New York Law School

Art Leonard Observations

Archive for the ‘Music’ Category

Brilliant Chamber Music at Peoples’ Symphony Concerts

Posted on: December 20th, 2015 by Art Leonard No Comments

This afternoon Peoples’ Symphony Concerts presented a brilliant chamber music program at Town Hall in Manhattan.  Lise de la Salle, a marvelous young pianist, collaborated with string players from The Knights, a flexible chamber ensemble, to present a very “multicultural” program of music by Martinu, Mozart, Jedd Greenstein, Takemitsu, and Ravel.

Everything was impressively played, but what stays with me the most is the awesome Ravel Trio for Piano, Violin and Cello, performed with great passion by de la Salle and the Jacobsens –  Colin (violin) and Eric (cello).  There are many ways one can play this.  I’ve heard it done with crystalline clarity and lightness, with classical grace, and with surging romanticism.  This performance followed the romantic route, with big tone from all three players, and it really swept me away emotionally.  What a great finale to the program!

The concert started with Three Madrigals for Violin and Viola by Bohuslav Martinu, performed by The Knights violinist Guillaume Pirard and violist Kyle Armbrust.  This is not an easy work to penetrate.  “Madrigals” as a title suggests something archaic and lyrical, but I don’t think one could use either of those words to characterize these pieces, which I found quite enigmatic.  Then Pirard and Armbrust were joined on the stage by Eric Jacobsen and de la Salle for a dynamic performance of an old favorite, Mozart’s Piano Quartet in G Minor, K. 478, which I’ve known and loved since I was a teenager.  This brought out a great feeling of nostalgia for me.  This is definitely one of Mozart’s finest chamber music pieces, one great tune after another, played by these musicians with enthusiasm and technical precision.

The second half of the concert was planned as one continuous span with no real break between the pieces.  First was Greenstein’s “Be There” for violin and piano, this time with Colin Jacobsen and de la Salle.  The piece is a moderately-paced moto perpetuo, a long lyrical line unfolding as if in one long breath, dying down at the end as Jacobsen wandered away from the piano to a separate music stand to join Pirard in Takemitsu’s “Rocking Mirror Daybreak” for the two violins.  I found this piece the most difficult to penetrate, having a hard time finding any sort of thematic line running through it.  As it faded away, de la Salle began the Ravel Trio as Colin Jacobsen returned to sit next to Eric in time for the first sustained notes of that piece.

This was certainly one of the most memorable Peoples’ Symphony Concerts programs I’ve heard, and I hope they will continue to include such imaginative chamber music programs on their series.  In structure it was somewhat like the Music from Marlboro programs, presenting contrasting chamber works for different combinations of instruments on one program — also like the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center — and I think this is an ideal way to present chamber music.  Town Hall is also an excellent venue for this, with excellent acoustics and great sight lines from anywhere in the house.  Large enough to hold an substantial audience, yet intimate enough to capture the sense of closeness on which chamber music thrives….

Fantastic Young Singers for a NYC Musical Weekend

Posted on: November 9th, 2015 by Art Leonard No Comments

New York City is definitely the place to be if you want to hear lots of fantastic opera and art song singers in unusual settings.  That was my experience this weekend, when I attended the Brooklyn Art Song Society’s program at the Old Stone House in Brooklyn, and Venture Opera’s presentation of Mozart’s Don Giovanni at the Angel Orensanz Foundation on the Lower East Side of Manhattan.

Brooklyn Art Song Society is a project of its musical director and chief pianist, Michael Brofman, who is a very accomplished pianist and collaborator with singers.  One of the series he is presenting this season is Britannica, a survey of English art song ranging from the Baroque era to modern days.  On Friday afternoon, November 6, he presented the second program in the series: Britannica II: In Memoriam: Songs of the Great War.  The “Great War” from the British perspective is World War I, whose centennial we are in the midst of marking (1914-1918).  The war stimulated many British poets to produce meditations on war and death, and many British composers set them to music, including some who served in the conflict (and among whom we have important losses to mourn).  The 20th century vogue of adapting the typical melodies and harmonies of English folk song into art songs was at its height at the time most of these songs were written, resulting in music that is both accessible (certainly by comparison to what the leading-edge composer of Europe were producing) and achingly beautiful.

This program presented three very talented young singers:  baritones Jarett Ott and John Moore, and tenor Dominic Armstrong.  Mr. Brofman was the pianist for Ott and Armstrong, while Miori Sugiyama collaborated with John Moore.  The first half was all-baritone, the second half was given over to Armstrong & Brofman for a rare performance of both books of settings by George Butterworth of verses from A. E. Housman’s collection titled “A Shropshire Lad.”  Butterworth served in a combat unit and died at the front, a tragic loss to music.  Moore sang Ralph Vaughan Williams’ cycle “The House of Life,” setting verses of Dante Gabriel Rosetti, a poet who long predated the Great War, but the tie-in here is Vaughan Williams’ service driving an ambulance at the front and the themes of these poems which complement the overall theme for the concert.  Ott sang a variety of songs: two by Ivor Gurney, one by Gerald Finzi, and a rarity by William Dennis Browne, another composer lost in military service during the Great War.

All three singers made a deep impression on me.  Although still at the outset of their careers, they have already accumulated a wealth of experience, including opera at major houses, soloing with major orchestras, and highly regarded recital series.  To get to hear them in the small space of the Old Stone House, which felt almost like a private salon event, was an extraordinary privilege.   Unfortunately the next concert in this series presents a scheduling conflict for me, so I will have to miss the third in the series on December 3, which will present Armstrong and Sidney Outlaw singing works by Finzi and Vaughan Williams at the Brooklyn Historical Society.  This is urgently recommended for those who love English song or want to make its acquaintance.

