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.