Thursday, March 12, 2020

Emmanuel Ax, Leonidas Kavakos & Yo-Yo Ma - All-Beethoven - 03/08/20

Beethoven: Violin Sonata No. 4 in A Minor, Op. 23 
Beethoven: Cello Sonata No. 3 in A Major, Op. 69 
Beethoven: Piano Trio in B-flat Major, Op. 97, (Archduke) 

The last afternoon of the weekend, especially an extra-long one, is always bittersweet, because it is still officially playtime, but at that point the fun is bound to end sooner than later. Add to that a newly declared state of emergency in the State of New York, the prospect of enjoying Emmanuel Ax, Leonidas Kavakos and Yo-Yo Ma celebrate Beethoven’s 250th birthday one last time together, and the opportunity to honor Carnegie Hall savior Isaac Stern during his annual memorial concert, not to mention his 100th birthday this year, and emotions were running high on Sunday afternoon at Carnegie Hall.
That said, the audience in the Stern Auditorium had clearly decided to indulge in music and not panic, and the space was as jam-packed as for the two previous concerts, including several rows of seats on the stage. Even the beautiful spring weather outside or the unappetizing threat of the coronavirus inside could not have kept any of us from sharing a terrific program by terrific musicians.
Although I was back on the balcony, it looked like the stinky dog curse had been definitely lifted. In fact, this time the unplanned entertainment was a young Asian woman next to me who was in full disinfection mode, from energetically wiping her seat’s armrests to vigorously rubbing her hands (Where on earth had she found Purell these days?!). But the thing is, if I have to put up with a strong smell, it might as well be a clean one.

Unlike the previous two occasions, this one started with Emmanuel Ax and Leonidas Kavakos tackling Beethoven’s Violin Sonata in A Minor, which they of course effortlessly dispatched. Although the piece is well-known for its restless nature and brooding mood, there was still plenty of melodic power to be found in it on Sunday afternoon, making the music totally engrossing even in its roughest patches.
Next, Beethoven’s Cello Sonata A Major put us back on much smoother territory with some stunningly rhapsodic, quietly melancholic lines for the cello, of the type that makes you feel extra-lucky to have a certified virtuoso like Yo-Yo Ma unfold them in front of you. Written in 1808, the same year Beethoven also composed his iconic Fifth and Sixth symphonies, the cello sonata was by default a smaller work, but still managed to make history by giving both instruments equal power of expression.
After intermission, Ax and Ma shared tribute duties to celebrate Isaac Stern not only for his peerless skills as violinist, but also his unwavering commitment to education, philanthropy and Carnegie Hall. What would we do now if he had not been there then?
And then it was back to Beethoven with a magnificent “Archduke” Trio, surely one of his most accomplished and popular creations. And here again, equality ruled, as the violin and the cello enjoy pretty much the same status as the piano, which was in fact a most fortuitous thing for that performance. I mean, what’s the point of having first-rate musicians like Kavakos and Ma if you’re going to have them play, well, second fiddle? Unquestionably noble and beautifully lyrical, of almost symphonic scale but never overbearing, it kept the three musicians unforgivingly busy and the audience totally enthralled. This mini Beethoven celebration could not have ended on a more glorious note.

The encores of the two previous concerts – Schubert on Wednesday and Brahms on Friday – had led me to think that the one on Sunday would not stray far from German Romanticism, if at all, and sure enough, it is with Felix Mendelssohn and the delicately sing-songy Andante con moto tranquillo of his Piano Trio No. 1 that the musical part of our evening ended.
In a repeat of the last concert, when taking their last bows, Kavakos and Ma playfully singled out Ax again, who whole-heartedly protested again, but nevertheless received the rock-star ovation he so unequivocally deserved again. The man had to be the hardest-working musician on a Carnegie Hall stage last week!

Tuesday, March 10, 2020

Emmanuel Ax, Leonidas Kavakos & Yo-Yo Ma - All-Beethoven - 03/06/20

Beethoven: Cello Sonata No. 2 in G Minor, Op. 5, No. 2 
Beethoven: Violin Sonata No. 6 in A Major, Op. 30, No. 1 
Beethoven: Piano Trio in E-flat Major, Op. 70, No. 2 

Forty-eight hours after attending the first of three all-Beethoven concerts performed by Emmanuel Ax, Leonidas Kavakos and Yo-Yo Ma in celebration of the composer’s 250th birthday, I was back at Carnegie Hall on Friday evening. This time, however, my seat was serendipitously one level down — therefore closer to the action — and, most importantly, sans stinky dog as seat-mate, or even anybody on either side of me for that matter, which was quite remarkable for such a big night.
Needless to say, this new and vastly improved situation promised an even more enjoyable experience, never mind the gray and wet weather that had been plaguing us all day outside. Now I was inside the prestigious and familiar confined of the Stern Auditorium with some very friendly out-of-towners who were busying themselves trying to take selfies, although they “don’t usually do that”, in the row below me, and all was well again.

