Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Young Firebrand Conductor Marks Centenary of Stravinsky's "Firebird" at New York Philharmonic

Guest Conductor Lionel Bringuier, a seasoned pro at only 26

Reviewed by Dwight Casimere June 14, 2013

NEW YORK--Although only 26 years old Guest Conductor Lionel Bringuier acquitted himself like an old old pro during his one-week subscription concert stint as Guest Conductor with the New York Philharmonic in a challenging and scintillating program of Paul Dukas's The Sorcerer's Apprentice,  Sergei Prokofiev's Violin Concerto No. 2, with Greek firebrand soloist Leonidas Kavakos, Aoltan Kodaly's Dances of Galanta and, finally, Igor Stravinsky's Suite from The Firebird, now celebrating the 103rd year of its debut as a performance piece with Serge Diaghilev's Ballets Russes at the Paris Opera in 1910.

In his youth, violin soloist Kavakos was similarly a "wunderkind," having won the Sibelius Competition in Helsinki at the tender age of 18 in 1985, as the competition's youngest contestant and a year later as winner of the Indianapolis International Violin Competition (Kavakos studied with the great Josef Gingold at Indiana University on an Onassis Foundation Scholarship), and, in 1988, winner of the Paganini Violin Competition.

Bringuier is Chief Conductor Designate of Zurich's prestigious Tonhalle Orchestra and will join it as Music Director in the upcoming 2014/15 season. He has already distinguished himself as Resident Conductor with the Los Angeles Philharmonic, now in his sixth and final season in that role.  Subscription concert attendees might have fond memories of his New York debut when he conducted the Mostly Mozart Festival Orchestra  at Avery Fisher Hall, in 2008 and his official debut with the New York Philharmonic in 2009, in which he conducted the chamber ensemble of Benjamin Britten;s "War Requiem" with Lorin Mazel at the podium.

This time, young Bringuier was firmly in the driver's seat, and a thrilling ride it was from start to finish!
The Sorcerer's Apprentice is forever emblazoned in the mind of us Baby Boomers (which comprised the greater part of the Friday afternoon matinee I attended) with the image of Mickey Mouse from the 1940 Disney film "Fantasia." Though himself diminutive in stature, Bringuier rose to the occasion, and like the "mouse that roared," propelled this time-honored work into the stratosphere with a spellbinding performance. Holding the reins in on both tempo and tone, he was able to build the sense of suspense to a fever pitch and conjured up images that were almost cinematic in their depth and scope. Seeking out inner voices and urging sprightly bursts of inspiration from the woodwinds and brass, he revealed brilliantly faceted gems of melody and tonal color lurking in the depths of the dense orchestrations.

Leonidas Kavakos is a veritable force of nature on the violin. The description may sound trite, but to witness the blurring facility of his piston-like fingering, the precise Formula One speed of his agility and  his breathtaking ability to scale to the very precipice of the musical and emotional acropolis, only to leap like a wing glider into the racing wind. At times, he rocked back and forth on the balls of his feet like a Wimbledon contender about to send an ace soaring over the net. Prokofiev composed the work for the exclusive performance of the great French-Belgian violinist Robert Soetens who premiered it with the Madrid Symphony Orchestra in 1935. It could not have been more explosively performed!

Fireworks was the dominant impression of Stravinsky's Firebird Suite. Put quite simply, with the exception of a flubbed entry by the tuba at the start of the all-too-crucial finale, it was an otherwise flawless performance, full drama and suspense, fiery dances and explosive crescendoes. Referring to his earlier piece in the program, Bringuier proved to be  a bit of a sorcerer in his own right.

Guest Conducctor Lionel Bringuier

Tamara Karsavina and Adolph Bolm star in  Stravinsky's " The Firebird" in the original production in 1910 at the Paris Opera
 Leonisas Kavakos in the Prokofiev Violin Concerto

Thursday, June 13, 2013

Riccardo Muti, oboist Eugene Izotov in arresting Martinu Oboe Concerto

Special to Dwight The Connoisseur

Riccardo Muti is one of the most renowned conductors in the world. As Music Director of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, now in his third season, he has created programs that are repositories for the great symphony composers of the past, while providing a long-needed showcase for the works of twentieth century and contemporary composers. He has also provided opportunities to highlight the exceptional talent of the orchestra's own vast pool of musical talent, and has featured them often as soloists in subscription concerts. Such was the case of Eugene Izotov, principal oboe to the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, who was featured as soloist in the Oboe Concerto by Bohuslav Martinu, in its first Chicago Symphony Performances.

