Regine Crespin in the closing moments of Act I of DER ROSENKAVALIER.
Regine Crespin in the closing moments of Act I of DER ROSENKAVALIER.
May 19, 2016 | Permalink
Sunday May 15th, 2016 - The eight chairs neatly arrayed on the stage of Alice Tully Hall were soon occupied by a collective of top-notch musicians - two each of horns, oboes, clarinets, and bassoons - for Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center's presentation of Spring Winds: a program of music by Beethoven, Gounod, Ibert, and Mozart with no strings attached. For the Gounod, flautist Ransom Wilson joined his colleagues; the playing - all evening - was exceptional.
In a program note, bassoonist Peter Kolkay wrote: "These works were meant to be explored among friends, embracing a spirit of camaraderie that extends out beyond the the edge of the stage and embraces the audience." And that is exactly the feeling this evening's music-making evoked. Interestingly, each pairing of instrumentalists was cross-generational - horn player Kevin Rivard, for example, was seated next to Julie Landsman, who had been his teacher at Juilliard. I can only imagine how pleasant it must have been for these musicians to prepare this program.
Beethoven's Octet in E-flat major, opus 103, was the heart-warming opening work. It is a piece in which all the voices are heard mingling in appealing sonorities, with melodies passing from player to player as the rhythmic figures seem almost self-sustaining. We as listeners could simply bask in the sounds of each instrument and in the richness of the collective choir; the sonic illusion of a much larger ensemble was the result of the depth and beauty of each individual player's tone, producing a musical experience that was rewarding in every regard.
Of particular appeal was the lively wit of the Menuetto, where whimsical octave leaps and decorative scales - plus a feeling that a slip into the minor mode might be imminent - keep the ear amused.
With his golden flute, Ransom Wilson (above) then joined the ensemble for Charles Gounod's Petite Symphonie, which dates from 1885. In the Symphonie's opening Adagio/Allegretto, Autumn seems to give way directly to Spring. Mr. Wilson's flute and Alexander Fiterstein's clarinet engage in a joyous dance from across their music stands.
The Andante cantabile takes the form of a bel canto cavatina, played sublimely by Mr. Wilson. This lovely melody flowed so gracefully in the flautist's silken-smooth rendering, taken up briefly by the oboe (Stephen Taylor) and horn (Mr. Rivard) before returning to Mr. Wilson's care. A charming scale motif was exchanged among flute, clarinet, and bassoon.
Above: Alexander Fiterstein
Horn calls - richly intoned by Ms. Landsman and Mr Rivard - summon up the Scherzo, wherein Mr. Fiterstein's mixture of melodious generosity and subtle nuance in the central song were thoroughly pleasing. Mr. Taylor and Mr. Wilson in turn have their chances to shine, whilst the two bassoons - ever the colorists - comment like merry conspirators. The Symphonie ends with a jaunty Allegretto, all the players in high spirits and reveling in the convivial atmosphere.
Brevity being the soul of wit, the Cinq pièces en trio of Jacques Ibert (above) evoked gentle laughter from the audience, and wry smiles from the three players - James Austin Smith (oboe), Alexander Fiterstein (clarinet) and Marc Goldberg (bassoon) - who had just eight minutes to tell five short musical stories.
Above: Marc Goldberg
The Ibert kicks off with a quick-witted, rather ironic Allegro vivo. The players seem scarcely to have begun when it's suddenly over; they exchange smiles while the audience buzzes quietly in amusement. Mr. Smith's plaintive oboe, soon joined by Mr. Fiterstein and then by Mr. Goldberg, serenely illuminates the Andantino. The Allegro assai is a merry song, and then Mr. Smith at his most lyrical and persuasive plays a lovely Andante. Jollity returns for the concluding Allegro quasi marziale.
The three excellent musicians were called back by the audience's affectionate applause; I was hoping they might encore one of the movements: it wouldn't have taken but a jiffy.
