Enrique Velez-Bidot and Hermelindo Ruiz, guitarists in Review

Enrique Velez-Bidot and Hermelindo Ruiz, guitarists
The American Bible Society; New York, NY
October 4, 2013

At concerts presented by Musica da Camara, the sponsors of this event, this reviewer has grown to expect performances characterized by a close connection between the performers and their audience. These events are almost like family gatherings. And this was palpably present in this Emerging Artist Concert, a recital by the young Puerto Rican guitarists Enrique Velez-Bidot and Hermelindo Ruiz, which took place in the Conference Center of The American Bible Society’s New York headquarters. The audience kvelled at every sound, at every word. (To kvell – Yiddish: to take pleasure in the achievement of family members and others close to you.)

The large and enthusiastic audience loved the concert, and their pleasure did not seem to be diminished by the things I will discuss in this paragraph. Firstly, the printed program bore little connection to what we heard. I find this unacceptable, as the printed program is both a guide for the audience and an historical documentation of the event. It seems that Mr. Ruiz, after deciding to change the works he would be performing, failed to inform Musica da Camara in time. He therefore had to verbally explain the changes to the audience, thus confusing the audience and lengthening the spoken part of the recital.  I know that many of today’s audiences find that spoken comments from the performers are both enjoyable and informative. But to this listener it seemed that there were almost as many words coming from the stage as there were musical sounds. A little spontaneity is a good thing. To be effective, however, performer-to-audience interaction must be very well planned and timed. Tonight, five pieces which appeared on the printed program had to be omitted because too much time was spent talking. I would have loved to have heard them, especially “El coqui” by Jose Ignacio Quinton and the two Bach Inventions arranged for two guitars.

The concert’s first half belonged to Hermelindo Ruiz. He began with three of his own works, “Espacio”, “Recordando a Margot” and “Three Sketches.” On all three he exhibited a fine technique and drew many lovely colors from the instrument. The first two were written in a quite accessible style and allowed Mr. Ruiz to spin out some lovely well shaped phrases with clear articulation. The third, equally well played, was much more complex and dissonant. This was followed by the Gavotte en Rondeau from J.S. Bach’s Suite for Lute in E Major, BWV 1006a. This very popular work is part of an arrangement by the composer of movements from his Third Partita for Violin Solo, BWV 1006. Perhaps Mr. Ruiz was being too “respectful” of this work by the great master, but I felt that the performance didn’t quite dance. I would also suggest that the first dissonant note of an appoggiatura should be a bit louder than its consonant resolution.

The first half concluded with the World Premiere of a piece Mr. Ruiz commissioned for this concert, “Variaciones sobre un tema Paraguayo” (“Variations on a Paraguayan Theme”) by the  Paraguayan composer Diego Sanchez Haase. Although very well performed, this work’s basic problem was that, at least on first listening, the theme (the melody, the harmony, the structure et. al.) was so complicated that during the variations one could not tell what was being varied. If the theme (everything about the original material) isn’t clear, then one cannot take joy in perceiving what the composer does with “the original stuff.” The work made great technical demands on Mr. Ruiz, but he was up to all of them.

The second half began with a performance by Enrique Velez of Andrés Segovia’s arrangement for guitar of one of the monuments of Western Classical music, the Chaconne from the Second Partita for Violin, BWV 1004 by J.S. Bach. It was, unfortunately, not a successful performance of this most difficult work. As he had to stop and retune twice in the middle of this long work, my thought was that there must have been something wrong with Mr. Velez’s instrument. And since I know that this would have unnerved any performer, I don’t think it necessary to describe the performance in any detail. But I am happy to mention that there were moments during the Bach (and in the following duet with Mr. Ruiz) that I heard examples of the quality of playing one expects from a player with Mr. Velez’s training and experience. For the concert’s last work, Messers Ruiz and Velez got together in a jaunty performance of Juan Francisco Acosta’s “Bajo la sombra de un pino”.

Misoon Ghim, mezzo-soprano in Review

Misoon Ghim, mezzo-soprano
Amy Yang, piano
Weill Recital Hall at Carnegie Hall
April 22, 2013

What an auspicious New York debut vocal recital, as two wonderful performers, mezzo soprano Misoon Ghim and pianist Amy Yang, presented songs from five stylistic periods, sung beautifully in five languages. I was most impressed by the high quality of the music they chose, and how these works allowed both performers to exhibit the many aspects of their fine technique and deep musicality.

