Manuel Barrueco and the Beijing Guitar Duo in Review

Manuel Barrueco and the Beijing Guitar Duo in Review

MetLife Foundation Music of the Americas Concert Series, 2017 New York Guitar Seminar at Mannes: Manuel Barrueco and the Beijing Guitar Duo
Manuel Barrueco, guitar, and the Beijing Guitar Duo: Meng Su and Yameng Wang, guitar
The Americas Society, New York, NY
June 26, 2017

Kicking off the 2017 New York Guitar Seminar at Mannes was an absolutely superb concert by an esteemed master of the instrument, Manuel Barrueco and two extraordinary young stars, Meng Su and Yameng Wang of the Beijing Guitar Duo. Mr. Barrueco hardly needs introduction, having been a leader in the guitar world for several decades. After emigrating to the US from Cuba to train at the Peabody Conservatory, his career took off, and he now maintains his own small Peabody studio. The Beijing Duo members, counted among his protégés, are much more than protegés, as both are masters in their own right with very busy careers underway. Meng Su was winner of the Vienna Youth Guitar Competition and the Christopher Parkening Young Guitarist Competition, and Yameng Wang was the youngest guitarist in history to win the Tokyo International Guitar Competition at age 12 and was invited by Radio France to perform at the Paris International Guitar Week at age 14. They both perform actively across the globe. As a duo, Su and Wang play with consummate sensitivity, as if playing a single instrument. In Barrueco’s collaboration with them, one heard the sublime melding of his lifetime of musical experience with their split-second responsiveness and keen musical instincts. What a trio!

The program was divided between Bach on the first half and Enrique Granados on the second – not a huge surprise given that works from the Baroque and Spanish repertoires are mainstays for the guitar. On the first half, we heard Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto No. 6 arranged for all three guitars and then the Chaconne in D minor from the Partita No. 2 for violin, BWV 1004, as arranged and performed on solo guitar by Mr. Barrueco.

Various transcriptions of the Brandenburg Concerti exist for nearly every kind of ensemble, including, of course, multiple guitars. As a devotee of these works in something close to their original instrumentation, I found their invigorating performance a surprise and delight. It was captivating. Because the arranger was not named in the program, one might be hard pressed to figure out whether the success was due more to the arrangement or to the performance – most likely there was a debt to both.

Despite the blending of similar timbres from three guitars, there was a clarity of voicing and distinctness of entrances that brought this work to buoyant heights. Highlights included the exquisite end to the brief Adagio movement, where ensemble work was about as close to perfection as it can ever be, and the extremely light finale, liberated from the less flexible weightiness that can beset larger ensembles. It enjoyed a breathtaking balance between individual expressiveness and group momentum. I won’t soon forget the first entrance of the finale’s sixteenth-note motive being tossed between guitars – it was pure life-affirming joy.

About the second work, I’ll confess that as soon as I saw a solo guitar arrangement of Bach’s famous Chaconne in D minor on the program, I had some trepidation. Despite popular opinion, most reviewers do not enjoy being a “wet blanket,” but this reviewer has long had serious misgivings about the effectiveness of this piece for solo guitar, even in the most masterful hands. There is simply something about the grandeur and passion of the violin’s sustained legato lines, the strenuous double and triple stops and heightened resonance, that is perfectly suited to the cathedral-like architecture of this piece (with Busoni’s arrangement for piano coming in perhaps as close second); despite the powerful original (or because of it), guitarists have not been able to resist this Everest, including, among past artists, the noble Segovia. Anyway, with that disclosure behind us, one can say that Mr. Barrueco’s version is surely among the best for his instrument, and his performance was indeed thoroughly engaging. He is undoubtedly still on top of his game, with enormous artistry and virtuosity to share.

The second half opened with the Valses Poeticos of Granados, played by the Beijing Guitar Duo. Extremely well suited to their sensitive listening and flexible team work, this arrangement from the original piano version (arranger not listed) came off beautifully. It was richly fulfilling to hear the exchange of lines from one guitar to the other, with intimate expressiveness, and also to behold the inspired moments when they were breathing musically as one player. No nuance was beyond their conception. Bravissima!

The biggest thrills of the evening, though, were in the performances of all three guitarists, mentor and “protégés.” The selections from Goyescas were enchanting. Again, we had the energy and flexibility of youth combining with a musical savoir faire that has spanned generations. This is not to suggest, by the way, that the younger players are in any way missing their own musical savoir faire – the rubato in melodies traded between Ms. Su and Ms. Wang had all the heart and soul of old Spain. Though all seven movements were listed, only three were performed, El Pelele (“The Puppet” or “The Strawman” by some translations), The Maiden and the Nightingale, and El Fandango de Candil to finish. Each was alive with musical color, and each was played with the highest polish. It was an excellent finale to a superb concert.