Above: James Austin Smith in a Jennifer Taylor portrait
Mr. Smith played a leading role in the concert's concluding performance of Mozart's Serenade in C minor, K. 388; no one is quite sure where or when this work was first heard, or who commissioned it, or even when exactly it was written. But of course it is such congenial music: a work full of marvels, really, and this evening's octet of players seemed intent on sharing them all with us. All eight have ample opportunity to entice and allure the ear, and the voices were wonderfully mingled in the many ensemble passages.
Following some well-contrasted minor/major variants in the opening Allegro, Mr. Smith's oboe sets sail with gracious tone on the work's mellow Andante; David Shifrin's warm-timbred clarinet is soon entwined with the oboe's melody. The horns bring a resonant depth, and there is a passing sensation of gathering shadows.
In the Menuetto in canone, Mozart's debt to Bach and Handel is recalled as the bassoons (Mssrs Kolkay and Goldberg) take up the oboe's melody in canon. Watching the musicians' give and take throughout this movement made me think how nice it is to have two of everything.
For the serenade's finale, Mozart turns to variations; with the oboes (Mssrs. Smith and Taylor) and bassoons meshed, the clarinets sounding jovial, and the mellow horns adding a plush element, the music romps onward to a buoyant C-major ending.
During the interval, my choreographer-friend Claudia Schreier and I were discussing the difference between listening to chamber music at home and experiencing it live. Being there, especially when musicians of this magnitude are onstage, is an incomparable treat: the intense concentration, the silent communication between players, and their delight in turning a perfect phrase or achieving a ideal blend - these make for a visual experience that is as savorable as the music itself.
The Participating Artists:
May 16, 2016 | Permalink
Above: The Erlking and his daughters seek to claim the dying boy
Friday May 13th, 2016 - Marking Friday the 13th with an aptly-titled program Macabre, Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center offered a program of musical works that conjure up images of supernatural beings and the terrors of the night.
The evening opened with a cinematic treat: the Psycho Suite drawn from Bernard Herrmann's score for the 1960 Alfred Hitchcock film. The infamous music from the shower scene is the suite's highlight; other themes will conjure up the amenities of the Bates Motel for horror/thriller film buffs.
For Psycho, the players of the Escher String Quartet were joined by the three Lees - Kristin, Yura, and Sean - cellist Efe Baltacigil, and Timothy Cobb on double bass. How great to have Mr. Cobb pop in just for the opening piece tonight; he and his colleagues seemed to revel in the rhythmic and textural variety of the Hermmann score, which alternates between slashing and slithering. High violins create a creepy sensation, and of course the violent accents of the 'shower' theme caused much murmuring among the audience.
Harpist Bridget Kibbey (above, in a Lisa Marie Mazzucco portrait) took the leading role in André Caplet's Conte fantastique, an atmospheric work for harp and strings inspired by Edgar Allen Poe’s tale “The Masque of the Red Death”. Drawing from an unpublished “symphonic study” dating from 1909, Caplet published the Conte in 1924, only a year before his untimely death of pleurisy, from which he had suffered since being caught in a gas attack in the trenches of World War I.
Ms. Kibbey was joined by a dreamy/nightmarish string quartet - Kristin Lee and Sean Lee (violins), Yura Lee (viola) and Mr. Baltacigil's cello - in this Caplet sound-painting. The harpist's consummate mastery of her instrument was essential to the excellence of the performance, for in his Conte fantastique, Caplet employs the harp to dramatic effect, extending its expressive range beyond romantic loveliness and calling for both technical wizardry and the conjuring of an atmosphere of mystery. Yura Lee's sustained note draws us in, and Ms. Kibbey keenly develops the music which ranges from low, plucked notes to high shimmering melismas and sweeping glissandi. Twelve times she raps on the frame of her golden harp, and then creates the illusion of a chiming clock. Death has come to the party.
Pianist Inon Barnatan (above) was at his most intriguing in Ravel's Gaspard de la nuit; his technical authority at the keyboard and his innate sense of poetry made for a spell-binding experience. The soft shimmer of the work's many misterioso effects were calibrated by Mr. Barnatan with his distinctive mastery of the piano/pianissimo gradations that make this piece so entrancing.
