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.

An Evening of Contemporary Music in Review

An Evening of Contemporary Music in Review

An Evening of Contemporary Music: Compositions by George Oakley, Richard Danielpour, Justin Dello Joio
Inga Kashakashvili, Steven Masi, Nino Jvania, Piano; Mary Mackenzie, Soprano; Anton Rist, Clarinet; Jay Campbell, Cello
Merkin Concert Hall, Kaufman Center; New York, NY
February 9, 2014

 An evening of contemporary music is indeed truly new when one of three composers on the program is completely unknown to the reviewer. In this case, the Tbilisi (Republic of Georgia) native George Oakley bookended works by his two composition teachers in a well-played program. All three of the composers share certain affinities and influences: neo-Romanticism, neo-Impressionism. Thank goodness academia has ceased to devalue, or worse, ridicule, music that allows the expression of sentiment through a more traditional use of tonality. All the music on the program was readily comprehensible, clear in structure, and beguiling in sonority. Harold Bloom wrote of the “anxiety of influence,” but this evening was more about influence without anxiety.

Mr. Oakley’s two Shakespeare sonnet settings (Sonnets 56 and 111) were sensitively set, despite the fact that, as Mr. Oakley reminded us, he is not a native English speaker. He “did not kill the spirit of love with a perpetual dullness,” although the songs could have benefited from clearer diction by Mary Mackenzie. Here, one was aware of a sort of “song continuum” from Georges Auric to Ned Rorem and Henri Sauguet, down to Mr. Oakley. The collaborative pianist in the Shakespeare settings, Inga Kashakashvili, segued effortlessly into the Debussy-like colors of three of Richard Danielpour’s From the Enchanted Garden Preludes, Vol. II. Her touch was liquid at all times, with seemingly limitless color, and one always sensed that she meant every note intensely. She also brought out the raucous, jazzy jokiness of “There’s a Ghost in my Room!”

Remembrance for clarinet and piano, by Mr. Oakley, was a world premiere. Its tone was predominantly elegiac, as befit the title. The first section Daydream began in imitative style, interrupted by Dream, a more impassioned outburst, concluding with Awakening, a return to the opening material transformed. Perhaps Mr. Oakley will find more variety in his structures as he matures. Nearly everything was in a very audible three-part A-B-A (sometimes with Coda) form. The performance was beautifully shaded by clarinetist Anton Rist and pianist Nino Jvania. Prelude, Nocturne, and Toccata by Mr. Oakley was given an exciting reading by Ms. Kashakashvili. She never made an ugly piano sonority, even when the music turned more extroverted.

Pianist Steven Masi gave a ferociously virtuosic performance of Justin Dello Joio’s  Two Concert Etudes: Momentum and Farewell. This reviewer did not expect the most “progressive” sounds of the evening to be in this work, but they were. Glimmers of the Scherzo from Barber’s Piano Sonata seemed to be peeking through the rapid-fire textures of Momentum. Dedicated to the memory of Danish opera and film star Poul Arne Bundgaard, Farewell was somber, implying rather than stating its tonality directly, perhaps a metaphor for the death of its dedicatee.

The programming was excellent, saving the best for last, another world premiere, Mr. Oakley’s Sonata for Cello and Piano. This is an extended three movement work, given an impassioned and marvelously “together” rendition by cellist Jay Campbell and the masterful Ms. Kashakashvili. The work was excellently crafted, real chamber music, and the unanimity of the two artists was stunning, not only in their delivering of the musical text, but in their intention. In his program note, Mr. Oakley expressed concern about his ability to write a lighter, happy sort of Finale. He succeeded, without triviality. This work deserves to take its place in the smallish repertoire of cello sonatas, and to be essayed by intrepid conservatory students and other recitalists.

Overall, these composers are extremely fortunate to have performing artists of this caliber take up their music and fill it with such beauty and commitment. It was also heartening to see so many younger children in the audience, listening intently. The Cello Sonata was dedicated to one of these smartly dressed children: Dylan Carlson, son of the principal producer of the event.

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.

