Saturday, March 23, 2024

Postcards from New York - The Metropolitan Opera

Is there a more difficult job than running a major opera house? Minutes before the curtain was supposed to rise for the Metropolitan Operas production of Turandot, General Director Peter Gelb walked on stage and informed the audience that the stage machinery for the operas complex set had jammed, and that the performance would be semi-staged, which meant only a single set would be used throughout the evening. Refunds would be offered to anyone who wanted it. Quite a few in the audience did rise and walked out. My wife and I decided to stay, and were treated to a truly great performance of Puccinis final masterpiece, musically as well as dramatically.


Turandot is an opera of extremes  from music of the utmost brutality that foreshadows Bartok and Stravinsky, to arias and ensembles so beautiful that makes our goosebumps stand erect. It does take an exceptional conductor to hold together all these elements and make the performance convincing. Conductor Oksana Lyniv conducted a fluid performance of the opera, holding together all the disparate elements in the score. I did find that she was more convincing in the more lyrical parts of the score, with the more dramatic, even brutal, elements of the music somewhat underplayed. Nevertheless, the final result was a performance that moved, even without Franco Zeffirellis famously over-the-top sets. The great MET orchestra was in fine shape indeed, with great playing in every department of the composers complex score, and the chorus was truly a glory of this great house.


I am happy to report that great singing is alive and well at the MET. SeoJong Backs Calaf was dramatically convincing as well as musically vibrant. Amazing, Mr. Back began his musical journey as a baritone and becamea tenor only later on! He has an ease in tone production that was beautiful as well as unforced  and the famous Nessun Dorma was indeed convincingly delivered, well-paced and with an effortless high B. After the well-deserved bravos, the conductor called for the aria to be encored. I did find his second delivery a little less convincing, because I had the feeling that he was trying a little too hard to top that first performance. Encores in opera, in spite of its long tradition, is something I never understood - one would never imagine, or expect, a repeat of the To be or not to be soliloquy in Hamlet.


Elena Pankratovas Turandot was equally impressive, and she indeed rose to Puccinis incredible vocal demands and sailed above the orchestral textures. Dramatically, she was convincing in her transformation toward the end of the drama. Aleksandra Kurzak nearly stole the show in her portrayal of Liu, with this characters palpable sense of innocence and vulnerability. The trio of Ping, Pong, Pang  Joo Won Kang, Tony Stevenson and Andrew Stenson was well-matched as well as well-blended as an ensemble. What was incredible  and I suppose one only hears this in major opera houses  was that the minor roles were equally well sung, including a musically and dramatically commanding performance as Timur by Vitalij Kowaljow, as well as Carlo Bosi as a convincing Emperor Altoum. 


In the end, this semi-staged presentation of Turandot indeed overcame the limitations of the lack of lavish sets, turning out to be a moving musical as well as theatrical experience. 


The next evening, we returned for the houses new production of VerdiLa Forza del Destino, an opera that is always difficult to stage because of the many and improbabilities and coincidences in the story. I was greatly anticipating the performance, as it was conducted by music director and star conductor, Canadas own Yannick Nezet-Seguin.


Musically, the performance was of an impressively high level  the orchestra rose to Verdis demands under Nezet-Seguin, and the singers all delivered unimpeachable performances. 


Brian Jagde was vocally spectacular as Don Alvaro, with a beautiful, emotive voice as clear as a clarion call. He was well-matched, vocally and dramatically, by Igor Golovatenkos Don Carlo di Vargas, both individually as well as in their many ensemble moments. 


I always find it incredible that as an agnostic, Verdi was able to write the most beautiful and reverential religious music, such as Donna Leonoras prayer for guidance in Act One, her plea to enter religious life and the subsequent apparition of the Virgin Mary in Act Two, the music of the pilgrims in the same act, as well as her forgiveness in Act Four. I was convinced and greatly moved by Elena Stikhinas performance and reverence with which she delivered these crucial moments in the drama. As in Turandot, the smaller roles were vocally and dramatically equally magnificent. The fortune teller Preziosilla was one of the evenings highlights, wonderfully acted and sung by Maria Barakova that was truly show-stopping. 


