as ideal a location as could be as far as I was concerned. We felt all the more fortunate for our premium seats as the roughly 500-seat hall was filled to the brim, even though the starting time of noon coincided with the sacrosanct French lunch hour. You know something special is happening with music trumps food in France.

Ludwig van Beethoven may be more famous for his symphonies, but his chamber music output is about just as dazzling, and the concert started with a superb example of it. Written when the composer was in his late twenties, his String Quartet No. 3 already shows a remarkable mastery of his craft and some even more remarkable joie de vivre. Although the first three movements are fairly conventional, they still stand out for their subtlety and gentleness, before all caution is swiftly thrown to the wind during the glorious home run that is the vigorously polyphonic Presto. The Hagen Quartet’s performance of the attractive piece was precise and engaging, the tight ensemble consistently making sure to highlight all the many appealing facets of the impressive effort.
We remained firmly on Viennese territory but fast-forwarded over a century to Anton Webern and his deeply atmospheric String Quartet, which was originally inspired by a triptych by Italian painter Giovanni Segantini entitled “Alpenlandschaft” (alpine landscape), whose three distinct sections Life/Nature/Death are reflected in the three sections of the one-movement composition. Unsurprisingly, the crafty combination of the mighty Beethovian struggle toward victory and the Romantic tradition's heart-felt expressiveness was superbly brought out by the four string players.
From early 20th century Vienna we went slightly back in time to late 19th century Paris with a brilliant performance of Claude Debussy’s one and only String Quartet. Although they were not well-received when the work first came out, the poetic themes, unusual rhythms and occasionally downright eerie sonorities sounded as fresh and ground-breaking on Saturday afternoon as they ever could. Boldly emphasizing the possibilities of flexibility over rigidity, Debussy created a new world of sounds that the Hagen Quartet treated with all the deference, expertise and commitment it deserves.

The musicians had been playing with no intermission for one and half memorable hour, and I was ready to forgive them if they decided to skip the encores. But, amazingly enough, they did not and treated the ecstatic audience to a glowing reading of the second movement of Maurice Ravel’s String Quartet in F Major. And just like that, we were in for another round of fin de siècle French musical entertainment that came with a delightful flurry of pizzicatos

Festival de Pâques - Die Deutsche Kammerphilharmonie Bremen - All-Brahms - 04/06/18

Brahms: Violin Concerto in D Major, Op. 77 
Veronika Eberle: Violin 
Brahms: Symphony No. 1 in C Minor, Op. 68 

 After Mother Nature had dumped another few inches of snow in New York City on April 2 (A belated April’s Fool?), and then followed up with a couple of days of intermittent rain, I simply could not wait to get out of town and fly pretty much anywhere offering actual spring weather. As luck would have it, I had planned to go to the South of France to visit my family and check out the still young but more ambitious than ever Festival de Pâques in Aix-en-Provence, now in its sixth year, with my mom. Timing could not have been better.
Just spending some time in the oh so elegant and yet so laid-back Provençal city of Aix is a treat in itself, but getting to indulge in superb music-making by world-class musicians in perfectly sized venues just brings the whole experience to an entirely different level. To top it all off, the first concert on our list was an all-Brahms program courtesy of the highly regarded Deutsche Kammerphilharmonie Bremen, esteemed conductor Paavo Jarvi and fast-rising violinist Veronika Eberle in the wonderful Grand Théâtre de Provence. What could go wrong?
Once in the concert hall though, I realized to my horror that the “excellent” seats my mom had been bragging about were in the second row of the parquet – the first two rows having been removed to accommodate the orchestra – which basically meant that we were going to watch the musicians’ shoes while the music would be flying way above our heads. Her desire to be close to the action, which I do not share to begin with, had brought us decidedly too close for comfort, even by her own admission

However, I have to admit that our less than desirable seats had one advantage: We got to watch the prodigious work that Veronika Eberle’s fingers accomplished with disconcerting ease as she was playing Brahms’ fiendishly difficult violin concerto. Although the sound was often discombobulated from where we were, the stunning masterpiece still came through as the irresistible explosion of deeply romantic lyricism and feisty folk-dance tunes that it is. This is probably the violin concerto I’ve heard the most in my life, and its magic still works every time.
After the rousing ovation, Eberle came back with a delightful encore by Prokofiev, expertly handling the 20th century Russian enfant terrible as proficiently as the 19th century German Romantic. This promising musician is clearly unstoppable.
Having deciding that I could not take it any longer, I went off to inquire if getting another seat – any other seat – for the second half of the program was possible. I was not overly optimistic because the place looked packed, but the dynamic, friendly and resourceful staff made it happen, and I happily settled down at the end of one of the parquet’s last rows.
Then I was ready for Brahms’ first symphony, which took him no fewer than a couple of decades to complete. Composing a symphony is obviously no simple matter, and being an exceptionally fastidious perfectionist while continuously wrestling with Beethoven’s ghost probably did not help either. But Brahms thankfully persisted and by all accounts the sprawling end result turned out to be worth the wait. Grand, complex and heart-felt, it is a first effort that has indisputably become a classic, and the Deutsche Kammerphilharmonie Bremen gave a sumptuous, energetic and clear-minded performance of it.