For encores the lucky and enthusiastic audience members (including many guitar aficionados) were treated to a Danza by Cervantes from Mr. Barrueco’s native Cuba, and a crowd-pleasing encore (name not quite heard) from China, the land of the Beijing Duo. Congratulations are due to these exceptional performers and to the NY Guitar Seminar for a strong start to their series.


Distinguished Concerts International New York (DCINY) presents Canta! Canta! Canta! in Review

Distinguished Concerts International New York (DCINY) presents Canta! Canta! Canta! in Review

Distinguished Concerts International New York (DCINY) presents Canta! Canta! Canta!
Cabrillo Symphonic and Youth Choirs, Cheryl M. Anderson, conductor
Ensemble Monterey Chamber Orchestra; Cabrillo Symphonic and Youth Choirs, John D. Anderson, conductor
Distinguished Concerts Singers International
Francisco Núñez, composer/conductor; Kristen Kemp, piano; Steve Picataggio, percussion
Stern Auditorium at Carnegie Hall, New York, NY
June 26, 2017

The final choral offering of the 2016/17 season presented by Distinguished Concerts International New York (DCINY) fell into two highly contrasted halves, musically and culturally, the whole making a complementary and enjoyable evening.

The first two offerings were by Latvian composer Ēriks Ešenvalds, who has become highly sought after in his field. His music evokes natural and cosmic vistas with beautiful use of accessible diatonic tunes, tone clusters, soaring descants, and good quality texts. The Long Road is a Latvian poem (sung here in English translation) about a young woman whose lover she has lost to war, she yearns for their reunion but realizes that that may constitute a “long road.” As conducted by Cheryl M. Anderson, the radiance of the music perfectly underscored every line of text, which was rendered crystal clear by the large choir.

Then followed the New York premiere of what one might term an “environmental” piece: Mr. Ešenvalds’ Sunset in My Hand: Ancient Voices of the Wild Pacific Coast. The work was extremely effective at portraying the moods of the sophisticated poems (by Teasdale, Neruda, Gioia, Steinbeck, Jeffers, and an anonymous Franciscan monk) as each one of them contemplates a different aspect of nature, hence reflecting upon themselves too. John D. Anderson led the group beautifully. One of the movements, Prayer at Winter Solstice, contained a slow-ticking metronome, with which the choir was deliberately supposed to sing “out-of-sync” to show the difference between measured time and “felt” time. This was the only problematic movement for me, as the metronome interfered with the gorgeous choral output. My personal favorite was Evening Ebb, a meditation at sunset on the ocean shore. Its rising and falling palindromic cluster chord repetitions were stunning. The inclusion of an Ohlone chant (the indigenous tribe of the San Francisco/Monterey region) in the final section, I Hold the Sunset in My Hand, was a nod to California’s colonial history.

My only suggestion to Ēriks Ešenvalds would be to create more variety of tempo in his otherwise transcendent output. Everything sounds very stretchy, like slow floating. I would have liked to hear this central-California coastal group cut loose in something with a bit more rowdy energy.

After intermission, Francisco J. Nuñez took the stage with his own renowned Young People’s Chorus of New York City, part of a composite group that included many other children’s choirs from across the US. Mr. Nuñez is a recipient of the prestigious MacArthur Foundation Fellow “Genius” grant, and has devoted his life to the creation and commissioning of quality accessible choral materials for children, works that will teach not only musical skills (while providing enjoyment) but also moral precepts such as diversity, strength, and faith.

His set was mainly of shorter “fun” pieces like the traditional Spanish song De Colores (colors of the rainbow and sounds of animals) and Pinwheels (joy of young people spinning and turning), but the Misa Pequeña Para Niños, an abbreviated Catholic Mass setting in Spanish was a novelty to me—its tiny dimensions coordinating with the children singing it. Four young soloists with great self-possession fulfilled the brief solo parts nicely. May I also note that the choir’s diction was clear as well, an accomplishment not so easy to achieve. An uncredited duo, one playing flute/piccolo/clarinet, the other violin, added excellent evocative sonorities to the piano and percussion.

The concert concluded with a rousing performance of La Sopa de Isabel (Elizabeth’s soup), a merengue that involved all manner of eurhythmic clapping, stomping, turning, etc. Mr. Nuñez’s sheer joy in this work was front and center, his hips grew ever looser with each repetition, and it was clear how much the children enjoyed working with him and he with them.


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.


