Saturday October 3rd, 2015 - Mezzo-soprano Sasha Cooke and pianist Emmanuel Ax appeared with The New York Philharmonic in this concert in which Marc Neikrug's Canta-Concerto (a New York Philharmonic commission in its world premiere performances) was book-ended by two masterworks by Johannes Brahms.
Brahms' Tragic Overture opened the evening; composed in 1880, this melodious work doesn't sound particularly 'tragic' to us today, but rather seems a mixture of solemnity and gently restrained hope. The horns and trombones were particularly mellifluous in their richly-hued theme; Maestro Gilbert moved the overture along confidently, avoiding sentimentality.
Alan Gilbert spoke briefly with composer Marc Neikrug prior to the performance of the Canta-Concerto. These amiable little chats are harmless, but for me I'd rather get on with the music and let that do the talking. At least Mr. Neikrug did not amble on and on as Esa-Pekka Salonen had done the week before.
Sasha Cooke then appeared, in a gem-spangled black frock, and gave a simply spectacular performance of the Canta-Concerto; this work is set in four movements, with pauses in between: an opening arioso (that seemed to me to have a Russian feel); a scherzo-like interlude, an expressive cavatina, and what might be called a jazz-cabaletta.
There are no texts; the composer has invented his own language of sounds and the singer is called upon to communicate with the listener by vocal colour alone; this Ms. Cooke did with resplendent surety. Her voice, with its uniquely feminine timbre, was employed - much as a painter employs the hues from his palette - to create an emotionally-charged atmosphere in what is essentially abstract music.
The orchestra meanwhile has its part to play, yet it is always to the voice that we are drawn. Following what seemed to be a recitar cantando element in the opening movement - where one of the 'words' Ms. Cooke was singing somehow evoked for me a choral passage from EUGEN ONEGIN - a violent percussion attack leads the singer into the intense second movement. The somberly expressive third movement, with lamenting strings, found Ms. Cooke un-spooling the tone in a poignant legato. Dynamics were skillfully varied in this doleful vocalise, which rises to a high conclusion. Jazzy vamping and a touch of skat were deliciously set forth in the concluding 'cabaletta', with Ms. Cooke's body English amplifying a dance-like feeling in the rhythms, and an interjection from the marimba bringing in an added texture.
A singer in a class by herself, Sasha Cooke made the most of every note and 'word' in this unusual piece, holding the audience in the palm of her hand. It's always a delight to hear her.
Following the interval, the audience gave an affectionate welcome to Emanuel Ax (above). The esteemed pianist impressed us earlier this year playing the Chopin 2nd with The Philharmonic; tonight he and Alan Gilbert brought us a lustrous performance of the Brahms Piano Concerto No. 2 (composed in 1881) with the artists of the orchestra on splendid form.
Philip Myers' sonorous horn intoned the opening motif, answered from the keyboard by Mr. Ax. The pianist goes - almost at once - into an extended cadenza where Mr. Ax's nimble virtuosity was at its most polished. The pianist's clarity in agile passages was admirable, leading us onward to the heart of the matter: the great, ardent Andante which opens with its poignantly lyrical cello theme. In this Andante, as it progressed, Maestro Gilbert summoned up a most congenial orchestral blend, with the piano as a glowing thread in the sonic tapestry. A solo statement from Anthony McGill's mellow clarinet was a moment to savor, before the conductor crafted a beautifully tapered final passage in which all the voices meshed to perfection. Then, after only the slightest of pauses, Gilbert and Ax sailed into the lively Allegro grazioso and brought the evening to a triumphant end.
The audience lavished cheers and applause on Mr. Ax who - in a lovely gesture - crossed the podium to embrace cellist Carter Brey whilst Maestro Gilbert looked on benevolently. This was a great performance in every regard.
Tuesday September 29th, 2015 - Having cancelled most of his Summer engagements to commence treatment following the diagnosis of a brain tumor, the great Russian baritone Dmitri Hvorostovsky valiantly came to New York City to sing for us at The Metropolitan Opera. The necessity of returning to London to continue his treatment regimen meant that the baritone would only sing the first three of his scheduled Met performances as Count di Luna in IL TROVATORE, but to me it spoke highly of his dedication that he made the effort to come in for these high-profile performances which also feature the first Met Leonoras of Anna Netrebko.
At the season prima, on September 25th, the audience greeted Hvorostovsky's entrance with a show-stopping ovation. The evening ended with a tumult of cheers and applause as he took his bows, and the members of The Met orchestra flung flowers up onto the stage, signalling their affectionate regard for the great singer.