And what better way to open a program than with the words “Music for a while/ Shall all your cares beguile,” the opening lines of Henry Purcell’s setting of John Dryden’s poem “Music for a while.” I was pleased that the performers chose an edition with a stylistically correct keyboard part, rather than one with the souped-up accompaniments so often used by singers who aren’t Baroque specialists. Ms. Ghim possesses a beautiful bright voice which is produced with great ease. (Darker vocal colors were to appear later in the concert.) Another Purcell work,  “Dido’s Lament,” followed. Most moving was her heartfelt singing of the words “remember me” which showcased her thrilling upper register. I did wonder why Ms. Ghim chose to ornament repeated lines during “Dido’s Lament,” while failing to decorate the da capo of “Music for a while.”

Next we heard four songs by Brahms. During these works Ms. Ghim produced many vocal colors to express the meaning of the words. Most memorable was her performance of “Die Mainacht” where we first heard her moving dark sound. Pianist Amy Yang, very much an accompanist during the Purcell, was given her first chance to shine during these songs. Her rapid finger work imitating the sound of spinning wheels during “Mädchenlied” and her stormy accompaniment during “Mein Liebe ist grun” gave us a foretaste of many pleasures to come.

The first half ended with a superb performance of Mozart’s Concert Aria “Ch’io mi scordi di te?” As the accompaniment of this work was originally scored for orchestra with obbligato piano, one could think of this piece as a concerto for voice and piano. It was therefore exciting to hear both of these fine musicians vie for our attention. That Ms. Ghim has been a success on the opera stage was vividly shown by her expert performance of the expressive opening recitative, the lyrical first section of the aria and then its thrilling dramatic conclusion. This was wonderful singing. Equally wonderful as both accompanist and second soloist  was pianist Amy Yang.

That the recital’s second half would maintain the high quality of the first half was made clear during the opening moments of the first of Mahler’s “Fünf Rückertlieder,” “Ich atmet’ einen linden Duft!” as Ms. Ghim spun out a most ravishing phrase. And at the climax of the intimate “Liebst du um Schönheit” she was very much the singing actress, as she lovingly caressed the words “o ja, mich liebe” (“oh yes, love me.”)  “Blicke mir nicht in die Lieder” allowed Ms. Ghim to show off her dark lower register and Ms. Yang to offer a sensitive accompaniment featuring a beautifully played left hand. Both performers shone during the very slow and quiet “Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen.” But what sticks in my mind was Ms. Yang’s beautiful tone color and subtle phrasing, especially during the piano’s introduction, interludes and postlude. The last verse of “Um Mitternacht” brought the set to a goose-bump-producing- climax. For this listener, these Mahler songs were the highest point of a concert with many high points.

After a fine performance of Debussy’s “Fêtes galantes 1”, the program ended with “Cinco Cancione Negras” (“Five Black Songs”) by the Catalan composer Xavier Montsalvatge (1912-2002.) Employing Spanish and West Indian rhythms and themes, these songs lightened the mood and showed us another side of Ms. Ghim’s artistry. She and Ms. Yang brought the concert to a jolly conclusion with a wild rendition of the last song, “Canto negro.”

Thanks to the Korean Music Foundation for bringing these wonderful artists before a very appreciative New York audience.

The Catalyst String Quartet in Review

The Catalyst String Quartet
Karla Donehew Perez, violin
Christopher Jenkins, viola
Karlos Rodriguez, cello
The American Bible Society; New York, NY
April 5, 2013

In sponsoring this superb concert by The Catalyst String Quartet in the Conference Center of The American Bible Society’s New York headquarters, Musica da Camara continued its policy of presenting performances in non-traditional concert venues. Even though the room was fairly large, the fact that there was no stage and both audience and performers were on the same level made for a more intimate chamber music experience. All the members of the quartet are top Laureates and alumni of the Sphinx Competition, an annual competition for young black and Latino string players. That the Sphinx Organization thinks highly of these players is shown by the fact that their quartet is called “A Sphinx Ensemble.”

First we heard “Sturm,” a work by one of the quartet’s violinists, Jesse Montgomery. Written in 2006 for string quintet, it was arranged for quartet in 2008 and again revised for The Catalyst String Quartet in 2012. Very well constructed, this was a great opener. The beginning melody, especially its first three notes, served as the basis for much of the work’s melodic material. And I loved the strumming pizzicati which permeated the piece. The performers’ rhythmic energy, their polyphonic clarity and tight ensemble–playing were to continue throughout the evening.

