A Chinese New Year Celebration: “The Year of the Horse”

A Chinese New Year Celebration: “The Year of the Horse”

A Chinese New Year Celebration: “The Year of the Horse”
New York Philharmonic at Avery Fisher Hall, Lincoln Center; February 1, 2014
Long Yu, conductor; Yuja Wang, piano;Cho-Liang Lin, violin;
Jian Wang, cello (New York Philharmonic debut)
Song Zuying, vocalist (New York Philharmonic debut)

There were no indications that this was a special Chinese New Year Concert except for two huge golden balloons of beautiful horses  placed on a ledge outside the hall and visible from both inside and outside. This–among other things this evening–was very tastefully done.

Cho-Liang Lin, violin

Cho-Liang Lin, violin; Long Yu conducts the New York Philharmonic in a Chinese New Year celebration at Avery Fisher Hall, 2/1/14. Photo by Chris Lee

The Concert opened with “The Triple Resurrection” for Violin, Violoncello, Piano and Orchestra (2013) by Tan Dun of “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” fame. It is a one-movement work with no tempo indication and is a salute to Wagner’s Ring Cycle. It didn’t hold together very well and appeared to be an eclectic mix of sounds and styles. For sure, it wasn’t Beethoven’s Triple Concerto, which is undoubtedly a masterpiece. Yet Dun’s work did utilize all the program’s soloists (except the singer), and this was a great way to tie the musicians together. After this collaboration, Yuja Wang–who is fast becoming a star–performed solo. The problem here–in a performance of Rachmaninoff’s Paganini Variations–was one of balance, as there were times when Wang was completely inaudible. Yet when I heard her in Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1 with another orchestra in another hall, I heard every note! Was she tired here? Was the orchestra just too overpowering? Hard to say. When she was audible–mostly in the quiet, lyrical sections or high up on the keyboard where her magnificent fingers shined through with incredible clarity and scintillating playing–there were gorgeous moments that made one’s heart melt.

Song Zuying, vocalist

Song Zuying, vocalist & Long Yu conducts the New York Philharmonic in a Chinese New Year celebration at Avery Fisher Hall, 2/1/14. Photo by Chris Lee

The Chinese conductor, Long Yu, holds many posts in his native land, where he is chief conductor of the China Philharmonic Orchestra which he co-founded in 2000, and music director of the Shanghai and Guangzhou symphony orchestras. Mr.Yu played a leading role in creating the Shanghai Orchestral Academy as a partnership between the Shanghai Symphony Orchestra, the Shanghai Conservatory and the New York Philharmonic. Maestro Yu has commissioned many works from well-known composers–both Western and Chinese–as well as appearing with the world’s leading orchestras and opera companies.  His conducting was very confident, solid and professional.


After Intermission, we heard “Spring Festival Overture” by Li Huanzhi, composed in 1955-56, which opened the “China in New York Festival” in January of 2012 and was conducted by Maestro Yu. It is rather old-fashioned and Romantic, sounding like the music of Antonin Dvorak. The well-known violinist Cho-Liang Lin, born in Taiwan, did in fact perform the music of Dvorak: the lovely and subdued Romance for Violin and Orchestra in F minor, Op.11 (1873/77). Lin is a poetic, mature artist who lives up to his superb reputation. A wonderful surprise was the cellist Jian Wang (no relation to Juja Wang), who was brilliant, extremely musical, and sensitive in the “Variations on a Rococo Theme” for Cello and Orchestra, Op.33 (1876).  Wang has a gorgeous sound. It isn’t surprising to read that while a young student at the Shanghai Conservatory, he was featured in the documentary film “From Mao to Mozart: Isaac Stern in China”. Stern promptly selected him out of a large group of young musicians and got the support for him to study with the great teacher and cellist Aldo Parisot at the Yale School of Music.

