Distinguished Concerts International New York (DCINY) presents The Cry of Jeremiah in Review

Distinguished Concerts International New York (DCINY) presents The Cry of Jeremiah in Review

Distinguished Concerts International New York (DCINY) presents The Cry of Jeremiah
Distinguished Concerts Orchestra, Distinguished Concerts Singers International
Robert A. Harris, composer/conductor
William C. Powell, DCINY Debut Conductor; Rosephanye Powell, composer/narrator
Alice Tully Hall, Lincoln Center; New York, NY
May 10, 2014
 
Cry of Jeremiah

The Cry of Jeremiah

 

Distinguished Concerts International New York (DCINY) presented a concert of works by prominent African-American composers and scholars Robert Harris and Rosephanye Powell in a program entitled “The Cry of Jeremiah,” at Alice Tully Hall at Lincoln Center on May 10, 2014. Mr. Powell was to conduct the New York premiere of his Gloria. The Cry of Jeremiah (also a New York premiere)was to feature the composer, Ms. Powell as the narrator, with her husband William Powell conducting. With approximately two hundred and fifty singers from Alabama, Illinois, Florida, North Carolina, South Dakota, the Bahamas, and “individuals from around the globe,” it was the tried-and true DCINY formula: Bring together talented musicians and let the magic unfold. This performance was no exception.

Opening the concert was the Gloria. It is a five-movement work scored for chorus, soprano soloist, and orchestra. The movements are Gloria in excelsis Deo, Laudamas Te, Domine Deus, Qui tollis, and Quoniam tu solus sanctus. As is stated in the notes, any of these movements could be performed independently. Often this modular approach leads to some unevenness, but the five movements mesh together well. Gloria is a work filled with brilliance and poignancy. Gloria in excelsis Deo is strongly reminiscent of the opening movement of John Rutter’s Gloria in both the brass and vocal writing. Soprano soloist Heather Hill was exceptional in her role in the Domine Deus and Quomium tu solus sanctus movements. Her upper register was crystalline in its clarity and beauty, with an exquisitely controlled vibrato that was perfect for this work. This listener found the Qui tollis to be particularly compelling both harmonically and stylistically. The bold final movement dies away to a quiet ending with the word Amen delivered almost in a whisper. Mr. Harris is a no-nonsense conductor, who led with understated restraint.It was a performance of which the chorus, orchestra, and soloist could be proud.

The Cry of Jeremiah tells the story of the prophet Jeremiah’s struggles as he is abused and imprisoned for his prophecies. This four-movement work is scored for narrator, chorus, organ, and orchestra, and freely uses the 20th chapter of the book of Jeremiah for the text. Those movements (and corresponding verses) are entitled Is Not His Word Like a Fire (Jeremiah 20:9), O Lord, You Have Deceived Me (Jeremiah 20:7-9), Cursed Be the Day (Jeremiah 20: 14-18),and Hallelujah! (Jeremiah 20:11-13).Each movement opens with the narrator speaking as Jeremiah before the chorus and orchestra enter.

As well as being an accomplished composer, Ms. Powell is an exceptional orator. She became Jeremiah as the words came forth with raw emotion. Those words were at turns despairing, raging, and finally, exultant. The power of her oratory was spellbinding, deepening the meaning of the music that followed. One wonders, with the narration so inextricably bound to the music, whether a less passionate narrator (or omitting the narration) might possibly nullify the power of the music, but such is the case with many similar compositions. In any case, this work most likely was written with a very specific audience in mind, and while it is an effective work for the concert stage, it is an emotionally supercharged work that would enjoy great success in performances at churches or houses of worship.

The music of The Cry of Jeremiah is eclectic. There is Baroque-influenced contrapuntal writing mingling with jazz harmonies and rhythms, and African-American spiritual/gospel vocal styles. Combined with the narration, this is a theatrical work that demands not just to be heard, but to be experienced in all its glory. Conductor William Powell led the Distinguished Concerts Orchestra and chorus with the quiet strength and confidence of one who is in full command. The chorus radiated the emotions of the spoken words with equally passionate ensemble singing. The audience was so taken by this work that they greeted the end of each movement with enthusiastic applause, in spite of the request in the program to hold all applause until the end of the final movement.

When soprano Brandy Woods came to the front of the stage in the Hallelujah! and unleashed a improvisatory solo while the chorus swayed and clapped in a frenzied joy, it brought the already excited audience to a fever pitch. When the last note was sounded the audience sprang up as one in a thunderous ovation, saving the greatest appreciation for Ms. Powell, who was the star of the evening. Ms. Powell joined Ms. Woods in a jubilant gospel-style improvisation as the chorus encored the last section of the Hallelujah. The audience clapped and swayed along to bring the evening to a triumphant close.

 


USA-Japan Goodwill Mission Concert in Review

USA-Japan Goodwill Mission Concert in Review

USA-Japan Goodwill Mission Concert
New York Festival Orchestra, Beethoven Memorial Chorus
Hideaki Hirai, Music Director and Conductor; Hideyuki Tsuji, Choral Conductor
Naomi Satake, soprano; Francesca Lunghi, alto; Paul Williamson, tenor; Katsuji Miura, bass-baritone
Stern Auditorium at Carnegie Hall, New York, NY
December 26, 2013

In order to raise money for the victims of Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines, a benefit concert entitled “USA-Japan Goodwill Mission Concert” was held at Stern Auditorium at Carnegie Hall on the evening of December 26, 2013. Raising money for a good cause is always a welcome activity, and I commend the organizers for this. It is thus with reluctance that I take issue with the chosen program. It seemed that there were two concerts slapped together to be one, without any thought as to the appropriateness of having Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9 in D minor, Op. 125, the Choral, paired with a motley assortment of popular songs.

