Distinguished Concerts International New York (DCINY) presents: a cappella NEXT: An Evening Dedicated to Contemporary Choral Music in Review

Distinguished Concerts International New York (DCINY) presents: a cappella NEXT: An Evening Dedicated to Contemporary Choral Music in Review

a cappella NEXT: An Evening Dedicated to Contemporary Choral Music
Ad Astra Singers, John Paul Johnson, director; NOTUS: IU Contemporary Vocal Ensemble, Dominick DiOrio, director; UC Berkeley Chamber Chorus, Marika Kuzma, director
Weill Recital Hall at Carnegie Hall, New York, NY
March 21, 2014 

Distinguished Concerts International New York (DCINY) is well known for their large concert productions featuring many hundreds of performers from around the globe.  What might be not as well known is that DCINY also presents smaller concerts in much more intimate venues. Such was the case with “a cappella NEXT,” a concert focusing on contemporary choral music showcasing the talents of three outstanding a cappella ensembles in Weill Recital Hall on March 21, 2014.

Opening the concert was the University of California at Berkeley (UC Berkeley) Chamber Chorus. They began with a solid and well delivered selection entitled, “Let Everything that hath breath praise the Lord” from Requiem: A Dramatic Dialogue by Randall Thompson (1899-1984), who taught at UC Berkeley in the 1930s. The ensemble segued from this work into Ashes from alumni Trevor Weston (b. 1967). This work is a meditation on 9/11. The word “ashes” refers both to Psalm 102 and to the debris from the aftermath of the attack.  The program notes make reference to an aural depiction of the fall of the twin towers, an effect this listener found to be far too glib at best, especially in contrast with the actual event, still very much burned into one’s consciousness. This very large reservation notwithstanding, the work at other moments was hauntingly moving and was given a beautiful performance overall.  Awit sa Panginoon, by another alumnus, Robin Estrada (b. 1970), followed. This work uses the text of Psalm 30:1-6, set in the folk style of the composer’s native Philippines and employing extended vocal techniques. The placement of the two singers casually sitting on the stage ledge lent a certain charm to their duet and suggested an offhandedness belying the work’s challenges. It was delightful. The remaining works, Excerpts from Sephardisms II by Jorge Liderman (1957-2008),”Winter” from The Seasons by Richard Feliciano (b. 1930), and “Vesna” from Pory Roku by Lesia Dychko (b. 1939), were all given highly polished performances. The desolation and sparseness of “Winter” gave way to the joyous optimism of Spring in “Vesna”, which brought the last of the UC Berkeley Chamber Chorus’ selections to a happy close.  The energetic and personable Marika Kuzma led her ensemble through this varied program with precise attention to detail. As she wrote in her program notes about her ensemble’s eclectic selections, “it’s all good.” Not only was it “all good,” but it was all given an excellent performance.

After a short break, NOTUS, the Indiana University (IU) Contemporary Vocal Ensemble took to the stage.  They opened with the World Premiere of To The Roaring Wind from Zachary Wadsworth (b. 1983), which uses the Wallace Stevens two-line poem of the same name for the text. It is a dramatic and highly effective work that should find a place in the a cappella repertoire. NOTUS gave this work a top-notch performance, with excellent uses of extended vocal techniques, and great clarity of sound. Another World Premiere followed, Virginia: The West, by composer Aaron Travers (b. 1975). Using the poem of the same name from Walt Whitman’s Drum Taps, it was given a nuanced performance that captured Whitman’s powerful imagery. The “Passacaglia” from the 2013 Pulitzer Prize winning Partita for 8 Voices by Caroline Shaw (b. 1982) came next. NOTUS showed how prepared they were in a rendition that was at all turns simply astonishing. They tackled the multi-layered complexities with ease and delivered a performance to remember. O Virtus Sapientiae by Dominick DiOrio (b. 1984) proved that Mr. DiOrio is not only an outstanding director, but a talented composer as well. His ingenious setting of Hildegard von Bingen’s original chant was breathtaking. It was a slight disappointment that the three soloists were not positioned in the North, South, and West directions as indicated in the program notes, probably because of the limited space, but this is a small quibble that in no way detracted from the performance. NOTUS ended their portion of the program with Zephyr Rounds by Robert Vuichard (b. 1986). This clever work used the text of John 3:8. With its unconventional meter (13/8), Zephyr Rounds has a feeling of continuous, bustling motion. It was given a joyous and energy-packed performance. Dominick DiOrio led NOTUS with ebullience, weaving a tapestry of golden sounds. He is also to be commended for crediting the fine soloists from the stage, a nice gesture that this listener very much appreciated.