With spoken comments, Ms. Montgomery then introduced Osvaldo Golijov’s “Tenebrae.” She demonstrated the sound of sul ponticello (bowing close to the violin’s bridge which creates a glassy sound and emphasizes the higher harmonics) and told us that the score instructs her to tune the violin’s G-string down a third. The use of sul ponticello added to otherworldly character of this work, and the lowered G-string darkened the sound of the quartet–tenebrae is the Latin word for shadow. The quartet gave us a beautifully wrought, lucid and committed performance of this most moving composition. Each player shone, both as collaborators in a like-thinking ensemble and as lyric “soloists.” Both violinists, Karla Donehew Perez and Jesse Montgomery, spun out luscious melodies on their violin’s lowest string; violist Christopher Jenkins played what sounded like Hebraic chants with soulful mournfulness; and cellist Karlos Rodriguez sailed around the cello’s high register with ease. (He would attain stratospheric heights in the concert’s second half.)

The last work on the first half was one that few in the audience have heard in its entirety, Samuel Barber’s String Quartet, Opus 11. But most people are familiar with the arrangement for string orchestra of the quartet’s second movement, the “Adagio for Strings.” Surrounding this beloved lyrical movement are two much more dissonant and rhythmically complex pieces which the quartet played with as much assurance and ease as they did the lyrical adagio.  I was very impressed by the many string colors that the quartet created. (Most memorable were the passages in the first and second movements played with little or no vibrato.) In fact I was very impressed by every aspect of the quartet’s playing on the first half of this concert.

But I was awed by their performance of Alberto Ginastera’s fiendishly difficult String Quartet No.2, Opus 26! This work makes incredible technical demands, and the Catalyst players were up to all of them. One marveled at their perfect sense of ensemble during the unison passages and complex rhythms of the first movement. During the second movement, one luxuriated in the luscious tone of violist Christopher Jenkins. The mysterious sounds of the third movement, marked Presto magico, were flawlessly produced by using string techniques such as glissandi, harmonics, col legno (touching the strings with the wooden part of the bow) and the aforementioned sul ponticello. During the fourth movement cellist Karlos Rodriguez essayed his instrument’s highest notes with abandon. The concert was brought to a thrilling conclusion by the wild final movement, aptly marked furioso.

We were then treated to a delightful encore, the quartet’s arrangement of a children’s song from Puerto Rico, “El Coqui.” The audience left smiling.

A Celebration of Song in Review

A Celebration of Song
Samantha Jeffreys, soprano, and guest artists
Djordje Stevan Nesic, piano
Victor Borge Hall at Scandinavia House
December 6, 2012

It is a daunting task to organize, rehearse and perform in a vocal recital featuring fourteen singers, a pianist and in one number, even an obbligato cellist. But for Samantha Jeffreys and her colleagues, this “Celebration of Song” was a labor of love, evidenced by the joyful and heartfelt music making tonight’s audience experienced. The concert, a benefit for the brain cancer research being carried out at The New York Brain Tumor Center at Weill Cornell Medical College, was dedicated to Ms. Jeffreys’ mother Karen Jeffreys who is undergoing treatment at Weill Cornell.

The singers on this program showcased many facets of New York’s vibrant musical life. We heard both emerging artists and veteran performers in the fields of opera and musical comedy. Some specialized in one field, others such as Ms. Jeffreys exhibited skill in both.  And it was interesting to see how the paths of the performers have crossed, as educational institutions such as the Manhattan School of Music and local opera companies such as the Dell’Arte Opera Ensemble and the Di Capo Opera Theatre popped up in so many biographies.

Most of the concert’s first half was devoted to operatic arias and duets.  The recital began with the lovely “Barcarolle” from Offenbach’s “Les Contes d’Hoffmann,” sung by Ms. Jeffreys and mezzo-soprano Sara Fanucchi. This was followed by the American composer John Duke’s art song “I Carry Your Heart,” performed with a rich sound and fine diction by mezzo-soprano Katie Hannigan. We then heard another duet, “Evening Prayer” from Humperdink’s “Handel and Gretel,” in which Ms. Jeffreys was joined by another mezzo-soprano, Jocelyne O’Toole. The singers in both duets blended beautifully and were perfectly balanced. In these duets, and in all of the following ensembles, the interaction between performers was dramatic and quite convincing. This even extended to the way they entered the stage before singing.

