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Art Leonard’s Cultural Diary – March 22 through April 16, 2014

Posted on: April 17th, 2014 by Art Leonard No Comments

I’ve had a busy few weeks, both in terms of attending things and in terms of work having to get done, as a result of which there is a big pile-up of programs for me to write about, so herewith a diary of brief comments about the events I’ve attended from March 22 through April 16. I have omitted comment about the Jeremy Denk piano recital at Peoples’ Symphony Concerts, which I wrote about separately right after the event.

On March 22, I attended a concert by Jeffrey Kahane (pianist and conductor) and the New York Philharmonic at Avery Fisher Hall. Mr. Kahane, music director of the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra, has been a frequent guest at the Philharmonic in recent years, and I have always enjoyed his concerts. For this program, he selected George Gershwin’s Concerto in F, Maurice Ravels Concerto in G, and Kurt Weill’s Symphony No. 2. Both concerti had been recently performed by the Philharmonic with other pianists and conductors, but Kahane brought the distinction of conducting from the keyboard. Leonard Bernstein used to do this with the Ravel concerto (I have a DVD of his performance with a French orchestra that is fascinating to watch), to great effect, and Kahane was right up there with him. This is an orchestra that can pretty well conduct itself in familiar repertory, but the musicians seemed very sensitive to Kahane’s direction. His technical proficiency was more than adequate to the occasion, and his sheer enthusiasm for the music was well communicated to the NYP members, who seemed very involved and excited. The Weill symphony was a novelty, as it had not been played by the NYP since its local premiere under Bruno Walter’s direction in 1934. Was the exhumation worthwhile? I thought so. It’s not a perfect piece, but it is interesting to hear the seeds of Weill’s later development as a successful composer of Broadway musicals. Certainly, the piece is worth hearing more than once every 80 years! It’s neglect may be due to symphonic snobbery more than to its actual merits. The orchestra played beautifully, certainly outclassing the recordings I’ve heard.

The next day, I attended a matinee performance of Kurt Weill’s Threepenny Opera, in the English-language adaptation by Marc Blitzstein, presented by Atlantic Theater Company. Pure coincidence that I would hear Kurt Weill’s music twice in a weekend! This production was directed and choreographed by Martha Clarke. F. Murray Abraham led the cast as Mr. Peachum, Michael Park sparkled as MacHeath (Mack the Knife), Laura Osnes was Polly and Mary Beth Peil (a favorite from the TV series “The Good Wife” – Peter’s mother!) played Mrs. Peachum. I can’t say it was the most invigorating production I’ve seen of this — the Broadway revival with Sting stands out in my memory, and as a child I was brought to see the original production at the then-Theatre-de-Lys on Christopher Street of which I remember no details, only a general sense of fierce brilliance). The performance I saw was a preview. It has since opened to less than rapturous reviews. I still think it is worth seeing any revival of this work by a professional company, because the piece has so much wonderful music.

On March 27, I attended the American Symphony Orchestra’s revival of Max Bruch’s oratorio, Moses, at Carnegie Hall. Sidney Outlaw sang the role of Moses, with Kirk Dougherty as his brother Aaron, Tamara Wilson as the “Angel of the Lord,” with Leon Botstein conducting the orchestra and the Collegiate Chorale (prepared by James Bagwell). This piece was premiered in Germany in 1895 and in the U.S. in 1896 (Baltimore), but after a brief vogue disappeared from view until some recent revivals. It is very long and not particularly memorable, but as usual Botstein and his performing forces provided something worth hearing. Bruch’s music is richly romantic in harmony and orchestration, but his melodic gift is not particularly distinguished. The tunes don’t stay in your head — unlike the Violin Concerto No. 1, which is his main contribution to the standard orchestral repertory and which I think gets more play than it deserves in light of the many other violin concertos that are, in the end, more interesting. It would be interesting to hear what the richer string section of the NY Philharmonic could do with this piece, as the ASO strings tend to sound a bit undernourished in the big moments. I also thought the choir was actually larger than it needed to be for an orchestra of this size. (The ASO is a bit larger than a chamber orchestra in terms of its string body, but substantially smaller than a major symphony orchestra.) They did well with what they had. I’m glad I heard it. I won’t be going out of my way to hear it again.

It was back to the NY Philharmonic for me on Friday, March 28. I had purchased a single ticket for this concert, eagerly anticipating hearing Gustavo Dudamel conducting Bruckner’s 9th. Unfortunately, Mr. Dudamel took ill with flu and cancelled his NYP engagement, but they were lucky enough to land Manfred Honeck, musical director of the Pittsburgh Symphony, as a replacement for the weekend. Honeck had appeared as a guest with the Philharmonic at least once before (his appearance was not billed as a debut) but I couldn’t recall having seen him conduct before. I was very impressed. The Bruckner was superbly done, the orchestra at the peak of its virtuosity, and the third movement Adagio, which concludes this unfinished symphony, was actually devastating in its impact. The program began with Claude Vivier’s Orion, a 1979 symphonic poem that reportedly did much to put its composer on the map when it was first performed by Charles Dutoit and the Montreal Symphony in 1980. Unfortunately, Vivier, a gay man, was murdered by a “trick” in Paris in 1983, so his composing career did not get much beyond this piece. The piece itself defies description in words – a mélange of orchestral effects that is intense and colorful but that does not yield up much understanding on a first hearing.