Following the same order as on Wednesday evening, Emmanuel Ax and Yo-Yo Ma got the evening going in the best possible way. Indeed, Beethoven’s Cello Sonata No. 2 immediately stood out for its superbly soaring introduction that would have made its later infectious exuberance almost intrusive if it had not been for the perfectly calibrated change of moods that had been carefully engineered by the composer and, as could be expected, was expertly handled by the duo.
After he was done, Yo-Yo Ma made way for Leonidas Kavakos so that we could all move on to Beethoven’s Violin Sonata No. 6. The first of the three sonatas of Opus 30, this immediately engaging chamber music work not only can boast of having the perfect blend of luminous lyricism and intense drama, but also features a particularly gorgeous Adagio, which Kavakos predictably performed with utmost sensitivity.
After intermission, the three musicians were back on the stage together for Beethoven’s Piano Trio in E-flat Major, but not before Ma grabbed a handkerchief from his pocket and gamely adjusted Kavakos’ music stand. Because that’s what friends are for!
Then they got around to playing, and the music got around to pouring in all its delicately intricate, but always accessible, splendor. Beethoven clearly knew how to come up with a score that pleased and challenged at the same time, and the seamlessly cohesive performance of the consummate professionals we had did it full justice.

Since on Wednesday night the encore had been by Schubert, I had figured that everything was possible on Friday night. And the lucky composer that had been hand-picked by those ultimate connoisseurs turned out to be… my beloved Brahms, and the beautifully melancholic Andante con moto from his Piano Trio No. 2 in C Major. A lovely party favor that not only was richly satisfying in itself, but also brought me right back to the thrilling all-Brahms recital that these three gentlemen had performed in the same hall last season.
Once all had been played and done, in a classy, sweet and, come to think of it, totally justified gesture, Kavakos and Ma made sure to single out a bashful Ax while taking their final bow, and it was on this heart-warming image that our Friday evening ended.

 Two down. One more to go.

Sunday, March 8, 2020

Emmanuel Ax, Leonidas Kavakos & Yo-Yo Ma - All-Beethoven - 03/04/20

Beethoven: Seven Variations on “Bei Männern, welche Liebe fühlen” after Mozart’s Die Zauberflöte, Wo0 46 
Beethoven: Cello Sonata No. 4 in C Major 
Beethoven: Violin Sonata No. 10 in G Major 
Beethoven: Piano Trio in C Minor, Op. 1, No. 3 

This year being the 250th birthday of Ludwig van Beethoven, it was pretty inevitable that classical music venues all around the world would pull all the stops for grand (and smaller) celebrations. Among the first in line unsurprisingly stands Carnegie Hall in New York City, which will be presenting an impressive range of works from the master’s seemingly bottomless œuvre in the next few months.
To get my personal Beethoven festival going, I could not have imagined better company than three of the biggest stars in classical music today, namely pianist Emmanuel Ax, violinist Leonidas Kavakos and cellist Yo-Yo Ma. Together, they’re headlining no fewer than three all-Beethoven concerts this week, and since I quickly got tired of torturing myself trying to decide which one(s) to attend, I ended up buying tickets for all three because I could.
On Wednesday evening I was very excited not only because I was about to spend some high-quality time with those three superlative musicians during their first performance of the mini-series, but also because this was the start of a purposefully planned, extravagant but still too short, four-day weekend for me.
And all was going swimmingly in the packed Stern Auditorium where several rows of seats had been added on the stage (sky-high demand oblige) until a middle-aged man came to sit in the aisle seat next to me and brought with him a foul odor. It turned out that the culprit was the otherwise well-behaved dog accompanying him. Since the guy was obviously not blind, I figured that the dog was probably one of those so-called “emotional support animals” that have been popping up everywhere lately. (Can’t you just take some Xanax already?) 
As if the usual prospect of the typical disturbances from a packed audience and the new prospect of the coronavirus possibly floating around were not enough, I now had to deal with a stinky dog. But it was getting too late to do much about it and I basically had to breathe through my mouth during the first half of the program, secretly envying the quick-thinking young man sitting nearby who had bailed out promptly.

