Monday, July 30, 2018

String Orchestra of Brooklyn - Adams & Gorecki - 07/28/18

Conductor: Eli Spindel 
Adams: Shaker Loops (1982 revised version) 
Wolfe: Four Marys 
Gorecki: Concerto for Piano and Orchestra, Op. 40 
Adam Tendler: Pianist 

Who said that New York City’s Mostly Mozart Festival is practically the only classical music game in town in summer? Certainly not The New Yorker magazine, which earned my deepest gratitude last week for directing my attention to the less well-known and less fancy  ̶  but definitely more ambitious  ̶  String Orchestra of Brooklyn, who were giving a concert in the historic St. Ann and the Holy Trinity Church, in Brooklyn Heights, last Saturday night. The contemporary program could not help but make a strong impression with John Adams’ early classic and personal favorite Shaker Loops, Julia Wolfe’s intriguing Four Marys, and Henryk Gorecki’s short but eloquent piano concerto.
The 2 and 3 subway lines having just resumed running almost normally (Not that there is anything really normal with the MTA these days), my weekend trips to Brooklyn are thankfully transfer-free again. To make the deal even sweeter, my friend Christine had the brilliant idea of organizing an informal wine-and-munchies get-together with her mom and her friend Karen because culinary and musical pleasures go so well together. Even Mother Nature had apparently decided to treat us to one of her dry, if still sultry, summer nights.
So I temporarily got over my distaste of going out on Saturday night and valiantly left the island for an evening across the East River. As soon as we stepped into the magnificent Episcopal church, I knew it would be worth the effort. I mean, what could go wrong with enjoying an exciting concert in such a stunning setting?

The small orchestra may have had the most casual dress code I have ever seen (and that includes rehearsals), but there was nothing even remotely casual about their music-making. Alert and ready, they immediately took ownership of Adams’ 1982 version of his perennially fresh and downright infectious Shaker Loops, which had been upgraded from the original septet to a reduced orchestra, and smoothly ran with it. As he was combining the fun of playing around with melodies and the thrill of breaking new ground, Adams was also coming into his own as a minimalist composer, and it shows. On Saturday night, the orchestra conducted by Eli Spindel managed all those treacherous loops with plenty of dexterity and flair for a totally engaging performance.
The mysterious piece du jour was Wolfe’s Four Marys, which had also been fleshed out from its original quartet form for a larger ensemble. Considering the caliber of the two other works on the program, I was fairly confident that this one would be of at least some interest too. And I was readily proven right as the Appalachian dulcimer-inspired music came out assertively focused, at times subtly nostalgic, with plenty of attractive colors flying around and just the right amount of grittiness.
Last, but definitely not least, new music advocate and intrepid pianist Adam Tendler joined the orchestra for Gorecki’s headily rhythm-driven piano concerto, which they fearlessly and virtuosically dispatched. Hitting the ground running with impeccable timing and enthusiastic gusto, piano and strings kept on going strong throughout the exhilarating 10-minute ride. Va-va-voom!

After the short but taxing test of endurance, Adam Tendler was kind enough to come back and play John Adams’ beautifully nuanced China Gates, which brilliantly brought the intense one-hour concert pretty much full circle before exquisitely fading away. And there was nothing more to say.

Friday, July 27, 2018

NYO2 - Revueltas, Prokofiev and Shostakovitch - 07/24/18

Conductor: Carlos Miguel Pireto 
Fellows of the New World Symphony, America’s Orchestral Academy 
Revueletas: Suite from Redes (arr. Erich Kleiber) 
Prokofiev: Violin Concerto No. 1 
Gil Shaham: Violinist 
Shostakovich: Symphony No. 5 

Carnegie Hall’s official season may be over, but it does not mean that nothing is going on there. In fact, these days it seems like the venerable concert hall has been taken over by hordes of disgustingly young and talented youngsters coming from all the over the States courtesy of NYO2, an orchestral training program created two years ago by Carnegie Hall' Weill Music Institute for talented teenage musicians coming from communities underrepresented in classical music. And more power to them for that.
So last Tuesday evening, my friend Ruth and I found ourselves in the Stern Auditorium packed with countless friends and family members of the orchestra’s members, as well as regular music lovers and random visitors, all gathered together for a program featuring three very different 20th century works. The cherry on top and, to be truthful, my main reason for being there, was the presence of Gil Shaham, a fabulous violinist – and maybe not so incidentally a fierce music education advocate – whose live performances I hadn’t been attending in way too many years. Better late than never.

