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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…)