As a matter of fact, I got my own emotional support from Emmanuel Ax and Yo-Yo Ma, who semi-diffused the situation by kicking off the performance with Beethoven’s totally engaging Seven Variations on “Bei Männern, welche Liebe fühlen” after Mozart’s Die Zauberflöte. Covering a wide range of moods without losing their inherent melodic power, this lovely opening act was what I needed.
The two long-time friends and colleagues stuck around for a slightly longer piece with Beethoven’s Cello Sonata No. 4, which is not only a genuinely compelling score in its own right, but also paved the way for the composer to go on to even bigger and better things.
Next, Yo-Yo Ma let Leonidas Kavakos take over string duties for Beethoven’s four-movement Violin Sonata No. 10, which also happens to be the last one he ever composed. The highlight of the charming work was undisputedly the stunning Adagio espressivo, an unabashedly lyrical and just plain beautiful interlude that transitioned seamlessly into the much more agitated Scherzo.
That said, as much as I was enjoying the music, I could not wait for the intermission to get out of the gross, not to mention unsanitary, predicament I had unwittingly found myself in. After checking in with an usher, and then their captain, I eventually found an unoccupied seat at the opposite side of the balcony, as far as could be from the stench.
From my new perch, I was at last able to fully get into the Beethovian groove without any further distractions. While its uncharacteristic four-movement format and overall complexity can be seen as an avowed ambition to push the genre’s boundaries, the Piano Trio in C Minor also stands out for its irresistible mix of turbulence, darkness and buoyancy, which the three musicians superbly brought to life.

Since the program was all-Beethoven, an encore by him seemed unavoidable. But it was in fact avoided, as the three colleagues rewarded our long and thunderous ovation with (Surprise!) Schubert and the Andante un poco mosso from his Piano Trio No. 1. All serene beauty and gently swaying rhythms except for a brief stormy episode, this stunning parting gift almost managed to eclipse all the wonders of the official program. I came for Ludwig, but I left with Franz.

One down. Two more to go.

Friday, March 6, 2020

Yuja Wang - Galuppi, Scriabin, Ravel, Monpou, Berg, Bach, Chopin and Brahms - 02/28/20

Galuppi: Andante from Keyboard Sonata in C Major 
Scriabin: Piano Sonata No. 5, Op. 53 
Ravel: "Une barque sur l'océan" from Miroirs 
Mompou: "Secreto" from Impresiones intimas 
Berg: Piano Sonata, Op. 1 
Bach: Toccata in C Minor, BWV 911 
Chopin: Mazurka in A Minor, Op. 67, No. 4 
Brahms: Intermezzo in E Minor, Op. 119, No. 2 
Chopin: Mazurka in C-sharp Minor, Op. 30, No. 4 
Brahms: Intermezzo in C-sharp Minor, Op. 117, No. 3 
Chopin: Mazurka in B Minor, Op. 33, No. 4 
Brahms: Romance in F Major, Op. 118, No. 5 
Scriabin: Piano Sonata No. 4 in F-sharp Major, Op. 30 

New York City and its seemingly endless supply of high-quality music performances can be a source of conflicting schedules (yes, there can actually be too much of a good thing). A case in point happened last Friday, when Carnegie Hall was hosting the only and only Yuja Wang, whose every appearance is a not-to-be-missed event, in the prestigious Stern Auditorium and the unstoppable West-Eastern Divan Ensemble, whose program included Mendelssohn’s fabulous Octet, in the cool Zankel Hall.
Considering that Miss Wang hadn’t presented a solo recital at Carnegie Hall since the 2017-2018, when she had memorably performed no fewer than seven encores on top of a most satisfying concert, there’s no way I was going to miss this one. So there I was on Friday night, after a super busy week that was slowly fading away as my mind was starting to focus on what would no doubt be another exciting performance by one of the most-in-demand musicians today. In fact, Wang enjoys such wide-ranging recognition that the management had to add several rows of seats in the back and on one side of the stage to meet the popular demand.

A message in the program, and then a recorded announcement by Wang herself right before the beginning of the performance, stated that the program was not going to be performed in the order printed in the program as she believed that “a program has its own life” and wanted to “let the music surprise her”. Accordingly, after she invited us to “experience the concert with our senses and an open mind, and to enjoy the ride”, we were off to an interesting "Name that piece" challenge.
Eighteen-century Venetian Baldassare Galuppi’s Andante from Keyboard Sonata in C Major kicked off our musical evening with much elegance and gentleness, which mightily contrasted with the resounding opening chords of Alexander Scriabin’s one-movement Piano Sonata No. 5. One of the most challenging works in the solo piano repertoire, it is a thrilling ride in the right hands, and Wang mastered it with superb command on Friday night.
I got a bit lost among the two pieces that followed, but looking back, I can now tell that the series of spell-binding arpeggios could only come from Maurice Ravel’s restless "Une barque sur l'océan" (A ship at sea), a delightful component of his Miroirs (Mirrors) suite, while Frederico Mompou’s miniature "Secreto" (Secret) from his Impresiones intimas (Intimate impressions), a little marvel of clarity and precision, was another after-the-fact no-brainer.
Then things got more serious, and works more substantial, with Second Viennese School’s pioneer Alan Berg and Baroque’s undisputed master Johann Sebastian Bach. Berg’s one-movement Sonata No. 1 sounded surprisingly lyrical for coming from such an austere movement, but then again, why imitates others when you can stand on your own? Even Bach’s Toccata in C Minor sounded warmer and freer than other, starker readings of his typical rigorous fare.
The mini-series of alternating little gems by Johannes Brahms and Frédéric Chopin that constituted most of the second half of the concert was, needless to say, a wonderful journey into nineteenth-century Romanticism. Highly melodic and readily engaging, they almost sounding like a single work made of wildly different yet equally appealing, self-contained movements. Although she is well-known for taming big and wild piano concertos, more than once Wang proved that she also has enough genuine sensitivity to bring out the subtle details of such smaller compositions.
Then we moved on to post-Romanticism with Scriabin again, and his continuous two-movement Piano Sonata No. 4, which unfolded first sensual then tumultuous, and concluded the official program with an exhilarating bang.

