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.