Distinguished Concerts International New York (DCINY) presents Song/Play in Review

Distinguished Concerts International New York (DCINY) presents Song/Play in Review

Distinguished Concerts International New York (DCINY) presents Song/Play
Charlotte Symphony Youth Orchestra (NC); Ernest Pereira, Director
Distinguished Concerts Orchestra and Distinguished Concerts Singers International
Cristian Grases, Guest Conductor
María Guinand, Guest Conductor
Alberto Grau, DCINY Composer-in-Residence
Stern Auditorium at Carnegie Hall, New York, NY
Saturday, June 17, 2017, 7 PM

 

Distinguished Concerts International New York (DCINY) presented an intriguing mix of French-“Spanish” music, music by Spaniards who studied in Paris, and one Spanish-born composer who has spent most of his life in Venezuela, working with young musicians.

 

The Charlotte Youth Symphony, ably conducted by Ernest Pereira, began with Chabrier’s evergreen orchestral rhapsody España, already so ubiquitous in its time (1883) that it was parodied by Satie a generation later as Españaña (1913). The players’ youthful enthusiasm was equaled by their instrumental ability. The notorious fortissimo outburst of the trombones made its (unintentionally?) humorous mark.

 

They followed with the Act II ballet music from Massenet’s opera Le Cid (1885). “Beginning of Act II ballets” were an onerous requirement for composers, so that members of Paris’ ultra-elite Jockey Club could have their intermission dinners (or clandestine affairs) and make it back to the opera house without missing anything of the actual opera. The five short sections reflect different regions of Spain, with appropriate musical symbols that represent the Frenchman’s “idea” of Spain, an obsession ever since Bizet’s Carmen (and even before) that would continue into the masterworks of Debussy and Ravel.

 

Then came two shorter works by Spanish composers who studied in Paris in the early twentieth century, where they were encouraged by their professors to develop their own nationalistic voices rather than try to recreate the sounds of “Impressionism.” Manuel de Falla’s Ritual Fire Dance, from his ballet El Amor brujo (Love, the Sorcerer, 1914/15) is a musical exorcism that has not lost its hypnotic power, and it was well-played here. Turina’s Orgia (Danzas fantasticas, Op. 22, 1919), an Andalusian farruca (dramatic flamenco dance usually performed by men), is preceded in the score by a line from the novel that inspired the work: “The perfume of the flowers merged with the odor of manzanilla, and from the bottom of raised glasses, full of the incomparable wine, like an incense, rose joy.” All of this was enjoyably audible in the performance.

 

After intermission came two works by the Spanish-born Alberto Grau (b. 1937), who has spent most of his life in Venezuela developing high-quality choral works for children’s choirs. Venezuela is of course noted for its astonishing music education program El Sistema, which has produced the conductor Gustavo Dudamel, among many others.

 

The first work, La Doncella (The Maiden, 1978), is a short fable about a girl whose beauty wins over the sun, moon, and stars, when other, wealthier suitors are rejected by them. Mr. Grau’s characteristic shifting metrics enlivened the score, and they posed no problem either to orchestra or choir, conducted by Cristian Grases, a student of Mr. Grau. An English-language narration was provided on stage, very expressively, to illumine the suite of dances.

 

During the switch-out of choruses, a brief interview was held with Mr. Grau and his wife Maria Guinand (the next conductor on the program) who translated charmingly for him.

 

Then came the World Premiere of La Avispa Brava (The Angry Wasp), which Mr. Grau puckishly claims is autobiographical, though that is hard to believe. It is a moral fable about the insect (i.e. person) who is so consumed by anger that she cannot escape from a house that has all its windows and doors open. She falls into a glass of water “so small even a mosquito could save itself from it,” but our angry insect instead rages and drowns. Ms. Guinand’s supportive, energetic touch kept the extremely young singers in line, with more of the complicated rhythms, and lots of eurhythmic activity: clapping, stomping, vocal whooshes and slides. There were charming “group solos” and all the choristers were wearing insect antennae, wings, and various costume details. Were they musically “perfect” at every moment? Of course not, but what valuable exposure they are getting at such a young age.

 

The message of La Avispa Brava is a valuable one, not only for children’s growth and maturity, but for the adult world as well, as Ms. Guinand suggested during the interview.

 


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.”


