Tuesday, December 17, 2019

Cantori New York - A Cantori Holiday - 12/15/19

Music Director and Conductor: Mark Shapiro 
Piano: Jeremy Chan 
English Traditional Carol: Tomorrow Shall be my Dancing Day (arr. David Willcocks) 
Kim Gannon & Walter Kent: I'll be Home for Christmas (arr. Mac Huff) 
Algirdas Martinaitis: Alleluia 
Elizabeth Poston: Jesus Christ and the Apple Tree 
English Traditional Carol: God Rest you Merry Gentlemen (arr. David Willcocks) 
Herbert Howells: A Spotless Rose 
French Traditional  Carol: Shepherds in the Fields Abiding (arr. David Willcocks) 
Polish Traditional Carol: Infant Holy, Infant Lowly (arr. David Willcocks) 
English Traditional Carol: I saw Three Ships (arr. Brian Morales) 
Jewish Liturgy: Oseh Shalom 
Every Voice Children’s Chorus 
J. Pierpont: Jingle Bells (ass. Kirby Shaw) 
Every Voice Children’s Chorus 
Piano: Drew X. Coles 
English Traditional Carol: The First Noël (arr. Rhonda Poley) 
Cantori New York 
Every Voice Children’s Chorus 
Mykola Leontovich and Peter J. Wilhousky: Carol of the Bells 
Felix Mendelssohn: Es wird ein Stern 
Harold Darke and Christina Rossetti: In the Bleak Midwinter 
Mariah Carey and Walter Afanasieff: All I Want for Christmas is You (arr. Mac Huff) 
Irving Berlin: Snow 
Leroy Anderson and Mitchell Parish: Sleigh Ride (arr. JoAnn Harris) 
Tom Lehrer: Chanukah in Santa Monica (arr. Joshua Jacobsen) 
Franz Biebl: Ave Maria 
Traditional West Country Carol: We Wish you a Merry Christmas (arr. Arthur Warrell) 
Franz Gruber: Silent Night (Sing-along) 

Since I do not particularly care about Christmas, and even less about the perky and sentimental music that inevitably comes with it, I tend to diligently steer clear of all holiday-related celebrations, my only exception to the rule being Cantori New York’s holiday concert, and for good reasons. For the several years I’ve been attending it, it has always managed to diplomatically combine welcome and not so welcome favorites, hidden and not so hidden gems, unorthodox versions of Jewish songs, exclusive arrangements and special requests by Cantori’s members, and the traditional sing-along for “Silent Night”.
What more could one ask for? Well, a holiday party of course, and they had that covered too after their second and last performance this past weekend. For all those reasons, and also to prove my occasionally willingness to go with the flow and the spirit of the season, I found myself heading down to the West Village’s Church of St. Luke in the Fields on the nice sunny afternoon we got to enjoy last Sunday to join friends, colleagues and other acquaintances in the packed-to-the-rafters space.

Although at first it looked like the British and a few of their European neighbors had come and hijacked the program, a wide range of American classics were included and, I might add, performed with the choir’s signature proficiency. Among those we had Kim Gannon and Walter Kent’s syrupy “I’ll be home for Christmas”, Elizabeth Poston’s folksy “Jesus Christ and the Apple Tree”, Irving Berlin’s upbeat “Snow” and Tom Lehrer’s good-humored “Chanukah in Santa Monica”.
Standing out in the international portion of the program, the Ukrainian-based “Carol of the Bells” brought just the right amount of unadulterated cheerfulness. I was also delighted by the inclusion of Felix Mendelssohn’s “Es wird ein Stern”, which not only contributed attractive melodies, but some German singing too. Another newcomer from across the pond that made a wonderful impression was Lithuanian Algirdas Martinaitis’ “Alleluia”, during which many different variations of “Alleluia!” created endlessly interwoven and truly mesmerizing textures.
A recurring carol that will always be a personal favorite of mine is the vivacious French-flavored “Shepherds in the Field Abiding”, not only for the childhood memories that it never fails to bring back to me, but also for Cantori’s reliably exciting performance of it. Another composition that has touched the audience’s heart and soul year after year is Franz Biebl’s all-male “Ave Maria”, and the gentlemen of Cantori nailed it again on Sunday afternoon. Now all we need is an all-female work of the same caliber.
A returning number in a different package was the English carol “I Saw Three Ships” that had been winningly rearranged by Cantori member Brian Morales. Overflowing with vigor and high-spiritedness, this catchy new take on the classic has even converted maestro Shapiro from a self-avowed die-hard sceptic about the song’s merit into a new die-hard fan. And that, my friends, is no small endorsement.
Former Cantori member Jonathan Breit’s dynamite version of “Ochos Kandelikas” got a new pianist in Jeremy Chan and, as a probable consequence, a somewhat more restrained treatment than in years past. That said, the song’s inherent hotness should not, could not and would not be fully subdued. With its sexy rhythms and irresistible beats, not to mention the singers’ infectious enthusiasm, this was still one of the biggest hits of the concert, and rightfully so.
I originally thought that the addition of Mariah Carey’s “All I want for Christmas is you” to the program was a seasonal joke, but on Sunday afternoon I discovered that the Church of St. Luke in the Fields is in fact no longer a safe space free of pervasive pop culture. On the other hand, I can now brag about being there when Cantori got to repeatedly coo “baby!” for what was possibly the very first time in its several glorious decades of existence.
Keeping up with a newly established tradition, Cantori had invited the young singers from Every Voice children's chorus to perform by themselves, which they very capably did for the soulful Hebrew song “Oseh Shalom” and the all but ubiquitous “Jingle Bells”, before both ensembles joined their mighty forces for a heart-felt cross-generational rendition of the classical English Christmas carol “The First Noël”.
Keeping up with a long established tradition, by the end of the concert it was the audience’s turn to join Cantori to sing along the first and last verses of Franz Gruber’s ever-beautiful “Silent Night” in English while the indefatigable choir sang the middle one by themselves in German “in an alien key”. Beside generating good feelings all around, our contribution also earned us an invitation to the packed and rocking party. Happy holidays!