I am not a music snob. I love the popular music of the 1980s and can probably identify within a few seconds any song from that era that received airplay. I love music of all genres and eras.  I also love the 9th Symphony of Beethoven. As one who does, I find the idea of “Meet the Flintstones on the same program as the Beethoven to be bizarre in the extreme. The clashing of Schiller’s “Götterfunken!” with Hanna-Barbera’s “Wilmaaaaaa!” is still filling my ears with horror, as the ghost of Kafka smiles with a knowing nod. “O Freunde, nicht diese Töne!” To have any work follow this monument of the Western music canon shows a lack of respect to the sheer magnitude of this masterpiece, but to follow it with show tunes, popular music performed in a style strongly akin to a Glee episode, and Barbershop with slapstick, was the musical equivalent of Marcel Duchamp’s treatment of La Gioconda in his L.H.O.O.Q.  I would have been perfectly content with either half standing alone, but NEVER paired together.

My programming objection in no way is meant to disparage the performers in the second half, as they were all very entertaining and gave energetic, crowd-pleasing and wholly committed performances. The No Borders Youth Chorus, an all-male a cappella chorus with young men from the United States, Canada, and China, led by Joe Cerutti, was delightful, and the barbershop quartet, Lunch Break, was hilarious in their set. It was just a shame that the net effect of each mismatched half was to nullify the value of the other through the pairing.

The program did not list the movements of the Beethoven, nor include the text of the Ode to Joy. If there was an assumption of familiarity as a reason for the omission, it proved to be completely unfounded.  Applause between the movements and ear-shattering yelling from the audience from the start of the Alla Marcia section in the finale (for a good ten seconds), were proof enough of not only a lack of familiarity with the work, but a lack of familiarity with how to behave at a classical concert. Enthusiasm is good, but yelling loudly is never appropriate. To his credit, conductor Hideaki Hirai endured these interruptions with grace and did not allow them to distract him or the orchestra.

The New York Festival Orchestra, consisting of players from throughout the United States, was specially formed for this concert. Usually one expects some roughness from groups of this nature, and while there were a few instances of this, the playing overall was polished and the ensemble remarkably unified, as if they had been together for a long period of time. From the tremolos that open the work, to the timpani bursts in the Scherzo, the sublime Adagio in the third movement, to the Prestissimo of the final bars of the epic last movement, it was a highly satisfying performance.

The Beethoven Memorial Chorus was made up of singers from Japan and the United States, all with extensive experience performing the 9th Symphony. This experience showed in their rock-solid performance. Bass-Baritone soloist Katsuji Miura projected with a powerful voice that easily filled the hall with its bold resonance. Soprano Naomi Satake’s voice soared with passion, while Tenor Paul Williamson and Alto Francesca Lunghi enriched the textures with their considerable talents.

Maestro Hirai was especially impressive. Conducting from memory, he demonstrated his deep knowledge of the score with unflagging energy and intense concentration. He was dynamic, confident, and completely engaged for the entire 75 minutes.  It was especially interesting to me that he “sang” along with the chorus with evident joy on his face.  It was among the best of the live performances I have heard of this work and justly deserving of the standing ovation it was accorded. Bravo to all!


The Second Coming in Review

The Second Coming in Review

The Second Coming
Ensemble du Monde, Marlon Daniel, Music Director and Conductor
Gwendolyn Howard, violin
Special guest: Hampson Sisler, composer
Society for Ethical Culture, New York, NY
December 14, 2013
 
World Premiere of the Oratorio The Second Coming by H. Sisler

World Premiere of the Oratorio The Second Coming by H. Sisler

 

In a concert to celebrate the release of the CD recording of The Second Coming by Hampson Sisler (b. 1932) on the MSR Classics label (MSR 1489: www.msrcd.com), Ensemble du Monde, with forces fifty strong under the direction of Marlon Daniel, gave a promotional performance of this new work. Those hearty souls who braved a snowstorm to get to the Ethical Culture concert hall were rewarded with not only the concert, but a reception afterwards to meet the performers.

Gwendolyn Howard, violin and Ensemble du Monde

Gwendolyn Howard, violin and Ensemble du Monde

 

Also on the program was Max Bruch’s Scottish Fantasy, featuring fifteen-year-old violin soloist Gwendolyn Howard, First Prize winner of the Ensemble du Monde Young Artists Concerto Competition. The modest and self-effacing Ms. Howard shyly took to the stage, giving no hint to the miraculous transformation that was about to take place. Once the music began, Ms. Howard reflected the assurance of the professional that she is. She plays with a beautiful tone and pairs that with the technique to toss off virtuosic passages with the greatest of ease. Make no mistake: this young lady is a force to be reckoned with! It was winning from start to finish.

Gwendolyn Howard, violin, Marlond Daniel, conductor and Ensemble du Monde

Gwendolyn Howard, violin, Marlond Daniel, conductor and Ensemble du Monde

 

Clocking in at nearly one hour, the three-part oratorio The Second Coming is a music depiction of both the foreshadowing of Judgment Day (freely quoting the New International Version Bible: Matthew 24: 1-51), and the Apocalypse, as written in the Book of Revelation (freely quoting the NIV Bible: Revelation 6:1-17, 7: 6-13, and 16: 2-21). The three parts are entitled Prologue, The Seven Seals, and Bowls of Wrath. The composer was inspired by a conversation with Marlon Daniel about what was expected by some to be the Second Coming on October 20, 2012, along with Mayan prophecy’s End of Days, December 21,2012. *Spoiler alert*- Both dates were wrong.