Michael Corvino’s magnificent rendition of the aria “Nemico della Patria” from Umberto Giordano’s “Andrea Chenier” followed. This veteran baritone possesses a thrilling sound in all registers and sings with palpable dramatic intensity. In a preceding paragraph I mentioned that this evening featured both emerging and veteran performers, and the overall excellence of Mr. Corvino’s performance is something that all of tonight’s younger artist should strive for.

The preceding statement is not meant to infer that there were no other great performances this evening. The tenor Ta’u Pupu’a (that’s not a misprint – he’s originally from the Polynesian Kingdom of Tonga) thrilled the audience with his idiomatic rendition of the song in Neapolitan dialect “Tu, ca nun chiagne” by Ernesto DeCurtis. Both he and the tenor Brian Gagde, who later sang Rudolfo’s aria “Che gelida manina” from Puccini’s “La Bohème,” possess exciting tenor voices that have that wonderful ring which the Italians call “squillo.” They are the kind of tenors that make the hair on the back of your neck stand up when they move into their upper register.

Mr. Gagde’s aria was immediately followed by Mimi’s response, “Mi chiamano Mimi,” sung by Ms. Jeffreys. Her lovely voice ascends with ease to the top of the lyric soprano’s range and left us deeply gratified. The first half ended as Ms. Jeffreys and Mr. Gagde sang the duet which concludes Act I of “La Bohème.” Their voices soared together to climax on the word “amor” as they exited through the audience, leaving it eagerly anticipating the second half.

The second half featured music from the American Musical Theater. I love this music, having been in the audience during the opening run of half of the eight shows from which tonight’s music was chosen.  Let me touch on some high points. Ms. Jeffrey’s performance of Gershwin’s “Someone to Watch over Me” was idiomatic and touching. She showed how a singer with an operatic voice can convincingly cross over into musical comedy. I would, however, suggest leaving out the operatic high note at the end. And speaking of operatic high notes, “Mamma, Mamma” from Frank Loesser’s “The Most Happy Fella,” more an aria than a song, was given a knockout performance by Michael Corvino. Although many of the other performers on this half were more “singing actors” as opposed to the above “acting singers,” they were no less effective. Lastly, mention must be made of the exemplary pianist Djordje Stevan Nesic, whose sensitive accompaniments in both musical styles were a pleasure to hear.

Ms. Jeffreys has done an admirable thing in raising over $10,000 for cancer research and in so doing, she gave her audience a wonderful evening. Her mother must be very proud.

The Park Avenue Chamber Symphony in Review

The Park Avenue Chamber Symphony in Review
“Majestic Finale”
David Bernard, Music Director
All Saints Church, New York, NY
May 6, 2012
David Bernard and the Park Avenue Chamber Symphony

David Bernard and the Park Avenue Chamber Symphony


A large and very enthusiastic audience was on hand for this, the final concert of the Park Avenue Chamber Symphony’s 2011/12 season. They were treated to an exemplary performance of Beethoven’s Symphony No.4 in B flat major, Opus 60, and were thrilled by the visceral climaxes of Mahler’s Symphony No 1 in D major (“Titan”.) One might ask what a Mahler symphony is doing on a program by a performing organization which has “chamber symphony” in its name. My answer is that one of the glories of Mahler’s use of the orchestra is that no matter how large a performing group he writes for, the scoring is often that of a chamber orchestra, with long quiet passages for solo instruments interspersed between passages for very, very full orchestra. In addition, this Beethoven/Mahler combination was an inspired pairing; as both works have similarly mysterious pianissimo openings.

Conducting without a score, Maestro Bernard led his players in an assured, beautifully shaped and well-paced performance of the Beethoven. The tempi he chose allowed the music to unfold naturally. We heard none of the very, very fast or very, very slow tempi which so many conductors now choose perhaps to show us an “original” interpretation of a well-known work. Readers of the New York Concert Review might remember that I am very insistent that performers obey the composer’s instructions and observe all of the indicated repeats.  I am happy to report that this afternoon all of Beethoven’s repeats were performed. And so were those in the Mahler!

The very live acoustics of All Saints Church caused a problem which persisted throughout the concert; the solo winds, when playing passages marked piano, all sounded too loud. I’m sure that the players were following Beethoven’s dynamic marking, but the contrast between loud and soft didn’t come across. As this was not the case with the strings, the tutti crescendi, so crucial in a work by Beethoven, were handled beautifully.

