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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.

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.

Early Music Weekend – Machaut Mass & Songs for a Parisian Spring

Posted on: May 5th, 2013 by Art Leonard No Comments

I found myself in Ithaca, N.Y., for a meeting at Cornell Saturday afternoon, so checked out the bulletin board in the Music Department building to discover that a student group was presenting a performance last night of Guillaume de Machaut’s Messe de Nostre Dame, the earliest complete mass setting to survive (from the 14th century) and one of my favorite pieces of “early music.”  I hastened to attend, of course.  Graduate student Lorraine Fitzmaurice put together her own little “Cornell Scholar Cantorum” to present this piece, and it was a delightful concert.   She recruited a dozen students (some undergrads, some graduate students) and they learned the piece quite well, presenting it with chants interspersed between the movements.  Before beginning the performance, she taught the audience how to chant the Salve, Regina hymn that she selected as postlude to the mass.  At the end of the mass, the audience rose and we chanted the hymn together with the chorus.  [Well, that’s one way to have the audience on their feet when they start clapping at the end! :))]   Altogether a special event.

Upon arriving back in the NYC early this afternoon, I found myself with sufficient time to attend the last Five Boroughs Music Festival presentation of the season, a collaboration with Parthenia (viol consort) and Blue Heron (Boston-based vocal ensemble) in “Songs for a Parisian Spring.”   The concert was at the Church of St. Luke in the Fields in Greenwich Village.  These “songs” were actually chorus works by Renaissance composers – Claude Le Jeune and Jan Pieterszoon Sweelinck being much in evidence.  The two ensembles were joined by guest-artists Emily Walhout (viol) and Henk Heijink (lute), and Blue Heron director Scott Metcalfe had his violin along as well.  The program was artfully constructed to alternate vocal and instrumental segments and provide a conspectus of the kind of music composed for home use during the 1500-1600’s.  It was all very well done, with great spirit, fine intonation, and some good humor in a few particularly wry madrigals by Le Jeune toward the end of the program.  As a “psalms” collector, I was especially gratified to hear several selections of psalms based on the Genevan Psalter (a prominent French translation by Clement Marot).

Five Boroughs Music Festival has now completed six season with distinction and I hope they will find the support to keep going, as these concerts distributed over all five boroughs of New York have provided an excellent showcase for many young performers (and composers, with last season devoted to the Five Boroughs Songbook of thirty commissioned pieces, which are available on a recording).  Kudos to 5BMF Artistic Director Jesse Blumberg and Executive Director Donna Breitzer!

A Baritone’s Progress – Jesse Blumberg

Posted on: January 21st, 2013 by Art Leonard No Comments

One of my favorite singers is baritone Jesse Blumberg. I first heard him sing at a Wolf recital at the Austrian Cultural Forum many years ago. I had gone because another singer who had recently attracted my attention, Tom Meglioranza, was on the program. I came away from the event a Blumberg fan as well, and began to look out for his other concert appearances. Over the past month, I’ve attended three of them!

On January 2, I was at the Church of St. Mary the Virgin in New York City for their annual “Green Mountain Project” program, which this year was a performance of Claudio Monteverdi’s Vespers of 1610. Mr. Blumberg frequently sings with TENET, the early music vocal ensemble that participates in this project, and he sang as a member of the choral group and as a soloist in two numbers, the motet “Audi coelum” and the Hymn “Ave maris stella.” He also sang in this event the previous two years; in January 2012, when they performed a vespers service based on pieces from Monteverdi’s 1640 publication of sacred music mixed with pieces by Giovanni Gabrieli, and the year before, when they did the Monteverdi 1610 Vespers. I thought this year’s rendition of the Vespers marked a significant advance over the previous one, as they have become even more familiar with the music. The list of soloists included many standout young musicians who are making their mark in the NYC early music scene. Scott Metcalfe, the director of Boston-based early music ensemble Blue Heron, conducted from the principal violin stand, and the entire project was under the artistic direction of Jolle Greenleaf, who also sang many of the soprano solos with great confidence.

I next heard Mr. Blumberg in a presentation in Brooklyn by the Five Boroughs Music Festival, an organization which he co-founded with Donna Breitzer with the goal of presenting high quality musical events in all five boroughs of New York City. The January 15 program I attended at South Oxford Space had previously been performed in Staten Island. Titled “Worter mit Freunden: An 1820s Serenade,” it consisted of music that might have been presented (with one notable exception) during a Viennese at-home musicale in the 1820s, perhaps in a home that lacked a keyboard instrument, since the songs were performed with violin and guitar accompaniment. Daniel Swenberg, a virtuoso of plucked instruments whose theorbo playing I have enjoyed on other occasions, played two early 19th century guitars, and Krista Bennion Feeney, concertmaster of the Orchestra of St. Luke’s, performed the violin solos and accompaniments. In addition to Schubert, there was music by Diabelli, Spohr, and Schumann (the only piece on the program that would be anachronistic, since Schumann was but a teen during the 1820s and had not yet written the song on the program, Abendlied).

