New York Law School

Art Leonard Observations

Posts Tagged ‘Carnegie Hall’

American Symphony Orchestra Examines Obscure Works of Major Composers

Posted on: March 27th, 2015 by Art Leonard No Comments

Last night at Carnegie Hall, the American Symphony Orchestra presented “Opus Posthumous,” a concert devoted to works that were not first performed until after the deaths of their composers. These included an opera overture by Franz Schubert to an opera never published or performed in his lifetime, Anton Bruckner’s Symphony No. 00 (a study symphony he composed but did not consider suitable for performance), and Antonin Dvorak’s Symphony No. 1, which was composed for entry into a composition contest. Dvorak sent his only copy of the handwritten manuscript, which was never returned to him, and the work was long thought lost, only to show up years later in a bookstore where it was purchased by somebody who shared the composer’s surname but was not a relative. The piece was first performed long after the composer’s death, and then in an abridged version.

This was a very pleasant concert of 19th century romantic music, but none of the works is an imperishable masterpiece. Indeed, my opinion after the concert was that Dvorak was lucky the piece was not played when it was written, because it could have impeded his career.  The orchestration is amateurish in places, creating a heavy and clotted effect, and the development of the themes is unduly repetitious.  Some good ideas are just buried under clumsy orchestration, unfortunately. 

Dvorak and Bruckner were late bloomers as mature symphonists.  Dvorak wrote nine symphonies, but published only the last five, and until mid-20th century, most music lovers would say their favorite was Dvorak’s Symphony No. 5, the “New World Symphony.”  By the time I was learning about classical music in the 1960s, it was usually identified as Symphony No. 9 (old “No. 5”), as by then the earlier unpublished symphonies had been edited and published in a complete edition of Dvorak’s music.  But the first four symphonies are rarely performed, as he really didn’t hit his stride until “old No. 1,” which is now known as Symphony No. 6.  Old No. 2 became Symphony No. 7, Old No. 3 became Symphony No. 5, and Old No. 4 became Symphony No. 8.  This is all ancient history for the generation of classical music lovers following me.  With Bruckner, there is last night’s Symphony No. 00, then his first published Symphony, No. 1, then Symphony No. 0 which comes before Symphony No. 2.  Bruckner was very self-critical and withheld pieces from publication if they didn’t meet his high standards.  Bruckner’s situation is complicated by his tendency to revise, abetted by some of his younger supporters who thought his music would be more readily accepted if he would just shorten things!  So there are multiple versions of most of the published symphonies, including so many versions of Symphony No. 3 and Symphony No. 4 (two completely different versions of one of the movements are floating about) that one can easily lose count.

Last night’s Bruckner was a pleasant student work that shows few signs of the mature composer.  Indeed, it sounded much like the Schubert overture that came before it on the program.

There’s nothing seriously wrong with any of these pieces, but none of them stand to become part of the standard orchestral repertory, as they are put in the shade by other works of the composers. The ASO played them all very well under Leon Botstein’s direction, as members of the audience had a rare opportunity to hear works by major composers that they are not likely to get to hear in live performance ever again! This is central to the ASO’s mission under Botstein’s leadership.  To cast light in dark corners….

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…

ASO Triumphs with Obscure Schnittke Cantata – Nagasaki

Posted on: December 11th, 2014 by Art Leonard 1 Comment

I’ve had such a busy semester with legal developments that I haven’t been posting about the concerts, opera and theater that I’ve been attending for the Fall 2014 season.  A big stack of programs has accumulated, and sometime during the next few weeks I hope to catch up with some retrospective postings, since I’ve attended plenty of events that are worthy of comment.

But I decided to make an exception and post today about the extraordinary concert I attended last night at Carnegie Hall.  The American Symphony Orchestra directed by Leon Botstein presented a program titled “Requiem for the 20th Century.”  The 20th century is one that many people will say can never really rest in peace because of all the horrific things that happened during it, the millions slaughtered in wars, felled in epidemics and natural disasters, and so forth.  That aside, Botstein decided to put together three works responsive to that difficult century, and it made for a highly unusual and absorbing program.

The only purely instrumental piece on the program was the 6th Symphony by Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958), a British composer whose active career spanned the first half of the century and then some, since he was composing until the last year of his life.  The 6th Symphony was his first major work to be premiered after World War II, having been written during 1944-47.  It received its first performance by Sir Adrian Boult and the BBC Symphony Orchestra in April 1948.  The American Symphony Orchestra’s founder, Leopold Stokowski, recorded the piece with the New York Philharmonic in 1949, and that gripping performance has never been out of the catalogue very long since then.  (The most recent CD coupling I know pairs it with a recording by Dmitri Mitropoulos and the NYP of the 4th Symphony.)   V-W eschewed the idea that this was a “war symphony” or directly related to the war. Although he wrote his share of program music, he considered this symphony to be purely abstract music, but listeners and commentators were not willing to accept this, because its unusual structure suggested all kinds of extra-musical images.  The opening movement is noisy, turbulent, churning, although interspersed is a noble march-like recurring theme that sounds like a slightly more modern version of an Elgar Pomp and Circumstances march.  The scherzo, which comes third, features a jaunty saxophone solo.  The second movement is an ominous slow march that gathers tension several times and can’t help but invoke military images in the listener.  The finale, titled Epilogue (a favorite designation by V-W), is marked Moderato but feels slower, perhaps because of its evanescent tonal quality as it just sort of fades away at the end, not with the tragedy of Tchaikovsky’s Pathetique or the dying gasps of Mahler’s 9th, but more like a gentle ascent to heaven, perhaps the best comparison being a much quieter version of the ending of Mahler’s 3rd Symphony.  V-W gave some hint of what he was trying for by quoting some Shakespeare: “We are such stuff as dreams are made on, and our little life is rounded [by] sleep.”

I thought last night’s performance was exemplary in every respect.  Botstein set perfect tempi and the orchestra achieved miracles of virtuosity.  I can’t recall the ASO ever playing better than it played in the V-W 6th.  My concert-going companion remarked on this at intermission, and I totally agreed.  In fact, the last time I thought they had played this well was several years ago when they performed Vaughan Williams’s 4th Symphony in a program dedicated to British music between the world wars, back in the days when they were performing at Avery Fisher Hall.  Botstein and this orchestra have a real flare for middle-period V-W.  I hope we can expect Symphonies 3 and 5 from them sometime in the future.  I consider the 5th Symphony among V-W’s greatest achievements, but it is rarely played in the U.S.

Second up on the program was Gyorgy Ligeti’s Requiem.  Ligeti (1923-2006) was one of a handful of composers who became dominant figures in the second half of the 20th century, bursting through to the general public’s consciousness when filmmaker Stanley Kubrick used excerpts from his Requiem in the soundtrack of the film “2001 – A Space Odyssey.”  It was interesting to hear the entire piece, which doesn’t get played very much, probably due to its great challenges to both listeners and performers.  Ligeti went through phases where his music became more or less listener-friendly as he became intrigued with particular modernistic devices.  This piece emerged in 1965 during his extreme modernistic phase, featuring tone clusters and deep buzzing sounds from the chorus, and tortured lines with great interval leaps for the mezzo and soprano soloists.  The text he selected was a portion of the Latin mass for the dead: Introitus-Requiem aeternum; Kyrie; De Die Judicci Sequentia (Dies Irae etc.), Lacrimosa.  However, because of the nature of his musical setting, the text was only intermittently understandable.  The point of this piece is that the voices are treated like instruments, the text provides inspiration for the composer, but the listener could just as well ignore the actual words and follow the dramatic-emotional path of the music.  The performance sounded like it might have used a bit more rehearsing, as there were a few tentative spots, but overall it was highly effective.  The vocal soloists, soprano Jennifer Zetlan and mezzo Sara Murphy, coped skillfully with the extremes called for by the music, and the Bard Festival Chorale, prepared by James Bagwell, seemed entirely caught up in the challenge of Ligeti’s demanding vocal parts.

Finally, the great discovery of the program: Alfred Schnittke’s cantata, Nagasaki.  I was unaware of this piece before first hearing about this program, and had no idea what to expect.  I’ve got a fair number of Schnittke compositions in my music collection, but I have rarely heard anything by him performed live in concert.  The NYP has performed a handful of things in the time I’ve been a subscriber.  I’ve always found him to be a difficult composer to pin down, because over time his style of music went through many changes.  My biggest complaint in the past has been that I’ve found many of his works to be essentially incoherent as musical statements – elusive, without any strong apparent structure, and lacking in any kind of memorable melodic invention.  Nagasaki came as a complete surprise.  Schnittke (1934-1998) wrote it as a “graduation exercise” set by his teacher Evgeniy Golubev during his final year at the Moscow Conservatory in 1958.  Golubev assigned Schnittke to write a piece using a poem by Valdimir Sofranov about the bombing of Nagasaki at the end of World War II.  Schnittke cut up the original poem a bit and interpolated verses by two other authors to create a five-movement work for chorus and large orchestra with a solo mezzo-soprano part in the fourth movement.  As a student work it is quite derivative, and it predates all of the stylistic experimentation that characterizes his mature work.  In some ways it seems reminiscent of various early and mid-20th century composers.  Shostakovich, of course, as well as Prokofiev (especially Prokofiev of the Alexander Nevsky film score).  The final movement had, to me, a strong flavor of Miklos Rozsa, the Hungarian-born composer who made his greatest contributions as the write of epic Hollywood film scores.  I’ve read some comments on-line suggesting Orff’s Carmina Burana as an influence, but I don’t hear that at all.

