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

Chicago Symphony’s return marked by a jovial program with Bramwell Tovey

Chicago Symphony Orchestra
Bramwell Tovey, conductor
Symphony Center
Chicago, IL
February 4, 2017

Walton: Orb and Sceptre
Britten: The Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra, Op. 34
Tchaikovsky: The Sleeping Beauty, Op. 66 – Act II

After devoting January to an extensive and triumphant European tour, the Chicago Symphony returned to Symphony Center last weekend in their first concert on home turf since mid-December.  This also marked the subscription debut of the talented British conductor Bramwell Tovey, who currently serves as music director of the Vancouver Symphony.  The repertoire choices spanned the European continent from a British first half to a Russian finale, alluring in their ebullience.

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Bramwell Tovey

A rarity (and first performance for the CSO) opened in Walton’s Orb and Sceptre, a spirited coronation march he wrote for the crowning of Elizabeth II in 1953.  It began with extrovert playing in brass, sounding not unlike the ubiquitous Wedding March from Mendelssohn’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream.  The score called for an organ which gave matters a particularly ceremonial quality.  The work’s showstopping moment came in the contrasting lyrical theme which invoked the nobility of Elgar, and returned in the concluding peroration – the CSO’s energetic playing bordering on the overzealous.

Britten’s The Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra began with a stately presented of the Baroque theme, derived from the Rondeau of Purcell’s incidental music to Abdelazer.  Opening with the force of the full orchestra, the variations are distilled to each of the constituent instruments, teaching the titular young listener to identify the characteristic sound of each.  Among the highpoints were Keith Buncke demonstrating the lyrical potential of the bassoon, and the trumpet duet between Mark Ridenour and Tage Larsen.  The closing fugue was innocently initiated in the piccolo by Jennifer Gunn (though regrettably, not without a few missed notes), building up to the thrilling climax in which Purcell’s original melody is superimposed over Britten’s fugue subject.  The dignified manner in which the musicians presented the work made the case that only the subtitle – “Variations and Fugue on a Theme of Purcell” – was necessary, this being a work of much more than mere didacticism.

The latter half was devoted the entire second act of Tchaikovsky’s seminal ballet score, The Sleeping Beauty.  Despite the act’s abundance of first-rate music, it’s also some of the ballet’s least-known as none appears in the familiar suite the composer extracted (and of which Muti conducted during a memorable all-Tchaikovsky program in Millennium Park at the beginning of the 2014-15 season).  Tovey provided the audience with a spoken introduction, detailing the act’s plot and brimming with his characteristic British wit.

A rustic atmosphere drew the audience into Tchaikovsky’s fairy tale world, as portrayed by the brilliance of the horns.  Tovey suggested that the harp represents the realm of the supernatural, and it was beautifully played by Sarah Bullen, a noteworthy addition to the score’s rich colors.  Stefán Ragnar Höskuldsson’s silvery flute vividly brought the Lilac Fairy to life.  The farandole was another delightful moment, though Tchaikovsky imbued it with an ineffable Eastern tinge, à la the mazurka.  John Sharp’s cello solo truly yearned in the Pas d’action, only to be outdone by concertmaster Robert Chen’s extended passagework in the Entr’acte that heralds the act’s finale (and originally composed for Leopold Auer).  Heretofore silent, the percussionists finally had their due in the concluding moments, Cynthia Yeh’s gong dramatically signifying the long-awaited awakening of Aurora, and the act concluded in rousing fashion.

Vocal and visual spectacle in Lyric Opera’s Les Troyens

Lyric Opera of Chicago
Civic Opera House
Chicago, IL
December 3, 2016

Berlioz: Les Troyens

Christine Goerke, Cassandra
Susan Graham, Dido
Brandon Jovanovich, Aeneas
Okka von der Damerau, Anna
Lucas Meachem, Chorebus
Christian Van Horn, Narbal

Sir Andrew Davis, conductor
Chicago Lyric Opera Orchestra
Tim Albery, director
Tobias Hoheisel, set designer

With works on the scale of La damnation de Faust and Roméo et Juliette to his credit, one would certainly expect an opera from Berlioz to be of the grandest proportions.  Les Troyens certainly does not disappoint on that front, and Lyric Opera of Chicago’s first traversal of this epic – lasting nearly five hours – was a major achievement.  Scored for a large cast, massive choir, sumptuous orchestra, and corps de ballet, this lavish production directed by Tim Albery and designed by Tobias Hoheisel was given a run of just five performances as it was no doubt a costly investment for Lyric.