The ebb and flow of the music, the rising and subsiding of passion, were instinctively set forth by the pianist as he depicted the hope and resignation of the water nymph Ondine. In the bleakly atmospheric (but oddly beautiful) second movement - with its depiction of a corpse hanging from the gallows (Le gibet) as the sun sets - and in the expression of feverish fears of a menacing, spectral creature in Scarbo, the closing movement - Mr. Barnatan's compelling playing carried thru on an astoundingly high level. The result was a frenzy of applause and cheers as people rose to salute the slender pianist, who basked in our approval and was called back a second time.
Following the interval, Franz Schubert's chilling narrative of the Erlkönig - a desperate father's ride thru the night to find help for his mortally ill son, the boy's feverish visions, and the eerie, pursuing form of the Erlking summoning the child to death's embrace - calls upon its singer to conjure up the voices of the three characters whilst the pianist depicts the breathless terror of the ride with darkly turbulent, relentless music.
Inon Barnatan perfectly captured the subtle shifts of mood of the piece. Baritone Yunpeng Wang has an appealing timbre and strong dramatic instincts, as well as the power and range to deliver an exciting performance of this miniature drama. The singer does need to be mindful of a slight tendency to sing sharp, but was otherwise quite impressive.
Above: The Escher Quartet in a Sophie Zhai photo; the players are Aaron Boyd, Brook Speltz, Pierre Lapointe, and Adam Barnett-Hart
Following the interval, the ever-welcome Escher Quartet gave us Schubert's Death and the Maiden in a beautifully integrated and emotionally vivid performance. This was my first opportunity to hear the Escher since they've been joined by a new cellist: Brook Speltz; it's good to be able to report that the integrity of the Escher's de luxe sound remains intact.
The Escher's rendering of this famous and beloved quartet displayed their signature beauty of tone, their sense of dramatic nuance, and their finely-integrated mingling of voices. They remained undaunted by the dreaded (sustained) sound of a cellphone midway thru the first movement.
The silken sweetness of Adam Barnett-Hart's violin was at its most appealing today; his breathtaking control of dynamics and his mastery of the most subtle refinements make for blissful listening, yet when vigor is called for, he is wonderfully lively in his presentation. Adam Boyd is an ideal musical mate for Mr. Barnett-Hart; their playing meshes with perfect assurance and when Mr. Boyd takes the melodic lead, it's always to fine effect.
The doleful second movement of Death and the Maiden gives the viola and cello extensive opportunities, whilst the violins play gentle obbligatos. The sound of Pierre Lapointe's viola can move effortlessly from delicacy to richness, drawing us in to the mezzo voice. Brook Speltz excelled in the cello solo, played with the tenderness of regret. When the second movement turns unexpectedly animated, Mr. Barnett-Hart provided some of his most inspired playing of the evening.
A perfect tempo for the concluding Presto produced marvelously polished playing from the foursome, with Mr. Barnett-Hart again showing impeccable control. Mr. Boyd also took up a theme with cordial playing before Mssrs. Lapointe and Speltz joined their violin-colleagues in the race to the finish. A huge, exuberant standing ovation for the Eschers, much-merited, as we the fortunate listeners sought to express our gratitude both to these marvelous music-makers and to Schubert himself.
Enjoyment of the evening was somewhat compromised by distracting audience behavior. There seemed to be a large number of young people present tonight, and while they are certainly welcome, they perhaps can't differentiate - in terms of behavior - between this kind of concert and other forms of entertainment. There was much whispering and shuffling, with checking of cellphones and surreptitious photography. Water bottles had been smuggled in, and of course one was dropped during a quiet moment in the quartet. The boy in front of us could not sit still to save his life, while the girl behind - suffering from a cough and runny nose - seemed blissfully heedless that she was annoying other listeners (as well as contaminating the air with her germs) and kept giggling at her situation. I came very close to leaving at intermission.
The Participating Artists:
May 14, 2016 | Permalink
Above: Haydn and Beethoven
Thursday May 12th, 2016 - The Emerson String Quartet playing Haydn and Beethoven at Alice Tully Hall, the third of three concerts by the Emerson as part of the Great Performers at Lincoln Center series.
