Thursday October 20th, 2016 - Leonidas Kavakos (above) was both soloist and conductor for this evening's program at The New York Philharmonic. Mr. Kavakos is the Philharmonic's current Mary and James G. Wallach Artist-in-Residence, and in this capacity will blessedly be with us frequently in the current season. Tonight, the prodigiously talented violinist played Bach and then moved to the podium to conduct works by Busoni and Schumann.
With the mystique of a Tolkien wizard, Mr. Kavakos worked his magic in a brilliant rendering of J.S. Bach's Violin Concerto in D minor (reconstructed), BWV 1052; surrounded by an ensemble of the orchestra's elite string players, and with Paolo Bordignon at the harpsichord, he cast a spell over the hall with his playing. Following a sizzling cadenza midway thru the first movement, the violinist and his colleagues drew us in with the lamenting beauty of the adagio. An unfortunate cellphone intrusion in the very last moments of the movement was brushed aside as Mr. Kavakos sailed forward with stunning virtuoso playing in the allegro, where he summoned up visions of the legendary "mad fiddlers" who played as if possessed by demons.
The whole ensemble went merrily along on the soloist's swift ride, and I must mention Timothy Cobb's plush tone and amiable agility on bass. Shouts of 'bravo' rang thru the hall as the concerto ended. Mr. Kavakos and Sheryl Staples, this evening's concertmaster, clearly form a mutual-admiration-society; after bowing to the audience's enthusiasm, the soloist signaled Ms. Staples to rise but instead she and all her colleagues remained seated, vigorously applauding Mr. Kavakos. When he finally got the players to stand, the applause re-doubled.
The Geffen Hall stage crew swiftly re-set the space for the next work: I had discovered Ferruccio Busoni's Berceuse élégiaque earlier this season when the Curtis Symphony Orchestra performed it at Carnegie Hall, and was very glad of an opportunity to experience it again tonight.
This is music wrapped in a somber mystery. The composer wrote these lines as a brief 'prologue' to the piece:
"The child's cradle rocks, the hazard of his fate reels; life's path fades, fades away into the eternal distance."
During the ten-minute course of this eerie lullaby, the music rises very slowly from the depths; the subtle interjections from the harp add a dreamlike quality, as does the celesta which joins the darkling ensemble near the end. As a chillingly marvelous finish, a gong sounds and its reverberations fade to nothingness.
The Philharmonic's Playbills are always loaded with fascinating articles and information; I read them on the train trip homeward after the concerts. One passage in the notes on the Busoni struck a tragic note: Gustav Mahler conducted the Philharmonic premiere of the Berceuse élégiaque on February 21st, 2011. Suffering from heart disease, Mahler was forced to withdraw from a second performance of the work; he sailed back to Europe and died in Vienna in May. The February 21st Philharmonic concert thus marked the last time he ever conducted.
Robert Schumann's Symphony No. 2 was the evening's concluding work. Here my companion and I were at a loss: the music is absolutely lovely from start to finish, and it was conducted and played with both steadfastness and genuine affection by Mr. Kavakos and the artists of the Philharmonic. But somehow it is simply too much of a good thing. We were trying to figure out the reasons why this music, so congenial, seems to go in one ear and out the other; there's no edge to it anywhere, and nothing that reaches the heart. Also, for me, part of the problem is all the tutti playing: there's a shortage of those passages where solos might lure us in or smaller components of the orchestra might bedevil one another. Only in the adagio, where the oboe, clarinet and horns had chances to step forward, did my interest perk up. For the rest, the music simply washed over us to beautiful but unmemorable effect.
Clearly ours is a minority report: several people sitting around us were 'conducting' along, or swaying slightly, or tapping their feet. A lusty ovation was unleashed immediately after the final chord, and this was so well-merited by conductor and players.
Wednesday October 19th, 2016 = The American Symphony Orchestra presenting concert settings of operas by Ernst Krenek and Richard Strauss in their season-opening program. The timely theme of dictatorships and the eternally evasive concept of peace hung in the air at Carnegie Hall, where appreciative music lovers had gathered, skipping a pointless presidential 'debate' in favor of hearing some rarely-performed works.
