Tuesday May 3rd, 2015 - A beautifully-constructed and superbly-played program at Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center this evening, where the renowned horn virtuoso Radovan Vlatković (above) was joined by an outstanding sextet of colleagues for an evening of music-making par excellence.
The Society's extension of the contracts of co-Artistic Directors David Finckel and Wu Han thru 2022 was recently announced, and that is good news indeed, for their winning formula of presenting outstanding musicians in appealing, thoughtfully-arranged programs has made CMS essential to music lovers both here in Gotham and on their frequent tours.
Music for piano four-hands opened the evening as Gloria Chien (in a very pretty pale green gown) and Juho Pohjonen sat side by side at the Steinway and played four of Dvorak's Slavonic Dances, from opus 72. These pieces cover a vast rhythmic territory, with music that is lyrical, folkish, and virtuosic by turns. They are great fun to hear, especially when played with such perfect poise and clarity as we experienced this evening.
Ms. Chein returned immediately, with tenor Nicholas Phan and Mr. Vlatković, for Schubert's Auf dem Strom. Composed in 1828, to a poem by Ludwig Rellstab, Auf dem Strom feels more like a concert aria than a song. The poem tells of a young man's rejection by his beloved; he sets sail on a river, after their parting, singing of his despair. The forlorn desperation of the words indicate that he may be bidding farewell to life itself.
Nicholas Phan's pliant and clear-toned lyric tenor offered beautifully-inflected singing as the poem moves from wistful recollection to anguished hopelessness; the singer's intensity of expression underscored the inherent drama of the words. Ms. Chien's poetic playing - and the simply gorgeous sound of Mr. Vlatković's horn wending its way thru the music and wrapping itself around the poet's melancholy phrases - created a mood of eloquent despondency.
An unusual configuration of instruments - horn, two cellos, and two pianos - is assembled for Robert Schumann's Andante and Variations, composed in 1843. Having second thoughts about the viability of the piece with such an unusual set of players, Schumann re-worked it for just two pianos (Clara Schumann and Felix Mendelssohn - no less - gave the first public performance); but Johannes Brahms supported the original quintet setting, and that is what we had the good fortune to hear this evening.
Ms. Chien and Mr. Pohjonen each had their own Steinway, set at angles so they could communicate with one another. Seated in front were Mr. Vlatković and two of the Society's most accomplished young cellists: Nicholas Canellakis and Mihai Marica.
The work, an ongoing set of variations, seems at first to be thoroughly dominated by the pianos; the celli and horn tend to comment rather than sing out. The two pianists were so melodically engrossing that one began to wonder if Schumann was right to leave the work as a piano duo. But a passage for the two cellos pricks up our ears; a florid theme for the two pianos responds. And then Mr. Vlatković's resplendent sound blossoms forth with a pealing summons, and we realize that Brahms knew best: the music sails onward, now an ear-alluring blend of timbres. The gently jogging pianos and plucked cellos frame the mellow sound of the horn. The piece seems headed for an energetic finale when suddenly a rich and beauteous song looms up, leading to a lovely and poignant ending.
More music for piano four-hands after the interval: Ms. Chein and Mr. Pohjonen were back at the Steinway for Schubert's Allegro in A minor. Subtitled Lebensstürme ('Storms of Life') by the music's publisher, the work opens with a dramatic statement and progresses thru passages of lively - and sometimes turbulent - music, with shifts from major to minor along the way. What captivates, though, is a misterioso interlude played with an eloquent hush by our two elegant pianists; this recurs later, and the effect is truly striking.
A trio of exceptional musicians provided a splendid finale for today's concert: Mssrs. Vlatković and Pohjonen were joined by violinist Paul Huang for Brahms' Trio in E-flat major, opus 40. The three players overcame the distraction of someone yelling from the mezzanine in the early moments of the trio, and of a prolonged cellphone tune just as they were about to commence the second movement. Undeterred, they summoned up music-making of an unbelievably high level.