Keeping the momentum going, the orchestra carried on with two originally unidentified encores, the first of which sounded downright familiar but was exasperatingly impossible to name for the longest time (Turns out it was Tchaikovsky's Slavonic March). But the enjoyment quickly overcame the frustration and once this first concert in Aix was over, we were already ready for more.

Friday, March 30, 2018

Christian Tetzlaff - All-Bach - 03/28/18

Bach: Sonata No. 2 in A Minor, BWV 1003 
Bach: Partita No. 2 in D Minor, BWV 1004 
Bach: Sonata No. 3 in C Major, BWV 1005 
Bach: Partita No. 3 in E Major, BWV 1006 

There are very few violinists who can handle Johann Sebastian Bach with the knowledge, technique and aplomb of Christian Tetzlaff, so any performance of the former by the latter is a must-attend for any dedicated music lover. Therefore, I don’t have to emphasize how thrilled I was when I originally saw both names mentioned in the same concert program in the Lincoln Center’s Great Performers series this season. Even better, the concert would take place in the wonderful Alice Tully Hall.
I was much less thrilled though, when I saw that he would only be performing the last four of Bach’s six Sonatas and Partitas for Solo Violin. Granted, the full set, which is widely considered the pinnacle of the violin repertoire, is so mercilessly challenging that it is rarely played in its entirety. But it can be done. I also want to point out that the only two violinists I have ever witnessed make it through the daunting marathon were Rachel Barton Pine and Kyung Wha Chung. So much for the weaker sex.
But the offer was still awfully hard to resist… and I frankly did not even try. In fact, I was so much looking forward to it that last week I accidentally took my Christian Tetzlaff concert ticket to gain admittance to my Joshua Bell concert. So many violinists, so little time.

Christian Tetzlaff may be one of the most acclaimed violinists of our times, but he is not the flashy type. And sure enough, as soon as he had placed himself in the middle of the bare stage in the full and hushed auditorium on Wednesday night, he went right down to business with the Sonata No. 2 in A Minor and let the music gloriously speak for itself for the next two hours. As he was working his way through the first piece on the program with uncompromising steadfastness, the most outstanding movement for me had to be the deeply expressive Andante, which beautifully stood out between the complex Fugue and the light-hearted Allegro.
Although I was lucky enough to hear the Partita No. 2 in D Minor played with supreme poise by Anne-Sophie Mutter a few weeks ago, I was more than ready for Tetzlaff’s take on it. The four relatively short dances preceding the Chaconne inevitably appear lightweight compared to the Himalaya the last movement represents, but they still stood out proudly on their own. Seemingly impregnable, the Chaconne nevertheless had to bend to Tetzlaff’s unwavering grip and unfolded with force and brilliance.
The Chaconne may be more naturally engaging, and therefore more popular, but the Fugue of the Sonata No. 3 in C Major is notoriously longer and more difficult to tame. When a consummate virtuoso like Tetzlaff handles it though, the result turns out memorable for its laser-like execution and the pure musical enjoyment it conveys. The other three movements were just about as gripping, in particular the immaculately serene Largo, which expertly balanced the intensity of the Fugue.
I’ve always found the exuberant Partita No. 3 in E Major bitter-sweet, bitter because it is the last leg of one amazing journey, and sweet because its French flavor never fails to tickle me. It hits the ground running with the kind of spectacular fireworks usually reserved for the grand finale in the Preludio, features the fun little Gavotte en Rondeau that has since taken a life of its own, especially as a concert encore, and generally offers exciting dance-inspired movements. Tetzlaff concluded his remarkable performance with plenty of momentum left and earned a rousing vacation from the ecstatic audience.

