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Obscure Treasures From the King of Dark, Wrenching, High Romantic Angst

In these perilous times, who better to spend an hour or so with than the king of High Romantic angst, Sergei Rachmaninoff? The repertoire is vast. There are so many obvious choices: one far less obvious collection is The Complete Rachmaninoff Works and Transcriptions for Piano and Violin, played with dynamic intensity by violinist Annelle Gregory and pianist Alexander Sinchuk and streaming at Spotify. Bridge Records put this out in 2017.

Although the iconic Russian composer only wrote three pieces (that we know of) for violin and piano, there are a grand total of seventeen other transcriptions of some of his most famous and haunting themes included here as well. The duo kick off the record with the first of his original three, the Romance in A minor. This waltz may be a student work, but it’s achingly gorgeous, laced with Asian tinges and occasional slashing chromatics.

His other two original arrangements, grouped together as Deux Morceaux de Salon, Op. 6, are an even more brooding Romance, with some of Gregory’s most richly resonant midrange playing, and a lickety-split Hungarian Dance with strangely bell-like piano.

Most of the other arrangements are either by the composer’s old violinist pal and occasional bandmate Fritz Kreisler, or by another violinist, Jascha Heifetz, a brilliant Rachmaninoff interpreter. Kreisler’s first is a stripped-down version of the famous, searching theme from the second movement of the Piano Concerto No. 2 (the godfather of all angst-ridden piano pieces). It seems a little fast.

The most irresistibly outside-the-box of the Heifetz versions is the reinvention of the immortal (and crushingly venomous) G Minor Prelude Op. 23, No. 5 with a subdued drive that could almost be cumbia, The Prelude, Op. 23, No. 9 is furtive and insectilishly creepy – this is the one for your Halloween mixtape.

Heifetz’ reinventions continue with the Romance, Op. 21, No. 7 “It’s Peaceful Here,” a fond miniature, then the Romance, Op. 21, No. 9 “Melody” with some arrestingly fluttery doublestops from Gregory. Sinchuk’s belltone phrasing in the Etude-Tableau, Op. 33, No. 2 is sublime, while Gregory has a jaunty good time with the lilting Etude-Tableau, Op. 33, No. 7. And a final morsel, Oriental Sketch, flits by with only hints of the pentatonic scale.

Kreisler’s version of the Italian Polka, a rarity, has unexpected klezmerish flair; the Romance, Op. 38, No. 3 “Daisies” has more than a hint of a Mediterranean pastorale. And the iconic romantic theme, the 18th Variation from Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini comes into clearer focus in this stripped-down treatment.

Another Romance, Rachmaninoff’s song It Was in April – reinvented as an instrumental by Konstantin Mostras – is an attractively Spanish-tinged miniature. The duo give a practically Satie-esque plaintiveness but also quasi-operatic drama to the Mikhail Press arrangement of the Morceaux de Fantaisie, Op. 3, No. 5 “Serenade.” Press – a violinist and Rachmaninoff contemporary – also recasts the iconic Vocalise with as much cantabile quality as a voice could conjure.

The two give a nocturnal restraint to Mikhail Erdenko’s chart for the Prelude, Op. 23, No. 4. Nobody seems to know who came up with the one for the version of the “Oriental Romance” Op. 4, No. 4 but it’s one of the most anthemic and vividly imploring songs here (the title is misleading – there’s no discernible Asian reference).

February 22, 2021 Posted by | classical music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Youtube Piano Sensation Tackles Iconic Music Outlawed by a Previous Fascist Regime

lockdown, it’s also forbidden to play or invite an audience to his Piano Concerto No. 1 and his even more famous Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini. So it makes sense to celebrate those two iconically poignant pieces this month, just to thumb our noses at the lockdowners. Pianist Anna Fedorova has an album of both, plus some preludes, with the St. Gallen Orchestra conducted by Modestas Pitrenas, streaming at Spotify.

