Tuesday July 19th, 2016 - I pulled this John Bridcut/BBC film off the shelf at the Performing Arts Library at Lincoln Center today, played it immediately on getting home, and found it thoroughly engrossing. The documentary focuses of the final years of the great composer's life when - despite failing health - he churned out such masterworks as DEATH IN VENICE, the cantata PHAEDRA, and the 3rd String Quartet.
Archival footage of Britten - conducting, playing the piano, chatting and performing with his life-companion Peter Pears, and greeting Queen Elizabeth II at the Aldeburgh Festival - is interspersed with interviews with both music-world luminaries (Dame Janet Baker, Steuart Bedford, Sir Charles Mackerras, Mark-Anthony Turnage) and people who knew the composer personally or were care-givers (David Hemmings, Sue Phipps, Rosamund Strode, his surgeon Dr. Michael Petch, and the tirelessly dedicated Rita Thomson). Thru their words and the reading of intimate letters, the film gives us a vividly personal portrait of Britten in the last three years of his life.
Then there are the superb musical excerpts, seemingly staged in the studio specially for this DVD. Absolutely splendid choral work from the Schola Cantorum of Oxford, including parts of Hymn to the Virgin, written when Britten was 16 years old. Tenor John Graham-Hall is most impressive as Aschenbach in scenes from DEATH IN VENICE; another tenor, Allan Clayton, joins horn player Michael Thompson in some gorgeous passages from the Serenade for Tenor, Horn, and Strings; the Fitzwilliam String Quartet's ravishing playing of portions of the String Quartet #3 makes us doubly regretful that it was Britten's last substantial work.
In a magnificent performance, mezzo-soprano Sarah Connolly is a thrilling Phaedra; her singing is juxtaposed with Dame Janet Baker's spoken recollections of collaborating with Britten on the cantata's creation.
Britten died of heart disease in 1976 at the age of 63, five years younger than I am now. He is buried next to Peter Pears in the Parish Churchyard, Aldeburgh.
I didn't write this, but it expresses my feelings pretty accurately:
"There is not a single shred of evidence to support the claims that the universe was created by a supernatural being, that said supernatural being authored (or edited) a book in his spare time, or that the first member of the human species was formed from dust and divine breath in a magical garden with a talking snake. There is not a shred of evidence to support the stories of ancient virgin births or of special individuals with the ability to change the molecular structure of water into the molecular structure of wine, to walk on water, and to raise the dead. There is not a shred of evidence to support the claim that believing in a supernatural being will lead one to an eternal life of happiness, nor is there any evidence to support the claim that failure to believe will result in eternal damnation.
The fact that many millions of people believe these myths to be factual does not make them true. The fact that many millions of people find peace or take comfort from these tales in time of duress does not make them true. The fact that millions of people find these tales give meaning to their lives does not make them true. The fact that enormous institutions are constructed in support of these tales does not make any of them true. The only thing that could make them true is the same thing that makes anything true, and that is evidence.
Without evidence there is no point in appealing to said supernatural being to relieve us from the burdens and challenges we all face. Such appeals are little more than desperate pleas in the dark. It is time to wake up and recognize these stories for what they are: fables and old wives' tales. It is time to emerge from fantasy land and embrace reality."
People will point to the natural wonders of the Earth and of the universe as proof that gods exist, but the Earth and the universe simply are and there's really no way to determine how they got here. And really - as we live from one day to the next - does it really matter how it all began?
People will quote the Bible in support of their theory that the Christian god created and controls everything, but quoting the Bible no more proves god's existence than quoting Tolkein's LORD OF THE RINGS proves the existence of Middle Earth.
Thursday July 14th, 2016 - "The best-laid plans..."
The National Youth Orchestra of the United States of America presenting a program of Mozart and Bruckner at Carnegie Hall, with Christoph Eschenbach on the podium and Emanuel Ax as soloist for the Mozart Piano Concerto No. 22 in E-flat Major, K. 482. In the event, extenuating circumstances caused me to miss the Bruckner.
As the young players of the NYO-USA took their seats on the Carnegie Hall stage, I couldn't help but think that their red trousers and Americana sneakers gave them an air of being a marching band. It's a cute idea, but really it serves them no purpose beyond - perhaps - not being taken seriously. They played well in general, though at times seemed a bit at odds with Maestro Eschenbach's beat.
But how pleasing to hear Mr. Ax in a signature Mozart work: the beloved pianist brought airy assurance to the scale-work and other virtuoso elements, and lyricism and appropriate weight to the rather forlorn beauty of the Andante. His playing is always most enjoyable, as is his calm and distinguished presence. I look forward to hearing Mr. Ax playing a new concerto by HK Gruber with The New York Philharmonic in January 2017.
Wednesday July 13th, 2016 - Time flies when you're having fun; I guess that's why Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center's second season of Summer Evenings went by so quickly. For three nights, music-lovers have packed Alice Tully Hall to hear some of the most wonderful music ever written played by musicians who are the cream of the classical music crop. That the players were enjoying themselves immensely was evident throughout the series, and joy-filled standing ovations marked the end of each concert.
