Distinguished Concerts International New York (DCINY) presents Vocal Colors in Review

Distinguished Concerts International New York (DCINY) presents Vocal Colors in Review

Distinguished Concerts International New York (DCINY) presents Vocal Colors
Eric A. Johnson, Eric Barnum, John Conahan, conductors
Distinguished Concerts Singers International
University of the Incarnate Word Cardinal Chorale (TX), William Gokelman, Director
Alice Tully Hall at Lincoln Center, New York, NY
March 20, 2017

Listen. Learn. Enunciate. Cooperate. Blend. These are but a handful of the virtues that can be gained by singing in choirs. They were all present in abundance in DCINY’s latest choral extravaganza Vocal Colors. Colors there were in rainbow profusion, along with a nice mix of eclectic styles by the contemporary composers represented. The excellent pianist for almost all the music was uncredited. There were seven high school choirs, utilized in groups, and two university choirs.

The first group consisted of music by Timothy C. Takach, conducted by Eric A. Johnson. The gem of the set was Epitaph, with Lisa Heffter on a gentle viola obbligato, setting the words of an ancient tomb inscription about the “lovely Claudia,” who had two sons, one of whom she buried, the other remaining alive; she loved her husband and she made wool. The choir had clear diction and good contrasts at all dynamic levels. Goodbye Then had a clarinet obbligato, apparently played by one of the students, perfectly creating the atmosphere of farewell; and the concluding Fragile had percussion, again, I assume, drawn from the student body. Premiered only last year, its text concerns the unrelenting violence we often willingly consume as entertainment, and its possible effects on innocence and ethics—a strong message indeed.

 

Next came a group of most attractive material by Eric Barnum, conducted by the composer. He has sophisticated taste in poets, so the choruses were weighty and lyrical, beautifully measured, and spellbinding. Of five pieces, he grouped the second and third attacca (without pause) as well as the fourth and fifth. This gave a feeling of something more monumental than if there had been a pause between each. Millay, Hood, Byron, Wordsworth, and Peabody provided the inspirational texts, which Mr. Barnum’s gentle contemporary style illuminated so well. Afternoon on a Hill was radiant (indeed all his music has this quality), the poet (Millay) is immersed in the beauty of nature, unified with it, but will not violate it. Sweetheart of the Sun (Hood) has mystical choral clusters of great beauty. The choir handled Mr. Barnum’s lush lyricism with beautiful tone at all times.

 

After intermission came a group of choruses by John Conahan, conducting his own work. These were quite lively and varied. Wade in the Water was not just another arrangement of the well-known spiritual, but a transformation (with solo drawn from the choir) into a rhythmic celebration. Love of Light was a breathtaking (text uncredited) part of a series of choral explorations including Love of Fire and Love of Water. Light itself seemed to have entered the choir. clap/bang was reminiscent of Steve Reich’s Clapping Music, with extended rhythmic techniques used, turning the choir into a giant percussion “machine” with singing being the least of it. The piece really grabbed the audience—a successful experiment. We also heard two sections from his Requiem, and even a musical setting of a “tweet” in Italian.

 

Then program concluded with the wonderful University of the Incarnate Word Cardinal Chorale, conducted by the excellent William Gokelman, in a group by varied composers. This choir has great virtuosity, beautiful sound, and rhythmic precision; all their music was memorized (by the conductor as well) and they sang nearly completely a capella (one viola obbligato), that is, every sound was made by the human voice. The Georgian (Georgia the country) drum dance Doluri was exciting. Ukuthula, a South African prayer for peace (four soloists) was wonderful, as was Job, Job. The absolute standout for me was Kim André Arnesen’s Even When He Is Silent, an inscription found on the wall of a concentration camp. It was hypnotic, perfectly captured by this fabulous choir. They leavened the solemnity with the concluding El Guayaboso, its Afro-Cuban rhythms were distinct and buoyant, the childhood text and its bright beautiful vowels were great fun.

 


Distinguished Concerts International New York (DCINY) presents I Hear America Singing: The Music of André Thomas and Greg Gilpin in Review

Distinguished Concerts International New York (DCINY) presents I Hear America Singing: The Music of André Thomas and Greg Gilpin in Review

Distinguished Concerts International New York (DCINY) presents I Hear America Singing: The Music of André Thomas and Greg Gilpin
West Orange High School Concert Choir (FL)
Jeffery Redding, Director
Greg Gilpin, Composer/Conductor; George Hemcher, Piano
André Thomas, Composer/Conductor; Kirsten Kemp, Piano
Distinguished Concerts Orchestra and Distinguished Concerts Singers International
Carnegie Hall, Stern Auditorium, New York, NY
March 19, 2017

 

Logistics! I suppose that sounds like a parcel delivery service, but what other word can there be for Distinguished Concerts International New York (DCINY) massed-choir events? It takes a very special presenter to handle 485 choristers from twelve participating choirs nationwide (and international), NOT counting the opening choral group, which was separate. They are meticulously prepared by their individual conductors, then they travel to New York, in this case right after the recent blizzard, to work with the DCINY conductor(s). Lucky for audiences, DCINY does not disappoint, upholding a high level at all times.