The next evening, March 29, I was back at Carnegie Hall for the last concert of this season’s series by Orpheus Chamber Orchestra. The orchestra put together a “theme” concert of music inspired by Hungary – most particularly, the Hungarian folk music exponents in the first half — Kodaly and Bartok — and a 19th century Jewish violinist-composer writing in what purported to be the Hungarian style – Joseph Joachim. The Kodaly Hungarian Rondo is a charming trifle, the Bartok Divertimento and substantial dramatic statement that belies its name, and Orpheus rendered them well, although I really missed the effect of massed strings in the Bartok that I recall from a thrilling reading years ago by Kurt Masur with the NY Philharmonic. The Joachim Concerto is a bloated, romantic piece with lots of striking moments but not enough originality to make one regret its failure to become a standard repertory piece. Christian Tetzlaff labored hard to bring it off, and it was certainly an honorable effort. I’m glad they thought to revive it, since it is all too easy to offer up yet another run through the Brahms concerto, which is a great work that is perhaps played too frequently for its own good these days. Vive Joachim! Now let’s honorably retire the piece for a while.

On April 5 I attended City Center Encores! performance of Frank Loesser’s musical, “The Most Happy Fella.” I have a great sentimental affection for this piece, as it was the first musical for which I was hired to perform in a full pit orchestra when I was a high school student in Oneonta, New York, in the late 1960s. And that was quite an initiation into playing in a pit, considering that this piece has more music — at times is almost through-composed — than the typical musical show. The Encores! production was predictably brilliant, with Shuler Hensley shining as Tony, Laura Benanti eager and brilliant as “Rosabella,” and Cheyene Jackson studly (but at times seeming a bit unengaged) as Joe. I did have my occasional complaint with this series about the over-amplification of the orchestra. While it is true that placing the orchestra backstage behind the action would justify some amplification, I think they really overdo it, especially for the brass and percussion, to the point of verging on painfulness during the overture. That aside, the musical performance led by Rob Berman was excellently done, and the cast and crew did a great job on the choreography (by director Casey Nicholaw). In the early days of Encores!, one was accustomed to seeing semi-staged readings with performers carrying black loose-leaf books with the music and lyrics. They have now gotten to the point where cast-members seem to feel it a point-of-honor to have their parts memorized and jettison the books. (During the talk-back after the show, it was revealed that there was a difficult period when they had to carry the books due to Equity rules for this kind of production, but that a renegotiation with Equity made the books optional with the performers.) These now verge on fully-staged productions, and the results – in light of the short rehearsal periods – are extraordinary! Can’t recommend Encores! highly enough to those with nostalgia for the great days of Broadway. Last up for this season will be Irma La Douce before and during the second weekend in May. Be there or be square!

After attending Encores! I had a quick turnaround for a snack and then off to the Church of St. Mary the Virgin in Times Square for the last Early Music concert in Miller Theatre’s 25th Anniversary Season. Fittingly, the performers were The Tallis Scholars, the English group that has regularly figured on this series since its beginning. The group is celebrating its 40th anniversary this year, and put together a program surveying the realm of Renaissance Polyphony in which it specializes, as well as its more recent practice of commissioning living composers to write new polyphonic works for chamber choir. On this occasion, we had a world premiere, with commission by Miller Theatre, of Two Sonnets for Sor Juana Ines de la Cruz by Michael Nyman. I would like to hear these again! The first half of the program was devoted to continental polyphony (Desprez and de Rore), the second half to English polyphony (Sheppard and Tallis), and as usual, Peter Phillips and his singers were beyond reproach. Some have occasionally criticized Phillips and The Tallis Scholars for a sort of chilly precision to their work, but I don’t hear that, finding a warmth and spontaneity that makes their work very involving emotionally for the listener. This was an excellent performance of an excellent program.

The next day I heard a concert by the Los Angeles Guitar Quartet at Town Hall, courtesy of Peoples’ Symphony Concerts. This was in two parts. The first half was devoted to transcriptions of classical music for guitar quartet. We had a suite of dances from Michael Praetorius’s Terpsichore, the grant compendium of royal court dance music of the late Renaissance and early Baroque, a suite from Stravinsky’s ballet Pulcinella, which drew its thematic material from Baroque sources, and finally Liszt’s Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2. None of this music was imagined by its composers as a vehicle for a quartet for modern guitar virtuosi, and I found the sound becoming a bit tiresome. Early music groups usually put together colorful instrumentations for Praetorius, Stravinsky’s orchestration of his ballet makes full use of the coloristic resources of an early 20th century orchestra, and Liszt’s rhapsody exists in numerous colorful orchestral arrangements of the piano original. While the LAGQ is of course virtuosic in its approach to these pieces, I would have preferred the originals. The second half, by contrast, struck me as ideal in every way – a series of shorter works all conceived with the guitar in mind, some actually written for this ensemble, and presenting all the variety of sound that seemed lacking in the first half. I’m happy to have heard the group. I recommend that they focus on modern works written or arranged for them, and forget the Baroque arrangements.