Tuesday, March 27, 2018

NYCO - Il Pigmalione/Pigmalion - 03/24/18

Gil Rose: Conductor 
Richard Stafford: Stage Director & Choreographer 
New York City Orchestra 

 Il Pigmalione 
Composer: Gaetano Donizetti 
Piotr Buszewski: Pigmalione 
Jessica Sandidge: Galatea 

 Pigmalion 
Composer: Jean-Philippe Rameau 
Thor Arbjornsson: Pigmalion 
Samarie Alicea: La statue 
Melanie Long: Cupid 
Julia Snowden: Céphise
New York City Opera Chorus 
New York City Opera Dancers

Although the myth of Pygmalion as narrated in Ovid’s Metamorphoses is universal and familiar (Who hasn't heard of My Fair Lady, at least?), two of the operas that were inspired by it, Gaetano Donizetti’s Il Pigmalione and Jean-Philippe Rameau’s Pigmalion, are less so. Thing is, Il Pigmalione was never performed during Donizetti’s lifetime while Pigmalion was one of Rameau’s biggest hits, but neither appears regularly in opera houses nowadays.
Enters the New York City Opera, which knows an obviously complementary yet sharply contrasting double-bill when it sees one. Due to their short running time, both operas can easily be programmed one after the other within two hours, which made the endeavor not only possible, but also very exciting. So exciting, in fact, that the management had to switch the venue to the well-proportioned and comfortable Lynch Theater at John Jay College due to overwhelming demand.
So last Saturday, I first did my political bit marching down Broadway to bring my whole-hearted support to school kids trying to stay alive (What a concept!) earlier in the day. And then I went west to the Lynch Theater to do my cultural bit attending the first of the double-bill’s two performances to bring my whole-hearted support to out-of-the-box initiatives later in the afternoon. And the beat goes on…

The first opera on the program was the Italian Il Pigmalione, which in fact was having its long-overdue US premiere on Saturday afternoon. Donizetti wrote Il Pigmalione in six days in 1816, when he was 19, as a school assignment and apparently did not think much of it after he had moved on to bigger and better things.
Il Pigmalione is worth-knowing though, not just out of curiosity, but also for the sheer pleasure of witnessing Donizetti’s much praised bel canto style and keen sense of drama being born. As presented on Saturday afternoon, the one-act, two-character work was essentially an over-extended one-man show by Pygmalion, with a short cameo by Galatea towards the end, on a mostly bare stage, save for the actual statue smack in the middle of it.
By default the opera’s weight fell squarely on the shoulders of the tenor, who had to convey a mind driven to distraction by its relentless pining for the attractive artwork. And sure enough, Polish tenor Piotr Buszewski showed us all how it’s done with natural charisma, laudable acting skills, and a powerful voice. As the woman behind me pointed out to her companion: “This is a tough part to pull off.”
As the living statue Galatea, American soprano Jessica Sandidge’s voice had the natural luminosity required for the small but critical part, and managed to capture the audience’s attention even from behind her screen. It is a real shame that we did not get to hear more of her, but the opera was over before we got a chance to indulge.
After the intermission, we jumped back 68 years to end up in mid-18th century France, where Louis XV was the leader of the country and Rameau the leader of the music scene. The composer wrote Pigmalion in eight days in 1748, when he was 65, as a crown achievement and did not spare any expenses. Even the relatively small-scale production presented by the NYCO kept up to 17 performers busy at the same time.
After Il Pigmalione’s modern, minimalist and somber staging, Pigmalion’s set looked even more old-fashioned, opulent and crowded. Some smart ideas were efficiently implemented, such as having the statues and the mere mortals become alive at opposite moments as if no connection could be established between the two worlds. Alas, as in any self-respecting opera-ballet, we were also stuck with pleasant but endless celebratory dancing. While every performer gave it their all and put on a very entertaining show, it often felt like the story, not to mention the singing, were stalled for way too long.
On the other hand, when they got an opportunity to make themselves heard, the voices were most enjoyable. Icelandic tenor Thor Arbjornsson was a sweet-voiced Pigmalion totally enraptured by the graceful and endearing statue that was Puerto Rican Samarie Alicea. Mezzo-soprano Melanie Long managed to avoid any syrupy cuteness as the hard-working Cupid while mezzo-soprano Julia Snowden was an appropriately miffed Céphise, the sculptor’s neglected paramour.
Going from Donizetti’s vibrant bel canto lyricism to Rameau’s refined Baroque intricacies can’t be easy, and the much put-upon orchestra had prolonged flashes of true inspiration as well as fleeting moments of perceptible struggle. But musicians and conductor more or less managed to hold everything together and provide commendable support to the unusual, but ultimately totally satisfying, feat.