It would be hard to top the musical experience I had Friday night, but then Sunday night brought Venture Opera’s first presentation of its inaugural season, Mozart’s Don Giovanni at the Angel Orensanz Center on Norfolk Street in Manhattan’s lower east side.  This building was constructed as a synagogue at a time when the neighborhood was solidly packed with Jewish immigrants a century ago.  After the neighborhood had changed drastically and the congregation diminished to a point of not being able to sustain the building, it was deconsecrated and turned into an arts center.  Some of the original iconography remains, but the space has been well adapted to support theatrical and musical events.

This Don Giovanni, conducted by Ryan McAdams (with a competent chamber orchestra assembled for the purpose from NYC’s extraordinary pool of freelance musicians), and imaginatively directed by Edwin Cahill, was absolutely, completely thrilling.  The excellent young cast included Philip Cutlip as Don Giovanni, Eric Downs as Leporello, Christian Zaremba as Il Commendatore, Amy Shoremount-Obra as Donna Anna, Yujoong Kim as Don Ottavio, Marquita Raley as Donna Elvira, Matthew Patrick Morris as Masetto, Cecelia Hall as Zerlina, and a fine collection of supporting players and choristers.  The space doesn’t lend itself to a traditional opera production.  Instead of an orchestra pit, the instrumentalists were assembled in a space under the side balcony to the left of the stage, such that Mr. McAdams could be seen by both the orchestra and the singers, although coordination was challenging and not always infallible.  There is a raised area in front, but no proscenium, but the entire space of the synagogue was enlisted in the production, with a fair amount of the singing taking place in the center aisle and the balconies being pressed into use as well.  No sets, as such, with everything being accomplished through movement, costumes, makeup and lighting.  The performance was in Italian with English projected titles on a screen suspended above the staging area.

What was thrilling about this performance?  First, McAdams provided vigorous leadership, tempos on the bright side for the most part, the action ever moving forward without any loss of momentum.  Second, the staging involved the audience in the drama at every moment, the action taking place amidst us much of the time.  Third, the fine acoustics of the old synagogue sanctuary made it possible to hear all the singers without any amplification at all times, with the placement of the orchestra off to the side providing sound that was clear and well balanced but sufficiently restrained by McAdams so that the singers could all be heard.

But, perhaps most importantly, all of the singers were magnificent.  Cutlip captured the rogue in Don Juan from the first moment.  Downs as Leporello was positively Satanic, giving an energetic performance that dominated the scenes in which he appeared, but without inappropriately tipping the balance between the characters.  Shoremount-Obra and Marquita Raley as the two Donnas were commanding and fully in charge of Mozart’s vocal pyrotechnics.  Young Morris and Hall won everybody’s hearts as the young couple whose wedding is screwed up by Don Juan’s machinations.  Zaremba was the Commendatore to the life – and his return as the Stone Guest in the final scenes was spine-chilling.

This was the second of three performances, the last to take place on Tuesday, November 10.  It appeared that Sunday’s performance was sold out.  Such is the hunger for good opera in New York.  I would estimate the audience capacity of the space at around 250.  If tickets remain for the last performance, they should be snatched up quickly.  Venture Opera has a minimalist website at this point, and future plans are still in formative stages.  They make bold to announce Bizet’s Carmen for February presentation, but neither the participants nor the venue are revealed yet, and tickets are not available to purchase.  I hope to be there.  This kind of immediate and involving opera is a rare treat, and NY’s music-lovers should hasten to support it.

Beginning of the new concert season: 5BMF and BASS

Posted on: September 21st, 2015 by Art Leonard No Comments

My 2015-16 concert season began early this year, with season-opening concerts by the Five Boroughs Music Festival on September 11 and the Brooklyn Art Song Society on September 18.

5BMF decided to start their season in Manhattan, at the National Opera Center’s recital hall, with a program by the American Contemporary Ensemble, a youthful group of composers who perform their own music in ensemble.  Group members Caleb Burhans, Timo Andres, Caroline Shaw, Clarice Jensen and Ben Russell collaborated in performances of their own compositions and also performed ensemble pieces by Meredith Monk and Charles Ives.

What struck me most forcibly in listening to these excellent performances was how the “new music” scene has changed and evolved so much since I was a youngster decades ago first encountering “contemporary music.”  In those days of the 1960s and 1970s, “contemporary” music meant, for the most part, atonality or serialism, dissonance, the lack of appealing melody, and a generally “grey” coloration, largely abandoning instrumental music’s roots in vocal music and “naturally occurring” scales and melodies.  There has been a revolution, and for the past few decades most contemporary music has reclaimed those roots with melodic lines one can follow, consonant harmonies spiced up with occasional surprising modulations or occasional dissonance.  Unlike the famous headline from a feature about a contemporary composer in a music magazine of the 1960s (“Who Cares If You Listen?”, facetiously attributed to Milton Babbitt), today’s young composers do care.  All of the pieces were well-made in this listener-friendly modern manner, seeking to communicate and appeal to the heart, not just the head, of the listener.  The main complaint I might have about some of the pieces was that these composers have imbibed at the well of “minimalism” to the degree that some of the pieces struck me as less eventful than they might ideally be and strained patience at times with their repetitions of small rhythmic cells.

Ironically, perhaps, the piece that was most challenging in terms of harmony, rhythm, and following the musical argument was the masterful Trio for Violin, Cello and Piano by Charles Ives, written a century ago.  This was the centerpiece of the program, performed immediately before the intermission.  If I were a young composer presenting new music, I would hesitate putting my latest pieces on the same program with the Ives piece, the work of a mature master in a more advanced idiom.

Nonetheless, it was an enjoyable concert, with many memorable moments and at least one piece, Caleb Burhans’ “Jahrzeit” in memory of his father for string quartet, that was extremely moving to hear.