Requiem for My Mother by Stephen Edwards: DVD in Review

Requiem for My Mother by Stephen Edwards: DVD in Review

Requiem for My Mother by Stephen Edwards
Recording and DVD Documentary
The Continuo Arts Symphonic Chorus, The City of Prague Philharmonic; Candace Wicke, conductor
Orchestrations by Marcus Sjowall and Michael Pelavin
Directed by David Haugland and Stephen Edwards
Produced by Stephen Edwards, Julie Hartley, David Haugland

 

Stephen Edwards’ Requiem for My Mother is a beautiful and powerful work inspired by an original and poignant personal story. That is why the accompanying DVD about the inspiration for this recording is a true revelation, and one of the most moving and honest music documentaries you will see. I recommend owning both the recording and the documentary. The film is not only a lovely telling of the story behind a deeply personal work, but also the evolution of those feelings into the reality of the rehearsal and recording process. The Requiem is so emotionally overwhelming and deeply symbolic of the love a son has for the mother that inspired him, that it is difficult to put those thoughts into words. Mr. Edwards hints about that difficulty, and as a result turned to the purist and most ancient forms of Latin chant, ultimately culminating in the performance at a Rome cathedral. Rome is also where the great film composer and Mr. Edwards’ idol Ennio Morricone produced his many studio recordings, and the Continuo Arts Symphonic Chorus on this CD was recorded separately there. (The orchestra was recorded in Prague and the two recordings were mixed later).

 

Because of Edwards’ love for film and film music, he was able to beautifully co-direct a documentary that is as heartfelt and honest as his Requiem itself. The score is cinematic in nature, but also has solid concert music craft behind it, with interesting harmonies (the work ends on a surprising major second, perhaps symbolizing mother and son), some clever use of minimalism, and creative changing meters (3/4 to 4/4) in the Dies Irae. The high opening flute solo represents his mother, who was both a flutist and a choral director, which makes the use of chorus also appropriate for this dedication. The Dies Irae in the documentary is brilliantly and thoroughly examined with eye-popping video cuts of Leonard Bernstein conducting Mozart’s Requiem, plus short footages from Star Wars, The Exorcist and It’s a Wonderful Life as part of an insightful, well-explained effort to show how this ancient chant is employed in well-known films.

 

Huge kudos to the outstanding and deeply inspirational choral conductor Candace Wicke and the expert engineers and sound mixers for producing such a finely balanced, robust, rhythmically tight, and soulful recording. Ms. Wicke poured blood, sweat, and tears into the rehearsal preparation, and inspired the Continuo Arts Symphonic Chorus to rise to a level they probably didn’t know they were capable of achieving. The documentary DVD reveals many parallel stories, such as those of Ms. Wicke and her father (having recently lost a close family member), who feel as passionately about the Requiem as the composer himself. Don’t get me wrong, one can enjoy the recording of this composition on its own, but the documentary doubles that enjoyment. Having both is, in fact, important at a time when music streaming makes it all too easy to grab a sound-bite snippet here and there. The Requiem for My Mother, and the story behind it, combine to make for an inspiring time well-spent. This spiritually uplifting composition is like a great movie- you invest in it and want to learn the deeper meaning behind it. Just like a viewer of the film It’s a Wonderful Life, one is on a journey to find the reason for dying and for living on. And like the Angel in that classic film, both Stephen Edwards and his mother Rosalie have more than earned their wings.


Distinguished Concerts International New York (DCINY) presents Sancta Civitas & Dona Nobis Pacem: The Music of Vaughan Williams in Review

Distinguished Concerts International New York (DCINY) presents Sancta Civitas & Dona Nobis Pacem: The Music of Vaughan Williams in Review

Distinguished Concerts International New York (DCINY) presents Sancta Civitas & Dona Nobis Pacem: The Music of Vaughan Williams
Nina Nash-Robertson, Guest Conductor; Latoya Lain, soprano; Eric Tucker, bass-baritone
Craig Jessop, Guest Conductor; Kerry Wilkerson, baritone
Distinguished Concerts Orchestra and Distinguished Concerts Singers International
Stern Auditorium at Carnegie Hall, New York, NY
June 11, 2017

 

Distinguished Concerts International New York (DCINY) presented a marvelous afternoon concert devoted entirely to the music of Ralph Vaughan Williams, with two infrequently heard works, one of which was a Carnegie Hall premiere. The first piece was the cantata Dona Nobis Pacem (Grant Us Peace). Those words come from the Agnus Dei section of the Mass. However, Vaughan Williams makes use of three poems written just after the Civil War by Walt Whitman, and a portion of a mid-nineteenth century British political speech to intensify his fervent appeal for an end to senseless human conflict. Vaughan Williams enlisted in World War I (at age forty-two, mind you) and drove ambulances in France, Belgium, and Greece. He saw plenty of carnage, and was forever affected by it. The Dona Nobis Pacem was premiered in 1936, when Europe was only a few years from yet another conflagration.

