Sunday, August 11, 2019

Verbier Festival - Verbier Festival Chamber Orchestra - 08/02/19

Conductor: Leonidas Kavakos 
Mozart: Sinfonia Concertante for Violin, Viola and Orchestra in E-flat Major, K.364/320d 
Leonidas Kavakos: Violin 
Antoine Tamestit: Viola 
Mozart: Symphony No. 31 in D major, K. 297/300a (Paris) 
Beethoven: Symphony No. 7 in A Major, Op. 92 

Partly by chance and partly by design, my last day in Verbier was going to be very busy in the best possible way. The Swiss National Day festivities were now a thing of the past – In typical Swiss fashion, even early morning the village was as sparkling clean as if nothing had happened the night before – but there was still plenty to look forward to on my schedule. And even the two hikes to the highly perched Salle des Combins with still recovering joints and a short but spectacular rain shower to start the day did not manage to put a damper on any of it.
It all began with the free open rehearsal of the evening’s concert featuring the Verbier Festival Chamber Orchestra, Verbier regular Leonidas Kavakos fulfilling double duty as conductor and violinist, and the ubiquitous French violist Antoine Tamestit for a program that included compositions by Mozart and Beethoven. Not exactly unfamiliar fare, but hey, there’s a reason why those works have become classics after all, and a little reminder once in a while never hurts.
Starting with the symphonic works, including a particularly inspired allegretto from Beethoven’s Symphony No. 7, Kavakos and the precociously talented musicians of the chamber orchestra worked long and hard while giving the audience much to be enjoyed already. After the well-deserved intermission, watching Kavakos and Tamestit brilliantly play off each other was another fun time that would definitely bear repeating a few hours later.
And that’s just what I did, after a seasonal lunch of rösti with chanterelles and apricot tart eaten al fresco on the balcony with a view of the Relais des Neiges restaurant, followed by a pre-concert talk by Verbier Festival Foundation and Academy musicologist Michèle Larivière, who provided valuable context and insights regarding the program. But then again, indulging in the culinary and musical arts is what vacation, and life, should be all about, n'est-ce-pas?

Having Leonidas Kavakos “just” conduct always feels like such a damn waste when you know what he can do with a violin. On the other hand, on Friday night, we got to hear him not only play his inseparable Stradivarius, but also engage in a perfectly balanced and high-spirited conversation with Antoine Tamestit, the other Stradivarius-wielding duettist, during Mozart’s delightful Sinfonia Concertante. The dazzling cross-over piece was written when the fast-evolving artist was 22 years old, and the fact that it would suit those two certified virtuosos so well more than two centuries later incidentally also speaks volumes about the composer's visionary nature and timeless appeal.
After this uplifting performance, Kavakos was back sans violin, baton or score to conduct Mozart’s lively Paris symphony. Composed shortly after his Sinfonia Concertante for what was at the time an unusually large orchestra, his Symphony No. 31 is a rather short but irresistibly engaging and impressively confident work, to which conductor and orchestra did full justice on Friday night. From the bluntly assertive opening all the way to the positively sweeping finale, countless gorgeous melodies happily filled up the space and spontaneously brought a smile to everybody’s face, confirming the steady power of this concert favorite all over again.
After Mozart’s youthful efforts and an intermission, we were greeted by Beethoven and his symphony No. 7. Released a couple of decades after the Mozart pieces we had just heard, the Seventh took us on brand new, much wilder territory with an ambitious first movement, an ever-popular and achingly beautiful allegretto, a breathless scherzo, and a take-no-prisoners finale, which the fired-up orchestra readily turned into a thrilling roller-coaster that we were all only too eager to ride. Even the young boy behind me who had at times been fidgety during the first half of the program became completely mesmerized by the sheer intensity of the whole experience. Not a bad way to conclude this first, but hopefully not last, Verbier Festival.

Saturday, August 10, 2019

Verbier Festival - András Schiff - Bach - 08/01/19

Bach: The Well-Tempered Clavier, BWV 846–893, Book II 

On top of allowing me to enjoy fabulous music, climate, scenery and, of course, chocolate to the fullest, my four-day stay in Verbier incidentally also provided with a valuable insight in Swiss history, namely that August 1 is Swiss National Day. Needless to say, I totally felt like I was in the right place at the right time.
I also decided that when in Switzerland, I would do as the Swiss do. That essentially meant hanging out at the lively street fair downtown, making a de rigueur stop at the charming Galerie du Chocolat for a light but tasty hot chocolate al fresco, and resting my still ailing joints to be able to take one more trip down rue de Médran and up route des Creux to the Church at Verbier-Station in the evening.
For some inexplicable reasons, in all my years of dedicated concert going I had never grabbed a chance to hear Sir András Schiff live, which is all the more unpardonable since our paths crossed more than once while his prestigious career was taking him all over the world. On the other hand, how better to fix this deplorable situation than by attending his performance of the second book of Bach’s legendary Well-Tempered Clavier at the Verbier Festival?

As an additional bonus, before the concert started in earnest, Schiff treated the packed audience to a short introduction to the work, even showing us the score and marveling that no corrections or transversal lines could be found in it, only waves of notes. After a few technical pointers addressed to the cognoscenti, he also assured us that he would try to finish in time for the fireworks. Clearly, the man had everything under control.
Written two decades after Book I, the more ambitious preludes and fugues in Book II offer a wider range of forms and styles, from buoyant to melancholic, from dark to poetic, which the consummate pianist handled with understated virtuosity. Having apparently decided to let the music speak for itself, he kept his playing subtle and unhurried, which ironically ended up making a remarkably strong impression. 
The intermission-free performance wrapped up just before 10 P.M., but the outside world obviously could not wait that long, and about 15 minutes before the last note the first fireworks unceremoniously made themselves heard inside the hushed church. Completely unperturbed, Schiff carried on with a steady pace and unwavering commitment, which as we all know are key ingredients to successfully completing such a marathon, or any marathon for that matter.
Once outside, back on the village’s tiny square, three alphorn players dressed in full traditional garb were entertaining a small crowd while down the rue de la Poste the street fair that had been going on all day was still in full swing and sparkling fireworks occasionally lit up the pitch black sky. Who said that the Swiss don’t know how to party?

Thursday, August 8, 2019

Verbier Festival - Quartuor Ébène - Brahms, Dutilleux & Beethoven - 07/31/19

Brahms: String Quartet No. 1 in C minor, Op. 51 
Dutilleux: Ainsi la nuit Beethoven: 
String Quartet No. 7, Op. 59 (Razumovsky No. 1) 

Although subway trains and neighborhood restaurants are often blissfully less crowded in summer, New York City invariably seems to be stuck in a hot and humid lull that even the Mostly Mozart Festival cannot always manage to shake.
Therefore, this year I decided to kill two birds with one stone: by finally attending the prestigious Verbier Festival, I would be scratching one more item off my bucket list while indulging in a majestic landscape, fresh air and chocolate. That would of course still mean a few inconveniences, such as putting up with mass tourism and exorbitant prices, but living for almost a decade in New York City had prepared me for those.
That’s how in late July and early August, after a couple of days in Geneva, I found myself on a train, and then another train, and then a cable car to reach the posh mountain resort of Verbier and temporarily settle in a spacious one-bedroom apartment with an amazing view (and an equally amazing bathtub).
As if to make the deal even sweeter, my first concert would be by the Quatuor Ébène, whom I hadn’t heard in a couple of years, and not since the original violist Mathieu Herzog left the ensemble. I had missed his first replacement, but I was looking forward to checking out how Marie Chilemme, the current recruit in that position, was faring.
So never mind the tumble I took in Geneva’s Old Town two days earlier that had left me with a sprained ankle and a sore knee, on Wednesday evening I slowly waddled my way down the steep rue de Médran and up the equally challenging route des Creux to the resolutely modern and immaculately white Church in Verbier-Station. And before long our delighted ears filled up with exhilarating live music int the bare, intimate space.