Brooklyn Art Song Society began its season at the Lafayette Avenue Presbyterian Church in the Fort Greene neighborhood.  This is the first of several programs planned for this season surveying British song, so they went back to the beginnings, John Dowland and Henry Purcell.  The program was a provocative blend of “authenticity” and “inauthenticity.”  The first half, devoted to Dowland’s songs for voice and lute, were performed with the collaboration of Charles Weaver, one of the city’s leading lutenists, which vocal performances by soprano Sarah Brailey, mezzo Kate Maroney, tenor Nils Neubert, and baritone Jesse Blumberg.  I think these songs would have been a bit better served had they been performed in a smaller, less resonant performing space than this church, since the voices tended to overbalance the lute at times.  For the second half, Purcell songs were presented using Benjamin Britten’s realizations of piano accompaniments.  Britten did a great job, but using a piano to accompany Purcell is throwing authenticity out the window.  Nonetheless, these performances were better suited to the acoustic space.  The four vocalists from the first half were accompanied by pianists Yuri Kim, Dimitri Dover, and BASS artistic director Michael Brofman.  As in the first half, the performances were all very accomplished, and the overall program was a big success to usher in the BASS season.

Coming up next?  5BMF heads to the “boroughs” for performances in Brooklyn and the Bronx on November 12 and 13 by Montreal-based musicians performing baroque music by Biber, Bach, Buxtehude and Schieferlein.  BASS presents its next program on October 6 at Deutsches Haus (New York University), settings of German lyrics by Britten and English-source lyrics by Schubert, Schumann and R. Strauss, and a Ned Rorem birthday celebration at Bargemusic in Brooklyn on October 22.  Lots of good stuff coming up.

Glimmerglass Festival – Summer 2015

Posted on: August 14th, 2015 by Art Leonard No Comments

My blog took a short break while I ventured north to attend the Glimmerglass Festival near Cooperstown, New York.  My regular opera-going companion and I have been going to Glimmerglass since 2010, when we went up specifically to see Anthony Roth Costanzo in Handel’s Tolomeo.  We were impressed enough to return the following summer for several operas, and over the ensuing years it has become a regular summer highlight.  We go for one of the “escape” weekends when one can take in all four operas in repertory in a short period of time.  Also, after moving accommodations around the first few years, we settled on the Limestone Mansion, a bed & breakfast in Cherry Valley, NY, in 2013, which so enchanted us that we returned there last year and this and have made our reservation for the same weekend next year – the first escape weekend in August.

Glimmerglass’s Artistic & General Director, Francesca Zambello, has established a flexible pattern for the programing.  There is usually at least one American musical, at least one major standard repertory opera, sometimes one experimental program that might include a modern opera, sometimes one revival of a very early piece from the Baroque period, and occasionally an opera a bit outside the standard repertory by a major composer…  It varies, but that’s the point: one goes 4 days in a row and experiences a wide variety of experiences.  If one can stand a double-header, the programing is set up so that one can come just for Friday-Sunday and hear all four operas by attending a Saturday matinee, since they repeat the Thursday night opera on Saturday afternoon.  We tried that once and found it a bit too much.

This year the musical was Candide (music by Leonard Bernstein), the core standard repertory opera was The Magic Flute (music by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart), the Baroque opera was Cato in Utica (music by Antonio Vivaldi), and the wild card was Macbeth (music by Giuseppe Verdi).  Actually, recent major revivals have edged Macbeth into the active repertory to the extent that the usual formula was slightly broken by presenting both Magic Flute and Macbeth in the same summer, and I did miss the kind of modern program that has proved enticing.  (Last summer, for example, we had Tobias Picker’s opera of An American Tragedy.)   Next year’s festival will touch all the bases except Baroque: Puccini’s La Boheme for the core repertory piece, Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd for the American musical, Rossini’s La Gazza Ladra (The Thieving Magpie) for the major composer’s work from outside the standard repertory, and Robert Ward’s The Crucible (based on the Arthur Miller play) for the modern American opera.  I’m already looking forward to next year.

But back to this year….

Our first opera of the festival was Candide, on Thursday, August 6.  The unusual feature of this production was the restoration of much music that had been cut over the years in the various revivals and reconceptions.  The piece was originally presented, without great success, as a Broadway musical in 1956.  It closed after a few months, but the original cast recording became a cult hit due to the catchy tunes and witty lyrics, which worked just fine in isolation from the unwieldy book.  After resting on the shelf for a while, the piece was plucked from obscurity for a series of revivals, during the course of which Bernstein approved cutting, restructuring, reconceptions of the book, etc.  I had last seen it in a production by the late lamented New York City Opera.  Glimmerglass borrowed the version used more recently by the Royal National Theatre of Scotland, which reorganized things a bit (especially in the second half) and restored material that I had never heard before.  The result is that I, who thought I knew this piece very well, was confronted by several startling differences in the plot and repurposing of some of the music.  Did it work?  I thought it was pretty effective.  If I was coming to it with no knowledge of prior productions, I might not even notice anything amiss.  But one of the recurring complaints about Candide applies to this production as to the others; nobody has really solved the problem of the second act and closing.  This is a show that starts strong but tends to peter out a bit dramatically, almost no matter what you do with it.  Bernstein did not write a rousing finale.  It is a moving finale, but not a rouser.

The performance I saw and heard was exemplary.  Joseph Colaneri, who gave an excellent pre-performance talk, conducted with a sure hand, and he had an excellent cast to work with.  David Garrison particularly stood out as philosopher Voltaire (upon whose satirical novel the work is based) and Dr. Pangloss, the ultra-optimistic philosopher/teacher who is a main target of Voltaire’s satire.  Andrew Stenson and Kathryn Lewek were impressive as Candide and Cunegonde, with Lewek particularly outstanding in her star-turn aria, Glitter and Be Gay.  Marietta Simpson clowned wonderfully as the Old Lady.  Martin, a character I don’t recall from previous incarnations of this work, was played by Matthew Scollin in a truly standout piece of comic acting.