After intermission came the Mahler. Again conducting without a score, Maestro Bernard led the huge orchestra with discrete, clear and concise gestures. The orchestral playing was of the same high quality we heard on the program’s first half. The strings were especially impressive – the wild opening of the last movement was played with confident abandon. The horns, all seven of them, had a very high batting average. It was a very impressive performance. But for this listener, during the lyrical passages there was something missing, and it is hard to put it into words without sounding too negative, something I do not wish to do as it would seem to contradict the statement which precedes this sentence. So with that disclaimer, I’ll try. I found the lyrical section somewhat stiff and careful, with little of the warmth and disciplined freedom I look for in a Mahler symphony. A bit more use of portamento in the strings would have also been welcome. But when the orchestra was going at full tilt, all was well. And when it was over, the audience rose to their feet and thanked the performers with heartfelt applause and cheers.

“The Most Happy Fella” by Frank Loesser in Review

“The Most Happy Fella” by Frank Loesser
Dicapo Opera Theatre, New York, NY
March 17, 2012
Leah Lane, Michael Corvino and cast; Photo Credit Rob Rich

Leah Lane, Michael Corvino and cast; Photo Credit Rob Rich

I first saw Frank Loesser’s “The Most Happy Fella” in 1957, during its first Broadway run. I bought the score as soon as it was published and the original cast album (the first recording of an entire show, including spoken dialogue) as soon as the 33rpm records came out. These were later replaced by CD’s. In 2006 I attended the New York City Opera’s disastrous production starring a woefully miscast, musically inept Paul Sorvino as the baritone lead. There were other revivals in between. Yes, I’ve had a fifty-five year love affair with this great American musical, but it was a love affair scarred by inept revivals. Would I ever experience a performance which came even close to my memories of the original? This thought went through my mind as I sat in the fifth row of the Dicapo Opera Theatre’s lovely 204 seat space in the basement of St. Jean Baptiste Church on E 76th Street. As the houselights dimmed I was in a state of wary anticipation.

And a few hours later, I was in a state of bliss. I had just attended a performance for which I am still finding it hard to find suitable words – superb, magnificent, sublime all come to mind.  Forget about 1957 – this was the best performance I’ve heard of this great American masterpiece; the perfect amalgam of wonderful unamplified singing (both operatic and pop,) moving acting, clear and simple staging, costumes which conjured up a time and a place, and beautiful orchestral playing.

“The Most Happy Fella” stands or falls on the performance of the “fella,” Tony Esposito, a lonely Italian immigrant who owns a winery in the Napa Valley. He is most often played by a large man who often exaggerates the characters awkwardness and lack of education. Baritone Michael Corvino is a slight, dignified man and his moving portrayal brought out the character’s fragility and, more than any Tony I’ve seen, his deep love for Rosabella, the mail-order bride who has come to his winery. He is a powerful and compelling baritone. But one never felt that he was an “opera singer” crossing over into musical comedy, as he brought the same natural delivery to his “arias” as he did to simple songs like “Happy to make your Acquaintance.” And there was a wonderful chemistry between Mr. Corvino’s Tony and soprano Molly Mustonen’s Rosabella. Possessing a beautiful soprano voice, Ms. Mustonen is a fine singing actress. Her deepening love for Tony was palpable and brought tears to my eyes.

But if much of the music sung by Tony and Rosabella tended towards the operatic, that of the two other leads, Lauren Hoffmeier and Brance Cornelius, was pure musical comedy. Ms. Hoffmeier’s singing of the show’s first number, “Ooo! My Feet,” was deliciously brassy, and her duet with Mr. Cornelius, “Big D,” brought down the house. The fine dancing of both these performers helped choreographer Francine D. Harman solve the problem of how an opera company treats the show’s two big dance numbers. The members of Dicapo’s chorus sang beautifully all evening, but couldn’t be expected to perform the complex choreography of big production numbers. Ms. Harman’s solution was perfect. Omit the dance following the chorus “Sposalizio” and leave most of the dancing in “Big D” to Ms. Hoffmeier and Mr. Cornelius. By the way, the chorus’s performance of “Song of a Summer Night” was memorable.

The supporting cast did much more than just support. One could not ask for better portrayals than Peter Kendall Clark’s Jo, Bess Morrison’s Marie, Michael Hopewell’s Doc and David Keller-Flight’s Postman. Three show stoppers were “Standing on the Corner,” performed by Brian Ribeiro, Nicholas Connolly, Jonathan Harris and the afore mentioned Brance Cornelius; “Abbondanza,” and “Benvenuta,” brilliantly sung by Paolo Buffani, Michael Imbimbo and Vincent Ricciardi.