Sunday, March 25, 2018

Perlman, Zukerman and de Silva - Goldberg, Mozart, Wieniawski, Bartok & Moszkowski - 03/22/18

Goldberg: Sonata for Two Violins and Keyboard in C Major (formerly attributed to J.S. Bach, BWV 1037) 
Mozart: Duo for Violin and Viola in G Major, K. 423 
Wieniawski: Étude-caprice No. 1 in G Minor, Op. 18 
Wieniawski: Étude-caprice No. 4 in A Minor, Op. 18 
Bartok: Selections from Forty-Four Duos for Two Violins, BB 104 
Moszkowski: Suite for Two Violins and Piano in G Minor, Op. 71 

Getting a chance to hear legendary violinist Itzhak Perlman is way too rare of a pleasure these days mostly because he does not schedule enough performances. Getting a chance to hear legendary pianist Martha Argerich is way too rare of a pleasure these days too, mostly because she schedules performances and then cancels. So needless to say that after seeing both of them headlining a recital at Carnegie Hall this season, I immediately grabbed one of the fast-going tickets and kept my fingers solidly crossed.
Unfortunately, they were not crossed solidly enough because a few weeks before the concert date, Martha Argerich cancelled. Apparently nonplussed by the frustrating but not entirely unexpected change of plan, Perlman dug into his no doubt impressive Rolodex and got violinist and violist Pinchas Zukerman and pianist Rohan de Silva on board for a seemingly casual yet unmistakably high-flying evening of virtuosic music-making.Therefore, the music would go on.
On Thursday, one day after our fourth nor’easter in three weeks brought the city to a semi-halt again, things were more or less back to usual. And Carnegie Hall’s Stern Auditorium was packed to the rafters, where I found myself amidst a surprisingly young audience, quite possibly due to Zukerman’s tireless dedication to music education.

The concert started with court harpsichordist Johann Gottlieb Goldberg’s Sonata for Two Violins and Keyboard, which used to be attributed to Johann Sebastian Bach, who of course wrote the famous Goldberg Variations (It’s a small world after all). Staunchly conventional in the best sense of the term, the charming composition immediately set the mood for the rest of the evening as emotionally conflict-free and musically gratifying.
Next, the focus turned exclusively onto the strings with the Duo for Violin and Viola in G Major by the one and only Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. In the hands of veteran stringers and long-time buddies Perlman and Zukerman, the lively dialog, which may have sounded unassuming at first, became a splendid feast of complexity, elegance and light-heartedness. I even dare say that at times Zukerman’s magnificently burnished viola almost upstaged Perlman’s effortlessly singing violin.
This week has turned out to be a mini Henryk Wieniawski festival for me as after hearing his second violin concerto courtesy of Joshua Bell on Monday, I got to hear two of his miniature étude-caprices courtesy of Perlman and Zukerman on Thursday. Even better, the selected works constituted a fascinating study in contrasts with the Étude-caprice No. 1 coming along engaging but fundamentally low-key and the Étude-caprice No. 4 brazenly exploding with fierce pyrotechnics, all in about six minutes total.
After intermission, both violinists came back for several tunes selected from Bela Bartok’s Forty-Four Duos for Two Violins, each of which was introduced by Perlman. Drawing inspiration from folk music found in places as far out as the Middle-East, the majority of those delightful nuggets came out as festive dance songs, only to be tempered by the sorrowful “Sadness”.
Rohan de Silva was back at the keyboard for Moritz Moszkowski’s Suite for Two Violins and Piano in G Minor, which at 20 minutes was the longest work of the concert. Wrapping up the official program in full Romantic mood, the trio had a ball expertly bringing out the cheerful melodies, colorful drama and glorious lyricism of the unpretentious yet brilliant piece.

But the memorable soirée was not quite over yet, as the three musicians came back for an extended encore with Shostakovich’s Three Duets for Two Violins and Piano, Op. 97d, which concluded our evening on a slightly elegiac - and, of course, totally elevated - note.

Wednesday, March 21, 2018

Academy of St. Martin in the Fields - Mendelssohn, Wieniawski & Beethoven - 03/19/18

Mendelssohn: Overture to A Midsummer Night’s Dream 
Wieniawski: Violin Concerto No. 2 in D Minor 
Joshua Bell: Violin 
Beethoven: Symphony No. 6 in F Major, Op. 68 (Pastoral) 

After a musically quiet week, I hit the road again on Monday evening and went to David Geffen Hall for the venerable Academy of St. Martin in the Fields and its music director Joshua Bell, who was also going to fulfill the additional duties of conductor for the entire concert and soloist for the Wieniawski violin concerto. Because, after all, why not hire yourself and do as you please when you’re the boss?
Book-ended by the predictable but still rewarding crowd-pleasers that are the overture by Mendelssohn and the symphony by Beethoven, Polish composer Wieniawski’s second violin concerto stood out as the exciting intruder that all self-respecting classical music programs should have. While not exactly an obscure curiosity, it certainly does not have the mass appeal that its glamorous companions have been enjoying for many decades now, but still manages to make an appearance once in a while.
So it was with high expectations that my friend Christine and I took our orchestra seats in the packed concert hall. The British (and their American leader) had come, and we were more than ready for them.

