Andsnes and Hamelin dazzling in two piano recital

Leif Ove Andsnes, piano
Marc-André Hamelin, piano
Symphony Center
Chicago, IL
April 30, 2017

Mozart: Larghetto and Allegro in E-flat Major for Two Pianos
Stravinsky: Concerto for Two Pianos
Debussy: En blanc et noir
Stravinsky: The Rite of Spring

Encores:
Stravinsky: Madrid for Two Pianos from Four Studies for Orchestra (transc. Soulima Stravinsky)
Stravinsky: Circus Polka for Two Pianos (transc. Babin)
Stravinsky: Tango for Two Pianos (transc. Babin)

It is a rare opportunity indeed to see not one, but two of the world’s leading concert pianists on stage together.  This was fortunately the case Sunday afternoon, when Marc-André Hamelin and Leif Ove Andsnes stopped at Symphony Center as part of a 13-city tour of a bracing program that explored music for two pianos.  Their partnership goes back a decade when they performed the two piano version of The Rite of Spring at the Risør Chamber Music Festival, where Andsnes served as artistic director.  Not three weeks prior to the Chicago performance, the pair finally recorded the piece for Hyperion along with additional works of Stravinsky for the same medium also featured in the recital, and one is grateful this inspired collaboration has been preserved on disc given the pair’s absolutely electric chemistry.

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Andsnes and Hamelin presenting the same program at Carnegie Hall, two days prior to their Symphony Center appearance, photo credit Chris Lee
The program opened unassumingly with Mozart’s Larghetto and Allegro in E flat major, with Andsnes taking the primo part in the whole of the first half.  The Larghetto was graceful but not without shades of melancholy, as in the best of the Mozart’s slow movements.  Cast in sonata form, the Allegro remained unfinished at the time of the composer’s death, and was presented in a completed version by Paul Badura-Skoda.  The sprightly main theme evidenced the duo’s rapport from the start, in what was an energetic warmup for all that was to follow.

Stravinsky’s Concerto for Two Pianos is a substantial if neglected work from his neoclassical period, written for him and his son Soulima to play together, and one couldn’t have asked for better advocates in Andsnes and Hamelin.  The first movement was of bold, sweeping gestures, delivered with a knife-edged acerbity.  The delicate ornamentation in the ensuing “Notturno” gave it a mysterious charm, while contrasting sections were more march-like.  Spiky dissonances characterized much of the “Quattro variazioni”, while the finale opened with a brief but declamatory prelude to set up an intricate fugue.  The theme of the preceding variations was not heard until it was presented as the subject of the fugue – the composer had originally intended for the last two movements to be in reverse, but settled on the present ordering to give the work a more forceful ending.  And a forceful ending it certainly had!

Written in 1915, Debussy’s En blanc et noir is very much a product of the First World War.  The angular themes of the opening movement made for a striking visual effect with Andsnes and Hamelin perfectly in sync as a mirror image of each other.  The somberness of wartime was particularly apparent in the central movement, which made dissonant allusions to the Lutheran chorale “Ein’ feste Burg ist unser Gott” to depict the German enemy.  The final movement – which, perhaps significantly, was dedicated to Stravinsky – was fleet and mercurial, a stark departure in its apparent playfulness.

Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring has been heard on the same stage innumerable times from the Chicago Symphony, but hearing it on two pianos was a refreshing and altogether different experience.  It was in this version that the seminal work was first heard – an early performance involved the composer with Debussy: what a sight that must have been.  The work is actually carefully written such that it can be performed on one piano, four hands, but the decision to split it across two pianos was a wise one, not just for obvious logistical concerns, but the resonance of two instruments along with two separate sets of pedals allowed for a much greater range of orchestral effect.

Hamelin commanded the primo from here to the end of the program, opening with the famous bassoon line.  In spite of Hamelin’s attention to nuance, what’s striking in the bassoon sounded admittedly pedestrian on the piano.  This was quickly allayed, however, as “The Augers of Spring” built to electrifying orchestral sonority and power.  Despite the orchestral score not calling for piano (as Petrushka does, and quite prominently), the work sounded very natural pianistically.  The memorable performance was by and large a steel-fingered assault with hurricane-like intensity, continuing unmitigated through the final, crashing flourish.

A rousing, well-deserved ovation brought the pair back for three encores, all by Stravinsky.  “Madrid” appropriately had an irresistible Spanish tinge, with a hint of the jota.  The “Circus Polka” (“we’ve prepared all these lovely things for you”, noted Hamelin in his introduction to the delight of the audience) was Stravinsky at his wittiest, replete with bitonalities (and perhaps an inspiration for Hamelin’s own “Circus Galop”).  Lastly, the “Tango” was sultry, yet not without the composer’s unmistakable stamp.  Thanks are due to both for being on hand for an engaging Q&A session following the concert, and their chemistry there was just as palpable as it was on stage.