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Lyric Opera’s Les Troyens, photo credit Todd Rosenberg

Berlioz had something of an obsession with Virgil’s Aeneid on which the opera is based, and accordingly provided his own libretto, notable for its directness.  The opera is conceived in five acts, further divided into two parts (The Taking of Troy and The Trojans at Carthage respectively).  The central image on stage through the duration was of a mighty wall, crumbling and dilapidated in Troy, opulent and shining in Carthage, yet in a continuing arc it was the same wall, suggesting the cyclical rise and fall of human civilization.  On that note, one was struck by the suggestion of the Trojan refugees crossing the Mediterranean in flight of their destroyed city, evocative of the plight of the Syrian refugees in today’s no less tumultuous political climate.

The latter part begins at the third act, and it was here the wall was rebuilt, brilliantly shrouded in pearly white light, allowing for a striking visual effect of shadows on the wall.  Act IV was a highpoint with its tender moments in an otherwise bloody drama.  The corps de ballet beautifully portrayed nymphs and satyrs, and Mingjie Lei’s dulcet tones depicted the poet Iopas, accompanied by the harp and oboe.  The act built up to the soaring duet between Dido and Aeneas (“Nuit d’ivresse”), the otherworldly atmosphere further enhanced by celestial images of the stars and planets.  In the last act, Susan Graham’s Dido was impassioned and heartwrenching in her final, desperate cries, and the opera ended with the word “ROMA” projected on the wall suggesting her parting vision of Carthage being destroyed by Rome.

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Susan Graham (Dido) and Brandon Jovanovich (Aeneas), photo credit Todd Rosenberg

Dido was originally to be sung by Sophie Koch who withdrew for personal reasons, and fortunately for local audiences a seasoned a Dido as Graham was on hand to take her place, and she provided a bounty of beautiful singing.  Brandon Jovanovich’s Aeneas was imposing and authoritative, amply filling the dimensions of this substantial role.  Also worthy of note was Christine Goerke as Cassandra, the daughter of Priam (king of Troy), appearing only in the first part to haplessly warn of city’s impending destruction.  The chorus and orchestra, led by Michael Black and Sir Andrew Davis respectively, were major forces to be reckoned with, serving effectively as dramatic characters in their own right – unwieldy as the work may be, all the moving parts came together in tight control.

Following the curtain, there was a Q&A session moderated by general director Anthony Freud with Brandon Jovanovich, Susan Graham, Christine Goerke, and Lucas Meachem – thanks are in order to them for providing a fascinating perspective on the heels of what was surely a physically exhausting performance.

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Post-opera Q&A, L-R: Susan Graham, Lucas Meachem, Christine Goerke, Anthony Freud, Brandon Jovanovich

Van Zweden, Trifonov, and the Cleveland Orchestra find fresh inspiration in Mozart and Beethoven

Cleveland Orchestra
Jaap van Zweden, conductor
Daniil Trifonov, piano
Severance Hall
Cleveland, OH
November 27, 2016

Britten: Sinfonia da Requiem, Op. 20
Mozart: Piano Concerto No. 23 in A major, K488
Beethoven: Symphony No. 5 in C minor, Op. 67

Over the Thanksgiving weekend, the Cleveland Orchestra presented a sumptuous program anchored by seminal works of Mozart and Beethoven.  After being heralded earlier this year as the New York Philharmonic’s music director-designate, all eyes have been on Jaap van Zweden.  The program played on his strengths, and even the most familiar of repertoire sounded dynamic and anew under his probing guidance.

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Jaap van Zweden, photo credit Bert Hulselmans

The afternoon began in somewhat less familiar territory with Britten’s Sinfonia da Requiem, a work the orchestra has not performed since the 1970s.  A triptych of succinct, interconnected movements, it encapsulates the composer’s pacifist leanings and is an important precursor to the watershed War Requiem.  The opening Lacrymosa began quite strikingly in the timpani and piano, keyboardist Joela Jones providing an unrelenting, anxious ostinato.  The oboe passages of principal Frank Rosenwein were strained and pained in a texture that built to surging brass climaxes in its ethos of despair.

Nervous flutes opened the Dies irae but the heart of the piece was in the concluding Requiem aeternam.  While in lesser hands it can sound like a plodding passacaglia, under van Zweden’s baton it was peaceful and plaintive, building to an arching lyricism in serene resolution, worlds apart from the austerity of the opening.

Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 23 brought forth the remarkable young pianist Daniil Trifonov, who has an important connection to the city having studied at the Cleveland Institute of Music.  The concerto opened in the airy textures of the strings, with a gesture as gentle as an exhale, and it was with that naturalness the music flowed.  Trifonov’s entrance was unassuming and graceful, and he emphasized the work’s lyrical beauty and dramatic contrasts as per his propensity to the Romantic repertoire, though never in excess.  The cadenza was fleet and deftly balanced, displaying Trifonov’s astonishing dexterity.

