Distinguished Concerts International New York (DCINY) presents Appalachian Winter: A Bluegrass Christmas in Review

Distinguished Concerts International New York (DCINY) presents Appalachian Winter: A Bluegrass Christmas in Review

Distinguished Concerts Singers International
Joseph M. Martin, composer/conductor
Dailey & Vincent, special guests
Sue Martin, soprano; Sarah Whittemore, alto; Brad Nix, piano
Stern Auditorium at Carnegie Hall, New York, NY
November 27, 2017

The holiday season is now in full swing. The crowds are out in force, being enticed by all sorts of deals, and for those who want to shop at home, “Cyber Monday” is the game. For a few hours, one could escape this madness and go back to a simpler time, to thoughts of family, love, and the true meaning of the holidays, courtesy of Distinguished Concerts International New York (DCINY). Transforming Carnegie Hall into the heart of Appalachia, DCINY presented a concert entitled Appalachian Winter: A Bluegrass Christmas on November 27, 2017. The concert featured the music of Joseph M. Martin, including the World Premiere of his Rhapsody in Bluegrass, with special guests Dailey & Vincent, and singers from California, Oregon, Texas, Missouri, Massachusetts, Mississippi, Kansas, West Virginia, Iowa, Florida, South Carolina, Indiana, Louisiana, Illinois, New Jersey, Maryland, Virginia, and “individual singers from around the globe. One could feel the energy in the hall as the singers filed onto the stage even before a single note was sung.

Concerts of this crossover type present a challenge for the reviewer, even for one accustomed to such DCINY events. It has always been this reviewer’s belief that it is best to surrender to such an experience and judge it on its own merits, as opposed to making any attempt to offer criticism on conventional classical criteria.

Joseph M. Martin (b. 1959), a DCINY favorite, took the stage to conduct his Appalachian Winter, A Cantata for Christmas. There are ten movements in the work, using traditional choral writing with spirituals, Shaker hymns, rustic Sacred Harp and Appalachian country tunes. Each movement can easily stand on its own independent of the others. Soprano Sue Martin and alto Sarah Whittemore were the featured vocal soloists, and Dailey & Vincent was the consort.

It is beyond the scope of this review to detail each movement, so I will mention what I considered to be the highlights. The Prelude is Copland-esque in its sound, with quotes from “Simple Gifts” woven in throughout, which showed Mr. Martin’s fine hand as both a composer and sonic dramatist at setting the ideal mood. Hope and Expectation was powerful, with a steadfast determination that was brought to life by the two-hundred-plus chorus. The Appalachian sounds of Mountain Carol were both inspired and poignant.

Both Ms. Martin and Ms. Whittemore were exceptional in their solo roles, not only exceptional as singers, but for their stylistic understanding. There were no operatic vibratos or similar effects that would have been so very wrong, but just a crystalline clarity, a humble sincerity, and a child-like innocence that simply enchanted. Jamie Dailey’s distinctive soaring tenor was an added treat, and the ensemble of Dailey & Vincent – to be discussed later – provided colorful Appalachian flair.

After the final movement showstopper Children, Go Tell It on the Mountain ended the audience reacted with a standing ovation. The feeling of energy mentioned at the beginning of this review did not abate even with intermission. It was as if a spring were being coiled for the second half as the buzz in the hall continued throughout the intermission.

Dailey& Vincent kicked off the second half with a short set. Founded by Jamie Dailey and Darrin Vincent, this Grand Ole Opry member, five-time Grammy-winning group ranks among the elite entertainers in bluegrass, gospel, and country music. This was not this listener’s first occasion to hear Dailey& Vincent, so I had some idea what to expect. At this concert, though, there was a little less of the banter –perhaps time was an issue. In any case, these musicians know their craft and bring their considerable talents to the table. I may not be a bluegrass aficionado, but I know good playing when I hear it, and this ensemble is built to play. The other members of Dailey& Vincent are Patrick McAvinue, fiddle, Cory Piatt, mandolin, Jeff Parker, mandolin and vocals, Aaron McCune, guitar and vocals, Jessie Baker, banjo and guitar, Shaun Richardson, guitar, Buddy Hyatt, keyboards, Bob Mummert, percussion, and Scott Bolen, audio engineer. I will single out the a cappella rendition of “Wonderful Grace of Jesus,” with the tight harmonies, and the ground shaking descents into the subterranean bass register, that brought the audience to their feet. After this final set number, Dailey & Vincent gave an encore as they played the chorus members onto the stage.

The stage was now set for the World Premiere of Mr. Martin’s Rhapsody in Bluegrass. Mr. Martin addressed the audience to talk a bit about how he was approached by DCINY to create this piece. He was humble, gracious, and his winning personality was most apparent in his self-effacing humor. His quip about his hometown being so small that the 7-11 was a “3-and-a-half” even made this oh-so-serious reviewer roar in laughter!

Scored for choir and bluegrass consort, the forty-five-minute, nine-movement Rhapsody in Bluegrass is stylistically similar to Appalachian Winter. Mr. Martin even refers to the Rhapsody as a seasonal cantata in his notes. Also similar is that each movement can stand alone without any loss of effect, although there is a certain continuity in each movement as to propel the story. Ms. Martin and Ms. Whittemore returned as featured vocal soloists, and once again their beautiful voices and intelligent grasp of style were every bit in evidence in their winning performances. Mr. Martin hit the nail squarely on the head when he said DCINY “picked the right man” for this work. Rhapsody in Bluegrass is a welcome and much-needed addition to the holiday music canon.

In the final movement, A Little Light Was Born, all the stops were pulled out in a big finish. Every member of Dailey & Vincent had an extended solo that built up the excitement to a fever pitch. The audience could no longer restrain themselves and leapt to their feet in a standing ovation while the last notes were sounded. It was a joyous reaction to a wonderful evening. Congratulations to DCINY, Mr. Martin, Dailey & Vincent, and all performers for this gift of music!

