Tuesday, December 17, 2019

Cantori New York - A Cantori Holiday - 12/15/19

Music Director and Conductor: Mark Shapiro 
Piano: Jeremy Chan 
English Traditional Carol: Tomorrow Shall be my Dancing Day (arr. David Willcocks) 
Kim Gannon & Walter Kent: I'll be Home for Christmas (arr. Mac Huff) 
Algirdas Martinaitis: Alleluia 
Elizabeth Poston: Jesus Christ and the Apple Tree 
English Traditional Carol: God Rest you Merry Gentlemen (arr. David Willcocks) 
Herbert Howells: A Spotless Rose 
French Traditional  Carol: Shepherds in the Fields Abiding (arr. David Willcocks) 
Polish Traditional Carol: Infant Holy, Infant Lowly (arr. David Willcocks) 
English Traditional Carol: I saw Three Ships (arr. Brian Morales) 
Jewish Liturgy: Oseh Shalom 
Every Voice Children’s Chorus 
J. Pierpont: Jingle Bells (ass. Kirby Shaw) 
Every Voice Children’s Chorus 
Piano: Drew X. Coles 
English Traditional Carol: The First Noël (arr. Rhonda Poley) 
Cantori New York 
Every Voice Children’s Chorus 
Mykola Leontovich and Peter J. Wilhousky: Carol of the Bells 
Felix Mendelssohn: Es wird ein Stern 
Harold Darke and Christina Rossetti: In the Bleak Midwinter 
Mariah Carey and Walter Afanasieff: All I Want for Christmas is You (arr. Mac Huff) 
Irving Berlin: Snow 
Leroy Anderson and Mitchell Parish: Sleigh Ride (arr. JoAnn Harris) 
Tom Lehrer: Chanukah in Santa Monica (arr. Joshua Jacobsen) 
Franz Biebl: Ave Maria 
Traditional West Country Carol: We Wish you a Merry Christmas (arr. Arthur Warrell) 
Franz Gruber: Silent Night (Sing-along) 

Since I do not particularly care about Christmas, and even less about the perky and sentimental music that inevitably comes with it, I tend to diligently steer clear of all holiday-related celebrations, my only exception to the rule being Cantori New York’s holiday concert, and for good reasons. For the several years I’ve been attending it, it has always managed to diplomatically combine welcome and not so welcome favorites, hidden and not so hidden gems, unorthodox versions of Jewish songs, exclusive arrangements and special requests by Cantori’s members, and the traditional sing-along for “Silent Night”.
What more could one ask for? Well, a holiday party of course, and they had that covered too after their second and last performance this past weekend. For all those reasons, and also to prove my occasionally willingness to go with the flow and the spirit of the season, I found myself heading down to the West Village’s Church of St. Luke in the Fields on the nice sunny afternoon we got to enjoy last Sunday to join friends, colleagues and other acquaintances in the packed-to-the-rafters space.