Nina Nash-Robertson led the excellent Distinguished Concerts Orchestra and the composite choir (she got to bring her “home choir” from Michigan in addition to the others) in a performance that was brisk and always bracingly transparent even when the choral and instrumental writing gets complicated. The choir was thrilling in the forte sections, and very good at the softer ones too. The soprano soloist, Latoya Lain, had a gorgeous voice, with deep sincerity of expression and a wonderful variety of colors—she reminded me of a combination of what is best about Leontyne Price and Jessye Norman. The baritone soloist, Eric Tucker, was more successful in the second of his major solos: The Angel of Death, where his stentorian quality fit the mood. I didn’t feel that he found the tender sadness of Reconciliation, in which Whitman realizes, as he looks at his dead enemy’s body in the coffin, that he is “a man as divine as myself,” tenderly kissing the brow of the departed. The Dirge for Two Veterans was heart-rending, wherein a mother looks down, in the form of moonlight, on a funeral procession for her husband and son, killed on the same day. When the moon appears, the shimmer of string sound was magical.

Men don’t ever seem to learn the lessons of warfare in any lasting way, but Vaughan Williams believed that artists had to be messengers of hope.

After intermission, Jonathan Griffith, the co-founder of DCINY and its principal conductor, presented the DCINY Educator Laureate award to conductor Craig Jessop, who led the next work, Sancta Civitas (The Holy City), a Carnegie Hall premiere. In his remarks, Mr. Jessop said how much he learned from Robert Shaw, one of his choral mentors. Indeed, he had a “Shaw-like” quality to his own conducting that made this apocalyptic vision from Revelations even more intense. To name but one of his many accomplishments- Mr. Jessop led the Mormon Tabernacle Choir from 1999 to 2008, earning many Grammys in the process.

The main choir was on stage (Mr. Jessop also had his “home choir” from Logan, UT, as one of the composite), a divided balcony choir was on either side in the front of the hall, and the “distant” choir (and trumpet), Vaughan Williams’ specification, was all the way at the back of the hall, though it could have used some more acoustic “distance” of the sort provided by the great British cathedrals. The spacial distribution worked like a charm. The concertmaster, Jorge Ávila, was radiant in his personification of the human soul ascending in the And I Saw a New Heaven section, which sounded a lot like a less-ornamented “cousin” of Vaughan Williams’ The Lark Ascending. Mr. Ávila had also been perfect in the Reconciliation movement of Dona Nobis Pacem. The English horn and trumpet solos also were sensitively done. Baritone soloist Kerry Wilkerson rendered all his interjections beautifully, with clear diction and mellow “British” tone.

“Babylon the great is fallen” cried the chorus, and my mind went to the many cities in Iraq (and elsewhere) that have shared the same fate. Another Dona Nobis Pacem moment.


Amy E. Gustafson in Review

Amy E. Gustafson in Review

Amy E. Gustafson, pianist
Florence Gould Hall, French Institute, Alliance Française, New York, NY
June 9, 2017

 

A sizable crowd at Florence Gould Hall was treated on June 9th to an evening of Debussy played by pianist Amy E. Gustafson to mark the release of her new CD entitled Reverie. The CD includes Book II of the Préludes, Suite Bergamasque, L’Isle Joyeuse, and the title piece, Reverie. The recital program included nearly all of the works from the CD, with the exception of three of the Préludes (Les fées sont d’esquises danseuses, La terrasse des audiences du clair de lune, and Les tierces alternées), and with the Reverie not listed but being added as an encore. It was a beautifully crafted program showing Ms. Gustafson to be a sincere artist with a deep commitment to this repertoire.

 

It is not easy to pull off an entire recital of Debussy, but Ms. Gustafson did just that, and not once did the music overstay its welcome. She is not a performer of overt drama or physical demonstrativeness, but if one listened rather than watching (the point, after all), one found her to have ample emotional range within a carefully defined tonal palette, along with a keen sense of shape and direction within that palette. She tended to avoid dynamic extremes and the flood of pedal in which many indulge, opting for a more “pen-and-ink” approach to Debussy’s fine details, and it was a delight to hear.

 

Where Debussy required, Ms. Gustafson showed a versatile sense of his more theatrical characterizations, conveying the bumptious pace of Général Lavine – eccentric, the whiff of Dickensian air in Hommage á S. Pickwick, Esq. P. P. M. P. C., and the sinister shimmer of the nymph Ondine (painted with far fewer brushstrokes than Ravel’s Ondine, but with a similar spirit).

