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March 2009

Brilliant

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Last night's LSO concert at Avery Fisher was a reminder of what separates good orchestras from great ones. It's not technical perfection - though that's certainly important. Nor is it pure passion, which in the wrong dosage can reduce the best of ensembles to an overeager student orchestra. No, the best orchestras are those who are able to fully absorb a composer's music and deliver it to an audience through their own, highly personal lens. In the best cases, it sounds both totally unique and perfectly convincing, leaving one mystified as to why it wasn't always performed that way.

Last night, the composer was Prokofiev, but, unlike last week's concert, this felt vital and fresh. The 4th Symphony was full of intensity, crisp and taut. The 2nd Violin Concerto seemed light years more advanced that the 1st, with Vadim Repin gliding effortlessly over fiendishly difficult figures. (Unusually, he and concertmaster Andrew Haveron shared the stage for an encore of the Sonata for Two Violins.)

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But, the LSO saved its best for last. The 5th is probably Prokofiev's best known symphony, full of bombastic percussion and brass written during the depths of WWII. After a slow, almost prissy start, the orchestra - led by a smoldering Valery Gergiev - was soon in thunderous roar. By the 2nd movement, it felt as if the hall was on fire, and all I could think was: Noone light a match in here. Simply put: they played the shit out of it. 

After a dark and brutal 3rd movement, Gergiev barely let the audience catch its breath before launching into the Allegro giococo finale, which basically brought it all down. I could barely take my eyes off Haveron, who tore into his violin like a lion into an antelope. After the final bars, the crowd roared as Gergiev called out different sections of the orchestra for solo bows. 

See, this is what keeps me coming back. Yeah, that eyes-in-the-back-of-your-head thing. (More pics below.)
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Lords of The Ring

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"Life is travel and change. Such pleasures I cannot give up."    (Wotan, Das Rheingold, Scene 2)

I don't get chills much at music events anymore, but when the Met Orchestra launched into the opening bars of Wagner's Das Rheingold Saturday afternoon - with its overlapping strings mimicing the waves of the Rhine River - I began to tremble. It had been five years since I last heard this music live - which sets the table for the entire 20 hour saga to come - and I could barely hold back the tears. Moments like these are precious and few, and you want to grab onto them while you have the chance. They are the signposts of a life well lived. (For those unfamiliar, you can read the Met's synopsis here.)

Long live the Met. And especially you, Jimmy. (Cast pics below.)

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In Translation

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At first, I didn't know what to make of accordionist Chango Spasiuk, who played Zankel Hall on Friday night. He looked a bit like Jesus with his long hair and beard, and wore a red shawl over black pantaloons. Nor was I sure what to make of Chamamé, the strange hybrid of polka, waltz and folk music indigenous to the rural Argentine province from which Spasiuk hails. (It's lighter and sweeter than tango, more flowing.) But, as the two-hour set unfolded, Spasiuk and his band (two guitars, cello, violin, percussion, occasional vocals) played with flair and passion, and I could feel myself getting hooked. I wanted someone to hand me a glass of Malbec. 

At the end of his official set, several audience members started shouting out things in Spanish. Spasiuk spoke back to them in kind, hand over heart, genuinely overwhelmed. It was as if we'd all been suddenly transported to Buenos Aires.  

"I am sorry," he said after awhile. "I don't speak English."

Just then, a young woman came from the rear of the hall and stopped a few rows in front of me, offering to translate Chango's words into English. Here is what he said:

"I wasn't going to say anything, but I feel that I must. The Argentine poet Yupanqui once said: 'Music is like a torch that people use to see the beauty on their path.' It also has the power to bring us closer together. I am grateful to be able to share this music from my home with you."

And, with that, they launched into the first of three encores, the crowd rhythmically clapping along. It was a moment of pure magic: a reminder that for all our differences, we're all coming from the same place. (More pics below.)

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Der Ring

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Five years ago, my friend Pat and I paid $140 each for the privilege of seeing Wagner's Ring at the Met. From standing room. For those unfamiliar, that's about 20 hours worth of music. And it was worth every blister.

So, once we heard this year's Ring would be the last-ever staging of Otto Schenk's monumental production, we decided to give it one last go around. We got up early, got our number in the bowels of the Met parking garage, and by 10am had our tickets in hand. Bewilderingly, they were the same price as in 2004. At least some things don't suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous inflation. Curtain time: 1pm. (More pics below.)

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