Saturday, May 19, 2018

Yuja Wang - Rachmaninoff, Scriabin, Ligeti & Prokofiev - 05/17/18

Rachmaninoff: Prelude in G Minor, Op. 23, No. 5 
Rachmaninoff: Étude-tableau in C Minor, Op. 39, No. 1 
Rachmaninoff: Étude-tableau in C Minor, Op. 33, No. 3 
Rachmaninoff: Étude-tableau in B Minor, Op. 39, No. 4 
Rachmaninoff: Prelude in B Minor, Op. 32, No. 10 
Rachmaninoff: Étude-tableau in E-flat Minor, Op. 33, No. 6 
Rachmaninoff: Étude-tableau in E-flat Minor, Op. 39, No. 5 
Scriabin: Piano Sonata No. 10, Op. 70 
Ligeti: Étude No. 3, "Touches bloquées" 
Ligeti: Étude No. 9, "Vertige" 
Ligeti: Étude No. 1, "Désordre" 
Prokofiev: Piano Sonata No. 8 in B-flat Major, Op. 84 

Last week my Met season ended with a resounding bang thanks to Russian opera superstar Anna Netrebko in Tosca, and this week my Carnegie Hall season ended with a resounding bang thanks to classical Chinese music superstar Yuja Wang in a long sold-out solo recital (even the stage was as packed as possible with clusters of chairs). As it was, her concert would also end a very exciting run of piano-centric performances by Daniil Trifonov, Leif ove Andsnes, Emmanuel Ax and the Naughton sisters. So much fabulous music, so little time!
As fearless and adventurous as ever, Wang had concocted an intriguing program that included early 20th century pieces by Moscow conservatory buddies Sergei Rachmaninoff and Alexander Scriabin as well as mid-20th century pieces by Austrian-Hungarian composer Gyorgy Ligeti and Saint Petersburg Conservatory alumni Sergei Prokofiev, all being rather proficient pianists before turning their attention to composition, a decision for which music lovers are very grateful indeed.

Yuja Wang is such a big star these days that a large part of the audience attends her concerts more to see the much buzzed-about phenomenon in the flesh (and often eye-popping outfits) than to live through an exciting musical experience. Therefore, on Thursday night, a significant portion of the audience dutifully clapped after each and every one of Rachmaninoff’s five études-tableaux and two preludes, effectively depriving the rest of us of an uninterrupted flow of the delicately evocative vignettes. There was, however, still plenty to savor as Wang was probing the generally dark, slightly hazy moods and not caring about making them sound attractive.
Sometimes described as the “Insect Sonata” because of its frequent use of trills and tremolos, Scriabin’s one-movement Piano Sonata No. 10 offers about 10 minutes of brazenly edgy yet totally accessible music. On Thursday night, Wang did not hesitate to emphasize the insistent grittiness as well as the vibrant colors of the work, running through a whole range of emotions without getting too much involved.
Next, Ligeti’s three short but fiendishly difficult studies were clearly a piece of cake for Wang, who not only easily overcame the technical challenges, but seemed to be having fun in the process too. “Vertige”, in particular, turned out to be a hypnotic stream of notes that imperceptibly dispatched a potent spell.
After an unusually long intermission, Wang was back for Prokofiev’s Piano Sonata No. 8, which was composed during the dark times of World War II, but also during a happy time in the newly in love composer’s life, which no doubt explains its tranquil and optimistic mood. Wang did not linger much on dreaminess or romanticism though, but rather sharply focused on intensity and musicality for an imperturbably confident performance.

Beside her prodigious musical talent and bold fashion sense, Yuja Wang is also famous for being extraordinarily generous when it comes to encores. Last Thursday was no exception as she treated the ecstatic audience to no fewer than seven (seven!) thrilling party favors. It started with Mendelsohn’s Song Without Words No 2, followed by Horowitz's Carmen Variations, before moving on to Youman’s "Tea for Two", which generated quite a few chuckles from the crowd. We went back to Prokofiev with the Precipitato from his Piano Sonata No. 7, indulged in a delightful arrangement of Mozart’s "Rondo alla Turca”, before calming down with an ethereal "Mélodie" from Gluck’s Orfeo ed Euridice, and eventually wrapping things up with Schubert’s "Gretchen am Spinnrade" arranged by no less than Liszt. The only one missing seemed to be Chopin, but then again, Wang will be back at Carnegie Hall next year with her own perspectives series, so patience is the name of the game now.