Wang is famous not only for her technical wizardry, but also for her generosity and eclecticism when it comes to encores. Accordingly, if last Friday, we got to hear “only” three of them, they spanned such a wide range that it truly felt like there was nothing left to say or play. Franz Liszt’s piano version of Schubert’s obsessive song "Gretchen am Spinnrade” is an oldie and goodie that she never fails to nail. Prokofiev’s devilish Toccata in D Minor was the perfect opportunity for her to show off her dazzling virtuosity — a direct view over her hands flying all over the keyboard actually made me dizzy — and unsurprisingly brought down the house. Last, but not least, Giovanni Sgambati’s arrangement of Gluck’s “Mélodie” from Orfeo ed Euridice was the perfectly-timed, achingly gorgeous send-off gift that beautifully wrapped up our evening.

Thursday, February 27, 2020

National Philharmonic - Black Pioneers in Classical Music - 02/22/20

Conductor: Piotr Gajewski 
Wynton Marsalis: Wild Strumming of Fiddle (from All Rise) 
Florence Price: Violin Concerto No. 1 in D Major 
Melissa White: Violin 
George Walker: Lyric for Strings 
William Grant Still: Symphony No. 1 (Afro-American) 

I do not need an excuse to go back to my former home of Washington, D.C. for a visit. There’s plenty to do there anytime. But having a special incentive does not hurt either. And I certainly had one last weekend, when I went down to our nation’s capital not only to bask in a couple of gloriously sunny days, but also to go back to my old stomping ground at the Strathmore Music Center on Saturday night to hear the National Philharmonic perform “Black Pioneers in Classical Music”, a particularly appealing program scheduled right in time for Black History Month and, incidentally I would presume, on my Saint's Day.
While originally perusing the concert’s description, Wynton Marsalis’ name immediately jumped at me, and Florence Price rang a bell because she has finally been getting the recognition she deserves. However, I have to admit that I had no idea who George Walker and William Grant Still were. But then again, it is never too late to learn, and I was determined to make up for lost time with my local friend Vittorio, who was just as eager for some musical enlightenment after a wonderful Saturday spent enjoying the visual arts on the Mall, including the odd couple of Marcel Duchamp and Cate Blanchett at the Hirshhorn Museum (Needless to say, in separate exhibits).
To whet our appetite, a pre-concert conversation between Samuel Thompson, violinist and creative director of the International Florence Price Festival, and Rebecca Smithorn, cover conductor of the National Philharmonic, shed some interesting light on the compositions soon to be heard, their creators and their context. Even better, the opening remarks of National Philharmonic’s music director and conductor Piotr Gajewski promising more diverse programming in the near future were literally music to our ears.
The sizable concert hall was not as full as could have been expected for such an titillating line-up in such a multiracial region, but on the other hand, the audience was for sure more diverse than usual, which was, all things considered, an encouraging start.