After another short break, the last ensemble on the program, the Ad Astra Singers, took the stage. Hailing from Wichita, Kansas, the Ad Astra singers take their name from the state motto Ad Astra per aspera (“To the stars through difficulties”). One can say with confidence that this fine ensemble did not show any indications of “aspera”! The World Premiere of Four Haikus by Aleksander Sternfeld-Dunn opened their program. The text for these haikus was inexplicably omitted from the program notes, which struck this listener as careless, but the work was compelling. Ad Astra showed right from the start that they are the “real deal” in a performance filled with charm and wit. Two works from Jean Belmont Ford (b. 1939) followed, “Draba” from A Sand Country Almanac, and the World Premiere of Love Song. Both are works of a highly skilled composer and both exploited the talents of Ad Astra in compelling fashion. The close harmonies were executed to perfection, and the balance of voices was superb throughout. O Magnum Mysterium from Wayne Oquin (b. 1977) was next, and the pattern of excellence continued in a precise and radiant performance.  Ending with Cantus Gloriosus by Polish composer Józef Świder (b. 1930) was a good choice, as it was yet another example of the rich voice blending and balance in which Ad Astra excels. It was a glorious end to a glorious program. One must tip one’s hat to the fine work of director John Paul Johnson, who led Ad Astra with the steady hand of a master.

A final thought – while it was good to have the English translations to the texts to most of the works, it was a glaring oversight to omit the original texts in the language in which they were written (and sung). The reason to include texts is to allow listeners to follow along, even if they do not understand the language. Connecting the strains of foreign languages to the printed English did not enhance the otherwise musically enjoyable experience.


Distinguished Concerts International New York (DCINY) presents Shawnee Press: Celebrating 75 Years in Music in Review

Distinguished Concerts International New York (DCINY) presents Shawnee Press: Celebrating 75 Years in Music in Review

Distinguished Concerts International New York (DCINY) Presents Shawnee Press: Celebrating 75 Years in Music
Distinguished Concerts Orchestra, Distinguished Concert Singers International
Tim Seelig, Conductor Laureate; Greg Gilpin, composer/conductor; Mark Hayes, composer/conductor; Joseph M. Martin, composer/conductor; Sean Berry, Ben Cohen, Heather Sorenson, accompanists
Stern Auditorium, Carnegie Hall, New York, NY
February 17, 2014

For seventy-five years, the Shawnee Press has published music which has become part of the core repertoire of choral groups all over the United States and in many foreign countries. What better way to celebrate this anniversary  than by presenting a sampling of this music performed by fourteen choral groups from twelve states (Ohio and Pennsylvania each sent two groups), a contingent of individual singers from around the globe, vocal soloists, three piano accompanists, and a large orchestra led by four different conductors, all brought to Carnegie Hall by Distinguished Concerts International New York?

First a little history, adapted from the concert’s program notes: “In the late 1930s Fred Waring, renowned bandleader and choral master, and some of his friends formed a music publishing company called WORDS AND MUSIC, INC. As he and his famous singing group, The Pennsylvanians,” grew in stature and popularity, school choral and church choir directors began requesting copies of his unique arrangements. In 1939, the first choral arrangement became available, and in 1947 Mr. Waring changed the name of the company to Shawnee Press.”

Each of the two halves of the concert featured seven of the above mentioned choruses and was divided into two sets, each set directed by a different conductor. First on the podium was Conductor Laureate Tim Seelig, who led the assembled singers and instrumentalists in an arrangement of “America the Beautiful” by Marvin Gaspard. This lush, technicolor arrangement set a pattern for the concert which, for this listener, contained too many works which would have served as perfect concert finales. It sounded great – the DCINY Orchestra played at its usual high level (although the timpanist did get a little overexcited at times), and who isn’t thrilled by the sound of a huge chorus of avocational singers? The audience loved it, and loved all of the concert’s finale-like works, but did these works give a clear idea of the breadth of the massive Shawnee Press catalogue? This catalogue contains fourteen other arrangements of “America the Beautiful,” and multiple arrangements of many of the nineteen other works on the program. It would have been good to hear some of the more simple arrangements and some of the versions of works with just a piano accompaniment. The audience didn’t mind at all, and reveled all evening in the massed sound.

Next on the podium was Mark Hayes, who led performances of his own compositions and arrangements. The accompanist was Shawn Berry, who also accompanied the first set. I do wish he and the other accompanists, Ben Cohen and Heather Sorenson, had more to do.