Ernst Krenek's Der Diktator was completed in August 1926. You can read a synopsis of the opera and find background material here, since I'm going to concentrate on the evening's presentation.
Leon Botstein and his intrepid players gave a fine rendering of the very palatable score. The performance was dominated by Donnie Ray Albert as the Dictator. A stalwart force in the realms of opera and concert since 1976, Mr. Albert is now 66 years of age, and boasts a voice that has retained its power, along with interpretive skills that are truly impressive. Whether in bold declamation or in the music's more lyrical passages, Mr. Albert gave a masterful performance. Another impressive voice was that of Karen Chia-Ling Ho as Maria: displaying a large, spinto sound and hall-filling top notes, the soprano also invested her singing with dramatic urgency. Ilana Davidson, a petite woman with a baby-dollish timbre, piped up boldly as Charlotte, and Mark Duffin was able to combine the power of a helden- and the verbal edge of a character-tenor. Portraying an officer blinded by poison gas while in the Dictator's service, Mr. Duffin wore sunglasses and managed, for all his gritty vocal power, to create a moving figure.
Richard Strauss's Friedenstag (Peace Day) was premiered at Munich in 1938, with Adolf Hitler among the audience. Set during the Thirty Years War, the story is unfolds in a city under siege; after many twists and turns of plot, the wife of the city's Commandant intercedes with the head of the besieging force and brings about a reconciliation. With music includes many reminders of DIE FRAU OHNE SCHATTEN,FRIEDENSTAG is a good experience for an old Strauss-lover like me; however, it is somewhat weakened by an endless series of "finales", as though Strauss did not know when to stop.
Continuing his highly successful evening, Donnie Ray Albert made a grand impression as the Commandant with his generous singing and imposing stature. I had very much been anticipating hearing Tamara Wilson as Maria, the Commandant's wife, but when we arrived at Carnegie Hall, we found that she had canceled and was being replaced by Kirsten Chambers. A program-insert bio lists Ms. Chambers as the cover for both Isolde and Salome at The Met this season. Blonde, and clad in a bright red gown, the soprano unsparingly hurled herself into the demanding music of Maria, showing a voice of considerable thrust. If one top note was just shy of the mark, overall she managed well in a fiendish role, and saved the evening.
Bass Ricardo Lugo (above), as the opposing general, made a vibrant impression with his imposing voice and intrinsic sense of the drama. He was an excellent foil for Mr. Albert, and, between these two powerhouse voices, they kept our focus on the work keenly secured. Mr. Duffin, amplifying the forceful impression he had made in the Krenek, was back as the Burgomaster: one of his upper notes was sustained for an incredibly long time...I really don't know how he did it!
FRIEDENSTAG has a number of small roles in which savvy interpreters are able to make their mark. I especially liked the clear sweetness of Scott Joiner's tenor as a Piedontese soldier (he sang in Italian) and Carsten Wittmoser's sturdy vocalism as a Musketeer. Tenor Doug Jones and baritone Steven Eddy (in a dual role) seized their chances and did very well, with baritones Steven Moore, Daniel Collins, and Benjamin Cohen contributing strongly.
In small vignettes, a number of chorus members stepped forward from time to time. One of these had a special meaning for me: Rachel Rosales, as a Woman of the People, is a soprano I heard lo! these many seasons ago as an exquisite Leila in LES PECHEURS DES PERLES at New York City Opera. I have seen her name listed among choral rosters before, and was feeling nostalgic when she intoned her brief, dramatic solo, a solo which made me think of Strauss's writing for Die Amme in FRAU OHNE SCHATTEN. In the finale tonight (the final finale), Ms. Rosales and other chorus sopranos sent some high notes sailing into the hall.