Monday, May 14, 2018

Sunday Morning Coffee Concerts - Christina and Michelle Naughton - Ravel, Adams, Chopin & Lutoslawski - 05/13/18

Ravel: Ma mère l’oye (Mother Goose Suite) for piano four hands 
Adams: Roll over Beethoven 
Chopin: Rondo in C major for Two Pianos 
Lutoslawski: Variations on a Theme by Paganini 

So what do you do when, after a cold, wet and generally dreary Saturday you are facing a cold, wet and generally dreary Sunday? Well, you go to a concert, of course. So yesterday I found myself in the Walter Reed Theater at 11 AM for one of those Sunday Morning Coffee concerts, which are intermission-free, one-hour concerts organized as part of the Lincoln Center’s Great Performers series. On top of it, since those events are about socializing as well as music, coffee is offered before and after the performance, and the performers typically come and mingle once their mission has been accomplished.
Yesterday morning, the power piano duo formed by eerily identical twin sisters Christina and Michelle Naughton was there with an ambitious program that included Maurice Ravel, John Adams, Frederic Chopin and Witold Lutoslawski. Even more exciting, I unexpectedly bumped into my friend Paula, who was busy splurging on macchiato and chatting up some tourists from the West Coast. And suddenly the world was not such a dreary place anymore.

The concert started with Maurice Ravel and excerpts from his famous Ma mère l’oye suite. Inspired by folk tales and the possibilities they offered in terms of musical creation, Ravel put some of the highlights of those stories to music to stimulate children’s instinctively fertile imagination and managed to enchant audiences of all ages in the process. The two lovely young ladies sat side by side at the same keyboard for that one, and readily started making beautiful music in impressive unison, transporting us all to colorful fantasylands full of strange creatures and exotic sounds.
I was very much looking forward to Adams’ Roll over Beethoven, which the Naughtons premiered in New York City’s Greene Space. Taking as starting points elements from Beethoven’s œuvre ─ a thematic fragment from the Scherzo of his piano sonata in A-flat major, Op. 110, the melody from the opening of Op. 110 and a fragment from the “Diabelli” Variations ─ Adams did his own thing. Turned out that the piece is seriously complex, but a lot of fun too, a cool duality that the pianists, facing each other at their own piano now, conveyed with plenty of enthusiasm and flair. It did not immediately sweep me away like some of my all-time Adams favorites such as Shaker Loops or Harmonielehre did, but I still found this wild Beethovian ride very enjoyable.
Chopin being Chopin, the appearance of his name on a piano-centric program was no surprise. Although it was never published during the composer’s lifetime, his Rondo in C major for Two Pianos is a lively, unabashedly Romantic, carefree little romp that kept the mood in the theater buoyant and elevated.
The Lutoslawski’s Variations on a Theme by Paganini were a brief and thrilling exercise, complete with myriads of virtuosic sparks flying everywhere. Sometimes it is the shortest piece that makes the biggest impact, and while all works on the program had been a joy to listen to, this scintillating little gem may have gotten the loudest ovation.

It had been a terrific performance, and we made sure to let the duo know our appreciation of it. They eventually came back, on the same side of a piano this time, for the Allegro molto of Mozart’s Sonata for Piano Four Hands in D major, another delightful miniature bursting with inventiveness and joie de vivre, which concluded this wonderful hour on a much needed positive note, before we eventually all headed back out in the rain.

