Archive for the ‘"Classical"’ Category

12/18 neoLIT Ensemble @ Bargemusic

Masha Lankovsky, Violin

Aminda Asher, Cello

Katya Mihailova, Piano

I’ve been meaning to get over to Bargemusic, the old coffee barge moored at the foot of the Brooklyn Bridge that hosts chamber music concerts, for a long time, and finally got the chance  last Friday. It’s an interesting conception-music on a boat! and not just any music, but chamber music!-borne out by the great acoustics and lovely view of the skyline of downtown Manhattan.  You almost forget you’re on a boat until it suddenly shifts in its moorings (how the cellist managed I’m not quite certain.) Unfortunately the lovely setting was slightly marred by some sloppy piano playing.  The neoLIT Ensemble, a group of musicians dedicated to the performance of 20th and 21st century works, particularly by female composers, seemed to be taking a break with some Haydn and Dvorak, although they threw in Paul Schoenfield’s 1987 Cafe Music for a modern perspective. The problem that was to plague the group the entire night was apparent: the pianist, Katya Mihailova, did not know her part. While violinist Masha Lankovsky and cellist Aminda Asher seemed to have a strong conception of the shape of each movement, Mihailova was playing for each note, looking wildly between the music and the keyboard, missing chords and scale notes, basically looking like someone who had read through the music 2 times before performing it. I was amazed at the sheer audacity it took to get up on stage so unprepared. And that was a real shame, because if she had been familiar with the pieces, it would have been a great performance. Cafe Music by Paul Schoenfield was a charming and enjoyable piece, but I need to listen to it again. I find it somewhat insulting that I made the effort to go to the concert, and the same effort was not exerted by a performer. The reason I go to professional concerts is because I enjoy feeling confident in the performers and not being bothered by mistakes they make. Unfortunately this was not the case. Hopefully it was just an off night.


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12/15 Jean-Yves Thibaudet @ Carnegie Hall

I’ll just admit it up front: the reason I know about Jean-Yves Thibaudet is because I watched the movie Pride and Prejudice. Yes, it was that bit of pop culture that introduced me to this wonderful pianist. But, I’m happy to say, the same qualities that drew me to his playing in the soundtrack are just as admirable in his performance of classical repertoire. Mr. Thibaudet has a smooth, buttery sound that shimmers, particularly in the slow movement of songs. He plays each note and phrase with infinite care, truly crafting a piece from the music provided (I realized this as I tried to imitate his playing of the theme from Pride and Prejudice – I just could not play it with as much focus and poise as he did.) I was impressed last year when I heard  him play Gershwin’s Concerto in F with the New York Philharmonic, but I think his real realm is the recital, playing the piano like a symphony.

Tuesday he played a program of Ravel’s Miroirs and Pavane pour une infante défunte and Brahms’ Piano Sonata No. 3, giving symphonic and yet nuanced accounts of all three works. The Pavane was reflective, not as much a dance as a reflection, a meditation on a long deceased princess. Miroirs was Thibaudet’s chance to shine, which he did with shimmering scalar passages, delicate melodies, and an enthusiastic, full reading of the famous Alborada, throwing himself into the chords. The chimelike quality of the last movement was also quite lovely. Thibaudet’s way of ending movements by leaving his hands on the piano and letting the last tones of the final notes ring and fade away gave a good indication of just how closely Thibaudet was listening to every note that he played.

The final piece on the program was Brahms’ Piano Sonata No. 3, an impetuous, youthful orchestral work that pointed strongly to the symphonies that were to come. Though some of the large fast sections sounded unsure in the first movement, the piece as a whole was given an exciting and thoughtful reading. The slow middle section was sublime, and the excitement of the finish was felt by the audience. Thibaudet was able to unify the lovely voicing and shimmering tones that characterized his playing of Ravel with the symphonic sounds and big chords specific to the Brahms. He finished the evening off with a stunning encore performance of Brahms’ Intermezzo Op. 118 No. 2, showing off the lyricism that is his true strength. Thibaudet is truly talented at making the piano sing, but in a complex voice all its own. His close attention to each note he plays certainly payed off in memorable, vivid accounts of each piece he played.