A different, even larger chorus took the stage for concert’s second half. Although both choruses produced a pleasant sound, the men were sometimes overpowered by the more numerous women, and both by the sometimes too loud orchestra. Crisper consonants would have also improved the diction. Conductors Greg Gilpin and Joseph M. Martin each led performances of their own compositions and arrangements. As with most of the evening’s arrangements, I found these and those on the first half by Mr. Hayes “too much of a muchness,” often obliterating the simplicity and beauty of the original material. I suspect that these “over the top” works were chosen to make a big impression for this celebratory concert, but to continue with my series of clichés, “less would have been more,” if a more varied repertoire had been offered.

I remember with great pleasure the music in Shawnee Press editions I sang many years ago with the Midwood High School Mixed Chorus. I am sure, thanks to the continued success of Shawnee Press, many thousands of people are now creating, and will in the future create, similar memories.


Korea Music Foundation presents Allant Piano Trio in Review

Korea Music Foundation presents Allant Piano Trio in Review

Korea Music Foundation presents: Allant Piano Trio
Anna Park, violin; Alina Lim, cello; Hyo Kyoung Beth Nam, pianist
Weill Recital Hall at Carnegie Hall, New York, N.Y.
February18, 2014

 

Firepower was present in each work from music of Beethoven and Mendelssohn to that of living composers Kelly-Marie Murphy (b. 1964) and Sun-Young Park (b. 1988), at the Allant Trio’s New York debut recital. Recipients of numerous accolades individually, the three are recent awardees of the John Madrigano Entrepreneurship grant at the Juilliard School, where their instrumental teachers have included Martin Canin, Robert McDonald, Hyo Kang, Naoko Tanaka, and Richard Aaron, plus coaches Toby Appel, Rohan DeSilva, Jonathan Feldman, Nicholas Mann and Vivian Weilerstein. In addition to such illustrious guidance, each member of the trio reflects the will and determination of a lifetime of passionate commitment to performing. True to the needs of today’s classical performers to reach out in musical mission, they are also versatile, spreading their gifts from major concert venues to soup kitchens and senior centers, and from innovative teaching projects to commissioning and performing new compositions. If there were a checklist for the musician of today, theirs would leave nothing blank.

Of course all checklists are meaningless without the performance itself, and I am happy to say that the performances were riveting.  In fact, I would defy even the most exhausted and jaded listener to experience even a moment of boredom in this group’s high-voltage evening.  The rocketing opening of Beethoven’s Trio in D minor, Op. 70, No. 1 (Ghost) caught me off guard as faster than what I’m accustomed to, but it lost nothing in clarity and was perfectly synchronized. There was throughout an almost microscopic attention to detail, and the result was a performance as close to perfectly polished as one will find; unlike some instances of this hyper-vigilance, however, theirs never interfered with the sense of overall structure. This trio had clearly done its homework and looked at the work from inside and out – with undoubtedly expert coaching. Ms. Nam, the pianist, showed extraordinary dynamic range with precision and clarity. There were even moments (especially in the central Largo) when one might have actually wanted less clarity (for example in its awkwardly exposed tremolos) but the same crisp articulation was again a joy in the finale. The ensemble work was outstanding. Physical unity was demonstrative without histrionics, and attacks and cut-offs were arresting and razor-sharp.

If one wanted more a bit more presence from violinist, Anna Park, the next work gave her more of a showcase along with the cellist, Alina Lim. Both were passionate and projective. “Give Me Phoenix Wings to Fly,” by Kelly-Marie Murphy, found the violin in a leadership role (in fact standing) through three highly expressive movements that evoked (as the Ms. Murphy describes) “fire, bleak devastation, and rebuilding.” In confrontational exchange of jagged virtuosic gestures one could easily envision the violent darting of flames, and the trio played up the drama to the hilt, as was fit. The dark second movement was haunting and beautifully connected in spirit to the Ghost Trio (ingenious programming), but all finished brilliantly with resurgence of energy in the third, as the phoenix began its rise. Ms. Murphy is an exciting and imaginative composer, much in demand especially in her native Canada and deservedly so. Of strong personality, she posts her occasional negative press on a webpage entitled “They hate me … they really hate me” – a cheeky feature that I almost regret to say will not be including my comments!

After intermission came music slightly lighter in spirit, along with a brightening of wardrobe from largely black to glimmering and golden hues (an optional item on the checklist – visual excitement!). First was the New York premiere of a work entitled HEEM by Sun-Young Park and commissioned by the performers. The title, according to Ms. Park’s notes is a Korean word with “a multitude of meanings: energy, strength, force, potency, effort” with the central premise being “intensity”, an aptly chosen word for this trio. A seven-minute showpiece with “everything but the kitchen sink” in terms of technical wizardry, and glissandi galore, it will surely be a regular vehicle for the Allant Trio and probably many others.