Hamelin Andsnes
Leif Ove Andsnes, James Fahey (Director of Programming, Symphony Center Presents), and Marc-André Hamelin during the post-concert Q&A
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Perlman delights in Lyric Opera recital

Itzhak Perlman, violin
Rohan De Silva, piano
Civic Opera House
Chicago, IL
April 23, 2017

Vivaldi: Sonata in A Major for Violin and Continuo, Op. 2 No. 2, RV 31
Beethoven: Violin Sonata No. 5 in F major, Op. 24, Spring
Schumann: Fantasiestücke, Op. 73
Ravel: Violin Sonata No. 2 in G major

Encores:
Kreisler: Sicilienne and Rigaudon in the style of Francœur
Tchaikovsky, transcribed Auer: Lensky’s Aria from Eugene Onegin
Wieniawski: Etude-Caprice in A minor, Op.18 No. 4
Williams: Theme from Schindler’s List
Brahms, transcribed Joachim: Hungarian Dance No. 1 in G minor
Franz Ries: Perpetuum mobile, from Suite No. 3 in G major, Op. 34

An Itzhak Perlman recital is always a major event, as evidenced by the near-capacity crowd he drew at the cavernous Civic Opera House.  With an opera season ending in March, the venue was certainly put to good use in an enjoyable afternoon from Perlman and long-time recital partner, the Sri Lankan pianist Rohan De Silva.  A stage set of classical pillars provided an elegant backdrop (the advantages of performing in an opera house), and video screens showing close-up views in real time flanked the stage, helping to create a sense of intimacy in a large hall.

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Itzhak Perlman, photo credit Lisa-Marie Mazzucco
Perlman arranged his program chronologically, beginning with the Sonata in A major for Violin and Continuo by Vivaldi.  An energetic presto opened, effectively serving as a warmup to the sprightly second movement.  The slow movement was brief but genuinely expressive, and a joyful finale rounded off this compact work of a mere seven minutes.

In an unannounced change from the printed program which suggested Beethoven’s first violin sonata (Op. 12 No. 1), Perlman elected for the more seasonally appropriate though well-worn Spring sonata (Op. 24).  It opened with a wonderfully bucolic grace, although Perlman’s intonation was regrettably suspect at times.  A languid Adagio molto espressivo followed with some especially lovely playing from De Silva.  The two closing movements both were marked by a delightful interplay between violin and piano, and an elegant melody heightened the finale.

Schumann’s Fantasiestücke, Op. 73 offered some Romantic fervor, with Perlman presenting them in the continuous, unbroken cycle that the composer intended, rather than three separate works.  I was struck by the rippling of the first and the fire of the last, yet in these works originally envisioned for cello or clarinet, they sounded somewhat timid on the violin, requiring more vigor to compensate than Perlman managed to muster.

Ravel’s relatively brief Violin Sonata No. 2 in G major was the only work programmed for the second half in what was surely a calculated move to allow ample time for encores.  Beginning with a single note line in the solo piano, the first movement was one of coloristic writing, pitting the violin and piano on more austere terms with one another than the previous works which favored conviviality.  Ravel’s own take on American musical traditions came to light in the second movement “Blues”, much like in the Piano Concerto of a few years later, replete with blue notes and slides.

Perlman played the accented pizzicatos with his bow hand and the others were plucked up on the fingerboard, but in the former one wished for a greater abrasiveness.  The last movement was acutely virtuosic, yet the delivery was rather dry and detached – but certainly not enough not to garner an enormous standing ovation, as much a recognition for Perlman’s extraordinary career as for Sunday afternoon’s performance.

And ample encores there were – no fewer than six.  While the four sonatas fared a bit lackluster, it was during the encores that the violinist truly sprung to life, and Perlman became Perlman.  With a charismatic stage presence, he explained to the audience that he brought with him a list of every work he’s played in Chicago – humorously suggesting it dated back to 1912 – so as to avoid duplication.  No Perlman recital would be complete without a work of Kreisler, and he offered the illustrious composer-violinist’s Sicilienne and Rigaudon in the style of Francœur, once erroneously thought to be a bona fide work of its namesake.  Perlman exuded an effortless charm in the Sicilienne; the Rigaudon proved that his remarkable prestidigitation is still very much intact.

“Lensky’s Aria” from Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin followed – quite appropriate as Lyric Opera presented the complete work on the same stage just a few months prior – in a transcription by the legendary Leopold Auer.  A work of rich melancholy, it proved to be surprisingly well-suited to the violin.  The Wieniawski Etude-Caprice in A minor came next; a signature work of Perlman, it never fails to impress.  This was only outdone by the Theme from Schindler’s List – one of John William’s finest film scores, it should be remembered that Perlman played in the original soundtrack.  His deeply moving performance had particular poignancy on Sunday given the proximity to Holocaust Remembrance Day.

Two briefer works brought the afternoon to an agreeable close: the searing passion of the first of Brahms’ rousing Hungarian Dances, and the dizzying acrobatics of Franz Ries’ Perpetuum mobile.

Perlman Lyric
Civic Opera House

Osorio makes an impressive entry in Northwestern’s Skyline Piano Artist Series

Jorge Federico Osorio, piano
Mary B. Galvin Recital Hall
Evanston, IL
April 1, 2017

Beethoven: Piano Sonata No. 14 in C sharp minor, Op. 27 No. 2, Moonlight
Schubert: Piano Sonata No. 20 in A major, D959
Debussy: Préludes, Book II

Encores:
Granados: Andaluza, No. 5 from Danzas españolas, Op. 37
Granados: Orientale, No. 2 from Danzas españolas, Op. 37

For piano enthusiasts, the Skyline Piano Artist Series at Northwestern, now in its second season, has become an essential complement to the Sunday afternoon recitals downtown at Symphony Center.  The venue of choice for the series is the recently built Galvin Recital Hall, one of Chicagoland’s most striking concert spaces, an intimate setting boasting stellar acoustics and stunning views of Lake Michigan and the distant Chicago skyline.  Chicago-based pianist Jorge Federico Osorio made a welcome appearance and offered a weighty program of Beethoven, Schubert, and Debussy.