In any event, I thought this was a tremendous accomplishment for a conservatory student and was in some ways the most interesting and absorbing piece on the program.  This is not to say that it is “better” in any respect than the V-W symphony or the Ligeti Requiem, each a masterwork in its own way.  The cantata is so different in style and execution as to make any such comparison unnecessary.  But it was a work that stood on its own.  I was impressed with the range of its moods, the skillful use of the orchestra and voices (especially percussion effects), and the strong melodic gifts that I don’t recall from his later pieces.  In some ways it sounds like Soviet Realism poster music, such as the Shostakovich 11th Symphon;, in some ways it reminded me of the Weinberg symphonies that have been revived lately (mainly on recordings).  Some post-concert checking showed that there is one commercial recording, by BIS as part of their on-going Schnittke series, and it is  currently out of stock at most distributors.  My first attempt to order a copy from a third-party distributor on Amazon brought me an email stating my order had been cancelled because the vendor who listed it had failed to notify Amazon that it was out-of-stock.  I just ordered from another third-party vendor on Amazon and have my fingers crossed, because I would like to get a chance to become better acquainted with the piece.

Botstein, mezzo Sara Murphy, the Bard Festival Chorale (James Bagwell, director) and the ASO played their hearts out in this piece.  It was like they really believed in it, were delighted with their discovery, and were eager to share it with an audience for whom it would be a genuine discovery.  This was a “wow” performance, and I wish there were some way that they could release the concert-recording (the ASO records their Carnegie Hall concerts for internal use and some on-line distribution) on a commercial CD.  Or perhaps interest a record company in doing a studio recording.  The work deserves exposure.

Leon Botstein generally wins acclaim for his imaginative programming and brickbats for his conducting, but I thought last night that he had achieved truly fine performances of three difficult pieces and I could not find any fault with his conducting on this occasion.  Indeed, he had the entire large ensemble, with chorus and soloists, playing at the highest international level, and he seems to have inspired everybody involved to perform above and beyond expectations.

Bravo!

Cultural Diary: April 27-May 6 – Ups and Downs…

Posted on: May 7th, 2014 by Art Leonard No Comments

On April 27, I attended a performance by the extraordinary new music band, Alarm Will Sound, directed by Alan Pierson at Carnegie Hall’s Zankel Hall as part of the series “collected stories” curated by composer David Lang. Lang’s series extended over a week of concerts, with this one come towards the end. The idea of this program was to bring together some diverse examples of music intended to illustrate a story of some sort, in some cases impressionistically and in one very directly in the form of a mini-opera. I start from the premise that the program was assembled by Mr. Lang, not by the members of Alarm Will Sound, a discerning group who put together their thematic concerts with great care and select music that they really believe in. I’m not sure how much they believed in some of the music they performed in this concert, although as always they played with a high degree of involvement and polish. But I was not as convinced as I usually am at an Alarm Will Sound concert at the value of everything I heard. Surely, Donnacha Dennehy’s moving “Gra agus Bas,” which I’ve heard before, is a powerful channeling of Irish folk tropes projected through the unusual vocalism of Iarla O Lionaird, a man of such indeterminate vocal range that he is identified in the program as “Voice” rather than assigned a “normal” range such as alto, tenor, baritone or bass. But I found Kate Moore’s “The Art of Levitation” to be an undistinguished mélange of shifting chords that failed to engage my attention. Kaki King’s “Other Education,” a three-movement work for electric guitar and chamber ensemble, seemed at times to be channeling the mid-20th century Americana stylings of Aaron Copland and Virgil Thompson, pretty but not entirely convincing as an extended piece. That said, King herself proved very assured virtuoso in her guitar solos. Finally, the second half was devoted to Richard Ayres’ nonsense opera, “No . 42 In the Alps”, with a particular story being projected above the performers through silent-film-style titles, and Jennifer Zetlan providing an exuberant rendition of a far-ranging vocal part, imitating animal sounds at times, wandering far beyond her designated range of “soprano.” They should make a DVD of this program, since the Ayres piece is enhanced by the visual elements and might seem threadbare without them.

The following night I had accepted the invitation of a friend to attend a recital by pianist Alden Gatt presented by an organization called Project142 at Unity Church, 213 58th Street in Manhattan. I had never heard of Gatt prior to my friend’s invitation, but there turns out to be plenty of information on his website. He played a very ambitious program: Prokofiev’s “The Young Juliet” from his suite of ten pieces from the ballet Romeo & Juliet arranged by the composer for piano solo; Robert Schumann’s Symphonic Etudes, Op. 13; five of the 24 Preludes, Op. 34, by Dmitri Shostakovich, and Ravel’s Gaspard de la Nuit, generally considered to be one of the toughest tests for a virtuoso pianist in live recital. As an encore, he played Earl Wild’s Etude based on Gershwin’s song Embraceable You. I was impressed by Gatt’s technical polish and musical insight, particularly in the second half of the program (Shostakovich & Ravel). His Schumann was a bit precarious in a few spots, especially in the finale, where his finger memory seemed to falter slightly a few times, although he quickly recovered without losing any equanimity. A little woodshedding in order for the Schumann… The Ravel was mightily impressive, by contrast, comparing favorably in my recollection with other performances I’ve heard as well as some excellent recordings, including those of Martha Argerich and Vladimir Ashkenazy, generally considered the gold standard in this work. I hope Gatt has a chance to record these. I picked up his debut recital CD during the intermission and was impressed again when listening at home. I think his interpretive abilities have deepened since he made that recording a few years ago. In particularly, I suspect he would play the Bach Italian Concerto with more nuance and subtlety today, to judge by his work on April 28. I hope I encounter his playing again soon. Project142 is a concert series that began as occasional soirees in the apartment of a retired minister. Attendance expanded through word of mouth and now they are held in various larger venues. Unity Church is actually a relatively small hall, seating comfortably about 40 people in a good acoustical space for a piano recital. The concerts are not scheduled out very far in advance, and they cover an eclectic range of music. Those interested in exploring can check the website, www.Project142.org, to see what is coming up. Ticket prices are moderate and sometimes free, since the performers are provided the venue once approved by the host and are responsible for generating their own audience, as there is no budget for advertising. If the general standard of performance is reflected by Mr. Gatt, then this is a series worth following.

On May 5 I attended the NYC premiere of Christopher Rouse’s Requiem at Carnegie Hall, the opening night of this year’s (final) installment of Carnegie’s “Spring for Music” series, which has brought a diverse group of orchestras from the U.S. and Canada to Carnegie Hall to play programs notable for their unusual repertory choices. It is scandalous that Carnegie couldn’t find sponsorship to continue this series beyond this year. The combination of low ticket prices ($25 for any seat) and unusual programming has drawn a younger audience than usually patronizes classical concerts in this city, and the success of this series in drawing an audience goes to prove that high ticket prices are part of the reason why classical concert audiences at are major halls have such a very high average age. At any rate, this opening concert, presenting Alan Gilbert conducting the Westminster Symphonic Choir, the Brooklyn Youth Chorus, baritone soloist Jacques Imbrailo, and the New York Philharmonic, was a major event indeed, the stage full to overflowing and the youth choir parked up in the first tier boxes. With the composer in attendance for what was only the second presentation of a piece first performed in 2007, one had a sense of being present at an important occasion, for Christopher Rouse has emerged as an important composer through numerous important commissions and premieres, not least with the NYP during his period as composer-in-residence. This ambitious piece weaves together poems in English and Italian, hymns in English and German, and the Latin requiem mass (as modified by Hector Berlioz for his own Requiem, one of the inspirations for this piece), and a large orchestra, including an extended percussion section that, in typical Rousian manner, is given its head to make lots of glorious noise. I found the piece a bit uneven and sometimes overextended, but the glorious final minutes made up for any faults. Mr. Imbrailo was terrific in his solos, although I would hope the composer would consider some selective rescoring to address balance problems, especially in the first half of No. 15 in the score, where the soloist was virtually buried under heavy orchestration. In fact, I think it would be worth Mr. Rouse’s time to review Carnegie’s house recording of this performance and think carefully about ways to improve this score, not just in orchestration but also in reducing some of the repetitive parts. What is already a very effective piece could be made more effective, and I bet about 10 minutes could be trimmed from the 90 minute score with profit. Indeed, if I were him I would also eliminate the intermission break. A piece like this — such as the Britten War Requiem or the Berlioz Requiem — works better without an intermission. It may be difficult to do that at 90 minutes, but it is more plausible to do it at 80.