 

At the same time, Ms. Gustafson was unafraid of the grays of Brouillards (Fog), the subtle shades in Feuilles mortes (Dead Leaves), and the deathly stillness of Canope (Canopic Jar – the jar used for various remains of mummies). These three pieces combined could represent the kiss of death in a live recital, given the ever-decreasing attention spans of many audiences today, but this pianist credited her listeners with keen sensibilities, and she was rewarded with the same. She led her willing listeners on a journey of the imagination, and for that she won my complete admiration. The touching simplicity of Bruyères (Heather) was captured perfectly as well.

 

The brighter musical colors of La Puerta del Vino and Feux d’artifice (Fireworks) were welcome, but Ms. Gustafson was never bombastic, and she never overplayed. I might have even wanted a touch more fire in the “fireworks” – but this is again individual. Vive la différence!

 

Taking no intermission (another plus in my opinion), Ms. Gustafson followed the Préludes with the Suite Bergamasque. It was refreshing to hear this four-piece set in its entirety, as one so often hears selections from it, particularly the Clair de Lune and to a lesser extent the Passepied. One can always safely bet that heads will turn as the dreamy Clair de Lune opens, listeners looking towards another as if to say, “that’s our song” or “remember this, my favorite?” – and I won that bet again. By virtue of such familiarity, performing the piece can be somewhat daunting; Ms. Gustafson knew what she was doing, however, and she played it beautifully with only the tiniest of glitches. Notable was how she took time to let the music speak. The musical result was richly satisfying. The Minuet from the same suite did not fare quite as well, with a few lapses along its winding path, but the Passepied concluded the set beautifully. Throughout the recital, Ms. Gustafson had shown thorough attention to detail, including some expert pedaling (for example in Ondine), but her delicate approach was especially impressive in the Passepied.

 

L’Isle Joyeuse capped off the program with joy, even if occasionally this listener wanted more abandon. The beginning was a bit measured sounding and even the end, not quite as ecstatic as I’ve heard – but again, these matters are highly individual. (This listener also wanted to hear more of the crests and nadirs in each wave and perhaps a bit less of the textures in between).

 

All in all, these tonal scenes and vignettes seemed the perfect musical fare for Florence Gould Hall, a venue frequently used for cinematic arts, particularly French films. In lieu of subtitles, we had some very expressive and articulate program notes by the pianist. She clearly wanted to share her reactions to this music, and she did so in every possible way. It was a wonderful evening.

 

Without a doubt, the high point of the recital for this reviewer was the encore, Reverie. In a slower–than-usual tempo, Ms. Gustafson savored each moment of the daydream. It was truly moving, and I’d have to place it high on the list of my favorite renditions of this piece. If you’d like to hear it, you can hear something close to it (without the live performance magic but still beautiful) on her CD (visit http://www.amygustafson.com).

 


Distinguished Concerts International New York (DCINY) and The Tyler Clementi Foundation present Portraits of Healing: Tyler’s Suite and the Music of Ola Gjeilo in Review

Distinguished Concerts International New York (DCINY) and The Tyler Clementi Foundation present Portraits of Healing: Tyler’s Suite and the Music of Ola Gjeilo in Review

 Distinguished Concerts International New York (DCINY) and The Tyler Clementi Foundation present Portraits of Healing: Tyler’s Suite and the Music of Ola Gjeilo
James M. Meaders, DCINY Associate Artistic Director and conductor
Ola Gjeilo, DCINY Composer-in-Residence, piano
Tim Seelig, Conductor Laureate
Stephen Schwartz, DCINY Composer-in-Residence
Michael McCorry Rose, Special Guest Artist
Andrew Caldwell, tenor; Steve Huffness, bass; Nancy Nail, mezzo-soprano; Keilan Christopher, tenor; Jorge Ávila, violin; Carl Pantle, piano
Distinguished Concerts Orchestra, Distinguished Concerts Singers International
David Geffen Hall at Lincoln Center, New York, NY
June 4, 2017

 

Talk about a concert with a mission! Distinguished Concerts International New York (DCINY) presented the very moving New York premiere of Tyler’s Suite, a work commissioned by the Tyler Clementi Foundation in 2012 (the 2014 world premiere was in San Francisco) to honor the memory of the eighteen-year-old college freshman who committed suicide nearly seven years ago, due to intense, vile, cyber-bullying. We will get to that work , which comprised the second half of the concert, later.

