Pollini in recital: magisterial Chopin

Maurizio Pollini, piano
Symphony Center
Chicago, IL
May 28, 2017

Chopin: Two Nocturnes, Op. 27
Chopin: Ballade No. 3 in A-flat Major, Op. 47
Chopin: Ballade No. 4 in F Minor, Op. 52
Chopin: Berceuse in D-flat Major, Op. 57
Chopin: Scherzo No. 1 in B minor, Op. 20
Chopin: Two Nocturnes, Op. 55
Chopin: Piano Sonata No. 3 in B Minor, Op. 58

Encores:
Chopin: Scherzo No. 3 in C-sharp minor, Op. 39
Chopin: Ballade No. 1 in G Minor, Op. 23

The music of Chopin has been inextricably linked to Maurizio Pollini virtually since the beginning of the pianist’s storied career.  Yet Pollini is a man who champions Boulez and Stockhausen just and much as Chopin or Beethoven, and accordingly, his Chopin tends to skirt flowery sentimentality in favor of precision and exactitude.  The results, however, are rarely dry and academic, instead forging a fresh interpretation wherein the composer’s Romantic and modernist propensities are held in an engaging duality, and one was eager to witness this approach in Pollini’s all-Chopin program that traversed a generous helping of the Pole’s major works.

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Maurizio Pollini at Symphony Center, photo credit Nuccio DiNuzzo
Both halves of the recital opened with a pair of nocturnes; the sterling examples from Op. 27 were chosen for the first half.  A songful, melancholic melody was emphasized in the C sharp minor, contrasted by a more animated middle section.  In the D flat major nocturne, Chopin’s indebtedness to the Italians was apparent in its graceful bel canto melodies, and Pollini proved that one need not be saccharine to convey genuine emotion.

The latter two of the magnificent ballades followed; the Ballade No. 3 in A flat major was joyous in its sprightly energy.  John Ogdon famously said of the Fourth Ballade that “it is unbelievable that it lasts only twelve minutes, for it contains the experience of a lifetime”.  A true testament to Chopin’s ambition, and Pollini – now at age 75 – imbued his performance with a lifetime of experience.  It opened with an intensely lyrical theme, yet the beauty of sound was often in a tenuous relationship with the work’s exacting counterpoint.  While one could carp that the articulation in the arpeggiated sections wasn’t on par with the legendary technique the pianist boasted in his younger days, it did little to detract from the ballade’s dramatic impact.  A chordal passage heralding the coda was beautifully voiced, the calm before the storm of its cataclysmic conclusion.

The Berceuse, brief as it may be, is a gem from Chopin’s late years.  Delicate and with a sense of fragility, Pollini gave a nuanced reading in its assiduously detailed ornamentation.  It was something of a respite before the tempestuous Scherzo No. 1 in B minor, opening with aggressive energy if somewhat marred by fitful prestidigitation.  There was a wistfulness to the central lyrical section, yet Pollini could have aspired to greater contrast by relaxing the tempo even further prior to the return of the main theme that inexorably leads to the work’s shattering coda.

In revisiting the soundworld of the nocturnes, the F minor work from Op. 55 introduced an elegant, pensive melody, later transformed into a ribbon of flowing triplets.  The following E flat major nocturne was marked by a melody over a rocking, widely spaced accompaniment, and a series of trills announced the resounding final chords.

Piano enthusiasts no doubt heard the Piano Sonata No. 3 in B minor at the beginning of the month in Emanuel Ax’s recital at Northwestern, and it was a welcome opportunity to hear another interpretation by a masterful performer.  The first movement was given a commanding opening, and characterized by an unsettling flux between the declamatory and the flowing.  Adding the sense of proportion of Chopin’s longest work for solo piano, Pollini obliged the repeat of the exposition.  The quicksilver scherzo had élan, while the slow movement was a gorgeous nocturne, erupting into an outpouring of arpeggios.  I had no qualms about Pollini’s technique in the finale, a whirlwind of drama.

A rapturous ovation acknowledged the patrician pianist’s legacy, and he responded in kind with two substantial encores.  The Scherzo No. 3 in C sharp minor was as impressive for its double octaves as for the stentorian chorales, punctuated by leggiero filigree.   And finally, the incomparable Ballade No. 1 in G minor, dark and brooding.