Following a thoughtful reading of Haydn's Symphony No. 48 (Maria Thearesa), which was a sterling example of Haydn's letter-perfect composition, rendered impeccably by Maestro Muti and the CSO, the Martinu was by contrast, a passionate, lush, almost pictoral musical landscape, with Izotov giving a rare solo glimpse of the beautiful tonal range and expressive capabilities of the oboe.

Influenced by the jazz of his era, Martinu's music is further informed by his suffering as a result of being blacklisted by the Nazis and forced to flee his adopted home of Paris in advance of the German invasion. His music drips with brooding emotion, and Izotov's oboe captured the dark moods and fleeting thoughts of longing and occasional rapture.

Scriabin's Synphony No. 3 provides a glimpse of the greatness that might have been had the composer lived beyond his all-too-brief 43 years. Best known as a pianist and composer for the piano, Alexander Scriabin courted notions of also being a great composer of symphonies. Muti payed proper homage to the genius inherent in this wide-ranging, nearly hour-long meandering through the reflected glory of Ravel, Debussy, Mahler and Brahms, all of whom Scriabin gave appropriate nods to in the course of this massive effort, which he dubbed The Divine Poem.  Time may have provided an opportunity for Scriabin to develop a distinctive orchestral voice of his own, but sadly, that was not to be. So, we are left with only this broad sketch of the genius that might have been. Muti and the orchestra gave it a thoughtful reading that emphasized its importance in the annals of musical history.            
Riccardo Muti                     

 Franz Joseph Haydn - Alexander Scriabin (below)

Mestro Muti with oboe soloist Eugene Izotov

American Ballet Theatre Romeo And Juliet; Dramatic Ballet brought to New Heights

Reviewed by Dwight Casimere June 12, 2013
Verona, Italy photography by Dwight Casimere
ABT performance photos courtesy American Ballet Theatre (c)

NEW YORK--American Ballet Theatre's remounting of Sir Kenneth MacMillan's inspiring production of the Ballet in Three Acts, Romeo and Juliet, is a monumental achievement, that takes dramatic ballet to its highest level.  Choreography by Sir Kenneth, scenery and costumes by Nicholas Georgiadis, a frequent collaborator with MacMillian at The Royal Ballet, lighting by Thomas Skelton, and a brilliant score by Sergei Prokofiev, make this a must-see for balletomanes.

Herman Cornejo is an appropriately guileless and effusive Romeo, who pursues Juliet, danced by a vibrant Xiomara Reyes, with youthful abandon. He is unmindful of the inherent dangers, considering the bad blood between his family, the Montagues, and her family, the Capulets, but such is both the glory and tragedy of youth.

This massive production, with its beautiful costumes, that evoke the time period of William Shakespeare's story, while still allowing for an eye-pleasing ease of movement on the part of the dancers, and opulent, but not overdone,  sets, permits plenty of breathing room for the dancers to imbue their characters with emotional power.

Cornejo and Reyes are a joy to watch in their duets. The partnering is superb. Cornejo executes lifts and cantilevered moves with Reyes that would send a normal person to the emergency room. Yet, he does it with such ease, that one move flows directly into another. Reyes, with her extraordinarily supple body, executes eye-popping backbends and heart-stopping leaps. Her subtle emotion in the famous balcony scene and her ability to build dramatically to the final, tragic scene, displays not only her superior dancing chops, but superlative acting ability as well.

For the rest of the cast, Arron Scott's Mercutio, enacted an engaging 'Dance of Death' in the fight scene at the Festival that was at once comic and tragic. Patrick Ogle's Tybalt, was appropriately mercenary, displaying a brief vulnerability with his fleeting plea for mercy as Romeo exacted revenge for Mercutio's murder.

The scene's with Friar Laurence (Alexei Agoudine), were particularly poignant, and provided the grounding gravitas so central to William Shakespeare's story of tragic, star-crossed love. The backdrop to Friar Lawrence's cell, with its Orthodox images rendered in Miro-styled modernism, framed the story in a deeper aura of tragedy, steamrolled by religiously ordained destiny. Juliet's suicide at the crypt is a shocking moment, delivered with uncompromising raw emotion by Reyes. Her deft acting and superlative dancing elevated this oft-performed ballet in a now, nearly 50 year old production, to the level of a once-in-a-lifetime experience.
 Herman Corenejo and Xiomara Reyes as Romeo and Juliet

The Festival Scene at the Verona Market Place
 The Verona Market Place today
 Inside the walled city of Old Verona
 The statue of William Shakespeare at Verona Gate
 The street leading to Juliet's Balcony
 The denizens of the the Verona Market Place today

 The ancient Arena in the heart of Old Verona

 The vineyards in the hills surrounding Verona

 Juliet's Balcony in Verona
 Piazza Bra in the heart of Old Verona
 The statue of another great writer, Dante, who once lived in Verona
The Bridge of Two Lovers, dedicated to Romeo and Juliet, cuts through the heart of Verona

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Chicago music legend Chaka Khan receives Apollo Legends Hall of Fame Award for 2013

NEW YORK--A bevy of musical and celebrity divas were on hand ro honor Funk and Soul legend Chaka Khan who was inducted into the Apollo Legends Hall of Fame  at the theatre foundation's  2013 Spring Gala.

