Tuesday, June 26, 2018

Trinity Wall Street - Time's Arrow: Webern Part 2 - Webern, Schultz & Brahms - 06/23/18

Conductor: Julian Wachner 
Anton Webern: Passacaglia, Op. 1 
Anton Webern: Im Sommerwind, Op. 21 (arranged for 16-art choir by Clytus Gottwald)
The Choir of Trinity Wall Street 
Downtown Voices 
Anton Webern: Cantata No. 2, Op. 31 
Colleen Daly: Soprano 
Paul An: Bass 
Heinrich Schütz: Selig Sind die Toten, SWV 391 
The Choir of Trinity Wall Street 
Downtown Voices 
Johannes Brahms: A German Requiem 
The Choir of Trinity Wall Street 
Downtown Voices 
Colleen Daly: Soprano 
Stephen Salters: Baritone

After a week dedicated to the music of Anton Webern, I was bracing myself for the grand finale of Trinity Wall Street’s “Time’s Arrow - Webern 2” festival, which would include not only more Webern pieces, but also Brahms’ magnificent Requiem, as it had been expertly masterminded by Trinity Wall Street director of music and the arts Julian Wachner. However, little did he know at the time that Trinity Church would be closed for revocation by now, and that he would have to downsize (or not!) in St. Paul’s Chapel, but he obviously decided to roll with the punches, and it has clearly been working. As a hard-core uptown girl, it takes a lot for me to come downtown in the weekend, but in this case at least, I had no doubt that the trip would be worth it.
Apparently a lot of people thought so too, as even over a half hour before the concert’s starting time the little chapel was filling up quickly and steadily. There were loyal music lovers and curious out-of-towners, as well as the full NOVUS NY orchestra on the ground floor, and then the Choir of Trinity Wall Street and Downtown Voices in two of the upstairs balconies, and more audience members in the third one. I guess that’s what people mean when they say “packed to the rafters”.
In addition to securing a good seat, the early birds were also rewarded with a particularly illuminating lecture on Brahms and Webern music and the connections between them (Quick trivia question: Who knew that Brahms was so forward-thinking?! Answer: Webern.), by young, deeply knowledgeable and naturally engaging musician and musicologist David Miller, who had made the trip down all the way from Cornell University. And suddenly the Upper West Side did not seem that far anymore.

