Wednesday, March 13, 2019

Baltimore Symphony Orchestra - Adams & Rimsky-Korsakov - 03/09/19

Conductor: Marin Alsop 
Adams: Scheherazade.2 
Leila Josefowicz: Violin 
Rimsky-Korsakov: Scheherazade 

Last Friday, March 8, 2019, was International Women’s Day, and the following evening, as if to prove the importance of women in a field where there are still way too few of them, two mighty woman musical forces asserted their power on the stage of the Strathmore Music Center in Bethesda, MD. I had gone down to the D.C. area for a long-overdue visit to my old friend Vittorio, but truth be told, that visit had been prompted by much more than just a nostalgic trip down memory lane.
I had also been drawn by the juicy prospect of hearing the consistency reliable Baltimore Symphony Orchestra conducted by their indefatigable music director, Marin Alsop, in a program consisting of two versions of the legend of Scheherazade. There would be Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov’s ever-popular classical symphonic suite, and before that, John Adams’ thoroughly modern (and unabashedly feminist) take on it, which was coming in with the totally unfair advantage of featuring fellow New Yorker and fearless violinist Leila Josefowicz, the dedicatee of the composition and, as far as I know, its only interpreter so far.
I had had the pleasure of discovering Scheherazade.2 with the New York Philharmonic and Alan Gilbert in New York at its world premiere back in 2015, and then of hearing it again with the Berlin Philharmonic and John Adams in Berlin a couple of years later, so the time had definitely come for another full immersion in it. 
Therefore, after a busy day that started ominously with a frustrating traffic jam caused by the Rock’n’Roll  D.C. Marathon, of all things, but improved tremendously with a very successful visit to the National Gallery of Art and a very satisfying home-cooked dinner, we were more than ready to be transported into the magical world of One Thousand and One Nights.

Being John Adams’ official muse cannot be an easy job, but then again, there’s not much, if anything, that consummate virtuoso Leila Josefowicz cannot handle, including starring as the modern enchantress standing up to a patriarchal society in his expansive Scheherazade.2. As in Rimsky-Korsakov’s work, Adams’ 20th-century heroine is represented by the solo violin fighting the powerful forces of the orchestra throughout four vignettes, and still she rises again and again.
On Saturday evening, this Scheherazade’s resilience came through in spades in Adams’ wildly eclectic score and Josefowicz’s dazzling performance of it, easily shifting from the sheer beauty of the tender love scene to the climatic violence of her fierce fight against the men with beards, always remaining in full control. She did not have much time to regroup during the 45 action-packed minutes, yet she resolutely soldiered on all the way to her understated escape and alleged happy end.
After intermission, we happily traveled back in time as Rimsky-Korsakov’s 19th-century epic Scheherazade sounded just as good as ever, its deliciously beguiling melodies working their timeless magic on the audience just as Scheherazade’s spellbinding stories did on the ill-intentioned Sultan she had just married (Oops!). But then again, there’s a lot of pressure to be at the top of your game when your life is at stake.
The highly refined, sinuously sensual solo violin parts were expertly played by the orchestra’s long-time concertmaster Jonathan Carney, who confidently mustered the seductive power of the young bride, while the orchestra delivered a performance that was as beautifully shaped, intensely colorful and mysteriously exotic as the Arabic collection of tales itself. We certainly can never have too many enchanted evenings of women’s empowerment like this.

Tuesday, March 12, 2019

New York Philharmonic - Mussorgsky, Lin & Tchaikovsky - 03/06/19

Conductor: Long Yu 
Mussorgsky: Prelude to Khovanshchina 
Zhao Lin: A Happy Excursion, Concerto for Pipa, Cello, and Concerto 
Yo-Yo Ma: Cello 
Wu Man: Pipa 
Tchaikovsky: Symphony No. 6 in B Minor, Op. 74 (Pathétique) 

One of the most respected and beloved classical musicians in the world for decades now, Yo-Yo Ma is nevertheless not always an easy one to catch live, and consequently any opportunity to bask into his unique talent has to be grabbed and enjoyed to the fullest, whether he’s premiering challenging works by major contemporary composers like Esa-Pekka Salonen or partaking into out-of-the-box endeavors by The Silk Road Project, the non-profit organization that he initiated over 10 years ago and is still going strong.
Last Wednesday evening, he was kind of doing both as he was presenting the U.S. premiere of prominent Chinese composer Zhao Lin’s A Happy Excursion, Concerto for Pipa, Cello, and Concerto with leading expert and tireless advocate of the pipa Wu Man as well as the New York Philharmonic at David Geffen Hall. The two soloists have not only been collaborators, but also friends for over a couple of decades now, in particular for projects with the Silk Road Ensemble, and they in fact seemed to be thrilled to be onstage together.
Then add Piotr Tchaikovsky’s unfailingly crowd-pleasing Pathétique in the second part of the program, and David Geffen Hall was impressively full for a Wednesday evening, which is always a comforting sight to behold.