As a young television news reporter in Chicago in the early '70s, one of my fondest memories was hearing a the-unknown lead singer for the band Rufus, singing at a place called Mother's on Rush Street. Her voice was so powerful, you could hear her singing clear down to Mister Kelly's nearly three blocks away!

Jennifer Holiday,  Patti  LaBelle, Alexandra Burke, Mary J. Blige and award presenters Sarah Jessica Parker and Erykah Badu  provided the star-power and vocal firestorm that raised the evening to the level of a spritual revival. The indefatigable Wayne Brady served as the affable Master of Ceremonies, displaying considerable vocal chops on the Khan hit "Dance All Night."  Leading the audience in a vocal call and response based on the honoree's name, he got the crowd primed for the spectacular display of vocal fireworks that were the hallmark of the evening.  Say what you want about Wayne Brady, the man's got soul!

Sarah Jessica Parker swept onstage looking fabulous as she presented the Corporate Award to Time Warner Chairman and CEO Jeff Bewkes, poignantly stating that "as a performer, to appear on the stage off the Apollo Theatre is so special." She is always such a class act!

Celebrity Chef Marcus Samuelsson, a Harlem resident and owner of the Red Rooster restaurant, a recreation of the legendary cafe frequented by Adam Clayton Powell and other luminaries of the Harlem Renaissance,  served as one of the Gala Co-Chairs and participated in the evening's welcome address. 

All of the divas paid homage to the honoree by singing stirring renditions of her many hits. Roy Chew, Music Director, in a show produced by Ron Weisner/Weisner-Small Productions, delivered a tight, focused show filled with memorable moments.  
Jennifer Holiday got things started with her beautifully controlled contralto voice. Although her vocal register has deepened in recent years, she still possesses an arresting vocal capabilty.   Patti LaBelle was a vocal force of nature in her take on "Do You Love Me Still."  No one quite does it like Patti! Her vocal style is a blend of Gospel Revival, Holy Roller rapture and heart-rending soul. LaBelle's reaches deep into the recesses of your heart and pierces through to the center of your very being,  to the point that you are almost driven to tears.  The superlative Mary J. Blige was, unfortunately, nearly drowned out by the audio feedback of the sound equipment, and was forced to resort ro an audience singalong on Khan's signature "Sweet Thing," thus nullifying the impact of what could have been a sublime, soulful moment. Deborah Cox fared better with "Ain't Nobody" and a brace of sexy body-beautiful Beyonce-styled dancers. A couple of guys in a nearby row who had obviously been drug kicking and screaming to the show by their wives suddenly came to life and started boogying in their seats! 
It all ended with the audience on rheir feet  singing "I'm Every Woman" along with the entire cast of divas onstage. 
 Apollo Legends Hall of Fame Honoree for 2013 Chaka Khan
 Patti LaBelle
 Mary J. Blige
 Sarah Jessica Parker
 Wayne Brady served as Host/Emcee for Chaka's celebration
The marquee of the Apollo Theatre with the famed Hotel Theresa in the background on Harlem's 125th Street in New York--photo by Dwight Casimere

During her presentation of the Hall of Fame award to Chaka Khan, presenter Erykah Badu explained that the honoree would not be performing because she was on "vocal rest."  That delicately phrased euphamism did nothing to dampen the spirit of the evening. From the stellar tone of the performances, it was made evident that Chaka Khan's influence and legacy is affixed in the firmament.
She doesn't need to sing another note to prove it.

Lisa Batiashvilli at New York Philharmonic in Stunning Prokofiev Violin Concerto No. 1

Ravishing violinist brings raw emotion and dazzling technique to complex Russian masterpiece

NEW YORK---Lisa Batiashvili looked absolutely beautiful in her flowing topaz-colored gown with a shimmering silver bodice shaped like butterfly wings. It was an apropo image, as her playing quickly took flight as Maestro Alan Gilbert struck the downbeat for Prokofiev's highly emotive and musically complex Concerto No. 1 for Violin and Orchestra with the New York Philharmonic. 

