Wednesday, November 27, 2019

Boston Symphony Orchestra - Grieg & Mahler - 11/18/19

Conductor: Andris Nelsons 
Grieg: Piano Concerto in A Minor, Op. 16 
Leif Ove Andsnes: Piano 
Mahler: Symphony No. 4 in G Major 
Genia Kuhmeier: Soprano 

Although the weekend was officially over, my mom and I still had one more concert scheduled during her stay in the Big Apple because, of course, no visit to New York City is complete without a visit to the fairest concert hall of them all, Carnegie Hall. Even better, the prestigious Boston Symphony Orchestra and his music director Andris Nelsons, as well as Norwegian pianist extraordinaire Leif Ove Andsnes, happened to be in town at the same time too. Talk about good timing!
The program was definitely on the safe side, with one big concerto by Norwegian composer Grieg, which I was not familiar with but was ready to immerse myself into, and one big symphony by Austrian composer Mahler, which while not a favorite of mine (All those bells tend to get on my nerves) should still give the orchestra a golden opportunity to unleash its mighty power. Big names attract big crowds, and for the fourth time in four days, on Monday evening, we found ourselves in a packed music venue. Yeah!

Having had the privilege of hearing Leif Ove Andsnes dip his virtuosic toes into an impressive range of genres, from Baroque to contemporary, as well as in a impressive range of contexts, from solo recitals to soloist with huge orchestras, I was still curious to hear him tackle a piece by a fellow Norwegian music man. Heavily influenced by Robert Schumann and Norwegian folk music, championed by no less than Franz Liszt and constantly revised by the composer, Grieg’s one and only piano concerto is unquestionably a composition whose popularity has never abated.
And it certainly proved to be as popular as ever on Monday night, with Andsnes expertly conveying its majestic grandness, glorious lyricism, delicate melancholy and general warmth. Beside delighting the audience, the impeccable performance actually pointed out the obvious, in case somebody was wondering: Why bother writing more piano works if you’ve hit the jackpot the first time around? Although it faces serious competition on the piano concerto repertoire, Grieg’s has no problem holding its own in the best Romantic tradition.
To respond to our loud appreciation of his glowing performance, Andsnes came back with Grieg’s Norwegian March from Lyric Pieces, Op. 54, No. 2, which he promptly dispatched with the same exacting savoir-faire.
After intermission came the time to the other warhorse of our evening. Inspired by the lovely song featured the last movement, Mahlers’ Symphony No. 4 is very unusual in that it was composed backwards, with the last movement composed first and everything else revolving around it. In its final form, the first movement describes a happy-go-lucky human being, before death makes a wild appearance, out-of-tune violin in hand, in the second movement. But not to worry, calm and beauty take over the third movement to ease the audience into the celestial Finale.
So there is a lot going on during those 60 minutes, but on Monday evening maestro Nelsons had pretty much everything under control, allowing the huge orchestra to breathe when needed, but also to display plenty of controlled force when it was called for. When all had been played and done, some of the undisputed highlights had been a thrillingly elegiac Adagio as well as the exquisite closing song "Das himmlische Leben" (The Heavenly Life), which had found a wonderfully interpreter in Austrian soprano Genia Kuhmeier, whose crystal-clear voice and graceful presence were priceless contributions to the overall performance.

Four down and no more to go. Mission accomplished.

Sunday, November 24, 2019

Cantori New York - How To Go On - 11/17/19

Artistic Director and Conductor: Mark Shapiro 
Hermann Goetz: Seven Choral Songs Op. 21 
Henryk Górecki: Five Kurpian Songs 
Dale Trumbore: How to Go On 

While my retiree mom has a fairly open schedule, she still insists on taking numerous factors into account before committing to anything. Therefore, when plotting her trip to New York this year she carefully checked, among other things, my schedule, friends’ schedules, weather pattern, tourist season, airline ticket prices, the restaurant scene, as well as what was going on in musical and visual arts venues.
Eventually, the two major factors of her November visit came down to a slight dip in mass tourism and Cantori New York’s fall concert weekend, possibly not in that order, but it is admittedly a tough call. Regarding the latter, the promise of a program featuring essentially tonal works in German, Polish and English, and “nothing too weird”, did not hurt either.
Fact is, after getting to know them in New York for Mother’s Day back in the spring of 2013 and then hearing them again in Cassis and Marseille during their short but intense concert series celebrating the city’s status of European Capital of Culture a few months later, she was clearly way overdue for another concert of theirs. Fast-forward a few years, and on Sunday afternoon, we finally found ourselves in Chelsea’s Church of the Holy Apostles for their second and last packed performance of the weekend.

