Tuesday, March 28, 2017

Heaven on Earth

It was St. Augustine who said, “He who sings, prays twice.” I was thinking of that statement yesterday as I was enjoying the heavenly performance by the Choir of Kings College, Cambridge under the excellent direction of Stephen Cleobury in a beautifully balanced programme of liturgical and liturgically centered music.

Right from the first notes of William Byrd’s Rorate coeli, I was captivated by the richness of these young voices, so richly nuanced, singing with a purity and uniformity of sound. Indeed, the clarity of the choir’s diction was readily apparent in their performance of John Mundy’s Sing Joyfully.

I was reminded of the choir’s long and distinguished tradition when it sang Orlando Gibbons’ This is the record of John. Gibbons, as the excellent programme notes informed us, was a former King’s chorister when his elder brother was Master of the Choristers! (Much like the Vienna Boys Choir could boast of Franz Schubert as a former member.) In addition to the beautiful tenor solo, I was struck by how the meaning of the text was underscored by the choir’s singing of this work and in Byrd’s Laudibus in sanctis that followed.

Almost as a segway into the French choral music that followed, organ scholar Richard Gowers gave an atmospheric performance of Le Gibet, the second movement in Maurice Ravel’s monumental Gaspard de la Nuit. Gowers successfully brought out the frightening stillness of the music while giving it forward direction.

Olivier Messiaen’s O sacrum convivium was an incredible challenge for any choir in accuracy of pitch and tuning, and it was no surprise at all that these young choristers so excellently rose to the challenge. The choir brought out the darker hue as well as the beauty in dissonances in the music. At the end of Gabriel Fauré’s Cantique de Jean Racine, Op. 11, the choir held on to the final chord slightly longer than the piano accompaniment, thus allowing the sound of their beautiful voices to linger in the air for a brief moment. The choir followed with Maurice Duruflé’s setting of Ubi caritas, and ended the first half with a wonderfully lively performance of Francis Poulenc’s Hodie Christus natus est. In the Poulenc work, I noticed the incredible, almost instrument-like flexibility of the choir.

After the interval, the choir began the second half with Henry Purcell’s dramatic Jehovah, quam multi sunt. There are some effective examples of word painting in this work, effects that the choir brought out beautifully: the sudden feeling of repose in their singing of the line, “Ego cubui et dormivi” (I laid me down and slept), as well as how the singers highlighted the fragmented melodic line in, “dentes improborum confregisti” (Thou hast broken the teeth of the ungodly).

The concert followed with two works by Giovanni Gabrieli – Exsultavit cor meum and O magnum mysterium. In the first of the two works, I couldn’t help but wonder how the overlapping entries would sound within the acoustics of Venice’s Saint Mark’s Cathedral, where Gabrieli was principal composer. The choir’s sense of timing was impeccable in O magnum mysterium, where the composer gave us the piquant effect of a syncopated  “Alleluia”. The singers brought out the richness of Purcell’s harmony in I was glad, as well as the beautiful dark colours in his setting of the line, “O pray for the peace of Jerusalem.”

King’s college organ scholar Henry Websdale brought out the contrapuntal clarity in his performance of Gibbons’ Fantasia (1612) on the lovely sounding chamber organ, a very nice change of palate before the final works of the concert.

After Anton Bruckner’s Christus factus est, the choir continued with Charles Villiers Stanford’s O for a closer walk with God. In the Stanford, there was a lovely blending between the voices of the boy soprano voices with the voices of the older choristers. In the line “a light to shine upon the road”, there was a wonderfully effective outburst of sound from the choir. For the final line, “that leads me to the Lamb,” the choir gave us an incredibly beautiful and plaintive decrescendo towards the end. Two more works, Percy Whitlock’s peaceful Jesu, grant me this, I pray and Johannes Brahms’ Schaffe in mir, Gott (Op. 29, No. 2) ended this richly rewarding afternoon of music.

Throughout the concert, I kept wondering about the sound of the choir within their magnificent Chapel. Within the Chan Centre, the choir sounded, to my ears, slightly dry. I can only imagine that in the King’s College chapel, with the choir sing facing each other and the tall ceiling that reaches the heavens, there would be much more resonance, more “bloom” in the sound of the voices.