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Daniil Trifonov

Cast in the relative key of F sharp minor, the slow movement was filled with longing, and the winds were almost decadent in the splendor of their singing lines.  Trifonov would often glance heavenward as if seeking some divine inspiration, fitting for music this sublime.  The sprightly rondo finale is inherently familiar to many Clevelanders, in its frequent appearances as theme music on WCLV.  Although there were shades of darkness in its minor key episodes, the overall mood was of pure joie de vivre.

Perhaps the greatest interpretative challenge of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony is making one of the most popular pieces in the literature sound anything but trite and clichéd.  Van Zweden proved amply up to the challenge as was apparent right from the crispness of the arresting opening, in a first movement that was lean and taut.  Its violent contrasts were emphasized, keeping the audience on the edge of their seats as it seemingly could devolve into wild abandon at any moment, yet matters were always tightly controlled.

The slow movement began with some especially lovely tones in the cellos, and the interplay between the martial and lyrical themes was cleanly delineated.  I was especially struck by the clarity of the third movement’s fugato section, the contrapuntal lines weaving in and out of the strings.  The finale was an exuberant and joyous affair, and the noteworthy addition of the trombone and the piccolo heightened its sense of drama to bring the concert to a rousing close.

Mahler in Michigan: Rattle and the Berliners thrill in Ann Arbor

Berliner Philharmoniker
Sir Simon Rattle, conductor
Hill Auditorium
Ann Arbor, MI

November 12, 2016
Boulez: Éclat
Mahler: Symphony No. 7 in E minor

November 13, 2016
Schoenberg: Fünf Orchesterstücke, Op. 16
Webern: Sechs Stücke für Orchester, Op. 6b
Berg: Drei Orchesterstücke, Op. 6
Brahms: Symphony No. 2 in D major, Op. 73

Last weekend saw the illustrious Berlin Philharmonic in Ann Arbor during a residency that included a pair of performances at Hill Auditorium as well as instrumental masterclasses with University of Michigan music students.  The stop in Ann Arbor was part of an extensive US tour, expected to be the orchestra’s last with its celebrated music director Sir Simon Rattle before he leaves Berlin for London and passes the baton to Kirill Petrenko.  Both concerts were filmed by CBS’ 60 Minutes for a forthcoming segment on Rattle.

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Berliner Philharmoniker, photo credit Sebastian Haenel

Saturday evening’s program began with a tribute to the late Pierre Boulez, the extraordinary visionary the world lost at the beginning of the year.  Boulez had a long and fruitful relationship with the Berliners, and it was a testament to their mutual admiration that the orchestra took one of his compositions on the road, despite his often abstruse language having the potential to alienate many audience members.  I certainly do not claim to have a thorough grasp of Boulez’s idiom, but nonetheless found the performance to be an altogether engaging aural experience and striking experiment in orchestral color.

Éclat dates from 1965 and is scored for a modest ensemble of fifteen instruments.  It is concerned with a dialogue between instruments with a resonance that abruptly fades (notably, piano, mandolin, guitar, and cimbalom), and the strings and winds, which can be sustained indefinitely.  The work opened with aggressive and virtuosic playing from pianist Majella Stockhausena before the latter category of instruments added their voice.  Rattle’s conducting was razor sharp, giving every phrase a sense of purpose regardless of how disconcerting it might sound to the ear to make the piece coalesce into more than just a collection of the fragments suggested by the title.  Yet by the same token, one was also struck at the interpretative latitude Rattle gave the musicians within the overarching structure to promote a lively conversation.

The bulk of the program was devoted to Mahler’s Seventh Symphony, itself an evening’s worth of music in its own right.  Easily the most enigmatic of Mahler’s symphonic corpus, it served as perhaps another tip of the hat to Boulez who had a revelatory and unashamedly modernist conception of the piece, as documented in his recording with the Cleveland Orchestra.  Rattle’s interpretation sought middle ground between Boulezian modernism and the hyper-Romantic reading of a Bernstein, for instance.  Impressively, Rattle conducted the entire score from memory, and his overall tempo choices were moderate with a total performance time clocking in just below the 80 minute mark.

Mahler famously said that a symphony should encompass the world; in the Seventh, the vast first movement alone embodies that scope.  Its opening was arresting in the richness of the tenor horn cast over an unsettling accompaniment, the rhythm of the latter purportedly inspired by the oars of a boat dipping into the water.  Contrast was to be found in the soaring melodies of the strings – with the violins split on either side of Rattle – in music of aching lyricism.  Most striking was the pastoral idyll at the movement’s midpoint, a beckoning to the providential vision of the Austrian countryside.  The level of intensity was ramped up for the coda in a thrilling conclusion.