Suite from Redes, which was written by Mexican composer, conductor, violinist, professor and political activist Silvestre Revueletas for the film Redes, and then arranged by Viennese conductor Erich Kleiber, opened the concert with plenty of dark realism. And the large orchestra vigorously proved that they were fully adept at mastering the boldness and complexity of the starkly expressive piece under the energetic baton of Mexican maestro Carlos Miguel Pireto.
Although Prokofiev’s unusually arranged Violin Concerto No. 1 opens in a lyrical mood and boasts attractive melodies, it wastes no time showing its brilliant mood-swinging side in the second movement, before calming down and eventually fading away in the last movement. I was pleased, although not surprised, to see that former ebullient child prodigy Gil Shaham had not lost his magical touch as he gamely delivered an effortlessly virtuosic performance, which was readily enhanced by his seamless connection with the deeply appreciative kids surrounding him. No slouches themselves, they supported him whole-heartedly throughout the occasionally thorny, but always engaging work.
The collaboration was in fact so successful that they all treated us to a repeat of the endlessly exciting second movement as an encore, just for the heck of it, and it was just about as dazzling as the first time around.
We stayed in the Russian repertoire after intermission with Shostakovitch's sprawling Symphony No. 5, which the orchestra handled with the same expertise and enthusiasm they had demonstrated so far. Written while the Stalinist purges were in full swing, his fifth marked the composer’s comeback from total banishment and still showed more rebellion than repentance, starting with open anger and closing with cautious optimism, if any. The brass brightly resounded, the strings beautifully glowed, and it all simply fell into place, regardless of the many challenges the musicians had to overcome.

The 45-minute journey had been intensely emotional, but nothing could stop the youngsters as they kept going full speed ahead with two exuberant encores: The Intermezzo from La boda de Luis Alonso by Spanish composer Gerónimo Giménez and "Malambo" from Estancia by Argentine composer Alberto Ginastera. And it was an memorably fun send-off, complete with some of the sections suddenly popping up and getting back down without missing a beat. Because they could.

Sunday, July 22, 2018

Mostly Mozart Festival - Bernstein's MASS - 07/17/18

Composer: Leonard Bernstein 
Conductor: Louis Langrée
Nmon Ford: Celebrant 

Mostly Mozart Festival Orchestra 
Concert Chorale of New York 
Young People’s Chorus of New York City 

After a couple of very quiet weeks on the performance front, the time finally came for me to kick-start the Mostly Mozart Festival with…Leonard Bernstein, of all composers, and an awful lot of other performers for his extravagant MASS. The inclusion of the unique “theater piece for singers, players and dancers” in New York City’s major classical music summer festival may come as a surprise at first, but it makes more sense when one knows that this year is the 100th anniversary of the quintessential New York composer’s birth. If we’re going to celebrate, as we should, we might as well go big and loud.
My only experience of Bernstein’s MASS was the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra’s expert take on it (Marin Alsop, Bernstein’s erstwhile protégée, probably having quite a bit to do with it) at the Kennedy Center back in Washington, D.C. almost 10 years ago. And I figured that this year was as good of a time as any to refresh my admittedly foggy memory. That’s how, on Tuesday night, I took a break from a busy week to join colleagues and friends, most of us being scattered throughout David Geffen Hall, for the first of the two sold-out performances.

When the MASS first came out, in 1971, the United States was going through politically and socially turbulent times (Some things just never completely disappear, do they?). Consequently, for better or worse, the crisis of faith at the center of it all is not exactly new material. Moreover, the generous mix of musical genres that may have sounded fresh and exciting back then has become commonplace throughout the years and is unlikely to bring the same kind of happy amazement. That said, it is not necessary an issue for a musical piece to reflect its time and place.
And there was plenty to enjoy in Tuesday night’s performance. Young baritone Nmon Ford, who threw himself whole-heartedly into the wild adventure as the Celebrant, stayed vocally strong throughout the whole evening. The two choruses contributed committed singing while occasionally partaking into the general staging. The vastly enlarged MMF orchestra seamlessly moved from pop to rock to jazz and more without missing a beat. And some vividly colorful visual effects, not to mention an exhilaratingly rambunctious protest riot, had the unmistakable psychedelic flavor of the late 1960s.
On the other hand, the score is unquestionably uneven, over-extended and features a borderline cheesy Hollywood ending, the staging was sometimes lacking direction, and the dreadful combination of David Geffen Hall’s challenged acoustics and the production’s amplified sounds did not help matters either. For a while, my friend Dawn and I thought we were going to make it to the end without a cell phone ring, which is always a plus, but we were not quite that lucky.
Bottom line is, if, as a music lover, you’re not particularly into the Catholic or the Broadway tradition, the main benefit for attending was probably a shorter bucket list. And this by itself is nothing to sneeze at.