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.