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February 2012

Hilary Hahn and the Pittsburgh Symphony at Lincoln Center

by Chris McGovernHoneck pso

On Sunday afternoon, Manfred Honeck conducted the Pittsburgh Symphony Orcherstra with violinist Hilary Hahn at Avery Fisher Hall, part of Lincoln Center's Great Performers series. Composer Steven Stucky's Silent Spring opened the concert, in its New York City debut. Based on the Rachel Carson book of the same name, this tone poem in four sections has many highs and lows, and its brooding introduction is reminiscent of Debussy's La Mer, another ocean-inspired work. Described by Stucky in the program notes as a "death scherzo", the third section (Rivers of Death) was a fever pitch that had me particularly floored by the timpani. 

I've heard Hahn play Prokofiev's Violin Concerto #1 on numerous occasions, and therefore had little doubt that she would find success with this orchestra and conductor, with whom she's performed brilliantly before. Even though I've always felt this concerto was too brief, on this occasion it felt like it had the right length and temperament. Hahn was very much at her best, brilliantly showcasing her distict brand of unwavering passion.

Curiously, the audience applauded after each of the movements: either the crowd was excited, or there were many first-timers, or both. Whether or not it might be considered inappropriate, this performance actually deserved it. After the performance, Hahn was awarded with a standing ovation, and she responded in kind with the Sarabande from Bach's Partita #2 as an encore.

After intermission, the concert concluded with Tchaikovsky's Symphony #5 in E MinorEven though my favorite symphony was always the fourth, this was the first time I'd heard any Tchaikovsky symphony performed live, and all of his loud, brassy glory was there. The 2nd movement was gorgeous throughout, and features both a lovely duet between French horn and clarinet, and a grand outburst of timpani and brass. The 3rd movement ended sharply before going immediately into the thrilling final movement. Again, there was premature applause from the audience - this time at the pause before the coda - but after such exciting performance, it could easily be forgiven.

Audrey Chen/Jeremiah Cymerman + Nate Wooley + Brian Chase

By Caleb Easterly


Friday evening’s performance at Roulette was dominated by youthful manipulations, both analog and digital. Audrey Chen, classically trained in both cello and voice, has been developing a singular personal language as part of her SOLO project.  She uses a haunting blend of cello, voice, and electronics to express the exceedingly intimate and soul-baring - I have seen few performers as purely honest as Chen. Her inspiration comes from a place few musicians access; her voice, sometimes pure, sometimes harsh and metallic, bubbles up from her chest and is released in a throaty uninhibited yodel.

Like her voice, her cello playing is unique and innovative, using harmonics and preparations such as a metal cylinder and a chopstick. True, some of her statements were more successful than others, and the bridges between them halted her momentum - sometimes a welcome opportunity to reclaim your breath, sometimes as an unnecessary pause. She played two pieces - one short, one long - with a discreet use of electronics, often just a glorified click track. This in is contrast to what I have heard of her recorded works, in which electronic effects are far more prominent. Luckily, the colorist effects achieved by her cello and voice were expansive and visceral.

The trio consisting of Jeremiah Cymerman on clarinet, Nate Wooley on trumpet, and Brian Chase on drums used more looping and distorting electronic effects, creating vast landscapes of sound as they pedaled and turned the knobs on their setups. The most exciting performer to watch was Chase, a whirlwind of motion playing with microphones, sticks, brushes, and cymbals on his drums, producing surprisingly little sound. Their music, an abrasive sort of free jazz, never settled, and at times it seemed clumsy and directionless – one could sense that they had not played together for long. Some moments were luminous and successful, but as a whole the performance was inconsistent.

This explains the nature of the crowd, perhaps: small and disconnected from the performers, not knowing when to applaud (especially during the trio’s performance) and barely knowing when the concert was over. The musicians seemed to be in a different world, a glass cage, where their music existed solely for its own sake.  In experimental music, there’s a fine line between the innovative and the needless - and the trio’s performance, regrettably, fell on the wrong side of that balance. 

Berlin Philharmonic Ends Their NYC Visit With Wolf and Mahler

12.2.24 Berlin Philharmonic Carnegie Hall Bruckner 9 -4

"The increasing tension, working up to the final climax, is so tremendous that I don’t know myself, now that it is over, how I ever came to write it." Mahler

Simon Rattle and the mighty Berlin Philharmonic pulled out all the stops last night to wrap up their weekend visit to New York, filling the Carnegie Hall stage not only with 100 or so instrumentalists, but also the 250-strong Westminster Symphonic Choir, soprano Camilla Trilling and mezzo-soprano Bernarda Fink. As on Thursday and Friday nights, the hall was completely filled, everyone - including those who had been there on the previous two nights - buzzing with anticipation.

