Saturday October 1st, 2016 matinee - DON GIOVANNI was the first opera I ever saw in New York City, at the Old Met in 1963. The cast featured Teresa Stich-Randall, Lisa Della Casa, George Shirley, Giorgio Tozzi, and Ezio Flagello, in the classic Eugene Berman setting. Since then, I've seen this opera often at both The Met and the New York City Opera. Today's matinee at The Met seemed more on a level with a good NYCO performance from, say, the 80s, than on a par with the best The Met has had to offer in this opera.
Everyone sang pleasantly enough but there was no one voice that could be described as truly memorable. Fabio Luisi conducted very well and the orchestra playing was fine. The Family Circle and Balcony levels were nearly full, but in the lower tiers and orchestra, one saw many empty seats: not a good sign for a popular opera on a Saturday afternoon.
I had chosen this performance to hear three specific singers: Hibla Gerzmava, whose Liu and Desdemona I have enjoyed; Rolando Villazon - out of curiosity as to how he would handle the music; and Simon Keenlyside, who is back on stage after having health or injury issues. Well in advance of the prima, Mr. Villazon had withdrawn and Paul Appleby took over as Don Ottavio.
It was Mr. Appleby's "Dalla sua pace" that was the vocal high point of the afternoon: lovingly sung, and with some imaginative use of dynamics, his rendition of the aria was quite moving. Ms. Gerzmava, who has made a fine effect here as Liu and Desdemona, was slightly less impressive as Donna Anna but still quite exciting to hear as her sizeable, somewhat metallic voice filled the House. Her singing had dramatic urgency, most notably in the narrative leading up to "Or sai che l'onore" where her nuanced delivery made her story-telling vivid. Mr. Keenlyside did not bring any revelations to the music of Don Giovanni, but won my admiration for keeping up with Fabio Luisi's whirlwind tempo in the Champagne aria.
Malin Byström as Donna Elvira displayed a silvery, rather penetrating sound; she was at her best in the Mask trio, joining Ms. Gerzmava and Mr. Appleby for some of the afternoon's most pleasing vocalism, nicely supported by Maestro Luisi. Serena Malfi was a warm-toned Zerlina, and Matthew Rose a vocally strong Masetto. Adam Plachetka's Leporello got applause midway thru his characterful Catalog aria, and Kwangchul Youn sang powerfully as the Commendatore.
The overture was actually one of the highlights of the afternoon: Maestro Luisi struck just the right balance between weightiness and propulsion, and the orchestra played very well. The conductor allowed some small embellishments of the vocal line as the opera progressed.
Mostly this afternoon, I was just enjoying being in the House and hearing the music live; I do love opera - still - despite the fact that we now live in a time when productions generally suck and when there are few truly distinctive voices. I might have even stayed on for Act II were it not for the idiot at the next score desk who 'conducted' the entire performance from his seat. Really distracting.
Metropolitan Opera House
October 1st, 2016 matinee
Mozart's DON GIOVANNI
Don Giovanni............Simon Keenlyside
Donna Anna..............Hibla Gerzmava
Don Ottavio.............Paul Appleby
Donna Elvira............Malin Byström
Cello Continuo..........David Heiss
Harpsichord Continuo....Howard Watkins
Mandolin Solo...........Joyce Rasmussen Balint
October 02, 2016 | Permalink
Friday October 30th, 2016 - Mezzo-soprano Magdalena Kožená (above) singing splendidly in Hector Berlioz's Les Nuits d'été with The New York Philharmonic; Maestro Alan Gilbert has paired the song cycle with Rimsky-Korsakov's Scheherazade making for an evening of sensuous, exotic delights...beautifully played.