 


Young Concert Artists (YCA) presents PyeongChang Music Festival and Young Concert Artist Series in Celebration of the PyeongChang 2018 Olympic Winter Games in Review

Young Concert Artists (YCA) presents PyeongChang Music Festival and Young Concert Artist Series in Celebration of the PyeongChang 2018 Olympic Winter Games in Review

Sumi Hwang, soprano, Paul Huang, violin, Todd Phillips, violin, Stephen Waarts, violin, Ida Kavafian, viola, Ziyu Shen, viola, Edward Arron, cello, Myung-Wha Chung, cello, Sang-Eun Lee, cello. Dasol Kim, piano
Alice Tully Hall, Lincoln Center, New York, NY
November 21, 2017

In celebration of the upcoming 2018 Winter Olympic Games to be held in PyeongChang, South Korea, Young Concert Artists (YCA) presented a concert combining the talents of both YCA and the PyeongChang Music Festival at Alice Tully Hall on November 21, 2017. Official mascots of the games, the tiger Soohorang and the bear Bandabi, were in the foyer to greet all, much to the delight of many children (and adults as well!).

YCA, founded and directed by Susan Wadsworth, is now celebrating its 57th season. YCA has launched the careers of hundreds of artists, many of whom went on to world-wide fame. Just to name a few, Emanuel Ax, Murray Perahia, Ida Kavafian, Pinchas Zukerman, and Dawn Upshaw are all YCA alumni. To view the entire roster, and to learn more about YCA, visit www.yca.org

PyeongChang Music Festival is now in its 15th year. Under the artistic direction of Myung-Wha Chung and Kyung-Wha Chung, the festival and school present both Distinguished Artists and Rising Stars series as well as master classes, student and children’s concerts, and conversation with artists.

Before the concert started, both Ms. Wadsworth and Chairman Kim spoke in welcoming the audience. Ms. Wadsworth added the request for the audience to hold their applause between movements and had Mr. Kim translate that request as well. Alas, it was all for naught, as the enthusiastic audience members could not restrain themselves, and the “request” was ignored immediately! In the grand scheme of things, this is not so bad, as it is infinitely better to have an energized audience that “breaks the rules” as opposed to one that claps at the right time, but without any joy.

This was the pairing of two high-powered organizations, so there would be no question about the credentials of the players. The only question that remained was how well they would mesh together, and how the pairings of the “veteran all-stars” with the “rising stars” would work. Suffice it to say, it all worked wonderfully, in the kind of concert reviewers dream about. No need to obsess over spotty intonation and ensemble balance, tug-of-wars between pianists and strings, or wild histrionics. These musicians came to play, and play they did!

Violinists Paul Huang and Stephen Waarts, violists Ziyu Shen and Ida Kavafian, and cellists Sang-Eun Lee and Edward Arron took the stage for the only work on the first half, Tchaikovsky’s Souvenir de Florence, Op. 70. This work, completed in 1890, has nothing “Italian” about it, but is a tribute to Florence, a city Tchaikovsky adored. The combination of younger artists with more seasoned ones was inspired. The insights and wisdom of the veterans Ms. Kavafian and Mr. Arron were clearly apparent, and played off of the youthful energy of Mr. Huang, Mr. Waarts, Ms. Shen, and Ms. Lee. The combined energies and immense technical prowess resulted in a thoroughly engaging performance. The audience members applauded with gusto after each movement, and really let loose at the end. It was an exceptional performance from six outstanding artists.

 

 

 

Violinists Paul Huang and Stephen Waarts, cellists Edward Arron and Sang-Eun Lee, violists Ida Kavafian and Ziyu Shen -Photo Credit: Sua Kim

 

After intermission, soprano Sumi Hwang took the stage with cellist Edward Arron and pianist Dasol Kim for the New York premiere of “Told Tales Sweet as Untold”: Three Poems of Fernando Pessoa for soprano, cello, and piano, by Christopher Berg (b. 1949). Commissioned by the PyeongChang Music Festival, the interesting combination of voice with cello and piano was suggested by arts manager John Gingrich, who had suggested the need for more chamber music for voice with more than just piano accompaniment.

The three Pessoa poems Mr. Berg used were “The Poem,” “The Children’s Poet,” and “Elsewhere.” The “Poem” suggests the creative process of the poet, while “The Children’s Poet” does the same from the perspective of a child. “Elsewhere” is suggestive of a place of paradise. Whether or not that is Heaven is for the reader to decide. In Mr. Berg’s conception, only the cello and soprano are used. Quoting the composer, “The desire to go Elsewhere is one of man’s basic needs – and ultimately, both his hope and tragedy. As the representative of this world of ours, the piano (an instrument that does not ‘sing’) is not to be found in that other world.”

I take strong exception to the composer’s assertion that the piano does not “sing,” and I’m sure that this statement does not endear Mr. Berg to pianists everywhere. If “Elsewhere” does not have pianos, then I will give it a pass and stay “here.” This objection aside, I found “Told Tales as Sweet as Untold” to be work of an intelligent and talented composer. Mr. Berg captures the essence of Pessoa’s poetry with remarkable sensitivity. It poignant and ethereal, innocent and questioning, hopeful and ecstatic. Ms. Hwang has a powerful voice that rang through with utter clarity, even in the problematic acoustics of Alice Tully Hall. She navigated the extreme register without ever slipping into harsh sounds or loss of intonation. Other than the occasional clipped word, her diction was outstanding. Mr. Arron and Mr. Kim were first-rate as well. One also recalls Mr. Kim’s fine playing from the 15th Van Cliburn Competition this past season, and the outcry and justifiable indignation that he was passed over for all but a discretionary award. He is a remarkable talent who will undoubtedly enjoy the career that his gifts afford him.

 

 

Pianist Dasol Kim, violinist Todd Phillips, cellist Myung-Wha Chung -Photo Credit: Sua Kim

 

Despite my reservations about paradise and pianos, the composition “Elsewhere” was indeed spellbinding and as the end faded to silence, the rapt audience waited a moment before bursting into loud applause. Mr. Berg was in attendance and stood to accept the ovation.

The final work of the evening was the sublime Piano Trio No.1 in B major, Op. 8 of Brahms. Written when Brahms was only twenty-years old, this work is filled with all the hopes and stresses that the highly sensitive young composer was experiencing in his life. Mr. Kim joined with violinist Todd Phillips and cellist Myung-Wha Chung, another collaboration of “heavy hitters” that paid off handsomely in a top-notch performance. From the first measures of the noble opening of the first movement, to the mood-shifting scherzo, the heartrending Adagio, and the agitated finale, the players left no idea unexplored and no subtlety overlooked. It was a brilliant performance.

The turbulent final measures in B minor were played with élan, bringing the work to an exuberant close. The audience immediately sprung to its feet. The well-deserved standing ovation went on for several minutes, necessitating several returns to the stage for the fine performers.