The fine orchestra was under the masterful direction of conductor Pacien Mazzagatti. The orchestra was seated upstage, behind the performers, bringing the singers very close to the audience. But this setup did nothing to hinder the coordination between voices and instruments. The ensemble was perfect. The simple but effective set by John Farrell was beautifully lit by Susan Roth (In addition to what happened on stage, I loved the mysterious blue-lit orchestra behind the performers.) The fine costumes were designed by Julie Wyma.

Kudos to Dicapo Opera Theatre’s General Director, Michael Capasso. He has a smash hit show on his hands. My brother, who now lives in Paris, was with me at that 1957 performance of “The Most Happy Fella,” If Dicapo performs it again, he will fly back to New York to see it. I’ll be there too.

Britten’s “The Prodigal Son” in Review

Claudia Dumschat, Music Director
Richard Olson, Stage Director
David Neer, Peter Ludwig, Reid Pierre Delahunt
Christopher Preston Thompson, solo voices
Betty Howe, Dramaturg/Stage Manager
The Church of the Transfiguration, New York, NY
March 9, 2012

Daniel Neer as The Tempter (left) with Christopher Preston Thompson as The Younger (Prodigal) Son.

Composed in 1967/68, Benjamin Britten’s chamber opera “The Prodigal Son” is subtitled “A Parable for Church Performance.” And The Church of the Transfiguration, also known as “The Little Church Around the Corner,” proved to be a perfect venue in which to hear this superlative performance. With its all-male cast and its use of masks and stylized movement, the work shows the influence of Japanese Nō drama. In addition, the use of small drums, bells and gong all conjure up the sound of the music of the Far East.

The work began with the sound of chant far in the distance, a foolproof way of setting the mood for chamber opera performed in a church. The chanters, hooded monks, soon processed down the center aisle and assembled in the sanctuary. After the four main characters (The Father, The Elder Son, The Younger Son, The Tempter/Abbot) removed their monk’s habits and put on their costumes, the drama began to the accompaniment of the organ and chamber orchestra.

What followed was a performance that succeeded in all aspects. The four soloists were superb, each singing with dramatic intensity, great sound and crystal-clear diction. As the Tempter, David Neer had the meatiest part and skillfully expressed the character’s unctuous villainy. Peter Ludwig’s portrayal of The Father expertly balanced self-satisfied pomposity and deep paternal love. And as the two sons, Reid Pierre Delahunt and Christopher Preston Thompson clearly contrasted the two young men’s world view. Each soloist was a fine singing-actor.

Some of the men performing the roles of monks, servants, parasites and beggars, and all of the boys portraying “distant voices” were members of the church’s Choir of Men and Boys. They all sang with great tone and strong sense of ensemble. Highest praise must go to Music Director Claudia Dumschat who lead the fine chamber orchestra and performed the all-pervasive organ part. Under her leadership, the musical preparation and execution were exemplary. Mention should also be made of the simple but quite evocative costumes by Costume Designer Terri Bush. The dramatic action, responsibility of Dramaturg/Stage Manager Betty Howe and Stage Director Richard Olson, was persuasive and melded seamlessly with the singing. All in all, a wonderful performance.

Young-Ah Tak, Pianist in Review

Young-Ah Tak, piano
Weill Recital Hall at Carnegie Hall
March 8, 2012

Young-Ah Tak

There was a buzz in the air preceding this concert. Was this just an excited audience of friends and colleagues, or was there something about the pianist I didn’t know? My curiosity was peaked. And just a few moments into Young-Ah Tak’s New York debut recital, one realized that something special was happening; we were in the presence of an extraordinary pianist. The program began with a brilliant performance of Muzio Clementi’s Sonata in B-flat Major, Opus 24, No. 2. Here we first heard the characteristics which were to make this a most memorable recital – crystalclear articulation of rapid passages, beautifully phrased legato melodies, noteperfect octaves. Even the trills, sparkling and energetic, were notable. As you read on, you will see that I was very, very, very impressed by every aspect of Ms. Tak’s playing. But although I want this to be considered a rave review, I must chide her for not repeating the exposition of the first movement of Clementi’s sonata. This repeat is not ad libitum, and leaving it out trivializes the movement, upsets the balance and distorts the structure. I urge her to think about this when performing similar movements in the future.