Tonight marked my fifth hearing of the Berlioz songs performed live: the first was by the unforgettable Tatiana Troyanos at Tanglewood in 1985. In 2007, the delectable Kate Lindsey sang the cycle in a recital at the Goethe Institute: a ravishing performance. A rare opportunity to hear the songs divided up between three singers of differing voice types came in 2012 when the Juilliard Orchestra under Emmanuel Villaume programmed them, paired with the prelude to LOHENGRIN - that was an evocative evening! Most recently - just last week, in fact - Avery Amereau, a distinctive young contralto, sang the Nuits d'été with the American Classical Orchestra.
Ms. Kožená's performance this evening was a revelation: the tall mezzo-soprano - in a marvelous collaboration with Maestro Gilbert and his incredible musicians - offered an interpretation of the beloved songs that was uniquely her own. Her wide-ranging voice was on peak form, with enviable evenness throughout the range, and she is an intriguing story-teller, both in terms of word colourings and the expressive use of her hands.
Clad in a black gown shot thru with gold, and featuring a plunging neckline, the auburn-haired singer launched the Berlioz cycle with a lovely and light-hearted Villanelle. Her engaging physicality and clear delight in sharing her prodigious vocal gifts with us set the tone for her entire performance. The voice is wonderfully clear from top to bottom, richly feminine in feeling, and she has a delightful sense of spontaneity, as if the words and music have just come into her mind and she simply must share them with us.
In the evocative Spectre de la Rose, Ms. Kožená's dynamic range came into play; while in general her rendering the songs seemed somewhat more extroverted emotionally that others I have heard, her choices of when to hone the sound down to a sweet softness were all the more alluring for their unpredictability.
In Spectre, her singing had a very personal, intimate aspect; how delicately the trembling strings responded to Maestro Gilbert's touch at "Mon destin fut digne d'envie...", and how spell-binding the singer's sense of hushed mystery as the song drew to its close.
Ms. Kožená's impassioned, intense "Ma belle amie est morte..." ("My beautiful beloved is dead...") ideally captured the mood of Sur les lagunes, and the sounding of the horn added at once to the forlorn atmosphere. The voice traced thru the poem with an utterly natural flow of perfumed tone; Ms. Kožená dipped down to the low F-sharp on the word "linceul" ('shroud') with a dusky, smoky quality. Then she unleashed waves of despairing passion, bringing the lament to a fabulous end. The audience could not resist breaking in with applause here.
It was in Absence that Ms. Kožená took a different interpretive path from others who have sung these songs. Singers like to bring forth their piano/pianissimo gradations on the cries of "Reviens, reviens.." and that is certainly always a thrill to hear. But Ms. Kožená first sang them as a command. At the second repeat, she commenced the upper note in straight-tone and then took a remarkable crescendo, flooding the hall with emotion; for the third setting of the words, her voice was suffused with a gorgeous sense of restlessness and longing. Throughout Absence, the singer also communicated with a lovely gestural language. Absolutely breath-taking.
The orchestra played a particularly savorable role in Au cimetière, and the singer brought a wealth of dynamic detail to her story-telling here, with a depth of despair at "Oh, never again will I go near that tomb when the sombre cloak of night descends..." Her shrewd use of straight tone at just the right moments brought an added dimension of hopeless bereavement to the song.
At last, all was joyous as Ms. Kožená commenced L'Ile innconue. She voice sailing free, clear, and warm, she paused only to savor the irony of "Cette rive, ma chère, on ne la connaît guère au pays des amours" as the poet tells his young lover that the shores of the land where love is always faithful are...elusive.
Magdalena Kožená's performance of the Berlioz tonight was one of the finest things I've heard in the last twenty years: a beautiful voice and a great artist.
Above: setting designed by Léon Bakst for the Ballets Russes production of Scheherazade
After the interval, a fantastic performance of Rimsky-Korsakov's Scheherazade; how cunning of Maestro Gilbert to program this work with the Berlioz!