One of the major components of Cantori’s core mission is to put the spotlight on unfairly neglected past or existing composers, and that laudable objective was brilliantly fulfilled on Sunday afternoon by the inclusion of 19th-century German composer Hermann Goetz’s Seven Choral Songs at the inspired request of an enlightened member of the ensemble. And what a find it was! In the best Romantic fashion, the seven texts by various German poets on themes such as love, nature and faith were set to vibrantly melodic music for an all-around exquisite end result.
However, Cantori being Cantori, there still had to be a challenge to be conquered somewhere in the program, and last weekend it came in the form of Henryk Górecki’s Five Kurpian Songs, with their “inventive arrangements” of the Polish text. Additionally, while I assumed that those “traditional folk songs” would of the danceable kind, they turned out to cover a much wider and subtler range, from the beautifully atmospheric “II – Dark is the night, how dark” to the irresistibly vivacious “IV – I am a farm-hand from Torum,” all the way to the generously extended “V – The storm is coming, it will rain”, all effortlessly reaching a true spiritual dimension.
After intermission, we were all invited to ponder the sempiternal existential question: “How can we go on, knowing the end of the story?” during the New York premiere of American composer Dale Trumbore’s 2016 requiem How To Go On. And that’s just what we did throughout the eight starkly distinct but still fundamentally connected movements, which are based on poems by Barbara Crooker, Laura Foley and Amy Fleury, and relentlessly explore our relationship with death.
As one can imagine, the topic could have easily produced a total downer, and in fact the work predictably starts with the inevitable pain and suffering experienced with the death of a loved one, but it also progressively moves on towards understanding and acceptance that life goes on no matter what. Adroitly incorporating solo voices into the choir, the multi-layered score stands out for its intricate complexity and poignant lyricism, which soloists and ensemble superbly handled on Sunday afternoon. And if the ever-elusive answer was not found – the performance ending on a powerful yet unresolved note – the engrossing musical journey had been well-worth taking regardless.

Three down, one more to go.

Friday, November 22, 2019

New York Philharmonic - Tchaikovsky, Dessner & Sibelius - 11/16/19

Conductor: Santtu-Matias Rouvali 
Tchaikovsky: Romeo and Juliet, Overture-Fantasy 
Bryce Dessner: Wires 
Bryce Dessner: Electric Guitar 
Sibelius: Symphony No. 1 

One day after our concert in my work neighborhood of Lower Manhattan, my mom and I were back in my home neighborhood of the Upper West Side for our Saturday night concert. That’s when, after a beautiful and busy fall day enjoying many of the area’s sights and amenities, as well as a quick trip mid-town for a fun visit to the Museum at FIT, we headed down Broadway for a concert by the New York Philharmonic in David Geffen Hall. As hard as it was to believe, it was a first for my mom, with all the pressure that it entails.
One week after the fabulous Esa-Pekka Salonen-centric performance I attended, there would be more high-quality Finnish exports to experience as the program included Sibelius’ First Symphony and would be conducted by young and fast-rising Finnish conductor Santtu-Matias Rouvali. Add to that Tchaikovsky’s  Romeo and Juliet, Overture-Fantasy and you had a true Romantic feast.
But that was not all. Variety being the spice of life, a dash of rock’n’roll would also make its appearance courtesy of The National’s Bryce Dessner and his electric guitar for the New York premiere of his own Wires. Lo and behold, this was the first program including an electric guitar performed by the New York Philharmonic. Better late than never, I suppose.