And a great singer he is...truly. Tonight - the second of the three performances in which he'll appear - Hvorostovsky was again given a prolonged round of applause at his entrance. To me, his voice sounded, amazingly, more beautiful than ever. "Il balen" was the vocal high-point of the evening: superbly phrased and deeply felt, sustaining the poetic musings of a character often described as "evil" but who is, essentially, a real romantic.
Hvorostovsky's Count di Luna in fact manages to engage our empathy when he is cruelly beaten by Manrico's men in the convent scene; Manrico slashes his rival's face, and Hvorostovsky's acting here was wonderfully committed. All evening, the baritone kept the character very much in the forefront of both the music and the drama, from with his snarling "Io fremo!" as he listens to Manrico serenading Leonora in Act I right to the end where - if my ears didn't deceive me - Dima chimed in on Azucena's final high B-flat with one of his own.
Dolora Zajick's Azucena was thrilling from start to finish; the esteemed mezzo-soprano flung her fiery high notes and cavernous chest tones into the house with resplendent authority, her monologue "Condotta ell'era in ceppi" a veritable whirlwind of emotion as she displayed an uncanny dynamic range from haunting near-whispers to thunderous outbursts. This evening she didn't take the high-C in "Perigliarti ancor languente" that had been one of her trademarks in this role, but instead swept onward like an force of nature. Her expressive singing of "Giorni poveri vivea..." was counter-balanced moments later with the sweeping anguish of "Deh! rallentate, o barbari!" which commenced on a lightning-bolt top note and plunged into vivid chest notes. In the opera's final scene, Zajick displayed marvelous control in "Ai nostri monti" and in the trio where she seems to be singing in her sleep, only to awaken to the horror of Manrico's execution. Her triumphant B-flat was a glorious cry of revenge achieved.
The Korean tenor Yonghoon Lee made a positive impression as Manrico, despite the fact that his voice is rather lighter than we are accustomed to in this music. In fact, Lee's entire repertoire seems geared to roles which call for more vocal heft than he seems capable of: I wonder if he might not be better employed - at least for now - as Alfredo, the Duke of Mantua, and Tamino.
But there's no going back, and Lee's impassioned commitment to both the music and the character of Manrico had the audience well engaged. Lee's slender figure and intense acting gave the rebel leader a romantic, swashbuckling appeal; and his mixture of unbridled vocal passion with moments of hushed piano reflectiveness kept the music aurally stimulating. Oddly, he sometimes reminded me of Franco Corelli - not in terms of the voice itself, but with the smouldering ardor of his delivery.
Lee sang a beautifully modulated, emotional "Ah si, ben mio" and - if I am not mistaken - took "Di quella pira" in C with an endlessly sustained final note which was ever-so-slightly below pitch. The audience took the tenor to heart, and Mr. Lee was very warmly applauded at the curtain calls.
Anna Netrebko seemed to be forcing her voice in some of Leonora's music; in pushing for a larger, darker sound, some of the inherent lyric beauty of her tone is drained away. Her over-leaning into the chest register was a detriment: this isn't Santuzza. There were many fine passages along the way, but also some errant pitch and some glare on the louder high notes (she skipped the D-flat at the end of the Act I trio). The audience, needless to say, adored her.
Stefan Kocan was a powerfully-sung and dramatically commanding Ferrando, with Maria Zifchak a big-voiced Inez and my friend Edward Albert in the brief role of A Gypsy. Marco Armiliato's conducting was 'good routine' - and better than that after the interval - and the orchestra played very well.
A program note explained that Ms. Netrebko's costumes had been specially created for her. Her breasts were amply on display in the opening scene's burgundy outfit, then at the convent she was all buttoned up, a prim and proper young 'widow' in black. She went in for a gypsy look for the scene prior to her (thwarted) marriage, with a nifty head-wrap.
For all the passing "ifs, ands, or buts", this was overall a pretty exciting night at the opera: there was involvement, passion, and some very impressive vocalism along the way.