World Premiere of the Oratorio The Second Coming by H. Sisler (the composer is congratulating the conductor)

World Premiere of the Oratorio The Second Coming by H. Sisler (the composer is congratulating the conductor)

 

All joking aside, the subject matter is powerful and worthy of musical depiction. Mr. Sisler originally composed an orchestral work based on The Four Horseman of the Apocalypse. He took further inspiration from the subject matter and not only expanded the original work to include all seven seals, but also added the Prologue and Bowls of Wrath, both which include chorus, to form the complete oratorio. Mr. Sisler, having conceived the work in a modular fashion, has made it possible for the work to be performed in a number of different ways. The program notes make reference to five possibilities, increasing performance opportunities depending on the available forces. The modular aspect of the work, on the other hand, has the net effect of leaving uneven quality between the sections. It is natural to expect some of that in a work of this magnitude, but I did feel that the sections added later were more compelling and stronger in their conception than the earlier part. The addition of the chorus was partly responsible.

 

Hampson Sisler and the conductor Maron Daniel after the performance

Hampson Sisler and the conductor Maron Daniel after the performance

In terms of style, one would expect a work using such terrifying imagery to be full of fire and brimstone – the Verdi Requiem comes to mind as an example. Even the artwork on the CD cover, with the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse and the opening of the Heavens, suggests terror. Mr. Sisler has a different interpretation, that while he incorporates moments of strife, his rendering is largely a philosophical examination of the causes and effects of events rather than a dramatic rendering of the events themselves. While I did not find this approach to be immediately compelling, it was nonetheless an interesting conception that did give one pause to reflect.

World Premiere of the Oratorio The Second Coming by H. Sisler (The Cake for the party!)

World Premiere of the Oratorio The Second Coming by H. Sisler (The Cake for the party!)

 

The writing is highly chromatic, and while there are moments of stridency and dissonance, it is always tonally accessible. The choral writing is simple in form, with large amounts of recitativo throughout. The first section, Prologue, has stylistic similarities to Copland (especially Lincoln Portrait) and in my opinion is the strongest section of the work.  My objections are strictly on stylistic preference; Mr. Sisler is a composer of skill and craftsmanship, whose music appeals to a wide audience.

Hampson Sisler is signing CDs after the World Premiere of the Oratorio The Second Coming .

Hampson Sisler is signing CDs after the World Premiere of the Oratorio The Second Coming .

 

Conductor Marlon Daniel was an attentive and steady guiding force. The Ensemble du Monde, with the exception of a few mishaps, most notably some cracked notes in the brass, gave The Second Coming an excellent performance. The composer joined the performers at the end for well-deserved congratulations.


Aleyson Scopel, Pianist in Review

Aleyson Scopel, Pianist in Review
MidAmerica Productions Presents: Aleyson Scopel, piano
Weill Hall at Carnegie Hall, New York, NY
November 23, 2013

MidAmerica Productions has a long history of presenting talented artists in venues around the globe. The honor of the 1200th concert worldwide was given to the Brazilian pianist Aleyson Scopel in a program featuring Mozart, Schubert, and his countryman, Almeida Prado. Mr. Scopel dedicated his performance “To Alys Terrien-Queen, the first to believe in me.”  Terrien-Queen may have been the first believer, but after this performance, he added countless others, including this listener, as those “in the know.”

Opening with Mozart’s Rondo in A minor, K. 511, Mr. Scopel demonstrated his mature understanding of this highly introspective and melancholy work.  He played with refinement and sensitivity, but without superficiality or glibness that lesser players sometimes display in Mozart.  His control was excellent, the voicing clear, and contrasts rendered decisively. His was the playing of an artist, pure and simple.

The world premiere of Cartes Celestes XV (Celestial Charts XV) by Almeida Prado followed the Mozart. José Antônio Rezende de Almeida Prado (1943-2010) composed eighteen sets of pieces he called Cartes Celestes , works depicting the sky and universe, using a harmonic language the composer called “transtonality.”  Cartes Celestes XV was finished in 2009 and dedicated to Aleyson Scopel.   Subtitled “The Expanding Universe”, it is divided into six movements. The opening GRB090423, a musical depiction of a supernova 13 billion light years from the earth, was played by Mr. Scopel with harrowing effect, from the rumbling of the unstable stars to the brilliant explosion of light. The other movements (Eskimo Nebula, Pictor Constellation and Extrasolar Planet, The Bird of Paradise Constellation, Planetary Nebula NCG 3195, and Solar Wind) were further examples of the genius of this composer and his visionary conceptions.  Almeida Prado pays tribute to his teacher Messiaen in Bird of Paradise. One can also detect some intergalactic Debussy (imagine La cathédrale engloutie in outer space!). The use of tonality without a tonal center, which the composer called his “pilgrim harmony”, was highly effective. Mr. Scopel took the listener on a tour of the stars in a spellbinding performance full of power, passion, and lyricism. After he had finished, Mr Scopel pointed to the sky in tribute to the composer. It was a touching gesture, and I am confident that Almeida Prado was listening with joy from somewhere in the vast universe he loved so much. Given that Mr. Scopel has recorded other of the Cartas Celestes, it is a reasonable hope that he will, at the very least, add this set to the mix, but I would very much like to see him record all eighteen Cartas Celestes. It would do honor to both Mr. Scopel and Almeida Prado.

After intermission, Mr. Scopel offered Schubert’s Sonata in A major, D. 959. This Sonata, completed only months before Schubert’s death, is a monumental work that is majestic, pathos filled, and nostalgic (especially in the finale’s look back to a theme from his Sonata in A minor, D. 537). Mr. Scopel continued to share his artistry with a well-considered and executed performance of this massive work.  His playing was crisp and accurate. The contrasting moods were dynamically realized, the laments were moving in their simplicity, and the finale had unflagging energy. One must also contend with the virtuosic elements throughout, and Mr. Scopel was more than capable of dealing with those as well, which he did in an unpretentious and understated way.  This was fine Schubert playing, and would have served as an excellent example to students on what constitutes a reference performance.