More of this group’s superb playing shone in Mendelssohn’s Trio No. 1 in D Minor, Op. 49, and, though it lacked nothing in intensity, I was glad to see that there were some more moments of the slightly more relaxed, intimate music making that I usually look for in chamber music. The cello lines breathed beautifully and the violin projected more individually than in the rest of the program. The one or two moments where not everything meshed perfectly I actually took as wholesome sign that each line was living a bit more independently. As a minor reservation, the Andante con moto tranquillo in my opinion could have enjoyed a more straightforward quality in the phrasing. Its very simplicity tends to invite self-consciousness in the opening piano melody, with some left-before-right-hand emoting, but its purity usually speaks for itself (even if it sometimes takes years to capture). The Scherzo that followed was all one could want, quintessential Mendelssohn, with his sparkling writing given a high polish. The Finale capped off the evening in triumph.

Nothing prepared one for the cyclone of this group’s energy, not even their chosen title of “Allant,” a musical term loosely translated as “going” or moving forward. While I don’t quite agree with their definition as listed in the (uncredited) program notes as “driving” and “energetic”, their name still seems appropriate – they are definitely “going” places!


Musica de Camara in Review

Musica de Camara in Review

Musica de Camara:“La Passione” A Saint Valentine’s Celebration
Romantic works by Bach, Chopin, Mozart, Schubert, Montsalvatge, Schumann
Byron Marc Sean, piano; Brian Sanders, cello; Camille Ortiz-Lafont, soprano
Christ and St Stephens Church; New York, NY
February 14, 2014

 

Musica de Camara is a thirty-four year old organization with the valuable mission of increasing performance opportunities and audience awareness in minority communities, especially, but not exclusively, among Hispanics and Latinos. An enthusiastic audience turned out for the concert, a respite from the relentless February weather. The founder of Musica de Camara, Eva de la O, was the personification of charm in her pre-concert greeting, in which she shared her dismay at a radio interview when she was a performer (soprano), during which the interviewer said that he didn’t know there were any Puerto Rican classical musicians, or any appreciation of the repertoire.

All the selections were from the standard repertoire, appropriate for a lighter “Valentine’s Day” event, although I would have welcomed some contemporary Latin classical music, to bolster the mission statement. I understand this will occur on their next concert. Again, in keeping with the spirit of the occasion, I can report that all the performances were heartfelt, even when details slid by the board. In a program of such standard repertoire, the pressure on the musicians is much higher, because of inevitable comparison with all who have gone before. Each of the three musicians was very sensitive, but at their young stage of development, they may need further technical refinement to take their rightful place among the very best.

The discovery of the evening for me was the cellist Brian Sanders, who opened the program with two movements from Bach’s Suite for Solo Cello No. 3 in C Major, BWV 1009, played with flawless intonation, and natural phrasing, despite his unusual bow hold. It made me wish to hear the entire suite, which was probably considered too heavy for the occasion. Perhaps the tie-in with “Valentine’s” is that the only extant manuscript copy of the cello suites is in the hand of Bach’s second wife, Maria Magdalena.

Pianist Byron Marc Sean followed with a rendition of Chopin’s Berceuse, Op 57. One critic compared the colors of the piece to the “shifting hues of an eggshell,” and for the performer the piece can be like walking on those same shells, so exposed and delicate is the writing. The tempo and lyricism were appealing, but it lacked the ultimate intimacy, delicacy, and repose to make it a convincing lullaby. Perhaps some of this was due to opening nerves and a strident piano heard on a tile floor with no absorbing textiles.

Soprano Camille Ortiz-Lafont then performed two art songs by Mozart. The wistful Abendempfindung (Evening Mood) was charming, if somewhat forced. An Chloë (To Chloe) was performed too slowly for this impetuous, adolescent “study” for the character of Cherubino. Both were marred by peculiarities in the German diction.

Mr. Sean found a better match in his rendition of Chopin’s Barcarolle, Op 60, where the tempo and big line were nicely managed, even when certain passages were a bit approximate. However, in the magical “kiss in the gondola” moment, marked dolce sfogato (gently expressed) by Chopin, Mr. Sean’s moment was expressed none too gently. After intermission, Mr. Sean found his stride with his best performance: Chopin’s B Flat Minor Nocturne, Op 9, No. 1. Here his lyricism was heard to advantage, and he handled the repetitive middle section with much more color than is often heard.

