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Posts Tagged ‘Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’

Brilliant Chamber Music at Peoples’ Symphony Concerts

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

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

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

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

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

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

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….

Zinman/Goode/New York Philharmonic on December 5, 2013

Posted on: December 6th, 2013 by Art Leonard No Comments

Last night I attended the New York Philharmonic’s first presentation of a program that will be repeated on December 6 and 7, led by guest conductor David Zinman with Richard Goode as piano soloist.  The program included “Three Studies from Couperin” by Thomas Ades in a first performance by the orchestra, Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 18, K. 456, and Mendelssohn’s Scottish Symphony, Op. 56.

I was surprised that I was not as enthusiastic after the concert as I anticipated being before the concert.    But I wasn’t, and it is hard to put my finger on why, exactly.

The opening work by Thomas Ades, leading light of the middle generation of current British composers, was a set of three short tone poems inspired by keyboard works by Francois Couperin (1668-1733).  These are not more-or-less straightforward transcriptions in the style of Respighi’s Ancient Airs and Dances.  The program book referred to Stravinsky’s Pulcinella, which took works by Pergolesi and his contemporaries, put them in modern orchestral dress with some jazzing up of the rhythm and harmony, and made a ballet from them, but I don’t think the comparison is exact.  Maybe this is more like Stravinsky’s The Fairy’s Kiss, taking Tchaikovsky piano pieces as source materials.  But actually what comes more readily to mind is Luciano Berio’s “Rendering,” a moody tone poem based on the sketches Schubert left for a projected but never completed symphony.  In any event, this was unfamiliar ground for the orchestra and I thought the performance had a feeling of very-well-done sight-reading.  Perhaps this was compounded by this being the first performance, and by Saturday night they may have “played it in” a big more.  But I wasn’t swept away.

Richard Goode!  I’m a big fan.  I just about always enjoy his playing.  But I wasn’t swept away by his K. 456.  Part of the problem may be mine.  I just find this one of Mozart’s piano concerti to be less inspired than its companions.  (#17 is one of the best, bar none.)  The central variation movement is based on a theme that has little melodic allure, and the variations don’t strike me as Mozart’s most inventive.  The first and last movements also, while well made, of course, in the Mozart manner, are short of memorable tunes.  Zinman set a spritely pace, and Goode surely observed Mozart’s injunction that the music should “flow like oil,” but I found the performance immaculate but uneventful.

Things took a better turn for me after intermission with Mendelssohn’s Scottish Symphony.  Finally we had the full orchestra on stage, making a nice big romantic sound.  The NYP strings are playing so well this season!  The depth and color is superb, and Zinman, who prefers a brisk pace, connects well with them.  I was most impressed with the finale, which can be a repetitious bore in the wrong hands, but was totally involving last night, especially the super-charged coda.  This symphony is also notable for the numerous solo bits for clarinet, and the NYP’s new principal clarinetist, Stephen Williamson, showed his mettle.  The NYP had difficulty filling what had for more than half a century been the Stanley Drucker seat — an attempt to lure away the Philadelphia’s principal amidst that orchestra’s financial crisis came to nothing — but now the NYP is the incidental beneficiary of the tragedy in Minneapolis, as Williamson decamped from the now nearly-defunct Minnesota Orchestra.  He’s certainly an excellent player, but I think his playing still falls short of the color and fluency Drucker brought to the role.  I hope Williamson will assert himself more.  It looked like Zinman was trying to get him to play out more on some of the solos. . .

Finally, I don’t want to beat a dead horse here, and I have to acknowledge that the first piece on the program was written in 2006, but I found this a rather routine program which seems to have fallen into the tired old formula: start with a short modern work, then do a central repertory concerto, and conclude after intermission with a core repertory symphony.  Now, I’m happy to say that the concerto and symphony were pieces that hadn’t been played recently by the orchestra – the Mozart last in 2005, the Mendelssohn in 2004 – so this concert did not fall into my “lazy programming” critique of playing the same few works over and over that afflicted the NYP during the Maazel regime – but still I would hope for more ingenuity in putting programs together going forward.  Ades has written more challenging stuff, and this program would have benefit from a more daring choice of concerto, at the least.

NY Philharmonic’s Brilliant Beethoven 2nd Symphony

Posted on: April 12th, 2013 by Art Leonard No Comments

I have quite an accumulation of concerts and theater events to blog about from the past several weeks, and I’ve been meaning to catch up with a cultural diary entry, but I couldn’t wait to write about tonight’s concert by the New York Philharmonic, so I’m jumping the line to do it while it is fresh in memory.

David Robertson, Music Director of the St. Louis Symphony, is this week’s guest conductor.  Tonight’s performance was the first of three performance of this program, with guest soloist Pierre-Laurent Aimard, a distinguished exponent of 20th-21st century piano music.  Perhaps not so distinguished an exponent of 18th century piano music, however, to judge by his appearance on the first half of the program.