The two things that we noticed when walking into David Geffen Hall, was the impressive number of people in the audience, and the equally impressive number of musicians on the stage. This could be partly explained by the presence of Tchaikovsky on the program with his Romeo and Juliet, Overture-Fantasy. the intensely lyrical piece may have been “just” the concert opener, but its sheer power could not be denied. That said, The beloved Russian composer was clearly not the only big draw there.
Bryce Dessner, the American-born and Paris-based, endlessly versatile artist whose resume includes, but is not limited to, a Grammy-winning rock band, numerous film scores, countless exciting collaborations and plenty of experimental endeavors. Accordingly, a lot of audience members had obviously come to check him out in this unusual, but not completely unfamiliar, environment, a case in point being the young couple next to me, who were too busy taking pictures of their hero to even bother applauding him after he was done playing his Wires.
It was an applause-worthy performance though. Inspired by the connections made and missed with all sorts of wire, the cross-over portion of our evening turned out to be unexpectedly subdued, Dessner inconspicuously sitting down by the first violin with a plugged-in Fender Telecaster and intentionally blending in with the orchestra most of the time. For better or worse, there was no shredding guitar solo à la Jimmy Page (sigh), but still a fair amount of cool sonic arrangements, even if the wires did not always click seamlessly or meaningfully.
After intermission, we jumped right back into Romantic territory with Sibelius’s magnificent Symphony No. 1, which young and energetic maestro Rouvali handled with the unwavering aplomb of an old hand. He did not do anything crazy or even unusual with it, but led the exceptionally tight orchestra in an impressively coherent, informed and simply beautiful reading of it, which is quite a feat in itself already. To the credit of Dessner's fans, they stayed put for the lengthy classical part of the program, and even seemed to enjoy it thoroughly according to their spontaneous applause between the movements. And that may be the biggest accomplishment of them all!

Two down, two more to go.

Wednesday, November 20, 2019

Trinity Church Wall Street - Pärt & Poulenc - 11/15/19

Francis Poulenc: Figure Humaine 
Conductor: Melissa Attebury 
Downtown Voices 
The Choir of Trinity Wall Street 
Arvo Pärt: Passio 
Conductor: Stephen Sands 
Downtown Voices 
The Choir of Trinity Wall Street 

When my office decided to move to Lower Manhattan a few years ago, I of course became determined to take advantage of the thriving music scene in the Parish of Trinity Church Wall Street. Although I managed to get out of the office a few times for their wonderful Concerts at One series on Thursdays, I certainly haven’t been as dedicated at implementing my resolution as I was planning to. And I am afraid I cannot entirely blame my slacking off on work overload or Trinity Church’s on-going renovation works.
I still get their emails though, and earlier in the season, I made a point of singling out Friday, November 15 and its appealing combination of Poulenc’s Figure Humaine and Pärt’s Passio in the intimate St Paul’s Chapel. And it turns out that a lot of other people did too, as the little space was packed when my visiting mom and I go there (Who knew New York City had so many Poulenc and Pärt fans?). Beside being a reassuring sight in terms of the future of classical music, it also looked like a good omen for the mini-marathon that we had planned for the weekend.

Based on eight Surrealist poems by Paul Éluard and written in Paris in the dark and turbulent times of the Second World War, French composer Francis Poulenc’s cantata Figure Humaine is widely considered to be his absolute masterpiece as well as his most challenging work. But then again, there’s not much that the highly skilled members of Downtown Voices and The Choir of Trinity Wall Street cannot handle, and sure enough, the 12 singers of the much-admired two choirs got to work on the endlessly polyphonic score with exactness and fervor.
The highlight had to be, and in fact was, the terrific “Liberté”, which was not only the most substantial movement, but also featured a crescendo for the ages… and a personal memory of learning and studying that classic of French poetry back in school. There’s little doubt that the glorious piece stood out for everybody else as well, especially when, for its grand finale, the large chorus filling up the balcony joined the smaller group on the stage into a resounding cri du cœur calling for the ever-elusive liberty.
I am not a big fan of the Bible, but I am a huge fan of Estonian composer Arvo Pärt, and as such, I was very much looking forward to hearing his Passio for the first time, especially since the historic chapel would, after all, be a particularly appropriate setting. Essentially based on chapters 18 and 19 of the Gospel of John, the uncompromisingly monophonic Passio is a daunting undertaking that, on Friday evening, required four instrumentalists, the two choirs and a solo vocal quartet on the stage, as well as two soloists up on the balcony on each side of the organ, which would be briefly heard too.
Despite the large number of performers involved, and partly due to the medieval tradition-inspired tintinnabuli style and the Latin text-driven composition, the 70-minute performance of the minutely crafted score sounded deceptively simple and austere, the solo baritone, the solo tenor and the vocal quartet doing most of the work, and doing it extremely well, as Jesus, Pilates and the Evangelist respectively. On the other hand, it really felt like a waste to have such an exceptional chorus right there with so little to do.
We did, however, occasionally get to hear subway trains rolling underground and a fire truck rushing above ground. As a matter of fact, it sometimes felt like no matter how dire the biblical predicament was inside, there was more action taking place outside, except maybe for the guy who could not stop fidgeting behind me. That said, Pärt won in the end.