Wednesday, December 11, 2019

Met - Akhnaten - 12/07/19

Composer: Philip Glass 
Librettist: Philip Glass in association with Shalom Goldman, Robert Israel, Richard Riddell, and Jerome Robbins 
Conductor: Karen Kamensek
Producer/Director: Phelim McDermott 

Akhnaten: Anthony Roth Constanzo 
Nefertiti: J’Nai Bridges 
Queen Tye: Disella Larusdottir 

Seeing the “SOLD OUT” label appear on a concert or opera poster is always a heart-warming sight for any music lover, especially if they already have a ticket. And it is an even bigger thrill when the program is kind of out of left field in a supposedly open-minded city that is surprisingly conservative in its musical tastes.
Not that Philip Glass’ music is that esoteric anymore, of course, but filling up the cavernous Metropolitan opera house, and with a somewhat younger-looking audience too, is still a feat that must be acknowledged for any composer, most particularly when the opera is far from traditional (Granted, Akhnaten includes a show-stopping love duet in the middle and the hero’s ghastly death toward the end).
My mom, who had gone to see it during her busy New York stay, had lamented the lack of action and standard arias, but had nevertheless conceded some redeeming qualities such as amazing visuals and overall originality. And the reviews have been overwhelmingly positive, which probably at least partly explains the sold-out status.
I do not need any incentives to go listen to Philip Glass’ music as soon as an opportunity arises. So I had made sure to buy a matinee ticket when they became available, a few months ago, to have as much energy as possible to dedicate to the performance, and last Saturday I finally walked down Christmas tree-lined Broadway on a gorgeous sunny afternoon.

Philip Glass’ music is famous for its own, very distinctive, style, but it can still very much adapt to any story. That said, the ever-intrepid composer still managed not only to dig out an eye-opening plot, but also to come up with a mostly unintelligible libretto essentially made of archaic languages and a few spoken English interventions by The Scribe, to create a boldly unusual experience that combines ancient Egypt, religious upheaval and gender fluidity.
As Akhnaten, the monotheist sun-worshiper pharaoh who decides to impose his creed on his reluctant people and was not only murdered, but also pretty much wiped out from historical records for his audacity, American countertenor Anthony Roth Constanzo simply own the role. If for no other reason, he could have probably made Met history by being the first male singer to appear in full frontal nudity. But he quickly proved that he also had the singing and acting chops necessary to make a lasting impression under more conventional circumstances. With his ethereally wide-ranging voice and graceful presence, Constanzo was both understated and yet powerful as the mysteriously androgynous figure in the center of the narrative.
As Akhnaten’s devoted wife Nefertiti, American mezzo-soprano J’Nai Bridges was a strong and unbreakable ally, with a plush and exciting voice that wonderfully intertwined with Constanzo’s during their love duet.
Not to be outdone, Icelandic soprano Disella Larusdottir was a magnetic Queen Tye, even if the weird ornament she had proudly standing on the top of her head looked more like a feather duster than anything remotely stately.
The Met’s huge stage can be a challenge to use efficiently, but set and projection designer Tom Pye clearly embraced it and came up with consistently smart and wildly inventive sets, partly steampunk, partly colorful exoticism, which allowed the various scenes to transition seamlessly at their own pace, which could probably be best described as hypnotic slow motion. As long as you were willing to go along with this highly stylized world, the rewards were manifold.
While costume designer Kevin Pollard occasionally went a bit overboard (Why on earth would you put a skull in top of a Victorian top hat?), the outfits were positively eye-popping. We’re talking about scorched earth-inspired cat suits for the jugglers, Akhnaten’s sumptuous glittery gown for his coronation, as well as the reigning couple’s identical plain scarlet robes with endless trains that ended up forming one beautiful red-hot symbol of physical and spiritual love during their passionate embrace.
Speaking of the jugglers, a lot has been written about their various high-flying routines scattered throughout the entire performance, and how much was actually enough. I am in fact not sure we needed to see them as often as we did, but on the other hand, I also found them particularly well integrated into the music and visuals, so I say: “Let them juggle!”
At curtain call, Anthony Roth Constanzo rightfully got his roof-raising ovation, but not quite as roof-raising as Philip Glass himself. And rightfully so too, since the composer has succeeded in writing a score that is gently lyrical, brilliantly texturized, endlessly flexible and just plain unique with sounds created through the combination of the lower instrumental output of the violin-less orchestra and the higher range of the leading voices. American maestra Karen Kamensek unquestionably distinguished herself for her first conducting gig at the Met, and the orchestra responded eagerly to her.
During the intermissions and after the performance, as I was shamelessly eave-dropping on my fellow opera-goers, opinions ranged from the occasional “weird” and “interesting” to the vast majority of “fabulous.” And while it is not always the case, this time I am whole-heartedly joining the majority.

Saturday, December 7, 2019

Ensemble Connect - Ran, Bach & Messiaen - 12/01/19

Shulamit Ran: Bach Shards 
Bach: Contrapunctus X from The Art of Fugue, BWV 1080 
Shulamit Ran: Lyre of Orpheus 
Messiaen: Quartet for the End of Time 

There are a few pieces of music that I must hear as often as possible, and preferably at least once a year. Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time has always been one of those top favorites of mine, not only for the sheer beauty of the composition itself, but also for the incredible story of its genesis. Therefore, I was thrilled to hear that musicians from Ensemble Connect, Carnegie Hall’s two-year fellowship program for the crème de la crème of the most prestigious music schools in the country, would do the honor in the beautiful and intimate Weill Auditorium.
And because they’re young and adventurous, they’ve added two works by contemporary Israeli-American composer, for the modern component, and one work by Johannes Sebastian Bach for the timeless component. And then again, why not?

Shulamit Ran and Bach may not seem to have a lot in common at first glance, but one does not need to be a classical music major to quickly figure out their common interest in complexity, exactness and accessibility after listening to Bach-Shards seamlessly followed by Contrapunctus X from The Art of Fugue. We were off to a good start.
Back to Shulamit Ran, her Lyre of Orpheus boasts a wide range of unusual sounds, from shimmering to grotesque, as well as a recurring star turn for the cello, of which there are actually two, during its intense 14 minutes. That said, despite its gentle non-conformity, the work is fundamentally melodic and totally engaging, especially when performed by such committed musicians as the ones we had on Tuesday night.
Written when Messiaen was imprisoned in a concentration camp during the Second World War, Quartet for the End of Time is typical Messiaen material in that it contains more or less discernible hints of Eastern rhythms, bird songs and catholic faith. But it is also an unmistakably universal work that, in eight drastically contrasting movements, brilliantly transcends time and space, consequently ensuring it its place in the pantheon of certified masterpieces.
The 50-minute score is famously  a constant source of unique moments, giving the individual musicians dazzling opportunities to shine. Accordingly, clarinetist Noémi Sallai delivered a high-flying tour de force in “The abyss of birds”, pianist Christopher Goodpasture and cellist Ari Evan engaged in a stunningly lyrical dialogue during “Praise to the eternity of Jesus”, and violinist Jennifer Liu beautifully provided the well-needed but never taken for granted incandescent light at the end of the tunnel in “The immortality of Jesus”.
Listening to it is always an undisputed pleasure, but I have to say that having it performed in the Weill’s small and acoustically blessed space reinforced even more the otherworldly quality of the experience. “Otherworldly” was in fact the best way to described how listening to Quartet for the End of Time felt on a day that, for me as for many others, unexpectedly turned out to mark the end of an era.