While youtube page hits are notoriously inaccurate, there’s no question that her concert performance of Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 2 has generated a lot of traffic. How does her version of these two somewhat less harrowing pieces compare? After the tumbling, torrential piano introduction to the Concerto No. 1, Pitrenas puts the orchestra on a very long leash, with a heartfelt, languid fluidity throughout the first movement. A delicate balance of cascades from Fedorova against mournful horns and orchestration develops, up to a restrained crescendo that many other ensembles love to rampage through. This crew make it work just as well under lower lights, even as. Fedorova’s torrents rise to gale force at the end.

The calm and suspense of the second movement are absolutely Lynchian, Fedorova often embracing a spaciousness that borders on lurid. So the hurried first part of the concluding movement is a surprise, less a romp than a scurry. Happily, a glistening nocturnal calm descends from there, although the ending also feels like a rush job in places.

The Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini is also fast, beginning with a real strut. Paganini was legendary as a shredder and Fedorova seems determined to match that – although that sets up a noticeable contrast with the calmer passages, Pitrenas again opting for muted elegance, even in the famous love theme. Ultimately, this is classical music as entertainment. The stabbing, dancing quality of the seventh segment, and toward the end, is closer to Moussorgsky phantasmagoria – or Gogol Bordello – than, say, Chopin. This isn’t the most nuanced version of the suite ever recorded: “This album is like an express train,” Fedorova enthuses in the album liner notes. And how. Eugene Ormandy and the Philadelphis Orchestra put out a predictably much more lush version which those seeking greater luxuriance should check out.

Fedorova takes an energetically painterly approach to the preludes: she feels close to the composer and as a fellow expat clearly misses her home turf. She gives Op. 23 No. 1 a very understated gloom bordering on despondency. She sees Op. 32 No. 12 as a weary winter tableau, although she really rocks it out, getting unusual shimmer out of the belltone riffs, which is no small feat in what’s actually a far more haunting piece of music.

By contrast, Op. 32 No. 5: is all lilacs in springtime, a charming, spring-loaded performance. Her take of Op. 23 No. 2 has the same spirit, but with a regal, High Romantic angst. Some of these interpretations leave room for debate, but there’s no criticizing Fedorova’s passion for this music.

January 28, 2021 Posted by | classical music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Fearlessly Individualistic, Counterintuitive Classical Hits From Pianist Khatia Buniatishvili

By oldschool record label standards, releasing an album of greatest hits from the classical canon guarantees yourself a pretty wide audience. The theory is that most of the crowd who will buy it doesn’t know anything beyond the standard repertoire and can’t differentiate between interpretations. From a critical perspective, this kind of album invites disaster, a minefield of crushing comparisons to every great artist who has recorded those same pieces over the past century. How does pianist Khatia Buniatishvili‘s new album Labyrinth – streaming at Spotify – stack up against the competition? Spoiler alert: this is a very individualistic record. And that’s a very good thing.

Consider the opening number, Deborah’s Theme, from the late, great Ennio Morricone’s score to the film Once Upon a Time in America. Buniatishvili plays it with such limpidness, such tenderness, such spaciousness that plenty of listeners could call it extreme.

Then she tackles Satie’s Gymnopédie No. 1: so easy to play, but so brutally challenging to figure out rhythmically. Buniatishvili gives it just enough rubato to avoid falling into the trap so many other pianists have, taking the easy way out and turning it into a maudlin waltz. This is haunting, and revelatory, and augurs well for the rest of the record.

Other pianists approach Chopin’s E Minor Prelude with a nervous, scurrying attack. Buniatishvili lets it linger in a ineffable sadness before she chooses her escape route. Again, it’s an unorthodox path to take, but once again she validates her approach. The Ligeti etude Arc-en-ciel, one of the lesser-known works here gets a similar treatment, its belltone sonics exploding just when not expected to.

Not all of the rest of the record is this dark. Her piano-four-hands take of Bach’s Badinerie, from Orchestral Suite No. 2 in B minor, BWV 1067 with Gvantsa Buniatishvili is a clenched-teeth romp. Yet the Air on the G String gets reinvented as a dirge: the first instinct is to laugh, but then again the choice to play it as Procol Harum actually works. She does the same with Scarlatti later on.

