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February 2008

January 2008

Neighborhood Opera

Dsc03330_2The idea of putting on amateur opera in New York seems, at first, a fool's game, what with two of the world's greatest opera companies at our disposal. But, in fact, there has long been a place for smaller-scale opera in neighborhoods around the city: Amato Opera in the East Village, Dicapo Opera on the Upper East Side, the Vertical Players Rep in Cobble Hill. These houses offer intimate, affordable performances for those who unwilling to make the trek up to Lincoln Center - not to mention the opportunity for up-and-coming singers to perform live in front of a New York audience.

Dsc03334_2A few seasons ago, Sung Jin Hong's Brooklyn-based One World Symphony began to intersperse their orchestral concerts with increasingly ambitious semi-staged operas, performed once each in Brooklyn Heights and Morningside Heights. On Friday night, they offered a more-than-capable reading of Benjamin Britten's Peter Grimes: a psychologically-complex opera about a fisherman who is hounded by a mob-like village into a downward spiral of madness and violence. The music is full of tricky rhythms and challenging dynamics that can wreak havoc with even the most professional singers. While some of the secondary roles were uneven, and the layout of St. Ann and the Holy Trinity Church suffered from poor sightlines, the overall performance was musically and dramatically engaging, complemented by the warm, resonant acoustic of St. Ann's Gothic interior. 

Dsc03327Standouts among the cast were Caleb Stokes, who was commanding and often disturbing as Grimes, Heather Meyer as his beloved, Ellen, Jack White as Captain Balstrode, and Mischa Frusztajer as the lawyer Swallow. The One World Symphony under Hong has improved dramatically since I last heard them several years ago, playing with power and intensity, particularly the key "Sea Interludes" which mirror Grimes' increasingly unstable mental state.

There will be one more performance of Peter Grimes this afternoon at 4pm at the Ansche Chesed Synagogue on West 100th Street in Manhattan; tickets are $40. In June, One World returns many of these same singers in two performances of Richard Strauss' Ariadne auf Naxos in these same venues. The Met and City Opera will both be shuttered for the season by then, so do yourself a favor and go check 'em out.   


Centennia

Olivier_messiaen2008 marks the centennial of two of the most iconoclastic and influential composers of the twentieth century, both of whom have significant ties to New York. French composer, teacher and organist Olivier Messiaen premiered From the Canyons to the Stars... in Alice Tully Hall, and wrote Eclairs Sur l'au-Dela on commission for the New York Philharmonic in 1992, his last completed work. Next month, Carnegie takes up the mantle with a multimedia presentation of the Turangalîla-Symphonie by the Saint Louis Symphony and David Robertson, who will no doubt offer the same warmth and insight he offered two weeks ago in LA. A week later, Weill Hall will host a full Messiaen Discovery Day, including a conversation with Messiaen's prodigal pupil Pierre Boulez and a performance of Visions de l'Amen for two pianos. Tickets are $9. (It comes as no surprise that the NY Phil has no plans to participate in the festivities: when they last performed Eclairs sur l'au-Dela, in 2005, I was one of only 500 or so still in AFH by the end.)

Dsc04489_3Lifelong New Yorker Elliott Carter was born exactly one day after Messiaen in 1908. Remarkably, Carter is not only still alive, but still composing: just two months ago, the Boston Symphony Orchestra gave the premiere of his Horn Concerto; there will be no fewer than six additional works premiered this year. Carter, a former protege of Charles Ives who used to write pieces so rugged and dissonant they bordered on cacophony, has embraced less complex, more accessible textures in his maturity, to generally wide acclaim.

As for local Carter tributes: all next week, Juilliard is hosting an "All About Elliott" festival, culminating in a performance by the Juilliard Orchestra next Saturday, with James Levine conducting. On Wednesday, the Pacifica Quartet is performing Carter's complete string quartets at the New York Society of Ethical Culture. This summer, Levine has devoted Tanglewood's entire Festival of Contemporary Music (July 20-24) to Carter's music, including several U.S. and world premieres. And in December, Carter will celebrate his 100th birthday in Carnegie Hall, with the New York premiere of his Interventions for piano and orchestra, featuring Daniel Barenboim, Levine and the BSO. (Picture of Elliott and I from Tanglewood last summer after the jump.)

For anyone who happens to live in London, the Southbank Center is hosting a year-long Messiaen festival, curated by pianist Pierre-Laurent Aimard; check out the attached video. And, talk about a double-feature: in December, Aimard, Boulez, and the Ensemble Intercontemporain perform tribute concerts to both Messiaen and Carter on their respective birthdays (December 10 and 11).

