An Incredibly Busy Musical Calendar – Nov. 10 – Nov. 19

The confluence of subscription series and single ticket purchases for me was so heavy over the past ten days that I couldn't find the time to post individual blog items about all the events I was attending.  The programs have just piled up, and now I'll do a quick summary:

Paul Van Nevel and the Huelgas Ensemble.  I attended both of the concerts conducted by Van Nevel with members of his Huelgas Ensemble as part of Lincoln Center's White Light Festival.  On November 10, they performed polychoral music of the Renaissance at the 4th Universalist Church, Central Park West at 76th Street.  On November 12th, it was a program of medieval music at the Church of St. Mary the Virgin in the Times Square neighborhood.  Both programs were very well-attended and quite extraordinary. 

For the Renaissance program, 40 singers formed a circle toward the front of the church, with conductor Van Nevel directing from inside the circle, to sing Thomas Tallis's magnificent "Spem in Alium" as the opener and the closer of the concert.  (Tallis scores this piece for 8 groups of 5 singers, to be stationed around the audience.  That effect was lost on everybody but Van Nevel, of course, since the audience was seated surrounding the singers.)  The only other piece that called for all 40 singers was Striggio's "Ecce beatam lucem," Which was said to have inspired Tallis's composition when Striggio brought his music to England on a visit.  The remainder of the program called for smaller groups of singers, but always in a polychoral configuration. 

The program, about 80 minutes in length, was performed without interruption, the singers moving about into their different configurations between numbers, and Van Nevel drifting around to different positions so that no part of the audience had his back to them throughout.  At the performers' request, applause was held until the end, giving the concert some of the air of a religious service, and thus treating the music to something like the kind of presentation it was intended to have by its composers.  This group is truly excellent, and it would be hard to imagine better performances of this music.  I just regretted not being seated in a position where the directionality of the music moving from one group of singers to another would have greater effect.

The 4th Universalist Church is a relatively smaller space than St. Mary's, and appropriately so because Renaissance polyphony can be obscured a bit in the more reverberant space of the larger church.  But St. Mary's was perfect for the medieval concert on Saturday night, which was also performed without interruption for applause between numbers. 

After loving the piece for many years, acquiring numerous recordings and a score, I finally heard a live performance of at least selections (the Kyrie and Gloria) from Guillaume de Machaut's magnificent Messe de Nostre Dame, the earliest surviving setting (14th century) of the complete ordinary of the Roman Catholic mass attributed to a single known composer.  (There are anonymous settings of various sections of the mass that may be older, of course.  Indeed, much of the music on this program was attributed to the most ubiquitous composer of the medieval world, "Anonymous.")  While it was great to hear this performed, I differed with Van Nevel on the issue of tempi.  This is music that survives without any tempo indications that we can really decode, so it is up to each group of performers to decide on an appropriate pace.  I found Van Nevel's tempi to be slightly too swift. Somehow, I doubt that a solemn mass, which music historians believe was written to be performed as a memorial mass (even though it doesn't include all the components of a requiem), would be quite so perky as this performance.  On the other hand, it was stimulating and involving, as was the entire program, which also included a tremendously vivid rendition of "Viderunt omnes" by Perotinus (also on the fast side, and with some percussion accompaniment that I haven't heard in recordings), which is one of the earliest surviving pieces for which we have a composer attribution.

For an extraordinary bit of time travel, the program I attended between the two Van Nevel/Huelgas performances was the Queens County premiere of Five Boroughs Music Festival's "Five Borough Songbook."  This concert in the auditorium of Flushing Town Hall (you go to the easternmost end of the No. 7 subway line, and then walk several block north and east, to find a delightful old pile of a building with a fine 2nd floor auditorium; who knew?) presented the world premiere of one newly-commissioned song and the second performances of 19 other newly-commissioned songs, drawing upon 20 composers who were asked to write a song with a text that had some sort of connection to New York City, with the hope of representing all the boroughs.  So between a concert of Renaissance music and a concert of medieval music, I attended a concert of music all written within the past year or so!

It was a delightful concert.  Every song had something to recommend it, and all of them would be worth hearing again… and again.  I understand that composer/conductor Glen Roven, whose song "F from Dumbo" was one of several involving the subway system as subject, is producing a recording of the entire Songbook, and one hopes the music will also be published (maybe on-line?  maybe actual sheet music, or is that obsolete? – see my remarks about Joshua Bell's violin recital at Carnegie Hall, below) so that these songs can travel.  I think it is worth the typing time to list all the composers: Ricky Ian Gordon, Lisa Bielawa, Gilda Lyons, Glen Roven, Russell Platt, Renee Favand-See, Yotam Haber, Matt Schickele, Martin Hennessy, Daron Aric Hagen, Richard Pearson Thomas, Jorge Martin, Christina Courtin, Mohammed Fairouz, Christopher Berg, Christopher Tignor, John Glover, Gabriel Kahane, Scott Wheeler, Tom Cipullo. 