The program juxtaposed two of Haydn's last set of string quartets with two from Beethoven's first set:
Haydn: Quartet in C Major, Op. 76, No. 3 “Emperor”
Beethoven: Quartet in G Major, Op. 18, No. 2
Haydn: Quartet in Eb Major, Op. 76, No. 6
Beethoven: Quartet in Bb Major, Op. 18, No. 6
The works were all composed within the span of three or four years.
The six string quartets of Haydn's opus 76 were written in 1796 or 1797 - his final complete set of string quartets. At the time of the commission, Haydn was employed at the court of Prince Esterházy and was busy composing his great oratorio, The Creation. The opus 76 quartets are among Haydn's most ambitious chamber works, moving somewhat away from traditional forms and ideas.
Beethoven’s opus 18 quartets are his earliest compositions in the genre, written in the final years of the 18th century, when he was in his late twenties. The 1790s found the composer churning out one important chamber work after another: piano trios, five string trios, some early violin sonatas and cello sonatas, and his popular Septet.
This evening's program thus allowed us to compare the music of a master in his maturity with the forward-looking works of a developing genius. For me, there seemed a world of difference between the two; Haydn's works are elegant, superbly crafted, and ever-attractive to the ear, yet they rarely if ever penetrate to the heart and soul. Beethoven, on the other hand, seems to find the pathway beyond a merely pleasing musical experience and into something deeper and more satisfying.
The esteemed artists of the Emerson were experiencing vagaries of pitch in the high voices which tended to preclude thorough enjoyment of this interesting comparative program. While there were long passages of the kind of great music-making we expect from the Emerson, the periodic lapses were enough to dampen the overall effect of their performance. A switch of "first chairs" after the interval seemed at first to have remedied the situation, but this impression was not sustained. My companion agreed that the problem was indeed off-putting; in fact he mentioned it while I was still pondering whether my ears were deceiving me.
Hopefully this was simply an off-night; it pains me to even mention the situation, yet it did definitely compromise the evening. The finest opera singers and ballerinas have evenings when things go somewhat awry: it's one of the hazards of live performance, and one always hopes it is temporary.
Outstanding passages in the evening included the 'theme and variations' rendering of the hymn "Glorious things of thee are spoken" in Haydn's Emperor quartet, and some simply gorgeous playing from the viola and cello in the Andante cantabile of the Beethoven G-major. Throughout, the finer moments prevailed, especially in the Beethoven works.
May 13, 2016 | Permalink
Tuesday May 10th, 2016 - Music by three of my favorite composers - and an opportunity to hear three gifted young musicians in solo turns with the Orchestra of Saint Luke's - drew me to the Young Concert Artists' annual gala at Alice Tully Hall in a state of eager anticipation. It was a wonderful evening, with a raptly attentive audience, and it ended with a full-house standing ovation following a magnificent performance of the Prokofiev third piano concerto.
After a cordial welcome from Susan Wadsworth, we greeted the Ukrainian violinist Aleksey Semenenko, who won the 2012 Young Concert Artists International Auditions, and who was making his New York concerto debut tonight playing Mozart's Violin Concerto # 5 in A major with the Orchestra of Saint Luke's under the baton of Michael Stern. Mr. Semenenko looks extremely young; as the concerto's first movement developed, he seemed increasingly at ease stage-wise, and his playing was marked by a very nice sheen on the tone, beautifully connected registers, fine dynamic control, and a cadenza that was communicative in its own right.
During the orchestral introduction to the Adagio, the boyish violinist looked very pensive; then his sweet timbre emerged with grace, and decorously minute trills. One lovely melodic arc crested on a ppp high note of shimmering beauty. Throughout, his gradations of volume were finely calibrated, adding a poetic quality to the music. The gracious finale - a rondo/minuet movement - found the violinist in full virtuoso mode, with a charming touch of playfulness. A bit of a tempest is stirred up by Mozart, before returning to the main theme. Mr. Semenenko found the concerto's “Turkish” element here most congenial, and he was warmly applauded by the music-lovers who had packed the hall.