The concert opened with four choruses by the Norwegian-born composer Ola Gjeilo, an eminence in the field, despite not yet having reached age 40. Even their texts seemed to relate to Tyler Clementi. For me, the standout was Dark Night of the Soul, from the poem by St. John of the Cross, the Counter-Reformation mystic whose sacred raptures border on the erotic. “One dark night,/fired with love’s urgent longings/–ah, the sheer grace!–/I went out unseen,/my house being now all stilled,” for example. Mr. Gjeilo is what I call a “maximal minimalist,” at times sounding like a descendent of Philip Glass, but with much greater access to emotion, and much more romantic. The Dark Night was preceded by The Ground, a reworking of a portion of Mr. Gjeilo’s Sunrise Mass that had a beautiful three-note “Brahmsian” motive. Then came the phoenix legend reconsidered beautifully in Across the Vast, Eternal Sky. Finally, a counterpart to Dark was provided by the Luminous Night of the Soul, words mostly by Charles Silvestri, but with the inclusion of more St. John of the Cross. The composite choir was excellent, with absolutely stunning blends, surely the achievement of the conductor; the composer himself was the pianist, along with the strings of the Distinguished Concerts orchestra. Mr. Gjeilo’s sensitive rendition of the extended piano interlude in Luminous Night was breathtaking.

 

DCINY, Tyler’s Suite Dr. Timothy G. Seelig, Conductor Laureate
Stephen Schwartz, DCINY Composer-in-Residence
Carl Pantle, Piano

After intermission came the main event, Tyler’s Suite– a collaboration among nine of today’s most celebrated composers: John Bucchino, Ann Hampton Callaway, Craig Carnelia, John Corigliano, Stephen Flaherty, Nolan Gasser, Jake Heggie, Lance Horne, and Stephen Schwartz, with the libretto by Pamela Stewart, Mark Adamo, and Joe Clementi. Jane Clementi, Tyler’s mother, was introduced by composer Stephen Schwartz (of multi-Broadway show fame). I don’t understand how any mother (or parent, sibling, or friend) can ever truly “heal” from such an immense loss, however, she spoke with great composure and passion about the need for kindness and an end to bullying (online and offline), harassment, and humiliation. The family started the Tyler Clementi Foundation in the hope that their worst nightmare would not have to happen to anyone else. Tyler’s father even collaborated in part of the libretto.

The work is in nine sections, with a violin solo prominent (due to Tyler Clementi’s talent on that instrument), piano, SATB choir, and soloists. There was one lighter moment in The Unicycle Song, about Tyler’s ability to play the violin while riding, you guessed it, a unicycle. The points of view of mother, father, and brother were all represented in this collaborative work, whose composers aren’t identified by specific section, nor are librettists identified by whose words are which—they truly meld their identities in the service of this memorial.

As Jane Clementi said, she truly believes that perhaps only music has the power to reach inside and transform someone’s attitudes and soul. Overall, the work was at all times beautiful, but very difficult for me emotionally, but what is my discomfort compared to the family’s grief. Perhaps some of that was due to the raw, literal nature of the words. The children’s nursery rhyme “London Bridge is falling down” (in the movement called A Wish), though conceived years ago for this work, seemed strangely prescient given yesterday’s terrorism in London on that very bridge. It caused me to think about whether it is proper to take aesthetic enjoyment as a result of someone’s tragedy. However, if that were the case, we wouldn’t have Shostakovich’s Babi Yar symphony either. The soloists and choir were very, very good; and it was great to see the concertmaster of the Distinguished Concerts orchestra properly credited (he was the violin “embodiment” of Tyler Clementi).

This work should be required listening for every high school and college. Click here to watch the live video of the concert. Please be kind, people, and use social media for good purposes only.

 


Key Pianists Presents Sara Davis Buechner in Review

Key Pianists Presents Sara Davis Buechner in Review

Key Pianists presents Sara Davis Buechner, piano,
Recital of Japanese Piano Music and Ibert’s Histoires
with guest artist, Yayoi Hirano, Noh/Kabuki Mime and Mask Dancer
Weill Recital Hall at Carnegie Hall, New York, NY
June 1, 2017

 

Sara Davis Buechner needs little introduction within the world of pianists. She has enjoyed a high- profile career for several decades, launched in part by numerous major prizes, and she has played with many of the world’s finest orchestras and in the most prominent concert venues. Her biography states that her repertoire of more than 100 piano concertos ranges “from A (Albeniz) to Z (Zimbalist),” and I can attest that what is in between – along with her discography – is a tantalizing array of discoveries and treasures.

While it is no secret that Ms. Buechner’s repertoire ranges from the mainstream to the exotic and underappreciated, including such names as Friml, Suesse, and Rózsa, nothing prepared me for the power and originality of her Japanese-themed program at Weill Hall. It went far beyond what one might expect as a doffing of the hat to Japan (2017 being her 30th year as a Yamaha artist). She plumbed the depths of a pianistic goldmine that has simply remained largely untapped here in the US. The works of Kouji Taku (1904-1983), Yoshinao Nakada (1923-2000), and Yukiko Nishimura (b. 1969) were revelations.