Continue reading "Centennia" »


Day of Music

20080104_berioUpdate: Thanks to a flyer in last night's Philharmonic program, I learned that the Day of Berio is on as planned for next Saturday, February 2. The documentary film Luciano Berio will be screened in Rose Hall starting at 11am, followed by a panel discussion with Stephen Stucky and several of Berio's closest associates - including his widow, Talia Pecker Berio. Then, from 2-6pm, members of the Philharmonic and other musicians will perform all fourteen of Berio's Sequenzas. This promises to be an extraordinary musical event that will likely never be repeated in New York; I will be there for the duration. Tickets for both events are available at the box office; a combined ticket for both events is available for $40. For those looking to learn more about Berio and his music, the Philharmonic has posted an interactive feature on its website.

As if that weren't a long enough day, I'll be at the Brooklyn Philharmonic that night, for a concert including Berlioz' Symphonie-Fantastique and a theatrical version John Corigliano's Pied Piper Fantasy. Then, BAM Cafe will be hosting a nightcap with three of Corigliano's former students, including Nico Muhly; admission is free. Something tells me I'd better pack some Vitamin Water.


Wrong Philharmonic

P1240004Maybe it's having just heard three concerts in the miraculous Disney Hall, maybe it's because I got stuck in the subway and missed the entire first half, maybe I was just in a foul mood yesterday - but I came away from last night's New York Philharmonic concert with a vast sense of disappointment. On paper, it looked like a winner: the formidable Radu Lupu playing the Schumann piano concerto, and Riccardo Muti -  former director of La Scala and the Philadelphia Orchestra - conducting Bruckner's 6th Symphony. And, with a seat in the fifth row center, I thought for once I'd be immune to Avery Fisher's notoriously bad acoustics.

P1240002 Honestly, I wasn't that broken up about missing the Schumann: a pile of soft muddle that Lupu somehow managed to invest with dynamic energy, but ultimately couldn't rescue from triteness. But, I have a deep reverence for Bruckner, whose nine symphonies are towering works of grandeur and power, yet straightforward, almost minimalist in sound. The Philharmonic has been more than capable of delivering the goods in the past: one of the most profound musical experiences I've ever had was listening to this orchestra perform Bruckner's 4th under Kurt Masur at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine back in 2001; their performance of the 3rd in Avery Fisher the following season was nearly as stunning, not at least because it was last time I ever heard Masur with the Philharmonic.

I should have known things were going to end up badly from the minute I walked in the hall, where I had to run a geriatric gauntlet of canes, walkers, and dowagers with absolutely no peripheral vision to get to my seat. Muti came onstage, his baton came down... and what came forth was just nasty. There was no warmth, no reverb, no sense of balance or coordination. The strings grated, the woodwinds warbled, the trumpets sounded tentative, almost uncertain. I mean, I know Bruckner can be hard, but this is the friggin' New York Philharmonic. Is it unreasonable to expect precision and confidence from the most famous orchestra in the country? Hell, these guys aren't even the best orchestra in New York anymore. (That would be the MET Orchestra, which only plays on off nights from its regular gig.)

P1240007 If there was one bright spot, it was Muti, who brought his usual cool, commanding presence to the podium. I've seen Muti conduct in a number of different venues - including the Musikverein in Vienna, where he led the Vienna Philharmonic in a stunning performance of Schubert's "Great" Symphony. I couldn't help thinking the whole time he'd rather be there. (I often wonder what goes through a conductor's head when he's placed in an obviously inferior situation, trying to make it look like he isn't just there to collect a paycheck.)   

P1240005But the bottom line is this: going to see the Philharmonic at Avery Fisher Hall is a generally shitty experience. The acoustics, the faded paint, the threadbare seats and carpet. It's certainly not worth $92 - which is what my seat would have cost were I not eligible for the MyPhil program for patrons under 35. Avery Fisher is supposed to undergo a long-overdue renovation in the summer of 2010, but contrast this with the State Theater across the plaza, where Gerard Mortier has arranged for renovations next season, a full year before he even takes over as General Director. I mean, WTF, Zarin?

So, I've decided enough is enough. After this season, I am officially boycotting Philharmonic concerts in Avery Fisher Hall until they gut that goddamned barn and give us the concert hall this orchestra - and this city - truly deserves. Of course, that's not going to make these players any better, but it might at least cover up some of their slop. Who knows, maybe a new interior will inspire better playing, the wayI imagine it did with the LA Phil when it moved from Dorothy Chandler to Disney. One can dream.