After a series of concerts featuring all kinds of compositions by Webern, we started the ultimate one with the first score he officially bestowed upon the world, his roof-raising Passacaglia, Op. 1. Characteristically crafted with the utmost care, and paying noteworthy hints at the last movement of Brahms Symphony No. 4 and the Late Romanticism period of his mentor Schoenberg, it has been regularly performed since it first came out, unlike the original efforts of many other highly respected composers. Under the dynamic baton of Julian Wachner, the NOVUS NY orchestra got chance to give their all to the first and last work Webern ever wrote for a large orchestra. And that they did.
Even earlier Webern was next with Clytus Gottwald’s choral adaptation of his lushly lyrical, openly Straussian tonal poem Im Sommerwind. Whoever is not into Webern-The-Serialist may still want to check out Webern-The-Late-Romantic, whose output is for sure straightforwardly beautiful enough to please even the most conservative minds. The 80 singers of the two chorus being mixed and matched all over the two balconies, their voices blended and interwove remarkably well together for a gorgeously atmospheric evocation of summer wind. Although Webern quickly disowned it and consequently never heard it performed, the original orchestral version has been a hit ever since it was rediscovered in the 1960s, and the choral version proved to be just as popular on Saturday.
Then it was time to put our modernist hat and hold on to it for dear life while listening to Webern’s Cantata No. 2, Op. 31. However, as if to ease the unusually drastic transition – Same composer, two radically different genres – first Julian Wachner led us through some brief, informative and fun interactive singing exercises in no less than pointillistic technique and the klangfarben concept so that we would get a better grip of what the hell happened in early 20th century Vienna.
Then it was on to the cantata, which also remains the last work Webern completed. This also meant that we had come full circle, and the contrast could not have been starker. With a sparse score connecting Renaissance and modern traditions through a wide range of sonorities and techniques, this was Webern at his most serialist. Ironically enough for such a challenging piece, it is also the longest composition he ever wrote at 24 minutes. But hey, nobody said that earning one’s Webern stripes was easy, and although this one required some effort on my part, I did make it to the end with a new appreciation of him and the performers.
After the vegetables came the dessert, and what a dessert it was with Brahms’ glorious, sacred but not liturgical, German Requiem. It was preceded by Schütz’s mid-17th century motet “Selig Sind die Toten, SWV 391”, which integrated seamlessly into the much larger work, and would kind of find its way actually in it at the end. Although I’ve had the privilege to hear A German Requiem performed by various ensembles in various venues, St. Paul Chapel’s was unquestionably the smallest of them all, and I had been wondering how the whole thing was going to turn out.
Well, all I can say is that I am glad the renovations were completed before this performance because I highly doubt that the windows would have resisted the sheer force of the epic, and epically executed, funeral march of the second movement and death-defying taunts of the sixth movement, in their pre-reinforcement state. Not to mention that the contribution of the mighty organ added a resounding touch of irrepressible spirituality to the thrillingly uplifting experience.
That’s not to say that the quieter moments were less commendable, especially when the soloists by default calmed things down for a bit. Soprano Colleen Daly’s “Traurigkeit” stood out for all its moving unfussiness and inconspicuous longing for all that had been lost. Her part was nicely balanced with baritone Stephen Salters’ slightly more prominent role, all burnished darkness and inner warmth.
All in all, Trinity Wall Street achieved the rare feat of delivering a larger-than-life performance while somehow preserving the profound human quality that makes Brahms’ requiem so powerful and so universal. Coming full circle, the second part of the concert ended back where it started, with the same passage from Revelation 14:13 used by Schütz, “Selig Sind die Toten”. The dead may be blessed, but so were the living in St. Paul’s Chapel on Saturday afternoon.

Saturday, June 23, 2018

Trinity Wall Street - Time's Arrow: Webern Part 2 - Webern, Epstein, Holliger & Rouse - 06/21/2018

Anton Webern: Four Pieces for Violin and Piano, Op. 7 
 Marti Epstein: Oil and Sugar 
Heinz Holliger: Harp Sequenza 
Anton Webern: Three Little Pieces for Cello and Piano, Op. 11 
Anton Webern: Quartet for Violin, Clarinet, Tenor Saxophone, and Piano, Op. 22 
Marti Epstein: Wonders of the Invisible World 
Anton Webern: Variations for Piano, Op. 27 
Christopher Rouse: Compline 

Although this week was originally supposed to be kind of humdrum, it was much improved on Tuesday afternoon by an intellectually stimulating and immensely enjoyable – another proof that those two things are not mutually exclusive – lunch-time concert of music by Anton Webern and Mari Epstein at Lower Manhattan’s St. Paul’s Chapel, courtesy of Trinity Church Wall Street’s “Time’s Arrow – Webern Part 2” festival and some of the NOVUS NY musicians.
So there was nothing left to do but go back on Thursday afternoon. Same time, same place, same abominably crowded sidewalk from my office to the venue, same presenters, and some of the same composers as well as new ones because Trinity Wall Street is the gift that keeps on giving.
I quickly found a seat in the bright and attractive space during the introduction by Trinity Wall Street’s Director of Music and the Arts Julian Wachner and composer and professor Marti Epstein. As expected, more works by Webern and Epstein were on the program, but also a short piece for solo harp by Heinz Holliger, and a more substantial one, and probably louder too, by Christopher Rouse.
Not a bad mid-day treat for the first day of summer.