What a joy and privilege it was to hear this justly famous choir. And what a life it must be for these young men, living and breathing great music from morning to evening, at the same time receiving a world-class education. Whether or not they go on to become professional musicians, I am certain that this kind of experience will serve them well, personally and professionally, for the rest of their lives.

Patrick May
March 27, 2017

Sunday, March 26, 2017

VSO at the Chan Centre

I am always happy to hear the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra at the Chan Centre for the Performing Arts. The sound of the orchestra is so much more alive and vibrant in that wonderful space. And so it was last evening when the orchestra played under the talented young conductor Joshua Weilerstein.

The programme began with a rarity, Danish composer Carl Nielsen’s Pan og Syrinx. Weilerstein directed a lively reading of the score, bringing out the earthy sound of Nielsen’s orchestration. There was outstanding playing by the many solo players of the orchestra, including Associate Principal cellist Janet Steinberg as well as oboist Roger Cole. Perhaps Weilerstein. The conductor gave space to the many solo passages to emerge. Perhaps the climax arrived a little too soon for such a brief work, but overall it was a coherent and convincing reading of Nielsen’s score.

Vancouver native Jon Kimura Parker joined the orchestra in Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 1 in C major, Op. 15.  Beethoven’s two early piano concerti are performed far too rarely, because they are incredibly inventive and ingenious works in their own right. I disagree with the choice of tempo for the first movement. Weilerstein beat the first movement in two’s rather than a fast four, which took away much of the drive and urgency in this movement, as well as the brio in Beethoven’s indication of Allegro con brio. Perhaps the musicians were striving for greater elegance in this music, but to me it did not suit the character of this movement.

From a pianistic standpoint, the performance was impeccable. Mr. Parker is an immensely well-endowed pianist who can handle anything. I had a little trouble with how his playing suited the character of early Beethoven. In the cadenza of the first movement, Parker’s playing was more suited to Rachmaninoff than to early Beethoven. The cadenza (no. 3) that Parker chose is the one most favoured by pianists, but it is, in my opinion, least appropriate for the music, since it is out of proportion with the rest of the movement. Emil Gilels, in his recording with George Szell, played the smaller and much more stylistically appropriate cadenza no. 2.

My view of the second movement has also changed over the years, and I now feel that it needs to move at a slightly more animated tempo. Parker’s choice of tempo, to me, does not move the music forward sufficiently. Of course, the slower tempo allowed the soloist greater opportunity to demonstrate his beautiful tone, but the direction of the music suffered.

On the programme, it was noted that the third movement of the concerto is marked Allegro scherzando, but scholars had questioned whether the scherzando marking was in the autograph. To me, the choice of tempo was most successful in this movement, since it brought out the very lively character of this movement. The musicians missed a wonderful exchange between the flute and the piano in the “Hungarian” section of the movement, since the flute was not nearly prominent enough. In the outer movements, Weilerstein tried a little too hard to bring out the accents with every return of the tutti. After a while, it got a little tiring. I did like very much the exchange between the scale passages in the piano and the woodwinds before the brief cadenza.

It was a real treat for me to have heard two different Schumann symphonies by two different orchestras within the same week. The concert last evening concluded with Robert Schumann’s Symphony No. 3 in E-flat major, Op. 97 (Rhenish). Overall, Weilerstein directed a very successful reading of this glorious and uplifting work. I liked very much the energy he evoked right at the opening of the first movement. There was a little problem with balance when the brasses were playing full out and the strings play their very fast tremolos. One sees the string player playing, but the brasses were simply too loud.

I appreciated Weilerstein’s choice of tempo in the second movement, since it gave the music a very nice rocking motion, a natural sway. There was some lovely horn playing in the movement. I really enjoyed the lightness of the strings in the third movement, giving the music good vertical direction, while moving the music along horizontally. Likewise, there was beautiful playing by the orchestra’s horns in the beginning of the fourth movement. Weilerstein evoked a sense of weight from orchestra in the opening measures. It seems to me that in the two slow movements, the conductor allowed the music to move more naturally than in the faster movements. In the third and fourth movements, the music, to me, moved and breathed more naturally. In the fifth and last movement, the energy in the orchestra was wonderful. I found that the sounds of the horns do not always match. Perhaps in this case the conductor could invite the musicians to listen to each other more intently, rather than relying on direction from the podium.