Mr. Huang's playing seems magically to exude the subtly perfumed, romantic eloquence that we hear on recordings of the old European violin masters of a bygone era; his tone has a roseate glow that is most cordial. Mr. Vlatković's velvety richness of sound - the envy of a frustrated ex-horn player like myself - is likewise redolent of that same lost world of nobility and grace. And Mr. Pohjonen, possessed of a personal mystique that is unique in this day and age, summons up from the keyboard imaginings of what it must have been like to hear such charismatic pianists as Chopin and Liszt. As the three played, one could close one's eyes and be transported to the salons of Paris or Vienna amid gowned, bejeweled women and elegant gentlemen.
But keeping the eyes closed would have deprived us of the visual aspects of today's performance, for the players seemed to commune with one another in a swaying choreography that became quite animated. This, added to their spectacular playing, made the performance completely engrossing.
From the start, the flow of melodies and the vari-coloured sounds each player produced made constant assaults on the emotions. Bursts of passion alternated with gentle, finely-gauged harmonies between horn and violin. The delicate, somber piano theme which opens the Adagio was offered up by Mr. Pohjonen with a poetic sense of quietude; the horn and violin join in a wistful passage before Mr. Vlatković introduces a new melody which becomes a trio of lament. A rise in intensity develops, only to subside: the horn intones notes from the depths. Mr. Huang's supreme control in a quiet passage - which draws us deeper and deeper into the music - is taken up by the pianist with great sensitivity. The harmonies pour forth in a sumptuous development.
The jaunty Allegro that ends the piece draws us out of the pensive state induced by the Adagio. Mr. Vlatković's robust horn calls summon us to hopeful high spirits. There's a lull, and then a re-bounding: Mr. Pohjonen piano ripples sweetly before setting into a pacing rhythm; the Vlatković horn peals forth, and Mr. Huang's bow is blazing away when everything suddenly quietens. And then...ZAP!...the end.
Collectively leaping to their feet, the audience, who had bounced along with the irresistible rhythms of the finale, celebrated Brahms and our three awe-inspiring players with an extended ovation and vigorous shouts of approval.
"Here, where the roses bloom, and the ivy embraces the laurel,
Where the turtledove murmurs, and the cricket sings -
What grave is this, that the gods
Have so kindly graced with vines and flowers? It is Anacreon's resting-place.
Spring, Summer, and Autumn did that poet enjoy;
And now from Winter, at last, this mound protects him."
Sunday May 1st, 2016 matinee - Winners of the 2016 Gerda Lissner Foundation competition in a May Day afternoon concert at Zankel Hall. Over the years, hundreds of singers have entered the Lissner competition, and many of them have gone on to busy careers.
Today's event, hosted by Bran Kellow, included the presentation of a Lifetime Achievement Award to Deborah Voigt. She looked great, and spoke briefly, and then came down and sat in the audience to hear the young singers; I would love to know what she thought of the voices she was hearing. Two expert pianists - Arlene Shrut and Jonathan Kelly - provided invaluable support for the singers in a succession of arias ranging from Rossini to Rachmaninoff.
It seemed to me, and to my companion, that most of the arias were over-sung. The singing seemed almost overwhelmingly relentless, and only rarely did anyone attempt a piano/pianissimo or produce a gracefully tapered phrase. Some of the singers experienced passing moments of straying off-pitch, most likely due to nerves or mis-judging the hall.
The men excelled; the women - all of whom had viable instruments but perhaps chose the wrong selections to show them to best advantage - seemed more generic of sound. One soprano, Michelle Bradley, was unable to appear as she was stuck in an airport somewhere.
So for us, it was an afternoon of listening to very enjoyable male voices in some of our favorite arias. Baritone Pawel Konik did a fine job with Aleko's cavatina, with an impressive conclusion. Fanyoung Du courageously tackled "A te, o cara" from Bellini's PURITANI - and he nailed it: the voice is pliant, steady, and blooms fully at the top. He risked some soft moments along the way - beautifully managed - and overall found the bel canto style quite congenial.
Kidon Choi has a large, warm baritone sound at his disposal and sang the gorgeous "Vision fugitive" from Massenet's THAIS with passionate conviction. Kang Wang's singing of Alfredo's aria from TRAVIATA was very finely phrased with an appealing vocal quality - he seemed fully stage-ready. Kevin Ray, who put me very much in mind of Mark W Baker, ended the concert's first half with a wonderful "Winterstürme" from DIE WALKURE; in addition to a firm, pleasing sound, Mr. Ray brought a sense of the poetry of the words to his singing that eluded most of the other singers today. He also showed off an wide dynamic range, effectively employed to make every phrase count.