Buniatishvili builds baroque counterpoint in an increasingly crushing take of Rachmaninoff’s Vocalise: probably not what the composer envisioned, although there’s no arguing with the logic of her dynamic contrasts. She follows a deviously ragtimey arrangement of Serge Gainsbourg’s La Javanaise with a haphazardly pummeling and then luxuriant version of Villa-Lobos’ Valsa da Dor, which also works in context.

The pairing of French baroque composer Francois Couperin’s circling, delicately ornamented Les Barricades Mystérieuses with a Bach ripoff of a famous Vivaldi theme is an even whiter shade of pale. Fans of 20th century repertoire are rewarded with richly lingering version of Part’s stark Pari Intervallo and a hauntingly enveloping performance of Philip Glass’ I’m Going to Make a Cake (from the film The Hours).

There’s also an opulent interpretation of the well-known Brahms Intermezzo, Liszt’s nocturnal Consolation (Pensée poétique) and another Bach piece, the brooding Adagio from the Concerto in D minor, BWV 974. Oh yeah – there’s another famous thing here that clocks in at 4:33. Don’t let that lead you to believe that the album’s over yet. Stodgier classical music fans will hear this and dismiss much of it as punk rock. Let them. Their loss.

October 20, 2020 Posted by | classical music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Fresh New Interpretations and Dazzling Technique from Conrad Tao at Carnegie Hall

Wednesday night at Carnegie Hall, pianist Conrad Tao delivered a performance that offered a glimpse of an unselfconscious bon vivant sensibility along with daunting, world-class chops and and frequently astonishing insight into a very diverse program.

Tao played with such precision and and evenness of attack that even the night’s most staccato passages had fluidity. He leveraged the thrill factor with an old orchestral trick, beginning pieces or developing themes from a whispery pianissimo so that when things got loud, they seemed even louder. But what was most impressive is that he’d spent a lot of time under the hood with these works, figuring out exactly what makes them purr…or roar.

He opened with David Lang‘s Cage [sorry dude, titles are capitalized around here], a brisk study in single-note counterpoint and a shout-out to the famously silent American composer. Tao’s matter-of-factness and exactitude enhanced the music’s hypnotic feel: others might not have played this as a nocturne, and that’s their loss.

Others also definitely would not have played Bach’s Tocccata in F Sharp minor, BWV 910 with as much spaciousness, and dynamics, and probably with less or even none of the judicious rubato that Tao would return to again and again throughout the evening. But in so doing, he revealed the love ballad at the heart of the work, its fondly jubilant righthand melody cleverly cached amid the composer’s outwardly morphing phrases. Obviously, Bach on the piano is inevitably going to be iconoclastic: this was as rewarding to hear as it must have been fun to play, Tao gritting his teeth and raising his eyebrows as the web grew more complex.

Another work that got even more time under the microscope, as far as extracting every ambitious flicker of modernity, was Rachmaninoff’s Etude-Tableau in A minor, Op. 39, no. 2. Harmonically, it’s almost shockingly more adventurous than the rest of those relatively brief High Romantic iano pieces, most of which he wrote in the 1890s. This one dates from 1917, foreshadowing where he’d go with the Third Piano Concerto and its incessantly shapeshifting jazz-influenced rhythms and flourishes.

Tao delivered Julia Wolfe‘s Earring with acerbity and meticulous, often pointillistic rhythm. There seemed to be a man-versus-machine narrative prefiguring her John Henry suite; here, the machine grew more and more human, with a belltone poignancy. To close the first half of the evening, Tao returned to Lang for another 1990s composition, Wed, an increasingly plaintive, restless, frequently carrilonesque ballad written as a salute to a couple who got married while the bride lay dying in the hospital.

The centerpiece of the second half of the program was a breathtakingly expressive and fresh performance of Schumann’s Kreisleriana. Counterintuitively, the high point was also the quietest section, awash in resonant, lingering phrases, the contrast even greater considering how fast Tao had scampered, if not particularly loudly, through the introduction. Lilting cantabile passages stood out amid minor-key unease and a dance that seemed not only rather Russian but almost phantasmagorical, as Tao worked the dynamics up and down, all the way through to a puckish coda.