Written when Felix Mendelssohn was a mere 17-year-old youngster, his Overture to A Midsummer Night’s Dream turned out to be as effortlessly enchanting and improbably mature as the unabashedly sunny Octet he had come up with the year before, and which has remained one of my all-time favorite musical pick-me-ups. Maybe inspired by the Shakespeare connection, definitely relying on their well-honed skills, the orchestra gave an impeccably glowing reading of it.
Throughout the years, I have heard Joshua Bell masterfully work his way through most of the extended violin concerto repertoire, but Wieniawski’s second effort was still missing. I had never heard it played by any other violinist either. But this frustrating situation came to an end on Monday night, when I finally had the opportunity to become acquainted with the highly lyrical work, which was serendipitously performed by the virtuoso who may very well have the sweetest tone of them all. This winning combination provided the rapt audience with 20 minutes of full-blown Romantic bliss, exquisite melodies and dazzling fireworks included.
Since the composer was a brilliant fiddler himself, it comes to no surprise that his second violin concerto makes the most of the instrument’s impressive range of possibilities. On Monday night, the soloist was also a brilliant fiddler, therefore it came to no surprise either that he readily handled the devilish technical challenges with disconcerting ease. The fact that the four rows of rambunctious high schoolers behind us were stunned into silence for the entirety of the three movements is ultimate proof that the experience was truly thrilling.
After intermission, everybody stayed in an uplifted mood with Beethoven’s vibrant “Pastoral” Symphony. Written in the same period as his unceremoniously ground-breaking fifth symphony, the more restrained sixth has kept a relatively lower profile (Not that hard!), yet never fails to charm the listener. Beethoven’s symphonies are so ubiquitous in concert halls all over the world that I rarely bother to go out of my way to hear them. And when I stumble upon one sooner than later, I always end up in awe of the man’s relentless creativity.
And sure enough, on Monday night, the composer’s musical genius – as well as his deep love for the countryside – were strongly palpable as the orchestra vividly expressed feelings of contentment and delight through the colorful evocations of bucolic scenery, singing birds, merry dancing, and the almighty storm. The tempo was sustained enough to keep the music flowing along nicely and gentle enough to allow the audience to revel in the joys of nature too... and eventually leave with a smile on their faces.

Sunday, March 11, 2018

Pierre-Laurent Aimard - Obukhov, Liszt, Messiaen, Scriabin & Beethoven - 03/08/18

Obukhov: Création d'or 
Obukhov: Révélation 
Liszt: Nuages gris, S. 199 
Liszt: Les jeux d’eaux à la Villa d’Este 
Messiaen: "Le Courlis Cendré" from Catalogue d'oiseaux 
Scriabin: Piano Sonata No. 5, Op. 53 
Beethoven: Piano Sonata No. 29 in B-flat Major, Op. 106 (Hammerklavier) 

Forty-eight hours after a generally satisfying contemporary music concert in Zankel Hall and twenty-four hours after another exasperatingly disruptive nor’easter in New York City, I was back at Carnegie Hall on Thursday evening, in the large Stern Auditorium this time, for a recital by eminent French (Lyonnais, even!) pianist Pierre-Laurent Aimard.
In typical Aimard fashion, his program was uncompromisingly ambitious, wildly eclectic yet extremely focused. It included a series of well-known and less well-known ground-breaking short pieces in the first half and Beethoven’s game-changing “Hammerklavier” in the second half. Just when we thought that we were done with spectacular Sturm und Drang for a while, there came Ludwig!

Before the concert started, my fellow Music Ambassador Karen and I were too busy catching up to read the program notes and therefore did not realize that the first half of the concert would be performed without a pause until, well, we did. But it soon became clear that there was nothing even remotely gimmicky about the unusual set-up, which had obviously been carefully thought out by the ever-scrupulous artist. Consequently, the widely different works seamlessly transitioned one into the other to gradually formed a coherent and fascinating whole.
The concert started with Nicolas Obukhov’s “Création d'or” and “Révélation”, whose strongly expressive components ranged from quasi-mystical to fully diabolical, before moving on to Franz Liszt’s mournful “Nuages gris”. The subsequent “Les jeux d’eaux à la Villa d’Este” perked things up a bit with the transparent sounds and mystical aura of the graceful Italian Renaissance fountains, before making way to a pointed description of the Eurasian curlew in Olivier Messiaen’s “Le Courlis Cendré”. Alexander Scriabin concluded the eventful journey with his intense one-movement Piano Sonata No. 5, which was as technically complex as musically fulfilling.
Aimard being a musician whose intellectual curiosity, technical skills and emotional commitment seem to know no bounds, there was no wonder that this 50-minute marathon was the kind of awe-inspiring tour de force that leaves the audience as breathless and exhilarated as the performer. And so we were.
But the evening was far from being over as the alleged main attraction, the monumental “Hammerklavier”, was still coming after the well-deserved intermission. Highly unconventional when it first came out, Beethoven’s Piano Sonata No. 29 has become one of the most popular pillars of the piano repertoire. Big, bold, and devastatingly beautiful at its core, the “Hammerklavier” is a ride like no other, and Aimard readily delivered a clear-minded and eloquent performance of it.