Next we heard the New York premiere of Judith Lang Zaimont’s “Wizards – Three Music Masters.” Commissioned in 2003 as the required work in the San Antonio International Piano Competition, it is a work which exploits many aspects of pianistic color. Even thoughto this listener—this piece was just another example of a 20th/21st century work in which one has no idea why one note follows the other, Ms. Tak’s playing was so convincing that I was sure she was playing exactly what was written in the score. Ms. Zaimont could not have asked for a better performance.

This was followed by scintillating performances of Liszt’s delightful transcriptions of two Schubert songs, “Gretchen am Spinnrade” and “Ständchen von Shakespeare.” Although I would have liked a bit more rhythmic clarity in the lefthand accompaniment of “Gretchen am Spinnrade,” Ms. Tak easily mastered the more difficult Lisztian virtuosic additions to both songs. What fun! The first half ended with a convincing performance of Leon Kirchner’s Piano Sonata No.1 (1948).

The entire second half was devoted to Schubert’s Piano Sonata in C Minor, D.958. Of three magnificent piano sonatas written in the last year of the composer’s all too short life, this dark and strange work is the least performed. And what a pleasure it was to hear Ms. Tak’s superlative rendition. Instead of writing a rhapsodic paragraph, I think my reaction will be made clearer if I just quote from the notes I took during the performance:

First movement: clear left-hand accompaniment during the second theme – so difficult ravishing pp (pianissimo) scales again didn’t repeat exposition
Second movement: singing legato melody with clear rhythmic accompaniment – beautiful!
Third movement: danced, great tension during silences
Fourth movement:thrilling!

After prolonged and well-deserved applause, Ms. Tak’s encore was a mesmerizing performance of Schubert’s Impromptu, Opus 90, No. 3. This was a recital I will long remember.

Distinguished Concerts International New York (DCINY) in Review

Jonathan Griffith, conductor
Avery Fisher Hall, Lincoln Center
November 27, 2011

Distinguished Concerts International New York has long been bringing large choruses to this city to perform in concerts with soloists and a fine freelance orchestra. I have heard them before, usually presenting very exciting performances of contemporary works. And today’s performance of Handel’s “Messiah,” entitled “Messiah…Refreshed!”, did have a 20th century component, as it utilized the Eugene Goosens re-orchestration for full symphony orchestra commissioned by Sir Thomas Beecham in 1959. I was very excited to hear this orchestration again, for I remember enjoying it with great guilty pleasure during my college days. This review will contain no discussion of Baroque performance practice, for this orchestration unashamedly does not care about such things. Historical accuracy was of no interest to Sir Thomas. As he said: “A musicologist is a man who can read music but can’t hear it.”

The performance did not turn out to be a slavish recreation of the 1959 recording by Sir Thomas Beecham. Just as a realistic painter, once he has mastered the rules of perspective and can no longer create convincing primitive landscapes, a fine musician such as Maestro Jonathan Griffith could not allow himself to use the often lugubrious tempi stipulated by Thomas Beecham. Neither could the soloists forget all they have learned about ornamentation. So although the performance was an inconstant recreation, it was far more musical than the original.

The members of today’s chorus, the Distinguished Concerts Singers International, were drawn from choruses located in seven of the United States and two foreign countries. I have been most impressed by the DCINY choruses that I’ve heard in the past. But they never had to negotiate the quick coloratura passages which today’s chorus was called upon to perform. Although their performance of chordal sections was often stirring–on the words “wonderful, counselor” in the chorus “For unto us a child is born”, for instance–the same cannot be said for the sixteenth-note runs which each section is called upon to sing in this and many other movements. I am reminded of another statement by Sir Thomas Beecham, said to have made while exhorting a chorus during a rehearsal of “For unto us a child is born:” “Ladies, please think of the joy of conception, not the pain of childbirth.”  Save for the coloratura sections, the choral singing was more than adequate, what one would expect from over 200 people singing “Messiah.”

The soloists were successful to varying degrees. Countertenor Nicholas Tamanga stood out with his beautiful tone and attention to the meaning of the words. But the use of a countertenor instead of a mezzo-soprano/alto was anomalous, something which didn’t fit into this souped-up-retro-version of “Messiah.” Tenor Ryan MacPherson performed his solos with ease, exhibiting a fine tenor voice in all parts of his range. Bass Michael Scarcelle also sang well, but at times had trouble keeping together with the orchestra. I’ve rejected all of the words which I’ve thought of to describe the singing of soprano Sara Jean Ford, as I don’t want to seem unkind. She was just not up to performing this great Baroque work. Her singing was expressionless, distant, and uncommunicative.