Last on the program was vocalist Song Zuying . Wearing traditional dress, she sang Chinese folksongs which were well orchestrated and extremely well received–especially by the Chinese members of the audience, who understand this type of high-pitched nasal singing. She was clearly a big hit, and the orchestra had an encore ready for her, which was happily performed and applauded. I think if overtime had been allowed, each soloist could have given encores! It was a revealing concert that showed an important musical evolution: how Chinese artists have become solid interpreters of western music. I look forward to the Philharmonic’s next Chinese New Year Concert!



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.

Distinguished Concerts International New York (DCINY) in Review

Distinguished Concerts International New York (DCINY): Distinguished Concerts Orchestra, Distinguished Concerts Singers International, Jonathan Griffith, Music Director; Penelope Shumate, soprano; Doris Brunatti, contralto;
Jorge Garza, tenor; Liam Moran, bass.
Avery Fisher Hall; Lincoln Center, New York, NY
November 25, 2012

Written in the space of 24 days in 1741, George Frideric Handel’s Messiah is a work with a storied performance history.  Premiered in Dublin in 1742, it has been a mainstay of the repertoire since. Using a libretto from Charles Jennens, Messiah is the story of Christ’s incarnation, death, and resurrection.

Messiah is no stranger to reworking and revision. Handel himself rearranged and rewrote sections to suit his needs; selections could be added or deleted based on the talents available. Mozart produced a version in 1789 that is still in use today, although nineteenth-century critic Moritz Hauptmann caustically remarked that Mozart’s revisions were “stucco ornaments on a marble temple.”  The controversy has not abated. There have been “sing-a-long” editions and even a rock version performed and recorded. The version performed at today’s concert is generally attributed to Sir Thomas Beecham and Eugene Goossens, although Beecham’s contribution was overstated for many years by his widow.  It was not until the 1990s that Lady Beecham’s claims were refuted; the score was completely Goossens’s work.

Beecham commissioned fellow conductor and composer Goossens to re-orchestrate Messiah to utilize the full forces of the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra. He felt that larger forces were needed to project the sound in increasingly large venues.  Beecham recorded this version in 1959; it is still available on CD today, and it continues to be controversial.  Purists who believe that Handel’s conception should remain true to the original find the Goossens version to be vulgar, while its defenders argue that the greater forces enhance the grandeur of the work.

Make no mistake; this is not your great-grandfather’s Messiah. It is brash, extroverted, and at times bombastic.  It is not Messiah – it is MESSIAH, with double the sound, new and improved, with cymbals and triangle! It is Messiah on steroids, the epitome of the saying “Go big or go home.”  This version is tailor-made for DCINY; an organization that never fails to pull out all the stops in putting on a big show.

Conductor Jonathan Griffith led the orchestra and 200-plus chorus with a sure hand. It would have been easy to lose control of these large forces, but Griffith was up to challenge of delivering the big sound without losing focus on the music itself.  The playing was excellent throughout and the exuberance of the percussionists was a special joy to see and hear. The trumpet playing in Behold, I tell you a mystery was particularly striking in its clarity and beauty of tone.  The chorus was well balanced and strong in its supporting role.

The four soloists had the biggest challenge, to sing their demanding parts while having to project enough to be heard over the large forces behind them. There were moments when each singer was in peril of being drowned out, but happily, they all overcame the dangers and delivered fine performances.  I believe each soloist became stronger and more confident as the performance progressed, as they made adjustments to project their voices.  Soprano Penelope Shumate was confident and assured; There were shepherds abiding in the field was a highlight of her performance. Contralto Doris Brunatti was compelling in her role; Behold, a virgin shall conceive was her best of several excellent solos. Tenor Jorge Garza sang his role with total involvement; one could feel the venom in the word “rebuke” in his solo, Thy rebuke hath broken his heart.  It was his He that dwelleth in heaven, though, that was the highlight of his performance to this listener. Finally, the talented Bass Liam Moran was not to be overshadowed by his fellow soloists. His solo, Why do the nations so furiously rage together?, was the high point of his outstanding singing.