“If/Then” is a new Broadway musical by Tom Kitt (music) and Brian Yorkey (book & lyrics) that I visited on April 9. I had heard complaints that the plot was confusing. Yes, it was. The idea is to depict the alternative realities that could stem from an inflection point in the life of a person, when a seemingly trivial decision to do one thing rather than another is, in retrospect, momentous. The piece seems to have been conceived as a vehicle for Idina Menzel (and the main reason we were there was that my theater-going companion was eager to take in her performance), and I thought she was fine in a very challenging role, although I thought she was painfully over-amplified at times, resulting in a rather shrill sound on her high notes. I did find the plotting confusing and difficult to follow at times. I understand that en route to Broadway a decision was made to have Menzel’s character called Liz in one reality and Beth in the other, to wear glasses in one and not the other, but I failed to pick up on this and was continually confused as the switch between realities took place without transitions, leaving me to think “huh?” all too often during the first act. Things became a bit more understandable in the second act, although again there were moments when things just seemed out of joint. But perhaps that’s the point of the show — how far apart our alternative futures might be, all stemming from a trivial decision early on to do one thing and not another.

On April 13 I attended the American Symphony Orchestra’s final Classics Declassified program for the season, at Symphony Space. The subject was Johannes Brahms’ Symphony No. 2, an early favorite of mine. I played double-bass in performances of this symphony by the Oneonta Symphony Orchestra when I was in high school and the Cornell University Orchestra when I was in college, so I know the piece from the inside out through extended rehearsals. That said, I found Leon Bostein’s lecture to be disorganized, boring, and seemingly pointless at times. Sometimes he comes up with brilliant insights, but sometimes the lecture is just a dud, and this seemed to be such an occasion. Surprisingly, the performance of the symphony was anything but — it was warmly done by an orchestra that seemed fully engaged. The rather smaller string section than one would get from a major orchestra was only occasionally a deficiency, as much of this symphony has a pastoral character that can work with a compact string body. The woodwind soloists, who get a real workout in this piece, were stellar, and the trombones, whose special tonal qualities in playing choral-like passages are an important feature of the piece, were also superb. I think Botstein needs an editor to work with him on the lectures. . .

Finally, last night, April 16, I saw a performance of Terrence McNally’s new play, “Mothers and Sons,” at the Golden Theatre. This is an ensemble piece for four actors. Tyne Daly plays Katharine Gerard, an upstate NY native who married a Texas businessman, lived in Dallas, raised a son who grew up to be gay and ran off to New York City for a career in the theater and died from AIDS in the early 1990s. In an earlier play, “Andre’s Mother,” dating from decades ago, McNally created this character and showed her alienation from the world of her son and her inability to be emotionally present for his memorial service. Frederick Weller plays Cal Porter, Andre’s surviving partner. This play takes place twenty years later, and Cal is now happily married to Will Ogden, an aspiring novelist, played by Bobby Steggert. They have a son, six-year-old Bud, played by Grayson Taylor, conceived through donor insemination and gestational surrogacy. In other words, a very “modern” NYC gay family, and perhaps the first time such a family has been portrayed on Broadway. For some reason, not really explained, Katharine “drops in” on the Porter-Ogden household on Central Park West. There doesn’t seem to be much of a plot, really, just a picture of colliding worlds as the still disapproving and disgruntled mother interacts with her late son’s lover and his “new” family. There are many affecting moments. Anyone who lived through the early years of AIDS in New York will have memories recalled, aided by a pre- or post-show visit to the lower lobby where panels from the AIDS Quilt are mounted. Presenting this history is important, but I found the show itself, while frequently absorbing, to be rather uneven, and I’m wondering whether McNally might treat this production as a first take on a work in progress and figure out revisions before it gets mounted again. The material is definitely worth exploring, and perhaps the experience of seeing it play out will inspire him to make changes that will strengthen it dramatically. Certainly this cast does a great job with it, although I found Weller’s performance a bit odd — what kind of accent was he trying to present? — and the role of the child is rather challenging for a young actor to present naturalistically, although Master Taylor acquitted himself honorably. I’m a Steggert fan and was happy to get a slice of his work here — I wished the part were a bit longer. And Tyne Daly, who was McNally’s “muse” for this piece, was perfectly cast, effectively projecting the brittle quality of a woman who is totally a fish out of water in this environment, unsure why she is there and how to act and react to what she is experiencing. Certainly this is a show that the LGBT community should be supporting. The audience was rather small, even for what is a relatively small Broadway “straight-theater” house, and I hope word of mouth may pick it up a bit. A play doesn’t have to be perfect to be worth seeing, and I find that anything Terrence McNally does is worth seeing, so I hope people will go.

My cultural calendar coming up: tomorrow night a premiere of new songs by Glen Roven at Spectrum, “All the Way” on Broadway, Music from Marlboro and Alarm Will Sound during the last weekend in April, Irma La Douce with Encores’ in May. . .

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….