Following the interval, Andrew Stenson sang Rinuccio's aria from GIANNI SCHICCHI. This demi-caractère piece was wittily delivered by the amiable young tenor; for all the fun involved, the aria also has to be sung...which Mr. Stenson did, and very well. Galeano Salas's heartfelt singing of "Che gelida manina" from LA BOHEME was moving indeed: the tenor's timbre has a unique colour, and his sincerity and generosity (to say nothing of his richly sustained high-C) mark him out as someone I will want to hear again. Sean Michael Plumb, singing Malatesta's aria from DON PASQUALE, closed the program with a fine performance. He was an audience favorite.
Saturday April 30th, 2016 matinee - Since ELEKTRA is one of my favorite operas - sometimes I think it is my favorite opera - I planned to see The Met's new production of it once, and then to hear it again from a score desk.
Some people had issues with the voices of Nina Stemme and Adrianne Pieczonka at the production's Met premiere on April 14th: squally, shrill, and flat were among descriptive words I heard being tossed about. There were also complaints that Waltraud Meier, as Klytemnestra, was "inaudible" or at least seriously under-powered vocally. So when my friend Dmitry and I attended the second performance on April 18th, we were pleased to find that both Stemme and Pieczonka sounded much better than we'd been expecting, and that Meier, though vocally restrained when compared to such past exponents of the role as Resnik, Rysanek, Fassbaender, Christa Ludwig, or Mignon Dunn, was able to make something of the music thru diction and vocal colour.
This afternoon, the three principal women all seemed rather out of sorts vocally. Stemme sounded frayed and effortful, the highest notes sometimes just a shade flat and her vibrato more intrusive than at the earlier performance. Ms. Pieczonka was likewise on lesser form, tending to sound shrill under pressure, and the voices of both sopranos seemed smaller and less free that I remembered. Ms. Meier was - honestly (and I am a big fan of hers) - nearly inaudible much of the time; a lot of her verbal detail didn't penetrate the orchestra. (Since the performance was being broadcast, undoubtedly Ms. Meier made a much more vivid impression over the airwaves).
Stemme and Pieczonka did achieve a higher level as the afternoon wore on; their most exciting singing came after the murder of Aegisth and on thru to the end of the opera. But compared to their earlier performance, they were both a bit disappointing. Of course, we have to take into account that these are two of the most fearsome and challenging roles in the soprano repertoire, and are being sung over a huge orchestra in a vast space. The wear and tear on their instruments must be incredible.
The audience at large were undeterred by concerns over vocal matters, and they lustily cheered the three women at the curtain calls; the ovation for Ms. Stemme - well-merited for her generosity and courage - was enormous, and the house lights were turned on so she could see everyone standing and screaming for her.
For me, it was the opera itself - and Esa-Pekka Salonen's conducting of it - that made the performance memorable. The orchestra played spectacularly, and if Maestro Salonen sped thru some of the music (the Recognition Scene seemed really fast) it sort of added to the sense of exhilaration I was experiencing just from hearing the opera live again.
Eric Owens made an outstanding impression as Orestes today; his first lines established a powerful and rather creepy vocal presence, and at "Lass den Orest..." he was truly splendid. He has the right amplitude for this music in this house, and was deservedly hailed at his solo bow.
Special mention to Bonita Hyman for her rich, deep contralto singing as the First Maid, and to the remarkable Roberta Alexander, who again made such a moving impression as the Fifth Maid, a Chéreau 'invention' that paid off handsomely.
Metropolitan Opera House April 30th, 2016 Matinee
ELEKTRA Richard Strauss
Elektra....................Nina Stemme Chrysothemis...............Adrianne Pieczonka Klytämnestra...............Waltraud Meier Orest......................Eric Owens Aegisth....................Burkhard Ulrich Overseer...................Susan Neves Serving Woman..............Bonita Hyman Serving Woman..............Maya Lahyani Serving Woman..............Andrea Hill Serving Woman..............Claudia Waite Serving Woman..............Roberta Alexander Confidant..................Susan Neves Trainbearer................Andrea Hill Young Servant..............Mark Schowalter Old Servant................James Courtney Guardian...................Kevin Short