Friday, March 29, 2019

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, March 24, 2019

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

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

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

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

Saturday, March 23, 2019

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

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

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

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

Thursday, March 21, 2019

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, March 13, 2019

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, March 12, 2019

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

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

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

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

Thursday, March 7, 2019

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

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

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

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

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