Composed in 1888, Rimsky-Korsakov's score was taken up by Serge Diaghilev for his Ballet Russes' 1910 Paris season at the Palais Garnier. The score, the story (which climaxes with an orgy and ends with a mass murder), and the brilliant settings by Léon Bakst created a sensation, as did Nijinsky's dancing as the Favourite Slave. Michel Fokine's choreography mostly steered clear of the classical ballet vocabulary; the work might be viewed as a precursor of dramatic modern dance. The composer's widow was reportedly not happy with the manipulation of her husband's music for sordid purposes.
Most likely Madame Rimsky-Korsakov would have greatly enjoyed tonight's performance of her spouse's work, for Maestro Gilbert and his players played the score for all it's worth. The massive, grand passages and the more delicate, coloristic moments alternated in a most impressive and enjoyable rendering, and throughout the work, solo phrases for cello, horn, flute, clarinet, oboe, and bassoon were superbly played and really pricked up our ears. Trombones and muted trumpets also had their say, all to grand effect.
The composer has been especially generous to the solo violin in this work, and The Philharmonic's concertmaster, Frank Huang, played ravishingly. Each featured passage, whether languid or lively, was immaculately played, and as the work drew to an end, Mr. Huang sustained some stratospheric ppp tones with sweet clarity and steadiness. As the audience erupted in a shouting ovation at the end, Maestro Gilbert immediately signaled Mr. Huang to rise and bask in the cheers of the audience and the applause of his onstage colleagues. A lovely ending to a grand night of music-making.
October 01, 2016 | Permalink
Above: violinist In Mo Yang
Tuesday September 27th, 2016 - In Mo Yang, a young violinist of Korean heritage, in recital with pianist Renana Gutman at Merkin Hall.
It's only rarely that I do something really spontaneous; my schedule is always so full (and commitments made so far in advance) that there are seldom any opportunities to do things that haven't been planned weeks in advance. But as I was researching something on the Merkin Hall website, I noticed a violin recital listed for this afternoon. The repertory looked very inviting and there were still a few tickets available, so I headed downtown. It was an impressive and thoroughly enjoyable concert in every regard.
In Mo Yang is the First Prize Winner of the Concert Artists Guild Competition. In 2015, he also earned First Prize at the 54th International Violin Competition “Premio Paganini” in Genoa, Italy, marking the first time since 2006 that the Paganini Competition jury has awarded the top prize.
In Mo Yong, in addition to a very impressive technique, has the gift of playing from the heart. After only a few measures of the opening Bach, I knew I was in the presence of a musician of the finest calibre; by the end of the recital, his name was hovering in my highest echelon of favorite musicians.
The forlorn beauty of the opening theme of the Adagio of Bach's solo Violin Sonata No.1 in G minor immediately revealed the key elements of In Mo Yong's playing: radiant and sweetly resonant tone, a mastery of dynamic finesse, innate expressiveness, and seamless phrasing. In the second movement, a minor-key dance, the violinist produced cascades of notes with admirable clarity. A sense of grace tinged with sadness marked his playing of the Siciliana, and in the final Presto, he reeled off reams of coloratura, perfectly defined and beautifully articulated, creating a magical atmosphere.
Pianist Renana Gutman then joined In Mo Yang for the violin sonata of Leoš Janáček. Ms. Gutman's poised musicality and her attentiveness to details of phrasing were a great boon for the young violinist.
As In Mo Yang noted in his remarks, the flow of lyricism in this Janáček work is constantly interrupted by injections of turbulence or wit. There was a wondrous immediacy to the playing of the two musicians, drawing us in to the many felicities of this quite extraordinary piece. The opening Con moto found the violinist's passion well met by the pianist's sense of rapture, right from the outset. In the Ballada that follows, the shimmering piano sets off the singing violin. Sustained beauty of tone as the music's passion soars, then sinks into a delicate reverie. In Mo Yang ended this movement on an exquisitely sustained, evaporating high note.
