Wednesday, September 29, 2010

NY Philharmonic head begins season of adventure

by Dwight Casimere

Photo by Stephen Lovekin/Getty Images North America

New York-New York Philharmonic Music Director Alan Gilbert opened his second season with a program that showcased the strengths of his orchestra and provided the framework for a virtuoso performance by one the music world’s most enduring and beloved soloists.

Itzhak Perlman played Felix Mendelssohn’s Concerto in E minor for Violin and Orchestra with Perlman providing the delicious treat of playing the original cadenzas, written by Mendelssohn and adapted by violinist Ferdinand David, for whom the piece was originally written.

The program opened with a sparkling rendition of Richard Strauss’ landmark tone poem, Don Juan. From the bracing opening bars, Gilbert was in full command. The urgent tempo was tempered by Gilbert’s skilled control; pulling back at just the right moment to allow the solo bars of the first violin to sing forth with uncommon sweetness. What followed was a lush flowing of romantic lyricism in which one theme seemed to melt into the next. Woodwinds sighed as French horns punctuated the transition from opening theme to crescendo then on to the ensuing recapitulation.

I recently saw a presentation of this work under the baton of Michael Tilson Thomas with his New World Symphony in Miami, in which scenes from the 1948 Errol Flynn movie, The Adventures of Don Juan, played on a screen at the back of the stage while the orchestra performed. It was interesting to note how perfectly the music dovetailed with the action on screen although neither had been written with that intent. How prescient of Mendelssohn to visualize the dramatic import of his music.

Itzhak Perlman is a force of nature on the concert stage. His boundless energy and impeccable technique make for a formidable combination that not only captures the ear but brings insight to the music. His playing is like watching a fireworks display on the Fourth. Although I have heard the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto many times, I have never heard it quite like this. It was played with an urgency that made it seem that it had been written expressly for Perlman that very day with the ink still drying on the manuscript pages. In his playing of the difficult triple stops near the end of the cadenzas, he went beyond blazing technique to cut to the soul of the music, thus elevating the listening experience. This was music-making at its best!

Gilbert rounded out the program with the works of two modern composers who each, in their own way, reflected the same innovative spirit of Strauss while incorporating groundbreaking musical ideas of the past; Henri Dutilleux’s Metaboles, composed in the early 1960s and Paul Hindemith’s Symphonic Metamorphosis of Themes of Carl Maria von Weber composed during the early 1940s.

First of all, let me admit that I absolutely LOVE the music of Carl Maria von Weber. Of all of the great composers, he is the most neglected on the current concert stage. It still puzzles me how a composer with such fluid expression and cohesiveness of ideas could escape under the radar of music lovers today. The fact that one of the most influential composers of the 20th Century chose to create an homage to his body of work should tell you all you need to know about this early creative genius.

This was the piece in which Gilbert & Company truly sparkled.
His interpretation bristled with energy. The various sections, woodwinds, horns, percussion and the occasional sweeping glissando of the harp created a vortex that propelled the piece to its thoughtful conclusion. The use of little heard percussion instruments, such as tenor drum, tam-tam, tubular bells and wood block added to the dimension and texture of the work.

Alan Gilbert is showing his propensity for the daring that challenges listeners to go beyond their preconceived notions of what constitutes Classical music. It is a music that knows no boundaries and is only limited by the amount of exposure audiences have to it. I am certain that over the course of his second season, Gilbert will rectify that problem.

Met Hoffmann explores complex love quadrangle

by Dwight Casimere

Photos by Marty Sohl/Metropolitan Opera

New York—After a stupendous Opening Night Gala performance of a new production of Richard Wagner’s Das Rheingold, the Metropolitan Opera forged into the second night of its opening week for the 2010-11 season with a scintillating production of Jacque Offenbach’s Les Contes d’Hoffmann (The Tales of Hoffmann). This is the Met’s 250th performance of this masterpiece.

Originally premiered in Paris in 1881, the work is modern in every way, with a challenging score and an equally demanding story line. It also features daring music that at once showcases and tortures its singers and musicians. The opera is presented in French with English titles that, at the Met, are located within a tiny screen on the back of the seat in front of you.