A toast to Sally and Stephen Clement for 'hosting' the festive wine receptions after each performance, and to Millbrook Vineyards and Winery of the Hudson River Valley for their reds and whites. It seemed that the entire audience stayed after to meet the artists.
While THE MAGIC FLUTE looms large among the vast catalog of Mozart masterworks, it seems the composer was not overly fond of writing for the eponymous instrument. The young maestro had met a wealthy amateur Dutch flautist named Ferdinand De Jean while in Mannheim in late 1777. De Jean commissioned from Mozart a set of concertos and quartets featuring his instrument, but the composer only completed part of the commission and received only a partial fee.
Above: Tara Helen O'Connor
It's therefore rather remarkable that the Flute Quartet in D, K. 285, one of the De Jean commissions, is such a thorough delight. In tonight's performance, the purity and free-flowing grace of Tara Helen O'Connor's playing was lovingly supported by a trio of deluxe string players: Benjamin Beilman (violin), Richard O'Neill (viola), and Keith Robinson (cello). An up-and-down demi-scale motif gave the music a lilting feel, while the elegantly delicate plucking of the strings graciously underscored the flautist's lyricism in the poignant Adagio. Some wonderfully subtle playing from Ben Beilman was a treat, and Ms. O'Connor's brilliance in the Rondo finale had the audience hanging on her every note. I couldn't help thinking that if Mozart could have heard Ms. O'Connor, his attitude towards the flute would have been very, very different.
For Beethoven's Serenade in D major, Op 25, an airy meshing of flute, violin and viola, Ms. O'Connor was joined by Daniel Phillips (violin) and Mr. O'Neill on viola. A charming flute fanfare sets the opening Allegro on its way; a sense of merriment and jaunty give-and-take between the three players made them as much fun to watch as to hear.
The lovely blend of the three voices shone in the Menuet, in which violin and viola converse; the string players then take up a mandolin-like accompaniment figure while Ms. O'Connor's wafts limpid virtuoso passages into the hall. A mini-turbulence springs up for the Allegro molto, where Mr. O'Neill's very nuanced playing drew us in; the rapport of the three players here was endearing to behold.
A hymn-like theme opens the Andante, where a set of variations gives prominence to each player in turn: first flute, then violin, and finally viola. There's a 'surprise' ending here, which was so subtly delivered by our trio of artists that you could hear the audience smiling in appreciation. After a light-hearted Scherzo, a pensive song is heard briefly and then everything bursts into high gear for a chase to the finish. Mr. O'Neill's lithe figure seemed to dance thru the music, and the three musicians shared embraces at the end as the audience showered them with applause and bravos.
Above: Jon Kimura Parker
Following the interval, a sterling performance of Antonín Dvořák's Quintet in A-major, op 81 was the crowning glory of the festival: played with boundless generosity by Jon Kimura Parker (piano) and Mssrs. Beilman, Phillips, O'Neill, and Robinson, this music got the audience so revved up that an explosive ovation at the end was the only possible outcome.
It's been a while since Jon Kimura Parker's name was on my radar; how welcome was his playing tonight: plush and opulent. He and cellist Keith Robinson opened the quintet with the heart-filling theme which seems to epitomize the Romantic spirit. Bravo, gentlemen! The music wends on its way - Ben Beilman's high, sweet playing tearing at the heart strings - and as passion builds, the illusion of hearing a much larger ensemble envelops us: huge, sweeping waves of gorgeousness flow over us. Then suddenly everything hones down to the violin - Ben Beilman at his most inspired - and then re-builds to a thrilling finale.
Just when you think you've heard the best, things magically get even better. The Andante con moto found all the players surpassing themselves in terms of both beauty of tone and depth of expression: they simply played their hearts out. Richard O'Neill's viola theme, drenched in melancholy, was a particular marvel.
"I love this pianist!", I scrawled across my Playbill, too mesmerized by his playing to write anything more specific. "Cello!" "Viola!!"...passage after passage of inspired playing. And then the music goes off on a romp. The pianist restores order, and the viola is king as the Andante moves to its conclusion.
It's all been almost too much to take in, and so as the dancing Scherzo starts, a lapse in concentration might be expected. But these guys are too good; never for a moment do they let the level falter - not even for a split second - and so again we are thoroughly engaged. Mr. O'Neill and Mr. Phillips trade phrases with immaculate grace, and then an idyllic interlude provides an unexpected change of pace...and there's a solo cello passage which Mr. Robinson delivered with soulful tenderness. And then the dancing resumes.
After only a momentary pause, the finale is launched: an Allegro with passing lulls along the way. While savoring opportunities for dynamic nuance as they spring up, the players go in for richness of sound and urgency of feeling, carrying us along. A constellation of stars I sketched around Mr. Parker's name on my Playbill smiled back at me when the music ended and the audience burst into applause; everyone stood up and cheered.