The evening began with the West Orange High School Concert Choir, a Florida group. They seem to have been added after this concert was planned, for there were no program notes or credits for the excellent pianist. This is a shame, for this group really deserves an entire concert to itself. They were superbly sensitive, sang beautifully at soft dynamic levels, had clear diction, performed from memory, and the women were in floor-length black skirts and the men in white tie and tails (not often seen, but oh, so elegant). I had to keep reminding myself that this is a high school group. They exuded excitement with the opening Gloria Fanfare by Jeffery Ames. The standout was a gorgeous reading of Stephen Paulus’ The Road Home (with a lovely uncredited soprano solo): “With the love in your heart as the only song/There is no such beauty as where you belong.” In Kim André Arnesen’s Flight Song, the sight of joined hands in the entire ensemble was inspiring: “All we are we have found in song.”

There followed the Greg Gilpin section of the program, utilizing about half of the 485, including some very dear, very small grade schoolers, on up to what I presume were high schoolers, in the choir. They too sang everything from memory. Gilpin favors lots of antiphonal (“call and response”) trading off between sections, which is a lovely way to get young musicians to listen to each other. His music, if not blazingly original, is always well-crafted, and perfectly suited to developing esprit de corps and good choral singing. He also incorporates multi-cultural material with great taste, good exposure for young singers, including clapping and other rhythmic movement. The sight of the brightly colored scarves waving in the song about Hindi taffeta was beautiful. A small percussion section, a solo flute, and the violin concertmaster of the DCINY orchestra assisted.

After intermission, André Thomas took his half of the singers, a decidedly more mature choir, through a selection of his persuasive spiritual arrangements, original works, and even two sections (Gloria and Credo) from his Gospel Mass (sung in English, a work-in-progress, according to the program notes). By any measure, there just isn’t enough diversity on the usual concert stage, so it was good to hear this dedicated man, so engaging in his verbal remarks to the audience, and his music. The spiritual Keep Your Lamps was a stunning moment. In other works, this choir sang with the full DCINY orchestra, which sounded great but threatened to overbalance the large choir, and also reduced intelligibility of the text, a pity when the poets are Langston Hughes and Walt Whitman. Four female soloists (Gloria) and two male (Credo) were poised while singing on the main stage of Carnegie Hall for undoubtedly their first time.

There is another DCINY event tomorrow, different personnel in a different hall. I’d like to borrow their energy formula!

 


Kara Huber in Review

Kara Huber in Review

Kara Huber, Piano
Weill Recital Hall at Carnegie Hall, New York, NY
March 16, 2017

 

 

An absolutely dazzling New York solo debut was given this week by American pianist Kara Huber. If that is “cutting to the chase” rather quickly, compared to the usual scene-setting introduction, I figured I’d better commit it to paper quickly before I might start to believe that the whole evening was a mirage. It was not, of course, a mirage – but a very rare achievement, one that those without the regular habit of attending concerts will have sadly missed. There are many fine players out there today, without question, but to hear such a fiendishly difficult program presented with such seemingly effortless polish, maturity, insight, grace, and stamina to burn leaves one simply dumbfounded – and yes, this is coming from a reviewer who has played (and taught) a sufficient amount of the same repertoire to develop some strong opinions.

One noticed first the interesting program itself, beautifully conceived to open with four of the Etudes by David Rakowski (b. 1958), a major work of Joan Tower (b. 1938), three confections of Earl Wild (from Seven Virtuoso Etudes on Gershwin Songs), and, after intermission, the complete Op. 32 (Thirteen Preludes) of Sergei Rachmaninoff. The general trajectory led the listener in reverse chronology from the bright and brash hues of the witty Rakowski into the sometimes dark ruminations of Rachmaninoff’s 1910 opus, with a change of wardrobe to match. Suffice it to say that it worked.

Incidentally, Ms. Huber has a captivating stage presence, but as this reviewer is indifferent as to whether pianists look like trolls, goblins, or goddesses, that aspect is a plus more for the visually oriented mobs.

One noticed next that there was a substantial set of credentials in Ms. Huber’s biographical notes (for more, see www.karahuber.com) – but again, many years of reading these have made it all fade into so much verbiage. She has done quite a lot, but undoubtedly there is much more to come.

One noticed next: the playing! Opening with Rakowski’s Etude #52, Moody’s Blues (2003), Ms. Huber made short work of this perpetual motion chordal toccata, exhibiting fearless steadiness, riveting machine wrists, and charisma to boot. I am actually not a huge fan of this “Rock and Roll Etude on repeated chords” but it was such an invigorating opening in qualified hands that it won one over. Following (with an unannounced switching of order) came the Etude #25, Fists of Fury (1999). Again, Ms. Huber rode it as a vehicle for her prodigious pianistic skills. The next, Etude #30 A Gliss is Just a Gliss (2000), was a sheer delight in playful glissando acrobatics, and the conclusion, Etude #68 Absofunkinlutely (2005) captured the audience with its infectious and energetic “funk” rhythms. Mr. Rakowski is to be treasured for livening up the piano repertoire with close to 100 of these often humorous and appealing etudes on different facets of pianism (pianists who did not know that: get to work!). Ms. Huber, though, is to be commended for tackling such formidable challenges with ease and panache. One could only imagine the joy for Mr. Rakowski, who was present for a bow.

