Saturday, May 18, 2013

Sir Simon Rattle conducts The Philadelphia Orchestra at Carnegie Hall

Conductor Sir Simon Rattle and soprano Barbara Hannigan journey from the macabre of Ligeti to the rapture of Beethoven in Carnegie Hall concert

Reviewed by Dwight Casimere May 17, 2013

NEW YORK---Sir Simon Rattle conducted The Philadelphia Orchestra at Carnegie Hall in a mixed bag of a program that explored music from the iconoclastic heights of Anton Webern's Passacaglia, Opus 1 and Alan Berg's Three Fragments from Wozzeck, Opus 7 (with Canadian soprano Barbara Hannigan) to the satirical raucousness of Gyorgy Ligeti's Mysteries of the Macabre (also with Hannigan in a leather festishest's dream of a patent leather costume), to the sublime, rapturous wonder of Ludwig Van Beethoven's Symphony No. 6 in F Major, Opus 68, "Pastoral."

The program opened with Anton Webern's heartfelt Passacaglia, Opus 1, written while Webern was an early disciple of that patron saint of modern 20th century music, Arnold Schoenberg. For all his  later penchant for groundbreaking atonality and sparse, punctuated music, this was his decidedly most Romantic piece, building to great swells of sentimental excess and sweeping, all-absorbing themes.
Sir Simon and The Philadelphia Orchestra built the overlapping themes, which began with solid work from the bass section of the orchestra, until it completely engulfed the central theme in a vortex of turmoil, only to quickly subside and vanish in thin air. Sir Simon's ability to develop the composition's inner voices and extract rich melodies from the depths of Webern's densely orchestrated piece, showed clearly why he is in such demand as an interpreter of 20th Century music masters.

Alan Berg's Three Fragments from the dramatically tragic opera Wozzeck, Opus 7, with the powerhouse soprano Barbara Hannigan similarly showed Sir Simon's skill at developing tonal color from a full palate of timbre and texture. Hannigan's supple voice pierced through the challenging highs and lows of Berg's difficult vocal passages with ease, punctuating the sharply defined emotions of his opera, which depicted death and depravity in stark musical outlines. You almost don't have to know the plot or what's being sung, to realize the horrors that unfold in this opera, which is partially based on real-life events. Hannigan's ability to reach a nearly impossible interval, that only someone with the keenest sense of perfect pitch could reach was, in itself, a marvel to behold.

Her superlative performance of the Berg was only upstaged by her performance of excerpts from Gyorgy Ligeti's satirical opera Mysteries of the Macabre. Hannigan swept onstage in a scanty patent leather number straight out of a dominatrix's closet! Fortunately, she has the slender, shapely body to pull it off and the boffo pipes to punctuate Ligeti's raucuos, biting lyrics that almost border on hip-hop and rap in their percussive expressiveness and pejorative content. Even Sir Simon got into the act, with soloist and conductor playfully edging each other off the podium, (and Hannigan fake "conducting"), all while trading butt kicks and verbal jabs. It was thoroughly hilarious. The orchestra was set up with a unique configuration that emphasized string and percussion instruments from bongos, maracas and castanets to the glockenspiel, military drum, police whistle, tom-tom, harpsichord, piano and mandolin. The disparate conglomeration of instruments only heightened the frenetic and disturbing elements of the music that still maintained a sense of humor and beauty in Sir Simon's and Hannigan's interpretation.

The performance that followed was 180 degrees away. After a lengthy pause, the reconfigured orchestra embarked on Beethoven's lushly programatic "Pastoral" Symphony No. 6 in F Major. This is as close to anything relating to a tone poem written by the composer, credited with becoming the bridge between the Classical and Romantic music periods. The "Pastoral" is a composition clearly intended to set a mood and paint a musical portrait. Sir Simon and The Philadelphia Orchestra uncovered all of its rich musical texture and color, with Sir Simon turning the point of the baton back into his hand in order to let his supple hands and lithe fingers guide the orchestra, shaping musical passages with depth and clarity. Sir Simon seemed to find inner voices, even orchestral "choral" textures within Beethoven's tightly woven orchestrations. At one moment, he pointed a finger at the horn section to intensify its playing of what was a background theme in order to lift it up and have it resonate above the swelling crescendo of the rest of the orchestra. It created a spine-tingling effect that set up the thrills that were to come.

