Wednesday, February 27, 2019

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, February 12, 2019

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

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

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

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

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