One would be remiss if not making special mention of the Hallelujah chorus. It did not disappoint, delivered in a manner that could be described as over-the-top, complete with young members of the Distinguished Concerts Singers International joining in from the second tier in the audience (in what is becoming a signature feature of DCINY concerts). The audience stood spontaneously as they often do for the Hallelujah, and many could be seen singing along.  At the close, the audience roared its approval for several minutes.  The closing chorus, Worthy is the lamb that was slain, was performed with similar spirit. The excitement built to such a fever pitch that one bass in the chorus jumped in a moment early after a dramatic pause. The work was brought to a rousing close, and the audience responded with five minutes of thunderous applause, eliciting several curtain calls for the soloists and conductor Griffith. It was a well-deserved ovation to a memorable concert. Congratulations to DCINY for yet another winning performance.

Distinguished Concerts International New York: DCINY in Review

Requiem X 2: Mozart and Clausen
Avery Fisher Hall, Lincoln Center, New York
March 18, 2012

DCINY- Requiem

Distinguished Concerts International New York (DCINY) is an organization that believes in presenting concerts on the grand scale, with performers of all ages from schools and ensembles throughout the country. Having attended many DCINY concerts, I have seen and felt the excitement that fills the hall in anticipation of their performances.  Today was no exception, as over 200 singers filed onto the stage of Avery Fisher Hall with full orchestra; I was ready for a memorable concert. I was not disappointed.

The concert, entitled “Requiem X 2,” was just that, two Requiems. The first was the Requiem in D minor, K. 626 of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, and the second (New York Premiere) was the Requiem of DCINY composer-in-residence René Clausen.

Mozart’s Requiem in D minor, K. 626 has a storied history. Commissioned by Count Franz von Walsegg as a memorial to his late wife, it was unfinished by Mozart at the time of his death in 1791.  His student Franz Xaver Süssmayr completed the work, using various sketches Mozart had left and his claim of being familiar with Mozart’s wishes about the composition.  How much of the work is Mozart and how much is Süssmayr is still being debated to this day.

Conductor Vance George led with a steady and confident manner. The orchestra took his lead and played with precision, capturing both stormy despair and heavenly spirit in equal measure. Special mention must be made of the “Tuba Mirum”’s excellent trombone soloist, who played with amazing clarity and tone. I wish that DCINY would list the orchestra personnel in the programs so they could be credited! Soprano Jennifer Aylmer sang with a clear, soaring beauty, and Mezzo-soprano Holly Sorensen was radiant in the solo part written for Contralto. Tenor Young-Ha Kim sang with impressive projection, and Bass-Baritone David Salsbery Fry delivered a strong and committed performance. What was particularly striking was how well the four soloists balanced in ensemble sections; it is not unusual for one voice to overshadow the others, but there was no instance of that here. The chorus, consisting of five choirs from high schools in Arizona and Indiana, and choral groups from California and Massachusetts, lent powerful support to capture the full scale of this emotionally supercharged work.

René Clausen (b. 1953), currently Associate Professor of Music at Concordia College in Minnesota, possesses the ability to write music of substance that is still within the technical grasp of a wide range of performers. This quality has made Dr. Clausen a favorite composer of many choirs in the country.  He writes of his Requiem that it was written to be “accessible and ‘user-friendly’ to singers, players, and the audience.” One could say with confidence that he has succeeded in his goal.

Conductor Bradley Ellingboe was an engaging, attentive, and fully involved conductor whose dedication any composer would be pleased to have. He bounded athletically from the wings onto the stage and jumped to the podium. One could feel the energy even before the first note was played. Once again, I must give kudos to excellent soloists, this time on the French horn and the oboe.