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Jorge Federico Osorio, photo credit Todd Rosenberg
Beethoven’s ever-popular Moonlight sonata opened, the lights of the city skyline reflecting on the water making a fitting visual backdrop, though it should be remembered that the work’s ubiquitous sobriquet didn’t originate with the composer.  Under Osorio’s hands, the first movement was given a luminous, rippling effect, and treated almost like a nocturne.  The buoyant second movement served as a light interlude to the stormy finale.  In this impressive outpouring, Osorio mined the emotional depths of Beethoven’s explosive psyche; a few minor technical mishaps did little to detract from the drama.

In change from the order on the printed program, Osorio proceeded with Schubert’s late, great A major piano sonata (D959) to juxtapose the two epochal Viennese sonatas, both of which redefined the genre.  The grandeur of the capacious opening movement had an ineffable Schubertian grace, and Osorio opted for the lengthy repeat of the exposition.  A thoughtful sense of narrative guided the pianist in the labyrinths of the development, and its introspection was maintained through the mysterious, arpeggiated coda.  The Andantino had the lyricism of a song without words, and built to menacing outbursts in the strikingly contrasting middle section, while the scherzo danced in its mercurial drama, complemented by an especially lovely trio.  In the finale, the main theme’s blissfulness belied a dramatic potential which Osorio was keen to explore, and the movement harked back to the sonata’s declamatory opening in its concluding moments.

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The dramatic setting of the Galvin Recital Hall
The second half was devoted to Debussy’s substantial second book of twelve preludes, a panoply of pianistic watercolors requiring a formidable technique.  Brouillards was given a limpid reading, the coloristic washes of sound suggesting the titular mists.  Contrast was soon to be had in the barren Feuilles mortes, and Osorio struck an ideal balance between the fiery and the sensuous in the faux-Spanish La puerta del Vino.  The quicksilver Les fées sont d’exquises danseuses was fantasy-like, and the resonant bells of a distant cathedral were suggested in Bruyères.  Osorio imbued Général Lavine – eccentric with its requisite eccentricity, one of Debussy’s rambunctious appropriations of the American cakewalk and ragtime music (and incidentally, this concert occurred on the 100th anniversary of Scott Joplin’s death).

The moonlight shimmered in La terrasse des audiences du clair de lune, and how apt it was given this prelude and the Beethoven sonata that concertgoers would leave the hall to the sight of a beautiful crescent moon.  Ondine was perhaps the most impressionistic of the set in its fantastical evocation of the titular water sprite.  The bombast of Hommage à S. Pickwick Esq. P.P.M.P.C. was countered by Canope, which for Osorio was a study in the beauty and purity of tone.  While Les tierces alternées sounds like the name of a dry Czerny etude, here the alternating thirds were used for solid musical purposes rather than mere technique.  The Préludes concluded with the unrelenting technical tour de force that is Feux d’artifice, and Osorio delivered it with panache and élan.

No Osorio recital would be complete without music from the Spanish speaking world, and the two Granados encores filled the gap.  Both were extracted from the 12 Danzas españolas: a jaunty “Andaluza”, fittingly paired with the touchingly lyrical “Orientale”.

Hamelin explores the piano sonata in commanding Cleveland recital

Marc-André Hamelin, piano
Gartner Auditorium
Cleveland Museum of Art
Cleveland, OH
March 21, 2017

Haydn: Piano Sonata in C Major, Hob. XVI:48
Feinberg: Piano Sonata No. 1 in A major, Op. 1
Feinberg: Piano Sonata No. 2 in A minor, Op. 2
Beethoven: Piano Sonata No. 23 in F minor, Op. 57, Appassionata
Scriabin: Piano Sonata No. 7, Op. 64, Messe blanche
Chopin: Piano Sonata No. 2 in B flat minor, Op. 35

Encore:
Debussy: Reflets dans l’eau, No. 1 from Images, Book I

Marc-André Hamelin has built much of his reputation on fearless exploration of the byways of the piano repertoire, and his recital at the Cleveland Museum of Art – presented by the Cleveland International Piano Competition – was no exception, juxtaposing the familiar with the obscure.  All the works on the program bore the title “piano sonata”, although none adhered very closely to the standard model of the form, a true testament to the medium’s protean potential.  Hamelin delivered the program with his signature peerless technique, yet this was far from an evening of vapid virtuosity, but one of probing artistic discovery.

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Marc-André Hamelin, photo credit Rachel Papo
The survey of piano sonatas appropriately began with Haydn, in the two movement C major sonata, Hob. XVI:48.  Given Hamelin’s association with the fingerbusting works of the 19th– and 20th-century, Hamelin and Haydn might sound like an unnatural fit, but as he as shown in his extensive recordings of the composer’s sonatas for Hyperion, it’s an inspired coupling to be sure.  From the onset, the performance was marked by deftly nuanced articulation and crisp ornamentation.  There were sporadic moments when matters felt a bit heavy-handed which lesser pedaling perhaps could have ameliorated, but overall this was a study in precision, replete with minor key excursions that foreshadowed Beethoven, and the all too brief finale exuded joie de vivre.

Certified rarities followed, the first two piano sonatas of the Russian composer and pianist Samuil Feinberg.  His cycle of twelve piano sonatas is a remarkable achievement, unjustly neglected, and Hamelin is rumored to be recording them.  These two sonatas, in A major and minor respectively, were of a similar aesthetic, the consecutive opuses hardly demonstrating Feinberg’s eventual compositional developments (both dating from 1915; the final sonata dates from 1962), yet Hamelin presented them with a singular intensity and an unflinching commitment to this little-known music.