The program started with my beloved Johannes Brahms and his String Quartet No. 1 in C minor, Op. 51, the first of the three string quartets the ultimate perfectionist wrote and considered good enough for public consumption. Richly lyrical and organically flowing, it is an unsurprisingly masterful effort on the part of the composer, and on Wednesday night it received the glowing performance it deserved, Marie Chilemme fitting in seamlessly in the tight-as-ever ensemble.
After Brahms’ lush Romanticism, we boldly moved on to a contemporary French piece that has been fascinating me ever since I first heard it years ago. Comprised of seven linked movements for a total duration of less than twenty minutes, Henri Dutilleux’s one and only string quartet Ainsi la nuit quickly and quietly enveloped the mesmerized audience in its mysterious nocturnal atmosphere with exquisite dissonances, sudden contrasts, irreverent sparks and impressionistic touches.
After intermission, we were in for the most substantial work of the program in Beethoven’s glorious Razumovsky No. 1, one of the composer’s most exciting chamber works, for which the Quatuor Ébène unquestionably delivered their most exciting performance of the evening, apparently thrilled to no end at having such a deliciously meaty piece to sink their teeth in. As for the rest of us, it was essentially impossible not to be spontaneously carried away by the daunting complexity of the score and the sheer force of the playing. And so we were.

Thursday, June 13, 2019

Bargemusic - Messiaen - 06/07/19

Messiaen: Quatuor pour la fin des temps (Quartet for the end of time) 
Stefan Jackiw: Violin 
Yoonah Kim: Clarinet 
Zlatomir Fung: Cello 
Conrad Tao: Piano 

Just when I thought that my 2018-2019 music season was over, I happened to notice more or less at the last minute Olivier Messiaen’s Quatuor pour la fin des temps on Bargemusic’s calendar, which I clearly do not check as often as I should. To make the offer even more attractive, it would be performed by fast-rising violinist Stefan Jackiw and three other no doubt equally talented youngsters too. And just like that, I decided that I simply had to go.
Quatuor pour la fin des temps is probably as famous for its compositional qualities as for its unique background. Thanks to a kind-hearted German officer, Messiaen was able to write it and then perform it with three other prisoners under dire conditions in a camp during World War II. Although I am not particularly big on the bible or birds, which were unsurprisingly the two main sources of inspiration, the work’s atypical instrumental combination and its unique language immediately grabbed me the very first time I heard it, and before I knew its context, and has belonged to my short list of favorites ever since.
Friday evening is generally an eagerly awaited time for obvious reasons, but last Friday evening I was even more excited than usual as I was crossing the East River to Brooklyn. After hanging out a bit in Dumbo among its relentless throngs of visitors on a beautiful almost-summer night, I went down “New York City’s floating concert hall” for the 7 P.M. concert, an early time that fit into my schedule very well, but that may have cost the performance venue a sizable portion of the happy hour-inclined audience.

Counting eight movements and running about fifty minutes, Messiaen’s Quatuor pour la fin des temps presents countless challenges in terms of not only technique, but expressiveness as well. Those, however, did not stop the four musicians we had on the stage on Friday evening from delivering a poised, impeccably paced performance that readily conveyed the quasi-mystical nature of the piece. This is not a journey that the quartet or the audience can take on lightly, but, when done well, its rewards are priceless for all.
For all the powerful turbulences throughout the work, there are also moments of heavenly serenity, which may be the most difficult mood to nail of them all, but which came out beautifully on Friday in spite of all the non-stop agitation outside. As the musicians started playing, the boldness and grandeur of the endeavor filled the cozy space while the small pointed details and unusual sound combinations were expertly shaped. The superbly virtuosic solos for clarinet, cello and violin were limpid, confident and gripping.
With the barge’s serious swaying occasionally adding a light touch of surrealism to the whole experience, this was definitely a journey worth taking, even if we in theory at least all stayed in place.

Monday, May 20, 2019

Cantori New York - The Tower and the Garden - 05/12/19

Music Director & Conductor: Mark Shapiro 
Charles Villiers Stanford: Three Motets, Op. 38 
Gerard Victory: Selections from Seven Songs of Experience
The Little Vagabond (Soloist: Ben Keiper)
The Sunflower: (Soloist: Eleanor Killiam)
The Human Abstract
The Fly
The Tyger (Soloist: Jessie Douglas) 
Gregory Spears: The Tower and the Garden 
Gregory Cardi: Violin 
Ari Evan: Cello 
Gergana Haralampieva: Violin 
Meagan Turner: Viola 

My 2018-2019 music season obviously could not be complete without one last taste of quintessential New York choir Cantori New York, even if, beside the old with Three Motets by Charles Villiers Stanford and the brand new with the New York premiere of The Tower and the Garden by Gregory Spears, they would also serve us re-heated (Say what?!), but admittedly still appetizing, selected pieces from Seven Songs of Experience by Gerard Victory, back from their 2017-2018 season.
Although Saturday had been a simply perfect spring day (It does not get much better than 70 degrees, crisp and sunny), Sunday started with low temperatures and pouring rain, and did not improve much over time. It would therefore have been the ideal day to hang around my apartment with hot chocolate and my frustratingly high pile of New Yorkers, but adventurous choral music had to be supported. So in the afternoon I reluctantly trudged down to the Village’s Church of St. Luke in the Fields armed with tissues, water and Ricolas to make sure to be able to keep my by then full-blown cold in check.
The church was surprisingly crowded for such a miserable day, which also happened to be Mother’s Day, and bumping into old and new, expected and unexpected friends was a nice perk. And if I had needed extra motivation beside good music and good friends, the opportunity of stealing a few hours away from my electric guitar-practicing neighbor would have made the expedition total worth it anyway.