The concert began with three songs by Hugo Wolf, the late 19th century Austrian composer best known for his bouts with manic depression and delusions of grandeur (he falsely believed he had been appointed to replace Mahler as director of the Vienna Court Opera.) "Spring Chorus" (1897) and "Elves' Song" (1891) were both lush and sweet, almost cheerfully tonal. "The Fire Rider" (1892) was more vibrant, combining Carmina Burana-like rawness with Wagnerian sweep.

After intermission, the players returned onstage for Mahler's monumental Symphony No. 2. This ninety minute work for chorus and orchestra - which the Berlin Phil premiered with Mahler conducting in 1895 - is one of music's great showpieces, filled with drama and ecstasy. The Berliners played with perfect precision and sublime beauty, with an astonishing breadth of dynamics. But, as the symphony dragged on, one suspected that Rattle, who knows Mahler's symphonies better than anyone, had something up his sleeve to breathe fresh life into this familiar masterpiece. 

That surprise came in the climactic fifth movement, which began with an explosion of cymbals and brass that was ear-splitting in its volume. Then, out of nowhere, horns sounded in the balcony, backstage, and behind all of the doors around the hall's permieter. In all my years of attending concerts at Carnegie, never have I heard the hall sound so alive: I was literally surrounded by sound.

Then, the chorus began, slowly and and quietly, and suddenly I felt I was in a sacred space, surrounded by a congregation filled with fervor. By this point, Rattle was really going for it, his gestures aimed skyward, yielding an unbelieveable volume from the gathered masses. Clearly, Rattle feels this music deeper than almost anyone, and his ferocious energy is simply impossible to resist. (Click the link to hear for yourself: Final Section Mahler Symphony No. 2

As unlikely as it might seem, this sometimes-difficult marriage between these disciplined German players and their exuberant British conductor produced not just the most astonishing performance of the Mahler 2nd I've ever witnessed, but a collaboration for the ages. As such, the BPO - which has been famously self-governing since its inception - have extended Rattle's contract through 2018, at which point Rattle will be 63. I wouldn't be surprised if they ask him to stay even longer.

Thank you for coming, Berlin. We'll see you again in 2014, if not before.

12.2.26 Berlin Philharmonic Carnegie Hall Mahler 2-2

More pics on the photo page.

Sharon Van Etten's Birthday Show at Bowery Ballroom

 by Talia Page

Sharon van etten bowery ballroom

The first time I met Sharon Van Etten several years ago, there was a collective gasp as she entered the back patio of her Aunt and Uncle’s house in New Jersey on Easter Sunday.  Having accompanied her cousin, my law school roommate, to Van Etten family Easter brunch, I was informed that Sharon had been off traveling for a while and had not been expected to attend.  She was a musician, I was told, and somewhat disconnected from the extended family. 

As it happens, last night's sold out show last night at Bowery Ballroom proved to be quite the family affair, with no less than thirty of her family and close friends in attendance. Following an opening set by Austin band Shearwater, Sharon took the stage dressed in a frilly pink dress and heels, a departure from her usual understated attire. Perhaps the birthday girl, who turned 31 at midnight, was feeling festive, especially after the packed house collectively serenaded her with “Happy Birthday”.  Sharon’s confidence and poise onstage were evident, clearly boosted by the overwhelmingly positive reception to her new album, Tramp.

The lyrics in Sharon's songs largely expose her personal emotions, more often than not candidly reflecting on past loves and strained family relationships.  In previous shows, Sharon has seemed shy, forcing awkward banter with the crowd between songs, but last night she laughed and joked with the audience, speaking comfortably and directly from behind her guitar to the familiar faces before her as if she were playing her living room to people she has known all her life.

The set included songs from Tramp as well as her previous album, 2010’s Epic.  The high point of the evening, not surprisingly, was when she and her band played “Serpents”, the crowd-pleasing first single off Tramp, featuring vocal harmonies by Heather Woods Broderick, drums by Zeke Hutchins and bowed, Jimmy Page bass by Doug Keith.

Sharon Van Etten’s tour heads to Europe next week with stops in London, Paris, Brussels, Amsterdam, and Berlin before she returns stateside to play SXSW. She plays another sold out show tonight at Bowery; get tickets if you can.