When it came to the encores, Aimard rightfully pointed out that nothing is really possible after the “Hammerklavier”. But that did not stop us from insisting, but our unrelenting pleas eventually earned us a haunting reading of Gyorgy Kurtag’s “...waiting for Susan” from Játékok, Book VI.

Friday, March 9, 2018

JACK Quartet & So Percussion - Glass, Dennehy & Trueman - 03/06/18

Philip Glass: String Quartet No. 8 
Donnacha Dennehy: Broken Unison 
Dan Trueman: Songs That Are Hard To Sing 

After quite a few concerts that included a lot of tried and true classics, my concert of last Tuesday evening was resolutely focused on contemporary classical music with new compositions by Philip Glass, Donnacha Dennehy and Dan Trueman, who were all in attendance for the occasion, because there is simply no time like the present. Truth be told though, my main reason for being there, beside checking out the new piece by Philip Glass, was taking advantage of the two-for-the-price-of-one opportunity to hear the awesome local ensembles that are the JACK Quartet and So Percussion.
So I happily took my seat among the sold-out crowd in Carnegie Hall’s intimate Zankel Hall at the unusual time of 7 PM, which in fact turned out to be a serendipitous blessing as our second nor’easter in two weeks was slowly but surely approaching the city. And if it meant no time for a pit stop or proper nutrition after a hectic day in the office, so be it.

Although he celebrated his 80th birthday in a packed Stern Auditorium back in January 2017, Carnegie Hall's current Composer-in-Residence Philip Glass is clearly showing no signs of slowing down. What is even more amazing though, is that his recent output has been as fresh and inventive as his younger colleagues’, and at times has even left them in the dust. A case in point is his terrific String Quartet No. 8, which was co-commissioned by Carnegie Hall and had its US premiere on Tuesday. Naturally, having a crack ensemble like the JACK Quartet perform it made the whole experience even more outstanding.
Adroitly combining the quartet’s traditional fast-slow-fast structure with his own ground-breaking minimalist style, Glass has come up with a relatively short but oh so satisfying work that is tightly constructed and overflowing with a whole bunch of appealing ideas. The JACK Quartet effortlessly made it their own, superbly emphasizing the composition’s brilliance and warmth. The evening had decidedly started at the very top, and could logically only go down from there, which it to some degree did.
Irish composer Donnacha Dennehy’s Broken Unison, which was co-commissioned by Carnegie Hall and had its world premiere on Tuesday, had one major asset going for it, and that was the four technically accomplished and endlessly versatile musicians of So Percussion. Their extraordinary dexterity was indeed on full display as they seamlessly moved among marimbas, xylophones, vibraphones and the booming bass drum, and managed to bring the pleasant enough, but ultimately innocuous, 20-minute piece to a whole other level.
Stretching over 45 minutes, American composer and musician Dan Trueman’s Songs That Are Hard To Sing, which was having its New York premiere on Tuesday, was by far the longest piece of the program. Taking his inspiration from songs that he loves but finds hard to sing, Trueman wrote five resolutely deconstructed songs to be played by both ensembles combined. Each song had its own truly enjoyable moments, which resulted essentially from the impressive virtuosity of the eight musicians and the sheer uniqueness of some of the sounds they produced. I, however, could not help but lament that so much prodigious talent was not used for an overall more exciting score. Where was Philip Glass when you needed him?

Monday, March 5, 2018

Anne-Sophie Mutter and Lambert Orkis - Previn, Bach, Brahms & Penderecki - 03/04/18

Previn: The Fifth Season for Violin and Piano 
Bach: Partita No. 2 in D Minor, BWV 1004 
Brahms: Sonata for Violin and Piano No. 2 in A Major, Op. 100 
Penderecki: Sonata for Violin and Piano No. 2

Because all good things have to come to an end at some point, my mini Brahms Festival ended yesterday afternoon with a recital by Anne-Sophie Mutter and her long-time music partner Lambert Orkis in Carnegie Hall’s Stern Auditorium in the company of my friend Vy An. After the three glorious piano trios and the passionate first piano concerto I have heard recently, I was ready to downsize with his beautifully intimate and richly expressive Sonata for Violin and Piano No. 2.
However, no matter how much I was looking forward to hear the expert musicians tackle it, I have to admit that I was even more eager to hear the queen of the violin take on Bach’s Partita No. 2 in D Minor, especially the all-mighty Chaconne. Let's face it, if anybody can climb the Himalaya of the violin repertoire in grand style, that’s her.