The First Sonata was of a brooding Romanticism, while the dense textures would have sounded murky in lesser hands, Hamelin achieved a lucid clarity of voices, and delineated a clear trajectory in spite of the composer’s tendency to meander.  A touchingly lyrical melody characterized the Second Sonata, and a highpoint came in its dramatically cascading climax.

Beethoven’s mighty Appassionata is a recent addition to Hamelin’s concert repertoire; I’ve been eager to hear his take on this durable work, and he certainly didn’t disappoint.  The opening movement built to massive climaxes that carefully avoided bombast.  There was much-needed repose in the slow movement, enhanced by the adroitly voiced chordal melody, while the finale had an unrelenting nervous energy in its breathless race to the tragic end, given at a dangerously brisk tempo.

One of Hamelin’s first recordings of his long and fruitful association with Hyperion was of the complete Scriabin piano sonatas; the arresting Seventh Sonata is a work that has been in his fingers for a very long time.  Explosive and mercurial, the sonata proceeded with inevitability towards the trilling, mystical ending, shrouded in enigma.

Chopin’s B-flat minor sonata concluded the program, and in the passionate first movement Hamelin drew out a fluid melody over an undulating accompaniment.  He eschewed the repeat of the exposition, although in this case I would suggest the repeat is a wise interpretative choice given the movement’s proportions.  There was a menacing determination in the scherzo, while its middle section was indulgent in sumptuous melody, quintessentially Chopinesque.

No empty sentimentality was to be had in the tragic heights of the famous funeral march, and Hamelin had a velvet touch in the contrasting lyrical section.  His utter and absolute command of the keyboard was on full display in the moto perpetuum finale, yet phrases were keenly shaped to make the sonata’s revolutionary ending more than mere volleys of notes.

Hamelin obliged the modest but enthusiastic audience with an encore in Debussy’s Reflets dans l’eau, shimmering and liquescent.

Welser-Möst and Cleveland Orchestra vivdly trace Stravinsky’s musical development

Cleveland Orchestra
Franz Welser-Möst, conductor

Seraphic Fire
Patrick Dupré Quigley, artistic director
Margot Rood, soprano
Margaret Lias, mezzo-soprano
Steven Soph, tenor
Brian Giebler, tenor
James K. Bass, bass
Charles Wesley Evans, bass

Cleveland Orchestra Chorus
Robert Porco, director

Severance Hall
Cleveland, OH
March 18, 2017

Stravinsky: Feu d’artifice, Op. 4
Stravinsky: Apollo (1947 version)
Stravinsky: Symphonies of Wind Instruments (1947 version)
Stravinsky: Threni

An all-Stravinsky program that doesn’t include a note of The Firebird¸ Petrushka, or The Rite of Spring – impossible you say?  Not for Franz Welser-Möst and the Cleveland Orchestra who presented a thoughtful survey of Stravinsky’s output while managing to skirt the well-worn blockbusters.  Each of Stravinsky’s major stylistic periods were represented, and each work on the program was markedly different from the others, a testament to the composer’s remarkable versatility.  A video of Welser-Möst speaking about the program can be viewed here:

Feu d’artifice, dating from 1908, comes from Stravinsky’s so-called Russian period that would eventually produce his watershed ballet scores for Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes.  The brief but brilliant work is certainly the vision of a youthful firebrand, scored for large orchestra with some particularly striking writing for the celesta.  While there was a sensuous contrasting theme, matters were largely big-boned and extrovert in this last vestige of Russian Romanticism.

Originally composed 1927-28, the ballet score Apollo (variously known by its French title Apollon musagète) was presented in its 1947 revision.  Conceived for strings alone, Apollo is a major product of Stravinsky’s neoclassical period, both in terms of its language, elegant in its clarity and restraint, and its classical inspiration.  The untroubled “Prologue” showcased the beauty of the Cleveland strings, and the ensuing “Variation d’Apollon” featured graceful solo playing from concertmaster William Preucil.  A “Pas d’action” was characterized by long melodies well-suited to the strings which set up a series of variations depicting three of the Muses.  The “Pas de deux” was delicate and given with an ineffable charm, while the “Coda” offered contrast in its jaunty syncopations.  Matters were left in serenity by means of the concluding “Apothéose”, music of haunting stasis.

Apollo was suitably complemented by the Symphonies of Wind Instruments, also stemming from the neoclassical period, but earlier enough to offer some stylistic variety.  Dating from 1919-20, like the preceding, it was performed in its revised version (coincidentally, from 1947 as well, also the year that the ever-fastidious composer revised Petrushka).  The titular wind instruments were not restricted to just the woodwind family, but the broader category of aerophones; hence, the brass were included as well.  “Symphonies”, in its intentional plurality, invoked the term’s Greek origins (literally, “sounding together”), and in the work Stravinsky accordingly was keen to explore various combinations of instrumentation.

Opening with striking, piquant harmonies, the work mercilessly jettisoned sentimentality, demanding such razor-sharp precision that its tempo changes were in a carefully proportioned 1:1.5:2 ratio.  Under Welser-Möst’s taut direction, the desired effect was expertly achieved.  A rhythmically-driven section recalled perhaps the primacy of rhythm in The Rite of Spring, and in spite of its apparent callousness, the work closed in a poignant chorale, meant as a tombeau for the recently deceased Debussy.