The Participating Artists:
American Symphony Orchestra
Leon Botstein, conductor
Bard Festival Chorale/James Bagwell, director
Ilana Davidson, Karen Chia-ling Ho and Kirsten Chambers, sopranos
Tuesday October 18th, 2016 - Soprano Lisette Oropesa (above, photographed by Steven Harris) making her Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center debut in the opening concert of the Society's 2016-2017 season.
The program commenced with a charming performance of Haydn's 'Surprise' symphony, and if the element of surprise in this very familiar work has long since evaporated, there was still a murmur of delight which passed thru the packed house when that 'wake up!' chord sounded. The symphony, a veritable fountain of melodic and rhythmic delights, was played by an ensemble of top-notch musicians: the kind of artists that maintain the Society's impeccable standards.
With Michael Brown's wonderfully attentive and polished playing of the Steinway setting the pace, we could relish the divine piping of Tara Helen O'Connor's flute and a most pleasing mixture of swiftness and sweetness from Erin Keefe's violin. Danbi Um, in a pretty forest-green frock, stood out in a brief mingling of voices with Ms. O'Connor flute - Danbi would have more expansive opportunities in the Palestrina/Mendelssohn combination after the interval. Of the lower voices, Richard O'Neill's dusky viola sound and his deep involvement in the music are always most welcome; and though music stands blocked our view of Mihai Marica, his cello spoke clearly. This assemblage of musicians were as pleasing to watch as to hear, and they set the tone for the evening with their virtuosity and grace.
It seems incredible that ten years have passed since the voice of Lisette Oropesa first captured my imagination when she sang a very brief role in a performance of Mozart's IDOMENEO at The Met. I immediately seized on the notion that this was a singer who would be going places, and she has proven me correct: her career has positively bloomed, and she moves from engagement to engagement, conquering audiences from Munich to Santa Fe, from Dallas to Madrid. Conductors tend to love her, as much for her vocal clarity and musicianship as for her preparedness and sunshine-filled personality.
Lisette walked onstage this evening in a midnight-blue gown, jewels at her neckline, superbly coiffed: the very picture of elegance. With the one-and-only Gilbert Kalish at the Steinway, the soprano proceeded to captivate the audience with her shimmering voice and rapturous delivery. All of the things I love about her singing were in abounding evidence tonight: the distinctive colour, the mastery of dynamics, the magical turns of phrase, the imaginative way with words. In three Mendelssohn songs - "Wanderlied", "On the Wings of Song" and "Suleika" - Lisette cast a spell over the hall, and Mr. Kalish was a most valuable fellow sorcerer. Together, they created an atmosphere of fascination; and the audience's enthusiastic response affirmed my feelings.
Soprano and pianist returned immediately, joined by David Schifrin; some Schifrin fans seated near me buzzed with anticipation. Following the brief piano introduction, the eminent clarinetist made a breathtaking entrance on the sustained tone that heralds Franz Schubert's "Shepherd on the Rock"; moments later, Lisette began to sing and all seemed right with the world.
"Shepherd on the Rock" has the feeling of a bel canto scena. Passages of sustained lyricism give way to flights of coloratura, with voice and clarinet mingling in a way that reminds us a bit of the flute and soprano mix in Lucia di Lammermoor's 'Mad Scene'.
The singer must convey the moods of Schubert's shepherd: his delight in hearing his own voice echo back to him from the valley, his tender longing for his sweetheart far away, and his optimism at the coming of Spring. All this Lisette accomplished with her intrinsic sensitivity to the narrative, finding an ideal give-and-take with her collaborators. The vocal writing here covers a wide range, from peaky top notes to some unusual plunges to the depths; Lisette had it all at her fingertips, and her voice once again spun a web of enchantment. She and the two gentlemen basked in the audience's very cordial applause.
At a time when so many lyric-coloratura sopranos on the scene seem to me lacking in real distinction, Lisette shows us what a 'vocal personality' really is: it's not just the sound, nor the technique, nor the communicative gifts; nor really anything to do with physical attractiveness. It's a light from within, and that's what sets Ms. Oropesa apart from the rest.