The Japanese works on the program that Ms. Buechner did not discover or rediscover, she commissioned, namely the first work Ten Etudes for Piano (2010-2011), by Yukiko Nishimura (a pianist in her own right). From the very first Étude, Snowy Sky, one was mesmerized by the kaleidoscope of colors, shimmering evocations that the pianist projected with crystalline sound, vivid tonal imagination and exceptional control. There emerged a definite kinship with works of the French Impressionists here, and yet this music was distinctly Japanese and bracingly new.

Ms. Buechner is capable of every shade on the musical spectrum and played each successive etude somehow more stunningly than the last. The set of ten pieces demanded nearly a half hour of pianistic wizardry of all kinds, but Ms. Buechner never flagged, and I’m happy to report that the listeners did not either. Fanfare dazzled with its energy and brilliance. Windmill intrigued with its tone-painting, augmented in sections by percussive knocking under the keyboard. Drops drew out more of the quieter colorist in Ms. Buechner, and the dance-like Hide and Seek was feisty and rambunctious through fistfuls of notes and hand-crossings. There were elements of modern jazz and minimalism apparent, but no piece in ten could be stylistically pigeonholed.

There was added fun in observing specific pianistic challenges as well. While Tango, for example, was wildly virtuosic all around, Daydreaming featured left hand alone, and Rock Candy exploited the right hand alone (the much less common solo hand). Harvest Moon, a transcription of one of the composer’s orchestral works, capped off the set with exuberance. These pieces will undoubtedly attract many pianistic daredevils and musicians, though it is difficult to imagine Ms. Buechner’s renditions being surpassed. She has, in a sense, created these pieces as well as inspiring them, and she is one with them. In the words of W. B. Yeats, “Who can tell the dancer from the dance?”

If the influence of jazz was prevalent in Ms. Nishimura’s pieces, it was even more the case in Variations on a Theme by Poulenc by Kouji Taku (1904-1983) a classical pianist (and student of Alfred Cortot) who had a lifetime of experience with French cabaret style. Ms. Buechner’s own excellent notes tell us that the Taku work was published in a 1960 Zen-On anthology and had almost no pianists perform it since its composition in 1957, except for Arthur Loesser in 1961, and, of course, herself. It is a fantastic (re-)discovery based on Poulenc’s well-loved Mouvement Perpetuel No. 1, a sweetly nonchalant theme with an ambling B-flat bass, a perfect point from which Taku could launch into an ostinato variation, tango, blues, and then samba-like flights of fancy. What a fantastic finale to the first half – bravissima!

As hinted above, a French tone to the evening was never far, but it was overt, of course, in the inclusion of Histoires (“Stories), the marvelous set of ten character pieces by French composer Jacques Ibert (1890-1962). Each of the ten miniatures was paired – incorporating the Japanese theme – with a performance by guest Kabuki mime and mask dancer, Yayoi Hirano, wearing traditional masks that she had created. One almost forgot about the pianist, playing from score (as she did, understandably, for the entire evening), with a string of varied masks poised on the piano lid; the music, however, was never forgotten. Ms. Buechner presented the “stories” vividly through her sensitive playing, as did Ms. Hirano with her movements. It was an intriguing conception, even to this listener who loves this music by itself.

This revelatory evening closed with Sonata for Piano (1949-1969) by Yoshinao Nakada, known in the US chiefly for some popular student miniatures, it seems. The Sonata is a large, complex, neo-Romantic work that represented a great struggle for the composer (as one might surmise from the composition timespan), and it will frankly take this listener a bit more listening to fully embrace. The composer, an ex-kamikaze pilot who survived World War II, poured his torment into it – that was quite clear – and moments were extremely stirring. I am grateful to Ms. Buechner for my first hearing of it, as well for first hearings of Taku and Nishimura, and I hope for more.

Loud ovations were met with some endearing quips from the pianist about encores being an unnecessary delay before the first martini – plus a poem and an original haiku by the pianist about the NY Mets’ recent performance (translated). I wouldn’t know about the Mets, but the performance I attended was phenomenal! Long may Ms. Buechner continue to find and commission great treasures to play for us! She has already given much to music, but her Japanese repertoire may become the most important contribution yet. She is well-situated to do more, as she now divides her time between Takatsuki, Osaka, Japan and Philadelphia, where she joined the illustrious faculty of Temple University in 2016 – lucky piano students!

Kudos to everyone involved, particularly to Key Pianists and Terry Eder for making it happen (see Frank Daykin’s interview from 9/14/16 Unlocking Beauty: A Conversation with Terry Eder).