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Pollini’s Fabbrini Steinway at Symphony Center
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Hrůša gives an impressive CSO debut with a glorious Má vlast

Chicago Symphony Orchestra
Jakub Hrůša, conductor
Symphony Center
Chicago, IL
May 18, 2017

Smetana: Má vlast

While Smetana’s Vltava (more commonly branded in its German rendering of The Moldau) is a well-known quantity, the cycle of six tone poems from where it comes, collectively titled Má vlast, has become something of a rarity outside the composer’s Czech homeland.  So much so that Thursday night’s performance was the CSO’s first traversal of the complete work in over three decades – the score was last visited by the Czech former music director Rafael Kubelík in 1983, and later by James Levine on a 1987 Ravinia program.

Smetana’s magnum opus served as a fine platform for the talented young conductor Jakub Hrůša – recently named principal guest conductor of London’s Philharmonia Orchestra – to make his CSO debut, and by all accounts, it was a success.  The last time I caught a performance of the complete Má vlast was at the Pittsburgh Symphony under Jiří Bělohlávek, with whom Hrůša studied – in each case, I was struck how both conductors managed to commit the expansive score to memory, a testament to the importance of this work to Czech musicians.

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Jakub Hrůša and the CSO, photo credit Brittany Sowacke

Vyšehrad, the spacious opening selection, invoked the titular ancient fortress in Prague with a stentorian theme in the brass that recurred throughout the cycle.  It began with the two harps in a rhapsodic passage, given freely without Hrůša’s conducting, as if a minstrel telling a tale.  The piece built to powerful brassy climaxes, but the terraced dynamics were controlled in such a way that matters never fell into empty bombast, and a quiet, contemplative statement of the Vyšehrad theme closed this first tone poem.

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Vyšehrad, on the banks of the Vltava. Smetana is buried at the cemetery at Vyšehrad (as is Dvořák).

Vltava had particular poignancy in assuming its rightful place in the context of the cycle.  A pair of liquescent flutes depicted the two streams that converge to form the mighty river, and the river’s journey was traced in vivid detail.  The famous primary theme was given with a sweeping passion, while in due course there was portrayal of the bubbling St. John’s Rapids, a spirited peasant wedding, and most memorably, the mystical atmosphere of the water nymphs.  Signaling the river’s arrival in Prague was fittingly a further invocation of the Vyšehrad motif.

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Vltava River in Prague, photo credit Ocean/Corbis

A violent intensity characterized Šárka in its garish detailing of a most gruesome tale: a battle of the sexes, wherein the titular figured commanded a battalion of warrior maidens to drug and eventually murder a group of unsuspecting men.  Šárka herself was represented via a sinuous clarinet line, very finely played by Steven Williamson, and the work grew to wild, unrelenting heights, with the trombones adding a shattering heft to the coda.

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Josef Václav Myslbek’s sculpture of Šárka at Vyšehrad, photo credit Wikipedia

Z českých luhů a hájů (translated in the program books as From Bohemia’s Field and Groves) is certainly a highpoint of the set.  Despite its innocuous title, it began with a turbulent pathos, giving way to a sophisticated and expertly articulated fugato, perhaps suggesting the complexity of the Czech people who embody more than mere rustic simplicity.  Still, the tone poem positively exuded a joie de vivre in a theme initiated by the mellifluous horns.

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The Czech countryside, photo credit Keren Su/Corbis

The final two works were written as an afterthought to the preceding, yet they are inextricably linked both to each other and to the cycle as a whole.  Tábor opened with a defiant statement of a Hussite chorale, perhaps mirroring the defiance with which Smetana feverishly composed music in the face of deafness.  A sweet choir of winds added some contrast, while the propulsive intensity of the main theme was grinded out by the low strings.

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Tábor, Czech Republic, photo credit Wikipedia

The concluding Blaník, named for a mountain where according to legend, St. Wenceslas’ army lay dormant but prepared to rally in a time of great need, picked up right where Tábor left off.  This time, however, the chorale was noticeably brighter, a hint to the glorious direction the music was headed.  Appropriately, it concluded with a final pronouncement of the venerable Vyšehrad theme, now triumphant and victorious in the shining CSO brass.

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Blaník viewed from the southwest, photo credit Wikipedia

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.

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

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

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

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