The concert opened with the world premiere of André Previn’s Fifth Season for Violin and Piano, which is essentially a 10-minute piece representing an additional season to Vivaldi’s legendary Four Seasons. Commissioned by Anne-Sophie Mutter and Carnegie Hall, it in fact does not have much to do with the Baroque tradition, but its pleasantly imaginative score, in particular the jazzy overtones and dazzling fireworks, did allow the musicians to display their skills and have some fun.
In my wildest dreams, I hear Anne-Sophie Mutter play Bach’s Six Sonatas and Partitas in one concert, but if I have to settle for just one of them, it has to be the Partita in D Minor, of course. Yesterday afternoon, she handled it with her trademark virtuosity for an impressively pristine, assured and vibrant reading of it. The composition’s daunting complexity obviously did not deter her from brilliantly expressing its intense emotional content and life-affirming grandeur. As the audience erupted in applause, Vy An efficiently summed up what everybody was probably thinking by admiringly pointing out: "Elle gère". Mutter had indeed everything under control, and if you did not know why the Chaconne is such a huge deal, this was the ultimate eye-opening experience.
Brahms’ Sonata for Violin and Piano No. 2 is a staple in concert halls, and it is always with the same pleasure that I get to eave-drop in the lively conversation between the two instruments. After Mutter’s fierceness in Bach – and a well-deserve break for all – the duo’s take on Brahms sounded downright understated. Standing on one’s own next to the unreservedly cooperative but naturally formidable Anne-Sophie Mutter has to be a difficult task, even after 18 years and counting of playing together. Nevertheless, Lambert Orkis generally managed to make the piano’s voice heard, and the result oozed plenty of subtle lyricism and temperate eloquence.
Things picked up again with violinist manqué Krysztof Penderecki’s Sonata for Violin and Piano No. 2, which he wrote especially for Mutter. Extending over an eventful half-hour, the work was not as esoteric as its Polish avant-garde pedigree had led me to expect. But there was still plenty of prickly dissonances and tense exchanges within the symmetrical structure that is rigorously organized around the mysterious Nocturno. Mutter and Lambert took everything in stride though, and delivered an infectiously energetic performance of it.

Back on more conventional territory, the dreamy, borderline sentimental encore was Mischa Elman’s arrangement of Schubert’s "Ständchen" from Schwanengesang, D. 957, No. 4. Because when all has been said and done, you can’t go wrong with trying a little tenderness.

Friday, March 2, 2018

New York Philharmonic - Brahms & Prokofiev - 2/28/18

Conductor: Jaap van Zweden 
Brahms: Piano Concerto No. 1 on D Minor, Op. 15 
Yuja Wang: Piano 
Prokofiev: Symphony No. 5 in B-flat Major, Op. 100 

Almost one week after basking in the magic of Brahms’ three landmark piano trios with Ax, Kavakos and Ma at Carnegie Hall, this past Wednesday I headed to David Geffen Hall for Brahms’ no less celebrated first piano concerto with Yuja Wang, Jaap van Zweden and the New York Philharmonic. Because one can simply never hear too much Brahms, especially in such brilliant company.
But the classical music repertoire does not completely revolves around Brahms – or so I’ve heard – and branching out is rarely a bad idea. A case in point was the programmatic pairing of Brahms's expansive concerto with Prokofiev’s slightly shorter Symphony No. 5, a perennially popular piece written to celebrate the triumph of the human spirit during and after World War II. Somehow it sounds more topical today than ever.

Nobody has ever claimed that Brahms did not know how to build suspense, not only by delaying the release of his agonized-over works for years, if not decades, but also by delaying the entrance of the solo instrument in at least his violin concerto and first piano concerto. On the other hand, once they get going, there is nothing stopping them, especially when the soloist is the indomitable Yuja Wang, who naturally packs a mighty force – and a mighty talent – in her diminutive frame.
So it fell on the orchestra and maestro van Zweden to kick start the concerto, which is never an easy task as the music immediately swells into sumptuously Romantic waves that pave the way to its magnificent 50-minute journey, but they did it head-on. What's more, the performance by the young pianist of the score written by the young composer vividly displayed all the passionate intensity and endearing impetuousness of youth. There were some monumental struggles between piano and orchestra, as well as some moments of aching beauty, which all together provided plenty of grandeur and high voltage.
Although we really had to beg for it, the typically generous Miss Wang came back for not one, but two lovely encores. Mendelssohn made a surprise appearance with his Song without Words in F-sharp Minor, Op. 67, No. 2, before we got back to Brahms with his Intermezzo in C-sharp Minor, Op. 117, No. 3.
After intermission, the hall, which had been packed during the first half of the concert, was visibly missing quite a few people, but the ones who stayed were largely rewarded. Prokofiev’s supremely accomplished Symphony No. 5 is as accessible as they come, constantly bursting with attractive melodies and superb lyricism, not to mention some macabre strutting and dark brooding thrown in for good measure. In short, there’s a little bit of everything for everybody in it.
The orchestra was obviously having fun with it, emphasizing the most dramatic passages and happily tossing off the sarcastic jokes. They also made the wise decision not to try to make it sound pretty, but the music sure came out vibrant and engaging, and clearly pleased the audience all the way to the truly exciting grand finale.