Sunday, May 13, 2018

Emmanuel Ax - Mozart, Liszt, Bach & Beethoven - 05/10/18

Mozart: Piano Sonata in F Major, K. 533 / K. 494 
Liszt: Tre sonetti del Petrarca from Années de pèlerinage, Deuxième année : Italie, S. 161 
Benedetto sia ‘l giorno 
Pace non trovo 
l’ vidi in terra angelici costumi 
Bach: Partita No. 5 in G Major, BWV 829 
Beethoven: Andante in F Major, WoO 57, “Andante favori” 
Beethoven: Piano Sonata No. 21 in C Major, Op. 53 (Waldstein) 

Because balance is everything in life, after a tempestuous Tosca on Tuesday night at the Met, I was more than ready for a more subdued evening on Thursday with a recital by Emmanuel Ax at Carnegie Hall. When I bought my ticket I realized to my horror that I had never attended a solo recital by this legendary musician before, although I had of course enjoyed his prodigious talent in chamber music and orchestral settings. But this was still unpardonable and I was counting the days to fix the situation.
And it would be fixed in grand style as this long overdue tête-à-tête had a hell of a program, which included Baroque Bach, Classical Mozart, Classical-to-Romantic Beethoven and Romantic Liszt, the big reward coming at the very end with Beethoven’s fabulous Waldstein sonata. Things could not get much better than that.

Although it started inconspicuously enough, Mozart’s Piano Sonata in F Major soon turned out to be a feast of intricate inventiveness, with just the right dosage of fun and thoughtfulness. With his effortless virtuosity, Ax effortlessly played music that was glowing from the inside as well as the outside, all technical wizardry wrapped up in pure elegance.
Liszt’s Tre sonetti del Petrarca yanked us out of Mozart’s orderly refinement and into Liszt’s mystical musings inspired by some of Petrarch’s exquisite sonnets. One of the undisputed superstar musicians of his days, Franz Liszt was also a bona fide composer who never stopped searching and experimenting, and those three short tone poems overflow with myriads of emotions, some being more openly expressed than others, that keep the listener spellbound.
We went back to Germanic rigor with Bach’s Partita No. 5, which unsurprisingly stood out for its sheer brilliance, but also for the warmth of Ax’s performance. Some people may find the exacting aspect of Bach’s music off-putting, but beyond it there is also the pure joy of making and sharing exceptional music that perceptive musicians like Ax are able to find, and then fully convey, just like he did on Thursday.
Widely considered to be one of Beethoven's most accomplished and most challenging piano sonatas, the Waldstein occupied the second half of the program in more ways than one since, before he delivered a rapturous performance of it, beautifully emphasizing Beethoven’s shift from classicism to a more heroic style, Ax also played the lovely “Andante favori”, which was the original slow movement of the sonata. Nowadays, the Andante is a much more concise and  mysteriously dark passage between two extended, intensively lyrical and irresistibly uplifting movements that altogether make the work such a magnificent creation.

Even if he had been working hard and given us much more than we could have ever hoped for, Ax eventually came back twice: first for Chopin’s Nocturne in F-sharp Major, and then for Liszt’s “Valse oubliée”, both genuinely heart-felt and simply wonderful. With encores like this, it is a miracle to remember the official program!

Saturday, May 12, 2018

Met - Tosca - 05/08/18

Composer: Giacomo Puccini 
Conductor: Bertrand de Billy 
 Director/Producer: David McVicar 
 Floria Tosca: Anna Netrebko 
 Mario Cavaradossi: Najmiddin Mavlyanov 
 Baron Scarpia: Zeljko Lucic

To conclude my Met season with as big and memorable a bang as possible, I decided to go check out the irrepressible Anna Netrebko take on the role of the irrepressible Floria Tosca for the first time in her career because I figured I could hardly go wrong with those two ladies. Since this would be my second time attending the new McVicar’s production of Giacomo Puccini's "depraved" opera,, which I had seen back in February with Sonya Yoncheva and Vittorio Grigolo, there would be no surprise there, but then again, I could never see Tosca too many times.
Beside Netrebko, the cast of singers would include returning Serbian baritone Zeljko Lucic as Scarpia, and, instead of Marcello Alvarez, who had bailed out without an explanation, Najmiddin Mavlyanov, a young tenor from Uzbekistan who would then be making his Met debut sharing the stage with one of the opera world’s biggest stars impersonating one of the opera repertoire’s most beloved romantic characters in a sold-out house. No pressure there.

