Friday, November 30, 2018

Met - Mefistofele - 11/27/18

Composer: Arrigo Boito 
Conductor: Joseph Colaneri 
Librettist: Arrigo Boito 
Director/Producer: Robert Carsen 
Christian van Horn: Mefistofele 
Michael Fabiano: Faust 
Angela Meade: Margherita

As a dedicated music lover, I know I am having a really good time when I do not even think about, let alone miss, live performances even after a relatively long period of time. And that is exactly what happened to me during my extended, but still too short, stay in the fabulous city of Athens during the month of November. That said, I also want to point out that I am not just saying that because I was happily basking in generally warm and sunny weather while a major snowstorm mercilessly slammed a totally unprepared Big Apple.
But all good things have to come to an end, therefore I reluctantly left mild temperatures, ancient world wonders, terrific food and friendly natives behind and landed in Newark last Saturday, on a dark, cold and wet night (And do not get me started on waiting for the NJ Transit train for 40 minutes). I had a powerful incentive though, as three days later I had scheduled a hot date in the cold city with no less than the devil himself – AKA Mefistofele – at the Met courtesy of Arrigo Boito, Robert Carsen, Christian van Horn, Michael Fabiano and Angela Meade.
When I originally bought my ticket months ago, I probably figured that it would help me get over the jet lag and get back into my routine. On Tuesday, however, after a mere couple of hours of sleep the previous night, it did not seem like such a good idea after all, but it was too late to change plans. So I went ahead and kept my fingers crossed that my foggy state of mind would not prevent me from fully enjoying a hopefully decadent evening.

The legend of Faust has been around for a very long time, most famously through the works of English playwright Marlowe, German novelist Goethe, and French composer Gounod. But Italian poet, journalist, novelist, librettist and composer Arrigo Boito, who was better known for the flawless librettos he wrote for Verdi’s Otello and Falstaff, resolved to focus on the most colorful character of the story for a change. In the end, his Mefistofele never became part of the standard repertoire, and Boito never composed another opera, but then again, curiosity had me decide to check it out hoping for the best and bracing myself for the worst.
When it comes to juicy roles for basses or bass-baritones, of which there are not that many to begin with, Mefistofele is hard to beat. And local bass-baritone Christian van Horn certainly looked and sounded the part, and having a ball while doing it too. Physically and vocally ready, willing and able, he was a mightily entertaining devil as he was regally prancing around and singing his heart out in eye-popping red outfits or shirtless. His voice had the raw power and smooth elegance required for the job, and his natural charisma made him a naturally commanding Mefistofele.
His choice victim was the hapless and insatiable professor Faust, who was more than capably impersonated by new Met favorite, tenor Michael Fabiano. Too weak to resist the devil’s tempting offer and then living the rest of his life to pay its inevitable price, the dashing singer managed to keep his trademark intensity in check when needed while still efficiently lashing out in the most dramatic moments.
Another Met favorite on that stage was soprano Angela Meade whose appealing voice, demure disposition and virginal outfit helped create a downright poignant Margherita, not the least because she got the best aria of the evening in “L’altra notte in fondo al mane”. That did not keep her from having assertive outbursts though, in particular when she begs for mercy and forgiveness from God.
The unflappable Met chorus kept extremely busy during Acts I and III, and that was all the better for the rest of us. They have demonstrated many times over that they can handle any score thrown at them, and Mefistofele was no exception. The chorus parts were monumental and complex, but the singers handled them all brilliantly, going from the angelic “Salve Regina” to the devilish “Walpurgis Night” without missing a beat.
As for visuals, bringing back Robert Carsen’s 2000 often jaw-dropping theater-within-the-theater production turned out to be a wise move indeed. From the opening scene, in which the chorus’ heavenly singing and the celestial blue sky are suddenly disturbed by a bright red-clad Mefistofele climbing onto the stage from the orchestra pit, the tone is solidly set for contrast, extravagance, inventiveness, and more than a little campiness. The opera may be uneven, both static and all over the place, but the mise en scène largely made up for it, even if we had to put up with countless pauses and two lengthy intermissions.
Arrigo Boito made a name for himself as a librettist, but his composing skills are on obvious display in the winningly lyrical score. Featuring attractive melodies, introspective moments, intense climaxes and inspired arias, it serves the story and its characters well. The Met orchestra, which may not be as familiar with it as they are with the unescapable warhorses, took to it readily and delivered a confident, warm and articulate performance of it.
Although the evening had been long to my exhausted mind and body, and the 66th Street subway stop turned out to be closed to uptown trains when I finally reached it (Aargh!), Mefistofele proved to be an exciting date, not the least because it even included a nice little excursion to… Greece, of all places! A  small touch that went a long way.

Tuesday, November 6, 2018

Paul Lewis - Brahms, Haydn & Beethoven - 11/03/18

Brahms: Seven Fantasies, Op.116 
Haydn: Sonata in C Minor, Hob. XVI/20 
Beethoven: Seven Bagatelles, Op. 33 
Haydn: Sonata in E-flat Major, Hob. XVI/52 

Although it has been offering memorable performances by musicians of the highest caliber in conveniently located venues at stunningly low prices for the past 118 years, the Peoples’ Symphony Concerts organization is not that well known, most likely because it has inexplicably been staying under the radar of most media outlets. On the other hand, this frustrating situation also means that music lovers can be spontaneous and get a more than reasonably priced ticket at the last minute.
This all changed last week thoughat least when it comes to being unfairly ignoredwhen both The New Yorker and The New York Times mentioned that on Saturday evening, superb English pianist Paul Lewis would be giving his only New York concert of the season at the Washington Irving High School on Saturday evening. That would, of course, imply going to the Union Square area on a Saturday night, which for better or worse rarely fails to be an, errr, interesting experience, but then again, I knew it would be worth the hassle.