There can hardly be a more relevant topic than doing the right thing these days, and Charles Villiers Stanford’s Three Motets, one of the Irish composer’s greatest choral hits, felt right at home in the church on Sunday afternoon. In the best tradition of English Romantic music, it quickly filled the space with attractive tapestries of Latin text, flowing melodies and delicate harmonies.
With its wide range of themes and genres, not to mention endless supply of humor and warmth, the five excerpts from Gerard Victory’s Seven Songs of Experience sounded as good of a choice as any for a repeat performance. And sure enough, the heretical mischievousness of “The Little Vagabond”, the gorgeous bloom of “The Sun flower”, the quiet existential angst of “The Fly”, the innate coolness of “The Human Abstract”, and the all-out ferociousness of the opening of “The Tyger” all worked their magic again.
After intermission, the second part of the concert consisted in the joint commission by The Crossing, Volti, Notre Dame Vocale and Cantori New York that is The Tower and the Garden by Gregory Spears, whose intimate opera Fellow Travelers I had very much admired when it was presented by the Prototype Festival last season. Here again, the staunchly versatile contemporary American composer showed an ambitious streak that would not be denied, and I am not saying that just because he adroitly incorporated a string quartet into the choral composition to make things even more interesting.
With richly interwoven textures and numerous fleeting solo parts strategically popping in and out, there was a lot going on in this four-movement study of the contrast between the search of truth and the threat of technology. Among memorable moments, the mighty Tower of Babel, inspired by “In the Land if Shinar” by Catholic poet and activist Denise Levertov, was gradually built with hypnotic waves of sounds and feverish excitement before spectacularly crashing down.
The last movement was a more elaborate version of the elegiac first movement, drawn from Trappist monk Thomas Merton’s poem “80”, in which Christ walks into the moonlit garden of Gerthsemane among his sleeping disciples at an extremely slow pace. Accordingly, voices and instruments combined for an ethereally beautiful, delicately multi-layered result, which, true to its lyrics, featured a seemingly endlessly extended and inconspicuously absorbing finale  (If you hadn’t gotten the slowness idea at that point, chances were you never would), But more rain outside and then more electric guitar practice inside brought me right back to reality.

Wednesday, May 15, 2019

Met - Dialogues des Carmélites - 05/08/19

Composer/Librettist: Francis Poulenc 
Conductor: Yannick Nézet-Seguin 
Producer/Director: John Dexter 
Isabel Leonard: Blanche de la Force 
Karita Mattila: Madame de Croissy 
Erin Morley: Sister Constance 
Karen Cargill: Mother Marie 
Adrianne Pieczonka: Madame Lidoine 
David Portillo: Chevalier de la Force 
Jean-François Lapointe: Marquis de la Force 

Of all the operas on my bucket list, Francis Poulenc’s 1954 Dialogues des Carmélites had been right up there for a while, especially since I had missed my chance at the Met back in 2013 and was left seething about it for a long time. A few years ago, I in fact got so desperate that I seriously considered a quick trip to D.C. just for it as it was playing at the Washington National Opera… until I realized that it was sung in English and recoiled in horror.
But my patience was eventually rewarded this year, when the Met was kind enough to grant us three performances of the much acclaimed John Dexter production, the one and only production that has ever graced its prestigious stage because why fix it if it ain’t broken. This time again, it would boast a promising cast, and this time again, it was scheduled right at the end of the season, almost like an after-thought, when it has clearly been a winner in the past. Go figure.
But then again, all I needed was one performance that fit my schedule, and I quickly rushed to buy a ticket when I found one. From a quick look around me last Wednesday night, I was not the only one who did it as the cavernous opera house was packed to the brim with audience members evidently looking forward to partaking in a devastating tale of faith and martyrdom during the French revolution on a beautiful spring night.

It is true than on paper Dialogues des Carmélites is not necessarily an easy sell. Inspired by the story of the Martyrs of Compiègne, which were 16 nuns sent to the guillotine in 1794, the opera weights heavy issues in an austere setting. On the other hand, as if to add a bit of unexpected and colorful drama to our evening, there was a bit of a scuffle in the Family Circle right after the performance had started. It was later determined that an audience member was apparently busy dealing with customer service on speakerphone and would not shut up until an usher armed with two flashlights and the necessary authority finally put an end to it after a few eternal minutes.
Meanwhile, the performance was going on and Isabel Leonard soon appeared as young aristocrat Blanche de la Force, fresh from a startling encounter with rowdy revolutionary forces and announcing that she had decided to take holy orders. Seemingly eager for yet another daunting challenge to conclude a brilliant season that included Marnie and Palléas et Mélisande, the young American soprano reprised the difficult part with force and finesse. She was most impressive at expressing all the subtle nuances implied in a constant vacillating between her uncontrollable fear of a new life and the unbreakable faith that kept her going. It was unquestionably a glorious home run.
Isabel Leonard may have gotten top-billing as anxious yet strong-minded Blanche, but according to my personal and totally unscientific assessment, unstoppable Finnish soprano Karita Mattila handily stole the show as the prioress Madame de Croissy, and in just a single act too since she was eventually and mercilessly brought down by a particularly scenery-chewing death scene. Combining her celebrated voice with her magnetic presence, she was downright mesmerizing as she was erratically raising doubts about God in the darkest moments of her life without losing any of her uncompromising harshness.
The three other female leads were all equally successful in their own way: American soprano Erin Morley was an endearingly innocent and bubbly Constance, Scottish mezzo-soprano Karen Cargill was a kind and fiercely devoted Mother Marie, and Canadian soprano Adrianne Pieczonka was the level-headed and steady new prioress, Madame Lidoine. Never to be outdone, the women of the Met chorus sang with fierce commitment.
In this woman-centric world, two male characters had a say, both coming from Blanche’s family and both caring deeply about the troubled young woman. Her father, the Marquis de la Pointe, winningly impersonated by robust Canadian baritone Jean-François Lapointe in his Met debut, and her brother, the Chevalier de la Force, sweetly but convincingly sung by young American tenor David Portillo, were peripheral roles, but they were nevertheless fulfilled with much substance.
Such an extraordinarily cast was worthy of an extraordinarily production, and luckily, we had one on Wednesday night. The first tableau, which consisted of several nuns lying in Christ-like position across a huge white cross surrounding by blackness, was nothing short of arresting. Not only spectacular in its unfussiness and effectiveness, this opening image also cleverly symbolized the stark contrast between darkness and light that was at the core of the opera. My only fear was that things could only go down from there, but not at all. The set-up would cleverly remain until the end, only slightly modified with carefully selected props at times to discreetly enhance the scene at hand.
As much as the cast and production mightily contributed to the all-around success of this Dialogues des Carmélites, none of it would have been possible without Poulenc’s exceptional score to begin with. And if the music sounded straightforwardly tonal and simple at first, it did not take long for the attentive listener to detect a constant underlying tension as well as myriads of tiny details that emphasize the spiritual elevation of faith, the blood-thirsty fever of the Revolution, and the gut-wrenching agony of doubt.
An exceptional score deserves an exceptional orchestra conducted by an exceptional maestro, and they were all there on Wednesday night. Concluding his very promising first season as the new Met music director, Yannick Nézet-Séguin drew superb music from the ever-reliable Met orchestra, keeping pace and intensity in check so that every single nuance of the drama could be felt. Add to that a confident shaping of the music to seamlessly fit the particular rhythm of the French language, and we all got to enjoy another technically brilliant and emotionally gripping performance.
As the evening was advancing, I could feel that the cold I had been nursing all day was slowly but surely taking a hold on me. So I strategically decided to save as much energy as I could for the last but reputedly most powerful scene of them all, the “Salve Regina” prayer. And powerful it was, as the chorus was losing one voice after the other every time a nun walked to the unseen guillotine and disappeared behind the black curtain in the back of the stage accompanied by a pretty realistic (I guess) blade falling thud. The opera, like the Met, had saved the best for the end, and it was bloody awesome.