Thursday, December 5, 2019

Benjamin Grosvenor - Schumann, Janacek, Prokofiev & Liszt - 12/01/19

Schumann: Blumenstück, Op.19 
Schumann: Kreisleriana, Op. 16 
Janacek: Piano Sonata 1. X. 1905 (From the Street) 
Prokofiev: Visions fugitives, Op. 22 
Liszt: Réminiscences de Norma de Bellini 

After my mom’s relentlessly busy two-week visit, I was more than ready to enjoy some well-deserved downtime for the extra-long Thanksgiving weekend. Therefore, my schedule revolved around friends, museums (a wonderful visit to the Frick Collection made me wonder why I do not go there more often) and… lots of champagne (just because Thanksgiving is an American tradition does not mean I cannot connect to my French heritage as well).
Then I was in for a kind of last-minute but totally welcome surprise in the form of an invitation from my friend Paula to a Peoples’ Symphony concert at Town Hall on Sunday afternoon to go check out young and fast-rising British pianist Benjamin Grosvenor in an intriguingly eclectic program. Add to that the long-overdue chance to catch up with her in person, and I started counting the days right away.
Then, as if to strongly mark the arrival of winter and the beginning of the holiday season, came our first full-blast winter storm, with an unappetizing mix of rain, snow and hail (or was it sleet?), prompting me to bundle up and head mid-town grumbling that this supposedly outstanding pianist had better be worth the hassle.

The first half of the program was all Robert Schumann, and really, who were we to complain? It kicked off with Blumenstück (Flower Piece), a short series of even shorter vignettes that were as fleeting as they were charming.
It was also an appropriate introduction to the much more substantial, brilliant and popular Kreisleriana. Written in only four days and dedicated to Frédéric Chopin, the stunning composition famously contains a wide range of emotions, including wild, tender and eccentric, while remaining always eminently engaging. If anything, Blumenstück and Kreisleriana positively confirmed that the enthusiastic rumors were true. Grosvenor has the technical skills and emotional maturity to dig deep into a score and confidently bring out the best of it.
Having been totally conquered by his understanding of Schumann, we were still curious to hear him tackle more modern and esoteric works by Janacek and Prokofiev after intermission. Comprised of two movements titled “Foreboding” and “Death” (Oh, boy!), Leos Janacek’s From the Street sonata has a story that is as interesting as the composition itself: Janacek wrote it to express his intense disapproval of the death of Frantisek Pavlik, a young carpenter who was bayoneted during a peaceful demonstration in support for a Czech university in Brno in 1905. As one would expect, the tribute is dramatic, dark and reflective, all qualities that Grosvenor conveyed with plenty of force and finesse.
A selection of Sergei Prokofiev‘s Visions fugitives perked us up next, with its delightful whimsical vignettes featuring the occasional strong Schonbergian dissonance as well as an overall subtle Debussyan touch. Since each movement lasted no more than two minutes, we all happily jumped from one to the other, fully enjoying Prokofiev’s playful mood and Grosvenor’s impeccable performance.
The official program concluded with Franz Liszt and his Réminiscences de Norma, which gloriously displayed one of the best scores based on another composer’s work in the Romantic piano repertoire. 

And that as not all. Buoyant by our ecstatic ovation, Grosvenor came with what was possibly more Liszt and was surely as exciting. The weather was still utterly disgusting when we got out, but Benjamin Grosvenor had been confirmed as an outstanding and worth-the-hassle pianist indeed.

Wednesday, November 27, 2019

Boston Symphony Orchestra - Grieg & Mahler - 11/18/19

Conductor: Andris Nelsons 
Grieg: Piano Concerto in A Minor, Op. 16 
Leif Ove Andsnes: Piano 
Mahler: Symphony No. 4 in G Major 
Genia Kuhmeier: Soprano 

Although the weekend was officially over, my mom and I still had one more concert scheduled during her stay in the Big Apple because, of course, no visit to New York City is complete without a visit to the fairest concert hall of them all, Carnegie Hall. Even better, the prestigious Boston Symphony Orchestra and his music director Andris Nelsons, as well as Norwegian pianist extraordinaire Leif Ove Andsnes, happened to be in town at the same time too. Talk about good timing!
The program was definitely on the safe side, with one big concerto by Norwegian composer Grieg, which I was not familiar with but was ready to immerse myself into, and one big symphony by Austrian composer Mahler, which while not a favorite of mine (All those bells tend to get on my nerves) should still give the orchestra a golden opportunity to unleash its mighty power. Big names attract big crowds, and for the fourth time in four days, on Monday evening, we found ourselves in a packed music venue. Yeah!

Having had the privilege of hearing Leif Ove Andsnes dip his virtuosic toes into an impressive range of genres, from Baroque to contemporary, as well as in a impressive range of contexts, from solo recitals to soloist with huge orchestras, I was still curious to hear him tackle a piece by a fellow Norwegian music man. Heavily influenced by Robert Schumann and Norwegian folk music, championed by no less than Franz Liszt and constantly revised by the composer, Grieg’s one and only piano concerto is unquestionably a composition whose popularity has never abated.
And it certainly proved to be as popular as ever on Monday night, with Andsnes expertly conveying its majestic grandness, glorious lyricism, delicate melancholy and general warmth. Beside delighting the audience, the impeccable performance actually pointed out the obvious, in case somebody was wondering: Why bother writing more piano works if you’ve hit the jackpot the first time around? Although it faces serious competition on the piano concerto repertoire, Grieg’s has no problem holding its own in the best Romantic tradition.
To respond to our loud appreciation of his glowing performance, Andsnes came back with Grieg’s Norwegian March from Lyric Pieces, Op. 54, No. 2, which he promptly dispatched with the same exacting savoir-faire.
After intermission came the time to the other warhorse of our evening. Inspired by the lovely song featured the last movement, Mahlers’ Symphony No. 4 is very unusual in that it was composed backwards, with the last movement composed first and everything else revolving around it. In its final form, the first movement describes a happy-go-lucky human being, before death makes a wild appearance, out-of-tune violin in hand, in the second movement. But not to worry, calm and beauty take over the third movement to ease the audience into the celestial Finale.
So there is a lot going on during those 60 minutes, but on Monday evening maestro Nelsons had pretty much everything under control, allowing the huge orchestra to breathe when needed, but also to display plenty of controlled force when it was called for. When all had been played and done, some of the undisputed highlights had been a thrillingly elegiac Adagio as well as the exquisite closing song "Das himmlische Leben" (The Heavenly Life), which had found a wonderfully interpreter in Austrian soprano Genia Kuhmeier, whose crystal-clear voice and graceful presence were priceless contributions to the overall performance.

Four down and no more to go. Mission accomplished.

