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.