Aleyson Scopel is a first-rate pianist. Anyone who values substance over style should make it a point to hear him in performance.  I look forward to hearing him again.


Anna Han, Pianist in Review

Anna Han, Pianist in Review

Anna Han, Pianist in Review
The Stecher and Horowitz Foundation present 2012 New York International Competition First Prize Winner, Anna Han, piano
SubCulture Arts Underground, New York, NY
November 21, 2013
 
 

In the first of three scheduled concerts at the SubCulture Arts Underground, the Stecher and Horowitz Foundation presented sixteen-year-old pianist, Anna Han, the first-prize winner of their 2012 New York International Competition.  The foundation should be commended for looking beyond the usual concert halls in selecting this unconventional venue for classical music. In this day and age, anything that can be done in order to capture new listeners, who might not otherwise attend, should be explored.

A few words about SubCulture Arts Underground are in order. As its name implies, the hall is in the basement of a larger facility. It has the feeling of a club, with a small stage and intimate seating for the audience.  For more casual events, a full-service bar is open throughout the performances.  Lest anyone think that “underground” means somewhat less than savory environs, let me state that this hall is a place in which even the fussiest person would feel comfortable. While perhaps not a place designed with traditional classical artists in mind, it is nonetheless suitable for classical soloists and small ensembles.  My sole reservation was with the piano, of which I will speak later.

Anna Han sports a resume of competition victories and concerto performances that is quite impressive for such a young musician. What interested me the most was how this young player was going to handle her varied and eclectic program. Was this going to be a display of sheer technique, which so many young players seem to have in abundance, or was it going to be something more? The answer was forthcoming almost immediately.

Starting her program with the Bach-Siloti Prelude in B minor, BWV 855, Ms. Han showed the sensitivity of a real musician. She gave this work a performance with meticulous control, restraint, and attention to voicing. After this fine start, Ms. Han took on the Variations on a Theme by Paganini, Op. 35, Book 1, of Brahms. These fourteen variations of the famous 24th Caprice are unabashedly virtuosic, giving the performer ample opportunity to display her technical prowess.  Ms. Han certainly has the technique, but the larger variations seemed to lack something in power and projection. While I found the lighter variations to be done with style and wit, I never had the sensation of the intensity this work possesses. I do believe that this can be accounted for by the piano, which was not a 9-foot concert grand, but a much smaller instrument. This unfortunately somewhat undercut Ms. Han, who I do believe would have made a huge splash on a larger instrument. That being said, it was still an excellent performance.

Suite for Piano, a four movement by Michael Brown (b.1987) was commissioned by the Stecher and Horowitz Foundation and given its World Premiere by Ms. Han. It is a work filled with moments of both playfulness and poignancy. The second movement, Chant, was moving in its simplicity, while the third movement, Fugue, was a hilarious contrapuntal rendering of a theme that could be called “Bach Goes the Weasel”.  Ms. Han played the former with the right amount of somber introspection, while the latter conveyed delightful wit and whimsy. Mr. Brown was in attendance, seeming to approve wholeheartedly of Ms. Han’s interpretation. Ending the first half was the Liszt transcription of Liebestod, from Richard Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde.  I have mixed feelings about this work, as I find that the “accepted” performance practice of it is overwrought, overly loud, and a brutalization of the piano. The hall piano was probably a blessing here, as any ideas of blowing down the walls with sound were not going to happen. Ms. Han did a commendable job, but I prefer that the pathos and lament be the focus, with less emphasis on the heaven storming.

After intermission, Ms. Han played a set of pieces also commissioned by the Stecher and Horowitz Foundation, Three Etudes, by Avner Dorman (b. 1975). The three etudes are all modeled in the style of György Ligeti.  Snakes and Ladders is “Ligeti meets Boogie Woogie”, Funeral March is a study of tonal despair in a deceptively simple form, and Sundrops over Windy Waters, a shimmering and hyperactive display of velocity. These three pieces, much like those of Ligeti, call for a player with not only a great technique, but an uncommon intelligence that probes for hidden meanings. Ms. Han is such a player, and when one stops to consider that she is only sixteen years old, one must marvel at such musical maturity at such a young age. It was exceptional.  Beethoven’s Sonata in E-flat major, Op. 31, No. 3 was next, and Ms. Han continued to show the fine sense of style and architecture in her playing, a joy from the opening of the Allegro to the end of the Presto con fuoco. The Beethoven was the high point of the recital. Ms. Han is a sensitive and poetic player beyond her years.

Ending the recital was the Sonata No. 3 in A minor, Op.28 of Prokofiev. It was well played, but the issues of projection were once again problematic.  The crowd was less sensitive to this issue, and gave Ms. Han a justly deserved ovation. She offered three encores, a lyrically played Etude No. 4, based on Gershwin’s “Embraceable You”, by Earl Wild, a quicksilver “Flight of the Bumblebee” that wowed the crowd, and Rachmaninoff’s Lilacs as a final note of artistry.

 


Distinguished Concerts International New York (DCINY) presents: The Beauty of Korean Song in Review

Distinguished Concerts International New York (DCINY) presents: The Beauty of Korean Song in Review

Distinguished Concerts International New York (DCINY) presents: The Beauty of Korean Song
Suwon Civic Chorale
Dr. In-Gi Min, conductor, Ami Woo, Eun-Jung Yoo, accompanists
Alice Tully Hall, Lincoln Center, New York, NY 
October 19, 2013
 
 

Now in its 30th year, The Suwon Civic Chorale from South Korea was invited by Distinguished Concerts International New York (DCINY) to perform at Alice Tully Hall. In a program featuring traditional Korean music, modern Korean music (including two commissioned works written especially for this occasion and given their World Premieres), and American favorites, it had all the makings of an interesting and educational evening.

