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 silent 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.

Sunday, February 18, 2018

Philip Glass Ensemble - Glass - 02/16/18

Conductor: Michal Biesman 
Conductor: Valérie Sainte-Agathe 
Music with Changing Parts 
Philip Glass and the Philip Glass Ensemble 
Students from the San Francisco Conservatory of Music 
San Francisco Girls Chorus 

Twenty-four hours after enjoying a very satisfying concert of iconic crowd-pleasers by Mozart and Beethoven and a short novelty by Bryce Dessner, I was back in Carnegie Hall’s Stern Auditorium for an evening dedicated to Philip Glass, specifically to an updated version of his seminal Music with Changing Parts, as part of Carnegie Hall’s “The 60s: The Years that Changed America” series and the composer’ residency.
The original work was actually premiered at the Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church in November 1970, a few blocks east of Carnegie Hall, and was heard for the last time at Town Hall, a dozen blocks south in Midtown. However, since new ensembles have lately discovered and played it to impressive success, Glass went back to it and added brass, wind and vocal components. This latest, and possibly final, version was arranged by Michael Biesman, Lisa Bielawa and Philip Glass, and was performed at Carnegie Hall last Friday evening.
The stark contrast between the two musical genres, Viennese classical style and American minimalism, was obvious even before the concert started by just looking at the long sold-out, remarkably eclectic and markedly younger crowd packing the hall. I have to reluctantly admit that for once I probably belonged to the older half of the audience. While that was not pleasant observation for my self-esteem, that was definitely a good sign for the future of classical music, so I decided to suck it up and literally got on with the program.

A couple of days before the concert I had received a friendly but firm phone message from Carnegie Hall informing me that there would be no late seating, presumably because the score calls for uninterrupted flow. And sure enough, at 8 P.M. sharp, members of the Philip Glass Ensemble, including the man himself, took center stage behind their fancy electronic keyboards, with a bunch of brass and wind music students from the San Francisco Conservatory of Music behind them, and the San Francisco Girls Chorus on each side. And then we were all off for the next one and a half hour.
A dazzling example of minimalism in its purest form, Music with Changing Parts maintains a flawless continuity while featuring seamlessly integrated variations that present themselves as anything from barely perceptible details to lush waves of sounds. On Friday evening, the performance was musically fascinating, mentally hypnotic and strongly conducive to losing one’s sense of time and place. In fact, since the piece came out in the early 1970s, I could not help but think of the tripping power that kind of music would have had  ̶  and still would have  ̶  when experienced under the influence of mind-altering substances.
The combination of exacting rigor and intrinsic dreaminess of the composition was brand new in those days, and Friday’s performance categorically proved that it has more that withstood the unforgiving test of time and sounds as ground-breaking and exciting today as it did back then, almost half a century ago. Density, complexity and esotericism can be a welcome breath of fresh air in any era, and they felt like a particularly positive musical statement on Friday.
Occasionally glancing at the audience was a rather interesting exercise as well. While most of us were happily indulging in the music, others were clearly wondering what they had gotten themselves into, and either valiantly hung in there for dear life or upped and left in utter puzzlement. Fact is, if you did not get into the spell-binding but admittedly unconventional minimalist groove, you were in for a very long 90 minutes. The vast majority of us, however, fully enjoyed the stellar journey all the way to its abrupt and liberating end, and felt all the more grateful for having been part of it.

Saturday, February 17, 2018

Orchestra of St. Luke - Mozart, Dessner & Beethoven - 02/15/18

Conductor: Robert Spano 
Mozart: Symphony No. 40 on G Minor, K. 550 
Dessner: Voy a dormir 
Kelley O’Connor: Mezzo-soprano 
Beethoven: Piano Concerto No. 5 in E-flat, Op. 73 (Emperor
Jeremy Denk: Piano

Another depressing winter day, another concert featuring Jeremy Denk, another uplifting evening at Carnegie Hall, and I have to say that I could easily get used to those exciting middle-of-the-week pick-me-ups. After joining his old musical partner Joshua Bell for a recital last Wednesday evening, the astoundingly eclectic pianist was back in the Stern Auditorium joining the superb Orchestra of St. Luke’s for Beethoven’s glorious Emperor piano concerto last Thursday evening, and I naturally was back there too.
As if to amp things up just a little bit more, the program also included another bona fide classic in Mozart’s Symphony No. 40 and, book-ended by the two Viennese masterpieces, we would also have the world premiere of a new composition by Bryce Dessner, a contemporary American composer well-known for fronting the rock band The National, leading the classical-with-a-twist ensemble Clogs, and writing the score of The Revenant, among many other things. “Versatile” does not even begin to describe him. The cherry on top? This new work would be sung by the dazzling mezzo-soprano Kelley O’Connor.