 


Distinguished Concerts International New York (DCINY) presents The Suite Sounds of Christmas in Review

Distinguished Concerts International New York (DCINY) presents The Suite Sounds of Christmas in Review

Distinguished Concerts Orchestra; Distinguished Concerts Singers International
Jonathan Griffith, Artistic Director and Principal Conductor
Randol Bass, composer-in-residence, and narrator
Mark Hayes, composer/conductor
Laura Sutton Floyd, soprano; Jessica Best, mezzo-soprano; Scott Joiner, tenor; Mark Gilgallon, baritone/bass
Stern Auditorium at Carnegie Hall, New York, NY
November 19, 2017

 

The holiday season is upon us, even before Thanksgiving. We are already being bombarded with early sales and “Black Friday” teasers, as people gear up for the latest crazes and finding special gifts for all on their shopping lists. It’s all so noisy and overwhelming that one can easily feel oppressed by it all. Thankfully, there are moments that remind us what Christmas was meant to be, and peace and serenity fill one’s heart despite it all. Distinguished Concerts International New York (DCINY) gifted all those in attendance with a reminder of what the holidays can be. In a program entitled The Suite Sounds of Christmas, DCINY featured the music of Randol Bass and a suite of carols from around the world arranged by Mark Hayes. Singing them were groups from Texas, New Jersey, Montana, Florida, Idaho, South Carolina, New York, California, Kansas, Nevada, Maryland, Connecticut, Indiana, Canada, and “individual singers from around the globe.” It proved to be an evening filled with holiday magic.

The first half was dedicated to the music of Randol Bass (b. 1953). Opening with the popular Gloria, a dynamic work that is always a crowd pleaser, conductor Jonathan Griffith got things off to a fine start. His ability to take forces of singers in the several hundreds from many different choirs and get them to sound so polished is something that I have come to expect as par for the course, yet it continues to elicit my admiration time and time again.

Mr. Bass joined Maestro Griffith for an impromptu chat on stage. Regaling the audience with stories of the headaches that a composer has to deal with from commissioning groups, Mr. Bass proved to be a seasoned raconteur. He paraphrased a proposal by the commissioning as follows: “Do you know the style of John Williams? To be honest, there is no way we can afford John Williams, so we want you to write something in his style. And we want a bombastic ending!” Mr. Bass showed mock offense at this less-than-elegant request, but with a smile said to the audience, “You can decide how well I did.” (Spoiler alert: He did brilliantly!)

Seasonal Sounds is a medley of four well-loved Christmas songs (in order Santa Claus Is Comin’ to Town, Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, Frosty the Snowman, and Jingle Bells) played without pause. It was delightful.

The Night Before Christmas, with Mr. Bass narrating the famous poem A Visit From St. Nicholas, followed. It should be an instant classic. One imagines that it could be used for an animated or live-action video which would enchant audiences of any age. Mr. Bass writes in his notes that “the piece is cinematically conceived, and each poetic image of the narration is imaginatively colored in such a way that audiences can clearly visualize the happenings from passage to passage.” Mr. Bass’s narration was filled with dramatic flair, and though it was perhaps a bit over-the-top, it enthralled his audience. Even this jaded listener found the work completely mesmerizing. John Williams could not have done it any better (wink, wink)!

A Feast of Carols, a medley of six carols, Gloucester Wassail, Il est né, le divin enfant, O come, O Come Emmanuel, The Holly and the Ivy, God Rest Ye, Merry Gentleman, and We Wish you a Merry Christmas (again played without interruption), ended the first half in triumph. Mr. Bass came back to the stage to accept the loud ovation from the audience.

After intermission, Mark Hayes (b. 1953) took to the stage to conduct his International Carol Suite, a five-section work with thirty carols from twenty countries around the world. Starting in Western Europe, then moving onto Eastern Europe, then the British Isles, to Central and South America, and finally ending in North America, it was a remarkable fifty-five-minute musical journey. The featured vocal soloists were Laura Sutton Floyd, soprano, Jessica Best, mezzo-soprano, Scott Joiner, tenor, and Mark Gilgallon, baritone/bass. Mr. Hayes is a skilled composer and arranger, and he used his talents as a conductor to present his fine work in a winning performance.

 

It is not possible to comment on all thirty carols (for a list of the thirty, click Program Notes), so I will limit myself to my favorites from each region. For Western Europe, Angels We Have Heard on High; For Eastern Europe, Carol of the Russian Children; For the British Isles, Deck the Halls; For Central and South America, Song of the Wise Men; For North America, The Huron Carol. Likewise, I will mention the highlights from each of the four excellent soloists. Ms. Floyd showed the agility of her lovely voice in Song of the Wise Men. Ms. Best’s Infant Holy, Infant Lowly (in Polish) was very moving in its innocence. Mr. Joiner’s Gesu Bambino was delivered with a crystalline clarity, and Mr. Gilgallon’s strong voice filled the hall in Song of the Russian Children (In Russian). It reminded one of the great Russian bassos.

After the last notes of Go Tell it on the Mountain sounded, the audience leapt to their feet in a loud ovation for Mr. Hayes, the soloists, chorus and orchestra. Congratulation to all performers!

 


The Center for Contemporary Opera Presents Gordon Getty’s “Scare Pair”: Usher House and The Canterville Ghost in Review

The Center for Contemporary Opera Presents Gordon Getty’s “Scare Pair”: Usher House and The Canterville Ghost in Review

The Center for Contemporary Opera Orchestra, Sara Jobin, conductor
Gordon Getty, composer
The Sylvia and Danny Kaye Playhouse at Hunter College, New York, NY
October 19, 2017 at 7:30pm

 

It is something of a rarity to have two operas performed in a single evening, but on October 19, 2017, The Center for Contemporary Opera presented what was billed as a “Scare Pair”: Usher House and The Canterville Ghost, by American composer Gordon Getty. Each single-act opera is approximately sixty-minutes in duration. There was a pre-concert interview with Mr. Getty to learn more about these works. The program contained a synopsis of each work, and it was a nice touch to have the names of the orchestra members listed in the program along with the members of the creative and production team.