On the other hand, a work that is shorter than an hour can be a real challenge to sit through, as I found to be the case with Thomas Lawrence Toscano’s “The Interview” co-presented by OperaOGGINY and St. Bart’s Episcopal Peace Fellowship at St. Bartholomew’s Church in Manhattan. This is a “cause” piece, in which an Army Public Affairs Officer sits down with two women who have lost children during the struggles of the Middle East to try to “understand their intentions” in forming an organization of Jewish and Muslim mothers to agitate for peace. The intensely dramatic events described in the program as prologue give way to an entirely static conception, an opera consisting of three people sitting at a table talking and singing. The music struck me as competent without being anything special, and did not particularly enhance the text when it was sung. Perhaps an orchestral accompaniment, by introducing some sound color, would make it more interesting, as I found a sameness of rhythm and tempo led to boredom. The three singers, Perri Sussman, Lyssandra Stephenson and Ben Spierman, seemed very devoted to the project but were not able to enliven the material much under the composer’s leadership abetted by pianist Alessandro Simone. During a Q&A with the audience afterwards, the composer revealed that this was just the first of a series of 5 one-act operas, each devoted to some particular cause. Cause-based art has a noble tradition, but it is important that the cause not outweigh the artistry with which it is presented. Nobody can contest the horror of children slain in the context of the continuing struggle between Palestinians and Israelis in Jerusalem, the cause here is admirable, but I don’t think the music and the verses (some of which struck me as awesomely simplistic) really advance it.

March Musical Diary, Part II – Ending Spring Break with a Bang!!

Posted on: March 18th, 2014 by Art Leonard No Comments

New York Law School’s Spring Break period this year was March 8-16. I ended it with a real bang, attending concerts on five consecutive days (overlapping the beginning of classes): Thursday, March 13 – Vienna Philharmonic led by Andris Nelsons at Carnegie Hall; Friday, March 21 – Les Delices, Five Boroughs Music Festival, at the King Manor Museum in Jamaica, Queens; Saturday, March 14; Saturday, March 15 – New York Philharmonic led by Alan Gilbert at Lincoln Center; Sunday, March 16 – Dover String Quartet and Leon Fleisher presented by Peoples’ Symphony Concerts at Town Hall, Manhattan (matinee); Sunday, March 16 – Vienna Philharmonic led by Zubin Mehta at Carnegie Hall; Monday, March 17 – Charpentier operas – La Descente d’Orphee aus Enfers and La Couronne de Fleurs, presented by Boston Early Music Festival at the Morgan Library Auditorium. Whew!

Coming up for air after all that:

My impressions of the Vienna Philharmonic based on these two concerts were a bit mixed. On the one hand, they are clearly a major orchestra that plays with intense concentration and dedication, and brings a special tradition to music having Viennese connections. They had a different sound under the two different conductors, which means that they are a responsive orchestra that is not limited in its ability to adapt to the requirements of the music and the conductor. That said, I was not overwhelmed by the Haydn/Brahms program with Nelsons, although there were many good parts. In the Haydn symphony, I felt they handled the “joke” in the finale (the false ending) very well, but the symphony as a whole seemed to me more proficient than inspired. The Brahms Variations on a Theme by Haydn were excellent. The 3rd Symphony is notoriously the most difficult of the four to bring off in concert, and one always wonders why a conductor would end a concert program with this piece, given its quiet conclusion. I prefer a faster pace than they took in the first movement, and fewer tempo adjustments. After that first movement, I thought things went very well. I do have some problems adjusting to the Vienna orchestra’s sound in these pieces, especially the sound cultivated by their principal oboe players, which is more reedy and piercing than the sound cultivated by American oboe players. I was more favorably impressed by the sound of the orchestra under Mehta at the second concert I attended, a three and a half hour marathon comprising mainly short pieces intended to show off the orchestra’s style in lighter music for the most part. (The only departures from that were the Webern 6 Pieces and the Mozart Ave Verum Corpus, and perhaps the Korngold Violin Concerto, although this piece would not be out of place on a pops program.) Mehta is terrific in this repertory, and the orchestra’s enthusiasm for the waltzes and gallops of 19th century Viennese composers was well communicated. A foreshadowing of this was the encores on Thursday night, a Strauss waltz, and there was more Strauss on Sunday. Gil Shaham was the excellent soloist in the Korngold Concerto, and Diana Damrau, in town for appearances at the Metropolitan Opera, joined in the spirit of the night, participating in a vocal encores as well as doing some guest conducting in the last encore, in addition to singing her programmed arias. New York Vocal Artists also contributed with appropriate style.

Coming between my two Vienna PO nights was the New York Philharmonic, continuing their Nielsen project (one concert a year over several years which results in concert recordings of all the symphonies and concerti released on the Da Capo label) with the 1st and 4th Symphonies and the Helios Overture. They had originally announced the Clarinet Concerto for this concert as well, but saner heads prevailed. That would have been too long. As it is, this was a substantial program. I thought the Overture and the 4th Symphony were superbly rendered, the 1st Symphony perhaps a shade less good, although this may be due as much to the music — a more tentative foray into symphonic form — as the orchestra’s lack of familiarity with it. The program said these were first NYP performances for the overture and 1st Symphony, which is actually amazing considering when they were written. The performance of the 4th really gripped me from the start and held me throughout. And it struck me that the NYP and the VPO are very different orchestras. NYP plays with a degree of technical finesse and brilliance that the VPO does not seem to aspire to, being more concerned with expressivity and warmth. Each is valid in its own way, although I have come to rely on the precision and technical brilliance of the NYP and maybe that’s one reason I was less impressed with the VPO’s Brahms 3rd.

A side benefit of Five Boroughs Music Festival is discovering interesting concert venues in the outer boroughs. The King Manor Museum is an early 19th century house set in a small park in Jamaica that was constructed to be the home of Rufus King, a New York anti-slavery politician who served in the US Senate and fought against the Missouri Compromise. His son, who also occupied this house, served as Governor of New York. The front parlor was an ideal setting for French Baroque chamber music, splendidly rendered, although at such close quarters the music sometimes seemed a bit larger than life.

Sunday afternoon’s Peoples’ Symphony Concert provided a contrast of age and experience and youthful exuberance. The Dover Quartet, looking to be a collection of 20-something virtuosi, sailed through Schubert’s Rosamunde Quartet with ease. Leon Fleisher gave a rather severe rendition of Johannes Brahms’ piano transcription of the Chaconne from Bach’s Violin Partita No. 2, arranged for left hand alone. In the second half, the two came together for Korngold’s Suite for Piano and String Trio, Op. 23. Although Fleisher resumed performing two-handed music in public several years ago, having apparently conquered the physical problems that had deprived him of the use of his right hand, in this program he stuck to left-handed music. I was particularly impressed with the synergy exhibited in the Korngold piece. Fleisher clearly has great admiration and affection for the Dover players, and they for him, and it showed in this tight collaboration.

Finally, a last minute addition to my schedule: When I learned that Jesse Blumberg, a favorite baritone, was performing with Boston Early Music Festival in two Charpentier operas, I had to go! And I’m glad I did. An excellent early music instrumental ensemble anchored by star theorbo player Paul O’Dette and concertmaster Robert Mealy provided a sumptuous framework for excellent singers, most notably Aaron Sheehan as Orpheus. Jesse was a strong Pluto, king of the underworld, although I almost didn’t recognize him under the wig and beardless! There were excellent costumes by Anna Watkins, thrilling choreography by Melinda Sullivan. Would that Charpentier’s music were a bit more memorable — others have done rather better dramatically with the Orpheus tale — but it was always at least serviceable, and the choruses something more than that. The Morgan Library’s auditorium presents a rather small stage for such a production, but the acoustics and sightlines are excellent. BEMF is presenting some other things there that are worth searching out.

A Concert Diary for the First Half of March 2014 – Metropolitan Opera, Carnegie Hall, Peoples’s Symphony Concerts, Houston Symphony

Posted on: March 14th, 2014 by Art Leonard No Comments

The first two weeks of March have been quite busy, and again I’ve fallen behind in posting about my concert-going experiences. So here is a quick catch-up.