Sunday, November 24, 2019

Cantori New York - How To Go On - 11/17/19

Artistic Director and Conductor: Mark Shapiro 
Hermann Goetz: Seven Choral Songs Op. 21 
Henryk Górecki: Five Kurpian Songs 
Dale Trumbore: How to Go On 

While my retiree mom has a fairly open schedule, she still insists on taking numerous factors into account before committing to anything. Therefore, when plotting her trip to New York this year she carefully checked, among other things, my schedule, friends’ schedules, weather pattern, tourist season, airline ticket prices, the restaurant scene, as well as what was going on in musical and visual arts venues.
Eventually, the two major factors of her November visit came down to a slight dip in mass tourism and Cantori New York’s fall concert weekend, possibly not in that order, but it is admittedly a tough call. Regarding the latter, the promise of a program featuring essentially tonal works in German, Polish and English, and “nothing too weird”, did not hurt either.
Fact is, after getting to know them in New York for Mother’s Day back in the spring of 2013 and then hearing them again in Cassis and Marseille during their short but intense concert series celebrating the city’s status of European Capital of Culture a few months later, she was clearly way overdue for another concert of theirs. Fast-forward a few years, and on Sunday afternoon, we finally found ourselves in Chelsea’s Church of the Holy Apostles for their second and last packed performance of the weekend.

One of the major components of Cantori’s core mission is to put the spotlight on unfairly neglected past or existing composers, and that laudable objective was brilliantly fulfilled on Sunday afternoon by the inclusion of 19th-century German composer Hermann Goetz’s Seven Choral Songs at the inspired request of an enlightened member of the ensemble. And what a find it was! In the best Romantic fashion, the seven texts by various German poets on themes such as love, nature and faith were set to vibrantly melodic music for an all-around exquisite end result.
However, Cantori being Cantori, there still had to be a challenge to be conquered somewhere in the program, and last weekend it came in the form of Henryk Górecki’s Five Kurpian Songs, with their “inventive arrangements” of the Polish text. Additionally, while I assumed that those “traditional folk songs” would of the danceable kind, they turned out to cover a much wider and subtler range, from the beautifully atmospheric “II – Dark is the night, how dark” to the irresistibly vivacious “IV – I am a farm-hand from Torum,” all the way to the generously extended “V – The storm is coming, it will rain”, all effortlessly reaching a true spiritual dimension.
After intermission, we were all invited to ponder the sempiternal existential question: “How can we go on, knowing the end of the story?” during the New York premiere of American composer Dale Trumbore’s 2016 requiem How To Go On. And that’s just what we did throughout the eight starkly distinct but still fundamentally connected movements, which are based on poems by Barbara Crooker, Laura Foley and Amy Fleury, and relentlessly explore our relationship with death.
As one can imagine, the topic could have easily produced a total downer, and in fact the work predictably starts with the inevitable pain and suffering experienced with the death of a loved one, but it also progressively moves on towards understanding and acceptance that life goes on no matter what. Adroitly incorporating solo voices into the choir, the multi-layered score stands out for its intricate complexity and poignant lyricism, which soloists and ensemble superbly handled on Sunday afternoon. And if the ever-elusive answer was not found – the performance ending on a powerful yet unresolved note – the engrossing musical journey had been well-worth taking regardless.

Three down, one more to go.

Friday, November 22, 2019

New York Philharmonic - Tchaikovsky, Dessner & Sibelius - 11/16/19

Conductor: Santtu-Matias Rouvali 
Tchaikovsky: Romeo and Juliet, Overture-Fantasy 
Bryce Dessner: Wires 
Bryce Dessner: Electric Guitar 
Sibelius: Symphony No. 1 

One day after our concert in my work neighborhood of Lower Manhattan, my mom and I were back in my home neighborhood of the Upper West Side for our Saturday night concert. That’s when, after a beautiful and busy fall day enjoying many of the area’s sights and amenities, as well as a quick trip mid-town for a fun visit to the Museum at FIT, we headed down Broadway for a concert by the New York Philharmonic in David Geffen Hall. As hard as it was to believe, it was a first for my mom, with all the pressure that it entails.
One week after the fabulous Esa-Pekka Salonen-centric performance I attended, there would be more high-quality Finnish exports to experience as the program included Sibelius’ First Symphony and would be conducted by young and fast-rising Finnish conductor Santtu-Matias Rouvali. Add to that Tchaikovsky’s  Romeo and Juliet, Overture-Fantasy and you had a true Romantic feast.
But that was not all. Variety being the spice of life, a dash of rock’n’roll would also make its appearance courtesy of The National’s Bryce Dessner and his electric guitar for the New York premiere of his own Wires. Lo and behold, this was the first program including an electric guitar performed by the New York Philharmonic. Better late than never, I suppose.

The two things that we noticed when walking into David Geffen Hall, was the impressive number of people in the audience, and the equally impressive number of musicians on the stage. This could be partly explained by the presence of Tchaikovsky on the program with his Romeo and Juliet, Overture-Fantasy. the intensely lyrical piece may have been “just” the concert opener, but its sheer power could not be denied. That said, The beloved Russian composer was clearly not the only big draw there.
Bryce Dessner, the American-born and Paris-based, endlessly versatile artist whose resume includes, but is not limited to, a Grammy-winning rock band, numerous film scores, countless exciting collaborations and plenty of experimental endeavors. Accordingly, a lot of audience members had obviously come to check him out in this unusual, but not completely unfamiliar, environment, a case in point being the young couple next to me, who were too busy taking pictures of their hero to even bother applauding him after he was done playing his Wires.
It was an applause-worthy performance though. Inspired by the connections made and missed with all sorts of wire, the cross-over portion of our evening turned out to be unexpectedly subdued, Dessner inconspicuously sitting down by the first violin with a plugged-in Fender Telecaster and intentionally blending in with the orchestra most of the time. For better or worse, there was no shredding guitar solo à la Jimmy Page (sigh), but still a fair amount of cool sonic arrangements, even if the wires did not always click seamlessly or meaningfully.
After intermission, we jumped right back into Romantic territory with Sibelius’s magnificent Symphony No. 1, which young and energetic maestro Rouvali handled with the unwavering aplomb of an old hand. He did not do anything crazy or even unusual with it, but led the exceptionally tight orchestra in an impressively coherent, informed and simply beautiful reading of it, which is quite a feat in itself already. To the credit of Dessner's fans, they stayed put for the lengthy classical part of the program, and even seemed to enjoy it thoroughly according to their spontaneous applause between the movements. And that may be the biggest accomplishment of them all!

Two down, two more to go.