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Cleveland Orchestra & Chorus, Franz Welser-Möst, and Seraphic Fire in Stravinsky’s Threni
© Roger Mastroianni, courtesy of The Cleveland Orchestra

The evening’s most intriguing discovery was the final work, the rarely performed Threni, in its belated Cleveland premiere.  Completed in 1958, it was the composer’s first completely serial foray, scored for full orchestra, chorus, and six vocal soloists.  This weekend’s sextet of soloists were from the acclaimed South Florida based choral group Seraphic Fire.  Subtitled “Lamentations of Jeremiah”, the 35-minute work sets text from the Old Testament in Vulgate Latin, punctuated by the chorus exclaiming a letter from the Hebrew alphabet which served as veritable signposts in this demanding score.  Also useful in such unfamiliar territory were the detailed and informative remarks Welser-Möst presented prior to commencing.

The religious discipline was conveyed in the work’s austerity; despite being cast for large orchestra, the textures were dominated by sparse, chamber-like combinations.  A brief introduction was given with declamatory seriousness by Margot Rood and Margaret Lias, soprano and mezzo-soprano respectively.  The first section of the work proper (“De Elegia Prima”) was marked by very fine playing from Michael Sachs on the bugle (flugelhorn), often in dialogue with tenor Brian Giebler, and the chorus commanded a wide dynamic range, from monastic whispers to cataclysmic climaxes.  “De Elegia Tertia” featured striking contributions from the booming bass of the aptly named James K. Bass, his delivery suggesting that of a monk.  Stravinsky was almost certainly influenced by Gesualdo; the sophisticated pointillist counterpoint of a Renaissance motet was cleanly negotiated by all, and the closing “De Elegia Quinta” brought forth a conclusion of solemn resolution.

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Cleveland Orchestra & Chorus, Franz Welser-Möst, and Seraphic Fire in Stravinsky’s Threni
© Roger Mastroianni, courtesy of The Cleveland Orchestra

Igor Levit auspicious in Chicago recital debut

Igor Levit, piano
Symphony Center
Chicago, IL
March 12, 2017

Rzewski: Dreams, Part II
Beethoven: Diabelli Variations, Op. 120

Encore:
Shostakovich: Waltz-Scherzo, No. 5 from Dances of the Dolls, Op. 91b

One of the most exciting Russian pianists of his generation, Igor Levit made a somewhat belated Chicago debut in Symphony Center’s Sunday afternoon piano series.  A thoughtful program comprised of a recent work of Frederic Rzewski paired with Beethoven’s mighty Diabelli Variations made for a probing, rigorous recital, and the stellar reputation that preceded Levit lived up to expectation.

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Igor Levit, photo credit Robbie Lawrence

Inspired by the 1990 Akira Kurosawa film Yume, Rzewski was moved to compose his first book of Dreams (the English rendering of the film’s Japanese title) in 2012-13, followed by a second book of four further works in 2014.  Part II was composed expressly for Levit who gave the world premiere in 2015, and one couldn’t have asked for a more convincing interpreter of this substantial 35-minute work.  The opening “Bells” began in the depths of the piano’s lowest register, to my ears suggesting the beginning of Liszt’s Funérailles, and proceeded at a glacial pace of imposing power.  “Fireflies” was a lighter affair, with a series of trills bringing the titular insects to life, reminiscent of Scriabin’s F sharp major etude from Op. 42 (nicknamed after a much less pleasant insect – the mosquito), and in due course building to wild intensity.

“Ruins” was a chaconne of sorts, its contrapuntal intricacies looking to the Baroque as a guiding light, and a particularly striking effect was achieved with tremolos in both hands.  The concluding “Wake Up” was quintessential Rzewski in its appropriation of folk music, here the song of the same title by Woody Guthrie.  The Guthrie was first introduced in the right hand alone, and appearing again at the very end, but with jarring tone clusters, and movement’s climaxes certainly served to wake one up indeed.

The incomparable Diabelli Variations of Beethoven made for a logical juxtaposition as they were of deep inspiration to Rzewski in his own monumental set of variations, based on the Chilean protest song The People United Will Never Be Defeated! (and incidentally, local admirers of Rzewski’s piano music will have a chance to see that work performed by Ran Dank at Mandel Hall next month).  Levit gave the opening theme a sprightly workout before embarking on the work’s epic trajectory, Beethoven’s compendium of a lifetime’s worth of discoveries in piano technique.

Under Levit’s self-assurance and commanding execution, there was essentially never a dull moment in the hour-long work.  The presto of Variation X was given at a mind-boggling velocity, while time was all but suspended in the solemnity of Variation XIV.  Deft voicing was achieved in the somber Variation XX, while just minutes later there was much humor to be had in Variation XXII’s interpolation of Mozart’s “Notte e giorno faticar”.  Levit clearly delineated the contrapuntal lines of the Fughetta (Variation XXIV), and the rippling effect he created in Variation XXVI was wondrous.  The final, slow variations entered the spiritual realm, culminating in the massive Fugue (Variation XXXII), and the closing minuet, seemingly a nostalgic look backwards to the work’s humble beginnings.

After the weight of the Beethoven, some lighter fare was needed.  Levit responded in kind with a lone encore, Shostakovich’s “Waltz-Scherzo”, bubbling with an irresistible impish charm.