Continuing in the contemporary music vein, Ms. Huber performed the work entitled No Longer Very Clear by Joan Tower, one of the pillars in the world of American composers today. Each of the four movements relates to a line from the John Ashbery poem, “No Longer Very Clear,” including Holding a Daisy (1996), Or Like a … an Engine (1994), Vast Antique Cubes (2000), and Throbbing Still (2000). It is a challenging and evocative work, thorny, and of great scope (and lasting close to 18 minutes in duration), and Ms. Huber was as persuasive in interpreting it as one could hope for from any pianist. The composer, who was present for a bow, appeared thrilled, and one can easily see why. One expects young composers to be lining up in hopes that Ms. Huber will champion their works.

Three of Earl Wild’s Seven Virtuoso Etudes on Gershwin Songs (1989) capped off the first half with more immediately appealing “hummable” audience pleasers. We heard The Man I Love, Embraceable You, and I Got Rhythm, much-appreciated gems which showed a touch of Ms. Huber’s flair for good old-fashioned melody with frothy filigree.

One needed to recover from exhaustion just thinking about the energy involved in such a demanding first half, but the second half featured none other than the complete 13 Preludes Op. 32 (1910) by Sergei Rachmaninoff. The Preludes in general may not be as overtly rigorous as some of the larger works or even the Etudes-Tableaux, but – make no mistake – these are fiercely demanding works, obviously more so when played as a set. They were, in a word, flawless. Let’s repeat that: flawless! Not only could Ms. Huber’s performances go straight to disc with minimal edits, but they were interpreted beautifully lucidly, with no wallowing or self-indulgence. Each possessed a sense of shape and direction in every phrase, a keen awareness of the overall composition, and ample technique for each challenge. Moving from delicacy to power, from extroverted drama to quiet solemnity, the miracle of Rachmaninoff’s composition shone through, a testament to this superb performer. A highlight was the E minor Prelude (No. 4), which emerged as no “mere” Prelude, but epic in scope.

Consistent with the success of the evening were the very helpful program notes by John Bowen. On a critical note, there probably ought to have been attribution for twelve of the Preludes’ thirteen thumbnail descriptions, which one realized upon reading the twelfth, an especially beautiful one that cited “harp-like figurations running like water down the window-panes of a Russian dacha.” Those words originated in David Fanning’s excellent notes for a Steven Osborne Hyperion CD. Surely there was no intent on Mr. Bowen’s part to claim credit (as there were quotation marks for each characterization), yet still it seems that Mr. Fanning deserved a nod. Aside from that omission, kudos for such an effort to render the music accessible.

One had the sense that Ms. Huber could have played several more recitals after her standing ovation, but she wisely let Rachmaninoff have the last word. What a smashing debut!

 

 


Clarion presents The Magic Flute in Review

Clarion presents The Magic Flute in Review

Clarion presents The Magic Flute
The Clarion Orchestra, The Clarion Choir
Steven Fox, conductor and artistic director
Alain Gauthier, stage director
El Museo del Barrio, New York, NY
March 11, 2017

 

On a frigid Saturday night, Clarion presented Mozart’s The Magic Flute, or to be more proper, Die Zauberflöte, as it was to be sung in German here. Those intrepid souls who braved the cold were treated to a journey back in time, in what was a most delightful evening of music. Proceeds from the concert were to benefit the youth programs of Christodora, and the performance was given in memory of Beatrice Goelet Manice.

Everything in the making of this production was with the idea of creating a nearly authentic period feel. The theatre at El Museo del Barrio has the look and feel of an intimate 18th/19th century venue, the Clarion Orchestra uses period instruments, and the sets were inspired by those designed by Karl Friedrich Schinkel for the 1816 Berlin performances. In a nod to modern needs, the sets were projected in a screen, and supertitles in English were projected above the stage. This is an approach of which this reviewer highly approves, which makes the music front and center, and not some avant-garde setting that some modern directors seem to feel is necessary (Hint: They are not).


Three-Ladies-Sarah-Brailey-Nola-Richardson-Kate-Maroney-and-Tamino-Robin-Tritschler-Clarion-Die-Zauberflöte-photo-Hope-Lourie-Killcoyne.jpeg

 

The story of The Magic Flute is so well known that it is not necessary to go into any detail here. Those readers who wish to learn more can follow this link: The Magic Flute. It is of interest to note the many Masonic influences that appear throughout the opera- e.g. Three flats in the opening key, three chords that stand alone to begin, the three ladies in The Queen of the Night’s entourage, the three spirit guides, etc. The number three has special significance in Freemasonry, representing the Trinity. Mozart joined the Freemasons on December 17, 1784.

While I am usually not a fan of period instruments, the Clarion Orchestra almost made me a believer in what was a first-rate performance by a first-rate ensemble. Conductor Steven Fox led with confidence, and with skillful attention and sensitivity in blending the vocalists and the orchestra with near perfection.

