Sunday, September 23, 2018

Orpheus Orchestra - Little Giants - 09/20/18

Pärt: Fratres 
Chopin: Piano Concerto No. 2 in F Minor, Op. 21 (arr. Shuying Li) 
Nobuyuki Tsujii: Piano 
Tchaikovsky: Chamber Symphony No. 1 in D Major, Op. 11b (arr. Christopher Theofanidis) 

Although Carnegie Hall’s official season finally kicks off in early October, the walls of the prestigious concert venue have already become alive again with the sounds of music produced by musicians who cleverly booked one of the halls for a performance before it becomes much more challenging to squeeze in.
That’s the case for the Orpheus Orchestra, a long-time member on the local music scene whose impeccably musicianship only equals its refreshing resourcefulness. For example, since the repertoire for chamber orchestras is rather limited, they decided to be proactive and have some classical pieces arranged for them, either by downsizing them, like Chopin’s Piano Concerto No. 2, or expanding them, like Pärt’s Fratres or Tchaikovsky’s First String Quartet.
Moreover, beside those intriguing experiments that were begging to be checked out, the program also promised an opportunity for the audience to hear young Japanese pianist Nobuyuki Tsujii, also known as Nobu, one of those natural child prodigies who make the rest of us feel like a speck of dust. But never mind that. My friend Ruth and I decided to swallow our pride and go for it.

As a big fan of the violin and piano version of Arvo Pärt’s Fratres, I was particularly curious, and, let’s face it, a little apprehensive, to hear the chamber orchestra version of it as I had a hard time imagining how the deeply spiritual quality of the pared-down original would translate with a more substantial group of musicians. Turns out that while the orchestra version had its indisputable merits, notably a more nuanced texture, I found that it simply did not convey the spell-binding mystical appeal of the composer’s tintinnabuli style. Nice try though.
When it comes to Chopin, I whole-heartedly agree with the conventional wisdom that proclaims him the unequal master of the solo piano, and I also think that he did not really know what to do with an orchestra. A case in point of in favor of that theory is his Piano Concerto No. 2, in which the pianist gets to display his virtuosic skills and the orchestra mostly comes in as an after-thought. Shuying Li’s arrangement of the piece for chamber orchestra does allow the ensemble to steal a few fleeting moments in the spotlight, but there's no question that the piano remains the shining star of the show.
On Thursday night, the other star of the show was fast-rising musician Nobuyuki Tsujii, who did not let his youth or blindness get in the way of delivering a technically sound and emotionally involved performance. I am happy to confirm that in the case of this young man, you should believe the hype.
The rousing standing ovation that followed the concerto earned us an irresistibly jazzy "Prelude" from 8 Concert Études, Op. 40 by Kapustin that lifted everybody's spirit a little bit more while readily proving that his talent is as wide-ranging as his interests.
After intermission, it was Tchaikovsky’s turn for a somewhat radical make-over when the orchestra delivered a beautiful reading of his First String Quartet arranged by Christopher Theofanidis for chamber orchestra. Since I tend to lament the liberal use of schmaltz and brass in Tchaikovsky’s orchestral music, I was particularly thrilled that this chamber symphony preserved his trademark lush melodies, went easy on the sentimentality, and did not contain any excessive loudness. In fact, it was occasionally so refined that it almost felt Mozartian, which would have no doubt immensely pleased the Russian composer, who was one of the Austrian composer’s biggest fans. And it certainly pleased us too.

Saturday, September 22, 2018

Music Mondays - Jasper Quartet - Beethoven, Shaw, Mazzoli & Mendelssohn - 09/17/18

Ludwig van Beethoven: String Quartet in G Major, Op. 18, No. 2 
Caroline Shaw: Valencia 
Missy Mazzoli: Death Valley Junction 
Felix Mendelssohn: String Quartet in D Major, Op. 44, No. 1 

After an essentially forced downtime on the performance front, the music drought I had to endure was officially over last Monday evening. That’s when the Philadelphia-based Jasper Quartet and the reliably ambitious, not to mention wonderfully convenient, Music Mondays series provided me with the perfect opportunity to ease myself back into the slowly but surely opening 2018-2019 New York music season with an attractive mix of traditional and new string quartet music.
The program included timeless works by Beethoven and Mendelssohn book-ending recent pieces by two of the most exciting female composers today, namely Caroline Shaw, whose resolutely eclectic works regularly appear in a vast array of programs, and Missy Mazzoli, whose opera Breaking the Waves rocked the 2017 Prototype Festival. A lot of music lovers obviously felt as intrigued as I was, and the Advent Lutheran Church quickly got packed to the rafters.

It is hard to go wrong with Viennese master Ludwig van Beethoven in any circumstances, and his String Quartet in G Major, Op. 18, No. 2 was a very rewarding opening number indeed, starting with the civilized exchanges of the Allegro before moving on to the smoothness of the Adagio cantabile, which was followed by the spontaneous sparkles of the Scherzo. The Jasper Quartet seemed to enjoy themselves as much as we did as they skillfully and easily made their way through the piece.
After we fast-forwarded over two centuries, the energetic classicism of Beethoven’s quartet found a modern equivalent in Caroline Shaw’s short and unabashedly sunny Valencia, which spontaneously perked up our gray September evening with plenty of bright colors and zesty flavors.
Missy Mazzoli’s Death Valley Junction was inspired by the California desert town of the same name, which is home to three people, a café, a hotel, and a fully functional opera house. The real star of the composition, however, is Marta Becket, the New York artist who, after a flat tire grounded her and her husband there in 1967, decided to stay and repair the crumbling opera house, eventually performing one-woman shows every week in it until her retirement in 2012 at age 87. Unsurprisingly, the musical evocation of this unusual story combines the harsh textures of the environment and the wild exuberance of the artistic endeavor, which were all expertly conveyed by the four musicians.
More exuberance, of the decidedly more polished kind this time, filled up the little church after intermission with Mendelssohn’s confident String Quartet in D Major, Op. 44, No. 1, during which the string players engaged in a high-spirited conversation, before slowing down for the two more introspective, but still highly melodic, central movements. Things perked up again for the brilliant finale, which wrapped up the movement, the piece, and the performance with delightful fireworks.