In the Allegretto, the music is agitated and pensive by turns; these the mood swings were well-captured by our two players. The concluding Adagio begins hesitantly; then an enchanting melody looms up, only to stall and then re-start. A vibrant theme over glimmering piano leads to alternating passages of agitation and calm before the piece reaches its hushed ending. Splendid playing from In Mo Yang and Ms. Gutman: a really impressive performance.
Karol Szymanowski's setting of three 'Paganini' caprices followed the interval. The first, in D-major, features a high, sweet melody which gives way to an energetic passage before returning to its initial mood. In Mo Yang's lingering final note was a moment of pure poetry. The second caprice, in A-major, begins in a state of musical density. The violin ascends to a high, aching theme which increases in passion; here In Mo Yang's mastery of control in the stratospheric register was so evocative. The most familiar of the three caprices, the A-minor, is loaded at first with brisk, swirling motifs. Its sparkle and ironic wit suddenly go deep and mysterious, then things get playful, and then dreamy. This traversal of moods was finely differentiated by the two musicians. After some dazzlingly ping-y plucking from the violin, there's a false ending; In Mo Yang then ascends again to the high, hazy glow of his upper range before charging on with Ms. Gutman to the grand finale.
All of the qualities that make Felix Mendelssohn one of my favorite composers were evidenced in his violin sonata in F major, written and premiered in 1838. It was not published in the composer's lifetime, but was 'rescued' in 1953 by Yehudi Menuhin, who accordingly tinkered with it before having it published.
After a gallant piano introduction opens the Allegro vivace, a pulsing motif develops as the piano and violin alternately switch from melody to rhythm. Charming variants of major and minor keys - and a lovely sense of Mendelssohnian flow - gave me a lot of listening pleasure.
Ms. Gutman sounds a low song which the violin takes up as the central Adagio casts its spell. Such expressive playing here; and then the music sails forward. And yet again, the heart-rending quality of In Mo Yang's upper-range playing was a marvel.
Joyous flights of fancy abound in the concluding Assai vivace, the players shifting effortlessly between liveliness and subtlety. With stunning dexterity, In Mo Yang reveled in high-velocity playing here that filled me with smiling admiration.
Sheer gorgeousness to end the afternoon: a Karl Schumann romance was offered as an encore: exceptional playing with a high emotional value.
September 28, 2016 | Permalink
Saturday September 24th, 2016 - Lisa Batiashvili's appearances with The New York Philharmonic are always red-letter events; the mutual admiration society that the luminous violinist has formed with Maestro Alan Gilbert invariably results in something very special, and tonight their entente cordiale produced a magnificent rendering of the Tchaikovsky violin concerto.
When I arrived at Geffen Hall, the atmosphere was already abuzz: "Sold Out" signs were just being posted, and a long line of music-lovers hoping for returns was forming. A packed house always creates its own sense of excitement, and when the ever-elegant Ms. Batiashvili strode onto the stage in a stunning black gown with a bejeweled bodice, the welcome was wonderfully warm. Forty minutes later, the violinist was basking in an epic full-house ovation.
It was another female violinist, Maud Powell, who helped popularize the Tchaikovsky concerto - a concerto at first thought by some to be unplayable. Ms. Powell played the New York premiere of the piece in 1889 with the New York Symphony (which merged with the Philharmonic in 1928); tonight, Lisa Batiashvili carried the banner to new heights.
In the concerto's opening movement, Ms. Batiashvili combined passionate lyricism with subtle turns of phrase; her coloratura was fleet and fluent, her shaping of phrases so innately appealing. When Alan Gilbert's full orchestra entered for the big tutti passage, visions of the grandeur of the Romanov court were evoked. Ms. Batiashvili's cadenza sounded a bit modern ("...to old-fashioned ears...", as Mrs. Manson Mingott would say) and her playing of it most impressive: superb control of dynamics and a stunningly sustained double trill which led to a poignant restoration of melody. After treating us to some sizzling fireworks, the violinist sailed graciously into an affecting theme before ascending to some very delicate high-register passages and thence to the movement's final flourishes.