Ms. Ortiz-Lafont sang two of Schubert’s best-known songs: Die Forelle (The Trout) and Gretchen am Spinnrade (Gretchen at the Spinning Wheel). In both, the tempi were pushed, depriving the music of charm in the first song, and cumulative passion in the second. I don’t imagine that any of today’s young people have ever seen a spinning wheel, let alone operated one, to understand the “tempo” at which it performs its work. Again, the German diction was so peculiar that it undermined Ms. Ortiz-Lafont’s emotional involvement with the music. Her high notes tend to stick out from the rest of her tone, rather than integrate into her pleasing general sound. Then, as if from heaven, she followed with two songs by the Spanish Catalan composer Xavier Montsalvatge from his Cinco Canciones Negras. Singing in her native language released a flood of effortless musicality and charm that I knew she possessed. Mr. Sean rose to the occasion with fine collaborative pianism.

The concert concluded with the return of cellist Sanders and pianist Sean in the Three Fantasy Pieces by Schumann, Op 73. These were performed with beautiful soaring cello tone, perfect intonation and vibrato, and really fine piano colors underneath. Romantic ardor was entirely present and given realization by both performers. The audience was duly thrilled.

Ms. Ortiz-Lafont favored the room with the delicious encore Del Cabello mas sutil by Fernando Obradors.


Suzanna Klintcharova: La Belle Époque de la Harpe, Volume #1:  CD in Review

Suzanna Klintcharova: La Belle Époque de la Harpe, Volume #1: CD in Review

Suzanna Klintcharova: La Belle Époque de la Harpe, Volume #1
Suzanna Klintcharova, harp
VMS Zappel Music: VMS 231
www.zappelmusic.com

 

The first of Suzanna Klintcharova’s trio of discs, La Belle Époque de la Harpe, is devoted exclusively to solo compositions for the harp by French composers, from the end of the 19th century through the first decades of the 20th.  It is a twofold revelation to hear this intelligent artist at work, and to encounter the wealth of delights this specific repertoire offers.

The selections presented in this compilation cover a variety of compositional styles, chosen from a relatively short historical period. In them one can almost trace the development of both French music and of harp technique in this era.  The Gallic fascination with Spanish rhythm, the use of ancient modes, and an adherence to triple meter are woven throughout these diverse works.

Ms. Klintcharova chose two giants of French music, Gabriel Fauré and Camille Saint-Saëns, to initiate this collection.  Fauré’s voice is endearingly familiar, yet what makes his Impromptu, Op. 86, distinctive are the extreme contrasts in his writing.  He exploits the full range of the instrument, ventures slightly off- center harmonically, and alternates between passages of great elegance and ones of stark drama.  By comparison, Saint-Saëns’s Fantasie, Op. 95, is attractive, but tamer in overall scope.  He was a gifted melodist, and in this piece there is a potpourri of beautiful tunes, from salon waltzes to troubadour chansons.  Ms. Klintcharova’s keen attention to voicing and articulation are a great asset in both works.  To round out the first part of this set, the harpist offers a charming interpretation of Gabriel Pierné’s Impromptu Caprice, Op. 9 ter, complete with musicalized birdcalls and a snappy bolero.  This would make a terrific recital encore – neat and accessible with a strong bravura finish.

With Albert Roussel’s Impromptu, Op. 21, written for the great harpist Lily Laskine, the artist takes us further along the path into modernist territory.  Roussel’s language is more dissonant and rhythmically driven, yet still maintains the hallmarks of French writing – modal melodies, Impressionistic harmonies, feathery glissandi.  Again, the harpist’s pristine technique and infallible sense of time are well suited to Roussel’s writing.  André Caplet’s Deux Divertissements, one in the French style and one in Spanish, reinforce my impression that Caplet is an underrated composer.   Based on this performance, and the one of his Conte Fantastique in the second CD of this set, Ms. Klintcharova is making a great case for his renewed popularity.    Caplet’s eccentric subtitles (i.e. ”with a graceful curve and well draped”) are worthy of Erik Satie.  His coloristic effects, including mordant metallic chords and an impressively accurate imitation of guitar strumming, are rendered perfectly by the harpist.

Ms. Klintcharova, as much an historian as an artist, scores a coup with the inclusion of Marcel Tournier’s less well-known Sonatine No. 2, Op. 45.  Tournier, a prolific performer, composer and educator, expands upon the traditions of French harp writing with fascinating results.  The Sonatine calls for a player with great facility and imagination, as it ranges from the most delicate, exotic dances, to full-blown Romanticism and exacting passagework.  Ms. Klintcharova has the stamina and talent to pull all this off.  It would be difficult to find a better introduction to the “Belle Époque” than the one provided here in this very satisfying recording.  I look forward to hearing more of Suzanna Klintcharova’s work in future ventures.