The concert opener was a short prelude to the endlessly vast and endlessly complex saga that is Modest Mussorgsky’s opera Khovanshchina. Just about 5-minute long, it was pretty much over before we even got a chance to really get into it, but, if nothing else, it was a nice warm-up for the musicians and a flavorful appetizer for the rest of us.
I had wondered why an essentially unknown Chinese concerto had been paired with the world-famous Pathétique symphony, beside making sure that people would show up and stay in their seats after intermission. But it did not take me long to notice that Zhao Lin’s A Happy Excursion expanded on a solid foundation of big lush romantic sounds that would have made Tchaikovsky proud. So there you are. On the other hand, the seemingly incongruous dialogue between the cello and the pipa, two instruments that boast of widely different backgrounds and sounds, eventually turned into a fully functional, if still odd, couple, and provided the novelty element of the adventure.
The composition was divided into three parts, which comprised the tumultuous birth of China as a country, the golden period of the harmoniously multicultural province of Shannxi, and the ever-chaotic present time. The mix of traditionally lyrical melodies, the happy-go-lucky moods of the solo instruments, and the exotic atmosphere conjured up by the pipa made for an unusual and engaging experience that eventually left a smile on everyone’s face, not the least the performers’.
After intermission, the orchestra was back in full force for Tchaikovsky’s magnificent Symphony No. 6, which, just like Mozart’s Jupiter the week before, felt like hearing from a good old friend that had been gone for a while, but never forgotten. Maestro Yu did not bring anything particularly new to it, but he was obviously having a grand time conducting the ultimate emotional roller coaster, and so did we listening to it.

Thursday, March 7, 2019

Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra - Haydn & Mozart - 03/03/19

Conductor: Adam Fischer
Haydn: Symphony No. 97 in C Major 
Mozart: Violin Concerto No. 5 in A Major, K. 219 (Turkish) 
Leonidas Kavakos: Violin 
Mozart: Symphony No. 41 in C Major, K. 551 (Jupiter) 

As I was racking my brain to find the perfect birthday gift for my Viennese friend Angie back in the spring 2018, Carnegie Hall serendipitously came to the rescue with its catalog for the 2018-2019 season, which included a concert by the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra, whom she had never heard live, at Carnegie Hall, where she had never been, for an all-Viennese program, which she was passingly familiar with. The only non-Viennese element would be Greek violinist Leonidas Kavakos, but needless to say, nobody in their right mind could possibly resent having perform him Mozart’s compelling “Turkish” concerto, or anything else for that matter.
Then she had to wait for about nine months, but as she would say, “Vorfreude ist die Hälfte des Spaßes”, and then the time finally came for our Viennese date last Sunday afternoon. Although that first weekend of March was mostly wet, gray and depressing, there was a lot of anticipation building in the sold-out Stern Auditorium, whose audience consisted of an impressive mix of locals and visitors, aficionados and neophytes, all eager to check out the prestigious ensemble and the crowd-pleasing program.

The concert started with what had to be the least exciting piece on the program in Haydn’s Symphony No. 97, but one still has to acknowledge the importance of the composer in music history, the pleasantly carefree mood of the piece, and the sharp reading of it by the orchestra.
Mozart’s remarkable knowledge of the violin is often overshadowed by his much more extended repertoire for the piano, not to mention his extraordinary output for orchestral music, chamber music and opera. On Sunday afternoon I was reminded what an unpardonable oversight that is by the brilliant performance of his fifth and last violin concerto by Kavakos and the Vienna Philharmonic.
As dauntingly complex, naturally elegant and unabashedly witty as anything he ever composed, that Turkish immensely benefited from the impressive symbiosis between soloist and orchestra, who all made sure to convey the work’s many qualities with an impeccable sense of exactness that did not exclude plenty of warmth. Just because you’re the ultimate technical wizard does not mean you don’t have a heart.
Our roaring ovation eventually earned us a short side trip from Vienna to enjoy a French dance revised by a German composer with Bach’s Gavotte from his Partita No. 3, which Kavakos unsurprisingly handled with virtuosic ease.
After intermission came Mozart’s last and, by all accounts, best symphony, the Jupiter, one of those masterpieces that make you wonder what would have happened to classical music if the prolific composer hadn’t died at the top of his game. Opening with its signature irresistible come-on and developing with incomparable assertiveness and grandeur, Mozart’s glowing symphony No. 41 is the ideal vehicle to display the orchestra’s exceptional unity of sound and vision, and on Sunday afternoon, it sure did.