Although at first it looked like the British and a few of their European neighbors had come and hijacked the program, a wide range of American classics were included and, I might add, performed with the choir’s signature proficiency. Among those we had Kim Gannon and Walter Kent’s syrupy “I’ll be home for Christmas”, Elizabeth Poston’s folksy “Jesus Christ and the Apple Tree”, Irving Berlin’s upbeat “Snow” and Tom Lehrer’s good-humored “Chanukah in Santa Monica”.
Standing out in the international portion of the program, the Ukrainian-based “Carol of the Bells” brought just the right amount of unadulterated cheerfulness. I was also delighted by the inclusion of Felix Mendelssohn’s “Es wird ein Stern”, which not only contributed attractive melodies, but some German singing too. Another newcomer from across the pond that made a wonderful impression was Lithuanian Algirdas Martinaitis’ “Alleluia”, during which many different variations of “Alleluia!” created endlessly interwoven and truly mesmerizing textures.
A recurring carol that will always be a personal favorite of mine is the vivacious French-flavored “Shepherds in the Field Abiding”, not only for the childhood memories that it never fails to bring back to me, but also for Cantori’s reliably exciting performance of it. Another composition that has touched the audience’s heart and soul year after year is Franz Biebl’s all-male “Ave Maria”, and the gentlemen of Cantori nailed it again on Sunday afternoon. Now all we need is an all-female work of the same caliber.
A returning number in a different package was the English carol “I Saw Three Ships” that had been winningly rearranged by Cantori member Brian Morales. Overflowing with vigor and high-spiritedness, this catchy new take on the classic has even converted maestro Shapiro from a self-avowed die-hard sceptic about the song’s merit into a new die-hard fan. And that, my friends, is no small endorsement.
Former Cantori member Jonathan Breit’s dynamite version of “Ochos Kandelikas” got a new pianist in Jeremy Chan and, as a probable consequence, a somewhat more restrained treatment than in years past. That said, the song’s inherent hotness should not, could not and would not be fully subdued. With its sexy rhythms and irresistible beats, not to mention the singers’ infectious enthusiasm, this was still one of the biggest hits of the concert, and rightfully so.
I originally thought that the addition of Mariah Carey’s “All I want for Christmas is you” to the program was a seasonal joke, but on Sunday afternoon I discovered that the Church of St. Luke in the Fields is in fact no longer a safe space free of pervasive pop culture. On the other hand, I can now brag about being there when Cantori got to repeatedly coo “baby!” for what was possibly the very first time in its several glorious decades of existence.
Keeping up with a newly established tradition, Cantori had invited the young singers from Every Voice children's chorus to perform by themselves, which they very capably did for the soulful Hebrew song “Oseh Shalom” and the all but ubiquitous “Jingle Bells”, before both ensembles joined their mighty forces for a heart-felt cross-generational rendition of the classical English Christmas carol “The First Noël”.
Keeping up with a long established tradition, by the end of the concert it was the audience’s turn to join Cantori to sing along the first and last verses of Franz Gruber’s ever-beautiful “Silent Night” in English while the indefatigable choir sang the middle one by themselves in German “in an alien key”. Beside generating good feelings all around, our contribution also earned us an invitation to the packed and rocking party. Happy holidays!

Wednesday, December 11, 2019

Met - Akhnaten - 12/07/19

Composer: Philip Glass 
Librettist: Philip Glass in association with Shalom Goldman, Robert Israel, Richard Riddell, and Jerome Robbins 
Conductor: Karen Kamensek
Producer/Director: Phelim McDermott 

Akhnaten: Anthony Roth Constanzo 
Nefertiti: J’Nai Bridges 
Queen Tye: Disella Larusdottir 

Seeing the “SOLD OUT” label appear on a concert or opera poster is always a heart-warming sight for any music lover, especially if they already have a ticket. And it is an even bigger thrill when the program is kind of out of left field in a supposedly open-minded city that is surprisingly conservative in its musical tastes.
Not that Philip Glass’ music is that esoteric anymore, of course, but filling up the cavernous Metropolitan opera house, and with a somewhat younger-looking audience too, is still a feat that must be acknowledged for any composer, most particularly when the opera is far from traditional (Granted, Akhnaten includes a show-stopping love duet in the middle and the hero’s ghastly death toward the end).
My mom, who had gone to see it during her busy New York stay, had lamented the lack of action and standard arias, but had nevertheless conceded some redeeming qualities such as amazing visuals and overall originality. And the reviews have been overwhelmingly positive, which probably at least partly explains the sold-out status.
I do not need any incentives to go listen to Philip Glass’ music as soon as an opportunity arises. So I had made sure to buy a matinee ticket when they became available, a few months ago, to have as much energy as possible to dedicate to the performance, and last Saturday I finally walked down Christmas tree-lined Broadway on a gorgeous sunny afternoon.