Queen of the Night (Anna Dennis) and Pamina (Elena Xanthoudakis) – Clarion, Die Zauberflöte

 

With apologies to the large cast, who were all excellent, it is impossible to acknowledge each member individually, so I will limit myself to the main characters. Robin Tritschler has a lyrical tenor voice that is well suited to the idealistic Tamino. The fey Elena Xanthoudakis won hearts as the innocent Pamina. Craig Philips, who played Sarastro, projected a regal bearing worthy of a High Priest, and his strong bass voice filled the hall, even into the subterranean range (those low F’s!).

The stars of the night were John Brancy, who played Papageno, and Anna Dennis, who played The Queen of the Night. Mr. Brancy’s Papageno was not played as a buffoon, but rather as a “blowhard”- one who talks big, but never lives up to that big talk. It was an effective approach that paid off in spades, in what was a winning performance that delighted the audience. Ms. Dennis handled one of opera’s most demanding roles with what seemed ridiculous ease, which of course is a testament to her great ability. Her singing of the two famous arias, O zittre nicht and Der Hölle Rache, both ascending into the stratosphere (those high F’s!) brought shouts of “Brava!” from the audience- they knew that had heard something special!

There were a few anachronisms- a hilarious “kick line” dance led by Monostatos (Mark Bleeke), and a “talk to the hand” gesture to Papageno by one of the three young “spirit” boys, which almost stole the show. The audience roared in laughter at both. It was also nice to see so many young people in the audience, and even better to see them enjoying the show. One must also give kudos to stage director Alain Gauthier for his fine work.

When it ended, the audience responded with an extended standing ovation, with each member of the cast taking turns accepting special recognition. Congratulations to all the performers and the countless numbers of those “behind-the-scenes” people who made this Magic Flute a stunning success.


Distinguished Concerts International New York (DCINY) presents Wind Songs in Review

Distinguished Concerts International New York (DCINY) presents Wind Songs in Review

Distinguished Concerts International New York (DCINY) presents Wind Songs
Olathe North High School (KS) Symphonic Band, Percussion Ensemble, and Wind Ensemble
Justin W. Love, Director of Bands; John Wickersham, Assistant Director of Bands
Kingwood High School Band (TX)
Destry Balch, Director; Tyler Morrison, Assistant Director
Carnegie Hall, Stern Auditorium, New York, NY
March 12, 2017

 

One hears so much about cuts to the arts these days, so it is heartening to note that there is a lot of really good music education taking place in the heartland. Two high schools, one from Kansas, the other from Texas, sent their best band players (and conductors) to show us just how comfortable they are with tricky wind instruments and myriads of shifting rhythms. They provided pleasure to the proud family members and friends who attended, and it was good to see an audience younger than customary, including many very small children, perhaps being exposed to the concert experience for the very first time.

First up were the players from Olathe, Kansas. Conducted by John Wickersham, they played Pierre La Plante’s American Riversongs, which could have been crisper, but contained a beautiful cornet solo of Shenandoah in its interior section. I believe they switched the order from that printed in the program and did Michael Markowski’s The Cave You Fear next. Based on an idea from Joseph Campbell, the comparative mythologist, the piece indeed had a spooky, adventuresome atmosphere. Finally, Randall Standridge’s Kinetic Dances displayed how well-versed the students are in rhythm. (Is there such a thing as a non-kinetic dance?) A small group of percussionists then played Alarm! by Brian Blume, showing off how much variety can be obtained from such a limited set of sonorities.

The Olathe music director, Justin W. Love, then took over conducting duty for Gustav Holst’s well-known Second Suite in F for Military Band, which was phrased nicely. Brian Balmages created moody blends in his Rippling Watercolors, which the band played beautifully. They finished the first half of the concert with Rossano Galante’s Transcendent Journey, which sounded very Star Wars-ish in the beginning, then settled into a quasi-Copland sound, alternating between the two—an attractive piece, maybe not transcendent, but definitely on its way somewhere heroic.

After intermission, the much-larger Texas group from Kingwood High School took the stage. Their director, Destry Balch, conducted the brief Festive Fanfare by Robert W. Smith. He then yielded to his assistant, Tyler Morrison, who conducted another sort of fanfare called . . .Go, by Samuel R. Hazo, followed by Hazo’s Autumn on White Lake, whose clusters created a gorgeous atmosphere inspired by autumn in Michigan. This group concluded with James Swearingen’s Blue Ridge Saga, replete with folk feeling, if somewhat conventional. It was played with excellent attention to contrasts of texture.

I can’t resist a bad pun, so I must say “Destry rode again” (I’m certain he’s tired of hearing that!). He returned to conduct two pieces by Balmages that framed a really good account of Paul Dukas’ war-horse Le Sorcier apprenti (The Sorcerer’s Apprentice), which is forever linked with Mickey Mouse because of the 1940 Disney movie Fantasia, but was written in 1897! These young players managed to get a good French wind sound from their instruments and, despite the lack of “softening” provided by a string section, they made the piece sound really radical again, which was a pleasure.