The Suwon Civic Chorale filed on stage in traditional Korean dress. Before starting the concert proper, conductor Dr. In-Gi Min requested that the audience stand as the Chorale sang the national anthems of South Korea and the United States – a thoughtful and respectful gesture that I very much appreciated.

The first half was dedicated to the music of Korea. Arirang is to Koreans what Finlandia is to the Finnish, a much-loved, unofficial national anthem.  Composer Sung-Hyun Yoon used the traditional theme with modern Western compositional technique, a musical East meets West that was given a heartfelt performance and approval from the appreciative audience. Following this setting, Jung-Sun Park’s Kyrie from the Arirang Mass was expertly performed, reflecting traditional Korean harmony and an ornamented singing technique that would be difficult for those without training in Korean singing tradition. As throughout the entire concert, Dr. Min led in an attentive and restrained manner with no showboating – the music was always first and foremost. When a work was finished, Dr. Min would retire stage left and gesture to the Chorale before taking any bows of his own, demonstrating a humility I would like to see more conductors emulate.

Four traditional songs, the Stephen Foster-like Gagopa (Wishing to Return), the three-note based Saeya, Saeya (Blue Bird), the charming Sae Taryung (The Bird Song), with the four soloists singing bird calls in antiphonal style, and the work song Mokdosori (A Song of Pole Carrying), which was sung with gusto, all served as a introduction to the folk music of Korea. The joy of the Chorale members sharing their traditional melodies was apparent, both from the visual and aural aspects of the performances.

The two commissioned works were by highly accomplished Korean composers. The Dona nobis pacem by Keeyoung Kim (b. 1963) is complex, with extensive chromaticism, Korean pentatonic modes, and using a circle of thirds, instead of the traditional western circle of fifths. The Chorale gave this demanding and intricate work a praiseworthy performance. Miserere by Jeeyoung Kim (b. 1968) is a powerful work, from the quiet opening with Tibetan bowls to create what is considered the sound of Heaven in Korea, to the two solos sung in a traditional style called Jeong-Ga, to the bold middle and ending sections. The Chorale realized all of Ms. Kim’s musical ideas in what must be called a simply dazzling performance. Both composers were in attendance, and took richly deserved bows.

The Chorale returned to the stage after intermission with the women dressed in evening gowns and the men in tuxedos with tails. The second half opened with two works by the highly popular American composer Eric Whitacre, Lux Aurumque and Little Birds.

Lux Aurumque is one of Whitacre’s best-known and most frequently performed works. Anyone who is familiar with the YouTube sensation Whitacre’s Virtual Choir has seen and heard this work.  The Chorale mastered the tight harmonies with precision, often with the SATB parts dividing into two, and the sopranos even into three. The balance, as the title suggests, was “golden”. Little Birds uses verses written by the Mexican poet Octavio Paz. The composer suggested in his performance instructions that the singers research real bird calls and whistles, and  it seemed from the sensitive performance that his instructions were heeded. There was a feel that the sounds of the birds flowed organically and did not ever overshadow the vocals.  The effect was enchanting in a nuanced way.

After the Whitacre works, it was time for something completely different, and that was the entertaining Kecak Attack. This work is based on the Indonesian monkey dance of the same name. The chorus separated into smaller sub-sections and used the sound cak-ka-cak in rhythms of various complexities, with snapping fingers and choreographed gestures in an attack-counterattack manner between the divided forces. The sense of play brought much laughter; even Dr. Min got into the act by an exaggerated “push back” of the ever-bolder faction of tenors moving forward in a mock menacing fashion. The incongruity of this spectacle and the elegantly attired performers added to the hilarity.

After this “play”, it was time to get back to serious work with Samuel Barber’s Agnus Dei, an a cappella arrangement of his masterpiece, the Adagio for Strings. The arrangement retains all the beauty of the original as well as the challenges of voicing and intonation.  Both must be precise throughout, or else the entire effect is destroyed – there simply is no margin for error. Using an interesting repositioning of the singers (male-female alternating in all rows), the Chorale met the challenges and delivered a very moving performance. If I had one reservation, it was that the tempo was a bit too fast for my taste, but this was a personal preference.  To end, two traditional Americana songs, Shenandoah and The Battle of Jericho were given solid readings. The full house responded with a prolonged ovation and was rewarded with three encores, the highlight of which was a nod to the Big Apple by way of the highly stylish New York, New York, complete with ballroom dancing and Rockette-style kicks. It was a huge hit.


MARA Society of New York presents Fall Concerto

MARA Society of New York presents Fall Concerto
Alexandru Tomescu, violin, Matei Varga, piano, Jesus Rodolfo Rodriguez, viola
Merkin Concert Hall, New York, NY
October 9, 2013

The MARA Society of New York is dedicated to supporting and advancing Romanian music, arts, and culture. They have joined forces with Hospices of Hope to raise funds for the completion of Bucharest’s first hospice care facility. This season they presented a benefit concert entitled “Fall Concerto” along with a silent auction – I had my eye on the private tour of Dracula’s castle in Romania! One hundred percent of the proceeds from the performance and auction were to be donated to their hospice cause.  (To learn more, visit www.marasociety.com and http://www.hospicesofhope.co.uk/ .) Romanians Alexandru Tomescu, violin, Matei Varga, piano, and “honorary Romanian”, violist Jesus Rodolfo Rodriguez, lent their support by donating their time and talents in performance of works by Bartók, Brahms, Schumann, Bach, Enescu, Chopin, and Saint-Saëns.