Philip Glass’ music is famous for its own, very distinctive, style, but it can still very much adapt to any story. That said, the ever-intrepid composer still managed not only to dig out an eye-opening plot, but also to come up with a mostly unintelligible libretto essentially made of archaic languages and a few spoken English interventions by The Scribe, to create a boldly unusual experience that combines ancient Egypt, religious upheaval and gender fluidity.
As Akhnaten, the monotheist sun-worshiper pharaoh who decides to impose his creed on his reluctant people and was not only murdered, but also pretty much wiped out from historical records for his audacity, American countertenor Anthony Roth Constanzo simply own the role. If for no other reason, he could have probably made Met history by being the first male singer to appear in full frontal nudity. But he quickly proved that he also had the singing and acting chops necessary to make a lasting impression under more conventional circumstances. With his ethereally wide-ranging voice and graceful presence, Constanzo was both understated and yet powerful as the mysteriously androgynous figure in the center of the narrative.
As Akhnaten’s devoted wife Nefertiti, American mezzo-soprano J’Nai Bridges was a strong and unbreakable ally, with a plush and exciting voice that wonderfully intertwined with Constanzo’s during their love duet.
Not to be outdone, Icelandic soprano Disella Larusdottir was a magnetic Queen Tye, even if the weird ornament she had proudly standing on the top of her head looked more like a feather duster than anything remotely stately.
The Met’s huge stage can be a challenge to use efficiently, but set and projection designer Tom Pye clearly embraced it and came up with consistently smart and wildly inventive sets, partly steampunk, partly colorful exoticism, which allowed the various scenes to transition seamlessly at their own pace, which could probably be best described as hypnotic slow motion. As long as you were willing to go along with this highly stylized world, the rewards were manifold.
While costume designer Kevin Pollard occasionally went a bit overboard (Why on earth would you put a skull in top of a Victorian top hat?), the outfits were positively eye-popping. We’re talking about scorched earth-inspired cat suits for the jugglers, Akhnaten’s sumptuous glittery gown for his coronation, as well as the reigning couple’s identical plain scarlet robes with endless trains that ended up forming one beautiful red-hot symbol of physical and spiritual love during their passionate embrace.
Speaking of the jugglers, a lot has been written about their various high-flying routines scattered throughout the entire performance, and how much was actually enough. I am in fact not sure we needed to see them as often as we did, but on the other hand, I also found them particularly well integrated into the music and visuals, so I say: “Let them juggle!”
At curtain call, Anthony Roth Constanzo rightfully got his roof-raising ovation, but not quite as roof-raising as Philip Glass himself. And rightfully so too, since the composer has succeeded in writing a score that is gently lyrical, brilliantly texturized, endlessly flexible and just plain unique with sounds created through the combination of the lower instrumental output of the violin-less orchestra and the higher range of the leading voices. American maestra Karen Kamensek unquestionably distinguished herself for her first conducting gig at the Met, and the orchestra responded eagerly to her.
During the intermissions and after the performance, as I was shamelessly eave-dropping on my fellow opera-goers, opinions ranged from the occasional “weird” and “interesting” to the vast majority of “fabulous.” And while it is not always the case, this time I am whole-heartedly joining the majority.

Saturday, December 7, 2019

Ensemble Connect - Ran, Bach & Messiaen - 12/01/19

Shulamit Ran: Bach Shards 
Bach: Contrapunctus X from The Art of Fugue, BWV 1080 
Shulamit Ran: Lyre of Orpheus 
Messiaen: Quartet for the End of Time 

There are a few pieces of music that I must hear as often as possible, and preferably at least once a year. Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time has always been one of those top favorites of mine, not only for the sheer beauty of the composition itself, but also for the incredible story of its genesis. Therefore, I was thrilled to hear that musicians from Ensemble Connect, Carnegie Hall’s two-year fellowship program for the crème de la crème of the most prestigious music schools in the country, would do the honor in the beautiful and intimate Weill Auditorium.
And because they’re young and adventurous, they’ve added two works by contemporary Israeli-American composer, for the modern component, and one work by Johannes Sebastian Bach for the timeless component. And then again, why not?

Shulamit Ran and Bach may not seem to have a lot in common at first glance, but one does not need to be a classical music major to quickly figure out their common interest in complexity, exactness and accessibility after listening to Bach-Shards seamlessly followed by Contrapunctus X from The Art of Fugue. We were off to a good start.
Back to Shulamit Ran, her Lyre of Orpheus boasts a wide range of unusual sounds, from shimmering to grotesque, as well as a recurring star turn for the cello, of which there are actually two, during its intense 14 minutes. That said, despite its gentle non-conformity, the work is fundamentally melodic and totally engaging, especially when performed by such committed musicians as the ones we had on Tuesday night.
Written when Messiaen was imprisoned in a concentration camp during the Second World War, Quartet for the End of Time is typical Messiaen material in that it contains more or less discernible hints of Eastern rhythms, bird songs and catholic faith. But it is also an unmistakably universal work that, in eight drastically contrasting movements, brilliantly transcends time and space, consequently ensuring it its place in the pantheon of certified masterpieces.
The 50-minute score is famously  a constant source of unique moments, giving the individual musicians dazzling opportunities to shine. Accordingly, clarinetist Noémi Sallai delivered a high-flying tour de force in “The abyss of birds”, pianist Christopher Goodpasture and cellist Ari Evan engaged in a stunningly lyrical dialogue during “Praise to the eternity of Jesus”, and violinist Jennifer Liu beautifully provided the well-needed but never taken for granted incandescent light at the end of the tunnel in “The immortality of Jesus”.
Listening to it is always an undisputed pleasure, but I have to say that having it performed in the Weill’s small and acoustically blessed space reinforced even more the otherworldly quality of the experience. “Otherworldly” was in fact the best way to described how listening to Quartet for the End of Time felt on a day that, for me as for many others, unexpectedly turned out to mark the end of an era.