American music royalty Wynton Marsalis, the unquestionable star of the program and living symbol of cross-over musical experiences, kicked off the concert with the tense and throbbing opening sounds of “Wild Strumming of Fiddle”, a seven-minute movement extracted from his monumental 1999 oratorio All Rise. The music eventually became more melodic and rhythmical, without losing its edge, and more interesting too as a whole sonic patchwork was taking shape in intriguing fits and starts, drawing its inspiration from classical music, jazz and blues, and boldly mixing them up for a truly explosive cocktail.
Next, I am happy to confirm that the piece I came over 200 miles for, Florence Price’s Violin Concerto No. 1 from 1939, is a worthy addition to the already crowded violin concerto repertoire. The expansive first movement could be best described as Tchaikovsky meets Gershwin on Price’s terms as it contains unmistakable tidbits from Tchaikovsky’s hyper-popular violin concerto and the occasional jazzy air à la Gershwin in a nevertheless very personal style. Indeed, for all those familiar sounds, the prodigiously talented Miss Price   ̶  A mixed-race woman could not become a star student of the New England Conservatory of Music by chance in the early 20th century   ̶  was not shy about going her own way, and the score wasted no time revealing a totally unique and powerful voice.
It takes a brilliant woman to channel another brilliant woman seamlessly, and the naturally radiant violinist Melissa White was all Florence Price could have hoped for in an advocate. When I read in her bio that she was a member of the fabulous Harlem Quartet, whose dazzling skills had blown me away over a decade ago in a concert at the Library of Congress, I just knew we were all in excellent hands. And sure enough, after fiercely bringing out the virtuosic originality of the first movement, she just as expertly worked her way through the thoughtful Andante, before whole-heartedly diving into the joyful Allegro. Rather than trying to impress us with flashy pyrotechnics, White had clearly decided to let the piece tell its own story in its own language, and the result was just plain terrific.
The composition and performance were in fact so remarkable that a standing ovation greeted the end of the first movement, and since musicians and conductor joined in to applaud the soloist, I briefly thought that, lo and behold, we were done. But the maestro quickly reassured us that there was more to come, and everybody happily sat back down.
After intermission, the exquisite 1946 “Lyric for Strings” by George Walker, the first African-American composer to win the Pulitzer Prize for Music, slowly unfolded for a couple of minutes of pure melodic bliss, with just the right amount of poignancy. If your heart melts every time you hear Samuel Barber’s Adagio for Strings, this one’s for you too. A string orchestra arrangement of the second movement of Walker’s String Quartet No. 1, this little gem has been one of the most frequently performed orchestral works by a contemporary American composer, and certainly by Walker, whose œuvre contains over 90 works of many different kinds.
The Symphony No. 1 by William Grant Still, a contemporary of Florence Price who produced more than 150 works spanning a wide range of styles (Take that, Walker!), was the first symphony written by an African-American composer and premiered in 1930. Unsurprisingly, it features a healthy dose of blues and jazz elements, with chief among them references to Gershwin’s “I got rhythm” peppering the third movement. The presence of less conventional instruments such as the celeste, the harp, and the tenor banjo into the full orchestra was carefully incorporated, and yet the work felt spontaneous and buoyant pretty much throughout. The orchestra sounded positively excited about sinking their teeth into a fresh and juicy challenge, and Gajewski made sure they communicated their enthusiasm to the rest of us in a colorful and energetic performance. One could have hardly imagined better advertising for their upcoming more diverse programming.

Saturday, February 15, 2020

New York Classical Players - Bach, Elgar & Zimmerli - 02/08/20

Conductor: Dongmin Kim 
Bach: Concerto for Violin in A minor, BWV 1041 
Siwoo Kim: Violin 
Bach: Concerto for Oboe and Violin in C minor, BWV 1060 
Siwoo Kim: Violin 
James Austin Smith: Oboe 
Elgar: Introduction and Allegro 
Zimmerli: Concerto for Flute, Jazz Percussion and String Orchestra 
Jasmine Choi: Flute 
Satoshi Takeishi: Jazz Percussion 

A 10-year anniversary is unquestionably a cause for celebration. On the other hand, there’s really no need for a reason to go enjoy the high-quality, traditional and innovative, music that the decidedly unstoppable and endlessly versatile New York Classical Players have been generously bestowing for free upon the masses in New York City, California, South Korea and Bolivia for a decade now. And as far as I can tell, they’re fortunately not planning to stop anytime soon.
For the first concert of the year of their orchestral series, they stuck to their laudable mission of offering eclectic programs by combining two timeless works by Johann Sebastian Bach with more modern compositions by Edward Elgar and Patrick Zimmerli. Moreover, since they have always been open not only to all sorts of musical experiments, but to exciting collaborations as well, the NYCP had invited some distinguished guests to join them for some of the works, which made the entire endeavor even more attractive.
On top of it, their Manhattan concert of the weekend would take place at the W83 Concert Hall, which conveniently stands an easy walking distance from my apartment, on a mild February night. So there were really no reasons for me not to go. And, apparently, a lot of people had felt the irresistible pull of the invite too as the orchestra section had been sold-out for a while, and the balcony filled up quickly all the way throughout the opening piece.

And what an opening piece it was! Notorious for the challenging intricacy of his compositions, Bach does not make it easy on the players, but if you have the right ones, the rewards are totally worth the effort for musicians and audience. And that’s just what happened on Saturday night, when we had some of the best stringers in town fearlessly tackling the Baroque master’s brilliant Concerto for Violin in A minor. Concertmaster Siwoo Kim handled the solo part with his signature uncompromising exactness and natural appeal, and the orchestra backed him up flawlessly under the informed baton of maestro Dongmin Kim.
Because one can never hear too much Bach, Siwoo Kim came back and, this time, shared the spotlight with oboist James Austin Smith for Bach’s lovely Concerto for Oboe and Violin in C minor. Subtle yet assertive, the oboe beautifully added its own special colors to the more traditional ensemble of string players and harpsichord for a winning result that spoke both to the heart and to the mind.
After intermission, we moved forward from 18th-century Germany to 20th century England for Elgar’s ever-popular Introduction and Allegro. Although the influence of the concerto grosso form from the Baroque era was discernable, the boldly polyphonic symphonic poem resolutely took it to a whole other level, possibly because Elgar being a violinist of professional standard himself knew for sure his way around the instrument. The intensely lyrical yet exquisitely light-on-its-feet performance of the orchestra allowed the rest of us to happily revel into the sumptuous lushness of the composition.
Last, but by no means least, came the world premiere du jour in New York- and Paris-based saxophonist, composer, arranger, and record producer Zimmerli’s intriguing-sounding Concerto for Flute, Jazz Percussion and String Orchestra featuring artist-in-residence and world-renowned flutist Jasmine Choi as well as equally sought-after percussionist and arranger Satoshi Takeishi. Commissioned by the relentlessly boundaries-pushing New York Classical Players, the refreshingly inventive and effortlessly engaging 20-minute cross-over venture adroitly combined the rigorousness of classical music with the free spirit of jazz for a superbly virtuosic performance.