Orpheus Chamber Orchestra Launches 2013-14 Carnegie Series with Dynamite Beethoven Eroica

Posted on: October 10th, 2013 by Art Leonard No Comments

Last night I attended the first concert for this season’s Orpheus Chamber Orchestra series at Carnegie Hall.   The OCO, which operates without a conductor, performed nine of Johannes Brahms’s Liebeslieder Waltzes, originally written for vocal quartet and piano duo but orchestrated by the composer, a set of variations for piano and orchestra by jazzman Brad Mehldau, and Beethoven’s Eroica Symphony.  The juxtaposition of works on this program was a bit unfair to Mehldau, putting him in competition with one of the greatest symphonic compositions by one of the greatest of all composers.  And so it proved last night, as I found Mr. Mehldau’s piece to be bland and overextended and much outweighed in quality and impact by the Beethoven.

Although I thought the Brahms dances were lovely and played with much grace by the orchestra, I would question selecting them to open the season.  These pieces struck me as slight, almost to the extent of being background music rather than concert pieces calculated to hold an audience’s attention.  Perhaps they would make a lovely interlude between two heavier works, but they struck me as too insubstantial to usher in a new season in Carnegie Hall.  They were conceived by Brahms to animate poetry, and music so conceived sometimes struggles to stand on its own without the words, even when arranged for instrumental performance by the composer.  I suspect Brahms did this for the money, not out of any great inner compulsion to orchestrate these pieces.  On the other hand, Brahms was notorious for burning lots of manuscripts that he judged not up to his rigorous standards, so that these survived suggests that this hyper-self-critical composer thought well of them.

My previous experience with Brad  Mehldau was a solo piano recital he gave years ago as part of the Peoples’ Symphony Concerts series at Washington Irving High School.  My reaction then was that he was a fluent, graceful pianist whose music fell into predictable patterns without exciting great interest on my part.  I had much the same reaction last night.  I’m trying not to let my previous experience with his music prejudice me, and I have to reiterate that I find him a pleasingly fluent pianist, although I thought his playing was more effective in his brief solo encore, which seemed to range further in terms of dynamics and venturesome harmony than the main piece did.  Perhaps the problem is that the theme he chose for his variations was not particularly interesting or memorable, although that problem has not stood in the way of the greatest variation writers who could take a negligible scrap of melody and stretch it into a masterpiece of music variety.  I thought the orchestration was skillfully done, however.  Certainly the man has talent.  I think if he revised the piece to be shorter it would be more effective.  A genius like Bach (Goldberg Variations) or Beethoven (Diabelli Variations) or Brahms (Paganini Variations) can sustained interest in a variation set over an extended period of time, but this piece – asserted in the program book to run about 37 minutes — struck me as just too long.

The Beethoven!  Wow!  There are a handful of works in the history of music that mark quantum leaps in changing the conversation, and this is one of them.  (Another, whose centennial we celebrate this year, is Stravinsky’s Le Sacre du Printemps.)  Surely one can hear some of the seeds of this work in the previous two symphonies, but somehow this symphony is speaking a new language, reaching heights of drama and intensity far beyond what Beethoven had previously done, and surpassing in this respect the work of his most illustrious immediate predecessors on the Vienna musical scene, Mozart and Haydn.

Furthermore, this is probably one of the first symphonies that most people would suggest needs a conductor to hold things together, manage instrumental balances and transitional passages, and impose an overall structural vision.  But the OCO would reject such a suggestion, and their performance last night was not lacking in any of these respects.  Balances were deftly handled, transitional passages showed no signs of strain, and the performance had an overall dramatic arc and logic that were most compelling.  This was a fast-paced performance (no first-movement repeat, which was a smart move given how late the concert was running), and the OCO is a virtuoso band that can play this music fast without it seeming rushed or strained.  I could have wished for a few extra desks in each of the string sections to make a greater impact in the big moments, but the ear adjusts, dynamics are relative, and where it really counted in the heart of the great funeral march and in the final peroration of the finale, OCO did not come up short in terms of volume and amplitude of sound.  (There is one particularly lush string chord in the adagio that always gives me chills, and OCO nailed it with a rich, thick, well-accented chord that sounded like a much bigger string section.)   The three horn players made an imposing sound in the trio of the scherzo, and all the wind soloists performed their big solos impeccably.

On top of this excellent performance, we had a display of great professionalism in the face of adversity from the first and second chair viola players during the adagio.  A string snapped on the first chair’s instrument; a quick swap took place with the second chair, who played along on three strings until an opportune moment; then he reached behind the music on the stand to pull out a package with a replacement string (is it so common for string players to have replacement strings ready for emergency use on their stands??) and restring the instrument and tune it, quite rapidly with a minimum of fuss; then, after “playing it in,” he swapped it back to the first chair at another opportune moment when the violas had a few beats of rest.  All of this was done so unobtrusively that I suspect here were members of the orchestra who may not have even been aware that it was happening.  I followed the entire drama with my opera glasses (sitting in Row A in the balcony) and was very impressed at how efficiently they handled it.