Wednesday, November 20, 2019

Trinity Church Wall Street - Pärt & Poulenc - 11/15/19

Francis Poulenc: Figure Humaine 
Conductor: Melissa Attebury 
Downtown Voices 
The Choir of Trinity Wall Street 
Arvo Pärt: Passio 
Conductor: Stephen Sands 
Downtown Voices 
The Choir of Trinity Wall Street 

When my office decided to move to Lower Manhattan a few years ago, I of course became determined to take advantage of the thriving music scene in the Parish of Trinity Church Wall Street. Although I managed to get out of the office a few times for their wonderful Concerts at One series on Thursdays, I certainly haven’t been as dedicated at implementing my resolution as I was planning to. And I am afraid I cannot entirely blame my slacking off on work overload or Trinity Church’s on-going renovation works.
I still get their emails though, and earlier in the season, I made a point of singling out Friday, November 15 and its appealing combination of Poulenc’s Figure Humaine and Pärt’s Passio in the intimate St Paul’s Chapel. And it turns out that a lot of other people did too, as the little space was packed when my visiting mom and I go there (Who knew New York City had so many Poulenc and Pärt fans?). Beside being a reassuring sight in terms of the future of classical music, it also looked like a good omen for the mini-marathon that we had planned for the weekend.

Based on eight Surrealist poems by Paul Éluard and written in Paris in the dark and turbulent times of the Second World War, French composer Francis Poulenc’s cantata Figure Humaine is widely considered to be his absolute masterpiece as well as his most challenging work. But then again, there’s not much that the highly skilled members of Downtown Voices and The Choir of Trinity Wall Street cannot handle, and sure enough, the 12 singers of the much-admired two choirs got to work on the endlessly polyphonic score with exactness and fervor.
The highlight had to be, and in fact was, the terrific “Liberté”, which was not only the most substantial movement, but also featured a crescendo for the ages… and a personal memory of learning and studying that classic of French poetry back in school. There’s little doubt that the glorious piece stood out for everybody else as well, especially when, for its grand finale, the large chorus filling up the balcony joined the smaller group on the stage into a resounding cri du cœur calling for the ever-elusive liberty.
I am not a big fan of the Bible, but I am a huge fan of Estonian composer Arvo Pärt, and as such, I was very much looking forward to hearing his Passio for the first time, especially since the historic chapel would, after all, be a particularly appropriate setting. Essentially based on chapters 18 and 19 of the Gospel of John, the uncompromisingly monophonic Passio is a daunting undertaking that, on Friday evening, required four instrumentalists, the two choirs and a solo vocal quartet on the stage, as well as two soloists up on the balcony on each side of the organ, which would be briefly heard too.
Despite the large number of performers involved, and partly due to the medieval tradition-inspired tintinnabuli style and the Latin text-driven composition, the 70-minute performance of the minutely crafted score sounded deceptively simple and austere, the solo baritone, the solo tenor and the vocal quartet doing most of the work, and doing it extremely well, as Jesus, Pilates and the Evangelist respectively. On the other hand, it really felt like a waste to have such an exceptional chorus right there with so little to do.
We did, however, occasionally get to hear subway trains rolling underground and a fire truck rushing above ground. As a matter of fact, it sometimes felt like no matter how dire the biblical predicament was inside, there was more action taking place outside, except maybe for the guy who could not stop fidgeting behind me. That said, Pärt won in the end.

One down, three more to go.

Tuesday, November 12, 2019

New York Philharmonic - Hindemith, Bach & Salonen - 11/10/19

Conductor: Esa-Pekka Salonen Hindemith: Ragtime (Well-Tempered) 
Bach: Two Chorale Preludes (arr. Schoenberg) 
Salonen: Gemini 
Hindemith: Mathis der Maler Symphony 

After a Friday evening spent going to JFK, waiting for almost two hours at JFK and coming back from JFK, on Saturday evening I was very much looking forward to hitting the concert road again. This time, as if to keep the logistics to a blissful minimum, I just had to walk down Broadway to David Geffen Hall for a performance by the New York Philharmonic that included an eagerly awaited double dose of the master of cool himself , Esa-Pekka Salonen, who was appearing on the program as conductor and composer.
However, even if Finland’s finest export remains a supremely popular figure among music-loving New Yorkers, the concert hall was dishearteningly far from packed for a Saturday night, the top tier being even completely empty. It is no wonder then that, despite repeated heavy coaxing from the local powers that be, the man keeps on choosing the West Coast over the Big Apple as a base. We simply may not deserve him. That said, I must also admit that, if it had not been for his ubiquitous presence, the program would not have particularly appealed to me either. And yet, I can now say that the audience members who did show up got vastly rewarded.

To get the party going, we had the immutable Johann Sebastian Bach, but with a few twists, because when the œuvre is timeless, it can be adapted endlessly, and even sometimes cleverly, as we were about to find out. A quick but flavorful amuse-bouche, Paul Hindemith’s Ragtime (Well-Tempered) was a feisty take on the Fugue in C Minor from the Well-Tempered Clavier, while Arnold Schoenberg’s arrangements of the quiet “Schmücke dich, O liebe Seele” and the high-spirited “Komm, Gott, Schöpfer, heiliger Geist” received powerfully eloquent performances. Together, those three miniatures made a very enjoyable concert opener while preparing us for the even more intriguing undertakings to come.
Once of the most notable pleasures of having Salonen on the podium, beside his conducting that is, is listening to him narrate the genesis of his compositions with his trademark deadpan sense of humor. And there he was on Saturday night, explaining that the idea for his Gemini score came from a “post-grunge” bassline he heard and immediately became obsessed with as he was having dinner in a trendy Paris restaurant after having just conducted an opera at La Bastille. 
Later on, while working on it, he found himself pulled into two very different directions and consequently ended up with two separate and highly contrasting pieces inspired by the mythological non-identical twins Castor (the thoughtful immortal), which premiered in Los Angeles in April 2018, and Pollux (the rambunctious mortal), which premiered also in Los Angeles last month. Apparently, the most uncomfortable positions can at times yield the most satisfying results.
Starting with the introspective Castor, the strings proceeded to smoothly unfurl their attractive lines while crystalline bells randomly chimed in and discreet horns occasionally made themselves heard for the dark-hued half of the combo. The extroverted Castor, on the other hand, made his grand boisterous entrance and just kept going unabated, leaving no instruments unplayed, including a gigantic gong and two pairs of horizontal drums standing in the back of the stage. Although each piece could easily stand on its own, the combination of the two emphasized the wildly imaginative nature of the endeavor as well as the sheer brilliance of its execution. And just like that, Salonen The Composer scored big again.
More Hindemith was in store for us after intermission, which at this point we happily welcome with open ears. Inspired from his opera-in-then-progress Mathis der Maler, his symphony by the same name has remained one of his most popular works, and for good reasons too. Based on the life of German Renaissance painter Matthias Grünewald, each of the three movements draws from what is probably the artist’s most spectacular achievement, the Isenheim Altarpiece.
And in fact, colors abound in both the painted triptych and the musical score, and were coming out of the latter in all their vivid glory under Salonen’s baton on Saturday night. This undisputed success was far from the reaction the symphony first got back in the days though. In the mid-1930s, the Nazi government was unsurprisingly not thrilled by the story of an artist who would pursue his calling regardless of the political climate he lived in and quickly labeled Grünewald and his art “degenerate”, which was of course a clear hint that the composer was doing something right.
Luckily, the Nazi government disappeared and the composition has lived on, its engaging neo-Romantic sounds having just enough of a modern touch to make them interesting, but never odd. On Saturday night, the NYPhil and maestro Salonen delivered a deliciously crisp, totally committed and intensely alive performance, readily showing the total relevance of Hindemith’s symphony in our own turbulent times. And just like that, Salonen The Conductor scored big again.