The text selections were made by the composers, some involving newly written text, some selected from existing collections of poetry, including the inevitable Whitman (Martin's song, City of Orgies, Walks, and Joys!) and some Auden.  Lisa Bielawa set the text of conversations overheard at her favorite breakfast coffee shop, quite amusingly, and Gilda Lyons set letters, words and phrases (conductors' announcements) from the subway system.  Christina Courtin set a poem of her own devising inspired by the Fresh Kills landfill in Staten Island.  John Glover wrote a song that ended up having a connection to the remembrance of the 9/11 terrorist attacks and their impact on the city, even though he hadn't set out to do so, having selected a poem by Matthew Hittinger (who attended the concert and participated in the preconcert talk by some of the composers) that subtly incorporates this theme.

The performers of this diverse array of songs were all quite excellent, including soprano Martha Guth, mezzo Blythe Gaissert, tenor Keith Jameson, baritone David McFerrin, collaborating with pianists Thomas Bagwell and Jocelyn Dueck and violinist Harumi Rhodes.  (Although most of the songs were for solo voice and piano, a few were accompanied by violin, and some called for more than one singer.)

Five Boroughs Music Festival will be presenting complete performances of the Songbook, with some variation in the performing personnel, in all five boroughs of NYC this concert season.  The first performance (of 19 songs) was in Brooklyn earlier this season; Manhattan, the Bronx and Staten Island are yet to come during 2012.  Check their website,, for details. 

On Monday evening, I was in Carnegie Hall for a recital program by Joshua Bell (violin) and Sam Haywood (piano).  The feature of this concert that so impressed the critic from the NY Times and impressed me as well was Haywood's use of an iPad instead of sheet music.  There it was, the electronic tablet propped up where one would expect the sheet music to be on the piano.  Haywood used some sort of device with his foot to signal page turns, so he was able to play his part of the concert (one violin piece, by Ysaye, was unaccompanied) without ever turning a page by hand or engaging the services of a page-turning assistant.  This is not the first time I've seen something like this.  Within the past year or so, a young string quartet performing at Peoples' Symphony Concerts used iPads instead of sheet music.  Is this the wave of the future for performances?

Technology aside, this was a very fine concert, with Bell in excellent form and Haywood, a performer new to me, well up to the high standards that Joshua Bell sets.  The program was quite conservative: Mendelssohn, Beethoven, Ysaye, Franck, but it least one could say that the Mendelssohn and Beethoven selections (Mendelssohn's 1838 F Major Sonata and Beethoven's 7th Sonata, Op. 30, No. 2) are not so frequently encountered in recital.  The Ysaye, Ballade, Op. 27, No. 3, has shown up several times in my recent experience as an encore number, and the Franck Sonata has been played to death by this point, but seemed quite fresh at the hands of Bell and Haywood. They presented as an encore Joshua Bell's arrangement for violin and piano of a Chopin nocture.

After this heavy load of concert-going, I gave myself a few days off, then returned to Carnegie Hall on Thursday night, November 17, for more Beethoven, this time performed on "period instruments" by the Orchestre Revolutionnaire et Romantique, conducted by its founder and artistic director, Sir John Eliot Gardiner.  They pulled a little surprise switch on the audience.  The printed program: Promethus Overture, Symphony No. 4, Intermission, Symphony No. 3 (Eroica).  After a lively rendition of the overture, I settled in for the soft, mysterious introduction of the Beethoven 4th.  Imagine my shock to hear the whip-crack, loud opening chords of the Eroica!  (If they made any announcement of the change in order, I missed it.  No notice was stuffed in my program.  In my experience, sometimes program inserts don't make it up to the balcony level.) 

No matter, the chronological presentation of the two "middle period" symphonies made a fine program, and also made it easier to refute the general idea that the 4th is a less significant or substantial piece than the Eroica.  Both are major symphonic statements, and in some ways the 4th is really a more mature and structurally satisfying work, as the Eroica's final two movements are rather overbalanced by the very lengthy opening movement (made even longer by taking the exposition repeat, which Gardiner did) and longer-than-usual (for a classical symphony) slow movement.  The proportions of the 4th are more evenly balanced, more concise, and just as dramatically effective. 

We do tend to be spoiled in this age of recording by the ability of early music groups to turn out recordings virtually without flaw by dint of mutiple takes and editing, when everybody knows that the wind instruments – especially, but not only, horns and trumpets – can be quite balky in performance, so one shouldn't expect a live performance to be free of "clams", and there were some real howlers on Thursday night, including the oboist coming to grief at one point and some dissonances in the brass not intended by Beethoven.  But there were certainly compensations in the lively, well-disciplined playing. 

Gardiner has figured out how to take these works at Beethoven's tempi (the earliest major composer to leave metronome marks for his music) while avoiding a feeling of undue haste.  Even though the "funeral march" second movement of the Eroica, marked Adagio assai by the composer, was rather faster-paced than one would have experienced from most performers prior to the advent of the "early music" movement in the last quarter of the 20th century, it still communicated the drama and weight of the commemoration of the lost greatness of a man who had "gone over to the dark side" – if that is what Beethoven meant by taking a symphony originally meant to celebrate Napoleon and, angry at that person's seizure of imperial power, changed the dedication "to the memory of a great man".