There are scenes in the opera that are absolutely sublime. Yet there are times when the story descends into crude reality, contrasting laugh-out-loud humor with parts that are just downright weird. The opera can be confusing to those who aren’t familiar with it because much of what we see on stage are events that unfold in Hoffmann’s mind. His identity splinters into several characters; some good, some evil. None are benign. Events play out both in the real time of the present and in the reflected memory of the past. Somehow it all comes together seamlessly in the skilled hands of Tony Award-winning Director Bartlett Sher and Conductor Patrick Fournillier in his Metropolitan Opera debut.

The top-flight cast left nothing to be desired. Singers scaled the heights of Offenbach’s loftily ambitious score. Even those that occasional stumbled on an errant loose rock or slippery slope along the way managed to reach the pinnacle of performance. Each performed at their personal best. Tenor Giuseppe Filianoti, who will also play the Duke the following night in the Met’s Rigoletto, proved to be a superlative tenor, capable of making Offenbach’s fiendishly difficult passages sound as if they were written expressly for his vocal range.

Russian soprano Hibla Gerzmava, is in her Met debut as Antonia.

After a stunning entrance in the opening aria of Act II, “Elle fui, la tourterelle,” which is set against an ethereal backdrop, her voice became a bit fragile in the upper register as she strained to reach some of the higher notes.

Albanian Mezzo-soprano Enkelejda Shkosa as Giulietta absolutely nailed a series of difficult trills in the love duet of Act III, “O Dieu! De quelle ivresse.” Paired with Filianoti’s creamy tenor, theirs was the type of performance that opera patrons pay the big bucks to see.

Earlier in the opera, soprano Anna Christy knocked it out of the park in her acrobatic singing role as Olympia, the robotic doll who is Hoffman’s first love interest. Mezzo soprano Kate Lindsey turned in an overall satisfying vocal performance in dual roles as Hoffman’s ‘ace boon ’ Nicklausse and The Muse.

The two male cast members, Bass Idler Abdrazakov as the Four Villains and tenor Joel Sorensen as the Four Servants, got a real workout in their multiple roles, but proved more than equal to the tasks. The costumes were an achievement worthy of an award and stood out as lead performers themselves as did the imaginative set design.

Dance and movement are as much a part of Hoffmann as the music and the choreographic team deserves as much applause and ovation as the performers. As always, Chorus Master Donald Palumbo did a brilliant job.

The sight of scantily clad bods on the Met stage has become almost old hat, so the oh-so-many boobs in pasties during the Act III party scene barely raised an eyebrow. The orchestra and chorus nicely performed the familiar lilting theme, “Amis, l’amour tendre et reveur,” with its cautionary lyric mocking the pleasures of the flesh.

Sadly, Les Contes d’Hoffmann turned out to be Offenbach’s swan song. He died before he had even completed the manuscript. One gets the feeling, however, that the composer poured everything he had into this wide-ranging work, even investing his own psyche into the tortured creative soul of his protagonist.

From an historical standpoint, Hoffmann is Offenbach’s last will and testament. In crafting what would become the final work of his career, Offenbach had hoped to reinvent himself as a serious composer by departing from his norm of lyrical theatre. Where his earlier works may have been light and satirical, Hoffmann was dark and sardonic. In many ways, it reflected the burgeoning modernity of his time.

Les Contes d’Hoffmann is not for the feint of heart or those with a short attention span. Characters emerge and disappear only to resurrect themselves in entirely different guises. The music, too, is dense, with melodies and orchestrations shifting in timbre and mood, starting with child-like nursery rhymes that descend into a disturbing miasma of contrasting tonal colors and asymmetrical rhythms. It’s a long sit, but the reward is the opportunity to witness a thoroughly engrossing evening of opera. A number of less-hardy souls left after the first act. What a pity. I found myself happy that I had stayed and wanting more.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Wynton Marsalis opens NY Philharmonic season with 'swinging' US premiere

Story and photos by Dwight Casimere

New York City—After a cursory orchestral reading of the Star Spangled Banner, which found this blogger bravely singing along, even if slightly out of tune, New York Philharmonic Music Director Alan Gilbert forged ahead with the season Opening Night business at hand; the US premiere of Jazz at Lincoln Center Music Director Wynton Marsalis’ Swing Symphony.