I had a double-header on Saturday, March 1, attending the Metropolitan Opera’s production of Prince Igor in the afternoon, and a piano recital by Alexandre Tharaud at Peoples’ Symphony Concerts in the evening.

The Met’s new production of Prince Igor, produced an designed by Dmitri Tcherniakov, takes a new approach to this unfinished opera by Alexander Borodin. When Borodin died, Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov picked up the pieces and, with the assistance of Alexander Glazunov, put together an opera using much of Borodin’s material and some that Rimsky and Glazunov composed. The overture, for example, was reconstructed by Glazunov from memories of Borodin playing it at the piano, in the absence of any surviving manuscript. In this form the opera made its appearance around the world, but never really won full status in the standard operative repertory, although the Polovtsian Dances, extracted by Rimsky as a concert suite, achieved wide performance in symphony concerts, and the opera was heavily raided for the Broadway musical, Kismet. For this new Met production, Tcherniakov, in collaboration with conductor Gianandrea Noseda and composer Pavel Smelkov (who handled new orchestrations) went back to Borodin’s original and put together an opera that leaves behind the new material composed by Rimsky and Glazunov. We are assured in the program book that virtually all the music we were hearing was by Borodin, although he had some help in fleshing things out orchestrally. This process required dropping some scenes that had become familiar, and reordering the remainder. Tcherniakov imposed on the work a new logic and sequence of action, making it more of an interior exploration of the mind of Prince Igor, a minor noble whose attempt to vanquish the Polovtsian tribe’s invasion of Russian space was unsuccessful.

It is an interesting experiment. Borodin’s music continues to cast its spell, in whatever order it is played, and Noseda conducts a compelling performance by an illustrious Russian cast, with Ildar Abdrazakov an outstanding Igor and Oksana Dyka stunning as his long-suffering wife. As to the production itself, I register my continuing protest against taking historically based operas and resetting them in times other than those contemplated by the composer. Borodin would have expected, as a 19th century composer, that performances of his opera would be staged with sets and costumes suitable for a story taking place in 12th century Eurasia. But here we had on stage soldiers in early 20th century uniforms carrying rifles. We had officers dressed in uniforms that seemed to be from various periods from the late 19th century through Soviet-style uniforms of what might be the 1930s. We had electric light bulbs hanging from the ceiling. We had industrial fixtures suggesting an early 20th century setting. And we had some confusion as well, with a plot summary in the program that is not entirely helpful in explaining what is flashback, what is present, what is taking place in Igor’s imagination or dreams, what is actually happening. I found the third act particularly confusing, as one unit set was apparently intended as the interior of Igor’s palace in Putivl, but some of the action seems to be taking place elsewhere. Is this in Igor’s mind? That occurs to me as an explanation, but didn’t as I was watching the scene unfold.

I think the production is a musical success, but I hope that if the Met decides to restage it in the future, they might try to clarify things a bit in the plot summary and maybe even add some explanatory material to the surtitles displayed on the seatbacks.

Despite the odd decisions about how to costume them, I thought the Met chorus (and interloping supernumeraries) were superbly deployed, and the dancers in the Act II dream sequence ballet, played to the Polovtsian Dances, were superb as well.

On to Peoples’ Symphony Concerts at Washington Irving High School for Alexandre Tharaud’s March 1 recital of music by Schumann, Schubert, Mahler and Beethoven. This was a real attempt at casting against type. Tharaud is mainly known from his recordings and prior appearances as an expert performer in the French piano repertory, with some excursions into Chopin and Scarlatti. But on this occasion he focused on completely different repertory – Austro-German romanticism – with Schumann’s “Scenes from Childhood” suite, Op. 15, Schubert’s 4 Impromptus, D. 899, Tharaud’s solo piano arrangement of the Adagietto movement from Mahler’s Symphony No. 5, and Beethoven’s Appassionata Sonata (Op. 57). It’s two weeks later as I write this and I can remember all the encores, but I recall that one was a sonata by Scarlatti. Tharaud played with the expected clarity and authority, but I felt that some of his interpretive choices were a bit off, including some overemphasis of inner voices and bass lines at the expense of stylistic coherence. The Mahler transcription didn’t work for me. Mahler thought orchestrally in his symphonies and the Adagietto in a keyboard arrangement came across to me as clunky and percussive, totally out of character. Maybe I was just tired after the long afternoon with Borodin, but I was not as enthusiastic as I expected to be. I am a huge admirer of Tharaud’s work from his recordings, but the recital let me down a bit.

It was back to the Metropolitan Opera on March 5 for the revival of The Enchanted Island, a Baroque pastiche opera assembled especially for the Met by Jeremy Sams, drawing plot elements from Shakespeare’s The Tempest and A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and music drawn mainly from works of Handel with interpolated material by Vivaldi, Rameau, Campra, Leclair, Purcell, Rebel and Ferrandini. I loved this when I attended the world premiere on New Year’s Eve 2011 with William Christie conducting, but I thought the current revival fell a bit flat with Patrick Summers on the podium and slight changes in the cast. One thing that did not change was the excellent supporting part of Neptune sung by Placido Domingo, who really commands the stage. David Daniels’ voice seemed a bit submerged by the orchestra. I had particularly bought a ticket of this to see Anthony Roth Costanzo, one of my favorite young countertenors, but I had forgotten how tiny the role of Ferdinand is in this production. One waits for hours, and then Costanzo pops up right towards the end, singing briefly, but beautifully costumed. Indeed, the triumph of this production is in the sets and costumes. But this time around the production didn’t hold my interest to the degree it had at the premiere. In light of the many empty seats I saw on a Wednesday night, I suspect the Met will not be in a hurry to bring this one back.

The next night, March 6, I was in Carnegie Hall for a performance of Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis by the Orchestra of St. Luke’s and the Oratorio Society of New York, with vocal soloists Susan Gritton, Julie Boulianne, Michael Schade and Nathan Berg, conducted by Sir Roger Norrington, whose specialty is historically informed performance of Baroque, Classical and early Romantic music. In line with Norrington’s approach, the string players large eschewed vibrato, tempi veered towards extremes of slow and (more frequently fast), phrasing was a bit clipped at times, dynamics a bit exaggerated. Nothing can really sink the Missa Solemnis, one of the greatest creations of one of the greatest musical geniuses, but I did not feel and lift and thrill that I had experienced when I heard John Eliot Gardner lead period forces in a performance at Avery Fisher Hall several years ago. It felt like Norrington had some emotional distance from the music — music that was very emotional on Beethoven’s part, and that his performing forces — that is, chorus and orchestra, not soloists — were a bit overmatched by the challenges this piece presents. The chorus was, in short, too large — either that, or the orchestra was too small. Well over 100 choristers were listed in the program, and it was quite a crowd assembled on the stage. This is not a full-time professional chorus, and Beethoven’s writing for the chorus in this piece is generally acknowledged to be very demanding. They gave it a good try, but they lacked the polish to carry it all off convincingly. St. Luke’s is a highly proficient group, but one cannot adequately balance such a huge chorus with a chamber orchestra in this piece and expect to make the desired effects. The string body was just too small, and sounded even smaller than usual without using vibrato to thicken the tone. They also seemed quite scrappy in the big fugal passages. Not even a near miss, in my opinion.

Now for something completely different. I was visiting in Houston, Texas, on the weekend, to spend time with my Mom and my Houston relatives (brother and sister-in-law, nephew and his growing family with two toddlers in tow, and niece). Arrangements were made by my brother for us to attend the Houston Symphony Orchestra’s March 8 program at Jesse Jones Hall. I’d never been in that hall before, to the best of my recollection, and I was very impressed. Better sight-lines than Avery Fisher, and acoustics to rival Carnegie. We were sitting in the rear orchestra, under the balcony overhang, but I felt no diminution of high pitched sounds (as one experiences in the Dress Circle at Carnegie or rear orchestra in Avery Fisher). This room fans out rather than being the severe rectangle of Avery Fisher or the traditional shape of Carnegie, and the result is sonically distinguished.

The Houston Symphony is currently “between” music directors, Hans Graf having retired and a new young man slated to begin next fall. The season includes a progression of guests, but they decided to experiment with something different for this concert, dispensing with a conductor, although concertmaster Frank Huang supervised the preparations and led from the first chair (or, in the Piazzolla, standing in the center as soloist). Apart from a handful of woodwind players and a harpsichordist in the opening Haydn Symphony No. 39, all the musicians on stage were string players. The experiment was a success; they played well together without a conductor. The Haydn is a nondescript early symphony that received a vigorous but forgettable performance. But then, with Astor Piazzolla’s 4 Seasons of Buenos Aires concerti, we were in memorable territory. The composer incorporates tango rhythms into classical forms for four brief concerti intended to suggest the various seasons in a South American city. Although most of the solo work was assigned to concertmaster Huang, there were brief solos allotted to some of the other musicians as well. The players obviously enjoyed this piece, getting into the swing of things and sporting wide grins at times reflecting their pleasure in the music. After intermission came a sumptuous performance of Tchaikovsky’s Serenade for Strings. I’ve heard several performances of this in recent years, but always played by chamber orchestras, and it was a completely different and agreeable experience to hear it played by a large, well-disciplined orchestra string section. The Houston Symphony strings sounded great.