Since it was Mozart’s party, we got to hear more magic from the Viennese master during the encores, starting with the Adagio of his Cassation for Orchestra in G Major, an early and lovely effort.
Lastly, as if to wrap things up with a memorable bang, we got treated to a truly dazzling overture to Le Nozze di Figaro, a perennial crowd favorite that spontaneously brought the remaining audience to its feet. 
Once the music was over, but our heads were still happily buzzing, we left Carnegie Hall staunchly determined not to let the new onset of wintery weather spoil our fun, and therefore headed to Jacques Torres for some decadent (French) hot chocolate and stimulating English conversation. And that definitely did the trick.

Wednesday, February 27, 2019

Ensemble Connect - McPhee, Reich, Wolfe & Adams - 02/19/19

McPhee: Balinese Ceremonial Music 
Steve Reich: Quartet 
Julia Wolfe: On Seven-Star-Shoes 
John Adams: Chamber Symphony 

Although it is a field too often desperately stuck in the past, classical music nevertheless can legitimately claim a lot of noteworthy contemporary talents in terms of composers and musicians. While my forays into this unknown territory has had its fair share of hits and misses, I am not giving up, and neither is Carnegie Hall. There are simply too many potentially exciting things happening out there not to give them a try.
That’s why on Tuesday night I found myself in Carnegie Hall’s impossibly elegant Weill concert hall, where I hadn’t been in years, for Ensemble Connect, an eclectic group of la crème de la crème of young musicians carefully selected throughout the United States to go through an arduous but no doubt rewarding two-year fellowship program sponsored by Carnegie Hall. And I was about to enjoy the fruit of their labor with a minimalism-centered program featuring iconic figures such as Steven Reich and John Adams, and less well-known but still highly respected artists such as Colin McPhee and Julia Wolfe.

The first piece of the program was also the oldest and had a significant historic value since Canadian composer Colin McPhee was the first composer to take a profound interest in the gamelan music of Bali, where he lived for several years in the 1940s, and manage to incorporate it into Western works. His bold endeavor paid off handsomely for us on Wednesday evening with his Balinese Ceremonial Music for two pianos, which quickly filled the small space with the sparseness and spellbinding quality of minimalism, as well as a refreshing touch of exoticism.
The fact that the piano belongs to the percussion instrument category after all was even more brought to light in the second piece, Steve Reich’s Quartet, whose constantly shifting, dauntingly intricate patterns were expertly navigated by two pianists and two percussionists in impressive unison. The unusually combination of sounds made for truly spellbinding music, whether slightly jazzy to subtly introvert, and a truly virtuosic performance.
Inspired by bohemian German-Jewish writer Else Lasker-Schüler, Julia Wolfe’s On Seven-Star-Shoes was a restless six-minute song performed by five woodwind players that went by flying in a most peculiar way and was over before we knew it.
Last, but definitely not least, John Adams’ Chamber Symphony promised just over 20 chaotic-in-an-intriguing-way minutes that the composer came up with while simultaneously studying Schoenberg’s Chamber Symphony and hearing the cartoons his son was watching next door. Democratically making use of the same 15 single instruments, including one synthesizer, as the ones in Schoenberg’s composition, the end result turned out to be a wildly eclectic, boldly acrobatic and relentlessly driven ride. On Tuesday night, the fearless youngsters of Ensemble Connect gave it a most dynamite reading , which did not shy from its weirdness and playfulness, and peaked for me during the dynamic duo between violin and percussion, the strings eventually winning with a fierce cadenza.