Opus Two Presents the Music of George Gershwin in Review

Opus Two Presents the Music of George Gershwin in Review

Opus Two Presents the Music of George Gershwin
Opus Two: William Terwilliger, violin; Andrew Cooperstock, piano
Bruno Walter Auditorium, New York, NY
December 28, 2013

On an unusually warm December day, I made my way to the Bruno Walter Auditorium to hear a performance of the music of George Gershwin by the duo Opus Two. I was expecting a smaller crowd because of the holiday weekend and the early afternoon starting time. Imagine my surprise, upon arriving, at the sight of a long line of about seventy people all hoping to get in, even though the hall was already filled! Luckily, my place was reserved.  A few other lucky people in this line gained entry and were treated to what was part concert, part lecture, and part sentimental retrospective.

Opus Two boasts the combined talents of William Terwilliger, violin, and Andrew Cooperstock, piano. This well-travelled duo with performances around the globe is especially renowned for championing American music and composers. What could be more American than the works of George Gershwin? Opening with Jascha Heifetz’s arrangement of “Summertime”, from Gershwin’s masterpiece Porgy and Bess, the duo gave the audience a taste of what was to follow. The performers then introduced themselves and alternated turns at the podium as they spoke of Gershwin. They included a few well-known anecdotes, including the oft-quoted one from Maurice Ravel (when Gershwin sought composition lessons from the French genius): “Why do you want to be a second-rate Ravel when you are already a first-rate Gershwin?”  It was time for the concert proper to commence.

First up came Selections from Porgy and Bess as arranged by Jascha Heifetz. The renowned Heifetz had been quick to recognize the appeal of Gershwin’s music and was savvy enough to capitalize on that demand by making arrangements that highlighted his own virtuosic talents. Porgy and Bess is the best known of these arrangements and continues to delight listeners to this day. The playing from Opus Two was assured, from the restless “Summertime” (yes, again), to the laments of “My Man’s Gone Now”, to the joyous “Bess, You is My Woman Now’, to the biting irony of “It Ain’t Necessarily So”. Images by African-American period photographer, Richard Samuel Roberts, were projected on a large screen behind the performers and were a perfect visual accompaniment to the music.  It reminded me of the style of Ken Burns in his various documentaries and was an inspired touch. This was the sort of imaginative conception that one hopes for, even expects, when two exceptional musicians who really are of the same mind and spirit join together.  Opus Two fulfilled this expectation throughout the concert.

Short Story, for Violin and Piano, was the only work originally written for this combination by Gershwin himself. The violinist Samuel Dushkin, a friend of Gershwin and a renowned performer in his own right (Stravinsky wrote his Violin Concerto for Dushkin in 1931), offered technical advice on the violin part.  Gershwin and Dushkin premiered this three-minute work, which has all the hallmarks of Gershwin’s style- rhythmic vitality and catchy tunes (in this case laced with the blues and ragtime).  But, for whatever reason, it never caught on with other performers and disappeared in oblivion. While admittedly not up to the standards of his later mature works, it is still worthy of attention, and the fine performance from the duo made that point clear. Kudos to Opus Two, for both their sophisticated reading and for sharing this little-known gem, which should gladden the heart of any Gershwin fan.

The Three Preludes for Piano, also arranged for violin and piano by Heifetz, followed and were played with stylish assurance. While I prefer the original, this arrangement was highly effective.

Excerpts from An American in Paris, which were partially arranged by Heifetz and later expanded by Ayke Agus in 2005, were introduced by a short talk and video selection from the movie featuring Gene Kelly and Leslie Caron dancing a pas de deux (as choreographed by Kelly) to set the mood. The players’ casual commentary included the remark, “They don’t make them like that anymore!” No, they sure don’t!   Violinist William Terwilliger joked about how he would be simulating the sounds of car horns with his violin. This work shows the ever-maturing Gershwin’s progress from song plugger to “serious” composer, with French influences (Debussy and Ravel), yet in his own highly characteristic voice.  Opus Two played with appropriate elegance and wit in yet another winning performance.

Composer Eric Stern continued the Heifetz tradition with his own arrangement of Selections from Girl Crazy, written especially for Opus Two.  Another video, this time Judy Garland singing “Bidin’ My Time” from the movie version of Girl Crazy, was played and brought smiles to all as a reminder of a golden age.  Returning to their performance, Opus Two presented Stern’s arrangement with panache.  Including the unforgettable classics, “Embraceable You” and “I Got Rhythm”, this transcription was destined to be a crowd pleaser. The same energy and commitment with which the duo started the concert were still very much in effect, in even more refined playing. The lazy drawl of “Bidin’ My Time”, the enchanting “Embraceable You”, and an electric “I Got Rhythm” ended the piece and the concert in triumph. The audience demanded more, so for an encore, Opus Two offered a favorite from another one of America’s most loved composers, Aaron Copland, “Hoedown” from Rodeo.  Played with brio, it was a fitting close to a most enjoyable concert.