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12/4 Vladimir Feltsman @ Carnegie Hall

I can’t imagine what it would be like to give a solo recital. It’s one thing when your part of an orchestra or even the soloist in a concerto-at least the attention is difused a little. But when you’re a soloist, its just you, that piano, and over 2000 people who need to be captivated and entertained. On Friday Vladimir Feltsman was up to the challenge, drawing the audience into his performances of Schubert and Liszt Sonatas. Feltsman’s interpretations brought out the lyricism of each piece, instead of turning them into vehicles to show off his technical prowess (cough, Lang Lang, cough), which I enjoyed. The highlight of the night was definetely the Lizst Sonata in B minor, the last work on the program. Feltsman brought a collected presence to this work, showing off strong voicing and play between both hands. The virtuosic passages were played with piazazz, while the beautiful melody of the second movement sounded beautiful. The emphatic recapitulation at the end of the piece was as dramatic as Lizst coul have wished. A lovely encore of Lizst’s Liebestraum No. 3 finished the night off just right.

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11/12 New York Philharmonic @ Avery Fischer Hall

Haydn- Symphony No. 95

Martinú-Incantation, Piano Concerto No. 4

Sibelius- Symphony No. 1

Xian Zhang-Conductor, Garick Ohlsson-Pianist

 An enjoyable concert to attend. I don’t want to go on at length about glass ceilings and whatever, but I will say it was really nice to see a woman conducting and doing a very nice job. Ms. Zhang was full of boundless energy, extremely emphatic, delineating every phrase with her hands while keeping strict time with her baton. This was effective in the rendering of the Haydn symphony-full of the spirit of dance, with the woodwinds and brass following along nicely. The cello solo by principal Carter Bray was a lovely standout in the work. I could have been deaf and still known the shape and contour of the music given Ms. Zhang’s conducting-she is a woman who knows what she wants and expresses it though her movements, as opposed to some conductors who leave many phrases to the orchestra’s decision.

The Martinú piece was a work I had never heard before, and was intriguing. A “modern” work couched in the terms of classic tonality, it was a dialogue between the orchestra and piano in two movements. The two movement structure was rather abrupt and strange (maybe I’ve just gotten too used to the three movement structure and need to broaden my horizons.) Pianist Garick Ohlsson threw himself into the work, sounding poised and precise even in the rather percussive parts of the work that involved almost banging out large dissonant chords on the piano. At times the orchestra and the pianist seemed to be playing different works, although they did join together to play some beautiful melodies. To me, the piece had the air of unfinished work, as if there was more to be said.

The Sibelius piece that closed the work had all the energy required to thrill, showcasing the themes of the Finnish woods. The drama of the piece was apparent in Ms. Zhang’s strong accents and the power of the brass choir that is an important part of the piece. At times the dynamics and contrasts between the different sections did not balance, but otherwise the dramatic big-orchestra writing that is the heart of this piece was controlled and exuberant. I would have preferred if the programmers had taken a risk and put the Martinú at the end, to set off the interest contrast, and the connection between it and the Sibelius. But I guess we must stick to the old concerto before the intermission model (stuffy orchestras!)

I hope that Ms. Zhang will be back with the NYPhil (as their former assistant conductor, this seems likely.) She is a lively and engaging conductor who would be perfect to go see if you are new to classical music or are trying to get a timid friend enthused. Her clear and sharp conducting combined with her energy throughout the night was endearing and exciting.

 Until next time!

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11/11 The Berlin Philharmonic @ Carnegie Hall

 Brahms-Piano Quartet No. 1 arr. Schoenberg

 Brahms-Symphony No. 1

 Sir Simon Rattle-Conductor

 Having never seen the Berlin Philharmonic before, their concert on Wednesday was a true pleasure to attend. The program explained the orchestra’s compelling idea for their American tour- to pair the four Brahms symphonies they had recently recorded with works by Arnold Schoenberg, who was apparently a big fan of Brahms. This concert paired Schoenberg’s arrangement of Brahms’ Piano Quartet No. 1 with his first symphony, which gave interesting insight into each composer.

To be honest, I was not that familiar with Brahms’ Piano Quartet No. 1. I had listened to it once and really enjoyed it, so I was excited for the piece. In the arrangement one can see the beginnings of Brahms’ symphonies. The Schoenberg arrangement is very interesting, because in the first two movements it sticks closely to the original, but in the last two it becomes modern, bringing in percussion and calls from the horns that certainly update the piece. On the whole, it is a lovely rendering of the unexplored possibilities in the quartet form. The Berlin Philharmonic played with intensity and energy, sounding particularly great in the berserk final movement. The unity of the all the strings-truly, truly sounding like one single instrument was playing, the clarity of the lower strings-particularly the bass, and the rounded sound of the brass were all standouts of this piece. The woodwinds of the orchestra were also quite superb, especially in their solos. The most impressive thing about the orchestra, in both pieces, was how great they sounded both in their sections and when they had solos. There is moment near the very end of the piece in which the large forces of the orchestra give way to a short “string quartet” of the principals (probably a tribute by Schoenberg to his original subject matter) that then builds up to full strength of the orchestra-this was truly magical. A wonderful piece played by a wonderful orchestra.       