Distinguished Concerts International New York (DCINY) Artists Series presents Nordic Voices in Review

Distinguished Concerts International New York (DCINY) Artists Series presents Nordic Voices in Review

Distinguished Concerts International New York (DCINY) Artists Series presents Nordic Voices
Nordic Voices- Tone Braaten and Ingrid Hanken, soprano; Ebba Rydh, mezzo-soprano; Per Kristian Amundrøy, tenor; Frank Havrøy, baritone; Trond Olav Reinholdsten, bass
Weill Recital Hall at Carnegie Hall; New York, NY
February 2, 2014

Scheduled the same evening as the Super Bowl, Nordic Voices appeared in concert at Weill Recital Hall. It was gratifying to see a packed house- an indication that there are people besides me who couldn’t care less about the other event taking place at the same time. Before I get to my review proper, I have an admission to make – I arrived at the concert late and missed the first four pieces. Although I do feel that my discussion of the remaining ten works will give a valid appraisal of the concert, my responsibility to the performers, presenters and other readers of this review impels me to let them know why I will not be discussing these works. I am reminded of a music critic whose “review” of a concert which he failed to attend was published in a major New York newspaper. Unfortunately for him, the concert never took place, having been cancelled at the very last moment.

I arrived during spoken commentary from the stage introducing two works from György Ligeti’s “Nonsense Madrigals,” a collection of settings from “Alice in Wonderland.” As no printed texts and translations were distributed, many of the tonight’s works were introduced in this manner. Although readers of my reviews know that I like to follow the texts/translations word by word, Nordic Voices and many other performers have begun to realize that very few people do. Tonight’s introductions couldn’t have been better – they were enunciated well enough to be heard in the back row of the hall, were informative and witty, and helped to create a warm relationship between the performers and their audience. The performances were all one could ask for, as the extended vocal techniques and rhythmic complexities were handled with consummate skill and ease. This was the case in all of the more experimental works which were to follow. I am confident this was so in the works by Lasse Thorsten and Bjarne Sløgedal which opened the program.

The first half ended with a spirited rendition of “Les chants des oiseaux,” a chanson by the Renaissance composer Clément Janequin. Nordic Voices also performed this work on a 2004 concert which I reviewed for this publication. In that review, I chided them for not following “the rules of musica ficta [which] dictate that leading tones in cadences are always sung a half step below the tonic, even when they appear otherwise in the printed score.”  I am sorry to say that they did not take this to heart and made the same error on tonight’s concert. Saddened might be a better word than sorry, for this is not a matter of interpretation, and is similar to singing the same wrong note each time a passage is repeated in the course of a composition.

The second half began with an exquisite performance of the motet “Ecclesie militantis” by the Early Renaissance composer Guillaume Dufay. The pure non-vibrato sound of the female singers, the perfect intonation, the rhythmic clarity, and the beautifully shaped polyphonic lines all made me wish I had heard their performance of the two Renaissance motets by Thomás Luis de Victoria which I missed on the first half. What is more, Nordic Voices did follow the rules of musica ficta during the Dufay motet, even singing the wild double-leading-tone cadence at the end. I wonder what did they do with the Victoria?

A series of contrasting works followed. First the ethereal simplicity of “Predicasti,” a Medieval chant. Then the fiendishly difficult “O Magnum mysterium” by Henrick Ødegaard, during which Nordic Voices “pulled out all the stops” and gave us a demonstration of extended vocal techniques which boggled the mind. One is just amazed that the human voice can create all those sounds. This serious work was followed by three movements from Goffredo Petrassi’s whimsical “Nonsense,” settings of limericks by Edward Lear. The lighthearted subject matter and matching theatrical performance tend to hide that fact that these also very difficult pieces which Nordic Singers performed with consummate skill and ease. During Maurice Ravel’s chanson “Trois beaux oiseaux du Paradis,” we all could luxuriate in Nordic Voices’ beautiful sound.

A work by Frank Havrøy, Nordic Voices’ baritone, concluded the concert. “Bysjan, bysjan lite bån” (“Hush, hush, little child”) showcases two qualities which make Nordic Voices a unique ensemble – their skill with extended vocal techniques and their beautiful ensemble sound.  Without spoken comment, the singers moved off the stage, the women to the aisle on the audience’s left, the men to the aisle on the right. The work’s long, soft wordless opening featured extended vocal techniques. It was followed by a most beautiful setting of what I took to be a Norwegian folk song and another beautiful folksong setting served as the concert’s gentle encore.