Director Mariusz Trelinski updated the opera to a contemporary setting, with the story being set in an unnamed city and country. After the accidental death of the general, we were told, the country was plunged into a devastating war. Here is where the set was transformed into a sort of post-apocalyptic landscape.


I think in updating any opera, one has to ask the question of whether such a change would serve the score, enhance the drama, or make it more logical. In this case, I would say that it does not. Although the emotions on display are indeed universal  love, hate, jealousy, etcetera  the code of behaviour is very much of an earlier time. To have the drama set in a modern setting would make this code of behaviour illogical. 


I am quite aware that we live in a post-Christian, or even anti-Christian age, but whatever the personal belief of the director, art should not be used to reflect his or her personal bias for or against anything. In Act II, when Leonora was imploring the Father Superior to allow her to enter religious life, the two characters displayed a physical closeness that is out of order and illogical between penitent and religious. Later on, before Guardiano allowed her to remain in the monasterys hermitage, Guardiano inexplicably slapped her in the face. During Leonoras initiation rite, when she was passing among the friars to the hermitage, she was surrounded by this group of friars, and the friars were flogging her using some form of a whip. The entire image, the message, of this image, suggests something abnormal, even sinister. No Catholic religious order ever had such an initiation rite.


The production made very effective use of both foreground and back projections, and the apparition of the Virgin Mary could have been done very effectively. However, the image of the Virgin Mary projected looks more like some sort of new age deity  with red lipsticks  nothing like any image of the Virgin Mary I had ever seen. Were these the directors deliberate efforts to disparage the Church? Whatever his motives were, it was downright inappropriate, if not deliberately insulting to the Catholic Church. If Verdi, as an agnostic, could write convincing, even reverential, religious music, could the director not at least show respect to the creator of the work? More importantly, such personal interpretation of the drama does nothing to highlight the genius of the opera, but rather took away the even greater power it could have conveyed. In the case of this production, I think the directors concept took away the central message of the drama, which in Verdis final concept of the opera, is not even how ones life is bound by the forces of destiny, but the power of forgiveness and redemption, even in the midst of great tragedy. One could argue for a certain concept in the name of artistic licence, but no degree of artistic licence should distort the original intent of the creator.


Yannick Nezet-Seguin conducted with great passion, commitment to the score, and a total identification to the Verdis idiom. The famous overture was performed with great drama and passion, with great attention to the layering of the instruments, always beautiful brass playing, and gorgeous woodwind playing in the Andantino section, and especially felicitous playing of the clarinet solo in the Allegro brillante section. He is indeed a worthy successor to James Levine, who had done so much to elevate the level of the music-making at the MET. 


In spite of my reservation about the staging of the opera, the performance remained one that was impregnable. It was indeed a treat to have the privilege to hear such great singing and playing, including again the great MET chorus, all under the direction of one of todays major conductors.


I am already starting to save for our next outing to the Big Apple.




Wednesday, March 20, 2024

Postcards from New York - New York Philharmonic

 What a joy it is to hear the New York Philharmonic in the new Wu Tsai Theatre in the David Geffen Hall! I remember hearing the orchestra in the 1980’s, and how dead the acoustics used to be. Now the sound is so much warmer, allowing one to hear the details in the orchestral colours. I am happy that the latest renovations of this problematic hall finally yielded good results.


Last night, music director Jaap van Zweden conducted a performance of extremely well-known works, which posed for both conductor and musicians the challenge of bringing new ideas and excitement to these very familiar pieces of music.