Batiashvili has become somewhat of a regular with the Philharmonic. Her week-long residencies with the orchestra are among the most anticipated subscription concert's of the season and in this, as in past appearances, she did not disappoint.  
Sergei Prokofiev wrote his first violin concerto in 1917, just as his native Russia was consumed in internal strife and revolution. The music is steeped in raw emotion and fraught with technical complexities. Batiashvili, with her superb command of technique, scaled the heights of Prokofiev's masterpiece with ease and imbued the darker, more emotive passages with a wealth of feeling that sent chills down the spine. Her command of her instrument, the 1709 Engleman Stradivarius, is awe-inspiring. Watching her closely as she executed the pizzicato in the Allegro moderato, she was astonishing. For his part, Maestro Gilbert kept  a tight reign on tempos and tones, being careful as to not  allow the swell of the complex orchestration to overwhelm Batiashvili's intricate solos. There were some lovely moments in the Andante assai and in the Scherzo where the interplay of the flutes and  woodwinds along with Batiashvili's violin created an almost chamber music effect.
Luigi Dallapiccola's nearly hour-long, massive Il prigioniero (The Prisoner) was originally performed in a live broadcadt on Italian radio in 1949. It is based on two short stories by French authors, which allude to the horrors of the Spanish Inquisition and political oppression suffered during the civil wars in Spain and Flanders in the late 16th century. With the aftermath of World War II as a backdrop during its formative stages, the work resonates with overtones of strife, struggle and involuntary confinement. 
Alan Gilbert and the New York Philharmonic brought out the "heavy artillery" for this one, with a full complement of percussion instruments and the forceful voices The Collegiate Chorale, under the able direction of James Bagwell. Add to that the star power of Met Opera soprano Patricia Racette as The Mother, in a searing performance, Bass-Baritone Gerald Finley as the Prisoner, a sublime tenor, Peter Hoare, as The Jailer/Grand Inquisitor and William Ferguson and Sidney Outlaw as the First and Second Priests, it made for an all-around arresting performance. A few less-patient souls took to the exits in the early-going, but the difficulties of the piece were borne out as the performance developed. It unfolded as an organic whole, with moments of high drama and brilliant musicality on all parts. The brass sparkled. The percussion roared and the voices, particularly those of the central characters sung by Racette, Finley and Hoare, sparkled with vivid vocal depictions of despair, tragedy and ultimately, spiritual triumph. The overall impact was stunning.


Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Ramsey Lewis in Historic Concert In Harlem for Father's Day Weekend


NEW YORK---Three-time Grammy Award ® winner and NEA Jazz Master Ramsey Lewis & The Electric Band will make a rare appearance in New York’s Harlem in A Father’s Day Weekend Celebration concert presented by the City College of New York’s Aaron Davis Hall.

The composer, pianist and jazz legend will perform Friday, June 14, 2013 at 7pm at Aaron Davis Hall on the campus of The City College of New York, West 135th Street and Convent Avenue, New York, 10031. It will be his first-ever appearance there. With him will be jazz greats Henry Johnson on Guitar, Joshua Ramos on Bass and Charles Heath on Drums.

“We all know Harlem is so important to the world of Jazz, and to perform in Harlem at Aaron Davis Hall is a true delight,” Mr. Lewis stated. “Just in time for the first days of summer and Father’s Day!”

Besides three Grammy Awards ®, the jazz legend has seven gold records to his credit. One of the most successful jazz pianists of all time, his cross-over hits, including “The In Crowd,” “Hang on Sloopy” and “Wade In The Water” not only topped the charts for record periods of time, but brought jazz into the musical and social mainstream.

Ramsey Lewis began wooing audiences at the tender age of 21. His debut album, Ramsey Lewis and the Gentlemen of Swing catapulted him to fame in 1956. His breakout hit “The In Crowd” in 1965 made him a crossover sensation.

A native of Chicago, Lewis began classical piano lessons at the age of four and honed his skills playing Gospel in church. His unique melding of Gospel, Jazz and Classical styles has made his sound unique among all pianists and is recognized around the world.

“Ramsey Lewis is a class act and I’m so happy he will perform at Aaron Davis Hall,” said Managing Director Gregory Shanck. “We’ve had world legends on our stage and this is one more creative giant.  I’m so proud to have him perform at Aaron Davis Hall.”
Tickets for A Father’s Day Weekend Celebration with Ramsey Lewis are $30 general admission and $40 for reserved seating. Visit www.adhatccny.org or call 212-650-6900.