If one was expecting a more modern version of Mozart, that notion was quickly dispelled. Clausen’s overall conception is not dark and foreboding, but serene and hopeful. Clausen has written a work of great power, with moments of conflict, naturally enough the “Dies Irae” with its sinister pizzicato basses and angry brass declarations, but the work as a whole radiated beauty. Soprano Leslie Umphrey was angelic in the “Pie Jesu.” Tenor Sam Shepperson contributed his vocal mastery with refinement, and the indefatigable Bass-Baritone David Salsbery Fry was back and still strong. Four choirs from New Mexico made up the over 200 strong chorus. After the last measures of the ethereal “In Paradisum” quieted to pianissimo, then faded to complete silence, one could hear the collective exhalation of the audience. After what seemed to be an eternity, the audience exploded into applause, which became thunderous when Dr. Clausen came to the stage for a well-deserved bow. This is a work that can stand comparison to any other Requiem and I do hope that it will be recorded and made available to the public. Congratulations to Dr. Clausen and DCINY!

Samuel Magill, cellist in Review

Samuel Magill, cellist in Review
Beth Levin, piano
Bruno Walter Auditorium
New York Public Library for the Performing Arts
Lincoln Center, New York, NY
May 7, 2011

Samuel Magill

Samuel Magill is a very fine cellist. His technique is solid and disciplined, his tone warm, sonorous and variable, his expressive projection direct and immediate. Trained at the Peabody Institute and Shepherd School of Music, his teachers included Zara Nelsova, Laurence Lesser and Irving Klein. A longtime member of New York’s great Metropolitan Opera Orchestra, Mr. Magill has been Principal Cellist of the New York Symphonic Ensemble, which featured him as soloist in many famous concertos; his Trio, the Elysian, won the 1997 Artist International Award. Mr. Magill has numerous critically acclaimed CDs to his credit, including the first recording of the Cello Concerto by Vernon Duke (Vladimir Dukelsky). His annual recitals at the Bruno Walter Auditorium, begun in 1994, always present a first performance and an unjustly neglected work of the 19th or early 20th centuries.

Mr. Magill’s excellent pianist at this concert was Beth Levin, renowned on stage and disc as recitalist, concerto soloist, chamber musician, and champion of contemporary composers. She made her debut with the Philadelphia Orchestra aged twelve and soon afterwards began to study with Rudolf Serkin at the Curtis Institute. Her subsequent teachers include Leonard Shure and Dorothy Taubman.

The program’s novelty was the world premiere of a new Sonata by Andrew Rudin (b.1939). A student of George Rochberg, he is renowned for his works for the stage and also as a pioneer in electronic and synthesizer music. He has taught at the Juilliard Graduate School, and for 37 years at the Philadelphia Music Academy. He retired in 2001, but continues to compose; the cello sonata was written last summer.

The work is very dramatic and seems to project an air of anguish and loss. The titles of its four movements vividly describe their emotional content: “Proclamation” begins with crashing piano chords answered by the cello; in “Rparteé” and “Discourse,” the instruments engage in agitated or conciliatory conversation, and “Consolation” is a mournful, resigned lament. Entering fully into these contrasting moods, the players gave an authoritative, moving performance, which was warmly received by the audience. The composer was present to share the applause.

The program’s rarity was the Cello Sonata in B minor Op. 27 by the French organist and composer Louis Vierne (1870-1937). A student of Charles Widor, he took over his mentor’s post as organist of Notre Dame Cathedral, and is remembered today chiefly for his organ symphonies and orchestral works. He must have possessed remarkable fortitude: born blind, he regained some sight as a child but lost it again in adulthood, and wrote his late compositions in Braille. He died, as he had wished, while playing the organ. The Cello Sonata is in three movements. A stately Introduction leads to an Allegro moderato; the middle movement is slow and expansive, the Finale fast and brilliant. Influenced by Cesar Franck’s style, the work is very lush and romantic; the players luxuriated in the sound, but kept the expressiveness from becoming sentimental.

The program also featured Beethoven’s Sonata in D major, Op. 102, No. 2, and Debussy’s Sonata in D minor. Playing with complete technical command, sensitive give-and take, and an unerring sense of style, the performers brought out the Debussy’s impressionistic color and whimsical humor, and the Beethoven’s classical austerity; even the counterpoint in the thorny Fugue came through clearly.