The concert began with a splendid reading of Mendelssohn’s The Hebrides Overture (Fingal’s Cave), Op. 26. This poetic tone painting received an evocative, colourful performance, with truly outstanding playing from all the players of the Philharmonic. The many subtle shifts in colours and harmonies were beautifully handled by van Zweden and the orchestra. 


Conrad Tao joined the musicians of the orchestra in Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 17 in G Major, K. 453. Tao, a much extroverted player, gave us big-boned Mozart, drawing a bright, brilliant sound from the piano. Tao may be pianistically impeccable, but he was a little too aggressive in how he approached the concerto. Perhaps this is his 21st century view of Mozart, but I must admit that while I can appreciate his pianism, his playing more egoistic. I also listened in vain for a more spiritual dimension in his music-making.


Conductor and orchestra were sympathetic partners for Tao. The conductor served as a more classical foil to the soloist’s more aggressive interpretation of the concerto. Van Zweden blended the wind colours of the opening of the second movement truly beautifully, and the orchestra played the jaunty third movement with lovely attention to details, especially in phrasing. I was more impressed with Tao in his playing of his first encore, the pianist’s own transcription of Art Tatum’s “take” on Over the Rainbow. This performance showcased the young artist’s considerable pianistic chops. His playing of The Fairy Garden from Ravel’s Mother Goose Suite, his second encore, was very well played indeed, although I did find pianist Charles Richard Hamelin more idiomatic in his interpretation of the same work in a recital he gave in Vancouver. Again, I found Tao’s playing of the Ravel much too aggressive for the delicate colours of this work. 


Is there any piece of music that is part of our collective consciousness than Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5 in C minor, Op. 67? Its all-too-familiar opening motif has been heard in anything from commercial jingles to cell phone ringtones. That said, when the work is performed with commitment by a great orchestra, the power and startling originality of the work can still come through, as they did last evening. 


Jaap van Zweden led the orchestra in a reading of the Beethoven that was taut, forward-moving, and architecturally tight. It was such a pleasure to hear the weight and the full tone of the string sounds. I appreciated van Zweden tempo choices for each movement - with emphasis on the con brio of the 1stmovement, and the con moto of the second – as well as the very logical tempo relationship between movements. In the second movement, the conductor paid great attention to details of the phrasing, especially in the phrase ending of the main theme. The transition of the 3rd movement to the glorious C Major arrival of the 4thmovement was beautifully paced and tension-filled.


Yes, Beethoven’s 5th symphony can still “work” when it is a truly a great and committed performance. When one thinks that there is always someone in the audience who might be hearing the performance for the first time, we must appreciate the dedication and commitment of the musicians of the New York Philharmonic for making this iconic piece of music come alive once again. 


Last evening’s concert marked the beginning of a series of concerts in the next few months that would conclude van Zweden’s relatively brief tenure with the orchestra. Star conductor Gustavo Dudamel will then take over the music directorship of the orchestra, ending his association with the Los Angeles Philharmonic. So far, Dudamel seems to be able to do no wrong, at least in the eyes of the critics. I could not help but notice that Dudamel will be following the same path as former music director Zubin Mehta. Will the New York critics be just as cruel to Dudamel, as they certainly were to Mehta? I guess time will tell. For now, I would say that the orchestra has been in good hands under van Zweden, and the audience’s cheers and bravos were certainly a tribute to the memorable performance he and the orchestra gave yesterday.



Thursday, March 14, 2024

Artist at Work

What a joy it is to hear the piano being played so lovingly, and so achingly beautifully, as it was last evening with Rafal Blechacz, his fourth recital appearance in Vancouver under the auspices of the Vancouver Chopin Society.


I had the privilege of hearing Mr. Blechacz on various occasions, and had always enjoyed his performances. This time, I was utterly and completely moved, indeed overwhelmed, by his artistry and musicality, as well as the palpable spirituality of his interpretations. 


The way he played the piano transcended the instrument, and what one hears are sounds of music, heavenly music.