 

 


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.


Javor Bračić, Pianist in Review

New York Concert Artists and Associates presents: Javor Bračić, piano
Weill Recital Hall at Carnegie Hall, New York, NY
October 22, 2013

Recital debuts can be a dicey proposition in New York, depending on what other concerts and events are scheduled. Learning that a young Croatian pianist would be giving his New York debut in Weill Hall the same night as the much-heralded and fashionable Yuja Wang would play next door at Stern Auditorium, I imagined that a half-empty hall might await him. How wrong I was! Mr. Bračić’s sold-out house left a virtual mob swarming around the box office, hoping for tickets from last-minute cancellations. As the evening progressed, it became clear why: Javor Bračić is a pianist who possesses a deep, genuine musicianship and an outstanding technique that serves the great music he chooses. He honors both listener and composer with his intelligent, committed interpretations, and he offers a thoughtfully constructed program with elegance and humility. It was heartening to be reminded that such an artist is still a draw and that the “competition” for listeners is not always a zero-sum game.

Mr. Bračić began with Bach’s Prelude and Fugue in C Major, WTC II (BWV 870), which was at once noble and sensitive, with not a note out of place. Moving on to Haydn’s Sonata in D Major, Hob. XVI: 42, he sustained musical tension and interest through its rather long Andante con espressione, right through to the last note of the Vivace assai. Occasionally I wanted ornaments to be more singing in the first movement, and less subservient to the meter, but that was about the only quibble one could have – and a very personal one at that. The delicacy and precision were outstanding.

Moving to later style periods, Mr. Bračić tied his first half together to the Bach and Haydn by performing Debussy’s underplayed Hommage à Haydn (1909) and the even less well known Hommage à Bach (2001) by Croatian composer Davorin Kempf (b. 1947). In between old masters and homages came a World premiere of a work entitled Entwined, Disquiet  (2013) by Rosalie Burrell (b. 1988). At times searching and at others explosive, the two movements explored a tonal world that verged on orchestral, bearing hints of Messiaen and even Scriabin, though without being derivative. Ms. Burrell is still quite young, but already emerging as quite a colorist. I would have enjoyed some information on the piece, but Mr. Bračić, playing from score, appeared to meet this new work’s challenges beautifully, with considerable expressiveness.

As far as the homages go, I’ve never completely grasped the Haydn connection in the ever so brief Debussy work, apart from some tenuous structural likenesses and passing elements of humor and surprise, but it is immediately appealing and was played convincingly by Mr. Bračić. The Bach tribute by Mr. Kempf is far less elusive. Crisp mordents, preceding impassioned scalar writing, hearkened back to Bach’s Toccatas (notable the BWV 565 Organ Toccata in D minor), while quieter counterpoint and sequential episodes were set ingeniously amid some highly adventurous, clearly twentieth-and-twenty-first-century composition. Virtuosity abounded, and Mr. Bračić was on top of it all with dash and drama. Hints of the B -A-C-H theme by Bach himself (based on the tones B-flat, A, C, and B-natural) emerged amid dissonant writing that at times resembled a Bach festival recalled through a dream, all brought to an end with a nod to Bach’s characteristic Picardy close. It is a work I’d like to hear again, especially thanks to Mr. Bračić’s superb performance.

The program’s second half consisted of the Brahms Piano Sonata No. 3 in F Minor, Op. 5, a feast of some of the noblest, warmest, richest piano writing in history, and Mr. Bračić was well suited to it all. Some minor glitches arose – as happen to almost all pianists – but most seemed here to stem from over-straining for power against the piano’s somewhat resistant treble register at climaxes. If those moments can be conquered with the majesty shown elsewhere, Mr. Bračić will have one of the best Brahms F Minor Sonata performances around. As it is, I would hear him again in a heartbeat. His audience seemed to agree, earning an encore of a small Ravel work – you guessed it!- Hommage à Haydn.


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.


Sarah Chan, Pianist in Review

Sarah Chan, piano
Merkin Concert Hall at the Kaufman Music Center, New York, NY
October 17, 2013

Having reviewed pianist Sarah Chan in Schumann’s A Minor Concerto just this May (hers being just one of several concerti in a packed program), I wondered how the same pianist would fare in a calmer setting; five months later, Ms. Chan’s own intimate solo recital this week gave this listener (and the pianist herself) just that opportunity. Holding the reins firmly, she emerged as a confident young soloist, with solidity, strong projection, and a winning stage presence.