Maximilan Anikushin and Friends in Review

Maximilan Anikushin and Friends in Review
Samuel Barber Centenary Recital
Bruno Walter Auditorium
Lincoln Center; New York City, NY
November 18, 2010

Maxim Anikushin

The splendid pianist Maximilan Anikushin, with his friends, mounted a welcome and comprehensive retrospective to honor the centenary of the American composer Samuel Barber in the midst of bicentennial tributes to Haydn (d. 1809), Mendelssohn (b. 1809), Chopin and Schumann (both born in 1810.)  (Orage warning: the Liszt bicentennial will be coming down the pike—prepare for another onslaught imminently!) Barber’s beautifully crafted music richly deserves celebration and it is, without question, more audience-friendly than Elliot Carter, who is still with us (Barber died in 1981.)  

The first half of the program was devoted to Barber’s solo piano works, commencing with his most famous and impressive piece, the sonata, commissioned by Vladimir Horowitz, who premiered it in 1949 and subsequently recorded it for RCA Victor. Mr. Anikushin’s beautifully written program annotations interestingly relate that the composer had initially wanted the work to be a three movement sonata, but Horowitz convinced him that the piece needed a “very flashy last movement.” This last movement caused Barber much frustration. After months with no progress, Horowitz telephoned Barber and, hoping to inspire him, called him a ‘constipated composer.’ Barber became angry and wrote the entire last movement (the Fuga) the next day! This was in June 1949, nearly two years after the work was commissioned.  

The Sonata was appropriately followed by the four Excursions–vintage 1945–also in its day quite popular; Nadia Reisenberg performed them at her 1947 Carnegie Hall recital (published by Bridge Records, 9304A/B) and gave them to countless pupils. Next came a fine nocturne written in 1959 to honor John Field (not Chopin as one might have thought). The Three Sketches were the juvenilia of a talented teenager: A Love Song “To My Mother”, Tempo di Valse (1924); To My Steinway Number 2201 (Adagio, 1923); and “A Minuet to Sara”, (1923). Barber confesses that he “borrowed” its theme from Beethoven’s notoriously popular Minuet in G Major.  

Anikushin’s elegant performances were models of style, humor and– when called for–brilliantly clean, incisive technique; architecturally crystal clear and also amply subjective without hypertension. Anikushin told me that he loves Barber, and his adoration and enthusiasm were brilliantly self-evident.  

Anikushin, whose May 9, 1999 debut at Carnegie’s Weill Recital Hall earned high praise from this reviewer in New York Concert Review: “…undoubtedly destined to enter the annals of his generation’s important young pianists”, has studied with Y.I.Batuyev, Milton Salkind, Oxana Yablonskaya and Solomon Mikowsky, and holds Bachelor’s, Master’s and Doctoral degrees from the Juilliard School and the Manhattan School of Music.  

After intermission, Dr. Anikushin gave a vibrant and memorable account of the 1932 Sonata for Cello and Piano, partnered by Adrian Daurov, who is currently at Juilliard. The Canzone for Flute and Piano, Op. 38a of 1961, was played by flutist Mayumi Yokomizo with a big, luscious tone (it may have been her gold instrument that partly influenced me!) Finally, there was a group of Five Songs: “Promiscuity”, Op.29, No.7 (1953), “The Secrets of the Old”, Op.13 No. 3 (1938), “Sure on this Shining Night”(1938), “A Nun Takes the Veil”, Op. 13 No.1 (1937) and “The Desire for Hermitage”, Op. 29, No. 10 (1953), communicatively sung by Megan Moore, an alumna of Hope College and the Manhattan School of Music.