On Friday night we had The Magic Flute, and here I thought that there was a bit of a dramatic misfire.  The piece was conceived by Mozart and Schikaneder as a comedic parody of Masonic rites, but not really satirical in any cutting sense, more like a battle between darkness and light, with the Masonic philosophy actually triumphing in the end, although with shifting allegiances along the way.  The piece is set in a mythological time, with dragons, birdcatchers, trials of fire and water, etc.  The concept adopted by Glimmerglass was odd and a bit puzzling.  The young hero, Tamino, is first seen during the overture as a young businessman in a modern urban setting, wearing a suit and tie, carrying a briefcase, caught up and bit exhausted by the hurly-burly of the city through a pantomime of running about the stage into and out of crowds of similarly garbed modern city folk.  Somehow in the transition from overture to first act, he finds himself in a deep forest, still wearing the business suit, soon doing battle with forest goblins and being fussed over by ladies clad in evening gowns or something akin.  The setting, we are told in the program book, is the forest country of central New York, the world of James Fenimore Cooper (whose family settled and named Cooperstown), and perhaps Sarastro, the chief wizard, and his minions are actually Native American tribe members.  But they are not garbed as Native Americans.  Instead, Sarastro seems to be clothed in a long white laboratory coat with big pockets, and his minions are somewhat similarly garbed.  Although there is some suggestion that Native American rites substitute for the quasi-Masonic rites of the original, it is not clear in the staging and costuming. It is all a puzzle.   Since the opera was conceived as fantasy, I guess anything goes, but plunking Tamino into the middle of this in modern American business attire (although he does lose the jacket from his ensemble for a while) is strange.

The casting was mainly excellent.  Sean Panikkar, a bright young singer whose work I’ve heard several times over the years, was most engaging as Tamino, and Ben Edquist, a member of Glimmerglass Young Artists for the summer, was also quite engaging as Papageno, showing great chops for comic acting.  So Young Park as the Queen of the Night had some unsteadiness in her big first act aria, but was thrilling for the big second-act star turn.  Soloman Howard was Sarastro, and he really had me with his first notes – a huge but well-controlled low voice deployed with great artistry. He also has a very impressive, dignified presence on the stage.  I did feel, however, that he has not yet grown into the very lowest sustained notes for this part, where there was some straining.  From a dramatic point of view, I also thought he had not quite grown into this role yet.  The usual casting for Sarastro is to use an older man who can is presented as the wise authority figure, and Howard is quite youthful for this part.  I think that in ten or fifteen years he will be ideally cast as Sarastro.  (In the meantime, I thought he made quite a hit the next night as Banquo in Macbeth, a part for which he is already ideally suited.)  The conductor, Carolyn Kuan, kept things moving and coordinated quite well.  If this was not quite the total musical success compared to the Candide performance, I thought it was a worthy performance.

Saturday night presented what I thought was the weakest of the four presentations, Verdi’s Macbeth.  This opera came at the end of the composer’s early period before he wrote the big hits that are now central to the repertory of every major opera house: Rigoletto, Il Trovatore and La Traviata.  As such, it is a transitional work.  Verdi was perfecting his compositional technique as he was finding his voice, but nothing is quite as distinctive or “finished” as it was shortly to become with the “Big Three”.  There is plenty to enjoy, but not enough that is truly memorable.

My biggest criticism of this production is the decision to move the historical period from the time of the actual Macbeth (about 1000 A.D. in Scotland) forward about 900 years.  Judging by the costuming, the setting is somewhere in Europe around 1900, but there was enough inconsistency in the periods of the costuming to raise some doubts.  Victorian-era military costumes, but the servants dressed perhaps in 1920s outfits, and the non-military civilians in a hodgepodge of late 19th century and early 20th century dress.  The settings seemed rather English country manor.  Eric Owens as Macbeth was stalwart and generally large of voice but struck me as a bit uncomfortable in the role.  Melody Moore as Lady Macbeth was controversial.  I thought she was fine; some of the other audience members with whom I spoke were less complimentary.  As noted above, I thought Soloman Howard made a splendid Banquo.  Some last-minute switches had Marco Cammarota playing Macduff — and doing the part quite well — and Stephen Carroll singing Malcolm.  Both men, members of the Young Artists Program, earned their enthusiastic ovations at the end.  Colaneri was back on the podium, but seemed to me less attuned to this opera than to Candide.

We ended our Glimmerglass weekend with Vivaldi’s Cato in Utica, a matinee on Sunday.  Matinees in August at Glimmerglass can be trying.  The theater is not air conditioned.  When it was built, the need for air conditioning was not anticipated, but summers are hotter now than they were a few decades ago, and the atmosphere indoors became stifling by the end of the first half.  The side walls of the theater open up during intermission, and things seemed a bit more tolerable when the program resumed.  But my own reactions may have been affected by the unduly warm theater, as I found the first half a bit soporific.  The second half I found totally absorbing.