Tuesday, February 12, 2019

Leonidas Kavakos & Yuja Wang - Brahms, Prokofiev, Bartok & Strauss - 02/06/19

Brahms: Violin Sonata No. 2 in A Major, Op. 100 
Prokofiev: Violin Sonata No. 1 in F Minor, Op. 80 
Bartok: Rhapsody No. 1 for Violin and Piano 
Strauss: Violin Sonata E-flat Minor, Op. 18 

From one year to another, inevitably, sometimes things change, sometimes things stay the same. My last concert at Carnegie Hall for the year 2018 was the four-hour Mozart extravaganza by Jeremy Denk and friends in Zankel Hall on a cold and rainy Sunday afternoon in December, and my first concert at Carnegie Hall for the year 2019 was the two-and-a-half-hour recital by Leonidas Kavakos and Yuja Wang in the Stern Auditorium on a cold and rainy Wednesday evening last week. However, this time my boots has been waterproofed and I got to enjoy the concert with dry feet, which needless to say was a vast improvement.
Although I may not be able to claim perfect attendance, I try to go to Leonidas Kavakos and Yuja Wang’s annual concerts as often as I can because if hearing them perform separately is certainly a treat, nothing beats hearing them perform together. Add to that a well-balanced program including substantial works from four major composers, and you have a concert that simply cannot be missed.

The delightful conversation between two friends that is Brahms’ Violin Sonata No. 2 was a truly inspired concert opener. Beautifully crafted and heart-felt, it featured a delicate lyricism that progressively bloomed, eventually packing a whole lot of eloquence under its inconspicuous exterior. It was also clear evidence that the two frequent partners were as seamlessly connected as ever.
After the refined pleasures of Brahms’ exquisite melodies, we abruptly switched to a much darker mood with Prokofiev’s supremely virtuosic Violin Sonata No. 1, which came out stunningly unforgiving and incisive, expertly detailing the countless shades of despair down to the most subtle pianissimo, of which there were plenty, just the way I like it. But then again, for all its somberness and grittiness, it can still be a relatively accessible, mostly tonal composition. Accordingly, while Wang and Kavakos remained staunchly true to Prokofiev’s uncompromising spirit, they effortlessly pulled the audience into their riveting performance.
After intermission, Bartok’s Rhapsody No. 1 for Violin and Piano provided the high-spirited touch of Gypsy tradition of the evening, all the way from Hungary. Short, assertive and fun, it was the perfect palate cleanser between Prokofiev’s brooding aggressiveness and Strauss’ heart-on-his-sleeve romanticism.
I discovered Strauss’ Violin Sonata E-flat Minor a few years ago courtesy of Joshua Bell and Sam Haywood, and this youthful effort quickly turned into one of my favorite chamber music pieces. I was therefore thrilled to have another opportunity to indulge in it in such superlative company. What immediately grabbed me the first time around was the luminous lyricism in the second movement, and on Wednesday night, while Kavakos’ tone was not as unabashedly schmaltzy as Bell’s generally is, his lines were just as deeply expressive and intensely gorgeous. Not to be outdone, Wang grabbed her moment in the spotlight during the last movement and triumphantly ran with it all the way to the end.

 The roaring ovation from the packed house was rewarded by two highly satisfying encores. Going back to where we started, we got to hear some more Brahms with “Un poco presto e con sentiment” from his Violin Sonata No. 3 in D Minor. It was followed by “La Fontaine d’Arethuse” from Szymanowski’s Mythes for Violin and Piano, but while the music was as engaging as ever, this last piece of the evening was partly spoiled by a cellphone ringing, prolonged candy unwrapping, and some untimely applause that caught musicians and audience by surprise for a couple of seconds, before the music went unperturbably on, brilliantly performed and impeccably serene to the very last note.

Tuesday, January 22, 2019

Met - Adriana Lecouvreur - 01/19/19

Composer: Francesco Celia 
Conductor: Gianandrea Noseda 
Librettist: arturo Colautti 
Producer/Director: Sir David McVicar 
Adriana Lecouvreur: Anna Netrebko 
The Princess of Bouillon: Anita Rachvelishvili 
Maurizio: Piotr Beczala 
Michonnet: Ambrogio Maestri

Last Saturday, once I was done with the dreamlike four and a half hours of a superb Pelléas et Mélisande, followed by three hours of the frenetic, cold but still rain-free outside world, I was back at the Met getting mentally prepared to return to France, albeit through an Italian opera this time. Francesco Celia’s Adriana Lecouvreur was inspired by French tragedienne Adrienne Lecouvreur, who was as famous for her innovative naturalistic acting style as for her many indiscriminating love affairs, tight connections in high places, and mysterious untimely death. In short, hers was a life ready-made for opera.
But as much as I was eager to cross Adriana Lecouvreur off my operas-I-still-have-to-check-out list, I was even more thrilled at the prospect of hearing the international starry cast that had been tapped to perform it, including superstar Russian soprano Anna Netrebko, super-hot Georgian mezzo-soprano Anita Rachvelishvili, ever-reliable Polish tenor Piotr Beczala, and irresistible Italian baritone Ambrogio Maestri. An ensemble of singers so exceptional that this new production was premiered at the Met’s glittery New Year’s Eve gala. Add to that a bunch of raving reviews, and we had a packed opera house on Saturday evening. 