Thursday, December 5, 2019

Benjamin Grosvenor - Schumann, Janacek, Prokofiev & Liszt - 12/01/19

Schumann: Blumenstück, Op.19 
Schumann: Kreisleriana, Op. 16 
Janacek: Piano Sonata 1. X. 1905 (From the Street) 
Prokofiev: Visions fugitives, Op. 22 
Liszt: Réminiscences de Norma de Bellini 

After my mom’s relentlessly busy two-week visit, I was more than ready to enjoy some well-deserved downtime for the extra-long Thanksgiving weekend. Therefore, my schedule revolved around friends, museums (a wonderful visit to the Frick Collection made me wonder why I do not go there more often) and… lots of champagne (just because Thanksgiving is an American tradition does not mean I cannot connect to my French heritage as well).
Then I was in for a kind of last-minute but totally welcome surprise in the form of an invitation from my friend Paula to a Peoples’ Symphony concert at Town Hall on Sunday afternoon to go check out young and fast-rising British pianist Benjamin Grosvenor in an intriguingly eclectic program. Add to that the long-overdue chance to catch up with her in person, and I started counting the days right away.
Then, as if to strongly mark the arrival of winter and the beginning of the holiday season, came our first full-blast winter storm, with an unappetizing mix of rain, snow and hail (or was it sleet?), prompting me to bundle up and head mid-town grumbling that this supposedly outstanding pianist had better be worth the hassle.

The first half of the program was all Robert Schumann, and really, who were we to complain? It kicked off with Blumenstück (Flower Piece), a short series of even shorter vignettes that were as fleeting as they were charming.
It was also an appropriate introduction to the much more substantial, brilliant and popular Kreisleriana. Written in only four days and dedicated to Frédéric Chopin, the stunning composition famously contains a wide range of emotions, including wild, tender and eccentric, while remaining always eminently engaging. If anything, Blumenstück and Kreisleriana positively confirmed that the enthusiastic rumors were true. Grosvenor has the technical skills and emotional maturity to dig deep into a score and confidently bring out the best of it.
Having been totally conquered by his understanding of Schumann, we were still curious to hear him tackle more modern and esoteric works by Janacek and Prokofiev after intermission. Comprised of two movements titled “Foreboding” and “Death” (Oh, boy!), Leos Janacek’s From the Street sonata has a story that is as interesting as the composition itself: Janacek wrote it to express his intense disapproval of the death of Frantisek Pavlik, a young carpenter who was bayoneted during a peaceful demonstration in support for a Czech university in Brno in 1905. As one would expect, the tribute is dramatic, dark and reflective, all qualities that Grosvenor conveyed with plenty of force and finesse.
A selection of Sergei Prokofiev‘s Visions fugitives perked us up next, with its delightful whimsical vignettes featuring the occasional strong Schonbergian dissonance as well as an overall subtle Debussyan touch. Since each movement lasted no more than two minutes, we all happily jumped from one to the other, fully enjoying Prokofiev’s playful mood and Grosvenor’s impeccable performance.
The official program concluded with Franz Liszt and his Réminiscences de Norma, which gloriously displayed one of the best scores based on another composer’s work in the Romantic piano repertoire. 

And that as not all. Buoyant by our ecstatic ovation, Grosvenor came with what was possibly more Liszt and was surely as exciting. The weather was still utterly disgusting when we got out, but Benjamin Grosvenor had been confirmed as an outstanding and worth-the-hassle pianist indeed.