As if to get straight to the heart of the matter, the concert started off with Webern’s Four Pieces for Violin and Piano, Op. 7, which was his first experiment with extreme concentration of form and content. It resulted in brief movements packed with inner meanings, the ethereally slow first and third alternating with the powerfully dramatic second and fourth, all of them being pointedly carried out in the most austere language possible by the fearless musicians of NOVUS NY.
On the other hand, Epstein’s Oil and Sugar avoided marked contrasts, and there was in fact an organically flowing quality to it that sounded incredibly easy-going after the uncompromising, and fulfilling, brain food we had just been fed. Inspired by Kadder Attia’s video of stacked up sugar cubes on which motor oil is poured, and their consequential crumpling into countless tiny details, the whole thing was highly palatable, and even tasty.
Holliger’s Harp Sequenza was a lovely interlude, during which the harp took us on quiet, slightly mysterious, journey of discovery of its numerous possibilities.
Back to Webern, his Three Little Pieces for Cello and Piano, Op. 11 kind of followed the pattern established by his Four Pieces for Violin and Piano, Op. 7, except that the second piece is very short, the third is barely there, and the fourth is non-existent. Unapologetically experimental and concise to a fault, they sounded as revolutionary on Thursday after as they did back in 1914.
We stayed with Webern and fast-forwarded over 15 years for his Quartet for Violin, Clarinet, Tenor Saxophone, and Piano, Op. 22, an unusual combination of instruments that yielded a 6-minute, 2-movement composition so original that when it first came out his fellow composers of the Second Viennese School predictably loved it, and just as predictably pretty much everybody else hated it. On Thursday, the audience was definitely on the thumb up side, and deservedly so.
For better or worse, it is unlikely that Epstein’s Wonders of the Invisible World provokes such extreme reactions, mostly because this resolutely sparse and carefully constructed work for solo harp is engaging enough to get into easily, but at almost 15 minutes eventually feels like it is extending its welcome, even with the flawless performance we got to hear.
Next, we dutifully returned to Webern for his Variations for Piano, Op. 27, his only major work for the piano, which is a treacherously complex and highly virtuosic piece that offers plenty of challenges to the performer during its 6-minute running time. Not that it seemed to faze the pianist we had on the stage on Thursday, who obviously had the chops to handle it.
The clock was mercilessly ticking and I knew that I should be heading back to the office, but I simply could not walk away from a work by Christopher Rouse, and my dedication was largely rewarded with an exciting performance of his septet for flute, clarinet, harp, and string quartet, Compline. More inspired from the composer’s 1989 trip to Rome than by the final church service of the day in the Catholic church that is evoked in its title, the score did not sound the least bit religious, but came alive with vibrant colors and a cool touch of jazziness. And then it was time for another mad dash to the office.

Friday, June 22, 2018

Trinity Wall Street - Time's Arrow: Webern Part 2 - Webern & Espstein - 06/19/18

Anton Webern: String Trio, Op. 20 
Anton Webern: String Quartet, Op. 28 
Marti Epstein: Hidden Flowers 
Anton Webern: Six Bagatelles for String Quartet, Op. 9 
Marti Epstein: Phosphenes 
Anton Webern: Five Movements for String Quartet, Op. 5 
NOVUS NY String Quartet 

June is typically the time of the year where I reluctantly have to slow down my performance going schedule due not a lack of will, but to a lack of opportunities, for a couple of months. In all fairness, there is the occasional uplifting email, like the one I got from Lower Manhattan’s Trinity Wall Street, where the director of music and the arts, as well as composer, conductor and keyboardist, Julian Wachner tirelessly comes up with infallibly inventive programming. The one I got last week was about “Time’s Arrow - Webern Part 2”, the second part of a series whose first part I unfortunately missed last fall. Time had definitely come to catch up.
Since these days the historic Trinity Church is mostly off-limit due to a large-scale renovation, all performances have been moved to the equally historic St. Paul’s Chapel, whose own restoration was completed a while ago. Granted, the charming chapel is located a little bit further from my office, but still at a very reasonable walking distance. At least that’s what it looks like on the map, whereas in real life unruly hordes of clueless tourists, harried office workers and stoic locals routinely turn these few blocks into an Olympics-worthy obstacle course.
But it took more than that to discourage me from using my all-important lunch break to go hear some exciting contemporary music from early 20th century Vienna with Anton Webern and early 21st century United States with Marti Epstein. Now that’s what I call “food for the soul”, even if it sometimes has a challenging taste.
As I entered the light-filled, pleasantly cool and interestingly resonant space, the periodic rumbling of MTA trains underneath our feet unmistakably reminding us of our urban setting, Julian Wachner and composer Marti Epstein were wrapping up a short introduction to the program. And then three members of the youthful NOVUS NY String Quartet kicked off the intermission-free, one-hour concert with plenty of audacity and assurance.