The mighty orchestra was fine, although the timpanist seemed a bit overzealous at times. I chuckled at the cymbal rolls on the words “for he is like a refiner’s fire.” And guiltily enjoyed the flute obbligatos in “O thou that tellest good tidings to Zion.” It is interesting to note that, since in this orchestration the trumpets and timpani were playing a good deal of the time, their impact in the few movements in which they appeared in Handel’s original score was weakened. But the overall sound was thrilling.

I can fully understand why–at the end of the performance–the audience responded with fervent and heartfelt applause. Those who knew members of the chorus were thrilled to hear their friends, neighbors and members of their family performing this great work in a New York concert hall with a huge orchestra under the direction of a fine conductor. For most of the audience, matters of Baroque performance practice were not concerns. Most of the things I have discussed in the preceding paragraphs meant nothing to them, and rightly so; they heard a well-paced performance of a beloved masterwork with a Technicolor orchestration, and they responded accordingly. A good time was had by all, including this reviewer.

Cuarteto Rústico in Review

George Anthony Figueroa, violin
Ariadna Buonviri, violin
Cassandra Stephenson-Sulbarán, viola
Jorge Espinoza, cello
Hosack Hall, New York Academy of Medicine
December 9, 2011

This concert was presented by Musica de Camara, one of whose missions is to present concerts in non- traditional venues, so as to bring great music to under-served communities. Who knew that the New York  Academy of Medicine, located just south of the Museum of the City of New York at Fifth Avenue and E 103rd  Street, housed a wonderful auditorium? And although the armchairs and movie screen at the rear of the stage  indicted that music was not the primary focus of Hosack Hall, I found it a perfect place in which to hear this  fine performance by the Cuarteto Rústico.

The members of the quartet all have Latin American roots (Chile, Columbia, Venezuela and Puerto Rico) and  state as their mission “to promote the origins, history and culture of the Americas through its music.” They  also state that “folk, popular and classical music from Latin America is at the heart of their repertoire.” And  tonight’s concert was true to their mission. It began with a spirited performance of Silvestre Revueltas’ Sting  Quartet No.4, “Música de Feria.” In four quite short movements, this work is “a brash and rowdy picture of  a Mexican rural fair.” Yes, it is brash, rowdy and contains Mexican rhythms and melodies, but I found it a  typical example of quite forgettable twentieth-century “classical music.” I was, however, most impressed by the
playing of this fine quartet – a focused sound at all dynamic levels, beautiful phrasing, a perfect balance among  the instruments.

We then heard the String Quartet No.1 by Heitor Villa-Lobos, the Brazilian master whose music is anything  but forgettable. His harmonic language is unmistakable and quite beautiful, as heard in the first movement,  titled “Cantilena.” Many string quartets strive for a consistently blended, homogeneous sound, and when a  homophonic texture called for it, we heard such a sound from Cuarteto Rústico. But what I liked most about  the quartet’s playing was that each instrument retained its own color, making crystal clear the polyphonic web  which was present in so much to tonight’s music.

Popular music followed; an arrangement for string quartet of Antonio Jobim’s bossa nova, “Chega de  Saudade.” During this work, which went on just a bit too long for this listener, the quartet played with the same  intensity, clarity of texture and fine sound as in the previous “classical” works. The first half ended with Astor  Piazzolla’s “Fuga y Misteri,” an excerpt from the composer’s tango opera “Maria de Buenos Aires.”
After the intermission we heard the concert’s longest work, Mozart’s String Quartet in C Major, K.465. By the  way, it was erroneously listed on the program as String Quartet No.6. It is, however, the composer’s twenty-  second string quartet. The mistake arises from the fact that it is also the last of the six quartets Mozart dedicated  to Haydn and had published in 1785 as Opus 10, No.6. I felt that the tempi in the first and last movements  were too fast, which made for moments of insecure playing. And strangely, although they didn’t repeat the  first movement’s exposition, they did so in the fourth movement. (For my strong feelings about repeating the  exposition, see the second paragraph of my review of the Nov 3, 2011 concert by The Stone River Chamber  Players.)

The concert proper concluded with a wonderful performance of Jorge Figueroa’s jazzy “Salsa Clásica” for  String Quartet. It was followed by an encore recognized by most of the audience, Carlos Gardel’s “Por una  Cabeza.”