Saturday, November 9, 2019

Decoda - Bach, Schoenberg, Adès & Mozart - 11/07/19

Johann Christian Bach: Keyboard Quintet in D Major, Op. 22, No. 1 
Arnold Schoenberg: Chamber Symphony No. 1 (arr. Webern) 
Thomas Adès: Catch, Op. 4 
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart: Quintet for Piano and Winds in E-flat Major, K. 452 

According to a popular saying, good things come in threes. And according to my schedule, last Thursday night I was ready to test the veracity of that claim when, after two highly successful evenings in the Zankel Hall and the Stern Auditorium, the time had come for me to pay a visit to the smallest, but admittedly loveliest, venue of them all, the Weill Recital Hall, to complete my Carnegie Hall season-opening home run.
That perfect opportunity had presented itself in the form of a concert by some members of Decoda, a collective of alumni from Ensemble Connect, the coveted two-year fellowship program of Carnegie Hall, The Juilliard School, and the Weill Music Institute in partnership with the New York Department of Education. Needless to point out, that kind of impeccable pedigree means that the musicians are of the highest caliber.
And sure enough, true to their reputation of talent and boldness, they had concocted a program of “Influences and Inspirations” that featured an eclectic range of works from German Baroque, the Second Viennese School, English Contemporary and Viennese Classical. Not a bad way to spend my last evening of freedom of the next two weeks, and a rainy one at that, before a much less exciting trip to JFK the following evening.

As hard as it is to believe, Johann Christian Bach – AKA the “English” Bach – apparently was more famous in his lifetime than his father, the one and only Johann Sebastian Bach. And I’ll be the first one to admit that I immensely enjoyed the immediately attractive melodies, carefree mood and easy flow of his 10-minute Keyboard Quintet in D Major, all confidently brought to life by the five evidently inspired musicians on the stage. That said, I also think that history has made the right choice in canonizing his father.
The audience’s fleeting chance to get comfortable ended abruptly when we jumped from an easy-listening opener from 18th century London to a ground-breaking shocker from 20th century Vienna. Indeed, even if some lingering Late Romanticism could be heard in some of the stunningly lyrical violin lines, Arnold Schoenberg’s Chamber Symphony No. 1 was squarely facing the future on Thursday night. And what a future it was! Decoda had chosen the Anton Webern-arranged version for the intimate concert, and there they were, expertly dismantling solidly established tradition and virtuosically working their way through the onset of a radical revolution.
After intermission, we moved back to England, but in the company of a contemporary Englishman this time, with a young and mischievous Thomas Adés and his truly delightful Catch. Written when the composer was 19 and still in school, it is a short piece that had a somewhat traditional piano-violin-cello trio onstage contend with a feisty clarinet that looked and sounded comically out of control. Starting in a seat at the end of my row, clarinetist Paul Cho quickly got up and turned into a busybody walking erratically among the audience in the hall and the musicians on the stage, not to mention keeping everyone guessing during his random disappearances. It was fun, clever and, of course, expertly performed.
The last but definitely not least piece on the program kind of brought us back full circle to the beginning as Johann Christian Bach briefly taught a young Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart back in 18th century London. Fact is, even if this trivia had not been spelled out in the program notes, it would not have been difficult to detect the same gift for inherently appealing melodies, which in the Viennese master’s case end up being yet another asset in addition to the serene elegance and refined intricacies of his stunningly crafted Quintet for Piano and Winds. The terrific playing by the Decoda musicians did the rest, and our evening wrapped up with the best that the Classical tradition has to offer. Mozart was reputedly very proud of that particular composition, and there’s no doubt he would have been very pleased with that particular performance.

Sunday, October 27, 2019

Marc-André Hamelin - Scriabin, Prokofiev, Feinberg & Schuberg - 10/22/19

Scriabin: Fantasy in B Minor, Op. 28
Prokofiev: Sarcasms, Op. 17
Feinberg: Piano Sonata No. 3, Op. 3
Schubert: Piano Sonata in B-flat Major, D. 960

Although my official 2019-2020 Carnegie Hall season got underway on the Tuesday evening of the previous week with the winning team of the Dover Quartet and Emanuel Ax in Zankel Hall, its start actually felt truly complete this past Tuesday evening as I was entering the iconic Stern Auditorium with my friend Joe for a recital by Marc-André Hamelin, who was paying his annual fall visit to Carnegie Hall.
Understated almost to a fault, the Canadian pianist has nevertheless been distinguishing himself by his impeccable technique, profound musicianship and fierce spirit of adventure for decades now. Therefore, we were understandably very excited at the prospect of hearing him tackle an attractive program consisting of three obscure Russian works of the early 20th century by Scriabin, Prokofiev and Feinberg, as well as some more traditional musing about death by 19th century Schubert. Definitely a good enough reason to make it to the corner of W. 57th Street and7th Avenue even on a miserable rainy evening.

Never one to make life easy for himself, Hamelin started his performance for Alexander Scriabin’s dauntingly challenging Fantasy in B Minor, whose sweeping dramatic intensity turned out to be a dazzling contrast to its countless subtle nuances, the tightly controlled virtuosic splash being expertly packed in a mere 10 minutes. Now that’s what I would call hitting the ground running.
Sergei Prokofiev’s pianist skills were second to none, which probably explains why he was able to compose with unwavering confidence for the instrument even at a fairly young age as his student work Sarcasms positively proved on Tuesday night. And if the five short movements contain a wide range of widely contracting unusual sounds, they also make room for some unmistakable touches of true lyricism which Hamelin took the time to cleverly point out.
Samuil Feinberg concluded the Russian part of the program with his Piano Sonata No. 3, a dark and turbulent journey with just a bit of introspection for good measure, which kind of brought us back full circle to Scriabin in terms of unabashed intensity. And if Hamelin did  not hesitate to relentlessly pound on the long-suffering piano when the score required it, he also managed to nail some impressive acrobatics before naturally landing on his feet.
While the Russian half of the program had been richly rewarding, after intermission Hamelin let off the pedal and treated the audience to a stunningly beautiful performance of Franz Schubert’s death-contemplating Piano Sonata in B-flat Major. Serenely extending over 45 minutes, the composer’s last instrumental work shows a deep sense of acceptance, which Hamelin delicately conveys in his unpretentious (This was no shrink session) and unsentimental (This was no soap opera) performance.