In many ways, Tosca seems like a textbook version of what an opera should be: strong characters battling out complicated emotional entanglements and, incidentally trying to save their own virtues and lives with a background of political turmoil. Naturally, the loving couple is made of a painter and a singer because artists are so much sexier, and the bad guy is the chief of police, which is decidedly less sexy, unless you're into uniforms. Each of the three characters will meet a gruesome death, but not before a lot of drama has relentlessly unfolded. All of it wrapped neatly in less than three hours, including two intermissions.No muss, no fuss.
Opera superstar Anna Netrebko is famous for her gorgeous voice, attractive physique and seemingly uncontrollable urge to storm every stage she steps on. All those qualities, of course, are particularly appropriate when it comes to Tosca, and she sure brought her A game on Tuesday night, especially in the second act where she had to be one of the most resplendent divas who have ever graced – or stormed – the Met stage. Increasingly desperate to save Cavaradossi and to keep Scarpia’s hands off of her, she managed to achieve both goals with an impressive supply of poise and stamina, and just the right amount of fretting. On the other hand, I thought that her final leap off the Castel Sant’Angelo was a bit wimpish, but that’s a minor squabble.
As Mario Cavaradossi, lover, artist and revolutionary, Najmiddin Mavlyanov brought his good looks, youthful energy and solid vocal skills to the part and easily won the audience over. It can’t be easy making one’s more or less last-minute debut in that kind of high profile production, but this was not his first Cavaradossi and the young man clearly knew what he was doing. His singing, full of passion for Tosca one minute and full of spite for Scarpia the next, easily adapted to the demands of the score, and he had an easy rapport with the other performers.
Zeljko Lucic is a familiar face to the Met audience, and it was good to see him having fun with the SOB everybody loves to hate. His ominous burnished singing and chilling demeanor did wonder conveying Scarpia’s unquenchable thirst for power and complete lack of common decency despite his aristocrat’s ways, and we wouldn’t have our Scarpia any other way.
The three sets provided the typical Met crowd with what they like best: predictability and opulence, with the slight slant of the stage adding a discreet touch of originality. Being in the family circle, as opposed to orchestra left, this time gave me a very different, more all-encompassing, view over the proceedings, and one that really made me appreciate how well put-together everything was. That said, there have to be some creative minds able to come up with something more inventive than that out there. Please let them speak up.
Puccini’s richly colorful score is generously spiked with show-stopping arias and other special musical treats such as the rousing Te Deum in the first act and the sweet shepherd boy’s song opening the third act, making it immediately engaging and constantly satisfying. And when you have a crack ensemble like the Met orchestra performing it, the result is an on-going feast for the ears. Maestro de Billy was thankfully mindful of not letting the intensity of the instruments take over the intensity of the voices too often, and a wonderful time was had by all.

Wednesday, May 9, 2018

New York Philharmonic - Dvorak, Sibelius & Tchaikovsky - 05/03/18

Conductor: Manfred Honeck 
Dvorak: Rusalka Fantasy (arr. By Manfred Honeck) 
Sibelius: Concerto for Violin and Orchestra in D Minor, Op. 47 
Nikolaj Znaider: Violin 
Tchaikovsky: Selections from Sleeping Beauty (arr. By Manfred Honeck) 

As a die-hard fan of Finnish composer Jean Sibelius, I have to say that last week was pretty good for me. Not only did I enjoy discovering short solo piano pieces of his thanks to Norwegian pianist Leif ove Andsnes on Tuesday evening, but on Thursday evening I was back in David Geffen Hall to experience his magnificent violin concerto for the umpteenth time thanks to Danish-Israeli violinist and conductor Nikolaj Znaider, the New York Philharmonic, and Austrian conductor (and music arranger!) Manfred Honeck. Those composers and musicians from the North took over part of the Big Apple last week, and it was a total blast.
Moreover, beside the Sibelius concerto, the rest of the program provided more lush Romanticism with some selections from Anton Dvorak’s opera Rusalka arranged by Honeck, and then some selections from Piotr Tchaikovsky’s ballet score The Sleeping Beauty arranged by Honeck too. I certainly could see an intriguing pattern here and I was looking forward to exploring it.