Bartók’s Romanian Dances, six short pieces originally written for solo piano, opened the concert. Zoltán Székely’s virtuosic arrangement for violin and piano was used by Alan Arnold in his own arrangement for Viola and Piano. Mr. Rodriguez captured the essence of these dances; the sorrowful longing and the wild jubilation. The final dance’s virtuosic passages were tossed off by Mr. Rodriguez with a laser-like clarity. His playing is fearless, but never reckless.  Mr. Varga provided restrained support, allowing Mr. Rodriguez the starring role, as is proper for this work.

Next, Mr. Tomescu joined Mr. Varga in Brahms’s Scherzo for Violin and Piano. The Scherzo is the third movement of the so-called F-A-E Sonata, a collaborative work of three composers: Schumann, Brahms, and Albert Dietrich, as a gift to legendary violinist Joseph Joachim in 1853. The initials F-A-E stand for Frei aber einsam (Free, but lonely), which Joachim had adopted as his motto.  The young Brahms was already a master of this form, with opportunities for both violinist and pianist to assume leading roles, but also as a collaboration of equals. Mr. Tomescu and Mr. Varga realized these ideals in a sprightly and polished performance.

Playing the Stradivarius Elder-Voicu violin he received in 2007, Mr. Tomescu produces a tone that is bold and full-bodied, but never strident. He projects well at all dynamic levels and plays with a quiet, regal demeanor. This does not mean his is not a passionate performer, but rather one who invests his energy in the music and not empty histrionics.  He has the poetry as well as the pyrotechnics, but I am getting ahead of myself – more about that later.

Schumann’s Fantasy for Violin and Piano, Op. 131, followed the Brahms.  This work is one with fluctuating moods, from joyous to reflective and back – much like Schumann himself.  It was fascinating to watch how the performers projected the identities of Schumann’s famous alter egos. The extroverted Mr. Varga matched the character of Florestan, while Mr. Tomescu represented the more introverted qualities of Eusebius.  Both players shone in a spirited performance. One must say that this pairing of Mr. Tomescu and Mr. Varga is fortuitous, as their complementary personalities make for thought-provoking performances.

After a break for a presentation by Princess Marina Sturdza, the patron of Hospices of Hope, Mr. Tomescu returned to the stage for a solo performance of J.S. Bach’s well-known Chaconne from the 2nd Partita in D minor, BWV 1004. He delivered a majestic and dramatic performance sustaining the intensity from start to finish.

The first half closed with Mr. Rodriguez’s performance of Konzertstück for Viola and Piano by George Enescu. He played with great elan, and Mr. Varga was there every step of the way. This was a pairing of simpatico personalities. The work was brought to a close with bravura playing from Mr. Rodriguez- all that was missing were sparks flying from his bow!

After a long intermission, another Enescu work, the Impromptu Concertante for Violin and Piano opened the second half.  This lush, romantic work, allowed Mr. Tomescu to highlight the singing qualities of his tone, while the ever attentive Mr. Varga continued his excellent playing.

Mr. Varga then offered Chopin’s Polonaise in A-flat Major, Op. 53, the Heroic. True to his personality, Mr. Varga gave it a passionate and exciting reading.  One could never accuse Mr. Varga of lacking exuberance in his playing! His infectious smiles, intense involvement with each and every note (including inaudibly singing along), and his sensitivity to the needs and wants of his collaborators, combined with his technical gifts, make him a joy to watch and hear.

Mr. Tomescu rejoined Mr. Varga to close the concert with Saint-Saëns’s Introduction and Rondo Capriccioso.  This showstopper calls for the violinist to reach deep into his bag of tricks to meet the technical and musical demands.  Mr. Tomescu is a master magician indeed – with the able support of Mr. Varga he fashioned a performance of wit and brilliance. The dazzling finale brought the full house to its feet in a long and well-deserved ovation – a great finish to a great evening.


I-Bei Lin CD in review

I-Bei Lin, cello; Jonathan Korth, piano
Mae Zenke Orvis Auditorium, University of Hawai’i at Mānoa, Honolulu, HI
April 18, 2011
 
I-Bei Lin Cellist

I-Bei Lin Cellist

Cellist I-Bei Lin has an impressive performance history, having given recitals throughout the world, including New Zealand, Thailand, Taiwan, much of Europe, and the United States. She received her bachelor’s degree from the Eastman School of Music and master’s and doctoral degrees from Northwestern University. She is currently an Associate Professor of Cello and Chair of Strings at the University of Hawai’i at Mānoa.

This review is of an unedited, live recording of a recital from April 18, 2011, featuring works by Beethoven, Donald Reid Womack, Debussy, and Gregor Piatigorsky.  In the spirit of the “live” performance, I made the decision not to listen to the recording numerous times, but to imagine I was in attendance. I believe that this is the most objective approach.

The recital opened with the Sonata for Pianoforte and Cello, Op. 102, No.1, of Ludwig van Beethoven. This work belongs to the beginning of Beethoven’s late period. It is complex and unconventional in form.  Dr. Lin played with confidence, indicating her mature grasp of Beethoven’s visionary ideas. The Adagio was especially praiseworthy in its pacing and sustained intensity. It was an auspicious beginning.

fff, composed in 2011 especially for Dr. Lin and pianist Jonathan Korth by Donald Reid Womack (b. 1966), followed the Beethoven. One might be excused for expecting that the title referred to the dynamic marking fortississimo and that a very loud piece was to ensue; the title, however, refers to its three pieces (falling, floating, flying) played without pause. Womack writes, “they are bound by a common theme of groundlessness, of having air between oneself and the earth”.  These pieces conveyed their respective titles in a highly effective way that capitalized on Dr. Lin’s considerable talents, including a fluid technique and wide range of expressive timbres (Womack had previously written a solo piece for Dr. Lin in 2005 titled Scherzophrenic). The end result was a mesmerizing performance from both Dr. Lin and Mr. Korth.