Mozart’s Symphony No. 40 is of course an old friend, but one whose company I hadn’t enjoyed in many years, mostly because I had heard it many times and hadn’t been seeking it out. But our paths crossed again on Thursday, and our overdue reunion suddenly made me a firm believer that distance does make the heart grow fonder as sparks were flying all over the place again while I was listening to the Orchestra of St. Luke’s confidently brisk and radiant performance of it.
The mystery du jour was Voy a dormir, which consisted in four poems by Argentinian writer – and actress, teacher, journalist, playwright – Alfonsina Storni that had been set to delicately nuanced music by Dessner. Unsurprisingly, the most substantial and tormented one was the last, “Voy a dormir”, which she wrote and mailed to a newspaper the day before she killed herself by drowning. An economically hard life as a single mother and a recent diagnosis of breast cancer had apparently become too much to bear.
My favorite song turned out to be the brief, but beautifully atmospheric “Faro en la noche”, in which a lighthouse gently brought light to darkness. The other two were the exotic “Yo en el fondo del mare”, which described pastel-colored aquatic life, and the uneasy “Dulce tortura”, which pondered the joys and sorrows of erotic love. One of the most appreciable pleasures of those carefully crafted compositions was that they let Kelley O’Connor’s magnificent voice and impeccable Spanish bring the poems to vivid and yet slightly enigmatic life. Bryce Dessner looked mightily happy after the performance, and so were we.
No matter how attractive the previous works had been though, I was really in the hall to hear Jeremy Denk perform Beethoven’s Emperor, and that I finally did. I have been lucky enough to hear quite a few Emperors in my concert-going life, and I don’t think any of them were played with the same unadulterated joy as Denk displayed on Thursday. There was certainly plenty of grandeur and power in that Emperor, but those joyful trills dispatched with thrilling virtuosity ended up being the most memorable part of the whole interpretation. And that was enough musical brilliance to carry me through my partly self-inflicted harrowingly long and wet trip back home.

Monday, February 12, 2018

Kirill Gerstein - Bach, Debussy, Chopin, Adès & Brahms - 08/11/18

Bach: Four duets 
Debussy: Preludes, Book I 
Chopin: Three Waltzes 
Op. 34, No. 3, F Major 
Op. Posth. E Minor 
Op. 42, A-flat Major 
Adès: Three Mazurkas for Piano, Op. 27 
Brahms: Piano Sonata No. 2 in F-sharp Minor, Op. 2 

The past couple of weeks have found the piano lover in me in an exceptionally well stocked candy store with various types of equally terrific performances by Stephen Hough, Jeremy Denk and Leif Ove Andsnes. And to make it through the finish line in minimalist but still grand style, there was a solo recital by Kirill Gerstein at Town Hall yesterday afternoon as part of People’s Symphony Concerts’ Salomon series.
The Russian-born, American-educated and jazz-loving classical pianist has been increasingly making a name for himself these past few years, and after getting to know him as a recital partner of Steven Isserlis and a soloist with the New York Philharmonic, I was very much looking forward to hearing him play by himself.
I have to admit though, that I was much less eager to step outside into the pouring rain that just would not let up all day. But the double opportunity of witnessing Gerstein perform his drool-inducing Bach-to-Adès program and finally getting together with my friend Paula, a People’s Symphony Concerts regular, whom I had not seen in months were more than enough to get me out of the door and into the deeply depressing world outside.