Soprano Nell Snaidas joined with Jesse Blumberg to present a compelling evening of song. The Schubert lieder take on a new intimacy when accompanied by the soft tones of an early 19th century guitar rather than the more usually heard modern piano. Most of the accompaniments arranged for guitar originated with contemporaries of Schubert and were well adapted for the medium. The intimate performance hall at South Oxford Place was the perfect setting for such a program. Five Boroughs Music Festival has two more programs planned for this season: “East of the River: Levantera” at Flushing Town Hall in Queens on March 16, and “Songs for a Parisian Spring” at the Church of St. Luke in the Fields in Manhattan on May 5. Check out the details at These are excellent concerts.

Finally, I heard Mr. Blumberg again last night at the most recent (and first 2013) presentation of Schubert & Co., the bold project by pianists Lachlan Glen and Jonathan Ware to present all of Schubert’s solo songs over the course of the 2012-13 concert season, assertedly the first time this has been attempted in New York (or anywhere else, as far as anyone seems to know).

Franz Schubert wrote more than 600 solo songs during his brief career. Ware and Glen have attempted to devise concert programs that will have a unifying thread apart from the common composer. Last night, the program comprised songs related to Goethe’s novel “Wilhelm Meisters Lehrjahre,” and Mr. Glen abandoned his usual keyboard role to read excerpts from Eric Blackall’s translation at appropriate places during the program. (This gave me a personal tie to the program, since I knew Eric Blackall in passing when I was a Cornell undergraduate. He chaired the Faculty Committee on Music that managed the annual celebrity concert series on campus, and at his invitation I became a student member of that committee and served for three years with him. A delightful man, and ardent music lover!)

The singers for the evening were baritones Michael Kelly and Jesse Blumberg, bass-baritone Evan Hughes, and sopranos Raquel Gonzalez and Simone Easthope. A special guest for the evening was noted pianist Malcolm Martineau, a leading British collaborator in song recitals and recordings, who played on the second half of the program, following Jonathan Ware’s performances in the first half.

Schubert was a genius who took some time to develop, and a series including all of his songs will include some lesser numbers, as I thought was the case with some of the songs on last night’s program. Every one of his songs is worth hearing, and the particular value of this kind of undertaking is the unearthing of occasional songs that don’t deserve their current obscurity. In addition to three lengthy song cycles, two devised by the composer and one assembled from unpublished songs by his publisher after Schubert’s early death, there are a few dozen songs that regularly appear on recital programs, leaving several hundred that are rarely performed and generally unknown. Some of the unknown songs are unknown for a good reason — they are not really memorable and, in the absence of a particular thematic context, might not make much sense as stand-alone items in a vocal recital. But now and then one uncovers a forgotten gem, and that makes it all the more worthwhile for any lover of Schubert’s music to patronize these concerts. You never know what you might discover! In addition, the concerts are free, so it’s just an investment of time. And the discovery is not limited to the music. The performers at the concerts I have attended have been at a very high level. I try to attend as many concerts by Jesse Blumberg as I can, but I would also go out of my way to hear some of the other soloists from last night, especially baritone Michael Kelly, who will be performing the Winterreise cycle with Jonathan Ware this Saturday night, January 26, at 8 pm. Jesse Blumberg will make a return appearance to the series in March.

Schubert & Co. has a website listing the entire schedule of concerts. Their usual venue is Central Presbyterian Church, Park Avenue near 63rd Street, and the time for most of them is Sundays at 6 pm. The Winterreise is a departure, originally scheduled around the availability of Sanford Sylvan and his regular accompanist Bryan Zeger, but a cancellation due to illness opened up the program and Kelly volunteered to substitute. Although I can’t make it due to a conflicting concert — I can’t miss an opportunity to hear NY Polyphony, performing on the Miller Theatre Early Music series — I urge Schubert lovers to be there. Kelly and Ware are definitely worth hearing in this music.

That brings me up to date on my concert doings this season. One thing to add about Jesse Blumberg, however. One of his great accomplishments is the premiere recording of Ricky Ian Gordon’s “Green Sneakers” song cycle, and he will be performing the cycle with Mr. Gordon as part of Lincoln Center’s American Songbook series later this season. That is another event I wish I could attend, but for a conflict, but I urge anybody who loves contemporary American art song to put it on their calendar.  This is terrific music, and hearing it sung by the Blumberg collaborating with the composer should be very special.  Tickets are available on the Lincoln Center website.