But I’ll begin with the high points of the evening – a brilliant recreation of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 2 in D, Op. 36, a heartfelt and moving rendition of Olivier Messiaen’s early work, Les Offrandes oubliees (The Forgotten Offerings: Symphonic Meditation), written when the composer was just 22, and the U.S. premiere performance of Tristan Murail’s piano concerto, titled The Disenchantment of the World.  This concerto was jointly commissioned by several orchestras, including the New York Philharmonic, and first publicly performed last summer, also with Mr. Aimard as soloist, in Dresden with a different conductor and orchestra.

It is difficult to respond at first hearing to a work like the Murail concerto.  It is in an unfamiliar idiom – the so-called spectral music originated in late-20th century France and taken up by many composers in varying degrees.  We’ve heard some of it in New York due to Magnus Lindberg’s extended residency for the first few years of Alan Gilbert’s direction of the orchestra.  But I find this style of composition difficult, not because of any particular intricacy but rather because of the lack of the familiar signposts of an extended piece of music.  This work takes almost half an hour but has no easily comprehended structure, no “tunes” as such, and no development in the style of the familiar repertory works of the classical and romantic periods, even of early-to-mid 20th century tonal modernism, such as Prokofiev or Shostakovich.  Instead, the focus is on sonic color and texture, with motifs of various lengths flung around but never quite developed, crashing chords in the piano, long held chords in the winds and strings, strident outbursts, occasional emergence of vehement rhythms.  There seems to be plenty of drama, but no coherent “story” at work.  At times, I was reminded of the second movement of Charles Ives’ Symphony No. 4 – but without the quoted patriotic and sentimental tunes, just the dissonance, the racket, the odd tunings (Ives went in for quarter-tones in his 4th Symphony, and Murail does something similar).  Everybody seemed to be strongly engaged on stage, but at times one wondered to what effect?  I found my attention wandering at times, but then something distinctive would emerge and draw me in again.  I certainly think it was worth hearing, and I strongly support the Philharmonic commissioning and performing new music.  The repertory must be refreshed with new works, and one can never know what will sink in and take root and earn repeated performances.  Perhaps this work will.  It is hard to say.

The Mozart – on this occasion, the Piano Concerto No. 23 in A, K. 488 – should not have been on the program.  I think the challenge of the long, difficult Murail concerto was more than enough to occupy Aimard’s attention, and it showed in the Mozart performance.  Aimard played without the printed music, and all was well for the first two movements, but things came apart in the Rondo finale, as he became rather lost in the music, suddenly finding himself out of sync with the orchestra and momentarily unsure of where he was, falling silent until a melodic entry in the woodwinds brought him back into phase to a triumphant conclusion.  (Such recoveries are always gratifying to see, but one’s heart almost stops when the soloist’s panicked look signals a breakdown.)  Although the first two movements were technically immaculate, I didn’t have the feeling that Mozart was Aimard’s emotional focus of the evening.  The first movement had a quality of rote brilliance but not deep engagement.  The second movement seemed unduly placid.  Things actually seemed to perk up a bit in the witty finale, but then, as can easily happen in a Mozart Rondo, the pianist — whose fingers can easily go into autopilot with the continuous scales and arpeggios and repeated figurations — suddenly loses concentration and forgets quite where he is in the music.  Too bad.  I’m sure it won’t happen for the repeat performances.  (Maybe he should bring out the printed music with him just to be sure.)  He’s got plenty on his mind with the Murail….  And the young page turner who assisted him in the Murail could just as well assist him in the Mozart, and will probably find it easier to follow the music.

As I mentioned above, the Messiaen and Beethoven performances were quite brilliantly done.  Robertson has a flare for Messiaen, not surprising given his background, and he brings a fresh perspective to Beethoven, a sense of discovery and, in the last two movements, wit.  This orchestra really shines in the major works of the standard repertory, and the Beethoven was no exception.  If one had an occasional sense in the second movement that ensemble in the strings was not as “tight” as it might be, one could put that down to the exigencies of rehearsing a long program with a major, unfamiliar premiere, and I’m sure it will get tighter as this series of concerts continues.  It was only in the second movement that I had that feeling.  The scherzo was a high point, and for once really played with pointed humor, benefiting tremendously by the seating of the first and second violins opposite each other, as Beethoven obviously expected from the way he scored the piece, producing effects that can easily be obscured by the seating popularized early in the 20th century by Stokowski of massing all the violins to the left of the conductor. (Happily, Gilbert usually seats the violins on opposing sides, but they were back in the old configuration a few weeks ago when Loren Maazel was guest-conducting.)

Overall, this was an excellent, if overlong, concert.  With Messiaen and Murail on the program, there were empty seats in the hall, so anybody looking for a sonic treat — the Murail is certainly that – and a thrilling performance of a work of pure genius from Beethoven, should consider getting a ticket for the repeats on Friday and Saturday at 8 pm.