Playing with a melancholy pianissimo, Ms. Batiashvili created a very poetic atmosphere of sadness as the Canzonetta/Andante began. Her tone became incredibly soft, with a lovely sheen to it, while the audience held their collective breath to savour every moment of it.
There's a direct path into the concerto's finale, which commences with an intense invitation to the dance, followed by a playful second theme. Relishing these shifts of mood, Ms. Batiashvili sounded gorgeous in a deep-lyric interlude and brilliant in some decorative filigree that followed. On to the final sprint, where the fiery glow of the violinist's passionate playing swept all before her, igniting an ovation and delighted cries of "Brava!" as the entire audience rose to acknowledge Ms. Batiashvili's truly thrilling performance.
Lisa was called out for a solo bow - huge din of cheers and thunderous applause - then returned again with Maestro Gilbert, who signaled the wind soloists (who had made such distinctive impressions in the final movement) to rise. The mutual affection of violinist and conductor was movingly evidenced as they embraced and walked off together. But still the ovation would not subside, and the radiant soloist re-appeared for another solo bow, with her onstage colleagues joining the tribute and the audience getting gleefully boisterous.
During the course of the concerto, the marvelous rapport between Ms. Batiashvili and Maestro Gilbert was as endearing to the eye as their playing to the ear: as the music wove its spell, they seemed engaged in a pas de deux which swayed on the ebb and flow of Tchaikovsky's balletic score. Bravi!!
Enjoy a bit of Lisa's playing here.
September 25, 2016 | Permalink
September 23, 2016 | Permalink
Wednesday September 21st, 2016 - Dan K Kurland invited me to this concert of French music - from the familiar to the relatively obscure - for two pianos at Juilliard's Paul Hall. The program looked very inviting, and since dance themes prevailed throughout the hour-long presentation, it was especially agreeable to have choreographer Claudia Schreier sitting next to me.
We arrived just moments before the house lights dimmed; Paul Hall was nearly full, and we found seats in the front row, in the aisle. The balance of sound may have been slightly off, but it was a very interesting perspective visually.
~ POULENC L’embarquement pour Cynthère
Pianists: Dan K Kurland and Jonathan Feldman
Opening with this 1951 Poulenc gem - music that is so quintessentially French - the tone for the entire evening was set. Described as a Valse-Musette, this piece delights from its vivacious start to its ironic finish. Though Dan Kurland was not originally schedule to play tonight, he did...and wore red socks into the bargain, a subtle nod to a beloved French pianist. Joining Dan was Jonathan Feldman, chairman of Juilliard's Collaborative Piano Department, making for a brilliant performance.
~ DEBUSSY Prélude à l’après-midi d’une faune
Pianists: Michał Biel and Brian Zeger
Shifting moods, we are plunged into the erotic mystery of Claude Debussy's Prélude à l’après-midi d’une faune in a splendid performance by Michal Biel and Brian Zeger. The composer completed his symphonic poem Afternoon of a Faun in 1894, and published a version for two pianos the following year. In a rapture-inducing performance of perfumed sonorities, the two pianists beautifully summoned up the music's alternating currents of delicacy and turbulent passion. I so enjoyed seeing Brian Zeger again, here in the hall where I first heard him play many moons ago.
~ FRANÇAIX Huit Dances Exotiques
Pianists: Cherie Roe and Arthur Williford
Dating from 1957, these eight miniatures represent the "newest" music on the program. Pianists Cherie Roe and Arthur Williford jumped right into the music hall swing-and-sway of the opening Pambiche. Sprightly syncopation and etched-in miniature glissandi delighted us in Baiao, and more syncopation followed in Nube gris; both here and in the lively Merengue that follows, sudden endings took us by surprise. The rolling rhythm of the Mambo was further enhanced by a mid-song change of key. Both the urbane, casually shrugging Samba and the bouncy swirl of the Malambeano caught us off-guard by ending in mid air. The final Rock 'n' Roll, wryly jazzy, would have caused my old friend Franky to exclaim, "This is so jive!" The two pianists seemed to be having a blast with this music.
