Monday, April 30, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, April 23, 2018

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

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

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

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

Saturday, April 21, 2018

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, April 17, 2018

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

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

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

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

Sunday, April 15, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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.