The opera was first presented in 1737.  Vivaldi’s operas were not published during his lifetime and the manuscript score and parts for the original first act went missing.  What survives is the libretto for the entire opera (a Metastasio product that was set by several composers during the early 18th century) and Vivaldi’s music for the original acts 2 and 3.  Conjectural reconstructions of the first act have  been performed and published, using music from other Vivaldi works that could be made to fit the libretto, but Glimmerglass decided not to take that route.  Although some extra material was interpolated for purposes of exposition, what was presented was effectively a torso of the original surviving parts from a recently published critical edition.  This is the first time I’ve heard a Vivaldi opera performed live, but I have recordings of many of Vivaldi’s operas as well as recital discs with collections of arias, so I’m familiar with the style.  With that as background, I thought this performance, as conducted by Ryan Brown, lacked the rhythmic crispness and excitement I’ve come to expect from this composer.  Tempi were a shade slower than ideal, I thought, and this is music that definitely benefits from period instruments rather than a modern instrumental ensemble.  So the musical setting was not ideal.  Thomas Michael Allen was suitably brooding and stern as the righteous Cato who ends his life rather than submit to Julius Caesar’s dominion.  Vivaldi wrote important roles — Caesar and Arbace – for castrati, approximated in this performance by countertenors.  John Holiday as Caesar did not overwhelm me with virtuosity, but seemed dramatically engaged.  Eric Jurenas as Arbace made a bigger impression on me.  I’m a bit of a countertenor maven, and for me the gold standards are such as Jaroussky, Sabadus, and Costanzo.  The men I heard in this Vivaldi performance were not in that league.   Megan Samarin was stunningly good as Marzia, Cato’s conflicted daughter.  Allegra De Vita was fine in the pants role of Fulvio, but these days I might just as soon hear a countertenor in that role.

On balance, I thought the Vivaldi and Mozart were tied for second place in my affections when ranking this year’s Festival offerings, and MacBeth came last, with Bernstein’s Candide in this fresh new conception the clear winner.

National Youth Orchestra at Carnegie Hall

Posted on: July 12th, 2015 by Art Leonard No Comments

The National Youth Orchestra of the United States of American presented its 2015 concert last night at Carnegie Hall, and lived up to the high standard set for the past two years.  I’ve been attending these concerts since they began in 2013 and have continued to be amazed by what can be accomplished in two weeks of rehearsals by an assembly of talented youngsters who are not music conservatory students.  The results meet the high standards of professional orchestras.  One can concentrate on listening to the music, confident that the performers are up to the task.

And the task here was a very challenging program: a newly-commissioned concert-opener by Tan Dun, Beethoven’s Emperor Concerto with a leading young professional pianist – Yundi – as soloist, and Berlioz’s Symphonie fantastique, one of the most challenging symphonies in the standard orchestral repertory, full of exposed solo passages for every section of the orchestra.  Charles Dutoit, a veteran conductor, led spirited performances that made no compromise to the youth of the performers.  And it was a long program — perhaps stretched out a bit by too lengthy an intermission — running from 8 pm to 10:30, lengthened even more by an encore – the final movement from L’Arlesienne Suite No. 2 by Bizet.

One could single out various soloists for praise, but not by name, since the program lists the musicians alphabetically by section, presumably because the roster had to be submitted in advance of the rehearsals and final assignments undoubtedly emerged during the rehearsal process.  I was particularly struck by the calm virtuosity of the horn section, especially in the Beethoven concerto, the solo oboes (they seem to have switched off principal roles between numbers) in the Berlioz, and the depth and tight ensemble of the strings throughout.  But there was plenty of glory to go around.

If there is anything to criticize, it is the choice of the Beethoven concerto, which calls for a standard classical-size orchestra, as a result of which many of the wind and percussion players, as well as the excellent harpists, were excluded from a significant part of the program. As long as one is assembling such an ensemble, it would make sense to me to put together a program that requires the entire ensemble throughout.  Also, why would one devote all but 5 minutes (the Tan Dun piece) to music from the early 19th century?  Young performers are fearless in confronting modern music, as they showed quite well with Tan Dun, and so one could easily put together a program calling on the full group of more recent music.  As well, the absence of American music was noticeable and unfortunate in light of the touring schedule.

Yundi is a spectacular pianist, but on this occasion I was a bit critical of one aspect of his playing.  Fast scale passages tended to be rushed into a blur, at times getting away from the orchestra.  I fault Yundi for this, not Dutoit, who was doing a fine job of moving the orchestra along to keep up.  But Beethoven needs majesty, not just excitement.  That said, the slow middle movement was exquisitely done, and I marveled at the ability of this large aggregation of youngsters to play with quiet subtlety when that was called for.

Altogether an excellent evening, and the Chinese audiences they will be meeting over the next few weeks are in for a treat.  Bravo to Carnegie Hall for instigating and supporting this project!

Brooklyn Art Song Society: New Voices – The New American Art Song

Posted on: May 14th, 2015 by Art Leonard No Comments

The Brooklyn Art Song Society is the brainchild of Michael Brofman.  It’s been around for five years, but last night was the first time I was actually able to clear my calendar and head over to Brooklyn to attend one of their concerts.  I had been invited by composer Glen Roven to help celebrate the release of a new Naxos recording that includes his song cycle, The Vineyard Songs.  I had been present over a year ago at a concert in Manhattan when the piece was given its world premiere, with the same performers who were to give it last night: soprano Laura Strickling and pianist Michael Brofman.  As I had expressed eagerness to hear it again, I cleared my calendar and showed up at South Oxford Space, a performance space a few blocks away from the Brooklyn Academy of Music.  (I had previously attended a concert there a few years ago that was presented by Five Boroughs Music Festival.)

First a comment about the performing space: The second floor at South Oxford Space (138 S. Oxford Street) is a small concert hall, rectangular with a stage at one end.  But the stage was not used on this occasion.  Instead, the piano was located along the long side of the rectangle with folding chairs spread out facing it.  The acoustics are good, but actually the room is a bit small to accommodate the sound of the piano and singers with operatic-size voices, so much of the time the music was very loud, sometimes oppressively so, and the piano was extremely loud in relation to the voices.  I think that lowering the piano lid to half-mast might have helped with the balances.  This didn’t detract unduly from my enjoyment of the concert, but I think if they use this space again they should think more about balances in light of the size of the room.