For anyone who may have heard the Pastoral countless times in the past, this was a performance like none other. Sir Simon entered a state of ecstasy in the Allegretto,  leading to the finale. So caught up in the rapture of the moment was he, that he began mouthing inaudible "lyrics" to  the "Shepherds hymn-Happy and thankful feelings after the storm," as the reverential music swirled around him.  The title of the passage is Beethoven's own and Sir Simon made it clear why it was so named.  Beethoven wrote the inscription "Pastoral Symphony, or Recollections of Country Life" on the title page of this, one of his most glorious works. Sir Simon Rattle and The Philadelphia Orchestra honored the composer's intent by lifting the work to the status of a Benediction.
 Sir Simon Rattle and soprano Barbara Hannigan ham it up during Ligeti's Mysteries of the Macabre
 The S & M getup Hannigan wore for the Ligeti performance
 The composer Gyorgy Ligeti
 Ludwig Van Beethoven

Sir Simon Rattle in a moment of ecstacy

Friday, May 17, 2013

American Ballet Theatre Onegin-Classic ballet at its best

Reviewed by Dwight Casimere May 14, 2013

NEW YORK--In April, 2006, by an act of Congress, American Ballet Theatre was named America's National Ballet Company(r). When ABT opened its full-scale production of Onegin, the ballet based on the poetic novel Eugene Onegin, by Russian poet-laureate Alexander Pushkin.
 Tatiana (Julie Kent) with Lensky (Daniil Simkin)
 The great poet novelist Alexander Pushkin
 Composer Peter Ilyitch Tchaikovsky
 The ball at the Palace of Prince Gremin in St. Petersburg
Scenes from the ballet Onegin
With Choreography by John Cranko and staging by Reid Anderson and Jane Bourne and music by Peter Ilyitch Tchaikovsky and orchestrations arranged by Kurt-Heinz Stolze, it became abundantly clear why the company has achieved that designation, among its many awards and accolades.

Fully costumed and staged programmatic ballets are what ABT does best and this Onegin is no exception. The Scenery and Costumes by Santo Loquasto are oppulent. The Lighting by James F. Ingalls helps create the dramatic illusion to Pushkin's epic story of tragic love and misplaced loyalties.

The choreography is simple, but elegant. The dancers use movement to convey the emotions of the characters embroiled in this tale of blighted romance. It all begins simply enough in Madame Larina's (Martine  Van Hamel) idyllic garden, with the ladies finishing the party dresses that will be worn at the heroine Tatiana's (danced luminously by Julie Kent) upcoming birthday celebration. We soon meet Lensky (the agile Daniil Simkin), who arrives from St. Petersburg with his friend Onegin (a stately Roberto Bolle). Onegin is a worldly man, bored with city life, who seeks solace in the country. Not surprisingly, Tatiana is drawn to the dark, brooding stranger. As you can imagine, trouble looms in the offing and the two friends wind up squaring off in a duel, which ends tragically. To my liking, the duel, a pivotal moment in the storyline, got short shrift in the staging. We here the gunshot, but the protagonists are so far to the rear of the stage that the action is barely visible. Otherwise, the performance was totally enthralling, with the drama unfolding with engrossing clarity. The dancers moved with skill and grace, giving expression to every lift and turn. This is classic ballet at its finest, through May 20 at the Metropolitan Opera House. For tickets and information, visit

Yuja Wang at Carnegie Hall-a piano virtuoso reveals souls of composers

Reviewed by Dwight Casimere May 16, 2013

NEW YORK--Yuja Wang, in her pencil thin off-the-shoulder black mini-dress and tights, may have been dressed for clubbing, but once she sat at the Steinway on the Perelman Stage at Carnegie Hall, she was all about the business of being the classical music world's most prodigious young piano superstar.
Comparisons are often made to Lang Lang, another meteoric star of Chinese background. They even shared the same teacher at Curtis Institute, but that's where the parallels stop. From the moment Wang tore into the ferocious Gargoyles, Op. 29, by American composer Lowell Liebermann, it was apparent that she was all about the business of making terrific music that not only displayed her considerable technical skills, but that also probed into the deep inner psychological voice of the composer.
The concert was the first of its Keyboard Virtuosos I series, which continues with Andras Schiff, Tuesday, November 5, 2013 at 8pm. For tickets and information, visit

Thundering block chords, rapidly cascading runs and ringing arpeggios, in which each note spoke with a distinctive voice, dominated the opening bars. Her precise attack and forceful playing, which at times caused her to lift her demure frame from the piano bench, was equally matched by quieter moments of introspection and lovely, fluid and emotive playing in the Allegro moderato that followed. In the Presto feroce, Wang built layer upon layer of suspense, and just as it seemed she could go no further, erupted in a  flurry of notes that put her well into overdrive. Arising from the keyboard to a thunderous ovation, she waved a hearty shoutout to the composer who waved his approval from his seat in return.