Opening Night of The New York Philharmonic

Alan Gilbert, music director and conductor
Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra
Wynton Marsalis, director and trumpet
Opening Night
Avery Fisher Hall, New York, NY
September 22, 2010

Wynton Marsalis – Photo Credit: Julie Skarratt

On the first concert of the Lincoln Center Fall season, the New York Philharmonic performed Strauss’s Don Juan, a most difficult score (it is used to audition string players for almost every orchestra), with supreme virtuosic strength and confidence, sounding as good as any top ensemble who has ever played it. Music Director Alan Gilbert’s tempos and pacing were perfect as usual, translating the composer’s intentions rather than trying to sauce it up with a personal interpretation, as his predecessor often did. Gilbert is not a showman; he is an honest man at the podium. Hindemith’s Symphonic Metamorphoses on Themes of Carl Maria von Weber (the title is practically longer than the piece itself) was never milked for the sake of pandering to an audience, and Gilbert once again stayed true to the composer’s tempo markings and dynamics. As a result, the work and the orchestra’s playing were stirring and brilliant, and the delicate gem of a slow movement was played with just the right simplicity and tenderness.

Wynton Marsalis’ 45-minute Swing Symphony (in its US premiere) is about 30 minutes too long to be a concert piece. All the extended jazz riffs and solos take time away from the Philharmonic, which often served as an accompaniment. The moments that did integrate the orchestra were derivative of blues found in Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess or the raucous elements of the Mambo from West Side Story— to name a couple possible influences. The prevalent, virtuosic solo playing by the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra was always outstanding, however, and the audience clearly appreciated Mr. Marsalis’ playing and tremendous artistic effort here. One of the movements, which was played at the Berlin Philharmonic world premiere, was cut out of this US premiere—due to time allotment for the PBS telecast, but next season, the Philharmonic will play the symphony in its entirety. If anything, Gilbert should figure out ways to convince Marsalis to cut out more. And if that can’t be done, Marsalis needs to incorporate the symphony orchestra a lot more. I still think the concept of bringing the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra and the New York Philharmonic together is a good one; after all, expanding audiences and enriching cultural tastes are necessities in today’s world.

“Hamlet” by Ambroise Thomas-Metropolitan Opera

“Hamlet” by Ambroise Thomas
Metropolitan Opera
Lincoln Center, New York City

Hamlet- Marlis Petersen and Simon Keenlyside- Photo Credit Brent Ness

If an opera has lain dormant for 100 years, only a great performance can awaken it. Ambroise Thomas’ “Hamlet,” premiered in Paris in 1868, was last performed at the MET in 1897; it was revived this season in a new production by Patrice Caurier and Moshe Leiser, created for the superb English baritone Simon Keenlyside in the title role. Taped at the March 27 performance, it was telecast on July 15 as one of Lincoln Center’s truly “Great Performances at the MET.”

Though rarely remembered today, Thomas (1811-1896) was a prolific composer so highly esteemed during his lifetime that he was made Chevalier of the Legion of Honor, and Director of the Paris Conservatoire. Of his 13 operas, “Mignon”(1866), based on Goethe’s novel “Wilhelm Meister,” and “Hamlet,” both with librettos by Jules Barbier and Michel Carré, were most successful; to celebrate Mignon’s 100th performance, Thomas received the Grand Cross.

Choosing librettos from the world’s greatest literature is risky: the words tend to eclipse the music, and the originals have to be “adapted” out of recognition. In the case of “Hamlet,” first of all, forget Shakespeare – not an easy task. The story is drastically truncated; the situations are simplified and perverted, the characters’ actions and interactions largely changed. Polonius reveals his complicity in the dead King’s murder; Hamlet and Ophelia are engaged; the opera ends with Hamlet and Laertes fighting at Ophelia’s grave; both die after Hamlet stabs the King.

The production is an amalgam of starkness and overkill. The stage is bare, with moveable walls at irregular angles; at first, there isn’t a chair in sight, so the singers have to stand, or sit, crouch, and lie on the floor. The acting, initially fairly dignified, grows increasingly excessive. Gertrude, crazed by guilt and terror, behaves more like Lady Macbeth than Denmark’s Queen. An inordinate amount of red liquids are spilled on stage: Ophelia gets covered in blood as she kills herself by stabbing her breast and slitting her arms; Hamlet jumps on a table, pours jugs of red wine all over himself, then rolls to the floor with a frightening thud. One hopes the intermission will be long enough for him to take a shower and change his clothes. He not only “chews the scenery,” but actually digs holes in it with his dagger.