Upon returning to New York, I found myself in the midst of Carnegie Hall’s Vienna City of Dreams Festival, with my subscription ticket for the Vienna Philharmonic’s March 13 concert, led by guest conductor Andris Nelsons, who is scheduled to take over as music director of the Boston Symphony in the fall. In keeping with the Festival theme, the program was entirely made up of music associated with Vienna – a symphony by Haydn, two works by Brahms, and encore by Johann Strauss Jr. (The orchestra telegraphed the inevitability of an encore by having a harp on the stage during the second half, when the only work listed on the program did not require that instrument.) Joseph Haydn’s Symphony No. 90 incorporates a joke on the audience, which almost never fails to succeed. The last movement has a false ending followed by a pause, during which the audience applauds. The conductor waves to cut off the applause and starts things up again, leading to the real ending. It may seem obvious, but this symphony is not played with any great frequency, so audiences are always fooled, apart from a handful of those who correctly interpret the program notes or quickly register before they can applaus that the conductor has not dropped his arms. In a canny bit of linkage, the Haydn Symphony was followed by Brahms’s Variations on a Theme by Haydn, thus providing a stylistic bridge to the second half’s performance of Brahms’s Symphony No. 3. We don’t hear the Haydn Variations that much in concert, apart from the occasional all-Brahms festival, but it is a marvelous piece compromised by its length. (Modern U.S. symphony concert programs tend to eschew short orchestra pieces – this one runs just over a quarter hour – in favor of “big” symphonies and concerti, reserving the “short piece” slot for something contemporary. Our loss, since we miss out on hearing the huge repertory of romantic overtures, tone poems and suites that were common in programs from early in the 20th century.) The 3rd Symphony is the most difficult to bring off; tempo selection in the first movement is tricky, and it ends quietly so conductors don’t like to use it to end a concert. On the other hand, it is the most concise and intimate of the Brahms symphonies, and when it works, it’s just terrific.

I think it is difficult to judge an orchestra when it is not playing in its home hall and is being led by a guest conductor. It is hard to know whether what one is hearing has more to do with the leadership on the podium and the acoustic of a strange hall than with the intrinsic strengths and weaknesses of the ensemble. I had a sense throughout the concert that the VPO was a very talented orchestra that fell short of the highest standards we tend to expect from orchestras like the New York Philharmonic, the Boston Symphony, or the Philadelphia Orchestra, to name three major orchestra that perform frequently in New York. By contrast, the VPO sounded to me less precise, less colorful, less well-blended. I have trouble getting past the principal oboe sound (presented by different players in the two halves of the concert), which sets the tone for an orchestra, and which — perhaps by Vienna tradition — is thinner, more piercing, and less rich than the sound cultivated by principal oboe players in U.S. orchestras. Indeed, all the woodwinds have a distinctive sound that seems to me less rich, less legato, more idiosyncratic. Perhaps part of the issue for me is the lack of “hybrid vigor” in an orchestra like the VPO. This appeared to be an all-Caucasian group, overwhelmingly male, and by repute most of the players were students of VPO members before gaining admission to the orchestra. There is a feeling of an inbred traditional style of playing. Perhaps this means that what was presented last night sounded more like what Brahms would have heard at performances of his orchestra music in Vienna in the latter part of the 19th century than one would hear from the U.S. orchestra. But I couldn’t help noting the extraordinary contrast with the NY Philharmonic, where the string sections have a heavy representation of Asian musicians — mainly women — and women are also well-represented in the wind sections. Last night, there was only one woman on the stage playing a wind instrument, the second oboe during the Brahms Symphony, and during the first half of the concert, there could not have been more than 5 or 6 women on the stage, none in the basses or violas or cellos, and a handful in the violin sections. I found myself thinking several times that this orchestra needed some livening up!! They played well, they gave the conductor what he was asking for, but I was not totally enthusiastic about the results.

Probably the best playing of the night came with the encore, “Seid umschlunger Millionen” Waltzes, Op. 443, by Johann Strauss II. No announcement was made, leaving audience members around me puzzled, apart from guessing that it was by Johann Strauss, as this is not one of the more familiar Strauss waltz sequences. Of course, Carnegie identifies encores after the event on their website under the calendar entry for the concert….

It is also difficult to judge a conductor based on a guest-conducting stint, and I’ve little past experience with Maestro Nelsons, who has generated a big reputation from his work on European podiums and recordings. He produced a coherent statement in the Brahms symphony, and that is an achievement, since it is the most difficult of the four. The Haydn Variations were well-characterized, the Haydn symphony was memorable. We will hear more of him when he is regularly conducting the Boston Symphony in its Carnegie Hall visits, and I’m looking forward to that opportunity.

My second half of March begins tonight with a 5 Boroughs Music Festival concert of French baroque music in Queens, tomorrow’s NY Philharmonic Nielsen concert, a Peoples’ Symphony program Sunday afternoon with the Dover Quarter and Leon Fleisher, and a return to Carnegie Sunday night for the grand finale of the Vienna Philharmonic’s Festival residency – a three-hour marathon survey of Viennese music led by Zubin Mehta, centered on Gil Shaham playing the Korngold Violin Concerto. It will be quite a music-heavy weekend, on which I will report when it is all over.

Weekend Report: Massenet’s Werther at the Metropolitan Opera & Brahms’s Cello Sonatas at Carnegie Hall

Posted on: February 23rd, 2014 by Art Leonard No Comments

I was mired in the 19th century for my musical weekend. On Saturday afternoon, I attended a performance of Jules Massenet’s opera, “Werther,” at the Metropolitan Opera, and on Sunday afternoon, the first Isaac Stern Memorial Concert at Carnegie Hall, a recital of music for cello and piano by Johannes Brahms, performed by Yo-Yo Ma and Emanuel Ax.

Massenet’s opera, inspired by Goethe’s novel The Sorrows of Young Werther, is not a first-rate piece in my book. Although Massenet was certainly a proficient composer, in terms of technical skill in harmony and orchestration, and the piece is sufficiently dramatic to sustain interest, at least in the last two acts, I find the music undistinguished and the first act rather boring. That said, Saturday’s cast did about all that could be done for it, and one couldn’t ask for a better Werther than Jonas Kaufmann or a better Charlotte than Sophie Koch. Conductor Alain Altinoglu kept things moving, the Met orchestra did a great job with Massenet’s orchestration (which provides lots of great solo opportunities for the woodwinds in particular), and I was impressed by the excellent production. I don’t understand why one would bother to update the story from the late 18th century to the late 19th century, and in one respect the updating was bungled: there is a reference in the libretto to Charlotte singing songs to Werther’s harpsichord accompaniment, and they left that reference in. Nobody would be playing a harpsichord in a German village in the 1890s! (What was a harpsichord doing in Charlotte’s room in Act 3, anyway? Should have been a piano….) This is a new production, replacing one that debuted in 1999. Why bother? There are other Massenet operas that the Met hasn’t done lately. If they want to do Massenet, why spend a fortune on a new production of a piece they were performing a decade ago? I remember an entertaining production of Massenet’s Don Quixote at City Opera decades ago, which would be more of a novelty to revive, and how about Le Cid with the fantastic ballet music. (No dancing, really, in this Werther, apart from a brief waltz at the ball.) Or how about Manon, the one Massenet opera with music really worth reviving….? Well, a house like the Met can hardly please everybody, and I suppose one should be grateful for a production that is at least consonant with the story that is being presented, rather than weird abstract patterns suspended from the ceiling and putting ancient myths in the equivalent of outer space… No Eurotrash here, thankfully.

At Carnegie, it was “old home day” for Ma and Ax, who used to play chamber music on that stage regularly with Isaac Stern, and made many recordings with him as well. Hearing them in the Brahms sonatas was no novelty – after all, they made two recordings of the sonatas, one for SONY when they were young, and one for RCA when they were middle-aged, and now heading towards old age they are playing them again. I generally don’t like recitals that are entirely turned over to one composer, and although I love Brahms in chamber music, by intermission I was getting to think that an entire recital of Brahms sonatas would be too much. They started with Cello Sonata No. 1, Op. 38, an early work in which Brahms was still struggling with how to combine the cello and the piano, instruments that he didn’t feel really worked well together. The piece has always struck me as a bit overextended. Brahms originally composed 4 movements, then dropped the slow movement (Adagio affettuoso) because it made the piece too long, but the remaining three movements take almost half an hour, and the middle movement, despite the allegretto time signature, really sags in the middle. I thought Ma’s playing, while beautiful, was rather understated, and Ax was so restrained and smoothed out that the piece seemed quite somnolent. They followed this up with Paul Klengel’s transcription for cello and piano of the composer’s Violin Sonata No. 1 in G, Op. 78. Klengel moved it down to D Major to accommodate the cello’s range, but I was dubious about how effective this would be, especially since Ma’s unassertive approach continued in this piece. As I said, coming in to the intermission I was not wildly excited about the forthcoming second half.