Sergei Rachmaninoff's Piano Sonata No. 2 in B-flat Minor revealed an even more pensive mood. Wang approached the composer's nostalgic piece with a firm understanding of its depth of orchestral color and frequent flashes of brilliance. Wang shows particular strength in the left hand, allowing inner voices to ring forth, even as she gives full reign to Rachmaninoff's lofty, Romantic themes with her right hand. Through her depth use of voicing, she allowed each of the themes to literally sing with a singularly beautiful voice, full of heartfelt emotion. Exquisite!

Her reading of Scriabin's sonata fantasy, Piano Sonata No. 2 in G-sharp Minor showed her further mastery of both technique and temperament. The dark rumblings of storms and tidal waves in the Andante,  quickly gave way to the subtle murmurings of rippling water and rustling wind in the trees. She seamlessly segued into Scriabin's Piano Sonata No. 6 in G Major, caressing the keys with her supple fingers as she explored its brooding passages before building the tension to a fever pitch, thus displaying considerable keyboard pyrotechnics.

The true revelation of the evening was Maurice Ravel's bombastic piano adaptation of his orchestral masterpiece, La valse.

Wang's meticulous fingering technique and percussive keystrokes gave full expression to the kaleidoscopic brilliance of Ravel's most brilliant musical vision. Ravel recalls both the grandeur of Old Europe and its eventual decay following the ravages of World War I. Wang captured the beauty and opulent majesty of the grand crystal chandelier ballrooms of a bygone era and the chaos of their eventual decline. She built the image of parlors filled with shimmering candelabra to one of rooms imploding in a blinding flash of laser light. It was an explosive climax. "She plays music that brings the house down," one woman concert-goer exclaimed from the seat behind me. Well said!

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

ABT Gala a fresh blast of spring air

Review and photo gallery by Dwight Casimere

NEW YORK--Broadway and television star Bebe Neuwirth was reluctant to remove her black velvet topcoat for photographers to reveal her stunning red frock on the red carpet upon arriving outside the Metropolitan Opera House  for American Ballet Theatre's Gala Performance for its annual spring season at Lincoln Center.  The  fountain plaza had become a wind tunnel in the unseasonably cool spring weather, but that failed to dampen the spirits of revelers who came to indulge themselves in a grand buffet of offerings from ABT's eight-week season, which runs through July 6.  Inside, the Gala Opening Night Freixenet sparkling wine reception warmed up the best and the brightest of New York's dance lovers in anticipation of the Gala Program, which included excerpts from Le Corsaire, Onegin, which is underway through May 20, Cortege, which featured Choreography by Raymond Luken and Level 7 students rom the Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis School at ABT, Sylvia, Act I and The Sleeping Beauty, Act III Pas de Deux, followed by the opulent Symphony in C, choreographed by George Balanchine.

It was a thrilling program that saw the company at its best, even with last-minute cast changes and a slight spill at the outset of Cortege.  Principal Dancers, even those brought 'off the bench' at the last minute, were in top-notch form. The ravishing Xiomara Reyes, in for Natalie Osipova, made a supple partner for Ivan Vasilev in the duet from Le Corsaire. David Hallberg and Hee Seo made the wedding pas de deux from Sleeping Beauty appear as if in a dream. Diana Vishneva and James Whiteside gave a tantalizing preview of what was in store for the next night's Onegin. The precision movements of the eight huntresses surrounding a lithe Gillian Murphy in Sylvia, was among the highlights of the evening. With the classic Symphony in C and its Choreography by the legendary George Balanchine, terrific music by George Bizet and staging by Merrill Ashley and Stacey Caddell,  this was ABT at its breathtaking best. The entire evening left the impression that this will be a spring season to remember!

Dwight The Connoisseur gets in the spirit of the evening at the Freixenet reception
Bebe Neuwirth braving the elements during the fountain plaza Red Carpet
If Liberace had worn Versace
Livin' large at the Gala Program Friexenet reception

Baby Got Back!

AmericanBallet Theatre's spring season continues at the Metropolitan Opera House, Lincoln Center through July 6. Call 212-362-6000 for tickets or visit