Since this series revolved around the music of Austrian serialism pioneer Anton Webern and some of the composers he has inspired, it was only fair to let him get things started with his deceptively inconspicuous, confidently atonal and relentlessly tense String Trio, Op. 20. In short, the perfect illustration of Webern’s radically economical yet richly expressive music.
Next came his String Quartet, Op. 28, whose potentially disarming abstractness evokes some of our basic emotions through the often unusual, precisely calibrated utterances of the instruments. The last piece of chamber music Webern ever wrote, it adroitly combines past and future, subtly relying on the passionate feelings of Late Romanticism while boldly springing forward with ground-breaking techniques, in a tour de force that the NOVUS NY String Quartet expertly performed.
Epstein’s Hidden Flowers took a while to reveal themselves, but there was a lot going on during their long-winded blooming. Enticing us to pay attention to the subtle score while outside noises popped in and out, and then surprising us with a myriad of unexpected tiny details and appealing new sounds, the composer also allowed us to find the beauty within.
Webern’s Six Bagatelles for String Quartet, Op. 9 looks like a lot on paper, but true to their qualifiers, the six miniature movements came and went in about five minutes. That did not prevent each of them from displaying their own personalities in highly dramatic fashion, even when the music was actually very quiet. Just like waters, still music can run deep.
Sticking to the same principle of “Less is more”, Epstein’s Phosphenes lasted only four minutes, during which the seemingly random occurrences of exacting pointillism produced by the musicians turned out to be as fleeting and illusory as the spots of light that appear when the eyes are closed. 
Webern’s restless exploration of atonality reached a new level with his Five Movements for String Quartet, Op. 5, whose expansive first movement contains a whole world of musical sounds in itself. From heart-felt nostalgia to assertive pizzicatos to ethereal calm, the four musicians handled them all with disconcerting ease. The next four movements distinguished themselves by their brevity and came out respectively as hushed, agitated, lyrical and gloomy, the last one featuring some stunning — and stunningly dark — lines for the cello, before ending in an inexorable whisper. And then it was back to real life.

Monday, June 11, 2018

New York Philharmonic - Foreign Bodies - 06/08/18

Conductor: Esa-Pekka Salonen 
Esa-Pekka Salonen: Foreign Bodies 
Tal Rosner: Video Artist 
Daniel Bjarnason: Violin Concerto 
Pekka Kuusisto: Violin 
Wayne McGregor: Obsidian Tear 
Esa-Pekka Salonen: Lachen verlernt 
Simone Porter: Violin 
Members of Boston Ballet
Esa-Pekka Salonen: Nyx 
Members of Boston Ballet 

As I am nearing the bottom of my end-of-the-season dance card, I was at David Geffen Hall last Friday evening not only for the New York Philharmonic’s last concert of the season, except for their popular Concerts in the Park series, but also for the New York Philharmonic’s last concert conducted by Esa-Pekka Salonen as Marie-Josée Kravitz composer-in-residence. (Needless to say, we dearly hope to have him back sooner than later as very special guest conductor and composer). And for the last hurrah of his memorable three-year stint, he had clearly decided to go all out with an expertly curated triple treat of sounds, movements and visuals.
Not quite sure of what I was getting myself into, but confident in the artists and endeavors mentioned on the program, I got myself a ticket, never mind the hectic week I had just had or the fact that drinks would be allowed in the concert hall. (Anyone who’s ever had to put up with the unwelcome accompaniment of ice cube clunking noises during a performance will understand my misgivings.) But in the end, I simply could not pass on one more evening with the one and only E.P. Salonen, our classical music home team, and a particularly intriguing program.