The Cello Sonata of Claude Debussy closed the first half. This work, written in 1915, is one of the staples of the cello repertoire and deservedly so.  French cellist Louis Rosoor (incorrectly cited as Louis Rosser in the program notes) claimed Debussy told him that thematic material from the sonata was related to dramatic characters, but Debussy denied this.  Rosoor’s version is plausible, as this work is extremely mercurial, with sudden outbursts and mood changes throughout. Not only must the performer deal with the stylistic difficulties, but also overcome the myriad technical demands as well. To use a popular expression, Dr. Lin “nailed it!” in a highly nuanced performance.

The second half opened with a set of Taiwanese Folk Songs, which served a dual purpose. The most obvious was that Dr. Lin was honoring the music of her native Taiwan, but the second was the idea of bringing the audience back down to earth after the atmospheric fff and the emotional roller coaster of the Debussy.  These pieces were played by Dr. Lin in a sincere and unpretentious manner.

Paganini’s 24th caprice for violin has been the basis for brilliant variations by many great composers. Piano works by Liszt, Brahms, and Rachmaninoff readily come to mind, but why should pianists have all the fun? The legendary cellist Gregor Piatigorsky (1903-1976) decided to write a set of variations on this caprice that allowed him to showcase his justly renowned technical prowess to the hilt. Dr. Lin took up the challenge of Piatigorsky’s Variations on a Theme of Paganini to end the recital.  Taking a page from Edward Elgar, Piatigorsky wrote fourteen variations as musical portraits of famous friends. They are, in order, Pablo Casals, Paul Hindemith, Raya Garbousova, Erica Morini, Felix Salmond, Joseph Szigeti, Yehudi Menuhin, Nathan Milstein, Fritz Kreisler, Gregor Piatigorsky, Gaspar Cassado, Mischa Elman, Ennio Bolognini, Jascha Heifetz, and Vladimir Horowitz. The variations are often witty, but many take the form of inside jokes, as it is not always readily apparent how each variation connects to its named inspirations (for example, the Hindemith variation sounds nothing like Hindemith the composer). This is a virtuoso work that projects much better live than in recordings, as the visual aspect is an integral part of the experience. In any case, it is a highly pleasurable tour-de-force for the cellist. Dr. Lin tossed off the challenges with ease in a confident performance. The rousing finish ended the concert in style and the audience reacted with loud applause.

I must commend excellent pianist Jonathan Korth as an outstanding collaborator to Dr. Lin, ever sensitive to balance issues and flexible to the cellist’s every impulse.

In 2005, the late Edith Eisler wrote in the pages of this journal that Dr. Lin “is a very fine cellist.” In 2013, I must tip my hat to her and wholeheartedly agree with her assessment. Dr. Lin is a fine cellist,  equally at home in wide-ranging styles and possessing the technique to make it all seem so easy.


Yumi Suehiro, Pianist in Review

Yumi Suehiro, piano
“Chromatic Journey”
Tenri Cultural Institute, New York, NY
June 15, 2013
 
Yumi Suehiro, pianist

Yumi Suehiro, pianist

 

In a recital entitled “Chromatic Journey,” pianist Yumi Suehiro presented a program that was challenging to both performer and listener. It featured Scriabin’s White Mass Sonata, Ligeti’s Autumn in Warsaw Etude, and the New York premiere of Football in Marja by American composer Alex Burtzos (b. 1985).

Opening with J. S. Bach’s Prelude and Fugue in B-flat minor from the Well-Tempered Clavier, Book Two, Ms. Suehiro showed straight away that she has her own ideas about the style and approach to this work. Perhaps her marimba experience helped shape these ideas, but whatever the case there was an overall percussive quality to her approach. Aaron Copland’s Passacaglia followed. Written in 1922 and dedicated to his teacher, Nadia Boulanger, this work was born of her insistence that her students “master traditional forms.” Featuring an eight-measure theme with eight variations, this work reflects Copland’s mastery of form, and it was given a well-conceived and taut performance, Ms. Suehiro built the intensity until it exploded in the last two variations. Football in Marja, written in 2011, is a musical portrait of Marja, a town in Afghanistan. The “football” is, of course, soccer, and is represented musically by hyper-energetic tritone motifs. The difficulties of everyday life are depicted with cluster chords. Ms. Suehiro championed this work with passionate commitment. With driving energy in the motoric sections, cascades of jagged clusters, and the final blast of sound, it was riveting from start to finish. Mr. Burtzos was in attendance and was obviously very pleased with Ms. Suehiro’s performance, as one would expect.  The half ended with Improvisations on Hungarian Peasant Songs, Op. 20 by Béla Bartók, an eight-movement work characterized by thorny, angry motifs and driving rhythms throughout. While the seventh movement is dedicated to the memory of Debussy, there is nothing remotely Debussyian about any of this work. It has moments of lyricism, but it is not an easy piece for audiences to warm up to. Ms. Suehiro played these variations with an aggressiveness that at times bordered on the savage, but also brought out some of the more lyrical elements with sensitivity. It was an intriguing, if not fully satisfying, performance.

After a short intermission, Ms. Suehiro offered Alexander Scriabin’s Piano Sonata No. 7, Op. 64, the White Mass. Composed in 1911, this highly chromatic work walks the tightrope between tonality and atonality throughout.  It was composed as an “exorcism” against the darkness of the Piano Sonata No. 6, Op. 62, which Scriabin believed to be fraught by demonic forces. He subtitled the work White Mass to signify the clearing of the darkness. Ms. Suehiro took the listener on a twelve-minute journey packed with moments of harrowing terror, beauty, and heaven storming.  It was a journey I was glad to go on, in what was the highlight of the evening.  Etude No. 6, Book 1 –Autumn in Warsaw from György Ligeti ended the recital. Ms. Suehiro remarked that she finds this work “funky and groovy” and a “weird and interesting piece.” It was the first time I had ever heard Ligeti referred to as funky and groovy and I admit it made me smile. In any case, this is one of Ligeti’s more accessible works, and Ms. Suehiro played it with polish. The audience rewarded Ms. Suehiro with a standing ovation. After all the thorns, it was time for a rose, which came in the form of Rachmaninoff’s Prelude in D major, Op. 23 No. 4, which Ms. Suehiro played as a encore with grace and sensitivity.