Gordon Getty is well-known for his patronage of the arts, but he considers composing his true passion. The now 83-year-old composer is the subject of a PBS documentary, Gordon Getty: There Will Be Music. His style is strictly tonal, often to the point of being monochromatic. Quoting Mr. Getty, “My style is undoubtedly tonal, though with hints of atonality, such as any composer would likely use to suggest a degree of disorientation. But I’m strictly tonal in my approach. I represent a viewpoint that stands somewhat apart from the twentieth century, which was in large measure a repudiation of the nineteenth and a sock in the nose to sentimentality. Whatever it was that the great Victorian composers and poets were trying to achieve, that’s what I’m trying to achieve.”

Mr. Getty has the integrity to post on his website all available reviews (www.gordongetty.com), many of which are very harsh. For this decision he has my respect, especially in a world where artists share only praise.

This is not this reviewer’s first experience with the music of Mr. Getty, as he previously reviewed “The White Election,” a song cycle of Emily Dickinson poems (The White Election in Review April 19. 2012). I was especially curious to hear how Mr. Getty handled larger works.

Usher House is based on Edgar Allan Poe’s short story The Fall of the House of Usher. In the words of Mr. Getty on the subject of the libretto he wrote, “I found myself taking liberties.” Poe himself is inserted as the narrator. Roderick and Madeline are re-cast much more sympathetically than in Poe’s actual tale, while introducing/inventing a character named Dr. Primus as the villain. Mr. Getty’s libretto would have benefitted from editing by an experienced librettist, as his version lacks clarity and there is far too much superfluous dialogue. Dr. Primus seems like an evil version of Sarastro, but his motivations other than just being evil were never made clear. In addition, calling Poe “Eddie” was bizarre to my ears.

The set was a series of projections on the stage, which was very good in creating the gloomy atmosphere of the Usher House, along with some “guest appearances” of ancestors, who may or may not have been apparitions depending on one’s viewpoint. Perhaps these projections were designed for a larger stage, as they were often out of proportion to the surroundings, especially the ancestors, who dwarfed the “living” persons on stage. There were supertitles projected above stage, which were helpful, without being entirely necessary, given the excellent diction of the performers.

Almost all the vocal writing in Usher House is recitativo, so much so that it wears thin on this listener. One can almost predict how the lines will be sung because of the repetitiveness of style, overly laden with fourths and fifths. The one actual aria, the lovely “Where is My Lady” as sung by Poe is proof that Mr. Getty can write effectively, making it all the more frustrating that there is not more. The orchestrations are sparse and rely heavily on creating effects (some bordering on stereotypical kitsch) instead of propelling the story or providing melodic material. It all meanders about, with the final destruction of Usher House rendered with a whimper instead of a bang.

All praise goes to the cast, who gave this material their full commitment. Dominic Armstrong as Edgar Allan Poe proved his vocal talents despite little material to work with. Keith Phares played Roderick Usher sympathetically, Matthew Burns was appropriately sinister as Dr. Primus, and Jamielyn Duggan’s macabre dance as Madeline might have been the highlight of this performance for the audience, who applauded respectfully.

After intermission, the hardworking cast members were back for American premiere of The Canterville Ghost. Based on Oscar Wilde’s 1887 story of the same name, the tale centers around the ghost Sir Simon de Canterville, and the Otises, an American family who purchased the property known as the Canterville Chase. For hundreds of years, Sir Simon has been terrorizing residents of the Chase, but the Otis family proves less than intimidated by his presence. Sir Simon is continually humiliated by the members of the family, save for daughter Virginia, the one member of the family sympathetic to Sir Simon.

As with Usher House, The Canterville Ghost relies heavily on recitative. There is a need for “smoothing” the libretto, as many scenes end abruptly, with awkward silences filling the air as the next scene is being set. Projections were used as well as fixed sets. There must have been limited rehearsal time, as the performers often were standing in the middle of projected images.

At the risk of repeating myself, the overuse of recitative, the skeletal orchestration, and the hackneyed musical elements are every bit as present in Canterville as in Usher House. Where The Canterville Ghost succeeds is in its fidelity to Oscar Wilde’s brilliant wit – the music is completely incidental. In spite of this, The Canterville Ghost is a delightful romp. Kudos to the cast, with special mentions to soprano Summer Hassan, who as Virginia wowed with her soaring voice in “Stay With Me Beautiful,” and to Matthew Burns as Sir Simon, whose comedic gifts stole the show.

The audience gave the cast a standing ovation, and when the affable Mr. Getty joined all on stage there were shouts of “bravo!” that filled the hall.

 

 


Ogninana & Michael Masser Family Foundation and Waring International Piano Competition present Yi-Yang Chen in Review

Ogninana & Michael Masser Family Foundation and Waring International Piano Competition present Yi-Yang Chen in Review

Yi-Yang Chen, piano
Weill Hall at Carnegie Hall, New York, NY
October 18, 2017

 

The winner of the 2017 Virginia Waring International Piano Competition (www.vwipc.org) , twenty-seven-year old Yi-Yang Chen , was presented by the Ogninana & Michael Masser Family Foundation and the VWIPC in a recital at Weill Hall on October 18, 2017. The intermission-free program included works by Beethoven, Debussy, De Falla, Rachmaninoff, and a piece composed by Mr. Chen.

Yi-Yang Chen is currently the assistant professor of piano and music theory at East Tennessee State University. In addition to winning the VWIPC, Mr. Chen’s biography lists many other victories and prizes in a number of equally impressive competitions.

Before anything else, I must revisit one of my pet peeves, the omission of program notes. There seems to be a trend in omitting any program notes. I am not sure if this is a cost issue (saving money on printing fewer pages) or the thought that they are unnecessary and therefore there is no reason to write them. While in some instances this might be the case (as often performers are playing works that are so well-known that the average listener would be familiar with them), this trend is nonetheless disturbing to this reviewer. Even brief notes would enhance the listening experience. I will return to this issue later.

Mr. Chen opened with Beethoven’s Bagatelles, Op. 126. A bagatelle, by conventional definition is a trifle, a thing of little importance. In music, it may be assumed to be a work in a light style, but Beethoven’s Op. 126, among his later works, are no trifles. Intended to be played as a set, these six miniatures contain some of the most revelatory and profound music to be found in such crystalized form. Mr. Chen projected a keen awareness of this truth, but perhaps occasionally his very admiration of the pieces became an impediment, his approach sometimes growing a bit fussy or persnickety. The notes were all there – and Mr. Chen was unfailingly accurate – but the word “overthinking” came to mind. While there may be a discrepancy between the lightness of the term “Bagatelle” and the weighty nature of Beethoven’s distilled musical feeling in his late years, it may be best to let the pieces unfold more freely and spontaneously, letting the listener discover the depths.

