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"Written on Skin" at Opera Philadelphia

by Steven Pisano

"Written on Skin" at Opera Philadelphia(All photos by Steven Pisano.)

Proclaimed an instant modern masterpiece when it premiered almost 6 years ago at the Aix-en-Provence Festival, George Benjamin and Martin Crimp's opera Written on Skin recently received its American premiere at the increasingly edgy Opera Philadelphia under the direction of William Kerley and the musical direction of Corrado Rovaris.

Originally produced in an earthy and rugged style, which was videotaped and released on DVD, the opera has been reimagined in a more sophisticated, almost futuristic staging by Tom Rogers, who also designed the costumes. Loosely based upon the story of Guillem de Cabestany, a Catalan troubadour who lived at the turn of the 13th century, the narrative can be interpreted in different ways.

The basic thrust is that a rich landowner commissions an artist to create a celebratory illuminated manuscript of his life (making sure his enemies are depicted in Hell). The man's wife is excited by the possibilities that the book presents, and begins a sexual relationship with the artist. But because the illuminated manuscript tells all, the landowner soon reads about his wife's betrayal in the book's pages. Enraged, the landowner hunts down the artist, carves out his heart, and serves it as dinner to his wife, who then leaps to her death from a balcony when she learns what she has devoured.

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Vienna Philharmonic at Carnegie Hall

by Nick Stubblefield and FoM
Vienna Philharmonic Carnegie Hall 22318DSC04588Every year around this time, the Vienna Philharmonic makes their annual trip to NYC for a weekend of concerts.  And, every year, I have the same conversation I have with myself: Haven't I had enough? Is it too much of a good thing? Should I just skip them this time and come back refreshed next year?
And, then, there's a tug that happens that eventually finds me right back in my plush seat at Carnegie Hall, ready to hear this gold standard of world orchestras do their thing one more time. After all, "a thing of beauty is a joy forever." And, in today's world, it's best not to take anything for granted.
Whenever Vienna comes to town, you can feel the difference. There's a buzz in the halls and stairs. People are dressed to the nines, speaking multiple languages. And, when the orchestra finally takes the stage - all at once, European-style - the applause is knowing, familiar. This most exclusive of fan clubs - one which I am ridiculously privileged to be a member of - knows exactly what's about to happen. And, they can't wait.
On Friday night, the bill of fare was Brahms, standard fare for this orchestra hailing from the town where the composer lived and worked. What was a bit surprising was who was leading: Gustavo Dudamel, the wild-haired, rockstar conductor of the LA Phil and Simón Bolívar Orchestra from his native Venezuela. (Uniquely, the Vienna Phil has no permanent music director, only a roster of regular guest conductors.) I wasn't always a fan of Duda's when he first burst on the scene a decade ago, wary that he might be more hype than substance. I've long since been converted: he is the real deal, as much a master of the standard repertoire as he is of Bernstein's "Mambo." As if to drive the point home, Duda conducted the entire program from memory. 
Friday's concert - which was recorded courtesy of WQXR - opened with the "Academic Festival Overture" and the "Haydn" Variations: both sunny showcases for this orchestra's peerless power and precision. The string players flew up and down in their seats, the bass rumbled underneath my chair. Aside from some occasional wobbling in the horns, the playing was flawless: always in unison, both in timing and loudness. This orchestra is so together, it's hard to believe you're hearing them live. 

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Guitarist Dan Lippel at Le Poisson Rouge

by Steven Pisano

Dan Lippel at Le Poisson Rouge(All photos by Steven Pisano.)

Kettle Corn New Music continues to present some of the most interesting and varied programs in the city, at venues as wide-ranging as the DiMenna Center, the Donnell Library, and Le Poisson Rouge, which is where I saw guitarist Dan Lippel last week.

Honestly, I was a little hesitant about seeing a show featuring just one man playing guitar all night. I can listen to solos pretty much endlessly on piano, saxophone, trumpet, violin, or cello. But guitars (and also drums) usually make me start daydreaming. Even some rock god slashing his axe at ear-exploding decibels has a tendency to make me numb.

So imagine my surprise when Lippel grabbed me from the very first pluck of a string and kept me mesmerized throughout the night, and at the end, wanting even more. Lippel isn't loud, flashy, pedantic, or boring. What he is is an amazing master of his instrument. And I guess I've been living under a rock, because when I checked out his website after the show, my head started spinning with all the accolades he's garnered, and the list of contemporary composers who have written compositions just for him is long and jaw-dropping.

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Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra with Daniele Gatti at Carnegie Hall

    Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra  Carnegie Hall - Feast of Music Jan 17  2018 at 11-005

“Music remains for me not sacred, but a spiritual moment. I’m devoted to God because I think I was gifted by him, and I know that my mission during my years here on this earth is just to try and develop the gift that I received.” - RCO Chief Conductor Daniele Gatti, NY Times, 2016

By most estimates one of the best orchestras in the world (if not the best), the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra has always impressed during their visits to the Big Apple. But, as great as this orchestra has been for most of its 130 year existence, the addition of the formidable maestro Daniele Gatti last season as Chief Conductor seemed to raise the artistic bar even higher, as evidenced by their two concerts at Carnegie Hall this week.

These were Gatti's first local appearances with the RCO, but he is no stranger to New York concertgoers, having led the Vienna Phil in a series of memorable concerts in 2015, as well as the Met's extraordinary new Parsifal in 2013, which returns next month. As with that six hour opera, Gatti conducted everything on these concerts from memory, revealing a near-insane level of preparation that is said to extend beyond mere score analysis to poring over biographies, historical essays, even related novels and plays that the composer may have read.

“What is important is to try and be in the head of the composer,” Gatti told the NY Times in 2016. “If I’m seeing the world through different eyes, I can see also the score with new eyes.”

This deep level of familiarity allows Gatti to take the music to unexpected places. In the Act 3 Prelude and "Good Friday Music" from Parsifal, Gatti drew the tempi way out to highlight the majestic consonances of Wagner's music in the tender strings and burnished brass. It was clear from the outset that Gatti had gone over every square inch of the score - each note, every marking - and had successfully  gotten the RCO players to buy into his vision.

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