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.