The ovation was so thunderous that Miss Choi came for a fun encore in Ian Clarke’s “The Great Train Race”, which enlightened and delighted the mesmerized audience by displaying in no uncertain terms some of countless possibilities of the flute, including the downright uncanny imitation of a train whistle.

Friday, January 31, 2020

Orpheus Orchestra - Tchaikovsky & Vivaldi - 01/25/20

Tchaikovsky: The Seasons, Op. 37a (arr. Jessie Montgomery and Jannina Norpoth) 
Vivaldi: The Four Seasons 
Vadim Gluzman: Violin 

Antonio Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons is one of those all-around perfect classics that it is simply impossible to get enough of, and that is just what I was thinking as I was buying tickets for a performance of it one more time a couple of weeks ago. This time, however, my primary motivation was to introduce my visiting Neapolitan friend Vittorio to Carnegie Hall, and I couldn’t imagine a better way to do it than with one of the most beloved masterpieces of the Italian repertoire, which would be performed by the highly regarded, conductor-less Orpheus Orchestra to boot. As we all know, first impressions are everything.
And since the four seasons of the year in all the ever-changing variables are an endlessly adaptable topic, the concert would open with the world premiere of a new arrangement of Piotr Tchaikovsky’s The Seasons, therefore deftly combining something old and something new while sticking to the same theme. Because, why not?
So it is with high expectations that after a very satisfying Friday evening at the Met for a splendid Porgy and Bess and a rainy but still fun Saturday, we sat down in the parquet section of the august Stern Auditorium, among an audience that was clearly made of a lot of friends and family of the popular New York-based ensemble.

A set of twelve miniatures for solo piano describing the different months of the year in Russia, Tchaikovsky’s The Seasons is no stranger to being arranged, and there it was again on Saturday night by composers and violinists Jessie Montgomery and Jannina Norpoth. Although June and November had inexplicably been dropped from the list, the other 10 months displayed a wide range of engaging moods that were heightened by the committed playing.
But it is likely that the majority of the audience in the hall were there for Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons, and their patience was immensely rewarded by the effortlessly glowing performance that followed the intermission. Led by frequent collaborator Vadim Gluzman, incidentally a former Isaac Stern protégé, the small but potent orchestra made sure to bring out the fierce virtuosity as well as the perennial freshness of the two-century-old work with all guns blazing.
On Saturday evening, the natural wonders and eloquent details of the passing seasons beautifully came out, bringing us full circle with nuance (The various birds in the spring), intensity (The mighty storms in the summer), fun (The drunken dancers in the fall) and starkness (The unforgiving ice in the winter). That was definitely the kind of experience that makes one understand why the iconic score has transcended time and space to inconspicuously and not so inconspicuously seep into pop culture in so many different ways.
Since the concert had had an early start time and we let the musicians know in no uncertain terms that we were not ready to let them go just yet, Gluzman and the Orpheus treated us to a little bit more Vivaldi, just for the heck of it. Bravi!

Wednesday, January 29, 2020

Met - Porgy and Bess - 01/24/20

Composer: George Gershwin 
Librettists: DuBose and Ira Gershwin 
Conductor: David Robertson 
Producer/Director: James Robinson 
Eric Owens: Porgy
Angel Blue: Bess 
Denyce Graves: Maria 
Latonia Moore: Serena 
Janai Brugger: Clara 
Alfred Walker: Crown
Frederick Ballentine: Sportin’ Life
Donovan Singletary: Jake

Less than a week after attending a blazing performance of Wozzeck at the Met, I was back there on Friday evening for a completely different but no less exciting opera in the Gershwins’ 1935 Porgy and Bess. A timeless classic of the American repertoire, the poignant love story between the disabled beggar Porgy and the unstable junkie Bess in the Catfish Row neighborhood of Charleston in the early 20th century is unfortunately more relevant than ever in our era of racial prejudice, economic inequality, sex crimes and the opioid epidemic. Add to that the controversies the work has generated since its opening, including stereotypes, condescension and the appropriateness of having the black experience in the South depicted by a bunch of white New York intellectuals. And then, come to think of it, is it an opera or a musical anyway?
So when I realized that it would be part of the current Met season, I figured it was high time to move past all the hand-wringing and go check it out myself, especially since it is not produced in New York City as often as you’d think for such a musical milestone. To wit, it had not been presented at the Met in nearly 30 years.
Since it opened the current Met season back last September, the media and word-of mouth have kept on churning out deliriously ecstatic reviews, and before you knew it, the fall shows were sold-out. However, right before all hope was lost, I managed to grab tickets for last Friday's performance for my visiting friend Vittorio and me. And because all great minds think alike, we found ourselves right behind my friends Steve and Carter and two friends of theirs in the packed opera house.