There are heaps of lovely melodies of Dvorak’s Rusalka, and Honeck’s Rusalka Fantasy did a good job at picking up bits and pieces and putting everything together in a convincing whole. It also handed “Song to the Moon” to concertmaster Frank Huang, and while the result did not benefit from the flexibility of a human voice, his beautifully glowing violin solo gave the beloved aria a different kind of life. 
Speaking of violins, I must hear Sibelius’s violin concerto at least once a season. This is probably not the violin concerto I’ve heard the most (The Brahms would probably win that title, due to the sheer number of opportunities to hear it), but it is certainly the one I am the most obsessive about. Which kind of makes sense when you think of how obsession-filled the concerto actually is. On Thursday night, Znaider’s riveting performance, knowing exactly when to step on the intensity pedal and when to let go of it, reinforced my long-held belief that it is one of the most stunning compositions of the classical music repertoire.
Because no Romantic evening is complete without a visit from the King of Schmaltz himself, quintessential heart on one’s sleeve lyricism occupied the second half of the program with Honeck’s selections from Tchaikovsky’s The Sleeping Beauty. Like for his Rusalka Fantasy earlier, he put the various movements together not in chronological order, but more in a way that was making musical sense, and that turned out to be a clever decision in that case too. The New York Philharmonic has never shied away from embarking on an openly feel-good mission and we all went for it. Even if you were not familiar with the fairy tale, the ballet or the Disney movie, those were 45 glorious minutes of attractive melodies and lush orchestration that could not help but leave people all fuzzy inside, and sometimes that's all one needs.

If my two evenings at David Geffen Hall last week were as musically satisfying as could be, the behaviors of some audience members was not. After a cell phone unceremoniously interrupted Leif ove Andsnes’ opening number on Wednesday night, on Thursday night I happened to be sitting next to a blue-haired patron with a bourgeois look and a pig mentality. As the performance was going on and she started coughing, she did the right thing by reaching out for her cough drops, and the wrong thing by nonchalantly dropping the wrapper not once, or two, or even three, but four times! Who knew that the New York Philharmonic’s orchestra seats came with a license to litter?

Monday, May 7, 2018

Leif ove Andsnes - Nielsen, Sibelius, Beethoven, Schubert & Widmann - 05/02/18

Carl Nielsen: Chaconne, Op. 32 
Jean Silbelius: Selections 
The Birch Tree, Op. 75, No. 4 
Impromptu, Op. 97, No. 5 
Rondino II, Op. 68, No. 2 
The Shepherd, Op. 58, No. 4 \
Romance in D-flat Major, Op. 24, No. 9 
Ludwig von Beethoven: Piano Sonata No. 17 in D Minor, Op. 31, No. 2 (The Tempest) 
Franz Schubert: Two Scherzos for Piano, D. 593 
Jorg Widmann: Idyll and Abyss 
Franz Schubert: Drei Klavierstücke (Three Piano Pieces), D. 946 

 As far as I am concerned, Finnish Jean Sibelius is one of the most underrated composers ever, and Norwegian Leif ove Andsnes is a pianist that you can never hear too often. Therefore, the perspective of hearing the latter play obscure gems composed by the former was exciting not only from a purely musical point of view, but also because this recital would celebrate the end of Andsnes’ New York Philharmonic’s Artist-in-Residence engagement and, incidentally, promote his new Sibelius record because, after all, he might as well.
So my qualms about adding another concert to an already busy week did not linger very long and I excitingly grabbed tickets for my friend Angie and me, an Andsnes neophyte and a dedicated fan. That's how on that downright summery evening (What on earth happened to spring?!), which of course had to come with its usual share of sinus issues, we both eagerly headed to a Lincoln Center bustling with people eagerly marching on to their respective venue.

Inspired by Bach’s monumental Chaconne, Danish composer Carl Nielsen’s own Chaconne is a good choice for an opening number, even if it does not even come close to achieve the timeless grandeur of the original one (But then again, what does?). And since a cell phone rang as Andsnes had just started, immediately turning the guilty party into THAT person, he paused and restarted, so we even got to hear the first few notes twice!
The main curiosity of the program was the set of five Sibelius pieces selected by Andsnes, which turned out to be attractive miniatures, if not masterpieces, endearingly engaging with sporadic flashes of brilliance. And that was all for the better because while Andsnes is well-known for his thoughtful approach, he is also no stranger to letting sparkles happily fly too!
But as much as Andsnes gave a committed performance of the Sibelius works, he really came into his virtuosic own when he turned his undivided attention to Beethoven’s Piano Sonata in D Minor. Whether its nickname actually comes from Shakespeare’s play The Tempest or not, the piece is undoubtedly stormy, and it received a crisp, vibrant and flawless reading.
The second part of the program had two sets of pieces by Schubert, the obscure Two Scherzos for Piano and the classic Drei Klavierstücke, bookending German composer, conductor and clarinetist Jorg Widmann’s Idyll and Abyss, in which fragments of Schubert’s surrounding efforts unexpectedly showed up in a resolutely twisted, post-modern structure to create eerily pointed effects.