Minimalist staging contrasts lush music in Lyric Opera’s Eugene Onegin

Lyric Opera of Chicago
Civic Opera House
Chicago, IL
March 8, 2017

Tchaikovsky: Eugene Onegin, Op. 24

Mariusz Kwiecień, Eugene Onegin
Ana María Martínez, Tatiana
Charles Castronovo, Lensky
Alisa Kolosova, Olga
Jill Grove, Filippyevna
Dmitry Belosselskiy, Prince Gremin

Alejo Pérez, conductor
Chicago Lyric Opera Orchestra
Robert Carsen, director
Michael Levine, set designer

Based upon Pushkin’s seminal novel in verse of the same title, Tchaikovsky’s sumptuous Eugene Onegin is one of the most Romantic of all the great Romantic operas.  An impressive close to the 2016-17 season, Lyric Opera revived Robert Carsen’s production, originally created for the Met, under the guidance of revival director Paula Suozzi.  The sets were of utmost economy, focusing one’s attention on the essential without gratuitous distractions, fitting for a work that ultimately favors expressiveness over flamboyance.  Stark as it may have been, the set never felt cold thanks to the thoughtful lighting design – for instance, much of Act I was basked in a warm orange glow.

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During Act I of Eugene Onegin, all photos credit Todd Rosenberg

In a splash of autumn colors, the opening scene was highlighted by the ensemble pieces, notably a quartet which included the first interaction between Tatiana and Onegin.  Mariusz Kwiecień was an expert Onegin, imbuing the role with the same cocky swagger he gave to the title character of Don Giovanni in the 2014-15 season.  Ana María Martínez played Tatiana with a sweet and charming innocence, although she was regrettably in less than top form as it was announced from the stage she was suffering from a cold.  Olga and Lensky were portrayed by Alisa Kolosova and Charles Castronovo respectively, and they were especially affecting in the duet in which Lensky passionately declared his love.

Martínez’s biggest moment in the spotlight was in the celebrated Letter Scene, accompanied by some very fine playing from the solo oboe in the pit.  Having stayed up the entire night putting her feelings to paper, daybreak inevitably came, and was reminiscent of that from Wagner’s Siegfried – and indeed, Tchaikovsky witnessed the Ring firsthand at Bayreuth.  Onegin expectedly rebuffed Tatiana’s youthful interest, given with an even-keeled equanimity, and the two exited the stage arm-in-arm as mere cordial friends.

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Ana María Martínez (Tatiana) in the Letter Scene

Act II opened with a lilting waltz; after Lensky caught sight of Onegin dancing with Olga he challenged him to a duel which ultimately proved to be his demise.  In the solo aria that followed, alone on stage, Lensky meditated on the meaninglessness of the situation in which he had embroiled himself, arresting in its deep Tchaikovskyian melancholy.  The final act takes places several years later, however, in a perplexing stage decision it followed without pause.  The beloved polonaise was given a big-boned performance by the orchestra, conducted by Alejo Pérez in his Lyric – and American – debut.  Indeed, the prevalence of dance in the opera reminded one that this was coming from the pen of the greatest ballet composer of the nineteenth century.

At last having developed feelings for Tatiana, Onegin found himself lost in the ennui of a Byronic aimlessness.  Though Tatiana admitted her feelings have persisted, she ultimately rejected him, not wanting to ruin her amiable marriage to the Prince Gremin.  Onegin is left to regret his fate, and to forever wonder what could have been – hardly dramatic by operatic standards, but an emotionally charged ending to be sure.

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Mariusz Kwiecień (Onegin) and Ana María Martínez (Tatiana)

Stewart Copeland’s The Invention of Morel an intriguing world premiere

Armitage Concert Hall
Old Town School of Folk Music
Chicago, IL
February 17, 2017

A Conversation with Stewart Copeland, Jonathan Moore, and Andreas Mitisek
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Chicago Opera Theater
Studebaker Theater
Chicago, IL
February 26, 2017

Copeland: The Invention of Morel

Andrew Wilkowske, Fugitive
Lee Gregory, Narrator
Valerie Vinzant, Faustine
Kimberly E. Jones, Dora
Nathan Granner, Morel

Andreas Mitisek, conductor
Fulcrum Point New Music Project
Jonathan Moore, director
Alan Muraoka, scenic designer

While general director of Andreas Mitisek has announced his departure from Chicago Opera Theater at the end of this season, he isn’t one not to end on a high note: staging a world premiere, in collaboration with rock and roll drummer turned opera composer Stewart Copeland and librettist Jonathan Moore.  The Invention of Morel takes its inspiration from the 1940 sci-fi novella by Adolfo Bioy Casares, contemporary and Argentine compatriot of Borges.  The surreal and fantastical nature of the source material doesn’t make for an obvious transition to opera, but the talented creative team took great pains to ensure that operatic treatment would serve the work well

The night before the premiere, an engaging Q&A with Copeland, Moore, and Mitisek was held at the Old Town School of Folk Music (a short clip can be viewed here).  A charismatic and articulate interlocutor, Copeland certainly exuded the larger-than-life persona of a bona fide rock star.  He spoke of the particular joy he had in the opportunity to write long-form compositions given their heightened expressive capabilities as compared to the standard three-minute pop song, and the greater possibility of the end product withstanding the test of time – humorously noting that his rock colleagues, Mick Jagger among them, hardly expected their songs to persist as long as they have.

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Stewart Copeland at the Old Town School of Folk Music

Copeland first had success in symphonic music writing ballet and film scores, soon to be approached by the Cleveland Opera for his inaugural operatic effort – Holy Blood and Crescent Moon, dating from 1989.  Morel is his fifth opera, and Copeland was self-assured in his continued development as an opera composer, and was genuinely grateful the project was being embraced by COT.  In characteristic good humor, he suggested that each of his recent Chicago appearances have been a step up from the previous – as if The Police Reunion Tour at Wrigley Field in 2007 and performing his film score for Ben Hur with the Chicago Symphony in 2014 were mere warmups for working with COT.