There were a couple of misfires too. It’s one thing to program a study in spastic/resonant contrasts, but two? At least the Jason Eckart piece eventually wound down to a blackly suspenseful reflecting pool…but getting there, as the rhythm was epileptically jerked around any time the music could have coalesced, was torture. Which is not to say that ugly music can’t be meaningful or impactful, but this could have made its point in a tenth the time, never mind the Elliott Carter piece it was paired with. And the mawkishly inept freak-folk of Daniel Johnston is no less artless or awkward at Carnegie Hall than it would be on open mic night at any grungy, overpriced Bushwick beardo bar.

November 26, 2019 Posted by | avant garde music, classical music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Karine Poghosyan Finds the Holy Grail with Russian Romantics at Carnegie Hall

“You’re not going to believe how funny this is,” Karine Poghosyan alluded as she lit into a puckishly rhythmic passage in La Semaine Grasse, from Igor Stravinsky’s solo piano arrangement of Petrouchka at Carnegie Hall last night. She didn’t say that in as many words, relating that information with her fingers and her face instead. By comparison, practically every other pianist’s version of the piece seemed at that moment to be impossibly tame.

On the surface, Poghosyan’s modus operandi is simple. Like a good jazz singer, she approaches the music line by line, sometimes teasing out the meaning, other times illuminating it with the pianistic equivalent of fifty thousand watts. Art for art’s sake is not Poghosyan’s thing. She’s all about narratives, and emotional content, and good jokes – even in the case of the evening’s program of Stravinsky and Rachmaninoff works from her latest album, where humor is so often fleeting. Matching a buttery, perfectly articulated legato to a thunderous lefthand attack, Poghosyan reaffirmed the album’s fullblown angst, and glory and triumph. She’s found her holy grail with this repertoire.

Poghosyan wears her heart on her sleeve: her features are just as entertaining to watch as her fingers. When her eyes grew wide and the muscles of her jaw grew taut, that was a sign to hang on for dear life. That held especially true in the encore, a machinegunning romp through the lightning cascades and jackhammer intensity of Khachaturian’s Toccata, not to mention the most demanding, intricately woven staccato passages of the Stravinsky. But there was just as much rapturous, closed-eyed cantabile reverie (Poghosyan played the whole program from memory) in Rachmaninoff’s six Moments Musicaux, which she delivered as a contiguous suite.

Her approach underscored how these relatively early works comprise some of the composer’s most ravishingly beautiful, shapeshifting melodies. But Poghosyan was just as attuned to momentary glee or sudden stressors as longscale thematic development. A sotto voce strut and a couple of emphatic “Take THAT!” riffs stood out amid spacious, achingly anticipatory resonance, several tributaries of ripples that would eventually coalesce to rolling rivers of notes, and eerie proto-Satie close harmonies and chromatics. Her gentle, endearing take of Lilacs, Op. 21, No. 5 made considerable contrast, a rare carefree moment in the notoriously angst-ridden Rachmaninoff catalog.

She went deep into that with his Piano Sonata No. 2, spotlighting its persistent, unsettled quality. She really let the introduction breathe, taking her time, parsing the dichotomy between struggle and guarded optimism. Similarly, when the clearing finally came into view in the first movement, the effect was viscerally breathtaking. Others tend to interpret it as sentimental. To her, it seemed like genuine relief, knowing that the turbulence would return in full force, if balanced by moments of relative calm and even dancing ebullience.

Poghosyan’s precision throughout the daunting, icepick staccato of the trio of pieces from Petrouchka was astonishing. Other pianists with the virtuosity to play the Danse Russe tend to make a Punch and Judy show out of its relentless phantasmagoria. Generously employing the pedal, Poghosyan approached it as the grandest guignol imaginable, Stravinsky’s sardonic call-and-response notwithstanding. And her take of the first three movements of the Firebird was unselfconsciously revelatory: the famous symphonic hooks seemed practically muted amid the rest of the bustling, sometimes stampeding, often starkly distinct countermelodies.