Sporting a short haircut that makes him look even younger, Paul Lewis is not one to collect himself before starting playing. He just sits down and does it. And what he did on Saturday evening, to begin with, were Brahms’ Seven Fantasies, a series of seven jewels that are short in duration and giant in expressiveness. Composed late in his life, they boast enigmatic melodies, rich textures and a wide range of emotions, which were all powerfully yet subtly conveyed by Lewis.
I have never associated Haydn with buoyancy, but his Sonata in C Minor sure lifted everybody’s spirits and some. The first work for piano that the composer actually called a sonata, and the most difficult one out of a set of seven, it is challengingly dense, but also wonderfully high-spirited. Constantly keeping the right balance between seriousness and fun, Lewis delivered a totally engaging performance of it, making papa Haydn cool again.
There was plenty of light-heated humor after intermission with Beethoven’s Seven Bagatelles too, a couple of which spontaneously caused happy chuckles from the audience and knowing smiles from the player. It has to be pointed out though, that those so-called “trifles” were not just mere fluffy little things, but presented a wide range of complex and inventive elements that Lewis handled with aplomb and flair.
More Haydn was around the corner with his Sonata in E-flat Major, his last and, arguably, his most accomplished one. A truly virtuosic piece originally written for Therese Jansen, a truly virtuoso English pianist, it was played by another truly virtuosic English pianist on Saturday night. Big, bold and beautiful, with witty sparks, poetic musings and moments of unabashed luminosity, it was the perfect way to end the perfect recital. Or was it?

Because we made it clear that we were not ready to let him go yet, Lewis obligingly came back with Bagatelle No. 6 from Beethoven’s Opus 16. Another perfect way to end the perfect recital.

Sunday, November 4, 2018

Maxim Vengerov & Roustem Saïtkoulov - Brahms, Enescu, Ravel, Ernest & Paganini - 10/30/18

Brahms: Violin Sonata No. 3 in D Minor 
Enescu: Violin Sonata No. 2 in F Minor 
Ravel: Violin Sonata No. 2 
Ernest: The Last Rose of Summer 
Paganini: I palpiti (after Rossini's "Di tanti palpiti" from Tancredi; arr. Fritz Kreisler) 

After an unusual piano-and-percussion concert last Thursday night and a sweeping Resurrection last Sunday afternoon, I was back in the Stern Auditorium on Tuesday night for a good old-fashioned recital by Maxim Vengerov and Roustem Saïtkoulov. The main attraction for me, and probably for the huge continent of Russian nationals surrounding me, was the presence of former violin prodigy turned dedicated teacher and still occasional performer Maxim Vengerov, who thankfully seems to have found his way back to Carnegie Hall after a first visit about a year ago, which finally put an end to an all too long absence.
Needless to say, the program was not that essential, but it certainly did not hurt that it included Brahms’ Violin Sonata No. 3 and Ravel’s Violin Sonata, two natural crowd-pleasers even if the crowd is not made of chamber music fans. And I had no doubt that the other numbers would go down just as easily.

Brahms’ Violin Sonata No. 3, the last, but definitely not least, of a very attractive trio, opened the concert with its dramatic overtone and exquisite details. It takes twos virtuosos to make it justice fully, and we certainly had them on Tuesday evening, as they both beautifully complemented each other from the dynamic Allegro to the turbulent Presto agitato. And whose heart did not melt while listening to the short, but deeply lyrical and unabashedly Romantic Adagio? It certainly would be hard to claim that Brahms was just a emotionless perfectionist after that.
Romanticism was also found in Enescu’s Violin Sonata No. 2 too, but it was of the late kind (Not that there’s anything wrong with that) and accompanied by pretty melodies, modern elegance, Romanian playfulness and melancholia, as well as an unexpected—and unexpectedly anti-climatic—ending.
A recital favorite, Ravel’s Violin Sonata No. 2 injected a solid dose of crossover sparks into our evening, especially with its irresistibly bluesy second movement, which came to life after an American music style had been appreciated through the eyes and ears of an intellectually curious French composer and, on Tuesday night, was played with plenty of eagerness by two Russian musicians.
Then Vengerov occupied the stage alone for Heinrich Ernest’s “The Last Rose of Summer”, a challenging showpiece inspired by the popular Irish ballad and written to make use of many of the violin’s countless possibilities. Vengerov’s performance of it was as dazzling as you would expect and easily brought down the house.
The official program ended with a piece written by Nicolo Paganini, another violin virtuoso, who for the occasion dabbled into composing. “I palpiti” was inspired by Rossini’s Tancredi and arranged by Fritz Kreisler, yet another violin virtuoso. Although the work started with an assertive statement by the piano, the violin eventually appeared with a beautiful melodic line that nonchalantly twisted and turned for what seem a long, and yet still too short, time.

The enthusiastic ovation earned us a delicious “Caprice viennois” by Kreisler, a serene “Vocalise” by Rachmaninoff, arranged by Heifetz, and, when we all thought that everything had be said and done, Vengerov came back, signaled that he still had time for one more, and readily threw himself into a brilliantly high-spirited Hungarian Dance No. 2 by Brahms, arranged by Joseph Joachim. The older Russian couple to my right were beaming from ear to ear with national pride, and for some reason so was I.