A co-commission with the New York Philharmonic, Berlin and Los Angeles Philharmonics, and the Barbican, London, the work is a wide-ranging musical travelogue through the history of American Jazz, particularly swing. It is a working musician’s view of the music from its roots as the illegitimate love-child of an enslaved African mother and a reluctant Euro-American father, through the back rooms of the Speakeasy's and Tin Pan Alley, to the basement cabaret's of New York's East 53rd Street and the Village to the Latin barrios of New York and Los Angeles and concluding with the sophisticated quasi-classical musings of Duke Ellington, Gunther Schuller, Gil Evans, Duke Pearson and others of the mid-to-late 20th Century orchestral jazz movement.

This is the music that came kicking and screaming from its cultural womb at the dawn of the 20th Century as portrayed in Marsalis’ raucous, highly percussive opening movement. Recalling the ragged beat of Eubie Blake and Scott Joplin and the searing solos of Louis Armstrong and Sidney Bechet, Gilbert, Marsalis and company traced the path of those first awkward steps to the present day.

Listening to Marsalis’ opening solo, played from the first trumpet chair, directly in front of Gilbert’s left hand in the second row of the orchestra, one is reminded that this is the music that transformed itself into the stomp of marching feet in Selma and which spawned the Civil Rights Movement. It was later converted to Hip Hop and became the soundtrack to the tidal wave of change that swept the nation’s first African American President into the Oval Office. (There were rumors that President Obama might attend the Opening Night concert, due to his recent arrival in New York City for the opening of the UN General Assembly, but there were no K-9s or Secret Service in evidence, sniffing around the Lincoln Center Plaza fountain to give any indication that he might materialize).

The rather lengthy musical excursion through Midwestern Moods, the Be Bop era of Manhattan and the Latin Jazz movement spawned by Tito Puente, the Escovido family and their disciples on both coasts and the intimations of classically-tinged orchestral jazz of the 70s through 90s and the burgeoning steps of free jazz, all made a well-stated case for the preeminence of this most American of music forms.

The final movement revealed moments that seemed ripped directly from the pages of Duke Ellington’s Black and Tan Suite, there were even intimations of Max Roach’s Freedom Now Suite. Yet, there was careful reflection back to the days of Tommy Dorsey and an homage to the pre World War Two swing era, with a trombone solo that dripped with the longing of a soldier’s homesick love letters. Moments later, a lush baritone sax solo resurrected the spirit of Coleman Hawkins and the Basie era.

In his Swing Symphony, Marsalis was only exploring one aspect of jazz, the Swing movement, but his final solo, which let rip with some inventive riffs that leaped and soared to the rafters, sent a clear message that this is just the first chapter in a long musical biography.

Monday, September 6, 2010

McCoy Tyner Triumphs in Charlie Parker Tribute in Harlem

Story and photos by Dwight Casimere

New York-As jazz piano legend McCoy Tyner was escorted to the stage by his brother for the headlining performance of the Charlie Parker Jazz Festival at Harlem’s Marcus Garvey Park, he appeared a bit tentative and feeble. A nearby drum consortium, apparently staging their own loud protest against the public intrusion on their ‘turf’ threatened to drown out the performance, as they had done the preceding musical acts, but that notion was quickly dispelled as Tyner unleashed the first notes from the Steinway keyboard. As he played his signature ‘hit’ “Blues on the Corner” he proved to be as thunderous and as commanding a presence as he was during his days as the lead pianist for the legendary John Coltrane quartet and subsequent global triumphs as a solo headlining act. “I’ve been fortunate in that my music has taken me across the world,” Tyner intoned to the crowd, to thunderous applause. As he launched into an hour-long recital that spanned his personal musical universe, he displayed the pianistic genius that recalled not only the piano greats of jazz, such as Bud Powell and Thelonius Monk, but also other modern musical giants from other genres. His use of modal scales and unorthodox chordal structures puts him more in the league of modern classical greats such as Stravinsky, Schoenberg and Bartok. At 71 years old, he is revered as a jazz icon with few peers. As a piano phenomenon, he stands alone. To this day, there has not been another performer to equal the breadth and scope of his Herculean powers at the piano.

Tyner’s performance was a compendium of his long and groundbreaking solo career. The force of his creative genius made the incessant annoyance of the drummers a mere apostrophe to the masterful musical thesis he composed to the delight of his attentive audience.