The spectacle didn’t stop with the music. After big codas, Poghosyan didn’t throw her arms up quite as dramatically as she usually does, but she had her usual striking stagewear. This time, it was shimmery black slacks and a matching top for the first half, then after the intermission she switched to an ornate red gown. And she could have started a wholesale florist business with all the bouquets after the encore: in a world where people onstage and off are too often expected to behave sedately, this fan base didn’t hold anything back.

November 5, 2019 Posted by | classical music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

A Darkly Glorious, Poignant New Album of Rachmaninoff and Stravinsky and a Carnegie Hall Gig by Pianist Karine Poghosyan

It’s as validating for an audience or a critic to watch an artist move in a direction that maximizes that musicians’s talent, as it ultimately is for the artist. One ravishing example of an artist who followed her muse to a nirvana state is pianist Karine Poghosyan‘s new recording of Rachmaninoff and Stravinsky is streaming at Spotify. It’s repertoire she may not have been destined to play – but choosing that destiny was a stroke of brilliance. “If it doesn’t have a story, it doesn’t exist,” Poghosyan asserts, and she goes deep into the dynamics of some of the most challenging material in the Romantic repertoire for all the poignancy and exhilaration of those narratives. She’s playing the album release show on Nov 4 at 7:30 PM at Zankel Hall at Carnegie Hall; you can get in for $25

She begins the record with Rachmaninoff’s six Moments Musicaux, Op. 16. In the first, Andantino in B Flat Minor, a suspenseful, subtle rubato permeates the nocturnal lustre, Poghosyan’s starry triplets in contrast with the steady undercurrent. Then she eases the rhythm for the plaintive, Satie-esque theme that follows. The blend of bittersweetness and tenderness is exquisite. What a way to open the album.

Poghosyan plays the rivulets and daunting cascades of No. 2 in E Flat Minor with a dramatic sway, then lets the spaces in between the somber notes of No. 3, Andante Cantabile in B Minor resonate equally, ramping up the misterioso factor. But counterintuitively, she takes a muted, furtively scampering approach to the rapidfire chromatics of No. 4, Presto in E Minor, first in the righthand and then the left: the exchange of power throughout the piece is magnetic in every sense of the word.

With its understated wave motion, No. 5, Adagio Sostenuto in D Flat Major comes across as a genial canal boat theme – or Volga riverside promenade, maybe. The last in the series, Maestoso in C Major is clearly a triumphant love song, as Poghosyan sees it, rich with understatement and siklen legato, resisting any temptation to go for bombast as others might.

All that is a setup for the daunting virtuosity of Stravinsky’s own piano arrangement of three movements from Petrouchka, a Poghosyan concert favorite. The first, the Danse Russe, has a stunningly fleet-fingered pointillism: it’ balletesque in the best sense. Again, Poghosyan’s use of space to set up the phantasmagoria and funhouse-mirror disquiet of Chez Petrouchka is stunning, particularly as it sets the stage for her richly resonant approach as the music grows more lush and enveloping. So the return to pinpoint precision in La Semaine Grasse is a stark contrast – but an unexpectedly wry one. What a ridiculously funny romp some of this music is: Poghosyan can’t resist a good joke when she can find it.

As she also likes to do, she pulls out a rare gem: Rachmaninoff’s Lilacs, Op. 21, No. 5, a rare carefree moment from someone best known for his most haunting works. A growing storm lingers as Poghosyan makes her way cautiously into his Piano Sonata No. 2 in B Flat Minor, then turning the drama and angst loose before spaciously backing away again. The relative calm Poghosyan brings to the rest of the first movement is a rarity: was it hard for her to resist rampaging through it, or is this (more likely) the case of someone determined to create a full portrait rather than simply going for adrenaline?

Gentle hesitancy slowly moves toward joy in the similarly restrained second movement before Rachmaninoff darkens the skies: that grimly gorgeous theme is one of the album’s most striking passages. In the final movement, Poghosyan maintains the understatement, especially when the most Stravinsky-esque, distantly carnivalesque melodies appear.