Sunday, February 25, 2018

Emmanuel Ax, Leonidas Kavakos & Yo-Yo Ma - All-Brahms - 02/22/18

Brahms: Piano Trio No. 2 in C Major, Op. 87 
Brahms: Piano Trio No. 3 in C Minor, Op. 101 
Brahms: Piano Trio No. 1 in B Major, Op. 8 

Every year, on February 22, I receive a “Bonne fête !” card, which used to land in my mailbox and nowadays pops up in my inbox, from my mom. Like Proust and his madeleine, it never fails to fast-track me back to my childhood. Even if my upbringing took place in staunchly secular France, stubborn religious-turned-cultural traditions, such as the Gregorian Calendar of Saints, just won’t die. Since I am associated by name to Sainte Isabelle, the medieval princess and Franciscan Clarist member that is celebrated on that day, I get to feel special for a few minutes, and then return to my kingdom- and devotion-free routine. As far as I can remember, not much has ever happened in my life on my Name Day.
This year, however, was radically different as stars miraculously aligned (allegedly) in the sky and (literally) on the stage of Carnegie Hall’s Stern Auditorium when no less than pianist Emmanuel Ax, violinist Leonidas Kavakos and cellist Yo-Yo Ma got together to perform three canonical piano trios by, of all composers, my beloved Johannes Brahms.
The sold-out concert was actually such a big deal that the make-shift seating areas on the stage were as jam-packed with excited concert-goers as the official seating areas. Life could not get better than that, and for that one enchanted evening of February 22, 2018   ̶  never mind the gray, cold, wet and generally miserable world outside   ̶  it did not.

Brahms was almost fifty and at the top of his game when he completed the C Major Trio in 1882, three decades after his first one, but the finely crafted, subtly dark, and wonderfully compelling work was definitely worth-waiting for. As performed by the ego-free virtuosic trio formed by decades-long buddies Ax and Ma and seamlessly integrated newcomer Kavakos on Thursday night, it even reached impressive symphonic dimensions. Cello and violin joined forces in the assertive introduction, but the piano quickly jumped in and imposed itself as a commanding presence for the remaining of the piece, so commanding, in fact, that it often took the combined strings’ power to vigorously counter it. The mournful andante and its Gypsy-style melody sharply contrasted with the restless scherzo and its radiant soaring lines, before Brahms had the musicians turn things down a notch for the comparatively lighter finale.
Keeping his prodigious momentum going, a few years later Brahms completed the C Minor Trio , which is routinely considered not only one of his most superlative achievements, but also one of the crown jewels of the chamber music repertoire. Still in four movements, the C Minor is a relatively short, densely compact and rigorously structured composition, although heart-felt emotions are never too far underneath the surface because once a Romantic, always a Romantic. Listening and responding to one another in perfect unison, the three musicians not only expertly conveyed the ever-present intensity of the piece, but also took the time to let the exquisitely delicate musings and glorious flights of lyricism rightfully emerge and thrive. Rarely has so much dazzling artistry been so efficiently packed in a mere 21 minutes.
After intermission, we moved on to the B Major Trio , which is titled Piano Trio No. 1 because Brahms composed it in 1853 when he was a 20-year old youngster. Being the incurable perfectionist that he was, he eventually deemed it unworthy of his later output, and consequently rewrote large portions of it three decades later. During the riveting performance of the highly melodic score, the first unmissable element was for sure the jaw-droppingly gorgeous cello solo that came right after the piano introduction and would lead to the rest of the extensively revised allegro. Then the scherzo exploded with exuberance before ending quietly while the adagio exuded undisturbed serenity and a little eeriness. The expansive finale unfolded magnificently as if composer and musicians had thrown into it everything they had and more, and concluded on a positively turbulent note.

A long and resounding ovation let the trio know that the concert had been an immensely enjoyable experience, and also that we were not ready to let them go just yet. So they eventually came back for Schubert’s gently lilting andante from his B-flat Major Trio, a lovely lullaby that became the perfect parting gift, since parting we reluctantly had to.