Upon entering the hall, a screen hanging above the orchestra, a forward extension of the stage, a row of computers across an entire seating section, and a more diverse audience definitely confirmed that we were in for something different. On the other hand, things like the organically seamless and highly rewarding bond between Salonen and the New York Philharmonic thankfully had not changed. As such, the first piece of the program, his militarily assertive Foreign Bodies, opened with a gripping surge of sounds that had the musicians hit the ground running while a live video feed that was first showing them soon turned their movements into swirling colorful lines. And that was only the beginning.
Since Salonen’s score is intrinsically big and bold, and for sure exciting enough to be enjoyed sans visuals, Tai Rosner’s predominantly abstract video could be seen more like a glitzy addition meant to catch the attention of the younger audience than a called-for component. Feeling sometimes like a throwback to Disney’s Fantasia, some other times like a fancier version of Windows’ latest screensavers, it certainly was attractive entertainment, especially during the third movement, which contained more creative ideas and concluded in an apocalyptic explosion of sounds of colors. The whole experience had only lasted about 20 minutes, but the first break of the evening was already upon us, and it was somewhat needed.
There was no visual component officially added to the performance of Icelandic composer Daniel Bjarnason’s rowdy Violin Concerto, but Finnish violinist Pekka Kuusisto readily took care of that with a black multi-layered, baggy outfit and a blond male bun proudly standing on top of his head. As it was, the uniqueness of his grown-up elf look was particularly well suited to the uniqueness of the one-movement concerto, which he started by uncharacteristically playing solo and whistling.
There would be more of that unusual combo, and some folk-like singing too, during the 20-minute concerto, which turned out to be fundamentally earthy and light-hearted, but also contained some seriously intricate, not to mention downright weird, passages. Violinist and orchestra were unfussed though, and Kuusisto brought it all home with the effortless ease of a virtuoso and the insouciant flamboyance of a rock star.
There was more impressive violin playing after the second break of the evening, this time from young and fast-rising violinist Simone Porter, who handled Salonen’s relentless Chaconne “Lachen verlernt” (“Laugh unlearnt” From Schoenberg’s Pierrot Lunaire) with remarkable poise from her perch on second tier left. Her powerful performance also provided the musical accompaniment to the first part of choreographer Wayne McGregor’s Salonen-inspired Obsidian Tear, during which two half-naked, buffed, endlessly energetic and extremely flexible young men from the Boston Ballet seemingly battled out a love-hate relationship.
More of them showed up during Salonen’s extravagant orchestral work Nyx, and vigorously enacted a complicated ritual that quickly appeared to be a barely disguised tribute to the Stravinsky-Ballets Russes’ riot-igniting, headline-grabbing and ground-breaking Sacre du printemps. A musical evocation of the elusive Greek goddess who was involved in no less than the creation of the world, Nyx is a compositional tour de force whose countless brilliant twists and turns were hard to pin down, but still flawlessly formed a fully coherent whole on Friday night. There may have been a fair amount of eye-candy on that stage, but the ever-present goddess still won.
It was unquestionably a worthy finale for the all-hands-on-deck wrap-up party that Salonen admittedly wanted, rightfully deserved and ultimately got. Even better, no booze was needed for extra stimulation, and no ice cubes (although a cell phone just had to ring, for routine’s sake, during Nyx) were heard.

Sunday, June 3, 2018

NYCO - Brokeback Mountain - 06/02/18

Composer: Charles Wuorinen 
Librettist: Annie Proulx 
Conductor: Kazem Abdullah 
Director: Jacopo Spirei 
Daniel Okulitch: Ennis del Mar 
Glenn Seven Allen: Jack Twist 
Heather Buck: Alma Beers 
Hilary Ginther: Lureen 
Christopher Job: Aguirre 