Poghosyan returns to Stavinsky to close the album with the Agosti arrangement of three movements from the Firebird Suite: a glittering, gleefully precise tour of the carnivalesque Dance Infernale, a steady, portentous Berceuse and an almost allusively regal Finale.

Whatever slight imperfection might exist in this rich interpretation of some of the most difficult music in the repertoire disappears in light of Pogosyan’s erudite, richly insightful, crepuscularly thrilling interpretations. Fans of Vladimir Horowitz’s virtuosically passionate approach to this music will find Poghosyan’s own individualistic take on it to be equally rewarding.

October 24, 2019 Posted by | classical music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Counterintuitive, Macabre Rachmaninoff?

The live recording of Vladimir Jurowski conducting the London Philharmonic Orchestra in Rachmaninoiff’s legendary Symphony No. 1 is hardly a definitive performance…but the album’s opening number is, What a treat it was to discover their version of The Isle of the Dead, streaming at Spotify. It’s astonishingly energetic, dynamic and vivid. Most orchestras play it very close to the vest, as they might do with, say, Death and Transfiguration. Yet Jurowski’s take on it is a revelation, unfolding layer upon layer of color so often subsumed in moody armospherics in interpretations by other ensembles.

You can almost feel the strain and the reach of the ferryman’s oars as the low strings dig into the macabre opening theme, in restless 5/4 time. The swirl of the woodwinds as the sway rises to a stormy crescendo is just as sharply defined. Likewise, the descent to distant bass and a lone horn in the distance after the deluge subsides.

There’s great timbral richness as the brass joinis the cellos in the angst-ridden, stairstepping crescendo of the second movement. The subtle echo effects of cellos against a lone horn amid the waves are just as meticulously focused. Taken as an integral work, this is a clinic in how to build a haunting tableau from the simplest ideas: Twin Peaks, Russian style, 1909

For something approaching the ur-text of the Symphony No. 1, try Leonard Slatkin’s recording with the St. Louis Symphony. That one’s a confident tour of the young composer’s brash, sometimes uproariously funny symphonic debut  – which was played exactly once, viciously panned by the critics and only resurrected after the composer’s death. This one’s a little ragged in places – the chase scene in the first movement, for instance – and yet, there’s a certain charm and poignancy in that all-too-human frailty. And it’s an audacious piece of music: name another symphony where the composer uses a slur as a main theme! Diehard Rachmaninovians will probably want to hear this as a point of comparison, but there are other options for those seeking to relish it for the first time.

July 24, 2019 Posted by | classical music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Loreto Aramendi Delivers Chills and Thrills at Central Synagogue

Musicians may be nocturnal creatures, but church organists have to be on their game at pertty much every hour of the day..So it was no surprkse when Spanish organist Loreto Aramendi played one of the year’s most exhilarating programs in the middle of the day, a couple of weeks ago on the

Musicians may be nocturnal creatures, but church organists have to be on their game at pertty much every hour of the day..So it was no surprkse when Spanish organist Loreto Aramendi played one of the year’s most exhilarating programs in the middle of the day, a couple of weeks ago on the gorgeously colorful organ at Central Synagogue

The highlight of her eclectically thrillling performance was the great organ composer Louis Vierne’s transcription of Rachmaninoff’s iconic C# Minor Prelude. It was a revelation: anchoring its grim counterpoint with a single, blackly portentous pedal note, Aramendi really took her time with it, a dirge to end all dirges.

Louis Robillard’s transcription of Saint-Saens’ Halloween classic Danse Macabre was another deliciously phantasmagoriacal treat. Aramendi reveled in a bief volley of sepulchral gliasandos with as much relish as the false ending and the finale where the ghost goes on its merry way.

She opened the program with a Buxtehude toccata that was more of a song without words, reminding what a paradigm-shifter Bach’s biggest influence was. Another Robillard transcription, Liszt’s Funerailles, aptly foreshadowed the Rachmaninoff, A final Robillard arrangement, the Prelude and Scicilienne from Faure’s Peleas et Melisande matched High Romantic grandeur to lilting grace.