Lately my mom has been checking out the Met productions on my calendar ahead of me from France via the HD broadcasts. Although her very traditional tastes do not always line up with mine (Do female singers still need to wear such puffy dresses?), we tend to agree on the quality of the singing. In the case of Adriana Lecouvreur, her feedback had been superlative in all regards, including the production and the opera itself, which according to her had all the right ingredients to be a classic. Now my turn had finally come.
It is probably a safe bet to assume that these days Anna Netrebko and her sky-high level of bankability can ask pretty much everything she wants from opera houses and get it. And it is to her credit that, instead of relying on her impressive laurels, she has been steadily expanding her repertoire and tackling exciting new parts every season. With that in mind, it only made sense that she would come across Adriana Lecouvreur and grab it sooner than later, the role of a passionate artist living for her art and her lover being too juicy for her to pass on.
And on Saturday night it did, in fact, fit her like a glove. Clad in elaborate period costume that perfectly emphasized her luscious curves, she put her trademark charisma, irrepressible energy and innate sense of theatricality to the best possible use as the actress who is always in control of her craft, but not so much of her life. Her voice was as intensely gorgeous as ever, and those long lines of hers have remained an absolute marvel to behold. Let’s face it, the woman could win any breathing contest far ahead of the competition, and while maintaining her impeccable glamour too.
Her mighty rival for Maurizio’s heart and, incidentally, sheer lung power, was newcomer who is definitely here to stay Anita Rachvelishvili. Opera aficionados are still talking about their blazing confrontation in Aida on that same stage last fall, but it now pales compared to the all-out glorious cat fight they got into on Saturday night. That said, Rachvelishvili was a force of nature to beckon with even when she was alone. Despite some occasionally touching signs of insecurity, this willful princess was not be denied, and she sure knew how to get her point across.
In between those two commanding women stood the man they were fighting their heart out over, the dashing Maurizio, Count of Saxony, who was splendidly portrayed by Piotr Beczala, all convincing cunning with just the right touch of romanticism. In outstanding singing shape, his voice easily going up and down at will, he spent the evening hard at work trying to sort out his personal and professional life.
In the smaller but most endearing role of Michonnet, the paternal stage manager desperately in love with Adriana, Ambrogio Maestri and his booming voice were all-around terrific, whether he was authoritatively trying to keep stage hands and artists under control or awkwardly trying to express his feelings to the object of his affection.
Adriana Lecouvreur takes place in the theater milieu, right where art and politics intersect and mingle, and in David McVicar’s safe hands, all the world was a stage indeed. Adroitly using dressing rooms, stage wings and a temporary stage set up in a private villa, he successfully created a wildly entertaining environment where play and reality, mistaken identities and intrigues, all mixed together. The sets were unquestionably attractive, the costumes downright lavish, and at times the mood seemed to interestingly verge on genuine camp.
The sustained pace and the ever-evolving plot were supported by a sumptuously lyrical score that kept on coming up with pretty melodies, show-stopping arias, as well as moments of gripping drama, quieter introspectiveness and unbearable suspense. It was the perfect vehicle for the stupendous singers we had on the stage, and they all happily delved into it. Not to be outdone, the MET orchestra delivered another outstanding performance under maestro Noseda’s energetic baton.
It turned out that my seatmate to the right had also been at the matinee of Pelléas et Mélisande that day too, but, unlike me, she had found it “slow and dreary”. She was, however, absolutely delighted by the big colors, big voices and big emotions of Adriana Lecouvreur. And this time, I totally agreed.