Monday, May 6, 2019

New York Philharmonic - Bruch & Strauss - 05/04/19

Conductor: Semyon Bychkov 
Bruch: Concerto for Two Pianos and Orchestra, Op. 88a 
Katia and Marielle Labèque: Pianos 
Strauss: Ein Heldenleben (A Hero’s Life), Op. 40 

Although I regularly watched them on TV as I was growing up, it still took me a few decades and the help of the New York Philharmonic before I at last got to hear the fabulous Katia and Marielle Labèque live, and now it seems that we just can’t stay away from one another. The curse was finally broken early last season when they performed Philip Glass’ Concerto for Two Pianos and Orchestra, which the composer had composed for them, with the NY Phil, and the performance had been totally worth the wait.
Last week they were back at the end of the NY Phil’s current season for Max Bruch’s Concerto for Two Pianos and Orchestra, which he composed for the significantly less famous and less skilled sister duo of Rose and Ottilie Sutro. They also turned out to be significantly less ethical as they did not hesitate to alter the score to fit their limited abilities, and then copyright and perform that diluted version all over the U.S., including New York City, all unbeknownst to the composer.
The truth was revealed after their death in 1970, when the original version was found and reconstructed. It was recorded in 1993 by the Labèques and Semyon Bychkov, who have made it a part of their regular repertoire since then and who premiered it in New York City last week. And if you want additional proof that this is a family affair, just know that Semyon Bychkov is married to Marielle Labèque.
Moreover, this exciting curiosity would be paired with Richard Strauss’ Ein Heldenleben, a monumental tone poem whose popularity has remained unabated all those decades, as long as you’re mentally and physically prepared for it. And I am not just talking about the musicians.

Facing each other across the two majestic Steinways with orchestra and conductor in the back, Katia and Marielle Labèque spontaneously nailed the assertive opening and kept on going full speed ahead throughout the entire 30 minutes. That said, if its story is most unusual, Bruch’s Concerto for Two Pianos and Orchestra on the other hand came out as a good old traditional German Romantic concerto, with beautiful melodies and lush lyricism galore.
So there was not much new under the sun in David Geffen Hall last Saturday night, but at least it was abundantly clear that the composer knew how to write pretty music heading straight for the heart, and that all the musicians on that stage knew how to play the more challenging version of it with impeccable technique and a lot of warmth. Therefore, the first half of the program ended up being a very enjoyable experience, if not a ground-breaking one.
The Bruch was much appreciated for sure, but the audience rightly went wild for the encore, which was the last movement of Philip Glass’ Four Movements for Two Pianos, a delightfully intricate excerpt that the two sisters grabbed and sailed through with blazing virtuosity. After all, why limit yourself to the conventional Romantic repertoire when you can brilliantly rock minimalism too?
After intermission, the stage filled up with as many musicians as it seemingly could hold and some for a break-free 45-minute performance of Ein Heldenleben. Consisting in the mighty struggle of the hero against the world as well as the pure bliss of true love, Strauss’ eventful personal journey is not for the faint of heart, but when done right, it is a grand adventure.
To maestro Bychkov’s credit, he managed to keep all the different instrumental forces under tight control, whether the hero was making his big entrance or fighting his enemies, while ever-reliable concertmaster Frank Huang delivered heart-breakingly beautiful solos to convey the inescapable influence of Strauss’ wife Pauline, luminous in the third movement and peaceful in the sixth movement. And all was for the best in the best of possible worlds indeed.

Saturday, May 4, 2019

Joshua Bell, Jeremy Denk & Steven Isserlis - Mendelssohn, Shostakovich, Rachmaninoff & Ravel - 04/30/19

Mendelssohn: Piano Trio No. 2 in C Minor, Op. 66 
Shostakovich: Piano Trio No. 2 in E Minor, Op. 67 
Rachmaninoff: Trio élégiaque No. 1 in G Minor 
Ravel: Piano Trio in A Minor, M. 67 
Joshua Bell: Violin 
Jeremy Denk: Piano 
Steven Isserlis: Cello 

Experience has taught me that I need pretty much a whole week to get over my jetlag upon my return to the U.S. from Europe. Needless to say, this is an additional challenge when I try to schedule performances on both sides of the pond, but I have also learned that a little bit of planning and compromising can go a long way, not to mention that sometimes things work out just fine by themselves.
That’s kind of what happened with my month of April, when the concerts that my mom and I had picked at the Festival de Pâques in Aix-en-Provence allowed for enough time for me to attend one of my not-to-be-missed concerts in New York City the following week. I am obviously talking about the long-overdue recital by three of classical music's brightest stars, namely violinist Joshua Bell, pianist Jeremy and Denk and cellist Steven Isserlis.
Although those are three musicians whose prodigious talent I had gotten to enjoy in various combinations over the years, if not decades, I had never had the opportunity to hear them perform together, which is not surprising since it is in fact their first tour together ever, never mind that they've know one another for decades now.
So about a year ago  as I was checking out the next season of Lincoln Center’s Great Performers series, it looked like our time had finally come, and in no less than wonderful Alice Tully Hall too. So I managed to grab one of the last tickets for it early last summer, and have been organizing my spring schedule around it ever since.
Last Tuesday evening, exactly one week and one day after my return to the Big Apple, body and mind fully back, I at last took my seat in the packed venue for a program of interspersed Romantic and 20th century trios by four tried and true composers. On the other hand, let’s face it, they could have played the most obscure works in the repertoire and we would have flocked anyway.

As if to express their joy of finally making beautiful music together and sharing it with the rest of us, the trio opened the concert with the exuberant melodies of Mendelssohn’s Piano Trio No. 2, which they unsurprisingly handled swiftly and nifty. Not unlike his Songs without Words series from which the second movement clearly draws, this piece underlines the special singing quality of Mendelssohn’s music, which extends way beyond mere prettiness.
This of course was not lost to the seasoned musicians, and they made sure to bring out the opulent richness and meticulous intricacy of the composition, even in its quieter moments. There’s nobody like Mendelssohn to lift up any mood, and the sheer virtuosity of the playing could not but enhance the already thrilling experience.
In one giant leap for performers and audience, we moved from Mendelssohn’s infectious happy-go-lucky disposition to one of Shostakovich’s darkest works with his Piano Trio No. 2. One of my personal highlights of the peculiar piece has always been the stubborn staccatos and pizzicatos featured in the so appropriately named “Dance of Death”. And sure enough, on Tuesday night, the ominous and implacable presence of mortality came out to some truly dazzling effect.
At the peak of those turbulences, the sounds of the three instruments were occasionally accompanied by the sounds of the fired-up musicians’ shoes hitting the ground as they were battling Shostakovich’s restless mind. The whole thing was resolutely dissonant, fantastically macabre, unhealthily obsessive and utterly depressing. I loved it.
After Shostakovich’s unyielding anguish, and a well-deserved intermission, we stayed in Russia but moved to the much more soothing music of Rachmaninoff’s Trio élégiaque, whose impossibly lush Romanticism put some deliciously calming balm on our hearts and minds in one sweeping movement. Written when the composer was a 19-year-old teenager, it already showed an impressive maturity while still expressing all the intense emotions of the young.
The program finished on a French note with Ravel’s Piano Trio, which provided exceptional rich textures for the musicians to play. Adroitly injecting a wide range of influences, from Baroque and Classical traditions to Basque folk dance and Malaysian poetry, Ravel nevertheless preserved the conventional four-movement format of classical composition. Altogether, this was another exciting challenge that the three musicians sailed through with plenty of French flair.