It all started, logically enough, at the beginning with Bach and his “Four Duets”. In the hands of a lesser pianist, these four nuggets could have sounded like unexciting exercises, but Gerstein dispatched with precision and flair, easily connecting to Johann Sebastian Bach’s composing brilliance and free spirit.
I have been enjoying quite a bit of Claude Debussy, namely his two Books of Images, a little while ago courtesy of Stephen Hough, and I was more than ready for Book I of the Préludes yesterday. If anything, Gerstein’s superb performance of the 12 self-contained vignettes confirmed what a perceptive musician he is and what a ground-breaking composer Debussy was. From the entrenched seriousness of the “Danseuses de Delphes” and the eerie quietness of “Des pas sur la neige” to the exquisite expressiveness of “La fille aux cheveux de lin” and the light insouciance of “La danse de Puck”, these short scenes were beautifully drawn with sharp little details and myriad delicate colors. My personal favorites have always been the mercilessly blustery “Ce qu’a vu le vent d’ouest” and the profoundly calm “La cathédrale engloutie”, and I was thrilled to be able to experience them live again.
Three waltzes from Frédéric Chopin welcomed us back after intermission and quickly delighted us all. They may not be the most outstanding pieces among his impressive œuvre, but according to my pianist friend Nicole and many other connoisseurs, he was “pretty much the king of the piano” and their refined melodies were the perfect breath of fresh air that we all sorely needed.
Thomas Adès’ “Three Mazurkas” injected some cool contemporary vibes into the traditional Polish folk dance, which incidentally was one of Chopin’s specialties. The first one was still on the old-fashioned side, but the second one was diabolically turbulent, and the third one quietly haunting. Each mood stood out on its own merit and in contrast with the other two, and all together they eventually formed a distinctly compelling trio.
The program ended with Johann Brahms’ dense and tightly controlled Piano Sonata No. 2, the first sonata he composed for the piano (although it was published second, hence its name). Gerstein’s appropriately unsentimental yet deeply committed performance was tightly controlled too, but nevertheless fully conveyed the intense drama as well as the dark beauty of the piece. No wonder the work written by 25-year-old Brahms floored Robert and Clara Schumann when they first heard it.

But that was not all, as Gerstein responded to our enthusiastic and extended ovation with a delectable treat by Franz Liszt, a musician whose dazzling virtuosity he is clearly on the right path to match sooner than later. And then we went back outside in the rain to go enjoy two other of life's simple and yet so satisfying pleasures: wine and conversation.

Sunday, February 11, 2018

New York Philharmonic - Vaughan Williams, Britten & Saint-Saëns - 02/08/18

Conductor: Antonio Pappano 
Vaughan Williams: Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis 
Britten: Piano concerto, Op. 15 (1945 version) 
Leif Ove Andsnes: Piano 
Saint-Saëns: Symphony No. 3 in C Minor, Op. 78 (Organ) 
Kent Tritle: Organ

After thoroughly enjoying a wonderful recital by Joshua Bell and Jeremy Denk on Wednesday evening at Carnegie Hall, I kept my momentum going and went to hear the New York Philharmonic on Thursday evening at David Geffen Hall, mostly to become acquainted with Benjamin Britten’s piano concerto, which I did not even knew existed until I saw it on the program. But Britten has always impressed me, especially as an opera composer, so getting that ticket was a no-brainer.
And the occasion promised to be all the more memorable as the mystery composition would be performed by Norwegian pianist extraordinaire Leif Ove Andsnes, himself an old and always reliable acquaintance, who also happens to be the 2017–18 Mary and James G. Wallach Artist-in-Residence at the New York Philharmonic.
Moreover, the program turned out to present not one, but two exciting works I was not familiar with (Well, technically three, if you count the short Ralph Vaugh Williams opener), the second one being Camille Saint-Saëns’ Organ Symphony, which I had never gotten to experience live. An enlightening evening was obviously in store for me.

Vaughan Williams’ "Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis" kicked off the concert with what can be safely considered a 15-minute showcase for strings. And the orchestra’s strings quickly demonstrated that they were in fine form on Thursday evening as they were unfolding the incredibly lush melodies with warmth and intensity. The rest of the orchestra unhesitatingly followed suit under the animated baton of maestro Pappano, and we were all off to an excellent start of the evening.
I highly doubt that there is anything that Leif Ove Andsnes cannot handle, and this time his audacity, technique and commitment were unreservedly put to the service of the 1945 version of Britten’s unfairly neglected Piano Concerto No. 3. The program notes had mentioned that the four-movement concerto is more orchestra-centric than most compositions of the same genre, but the dire warning thankfully turned out to be not entirely necessary.
If soloist and orchestra hit the ground running together and kept up their remarkable tightness until the very last note of the piece, Andsnes did get to do his own thing more than once, including a couple of solo passages that he unsurprisingly nailed with his trademark virtuosity. From my seat I had a direct view over his hands working the keyboard and couldn’t help but marvel at their high-speed and precision flying. Let’s face it, the man can do no wrong.
From 20th century England we moved back to 19th century France after intermission for Saint-Saëns’s Organ Symphony, never mind that the name, which was never sanctioned by the composer, is a bit misleading, the organ being just a guest, not the subject, of the work. The electronic organ that had been brought into the hall, however, was still heard loud and clear through two massive speakers as it was expertly played by no less than Kent Tritle.
Dazzling piano passages written for two and four hands provided more keyboard-related highlights, the overall Romantic mood had an irresistible urgency to it, and the famous Maestoso section was definitely, well, majestic. In fact, the entire symphony was energetically driven by Pappano with the fired-up orchestra more than willing and able to keep up pace. The noticeably large audience gobbled it all up and gave it a rousing and well-deserved ovation.