Ligeti’s tensely circling Coulee, from his Etudes for Organ, was the most monochromatically bleak, and in that sensse, darkest piece on the bill. Aramendi closed with a blaze of fury, giving Charles Tournemire’s cult favorite Victiae Paschali chorale every bit of torrential power she could muster. A small but raptly attentive midday crowd gave her a robust standing ovation.

This concert was the final episode of this spring’s series of monthly Prism Organ Concerts in the magnificent Lexington Avenue space just north of 54th Street, programmed by organist Gail Archer, who’s put out an unusually adventurous series of albums over the past several years, ranging from obscure American repertoire to iconic Messiaen works.  Watch this space for news about next season.

May 22, 2019 Posted by | classical music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, organ music, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

A Powerful, Relevant Performance by the Best Orchestra in New York Not Called the Philharmonic

There was a moment at the Greenwich Village Orchestra’s concert Saturday night at the Lincoln Center complex where the bassists got to share a brief, gleefully triumphantly grin. They’d just played the second movement of Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 10, one of the most viscerally evil pieces of music ever written. It’s also one of the most viscerally thrilling. It doesn’t require the virtuoso technique of the final movement of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, which the orchestra played with similar passion earlier this year. This was a different kind of adrenaline.

Conductor Barbara Yahr summed it up succinctly beforehand. “The first movement is conflict, and struggle…a memorial to the victims of Stalin. The second is pure evil: a portrait of Stalin. The third is like an old Russian guy with his tea and his vodka – something isn’t right, but we’ve managed to survive, and there’s hope. The fourth movement is revenge, Shostakovich going [she thumbed her nose] to Stalin, ‘Haha, I survived and you didn’t.’ But even there,” she motioned, “The music is still digging at you.”

And this was one for the books. Like the New York Philharmonic, the GVO typically record their concerts, so hopefully the rest of the world will be able to hear what the sold-out crowd here did. At the reception afterward, there was more than a buzz: it was more like a roar. Yahr had called out individual soloists for an ovation, something she never does, since she knew she’d caught lightning in a bottle.

Amid the turmoil, and bustle, and sheer horror – massed violins rising to a terrified, sustained shriek in the first movement – the composer allows for many momentary glimpses of hope, voiced starkly by soloists throughout the group. The effect is meant to be striking, and leaves zero room for error in in a cold and essentially merciless spotlight. And everybody was at the top of their game, including but not limited to oboeist Shannon Bryant, clarinetist Gary Dranch, french hornist Andrew Schulze, bassoonist Nisreen Nor, trumpeter Andrew Jeng and flutist Simon Dratfield.

They’d opened what turned out to be a very auspicious, aptly cantabile performance of Rachmaninoff’s Vocalise, glistening with Andrew Pak’s crystalline, powerfully poignant violin out in front of the orchestra. Then the group’s longtime timpanist, Gerard Gordon got a long-overdue turn in the spotlight with a resounding, lush romp through Michael Daugherty’s Raise the Roof. It’s a rare work that uses the timpani for extended melodic sequences – remember, those drums are tuned – as well as all sorts of dynamics, from misty washes to hailstorms and a few, tantalizingly thunderous volleys.

The night’s theme, in typical GVO fashion, was in the here and now. If the wheels of impeachment stall out, somebody’s going to have to vocalize and raise the roof and put an end to a bad idea gone viral – something the second movement of Shostakovich’s symphony expands on with withering sarcasm.

The Greenwich Village Orchestra’s next performance is their annual family concert, which is happening this year in the comfortable auditorium at the Third Street Music School Settlement at 235 E 11th St. on December 17 at 3 PM.

December 5, 2017 Posted by | classical music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Pianist Leif Ove Andsnes and the New York Philharmonic Think Outside the Box

It’s almost twenty years to the day that virtuoso Norwegian pianist Leif Ove Andsnes made his debut with the New York Philharmonic. In another stroke of fate, he was playing a Rachmaninoff concerto, with a Scandinavian conductor on the podium, just as he will during his first stand as artist-in-residence with the orchestra, which starts tonight at 7:30 PM, featuring Rachmaninoff’s relatively rarely programmed Piano Concerto No. 4 and Sibelius’ Fifth Symphony.

