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.