Saturday, February 10, 2018

Joshua Bell & Jeremy Denk - Mozart, Strauss, Janacek & Schubert - 02/07/18

Mozart: Violin Sonata in B-Flat Major, K. 454 
Strauss: Violin Sonata in E-Flat Major, Op. 18 
Janacek: Violin Sonata 
Schubert: Fantasy in C Major, D. 934 

It had been so long! In my darkest hour, I even thought it might never happen again, both interested parties being such relentlessly busy musicians. That consequently also means that catching a performance of theirs has been relatively easy, and I have certainly been indulging in many of those opportunities, but catching a performance of those two together had been mission impossible for quite a while now.
Hope, however, springs eternal, and this sorry situation at long last changed for the better last Wednesday evening, when inherently artless violinist Joshua Bell and endlessly inquisitive pianist Jeremy Denk stepped onto the stage of Carnegie Hall’s almost full Stern auditorium together to thunderous applause for the Annual Isaac Stern Memorial Concert.
Although I would have gladly showed up for pretty much anything, I was particularly thrilled that the program included Strauss’ Violin Sonata in E-Flat Major, whose intense lyricism had stunned my immediate neighbor and myself at a recital by Joshua Bell and Sam Haywood a few years back. The other three pieces, by Mozart, Janacek and Schubert, would no doubt give the musicians plenty of additional material to treat the audience to memorable virtuosic feats. As it was, all the stars seemed to be aligned, and even the morning snow that had turned to afternoon rain decided to stop falling altogether in the evening.

As soon as the duo started playing the fun little opening number by Mozart, which the composer allegedly performed from memory at the premiere with Italian virtuoso Regina Strinasacchi, it was obvious that the old magic was back and operating in full force. The first sonata the Viennese master wrote in which both instruments were equal partners, his Violin Sonata in B-Flat Major for sure does not discriminate when it comes to challenging the musicians, and the two we had onstage on Wednesday gamely responded with expertise and flair.
I was very eager indeed to hear Strauss’ Violin Sonata in E-Flat Major again, but I was also afraid that the real thing would not live up to my glorious memory of it. There was, of course, no need to worry. Experiencing the sweeping power, lush colors and gorgeous lines of Late Romanticism in such superlative company was as good as it could get. Bell played with his natural elegance and irrepressible élan while Denk kept things interesting with plenty of dynamic playfulness. Why this genuine crowd-pleaser does not appear on concert programs more often remains to me one of the music world’s most enduring mysteries.
After intermission and before resuming the concert, Joshua Bell firstly paid a short tribute to the late Isaac Stern, not only for almost single-handedly saving Carnegie Hall from demolition, but also for being such an important influence of himself and Denk. Secondly, he pointed out that, with Janacek’s dark tones and Schubert’s light-hearted melodies, the second half of the program was a study in contrast linked by quietness that they would attempt to play continuously, and therefore asked us to refrain from clapping until the very end of the concert to see “how that goes”.
And the verdict is, that went very well. Written before and after World War I, Janacek’s Violin Sonata eloquently conveys the turbulences and bleakness of those trying times. Accordingly, there were many uneasy harmonies and exciting eccentricities to be savored in the freely structured, constantly surprising and emotionally gripping work. For the occasion, Bell categorically proved that he is not just a Romantic maven, but is also able to rein in the natural sweetness of his tone and still deliver a riveting performance. Denk effortlessly kept up with his usual precision and verve.
After the Janacek’s quiet ending had seamlessly morphed into Schubert’s quiet opening, we suddenly found ourselves in a much more hospitable world, in which the irresistible sing-songy quality of the Fantasy in C Major, beautifully brought out by the two musicians, lifted up everybody’s spirits and then some. Complex yet breezy, boasting impressive acrobatics and a luminous glow, the delightful piece was sheer pleasure to the ear. That the concert hall slowly became empty during its premiere seems downright impossible today.

The encore, loudly requested and generously granted, was a lovely "Romance" in D-flat Major by Clara Schumann, which had us happily remain in a Romantic mood, and eventually carried me through a more hectic than usual return home.

