Monday, September 26, 2016

New York Phil's Gala at 175!

The New York Philharmonic honored its 175 anniversary at its Opening Gala Concert on September 21st with a brilliant American program of works the orchestra has premiered, past to present. Aaron Diehl was the superb piano soloist in his Philharmonic debut, and Alan Gilbert conducted.

The Philharmonic is many things. It is a towering skyscraper; a sumptuous ocean liner, a spaceship. In this listener’s mind the word associations with the orchestra will ever be 'charged' and 'thrilling.' Towards the end of the evening, this venerable institution seemed possessed by a collective memory of their grand premiere nearly 113 years ago of Dvorak's Symphony # 9: From the New World. In the last movements it was especially such, and despite the efforts of their leader the musicians finally played with their own assurance. From the beginning of this masterwork, the horns held sway with sweep both commanding and authoritative, in a narrative truer than the the conductor’s. Commendably, yet oddly, the bass section was the most colorfully imaginative of the group.

The program was introduced by the Philharmonic's Executive Director in a speech that would have been admirable as a pep talk in a board meeting. There was then a short film, overproduced and visually unappealing, which said, showed, and was, nothing.
It set the tone. 

Despite the astonishing technical control of these musicians, the first half wanted in ingenuous expression. The New York première of the city’s own John Corigliano in the orchestral version of STOMP, originally for solo violin, opened the concert. The composer wrote: "I asked the players to tap or stomp on certain beats. This was because Stomp is actually "fiddle music" - country music, bluegrass, and jazz combined, and the original players often stomp to the rhythm (and mistune their instruments.)"
With vivid effects and a brilliant virtuoso scoring, John’s romp is a tractor ride fumed by moonshine in the Smokies, but this performance might well have been called STAMPED. The music is down, dirty, a blast. The Philharmonic was game, but its enthusiasm was polite, as was the reception. A too accomplished blending of timbres and some imprecise rhythmic angularities left a listless homogenous impression. Corigliano's wild child with the Phil's Madison Avenue pedicure did not rampage through the mud, and more Yelped than hollered.

Pianist Aaron Diehl is a wonder, and his performance in Gershwin's Concerto in F put the orchestra that premiered it in 1925 nearly to shame. This artist is a soulful urban poet, and no stranger to razzamatazz, to swing. In his treasure chest are emeralds, Gauloises, and items of unmentionable intimacy. The Phil played with swing, but it was the swing of a state-of-the-art self-closing titanium refrigerator door. The exceptions were oboist Sherry Sylar and flutist Mindy Kaufman, whose slow movement tunes were garbed in slinky satin negligees. It was unfortunate that the conductor was unable to coordinate the duet between flute and piano at the end of this movement.
In the program notes there was a picture of the incomparable Josephine Baker dancing the Charleston. Let us hope this orchestra learns to reconnect the rapport it should have with its melos, with the drama of the classics of its time.

We sincerely hope Mr. Diehl a re-engagement, ideally in an original work. 

The Philharmonic is many things. Mostly, a gleaming example of unaware solitude without glee; of glint without twinkle. It is an office tower after work, a ship not arrived in port. A rocket bearing cargo.

We look forward to Maestro van Zweden.


Monday, September 19, 2016

Brahms, Bats, and Octopi Irati

After the sixth concert of the SCMS's Summer Festival, a strange thing occurred on the 10:56 p.m. bus from 3rd and Union. There boarded a young Siegfried Kurt Cobain wannabe with long strands of blond locks entirely covering his face a-la-mop, he was tripping to the gods on what must have been angel dust. Sounds masquerading as words in the language of the blasted emanated from him; his every muscle moving in opposing directions seemingly directed by some crazed internal octopus. Out the window I spied a half moon battling against a bank of angry purple clouds trying to obliterate it. I swear I saw bats.

Back at my great friends’ place a lively late-night discussion ensued about the music we had just heard. We surprised each other; my friends Bill and Kathy were astonished that our opinions and feelings were almost identical, though as non-musicians they did not trust their instincts; and I realized that a barrier to a broader popular appeal of our art is the insecurity that the elite impose through cultural intimidation. 

Pianist Inon Barnatan's pre-concert recital was a terrific Brahms Handel Variations. The theme and each variation were lovingly characterized and crafted, the fugue dispatched with a rousing burnished bluster. He painted in oils, in watercolors. He whispered, he bellowed, all with giusto and gusto. I’ll leave it to pedants to ask for a more probing realization. A wonderful performance.

It was a HOT and STEAMY night

American pianist Soheil Nasseri played a solo recital last week featuring beloved masterpieces, though it could have been heard to disadvantage by two ancillary issues. In Manhattan's Merkin Hall, the audience baked and fanned, so Mr. Nasseri must have broiled under the stage lights. He sopped and mopped his brow to the unsettling bemusement of a few. The hellish temperature exacerbated the foul stench of irresponsible personal hygiene, and it wasn't about deodorant. As such a subject is taboo, Merkin might consider incorporating incense, or sulphur. A hot and smelly night was the set for an uncomfortably long evening.

Mr. Nasseri has an affable presence, and his youthfulness gracefully shaves at least fifteen years from his age, though he also has a confusing formality that can be stiff. It is unclear if he was conservatory trained, but, under the tutelage of titan pianist-pedagogues Jerome Lowenthal, Claude Frank and Karl Uhlrich Schnabel, his playing seems to beg to compete with his institutionally educated peers, instead of transcending them. Juggling the hats of scholar, cavalier and adolescent made for a diffuse and at times exasperating impression.