The evening left me with some reservations. First, the venue’s acoustics are not ideal. Even though the piano was on the half-stick, the volume was at times oppressively loud. Ms. Suehiro’s bold “all-in” approach would have been ideal for a larger venue, but not this one. I assume that Ms. Suehiro became oblivious to this issue in the heat of the moment; otherwise, I believe that she, being the intelligent and deeply committed musician that she is, would have made adjustments. Second, it might have been beneficial for Ms. Suehiro to offer some sonic relief; though the unifying theme was explicitly one of chromaticism, the “journey” would have benefited from more contrast. Third, although some would say this is nitpicking, the artist’s name was misspelled on the cover of the program, and there were factual errors in the program notes as well. Considering Ms. Suehiro’s careful attention to musical details, I was disappointed that these errors were not caught in the proofs.

Yumi Suehiro is an intense musician, one who invests every ounce of her energy, passion, and intellect into her performances. She should have a promising future.


Distinguished Concerts International New York (DCINY) presents: Requiems for the Brave in Review

Distinguished Concerts International New York (DCINY) presents: Requiems for the Brave
Distinguished Concerts Orchestra, Distinguished Concerts Singers International
Jonathan Griffith, DCINY Principal Conductor; Mark Hayes, Composer/Conductor
Avery Fisher Hall, Lincoln Center; New York, NY
May 27, 2013
Dr. Jonathan Griffith for the Durufle Requiem

Dr. Jonathan Griffith for the Durufle Requiem

 
 

On Memorial Day, May 27, 2013, Distinguished Concerts International New York (DCINY) presented a concert entitled “Requiems for the Brave”, dedicated to the men and women of our Armed Forces.  With chorus members from Arkansas, California, Connecticut, Georgia, Iowa, Kansas, Massachusetts, Missouri, New Jersey, New York, Ohio, Texas, Canada, and Dubai performing, there was feeling of excitement as the hall filled.

The first half was the Requiem, Op. 9 of French organist, pedagogue, and composer Maurice Duruflé (1902-1986) in the original 1947 version.  This serene work is largely devoid of the fearsome elements of the requiem mass (i.e. Dies Irae), but uses Gabriel Fauré’s Requiem as a model. Conductor Jonathan Griffith led the large forces in a highly nuanced performance. His patience at the podium as he waited for the stampede of latecomers to find their seats after the Kyrie was commendable, but after almost five minutes, the Domine Jesu Christe was delivered with a boldness that was worth the wait! The Agnus Dei was delivered with tranquil beauty, and the child-like innocence of the In Paradisum, which ended in a whisper, was breathtaking.  Baritone soloist Andrew Garland projected strength and confidence. Mezzo-soprano Holly Sorenson was sublime as she captured the essence of the hauntingly beautiful Pie Jesu. The chorus was very good throughout in what was a well-conceived performance.

During the intermission, The Patriot Brass Ensemble entertained the audience with a steady stream of Sousa marches and patriotic tunes from the balcony. As the singers in the chorus for the second half filed onto the stage, the Patriot Brass ended their set with a medley dedicated to the Armed Forces. It was a strong reminder about what Memorial Day is really about to see the servicemen and women stand when their hymn was played. Some were young, others older, but all proud and steadfast. What was said to them through music was simply “thank you for your service to our nation.”

Mr. Mark Hayes for his Requiem & The Gettysburg Address

Mr. Mark Hayes for his Requiem & The Gettysburg Address

Mark Hayes (b. 1953) led the second half in performance of his works: the New York premiere of The Gettysburg Address and the World Premiere of his Requiem. About The Gettysburg Address, Mr. Hayes In his program notes writes, “…the challenge of creating something musically profound was overwhelming.” These ten sentences are filled with sadness, hope, challenge, and triumph in what is probably the most famous speech in American History. Mr. Hayes’ conception captures all of these elements, from the bold opening, played with a brash exuberance, to the somber colors of the sorrows of war, to the final build-up in a martial style culminating with repeated declarations of “for the people” from the chorus.  It is a powerful work that does justice to Lincoln’s immortal words. After this stirring piece, it was time to pull back into a quieter, contemplative mood, for which the Requiem from Mr. Hayes filled the bill. Dedicated to the memory of Mr. Hayes’ parents, this work takes inspiration from Brahms, Fauré, and Duruflé in its six movements. Mr. Hayes freely uses the English translations of the Latin text in addition to the Latin itself in an interesting and effective way.  He parts company with Fauré and Duruflé in a pathos-filled Dies Irae, which did at times bear an uncanny resemblance to O Fortuna from Carl Orff’s Carmina Burana (i.e.  substitute Dies Irae/Dies Illa  and Confutatis maledictis for O  Fortuna/Velut Luna, with the same strong timpani replies, etc.). Baritone Andrew Garland was again a force to be reckoned with in his solo work.  The Agnus Dei was to this listener the highlight of the work, showing Mr. Hayes expressive melodic gifts. The final movement, the Lux Aeterna, much like the In Paradisum of Duruflé, ends in a fade to silence. When Mr. Hayes lowered his baton, the audience gave him a richly deserved standing ovation, which ended the successful evening.