Thursday, February 1, 2018

Stephen Hough - Debussy, Schumann & Beethoven - 01/31/18

Debussy: Clair de lune from Suite bergamasque 
Debussy: Images, Book II 
Schumann: Fantasie in C Major, Op. 17 
Debussy: La terrasse des audiences du clair de lune from Preludes, Book II 
Debussy: Images, Book I 
Beethoven: Piano Sonata No. 23 in F Minor, Op. 57 (Appassionata)

A couple of weeks ago, I was oh so unfairly grounded by the flu and had to miss the recital by Janice Jensen, Jean-Yves Thibaudet and the Dover Quartet at Carnegie Hall, which the lucky recipient of my ticket later unsurprisingly described as “exquisite”. So last Tuesday evening, I was more than ready to reconnect with public live performances, almost fully recovered and my cough totally under control, but nevertheless armed with a generous supply of water and Ricolas, just in case. After all, even if music famously heals all wounds (and, I would guess by extension, ailments), it is still preferable not to be a nuisance in its presence.
In typical understated English fashion, piano wizard Stephen Hough routinely packs an incredible range of powerful nuances without making the slightest bombastic statement or other undue fuss. Whether he was playing Chopin on his own, Grieg’s Cello Sonata with Steven Isserlis, or Beethoven’s Emperor Concerto with the New York Philharmonic, just to name a few, the performances of his I have attended have never failed to be spontaneously engaging and deeply informed.
So my friend Vy An and I were particularly eager to hear him forage deep into Debussy’s œuvre for the centennial of the composer’s death, with classics from Schumann and Beethoven thrown in for good measure, back at Carnegie Hall.

Inspired by the French poem “Clair de lune” by Paul Verlaine and an Italian peasant dance from Bergamo, Debussy’s beloved “Clair de lune” is the quintessential impressionistic jewel, even if the composer hated the label. And sure enough, on Tuesday night the innately gorgeous ballad unassumingly fleeted its revolutionary harmonies, ethereally filling the large Stern Auditorium and resolutely setting a crisp and unsentimental tone for the remaining of the evening.
After this perfect introduction, a seamless transition brought us straight to the second book of his Images. It started with “Cloches à travers les feuilles”, an elegant evocation of ringing bells through tree leaves, followed by “Et la lune descend sur le temple qui fut,” which unaffectedly described the universal moon gently setting on the exotic temple that was, before ending with the graceful notes and splashy fun of the golden fish in “Poissons d’or”.
There are few works that have the sweeping emotional force of Schumann’s Fantasie in C Major, one of the most heart-felt musical declarations of love ever composed, and its indomitable nature was on full display on Tuesday night as Hough expertly handled the composition’s many stunning and stunningly treacherous twists and turns. First unabashedly rhapsodic with still a barely there underlying coolness, the music eventually reached the much awaited majestic march, before slowing down and coming to its meditative, but no less impactful, conclusion.
The second half of the program kicked off with the return of Debussy and his ubiquitous moon in “La terrasse des audiences du clair de lune”, a spacious terrace from where audiences were leisurely enjoying an organically luminous moonlight, which kind of brought us back to the Debussyan territory of the beginning of the concert.
Then we moved quietly and smoothly into the first book of his Images. The popular “Reflets dans l’eau” exquisitely depicted endlessly shimmering and constantly morphing reflections in the water; the sarabande of “Hommage à Rameau” was a fitting homage to the French Baroque tradition; and, last but not least, “Mouvement” kept Hough uncommonly busy with relentlessly shifting sounds that left everyone hypnotized, exhilarated and exhausted.
During the intermission, the piano tuner had spent a lot of time working on the splendid Steinway, and it had crossed my mind that beside the expected adjustments, he was also reinforcing the piano’s strings in anticipation of Beethoven’s tempestuous Appassionata Sonata. I cannot really vouch for the state of preparedness of the piano, but the pianist had no trouble whatsoever making the radical change in genre, fiercely working his way through the challenging piece with plenty of technical dexterity and dramatic flair all the way to the no-holds-barred grand finale.

It had been a glorious evening of piano playing, but obviously not quite enough for pianist and audience as the indefatigable former treated the delighted latter to two understated yet memorable encores, going back to Schumann with Posthumous Variation V (Moderato) from Symphonic Etudes, and finally wrapping the concert with a magical Nocturne in E-Flat Major by Chopin. Just because.