As opposed to the first piece, I am very familiar with Brahms Symphony No. 1 as it is one of my favorite pieces. But the orchestra was transcendental to the point that I became so caught up in the music that I forgot what came next.  It was a lovely rendering of the piece, full of force and soul. Sir Simon Rattle kept the work moving, shaping the movement from the dark grandeur of the first movement to the shining triumph of the last. The orchestra sounded clean, crisp and expressive throughout the work, bringing out the dynamics and contrasts. The solo part by concertmaster Guy Braunstein was breathtaking, and the horn accents, an important part of this piece, sounded lovely. The third movement, one I had not appreciated enough before was particularly affecting. On whole, it was a wonderful conception and delivery of the piece.

A recent blog entry by Greg Sandow (http://www.artsjournal.com/sandow/2009/11/no-star_game.html)  talked about the abilities of true stars to “curve time and space,” and I think that the Berlin Philharmonic fits this description. There was literally not an empty seat in the house. The audience bravo-ed merely because Sir Simon Rattle had decided to walk on the stage. The music captivated, the audience became enthralled and time became fluid. It was an affirming moment for me as a fan of classical music-here was an ensemble dedicated to achieving the highest level of musicality they could and there was audience to appreciate it. The repertoire was fairly standard and while not revelatory, the quality of the orchestra and attention they paid to the music was inspiring and revealing. Classical music may or may not be dying, but here was an orchestra that could draw a full, extremely enthusiastic audience to its feet by virtue of its thoughtfulness. The Berlin Philharmonic cared about those pieces, and thus so did the audience.

Bravo and encore.

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10/30 New York Philharmonic @ Avery Fischer

Beethoven – Overture to Egmont                            

Beethoven – Piano Concerto No. 3                          

Bernstein – Symphonic Dances from West Side Story                     

Falla – El sombrero de tres picos, Suite No. 2    

Alan Gilbert-Conductor, Emmanuel Ax-Piano

It was with slight trepidation and great excitement that I bought a ticket to this concert, a non-subscription affair that was added on to the season when the funding fell through for the NYPhil’s trip to Cuba. Having seen the Philharmonic’s sometimes sloppy renditions of repertoire pieces last season, even under Loren Maazel, I wondered what things would be like under the new direction of Alan Gilbert. Thus far his conducting has garnered quite a bit of acclaim, but hearing is believing, so off I went.

Mr. Gilbert and the Philharmonic did not disappoint. The concert opened with Beethoven’s Egmont Overture, an energetic romp that was played with gusto. Sounding more energized than I had ever heard them before, the Philharmonic had both precision and force, starting the evening off with a bang. This was followed by Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 3, with the transcendental Emmanuel Ax on piano. The two times I’ve seen Ax I have been amazed at the sheer certainty and poise in every note that he plays. He shapes each and every phrase, turning out a cohesive whole. The orchestra accompanied deftly, with Gilbert paying close and careful attention to Ax’s phrases.

Bernstein’s Symphonic Dances was particularly impressive. Gilbert took the movements at a slower pace than they are sung, allowing the listener to appreciate the greatness of Bernstein’s music as compositions, not just popular musical theater. The orchestra was into it, snapping and yelling Mambo! at the appropriate intervals, laughing and smiling at each other, while sounding poignant in the string solos. The concert closed with an appropriately encore-esque version of Miguel de Falla’s  Suite No. 2 from “El sombrero de tres picos,” building to an appropriately crashing finale.

In the end, perhaps it was better that the NYPhil was actually in New York instead of Cuba, allowing themselves to be part of the scene here. What was once a focal point of music in the city is no longer a dynamic institution but a wheezing relic that does not draw much attention except when it journeys abroad. But the moment of acclaim when the NYPhil played in Pyongyang was short-lived; far more impressive to me is the new effort to reclaim New York City. An orchestra should be of the city it is in, an embodiment of its spirit and an asset to its residents. What better way to do that than to bring new life to the classics of the repertoire? Or taking the time to impress the people you represent? I can only hope this trend continues.

Until next time!