Since all good things must come to an end, my last, but not least, performance of the season turned out to be Charles Wuorinen’s Brokeback Mountain presented by New York City Opera as their 2nd annual pride series production at Jazz at Lincoln Center’s Rose Theater yesterday afternoon. In an ironic twist of fate, the opera should have been NYCO’s to produce and premiere to begin with, back when Gérard Mortier was supposed to take the company over. When that did not work out, he took it to Madrid’s Teatro Real, where it was produced and premiered in 2014.
Although I have not read Annie Proulx’s acclaimed short story, I had loved Ang Lee’s acclaimed film inspired by it (not the least, let’s face it, because of the two hot young actors that were Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal back then). So I was curious to check out what Annie Proulx, in her brand-new capacity as a librettist, and Charles Wuorinen, in his usual capacity as an unapologetically modern composer, would come up with, even if the New York audience would see the down-sized production specially adapted for the smaller stage of the Salzburg Festival. When it comes to intimate drama, less is actually often more.

Because we’ve come a long way, although admittedly still not remotely far enough, with gay rights, these days the intense love story between the two young cowboys in Wyoming does not seem as controversial as it used to be. That said, there is still plenty of juicy material waiting to be squeezed out for a sizzling opera. Resolutely discarding Ang Lee’s majestic scenery and heart-felt romanticism, Wuorinen decided to go back to the source for a more authentic and grittier operatic version of the story. And why not?
Although he takes his time to open up, and even then stubbornly remains the taciturn type, Ennis del Mar is the man squarely at the heart of the story, and eventually the last man standing. It is a challenging role, no doubt, and bass-baritone Daniel Okulitch, who created it back in Madrid, handled it remarkably well, particularly distinguishing himself in the final soliloquy. His performance was appropriately understated, and still powerfully conveyed his uncontrollable confusion and panic when faced with his unspeakable desires.
Tenor Glenn Seven Allen was vocally bright and physically energetic as Jack Twist, the one who was ready to throw caution to the wind and live his life to the fullest with the one person he truly loved. But domestic bliss with Ennis, even modest and discreet, was not in the cards for him, and Allen was terrific at showing his frustration slowly but surely building up all the way to their explosive final confrontation.
Soprano Heather Buck was a genuinely sweet Alma Beers, who made her first appearance gleefully picking her wedding gown, only to ask for divorce later in the second act. That was, of course, an understandable reaction since in the meantime she had caught her husband Ennis passionately kissing another man, just before he casually suggested she catches up with her ironing while the two men would go on the first of their “fishing” trips.
In her smaller but note-worthy part, mezzo-soprano Hilary Ginther used her impressive range to create a memorable Lureen, the rich, educated and extroverted girl who fell for the fearless rodeo man that was Jack, only to find out that he would never be able to fulfill all her needs.
All the numerous other peripheral characters benefited from strong singing and acting, and the chorus made a memorable impression during its short appearance near the end of the second act. From a vocal point of view, the performance was a total success.
The stage was minimalist, and the various rolling mini-sets, from Ennis and Alma’s plain kitchen to the cheap motel room in which Ennis and Jack reconnect in, were efficiently moved around while the background remained a screen on which images of the sky at different times of the day were projected. This, however, became a significant element mostly when the scenes took place on Brokeback Mountain itself, giving a hint of the wide-open space. In short, nothing was deliriously imaginative, but everything worked.
As the story was unfolding, the score was revealing itself as both a blessing and a curse. The blessing was an underlying darkness that was ubiquitous during the entire performance, as if there was no getting away from the reputedly evil mountain. You really did not need herd owner Aguirre to sing of its “dark power” in the opening scene to feel it. And when it occasionally slowed down and took the time to connect with the characters, the music was very effective at expressing their bewilderment, tension and exasperation.
However, its overall unforgiving complexity and occasional intellectual coldness - not to mention a dense libretto - often seemed at odds with the rugged landscapes and raw emotions the two men were dealing with. And while Wuorinen obviously took great pains to shape a lot of the vocal lines according to natural speech patterns, those often ended up being monotonous and unengaging, making even the random touches of laconic humor fall flat. But the orchestra played it valiantly under the baton of Kazem Abdullah in the pit and, with the outstanding singers on that stage, they managed to save the day.