The Debussy works that followed, Étude 11 pour les arpèges composés and La Puerta Vino from the Préludes, Book II, were epiphanies. They glimmered with a wondrous radiance in a way that was completely natural. Mr. Chen seems to have an innate understanding for this music. It was some of the finest playing of Debussy this reviewer can recall hearing, either in concert or recordings, and the highlight of the evening for me.

Next was De Falla’s Fantasia Baetica. Written in 1919, it was commissioned by and dedicated to Arthur Rubinstein. It seemed appropriate that Mr. Chen should excel at playing De Falla, considering Debussy’s influence on De Falla, and Mr. Chen’s affinity for the former. He negotiated this difficult work with what appeared to be the greatest of ease. The passagework was sparkling, and the energy never flagging. Mr. Chen held the line and momentum throughout, challenges which many players struggle with in this work. It was an excellent performance.

Mr. Chen followed with his composition In Memoriam: Japan, March 11, 2011. The date refers to the cataclysmic earthquake and tsunami that struck Japan. There is obviously deep meaning in this event for Mr. Chen (as for the rest of the world), but it would have been both helpful and appropriate for some notes of explanation to be included. The titles of the two movements ( I. Twisting Path, II. Oblivion) were inexplicably missing from the program, but were included in some promotional materials. It opens with sledgehammer blows on the lowest A, which one would assume is the earthquake itself, some use of plucking strings inside the piano to create sounds similar to the koto, and other atmospheric effects using the inside of the instrument. There were moments in the second movement that were reminiscent of Janáček’s Sonata 1.X. 1905, “From the Street.” Unfortunately, if one strips away such random hints, there is little to inform the experience. The work is obviously programmatic, but one wanted further insights, lest one’s assumptions do a possible disservice to the composer and the performer.

Ending with Rachmaninoff’s bravura Sonata No. 2 in B-flat minor, Op. 36 (in the revised 1931 version), Mr. Chen’s was a powerhouse performance. This was not the cookie-cutter reading that one often hears from competition contestants. His bold, take-no-holds approach was all that one hopes for in this work. It is a high-risk proposition that demands a large technique, and Mr. Chen delivered. I’ve heard many performances of this sonata, and Mr. Chen’s ranks among the best. The audience rewarded Mr. Chen with a well-served standing ovation.

Yi-Yang Chen has the promise of enjoying a very successful career. I look forward to hearing him again in the future.

 


Andrew Mikhael LLC presents Elizabeth Mikhael and Santiago Piñeirúa in Review

Andrew Mikhael LLC presents Elizabeth Mikhael and Santiago Piñeirúa in Review

Andrew Mikhael LLC presents Elizabeth Mikhael and Santiago Piñeirúa

 

Elizabeth Mikhael, Cello
Santiago Piñeirúa, Piano

 

Weill Hall at Carnegie Hall, New York, NY
October 15,2017

 

As an encore performance of a Mexico City concert, cellist Elizabeth Mikhael and pianist Santiago Piñeirúa rejoined forces at Weill Hall on October 15, 2017. In a program of two cello sonatas, one by Brahms and other by Shostakovich, it was to be a triumph for the performers and a treat for the listeners in the packed hall.

As the hall filled, one noticed a large number of young people in attendance, many of whom were elementary school students. I was at first curious about this, as Ms. Mikhael’s printed biographical information did not mention teaching, either privately or with a school. Upon some further investigation, I learned that Ms. Mikhael is on the faculty at the School for Strings in New York. It was heartening to this reviewer to see that Ms. Mikhael’s students were in force to hear their beloved teacher in concert.

Elizabeth Mikhael and Santiago Piñeirúa both have impressive performance histories, complete with numerous awards and crossover collaborations with popular artists. One can learn more about Ms. Mikhael and Mr. Piñeirúa by visiting the following websites: Elizabeth Mikhael and Santiago Piñeirúa (in Spanish).

It was a bit disappointing that there were no program notes offered. Even the brief information that was listed at the Carnegie Hall website about the two works would have been helpful to offer some insights to the layperson. When one also considers that Shostakovich’s music almost always had some important autobiographical context, it seems that the opportunity to make his Sonata even more accessible to the listener was lost.

Ms. Mikhael and Mr. Piñeirúa took the stage to the roaring cheers of the audience. Complete with yelling, whistling, and stamping feet, this is something one is more likely to encounter at a sports event than a concert hall. Normally this reviewer finds such behavior a sign of lack of familiarity with “concert manners,” but in this case it seemed just a very demonstrative display of affection.

Brahms’s Cello Sonata in E minor, Op. 38 opened the concert. Brahms entitled it Sonate für Klavier und Violoncello with the intent that the piano is not merely a background accompanist, but a full and equal partner. Completed in 1865, the sonata is Brahms’s homage to J. S. Bach, and uses material from Contrapunctus 4 and 13 of The Art of Fugue. It is this work that is the source of a famous little story. A cellist friend was playing this work with Brahms at the piano. Brahms was playing so loudly that his partner remarked he could not hear his cello. “Lucky for you!” was Brahms’s reply! All fun aside, there was no danger of a re-enactment of this story. This Brahms was a delight for the reviewer, who had the rare pleasure of being able to sit back and enjoy a first-rate performance from these fine musicians. It was a twenty-five-minute journey through some of the finest music Brahms wrote, handled with polish and expertise by both players.

Ms. Mikhael has a warm, full-bodied tone. Her intonation was impeccable throughout, and she invests her considerable talents in the music, rather than in histrionic gestures or exaggerated musical extravagances. Her rapport with Mr. Piñeirúa was noteworthy as well.

After intermission, the duo offered Dmitri Shostakovich’s Sonata for Cello and Piano in D minor, Op. 40. Written in 1934 during a time of separation from his first wife Nina, it is filled with many of Shostakovich’s characteristic compositional traits – the somber character, the fluid shifts of tonality, mock ebullience, and frenzied energy. The duo captured all these elements with skill in a completely engaging performance. The audience was wowed by the brilliant finale, with its helter-skelter gusto, but this listener, though thoroughly enjoying the finale, is going to single out the Largo as not only his favorite of the work, but the highlight of the evening. The desolate beauty of the music was projected by Ms. Mikhael in a way that was heartbreaking. This was real artistry!