That out of the way, I found the entire concert fascinating.

In the program flyer, Brofman describes his organization as “dedicated to the vast repertoire of poetry set to music.”  That means he will NEVER run out of interesting new pieces to present!!  We are actually experiencing a great flowering of new art song in America from numerous young (and not-so-young) composers who are busily enjoying the “new” dispensation to write music people will want to hear.  I say that advisedly.  When I was a student, back in the 1960s and early 1970s, concert music was largely consumed by striving to write music that most ordinary concert-goers would not even recognize as music: no discernible melody, atonal and serial harmony, and a pervasive “grey” quality to everything, buried under a haze of rhythmic complexity.  Although Milton Babbitt didn’t actually say it, a headline writer for High Fidelity magazine summed it up nicely for an article about his work: “Who Cares If You Listen?”  But even at that time, the seeds of a counterrevolution were starting to take root, as the Minimalists were emerging, their music generally well rooted in tonality, and some of the ultra-modernists were rediscovering tonality – Exhibit A was probably George Rochberg.  By the 1990s, the concert music world was once again dominated by tonal composition and a concern for melody and its developments was becoming prominent as a new burst of Romanticism emerged.  Nowhere was this more evident than in the field of American art song, building on the heroic earlier accomplishments of such composers as Samuel Barber and Ned Rorem (and the grandfather of them all, Charles Ives).   Barber and Rorem had been looked down upon by the serialists as “old fashioned.”  It is a source of some regret that Barber didn’t live to see the revival of his music, but happily Rorem is still with us. . .

Every work heard last night seemed to be concerned with communicating, vividly, with an eager audience.  None of these composers could be accused of not caring whether the audience bothered to listen.  Indeed, their songs were all well-crafted to draw the listener into a sound world where words and music combined to enchant the listener, to put the listener under the spell of the composer and the poet, to grip the emotions and produce that collective intake of breath at the peak moments and the gratified murmur at the end.

Last night’s composers, all living and very productive, were Michael Djupstrom, Herschel Garfein, James Kallembach, James Matheson, and Glen Roven.  All except Matheson were present to receive the appreciative applause of the audience, well-deserved.  Baritone Kyle Oliver sang Djupstrom’s “Oars in Water.”  Elisabeth Marshall sang Garfein’s “Two Stoppard Songs” and Kallembach’s “Four Romantic Songs,” and Laura Strickling sang Matheson’s “From Times Alone” and Roven’s “The Vineyard Songs.”  All the performers were excellent in their own individual way, and not one of the songs was less then totally absorbing.  I was hearing everything except the Roven cycle for the first time, but all of this music was so listener-friendly that I found no difficulty in appreciating and enjoying it all.  Michael Brofman’s collaboration at the piano was sterling, and I will be eager to hear his work again during BASS’s next season.  I also hope to hear more of all of these singers, each of whom really knows how to “put over” a song!

According to an announcement in the program, the opening night for next season will be on September 18.  The theme for the season will be British songs, and music by John Dowland and Henry Purcell will make up the first program.  There will be lute songs as well as songs with piano accompaniment.  The location will be the Lafayette Avenue Presbyterian Church which, contrary to the name, bears a S. Oxford Street address.  Check out the Brooklyn Art Song Society website for details.

In the meantime, I would encourage anybody interested in American art song to consider acquiring the new Naxos CD whose release was celebrated last night.  It contains performances of many of the works on last night’s program, with many of the same performers.  I’ve already ordered it, and will add a postscript to this blog posting after I’ve received my copy and had a chance to listen.

A Triumphant Weekend at Peoples’ Symphony Concerts – Johannes Quartet & ECCO

Posted on: March 22nd, 2015 by Art Leonard No Comments

This weekend Peoples’ Symphony Concerts in New York presented two excellent concerts.  In the Arens Series at Washington Irving High School, we heard the Johannes String Quartet, joined with guests from the Guarneri String Quartet, violist John Dalley and cellist Peter Wiley.  In the Festival Series at Town Hall, we heard the East Coast Chamber Orchestra.  Each concert include one unusual “modern” work, although these were not necessarily the real highlights of the programs.

The Johannes Quartet is one of many fine chamber groups that have grown out of acquaintances formed at the Marlboro Music Festival, a summer program that brings together the most talented young musicians with a group of experienced professionals to study and play together.  I’ve heard them before at Peoples’ Symphony Concerts, and was eagerly anticipating this program.

They led off with “Homunculus for String Quartet” by Esa-Pekka Salonen, who is being heavily promoted these days by the music critics of the New York Times as a logical successor to Alan Gilbert as music director of the NY Philharmonic.  I was present decades ago at Mr. Salonen’s debut with the Philharmonic, and remember going to the green room to congratulate him at that time.  He subsequently became music director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, while retaining important ties with orchestras in Europe.  He stepped down from the L.A. position after a long and successful run, commenting that he wanted to spend much more time composing.  This piece was one of the first fruits of his stepped-up compositional activity.  We had a special treat last night at Peoples’ Symphony because Salonen was present to speak about his piece prior to the performance.  He explained that the short duration was in response to the particular demands of the commission — to produce a short piece that would balance out a program of two full string quartets — so he wrote a quartet in miniature and named it “Homunculus” inspired by the primitive theory of human reproduction that posited the notion that each sperm is actually a tiny person waiting to be incubated.  He pointed out the reduction ad absurdum consequences of such a theory, which brought quite a laugh from the audience.  The piece turned out to be very listener-friendly — even more so than his large-scale orchestral works, which tend to be more busy and dissonant than this quartet.  I would not venture to say much more about it after a first hearing, other than that it certainly left me with the desire to hear it again and get better acquainted.