The first Balmages work was Summer Dances, effective enough, but the real gem was the second work . . . Not Afraid to Dream ,which closed the entire program. Sadly, the occasion for the piece was the accidental death of a Minnesota high school band player in 2004. The work was designed to allow his friends and family to have some sort of closure about that loss (at least in part). It proceeds from solemnity, the ringing of bells and dark lower-brass chords (he was a tuba player), to fragments of the hymn tune Lift High the Cross, to a more joyous energy that reflects his optimism and the joy he brought to all who knew him. A beautiful tribute, well-played!


Key Pianists presents Terry Eder in Review

Key Pianists presents Terry Eder in Review

Key Pianists presents Terry Eder, piano
Weill Recital Hall at Carnegie Hall, New York, NY
March 2, 2017

A musician’s musician is the phrase I kept returning to mentally during Terry Eder’s distinguished Weill Hall recital, the second of this season’s Key Pianists series. She is a pianist with utter seriousness of conception, beauty of tone, lyrical sensitivity, never any “grandstanding.” It is so important that we hear artists like this to remind us of what matters musically, and to balance the seemingly endless parade of flashy virtuosi.

The evening began with Bartók’s Fifteen Hungarian Peasant Songs (1914/18). In a 1907 letter to Stefi Geyer, Bartók modestly stated (not without patriotic bitterness),“As regards myself, I desire a little happiness for a few—to serve the society of run-to-seed princelings called the Hungarian intelligentsia by collecting national songs and so forth.” Here one witnessed just how total was his success in revealing the true spirit of a people, rather than the falsified notion that had long been accepted of “gypsy” (really Westernized café-music) music as “Hungarian.”

Schubert’s Drei Klavierstücke (D. 846) belong to the family of his astonishing late works, if death at thirty-one can be considered “late.” There used to be some speculation that they had been destined for another set of four Impromptus, though that seems to have been settled by scholars in the negative. Thank goodness however (as with all of Schubert’s oeuvre) that they survive, for they contain some of his most rapturous writing for the piano. I refer particularly to the B major hymn/prayer middle section of the first piece and the entire second piece (which I consider Schubert’s Venetianisches Gondellied), in which Ms. Eder reached mystical flights of vision, with just the right amount of freedom and beautiful color changes. The third piece, which many find “less than” the first two, nevertheless tied in to Ms. Eder’s general theme of music from the Austro-Hungarian empire, with its decidedly “Bohemian” rambunctiousness.

Two of her recital groups were absolutely revelatory- the Dohnányi Six Pieces, Op. 41 and the Bartók Improvisations, Op. 20. Aside from reading the sheet music and hearing it on recordings, I had never previously heard a live performance of the Dohnányi, a composer sadly underrated even in his own time, partly because of his great virtuosity as a performer, and his reluctance to participate in the most progressive “isms” of the early twentieth century. In Cloches (Bells), the last of the six pieces, (a memorial to his son who died as a Russian prisoner of war), we hear some of the blending of impressionism, and in Cascades, the rushing of water summons echoes of Liszt. Ms. Eder’s rendition of Canzonetta (the third piece) was ravishing, and she brought out the ironic humor of Ländler (the fifth piece), a decidedly retro dance that had not been performed since Schubert’s time.

In the Bartók Improvisations (eight pieces based on Hungarian folk songs), Ms. Eder was absolutely magisterial and inspired, revealing every melody with the appropriate parlando/rubato that was so important to Bartók, and keeping every bit of the often complicated surrounding accompaniment on its own clear level. One of the chief rules of the Hungarian language is that the first syllable of the word carries the stress or tonic accent. There is a strong musical/linguistic correlation to this in the folk materials collected and transformed by Bartók (this phenomenon was also clearly articulated as a compositional strategy by Janáček). Bartók stated of the Improvisations– “The peasant melody has become purely a symbol, and the essential thing is its setting. The melody and all that we have added to it must give an impression of inseparable unity.” Ms. Eder clearly enabled us to hear the motivic thread that unites all the sections. I always found it curious that the opening Improvisation should have such a solemn tone when the words are about cake-baking and a kiss in the garden. In Ms. Eder’s hands the death-haunted third Improvisation was perfection itself. On such a windy day/night in New York, the fourth Improvisation’s message that “poor people are always hurting when the wind blows” was especially apt.

Ms. Eder finished with a wonderfully refined account of Liszt’s arrangement of the Schumann song Widmung (“Dedication,” poem by Rückert), which is usually trotted out as a sort of guilty-pleasure encore by less-thoughtful pianists. Here, Ms. Eder never lost sight of the original as a German Lied (art-song), her phrasing followed the accented and unaccented syllables of the words perfectly, which allowed me to really enjoy it!

She favored her enthusiastic audience with an energetic account of the sixth of Bartók’s Six Dances in Bulgarian Rhythm from the last volume of Mikrokosmos.

Ms. Eder, who is the generous patron of, and visionary behind, the Key Pianists series, showed us why she is herself “key.” Brava!