One would be remiss if not giving the proper respect to Mr. Piñeirúa. He was the ideal collaborator who not only blended seamlessly with Ms. Mikhael, but also handled these difficult works with an understated assurance. He was a star in his own right.

After the final notes the audience shouted and stomped even longer and louder than at the opening with an extended standing ovation. After two encores and the presenting of many bouquets of flowers, the two performers took their leave to the continued cheers of the audience.

 


Creative Classical Concerts presents Hyun Ji You in Review

Creative Classical Concerts presents Hyun Ji You in Review

Hyun Ji You, piano
Weill Hall at Carnegie Hall, New York, NY
October 4, 2017

 

Creative Classical Concerts presented pianist Hyun Ji You in a concert of Bach, Chopin, Scriabin, Debussy, and Villa-Lobos on October 4, 2017 at Weill Hall. Ms. You is a winner of multiple piano competitions both in her native Korea and the United States. She lists Hee Sung Joo, Karen Shaw and Jean-Louis Haguenauer, and Jae Hee Hyun as her teachers. Ms. You has earned her Master’s degree and Artist Diploma at Indiana University, and is working on her Doctorate at Sejong University in South Korea. She also teaches piano in three South Korean Universities.

Before anything else, I must express my dismay about one of my pet peeves. When you are performing at one of the most famous venues in not only the United States, but the world, it should be a given that all materials, such as program notes are done with care. I’m sorry to say that this was not the case (and not for the first time). The very spare program notes were almost an afterthought. Proofreading would have caught the non-idiomatic English and the fact that the 3rd and 4th Preludes of Debussy were listed with the same title. If English is not your first language, it is a must to have a trusted native speaker proofread. Add to this that some of the notes were copied verbatim from Wikipedia without attribution, and I was left thinking that it would have been better to forego the notes altogether. Note to presenters and performers alike: this is not acceptable. With all the time and money invested, there is no excuse (and lest anyone think otherwise, this reviewer has been a presenter as well).

Now that I have dealt with my annoyance, it is time to get to the many positive things about this concert. Ms. You has a fine technique, as one would expect from a multiple contest winner, but she also possesses a true poetic side, which sets her apart from many other contest winners.

Ms. You opened with J.S. Bach, the Adagio, BWV 974 (after Marcello), and Schafe können sicher weiden (Sheep May Safely Graze) from the Cantata Was mir behagt, ist nur die muntre Jagd (The lively hunt is all my heart’s desire), BWV 208. While my sheep prefer a slightly less hectic sound, and one with a bit more clarity, these are preferences more than anything else, and the end result was still lovely!

Chopin Ballade No.4 in F minor, Op.52 followed the Bach. Often considered the most demanding, both musically and technically, of the four ballades, this work was said by Robert Schumann to have been inspired by Adam Mickiewicz’s poem The Three Budrys; although this connection has been disputed, the epic sweep is undeniable. Ms. You showed both artistry and virtuosity, especially in the fiercely difficult coda. Rather than forcing a cohesive shape on the sprawling work, she surrendered to Chopin’s dream-like writing in what was truly a wondrous performance. It deserved a much better reaction from the audience, but it was the highlight of the evening for this listener.

Alexander Scriabin’s Sonata No. 5, Op. 53 ended the first half. This eleven minute, single-movement work was written in 1907 and marks Scriabin’s transition away from traditional harmony, including the so-called “mystic” chord and movement away from a clear tonal center. In an earlier review I wrote for this journal, I quoted pianist Joong Han Jung, who described the piece as “hyper-romantic,” a simple description that I find rather apt. Ms. You seems to agree, as her approach was what some might call “over the top,” but I found it to be just right. If one does not embrace the ecstatic quality that Scriabin demands, the result seems a mishmash of random impulses. It is the extravagant spirit that holds the work together, and Ms. You captured it to a tee. It was an excellent end to a dynamic first half.

After intermission, Ms. You offered six selections from Book I of Claude Debussy’s Préludes. They were numbers three through eight: Le vent dans la plaine (The Wind in the Plain), “Les sons et les parfums tournent dans l’air du soir” (“The sounds and fragrances swirl through the evening air”), Les collines d’Anacapri (The Hills of Anacapri), Des pas sur la neige
(Footsteps in the Snow), Ce qu’a vu le vent d’ouest (What the West Wind Has Seen), and La fille aux cheveux de lin (The Girl with the Flaxen Hair). Ms. You was judicious in her selections. Her “winds” were ferocious and the “perfume” was exquisite. The “footsteps” were delicate, and her flaxen-haired maiden was delightfully innocent. I would like to hear Ms. You play the entire book, and have a go at the second book as well.

Ms. You closed her program with Heitor Villa-Lobos’s Ciclo Brasileiro, W. 374. She offered three of the four works in the cycle: No.2, Impressões seresteiras (The Impressions of a serenade musician), No. 3, Festa no sertao (The Fete in the Desert), and No. 4, Danca do Indio Branco (Dance of the White Indian). Written in 1936, this work brings to mind Stravinsky’s Firebird, but is not derivative – it is pure Villa-Lobos, overflowing with ideas, brimming with energy, and often alternating between poignancy and brutality (especially in The Impressions of a serenade musician). It is a fiendishly difficult work that is a much a showstopper for the eyes as for the ears. Ms. You wowed the audience, and they reacted with a standing ovation.

Ms. You offered two encores, the Paganini-Liszt La Campanella, in what was another display of technical prowess, and Debussy’s Clair de Lune, which she played with ethereal beauty.


Distinguished Concerts International New York (DCINY) presents The Music of Dinos Constantinides in Concert in Review

Distinguished Concerts International New York (DCINY) presents The Music of Dinos Constantinides in Concert in Review

Distinguished Concerts International New York (DCINY) presents The Music of Dinos Constantinides in Concert
Dinos Constantinides, composer
Maria Asteriadou, Michael Gurt, piano; Kurt Nikkanen, violin; Yung-Chiao Wei, double bass
Hamiruge, The LSU Percussion Group: Brett Dietz, Eric Scherer, Manuel Treviño, Kyle Cherwinski
Weill Hall at Carnegie Hall, New York, NY
October 1, 2017

 

Distinguished Concerts International New York (DCINY) opened its 2017-2018 season on October 1, 2017 with a concert entitled The Music of Dinos Constantinides. This is the tenth time that DCINY has presented the music of Mr. Constantinides. On hand were eight talented colleagues of Mr. Constantinides from Louisiana State University to present a survey of works from his long career. The performers were pianists Maria Asteriadou and Michael Gurt; violinist Kurt Nikkanen, double-bassist Yung-Chiao Wei, and percussionist members of Hamiruge (LSU’s percussion ensemble), Brett Dietz, Eric Scherer, Manuel Treviño, and Kyle Cherwinski.