The standing ovation was genuinely tremendous, but then died spontaneously after the second curtain call, effectively putting an end to any chance for the rest of us to get any encores. But those magical two hours had already been a terrific evening, and we resigned ourselves to being fully satisfied with it… if we had to.

Wednesday, May 1, 2019

Festival de Pâques - Brahms Quintets - 04/28/19

Brahms: String Quintet No. 1 in F Major, Op. 88 
Brahms: String Quintet No. 2 in G Major, Op. 111 
Brahms: Piano Quintet in F Minor, Op. 34 
Renaud Capucon: Violin 
Guillaume Chilemme: Violin 
Raphaëlle Moreau: Violin 
Gérard Caussé: Viola 
Gautier Capuçon: Cello 
Edgar Moreau: Cello 
Nicholas Angelich: Piano

On our second evening in Aix, fresh from a wonderful one-hour concert featuring unusual instrument combinations at the Théâtre du Jeu de Paume, my mom and I took a reasonably brisk walk down the regal cours Mirabeau and the bustling Allées Provençales to the Conservatoire Darius Milhaud for our last, but by no means least, concert of the evening, and of our 2019 Festival de Pâques. It had been another lovely and busy spring day for us in the former capital of Provence, and the prospect of hearing more chamber music by Brahms, this time performed by Renaud and Gautier Capuçon, among others, in the acoustically flawless music venue sounded like the perfect ending to a perfect stay.
Catching the brothers together is a rare feat these days as their respective careers have steadily taken off and they’re now in high demand around the globe, including New York City where I had the privilege of hearing Gautier at Carnegie Hall a couple of times. In fact, I had to give up my ticket to his recital with Yuja Wang there the previous week in order to make my trip to France work. But at least my mom and I caught a couple of minutes of him playing live in front of Notre-Dame the morning after the heart-breaking fire on her computer screen, and now we were on our way to hear him and his brother perform a few feet from us. So all was well in the world again.
That said, our tight schedule did entail some sacrifices, and our between-concert dinner consisted in three and a half (admittedly decadent) madeleines each in a part of town where excellent restaurants can be found around every corner. Not to worry though, as being able to squeeze in a pre-concert glass of champagne on the terrace outside the conservatoire definitely helped cushion the blow and put us in an even more festive mood. Onward and forward!

The first thing that the packed audience noticed when the first group of musicians appeared on the stage for Brahms’ String Quintet No. 1 was that Gautier Capuçon was not among them. But once the vibrant music started filling up the hall, we just as spontaneously turned our undivided attention to it and  ̶  temporarily at least  ̶  stopped fretting. Starting in his signature Romantic mood, then moving into unusual Baroque territory, before concluding with a spirited Beethovian finale, the composition was an engaging combination of a little bit of de rigueur seriousness and a lot of youthful fun, and so was the performance of it.
Brahms’ String Quintet No. 2 was tackled by the same well-rounded line-up next, and about just as brilliantly as they did the first one too, starting right at the beautifully soaring, unambiguously exhilarating opening. Things only got better as we were moving along the four movements with remarkable clarity, unfailing precision and full colors, all the way to the exuberant Gypsy style-inspired finale.
After intermission, our patience was finally rewarded when we realized that the best in terms of composition and company had obviously be saved for last, and it was amazingly good indeed. Scored for two violins, viola and two cellos and routinely considered one of Brahms’ masterpieces, the Piano Quintet was dedicated to Her Royal Highness Princess Anna of Hesse. And the fact is, back in Aix’s Conservatoire Darius Milhaud that evening, the interpretation coming from the stage did sound worthy of royalty indeed.
With an assertive kick-off by all five musicians in impressive unison, the first movement opened in all its beauty, vigor and complexity, and the rest of the piece just kept unfolded with unperturbed virtuosity. On the other hand, Brahms being Brahms, even at its most joyful, triumphant or dreamy, the mood could not help but have an underlying notion of melancholy. Needless to say, witnessing the Capuçons’ seamless connection live was the highlight of our evening, even when pianist Nicholas Angelich effortlessly joined in. In all fairness, the entire ensemble was praise-worthy though, as much for their commitment as in their technique, and the result was a truly exciting performance that left us wanting for more.

Alas, “more” was not meant to be as, after few curtain calls by the entire group of musicians, Renaud Capuçon signaled to us that the time had come to go to sleep. So that’s what we did, after one last leisurely walk into the live painting that had become the elegantly lit cours Mirabeau by night.

Monday, April 29, 2019

Festival de Pâques - Génération @ Aix - Brahms & Mozart - 04/18/19

Brahms: Clarinet Trio in A Minor, Op. 114 
Robert Levin: Piano 
Aurélien Pascal: Cello 
Amaury Viduvier: Clarinet 
Mozart: Quintet in E-Flat Major for Piano and Winds, K.V. 452 
Rafael Angster: Bassoon 
Robert Levin: Piano 
Philibert Perrine: Oboe 
Nicolas Ramirez: Horn 
Amaury Viduvier: Clarinet

While the Festival de Pâques is evidently growing bigger and better every year, it still makes a laudable point of ensuring that exceptional young musicians get their share of the spotlight too in intermission-free one-hour concerts scattered throughout those two weeks. After all, everybody has to start somewhere, not to mention that those youngsters’ skills and enthusiasm are every bit as impressive as the ones of the more seasoned pros they collaborate with. And that’s what Génération @ Aix is about.
Therefore, after a morning spent at Fondation Vasarely and an afternoon at Musée Granet, my mom and I made our way to the eye-popping and intimate Théâtre du Jeu de Paume (Yes, the one with the bright red velvet walls and stunningly decorated ceiling) for our first concert of the evening at 6 p.m.
After bumping into some friends of my mom’s in the lobby, we took our seats and readied ourselves for chamber music works by Brahms and Mozart while keeping an eye on the clock. Not that we were particularly eager to get out of there, but once this concert was over, we would have to dash down the stately cours Mirabeau to the Conservatoire Darius Milhaud for our second and last concert of the evening – and last of the festival – at 8 p.m.