Although I felt a bit let down by the first half of the concert, the Eroica swept me away with its excellence and excitement, and I consider OCO well-launched for the new season.  I’m eagerly anticipating their next Carnegie Hall concert on December 7.  Martin Frost will perform the Mozart Clarinet Concerto, one of that composer’s greatest (and latest) works, and the program will end with Mozart’s Symphony No. 29, a work whose obvious merit led to its regular performance back in the early middle years of the 20th century by old-fashioned conductors such as Toscanini, Walter and Koussevitzky who otherwise eschewed all but the last few Mozart symphonies  (35, 36, 38, 39, 40, 41).  The concert begins with a Handel Concerto Grosso (Op. 6, No. 2), and will include Irving Fine’s “Serious Song: A Lament for String Orchestra.”  OCO pitches this as being to honor the late composer on his upcoming centenary, but I would also think it would be an appropriate memorial for December 7, the date on which we mark the anniversary of the attack on Pearl Harbor that led to the United States’ entrance into World War II.

Cultural Diary – March 23 through May 1, 2013 – A Busy Season in NYC

Posted on: May 2nd, 2013 by Art Leonard 1 Comment

Between work, concerts and theater, I’ve been so busy that I’ve generally avoided blogging about the things I’ve been attending over the past five weeks or so.  This is a catch-up posting, briefly mentioning that things I haven’t had time to write about in longer posts.  This post details the musical events (including opera).  In another, I’ll address the theatrical ones.

Beginning at the beginning, with Richard Goode, and – surprise – ending with him as well, because the first concert I’ll note included his performance of Robert Schumann’s Piano Concerto with Orpheus Chamber Orchestra at Carnegie Hall on March 23, and the last is his solo recital last night in the same location, devoted to late piano music by Ludwig van Beethoven.

The Schumann Concerto was excellent, in the best “Goode” manner – solid, mainstream tempi, beautiful piano sound, careful but energetic navigation of the rhythmically difficult finale.  Indeed, it is hard to understand how a pianist and orchestra can get through that finale without a conductor at a reasonably fast tempo (it is marked “Allegro vivace”), because of the syncopation in the score that must make coordination difficult unless everybody figures out how to ignore the bar lines and just go with the flow…  They obviously figured that out here, and the effusive ovation of the audience earned a more bountiful encore than usual: the “Adagio” second movement from Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 17 in G, K. 453!   For the first half of the program, Orpheus gave us a fleet, songful run through Mendelssohn’s Symphony No. 4 in A, Op. 90, the “Italian” symphony.

The next afternoon, I was in for another pianistic treat as Yevgeny Sudbin presented a brilliant recital at Town Hall under the auspices of Peoples’ Symphony Concerts.  Sudbin has been a favorite since I acquired his first solo recording on the BIS label of sonatas by Domenico Scarlatti.  His BIS albums are cherishable as much for his revelatory program notes as for his playing.  This is a man who thinks deeply about everything he plays, and always has cogent reasons for his departures from tradition — such as his decision to record the original version of Rachmaninoff’s 4th Piano Concerto rather than the composer’s revision.   He presented a mixed recital on March 24, beginning with four Scarlatti sonatas, continuing with Frederic Chopin’s Ballade No. 3, Op. 47, and completing the first half with Claude Debussy’s L’isle joyeuse.  After intermission, we had Franz Liszt — Funerailles from the Harmonies poetiques et religieuses, and Harmonies du soir from the Transcendental Etudes.  The final programmed piece was Alexander Scriabin’s Sonata No. 5, Op. 53.  Encores included more Scarlatti, some Rachmaninoff, and Sudbin’s paraphrase on Chopin’s Minute Waltz.  Some people find Sudbin too cerebral or too dry, but I find him wonderfully clear-eyed and totally engaged in whatever he is playing.  I enjoyed every moment of this concert, and could have listened to him play even more encores!  He is in the midst of recording a Beethoven Concerto cycle with Vanska and the Minnesota Orchestra, and every one will be worth hearing, but his newest recording, just out, of Rachmaninoff’s First Piano Concerto with Lan Shui and the Singapore Symphony is superb in every way, and Shui’s urgent traversal of the rarely performed Symphony No. 1 must be heard to be believed.  He makes more sense out of this piece than anyone I’ve heard.

On April 17, I experienced a feeling of deja vu when I opened the program book in Carnegie Hall for the concert by Christian Thielemann and the Staatskapelle Dresden: An all-Johannes Brahms program: Academic Festival Overture, Violin Concerto (with Lisa Batiashvili), and Symphony No. 4.  Deja vu because this is exactly the program I heard in the fall of 1974 when Klaus Tennstedt made his conducting debut with the Boston Symphony Orchestra!  Exactly the same!!  And what a difference.  Tennstedt made the BSO sound like a rich, luxuriant central European big-city orchestra.  By contrast, Thielemann made his group — a central European big-city orchestra — sound nothing like that at all.  The sound was much more tightly defined, the strings less luxuriant, and phrasing more clipped, less songful…  At every turn, this Dresdners sounded less central European than that long-ago evening with the BSO.  Of course, memory can play tricks, and perhaps my memory has enlarged the differences.  In any event, Thielemann and his band were definitely worth hearing, especially in the Symphony, which got an excellent performance, particularly in the intense and dramatic finale.  The Academic Festival was big-boned and joyous, the Violin Concerto sweetly songful with Batiashvili a stronger soloist than was Miriam Fried in my recollection of that long-ago Boston affair.   Thielemann has a sense of humor as well: For an encore they played the Prelude to Act III of Lohengrin by Richard Wagner.  Only a conductor with a real sense of humor would cap an all-Brahms program with a Wagner encore.