But, of course, the Op. 99 Cello Sonata is from that wonderful final period when Brahms’s mature compositional style could not place a foot wrong. He built the piece around the slow movement he had rejected from the first sonata, but the concise writing he had achieved by this point in his life could accommodate a four-movement work that is, in total, about the same length of the earlier sonata. But this time the themes are more memorable, worked out in a more interesting way, and both Ma and Ax seemed to have taken a livelier approach as well. Ax, in particular, seemed less restrained and more involved in the drama of the piece, and Ma became more assertive. Perhaps the heroic opening of the first movement helped in that respect. Anyway, I found myself totally absorbed and glad that we had the 2nd Sonata. I think the program would have benefited by some contrast in the first half. All-Brahms is a heavy sell.

They also played Brahms for an encore. Now, here’s a silly thing. After intermission, Ma and Ax used microphones to make a few remarks about Isaac Stern’s role in their careers and his important work in saving Carnegie Hall, and introduced some members of Stern’s family who were present. But then when it came to announced the encore, Ax did not pick up a microphone (they were sitting on a small table behind the piano, where the accompanist had placed them after the announcements), instead speaking unamplified and, generally, unheard. They played the slow movement from another sonata, but I didn’t hear the announcement so I’m guessing it was a slow movement from one of the viola sonatas, but it could be one of the other violin sonatas. I’ll have to check scores when I get home. But, c’mon guys. They had a mic on stage. Why not use it?

And a note to Carnegie Hall from a long-suffering patron (going back to 1977). Do something about the inadequate restroom facilities. Figure out a way to put restrooms on the balcony level. Get some architects in. It can be done if you really care to do it.

PS – The Carnegie Hall website says that the encore was the slow movement from Brahms’s Violin Sonata No. 3.

Cultural Diary – January 27 2014 through February 9 2014: From Marc Andre Hamelin to Bill Finn

Posted on: February 13th, 2014 by Art Leonard No Comments

Didn’t expect to see those two names in the same headline? Well, I’m multicultural…. I’ve been so consumed with writing about legal developments that I now have a backlog of cultural events upon which to comment, so here goes:

On January 27, I attended a recital by the Canadian-American pianist Marc-Andre Hamelin at Carnegie Hall’s Zankel Hall, the recital auditorium under the main stage. Hamelin likes to play unusual repertory, so the biggest single piece on the program was Nicolas Medtner’s Piano Sonata in E Minor, Op. 25, No. 2 “Night Wind”. He is also a composer, so we got to hear the New York premiere of his “Barcarolle.” Finally, for the second half, reverting to the core repertory of every serious pianist, he played Franz Schubert’s Impromptus, D. 935. On the one hand, this was an exceptionally fine recital in that the pianist brought his usual magical technique to the diverse array of works, playing with intense concentration mixed with the requisite humor and wistfulness when called for. On the other hand, the Medtner was a bit of a “black hole” in the middle of the recital. There is a reason almost nobody plays Medtner in public. Despite the high regard in which he was held by such as Rachmaninoff, it is difficult to give sustained attention to his music. The themes are not memorable enough to sustain such attention through a long and convoluted development. Perhaps the first movement of his sonata is in sonata form (I don’t know) but it is difficult to follow this as a listener without a score in my lap, because it all seems so diffuse and wandering. There were many distinctive parts to arouse interest, but the whole just seems to sprawl. I don’t think one could blame Hamelin for this — he always provides about the most persuasive case one could imagine for anything he plays — and he has recorded all of Medtner’s sonatas and much of his other music, so I would treat him as authoritative in this repertory. It’s just repertory that I find less absorbing. Hamelin’s own piece, the Barcarolle, seemed to owe heavy debts to Debussy, and I thought it slow going at times. I would certainly want to get better acquainted with it. The Schubert was absolutely magnificent. Robert Schumann had observed that these four impromptus could together make up a monumental piano sonata, and Hamelin treated them that way. Each is a masterpiece, and each received the treatment it required. This was totally effective playing, sensitive to nuance and variety of sonic color. I can’t imagine these pieces being better played. The audience’s ovation earned three encores: a Debussy piece, a weirdly fantastic take on Chopin’s Minute Waltz, and a virtuosic etude by de Schloser that is a genuine rarity — probably because few pianists can manage to play it. But Hamelin can play just about anything. (Proof of this statement: Try his complete recording of Godowsky’s take-offs on the Chopin etudes – a total wow and you won’t believe that one pianist is responsible for what you are hearing.)

January 29, I attended Atlantic Theater Company’s production of “The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner,” a play based on a short story by Alan Sillitoe adapted for the stage by Roy Williams and directed by Leah C. Gardiner. This story achieved a fair amount of fame as a result of a movie based on the story that made a splash decades ago. This production puts a different slant on the story by having an extraordinary young black actor, Sheldon Best, played the lead role which Tom Courtenay, a white actor, played in the film. The essence of the story is that a young, somewhat aimless tough guy gets caught in a robbery and sent to a reformatory, where his talent for running is discovered and leads to his extended training for a long-distance race against students from a private school. He is encouraged in this by the authorities of the reformatory, including one particular counselor, but conflict emerges from his fear that he is being “used” and, ultimately, this leads him to make a difficult and controversial decisions as the end of the race draws near. I thought this staging was superb, and the performance by Sheldon Best was pure magic. According to the bio in the program Best is a graduate of Brandeis University and has already performed in a wide variety of stage productions both in New York and elsewhere in the U.S., ranging from classical theater (Romeo & Juliet, playing Romeo, at the North Carolina Shakespeare Festival) to the most contemporary stuff, like a production of The History Boys. He’s also been on CBS TV’s “Person of Interest.” Be on the lookout for him. Very impressive! The rest of the cast was fine, too, but Best really stood out.

The American Symphony Orchestra presented “This England” at Carnegie Hall on January 31. The program was intended to show a range of British music from mid-20th century by composers whose music is infrequently encountered on American concert programs. None of the music could be deemed totally neglected — I have recordings of everything on the program — but I had never heard any of it performed live prior to this concert directed by Leon Botstein. They began with a suite from Sir Arthur Bliss’s music for the British film “Things to Come”, which was based on work of George Orwell. This was the most “listener-friendly” piece on the program, as one would expect from a 1934-35 film score, falling close to the category of “easy listening” and being at times so simple-minded that I found my own attention wandering. Frank Bridge’s Phantasm (Rhapsody for piano and orchestra, 1932) followed, with the excellent Piers Lane as soloist. Lane has been a mainstay of Hyperion Records’ Romantic Piano Concerto series, and has a serious interest in unusual repertory for his instrument. The Bridge piece has moments of interest, but using the word “rhapsody” to describe a piece can frequently be a sign of formlessness and sprawl, and such was the case here. Lots of interesting moments, but they didn’t add up to a really coherent musical statement. After intermission, we heard Robert Simpson’s “Volcano,” a brief tone poem for brass and percussion which is avowedly pictorial and which did not hold much interest for me. I first became aware of Simpson as a leading biographer of the Danish composer Carl Nielsen as well as being an important Bruckner scholar, and over the years I’ve acquired recordings of most of him symphonies and other major pieces. I wish the ASO had played a symphony instead, because I found those to be works of great substance, but the length of this program limited them to a shorter piece. Finally, the one real masterpiece on the program, William Walton’s Symphony No. 2, which I have long enjoyed on records and despaired of ever hearing in live performance (unless I happen to travel to England and really luck out with the concert schedule). I love this piece, but I was really let down by the ASO performance, which I found underpowered and lacking the requisite virtuosity from the orchestra. Whether this is a function of limited rehearsal time, the leadership from the podium, or the limitations of the players (who don’t have the kind of full-time working relationship of an orchestra that plays together week in and week out) is hard to say, but, especially compared to my favorite recording by George Szell and the Cleveland Orchestra, this one seemed to lack impact. Szell takes everything faster, which keeps the occasionally loose structure from falling apart and gives sharper point to the complex rhythms. There is a big fugal passage in the last movement that is a highpoint of the piece, but the ASO strings seemed to be struggling to stay together during that episode, which the Cleveland strings take in their stride in the recording. I would urge anybody who was at the concert and hearing the Walton symphony for the first time to withhold judgment until you’ve heard a recording by a major orchestra. I don’t know if the Szell is still in print – it was a 1960s Columbia stereo that achieved brief CD reissue, coupled with the composer’s Hindemith Variations (another fine work almost never played) and the Partita for Orchestra. We really should hear more Walton in U.S. concert halls. I would love to hear what Alan Gilbert and the NYP would do with this piece. I would also highly recommend Walton’s Symphony No. 1, especially in the old RCA recording by Andre Previn and the London Symphony, which has been intermittently available on CD.