Jonathan Moore was quite the raconteur in his inimitable British wit, speaking of the challenges inherent in translating the novella to a libretto suitable to the operatic stage, and his long affinity for music encouraged by his grandfather, a noted Irish fiddle player.  He further spoke enthusiastically of the experience of working with Copeland and Mitisek; the three of them on stage seemingly had the natural rapport of old friends.

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Valerie Vinzant (Faustine) and Andrew Wilkowske (Fugitive), photo credit Liz Lauren

The venue of choice for Morel was the intimate Studebaker Theater, beautifully restored to its former glory – and quite recently so – in the Fine Arts Building, itself an architectural gem.  When the house lights went off, one expected the opera to commence, but instead the captive audience was served with a promotional video for COT – a worthy cause to be sure, but I wish they would have avoided soliciting during the essential moment of anticipation before the music begins.  A small matter, though, and the music followed in due course, opening with a bevy of string glissandos to immediately invoke an otherworldly, surreal atmosphere.  As one would expect from the ex-drummer of The Police, the score – conducted by Mitisek and convincingly performed by the 16 member Fulcrum Point New Music Project – was dominated by the percussion, and almost unrelentingly so.

While the music had its fill of rhythmic drive, it was more than mere pastiche or a symphonic mash-up of rock and roll tropes, and in a nod towards eclecticism there were sections suggesting samba and jazz.  In rock musicians who have turned to classical idioms, there is often the perplexing trend of an artist cutting-edge in their comfort zone suddenly becoming cautiously parochial, for instance, Roger Waters’ disappointingly conservative opera Ça ira or Billy Joel’s rather formulaic Fantasies and Delusions for solo piano.  I would not say this of Morel¸ however, in spite of this and Copeland’s obvious commitment to the project, the music was perhaps the weakest link, lacking any truly memorable melodies.

The plot, though not without a certain allure, was cumbersome and sometimes difficult to follow.  It dealt with a Narrator reminiscing about his younger self (the Fugitive) happening upon an island.  There, he encounters a group of tourists and is immediately enamored with a certain Faustine.  But, the scientist Morel has subjected the visitors to his titular invention, namely, a device that allows them to exist in a perpetually-looping reality, but at the cost of their lives.  As the Fugitive and Faustine effectively exist in mutually exclusive dimensions, they cannot communicate and she isn’t even aware of his presence.

The Fugitive and Narrator were played by Andrew Wilkowske and Lee Gregory respectively – dressed the same and physically resembling one another, they often echoed each other’s lines.  Both had powerful vocal presences, and their dualism suggested the work’s central dichotomies, a reflection on past and present, on science and religion.  Valerie Vinzant was effective in her sensuous portrayal of Faustine, and commanded the wide tessitura of the part with aplomb.

Alan Muraoka’s set was serviceable in its minimalism, an immutable edifice that was cast in a different light with regards to the video projections designed by Adam Flemming.  While I didn’t leave the Studebaker convinced I had just witnessed a new operatic masterpiece, Morel is nonetheless a welcome addition to the repertoire, and certainly a highpoint for Mitisek to conclude his tenure at Chicago Opera Theater.

Bel canto splendor in Lyric Opera’s Norma

Lyric Opera of Chicago
Civic Opera House
Chicago, IL
February 13, 2017

Bellini: Norma

Sondra Radvanovsky, Norma
Elizabeth DeShong, Adalgisa
Russell Thomas, Pollione
Andrea Silvestrelli, Oroveso
Jesse Donner, Flavio
Hlengiwe Mkhwanazi, Clotilde

Riccardo Frizza, conductor
Chicago Lyric Opera Orchestra
Kevin Newbury, director
David Korins, set designer

Easily the non plus ultra of the bel canto repertoire, Bellini’s Norma affords one the opportunity to relish in the beauty of the human voice, chiefly supplied by Sondra Radvanovsky as the title role in Lyric Opera’s current production.  Bellini characterized the work as a tragedia liricia, aptly capturing its essential dichotomy of sumptuous singing within a starkly dark context, perhaps suggesting the similar duality inherent in the dramma giocoso label Mozart appended to Don Giovanni.  This new-to-Chicago production was designed by David Korins, and took inspiration from supposed motifs of the Iron Age.

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Sondra Radvanovsky (Norma), Andrea Silvestrelli (Oroveso), photo credit Cory Weaver

Even before the curtain rose, one could feel the impending sense of strife in the dramatic overture, the orchestra in dependably fine form under the baton of Riccardo Frizza in his Lyirc debut.  Radvanovsky was radiant in her first appearance, delivering the justly famous, plaintive “Casta diva” atop an elevated platform.  Augmented to ethereal effect by a solo flute, she embodied the aria’s lyrical decadence.  I did find her voice to be unfortunately grainy in some of the longer sustained notes, but overall she negotiated the daunting demands of the role admirably well.