Out in the lobby, my friend Claudia Schreier and I had to wait as Richard O'Neill's fans pressed around the amiable violist - looking so dapper in a white dinner jacket - to shake his hand and be photographed with him. It reminded me of the old days at the 'New' Met where we waited for Tebaldi and Corelli to sign, just enjoying being in the presence of their greatness. All of tonight's musicians were being lionized, and it was all so well-deserved.
Now is a good time to express a hope that these CMS Summer Evenings might add a fourth performance next season. The audience is clearly there for them, the music's to die for, and the playing is simply beyond belief.
Soprano Maralin Niska, who recently passed away, in the final scene of Leoš Janáček's The Makropoulos Affair. The role of Emilia Marty, in Frank Corsaro's multi-media production for New York City Opera, was one of the great triumphs of the Niska career.
Sunday July 10th, 2016 - The second concert in Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center's 2016 Summer Series was another sold-out event; the performance elicited a full-house standing ovation at the end as the delightful artists bowed to the celebrating crowd before heading out to a wine reception in the Alice Tully Hall lobby where players and fans could meet and mingle.
Mozart again opened the program: the Quartet in E-flat major, K 493. Orion Weiss was at the Steinway, with Alexander Sitkovetsky (violin), Yura Lee (viola), and Jan Vogler (cello) meshing tones of resonant beauty in a performance that drew our thoughts at once away from worldly cares and into a realm of Mozartian magic. My companion had never heard Mr. Weiss before and was simply blown away by this remarkable pianist's artistry ("He makes the piano sound so good!", which was exactly what I was thinking). An innate feel for dynamic nuance is Mr. Weiss's special gift, and the string players matched him, measure for measure.
Melodic motifs abound in the opening Allegro; they seem to have flowed from the Master's imagination like a wellspring, and the musicians seized on this abundance with joyous assurance. It's always a treat to have Yura Lee onstage; this petite woman has a huge heart for music, and her playing always summons up an emotional response. She carried this impression forward into the Larghetto, a masterpiece in its own right and one filled with surprisingly inventive harmonies. Mr. Weiss drew spine-tingling gorgeousness from the keyboard, whilst the voices of the violin and cello sang tenderly across the registers. One wanted this movement to go on and on, as each passing measure seemed to dig deeper and deeper into the soul.
But Mozart sends the players on to the Allegretto: a rondo in which Mr. Weiss's infinite array of dynamics sets up a series of witty exchanges with his string-playing colleagues. Observing the rapport between the musicians is always a key element of enjoyment in the Society's offerings; tonight this particular quartet seemed to revel in both their own playing and in urging one another on. The audience loved it.
In a knock-out red frock, pianist Wu Qian then joined Orion Weiss for four of Antonín Dvořák's Slavonic Dances, in the original setting for piano four-hands. This is the music which - orchestrated at the publisher's behest - made the composer famous. What a pure pleasure to hear some of these marvelous pieces played - and played splendidly - by our duo pianists this evening. They really went to town with the first offering (Opus 72, #2): so much fun both to watch and to hear.
The amiable jog of Opus 46, #3 speeds up, and then detours to a lovely interlude. The pianists traded seats for the two remaining dances: Opus 46, #2 starts liltingly in a minor key, develops into a brisk dance, then fades into a shimmer. Opus 48, #8 is perhaps the most familiar of the set, and it drew immaculate playing of abounding brilliance from the two players. At the finish, the pianists embraced one another, and the audience embraced them both with affectionate applause.
The somber opening of Robert Schumann's Quartet in E-flat major, Op.47, richly intoned by Wu Qian and our three string players, soon flowers in passion and energy. In the Scherzo that follows, a rolling rhythmic motif - a light-textured turbulence - keeps the players keenly focused on one another to assure a continuous musical swirl.
The heart of the performance - and an experience to cherish among so many wonderful memories of incredible music-making at Chamber Music Society in recent seasons - came in the Andante cantabile where Mr. Sitikovetsky set forth a theme that soon blossomed forth with a sense of aching desire from Mr. Vogler's cello. So handsomely played, this song seemed to embody the 19th century’s Romantic spirit. Violin and cello trade sighing phrases of regret and compassion, then Yura Lee's viola takes up the melody, tearing down the heart's last defense. Pure intoxication, sustained thru more solo passages from the violin - Mr. Sitkovesky kindly making a demi-turn to the audience as he plays, the better for us to savor his princely tone and technique - and from Mr. Vogler's cello. Underlying all this poignant string playing, Wu Qian at the keyboard wove an enchantment of her own.
Part of me wanted the evening to end there: for everyone else to go home and leave me alone in this other world. But Schumann has a Vivace finale for us, kicked off by some bravura playing from Yura Lee. Here these mighty musicians pulled out all the stops, setting the music sailing vivaciously into the packed hall. Even as the last note sounded, the applause and cheers started: everyone stood up to salute both the music and the generous artists who had played it. I didn't know whether to smile or cry at this point; I have learned over the years that one can do both at the same time.
Mozart Quartet in E-flat major for Piano, Violin, Viola, and Cello, K. 493 (1786)
Dvořák Selected Slavonic Dances for Piano, Four-Hands (1886)