Conductor Sir André Previn was relating a piece of advice he received from his teacher Pierre Monteux – before you knock out the ladies in the balcony, make sure the horns come in first (I am paraphrasing a bit here). It seems to me that this obviously very talented young conductor was trying a little too hard to impress, or perhaps to impart his views on the orchestra. In time, he will, I hope, learn to conduct less, and let the music “happen”. When that day comes, I believe that his music making will indeed be outstanding. Obviously this is a young man to watch and hear more often.

Patrick May
March 26, 2017

Friday, March 24, 2017

First Encounter with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra

It is a privilege to witness a performance by a great orchestra under a great conductor, especially in their own home. And so it was last Saturday, March 18th, when I attended my very first concert by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra at Chicago’s Orchestra Hall. And this legendary orchestra certainly did no disappoint.

Conductor and music director Ricardo Muti opened the concert with Rossini’s charming overture to La scala di seta (“The Silken Ladder”). From the first high notes by the violins, one realizes one was in the presence of a great ensemble. The very high and exposed violin parts throughout the overture were delivered with aplomb, and utterly confidence. Oboist Alex Klein played the many solos with great depth of feeling and beauty of sound. And the quality of sound of the bass section in the many pizzicato passages certainly added to the humour of the music. Muti paced the so-called “Rossini crescendos” with perfect comic timing.

Pianist Mitsuko Uchida then joined the orchestra in Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 3 in C minor, Op. 37. Throughout the performance, I was reminded of what a great chamber music player Uchida is. It was not only a matter of soloist playing with – or against – the orchestra. There was a blending of the sound of the piano with the orchestral textures. This was especially apparent in the many passages when the piano “accompanies” the orchestra, when she subsumed her sound into becoming a part of the orchestra.

Even today, after so many hearings, the choice of E major as the key to the slow movement still astounds me, as does the return to C minor in the third movement. Uchida’s playing of the opening of the second movement plummeted the depths this music had to offer. Throughout this movement, conductor and soloist dialogued to create an almost Bach-like intensity in this music. The performance of the third movement was sweeping, and rousing. I had not heard Ms. Uchida for many years now. She had always been a pianist that devoted much attention to every detail in the score, but it was obvious to me that she had grown as an artist; she now gives us the details as well as the larger canvas, the trees as well as the forest.  The musicians deserved every minute of the audience’s ovation at the end of the concerto.

It is difficult to judge a piece of complex music on first hearing, especially without access to the score. Samuel Adams, a young composer born only in 1985, was commissioned to write this work for the orchestra. The result, many words of love, was a highly complex score that calls for heroic work by every member of the orchestra, especially the musicians in the percussion section. It occurred to me that the work began with walls, or waves, of sound from different sections of the orchestra, but then eventually this “chaos” subsides, and the music arrives at more of a sense of order and repose. I was most impressed by the virtuosic playing of percussionist Cynthia Yeh, who rose to Adams’ challenges with aplomb.

Until this concert, I had never noticed how Brahmsian the first movement of Robert Schumann’s Symphony No. 4 in D minor (Op. 120) was. To me, the slow and dramatic opening of the movement leading to the lively melody almost foreshadows the first movement of Brahms’ First Symphony. I loved Muti’s pacing of the transition from slow to fast in this movement, as well as his pacing of the lively theme (Stringendo) of the main section, less hectic than some other conductors, and without sacrificing the sense of urgency in the music. The slow movement, a romance, featured beautiful solo work by concertmaster Robert Chen and principal cellist John Sharp. The deliberately stern-sounding scherzo was played with great energy and gusto, and in the triumphant final movement, the orchestra sounded positively radiant.

Mr. Muti has never been an acrobatic conductor. Indeed, throughout most of the evening (except for the Adams piece), his gestures were minimal. Indeed, it was as if he was inviting the musicians to participate in this wonderful and mysterious act of music making. Under conductors such as Sir Georg Solti, the Chicago Symphony was known for its “big” sound. Conductor Sir André Previn once said that standing in front of the famed orchestra was like standing in front of a Concorde. Under Muti, there still seems to be the beauty in the sound of the orchestra, but there is a transparency of texture that was apparent throughout the evening, even with the many layers of sound in the Adams work.