On Friday night, a complete change of pace: back to Carnegie Hall, but this time for Cheyenne Jackson, the rising singing star of Broadway and television, appearing with the New York Pops, conducted by Steven Reineke.  I'd never previously attended a NY Pops concert, not being a fan of the lighter music genre, but came on this occasion because of Jackson.  I've seen him perform in City Centre Encores, and admired his courage in "coming out" as gay at such an early point in a career that seems headed to stardom.  One hopes that we've reached the point where casting directors eschew the stereotype that theater-goers (whether musical theater or films) won't accept an openly gay performer in a "straight" romantic role; at least I hope so for Jackson's sake, because he certainly has the talent to play the big romantic leads and should get the opportunity. 

One might question, however, whether it was premature for him to do a big Carnegie Hall concert.  (Apart from the 'overture' to each half and an orchestral suite drawn from the television soundtrack of the "Mad Men" series, Jackson sang in every number.)  He has a beautiful voice, knows how to sing to a microphone for good effect, and has terrific musicality, but too many of the performances seemed to me a bit generic.  Most of the repertory he was singing – American pop music mainly of the 1950s and 1960s – is rather relentlessly mediocre, unless the performer knows how to give it a really personal spin.  This takes a degree of experience and working with leading performers over several years, picking up the little pieces of vocal business that lift the pieces above their limitations of vacuousness.  Not to say that there was anything unprofessional about the evening.  It was all very polished, the arrangements were slick, the instrumentalists at the top of their game, and Mr. Reineke is a very accomplished conductor.  But one kept thinking of how much more various other artists could do with some of these songs.  I found the evening entertaining, and I have great respect for Jackson's talents as a singer and performer, but I suspect that after ten more years in the business he will perform this kind of program to much greater effect than he did on Friday night.

The culmination of all this musical activity, last night, came at the Metropolitan Opera Company, where I attended a performance of George Frideric Handel's "Rodelinda: Regina de'Longobardi,"  an opera written for presentation in London in 1725.  Handel specialist Harry Bicket was in the pit, conducting the orchestra in the arias and playing the harpsichord continue for the recitatives.  Stephen Wadsworth's production, first shown at the Met in 2004 as a vehicle for Renee Fleming in the title role, updates the story from medieval Italy to the early 18th century — which allows the dramatic introduction of pistols! — and spectacularly features one character riding off-stage on an actual horse (with no unfortunate accidents last night). 

This is a long evening – three acts with two intermissions, stretching out to more than 4 hours – and I would recommend that in future the Met considering doing for Handel what it frequently does for Wagner: start earlier!!!  But I found this consistently involving and entertaining, with the second act being the most dramatically interesting. 

They had a stellar cast for this revival.  In addition to Fleming as Rodelinda, the Queen who mistakenly thinks her husband was killed in a palace coup d'etat, we had: Joseph Kaiser as Grimoaldo, the usurper to the Milanese throne; Shenyang, a Chinese baritone, as Garibaldo, the scheming counselor to Grimoaldo who rode the horse; Stephanie Blythe as Eduige, sister of the true Milanese King; Andreas Scholl, countertenor, singing the original castrato role of Bertarido, the true King of Milan, who eventually reclaims his throne, wife and son; and Iestyn Davies, the talented young British countertenor making his Met debut as Unulfo, a royal counselor and – in this plot – "double agent" of sorts.  But the on-stage show was really stolen by young Moritz Linn in the non-speaking, non-singing role of Flavio, the young son of the deposed King, who was undoubtedly awake way past his bedtime, but showed no sign of fatigue and was totally in character through the entire evening.

Handel's operas are still an acquired taste for many, but I think a taste worth acquiring.  The music is consistently engaging, and it is easy to see why Handel's arrival in London after his years of study in Italy resulted in a rage for Italian opera among the English for the first part of the composer's London career.  These works tend to be very long, and formulaic to the degree that for two centuries they were disparaged and ignored in performance on the theory that they were just a series of disconnected arias linked by excruciatingly boring recitative.  But starting in 1920 in Germany and eventually spreading through Europe and to the USA, Handel's operas began to be revived with the discovery that they could be dramatically compelling with the right kind of performance, and now they are becoming part of the mainstream repertory of major opera houses.  One of the dramatic barriers, of course, was that many of the male roles were written for high voices of castrati that were not available through much of the 19th and 20th century, resulting in casting these parts with women struggling to appear masculine in their tight-fitting costumes.  But in response to the revival of interest in early music – and perhaps interwoven into that revival – we have seen the emergence of the countertenors, so that these roles can be played with more dramatic conviction by male singers with high voices.  Scholl and Davies are among the finest of these countertenors, and made their characters dramatically compelling last night.

Now I take a break from concert-going for Thanksgiving week, but next up is the New York Philharmonic in a classical period program on Nov. 26.

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