And what better way to get into a musical mood than with more Brahms? Refreshingly featuring the often overlooked clarinet as the primary instrument, his fairly traditional four-movement Clarinet Trio is generally somber and contemplative, but still contains a healthy amount of the exquisite Romantic melodies we have come to expect from him, as well as more unexpected rhythms that cannot but pique the listener’s interest. 
Nonplussed by all the attention thrown upon him, and taking full advantage of the appealing score, clarinetist Amaury Viduvier delivered a downright virtuosic performance, beautifully highlighting how well-crafted the composition was and what a genuine thrill it was to play it. Not to be outdone, cellist Aurélien Pascal made the most of his exciting exchanges with the clarinet while veteran pianist Robert Levin kept things running smoothly.
Upon completing his Quintet in E-Flat Major for Piano and Winds, Mozart famously wrote to his father that he considered it to be the best thing he had written in his life, which is really saying something coming from one of the most talented and prolific composers ever. After hearing the highly imaginative and perfectly balanced piece though, it was hard to argue.
Democratically combining the four intrinsically different wind instruments that are the oboe, the clarinet, the horn and the bassoon in order to create cool new sounds was probably an irresistible challenge for the ever-inquisitive artist. The fact that he smashingly succeeded became quickly clear as each instrument made its specific voice heard no fuss, no muss while seamlessly blending in the ensemble for a boldly unusual, naturally elegant and downright engaging result.

The ovation was so intense that the five musicians involved in the Mozart performance came back for a repeat of the cadenza of the last movement, after confessing that they had on idea they were going to play so well, and therefore had no encore up their sleeves. But then again, who could possibly complain about listening to Mozart again?

Sunday, April 28, 2019

Festival de Pâques - Sinfonieorchester Basel - Brahms - 04/17/19

Conductor: Marek Janowski 
Brahms: A German Requiem 
Christina Landshamer: Soprano 
Wilhelm Schwinghammer: Baritone 

Another year, another eagerly awaited trip to Aix-en-Provence at the Festival de Pâques, whose admitted ambition is to rival Salzburg’s prestigious summer Feistpiele, a wish that the festival's powers-that-be may just fulfill sooner than later if they keep up the excellent work they’ve been putting out for the past six years. Among other proofs of a growing success, there were very few posters advertising the festival in the city this year simply because there was no need for it.
Although it is never easy picking a couple of more or less consecutive performances among two weeks, this year my mom and I kind of had our work cut out for us: For my third visit in a row, and my mom’s sixth, we immediately zeroed in on the obvious: Brahms’ magnificent German Requiem, and a rare common appearance by the Capuçon brothers the next evening. Et voilà !
So after an extremely busy day spent taking in the new multimedia shows about van Gogh and Japan in Les Baux-de-Provence’s Carrières de lumières, followed by another awesome lunch al fresco in our regular restaurant in the charming medieval village, we made it to Aix just in time to settle in our regular hotel, take a leisurely stroll to Pavillon Vendôme for the heck of it, and then head to Les deux garçons, our regular pit-stop, for another memorable dinner.
But we did not lose sight of our goal, and before we knew it, we were getting situated again in the Grand Théâtre de Provence to hear Brahms’ masterpiece performed by the Sinfonieorchester Basel, the MDR Rundfunkchor of Leipzig, Christina Landshamer and Wilhelm Schwinghammer under the baton of Poland-born and Germany-raised Meister Marek Janowski. And they call it vacation!

One of my favorite works by one of my favorite composers, Brahms’ ein deutsches Requiem distinguishes itself on many levels, but what has always grabbed me about it was not only its unquestionable musical grandeur, but also its inmediate accessibility to mere mortals through its use of secular German, and no lofty Latin, text. While I marvel at the stately beauty of Mozart’s and the operatic breadth of Verdi’s, I find Brahms the most spiritually and emotionally affecting.
And once you have German performers with a deep understanding of the composition like the ones we had on that evening, the result cannot but be a thrilling experience, and it so was. Although our row G seats were a bit too close to the stage for my taste, they were a vast improvement from our almost front row seats of last year, incidentally for another Brahms-centric concert, and there was nowhere else we would have rather been.
Throughout the evening, the impressively exacting Symphony Orchestra of Basel made intensely beautiful music that boldly rose and filled up the space, but the undisputed highlight of the performance was hearing the truly exceptional choir mercilessly tease death to high heavens again and again. The soloists fulfilled their parts respectably, especially baritone Wilhelm Schwinghammer and his subtly burnished voice.
When all had been said and done, I was not even upset that this was the only work on the program anymore. As my mom pointed out as we were leaving the theater, still happily dazzled but also fully satiated, nothing can possibly compare to experiencing that kind of music live.

Primrose Ensemble - Schubert, Ponce, Chopin, Ysaye, Benjamin, Solbiati, Kupkovic & Villas-Lobos - 04/16/19,

Franz Schubert: Overture for String Quintet 
Manuel Ponce: Intermezzo for Strings 
Frederic Chopin: Waltz for 4 violas (arr. Pierre-Henri Xuereb) 
Eugene Ysaye: Exil! for String Orchestra
Arthur Benjamin: From San Domingo for Strings and Viola
Schubert-Solbiati: Three duos for violin and viola 
Ladislav Kupkovic: Souvenir for String Quartet and Violin 
Heitor Villa-Lobos: Modihna, extract from Bachianas Brasileiras No. 1 for String Quartet 

Just the fact that my Easter vacation schedule in the south of France was already surprisingly packed was not reason enough not to add another unexpected but certainly welcome outing. And that would be the concert by the Primrose Ensemble featuring French violist Pierre-Henri Xuereb and Serbian-Italian violinist Dejan Bogdanovic in the historic Roman Catholic Saint-Pierre Church of Dieulefit, Drôme Provençale. The inconspicuous and yet wonderful venue has been hiding in one of the village’s typical medieval streets since the early 15th century and often offers highly praised cultural events in its pretty little space.
Lately it had become obvious that the time had come for me to check out one of those, and that's just what I did on my second day in Dieulefit with my mom and her Aix-en-Provence-based friend Jacqueline, both semi-regulars, after we had spent a busy afternoon breathlessly catching up and drinking home-made hot chocolate at Dieulefit’s terrific chocolatier, one of the village’s most popular spots and my hands-down favorite hang-out (Granted, there's not much competition, but still).
As true-blue French nationals we dutifully took a few minutes to grumble about the inexplicable disorganization of the reserved vs. unreserved seats (Seriously, how hard is it to put labels on a few more chairs instead of causing utter chaos after half the audience is already seated?), but eventually decided not to let the incident spoil our fun.

The concert kicked off with one of the most famous, and probably beloved, names on the program, Franz Schubert, and the overture to his String Quintet, which quickly established that the musicians on the stage were of the highest caliber, and that we were in for a memorable evening.
It was followed by 20th contemporary Mexican composer Manuel Ponce’s Intermezzo for Strings, which vividly evoked the rural atmosphere of his home country.
Then we moved back to European Romanticism with Pierre-Henri Xuereb’s arrangement of Frederic Chopin’s Waltz for 4 violas, which positively proved that the violist really knew the possibilities of his instrument inside out.
Eugene Ysaye’s well-known Exil! for String Orchestra was next. Scored for violins and violas only, the composition is melancholic and gloomy pretty much throughout, but our spirits were lifted up by the masterful interpretation.
From San Domingo for strings and viola by contemporary British composer Arthur Benjamin featured some downright amazing pizzicatos that more than made up for the missing piano among all those strings.
The unlikely but eventually winning team of German 18th-century Schubert and Italian contemporary Alessandro Solbiati gave some of the musicians inspired material in three duos for violin and viola.
Another contemporary work, Souvenir for String Quartet and Violin by Slovak composer and conductor Ladislav Kupkovic this time, was the perfect opportunity for special guest Dejan Bogdanovic to display not only his impressive technical skills, but his delightful sense of humor as well.
The last piece on the program was from Brazil, of all places. Heitor Villa-Lobos’ Modihna, from his Bachianas Brasileiras No. 1, was probably supposed to conclude the concert with festive fireworks. 