It took a little bit of persuading, but we eventually got an encore by Sibelius again, because, hey, he was the man of the evening after all. More surprisingly, it was followed, as we were about to give up on feasting on a second treat, by a small but dazzling gem by… Debussy! Maybe because Adnsnes is a pianist of wildly eclectic taste, maybe because you cannot go wrong with Debussy.

Sunday, May 6, 2018

JACK Quartet - Gee, Glass, Applebaum & Williams - 04/29/18

Erin Gee: Mouthpiece XXII 
Philip Glass: String Quartet No. 8 
Mark Applebaum: Darmstadt Kindergarten 
Amy Williams: Richter Textures 

One of New York City’s premier string quartets not only for their impeccable technique, but also for their irrepressible spirit of adventure, last Sunday afternoon the JACK Quartet virtuosically blessed us with a one-hour free performance of relatively new contemporary chamber music in Inwood’s Our Saviour’s Atonement Lutheran Church as part of Carnegie Hall’s Neighborhood Concerts series. Granted, you had to earn it, because not only was the location not particular convenient to begin with, but the one train that would have made the trip a straight shot for me was not going all the way on that day. But never mind.
Location and transportation challenges obviously had fazed neither the quartet’s fiercely dedicated audience, Neighborhood Concerts regulars and curious locals, including my colleague Fabri, who showed up with his wife and their roommates, and the little church quickly became so packed that standing room was soon becoming a problem. A good problem to have, for sure, and one that the JACK Quartet is likely to encounter more and more often as their career and reputation are unmistakably on a well-deserved upward path.

As if to establish their fearless experimenter credentials from the get-go, the four musicians started the concert with Erin Gee’s Mouthpiece XXII, a short piece during which they not only played their respective instruments, but also used their vocal chords to produce various sounds such as whistling and whispering. This wide-ranging sonic exploration gradually created a stream of consciousness-type phenomenon that was as eerie as intriguing and imperceptibly captured the audience’s attention with unique and exciting textures.
Nowadays musical pioneer Philip Glass almost seems too conventional for the JACK Quartet, but hearing them brilliantly work their way through his String Quartet No. 8 three months ago at Carnegie Hall was too thrilling of an experience to worry about over-thinking it, and I most grateful for a repeat performance of it. Having injected the traditional structure and spirit of the string quartet with playfully irreverent notes, Glass managed to please everyone without a fuss while still boldly breaking new ground. One of those timeless masterpieces that never get old, Glass’ String Quartet No. 8 can easily engage unsuspecting audiences into the realm of contemporary music, and keep them there too. Unsurprisingly, Sunday’s crowd was pretty ecstatic and made it loudly clear.
Commissioned by the Kronos Quartet – Talk about fearless experimenters! – for one of their children’s concerts and inspired by the famous Darmstadt Summer Courses, where the latest modern music trends of the 1950s and 1960s used to be fervently discussed, Mark Applebaum’s Darmstadt Kindergarten combines the rigor and the fun of music by combining instrumental sounds and choreographic gestures. Accordingly, one by one the four musicians eventually gave up their instruments to get up and mimic the notes they were supposed to play until they were all mimicking their part in total silence. And if the whole thing ended up feeling a bit gimmicky, it was still an undisputed hit.
Back to more conventional playing, the concert concluded with JACK Quartet-commissioned Amy Williams’ Richter Textures, whose seven short and uninterrupted movements were inspired by seven landscape and abstract paintings created by endlessly versatile German visual artist Gerhard Richter. As the widely different snapshots were coming up in the promised richer textures, from eerily delicate to vibrantly colorful to doggedly gritty, each of them took pain to build its own little world for a couple of minutes before making way for the next one.