Greek-born Dinos Constantinides is the head of Composition and Music Director of the Louisiana Sinfonietta at Louisiana State University. He is presently Boyd Professor, the highest academic rank at LSU. Mr. Constantinides has composed over 300 works, including six symphonies, two operas, and music for a wide variety of instruments and voices, and has a long list of prizes won and excellent reviews worldwide. His writing style is all-encompassing, from the simplest of forms to the ultra-complex, and from the strictly tonal to the acerbically atonal and serial. He is especially adept in his use of Greek influences, such as Greek poetry from both ancient and modern sources, and Greek modal harmony.

This is my third occasion to review Mr. Constantinides’s music, and anyone who read my two previous reviews may recall that I expressed my reservations about the excessive length of the concerts. I will confess that I was fully expecting to do so for a third time, but I have the great pleasure of saying that this was not the case. Perhaps I might be flattering myself in believing that my concerns were heeded, but whatever the case, it was a pleasant surprise.

Violinist Kurt Nikkanen and pianist Maria Asteriadou opened the first half with Patterns for Violin and Piano, LRC 119b, a highly dramatic work that was played with passion by both players. In particular, Mr. Nikkanen’s sound projected boldly, as his robust tone filled the hall without any stridency. It was to be this listener’s favorite selection of the evening. Mr. Nikkanen followed with the Sonata for Solo Violin, No. 3, LRC 63 (Kaleidoscope), a work that can be described as either serialist or experimental in nature. It was amusing to see the poster-sized score being carefully placed on the music stand before Mr. Nikkanen began. This work is thorny for the performer and listener alike, and Mr. Nikkanen’s fine performance might have not gotten the credit it deserved from the audience, but this listener was impressed. It was not just his commitment to this difficult piece, but also his technique in dealing with the challenges that abounded throughout. The Theme and Variations for Solo Piano, LRC 1, played by Ms. Asteriadou followed. The composer writes in his notes that this work is based on a famous Greek folk tune (but does not name the actual tune). The melodic line is definitely modal, but the harmonies have diverse styles, including bi-tonality. One could hear hints of Chopin, Schumann, Liszt, and even Debussy throughout this eight-minute work, which Ms. Asteriadou played with an evident reverence.

To end the first half, Mr. Nikkanen and Ms. Asteriadou offered the twelve-tone Sonata for Violin and Piano, LRC 21c. It would seem that Mr. Nikkanen has a special affinity for taking on works that require a huge technique without any real hope of the general listening public to be wowed by that technique (read: This work is not Sarasate). Kudos to both Mr. Nikkanen and Ms. Asteriadou for their excellent playing.

After intermission, double bassist Yung-Chiao Wei and pianist Michael Gurt offered Reverie II for Double Bass and Piano, LRC 81b, a lovely three-minute work. Mr. Gurt followed with a sensitively played Two Preludes for Piano, LRC 101b, the first of which employs melodic lines from the First Delphic Hymn (c. 138 B.C.(!)) according to the composer. I’m not at all sure about this, but I’m going to give Mr. Constantinides the benefit of the doubt! Ms. Wei and Mr. Gurt returned for the Concerto for Double Bass and Piano, LRC 269b, derived from a cello concerto. It showcased Ms. Wei’s virtuosity to say the least. It was notable how well she articulated some rapid passagework that one would have not expected to be possible on the double bass. Other than a few moments when there were some balance issues, it was a remarkable performance. Percussion Quartet No. 2, LRC 270, featuring Hamiruge, The LSU Percussion Group, closed the evening. This four-movement, fifteen-minute work saw the members of Hamiruge playing xylophones, wood blocks, suspended cymbals, snare drum, timpani, chimes, triangles, and even the celesta. It was mesmerizing both to see and to hear. The audience responded with prolonged applause. Mr. Constantinides was present and came to the stage to join all performers to accept the continued applause of the large audience.

 


Víjon Duo in Review

Víjon Duo in Review

Víjon Duo
Joong Han Jung, piano
Victor Chávez Jr., clarinet
Weill Recital Hall at Carnegie Hall, New York, NY
June 22, 2017

On June 22, 2017 at Weill Recital Hall, the Víjon Duo presented a concert of clarinet-piano duos and solo piano works. The duo’s musicians are pianist Joong Han (Jonathan) Jung and clarinetist Victor Chávez Jr. Both performers have impressive credentials and extensive performing appearances in venues throughout the globe. One can learn more about the artists by clicking on the following links: Joong Han Jung and Victor Chávez Jr. As an additional point of interest, Mr. Chávez is a Buffet Crampon Artist and exclusively plays on Buffet Crampon clarinets, which are considered by many to be the finest in the world.

There were brief programs notes for all the works in both English and Korean, no doubt due to the large following of Korean-speaking fans of the duo.

The duo opened with Prokofiev’s Sonata for Flute and Piano in D major, Op. 94, as transcribed for clarinet by Kent Kennan. It is well-known that Prokofiev himself made a transcription for violin, at the request of his friend, the legendary violinist David Oistrakh (Op. 94a). There seems to be no reason why the clarinet, an instrument with versatile and agile qualities similar to the flute, cannot “be part of the fun” that this popular work gives performer and audience alike. Make no mistake, the end result is something rather dissimilar, due to the differences in timbre between the flute and clarinet, especially in the extreme register. This listener did not find those sections to be effective, but that in no way is a criticism of Mr. Chávez. His technical prowess was more than able to deal with the challenges, and his tone in the middle and lower registers was warm, full-bodied, and enchanting. There were some “squeaks” in the extreme register, which are among those occupational hazards that clarinetists have to deal with. In the end, it was an excellent reading that showed both performers to advantage.