Metropolitan Opera House September 29th, 2015
ILTROVATORE Giuseppe Verdi
Manrico.................Yonghoon Lee Leonora.................Anna Netrebko Count Di Luna...........Dmitri Hvorostovsky Azucena.................Dolora Zajick Ferrando................Stefan Kocán Ines....................Maria Zifchak Ruiz....................Raúl Melo Messenger...............David Lowe Gypsy...................Edward Albert
Friday September 25th, 2015 - The New York Philharmonic's opening concert of the subscription season introduced us to the orchestra's new concertmaster, Frank Huang. We'd actually seen Mr. Huang playing - unannounced - at a couple of concerts last season; but now it's official, and the Philharmonic faithful gave the violinist a warm welcome.
The program opened with LA Variations, a 1996 work by the Philharmonic's new Marie-Josée Kravis composer-in-residence, Esa-Pekka Salonen. Salonen's violin concerto, to which Peter Martins set his 2010 ballet MIRAGE and which the Philharmonic performed in 2013 - is to me one of the outstanding musical works of the 21st century to date. And so I was very curious to hear the composer's much earlier work this evening.
Mr. Salonen appeared onstage prior to the playing of the Variations and made an overly-long, rambling speech about how the work was a turning point in his musical thinking. As he talked on and on, audience members around us seemed increasingly restless, and a few dozed off. At last he ambled offstage and Masetro Gilbert took the podium and - as it should - the music spoke for itself.
LA Variations is a work of consummate craftsmanship and has many very appealing passages; early on, some of the textures reminded me - oddly enough - of the Sea Interludes from Britten's Peter Grimes. Later there are some big tutti passages that evoke a restless, rocking feeling. At the very end, there was a tantalizing 'calling card' from Frank Huang in an entrancing solo passage that whetted the appetite for the Strauss to come.
LA Variations seemed to show - as he indicated in his speech - the composer's turning away from the rather sterile musical language in which he had been ingrained (he frequently mentioned Pierre Boulez in this regard), and the planting of the first seeds in his own musical garden; works like the Violin Concerto show us how that garden has bloomed and thrived in the years since Salonen's 1996 self-discovery.
Following the interval, we experienced an incandescent performance of Richard Strauss's Ein Heldenleben(A Hero’s Life), which dates from 1898.
In December 2013, my friend Dmitry and I experienced a superb rendering of this work played by the Philhamonic under the baton of a conductor me greatly admired: Rafael Frühbeck de Burgos; alas, just six months after that vibrant evening, the venerable Maestro passed away.
Tonight's performance found Maestro Gilbert and the Philharmonic artists at their luminous best. It was an uplifting and wonderfully satisfying traversal of this impressive, melodically rich score. Maestro Gilbert favored a forward impetus to the music - very exhilarating - yet also provided the necessary passages of reverie.
The musical themes continually sound like previews of Strauss's operas to come - most especially of Rosenkavalier and Frau ohne Schatten, both of which lay many years in the future. The Philharmonic musicians seemed to relish every moment of the score, whether in the big ensemble moments or the many solo opportunities which the composer provides. Philip Myers and his fellow hornsmen were having a grand night of it, as were the trumpeters in their offstage calls. The principal wind players shone with evocative lustre in their solos.
Ein Heldenleben provided an ideal showcase for Frank Huang as he embarked on his Philharmonic journey: in this Strauss work with its marvelous passages for violin solo, Mr Huang's tone was ravishing and his style so cordial and elegant, always imparting an emotional resonance. I cannot wait for his concerto debut with the orchestra, which I hope will come soon.
And so, the Summer of my discontent has passed: the season has begun and I look forward to many nights of music and dance to elevate the spirit.
Thursday September 24th, 2015 - Jennifer Muller/The Works kicked off their 2015-2016 season with an open house/studio event attended by friends and supporters of the Company. Ms. Muller, ever the cordial hostess, spoke of the Company's work (both in terms of performing and outreach) before turning the floor over to her vibrant dancers who performed excerpts from the Muller repertory, dancing full-out in a compact space yet never brushing against the viewers - nor the ceiling, despite some high lifts.
Jennifer Muller welcoming her guests
The works presented this evening dated from as far back as 1991 (Gen Hashimoto in a solo from REGARDS set to a Tracy Chapman song) to a glimpse of the Company's current work-in-progress, INTERVIEW: THE WARHOL PROJECT with music by Steve Reich. Also in the mix were excerpts from FLOWERS (2004), ALCHEMY (last season's brilliant multi-media dancework), and WHEW! (a light-hearted, full-company work that premiered in 2014).
Jennifer's dancers are hard to capture in still photos: they are always on the move. I took a few photos during the showing, more as souvenirs for myself:
Michael Tomlinson, Seiko Fujita
Michael Tomlinson eyeing the female ensemble
Jennifer Muller/The Works have always been a mullti-national, multi-cultural dance troupe. This season the young Frenchman, Alexandre Balmain (above) has joined the Company.