In a program of essentially Spanish and French music (if France is allowed to claim the Polish-born Chopin for the occasion), Ms. Chan chose mostly short works, the longest lasting from seven to nine minutes. It was an appealing array seemingly designed not to tax the layperson’s attention, so to this veteran listener it seemed to be over in a flash. I liked, though, that Ms. Chan resisted the gargantuan programming that so many young pianists’ recitals display. I also liked that Chan followed her preferences and did not feel compelled to offer a survey course on each style of the piano literature from Bach onward. There was still plenty of contrast.

Enjoying the sheer variety among works, one almost missed the fact that there was sometimes not quite as much variety within a work as one might want. The opening work, Claude Debussy’s “Bruyères” (Prélude No. 5 from Book II), was louder throughout than what I’ve usually heard, and I missed the nuance that makes small dynamic ranges colorful (the composer’s own markings for this piece ranging only from pianissimo up to mezzo-forte, aside from effects of timbre, register, and pedaling).

In Debussy’s “La Soirée dans Grenade” from Estampes, the range was greater, but I still wanted more nuance in the melodic inflection, without which the singing Spanish lines sound stiff. More rhythmic bending could also have helped to convey the feeling marked as nonchalamment gracieux. While Debussy was known as a pianist who avoided histrionics, he would still enjoy pushing and pulling a phrase, as demonstrated in his 1913 piano roll recording of this very work.

Maurice Ravel’s “Alborada del Gracioso” from Miroirs, made a great pairing with the Debussy, and served as a virtuosic backdrop for the Spanish music to come. Ms. Chan expertly handled Ravel’s many challenges, among them her admirably rapid repeated notes. More of a final burst would have capped the piece off perfectly (and perhaps planning the earlier dynamic pacing accordingly), but maximizing each thrill seemed a lower priority than momentum throughout the evening.

Closing the first half were Joaquín Turina’s “Seguiriya” from Danzas Gitanas, Op. 84, Isaac Albéniz’s “Asturias” (“Leyenda”) from Suite Española, Op. 47, and Albeniz’s “El Albaicin” from Iberia, Book III. All three showed Ms. Chan to be a pianist of ample technique and solid command. She also has the resources to achieve a large palette of colors, which I hope she will exploit more and more. Her Iberia selection has markings ranging from ppppp through fff, so moderation can be checked at the door. For some reason the middle register of the concert grand seemed unusually heavy, eclipsing important chords in the outer registers, but Ms. Chan was unruffled.

The entire second half of the concert consisted of the music of Frédéric Chopin.  Opening with his Barcarolle, Op. 60, the pianist seemed much more comfortable than in the first half. Clearly this pianist knew the repertoire inside and out.  There was also more of the savoring of harmonic resolutions that I had been craving earlier.  A string of six Études (from both the twelve op. 25 and the twelve Op. 10) followed. The Étude in A-flat major, Op. 25 No. 1 (“Harp”) opened the group, a gentle choice, though still too fast for my taste and again at the mercy of a dominant middle register. The best was yet to come in the Étude in G-sharp minor, Op. 25, No. 6 (“Thirds”): it sparkled brilliantly as one of the gems of the recital. There ought to be a special award for a performer who can make this devilishly difficult Étude a highlight, as it is the nemesis of so many pianists! Also quite well executed was the Étude in C-sharp minor, Op. 25, No. 7 (sometimes called the “Cello” Étude). Though it is a slower, more melodic Étude, it should not be considered any sort of “breather” – it is tremendously difficult to pull off the pacing and balance, and Ms. Chan did extremely well. In the Étude in B minor, Op. 25, No. 10 (“Octaves”), the pianist surprised us with a ferocity that had been largely hidden up to this point. At moments where many pianists grab a chance to relax, she stormed ahead, and her fearless finale was refreshing. She should keep playing these pieces to the hilt.

The Étude in C minor Op. 10, No. 12 (“Revolutionary” – mistakenly listed on the program as C-sharp minor), came off as a bit glib for this listener. Heroic gesture became efficiency and dispatch, as if the end of the recital loomed too closely to resist racing. Also, by following it (without pause) with the buoyant Étude in G-flat major, Op. 10, No. 5 (“Black Keys”), its dramatic impact was further undercut. These pieces cease being mere “Études” the minute they are played in concert, so they need to be treated as any delicate works of art.

All ended with the much-loved Ballade No. 3 in A-flat major, Op. 47. Despite a not-quite-ready left hand at the start, it closed the program overall with warmth and triumph, boding very well for things to come for Ms. Chan. She already holds an impressive list of accomplishments, academically and musically, and one expects similar achievements in her continued career. A good-sized audience gave warm ovations and received Debussy’s Doctor Gradus ad Parnassum as a parting lagniappe.