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.

Wednesday, May 1, 2019

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, April 29, 2019

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, April 28, 2019

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, March 29, 2019

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, March 24, 2019

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

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

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

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

Saturday, March 23, 2019

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

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

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

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

Thursday, March 21, 2019

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, March 13, 2019

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

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

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

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