On April 19 I enjoyed the rare treat of a New York Philharmonic program devoted entirely to American music – almost unheard of in these parts.  Alan Gilbert led the world premiere of Christopher Rouse’s “Prospero’s Rooms” and was joined by Joshua Bell for Leonard Bernstein’s Serenade (after Plato’s Symposium) for Violin, String Orchestra, Harp and Percussion.  After intermission, we had Charles Ives’s Symphony NO. 4, with Eric Huebner the prominent piano soloist, members of the New York Choral Consortium intoning the opening hymn and the worldless choral lines in the finale, and Case Scaglione occasionally standing up to co-conduct during the most rhythmically complex passages of the second and fourth movements.  This was a wonderful concert!!  I always experience some nostalgia for my college days when I hear works by composers who were among the musical composition graduate students at Cornell when I was there as an undergraduate.  Earlier this season, it was Steve Stuckey, and at this concert, Christopher Rouse.  His piece was inspired by Edgar Allen Poe’s “The Masque of the Red Death,” and paints a vivid, moody picture with his usual extreme dynamic contrasts.  It was much fun to hear the first time through, and I hope a recording eventuates, since I’d like to get to know this one better.  The Berstein is always a pleasure to hear, and Bell knows how to dramatize the music effectively.  I’ve yet to hear a totally convincing concert performance of the Ives — I’ll always have the Stokowski/ASO world premiere version in my head from listening to that old LP so many times and trying to figure out what was going on in the even-numbered movements.  Gilbert has the measure of the piece, and actually made an even richer thing out of the third-movement fugue than Stokowski.  But nobody exceeds the old wizard in finding the transcendental pitch of the last movement.  This performance left me engaged, but not quite exalted.

Then to NYC Opera at City Center for Gioachino Rossini’s “Moses in Egypt” in a rather minimalist production relying on projections rather than sets.  I thought the cast was better than the show in many respects, and David Salsbery Fry, who stood in on short notice for the indisposed David Cushing as Moses was excellent.  This is not an opera that we are going to hear at the Metropolitan any time soon, so City Opera does a distinct service in giving it a short revival for our delectation.  But it is clear why it is not in the standard repertory.  Rossini in a serious mood does not entertain as well as Rossini in a more frivolous mood – think Barber of Seville – and there are only a handful of really memorable moments in the score. 

As the season neared its end, I managed to squeeze in a last visit on March 31 to the ongoing Schubert & Co. lieder project.  I wish I could have attended more of these, because the young artist performing at these concerts — all volunteers — have been superb, and the opportunity to hear so much rarely, if ever, performed music is unlikely to recur soon.  Schubert wrote more than 500 songs, and the goal of Lachlan Glen and Jonathan Ware, pianists and co-Artistic Directors of this series, was to present all of them over the course of the season.  By March 31, they had really and truly gotten the hang of the challenging acoustics at Central Presbyterian Church, producing a fine balance of voice and piano, and they assembled a terrific cast to explore settings of verses by Ruckert, Holty, Schreiber and Pyrker — not all deathless poets, but usually deathless music.  Singers for the evening were Simone Easthope (soprano), Michael Kelly (baritone), Alexander Lewis (tenor), and Jazimina MacNeil (mezzo-soprano), and Glen and Ware shared collaborative honors with pianist Ken Noda, who partnered with Lewis for his extended set of eight songs in the middle of the concert.  Lewis was a new discovery for me, very exciting, brilliant dramatization of the texts, large handsome voice, and a very attractive manner.  But all the performers were great, and I so regret I’ll be out of town this weekend and so will miss the big finale of concerts on Friday night, Saturday afternoon and Saturday evening – Schwanengesang, of course, to wind things up, with baritone Edward Parks and pianist Lachlan Glen, whose growth as a collaborate keyboard artist over the course of this season has been extraordinary!  Congratulations to this enterprising crew!

It was back to the New York Philharmonic for me on April 3, for a collaboration with pianist Andras Schiff in Bach keyboard concerti (Nos. 3 and 5) and orchestral music by Mendelssohn and Schumann.  I find Schiff’s approach to the keyboard concerti a bit heavy-handed compared to Murray Perahia, whose recording of this repertory I love.  Also, he’s a bit more straight-laced than David Fray, whose recording and DVD of this repertory are most entertaining.  But Schiff’s approach has it’s place, too, bringing lots of beefy good cheer to the fast movements — played at a more moderate pace than the competition, it must be said — and much poetry to the slow ones.  The early Mendelssohn string sinfonia (the composer was 14 when he wrote it, and not yet the mature musical thinker he would become in just a few short years) was a bit of a throw-away on this program, but the best came last.  Schiff’s conducting of the Schumann 4th Symphony was superb in every respect.  I would love to hear him conduct the entire cycle.