The first of the two movements labelled Nachtmusik opened with a yearning horn call from principal Stefan Dohr before a lilting waltz in the cellos.  Distant cowbells were heard offstage, this wistful alpine dream serving as respite from the fractured psyche of fin de siècle Vienna.  The middle movement of the large-scale symmetrical architecture was a ghostly retreat to the shadows, notable for the orchestra’s mercurial playing.  In the latter Nachtmusik, there was delicate and refined playing from concertmaster Noah Bendix-Balgley, and the texture was made all the more sumptuous by harpist Marie-Pierre Langlamet.  The mandolin and guitar aren’t instruments that regularly appear in the standard orchestral literature, so it was a case of clever and certainly efficient programming that they were featured in both the evening’s works, with Detlef Tewes and Matthew Hunter respectively.  The pair were in fine form and gave the movement the feel of a lovely serenade.

The finale has perennially perplexed audiences, its seemingly unbridled optimism circumventing the enigmas confounded by the preceding.  Rattle seemed utterly convinced that this wasn’t music to be taken at face value and probed beneath the surface, emphasizing its parody and irony.  The thunderous timpani awakened matters from the night, and the sunrise first appeared in the shining brass.  Its obvious homage to Wagner’s courtly Meistersinger was tempered through a more rustic sensibility, the type of garish juxtaposition Rattle was keen to accentuate.  With a propulsive forward drive, the movement proceeded to a well-earned, glorious conclusion, the capacity crowd (no small feat given that the concert coincided with the Michigan vs. Iowa game!) responding with a tumultuous ovation.

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Sir Simon Rattle, photo credit Stephan Rabold

Sunday afternoon’s concert picked up right where Saturday’s left off, with the first half comprised of the sets of orchestral pieces of Schoenberg and his disciples Webern and Berg.  These three composers were faced with the not insubstantial question of what one could possibly write in the wake of Mahler, and while it erred dangerously close to an overdose of the Second Viennese School, programming all three sets gave the listener an intriguing look at the direction Mahler might have gone had he lived a few more years.  Rattle elected to perform them without pause between, and in his spoken introduction invited the audience to conceive of it as “a 14 movement suite” or “Mahler’s eleventh symphony.”

Each of the 14 pieces are relatively brief, as if a shard of broken Romanticism, distilled to its essential meaning.  Schoenberg’s Five Pieces were given with an intensity that rivaled that of James Levine’s performance I saw in Chicago just the previous week.  The repeated figure in the celesta made the titular reminiscences of Vergangenes all the more unnerving, and Farben was a shimmering exposé in orchestral color.  A calmer moment in Peripetie was given by principal flutist Mathieu Dufour, a familiar face to this listener as he previously held that position with the Chicago Symphony.

Webern’s Six Pieces were presented in the revised 1928 version, scored for a somewhat slimmer orchestra.  Surprising lyricism was to be found in the otherwise terse and aphoristic opening selection while the third was characterized by a viola solo.  The fourth was the most extended, with rumbling percussion building to a massive, unrelenting crescendo, contrasted by the clarinet passagework of principal Wenzel Fuchs.

Berg’s Three Pieces were the most patently Mahlerian.  The opening Präludium, while otherwise impressionistic, began and ended with the percussion evoking a military band, a familiar device from a Mahler symphony.  Daishin Kashimoto assumed concertmaster duties for the Sunday performance and was prominent in Reigen, obliquely suggesting the waltz and the ländler as obfuscated through the distorted lens of expressionism.  The ferocious Marsch was firmly in the realm of the grotesque, ending with a cataclysmic hammer blow, suggesting Mahler’s Sixth Symphony of which Berg was a staunch admirer.

More familiar territory – and a welcome relief – came after intermission with Brahms’ genial Second Symphony.  While Brahms is often thought of as a dean of conservatism, this was another clever programming choice as an article from Schoenberg’s pen once provocatively christened Brahms a progressive.  It began unassumingly with a gentle dip in the cellos, unhurried and basking in its pastoral beauty.  Rattle eschewed the repeat of the exposition, instead opting for a tauter structure.  The lushness of the low strings opened the slow movement, and music of gorgeous serenity poured from the orchestra.  The winds were in top form during the scherzo, contrasted by the quicksilver energy of the strings which set the stage for the exultant finale, leaving Sunday’s audience uplifted in its celestial radiance.

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