Monday, January 21, 2019

Met - Pelléas et Mélisande - 01/19/19

Composer: Claude Debussy 
Conductor: Yannick Nézet-Séguin 
Librettist: Maurice Maeterlinck 
Producer/Director: Sir Jonathan Miller 
Mélisande: Isabel Leonard 
Pelléas: Paul Appleby 
Golaud: Kyle Ketelsen 
Arkel: Ferruccio Furlanetto 
Geneviève: Marie-Nicole Lemieux 

In my “Can one get too much of a good thing?” series, I was up for another challenge last Saturday at the Met with the exciting yet daunting double bill from 1902 consisting of a warhorse of French impressionism in Pelléas et Mélisande in the afternoon and a curiosity of faux Italian verismo in Adriana Lecouvreur in the evening. Although I had tried to work my way around it, a combination of semi-procrastination, conflicting schedules and plain old bad timing made this overabundance of an admittedly excellent thing unavoidable. Since I was determined not to miss either production, I tried to be proactive and completely cleared my social schedule for the week, dutifully took my vitamins, and fervently prayed that the forecast snowstorm would not mess everything up.
My Met marathon would start at 12:30 PM with a new production of Claude Debussy’s one and only opera, Pelléas et Mélisande. But then again, when you hit the bull’s eye the first time around, where do you go from there? Beside the fact that I would finally be able to cross it off my operas-I-still-need-to-check-out list, I was also particularly looking forward to hearing again the young, attractive and prodigiously talented Paul Appleby and Isabel Leonard, not to mention enjoying the fabulous skills of  the Met’s freshly appointed and already riding high music director, maestro Nézet-Séguin.
That said, life can be just as suspenseful as an opera sometimes. Once we had figured that the expected snowstorm would probably only be pouring rain (Whew!) and were settling in our seats mightily relieved, a Met employee walked onstage with a mike, which is rarely good news. She, however, just wanted to let the packed audience know that the two male leads, Paul Appleby and Kyle Ketelsen, had been suffering from colds all week and were asking for our indulgence. Whew again!

Pelléas et Mélisande could just revolve around another ill-fated love triangle, of with some participants would eventually die because this is an opera and somebody’s gotta die at the end. But back in the days, Debussy’s ground-breaking score set his “lyrical drama” apart from the competition, and over a century later, it still does. And what competition! Beside Adriana Lecouvreur, the lucky audience of the early 20th century was around to attend the premieres of, among others, Puccini’s Tosca, Dvorak’s Rusalka and Verdi’s Rigoletto. Opera is such a small, and yet wide-ranging, world after all.
As the mysteriously troubled young woman whose unexplained appearance kick-starts the story, mezzo-soprano Isabel Leonard was a lovely Mélisande. Intelligently showing aching vulnerability, inner pains and a more surprising willfulness, she was not just the passively unhappy heroine she could have easily become. Although we never got to know much about Mélisande, Leonard realized a complex character through her nuanced singing and acting, fully fitting in Debussy’s eerie world.
Her Pelléas was tenor Paul Appleby, who after sounding a bit cautious quickly turned into the sweet and impulsive young man he was supposed to be. If his overwhelming love for Mélisande was not displayed with passionate arias and gestures, the touching scene underneath her window as he was playing with her hair as well as his furtive “Je t’aime” during their last encounter were in their own way tremendously more expressive than louder statements.
Bass-baritone Kyle Ketelsen made a note-worthy impression as Golaud, husband of Mélisande and older half-brother of Pelléas. Physically strong and emotionally primitive, he grew increasingly frustrated at his inability to get close to his wife and overwhelmingly jealous at the sight of her powerful and reciprocated attraction to Pelléas to the point of eventually committing a reckless crime. Despite the early warning about his health, Ketelsen was in superb vocal shape and remained strong throughout the performance.
To the young American cast was added Italian bass extraordinaire Ferruccio Furlanetto, who had stunned me as King Phillip II in Don Carlo several years ago. Here again, he was simply magnificent as Arkel, the wise and weary old king whose near blindness does not keep from seeing and understanding the power of fate. Canadian contralto Marie-Nicole Lemieux brought dignity and kindness to the small but essential role of Geneviève, the mother of Golaud and Pelléas. Boy soprano A. Jesse Schopflocher brought an endearing touch of childhood innocence as Yniold, Golaud’s young son.
In the opera canon Pelléas et Mélisande stands on its own not only for its bold and unique score, but also for its barely there story and omnipresent symbolism. The background of the characters is often partly known at best, and the narrative kind of moves along through self-contained vignettes that, like the conversations among the various characters, do not always seamlessly flow. Nevertheless, these challenges were handled convincingly by not only a committed cast, but a versatile minimalist set, whose haunting elegance defied time and place.
In many ways, Debussy’s music is the star of the opera. At times cryptic to a fault, but also subtly mesmerizing, the score does not try to define the story and the characters through logical plot lines or compositional conventions, but rather through atmospheres and emotions described by music, in particular exotic scales and unusual harmonies, and poetry, by way of unanswered questions and detached statements. The end result creates a whole dreamlike world that is not necessarily coherent, but is likely to fascinate whoever makes the effort to step into it.
The Met orchestra being a world-class ensemble, there was no doubt in my mind that it could literally face the music and make it its own. It could have hardly found a better conductor for that than Yannick Nézet-Séguin, who did a terrific job at detailing the colors’ transparent hues and creating spellbinding atmospheres, the overall somber tone only making the eruptions of the few dramatic moments even more intense.
The unusual experience had been long and slow, and quite a few audience members gave up during the first and the second intermissions, but for those of us who remained, it had been memorable too.
One down, one more to go.

