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.