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11/4 Saint Louis Symphony @ Carnegie Hall

Igor Stravinsky – Chant du rossignol

Tan Dun – Water Concerto

Bright Sheng – Colors of Crimson

Béla Bartók – The Miraculous Mandarin Suite     

David Robertson-Conductor, Colin Currie-Percussion

I decided to go to this concert because I was too intrigued not to go. The concert was part of Carnegie Hall’s recent series “Ancient Paths, Modern Voices,” celebrating Chinese music both traditional and recent. It featured two modern works by Chinese composers bookended by two older works by Western composers –obviously meant to showcase the depth of modern voices (yes, there is more to Chinese music than pentatonic scales!) while also showing the mythical and fantastical aspect of the West’s perceptions of China. The concert certainly provided food for thought, as well as an opportunity to hear a world class orchestra perform with skill and precision.

The first piece of the night was Stravinsky’s Chant du rossignol, or Song of the Nightingale, a symphonic poem that tells the story of Hans Christian Andersen’s The Nightingale, a fairytale set in China about an Emperor , a beautiful Nightingale and the mechanical bird that replaces it. Stravinsky was an evocative storyteller, and this piece is no different, with the various timbres of the orchestra effectively used to characterize the characters (a flute melody for the Nightingale, pompous horns for the Emperor.) The Saint Louis Symphony played wonderfully on this piece, enthusiastically bringing the story to life while displaying mastery of the difficult rhythms. The brass was especially impressive, with a clear and beautiful tone in solo passages and as a group. The low brass was particularly clear and avoided the murky sound that can frequently occur.

The second piece of the night, Tan Dun’s Water Concerto was the most novel. The work could be best described as a soundscape for orchestra and water sonorities. Instead of rolling a grand piano onstage, a large container of water and bowls on lighted stands were put centerstage. The percussionist, Colin Currie, used the water throughout the piece, running his hands through it, splashing with it, and submerging various other things in it to play (wooden bowls, gongs, cups etc.) The orchestra played an accompaniment  that alternated between folk melodies with lush orchestral sounds and brass players percussively taping their mouthpieces and a strange melody reminiscent of children jeering that was produced using the mouthpieces of the brass and woodwinds (or something else; from the balcony I couldn’t really be sure.) The piece overall may not have been spectacular, but the sonorities of the water, in combination both with the orchestra and various other percussion instruments, were arresting. The juxtaposition of the sounds of someone bathing with runs in the violins was unique-a proposition that I hadn’t considered before. I think this juxtaposition spoke particularly to Tan Dun’s background both as a Chinese composer and as someone sent to the countryside during Mao’s Cultural Revolution. A Western composer would not have thought to use water as the basis of a percussion concerto, nor created the effect of “river music.”

After intermission, Colin Currie returned to play the marimba in Bright Sheng’s Colors of Crimson, a concerto for marimba and orchestra. In the program the composer declared his goal to be to balance out the monotimbre of the marimba with a variety of orchestration, thus creating “colors of crimson.” Although the lack of timbre remained apparent, there was a variety of soloing and accompaniment; at times the marimba played a simple melody over a lush string background, while at other times complex conflicts between the orchestra and the marimba seemed to erupt. Of all the pieces of the night, this piece evoked the most real version of China. I could see a country that was more than a fairytale land of pagodas and rivers-it was one that had gone through a Cultural Revolution and torn itself apart, and was slowly trying to piece itself together, trying to find a new identity in our modern world, though conflicting with itself. The thematic folk song material Bright Sheng used was reminiscent of Bartok-vividly used, but never clichéd-an evocation of a China both past and present.

The concert closed with Bartók’s The Miraculous Mandarin Suite, a macabre work of, to quote the program, “lurid Expressionism.” Based on Bartók’s ballet of the same name, the piece tells the story of a young woman forced by three thieves to lure victims to their death. Her third victim is the mysterious Mandarin, who chases her, is wounded by the thieves, but does not bleed until the woman kisses him, whereupon he dies in “an ecstatic love-death.” The piece is lurid and dark, a picture of a fantastically horrible underworld. The St. Louis Symphony played with gusto, evocative and brutal by turns, until the devastating climax. David Robertson was called back three times, and the audience showed its appreciation for the effort of the Saint Louis Symphony.

The concert provided an interesting outlet to address one’s perceptions of China, with four different portraits-the magical fantasy land of old, the lurid opium den of the past, the more modern countryside, and the China of the present. I think it would have been more interesting if the pieces had been presented in chronological order of composition, which would have shown the development of perceptions of China, but the inquiry was effective nonetheless. It left me wondering what new direction China might turn in the future.

Kudos to David Robertson, Colin Currie, and the Saint Louis Symphony Orchestra for a job well done on some challenging pieces. Not being familiar with the SLSO, their polished sound was a welcome delight.

Until next time!


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