The Alexander & Buono Foundation presents Thomas Nickell and Orchestra of the Swan in Review

The Alexander & Buono Foundation presents Thomas Nickell and Orchestra of the Swan in Review

The Alexander & Buono Foundation presents Thomas Nickell and Orchestra of the Swan
Thomas Nickell, piano
Orchestra of the Swan
David Curtis, conductor
Weill Recital Hall at Carnegie Hall
February 26, 2017

 

The collaboration of pianist Thomas Nickell and the Orchestra of the Swan, under conductor David Curtis, was a decidedly unorthodox and mostly refreshing change from the quotidian standard of current concert performances. In essence, this was an introduction to two entities, soloist and ensemble, who met at the juncture of two concerti, a standard from the repertory, and a fairly recent work by the English composer David Matthews.

Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 12 in A major, K. 414/385p proved to be a savvy choice for an opener, as it allowed us to view the strengths of all the performers in a familiar, beloved work. Both the pianist and orchestra solved the acoustical challenges of the room and of the instrument to produce an overall warm, yet precise sound. Mr. Nickell is a composer as well, and his approach to the piano bespeaks a keen ear for harmony and structure. In much of this performance he chose to stay inside the piece, blending rather than competing with the strings. It worked like a charm. Perhaps in a nod to period practice, his cadenzas had a rhythmically flexible, somewhat improvisatory nature. Though not always entirely accurate, they were intelligent and thoughtful. For their part, the Swan paid close attention to nuances of phrasing and dynamic, providing beautiful and affectionate accompaniment for the soloist.

David Matthews’ Piano Concerto, op. 111 (2010), a terrific work in four movements, was the centerpiece of the program after intermission. The composer’s biography mentions Benjamin Britten as an influence, and this concerto was indeed reminiscent, in the best possible way, of the great English composer. While maintaining a strong, original voice, Mr. Matthews uses simple, lyrical melodies and folk dance rhythms to frame the individual movements of this work. His string writing, assured and inventive, was handled quite nicely by the Swan players, particularly the passage in harmonics at the close of the first movement. Mr. Nickell was again both partner and protagonist, showing a clear understanding and delight in this work.

As a bonus for Sunday’s audience the Orchestra of the Swan took their own solo turn in an impressive reading of Britten’s Variations on a Theme of Frank Bridge, Op. 10. Their conductor, David Curtis, prefaced the performance with an impromptu address in which he declared the orchestra’s love of New York City and of the piece they were about to play. No declaration was needed. The orchestra’s adherence to high standards and joy in playing was already abundantly apparent, and it was even more so apparent in the Britten. Despite the unforgiving acoustic in Weill Hall, where every lapse in intonation and ensemble stands out, the players succeeded in delivering a vibrant and richly colored set of variations, highlighted by a gossamer Romance and a thrilling, gutsy Aria Italiana. I must also mention the excellent solo contributions of both concertmaster and principal viola here, and in general throughout the concert.

Apart from the three orchestral selections, the remainder of the program featured Mr. Nickell in solo works by Messiaen, Cowell, Liszt, and himself. Of these, the four Messiaen preludes fit the pianist’s temperament like a glove. Messiaen’s explorations in harmony, color, and the spaces between music were beautifully evoked. His liberal use of both the sustain and una corda pedals was most effective here, and in the Cowell, a piece that is more difficult to bring off than it seems. Mr. Nickell’s own composition, entitled Sympathy, followed the compositional path of Messiaen, Arvo Pärt, and Toru Takemitsu. In a constricted range of dynamics from mezzo piano down to pianissimo and lower, silence played as large a part as sound. Again, Mr. Nickell’s radical approach to pedaling created some truly striking effects.

While the twentieth century piano works benefited from Mr. Nickell’s conceptualization, I feel the Liszt transcription of Wagner’s Liebestod from Tristan and Isolde was a misfire. The pianist’s self-effacing qualities were a handicap here, as he was frequently building up steam only to shift back into low gear. A more rhythmically propulsive and emboldened reading would have boosted it to another level. The only other concern regarding this program had nothing to do with the performances, but with the structure of the program, which was somewhat imbalanced, an impediment to an otherwise thoroughly professional and artistic venture.

Musicians such as Thomas Nickell and the Orchestra of the Swan, who place integrity and enjoyment above all else, are a rarity and a pleasure to encounter. I hope to hear them again soon.

 

 


Philip Petkov in Review

Philip Petkov in Review

Philip Petkov, Piano
The Consulate General of Bulgaria
New York, NY
February 23, 2017

 

Far from the madding crowds of New York’s larger venues, in an elegant second-floor room at the Consulate General of Bulgaria, a gathering of music lovers enjoyed a recital of piano music that felt in some ways like a throwback to an earlier day. The concert, which seemed scantily publicized but drew a warm, appreciative group of listeners, showcased the artistry of Belarussian-born pianist Philip Petkov, who studied in Bulgaria and now lives in the United States. His playing, including well-loved selections of Scarlatti, Chopin, Scriabin, and Gershwin, matched the surroundings in its unassuming elegance.