Following the intermission, David Finckel let us know that we'd be hearing an added work this evening: a Mendelssohn fugue would follow the brief and rare Palestrina piece we were about to hear. Mr. Finckel then joined Danbi Um, Erin Keefe, and Richard O'Neill to perform Palestrina's 'Sanctus' from Missa Aeterna Christi Munera. The spiritual simplicity of the music, with its poignant beauty, was finely underscored by Mr. Finckel's gently resonant cello.
After only a brief pause, the quartet gave us the Mendelssohn fugue: it is launched by Richard O'Neill's velvety viola, taken up by Ms. Keefe and Ms. Um in turn, and then by the Finckel cello. This lovely work, perhaps too brief to be programmed often, displayed Danbi Um's satin-sheened tone and the appealing expressive qualities of her playing.
We had reached that point in the evening where the final work loomed before us. With all that had gone before, what kind of finale could be devised that would cap the performance in a properly spectacular way? With their customary flair for programming, the Society had kept an ace up their sleeve, and within literally five seconds of Michael Brown's introduction to the Ravel A-minor trio, I had goosebumps and a tingling spine. What playing from Mr. Brown and his colleagues, Ms. Keefe and Mr. Marica...simply astounding!
Ravel produced his only work in the piano-trio genre in a burst of fevered inspiration during the summer of 1914, as Europe’s armies mobilized for war. The result is one of Ravel's most intense - yet still lyrical - works.
Michael Brown immediately established the atmosphere of the opening movement with his darkish, misterioso playing. Ms. Keefe and Mihai Marica were well-matched in beauty of timbre. A remarkable sustained tone from the cellist was followed by Ms. Keefe's exquisite ascent to the heights: their perfumed mingling of voices gave me the chills. Simply ravishing passages in the upper reaches from the violin, and then the piano becomes more animated with a rising sense of drama. This subsides to a sweet cello theme; the players demonstrate fantastic pianissimo control. The violin goes deep, the piano quietens to a whisper. Spellbinding fade-away...an engrossing moment.
Immediately the mood shifts to bright and then lilting in the plucky second movement, featuring a rising motif and a skittishness that sets up a fun ending.
Mr. Brown's left-handed piano introduction to the third movement hints at the ominous; Mr. Marica's cello enters: pensive and low, whilst Ms. Keefe's violin expresses a sense of yearning. In a hypnotic interlude, Mr. Brown drew me ever deeper into the mood with his incredibly intimate playing. The cello and then the violin re-enter; passion builds, and it's sublime. Following a soft string duo, the cello sinks to the deep register, and the piano even deeper.
The finale commences high and buzzy, with a light, bright texture. All three musicians are simply sailing along, and a feeling of rapture develops. Ms. Keefe and Mr. Marica launch a series of trills that might go on forever; but then the swirls and eddies of melody sweep everything forward, to a simply gorgeous end. Such extraordinary playing of an extraordinary piece: the audience burst into eager applause, and the three musicians were called back for a second bow.
Marilyn Horne was in the audience tonight, bless her heart. And having Lisette Oropesa and Richard O'Neill on the same program gave me the notion of wanting to hear them together in William Bolcom's Let Evening Come. This song cycle was composed for the beloved soprano Benita Valente, to whose voice Lisette's bears a kinship; as a Met Young Artist, a decade ago, Lisette had an opportunity to work with Ms. Valente. I've been listening to Benita's atmospheric recording, and now I'm really wanting to hear the Bolcom performed live.
Haydn Symphony in G major for Piano, Flute, Two Violins, Viola, and Cello, Hob. I:94, "Surprise" (1791)
Mendelssohn Selected Songs for Soprano and Piano, Opp. 34 and 57 (1835-41)
SchubertDer Hirt auf dem Felsen for Soprano, Clarinet, and Piano, D. 965, Op. 129 (1828)
PalestrinaSanctus from Missa Aeterna Christi Munera (1590)
Ravel Trio in A minor for Piano, Violin, and Cello (1914)