Samuel Barber's KNOXVILLE: SUMMER OF 1915 is an atmospheric melding of poetry and music, redolent of still, perfumed evenings in the South a century ago. It is an especially appealing piece, and I wish it was performed more frequently; this was only my second experience of hearing it in a live concert, the previous opportunity being at Tanglewood in 1984 when Edith Wiens sang it with the BSO.
Julia Bullock, a strikingly attractive woman who looked elegant in a deep-charcoal-grey gown, established a lovely rapport both with Maestro Stern and his excellent players as well as with her audience. She managed to make an intimate connection with us, drawing us into the wonderment of the mind of a young child just beginning to discover a wider world.
Ms. Bullock's voice seems to me a high-sitting lyric mezzo-soprano of true clarity and warmth. The highest notes of the vocal line had a slightly metallic tinge, whilst in the lower octave an enchanting violet resonance emerges. The sheer sound of her voice is poignantly expressive, and the orchestra - especially the horns, clarinet, and flute - added lovely hues to the musical palette. The audience were clearly very taken with the singer; there is so much music I want to hear her sing - starting with Chausson's Poeme de l'amour et de la Mer, the Nuits d'Ete of Berlioz, and Wagner's Wesendonck Lieder: music that singers like Dame Janet Baker and Frederica von Stade found so cordial.
Very slim and dapper in white tie and tails, the pianist Yun-Chin Zhou took charge of the Steinway after the interval and scored a thorough triumph with an electrifying Prokofiev Piano Concerto #3.
The concerto opens with an appealingly simple duo clarinet phrase, the pianist sitting in wait. Then Yun-Chin Zhou bursts forth with vivacious dexterity, his long fingers sailing up and down the keyboard with playing of remarkable accuracy and vitality. A big, dynamic build-up follows, and then we hear castanets playing - one of those touches of wit and irony that make Prokofiev's music so endlessly delightful to hear.
Things calm down...again the licorice-flavour of the clarinet delights; then a simply wonderful piano passage where Zhou's mastery of dynamics is on perfect display. Rippling effects and rising cascades of notes flow from the keyboard as the tempo builds to a splashy allegro. Flutes and the piano's highest register tickle the ear, the castanets seem almost mocking. Delicious!
The concerto's central 'theme and variations' concept begins with a gently pacing motif before a trill and flourishing scale from Zhou introduce an off-kilter melody. Trills signal a fast-pulsed passage and a syncopated theme before turning dreamy. Excellent horns, St Luke's! An air of mystery as the strings descend while the piano takes on an eerie quality, only to perk up again with a zesty air and a gypsy tambourine intrusion. Zhou played marvelously over an "Arabian" decor; and then the music suddenly vanishes into thin air.
Zhou now had the audience in the palm of his elegant hand; the third movement launches with a jaunty dance, the pianist dazzling us with a rising theme and an accelerating tempo: Zhou electrifies us. Of a sudden, we lapse into a lovely andantino - the piano sprightly and pensive by turns, with more vibrant trills. Full-blown passion develops, settling into a poignancy of gently rippling scales.
Huge gloriousness of sound envelops us: the music rocks, with the pianist igniting virtuoso fireworks in a spectacular display. A sensational piece, sensationally played.
The audience went berserk, with Zhou called out repeatedly as the whole house stood and shouted in unabashed enthusiasm. Maestro Stern kept pushing Zhou into the spotlight, whilst the pianist in turn saluted the St Luke's players who were applauding him vigorously.
Above: Aleksey Semenenko, Michael Stern, Julia Bullock, and Yun-Chin Zhou after tonight's exhilarating concert; I have borrowed this photo from the YCA Facebook page...I hope they won't mind!
Kudos yet again to Susan Wadsworth, the director of Young Concert Artists, for another brilliant season, and for her boundless love of great music and musicians.
May 11, 2016 | Permalink
"And tomorrow the sun will shine once more, and on the path that I will take it will unite us - we fortunate ones - upon this sun-drenched Earth. And to the broad shore with its blue waves we will quietly go down; we will look into one another's eyes, and the silence of happiness will descend upon us."
May 09, 2016 | Permalink
Above: Anna Tomowa-Sintow as Aida
May 07, 2016 | Permalink