In conversation with the Philharmonic’s Isaac Thompson at Lincoln Center last night, Andsnes revealed that he’s played New York more than any other city in the world – in that sense, he’s one of us, and he feels it. Yet another happy coincidence, Thompson revealed, was that this will be the first time in quite awhile where both the Philharmonic’s artist-in-residence and composer-in-residence will be represented on the same bill, in this case by a New York premiere by Esa-Pekka Salonen. Paavo Järvi conducts; Andsnes and the Philharmonic are back on Oct 13 at 11 AM, Oct 14 at 8 and on the 17th at 7:30. The most affordable tickets are in the thirty-dollar range and still available as of today

As a programmer, Andsnes isn’t satisfied with merely performing standard repertoire. He’s fresh off a world tour playing Beethoven concertos, but also served for seventeen years as artistic director of a Norwegian festival, a role that greatly influenced him, not only through the expected exposure to all sorts of different music, but also the need to think outside the box and celebrate lesser-known works from across the centuries. In some lively banter with the audience, Andsnes spoke of his fondness for the seldom-performed solo piano works of Dvorak as well as Shostakovich’s haunting, World War II-era Piano Sonata No. 2, a recent discovery for him. His latest album celebrates the solo piano music of Sibelius.

Andsnes animatedly reaffimirmed his advocacy for the Rach 4, a vastly different beast by comparison to the composer’s previous concertos. Famously, Rachmaninoff’s favorite pianist was the only guy in the world at the time who could play faster: Art Tatum. “Rhythmically, it’s very jazzy sometimes,” Andsnes explained, “The second movement begins like an improvisation by Bill Evans,” a confluence of jazz-informed harmonies and nostalgia.

“The harmonies are so juicy in late Rachmaninoff, with the Third Symphony, with the Symphonic Dance – truly heartbreaking. Rachmaninoff would always dismiss composers like Prokofiev, but in the final movement there’s a lot of Prokofiev along with the long, sweeping melodies Rachmaninoff was so famous for” 

The Rach 4 is also very hard to play from memory, Andsnes admitted. “Maybe this is the jazz influence: very few downbeats, very few obvious rhythms between the orchestra and the pianist. It’s very easy to get lost and for them to understand what I’m playing. I have a few scary memories with this piece,” he grinned, referring to his first live performances of it.

With his new album, Andsnes leaps to the front of an admittedly small circle of advocates for Sibelius’ solo piano music, which he admits is “much more uneven” than the composer’s orchestral output but is still full of rare gems. His wishlist for future recording includes Chopin preludes as well as Mozart and Debussy: he likes to focus on one particular composer at a time, to get a full sense of the diversity of their work.

As the interview went on, Andsnes offered plenty of insight into his own development as a performer, not to mention a sharp sense of humor. Which composer does Andsne find the most challenging? Bach. Surprisingly, Andsnes didn’t get much exposure to Bach as a young piano student: to Andsnes, Bach is like a language, best learned sooner than later in life. Does Andsnes ever get the urge to compose? No. “Not even once,” he smiled, “There’s already so much bad music out there, and there’s so much exciting music waiting for me to discover.”

What were his most dramatic moments at the keyboard? As a sixteen-year-old, headlining with the Grieg Piano Concerto on the final night of the annual festival in his native Bergen = he’d never heard the piece before, beyond its first few famous bars. He also mentioned a colorful, satirical Britten concerto whose big keyboard-length glissandos left the pianist bleeding all over the ivories.

And the night’s funniest moment was when Thompson asked Andsnes to talk about his frequent side gigs as a chamber musician. Andsnes got a kick out of that one. “Friends get together. We play music,” he laughed. “What’s so exotic about that?”

October 12, 2017 Posted by | classical music, concert, interview, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City | , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment