Saturday, December 22, 2018

Jeremy Denk and Friends: Mozart Reflected: Violin Sonatas with Interludes in Three Acts - 12/16/18

Mozart: Violin Sonata in C Major, K. 6 
Ravel: Allegretto from Violin Sonata 
Mozart: Violin Sonata in G Major, K. 301 
Adams: Relaxed Groove from Road Movies 
Mozart: Violin Sonata in D Major, K. 306 
Violinist: Benjamin Beilman 

Handel: Affetuoso and Allegro from Violin Sonata in D Major 
Mozart: Adagio Allegro and Andantino cantabile (Theme and Variations) from Violin Sonata in G Major, K. 379 
Stravinsky: Gigue and Dithyrambe from Duo concertant 
Mozart: Violin Sonata in B-flat Major, K. 378 
Violinist: Stefan Jackiw 

Mozart: Violin Sonata in A Major, K. 305 
Webern: Four Pieces for Violin and Piano, Op. 7 
Mozart: Violin Sonata in E Minor, K. 304 
Schubert: Allegro from Violin Sonata in A Minor, D. 385 
Mozart: Violin Sonata in A Major, K. 526 
Violinist: Pamela Frank 

Can one can ever get too much of a good thing? That is the question that briefly went through my mind as I was entering my third hour of listening to pianist extraordinaire Jeremy Denk and his friends perform a Mozart-centric four-hour concert last Sunday afternoon in an originally packed, and then slowly emptying, Zankel concert hall.Hey, nobody said that classical music was for the faint of heart.
Although nothing indicated that the program would be that extensive when I bought the ticket, and I had missed the warning obligingly sent by Carnegie Hall as the date was getting closer, I of course could hardly complain about getting an awful lot of a good thing. Never mind that I was sitting with damp and cold feet the whole time due to my loyal Timberland boots’ decision to lose their waterproofness on the day Mother Nature elected to unceremoniously open the sky and drench the Big Apple.
The company, which included three brilliant violinists in addition to the one pianist/host/investigator of the intriguing extravaganza, and the program, which was a three-part foray into eight Mozart’s violin sonatas and some of the wide-ranging works they have more or less noticeable parallels with, made any physical discomfort or schedule upset totally irrelevant. Supporting intellectually stimulating artistic endeavors is a tough job, but somebody’s got to do it.

After a brief introduction, which reminded us that hearing Denk talk about music is almost as enlightening as hearing play music, we started the first part of the concert with young but already much in demand violinist Benjamin Beilman and Mozart’s Violin Sonata in C Major, K. 6. This pleasant but essentially unremarkable little work, in which the piano constantly remains the main focus, may not hold a big candle to his later œuvre, but it still catches the listeners’ attention when they are made aware that the composer completed it by the tender age of seven. Ahhhhhhhhhh!
Seamlessly fast-forwarding one and a half century and swiftly crossing the pond, the Allegretto from Maurice Ravel’s Violin Sonata, which features cool jazz influences and a decidedly modern style under a classical surface, dwelled in the rugged individualism of the violin and piano too, with plenty of delicate textures and fun twists and turns.
From there we moved back to Mozart with his Violin Sonata in G Major, K. 301, which stands as irrefutable proof of the blazing progress that the by-then young adult had made. More complex, bristling with elegance and liveliness, and purposefully omitting any slow movement, it showed what an amazing difference almost two decades had made, especially when you’re a child prodigy to begin with.
Smoothly transitioning onto the contemporary scene again, but in the United States this time, the “Relaxed Groove” from John Adams’ Road Movies combined a solidly consistent piano and a more volatile violin, which deftly emphasized the consistency of driving and the unpredictability factor inherent to any road trip. A faux minimalist but a real pioneer, Adams keeps things fresh and exciting, and so did Denk and Beilman.
The first part of the program ended with Mozart’s Violin Sonata in D Major, K. 306, which showed yet another quantum leap in the relentless composer’s musical development, even though it was actually written just a few months after the K. 301. Constantly keeping performers and audience on their toes, it offered a dazzling array of tricks in an intricate structure.
The second part of the program, unofficially titled “Arcadia”, was meant to explore the joys and occasional darkness of Viennese music and life with violinist Stefan Jackiw. It started with the Affetuoso and the Allegro of George Friderich Handel’s substantial Violin Sonata in D Major, his last piece of chamber music. Both turned out to be as well-balanced, vivacious and engaging as could be, definitely more cheerful than somber.
Mozart was back in full force with his Violin Sonata in G Major, K. 379, which unusually opens with an enchantingly melodic Adagio. It is followed by a comparatively short and aggressively intense Allegro that stood in high contrast with the generally more subdued Andantino cantabile that followed. Written in haste, the work still gave the lead to the piano, but made sure the violin had its say as well.
The next surprise guest was endlessly inventive Russian composer Igor Stravinsky, whose exuberant Gigue and tragic Dithyrambe from his neoclassical Duo concertant came out respectively as infectiously energetic and hauntingly beautiful, modernizing 18th century music for the 20th century in impeccable style.
 To conclude this second third of the program, Mozart’s Violin Sonata in B-flat Major, K. 378 brought eclectic feats and virtuosic sparks, as well as a downright stunning Andantino sostenuto e cantabile, all those parts being finally more or less equally shared by the two often breathless instruments.
The third and last part of the program, which would be performed in one fell swoop, was dedicated to the voyage from sunny outside to darker inside of Mozart’s music and featured no less that distinguished violinist and educator Pamela Frank, who was also, and maybe not so coincidentally, the violin professor of Benjamin Beilman at the Curtis Institute of Music. Going right down to business with Mozart’s two-movement Violin Sonata in A Major, K. 305, the two instruments remained in an essentially happy-go-lucky mood and before wrapping things up niftily.
Still in Vienna, but jumping ahead by over a century, we got to savor Second Viennese School master Anton Webern’s carefully crafted and rigorously symmetrical Four Pieces for Violin and Piano, Op. 7. The two slow short-lived nuggets interspersed by the two longer and surprisingly lyrical movements sounded as boldly innovative as when the piece was first released.
Last but not least, we crossed this marathon's finish line with Mozart’s Violin Sonata in E Minor, K. 526, which was the last of his significant violin sonatas. Now at the top of his game, the composer did not hold back on technical challenges, and those would probably be incredibly daunting to most musicians, but obviously not to Denk and Frank. Each instrument got its moment in the spotlight before making beautiful music together into the high-flying Rondo and all the way to the end. A new era had begun.

Wednesday, December 19, 2018

Cantori New York - A Cantori Holiday - 12/15/18

Mark Shapiro: Music Director & Conductor 
Piano: Baron Fenwick 
Benjamin Britten: Welcome Yole 
Herbert Howells: Here is the Little Door 
Al HaNisim (arr. Elliott Levine) 
Coventry Carol (arr. Robert Shaw) 
French Melody: Ding Dong Merrily on High (arr. Charles Wood) 
Old English Carol: Blessed be That Maid Marie (setting: Crawford R. Thoburn) 
Philip Lasser: Sing Christmas 
Felix Mendelssohn: Weihnachten 
Shepherds in the Field Abiding (arr. David Willcocks) 
Jonathan Breit: Ocho Kandelikas 
Spanish Carol: A la Nanita Nana (arr. Norman Luboff) 
Every Voice Children’s Chorus 
Paul Carey & Sherri Lasko: Unending Flame 
Every Voice Children’s Chorus 
Leroy Anderson & Mitchell Parish: Sleigh Ride (arr. Andy Beck) 
Every Voice Children’s Chorus 
African Noel (arr. André J. Thomas) 
West Indian Spiritual: The Virgin had a Baby Boy (arr. Robert de Cormier) 
Amy Beach: Around the Manger 
Guillaume Dufay: Ave regina caelorum 
English Carol: The Twelve Days of Christmas (arr. John Rutter)
J. Pierpont: Jingle Bells (arr. David Willcocks) 
Franz Biebl: Ave Maria 
West Country Carol: We wish you a Merry Christmas (arr. Arthur Warrell) 
Franz Gruber: Silent Night (Sing Along) 

Like clockwork, the holidays are upon us again, and so were Cantori New York’s two holiday concerts in the choir’s home base, the West Village’s church of St. Luke in the Fields, last weekend. In the true spirit of the season, the traditionally untraditional program could be expected to indiscriminatingly include regular and new, popular and obscure holiday songs from many places around the world, which is bound to make everybody happy at least at some point.
As I generally try to stay away as much as possible from the holidays’ mandatory sentimentality and blatant over-consumerism, but still feel the need to do something in the name of togetherness and open-mindedness, Cantori’s concerts allow me to fully partake into the season’s rituals for a couple of hours, and enjoy it too. Even if the compositions chosen for the occasion may not be as challenging as the fearless choir's usual fare (But then again, what is?), they are often worth knowing, and the singing remains of the highest caliber because they simply won’t settle for less.
On Saturday afternoon, the relentless rain finally stopped, which felt like a small miracle, and the notoriously unreliable MTA trains were running smoothly, which felt like a huge miracle. With all the stars apparently aligning, I happily headed down to the Village to meet my friend Francesca, and squeezed in with her into the packed little church.

Although some holiday songs were pretty much unavoidable (I am looking straight at the “Jingle Bells”, which have been jingling all the way for as long as I have been attending the concert), other works were new to the program, some of them being whole-heartedly welcome (How nice to see you here, Herr Mendelssohn!) others less so (If we must have them, could you at least shorten “The Twelve Days of Christmas”, which often feel like twelve long years in hell?).
The concert started appropriately when the choir resolutely hit the ground running with Benjamin Britten’s bright and joyful “Welcome Yole”, and it would indeed have been hard to get things rolling in better company. The first half of the program went on with a few traditional Christmas carols in English, as well as recurring Cantori favorite “Al Hanisim”, which stood out as a vibrant nod not only to Hanukah, but to engaging holiday music as well.
Things shifted into high gear right before the intermission as the audience was treated to a glorious multi-lingual, multi-cultural triple bang that is likely to stay in Cantori’s annals for posterity. First came Felix Mendelssohn’s “Weihnachten”, a subtly multi-layered and intensely luminous motet that spontaneously lifted everybody’s spirits. “Shepherds in the Field Abiding”, that other recurring Cantori favorite by English conductor, organist and music educator Sir David Willcocks’, was next and worked its magic flawlessly one more time.
To top it all off, we celebrated the long-overdue return of former Cantori member Jonathan Breit’s hot hot hot hymn to Hanukah “Ocho Kandelikas”, which cheekily and splendidly filled the austere Episcopal church with irresistible Latin rhythms and a fierce piano cadenza courtesy of the electrified singers and their brilliant accompanist Baron Fenwick. The holidays had probably never sounded so sexy in there. I had been waiting three long years for this, and the experience was in fact so satisfying that I seriously considered leaving right after it was over because, let’s face it, things could not get any better.
I stayed, and while things did not get any better (No doubt I had reached my quota of miracles for the day), there were still some truly enjoyable moments, such as the angelic voices of the Every Voice Children’s Chorus confidently singing the Spanish carol “A la Nanita Nana”, the Hanukah song “Unending Flame”, and the fun-loving standard “Sleigh Ride”. And all of this, sans score in hand (Just saying).
Among some other highlights of the second half of the program was also French composer Guillaume Dufay’s “Ave regina caelorum”, an ethereally beautiful antiphon from the early Renaissance that was expertly sung by the winning trio of Eleanor Killiam, Ben Keiper and Joseph Holley-Beaver. Another irrefutable proof that, sometimes, less is really more.
 Not to be outdone, German composer Franz Biebl’s all-male “Ave Maria”, that other other recurring Cantori favorite, brought some serene beauty to the concert as well as a welcome respite from the piercing perkiness of “The Twelve Days of Christmas” (Nice try, but I am still firmly in the haters’ camp), “Jingle Bells” (Only Cantori can make this one palatable) and “We Wish You a Merry Christmas” (I wish that that one had just disappeared into oblivion already).
The performance ended with the traditional “Silent Night” sing along, and if this year Cantori had included the words of their second verse in the program, they also had added a twist to it by having them in German, which pretty much guaranteed that the vast majority of the audience would not butt into their part, and it worked. Then everybody got together for the party, where goodies of all sorts were up for grabs. Happy Holidays!

Monday, December 3, 2018

New York Philharmonic - Britten & Shostakovich - 11/29/18

Conductor: Jaap van Zweden 
Britten: Concerto for Violin and Orchestra, Op. 15 (1965 version) 
Simone Lamsma: Violin 
Shostakovitch: Symphony No. 7, Op. 60 (Leningrad) 

Forty-eight hours after enjoying a long but fun evening with Mefistofele at the Met, I was back at Lincoln Center on Thursday, for a thankfully shorter evening at David Geffen Hall to touch base with the New York Philharmonic this time because, after an extended hiatus from New York City’s thriving music scene, the right thing to do is to hit all the bases, isn’t it?
The potential object of my affection on Thursday was Britten’s violin concerto, an elusive score that the English composer wrote while living in the United States at the beginning of the Second World War and that I had never heard before. The concert would also give me the opportunity to check out Dutch violinist Simone Lamsma, a long-time acquaintance of NY Phil music director Jaap van Zweden. Since the man became one of the two concertmasters of the prestigious Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra while still a teenager, I figured that he knew a thing or two about violin playing, and that his choice could therefore be trusted.
The program also featured Shostakovitch's humongous Leningrad symphony, maybe not so coincidentally another piece closely related to the Second Word War. Back in Stalin’s good graces, Shostakovitch started working on it in 1939 before the German invasion, completed in 1941 and dedicated to the city of Leningrad, which was then undergoing a horrendous siege that lasted almost three years and caused over one million deaths. Unlike Britten’s violin concerto though, it was a huge success when it first came out, and still frequently appears on concert programs all over the world.

As a big fan of Benjamin Britten, especially his operas and War Requiem, I was very much looking forward to becoming acquainted with his violin concerto. And sure enough, the opening timpani, which can’t help but conjure up the Beethoven violin concerto, immediately caught my attention, and it pretty much went all the way uphill from there. The ghost of Prokofiev was unmistakably hovering over the restless second movement while the unpredictable passacaglia of the third movement eventually brought us all the way back to the Baroque tradition of the chaconne.
However, having been finalized in 1965, the concerto is also a thoroughly modern, occasionally experimental-sounding, composition. Simone Lamsma put her deep knowledge of it to excellent use, impeccably smoothing it out and brilliantly mastered it from beginning to end, including the challenging and oh so thrilling cadenza. After such a hell of a New York Philharmonic debut, there is little doubt that Ms. Lamsma will be back for more sooner than later.
Before leaving us on Thursday though, she graciously acknowledged the enthusiastic ovation and readily treated us to the last movement of Hindemith’s Sonata for Solo Violin Op. 11, No. 6. Another rarely heard piece that she handled with the same amount of expertise and confidence.
After intermission, Shostakovitch's sprawling Leningrad symphony unfolded with grandeur and authority under the energetic baton of maestro van Zweden. Although the composer’s true intent may never be known for sure (Are there some sarcastic double entendres under the obvious anti-war statement?), the work has such a sweeping force that it is hard not to be carried away by it, regardless of its inner meaning. The famous “Boléro” military march of the first movement, in particular, came out precise and powerful, inexorably building to its resounding climax. The Leningrad symphony may no longer enjoy the wild popularity it once did, but performances like that one show us why it still matters.