Not a musical and not quite an opera, Porgy and Bess was described by Gershwin himself as a “folk opera”, which, all things considered, sounds about right, and not just because he is the author and therefore knows better. As it is, the ambitious masterwork features plenty of colorful characters, eminently hummable tunes, and a seemingly bottomless supply of both universal and specific issues. Granted, small-scale productions regularly pop up here and there, and some of the catchiest songs have taken a life of their own. But then again, there’s nothing like experiencing the real thing in the appropriate environment, so there we were.
One of the biggest stars on the opera stage today, bass-baritone Eric Owens brought his big presence, big heart and big voice to the simple-hearted and painfully kind Porgy, a much put-upon disabled man who finally seemed to have found happiness, as the light-hearted hymn to contentment that is “I Got Plenty o' Nuttin’” playfully attested. But he proved to be a ferocious adversary when his beloved Bess was threatened, never hesitating to make use of his unusual physical and vocal force despite his disability, and also knew how to express his deep love for her with aching tenderness, as he did in their impossibly gorgeous duet “Bess, You Is My Woman Now”.
Soprano Angel Blue was an all-around wonderful Bess, the emotionally scarred woman who repeatedly found solace in liquor, drugs and an abusive boyfriend, even when an unexpected opportunity for a better life comes her way in the form of unassuming Porgy. A naturally radiant singer, Blue is blessed with a sumptuous voice that is able to convey an incredibly nuanced range of emotions, for infectious exuberance to bone-chilling fear. Despite all her flaws, her Bess came out as a truly likable human being who deserved better.
The other ladies fared just as well, with veteran mezzo-soprano Denyce Graves as the commanding Maria, a fierce matriarch you would not want to cross (Did you see her gut that huge fish while putting Crown back in his place?!), soprano Latonia Moore as broken-hearted Serena whose “My Man’s Gone Now” was one of the most heart-breaking songs of the evening, and soprano Janai Brugger as new mom Clara, whose luminous “Summertime” opened the performance with the promise of a bright future, and a fantastic night at the opera.
Not to be outdone, the men displayed some remarkable skills on their own, with bass-baritone Alfred Walker as a boorish and violent Crown who was bursting at the seams with angry entitlement, tenor Frederick Ballentine as the up-to-nothing-good Sportin’ Life whose recurring appearances never failed to mean trouble, and bass-baritone Donovan Singletary as the well-meaning and ill-fated fisherman Jake, one of the most level-headed and reliable members of the entire community.
I’ve always thought that the magnificent Met chorus could not be beat, and I still do. But there was fierce competition onstage on Friday night from a superb chorus made of the crème de la crème of today’s African-American singing talent. Whether delightfully rambunctious or subtly haunting, they handled the various substantial choral parts with sweeping intensity and impressive unison.
As if all the dazzling singing were not enough, the stage was sporadically graced by an equally fantastic group of dancers that thrilled the audience in engaging routines choreographed by Camille A. Brown. This perfectly integrated, visually attractive addition contributed to no small part to the non-stop action, bringing even more vibrancy to life in the busy waterfront neighborhood.
Essentially consisting of the wooden framing of a former fancy mansion turned into a multi-family dwelling, except for the trip to the island that was conveyed by a long jetty, the rotating set by Met first-timer James Robinson and the clever lighting by Donald Holder were not the most original or the most innovative, but they effortlessly provided the proper context and atmosphere. They also worked really well when making the transitions between scenes pretty much seamless, which is really what you want for a three-and-a-half-hour opera.
George Gershwin’s score, which combines the appealing sounds of jazz, blues and gospel, is one of its kind in the repertoire, and couldn’t have served the story any better. Gershwin may not have been a first-hand expert in the field of black music, but his well-meaning dedication to the task can hardly be questioned. Featuring irresistible tunes like “Summertime” and “It ain’t necessarily so”, whose infectious melodies are now solidly rooted in pop culture, the engrossing composition got the royal treatment from the Met orchestra, who probably welcome this new challenge, and maestro David Robertson, who kept everything under control, for an effortlessly splendid, truly memorable performance.

In a rare but no doubt winning move, the Met will have three additional performances of this crowd-pleasing Porgy and Bess in February to fill in some unexpected holes in its schedule as well as meet the insatiable popular demand. And just like that, a not-quite opera has proved to be the biggest hit at the prestigious Met in a long time.