On February 2, I was back at Carnegie Hall for a performance of George Frideric Handel’s oratorio “Theodora” by conductor Harry Bicket, the Choir of Trinity Church, and The English Concert, an early music ensemble, with soloists Dorothea Roschmann as Theodora, Sarah Connolly as Irene, David Daniels as Didymus, Kurt Streit as Septimius, and Neal Davies as Valens. This is a tale of Roman times, when the governor of Antioch is trying to stamp out the heresy of Christianity. Theodora is a proud Christian who will not be swayed to honor the gods of Rome, and Didymus is a Roman soldier secretly in love with Theodora (and secretly a Christian). Tragedy ensues, at great length. (This three-act oratorio, when performed uncut, is as long as a Wagner opera, and some impatience in the audience express itself in early departures, especially during the second intermission.) Theodora was not a success at its first performance. The program note by Janet Bedell suggest that the subject matter had something to do with this, mid-18th century Brits having little interest in works celebrating early Catholic martyrs, but I suspect it is also the heaviness of the last act and the absence of the more rousing elements – especially choral – that made such works as Judas Maccabeus and Messiah such monster hits in the composer’s lifetime. In any event, this was all-star casting with expert direction from the podium, spot-on choral singing, and an instrumental group that provided a rich, colorful framework for the vocal acrobatics. I found it totally absorbing through the entire, lengthy proceeding. But I rather suspect this is a piece that would work best on recordings, where one could take it one act at a sitting and not be overwhelmed by its length.

Looking for an extremely unusual and effective theatrical experience? Imagine Tolstoy’s great novel “War and Peace,” stripped of the war scenes, leaving only the soap opera of the home front, transformed into a rock musical, played in large space decked out in the style of a Russian night club, with musicians and singers distributed throughout the space, the singers in constant motion, threading their way through the space and around platforms surrounding the audience. This is “Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812,” currently playing at Kazino, a large tent-like structure raised on a vacant lot on West 45th Street near 8th Avenue. The adaptation and music is by David Malloy, as directed by Rachel Chavkin and commissioned and developed by an outfit called Ars Nova. It is super-fine, and super-charged, and loads of fun. The program book and production are designed to help the audience quickly sort out the numerous characters and their relations to each other, and then the fun begins. Some of the members of the cast play musical instruments from time to time, and there is singing and much athletic running about. The title characters are played by David Abeles (Pierre) and Phillipa Soo (Natasha), but the character who emerges as the most memorable and central to the plot is Anatole, a Polish aristocrat played by Lucas Steele who is the brother-in-law of Pierre and who makes it his goal to seduce his friend Andrey Bolkonsky’s fiancé, Natasha, while Bolkonsky is off with the Russian army fighting the forces of Napoleon. Lucas Steele as Anatole is HOT, HOT, HOT. And I don’t mean just because he is handsome and talented; I mean because he radiates an intensity that is positively electrical. He’s helped in this by the plotting and dialogue, of course, but Mr. Steele is ideally cast in this part. Also quite effective: Blake Delong in the dual role of Andrey Bolkonsky and his father; Nick Choksi as the saturnine Dolokhov, Grace McLean as Natasha’s aunt Marya, Amber Gray is Helene, wife of Pierre and sister of Anatole, and Brittain Ashford as Sonya, Natasha’s cousin and confidant. But everybody is truly excellent in this, and conductor Or Matias keeps it all together and constantly driving forward. It’s a long show, even without the war scenes (yes, a War and Peace without General Kutuzov or Napoleon Bonaparte), but it never seems long because the staging is so lively and absorbing. A total hit that should run forever… I was there on February 5.

Interesting coincidence. Sid Caesar, the great TV comedian of the 1950s, passed away the other day, just as City Center Encores! was reviving a show that was written specifically for his talents, “Little Me” – book by Neil Simon (who wrote for Caesar’s TV shows), lyrics by Carolyn Leigh, and music by Cy Coleman. The show is based on a novel by Patrick Dennis (famous for “Mame”) which purports to be the autobiography of the great fictional entertainer Belle Poitrine, reminiscing about her life and loves (all seven of her loves, some of whom she even married). In the original production, Caesar portrayed all seven, requiring quick costume changes and changes or characterization (appearance, gestures, costumes), of which he was a master. Although the show was a success, it was not a big hit and faded from view after its initial run. This revival cast Christian Borle, star of the ill-fated “Smash” TV series and Tony winner for Peter and the Star-Catchers on Broadway, playing all the Sid Caesar roles with great success. Veteran Judy Kaye was superb as the elderly Belle, reflecting on her past, and Rachel York was stunning as the young Belle. The cast was packed with excellent people, as is the norm for Encores!, with the extraordinary dancers being a special highlight. Somehow, choreographer Joshua Bergasse managed to recruit an outstanding crew. (Bob Fosse was the original choreographer for the Broadway production.) Rob Berman led the excellent Encores! orchestra, and John Rando created a production that managed to feel complete even without any elaborate sets or many props. I’m glad to have had a chance to hear a live performance of this piece. It’s not a great work – Cy Coleman went on to do many extraordinary shows – but many of the songs are quite attractive, and I’m inspired to go back to the original cast album.

I attended the matinee performance of “Little Me” on February 8, and topped off the evening with an excellent program at Peoples’ Symphony Concerts, which presented the conductor-less East Coast Chamber Orchestra at Washington Irving High School. ECCO was started by a bunch of Curtis Institute students who enjoyed playing together and wanted to keep doing so after going their various professional ways. Now several years out of school, they are members of major symphony orchestras, established chamber ensembles, but make a commitment to come together a few times a year to rehearse a program and present it in various venues, including PSC now for several years. Their performances are always a highlight of the series. They are a true democracy, rotating seats so that everybody gets a change to play first-desk and to deal with solo passages at some point. They are also innovative in programming, mixing new music with established repertory. For this program, they gave a stylish rendition of Mozart’s Divertimento in B, K. 137, followed by the NYC premiere of David Ludwig’s “Virtuosity: Five Microconcertos for String Orchestra,” Erik Satie’s Gymnopedie No. 1, Judd Greenstein’s Four on the Floor, a string arrangement of a motet by Carlo Gesualdo da Venosa (an Italian Renaissance master), and concluding with a string orchestra rendition of Ravel’s String Quartet. The entire program was wonderful because of the total commitment and high technical skill of the players, as well as their collective interpretive insights. The Ludwig piece gave the first desk in each section a chance to shine in solo passages, and they truly shone. I found both Ludwig and Greenstein were worth hearing, challenging in some respects but not straying too far from the mainstream of tonal contemporary composition. The arrangement of the Satie, originally a piano piece, for string orchestra by a former member of ECCO, Michi Wiancko, superbly captured the piece’s mystery. I’ve heard Debussy’s orchestration of this piece, which also uses some wind instruments, but this all-string arrangement was fine, with the inspired idea of having the theme assigned to different sections rather than keeping it in the heights as the piano version might suggest. Hearing a rich string orchestra sound transformed the Ravel Quartet into a much “bigger” statement without losing any of the delicacy and gossamer of the quieter passages. I would account this concert a total success.

Finally, and a bit off the beaten path, on February 9, Congregation Beit Simchat Torah, NYC’s LGBT synagogue, presented its annual “Shabbat Shirah” concert at Merkin Hall. This year the program was a tribute to CBST member William Finn, a prominent member of the Broadway community whose musicals have brought LGBT issues into the mainstream, especially through his three early shows that were combined to make up Falsettos. For this occasion, Finn helped to assembly a group of performers who have taken part in various productions of his shows, with a fine young pianist, Joshua Zecher-Ross, as musical director, and Shakina Nayfack as overall director. The result was a marvelous program that ranged over Finn’s achievements, including selections from the Falsetto shows, Stars of David, Elegies, A New Brain, LIttle Miss Sunshine, Royal Family (a work in progress), and Songs of Innocence and Experience. This was a one-of-a-kind event that could not be topped, especially when one includes Mr. Finn’s performance of a song conceived for the occasion!