Following the Prokofiev came Four Pieces for Clarinet and Piano, composed by Mr. Jung. Originally conceived for voice and piano, Mr. Jung arranged these pieces for clarinet in 2017 to honor his friend and duo partner Mr. Chávez. In his notes, Mr. Jung wrote that the four pieces were to be used “to compliment and uplift the Catholic Mass.” The four pieces are (no title), Illuminate, Sanctus, and Agnus Dei. There is a strong French influence in the first three; the first two have striking Debussyian qualities, and the third reminds one of Milhaud. The piano part is virtuosic; there is no “hack-in-the-back” anywhere to be found in any of the selections. The fourth piece, the Agnus Dei, was much more individualistic, with a mournful sound that was truly moving. It was this listener’s favorite of the set. Mr. Jung knows his partner well, as the clarinet writing strongly realizes all of Mr. Chávez’s strengths- his rich tone and assured technique.

After intermission, Mr. Jung took the stage and briefly spoke to the audience about how he came to collaborate with Mr. Chávez, and about the Beethoven and Scriabin works he was to play. After thanking the audience for attending, he took his seat at the piano and played Beethoven’s Seven Bagatelles, Op. 33. As the title suggests, these are light-hearted works showing Beethoven in a happy, playful vein. Mr. Jung played with a light touch that seemed ideal, not too serious, but not tossed off glibly. Scriabin’s Piano Sonata No. 5, Op. 53 followed the Beethoven. This work, in a single movement (a scheme that Scriabin used for his subsequent sonatas), was written shortly after the Poem of Ecstasy, in which Scriabin struck out towards a style that Mr. Jung aptly called “hyper-romantic.” It’s an eleven-minute powerhouse work. Mr. Jung has obviously made it his mission to make this work a signature piece. He brought a well-considered, technically polished, and “hyper-romantic” approach that electrified the audience. It was a performance that Mr. Jung can be proud of and one that this listener found compelling.

Mr. Chávez rejoined Mr. Jung in a spirited reading of World Dance, the third of Three Pieces for Clarinet and Piano, from the pen of the well-known Israeli-American composer Ronn Yedidia (b. 1960). One can hear many dance styles, in what might be called a “Klezmer Hoedown.” It’s a delightful romp, and the duo played it to the hilt. It was a joyous ending to the evening. The composer was present, and he acknowledged the cheers of the audience. They gave the duo a standing ovation.


MidAmerica Productions presents New England Symphonic Ensemble in Review

MidAmerica Productions presents New England Symphonic Ensemble in Review

MidAmerica Productions presents New England Symphonic Ensemble
New England Symphonic Ensemble; Preston Hawes, Artistic Director
Jane Morison, Sandy R. Holland, Sonja Sepúlveda, Michael J. Glasgow conductors
Haley Sicking, soprano, Cody Austin, tenor
Stern Auditorium at Carnegie Hall, New York, NY
June 11, 2017

 

On June 11, 2017, MidAmerica Productions presented a three-part concert featuring the New England Wind Ensemble, including a New York premiere of Michael J. Glasgow’s Requiem. The Glasgow work is to be the primary focus of this review, though I will briefly mention the others, as those performers are deserving of mention.

Before I continue, I’d like to say that a two-intermission concert starting at 8:30pm on a Sunday night is something that should be avoided. This reviewer got to watch a group of youngsters fidgeting restlessly for nearly two hours, for which I cannot blame them – it was getting very late, and they were getting tired.

The concert opened with combined choirs of young singers (elementary and middle school aged) from North Carolina and Tennessee. In ten works, with the conducting honors divided evenly between Jane Morison and Sandy R. Holland, the youngsters delighted their friends and families with a joyous performance.

After the first intermission, we heard the Requiem by John Rutter – the first of two requiems on the program. I have spoken of the history of this work in prior reviews, so I will only mention the strong influence that Gabriel Fauré’s Requiem had on Rutter’s work. Conductor Sonja Sepúlveda led an outstanding performance of this wonderful piece. It must be said that the New England Symphonic Ensemble is an excellent group. Kudos also to soprano soloist Haley Sicking, and the combined choruses from North Carolina, South Carolina, and New Jersey for their fine work.

After another intermission, Michael J. Glasgow (b. 1977) took the podium to conduct the New York premiere of his Requiem. This seven-movement, forty-minute work is modeled after Fauré’s. Mr. Glasgow writes in his program notes of having had his first exposure to the Requiem text being Fauré’s; it would be a mistake, however, to assume that this is a clone of the Fauré, as there are many unsettled moments that bring to mind some of the less serene requiems (such as those of Mozart, Berlioz, Verdi, etc.).

I was glad to have read Mr. Glasgow’s notes, as they provided much insight into understanding his conception. He wrote of his struggles with self-identity and loss; some losses were after long lives, but others were lives cut short by hatred, ignorance, and violence.

This Requiem seems to be much more for the living than for the departed. There is a strong autobiographical element, as can be heard in the Introit, which is at once full of shock, anguish, and anger. It’s a powerful, emotionally supercharged opening, but some very large handbells were virtually inaudible, probably a combination of the soft clappers of the bells and the hall acoustic. The Offertory had a sinister quality that eventually moved towards a peaceful mood. The Pie Jesu was heavenly, showing Mr. Glasgow’s abundant melodic gift. The Sanctus and Benedictus with an unusual martial quality, were triumphant, as anger gave way to peace. There was a final angry burst in the Libera Me, but it had more the feel of defiance rather than rage. After a bridge that Mr. Glasgow called the “Ascension Interlude,” the sublime Lacrimosa, which was strongly reminiscent of Fauré’s In Paradisum (one could hardly pick a more beautiful model!) was the final movement.

Mr. Glasgow originally finished the Requiem in 2001, but it remains unpublished. One has the distinct feeling that this is still very much a work in progress, and I would not be surprised if Mr. Glasgow has different ideas for this work at age fifty. I would be very interested to hear this work again.

After the last notes of the Lacrimosa faded away to silence, the audience immediately rewarded all with a long standing ovation. Mr. Glasgow can be proud – it was a memorable performance of a highly personal, emotional work. Congratulations to the soloists, tenor Cody Austin, and soprano Haley Sicking, the North Carolina-based choruses, and once again, special mention to the New England Symphonic Ensemble.

I’ll leave the last words to Mr. Glasgow: “Now, more than ever, the hearts of humanity need to be moved by the communal, healing power of music. Now, more than ever, we need to recognize that despite the horror and ignorance, the day will come when peace, tranquility, and love will reign. Now, more than ever, we need that time to be now.”