The first half was concluded with Felix Mendelssohn’s String Quartet No. 6, Op. 80, a work written by the composer in the last year of his life – 1847.  But that does not mean it is a “late work,” because unfortunately Mendelssohn died in his mid-30s.   As with Mozart, there is really no “late” period for this composer, alas.  The quartet begins in a vigorous manner, somewhat like the Salonen piece, making it a logical progression, and the Johannes gave it an excellent performance.

But the real treat for me was to hear a rare live performance after intermission of Johannes Brahms’s String Sextet No. 2, Op. 36, with Dalley and Wiley joining the group.  Because of the need for extra players, it is unusual to hear the Brahms sextets in concert.  They are extraordinary pieces, so hearing this is a real event.  Indeed, the piece has a symphonic feel, which was well projected by the ensemble last night.

PSC’s winning streak continued with ECCO this afternoon.  This is a conductorless ensemble of 18 string players who come together several times a year to work up programs for their own pleasure in creative interaction.  Many of them are parts of the string sections of major symphony orchestras or established chamber ensembles, but they enjoy the special freedom of tackling larger scale string orchestra works in chamber music style.  The results are very impressive.

They began with an early work of Osvaldo Golijov, “Last Round” from 1996, a piece that put me in mind at times of Astor Piazzolla.  They played it with lots of energy and polish.  This was followed by a tender Canzonetta for strings by Jean Sibelius, and an inflation to string orchestra size of Leos Janacek’s “Kreutzer Sonata” String Quartet.  I have to confess to a blind spot with Janacek:  although I like the sound of his music, I usually find my mind drifting off during it.  So I don’t have a strong recollection of this performance.

But after intermission came the real treat:  the piece that is the trademark of this group, Tchaikovsky’s Serenade for String Orchestra, Op. 48.  I’ve heard them play it before, and have their recording, but each time I hear them it is different and better than the previous performance.  This performance was truly magnificent.  The combination of precision, vigor, and spontaneity, was entrancing.  The third movement Elegy held the audience breathless.  While listening, I thought — just as I had each previous time — that this must be one of the greatest pieces ever written.  And that is surely the result of a superior performance as well as the genius of Tchaikovsky!

I hope they will continue to seek out new repertory, will continue to develop their extraordinary interpretation of the Tchaikovsky, and will return to PSC.   I would love to hear them play Kilar’s Orawa, as it would be a perfect showpiece for them!




New York Philharmonic Ades Premiere & Debut

Posted on: March 15th, 2015 by Art Leonard No Comments

The New York Philharmonic turned over the subscription series of March 12-14 to British composer-conductor-pianist Thomas Ades, who led the programs and presented the first U.S. performances of his new work, Totentanz for Mezzo-Soprano, Baritone & Orchestra.  For many New Yorkers, the programs presented a double discovery – an excellent and energetic conductor and an imaginative and talented composer.  Some of us already knew him from another role, having heard him collaborate with Matthias Goerne in an excellent song recital at Carnegie Hall a while back.  (I am one of that luck band.)

I’ve been a fan of Ades’s music since his first recordings washed up on our shores, and greatly enjoyed the New York City Opera production of his outrageous opera, Powder Her Face, presented at the Brooklyn Academy of Music during City Opera’s wandering years.  But this was my first opportunity to experience him conducting his own work, and it was very rewarding.

To start with the conducting, however, Ades appears slightly awkward at times on the podium, signaling that this is not his main occupation, but he had the NY Philharmonic playing brilliantly in Beethoven’s First Symphony and Berlioz’s dramatic overture, Les francs-juges.  Indeed, I found myself thinking that Berlioz would have really appreciated the performance.  In his autobiographical and critical writing, Berlioz repeatedly scorned conductors for excessive timidity in presenting his works.  He abhorred sluggish tempi, restricted dynamic range, and caution in presenting the outsize sonic effects.  Ades would have none of that.  The bass drum thwacks were gut-wrenching, the brass insistent, the finale as noisy as Berlioz could ever have wanted, and it all suited the music, of course.  The Beethoven was a tad more restrained, but still conveyed all the excitement of the brash young composer toying with the musical conventions of his day and even starting to stretch them in this earliest symphonic work.  I would be eager to hear what Mr. Ades would do with the Eroica!!

As to his own work, it is a sort of cantata setting the words of an anonymous old German text that appeared under a 15th-century frieze in the Marienkirche in Lubeck.  Luckily photographic reproductions of this ancient artwork survived the destruction of the church by bombing during World War II.  The theme is well-worn: that death is democratic, it comes to all at every rank and station, from the Pope of Rome down to the lowliest in social rank and even the infant.  The frieze depicted Death dancing and inviting various humans to join him.  Ades divides the text between mezzo-soprano (Christianne Stotijn) and baritone (Mark Stone), with the former singing the parts of the depicted humans and the latter the verses for Death.  From early in his career, Ades has been pegged as an enthusiastic eclectic who will assimilate all sorts of influences as he has established his own unique voice, which emphasizes a wide array of percussion sounds and virtuosic orchestration that brings to my mind the best of Stravinsky and Schoenberg.

I noted at the Saturday night performance an unusually young audience, filled out with plenty of student groups.  Perhaps there were lots of ticket returns from regular subscribers, as there are usually contingents of listeners who are “allergic” to contemporary music.  They should have come, and those timid souls who left at intermission should have stayed, as they might well have been pleased by what was offered.  One doesn’t necessarily leave an Ades composition humming tunes, but one can be haunted by the sounds he creates and the dramatic climaxes he reaches in his music, and this audience was much affected, as was this listener.  I hope a recording of this piece will emerge, since it’s the kind of thing one would want to engage with in repeat hearings.