Adding real-life drama, soprano Natalie Dessay withdrew from the production for health reasons at the last minute. She was replaced by Marlis Petersen, who, though scheduled to sing Ophelia later, flew in from Europe the day before the premiere and gave a sensational performance on a single rehearsal. The singing was altogether spectacular. David Pittsinger was a sonorous Ghost (he reappeared several times); James Morris, after a wobbly vocal start, projected Claudius’ guilt- and fear-ridden bravado with grim authority. Jennifer Lamore made Gertrude hysterical but sang with purity and passionate intensity; in his debut, Toby Spence was a youthfully fiery, bright-voiced Laertes. Petersen brought the house down in what must be opera’s ultimate mad- and-death-scene, tossing off stratospheric coloratura acrobatics while staggering around the stage. But the evening was really Keenlyside’s triumph. In a vocally and visually riveting performance, he used every nuance of his dark, ravishingly beautiful voice, every shading of his somberly handsome, expressive face, and every gesture of his lithe, tightly wound body to bring the enigmatic, brooding hero’s ever-changing moods, feelings and states of mind to vibrant life, giving him more range and depth than either the libretto or the music.

Ah yes, the music. The beginning is very promising: a somber Prelude heralds the gloomy events on stage, using mostly low instruments, and featuring a long, arresting horn solo. Later, equally dark orchestral interludes put the spotlight on the trombones. What the music lacks is a melodic and harmonic profile. There are numerous arias, even one beginning with “To be or not to be,” but they do not define the characters or remain in the memory.

Major credit for giving shape to the individual scenes and the whole work must go to the conductor, Louis Langrée, known to New York audiences mostly as the maestro of the Mostly Mozart Festival. Equally at home in this totally different musical world, his mastery of the score and consummate baton-technique inspired confidence and security in the singers and orchestra, and his sensitive support and firm leadership contributed greatly to making this once famous opera seem worthy of being rescued from obscurity.

Yoonjung Han, piano

Yoonjung Han, piano
Alice Tully Hall, Lincoln Center, New York, NY
April 16, 2010

Gold medalist at the 2008 World Piano Competition in Cincinnati, South Korean pianist Yoonjung Han recently presented her debut recital at Lincoln Center’s Alice Tully Hall. A feeling of celebration and anticipation of the moment filled the auditorium. Having made her debut at the age of thirteen, Han is no stranger to the concert stage. She got right to business with a colorful and joyfully performed Haydn Sonata in E-flat Major, Hob. 52. After the light and giddy first movement, the audience erupted into applause. The Adagio was carefully planned out and balanced, though one might have wished for more spontaneity and abandon. The Presto Finale floated gracefully above ground and was received with a warm ovation.

Han seemed to truly enjoy herself during the Chopin Sonata, Op. 58. Although her sound was a bit timid at times, every harmony had a lovely inflection. This was most apparent in the third movement, which might have been a love duet in an opera Chopin never wrote. My favorite part of the program turned out to be the two selections from Granados’ “Goyescas” after the intermission— (and the gown change). “Los requirebros” (Flattery) was filled with both joy and the requisite flirtation. She showed understanding of multi-layered textures and an admirable sensitivity to the counterpoint and key structure, at the same time masterfully displaying the shimmering figurations. “El amor y la muerte” (Love and Death) was presented with drama, yearning, and passion. She now truly identified with the music and brought out the intensity I hoped for in the Chopin Sonata.

Han concluded the program with Schumann’s “Carnaval,” performed without most repeats. Many fast sections felt rushed, yet she managed to portray the festive character of this colorful ball. Overall, Han’s natural gift for melody and a charming stage presence made her recital a joy to hear.