Mr. Petkov opened with two Scarlatti Sonatas, the very popular E major, K. 380, L. 23 (a favorite of Vladimir Horowitz, among others) and the perhaps equally well-known C major (K. 159, L. 104). One was struck immediately by Mr. Petkov’s meticulous attention to each tone and his delicacy of articulation – a joy to hear. Liberal flexibility of tempo, some inspired subito piano moments, and other surprises bespoke a free and unabashedly Romantic approach. The omission of repeats kept things flowing.

A Chopin group followed, starting with the Polonaise in C-sharp minor Op. 26, No. 1. Many pianists tend to gravitate towards the more bravura works – like the “Heroic” Polonaise (Op. 53), the “Military” (Op. 40, No. 1) – so Mr. Petkov’s more lyrical selection was refreshing. What emerged in the playing as well was Mr. Petkov’s sensitivity to each harmonic turn and his careful shading. In a city where pianists abound, this should not be an unusual quality to find, but many pianists do steamroll right over the nuances. There still is, in Chopin’s tonal world, such unplumbed depth that, even after generations of commercial over-exposure of so much of his music, there is always more to hear; it does however, take sensitive musicians to find it. Mr. Petkov did admirably.

The Polonaise was followed by both pieces from Op. 64, the C-sharp minor Waltz and the D-flat (“Minute”) Waltz. These were played with the requisite fleetness and charm (despite the occasional glitch), though one sometimes wanted greater sheen to the more obvious upper line and less absorption in the interesting tonal discoveries beneath. Mr. Petkov has the lithe technical control to do both.

Moving on to a larger-scale work, the program proceeded with Chopin’s Ballade No. 4 in F minor, Op. 52. If one had characterized this pianist as chiefly a player of delicate miniatures, one was corrected in short order. Mr. Petkov showed ample power and stamina for its many demands and showed us the beauty of holding power in reserve until it is absolutely time to unleash it, which he did to powerful effect. The infamous coda was navigated well, at a rather measured tempo, but with plenty of intensity.

Two of Scriabin’s loveliest Etudes followed, the gentle Op. 8, No. 4 in B major and Op. 8, No. 5 in E major. They were again sensitively played, with the E major enjoying some highly skillfully rendered legato octaves.

The recital was capped off with Gershwin’s Three Preludes, played with gusto. It was a joy to witness the relish that Mr. Petkov took in the first Prelude’s syncopations and in the guttural expressiveness of the central blues Prelude. The third Prelude brought the concert to a fiery close, inspiring hearty applause and the audience joyfully into the reception hall. It was a highly fulfilling evening, and I look forward to hearing this sensitive player again.

 


Distinguished Concerts International New York (DCINY) presents Keys to Romance in Review

Distinguished Concerts International New York (DCINY) presents Keys to Romance in Review

Distinguished Concerts International New York (DCINY) presents Keys to Romance
Christina Kobb, piano
Weill Hall at Carnegie Hall, New York, NY
February 24, 2017

 

As part of their Artist Series concerts, Distinguished Concerts International New York (DCINY) presented Norwegian pianist Christina Kobb in a concert entitled Keys to Romance. Featuring works from Schubert, Grieg, Liszt, and Robert and Clara Schumann, it was a thought-provoking evening, both intellectually and musically.

Christina Kobb is currently working toward a PhD degree at the Norwegian Academy of Music. The focus of her study is the reconstruction of 19th century piano technique from the exploration of treatises and manuals of that time. The goal is to create performances that would sound to us today as they sounded originally. Kobb has lectured about her research, most notably at Harvard in 2016. She was also the focus of an 2015 article in the New York Times that one can read by following this link- New York Times 7/21/15 article. Ms. Kobb has even re-tooled her playing technique to mirror that of her research.

I’m not going to spend a lot of time delving into Ms. Kobb’s thesis – this is a matter that can be left to the academics and performance practice enthusiasts. I could not help wondering, though, whether, if the goal is more authentic performances by using the prevailing technique, it would not also be proper to use the same instrument that was in use at that time, rather than a modern Steinway grand. Perhaps the venue would not allow it.

Ms. Kobb’s program notes were among the best this reviewer has seen. Her style is that of the storyteller, and while she presents musical analysis, it is nothing beyond the grasp of most, regardless of their level of music education. Even though the love story of Robert and Clara is well known, Ms. Kobb recounts the events of their courtship (and roadblocks, courtesy of Clara’s father) with the skill of a novelist that had this listener eagerly awaiting the musical depiction.

The one thing that is immediately apparent about Ms. Kobb is her no-nonsense approach. If one wants extravagant gestures, flashy dress, and indulgent readings, they need to look elsewhere. Ms. Kobb is all about the music. Taking the stage, she sat down at the piano and launched right into Liszt’s transcription of Robert Schumann’s Widmung, which was a clever opening of the love story – present the “happy ending” first (that is, the marriage of Robert and Clara). Ms. Kobb played this much-loved work with a measured passion, of which much may be attributed to the adopted technique. It was a promising opening. Moving on, we heard the A minor Sonata, D. 537, by Schubert, a composer whom Robert Schumann greatly admired (even “discovering” and subsequently enabling the publishing of Schubert’s 9th Symphony). Ms. Kobb offered a well thought out and precise reading.