The first movement of Schubert's A minor Sonata D. 784 was structured in twos, in number of notes per motifs and number of bars per phrase. The Andante's interest was in the voicing, but not the voice leading. The Allegro vivace was grey.

Schumann's Carnaval was strictured, unimaginative in conception, variety and coloration. Played with attentive care, nevertheless a lack of fanciful abandon made it sound uncertain.

Beethoven's D major Sonata, Op. 10 No. 3 had the most genuine enthusiasm and intelligence of the program, but Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue in the solo transcription was too dry to be ecstatic, joyous or risqué.

Bernstein's The Masque from his 2nd Symphony, The Age of Anxiety, was a compelling encore, though the pianist’s virtuosity was so easy that it seemed careless; a summation of the evening were his spoken syllabifications to mimic the rhythmic sounds of the solo percussion interjections, his imitation of the woodblocks chanting "Pako-Pako" being particularly charmless.


Sunday, August 28, 2016


The International Contemporary Ensemble, ICE, one of the world’s most successful and high profile new music groups, was presented by Lincoln Center's Mostly Mozart Festival at Merkin Hall on August 23rd. Featuring five concerto premieres by four composers (the eldest just 42), there was palpable excitement among this sold-out event peopled with aficionados and successful musicians from the new and old guards, the experimental young and the adventurous reactionaries. American composer Anthony Cheung summed up the evening in a program quote: "The ensemble and soloist assume each other's roles, and a listener's assumptions about these roles are questioned, confirmed, and thwarted." Despite excellent participation from the soloists, ensemble, and conductor Karina Canellakis making her Mostly Mozart debut as an assured and selfless director of this impossibly squiggly-jiggly music, the two-and-a-half hour evening proved stultifying.

The two concertos of Japanese/English composer Dai Fujikura, the longest works on the program, tilled the most familiar territory. In his work for cello, soloist Katinka Kleijn shone in a vehicle that demanded her to be a heroic protagonist. She brilliantly mediated her quasi-pentatonic folkish material with the dialogue and support of the ensemble of the expected 21st century trappings’ spectral blooms and glissandied trills. Ms. Kleijn's gracious and irrepressible integrity showcased her as the night's outstanding performer.

Wednesday, August 17, 2016

Seattle Concert 5. Want A Ride? (Here's a Broom)

Beginning an evening of marvels was pianist Alessio Bax's recital of a well-matched pairing of Scriabin's 3rd Sonata and the Liebesleid of Kreisler in Rachmaninoff's version. Beautifully executed with his own voice, a sepia toned one, the concert transcription was more Rachmaninoff than Kreisler, more concerto than song, the finger-work more work than fingers. The wistfulness so inimitably sung by Kreisler was buttoned, and the smile with a tear at the ending in major missed the nostalgic. The textures in the cadenza were striking, distinct and well blended, but the crests of his waves tended to be a bit thick.

The concert featured three splendid performances. From Mozart's G Major Piano Trio K. 496, lines were spun as gold with the grace of the best humored dispositions and the delight of a fresh cloudless spring noon after a night's cleansing rain.

The ever-smiling pianist Inon Barnatan's pearly sound was almost ostentatious in its opulence, and Jun Iwasaki, violinist, was his every equal in their exchange, joyous as wee playing kittens in the Allegro. The development was dramatically participated in by all, but the cellist, Efe Baltacigil was the motor of the drama.
Mr. Baltacagil had glorious moments in the last movement, but this Allegretto: Theme and Variations was not always consistent in surprise. Nevertheless, this was a superb performance.

Stunning was Kodaly's Serenade for two violins and viola, played by Yura Lee, Karen Gomyo and Cynthia Phelps. These young wiccans, as gorgeously dressed as they were heeled, effortlessly exchanged the rôles of Goddess, Enchantress and Seductress. The Allegramente was marked by its earthy communication, and in the second movement, Ms. Lee's schizophrenic jabberings, foiled by Ms. Gomyo's exotic veiled atmosphere, became lunacy in the return and the three evaporated like steam at the end. The third had cackling (though wartless) crones flying on their folk brooms. How to play with such energy, yet be never manic or ugly? Ms. Gomyo in her solo turn here played with a mesmerizing vibrato. Fabulous, nothing less, describes the art of Cynthia Phelps.

Are they any superlatives left to describe this evening's conclusion, the Brahms A Major Piano Quartet? If the ensemble was an effulgent homogeneous whole, what was remarkable was the way each musician's unique voice gleamed out of the textures. Mr. Bax, returning to the stage, played with a sound of crème rolled unselfconsciously on the tongue, bracing the visionary cellist, Clive Greensmith; the tears elicited by Che-Yen Chen, violist; and the violinist Steven Rose, astounding for his direction. The magic began imperceptibly before the development of the Allegro non troppo; they sang like devout brothers. How could oscillating dyads be imbued with so many deep meanings from both Brahms and the performers?  The slow movement had sonorities gentle and profound from the very first notes, with a recap so movingly touching; Mr. Bax with the most assured calmness giving the strings every latitude. If towards the end there was a phrase to dwell on the fragrance of a road-side flower, Mr. Greensmith gloriously shepherded his comrades on.

The Scherzo found the strings aligned like an astronomical singularity. The group's extraordinary pulse became ever more tumultuous without becoming roiling, a cataract that did not crush, did not scream. In the trio their sounds became even more specific, more clarion. This was grand. The Finale, like this review, had at last expended its capital, nevertheless, we lucky listeners are the richer for it.