So, my past few weeks were packed with cultural events. This week has provide a bit of a break, but my cultural calendar resumes Saturday night at Lincoln Center’s American Songbook series with a concert by Jonathan Groff, whose work on “Spring Awakening” caught my attention and whose current venture – the HBO series “Looking” – is bringing him to an entirely new audience beyond his Broadway theater achievements. I look forward to this with much anticipation. Also on the schedule in weeks ahead: A Man’s a Man, Werther (Metropolitan Opera), Yo-Yo Ma at Carnegie Hall, Prince Igor (Met Opera), Alexandre Tharaud at Peoples’ Symphony (quick, get tickets, this is going to be so exciting on March 1), Goerne and Eschenbach performing Schubert’s Schoene Mullerin at Carnegie Hall, Enchanted Island (Met Opera), Orchestra of St. Luke’s, and that takes me up through Spring Break.

My Musical Weekend: Ludwig van Beethoven and Salamone Rossi

Posted on: January 27th, 2014 by Art Leonard No Comments

Now, there’s an odd couple… But that was my musical weekend.

On Saturday night, I attended the all-Beethoven program by Orpheus Chamber Orchestra at Carnegie Hall. I had been privileged to attend a dress rehearsal for part of this program a week earlier at the DiMenna Center, hearing final sessions with piano soloist Nobuyuki Tsoji in the Emperor Concerto, as well as rehearsal of the Coriolan Overture and of their planned encore, the slow movement of a Mozart Piano Concerto. The dress rehearsal convinced me that it would be a memorable concert, and so it proved. In the intervening week, the musicians had performed this program several times on a tour beginning in Florida, culminating at Carnegie on Saturday night.

Of course, the Carnegie performance was far superior to the dress rehearsal, for two simple reasons: (1) they had really “played in” the program by the time they reached Carnegie, and any rough spots or imprecisions heard at the dress rehearsal were long gone, and (2) the rehearsal space’s close, dry acoustics compared to the marvelous resonance of Carnegie, heard from the first row of the dress circle.

During the first half of the concert, we heard Coriolan Overture and the 2nd Symphony. Both were exemplary, in the familiar Orpheus fashion. This group produces a big sound in Carnegie — only occasionally does one miss a larger string section characteristic of a symphony orchestra — and plays with chamber ensemble subtlety. One senses that a conductor would only get in the way of this group, and having observed them working out interpretive points in a rehearsal, while defering to the designated leader for the piece, was revelatory. I don’t think anybody can really beat them in this repertory.

But the Beethoven was the true miracle. Young Mr. Tsoji has been blind from birth, and I’m not sure how he learns a big work like the Beethoven or plays it with such unerring accuracy without being able to see the keyboard. His playing is firm, composed, full of subtle insights, dashing when required, and fully coordinated with the orchestra, all based on breathing together and weaving himself into the Orpheus chamber ensemble. I bet he probably is more comfortable playing with them than with a conductor, since he can work everything out in rehearsal and have a direct emotional contact with the orchestra, without any unnecessary intermediary. Tempi were brisk in the outer movements, slow and poetic in the central movement, with a velvety touch from the pianist and wonderful interplay with the wind soloists. Extraordinary!!

On Sunday, I attended an event curated by Salon/Sanctuary Concerts at the Museum of Jewish Heritage: an afternoon titled “From Ghetto to Palazzo: The Worlds of Salamone Rossi.” The focus was the somewhat mysterious musical polymath of Mantua from the early 17th century, a colleague and friend of Monteverdi, a violinist in the ducal orchestra who wrote trio sonatas when that form was brand new, Italian madrigals, and polyphonic choral settings of Hebrew liturgical verse that was the first such “composed” Jewish music ever to be published. But nobody is quite sure when he was born, where he learned his art, or where or when he died. Best estimate of dates: 1570-1630. Rossi’s music was “rediscovered” in the 19th century by French and German cantors, somewhat by chance, and then received publication in critical editions during this century, with a boomlet of recordings mainly with the advent of compact discs.

The format of the afternoon: chamber group Folia played from the trio sonatas, then Rossi scholar Francesco Spagnolo from University of California at Berkeley gave a witty talk about what is known and not known about the composer, his life, and the setting for his music. After a brief intermission, they showed a documentary film, “Hebreo: The Search for Salamone Rossi” made by Joseph Rochlitz, focusing on the first concert of Rossi’s music to be given in the ducal palace in Mantua by the young male vocal group Profeti della Quinta. This excellent film served to introduce the music and the singers in a very intimate way, and was followed by the U.S. debut of Profeti della Quinta, who turned out to be an excellent young group.

Indeed, I have their five-year-old recording of music by Rossi, and put it on when I got home, but I could see from the documentation that the group has changed since then — the tenors from that recording are both replaced by different singers today — and they have vastly improved as a group in the intervening years. Somebody should rush them back into a recording studio in their current configuration! Excellent! The entire afternoon was entertaining and informative.
Postscript – A check on-line shows that a new CD of Rossi’s music by this group was issued in November. I now have it on order. Excellent!!

The Miraculous Martin Frost with Orpheus Chamber Orchestra

Posted on: December 8th, 2013 by Art Leonard No Comments

Last night I attended Orpheus Chamber Orchestra’s second concert in its 2013-14 subscription series at Carnegie Hall, with soloist Martin Frost in the Mozart Clarinet Concerto.

That one-line is enough to communicate that it was a fabulous concert, because Frost is fabulous, and so is Orpheus CO!

I heard Frost play this concerto with the Mostly Mozart Orchestra not too long ago, followed by the same encore he played last night, his brother’s arrangement of klezmer tunes for clarinet and string orchestra.  And both times I found the experience thrilling.  Frost sings compellingly through his black plastic tube!  He uses a basset clarinet, providing the range for which Mozart composed this concerto, eliminating the awkwardness of breaking of musical lines necessitated by the limited range of the modern Bb clarinet that is normally used in this piece.  But beyond this technical issue, Frost takes the piece to new levels of expressiveness.  His ability to play softly with full tone, for example, provokes new depths of meaning in the heavenly adagio movement, and his brisk tempo in the finale challenged the strings of Orpheus – who met the challenge with flair in their fast scalar passages.  Frost fit right in with Orpheus’s chamber music (conductorless) approach, although he used quite a bit of body language to communicate his ideas to the orchestra, both when he was playing and when he was not.

The excitement of Frost and Orpheus in the Mozart concerto should not be taken to put the rest of the concert in the shade.  Orpheus did a glorious job on Handel’s Concerto Grosso in F, Op. 6, No. 2, part of an extended set of concerti that the orchestra recorded years ago for DG.  These days this repertory has been largely left to early  music groups playing with gut strings and lower, early-music tuning.  It is refreshing to hear it reappropriated by a modern instrumental group that can provide the kind of full-bodied sound that many of us grew up associating with Handel.  Of course their performance is informed by the early music movement and doesn’t indulge in the kind of overly-romantic interpretations of Handel that were common early in the 20th century.  (I have recordings of concerti from this set by Koussevitzky and Toscanini, so I can attest to how things used to sound!)  Orpheus’ approach marks a nice compromise between the old-fashioned richly-voiced string sound, and the contemporary view of correct 18th century practice.  Any way you look at it, this was a gorgeous performance.

After intermission, we heard Irving Fine’s “Serious Song: A Lament for String Orchestra.”  Fine, a promising composer who died in his 40s (1914-1962), has not received his due from orchestras and audiences, but more performances like this would certainly help.  I found the piece intensely moving, even though I did not find the melodic material with which Fine was working to be particularly compelling.  This was more about orchestra texture and mood.  I suspect the work would make a different impression with a larger string body than Orpheus presents, but they never sound underpowered in Carnegie Hall.  I have three recordings of this in my collection, but this is the first time I’ve heard it live, and it makes a rather stronger impression in a live performance, specially the breathtaking ending, which held the audience spellbound.

Orpheus concluded the concert with Mozart’s Symphony No. 29 in A Minor, K. 201, one of the few “early” Mozart symphonies that received a fair amount of play in the early 20th century.  (Toscanini performed it, while ignoring most of the other symphonies predating No. 35, for example.)  I thought the performance was excellent but not unusual in any way.  In other words, up to the high standards that Orpheus regularly achieves in Mozart, who is undoubtedly one of their collective favorite composers, to judge by the number of times they perform his music.  Their performance sounded – as the best Orpheus performances do – like good friends sitting down to indulge in an old favorite, basking in the felicitous harmonic turns, glorying in the triumphal moments, and expressing collective affection for the gentle andante that is the heart of the piece.

So this was an excellent experience, and I came floating out of the hall humming the final Mozart. . .  The next Orpheus subscription program at Carnegie Hall will be on January 25, an all-Beethoven concert including Coriolanus Overture, Symphony No. 2, and the Emperor Concerto with pianist Nobujuki Tsujii, the famed Van Cliburn competition laureate.  A great way to usher in the new year….