After the Schubert, Ms. Kobb offered three early works of Edvard Grieg, Drei Fantasiestücke (a Mazurka was added later, and the set published at his Opus 1). Composed in 1861 when the composer was eighteen, these works are heavily influenced by Schumann, a sort of “Grieg before he was Grieg.” I’m not sure what the connection to Robert and Clara was, but it is understandable that a Norwegian would wish to honor Norway’s greatest composer. In any case, Ms. Kobb treated the audience to a reverent performance that in this listener’s opinion exceeded the musical value of the pieces. She ended the first half with two selections from Clara’s Opus 5, the charming Romance, and the Berlioz-like Scene Fantastique: Le Ballet des Revenants. Written in Clara’s early teens, these works make one wonder what Clara’s trajectory as a composer would have been if she had lived in a different time. We can be grateful for her guiding hand in Robert’s works. Ms. Kobb again came fully prepared in an accurate reading.

After intermission, Ms. Kobb offered Robert Schumann’s Sonata No. 1 in F-sharp minor, Op. 11. This work is a musical love letter to Clara. Schumann takes two themes from Clara’s Op. 5 and combines them into a single melody in the first movement – which Clara could have not missed as she played this work. Some couples spoke to each other in letters, but Robert and Clara spoke to each other in music. This was the highlight of the evening for this listener, as Ms. Kobb played this love story with passion while maintaining complete control.

If one wanted to make a suggestion, it would be that Ms. Kobb might play with more spontaneity, even despite the rigors of her special technique. It seems counterintuitive that such romantic works are played with such a cerebral quality. This quibble aside, Ms. Kobb is first and foremost a scholar who does not seem to present herself as a typical touring virtuoso. It is clear to this reviewer that she should excel in lecture recitals, particularly to audiences of academics even more than to lay audiences. She believes wholeheartedly in her mission, and that belief will take her far.

The filled hall gave Ms. Kobb a standing ovation at the end.


Adrienne Haan presents Between Fire and Ice—A Diabolical Weimar Berlin Cabaret in Review

Adrienne Haan presents Between Fire and Ice—A Diabolical Weimar Berlin Cabaret in Review

Adrienne Haan presents Between Fire and Ice—A Diabolical Weimar Berlin Cabaret
Adrienne Haan, chanteuse
Feinstein’s/54 Below, New York, NY
February 22, 2017

 

Adrienne Haan brought her unique passion for and devotion to the cabaret repertoire of 1920/30s Germany to the elegant room that is Feinstein’s/54 Below on February 22, 2017. In the several times I’ve heard her, her art has deepened—that includes this occasion in particular. Never have the bawdy, politically-charged themes of the material seemed more apposite, given the recent political shifts and conflicts here and abroad. Plus ça change.

She sang a generous program, and one would never have known, until she announced it, that she was appearing with a last-minute substitute pianist: the excellent Howard Breitbart ( her usual music director, Richard Danley, had a medical emergency). Their coordination was superb; she has appeared with Mr. Breitbart in Washington, D.C. previously, though not with this program.

Tonight, she brought extra undertones of sadness and fragility to her renditions. She sang a great deal in English, often turning to German for the refrains once the song was familiar. I assume this was done to increase the understanding of the largely monolingual audience. I found her instantly more expressive and idiomatic in her native German (true of classical art-song singers as well). She has precedent in that no less severe a figure than Arnold Schoenberg wanted his vocal works performed in the language of the audience.

Ms. Haan opened with the wonderful anthem to corruption “Alles Schwindel” (It’s All a Swindle). She never allowed her contemporary opinions to become heavy-handed to the point of making her evening unentertaining, but it was clear where she stood at all times. She circulated among the audience playfully, ruffling the hair on the heads of a few men, and, to be fair, sitting on the lap of a woman as well, during her saucier numbers. All this was done with the great ease of a natural performer. Her patter between songs was effective without being over-long.

Other highlights included: “Ich weiss nicht zu wem ich gehöre” (I Don’t Know Who I Belong To), “Medley zur Emanzipation der Frau” (Medley to the Emancipation of Woman), “Das Lila Lied/Maskulinum-Femininum” (The Lavender Song/Masculine-Feminine), and a forceful, haunting account of Kurt Weill’s well-known “Seeräuberjenny” (Pirate Jenny). In Ms. Haan’s tributes to Marlene Dietrich, such as “Ich bin von Kopf bis Fuss auf Liebe Eingestellt” (Falling in Love Again), she sang expressively, but without the weary “used-up” quality that Dietrich could summon so effortlessly.

A well-deserved encore was the staple “Lili Marlene,” with its own complicated history: words, by a WWI trench soldier, set to music only in 1938 on the eve of the next world war, which became an anthem of sorts for soldiers of both sides. At the risk of repeating myself, my wish-list for Ms. Haan would be for her to delve more deeply into the bitterness, anger, even fear, of this era (she came closest in the Pirate Jenny, which was spooky); and seek out more unusual repertoire to weave into her narrative. Nevertheless, she provides a wonderfully committed, very engaging window into this specialized world, one whose message we must never forget. Chapeau, Adrienne!