As if the substantial concert had not been enough, Hamelin heeded our insistent applause and came back with three encores that included a transcendental Barcarolle No. 3 in G-flat Major by Fauré, a playful "Général Lavine - eccentric" from Préludes by Debussy, and an endearing "Music Box" from Con Intimissimo Sentimento, No. 5 by… Hamelin himself. There’s clearly nothing the man cannot do.

Saturday, October 19, 2019

Dover Quartet & Emanuel Ax - Britten, Brahms & Schumann - 10/15/19

Britten: String Quartet No. 1 in D Major 
Brahms: String Quartet No. 3 in B-flat Major 
Schumann: Piano Quintet in E-flat Major, Op. 44 

Last Tuesday night was opening night at Carnegie Hall, and all three concert halls were at long last buzzing with excitement again. After a bit of an inner conflict, I had decided to skip the glittery big bash featuring our neighbor to the south, the highly capable Philadelphia Orchestra, their unstoppable music director, Yannick Nézet-Séguin, and their special guest, the dainty pianist Hélène Grimaud, for the more subdued, but just as appealing, concert downstairs in Zankel Hall featuring the much-lauded Dover Quartet and the reliably terrific pianist Emanuel Ax.
Beside the sterling reputation of the musicians and the wonderful intimacy of the venue, the ultimately decisive factor had been the fact that the program included a string quartet by Benjamin Britten, an intriguing composer whose œuvre I have always admired without knowing very well. So I eagerly joined the masses for the sold-out performance.

The last important work that Benjamin Britten wrote while living in the United States, his String Quartet No. 1 establishes itself as fundamentally experimental right from the very beginning with ethereal sounds from the restless violins that would now and then be punctuated by seemingly random pizzicatos from the intruding cello. And off we went into the expansive, highly intricate first movement. It was followed by a rough-around-the-edges scherzo and a delicately melancholic adagio, before the composer’s keen interest in rhythms found another vivid expression in the highly complex and downright electrifying last movement. The razor-sharp and crystal-clear performance of the Dover Quartet was a thrilling as a Carnegie Hall season-opening number ought to be.
After Britten’s engaging quirks, we moved on to the solid confine of more traditional fare with Johannes Brahms’ String Quartet No. 3. As winningly sophisticated as anything the incurable perfectionist has ever written, the composition also expresses an irrepressible joie de vivre, which is much more unexpected on his part. But hey, we happily took it all in, especially since quite a few passages highlighted the fabulous skills of Milena Parajo-van de Stadt, the quartet’s fierce and fearless violist.
After intermission, Emanuel Ax joined the quartet for Robert Schumann’s genre-defining and universally beloved popular Piano Quintet in E-flat Major, whose last noted appearance in pop culture was in Yorgos Lanthimos’ deliciously wicked period piece The Favourite. Still conventional enough to be dismissively labelled as “too Leipzigerisch” by no less than Franz Liszt, but indiscriminately admired by pretty much everybody else, Schumann’s Piano Quintet is a beautifully melodic gift that keeps on giving, and it sure did on Tuesday night as the five musicians treated the audience to an effortlessly virtuosic and genuinely warm-hearted performance of it.

Wednesday, October 9, 2019

New York Philharmonic - Sibelius &Berlioz - 10/05/19

Conductor: Jaap van Zweden 
Sibelius: Concerto for Violin and Orchestra in D Minor, Op. 47
Augustin Hadelich: Violinist 
Berlioz: Symphonie fantastique, Op. 14 

When I create my wish list for an upcoming season, a few top priorities never fail to pop up, such as Sibelius’ stunning Violin Concerto. And when it is paired with a good old friend that I haven’t heard in a while like Berlioz’s Symphonie fantastique and performed by the New York Philharmonic, all the better. 
The composition matters, of course, but so does the soloist. And I was thrilled to see that the fearless violinist for the occasion – because fear has to be checked in when tackling the Sibelius – would be Augustin Hadelich, not only because our paths unfortunately have not crossed very often, but also because when they have, it has never been for the Sibelius. So I was looking forward to experiencing them both in one swell package.
Programming warhorses such as those two generally does not bring in the avant-garde crowd, but it did bring a lot of people on Saturday evening, and David Geffen Hall looked pretty much filled to capacity. And why not? I personally could not imagine a better way to wrap up our first cool, crispy, sunny, and overall splendid, fall day in the Big Apple.

The Sibelius Violin Concerto being one of the masterpieces that I obsess over, I try to hear as often as I can, which is still not as often as I’d like. On Saturday evening, Hadelich’s thoughtful performance of it did nothing but renew my deep love and endless admiration for the gripping emotional journey. His tone may have been subtle, borderline understated at times, but he knew exactly when to pull out all the stops to dazzling effect. From the icy opening to the goofy “dance of the polar bears”, he maintained his solid command of the piece, extracting evocative tiny details while always keeping the big picture in mind.
It is tough and risky to follow the Sibelius, but after we loudly demonstrated our appreciation for his immense talent, Hadelich came up with the perfect encore in his friend Ruggiero Ricci’s arrangement of Francisco Tarrega’s Recuerdos de la Alhambra. A wonderful little treat that was an exquisite combination of lightness and complexity.
After intermission, we all happily embarked on yet another performance of Berlioz’s Symphonie fantastique, one of the most popular works in the classical music canon. An extended fantasy with never a dull moment, the engrossing score requires a crack orchestra to be able to unfold in all its magnificent opium-fueled glory. Luckily, the New York Philharmonic sounded particularly energetic and unwaveringly committed on Saturday night, taking the audience along the series of breathless episodes filled with love, dance, pleasure, loss and terror, with just the right amount of mystery thrown in for good measure. In fact, the general excitement was so palpable that my right seatmate, who had copiously slept during the Sibelius, remained wide-awake and totally engaged for the entire trip, all the way to the thunderous ovation.