Tuesday, January 16, 2018

Prototype Festival - Fellow Travelers - 01/13/18

Composer: Gregory Spears 
Librettist: Greg Pierce 
Conductor: George Manahan 
Director: Kevin Newbury 
American Composer Orchestra 
Aaron Blake: Timothy Laughlin 
Joseph Lattanzi: Hawkins Fuller 
Devon Guthrie: Mary Johnson 
Vernon Hartman: Senator Potter and Bartender 
Marcus DeLoach: Estonian Frank, Interrogator and Senator 
McCarthy Christian Purcell: Potter’s Assistant, Bookseller and Priest 
Paul Scholten: Tommy McIntyre 
Alexandra Schoeny: Miss Lightfoot 
Cecilia Violetta Lopez: Lucy 

After two very satisfying evenings in the familiar confines of the Metropolitan Opera and the David Geffen Hall earlier in the week, on Saturday afternoon I walked a bit further down the Upper West Side to the much less familiar but wonderfully intimate Gerald W. Lynch Theater at John Jay College of Criminal Justice for the New York premiere of Fellow Travelers, one of the most eagerly awaited productions of the Prototype Festival’s sixth season.
Inspired by Thomas Mallon’s 2007 novel by the same name, Fellow Travelers takes place in Washington, D.C. during the “lavender scare” of the 1950s, when homosexuals were purged more efficiently, albeit more discreetly, than communists from the U.S. government. Therefore, there was little doubt that the forbidden relationship between the two gay men in the heart of the story would provide plenty of drama and an unhappy end, which of course made it the perfect topic for an opera.
The world premiere of Fellow Travelers in Cincinnati, Ohio, last year was by all accounts a resounding success. Unsurprisingly, the positive buzz made it all the way to New York City, where a particularly excited crowd filled the theater to near capacity, hopefully not just out of political correctness, but also in the name of intellectual curiosity and in support for risk-taking artists.

Among the already paltry number of new operas being produced these days, few of them deal with issues from the recent past or the present, despite the wealth of material to be found there. Although the 1950s are not exactly recent past or present, and significant progress has been made in many areas since then, being reminded how incredibly fragile and constantly threatened those advances still are is a good thing, especially when those reminders are delivered via compelling artistic endeavors.
As Timothy Laughlin, the young New Yorker who has just arrived in D.C. and is finding out the hard way how complicated being gay is when McCarthyism – and Catholicism – are looming large, tenor Aaron Blake was a painfully shy, dutifully milk-drinking radical with a clear and appealing voice. As the opera progressed, his seemingly anti-hero looks and demeanor made his steady resolve against adversity all the more commendable, and if he ended up being badly shaken by the whole thing, he nevertheless remained fundamentally true to himself.
Baritone Joseph Lattanzi looked almost too young and good-natured for the experienced, care-free and cynical State Department employee Hawkins Fuller, a self-confident man about town who would eventually give in to outside pressures regardless of his genuine feelings for Timothy. His charisma was undeniable though, and so were his singing abilities, making the powerful attraction he exerted over fresh-faced Timothy truly palpable.
In Mary Johnson, Hawkins’ friend-assistant and Timothy’s ally, soprano Devon Guthrie had an originally inconspicuous role that slowly blossomed into a full-fledged character who had to face her own set of challenges, but who admirably never lost her moral compass. Her beautiful voice delivered some of the most moving singing of the entire performance as she was becoming a firm advocate for understanding and acceptance.
The smaller parts were all handled very well, with quite a few singers impersonating more than one character. The most memorable impressions came from baritone Paul Scholten as quintessential fixer Tommy McIntyre, baritone Vernon Hartman as gruffly Senator Potter, baritone Marcus DeLoach as devious Senator McCarthy, and soprano Alexandra Schoeny as relentless busybody Miss Lightfoot.
The production kept the fifteen short and crisp scenes flowing smoothly thanks to seamless transitions, the cast moving and transforming the versatile pieces of furniture and props with impeccable efficiency. The costumes quickly brought us back to the 1950s, and the lack thereof during the slightly over-extended seduction scene gave it a raw quality. The use of lights was understated, yet yielded unmistakable results, such as the glow on Timothy’s face turning increasingly warmer as he was having his epiphany.
In the end though, the unusual score turned out to be the real star of the opera. Adroitly combining elements from American minimalism and medieval troubadour tradition, including a few superfluous melismas, Gregory Spears came up with a composition that is deceptively quiet, brilliantly inventive, and hauntingly effective. Two of the most heart-breaking scenes were Timothy alone in church struggling with his passion for a man and his devotion to God, and Hawkins alone in their secret love nest realizing that the affair simply had to end. They did not have any flamboyant arias, but they were riveting. On the other hand, the festive office holiday party proved that the ever-crafty composer could effortlessly master ensembles too.
The reliably adventurous and capable American Composer Orchestra was in fine form on Saturday afternoon, making sure to take the time to express the characters’ complex emotional journeys while keeping up a good pace under the baton of their music director George Manahan. The subtle nuances of the various colors were keenly brought out, and the big sweeping moments had all the necessary punch and élan.
The opera ended on the devastating image of all the characters, except for Mary, literally turning their backs to Timothy. All one can hope is that audiences will embrace Fellow Travelers.