As I was enjoying the concert, I thought of all the great conductors that walked through those stage doors, from Theodore Thomas to Ricardo Muti, and so many in between. Surely all those men, each in their own way, shaped the orchestra into the truly great ensemble it is today. What a joy it was to have been able to experience this wonderful group of musicians performing together!

Patrick May
March 24, 2017

Eugene Onegin in Chicago

I fell in love with Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin when I was sixteen. Since then, I have seen as many productions of this beautiful opera as I could manage, professional as well as student productions. Nothing prepared me for how I would be swept away by the Chicago Lyric Opera’s performance, which I had the privilege of seeing last Friday, March 17th. 

It was a performance of rare completeness, where all the disparate elements of opera came together – the sets, the singing, the acting, the direction, the orchestral playing, and the musical direction – something that does not happen often, even in the greatest opera houses.

Originally created for New York’s Metropolitan Opera, Michael Levine’s ingeniously simple sets utilizes the simplest elements and back lighting to evoke the necessary place and mood – a floor covered with autumn leaves and an orange glow in the background for the Larin’s country estate, a small rectangle bordered by chairs for Tatiana’s name day celebration in Act Two, and a larger rectangle, again bordered by chairs, for the ball at Prince Gremin’s palace in Act Three. In the two most dramatic scenes – the duel between Onegin and Lensky, and the final confrontation between Onegin and Tatiana, the set is left bare, with only back lighting to evoke the necessary mood. The black and white starkness of the costumes in the third act ball was also extremely evocative. I must also extend kudos to lighting designer Christine Binder for her beautiful work, and for her sensitivity to every element of the score. And the choreography by Serge Bennathan of the many dance sequences reminded us of what a great ballet composer Tchaikovsky is.

None of these would have mattered a bit if the dramatic and musical elements did not measure up. I was stunned by how wonderful all of the voices were, even those of the smaller parts. I was very moved by the singing of Dimitry Belosselskiy, who gave a touchingly simple, heartfelt and vocally stunning rendition of Prince Gremin’s celebrated aria. Tenor Keith Jameson delivered a musical performance of Monsieur Triquet aria, and managed to make the character more than just a caricature, or a comic relief. Director Robert Carsen did not make the all-too-common mistake of imposing his own view above that of the composer’s, but sensitively guiding the principals in serving the drama and the music.

Lyric Opera was indeed fortunate to have secured the services of the incredibly talented singers and actors for the four principal roles. There was no weak link in this quartet of young singers. Every one of the four principals has incredible musical and dramatic instincts. Tenor Charles Castronovo’s Lensky was appropriately ardent and sensitive. His performance of Lensky’s Act One aria was one of the most musical and passionate I have heard. In Lensky’s famous Act Two aria, the buildup and pacing of this dramatic aria was impeccable, and the final outpouring of emotion was almost too much to bear. From the young and impressionable girl in Act One to the beautiful and dignified Princess Gremin in Act Three, Ana María Martínez’s Tatiana was utterly convincing. She delivered a musically and dramatically impregnable Letter Aria, and with all the passion of the young girl desperately in love. It was as perfect a realization of this incredible aria as I have heard.

The great Mariusz Kwiecień lived up to his huge reputation and gave us one of the most believable Onegin I have seen. His reaction to Lensky’s death was heartbreaking, and his declaration of love in Act Three, where he echoed Tatiana’s aria in Act One, had a sense of utter desperation and heartbreak. Indeed, Martínez and Kwiecień gave the final confrontation between Onegin and Tatiana an almost unbearable intensity and, to use the word again, desperation.

Making his Lyric Opera debut, Argentinian conductor Alejo Pérez delivered a reading of this masterpiece that was both sensitive and dramatic.

What a privilege it was to witness such a perfect production on my very first visit to Chicago’s great Lyric Opera. Indeed, it will be a long time before I would be ready to see another production of this beautiful opera, because I cannot imagine another production that would match the musical and dramatic heights attained in this production. 

Patrick May
March 24, 2017