Wednesday, October 2, 2019

New York Classical Players - Wagner, Bartok, Holst & Beethoven - 09/28/19

Music Director and Conductor: Dongmin Kim 
Wagner: Prelude to Tristan and Isolde for Strings (arranged by Yoomi Paick) 
Bartok: Divertimento for String Orchestra Sz. 113 BB, 118 
Holst: Jupiter (arranged by Samuel Adler) 
Beethoven: Triple Concerto for Violin, Cello and Piano (arranged by Yoomi Paick) 
Michael Katz: Cello
HaeSun Paik: Piano 
Josef Spacek: Violin

One week and one day after my season-opening concert with the New York Philharmonic, I was eagerly looking forward to attending my season-opening concert with the New York Classical Players, who obligingly were performing it at the W83 Auditorium, a nice concert hall even closer to my apartment than the David Geffen Hall. And while the feisty chamber orchestra may not be quite as world-famous as the larger ensemble down the road just yet, its musicians have proven time and time again that they can readily compete with their more established colleagues in terms of technical skills and adventurous spirit.
Moreover, this special occasion would not be just the first program of a new and goodies-packed season. It would also celebrate the 10th anniversary of the New York Classical Players’ creation; in other words, 10 years of high-quality classical music offered for free to everybody in an ever-expanding radius that has so far reached New York City, New Jersey, California and Korea, and will also include Bolivia this season.
Back in the Big Apple, after a busy day in Coney Island for a fun outdoor art exhibit, Brighton Beach for authentic Russian food, and the Upper West Side for a de rigueur Italian dinner at Celeste, my visiting friend Vittorio and I eventually plopped ourselves down among the eclectic audience for an evening of Romantic works by Richard Wagner, Bela Bartok, Gustav Holst and Ludwig van Beethoven.

Probably more by chance than by design, my season-opening concert by the NY Phil started with the overture to a potential opera by Phillip Glass, and my season-opening concert by the NYCP would start with the prelude to a landmark opera by Richard Wagner. And it is worth noting that the prelude to Tristan and Isolde was first heard in concert before the entire opera was finished too. Beautifully arranged by Yoomi Paick for a chamber string orchestra and superbly performed by the Classical Players on Saturday night, the music vividly expressed unquenchable longing in big lush Romantic waves that were as overpowering as the intense passion uniting the two lovers.
After the gorgeous agony of forbidden love, we were shaken up from our ecstatic torpor by Bartok’s Divertimento and its zesty liveliness straight from Eastern European folk-dance tunes. The mood grew significantly darker during the second movement, but perked up again for the Finale, and provided us with a priceless opportunity to experience first-hand the blazing talent of violinist Tai Murray, who was filling the role of concertmaster with innate musicality and irrepressible flair.
After the intermission, we moved to England for one of Holst’s popular Planets, and let’s face it, if you’re going to pick one, it might as well be mighty Jupiter, AKA “The Bringer of Jollity”, which had been arranged for strings by Samuel Adler. And the glowing strings of the orchestra sounded like they were having a jolly good time indeed bringing out the punch and polish of the highly influential and enduringly popular suite in just about eight minutes.
We concluded the evening with Beethoven’s Triple Concerto for Violin, Cello and Piano arranged by Yoomi Paick. True to its commitment of showcasing promising young talents, the NYCP had invited cellist Michael Katz and violinist Josef Spacek to be part of the featured trio, along with eminent pianist and teacher HaeSun Paik. Consequently, there were quite a few musicians on that stage, and it is to maestro Kim’s credit that all the various moving parts ended up making one impressively seamless whole, with nevertheless a special mention for Katz who brilliantly distinguished himself in what had to be the most challenging part of the score. Even if it does not have the same scope and rigorousness as some of the composer’s better works, the easily engaging Triple Concerto is still a natural charmer in the right hands, and we certainly had them on Saturday night.

Tuesday, September 24, 2019

New York Philharmonic - Glass, Barber & Prokofiev - 09/20/19

Conductor: Jaap van Zweden 
Glass: King Lear Overture 
Barber: Knoxville: Summer of 1915 
Kelli O’Hara: Vocalist
Prokofiev: Excerpts from Romeo and Juliet

The opening piece of the opening concert of a new season is always an eagerly awaited moment, and this year, I was particularly excited to kick-start my 2019-2020 music season with the New York Philharmonic and – drum roll, please – the world première of Philip Glass’ King Lear Overture. As one might guessed, this NYP exclusive was inspired by Shakespeare’s play, and if the music gods are with us, we may, just may, get a full-length opera out of it someday. Hope springs eternal.
Granted, since the actual première took place on Wednesday, on Friday I would technically be attending the troisième, and the piece is only 10 minutes long. But after way too many weeks without indulging in live music, I could hardly afford to be fussy about timing. And I managed to secure more live Glass music sooner than later by stopping by at the Metropolitan Opera box office to buy a ticket to his upcoming Akhnaten, which lasts almost three and a half hours. So there.
As for the rest of the program, it was intriguing enough for Samuel Barber’s Knoxville: Summer of 1915 sung by Broadway star Kelli O’Hara, followed by a series of scenes from Sergei Prokofiev’s crowd-pleasing ballet score for Romeo and Juliet that had been reordered by New York Philharmonic music director and our maestro for the evening Jaap van Zweden.
On that last official day of summer, the weather was warm and the mood festive at the Lincoln Center, so much so in fact that I felt obligated to treat myself to yet another decadent ice cream from the strategically located L’Arte del Gelato cart. Just because I still could.

Glass’ King Lear Overture may be frustratingly short, but it quickly proved to be overflowing with so many promising ideas that seeing a complete opera in the near future does not seem so far-fetched indeed. Hitting the ground running with a resounding bang, the orchestra kept on going full speed in so many directions that it made your head spin. So much for minimalism! It almost felt as if the composer was trying once and for all to get rid of the enduring label he never liked. That said, the relentless creative one movement did wonder conveying the chaotic nature of the play, if not its underlying darkness (Too many colors). Not to mention that it could also proudly stand on its own.
After one prominent American composer presenting a work inspired by an English classic, we moved on to another prominent American composer presenting a work inspired by a prose poem by James Agee in Barber’s Knoxville: Summer of 1915. Nostalgically depicting a summer night in the Deep South through the voice of a child and an adult, the orchestral composition had an attractive dreamlike quality that made Kelli O’Hara’s crystal-clear and well-articulated singing all the more piercing. More blues and less vibrato would have been welcome, but as it was, the fleeting vignette about a leisurely summer evening in a Tennessean small town was a welcome diversion from our action-packed summer evening in New York City.
After intermission, The Bard was back, with his timeless heart-breaking love story smack in the spotlight this time. Slightly rearranged excerpts from Prokofiev’s two orchestral suites from his sumptuous Romeo and Juliet score reminded all of us that, although the innovative music was originally deemed “undanceable” by the classically trained Bolshoi dancers, it also features some intensely lyrical passages that would have made his fellow Russian master Tchaikovsky proud. Apparently ready, willing and able to sink their teeth into a meaty piece, the New York Philharmonic’s musicians threw themselves whole-heartedly into the task at hand all the way to a decidedly no-holds-barred “Death of Tybalt”, which concluded the concert with another resounding Shakespeare-inspired bang. What goes around comes around.

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.