With the first simple notes of the Nocturne in F minor, Op. 55, No. 1, the audience was drawn into his very intimate and personal sound world. Indeed, throughout the evening, I felt that we were invited by the artistry to share in the communion of music-making, and that is a great gift indeed. Blechacz had an acute sense of balancing the horizontal and vertical aspects of the music; the music was never driven, but rather floated forward.


Chopin’s early Mazurkas, Op. 6, presents some daunting technical and musical challenges for any pianists; needless to say, Blechacz towered above any technical difficulties inherent in the score. In these works, Blechacz conveyed and celebrated the joy of the young composer, almost reveling in the fecundity of his creative genius. 


The first half of the recital ended with four large works. In the Polonaise-Fantasie, Op. 61, he so skillfully delineated the complex contrapuntal web so inherent in the composer’s late works, resulting in a truly masterful interpretation of this, arguably Chopin’s greatest work, a work that, because of its seemingly fragmentary nature, can sometimes come out sounding disjointed and meaningless. Not so with Blechacz’s performance, where every note, every chord, every inflection, every pregnant pause (and there were many of them), and every phrase were charged with emotion and meaning. More importantly, he conveyed, more than many pianists I have heard in a long time, the utter tragedy and heartbreak, combined with a feeling of a final defiance, of the drama unfolding.


He continued with a spirited but incredibly musical reading of the famous Polonaise in A Major, Op. 40, No. 1, and a suitably dark and brooding performance of the lesser-known Polonaise in C minor, Op. 40, No. 2. The first half ended with a performance of the Polonaise in A-flat Major, Op. 53, that made one wanted to shout, “Viva Poland!” That said, these performances of Chopin’s rousing polonaises were not merely exciting, but tremendously moving and hauntingly beautiful. 


The second half of the recital began with a performance of Debussy’s Suite Bergamasque that made me think of the composer’s statement that he wished for a piano without hammers. Blechacz’s playing of these four pieces were simply magical. His timing in the Prelude gave it an almost improvisatory quality, and in the Menuet and Passepied, there was a quickness, delicacy and lightness that simply took my breath away. The justly famous Clair de Lune was played with infinite shades of pianissimos. Words cannot describe the truly mesmerizing beauty of the performance was.


In Mozart’s Sonata in A Major, K. 331, Blechacz presented the work with highly expressive playing and, while always maintaining the structural integrity of the work, he was not afraid to take time with certain phrases, or inject slight pauses to emphasize a point. Perhaps some might find his interpretation too “romantic”, but I found it completely valid and convincing. It was also the most “bubbly”, and infectiously joyful, playing of the Rondo all Turca I have heard in a long time.


It is difficult to pinpoint the style of Karol Szymanowski’s music. While there is an indebtedness to Chopin, he has very much his own unique voice in his creations. Blachacz gave a truly splendid and totally committed reading of the composer’s Variations in B-flat minor, Op. 3, bringing out both the lyrical aspects of the composer’s writing, but also the late-romantic harmonic colours of the early 20th century. Blechacz highlighted the characteristic of each variation, but also managed to inject a real sense of cohesion and logic throughout the entire opus.


After a well-deserved ovation from the nearly sold-out house, Blechacz graciously granted two encores – Chopin’s pensive Mazurka in A minor, Op. 17, No. 4, and his charming miniature masterpiece, the Prelude in A Major, Op. 28, No. 7, confirming my belief that while there are many great pianists today, there are really far fewer who can really capture the spirit of Chopin. Blechacz is of course one of today’s great pianists, but he is, without a doubt, a musician that gets into the heart and soul of the composer, and we were witnesses to a performance that was truly a testament to his commitment to conveying the absolutely unique genius of Chopin.


How privileged we were last evening, to be given a glimpse into the continuing artistic evolution of this most gifted young artist. I certainly look forward to his next visit to Vancouver, where he would no doubt move us once more with his musicality and unique insights into whatever he chooses to play.