Saturday, January 13, 2018

New York Philharmonic - Tchaikovsky, Salonen & Debussy - 11/11/18

Conductor: Susanna Mälkki 
Tchaikovsky: Violin Concerto in D Major, Op. 35 
Baiba Skride: Violin 
Salonen: Helix 
Debussy: La mer: Trois esquisses symphoniques 

Sometimes a new beginning feels more like a fond look back at the past, such as this week, when I started my 2018 performance dance card with my first opera love, Giacomo Puccini and his beloved Tosca, at the Metropolitan Opera last Tuesday night, and 48 hours later, with my first instrumental classical music love, Piotr Tchaikovsky and his beloved violin concerto, right next door at the David Geffen Hall. There’s really not much more I could have hoped for.
On the other hand, things have obviously changed a lot and for the better since those long-gone formative years as on Thursday evening the New York Philharmonic had not one but two unapologetically brilliant women headlining its program with the long-overdue return of Finnish guest conductor Susanna Mälkki and new-to-me-but-clearly-not-to-the-world Latvian violinist Baiba Skride.
My main motivation for attending the concert was the New York premiere of Finnish composer Esa-Pekka Salonen’s “Helix”, but I certainly did not mind starting my evening with Tchaikovsky’s dazzling violin concerto and ending it with Claude Debussy’s ground-breaking masterpiece La Mer, the wide-ranging appeal of this line-up being all the more evident at the sight of an impressively filled concert hall for a week night.

Although his famously challenging violin concerto was originally deemed unplayable by no less than esteemed violinist, academic, conductor, composer and legendary teacher Leopold Auer, Tchaikovsky wisely, if rather uncharacteristically, stood his ground and the rest became music history. On Thursday night, Baiba Skride joined countless other violinists in proving that the concerto is definitely playable as long as you have the virtuosic skills needed to pull it off. Her performance was technically confident and emotionally engaging, making sure to discreetly emphasize all those unabashedly lyrical lines with grace and energy. Happily treading on very familiar territory, the orchestra expertly back her up, and a wonderful time was had by all.
Becoming acquainted with a new piece by Esa-Pekka Salonen, now in his last year of his three-year appointment as the Marie-Josée Kravis Composer-in-Residence, is always an exciting event, even if said piece only lasts nine minutes. Described by the composer himself as an “accelerando”, “Helix” uses a large variety of instruments to create one continuous spiral of sounds that will undergo a few intriguing changes in orchestration, but will never lose its sense of purpose. In pure Salonen fashion, this compelling overture was rigorously structured and irresistibly inventive.
The endless possibilities of orchestration were on much wider display with Debussy’s La Mer, which I hadn’t heard in so long that I had almost forgotten what an exhilarating trip it is. Simultaneously aware of the majestic force of the indominable sea as well as mindful of its every movements and colors, Susanna Mälkki drew a downright dynamite performance from the orchestra, which seemed to be itching to show what they could do with such a richly descriptive composition. From tiny exquisite shimmers to formidable splashy waves, that sea was strongly heard, seen and smelled in all its eternal glory right on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, and we were all very grateful for it.

Friday, January 12, 2018

Met - Tosca - 01/09/18

Composer: Giacomo Puccini 
Conductor: Emmanuel Villaume 
Director/Producer: David McVicar 
Floria Tosca: Sonya Yoncheva 
Mario Cavaradossi: Vittorio Grigolo 
Baron Scarpia: Zeljko Lucic 

After meteorologically challenging holidays, which mercilessly extended through the Epiphany weekend, but at least provided the perfect excuse for indulging in movie marathons and plenty of hot chocolate, the time came to put uncomfortable sub-zero temperatures and a hyperbolically named but still disruptive “bomb cyclone” behind, and resume attending live performances. Because supporting the performing arts can a tough job, but somebody’s got to do it.
It would have been difficult to find a better way to kick off my 2018 musical year than with the Metropolitan Opera’s new production of Puccini’s Tosca, which even before its opening night on New Year’s Eve had made headlines multiple times due to its hard-working revolving door relentlessly spinning singers and conductors in and out. But the untenable suspense eventually led to a happy end by way of a scintillating cast including Met regular-in-the-making Bulgarian soprano Sonya Yoncheva, new Met regular Italian tenor Vittorio Grigolo and confirmed Met regular Serbian baritone Zeljko Lucic, who would all sing under the last-minute baton of French conductor Emmanuel Villaume.
Therefore, last Tuesday night, on a lovely winter evening (You know you’ve had it rough when 35 °F feels downright balmy), I was thrilled to have yet another opportunity to revisit the opera that had made me fall in love with the art form in the first place, not to mention to introduce my friend Vy An to it as well. The excitement of this long-awaited outing, complete with pretty awesome orchestra seats, being only tempered by the fact that this Tosca may very well be our last pizza & opera date for a long time.

With three charismatic characters, a straightforward story, an unhappy end, a reasonable length, and plenty of hand-wringing drama and fabulous music, Tosca has all the right ingredients for a memorable night at the opera for neophytes and connoisseurs alike. This is probably the opera I’ve seen the most often, and I keep going back to it for the same reason as everybody else: Knowing full well that I will be inexorably pulled back into its irresistible mix love, sex, religion, revenge, politics, and death one more time, and relish every minute of it.
Sonya Yoncheva had impressed many audience members, including myself, with her confident Violetta last year, and I was thrilled to hear that she would replace Kristine Opolais as the most popular diva of the opera repertoire. I am even more thrilled to report that my sky-high expectations were indisputably met as her naturally plush voice enabled her to deliver some wide-ranging singing that effortlessly went from amorous whispering with her beloved Mario to hair-raising fury with the much-despised Scarpia. Her splendid “Vissi d’arte” started soft and reflective, but she knew exactly when to ramp up the intensity and literally rose to the occasion. She may not have the full weight of an Angela Gheorghiu or Sondra Radvanovsky yet — This will no doubt come with experience — but she threw herself whole-heartedly into the part and has earned her Tosca credentials.
As much as I had enjoyed Jonas Kaufmann as Cavaradossi several years ago, I was ready for a change in leading man and was totally looking forward to seeing what Vittorio Grigolo, whose impetuous Romeo had impressed many audience members including myself, last year, would make of the role. And the verdict is, he smashingly nailed it as long as you like your Cavaradossi youthful, ardent and untamed, which I did. That said, it also must be pointed out that beside his by now signature wild puppy antics, the irrepressibly hot-blooded tenor had no trouble occasionally slowing down to express deeply nuanced emotions to outstanding effect. A case in point would be his genuinely heart-breaking “E lucevan le stelle”, full of tenderness, melancholy and anguish.
As the ruthless chief of police Scarpia, Zeljko Lucic had the daunting honor of stepping into Bryn Terfel’s mighty shoes to impersonate one of those evil characters everybody loves to hate. That also means, of course, that he had a particularly juicy part to play with, and he certainly played it for keeps. His poised demeanor and ominous singing consistently exuded the understated elegance of the born aristocrat and the force tranquille of a powerful man used to getting his own way at any price.
Smaller characters such the desperate escapee Angelotti (Christian Zaremba), the kind-hearted sacristan (Patrick Carfizzi), and the sinister Spoletta (Brenton Ryan) all made lasting impressions while iconic moments such as the glorious “Te Deum” at the end of Act I and the angelic singing of the shepherd boy at the beginning of Act III compellingly came to life.
If the unusual youth of ill-fated lovers was a refreshing change, the production was a determined step back into Zefirellian past. The three sets dutifully displayed the Chiesa di Sant’Andrea della Valle in Act I, the Palazzo Farnese in Act II, and the Castel Sant'Angelo in Act III, all faithfully recreated, beautifully lit, and utterly predictable. The costumes looked very good and the directions did not err much from the norm, except maybe for small details such as the holy water that Cavaradossi generously splashed over his face in Act I as he was frantically trying to help his revolutionary friend on the run and calm down his jealous lover. On the other hand, yes, you may rest assured that Tosca did place two candles around Scarpia’s dead body because that’s just the kind of pious woman she is.
 Regardless of what’s going on on the stage, one sure value of the Metropolitan Opera is its endlessly versatile orchestra, unperturbably playing away in the pit. Although most of the musicians could probably work their way through Tosca from memory by now, their performance was as committed, vibrant and colorful as expected. After Andris Nelsons had pulled out and James Levine had been pulled out, Emmanuel Villaume was called to rescue and boldly stepped in. This third time turned out to be a charm as, on Tuesday night, he seemed to fit in seamlessly, even taking the time to join the audience in applauding the show-stopping arias. Even the maestro agreed, that Tosca was a memorable night at the opera indeed.