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: Of Life and Liberty in Review

Distinguished Concerts International New York (DCINY) presents: Of Life and Liberty in Review

Distinguished Concerts International New York (DCINY) presents: Of Life and Liberty
Distinguished Concerts Orchestra, Distinguished Concerts Singers International
Matt Oltman, conductor; James M. Meaders, conductor; Viola Dacus, mezzo-soprano
Stern Auditorium, Carnegie Hall, New York, NY
January 19, 2014

A Distinguished Concerts International New York (DCINY) concert is always a memorable experience. As I ran the gauntlet of massed chorus members from Mississippi assembled in the back area as I went to pick up my tickets, I was reminded of what the DCINY experience is all about. The excitement and nervousness of men and women of all ages in what was likely the thrill of a lifetime filled that very cramped space in such a way as to overwhelm me with a similar feeling. Any irritation I might have felt at that moment washed away when a smiling chorus member offered to sing the program if I were unable to retrieve my tickets! At last, the way was cleared, and I wished them all the best of luck.

The World Premiere of The Gettysburg Address in a new arrangement for men’s voices from Mark Hayes (b. 1953) opened the concert.  In my review in this journal from May 27, 2013 (“Requiems for the Brave”), when this work was performed in its original version for mixed voices and orchestra, I wrote the following:

“About The Gettysburg Address [the music], Mr. Hayes in his program notes writes, ‘…the challenge of creating something musically profound was overwhelming.’ These ten sentences [the address itself] 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.”

In this revised version I find my initial thoughts to be unchanged. If anything, the effect is deepened by the use of men’s voices alone.  The Testament of Freedom, from underappreciated composer Randall Thompson (1899-1984), followed. Commissioned in 1943 to celebrate the bicentennial of the birth of Thomas Jefferson, this work has become a favorite for men’s choruses. When one hears the work, it is easy to see why this is the case: hymn-like melodies, stirring text, and expert vocal writing.  Thompson used the writings of Jefferson for the text of the four movements, with a strong focus on Jefferson’s unwavering belief in the unalienable rights of man. The chorus, consisting of members from Minnesota, Illinois, Idaho, Indiana, South Carolina, Florida, Massachusetts, and Alberta, Canada sang with strength, clear diction, and fine balance throughout. The third movement, “We fight not for glory,” was the highlight to this listener, but the whole performance was excellent. The animated Matt Oltman was a dynamic conductor who coaxed every last ounce of dramatic energy from both the chorus and the Distinguished Concerts Orchestra in both works.

The second half consisted of the New York premiere of Requiem for the Living from composer Dan Forrest (b. 1978). About the title Mr. Forrest writes, “the five movements form a narrative just as much for the living, and their own struggle with pain and sorrow, as for the dead.” Mr. Forrest freely used the standard mass as a model, with the substitution of a movement he entitled Vanitas Vanitatum (quoting from the Book of Job and Ecclesiastes) in place of the Dies Irae. This work is by no means complex in the vocal writing or the harmonic language, but the net effect is one of great import. Requiem for the Living is one of the most moving works I have heard in a very long while. It is truly a case of the maximum effect from the minimum of means, the mark of a highly skilled composer. It was a performance to remember, from the quiet opening of the Introit and Kyrie, the driving energy of the sinister Vanitas Vanitatum, and the serene Agnus Dei, to the celestial influenced magic of the Sanctus and hauntingly beautiful Lux Aeterna, which slowly faded away to nothing. In the Agnus Dei and Lux Aeterna, Mezzo-soprano soloist Viola Dacus sang with a pure, radiant voice that captured the essence of child-like innocence. Conductor James M. Meaders led the Distinguished Concerts Orchestra and the chorus with meticulous restraint and close attention to detail. When he lowered his baton after the sound died away, the audience erupted into a prolonged ovation. Congratulations, my new friends from Mississippi, you were all stars today.

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.


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.