~ CHAMINADE Duo Symphonique
Pianists: Dror Baitel and Nathan Raskin
Cécile Chaminade, the sole female composer to be included on this evening's program, wrote her Duo Symphonique in 1905. Of all the music heard this evening, this was the most traditionally "classical" in feeling. It opens operatically, runs on to swirls of notes and later to fanfare-like motifs. The highest and lowest registers of the piano are explored, the vast range adding to the truly symphonic quality of the piece: "...lyrical grandeur..." was one of my descriptive scrawls. A more delicate theme heralds a song-like interlude, followed by a build-up and an a grandiose finale. I loved every minute of it, and was very impressed by the expert playing of Dror Baitel and Nathan Raskin.
~ SAINT-SAËNS Danse Macabre
Pianists: Jinhee Park and Ho Jae Lee
Saint-Saëns’ Danse Macabre is a musical setting of a poem by the French poet Henri Cazalis, based on the allegory of the 'dance of death'. Pianists Ho Jae Lee and Jinhee Park maintained communication across the pianos, which in their sleek blackness took on a coffin-like aspect. The music rises from the depths to jangling heights, descending passages seem to point to the grave (or to hell), and at one point the very lowest notes of the keyboard resound. Becoming wildly dramatic, the music speeds up before turning more pensive and ending in sudden death. The audience took special delight in this piece, and in the two players.
~ DEBUSSY Petite Suite
Pianists: Katelan Terrell and Michał Biel
Debussy’s Petite Suite was published in its original four-hands version in 1889; transcriptions for solo piano and for violin and piano followed in 1906. The work found great popularity in a 1907 adaptation for chamber orchestra by Henri Büsser. Tonight the four-hands version was played by Katelan Terrell and Michal Biel, seated together at a single keyboard. Commencing in dreamy softness, the suite continues with evocations of Spring, very slight tinges of gypsy allure, contrasts of rhythm and lull, and bursts of joyous rippling in the higher range which maintain brightness. The final movement seems very 'Parisian', and, after an interlude, we are carried back to the boulevards by our two sophisticated pianists.
~ RAVEL La Valse
Pianists: Sora Jung and Adam Rothenberg
Best known (especially to Balanchine admirers) in its orchestral version, Ravel's La Valse was transcribed by the composer twice, once for solo piano and again for two pianos. The first performance of the piano duo version was given at the home of Misia Sert, with Ravel himself one of the pianists. Misia, one of my favorite characters in the history of music and dance, was the work's dedicatee. Among those present at Misia's salon for the premiere performance were Serge Diaghilev, Igor Stravinsky, Francis Poulenc, and Léonide Massine: how I wish I could have been there!
The mystery of the opening of La Valse loomed up from the depths as pianists Sora Jung and Adam Rothenberg launched their intense and remarkable performance. At last the waltz struggles to the surface, and the two pianists delight in flinging myriad colours onto the sonic canvas. Thunderous intrusions alternate with madly ironic swirls of dance. This is music on the verge of madness.
Throughout the Ravel, images of two beloved dancers - Janie Taylor and farewell performance in 2014.- overtook my imagination: they danced this Balanchine masterwork at their New York City Ballet
Tonight, as all the pianists appeared for a bow on the stage of Paul Hall at the end of the concert, an exuberant standing ovation greeted them. A really wonderful evening!
September 22, 2016 | Permalink
Cornell MacNeil (above) and Ileana Cotrubas bring down the house in the "Si, vendetta!" duet from Verdi's RIGOLETTO. I love Cotrubas dipping into chest voice on "Perdonate!...", and Mac's final note is a triumph.
September 21, 2016 | Permalink