One down, three more to go.

Tuesday, November 12, 2019

New York Philharmonic - Hindemith, Bach & Salonen - 11/10/19

Conductor: Esa-Pekka Salonen Hindemith: Ragtime (Well-Tempered) 
Bach: Two Chorale Preludes (arr. Schoenberg) 
Salonen: Gemini 
Hindemith: Mathis der Maler Symphony 

After a Friday evening spent going to JFK, waiting for almost two hours at JFK and coming back from JFK, on Saturday evening I was very much looking forward to hitting the concert road again. This time, as if to keep the logistics to a blissful minimum, I just had to walk down Broadway to David Geffen Hall for a performance by the New York Philharmonic that included an eagerly awaited double dose of the master of cool himself , Esa-Pekka Salonen, who was appearing on the program as conductor and composer.
However, even if Finland’s finest export remains a supremely popular figure among music-loving New Yorkers, the concert hall was dishearteningly far from packed for a Saturday night, the top tier being even completely empty. It is no wonder then that, despite repeated heavy coaxing from the local powers that be, the man keeps on choosing the West Coast over the Big Apple as a base. We simply may not deserve him. That said, I must also admit that, if it had not been for his ubiquitous presence, the program would not have particularly appealed to me either. And yet, I can now say that the audience members who did show up got vastly rewarded.

To get the party going, we had the immutable Johann Sebastian Bach, but with a few twists, because when the œuvre is timeless, it can be adapted endlessly, and even sometimes cleverly, as we were about to find out. A quick but flavorful amuse-bouche, Paul Hindemith’s Ragtime (Well-Tempered) was a feisty take on the Fugue in C Minor from the Well-Tempered Clavier, while Arnold Schoenberg’s arrangements of the quiet “Schmücke dich, O liebe Seele” and the high-spirited “Komm, Gott, Schöpfer, heiliger Geist” received powerfully eloquent performances. Together, those three miniatures made a very enjoyable concert opener while preparing us for the even more intriguing undertakings to come.
Once of the most notable pleasures of having Salonen on the podium, beside his conducting that is, is listening to him narrate the genesis of his compositions with his trademark deadpan sense of humor. And there he was on Saturday night, explaining that the idea for his Gemini score came from a “post-grunge” bassline he heard and immediately became obsessed with as he was having dinner in a trendy Paris restaurant after having just conducted an opera at La Bastille. 
Later on, while working on it, he found himself pulled into two very different directions and consequently ended up with two separate and highly contrasting pieces inspired by the mythological non-identical twins Castor (the thoughtful immortal), which premiered in Los Angeles in April 2018, and Pollux (the rambunctious mortal), which premiered also in Los Angeles last month. Apparently, the most uncomfortable positions can at times yield the most satisfying results.
Starting with the introspective Castor, the strings proceeded to smoothly unfurl their attractive lines while crystalline bells randomly chimed in and discreet horns occasionally made themselves heard for the dark-hued half of the combo. The extroverted Castor, on the other hand, made his grand boisterous entrance and just kept going unabated, leaving no instruments unplayed, including a gigantic gong and two pairs of horizontal drums standing in the back of the stage. Although each piece could easily stand on its own, the combination of the two emphasized the wildly imaginative nature of the endeavor as well as the sheer brilliance of its execution. And just like that, Salonen The Composer scored big again.
More Hindemith was in store for us after intermission, which at this point we happily welcome with open ears. Inspired from his opera-in-then-progress Mathis der Maler, his symphony by the same name has remained one of his most popular works, and for good reasons too. Based on the life of German Renaissance painter Matthias Grünewald, each of the three movements draws from what is probably the artist’s most spectacular achievement, the Isenheim Altarpiece.
And in fact, colors abound in both the painted triptych and the musical score, and were coming out of the latter in all their vivid glory under Salonen’s baton on Saturday night. This undisputed success was far from the reaction the symphony first got back in the days though. In the mid-1930s, the Nazi government was unsurprisingly not thrilled by the story of an artist who would pursue his calling regardless of the political climate he lived in and quickly labeled Grünewald and his art “degenerate”, which was of course a clear hint that the composer was doing something right.
Luckily, the Nazi government disappeared and the composition has lived on, its engaging neo-Romantic sounds having just enough of a modern touch to make them interesting, but never odd. On Saturday night, the NYPhil and maestro Salonen delivered a deliciously crisp, totally committed and intensely alive performance, readily showing the total relevance of Hindemith’s symphony in our own turbulent times. And just like that, Salonen The Conductor scored big again.