However, the ovation from the sold-out crowd was so enthusiastic that fearless violinists Yardani Torres-Majani and Luis-Miguel Joves Molina came back for two mysterious encores whose fierce virtuosity almost made the official program sound subdued. This was quite a nice way to prepare our ears for the sumptuous music feast waiting for us in Aix.

Friday, March 29, 2019

Emmanuel Ax - Brahms, Benjamin, Schumann, Ravel & Chopin - 03/27/19

Brahms: Rhapsody in B Minor, Op. 79, No. 1 
Brahms: Rhapsody in G Minor, Op. 79, No. 2 
Benjamin: Piano Figures Schumann: Fantasiestücke, Op. 12 
Ravel: Valses nobles et sentimentales 
Chopin: Nocturne in B Major, Op. 62, No. 1 
Chopin: Three Mazurkas, Op. 50 
Chopin: Andante spianato and grande polonaise brillante, Op. 22 

One of the most quietly reliable pianists of the past decades, Emmanuel Ax was paying his annual solo visit to Carnegie Hall last Wednesday night. And even if I’ve always found the Stern Auditorium to be too large of a venue for recitals, I have also come to the conclusion that its pitch-perfect acoustics, instant visual appeal and prestigious history (Ah! If only those walls could talk!) more than make up for its lack of intimacy, so there was no way I was going to miss it.
With musicians like Emmanuel Ax, the program is almost a second thought, but this one happened to be a winner as well with a nice mix of goodies spanning a wide range of periods and styles, including certified hits like Schumann’s Fantasiestücke and less well-known works like Ravel’s Valses nobles et sentimentales, all of which were promising a very rewarding evening of piano music.

The unabashed Romanticism of Johannes Brahms’ Rhapsody in B Minor and Rhapsody in G Minor opened the concert on a highly lyrical and strongly energized note, a testimony not only to the superior composing skills of Brahms, but also to the superb performing skills of Ax. It was a very comfortable and deeply satisfying introduction to the many other special moments to come.
Next, the wild card of the program, George Benjamin’s Piano Figures, turned out to be a wonderful 10-minute set consisting of 10 self-contained miniatures that offered a wide range of unusual colors and harmonies in tiny, fascinating packages. As Ax himself cheekily pointed out, if you disliked one, there was another one right around the corner. Those reassuring words soon proved unnecessary though, as each of those little gems shone bright in its own distinctive way.
A recurring staple in concerts halls, Robert Schumann’s Fantasiestücke did not need any introduction. On the other hand, Ax’s interpretation of those eight substantial vignettes was so fresh and exciting that the whole series sounded like a brand new piece that everybody should get to know. As a regular concert-goer, I had heard it quite a few times before, and by exceptionally talented pianists too, and had always found it enjoyable for sure, but not much more.
On Wednesday night, however, I finally understood what the fuss had been all about all this time. The two highly contrasted personalities of thoughtful Eusebius and volatile Florestan were easy and fun to discern, as they usually are. But when you have a naturally engaging virtuoso like Ax running the show, you also quickly become aware of the myriads of insightful details created by Schumann’s vivid imagination, not the least a delightful sense of humor. And it was that higher level of understanding that for me turned what could have been just another excellent performance into a truly memorable experience.
After intermission, Maurice Ravel’s Valses nobles et sentimentales were a nice detour to early 20th century France, where Ravel was busy breaking new ground while still drawing inspiration from traditional conventions. I can’t say that those waltzes are my favorite pieces of his – his string quartet, his violin sonata No. 2 or his Bolero would vie for that title – but they contain enough rhythmical tricks that Ax ingeniously handled to make them noteworthy.
And then entered the master of the piano, the one and only Frederic Chopin, with a small but neat assortment of short works that was representative to some degree of his impressive œuvre, even if none of his extraordinary ballades were included (sigh). But you have to be grateful for what you get, and what we got on Wednesday night from Ax was pretty darn terrific.
The mini Chopin marathon started with a soulful Nocturne in B Major, which reminded us, if need be, why he has remained the leading composer of the genre. It also featured a sparkling rendition of the folksy Three Mazurkas, and ended with a stunningly lyrical Andante spianato and grande polonaise brillante, which was indisputably brilliant indeed. So brilliant in fact, that a few audience members could not contain their enthusiasm until the end and started clapping while the last notes were being played. Thanks for nothing.

After a timely rapturous ovation from the rest of us, neither the soloist nor the audience seemed ready to leave just yet, so the former treated the latter to not one but two dazzling encores by Chopin, his Nocturne in F-sharp Major and his Waltz in A-flat Major. Because one can simply never hear too much Chopin.

Sunday, March 24, 2019

Boston Symphony Orchestra - Liszt & Adès - 03/20/19

Conductor: Thomas Adès 
Liszt: Mephisto Waltz, No. 1, S. 514 
Adès: Concerto for Piano and Orchestra 
Kirill Gerstein: Piano 

After Finnish composer and conductor Esa-Pekka Salonen’s visit to David Geffen Hall with the Londoners of the Philharmonic Orchestra last week, this week Carnegie Hall had the visit of English composer, performer and conductor Thomas Adès with the Yankees of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, for which he has been the artistic partner for three years now, and later for a piano recital with his long-time partner in music Kirill Gerstein. So many extraordinarily talented visitors, so little time! So little, in fact, that I had to choose between the two concerts and eventually opted for Wednesday.
The big attraction of last Wednesday’s program was the New York premiere of Adès’ brand new piano concerto, which would unsurprisingly be performed by Gerstein, a natural keyboard wizard whose curiosity only equals his versatility, for whom it was written in the first place. And I just had to hear it.

Although Franz Liszt composed a wide range of works, I tend to prefer the ones conveying flamboyant and macabre forces, which he can conjure up like nobody else. And if his “Totentanz” remains my old-time favorite, especially when performed by Jean-Yves Thibaudet, on Wednesday night I very much enjoyed the orchestra version of his “Mephisto Waltz”, which came out with plenty of irrepressible vigor and dramatic flair.
Any new work by Adès is a highly anticipated event, and his new Concerto for Piano and Orchestra was no exception, especially since it would benefit from having its composer on the podium and its dedicatee at the piano. Clocking at just about 20 minutes, it turned out to be a traditionally structured concerto made of mostly untraditional sounds that at first seemed to have been serendipitously put together. 
It did not take long to realize though that this relentless smorgasbord of modern harmonies, burlesque bits, jazzy overtones, lyrical waves and ever-changing colors was a tightly organized endeavor revolving around the leading soloist, who was pretty much kept busy the whole time. On the other hand, when you have somebody of Gerstein’s caliber at your disposal, you don’t want to miss an opportunity to maximize his apparently limitless capacities. In this case, the result was riveting.
The second part of the program was dedicated to Tchaikovsky’s breakthrough Symphony No. 4, a frequent and always welcome staple in any concert hall. But the combination of sheer exhaustion, the presence of fidgety children behind me, and the comforting feeling that I would probably be able to hear it again soon helped me make the right decision and leave at intermission. Until next time, Piotr!