For an interesting break, I went up to Miller Theatre at Columbia University on April 6 to hear baroque ensemble “Les Delices” play a program they called “The Age of Indulgence,” a collection of instrumental music by French baroque composers: Philidor, Rameau, Mondonville, Duphly, and Dauvergne.  One might think that an entire evening of French baroque chamber pieces would blend into an indistinguishable blur, but not so in the hands of these excellent musicians – Debra Nagy, Julie Andrijeski, Scott Metcalfe, Emily Walhout and Michael Sponseller.  Everything was richly characterized, contrasts were pointed up, and teh evening ended on a sprightly note with Dauvergne, a composer rarely encountered.  One could easily hear why Rameau is the one of these still best remembered today, as his Concert No. 3 from the Pieces de clavecin en concert was the most inspired piece of the evening, but everything heard on this program was worth hearing and in the context provided an interesting display of the variety possible within a very narrow range of stylistic permissibility.

On April 7, back to Town Hall for PSC’s presentation of the Johannes String Quartet, playing Brahms (naturally!) No. 1, Op. 51, No. 1, Dutilleux’s “Ainsi la nuit”, and then Brahms No. 3, Op. 67.  The Johannes are well-named. They do know how to play the music of their namesake composer with grace, poise and insight.  That said, I like the rather more assertive performances on the Emerson Quartet’s recording, but the Johannes’ way was no less valid.  The Dutielleux is a startlingly modern effusion of the mid-1970s, treasurable more for sound effects than for melody or motivic development. 

PSC provided a very different string quartet experience with the Quatour Ebene, performing at the High School of Fashion Industries (as the renovation of Washington Irving High School’s auditorium drags on and on).  I am a big fan of Quatour Ebene, four young Frenchmen who play with incredible subtlety.  Perhaps they could have been a bit more forceful in Mozart’s Quartet K. 465, the “dissonant” quartet, but after that was out of the way, the evening was sheer bliss.  Their performance of Schubert’s Quartet D. 804, called the “Rosamunde” because its variations movement uses a theme from the composer’s incidental music for the play of that name, was incredible. That’s the only word for it. They found a degree of mystery, pathos and tension throughout the piece that was unrivalled in my experience.  At the end of each movement, there was a collective feeling of “wow!” from the audience.  Everybody was buzzing during intermission.  And then the Mendelssohn, ending with an “allegro molto” supercharged to the finish line!!  (I promptly ordered a copy of their new recording, which includes the Mendelssohn Op.80 – just arrived and not heard yet, so I hope it adequately recreates the experience!  For encores they played some selections from their “Fiction” album, short pieces based on popular songs, including “Some Day My Prince Will Come” from Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.  You haven’t really heard it until you hear what these guys can do with it.  They even sing some of it.  (I already knew they could sing… Their brief vocal performance with Philippe Jaroussky on his new DVD recital release is worth the price of admission.)  Can’t get enough of the Ebene.  This was probably the most memorable concert I’ll mention in this diary.

On April 21 I was up at Symphony Space for the last of this season’s Classics Declassified programs by the American Symphony Orchestra.  Leon Botstein selected music from Lohengrin and Tristan and Isolde, marking the Wagner bicentennial year.  But I thought this program was a rare misfire from Botstein and the orchestra.  His talk verged on incoherence, disorganized, rambling, and full of too-long orchestral examples with no real follow-up to tie up his pre-playing propositions.  The performances themselves sounded underrehearsed and uninspired, with the possible exception of the Lohengrin Prelude to Act III, although I still had the triumphal sound of Thieleman and the Dresdners in my ears, so it wasn’t a fair comparison.

On April 25 it was back to City Center for Jacques Offenbach’s La Perichole – or what was purported to be La Perichole – presented by New York City Opera.  This was one of Christopher Alden’s re-imaginings of a classic musical theater piece, and I thought he managed to trash the piece pretty well.  The singing and acting was fine, but the staging was bizarre, reducing the French light opera tradition to slapstick and pratfalls.  I was not amused, just aghast.  I give the cast credit for gamely going along with the shenanigans and doing their best, but still…. 

For a complete contrast April 28 I journeyed to the East Village for the Greenwich Village Orchestra’s Wagner program, conducted by Pierre Vallet.  This is an amateur neighborhood orchestra with high goals, and they set themselves quite a challenge with this program.  Indeed, some of this music would put the most exalted professionals to the test, and it was to the credit of orchestra and conductor that they got through the program with honor. (Indeed, their playing of the Prelude and Leibestod bested the ASO from a week early, IMHO, although they had the advantage of Christine Goerke singing the Liebestod while the ASO went it alone.)  Madame Goerke, a fine Wagnerian soprano, also gave us two arias from Tannhauser and Senta’s Ballade from Dutchman.  Jesse Blumberg, in splendid voice, sang Wolfram’s Hymn to the Evening Star from Tannhauser as well.  This was an afternoon well spent.

On April 30 I attended the last NYFOSNext program of the season.  This is a series mounted by the New York Festival of Song to showcase music by living composers in the intimate surroundings of the DiMenna Center on West  37th Street.  Each program is “curated” by a composer, who assembles a program from the music of his or her friends and acquaintances calling upon a variety of talented young performers.  For this program Mohammed Fairouz brought together fellow composers Daniel Bernard Roumain, Paola Prestini and Huang Ruo to provide a very diverse evening of song.  I have been a Fairouz fan since hearing his contribution to the 5 Boroughs Songbook, and it was a delight to hear three offerings from him: Tahwidah and For Victims (both on the new Naxos CD of his chamber works) and The Poet Declares His Renown.  I would say that the strongest of these is For Victims, a Holocaust remembrance piece that was strikingly sung by baritone Adrian Rosas with the Catalyst String Quartet.  (The equally striking performance on the recording is by David Kravitz and the Borromeo Quartet.)  Other excellent singers for the evening included Kristina Bachrach and Fang Tao Jiang (sopranos) and Samuel Levine (tenor).  I enjoyed hearing so much new music, so well and energetically performed. Thanks to NYFOS for putting on this series!!