Wednesday, January 22, 2020

Met - Wozzeck - 01/19/20

Composer: Alban Berg 
Librettist: Alban Berg 
Conductor: Yannick Nézet-Seguin 
Producer/Director: William Kentridge/Luc de Wit 
Wozzeck: Peter Mattei 
Marie: Elza van den Heever 
The Captain: Gerhard Siegel 
The Doctor: Christian van Horn 
The Drum-Major: Christopher Ventris 

There’s nothing I like more than kicking off a new musical year with a challenging, but ultimately satisfying, and, if possible, uplifting too, work. So last year, when I saw that the Metropolitan Opera’s next season would feature Alban Berg’s short but relentlessly intense Wozzeck sung by Peter Mattei, conducted by Yannick Nézet-Seguin and directed by William Kentridge, I knew that the outcome would probably be challenging and satisfying, although probably not that uplifting, unless, of course, you take into account the irrepressible high that brilliant art never fails to offer, as you should.
Therefore, I figured that a depressing masterpiece was better than no masterpiece at all, and decided to get a rush ticket for last Sunday matinee since the powers-that-be at the Met have finally come to their senses, realized how popular those afternoon performances would be, and have gotten them going. And sure enough, after a nice walk down Broadway on a seasonably cold and sunny day, I stepped into an almost-full house (So there) to make it to my pretty fabulous orchestra seat.

Based on Karl Georg Büchner’s play Woyzeck, which was itself inspired by the real case of a soldier gone mad and was finished by various third parties after its author's untimely death, and driven by Berg’s difficult yet accessible and oh so exciting score, Wozzeck the opera is a grim story any way you look at it. That said, the fact that Berg had to put his work on hold to become a soldier during World War I, and therefore witness first-hand the horrors of the battlefield, had at least the merit of providing new material to it. And that’s how one of the most iconic opus of the 20th-century avant-garde movement was born.
A Met favorite for his effortlessly charismatic interpretations, Swedish baritone Peter Mattei was clearly not an obvious choice for the title role, but he just as clearly has enough talent, intelligence and ambition to heroically go against type and pull off one of the least heroic parts in the repertoire. A simple-minded man that slowly but surely loses his sanity all the way to murder, Wozzeck is no doubt a technically and emotionally challenging character. But Mattei fearlessly raised to the challenge with plenty of vocal power and physical momentum, and indisputably won.
In this daunting endeavor he was well-matched with South African soprano Elza van den Heever, a relative newcomer to the Met whose fierce singing and dedicated acting gave a powerful presence to the contradictory Marie, who was as naturally gentle with her son as sexually aggressive with the drum-major. Her prayer at the beginning of Act III was certainly one of the most heart-wrenching moments of the entire performance, and one of the most musically beautiful too.
And there was even more virtuosity to be enjoyed as the trio of secondary but significant characters that are the boisterous captain, the self-delusional doctor and the bon vivant drum-major was superbly brought to life by respectively German tenor Gerhard Siegel, American bass-baritone Christian van Horn and English tenor Christopher Ventris. There’s no doubt that the success of the performance would not have been so complete without them.
One of the main characteristics of Wozzeck is its unabashed embrace of Expressionism, and William Kentridge did not shy from it either on the Met’s immense stage that was as cluttered and chaotic as you can imagine an apocalyptic world to be, with, among many other things, numerous intersecting platforms and walkways. Add to those, background images and film projections showing devastated landscapes, bombed-out towns, military maps and animated stick-figures, and it was hard not to feel dizzy by just taking the visuals in. Some things worked remarkably well, such as the doctor’s cabinet in the cramped closet that unmistakably conveyed suffocating claustrophobia. Some others did not: Get rid of the puppet and its all-too visible handler already!
But then, no matter what, there is Berg’s prodigiously complex, rigorously structured score, which boldly blends old and new, gentle tonality for the few moments of peaceful harmony and harsh atonality for the overwhelming torrents of angst, madness and violence. The singers valiantly fulfilled their parts, and so did the terrific Met orchestra, which shone exceptionally bright, even in the opera’ darkest hour (Wasn’t that openly Mahlerian interlude following Wozzeck’s death just plain stunning?), under maestro Nézet-Séguin’s fully immersed baton. If the production ended up being a big hodge-podge in dire need of streamlining, the vocal and instrumental performances came out with thrilling clarity, expressiveness and attention to details.

As if the perspective of going to the opera on Sunday afternoon were not attractive enough, an additional perk had been thrown into last Sunday matinee’s bag in the form of a post-performance discussion hosted by Peter Gelb with the intrepid trio of Yannick Nézet-Séguin, Peter Mattei and Elza van den Heever. Even if they barely had had a chance to catch their breath, the three pros graciously took the time to share some interesting insights in their processes as well as claim loud and clear that this had been the best performance of them all so far. No kidding.