Wednesday September 23rd, 2015 - At a score desk this evening for the prima of TURANDOT at The Met; I'll be attending a performance by each of this season's four Turandots.
The first act of tonight's performance was stunning; the conductor, Paolo Carignani, molded the huge choral and orchestral forces into a vibrant sound tapestry and his reading of the score was dynamic, whilst also allowing the necessary moments of poetry to shine thru.
Patrick Carfizzi got the evening off to an excellent start with his authoritative declamation of the Mandarin's decree. Hibla Gerzmava's full-bodied lyric soprano sounded luxuriant in Liu's music; although she did not go in for the many piano/pianissimo effects that some singers have brought to this music - Gerzmava ended "Signore ascolta" with a crescendo on the final B-flat rather than a tapering of the tone - her gleaming sound was a welcome element to the performance. Marcelo Alvarez as the Unknown Prince sang with appealing lyricism, pacing himself wisely for the vocal rigors which lay ahead. James Morris was an affecting Timur, drawing upon his long operatic experience to create a touching vocal characterization of the old king. Dwayne Croft, Tony Stevenson, and Eduardo Valdes were a first-rate trio of court ministers.
As the first act ended, I felt the old elation of being at the opera. But the 'Gelb-intermission' which followed totally destroyed the impetus of the evening. As is so often the case at The Met these days, the interval stretched to 40 minutes, the last ten of which found the entire audience back in their seats and raring to go while the musicians sat in the pit doodling idly.
At last the conductor re-appeared and we had a delightful rendering of the Ping-Pang-Pong scene with Mr. Croft and his two tenor sidekicks successfully mining both the wit and the nostalgia of the music, one of Puccini's most delectable creations - and superbly orchestrated into the bargain.
I was looking forward to hearing Ronald Naldi - a long-time favorite of mine - as the Emperor Altoum but he was replaced by Mark Schowalter, who projected well from his distant throne. The exchange between the aged monarch and the Unknown Prince was interesting in that Mr. Alvarez eschewed the usual stentorian delivery of "Figlio del cielo..." (three times) for a more pensive vocal quality.
Christine Goerke's Turandot did not make the vocal impression I was hoping for; the uppermost notes in the princess's treacherous music seemed slightly out of Goerke's comfort zone. She managed well enough, and used a darkish middle and lower range to good effect. But the trumpeting brilliance of the tones above A, which we have come to expect from our Turandots, was not really forthcoming. I am not sure why she wished to sing this role, since Wagner and Strauss are now her natural habitat.
Faced with yet another stupor-inducing intermission, I left during the Act II curtain calls.
Metropolitan Opera House September 23rd, 2015
TURANDOT Giacomo Puccini
Turandot................Christine Goerke Calàf...................Marcelo Álvarez Liù.....................Hibla Gerzmava Timur...................James Morris Ping....................Dwayne Croft Pang....................Tony Stevenson Pong....................Eduardo Valdes Emperor Altoum..........Ronald Naldi Mandarin................Patrick Carfizzi Maid....................Anne Nonnemacher Maid....................Mary Hughes Prince of Persia........Sasha Semin Executioner.............Arthur Lazalde Three Masks: Elliott Reiland [Debut], Andrew Robinson, Amir Levy Temptresses: Jennifer Cadden, Oriada Islami Prifti, Rachel Schuette, Sarah Weber-Gallo
The Bulgarian mezzo-soprano Mariana Paunova (above) made her operatic debut in 1977, as Pauline in PIQUE-DAME at the Spoleto Festival in Charleston, South Carolina. I saw her as Isaura in a concert performance of Rossini's TANCREDI at Carnegie Hall in 1978, and she sang at the Met in 1979, as Olga in EUGENE ONEGIN.
In 1983 I heard her as Laura in a broadcast of LA GIOCONDA from San Francisco and was very much taken with her darkish, plushy sound. In that same year, she recorded Dukas' ARIANE ET BARBE-BLEUE for Erato, conducted by Armin Jordan.
Paunova's career continued apace in the US, Canada, Mexico, and Europe; she sang the role of La Comandante in Riccardo Zandonai's I CAVALIERI DI EKEBU at Alice Tully Hall in 2000.
Mariana Paunova taught at the Manhattan School of Music until her untimely death in 2002.