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American Symphony Orchestra Performs Bohuslav Martinu's Opera "Julietta" at Carnegie Hall

by Steven Pisano

46743421314_d51c3a1921_o(All photos by Steven Pisano)

The conductor Leon Botstein has led the American Symphony Orchestra for more than 25 years, and has developed a reputation for championing works that have sometimes been neglected by other maestros. This past Friday at Carnegie Hall, Botstein conducted the American premiere of Bohuslav Martinu's surrealist opera Julietta, which received its world premiere in 1938 in Prague. It is based on the French play Juliette, ou La cle des songes ("The Key of Dreams") by Georges Neveaux.

Botstein strongly believes that the opera is a lost masterpiece which deserves to be a part of the modern repertory, and certainly the opera has a lot to offer. Long criticized for its "episodic" music, which jumps sometimes from style to style and at times feels a little jittery, the score actually does not seem out of place in today's contemporary music scene. So, maybe Martinu was just ahead of his time.

The basic story line concerns Michel, a bookseller from Paris who three years earlier had somewhere heard a woman's voice singing that has haunted him ever since. One day he decides to go in search of the voice, and he finds himself in a seaside town where all the people living there have lost their memories. They live perpetually in the present and have no recollection or appreciation of the past. When Michel tells a policeman that he can actually remember all the way back to his childhood--a toy duck he owned--the policeman congratulates him on his extraordinary memory and proclaims that by virtue of that memory the townspeople will make him the Captain of the town. Michel is naturally bewildered by this strange town, and only more so when some hours later Michel meets the policeman again, except now he is a mailman and he cannot remember his meeting Michel earlier or his vow to have him be the leader of the town.

Numerous comical episodes like this ensue, and at times the town seems like a mixture of the Marx Brothers and Franz Kafka. In a concert version such as this one, it was hard to imagine how this might be presented had it been staged, but one can easily picture a phantasmagoric setting for the opera to play out in.

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Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra at Carnegie Hall

by Steven Pisano

47258679582_58bd5f9490_o(All photos by Steven Pisano)

The Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra was at Carnegie Hall recently for a four-concert stand featuring works by Beethoven, Brahms, Mozart, Ives, and Mahler, under the batons of Adam Fischer and Michael Tilson Thomas. The final night featured Gustav Mahler's last finished symphony, the Ninth Symphony, which actually was premiered by the VPO back in 1912, with Bruno Walter at the podium. It did not receive its premiere in the United States until 1931 in Boston. It is a work every bit as unsettling, mysterious, and mind-blowing today as it must have been when it first was played at the beginning of the twentieth century, just before the First World War engulfed Europe. Mahler was not particularly revered as a composer at that time, though he enjoyed some renown as a conductor, and part of the story surrounding the Ninth was that Mahler never heard it performed, since he died of heart disease at age 50 in 1911.

“In it something is said that I have had on the tip of my tongue for some time,” he wrote to Walter in 1909. For many, the symphony is haunted by themes of death. Mahler's 4-year-old daughter had died of scarlet fever a couple of years before the work was composed, and he himself was first diagnosed with heart problems shortly thereafter. On top of that, he had written Kindertotenlieder, a song cycle on the theme of children's deaths based on poems by Friedrich Ruckert written in the early 1830s after Ruckert's own two children had died of scarlet fever as well. (By a strange coincidence, Kindertotenlieder was also performed here in the city last week by the opera singer Lucas Meachem at the Crypt Sessions, who performed with his wife Irina at the piano. They are expecting their first child in a number of months. A post about that concert will appear here soon.)

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Les Arts Florissants, “Rameau, Maître à Danser,” at BAM

by Steven Pisano

33377413548_186fdf8c24_o(All photos by Steven Pisano)

William Christie founded Les Arts Florissants in 1979 as a way to celebrate his love of Baroque music from the 1700s, and for the last forty years he and his fellow musicians have been performing and recording music on original period instruments that had not always been played much before. Much of this music was written for the royal family of France.

At the Brooklyn Academy of Music this weekend, Les Arts Florissants is presenting two rarely performed opera-ballets by Jean-Philippe Rameau, "Daphnis et Egle" from 1753, and "La Naissance d'Osiris" from 1754. Both works were originally performed for the royal court of King Louis XV at his summer palace at Fontainebleau outside Paris, where the royal family went on hunting expeditions.

For New York audiences accustomed to the cutting-edge, very modern productions that BAM is deservedly known for, this blast into the past takes a little bit of getting used to. The music by Rameau does not immediately impress the ear. It is very pretty to listen to, but a far cry from the masterworks of the soon-to-come classical period (Mozart, Rossini, etc.) But as a chance to enjoy music from the Baroque, by such a top-flight ensemble, this opportunity should not be missed.

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Yuja Wang at Carnegie Hall, with Igudesman and Joo

by Steven Pisano

46195656155_8d242657e5_o(All photos by Steven Pisano.)

The pianist Yuja Wang has been wowing audiences worldwide for over a decade. Her exuberant virtuoso technique has always been one of her hallmarks. So it seemed an intriguing idea for her to perform at Zankel Hall earlier this week with the musical comedy duo Aleksey Igudesman and Hyung-ki Joo.

Igudesman, a violinist, and Joo, a pianist, first met as 12-year-old music students at the Yehudi Menuhin School in England. Much later they decided to perform together, following in the footsteps of classical musicians such as Victor Borge and PDQ Bach (Peter Schickele), and have been performing their act now for about 15 years, often with some leading orchestras. Their You Tube channel has over 50,000 subscribers. 

Yuja Wang is known for her flashy fingering technique on the piano. But what earned her as much attention early on, and still does partly, is her penchant for wearing very, very short dresses, and for showing off eye-catching swaths of skin. She is not a demure and sober musician like the younger Daniil Trifonov. She is a showwoman of the highest order and clearly loves to dazzle her audiences, with her costumes as well as her playing.

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