KLR Trio at Peoples’ Symphony Concerts

Posted on: March 8th, 2015 by Art Leonard No Comments

This afternoon the Kalichstein-Laredo-Robinson Trio performed a concert at Manhattan’s Town Hall under the auspices of Peoples’ Symphony Concerts.  This group has performed frequently at PSC, and their return is always welcome.  Since the retirement of the Beaux Arts Trio, they are probably the preeminent piano trio currently performing.

I was a bit put off prospectively by the conservatism of their program.  This program could have been given over 120 years ago: Beethoven’s Kakadu Variations, Op. 121a, Brahms’s Piano Trio No. 2, Op. 87, and Tchaikovsky’s Piano Trio, Op. 50.  On the other hand, this group brings together three masters of their instruments who really know how to play the “classics” with panache.

I’ve always been bored by Beethoven’s Kakadu Variations.  This performance, while more than merely proficient, didn’t get me any more excited about the piece.  The Brahms was fluent and energetic, about what I would expect from these performers.  Satisfying without being extraordinary.

But the Tchaikovsky was something else again.  I have long thought that this piece was among the composer’s least successful.  It is in two long movements.  The first, “Pezzo elegiac,” has always struck me as awfully repetitious, over-extended, and not as inspired as, for example, his first string quartet.  The second, a theme & variations with an extended coda, just seems to go on and on.  Tchaikovsky was not a great writer of variations, and many of them have struck me in the past as quite ordinary.

I have to say that all my preconceptions based on past hearings of the piece went out the window with today’s performance.  All three musicians seemed to really love this piece, and they were totally on fire this afternoon!  It was gripping.  Although I still felt the piece was overextended in both movements, I found that I didn’t really care because I was enjoying their passionate engagement with the music so much.  I wanted it to keep going on!

These folks have been around a long time.  One of the first LP’s I bought as a teenager was Jaime Laredo’s debut concerto recording for RCA of Bach’s 1st Violin Concerto (with Munch and the Boston Symphony strings) and Mozart’s 3rd Violin Concerto (with Howard Mitchell and the Washington National Symphony).  And when I bought it, it was already a budget reissue.  Another early LP acquisition was a Kalichstein recital on Vanguard’s mid-price Cardinal label. Old-time record collectors from the 1960’s may remember these recordings.  One might think that these senior folks would provide slow, laid-back performances.  But nothing of the sort.  Bright tempi, passionate engagement, real vigor marked this afternoon’s concert. Great going, guys!! Thanks for bringing them back this year, PSC!

American Symphony Revives Von Schillings’ “Mona Lisa”

Posted on: February 20th, 2015 by Art Leonard No Comments

I haven’t been blogging concerts and theater this season… too overwhelmed with legal developments and work.  But having just attended the American Symphony Orchestra’s presentation of Max Von Schillings’ opera “Mona Lisa” at Carnegie Hall, I couldn’t resist offering a few observations.

First, to thank Leon Botstein, the ASO, the singers and chorus for the enormous effort that goes into putting on these revivals of forgotten music.  They usually have to go to significant lengths to track down scores and parts, and everybody involved has to spend time learning music that nobody has performed and that they are unlikely to be called upon to perform again.  This is especially true of the singers.  While they don’t memorize their parts, as they would have to do for a staged production, it still is a tremendous effort to get beyond sight reading, putting in significant time to learn a part that it is unlikely one will ever sing again.

I emphasize the unlikeliness of living off this capital investment because accomplished as this opera is, it isn’t likely to hold the stage.  There are too many problems with it.  The plot is a silly soap opera, and the piece is structurally unbalanced to a pronounced degree.  The first act is about twice as long as the second, and this disproportion is even more pronounced when you look at the libretto: 42 pages of text, of which all but the last 9 pages come before the intermission.  (And a word to the ASO and Carnegie Hall – when so much has been invested in producing a libretto booklet and distributing it to everybody, why do you dim the lights during the performance, making it eye-straining to follow along?  What is the sense in this???  It is particularly useful to be able to follow text for a virtually unknown work.  I found the effort and eyestrain exhausting and gave up mid-way through the first act.  Better luck with the second, which may be why I enjoyed it a bit more.)  The music, while containing moments of great beauty and inventive orchestration, lacks truly memorable thematic material.  The first act just goes on for too long, and the fine singers are taxed with technically difficult extended solos that have little real dramatic pay-off.

All that said, it is fantastic that the ASO makes the effort to produce these concerts. They are a window into the past that is so valuable for music lovers, because it gives us a context within which to understand the masterworks contemporary with it and to appreciate them all the more.  This piece was composed in 1913-15 and premiered in 1915.  Thus it is contemporary with Stravinsky’s Le Sacre du Printemps, and postdates by just a few years Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde and 9th Symphony.  It falls somewhere between the works of these composers – not nearly as dissonant and rhythmically inventive as the Stravinsky, but perhaps a further step in the line of Mahler, albeit without Mahler’s flare for inventing and developing memorable themes.  Listening to Schillings, one understands the background against which Mahler and Stravinsky was composing, and why their works survive to be part of our standard repertory.

The performance seemed more than adequate to communicate what is interesting about the work.  The lead singers – Petra Maria Schnitzer, Michael Anthony McGee, and Paul McNamara – each provided very fine, alert, involved singing, the orchestra — while it could have used a bigger string section to balance the big wind complement (I counted 7 horns on stage) — seemed well-rehearsed and confident, Botstein’s direction was very effective, and the supporting roles and choral interventions, including some soloists from the Bard Festival Chorale, was fine (if the chorus was underused by the composer).  Hat tip to James Bagwell for preparation of the chorus, which was sterling when called upon.

Although the work itself is not particularly memorable, certainly the evening was…