Finally, coming full circle, last nights recital at Carnegie Hall by Richard Goode.  Goode chose to play the last three Beethoven piano sonatas, Opp. 109, 110 and 111, with six bagatelles from Op. 119 to introduce the second half of the program.  I had the strange feeling of duality in this program.  The first half struck me as a bit sleepy, even boring.  Maybe it was me.  I don’t know. But I found Goode’s approach to Op. 109 and Op. 110 to be so restrained, flowing, understated, as to pass by uneventfully, which one doesn’t expect with Beethoven. But something really seemed to charge him up during the intermission, because the second half was Beethoven on steroids.  The Bagatelles were charming and sparkling, the firsrt movement of Op. 111 ferociously dramatic, and the final movement, the extended variations, a symphony of contrasts culminating in that heavenly, quiet ending.  He refused to play an encore, despite the rapturous audience response, and I fully agreed – one can’t play anything after Op. 111.  It’s a natural concert closer, puts a period to things, and shouldn’t be followed by some trifle.

Thus ends a prolonged period of season-ending musical activities.  (But not entirely, of course, since the season has weeks to run, and because the Philharmonic will be away on tour for part of that time, the season is really extended to the end of June, so more to come…)

Orpheus Chamber Orchestra in Gabriel Kahane Premiere

Posted on: April 28th, 2013 by Art Leonard 1 Comment

I was blessed to be present in Carnegie Hall this evening for the first New York performance of Gabriel Kahane’s absolutely gorgeous song cycle, “Gabriel’s Guide to the 48 States,” performed by the composer with the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra.  This was the final OCO Carnegie subscription concert of the season, and it really ended on a high note.  Before Kahane’s piece, the ensemble performed the string orchestra version of Arnold Schoenberg’s Verklaerte Nacht with silken grace.

Kahane, composer-in-residence with OCO this year, was commissioned to write a season-ending work.  He selected passages from the American Guide Series, a set of state tour books commissioned by the Depression-era Works Progress Administration as a “make work” project for unemployed writers.  The resulting books provide a panoramic accounting of the United States in the New Deal period, struggling to regain its economic and social footing, bursting with new-found energy and hopeful optimism, but still struggling.  In addition to these texts, he also used some interviews that were conducted by the writers, as well as some commentary about the project by WPA’s director, Harry Hopkins.

The result is an eleven-section song cycle in varying styles creating a musical panorama to reflect the verbal panorama.  In addition, whether consciously or not, Kahane’s musical settings reflect the influences of the early-20th-century American symphonists whose music defined an Americana sound at that time: Aaron Copland, Roy Harris, William Schuman, Walter Piston, Virgil Thompson.  I even heard bits that sounded like Charles Ives.  But none of this was quotation, and none of it was heavy-handed or derivative.  The musical language seemed very fresh and original, as a natural development or synthesis of that American national orchestral sound of the period — although precisely this music would not have been written at that time, because it is also a product of somebody who grew up and absorbed his musical influences from the later age of Leonard Bernstein, Stephen Sondheim, and the popular music of the rest of the 20th century and into the 21st.  (Kahane was born in 1981 in California and now lives in Brooklyn.) 

Kahane stood in front of the orchestra, electric guitar and banjo at the ready, serving as narrator and troubador.  He has a pleasant singing voice, which was perfect to “put over” this music, and the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra was astonishing in their close partnership with the composer.  I was impressed by his masterful orchestration, his rich harmonies, the way the music naturally fitted with the texts and enhanced them.  There was humor and pathos, and he had me close to tears at least once.  In short, this is a terrific piece of work by an important young composer.

I am hoping that it is a work in progress, since I think he could well write a few more songs to hit parts of the country that are a bit underrepresented.  This is, after all a “Guide to the 48 States,” but the states of the old Confederacy are largely ignored (one song evoking musical traditions in Alabama), the southwest apart from California is ignored (no Texas!!!!), and other areas could use some representation as well.  (Hello, New England??  One humorous anecdote about George Washington at a Connecticut tavern en route to take command of the Continental Army in Cambridge is all there is for that region.)   Orchestra commissions tend to be specific about desired lengths, so I expect he was limited as to what he could comfortably include, but I hope this work evolves to contain more.  And, of course, having had the experience of performing it, I expect the composer can see places to cut and tighten, to revise orchestration, and to continue shaping the piece.  But what he has thus far is really prime stuff, and congratulations are surely in order.

My prior experience with this composer has been limited to a handful of songs with piano accompaniment – his amusing Craigslistlieder cycle and a fine song about his neighborhood in Brooklyn that was part of the 5 Boroughs Songbook commissioned by 5 Boroughs Music Festival.  This new piece suggests to me that this composer is worth hearing in larger forms using larger forces, and I hope to hear much more of his music in the future.