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.