Monday, January 7, 2019

New York Philharmonic - Dvorak, Sibelius & Ravel - 01/03/19

Conductor: Paavo Järvi 
Dvorak: Cello Concerto 
Gautier Capuçon: Cello 
Sibelius: Lemminkainen and the Maidens of the Island Ravel: 
Daphnis et Chloé Suite No. 2 

After wrapping up my musical year with a reasonably satisfying Traviata at the Met on Saturday night, I was back at Lincoln Center on Thursday night to start my new musical year at David Geffen Hall with the New York Philharmonic and their special guest, who also was my main reason for being there in the first place, French cellist Gautier Capuçon. Of course, the fact that he would be playing Dvorak’s hyper-popular cello concerto did not hurt either.
Additionally, this concert would have been a good opportunity to support one of the very few female conductors in the business, Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla, in her New York Philharmonic debut, but this was ultimately not meant to be as she had to postpone her engagement due to maternity leave. Fortunately for us, eminent conductor Paavo Järvi gentlemanly stepped in for what seemed to be a promising kick-off of 2019 at the Philharmonic.

One of the most dashing young musicians on today’s classical music scene, especially when he shows up in his signature tailcoat outfit, Gautier Capuçon is also a serious and talented, and seriously talented, artist whose pristine reputation has been earning him prestigious engagements worldwide. As it should, after an appearance at Carnegie Hall last season, he was gracing the stage of David Geffen Hall with the New York Philharmonic last Thursday evening for Dvorak’s magnificent cello concerto.
I may not be one of the biggest fans of Dvorak’s œuvre, but I have to admit that his cello concerto and his ninth symphony totally deserve the adoration they have been enjoying all these years. Written in New York City after lots of misgivings on the part of the composer, the grandly Romantic, superbly lyrical the cello concerto adroitly combines classical elegance and folk music rowdiness. In the virtuosic hands of Capuçon, it unfolded with force and panache, solidifying my view of the cello as one of the sexiest instruments around.
The ovation was long and enthusiastic, and earned us an exciting encore in a fun little march by Prokofiev. Quite a drastic departure from the lushness of Dvorak, and a masterfully executed one too.
It is rare that the second half of a program is less of a crowd-pleaser than the first half, but it did not seem to bother anybody, and the almost capacity audience gamely stayed put. That was a smart move because the four tone poems making up Sibelius’ Lemminkainen and the Maidens of the Island turned out to be a not-to-be-missed component of the composer’s œuvre, of which I am one of the biggest fans. Dark colors and supple rhythms clearly and beautifully unfolded, bringing the mermaids and the landscape to vivid life.
Sibelius’ deeply atmospheric 15-minute Finnish work was quickly followed by Ravel’s deeply atmospheric 15-minute French work Daphnis et Chloé Suite No. 2, which consists of the last three movements of the superbly impressionistic ballet score by the same name that drew inspiration from a drama from the Greek poet Longus to describe the incomparable joys of nature and love. Even though it was regrettably performed sans the optional chorus, the appealing set was another undisputed success as the audience indulged as much as possible for as long as it lasted in Ravel’s voluptuous world. And that was very good indeed.