Saturday, November 9, 2019

Decoda - Bach, Schoenberg, Adès & Mozart - 11/07/19

Johann Christian Bach: Keyboard Quintet in D Major, Op. 22, No. 1 
Arnold Schoenberg: Chamber Symphony No. 1 (arr. Webern) 
Thomas Adès: Catch, Op. 4 
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart: Quintet for Piano and Winds in E-flat Major, K. 452 

According to a popular saying, good things come in threes. And according to my schedule, last Thursday night I was ready to test the veracity of that claim when, after two highly successful evenings in the Zankel Hall and the Stern Auditorium, the time had come for me to pay a visit to the smallest, but admittedly loveliest, venue of them all, the Weill Recital Hall, to complete my Carnegie Hall season-opening home run.
That perfect opportunity had presented itself in the form of a concert by some members of Decoda, a collective of alumni from Ensemble Connect, the coveted two-year fellowship program of Carnegie Hall, The Juilliard School, and the Weill Music Institute in partnership with the New York Department of Education. Needless to point out, that kind of impeccable pedigree means that the musicians are of the highest caliber.
And sure enough, true to their reputation of talent and boldness, they had concocted a program of “Influences and Inspirations” that featured an eclectic range of works from German Baroque, the Second Viennese School, English Contemporary and Viennese Classical. Not a bad way to spend my last evening of freedom of the next two weeks, and a rainy one at that, before a much less exciting trip to JFK the following evening.

As hard as it is to believe, Johann Christian Bach – AKA the “English” Bach – apparently was more famous in his lifetime than his father, the one and only Johann Sebastian Bach. And I’ll be the first one to admit that I immensely enjoyed the immediately attractive melodies, carefree mood and easy flow of his 10-minute Keyboard Quintet in D Major, all confidently brought to life by the five evidently inspired musicians on the stage. That said, I also think that history has made the right choice in canonizing his father.
The audience’s fleeting chance to get comfortable ended abruptly when we jumped from an easy-listening opener from 18th century London to a ground-breaking shocker from 20th century Vienna. Indeed, even if some lingering Late Romanticism could be heard in some of the stunningly lyrical violin lines, Arnold Schoenberg’s Chamber Symphony No. 1 was squarely facing the future on Thursday night. And what a future it was! Decoda had chosen the Anton Webern-arranged version for the intimate concert, and there they were, expertly dismantling solidly established tradition and virtuosically working their way through the onset of a radical revolution.
After intermission, we moved back to England, but in the company of a contemporary Englishman this time, with a young and mischievous Thomas Adés and his truly delightful Catch. Written when the composer was 19 and still in school, it is a short piece that had a somewhat traditional piano-violin-cello trio onstage contend with a feisty clarinet that looked and sounded comically out of control. Starting in a seat at the end of my row, clarinetist Paul Cho quickly got up and turned into a busybody walking erratically among the audience in the hall and the musicians on the stage, not to mention keeping everyone guessing during his random disappearances. It was fun, clever and, of course, expertly performed.
The last but definitely not least piece on the program kind of brought us back full circle to the beginning as Johann Christian Bach briefly taught a young Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart back in 18th century London. Fact is, even if this trivia had not been spelled out in the program notes, it would not have been difficult to detect the same gift for inherently appealing melodies, which in the Viennese master’s case end up being yet another asset in addition to the serene elegance and refined intricacies of his stunningly crafted Quintet for Piano and Winds. The terrific playing by the Decoda musicians did the rest, and our evening wrapped up with the best that the Classical tradition has to offer. Mozart was reputedly very proud of that particular composition, and there’s no doubt he would have been very pleased with that particular performance.