Another early highlight came in the duet between her and Adalgisa (“Sola, furtiva al tempio”), the latter convincingly sung by Elizabeth DeShong.  The two leading women showed their vulnerability in this touchingly affecting moment.  In due course matters burgeoned into a trio with the addition of Pollione, a vehicle for Russell Thomas’ company debut.  Thomas didn’t quite manage to fully deliver the weight of the role, but he was at his best during the heartwrenching duet with Norma “In mia man alfin tu sei” near the opera’s end.  Hlengiwe Mkhwanazi exuded an appropriately matronly demeanor in her portrayal of Clotilde, watching over Norma’s soon-to-be motherless children.  The choir had many fine moments to shine throughout the evening; prepared by Michael Black they were especially rousing in the Act II call to arms, “Guerra, guerra”.

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Russell Thomas (Pollione) and Sondra Radvanovsky (Norma), photo credit Alyssa Pointer

While the opera is takes place in Roman-occupied Gaul during the year 50 BCE, Korins’ set looked back much further in time in its invocation of the Iron Age, which seemingly could have doubled as set from Games of Thrones.  To its credit, it skirted excessive kitchiness, yet this revisionist take still seemed questionable at best.  The oak tree was of sacred significance to the Druids, and one hung suspended as a beguiling central image, perhaps suggesting the way Norma was suspended in indecision between religion and love.  In the opera’s tragic ending, Norma throws herself into a flaming pyre, but in a perplexing anticlimax, no flames were to be had, diminishing the effect.  Indeed, there’s likely more drama to be found in Jim Morrison singing “and our love become a funeral pyre”; there at least fires are lit, unlike the disappointing end to a by and large anodyne production from Lyric.

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Elizabeth DeShong (Adalgisa), Sondra Radvanovsky (Norma), and Russell Thomas (Pollione), photo credit Cory Weaver

A Steve Reich celebration at Northwestern

Northwestern University Contemporary Music Ensemble
Northwestern University Percussion Ensemble
Alan Pierson, conductor
Pick-Staiger Concert Hall
Evanston, IL
February 9, 2017

Reich: Clapping Music
Reich: City Life
Reich: Music for 18 Musicians

As winner of the 2016 Nemmers Prize in Music Composition, Steve Reich is undertaking a pair of residencies at Northwestern University, the first of which culminated in a performance by the university’s Contemporary Music Ensemble and Percussion Ensemble.  Much attention has been given to Reich in recent months, coinciding with his 80th birthday last October (incidentally, a threshold which minimalist compatriot Philip Glass crossed just a couple weeks ago, acknowledged locally by the Bruckner Orchester Linz).  Three of Reich’s most representative works were programmed, expertly performed by student ensembles, and an engaging onstage Q&A between Reich and conductor Alan Pierson served as an intermezzo before the final selection.

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Steve Reich and Alan Pierson, photo credit Todd Rosenberg

The evening began with Reich’s iconic Clapping Music.  Dating from 1971, it was the product of the composer’s aspiration to write music that solely relied on the human body as an instrument.  Ten pairs of performers were onstage, with one clapping a fixed pattern and the other navigating the intricate rhythmic shifts, eventually coming full circle to conclude in unison.  Pierson gestured with his head to punctuate each new segment which ensured all 20 performers remained together, and he was paired with Reich himself – in an age when composition and performance have become increasingly separate disciplines, it was a rare treat indeed to see a composer perform their own work.

The first half was rounded off with the most recent work on the program, City Life (1995), a bustling and not altogether charitable portrait of New York City.  The scoring included two sampling pianos, loaded with an arsenal of prerecorded sounds as a veritable digital incarnation of the prepared piano.  Seamlessly woven into the fabric of the work, the sound samples used functioned as instruments in of themselves.  Ambient mood lighting illuminated the stage, changing color to mark each of the five movements, and added an additional visual dimension to the performance.

It opened with earthy harmonies, almost reminiscent of Copland, before shifting to Reich’s more familiar textures.  The second and fourth movements were the only ones to eschew speech samples and were dark and often tragic in character.  In the central “It’s been a honeymoon – can’t take no mo’”, frenetically repeated figures were marked by rhythmic precision and a detailed use of phasing.  The concluding “Heavy smoke” was the most arresting, with the stage ominously shrouded in a deep red.  The sirens from the opening movement returned, which Reich indicated were an artifact of the World Trade Center bombing of 1993.  Matters ended seemingly peacefully with the stage now a softer blue, but this was an apotheosis of questionable authenticity.

The Music of Steve Reich
City Life, photo credit Todd Rosenberg

The monumental Music for 18 Musicians was the evening’s highlight, and was preceded by a brief discussion with Reich – a fascinating look into the mind of the composer himself (a very short clip can be viewed here).  Reich touched on his ambivalent relationship with New York City that informed the contents of the previous work, described the medium of Music for 18 Musicians as a “large chamber ensemble” (i.e. not requiring a conductor), and spoke with admiration of the Northwestern student performers.

Conductor-less indeed, the final work took its cue from Balinese gamelan and others where the musicians themselves serve as conductor from within the ensemble, obviating the need for a separate entity.  Here, the metallophone functioned as a de facto conductor, cueing the start of each section.  Spanning the continuum of nearly an hour, it’s difficult to describe the sheer aural impact of the work, one that should surely be on the bucket list of every concertgoer.  Throughout the duration, the effect was singularly mesmerizing, often reaching ecstatic heights.  I was particularly struck by the ethereal voices of the four singers, incidentally, the only performers to be amplified.  The cohesiveness and stamina the titular 18 musicians exuded was a sight to behold, sustained through the otherworldly final moments wherein matters were distilled to the solo violin.

Reich’s next residency and associated concerts will take place in November 2017 – much to look forward to indeed.

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After Music for 18 Musicians (Steve Reich on stage at far right), photo credit Todd Rosenberg