Tuesday, January 1, 2019

Met - La Traviata - 12/29/18

Composer: Giuseppe Verdi 
Conductor: Yannick Nézet-Séguin 
Librettist: Francesco Maria Piave 
Director/Producer: Michael Mayer 
Diane Damrau: Violetta Valéry 
Juan Diego Florez: Alfredo Germont 
Quinn Quelsey: Giorgio Germont 

When my Barcelona-based friend and fellow opera buff Nicole announced that she would be coming back to the U.S. for the holidays, we quickly planned to have her spend one night at my place, and then just as quickly started wrecking our brains looking for something memorable to do. Unsurprisingly, it did not take long for her to find the perfect treat that would not only have nothing to do with the holidays, but also was a long-time favorite of ours: La Traviata.
Fact is, I have seen it quite a few times and she has seen it countless times. But then again, Verdi’s musical treatment of Alexandre Dumas fils’ semi-autobiographical novel La Dame aux Camélias, which was itself based on the author’s short liaison with the French courtesan Marie Duplessis, is one of those gifts that keeps on giving, and we were more than ready for another round of it.
Of course, knowing that Diane Damrau and Juan Diego Florez, two of the brightest stars in the opera world today, would sing the parts of the ill-fated couple made the offer even more attractive. I was particularly thrilled at the thought of having an opportunity to hear Florez as he most of the time sings in fluffy operas that I simply cannot bring myself to go check out, even for him.
However, a couple of days before the day, my other opera buff buddy Steve made my heart sink when he casually mentioned that Florez had just had to cancel one performance. Luckily though, on Saturday night no dreaded insert was found in our programs, and no last-minute announcement was made from the stage. Dire disappointment had been closely averted for us, and possibly some connoisseurs in the hordes of  international visitors that were packing the house.

As with most masterpieces, La Traviata allows for countless possible adaptations. One of the most dazzling ones I have ever seen was Willy Decker’s still fairly recent extraordinarily bold and resolutely modern take on it. This season, the fact that my own mother very much enjoyed the HD screening of the Met’s new production by Michael Mayer a couple of weeks earlier could only mean one thing, that it would be traditional. Oh well, one cannot win every time.
One of the opera canon’s most formidable parts ― and there are quite a few of those to choose from ― Violetta is an extended obstacle course for any singer intrepid enough to tackle it. When it is done well though, the result is absolutely trilling. German soprano Diane Damrau being the consummate professional we all know and love, I was confident that her Violetta would at least be satisfying. And sure enough, although she is not a natural Verdi singer, she whole-heartedly threw herself into the emotionally and technically taxing part, and readily conquered it.
Peruvian tenor Juan Diego Florez is also famous for his unequalled bel canto singing, so here again there was some queasiness on my part at the thought of him stepping into heavier Verdian territory. But it soon became clear that this was a carefully calibrated career move as he judiciously managed his impressive vocal resources, in addition to his natural charisma, boundless energy and easy chemistry with Damrau. Admittedly he’s more comfortable when flying high into the upper range, but those limitations were easily overlooked as he confidently shaped his Alfredo into a totally engaging character.
To us the wild card in the otherwise starry cast was American baritone Quinn Quelsey in the smaller but pivotal role of Giorgio Germont. However, my uncertainty was quickly put to rest when I heard his handsomely burnished voice and poised singing. His big scene with Violetta in Act II, in which he appeared not only as her lover’s disapproving bourgeois father, but also as the embodiment of the hypocritical society he belongs to, was one of the highlights of the evening, his understated sternness standing in stark contrast to her penetrating anguish.
The rest of the cast fulfilled their parts most efficiently, and the ever-reliable Met chorus got to shine as bright as ever, all of those various voices mightily contributing to making our evening at the opera a total musical success.
Since my expectations were cautiously low, the production ended up being a reasonably good surprise. I even found that having Violetta dying in her bed in the prologue and then turn the rest of the opera into memories of the past before coming back full circle to her last moments was a defendable idea after all. On the other hand, the essentially unchanging set and some misguided directing choices, such a Germont père’s daughter showing up (?!), were much less effective.
The staging had some effortlessly attractive elements going for it though, even if the extravagant combination of the endlessly intricate details of the rococo-style decor and the vivid colors of the costumes straight out of Disneyland could be a bit much. As if to briefly shake up all those over-the-top but fundamentally conventional visuals, the semi-clad dancers of the ballet sequence added a bit of PG-13 decadence to the generally safe proceedings.
But no matter what is happening on the stage, the magnificent score never fails to deliver, especially when it is played by a crack orchestra like The Met. This Traviata was the first conducting gig of Yannick Nézet-Séguin as the Met’s new music director, and while I had no doubt that we were in excellent hands, the deftly paced, beautifully nuanced, and emotionally gripping performance he drew all night from the orchestra easily exceeded my already sky-high expectations, and I am beyond excited thinking about what he has in store for the Met in the future. May the force stay with him!