Saturday, March 23, 2019

Philharmonia Orchestra - Sibelius, Salonen & Stravinsky - 03/11/19

Conductor: Esa-Pekka Salonen 
Sibelius: The Oceanides 
Salonen: Cello Concerto 
Truls Mork: Cello 
Stravinsky: The Firebird 

Although music-loving New Yorkers like myself are still seething over Esa-Pekka Salonen’s decision to head the San Francisco Symphony after turning down the same job with the New York Philharmonic because he wanted to dedicate more time to composing, we simply cannot keep on nursing our wounded pride forever. And when the man is back in town for two concerts with London’s Philharmonic Orchestra, for which he has been the principal music conductor and artistic advisor for a couple of decades now, we just leap on our feet and go hear what he has to say, no questions asked.
I was not able to make it to his Sunday afternoon concert because I had to catch Cantori’s concert since I had not been able to go to their Saturday evening concert since I had to catch the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra and Leila Josefowicz's concert in Washington, D.C. But I did make it to his Monday evening concert at David Geffen Hall, which fortunately presented the program I found the strongest one of the two (No offense to Bruckner) with his own cello concerto book-ended by Sibelius and Stravinsky. Sometimes the stars do align after all.

It seems kind of obvious that a program conducted by Finland’s most famous music export featured a work by another Finnish music giant, but things is, as far as I am concerned, Sibelius’ music is welcome in any program anyway. That said, Salonen and Brits treated the expectant audience to a superbly organic performance of The Oceanides, Sibelius' deeply evocative ode to the sea.
Then came Salonen’s relatively recent Cello Concerto, which I had the privilege to discover with Yo-Yo Ma and the New York Philharmonic two years ago in that same hall, and which has found an equally worthy interpreter in renowned Norwegian cellist Truls Mork. With a brilliant technique and remarkable stamina, he resolutely faced the daunting challenge and came out with yet another complete victory to add to his ever-growing repertoire.
And what a daunting challenge it was! Always searching for new and exciting sounds, Salonen stops at nothing to achieve his goal, and certainly not at potential technical limitations. On the other hand, what can be a total nightmare for the soloist can turn out to be an endlessly exciting experience for the audience, just like on Monday night, as we were all mesmerized by the haunting silvery textures created by the electronic rendition of the cello reverberating throughout the hall, or the cellist’s dynamic duo with the percussionist who was playing bongos in front of the orchestra. But those moments, however inspired they were, should not make us forget the impressive range of fascinating sounds produced by the orchestra and the soloist, nor their irresistible appeal.
In all my years of attending live performances I have rarely had better experiences than listening to Stravinsky conducted by Salonen, and on Monday night it happened all over again with the Russian composer’s first big hit, The Firebird. It is a wonderfully fun score to hear live, with its sumptuous colors, countless flights of fancy, and infectious rhythmic energy. Salonen and the orchestra were for sure totally at ease with bringing this Firebird to glorious life – and that would include one trumpeter suddenly doing his thing from the first balcony – but most notably they also gave it the time and space to become fully realized while shaping the myriads of details that make it such a unique composition. As long as Salonen regularly comes back with such fabulous treats, all is forgiven.

Thursday, March 21, 2019

Cantori New York - Farewell to Sorrow - 03/10/19

Conductor & Artistic Director: Mark Shapiro 
Michel Colombier: Emmanuel (arr. Gregory Harrington) 
Gregory Harrington: Violin 
Mark Shapiro: Piano 
Francis Poulenc: La blanche neige 
Francis Poulenc: Par une nuit nouvelle 
Donald Grantham: La canción desesperada
Nicolette Mvrolean: Soprano 
Thomas West: Baritone 
Gregory Harrington: Violin 
Francis Poulenc: Marie 
Francis Poulenc: Tous les droits 
Francis Poulenc: À peine défigurée 
Henry Purcell: Ode for St. Cecilia’s Day
Nicolette Mvrolean: Soprano 
Thomas West: Baritone 
Tomothy Piper: Organ
Francis Poulenc: Belle et ressemblante 
Francis Poulenc: Luire

As if a relentless feast of visual, musical and culinary arts in the D.C. area on Saturday had not been enough, I was back on the bus at the crack of dawn on Sunday morning because, of course, I had to pick the weekend during which we had to spring forward, and therefore lose a precious hour of sleep, for my quick jaunt. But it was all good, and we did make it back to the Big Apple with plenty of time to situate myself back home before heading back down to Chelsea this time to catch Cantori’s second and last concert of the weekend.
The Episcopal Church of the Holy Apostles, a new performance venue for the busy choir, was a very nice surprise, with its bare but welcoming space and, most importantly, friendly acoustics. The program was an attractive mix of early and contemporary, as well as world-famous and more obscure, and had obviously attracted an impressive amount of people who quickly filled up the fairly large venue.

As if Cantori had decided to keep its loyal followers on their toes with a new programming twist, the concert unusually started with an instrumental piece for violin and piano, “Emmanuel” by wildly eclectic contemporary French composer Michel Colombier. Arranged and performed by special guest Gregory Harrington at the violin and Cantori’s artistic director Mark Shapiro at the piano, it immediately set an unequivocally lyrical tone for the rest of the afternoon.
After that engaging opening, we stayed in France but went slightly back in time for Francis Poulenc’s first two chansons du jour, “La blanche neige” et “Par une nuit nouvelle”, the other five numbers of Sept chansons being interspersed between the two larger works. Based on poetry by no less than Guillaume Apollinaire and Paul Éluard, short yet substantial, they can appear challenging at first listen, but turned out to be surprisingly accessible and delightfully inventive.
More poetry was on the way next, from Chili this time, with Pablo Neruda’s landmark collection 20 Love Poems and a Song of Despair that had been set to music by Donald Grantham in 2005 with La canción desesperada. This richly textured and openly agonizing rumination on the end of a passionate love story featured the choir, two soloists and a violinist, and pretty much had everybody in the church ache in unison.
Baritone Thomas West distinguished himself with a beautiful burnished sound and crystal-clear pronunciation as the heart-broken poet while soprano Nicolette Mvrolean made the most of her naturally gorgeous and deeply expressive voice as his lost love. Not to be outdone, Cantori’s singers did not content themselves by fulfilling the narrative role of the Greek chorus, but also had plenty to say in their own intense way, while the Gregory Harrington's violin provided an additional emotional layer to the whole highly dramatic experience.
You would think that after the French imaginative nuggets and the Chilean-American extended brooding, the early music British composer Henry Purcell would come out a bit stiff, but obviously not from those singers. Even though I still cannot completely get past all the endless repetitions, I have to admit that the (thankfully) abridged Ode for St. Cecilia’s Day for choir, soloists and organ we got on Sunday afternoon was all but stiff. Based on a text by Irish clergyman and poet Nicholas Brady, it unfolded with irrepressible luminosity, with just a tab of organ-generated solemnity, and reminded us all of the priceless joys of music-making. Not a bad way to celebrate the patron saint of music, I'd say.

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.